Monday, November 03, 2008
Sixteen years ago was the last time I was genuinely hopeful about an election. That year, after a mini-Rapture that saw my advisor abandon me and my fellow graduate students for a lucrative job in the pharmaceutical industry, I found myself with lots of free time. While I searched for a job in mid-recession Chicago, I started working full-time with the Clinton for President (Illinois Victory '92) campaign. I started off stapling signs to sticks and eventually moved up to running the phonebank for the state--perhaps it was because I felt productive and useful, the phonebank job remains one of my favorites.

And of course, the victory at the end didn't hurt.

This year, I've been wedging some virtual phonebanking into my evenings, and minus the thousands of Polish names on my rosters, it feels a lot like sixteen years ago.

Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Eleven years ago, I joined a poetry workshop that revived my interest in the written word. The instructor, Ann Darr, was a former WWII aviator with a surprisingly gentle guiding hand. She discouraged typical blood-in-the-water critiquing and emphasized the value of thinking and speaking carefully about strengths and weaknesses of other people's work. In her workshops, silence spoke louder than vicious attacks. I have Ann to thank for teaching me how to facilitate a workshop without being the focus, as well as for a few orders of magnitude of improvement in my poetry.

Just today, I found out that Ann, at the age of 87, took to the skies one final time. No doubt she will find the only landing strip in heaven.

Monday, August 07, 2006
For want of a comma, the contract was lost-- if not lost, bungled to the tune of millions of dollars.

This is precisely why I opt to use a comma to separate every element of a series and do not choose to lump the last two items together. Both are grammatically acceptable, but the former way avoids confusion. And really, that's the whole point of punctuation.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

I don't know exactly when spam e-mails became so literary, but this evening's batch makes me think that I ought to be less trigger-happy when deleting them. Case in point: appended to an ad for some crazy online pharmacy was the first 2/3 of a short story by Carolyn Steele Agosta called 'Oral Tradition: Fussing In The Key of G' that you can read in its entirety here. I'm a little stunned and happy for the serendipity, all at once.

Friday, April 07, 2006
As someone who has been forced to use AOL as emergency Internet access when I'm stuck in the boondocks, I know the hassle this solution ALWAYS entails. AOL is simple to install, but, taking it off your computer and canceling your account is another story completely. In 2001, for example, I had to place 4 phone calls just to stick the final wooden stake in the heart of the AOL vampire. Apparently, the struggles continue.

Monday, November 14, 2005
If you edit photos, you know that a little tweaking in Photoshop helps immensely. Here's a rudimentary tutorial that will help, whether you're using Picasa's tools or Photoshop.

Monday, September 19, 2005
If you didn't hear already, I had the defense (the viva voce in arcane Oxonian language) and I am now Dr.

Now comes the tricky part. I'm having to come to terms with the idea that I no longer have this huge, unbounded project to contend with, after more than three years of waking up every day to it. This might not sound like a bad thing, and it's not, but it does represent a complete change in outlook. I'm now having to refocus on smaller, shorter-term things. I like that a lot better in some ways, but it also means being reborn into a world of quick turnaround and narrower attention.

Of course, there's still mileage left on the dissertation project-- turning pieces of it into journal articles (one of which is finished and at a journal now) and perhaps even turning the whole thing into a book (something recommended to me by my external examiner at my defense).

I also think I should be honest with myself and you about this weblog-- it's rarely updated, and now that I'm out of the closet about my posting habits, I think I'll feel a little less guilty for it. I am not closing up shop just yet, however. This little blog still has some life in it yet.

Saturday, August 20, 2005
So much for the brouhaha over evolution. I think we've got some conclusive proof right here:


Wednesday, August 17, 2005
When my iPod suddenly seized up about a month ago, I didn't really know what to do. Apple's customer care assistants told me that fixing my 3rd Generation 20GB iPod would cost me $259, approximately the same price as a new current 20GB model and even more than a refurbished 20GB model. It seemed like such a waste to junk the current one and buy a new one, especially when I thought about all the natural resources that would be sent straight into the landfill. So I swore to find a better solution.

Enter iPod Mechanic, a company that will diagnose your iPod for the cost of shipping (about $6.50) and will, more often than not, offer to purchase your iPod for parts if you don't want to pay for repairs. So, I packed up my sick little silver and white friend in bubble wrap and sent it to Michigan to be examined. The results? I could get the thing fixed for about half the price Apple was charging or could upgrade the hard drive for a few extra dollars. The company apparently does business both in North America and abroad, so it's a great first reference point even if you're not in the US. [Sidenote: Apple UK wanted 265 to fix my iPod-- with the exchange rate factored in, that's a disgustingly awful deal.]

Just yesterday, the new (improved) and amnesiac iPod returned to me. Even though all my files are gone, I'm really glad to have it back.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Dan and a furry new friend.Considering how many times I visited New York before moving here, I'm amazed I never went to Tudor City, just opposite the U.N. in Midtown East. We remedied that this weekend, and while I can honestly say that the parks were pretty great, the buildings didn't look very Tudor (most looked Victorian in that dingy red-brick sort of glum way). The highlight of the visit was this caterpillar we saw on a wall-- big and fuzzy like an Afghan dog, speeding its way across the stone. It was so fast, in fact, that I couldn't snap a picture of it that wasn't a little blurry.

Monday, July 11, 2005
Click for a larger versionWe're back from a week in the Catskills with our friends Caroline and John. Lots and lots of hiking, driving in the rain, and a little tubing down the Esopus thrown in too. All week, we listened to non-English music in the car, getting in several Wir Sind Helden (probably the best band you're not listening to yet) songs, as well as the vacation's theme-- "Sommartidar," which is probably Per Gessle (of Roxette fame) and his former band's greatest accomplishment. It's a study in mid-80s catchiness, so much so that every time there was a break in conversation or a quiet stretch in the woods, one of the four of us would burst out in, "Sommartidar Hey Hey Sommartidar!" Here's a short clip of the song, just so you can get an idea of what I mean when I say that it's catchy...

Click for a larger versionIf that weren't enough, we decided to name a drink after this trip and its theme music. Yes, it's called the Sommartidar (even though that's actually already a plural word...). It's 1 measure orange-infused vodka (we used Absolut Mandarin), 1 measure Chambord, and about 6 oz. passion fruit juice. Shake it in a cocktail shaker, strain it into martini glasses and garnish it with a lime twist, and there you have it: liquid summer (or sommar, if you prefer).

Monday, July 04, 2005
Raspberry pancakes, coffee, and Fox News in the background...The last place in the world I expected to finish my dissertation was Ithaca, New York. But that's where it happened-- in a place called the State Diner, a grotty little restaurant that, like much of Ithaca, has free WiFi access. I told a friend that if we'd had a 24-hour greasy spoon in Oxford, I would have been done a year ago.

By the way, I can't stop raving about CutePDF, a Windows program that made my formatting and layout chores so much easier. It allows you to merge PDF documents so easily-- much more so than Adobe Acrobat. Plus, the full version is $50. It created a 320-page document for me with embedded fonts and images and never even balked. Ze byest!

Thursday, June 09, 2005
I wonder what the sub-cost of Special Sauce is.Make of The Economist what you will, but their annual Big Mac Index is entertaining and at least a little bit enlightening. It takes the price of a McDonald's Big Mac burger (it's emphatically NOT a sandwich-- nothing with 590 calories is a sandwich) in dozens of countries and compares these prices. Using the dollar as a standard currency, it makes the assumption that goods would ideally trade for the same exchange value in any location, and any discrepencies have to do with the under- or overvaluation of the currency. Of course, they also acknowledge that taxes, labor costs, and other factors play a part-- it's not supposed to be perfect or precise. Yet one thing that I always wonder at is how this index is as good as most other economic comparisons: it's yet another example of how hard it is to draw quantitative analogies across contexts. Why not use Big Macs then?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005
What is Barbara Walters thinking? Seriously, making disparaging remarks about breastfeeding is ridiculous, not to mention retrograde. Doesn't she know that breastfeeding is the new black?

Once and for all, there's nothing sexual about it, and if you really insist upon being offended by it, just look somewhere else.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Sorry for the lack of recent updates-- editing is taking its rightful place on my priority list. Soon, it'll all be a memory though, so I'm trying to make it as enjoyable as I can.

Nothing exciting this Memorial Day weekend, apart from a quick stop in at a White Castle, which is one of the few places in this city that sells clam strips. Hard to believe that a city in the Northeast wouldn't have more places to buy them! What was most interesting at White Castle was this sign.

The relevant lines read: "After 20 minutes of your purchase, we will ask you to leave. Anyone violating rules will be arrested." Ah, hospitality. Well, I'm happy to report that after spending a decadent 23 minutes in White Castle, we're both still free and never got sent to Rikers Island.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Is it a tennis tournament or a Pride parade? Apparently, at this week's German Open in Hamburg, they play The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" when they have to put the roof covering on the stadium. Score another point for Germanic literalism.

Monday, May 09, 2005
After spending the past few years using software to analyze text, I know the limitations of this approach. Computers are fantastic at counting words, identifying unique items, locating where words occur near one another, and even at figuring out when a text contains 'non-standard usage'. What a computer cannot do is read and comprehend tone and sense. You can program it to look for keywords that might indicate a particular tone (i.e. "disgusting"= outrage or horror), but when it comes to parsing and taking away semantic meaning, computers are ill-suited to the task.

Which is why essay-evaluation software has always disturbed me. It doesn't actually provide an assessment that even comes close to what a human could offer, and it instead takes shortcuts to identifying characteristics that someone-- the programmer(s)-- thinks are indicators of good writing. Because software can't actually understand what is being written, there's no other choice but to create a list of hallmarks of excellent writing and then try to compare a sample text with that list. Imperfect, but it might be a helpful tool for honing and restructuring a piece of writing. It should never be used to actually assign a grade for a course, though. The example from this article is a perfect illustration of why this is the case-- it is possible to fool e-Rater software into assigning the highest score to a piece of text that matches its criteria list, but which is completely off-topic. By that same token, it should also be possible to fool this software the same way junk e-mail writers work around spam filters-- by examining what triggers the software to reject an e-mail and just avoiding those items. Do we really want the next generation of high school/college/graduate students to learn how to write in order to satisfy the impoverished definition of good writing imposed by a piece of software? I certainly don't.

Again, I think that the core of this problem is the quantitative/qualitative tension that exists in so many social sciences (and increasingly in natural and 'hard' sciences as well). Using a piece of software to gauge the merits of an essay is the same as using quantitative tools to evaluate something that is, at its very heart, a qualitative product. Is it really such a surprise then that adding the word 'chimpanzee' to a letter of reference is enough to fool a computer into thinking that it is reading a superior GMAT essay? No, because from a quantitative perspective, any text could be worthy of a 6. A qualitative perspective-- where meaning blossoms-- is necessary to grade an essay, and only a human can provide this. I really doubt this will ever change.

Friday, April 29, 2005
If, in a graduate school interview, the interviewer left the room and a folder containing all of your application status information were left open on the desk, would you turn it around and read it? I think most people wouldn't, if only because of the danger of being caught. Pretty obviously, if you were caught, you'd expect that your application would be rejected.

So why is the situation different online? Or is it? Read this article and decide what you think.

Monday, April 25, 2005
If you spend any time with me at all, you'll know that I have no patience for the old saw that supposed 'high culture' is more edifying, beautiful, or beneficial than 'low culture'. My least favorite species of this is the contention that classical music is inherently superior to hip-hop or rap; it's often a very unsubtle coding of racism and class anxiety. So too-- ironically-- is a passion for Shakespeare, who in his time wrote a substantial number of plays that were considered solidly 'low culture'. Then there's the almost universal maligning of television as a destroyer of intellect, attention spans, creativity, etc. . Now, I'm not saying that the most recent episode of "Fear Factor" is likely to be transformed into a cultural monument over the next several centuries, but I do firmly believe that television is sometimes home to real artistry, often complex and nuanced.

There are social scientists who've stood up for television before (i.e. McLuhan, most famously), but now apparently, Steven Johnson is taking on all the criticism and turning it on its head, asking if the opposite of what we've suspected about TV might not be true.

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