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Monday, February 28

Crime spree!

These guys have the right idea of how to plan a holiday: two Brits are planning on crossing the USA breaking as many stupid laws as they can. I'm inclined to say that they should do the same thing at home to warm up, but a lot of Britain's stupid never-quite-repealed laws either involve shooting the welsh, beating one's wife or things that are specific to the observation of Christmas Day. Riding a bicycle in a swimming pool and wearing patent leather boots in Cleveland seem altogether more harmless.

Hat tip to Jim for finding that link.
posted @ 8:12 AM -

Wednesday, February 23

Unrewarded labour

I'm getting increasingly annoyed by the compulsion to do a 3-semester sentence grading papers in order to get a PhD. It's not just that it's a significant number of hours of mindnumbingly boring work for no pay. It's made much worse by the complete lack of any other kind of reward for a job well done. From last semester's teaching (which was a paid job I took because I wanted to do it) I can at least look back and say I got some recognition for the effort I put in, and I could get a useful reference in future, but from the grading there is no feedback and no conceivable future benefit, while it takes my time away from real work. It's just the university—with all that money in fee income and endowments—being too cheap to pay people for a job that it needs many hands to get done.

It's also a terrible way to get the papers graded, because grad students as a general rule aren't stupid. We notice that there's no benefit to us from doing the job well, so we just try to get it done as quickly as possible, and the students whose papers we're grading lose out. I take teaching more seriously than most of my peers, and I do see the giving of feedback as an important part of the process, but when I get handed a pile of 70-odd scripts every 2 weeks, I do rush the job. I hope I'm assigning credit properly, but I am not writing anywhere near as much as I should on peoples' scripts, because the cost to me in lost time so heavily outweighs the benefit, which is only the vaguely warm and fuzzy feeling that I did a job well in spite of hating it.

It's yet another thing that annoys me about Case. This place has at least an order of magnitude more income per student per year than Sussex, and yet it's Case that feels the need to cut corners and abuse its grad students (who bring shitloads of money into the university) as a pool of free labour.
posted @ 10:40 PM -

Saturday, February 12

Enjoying work

This makes a nice change. Now that I have no further exams to take, and no more general computer science courses, work is dominated by things I enjoy doing. I'm starting to actually move forward with what I'm hoping will be dissertation research, my one course (Computational Neuroscience) is a student-led seminar on really cool material, and I'm finally starting to feel like I can do the things I thought a PhD was supposed to consist of all along.

I'm going to start writing about work more, for various reasons, and I want to keep it separate from here. Partly so I can be a little bit more technical and not bore people, and partly so I can keep it a bit more professional, and have something I can show people that won't entail also sending them to all my unedited grumbling here. So I've started a work blog.
posted @ 1:56 PM -

Wednesday, February 9

Roadtrip!

The number of certainties in my future is slowly increasing. Melinda's job search is over, and we now know that we're going to move to Seattle. For me this wasn't quite as simple a choice as it was for her, but I do feel like it's the right thing.

I have precisely one reservation about Seattle: distance. For those that don't know, I'm going to be continuing my PhD as a Case student, mainly so I can carry on working with the same advisor, who was my main reason for moving to the US in the first place. I'm in the process of finishing up all the things that need me to physically be on campus on a regular basis, but once that is done I'll still have 2-3 years of work to do before I can graduate. Obviously during that process it will still be helpful to be able to meet my advisor and my research group as often as possible, and obviously the practicalities of being 2,000 miles away with no direct flight mean I won't be doing this as often as I would have done had we stayed in the Midwest.

This is why I'm especially glad I went out to Seattle with Melinda. It meant that I had the chance to see why she likes the place quite so much, and to see that it has various things that would definitely make it a good place for me to live. It feels like a place where people actually live in the city (and it's not insanely expensive to), and there would actually be life on our doorstep, and a set of worthwhile things to walk to. The walking was key really; I spent days walking around the city, and its a place where that is practical. I've missed that, and I'm looking forward to having it again.

I tried to capture some representation of the other things that impressed me there on camera: a real city skyline, mountains, lakes, non-car-centric urban design, and a city authority that actually spends money on projects for peoples' benefit. Once I had walked around the city enough, I felt like I was lucky that I might have the chance to live there, and it started to seem worth the one drawback.

I'm also excited about the process of moving there. The employer are going to take care of a lot of the no-fun parts for us (their mover will actually pack our stuff up!), and we're probably going to drive there from here, taking enough time over it that we can actually stop in interesting places and look around. I've been wanting to do a road trip across America for years, and now it's really going to happen.
posted @ 6:31 AM -

Wednesday, February 2

Scripts

Just one more detail about the State of the Union address. The White House website has the full transcript. It's timestamped 9:10pm (the speech started at around that time), and yet it has (applause) marked in many places. Are these stage directions?
posted @ 8:54 PM -

State of the Union address

I'm not sure which part makes me more sad. The hour of bullshit that was the President's speech, or the uselessness of the Democratic response.

Bush's speech was like many of his others: it expressed high and admirable ideals, and I would have enjoyed listening to it if I wasn't so painfully obvious that reality fails to match up to the rhetoric. It was thin on detail, but that's not terribly surprising in the context, regardless of who is delivering it. More importantly, it wouldn't have taken that much editing to turn it into an opposition speech. It had a general structure of: expression of ideal that no-one could argue with, or description of a problem that exists followed by dishonest rhetoric about how said ideal has supposedly been lived up to, or vague description of a plan to fix said problem. I found myself getting progressively angrier because of the gulf between each part 2 and reality. When it comes to fixing Social Security, the sad thing is that I don't even pay attention to what the proposal is, because I simply don't trust the people presently in power to execute the world's greatest plan competently. It's a bit like the people who run Case, only more people suffer from their poor execution.

I don't have the time to dissect the whole speech, but I'll just give one example of the gap between expressed ideals and real policies: AIDS. Bush talked about wanting to work to reduce the spread of AIDS, and all I could think about was how his government has worked against the most basic and effective AIDS-prevention measure that exists: condoms.

In the circumstances, you'd think that the obvious Democratic response tactic would be to shadow the speech. They could have used Bush's own words for the part 1 of each section, and replace part 2 with a short counter-example each time. Instead, they rambled in much more general terms, with little effective rhetoric. There was one very nice touch, which I hope they keep repeating: describing the national debt as a birth tax, which does seem like a good way of reminding anti-tax voters that debts all have to be paid eventually. But the rest of it was entirely forgettable.

Worse than the content, however, was the delivery. Bush's delivery is never great—rather halting and a bit too shouty—but he looked like a pro compared to the cardboard cut-outs the Democratic Party wheeled out. At least Bush held my attention. There were significant sections of the Democrats' response that I didn't even process, because I was so bored by the speakers' voices. And consider a few things:
  1. I am a student, so used to spending long periods of time listening to people—often people whose presentation skills are rather lacking—discuss ideas
  2. I was really irritated by the President's speech, so I wanted to hear the alternative
  3. I was actually moderately enthused by the Democratic Party last year, so I was eager to hear what they had to say
There is no way that today's Democratic response got through to anyone not already actively supporting them. It was a waste of valuable airtime, when the Party had probably the largest national TV audience it will get all year, and they let a pair of terrible speakers squander it. Suddenly now I appreciate Howard Dean.

The present government scares me a little, but at the end of the day I know they are transient. I had been assuming that when things go too far in one direction, eventually there will be a reaction against, and the political environment will swing back towards sanity. I had some doubts already, because of the way exurbia—which frankly is the apotheosis of everything that I dislike about this country, with almost everything I like excluded from it—is growing continuously. I was very rattled by this week's revelation that many teenagers think the government should censor the press. But after today's waste of time, I feel like the bleakest thing in America's future is the hopelessness of the political opposition.
posted @ 7:22 PM -

Tuesday, February 1

Progress

It seems that collecting my complaints in one place and sending them to someone with real authority was a good move. I don't want to go into detail because a lot of this is ongoing, but in the one day since I've had some of the things straightened out, a significant amount explained to me, and I now have one point of contact for such problems, who seems to have the power to fix things when necessary.
posted @ 4:15 PM -
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