Honest feedback from kids

When I make animations with kids, part of the point is that other kids will want to watch the stories and learn something about the environment and about science on the way.

Well, after I had finished “When Anders, Dilsa, and Reza were mean: a bird story” with the kids at a local summer camp, I showed it to a 4-year-old boy. Or I tried to show it to him. He ran away to grab his video games after 10 seconds, with the cheekiest grin on his face, and blithely informed me that it was “boring”. Oh dear.

I tried the same movie with a 9-year-old boy, and he went “ho-hum” and told me he’d finished watching it after he got through watching Disney’s “The descendants”, or something … but then he never actually watched it, ever.

But that same 4-year-old boy really likes watching “Mr. Glump and the poisonous pond.” He likes it because he says, with a great giggle, that Mr. Glump looks like Trump. Well, I can honestly declare that none of the 30 kids who worked on that movie, and none of the kids or family members at the viewing party, made any such comment, but this kid is certain! So he’s watched “Mr. Glump” through a couple of times.

Mr. Glump
Mr. Glump with his scowl and his poisonous spraying bottle.

How to view Instagram photos past the new limits

(More accurately, how to stalk people on Instagram without having an account yourself.)

I always derive so much joy from doing this. And in fact, my Instagram-stalking skills came to my aid when I worked as a writer at WIRED for a summer.

But recently, Instagram made it harder to stalk people. They made it so that you can’t endlessly scroll through the pictures of an account, even accounts that are set to “public”, not private. Now, if you scroll just a bit, the pictures disappear, and metaphorical jail-cell window-bars appear, and an Instagram commandment orders you to log in if you want to continue browsing pictures. And it’s even more restrictive if you’re on a mobile phone.

Now, I don’t have an Instagram account and don’t plan on inviting Facebook-owned companies further into my life. So I thought I would have to just give up on peeking into the lives of the people that I lurk after. A lot of those people have their accounts set to “private”; but if you industriously visit their pages with regular frequency, I have found that almost every one, from time to time, sets their account to “public”. They must be trying to share their photos with some family member without an Instagram account. If you happen upon their account at such an interval, then you are in for a great binge of their photos! There was this lady who had 700 photos on her Instagram, all secretively locked away as ‘private’; and then, after months and months of lurking about, one day, all of a sudden, it was set to public! It’s always exciting when this happens.

But with the new Instagram rules, it doesn’t matter, because even if the account is set to public, you still can’t scroll past more than like 50 of those 700 photos.

But I discovered a work-around the other day. I don’t know how long it will be available, but it works for now. Go to the Instagram page of whoever you want to lurk after, click on any of the photos that you can see. Then, keep clicking on the “right” arrow to get to the next photo. And then the next photo. And then the next. When I did it this way, there seemed to be no limit to how far back in time you can go among the photos. It takes longer, of course, to dive back than if if you could just quickly scroll down the page, but you get there in the end!

Public transportation in Houston

Everyone says public transportation in Houston is horrible.

I’ve lived there now for a few months, without a car, and it’s not as bad as everyone makes out. There’s some real positives, in fact — but there also are some real drawbacks.

I’d say the biggest drawback is that you really cannot get out into the suburbs, at all. If you go to Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco, or Washington D.C., you can take a train or a metro quite far out of the city. For example, if you’re in Chicago, you can take a local train out to Wheaton College (27 miles away), or the cute little town of Glen Ellyn. If you’re in D.C., you can take the metro to New Carrollton (okay, fine, that’s only 12 miles away, not that far.) If you’re in Philadelphia, you can take the trains and buses out to Ursinus College (30 miles away, and very cute), or out to the quaint town of Doylestown (almost 35 miles away, although it’s debatable whether it’s actually all that quaint.)

In Houston, sadly, you can’t do any of that. There’s no local trains taking you out of the city. There’s just some buses. For example, you can take the bus to the suburb of Cypress, which is about 30 miles away. Now this is all fine and dandy and totally great, EXCEPT, these buses only run Monday through Friday, only during commuting hours. So you can’t go to Cypress on the weekends, at all, via public transportation. And if you’re in Cypress, you can’t head for the city. This is true for all the surrounding settlements around Houston. You can’t go to Sam Houston National Forest, north of the city; you can’t get to Bear Creek Pioneers Park, to the west. Just suppose you’d really like to get to the suburb of Pasadena, for a Christmas market; well, you can’t. Or you want to go to visit someone in the suburb of Sugarland. Can’t do that, either. You’re just stuck in the city. The only direction slightly accessible is to the southeast, towards the seacoast, as you can get a bus to Galveston.

I used to live in Philadelphia. The city was somehow just more manageable than Houston. I biked all over the place. I wouldn’t probably bike there today, having lost my youthful fantasy of invincibility since then; but it was doable. Most of the streets are set out on a grid, most of the streets have sidewalks, most of the streets connect simply and easily to each other. It might take you two hours, but you can definitely get from one side of the city to the other. Not so in Houston. When I compare back to Philadelphia, Houston feels like one big freeway. Freeway here and freeway there — even if you wanted to bike, how are you going to manage it when everything connected by freeway?

Just another note on that commuter bus that goes to Cypress: its sole destination is a park-and-ride lot in Cypress. That’s it. So everyone else gets off the bus and just goes to grab their car and drive home; but if you don’t have a car waiting for you, then you either are going to walk to circles around the park-and-ride lot, or you are going to have to call for a Lyft to get to your final destination, wherever that is in Cypress. There’s no other bus at the park-and-ride lot to take you anywhere. It sucks.

Given all of this, if you want to live in Houston without a car, then you need to live pretty close to your work, for two reasons: 1) if you live in the suburbs, then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get to work on the buses; and 2) if you live in the city, but, say, 5 miles away from your job, there’s a good possibility that the buses will take an hour to get you to work. So good luck with that!

This means that you probably want to live no more than two to three miles away from your job to make the commute reasonable; and that kind of limits you to the parts of town where the rents are highest.

So where can you get to in Houston? Well, there is a very nice light-rail system, and this will take you to downtown Houston, to Rice University, and to the northern and southern parts of the city. There are also buses that can take you to the movie theatre and Ikea (about an hour — as a reference, in Philly, I could bike to the Ikea. It was a bit of a stressful bike ride, but I managed). You can also take the bus to Trader Joe’s pretty easily (if you’re starting at Rice), and to a Barnes and Noble. You can get to the big cluster of museums (some of which are very nice) near the center of the city, and you can get to Herman Park, which is a green oasis with a lake and boats and trees. I have also been able to get to eye doctors, dentists, and regular doctor appointments.

One time, I took a bus north to get to a free museum. I got off the bus stop and I had to walk for a few blocks west. My steps took me right through a university I’d never heard of, and they were hosting an Italian festival I’d also never heard of. So I saw both the festival and the university, and the free museum. On my way back, I arrived at the bus stop just as the bus zoomed off. Feeling grumpy, I decided I didn’t want to wait for the next bus, so I started walking back south. I walked one block, and I came upon the most delicious lovely library ever! So I just ducked in there while waiting for the next bus (there was another bus stop right outside). Occasionally, someone with mental problems starts yelling at me on the light rail platform or on the bus, but so far, nothing violent has happened. Sometimes, I get a little nervous because it’s dark out, and I’ll be waiting for a transfer between buses at some bus stop in the middle of the city, and I’ll be bracing myself for something to happen; but then after all, it ends up feeling quite safe.

At each bus stop, you can also text a number, and a text will come back letting you know when to expect the next bus. Sometimes, it will say 5 minutes; but then 5 minutes come and go, and there’s no bus, and so you text again, and this time it says 3 minutes. And sometimes you text and it says 20 minutes; so you browse around inside a store, and because you didn’t keep texting, you didn’t realize that the bus was speeding up and after all, the bus comes in 18 minutes and you miss it.

You can also get to the airports. To get to the smaller airport, you take the light-rail all the way south, and then you take a long bus ride. I did this once. I got yelled at by the people in the airport: don’t you know the buses aren’t safe, ma’am, you don’t want to get onboard those. Excuse me, what do you think I’ve been doing all this time?

To get to the larger, international airport, you take the light rail downtown, and then you take an even longer bus ride. You know what’s funny about that bus to the international airport? It is called an “express” bus … but somehow, it’s got over 60 stops, and takes an hour to get to the airport, and goes through all these neighborhoods. But okay.

The nicest part of the public transportation in Houston is that your ticket only costs $1.25. This is the same cost of a bus in the no-one’s-heard-of-it town of Concord, North Carolina. Can you believe it? Except the Houston tickets are even better, because your ticket there is valid for 3 hours. You can ride on as many buses and light rails as you want within that 3 hour period. In most other places, a ticket just gets you a ride and a single transfer — and in Concord, there’s all these ornery rules and conditions limiting the type of transfer you can muster.

So given the nice price, and given that I was able to get to the movie theatre and Ikea and the Amtrak train station and to go see the downtown Christmas lights, I was thinking, oh, the public transportation in Houston isn’t so bad after all. It gets a bad rap unnecessarily. Also, I should add that many of the buses are quite frequent — sometimes every 15 minutes — and usually my transfer waiting time between buses aren’t that long — and the light rail sometimes comes by every 5 minutes. I was thinking of all this, and thinking, I guess the public transportation in Houston deserves some respect.

But then I went to Chicago just before Christmas. I went to Chicago on cross-country trains. And while I was there, I took the local trains all the way from downtown Chicago to a far-away suburb. While sitting on nice, tidy, local train, it finally struck me: this is what’s missing from Houston. You really can’t go anywhere outside the city without a car. And then I started remembering a bit more of when I lived in Philadelphia, and how much of the city was accessible, and more and more I am starting to see the difference in mobility.

Configure Windows laptop without making a Live account

I was setting up a new laptop, and it was a Windows system laptop. I guess that means the Microsoft spy tentacles are already buried all over the place.

But then the Microsoft spy tentacles wanted to ensnare themselves even further — way more than I wanted. Have you ever tried to configure a brand-new Windows laptop, just to reach the point where it demands that you sign into Microsoft Live during the set up? I guess some people like Microsoft Live, because it’s supposed to give you a way to back-up your files on your computer onto the Microsoft “cloud”, and … I’m not sure what else it does. Microsoft makes it sound like you will absolutely die if you don’t sign up for it. But I think it’s really just their way to get their tentacles around all your private information.

Any case, the last time I configured a brand-new laptop, a few years ago, I was presented with the option to create a Microsoft Live account … but it was just an option. So I skipped it.

But this time around, there was no option to skip, which made me really mad. They have no right to force you to create a Microsoft Live account just because you’re using the Windows system. What should have been an easy set-up job turned into a circus. I had to get out an older device and start googling how to get around the Microsoft Live set-up. No one on google had any good suggestions, except to create the account, and then go through complicated steps to cancel it.

But then one website suggested, just turn your Internet off. If there’s no Internet, then the Microsoft Live set-up can’t proceed — you can’t get the outerworldly spy tentacles slurping from your private affairs. I liked that. If I had known, I would have not connected to the Internet when I’d been prompted by the set-up. But now it was too late, I was already connected and just like there was no option to skip the Microsoft Live account creation, there was no option to un-connect from the Internet.

I ended up walking like a quarter of a mile, carrying the laptop, away down the road from where I was, just so I could escape the pull of the wireless Internet. Mind you, normally, all I have to do is take one step into the yard and the Internet throws a fit: sorry, you’re outside the bounds of the wifi perimeter, no more Internet for you! But this time, I walked out the front steps … still connected. I walked out into the yard … still connected. I walked to the yard in the back, still connected. I walked to the furthest corner out front, still connected. All of a sudden, when the Microsoft Live account set-up was at stake, the Internet refused, simply refused, to disconnect. I had to walk all the way down the road and cross a bridge before the Internet gave up. Finally out of the Internet range, I was able to proceed with the set-up all the way, and I got out of creating a Microsoft Live account.

Before doing all this, though, I did something that I was a little scared of doing; I pressed down on the laptop power button to force the laptop to shut down. I was scared of doing that right in the middle of set-up; what if forcing the laptop off during such a fragile time of birth would cause irreparable harm? But nothing untoward happened. And I could see no other solution — I was stuck at the page demanding that I sign up with Microsoft Live. There was no option to go back, there was no option to skip. After about 20 minutes of hemming and hawing, during which all the excitement over the new toy vanished, I finally forced the laptop to close. When I opened it back up, I was back at the start of the configuration process, and I was able to complete it safely (while hiked out over the bridge out of Internet range).

So I did all that, and configured the laptop without signing into MS Live. But then came a new problem! It seems like there is a new rule that if you have Microsoft Office on your device (so MS Word, Excel, etc), you can no longer use it if you do not create that dreaded MS Live account! Can this really be true? Everything seemed to indicate that this was the case, so while I had bought a license for MS Office, I returned it without opening it, and the laptop remains MS Live-free. I’ve been able to get away with it because I have access to other computers with MS Office already installed. But can it really be that the new conditions for using Microsoft Word and Excel is that you must create a Live account?

I’ve been testing out the open-source software, OpenOffice, in the meantime. The Excel version kept crashing. I don’t like it too much. I thought about Google docs and Google spreadsheets, but they steal your information, too, and you have to have Internet to access your files. WordPad, which just automatically comes on Windows computers, is a nice alternative if you are just making notes for yourself, and not really doing anything super formal. But I don’t have a long-term solution so far.

What if you forget to write the zip code on a piece of mail?

I dropped three postcards in a rush into a blue mail pick-up bin in Union Station in Los Angeles on a Monday evening in December. In my hurry, I had forgotten to write the zip code of the delivery address on two of those postcards (I wrote the addresses down from memory, and meant to double-check the zip codes of two of them later). The sole postcard with the complete address arrived in rural North Carolina on Saturday. A postcard missing its zip code arrived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on the following Thursday. And the last postcard was also delivered around the same time, zip code-less, to Houston. So forgetting the zip code adds about 5 days or so to the journey of your mail.

Rushed photo at the central train station in Los Angeles

Scicomm on Halloween

I made this short little video for work way back, just in time for Halloween:

I spent the week leading up to Halloween feverishly focused on it, wanting to get it done in time. It’s haunted house-themed, and it describes the premise of CLEVER Planets research in a Halloween-flavored nutshell.

Unfortunately, as you can see, it didn’t really get a lot of views or re-tweets or anything. It felt like a bummer, because I spent a lot of time on it; but the pay-off was all limited to one day (unless I tweet it again next year); and so it felt like it was a waste of time.

I had been planning to make a model of Olaf the snowman from Frozen and use him for a winter-themed animation about CLEVER Planets research … but for now, I have decided to tread carefully around seasonal themes and avoid them.


Animated Twitter story: Jupiter and Juno

I made this animated Twitter story about a satellite called Juno that traveled through the deeps of space to meet her lover Jupiter.

What do you think? I built all parts of all the animations myself. Even the satellites I built in Blender from scratch. I’ve never really built complicated stuff before just from looking at a picture. I always used a tutorial. But there are no tutorials for the satellites I needed to model.

My favorite parts of the animated story are the girl looking at “How do we know what we know?” and the emerald-green ocean (even though it comes out blurry, not sure why). I thought that the animations with the internal structure of Jupiter were pretty cool, too. But for the rest, I do wish I could have thought of a way to have more bright colors and less space-and-stars clogging up all the scenes.