Sunday, March 30, 2003

Bath, Party Headquarters

Well, we made it to England and are now in Bath suffering from a severe case of jetlag. Normally, there's a 5-hour time difference between Maryland and England, but this week only, there's a 6-hour difference due to their starting daylight savings time a week early. Odd.

I reserved an automatic car at Avis, but somehow ended up with a Peugeot with some sort of clutchless shifting system. Weird, but neat.

We motored into Bath and went to the tourist centre to get them to book us a room. They found us a room at the Marlborough House, where we're staying in the Georgian Room. It's a lovely place, the owner seems nice, and it's reasonably priced.

On the owner's suggestion, we went to No 1 Royal Crescent Museum to see a restored Georgian townhome. Then we got some fish 'n' chips. Mmm.

Friday, March 28, 2003


I've been finding that one of the best ways to keep up on the Iraq news lately is The Agonist. It's a one-man operation by a guy who gathers a bunch of reports about the war and summarizes them. Just thought I'd pass that along to people who aren't aware of it.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Pictures from the Conference

You can see "official" pictures from the conference here. I managed to stay out of most of them except for this one.

Berkeley in a Nutshell

I had an incident today that crystallized the type of thing that bugs me about Berkeley. Berkeley is the type of place where shopkeepers are concerned about theft enough to make you leave your laptop bag at the front of the store, but not so concerned about theft that they won't wander off and leave the bag where anybody could grab it.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

The Hotel Designed by Business Travelers

Courtyard by Marriott describes itself as "the hotel designed by business travelers." I've seen suggestions that it's more like such a hotel designed in the 80s...i.e., today business travelers would design in such things as high-speed internet access. Maybe, but it still seems to do a decent job having the useful amenities (food I can buy when my plane gets in really late) without the "nice, but unneccessary" ones like a concierge who will make restaurant reservations.

Of course, that leaves a question...what does such a hotel do on the weekend, when most business travelers go home? (Those of us who attend academic conferences soldier on through the weekend.) I found out the answer last night as I was trying to go to sleep and I heard lots of giggling in the hallway followed by a slightly louder injunction to quiet down. It looks like they court high school student field trips.

My suspicions were confirmed when I stopped by the front desk this morning to get change. They had a stack of handouts detailing their "weekend policies", which included quiet hours and the restriction of having no more than 5 people in the room. So here's the down side of not designing the place to be attractive to vacationers.

Fish Tacos on Bay Street

One of the enjoyable things about this Courtyard is that it's across the street from a development called Bay Street. I just walked over there and went to a Rubio's. Rubio's is a neat San Diego-based chain of fish taco stands that I've mentioned in the past. I've gotten more attached to them since that 2000 posting, and I've gotten Christina hooked on them, too. I was pleased to hear from my parents that they're now in Tucson, and it appears they're in the Bay Area too.

I suppose if I were in Berkeley, I could have enjoyed a quirkier, more vibrant experience. But sometimes that isn't what you're traveling around the country looking for. Sometimes you don't want to worry about where you'll park, or whether you'll be accosted by a homeless person. You just want to go to the cool two-story Barnes & Noble even though you've already got enough books.

Friday, March 21, 2003

MC Escher

One of the interesting talks I heard today was about mathematics and Escher. Specifically, a couple of mathematicians have taken an Escher print with a hole in the middle and figured out what should go in the hole. Take a look at the web site; it's pretty neat.

What's Up with the Glasses?

I mean, seriously, did we bomb an Iraqi contact lens factory or something?

Books I've Read Lately

I have a list of books I've been meaning to get around to read. It works out pretty well -- when I hear about a book I'm interested in, I add it to the list rather than rushing out to get it. I used to get it from the library, have too many books to read and then end up renewing them until I either returned them unread, paid overdue fees, or both. Now whenever I'm headed to the library before a trip, I consult the list and rather quickly have a couple of books to take along. Here are a few books from the list I've gotten to lately.

The Lost Continent

I have mentioned before reading Bill Bryson's books. Since I've enjoyed them, I've had "more by Bill Bryson" on my list. That recently changed to "The Lost Continent" when I realized that I only had one such book left to read. I finished that at my parents' last month. It was a charming tale of his drive around small-town America about 15 years ago. It probably says something about me that I consider complaining about travel arrangements and making fun on the locals "charming". Still, he has an ideal of small-town America he is searching for. He never quite finds it, but finds a number of other interesting things along the way.

Mapping Human History

The first Bill Bryson book I read was "In a Sunburned Country". He tells fascinating tales of Aboriginal culture, and that book got me interested in the fact that the Aborigines settled Australia around 10,000 years ago. That, in turn, got me interested in human prehistory. How did various peoples end up where they were by the last millennium, when the global mass of humanity finally fully reconnected? One very interesting book on that subject was Guns, Germs and Steel, although that talked a lot about history as well as prehistory.

I was hoping that Mapping Human History would fill in more details of the prehistory through recent gene-mapping techniques. It did some of that, but the main thrust of the book lay elsewhere. The book's main purpose was to use gene-mapping techniques to show that claims of racial superiority (or even attempts at racial categorization) were without scientific basis. While I was disappointed I didn't learn more about human prehistory, I did learn some interesting facts. For example, in most species genetic variation is greater between subgroups than within them. An extreme example (mine) is dog breeds. Any two dachshunds are going to look a lot more like each other than either looks like any poodle. With humans, that's not the case. Given two people from India, one may very easily look more like someone from Africa than he looks like the other Indian. People are just culturally attuned to the differences that do exist, such as skin color.

A Fire Upon the Deep

I'm actually still reading this book. I bought it in September, but since I own it, I never feel compelled to read it as quickly as library books. It's part of my "Hugo Project", where I'm concentrating my science fiction reading on books that have won that genre's most prestigious award. I find myself reading books I wouldn't have chosen before. I tend to like near-future "hard" SF. (By "hard", I mean books where the authors pay close attention to scientific plausibility.) Unfortunately, I've chosen too many books for their subject matter only to find wooden characters, bland dialogue, or clumsy plotting. Now I'm reading books about subjects I wouldn't have chosen (e.g., time travel), but enjoying them much more. They're just good books.

A Fire Upon the Deep is a "far future" book. I guess it leans towards the "hard" side of SF, but it's set (at least) tens of thousands of years in the future. Vinge has a lot of really interesting "concepts" that he weaves together. One is that the Milky Way is divided into various "zones". Earth is in the "Slow Zone" where AI works less well and faster-than-light travel is impossible. (Almost) all of this book takes place outside of the Slow Zone, so we get starship with a modicum of plausibility. Another neat idea is that of the "singularity", where species develop machines more intelligent than themselves, which then create even more intelligent machines, and so on. The whole process causes the species (or some subset of the species) to "transcend" into something unfathomable to "normal" species.

One of the nonhuman species in the book are the "Tines" which consists of packs of telepathic dog-like creatures. (I tend to group telepathy in with "soft" SF, but this book made me wonder why species couldn't evolve whose brains transmit radio waves.) Each pack has a "group mind". Vinge introduces these characters early in the book by writing part of the story from the perspective of him. It is really hard to understand what's going on, since he throws the reader in without explaining what's going on. But it's kinda neat figuring things out.

Marooned on Treasure Island

Well, I almost made it to the conference on time. I knew I wanted to take I-80 North, but those of you who know about our Interstate numbering system will realize that two–digit even interstates go east-west. So I picked west (wrong), and found myself crossing the San Francisco Bay.

Fortunately, there are some islands in the bay where you can exit the bridge. I got off at Treasure Island, drove around for a while and found the Oakland exit. (I think I came upon it immediately, but I thought it was the exit for heading back to San Francisco.)

Then when I got here, I had to walk up to the building, get a parking permit, walking back down to the car, then walk back to the building. I had wondered why the directions mentioned the number of steps to walk up. Well, 94 is a lot of steps, and if you have mathematicians walking them on a regular basis, they're going to count them. Also, it was helpful to know when I got to the top of them not to take another set that offered itself.

Good Morning

I'm enjoying a breakfast of blueberry muffin and Vanilla Coke, suitably charged to the room. I'm beginning to like Courtyard. I recall reading complaints about their very thin mattresses. The mattress is very thin, but it hasn't bugged my back yet. We'll see how 3 nights work out.

Now I'm catching up on the war news and waiting for the 3rd of the 3 alarms I set to go off. I guess I needn't have worried. I woke up at 6:45; I guess the time difference was stronger than my lack of sleep last night.

I was going to post pictures of the hotel room, but it looks like I left the USB cord at home...

Tourney Time

If anybody wants to look at my NCAA bracket, it's here. I got 13 out of 16 right on the first day, and none of the 3 I got wrong did I pick to advance beyond the second round. Not bad.

In Emeryville

Well, I made it here OK. My flight took off about 2:40 late. Can't complain about too much yet (but I'm working on it). I hadn't flown into the Oakland airport in 10 years; I didn't really remember it. The baggage claim is completely unlabeled for United, but there is a list for other airlines. Lots of people seemed confused. Avis made me go to the counter for no particular reason instead of straight to my car. And the directions from the hotel told me to turn left when it should have said right. Oh, well.

To avoid the full Berkeley experience, I'm staying at the Courtyard by Marriott Emeryville. I'll drive in tomorrow (today) morning. It's a fairly nice hotel, so far. Big bathroom, big TV, fast (50.6K) modem connection.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Into the Belly of the Beast

Well, today I'm off on my trip to Berkeley for the weekend. I have a particularly un-fond place in my heart for Berkeley after an unpleasant year spent in grad school. But there's a conference in my field there this weekend, so off I go. I'll try to post a chronicle of everything that goes wrong.

We're off to a fitting start (or is that "fits and starts"), with my flight being two hours late. Soon to come: traffic jams caused by war protestors, rude service in restaurants, and I'm sure other stuff.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

I recently read about an interesting study on spam (unwanted commercial e-mail). It contained the following conclusions:

  • Most spam comes from having your e-mail address on a publicly available web site.
  • Removing the address causes the spam to decrease
  • It's possible to disguise your address from e-mail address harvesters, while making it readable to everybody else.

I have a Yahoo! Mail address I use for public correspondence. It's not one I give to friends and family, but I like people to be able to e-mail me based on what they see on the web page. The address is:

How can I put this on my web site without fear of spam? I've used characters which your browser translates into letters (and the @ symbol). Spammers use programs to search web pages; the programs don't do the same translation as browsers. They see the original, which looks like this (except without the spaces).

& #103;& #114;& #097;& #110;& #116;& #104;& #097;& #109;& #064;& #121;& #097;& #104;& #111;& #111;& #046;& #099;& #111;& #109;

I had to insert the spaces, or your browser would have translated it into the actual address.

Pretty cool, huh? Anyway, I replaced all of the copies of my e-mail address on the web site with the obfuscated version. Let's hope that cuts things back.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Snotty North Dakotas

What's wrong with people from North Dakota? A few weeks ago, I read a letter to the editor in USA Today from someone in North Dakota expressing wonder that people on the East Coast couldn't deal with the recent snowstorm. He said that that sort of thing wasn't a problem for the "occasional snowstorm" they might have in North Dakota and implied it was because of the superior work ethic of North Dakotans. The natural conclusion is that businesses should relocate there. I can't find the full article on-line, but this link might bring up the first few sentences of it.

Oh, really? A quick search brings up these articles: Winter storm snarls North Dakota travel and Snow snarls highway travel in North Dakota. The best part...the first article is from October, the second from May.

Now I read the article Haywire ATM Spits Out Extra Cash, which contains the following choice quote:

"I'm glad we're in North Dakota," Rasmussen said. "Somebody out East or West may not have had our same values."

Yeesh. I know people from the coasts make fun of "flyover country," but the next time I feel bad about doing so, I'll remember the giant cow chip you guys seem to have on your shoulders.

P.S. South Dakotans: you're still on my good side. But I'll be keeping an eye on you...

Thursday, March 13, 2003

San Diego Pictures

We went to San Diego last month. I spent most of the time at work, but we did get to have a little fun. We made it in to La Jolla (pictured below) several times.

On Friday afternoon, we took a whale watching cruise. On the way out of port, we saw quite a number of Navy ships.

And then we saw some whales! The pictures don't do justice to how amazing it was to see them!

Afterwards, we went up to Pacific Beach to watch the sun set.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Georgia on My Mind

Well, I knew all along I wouldn't have my alma mater, Michigan, to root for in the NCAA tourney despite their fairly good season. Looks like I won't have Georgia to worry about, either.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Driving to Work

I was driving to work up here this morning when I found out on NPR that the temperature was 3 degrees. That's Fahrenheit. The wind chill was 13 below. Brrr.

I was stopped at a light for a while because of police cars going by. I've noticed they have a system in Minnesota where emergency vehicles seem to be able to remotely activate a flashing white light near the stop lights (as well as turning the stop lights red). So I thought I'd take the above picture of frost out my windshield.

I noticed, however, the police cars converging on the parking lot across the street. I saw the police throw a man down on the ground, handcuff him and shove him in the back of a squad car. I don't have a zoom lens on the digital camera, so you can't see the guy, but I got a picture of the general scene. The building in the background on the left is adjacent to my hotel.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Ski Trip

We took a day trip to go skiing on Saturday. I put together a page of pictures from it.