29 December 2006

You're my home

I arrived in Boston late on Boxing Day to discover that my father had somehow lost the keys to his car (parked at TF Green in Providence) at some point during the trip. We were the last people to be served by Budget Rental before they closed for the night and managed to get home without too much further delay.

Unfortunately since then my gastrointestinal tract has been giving me the business, so it hasn't exactly been a relaxing return home. I'm hoping a day's worth of bedrest will help me feel better. Plans for the New Year still haven't fully materialised, but there's definitely the possibilitas of either a sausagefest or me being the only stag at the party (grrrrrreat). I guess I'll just try to make it through the night with some Sparks Bombs.

Christmas in Vegas was interesting. I felt like the only non-Asian person in the MGM Grand, and the Western half of the country doesn't quite seem to have the same sense of Christmas, but it was fun. Got my first serious hours of playing cards in ages, and remembered that my NL play is usually horrendous after a long layoff. Good learning experience, though.

28 December 2006

Astronomy Images

Check out the Bad Astronomy Blog's top 10 astronomy images of 2006: pretty awesome!

22 December 2006

Long journey

I'm posting this from Pacific Beach, San Diego, looking out at the Pacific Ocean from my hotel here. Jetlag is setting in, but I'm hoping to at least stay up as late as my parents to try to force my body in to West Coast time.

After working flat out in preparation for a meeting in London on Wednesday I was glad to get a start on my Christmas holiday. It was nearly derailed from the start, however, due to pea-soup fog in London for the last few days. BA cancelled all of their domestic flights (over 350) today, and pretty much all flights had some delay. Thankfully mine was only delayed by an hour, which meant I still had a good chance to make my connection in LAX to San Diego.

I decided to make the 11 hour flight more bearable by spending some air miles to upgrade to Business class, and boy was it worth it! A big difference to the commuter plane I took from LAX to San Diego, which was a Saab 340. I didn't even know Saab makes planes.

Is there a Ralph's around here?

17 December 2006


I've been at the office too much lately. I just actually laughed out loud after declaring the following variable:


11 December 2006


For anybody who's wondering where I might be this holiday season:

21/12: LHR → LAX → SAN
26/12: LAS → BOS
02/01: BOS → SEA
10/01: SEA → BOS
14/01: BOS → LHR

In brief, that's San Diego and Las Vegas with the family for my Dad's birthday and Christmas; Boston for a week between Christmas and New Year's to hang out; Seattle for a week to get some work done and Boston for a few days for Mystery Hunt!

09 December 2006

only wusses keep silence

Nugget of wisdom from Cecilia, made more profound by her slight touch of ESL.

06 December 2006

Spam part deux

The Times of New York is featuring an article on the rise of new kinds of spam designed to evade standard filters. Among the biggest issues related to a recent surge in spamming is the trend to now put the spam content in an image in the email, instead of as text. So now instead of "Buy Viagra now!" you get:


But in order to complete the trick and convince the spam filter that the message is legit it needs to be more than just an image. Amusingly, the trend seems to be toward cutting random text from books (one even used Shakespeare) to fluff out the message. Those crafty spammers...

05 December 2006

TMQ sux

Gregg Easterbrook riffs in today's TMQ about coaches punting when far behind early in the 4th quarter and then subsequently going for it on fourth down with almost no hope remaining. His first point is arguably valid — coaches are too timid about going for it on fourth-and-short when far behind with, say, 10 minutes to play. His second point, about then going for it with no hope left is idiotic and beside the point:

Then, still trailing 24-10 with four minutes remaining, Redskins deep
in their territory, Washington faced fourth-and-4. At this point it
made no difference whether the Redskins punted, went for it or started
square dancing.

And then he rants on about this. It's insane! In that situation of course you go for it. It's possible (although unlikely) to score, and then get one more possession (via either a defensive stop or onside kick) to try again. It's not like no team has ever come back in that situation, so why roll over and die by punting? This is what irks me about TMQ: he always acts like he knows everything and everyone else is a moron.

03 December 2006



(image courtesy of nytimes.com)

The New York Times' website usually doesn't fall prey to the temptation typical of CNN.com to create cheesy montage art for their stories, but this one about the relative ease of buying Polonium 210 (reported only one week after Scottoway broke the news, btw) takes the cake.

Especially awesome is the blue glow coming from Marie Curie's hand.


GMail conveniently discards spam older than 30 days. This means that the number of messages in the spam folder at any given time represents an estimate of monthly spam volume. I've been watching that folder swell lately to over 5500 spam messages over the past month. It made me wonder, "How many real emails do I get in that time?"

Well it turns out that in November I received 246 real mails to my gmail address (which includes forwards from my alum.mit.edu address) and 5514 spams. That means that email going to that address is a shocking 96% spam! Nearly all of it is automatically filtered, of course; otherwise the address would be unusable.

01 December 2006

Do I look like I give a damn?

I saw Casino Royale last night and thought it was pretty awesome. Seeing this tougher, leaner Bond made me realise how much of a self-mockery Brosnan's version had become (not necessarily through his fault — the last two films he was in had outrageously unrealistic plots).

One thing that amused me was the poker scenes in the film. Evidently Hold'em is so mainstream now that lengthy exchanges make it into a Bond flick. One thing that annoyed me, however, is how mainstream media still portray poker as if every hand is won by a boat or better. Consider the following (semi-spoilerish) moments:

When we're introduced to Le Chiffre (an excellent villain) he's playing Hold'em on his superyacht. One of his opponents goes all in and turns over pocket kongs on an AKxxx board to make a set, and of course Le Chiffre coyly reveals his pocket aces for a higher set. I mean, how often do you ever see a set of aces over a set of kings? This is the kind of hand that makes mortals start screaming at their friends about how they were robbed. But this is the least ridiculous hand in the film!

A critical piece of the poker subplot involves Bond picking up a tell from Le Chiffre. Later on he is holding AK on a board of AKKJJ and detects Le Chiffre's "bluff tell" so he calls his all-in bet in a 30 million dollar pot. Le Chiffre predictably turns over JJ and rakes the pot. The plot then turns around how Bond rashly called Le Chiffre to expose a bluff and got burned. But Bond would've been insane not to call the bet! He had an outrageously strong hand and could only be beaten by AA and JJ — he wasn't calling a bluff, he should've believed he easily had the best hand.

The icing on the cake is the four-way final hand with a board of AA468 with four spades. All remaining players are all-in for a total of $150 million. The following hands are revealed in this order:

  1. Rube A: KQ spades for the AKQ-high flush.

  2. Rube B: 88 for a full house, eights full of Aces.

  3. Le Chiffre: A6 for a full house, Aces full of sixes.

  4. James Bond: 57 spades for straight flush.

Sigh. The rest of the film, however, was the balls, including the introductory "freerunning" chase through the construction site and Vesper Lynd's huge tracts of land.

28 November 2006


I've been prolific lately: IGES 2006 in FL


Most of middle-to-late 2006 for me has been a muddle of mid-PhD doldrums. I was doing different bits of analysis, writing and speaking, but couldn't find the motivation to actually sit down and focus for long stretches on doing any actual science. For whatever reason I've been jumpstarted since about last week. Now I'm sitting down writing code and doing analysis for many hours every day (including right now at 9:30PM with a sapphire & tonic at my side).

Nothing else to report lately, other than I was embarrassingly psyched to be working on my genotype intensity plotter over the weekend.


kayak.com (an airfare search site) has a cool Google Maps app in their use profile page which lets you list cities you've visited. What I could remember off the top of my head (red dot is "home" — actually LHR, blue dot is place I'm going to visit — San Diego):


And a zoom in of the Northeastern USA (I tried picking cities representative of States, since obviously I've been to a lot more places than this):


You can see the interactive version here.

26 November 2006

Better late than never

Nearly a month after the fact: Down and Out in Paris and Amsterdam.

No wonder Delta is bankrupt

I'm trying to organise a ridiculously complex itinerary for holiday travel this year, so I've been staring at the very useful kayak.com trying to book flights. The latest, and perhaps greatest example of the totally arbitrary nature of airline ticket pricing is the following:

Virgin Atlantic trip from London to LA, then Boston to London: $1400.
Singapore Airlines on the exact same plane operated by Virgin: $9000.

That's right, you could in theory pay a 5.5 fold increase in price, an extra $7600, just to have Singapore Air print your boarding pass.

24 November 2006

Kramer v Kramer

As most people have probably heard, Michael Richards (Seinfeld's Kramer) launched into a bizarre tirade during a standup routine recently where he repeatedly abused hecklers in the audience, calling them niggers over and over again. He's now flailing about to try to recover, but black audience members who have been interviewed on the Today show are demanding Richards pay them "compensation".

Excuse me?

What did he do that requires he give them money? I mean, clearly he's a racist ass, but that doesn't mean he has to go around paying people he offends. In fact, it demeans that deeper point when the people who were targets of the rant turn around and try to make a quick buck.

P.S. Does anyone still want to see pictures from Amsterdam and Paris? I've lost the motivation to finish that rig...

15 November 2006

Homage to Florida

Holla at the bløgosphere! I'm writing this post from sunny Tampa, Florida, where this year's International Genetic Epidemiology Society meeting is being held. Unfortunately I'm in my room doing some last minute work instead of sitting on the beach drinking piña coladas. This is what I get for leaving work to the last minute I guess. I can't really complain, though, since sitting in this hotel with some Led Zep cranked and a glass of Sam Adams O-Fest at hand ain't so bad. Plus, I'll probably take another break soon, and by break I mean go chill out on the beach.

This joynt seems to be designed for snowbirds, and by snowbirds I mean hugely fat old people from New England who cook themselves in the sun until they're an incredibly grim, wrinkly dark brown. It's them, plus the conference people, who are all genetic epidemiologists. I think you all get the picture here which is basically thus: grimness on sand.

Once I write this talk and give it tomorrow I'll finish my Paris/Amsterdam tabblo so y'all can see how sweet that trip was.

01 November 2006

The measure of a man

How nerdy am I? So nerdy that while walking along the Kerkstraat in Amsterdam I saw the Blue Dolphin coffeehouse, which not only advertises itself as the "purest" in the city, but was also personally recommended to me by friends who had been here. Did I immediately stop in to partake of the local delicacies? No, I kept walking.

Then I saw the sign in the window that said free wi-fi. So here I am, stoned and blogging.

30 October 2006

Rotterdam quick hits

  1. Sat on the runway at LHR for an hour before we took off for my 40 minute flight to AMS. Not that sweet. I always laugh at the frenetic attempt by the stewardesses to manage to serve everyone a cocktail and then clean up between taking off and landing on those flights. Then again, on American carriers they charge you five bucks for a bud lite on a transcontinental flight.

  2. I still get nervous about travelling alone to countries that don't speak English. The Amsterdam airport actually had all the signage in English, but not Dutch, in case you're wondering what fraction of the people here speak English. A woman on the train to Rotterdam said something to me and I said I didn't speak Dutch. She switched into fluent English and I subsequently discovered she's a housekeeper for infirm elderly people. Everybody speaks English. It's a little more daunting in Rotterdam where the signs and such are in Dutch, but still, I forget how lucky I am to natively speak the lingua franca of the 21st century.

  3. The train schedule from AMS is on this huge twenty foot by five foot board packed with 12 point type. Evidently Europeans are expected to be able to rapidly digest a massive timetable.

  4. It's funny to walk down the street at night and see a dude walking toward me smoking a cig, and then to catch a whiff of the smoke and realise it's a huge spliff.

  5. The Dutch have the highest average height in the world, and it's not by a small margin, either. I feel like a freakin dwarf in this country.

26 October 2006


I've been bouncing around a lot this term; so much so that the next trip keeps coming up before I've had time to process where I'm going. Next week is Rotterdam (work) then to Amsterdam and Paris (play). Anybody have suggestions on things to do (or avoid) in any of those cities?

17 October 2006

So long, habeas corpus!

President Bush today signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006. It still strikes me as incomprehensible that the President of the United States can defend with a straight face the idea that we should be illegally incarcerating and torturing people in order to protect worldwide liberty. Bush called this bill "one of the most important pieces of legislation in the war on terror". You know what? I'm fucking sick of the war on terror. What is it anyway? It seems like the only battle we've won in this war is against the toothpaste bombers. North Korea is setting off Nukes like they're roman candles on Guy Fawkes' Day, Iraq is embroiled in a vicious civil war and the good name of the American people has been besmirched by a handful of demagogues who personify all of us to the rest of the world.

I don't feel any freakin' safer than I did five years ago, I just feel like boarding an airplane is a bigger pain in my arse. How much longer will it be before we realise that we're flailing about blindly trying to fight something we don't understand in a fashion that will never work? The ACLU called this legislation "one of the worst civil liberties measures ever enacted in American history". How many more (cue Bob Dylan) quotations like that will it take before the country wakes up?

h00ters and hacking

Roberto and I nicked across the street to Hooters to watch Monday Night Football after work tonight. Weird, weird place. It is probably, in fact, the worst possible place to go to try to pull, since the waitresses (while scantily clad) are immune to drunken morons hitting on them, and obviously no single women turn up there. After a couple of beers and the worst wings I've ever had we returned to the office. I needed to make a phone call, so I tried to card Lon's office door, but I had forgotten the first rule of hacking. Several minutes and one bent up calling card later I tried the handle and found the door unlocked. D'oh!


I saw a couple of decent joints on the flight from LHR to SEA on Saturday. The first was the third X-Men movie, which was satisfying in the ways you'd expect it to be. I always think of that kind of movie as "Movies with Explosions". Sometimes you just want to see shit blow up. X-Men 3 is better than that, but certainly isn't Citizen Kane.

The second film was Word Play, which is about competitive crossword solving. This was a fantastic documentary centering around the annual Stamford crossword tournament organised by famed Times crossword editor Will Shortz and around famous people (Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls) who regularly solve said puzzle. It was bizarre (and a sad commentary on my life) that I kept seeing people I actually know at the crossword tournament (thedan, Kiran, and I'm pretty sure Eric Albert was there in all his porn-authoring glory).

It somehow manages to be incredibly funny (Jon Stewart vowing to fill in the puzzle in glue-stick to show how confident he is), touching (the story of the woman whose husband actually died at the tournament in the 80's, but who still comes back every year in his honour), and insightful (Clinton has an amazing riff on tackling problems that seem overwhelming at first, and Ken Burns is as eloquent as ever in his all-too-brief segments). It also features an ending that Hollywood couldn't have scripted better, a cast of supernerds (especially the daft woman from New York who does baton twirling in her spare time — classic Random Hall stylo) and some of the best editing I've seen in a while. Peep it. Seriously.

12 October 2006

Customer Service

In typical British fashion, the recording at the City Council office tells you very pleasantly:

[pleasant female voice] You are being put in a call queue, and your call will be answered in the order it was received. Your position in the queue is [grim male voice] ONE.

"Excellent", I think, "I won't have to be on hold very long." After a couple of minutes of hold muzak, in even more typical Brit customer service fashion:

[pleasant female voice] We are sorry we have not taken your call. We are currently experiencing high call volume and will be with you shortly.

Pretty impressive that they can simultaneously put me at the front of the queue and claim they have high call volume. Oh well.


A paper published in the Lancet, "Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey", has been much in the news lately. Researchers from Johns Hopkins, funded by MIT, have conducted a statistical survey of households in Iraq to estimate the number of deaths in the period immediately preceding, and following the 2003 invasion. Their estimate for the total number of excess deaths in the years since the invasion that might otherwise not have happened is more than an order of magnituded higher than any previous estimate: roughly 655,000 (95% confidence interval of 393,000 - 943,000).

Having read the article I can't find anything wrong with their methods -- indeed the paper is extremely well-written and carefully considered (as one would expect the editors to enforce on such a controversial topic). Furthermore, every single piece of media coverage I've seen that actually quotes an expert in statistics, polling or epidemiology compliments the study as being the best designed and most comprehensive to date on the topic.

Of course, other people take a different view:

PRESIDENT BUSH: "I don't consider it a credible report...the methodology was pretty well discredited."

GEN'L GEORGE CASEY (commander of US ground forces in Iraq): "[the death toll] seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I've not seen a number
higher than 50,000. And so I don't give that much credibility at all."

ALI AL DABBAGH (Iraqi gov't spokesman): "The report is unbelievable. These numbers are exaggerated."

It's a little worrying that the people in charge treat scientific research as lacking credibility just because it doesn't jive with what they expected the answer to be. Isn't this the point of science? To ask questions we don't know the answers to and then try to build upon the knowledge we gain? Shouldn't this report lead to an immediate follow-up to narrow that confidence interval and try to replicate the findings? Especially aggravating is the President claiming that the methodology is discredited, which is not only patently false, but sounds idiotic coming from a man who is clearly not an expert in statistical survey techniques.

In a broader sense, this is what drives me insane about politics and government: everything is driven by policy and electoral math, rather than by facts. Some researchers go out and do this incredibly dangerous study (it's not often that you read an academic paper with sentences such as "No interviewers died or were injured during the survey." in the Results section) and when they publish their shocking results, they're dismissed out of hand because they're inconvenient. Bah, I'm staying in science.

10 October 2006


NERD ALERT — this post will only be interesting to grad students.

It's pretty satisfying to be able to read a paper, and when you come to a numbered reference in the text to know what paper they're referencing without even checking the list at the end. For me, at least, it serves as a signpost that I've understood the preceding sentence well enough to not only grasp the concept, but also to be familiar with the most relevant literature.

09 October 2006


I received an email sent out to the DPhil mailing list today advertising an "Online Plagiarism Course". I really hope it teaches how to efficiently plagiarise and not get caught...

06 October 2006


This week I'm in Cambridge, UK, teaching on a one week course on genetic association studies. Technically I'm on the campus of the Sanger Centre, which is located in Hinxton, a tiny village quite proximate to Cambridge. The facilities here are pretty awesome — set on the grounds of an old country manor, and blending new fancy buildings with the original manor house. The course is being principally organised by three colleagues of mine, who asked me to do one lecture's worth, along with a bunch of pracitcal sessions.

I've enjoyed the experience so far, but I'm especially keen to get the paycheck at the end of the week. Already we've been rewarded with special open bar privileges on campus, which is actually quite dangerous. I mean, honestly, who thought it was a good idea to let the instructors have free drinks every night before having to teach at 8:30? So far we've managed to close out the bar and be the only ones left after all the diligent students went off to bed.

Hinxton's a very typical (and pretty) English country village and I'm hoping to get a chance to nip into Cambridge (10 miles away) at some point tomorrow or Saturday. I've heard it's much like Oxford, but it would seem to be an awful waste to get so close and not at least take a look around.

01 October 2006

I'd like to buy a 'yo'

You know what really grinds my gears? People using 'u' in email instead of 'you' (or the even more ridiculous 'ur' which just reminds of me ancient Sumeria). I tend to be pretty particular about using punctuation and complete sentences in my email (you're all shocked, I know) but I usually don't care about people who take shortcuts. Except for 'u'; for whatever reason it just sticks in my craw.

And now you know.

Alumni Relations

I drew the short straw amongst members of the HCR committee (the graduate student government at Brasenose College) and was thus the graduate representative at the Brasenose Society Dinner last night. The event is a black-tie alumni dinner hosted at the college each year, with the principal (if unstated) aim of fleecing wealthy old codgers to line the college coffers. Universities in the UK are much less successful than their American counterparts at encouraging alumni giving. As times grow tighter, however, there are more and more events like this happening at places like Oxford. Brasenose in particular is looking to leverage its upcoming cinquecentennial in 2009 in a major fundraising effort.

As a guest of the society, I was seated at high table, along with the most important (and hence oldest) alumni. Promptly upon taking my seat the gent to my left informed me that he was totally deaf in his right ear, so I should not take offense if he ignored me throughout dinner. To my right was a man from the class of 1949 with the most spectacular comb-over I'd seen in a long time. There was one wisp of it that had fallen backwards down his neck, that looked like the string they dangle out of wrapped packages that you pull to rip them neatly open. He was a fairly nice fellow (took his degree in chemistry, ran a few companies in that industry and finished his career in textiles) but when he actually asked me what graduate activities they should support, I was thrown off. The President of the HCR had told me to try to needle them for money, but I thought she was joking. So I bluffed and talked a bit about housing (which is a serious concern among the graduates). We'll see if his goodwill manifests itself in a big fat cheque.

I do have to admit that despite the aged company, it's hard to beat a black-tie dinner in the BNC hall. They bring out the best silver (instead of endowing scholarships and buildings, the alumni have been donating pitchers and candlesticks for 500 years), the lights are dimmed so that it seems like the candles are the only source, but without actually having to eat in the dark and the food has all been prepared by the first chef (even the beef wasn't overdone!). The only thing this particular event was missing was the elegance of many women in ball gowns (since the college didn't even admit women until 1973).

After dinner we had a brief break outdoors while the staff cleared the tables of the dinner dishes and set them for dessert. It was actually a lovely, clear night at that point (of course it had started absolutely pissing when I was cycling from my house to the college) and before going back in the Secretary of the society introduced herself and said I needn't sit at the high table for dessert if I didn't want. I gratefully sat in the back with the JCR president (the only other person in the room who was younger than 70, it seemed) and promptly threw back a few glasses of dessert wine as a reward for having dutifully made it through dinner. Our new table companions were an even more interesting bunch: one member of the class of 61 who was outrageously drunk, and a man from the class of 46 who we actually thought might expire during the after-dinner speech. Speaking of which, I'm not sure if it is a peculiarly English tradition, but after dinner speeches seem to be required to consist entirely of re-used, sexist jokes. Last evening's was particularly bland, so I escaped soon afterwards.

28 September 2006


The style of Mark Helprin's imagination is simultaneously so distinct and so concomitant to my own that it has always attracted me to his writing since the first time, many years ago, that I read A Soldier of the Great War. I've read so much of his work now (most of it more than once) that his narrational voice is like an old friend to me now. I'm finally endeavouring to read Winter's Tale in its entirety, and as I was reading it last night I was reminded for some reason of one of the short stories in The Pacific, one of his collections.

When I woke up this morning, I happened to see The Pacific on my bookshelf, so I picked it up to flick through the pages, without really intending to read anything. I couldn't help but to read the beginning of my favourite of all his short stories, Monday. I'm not going to give any particular preamble or description of the story, because it is a short story in the best sense of the phrase: perfectly contained, trimmed free of all surplusage. A novel can live with some excess fat - indeed it requires it to keep the story alive for 500 pages - but a good short story is boiled down to the essentials, leaving only the necessary muscle and bone to tell the tale. So all I'll say is that in this case Helprin manages to capture the feelings of an entire nation, but more importantly my own feelings about that particular time in the past. Many artists lunge at this goal, but few succeed.

At any rate, you should read Monday, and The Pacific in general.

27 September 2006


After living in this bloody country (as I like to call it) for a year and a half, I've assimilated nearly all of the slang and colloquialisms. I realised today, though, that there is still one expression that gives me trouble. It is common to greet people here with a "You alright?" (nearly always contracted as "ye'alright") as follows:

Limey A: Hello.
Limey B: Ye'alright?

What's not actually clear to me is whether Limey A should respond to the question or not. That is, should I say, "Yeah I'm good", or just keep walking? Aussies seem to have a similar thing with "How ya goin?" that doesn't necessarily require a response. In the USA, if you greet someone with a "how's it going?" you generally expect a "good, thanks" in return. This is what I usually do here, but I have a sneaking suspiscion that it strikes people as odd.

On a slightly related note, I've decided to practice my Brit accent, since it is still shamefully bad. We'll see how it goes.

25 September 2006


My most recent trip introduced me to yet another faux airport security measure. Before getting in the checkin line, you have to have a paper copy of your ticket. Since most people have e-tickets these days, you can use a computer printout. If you don't have one you need to go to the ticket desk, where you tell them your name and they print your ticket. They don't ask for ID, or details of any kind other than your name.

So what's the point of doing this? Well, it seems to basically be so that you have some piece of paper as you wait in the checkin line so that the interim security people can scribble stuff on it which nobody else will ever see, because the checkin desk doesn't ask to see the ticket. Of course, I got the SSSS and immediately knew that my already fun airport experience was going to get even better. I should've smuggled some moisturizer on board to teach those bastards a lesson.

22 September 2006


I saw a pale lavender hardcover book across the room and immediately assumed it was SICP. Turns out that it is "A User's Guide to Principal Components" but I still think we should refer to that shade from now on as SICP purple.

21 September 2006

<i>Handle With Care</i>

I've accidentally accumulated three versions of the Traveling Wilburys' song Handle With Care: the original, a version featuring Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne from the George Harrison tribute concert and a recent cover by Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis.

I think the tribute version is the least satisfying, because Tom Petty's vocal style is a little too drawly and whiny for the lead vocals. The Jenny Lewis version is actually pretty awesome, because she kicks up the tempo just a little bit, and I really like her voice in general. The only weak link in that version is that she has some dude named Ben Gibbard doing the Roy Orbison part ("I'm so tired of being lonely, I still have some love to give...") and he (A) sounds like a girl and (B) doesn't have Roy's velvet croon.

Anyway, this post doesn't really have any point, other than that song is pretty sweet.

20 September 2006


Has Massachusetts' run of gubernatorial mediocrity from both parties finally ended with the Democrats' nomination of Deval Patrick? He certainly seems more interesting than any of the candidates from the last few elections. Take, for instance, this line from incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey's victory speech after winning the unopposed GOP primary:

These priorities [education reform] aren't welcomed by the status quo on Beacon Hill, and that's why I'm convinced they're not only needed, they're necessary.

Excuse me?

12 September 2006


It's time for Scottcast Part Deux.

11 September 2006

Appropriate Reading

For those of you (like me) who don't have time to read the tome released by the 9/11 Commission, may I recommend the fabulous comic book version by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. Required reading for any well-informed American.

10 September 2006

Postmodern War

MRhé blogged about an article postulating the eclipse of the "Western Way of War" (making this discussion the WWW on the WWW, I suppose). The topic is obviously a wide-ranging one, but I've been thinking about one aspect of it, and that's the question of the extent to which the US Army (and other Western armies, such as Israel) is hindered by the restraint which we expect them to use in preserving civilian life. In the history of humanity, where did the idea come from that we should try to fight a war with anything less than all the resources available to us?

I've been thinking of several facets of historical conflict. From the dawn of warfare up until, say, the Renaissance (a very rough guess) it seems that the idea of fighitng a "civlised war" did not exist. If you defeated the enemy, you killed, enslaved or raped the civilians according to their utility and the conquerors preference. Cities were sacked and burned if they weren't useful (or sometimes in spite of the fact that they were, as in the case of Celts and Angles driving the Romans out of Britain and bringing Londinium back from a bustling regional capital to a thatched-hut village). Somewhere along the line, the people in charge of running the wars of Europe developed the concept, however, that you could fight an enemy, but not necessarily want to wipe him off the face of the earth (unless, of course, they were infidels or natives, in which case you were still entitled to kill, enslave and rape).

So we reach the point of the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War, where statesmen and officers from the elite class have rules for "gentlemanly fighting". Captured officers were given parole and allowed to go home, under the expectation that honour would prevent them from fighting again until an official "exchange" was organised (almost like a gruesome game of tag, where at some point both teams decide to let the kids who had been eliminated rejoin the game). Of course, these developing ideals were still far separated from reality, in the sense that soldiers were still prone to raping and pillaging. Perhaps part of this development was due to cultural refinement, but I think the bottom line of wars was also changing. Rulers no longer expected to conquer another European country and wipe out the inhabitants (they were busy doing that in all of the non-European world). At the end of the conflict, in some sense, the expectation was that people would go back to their normal life, except now they were German instead of French. This probably also had a lot to do with the change from regional identity to the broader idea of Nationhood, but that's getting beyond my expertise as an armchair historiian.

This brings us to the point in history which originally got me thinking about the topic, which is the first time that any country chose voluntarily to eschew a weapon available to it in war. I think this happened for the first time in history after Europe saw the horrible effects of chemical weapons in the first World War. The concept was refined most powerfully when atomic bombs brought the idea into stark (and somewhat bizarre) relief. Conventional bombs had decimated London, Dresden, and Tokyo, but it is Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are the most dramatically remembered. So now that armies had weapons that were deemd too terrible to be used, what about the next-most-deadly alternatives? We weren't willing to eliminate the Taleban by firing ICBMs at Kabul, but we were willing to drop 500 pound, laser guided bombs. Interestingly, even this remarkable level of restraint (in a purely historical context — the use of orders of magnitude less force than the maximum possible) has earned the US widespread admonition at home and (especially) abroad. This also illustrates the paradox that the US Army in the 21st century is more powerful relative to all potential opponents than any other army at any point in history, but can't win a definitive victory in an impoverished, third-world country.

The incredible improvements in communications in the 20th century also have had a huge impact on the idea of "war by the rules". The immediacy and intimate detail that radio, television and the internet bring from the battlefield to the home dramatically increase the pressure from civilization on governements to avoid unmitigated killing. Much easier to let your soliders conduct total war when their mothers don't have to watch it on CNN. I suspect this could easily be the topic of a very interesting book, but I really don't have anything informed to say about it, beyond the obvious observation of its existence.

I find it a strange mental exercise to try to figure out where to strike the balance between fighting to win and fighting to avoid hurting too many people. That concept would seem insane to the great war-generals of nearly the entire spectrum of historical conflict. I'm not saying that I think we should walk backwards to the Middle Ages and start firing off Minutemen at anybody we dislike, I just think it's an interesting historical observation.

Maybe I should've majored in history...nah.

02 September 2006

More on Iran

I'm starting a new post in response to the huge volume of commentary on my invitation to Iran. First I wanted to clarify exactly what the trip entails, since I didn't give any details the first time. I would be one of four academics teaching a one-week course on disease genetics. The course is being sponsored by the Research Center for Gastroenterology and Liver Diseases in Tehran. The other teachers (including the person who asked me to go) are English and Italian, so I would be the only American on the trip.

More comments below the fold.

The whole question being debated by many people in the original post (thanks for your interest, everyone) is basically about weighing risks and rewards, which is something we obviously do every day. Riding in a car on a highway carries a risk of being in a fatal accident, but nobody thinks twice about it, both because the risk is very small and because cars are a very convenient way to get around.

In my mind, the three risks are:

  1. Bodily harm. I think the chance of being killed because I'm an American is very slim. Indeed, I'd estimate the chance of dying on a highway in the UK to be higher than execution at the hands of the Ayatollah. Being the target of a terrorist attack is possible, but that's true in London as well, and in fact a lot more people have died in terrorist incidents in Europe in the last few years than in Iran.

  2. Arrest. Also extremely unlikely, but obviously with very serious
    consequences. I don't have much faith in Iranian
    jurisprudence. On the other hand, academics do visit Iran relatively often, and don't seem to have trouble. It's not in the interest of the government there to pointlessly harass invited guests.

  3. Being harassed when travelling in the US and Europe. I presume making
    academic visits to Iran puts you pretty much permanently in the latex
    gloves line at the airport.

Furthermore, with absolute respect for my friends who have been there, Iran is not Iraq. The US Department of State doesn't explicitly tell citizens not to go to Iran. It says, "The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran." The UK Foreign office doesn't even go that far, recommending only that UK citizens avoid the border areas with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ruling theocracy is certainly repressive and vocally anti-American, but it is not an active war zone (yet). Terrorist violence within Tehran is extremely rare. I don't think the dangers of being in Tehran are even on the same order of magnitude as being in Baghdad.

Even if the risks aren't as intense as one might initially think, what's the reward? Well one is that I think Iran is probably a fascinating place, and I've been presented with a unique opportunity to see it firsthand. I don't necessarily think it's just about "great stories", and I certainly don't care about it from a CV-boosting perspective (of which the trip will have no value). But this is a place that we talk about every day, and most of us don't know anything about it.

The second, and more important reason, is that I've wanted to make a contribution to (for lack of a better name) "The War on Terror". Not as it's framed by any government, but in the sense that I believe that their is a real conflict between ignorance and enlightenment that threatens everybody. I have huge respect for the guys (like Chris and Teresa) who really do risk their lives in war zones, and I'd like to make a contribution as well (though obviously not on the same scale). I don't have an M16, though, so what can I do? Well, how about giving 3 days of lectures on computational methods for finding disease genes to a roomful of smart Iranians? Isn't this the bottom line? That instead of going to university and studying genetics they're going to madrasas and listening to anti-American vitriol?

I realise that a couple of lectures from Westerners isn't going to change the Iranian educational system or bring down the government, but lately I've been feeling that I need to find the integrity to stand up for something. For me, part of that something is the belief that science has the potential to make the world a better place. To bring a small amount of that to a part of the world that is severely lacking in it seems to be perhaps the best contribution I can make. Maybe that's incredibly naive and I know that I'm a tiny cog in a very big machine, but life has to be about more than checking my email and going to the pub.

But after all that, I think I'll probably live up exactly to Aaron's expectations and not go. I'm a pretty risk-averse person, and this is well outside of my comfort zone. Maybe if the political climate had not just soured even further between the US and Iran I would've done it. I'm going to think about it for the rest of the weekend and write back on Monday or Tuesday.

01 September 2006


I just finished moving all myself from my houseshare on Osler Rd to my very own one-bedroom flat. If you need my mailing address, send me an email and I'll give it to you.

The place is mediocre. I'm sure it will look better once I'm moved in, and it will be awesome to have so much space to myself. Alas, I confused this flat with another I looked at and it does not actually have kitchenware, which means I'll need to go to the second-hand shops this weekend to pick up the essentials.

Anyway, here's to my new home!


I've been invited by a colleague to teach a course in Iran in January. It seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I'm not sure I've got the stones to go to Tehran, especially since:

  1. My Passport is issued by the Great Satan.

  2. The UN Security Council is debating economic sanctions as we speak.

  3. In case of trouble, the only resource for Americans is "The US Interests Section" of the Swiss Embassy, which sounds like a dusty corner of a smalltown library. ("Excuse me, do you have any maps of Ohio?" "Yes, check the US Interests Section.")

Thoughts, anybody? (My mother is having a heart attack right now)

31 August 2006

Go California!

California's legislature has reached a deal with the Governator to reduce Cali's greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter by 2020. Hopefully this is a good indicator of policies to come.

30 August 2006

Social policy?

I found a bit of humour in this BBC headline today: Call for fertility ban for obese. The article is about the health risks of IVF for obese women, alas, and not about stopping fat people from propagating.

28 August 2006

At last!

After seeing MRhe's "tabblo" about flying a Piper, I thought it looked like a cool way to present photos and text to tell the story of my trip. Tabblo is a very cool site, and the basic idea is awesome, but at present I'd say it's definitely in "beta". Basically you need to lay the whole thing out linearly, because if you try to go back and add one item to the beginning it destroys all the careful work you've done below. And the "manual flow" mode isn't very useful because once you've put stuff together you can't insert anything new there, only at the end (at least as far as I can tell). Plus the documentation is crap and it kept randomly emptying my "lightbox" where extra photos not yet in the layout are kept. Anyway, like I said, the concept is excellent, the execution needs some touching up.

I present for your enjoyment: Whitsunday Cruise.

26 August 2006


I've put just four photos up in the Oz album in the sidebar, so that people could see a glimpse of what my sailing trip was like. I promise more photos and more details to come eventually.

24 August 2006


If you're a poker fan and want to hear a well stated mocking of Bill Simmons poker articles, check out this blog which I thought was defunct.

Pluto was derecognized as a planet! My kids will grow up with only eight planets (it was evidently either that or add Ceres, Charon and something called 2003 UB313 to the list) which seems kind of weird, like removing a letter from the alphabet.

I'm being shockingly slow in getting any photos from Australia online (probably because I've been falling asleep between 8 and 9 every night). The current plan is to put a few up here soon and then sort out the best ones for a much bigger album a little later on.

I'm Ron Burgundy?

22 August 2006

Comparative Culture

To be added to the list of Things Which Are Much Sweeter in Australia than England:

When you bump into somebody, or accidentally queue jump or run over their dog and say, "Sorry about that," Australians will universally respond "No worries mate." and actually mean it, whereas Britons will just glare at you uncomfortably.


The funny thing about printing out a paper from a major journal like Science or Nature is that you usually get a snippet of the next article on the last page of whatever it is you're looking for. Not many publications can get away with transitioning from "The Fine-Scale Structure of Recombination Rate Variation in the Human Genome" (a perfectly legitimate arena of research) to "The Rise of Rhizosolenoid Diatoms" (which sounds like a bad sci-fi movie).

21 August 2006

Home Again

My holiday in Oz was just about the longest holiday I've ever taken, and certainly my longest in several years. It was an awesome time, and I even did well for myself in terms of photography volume (over 150 snaps), although I make no guarantees about qualitas.

More on all that soon, but today I've been struck by the strangeness of going through my normal routine again. The grey drizzle in Oxford, being annoyed at the fact that English coffee shops don't open until 9, turning the key in my bike lock, seeing everyone at work. Two weeks' holiday was wonderful, but I don't think I'm ready to go back to the rest of my life yet.

03 August 2006

RFID Security

Wired had an interesting piece today about a demonstration at the Black Hat Convention where a hacker cloned the RFID tag inside a German "e-Passport". These passports include an RFID tag as an additional security measure and are due to be introduced by the United States in October. The US is also lobbying for international adoption of the standard. A US State Department official made the reasonable point that cloning the RFID data isn't necessarily a big deal. Nobody has yet been able to alter data on one of the tags (they are hashed to make tampering obvious to the scanning machines).

A few other, more interesting things were demonstrated, however. For instance, by cloning one passport's RFID onto a smartcard (like most current University IDs) and slipping it into the passport, the RFID reader could be fooled into reading the smartcard. In principle, this could mean that while the printed information said "Joe Terrorist" the automated reader would see "Joe Bloggs". Officials again dismissed this problem saying that they're not planning a fully automated security process, just that this provides another source of information for border agents (who would presumably compare the printed name to the RFID name and flag discrepancies).

Regardless of whether this technology will prove risky in passports, the fundamental problem with the design is evidently widespread in RFID systems: the data is unencrypted. If the data on the tags were encrypted it would raise a nearly insuperable barrier to even reading the information contained therein, let alone copying or modifying it. The article goes on to say, however, that something like 3/4 of the RFIDs they tested (hotel keycards, University cards, corporate IDs) were either unencrypted or used the factory-default key for their encryption(!).

Now I'm sure Scott is smiling smugly right now, but this illustrates an aspect of my personality that I feel ambivalent about: I'm inclined to believe by default that any system operated by a big enough organization (Oxford, a company, a hotel, the United States) will do a good job implementing basic security or will test procedures for safety and so forth. For instance, my office in Oxford is very uptight about people swiping in and out with prox cards. Since nobody ever checks the photographs on the cards, I assume they've verified the integrity of the RFID system to fill that potential gap. It just seems so obvious to me that RFID cards need to be encrypted that I can't believe that large Universities wouldn't bother or that they wouldn't reset the key. Don't they have anybody with a clue working for them?

Another example of my automatic trust is illustrated by the new low-energy x-ray machines being tested at Heathrow. You basically stand in this booth and adopt a series of funny poses (hands over your head, face sideways with legs akimbo and arms ahead and behind in a faux-running stance, etc) and they blast you with low energy x-rays which penetrate clothing but not skin. I just assume that some government body has tested this and it is safe for me to do, but some people are unwilling to accept that premise. And it's not unreasonable to be dubious: the dentist does cover you with a humungous sheet of lead when he zaps your teeth, after all.

So is this a good thing or bad? I'm happy that I'm not naturally inclined toward paranoia: I don't waste my time worrying about this stuff. On the other hand, I'm probably too accepting. Healthy scepticism, after all, drives interesting scientific research, and I never have a problem applying it in that arena. Plus, lots of "policy" decisions are made by blowhard politicians who probably have no idea how safe ionizing radiation is or that RFID tags should be encrypted. It seems crazy to me that they don't get expert advice, but it demonstrably happens all the time.

Balancing scepticism of The Man against pointless paranoia is something to keep in mind for my self improvement plan, I guess, along with being less of an arse when I'm drunk. :)

01 August 2006


Steele is in Oxford for a couple of weeks doing a course here affiliated with his law school (something about corporate governance — funny how opaque the specifics of a law education are to me, just like how my day to day research is pretty uninteresting to other people). We met up on Sunday, after he arrived and I showed him a few sights around Oxford before getting some lunch with Blanca and Matt. After that we played a little pick-up football and hit the Angel & Greyhound for a pint before I dropped him off at Teddy Hall, where his course was.

Today I offered to take him and some of his compatriots out punting. It's not easy to try to organise a group requiring two punts (there were nine of us in total) if only one person has any experience. I did my best to explain to the guys in the other punt how to go about it, but it really is best taught by somebody standing with you in the boat, not by shouting mildly helpful tips from upriver. Unfortunately one of the girls in my boat had a serious phobia of birds, which doesn't really go well with the punting experience, since flocks of tame ducks and geese swim right up to the boats, expecting food. This girl evidently grew up in a Manhattan apartment and as such had no particular appreciation for the outdoors.

I did my best to put on a happy face, though, and she should at least have been grateful that she was in the boat with a competent punter, since the other craft spent their first half hour or so spinning in circles. We made a miscalculation in divvying up the passengers, though, because two people in my boat did a commendable job of trying their hand at punting, whereas the other boat seemed to have a bit more trouble. Of course, people always get the hang of it after a little while and eventually we did make it upriver a short way. I saw two herons, which was a new experience and very cool (except for the girl who's afraid of birds — she predictably freaked out). Afterwards we walked through the University Parks and I left them at the Turf for a pint and headed back home.

31 July 2006

High in the runnin' for laziest worldwide

Tumbleweed733840Not much happening in these parts lately...

23 July 2006

<i>Down Under</i>

Several people have recommended Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country to me recently and it seemed especially appropriate since I'm travelling to Australia in a couple of weeks. I spent a frustrating afternoon at Border's in Oxford looking for it, but couldn't find it among Bryson's other titles and the store computer had no record of it. The guy helping me said, "We've got something called Down Under, could that be it?"

"Nah," I replied, "the title definitely has 'sunburned country' somewhere in it. Thanks, though."

Of course, I realised on the bus home that In a Sunburned Country is of course published as Down Under in the UK. So a few days later than otherwise might have been the case, I acquired a copy and read it, mostly in the course of one very pleasurable rainy Saturday.

The only one of Bryson's other books I've read is A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is excellent, but, I think, slightly out of his forte. Down Under, on the other hand, is right in his wheelhouse. The New York Times Book Review puts it nicely: "The thing that Bryson most loves about Australia — its 'effortlessly dry, direct way of viewing the world' — is, in fact, his own. They're a perfect fit."

The book details Bryson's travels all over Australia on two separate trips, and as such features some excellent insight into the people and places there. From the perspective of someone about to visit (i.e. my own) this in and of itself makes the book a must-read "alternative guidebook". While certainly not written in the style of a travel guide, I repeatedly found myself thinking, "Wow, that would be an awesome place to visit." Of cousre, Australia's vastness (something Bryson harps on incessantly) means that my visit will only fractionally overlap with his, but I still gleaned a handful of things to look for that I might otherwise have never known.

What makes the book so wonderful, however, is Bryson's writing style on both the small and large scales. The book had me laughing out loud on nearly every page, and sincerely touched from time to time by his more serious reflections. Reading Bryson is like taking the trip yourself in the company of a convivial, wisecracking sidekick. His style blends both American and British humour and references (he's a Yank who's spent most of his adult life living in Britain) which obviously appeals to me a lot; his description of Cricket on the radio literally had me in stitches.

Even more impressive than the page-to-page adventures, however, is the subtle story arc through the whole book. A few themes are woven beautifully throughout: Australia's uncomfortable history with the Aboriginal people, the peculiarly hearwarming Australian character, the scope of how huge and unknown the continent is, and its isolation. I was simply amazed at his skill as a writer to simultaneously chronologically transcribe his own journey and wrap it in a story about the country as a whole. Somehow the two threads never conflicted with each other or seemed to be forced into riding along with the other: they seemed — at beginning, middle and end — to be in harmony.

Reading Down Under has made me eager to both visit Australia and to read more of Bryson's travel writings (his Notes from a Small Island was recently selected in the UK as the book that best sums up British identity - typical of English irony that he's American). For everyone else, I highly recommend this book which has both a wealth of information and also manages to be a fantastic piece of literature.

21 July 2006


One month after I moved to the UK I went to a bar with some friends to watch Liverpool play AC Milan in the Euro Cup final. The match looked to be boring with Milan taking a 3-0 lead at halftime. My mate Rob (a diehard Liverpool FC fan) said, "I hope they really go for it in the second half. Better to lose 6-0 daringly than to play safe and lose 3-1." The second half was a wild one with Liverpool scoring 3 unanswered goals to force penalty kicks (an ending unequalled in sport for pure tension) which Liverpool won. Thus the first professional football match I'd ever watched turned out to be one of the most exciting in recent history.

Since then I've wanted to find a team of my own to barrack for, but for a variety of reasons I didn't watch any more football until this year's World Cup: the football season stops for the summer, the Ashes was on, and by the time the season started I had no particular interest in any team. Now, however, I've decided to watch the 2006-2007 Premiership season properly, for three reasons:

  1. The World Cup is ubiquitous in England, so I was forced to watch not just the games I had planned to (England, USA etc) but nearly all of them. I really enjoyed it and am now pretty psyched for the Club season to start in the Fall.

  2. I follow the Sox pretty well from over here, but don't have any real fan experience in the sense that I can watch all the games on TV and actually go to a few in person. I think it would be cool to experience a totally different sporting world and gain a (lifelong?) allegiance to another team.

  3. The Sports Guy wrote a great column on how he chose his new Premiership team, inspiring me to copy him.

There are 20 Premiership teams, and this is how they fell out in my consideration:

I would instantly lose all respect from my friends if I picked Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea. These three teams outspend all the others by a wide margin and have combined to 13 of the 14 titles since the Premiership was founded out of the remnants of the old First League. This left me with seventeen possible clubs that I could support without being derided as an out-and-out band wagoneer.

The next consideration was distance from Oxford. I'd like to try to attend at least a couple of matches, so I eliminated the following for their too-lengthy drive times form Oxford: Blackburrn, Bolton, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Sheffield, Wigan. This left me with the 5 remaining London clubs, Aston Villa (in Birmingham), Reading and Portsmouth.

Of the remaining contenders it was tough to pick through them. I'm not well informed enough to make decisions based on what one might call "good" football reasons. I eliminated Tottenham because my flatmate Becki's boyfriend is a lifelong fan and I didn't want to have uncomfortable conversations where I have been watching the team for a few weeks and he's been watching them for ages. The only game I've been to was Charlton, and they're not that great and play in a dodgy part of East London, so I didn't feel any strong attraction to them — better to go into a team with no experience than a mediocre one.

Of the remaining teams I think the most important factor was presence of an American player. This gives me an immediate favourite to support in particular and provides an additional personal connection. This criterion eliminated Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and West Ham. I almost made an exception for West Ham, since they probably have the best squad of the remaining teams, but it isn't as if they're really top tier, or anything.

I next considered the remaining teams' sponsors (which may sound trivial but if I buy a jersey I'm going to have this emblazoned on my chest). Watford kit has "loans.co.uk" smeared all over them, which nearly killed them outright. Combine that with the fact that they were the final team to be promoted this year (every year three teams are "relegated" from the Premiership down to the Champion's League and three teams are promoted up in the opposite direction) so stand a very good chance of being abysmal. The final pair, Reading and Fulham are about a draw from the sponsorship perspective: Kyocera and pipex, respectively. The former is kind of a sucky cellophone company, but they also make solar panels, which is cool. The latter is a broadband provider in the UK. I guess none of these teams are going to have something cool, like beer.

My final decision came down to intangibles, of which each team had a few things going for it. Reading was just promoted, but has a reasonably strong team. This means that while they have no chance of winning the title, they have a nearly as important goal in avoiding relegation, which would be a cool subplot. On the other hand, Reading's website is absolutely awful. All pro sports sites suffer from lots of flashing, ugly ads, difficult navigation and just general lack of taste, but Readings is uber-grim. They also make you register to access almost any of the content, which is really annoying. Fulham has better American players (exciting youngster Carlos Bocanegra and consummate pro Brian "Bloodsport" McBride) as well as a newly refurbished stadium. They have a better website (hey, I'm a nerd, these things matter to me) and to cap it all off, a player named Michael Timlin. And in keeping with my previous sporting lifestyle, they have a vicious rivalry with an overpowering opponent, nearby Chelsea. Plus, Fulham are a weird mix of expectations. When they were promoted in 2000 they were expected to be real contenders, but have subsequently been mediocre. There's the possibility of relegation and the possibility of a run at a spot in the UEFA (European) cup.

So, get ready for uninteresting posts about Fulham Football Club!

11 July 2006


I've got another couple of hours in Philly (I'm currently on a brief break between meetings) before flying back to the UK. So far the trip has been very cool. My friend Brendan (who recently finished his DPhil at Oxford and is now post-doc'ing here) has graciously hosted me in the mansion-like home he's house-sitting. The place is a four floor townhouse in one of Philly's trendiest areas (Rittenhouse Square) and features (among many other things) a huge entry hall with a sweeping grand staircase, a 19th century period banquet hall, an immaculately appointed kitchen big enough to run a medium sized restaurant out of and a two-room master bedroom with walk in closets bigger than my bedroom in Oxford. The owners moved out about 6 months ago and have been looking for a buyer ever since. In the meantime Brendan is house-sitting (there's a fairly autonomous apartment set up on the third floor) for them. All the furniture is gone, so the place is kind of spooky and echo-y, but still it's pretty sweet. I would've taken photos, but alas my camera was destroyed in the carboat adventure.

As far as the actual purpose of my trip, it has gone really well. I've managed to meet some collaborators and make progress on where my portion of the project is headed. My talk was well-received (it's pretty straightforward when you've given it a dozen times) and I've made some additional contacts who have pretty exciting projects starting at Penn and CHoP. A good vacation overall and I'm ready to head back to Oxford.

07 July 2006

Carboat 06

I wasn't around for the frenzied month of building and subsequent disappointment that was Carboat 2005. Luckily my Summer holiday travels this year brought me through Boston the weekend before July 4th. LB and I spent most of the days leading up to the 4th at Cruftlabs (and cruising to Kresge Mart to get the most awesome boat seats ever). Benoc has a good number of photos from the construction phase as well as a writeup of the weekend. A selection of my photos (possibly the only ones from our crue of the boat in the water?) is up in the new album.

After last year's no-launch fiasco, Scott implemented Plan Failure-is-not-an-option. Not only did he get the Carboat registered as an official MA vessel (MS 5481 AN) but he and Steve planned to launch on the evening of July 3rd to avoid crowds at the ramp and the State Police. In keeping with Carboat tradition, preparations went down to the wire and the convoy with Carboat departed Cruftlabs shortly after midnight on July 4th. We arrived at Nonantum to find the ramp deserted and proceeded to launch the Carboat. Initial tests (while tethered) indicated functional steering and propulsion, so Steve and Scott tried to fix a few slow leaks and prepare for the slow journey downriver.

It was at this point that we encountered the first of what would be innumerable people gawking at the contraption. A dude on a solo river cruise at 2AM pulled up to the ramp. We were at first nervous that we were blocking the ramp which he wanted to use, but in reality he just wanted to slowly circle around and take 500 photographs of the Carboat. Scott was feeling a little stress from many sleepless days of working, so I tried my best (along with Benoc and LB) to field what would become the standard questions (Is it a real car? How does it float? Does that thing have a hemi?)

The next morning I radioed Scott on the MIT repeater and we discovered they had docked at the Harvard Sailing pavillion. LB and I rode down to meet them and saw the Carboat in action, looking pretty sweet in the water which concealed its uglier areas. The MIT sailing pavillion was under strict orders not to allow strange vessels to dock, so they had gently booted the Carboat earlier that morning. Luckily nobody was at the Harvard sailing dock so we worked unmolested on fixing the steering. It was at this point that I learned from Steve about the first of what would be many propulsion failures: the gears from the bike chains to the paddlewheel had been badly stripped.

Steve and I pedaled gently (to avoid destroying what little remained of the gears) while Scott drove and LB manned the rest of the boat. Our destination was Josh's WhatBoat mooring to tie up so we could head back to Cruftlabs to perform emergency repairs on the propulsion system. We were quite a hit with the folks who were already hanging out on the riverside to get a good spot for the night's festivities. This was also the first time we attracted the attention of a Cambridge Fire Department golf cart (with two firemen) who seemed to spend their whole morning buzzing around following us to watch what happened.

Once moored we inflated the deflatable raft we had so that we could ferry supplies and people into the dock. Laurie and I took the first trip, along with a load of gear. While we knew the raft had a slow air leak, we did not know until I hopped into it that it also had a slow water leak. Laurie and I raced to shore while the raft slowly deflated and slowly filled with water. Upon arriving I discovered my camera was sopping wet, which is why there are no photographs from that point forward. After a couple of thunderstorms passed through we had tarped up the boat, brought in all passengers and the parts which needed repair.

After a lunch break and repair session at Cruftlabs we were ready to return to the boat (during lunch Josh received a call from the MA Environmental Police saying, "Sir, there's a car parked at your boat mooring."). The repairs of the paddlewheel were not as easy as expected. We tied up to the dock near the mooring and attracted all kinds of attention, including numerous offers for a tow if needed. Scott, Steve and Josh were determined to get the paddlewheel functioning, though, and created a miniforge on the sidewalk, with Josh blowtorching and Scott hammering the hot steel. The field operation eventually included a pair of drills, several hammers and an invaluable file.

After approximately 3 different failed attempts the paddlewheel was again functional, but without any mechanical advantage and directly chained, which meant the pedallers had to pedal backwards at an extremely slow cadence with immense force. Still, it meant that we proceeded all the way upriver to the Harvard bridge under our own power, which was pretty awesome. Nine of us were on the boat for the fireworks, which were fantastic. A wearying but wonderful 4th of July.

My Summer Vacation

Football_2I've been enjoying a few days away from work here in Boston this week, starting with a brief visit to the Cape to hang out with the fam for a day. Pictured at left is Team Barrett running a play from scrimmage during a little touch football game before dinner. Following that I spent quite a while working on the carboat (pictures and details to follow). So far it's been a relaxing few days, but I always get a little anxious when I haven't done any work in a while and emails are piling up.

28 June 2006

Land of the free?

Living in the UK means that I am often forced to listen to people making fun of the United States and its all-powerfull, all-controlling, evil leader, George Bush. I don't even really notice it now, and long gone are the days when it used to get my hackles up. One misperception that does annoy me, however, is the idea that the President controls all policy in the United States. People seem to think Congress is a rubber stamp, let alone the fact that many of the policies they find objectionable are implementedon the State level. So over time I've become somewhat inured to the complaints people make. I even had a conversation along these lines with mharder when I saw him in Seattle. We joked about how the President doesn't have much of an effect on our daily lives, and we mostly go on living the same way regardless of who's in office.

Bearing that in mind I'd like to describe a recent experience that left me angrier than I've been in a very long time; possibly angrier than I've ever been with respect to a political or governmental issue.

My friend Pam came with me on my recent trip to Seattle. She's a visiting scholar from Australia and she was asked to fill in at the last minute along with me (her advisor decided to stay home in Perth). Over the course of the trip she was treated to so much harassment from the TSA that I was literally steaming when we finally exited the country into Vancouver (our stopover for the return flight).

It began right when we arrived in Seattle. I joked that I got to jump in the fast (US Citizen) lane while she had to stand in line with the terrorists. After I had cleared immigration and was still waiting a half hour later I started to wonder what was happening. I looked around the baggage claim area but couldn't see her. Once they finished all of the citizen's line and started taking the dregs from the visitor's line I was really confused because she was toward the front half of that line. When they shut out the lights in the immigration desks and all went for a smoke break I was really worried. I assumed I must've missed her and so I left the baggage area to look for what I expected would be an arrival lounge. Unfortunately I found nothing but a dingy train station without any signage to speak of. I got on the first train since there seemed nothing else to do and debarked at the stop marked "MAIN TERMINAL" as it was the mostly likely candidate for escaping the airport.

After an hour and a half of waiting (and trying to get my useless American mobile phone to send a message to Pam's Australian number) she finally came up the escalator, looking tired, but, remarkably, without complaint. Evidently she had been given a big red card in her passport at the immigration line and shunted off to the interrogation room. Inside one woman was weeping because she was refused admittance and couldn't get in touch with her American husband. Another Canadian gentleman was standing numbly while a TSA agent stamped "NOT ADMITTED" approximately 25 times on his entry form, at which point the two agents started discussing how they were going to keep him in custody until he was deported. I later joked that these were probably hired actors designed to frighten people like Pam into admitting she was a member of Al Qaeda (and now the CIA is wiretapping my blog). After a lengthy bout of questioning about where she was coming from, what she was doing in the country and with whom she was travelling she was sent to another agent to be asked the same questions all over again. Thus was she not only interrogated needlessly, but also in a horrendously inefficient and bureaucratic fashion. Of course when she was at last allowed to leave the country, the TSA agent said, "Enjoy your visit to the United States!"

The way in, however, was a prelude for the way out. We collected our boarding passes for the Seattle-Vancouver flight and headed to the security checkpoint which had a very long line. Whlie waiting in line we discovered Pam's boarding card had a huge blue sticker on it. "Uh oh, I said, this means you're getting the latex glove treatment." I continued to explain how the TSA prints "SSSS" (for Super Super SUPER Security) on boarding passes of passengers flagged for hand search and additional harassment. I also explained how pointless it is, since any well informed terrorist will be aware of this fact (just like you, dear readers) and get out of line if he gets the SSSS of Doom. As I was telling this story we saw that Pam indeed had the SSSS in addition to her flaming blue sticker.

I handed my boarding pass to the attendant who glanced at it and waved me through. Pam handed her hers and she immediately asked, "Are you travelling with anyone?"

"Him," said Pam.

"Grrrrreat," thought I.

"JOHN, LANE 1!" screamed the TSA agent, sending us both over there. Little did I know that this would be great news for me since I did not have an SSSS boarding pass and would be able to shoot right through the Lane 1 checkpoint and actually skip most of the line. Pam on the other hand got immediately pulled into the extra check area. I picked up her laptop on the conveyor belt (I've heard too many stories of people leaving stuff on those things and having it stolen).

"Is that hers?" asked an agent incredulously.

"Yeah it is," said I.

"YOU CANNOT TOUCH HER PROPERTY!" the woman belligerently informed me. Once I put Pam's laptop down she yelled, "Scan this one again, Tom. HE touched it." Meanwhile I of course collected all my belongings and entered the gate area unmolested. Pam was then subjected to a hand search of all her luggage, the bomb-detecting cotton swabbing and what I'm sure was a lovely hand-search from the troll of a matron.

After I had again had to wait half an hour for Pam to catch up to me we had a question about her Visa waiver stub. Essentially they leave a bit of paper stapled in your passport when you enter and then you surrender it when you leave (under penalty of incarceration, as noted on the waiver stub). Nobody had yet collected Pam's so we wanted to make sure someone would do so. We showed it to one of the TSA guys (Pam said, "Let's not show it to anyone who looks likely to arrest me.") and he looked at it like he had never seen it before in his life. Let me remind you that every single foreign national travelling on the Visa Waiver program (that is, every tourist from every friendly nation on earth) has one of these. He gave us directions to some other staff person who could help.

Some of you may realize (I sincerely hope you all do) that every non-US or Canadian citizen entering the country gets fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival. You may also realize that we're the only Western country in the world to treat visitors so disgracefully. I didn't really get it before, but think about it: what is the only circumstance anyone gets fingerprinted in the USA? When suspected of a crime. It's an act that is incredibly freighted with suspiscion of guilt. In essence we're saying to everyone who visits, "We're just going to assume you're a criminal because it's easier that way."

Now, when we find this Homeland Security staffer she's standing in front of what looks like an ATM. She tells us that the HS Department is introducing a plan to take fingerprints and photos when you leave the country too. Unfortunately however, the machine is broken. "If you have time," she says, "you can find another machine in Terminal D." Pam, not wanting to rock the boat, agrees to find the other machine. At this point I'm ready to explode, and Pam, of all people, apologises to me for taking so long.

"It's not your fault, it's my incompetent government that's the problem!"

We find the other machine, with another HS officer who explains how to use it and that it's to make sure nobody has stolen or copied her passport and to help the government track who's in the country and who's left. He also tells us the gate agent should take the visa waiver stub (as it turns out the gate agent looked puzzled when Pam gave her the stub, so she may yet be arrested on her next visit to our fair nation).

Literally that morning, after spending a lovely few hours on the University of Washington campus, I had remarked on how much I missed being in America. I couldn't explain exactly what were the things that I missed, but even in Seattle, a city I had never set foot in before, I felt at home. I felt glad to be back. While sitting near the gate, waiting to board our flight, for the first time in my life I wanted to leave the USA and not come back. I'm proud of being American, despite the ridicule I get for it here. I have an abiding love of the principles upon which my nation was founded and through which it prospered. For the first time ever that was overwhelmed by disgust at how badly misappropriated those principles and that public trust had become.

Remember that all this had happened to a citizen of Australia, probably our closest remaining ally aside from Canada. If we treat our best friends like this we'll soon find that nobody is left standing beside us. Indeed, Congress is moving forward full steam with pointless strict border controls with Canada. The longest unprotected border in the world, a border across which there is more trade than any other on Earth, and soon to be another border where the hassle to cross is so great that it will become as good as a wall.

Every American should be forced to sit through this treatment to see how degrading and, worst of all, utterly pointless it is. How much money are we spending offending and turning away people who want to come to our country and contribute to it? How many people from less friendly countries like China are no longer bothering to apply for Visas to come study in the United States because they are consistently rejected for bogus security reasons? How long will it take before we've shut ourselves off from the world and stagnate into a second rate country? There are real threats to American security, and instead of facing them we're throwing billions of dollars away providing bad solutions to a problem that was relevant five years ago.

Thankfully after all this we entered Canada, which was so incredibly efficient that we made it off our plane, through immigration and into the international departure lounge using only 7 minutes of our 3 hour layover. This gave me plenty of time to get drunk in the Vancouver airport and forget how pissed off I was.

26 June 2006

The Jetlag Blues

Last day in Seattle was really nice. I met mharder and his fiancée in the hotel lobby and we walked to a pretty swanky restaurant for dinner. I was glad to be back in a country where I could safely order a martini and expect something drinkable in return. Putz alums will be happy to know that Harder still likes umbrella drinks, as he ordered a drink called "Shakespeare in Love". For dinner I had some tasty mussels and a piece of halibut that was good enough for Jehovah. After dinner we walked down to the hip Pioneer Square district and checked out Marcus' Martini Heaven. It was a little empty on a Thursday (read: we were the only customers when we arrived) but they made a good dirty Bombay martini (mharder went with something called "The Key Lime"). I have to say that knowing a local or two makes all the difference when visiting somewhere.

I had a few hours to kill on Friday morning, so I took a cab up to the UW campus to check out my possible future surroundings. I haven't spent much time on traditional American University campuses (since MIT is so integrated with Cambridge and the lines between town and University at Oxford are blurred to near nonexistence). I do like the feel, though of having a big sprawling campus that's distinct from the city around it. I also like the idea of being affiliated with a University with some big time sports teams (I won't even bother to explain how MIT lacked these...). The weather was goregous that morning and it was a really nice walk around the campus.

Unfortunately it was nearly impossible to get a taxi in that part of the city, which was a bit worrisome; even after calling a cab it took them half an hour to arrive. Despite having the most inept cabbie ever (he kept yielding at bizarre moments, like going straight halfway through a green light and then abruptly stopping when someone was waiting to turn left across our lane) we made it to the airport in plenty of time. Now I'm hoping to be able to overcome jetlag enough this week to get some work done before flying back across the Atlantic to Boston on Saturday.

23 June 2006

Pacific Northwest

Well, I've finished all my lectures here in Seattle. This afternoon I checked out Pike Place Market, which is basically just a market, but it does have a pretty cool vibe: lots of street musicians, tons of random hippies etc. It was also pretty awesome to check out Puget Sound and to see Mount Rainier looming imposingly in the distance. I just checked out the whirlpool and steam room here at the Grand Hyatt. I'd never partaken of a steam room before, but it's pretty much what it sounds like: hot room, pumped full of steam. Clears out the sinuses well. I'm gonna meet mharder for dinner in a couple of hours, and then I have a few hours tomorrow morning to hang out before flying back to the UK. All told, not a bad city.

17 June 2006

Music to my ears

Headline from boston.com red sox page: "Sox put Clement on DL, call up Kapler."

That's a skraight 5 spot for Theophilus.

16 June 2006


Anybody know anyone cool or anything sweet to do in the Pacific Northwest?

14 June 2006

More Hardball Stats

In response to a RZA comment on the previous entry I have to strenuously disagree that this is a large sample size to make small distinctions. If we split Papi's numbers, for instance by odd innings vs even innings, we get almost as big a difference as the early vs. late split: 0.299 odd vs 0.281 even. I'm not saying Papi isn't clutch, I'm saying that the statistical evidence isn't overwhelming.


I'd like to introduce a new feature here at foonyor.com, the Scottcast. Now you too can listen to a podcast of Scooter's latest rants and raves! You can syndicate the podcast with the "Subscribe to my podcast" link over below my bløgroll.

13 June 2006

Stats and Baseball

After reading this excellent post at Yanksfan vs Sox fan (via 2GD) on the statistical analysis of whether Big Papi is a "clutch" hitter, I can't help but chime in as both a statistician and baseball fan. More than any other sport, baseball fans and pundits alike love to troll through huge quanitites of numerical data to try to find interesting trends and observations about their favourite players.

Unfortunately nearly all such analyses are statistically bogus. In this case, the question is whether David Ortiz is a great "clutch" hitter, that is, he steps up his game in situations that are most important. The author then proceeds to parade a lot of numbers to argue his point. He makes the common mistake of presenting a trend (e.g. someone performs better on Wednesdays vs. Thursdays) without asking whether the data at hand are enough to prove that that trend is significant. In statistics it's all about sample size — whether you have sufficient observations to draw confident conclusions from your data.

If, for instance, I told you that it rained today, a Tuesday and was sunny yesterday, a Monday. Nobody would believe me if I then turned around and said, "It rains way more often on Tuesday than Monday!" In small samples, of course, random chance creates perceived patterns (such as rain correlating with Tuesday) where none actually exist.

In baseball we fool ourselves into thinking that we have enough observations to make all kinds of statements in which we have no confidence. In this specific case of clutch hitting, the author makes a whole series of claims with fairly small sample sizes, but lets look at his best case: batting average with runners on base vs. batting average with the bases empty. Ortiz has had 1861 total Red Sox at bats, distributed pretty evenly between these two scenarios (947 bases empty, 914 with one or more runners). He has had 265 hits in the first case (for a 0.280 average) and 280 hits in the second case (for a 0.306). So he's got more hits in fewer tries, thus the higher average with runners on. Regardless of whether this is a good measure of clutch performance (which is an entirely separate argument) we can ask whether these numbers actually mean something or whether they could've arisen by chance. Does Ortiz hit better with runners on?

In short, these numbers can't answer the question. When performing a simple test of statistical signficance, these values could easily have arisen by chance. We could easily have seen this discrepancy by dividing his at bats into those on where an odd number of fans were in the stadium vs. those where an even number of fans were watching. And this really makes sense when you think about it carefully. Even with nearly 2000 observations we're trying to gain insight into a very tiny difference: 0.280 vs 0.306! In baseball the difference between a guy with a career 280 average and a guy with a 306 is pretty big, but in almost any other circumstance we'd round both of these to an even 30% and call it a day. You would need tens of thousands of observations to demonstrate that Ortiz hits better with men on base with even modest confidence.

Keep in mind that this is actually a pretty big sample size for baseball. Many times people quote some 1-for-10 and say that Pitcher X "owns" Hitter Y. This is an even bigger joke, since a guy hitting .300 is likely to have only one hit in any given ten at-bats! I certainly hope that the guys actually working for ball clubs have a better handle on this than the average pundit.

12 June 2006


So even given the number of options we frivolously wasted at SALT we still have enough nukes to kill everybody in the Czech Republic, right? RIGHT?

11 June 2006


Here's a question for Americans watching the World Cup. Does the TV coverage go straight through each half without commercial breaks? That's standard practice here, but I would imagine it to be anathema to ABC, ESPN and the like.

La Copa Mondial

Most of my readers will be vaguely aware that the World Cup started yesterday, but it's hard to explain how huge a deal it is here in England. Everybody has English flags flying from their car antennas and out their windows. Stores are full of cheesy product tie-ins and the streets were empty for today's first England game of the cup. The World Cup really is the only truly worldwide sporting event. Football's the only sport that has strong professional followings in every inhabited continent and the estimated cumulative TV audience for the month is 33 billion. In what other event could Tunisia, Ecuador, Italy, Iran and more all send quality teams out for?

The first day of the Cup (Friday) featured a game between hosts Germany and Costa Rica and one between Poland and Ecuador. Blanca, Matt and I first went to the Royal Standard to check them out, but it was already full of drunken Brits for the 5PM kickoff. We found a table with a view of one of the screens, but there was a guy there in an England t-shirt blowing nonstop on a kazoo — I don't know what he was on about since it was Germany vs. Costa Rica. We decided to just go to Matt's house to make some dinner and watch the games without the hooligans. We fired up a pretty daecent chicken tikka masala and watched the Germans dismantle the Ticos and then the upset Ecuador victory over Poland.

Today a few people from work and some other hangers on got together for a little five-on-five match this morning before the games started. I haven't actually played football since I was about 12, but it was a good time. Some of the other guys were really good, but it was enough of a free-for-all that I managed to have fun and occasionally execute a good pass in the midst of being burned about a million times by Jordana's husband, Tom. It's been really hot here lately, so we were all pretty sweaty and gross by the time we finished and broke up to go home and shower before meeting at the White Horse for the 2PM England - Paraguay match. When I got there the place was outrageously packed (think Boston bars during the ALCS). I looked around but couldn't find my friends and I wasn't about to stand up in a hot, sweaty bar with a crappy view of the TV to watch a sporting event that I don't care that much about.

I went outside and pulled my keys out of my pocket as I walked toward my bike. At this point a dude and his girlfriend in an Audi in the parking lot yelled, "Hey are you leaving" (in the same tone of voice you'd ask somebody who was heading out of the Cask & Flagon in the 1st inning of a Sox game).

Somewhat confused (why would they really care?) I said, "Yeah."

"Where are you parked?" the girl asked.

I pointed sheepishly to my bike, "Sorry mate."

I hopped on to pedal home and check out the game in my house when suddenly the bar exploded in a roar that nearly knocked me off my bike. Clearly England had scored almost immediately after the game began. I got home and it turned out that the Brits had scored on a deflected Beckham corner kick in the 3rd minute. I made some lunch and watched the first half, but it was fairly boring after that first score. I was tired from running around all morning, so I took a nap during the second half, when the Paraguayans evidently played well but couldn't score.

I was rejuvenated after my nap, so I started making dinner and put on the Sweden - Trinidad & Tobago game. Of all the first round matches this one had the longest odds. T&T were playing in the Cup for the first time and were the smallest country ever to qualify. Sweden is a football powerhouse even in Europe and some pundits had predicted a 6-0 domination. As the first half developed Sweden dominated playing time and the ball was nearly always in the Islanders' half of the field. The Swedes made attack after attack, but just couldn't score. The T&T keeper (who was put in the lineup two minutes before kickoff due to a warmup injury to the starting keeper) made a couple of really awesome saves. At half time it was still nil-nil and the commentators were talking about how impressive it was that the Islanders had made it this far without allowing a goal. They pretty much all thought they'd run out of steam soon, though, and couldn't keep off the Swedish attack.

The second half started with T&T defender Avery John getting a red card for his second reckless tackle and being sent off. Now with the underdogs playing a man short it seemed inevitable that the Swedes would pull off a win. While T&T was indeed pinned back for nearly the whole of the second half, they played some amazing defense and killed time to deny the Swedes a chance to score. On one of the few occasions when T&T attacked their striker fired a beautiful shot from a tough angle that thumped straight into the crossbar. Six inches lower and this could've been a historic upset.

Earlier this week I was listening to some NPR coverage of the Cup and the English guy they were interviewing was trying to explain how a 0-0 draw can be an incredibly interesting match. Of course the American host of the show was making fun of him, but it's really amazing how exciting it can be. The first round of the Cup is round-robin within your group and you get 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw. Even a draw for T&T was thus a huge victory and their fans (way, way outnumbered by Swedes) were going absolutely nuts toward the end of the game, willing their boys to hold off Sweden. I couldn't help but get excited at each Swedish chance that they foiled to clear the ball out and try to catch their breath.

When the game ended in a zero-zero tie, I was shocked at how satisfying a sport-viewing experience it had been. I couldn't muster the endurance to watch the Argentina - Ivory Coast match, but I'm pretty psyched for the next month (although I'll actually be back in America for the final - natch). I will have to go out and watch some of the games in pubs though, to fully experience the hooliganism. USA takes on the Czech Republic on Monday - get jacked and pumped.