28 September 2005

Croatia or Bust

I'm leaving tomorrow to go to Croatia for a week with Rob and David from work. In my absence, enjoy the amusing email that Becky's boyfriend James sent me on places to see and avoid in Croatia (he went there a few years ago):

Split - medieval town with walls and stuff, quite good bars etc. Stunning women from what I remember.

Brac - this is an island just across from split. If you go there, you want to go to Bol, which is a seaside resort on the south coast of the island - a bus can take you there from the ferry port. This was a really good seaside resort - perfect for relaxing but not really that much to do during the day apart from hire pedalos etc. Again, good bars and clubs, but don't go to the big club called 'Faces', which is owned by ex West Ham and Derby footballer Igor Stimac. No one goes.

Hvar - didn't go there (it was just south of Brac) due to time but people we met in Bol said it was better than Brac

Plitivice Lakes - we had a chill out day here as a break from the copious boozing we were doing. Very nice National park place, camping was good. I remember England played Croatia that day in a friendly, which incidentally I think we won 3-0. You need good footwear to do the walk as I found out when I slipped down a slope in my reebok classics and busted my hand.

Rab - another island - this was a bit more croatian than Brac. Some geezer started on us for no reason in a bar. Wasn't a great deal to do, I wouldn't bother.

Rijecka - spent a few hours here - I don't think people hang around here, it seems to be an entry point from where people go to other places.

As well as these I would have liked to go to Dubrovnick, but its right down south and we were flying from Trieste so didn't really have the time.

Another thing - the roads are really bad - windy and bumpy - so allow yourself extra time to get between places. We arrived late into rijecka and missed the bus to trieste so basically had to go on a EUR75 taxi ride that took us through 3 countries.

23 September 2005

<i>Guns Germs &amp; Steel</i>

I'm about halfway through Guns, Germs & Steel and something's nagging me about the author's style. I just realised what's bothering me: he (intentionally, I think) blurs the distinction between hypothesis-generation and experimental validation. Specifically, his argument is largely based on anecdotal evidence and Gedankenexperiments. He'll present a series of known archealogical and anthropological facts and then make a few fairly reasonable logical processions to "prove" his explanation for some phenomenon. To be fair he frequently points out that his views aren't proven beyond doubt, but always with a wink and a nod that says, "But my explanation just makes sense doesn't it? So we all know I'm right."

Really the entire book is about the first phase of science: generating hypotheses. We take some facts we know and combine them logically to think up a plausible explanation. The next step, however, is the most crucial: we set out to prove our hypothesis wrong! We try to think of some way to definitively prove that our guess is wrong and thus refine our guess. Absent other evidence, the path of the sun through the sky lends itself to the logical explanation that it's movign around the earth.

Most of his arguments are plausible, but it irks me that he doesn't seem to be able to offer much convincing proof that they're actually true. I think I'm especially bothered because he does use actual data to demonstrate some of his founding principles and then drifts into the realm of conjecture without really acknowledging the difference.


Today's cool scientist of the day is Edward Mills Purcell, who worked at the Rad Lab during WWII on the team which developed radar. He subsequently discovered NMR in 1946, for which he shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics. All of this is meritorious enough to overlook the fact that he got his PhD at Harvard.

20 September 2005

Daily Grind

I'm importing loads of flat text files into a DB I just wrote and the first version of the importing tool doesn't really make it obvious when the thread that's executing the SQL queries has finished. So instead I'm judging when to start it on the next directory by listening to when the hard drive stops grinding. I can't tell if I'm being clever or if I need to buy a new hard drive.


I think it's safe to say you're reading a seminal paper if you pull the journal out of the stacks and it falls open to the article you're looking for.

16 September 2005

Couple Things

  1. Check out this dude who was a technical advisor to Top Gun. The question is, did J.K. Rowling just find his name on IMDB or did she once date an American fighter pilot?

  2. The New York Times has an article today about a recent survey of American sexual behavior. Lead researcher's name: Dr. Jennifer Manlove.

14 September 2005

Old Headington

Whoa, little did I know that my local, the White Hart, dates from the 17th century and used to house  Joan of Headington's infamous brothel. St. Andrew's, the little church across the way from the Hart, has bits that are over 700 years old!

N3tw0rk H3r0

I've never met Daniel Falush before, but today he's my hero. He sent out this term's schedule for Mathematical Genetics Seminars. Not only did the entire schedule appear in plain text in the body of the message (total message size 5kb) but he also provided links to both PDF and HTML versions on the web!

12 September 2005


I've been spending a lot of time listening to, watching and reading about sports lately; the NFL season just started, the baseball post-season is heating up and a very exciting Ashes series just finished (England reclaimed the urn!). I've also been rereading several of the early Harry Potter novels and I've come to a conclusion: J. K. Rowling is not a sports fan of any kind. Her invented sport of the magical world, Quidditch, just isn't realistic at all.

I know, I know, I'm griping about realism in a book about kids
traipsing about a secondary school for wizards. But part of what makes
the series so delightful is the way in which Harry's fantasy world
feels so real. You can really tell that Rowling labours to put polished
edges on so many of the minor details of her imaginary universe, so
it's a shame that she is clueless about sports. To wit:

  • The game is essentially two completely separate competitions
    happening simultaneously: Firstly, several players fly around on
    broomsticks and try to score goals (essentially flying football) worth
    10 points each. At the same time one player from each team (the "seeker") is
    responsible for finding a tiny, fluttering ball-creature, the golden
    snitch. Capturing the snitch ends the game and awards 150 points to the
    capturer's team. These two activities are weakly leaked by a third group whose job is to swat balls at opposing players of all shades in order to distract them. I can't really think of any major sport where there are two completely distinct and divisible goals being pursued at the same time. It only serves to make the game incoherent.

  • The scoring system is clearly conceived by somebody who just likes big decimal numbers. We can divide all the scoring increments by 10 and not lose any granularity. Real sports have non-unity point values only when it serves to distinguish between types of scoring (touchdown vs. field goal or shots inside or outside the 3-point ring).

  • The real damning complaint, though, is that the game is horrendously unbalanced. Rowling paints pictures of teams who are incredibly competitive at this sport, but they all act as if they dont' see the glaring inconsistencies in how the game is scored: the team which captures the snitch always wins. There are only two relevant categories into which the pre-snitch scores falls: a disparity of greater than 150 points or a disparity of less than 150 points (ignoring the potential for a draw, which isn't discussed). If your team is ahead by any amount or behind by less than 150, you grab the snitch and you win. If your team is behind by more than 150, you can't grab the snitch, because the game ends and you lose! Thus the activities of 6 of the 7 players on a team are practically meaningless compared to whether the seeker gets the snitch. There is a slight issue in that league results in which more than one team has the same overall record is decided by score, but this doesn't cover up the fact that the game is insanely unbalanced. A clever team captain would divert all his resources to finding the snitch and put up only a basic defense. Plus, the only exciting thing to ever happen during a game is the finding of the snitch (with the exception of plot devices added by the author) so the whole game is always condensed to a page or two of Harry (who plays seeker) flying around until he grabs the snitch. The fact is, the rest of the game is incredibly boring and meaningless to the outcome!

In fact, I just read a descriptiong of the video-game version of Quidditch, and it seems like they split the two phases of the game into...two sequential, unrelated phases. You play the basic scoring game and then at some point depending on how the game is going the snitch is released and the game completely changes modes for you to chase after the snitch.

Don't get me wrong, all this doesn't take away from the neat-o! aspect
of a game played by kids on brooms. It's just a shame that Rowling
bothers to include so many Quidditch details (Ron's favourite team, the
visit to the Quidditch World Cup at the beginning of Goblet of Fire,
the annual school competitions) but that her conception of sporting is
so misguided. If she were a sports fan (read: a man) then Quidditch
would have a set of rules that actually make it an interesting game to

11 September 2005


I've been trying to write about this year's Ashes series, but I can't figure out how to do it without also explaining the entire game of cricket, a feat which took me 5 months of living in England to accomplish. At the very least I'll need to give some historical perspective on the Ashes (those interested in more depth can read the lovely wikipedia article on same). The Ashes is a biennial Test Cricket series played between England and Australia which began after the English team lost a Test match for the first time to the Australians in 1882. Local media bemoaned the "death of English Cricket" for having lost in embarrassing fashion to the colonials. The trophy taken back to Australia supposedly contained the ashes of a set of burnt bails (part of the wickets used in Cricket) representing the cremated remains of English pride.

The series is played as 5 Tests spread over the whole summer, each of which lasts 5 days. Without getting into too much gritty detail (although this article is a good one for Americans trying to figure out cricket) it is important to realise that each Test can either result in a victory for one side or a draw if the requisite number of wickets aren't bowled in 5 days' time. Also important is that the trophy is retained by whichever side currently possesses it if the overall series ends in a draw. Well, we're in the middle of the last Test now (today is day 4) and England is currently ahead 2-1 in the series. This means that if this final Test ends in a draw or an English victory (2-1 or 3-1 final results, respectively) then England regains the Ashes. In the case of an Aussie victory the final result would be 2-2 and the current champs (the Aussies) would retain the trophy.

The last tidbit of information required is that time lost to rain/inclement weather is not made up. So if you lose a couple of days to rain the match is likely to end up a draw, which in this case is good for the English. Cricket can be stopped due to rain or "bad light" where the umpires literally walk around the pitch with a photographers light meter to test for how bright it is. Under failing light conditions (like heavily overcast skies) the game is thought to be unfair to the batters who have a tough time picking up the ball coming out of the bowler's hand. So in this case they "offer the light" to the batting side who can elect to sit down for a while until it brightens up.

English fans at the Oval all started opening their umbrellas to encourage the umps to stop play, while Aussie fans took off their shirts in protest that it was a lovely day (in truth it's not raining, but it is a pretty grim day). The Aussie team took the field in sunglasses to show they were ready to play. At the moment play is indeed stopped and looks to remain that way for the rest of today (they stop the game at 6PM in any event). Barring an amazing display of bowling tomorrow, it looks very favourable for England to recover the Ashes.

Unfortunately it's hard to explain much more of the excitement of watching the match (this morning featured some brilliant bowling by England's Andrew Flintoff). The strategy of Test match cricket is so subtle that yesterday morning I went from thinking England didn't stand a chance to thinking that the Aussies couldn't possibly win. Anyway, Sox-Yankees in an hour, so I'll have had my fill of bat & ball sports today.

08 September 2005

Silver Bells

Due to the wild fluctuations of airline prices around the holidays and the fact that my office essentially shuts down for the last half of December, I'm going to be spending a whole month in the USA around Christmas (roughly the 16th to the 16th).


06 September 2005


I went with a couple of housemates last night to see a (professional) production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a decent production of one of the most linguistically titillating plays I've ever seen.

The acting was a bit of a mixed bag. The guy playing Algy was just a
little too stiff, especially in the first act. Jack was better, but
both of them spent a lot of time crossing back and forth aimlessly and
holding their arms behind their backs. I never got the feeling that
they slipped into character (again, especially during the first act).
Gwendolen and Cecily were both better, and both gave off a much more
continuous vibe of personality. Cecily especially seemed to develop a
real character and stayed there for the whole show.

The play's brilliance relies, however, on executing Wilde's sparkling dialog, and only Cecily managed to consistently pull it off. The gentlemen spent too much time squaring 'round to address the
audience and ponderously doling out Wilde's elaborate witticisms. What the text truly requires is a light-footed, dextrous handling akin to fencing: attack — parry — attack — retreat. Lady Bracknell was a further disappointment since she seemed to frequently get caught in mid-tirade, trying to remember what to say next. She (perhaps more than all the rest) needs to have an unperturbable cadence bred in by a lifetime of English society. The others had similar issues (where they'd lose the train of thought for no apparent reason) but not as often. One particularly bright spot was the bloke who played Lane (the servant in the first act) and Merriman (the servant in the second act). His invented story about the inability to procure cucumbers "even for ready money" was one of the few times when Wilde's text was done justice.

The staging was mostly simple and well done. Doors were flown in and out mid-scene to arrive just in time for entrances and exits. It was a nice bit, providing a mix of open space and demarcation when needed. I was annoyed that the doors were so poorly made as to shake and shimmy any time somebody touched them, however.

All told a very nice night at the theatre.

Hi-Tech Handicapping

My former boss used to joke about paying for his retirement by sequencing the genomes of the greatest racehorses of all time and then using the information to handicap races. He'd better hurry up, though, because somebody else stole his idea.


Imagine you're faced with an employee who has failed miserably at his job. You call him in to take him to task and he replies, "I did the best I could." Wouldn't your only logical course of action be to sack him? If you're paying him to do a job and his self-admitted best isn't enough, then clearly he should be fired, right?

Shouldn't we hold the President to that standard?

04 September 2005


For a group with so much legitimate ammunition available, left-wing pundits are irritatingly inept at making their case against President Bush's policies. Their folly is epitomised for me by their inability to write an editorial without referencing the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner on the USS Lincoln in May 2003. Every time someone writes a piece demanding that the President be brought to task for mishandling the war in Iraq they snarkily gloat about how absurd that moment seems now. Confidential message to Maureen Dowd: your argument would be more cogent if you allowed the readers to occasionally make their own leaps of logic instead of repeatedly slapping them in the face with the blindingly obvious.

The left isn't going to win anybody by being pedantic about the President's weaknesses. More and more Americans are becoming disenchanted with the President's bland reassurances about the war, our readiness to deal with domestic emergency and about the economy. It is obvious to all of us that Iraq is a mess, that New Orleans was left in the lurch and that gas prices are skyrocketing, yet Democrats only want to smugly murmur "I told you so" in our ears. Where are the alternatives? Why aren't they taking advantage of public desire for different solutions by actually presenting some?

02 September 2005

Wild West

I'm going to be attending both the IGES and ASHG conferences in Salt Lake City this October, giving a talk at the first and a poster at the second. After the meetings I'm spending two days hiking in some of Utah's scenic national parks and then stopping in Boston for a few days on the return trip. Some relevant dates:

  • 22/10: LHR → ORD → SLC

  • 01/11: SLC → DFW → BOS

  • 06/11: BOS → LHR