30 January 2006

The Tax Man

I just filed my tax returns. I stand to get a pretty decent chunk back, since my income from January to April was taxed at the rate expected if I had had that salary all year long. Thus, the tax man is hooking me up with a pretty sweet refund.

Eat my shorts, Federal Government!

29 January 2006

Burns' Night

People all over Britain annually commemorate great Scottish poet Robbie Burns in late January. Indeed Burns' Day has grown to become a Scottish national holiday. The King's Hall and College of Brasenose had their Burns' night last night, which I attended despite not being vaguely connected with Scotland. As a matter of fact, we had a difficult time drumming up anybody from the college who is properly Scottish. Nonetheless, we all managed to enjoy some kilts, bagpipes and haggis.

The evening began with champagne in the chaple antechamber, which is
the usual routine for black tie affairs at college. In honour of Burns
we also had a kilted bagpiper who drowned out all attempts at
conversation while we milled around sipping champagne. The bagpipes are
definitely an instrument invented for usage across the Scottish
highlands, rather than indoors. The piper led the procession from the chapel to the hall for dinner.

After everyone was seated one of the students rose to recite Burns' poem, "A toast to the Haggis". We had some pretty good fish soup for the first course, followed by the traditional Burns' night dinner of haggis, neeps (turnips) and taties (mashed potatoes). The haggis was actually not too bad, similar in taste and consistency to beef hash. If you mixed a bit with the potatoes or turnips it was pretty good stick-to-your-ribs type fare.

Dinner was followed by a number of recitations, including "A toast to the immortal memory of Robbie Burns", the toast to the Lassies and the reply from the Lassies. Each of these was written and given by one of the BNC undergrads, and they were all pretty impressive. We toasted with some scotch of extremely dubious quality and all had a good laugh. The college Visitor, his Lordship the Bishop of Lincoln gave a few brief comments at the end, including a joke which assuredly must've come from the book of 101 Bishop jokes.

We adjourned from the hall so that the tables could be put up to the side and then returned for a couple of hours of Scottish dancing. There were far too many people for the amount of space available, and of course none of us had any clue how to do Scottish dancing. What resulted wasn't so much a dance as much of a jostling crowd of people crashing into each other and smashing people's toes. It was good fun nonetheless, especially as the crowd thinned a bit, allowing enough room to at least move around.

28 January 2006


I saw Jarhead last Wednesday. It was a very good flick, definitely worth seeing in the theatre. It made great use of the kinds of cinematic effects that lose their punch when viewed in your living room: sharp cuts from silence to thumping music (quality soundtrack overall), occasional overwhelming sound of gunfire (although surprisingly little for a war movie) and large, sweeping onscreen vistas.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard all turn in top shelf acting performances. You definitely get the feeling (and this has been said about the film in many places) that the writer throws in all kinds of Corps myths in this one company. Pretty much every "I heard there was this one guy who..." story happens to these few guys, which is a little unbelievable, but not so much that it detracts from enjoyment of the film.

23 January 2006


Those 5 random Sammy Winter Lager's I nicked from LB and brought back are key.

22 January 2006


I've almost finished with discs 2 and 5 of the first season of 24. As per my last post about lovefilm.com, they sent me the discs out of order, which kind of sucks. According to their website they won't send you out of order stuff if you queue up all the discs from a series in order, which is what I did, so evidently they have some kind of a problem.

In any event, I couldn't be bothered to return them to wait for them in order, so I read synopses of the first four episodes, then watched disc two, then read eight more synopses, then watched disc 5. I dont' feel like I actually missed much, 'cause the synopses were fairly detailed, if somewhat poorly written.

I had heard good things about this show from a variety of people and I have to say I'm a little disappointed. The show is fun enough to watch, but it reminds me of a Dan Brown novel: all flash and no substance. While the concept is clever, it sometimes wears thin. The whole storyline with Senator Palmer's kid seems like it's there to fill dead air. I presume it will be tied in to the main plot by the end, but there's too much footage of him having heart-to-heart talks with his son. Plus there's just too many ridiculous twists and turns crammed in there to drag the story out.

It's fun to watch (especially Elisha Cuthbert) but the acting is only so-so, the writing is downright awful in places and the storyline defies belief just a little bit too much.


I'm here at the office on a Sunday to catch up on work in preparation for a meeting on Tuesday. There's another bloke here who seems very frustrated with whatever he's doing. Every few minutes he either swears in a foreign language (Eastern European?) or growls like Chewbacca.

I mean, I don't want to be here on the weekend either, but I'm beginning to get worried.

20 January 2006

Impressionist Painter

as in Monet, Claude.


I've just signed up for lovefilm.com, the UK's equivalent of netflix. Not only is this likely to dramatically increase my uptake of films, it allows me to check out previous seasons of American TV shows (which is arguably more of a plus for me). Already in my queue are the first seasons of 24 and Lost, along with a few films. Unfortunately the system seems to cdr down your list sending you the first one it finds that is in stock. This means my first two discs are numbers 2 & 5 from the first season of 24. Oops. Probably not a show I want to watch out of order, huh?

I assume netflix works the same way in that you pay increasing tarrifs depending on how many titles you can simultaneously have checked out. I realised that there's a huge difference between the lowest level (one title at a time) and the second lowest (two titles). In the first case there's a two-way mailing lag between each item (your next item isn't mailed until your first one is returned). In the second case, you can keep a continuous rotation up by watching one title and mailing it back to get the next one sent out but still having one item to watch in the meantime. This is especially useful for TV discs which have multiple episodes per disc and can be dragged out for a couple  of days. Needless to say, I elected the latter.

Anyway, movie suggestions welcome!

19 January 2006


One of several reasons that I extended my holiday break to nearly a full month in length was to make sure to be in Cambridge for MLK weekend and the Mystery Hunt. I had a much better time this year than last year (when I was so sick with the flu that I could only stay out of bed for a few hours on Saturday). I solved some puzzles, saw some old friends and generally had a good time. Unfortunately, our team pretty much sucked again this year.

Following Rhode's tradtion, I thought I'd list off a few of my favorite hunt moments:

  • Sixteen Blocks: clever idea for a puzzle, you get the lists of words from two players who played boggle and you must back out the arrangement of boggle cubes that allowed that game to be played. Unfortunately the testsolvers let it through without realising that there's a boggle backsolver on the web which can generate the layout in about 5 seconds. Josh and I did that so quickly that we didn't even look at the layout because it seemed too easy. After a few minutes I took the layout and confirmed by hand that it contained all the letters. I gave it to some other people working on the puzzle, explaining that if they were trying to get the layout we already had that step done. Turns out it was the only step, because when Erin took the layout from me she read around the grid, "THE ANSWER IS POTATOES"

  • The Cambidge AgentLocation puzzle was staightforward and simple, but fun to do. I think sometimes people try too hard to make the Hunt impossible. I thought PhysPlant did a good job of leaving a few openings early on in the hunt for novices to crank through some puzzles.

  • The Cambridge meta was pretty cool too. I especially enjoyed clueing TTY with "zephyr mode".

  • Blue Steel: Josh decided to bypass the solving stage of this puzzle and just ripped the diskette open to find the information "inside the computer".

  • Connect Four: probably my favourite puzzle from the hunt. We had a lot of manpower when it was released to us, so about 12 of us cranked it out in under half an hour. Just nicely constructed through and through, from the clue solving step to the answer arrangement to the final clue phrase.

  • Handbook Fragment: this puzzle was annoying as hell, but really satisfying when Josh and I defeated it at 6AM. It involved classifying grammatical mistakes in a writing sample and looking up the mistake code in the Mayfield manual of style. Made more difficult by the fact that the puzzle author did not appear to have much style to begin with.

  • Decode This: I was in the middle of this puzzle along with zoz and sbj when the hunt ended. It's another example of a well constructed puzzle in all phases. It uses the same scrambling/decrypting steps repeated 5 times, reducing the total size of the data by a factor of four each time. A 1024 character paragraph thus produces a four letter answer. I enjoyed it enough that I actually finished it at home with Laurie after the hunt ended. (On a side note, she got right into it and definitely should've been working on puzzles for the whole hunt.)

  • Space Invaders: this one was a lot of fun too, involving figuring out special rules for each sentence in a crazy paragraph. Some frosh (whose name I forget) was really good at this one and was totally psyched to figure out some of the rules. The best one was when some girl said, "This sentence seems to have all short words." Josh replied, maybe there's some sort of pattern in the word lengths. She started reading word lengths, "Three one four one five nine..."

  • The Kuala Lumpur meta used a very elegant method that we unfortunately missed until we had way more answers than we should've needed. Credit goes to Dustin for finally spotting it.

  • The Scrambler: another fairly straightforward puzzle that just required some grunging and a bit of general knowledge (not even much googling really). zoz and I basically did this one to chill out for an hour.

We'll get 'em next year!

18 January 2006

Back in the USSR

Er, the UK.

After a monthlong visit to the USA (and basically no posts) I'm back in Oxford, settling into working again and getting over jetlag. Hopefully my blog-output will increase too. Among many other sweet activities, I checked out Austin, Tejas for NYE2K6, which MRhé has described better than I could.

The real news, however, is that I'm taking a surprise, all-expenses paid trip to 香港 (Hong Kong to the gaijin among you) from February 10th-18th, where I'll be lecturing on tag SNP selection .