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January 30, 2006

I need one of these for the Sun lab

I must draw some attention to this little ditty, composed by the author of, “Repent! The end is near! The time is now 9:30 and our store will close at 10 pm. Please prepare accordingly.”

Parting, Shakespeare wrote, is such sweet sorrow.
We open again at nine o’clock tomorrow.

Posted by pjm at 11:01 PM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2006

Disposable bookmarks

If anyone is looking to add a really cool feature to a web browser, here’s something for their consideration. Let’s have bookmarks that work the way real bookmarks work.

The bookmark metaphor is a bit leaky. “Bookmarks” as they are implemented in normal web browsers are essentially saved URLs which allow you to once again find a website which you might otherwise forget. I actually have no such bookmarks, unless you count my del.icio.us bookmarks, which I don’t because they’re not built in to the browser. A “real” bookmark is something you stick in an actual book to keep your place in the book. You know which book you’re reading, and you probably know where it is (otherwise you have problems the bookmark can’t solve.) The bookmark lets you pick up where you stopped last time, and move on. You take it out of the book, read, then put it back in where you next stop.

Everyone I know who spends a lot of time on the web has only one way of marking a page which they’ve stopped reading, but intend to come back to: they leave it open, in its own window or in a new tab. We can have dozens of tabs or windows open at a time indicating these unfinished readings. I’ll skim through NetNewsWire clicking stories I want to read (or, if it’s a full-text feed, entries I want to comment on,) and wind up with a slew of open tabs. Then I go to the browser and work through the tabs. In other cases, I’m reading my way through [an entire site][], or a multi-page NYT or Ars Technica article, and want to keep track of where I left off. I don’t bookmark these pages because I don’t want to remember them for all time; I just want to be able to pick up reading where I stopped. Instead, I wind up keeping browser windows (or tabs) open for days (sometimes weeks) at a time, which is inconvenient when I want to do something like restart the computer.

What if I could place a “bookmark” at a page which would then disappear automatically (maybe with a confirmation prompt) when I returned to the page, in the same way that I remove a physical bookmark from a physical book? Then I could close a few dozen of these tabs. I bet I’d use it more often than the “real” bookmark menu, because I wouldn’t feel like I was cluttering up my collection of lasting bookmarks. It doesn’t seem like it would be terribly hard to do.

Now Playing: The Catfisherman from Kids in Philly by Marah

Posted by pjm at 9:16 PM | Comments (1)

Panopticon in Roxbury

I’ve spent a little time flipping through the stories from the Boston Indoor Games, which this year didn’t have a dramatic moment like a world record or Olympic champion upset. It’s interesting to see who leads with which race, and how they described the races. It looks like I did all right myself, since my editor made very few changes to my IAAF report, but the difference in the stories really highlights the range of knowledge in the press area and the time constraints under which the various reporters worked; the Reuters and AP reports are sharp, but have some errors in the details (i.e. Cragg’s history at the meet.)

The Globe’s reporters did well as they usually have lately. The Dibaba story is stellar, and does a good job catching the balance of celebration and disappointment in a very fast win which is only missing that “world record” label. I had a lot of sympathy for both Dibaba and Defar, who dominated their races but could too-easily be seen as failures because they didn’t set records; the Globe story avoided the word “fail” and captured the nearness and the disappointment of it.

Their two-mile report has extensive Mottram quotes, but doesn’t know that Ethiopia wasn’t part of the British Empire and therefore won’t be sending runners to the Commonwealth Games. (Apparently the Helsinki world champion, Benjamin Limo, would prefer not to be in Melbourne either, but you’d need to be reading Kenyan or Australian newspapers to know that.) That story does have my favorite new Mottram quote:

Asked about his anomalous appearance—a 6-foot-2-inch Australian in an event dominated by smaller East and North Africans—Mottram replied: “I’m not one to go with the trend. We’re trying to change it.”

There were some discussions at the meet about the strange case of two-mile pacemaker Geoffrey Rono, who took off at 1:55 800m pace to open a 17-second gap on the rest of the field—that is, the people he was supposed to be setting the pace for. He eventually dropped out after a 4:10 mile, having (a) done nobody any good, and (b) looking silly for dropping out of the race with a nearly half-lap lead. I was pulling for him to keep running and see how long he could stay in front, but sometimes rabbits have contracts that forbid such race-stealing.

Now Playing: Pearls from Mercurotones by The Buck Pets

Posted by pjm at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2006

Nobody's perfect

It could actually be reassuring to me to see that other track writers can blow stories, too, but since the AP’s longtime track writer retired a few years ago, I’ve seldom felt like their guys knew more about the sport than I do. This story correctly observes that Daniel Lincoln, Alistair Cragg’s training partner, is probably a stronger contender than either of the Americans who showed up at yesterday’s press conference, but whiffs on Cragg’s record in Boston: his win over Ngeny came in 2003. Neither Cragg nor Ngeny ran in Boston in ‘04.

This may, on the other hand, be an improvement over the Boston Herald, which (under a fairly bizarre headline about Tirunesh Dibaba) refers to the Reggie Lewis Center track as “super-slick.” I’m not sure “slick” is considered a compliment when you’re talking about a banked indoor track; after all, if athletes wanted slick, why would they wear spikes?

Now Playing: Stupid from Dulcinea by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

Buster the motorman

I spent a chunk of Friday afternoon downtown in a boutique hotel conference room, asking questions of a small collection of really fast people.

I’m ready to adopt Craig “Buster” Mottram as a new hero. First, he throws the typical distance-runner body type out the window; sitting at the head table, he’s so tall his feet stick out under the table’s skirt. Second, he’s not afraid to talk; unlike Sileshi Sihine and Gebre Gebremariam, who looked a little like the quiet kids hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on them, Mottram was practically grabbing the mike to answer questions not originally directed at him. Someone tried to get him to comment on the weather, coming from the height of an Australian summer, and he was even positive about that—too hot to sleep at home, he said, so he’s come here “to find some ice and bring it home.”

Beyond that, he’s refreshingly positive about competitive racing, as opposed to time trials in pursuit of a record. Why spend a week away from altitude training in Australia to fly to Boston and run an odd distance against a fast field, including one of the guys who beat him in Helsinki? Because he can’t find people that fast in Australia, he says. In a championship race, he points out, the character of the race is different, and paced races in Europe don’t teach you how to race that way.

Nonetheless, the world record was announced for our notebooks: 8:04.69 by Haile Gebrselassie. That’s two consecutive 4:02 miles, if the bald figure means nothing to you—or, more likely in this situation, a 4:10 followed immediately by a 3:54. I can imagine it happening; I think at least three guys in the field think themselves capable of it. Will the race take shape in a way that makes it possible? Less than twelve hours to find out. (The women’s 3,000m mark seems more likely.)

Now Playing: Life Is Beautiful from Cold Roses by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Posted by pjm at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2006

Four on Friday

We are in a section of the day which has long been known as “Is it time?” time. It is so named because our third roommate (the one who always wears stripes) is on a limited diet, and he’s always hungry well in advance of dinnertime. The period from 4 to 5 is the worst, because the hunger has woken him from his nap, and he’s determined that dinnertime is now. He keeps poking his face in the work of whoever is home, asking, “Is it time? Is it time?” This is particularly difficult when you’re working on a laptop, because he’ll sit behind the screen, then reach around and paw at your tapping fingers. He’s turned on Caps Lock on this machine more often than I have.

Sometimes he can be distracted for a few minutes with a toy or two, but this is a recipe for frequent interruption; I’ve been working half an hour on this already. But lest anyone think I’m bitter, I offer four things about Iz.

  • He’s friendly. Every other cat I’ve lived with has primarily been interested in minding its own business, and tolerated adulation as part of the cost of a regular meal ticket. Iz appears to prefer company to solitude, even preferring to sleep near us—he has a bed next to A’s desk.

  • He’s ambitious. Cats, in general, don’t like to fail, and so they’ll only attempt what they’re sure they can handle. Iz is more than willing to make a standing high-jump with a half-twist to intercept a flying styrofoam disk in the air, or vault from the floor to a countertop just a little higher than he can reach. He prefers you don’t laugh too long when he fails, of course.

  • He’s social. He looks you in the eyes when he wants something from you. And, oh yeah, he’s talking to you.

  • He’s adorable. You might just have to take my word on this.

Oh, look, it’s time.

Now Playing: Which Way Should I Jump? from Slinky by milltown brothers

Posted by pjm at 5:18 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2006


The semester has been underway for a week now, but I’m still easing in to it. I’m short on TA work, and waiting for feedback from others in order to make any progress on GA work. (In the interim, I’m figuring out how to re-do some previous Perl work in Python, using both old-school books and new-school books. And I have to say that this one looks wicked cool.)

There’s not much question of books, because only one of my classes uses one, and to date we haven’t been explicitly assigned reading from it (though we’ve gone over pretty much all of Chapter 1 in class; the professor lectures directly from the publisher-provided slides.) Another class has small assignments which go from class to class, and are pretty easy to handle; the third has only had one assignment, which is due Sunday but I handed in on Wednesday morning. I can’t figure out if this means I’m going to have an easy semester, or if we just haven’t built momentum yet. By this point last semester, I was afraid for my life.

Now Playing: Blackbirds from Distillation by Erin McKeown

Posted by pjm at 8:38 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2006

Preview the magnificent

I just finished and sent off my preview of Saturday’s meet, (Update: it’s posted) an event which includes a typographically annoying sponsor (Reebok’s recent insistence on being “Rbk” is even more confounding than Adidas’ insistence on an initial lowercase letter.) I like having the work—my freelance income is a big reason I don’t need to complain about my paltry graduate-student income—but previews are just too intense. I stare at entry lists and press releases, trying to pick out the legitimate stars from the press-release hype intended to make the races look more competitive than they are. I comb through old results and rankings, looking for credentials. (This early in the season, nobody has an up-to-date Annual in print, though TAFWA’s Indoor book is useful.) I might as well put it all in an envelope I hold to my forehead.

Last year, I whiffed on this preview, failing to even mention the entry of a woman who proceeded to run an unexpected world record. I guess it’s possible for that to happen this time, but it’s not as apparent to me yet. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll realize who I left out.

Anyway, world records and world champions aside, here’s a tip for Bostonians: the men’s 2-mile. Organizers are billing it (with capital letters) as “The greatest 2-mile field ever assembled in this country,” and it may be, once you get past the fact that 2-mile races are pretty rare. Anyway, first: Craig Mottram, winner of the Fifth Avenue Mile and the first non-African 5,000m world championships medalist since “Jaysus Christ, Eamonn” won it in 1983. Four Ethiopians, with a slew of silver medals in all the big internationals, most of which would’ve been gold if it wasn’t for Kenenisa Bekele.

And, before we make it just a five-way race, throw in many-times NCAA champion Alistair Cragg, European indoor champ at 5,000m last year, and an athlete who has made a reputation for beating gold medalists (Bekele, Noah Ngeny) in this very meet.

This may be more fun than any world records which may be run (and there’s at least one strong possibility for one of those.)

Now Playing: Where Is My Mind? from Surfer Rosa by the Pixies

Posted by pjm at 9:50 PM | Comments (0)

High demand

I’m back to TAing our introductory CS course. Last weekend I cooked up a web form to grab the students’ preferences for lab hours. We offered ten options and asked for first, second and third choices. So far, none of the labs are full, but there are about twenty students who may not have filled out the form yet.

I’m proud to note that so far, the three times I would cover are among the bottom half chosen. If we break ties with second choices, my sections are second, third, and fourth worst; the only section with fewer people choosing it is a 9 AM section. It seems likely that at least one, if not two, of my sections will be cancelled.

Now Playing: Might Be Stars from Be A Girl by The Wannadies

Posted by pjm at 4:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2006

Losing, but winning anyway

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I spent part of this morning at the press conference announcing the World Marathon Majors, which will kick off in Boston in April. My story is on a few different sites by now, more tomorrow. But as usual, there’s more going on than fits in a 500-600-word report.)

I’ve been bouncing emails around answering questions, because everyone has one. So, a rundown of sidelights. (Hmm, there’s an unfortunate figure of speech.)

There’s some confusion about who’s eligible. The trick is to distinguish between “qualifying” races and “scoring” races. A “qualifying” race is one of the five majors, or the Olympic or World Championship marathons. Anyone who runs three of those in a two-year period (with at least one in each of the two years—not all three in one of the two years) is eligible. Even me, in the unlikely event that I was able to finish, say, Boston, New York, and Boston again, without winding up in a wheelchair.

The trick is the scoring. You need to finish in the top five to score. The only restriction is that a maximum of four scores will be counted; Catherine Ndereba, for example, had five scoring races in the hypothetical 2004-2005 season used for illustration, but only four counted. There’s no minimum in theory, but in practice, the worst-case scenario is eleven or twelve different marathon winners over a given two-year scoring period if there are no two-time winners. So the minimum winning score is at least 26, more than could be scored at any one marathon. The odds that none of them would have, say, a second or even a fifth somewhere else are vanishingly small; an athlete would need at least two scoring races to have even a freak chance of winning it all. The maximum score is a clean sweep: four wins, 100 points. I am having a hard time thinking of anyone who has been that dominant in recent years. Plenty of three-race winners, but the only one I can think of who may have done it would be Bill Rodgers while he was on his four-win streak at NYCM, and even Boston Billy was not unbeatable enough to hold down both majors (at the time there was just the two) even for two years.

The hypothetical ‘04-‘05 season had Evans Rutto (wins in London and Chicago ‘04, plus a 4th in Chicago ‘05) winning by five points over Jaoud Gharib (3rd in London ‘04, 2nd in London ‘05, 1st in Helsinki World Championships.) This five-point win shows that late-in-the-term marathons can be much like decathlon 1500m races: there’s stuff happening back in the field (Rutto’s 4th gives him the Majors lead!) which is almost as interesting as what’s happening in front (and possibly more lucrative.)

So why go for a fast time, or even a win, at NYC if the really important thing is to finish 4th?

It’s true that the system is set up so that placing is important, not fast times. This may lead to some gamesmanship among the athletes trying to figure out which races they’d have the best chance of winning, but as Meb pointed out, he was ranked in the 30s going in to Athens: you might think you’re avoiding a head-to-head with Tergat by going to Boston instead of London, but you wind up getting whumped by someone like Meb who just hit their form that day. It’s not worth worrying too much about who’ll be there who might beat you. Pinkowski also pointed out that some of the fastest times in Chicago came in contested races: the last three world records were set in races that weren’t decided until the last mile, if that soon.

As for “why go for the win” if the important thing is to finish 4th… the short answer is that ING gives you a much larger check for winning. Pinkowski’s exact words included, “This just isn’t part of their culture.” If someone capable of winning this title was in a race at all, it would be because they expected to contend for the win; otherwise, they wouldn’t have shown up. The top-heavy scoring means it’s nearly impossible to win this title without winning at least one, if not two, of the Majors, which means we’re talking about a Tergat or a Ndereba, not someone who might be satisfied to make the podium at all.

Anyway, who says 4th place in NYC isn’t going to take a fast time?

The fact that I think of all this stuff, let alone feel the need to share, makes me feel like an utter marathon wonk. But come on: how many millions of people do exactly the same thing every fall, figuring out which Bowl game their college football team is headed for? Or, for that matter, baseball standings? (Half games? What’s a half game?) Anyone ever try to figure out how tennis players are ranked? The only really odd thing here is that I’ve chosen a different sport than most.

In fact, the real point of this, right down to the prize purse (One Million Dollars, no fractions needed, hallelujah!) is to get more people paying attention. It raises the idea that what happens in New York in November has some bearing on what happened (and will happen) in London in April, and vice versa. And maybe it will bring some attention while people watch to see who will win the million dollars: maybe the winner of the Marathon Majors will get a fraction of the attention of the winner of one or two golf Majors. It will undoubtedly get attention in April in Boston and London. The question is: will it get attention next November in New York? How about in New York in 2007? If it does… maybe it will work.

Final note: Taking the T downtown on a snowy day == good idea. Riding a bike to the T station on slushy roads == bad idea.

Now Playing: One Of Many Rescuers from Still Burning by Mike Scott

Posted by pjm at 9:30 PM | Comments (0)


I just sent in a story to RRW on the World Marathon Majors press conference, but there are a few dozen quotes and points I didn’t get to use due to length issues.

Mary Wittenberg on why the series is scored over two years:

This is not a sprint. Our sport rewards durability, consistency, and pacing. The marathon is as compelling as it is because it is as grueling as it is. It’s very unlikely that a marathoner will perform well against competition more than three times a year.

Nick Bitel (of the London Marathon) on adding other races to the series:

Never is a long time.

Dave Bedford, RD of London, on the same topic:

What brings us together as a group is that fact that we are mass-participation races. We have significant mens and women’s fields. We have many spectators on the course and in the TV audience; between us we have 150,000 athletes and 300 million spectators. We’d be seeking people who see life like we do: major cities with major races which have major press interest.

(Japanese marathons like Osaka and Fukuoka were mentioned, hence the “mass participation” qualifier, but I would think Rotterdam would also be a candidate.)

Bedford on the appeal of the circuit:

At the moment, we are viewed as major city marathons, but there is no understanding of how these things fit together. They happen in our own marketplaces. For the first time, there is a view that the results, what happens in London, has a bearing on what happens in the fall in New York.


The more recognition our athletes get, the better. This gives them the opportunity to strive to be the world’s greatest marathoner, by winning this series. We hope that the fans and the media are watching our leader board, and that they get to know the names of our athletes.

Guy Morse of the BAA, on what other cooperation is expected:

We’re looking at logistics which are common to all of us, like timing and scoring, medical care and feeding of our athletes. We’re also working on helping not just athletes like Meb and Paul, but our next generation of athletes.

And, just to repeat the quote from Wittenberg that I led the RRW story with:

There’s a million dollars in our sport today which wasn’t there yesterday.

Posted by pjm at 2:38 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2006

No wonder the bus never came

There’s an article in today’s Globe explaining that the T is suffering from rampant driver absenteeism.

[MBTA General Manager] Grabauskas also said the absenteeism forces the authority to drop scheduled train or trolley runs, which cost “us the good will of our customers who rely on our published service schedules, which in turn costs us lost revenue at a time when we can least afford it.”

That sounds awfully familiar. (And why has nobody made the obvious “absen-T” pun?) I suppose it also explains why, despite having mailed On-Time Service Guarantee cards over a month ago, we’ve heard nothing back from the MBTA. And that our traffic problems have less to do with inadequate public transportation than they do with shoddy management of the public transportation we have.

Posted by pjm at 9:05 AM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2006

An idea whose time has come

Aren’t there enough people running a mega-marathon (or, in the case of Boston, otherwise prevented from watching it on TV,) that it would be worthwhile to press a run of DVDs of the telecast?

I suppose the answer is “licensing”—the marathon organization licenses only broadcast rights to the television people, who then justifiably consider the output theirs (and thereby out of the mitts of the marathon organization.) It seems like it would benefit both to find some way to make that video available later—particularly considering the time (and sometimes expense) some fans of the sport put in to collecting copies of copies of tapes. We’ve got nearly every other variety of formerly-ephemeral television available on DVD now; why not mega-marathons?

Now Playing: True from Winter Pays For Summer by Glen Phillips

Posted by pjm at 4:16 PM | Comments (1)


Towards the end of this morning’s run, I dropped by the University track, where they’re having (yet another) meet today. I bumped in to the coach from the College. “Leaving, or coming back?” he asked. “There’s no mud on you.”

I observed that, until my runs are long enough to reach the Fells, the only way to get muddy on a run around here is to cross the Mystic at low tide.

Now Playing: Get On With It from Aurora Gory Alice by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 12:34 PM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2006

Sometimes it doesn't pay to dig too deep

As a reader, I prefer to find authors I like, then try to consume their entire output. Sometimes this works; sometimes there are one or two dogs that need avoiding. But I’m not the first to point out that an author’s name is a brand, and consumers follow that brand for a reason.

My aunt knows this, and is good about keeping me up to date on the recent output of (say) Bernd Heinrich. She’s also aware that I have the family gene for seafaring books, many of which I poached from my grandfather’s library. I’ve read and reread C.S. Forester’s Hornblower Saga to the point of memorization (the DVD set arrived at Christmas, but I’ve only had time to watch two of them,) so she’s managed to dig up The Hornblower Companion and the unlikely Life and Times volume. (Nothing like a biography of a fictional character, that’s what I say.)

Last weekend, she handed me two tiny paperbacks which turned out to be some of Forester’s lesser-known work. And deservedly so, as far as I can tell. The Nightmare is a collection of bleak short stories about Nazi Germany; Brown on Resolution has some glowing reviews (and plot synopses) on Amazon, but just felt overly melodramatic to me; a lengthy stage-setting for an ending that can’t really live up to its introduction.

The books are pocket-sized paperbacks from, my aunt thought, the library book sale, and the pencilled prices inside the front cover bear that out. The printed prices are more fun: Australia 80c, N.Z. 75c, Spain 65 Pts. Brown on Resolution notes, inside the cover, that the first printing was in 1929, this edition was 1963, and this was the sixth (1972) printing of that edition. Evidently this one was well-liked in its day.

Forester really is unpredictable, though. I read many of his more obscure titles from the library back in the day, and there are some which weren’t terribly memorable (The Good Shepherd) there were others (The Gun, The Captain From Connecticut) which were pretty powerful in their own way. His collections of stories, like The Man in the Yellow Raft and Gold From Crete, made excellent school-bus reading. The take-away message seems to be that if you follow the brand of the author, you can’t expect everything to be top of the line.

Now Playing: Other Side from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 9:10 PM | Comments (0)

I am a geek and I like to share

I was browsing course websites (I’m impatiently waiting for some of my professors to post book lists; the only one who has, isn’t assigning any,) and I happened by this semester’s Cryptography course, I noticed something weird about the text:

About the course: 20-5-12-3-15-13-5 20-15 3-18-25-16-20-15-7-18-1-16-8-25! 20-8-9-19 6-21-14 3-12-1-19-19 20-9-12-12 20-5-1-3-8 25-15-21 19-15-13-5 15-6 23-8-1-20 9-19 7-15-9-14-7 15-14 23-9-20-8 13-1-14-25 15-6 20-8-5 16-15-16-21-12-1-18 3-18-25-16-20-15-7-18-1-16-8-9-3 1-12-7-15-18-9-20-8-13-19. 4-5-19-16-9-20-5 20-8-5 6-15-18-13 15-6 20-8-9-19 20-5-12-3-15-13-5, 23-5 23-9-12-12 2-5 6-15-3-21-19-19-9-14-7 15-14 8-15-23 20-15 13-1-121-5 7-15-15-4 5-14-3-18-16-20-9-15-14 19-3-8-5-13-5-19, 14-15-20 8-15-23 20-15 2-18-5-1-11 2-1-4 15-14-5-19.

Yes, I worked it out. (Yes, there are errors in the ciphertext.)

Now Playing: Believe You Me from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 1:44 PM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2006

On teaching intro CS

See Jane Compute has started what she promises will be a “miniseries” on teaching computer science, with Teaching the intro courses. Tomorrow is the first day of classes here, and my first TA meeting for my second semester on our intro course, so it’s good for me to read things like this:

The biggest challenges I have at this level are (a) maintaining everyone’s interest in the material, without losing or boring anyone along the way; (b) making sure that the lesser-prepared students aren’t intimidated by the blowhards (many of whom really have sub-standard skills, but they know the lingo and they know how to sling it around); (c) introducing an overwhelming number of concepts in the first several weeks, and making sense out of them; (d) making sure that at the end of the class, everyone has some baseline skill in programming a computer.

There’s nothing like having the goals plainly laid out. I think (b) and (c) will probably be the ones that most come into my view, but (a) might pop up some as well. I hope we can do a better job than we did in the fall.

Posted by pjm at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2006

The town of Medford's website is broken

All I wanted to do was renew my parking permit. Based on last year’s experience, I remembered that I had to go to the police station, not the town hall. But this is local government, and I knew if I didn’t check ahead, I’d be making two trips: one to discover that I was visiting outside of office hours and/or didn’t have the right documentation, and another to actually get the permit.

I figured that the Medford town website would help me out. Maybe a link to the parking regulations, and something like, “To obtain a parking permit, go to the police station between 2 and 2:30 on alternate Wednesdays with your birth certificate, passport, and five forms of photo ID.” Nope. Try the “Government” link on the front page, and see if there’s anything on that page that looks remotely helpful for anything you’d actually want to know from your town government.

Remembering that the permits actually come from the police department, I thought maybe I’d find something on the police website. Nope, nothing doing. This site is a bit more 1999 rather than 1997, but is still far too fixated on what the publishers want to tell us rather than what the people want to know. There are too many links on the front page, and not enough of them give any indication of what information you’ll find if you click on them. I tried a few, hopefully looking for parking information, and all I found was instructions for how to pay a parking ticket… which might turn out to be very useful if I can’t figure out how to get my permit!

Of course, all these websites had contact email addresses and phone numbers, but anyone who has ever done phone and/or email support for software knows that the point of a website is minimize the need for customers to resort to email and/or phone calls, and the way to do that is to make sure the customers find what they need on the website. (And the way to do that… is to make an easy-to-use website!)

Finally, I put all the conceivable documentation for my car, short of the actual title, in my bag and biked up to the police station. I went to the window, where helpful signs explained that all I needed was my registration (got it) and a $10 check made out to the city. Well, that’s easy; why couldn’t I find this online? The posted hours were even reasonable. There was nobody in the office, but after a minute or so of patient waiting, a grumpy woman came up, took my registration and check, and eventually gave up a sticker and two guest permits. I use the word “grumpy,” because she made it quite plain to me that she had planned on being gone to lunch, and I was delaying that plan, and parking stickers took far too long to fill out forms for. (Why on earth, by the way, do all parking permits expire on New Year’s Eve? Has it not occurred to someone to stagger them, like auto inspections, so the entire town isn’t lined up at this counter in January to get their new stickers?)

So this ended up being a successful mission in that I got what I came for (a parking sticker), but the extra lessons were less than positive. I learned that the Town of Medford isn’t really interested in providing information its citizens are actually looking for on their websites. I learned that the Medford police department would rather be at lunch than providing me with a parking permit, and in fact they’d rather give me a parking ticket than a parking permit. Actually, what they’d really like is for me to stay home and not bother them with anything like doing their jobs, so clearly this is all my fault.

Now Playing: Horrible Qualities from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 5:32 PM | Comments (0)

Disk Profiler X

By indoctrinating my mother in the Macintosh Way years ago, I saved myself a great deal of time on the phone doing software support. (I did find myself explaining to an uncle—himself an engineer—how a BIOS might refuse to boot a computer where installed RAM has voltage requirements which don’t match what the motherboard can provide.)

However, you can still reach odd Mac states which require e-mail troubleshooting. Last week, for example, my old iBook (which is now hers) refused to boot, complaining about a lack of disk space. We needed two tools to bring it back to life. First, we booted the iBook in “Firewire Target Disk Mode,” which is done by booting with the “t” key held down. This doesn’t bring up the operating system, but instead makes the computer, essentially, into an external hard disk which can be mounted by another machine. We plugged it in to her iMac, with the goal of freeing up enough disk space to allow it to boot on its own.

The utility which made this task easier is called Disk Inventory X. It presents the files on a disk (or inside a given subdirectory) in a format called “treemaps” which is easier for me to show than to describe. Here, for example, is the Disk Inventory X window for my HDD.

My hard disk

This makes it very easy to point out the big blocks which, once deleted, free up the most space for the least work. On the iBook, we found eight or ten iPod updaters (one is sufficient,) and a 650MB audio file left over from one of my mother’s adventures in ripping her vinyl records to MP3s. A few quick deletes, and the iBook would boot again: much easier than, say, going through one’s email looking for attachments.

What’s most striking about this image, to me, is how much disk space I have dedicated to music. (The blue chunk in the upper left is all AAC files, ripped from my CDs; the purple ones next to them are downloaded MP3s.

Since the left-side window shows folders ranked according to the size, and iTunes stores files in folders by artist, I can rank artists by how much disk space I have dedicated to them. It’s tempting to use that as a default “favorite artists of all time” list, but there are obvious problems with that: compare, for instance, The Church, with twenty-five years behind them and seventeen disks in my collection (and I’m missing several,) with someone like Sarah Harmer, whose third album is due for U.S. release in a few weeks, and Josh Ritter, only on his fourth. Clearly, all this is telling me is how much disk space they occupy.

Now Playing: Old Time Sake from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2006


One of the “additional features” on the Murderball DVD is a segment in which the “stars” of the documentary, members of the USA “Quad Rugby” team (that is, rugby as played by quadriplegics, which doesn’t have too much in common with green-grass rugby, other than the violence,) appear on “Larry King Live.” At some point, one of them points out that not only is the film a documentary, but it’s a documentary about people in wheelchairs, which changes the image to, as he put it, “a movie people think they should see, not one they want to see. It’s not like that at all.”

And it’s not. (No movie which includes an episode of “Jackass” as an additional feature could be so classed. A and I agreed that would probably be the only episode of “Jackass” we’d ever see.) However, I did only see it because A was assigned to see it for a class. And I did learn a few things, like a definition of quadriplegic, and the “point” rating system they use to ensure a relatively similar level of physical ability among players on the floor.

At heart, though, it’s a sports movie, following a team (and their rivals’ coach, who was once one of them,) through a World Championship loss and the training cycle leading to their appearance at the Athens Paralympics in 2004 (leading me to wonder what degree of influence the Paralympics have on the architecture of the Olympics—do you build a gymnasium differently if you know you’re going to be repurposing it a few months later?) It’s about personalities. (One player is described by high school classmates: “He was an asshole before the accident, so any attempt to blame his grumpiness on the chair is misguided.”)

The point, stated over and over in the supplementary material, is that the players are “athletes first,” which would seem to go against the way they are introduced at the beginning of the film, with subtitles describing how they came to be quadriplegic. By midway through, it becomes apparent that the titles are less of an attempt to deliver an initial shock and more like a player card, listing the accidents and impairments the way runners list PRs. The point is driven home several times in the interviews with the athletes; most of them reject the idea of having full use of their limbs back. “Look how much we’ve done,” one points out. “We couldn’t compete for a gold medal before.”

Now Playing: End Of The Universe from Live Light (France, 11/1994) by Ride

Posted by pjm at 7:38 PM | Comments (0)

Mixed media

It’s just a few days until the spring semester starts, and things get frantically busy around here again. I should really dedicate a day to cleaning up before we dive in, but I have been attempting to get work done for my GA before I’m swamped with classwork.

I got my TA assignment today; I will, again, be “rounding out” my aid by working a few hours a week on Comp 11. Hopefully, the hours will work the way they’re supposed to this time.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sadly neglecting this space, probably because I’ve been spending my days either scattered among dozens of little projects or utterly stupefied by the Blojsom/Sakai project. It’s increasingly obvious to me that I don’t have the skills to even get started on this project, which is quite frustrating. Anyway, to get me writing a bit more, I’ll post about some movies and books that have been flicking past lately.

Now Playing: Wake Up by Follow The Train

Posted by pjm at 6:40 PM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2006

What I never had

On Saturday’s run, I stopped off at the University track to watch a few of A’s former high school runners running the 3,000m at the weekend’s meet. Whenever I watch a meet, it’s very easy for me to mentally place myself on the track and in the race. I imagine myself out there, spotting people to chase, plotting my strategy, feeling the energy of the race in my legs.

The funny part about this is that I can’t remember ever having a good race indoors. In fact, when I think about it, I don’t think I had a good collegiate race on the track. And yet, mentally, I can put myself in there as a positive experience. I don’t know if that’s optimism, or imagination.

Posted by pjm at 8:15 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2006

Spare some change for a world record?

It looks like the Tyson Invitational at least took my advice about the name of their meet (they dropped the ridiculous “Powered by,”) but they’ve found a new way to look silly.

Well, not entirely silly. Just silly for a professional athletic event. According to a press release earlier this week, Tyson is putting up a $25,000 bonus for a world record set at the meet. No, I did not forget any zeroes: twenty-five thousand. You know, just about enough for four years of in-state tuition at the University of Arkansas, with a bit left over for spikes and groceries. Or, to follow my idea from last year, .025 million dollars.

It seems likely that the record will come, which is probably why the bonus is so small. See, they have some World Championships medalists in a 300m race, which is sufficiently odd that nearly every serious journalist covering the meet has added the preface, “rarely run” to “300m.”

I know that meet directors think that “World Record” is a magic phrase that will bring in fans, but I think the fans are bright enough to see this Potemkin distance and laughable bonus and smell a put-up job somewhere on the line.

Posted by pjm at 10:41 PM | Comments (1)

One Hour

I got my USMS membership card in yesterday’s mail, and today I swam my first competition of the year. I went over to the University pool and swam a distance for the One Hour Postal swim.

The One Hour is a regular January event in which, some time in the course of the month, you simply swim for one hour while some other brave soul watches and takes splits (every 50y.) Once finished, you fill out the entry form and mail it in. Someone in Ohio collates the entries and publishes the results in February.

A generously agreed to spend an hour of her time watching me go back and forth. I’ve never done such a long stretch of swimming without a break, so I was a bit apprehensive, but I figured as long as I didn’t get in over my head early on, I’d be fine. For a conservative goal, I worked out that one minute per 50y lap would be 3,000y total. I never thought through any more ambitious goals. I suited up with an older race suit and a cap (unusual for me,) figuring anything that saved energy early on would pay off later.

I planned to start out easy, but according to A’s split sheet, it took me about 500y (7:14.5) to settle down. From there on, the subtractive splits for each lap are almost monotonous: a long string of 44s, with an occasional 43 when I started thinking too much. I split 14:40.8 at 1,000y, 22:02.1 at 1,500y, and 29:26.6 at 2,000y, which is the first 45.

At 2,000y by my count, I figured (accurately, as it turned out,) that I must be at least halfway, if not well beyond. I made a deal with myself to hang on to a steady pace through 3,000y (again, by my count; I had no idea if I’d missed or skipped a lap somewhere.) At 3,000y, I could start pushing, because however bad it got, I wasn’t going to be going too much longer. I can see a series of slower laps in the third thousand, probably as a result of this. But once I reached 3,000y (44:20.7) I started cranking. I wasn’t sprinting, but I was making an effort to push the pace, which mostly meant thinking faster. The 45s and 44s became 44s and 43s, and I see a few 42s in there. From 3,000y to 3,500y was 7:08, which is pretty quick for me; I was 7:16 from 3,500y to 4,000y (58:44). If I’m reading the sheet correctly, those were the second and third fastest 500y segments. I got in one more lap under the hour, and another length (4075 in 59:52) but 4,100y was past the hour mark.

I’m pretty pleased with that distance; it’s not extraordinary, but it exceeded my modest expectations. I’m more pleased with the splits; being that steady for an hour, and that fast, says a lot for being able to hang on to a more aggressive pace through a 1,000y or 500y race come April.

It looks like I get to count the extra 25y, so my official distance will be 4,075y. If this year’s results are anything like last year’s, that will put me around 50th out of 90-odd in my age group. (It looks like my brother was 4th.)

Now, to finish filling out the entry for mailing in.

Now Playing: Silver Machine from A Box Of Birds by The Church

Posted by pjm at 4:09 PM | Comments (1)

Useful lifetime

I seriously torqued my Powerbook last night. I managed to set up my Eclipse configuration correctly to import the source for Sakai as a series of projects, so I saw the load on the machine (roughly defined as the average number of processes queued for execution) hold in the 3+ range for more than five minutes. Running Java, and particularly big operations in Eclipse, tends to bog it down.

I’ve been pretty closely attached to this machine over the last few months, which probably comes as no surprise. I’ve been loading it down with tools to do my work, and pretty much living on it. It’s “only” two and a half years old, but it’s beginning to show some age, and the degree to which it labors with Java is probably related. I did put in a new keyboard, new optical drive, and a lot of RAM last June, which means it’s probably good for a while yet. But it doesn’t feel like a sharp, new tool; it feels more like the old wrench with nicks around all the edges, the one which just doesn’t break no matter how much you use it as a hammer.

After this week, I think ultimately this machine will be replaced by one of the inelegantly named MacBook Pros. The speed bump is cool, and since most of the non-standard tools I play with are either installed from source (and therefore compiled for the platform) or bytecode-reliant (i.e. Java tools reliant on the JVM,) I don’t think I’ll spend much time bogged down in PPC emulation (as I would, say, if I used Photoshop all the time.) However, I’m waiting for a few things. For one, I’m not interested in being an unpaid beta tester for version 1.0 hardware. For another, though, I’ve become quite fond of the 12” size. I like having a laptop that’s smaller than most casebound textbooks; I lug it around far too much to want it to get any heavier.

So I’ll be hanging on to the old war-horse a bit longer.

Now Playing: Runaway Train from Grave Dancers Union by Soul Asylum

Posted by pjm at 11:24 AM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2006

We have it all

Another good reason to come to Boston for the USATF Indoor Track championships: Sarah Harmer is playing at the Paradise on Friday night.

Now Playing: I Know What I’m Here For from Millionaires by James

Posted by pjm at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)


I finally figured out the magic incantation needed to get the University’s web information system to cough up my grades from the fall semester. I already knew one of them, because the professor emailed the grades, something they refused to do at Westfield State. The other two, I had figured out my numerical average within a few points based on the graded work which was returned to us, but I wasn’t sure how those numbers would translate to letter grades.

Now I know. It looks like I have a B+ average now, which isn’t where I would like to be, but isn’t in the danger zone, either. The grades map pretty well to which courses I thought were toughest, but I’m disappointed that I didn’t do better in one which was challenging but fun. (Disappointed, I should add, in myself; the grade is inarguable.) It looks like the curve helped me in the course I almost dropped, because I thought I did worse than the grade indicates. And I did better there than I did the first time I took calculus. (The fact that I refer to “the first time” should be a clue to how that turned out…) In fact, come to think of it, I’m doing better here, gradewise, than I did in Russian language courses.

Now Playing: Green Eggs from Sister by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 5:24 PM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2006

Lions, tigers and nieces

I saw The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe yesterday. I hit a late-afternoon showing at a poorly-located theater, which meant there were three of us in the theater. (This is rivaled only by the time, in a former job, when the office rented a van to see Prefontaine, and after the first of us bought his ticket, the teller picked up a phone; when we went in, we realized he’d been calling up to the projection room to say, “Looks like you’ll have to show it after all.”)

I think the last time I read the books, I took them out of the Allentown Public Library, which would put it, probably, in summer ‘96. I figured I would have forgotten some details, but apparently I nearly memorized the books the first time around. (Who, in elementary school, wouldn’t have wanted to come back from Narnia with sword and shield to visit vengeance on the bullies? It was my favorite part of The Silver Chair.) There was nothing which disappointed me by its absence: someone else noted that the books are short enough that little needs cutting to fit a feature-length movie (unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings.)

Anyone who’s avoiding the movie because of “the Christian allegory” should go see it anyway. There is precisely one major plot point which parallels the New Testament, and if there are church groups taking their children to see it, they’ll need to do some explaining to make sure their children get the point.

Was I blown away? No, not really. I think the books remain ten times stronger than the film; they are better paced, and because they describe just enough and leave out just enough, any reader with an active imagination has far more vivid pictures in their head than can be realized on film. The scene at the Stone Table, in particular, was much more cold and dreadful in print. Also, the books communicated the passage of time in a way the movie didn’t. But other things took. Lucy, for example, somehow reminded me of my younger niece, and the sorrow or joy on her face moved me more than whatever was moving her.

That’s a pretty mixed evaluation. I guess I’d sum it up as “not as good as the book,” but that doesn’t make it a bad movie by any stretch. I hope they continue the series; I’m looking forward to the Voyage and The Horse and His Boy particularly.

Now Playing: Another Satellite from Skylarking by XTC

Posted by pjm at 10:13 PM | Comments (0)

Already looking forward to April

BOSTON, MA—January 10, 2006—In its 21st year as the major sponsor of the Boston Marathon, John Hancock Financial Services announced the entry of two-time American Olympian and U.S. 10,000 meter record holder Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi for the 110th running of the race.

That’s the opening graph of the press release I just got, about an hour old. Links are mine.

This is good news, as good (or better) than Alan Culpepper’s entry last year. For years (decades!) the really good American marathoners didn’t come to Boston. Sometimes this was to be expected (Boston would, for example, come too close to the Olympic Trials marathon,) but more often it was the stated policy of John Hancock head (and Olympic sponsor and critic) David D’Alessandro to fund the best athletes—with the pointed observation that American marathoners didn’t make the cut. For a long time, that meant Kenyans: some stars like Moses Tanui (or Cosmas Ndeti, who ran phenomenally quickly in Boston but bombed everywhere else,) and some lesser-known names like Lameck Aguta or Timothy Cherigat. Lately, there have also been the Ethiopians, starting with Fatuma Roba and including Hailu Negussie.

Things have been changing in the last few years. Meb, for example, won a silver medal in Athens, and followed it up with a second-place finish in the NYCM. Culpepper was 10th in Athens—which would’ve been the best American performance in twenty years, had Meb not been there—then ran fourth in Boston last spring, with Ryan Shay 10th. It’s clear, now, that there are American men who can compete with the best in the world.

What’s missing is the win. Deena Kastor’s win in Chicago last fall broke a long drought, but it has been a very long time since an American male won the Boston marathon. (This sentence started as “…major marathon,” but there’s the curious case of Moroccan-born and raised Khalid Khannouchi and Chicago.) I wrote a column about a dinner last fall where Greg Meyer stood up and told a gathering of coaches, “Find somebody who can win the Boston Marathon. I don’t want them wheeling me out until I die, saying, ‘There he is again, the last American man to win the Boston Marathon.’”

Culpepper took a pretty good swing at it, placing higher than anyone since Bob Kempainen’s 3rd in ‘94 (the “Year of the Tailwind.”) Now what’s happening is world-class American marathoners without a major-marathon win are meeting major American marathons without American winners. Maybe Meb will be the one, rolling down out of the Newton hills with the Kenyan bus and crushing them on Comm Ave with his 10,000m speed. Imagine the noise from the post-game Red Sox crowd in Kenmore Square if Meb was in the lead with a mile remaining.

Now Playing: Maria from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 9:18 AM | Comments (4)

January 9, 2006

The Time Being

Have you ever read something so audacious you went past speechlessness and into (to invent a word) laughterlessness?

Since it seems like it’s The Thing for musicians to have weblogs nowadays, I just happened on The Time Being, the ramblings of Steve Kilbey (of The Church and numerous other neopsychedelic projects.) It’s a very strong flavor. He gets all the bits of weblogs right (he talks about being beat up in high school, his daughters visiting, etc.) but the style. I can’t even begin to describe it, long columns of clipped lines like free verse but heavily freighted with half-Scots, half-Strine slang, deliberately affected misspellings (“olde,”) as though he was taking irreverance all the way to areverance.

In my opinion, the best part is where he nominates himself for the part of King Miraz in the next Narnia film. (He has a serious issue with the wolves having American accents.)

No feed, though. Someone should send the man a copy of Julie’s book.

Now Playing: High Lonesome from The Fine Art Of Self Destruction by Jesse Malin

Posted by pjm at 10:57 PM | Comments (0)

Routing (mis)adventures

One of the reasons I volunteered to accompany A up to the Dartmouth Relays was that I finally had installed maps on my Palm and could try out the GPS Navigator. On the face of it, this wasn’t really the best trip to use it on, because driving from Medford to Hanover is as easy as falling off a log: I-93 to I-89 to NH-120 and hey, there’s the track. I could’ve done it by memory.

The advantage of the Navigator turned out to be knowing how much longer I was likely to be on the road. This makes for easier decisions about when to stop for a break, for example. When you know where you’re going, though, the voice prompts are just annoying.

We could really have used another feature on the way back. Near the I-93/I-293 split south of Manchester, about three or four exits from the Massachusetts border, traffic stopped somewhat abruptly, and there was a smokey smell I assume was either hot brake pads or scorched tires. A momentary vantage point showed brake lights red over a mile ahead.

Unfortunately, the Palm and the GPS hadn’t managed to make a Bluetooth connection since we’d left Hanover, so the navigation wasn’t able to suggest an alternate routing. (It still thought we were either in Hanover, where it had last had a signal, or Medford.) Fortunately, traffic was stopped enough that we could pull out a paper map and work out that I-293 would swing us west around the south end of Manchester, where we could pick up route 3 down through Nashua. If I didn’t know New Hampshire as well as I do, though, it would’ve been nice to get a suggestion for a way around.

Now Playing: It’s Nearly Africa from English Settlement by XTC

Posted by pjm at 2:09 PM | Comments (0)

January 7, 2006


I spent this morning soaking in Blodgett Pool—actually, creeping back and forth across it, doing drills in a freestyle clinic put on by Cambridge Masters Swimming. My brother put me on to the clinic last month at the meet, and eventually just signed me up for it as a Christmas gift. (I wonder if my 100m thrashing might have prompted that.)

I’ve got a packet of material from the clinic that I should really go through, but this was probably the first time since I learned to swim that anyone has sent me back and forth across the pool with the sole purpose of seeing how I do it, and telling me how to do it better. We focused on body position and pull. I hold my head a whisker too high, which tips my feet down; that’s pretty easy to fix. Harder is my pull, though some of the body position drills (rolling from my hips) will help.

They had underwater and on-deck video cameras to tape us and show us our form, which is a very striking way of demonstrating what we’re doing. Seeing my left arm pulling wide to the outside without much angle to the elbow on the underwater camera is much more vivid than any demonstration: I don’t need much prompting to see what’s going wrong.

After about two hours in the water (much of it spent getting quite cold,) I did feel like I was faster—or, at least, like I could swim the same speed with less effort. It’s also clear to me that I will need to get in the pool on Monday and nail these things down before I forget them.

Given that I’m not swimming New Englands this year, I’ve spent some time over the last few days plotting what I will do instead. I’m hoping to do the hour swim sometime before classes start again, which means soon; I just need to make an appointment with my lap counter and screw my courage to the sticking point, or something like that. It looks like there’s a meet in southern New Hampshire sometime in February which may be interesting; they’ve got mostly short stuff on the schedule, but also a 1650y, “time permitting.” However, there are more meets in Maine than anywhere else in New England this winter, which is pretty pathetic when you consider where all the swimmers are actually located.

So I’m thinking seriously about making my goal meet the Colonies Zone SCY meet in April. It’s the weekend after the Boston Marathon, but it’s also going to require some travel: it’s being hosted by Patriot Masters at George Mason.

Now Playing: Angels Of The Silences from Recovering The Satellites by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 8:32 PM | Comments (0)

Means to an end

There was an article on Geocaching in the Hampshire Life section of Friday’s Daily Hampshire Gazette. I’m quoted extensively. It’s mildly amusing, since I believe I’ve done fewer than five caches since I moved, and only one close to home; I’ve done more in Indiana than Massachusetts lately.

I actually went as far as to propose a similar story to the same editor a few years ago, but never wrote it. I think they got a better author to finally do it, because I would’ve written a pretty straight ad for caching, and this writer came in questioning the point of the whole activity. “Do we really need to hide things in the woods to make the woods worth visiting?”

We brought him around eventually, of course.

By now, it’s becoming clear that in geocaching there is something else hidden besides that plastic container or ammo box. What that is, I’ve finally discovered, is the idea that the cache isn’t simply an end, but a means to an end.

Sad to say, the Gazette is subscription-only, so if you aren’t a subscriber and really do want to read the article, drop me a line (or comment) and I’ll use their “send this story to a friend” feature.

Now Playing: Is It Like Today? from Bang! by World Party

Posted by pjm at 4:40 PM | Comments (1)

January 6, 2006

Another layer of language maps

There was a lot of ‘net buzz a few years ago about the dialect survey and the resulting maps.

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, which came before he started in on travel writing, but probably after (or maybe concurrently with) his Dictionary of Troublesome Words.

Bryson postulates that the varied accents (and dialects!) of the British Isles can be attributed to the languages of the populations which settled the corresponding regions: Norse, Angles, Saxons, Danes, etc. He further explains that much of the dialect variation of the American east coast matches the origins of the English populations who settled there. (And not just English; if you think the German population of Pennsylvania isn’t still torquing the grammar of those who live there, you’ve never spent much time in Pennsylvania.)

I wonder if you could combine both concepts and overlay a map of settlement patterns (German, French, Norwegian, Italian, etc. etc.) on the dialect maps. If you shifted through a number of settlement maps through a few hundred years, I wonder which ones would most closely match the existing patterns of speech?

Now Playing: If I Wrote You from End Of The Summer by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 1:23 PM | Comments (0)


There’s a picture of me in the current newsletter of my swim team. The online version is much clearer than the photocopy I got in the mail. The photo is from last month’s meet, and the part I find amusing is that both of us in the photo are wearing shirts from marathons. (Mine is from the NYCM; his is a bit more obvious.)

Posted by pjm at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

January 5, 2006


This morning, I went to a talk by a prospective Ph.D. student. It’s part of the qualifying for the degree, to present your current research and give some idea of how that’s going to progress to a dissertation. I have a strategy about talks; I go to as many as I reasonably can, I understand whatever I can (usually somewhat less than 50%,) and I keep my mind open.

The hope is that eventually, something will stick. There is a lot happening in CS. My strengths are not in math, and, by extension, not in theory. My contribution to this field is going to be finding a good way to apply the theory I attempt to learn—doing interesting stuff the smart way, I suppose.

Today’s talk was about nutrigenomics, which is sufficiently obscure, still, that my spell-checker doesn’t recognize it. The idea is pretty self-evident when you think about it: the nutrients you eat interact with sections of your genetic code. The chain isn’t hard to put together in theory, but the individual links of an individual chain are far from simple to visualize. Today’s talk was about ways to make that easier, or at least that’s the part I think I understood.

The part that was really interesting to me was that the presenter has two collaborators outside the CS department, in our medical school and our nutrition science school. (We have a nutrition science school? This is news to me.) Also, that he’s a part-time grad student with a full-time job in the office where my assistantship is, and next week we’re meeting with someone else from the medical school about hacking some perl scripts for mass spectrometry of proteins.

There seems to be a lot of interest in Computational Biology (“Comp Bio”) here, and while my own background in biology is sketchy, it’s intriguing. Maybe it’s everything I learned by osmosis at my last job—and my belief that we need a better phylogenetic analysis tool. I wonder how much biology you’d need to know to improve on the current state of the art—not just the user experience, which I already have a low opinion of, but the actual computation performance.

Now Playing: Gone Too Far from Tomorrow by James

Posted by pjm at 9:06 PM | Comments (1)

January 4, 2006


Work, as I’ve implied, has lately been centered around Sakai and all the various technologies it requires to work. Lately I’ve discovered that just dropping in a binary build is not useful if you’re going to try to hack Sakai; you need to build from source (of course, of course.)

Most big modular tools make use of a GNU tool called make. make is essentially a script which allows developers to define (in a “makefile”) several “targets” which represent end states, and the tools, files, and steps needed to create that end state. The sysadmin then installs the software by “running” the makefile, usually with a command like make install (which means, attempt to reach the target called “install.”) Other usual targets include clean (remove traces of a previous make run,) which is a sort of undo for installations.

If your system has a good collection of libraries and software tools, and the makefile has been well-written, you can usually install software with something like ./configure; make; make install or, sometimes, ./configure; make; make test && make install if there is a test target defined. If you’re missing a few files, though, make will tell you about it, then quit.

Sakai is installed from source with Maven. It’s probably a massive oversimplification to call Maven the Java counterpart to make, but in this situation they play the same role. I give the command maven sakai, and it runs for ten to fifteen minutes, streaming page upon page of status report through my terminal window, then eventually tells me why it couldn’t actually do what I asked—usually because of some dependency it couldn’t download.

Dependencies are, to oversimplify, when one little bit of code requires another little bit of code to run. Maven tells me what I’m missing, usually a .jar file of some flavor, and I drop it into Google to see if I can find a site to download it from. Once I’ve found it, I load it in to Maven’s own cache, and restart the whole dance.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve tried to install Sakai this way; must have been five to ten last night, and three more this evening… hey! IT JUST BUILT! Cool!

Now to figure out how to break it…

Now Playing: Hotel Womb from Starfish by The Church

Posted by pjm at 8:42 PM | Comments (0)

January 3, 2006

Answers to questions

Barb asked about the picture over on the right. I explained the picture in a very, very early post here. I should link the photo to it.

Adam asked about the results of my iPod surgery. I guess I never posted the conclusion to my oldest iPod story. (I replaced the battery, but couldn’t get it to connect to my Powerbook and transfer songs, I presume due to an issue with the Firewire connector.) I ended up giving the little brick to my brother, who offered to take it in to the shop at his work where they had some precision soldering gear. He figured if he could re-solder the connectors, then he’d slap a glob of epoxy on to keep them there.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have any success getting the connectors re-soldered, so the old iPod is still pretty much non-functional. It will charge, but it won’t mount on a Mac, so you can’t change songs or playlists. For the most part, this doesn’t concern me enough that I’m ready to spend more time or money on it; my existing unit is just fine for what I want it to do. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that there are a dozen or two songs on there which I don’t have backed up elsewhere (I’ve learned my lesson on that.)

Now Playing: Half Life from Winter Pays For Summer by Glen Phillips

Posted by pjm at 5:48 PM | Comments (1)

January 2, 2006

I should be doing real work

But instead, I’m taking advantage of having my head in the CSS-space and making this site look a little less like every other weblog launched with Movable Type in 2002-2003 (and a little more like something done by someone who claims to have been a web professional.) Let me know if anything significant breaks; there are still some little pieces I’m not finished with.

Posted by pjm at 2:22 PM | Comments (1)

January 1, 2006

Duncan Sheik at the Orpheum

I think our best New Year’s Eves have been spent at concerts in Northampton. (I first saw Erin McKeown playing “Blackbirds” at a First Night Northampton show in the Academy of Music, with Dave Hower and Dave Chalfant for the backing band.) So when we took our First Night Boston pins on the Red Line, I figured our best bet was to get off at Park Street and walk over to the Orpheum, where The River (which appears to be different from “The River” in Northampton) was sponsoring local heroes The Gentlemen and Duncan Sheik.

I’d never been to the Orpheum before. It has the same old seats as the Academy and the Somerville Theatre, but quite close together; we saw The Gentlemen’s set from the first row behind the orchestra section so we wouldn’t have our knees jammed into the back of someone else’s seat. The Gentlemen play tight, loud, straight-ahead rock, about what I’d expect of Boston now that I think of it. The FN site compared them to Elvis Costello, but I’d say only on Elvis’s loudest, most raucous moments. With their guitars nearly to their knees, it was more like Elvis channeling the Clash. I was glad that this time I’d remembered to bring earplugs.

Each act was to take turns for two sets each, four total, with each running about 45 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission. During the first intermission, we took the opportunity to hop up to the balcony, where there were opera boxes with empty seats. The view was nice; I took a few cell-phone-camera shots, but the quality is so low they’re not worth posting.

Duncan Sheik is perhaps best known for his 1996 hit “Barely Breathing,” which was so overplayed in the years right after I graduated from college that I gained a strong aversion to it. It seems like Sheik did too; in the last year or so he visited Northampton, opening for someone at the Calvin perhaps, and the review in the Gazette noted that most of the crowd didn’t know who he was, and he did nothing to enlighten them—that is to say, he pretty much pretends that “Barely Breathing” doesn’t exist. Well, not really: on his website, he says,

…the “upbeat” music [a critic] seems to want to hear generally fails to move me in any way. In fact, the further I move away from “likable” pop music, the happier I am with what I’m doing. … I really don’t feel like I’m ever going to be that kind of artist. And if I ever was, it was an accident of bad marketing and my own lack of good judgement.

That made me a bit more open-minded about this set, and it turned out to be pretty good. He has a good band and they work the dynamics pretty well, playing up and down the emotions of the songs.

Sheik has a new CD due in a few weeks, and he played a few songs from it and a few from his last disc. Then he introduced one as, “This is a Radiohead song.” I thought he’d said “radio hit song” and that he was uncharacteristically going to play “Barely Breathing,” but instead it was “Fake Plastic Trees,” which the band did quite well with. Sheik isn’t quite Thom Yorke, though. I was actually thinking that the voice he most reminded me of was Glen Phillips (ex of Toad the Wet Sprocket,) and in fact they could’ve dropped in “Stories I Tell” without jarring the tone at all.

We considered staying for the second round, but in the end we decided that another set of Sheik probably wasn’t worth sitting through another round of The Gentlemen, so we headed home by a roundabout route.

Posted by pjm at 8:05 PM | Comments (0)

New referrer spam theory

I’m seeing more referrer spam without clear spammishness—in fact, I’m getting “referrers” from perfectly legitimate blogs which don’t have a link to here.

My current theory is that link spammers (be they referrer spammers, comment/trackback spammers, whatever,) are trying secondary spamming: boosting the pagerank of blogs they’ve spammed by spamming links to them. That was certainly the case yesterday, when all the spammed links were to weblog entries that were absolutely choked with spam comments. Today, not so much. Maybe the spam comments are elsewhere on the blogs?

Posted by pjm at 10:49 AM | Comments (0)