Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Big Hard Sun

One of the first movies that I saw in New York City was "Into the Wild". The movie was pretty, and I loved the soundtrack. I went with a friend I met online because I had yet to make any friends outside of work at any events, galleries, or coffee shops I ended up frequenting.

For the movie's soundtrack, Eddie Vedder remade "A Big Hard Sun" (original, remake). I've developed an association between this song and my first few months in New York -- a period of insecurity, confusion, exploration, and yes, research.

I bring this up today because as I am now into my last few weeks in Toronto, I keep wondering about who to see, what to do next, and what I'll miss most. Vanessa recently arrived in Afghanistan, Ray I haven't seen in months now, I don't attend social network meetings at IBM, and there's a few people I met back in October or November who I have never seen again. The perfect example is having American Thanksgiving with four Asian girls studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in downtown Manhattan.

"I study merchandising, what about you?"

"Oh, I'm a mathematician. I do social network analysis, looking at marketing trends."

"... I see..."

Needless to say, I never saw those four again.

And yet with all the people I miss, I have reconnected with old friends like Marcin, Alie, and Rawi... I'm with my parents every day, and I visit my sister's grave. I even started a new software project, programming it at the Starbucks on Yonge and Bloor -- a coffee shop that has now seen me develop three major software projects over the last three years.

I've been very reflective these last few weeks. One of my high school buddies recently asked me, "What makes someone successful?"

I'm thinking about what this question even means. One thing I've learned over the years is that "success", however you define it, often entails a lot of sacrifice. When I was in high school, I would have defined "success" as "traveling the world for work"... Now that I think about my current situation, where I started by living in Toronto, then Nairobi, then New York, and now moving to Oxford, I can see that even though I've managed to reach my goal of residing in a lot of neat places, I've had to say goodbye to a great many friends, join -- and leave -- social circles, and then spend my Sundays reflecting on my life while listening to MGMT.

Do I have any regrets? Definitely not, but I sure would like to bring everyone with me when I move. We can turn that Yonge-Bloor Starbucks into a big ship and live on it while travelling the world. At least the bathrooms will be nice.

Friday, August 29, 2008

dorkbot Toronto

Today I finally attended another dorkbot event, a few months after my first. Before I go into details of the event, I want to say it was a complete pleasure doing this in Toronto. In NYC, you get used to events like these, while I've been having trouble finding them in Toronto. My only criticism is that even after promoting the event to a dozen people, no one wanted to go.

But this isn't for everyone, I guess...

Anyway, dorkbot-Toronto is much more artistic (in terms of "pure art") than what I've seen in the past, but I can't complain. I showed up to be challenged and immersed, and so I was. Three artists presented, including Kelly Jazvac and Atom Deguire. Kelly focused on her work with vinyl, while Atom showed photos from his work around Europe, where he'd use tape and physical objects to modify benches, walls, and galleries. Visit his site, as I don't want to misrepresent his views here... All I can say is that it reminds me of a more abstract and arguably less political Banksy.

The first presenter, and one which I want to focus on the most, is Kristen Peterson, who also runs Drawing Research. I can talk most about her work because in some ways it's the most mathematical. Illusions aren't new, but I really like her approach... I left the meeting wondering if there's some sort of mathematical order behind what she does. The illusions depend a number of drawings / illustrations. At the right angle, they merge together and convince you that they're actual objects, and this is a wonderful way to challenge your senses. Even Kristen brought up the intersection of planes in her presentation -- the illusions really freak you out because two dimensional objects obtain a three dimensional quality to them.

... But then I couldn't help and think about how you can potentially "encrypt" information this way. For example, go to and click on Artwork and then on YYZ. You'll automatically see the illusion, where the bars seem to go into and beyond the wall. Very impressive, very Escher-esque, very cool!

Now here's what I'm all excited about. Say that instead of evenly-spaced bars, Kristen actually created a bar-code scheme that travels into the distance. Could a barcode reading pick up this information? It technically wouldn't work anywhere except when looking at the illusion correctly... Maybe this is impossible for traditional barcode scanners, but newer ones (such as the type you can install in an iPhone) should be able to do something similar.

All of a sudden, you have an illusion that actually gives you information... Say a website URL, or a secret message.

Anyway, my point is: this was a lot of fun. Everyone in Toronto should go to a dorkbot meeting.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


One of the things I've tried to do these last few months is get into anime. It's cool, and I like it, but I generally don't watch a lot of movies. Back in New York I got into a habit of putting movies on while I worked on other stuff. In some ways, it's a great strategy to pick out good movies, as you only stop working and watch the movie if it's grabbing your attention.

... The down side is you miss a lot of nuances and details.

Anyway, I digress. This week I watched Cowboy Bebop and Princess Mononoke. I also tried to watch Metropolis for the second time in my life... That is to say, both times I failed miserably: I rent the movie and end up falling asleep. The movie is cool and the Art Deco feel reminds me of both Bioshock and Atlas Shrugged. The problem is I rent it at inopportune times, and end up passing out from being too tired.

... And now it's onto manga. There's a copy of Zombie Loan waiting for me two meters away. Yes, I read manga for teens -- but how else am I to practice Japanese?

Tikhonov Regularization (in Graph Theory)

... post at Implementing algorithms is fun, usually... Not always, though. :) This time it was great, and what's even better, the work is completely useful for my research!

Monday, August 25, 2008


Back when I was 14 years old, I decided I wanted to go skydiving, but was too young. At 16, I was technically old enough but for some reason I didn't go. 18... 20... The years went by. Finally, the day arrived today, and what a sweet ride!

First, some context is useful. Alie (who took all the pretty photos below) and Marcin (who's in some of those photos) have been dating for... Uhh... A number of years (Six? Seven?). Alie decided to surprise Marcin with a gift of skydiving. Some might say that asking your significant other to jump out of a plane at 13,500 feet on your anniversary isn't sending the right message, but hey, we like to think it's Love, with a capital "L". And plus, it's way cooler than a gift certificate.

Skydiving is an interesting experience... Unfortunately, it's extremely difficult to describe the emotions. While some people are afraid, Marcin and I (or other hardy Polish people like us :) ) felt a bit indifferent. Or maybe we were so scared we were numb... Nah, we think we were just extremely brave. We wouldn't back down from the jump, so thinking of fear wasn't really an option.

The day sarted off a bit cloudy and we waited a while before it was clear enough to jump. The little plane we were in was packed with a dozen people, and was constantly climbing at about 45 degrees -- well, I didn't bring my protractor on this flight, but it was steeper than any other climb I've ever done. At 6,000 feet a few guys jumped out, making faces as they left. Clearly this wasn't their first jump. A few hundred more feet and we were in the cloud cover, unable to see a thing.

... And then we broke the ceiling. Err, the cloud ceiling, that is. Now we were maybe 9,000 feet above Ontario, staring at clouds in all directions. This is a typical view out of a jumbo jet, with rolling clouds any direction you look. Only difference this time was that we knew we'd be falling through them. I wish I had pictures, as this was one of the most beautiful feelings I've had (in a plane, and in general!), knowing you won't only be seeing a beautiful, artistic, natural formation -- but you'll be falling through it and screaming your butt off at over 150 km per hour, as well.

Yes, our first jump was such that we actually fell through the clouds. Though, you're falling so fast the clouds just zoom past as you try to breathe and look around you. And how does freefall actually feel? Somehow, it feels like nothing at all. The initial "hop" off the plane is the slowest and fastest thing I've ever experienced -- you think very little, and it's over in about a second... This is when your speed is slowest (think back to high school physics and it makes perfect sense), and you're just floating there, weightless and confused at the fact that you're completely alone (or with an instructor named Kevin) 4 kilometers up in the sky.

Before you know it, you're hurtling towards the ground and Kevin is tapping you. Ah, you can now spread your arms and breathe. The realization that you're falling has hit you, but you're still senselessly dumbfounded at the horror and glory of freefall. You can move your arms around to twist and turn in the air, taking in the beauty of the ground below you and clouds coming right at you.

Another tap on the back, and you know the parachute is about to open. Slam, rip, zoop, and now your speed has been reduced significantly. You expect your body to keep falling, and in fact, your mind does keep going -- this part almost feels like an out-of-body experience for me, where my brain keeps falling and look back up at the rest of my body. Those harnesses work, dude!

And so you float to the ground in your parachute. While this doesn't quite compare to the surprising and confusing experience of freefall, looking around at the ground, at the clouds, at the horizon, and anything else you can discern is still a surreal experience.

Plop! and you're on the ground, butt-first, muddied pants and all. It's over, less than ten minutes later... And you want to get right back in the plane and do it all over again.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's Up With Wojo?

A number of people have reminded me that I haven't posted much here in August, so it's time to write an update. For better or worse, there's not much news to report... Japan was a great trip, and Vanessa and I hung out until last the middle of last week. I'm now getting into the swing of things.

So, for those of you curious about my life, here's what I'm up to...


I decided to take August and September off and work on my own projects and explore my own interests. I'm working on a number of papers with old friends from Toronto and elsewhere. Nice, fun research... No major deadlines yet! The work is both qualitative (international development and sociology) as well as quite mathematical (algorithms and statistics). I'll post here if anything major happens.

Business Ideas

Yes... I've been ranting about business for a few weeks now, and finally have taken the first step to doing something. I'm looking into revolutionizing e-mail. I won't say much more yet. But e-mail me if you want to chat about some ideas.

Revisioning FMM

FMM is still moving forward. I presented on the site in Japan, we've launched a book recently, and are now looking for more partners and volunteers. I'm exploring what we'll be up to next, and will be attempting to do that "next thing" before I leave for England.

Culture (and Comics)

Reading lots of comic books... And regular books, too! Just finished reading The Watchmen and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and am now reading The Dharma Bums. Also brought back a dozen issues of manga from Japan, which I need to start reading (in Japanese!).

While not as serious as my reading, I'm also exploring my music tastes and art galleries in Toronto. Will be writing about this soon, too.


So Michael Phelps is doing well in the Olympics. Did you know I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer when I was 12? Well, maybe it's a good thing I didn't pursue that career option... :) But I am getting back into sports. I'm hoping to run a 10K race in the next few weeks -- definitely before I leave Toronto. I was going to start swimming today, too, but showing up at the community centre was a bit of a downer: I was the only one under 70 years of age, and well, 70 year-old swimmers are sloooow. I promptly left and bought a membership at a gym, and am going to start swimming there tomorrow.

Catching Up, Socially

Finally, I'm just hanging out in Toronto and visiting friends and family. You know, before I leave forever... Well, until December 21, anyway, which is when I'm coming home for the holidays!

So that's what I'm up to...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

iCommons Summit '08

Faithful readers of my blog are likely aware that I am currently in Japan. I spent last week in Sapporo at the iCommons Summit '08. Like every year, the summit attracted lots of entrepreneurs, activists, and researchers.

It was a fun time -- I won't go into details on Japan until I return, but if anyone is interested in the conference, there was a summit blog. Just for archival purposes (I like to keep all my work on one site), two articles: one on multilingualism online and another on open government.

Update: more material, this time as a final overview.