Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Innovating a ketchup packet

I like Heinz for continuously innovating their ketchup packs. 

Saw this today at a fast food joint. You can use it two ways depending on whether you want it as a dip or to squeeze out the ketchup onto your food. 

Innovative Heinz Ketchup Packet

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doing what we can to help Haiyan/Yolanda survivors

My wife and her fellow Fulbright scholars in the US set up an event to raise funds for Haiyan/Yolanda survivors.

They have a simple but achievable goal:
Hi! We are Filipinos currently studying in the US.

Our goal is simple: help typhoon survivors in Central Philippines get safe drinking water, now! We pledge to walk 50 miles for your donations. If you donate $15/mile, we could afford to send one box of Aquatabs (50,000 liters of water) in a week. Help us and thanks in advance!

-- Data Canlas, Jay delos Reyes, Lyrica Lucas

The fund drive is aimed at Filipinos and friends in the US, but they accept from everywhere. Please click the picture below to find out how you could help (will lead you to a public Facebook Page). You don't have to donate money. Just forwarding the link to their FB page to friends who may be interested will greatly help.

Visit http://www.facebook.com/50forthePhilippines

Monday, November 11, 2013

Yolanda/Haiyan, public leadership, and hope

Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan is the biggest storm in the world's recorded history and it struck the Philippines. Like all Filipinos, I've experienced many such big typhoons, like Yoling/Patsy in 1970 (Wikipedia entry), a storm that inundated our town for nearly a month, if my memory serves me right.

These natural disasters bring out the best and worst in us. There are lots of stories of heroism, like people I know from media who helped rescue stranded citizens at the height of the storm. But there are the inevitable bad stories, like the massive looting of a mall in one of the devastated cities.

This provided fodder again for some fellow Filipinos who lamented "the problem with Pinoys," typically comparing us to the disciplined response of Japanese citizens in the aftermath of the tsunami in Fukushima.

But here's the rub. When people have lived a lifetime without receiving any care from their public officials, it's everyone for themselves. If your family hasn't had anything to eat in three days and no contact from public leaders, you're pushed against the wall. In fact that's how one looter put it, after shamefully admitting to taking part in the looting.

Japan's governance is way better than ours -- their government serves the people. Contrast this to local governments in the Philippines, especially in the remotest provinces, whose officials systematically loot the public coffers and continue to build unfinished roads, bridges, and basketball courts while pocketing most of the funds. So we should see this as a problem of leadership, or the lack of it.

In my simplistic view, our corrupt public officials have failed us on many levels. They have kept themselves in power through patronage politics, sustained by denying people proper education, jobs, and reproductive health rights. It is the same system that has failed to formulate proper disaster preparedness in a storm-ridden country. It is the same populace that keeps voting them in place and so the cycle goes on. Yolanda is as much a man-made disaster as it is natural.

Still, there is hope. Through time, I have observed our disaster response getting better. There's a dearth of good public officials, but quite a few exemplary leaders have risen. We're still a long way off but we've slowly chipped off the leadership neglect that entrenched itself during the corruption in the Marcos years.

Disaster preparedness does not happen the week or month before the storm.
It happens in the way governance is done, in urban and social planning. It degenerates when settlements are allowed to mushroom in an area vulnerable to floods, when flimsy structures are allowed at all to be erected, when evacuation centers are not located on safe ground, or when neighboring local governments refuse to coordinate with each other on matters as simple as traffic and garbage collection.

A friend said that now would be a good time to reset the country. I agree. To draw another parallel with our Asian neighbor, it would be like Japan after World War II, rising from devastation and despair and emerging a better nation.

This should be our turning point. This should be where we realize what public service really means.  This should be the time to make our public officials accountable.

I hope that's not too much to hope for.

* * *
Update: Nov 12, 2013. This came in today from a friend:
"When it comes to preparation, the Philippines may want to study two countries that have made major progress in coping with typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes: India and Cuba.Read the full article here.  

* * *
If you wish to help the relief efforts, please share this poster on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc. My wife and her fellow Fulbright scholars in the US will walk/run 50 miles to help give typhoon survivors access to safe drinking water.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Helping hands and connectors - my new lab assistants

The simple pleasures of life include the arrival of an Amazon package that turns out to have the goodies I bought. Say hello to my new lab assistants. That's Helping Hands with Magnifying Glass and the microtivity Breadboard w/ Jumper Wires. Get ready to Solderrr!

Reading output from a photocell and Arduino

My Arduino starter kit came with a photocell, aka photoresistor, aka a light dependent resistor (LDR). That made me happy (see Side Story, below). I didn't know if it was working or not.

Photo from Adafruit.com
An LDR works by varying the resistance in a current, depending on the amount of ambient light it detects. As a kid, this was the coolest device for me (again, Side Story). Unfortunately, I never got to playing with an LDR until I got it as part of the Arduino starter kit.

So I first tried inserting it in a basic Arduino-LED circuit. I tried covering the LDR with a finger or black cloth but I couldn't detect any change in the brightness of the LED.

Lady Ada came to the rescue with this Arduino photocell tutorial and I was able to set up the experiment. The tutorial should result to a LED light growing brighter as the room grows darker.

There was one problem though. Although I could get the LED to light up, I could only detect very faint changes in the brightness when I covered the LDR with different materials (including my finger). Turning off the room light didn't help because I couldn't be sure if the variation in brightness was the result of my eyes getting accustomed to the dark.

I wanted to be sure that this was really the LDR working and not some external factor. So I scrutinized the sketch and realized that the code included an output of the reading. Here's a snippet from the sketch, available at Adafruit:
photocellReading = analogRead(photocellPin); //read input from Pin 11 

  Serial.print("Analog reading = ");
  Serial.println(photocellReading); //print the value from Pin 11 
Lady Ada's circuit design involved hooking up the LDR into one of the analog inputs of Arduino (Pin 11). This then allowed Arduino to read and print the analog values as they got affected by the LDR. But where was the output being printed?

Well, the new Arduino IDE (1.0.5) includes a Serial Monitor (Click Tools > Serial Monitor), a window that displays output from the Arduino board. I covered the LDR and started detecting minute decreases in the values. Then I turned off the lights and found a significant drop. Eureka!

I altered the delay value in the sketch so I could record the changes in one screen (from the default "100" to "5000". You could see this in the screenshot below:

Notice the changes in value as the ambient light changes. 569 is when the lights are off.
It turns out the LDR was quite sensitive, detecting and printing out minute changes as I moved around the room. It's just that the circuitry and the LED weren't expressing the analog changes properly. I figured I could calibrate this by changing the other resistors in the circuit, but that's for another experiment.

See it in action in this video:

* * *

Trippy Side Story. As a kid, I was fascinated at how light-controlled switches worked. A friend of mine told me that such a switch was called a "light sensitive device" or LSD for short. I phoned our local electronics supply shop and asked the guy, "Do you guys sell LSD?" The guy at the other end said, "Huh?" and dropped the call. I only figured out his reaction years later, when I realized what LSD really meant. :)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Installed MySQL and PHPMyAdmin

I've been using sqlite3 mostly to brush up on programming and web app development. It's faster and easier to manage and I needed a quick way to run databases as soon as I upgraded to Mavericks. I also successfully reactivated the built-in Apache and PHP in Mavericks.

Eventually I had to install MySQL and phpMyAdmin again, so I did the usual web research on this. I was pleasantly surprised. Installing MySQL and phpMyAdmin have become lots easier than it used to (thanks partly to the now well-documented glitch in the default port/socket that MySQL uses in Mac OS X.)

I was wowed by the user interface (UI) improvements on phpMyAdmin.

I followed the instructions from this blog about installing and configuring Apache, PHP, MySQL, PHPMyAdmin. And also used BrianFLove's blog as a reference.

Reading these blogs made me understand more about the internal config of PHP in php.ini (a file I usually just quickly glossed over because I did not have the leisure of time). I was also happily surprised by the clearer explanatory notes in the php.ini file (it's been a while since I read the details).

Monday, October 28, 2013

A most insensitive and useless message box

Has this happened to you? From Facebook (or any other website), you're trying to jump to another page and this window pops up asking "Are you sure you want to leave this page? Your message is still being sent. Are you sure you want to leave?"

You can't proceed because you probably accidentally pressed the spacebar on the reply box of a friend's status message and now the browser thinks it's an unfinished message. But you can't find where that "unfinished message" is, unless you scroll all the way down and scrutinize each box (and what if it's a blank space or a tiny period?).

Microsoft calls this a modal box. It's a window that won't allow you to do anything else until you select the only options presented to you (in this case, stay or leave -- but have that nagging sensation that you've probably left a reply unsent). Modal boxes are frustrating, actually, though trying to be helpful.

In Gmail, this is a useful message because you are only dealing with one message at a time and if it pops up, you just go back to that message. But in Facebook, you'd have to be really patient, or just click "Leave Page".

Stepping back, you realize that this popup is a useless box. Why? You can't do much to rectify your error. It just reminded you and gave you one more little thing to worry about.

How can we improve this message? Maybe it should have a link that jumps you back to the unfinished message. Then we won't have to gnash our teeth.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why the CATBus schedule handout is confusing

The photo shows a detail of the Red Route for the Clemson bus. I added the numbered blue circles to correspond to my comments.

  1. Centering long lines of text makes it hard to read the information. Since we generally read from left to right, our eyes need a visual cue on where to start from the left. Left-aligned text helps create a visual guide for our eyes. Centering the text removes that guide. Also, using ALL CAPS on the text makes it even harder to read the information. In another route, the ALL CAPS font are squeezed into what looks like Arial Narrow -- an even harder font to read especially in cramped spaces.
  2. The guide uses unnecessary effort to explain the regular and variant schedules, causing a lot of repeating information (eg, observe the repeated Mon-Thu info across Fall, Spring, Summer, and Holiday). This could be simplified by just listing the regular service common to all seasons, and then adding the exceptions in a separate section. 
  3. Long lines of text make it hard to follow the timings at the right side of the table. Using alternating row colors can help us read that information more easily.

Below is a snapshot of one page of the whole schedule (taken from the CATBus website). Notice anything?

  1. Too much real estate in the handout is devoted to a map that's not very informative. The most useful sections -- the schedules -- are relegated to about 20% of the paper. 
  2. The dimensions of the guide are not very portable: 28.5" x 22" (72.39 x 55.8 cm). It's almost like a tourist map with confusing folds. The schedules themselves could be printed on a strip of paper that could be folded and fit in a purse or wallet. 
Like I said in a previous post, I appreciate the CATBus service. It's free! But lots more could be done to help visitors and students to use the service.

* * *
See also: The (absence of) bus stops

The (absence of) bus stops

I'm thankful for the CATBus, because it's a free bus service (CAT stands for Clemson Area Transit). However, there is room for improvement.

The photo above shows the Hendrix bus stop at Clemson University. It was taken during a very hot summer day 40º C (104º F). Buses stop at 30 minute intervals on weekdays and every hour on weekends. Since the bus was late, people were baking under the sun. Note also the number of people waiting versus the only available bench. Most of the stops have no shade (imagine if it rains).

Within the university, bus stops are marked with small, hardly noticeable signs. Outside of the university, the signs are less prominent and sometimes absent.

To visitors, the bus stops seem random. And on occasion, the stops are arbitrary. At Greenville, I missed the Greenlink bus (a shuttle that links to the CAT Bus), because I waited at a different spot. It turned out the afternoon bus driver stopped at a different spot from where the morning driver stopped. I asked people at Clemson in Greenville, but nobody knew the right bus stop. There were no signs either.

I called the Greenville station and their advise was to wait where I was dropped off -- which is what I did and why I missed the afternoon bus in the first place. So the morning driver stopped at a different location than the afternoon driver, and no one knew, not even the folks at the terminal. So I had to wait 2 hours for the hourly shuttle. The Greenlink bus is not a free service.

The CATBus offers a free handout of the schedules and the stops -- but the publication and information it contains are not designed to help people unfamiliar with the territory. I am trying to come up with a redesign of the handout, but that's for another day.

* * *
See also: Why the CATBus schedule handout is confusing

Saturday, October 19, 2013

How not to design toilets

This photo, which I took from a mall in Metro Manila, says it all. As Stan Lee would have said, "'Nuff said."

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Origin of Jejenese (or, Jejenomics)

Image from: journalism.co.uk

Just a thought.

The standard mobile phone keyboard contains the following character clusters:

G H I 
P Q R S 
W X Y Z 

Reading from left to right, we assign a value of 1 on the leftmost character and increment it by 1 as we move to the right. We do this for each row and return to 1 when we start a new row.


A = 1
B = 2
C = 3

D = 1
E = 2
F = 3

W = 1
X = 2
Y = 3
Z = 4

With me so far? 

Good. Next.

Lets call the numbers "letter weights". A letter weight is the number of taps on a key you need to display a letter. Example: to type a lowercase 'c', we need to tap the 2 key three times. 

To display a number 5 in a Nokia phone, you need to press the 5 key for about half a second. Knowing that, we assign a number weight = 1.5 for numbers.

Now, a "word weight" is the total of the letter weights in a word.


"dito" has a word weight of 9. That is (d=1) + (i=4) + (t=1) + (o=3)

Compare this to "d2" with a word weight of 2.5. (d=1) + (2=1.5)

The average texter will have their autospell feature turned off. In the absence of autospell, the goal of a frequent texter (eg, jejemon) is to conserve key-taps. This means using characters that have the lowest weights possible. 

Let's test this theory on Jejenese words and compare them with normal spelling.

"jejeje": word weight = 9
"hehehe": word weight = 12

"eow p0h" is the Jejenese equivalent to the geek greeting "hello, world" (note that that's a zero between 'p' and 'h'). It has many variants in jejenese, but this most basic form represents a more jejenomic way of spelling an otherwise weighty "hello po". I'll leave it to you to do the math to compare its word weight with "hello po".

Why is the phrase terminated with an 'h' if the Jejenese really wanted to conserve? I have to theories on this anomaly.

One, the phrase used to be spelled "eow p0" but p0 might be read as p-zero, so the 'h' was added to emphasize that it's to be read as "po".

Two, after a while, Jejenese needed the equivalent of signature flourishes (or poetic license, if you may), so the 'h' was added as an embellishment.

Anyways, this is what happens to a bored and stressed out Silicon Carne.  :)

* * *
This post was quoted in a thesis written by Joseph Cataan at the UP College of Mass Communication. Link: Read at Scribd.

Friday, July 12, 2013

From Motorist to Commuter: 3 Conditions to Convert Me to Use Public Transportation

MMDA recently proposed a new car coding scheme that would increase the car ban from once to twice a week. No wonder Dan Brown saw Manila as the gate to hell, despite its being purportedly Catholic (but that's another story). As expected, motorists protested this and cursed MMDA.

I actually like to take public transit. But in Manila, I hate taking the bus and train. Buses stop everywhere and it takes forever for me to get to Point B. Taking the train is also hell, especially at rush hour in MRT. Some stations have no proper ventilation and there are no schedules that would help me plan my commute. I am sure this is why motorists would rather pay high fuel prices, risk the hypertensive-inducing stress of driving, and incur expensive maintenance fees for owning cars, than take the bus or train.

I think that people like me would be willing to cooperate with MMDA, so long as commuting becomes painless in Manila. And for that, we need these systems-based solutions to be in place.

First, improve the bus transit system. Rid the streets of illegal buses. Revoke licenses of  notorious violators (including those who do not give monthly salaries to drivers and conductors). Enforce schedules and routes. Implement a bus rapid transit (BRT) system which would include making the stations comfortable and able to big enough to accommodate the volume of passengers.

Second, improve the light rail system. Decommission the small carriages of MRT and replace them with large cars that could take on the volume of passengers at EDSA. Connect MRT to the LRT line. Implement the single ticketing system among the three lines and also with buses.

Third, improve the security in the mass transit systems. Self explanatory.

Sort these things out and you will convert me and others like me. I enjoy commuting actually. Trains and bus schedules are the first thing I study when I am in a new city. I am easy to convert. So MMDA, instead of looking only at the symptoms, for once, deal with the root causes of why we favor motoring over commuting.

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