Sunday, December 28

annoying cinematic experiences

spoiler for ROTK below.

I finally got to see Return Of The King this evening. I enjoyed most of the film, minor quibbles notwithstanding, and much to my surprise I really enjoyed the 'been there' feeling for some of the scenery. There were a few things that deeply irritated me though.

Only one of them was to do with the film itself. They entirely cut out the scouring of the Shire. It's one of the most important chapters of the book, because it makes it clear that even the Shire, with all its sense of security stemming from being so out of the way (does this remind anyone else of New Zealand?) can't be untouched by something as cataclysmic as the events of that story. In the film, the hobbits get back, and everything's just fine and dandy thankyou, let's go to the pub and drink some ale like the old days. It makes it all too easy.

The good news is that I know the scouring of the Shire was filmed, because the making of LOTR exhibition I saw in Wellington included sets for it, so hopefully it will show up in the extended DVD version.

The bigger irritation though was the audience. At their worst, Americans really do act like bloody children, and the audience in a multiplex in a shopping mall showcases them at their worst.

First of all there are the mobile phones. It's bad enough that people don't switch off their phones when the "please switch off your cellphones" thing is screened just before the film starts, but you'd think after the first one has gone off and many people have shouted their irritation everyone else would switch theirs off. The icing on the cake was the reprobate who decided to actually take the call, just as Shelob was catching Frodo, puncturing one of the more tense moments of the film.

Then there's the applause. I don't understand why American film audiences feel the need to applaud when a good guy wins a fight. When I watched Independence Day in Atlanta on the 4th of July it was just bemusing, but it's a lightweight film and Will Smith pauses at key moments as if expecting the applause. Since then, I haven't seen a film in a big multiplex in this country; only the Case Film Society and the local arthouse place, where audiences are a little more demure. This time round the applause was far more irritating, because it actually masked lines of dialogue and spoiled important moments.

What I really can't accept, because it's a matter of collective egocentrism rather than possibly being forgetfulness (if I am charitable about the phones) or a straightforward cultural difference (the applause), is the way people talk over the film. It's not that I never talk during a movie, nor that I never make inappropriately flippant comments at serious moments, but I keep them quiet, so only the people who have chosen to see a film with me have to hear them. This was an alien concept to the cretin behind me, who among other 'comic gems' decided to announce that Samwise Gamgee has HIV. Not to mention the people actually shouting across the room to each other.

And to cap it all the house lights came on twice during the film.

I definitely need to see this film again, but I might wait till it comes out on DVD.

posted @ 8:27 PM -

Thursday, December 25

"I always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey"

For the second year running I've managed to do something a lot of Brits would envy: spend Christmas somewhere sunny. I'm not sure I like it.

This year is better than last year, because I haven't gone to the ends of the earth only to find myself surrounded by fellow tourists from where I started from, and being with family makes it feel somewhat more like Christmas. All the same, it doesn't feel like Christmas to me if it isn't cold outside.

Oh well. Christmas or no Christmas I'm managing to have a nice holiday and get quite a lot of work done at the same time, so I'm not really complaining. I hope you have a lovely break too, whether Christmas means anything to you or not.

posted @ 9:59 AM -

Tuesday, December 23

one thing is finished

I'm a long way from finishing with the loose ends from the semester just gone, but this morning I had some encouraging news. I got a B in Algorithms, which is the one course I have finished all the work for. Normally I don't like getting Bs, but this course was probably the hardest thing any stage of education has thrown at me, and a B is good enough not to have to re-take it, so I'm happy.

Before next term starts I have various pieces of late homework to finish for my other two courses, so I won't know how I've done on them until mid-January, and I am worried that I made enough of a mess of one of the exams that I won't be able to salvage it. That's not for me to worry about now though—for the coming week I will be doing lab work and nothing else, and even that feels like a holiday.

posted @ 8:44 AM -

Saturday, December 20

Miami was a university before Florida was a state

I'm in Miami now. As I've said before, this isn't going to be a proper holiday because I have so much work left over from the term. Don't feel too sorry for me though. For one thing I can be full time for the next 10 days on the work I've been looking forward to a chance to getting back into. Then there's the miles of open ocean I can see from the window, and while it's surprisingly cold for South Florida, the weather is still a welcome break from what we've been getting in Cleveland.

The journey here was utterly ridiculous. I can't be bothered to go into the details, but two things strike me: this morning I heard the longest and most complicated explanation ever for a flight delay (part of which was that we ended up having to make an extra stop for fuel), and I would advise everyone who knows me to never, ever fly in North America with me. I don't understand why, but there is some sort of cursed interaction between me and aviation on this continent. I can get across the Pacific with no hassle at all, but when I have to deal with an American airport something is guaranteed to go wrong. Meanwhile other people manage to fly round here with no trouble, so there must be something more specific to my curse.

posted @ 9:47 PM -

Friday, December 19

like talking to a cold, heartless machine

One of the things I've noticed here is that where British companies use dial 1 to have your time wasted, dial 2 if you want us to make you shout at the telephone systems to avoid having to pay a human being to answer the phone, American companies are much more fond of computerised voice recognition systems. These things drive me up the wall. First of all I just feel like such an idiot talking to a machine, whereas I'm quite comfortable interacting with machines by pressing buttons. But the real problem is that I have trouble using the damn things. It's bad enough most of the time, just because I have an accent that means I have to do a poor impression of a local if I want turm-EH-dough in my sandwich, but when the thing really breaks down is when I have a blocked nose because of the flu.

I've just reconfirmed my flight with American Airlines, and their machine is particularly over-ambitious. It extracted the flight number and date from me after considerable repetition, but wouldn't simply tell me there had been no further schedule change since the last one. Instead it wanted me to say my name, so it could confirm my actual booking. All very useful in theory, if only it worked. Each time it tried to spell the name it had understood back to me, taking my first name as Hilda once and Melvin several times, until finally it let me speak to a real human being (who had no trouble at all understanding me).

I was going to also put the absurd (because they're so far from mine) guessed surnames up, but then it occurred to me that there is also a privacy issue created by this system. It thought I was the same Melvin repeatedly, so it must be guessing from the pool of names actually booked on the flight. That means that in effect I had started a fishing expedition which if I were so inclined I could use to construct a passenger list for the flight; information that the airline wouldn't give me if I were to ask them directly.

posted @ 12:42 PM -

F words

Despair as Eldan engages in some of the most tenuous linking of a post ever witnessed!

Finals were no more pleasant than I expected. I've had the results from the one (Systems Software) that I had expected to be easier, and it turns out I really made a mess of the exam; I'll find out in the next couple of weeks whether I did quite well enough with the coursework to make up for this, and I'm not optimistic. The one that I was most scared of (Algorithms) didn't seem any worse than I was expecting, but I'm still waiting for a result (should have been posted today, but hasn't yet) and my scores on the course so far were borderline enough that everything hangs on the actual test score.

Since the day I finished exams, I've been hit quite hard by the flu that's doing the rounds. It was bound to happen—when enough people you know catch something like that there's really no escape—and for a couple of weeks I was expecting it to hit pretty much when it did. My immune system seems quite good at just holding things at bay when I really need it to, and then collapsing like [insert bad taste joke here because I can't bring myself to do it] as soon as I start to slightly relax. It really could have hit at a much worse time, but it does mean I haven't yet had the chance to see Return of the King because I didn't want to infect 300 people by spending hours in a confined space with them.

And now the good news. Tomorrow I'm off to Florida. Sadly it isn't going to be much of a holiday, as I have to take with me the work I've failed to get done this term, but a change of scene will be good.
posted @ 6:47 AM -

Thursday, December 11

more good timing

I may not believe in God, therefore rendering the most literal interpretation of what's below somewhat irrelevant, but somehow an only slightly less literal reading still seems like very apposite advice for Rabbi Shaul to be sending my way just hours before my finals start. I hope it seems relevant to other people too.

-----Original Message-----
From: Shaul Rosenblatt

shabbat shalom email
the fax of life

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43)

12th December 2003
17th Kislev 5763


torah portion
Jacob returns to Israel, only to find that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men - and they are not a welcoming committee. Jacob attempts to appease Esau, and prays to God for salvation. Ever the pragmatist, however, he prepares for battle at the same time. He has no wish to fight. But neither is he afraid of doing so. Esau is overwhelmed by Jacob 's gifts and welcomes his brother home.

Jacob's troubles, however, are far from over. His daughter, Dinah, is raped by the son of a local chieftan, Shchem. Things go from bad to worse as two of his sons, Shimon and Levi take justice into their own hands and single-handedly slaughter the whole tribe.

Jacob's wife, Rachel, dies while giving birth to Benjamin, her second son and the portion concludes with a discussion of the family and descendants of Esau.

And for Jacob, the worst is yet to come. Tune in next week. [I think he's referring to the portion I read for my barmitzva, which is probably part of why this particular story has such resonance to me - Eldan]

davar torah
In the portion this week, we see from Jacob the correct balance between prayer and action. His brother Esau is coming to kill him and he responds in three ways. He sends gifts. He prays and he prepares for battle. In other words, he tries to solve the problem himself by sending gifts. He prays for God's help and finally he prepares in case God does not answer him.

This is the correct Jewish approach to prayer. To pray without acting is not to show God that you really are serious and responsible. And to act without praying is to think that you are entirely in control of your own destiny.

The two must go hand in hand. During serious prayer in Judaism, there must be an undertaking to expand one's sphere of action to solve the problem. And during serious action, there must be an element of prayer at every juncture.

The two balanced together produce the middle road down which a Jew is always expected to walk, as well as providing the best possible opportunity to actually achieve that which one is hoping to achieve.

As with Jacob, heartfelt prayer and serious action is a powerful combination that is usually responded to in a positive way.

posted @ 8:44 PM -

Wednesday, December 10

Some advice to an anonymous pair of undergrads

  1. If you're going to copy each other, for goodness' sake don't use the same formatting to print, and don't hand in your two scripts together. Graders are fallible, and you might have got away with it if you hadn't made it so bleeding obvious
  2. Whichever of you is the clever one who actually wrote the program, you've really shot yourself in the foot. You had produced an elegant, efficient solution to a problem that not many people got full marks on, but you will pay just as high a penalty for abetting plagiarism as your friend will for indulging in it.
posted @ 1:01 PM -

Tuesday, December 9

The Rampage by Miroslav Holub

The last time
there was a genuine rampage,
herds stampeding
with the zest of hurricanes,
with the pulsations of a storm,
and the force of destiny,

when the roar went up
against the villous ceiling,
when the stronger ones
pushed forward to the cruel
thunder of whips while the zombies
fell back into permanent darkness,

the last time the cavalry charged
across the whole width of the enemy line
into the gap between life and death,
and not even one single droplet of misery

the last time
something really won
and the rest turned into compost

that was when the sperm
made the journey
up the oviduct.

This was 'to be or no to be'.

Since that time we've been tottering round
with the embarrassment of softening skeletons,
with the wistful caution
of mountain gorillas in the rain;
we keep hoping for the time-lapse soul,
marital problems and
a stationary home metaphysics

against which
the adenosine triphosphate of every fucked-up cell
is like the explosion of a star
in a chicken coop.
posted @ 1:12 PM -

Sunday, December 7

fava beans and a nice chianti

I just received the following spam:
-----Original Message-----
From: Timmy Perez [mailto:qqh98ue@yahoo.com]
Subject: Bachelor's Diploma, Master's, or PhD - No Classes

Academic Qualifications available from prestigious NON-ACCREDITTED universities.

Do you have the knowledge and the experience but lack the qualifications?

Are you getting turned down time and time again for the job of your dreams because you just don't have the right letters after your name?

Get the prestige that you deserve today!

Move ahead in your career today!

Bachelors, Masters and PhD's available in your field!

No examinations! No classes! No textbooks!

Call to register and receive your qualifications within days!

24 hours a day 7 days a week!
I've had quite a few like it over the past month or two. In the light of yesterday's post, I hope my gentle readers can understand why I wish I could track the originators down and remove a few parts of their bodies.
posted @ 7:50 AM -

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 @ 6:56 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 @ 9:56 AM -

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 @ 9:53 AM -

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 @ 8:56 PM -
Saruman to take control of Iraq
posted @ 9:57 AM -

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 @ 4:39 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 @ 4:21 PM -
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