March 11, 2015

College textbook prices: 20 years.

This week Eric Zorn included in his weekly Tweet of the week poll one that lamented the cost of textbooks:

I thought: 80 bucks? In your dreams. I haven't seen a college textbook under about $120 for years (other than novels for English classes and trade paperbacks that have to price for a wider market).

But the comment isn't chronologically that far out of date: it's just that prices in this sector have increased at much faster than inflation for ages. I remembered grumbling about $50 and $60 textbooks only twenty years ago when I was an undergrad; that seemed expensive at the time. Has anything else doubled or tripled in price (other than gasoline) in that time frame? It got me to wondering if I was maybe misremembering---and then I remembered that I generally keep old textbooks, and because I'm me, I still even have the original sticker ("QUINCY UNIVERSITY BOOKSTORE") on many of them. So I can be a little scientific about this. Here is a list of college textbooks I still have, the year I bought them (not necessarily their publication date), and their price (all purchased new):

Book Year bought Cost
Sedgwick, Algorithms, 2e. 1995 $48
Russell and Norvig, Artificial intelligence, 2e. 1996 $61.25
Pressman, Software engineering, 4e. 1997 $77
Freund, Mathematical statistics, 5e. 1996 $75
Sliberschatz and Galvin, Operating system concepts, 4e. 1996 $58.50
Gaughan, Introduction to analysis, 4e. 1996 $65.25
Rosen, Elementary number theory, 3e. 1995 $61.75
Smith, Eggen, St. Andre, A transition to advanced mathematics, 3e. 1994 $50.75
Clark, Eschholz, Rosa, Language, 5e. 1997 $32
Sternberg, In search of the human mind. 1996 $59.75
Berger, Wallis, Watson, Constructing masculinity. 1996 $19.95
Walz and Piriou, Rapports, 3e. 1996 $55.50
Allison, Carr, Eastman, Masterpieces of the drama, 6e. 1994 $44
Pika and Watson, The presidential contest, 5e. 1996 $18.95
Kamien, Music: an appreciation (brief edition), 2e. 1995 $34.25
Harris, Understanding the Bible, 3e. 1996 $31.95

And I can do even better: most of these books are still in print in a later edition. Here's the current edition and list price for all the above books that I could find (in this one the years are actual publication years, and the prices are current list prices as of 2015); the last column is the multiplier from the mid-90s price I paid to the list price now:

Book © date List price Increase
Sedgwick and Wayne, Algorithms, 4e. 2011 $84.99 1.8
Russell and Norvig, Artificial intelligence, 3e. 2009 $187.20 3.1
Pressman, Software engineering, 8e. 2014 $173.75 2.3
Miller and Miller, Freund's mathematical statistics, 8e. 2012 $168.40 2.2
Sliberschatz, Galvin, Gagne Operating system concepts, 9e. 2012 $181.95 3.1
Gaughan, Introduction to analysis, 5e. 2009 $66.00 1.0
Rosen, Elementary number theory, 6e. 2010 $177.80 2.9
Smith, Eggen, St. Andre, A transition to advanced mathematics, 8e. 2014 $278.95 5.5
Clark, Eschholz, Rosa, Simon Language, 7e. 2007 $77.75 2.4
Sternberg, Psychology: in search of the human mind, 3e. 2000 $110.95 1.9
Berger, Wallis, Watson, Constructing masculinity. 1995 (same!) $45.95 2.3
Walz and Piriou, Rapports, 3e. 2002 $250.95 4.5
Allison, Carr, Eastman, Masterpieces of the drama, 6e. 1994 (same!) $153.00 3.5
Pika and Watson, The presidential contest, 5e. (out of print)
Kamien, Music: an appreciation (brief edition), 8e. 2014 $146.67 4.3
Harris, Understanding the Bible, 8e. 2010 $133.33 4.2
In twenty years they have almost all gone up subtantially, in most cases close to or more than tripling. The transition to advanced math book went up a mind-blowing 450%, five and a half times the 1994 cost! And it's an outlier, but two others cost more than four times as much and several tripled in cost. Of particular note are two books who are still in print in the same edition I used twenty years ago---the masculinity book and the world drama book---whose prices have nevertheless gone up by factors of 2.3 and 3.5 respectively. Pure rent-seeking. (Kudos to Prof. Gaughan and/or his publisher, whose real analysis book is just a few cents more now than it was twenty years ago. Now that's an outlier.)

I believe this is an apples-to-apples comparison, too; although my mid-90s prices reflect the "price sticker cost" rather than official list price, in my experience college bookstores are not in the habit of marking down books below their list price, even now when they have Amazon et al to compete with, and especially then.

Meanwhile, the CPI has gone up by a factor of about 1.5 in the 20 years since early 1995. I find it difficult to even imagine what excuse the textbook publishers could use to justify the extortionate rate of increase in textbook costs in that period. If anything, with the higher ed market as busy as ever---higher numbers and higher percentages of the population are in college than ever before---economies of scale could even drive costs down. Or competition! What a laugh.

"Facebook is what happens to the Web when you hit it with the stupid stick." --John Scalzi

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October 25, 2014

Title IX compliance

On Friday I attended a required training wherein we (faculty and staff) were informed/reminded about our obligations under (the current interpretation of) Title IX. In case you've been hiding in a cave for the last few years (or decades), that's the law that states:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
(We also were reminded about the school's obligations under the Clery Act, but that wasn't as interesting and I won't be talking about it here.)

Most of the coverage about Title IX, especially before a year or two ago, tends to have something to do with sports programs; and in particular with making sure that colleges (and other schools!) provide equal access to athletics for female students. It's often cited as the reason that US women totally dominate the Olympics and other world sports competitions. But another big area of effect that Title IX has is on sexual assault and harassment: if female students are being harassed and assaulted and having to avoid certain classes or buildings or withdraw entirely, then they are ipso facto being denied the benefits of the education program. So the school, and by extension each employee, has Title IX obligations with respect to sexual assault and harassment.

I basically knew all that. I have to say, though, that I'm a little surprised at the extent to which this is taken. According to the presenters at the training (one a consultant from a company that does these trainings at various places, and the other the head of campus security), my obligation as an employee is to report to a Title IX officer any information that I have about sexual assault or harassment having to do with Longwood-affiliated people. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? There are two interesting consequences of this, both of which were directly confirmed in the Q&A at the end of the training:

  1. The obligation pertains even if the victim specifically asks me not to report it or tell anyone.

    Now, what may happen in this case is that after the Title IX report is filed, the campus police contact the victim, who declines to pursue a case or file charges, and it ends there. (Interestingly, and revealingly, the head of campus police referred to this situation as the victim being "uncooperative", which raises the question of who exactly the police are serving here.) Although they may also contact the alleged perpetrator to get their side of the story, which means that the victim may have reason to worry about retaliation---which is problematic to say the least.

    The other major probably-unintended consequence is that it means that a student who does not want to file a complaint will be unable to talk to any university employee about their problems (except for counseling services, who are the only non-mandated-reporters). That is unfortunate.

  2. The obligation also pertains off campus, to anything you hear even third- or sixth-hand, if any involved party is or might be Longwood-affiliated.

    You hear that? Since I live literally next door to Longwood students, if I witness or even hear about anything there I'm supposed to file a report with our Title IX officer. This would apparently also apply if I lived next door to Longwood faculty or staff.

    It's a surprising outcome, to me at least. Another audience member asked if he was supposed to be "snitching on" his neighbours if he heard something; the officer said, "no of course not, not unless your neighbours are Longwood students or staff or something like that." Which is a ludicrous thing to say, since a large percentage of Longwood staff live next to other Longwood staff---it's a small town---but I actually live next to Longwood students, as such. I raised my hand and clarified this, and he confirmed that yes, I should be reporting in if I witness anything there. So after clarification, his answer was really, "Yes."

Also interesting is that this all applies even to past conversations and events. It's not clear how much of the above is actually federally-required and how much of it is Longwood's CYA interpretation of the law; the head of campus police seemed to be saying the former, but a lot of us suspect it's more the latter. But at least until told otherwise, our job is to report anything, even hearsay, that involves, or might involve, sexual harassment or assault as committed by or upon anyone who is a Longwood student or employee. I guess if we all take that seriously and they decide we're overreporting, we'll hear back with more nuanced instructions.

EDIT: Discussion on Facebook about this post turned up the highly relevant article "Which matters more: reporting assault or respecting a victim's wishes?" from the Atlantic last year (thanks Jim).

EDIT again: Since nobody's discussing here anyway, I'll link to the FB post where a lot of the discussion is happening: the post is only accessible if you otherwise had access (i.e. you're FB friends with me), but that link should at least let you jump right there.

"I work on the assumption that Facebook is working by default to make me look like an asshole to everyone who's connected to me, because I've seen it do it to others." --John Scalzi

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August 12, 2013

Another school year begins

It dawned on me the other day that I started teaching ten years ago. I still sometimes feel like I don't know what I'm doing, though of course the experience makes it easier to roll with the punches. I can objectively see that I'm better at teaching than a lot of other people; but this requires a comparatively large proportion of my time, and I often wonder whether it would even be possible to (competently) teach a full-time college load (nevermind a high school teaching load!) putting in just 40 hours a week. If it is, I wouldn't mind being let in on the secret.

"Each kid takes their turn letting the quirks and imperfections of their peers roll off them with a mutter of that phrase, before they all come together for a moment of pure Christmas spirit. So this year, when your family members inevitably do something that chafes, try to let it pass through you with a sigh of 'good grief'." --Jonathan Prykop

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November 01, 2011

BNCollege, your website is terrible

Barnes and Noble, I think it's fantastic that you're running the Longwood bookstore, don't get me wrong. And your general online presence is a reasonably decent experience. But your interface, particularly the one you make me deal with as a faculty member, is terrible; you need to give your web programmers a talking-to about usability and actually knowing what their data looks like. Consider this a long-form bug report.

When we need to submit our book requests, we head on over to the bookstore's website, if we aren't sufficiently old-fashioned to entrust the job to our department secretary (who, as an aside, is pretty competent; in retrospect I should have been more old-fashioned in this instance and bypassed the web entirely). Once there, we're directed to a page with a multi-step process. If you personally haven't seen this page, it looks like this:

[book request form]

Let's start at the top and work our way through. The first "step" is not only optional, but the usual case is to skip it, because as part of registering you made me give you my email. So this "step 1" is just sitting there wasting space. A venial sin, I suppose.

The next step (the first real step) requires me to select the term---my options being, at the moment, Fall 2011 and Spring 2012. A little late to be choosing books for this term, don't you think? More importantly, this field, and the department pulldown, reset every time so that I have to keep reselecting the same options over and over. Another venial sin, perhaps.

Here we come to the truly awful bits. Under step 3, you direct me to type in an ISBN in either its 10-digit (old) form or its 13-digit (new) form. Several of my books are more than a couple years old, so I type in their old-style ISBN. The response, after I click the "Search" button, is:

ISBN You entered is invalid. Please enter only numbers and '-' for ISBN
It's a little entertaining that this error message seems to permit dashes after the big NO DASHES warning, but the bigger problem is that the system is set up to reject close to 9% of all old-style ISBNs as invalid---the final "digit" of an ISBN is sometimes the letter X! As you, a book publisher, presumably know, and should probably convey to your web programmers.

It may not matter, though, because even for the books I had that didn't have an X in the ISBN, the 10-digit form was consistently not found in your database, even when (after I converted to 13-digit and retyped it) the book was in fact in your database. So maybe the answer is, you don't actually store the 10-digit ISBNs anymore, in which case you really need to update that entry form. (While you're fixing that, you should get rid of the "NO DASHES" restriction. It is trivial for the programmer to remove them after the fact, but letting the user type them in prevents an entire category of data entry error.)

In a couple cases I didn't have a current edition with me, so I didn't have an ISBN. No problem, because of the search-by-author box, right? Here's the thing: if you type in an author and title and click "search", the system takes you to another webpage where you have to type that same information in again. This is aggravating, and you are wasting my time, and the time of every faculty member who hasn't yet given up entirely on entering their book orders into your system this way.

Making it even worse, when I type in the author, title, and edition number on this other page---leaving the ISBN blank because I don't know it and the Publisher field blank because I think they switched publishers for the new edition and don't remember the new one---I am presented with a popup that says, and I quote,

Enter both author and title together.
If your goal is to make your customers frustrated and angry, this is a superb message. It is less well-suited to informing your users that they need to provide publisher information. I'm not sure why you require publisher information anyway---since obviously some human has to interact with this information before it gets posted---but if you're going to not let me submit the form without it, tell me why.

Finally, at long last, you return me to the main book order form, in which you have now cleared all the information I entered in step 2. This happens no matter what when you enter your book selections, every time you enter your book selections. That's right: the order I'm actually supposed to do these steps is to fill in step 3 first, and only then fill in step 2. By this point, the entire process is making at least your art and math faculty customers think Escher must be involved someplace (the humanities profs are thinking of Kafka instead).

As it turns out, I am a computer scientist and I do understand that sometimes these bugs slip through, and it's important to be able to have bug reports if you hope to file a ticket and actually get the problem fixed. And I tried to do that. I looked for a bug report link, or a contact email for your web administrator, or any sort of place to submit this information. But then, in a final little zing, the "Feedback" link you provide links only to a many-page web survey that gives me no chance to actually tell you something. There is a "customer service" link, but that page has not one but three problems: first, the person it gives is a local manager, who will have no direct control over any part of the bncollege website. Second, the page gives a phone number but no email address for this person. And third, the web form that attempts to reinvent email, poorly, provides a tiny text box to write my message, clearly not adequate to the task of writing something like this (when the manager's just going to have to pass it along anyway).

So, naturally, I came over here to write it all up as an open letter. This has the disadvantage (for you) of making you look bad, because I'm laying out all the specific ways in which your interface is broken, and anyone can read it. It has the advantage (for me) that I can now send a link to the manager in that dinky little web form, asking for the URL to be passed along to someone who might be able to do something about it. Partly, I'm stubborn; partly, I'm documenting this for a nice case study I'll use next time I teach a web design or UI course; and partly I'm just being self-serving because I'd like for at least some piece of this to be fixed before the next time I'll have to deal with this piece-of-junk interface.

But, at least I'll post an update if you fix it.

Edit #1: Another little zing: by the time I typed my message into the dinky little customer support web form, "my logon session has expired." Sigh.

"At least four speakers at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington made Obama-teleprompter jokes while standing right in front of teleprompter screens, as though irony had never been invented." --Eric Zorn

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September 04, 2010

Settling in

So, I'm settling in to the new job at Monmouth, and enjoying it so far. I'd never had three simultaneous new preps before (Knox's trimesters meant I maxed out at two), so there's a lot of juggling as I plot out my homeworks and activities and such, but it's nice that with a 15-week term I can stagger my due dates a little more. The commute is a bit of a drag, as predicted, although ultimately it's probably more accurate to say that I got spoiled at Knox. :) The 8am class is a bit tricky, too---I haven't had an 8:00 class since my sophomore year of high school, in 1991---but there at least I can commiserate with the students.

There's certainly a lot to love, though. My office, similar in size to the one at Knox, has miles of bookshelves and a window that actually opens. The IT department ("IS") has a few policies I don't love (e.g. my provided desktop is a Windows box) but it has an actual help ticket system that I can check on and that they respond to; they don't pretend ssh is some sort of security hole, so I can ssh into the department Linux box; and they provide open wireless across campus and don't require me to install proprietary malware on my own machine in order to use it. The department has a clicker system that I've been playing with a lot in my stats class to keep the students paying attention and engaged, and I *think* they're working. The admissions staff regularly meets with departments across campus to get updates on what sorts of things they can brag about and arguments they can use to recruit good students.

And then there's the faculty. During orientation, I completely lost track of just how many people I was introduced to that had a bachelor's or master's in some field completely different than their PhD. A lot of them wear multiple hats, and I'm getting a strong sense that the faculty actually are involved in the running of the place, rather than trying to professionalise the "other stuff". My glasses are coloured by my experience, so I might be reading too much into that, but it's still nice to see.

I do regret living 15 miles away, though. It makes it a lot harder to go to life-of-the-college events that go on in the evenings or on weekends. If this were a long-term appointment, I think I'd seriously consider moving....

Why major in CS?: "It seems obvious to me that one would have to be an idiot to be employed doing anything other than practicing magic in a world filled with sorcery." --Maxwell Galloway-Carson

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November 04, 2009

How to treat a guest

Last weekend I attended the Cyclone Ballroom Classic (woo Knox) and I stayed at ISU's student union hotel. On check-in I was able to borrow (for free) an Ethernet cable that would work in the room, in case the wireless wasn't strong enough there (it was), and told there would be a (free) registration when I first connected. I believe it asked for my name, my phone number, and maybe an email address; quick to fill out and not terribly invasive. Then I got this screen:

[Reboot now.]

This was irritating. Why should I have to reboot? I started mentally cursing incompetence, but just in case I clicked the little question-mark help button. Which took me to this screen:

[...or just renew your DHCP lease.]

And that fast, I've completely reversed my opinion of them. They're right! For the majority of users, rebooting is both simplest to explain and simplest to do—and if they're not power users they're unlikely to have any long-running tasks that would be fouled up by a reboot. And, for the power users, ISU's tech folks have helpfully clarified that yes, a simple release-and-renew is all that's actually required, and if you know what that means, you can do that and not worry that some wonky setting somewhere will break anything. So they've effectively navigated the "easy for novices, effective for experts" divide that is sometimes so tricky. (And in fact I had internet all weekend with no troubles at all.)

Contrast that with this afternoon, when I was terribly embarrassed on behalf of my college: we had a guest speaker, invited by someone in the Spanish department, to give a talk (on queer identities in post-Franco Spain, which was a neat talk, by the way). Embedded in his presentation were a few YouTube links. What happened? Well, first of all, he got defaulted to an "open" wireless network that didn't actually connect to anything. Then he switched to the main Knox wireless network, but was presented with a login/password prompt, because we have no general guest setup. Robin Ragan, the host faculty member, rushed up and used hers, but this ordeal was not yet over: he was only placed on the provisional network, from which he could click a link to download and install the stupid malware that Knox forces its users to install on all their machines. (We're still in the middle of the talk, by the way. I wanted to crawl into my shoe I was so embarrassed.) So he did, but that wasn't enough, because once it downloaded and installed and ran, it informed him that his system wasn't up-to-date enough for it, so it would shunt him over to the quarantine network until he fixed the "problem". In the end, he had to manually type in the YouTube URLs onto the desktop machine in the classroom in order to play them. This, I'd say, is how not to treat a guest. Come to think of it, I should shoot him an email and warn him to make sure the malware gets deinstalled—he was a Mac user and the stuff is known to cause 100% CPU consumption on Snow Leopard. (We reported this a month ago. The Computer Center is "looking into it".)

"Both the Arabs and Israelis have unassailable moral arguments, and anyone who does not understand how this is true cannot understand the true nature of tragedy." --Nadav Safran

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October 05, 2009

Tenure, and touching lives

Last Tuesday, at 11am, the President of Knox College ("Roger") came to my office and notified me that he would not be recommending me for tenure. The reason given was, by design, vague, but he cited problems with my scholarship; the objections thereto might have been his own or they might have come from the Dean or from some or all of the Faculty Personnel Committee, but (again by design, and for basically good reasons) they will not say specifically who objected, nor would I ask. I have since pieced together that the key problem was that they felt my publications do not sufficiently demonstrate a scholarly agenda---this is based on interactions of my department chair with the dean, trying to find out more and maybe get someone to change their mind. My department chair also met with the President directly to argue my case, and he responded that he was listening and would think about it (which was more than I would have expected, frankly).

The next and final step in the tenure process is that Roger presents the case to the Board of Trustees and makes his recommendation, which they vote on. There is no reason to expect they will do anything but accept his recommendation, and the recommendation is his to make.

I made a decision right away that I was going to tell people about this result (which is not otherwise announced in the way that a "yes" recommendation would be), rather than simply quietly proceed along and then disappear at the end of the year. Partly because some students and groups need to be able to plan for the future, partly because I'm just not interested in keeping secrets like that. This, it happens, was a great decision.

Not that I think it's going to affect any outcomes, because that's just not how the system is set up, but the basically universal reaction among faculty and students both is not sympathy but shock and anger: people are telling me that Knox is making a mistake in letting me go, and that has really helped me battle the feelings of inadequacy that washed over in the immediate aftermath of the notification.

Actually, it goes even further than that. Among the students, there is an additional reaction of "but nobody asked us", and I discovered over the weekend (when an alum emailed me to inquire about it) that several of the students and alumni had put together a Facebook group to organise a letter-writing campaign to get the President to change his mind. I can't even begin to express how flattered and proud it makes me to know that I've had such an effect on so many students that they would reach out and do this for me, and speak so eloquently on my behalf. I certainly don't dare hope that this will have effect on my tenure, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm immensely gratified that they're doing it anyway. As my time at Knox comes unfortunately to an end, these letters to the President tell me quite clearly that my time here has not been wasted.

"[Software] shouldn't spend a lot of time and effort interrupting their work to tell them something has broken and there's nothing they can do about it but click OK. It's not OK." --Robert Hoekman, Jr.

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August 05, 2009


So I've been busy, although not that busy; I don't really have any good excuse as to why I haven't posted here in five months. I have a partial explanation: early in the summer I started actively using Facebook's status update as sort of a microblog (e.g. during my France trip). But, and this is both pro and con, those posts are both more ephemeral and more lightweight. Also, being geared to be written in the third person, there is a very different feel over there, and also a tendency to try to write a bit more cryptically. For instance, when my sister got the teaching job, I wrote

Don Blaheta would like to congratulate the newest member of the Barrington HS math faculty.
So that's fun and all, and I'll probably keep it up, but it really isn't amenable to more long-form stuff. But of course I'd already fallen out of the habit of posting regularly; in part because I'd delay posting until I could do a proper job of it, and then eventually I wouldn't want my first post after a long hiatus to be inane. With the inane stuff going to facebook, maybe I'll be able to pick it up again. :)

Since last I posted, I went to Chattanooga for SIGCSE in March, Cincinnati for the AP reading in June, and Paris for ITiCSE in July. Also, I taught two classes, one of which was as a substitute for David (who was on junior leave)—our class in operating systems, networks, and C, which was simply a blast, and at 9 people a lot larger than expected. Maybe we've got a good-size batch of majors this year.

What I haven't done is make much progress on my bathroom, at least until fairly recently. Way back in October, I finished the ceiling, and then got going with scraping the stupid glue off the walls, which was dreadful so I kept putting it off. I did lower the hole for the medicine cabinet, and I got the initial coat of paint on the tub, but other than that and the glue scraping, the first real progress was at the end of June, when I installed the moisture-resistant wallboard in the places with bad plaster, and painted the upper walls. The current work is actually getting the plumbing roughed in, which is partly done (tub done, toiled done except for pouring lead to seat the collar, sink remains but the pipes are cut and just need to be installed). From there I just need to cover the wall cavity where the sink work is being done, and then I can get on with the tiling. With a little luck, I'll be done by the end of the month (which would be a huge relief).

And the last piece of news of interest is that I'm still in limbo on tenure. The usual timeline is that I submit materials in December (which I did), and then a department committee, the faculty personnel committee, the dean, an outside examiner, and the president all think about it and make their recommendations, which the president aggregates into a final decision by late May, which he gives to the board of trustees to ratify at their June meeting. Apparently, though, the outside examiner flaked out, and so I didn't get tenure in June like the other professors up this year—but I also wasn't denied it, I just have to wait. They asked for an extension of the 1 July deadline to 1 September, which I granted (how could I not?), so now it's more waiting. We'll see.

Meanwhile, back to work. I'm teaching FP again this fall and I need to decide whether I can work The God Delusion into the schedule.

"Do the universities provide for society the intellectual leadership it needs or only the training it asks for?" --Edsger Dijkstra

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March 04, 2008

On Greeks and exclusivity

Knox's Greek system has recently been growing, and as a member of the Student Life Committee I've been a close witness to a lot of it. Some of the faculty has recently charged us (SLC) with looking at it, and so we compiled a report with all sorts of data about our local Greeks; and yesterday the faculty had a lengthy debate about it. I'm not sure what some of them hope to accomplish, because drastic measures like closing the Greek system simply aren't on the table, but much of the discussion was coming from a fairly small number of faculty members who feel very strongly anti-Greek.

Having spent so much time with SLC's Greek report, I've had a lot of time to form my opinions about the various aspects of the Greek system. One comment yesterday did give me pause, however; I was explaining (in response to a question) a bit about the familial relationships that many Greek students hope to (and do) find in their respective organizations, and Steve Fineberg coldly pointed out that this sort of argument is a typical justification for racism and other -isms, and not appropriate.

He's at least part right, of course, and at the time it shut me right up, but on reflection, I think that there's more to it. Of course, I don't believe that these sorts of "affiliative needs" are important enough to trump clear humanitarian concerns like race and class discrimination. And on the surface, he's exactly right—this sort of argument was used to perpetuate institutions like the all-white country club, and worse. However, one shouldn't judge an idea by the company it keeps, and it seems to me that this sort of tighter-than-friends bond has the potential to be a very positive thing, often realises this potential, and thus is not inherently problematic, as long as it isn't just a front for the discriminatory country club mentality.

That's why we need to, and did, look further into the data. We need to ask: is there evidence that Knox's Greek system discriminates on the basis of some protected class?

  • It does inherently discriminate based on gender. I won't lie, I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but I'm willing to give it a pass because I have yet to hear a single student complain about this, even when I prompted for it. This also, with a few exceptions, didn't seem to be the area that faculty had a problem with.
  • The fraternities pretty clearly don't (other than gender, as mentioned). Their ethnic and income profiles are a nearly perfect match for the student body at large.
  • The sororities might, slightly. I don't know if the divergences are significant, because I haven't run the full statistical analysis, but the sorority membership numbers are smaller and therefore more noisy, so it's a bad idea to read too much into them. If it is a true bias, it is at least a slight one, and one we can hope to work on to fix rather than simply condemn as irreparable.

The system is surely not perfect, but given that it is neither inherently bad nor irredeemable, I'm interested in working to fix it. And despite what some other members of the faculty might think, I think that where problems exist, just about everybody in the Greek system would be interested in fixing it too.

"I've also come to simply accept that I will never get an answer from tech support/sales at a cell phone company, radio shack, best buy, or a travel agency that is better or more accurate than what I could have researched myself. I will instead be lied to by someone who lacks any training in the product they support in order to decrease call handle times or increase sales. Even when you're REALLY confused and can't sort out the jargon that they publish it is still the wrong choice to call and ask these companies because they have no more information than you and they care about understanding it a whole lot less." --Zach Miller

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November 05, 2007


My nifty got in! Woo!

You are
what you love
and not what loves you back --Jenny Lewis

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June 30, 2007

Back in Galesburg

After a brief vacation up in Palatine, I'm now back to work in Galesburg. I've decided to divide each day into four parts:

  1. House work
  2. Work work
  3. Social time
  4. TV and knitting
in that order, though possibly omitting one on a given day, with hopefully-not-too-distracting bouts of internet interspersed. I started to fall into that routine before the Palatine trip, and it worked really well. Today was not off to a great start, as I had set my alarm so I could go to the farmer's market, but accidentally left my phone on vibrate, so I missed the market and didn't get up until 12:30. But since then I've been trimming bushes and hacking at weeds in the yard, and now I'm going to mow the lawn. Then, despite the Saturday-ness of the day, I'll try to get some work done at the office. We'll see how long I can sustain this. :)

"The way the Bible is often used by Christians in this culture is scary, mean-spirited, and unlike the Jesus they know." --Kelly Fryer

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June 23, 2007

Finding the summer groove

So here I am in my office at 7:30 on a Saturday night. Why? Well, let me back up.

I got back from the AP reading on Tuesday, and mostly just checked email, watched a little TV, and went to bed. Wednesday I'd intended to get into the office, but after mowing my lawn and puttering a little, I took a nap, and then it was time for the faculty potluck. Thursday I did some weedwhacking, then tidied a little and took a siesta, waking up in time to watch some TV, catch up on webcomics, and go to bed. I'd been on the edge of getting sick for most of the reading, and three months of sleep deprivation are taking their revenge.

So yesterday, I woke up around 10 and finally made it in to my office around noon. I got a little done, got lunch, and then sat down for some of my first really productive time in a while. I actually have a lot that I want to get done this summer, including at least two SIGCSE submissions, and I'm determined to not let this all slip until September (the deadline, not to mention, the start of school). So in and amongst my various house projects, I want to make sure to get at least a few hours of work done every day.

Normally I'd happily exclude weekends, but I'm going to be up in Palatine for much of next week, almost certainly not getting work done (probably not even trying), so I want to establish a bit of a groove before I leave. Not that I'm doing nothing but working—having finished the big kitchen-painting project before the reading, I'm now freed up to start on the next big one, re-hanging my windows. I spent several hours this morning dismantling my upstairs bathroom window (selected as a prototype because it's not huge, it's accessible, and it's painted, so if I accidentally gouge something it'll be easy to cover up). There was a brief moment where it was looking like the broken weight-ropes had fallen all the way to the floor inside the wall, well-nigh unretrievable, but that doesn't appear to be the case. These aren't the most accessible windows in the world, but they'll be ok now that I know how they're put together. And since all the windows in the house appear to be original, they should all have roughly the same construction. And although many of the upper windows are painted shut, it looks like they're all properly double-hung, so once I'm done they should all open from both the top and the bottom. Squee!

Anyway, after all that, I'm now back to writing sample assignments for a CS2 course. It's kind of a neat (and certainly novel) experience writing assignments and having the time to make them just right, since I'm not under the pressure of having to print and distribute them in a few hours (or a few minutes...). Maybe I should do this more often!

"I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don't feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. ... I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that's how it was for me. At any rate, it's complicated." --Jonathan Coulton

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June 14, 2007

Icy, bleak New Jersey

I'm currently about mid-week at the AP CS reading, currently at The College of New Jersey in Trenton. Despite it being mid-June, it's absolutely freezing out here, with today's high being something like 65. Gah.

The grading itself is much like last year, although the logistics are a little bumpier (since all the aides are new) and the rubric is easier (partially because there aren't any really creative ways to get my problem—A4—wrong). Being on the A instead of AB has meant that I'm in a room with more people (25 including leaders) and that there are a lot more exams with heartbreaking notes written to the readers to the effect that, e.g., their good teacher was fired mid-year and replaced with someone who didn't know Java but would "learn together", and their school made them take the AP anyway to boost their No Child Left Behind numbers (some of which take into account only numbers of AP exams, not grades thereon). Seriously, I can't tell you how many booklets I go through where not just my problem but all four are either totally blank or filled with artwork and poetry of incredibly bored students who are stuck in a room for 105 minutes with nothing to do but doodle in the book and write notes to the readers. When you read about the recent surge in AP exam administrations, the perverse incentives of high-stakes testing have a lot to do with it.

The main topic of discussion among the readers is just how many of us won't be coming back next year. Although we'd been told last year that we'd be at TCNJ for a few years at least, we found out on arrival that the College Board had changed their mind and put us at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, at a different time. Not only had they done this without asking our opinions, they hadn't asked or even mentioned this to the top leadership of the AP CS community—the chief reader and development committee didn't find out until just two or three days before the rest of us (despite the fact that this is printed in booklets and has obviously been planned for months at least).

If it were just the site change, I don't think there'd be more than a little grumbling. The time change is also a big deal, though, as with a start date of 5 June, they lock out a huge number of their veteran readers, especially from high school but even from college. Especially when you consider that the leaders for the reading have to show up two to five days early. The College Board representative who came to talk to us Tuesday night for an "open forum" assured us that the utmost consideration was given to the new dates, but he was either lying or deeply incompetent, as he was quite surprised to learn that this would lock out teachers from several states, who by law need to be there through the end of classes. And as mentioned, nobody at all among the AP CS community was actually consulted on this.

Among the other readers, one of the biggest grumbles is about the fact that we will be required to have roommates in the hotels. As someone who stays in youth hostels while travelling, I'm not deeply concerned at having an unknown roommate, but it's certainly a fair complaint. Up to 25% of the attendees will be allowed to request single rooms, but they'll have to pay for (half of) them themselves, which will probably run around $400. Which means that although staying in singles may have been a "perk" before, it has a specific monetary value: thanks for the pay cut, College Board. (Speaking of monetary value, we're also going to have to pay if we want internet access—another pay cut.)

And then there's the convention centre itself. I've heard from someone grading the Calc exam right now in the other Louisville site (Kentucky International Convention Center) that all grading—800 readers—is out on the convention floor. He said it wasn't as loud as he expected, but this is going to be a huge productivity hit for the readers, when it's now not just chatter in your room that can distract, but chatter at any table in the entire reading. Another thing that the College Board seems not to have thought of in their careful deliberations.

Yet another way in which this move is problematic is that the social space we've been allocated is either in the hotel or the convention centre (not clear from the FAQ), and they've forbidden us from actually bringing any food or drink in—we have to get it from them. What that means is that there will be a lot of people going to individual hotel rooms, and it'll be very hard for the newbies to integrate, and it'll get all cliquey. The College Board doesn't seem to realise that the social stuff is how they pay us to do their dirty work, and it sounds like they're just throwing away all the community-building work that so many people have done, in CS at least.

An awful lot of the readers I've talked to have said they're not coming next year, not as a result of just one thing, but the whole situation. Interestingly, this is much more common among the college professors, despite the fact that the CB keeps claiming they're trying to increase the college/HS ratio at readings. It makes sense, though: HS teachers are doing this to get an angle on the exam they're (on some level) teaching their students to pass, in addition to the social aspects of it; college profs are here more out of a sense of service to the discipline, plus social aspects. (Nobody does it for the money.) If the CB tells us that we're nothing more than cogs in a machine, we're a lot more likely to just leave.

Since it happens that I'll be on junior leave next spring term, and thus not teaching, I'll be able to come if I skip graduation. I haven't decided yet whether I will—absent all the changes, there'd be no question, and I would love to be more involved in leading the groups eventually—but if they're going to keep the earlier time slot, then any long-term time investment in this is wasted on my part.

I just can't fathom what is going on in the heads of the College Board folks. I know it's a business, but is this just really all about the money? (And convention centres are not cheap to rent out!) Even if it is, are they so short-sighted that they don't see the problem with pissing off all their readers and the people that function as their ambassadors to HSs and colleges?

"Ok, is there any reason this shouldn't work?" --Matt
"Well, Murphy's Law, but..." --Yvonne

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May 25, 2007


My teaching year ended at 4pm today. Of course, I still have grading and so forth, but there was a palpable decrease in pressure. Originally intending to go home and to bed, I dicked around in my office for a while and didn't make it out until almost 6. On my way home, mindful of the caffeine headache that had been developing for a while (all I'd had was a chai this morning), I decided to swing by Kaldi's for a coffee to go.

Great decision! On my way out, I started chatting with John-who-hangs-out-at-Kaldi's, and found that for the first time in ages I was free to spontaneously decide to just sit down and unexpectedly talk. Our conversation ranged from Discordian Universalism to FP to the Scottish National Party, and it was getting dark when I finally set off for home at almost 8:30. Man, did I need that. It put me in an unbelievably good mood: although I took a much needed retreat to Urbana last weekend, this sort of random-chance long and meaningful conversation is the sort of thing that I thrive on, and that I haven't gotten nearly enough of this term.

'"Choice" language is somewhat inadequate to the task---especially since it hides the fact that pro-choicers are not fighting for the right to pick (which is what choice language sounds like sometimes), but rather the right to decide.' --Chris Tessone

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March 22, 2007

A frustrating day in the life...

Well, the evening went better, but the morning stank. First, I overslept my alarm and didn't get up until just after 10, so I didn't have time to do anything but print out my syllabi and rush to class. Fortunately, I'd prepped out my examples last night, but I was meaning to read them over and make sure all the software in the lab was set up right, before class started. Ah well. Class itself went fine, I guess, although I didn't cover as much as I'd planned. Fortunately, I hadn't printed out the homework yet, so I was able to edit it and remove the stuff we hadn't gotten to.

Then it was lunchtime. I'm still used to the crazy amount of time I had last term, when I was teaching 2-6 (I'm doing 3-6 this term), and so I didn't even get to lunch until the beginning of 5th. Got back to my office, checked email, and then as I was going to print out the labs, I noticed that I'd never finished editing them from the previous term's version. Ended up cutting the second half of the lab handout entirely, giving them the first half of the lab, and then setting everything up while they did that so that I could wing it through a lecture on the java compiler and unit testing, so they could do the second half of the lab. And then I forgot to tell them how to set up their CLASSPATH (it's a ... no, nevermind, it doesn't even matter), so I had to type it in on the projector and then tell them how to do it themselves, reading off words like "tcshrc" and generally making a hash of the part of lab that goes pretty well when they actually see it all written on a piece of paper in front of them.


Then I went home and took a nap, taught my ballroomers how to to a cuban walk and a tango open left turn, grabbed coffee, got distracted into a long (though excellent) conversation with a few of them in the Gizmo, and now I'm back in my office, looking at what will be my fourth night in a row of working here past midnight.

That said, I do get a lot of work done when I do this. So maybe it's not so bad....

You and I will someday win
'Cause no one owns the wind or sun. --Dan Berggren, "Power from above"

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March 19, 2007

Burning the almost-midnight oil

Spring term starts on Wednesday, and for the second night in a row I find myself in my office working to or past midnight on syllabi. It's a funny thing, syllabus development—you have to decide just what you're going to teach, and at least roughly when, and what the projects will be, and when the assignments will go out, without knowing at all what the tricky spots are going to be for the students in the class.

The good news is, two down, one to go. And of course I've done it backwards: yesterday, I did the one for the course I just finished teaching, which was therefore the easiest. Today, the one I've taught before, but differently and two years ago. The one that's left? The one I've never taught before. Of course.

"If the Church stopped protesting the Monologues and instead started engaging women in an honest, healthy and mature dialogue perhaps The Vagina Monologues would no longer be necessary. Until then, I'm afraid we women will have to remain content with a monologue and pray that someone is, at the very least, listening." --Sr. Mary Eve

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March 14, 2007


When I've got a little time and think of it, I like wandering over to Paul Graham's site and reading an essay (even if I've read them all before—they tend to have good replay value). He rarely disappoints; he's geeky in all the right ways, and has well-placed priorities, and he's insightful and a good writer. So his essays tend to be pretty good.

Today I read his "Is it worth being wise?", and it answers an interesting question: What's the difference between intelligence and wisdom? His answer has to do with wisdom having a lower variance in ability to answer life's questions, but you should really go read his version.

I actually disagree to some extent. For instance, I would say that this essay is evidence of his wisdom, in this case representing his insightfulness and his ability to condense his insight and convey it well; but that is something that he would seem to put more in the "intelligence" column. I do think he's getting at something interesting, though, in that even if his "wisdom" doesn't map perfectly to my idea of "wisdom", it's certainly a different thing from what he calls "intelligence", and both are useful in their way. What I actually found most interesting in the essay was what he had to say about the implications for education in the modern world, towards the end of the essay.

So, something else to think about. I thought I'd throw it out there, especially for the folks out there who plan to be educators (and especially gifted educators).

"The path to wisdom is through discipline, and the path to intelligence through carefully selected self-indulgence." --Paul Graham

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January 23, 2007

I called it!

Last night's Colbert Report: watch here (click on "Coattails").

Knox's response. Money quote: "Knox College is also exploring the possibility of printing a new, fireproof diploma for Dr. Colbert."

"I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for things." --Casey Westerman
"That's called your aortic cavity and you really shouldn't put things there." --Mike McLawhorn

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January 12, 2007


This evening I went to a Flamenco lesson.

As so often happens at Knox, when we book a visitor, we try to get them to do or talk about a variety of things. So when the dance department was inviting a guest instructor for the ballet class, they asked him if there was something else he could teach, too. Flamenco it was, which led to a co-sponsorship with the Spanish Club and a variety of other groups. Attendance was from a broad spectrum, including the dance regulars (members of Terpsichore) as well as much of the Spanish Club, Sarah Day-O'Connell's world music class, and a whole bunch of the ballroom group. Plus a few people who probably just thought it sounded neat.

It was! I actually drove home at 5:30 just to pick up my latin shoes, which I'd meant to bring this morning but forgot, because I figured, hell, this is pretty much precisely what a wood-block latin heel is for, there's no way I'm not wearing mine. I cruised in right on time, put on my shoes, and joined the ranks. The teacher moved really fast, and for most of the people there this was (by design) more of a "feel the rhythm" sort of survey rather than a "try to remember this" lesson, even for the dance professors. For my part, I was really digging the similarities to things I knew. In particular, my revelation of the day was that paso doble is essentially the partnered version of flamenco dancing. I've even seen flamenco before, but it never really registered how much the shaping matches. All the stuff with the forward hips, the pulled-back shoulders, the appel from a standing position? Identical.

A difference is the timing. Although there are some things phrased in 8 (the usual form for paso), most appear to be phrased in 12, with a really common duple-triple alternation; the first pattern we learned (and boy would it have been easier if he'd just counted it like this, but I figured this out later) went *1*-2-&-3-*4*-5-6-*7*-8-&-*9*-10-&-*11*-12-& and then repeats starting on the other foot. Another starts off with a slip-pivot motion on 2-3 into a presentation pose that holds till 6 and then prances on alternate beats, so that again the whole pattern is two threes then three twos: (1)-2-*3*-(4-5)-*6*-(7)-*8*-(9)-*10*-11-*12*.

The killer for me was totally the hands, though. In flamenco, the hands are always moving. I suck so much at coordinating hand motions with anything else; back in my jazz choir days, when we had to clap, I would actually make sure to clap silently, because with me also singing I would inevitably drift off time with the clapping. Which still screws up the visual, but at least the audio works! Anyway, so, flamenco. There's this sort of wax-on, wax-off thing you do with your wrists, and if you're a girl, the fingers are constantly spiralling in and out, while boys rotate the wrist as a fist and then pop their flat palms out when they get to the end of the rotation—before immediately making a fist again and rotating the wrist the other way. All of which is going on while you're doing moderately complicated foot stuff (which may be more than just stepping, as at least a few of the moves have a tap-dance-esque thing where the ball of the foot hits the floor with one timing and the heel hits with another!).

But it was all a lot of fun, of course. And then there were tapas out in the CFA lobby. That was when Jennifer Smith (the head dance professor) asked me if I would be interested help out with Rep Term's movement workshop, teaching some ballroom dancing. It was about all I could do not to shout, "WOULD I!" Of course I would. I've been itching to do something like that nearly since I got here. So it looks like I'll be teaching two to four days' worth of one of the Theatre/Dance department's movement workshops later this term. Whee!

"Everyone hates flacks. Journalists hate them because they think they're incompetent whores. Businesspeople hate them because they think they're incompetent whores. And flacks hate themselves because deep down inside they suspect that they might be incompetent whores." --Forbes

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January 04, 2007

Allow me to brag

I'm not normally given to bragging, but I just got my course evaluations from FP last term, and I got the awesomest reviews EVAR, and I just had to share. By the numbers, I hit some really nice marks, like 62% "very helpful" on "instructor's feedback", or 71% "strongly agree" on "clear explanations", or 62% "excellent" on "effectiveness of the instructor", all of which were way higher than the overall faculty averages over the last three years, and actually, quite a bit higher than my own scores last year, iirc. The written comments were also pretty fantastic, with one student simply writing, "This was the best class I had this term." Another said of me that "the instructor had this sort of aura of ease about him, and certainly helps me form my opinion on what college instructors should be like." That's like the Holy Grail of student evaluation comments. There was also praise for my ability to let discussion tangent a bit in interesting ways, without letting it get too far afield.

Of the nine that turned in written comments, two had mostly negative things to say, alas—but not so much about me as about the idea of FP. One claimed to be speaking for "most of us, in the Knox Community", which I thought was interesting, but said that they found classes like this to be bullshitty and lame. In particular, they objected to the idea that everyone "be forced to talk"; which, honestly, is something I've wavered on myself. I do think it's a bit unfair to the quieter types, but without requiring some minimal level of participation, I'm sort of at a loss as to how to divide the attentive-but-quiet from the totally-zoned-out. Ah well, something to work on for next year.

"I feel kind of bad that I probably tripped up her innate sense that some kind of spin control needed to be done on this issue. I wish I knew the secret 'don't worry you don't have to schmooze me' handshake." --Zach Miller

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December 18, 2006

The run continues!

We've gotten a final confirmation on the speaker for Knox Commencement 2007: It will be William Jefferson Clinton. Hooray for guaranteed seats on the platform!

"[Ballroom Dancing] just gets more exciting the more you know about it, which is why you have to do well at school so you can spend the rest of your life supporting your habit. Just don't plan to marry anyone who dislikes dancing; it'll probably win in the end!" --Kay Teague, YCN Coordinator

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October 09, 2006

Three more!

Just three more FP papers to grade. I have got to get this off my plate; they've been waiting a week. And I need to move on to other things. I just have no idea how the humanities profs handle the volume of papers that they do; it's insane how long this takes. (Well, I do have some idea: I imagine "years of practice" probably figures in somehow.)

"My stepbrother's wife is from Hawaiʻi, and when they got married, they were living out there and had the wedding there. They didn't have a honeymoon afterwards, but I have to wonder where Hawaiian couples go for their honeymoon—Nebraska?" --Brian Sebby

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July 18, 2006

"No, no, you've got the—oh."

It's still a bit weird to get an email addressed to "Dr. Blaheta". Of course, they're right, and it's even contextually valid (this is the "we received your submission" letter), but my first reaction is still that it's some hilarious spam or form letter.

(Well, it is more or less a form letter, but as I said, valid....)

On wedding receptions: "Is God going to be offended because I didn't spend half a year's salary feeding bland catered food to everyone I ever met once, making them dance to "whomp there it is", and providing them with the means to get trashed?" --Tori Bryan

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July 14, 2006


Well, thirty-five pages of love are now winging their way through the ether to the program committee for the paper submission. (That's double-spaced; it'll be about eighteen pages if they publish it.) I didn't get everything done that I wanted to, of course, but then, one never does. In my hasty last readthrough I was generally pretty satisfied with it (especially knowing that if it got accepted I'd have another shot at rewording a couple of awkward places).

And now I have to beat a hasty path out of the building before they cut the power on me. :)

"warning: resume: target already running. Pretend to resume, and hope for the best!" --gdb warning message

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Hard at work

Deadlines are so exhilarating. I have a paper deadline of the 15th, which is effectively bumped up to 4pm today when they cut power to SMC to install a new HVAC system, since I won't be able to work here after then. I suppose I could edit at home on my laptop, but I'd have no access to my data, so it's pretty dicey.

So here I am, in my office, at 2 in the morning. I've been here mostly nonstop since 9 in the morning (except for a brief trip home to fix dinner and feed the dog), and I'll probably go right through the night. Whee!

"I think men band together for stupidity." --Ranyee
"Well, everyone needs a cause." --Celeste

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July 05, 2006


So I'll be sitting here working, and get to a sigh-point—that is, not necessarily something where I'd be stuck, but just hard enough or tedious enough to merit a sigh—and before I realise it I'm looking at the other screen and switching to a browser window or a notesfile session. It's really and truly amazing how strong the procrastination instinct can be....

"After this semester, it will all be better." --Joe LaViola

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June 30, 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

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June 23, 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

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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

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June 09, 2006


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

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May 16, 2006

Writing assignments

It sure is nice to write assignments far enough in advance (like, say, a day) that you have the chance to write code snippets to make sure Java works like you expect, and when it doesn't, to research the fix on the net. It means you don't have to send out a complicated-sounding correction after the fact (and these corrections always at least sound complicated, even when they aren't). It means that the workaround that you give can be the Right One, rather than a hastily-cobbled-together hack that'll get the job done for this assignment only and then sit in their directory as a painful reminder of your dereliction of duty. It means that you might even get a chance to teach your students, tangentially, about some other aspect of how network security models work.

It'd be especially nice if I could get myself to do this sort of thing as a rule, rather than as the exception. :P

"To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men." --Abraham Lincoln

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April 24, 2006

General update

I haven't been feeling very bloggy lately, but I've actually been doing a few things worth writing about. Saturday I was in Indianapolis for part of a dance competition, where I didn't do very well, but really liked the downtown area. Vibrant and very well-integrated, you could tell it was active from the crack of dawn until past midnight, unlike say downtown Chicago or downtown Galesburg. It's big enough to have a decent nightlife (at least, so it appeared in one evening there) but small enough that the nightlife hasn't divorced itself from the business district, which is nice. Also, the architecture is great, at least in the half-mile square right around the city centre.

Then I had to rush back to Galesburg to practice for the chorus performance on Sunday. We did a Civil War-themed concert, with each song preceded by narration and readings (of the voiceover-on-A&E-specials variety) that really made the concert feel more like a play. (Or a revue, but that term makes it sound kitschy, which it wasn't.) Everybody was on, at least to the outside observer. The soloist that had woken up with no voice and the soloist and reader suffering from severe back spasms didn't let on, and you'd certainly never know. The world-premiere piece that we did really came together, and we actually finally liked it (after a couple of months of banging our heads on it—it's modern, so you need a while for it to grow on you). I can't wait to see the DVD.

And then I had to turn around and write a midterm exam for CS 142. Which, for some reason, was way harder than usual. I was having a devil of a time writing questions of the appropriate size. Although I prefer writing more smaller problems, so that blowing "part 1" doesn't screw you for part 2, I just kept devising these monolithic problems that I couldn't tease apart into pieces. It's also a very boring exam, largely due to the order I've had to follow in teaching things, which hasn't really let me devise any of my fun problems. (Maybe that's just as well? But I have heard students comment that they enjoy my exam problems.) And I couldn't use problems from last year's CS 142 midterm, because I haven't covered any of that material yet, although I'm close in a few cases.

Now I need to tidy up some loose ends and do laundry, and tomorrow I'm doing a fast round-trip to Chicago for an eye appointment and to get my car fixed. Fun fun fun....

"Giving 51% of the people 100% of the power is immoral. It's rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic to debate whether the 51% should be chosen randomly or by careful scheming." --Paul Hebble

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April 11, 2006

Flunk Day!

A more subdued Flunk Day this year; it was nice, but still only low 70s, and windy. That caused them to cancel the band and the Polynesian fire dancers (booo) and to move the inflatable-screen movie to the fieldhouse. And I didn't get there until almost 2pm, because I had somehow picked today to sleep in. Ah well.

Also, the faculty had our asses handed to us by the friars this year, 15-9. First time in five years. Not sure how that happened....

Geoff's Question: For heaven's sake, if people have absolutely no idea how to use technical terminology of grammar, why do they try...?

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April 07, 2006

En fuego

I had a great class today. Despite the ongoing malaise (today: "productive" coughing. Ew.), I was pretty well on top of my game. We backed up and covered some stuff that should have been review but maybe wasn't; I gave an extemporaneous blurb about the bitwise operators (summary: ^ does not mean what you think it means. Caveat programmor.); I answered some more questions about exceptions, and we moved on to implement the first half of IntArrayBag. And students were asking lots of good questions. An excellent day to have four visitors (two students, two parents).

Now I'm going home to take a nap and cough into my pillow. :P

'The question isn't whether God exists like a brick exists, but rather "what part of our experience does the symbol 'God' reveal and what parts does it obscure?"' --Jim Rigby

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March 14, 2006

A private message

To my CS 262 students, whose exam I am grading right now:

Would it kill you to read the directions once in a while? I mean, are you trying to annoy me by making it harder to test your code? Because honestly, it's usually not a good idea to actively annoy people who are trying to come up with a grade for your work. Not if you want a good grade for that work, at least. You should probably consider yourselves lucky that I'm a softie and, despite running on no sleep, am bothering to correct the simple errors in your interface so that I can assign a fairer grade for the body of the problem.

But I'm still pretty annoyed about the whole thing.

"Everyone knows the Painful Chill of Nonexistence. That's high school." --Sam Heath

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December 13, 2005

Back now

I didn't mean to take a weeks-long break from blogging. I can't even say I was really busy; a lot of it, I was just distracted. A quick rundown of what I saw and did:

I went home for Thanksgiving on Wednesday and we went to see the movie version of Rent. The music was great, but parts of it didn't totally make sense. Then someone pointed out that the characters are all supposed to be 17-20 years old. That made a lot of things clearer. Very angsty, but sort of immature, you know? Anyway, now I need to see La Bohème.
Harry Potter, take 1
Pretty much as soon as I got home I started reading book 4 in preparation for the movie. I quite liked it. Although I've heard everyone saying for years now how "dark" the series gets in book four, I don't think that's exactly true. Book 4 is really two books in one: a 500 page book, the "real" book 4, more or less like the first three; and a 75 page book that should be entitled "Book 4.5: Everything changes". The last couple chapters fundamentally shift several alliances and signal a sea change in how the series is going to go. A number of people have told me that I wouldn't be able to keep up my "eh, I'll read the next book before the next movie" pattern after book 4, and they're right. I have to read book 5 really soon now.
Mmm, sweet potatoes. Boy, are my cousins all getting tall.
Harry Potter, take 2
Day after Thanksgiving, we went to see the movie. It was fine, I guess, but not nearly as good as the third movie. While I'm not averse to changing things in order to fit the medium and time frame better, it just wasn't done as well this time. They partially left the reporter in, but didn't really do anything with her. They made Beauxbatons into an all-girls school full of flakes and weaklings, introducing a sexism that wasn't really in the book. They made Harry's motivations a lot more ambiguous than in the book, especially towards the end of the maze. Because they omitted all the "book 4.5" stuff, Dumbledore's speech at the end doesn't make much sense. Oh well, win some, lose some.
After the movie, we went to visit Loren and those taller people she lives with. She's so adorable! And those taller people make good cocktails, too.
Saturday, then, we went to see the musical Wicked downtown. I read the book a couple years ago, and had heard a couple of the songs off the soundtrack, but I still wasn't sure if it would be any good. It was! They did a great adaptation, among other things fixing the ending, and it preserves all the counter-cultural flair of the original. Imagine turning the Wizard of Oz into a commentary on governmental control and the seeds of fascism—and with music!
The trial
The audiobook for the trip home was one of the mysteries I'm so fond of, except that in addition to drafting a whodunit, author Robert Whitlow was pamphleteering. We got to see how every character's life was better for being born again, or worse for not being. The rest of the book was fine, I guess, but by the end all the witnessing was getting pretty tiresome. (And the epilogue was glurgy beyond belief, oy.)
Also sleeping. But grading was most of what I did for that first week after Thanksgiving. The wages of procrastination is... a helluva lot to do right there at the end.
A Phule and his money
The third book in Robert Asprin's series. Fun as extremely light reading that you don't want to think about very much. I haven't done enough of that lately.
I joined the Galesburg Community Chorus this term, and our concert was the 3rd. We sang the Schubert Mass in G, the Vivaldi Gloria, and a few carols. It was the first big ensemble I'd been in since graduating Quincy; lots of fun, although I actually sang better in the dress rehearsal than in the concert itself. :P The CD sounds ok, though.
I'd had a serious jones for a game of Civ since well before Thanksgiving (thanks to everybody talking about the release of Civ 4). I didn't dare install it until my grades were in, though. I sat down to install it on my laptop... only to discover that my DVD drive is busted. Won't spin up a disc. It worked as recently as the first week of November, but no longer. SO frustrating. I ended up going in to my office, installing, and playing there until six in the morning. Then, in a brainstorm after I got home, I realised that if I VPNed in I ought to be able to remotely mount my work machine's drives on my laptop, and the Civ3 CD was still in the CD drive, and sure enough, I was able to remotely mount it and install to my laptop. So over the course of three days I probably got forty hours of playing in, mostly sating me. :)
A while ago I discovered LilyPond, a music engraving package in much the same way that LaTeX is a text typesetting package. I have a lot of fun playing with it, understanding how it works, and contributing documentation. This is how geeks relax, folks.
Fac search
The CS department is doing a faculty search, so I get to go through all the applications and rank them. There's a Dilbert cartoon that keeps popping into my head during this process: "Hey! Dot matrix!" Not quite that bad, of course, and there are a few promising ones. But, boy, the middle and bottom of the application pool, yikes.
House walk
The Galesburg Civic Art Center has a neat fundraiser they run each year: they get five houses in town to let people wander through, and then they charge those people $12 to see all five houses. The houses on the tour range from grand to cozy, but there's something to see in all of them; the ones you expect to be plain are sometimes the most interesting ones to see inside. It's fun hearing people say "ooh, check out this bathroom!" or "what a great place to put an office!" The last house I went to was Steve Jones's, and it has a pump organ that he'd had restored, and the guy that restored it came to play for a while. Really cool.
Same time, next year
Sunday, I was following my usual routine, and sitting in Uncle Billy's reading the Zephyr, when I noticed that Coffee Bean is putting on a show next weekend. No wait, this weekend. Crap! No—I'm in luck, they have a Sunday matinee. Which starts in 25 minutes. Run! As it happens, I made it to the show (in the community room of the mall) with minutes to spare, and settled in. The premise is that each of six scenes take place in the same hotel room, five years apart, as discussions between a man and a woman in a deep long-term relationship. They're married—just not to each other. The two actors did a pretty good job with it; I think the guy overdid the guilt scenes a bit, but mostly they hit the full range of emotions right on. The rapport was excellent, and it was easy to believe that the two had been a couple for a long time; I found out later that the actors had been dating for several years. How did I find out? Well, at the end of the show, the guy signals to the sound tech to cut off the music, pulls out a speech from his pocket, and starts reading it. And he proposed! Right there in front of the audience! She was totally stunned. Most of the crew didn't even know about it, and of course the audience wasn't expecting anything of the sort, although his moms in the front row were well-prepared with cameras, so presumably he'd clued them in. :) He was heard to say afterwards, "That was what I was so damn nervous about all week." I bet.
Still no roof
But there are hints of progress. After the 30th—which was itself the first time I'd seen the roofers in two weeks—it snowed, and it's been snowing every few days since, which makes the roof too treacherous to work on, I guess. But today I was awakened by clomping on my roof, and it was the head roofer guy shovelling off snow. He promised that the crew'd be back tomorrow (today, now) to continue work, and that they would subsequently be tarping it each night, so they'd be able to clear any snow each day. Why they didn't do that in the first place, I have no idea, but at least they're doing it now. I again have hope that this thing will be done before March. Ideally, by the end of the week. Then I can actually start planning my budget again.

Now, this week, I need to get cracking on stuff for next term. Once I go home next Monday, there will be no work done (whether I want to or not) until at least the 2nd... and classes start the 3rd. Wish me luck!

Even now, in the nostalgic glow of nonpartisanship, I am tempted to point out that, in his otherwise carefully composed self-encomium, Clinton's "working together, America has done well" is a prime example of a dangling modifier. It could be corrected by changing the subject "America" to "Americans" or "the American people," which would be a plural subject that could be "working together." But in the father of our country's paraleiptic tradition, I will pass over this grammatical lapse in utter silence. --William Safire

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November 22, 2005

Dammit, not again

I fucking hate bringing Honor Board cases. I hate the way they cast doubt on everything that student has done, I hate the way the student thinks that I won't notice that they've copied wholesale, and I really hate how it makes me feel like the bad guy. God dammit.

"It takes serious mojo to perform a sacrament." --Jonathan Prykop

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November 15, 2005

Exposing the evil empire

I saw the Walmart movie tonight (the anti one). It wasn't very good. Its production values sucked---the sound mixing was terrible, and frequently drowned out the speaker with "background" music---and if I hadn't gone in knowing a bunch of stuff about Walmart, I would still be a little skeptical. In one interview, they kept flipping the image horizontally, I suppose to make it look like multiple camera angles. In nearly every interview, there were obvious splices, right in the middle of sentences, and while this may have been done to make the speaker sound more coherent, it's also hard to be convinced it wasn't changing the meaning of what they were saying.

I did learn two things, though, that I didn't already know: 80% of crimes committed at Walmarts occur in their parking lots, making them one of the highest-crime areas in many towns they invade; and appraised property values automatically go down throughout a town as soon as Walmart arrives, because the appraisers know that so many stores are about to close, empty space will soon be available.

It was neat to see that the showing required not one but two overflow rooms to seat everyone---many college affiliated people, but also some from the town---and that a lot of the attendees stuck around for discussion afterwards. There was actually a really good one in the room I was in, because there were two guys who were, if not pro-Walmart, at least pro-big-business and very free market about jobs (after all, if Walmart's not paying enough, the workers can just leave, right?). It's good for me to actually have to argue against an opponent in person every now and then. (One of the others in the room was a R-M reporter who took my name---I hope I'm not quoted to say something ridiculous tomorrow. :P)

In other news, I woke up with a slightly sore throat this morning, which maintained itself all day and started getting worse about two hours ago. And yet, all I can think is, if I was going to get sick, THANK GOODNESS that it waited until now. The very last immediate-deadline anything that I have for this term is FP meetings tomorrow; then after that, grades are due in two weeks. So I have time to recover, whew.

Mein bratwurst has a first name,
It's F-R-I-T-Z,
Mein bratwurst has a second name,
It's S-C-H-N-A-C-K-E-N-P-F-E-F-F-E-R-H-A-U-S-E-N. --Tony Nuval

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November 05, 2005

Knox does it again

Just got back from Urbana (again), where this week it was the Knox computer programming team competing against teams from a lot of colleges bigger than us. It went a lot better than last year (not hard), and Knox acquitted itself well: our two teams were 5th and 7th at the site (of 17, including three UIUC teams that beat us), and 23rd and 54th in the region (of 121).

So our teams did about as well as last year, but the competition was much smoother. Learning from our mistakes, the site coordinator set up the lab in advance and gave the entire group fifteen minutes in the morning to try out the judging system, submitting known-bad and known-good submissions and so on. Good for the teams, and great for the judges; as a result, we were much more confident that everything worked. And it did; not a glitch in sight. The judges got to have their usual frustrating and fun time seeing what errors people were making (and making, and making) in the course of writing their programs.

And now I'm sitting in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, marvelling that a thin sheet of tar paper (or its modern equivalent) is successfully keeping my attic dry. On the drive home, I was starting to get a bit worried...

"That's why it's called pseudocode, jackass." --overheard

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October 21, 2005


Between last Wednesday and next Wednesday, I am to meet with my 12 advisees, 17 FP students, and 21 CS 141 students. Already, of the 40 that were supposed to have already happened, I've had 6 of them blown off. Is it just me, or is that a really high rate of failure?

"Of course they're not the same. Homosexuality has no cure. Pedophilia can be fixed with a transfer to another diocese!" --Lewis Black

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October 03, 2005

Frustrating teaching day

Today just didn't go very well, teaching-wise. In FP, I had the hardest time yet trying to prod the students into discussion. I suppose that my discussion questions aren't good enough, but seriously, for most of the class it felt like they all would've rather just sat there in uncomfortable silence. A few of them might not have read the assignment, but I think that wasn't the problem for most of them. One kept answering questions in such a way as to shut down discussion---not sure if that was intentional or not---and another clearly seemed to disapprove of my lack of control, though apparently not enough to actually say very much. (I did manage to coax out a few comments, at least.) Towards the end of the class, there was a bit of actual back-and-forth between students, but it felt very fragile. When it veered a bit from what we'd actually read, I was leery of trying to steer it back, because I'm pretty sure that if I had opened my mouth, they would've all closed theirs again. Arrghhh. Of course, I can't blame them---I'm the one that's supposed to draw them out of their shells and cause them to re-examine and re-form their world view, right? I'm the one that's supposed to make them able to understand how to evaluate and make choices, right? I just don't know how. Up till today, I kind of thought I was doing alright, but then, blahhh.

Fast on the heels of that failure, I moved on to my CS 141 class. Although I've been generally happy with my pacing and such this term, today I felt like I was ineffective when I was lecturing, ineffective when I was eliciting responses, and ineffective when I put them in small groups. I "covered" most of what I wanted to cover for today, but I felt somehow that nobody walked out understanding anything other than what they'd walked in with.

And I have no idea why. Some days, I do something wrong, and I know what I can do to fix it. But I just have no idea why today completely failed to work. So I'm mostly reduced to just hoping things go better Wednesday. What a frustrating feeling.

'Sudoku comes from a Japanese word meaning "You won't believe the amount of time I have to kill."' --Howard Leff

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September 23, 2005

You heard it here first

Knox Commencement speaker 2006: Stephen Colbert. Ohhhh, yeah.

"We produce way way more pollution and CO2 per capita than any other country in the world. A global treaty which did not treat the US as the largest polluter would be a complete waste of time." --Michael Kimmitt

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September 19, 2005


"So what does unitCostsMoreThan do?"




"*sigh* good..."

"this scurvy GroceryItem..."

"yes, yes..."

"costs more per unit than a given othARRRRRRRRR GroceryItem."




It's my own fault, of course. I told them what day it was, and should not have been surprised at the result. :)

"Being a retired professor is a lot like being an ordinary professor, except that you don't have to write research proposals, administer grants, or sit in committee meetings. Also, you don't get paid." --Don Knuth

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September 15, 2005

Week 1

The term is now in full swing, and the theme of the term is: high enrollment!

I'm one of twenty or so professors teaching a section of FP, our freshman seminar, to one of the largest freshman classes in recent memory. There are 17 kids in my section, which alone would make it one of the largest classes I've taught (in addition to being a style of class that is totally new to me...).

But it's not even my largest class this term. My CS 141 class is so large, with an enrollment of 24, that I needed to open a second lab section just to handle everyone. A lot of sharp kids in there, too, so I have high hopes that we'll get a lot of majors this year (woo!).

And then tonight, the first ballroom class to include freshman, I had... wait for it... FORTY kids. Of whom a few were returning students from last year, but at least thirty of them were new. I was so psyched. And they really enjoyed it; it felt like a first class in the Brown club, except that I'm not nearly as good as Christina always was. But I was totally cribbing all her best lines. ;)

On Katrina's aftermath: "It feels like we're living in a Dickens novel: brutal, overblown, superficial, poorly written, and surrounded by misery." --Sam Walker

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June 13, 2005

A flute serenade

So here I am, sitting in my office, when all of a sudden this aethereal music starts playing around at the edge of my hearing. After a few moments of this, I had to go investigate; this isn't exactly an everyday occurrence. I go out in the hallway, turning this way and that, go down the stairs---listen for a moment because it's stopped, but then it begins again---and finally discover, in one of the side passageways in the psych wing, a Knox student sitting there on the floor with her music and her flute. Evidently she doesn't like CFA and spends all her time here anyway. (For me, that'd be a reason to go find someplace else, but hey, different strokes and all that.) She kept apologising, but I told her I didn't mind at all, but I think I've scared her away. No---there it is, she's started again. Bizarre (but cool!).

"Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous!" --Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

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June 07, 2005

A bind

I always seem to do this to myself. I've had loads of time to work on it, but I've put off until now working on my cs142 grading, which is of course due tomorrow or I'd probably put it off more.

I mean, I got my senior grades done a week ago. Why couldn't I have finished my grades then? Sigh.

"Dogma is useful for pulling oneself up by one's moral and religious bootstraps, but simplistic moral claims are not effective in choosing between several far-from-perfect alternatives." --Chris Tessone

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June 06, 2005

Obama at Knox

Commencement was Saturday, and Senator Obama was the main speaker. God, he's a great orator. He also is, or has, an excellent speechwriter. But it's not just that; he can integrate stuff on the fly. The Knox website has a "transcript" that is pretty obviously just the intended speech (and not copyedited, at that, tsk tsk), but comparing that to the actual transcript is pretty impressive, as you can see how he made changes as he went, and if you listen to the video you can see that when he would misspeak on one word, he'd extemporaneously edit the rest of the sentence to match it.

After Obama's speech, and after the diplomas were distributed, Dan Lieberman gave the student speech. It was structured around a motif of "Hi mom!", "Hi faculty!", each one followed with some remarks thereto, and when he addressed the abovementioned orator, he turned around and said, "Hi, President Obama!" A brief gasp and then thunderous applause from the audience. Dan then coyly explained that he wanted to "try that out and see how it sounded"---more applause. Dan then directed the Senator to find under his seat Dan's résumé (it was actually there, Obama held it up to show the crowd), in the most shameless bit of job schmoozing I've ever seen. I hope it's effective; he'd be a great guy to get into politics.

Aside from these two excellent speeches, the ceremony was chiefly notable for the rain which didn't quite hold off. As the choir sang "How can I keep from singing", a perfectly serendipitous thunderclap accompanied the line "No storm can shake my inmost calm..." as grey clouds raced in to threaten. The platform party skipped a bunch of stuff to get to the diplomas in an effort to beat the rain, which failed, so all the graduates got a bit rained on. However, by the end of the list, the rain had stopped again, so we went back and picked up the earlier stuff we'd skipped, and indeed the weather then completely cleared. By the time we'd finished the recessional, it was sunny and warm again. Sigh.

At that point, I grabbed some food, said hi to a few people, and then ran off to my car to race up to Milwaukee. But that's for another post.

"If Christianity is to remain relevant in the United States, it has to emphasize a doctrine that has historically been important to the faith but has been much maligned in this past century: the efficacy of the conscience apart from the institutional church." --Chris Tessone

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May 09, 2005


No, not the recent down-a-peg-taking of Labour. I seem to have gotten myself elected Secretary of the Faculty Senate. Matt thinks that this blog is at fault---I seem to have demonstrated a lack of reluctance to take notes and write things down. Though, to be honest, if I can pay my dues with nothing harder than sitting and typing up notes during every faculty meeting, I guess I've gotten off easy. I'll miss being able to knit during them, though.

"I'm sure people did question whether Italian printers were quite the right people to legislate on the meaning of everything; but on the other hand, resistance was obviously useless against a family that could invent italics." --Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

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April 19, 2005

Flunk Day commentary

In a comment to my Flunk Day post, Brian left a link to his own account of the day.

It certainly is a counterpoint. I had the advantage of being able to return to my apartment, not be awakened by the Friars, and so on. (I actually wouldn't have been awakened by the Friars, already being awake, but that's not really relevant here.) But in the interest of fixing Flunk Day, rather than just writing it off, I'd like to work out some way to get rid of the problems he notes while keeping all the positives. Although Brian calls it "a tradition that has lost its purpose", I saw lots of clear indications that the original purpose---bringing the campus together, getting a day off, having lots of fun---is far from completely lost. Indeed, it appears to be on the rise; I saw clear improvements over last year in terms of less drunken people, and I've heard many reports from faculty and former students that this is part of a consistent long-range trend.

The real problems in Brian's case were all caused by people in the dorms, mainly two things: noise and vandalism. I'd be interested to know how widespread this sort of vandalism is, since the main areas of campus were notable chiefly for their cleanliness afterwards. An event where hundreds of people are partying is usually followed by a swath of detritus, but aside from the occasional stray piece of food there really didn't seem like that much to clean up. (Exception: there was a considerable amount of mud on a few of the walls in the mail room.) So I wouldn't have expected such destruction in the living areas; that's the problem to solve, and I'm not sure how. Do they do this when they host a regular party?

And as for the noise, two of the things mentioned weren't even directly related to Flunk Day. The door-slamming, while annoying, simply had the misfortune of being the night before. The first round of whistling and yelling wasn't actually people trying to start FD early---they thought it wasn't FD and were trying to perpetrate a scare. Of course, if there had never been FD there wouldn't be FD scares, but I really think that dealing with the scares directly would be a much more effective and fast solution to the problem of FD scares than eliminating Flunk Day entirely. The actual Flunk Day noise, well, to some extent that's just part of having a big party, and I've heard several stories from people who took advantage of the day off to go someplace quiet---one of the city parks, maybe---and read a book or take a nap in the sun. I think this is a reasonable compromise, actually.

I think Flunk Day is a really fun experience for most students, and they've been doing a good job at making it "good, clean fun" for the students who once were scared away from it. Now we just need to make sure that the students who want to opt out have the ability to do so.

"If quidquid Latine [dicitur], altum videtur 'whatever is said in Latin seems profound', then surely perhaps Græce altius 'deeper in Greek'." --Angelo Mercado

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April 18, 2005

Flunk Day II: Flunk Day Bites Back

My 142 exam was scheduled to go out today and be due Thursday. That seemed a little short, and so I'd thought of switching it to a Friday due date; but I wasn't sure, because this is totally Flunk Day season, and if Flunk Day were Thursday or Friday that would push my Friday due date to Monday, and midterm grades are due that day. So I put off changing it, and worked late into the night to put together the exam, graded homeworks, and so on, and when I finally went to sleep for a few hours I still hadn't prepped today's lectures. This is not unusual, actually, and it's the reason why I tend to spend 3rd and 4th hour sequestered in my office, feverishly writing out notes for lecture.

So I got up, took my shower, and was walking my dog---running late as usual, but hoping to get to my 9:20 Music Theory class close to on time---when Judy leans out her back door and says: "Ok, I have to ask, is today Flunk Day?" And I thought: "!" Because in all my figurings on how this is Flunk Day season, it never occurred to me that today might be the day. And despite not going to bed until after 6, I hadn't checked my email, and so I just didn't know. I rushed inside to find the dean's email: "YES-IT'S FLUNK DAY"

Well, that sure took a load off. At a somewhat more leisurely pace, I packed up a bag of dog stuff (including water bottle and bowl as well as plastic bags and toys), grabbed my dorky Bermuda hat, and loaded Nutmeg into the car to go to his, and my, second Flunk Day.

In all honesty, I simply cannot imagine a more perfect Flunk Day. The weather was the warmest it's been since September, the day clear with just a hint of clouds to accentuate the blue sky. As I arrived, about 9:30, the mud and foam pits were wrapping up, although I got gotten by one of my former students with a supersoaker first thing. Nutmeg was a hit (of course), and we wandered around the campus for about an hour and a half, chatting with people and watching the fun. Walking a dog, by the way, is a great excuse to be just wandering around aimlessly.

I ate lunch a little after 11 and then wandered some more (gotten again, this time by Erin, a ballroomer, who debarked from the slip-and-slide and gave me a great big hug), eventually landing in a circle of math and CS faculty for about a half an hour. At this point, Nutmeg was starting to get a little antsy, so I took him home. Lacking anything resembling a full night's sleep, I decided to take a nap for an hour and a half. This got me up at 3pm, and I thought about going back to sleep, but then I figured, hey, Flunk Day's just once a year, right? So I headed back in for another round.

I arrived at 3:30, just in time to catch the last of the Sno-Cones, and then head over to the Faculty-Friars softball game at 4, to kick the students' asses again this year. It was at this point that I received the first notice that I made the front page of the Register Mail---apparently I'm the photogenic face (or at least the photogenic crouched profile) of the Knox County Peace and Justice Coalition, which dedicated their Peace Tree yesterday.

We did, in fact, kick the asses of the students (well, by "we" I mean "other members of the faculty team", although I at least managed to achieve my goal of not embarrassing myself). Afterwards, I grabbed dinner on the Gizmo patio with Nathan, who was feeling a bit guilty about not granting a Flunk Day extension for a paper due tomorrow---it had already been extended once, but then, it's Flunk Day. I think the thing that tipped the balance was when I pointed out that if he didn't extend it, he'd just get a lot of crappy papers tomorrow. So he went off to send that email, and I returned to my car to trade my hat for a long-sleeved shirt and a blanket to sit on, for the concert.

I think I skipped the concert last year, but this year's was an a cappella group from Minneapolis named Marcoux Corner. The concert was great, hitting a variety of genres and (in true a cappella style) a bunch of songs that you wouldn't have expected to work without accompaniment. After being spoiled by the rich a cappella tradition at Brown, with groups of a dozen or so that rotate as various members graduate, it was fun to see a group of just four guys give such an awesome show. A highlight of the show was when they launched into a song and after just three words, a whole section of students started laughing and cheering. The opening verse didn't seem to warrant such attention, but the payoff was when they hit the refrain: they... well, why don't you just listen? (SO not work-safe. Seriously, don't click that link if there's anyone judgemental around.) If you can't listen to that where you are, I suppose the lyrics will do. (More, though not entirely, work-safe. Caveat lector.) Possibly the funniest part about the whole affair was when Terry Jackson, a Knox administrator who was sitting next to me, kept going on about it, and trying to remember where she'd heard it before---it's a Da Vinci's Notebook song, as she eventually managed to remember.

A few of us hung around and talked to the bass from the group for a while, but eventually they had to pack up, and it was dark and time for the movie to start anyway. The movie, Spider-Man II, was to be projected on an enormous (heh) inflatable (heh) screen, probably forty feet tall, erected (...) in front of Old Main. A much more efficient way to have a temporary outdoor movie screen than the heavy scaffolding I've seen some other places, although you do have to contend with the occasional wrinkle in the projection surface. The movie was great---I'm at least sympathetic to the idea that it was better than the original, though I haven't decided for sure myself. Nathan (who I ended up sitting next to again for the movie) claimed it was, and that it would be even better if the first 75 minutes of angst had been cut to about 45 minutes of angst, which is probably about right. On the other hand, they were certainly getting a lot of mileage out of dumping on Peter Parker every which way they could.

After the movie, the crowds dispersed fairly quickly, leaving surprisingly little mess behind them. I folded Nathan into the passenger seat of my Mini and gave him a ride home, and then arrived back here at about 10:30.

It almost feels like it should be an intercalary day. That tomorrow will be the real Monday, the real 18th of April. (As an aside, wouldn't it be nice if you could engineer that every once in a while?) I shouldn't have to put my garbage out tonight, because I didn't do any of the other usual Monday things. I should be prepping for my Monday classes, not my Tuesday free day.

The experience was fantastic. The vast majority of the college was there for at least one event, and probably most of the college---students, staff, and faculty---went to several. Hundreds of us went to the concert. Hundreds went through the inflatable obstacle course and slip-and-slide. Forty or so people played in the softball game, but at least a hundred people were watching. It's these shared experiences that help the College to bond as a community, and it's these memories that we will reminisce about a decade from now. Flunk Day is a fabulous event that it's too bad more colleges don't have.

"Whatever visceral appeal the "Life Begins When Sperm and Egg Walk Into a Bar" position may hold, it remains factually inaccurate; only a fringe of the medical community accepts the notion that emergency contraception is an abortifacient." --Dahlia Lithwick

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March 30, 2005

The CS instructor's best friend

Today I discovered a teaching aid that is so mind-bogglingly useful that it served in not one but two completely unrelated classes: Artificial Intelligence on the one hand, and Data Structures on the other. What is it, you say?

A big bag o' D&D dice. :)

In AI we needed to learn conditional probabilities and all the various little details that come with that; so I can ask things like "What's the probability of rolling a 3 on a green die?" or "What's the probability of rolling a 7 given that the die I drew out of the bag was a d12?" before moving on to advanced topics like "If the bag has 8d4 and 4d8, and I randomly draw one die and roll it, what's the probability that I roll a 2?"

And in data structures, today we started work on the Bag data structure. Having a number of real-life Objects that I could point to made that introduction a total breeze.

"I've always been rather pro-life, but where in God's Word does that mean arresting and detaining people who perform or seek out abortions? For me, the "culture of life" means cultivating a world in which life is wanted, not forcing life upon the world whether it wants it or not." --Jonathan Prykop

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March 22, 2005


Knox's Commencement speaker this year? Barack Obama. Oh yes.

"In Schiavo's case, God must wait in the wings until the courts and Congress are through playing Him...." --Burt Constable

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March 21, 2005

Shocked, depressed

I picked up my course evals today, and my 141 kids totally panned the class. Which is pretty surprising, since I didn't make any structural changes between fall and winter, and if anything I thought the winter term went smoother. But this last term's 141 was rated as disorganised, lacking clear goals, and overall poorly taught. Which is both disappointing and highly worrying, because a lot of that I didn't see coming. I'm thinking of fishing for clarifications, so I can at least figure out what they didn't like.

Now, the "too much work" eval, that I was expecting. I'm still not sure what to do about it, but at least I understand it.

"What's jousting? Jousting is when two guys strapped in armor charge their horses at each other while trying to knock the holy bejeesus out of each other with long wooden poles. Or one guy on a flying bird trying to turn enemy birds into eggs. Depends on what generation you belong to." --The Self-Made Critic

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March 12, 2005

It's so short now!

I finally took the plunge. Details forthcoming.

In other news, my 141 exam is about 2/3 graded, and I finished grading the 141 project yesterday. So I'm well on track to finishing up all that tonight. With a little luck, I can wrap up 262 before leaving tomorrow....

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets angry, he'll be a mile away; and barefoot. --Ancient Chinese proverb

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March 08, 2005

So much for that plan

I got in to work today about 11 as planned, and read email over coffee and a donut. Then I pursued some miscellaneous on-campus errands and eventually started lapsing into my bad old habits---websurfing, mostly---that would preclude getting any much-needed grading done.

Around 2:30 or 3 I headed over to the Gizmo with grading in hand. Sans internet and other distractions, I can more easily force myself to get work done. Some of my best, most quality grading time has been in the Gizmo.

I got about half a problem graded when I was joined by Matt Raffety, with whom I had a lovely and very long conversation. (I think he was also procrastinating on grading. ;) It was one of those rambling conversations that hits lots of topics and usually occurs at about two in the morning. Indeed, it was dark out when we finally left (he had to go play basketball).

At that point, of course, I had to go home, because Nutmeg really needed to be let out. And at home I have my usual raft of distractions, which brought me through to the Daily Show and now back to the internet, where I'm blogging about procrastination. Not exactly a new topic for this blog.

Well, try, try again. Maybe I'll get through a bunch tonight.

"Sometimes I wish software was corporeal so I could wring it's throat good and proper." --Brian Porter

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March 04, 2005

A flurry of activity

The term is winding down; it is the end of week 9, the last day of classes is Tuesday, and my exams go out on Monday. I've been making good progress in flushing my queue of backlogged grading; two homeworks and a project went back in my 141 class this week, and hopefully I'll get a 262 homework done tonight, bringing me up to the stuff turned in just this week, which I feel less guilty about not having graded yet.

My students are wrapping up their projects, although I bribed the 141 kids with a nine hour extension if they came to class, so hopefully I won't have people turning it in "on time" and then going home to sleep it off. We'll see how it works, but in the abstract I like the policy better than making it due at 2am.

This weekend is the Cyclone Ballroom Classic. Because it's so late in the term, initial interest in attending waned a bit, and we ended up with just two Knox kids going. That's ok, though, since it's really our debut as a college team, and I certainly don't mind starting small. Andrew and Rachel are good, too, and I think they'll really represent Knox well.

Between now and 5 tomorrow, though, I have a lot to do: pack, drop off my dog, assorted miscellaneous errands that can't wait until Monday. No rest for the wicked, I guess.

"I'm convinced artichokes are actually an extremely sessile animal; perhaps an extraterrestrial species. They're Meat Plants." --Sam Walker

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November 18, 2004

They hired me!

Found out this afternoon (official confirmation to follow) that they've decided to rehire me. Looks like Knox is going to be stuck with me for another half-decade or so, at least.

"While my armpit hair isn't thick and nasty, it has started to reach, God-and-Adam-in-the-Sistine-Chapel-like, for my chest hair." --Joe Shidle, who is going to find this quote on Google a few months or years from now and cringe in horror. Hi Joe!

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November 06, 2004


Today was the ACM programming contest!

What. A. Day.

So, we met at SMC at 7am to hop in a van and drive down to Urbana. When we got there, the usual introductory stuff happens, and we start doing the usual stuff like opening the problem packets, going to make photocopies, and so on. It was a little bit more disorganised this year, because the grad student who basically ran it last year has since graduated, and they lost a lot of their institutional memory. Eventually, we got everything copied, and went down to get acquainted with the judges' room.

There, the UIUC coordinator was trying to set up a program called PC-squared, which they used last year to run the judging of the contest, with great success. Unfortunately, there were some problems setting it up this year, and the initial diagnosis---which never really made sense to me---was that the whole problem was simply due to line terminations in some files being DOS and some being Unix. John (Dooley, of Knox) spent the next hour helping Ari (the coordinator) set it up. At some point we thought we were close, so we let the students into their lab (this marked 15 minutes before the start of competition).

We also had a discussion over whether to make them do I/O from what is called "standard input" or to use files. Although we preferred standard in, the problem specifications---which were assembled by the regional coordinator---all had filenames on them, so we thought it might be less confusing if we just went with that instead.

Let me reiterate that: the regional said it was up to us, but they had made up problem handouts that indicated file-based I/O. This will be important later.

PC2 was being recalcitrant and not dealing well with files, so we decided to just check the output by hand. The program automatically downloaded their code to the judging machine, compiled it, and ran it there, so we could go into the directory where it was and look at the output file that was generated. I wrote a little script to automate the process, and as the contest got started we checked everything by hand to make sure the script wasn't messing up; everything checked out perfectly.

It seemed a little strange that all the submissions were correct, actually. Usually at least some teams submit something that generates incorrect output, and we have to mark it wrong and send it back. But it's not that out of the ordinary for everyone to get the easy problems correct.

After about two hours of the five-hour contest, we got a program that took longer than the stated one-minute maximum. An error! We felt a lot better after that. We shouldn't have.

Going into hour four, it was seeming increasingly bizarre that the only two errors were timeouts. Had nobody made any logic errors among the thirty or so submissions so far? We checked the next few by hand, and they really were correct.

One of the teams that had only submitted two problems (out of seven) then got a third in, and it was one of the hard ones. Good for them! That must be why they had stalled. Five minutes later, they submitted another correct one. Huh, we said, they must have been debugging on printouts---which led to a good ten-minute discussion on the virtues of debugging code without constantly recompiling.

When this team got yet another one, someone pointed out that it was only a two person team. Where were they getting all this? And where, by the way, less than a half-hour from the end, were the teams that should by now be desperately submitting not-very-working problems?

This wunder-team submitted a seventh problem of seven about fifteen minutes before the end, and something definitely seemed very, very wrong. A few minutes later, one came and wanted to let us know that solutions three through six were just printing the sample output for the problem, and the seventh was even more bogus than that: a thousand repetitions of the phrase "EVERYBODY WANG CHUNG TONIGHT!"


So it was that at about 5:40, I started madly going through to find the source of the problem, which was likely to invalidate all the results from this site. I was barking orders for people to bring me paper, for the site coordinator to email or call the regional director to not, under any circumstances, publish final results for the region just yet, and in fact to pull the webpage if possible. About three minutes before the end of the contest, I found the source of the problem

PC2 was so completely failing to handle file-based I/O, that after the program ran (and generated an output file called, say, triangle.out), PC2 would then copy into the same directory the known good output file (named, say, triangle.out), with the intent of comparing it with the standard output that it had redirected to a file named stdout.txt.

There is, for the record, no good reason for this; they could just as easily have compared stdout.txt with the version of triangle.out that was already sitting in the judges' known-good directory.

But what was normally a pointless but relatively harmless design decision turned into a nightmare for us, because the "program output" that we had been comparing---automatically or by hand---with the known-good output was in fact always strictly exactly a precise copy of the known-good output.

And it checked out perfectly.

So at this point I had to change my script to delete the existing triangle.out file, re-run the program and compare the new triangle.out file to it. Then I had to, one-by-one, redownload all 56 submissions and run this script on them. The java ones had different calling conventions, so I had to re-tool the script for them. And the java ones that used the ACM-provided (!) I/O library actually sent to standard output anyway, so in the end we had to deal with that too.

Remember how the ACM regional said it was up to us whether to take standard output or file-based output? And then provided problem definitions that assumed file-based output? And provided java support code that assumed standard output? Thanks a lot, dickheads.

So there we are, trying to placate the students, who by now have noticed that strangely, none of them seem to have gotten any incorrect submissions, and the regional coordinator, who wants to know what the hell is going on and why does our region have so many of the "best" teams in the region. And we're trying to re-run every single submission to make sure that this time, they're all right.

Every time we saw another one come up incorrect it was like getting stuck with a dagger, because that team then totally stopped working on that problem (thinking they had it), but of course really couldn't get credit for it. Especially grim were the "presentation errors", where the logic was basically 100% correct, but they had too many spaces or a misspelled word---technically wrong, but easy to fix, and they hadn't fixed it because they thought it was right.

By about 6:30, I was physically sick to my stomach, both from lack of food (thank goodness I'd eaten a cookie just before the final rush) and from the stress of the whole situation, since I'd basically taken charge and become point man for the whole re-evaluation operation. Fortunately, I had two people behind me, one checking my results and one writing them down, and almost everyone else knowing not to bother me with things I didn't care about or couldn't help. Finally we completed the audit, updated all the local scores, and sent them off to the regional.

In the final tally, excepting the last desperate fifteen submissions from the last twenty minutes or so (all wrong), there had turned out to be only about eight judging errors, reasonably spread out among all the teams. Unfortunately, the errors of the two top teams (one from UIUC, one from Rose-Hulman) were both of the "presentation error" variety; while logic errors have no guarantee of ever being caught, it's pretty clear that those teams would have been able to correct those problems.

At about this point, having mailed off the results and awaiting a response from the regional, I went out and got some slices of the Papa Del's that was slowly getting cold out in the atrium. Lots of questions from the students (who still hadn't quite figured out what happened), all met with "no comment"s from me. I brought the food back to the judges' room and was immediately sat down to send off a detailed narrative of what happened and what went wrong (purportedly because I'm a "linguist", though it's not clear to me why that was more relevant than the fact that I discovered and belatedly solved the problem). This I did, and most of the judges went off to explain what happen and at least award ribbons for the intra-site post-correction results.

After I sent off the email, I went out there, but they were wrapping up so I returned and sent off a brief clarification. One team came in to ask what they'd done wrong, so I re-ran their problem (it turns out they'd terminated early on a short input). I'm not sure exactly what the coordinators told the students about what happened, but every one of them were really conciliatory and "ok, I'm not going to dispute that, I was just curious!". Nobody was pissed off, which was gratifying, because they had pretty much every right to be.

The final response from the regional was that the post-correction results had to stand as-is. Even after losing one problem, UIUC's A team still ended up in second place in the whole region, because they're just that cool, and so they'll probably still go to worlds (in Shanghai!). Rose-Hulman's A team (numbered "Two" for reasons not worth elabourating) ended up sixth in the final placing, but as I mentioned earlier, one of their errors was of a variety that was dead easy to correct, and indeed fairly easy to accidentally judge as correct. This would have put them at the top of the regional rankings. Hopefully they'll be able to get a wild-card slot out of this (isn't this sort of thing what wild-cards are for, after all?), but the initial response from the regional was that if our region got allotted a wild-card it would go to the team that placed third in the region, not to Rose-Hulman. Which would suck.

Knox, for its part, made an excellent showing. One of our teams solved four of seven problems and placed 24th in the region, about the same as last year, and the highest-placing liberal arts college. Our other team solved three and placed 40th, also comparable to last year's performance, and quite a good showing. Cheers to our six competitors for their hard work!

So, that was my day. It was a long day. It seems clear that at least one and possibly all three of us here at Knox should become experts on the setup, configuration, and administration of PC2 sometime before next year's ACM contest. And I found myself seriously wondering if there would be any way I could leverage a position as site coordinator for next year, but at UIUC. Or maybe we could host one at Knox; the Cat Lab should hold eight teams pretty easily.

"Liberals once lost elections for supporting civil rights as well and now look back on those losses as badges of honor. Eventually, since young people are far more tolerant of homosexuality than their parents, gay marriage will stop hurting Democrats at the polls." --Peter Beinart

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November 05, 2004

One homework down

I just finished grading a homework. Between my two classes, I now have three homeworks and a project to grade. Should I write another homework for my cs141 kids? I should. They need the practice and the feedback. But for the whole feedback thing to work, I really need to get my ass in gear on grading them.

I definitely should have gotten a TA for this term. Maybe next time. (Definitely next year.)

Best Illuminati reference ever: "Maybe the Democrats will finally get some nutsack and realize you have to keep attacking the Gnomes to keep them from winning." --Joe Shidle

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October 27, 2004

Continuing exhaustion

My teaching load this term is no heavier than the last two---arguably quite a bit lighter than in the Spring, actually. So why is it that I feel so much more strung out this time around? I'm having the most difficult time trying to keep up with my grading, being now behind by one full homework in each class and looking at a project coming in this weekend.

Oh yeah, and I need to put together a packet of info for the Faculty Personnel Committee about why I should be signed for another two years, by... Friday. It's mostly done, but the stuff I have left keeps getting deferred by, "I need to write a lab for tomorrow!" or "I'd better refresh my knowledge of TCP/IP before I have to lecture on it in three hours".

The worst of it is, I'm not even procrastinating that badly. (You'll notice the plethora of recent blog posts.)

"Kerry is not the ideal instrument, just as a rubber raft is not the optimal vessel on the open sea. But when the ship is sinking, you can't be choosy." --Steve Chapman

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July 16, 2004

On the pedagogy of intro CS

The workshop I've been attending this week is called How to Design Class Hierarchies, about how to teach introductory computer science. It follows on the heels of TeachScheme!, whose primary philosophy is that the job of an intro class is to teach CS concepts, using a language with a very light, transparent syntax, rather than having to get bogged down in the heavy syntax of a language like Java. Of course, eventually you do get to Java, and what then? The thesis of this pedagogy is that you should keep developing concepts, and introduce language constructs only as they are well-motivated by the conceptual development.

The most revolutionary development, though, is that right off the bat it teaches class hierarchy. The notion of Shape being a class that is the abstract union of Circle and Rectangle (for instance) is one of the first things developed. The only concept taught before that is that of structured data, of treating objects as collections of related data. As crazy as it may sound at first, I think it'll work pretty well.

My main worries have to do with fitting it into our larger curriculum at Knox. Much though I'd like to start with a term of Scheme (as is presumed by the HtDCH book, at least), we don't right now. That means that there are some concepts, like boolean logic, that are presumed for HtDCH but that I'll have to teach. Furthermore, when kids finish the first term course, someone will have to take over teaching the second class, and so I need to bring them to a good stopping point, which could be tricky. And finally, the current plan is that after Winter 2005, I won't be teaching 141 (I think John is taking it), so I really need to get the other CS profs on board.

The IDE is also causing me some concern. I really like the notion of language levels, restricting kids to just a subset of java until they're ready to move on (and giving them error messages tailored to the level). But BlueJ doesn't implement them, and ProfessorJ---the official IDE of the program---strikes me as possibly not ready for prime time just yet. I'm pretty conflicted about which one I should use, since they both have their pros and cons. Just today, I think I decided that I'd teach in the Linux lab---which we control---rather than the Windows lab, so that I can maybe update the IDE mid-semester. We'll see.

"Well, I figured it was Anime, and thus I needed to know how japanese it was before deciding if I cared. By "japanese" I mean does it tend to throw out lots of pseudo-mystic crap that never gets even perfunctorially explained? Are all the female voice actors most comfortable conversing in a frequency only heard by dogs? Are there commonly unexpected and earth shattering deus ex machinas, uh, I mean, "plot twists" that happen at the end of every episode then completely ignored in the next episode?
Ie: How japanese is it?" --Sam Walker

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June 26, 2004

Alumni day

I got up bright and early at 6:30 this morning to get an early start on getting to the IAA day. I was about the fourth person there at 9:40, and even by the time it was supposed to start at 10, maybe ten people had showed up. Some things never change. :)

It was nice seeing everybody in person, but there were two real highlights. One was when everyone wanted one of my business cards, and I got to pass them out. The other was at the alumni/faculty tea, when a few of us were chatting with IMSA's CIO, someone mentioned I was a CS professor, and he says, "we're trying to get someone to teach computer science! Why are you at Knox when you could be here?" He's big into getting alumni involved in everything. The icing on this particular cake is that about this time, IMSA's executive director Dr Marshall walks over, and concurs that I should think about teaching at IMSA! And it would be fun for a little while, but I would certainly miss teaching the more advanced stuff, not to mention that the load is heavier (4 classes per term) and I like it here. Maybe during a sabbatical some year.

Anyway, things wound down around 5 and I headed back. The long, boring drive nearly did me in, and I had to stop at the BP in Dixon (well, at the Dixon exit off the Reagan Expressway (hee)) to walk around and get some coffee and a cinnamon roll, which turned out to be really tasty, especially for gas station convenience store food.

On the Jack Ryan debacle: "Becoming the Republican nominee under these circumstances (would be) like having a cancer transplant." --Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL)

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June 23, 2004

At last!

I finally found a groove on the course prep work I've been wanting to do for cs141 in the fall. I started typing a few hours ago, and I have five dense pages of text down. (That'll probably be nine or ten in the final course pack.) Go me!

On learning foreign languages: "If you can't say what you mean in conversation, then instead mean something you're able to say. (For a while after I'd studied the Hindi future tense but hadn't yet learned the past tenses, whenever someone in our house asked me at the dinner table what I'd done today, I'd just say "I don't remember" and go on to talk about what I was planning to do tomorrow.)" --Kim Plofker

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June 09, 2004

On grades and procrastination

I submitted grades today at 10am. Then I amended one of my senior's grades, having realised that the final project was a tad (just a smidge!) harder than I estimated last week, and he really deserved to have that minus removed from his grade. Then I realised that one of the kids I thought was taking an incomplete, and for whom I'd thus submitted an F, was in fact not taking an incomplete. So I sat down and graded two homeworks and two projects, and submitted his revised grade, along with profuse apologies to the registrar's assistants, who by all indications have not yet begun to hate me. Which is fortuitous.

I still just don't understand people who completely fail to turn stuff in. Not missing a homework, God knows I did that myself often enough. But missing all of them? Or skipping a project? It's frustrating as a teacher to, on the one hand, see a student who is perfectly capable of doing good work, but just blows off so much work that their final grade plummets; or on the other hand, see a student who probably would be able to do it if they sat down and worked on the homework, ever, but don't, and therefore do very poorly on the few things they do attempt. But what can I do, other than send them the occasional reminder? I'm a terrible procrastinator myself, so I can understand where they're coming from, but I guess I'm better at pulling it out in the last moments (or perhaps just better at dealing with sleep deprivation---useful skill, that).

Anyway, I'm pretty loopy with sleep deprivation right now, what with having stayed up all night to finish grading final exams and projects in time for the 10am deadline this morning. (Did I mention I...? Yes, yes I did.) So now I will go to sleep. Well, after letting my dog out. I'll let my dog out, and then I'll go to sleep. After taking my contacts out. I'll let out the dog, take out my contacts, and then go to bed. And maybe laun---no! There is no third thing. Only the dog and the contacts. Now, where was I?

"I'm more in there if you s/wrong/distasteful/g." --Kevin Colby

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May 31, 2004



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May 26, 2004


Last class. Done.

"I would argue that most Americans could tell you that Washington state (or at least, the city of Seattle) is in the Pacific Northwest. I would not necessarily expect them to be able to find any of the following things on a map or a globe, however: 1) Washington state, 2) Seattle, 3) the Pacific, 4) north or 5) west." --Chris Sedlack

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Someday, I suppose, it's possible that I will write an exam sometime before the wee hours of the morning of the day it's handed out.

That day is, however, not today.

The old habits... they die hard.

"Y'know, DMT is produced in a small but measurable amount in the human brain. Should we make brains illegal as well? I know they won't be missed over at the DEA." --Sam Walker

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April 29, 2004

The morning after

A preternatural quiet hangs over the campus at 9am the morning after Flunk Day. Unsurprising, really; but I've really never seen so few students (or other people) around campus at any time of day, even when the weather was bad. I actually biked through the middle of campus and saw just one student on my way to SMC (and only three faculty, for that matter).

"Yeah, but then your ass would always weight 15 lbs. even when empty." --Joe Shidle

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April 28, 2004


And the day was great fun, except for the one super-scary moment.

After this morning's post, I went home to let the dog out and brought him back with me. He was super-excited to meet all the people (and eat all the crap they dropped in the grass). I meandered through the festivities, from lunch on the patio to the other side of Seymour where a big group was playing Ultimate and they'd set up a variety of different inflatable games (like an obstacle course, a gladiator game, and a human foosball arena). Oh, and the mechanical bull. Everywhere, students---who never see dogs---were gushing with adoration for my cute little puppy.

After over an hour of this, I ran into Chris, who wanted to meet at some point today (and who can blame him---we've set a partial deadline of Friday for some of his thesis work!), and we decided to just meet then. Dog and all. :) Initially, Nutmeg was ok in the office, but he just kept crying to go back outside, which made things a little difficult, but we managed. Then I went back to wandering around, and eventually he started barking at random things, so I took him home.

At home, he finally got to meet Judy's other dog Rusty, which was cute and ate up another twenty minutes before I brought him in and blocked him in the kitchen so I could go play softball.

At 4:00 was the Faculty-Friars softball game. A "Friar", in this context, is one of the twenty or so people that got woken up at 3:30 this morning to go off, start drinking, and then run Flunk Day. (Sensible, no?) And every year, in the afternoon, they face off with the faculty in a friendly game of 16" softball. (Which, by the way, a number of the new faculty had never even heard of, to my amusement.) Apparently, it's usually pretty close.

This year it wasn't, really; and they didn't even seem that drunk---the faculty creamed them. Go us! I played outfield, and caught the second out of the game, and fielded another ball later on that was decently played but didn't amount to anything; and all my at-bats resulted in respectable hits, although I never got to run it in.

The top of the last inning, the faculty was at bat and had brought in a few runs, when one of the scariest things I've ever seen happened. One of the profs swung the bat and it slipped from his hands at extremely high speed, straight at the faculty dugout area, at about eye level. One prof ducked and another threw her hands up---thank goodness, as it would've got her square in the face otherwise and probably, seriously, killed her. As it was, in the two seconds it took everyone to get to her side, the back of her hands already had inch-high mounds on them from the broken blood vessels. I ran to the relief table, which had gatorade and band aids but NO ICE, but someone grabbed a cup and ran into the cafeteria to get some, which I ran back. Both hands had huge lumps on the back of them by this point, and a moment later security pulled up in their Mule to take her off the field. Another prof went to the hospital with her. Here's hoping nothing was broken, but I don't really see how that's possible!

By common agreement, we continued the game (the fac dugout moved back a bit, though), and for the bottom of that inning we even gave them loaded bases and three extra outs, but we still won. Yay us.

Now to head home and pick up Nutmeg to go to our first day of obedience school. Should be fun!

"Pot takes an obnoxious asshole teenage boy, and makes him kinda tolerable." --Dan Savage

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Flunk Day!

...because what more is there to life, really, than public nudity and drunkenness before 9am? Only a little bit of the former, but a lot of the latter.

We'll see how the rest of the day goes---they certainly picked a perfect day for it---but it seems pleasant so far. I think when I go back to let Nutmeg out, I'll just bring him back with me; dogs are technically not allowed on campus, but then, neither are a lot of the other things that go on today. Given that there will be a petting zoo for the fac/staff kids, a little dog should be a pretty inoffensive addition.

I tell you what, though: I'm glad I didn't stay up late working to finish (or start, as may be) my lecture for second hour today. Not least because, having gotten up at 7 to work on that, I was able to get in by 8:45 to witness the mud pit debauchery (which, to be sure, was a little scary, as I was never 100% sure that some enterprising student wouldn't decide to toss me into the pit, but it was still fun to watch).

"Don't look at me as if you've never stuck a finger in a guy's ass!" --Dan Savage

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April 21, 2004

In other news...

Midterm grades are due tomorrow, so I really need to pull myself out of this backlog of grading today. No time for other stuff. Clearly, that's why I'm posting to my blog right now.

And the Dan Savage quotes just keep on rolling out.... Did I mention he's really quotable?

"Blah, blah, blah, who put a nickel in me?" --Dan Savage

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April 15, 2004

On honour and collaboration

Way back when I was TAing CS 17/18 at Brown, we had a policy of making kids sign a statement on their exam saying, basically, that they hadn't cheated. Cheating was disallowed in any case, of course, but the thought was that by forcing them to put their name to such an explicit statement it would make it harder for them to rationalise; it also made it clear that the otherwise liberal collaboration policy didn't apply to tests.

Working from essentially the same templates I used then, I went to write my first exam back in the fall, and my first thought was that I no longer really needed it. Knox has its Honor Code, after all. But it occurred to me that while I no longer really needed them to promise they hadn't cheated, the statement still served the useful purpose of calling attention to the exam's non-collaboration policy, in contrast with the relatively liberal homework-and-lab collaboration policy.

I didn't really change the wording, though, and a student just pointed out to me that as it is, it's a little insulting. The current text of this statement is

All work on this exam is my own. I have not discussed the problems or their solutions with anyone except for the professor.
which is really just a rehash of the collaboration policy stated in the previous paragraph. On some level, it says the the student "even though you've read the policy and signed the Honor Code that says you'll follow it, I don't trust that enough and want you to sign again". As soon as he pointed it out, it was blindingly obvious to me that this was at best, a terrible phrasing.

So I've fixed it. Well, I'm in the process of fixing it. I'm turning it into a statement that affirms that the student has read the instructions (you'd think that'd go without saying, but I've seen the counterevidence); the fact that they'll abide by the policy is implicit, as it should be. It now reads:

I have read and understood the above instructions regarding how and when to hand in, and the specific collaboration policy in effect for the exam.
I'll probably still go through another couple of iterations, but now that I've changed the focus, I actually like it a lot better.

"I didn't come up with 'pegging', my readers did. (My Aunt Peggy was really upset about it.)" --Dan Savage

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March 18, 2004

Syllabi scripsi

Ok, all done, now my students will know what I'm going to (try to) teach them. Now, to get a head start on writing lectures and homeworks! But first, home to eat and perhaps do a bit of knitting.

"In verse 143 in Sura Al-Bacarah (the Cow), the Almighty says: "And thus have we willed you to be a community of the middle way." It is this God-ordained 'middle way' that we Muslims have lost. And we must find it in harmony with today's and tomorrow's hope for moderation and a better quality of life for us all." --Izzat Majeed

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March 16, 2004

Seems reminder-worthy to me

There's a lot of stuff that comes over the faculty-staff distribution list here at Knox. Probably an average of three or four messages a day; for a wide variety of things. I'm forever getting announcements of something for sale, or no longer for sale; or of talks or shows or masseuses (not kidding), usually with one or two reminders following on the first one.

So with all the inconsequential crap that comes down over the wire (which I don't mind, really), you'd think something like "final deadline for handing in grades" would rate more than a line in the middle of a paragraph in a list of assorted announcements from the registrar, a week before the deadline. At the very least, it would seem to suggest a message the day before along the lines of "Remember, grades are due at noon tomorrow!" Especially since last term, grades weren't due until something like two weeks after the end of finals.

At least I was in my office (grading!) to get the call at 1pm from the registrar's office asking where my grades were. I'm not sure what they would've done if I hadn't been here. Send email, I guess. I'm just glad I was "on top of things" enough relative to my presumed deadline of Friday that I was able to hurriedly wrap it up in about two hours and submit them. *whew*

"You should have stuck to your original petty war against the Saudis and, perhaps, you would have brought some change for the better there. Instead, you brought wretchedness to proud but hungry and abused Afghans, with your empty slogans and your money, and showed them a new hell where bombs and chocolates fall from the skies." --Izzat Majeed, open letter to Osama bin Laden

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March 15, 2004

Why I like the Honor Code

When I'm grading, if I run across a paragraph that sounds like surprisingly well-written academese, I get to say, "good work, they've nailed the mode of writing". I don't have a responsibility to, in fact I have a responsibility not to, go checking textbooks and online sources to see if they "borrowed" it from somewhere. Other places, even if I wanted to believe the student capable of it, I'd kind of feel like I had to check. Here, I can blithely assume there's nothing out of place. It's heartening, really.

Also, it's been snowing on and off all day, but a couple hours ago it started sticking; there's a couple inches on the ground now. It's supposed to keep snowing on and off for the next two days. I knew there was another serious snowfall awaiting us this winter.

"As for God, the guy invented the penis. He's gotta be pretty comfortable with it." --Kevin Audleman

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March 11, 2004


I haven't had any caffeine all day, and now I'm really tired. On the one hand, I could fix myself a cuppa tea, and work on some grading. On the other hand, I could go to bed and get a good night's sleep. Hmmm.... I didn't get much (i.e. any) work done on Tuesday and Wednesday when I was up in Chicago, so I should compensate. Then again, my students would probably appreciate me not making stupid sloppy grading errors. Decisions, decisions.

"...much the same way that getting an "American" look is rather rough. I mean, there are a lot of overweight, loud, self-satisfied people in the world, so it's not like our cultural factors are dispositive." --Michael Kimmitt

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March 01, 2004


The great thing about having an Honor Code here at Knox is that as a general rule I can just assume students aren't cheating. I don't have to worry about making it difficult for them to cheat, because they've pledged an oath not to.

The really frustrating thing about the Honor Code is that if something catches my eye as really suspicious, I'm required to turn it over to a board mostly comprised of students, who are really really harsh about their punishments and don't seem to make use of the spectrum of penalties available to them, instead preferring to assign the same harsh penalty in all cases.

And they wonder why the faculty is reluctant to turn over cases to them....

"They laughed at Newton. They laughed at Einstein. Of course, they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." --Carl Sagan

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February 22, 2004

An endless sea of grading

It's my own fault, of course. It's because I kept putting it off. But as generally bad it is to hold onto stuff for a while, it would be really irresponsible of me to keep holding on to this stuff, because the drop deadline is next Friday and the students need to be able to make informed decisions. Not that I think anyone will be dropping necessarily, but different people have different priorities. (I've seen people drop classes who I thought were doing just fine; but then they might not have gotten an A. So sad.)

Once I get going on it, I'm generally fine. Although, it's interesting grading some of them, because I'll see from their answer to one problem that there's no way they got the next one right, so I feel physical dread as I turn the page. Such an exciting life I've chosen for myself. ;)

"Accustomed as Miss Manners is to denouncing snoops, she is much too atwitter with curiosity to manage doing it here. What on earth are you people reading? "Swinging With Dick and Jane"? "Recognizing the Rodents in Your Kitchen"? And, if so, why don't you tuck them behind "Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything," where no one will ever find them?" --Miss Manners

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January 28, 2004

To-do list

I've been dragging my heels on a bunch of stuff, so I decided it would be helpful to write down a to-do list on my whiteboard. It is surprisingly motivational to see seventeen items, all of which are some variety of "overdue" or "urgent".

None of them, incidentally, was "post to blog about to-do list". So you can see how effective it has been already.

"Predictions, gut feelings and polls have proven all but useless so far in this campaign season so I beg of you, do not mark my words." --Eric Zorn

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January 26, 2004

Homework grading

Do you think it would it be too terribly passive-aggressive to take the homeworks that people handed in unstapled, shuffle the pages, and hand them all back separately and in random order, claiming to have "accidentally" dropped the pile on the way to class?

Oh, pooh. Who asked you anyway?

"I think Kerry's major appeal must be to the "I have a funny feeling about Bush but I don't really want anything else to change" demographic. Which could be significant." --Brent Spillner

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January 22, 2004

All I want to know is... there some planet where it is considered acceptable to dig out your professor's home phone number, and then call them, at 10:45 at night? And then, when the professor does give you some hints, have the nerve to sound annoyed when the professor doesn't tell you exactly how to solve the problem due the next day?

I mean, I'm not even particularly annoyed. I'm just completely floored that anyone would even remotely consider it as an option. Not even a last resort; other options, like email or the course message board, were not even attempted.

'Resisting says, "I am a gourmet dessert, rare and expensive." Being too eager says, "I am a cheeseburger. You know what I taste like and you can get me anytime you want."' --Jonathan Prykop

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January 08, 2004


I woke up and my watch said 10:26.

This was not an error; it was, in fact, 10:26. AM, even.

That gave me slightly under fourteen minutes to get to school and in the lab. Somehow, I made it. Boy, I haven't done that in years. I'm actually kind of impressed that I made it on time. Three or four students were a few minutes late, and I don't think they really understood why I laughed it off. :)

"We have to pretend problems don't exist. Gets difficult when there are odours involved." --Tom, "Daria"

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January 05, 2004

One day down

I hate the first day. I never know what to say or how to gauge my time; and there's always the tradeoff between covering material the first day (and losing the people who physically weren't there or were just mentally absent) and not covering material the first day (and losing precious time). Ah well. Done now. Now to write up the notes for each class and prepare the new BlueJ version for installation downstairs.

Well, now to eat lunch. *Then* to do that other stuff.

"Jonathan, you just need to start every sentence you say with 'Assuming we exist...'." --Kristi Foss

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November 24, 2003

Exam's in

Now to hunker down and grade the thing. *sigh*

"Well, yeah. Dilbert is Cathy for self-loathing tech workers." --Casey Westerman

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November 21, 2003

Quotes from CS141

I never really thought of myself as particularly witty or quotable (for all that I love taking down quotes from other people), but a couple of my students disagreed---they wrote down funny stuff I said all term and one of them presented it to me at the end of the term. I'm glad I was such a bright spot in her day. ;) Read on for the actual quotes.

"When you are looking to someone else for help, that does not necessarily rule out yourself. Wow, that's like a social message or something." -- D. Blaheta

"We're not lazy in this class. Except when we are." -- D. Blaheta

"Fortunately, I didn't say 'Write something that makes sense.'" -- D. Blaheta

"And why are we making this private?" -- D. Blaheta
"Because it has to do with money!" --D. Porter
"Or not..." --D. Blaheta

"And then there were some other examples of... creative instruction following." --D. Blaheta

"You don't have to whisper. I AM trying to elicit a response. Prefer you'd not yell, but right now I'd take anything." --D. Blaheta

"Meef! Foo!" --D. Blaheta

"Constructors are methods. They're just... special." --D. Blaheta

"And that worked! ... less well than I had hoped..." -- D. Blaheta

"Syntactic sugar? Did he just say syntactic sugar? Yes he did!" -- D. Blaheta

"No, I swear, it is a technical term." -- D. Blaheta

"Can I put it in my tea?" -- D. Porter
"Your syntactical tea." -- L. Barrett
"I- I- really don't have a better response than that." -- D. Blaheta

"Some colours of chalk squeal. Others don't. Green is bad!" -- D. Blaheta

"The stick people. That was the start of the badness." -- D. Blaheta

"This is not actually all that interesting. Well... whatever." -- D. Blaheta

"There's sometimes repetition in this class. But only if it's good for you." -- D. Blaheta

"Okay we can name the method god. Now, how does god make different types of people? No, I'm sorry, I have to rename this method." --D. Blaheta

"I started to write this and then I realized how it would turn out. That was pleasing to me." -- D. Blaheta

"Why?" --D. Blaheta
"Because you would." --J. Budds
"That's always a good answer." -- D. Blaheta

"Super is actually even more special than this." --D. Blaheta

"We also have to do something with this variable. But that's just not interesting anymore." -- D. Blaheta

"You forgot your void." -- J. Weinstein

"So once again, we return to the principle of laziness." -- D. Blaheta

"Let's actually do a helpful example." -- D. Blaheta

"It's name's fi- whoops!" -- D. Blaheta

"Okay, now we have a reset button... duhn duh duhn duhn!" -- D. Blaheta

"It could be transparent orange or transparent white. I don't know. I can't tell!" -- D. Blaheta

"You wrote them all as base, not as sides." -- J. Weinstein
"That's because all your base are belong to setColor." -- L. Barrett

"You just like messing with our heads!" --D. Porter
"I really do! It's one of the perks of this job." -- D. Blaheta

"There are rectangles out there that are OrangeGreenBoxes, namely the OrangeGreenBoxes. But there are also rectangles that are not OrangeGreenBoxes." --D. Blaheta

"If it did that, we'd get into an infinite thing." -- D. Blaheta

"Hey calculator, someone pressed a button <scary eyebrow raise> I'm not gonna tell you what it was!" -- D. Blaheta

"I'm going to wait until you're all done writing that, cause I'm not going to have your attention till then." --D. Blaheta

"Yes! Exactly the same! And you know what that means: helper methods! Now you've hit one of my buttons! Right?" -- D. Blaheta

"If I press '123' what will it be?" --D. Blaheta
"Dr. Seuss." --D. Porter
"Right! Haha! Wait, what? I didn't even get that?" -- D. Blaheta

"Coloured chalk is certainly the highlight of my day!" -- D. Blaheta

"I have two reactions to that 'Oh is that all?' and 'Oh is that all?'" -- D. Blaheta

"This is very interesting. Well, sort of interesting." -- D. Blaheta

"Judging by your faces, that is... clear as mud..." -- D. Blaheta

"Yeah I know. I'm so fickle." -- D. Blaheta

"I'm a plus sign!" -- D. Blaheta

"Equals is not just a string thing." -- D. Blaheta

"Yeah, I know, I lead you into all of these traps." -- D. Blaheta

"This is a nonsense class." -- D. Blaheta

"What do you put in u?" -- D. Blaheta

"I hate you ALL." -- D. Blaheta

"If you don't stop saying that, I'm going to turn so red I'll look like a tomato." --L. Barrett
<Holding up a piece of red chalk> "Or an object!!!" --D. Blaheta

<With a sing-song voice> "I'm lazier than you are!" -- D. Blaheta

"You might have a hard time in the forthcoming... stuff." -- D. Blaheta

"Curse you and your mind games!" --D. Porter

"For now we are assuming this doesn't exist 'cause... it's hard." -- D. Blaheta

"Those is the test cases." -- D. Blaheta

"I heart while isFruity true." -- D. Porter

"Clobber, by the way, is a technical term." -- D. Blaheta
"About as technical as 'bang'." -- D. Porter

"Dooby dooby do while loops." -- D. Porter

"It's useful, but I don't have time for it." -- D. Blaheta

"Well, I could just be being mean, but not this time." -- D. Blaheta

"That's complicated, I don't wanna do that." -- D. Blaheta

"If it does equals the obj <obj pronounced phonetically>." -- D. Blaheta

"I really have no motivation to introduce this, but this seems like the best place for it." -- D. Blaheta

"We can talk about this again when we get to the other side of the board." -- D. Blaheta

"If z does not equal q, then something has gone horribly, horribly wrong." -- D. Blaheta

"I was racking my brain to come up with a useful example and I couldn't." -- D. Blaheta

"Get your iterative juices flowing!" -- D. Blaheta

<pointing at board> "That hurts." -- D. Porter
"You'd better believe it!" -- D. Blaheta

"How am I going to write this while loop?" -- D. Blaheta
"Very carefully." --D. Porter
"With chalk" -- J. Budds
"Both good answers, but inadequate." -- D. Blaheta

"Approximately i-ish to the twoth." -- D. Blaheta

"You could have an array of lists. You could have an array of arrays. You could get totally out of control." -- D. Blaheta

"Other languages will just silently do something bizarre." -- D. Blaheta

"I have you guys so well trained." -- D. Blaheta

"So, new... what am I doing?" -- D. Blaheta

"Computer dorks come up with the best terminology!" -- D. Blaheta

"Stuff. That's a technical term. No it's not." -- D. Blaheta

"I'm very offended by that, and I am not going to let you compile." -- D. Blaheta

"Seriously, this is the first time I've done this, so be brutally honest." -- D. Blaheta

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November 03, 2003

Alumni Hall

Knox's Alumni Hall was built in 1890. At the time, it was three buildings sharing walls---in the middle was the Alumni Building proper, mostly housing a huge auditorium, and on each end a building for the debating societies, Adelphi on the west end and Gnothii on the east. As time passed, the societies' areas passed into general college control, walls were knocked through, and the whole building was used as offices and classrooms. Areas got repurposed, and as other buildings were built and departments moved out, the areas got repurposed again. Walls were put up and knocked down, and in that black period in the mid-20th century when things "modern" were all the rage nearly all of the original building got boarded over---even the big auditorium was subdivided into various rooms.

Eventually, parts of the building fell into disrepair, and were abandoned. By the early 1990s, only one corner of the basement was still in use, with the rest closed off except for yearly tours for the seniors. Finally, security and HR moved out to a new building on Prairie Street, and the building was completely empty. For years, it sat. It couldn't be used without renovation, and in order to renovate it they'd need to bring it up to code, a monster of a task. Some alumni wanted a total restoration to the way it was; but what good is an auditorium that seats 1000 on benches? With a stage having terrible acoustics so that even clear speakers would be hard to hear? Not to mention, a full restoration wouldn't be even remotely accessible for the disabled.

A few years ago, a compromise was struck. The exterior would be fully restored. The interior would get a reconstruction with detailing similar to the original, but with somewhat different layout and space usage. One of the areas (most of the old Gnothii society) would be a Visitor Center, for the college itself and for Galesburg as a whole, housing Knox memorabilia as well as displays of the Lincoln Society and a small Underground Railroad museum. That wing would also house an art gallery and the Lincoln Society itself; together, all these things let us get a big chunk of funding from the city, state, and fed for the restoration.

On the other side of the building will be the alumni affairs office (in Alumni Hall---nice, huh?) and a big meeting/conference room, where the Board will meet (and, likely, the faculty and other large groups). In the basement, the bookstore, the mailroom, and a little coffee bar that opens onto a sunken patio on the quad. These last free up a whole bunch of space in Seymour Union for student organisation offices, something we badly need.

Anyway, the reason all this comes up is that they ran a presentation about it today for faculty and staff, and then they let people wander through Alumni Hall to check it out. We're incredibly lucky: during the Dark Times, the modernisation happened largely by putting walls up in front of the original woodwork, or floors over the old floors, covering up the original structures rather than removing them entirely. I got about forty pictures of various parts of the old building, and you can see practically every decade of its existence in them. Some original things; some classrooms out of the 30s; a fireplace that could only have been constructed in about 1960; and everywhere in between. (No remnants that I could see of the original Computer Center, housed in the Alumni Hall basement from its establishment in the mid-60s until SMC was built in 1974.)

Anyway, it was really cool. And unlike various major projects started while I was at Quincy or at Brown, I'll be here to see this one through.

"The thing about obviousness is that it's rarely shared between two people." --Shriram Krishnamurthi

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September 29, 2003

It's here!

My office is now the location of the first G5 at Knox, a sleek dual-2GHz model with 2GB of memory and 160GB of storage. Damn but that sucker's fast (not to mention sexxxy). Of course, I now realise just how much I've customised my laptop, and now I have a crapload of stuff to install on the G5....

I went to the Galesburg Dean House Party tonight. There was a good mix there, about 15 people but only half Knox students. As usual, Dean just gave great answers to the questions asked him. I got another extrabudgetary check today (this one returning my key deposit for the key to my office in the CIT), so I donated that to the campaign, this time counting for the house party (sorry Mike ;).

And when I got home I was inspired to unpack six more boxes of books. Almost done. I can now see nearly half of my living room floor!

"We realize that having the service available to test would be a good first step in the direction of utility. Sometimes we have to shut the service down to implement improvements. Sometimes it decides on its own to break for a nice pot of Earl Grey and some fresh silicon wafers." --Google labs

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September 11, 2003

The regalia saga

As I've mentioned before, I decided to rent my robes for Convocation from Brown to get the true Brown robes. In retrospect, this was more trouble than it was worth.

They were going to arrive after I left Providence (and I couldn't get them shipped to Galesburg), so I asked Sam if he'd pick them up. Sure, just send a reminder, says he. But I miscommunicated the date it would be, so when I emailed him Thursday, I got no response. I called him Friday, no response. Called Rob, and it turns out Sam had gone out of town for the weekend.

Ok, don't panic; Rob can pick it up and mail it tomorrow (Saturday). But remember to go to the Post Office early, because it closes! And sure enough, it closed before he got there. So he sends it Monday morning, express mail, guaranteed to arrive by 3pm Wednesday. Whew.

At 3:30pm on Wednesday, I go to the Knox PO, and they have not received my package, and the last dropoff of the day had already happened. I get the tracking number from Rob, and it turns out the package arrived in Peoria at 1:57pm. I call the USPS to see what the deal was, and they suggested calling the local post office, which I did---they said that since it hadn't arrived in Galesburg yet, it'd come in overnight. I asked if I could pick it up first thing in the morning; sure, the window's open at 7:30am.

They left a message on my phone a little after 6 that it had arrived. About 7:45 I show up at the window to inquire after it. The guy disappeared for an alarmingly long time, and then came back with the package in hand, commenting that I just caught the truck before it left; it had been all loaded up and everything. No word on exactly when it would've gotten to the Knox PO, although the PO doesn't even open until 10, so getting it in time for the 11:00 Convocation would've been a dicey affair.

On the up side, because they screwed up and delivered it late, it should end up being free.

Convocation went well, though! They introduced me, the choir sang, they gave out lots of prizes to deserving fac, staff, and students, the Hon. Ruben Castillo gave a good speech on not taking anything for granted that managed to reference 9/11 without being dreadful. The whole place sang the alma mater, which I sang along to by lip-reading the choir conductor, who was on stage (the prof next to me was impressed; I had the refrain down pat in full voice by the end). Afterwards, I pressed one of the other profs into service taking a picture of me in regalia, as requested by Mom, which I'll post one of these days.

My syllabus and missive are printed, my course website is more or less done, and my first lecture is written out. I'm on at 2:15, we'll see how this goes.

"Well, I don't think normal goo cubes are intelligent, although maybe they're just misunderstood." --Ben Gold

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September 09, 2003

More moving

My office plants are now hanging in my office. Looking very sad (I think they miss Providence), but they'll be fine. I've broken down all the boxes from the books I put here and brought them to my car. At this point, I'm pretty well Moved In.

My term looks like it'll be a bit lighter than expected---among the freshmen alone we were expecting 30 people to sign up for Intro CS I, plus a few upperclassmen, hence the two sections. In fact? One senior, one junior, five sophomores, and---wait for it---five freshmen. That's it. We're closing the second section and putting all of them into the first, which will still be on the small side. Nobody has any idea why we got 60% less than expected, aside from a general nationwide dropoff in CS majors. For myself, it's too late for them to invent a new class for me to teach, so I'm only teaching one this term. Problem is, that's not significantly less work for me BUT it seems like it is. Bum deal all around.

"The Judge was still dead when Ray returned to his study, and that was not a complete surprise." --John Grisham, The Summons

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September 01, 2003

Adventures in thesis completion

Wednesday night, I was intending to get a printout of the thesis on thesis paper before going to sleep, to make getting the signatures all I had to do on Thursday; I could then go to my 3:30 appointment early to fill out the fiddly little exit questionnaires they make you fill out.

Early Thursday morning, I decide to just finalise the draft and print it in the morning.... I go to sleep and get up a few hours later, getting in to the department around 9:30 or so. I fiddle with the printer for a bit, but while I can print out the "copy" (single-sided on regular printer paper) I can't figure out how to manually feed the thesis paper. So I decide to go ahead with getting the signatures. Might as well try to get Mark's before I head up to Boston; Eugene isn't around.

Mark is in his office. I'm carrying with me the signature pages and the "copy" version of the final printout. He tells me: "I think it's a little unreasonable for you to expect me to sign this without reading it first." He WHAT? What the fuck has he been doing for the last three weeks with the drafts I've been making and sending him and everyone else? "Ok, um, can you read it today then and sign this afternoon?" "Well, that doesn't give me very much time, does it? There's really not much point in getting signatures if your reader doesn't read the thing first." Again, I'm thinking, what about all the drafts I've been sending out, including one from almost a week earlier that I said was final unless I got further comments? Well, it turns out, he hasn't been reading anything I've sent out for a month, because they've all been watermarked with "DRAFT" and the date they were latexed---obviously, it couldn't really be final until everyone signed off on it, and I didn't want multiple nearly-identical postscript files floating around. That's the whole point of putting a draft watermark on the thing. But he hadn't read it until I (interpreting his silence as assent) finalised the thing. He asked about some stuff that they had asked me to add at the defence, which I had in fact added about a week earlier, a two-and-a-half page section. Which he didn't think would be enough; he asked about another aspect of this, which we had decided was more work than it was worth. And he said, "It would be nice to have numbers from that in the thesis." Great, but I don't. Did he want me to implement, debug, test, and write up a whole new set of experiments? I was fuming at this point, so I said, "look, whatever. Here's my current draft, I need to drive up to Boston right now to get Michael's signature." Mark's response? "Are you sure he's going to sign it? Really? When did you last talk to him?" What, did he not believe me? I walked out.

I was literally shaking with anger at this point. What could I do? I certainly couldn't force Mark to sign the thing; and I really have no direct argument against him, because I think the signature should mean something, and he should read the thesis before signing it. Nevertheless, it's not my fault he didn't, and (not being above a little social engineering) I sent an email to Eugene saying I'd be back from Boston around 2, "not that it is all that urgent since Mark just told me he's not going to sign it today". And I left for Boston.

The drive up to Boston was fairly pleasant, and gave me time to come to terms with the situation. One thing I'm very good at is calculating worst-case scenarios, and then figuring out why they aren't so bad. In this case, the WCS was that Mark would never sign, and I'd never get my PhD. However: my job at Knox was not technically predicated on getting my PhD---my title and salary would change, and at my second-year review I'd essentially have to be rehired. But the other two CS faculty aren't PhDs, and if my teaching, research, and service records are all good, I'd have a fairly good shot at it. A slightly more realistic WCS would be that Mark would only sign if I did a bunch more work, that I could do later this year, still get the PhD next May; that's not so terrible at all.

As I get onto I-93, I call Michael to get directions to his place. He wasn't at the office because he was moving that day, so I was just going to meet him at his new condo. Problem was, he could only give me the name of the neighbourhood and the street; he doesn't drive, so he couldn't give directions! Well, I'd manage somehow (I sort of let him think that I knew the neighbourhood pretty well, to cover for my poor planning on not calling before I left). I vaguely knew that Beacon Hill was next to Back Bay and close to downtown, and more importantly, that it was a well-known area that I could surely get directions to.

As it happened, I managed to take the most direct route possible, quite by accident and serendipity, parking as close as possible to the actual place without actually knowing where it was. It is a fourth-floor walkup in Beacon Hill, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Boston; the stairs are narrow and each step unusually high. He has the entire fourth floor of this townhouse; and the fifth; and a cupola on the top. This cupola has---literally---the best view I have ever seen from a private residence. It is 360 degrees, higher than most of the rest of the area, and grants a view of all of Boston and Cambridge. Absolutely amazing. He must have paid a fortune, but then, being a single, heavily-recruited CS professor at MIT would give one some options in this regard, I suppose. (On the other hand, I'm thinking the four flights of stairs would get pretty old after a while...)

Anyway, he signed the thing and we chatted for a while. I was apologetic for having interrupted his moving, but he was apologetic for the actual moving, suggesting that in other circumstances we could've hung out for a while. Let me just say that it was pretty weird hearing that---when I started grad school, his parser was (still is, really) a big deal and one of the best in the field, the major competition for Eugene's. So Michael has always been a bit larger-than-life, and here he was treating me as essentially an equal... heady stuff. Anyway, he couldn't and I had to get back to Providence.

When I got back, I checked my email. About twenty minutes after my email to Eugene, Mark had sent me a message saying he'd sign (and grudging that I hadn't given him more time to read it). Whatever. I went straight over there; he was with someone, so he couldn't lecture me further on not giving him extra time, which was fine by me. He signed, and I cleared out of there. Back at the CIT, Eugene was also with someone, but signed the page, mentioning, "by the way, something you did really pissed Mark off." I explained about how he hadn't been reading my drafts and was upset that I hadn't given him a chance to read it, and thanked him for intervening. Which in fact he hadn't, although he would have if it had taken longer for Mark to cool off on his own.

Those of you following along at home will note that at this point I have all three signatures! All that remained was procedural stuff. Unfortunately, it was at this point 3:00, and everyone knows that printers simply do not work under that kind of time pressure. Especially when you need them to do something complicated, from an unfamiliar OS---I needed to print from Windows, it turns out, if I wanted to use the manual feed tray to print onto thesis paper. About 3:15 I gave up (Zeno strikes again), printed a "copy" (i.e. on printer paper), and headed to the 3:30 appointment I'd planned to be very early to, actually arriving about 3:27.

My first comment: "I meant to get here early to fill out the exit questionnaires." Response: "Ok, just take them home tonight and bring them in in the morning." My second comment: "Which brings me to the larger problem of not actually having my thesis." I continued with a brief synopsis of my reader refusing to sign and the ensuing difficulties. Response: "Not a problem, we'll go through the other stuff and you can just bring the thesis in the morning with the exit interviews." Now, there's a rumour that floats around the grad school that the lady you turn your thesis in to is outrageously picky, whipping out a ruler to measure your margins and rejecting your thesis on the slightest technicality. Don't you believe it. Barbara Bennett is really nice, very accommodating, and is good at calming down the massively stressed-out grad student trying to perform their last act as a student. She went through my materials, accepted the signature pages (two originals, signed in blue or black ink), title pages (three extra copies, dated next May), abstracts (two copies), bursar's clearance (no outstanding debts except for the upcoming semester's tuition, which will be cancelled), and cashier's receipt ($50 fee to turn in your thesis---claimed to be for "binding costs"). All that remained were the four exit questionnaires and the original and copy of the thesis. (The copy I had with me was no good because I'd accidentally double-sided it... stupid printer. She actually agreed with me that the single-side requirement was dumb, but there it is.)

Of course, under no time pressure, the printer worked just fine. Back at the CIT, I filled out the four questionnaires (career services: "did you use our services? Was it good for you?"; graduate school: "how did you find your six years of grad school? Was it good for you?"; U of Chicago: thesis title and area, previous post-secondary education, demographics; and a release to allow UMI to publish the thesis), and the thesis printed just fine. I finished at 4:45, which was just exactly too late to have time to walk to the grad school and turn it in.

But I did that the following morning. Having done most of the fiddly stuff on Thursday, this only took about five or ten minutes, and as of 10:47am EDT on Friday, I am now entitled to call myself "Doctor", and to put the letters Ph.D. after my name. Pretentious, huh?

"I've lodged countless emails with Ms. Shidle over the years. I think I'm at about an 8% response rate. You may wish to try the phone." --Joe Shidle

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August 20, 2003

And now...

I've gone through all my email, sequenced all my notesfiles, read all my webcomics, and gotten up-to-date on the news. I've even contacted all the people I promised I'd hang out with during this two-week period back in Providence.

I'm running out of ways to procrastinate. I may soon have to actually finish the thesis.

Maybe after a cup of tea....

"And I said on my program, if, if the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush administration again." --Bill O'Reilly on Good Morning America, 18 Mar 2003

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August 06, 2003


I passed.

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June 12, 2003


Yes, that was definitely the right plan. After a week of trudging through the thesis, my blood pressure slowly rising as the task seemed ever less tractable, the floodgates have now opened. I threw out the old stuff and started from that outline, and I've been typing almost nonstop since then. At some point I suppose I'll have to sleep, but I hate to kill the flow like that.

You know, right now I'm kind of feeling like those Matrix guys---they can read the incomprehensible green matrix terminals, because they have lots of experience with it and know what to look for, but anyone else is going to need some pretty heavy-duty visualisation tools. In generating diagrams for the thesis, I'm finding myself really having to step back and try to imagine what someone would see if they hadn't been staring at this stuff for months and years. Trickier than you might imagine.

"Um, if we're gonna try and list all the famous artists, musicians, writers, actors, etc that have smoked weed, that's gonna take a REALLY LONG TIME." --Eva Schillace

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From scratch?

So, you know that thesis I've been working on? I now have...

(fanfare) OUTLINE!

Er, so it's not so bad as all that, actually. I originally started writing the thesis, as in, the file thesis.tex, by copying the proposal from last August, and filling in the bits that were new. I was having a hard time fitting into that framework, so I sat down, "threw out" the old version (i.e. renamed it to thesis-old.tex) and am starting from scratch with a totally different outline that will work better. Of course, most of the old text will still make its way back in, so all is not lost. :)

"I look much too dorky to be an eighteen-year-old. Although, actually I looked even dorkier when I was eighteen, but they don't know that." --Sharon Goldwater

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June 10, 2003

A little late, you think?

Just in the last week or two, I've gotten some mail from a few places that I applied for jobs---thanks but no thanks. I remember thinking, months ago, that it was strange (and a bit rude) that they had never responded, even if only to say "we're not interested"; but I wrote them off. One month passed, and I arranged interviews with the places that wanted to see me. Another month passed, and I heard back from all of them, and accepted the offer at Knox. Another month, and even the big schools with large fac searches (like Brown) had concluded their interviews and made their offers. Another month, and they'd even heard back. And still another month passed before these schools that rejected me finally sent me mail to tell me so. I'm just as happy they rejected me---further reflection after I'd sent out the applications told me that I wouldn't go those places, even as a backup plan---but it's sort of mind-boggling that they would wait so long to send a response.

"Freed from the normal constraints of truth and veracity, "journalists" such as Blair, Shalit, Barnicle, Smith and Glass shine above their counterparts. They're promoted ahead of the pack because their stories, sneakily cloaked as journalism, read better than everyone else's stories. In a profession fueled by competition, their careers are propelled along because of, rather than in spite of, their transgressions." --Terry M. Neal, Washington Post

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June 07, 2003

More work

Ah, finally. Got a couple of hours of work in on the thesis document; let's hope that's enough inertia that I can pick it up later today. Now, I'm going home to bed.

From the oh-really? dept.: "Bush is a Republican. I'm a Democrat. In fact, I'm seeking the office he holds. But at this moment there's not an inch of distance between us." --Joseph Lieberman

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Work update

Well, I've gotten some coding done, and started a bunch of experiment runs, so I can't say I've been totally slacking.

But I also just wrote a page on my various knitting projects. I should really be writing my thesis....

"I knew if I was willing to sell out the rights of a whole group of Americans to get reelected, then I'd wasted my time in politics." --Howard Dean

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Progress report


As predicted, the week and a half that I lost to graduation and the conference has caused me to come to a complete stop on my research and thesis. Frustrating. Now I'm in that "having a hard time getting started again" mode, but I really need to get going.

As for my thesis, and defending it: I'd been saying "late June" for a while, and privately had a self-imposed deadline of 17 July---because I wanted to have defended before the IMSA reunion on the 19th. As a nice compromise, I'd been thinking maybe 9 July. But the international ACL conference is that week, and my entire committee will be there, so that's no good. And I need to get a thesis draft in a full month in advance, so I can't do it before the conference. In fact, even if I want to defend as soon as they're back from the conference, on the 14th, I'd need to get cracking on the thesis draft, as I'd have to have that in by... next Saturday. Have I mentioned that I haven't exactly started writing?


So here I sit, reading notesfiles, knitting, learning to crochet, chatting on the phone, blogging, anything to procrastinate. I suspect once I get started, I'll be fine, but...

I've told myself I'm not leaving the office until I've gotten started again. I might be here a while.

"This is amazing. You've run into somebody who seems to be a complete loon, on the Internet of all places." --Neal Groothuis

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May 01, 2003

Masters' thesis

I have submitted my masters' thesis. Yay!

"English can most charitably be described as a generous, expansive, and flexible language; a less charitable description would characterize it as drunk and disorderly." --Teresa Nielsen Hayden

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April 28, 2003

Draft handin

I realised this morning that I missed a perfectly good opportunity to use the word "antepenultimate" last week, as I was preparing my second-to-last thesis draft for submission to my reader. Aagh! (Today I handed in my penultimate draft---that word's almost as good.)

Chris pointed out to me that I am listed in the Knox course schedule, adding (correctly) that this is "kinda weird". :P

Also, tonight I went to Matt and Pat's thesis not-a-defenses. Sort of an informal gathering with a twenty minute summary of their work. It was nice going to talks that I actually understood all of, for a change... and there was Kabob&Curry afterwards, and I stood around and talked with various people for another hour, about bioethics but also about philosophy in general, and about AI and language processing as it applied to medical practice (I didn't bring it up! Honest!).

"Of course the flaw in this paranoid delusion is for it to work MS has to offer more than a cheap console and a bunch of crappy games. If all they have to offer for the $10 Ybox is Halo2: More shooting then the gamers will still probably flock to the PS3 with GTA4: Killing some more Hos." --Xenopax

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April 11, 2003

9:30pm on Friday of Spring

9:30pm on Friday of Spring Weekend, and what am I doing? Sitting in my office, working on my thesis. Well, technically, right now I'm sitting in my office procrastinating my thesis, but that's just for the last five minutes or so. Fortunately, I've made a deal with a few other thesising friends to work for a bit longer and then head over to their suite at 11. Honestly, it's probably getting me to work quite a bit later on this than I otherwise would.

But the thesis is coming along great. In doing a semantic derivation just now, I discovered yet another piece of corroborating evidence for my theory. This is so fun.

"Pure egalitarianism strangles everything. I'm just saying, be decent." --Uwe Reinhardt

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November 21, 2002


STILL GOING... (boom, boom, boom, boom)

"Going up against Wal-Mart, well, it can be very expensive to be right." --Tim Storm

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November 20, 2002

Mailed off my second app

Mailed off my second app today. I really should work to get the rest off before Thanksgiving. It does seem to get easier with each one....

It's really funny how, no matter how much you're happy with the place you are, in your last year you start feeling ready to move on. It happened in high school and ugrad, and now it's happening here; not that I don't get along with my friends anymore (I do!), but I just feel ready for the next thing. Which, hopefully, will be a job as a professor, teaching at a smaller school. But we'll see.

Incidentally, I've been listening to a lot of country music lately, because I've been finding the pop stuff increasingly annoying and decreasingly musical. But I have to say, every stereotype about country music, well, it's true. Half the songs are about driving trucks, the rest are about the singer's mother, and they're all a lot more innocent than pop songs. And the lyrics! The one that's on right now has the main lyric "she thinks my tractor's sexy." I mean, you just can't make this stuff up. It's great.

"Coming soon for American audiences!

  • Harry Potter and the Room of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Jailbird of Alcatraz
  • Harry Potter and the Cup of Fire"
--David Singleton
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November 19, 2002

Got something written up

Got something written up for Polly (conveniently, Malte Zimmerman's thesis totally fails to address one of the interesting cases we were looking at, thus making it "related work" and not "d'oh! no thesis for you!") and hopefully will meet with her later this week.

Now to finish up the current batch of applications. An unofficial transcript is fine, says Knox. And away we go....

"I think I'd need something that ends in -ine to play that game well." --Eva Schillace

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November 18, 2002

Things I need to do:

Things I need to do: write up something for my meeting with Polly, and change my meeting with her to sometime other than tomorrow; send some emails regarding my first batch of job apps; finish writing cover letters and such for the rest of my job apps; write up a list of things I did for the Brown Comp so that they can know what to do next year; and, of course, work on my CS research. The most time sensitive, and the one I least want to work on right now, is the writeup for Polly. It's when I get into situations like this that I procrastinate the worst... Argh.

"A halo has to fall only a few inches to become a noose..." --Dan McKinnon

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October 22, 2002

Not much to say today,

Not much to say today, but I'd just like to report that after weeks of spinning my wheels, I've actually been getting honest-to-God work done in the last week or so. On my thesis. I'm so pleased.

Oh, also, I hosted a dinner party last night that seems to have been a success. Well, except that I got off to a late start. But do these things ever actually start on time? I thought not.

"Nah, the ungrateful wretches all join the Republican Party as soon as their household income spikes over $40k anyway. If you look closely, you can actually see Condoleezza Rice pulling up the ladder behind her." --Michael Kimmitt

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August 22, 2002

Well, I finished my slides,

Well, I finished my slides, and I just sent off a really-final version of my proposal document to my committee. I gave an empty practice talk last night (and ran drastically overtime---55 minutes for a 40-minute time slot!), and I'll grab a few people for another one tonight. If I'm not ready by 1pm tomorrow, I'll never be. whew

In other news, my advisor just said he was having trouble reading the pdf I sent, and trying to get mutt to view it. Did I know anything about how to use mutt? "Sure," say I, "that's the mail program I use." "Oh good! Now I know who to go to when I have problems." Ah, the life of a grad student. :)

"Never underestimate the power of lint." --Eric Blau

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August 14, 2002

Slides and revisions

As I get going on the slides for my thesis proposal, I keep finding places in the writeup that I want to change, or flesh out. Will it never end? (Answer: it will, once I pass my thesis proposal. At least, this phase of it will. Then, any editing I still feel is necessary will become part of the thesis itself!)

Still coughing. I'm sick of it. :P

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." --John F. Kennedy

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