Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Fro-Yo Trend

I love frozen yogurt. I love it even better when it's self-serve, costs under 50 cents per ounce, is available in multiple flavors - at the same time - and has a ridiculous amount of possible toppings, which you can apply yourself. If you somehow haven't tried one of these magical fro-yo places, which seem to be appearing everywhere, you should. Right now. I'll be here when you get back.

Have you gone yet?

I was introduced to this phenomenon over the summer. One day, my mom sent me a text message that said something to the effect of, "There's a new frozen yogurt place called Redberry. It just opened today and they have free samples. You should go check it out." I wasn't really planning to go, but my boyfriend and I had nothing to do, and we went. The deliciousness, the wide selection, the low price, and the modern decor left me amazed. Redberry, I wondered, where have you been all my life? Apparently, one of the selling points for frozen yogurt is that it also has health benefits. I think that's because it makes you smile.

Later, I saw something come up in an ad on Facebook that said, "Pinkberry coming soon to Orlando!" Pinkberry? I thought, Is that like Redberry? Are there more of these wonderful places? When I arrived back at college at the beginning of this semester, I flipped through one of the student-targeted coupon books and counted coupons for four different fro-yo places in the area. When in the world did all these fro-yo places show up?

The first one around here may have been iKiwi. I had seen it, and heard about it, but I never had a reason to go in. If I had known what wonders lived inside, I could have asked so many friends to meet for yogurt instead of for coffee. At least I can do that now.

Of course now, there are others. The only one I've tried so far, besides Redberry, is Simply Frozen Yogurt, and it had the very same style establishment - that is, it was also very, very good. I still haven't been to iKiwi, nor have I tried Mochi, Mix, or Menchie's, but I will certainly try all of them if given the chance. As for Pinkberry, it turns out it isn't self-serve. Neither is Freshberry. That does not, however, preclude them from being delicious frozen yogurt experiences. If anyone is interested, I'll gladly do a follow-up on this blog post, with a little investigative journalism regarding which yogurt place reigns supreme.

There are quite a lot of them, though. I was fairly convinced they mushroomed overnight some time in June. After doing some research, it seems that it's actually old news in the other Orange County, and probably other parts of the country as well.

About three years ago - as in, just before the recession - fro-yo places started appearing all over the O.C. in California. Last year, places started closing. According to one article, it was because of the over-saturated market, the under-stimulated economy, or both. It is almost strange, then, that around the same time, my university's paper published an article about how the new craze was finally arriving here, with iKiwi. If you troll the news nowadays for Orange County, CA, regarding frozen yogurt places, you'll still see a mix of some places closing and other places making updates to what they do.

Remember back in 2008 when Starbucks, which really was everywhere, ended up closing a whole bunch of stores? Remember how you can still find them all over the place? The yogurt trend isn't over, either, and in Orange County, FL, it seems it's just beginning. Mmm.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

7 Reasons Why Leverage Is An Awesome Show

My hands-down favorite television show is Leverage. I know it is my favorite because I like to watch at least one episode every day that I have time. I don't watch a lot of television, so this is incredibly unusual for me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Leverage, the premise is as follows: Four professional criminals - a hacker (Alec Hardison), a grifter (known as Sophie Devereaux), a hitter (Eliot Spencer), and a thief (Parker) - are brought together for one job, and an "honest man" named Nate Ford is brought in to coordinate the job and to keep them in check. When it's over, they find they have a taste for working together, and they decide to find jobs helping good, average people whose lives have been destroyed by evil rich people and corporations. The average people can't do anything to save themselves, and the people who hurt them are usually outside the law for one reason or another, so the Leverage crew comes in to provide, well, leverage.

So why do I love it?

  1. I'd hang out with all five main characters. Normally, in shows, books, and movies, there is at least one main character who is annoying, or hateful, or otherwise generally detestable. I like House, for instance, but I don't care for Taub or Cameron. Yet with Leverage, I'd go for coffee with any member of the crew, any time. I do admit, Parker is my favorite. She's a total weirdo.
  2. There's minimal drama. The characters have a family-like dynamic, except they probably get along better than any normal family. Leverage isn't based on drama. Occasionally it hints at romantic tension between Nate and Sophie, or between Parker and Hardison, but it's a minimal aspect of the show - just enough to keep it realistic. This keeps the show focused on the jobs, instead of on "feelings" or whatever.
  3. They switch roles fairly regularly. They all have "their" job, the skill that makes them useful to the crew - but sometimes, for various reasons, they have to switch jobs. Sophie wants to try taking Nate's place, or Hardison misses a flight and has to verbally walk Parker through the hacking, or they need a guy to be the grifter and Eliot takes the role. This job-switching keeps it even more interesting.
  4. It's more than schadenfreude. Honestly, who doesn't want to see the bad guy get what he deserves? But often in the process of a con, they discover that a lot more people are getting hurt than their client, and that taking down the bad guy will actually save a lot of lives. They aren't just Robin Hood. They're also a sort of stealthy Justice League.
  5. It's got humor, and not stupid humor. Leverage is a funny show. Besides the usual interaction between chill-guy Hardison and the high-strung Eliot, there's also the time Parker pretended to be Björk in order to infiltrate a studio.
  6. The crew solves problems and puzzles on the fly. I'm a sucker for stories about smart, skilled people, and the crew is entirely that kind of people. If they find a wall, they make a door, or they go in through the ceiling. If their plan fails, they come up with a new one, even if time and physics are against them - for, as Sophie once put it, "chance does seem to bend itself to [Nate's] bizarre machinations." They come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems in minimal time, and that is, to me, the most exciting kind of show.
  7. The characters have a bizarre kind of freedom. What makes their creativity possible is that they are essentially unhindered by the law. They don't have to think, "What am I allowed to do?" They only have to think, "What will work best here?" It definitely makes "thinking outside the box" easier, since they essentially removed the box by working outside the law. It's not a good idea for normal, real people, but it makes a wonderful television show.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stage Fright

Allegedly, when I was a kid, I used to do things like get on other people's stages and dance around, or sing really loudly at my parents' company picnics. Paradoxically, I also remember being described as shy by some people, so I suppose it depended on my mood or the context or some weird tenant of child psychology.

I never seemed to quite get over my bizarre balance of shyness and desire for attention, but I eventually grew some real self-consciousness, and the balance shifted. I developed some serious stage fright.

I signed up to perform at the Youth Camp talent show one year, and I was so terrified in the minutes before I got in the spotlight that I almost ran off, so I could find someplace to faint or throw up. When I was a junior in high school, I signed up for a talent show that was supposed to raise money for a club, and I had exactly the same problem. Both times, I had friends with me who would have forcibly kept me from disappearing if I'd tried. During my senior year of high school, I tried out for giving a graduation speech, and I was shaking so badly that I had to sit down during my tryout and couldn't look at my audience as I read my speech - which, as I heard later on, may be what cost me the chance to speak at graduation and relegated me instead to Baccalaureate.

The question you should be asking is, "None of those things were required of you. If your stage fright was so bad, why did you do them?"

I like attention. I also resent my irrational fears, and I believed that if I just experienced the stage one more time, I'd get over my problem - as if a single, sufficiently epic stage experience would erase all future nervousness.

It doesn't actually work that way.

I had no problems in certain contexts. When I played trombone with the rest of the band, I hardly thought about the audience. But, when I played for Solo and Ensemble, alone in front of a judge, my parents, and a few other students, I shook badly enough that it was harder to breathe into my instrument. I was in charge of the Japanese Club my senior year and could lead each meeting easily, but when I took speech my freshman year of college, a thousand butterflies spontaneously appeared in my stomach before my every oration. And the shaking. I couldn't stop the shaking. It didn't sound much, if at all, in my voice, but I know I trembled every time.

The last "epic stage experience" that I remember attempting was an open karaoke night at a restaurant. I still freaked out, but I still got up there, did the song, and received applause. It was a decently satisfying experience, and it still didn't get me over my stage fright.

I suppose I may be doomed to suffer the physical symptoms of stage fright for the rest of my life. That doesn't mean I have to avoid the stage. When I was taking speech class, I realized I enjoy public speaking, despite my body's rebellion against it. Nowadays, it even seems my only rebellion against it is physical. Immediately preceding my most recent in-school presentation, I could tell my body was having its usual reaction, but my brain was experiencing no nervous thoughts, no mental freaking out. This time, my stage fright was nothing more than a nuisance.

And so, the idea of "facing my fear" didn't ever work quite as planned, but it seems that repeated exposure is successfully desensitizing me. Whatever works, I guess.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Dragonfly Couch

It is amazing how meaning attaches itself to objects, or places, covering them like a shroud and making these otherwise-unimportant things impossible to let go. The wardrobe that led to Narnia had a magical quality that was based on actual magic, but in our non-fiction world, I find that regular things can also have that magical air.

Consider the Dragonfly Couch.

The Dragonfly Couch is a particular two-seat couch, comfortable and upholstered with fabric that features green, blue, and purple squares beneath a pattern of gold-brown dragonflies. It is located in the Honors building at my university. I rarely have reason to go in there when my classes are elsewhere, but I found myself chatting with someone after class, and to get somewhere quiet and air-conditioned, that is where we went. I sat on this couch, and my friend on the couch opposite.

I had been staring at the leaf-like pattern on the other couch for some time before I looked at my own couch and realized I was seated on a far lovelier piece of furniture. I like imagining that I was surrounded by friendly dragonflies. After my friend left, we'd been talking long enough that I'd grown fond of the couch. I decided to stay a little longer to read my book.

It is quiet in that area most of the time, and easy to listen to conversations. I overheard some Honors College people discussing maroon chairs and gesturing towards where I was sitting, and immediately I thought, "Don't take away the dragonflies!" It is a beautiful pattern, and it is a comfortable couch, but I'd actually developed an attachment to the thing - awfully quickly, too. I suppose I'm fond of any place that allows for easy conversation or reading of books. I ran into two other people that I knew in the time that passed before I left, and had short conversations with both of them. That couch, in its loveliness, turned an unfamiliar place into the sort of place I'd like to go hang out in the middle of the day when I want a little quiet between classes. That is what I mean by a magical quality.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Efficiency Failure

I have come to the conclusion that it probably takes me an unnecessarily long amount of time to complete all of my homework assignments. Just when I was starting to think I was efficient, the semester hit me full force and then I realized I was so wrong. Assuming that I don't actually have more homework than the average student, and after examining my behavior when I work on things, I can conclude that I have an efficiency problem.

The main source of the problem is attempts at multi-tasking. I don't mean that I physically try to completely two homework assignments at the same time; that would be madness. These are much more subtle attempts, and I don't know how they worm their way into my work-time.

I start out by working on the assignment, either starting at the beginning or picking up where I left off. A few minutes in, I check my e-mail for anything relevant from the professor or any partners in group projects, which generally leads to me checking irrelevant e-mails just because they're there. If this doesn't lead to something completely tangential, I sometimes check Facebook "real quick" before returning to my task.

Eventually, something about my task will frustrate me. This happens most frequently with programming assignments, because there are so many possible errors and so many ways to fail. It also happens with long, odious tasks, or assignments that I'm fairly certain have to learning value. When my homework frustrates me, I make an effort to focus hard and knuckle down, blocking out all distractions until my problem is solved.

That is a lie.

When my homework frustrates me, my automatic response is to go to Facebook and make a status about it. Then I check my messages and notifications, look for amusing things in the News Feed that "need" my response, and check my notifications again to see if anyone has commented on my status yet. It is so pathetic. Moreover, it probably wastes an unbelievable amount of time.

I then, eventually, think about returning to my task. If I am remotely hungry or desiring of a snack, I deal with that first. You must understand that if, when I'm working, I've entered that magical state of "flow," I have to be close to passing out from hunger before eating anything, but we're assuming that I've just finished a lengthy stroll on Facebook. Before I get to my task, I find a meal or some popcorn or something and waste a little time with that. If it's an especially unproductive day, or my deadline is a little less pressing, I'll watch an episode of Leverage before continuing my work.

"Continuing" isn't especially accurate, I suppose. "Starting" is more like it.

Mercifully, once I've been at a project for a decent amount of time, I do enter that state known as "flow" and can obsessively focus on my task. Comparing me to an object that is the subject of a physics study, I suppose I must overcome my high coefficient of static friction before I get moving, and after that I'll keep moving until an outside force makes me stop.

I suppose, then, I must make an effort to lower my coefficient of static friction. The most sensible way to do that is to ban myself from Facebook and all other non-essential activities for the duration of a pre-set homeworking timeslot. This is presumably easier said than done, but I ought to try.

And I imagine I'm not the only person out there with this problem!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

6 Qualities of Good Professors

As a senior in college, I suppose I've had my share of professors of different teaching styles and personality types. I have found that some of them are much more effective at teaching than others, and would like to provide my observations so that others may learn from them.

Good professors...
  • …care about their subject. Professors who are enthusiastic about their subject tend to be more willing to talk about it for as long as they must in order to get a point across, and they tend to have more of an interest in getting students to learn the material. It is also much easier for students to take an interest in the subject if the professor is really interested in it as well, and that gives us an intrinsic motivation to do the work for the class (as opposed to the extrinsic, and thus less effective, motivation of grades).
  • …care about their students. Remember in "A Beautiful Mind," where Nash just wants to do his research, only teaches classes because he has to, and resents most of his students? Don't be that guy. Good professors actually want to instill knowledge in the heads of their pupils; the resulting teaching is much more effective. It also helps students to try harder for their classes when they know that their professors take an interest in them, and in whether they've learned or not.
  • …teach, and teach well. Your job is to make other people understand a certain subset of information (as far as they will let you - a few horses just won't drink, but most want to). It makes no difference how much you know if you can't convey it to other people. If you have a lot of students skipping class, it may be because they're finding the textbook a much more useful source of learning than you are.
  • …are interesting. Students also skip class because the professor is boring. You may argue that it isn't your job to entertain, and that's true - it's not. But, interesting professors help the subject to stick in their students' minds, and interesting professors have more folks attending class and gaining whatever information they are giving. I would actually rather have an interesting prof who's a real scalawag than a nice guy who can't hold my attention.
  • …keep the class at an appropriate difficulty. By this, I definitely mean you should err on the side of making it a little too hard if you err at all; you can curve it at the end if necessary, and you can help throughout when students need it. By making a class too easy, you do the students an awful disservice. So, create a challenge for us. Give difficult assignments. Make tough exams. Encourage studying, encourage creativity, encourage hard work. Even if we hate you now, we'll love you later.
  • …are available. Don't do the work for the students when they ask for it; encourage them to give it a real shot first. But, answer our e-mails. Be in your office hours. Give students a chance to ask questions during and after class. Most importantly, be willing to help - be willing to teach.

Basically, good professors maximize learning potential. You may get the same paycheck if you don't care and don't try and enjoy your tenure while your students flounder, but if you care at all, then please put in the effort to help us learn. We'll even tell you what works and what doesn't, if you'll ask. If you don't care, however, then please do us a favor and get a different job.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Portrait of a Downpour

Very occasionally, and usually only in rare moments of near-silence, am I aware of exactly how badly my ears are bombarded by sounds throughout every day. I am sitting now, at my desk, with no music playing, looking out my window and watching the rain fall hard on a courtyard devoid of people. Current sounds include occasional voices from my roommates on the other side of the apartment, and the light and beautiful sound of the rain itself. It is as close to silence as I am likely to get.

The air conditioning just came on. Another layer of background noise. The rain is lovely enough to make it easy to tune out. It falls harshly on the magnolia tree that is just outside my window, but the tree hardly takes any notice. It is a straight-down sort of rain. There is no noticeable wind and no battering of windows. Drops fall from the leaves of the magnolia tree, slowly. Many more drops fall quickly from the sky.

The world is greener when it rains. The sky is pale gray, and the tree trunks are dark brown. This version of the world is loathsome to most people, but the world is cooling off after a hot-sun day. I am glad it is a silent sort of rain, with no wind, no thunder, no noise - just soothing. I am glad it is a constant sort of rain, and has been going for some time, yet every moment I fear it will stop - I enjoy it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

If Romeo and Juliet Lived

What if Romeo and Juliet did not go as badly in the end as it did? Suppose their scheme worked. Suppose Juliet's message, that she was faking her death, reached Romeo in time, and she woke up and he was there and they stole away in the night, married, young, and impetuous.

In Shakespeare's version of the story (and the only version I address herein), Juliet is thirteen, almost fourteen years old. People married younger back then, but they generally had the support of people around them in the process. Romeo and Juliet have only Friar Laurence on their side, but even he can't help them any longer, since Romeo is banished and Juliet is presumed dead. Both have fled the city, for years at least, possibly for the rest of their lives.

Imagine, if you will, the last scene in The Graduate. The very end, when Benjamin and Elaine are sitting in the back of the bus, and their smiles fade into uncertainty as they realize the consequences of what they've just done. Now imagine Romeo and Juliet just outside the city, elated at their success. They stop running when they've gotten far enough away, and they give each other the same looks that Elaine and Benjamin exchanged.

Now that I have set up the scene, you must imagine what happens next. Our star-crossed couple must now find a place to reside and a way to make a living. They can wander, but that still leaves the problem of what they're going to eat. They could rely on the kindness of strangers, or the church, but only briefly.

Let's say that they find a church with a kindly friar who is just like Friar Laurence. Let's call him Friar Lor. Romeo and Juliet make it to this town, and enlist Lor's help. He finds work for Romeo and a small place for the two of them to live. As both Romeo and Juliet are used to extremely privileged lives, they have a difficult time adjusting to their new life of hard work, and they start to squabble. They aren't used to marriage, either, or commitment, or considering anything for very long before going ahead and doing it. Romeo is even more impulsive than his wife, which is evidenced by how quickly he fell for Juliet, on her appearance alone, after pining so long for Rosaline, whom he was sure he loved.

So Romeo is working hard, Juliet is staying home or going to the market and trying to figure out how to cook, and they aren't getting along nearly as well as they'd hoped. Romeo sees, across the road, a beautiful young maiden. Truly the most beautiful woman he's ever seen! Ah, but unlike last time, his initial "love" is a woman who not only reciprocates his affection, but is married to him. So Romeo cheats.

Romeo decides he wants to run off with this woman (let's call her Jessie), and approaches Friar Lor for a divorce. Lor, of course, reprimands him, and tells him to return to Juliet and be faithful. He refuses, and says he'll take Jessie and run away without getting a divorce, and simply never wed again. For some reason, Lor tells Juliet what Romeo has been doing, and Juliet, already angry and frustrated at her living situation, flies into a passion and kills Romeo, Jessie, and herself.

The moral of the story is: I hate Romeo and Juliet.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Not Needing to Fix It

Last year, during the school year, my MacBook Pro experienced something that is colloquially called "the plaid screen of death." That is, I turned on my beloved laptop and the screen that greeted me was plaid. Plaid. Tartan. Striped with gel-pen colors and looking very, very wrong. It also gave me a cryptic and frightening error message. It was one of the most disturbing things that my young eyes have seen. After rebooting it once or twice and getting the same problem, I'm fairly certain I started to freak out.

Fortunately, I had a netbook and an iTouch which both allowed me to have Internet outside my dorm (though not inside, for various reasons), and this happened during a lull in the semester in terms of homework that required my Mac. But, I didn't know how long fixing it would take, I didn't know if the hard drive was in tact, and I knew I would have to make the long, terrible, deadly drive to the closest Apple Store. I was not pleased.

The following day, on the morning of my pilgrimage, I had a very early class. I don't remember why I didn't skip it. I was exhausted, I was stressed, I was angry, I was frightened for my computer and my data, and within hours I would be driving unfamiliar roads in highly populated areas of Orlando. For some reason that I cannot now recall, I still decided to wake up on time to go to my 8:30 AM class.

I'd never before understood what to do when someone was having a bad day, especially if I couldn't fix the problem. I understand listening to people "vent," but I never had any clue if I was supposed to say anything or do anything specific if I couldn't fix it for them, or tell them what to do.

The 8:30 AM class was, fortunately, taught by one of my all-time favorite professors, a nice guy who teaches the material in a sensible, linear fashion. By the end of the class, I was actually in a good mood, partially distracted from my troubles and partially feeling like they didn't amount to such a big deal after all. I was feeling hopeful. It was the sort of take-on-the-world feeling that I usually get from a good cup of coffee. And I got this kind of mood-improvement from someone who didn't even know that I had a problem, who probably didn't even speak directly to me that day.

That was about when I learned that I don't have to fix other people's problems to help them through it. Generally, all I have to do is give them some hope and positivity to help them fix it on their own. I will always contend that God gives more hope than ever I can, but besides pointing people in That Direction, I can also, you know, be nice. And stuff.

Incidentally, Apple replaced the motherboard, after which my Mac - and its hard drive - were totally fine.