Saturday, December 29, 2012

Announcing Gym Ninja for iPhone

Gym Ninja!
I'm excited to announce a recent side project I've been working on with my buddy Alex called Gym Ninja. It's a new app for iPhone which helps you quickly and effectively keep track of your strength training at the the gym.

See more details and a youtube demo here:, and you can find it on the App Store here:

Have a happy and healthy 2013!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My (new) dream jacket

Yes, I know.

I posted back in Oct 2011 that my dream jacket was the Arc'teryx Alpha LT in the glorious "Squid Ink" purple colour. That colour still is the best jacket colour of all time, ever.

BUT. I'm now actually serious about entering the world of Gore-Tex Pro Shell ownership, and with great power comes great responsibility, as we all know well.

As such, I have been inspired to study like hell the details of Arc'teryx's line of epic jacket marvelousness, and as it turns out... I am not an "Alpine Mountain Climber" who would benefit from the specific features of the aforementioned purple jacket in all of its magical feature-heavy bounty. Rather, I need something which doesn't sacrifice durability for light weight, and the length of the Alpha series is actually a little short. Theta is too long for me, and Beta - quite like the last of the 3 Bear's Porridge's - is juuuuuuuussst right.

You little beauty
So, I think the Arc'teryx Beta AR may just be my (new) dream jacket. And that dream has almost come true. Gonna look for it over the break and also compare with a few of the newer jacket types. Gore-Tex Pro Shell seems to come in this newer smooth format too, which I will look into, but I suspect I'll stick with the classic style. "AR" in this case stands for "all around", and this is a super-versatile beast which is going to make rain run from me in light conditions, or when combined with my wool hoodie, in more wintery conditions like skiing. I guess I better take this puppy skiing this year!

Look for another excited post when I buy the heck outta this amazing piece of future camping/hiking/backpacking/skiing gloriousness.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh MAN!!!!!!

Also: I hope everyone is having a happy and healthy vacation. :)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Thoughts on "Positivity", by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson

I just finished the book Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. Yes, the title and fluorescent colour of the binding is a little loud for those of you who don't (already) wear neon shoes or hawaiian shirts to work (yet), but lest we judge a book by its cover... ;)

Anyway let's get down to it. I won't review the whole book, just a few comments about a few specific sections that were of particular interest or rang particularly true to me while reading.

Positive Psychology is teh awesome
As my previous post suggests, I'm getting really interested in recent developments in the positive psychology field. After watching "literally" a bazillion TED talks on the subject, emailing Shawn Achor and Tal Ben Shahar and Neil Pasricha and Chris Guillebeau and a few other AMAZING KICK ASS AWESOME people doing AMAZING KICK ASS AWESOME things in this world (and having them ALL write back to me... whhahaaaaaat??!?!?) my interest and excitement about this field of study has only increased.

Why the hell do I need to learn about positivity?
If you know me, you're probably wondering this. Well, as the great Socrates says, "The unexamined life is not worth living", so let's get to this examining! In all seriousness, I know I naturally am this exuberant/positive/excitable person and always have been, but I'm just kinda interested to know why. I'm wondering how I can better affect others, how I can work more dynamically on teams, how I can take what I have and turn it up another notch. The great and constant pursuit of self-improvement.

Dr. Fredrickson's Positivity Ratio
Dr. Fredrickson's main point in the book (based on her research in positive psychology) is that it's not actually the intensity of positive moments that lead you to have a positive, happy life - rather it's the ratio of positive emotions over negative emotions on a long-term, consistent basis. (For the math nerds out there - myself included - she gives the ratio P/N, where P is positive emotions and N is negative emotions. Later, she goes on to explain the negative emotions are weighted more due to something called "negativity bias", and so you need significantly more positive experiences in a given day to outweigh the negative ones because they are "heavier" as such).

Flourishing vs. Languishing
She collaborated with a research team who did mathematical modeling of the positivity ratio phenomenon, and the ratio ended up being roughly 3 to 1 in a variety of controlled situations. Above this ratio, people can be classified as "flourishing", and below as "languishing". The 3-to-1 ratio is a form of "tipping point" and she discusses different forms of positivity and ways to increase your personal ratio over time (both increasing positivity, and/or decreasing negativity).

She seems to understand that the material can lend itself towards flowery language, and she generally has a direct tone, though not in all cases. The area of study is somewhat new, and I found she mentioned many times that the studies are all "backed by science" :) Certainly they are, and she describes the rigor of her studies, but it's too bad that she feels she needs to justify the field of study. I guess it draws a lot of criticism from the more-established forms of Psychology... but in any case I certainly think the area holds a lot of worth and promise.

So that's what the book is about, now I'll talk just briefly about some specific thoughts I had about specific sections.

The Flourishing Personality Type
As Dr. Fredrickson mentions in her book, a "positivity ratio" with her instruments above 3.0 acts as a tipping point. Given consistient measurements above 3, a person is described to be in a "flourishing" state, which was an exciting personality to read about. She discusses that people who are flourishing (a word she borrowed from Martin Seligman, I suspect), perform at extremely high levels, and are so excited about what they are doing and their life, that they not only live well, but they are driven to do well for their surrounding communities. This personality type is inspiring to most, and people who flourish pull in other people with their energy and enthusiasm, and help push them upwards too. (That's the "contagion" effect of positivity). There are plenty of personal life implications of flourishing: enjoyment, happiness, achievable challenges, stable relationships, resilience, being awestruck, open and flexible to new situations... lots.

Why World Travel rocks
I feel like, in general, I understand the benefits of the majority of those benefits as they relate to my personal life. But one thing I've never really thought about is why I LOVE traveling so much. World Travel is always a brand new situation that is certainly challenging but also achievable and generally safe. It's fascinating, it's exciting, it allows you to connect with new people from different countries and learn and expand your world-view... it has almost all of her forms of positivity all wrapped into one. No wonder I love backpacking so much. :)

On that note, one of her unusual studies that originally meant to study something else, stumbled over a proof that positivity helps you recognizes faces from races other than your own more quickly than less-positive people. That's pretty wild and awesome, and plays into Dr. Fredrickson's summary that positivity makes you more "open", including more open to new and different opinions, and in this case, people of other races. Pretty interesting results. Another +1 for my love of travel!

Flourishing People -> Motivated Volunteering
Her studies show conclusively that positivity makes you more creative, and able to make connections between different/disparate elements. As she mentioned, "flourishing" people are also particularly keen to do volunteer work and give back to their communities. I think this clearly explains my interest in the OLPC movement. As I mentioned in a prior post, I am really excited about how OLPC combines a bunch of my personal interests all together into one thing: Technology, Education, and Philanthropy... it's pretty freakin' awesome. And of course, the people I've met so far that volunteer with OLPC are a really interesting, dedicated, kind group of people... so I'm bound to meet some other "floruishers" too. This actually reminds me a bit of OSSSA (Ontario Secondary School Students' Association) - an organization of student leaders that I hung out with a bunch in high school, and made some lifelong friends from it. Everyone there was so motivated, so driven, so positive and interesting and awesome. I don't think I've ever seen that many awesome people together in one place since.

The Creative Class
Finding the OSSSA's of adult life is tough, but there are many flourishers out there. TED seems to be the intellectual gathering of those kinds of passionate minds. Chris Guillebeau's WDC Conference in Portland looks pretty damn amazing and totally my kind of thing. I think there is a lot of this good energy in San Francisco, as it seems to be a real magnet for creative, hard-working, motivated, passionate people. My buddy Andrew Lam suggested I read "Rise of the Creative Class", which discusses exactly that - that places like San Francisco are a magnet for inspired, passionate, talented people. So, as in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, it would seem I have "chosen wisely" on my place to live.

Positivity and its effect on Business
I'm really interested in the implications of positivity on business success. She discussed this briefly - that high performing teams have high connectivity between team members, more outward focus and tend to ask questions rather than advocating their personal point of view only. (At Pixar, I remember they told the interns on our first day that the spirit of Pixar was to say "Yes, and..." rather than "No, but..."). Shawn Achor's book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work is one of the next books to read sitting on my shelf. I'm psyched to learn and think more about this. Let's call that a goal for next year, it's time to finally catch up on some sleep over the holidays. :)

Monday, December 17, 2012

MIT Sloan/NBER: The Importance of Being an Optimist

Several months back, this article was recommended to me, it's from the MIT Sloan Business magazine, which pointed to a research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper is entitled "The Importance of Being an Optimist: Evidence from Labor Markets", and it was a fascinating read.

This article kicked off an interest in (finally!) starting to do some more reading, and specifically reading positive psychology works. I was just about to post about the last book I read, and realized I'd never posted these last notes as a blog... so posting now, with some headings for easier skimming :)

Optimism is much more than skin-deep
From the intro: "Most of the effect of optimism on economic outcomes stems from the part that is not inherently observed by one’s peers”: I love this. This points directly at a struggle that can plague the enthusiastic person – having a positive attitude through thick and thin is incredibly hard, and requires consistent effort... but, to the untrained eye, an enthusiastic person may come off as naive, “green”, superficial, inexperienced – though the true story may be many more layers deep. I did a talk for the new interns last week and discussed a similar theme: optimism is my chosen strategy, and the optimist (or perhaps, “positive realist”) takes situations as they come in and actively aims for the best possible output. We aren’t unaware of the array of potentially bad outcomes, but choose instead to actively steer the situation hard towards the best possible result.

Hints towards benefits for the kind of Software Engineering work I do
From page 23 (summarized): the optimist has good positive coping skills, allowing them to reframe situations, plan a course of action effectively, and disengage from unrealistic courses of action with relative ease. They mention the rewards of the balance between flexibility and persistence on a given project. That feels like a hint towards Agile software development practices, in general. From page 26: “Life is filled with innumerable occasions in which people must carefully balance competing forces: the desire to abandon a goal when it proves unattainable or undesirable, and the need to stay the course when temporary setbacks occur.” The paper describes how making a choice with uncertain payoffs in the future requires a subjective analysis of different future states of nature. I’ve never thought about my optimism as subjective, but that makes a lot of sense!

Can it be taught?
One thing the paper did not hit is the components of the “contagion” factor. The effect of an inspiring, positive, and involved leader on a team is incredibly powerful. So powerful in fact, that it would seem an effective leader should ideally want to be a dispositional optimist. This makes me wonder if it’s possible to teach these skills; though I’d hope it is, I suspect it’s not.  If we could manufacture this kind of “magic dust” then every leader would be buying it. But perhaps there are some ways to inspire this sort of world-view in people who do not already have an innate disposition for it.

Maybe he/she's born with it?
I liked how they discussed the importance of skills shaped in Early Childhood. My Mom has a degree in Early Childhood Education and was my first school teacher. I attribute the large majority of my success and happiness in life to my two epic parents. Three if you count my older sister too :) I’m getting really excited about research in Positive Psychology and this paper is inspiring me to read more in that area. Effectively measuring these optimism “skills” seems a tough mountain to climb given how subtle they are. They hint at this on pg 26 suggesting that optimism in ubiquitous in a wide range of life decisions – sort of a catalyst in the system – so I wonder if we can truly understand the long term benefits... sounds like time for further reading :)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

SFFS: The Art and Science of Lucasfilm classroom material

This was super cool, came across this classroom handout which was a "take home" survey/study questions that the San Francisco Film Society gave to the kids that attended our talk series with SFFS earlier this year.

I didn't realize they'd made course material to go along with our talk, really awesome to read these questions!

Great job, SFFS! They have some really awesome film studies curriculum for young motivated students in the Bay Area. Amazing stuff!

Thoughts on The Hobbit in 48 fps/High Frame Rate

Just got out of an opening night screening of The Hobbit in 48fps, the first ever major film to release in this new frame rate format.

It was a fascinating example to watch from a technical standpoint - just seeing what 48 fps is capable of (and how much clearer 3D is as a result) was pretty neat just technically.

Artistically, though, I'd say the results are at best a mixed bag. There are occasions where it works beautifully (eg the 3D clarity during some fight scenes, rain looks pretty awesome), and there is some hero character work that is particularly stunning that all flows together just fine in 48fps... Gollum's Facial Animation!?!?!?!?!?!?!? OMG!!! Amazing.

So while some things worked in 48fps, at the same time the "stunning vistas" are often lost because Matte paintings looks very much like Matte paintings being panned over. It pulls you right out of the movie. The "watching a play" feeling is strange... it's a new vibe and not necessarily bad, and I see this movie as a proof of what can be done and craft that can be honed as the technology progresses. Those speedy pans though are really hard to get used to. You get a great "window in on the scene" action, it's really immersive, and then there is a wide, sweeping or handheld pan that is too fast and has no motion blur and throws you right into the Soap Opera look. The lighting and compositing felt like it was disjointed sometimes, it's hard to put your finger on it. It sortof feels like the 48 fps is so "realistic" that it sometimes pulls you out of the movie experience, which is not great. Other times though, it's much more immersive than 24fps 3D could ever be. The clarity is definitely awesome in those moments. I actually prefer the slow-mo action scenes in 48fps and the dramatic moments... I thought those were generally more effective than the faster pans/cuts.

Summary: Glad I saw it in 48fps. It's really exciting to see huge technological changes like this on such a large blockbuster film, and it's worth supporting the new craft. It's far from perfect, but it shows some interesting promise and a lot of room for directors and filmmakers to use it to their artistic advantage as we all start to understand more about it, and how to optimize visual effects to make best use of it.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cnet Crave: My Best Tech Gift Ever: A 133MHz IBM PC 350

Loved this story. Reminds me so much of my elementary and high school days, opening up my (well, my Dad's) new Gateway 2000 computer and marveling at the magic happening inside. Getting a 14.4 modem and learning web design when coding HTML by hand was the only way to do it :) Such an awesome, rapidly changing time for computer technology - and definitely got me hooked, too :)

Star Trek Into Darkness trailer

Well done, ILM :)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Ad in Waterloo Magazine!

This is super exciting, when I was back in Waterloo for my Alumni medal a couple months ago, the fine folks in the Math Faculty asked me to do a photo shoot to help advertise the Young Alumni Achievement Medal program. This ad just ran in the Fall 2012 quarter of the Waterloo Magazine.

Good times :) Was awesome to take part in this, thanks Waterloo!!