eldan.co.uk
a sign that reads: PLEASE DRIVE SAFELY - UNMARKED NUCLEAR WARHEADS TRAVEL THESE ROADS - KEEP YOUR CHILDREN RADIATION FREE

Tuesday, September 30

divided by a common language

My house has just received a catalogue through the post. What's the featured item on the front cover? New! Microsuede Toss Pillow. I kid you not.
posted @ 2:11 PM -
I judge myself by the adverts I see
posted @ 11:58 AM -

men at work overhead

There's something very strange about sitting in what is normally my blissfully quiet study and hearing clumpy men walking around on the roof. I don't know what they are actually doing, but it's making the room smell beautiful. It's as if at the same time as removing the skanky rotten tiles they are also roasting chestnuts or something.
posted @ 9:01 AM -

a better day than yesterday

I think I may actually have slept enough last night. I didn't sleep for very long, but I woke up feeling good. More importantly, someone is coming round to see about the roof this afternoon, and in the end no threats were needed, just a couple of nagging phone calls.

Update: when the landlord said this afternoon he actually meant quicker than a 911 call. A couple of minutes after posting this the roofers arrived.
posted @ 8:00 AM -

Monday, September 29

Snooty, moi?

Possibly, but every now and then having a good sneer makes me feel better:



From: eldan
Sent: Monday, September 29, 2003 7:07 PM
To: Linda Kidsley
Subject: RE: Offering new career opportunities
Importance: High


Madam,

I don't know how you have found my email address (particularly as you have written to the one that I work hard to keep out of the public domain), and I don't know anything about SigEx SuperPBX. You evidently have not done your research very well however. While I am a computer science student, I know next to nothing about protocols or communications technology, and have neither experience nor interest in management. Also, I have just started a PhD that the most cursory of glances at my (very public and easy to find from the email address you have used) website will tell you is absorbing all of my energy at present, and is an end in itself about which I am highly motivated, and which I would not be prepared to drop for a job offer.

In short I am neither qualified for nor interested in what you are offering, and deeply irritated by the intrusion into my mailbox. Please remove me from your mailing list, and explain how you found my address in the first place.


Yours,

Eldan Goldenberg

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Linda Kidsley [
address expunged]
> Sent: Monday, September 29, 2003 6:45 PM
> To: Eldan GOLDENBERG
> Subject: Offering new career opportunities
>
>
> Dear Eldan,
>
> My name is Linda. We are now looking for qualified professionals for our new phase of hiring at SigEx SuperPBX and would like to talk to you at your earliest convenience. With our new expansion, we are in need of protocol engineers, communications and overall highly motivated management candidates. You may not have seen the latest versions of all our websites, but we are quite motivated by our ongoing opportunities.
>
> We are deploying innovative border-less networks globally and we have recently deployed for our recruiters live chats for your convenience at http://www.cantellcommunications.com. If on the other hand, you would prefer to schedule a conference call, please me at +1
[phone number expunged. It's from Sarasota County, Florida, even though they appear to be talking about relocation to South-Western France].
>
> The main information site is on http://www.sigex.com where you will find white papers and articles about Enhanced Communications as well as some of our projects, such as SigEx SuperPBX and SigEx NanoData. You may also chat with a housing specialist for Pau so you can see what your housing availability is when you arrive. For those of you who will need fellowships for the sessions, you can find out about that at http://www.sigexfellows.com. Our funding strategy is raising private equity and you may find that information at http://www.sigexventures.com. And we have our European leadership council and SuperPBX project evolution at http://www.eylc.org. Spend some time and have some fun.
>
> We are updating our talent list and we would appreciate if you could provide us with your latest resume or bio and/or accomplishments (please forward to
[address expunged]) and we would like to discuss with you at your convenience at one of the times below or you may choose to log on to our live one-on-one career chats at http://www.cantellcommunications.com to talk about your future. Please choose one of the following times and which number to call you on:
>
....
>
> We look forward to talking to you soon.
>
> Best regards,
>
> Linda Kidsley
> Partner & Managing Director
> Cantell Communications International, Inc.
>
[address expunged]
>



Frankly with a name like SigEx SuperPBX they may as well be CompuGlobalHyperMegaNet for all it tells me about their business, and all the respect it earns from me. I was also particularly impressed by the deliberate mistake, which took me a couple of readings to notice:
If on the other hand, you would prefer to schedule a conference call, please me at +1 [phone number expunged]

Makes me wonder what sort of Florida phone number it really is.
posted @ 4:33 PM -

shoot the whole day down

I did get back to sleep, but only slept very fitfully, between the noise and the fretting about where another leak was going to start. It's now lunchtime, and since my last post I have neither got anything useful done nor slept enough to feel OK. Meanwhile I'm on campus and the wireless network isn't letting me on, so there's a lot I can't do from my own computer, at the same time as my study isn't quite habitable yet (the rain has stopped, but it takes several hours for the water to finish seeping through the roof).

Update: I'm on the campus network now, and some little shit is trying to hack my computer. I wish I had the skills to retaliate....

Oh, and this message:
The VPN connection has been disconnted

would probably bother me less if they could spell. It's Cisco software; if I hadn't once worked in QA myself I'd be surprised they hadn't checked it thoroughly enough to pick up on elementary mistakes like that before releasing it.
posted @ 9:50 AM -

water torture

Summer has left us fairly abruptly. The temperatures have dropped to the point that I'm not always comfortable walking around in a T shirt, and the rains have come. So far the landlord hasn't done anything serious about the drip in my ceiling (there's a tarp up outside which means it has to rain for a few hours before the drip starts, but that's not enough).

Anyway, yesterday I bought myself a bloody massive duvet, because the light summer sleeping bag I've been using isn't enough any more, and waking up cold is not something I need to be putting myself through. I also managed to get to bed at a civilised hour for the first time in a while, and I was looking forward to actually sleeping for as long as I need. Then the dripping spread from my study (where I already have three buckets, and precautionary plastic wrapping over things that would be damaged by water) to my bedroom. I think I've caught it, and I've moved a bunch of electronic goods away from the danger zone, but I need to stay up for a little while to listen and make sure I have caught every drip. Unfortunately after that I think the rhythmic drip drip drip drip (about one every 1½ seconds) might keep me awake anyway.

If the landlord doesn't send someone round to sort this out today, I might just have to invite a building inspector round for a nice cup of tea. He's known about it for long enough, I'm on the verge of having to clear out my study, and if there's one thing I really can't abide it's things interfering with my sleep.

Update: there are two people who I sometimes refer to as my landlord. I feel like I ought to point out that I'm talking about the one who owns the house, as opposed to the flatmate from whom I am subletting. I wouldn't be so tactless as to grumble like that here about someone I live with.
posted @ 3:22 AM -

Sunday, September 28

What the (&%?

(courtesy of Need To Know)
posted @ 4:41 PM -

WHOSE MATE?

I've just been talking to an old friend in London, and while this has helped with my craving for hearing people who talk properly (I actually don't know any other Brits round here, so the BBC World Service News, the Pet Shop Boys and The Streets are all now much more appreciated by me than they used to be), it has replaced it with a strong craving for Marmite. This is the first time I have ever found myself craving British food while abroad.
posted @ 3:42 PM -

We can't say we weren't warned

A cautionary tale about what happens when the public stops trusting scientists: a stupid baseless health scare has been causing childhood disease vaccination levels to drop dangerously low for some years. There has as yet been no serious evidence linking MMR to autism or bowel disease, and in fact the magnitude of the scare has led this to be far better investigated than most potential side effects ever are, so parents are not doing their children any favours by withholding the shots. Meanwhile, measles and mumps—diseases which do sometimes kill—are on the rise. This has been warned about for some time, but no-one listens to scientists or doctors who are perceived to be in the pockets of either a government that no-one trusts or an industry with vested interests.
posted @ 9:59 AM -

Sleep is the cousin of death

I wish my body clock would let me sleep past 9 some mornings. I feel surprisingly good right now, but it's a while since I've slept a full 8 hours in a night, and this is bound to catch up with me sooner or later.
posted @ 7:21 AM -

Friday, September 26

speedy responses to market forces

Nokia has just announced the launch of some completely pointless gadgets. It's a selection of digital image jewellery, sort of like old fashioned photo lockets, only you can store a number of pictures and change the picture or hide it at the touch of a button.

The only use I can think of for this is infidelity—not allowing victim B to see victim A's picture and vice versa. Can it be a coincidence that this product was announced two weeks after a report that mobile phones are losing popularity in Italy due to the ease with which they get cheats caught?
posted @ 10:24 AM -

my last Isabel post, I promise

Hurricanes turn out to have the same regular spiral structure as galaxies, snail shells, the unfurling of ferns, that whirlpool when you drain the bath, and cauliflower.
posted @ 9:42 AM -

Thursday, September 25

schadenfreude

here's a survey that will make a few men's day. I feel I ought to take this opportunity to remind my gentle readers that I am Italian by paper trail only, not by blood.
posted @ 7:08 PM -

Seeing the wood from the trees

The past couple of weeks have been very frustrating for me academically, because I feel like I haven't been able to do what I came here for.

The main difference between American and British PhDs (and the reason why American ones take so much longer) is that the thesis and viva do not constitute the entire degree here. It is also necessary to get a certain number of credits from taught courses, and pass what are called qualifying exams, which involve having to know about a range of topics in one's subject area, rather than just being the world expert on a very specific sort of widget. The way this seems to work is that the first couple of years involve doing so many taught courses that they are not unlike a Master's degree in the UK, and over time students gradually specialise more, and transfer a bit more time from taught courses to research.

This system is one of the reasons I'm here. When I looked at places to study I didn't exclusively consider American universities, but in the end all 3 that I applied to were in this country and operate this sort of system, and it is something that I considered an advantage in making that shortlist. At this point, though I know quite a lot about certain specialised parts of my field, there are also huge glaring gaps in my general Computer Science knowledge. Some of these actually constrain the kinds of things I can do, many of them slow me down because I find myself re-inventing techniques that I could have just used standard versions of had I ever learned them, and overall it makes me less confident in the sorts of things I can argue in a paper. By the time I finish here I don't want to feel like there are still major holes in what I know.

However, one thing that has taken me by surprise (though talking to my brother, who is at UCL, has made me realise that this isn't the transatlantic difference I thought it was) is that the structure of the taught courses themselves is very different here from Sussex. For my MSc there was very little assessment during the term, and for most courses all of the credit would be earned by either handing in a single substantial project after the end, or taking an exam. Here, by contrast, there are homework assignments every couple of weeks (for each of my 3 courses, so there's at least one each week), at least one midterm exam for each course, and exams at the end of the course. This has certain advantages—at Sussex it was easy to drift for weeks at a time and suddenly realise there was a whole pile of reading I should have done in order to understand the course, whereas here the structure makes that impossible—but the price is that it's far too easy to lose sight of longer term, and ultimately more important and more fulfilling goals because the next little hurdle takes too much attention. This is especially true when one of the assignments happens to hit one of the gaps in my knowledge, so I find myself working out far more than I should have to on the fly.

We have weekly lab meetings, and we've just had one in which I had to tell my supervisor that I had nothing to report. So far he's not being very hard on me about this, just waving a carrot in front of me in the form of the hope that I can get something into next year's SAB conference, but it bothers me. Partly because I've made no progress this week is an embarassing thing to have to say to Randy, slightly more because I feel like I'm letting Jacob (the MS student who I'm working with, who has a much tighter schedule than me) down, but mainly because I want to see some results.

Hopefully the coming week will be better. Right now I have no grading pending (the next batch will arrive next Wednesday) and only one pifflingly small homework assignment (LISP, but it's not even a program as such - I have to write one function in two ways and it should take an hour or two). I will have to spend some quality time with the Algorithms textbook because there's too much in that class that I'm not sure I get, but I should actually have time to play with my own toys too.
posted @ 1:48 PM -
I have just been cited as an example of how it is possible to be normal and part of this lab. I have never before been cited as a shining example of normality. I shudder to think what this might imply for how I will be after a few years here.
posted @ 1:27 PM -

benefits of tai chi quantified

This is the first time I've read about a proper clinical trial to test this sort of claim: a team at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute has found that elderly peoples' immune systems are measurably boosted by regular tai chi practice.
posted @ 11:35 AM -

Wednesday, September 24

they take their cattle very seriously in the New World

To paraphrase Michael. He may have a point.
posted @ 10:33 PM -

Tuesday, September 23

File under: only in America

The Cheeseburger fry. Key quote:
When people bite into it, you want them to get the wow effect: `Wow, this tastes just like a cheeseburger
Just like a cheeseburger, only we decided to batter and deep fry it in case it was too healthy. Now we can all be like Elvis, thanks to the inventiveness of the National Cattleman's Beef Association.
posted @ 11:27 AM -

Monday, September 22

Pavlov's grad students

It is a common misconception that Ivan Pavlov worked out the process of conditioning by experimenting on dogs. In fact his subjects were graduate students. Here is a rough outline of how it works:

Our lab has a fridge and microwave, so to keep our diets and wallets healthy we tend to bring in our own food and re-heat it for lunch. Other peoples' food, Sean's in particular, tends to smell very appetising. This means that if he gets hungry before I do, the cooking of his lunch will trigger me getting hungry. Except that now this doesn't even wait for the microwave to be opened - the sound of the microwave makes me hungry.

I don't think anyone's noticed the drooling yet.
posted @ 10:05 AM -

Sunday, September 21

The importance of quick feedback

I have other peoples' homework to grade. I take this responsibility fairly seriously, and set myself two targets: a breakable goal of returning all scripts within a week, and a cast-iron requirement that I return all scripts before students are likely to have started work on the next assignment. This can at times put some pressure on me, but I know from being a student myself that falling short of the second target makes life unnecessarily difficult for the students.

Take, for instance, the homework I'm trying to get done right now. It's for Analysis of Algorithms, which is the one course this semester that I'm finding really difficult. We handed our first homework in two weeks ago, and I wasn't very happy with it. Some of the questions I'm confident I answered right, some I may just have made careless errors on because I did the homework after grading 50 scripts that took much longer than I expected, but much more importantly there were questions I wasn't sure I was even approaching in the right way. See, the whole difficulty with this course (and the whole reason I'm taking it - it's as important for me as it is hard) lies in proving assertions. For most of the questions I can get a pretty clear idea of the answer using the same vague, hand-waving methods that have got me through a couple of years of effectively being a computer scientist who has never studied computer science, but I feel like this is not good enough.

At this point, I'm having a minor crisis of confidence with the exercise I should be doing instead of writing this. It would have really helped if I could have had feedback from the last homework before doing this. If the feedback were better than I am expecting, I could proceed faster with this lot, having dispelled some of that self-doubt. If it were negative but informative (another thing I try to achieve with my marking) I could probably have used the lessons to make this set of work better. If it were negative but uninformative I could at least have gone to the instructor by now for advice. But this homework is due tomorrow morning, and we haven't even been told when to expect the last one back.

I'm not too concerned about the actual marks I get—each of these exercises contributes no more than 4% towards the grade for a course on which I only need a B—but I feel like I'd be learning a lot more if I could incorporate some feedback into the work I hand in, and understanding this stuff does matter.
posted @ 2:37 PM -

non sequiturs

Since its launch, I have been rather fond of Google News. It uses some sort of automated system to aggregate links to news stories from all of the sources that Google indexes for its news search. This has the advantage of covering a far wider range of sources than I would ever have the time to look through myself, and although it can't be immune to editorial bias the range of conflicting biases goes some way towards cancelling out skew.

It's also generally pretty good at grouping together related stories. There are, however, exceptions:

Experts warn of Saudi Arabia nuclear threat ... UAE also rejects 'tainted' Australian sheep
posted @ 11:08 AM -

Saturday, September 20

Help! Save us from all this technology!

Phones4U have decided to ban email at work, on the basis that it will improve productivity because staff waste so many hours each day on their computers. It will be interesting to see how this pans out; whether in a few months time the management of other firms follow their lead, or whether the management of Phones4U decide it was all a big mistake.

I expect the latter. I could write a book on computer based timewasting at work (I suspect most people who have managed to maintain a blog while employed could too), but at the same time the amount of time I waste is directly proportional to how much time I can afford to waste on a given day, and email does have genuine advantages as a communication medium. It's not unusual for me to email people sitting in the same room as me, and while the cod-psychology interpretation of this behaviour is to say that we lack social skills, it's actually got nothing to do with not wanting to talk to each other. If I have a non-urgent query, I have a choice between interrupting a colleague by talking to him, in which case he will lose the thread of what he's doing, and potentially waste quite a lot of time as a result, or emailing, in which case he will read it at a time that suits him. If (as is often the case) I feel like sharing something that isn't really work related, I simply wouldn't bother if I had to interrupt other peoples' trains of thought to do it, so using email actually increases the amount of banter in the lab.

I will be watching this one to see if I'm right. It could be that I take my work more seriously than most people, and my faith in others to only waste time when they have time to waste is misplaced. Even if that is true, I reckon this is a case of a boss underestimating the advantages brought by the technology.
posted @ 2:11 PM -

Friday, September 19

Entry requirements for the USA

While I'm writing public service announcements, it's time to report on another Immigration and Naturalization Service genius scheme. For the past few years (as long as I can remember) citizens of many countries (certainly both Britain and Italy) have been able to visit the USA without a visa. Recently they've decided that this will only apply to people with machine-readable passports. In itself this is a fairly sensible move, because it will encourage people to upgrade their passports to a kind that allow passport control to be conducted far more quickly, and it forces governments to issue MRPs (Italy took their time doing this, though the new passport I got this year is machine readable). However, the true genius of the INS shows up when you read the whole statement, and it transpires that this requirement comes into effect on the first of October, this year. Considering that most people don't know this is happening, I have visions of long lines of EU citizens being sent home from US passport control in a couple of weeks' time, even though they are entitled to the Visa Waiver Program, because no-one warned them that they need to replace their passports or get a visa.
posted @ 3:39 PM -

virus alert [yawn]

There's a virus about sending emails claiming to be from Microsoft. Usual story really: big companies don't generally send unsolicited mail, because it gets them too much bad PR, and they certainly don't send security-related stuff like that because it would be too easy to impersonate. If you get mail claiming to be from Microsoft it's almost certainly a hoax, and if it contains instructions like 'run this code' or 'send us sensitive information', check it out before following the instructions.
posted @ 3:26 PM -

Isabel's aftermath

All told, Hurricane Isabel hasn't been that spectacular. Over here there's been a bit of wind and quite a lot of rain, but really nothing much worse than a typical autumn day (or week or month for that matter) in Brighton. Admittedly it was enough to make my roof leak, but I take that as a sign that the roof needs fixing, not that the rain was biblical in its extent.

It has done some damage nearer the coast, where the intensity was greater, as documented in these pictures, but still nowhere near the apocalypse that was hyped a few days ago. I'm not sure whether this means we've been lucky this time or that the hype was unfounded.

Meanwhile the TV news coverage has been hilarious. All of the networks seem to have agreed that simply reporting on what's going on is not good enough; they have to have some people actually out there braving the wind on the North Carolina coast. Between the main channels I've been treated to a reporter getting literally blown away (he seemed surprisingly unhurt after getting blown off camera and apparently hitting a wall), another being unable to speak because of the force of the wind into his mouth, cameras shaking like battle scenes in the original Star Trek series, and inaudible sound when the microphones just couldn't compete with the wind.

The prize for most absurd coverage has to go to the intrepid reporter who while clinging to a lamp post was talking about how stupid the two sightseers behind her were. The anchor asked her to go over and talk to them, so she let go of the lamp post and staggered over. When she put it to the people that they were stupid to be out here they just pointed out that she was out in the same conditions and asked her what she was doing. It turns out they were relatively well informed, and they proceeded to tell viewers far more interesting information about the hurricane than the paid reporter had done.

I wonder if the reporters would have been out there had Isabel lived up to her original billing.
posted @ 3:05 PM -

Thursday, September 18

She's here

Hurricane Isabel made landfall early this afternoon. She's beautiful, though perhaps I would be less inclined to say that if I were in one of the regions that's bearing the brunt. The effects are already being felt here—at about the time the main storm surge was bearing down on North Carolina the sky clouded over, we've had a fantastic red/orange sunset, and the first drops of rain have just started to fall. Though we aren't in for a real battering, tomorrow should be interesting.
posted @ 6:06 PM -

Wednesday, September 17

Gestalt

I've just been sent something interesting by Mark. Read the following
passage carefully:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe
posted @ 9:08 AM -

Tuesday, September 16

presumption of guilt

Remember Lotfi Raissi? He was the British resident Algerian pilot who was imprisoned for months because the FBI decided he was a co-conspirator in the WTC attacks. He was eventually released last year, when a judge declared that there was simply no case for him to answer, and now he's suing the FBI and the US Justice Department for basically ruining his life.

I hope he is successful, because his case is a perfect example of why the innocent do have something to fear from overbearing laws; something which is becoming all the more important in the UK as the police start using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to go after peaceful protesters.

Update: I've just realised [Wednesday] I had managed to link to a subscriber-only article, which is bad form. The gist of that piece was that police at a large arms fair in east London have arrested a number of protestors under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000. The PTA is a piece of truly awful legislation that gives far too much power to the police, including the right to indefinite detention without charge (what Raissi fell foul of - normally the police wouldn't be allowed to keep someone locked up for more than a week without formally charging them, which in turn would give a judge the chance to free the accused if there really is no evidence), and the grounds for arresting someone as a suspected terrorist are extremely vague and open to abuse. When the law was passed the government's response to protests was roughly that we shouldn't be so hysterical, because this law will only be used to go after bad people, but if bad laws are left on the statute books they will eventually be abused. As the article concludes:

The justification for such draconian powers was that they would be used only against real terrorists. No one said anything about peaceniks.
posted @ 8:52 PM -

so... big

No, not that. Hurricane Isabel. It's at least the size of the Gulf of Mexico, and it's headed this way.

It has already started to weaken a little as it travels over cooler water, and as it passes the Gulf Stream and finds itself over the cold north-south current along the East Coast it may well weaken a little more, but it will probably still be pretty destructive when it hits land. The news here has given a lot of time to reporting on the many thousands of people being evacuated from the areas its expected to hit.

By the time it reaches here it will have passed over enough land not to really amount to much any more—I don't know if it will even still have the recognisable form of a hurricane, but in any case it won't be wreaking havoc here—but apparently we can still expect high winds and freakish amounts of rainfall.

posted @ 8:43 PM -

food fight

Some, but not all, of America's politicians are mature enough to want to stop playing silly name games like Freedom Fries. According to those who do not want the name changed back to French Fries, the congressional passion in support of [the troops in Iraq] has not changed, therefore apparently it would be unacceptable to make a small conciliatory gesture to France at a time when America desperately needs France's help with the UN Security Council, to help the troops in Iraq. Evidently it's more important not to be seen to back down over something that the rest of the world almost universally laughs at.
posted @ 8:03 PM -

Initiative 77

The people of Seattle voted today on whether to tax espresso and espresso based drinks. I think the initiative's definition of luxury is somewhat skewed, and perhaps they would be better off using the Italian (or at least Roman—I don't know if this is nationwide) classification, which not only counts espresso drunk without a seat as an untaxable luxury, but actually fixes its price absurdly low. More to the point, one of the readers of this BBC article came up with a far better target for an arbitrary selective tax: umbrellas carried by little women in crowded streets. The revenue could be used to buy sunglasses to protect the eyes of less short men, which I would definitely appreciate having already lost one pair and broken another since arriving here (bringing my toll to 5 pairs this year—I have a real problem with sunglasses).

Update: they've rejected the tax
posted @ 8:03 PM -

Monday, September 15

calling London

Even with the wonders of internet news I feel somewhat out of touch, and would love to hear personal accounts of a few London stories:
  1. Are people being as mean to David Blaine as it sounds from over here, and is it funny or just plain nasty?
  2. Are things really starting to go tits up for the Labour Party, or have I just been reading too much of the left wing British press?
  3. Are your utilities even shoddier than Cleveland's?
  4. And last but not least: is Angle-Grinder Man for real and has anyone seen him in action?
Oh, and while I'm on the London theme, get thee to the Science Museum in the next few months for the Lord of the Rings exhibition. I saw it in Te Papa (yes I am gloating - wouldn't you?) and it was fascinating.
posted @ 8:40 PM -

My unpersonhood is officially over

Two important items arrived in the post today: my social security card, and the first issue of my Economist subscription. I am now officially a person (non-resident alien with the right to work to be precise)
posted @ 8:40 PM -

Unwanted extra features

Microsoft Word's grammar check can be pretty annoying at the best of times, but I really wasn't expecting to get a free political correctness checker bundled with it:

A screenshot of Word telling me that it's no longer OK to refer to a canonical AI problem as the 'travelling SALESMAN problem'
posted @ 10:15 AM -

I am apparently female

At least that's what the Gender Genie thinks, based on my last post. Considering the rather stereotypical criteria that it uses to base these judgements on (according to the article in Nature), this is probably a good thing, as it seems to be based on the assumption that all men are autistic (and in fact has nothing to do with the last post being about things normally found in kitchens).

[thanks to Joel of Pax Nortona for the link]
posted @ 9:50 AM -

A petty complaint

While I realise that the dumping of much tea was an important symbolic act in the birth of the USA, there's no excuse for this country's hot beverage backwardness. I'm not referring to the selection of drinks available—I've been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to find decent teabags (and not just the product that Tetley are marketing as British Blend, which actually isn't very nice) and a wide selection of loose leaf teas—but the primitive tools for making them. The automatic electric kettle doesn't appear to have reached these otherwise kitchen-gadget-laden shores yet.

In my house there is an old fashioned kettle that has to be put on the stove, and whistles when its ready. In a reversal of usual national roles, I find this rather quaint, as these beasts are more or less extinct where I come from, but I am told this is fairly typical (I was told this by a Brit, whose explanation was that Americans don't drink tea, which is blatantly untrue). At work we don't have a stove, so there is an electric kettle of sorts, but it has no switch (how much could adding a simple switch have added to the manufacturing cost?) and doesn't stop when the water's boiled, so left to its own devices it will simply boil off its entire contents and turn the room into a sauna.

A note for the benefit of American readers: I realise I'm being very stereotypical by moving from Britain and then proceeding to complain about something related to tea, so I ought to point out that I actually drink a lot more tea than most of my friends back home and am much more fussy about it. We're not all like this, any more than you all feel the need to wave more flags than you have hands (see yesterday's photo).
posted @ 9:33 AM -

Sunday, September 14

Not entirely surprisingly, the WTO negotiations in Cancun have failed. This is bad, to say the least.

Though I think that morally I hold similar beliefs to the majority of the anti-WTO protesters, I have never really been able to support them. In 1999 (when the protesters really hit the big time in Seattle) this was simply because I didn't see any positive programme to complement the outbursts against the establishment. Since then my position has become more coherent and actually somewhat more pro-establishment. I have come round to the opinion that the WTO are not the bad guys at all, and what the third world really needs are more opportunities to trade with rich countries—precisely what the WTO would like to give them. The problem at the moment is that vested interests of the EU and US (the briefing I've linked to is careful not to name guilty parties, but if previous form is any guide the EU will be the chief villain, with the US coming in a close second (and Japan and a handful of others aiding and abetting), because they aren't willing to drop farm subsidies) combined with the immense negotiating power that accrues when the two richest entities' interests coincide make that level playing field a distant dream.

There is nothing we in the rich parts of the world could do that would benefit the poorest countries more than playing by the rules and dropping our agricultural subsidies. A move which, as a collateral benefit, would also halve the EU budget at a stroke (I don't know the equivalent numbers for America).
posted @ 8:14 PM -
Having finished this weekend's homework at a more civilised hour than last Sunday, I'm back to grading. I have quite a few scripts left to mark this evening, but I should still be finished in time for a decent night's sleep (I'm trying to give the students' feedback fast enough that they can read and respond before the next homework is done, which not all of my past tutors managed to do, but seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for students to demand). That task has just been made easier by finding the first error free paper. If there were too many of these I'd be inclined to argue that the homework was too easy, but I didn't think it was a particularly hard assignment, so it is nice to see at least one.
posted @ 8:14 PM -

Just bad taste

Cleveland, Ohio

A bicycle flying an absurd quantity of red white and blue

September 13th 2003

I realise that Britain is particularly ashamed of its own flag, and I do find that rather sad, but I also find this opposite extreme rather hard to swallow.
posted @ 12:12 PM -

How different Israel looks from here

This morning I was flicking channels, procrastinating work, and stumbled across a C-SPAN programme with guests representing the State of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. The format was familiar: a guest representing each side given the chance to speak for a short time, and then the phone lines were opened up. What the guests had to say was also familiar, but once the calls started to come in it was impossible to forget that I have moved country.

Even as someone who is not a zionist, is rather ambivalent about the State of Israel, and has a strong antipathy to the current Israeli government, there were times in Britain when I found myself switching off the TV or swearing at the editors because the programming seemed so determined to present a one-sided story that they just conveniently ignore any wrongdoing on the Palestinian side. This was a perfect mirror image. After a few callers I just had to change the channel because I was feeling so sorry for the Palestinian representative.

The mirroring is perfect, in that on both sides of the Atlantic there is no need for the bias to take the form of untruth. I didn't actually disagree with any of the points of fact made by callers, and while some of what they had to say was completely irrelevant (I am particularly tired of the Israel is an older word than Palestine argument), the real problem was in what was not being said. In Britain I would listen to such a thing just wishing that someone would point out that Israelis are regularly murdered in terrorist attacks. This morning I was listening to that point being made with admirable force, just wishing that someone would point out that the entire Palestinian population is being subjected to collective punishment for this.

I knew before I got here that I would find both the media and the general population much more pro-Israeli than in Britain, but I was surprised at the strength of the contrast. And this was C-SPAN—it's not like I was watching Fox News or anything.

posted @ 11:41 AM -

Saturday, September 13

puerile politics

Sadly, one of the things that looks exactly the same over here as at my last university is the extreme shallowness of student politics. There are elections soon for the Undergraduate Student Government (there's a much bigger separation between undergrad and graduate student organisations here, but this is basically equivalent to a British students' union with postgrads excluded by design rather than mere apathy), and campaigning appears to have started. People are putting up posters and chalking the ground, so I know a number of the candidates' names, but so far I know absolutely nothing about what any of them would do were they elected. If I were an undergrad my choice would be between voting for the one who draws a cute Tinkerbelle in chalk or the one with the more interesting sounding name. FOR GOD'S SAKE PEOPLE: if student reps actually do their job properly they do have the power to make a positive difference in quite a few peoples' lives. I just don't see that happening here if what I've seen so far is indicative of the depth of thought the candidates have devoted to things.
posted @ 2:21 PM -

Friday, September 12

If you're in London this evening

This could be amusing: a flash mob to laser-pointer David Blaine. Oh, and if you haven't seen the Blainetology episode of South Park I strongly recommend tracking it down.
posted @ 8:44 AM -

Thursday, September 11

Grading

A very obvious observation: grading about 5 scripts is actually quite interesting, especially when the very first one has a cleverer solution to one of the problems than I had come up with. After that it becomes very repetitive.
posted @ 10:17 AM -

Wednesday, September 10

Sale of the century

If you're in the market for useless but cool items, get your wallet out: Concorde is up for auction, piece by piece.
posted @ 6:32 PM -

Monday, September 8

Just one link before I get back to work. I found this as inspiring as it was unexpected: Oil and wildlife 'can co-exist' from BBC News.
posted @ 4:34 PM -

all work and some play makes Jack a tired boy

Partly through my own bad planning, I've found work getting in the way of blogging lately. Normal service will resume when I'm on top of my workload, which should only be in a day or two, but might take longer.

Here's what's happened:
  1. Discover that the textbook I've taken out of the library (while I wait for a new copy to arrive mail order) is a different edition from the one we've been set work from, and the changes do matter
  2. Use this as an excuse to procrastinate starting that piece of homework, finally getting around to borrowing a current edition the day before the deadline
  3. Have a fun weekend involving a hypnotically beautiful movie (Microcosmos), live music courtesy of the CWRU radio station and football (complete with realisation of quite how unfit I am) and moon cake courtesy of these lovely people, but finally finish the work at 3am because I had underestimated how much there would be
  4. Hand work in this morning
  5. Tomorrow we have a lab meeting, and I haven't yet done the work I was hoping to be able to talk about, so I'll be busy till then
  6. Tomorrow I am also meeting the instructor I'll be grading for, and picking up 52 scripts. In the interest of giving students feedback quickly enough for it to be useful I'm hoping to get them all marked within a week
  7. Next Monday the other course I'm grading for has a homework deadline so the same process will repeat, but with half as many scripts
All systems go. Still, today I finally managed to get my ID card authorised to let me into the lab, so my list of non-academic things that waste my time is shrinking at least.
posted @ 4:33 PM -

Friday, September 5

ha!

I found out today that I am grading homework for two of the classes that I'm enrolled on this semester. Unfortunately the instructor is grading my homework. I did suggest that one extra script wouldn't make that much difference to me....
posted @ 1:03 PM -

Thursday, September 4

a subtle change

My spell checker didn't have the word electable in its dictionary, so in that last post it suggested delectable as an alternative. For the benefit of those who can only read about them, not see them live on TV, I feel I have to point out that all the potential candidates are substantially less delectable than they are electable.
posted @ 9:32 PM -

mass debate

Today I learned something important about American politics. I spent a couple of hours watching the televised debate between would-be Democratic Party presidential candidates, and was impressed by precisely none of them. I'm not trying to judge them as potential presidents, but as potential vote-winners, and none of them exactly oozed charisma. The one who at least got some sort of flow and conviction into his speech (Dennis Kucinich, the representative for Cleveland as it happens) was spouting a brand of trade-union old left rhetoric (trade protectionism, mainly) that would have got him purged from the British Labour party in the Kinnock era, can't possibly be electable in this day and age, and would be disastrous for the US and world economy if it were enacted.

Anyway, what the spectacle made me realise was that while our leaders may represent theoretically opposing parties, and while the circumstances of their election are very different, the current political situation in Britain and America is actually very similar. A leader who a year ago was popular is now ripe for replacement, but the opposition parties are such a mess that they are simply failing to capitalise on public disillusionment.

I know I'll regret this, but I venture a prediction: Bush and Blair will both lead their respective parties to victory in the next elections, but they will win by small margins in polls with record low turn-outs, and minority parties and independent candidates will get a record share of the vote.

apologies for the puerile title, but the more unimpressed I was with what I was watching the more I found I could not get the phrase out of my head
posted @ 9:32 PM -

Something sensible about immigrants

Britain has several very serious problems with immigration. By this I don't mean that it gets too many immigrants, or that it's going to be turned into an Islamic caliphate by the incoming swarm of Muslims, or that the wrong sort of immigrants are behind the appalling state of some public services, though I have heard all of these things claimed quite seriously by people who don't appear to be part of any lunatic fringe. What it does suffer from is a lack of integration among immigrants—a two-way shortfall with some immigrant communities being unhealthily insular, and many WASP Brits being deeply prejudiced; evils that reinforce each other—and a deep fear in government of actually doing anything positive about this, because every possible move will be condemned by someone.

For some time I've felt that language skills are a major part of the problem. People will naturally cluster with those from a similar background, and in itself this is harmless, but one of the factors that turns this from a mild factor of social choice into isolationism is difficulty communicating with locals. It strikes me as perfectly reasonable to demand a certain standard of fluency in English as a condition of permanent residence in the country. This is the sort of thing the opposition are fond of demanding and the government is afraid to implement because it upsets the left so deeply, but there is a compromise that I think the government might be finally coming round to.

What is not reasonable, particularly for bona fide refugees (who presumably didn't have much chance to prepare for their arrival in the UK) is to demand very much of people on arrival. However, by the time people have been in the country for a few years they should be expected to show basic competence in the language. Meanwhile, it should be made as easy as possible for people who are serious about integrating to learn English. At the moment there is shockingly little support for new immigrants, except for that provided by charities (which tend to serve refugees only, because their need is greatest) and by their own communities (which in turn feeds into the insularities).

This week I've been reading about how the government is considering introducing a Britishness test for immigrants and offering free English lessons for new arrivals. The carrot and stick combined might just work, and at least as importantly it signifies a shift from treating immigration as inherently a problem to actually doing something positive about the specific problems we have with it.
posted @ 8:50 AM -

Tuesday, September 2

The drug of the nation

One of the things that has managed to surprise me, even though it shouldn't, is the sheer density of advertising on American TV. It shouldn't surprise me because imported programmes are often just short of a full length slot when they appear on British commercial television, and a difference in the amount of advertising is the simplest explanation for this, but I wasn't prepared for quite how bad it is.

We have five mainstream news channels (two flavours of CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Rupert's Rabid Reactionaries), and yet there's so little news reported between commercial breaks that I've come to realise it's often not worth watching TV news (never mind the extreme insularity and flippancy of the TV news here). Even though at the moment I only have dial-up internet access from home, and it's pretty slow dial-up at that, and I'm trying to avoid hogging the phone line because we have a room to rent, I'm still finding myself using internet news sources because it's quicker than waiting until one of the TV stations actually shows some news.

The thing that I find really strange about this is that a huge proportion of US households have the alternative of internet news, and just about everyone can get a newspaper. If enough people made the same choice as me, showing such a high density of advertising would be counter-productive to the TV networks because the value of those advertising slots would drop with their viewing figures. I'm fairly sure that all the news networks we get are from well run companies, and certainly they've all been around for long enough that if they weren't making money they would have gone bust by now, so what they are doing must work. I can only assume that a large enough proportion of American TV viewers have become so tolerant of the incessant breaks, or so content to be merely passive consumers of whatever media are pushed in their direction, that they just sit there.

After all the stick that the BBC's been getting in recent months coming here has reminded me that they are good for some things.
posted @ 8:48 PM -

arse-elbow update

Last week I was crowing about how much more efficient CWRU's admin is than Sussex's. While I still think this is generally true, there is one notable exception: my key card still doesn't let me into the lab. While I'm tempted to say this gives my colleagues much needed screen breaks, I hope it's not annoying them as much as it is me, because it means I can't actually work alone in the lab, because as soon as I were to go out for a toilet break or a drink I'd find myself locked out. It feels like being at primary school....
posted @ 8:01 PM -

Monday, September 1

This weekend I...

  • Had my first experience of one of the things foreigners love to complain about in America—being unable to get drinks at a bar without ID. I'm 25 for god's sake. I haven't been ID'd in about a decade, and I could really do without having to carry my passport whenever I want a drink.
  • Found a good fresh produce market and an Asian supermarket, so I now know where to find all the specific ingredients I could want, as well as all the over-gaudy red and gold tack a household could ever need.
  • Wasted an inordinate amount of time trying to buy a mobile phone, because there's no equivalent to the Carphone Warehouse here, so I've had to hunt down individual networks' stores, which are spread very thinly, and it seems in fact I won't be able to get one until I have a credit card and social security number
  • Am spending Labor [sic] Day doing work and laundry because it's been the first dreary rainy day since my arrival. It's nice to know that whatever else is different, crappy weather on public holidays is a reliable constant wherever I happen to live.

posted @ 11:49 AM -
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