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Mr. Hexane

There was a semester where I considered going into organic chemistry. Why not? I had liked the orgo classes I had taken. The subject matter, at least from textbooks, seemed fascinating to me — using the properties of Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and my other friends from the periodic table to either construct or understand molecules of industrial and biological importance — and it seemed so much more creative than the molecular biology stuff that I was beginning to get tired of. After all, my roommate seemed pretty happy with his Chemistry major.

So, I took Chem135 — Experimental Synthetic Chemistry, a much more advanced and realistic look at synthetic organic chemistry compared with the introductory lab sections I had previously taken. Excited, I dove straight into synthesis — my two projects being the synthesis of Aspartame (better known as NutraSweet) which was, incidentally, discovered by a guy doing random amino acid-like fragment coupling who just happened to lick his unwashed hands (not something I’d recommend) and the Wieland-Miescher Ketone, an interesting chemical structure which is used to synthesize taxol (a potent anti-cancer drug) and other hormones.

Excitement is not the same as skill, however, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a very poor synthetic chemist. An illustrative example of this was during the Aspartame synthesis project. One of the steps of the project entailed azeotroping away acetic acid (what makes vinegar vinegar-y). Acetic acid does not readily boil off or evaporate, but heptane (C7H16) does and because heptane is known to azeotrope well with acetic acid, one can eliminate the acetic acid by adding heptane.

I, the brilliant and attentive budding scholar that I was, made the mistake of adding HEXANE C6H14 (not heptane), and, while in principle, hexane and heptane can sometimes be good replacements for one another, it did not work quite so well — necessitating me to evaporate off an extra four equivalents of heptane. D. Zhao, wonderful friend that he is, hence dubbed me Mr. Hexane — and from that day forth, I labeled all of my tubes and flasks and vials “Mr. Hexane”.

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Second Period. Honors Integrated something (whatever came before pre-calculus). Sophomore year in high school. While most people can only remember sleep deprivation, I remember my awesome math group which included A. Phan, A. Cheung, and L. Li.

There are two distinct eye-problem memories from that period of time that made that class memorable. The first was that it was in that class that I got the set of glasses that would serve me into my senior year in college. They were a set of black, thin-frame Calvin Klein glasses which, at this point in time are beat up and dirty like crazy. Up until receiving them, though, I had been using a tacky old pair which had lost one of its screws. To hold my glasses to my face, I would thread the hole where the screw was supposed to be with staples. Whether or not this was good for my eyes, I don’t know, but it was essentially trying holding my glasses together with chickenwire.

On that great and wonderful day that I received a new pair of glasses, I wore them with pride knowing that I would not have to resort to tape and staples to hold together my means of looking at the board.

A. Phan, of course, noticed the change and of course poked fun at the fact that I had been using staples and tape to hold together my glasses. To which I replied in my best sing-song voice:

“I can see clearly now… the rain is gone…”

This became a running joke for us in the years since. One day, I became fed up with the fact that I only knew the first two lines: “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone | I can see all obstacles in my way” and A. Phan and I printed up a copy of the lyrics. I’ll admit that time has dimmed my memory such that I don’t remember the lyrics anymore, but I do remember singing the song on car rides.

The other big eye trouble-related memory from that class was that A. Cheung also had some contacts/glasses-related problems during that year. In order to see the board, instead of using old glasses or asking to sit closer to the board, he brought BINOCULARS to class! Every now and then, A. Phan and I would see him attempt to surreptitiously take out these massive binoculars and set his sights on the board.

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It wasn’t much to look at. Granted, I wasn’t expecting an expansive, well-furnished room for a dorm at Harvard. But… my immediate thoughts were, “damn, I have to spend a whole year here!?” I felt what I could only describe as a mild sense of claustrophobia. Then the nausea set in…

And the name… Wigglesworth? Had there seriously ever been a rich person on this planet named “Wigglesworth” who might have possibly donated this wing? I mean, maybe I’m being prejudiced here, but I’d NEVER do business with a guy who’s name sounds like it came out of a Harry Potter book.

And I resisted. Mercilessly. While many campus counselors and “guide to college” books and guides that I consulted recommended decorating a room as a means of learning to think of someplace as home, I steadfastly refused. I put up nothing but my books and what I needed for my studies. I refused to think of this place as home. This was where I slept and worked. That’s it. Nothing more. Home was back in California. Home was where my family was. Home was where I grew up. This. was. not. home.

But, as classes piled on work, and as I developed friendships with the people here, the room — which I had once detested just didn’t seem so bad. “Cramped” became “cozy”. “Dirty” became “homey”. It was a place where I could relax, where I could hang out. I remember one day in November, I believe, when I looked down at the hardwood floor, cracked, splotchy, and covered in dust — despite its obvious imperfections, it was, to me at least, a calming sight to behold.

My “roommate” was from Boston and, for some reason, preferred to live off campus — I was thus left with an entire double to myself — my own bedroom, my own bathroom, my own common room. (To this day, I believe I’ve seen Andrei for a total of less than two hours) And when it came time to head to the airport for my flight, I realized that I had just been a stupid idiot who hadn’t realized just how good the housing lottery had been to me.

My rooming situation, to this day, has never been as good as that of freshman year. And, no room since has ever been quite as homey to me.

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Team Aconcagua

In high school, I was part of our high school Academic Challenge club. We participated in quiz bowl tournaments and the Science Bowl/Ocean Science Bowl tournaments. While I could probably go on and on about the crazy adventures we had, one particular tournament stood out to me. While in science tournaments, I was hot stuff (read: big nerd who could answer science questions really really quickly), I was fairly mediocre at general trivia. So, at one tournament at Mills College, I was on the B team while our team’s true hotshots were on the A team.

We were of course having fun, knowing that we probably wouldn’t take top prize. Our team consisted of myself (then, a junior in high school), a senior (J. Tsai), a sophomore (J. Cheng) who rounded out our overly academic knowledge with “more practical” knowledge in sports :), and a hotshot freshman (K. Koai) who I had known in Junior High pre-growth spurt and who was now the tallest (and possibly loudest) member of the team.

Quiz bowl tournaments come in many different flavors with many different rules. This was a quiz bowl format which used a bonus format whereby a tossup question is “tossed” to every contestant and the team with the first correct response was then offered a bonus question which allowed conferral between the team members (and a lot more points!).

For one of the bonus questions, our team was given a question which asked for the name of a mountain in South America with certain attributes — the specifics of the question are lost to time. The amusing thing, however, was that none of us knew the answer. In our conferral we panicked — saying random names like “Mount Titicaca” and “Mount South America”. I think we finally went with “Mt. Andes” or something really stupid, and as I was the team captain, it was my job to inform the moderator of our answer. Before I said it, though, something clicked inside my head, and instead of saying “Mt. Andes”, I blurted “Mount Aconcagua” which I had suddenly remembered was the tallest mountain in South America.

My team was in shock. “Mount Aconcagua? What the #$*#!?” I too, was somewhat shocked at the spontaneity of my response. I grimaced, waiting for the moderator to tell me that I was wrong. To my surprise, it was correct. Bemused smiles were suddenly on the faces of all of our teammates. Confused and somewhat shocked looks were on the faces of our opponents.

And hence, Team Aconcagua was born. That tournament witnessed two or three more instances of our spontaneous wisdom — allowing us to almost (but not quite…) trounce even the A-team when we faced them. We even competed together (although rarely all four of us together at once) in several other tournaments, and though we were never the champions of any tournament, the four of us were always proud of “Team Aconcauga”.

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A Graphical History of Religion

Something I found the other day while browsing in my archives for Google Reader, but its a graphical history of the rise and spread of today’s major modern religions Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Its pretty astonishing how different things looked just a few hundred years ago — as late as the 1400s and 1500s it was not clear that Christianity, one of the later religions relatively speaking, would grow to be the dominant religion. You can find the original here.

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(Hat tip to Eric):

Researchers from mining group Rio Tinto discovered the unusual mineral and enlisted the help of Dr Stanley when they could not match it with anything known previously to science.

Once the London expert had unravelled the mineral’s chemical make-up, he was shocked to discover this formula was already referenced in literature – albeit fictional literature.

“Towards the end of my research I searched the web using the mineral’s chemical formula – sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide – and was amazed to discover that same scientific name, written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luther from a museum in the film Superman Returns.

“The new mineral does not contain fluorine (which it does in the film) and is white rather than green but, in all other respects, the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite.”

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The Miracle Year

Albert Einstein is one of history’s most formidable geniuses. What is the most astonishing is that many of his seminal, scientific-revolution inspiring work was published in ONE YEAR (1905 — a year that many now call Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, or “Miracle Year”).

And did he do this while working at a premier research institute? Working with the best and brightest minds? No. He did this while working as an inept examiner at the Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland working more or less alone. In that one year, he published on:

  1. Photoelectric Effect – The only work of his own that Einstein has ever pronounced “revolutionary”, it used Max Planck’s theoretical work which had, at the time as a purely theoretical manipulation, postulated that energy can only exist at discrete points (ie. 1 and 2 and 3, but not 1.1 or 1.3) to explain an experimental phenomena (blackbody radiation) which scientists could not otherwise explain. Einstein took this work and used it to explain another problem which scientists had been baffled by and postulated the wave-particle duality of light. Interestingly, Max Planck himself wasn’t a fan of his own quantized energy assumption — which became the underpinnings of Quantum Theory — but at a meeting between the two, Einstein was finally able to convince him of its merits. This was a truly seminal work and netted Einstein his only Nobel Prize.
  2. Brownian Motion and Atomic Theory – Although the existence of atoms had been postulated by the Greeks and more formally by the grand chemists of the 18th and 19th centuries, many scientists still considered the idea of the atom to be just a useful theoretical manipulation. Despite Planck’s (reluctant) use of it in his analysis of Blackbody radiation, it was Einstein who was able to finally prove the value of statistical mechanics — the idea of applying quantum theory on huge numbers of atoms to make conclusions about physical phenomena — by showing how Brownian motion, the phenomena where small objects can be seen to “dance” around under a microscope (because they are colliding with too-small-to-see atoms and molecules) could be understood through statistical mechanics. Einstein was thus able to arrive at an actual numerical figure for the Boltzmann Constant (and, as a result, Avogadro’s Number) and provide a real empirical basis for molecular/atomic theory.
  3. Special Relativity – With a single hypothesis that light had to move at a constant speed no matter your perspective, Einstein was able to provide a framework which unified classical mechanics with Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetic phenomena. Amazingly radical at the time, it was met with quite a great deal of skepticism (after all it postulated some very counter-intuitive consequences) but has been supported by so many experimental observations that it’s now generally accepted as valid today.
  4. E=mc2 – Yet another seminal paper producing what is possibly the most famous equation in all of physics, Einstein proposed the radical idea that energy and mass are interconvertible, thus explaining the basis for nuclear energy and weaponry.

History is full of many brilliant people — but to publish four revolutionary papers in ONE YEAR is incredibly awe-inspiring and indicative of just how brilliant Einstein was!

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Its been awhile since I’ve done one of my computer tip posts. The application I want to talk about today is something that I’ve come to be highly dependent on: Launchy.

Launchy is an application launcher which is run completely by the keyboard. You use a special keystroke combination (on my computer, it’s Windows+Space) and a textbar will popup, whereby you type in stuff and when you hit enter, it will execute your command. It was originally designed (and still functions primarily) as a Start menu replacement program which will index all your icons in your start menu so you never have to go searching for them in the start menu. For instance, instead of going to Start -> Programs -> Google -> Picasa2 -> Picasa, I simply hit Windows+Space and then type “Picasa” and Enter.

Launchy, by virtue of having indexed your files, will also start guessing which entry you want as you type. I only have to type “Pic” and it can already guess that I want to start Picasa. It performs this guesswork by tabulating which programs/entries you call up the most. In my case, I only have to type “f” and it knows I’m looking for Firefox, but if I’m trying to pull up Google Desktop, because I launch Google Talk more often, I have to type out a little further.

But, have no fear. There are two ways Launchy gets around this. The first is that Launchy will accept misspellings and re-orderings of the letters. Therefore, I can type in “Talk” and I will get Google Talk and “Desktop” and I will get Google Desktop. The second way is that if Launchy is not being sufficiently smart, you can always push the down key and Launchy will give a listing of several (up to 10 on mine b/c that’s how I’ve customized it) entries that it thinks you may be interested in.

With this newest version (1.0.3), Launchy has a feature-set which I think makes it an awesome must-have application for the PC:

  1. Start Menu indexing (as mentioned above)
  2. Misspell handling (as mentioned above)
  3. Customization – I’ve set the hotkey to be Windows+Space, but you can choose something else if you want
  4. Skinnability – I’ve skinned mine with “Black Glass” which I think looks pretty awesomem but you can pick from many:
  5. Index all types of files in all sorts of locations – This is where Launchy really starts getting useful. Launchy is fully customizable, so I have had Launchy index all my Microsoft Office files, my pdf’s, all my executable files, all my mp3’s, etc on my Desktop, My Documents, Start Menu, etc. I’ve also had it index directory names in My Documents such that I never have a problem finding files anymore, I just start typing the name of the file and in a few letters, I usually have what I want (this has also made me name my files more obvious and useful names). I can access any mp3 or any jpg or any powerpoint file from anywhere.
  6. Simple Calculator – Not quite as powerful as Google’s calculator, but you can enter simple arithmetic and it performs it for you.
  7. Quick Access to the Web – You can enter URL (requires “http://” if the URL doesn’t start with a “www.”), enter, and it’ll open it in your browser.
  8. Quick Access to Directories – The new version allows you to start typing “C:” and then an action key, tab, to traverse the directory structure on your computer. Thus, to get to my Mozilla Firefox program folder, I type “C:”, Tab, “Pro”, Tab, “Mozill”, Tab, enter.
  9. Indexes your Firefox bookmarks – It indexes your Firefox bookmark names and keywords!
  10. Indexes your Firefox Quick Searches – I’ve posted before on the magic of Firefox Keyword Searches, allowing you to quickly access any search (ie I quicksearch YouTube with “yt ” expression), and now Launchy will index your Quick Searches AND their keywords, meaning that I can now search YouTube by entering, Windows+Space, “yt”, Tab, “Superman Returns trailer”, enter.
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I loved Gundam Wing and Gundam Seed. Imagine my delight upon seeing…

Life-Sized Gundam Robots!

The 77 pound (5 foot) robot has 14 movable body parts right down to its finger joints, and emits a plethora of sound effects (yes, the Vulcan fires too) while you remotely control his fear-inducing flashing eyes. Marketed as a “sophisticated plastic model” (kind of like its companion to the left), Bandai hopes to ship over 1,000 of these behemoths to living rooms and anime stores everywhere when they drop this December. If this has instantly skyrocketed atop your holiday wish list, you may want to reconsider — the ¥350,000 ($3,000) pricetag and the giant hassle of self-assembling over 250 parts might just deter all but the most hardcore fans.

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Does Studying Economics Make People More Conservative?

For Lisa:

An Introductory Economics student asks Greg Mankiw, “Does Econ Make People More Conservative?”

The student asks:

My school offers two main elective history courses for seniors: Government and Economics. Due to scheduling limitations, not many kids are able to take both. I’ve noticed something interesting as the year has progressed. The students who are taking the government course are increasingly endorsing leftist ideologies while the economics students are becoming increasingly right wing. For instance, my school’s paper recently ran an editorial that ‘complained’ that too many of Lawrenceville’s finest were going into investment banking, and not into seemingly ‘socially beneficial’ careers. What is your view on government intervention on economic equality and the like? Do all economics students show republican (or right of center) tendencies?

To my surprise, Mankiw actually says “I believe the answer is, to some degree, yes“, and he outlines three reasons:

First, in some cases, students start off with utopian views of public policy, where a benevolent government can fix all problems. One of the first lessons of economics is that life is full of tradeoffs. That insight, completely absorbed, makes many utopian visions less attractive. Once you recognize, for example, that there is a tradeoff between equality and efficiency, as economist Arthur Okun famously noted, many public policy decisions become harder.

Second, some of the striking insights of economics make one more respectful of the market as a mechanism for coordinating a society. Because market participants are motivated by self-interest, a person might naturally be suspect of market-based societies. But after learning about the gains from trade, the invisible hand, and the efficiency of market equilibrium, one starts to approach the market with a degree of admiration and, indeed, awe.

Third, the study of actual public policy makes students recognize that political reality often deviates from their idealistic hopes. Much income redistribution, for example, is aimed not toward the needy but toward those with political clout.

And of course:

Nonetheless, studying economics does not by itself determine one’s political ideology. I know good economists who are distinctly right of center and good economists who are distinctly left of center. In my department at Harvard, I would guess that Democrats outnumber Republicans among the faculty (although there is surely more political balance in the economics department than in most other departments at the university).

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Irony of Ironies

Let’s say you’re responsible for building a fence across the US-Mexico border. Why do you do it? Well, maybe you’re concerned about maintaining national security and demanding that all people within the borders obey the law. Maybe you want to prevent “the jobs of hard-working Americans from going to illegals”? Regardless of your reasons, you’d assume that the fence-building operation is a strictly anti-immigrant one — after all, the purpose is to keep those illegals on the other side.

Lo’ and behold, a Border Fence Firm Snared for Hiring Illegal Workers.

And what does the lawyer, have to say? NPR news quotes:

Golden State Fence’s attorney, Richard Hirsch, admits his client broke the law. But he says the case proves that construction companies need a guest-worker program.

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The Sushi Seal of Approval

Tired of going to crappy Japanese places? Well, worry no longer. The Japanese government plans to award official seals of approval to overseas restaurants serving Japanese food that they deem of sufficient quality and authenticity (ie not Asian fusion, not a Korean/Japanese restaurant, not places that are actually Chinese or Filipino but say they serve Japanese, etc.)

From the Washington Post:

A fast-growing list of gastronomic indignities — from sham sake in Paris to shoddy sashimi in Bangkok — has prompted Japanese authorities to launch a counterattack in defense of this nation’s celebrated food culture. With restaurants around the globe describing themselves as Japanese while actually serving food that is Asian fusion, or just plain bad, the government here announced a plan this month to offer official seals of approval to overseas eateries deemed to be “pure Japanese.”

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Meljean Brook

I have a friend (we met on an internet discussion board, I promise — it’s not as strange as it sounds) who is now a published author. She writes … material that probably isn’t for everyone (think fantasy romance — ie vampires, angels, etc), but she is a very talented writer and a hilarious blogger and if you’ve ever wanted to try out that genre or if you’re looking for something new, try a book by Meljean Brook.

You can see her in the current issue of Publisher’s Weekly.

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Are the Eldest Siblings the Smartest?

If you do a survey of students at an elite college, you’ll likely see a strong overrepresentation by those who are the eldest sibling in their family.

Does that mean that the eldest siblings are the smarter ones? As much as I wish that were true (I am an eldest son), this post from EconLog points out why this is faulty logic:

If you regress real income on birth order, you get the same pattern as my wife’s law school class. The first-born averages $1900 more than the second-born, who averages $1900 more than the third-born, and so on. However, if you regress real income on birth order AND family size, you get a totally different picture. Birth order makes essentially no difference (in fact, the sign reverses), but average income falls by about $2400/child in your family. First-born only child? You’ll make more than average. First child in a big family? You’ll do no better than the fifth-born child – maybe a little worse!

Does this show that big families hurt incomes? Possibly, but the simpler story is more plausible: Poor people have more kids, and kids of poor people tend to be poor themselves.

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Lex Luthor and Joker in Top 10 Favorite Villains

So says the Big Bad Read poll. Magneto just missed the cutoff at #11.

The Top 20:
1. Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)
2. Sauron, The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
3. Mrs. Coulter, His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
4. Lex Luthor, Superman (DC Comics)
5. The Joker, Batman (DC Comics)
6. Count Olaf, A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket)
7. The Other Mother, Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
8. The White Witch, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
9. Dracula, Dracula (Bram Stoker)
10. Artemis Fowl, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)
11. Magneto, X-Men (Marvel Comics)
12. Prof. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
13. Zaphod Beeblebrox, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
14. Capt. Hook, Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)
15. Napoleon the Pig, Animal Farm (George Orwell)
16. Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
17. Miss Trunchbull, Matilda (Roald Dahl)
18. Cruella de Vil, 101 Dalmations (Dodie Smith)
19. The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)
20. The Grinch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dr. Seuss)

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More Firefox

In a previous post, I explained some of the myriad reasons that I’m a big fan of Firefox and gave a list of some of the most useful extensions that I use. As I am always discovering new things, here are some of the additional discoveries I’ve made with Firefox which have made it all the more useful for me:

  1. Gmail Skins – For those who use gmail, Gmail skins allow you to customize the look of your gmail interface. I’ve turned the navigation/command bar traditionally on the left-hand-side and converted it to a one-line menu which I’ve moved to the top of the page. I’ve also disabled the invitations manager, used a new color theme (because I don’t like Google’s default), and added a side-bar to my gmail window where you can link the left-hand column of your google personal page as a side-bar to your gmail window. In my case, I’ve used this to make it easy to access my calendar, google reader feed, and the local weather on the same interface as my email.
  2. BugMeNot – BugMeNot is a service which allows you to bypass compulsory web registration on a variety of online websites and magazines by supplying free, public passwords and usernames [no premium accounts, sorry] for a variety of webpages (ie New York Times, Washington Post, etc). The BugMeNot extension lets you quickly right-click on websites to just throw in BugMeNot access information so you never have to trouble yourself with that.
  3. Mouse Gestures – Tim recommended these to me. Basically, they key your browser to react to specific gestures using your mouse. For instance, if I hold the right mouse button down and drag to the left or to the right, I move forward or backwards in the history. If I make a L-shape while holding the right button down, I close the current window or tab, if I drag up, I create a new tab, if I drag down, I create a new window. There’s even a place to download new gestures, if you want more. I’ll admit I don’t use all the gestures, but I have found the gestures make it very easy to handle multi-tab browsing, especially when I don’t feel like using keyboard shortcuts.
  4. Keyword browsing – I mentioned before that I am a big fan of the bookmark system in Firefox as it allows me to assign keywords, letting me type “reader” to get to my google reader page, “gmail” to get to my gmail page, etc. But, it was a pain to enter keywords, because Firefox, by default, does not let you enter keywords. You have to right-click on the bookmark, select “properties”, and then enter the information. The OpenBook extension changes that — now, by default, you can enter a keyword for every bookmark.
  5. Additionally, I have discovered that Firefox has keyword searching as well. Its difficult to describe in any other way than in usage, but, if I wanted to search for directions to San Francisco International Airport, before I would type “” and then type in “SFO” in the search bar. Now, in the location bar (which you can get to with a simple Alt+D or Ctrl+L), I can just type in “map SFO” and it’ll do all of that. If I want to search Wikipedia, I can type “w open source”, if I want to search IMDB, I can type “imdb Tom Cruise” — you get the idea.