Sunday, February 29

another small milestone

I've just written my first peer review of a submitted paper. I was very critical, which is probably all I should say about it, seeing as reviews are meant to be anonymous. I feel almost guilty about being so—after all this is the most influence I've ever been given over someone else's potential success—but it's important that if reviewers see shortfalls they write about them, seeing as this is what's supposed to underwrite the quality of published papers. I'm very glad that Randy is going to review my review, because I think otherwise I'd find the responsibility unpleasantly heavy, being as inexperienced as I am.

posted @ 11:43 PM -

You always use violence. I should have ordered glutinous rice chicken

On Saturday night Terence had the kung fu movie marathon that he had been promising. There was a distinct lack of drunk people trying to imitate kung fu moves, but we watched Game of Death, Fist of Legend and The Legend of Drunken Master, and I learned some important things:
  • I have never met anyone who takes as much pleasure out of self-mockery as Terence.
  • There is at least one other person who takes as many photographs as me, and at least one who is as interested in minor details of interior design as Sam (door jambs for Terence, door handles for Sam, it's all the same to me).
  • Game of Death has possibly the worst 'absent actor' scene in history. Bruce Lee died during the filming, so rather than write out one completely unnecessary scene, they just filmed it with a cardboard cutout.
  • Old Peculier, which Melinda found somewhere in bottles, has some unfortunate side effects. I can't remember if this started before or after I left Terence's place, but let's just say that it would be considerate to go back to one's own house after drinking that stuff.
  • The Legend of Drunken Master is not the same '... drunken master' film I've seen before. It is very funny, and intentionally so (what with starring Jackie Chan and all).
  • It is impossible to unwrap a fortune cookie quietly. In fact the amount of noise the wrapper makes is proportional to how much I want to be quiet.
  • Although DVDs are much more reliable for rental than VHS (no tracking issues, etc.) it is still possible for one to be ruined by a scratch. The scratch on Fist of Legend was just in the climactic fight. Very helpfully, Terence & Sean could remember that there was an awesome finishing move, but not what it was.
  • Fortune cookies are often better if you add in bed after the fortune. This was especially true last night. Barry had An hour with friends is worth ten with strangers, and I got something about ...a lifetime of service.
I didn't get to see Terence's collection of Barbie dolls, but I can confirm that paraphernalia of his car get about twice as much display space on his shelves as pictures of his girlfriend.
Update: Terence has photographic evidence of the last point.

posted @ 9:13 PM -

Saturday, February 28

The Skeptical Environmentalist

Bjørn Lomborg gave a talk in London the other day. Michael Jennings has a review. More than anything else, reading it reinforces something I've been thinking for a while: that I really must read Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. There's so much controversy over it, and the cynical commenters to the review are right about at least one thing, which is that so far the environmental movement has turned on Lomborg with venom, but without actually attacking his arguments scientifically. It doesn't really prove anything (the environmental movement can be their own worst enemy sometimes, with their disdain for science), but something tells me if there were obvious problems with what he had to say, Greenpeace or one of their ilk would have pointed them out by now, rather than sticking to the facetious criticisms I've heard.
posted @ 12:57 PM -
Martian sunset
posted @ 12:21 PM -


Ever found yourself wondering if pressing those little buttons at pedestrian crossings actually achieves anything? Well according to an article in yesterday's New York Times, many of these buttons are duds: For Exercise in New York Futility, Push Button. It's funny how people react to this revelation. I especially liked this quote:
"I always push," said Réna, an employee at Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, who was too embarrassed to give her last name after she pushed a button on Atlantic Avenue and was told the truth. "The sign says push, so I push. I think it works."
I bring you only the most important news that will change the world. Speaking of which, this must be the best catharsis ever, for Cubs fans at least.
posted @ 11:32 AM -

Friday, February 27

Cish Cash

Finally my cash flow problems look like they will be resolved. The university paid me everything they owed today, so they are up to date, though they are still trying to bill me for tuition that is covered by my fellowship. The insurance company have agreed a reasonable amount to pay out for the old house when the roof fell in. I am also waiting on a payment from the medical insurance, but from a terrible start they have become a reliable payer, so I'm expecting that towards the end of next week.

The only problem is that because this has happened too late, there's no way I'll be able to buy that Powerbook I have my eye on until after Spring Break. Ah well. At least money isn't a problem any more, and I have a few less things to worry about. It's a much better end to my week than some other people have had.
posted @ 2:53 PM -

The omniscience of Google

The Christian Science Monitor has a lovely piece on the pitfalls of journalists' reliance on Google to support claims. It's quite amusing and makes a serious point (and the Monitor are in a good position to make this point because their articles usually seem better researched than those in most papers), though the biggest laugh is towards the end, when they themselves make a mistake by attributing too much relevance to a Google result. They mention the old French military victories spoof, but miss the point about Google bombing, claiming instead that it worked because there were no pages devoted to French military victories before that one was published. Searching now finds about 109,000, and while some of those are clearly in response to that story (after all, I will be another when Google next crawls this page, and it looks like people are using the popularity of this search for some Google manipulation too), I can't believe they all are.
posted @ 2:44 PM -

Thursday, February 26

A blind spot as big as a whale

Why is Andrew Sullivan professing to be so shocked at Dubya's pandering to the homophobia of a segment of the population? What is remotely surprising about a president who was propelled into power by the religious right, and has never shown himself to be a supporter of diversity or tolerance or freedom within his own country turning around and shitting on a minority who are reviled by his core power base?

Because, like much of the right wing, he's been so determined over the past few years to portray all of us lefties as the evil enemies of freedom that it suited him not to notice that George W. Bush and the establishment of which he is part are also enemies of freedom. He's been so determined to snark and snarl at the stupider voices on the Left (some of whom deserve it), and then tar us all with the same brush (this is the part to which I object, in case it wasn't obvious enough), that he's been willingly blind to the illiberalism of the Right. It's a general (and symmetrical, to be fair) phenomenon that I had noticed years ago, and has been making me more and more disillusioned about the prospect of ever having a constructive dialogue about politics, but I became particularly acutely aware of it last year when I started to follow Samizdata, and while I still retain a certain respect for their core point of view I don't read them very often any more because their dogmatism and tarring of everyone who disagrees with the same brush just make me want to howl and throw things at my monitor, not to mention reminding me eerily of the Commies I used to work with at Sussex.

At least Sullivan is honest enough to talk about this, and about his outrage. Who knows, if enough prominent Republican supporters can send a loud enough signal to the party that this is going to stop them voting for Bush, it might even have some impact. I notice that Samizdata, in spite of having some very sensible words about it on their Social responsibility statementHomosexuals are humans so we do not believe in 'gay' rights, just human rights...haven't mentioned gay marriage since the whole constitutional amendment thing appeared. In fact they haven't mentioned the issue since August 2003, I suspect because they still see Bush as the lesser of available evils, so aren't eager to criticise him.

I hate to say it, but Tom Tomorrow is right (about this at least. He's dead wrong about the finite number of jobs fallacy, among other things). These people are simply being useful idiots, over-enthusiastically cheering for people who are not on their side, because they feel more comfortable supporting them than anyone who might self-identify with the dreaded S word.

My final words to Andrew Sullivan come with many apologies to someone far more eloquent than me:
First they came for the Arabs, but I was not an Arab so I did not speak out. Then they came for the anti-war protesters, but I was not an anti-war protester, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
posted @ 3:14 PM -

spam art

As the amount of unsolicited commercial email I receive increases, I'm actually finding myself less annoyed by it, because of the wonderfully Byzantine techniques the spammers are starting to use to defeat spam filters. The latest words of wisdom to be dropped, freshly steaming, into my inbox:
People are too apt to treat God as if he were a minor royalty.
The hardest work of all is to do nothing.
From Caring C. Contemplated.
posted @ 10:36 AM -

a nexus of coincidences

The Rampage is one of relatively few poems that I go back to and re-read fairly often. It also seems to be a strange nexus of coincidences for me. The biggest was that I sent it to Paul Ford in February or March 2002 as a response to his call for poems, and then his anthology of poetry project stalled for a while. So, almost two years later I had it on my mind again, and seeing as he hadn't yet published it, I did. That same night, so did he, and in the process he checked my blog (which I'm fairly sure he doesn't read normally), and noticed that we had both thought of this the same day.

Then last night I couldn't get to sleep, because I had had a nap in the afternoon, and then been working till late on something I didn't really understand so I still had work on the brain when I went to bed, not quite tired enough. So I picked up the book with The Rampage in it (it's also called The Rampage), and read a few poems to get my mind off SML. Last, as usual, I read The Rampage. This morning, what should come through in my email, but a note from a complete stranger, saying he had just discovered this poem courtesy of my submission to Paul Ford's anthology, and how much he liked it.

Admittedly I read this poem plenty of times without anything weird happening, but it still seems a little freakish.
posted @ 9:35 AM -

Wednesday, February 25


I just received one of the stranger spam emails I've seen:
-----Original Message-----
From: Sarah Green [sarah@sarahpage.com]
Sent: Wednesday, February 25, 2004 9:12 PM
[my previous disposable email address]
[my current disposable email address]
Subject: eldan.co.uk ranked # 15 in Google for clear plastic tarp

I'm a web master, and I was just searching Google for clear plastic tarp. I found your domain, eldan.co.uk ranked 15, which is pretty cool.

My site is all about Industrial Supplies, too . Maybe we should link up? I wouldn't be stealing any of your sales, because all I do is write informational articles...not selling anything on my site at all. And most of my visitors write back to say that they love the fact that I only write good, quality info. As a matter of fact, I've got a pretty loyal following of people that come back over and over again (they use the site as a reference), so if you link to me, you should get some pretty good traffic from it -- which is always nice.

Anyway, let me know if you'd like to swap links. I've already linked to you, and will keep it up there for a few days until I hear back. Hope to hear from you soon!

Sarah Green
RAC IM: 656382.
I was somewhat mystified by this. I've had stupid 'let's do reciprocal links' type spam before, but it's always included a URL that they must have been trying to direct traffic towards. This one had no such thing. It also has an easily checked-out claim: I am not ranked #15 in Google for clear plastic tarp. I had to check, because I do get found by some strange searches at times.

I turned to my wondrous ally Google to find out more about this. It turns out many other people have had similar email this year, and the one sensible theory I could find was that it's a variant of the old 'get people to reply so we know their email addresses work' trick. One person had taken the trouble to write an appropriate response as well.

What is a little annoying is that I'm just in the process of switching disposable email addresses. Because spammers are well known to pick up email addresses from websites, and I want to keep my main address spam free so I can actually keep it long term, I use other mailboxes for contact addresses that I put on websites, and when they start to get too much spam I move to a new disposable address. For a while I keep both alive, just in case someone emails me from a comment I left on their blog a month ago or something like that. Anyway, I've definitely noticed that the amount of time for an address to get swamped by junk is decreasing, but this is worse than before. I'm getting spam on the new one before I've even killed off the old one.

And finally, I've noticed spammers using progressively more absurd assumed names lately. I think they've just outdone themselves. I've had mail from Playback U. Streptococci.

Update: I've just read another take on this, which presents an interesting alternative theory. One of the commenters there reckoned it's an attempt to defeat probabilistic spam filters by sending random unsolicited, not evidently commercial mail, so that people will get these things classified as spam, and in turn increase the false positive rate of those classifiers. If enough things that are genuinely hard to distinguish from real email from real people get classified, wanted mails will start getting classified too, and then people will have to either disable their spam filters or reduce the threshold for getting things blocked. Then more spam will inevitably get through.

It's an elaborate enough plan that I'm a bit skeptical, but it's not impossible. Spammers are certainly getting more ingenious by the month, and show amazing perseverance at trying to get their messages through to people who they must realise will only delete them when they arrive anyway.

There's also another theory in the same thread, arguing that this is a ploy by anti-spam software vendors. They gradually start to deluge someone with spam that their existing system won't block because it's so weird. Then, one day, they advertise a new spam solution, hoping that this fed up user will buy it. I'm not at all convinced by this one—apart from anything else it's not worth the bad publicity if they get caught—but once again it's possible.
posted @ 7:14 PM -

how to take advantage of my vanity

A few years back, email viruses started propagating themselves in messages with subject lines like I love you or Anna Kournikova gets her kecks off, and so on. Quite how well this worked was a collective embarrassment to mankind, but these days people are getting more cynical, and such messages are at least a little bit more likely to be deleted without ever opening the attached files. Overnight I received a new twist on this tactic; one that might have actually worked on me had my virus scanner not caught it. The secret? Insult me.

The subject line was warning, the from address had bbc in it, though it only took a moment's thought to figure out that it wasn't from the Beeb, but the key is that the body was simply you are a bad writer. Anybody who follows a handful of weblogs, let alone actually keeps one, will know that bloggers are very vain, never mind that this week I have submitted the final no-going-back-now version of my first real peer-reviewed publication, so I'm rather sensitive about the quality of my writing just now. I could see myself having stupidly clicked on the attachment, just to find out more about why this person was insulting me.
posted @ 9:36 AM -

and another network thing

Some networks force you to use their outgoing mail servers rather than your own. Others don't allow you to use their outgoing mail servers with a From and/or Reply-To that doesn't correspond to your account details on their network. Neither of these things alone are a problem, but when the campus network does both at once it means I can only send mail as my campus address, thereby shafting my attempts at keeping work and non-work email separate.

posted @ 8:36 AM -


With the wonders of 802.11, even my local diner can provide a wireless network that (problems of my own making with my own machine notwithstanding) I can connect to at the first attempt, and stay connected until I leave. Why can't a university, where I work in the COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT, manage the same?
posted @ 8:31 AM -

Tuesday, February 24

grumble grumble

I am not normally one to complain about homework simply being hard. In fact I hate people who complain about being asked to work hard at university with a passion. Having said that, I've been set a homework that is simply too hard. The trouble is, we're being asked to work in SML—a language that we weren't expected to know as a prerequisite—and cover conceptually new material at the same time. To be precise, we've been given a program that doesn't run, and asked to fix it. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm a great believer in actually teaching people something about a language first, before expecting them to debug programs in it.

It probably doesn't help that at the moment I'm royally pissed off with the university as a whole anyway. None of this is at all relevant to my annoying homework, but it just makes me less patient with everything. They still owe me large sums of money, even after I extracted an 'advance' of part of January's pay (the rest should reach me with February's pay) with considerable effort. They are also still trying to charge me for the tuition that my fellowship covers, even though one of the department secretaries insists (and I am inclined to believe her, because she is a helpful and organised person, whereas the central university admins are not) she has now sent confirmation of what is paid three times. The textbook reimbursement that I applied for about 6 weeks ago still hasn't reached me, though apparently it has at least been sent now. And then there's the network, which is just unreliable and unnecessarily complicated to use, and this is interacting with some issues (of my own making) with my laptop to make getting my own machine online far less convenient and straightforward than it should be. Oh, and I've had a couple of homeworks set at one week's notice, which apart from reminding me of school just seems unfair when people have other things, like paper deadlines, to fit in around them.

And one final moan: the grading. I actually quite like grading as an activity, and last term I felt like I should at least not complain too much about being effectively indentured because I was learning something from the experience. This term I find myself grading once again (as opposed to doing any sort of teaching in which I meet students), and on the same course I was grading for last term. Not only is this now very boring (grading 50 scripts is repetitive at the best of times, but when it's #51-100 it's far, far worse), it's also completely useless to me as an experience, making me resent the amount of time it takes up far more.

Anyway, at the moment I think I have an idea of how to proceed with this excessively difficult homework assignment, but I'm in quite a bad mood, and that really doesn't help.

Correction: apparently SML is taught on a course that is normally a prerequisite for this one, so really it's my own fault for wading in out of my depth without a computer science degree, and trying to cut corners on the undergrad courses I take to catch up. That gives me far less grounds to complain about the homework that is still hurting my head, though of course it has as little to do with the other things I was moaning about as the homework itself does.
posted @ 8:51 PM -

Cleveland is the city

More lazy photos. This lot are from very early last semester, back when the weather was still warm (feels like as distant a memory as New Zealand), I had time on my hands, and I hadn't really made any friends yet so I was wandering around trying to be a social butterfly: Cleveland in Summer. As usual, you have the option of whether to log in or not. I prefer it if you do, but if you don't want me to see when you viewed, or don't want to give an email address to Ofoto (they don't generate any spam for me, but I can't make promises on their behalf) you have the option not to.
posted @ 4:40 PM -


Last night Jacob and I finished work on our paper, and signed it off for good. We know we're in the conference, but we'll hear some time soon about whether we'll actually have a full-on presentation or just a poster. It's a good thing we had a deadline, because I could keep fiddling with individual sentences indefinitely, with diminishing returns, and at least this way it's closed and I can stay sane. The final version is somewhat improved, and it's time to move on to something new.

It may take me a few days to get around to updating my publications page, partly because the page itself is my next target for overhauling and partly because I have a lot of work due Thursday, but you can read the paper via Randy's server: May We Have Your Attention: Analysis of a Selective Attention Task. For the time being we are at the top of his publication list, which is purely coincidental, but nice.
posted @ 9:57 AM -

Sunday, February 22

the water of life

One of the pleasant surprises for me on moving to America was finding out that local beer is actually very good. Anyone who lives in Europe will be familiar with the dreadful selection of US & Canadian beers that get exported, which are at best like making love in a canoe, if they are palatable at all. It's an entirely different story out here. Bars tend to have much longer lists of beers available than I am used to, and they serve a really wide selection of worldwide beers (though it is hard to find good British beer, as it happens), and there's always a good selection of products from the local brewery. Round here it's The Great Lakes Brewing Company, who make one of the nicest lagers I've had anywhere, a very unusual and good flavoured Christmas Ale, and various other things which are all pretty tasty.

I do slightly miss real ale, because there just doesn't seem to be anything of that type (a beer that's not served chilled? You Brits are weird) round here, but having plenty of other good beer makes that not matter very much. What I hadn't discovered until very recently, and was missing quite a lot, were proper pubs anywhere round here. See, I've been doing most of my drinking either at peoples' houses, or in wine bars (which don't have the same negative connotations here as back home, and there is one in particular of which I am very fond because they have a great selection of bottles and wonderful friendly staff who know their wine well enough that if I give a vague description of the sort of thing I feel like drinking tonight they can pick something appropriate), or a few very stereotypically American bars with TVs and pool tables and the like. These are all good, but they are no substitute for an old fashioned dingy smoky pub.

Lately I've discovered that there are plenty of such places around. A few weeks ago I found myself in the Barking Spider, which met my criteria for dinginess, scuzziness, possession of an open fire (that's such an obvious attraction in a place that has proper winters that I'm surprised they aren't more common in Cleveland bars), beer selection (especially a dangerously easy drinking Québecois trippel called La Fin Du Monde, though sadly the Old Peculier I was looking forward to turned out to be a mirage that they hadn't yet removed from their website but no longer serve) and atmosphere, as well as having an old fashioned band of married men to entertain us. A fine place, and one the existence of which gives me one less thing to miss about Blighty.

Then last night I went on a large (I reckon there were about 50 people) pub crawl, courtesy of the Cleveland Oasis Club. This is a grand idea, involving getting a group of people who are only very loosely connected to each other (in that we must all have some common friends-of-friends-of-friends to have heard about the club, but that's all) to simply show up at the same place at the same time as each other, drink and be merry. For added convenience, this one was a relatively short walk from my place, the weather's been mild enough the last few days that the walk was very pleasant indeed, and now I know some proper pubs that are almost local to me.

It's also a good way to meet some people who don't work in the same building as me, and perhaps the highlight of the evening was ending up talking to a couple of charming people who weren't even part of the pub crawl but just sort of got caught up in it when their quiet drink at Parnell's was over-run by people at the end of a crawl. One of them was Glaswegian, and quite apart from being grateful to him for saving me from Jameson's when he pointed out that there was good whiskey behind the bar as well, I'm really pleased to have met someone else from the same strange and overcrowded island as me. Since mid-September, when my Geordie flatmate finished his course and went home, I haven't met a single Brit round here, and sometimes it is really nice to just talk to someone who has the same cultural references as me.
posted @ 6:29 PM -

shaking a tin

Andrea See and friends are going to run the Xiamen Marathon to raise money for Medical Ambassadors International. If you're feeling like you need some help spending money this short month, I respectfully submit that this is the right destination for your revenue surplus.

Erm, let me write that in English. You should donate money because it's a good cause, and Andrea's cool, and I'm all proud of her for giving up smoking and replacing that habit with an addiction to running, of which this is the latest instalment. Personally I think people who run for any reason other than being late to get somewhere are a strange masochistic breed, but I don't have to understand, do I?

Oh, and I should warn you that it's an evangelical charity, which generally would give me cold feet about donating money to them, but before letting that turn you off, read what she has to say about them.
posted @ 5:32 PM -

Friday, February 20

a lesson I am trying to learn

This evening I have been fighting against myself to make some revisions to a paper. The thing is, the paper's already been accepted, with fairly simple revisions suggested, yet I'm beating myself up over not being able to do enough to improve it. This is something I keep coming up against; I struggle for hours over what I don't think constitutes a proof, hand in my homework thinking it's a load of rubbish and then get an A for it.

So I have left the following sage advice on the lab blackboard:
It doesn't have to be PERFECT to be WORTH SUBMITTING
The day I actually get that message through my head I'll enjoy my work a whole lot more.
posted @ 7:48 PM -

Thursday, February 19

A business proposal

Insurance Assessor Voodoo Dolls.

Who's in?
posted @ 8:38 AM -

Wednesday, February 18

trust them

they know.
posted @ 7:06 PM -

Mind Wide Open

Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, is back with a new book focussing on the brains part of that big picture. I was hugely impressed with Emergence, which I think is probably the best overall introduction to what I do academically, and how the arcane details of the rather specialised models I play with actually do fit into a big picture about how the world is, so I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the new book. Meanwhile, there are some interesting threads to follow about this online. Just like last time, he's using a discussion on The Well both to promote the book and to expand on the themes in it. The one about Emergence was interesting, so I'll be following this new one over the next few weeks:

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
posted @ 2:52 PM -


My main task for this week is to revise the paper that I submitted in January and was recently accepted for a conference in July. It's a very pleasing thing to be kept busy with, because the acceptance is already a large piece of positive feedback, and we still have a large incentive to do a good job at this stage, because the quality of the final version we submit on Monday will determine whether this becomes a full presentation or just a poster.

The trouble is, I'm finding revising the section that we've picked out as most needing clarification very difficult. It's not that I can't see anything wrong with it—after all we picked this section because there are confusing jumps in its flow—but I still don't see how to make it right. It also doesn't help that having bust a gut to get the original thing in I'm finding myself rather too attached to the version we submitted already, and that I didn't get much sleep last night because I had a large pile of papers to grade.

In the end, there isn't huge pressure on me about this, because I know the paper has been accepted in any case, and even if we only get a poster presentation that would be pretty good going for a team of a first-year PhD student and an MS student. But getting a full podium presentation (while admittedly a nerve-wracking prospect) would be outstanding kudos and experience (I'll have to do these some day, so the sooner I start the better, and the more I have done by the time I submit my thesis the less terrifying the oral exam is likely to be), and it probably is within reach.

I suppose I should stop writing about writing and crack on with actually writing really, so to speak.
posted @ 9:43 AM -

Tuesday, February 17

Chicago in pictures

If a picture paints a thousand words, here is a thesis about Chicago to make up for my brevity last night.

Usual caveats apply: these are only edited in as much as I have removed duplicates and failures, and rotated the portrait format ones; some do need to be trimmed or touched up. If you sign in, Ofoto tells me you were there. There is an option to view without signing in, so use that if you don't want to leave a trace that I can see.

Right. Back to work. It was a good holiday, and I am much more relaxed than last week, but I have to pay for it by getting an awful lot done in the next 48 hours.

posted @ 5:45 AM -

Monday, February 16

Chicago redux

Chicago is a beautiful city, and I almost wish I could have ended up studying there rather than Cleveland. It was great seeing Sam & Mark again, and lovely travelling with Melinda for the first time. Mike seemed pretty cool, but we didn't see very much of him. I have many (76) photos, but the computer says it will take at least 2½ hours to upload them, and I need to sleep, so I'll leave that till tomorrow.
posted @ 9:49 PM -

Thursday, February 12

a real weekend off

Today has been an excessively hard day. In fact the last few have. It's all good though, because early tomorrow (Friday) morning Melinda & I are driving to Chicago, where we'll meet Sam & Mark—old friends of mine who I haven't seen since August and miss terribly—and Mike, an old friend of hers who sounds cool and I'm looking forward to meeting.

I'll be back on Monday. I doubt I'll blog from Chicago. I'm a little sick of computers right now, so I don't know if I'll even touch one for the next few days.
posted @ 9:43 PM -

the densest element known to man

I am getting seriously fed up with University administration. Because a form (which only duplicated information they already had, but it has to be submitted every term anyway) was filed a day late, I still haven't received January's pay. Because the wheels of bureaucracy are always slow, I also haven't received the refund for textbooks I applied for about a month ago. The University currently owes me in the region of $1,750. The only reason I could pay my rent this month is that my dad has, once again, been kind enough to advance me some money.

I learned a couple of weeks ago that I'm not the only British grad student to have joined this department in recent years. It's just that so far all of them have dropped out within 2 semesters. I think I know why.
posted @ 2:17 PM -

Wednesday, February 11

New feature: Targeted advertising

I find the vast majority of website advertising irritating. It may therefore come as a surprise that I've just decided to carry advertising on this decidedly unprofessional, non-commercial site.

The thing is, for a while I've been really impressed with the targeted ads served up by Google AdSense. I'll go into what's so good about them a little later, but the most important thing is that they lack all the things that annoy me about most web advertising. See, it's not the principle of websites carrying advertising that I object to. Far from it: anything that lets people make money out of providing me with reading matter, without them having to charge me for it is inherently good. At a minimum, it's a nice thing for people who produce something I like, and if they actually make good money off it it's an incentive for them to spend more time working on their site, giving me more to read.

The annoying things are the stupid ads that are of no interest, but clamour for my attention using bells and whistles. Pop-ups and pop-unders are obviously annoying, though my biggest pet peeve is the flashing animated GIF. And then there's an increasing tendency on commercial sites to have ads that actually go in front of the text. I wouldn't dream of putting any of those things on my own site, because they would spoil my own experience of the page, and I do look at the page after every post, so I'd have to put up with those stupid things far too often.

On the other hand, there seems to be an increasing trend for sites to incorporate relatively discreet text ads. Not hidden away or anything (this page is pretty typical—the ads are in a box of their own clearly marked as advertising), but not trying to grab attention like annoying little kiddies. The place I'm most accustomed to seeing Google's version of this is Blog*Spot, which puts a pair of them at the top of each blog on their free hosting package. The first thing that struck me when I started to notice these things was that they are not irritating at all.

But what really got me enthusiastic was when I started to realise that they were better than simply not irritating. A proportion of these ads were actually for things of interest to me. Sometimes I even find myself clicking on them, whereas for all the bells-and-whistles ones I filter to the extent that I can rarely tell you whose ads were carried by the page I just viewed. It turns out that Google (and probably their competitors, but Google are the ones I know about, and they are good at this) serve up relevant ads, based on the contents of the page. And because frequently-updated blogs get crawled frequently by Google, the ads are relevant to the current content of the page. Perhaps the best example I've seen is Michael Jennings' blog, because he writes about a pretty wide range of subjects, and the ads do a good job of following the content; for instance as I write the most recent substantial post is about film locations, and one of the ads is for a filming location finding agency. That particular ad even taught me something, because I had never really thought about how film locations are found, and while the site is pretty cheesy, it was illuminating.

So at worst, these ads are unobtrusive and therefore harmless. At best they can even add value to a page, because if you're interested in what I've been writing about, they might even point you at more information about it. It's also very easy to join and get it all set up, and because payment is per click rather than a pre-arranged rate, I haven't had to guarantee a certain number of page views or anything onerous like that. And to cap it all, Google's general page ranking and relevance scoring system is possibly the highest-profile application of non-symbolic AI (also known as 'what eldan does for a living') out there, so inherently very cool.

I should be clear about one thing though: this is a low traffic site and I know it. I'm not expecting to get rich as a peddler of advertising, and in fact I'll be surprised if my income from this covers the $7.50/month I spend on hosting this site. But if it pulls in a dollar a month it's still something, without any drawbacks I can think of for me; certainly without making the site irritating or in any way constraining what I can say here. And you never know; it might add something useful from time to time, and it is possible that I'll do better out of it than I was expecting.
posted @ 10:31 PM -

Gun laws, part 1

As far as I know, Ohio permits the carrying of handguns, but not concealed carrying. I am getting increasingly tempted to strap a replica pistol somewhere very conspicuous when I cycle, to see if that stops idiot drivers from honking because I have the temerity to travel slower up a hill than they want to go.

These same drivers might want to consider a few things:
  • The lanes are quite wide round here (compared to Europe, in any case), and during rush hour I confine myself to the rightmost foot or two of the road in spite of the killer potholes, so if they drove sensible sized cars they could get past me (and it is only oversized vehicles who honk).
  • The two sections of hill where I travel slower than them are 3 or 4 lane roads, so it's not my fault alone that they are slowed down. It's because of the volume of traffic. Perhaps if less people insisted on driving SUVs alone this problem wouldn't arise.
  • They are in climate controlled comfort while I am out in the cold working hard to climb that hill. I'm not claiming to be a martyr, but a little consideration would be nice.
  • It is not only my legal right to be sharing that road with them, it is my obligation. The sidewalk, where I presume they would like me to be, is where vehicles are not allowed (including bicycles, and rightly so).
posted @ 2:41 PM -

Tuesday, February 10


It is well known among people who work with Unix that the terminology involved often sounds bizarre, and I can't help but suspect that some things were named as they are purely because someone found the name funny (so they could say things like I'll finger you now). When I used to teach complete beginners how to use computers, I was warned to be careful with the use of some of the more morbid terms—for instance to always talk about shutting down a program as opposed to killing it—because apparently some novices get surprisingly upset by such things. All the same, I was quite amused to catch myself writing this today:
...that messed everything else up because afterwards the parent killed itself and the child remained a zombie...
posted @ 2:42 PM -

Monday, February 9


There's a good chance that there will be at least one comet visible to the naked eye in May. Back in the days when we didn't know about weird things like lumps of ice flying around in space, people used to see these things as omens of impending doom. I'm supposed to be taking my qualifying exam some time in May. Maybe the ancients were on to something after all....
posted @ 2:46 PM -

Balls as big as King Kong

A man is suing the makers of penis enlargement treatments for fraud. I take my hat off to him. Or at least I would if I were wearing one. I mean, this guy has to first admit that he felt the need to use such things in the first place, and then that he is just as... err... challenged... as before. In the purely metaphorical sense he has more balls than most people I know.
posted @ 8:38 AM -

Sunday, February 8

Theft or free publicity?

There's an interesting article in the New York Times about how the porn industry is reacting to file sharing and piracy. I've always thought that the RIAA are making a strategic error by prosecuting users, and it's interesting to see how differently another industry deals with a similar problem. The gist of the article is that porn merchants have figured out that free circulation of much of what they put out is a huge amount of free advertising, and rather than trying to stamp it out they are only going after people who re-sell copyrighted work, and working on ways of using the rest to funnel people to their paid-for services. If anything, the music business has a more obvious model for doing this (every album circulated helps to sell merchandise and gig tickets, even if the record itself is given away or sold at a loss), yet doesn't seem to have caught on. The porn industry has always been more commercially clued-up than most media; I wonder if record labels will pay any attention.
posted @ 7:15 PM -

mailing list

I've set up a mailing list for updates to this page. If you find it annoying to check the page regularly, but would actually be bothered about missing new content, you now have a couple of options:

There are RSS feeds, if you're into that kind of thing. If you don't know what RSS is, I've tried to add a little explanation and some links to other sites about it, so it might be worth a look.

And then there's the blog_updates mailing list. You can either get every post mailed out to you as it is published, or get an accumulated list of new activity every day or so.

Sorry the mailing list info page is so ugly. It's the default that my service provider gives me. I will redo it some day, but I'm trying to limit the amount of work I put into this website each week so it doesn't interfere with real work or having a life, and there is a long list of things I want to improve at the moment.
posted @ 5:10 PM -


I'm feeling all impressed with myself today, because I've managed to keep a resolution for at least a whole week. The resolution was to publish a batch of photos every week, even if only via Ofoto. It really isn't the way I want to do this, but the main reason I take so many pictures of places is to show them to other people, so publishing them a lazy way is far better than not publishing them at all. This week's instalment is from Miami.

It's also not a good representation of Miami, because I didn't have the time to wander around very much. I only really caught the touristy art deco parts of South Beach, and even then I've missed some of the prettiest buildings. But there's much more to the place than this. There is a shiny downtown with tall buildings and a gratuitous monorail and stuff, there's a huge container port, and there's some really nicely done development around a long inlet of the sea. I've managed to make it look like a chic version of Brighton, which is a real and very charming side of it, but misses a lot of the interest of the place.

Update: I ought to mention that if you sign in to Ofoto I can see your name, email address and when you viewed the album. I like knowing that, and I won't use email addresses for anything (and in a year or so of me being an Ofoto member I've had no evidence of them giving my address to spammers or doing anything else bad with it), but if you don't want those details announced to me you can just click 'view photos' without signing in.
posted @ 1:16 PM -

Friday, February 6

email addresses

I'd like to ask a favour of anyone who ever writes to me. Now that both of my main email addresses work properly, please update your address books. Most communication should go to eldan @ thiswebsitesdomainname. That's my personal address, which I never put online because I want to keep it spam free. I'm trying to keep it separate from work email so that at a given moment I can choose to check only work or only personal mail. Work related messages should go to eldan @ myuniversitysdomainname (it's easy to guess, and there are several versions that all work). Anything really, really important can go to both to make sure I get it quickly. All other addresses for me are not worth keeping, because I have various other mailboxes that I will discard as they get over-run by junk.

posted @ 7:56 AM -

A plea to careless drivers

This week the internet has been hit by the official Worst Virus Ever. Networks are being slowed down by the volume of traffic and, unusually, even I have received several infected attachments. To some extent, it makes sense to be angry with the virus writers. Sure, I have limited sympathy for the intended targets of the attacks (SCO, who are scum, and Microsoft, weaknesses in whose software are what make it so easy to write viruses in the first place), but this method of attacking them adversely affects everybody else. It's a pretty vast collateral damage : intended effect ratio, and SCO & Microsoft would have to be evil entities bent on destroying the world for that cost to be worth it. But I'm also annoyed with the computer users who help spread these damn things.

See, I've been sent this virus at least twice, but it's done me no damage and I haven't passed it on. This isn't because I am hugely knowledgeable about computers or anything (I really don't know very much about computer security), but just because I follow a few simple rules that are enough to shelter me from almost all the nasties out there. If you have been infected and passed the virus on (incidentally none of the addresses from which I received the virus are ones I recognised, so I'm not saying all this to get at anyone I know), it's because you've failed to do these simple things, and your failure has cost other people too.

I've often thought this about computer users who spread viruses—that perhaps they deserve more irritation than sympathy, because it is so easily preventable—but I've tended to bite my tongue and be tactful. I know a lot of people do find computers terrifying and incomprehensible, and in an ideal world viruses wouldn't be something we needed to worry about, and I don't want to put people off using computers. But then I read this article from the New York Times, in which various technophobe computer users express a wilful desire not to learn anything about their machines, and the outright irresponsibility of this is pissing me off.

A computer is like a car, in that you really don't need to understand how it works in order to use it. Because I have a curious mind, I have a reasonably good mental picture of how fuel gets turned into motion, but none of that is relevant when I turn the key and drive. At the same time, I wouldn't be allowed at the controls of a car on a public road without either having demonstrated a basic level of proficiency at controlling the car, or having someone experienced supervise me. This, of course, makes sense: to let a novice just go and figure out how to drive on a public road without guidance would be very dangerous, to bystanders as well as the driver.

Now I'm not suggesting we impose legal restrictions on internet use—that would be terrible—but I do wish people would see networked computer use as a responsibility to others. Just get someone experienced to show you the basics, and you will not only save yourself a lot of grief, but also not play your part in spreading easily avoidable things like this week's virus. If everyone did this, such things would cause far less trouble.

As for my simple security precautions, here's a list of things everyone whose computer is online should do, that really don't cause much trouble at all but will neutralise the vast majority of threats:
  • Install a virus scanner. Most new computers come with one; otherwise they are easy enough to find online and not very expensive to buy.
  • Keep the virus scanner regularly updated. The last few I've used have all made this very straightforward, and usually you can just set the thing to update itself weekly. The only drawback is that you have to subscribe to a service from the software makers, but they aren't very expensive either.
  • Update the virus scanner as soon as news of a new threat comes out. A new virus discovered tomorrow will almost certainly get past today's virus scanner, but the anti-virus people are pretty good at bringing updates out fast.
  • Don't open email attachments if they don't look like they were deliberately sent to you by someone you know. If some stranger walked up to you in the street and offered you candy you'd be at least a little bit suspicious, wouldn't you? If you get attachments from strangers they will invariably be either viruses or rubbish, and if you're suspicious of one from someone you know it takes little time or effort to just write back to them asking what it is.
There. That wasn't so hard, was it?

posted @ 6:20 AM -

Thursday, February 5

If, like me, you saw Lost in Translation and wanted to know what the Japanese director was saying in the scene where he speaks through an interpreter without subtitles, you can read a translation here. If you haven't seen the film yet you might not want to read this, because the scene is very funny without knowing what the character is saying, so there's no need to spoil that experience.

Thanks to Michael Jennings for the link.
posted @ 7:00 PM -

Conforming to stereotypes

I've been running out of tea lately. This simply won't do. So on the weekend I ordered some from Adagio Teas. They operate quite the nicest online business I've seen, but no amount of good faith or customer reviews can make up for being able to actually taste or smell, which is unfortunate. If I had more time to go shopping I would have preferred to go to the tea stall in the West Side Market for that reason, but I've been meaning to go there for ages anyway and never get around to it. Instead, I decided to order a large number of little sampler tins, so I can re-order the best ones when they run out. I think I may just possibly have gone overboard:

many, many tins of tea

Oh well. One can never have too much tea.
posted @ 6:35 PM -

Wednesday, February 4

Separation of form and content

Melinda has just shown me something that I wish I had known about (or had the sense to create a tool similar to) when I used to teach web development: the CSS Zen Garden. If you aren't interested in designing web pages, it's still worth a look just because it's very pretty. If you are, it serves various purposes. It's a proof of concept that shows you can create really pretty sites using only relatively simple valid HTML and CSS, and it shows the power of CSS as a way of styling pages. Plus it's a nice practice tool because the examples up there provide a really clear way of tracking how the CSS controls the appearance and layout.

If I were still teaching this stuff, I would probably set students an exercise along these lines in class. I think I'd use a simpler page, but ask them to create their own skin for it without changing any HTML.
posted @ 4:55 PM -

Tuesday, February 3

more photographs

A side effect of my host move has been to make some old photos accessible again (semi-technical explanation below). These are things I published ages ago, which with my previous host move became inaccessible, but the files themselves were never lost. There are scenes from a couple of political protests in Brighton back when I was involved with the University of Sussex Students' Union (there's also a Lewes Bonfire Night directory, but it only has 2 pictures in it for some reason even though I took many more and have them on my computer), and there are all the pictures from my first visit to China. I'm particularly pleased about the China Bike Ride ones, because it was one of the best things I've ever done, and it was the time I went to China and everything was wonderful, unlike my return visit which was more... complicated. There's no layout or captions, but the directory and file names should be fairly self-explanatory.

As for why these disappeared and reappeared, well.... I had never got around to making pages for them like I eventually intend to do for all my photos. Two website hosts ago, I had enough control over the server's settings to make it automatically produce at least a pretty index, using the html files in these directories and some icons I put somewhere. The system was very simple, but it had reasonable results; a nicely laid out list of files would go between header.html and footer.html to make a whole page, and because I had given the files descriptive names this was already a reasonable user interface with minimal effort put into maintaining it. Then I had to switch hosts because of some problem with the first one (a familiar story...), and the new host didn't let me change certain server settings. Specifically, they wouldn't let me allow readers to see the list of files in a directory; I had to create a custom index page for each directory, or people would just get an error message. Now that I'm with another new host, directory listings are allowed again, though if I can use the same nice automated layouts as before I haven't yet worked out how to. Still, at least the images are viewable again.
posted @ 10:50 PM -

Sunset Strip, here we come!

That paper I sacrificed much of the christmas holiday to get finished has just been accepted by the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior conference. It needs some revision (no surprise there) with quite a short deadline, and the quality of the revised submission will determine whether we get a full presentation or just a poster, but either way this is clearly good news.

posted @ 4:54 PM -


Another lazy entry, because I've been meaning to advertise a couple of friends' things and not getting around to it. If you're seeing this, incidentally, you are seeing the all-new eldan.co.uk and I am happy.

My old friend Alex, who doesn't have a website but really should because it would make people laugh, has finally got around to getting some of his writing online: How to wear battle dress.

A large number of people I hang out with round here are involved in organising a conference in Cleveland about art and technology. It's called Notacon, and if it goes according to plan it should be very cool. Take a look.

An interesting argument has sprung up today on daemon82's livejournal about organised religion and reactions to it. It started out as her expressing frustration with elements of organised Christianity that, well, remind me of the things that turned me off Judaism when I was younger and my parents were trying to give me a Jewish education. It's got a lot of reaction to the effect of don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, which is something I did at the time, so if you have the stomach for a long series of comments replying to each other (and staying civil; I wouldn't bother linking to it if it wound me up too much), it might make an interesting read.

And finally, I don't know who's behind these, but the livejournals for the two Mars explorers (Spirit and Opportunity) cracked me up.

Right. Back to grading.
posted @ 11:15 AM -


I am in the process of switching website and email hosts. When the intarweb catches up (it takes a while for changes like this to propagate across the system) my domain should be much more reliable, and accessible from Case again. Hopefully I can stop messing around and just have one private email address and one work one, which are separate from each other, and hopefully people will be able to view my site from within the Case network.

In the short term it's causing trouble though, because there are now two servers pointed to by this URL, depending on where you are. This will be the last post that I publish to both, and I'm going to post another thing today, so if you see this at the top, you are still seeing my old server. It should resolve itself within a day or so; if this is still the most recent thing you see by the middle of Wednesday please drop me an email to let me know.
posted @ 10:22 AM -

Monday, February 2

Stupid coinage of the week

wardrobe malfunction.

I didn't see the incident because I went out for cigars with a few people at half-time, but the fallout is entertaining me far more than the original moment could possibly have done.
posted @ 12:21 PM -

winning the terrorists' battles for them

Towards the end of last week I promised myself that I would refrain from ranting about politics for a while, because I'm finding reading such things elsewhere very tiresome, even when I agree with what I read. I've been shying away from politics in general, and I do intend to keep this up for a little while, but there are a few things that have been annoying me enough that I just can't keep my trap shut.

First of all, I don't understand what Israel are doing with this prisoner exchange. It's a very unfamiliar feeling to me to be criticising the Sharon administration for not being hardline enough, but I think they're making a strategic error here. In the short term it looks like a potentially worthwhile deal—free an Israeli hostage by giving up some unimportant prisoners—but in the long term it rewards kidnapping. In effect they have set a rate of exchange: 430 prisoners' freedom for one of their own. Surely this just makes it worth Hezbullah's while kidnapping more Israelis?

But what's really got me going, yet again, is stupidity in the world of airline security. They've started cancelling flights on unspecified vague suspicions once again. This isn't just a matter of the inconvenience it causes; it's also doing the terrorists' job for them. This sort of generalised rush to panic generates as much terror as actual terrorist attacks do. I can't help but think that western governments are being so ridiculously risk-averse that the precautions are worse than the initial threat.

It reminds me of a talk I went to last semester about the USA's smallpox vaccination contingency plans. Mostly I was impressed by how well things had been thought through, and it did strike me that enough had been done to minimise the impact that releasing smallpox here would have, but it also struck me that the threshold for starting a mass vaccination programme was too low. If there is a suspicion of a single case of smallpox anywhere in the world, every person in this country will be vaccinated within 4 days. Now I don't remember the exact figures, but there is a known mortality rate from smallpox vaccine, and this action would result in a couple of hundred deaths. So to cause mass panic, an almost total economic shutdown for a week, and a couple of hundred deaths, terrorists don't even need to set foot on this continent. They just have to release smallpox in Kazakhstan or Somalia, or wherever they decide will be easiest, and they can cause a disaster with worldwide implications rivalling the WTC attacks.

Then there's a more personal issue, which has the potential to make flying extremely unpleasant for me. I read an article this morning about new safety measures on US flights, including not allowing people to form a queue for the toilets. The idea is to stop people from congregating anywhere on an aircraft that gives them the chance to rush around (as opposed to in their seats). In general this is irritating enough just because it's overkill and it amounts to treating us all as guilty until proven innocent, but there is a specific issue for me over and above this. I suffer from a chronic gut condition. A lot of the time this doesn't really matter, but when it's bad it's really bad, and I simply can not sit and wait till someone gives me permission to go to the toilet. If this is all for real, I will not be able to fly while I'm experiencing symptoms.

Of course, the usual retort from anyone more pro-establishment than me is don't blame the government, blame the terrorists, which is not entirely invalid. But I return to my usual refrain: I would be less annoyed by these things if I actually believed they made me safer. The trouble is we're not only talking about over-reactions to trumped-up threats, but also such a loose, generalised response that I simply don't believe it would stop a well-organised group of terrorists. We need targetting of specific people based on intelligence, not generalised persecution of whole groups, most of whom have nothing to hide.
posted @ 9:43 AM -

Sunday, February 1


I'm a little too busy to write the various expansive blog entries I have in my head at the moment. It's not all work work work; in fact one of the things I will eventually write about is all the great free music round here, and I've been to see hockey and monster trucks, and stuff. But I am keeping myself busy. So here are some photographs instead. They're all from within sight of where I live, because I just went for a short walk today and I was struck by how beautiful the light was so I thought I'd try and do something with it: Shaker Heights in the snow.

I have a terrible habit of being so determined to do things the 'right way' that they never end up getting done at all. Publishing my photos is an example—I have a format I like to use, which is rather labour-intensive, and I rarely have much free time—but I've decided to start compromising. I'm going to aim for one album a week, and when I don't have time to do it the nice way I'll just use Ofoto, like I have done this week.

Now I must be off. I have a superbowl party to get to.

Update: I forgot to mention that last week I took pictures of my apartment and the lab. I'm not putting them up here because it feels a bit public, but I realise I've sent them to a rather haphazard list of people, so if you know me, are interested, and I forgot to include you, just drop me a mail.

posted @ 2:22 PM -
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