## Tuesday, March 29, 2011

### Ka Ua Kani-Lehua

This past week it seems like something got reset, and Hilo is finally back to its usual weather after several long months of dull, hot, and dry. It's rained off and on every day so far since then. While looking out the window watching the sun shine on the rain falling on the plumeria tree in our backyard, I was inspired to write the following poem.

A note on the term Kani-lehua: it's the name of a particular kind of mistlike rain Hilo is famous for. Hawaiian has a lot of names for specific rains associated with places, such as Kīpuʻupuʻu for Waimea, Kūkala-hale for Honolulu, Lani haʻahaʻa for Hāna, Pupū-hale for Hāmākua, etc. Kani-lehua means “[the rain that] lehua flowers drink.” Lehua flowers grow on the ʻōhiʻa tree which is common in and around Hilo, are associated with rain, and are the official flower of the island of Hawaiʻi.

Ka Ua Kani-lehua

Aia ka ua
Ke heleleʻi maila.
Liliko ma nā lihilihi
O nā pua mēlia.

Nani ka mēlia
I ke ao o ka lā.
Moani ke ʻala
I ka laʻi o ka pō.

Kū ke kumu mēlia
Ma ka ua Kani-lehua.
Mōhala aʻe nā pua
ʻĀlohilohi nō.
The Lehua-Refreshing Rain

All around, to Earth
The rain is falling,
Sparkling on the petals
Of the plumeria flowers.

Beautiful are the plumeria
In the light of day.
Gently wafted is their fragrance
In the calmness of the night.

The plumeria tree stands
In the lehua-refreshing rain.
Open are its flowers,

## Sunday, March 27, 2011

### In Search of the Sunrise: Part III

Saturday Jonathan and I got up at 5:30 to try our luck at capturing a Hawaiian sunrise on film (well, disk). It was our most laughable attempt so far: we tried a new location, a very nice one, but the clouds to the east didn't budge, Jonathan forgot his memory card, and I didn't realize I'd been taking pictures without auto-focus on till just before the sun was set to rise. So all we got out of it was two pictures. Although the location was definitely promising enough to try again; even without being able to see the sun it was rather pretty.

We drove out of Hilo to the north for this one along the Hāmākua coast so we could look south and east across Hilo bay to see the sunrise. You can see the long Hilo breakwater guarding the bay in the picture above.

It looks like we'll have to drag ourselves out of bed yet again! But don't worry, we do not intend to stop until we've managed to catch a real picturesque sunrise.

## Saturday, March 26, 2011

### Browsers and the Blogger who Blogs About Them

Spring Break has been a wonderful time for me to relax and a chance to do things I enjoy, but it has left me sadly neglectful of my blog here and of you, my readers. So to make it up to you, today I am going to be writing on something practical, something that may be of use to you. I'm writing about something you're using right now: the web browser you're using to read this post. (If you're not using a browser to read this, you are far beyond me and have no need of my puny wisdom.) With the recent release of new versions of several popular browsers, it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate my judgement of various past versions and take a fresh look.

A lot of people don't really think about their browser much; it came with the computer (especially in the case of Internet Explorer for Windows computers or Safari for Macs), and it works fine, so why bother changing? I'm not arguing in this post that you should necessarily give up your familiar browser, I'm merely trying to show you other options. Expand your horizons, as it were. And if it turns out you really do like the browser you use, wonderful - perhaps you can still learn something useful about customizing it. With that said, here's my personal (more or less balanced) overview of the five most widely used browsers. I'm going to detail the good points individually, and save a discussion of what problems I see for the end, when I'll discuss negatives by the groups of browsers they affect. For your comparison pleasure, I took pictures of my blog as it appears in each browswer.

1. Internet Explorer.
I'm starting with IE because it is still the most widely used browser in the world and comes standard with Windows computers as the default browser, so it's highly probable that at least some of you are using it. It's also the browser I used for quite a few years in the early 2000's.

 Internet Explorer 9.
If I had written this post a year ago (and the idea for it actually occurred to me nearly that long ago!), I'd probably have given a recommendation to move away from using Internet Explorer. For many years, Internet Explorer was, in my opinion, a bad influence on the Web. While most other browsers quickly adopted new Web standards as they came out, IE stubbornly hung on to an idiosyncratic way of doing things that to this day is responsible for many sites having a bunch of extra code used to figure out if the viewer is using IE or a different browser and changing the structure of the page accordingly.

However, with Internet Explorer's usage share slowly declining over time, Microsoft finally seems to have decided to stop trying to shape the Web to its wants and with the release of Internet Explorer 9 appears to be embracing emerging web standards such as HTML5 in a compliant manner. It's a big step in the right direction, I think.  And with that, I can once again recommend IE as a browser. It has some real positives: most webpages are still optimized to look best in it, so you'll never have a problem with a webpage not working with it. From my set of comparison pictures, it has the smallest interface of all five I tested, giving it the absolute most space to display the webpage itself. It can be extended with addons, although the interface isn't the friendliest: I had to restart IE when installing one, and then wasn't able to find it afterwards. All that having been said, it will be interesting to see if IE can hold its own against the many alternative browsers out there that have been steadily siphoning off its users. We'll now examine the main user siphon: Firefox.

2. Firefox.
The open-source browser traditionally seen as Internet Explorer's biggest rival, Firefox 4 was recently released with much acclaim. Back in the day when IE didn't have tabbed browsing (IE  6), I came very very close to switching to Firefox because it had tabs and I was (and still am) an inveterate tab user. Then the next version of IE came out with tab support, and I never looked back.

 Firefox 4.
While Internet Explorer was trying to mold the Web into its own image, Firefox was embracing open-source culture, a fact that made it popular with a lot of people who liked its customizability. The picture above isn't quite a fresh install; I already made a few changes between installing it and taking the picture. Firefox comes with a whole lot of user-created addons which can be installed to achieve all kinds of effects, from ad-blockers that work silently in the background to more active functions like to-do lists to unlocking new ways of navigating using your mouse (more on that later). There are also tons of user-created skins that change the appearance of the browser, adding another layer of customizability (the one in the picture is called "Outer Space View").

Firefox has traditionally been seen as Internet Explorer's big rival, but it itself is being challenged by other browsers gaining usage share from below. Next, we'll take a look at the newest of the Big Five: Chrome.

3. Chrome.
When Google first announced it was working on a Web browser, there was a lot of speculation as to the result. Could Google, traditionally known for working within existing browsers, actually create a stand-alone browser that would appeal to people? If the past few years are any indication, the answer would seem to be "Yes".

Chrome is the youngest of the Big Five browsers, dating only from 2008, but it has shown an impressive adoption rate, currently the third most-used browser worldwide. When it was released it featured a novel location for tabs at the top of the browser, a decision that proved to be ahead of its time. Like Firefox, Chrome features a large number of skins with which to personalize it; the one I have in the picture is a minimalist metal-looking one from Google called “Brushed”. Chrome also has a Web store with various applications (most of them free, or with free basic version) ranging from games to productivity apps.

Chrome was also the first browser to combine the address bar and search bar into one “Omnibox”, a design decision currently shared only by Internet Explorer. This means that if the address you type in doesn't find a match, Chrome will automatically search the Web for you to try and find what you're looking for. It also has an innovative system whereby you can save certain bookmarks to a bar that appears at the top when you open a new blank tab. All in all, Chrome makes a fine browser, one that I can recommend using.

Having considered Google's browser, we'll now take a look at the browser belonging to Google's rival Apple: Safari.

4. Safari.
Apple's browser Safari comes standard on Macintosh operating systems the way Internet Explorer does on Windows. It runs on Windows as well, though.

 Safari 5.0.4
I'll be honest: of the five browsers I'm reviewing here, Safari is the one I know least about. Several years I ago I gave it a whirl, but I was trying other browsers as well at the time, and it just didn't quite hook me. That having been said, I like it a lot more testing it this time. It too has a lot of extensions that can be applied to it, although I wasn't able to find too many I'd be interested in (some of them seem especially geared towards Mac users, but that's hardly surprising). The interface is clean and efficient, although it doesn't support personalizable skins like Firefox and Chrome do. It's the only one of the five that still has the tabs below the address bar, but I don't really find the location of tabs to be a big difference between browsers.

And I really don't have much more to say about Safari. Like Firefox and Chrome, it has generally been very good at supporting new and emerging Web standards, keeping abreast of the latest developments. It has an interesting “Top Sites” feature where, upon opening a new tab, you'll be greeted by a wall of panels each showing one of the sites you frequent most. It appears to be a capable browser from the short time I spent testing it, and one I wouldn't mind using (though not as my main browser).

Now with all of that said, let's look at the last of the Big Five browsers, and (spoiler) my personal favorite: Opera.

5. Opera
Where to begin with Opera? As I mentioned, this is the browser I use the majority of my time. It looks much the same on the surface as the other browsers we've looked at:

 Opera 11.01.
Opera actually pioneered many of the features we now take for granted in other browsers. Tabbed browsing, for instance - something you probably never stop to consider - was originally developed by Opera. It's always been a very standards compliant browser, built to keep up with the changing landscape of the Web. One thing it lacked for quite a while was a library of extensions like the other browsers had, but with the latest release (Opera 11) that problem was rectified. And these extensions, unlike in some of the other browsers, are easy to install, and I've been able to find some that are quite helpful. It has many user created skins you can choose from to personalize it, too; that's the “C00” skin with the Sand color scheme in the above picture.

While some of the innovative features Opera came up with have been copied by other browsers, it still has some features the others don't have, and it's these features that keep me coming back to it.

First, Opera was the first browser to implement mouse gestures, and the only browser to have them be available without having to manually activate them. Mouse gestures, if you've never experienced them, are awesome. One thing I do a lot of while browsing is open new tabs in a background window, and with each of the four other browsers reviewed here, that is accomplished by holding the Control key and clicking. Not a major effort I'll grant you, but usually I'm opening new links when I'm reading something interesting and just want to open it and forget about it till later. Having to hold Control breaks my concentration a bit, which pulls me out of the flow of my reading. With mouse gestures, you can right click on a link, hold the button down and move the mouse slightly down and back up to accomplish the same task. Only requires one hand, and doesn't break my concentration as much. (And it gets better: with the new extensions available in Opera 11, I found one that opens new background tabs when you simply click and hold the button for about half a second, which is about as easy as it could possibly get. Call me lazy, but I open a lot of tabs, and this is in all honesty the one extension I would keep if only allowed one).

Second, Opera has something called Speed Dial. It's quite simple in concept: it's a graphical display of a customizable number (4-25) of bookmarks that appears when you open a blank new tab. I don't know about you, but I tend to spend much of my time on the Web on a rather small number of sites, things like email and news, and it's incredibly convenient to be able to access them quickly whenever I want to. You know your home page, the one that loads when you first open your browser? I personally find that there is no one site that I want to see first thing every time I want to get on the Web. With Opera, you can set it to display Speed Dial right away upon start-up, giving you immediate access to any one of the sites you visit frequently. It's like Safari's Top Sites, except that it's not automatic, which I actually like better because it allows you to arrange them the way you want.

One caveat: As the Big Five browser with the smallest usage rate (typically around 2% of global Web traffic), not every webpage maker bothers to ensure that their page works perfectly with Opera. Most of the time you'll have no trouble, but every once in a while it becomes necessary to switch to a different browser to get a certain webpage to work correctly.

6. Final Thoughts.
Now, in the above sections, I've tried to be fair to each browser, pointing out the good points, while down-playing the negatives. Here I'm going to explain exactly what I like and don't like about each browser, using categories of things that are either the same or different across browsers.
1. Speed Dial. This is one of the biggest draws for me. It's amazing how quickly it becomes part of your routine, and how jarring its absence feels when you use another browser without it. Firefox has an extension that does pretty much the same thing, though it's slightly harder to customize than Opera's native functionality. Safari's Top Sites does somewhat the same thing (I surmise; I haven't actually used it enough for it to start automatically filling in my frequent sites, a minor quibble I have with it; I prefer to be able to do these things manually). Internet Explorer has a feature similar to Top Sites, but doesn't show an actual thumbnail, using the webpage's icon instead. Finally, Chrome has a neat system similar in nature whereby you can add bookmarks to a bar that appears in new blank tabs. I had to be told of this because I've never bothered to bookmark anything in Chrome before, but I have to say it's a nice touch, and definitely raises my opinion of Chrome.
2. Mouse Gestures. This feels like an incredibly minor point when I talk about it, but having used Opera almost exclusively for a few years, it really bugs me to have to coordinate hitting a specific key while simultaneously clicking a link when all I want is for it to open up in the background silently until I'm ready to read it. No other browser has mouse gestures by default, and only Firefox has an extension that mimics this behavior (one that works quite well, though). There's also no extension in any of the other browsers listed here that mimics the slightly-extended-click-to-open-a-new-background-tab functionality of the one in Opera.
3. Tabs at the top. Most programs in Windows have a small bar at the top that you can click to focus on the window when switching from another window. Firefox and Chrome have an unusual structure where the tabs now overlap this bar and extend all the way to the top of the window (or screen, if you're using them in full-screen mode). It's a small point, but this means that when you click back in to Firefox or Chrome, you have to click on one of the open tabs, possibly taking you away from the tab you were looking at. With the other browsers, you can just sort of point and click blindly without having to worry about changing (or accidentally closing) tabs. A small point, but it often bothers me.
And with that, I think I've said pretty much all I have to say about browsers. I'm struck by how petty most of my considerations seem when I actually list them, but they really do make the difference between a browser that does its job well by fading out of view and letting you focus on surfing the World Wide Web, and a frustrating experience trying to get your browser to do what you want it to. If I haven't touched on the reasons you personally prefer your favorite browser, forgive me...I give you my reasons and feelings, which may have little or no relevance for some people.

One thought on appearance: there really isn't that much to say about the graphical differences between browsers, as it appears they are all changing to look more like each other. Opera, Chrome, and Safari look pretty much the same as they did a few years ago (with minor tweaks), while Internet Explorer and Firefox have had some major changes to free up screen real estate for use by the page, rather than the user interface. It's gotten to the point where I can no longer tell at a glance which browser I'm using if I have multiple open and happen to forget, as happened more than once while writing this blog. The use of distinctive skins can lessen this to some extent, though IE and Safari don't let you change their appearance (as far as I can tell).

Finally, if you've tried all five browsers listed here, and didn't like any of them, I can almost guarantee you'll find one to you liking at this comprehensive list of browsers in existence. Not for the faint of heart!

A hui hou!

Edit 3/28/11: It has been brought to my attention that there was more to Chrome than meets the eye in terms of Speed Dial functionality (actually, it was right there to be seen all along, I'd just never bookmarked anything in Chrome before to discover it.)

## Sunday, March 20, 2011

### Platonic Polyhedrals

A few weeks ago I found out that Blender comes with a script for generating various types of regular solids and decided to try it out when I got the chance. Being (a) a mathematician, and (b) a geek (not necessarily in that order), I opted to check out the Platonic solids by making a set of gaming dice (otherwise known as polyhedrals).

Here you can see all five of the Platonic solids. From left to right we have a tetrahedron, a cube or hexahedron, an octahedron, a dodecahedron, and an icosahedron. There are many ways you can define Platonic solids, but one of the simplest is that they are the solids you can make with every face being the same shape, having no gaps between them. It is easy to show that no more than five can exist in three dimensions; in four dimensions, there are six, and in all dimensions higher than four there are only three. Such dice have been around for a long time; icosahedral dice have been found from as far back as the second century AD (maybe the Romans were into role-playing games?).

The Platonic solids are the only regular solids possible, but there are other sets of solids that conform to certain rules, such as the Archimedean and Catalan solids. They're a bit more complicated so I won't get into them here, but I like this part of geometry because it's more visual than most of math.

The dice shown above are traditional in that the sum of opposite sides is equal to one higher than the number of faces (except for the tetrahedron, which doesn't have opposite faces). For example, on the cube, 1 and 6 are on opposite sides, to give a total of 7. Likewise, 2 and 5 and 3 and 4 are on opposite sides. In the same way the sum of opposite sides of the octahedron is 9, of the dodecahedron 13, and of the icosahedron, 21. I don't know what other conventions apply to the placement of numbers on dice besides that, so the exact layout is entirely my own.

(Warning: the section below is slightly technical, and more of a personal review of what I learned from this project. If you are not into computer graphic design, feel free to skip this portion. If you are, you may find it interesting and possibly learn something.)

I also used this project as an excellent opportunity to practice UV-unwrapping. UV-unwrapping is the process by which you take a 2-dimensional image and map it onto an object so that it affects various parts of the appearance of the object. The name comes from the fact that two coordinates are needed for the map, but since x, y, and z are already taken, u and v are used (they're commonly used in mathematics for such purposes). The UV-unwrapping in this case was fairly easy because I could mentally follow the cuts in the mesh necessary to lay them out flat with no distortion (even though I made it harder for myself by beveling the edges, which created more surfaces). Each die has two image maps on it: one for the color, a base dark-green color with the numbers in white, and one that causes the numbers to be depressed (the swirly light-green color comes from a distorted noise texture added on top).

The depressed number are an example of what is known as bump mapping. If you were to examine the actual meshes used to create this image, you'd see every face as smooth as every other face. What the bump map does, is tell the renderer to treat certain areas as if they were elevated or depressed for the purposes of shading. This is an incredibly powerful tool for rendering high levels of detail that would be prohibitively hard to do by actually changing the mesh; combined with UV-mapping you can really bring a blank mesh to life.

Anyway, I've analyzed this enough, and I should probably get to bed now. Tomorrow  later this morning I'm taking my housemate Jonathan up to Mauna Kea on a summit tour for the first time. A hui hou!

## Wednesday, March 16, 2011

### Just Playin’ in the Snow

Today's blog is more of a whimsical illustrated adventure, with photographs instead of illustrations. Saturday I went on a summit tour up to Mauna Kea, and there was still some snow left unmelted. Since I could probably count the number of times I've played in the snow on both hands and feet (demonstration of that fact: I learned it's a really bad idea to handle snow on the summit of Mauna Kea without some form of gloves on your hands), I proceeded to take a little time right before heading down to make a tiny snowman!

 Tah-dah!
I was carrying him with me down the mountain in the tour vehicle, when I saw someone else had left another, slightly larger snowman near one of the buildings, and I realized what I should do with my creation. I didn't have much time because we needed to get down for dinner, so I took off running to pad my snowman with a little more snow and place him before I had to go. I didn't realize the guide had grabbed my camera and started snapping away...

 “Why hello there, lonely snowman! Care for a companion?”
 “There you go, little snowman!”
 That's when I realized I was on camera.  Hey look, it's Maui in the background on the left!

## Monday, March 14, 2011

### Pi day.

Well, I forgot to write this until it was nearly over, but happy belated $$\pi$$ day everyone! Yes, March 14 is everyone's favorite irrational number day! (Although my favorite such number would probably have to be Euler's number, e, the base of natural logarithms. You can see how the two are related, along with i, the imaginary unit, the operations ‘+’ and ‘=’, and the fundamental numbers 1 and 0 in Euler's formula in my header above, which many people consider to be one of the most elegant and beautiful equations in mathematics.)

## Friday, March 11, 2011

### ...And an Earthquake, Too!

Well, this tsunami turned out to be a little more eventful than the one last year. Hilo didn't get too much of a wave, but Kona on the west side of the island did. The wave surge in Hilo bay was only about 2 feet, but Kona had an 11 or 12 foot wave that traveled more than 100 feet inland and caused a fair bit of damage to boats in the harbor. Maui and Kaua‘i also had a bit of scattered damage in areas.

Slightly closer to home and more immediately arresting was the easily-detectable magnitude 4.8 earthquake that happened near Kīlauea Thursday night just before 11 PM. The last earthquake I remember being in was in Taiwan, and that's about 10 years ago now, but the familiar back-and-forth shaking sensation was instantly recognizable. The actual location was 28 miles from Hilo according to the U.S.G.S. website, so it didn't do much besides shake for about 5 seconds, but it's still slightly nerve-wracking following so soon on the one near Japan.

Oh, well. As I've remarked to friends before, life always has the potential to be exciting when you're going to school on an island with the world's most active volcano in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth!

## Thursday, March 10, 2011

### Tsunami day!

Well, by now you may have seen the news that a magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck off the north-east coast of Japan about 7:46 PM local time on Thursday, and we now have a tsunami warning in effect for the entire island chain. The tsunami sirens went off at 10 o’ clock, and will probably be going off every hour on the hour till the warning is lifted or the tsunami hits, which is predicted to be about 3 AM Friday morning. Thankfully, we're located outside the evacuation zone, far enough that I'm not too worried about it. In fact, I'm most excited about the possibility of not having school tomorrow. Tsunami day!

Further updates as conditions warrant, i.e., I'll let you know tomorrow how it went. Hopefully it will be like last year, a rather boring and uneventful happening, and we'll simply get a school-free day out of it.

## Saturday, March 5, 2011

### Pizzicato

Earlier this evening I took some time out of my busy schedule of doing homework to go see Beethoven's 9th symphony ("Chorale") played at the UHH theater on campus. Beethoven's 9th Symphony is arguably the greatest work of one of the greatest composers in history and a personal favorite of mine, so it was well worth it. And if I noticed a missed cue here or there, or a note that was off, or the fact that the choir was singing the German words with a decidedly American accent, what of it? Its beauty transcends such things.

Actually going to the theater and watching the performance reminded me of an occasional musing of mine on the nature of recorded music. Ever since Edison invented the phograph, the ability to hear music has been divorced from a need to actually have someone play it. In some ways, this is both a good and a bad thing. I like the ability to buy a recording of a piece of music and be able to listen to it as much as I want, and I'm quite thankful for it, but simply listening to recorded music without the presence of the orchestra somehow diminishes it. It's like enjoying a delicious meal, but not being able to smell it, or taking a cool refreshing drink and not being able to taste it. Neither are absolutely essential for the enjoyment of the thing, but they are both add a certain other charm without which neither is complete.

As an example, I learned there's a lot more pizzicato in Beethoven's 9th symphony than I knew before. The sight of the entire string section's bows swaying to and fro while they plucked their strings inspired a poem about it, to the same meter as the “Ode to Joy” (An die Fruede) theme.

Like a wind-swept reedy wetland,
So each deft string player's bow;
Guided by each masterful hand,
While playing pizzicato.

As they play, with bows a-shiver,
Bending, swaying, all a-quiver,
Thus is pizzicato played.

I also discovered just how much work clapping is when I applauded with the rest of the theater for nearly five minutes straight at the end.

## Wednesday, March 2, 2011

### Distance and Perspective

I had originally planned to blog about Facebook's disturbing decision to start releasing phone numbers and home addresses of its members tonight, but while working on the slideshow for a presentation I'm giving for my seminar class on Friday I came across something that changed my focus. Broadened it, you might say.

First of all, take a look at the picture below:

This is a galaxy very far away. I don't know what it's called or I'd tell you. It comes from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the farthest and deepest picture of the universe ever taken. Now, I don't know what the size of this galaxy is, but let's pretend it's about the size of our own Milky Way, about 30 kiloparsecs or 100,000 light years across. It looks a lot like what we think the Milky Way would look like from the outside, so it's a reasonable fancy. At this scale, of course, our Sun would be absolutely impossible to see. If we imagine this galaxy to be like the Milky Way, it probably has in the range of 100-400 billion stars.

Now, take a look at the picture below:

This is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in all it's glory. See the biggest galaxy there in the lower right? That's the one in the first picture above. Now, there are an estimated 10,000 galaxies in this picture. Almost every single point of light that you see is another galaxy, with anywhere from a few million to hundreds of billions of stars in it (I've only found five foreground Milky Way stars in the picture so far). Now go back and look at the first picture again, but this time don't look at the bright, attention grabbing spiral in the middle. Despite its distance, that galaxy is practically next door compared to the other galaxies you see in the picture. Look at the tiny blobs of light in the background. Those are some of the farthest objects ever observed by man. Many of them are in the 10-13 billion light year range, or around 60 trillion billion miles away. Now just sit and think on that for a while. It helps to keep in mind that this picture covers an area roughly one thirteen-millionth of the sky.

As to the point of this post...well, I'm afraid I don't have any trite take-away message. All I can say is that it helped me regain a useful perspective on life for when I start taking myself too seriously and worrying too much about things. Some might find it depressing...I find it awe-inducing, that we can observe such indescribably awesome scenes. My hope is that this will change your perspective in some way today. After all, it's pictures like this that remind me why I chose astronomy as my life's profession.