Saturday, August 30

good news if I were neutral...

It seems France managed to beat England at rugby. This is very good for the World Cup, because when the French find their form they play very attractive rugby. It's also probably not that worrying for England, because France are too inconsistent to be a real threat—I still see the All Blacks as the only real challenge to England at the moment—but it is a shame they won't be going into the tournament on the back of a long winning run.

Now I just have to find somewhere to go and watch those games that fit into my schedule. I think the time difference will make them mostly mid-morning here, which means some will clash with lectures, but I'll definitely get to watch a few, and a bar with a big screen and some atmosphere would definitely be more entertaining than streaming media on my laptop. Apparently rugby has tentatively begun to catch on in these parts, so there must be somewhere.
posted @ 3:49 PM -

Friday, August 29

Too geeky for me

CWRU Quadrangle

a computer program.  Written out in chalk on a path.

August 28th 2003

Consider this: I am a grad student in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I am very sure that this is the right place for me to be. Therefore if I find something too geeky it's a pretty damning indictment really.
posted @ 9:52 AM -

Thursday, August 28

not critical

It was pointed out to me today [by an American] that I've been being remarkably positive of late about Americans and about the differences between life here and in Britain. Given that I am often partial to the great British sport of mocking dumb/arrogant/fat/uncouth [delete as appropriate] Americans, I feel I now need to explain myself.

To some extent this is deliberate politeness—in the couple of weeks of not blogging before I came out here I decided that unless I found myself having a really bad time and wanting to leave, I would wait a while before posting anything too critical of either the people or politics* here, because so far everything's so new that I can't really comment with any authority—if I find myself being unjustifiably nice about people that's far less of a bad thing than unjustifiable sneering. This isn't the only reason though. Everything's new and exciting at the moment, and I am genuinely happy to be here, so I'm probably viewing my whole environment through rose tinted glasses. That probably will change over the coming months, as the novelty wears off and the weather changes, but I have no desire to accelerate the process.

A couple of years back I went to a seminar at Sussex about helping foreign students deal with culture shock, partly because I had a feeling I might be on the other side of that transaction at this point. One of the things that came out was that even students from the Anglosphere do get culture shock, in spite of the cultural differences being less obvious than for others. Another was that most people do experience a honeymoon period of only seeing positive differences, followed at some point by a serious low when they start to notice everything they dislike about their new environment and get seriously homesick, before finally settling down between those two extremes. I see no reason why I should be an exception to this pattern, but hopefully seeing it coming will make the bad part easier to deal with.

*I am tempted to write something about the Alabama ten commandments malarkey, but then I remember Paulsgrove, so I will apply the principle that he whose countryfolk have never sinned may cast the first stone. Oh, and every American I speak to about it is considerably more horrified than me by that particular story.

posted @ 8:25 PM -

three cheers for free stuff

Today was the university's Fall Convocation. An interesting event in Severance Hall (the very impressive home of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra), featuring far more pseudo-mediæval pageantry than Sussex ever mustered, and a speech by Oliver Sacks. More importantly, it was followed by the tastiest of the large amount of free food that's been going round with all the orientation and general start of term events, and as they were clearing up the caterers brought take home containers, so our lab fridge is now well stocked.

On the general free stuff theme, I've probably already mentioned that most of Cleveland's 'high culture' institutions are very near the university itself (and by extension also a short bike ride from home). It turns out that access to most of what they have to offer is also free of charge for Case students. This I like.

posted @ 7:54 PM -

for *^&!s sake

Britain has a habit of following everything America does, but in a smaller, less spectacular way. This isn't always bad, but did they really have to extend the tradition to incorporate power failures? Suddenly I feel like my right to moan about unreliable services over here has been undermined.

posted @ 5:17 PM -

A dream worth remembering

It is very rare for any political speech to be at the same time so important and so eloquent as to be worth reading a transcript of on its 40th anniversary, but this one was special.

This morning CNN interviewed someone from a race relations charity, whose contribution was very refreshing. Instead of just complaining about the less than perfect fulfilment of MLK's dream, he started by praising the immense progress that has been made, and the speed with which this particular social revolution took place. Then he went on to talk about what still needs to happen, but the main thrust of his argument was the need to de-emphasise race as an issue. In a country where positive discrimination is a major political issue this is something that needs to be said repeatedly and loud.

posted @ 5:17 PM -

Wednesday, August 27

more third world

Although it seems last weekend's power cut was highly localised (probably one substation, so the kind of thing that even afflicts advanced countries like Russia), nearby Akron is the latest place instructing residents to boil water because a filtration system has broken down.

Meanwhile the Onion has managed to get hold of a copy of the administration's plan to prevent future blackouts.

posted @ 2:11 PM -

posted @ 2:02 PM -

Starting classes

This is week 1 of term, so I have now had the first lectures for all three of the taught courses I'll be doing, and the first lab meeting.

First lectures are never in themselves very interesting, being taken up mainly with admin, but even so they give something of a flavour for how the course is going to turn out. It looks like all three are going to involve some elements of things I already know, which is a pretty much inevitable result of the very roundabout path I've taken to this point. If I were a computer science graduate I'd be able to skip all three of these, but as it is one of the reasons I wanted to do my PhD in America is that in the course of it I will fill in various gaps in my training. At times this will be a bit dull, but hopefully the boring bits will be easy, the hard sections will be more worthwhile, and in the end I'll have more confidence in my technical ability, which at the moment I keep on feeling like I have to apologise for.

The actual style of lectures is markedly different from Sussex. I've been trying to put my finger on what exactly is different about it, since mentioning this to one of the lecturers on Monday. The best I've been able to come up with so far is that everything's a bit more professional. I mean this mostly in a good way; the classrooms are much nicer looking, the seating is more comfortable, and systems like the lighting and the AV aids actually work properly without any jury-rigging required. Most impressively, by the time the lecturer turns up (which so far has been on time for all classes), all the students are already in the room and settled. There is also an element that I can see the value of, but isn't to my taste, in that there's a very strong focus on what we expect our graduates to be doing afterwards, and how this course supports it, which makes sense, but for people who have decided to stay in academia it kind of misses the point. Yes, it's probably worth explaining to the undergrads who have to take course x how it is that course x will help them get jobs, but that does leave out some of the people in the room.

As for the lab meeting, the main news from that is that I have someone to collaborate with. The other 3 PhD students in my lab are all well stuck into different projects, so I thought I was going to be out on my own with what I hope to do, but it turns out that there's an MS student extending the same prior research as me. This is extremely helpful to me, because it means that a lot of the drudgery gets divided between two (we both need the same existing code to do the same things, and then we will go different ways with what we build on to it), and he's already started work, so I'm being handed code that we know at least runs. Plus at this early stage I have someone to work closely with who isn't new to the place, which should help me get started quickly.

posted @ 10:25 AM -

Saturday, August 23

damn third world countries

So I went out to spend some money today. A very successful mission: I came home with a slightly lighter new bicycle than I expected to get for my budget, a printer, some speakers for my computer, and some money left. After the shock of buying textbooks yesterday ($400, and there will be one or two more next week!) this was a relief.

Anyway, I had cycled home, and I was quite hot, so I thought I'd stop at the last shops before home and by an ice cream. There were big signs in the window saying 'no power', and the cashier explained that they didn't want to open any freezers, in the hope that power would be back soon and they wouldn't have to throw any food away. I thought maybe this was just their block or something, but I get home and nothing's working. I have new toys and I can't play with them.

posted @ 3:02 PM -

Friday, August 22

magnetic poetry

I've been getting a strange sort of junk mail lately. It involves a paragraph of unrelated words, followed by an image (probably some sort of web bug, but I never download the images), followed by another nonsense paragraph. The nonsense is the sort that porn sites put in their HTML to make them appear spuriously in searches (which does work—I've found porn by searching for Arthur Scargill speech before, and I can assure you that thorough examination of the site found no trace of miners or trade unions), but it doesn't make sense in spam, because I would have thought it makes spam filters more likely to reject such messages.

Anyway, at times the nonsense actually conjures up interesting images. Today's started aristotelian boron bottom telescopes, which doesn't bear thinking about too much.
posted @ 7:17 PM -

Thursday, August 21

Power struggles

I take it everybody who has internet access must know about last week's power outage in this part of the world. What you may not know is that it seems almost certain that it started in the Cleveland area, and that the problems are not entirely over yet. One of Ohio's nuclear plants has not yet re-started, and the whoe system is so stretched that there is no spare generating capacity to make up for it, so at peak usage times (mid-afternoon, due to air conditioning) the electric company is having to phone up major consumers and ask them to switch off all non-essential appliances to avoid having to institute rolling blackouts. So far it's worked—they haven't had to shut anything down since the original blackout—but it's pretty embarrassing.

Welcome to Cuyahoga County. We may be part of the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world, but we still have an unreliable power supply, a lake that isn't safe to swim in because the original blackout caused a raw sewage overflow, and a mosquito-borne illness that kills people.
posted @ 2:41 PM -

Arse-elbow differentiation

Well I've only been here a few days, but I've come to the conclusion that staff here are considerably more aware of the difference between their arses and their elbows than in a typical British university. So far I've been kept thoroughly busy (I had an 8:15 start today - I'm actually grateful for jetlag!) by orientation meetings and administrative tasks. While the orientations are a bit repetitive, I'd rather they err on that side than let newcomers feel lost, but much more importantly all the admin so far has been impressively well organised. I don't think I've had to wait more than 10 minutes for any particular desk, and once I had met with my supervisor and chosen classes it only took an hour or so to do a whole list of things that had been waiting on that step. My memory of Sussex registration involves enormous queues and being sent from one desk to another, only to then have to wait weeks for simple essentials like a library card....
posted @ 2:12 PM -

Things Americans do more readily than Brits

  • Wait for the lights to tell them it's OK before crossing the road
  • Say good morning to strangers
  • Say good morning back en masse to speakers, like we used to do in primary school,
  • Apologise for sneezing
  • Applaud warmly after utterly dull introductory speeches, just because someone has stood up and said something
  • Make conversation in the lift, as opposed to developing a temporary fascination with their shoes

Just some observations so far
posted @ 2:01 PM -

Wednesday, August 20

Mysteries of the Western Reserve

My street is about a mile long. It has fairly large detached houses, each with at least enough separation from the next to get a car through. Therefore it clearly can't have a huge number of houses. So why is my house number 4 digits?
posted @ 2:24 PM -

Lost in the Supermarket

Yesterday I believe I set personal records both for the longest time and most money ever spent in a supermarket. Partly this was because I've never before had to stock a kitchen from scratch, but it still wouldn't have taken that long if I were doing this in the UK.

It's actually something I was warned about—a former flatmate who had lived in Holland said that one of the more confusing things about living abroad was simply finding things in day-to-day shops—but until now I thought he was exaggerating. In New Zealand I never had this problem, but then I never stayed in one place for long enough to be bothered about making sure I had everything. If all you need is bread, jam, pasta and sauce, it would be pretty challenging to design a supermarket that could thwart such simple desires.

Actually trying to get everything I will need in one trip is quite a different matter. Our local Giant Eagle is fairly big (like a big UK supermarket as opposed to a mammoth Walmart), and impressively widely stocked (they even have a proper wine cellar, and most of the ingredients I was expecting to have to find a specialist Asian shop for, though apparently no fresh ginger, which seems a little odd). However, things just aren't in the same places, and brand names aren't the same, plus everything's labelled in pre-metric units that even Britain abandoned for most things long enough ago that they feel primitive (and I can't remember how many ounces are in a pound), and even the price labelling is confusing in places.

I'm sure it's not actually that supermarkets here are less well organised or labelled (except that grams and litres are clearly easier to use units than the arcane system in use here), but it will take some getting used to. I think in a way it's these mundane things that do most to remind me I'm not at home.
posted @ 2:21 PM -

Tuesday, August 19

Settling in

I'm in Cleveland, and so far everything is going pretty smoothly, except for an entirely pointless delay at—surprise, surprise—Immigration. In the general scheme of US Immigration causing me trouble every time I enter this country, this was a particularly absurd incident. Several people with student visas were kept waiting for several hours for the all clear to be given by some understaffed office somewhere in D.C. It's not that any of us had any problems, or that I was even asked any questions at all, just that it took 3 hours for the staff to get through on the phone to OK our visa numbers.

Apart from that, I'm in a nice house, with lots of space, and for the first time I actually have my own study. Contrary to the standard European stereotype of an American suburb, it's a short walk from the campus, a few restaurants, a big supermarket, a bar and some useful public transport.

I have a pretty busy week of introductory meetings and suchlike ahead of me, and then next week term starts in earnest. So far it's taking me a long time to find any given room on campus, but I'm sure that won't take too long to pass. It's years since I've really had a completely new start like this, and I think I have needed it.
posted @ 11:15 AM -

Thursday, August 14



I found this in the course of going through my cupboards to find things to throw away and things to pack. I don't even know if I can still get film for it (it takes one-shot cartridges, which fill most of the space in the casing), but I do plan on finding out.

I am all packed up and ready to go now, but more on that tomorrow, as it's past my bedtime.
posted @ 4:28 PM -

Monday, August 11

There seems to be something funny going on with my email at the moment. If things bounce back from the usual address, try eldan at uk2 dot net.
posted @ 7:33 AM -

Monday, August 4

Some health news

Two articles, one of which is something I've been saying for years, the other being something I first heard about a week or two ago and was very surprised by:

Claims that sunscreen does not protect against skin cancer seem to be gaining credence. It's an argument I first encountered some years ago, the gist of which is that sunscreen protects against certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light (UVA & UVB), which cause sunburn and visible ageing, but not against that (UVC, which penetrates deeper into the skin) which causes melanoma. To make things worse, by allowing people to spend longer in the sun without burning it actually increases the amount of UVC people are exposed to. Now I'm not suggesting that people stop using sunscreen—after all sunburn is unpleasant and avoiding it is clearly good—but I've always felt that it's more important to not spend too long in strong sun, and do simple things like wearing hats and t-shirts to keep the more sensitive skin in the shade.

The surprising story is that nicotine may actually be good for certain physiological illnesses, including ulcerative colitis. The benefits of smoking for schizophrenia patients (discussed in the same article) surprise me less, but I have read and heard so much about the physiological evils of tobacco that it was a shock to discover it could help with anything physiological. In fact it seems that nicotine can be quite useful in controlling attacks of the illness, while in contrast smoking seriously aggravates Crohn's Disease. It's another story that has to be seen in perspective—the most reasoned advice I've found on this is adamant that taking up smoking to control colitis is not sensible, because the costs would still outweigh the benefits, but suggests that it might be worth trying nicotine patches, as a way of delivering the nicotine without all the other poisons in tobacco smoke. Trouble is, non-smokers tend to be made nauseous by nicotine patches....
posted @ 4:49 AM -
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