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Wednesday, February 27

very old jews

This is something I've wanted to write since waxing lyrical about the state of modern Jewish youth, but not been able to because I wanted to keep it as a birthday surprise for my mum. My late grandfather left behind extensive notes, handwritten in French, about the history of the Jewish people. I am now (gradually) publishing them online, and (extremely slowly) translating them into English. At the moment the whole project is in a very early stage - you can read my introduction in English but not French, and you can read the rest in French but not English. This will gradually improve, but I'm pretty busy so I don't expect to get things done fast. Anyway, here it is: l'Histoire du peuple Juif
posted @ 12:43 PM -

quote of the day

as a bank, they should really be able to handle money - a representative of the Federation of Small Businesses commenting on the Halifax erm, not-exactly-a-scandal, erm, let's call it an embarrassment
posted @ 11:30 AM -

Paul Klee at the Hayward

On the way up to meet my family in London yesterday I went to the Paul Klee exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The exhibition was lovely, though I do wish I could have got there earlier when the place was less busy. Like many modern artists, he's produced a large number of works that don't touch me in any way, but those that do are quite enthralling. In his own words, an artist "neither serves nor rules - he transmits", and that does seem to sum up what his [in my entirely subjective and untutored opinion] successful works do - they transmit some of the beauty of the world. But that's enough of my pompousness. What I really want to say is that the exhibition is good, and it's on till the end of March, so if you happen to be in London over the next month it's well worth a visit.

I had a look on the web for Klee reproductions, and found 2 sets: here and here.

The other thing that really struck me, I guess because I usually go to galleries when they are very quiet, was the behaviour of the other people in there. I like to go to a gallery, look at the paintings, and then possibly read a little about the context or the artist's intentions afterwards. A lot of other people seem to want to be told what to think. There was a chap in uniform with a badge saying something like "exhibition guide", who seemed to be there just to tell people about the works, and there was also a large group of people following around a lady who addressed them at each picture with a description of her response to it.

I know that this is to some extent my snobbery, but I find this a really odd way to engage with art. I personally am highly anti-criticism; I'm only really interested in the artist's views and my friends' views, because I think responses to art are so idiosyncratic that there's no reason for me to be interested in a stranger's opinion (and here I am offerring my opinion to strangers, but this is a little different, because you've shown some interest in me by coming to this page and reading it). Somehow other people seem often to want to have the 'right' response to a piece, as if there is one.
posted @ 11:17 AM -

Spike Milligan RIP

Spike Milligan died today. I don't go in for long laments about people I never knew, but he made a lot of people laugh, myself included.

I think his best work was the complete lunacy of the Goon Show, and I've just found a couple of episodes as mp3s.
posted @ 7:53 AM -

happy birthday mum

Tomorrow is my mum's birthday. She'll be spending it in Florida, which is hopefully less windswept than these forlorn parts at the moment, so we had a celebratory dinner last night. All good.
posted @ 6:31 AM -

Tuesday, February 26

sealcam

This is exceptionally cute, as well as very interesting for more serious reasons. Some American scientists have decided to fit cameras to Weddell seals in order to work out how they hunt. In the process they've not only learned lots about the seals, but also had a window into a whole section of the world that is notoriously hard for humans to explore.
posted @ 1:53 AM -

Monday, February 25

on the ski slope to nowhere

Ski-Trac are trying to develop an artificial ski slope that moves, creating the effect of an endless piste. Heaven.
posted @ 2:51 AM -

that was the week that was

The past week has been better than most in terms of actually feeling like I'm progressing in some sense. Too often, day-to-day tasks seem to get in the way of actually working for myself, and a week can go by with me feeling like I haven't learned anything, and like there are a hundred side projects festering as I ignore them. Last week I had lots of work on, hence not having written a long post here for a while, but it consisted mostly of making presentations to seminar groups, which means it was pleasant work for starters, but more importantly that I learned lots in the process. For the first time since handing in my last coursework assignments at the start of term I actually feel like I am appropriately focussed on my MSc, and that feels good.

Meanwhile a worrying number of my friends seem to be going through one or other sort of crisis, and I don't like the fact that I can't afford the time to just go off and hold their hands when they need it, but I'm only human, I can only be in one place at a time, and I'm doing my best. Guilt is a terrible thing when I can't help feeling guilty about not managing to do things that I am simply not able to do.

That's all being made easier to deal with by the fact that I've had some good news - my paper will definitely be going out fairly soon as a Cognitive Science Research Paper. It's not peer-reviewed, and it's not a journal, so it's not exactly a huge achievement, but it's a pretty significant personal milestone, and will come in very handy when it's time to apply for PhD studentships. I'll still be on the lookout for suitable journal homes for the paper, and if I find one I'll be extra happy, but this is good already. I'm editing the paper at the moment, and the final version will be somewhat improved due partly to my own scrutiny but mainly to detailed and helpful feedback from a couple of people - thanks, you know who you are.

And finally, I have my fourth new flatmate in a year - Alex moved in just over a week ago. I'm not taking a chance this time - he is someone I knew already who happened to get a new job in Brighton at the same time as I had a room free, so I have every reason to expect living with him to be cool. And this time I'm likely to move out before he does, so this should be the last time I have to deal with that hassle in this particular house.
posted @ 2:15 AM -

Saturday, February 23

anarchism lite

The social phenomenon of people, like, smashing things up cos, like, the system is bad like, has acheived the ultimate mainstream endorsement: it's the subject of a new Playstation game. All I can really say is that I am reminded of the "they're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths" speech towards the end of Withnail & I....
posted @ 7:06 AM -

Friday, February 22

national slacker day

Today is National Slacker Day
posted @ 8:09 AM -

Thursday, February 21

505 epistemological error

It's one thing when my computer tells me that I've made a mistake in my code. Quite another when the error message reads:

'1' is undefined
posted @ 3:46 PM -

mobile phone abuse

I should be working now so I can go out soon (last year's MSc students are graduating right now, so various people I haven't seen for a while are in town), but this demanded a look: in the past year, in the UK, 600,000 people dropped their mobile phone into the toilet. I've never actually done that, but my phone has taken a whole lot of abuse, and I guess most mobile phone users will identify with that....
posted @ 11:42 AM -

optical illusions

I'm preparing a presentation for a philosophy seminar on the subject of sensing: "In on-line vision, does the world really function as external memory? What would it mean if we took that idea truly seriously?". I'll be making some use (for demonstration) of various optical illusions, and I just thought I'd link to them here because they are very cool.

For the record, I would answer the first question as yes, and the second question is complex. It certainly means that a lot of computer vision and image recognition research involves trying to do things in a very un-human-like way, and quite possibly in a much more difficult way than necessary. Beyond that, I'm hoping that the seminar will help me to flesh out the answer....
posted @ 10:39 AM -

Wednesday, February 20

education is a right

Finally, the media have decided that a student march protesting against the cost of education is worth covering. I couldn't make it to this one because I've been too busy earning a living and getting a degree (no the irony isn't lost on me, but my circumstances are so atypical as to be irrelevant to the overall debate about tuition fees, loans and grants), but I've been to such things before and been quite exasperated at the lack of interest by the media.

At least if the public start to notice this issue again there might be some pressure on the government to do something about it....
posted @ 7:12 AM -

Tuesday, February 19

robobush

The robot Bush doesn't say anything stupid. Surely that means they just haven't modelled him properly?
posted @ 2:27 PM -

mister rogers

I've just noticed that one of the people whose website I actually read reasonably regularly is a musician, and has some rather good tracks available to download.
posted @ 1:56 PM -

Monday, February 18

woohoo!

I got some feedback today from one of my tutors about a term paper I handed in last month. He reckons it's actually worth publishing, though we may have some difficulty finding a suitable home for it (which in a way is also quite flattering...). We may be able to find a 'proper' journal for it, which would be really really cool, otherwise I'll see if I can get it published as a departmental technical report, which still means that some other people will read it. Meanwhile it's a huge vote of confidence for something the quality of which I was quite unsure of when I handed it in.
posted @ 4:58 PM -

doh!

Errr... Some British Royal Marines have just invaded Spain by mistake.
posted @ 4:09 PM -

Sunday, February 17

AAAS

Something I should have mentioned a few days ago - the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an acronym almost as unfortunate as my MSc) are holding their annual conference in Boston. It's not a place where ground-breaking discoveries tend to be reported - that's usually left to the more specialist conferences - but rather somewhere for scientists to teach each other about current work in their respective fields. Something badly needed by researchers in general, who find it far too easy to pigeonhole themselves, and also a useful place for anyone (especially me) to catch up on things we haven't studied since leaving school.

The actual AAAS site doesn't have much about the conference on it, so I've been reading about it through secondary sources: the BBC site is carrying lots of articles, and New Scientist has decent quality coverage of a smaller number of presentations.
posted @ 6:55 AM -

Saturday, February 16

a case of life imitating The Onion

US planes rain dollars on Afghanistan - The Times of India
posted @ 2:53 PM -

WTC memorial

Would this be a fitting memorial or a distasteful reminder? Timothy Noah in Slate thinks the former; I'm less sure but I can certainly see the point.
posted @ 2:03 AM -

Friday, February 15

really new Jews

There has been an interesting letter in response to the AlterNet article about changing Jewish identity, which I wrote about the other day. The letter quite rightly points out that we European Jews tend to overlook the increasing number of converts to Judaism, so in a different sense of 'new', the new Jew looks nothing like the ancestral Jew. It kind of makes the opposite point from the original article, in that converts are people with a non-Jewish heritage who find the religion, while the 'new Jews' referred to in the article are people who have found a new pride in our heritage and culture without necessarily being interested in the religious belief.
posted @ 11:09 AM -

emergence

Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software, is the guest on a long (and I think ongoing) discussion at the Well. His book and the general thrust of this discussion do a lot to explain why the kinds of things I want to spend my life researching are not just minor technical issues but directly relevant to understanding a vast range of phenomena out in the world.

Thanks to Adnan for the link.
posted @ 9:15 AM -

the enemy is not at the gates

Am I the only person who just can't take this succession of security alerts seriously. In fact I can put that more strongly - I know I'm not the first to suspect that this has nothing to do with real security threats, but everything to do with the convenience to the US political establishment of maintaining a state of fear, so that they can justify anything they do as a measure to protect the 'homeland' from the nameless, intangible 'enemy'.

One of the points Orwell said he was trying to make with 1984 was that this could happen in any country at any time - we're seeing how right he was now.
posted @ 12:22 AM -

Thursday, February 14

tide is rising

Another country that is apparently set to be swallowed entirely by rising sea levels: Tokelau, and this time my source is the CIA world factbook, so not really a publication that could be accused of leftie or tree-hugging bias. I don't really know what to say to this except that it is quite depressing.
posted @ 3:42 AM -

free access to information

George Soros (he who gives away vast sums of money because he's loaded but "can only wear one pair of shoes at a time") has decided that academics should be his latest beneficiaries, with a scheme to support the setting up of subscription-free online academic journals. This will be a great leap forward, partly for the reasons he gives (even in wealthy countries universities can't afford all the journals their faculty would like them to subscribe to, and in the third world this is a huge barrier to teaching and research), but also because it will improve the accessibility of science to the general public. There is so much terrible science journalism out there making ludicrous claims that can be seen to be so with even a cursory glance at the original papers, and it might just get questioned more if lay people could go and check for themselves. I am well aware that a lot of people would never think to do so, but the more often people who try are actually rewarded by easy access to the information they want the better.
posted @ 3:28 AM -

Wednesday, February 13

mens sana in corpore sano

I finally went to my first kung fu class for several months and I'm wondering why it took me so long to get back. For about a month I've had no real reason not to, beyond feeling too busy, but saving a few hours by not going to 1 or 2 classes a week is the ultimate false economy. Kung fu improves my sleeping pattern, energy level and general clarity of mind so much that I'll get the time back over the next few days, while also feeling a whole lot better. Must keep training.
posted @ 5:04 PM -

quote of the day

"Being very happy does not seem to be a malfunction."

from Very Happy People, by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, in the latest (January 2002, vol. 13, issue 1) issue of Psychological Science.

Actually there is worth in the paper - it explains that studies of depression seem only to look at very unhappy people, and not really consider what makes very happy people so very happy, which could give ideas as to how to help the very unhappy - but there are some real 'it took a professional researcher to tell me that?!' statements in it.

Thanks to Sam for sending that to me, it's brightened up my day.
posted @ 9:52 AM -

only in Brighton

Not only does our football team have a poet-in-residence, but our police force have decided to write Valentines' poems to wanted suspects. I have a feeling they might be the first police force in the world to try seducing criminals in this way....
posted @ 8:53 AM -

the year of the horse

oh yeah, happy new year to those who are celebrating it right now
posted @ 3:54 AM -

etymology of kike

On a fairly related note, I have wondered for years how on earth kike came to be an insulting term for Jews. Yid and Heeb have pretty obvious derivations, but I've finally seen something that provides some possible explanations for kike.
posted @ 3:25 AM -

yiddishkeit

AlterNet have published a very interesting piece about how Jewish identity is changing from one generation to another. The main point is that for the last few generations Jewish identity has been largely defined by negatives - a sense of exile and a sense of being discriminated against. Now that my generation no longer see ourselves as consistent victims of prejudice, and mostly feel quite at home in the Diaspora countries that our ancestors adopted through necessity, that sort of self-definition by our problems no longer makes sense.

For a long time this sort of thing drove me away from Jewish culture altogether - I felt like the religion was irrelevant to me without faith in God, and the culture was insular and unhealthy. It's only quite recently that I've come to realise that these are not reasons to try to reject all engagement with what is actually a very interesting heritage, and would be my heritage whether I liked it or not. I've started to take a lot more interest in the history of my ancestors and the customs, many of which are worthwhile even without belief in the religion, either because they fulfil an important purpose (like the Passover story, which must never be forgotten because it still contains a lesson about how we should behave now) or have intrinsic beauty (like much of the wedding ceremony I attended on the weekend). Meanwhile I still don't feel part of a Jewish community, because I still see much of this old guard influence; people who see prejudice everywhere and end up fostering it by being prejudiced themselves about non-Jews and carrying a distinctly off-putting attitude around with them. I see this in every minority community I know anything about, and it's a shame because people shackle themselves even after society has stopped imposing the chains.

The article, along with various other things over the last few weeks, has really got me thinking about my own self-definition. While I was busily avoiding all things Jewish, I used to believe that I was not like other Jews, because I don't hold the same opinions as the people who taught me about Judaism, and I don't feel at home in Golders Green, Edgware (for people who don't know North London, these are the most obvious centres of the religious and secular Jewish communities respectively) or Israel. Reading this article I see that I am not like those particular groups, but it's hardly surprising given the huge generational differences that exist in every community in Britain right now, including the identity-free majority, and that this article describes people who are very much like me. Perhaps I am far more a product of my roots than I've ever realised, which amounts to a pretty dramatic change in my self-image, because I've always seen myself as very much an individual, striking out my own path. On the one hand it would be great to really feel rooted in something, but on the other I would have to admit to being less special than I thought....
posted @ 3:21 AM -

Tuesday, February 12

jurassic puke

I know that this is really quite an important and interesting discovery, but I can't help feeling sorry for the scientists who can now introduce themselves at parties with "I was part of the first ever team to discover fossilised dinosaur vomit".
posted @ 8:03 AM -

trust us | we know

The Brains Trust is celebrating its first anniversary this week, and they have done this in style by publishing one of the funniest issues yet, just as I was growing tired of online satire.
posted @ 7:45 AM -

universal translators?!?

A Russian firm have been publicising a voice-to-voice translator that can be spoken to in English, and will respond with the appropriate phrase in French, German or Spanish. I'd love to get my hands on one of these and see if they're any good, and if they are they could make travelling a whole lot easier. Particularly exciting to me is some vague talk of extending the number of languages to include Chinese (I couldn't work out which Chinese) by the end of the year.
posted @ 4:48 AM -

Monday, February 11

this is your captain speaking

you've had a lovely cruise for the last few days but prepare yourself for a very hard landing in the morning.

Seriously - Paris was wonderful, and gave me a holiday which I needed a surprising amount considering that it's less than two months since I last went abroad. I am extremely spoilt in that respect, but this is a bit different because I really have been trying to do too many things lately. Unfortunately the world didn't stop in my absence, so tomorrow I have a collection of not very pleasant phone calls to make, and a lot of more pleasant (but time consuming) techie work to do. I feel like I'm being pursued, but it's entirely by demons of my own making....

Still, plenty of good things to focus on. I've had a lovely few days; not just a short trip to Paris, but also celebrating my dad's birthday, catching up with a couple of old friends back here (one who I hadn't seen for several years, and it was really nice to be able to just pick up where we left off - not what I expected), and then going to a friend's sister's wedding last night. The wedding itself was wonderful - a really beautiful service with a great cantor (Jewish services should be beautiful, but aren't usually this good) and a rabbi who took great pains to explain the significance of each part of the ceremony, which is rich in symbolism. What was really notable though, through the ceremony and the party afterwards, was the glow of happiness from the couple themselves. I suppose that sort of thing ought to be a feature of every wedding, but I haven't been to many yet and it was a genuinely heart-warming thing to behold.
posted @ 4:00 PM -

Friday, February 8

Paris in the winter

sorry to have disappeared for a couple of days, but Thursday was my dad's birthday, and we (his family & friends) took him on a surprise trip to Paris. I couldn't mention this in advance because I know he reads this page....

I don't want to write much now because I need to sleep, but I thought I ought to put something in because I have a weekend of being busy doing fun things (friends down on Saturday, wedding to go to on Sunday), so I won't be very present online for another couple of days. I should be back to my normal routine on Monday or Tuesday.
posted @ 7:53 PM -

Tuesday, February 5

publicity

Some lovely media reporting of research that is a textbook-perfect fit to my course. Sorry I haven't the time to add anything intelligent, but it's been one long day, and I should have been in bed a couple of hours ago to be in a decent state for another one tomorrow.
posted @ 5:04 PM -

we said our goodbyes...

John, a (now former) colleague, just came into work to say a final farewell before going off to Ghana tomorrow morning, for a couple of years' Voluntary Service Overseas teaching IT skills to people living in small villages over there. As well as having a lot of respect for what he's doing, I've found a whole mess of emotions stirred up by it. He's really obviously experiencing a combination of great excitement and some trepidation, and it would probably be somewhat contagious anyway, but I've caught it really strongly because I can imagine this being exactly how I'll feel before I depart in September. As if I wasn't staring at maps and making half-baked plans in my head enough already, this has really got me going.

Incidentally to this, I probably won't be going to Vancouver now, because my dad has just managed to wangle me a place on a heli-skiing trip, and that's the sort of chance I can't let slip, but I can also only afford a short time abroad until I finish the MSc. Vancouver will still be there in a few years' time. So will the mountain, but that's hardly the point.

On the subject of planning in too much detail when things are still far off in the future, can anyone tell me if Indonesians tend to do anything for Christmas? I'm hoping they don't, because I think Christmas all on my own could be a bit depressing, unless I spend it somewhere that doesn't celebrate it....
posted @ 9:08 AM -

Monday, February 4

disturbing search requests

great. Now it's my turn to be disturbed by a search request that has led someone to my page. They went to MSN Search and looked for "unbearable". That's the sort of brutal honesty I would expect from a friend, not a search engine.
posted @ 12:26 PM -
serious flooding in Jakarta
posted @ 12:37 AM -

Sunday, February 3

wanderlust, eh?

I travelled a lot more last year than in the previous few, and instead of satisfying me in any way it just gave me an insatiable appetite for more. Once I finish my MSc I'll be going off to New Zealand, the slow way (by rail, bus and boat across Europe, Siberia, China, Indochina, Indonesia and Australia), but I need to get a few short holidays in before then. I'm hoping to go and visit my kiwi friends (the two wonderful people who lived with me for half of last year, and seem to have managed not to want to kill me as a result) in Canada where they are spending the entire winter skiing. While I'm out there I'd also like to see Vancouver, because everyone who has been there says it's well worth a visit, so who am I to argue? I'm also trying to spend some of the white nights in Iceland a little later in the year, but that plan can stay vague for a little while longer.

Anyway, to get to the point, does anyone have a bed or sofa or patch of warm dry floor in Vancouver that I could borrow for a few days in March? Or does anyone fancy playing tour guide to a solitary limey?
posted @ 3:10 PM -
at least 42 people have died in an earthquake in Turkey
posted @ 10:55 AM -

monkey telekinesis

Scientists at Cal Tech have just announced that they have trained a monkey to control a computer cursor by thought alone. This must be the most direct use of brain scanning I've heard of, and has huge potential for helping paralysed people. At the moment they are restricted to communication with machines via the eyes, which as the experience of Stephen Hawking shows is enough to allow a person to function, but very restricted. If people can start interfacing more directly with either machines (like Hawking's wheelchair and speech synthesiser) or prostheses (further into science fiction, but will be possible one day) they would be a lot closer to being able to live independent lives.

Now tell me that vivisection is useless.
posted @ 5:49 AM -

Saturday, February 2

it's the little things

Afghanistan has just had its first postal delivery in 20 years. Just as some pretty mundane things turned into important landmarks of the return to normality for New Yorkers last year, this must be a pretty significant sign to some Afghans....
posted @ 7:15 AM -

enrongate

AlterNet have just launched a section devoted to the Enron scandal. As well as some typically opinionated (and well written and well researched, but not everyone will agree with them) pieces it seems like a pretty good source for background information about what happened and why it was possible.
posted @ 1:53 AM -
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