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.