Saturday, December 6


Classes finished yesterday. For me this doesn't make a whole lot of difference, because I still have a backlog of work to get done by Monday. Then when it's done I pick up my last stack of grading: 70-odd scripts to grade by Friday. Then I have one final homework of my own that is due on Friday. Then there are the actual final exams.

Now you might think that when that's over I get to not work until next semester. Wrong. Were I an undergrad that might work, but all the christmas break is going to mean to me is 4 weeks of being able to actually work for myself, doing the research that has been ignobly shoved to the back burner for the past couple of months.

This semester has taken a heavy toll on me. Physically I'm in terrible shape, from too little exercise, too little sleep, totally irregular eating and sleeping patterns, and poor diet. Mentally I am exhausted to the point of just making really stupid mistakes in work, and I have to hope that somehow this doesn't screw up my exams (it probably won't, and I tend to do better than I deserve in exams, but there was a test a few weeks ago for which I felt completely brain dead). I was sort of prepared for these—I've always worked hard at university, and the toughest parts of my MSc can only be described as intense—but what has really taken me by surprise is the extent to which I feel emotionally drained. I don't really want to go into it, especially not here, but what I will say is that the endless pressure has hurt me badly.

For the moment I'm not answering the phone, not answering many emails, and just trying to get my head down and finish all the work I have to finish. I'm not going to make any rash decisions based on one semester, especially when many people say the first is always the toughest, and especially when I've had some pretty spectacular bad luck, but if next term hurts this much I will probably drop out. I'm not doing this to earn myself lots of money (PhDs are not an efficient route to that), and I'm not doing it out of some noble desire to help humanity or something. I'm doing this because it is its own reward, only the way things have been lately that simply isn't true. So I find I am putting myself through hell for something the joy of which has been killed by the pressure.

I still think next term will be better. It has to be.

posted @ 9:56 PM -

Thursday, December 4

electric tea kettles

I have a kettle in the lab. I say 'I' because I'm the only one who ever uses it. Anyway, I have to go to the common room next door to fill it, because we don't have a tap in this room. I just did that, as I do a couple of times in a typical day, and someone in the lab started talking about how great electric tea kettles are. The damn things are so rare here that they are conversation-openers!

And why do Americans feel the need to specify that it's a tea kettle? Do they actually have fish kettles round here or something?

posted @ 12:56 PM -

spam spam spam spam

An increasing proportion of the spam I receive has had long lists of random words in it. I had been wondering why this is, because it looks to me like putting more words in would just make spam filters more likely to pick things up and complain, and when you're sending 10 bazillion copies of the same email, every extra word makes the task take significantly longer to run. I've just been to a talk that explained it all.

It seems that one of AOL's spam protection systems is to check whether an identical message is getting sent to more than a certain threshold number of subscribers. This already explains why some spam comes with a little bit of random nonsense at the end of the message. However, what today's speaker was talking about was a more sophisticated document matching system, that won't be fooled by simply having one difference between each copy of the message, because it gives a measure of degrees of similarity, and AOL apparently now use such a system. The way to fool it is to put far more random junk in the spam than words that are actually the same.

Great. So in the arms race between spammers and spam filters we are getting nowhere, except that the spam itself is getting longer.

posted @ 12:53 PM -

Wednesday, December 3

succumbing to the dark side

Not long ago I found myself writing an email about how sometimes the differences between American and British grammar lead me to misinterpret sentences, especially when there's profanity in what I'm reading. Nothing wrong with that, except that I used the term overloading to describe what we do to slang words. I think I deserve a severe beating for using that word with respect to a natural language.

If I'm not careful I'll find myself joining G.A. before too long.
posted @ 11:56 PM -
Saruman to take control of Iraq
posted @ 12:57 PM -

Monday, December 1

A small victory

The US has decided to abandon one of the most humiliating and blatantly racist immigration policies that I have heard of anywhere in the world.
posted @ 7:39 PM -

the evils of autocracy, quantified in inches

Amount, in inches, by which the average North Korean 7-year-old is shorter than the average South Korean 7-year-old : 2.9 [Sunyoung Pak, Seoul National University (South Korea)]
From Harper's index.

Now of course I know what my commie friends would have to say about this. It's all yankee propaganda. Or if I could convince them otherwise (after all they don't deny that the DPRK suffers from endless famine), it would be something along the lines of the DPRK would be doing alright if it wasn't for the sanctions imposed on it. After someone points out that in fact a vast amount of food aid is given to the DPRK but the problem is it all goes to its million man army: but the army first policy is necessary to keep the country safe from American imperialist aggression.

Eventually I would get tired of the argument and give up. And for me to give up an argument before the other side does is saying something.
posted @ 7:21 PM -
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