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November 30, 2006


We now have a Boloco in Medford, about ten minutes walk from my office, and today—its first day open—was “free burrito day.” There was a line out the door when I got there, which should be no surprise to anyone considering that they’re about as close as they can get to the main campus without being on it. The line moved pretty quickly, all things considered (I guess they didn’t need to make change for anyone, after all,) and I was happy to wait for several reasons, one being, hey, free burrito! Also, it beat my other dinner plan, which involved sitting down around 9:30 PM to eat. And finally, it’s now almost certainly the best counter-food option in easy walking distance of the department. Still, it’s no Bueno.

Now Playing: Shameless from Dilate by Ani DiFranco

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November 29, 2006

Always quick with an illustration

One of our undergraduate researchers was giving a presentation today in which she mentioned a dodecahedron—“You know, like a D20,” she said, as though everyone would know what that was.

Also, she said “dough-DESS-uh-hee-dron,” a soft “c,” when I had always mentally expected “dough-DECK-uh-hee-dron,” a hard “c.” I suppose it makes sense, if a deciliter (a tenth of a liter) is pronounced with the soft “c” and decaliter, ten liters, with the hard “c” is sometimes spelled with a “k”.

Posted by pjm at 9:45 PM | Comments (4)

Technology weirds language

I was a little surprised at how many students weren’t conscious of the fact that “software” is a plural noun with no singular.

It is possible to use “software” in such a way that it looks like a singular—the example one student gave was, “Software is hard”—but actually, it’s an object, not a subject in that case: “Selling software is hard.”

But companies can’t produce “a software.” They can produce “a software product” or “a software solution” or even “a software upgrade,” but not “a software,” just as you can’t walk into the nearest Home Depot and buy “a hardware.” (Nor, for that matter, can you buy “a linen” at Linens ‘n’ Things, as near as I can tell.)

I had previously thought this was a quirk of our students who aren’t native speakers of English, because they often have subject/verb number agreement difficulties, but it turns out some of our native speakers have this problem as well.

I also explained to them, last night, that pronouns are variables, and just like programs, their sentences will produce unexpected results if they aren’t careful about how they assign to those variables (or if the variables aren’t assigned before use.) I can never use that analogy again; I’ll never have another audience that will get it.

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

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November 28, 2006

I don't get out much

I was crossing the gym on my way to the pool, looking down at the basketball game against Springfield, when I made a discovery: the University has cheerleaders.

I don’t know why this is such a novel concept to me, but the thought that I’m a student at a university with cheerleaders has been amusing me all evening.

Posted by pjm at 10:18 PM | Comments (0)

Short strokes

A few weeks ago—I forget the context—I used the phrase “short strokes” and then had to explain what I meant. (It’s a golf metaphor, apparently, and not in wide use; now I can’t figure out where I picked it up.) But now that’s the best way to describe the semester. There are two weeks to go, we’ve drawn up our checklists of what needs to be taught/programmed/completed/graded in that time, and we’re just trying to get to the end of it.

When a former roommate and I were toying with learning to play golf, we used to go to a local driving range once or twice a week. We never, to my recollection, ever actually played golf; we just went to the driving range. I don’t think he even owned a full set of clubs, just three big drivers. Putting is what’s fundamentally frustrating about golf; everything else is whaling the skin off a little white ball, which is satisfying if you don’t slice like I do. So we’d get a medium bucket of balls (each) and try to smack them out of sight until our shoulders were sore.

The presentation went off today, I was barely prepared and took my lumps for it. (The draft I handed in a week before has not yet come back; I expect to take some lumps there, too, but I’m hoping to at least have a final paper that stands on its own.) I have a slew of coding and lab-sheet-writing and re-experiment-running to do over the next two weeks; I have my checklist written, the list of due dates lined up like wood that needs splitting, but no map of when to split it. There is no driving left; it is all putting.

I’m not the only grad student scratching at putting together my data and making it work. Scott is gathering data for his research, too, and while you can’t help me gather data (unless you ran Boston last spring, in which case you already have, thanks,) you can help him, particularly if you have a weblog. Read, understand, and give him a hand; we can’t push the ball into the hole, but at least we can give him a good lie.

Now Playing: Little Wing from Still in Hollywood by Concrete Blonde

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November 27, 2006

Presentation in progress

I ♥ gnuplot.

Now Playing: Song For The Asking from After Everything Now This by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:14 PM | Comments (0)

November 26, 2006

Skype away messages

(I have a massive experimental run going in the background, load average over 2, so I can justify a little non-work time.)

I may or may not have mentioned that I tried Skype early last summer, and found it pretty cool. But it seems like my tendency to avoid speaking to people on the phone extends to VoIP, so I’ve used the IM feature more than the voice. (I have accounts on “real” IM services, but I almost never have the client on, so few people bother. My username is the same as this site’s domain, on AIM at least.)

Anyway, one thing regular IM services have on Skype’s IM is flexibility of “Away” messages. There are two basic levels that everyone supports—“Responsive” and “Unresponsive,” whatever they’re named—but since Skype supports both voice and IM, there’s a need for more detail. For instance, if I’m at my cube in the CS building, I can IM, but I’d prefer not to speak, since I share the space with three other grad students. Skype only offers “Away,” “Not available,” or “Do Not Disturb.” Can I set voice to DND and IM to Online?

Regular IM services allow for the customization of messages with both the green and red lights. Looking in to Adium, I see eight custom messages (“Coding” shows up under both “Available” and “Unavailable,” as does “In class,” but “Grading” is only under “Available.”) I would probably have more if I used it more often. I wish I could do that with Skype: something like, “Shhh!”

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November 23, 2006


With more people than usual to feed him, Iz managed to get all his breakfast (usually measured out in small segments roughly between 6 AM and noon) within an hour of 5 AM today. He suckered two different people into thinking he’d been starving since the previous evening. I’m thinking we need a little sign for the food bag that reads something like this:

Izzy is whining for [Breakfast/Dinner]

…with an arrow. Then, when he’s had breakfast, the server can move the arrow to “Dinner,” and any subsequent marks will know he’s running a con game by begging for dinner at 8 AM.

(I sound strict, but the little tiger is currently sleeping off a little tryptophan dose of his own.)

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Posted by pjm at 10:28 PM | Comments (1)

Holiday code

Thanksgiving Day means updating the wish list software. (I find this easier than updating my wish list.) I got rid of status indicators and added the ability to add multiple comments, essentially making each “wish” into a tiny blog post. I think this will improve flexibility. Now I may need to make individual feeds for each wish! I still don’t have the “give list” created, probably because I haven’t worked out a simple way to make it happen.

But ugh, that code. I should scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.

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

November 22, 2006


That’s how many pages of double-spaced Software Engineering draft papers I have to read and mark up before being on vacation, counting title pages and references (from those who figured out BibTeX). So, nothing interesting to say right now. Lots of marking, though. These are engineers; they didn’t know they would be expected to write well.

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November 20, 2006

I missed a chance

I didn’t use this Julia Lucas quote in my preview. I hope I can work it into my race report(s):

“It makes it more fun, you know, mud in our teeth at the end of the race. I’m looking forward to it.”

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November 19, 2006

Bad user agent! No cookie!

Spotted this evening on weather.com:

Bad user agent!

Funny, I thought Firefox was a good user agent…

Posted by pjm at 7:01 PM | Comments (0)

Real cross country

After NC State’s Julia Lucas referred to the (soggy) conditions at the NCAA Nationals course as “real cross country,” I was reminded of this article from World Cross, which I know I’ve linked before, but bears noting in this context—particularly given that another favorite in Lucas’s race, Texas Tech’s Sally Kipyego, represented Kenya as a junior at the 2001 World Cross in Ostende, one of the muddy courses mentioned by Downes. (How muddy? Kipyego’s on the far right in this photo.)

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November 17, 2006

Judgement calls

Is it fair to be biased against finding useful ideas in a paper when it contains a misspelling in the abstract?


I worry that their thinking may be as sloppy (and potentially hard to follow) as their spelling.

Now Playing: Car Underwater from What To Do When You Are Dead by Armor For Sleep

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Posted by pjm at 5:49 PM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2006

A long run

I put together a script to run a decision-tree algorithm on all the various permutations of my data set (the 2006 Boston Marathon results.) Then I started the script on a timer, and went to do a workout.

When I came back, I found out the complete run had taken just under an hour. (56m40s, if you’re after precision.) An hour long test run! I almost feel like a real scientist.

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What did he say?

After this year’s NYCM, winner Marilson Gomes dos Santos came to the media center as the champions usually do, and answered questions through an interpreter. Dos Santos was a relative unknown to most of us, and this was reflected by a lot of questions centered on the self-confidence and courage needed to make a breakaway move in a pack of better-known athletes.

Dos Santos’ response, as it appears in the headline of this story, included the sentence, “In the marathon, there’s no joking around.” I think this quote appeared in a few other stories as well.

Meanwhile, I heard “In the marathon, you don’t look around,” and that’s what I included in my story.

In context, both make sense. “Joke” makes for a better sound bite; “look” works better in the context of everything else dos Santos (or at least his agent and translator, Luis Posso, whose English is excellent but not un-accented) said.

But doesn’t it make you wonder how many athlete quotes are actually what they meant to say? (Or maybe most sportswriters are less deaf than I am?)

Now Playing: Blues For Your Baby from Too Close to Heaven by The Waterboys

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November 14, 2006

I can't pick 'em all

So neither of the athletes I voted for ended up selected as Athlete of the Year. I think I did a little better in the mid-term political election.

Now Playing: Love Sweet Love from Spirit Touches Ground by Josh Clayton-Felt

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Posted by pjm at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

Uninterrupted sleep

Last night was the first night in two weeks that I didn’t wake up scratching at some point in the night. It’s been improving steadily since the middle of last week, but this is a sort of milestone, I think. The bumps have gone away, the marks are still there on my legs, easily recognizable to anyone else who suffered through this absurd little plague.

I wouldn’t share this, but it seems this site keeps coming up high on searches for “NESCAC rash.” There’s hope, folks, and apparently for the people with worse cases than mine “hope” is spelled “prednisone.”

Now Playing: Basement Apt. from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

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Posted by pjm at 9:59 AM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2006

Judging by appearance

When I was at the peak of my competitiveness, it was pretty easy to figure out who my competition would be in any given race: I’d line up, start, and see who was with me. Nowadays, when I’m having a good day if I beat the first women, let alone run with the very front of the race, I’ve found myself picking targets based on their choice of racing attire.

So, if you’re male and wearing any of the following in a race, I will be making an effort to ensure you finish behind me:

  • Shorts that reach your knees (this isn’t a basketball game)
  • Pants (warmup should have been done a while ago)
  • Headphones
  • Any sort of knee brace or other straps

I actually took over a mile, on Sunday, to catch one guy who was wearing three out of four.

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Posted by pjm at 4:19 PM | Comments (1)

Bug fixes, etc.

Thanks to a lot of feedback from a student in the class I wrote it for, I’ve bundled a slew of fixes for rlog2atom.pl and posted a new version. Among a bunch of fixes which should make it a bit more stable, I also added an (optional) flag to return an RSS feed rather than an Atom feed.

Now Playing: Moscow Song from Appetite by Kris Delmhorst

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Posted by pjm at 2:47 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2006

An idea conceived by a newcomer

I should say, right up front, that up until a few weeks ago I couldn’t have pointed out Downtown Crossing on a map (unless it was labeled.) Had I ever surfaced at the relevant T stop (my red line to orange line transition) I would not have recognized where I came up.

But honestly, who in their right mind thinks they can rename Downtown Crossing? Certainly they could try, but this is coastal New England. We still refer to the ring highway around the city by its pre-Interstate route number. We refer to houses by the names of, not the previous occupants, but long-dead occupants of twenty or more years ago. (“The old Babkirk house,” etc.) Hell, there are still people around here who will give directions including Scollay Square, which I don’t think has existed by that name in my lifetime. (And if you think the “Square” naming system around here isn’t a plot to make directions more obscure and difficult for out-of-towners, you’re underestimating the character of people around here.)

They can name it whatever they want. The “Downtown Crossing” name will be around for decades. This has to be a New York idea; no New Englander would bother trying.

Now Playing: Good Man Gone from Too Close to Heaven by The Waterboys

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Posted by pjm at 8:25 PM | Comments (1)

Nobody ever said it was easy

There are a lot of ingredients that go into being “good with computers.” One, as discussed in a conversation the other day, is the willingness to try a number of different approaches to troubleshooting, and to keep tinkering until something works, rather than persisting in a “right way” that isn’t working.

Another is being willing to pay close attention, to the point of obsession, to the quality of input, because that’s really what controls output.

This morning, as I sat on the floor of the Medford city council chambers waiting for the awards for the race we ran, I saw a reminder of this principle in action. A worried-looking woman said to another runner, “The results and the entry database aren’t lining up right. It’s all messed up. We aren’t going to be able to do the awards.” Eventually they admitted the confusion in a general announcement, recognized the male and female overall winners of the 5k and 10k, and skipped directly to the raffle, promising to mail any other awards.

They have the results posted online now, but it’s plain that they haven’t fixed whatever was wrong. There are six women listed finishing in front of me, but only one did, and she—the one recognized as the winner—is listed as the fourth-place woman. And there’s a five-year-old “male” named Eleanor in front of me; somehow I question that. My bib number, age, gender, etc. are correctly listed, and if I check the place I think I got, it correlates with the time on my watch. It’s hypothetically possible that I placed second in my age group, as listed, but I don’t really trust the listed results because they show the wrong women’s overall winner, and my incorrect time. The 10k results have a woman winning the race overall, and appear to have even less relationship to the reality of that race’s finish than the 5k results do, though again, places appear to match times correctly.

Results of road races and cross-country races tend to work as a three-table database. There’s an entrants table, which has the name, age, gender, etc. of each entrant, along with the assigned bib number. The bib number isn’t usually the primary key (the table may be useful before numbers are assigned), but it can function as a key. At the finish line, two more tables are generated. One is an ordered list of bib numbers, which form a two-column table where the first column is the ordinal number of finish. The last table is a similar ordered list of finish times. In both cases, the ordinal number column is a key, but so is the value column; they’re normalized tables, “The key, the whole key, and nothing but the key, so help me Codd.”

The results printout, therefore, is a join of these three tables: the first and second are joined on bib number (producing an ordered list of entrants) and then the third is joined on finish place, assigning times. The second table, the ordered list of bib numbers, is the glue which assigns times to finishers.

In the case of this race, that table got botched somehow. Maybe the numbers weren’t keyed in the right sequence; maybe somebody shuffled the list somewhere. The bib numbers are hooked to the right runners, and the times are hooked to the right places, so those tables are OK.

Whenever I’ve participated in race scoring, I’ve seen the near-paranoid care taken to preserve correct finishing order. At yesterday’s New England Division III regional, where finish order (which determines team scoring) is paramount, they had four different systems in place in case one failed. On the other hand, I think I recall the organization which handled scoring at today’s race being associated with my last marathon, which still holds a special place in my memory as a race where organization failed in the most basic ways—including the production of accurate results.

Now Playing: Window from Inarticulate Nature Boy by Josh Clayton-Felt

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Posted by pjm at 2:55 PM | Comments (0)

November 9, 2006

Disturbing noises

My main commuting machine is making funny noises. Specifically, it pops. It’s the same sort of clanking popping noise you’d hear if the chain slipped, or if you were having a hard time switching between chain-rings, and I can feel it both through my feet on the pedals and through the seat. It’s irregular—that is, it doesn’t happen at any predictable interval, so I can’t tell when to be watching the chain for the culprit.

I thought it might have been a funky tooth on the chain ring, but it happens on both the middle and large chain-rings. It also happens on different gears on the rear sprocket, so I assume it’s not a gear issue. I also thought it might be a bad link in the chain, but I lubed the chain the other day and didn’t notice anything funky.

Any ideas? I’m back to the crankset; maybe there’s something loose or failing or otherwise sprung up there?

Now Playing: Yellow Brick Road from Five Stories by Kris Delmhorst

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Posted by pjm at 10:00 PM | Comments (1)

Segmentation fault

Core dumped.

Posted by pjm at 6:59 PM | Comments (0)

November 8, 2006

My vote counted

Well, yes, I did cast a vote in yesterday’s mid-term elections, but I’m talking about the IAAF Athlete of the Year selection. The internet vote was a little bizarre, tipped heavily (on the women’s side) in favor of Sherone Simpson of Jamaica, who is in fact on the short list. However, the internet vote and the “IAAF Family” vote—which, to my surprise, includes me—were weighted 30% and 70%, respectively, and my votes for Liu Xiang (there’s nothing like breaking a very old world record) and Meseret Defar (trying to make up for missing her world record) may have played a role in putting those two on the short list as well. I’m hoping the “Special Jury” agrees with me.

The men’s vote is pretty tough; after all, Asafa Powell tied his own World Record twice this year, and Kenenisa Bekele—who was AOY in ‘04 and ‘05—did win the cross-country double for the last time. But Bekele, my sentimental favorite, didn’t really have a good year otherwise, and Powell was uneven as well.

Now Playing: Waiting For Somebody by Paul Westerberg

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Posted by pjm at 10:36 AM | Comments (0)

November 7, 2006

I'm not usually early

It turns out that the degree sheet isn’t actually due until sometime in January. So instead of being ever-so-slightly late, which tends to be my usual state, I’m nearly two months early. The only explanation I have is that I thought I was late.

Now Playing: You Don’t Know How It Feels from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

Posted by pjm at 9:26 PM | Comments (0)

November 6, 2006


The nature of classes is that one tends to focus on the immediate future to the exclusion of the long-term. You worry about the problem set due tomorrow, and not the project due in three weeks, because the problem set is in your face.

So it came as a bit of a shock to me when I went in for course registration “advising” (irrelevant, because the only course I need to register for next spring is a Masters’ Thesis/Project) and my advisor said, “We need to fill out a degree sheet for you, don’t we.”

As a result, I spent part of Friday flitting around the department printing forms and trying to get signatures from people who weren’t present. I wound up with a sort of paper assertion that I intend to receive a paper and some letters from the University next May. Given that it has only been about fourteen months since I started here, it seems too soon to be planning departure, but the sheet confirms that I’m pretty close to done.

I checked the box saying I planned to continue for another degree, not because I positively have such plans, but because it seemed more prudent to leave that door open. However, the time for reaching a decision on that score is coming soon.

(Yes, I’ve barely been posting here. I’ve been busy… and scratching.)

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November 2, 2006

I still itch

I know, nobody wants to read about this, but I’ve been unable to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes since Monday night due to either medication or annoying itching. I’ve also been unable to get more than two or three hours of sleep at a time. Needless to say, this is affecting my ability to get work done.

The initial theory was that it was “swimmmer’s itch” (I think there’s a joke in there, but I haven’t been able to drag it out yet) due to parasites infecting the ducks who nest near the marsh. Now there’s some suggestion that the water was full of bits of jellyfish pulverized by the storm. One college persists in thinking that it’s poison ivy (it’s not) and is warning everyone to thoroughly wash anything they wore during the race, including shoes. (Maybe I should throw out those spikes.)

The antihistamines aren’t having much effect at all, other than making me loopy and inattentive. (It took a while for me to notice this, since it’s not unusual for me to reach that state without medication.) Hydrocortisone cream hasn’t helped much either; I blob it on, then a few minutes later I’m scratching the same spots. Word is that a lot of college health centers are prescribing/dispensing oral steroids (hydrocortisone is a topical steroid) so there are going to be some runners with something to declare on their drug-testing forms at NCAAs (assuming they test there.)

Running hot water—as hot as I can stand—on my legs feels good in a satisfy-the-itch sort of way. Following that up with cold water subdues the itches for a few hours. The best way I’ve found for getting to sleep is with an ice pack to numb my legs.

If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would’ve been at Health Services first thing Tuesday morning looking for serious treatment, but I keep thinking, “Tomorrow it’s going to be cleared up anyway, so why bother?”

A pointed out that the whole rash episode is serving as a sort of grand finale to the misery of the entire race day—a sort of up-selling of the whole experience. “You got the mud, the rain, and the wind, right? And then you top it off with a plague on all the runners for a week afterward!”

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Posted by pjm at 5:33 PM | Comments (1)