915 Scott looks nonplussed.
919 dr raven admits to being nearly 30.
924 jeff says something stupid.
All sixteen of America's intelligence agencies (why do we need 16?) agree that Iran has not been developing nuclear weapons for the last four years. By any sensible measure this is great news. A looming conflict has suddenly become a very unlikely possibility. Sanctions can be reduced so that Iran can be positively engaged economically. Each nation can pay less attention to the rhetoric from their ideologue leaders and more attention to moderate voices.
This is a showdown that would've had no positive side. Obviously the US military is stretched too thin to seriously engage with Iran. Now everyone can relax. So why does the Bush administration view this development with, at best, mixed feelings?
From a Times article on Giuliani's repeated misstatement of statistical fact, why I hate politics:
“When he talks about New York, people see it,” Mr. Luntz said of Mr.
Giuliani, “and they feel it, and if a number isn’t quite right, or is
off by a small amount, nobody will care, because it rings true to them.”
Tonight I decided to leave dinner entirely in the hands of my iPhone. Nearly everything near the hospital shuts down at about 5, so I asked the ol' iPhone to first find me a fish and chips shop, and then direct me there. I was a little surprised when it popped up "Khang's Fish" in what I thought was a residential neighborhood, but the only place where I knew there would be eats for sure was a 20 minute walk in the wrong direction.
Well, the iPhone held up its end of the deal, but I was confronted with a frequent issue in British take-away food: "Khang's Fish and Chips" also had a giant neon sign: CHINESE TAKEAWAY. Similar to kebab shops that do pizza, how do you reconcile fish and chips and kung pao chicken? Which is a safer bet here?
Since apparently some people think this bl0g has become too much of a "meta-travelogue", I thought I'd post something a little more introspective. I was walking from work to the bus stop to head 'back home' to Oxford from Cambridge yesterday when I bumped into somebody I knew from teaching on a course. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes and then made plans to hang out some time. Coincidentally she's from Newton, so that "some time" could either be while we're both in MA for Christmas or when we're both back in Cambs.
This kind of chance encounter is one of my favourite types of surprise. I had another one a month or two ago when I was walking through Kendall Square and bumped into a friend from the 'tute that I hadn't seen in a while. Another time when these happen often is around conference times, when planes from all destinations toward the conference city are packed with scientists. On my connecting flight from JFK to San Diego in October, for instance, there were five or six people I knew and a handful more with poster tubes who looked suspiciously nerdy. It always make me think more broadly about how many near misses there probably are (somebody you know boards the train in front of you, or pays the bill at a restaurant just before you walk in). In some places, at least, it's a small world.
This past week was my first at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (left). I have not yet found a place to live, so that's occupying quite a bit of my time at the moment. The CIMR is at the Addenbrooke's hospital site, which is similar to every other UK hospital I've seen: a hodge-podge of buildings thrown up over the last 40 years without much attention paid to architecture or layout.
This weekend I've been at the nearby Sanger Centre, teaching on a HapMap course which I was roped into at the last minute. This means I've already been away from Oxford for a week, instead of 3 days as originally intended. I guess I'm diving in faster than I expected! At least this gig is a good way to earn some spare cash.
The city itself is beautiful. We've had clear blue skies and bright winter sun, which makes the day a little easier to face!
I spent today in Cambridge, both to get the lay of the land and to try to find a place to live. Success in the former, failure in the latter. Pictured at left is the inner courtyard of Gonville and Caius college (sister college to Brasenose). Cambridge generally felt like a slightly smaller, even more medieval version of Oxford (which is what everybody says). It was a cold, blue-sky day, so the city was certainly given a good chance to look beautiful.
My best lead for a house was a very cheap place relatively convenient to where I'll be working. The reason it is so cheap is that it's basically a gigantic frat-house. I'm too old to be living in a place where the kitchens are always full of last night's pizza, and there's literally a band practising in the ground floor lounge. I have more leads, however, and I'm spending two nights in a B&B this week, for my first three days of work (Weds-Fri). Scary, but exciting!
Well, not quite. Today is my last day in the USA, after visiting San Diego, Baja Mexico, Las Vegas, and now Boston. It's been a great trip, and pics will be available once I've secured some of the better ones from my travelling companions. At left is a picture (taken with my snazzy new iPhone) of the pub-crawl itinerary from Saturday. It was a great time, despite starting in the tail end of a tropical storm that had worked its way up the coast.
Mahim, Jules and I were out on the town on Friday night, and while heading from pub C to pub D we stopped in a Quik-e-mart to get a couple of redbulls and a snack we noticed pumpkins on sale. Jules started asking me what the hell I was going to do with a pumpkin in a pub so I noticed a bike with a quick-release seat, popped it off and jammed the pumpkin onto the post (see left).
Even more amusing was the look on the girl's face standing next to her (by then reassembled) bike yelling at her friend with the pumpkin launched 20 metres down the side street.
I recently purchased Rilo Kiley's newest album, Under the Blacklight. After members of the band took some time off to pursue extracurricular projects, the gang is back with another great disc. The album is solid throughout, and features some stuff (e.g. "Silver Lining") reminiscent of Jenny Lewis's solo album, Rabbit Furcoat. It also has some excellent departures from their tried and true style, like "Breaking Up" and "15" (my personal favourite).
Oxford has set up an online registration system, which requires a username/password separate from any of my existing usernames (one is college-specific, the other two are department-specific). Fine, whatever. But what are the constraints on password choice?
Oxford IS gets a D plus.
Choice excerpt from Reuter's reporting of the President of Iran's speech at Columbia:
"In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country, In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you we have it."
"The freest women in the world are the women in Iran."
I will give props to Columbia President Lee Bollinger for standing his ground and allowing the lunatic to speak.
Background: I've always moaned about how unfair it is that English blokes get a huge advantage at pulling in the USA because of their accents, whereas nobody finds an American accent particularly sexy.
Scene: I need to call Virgin Media to finalise a payment for my broadband at my old house. Foonyor Barzane [FB] is speaking to a pleasant English saleswoman [PES].
[PES]: Your accent doesn't sound very English...
[FB]: Yes, I'm originally from the States, but I've lived in the UK for a few years.
[PES]: And you've never lost your accent!
[FB]: I guess, not, although I do sometimes wish I could do an English accent on command.
[PES]: (laughing) Oh no, never lose that accent, it's really nice...from a female point of view, anyway.
[FB]: (blushes) Thank you!
...but you're full of muppets. Today, an MIT student walked into Logan to pick up a friend. She happened to be wearing a circuit board on her EC sweatshirt. Because the BPD (or the TSA, or whatever) are idiots, she was arrested at machine-gun point.
I first learned about this story when I went to Chicken Cottage for a late night snack after a few beers. Being run by a bunch of Arab dudes, they routinely have Al Jazeera on the television late at night. Tonight they were actually running this story in the alternating Arabic/English trailer along the bottom.
God help us.
While I applaud the TSA's decision to lift some of its silly travel bans, these FAQs from their website are pretty amusing:
Q. Why is breast milk not a threat?
A. Breast milk is a medical necessity and it is being classified as such. It must be declared at the checkpoint.
Q. How do you ensure liquid explosives disguised as breast milk or medications are not brought through the checkpoint?
A. Since September 2006, certain liquid medications have been permitted
at the checkpoint as long as they are declared to security officers and
are subject to additional screening.
Q. Do passengers carrying breast milk need to taste it to prove it is not a liquid explosive?
A. No. We will not ask a traveler to taste breast milk.
From Edes' column on yesterday's Sox win:
Ortiz was still light on his feet after the game, dancing in the buff
back and forth in the shower room while singing over and over at the
top of his lungs the theme from "Monday Night Football."
"Dah-dah-dah-DAH, dah-dah-dah-DAH," sang Ortiz, apparently jacked up
that the team's fantasy football draft was about to commence as soon as
he could find a towel.
I've just read Freakonomics (which is awesome, by the way) and it has left me thinking about incentives in every day lives. Steve Levitt (the economist half of the authorship duo) likes thinking about social incentives in addition to the traditional concept of money. I saw an example today of how a monetary disincentive counteracted a social incentive.
In most coffeeshops in the UK you are charged an extra 20 or 30 pence to "eat in" as opposed to "take away". Presumably this is to pay for occupying the space and for somebody to clear your dishes when you're done. In the US, on the other hand, you pay the same price to get your Starbuck's in a paper cup and leave the store as you do to get it in a mug and sit down to enjoy it. In the latter circumstance I usually bring my dirty dishes to the counter or the bin, whereas in the former I (in a sense, deliberately) leave my dishes at the table. There's obviously a social incentive to clean up after yourself in public, but it's completely abrogated by the fact that I've now paid somebody else to do it.
So who cares? Well probably nobody: the coffeeshop makes more than enough in "eat in" surcharges to pay for somebody to bus the tables, and the customers feel that they're paying for a reasonable service.
Nico received the following email from his Aussie cousin when he invited him down to the coast for the weekend. With five of us on the case we managed to eventually decode it:
Pretty banged up today, dropped 200 pounds last night. Ouch. [Interpretation A: had a substantial amount of body-mass carved off and is left in serious physical pain. Interpretation B: Had an expensive night out and is left without much cash.]
Surf sounds promising, I might have to make an appearance. [pretty straightforward]
I'll just need to find a lazy hunge to make it. Got a spare steamer?
This last, of course, is where it went into the woods. Turns out a hunge is £100, so he needs to scratch together some dough to make it down the coast. Finally, a steamer is a wetsuit. Fair enough when you have the internet at your disposal, but how the hell are you meant to carry on a conversation?
This one's a shout-out to Scottophone.
I moved out of my old flat yesterday to my temporary digs at Cecilia's flat. She's generously offered to let me stay there until I find a new place with Yosh. I started things off well by miscommunicating about where to meet to exchange the key. Cecilia ended up being stuck outside the flat for three hours with her mobile locked inside.
Of course, without her mobile she was totally unable to get in touch with any of us. Nobody actually remembers their friends' numbers any more. She called information but literally none of us have a landline and mobiles aren't listed. Cecilia was very good natured about the whole affair, but led to her asking the office this morning:
If you don't have a mobile, how are you supposed to contact anyone?
I watched nearly all of last night's "YouTube" debate among the Democratic candidates, and was left feeling pretty depressed. This is the best we can muster in the party that I actually think has some chance of restoring some dignity to my home country? The most encouraging part of the debate was actually seeing the humour, intelligence and creativity of the citizens writing the questions, which at least yielded some level of interest. I break down the candidates from worst-to-first, after the break.
8. Senator Dodd — Senator Dodd typified my idea of a pandering, spineless politician. He threw around a lot of vague promises but had pathetically little substance (and not much elegance, either). Hopefully he'll drop out ASAP.
7. Senator Edwards — Just seemed completely out of his depth. He seemed to feel that putting on an "I feel your pain" smile and cranking up his syrupy Southern accent to eleven would fool people into not noticing his vapidity. I would've ranked him dead last except for one stirring defence of mandated universal health coverage, which was the only time he sounded convincing.
6. Governor Richardson — A less egregious version of Senator Dodd. He seemed to have a little bit more going for him, and a slightly more concrete vision of his Presidency, but just seemed overwhelmed by this competitors.
5. Senator Clinton — While an excellent debater, Senator Clinton started annoying me immediately by continually referring to the President colloquially as "Bush" (e.g. "The problem is the Bush got us into this mess..."). The office of the President (even when disgraced by its current occupant) deserves respect, especially from those who are hoping to fill it. She had the smoothest presentation, but to me that just says, "same old politics", so it didn't do her any favours in my mind.
4. Senator Obama — I previously had high hopes for Senator Obama as a breath of fresh air to the Democrats, but he seems to have given up a bit of that "outsider" status in exchange for camapaign money (see Senator Gravel, below). Maybe there's still hope, but I see him slipping further and further into the grasp of the existing political machine.
3. Senator Biden — He seems like a bit of a crazy old grouch, but he at least felt like he was actually supporting his platform with some facts, and was willing to stand up to the other candidates where necessary, instead of basking in their love-fest.
2. Representative Kucinich — I always seem to connect most with non-mainstream candidates with no chance of winning. Perhaps this is because they eschew the banalities required for the nomination in favour of actually pursuing their platform. One review of the debate I read made a great point of how, when a lesbian couple asked if the candidates would let them get married, Kucinich hit a home run by saying, "The answer to your question is 'Yes'" while the other candidates tried to find a way to politely say 'No'. Mr. Kucinich also spoke about his disappointment at the Democratic Congress failed to fulfil their electoral mandate and end the war (as opposed to the other candidates who dance around how committed they are to actually ending the war).
1. Senator Gravel — Well, if Rep. Kucinich is out on the fringe, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel is well and truly on the other side, and awesome as a result. Senator Gravel is (much to my chagrin) polling only 0.5% amongst Democratic primary voters. He is the only candidate, however, who got me excited enough to look up more of his platform, which is a weird mix of things, nearly all of which I love (legalising and regulating drugs, real LGBT rights, universal health care and an aggressive global warming policy). Even more than his own platform, however, his under-underdog status allows him to absolutely tear into his competitors. In all the debates so far he provides a breath of fresh air compared to the packaged tripe of the front-runners. He attacks their reliance on special interest money, the repeated claims by politicians to change the status quo but failure of both parties to actually do so. I hope he stays in as long as he can to keep laying the issues bare to the rest of these chumps.
I spent about fifteen minutes in the Seattle Apple Store today, puttering around with an iPhone. It is an amazingly cool device, and a lot of fun to play with. I tried switching the Wifi off and verified that, yes, EDGE pretty much sucks. Unfortunately the one I had seemed a little buggy (songs on the iPod kept cutting off and Safari seemed to reboot itself randomly). I'm assuming that this was because the display model has been abused quite a bit in the store, but if the actual product does shit like that I'd be pretty annoyed.
I picked up a copy of Deathly Hallows today at a Border's in Seattle. I was there a little after 9AM, so there wasn't much of a crowd (the die-hards having shown up at midnight the night befoer). It was still weird, however, to see everybody in the queue hold the same 800 page book. Even more interesting was seeing how different people reacted to having it in their hands. Many people were reading the first chapter whilst waiting to pay, and more than a few were reading the ending. In fact, I had to go to a different checkout than I had originally planned, because a woman and her daughter were discussing the ending while in the queue (pretty obnoxious — literally everyone else here is buying the same damn book that you're ruining, lady).
I then joined the clusters of other people sitting out on the patio reading a couple of chapters and enjoying a Starbuck's coffee.
I'm just chilling at home before flying out tomorrow, and for once in my life preparing to leave the day before my flight instead of frantically doing so when I wake up. Go me.
I'm just back from a whirlwind of travelling, mostly in the USA, which is photo-documented in a short new Tabblo. After all that I went to Cambridge for an absolutely amazing scientific conference, and then to Bristol to do a little teaching (and earn some much needed cash).
And as I mentioned in the first sentence, I'm getting ready to fly out again. No rest for the wicked!
(* One point to first person to identify the quotation)
Scotticus made an observation recently on his webpage, and since he doesn't allow comments I'm commenting here:
A recent Pew Research Center study shows that people who watch The Colbert Report and The Daily Show correctly answered 54% of questions about current affairs, whereas viewers of regular TV news correctly answered only 35%. I'm not sure what to make of that finding.
This is a classical example of statistical confounding. While I value the real-news perspective of these programs, watching them probably has no effect on current events knowledge. The Daily Show is a comedy program aimed at well-educated, mainly liberal young people with an interest in current affairs. TV news programs are aimed at the typical local viewer. It's very likely the existing differences in the audiences accounts for the difference in news-awareness.
The Mariners' booth team last night (Dave Sims and Dave Niehaus) were pretty miserable. Sims has an irritating voice that he uses to spew out lots of grim baseball clichés. Niehaus, on the other hand, is just getting a little old to be on TV:
Niehaus: Well, Dave, I remember a classic game between Seattle and Boston that went 19 innings. John Olerud won that game with a home run. I forget which inning he hit it, must've been the 14th or 15th.
Sims: Um, wouldn't he have hit it in the 19th?
Niehaus: Why, yes, I guess you're right!
Here I am in Seattle again, where the air is cool and fresh and I have nothing to do but work. Well that's not entirely true, since the BoSox are in town. I think I'm gonna go to SafeCo tomorrow night (I would've preferred seeing Dice-K on Wednesday, but it's an afternoon game and I've got a conflicting meeting).
The trip didn't start well, as I got up to get something from my bag in the overhead compartment shortly after takeoff. While pulling out my headphones I accidentally knocked out my heavy silver watch, which fell straight onto the unsuspecting skull of the old lady in the row in front of me. I remarked to the woman next to me, "That's a great start to a 9.5 hour flight" and she chuckled politely. At this point the husband of the woman I konked whipped around and growled, "You think it's funny that he hit her on the head?!" Yikes. Luckily I managed not to do anything else embarrassing on the flight.
The Jack Cox Cup is Oxford's interdepartmental cricket cup. A few of my friends play on the Medical Research team, and the games are held on the oval next to the University Club, which affords excellent game-watching opportunities from its outdoor balcony. A few of us headed down after work yesterday to drink a couple of beers and watch the game against the Geography department.
Robbo is pictured here after an excellent smash, and a few more photos are on Facebook. The good guys won, 104 for 3, after the Geographers went 102 all out.
Yesterday was off-and-on raining all day (with occasional heavy downpours), so it was a good day to spend a lot of time hanging out inside and eating. Which a few of us did with gusto.
Carl, Morven, Blanca and I met up at Blanca's place around noon for a big fry-up. I whipped up some mushroom, onion and swiss omelettes which went quite well with bacon, bramley apple sausages and the other standard breakfast accoutrements (not least of which being strong, black coffee).
After a few hours of mildly productive work we decided to have dinner together as well. This time at my flat in Marston we cooked up a tasty jam of chicken fajitas. The fresh chilis were the hotness, both literally and figuratively. We finished the night with some good natured hanging-out over glasses of Sardinian grappa. That stuff'll put hair on your chest.
On the whole, the day pleasantly reminded me of the A-Side Lounge. Good times!
I saw Ocean's 13 last night and I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. The plot isn't flawless, nor even completely coherent at times, but this is a film that draws you in to a whirlwind of flashy Vegas fun from beginning to end. The ensemble acting is even better than the first two installments of the series, with Pitt, Clooney and Damon effortlessly inhabiting their roles. The high quality performances, combined with an energetic soundtrack and amazing editing keep the film cruising almost non-stop. For me the cherry on top was the way that Vegas itself plays the fourteenth member of the crew: the movie really captures the simultaneously horrifying and electrifying nature of the city in the desert.
Go see it!
Why is there such an abject lack of design sense in the computing and electronics industry? I'm currently on hold with Thames Water (who have screwed up my bill for the third time). Their hold system plays muzak in the background, which is periodically interrupted by a voice apologising for keeping me on hold. They have layered on top of this a much louder periodic interruption to thank me for waiting and encourage me to do my business on their website. This results in one apology being gratingly interrupted by the other apology with a frequency that is making my jaw clench tighter and tighter.
When people set these things up, or design consumer electronics, do they even spend five minutes thinking about the user experience?
On my mobile phone, for instance, if I want to send a text message I type it in (that interface is a whole other story of horrendous design), then I have to go through four option selections to get to my address book. Greater than 99% of the texts I send are to someone in my address book. Shouldn't the interface go there straightaway? Did the person who wrote the software even try it?
This is one of the reasons I love Apple so much. As much as people (I'm looking at you, Jules) gripe about certain aspects of it, watching Jobber demo it just made me giddy at the thought of a handset that had been so clearly designed with ease-of-use in mind. As has been observed before, iPod wasn't the first portable MP3 player and iTunes wasn't the first music store, but both have tenaciously grabbed their respective markets in large part (in my opinion) through good design and appreciation of the user experience.
For what it's worth, I just got off the phone with TW and the woman who helped me was perfectly nice and efficient.
Steve Jobs' keynote address at WWDC 2007 left a lot to be desired. After the iPhone's huge splash at Macworld in January I had high hopes for another demonstration of Jobs' renowned showmanship. Instead we got the following four announcements:
In addition to the mediocre content of the address, you could tell that Jobs was off his game. In contrast to his rollicking iPhone announcement, where he had the audience eating out of his hand, he was adrift here. He kept awkwardly pausing for applause breaks where the audience half-heartedly obliged. He's demo some fairly lame feature and finish with an embarrassed, "Yeah, we think this will be really useful." I guess my expectations were too high — you can't hit a home run every time.
Robinson Cano evidently had a problem with Mike Lowell in last night's Sox-Yanks game:
"He [Lowell] played dirty because he threw his elbow at me, but that's the game
of baseball," Cano said. "I have to protect myself any time I have to
tag somebody. I have no complaints about it."
Umm, actually, aren't you complaining about it right now? Isn't what you're doing the very definition of the word "complaint"?
"I've never had a problem with him before. Today he threw his elbow at me, but I never say anything."
Oh, you never say anything! How gentlemanly of you!
I had an awesome conversation with the Hutch barista (also known as the painting wing of Bird Show of North America) today about the dumbed-down standards of modern graphic design, especially in the field of professional sports logos. It's bad enough for new teams, as pointed out by another dude in the coffee line, "The Avalanche logo looks like a Frosty."
What's even worse is when teams with classy logos decide to "modernise", exemplified by the Pat the Patriot to Flying Elvis transformation:
In the end you're left with a bunch of designs which all look generically trendy, but are just generic. The barista apparently has a college degree in graphic design, but said he got fed up with it because it was full of computer science dropouts who figured if they could use a computer they could do design.
“One of the most important things I learned at MIT was from Bill
Lobar, Lou’s [Professor of Physics Emeritus Louis S. Osborne's]
technician. I asked him one day to show me how the oscilloscope worked,
since I’d forgotten whatever I’d learned in undergraduate labs. Bill
said, ‘fiddle with the knobs, you’ll figure it out.’ He was right, and
it works with almost everything in life. I’ll bet Lou fostered that
kind of thinking.”
Virgil Elings (Cousre VIII PhD '66, founder of Digital Instruments Inc.)
Mahiminator and I decided to grab a couple kebabs and an 8 pack of Bud and come into the office today to project MLB.tv in the conference room for the BOS-NYY game. So far not too sweet (currently in the 7th, 2-0 in favour of the forces of evil) but I had to mention a quality Tim McCarver moment.
Yankees' starter gets hit by a comebacker on the first play of the game and then Youk comes up to face him with Lugo on first (reaching on the aforementioned play). While everyone is getting reset to get back into the action McCarver spends two minutes ranting about how Lugo should run on the first pitch because the pitcher will be too distracted by his aching leg to pay attention to the runner.
"It would be funny if he threw to first right away," says Mahim.
First pitch is a pickoff at first; hilarity ensues.
Just checked out the Sox 4-straight-homer-barrage on YourTube on a whim. Wow. I don't think I've ever heard Fenway go that nuts — by the time Varitek came to the plate it was nonstop noise, and then he goes deep! If you haven't seen it, cheggidout.
Also, the ESPN booth crew sucks.
Blanca and I regularly buy boutique coffee varieties from Cardew's a shop in the covered market. Today we're all under pressure so I mixed up a special blend:
And man, is it good. This stuff could wake the dead!
Why does this sort of thing always seem to happen in the USA? I know bad stuff happens everywhere, but this phenomenon of Joe Bloggs gunning down random people seems to be distinctively American. It's hard to figure exactly why this is the case, and none of the explanations are very make you feel good about being American. One obvious explanation (certainly in the UK media) is America's prolific gun culture. We, resoundingly more than any other Western country, believe that the cost in bodies and dollars of gun crime is a reasonable price to pay for the right to own guns. Unfortunately I'm depressed, rather than hopeful that this latest tragedy will change many minds about just how high that price is.
Read Thomas Friedman's piece, "The Power of Green" in this past Sunday's Times Magazine. I have long loved Friedman's work (which I can no longer read because the Times obnoxiously hides their Op-Eds behind their subscription service). He has always tackled the issues I think are most critical to understanding and changing the world and he does it without the burden of a political agenda.
In this particular case he makes the argument that climate change is the most important issue of all, and we'd better start facing up to it. But he does it in the way he always does, with a can-do optimism that suggests the ways we can face the challenge instead of merely bemoaning its existence. Friedman has always embodied some of my favourite things about America: harsh realist, willing to sacrifice to live up to a challenge and fiercely competitive. He talked this way about the war in Iraq for a long time (and I agreed with nearly everything he said) before it descended into its present state of depressing inevitability.
There are lots of excellent points in the article that I'd like to highlight, but I'm too tired. So instead, just read it.
The first (of many) papers stemming from the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium (over which I have laboured for two years) was published today, elucidating the first convincing genetic link to obesity. We all went to the pub at 7PM to watch my semi-boss Mark McCarthy appear on the BBC World News to discuss the finding. And in a cardinal example of how sometimes England is awesome, the landlord of the Butcher's Arms (who knows we often stumble in on a Friday after a long week at work) surprised us with a bottle of champagne on the house. Cheers, and watch out for rs9939609 (if you have two bad copies you have a 70% increased chance of being obese!).
I borrowed a friend's MLB.tv login to watch the home opener at Fenway. Pretty awesome, I have to admit. I'm tempted to upgrade my MLB audio subscription, except most games are on really late in my timezone. The game itself is such a whitewashing that I'm basically just soaking up the atmosphere with Don and Jerry, rather than being concerned about the outcome of the game (Beckett does look sharp, though).
State street in Madison is pretty cool. It's closed to most traffic, and presents an impressive view of the Wisconsin statehouse, which is a huge frigging dome for such an average state (20th by population, 23rd by area). I don't know why Amrys is running away in this picture...maybe Gojira is lurking behind me? I also don't know why she appears several feet shorter than me...maybe I am Gojira?
Headline in the New York Times:
Hunger strike breaks out at Guantanamo.
Don't hunger strikes take time to develop by their very nature? Did one of the guards jump on his radio and report, "Alert, a hunger strike has broken out in cell block D. I repeat a hunger strike has broken out!"
I was reading the Times article on a lawsuit between Equal and Splenda when I saw the following excellent corrigendum:
Because of an editing error, the article also
misidentified the gender of the judge overseeing the Equal-Splenda
case. Gene E. K. Pratter is a woman.
Also, as an aside: Dear Scott, the reason people eat artificial sweeteners is because they taste sweet but do not make you fat. Perhaps you couldn't reason this out because you have the metabolism of a hummingbird. Many Americans do not.
John McCain led a congressional junket to Iraq this week. The New York Times describes the security for their tour of a Baghdad market thusly:
The delegation arrived at the market, which is called Shorja, on Sunday
with more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees — the equivalent of an
entire company — and attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior
American military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected
traffic from the area and restricted access to the Americans, witnesses
said, and sharpshooters were posted on the roofs. The congressmen wore
bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit.
Locals reacted incredulously when they heard McCain et al describe their trip as evidence that the security situation in the capital is improving. By far the best description of the aforementioned market visit came from Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican:
[It was] like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.
I think this week's LOST was easily the best episode of the season. It started off with a great throwaway line from Sawyer tossed as a bone to fans annoyed at the proliferation of characters this season:
Who the hell is Nicki?
I was worried for a few minutes it might end up being a grim flashback episode with no new content, but quite the opposite: a few juicy morsels of information about overarching plot nestled amongst the Paolo/Nicki exposition. Plus a completely awesome and super-creepy finale. Harkens back to the good old days!
Trinity term 2007 begins on 22 April, three weeks from today. It serves as a signpost for several things for me. My term as Vice President of the Brasenose College MCR ends, which means I have to tidy up the books and arrange for the signatory tranfer at Lloyd's (I hope to accomplish the former tonight, the latter tomorrow).
T07 will be my seventh term at Oxford, which means I'll be hounded by the authorities to complete my transfer report (an intermediate written report which is orally examined by two professors, intended to ensure I'm on target to obtain a D Phil in the prescribed time). This means I have three weeks from today to write up my transfer and submit it. This will hopefully be an achievable goal since the principal chapter thereof has already been written in the form of a published paper.
Finally (and slightly more philosophically) I'm approaching my two year Oxford-anniversary (technically on 20/4). It's been a weird two years; incredibly exciting professionally, less so personally. I'd certainly recommend living abroad to anyone wishing to further his understanding of the world at large and especially America's place in that world.
I was reminded yesterday (my first evening back since England jumped from GMT to BST) of how lovely Oxford is in the Summertime (this being the eve of my third Oxonian Summer). It was light out until after 7:30, and it's only late March! The weather since I've been back hasn't been as unseasonably warm as it was in Madison (temps in the high twenties are rare even in July) but it's a pleasant Spring-like atmosphere and the magnoliae are blooming.
Since this is a decidedly girly entry I'll conclude by saying that I hope Ireland whip England's arse in the upcoming Cricket World Cup game which Ireland somehow miraculously qualified for.
First few days in Madison have been pretty awesome. The lakes were frozen when I arrived but two days of 70-plus degree weather have thawed them out and brought all the students outside to hang out in the sunshine. Also, Amrys has cooked up some fine food (as per usual) and there's been a decent amount of low-key hanging out to be had.
A nice break before going back to the UK and to work!
I'm listening to Al Gore testify about global warming in front of Congress and wondering if he'll make a dark-horse bid for President. It's funny to think back to the 2000 election when he seemed to be one of the most boring politicians I'd ever seen. Now he speaks remarkably eloquently about this topic he obviously cares so much about, but also about the United States. He describes the country with a confidence and, well, love that never came across on the campaign trail.
Gore's 2000 campaign manager described him thus: "He would make a great president. His difficulty has always been being a candidate for president." Can Al bottle some of his Inconvenient Truth magic and inject it into a campaign?
At the moment I'm kicking it to some tunes by the Pogues, a choice inspired by a random playing of Dirty Old Town in the bar in Colorado last week. At the time we were drunk enough to sing along, including an Irish chap named Enda who had a really awesome voice (he also does good impersonations).
Nothing much else happening here in the Emerald
Isle City, but I'm still in high spirits, so I've got that going for me. Need to make some plans for Paddy's day, though.
When I was a kid my mom always used to tell this story about a staid bloke who hears "You've won the lottery!" and replies, "Good news, bad news." Everyone thinks he's unappreciative of his good luck. He buys a new car with his winnings and then finds out that somebody has stolen it. "Good news, bad news" he says. "Oh," says his friend the next day, "turns out that car had bad brakes and the guy who stole it crashed it into a tree. Imagine what would've happened if you had driven it!"
"Good news, bad news." I forget the exact details, but you get the idea.
I was thinking about it recently as I was turned down for a job at the UW, but wasn't particularly broken up about it. The moral of the story, of course, is that life is a complicated place and we can rarely appreciate the consequences of anything we do or anything that happens to us.
And true to form, despite hearing bad news from UW, I'm generally
happier now than I have been in a long time. At the moment I'm chilling
in Seattle, listening to the Pogues, and it feels pretty good. I just
had a really nice week in Colorado — fantastic weather, good scenery,
interesting work and a really cool bunch of people to hang out with —
and I'm about to have two (hopefully!) great weeks here with a whole
crew of visiting people from Oxford. We'll probably do a little skiing,
cook some dinners together in the apartment complex where we're all
staying, work hard during the day, and hopefully some other good stuff
I think I've found a good network of friends in Oxford (just as I'm
looking for a job elsewhere — how clever of me) and work has been
really rewarding and exciting of late (although evidently the losers at
UW don't think so).2007 is looking good so far.
First of all, a point to MRhé for making me aware of the fact that ABC and NBC let you watch their programming on the internet. I had previously been paying $1.99 per episode of LOST and Studio 60 on iTunes, but now I can just watch it (albeit not fullscreen) for free at the price of a couple minutes worth of ads per episode. I think this model of on-demand TV programming better than the pay-per-episode iTunes setup: I think soon the idea of scheduled programs will be a thing of the past, but I don't think people will be willing to pay for each episode they want to watch. Plus, who really wants to "own" a TV episode? There aren't that many that I'd really want to watch over and over.
Anyway, in the most recent episode of LOST (no real spoilers here) Locke plays chess against a computer and somebody says to him, "Don't bother, it was programmed by three grand masters, and it cheats". There are two pretty stupid mistakes there, one to do with chess and one to do with computers.
First, it is not possible to cheat at chess (for a computer or a person). Cheating in any game requires there to be some hidden information. A player cheats by manipulating the hidden information unbeknownst to the other player in a way that violates the rules of the game. Chess is a game of complete information (one of it's beauties); both players know everything there is to know about the game at all times, so you can't cheat against an opponent who is paying attention.
Second a good chess program wouldn't be programmed by grand masters of chess it would be programmed by clever programmers. Computers don't play chess in the same way that humans do, they explore the possible space of moves much deeper than any human could, whereas chess greats must use some intuition to search a smaller fraction of that space that presumably yields favourable results.
Five demerits to the writers of LOST.
I'm writing from a laundromat a few blocks from my hotel in Boulder. Is it a sign of the times or just that this is a college town that they have wi-fi here? I've always liked this part of the country: spectacular views, beautiful weather (bright sun and high 50's all week) and attractive women. There's also a sense of Americana that I either really love or find mildly nauseating.
The trip so far has been ups and downs, strikes and gutters. The interview in Seattle and a phone conversation at 7AM Mountain time about another job in the UK have left me feeling totally confused about where my career is going and even what kinds of things matter to me being happy in general. So in that sense I've been kind of dazed and troubled.
On the flip side of the same hand, however, I've managed to relax more than in quite a long time. There's a good crowd of people here and plenty of time outside the course to hang out and decompress, something I've needed for a long while now. Work still looms, but not oppressively. No skiing yet (might not have time in CO) but I hope that there's still snow on the peaks near Seattle.
In Boulder now, after having finished my interview at UW. I think it went fairly well, but we'll have to see what they say after they make their decision. I took a shuttle bus from Denver International Airport to Boulder and when I got out and said, "Thanks" to the drive he replied, "You can thank me in the way that is traditional if you feel you've been well served."
Shilling for tips? Come on, isn't that a little gauche? Maybe I'm just too much in the UK mindset of not tipping everyone, everywhere. Not sure who else has arrived here yet, so it might be dinner alone tonight.
I had to go to a meeting in the Statistics department today, so I took the opportunity presented of being in the city centre during business hours to do two things I've been meaning to do for a while:
Turns out the drivers had quite a bit larger girth than conductors, but it wasn't just because they sat around all day, they were fatter on average on their first day on the job than conductors. A nice little study written up in a page and a half. Ahh, the good old days.
There's a bloke on the WTCCC Analysis group who is hardcore CS and doesn't care a whit about the science we're doing, preferring to concentrate on developing software for largescale computing. He occasionally comes up with an awesome remark that brings me right back to MIT, like today when he replied to some outsider asking an implementation question:
Use the source, Luke!
For some reason yesterday I felt the strong need to listen to John Denver. I downloaded some tunes, and let me just say that "Rocky mountain high" is a pretty awesome track. I think the guy's got a really amazing voice, so shoot me. Best line in the song, though?
Friends around a campfire...everybody's hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh!
In related news: I'm incredibly psyched for my trip to Colorado in March.
CNN.com is featuring a "How it works" animation about genetic testing which gets incorrect nearly every basic fact about biology. It includes the following caption above a picture of a double helix:
The double helix is two exact copies of chromosomes wound together — a strand from each parent.
After these "Basics" (the title of that slide) we move on to the discussion of disease causing variants, where we learn that DNA mutations result in "abnormal pairings" of A and T to C or G and vice versa.
How is it possible that they couldn't find someone with a passing understanding of high school biology to work on this feature? I'm not even asking for an actual biologist to do their research, but believe me when I say that this is easily as egregious as:
Lon's in the USA this week, and since I'm working on a Sunday I feel like I've earned the right to use his office today. In doing so I've discovered my ideal work environment, which I will definitely set up when I get my first real job.
An NX connection to a good computing machine running Linux. I've
finally managed (see previous post) to get the NX client working completely on my Mac. For
those of you who don't know, NX is a "thin client" for creating a
remote desktop on another machine. Through some magic it makes the
connection to the remote desktop fast enough to use comfortably (on a
good network anyway; on the network here it is exactly as responsive as
sitting in front of the machine).
I've come to realise that,
while indispensable for actually doing my every day work, Linux
desktops are still a pain in the ass to use for other things. Firefox
and Thunderbird work so well on my Mac that even the relatively minor
annoyances on Ubuntu drive me crazy. So the bigger things (like the
inability to get the 64 bit version of Firefox for Ubuntu to display
Flash, or the fact that very few Thunderbird extensions play nicely
with the Ubuntu version) are really horrible. Plus, even though I hate
Microsoft Office, it's impossible to get the rest of the world to stop
sending me Excel spreadsheets and Word documents. Part of my job involves dealing with these horrible formats and Openoffice just doesn't work. It's miles away from being usable, and half the time can't even open Microsoft files, instead spewing out a garbage exception.
So there you have it: Mac awesomeness for browsing the web, emailing, playing music and video and reading Microsoft crap, Linux for hard core computing and coding. One might ask why I don't just do the latter on a Mac, since they have an elegant Unix back end. Well, I guess you could, but I'm talking about big computing jobs that require fast processors and loads of memory. Why pay through the nose for a beautiful Mac server when it's just going to hide in the server room anyway? I'm happy with some custom-job (what we usually do) running Linux that costs a fraction as much.
I'm putting this up here since I couldn't find anything about it on the web, in the hope that google will index it and save some future person the hassle that I just went through. Several people describe a problem with the keyboard mapping for the Mac NX client (I'm using version 2.1.mumble, the most recent version as of this writing).
The mapping isn't just odd (like QWERTY → AZERTY) but completely and totally fuxored (pressing "r" yields a string of 15 l's). Nobody seems to have solved this issue, and nor have I, but I have discovered that it only happens when using KDE as your remote desktop. I like KDE, but I'm willing to use Gnome if it means that NX works, which it does.
So the lesson: use Gnome instead of KDE and your keymappings will work in NX.
I arranged my holiday travels, as has become my custom, to put me in Cambridge (MA) for MLK weekend and the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. Our team did a little better this year than in the last two, but still failed to break into the cluster of teams that were in the running to win. Still, it was a good chance to see old friends from MIT and to solve lots of puzzles, including:
A certain Dave and Kerry were in the UK this weekend, so I hopped the
Fung Wah! Oxford Tube to meet them in London. They were keen to see a football game, and I had totally ignored the Fulham FC since picking them as a team to root for, so we decided to check out the FFC taking on the Tottenham Hotspur at the Cottage in Fulham, West London.
I had stupidly thought we could just grab lunch in a pub in Fulham, but of course it was like trying to roll into the Cask & Flagon an hour before a Sox game. We instead got some daecent grub from a fish & chip stand that we ate while walking to Craven Cottage, where FFC plays. After slamming back a pregame Foster's (no booze in view of the pitch) we headed to our 100 year old wooden seats.
Turns out there were a couple of interesting subplots to this game:
The game itself was pretty good; no score in the first half, but then an exciting finish. Fulham's Heidar Helguson was sent off early in the second half after two yellow card offences. Fulham kept the game nil-nil with only ten men, and then Brian McBride broke into the box, where a Tottenham player touched the ball with his hand, leading to a penalty kick. Things looked good for Fulham, who made the penalty and went up 1-0 in the 84th minute. Unfortunately they couldn't hold the lead for those last few minutes, and yielded an equaliser to the Spurs' Pascal Chimbonda.
So unfortunately a draw for Fulham, but a pretty decent day in the big smoke regardless.
I touched down at Heathrow at about 7AM yesterday after a rejuvenating three week trip all over the USA (about which more later, in text and photographs). I got back to my flat at half eight with every intention of a quick shower, a hot pot of coffee, and a brisk walk to work to try to head jetlag off at the pass. I had even tried to take advantage of my Mystery Hunt all-nighters to slingshot past jetlag and straight into productivity.
Unfortunately I made a schoolboy error and decide to lie down "for a nap". The next thing I knew it was 6PM and I had suffered a double-whammy — jetlag along with waking up at exactly the wrong time of day. While this is unfortunate in light of all the work I should've been doing, it did give me an opportunity to continue enjoying the novel I had started on the flight across the Atlantic: Freddy and Fredericka.
Mark Helprin's latest novel is a farcical story about the Prince and Princess of Wales being sent to reclaim the wayward American colonies to prove their worthiness to inherit the British crown. I'm only halfway through, but already this book is on the cusp of surpassing Memoir from Antproof Case as Helprin's best comedy; I have several times had to actually put the book down while enjoying a full belly laugh — quite a feat for a book! I'm not sure how much my enjoyment was enriched by being so jetlag-addled, but what moved me to write about it isn't even the humour in the story.
While in Seattle at the beginning of this year Dave commented on how often I complained about living in the UK. I've thought about it a lot since, and my only resolution for 2007 is to do a better job of enjoying my life here and to appreciate the incredible opportunity I've been given before it is too late. Thus, I have been particularly pensive of late about the experience of an American living in England, which made Freddy and Fredericka a godsend.
Helprin delivers nearly nonstop gems of observation of both English and American life that are hysterically funny and heart-achingly accurate. This book is absolutely written for people who have lived in both places, and I am especially tickled when I think that Helprin's observations of the UK must have been formed principally when he was...a graduated student at Oxford. Beyond merely satirizing, however, Helprin strives to explain both the differences and the familiarity of these historical nation-relatives. People often ask me to explain the difference between living in America and England and I always evade, explaining that it is hard to put into words. That is what makes great writing — and all art: the courage to show someone else precisely how you feel. In my time of need, a time when I must come to terms with my adopted country and my home, Helprin is there for me again like an old friend.
And the novel has so much more to offer, including what is already shaping up to possibly be his best love story. While all of his novels feature love stories to some extent, they never seem to focus on them, instead centering on one man's journey. Freddy and Fredericka, on the other hand, is truly the story of both titular characters, and the author reserves some spectacular language for describing their developing relationship.
I'm only halfway through this one, but I can tell I'll be rereading it soon.
I just saw the gadget I want more than I've ever wanted a gadget: the iPhone. If you really want to get a sense for it, you have to watch Steve Jobs' keynote address about it, although the webpage demo is pretty neat as well.
In a rollicking show during which you can just see the enjoyment on his face, Jobs demonstrates a whole slew of features — so many, in fact, that you can feel the audience getting overwhelmed at it all. They start off applauding at practically every new click and twist, but by the end we're all exhausted at the scope of this gizmo. I actually laughed out loud three times in pure amazement (scrolling, the conference call, and the pinch). During one fantastic sequence, he uses Google Maps to find a local Starbucks, clicks on the phone number in the listing and crank calls them in front of 4000 people.
iPhone goes on sale in mid 2007, exclusively on Cingular. You'd better believe I'm getting one.
I'm really enjoying working here at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where I'm treated to the grey but pleasant view seen here. When the weather is warmer, sailboats cross Lake Union, and seaplanes land and take off regularly. In addition I get a fairly spacious cube all to myself, along with a big wall size whiteboard to use. Plus the support services here are just amazing. Lon's PA has set us up with normal stuff like pens and staplers and paper clips, but he really goes above and beyond the call of duty: the office bookshelf has Lonely Planet guides to Seattle and Vancouver, plus some nice laminated maps of Seattle.
A *certain* MRhé recently posted about how sweet JetBleu is. I had a slightly different experience with same that I wanted to relate. I was scheduled to fly direct from BOS to SEA on the evening of January 2nd. While we were sitting on the tarmac the Captain came out to announce that the plane was so heavy they couldn't take on enough fuel to get us all the way across the country so we'd be stopping in scenic Great Falls, MT to refuel.
My theory on why the fully-loaded plane was so heavy can be broken down into 3 points:
At any cost, the touchdown, refuel and takeoff made us nearly two hours
late in arriving at Seattle. I was mildly annoyed, but didn't care too
much because I had work to do on the plane (I saved just enough battery
on my laptop to power up in the baggage carousel area of SeaTac
airport, buy interwang access, and email my results off to the UK
collaborators, who were just waking up). I had more or less forgotten
about the incident.
But today JetBleu sent me an apology for the delay and a $25 voucher
for future travel. Now, $25 isn't much for airfare, but it really is
the thought that counts. In a consumer age which seems more and more
filled with companies who ignore the customer in favour of the bottom
line, it was nice to have a company get in touch with me unsolicited and try to make amends for a problem.