30 Jun 2006

So *that's* where the groove is

This past week, I've felt more like a grad student than I did most of the time in grad school. Almost since I got to Knox, "research" had become a bit of a dirty word, inducing feelings of guilt that I never seemed to get around to working on it. A serendipitous confluence of circumstances finally made something click this week, and I really dove in, playing with some stuff I literally hadn't touched since I copied it over from the Brown CS servers. I've been getting up and coming in well before noon and getting work done. At lunch I've technically been working too, since I have FP reading I need to do. Then I come back to my office and work until 6 or 7. There, I feed the dog and myself and sit down either to do more FP reading or to work on the kitchen.

So in one sense it's all work and no play. In another sense, it's all play. And the best part is, I haven't scheduled myself for any out-of-town play during July, just a couple of evening or afternoon things. Fun though it is to go a-travelling, it sets you right back to zero on stuff like this, and the very last thing I want to do now is break my groove. This feels great!

"[Pagers] retain the upper hand over mobile phones, thanks to fears the latter may interfere with delicate hospital equipment. At least that's what your doctors will tell you if they trade in their pager for a new putter or four iron." --BBC

Posted by blahedo at 4:03pm | Comments (1)

29 Jun 2006

Memory management

God dammit I &^%$ hate having to do my own memory management. How much time is wasted in software development around the world just trying to track down that leaked pointer or that null pointer dereference? AUGHGHHHH.

"Something's been sticking in my craw. No surprise there; I was born with an unusually narrow craw." --Stephen Colbert

Posted by blahedo at 10:57am | Comments (2)

28 Jun 2006


A moment ago, just outside SMC, I gave directions to a priest looking for the main library here at Knox. That would be unusual enough, if perhaps not worthy of special comment. But after he'd gone, I thought about the fact that he was wearing a big blingy cross on a chain around his neck, which I think is an episcopal privilege. (Wikipedia confirms, and says Anglican practice is the same; though if he were an Episcopalian bishop he'd be wearing a purple shirt instead of black.)

All of which leaves me wondering why a bishop would be on Knox's campus looking for the main library. The pectoral cross could always be a red herring, of course. Still, not an everyday occurrence.

"Many of the adjectives that come immediately to mind begin with the letters 'sl.'" --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 12:00pm | Comments (2)

27 Jun 2006

It saved my life!

Well, perhaps I'm being slightly hyperbolic there. But I sure was grateful. Last time I was in Champaign, I made a stop at their most excellent yarn shop and bought some stuff. Among other things, two skeins of laceweight yarn. As they were balling it for me, we chatted about my recent forays into lace knitting, and they asked what would turn out to be an extremely prophetic question:

"You know about lifelines, right?"

I hadn't. The principle is very simple: at the end of a section, after an all-knit row, thread a needle with actual sewing thread (thin!), and run it through all the stitches, right next to the needle itself. I immediately understood how it would work and why it would be helpful: if you make a mistake and need to rip back, it'd be a helluva lot easier to find one continuous row if it's held in place by that thread. (Something that would have been nice to know, though obvious in retrospect: when threading through the loops, skip the stitch markers!)

So there I was, sitting listening to the Daily Show and knitting away, when I noticed that not only was there an error—which might be recovered with very careful ripping even without a lifeline—but the error was that I'd dropped a stitch in the last row and it had laddered down several rows. All the way to the lifeline, in fact, six rows back. And as luck would have it, the dropped stitch was the middle of a pattern repeat, adjacent to a bunch of yarnovers, which then laddered their way back up; essentially there was a big hole six rows high and eight stitches wide. BUT! But, it was tidily locked in place by the lifeline! I was able to isolate the pattern repeat, pull just those stitches off the circular needle, rip it down to the lifeline, and knit it back up. Easy as pie. I think the error will still be slightly visible in the final work if you know what to look for, but obviously not the huge unmanageable hold it would otherwise have been. It could easily have laddered all the way back to the start, and I would have had to just rip out the entire thing.

Thanks, Needleworks!

"I do enjoy myself a good crap out-beating." --Paul Hebble

Posted by blahedo at 11:54pm | Comments (2)

23 Jun 2006

Just noticed...

I was watching some Tivoed stuff from earlier in the week, and this happened to catch my eye in the Colbert Report credits:

Executive producer
Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.


"I had a slightly insane discussion the other day with a winger who wanted urgently for me to understand that the Haditha massacre is the kind of thing that happens in war. Whereas I was trying to point out to him that the Haditha massacre is the kind of thing that happens in war." --Molly Ivins

Posted by blahedo at 11:25pm | Comments (0)

Folding money

Huh. Apparently, someone just bought a copy of my dissertation, because I got a royalty check. Except, it doesn't say who ordered it. And I kind of feel bad that whoever it was paid for it, because they could have just downloaded it for free....

'I love it when people say something is an "acquired taste." What this means is, "If you don't like it, the problem is YOU. You just need to eat it more, in the hope that you become BETTER."' --Jeff Vogel

Posted by blahedo at 6:27pm | Comments (0)

19 Jun 2006


Man oh man, I have never been in an inhabited place with such awful cell coverage. It's not just the buildings; even in relatively open areas right in the middle of campus, I'll get just one or two bars (and no reception at all inside most buildings). And even if I can get more than that, as soon as I try to do anything like, say, listen to the voicemail the phone told me about a day and a half ago, it loses signal and can't complete the call. Argh. I guess it'll have to wait until Wednesday....

"How You Can Tell That Being a Parent Is a Pain, Despite All Societal Propaganda Telling You Otherwise: Every new parent is repeatedly warned not to shake the baby too hard. I think that the need to spell this out explicitly kind of gives the game away." --Jeff Vogel

Posted by blahedo at 6:17am | Comments (0)

18 Jun 2006

Catholic ritual in South Carolina

When I got here, I checked out masstimes.org to see what my options were for Saturday evening Mass, only to discover that the Clemson church doesn't do evening Mass during the summer, and its sister churches are miles away. Since we have to work on Sunday morning just like any other, it looked like I'd be completely unable to attend this week unless some group with cars got announced. Ah, well.

But such a group was mentioned during announcements yesterday, meeting at the dorm at 5pm. Nine of us drove off in two cars; we got really lost on the way to Walhalla (that's the town the church is in, but the jokes certainly write themselves), but cruised in towards the middle of the second reading.

It's always interesting to see Mass at a church you've never been to, in an area you've never been to, since there's always something different, if only in the exact configuration of aisle, altar, and lecterns. This church was in the auditorium arrangement that I don't like, although not that bad for all that. What really got me was its liturgy.

It really drove home how much changed in the last ten years or so, not so much in terms of what's required as in what's allowed, because this Mass clearly took place in about 1995. Some things were actually changed in the rubrics but ignored here, like when to stand after the priest starts with "Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice...". Others were clarified but ignored here, like the fact that Extraordinary Ministers of Communion are not supposed to stand around the altar as if concelebrating. But mostly I had forgotten how fast and loose priests used to play with the liturgical text itself. It's been years since I heard a priest that, I guess just to mix it up a bit, rephrases some of his "lines in the script" while more or less (usually more, often less) preserving their meaning. It puts you off-kilter and makes you think too much to make it work as ritual, and used to be very much in vogue (under the name "dynamic equivalence"), but it is now pretty clearly discouraged.

In light of the bishops' vote that just happened this week, I wonder how much longer these parishes (and it could be a diocesan thing for all I know) will take to get up to speed on the new rubrics than everyone else. Not that everyone else will be sped through them—the RCC seems to have learned their lesson on changing things too quickly—but I suspect it'll be not quite the same here.

"But it doesn't matter if we named her Cordelia, or Jennifer, or Peggy Sue, or Hildegarde. It won't make a difference if we dress her in overalls or pink, frilly dresses or if we send her to school with Barbies hanging from around her neck like talismans. You can't disguise having a brain. Or perhaps you can, but it means giving it up, which is even worse." --Jeff Vogel

Posted by blahedo at 6:32am | Comments (1)

17 Jun 2006

Midweek checkin

I'm not sure what day it is, but I think a claim of it being "midweek" would be surprising; but in fact I'm on a completely different schedule right now. Each day is sufficiently identical to the next that it is next to impossible to keep track of which, er, "secular day" it is.

I'm in Clemson, South Carolina, and I'm grading AP exams. It actually is kind of fun! The pre-grading rubric development was especially interesting, but yesterday's afternoon sessions I was in full swing on the regular on-my-own grading, and really finding a groove. Hopefully today will be similar!

After grading ends for the day, we have a lot of time to wander around and/or be social. I've toured the mansion of John C. Calhoun, a VP, senator, and philosophical father of secessionism. I've been adding pictures to Wikipedia. And I've been playing a ton of bridge. Also something called "Cancellation hearts", which is a fantastically different game from regular Hearts that I should talk about here at some point. :)

"This phrase is usually used about second weddings, but the miracle of Catholicism is that it represents the triumph of hope over experience." --Rocco Palmo

Posted by blahedo at 6:21am | Comments (0)

13 Jun 2006

So stupid!

Night before I fly off to SC to grade AP exams, and what do I do? Stay up all night watching the other six episodes of Firefly.

...but they were really, really good.

"It's like Jesus ascended into heaven, and it was all downhill from there." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 7:19am | Comments (2)

9 Jun 2006

Diverse pursuits

With the extra time afforded me by the end of the term, in the last few days I've dusted off and posted two complete side-pursuits from my academic past.

The first is a short essay on the history of the Principle of Indifference. This is from late in grad school, and actually appears as an appendix of my thesis. Basically, I was writing one of my thesis chapters, and referred to the principle, so I figured I'd cite it. The problem was, all the books I read that talked about it either omitted the citation entirely or made some vague handwavy reference to Laplace—but without an actual cite. So during a time that I really should have been hard at work on real CS stuff, I was exploring Brown's sci li, pulling 300-year-old books out of the stacks and reading them, in four languages. It was great fun, and this essay was the result. (It's short, and an easy read!)

The second diverse pursuit* is even older: it dates back to my sophomore year of college. In those heady days, a bunch of us spent a lot of time putting together paper models of assorted geometric objects, and I did some calculations for some torus nets, which I assembled and then forgot about. Well, someone remembered (the whole story is over on that page), and recently I went back and revamped the original nets and wrote up an explanation of how the calculations went. The math isn't actually all that difficult, although envisioning intersecting shapes in three dimensions can always be a bit dicey. :)

*Can a single pursuit be diverse? Or are diverse pursuits like stoplight peppers, in that it describes a set of distinct and countable elements, but only in the plural?

"The adolescents and the young... must be liberated from the widespread prejudice that Christianity, with its commandments and its prohibitions, places too many obstacles to the joy of love." --Pope Benedict XVI

Posted by blahedo at 8:45pm | Comments (1)

Going even wronger

Following up on my rant from last night: Wired has an article about how the government is so scared of drugs and terrah and we are so scared of any risk to THE CHILLLDRUN, however small, that home chemistry sets, and amateur chemistry as a whole, is basically impossible at this point. This archetypal way to get kids interested in science, gone. One company tried to put together a new release of a Mr. Wizard kit, but discovered that more than half the chemicals were illegal or would expose the company to too much liability. Another company got raided by the feds for the horrible crime of selling chemical reagents.

It's really fucking depressing, is what it is.

"I disagree: I think it's a debate about whether you think gay people are part of the human condition, or just a random fetish." --Jon Stewart

Posted by blahedo at 5:49pm | Comments (0)

The future held such promise

Where the hell did we go so wrong?

Twenty-five years ago, I grew up watching a bunch of different kid's TV shows. What was on then? Sesame Street. Pinwheel. The Electric Company (in reruns). Mister Rogers. Today's Special. 3-2-1 Contact. Most of them on Channel 11, Chicago's PBS station, a few on Nickelodeon.

You know what they weren't? Toy commercials. You could get a couple of Sesame Street-related things, but nothing like today; 3-2-1 Contact had an affiliated magazine that was itself pretty educational.

You know what else they weren't? Completely inane. In the past few years, I have had the misfortune to see a few pieces of children's programming, and it's like aliens invaded between the early 1980s and now. Adults watch "modern" educational programming and feel their brains slowly melting out. But, find an Electric Company clip on YouTube and, whether you get a nostalgia burst or no (I don't, actually; although I recognise the theme song I don't remember any of the characters or scenes from that show) you get the feeling that you could watch whole episodes of it.

And the most important thing that they weren't? Patronising. Every one of them is clearly children's programming, and yet they treated their audiences like people, and they educated them. They didn't just socialise them, which is what the newer shows seem to be doing, afaict. When kids were present in the shows, the adults (and puppets, and animal sidekicks) would have conversations with them. (This probably contributes to the non-inanity, come to think of it.) They pitched it to their target audience, but you don't get the feeling that they held back things that might have been too hard; their job was to get kids excited about knowledge and reading and learning and discovery.

Watch these clips: parts one, two, three, and four of the very first episode of 3-2-1 Contact, broadcast in 1980. There's stuff in there that I didn't learn until grad school; most of you would learn at least a few things from the episode. And although the technology is aged, I bet there would be at least a few things in there to make you go, "oh, cool!". But for all that, it's still clearly a kid's show from start to finish, nothing in there is truly out of reach for, say, a precocious eight-year-old, with most of it probably working just fine for a 6yo or younger.

So what happened? To my knowledge, there's nothing like this anymore. Any of it. Sesame Street is still on, but it's a very different sort of show than it used to be, with selfish, bratty Elmo promoted as its flagship, a paragon of childly virtue (available in six tickle-me variants for just $30 each!). Mister Rogers and some others are still in reruns in some places. But what have they been replaced with? Patronising, mind-numbing, inane, feature-length toy commercials.

The Electric Company put it on the line, right in the intro: "We're gonna bring you the power." An all-star cast on your TV day after day helping you learn to read—no matter what your race, gender, or class—to give you the power to do whatever you wanted to do, be whatever you wanted to be. The others, even without the famous people in the cast, aren't something just to keep your kid distracted and give you a break. They're the real deal, funded by groups like the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education and of course the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make kids excited about learning.

What the hell happened?

"The Ten Commandments are not a series of 'No', but a big 'Yes' to love and to life." --Pope Benedict XVI

Posted by blahedo at 3:23am | Comments (1)


I'd about given up hope that he'd do it! Last Saturday, at graduation, Stephen Colbert (yes, that one) gave Knox's commencement address and got an honorary doctorate from us. It was a brilliant speech, and that alone would've been worth the price of admission. Not to mention he deserves the award for what he's done, both politically and socially. (I would link to a video of the speech, but amazingly, YouTube only has clips from it; although, you should at least watch this one, which contains a bit of the speech that got, er, amended out of the printed transcript.)

But ever since it was announced, once we thought about it, we were all sort of hoping Knox would get a shout out on his show. I mean, think of the PR! And given his persona, how could he possibly resist bragging and demanding that people call him a doctor? But the whole week went by with no mention of us. Too bad.

Tonight, though, at the end of the Report, there he was standing there in his Knox D.F.A. hood (just the hood on his regular suit, none of the rest of the regalia), and he mentioned Knox, and Galesburg, and the size of the graduating class (250, close enough), and the degree itself got a bit of screen time with the big KNOX COLLEGE across the top. Woo! Yee-ha!

Not that we're hurting for applications right now anyway. But you simply can't pay for that kind of national exposure. This is so exciting.

'Somewhere in the quiet, leafy recesses of the Bush family, somebody is thinking, "Wrong son. Should've tried the smart one."' --Garrison Keillor

Posted by blahedo at 1:13am | Comments (0)

6 Jun 2006

On protests and propriety

Last week our group was accosted by a bunch of motorcycle guys, as I wrote about here. The story was printed in a Register-Mail article and condemned in an editorial; then my letter was printed, followed by another letter, and a supportive batch of "man on the street" interviews that appeared in Saturday's paper.

Thursday's paper included a report that the "God hates fags" jackasses were going to be back again (they were last here in November), to protest at the funeral of Knoxville's Pfc. Caleb Lufkin. The article mentioned that our friends the Patriot Guard Riders would be there to "shield the mourning family and friends"; much as several Knox students did last time. I hadn't been able to go last time due to teaching a class, but I decided to join whoever was standing with their backs to the "protestors", not least because with classes over, most of the Knox students were gone by this point.

Actually going up there was among the harder things I've done, somewhat to my own surprise. Partly I was nervous about how the motorcycle guys would react to me being there. Partly I was uncertain of how many people would be there, where I could stand, what I could do. And I was actually pretty worried about the Phelps group themselves—they pretty much fund themselves through lawsuits, and they can play the law a lot better than me or anyone on our side. And it seemed likely that they'd at least try to use the new "no protests at funerals" law (which is a stupid and unconstitutional law, but nobody listens to me about that) against us. Could I get arrested? Would it be considered a protest to stand inside the 200ft boundary in front of them? Would it be worth it?

When I got there, I parked on Academy a couple blocks away and walked up to the corner. On the northeast corner were two people with a painted sign that said "We honor Pfc. Caleb Lufkin!" or somesuch, and the Westboro vans hadn't arrived yet. I walked up to stand next to the sign people, and as I walked up the Westboro van arrived—about a dozen people, mostly children. They were directed to the sidewalk on the north side of Fremont, between Academy and West (presumably 200 feet from the church). Traffic was blocked off between West and Clark. We moved into the intersection to more effectively be in front of the protestors, who were starting to sing their parodies of American patriotic songs.

Predictably, Shirley (their leader, Fred being unavailable, I guess) started yelling that we were breaking the law with our "protest signs", and demanding that we be removed. A very apologetic cop talked to us, and his explanation jibed with my understanding: the law hasn't been tested yet, nobody really knows whether it would apply to us or not, probably not, but could we maybe just stand there without the sign instead? He promised to check with his superiors to get their legal opinion on whether we could bring the sign back out. Note, by the way, that this sign would not have been at all out of place at a regular military funeral—so it seems doubtful that it would count as a "protest" in any meaningful sense. (Strangely, we also got a hard time from the CNN correspondent, who kept accusing us of breaking the law with our sign; we just said we didn't think so and ignored him. I have no idea what he was trying to achieve.)

Meanwhile, the motorcycle guys had arrived. Hurray! We three people were feeling kind of exposed and ineffective by ourselves. But the motorcycles were all massed over in the Fremont/Clark intersection. It turns out they'd decided that they were there to honour the dead soldier, but not to protect anyone from seeing the protest (which is not what they said to the reporters, and not what it says on their website). Let me say that I'm not impressed. Fortunately, the local emergency services stepped into the void, with a fire truck, several police cruisers, and the converted R/V from Homeland Security (!) occupying most of Fremont between Clark and Academy.

As the protest wore on, a group was gathering on the southwest corner of the intersection, many of them with enormous US flags (ha! good idea.) that, together with the crowd, formed a nice wall blocking what remained of the view of the protestors. I joined them, both in standing there and in singing assorted songs in an attempt to drown out, or at least muddle the sound of, the awful revised versions that Westboro were singing. We sang a lot of first verses of things, because few people knew more than that, but this continued until 11:00, when the protest ended and the funeral began. I headed back to campus to participate in Senior Pumphandle. The protest got a relatively anticlimactic article, and life moved on.

The whole situation brings up some interesting questions about the conflict between what is legal and what is proper. The law in question, written specifically to target this group, is just bad law, and of course they were able to do their usual schtick without breaking it; but their actions were unquestionably improper (even if their message had been a good one). What we were trying to do was more proper, but of less certain legality—I think it was legal, but with the law untested, nobody's really sure. Of course, I think it's a bad law, so if it had been used against us, I was willing to pay a price, since that's what civil disobedience is about. They weren't willing to do civil disobedience, apparently, which is just as well because the ACLU really doesn't need a case like this for the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world to point at.

In retrospect, I'm not sure my own actions were of maximum propriety either, though. The big sign, the big flags, blocking the protest completely from view: that seems somewhat equivalent to the hidden-away "free speech zones" that I so abhor, right? Same goes for the singing to drown them out—I do think they have the right to display and sing their awful message; at what point does my own right to display and sing a message infringe theirs? Not to mention that, on a purely pragmatic note, I think our singing was just egging them on anyway. I think that if this happens again (let's hope not), the better strategy would be to do as the Knox kids did last time around: just stand silently in front of them. It doesn't completely block their message, but it very effectively conveys that we're not interested, that their words have no effect on us.

Of course, that requires a bit of organisation in advance, which is tricky when your group is composed of Knox people, Bethel people, and random other Galesburg folks that had just been out for a walk. But it's worth filing away for reference.

"[Blagojevich] acts like an ordinary, impulsive person: He wants what he wants, he wants it now, and he doesn't let worries about the future or the Constitution trouble him too deeply." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 10:10pm | Comments (1)