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Sunday, May 30

On this day....
posted @ 4:35 PM -

Thursday, May 27

I only get two shots

I found out today that I failed the qualifying exam. Not just the part (Algorithms) that I knew had gone badly, but also the part (Operating Systems) that I thought I had done well on. Needless to say I'm very upset, especially about the half that was a surprise. It also worries me, because for Algorithms I know that I can improve by doing a practice exercise every week for a period of time (perhaps starting next week, and the exam will probably next be offered in May 2005, giving me plenty of time), not to mention that I was unlucky with the content of that particular exam, but for Operating Systems I had an A on the relevant course, and though I'm not quite sure I deserved the A, I did feel like I had a sound grasp of the material. It means I'm less sure where I can go from here with it. And the really scary thing is that I can't keep retaking this exam: if I fail next time I can't get a PhD in Computer Science.

I feel like over this past year my bluff has been called. Neither A levels nor my BA were actually hard, in the sense of having to work hard just to keep up. When I did work hard (which was frequent as an undergrad and rare as a schoolboy) it was because I was interested in something, or I was trying to do particularly well. Then I took an MSc which did compel me to work hard, but at the risk of sounding arrogant I was never worried about passing. I worked my arse off to learn a lot of really cool material and to get a Distinction, and it paid off. So this is the first time I've had to worry about failing, and the qual is the first significant thing I've ever failed (trying to get into MENSA doesn't count, and that's really the only other exam I ever remember failing). It also feels like Case is the first time I've really been tested like that, and I wonder if I am really not up to scratch.
posted @ 4:19 PM -

depressing

On the Rapid today there were two black teenagers sitting behind me. One of them was trying to convey to the other how nice suburb x was. The measure of its niceness was: white people live there. Sometimes it's sobering to be reminded of how far we still have to come.
posted @ 9:56 AM -
It's nice to know that the Ohio written driving test is as stupid as the British one. The pass mark is 75%, which makes me really worry about the people who need multiple attempts and only scrape a pass. I mean, I pass easily having learned to drive in a country with different rules....
posted @ 7:42 AM -

Wednesday, May 26

my travel plans

Here, for anyone who it affects, are my travel plans for the summer:

In June I'm making a few short trips (Toronto, Niagara Falls, New York City) and Mark and my parents are both visiting me.

In July I'm going to California. I'll be in LA from the 12th for the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior conference, and when that's over I'll go to San Francisco for a few days' holiday, getting back to Cleveland on the 22nd.

In August I'm going home. I'll be in the UK from the 6th to the 19th, and Melinda will be with me for the second half of that.

Then term starts, and I'm not planning on going anywhere till the end of term, but watch this space. For one thing, the other big conference in my field is in Boston in September....
posted @ 10:39 AM -

think of the squirrel

I made a difficult decision today. I decided to re-take one of the courses that I had a hard time with last year. Ironically, it (Intelligent Systems) is probably the least difficult of the three I took in my first semester, but when things went wrong it ended up being the one that was shoved furthest down my agenda, partly because I thought I'd be able to catch everything up. In theory I should be finishing it over the summer, because the prof has been kind enough to let me hand things in whenever I get the chance, but it's turning out to not exactly be easy. There's too much that I need to either learn for the first time, or re-learn having forgotten it in the intervening time. So if I re-take the course I can go to lectures that I missed first time round, and do everything at a reasonable pace.

I can't say I relish the thought of re-taking a course, especially as it wasn't a very interesting course in the first place, but it gets this monkey off my back for now. Meanwhile I have managed to tie up all other loose ends from my difficult first year, so this is as good a time as any to look back. I think the best way to describe the academic year I've had is: too intense for my liking. It certainly hasn't been all bad, and at my most negative I've been very melodramatic about the things I dislike, but there have been plenty of things that didn't go the way I wanted them to. Having felt at the outset that the American way of doing a PhD was a good thing because it forces students to retain a certain breadth to their education, and for me personally it would let [make] me catch up on some things I missed by not studying computer science as an undergrad, I've been disappointed by the reality of it at Case. There's a lot of busywork, and too much focus on grades, so in the end it isn't the most efficient way of learning the material and it can be very restrictive. For much of my first year I was working harder than I ever wanted to (and I'm not saying this as a slacker), while getting frustrated at all the things I didn't have time to do (work and leisure), and wanting this phase of my education to be over as quickly as possible. And there have been times when the university actually seemed to be getting in the way of me learning.

On the other hand, I have learned a lot this year, some of which I wouldn't have got around to learning without being pushed by a course, and some of which will be useful to me in future. And in the face of my repeated whining about not having time for research, I've still managed to get a paper published, which I'll be presenting at a conference in a couple of months. And now I'm reasonably settled here, and I know my way around (both literally and in terms of understanding a university system that's very unlike what I'm used to). And I've met some great people, and there are plenty of reasons why the worst things about the year just past shouldn't repeat themselves.

Which brings me to the really good news: I've done my last semester of taking courses full-time. It turns out that because PhDs and Masters' are much more incremental in the US than the UK (where they are completely different types of qualification), I can recycle credit from my MSc and use it towards my PhD. This means I'm much closer to meeting the taught-course requirements of the PhD than I thought I was. I'm not there yet, but I need 3 more courses (plus the one I'm re-taking), so for the coming year I'll take 2 per semester (3 being a full-time load), giving me enough time left over to hopefully do a more involved teaching job (hopefully next semester I'll be teaching programming to beginners for actual pay) and make some sort of consistent progress with my own research throughout the term. Not to mention that I will probably be taking more interesting courses.

Looks like what lies ahead should be a lot more like what I had hoped for from my PhD than the year that's behind me.
posted @ 7:05 AM -

Monday, May 24

stupid restrictions

First some good news: Melinda's coming to Britain for part of the time I'll be there in August, which I'm rather excited about. I have a week in town before she arrives to spend quality time with people I miss, and then she'll fly in and get to meet people and see places that I talk about.

Now the stupid part: she forwarded me her flight bookings, which she had as a confirmation email from the airline. At the bottom it had this warning:
COPYRIGHT INFORMATION
This e-mail message and its contents are copyrighted and are proprietary products of Delta Air Lines, Inc.. Any unauthorized use, reproduction, or transfer of this message or its contents, in any medium, is strictly prohibited.
Surely, if we take that at face value, it is illegal for her to even tell anyone her flight details, seeing as that would amount to reproduction ... in any medium of the contents of that message?
posted @ 3:20 PM -

kungfusion

Once upon a time (not long ago) kung fu was an important part of my life. It's not just that it was what turned me from a complete couch potato to someone who actually enjoys exercise and had at least a basic level of fitness and flexibility. It's also how I met a lot of the people I hung out with in Brighton, and it's been a big influence on other interests too. I got into kung fu (as opposed to karate, aikido or taekwondo) because I was already a sinophile in the first place, but all the same it made me far more interested in Chinese culture. And at the risk of sounding pretentious, it used to do me a world of good mentally and emotionally; helping to keep me balanced when work became stressful.

So of course one of the first things I did when I came to Cleveland was try to find a kung fu club. It turns out that the ones not associated with the university are far too expensive, but shortly after I arrived a new Case Kung Fu Club started up. I went along, all enthusiastic, and found myself in two minds about what I saw. On the one hand, the instructor is a top bloke who is full of enthusiasm and knows what he's talking about, and the other students were a nice bunch. On the other hand, enough in the style he taught went against my previous training that I found myself having doubts about it. I wanted to press on though, because I remembered having a similar feeling the last time I switched styles, and I ended up being more attached to the new style that initially I found strange than to the first one I learned.

Two semesters running I've found that I simply didn't have the time to train, which annoyed me intensely. It's a sort of vicious circle—kung fu helps me deal with stress, but overwork stops me training, so I end up even more stressed and less efficient—and if I really don't have time for such things it's a definite sign that I have too much on my plate. But now it's summer, and while I have plenty of work to do I am my own master and can make time for things if I think they're important enough. And I'm finding myself entirely without commitment to kung fu.

It's a strange reversal. I used to often wish I had more time to train, and yet now I have time, but when a class is coming up it just doesn't seem like an appealing way to spend 2 or 3 hours. Hell, I used to dream kung fu, in the same way as I sometimes dream of mountains in winter and open roads in summer. And now... I just don't care enough. To put it another way, at the peak of my interest I used to have no difficulty going out drinking on a Friday night, and then riding up a hill for 20 minutes to get to a class at 10:30 on Saturday morning, which I would use as my hangover cure (it works really well, incidentally, though the start of the warm-up is hell). Now I drink much less, tend not to be out particularly late, and am awake in time for the Saturday morning session anyway (which starts a little later and is a quicker and easier journey to get to), yet I can't be bothered to go.

I'm trying to work out how much this is because of incidental factors (doubt about this particular style, lack of a social connection with the club (both Brighton kung fu clubs I've trained with tended to go from training to the pub, and I miss that), and the difficulty of re-starting after a break), and how much is really because I've lost interest. I'm finding myself thinking it is the latter, and it's been brewing for some time. Really it's several years since I've actually trained regularly anywhere, and I think I've just been having trouble letting go; having trouble admitting to myself that I don't care so much about something I was once fanatical about. It's a strange adjustment, but kung fu has little enough reward for idle dabblers that I should probably just admit it and give up on the pointless stop-start training I've been doing lately.

Having said that, it leaves me with a practical problem. I'm in terrible shape at the moment, due mainly to lack of exercise. For the summer there's no reason why that shouldn't change—I'm enjoying biking and hiking, and I discovered last week that Case has a swimming pool that is nice, free for students, and uncrowded, so I'll go swimming once or twice a week—but once the winter closes in again I need something to do. All the things I'm enjoying at the moment lose their appeal once it's cold out, and I can't afford to ski a couple of days a week as I would have to to keep fit by that alone. I don't enjoy working out in gyms at all either. So if I am going to drop out of kung fu, I really need to find some other sort of exercise that I like doing when it's cold out, so that this time next year I can be less of a lump of a lard than I am right now.
posted @ 7:44 AM -

Sunday, May 23

these... err... sandals were made for walking

Today I went hiking with Melinda in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The National Park starts just as Cleveland ends, and it abuts a particularly ugly part of town (where urban sprawl has extended to a mess of strip malls, half of which are closed and derelict, along busy roads), so it's a pleasant surprise to find that it's such a nice area. Once you finally escape Cleveland's sprawl the surrounding area has some lovely countryside; all hills and woodlands and rivers. The heavy rain the area's been getting lately diverted us from our originally planned route, once because a bridge was closed to cars, and then once we were out walking there was a river we were supposed to ford: no need to explain the problem there, I hope.

Of course I took plenty of photos. Ofoto will ask you to log in, as usual you have the option not to, but it's nice to know who you are, so I appreciate it if you do. Also, this might be the last time I use Ofoto, because it's seriously Mac impaired, and if it doesn't make my life much easier than writing custom pages, well I may as well do things the nicer way.
posted @ 10:05 PM -

Thursday, May 20

Cycling

I want to write about cycling in a level of detail that I know most people will find incredibly tedious, because it's really only of interest if you live in Greater Cleveland and ride a bike yourself. So rather than bore people here, I've set up a separate livejournal account for it. So far there's an extremely detailed description of a nice ride I did on Wednesday, and a little blurb about the other things I want to put up there. I think I'll mention any bilke safety posts here because they might be of more general interest, but apart from that, well it's there if you want to read it, and not here for the benefit of those who don't.
posted @ 9:59 PM -

Wednesday, May 19

The Resettlement of Jews in England

Randy McDonald has just drawn my attention to some interesting documents about the resettlement of Jews in England in Cromwell's time. It's an episode of history I know far too little about—I know about the expulsion of the Jews several centuries earlier, and I know how my family ended up there (it would be very strange not to seeing as I was already alive when it happened), but there's a big gap there—and ought really to find out more about. Somehow I don't find it terribly surprising to read that Cromwell let the Jews back in out of a desire to convert them, rather than any real altruism or a principled stand against the ban.
posted @ 3:49 PM -

Wireless City

Apparently Cardiff is about to go wireless, by which I mean it will soon be the first city in the UK to have comprehensive public wireless internet access. Respect to Cardiff City Council for seeing the future, and thanks Jose for the link.
posted @ 1:48 PM -

Tuesday, May 18

should we talk about the weather?

Moving to the Midwest has taught me some important things about British weather. These are precisely the sorts of things I had hoped to learn by moving abroad: things that one has to step out of one's habitual environment to appreciate.

The most important lesson is that the stereotype of Brits loving to talk about the weather is grossly unfair. Ohioans talk about the weather far, far more. This is not because people here are more boring or more awkward conversationalists than back home, but because the weather is much more interesting. Brits talk about the weather largely to distract from having nothing to say, whereas here people talk about the weather because it is wondrous and strange.

Lesson 2 is that Britain really does have a very temperate climate. I've always known that this is officially the case (it's what we are taught in geography classes, after all), but Brits have a tendency not to appreciate quite what this means relative to the rest of the world. Britain gets some sampling of every weather type (by contrast with, say, Thailand, which never experiences cold, let alone snow), and it does have defined seasons, as well as the odd extreme (like the massive flooding of 2000), so we tend to think we get everything. Going somewhere tropical on holiday doesn't really change this perception, because that's a place that only gets one more extreme than home, and avoids all the others.

Moving to Ohio, on the other hand, has made me see quite how mild Britain's 'extremes' are. And how fuzzy Britain's seasons are. When I arrived in August, I left record-breaking heat in Britain, to similar heat and greater humidity here. September was glorious, with the temperature dropping enough to make me comfortable but the weather staying summery. Then in the course of one month summer disappeared and winter set in, and the first few cold nights were terrible, simply because they hit so quickly that I wasn't remotely acclimatised. I distinctly remember wondering how I was going to cope with winter, when the first few cold nights hurt so much, and I knew they were nowhere near as cold as it was going to get. But as winter set in I started to like it—the cold was just something to get used to and keep out with many layers of clothing, for the first time in my life I lived somewhere with proper snow that would actually settle and make the place look pretty, and January in Cleveland actually has much more sun than in coastal England.

The big surprise, though, has been the complete absence of anything I could describe as spring. Instead of any gradual change from winter to summer, there are a few weeks in which wintry cold is interleaved with baking heat, and then suddenly summer sets in. So only a couple of weeks after the last snowfall, I was out buying fans for the apartment because I couldn't cope with the heat without them (I have an air conditioner, but I don't much like living in a sealed, recycled-air environment, never mind the enormous energy consumption of such things), and it really does feel like summer is here to stay already. Most of the past 10 days has been in a steady pattern of pleasantly warm mornings, rising to hot enough to run away from the sun by lunchtime, and getting unpleasant (without a fan to sort me out) by mid-afternoon as the humidity picks up. Then as the sun goes down the sky clouds over, I can practically feel the charging of the atmosphere on my skin, and along comes an enormous thunderstorm, after which everything feels much more pleasant.

The most spectacular was yesterday; quite possibly the biggest storm I have ever seen. The first sign that it was coming was actually interference in my home network; the wireless link becoming so unreliable that it was faster for me to walk between computer and access point than for them to actually transfer messages electronically. This was followed by lightning that actually looked like the lightning effects in bad horror movies, thunder that sounded like the avalanches that result when mountain patrols dynamite unstable snowpacks, and so much rain that it was hard to tell the air from the lake. And within an hour it was over.

On some level I understand what's going on here. It's a combination of being at the shore of a particularly wide and shallow lake (if it were deep it would respond more slowly to changes in air temperature) and at the first hills after an enormous plain (head West from here and the land is flat for hundreds of miles). But as someone who is used to a sort of grey mixing of seasons, with low cloud that can set in for weeks at a time, it's very strange, and I rather like it.

In fact, I think it's fair to say that I am the only person I know who came to Cleveland from somewhere other than the midwest, and actually likes the weather here better than where I came from.
posted @ 8:32 PM -

Should we talk about the government?

Politics has been making me angrier and angrier of late. More than any particular story or issue, what's getting to me is the feeling that all political debate is futile, because the world (and even more so the USA) is so polarised. Every event seems to get forced through a confirm what I already believed filter by the majority of people, to such an extent that I no longer feel anyone can be convinced of anything.

Psychologically I find this phenomenon very interesting. Anyone who has dogmatic enough beliefs about the world must at some point deal with the cognitive dissonance that stems from seeing evidence which doesn't fit them, but the thing I find remarkable is the extent to which otherwise apparently rational people are willing to effectively stick their fingers in their ears and respond to contradictory news by shouting la la la I can't hear you. I saw this close up for the first time at Sussex, when I was working with a few genuine Communists (by which I mean people who proudly call themselves commies, as opposed to me calling them names), and their response to anything at all that question the virtue of Mao and/or Stalin and/or Kim (for Pete's SAKE! At least if they restricted themselves to Castro-worship they might have an easier time of it, but we're talking about some of the people with the most blood on their hands in all of human history) they would just cry propaganda and leave it at that. The depressing thing is that now I see similar rhetorical non-techniques being employed by most commentators. I'm finding myself alternating between avoiding all political commentary, and reading it in 'car-crash' mode, because I know I won't like what I see, but the anger and venting can be cathartic.

More than anything else, I'm getting annoyed by my own ventings about politics. I can't get the tone right, between childish over-simplification and tediously long-winded explanations. Add to this the feeling that even if I did—even if I could write something eloquent and soundly argued that would really be persuasive to a reader with an open mind—there would be no audience for it, and it feels like a lost cause. All I'm doing by writing about politics is effectively wearing a badge, that will irritate some people and signal to others that I'm part of their tribe, and I can't be bothered any more.

So for the foreseeable future I'm not going to write about political issues and opinions. I will write about political process, which is particularly fascinating to a foreigner in the US in election year, but I'm going to try to do so through a non-polarising lens, describing the circus and the strategy rather than going into what I think of the candidates themselves. I can't imagine anyone will really miss my rantings here, but if I'm wrong do tell me. If there turns out to actually be some value to them, they may return.
posted @ 8:47 AM -

Sunday, May 16

part 2

The afternoon's exam went much better. I just didn't much feel like writing about it, or being near a computer, or being sober for a while afterwards. Anyway, I don't want to tempt fate, and it's certainly still possible that I failed the second one by sloppiness or something, but at least I didn't feel stuck on things I simply didn't understand, so I'm reasonably confident.

I've been enjoying my freedom by doing radical things like not setting an alarm clock (so of course I'm wide awake at 10am anyway), which is all good. For the coming week, I must get some research done, but there will also be an almighty house cleaning, and at least some Civilization III. Both things I've been itching to do for a while.
posted @ 7:06 AM -

Friday, May 14

A treatise on the rake, and the violent use thereof in academia

I can conceive of no plausible situation that involves me having passed the exam I just sat, unless the exam is marked in such a way as to make it a joke. To borrow Jim's terminology: n+1 rakes. I wish to speak no further of this matter, and I am avoiding the company of other people who just took this exam, because there is absolutely no value in my dwelling on it, especially because I must clear my head for what comes next.

At 3pm, I have the other half of the qualifying exam (Operating Systems, which at the risk of tempting fate shouldn't be quite as difficult). The good news is that the two are independent, so assuming I have failed this morning, I can still pass the afternoon and only have to re-take one half next year. That's really the best consolation I can come up with.
posted @ 9:01 AM -

Wednesday, May 12

virus/worm/something bad

I think a virus or worm is sending messages with my main email address as the fake 'from'. If you get mail from me with an attachment, then unless you were expecting it, it might be an idea to check if it was really from me before opening the attachment.

I'm probably just being paranoid, but in the worst case this could mean I have to scrap that address.
posted @ 8:27 PM -
OK, so I should be revising, but I had to post this. I think it's a condition many people I know will identify with:

Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder

Though, as Vinay has just pointed out to me, it should really be renamed from disorder to syndrome, because I'm really not convinced that the drawbacks of being this way outweigh the benefits. Plus I'd be able to tell people I have NADS.
posted @ 11:55 AM -

For today, bullet points

Only tenuously related to each other, at best.
  • I have an utterly terrifying exam on Friday. Hence the terseness. After that I'll have more time on my hands.
  • How did I manage to make my tea taste like coffee? I wouldn't mind too much, except that it tastes like really bad coffee. Where I come from, people would say British Rail coffee, because British Rail anything is convenient shorthand for utterly, inexpressibly terrible.
  • I've been feeling rather homesick these last few days. I often miss people, but it's rare for me to actually miss places, which is what I'm doing right now. Probably doesn't help that it's Brighton Festival time (check out the art trail link and bear in mind that I used to live on Upper Gardner Street, which is the continuation of Gardner Street, and just behind Kensington Gardens, so this would have been on my doorstep).
  • Every American should read this guide to British pub etiquette. It will help you understand quite how foreign America is to me.
  • The news is making me very angry these days, so I'm trying to shut it out and not talk about it.
Next post will be next week, because I must resist the timesink property of blogging until Friday's exam, and I'm not planning on spending much time at a computer over the weekend.
posted @ 8:17 AM -

Monday, May 10

European farm subsidies

Progress. Of sorts. Of course France is already trying to find procedural tricks to block said progress, but now that France is only 1 out of 25 voices, and the 10 new EU members have no incentive to support France, this might actually get somewhere.
posted @ 7:46 AM -

Friday, May 7

IQ and voting habits

Beth found a table showing that States' average IQ scores correlate with which party they elect. It's quite amusing.

In the interest of fairness I ought to point out that IQ is an extremely poor gauge of intelligence—apart from only really measuring a very limited subset of abilities it's also highly culturally skewed, and the urban middle class tend to score highest, which fits the pattern of states neatly—and admit that the site it's from is one of the most partisan websites I've seen. It's still food for though though; there must be some traits that do correlate with political beliefs, and I wonder if anyone's done a more rigourous study of this.

The closest thing I can think of is a social psychology paper that looked at speeches made by politicians (in Canada's parliament if I recall correctly), and rather than finding systematic differences between parties they found large differences in complexity between speeches made when someone was in government (complex ideas as they have to justify reality) and when the same person was in opposition (much simpler ideas because that's the luxury of not having to deliver yet, allowing shorter sentences, &c.).

Update: it seems those figures were made up (as pointed out by a commenter). At some point I will write some more explanation about why even if they are real (and I haven't seen any evidence that the pattern of IQ is any different; it's just not clear where this 'information' came from) they are pretty meaningless, but first, work.
posted @ 2:17 PM -

Thursday, May 6

I'm a couple of days behind with this, but there's an XBox game coming out soon with a map that looks suspiciously familiar.
posted @ 10:26 AM -

Wednesday, May 5

Top marks for use of footnotes

I'm reading an interesting paper at the moment (Anatomy of a Martian Iguana) which takes some of my advisor's work and runs with it in a similar way to how I want to proceed over the summer. As well as being a very useful source of ideas, it has a wonderful piece of understated commentary on the previous generation of AI researchers. Attached to this section:
[one of the cited papers] sketched a design for a fungus-eating robot uranium miner ...
is the following simple footnote: Note that this research took place in the sixties. I liked the author already, but that just about seals it.
posted @ 3:32 PM -

La Dolce Vita

Thanks to various different wonders of technology, I am sitting in the sun working. I have internet access for both research and timewasting purposes, I have an instant messaging service going for both timewasting and asking people for help with work, and the old computer that now stays on my desk is finally speaking to the new one that's on my lap, so I have my entire music collection accessible to listen to on a nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones (which don't exactly kill the traffic noise, but cut it down enough that it's not distracting me). The only things I would like to add are a longer network range (so I can go and wander into the park across the street) and better battery life, but I have 3-5 hours on one battery now, and if I want to work for longer than that I can always run a long power cord out of the window.

The past couple of months have not been good, but almost all of the bad stuff is over, and I've had some pieces of good news from the university lately. I will eventually write about the things that have been getting me down with a little more perspective and a lot more calmly than last time I did so, but it's going to take me a while, so I wanted to jump the gun and let youse know that the story does have a happy ending.

It's good to be me right now.
posted @ 12:43 PM -

mind over matter

I've just read an extremely cool article in New Scientist about training people to control pain through the use of biofeedback. Apparently if people are shown real-time information about how active the region of the brain that modulates pain is, they can be trained to reduce its activity, and this diminishes the pain itself.

Obviously this holds promise for drug-free pain relief, but I wonder if it also helps explain some of the legendary feats performed by fakirs in India. Clearly these aren't people with centuries-old traditions of fMRI, but perhaps they have found some lower-tech way of doing the same thing: controlling the response to pain centrally, even while their peripheral nervous systems are busy screaming away.
posted @ 7:05 AM -

Tuesday, May 4

Lesser Evils

Jose pointed me at what I think is the first genuinely even-handed article about preventing terrorism that I have seen. It's long, but well worth a read.

What strikes me is that most things I've read on the subject (my own words undeniably included) take one extreme position or the other: either arguing that no extensions to state authority or changes in procedure are acceptable (this has been my line on occasions), or that there must be no restraints in the unaccountable authority of a leadership we must trust absolutely (the Richard Ashcroft / David Blunkett line). Both are probably wrong, and this article tries to spell out the trade-offs that must be made, and how to weigh them up. The argument is that some sacrifices are worth making in order to keep the vast mass of innocent people safe from a small group with malicious intent, but that democratic and legislative checks on state power (of the sort that western governments are always disturbingly eager to do away with under any sort of terrorism threat—the UK started this well before the US, with dreadful IRA-inspired Prevention of Terror Acts through the 1980s and 90s) are also essential to keep the sacrifices within acceptable limits.

I'm not sure I agree with everything it says, but I think this is the most constructive approach I've seen to a really important question that tends not to be argued intelligently because its sandwiched between such strong dogmatic positions.
posted @ 7:05 AM -

Monday, May 3

Students say the strangest things

I went to campus today to drop off what I thought was my last batch of grading for several months. I was almost right, but there were a handful of late scripts for me to collect. These ones being particularly late, a couple of the students have written notes to the prof on the front page. There's one that I feel compelled to share:
Sir, [why does anything starting "Sir," make me think of Nigerian spam these days?]

I talked to you after the final, and I had this done on Thursday. I accidentally passed out after final, and did not get it in though. Sorry for the inconvenience.
posted @ 1:50 PM -
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