29 January 2007

CNN sucks, part N+1

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:


28 January 2007

Work environment

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.

  1. A Mac workstation. I'm presently using my Macbook Pro, but I reckon
    one of those silvery Mac pros would be appropriate if I had a fixed
    location, or even a Mac mini. The computer I actually use isn't that
    important, as explained in (2).

  2. 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.

  3. The most important ingredient (and the reason I'm in Lon's office) is Apple's overwhelmingly awesome 30" cinema display. It gives you so much space to work in, combined with the hotness that is Exposé, that I can have my NX desktop and all my Mac applications open and not feel cramped at all.

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.

NX Mac client keyboard mapping

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.

21 January 2007

Visit to the USA

I threw together a mish-mash of photos from my trip to the USA in late December 2006 and early January 2007. Enjoy.


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:

  • The Art of Succeeding — fit the names of all the monarchs of England (Alfred the Great to Anne before the Acts of Union) into a grid. Someone had made progress on this puzzle, but was stumped until jrandall and I teamed up to finish it. He created a more comprehensive list on his computer to grep for names that fit the patterns in the grid and I contributed my better-than-average knowledge of the English monarchy to fill in some of the blanks.

  • Les Canards du Diable — I didn't work much on this one, but it is pretty cool; identify locations in Paris on the avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe.

  • America's Least Wanted — a bunch of pictures of people doing weird stuff around town; you have to take photographs that match as closely as possible. Josh and I zoomed around Cambridge taking photos such as:




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:

  1. One of Tottenham's players, Steed Malbranque (no joke), had just joined their club after bailing out of Fulham despite their having made a huge contract offer to him. Throughout the entire 90 minute match the entire crowd booed whenever Steed had the ball. Without fail. It was actually pretty impressive -- every time he'd gain possession there'd be an immediate "Boooooooooo!" until he passed at which they'd stop. Awesome.

  2. Fulham just signed rising American star Clint Dempsey and yesterday was his first appearance in the UK. The fans seemed pretty fired up for him, which was cool.

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.

16 January 2007

One bosom

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.

10 January 2007


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.

09 January 2007

Musings on the scoreboard

  • I think Mean Rachel has had the most rapid ascent in board history — from a nobody to number 12 practically overnight!

  • Top ranked entity not a personal friend of the operator? Joe the Drummer.

  • Only three entities in the top 25 not personal friends of the operator? Joe the Drummer, FMBs and Mark Bellhorn.

08 January 2007

Cover me!


Just because I find it amusing that MR calls me Porkins, for which I award her a point.

05 January 2007

Emerald City

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.

Bleu Cheese

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:

  1. People had extra crap from Christmas.

  2. There were lots of students with big luggage heading back to school.

  3. Everybody was fat from all the holiday eating.

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.