Saturday, February 24, 2007

Amazing Grace - go see it!

Friday, four of us attended the opening show of Amazing Grace, even though we had to make a bit of a drive to get to a theater showing it. The acting was well done, as was the movie itself. The movie follows the attempts of William Wilberforce to end the slave trade in England via debates and bills in the House of Commons. He also worked to end slavery, but only his work towards ending the slave trade was included. The story is very well presented, and keeps the viewer interested. I never once thought they should "get on with it," which is quite impressive for me.

Two of the people in our group are historians, and so I asked them about the historical accuracy of the movie overall. Surprisingly it is quite accurate, and even gives a nod to the debates that are still occurring about the accuracy of some conjectures made in that time period. For instance, the former slave Oloudaqh Equiano that assists Wilberforce claims to have been a prince in Africa, but many historians believe that he was actually born in South Carolina. In the movie he makes this claim, but some of Wilberforce's adversaries spread rumors that he was actually born in South Carolina. Some events that seemed like they must be fictitious were also accurate, such as how certain votes occurred and how Wilberforce suffered physically.

It was also interesting to find out that the biography Equiano wrote was the best selling biography until Benjamin Franklin's biography was printed. Another tidbit was that when many people stopped putting sugar in their coffee to protest slavery it was actually a sacrifice, as coffee was usually brewed at the beginning of the week and then re-boiled throughout the week so that by the middle of the week it was quite syrupy. Usually sugar was the only way to make it taste even vaguely appetizing.

Whether or not you enjoy history, you should see Amazing Grace for the interesting story, great acting, and original characters.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

New Dell Laptop

So, I'm getting settled with my new laptop and I definitely like it. I have 4 USB ports (finally!), and media keys on the front! I've missed having keys to control the music player ever since my wireless keyboard that had them bit the dust a few years back. I think the computer is actually surprisingly pretty, given that it's a Dell. It is a light shiny gray on the top and inside, the bottom is black (which makes the rest of it be noticeable), and there is a banding of white all around the keyboard area and the lid. Even my officemate who is a Mac lover thought it looked nice!

Although it is a 14" screen, it doesn't seem all that small, which is definitely a plus. It also feels lighter than my old HP, which is fabulous. Another thing I love about it is the fact that it has a slot on the side for an SD card, which is the type of memory card my new camera takes! It makes it much quicker to get photos off, especially since Vista has a built in card reader that actually works. The speakers are also on the front, which means if I have the lid closed I can still listen to music without headphones very easily (especially with those media keys).

Vista is awesome (I have Vista Business), although it definitely has some annoyances. They did make it easier to do some things though, like getting rid of certain items in the system tray, and changing computer settings. I absolutely LOVE the sidebar, which you can customize with different gadgets and either have disappear behind other programs or stay locked on the screen. I have it locked so that I can always see it. I have a clock (I rotate between the 8 choices, I used to have one with a pokemon character on it), a picture slide show (currently with my India pictures), a weather bar, a system meter to show my CPU and RAM usage, and a large calendar so I can easily find the date. :) Many of these things I had in some way or another previously (desktop photo changer which was annoying, weather bar in firefox that wasn't very useful, task manager minimized in system tray), but now they are finally useful, constantly accessible, and pleasing to the eye.

Of course, there are a lot of annoying things about Vista as well, like the dialog boxes that warn me I need administrator rights to do certain actions even though I am logged in as an administrator and it works. It also asks for permission to run any program, which gets really old when you have a new computer and are trying to install a lot of things. I'm sure you can turn these messages off, but I think they are there for a good reason (preventing programs from installing themselves). There is also plenty of software that is not yet compatible with Vista. Even Visual Studio 2005 (made my Microsoft!) has some compatibility issues with Vista, even though it does still work and seems to only be minor issues.

BTW, my desktop image is a picture I took.

Overall I'm very happy with this new laptop. Since this is everyone's favorite part of Vista, here's a screenshot of the program changing (windows key + tab, instead of alt + tab):

Monday, February 12, 2007

Airlines -- Domestic (USA) vs International

In January I had my first real opportunity to fly internationally as I traveled to IJCAI (International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence), which was held in Hyderabad, India. The trip overall was great, and I realized that flying internationally has many perks over flying domestic.

One of the great things about a long flight is that they actually feed you. I've spent most of a day flying from the east coast of the USA to the west coast of the USA without being given a single meal on board the flight (coach class). However, when flying to India via London (Boston -> London Heathrow -> Mumbai -> Hyderabad) I was given more meals than I actually needed, due to the time changes. Even when flying back to the USA, when the time change did not bring meal time quicker than usual, I was still fed enough to not have to find food in the airport or risk starvation.

Another great thing is that you have better movie/tv/radio choices, at least versus many of the US domestic planes. The only flight I think did better was the Song flight I had last year. On my Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Mumbai I actually had video games to play as well, so that does improve on all of the others. I would fly them again just to have that sort of entertainment available. Not to mention the fact that they give you a bag of essentials: toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, and a mask to cover your eyes when trying to sleep and all of the lights are on. When you get stranded overnight in London on your way home with no extra clothes or toiletries in your carry-on bag, Virgin Atlantic becomes the best airline in the world.

I also found that with being on a bigger plane there was less chance of motion sickness. One of my landings was a little rough, but otherwise it didn't feel nearly as choppy as most of the domestic flights I've taken in the past few years.

Granted, those perks are rather minor when compared to the large difference in cost, with my total bill being about $1600 for a round trip from east coast USA. However, this large price was due to two factors beyond my control: the location (Hyderabad) does not have an international airport that is cost effective to fly into, and January is tourist season in India so all of the prices hike up and all of the cheap plane tickets are bought long before we found out our work was accepted at IJCAI.

International flights could also be less enjoyable if you were stuck in the middle of a row of 5 people, especially if you had to use the restroom in the middle of the night. Luckily for me I was sitting in the aisle on every single flight, and the only time I slept on the plane I was in a front row so no one had to wake me to get through. So although that could be a negative, it doesn't apply!