Tuesday, May 31

Our Man in Freetown

As some of you already know, my old friend Mark White was recently posted to Sierra Leone by his employer, Britain's Civil Service. I found out on the weekend that he's started blogging, so we can all have regular updates on Sierra Leone's and Crystal Palace FC's woes. He's a good writer if you can put up with even worse puns than my post titles.

The site is I Think We're Salone Now (see what I mean about the puns?), and for those so inclined the Atom feed is not publicised but it's at http://sparkyinsalone.blogspot.com/atom.xml
posted @ 6:50 AM -

Wednesday, May 25

Hard drive update

Top marks to UPS and OWC. The replacement hard drive arrived within 36 hours of being ordered, from two states away. I have a lab meeting this afternoon so I want to spend the next few hours collecting my thoughts for that, but immediately afterwards I'll swap out the hard drives and start installing software on the new one. Another thing to be pleased about is that I have access to all the non-free software I use via Case's group licences, and a very fast network to download everything from while I'm on campus.
posted @ 7:40 AM -

Tuesday, May 24

Free stuff / things for sale

I have a few items I don't want to move to Seattle, so I'm giving a couple to anyone who can collect them, and selling a couple of others. If you're interested, email me or leave a comment here.

free IBM 14" VGA monitor. It works fine, it's just that I have 3 other displays already (2 laptops plus a nice LCD) and I can't find a use for a fourth. I'm giving this away free because I picked it up for no charge from the EECS table'o'trash. If I don't find a taker, I'll just return it there.

free glass garden table. I must be honest: the reason I'm not taking this with me is that it has a couple of cracks in the lower pane of glass that make me worry about how long it will last, which is also why I'm not taking any money for it. If you've been to my apartment, this is the green one that I eat off. It's a good size for two to eat, but cramped with a third person. If I don't find a taker, this will probably go to a thrift store.

for sale 1 pair wireless speakers. I have two pairs, which I've been using with my computer as the main sound system here. Melinda has a pretty good stereo, so I'm just not going to have a use for both pairs. These cost me $100; I'll consider any resonable offer for them.

for sale 1 desk chair. It's comfortable, but Melinda's giving me a better one once we live together, and the height adjuster in this one slips (so it's probably better suited to someone shorter than me, because it ends up lower than I like if I don't adjust it regularly). I paid $20 for this; I'll consider any reasonable offer, with a bias towards people who don't want it immediately because I will still need some kind of desk chair for the next few weeks.

I'll post photos of these things when my powerbook is back in working order.
posted @ 9:26 AM -

Monday, May 23

It could have been worse....

Yesterday, my PowerBook started to sound like a dustbuster, and suddenly froze. Rebooting was no trouble, but the same thing happened a couple of hours later. This morning it sounded like a grown up vacuum cleaner, and just wouldn't boot up. So I did the only sensible thing I could do, and took it into the Apple Store for the advice of one of their resident geniuses.

This meant braving Legacy Village, which is a place that makes me want to run away to Mongolia. The coolness of Apple Stores does a certain amount to blunt the vague sense of disgust I have when I set foot in that place, but unfortunately the news was not good. Getting Apple to repair everything on this machine (which has been dropped a few times and shows it) would cost just over $1,000, meaning it would actually be cheaper to buy a new iBook (and the spec has improved enough in the intervening time that a new iBook would be marginally better than my early 2004 PowerBook). I was generally impressed with the customer service there—in particular the guy knew what he was talking about and wasn't condescending; a sadly rare combination in tech support—except for one detail: he wouldn't give me a quote on just replacing the hard drive. I don't care if you wouldn't be comfortable doing that without fixing the other issues with the machine, I am the one who will have to live with the consequences. By trying to trade me up to such an expensive repair, he lost my business.

Anyway, it was probably for the best, because since then, prompted by some very helpful suggestions from other customers with broken laptops at the Apple Store, I've discovered that for less than $300 I can get a larger and faster replacement hard drive, and it's not too big a job to replace it myself. Seeing as this machine is out of warranty anyway, I may as well....

So, I'm pretty annoyed about the time and money this is going to waste, but on the other hand there are several things that stop this from being as bad as it could have been:
  • It happened now and not a couple of months ago, or in the runup to quals, or when I had a submission deadline coming up.
  • I actually have fairly good backup habits, so almost nothing really important and irreplaceable is in any danger of being lost. My research work gets backed up to a lab computer every time I check results, which means several times a day, my music resides permanently on an external hard drive, and my photos get backed up to an external hard drive every couple of weeks. When this drive died, there was only one week's worth of photos not backed up.
  • Had the Apple Store guy quoted a somewhat lower price I would have just gone for it, throwing away money and potentially the old hard drive itself.
  • The old hard drive is working right now, so I'm getting the chance to back up all the niggly little things like address book and calendars that are replaceable but would take up a lot of time if I had to re-enter all the data.
posted @ 3:14 PM -

Wednesday, May 18

Good news (is more accessible now)

The Economist, my favourite serious news source, has started doing free day passes in exchange for watching an ad (like Salon has been doing for a while). I only noticed because my subscription has lapsed and I've decided to wait till I get to Seattle to renew it, but I'm also pleased because I have so often sent people articles only to discover that they were subscriber-only.

This is the only paid-content model that I can see actually working, because for someone like me (who reads about 90% of the magazine's content in a typical week) it's still worth subscribing for the sake of the printed copy and lower-hassle access to the website. On the other hand, it lets any given article that attracts particular attention be sent to as many people as possible, so the publication doesn't lose potential impact and free advertising (which I think is why a significant proportion of the articles have always been free for everyone).

I realise that I'm judging this model a success without considering the actual advertising revenue it might generate. The thing is that an advert that has been more clearly marked as distinct from magazine content is also easier to ignore, so a large proportion of readers will completely filter out the ad they've just had to allow to be displayed on their monitor in order to get to the content they seek. I can't even remember whose advertising I saw 15 minutes ago when I tested the website to make sure the day pass worked.
posted @ 2:40 PM -

It's an antique!

Spotted on a campus toilet wall:
I really hope that this was a student being facetious, and not just graffiti that dates back to when it would have been topical and a matter of debate.
posted @ 1:49 PM -

Friday, May 13

Good news, I think

Now that I think everyone who must be told in person has been, I can blog about something I've known for a few weeks. Randy is leaving Case in roughly a year, and moving to the Cognitive Science department at Indiana University, Bloomington.

It is unquestionably a big step up for him. Whereas at Case our lab has been a poor fit in the Computer Science department, with only a handful of faculty scattered across disparate departments doing anything related, IU has a gigantic Cognitive Science program, with a large number of faculty doing related work. It's clearly going to be a better fit for his work, and he's much more likely to find appropriate collaborators and interested grad students.

For me, it's not quite so clear. In many ways I would have been better off had I gone to IU in the first place. Leaving aside all the reasons I'm disappointed with Case as institution, a significant proportion of my discontent has come from my also not being a particularly good fit for a CS department. IU actually has a Cognitive Science PhD programme, which would have had me doing much more relevant (and consequently more interesting) coursework, not to mention a qualifier system that appears both more worthwhile and less cruel. The department's regular seminars would also have brought along more speakers who actually do things related to my work, and I'd have more faculty to bounce ideas off, and so on.

The catch is that transferring universities is never automatic, and isn't necessarily easy. Under normal circumstances, a student looking to transfer would have to apply as normal, and at best they'd be able to transfer some of the credits from the first university to the second. They'd still have to take some courses and the qualifying exams at the new place, and things like residency requirements would still apply. This would be bad for me for a number of reasons: I'm really pleased to be DONE WITH COURSEWORK at last, even a well-run qualifier is bound to be pretty stressful, and I already have plans to live somewhere else which I'm not willing to drop and move to Bloomington.

Of course, one's advisor moving to a place is not normal circumstances, and certainly when I went and asked the University of Washington CS department about admissions back in January they told me that in that situations pretty much all the requirements could be waived. It doesn't guarantee that IU will have the same policy (and neither Randy nor I have had a chance to ask yet, since this news wasn't official until this week) but there's a good chance that they do. There are other wrinkles—the work I have under my belt is a much better fit for their Computer Science PhD programme than anything in the Cognitive Science department where I believe Randy will be, and because I'm planning on living a couple of time zones away I would need them to accept with pretty much no non-dissertation requirements—but these probably can be worked out. I may end up having to join a different department from my advisor, but that would only be a little strange; not necessarily a practical problem.

Alternatively, if IU either won't accept me, or would have requirements I can't meet without moving to Bloomington, I have the option of continuing to be registered at Case. I would need to find someone else to be my advisor in an official capacity, but they would only really need to be the person who signs off on my paperwork; I could continue looking to Randy for actual advice on work. It would create an even more odd situation, in which I am registered at one university with an advisor I don't have much to do with, while my real source of guidance is at another, and I don't even see him all that often because I live in a third city, but again I don't think the weirdness matters very much.

Hopefully I'll know which options I actually have open within a couple of months, but the most important parts of the story are in place. My advisor is moving to a place that suits both of us better, and he will continue to be my advisor so by the end of summer 2006 I'll be going to Bloomington instead of Cleveland when I want to see him, and hopefully meeting more people with whom I share research interests.
posted @ 8:57 PM -

Thursday, May 12

passing the baton

Jose hit me with a stick. I've been a slacker, and I'm the last of his recipients to answer, but here it is:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

First of all, a confession: I have as yet to read Fahrenheit 451. I asked around, and there wasn't a consensus about quite what this question meant, so I'll answer two intepretations:

Book I'd most like burned: The entire Left Behind series. Mano Singham wrote a wonderful post about the Rapture, which is the central idea of these books. I'm of half a mind to just dismiss them as harmlessly crazy, but the problem is people do take these ideas seriously. I could rant for pages about the detrimental effects of this, but let's just say that if you believe that all deserving people will shortly get teleported away to heaven, and that 'deserving' is defined purely by professed faith as opposed to wordly acts, why consider the impact of any of your actions?

Book I'd most like saved: Choosing one is not easy. I think I'll go for one that I have never actually read, but which is the root of the ideas that have done most to shape my understanding of the world: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Yes. One of the more enduring (if only because the author wrote quite a few books with her in) was Asimov's Susan Calvin. On reflection, she's not all that appealing a character—the Wikipedia entry is spot on with ...divorced from normal emotions, almost more "robotic" than his mechanical characters....—but I guess when I was reading a lot of Asimov (10 years old, give or take a couple of years) I was also a misanthrope who was not very interested in engaging with human beings.

The last book you bought is:

A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action by Esther Thelen and Linda Smith. I haven't even had time to read it yet, even though it's a work book.

The last book you read:

Melinda's mum gave me a book called American History ASAP, which basically covered US history from colonialism onwards in a chronological overview style. I was enjoying it a lot, and was halfway through, when I went and left it on a plane. I need to replace it so I can finish reading, and catch up on all the things I wasn't taught in school because the UK history curriculum barely notices the US between independence and WWII.

What are you currently reading?

Ha. Ha. Ha. A lot of work stuff, and it's a long time since I've read fiction. Basically journal papers about using evolution to create artificial agents that learn.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

I'm going to pick things that I would like to read from cover to cover, but never get around to doing so:
  1. The Bible. It's been so influential, and I feel like I know it better than most non-religious people, but there's no substitute for actually reading the whole thing. On the other hand, have you ever tried?

  2. The Koran. See above, and add in greater controversy over what kind of religion Islam is.

  3. Ulysses. Because I loved Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the first 3 chapters of Ulysses, but every time I try to read it something distracts me and I can't get back into its world without starting at the beginning again.

  4. The Origin of Species, for the same reasons as I'd save it from burning.

  5. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. I cite it regularly, and what it describes is the essence of what any scientist does, but I've only ever skimmed parts of the primary text, because like most philosophy books it's heavy going to say the least.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons)? And Why?

Barry, Alex and Scott. Why? Well they're three very interesting people from whom I have learned a lot, and who have nothing to do with each other so I can spread this meme a little wider.

Current stick path as it got to me: Barrie unleashed the stick on the 7th of March - Amanda - scooterdeb - Brian - Karma Police - Evelio - Ivy - Suzanne - Jeff - Patricia Lockwood - Frank - Amy - Steve - Ginger - Scopylaw - AI - Jose - me.
posted @ 6:30 PM -

Wednesday, May 11

Things in Cleveland that I will miss

While I won't be sad to leave this city, I think I must give an unfairly harsh impression of the place. It is not the case that Cleveland has no redeeming features at all, so in my last few weeks here I'm going to start an occasional series pointing out good things in the area.

For today's instalment: Algebra Tea House on Murray Hill, which is where Melinda & I had dinner tonight. It's a wonderfully straight-line free place, where the majority of the furniture, and everything on which food and drink are served, has been hand made by the owner, and every piece is unique. Good food and drinks, a nice chilled atmosphere, and on Wednesdays there's a group of fiddlers and banjo players who meet and jam for a few hours in the evenings. It's the one teahouse in the area that I don't like working in, but it's by far the nicest for just hanging out and relaxing.

I know Seattle will have similar places—probably more of them too—but one as distinctive this can never be substituted for.
posted @ 7:56 PM -

Monday, May 9


I've pretty much lost the blogging bug of late, and I'm not entirely sure why. Until recently I was blogging less than I felt like, because I was so busy, but now I have a little more time on my hands and I just don't feel like blogging. I would just let this lie, but lately I've been deriving so much pleasure from Duncan &' Kris's accounts of their adventures in Japan, and it's reminding me of how much I like looking back at archives from the previous few years (my first year or so of blogging is painful for me to read, but from my arrival in Bristol onwards it's something I enjoy reading). That makes me feel like as long as my life isn't utterly dull, I should try to write something, if only so I can look back and remember where I was and what I was doing in May 2005. I have kept this blog going for much longer than I ever maintained a private diary, after all. And then there's always the hope that forcing myself to write one post will get me started.

So what have I been doing since I last blogged? I've had more trouble with Case admin. They overpaid me one time, so they decided that the way to put this right was to not pay me at all the following month. The problem with this? Well they had overpaid me by a lot less than 100%, so they were expecting me to pay for their mistake. It only took a day to resolve, but in that day I had to deal with an irritating person in Payroll lecturing me for not reporting the overpayment; once again, holding me responsible for their mistake. The sooner I get out of this place the better.

On the subject of getting out of here, I reached a pleasing academic milestone, in that I finished my last required class ever. From now on, I can just get on with doing research and actually feeling like a PhD student, because all of the other requirements are out of the way. In one way I finished on a good note, because I managed to get an A for that last course.

At the same time, Melinda & went to London to spend passover with my family and catch up with some friends. The good parts of this were that she has now met all the relatives I see at all regularly, and people seem to like each other, and we were able to see the majority of the people I wanted to see. The bad is that I was finishing that course while in London, and this experience taught me to never again try taking deadline-pressured work with me on what is supposed to be a holiday, because the two don't mix.

We got back to Cleveland a week ago, and as my two-sentence post then probably made abundantly clear I wasn't too happy to be back. The funny thing is that May is when I like Cleveland best, and there are things to like here, but there's also plenty that I don't like, and I think I've become less tolerant of the negatives since I knew I was definitely moving somewhere very different soon. We have a loose plan for our roadtrip to Seattle, and a reasonable idea of practical things like how we're co-ordinating the move (her employer organises a lot for us, but they won't collect from my address because, well, they're only employing one of us), where in Seattle we want to look for apartments, and so on, and this is all pleasing to me. If we didn't have important things to get done here first, I'd be wanting to leave right now, take a little more time over the journey there, and arrive there at least a month earlier than we're currently planning.

However, we do both have plenty to do. Melinda has to finish and defend her thesis, and I am trying to put a research proposal together, which ideally I should defend before leaving town. We're planning on leaving on the 24th of June. People who knew me when I was writing up my masters' thesis may remember how stressful a time July and August 2002 were; she has something similar to get through. I'm under somewhat less pressure, partly because it really isn't as crucial that I get my stuff done—leaving town without having defended a proposal would suck for various reasons, but it wouldn't be a disaster—but mainly because I just can't keep working the way I had been doing. My first four semesters at Case have been bad for my health in several ways, and it's just time I took more control over my own life. I have a 4-week plan to put this proposal together, and it seems realistic, but if I can't make it I would rather miss my self-imposed deadline than go back to working all my waking hours.

The upshot of this is that I have more free time than I've had for a while. I must say it was great actually having a weekend to relax without having to leave town in order to get away from work, and I should keep that up. I'm trying to keep to a reasonably patterned routine so that I do get a lot of work done during the day on weekdays, but stop working by the time I eat dinner, and don't do much work on a weekend. Now maybe I can rediscover some hobbies.
posted @ 7:11 PM -

Monday, May 2

I'm looking forward to living in a city where the main public transport link to the airport runs as late as the last arrivals to said airport, and where Melinda & I won't be assumed to be stupid tourists who don't know how to use a bus just because we're the only honkies on board.
posted @ 10:21 PM -
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