Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lila in the news

I was interviewed thrice this evening, while attending the Alien Abduction Festival 2008. Maybe it was a really slow news day? ... because the event was small, and about alien abductions. (And charity.) While constructing an elaborate UFO out of tin pie plates, pipe cleaners, miscellaneous craft materials, and lots of glitter glue, I had the unexpected pleasure of being interviewed by Wired, the Toronto Star, and Rabble TV (I'm not there yet, but I'll keep you updated).
The Wired picture doesn't do justice to my creation; there were stairs (on the left) for easy entry, and the inside was carpeted in green foam. Like a miniature galaxy-traversing golf course, with satellite dishes on top. And razor-sharp edges everywhere.

The glitter was still in my clothes when I discovered that I've also been recently printed in the Harvard Crimson.

The portrait painted of me by Googling my name is now much more eccentric...

This post's theme word: barkentine, "a sailing ship similar to a bark but square-rigged only on the foremast."

Monday, March 17, 2008


Happy St. Patrick's day! ... the only holiday dedicated to a single color. The rest of the rainbow is, well, green with envy.
This post's theme word: felonious, "of, relating to, or involved in crime." The use of the above expression was felonious.

Update: This video of Muppets singing "Danny Boy" warmed the cockles of my green heart:

(Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Boing Boing!)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

RSS feeds

My OCD has recently been ratcheting up in intensity, resulting in a cleaner-than-usual room, kitchen, and inbox. But how to deal with the ever-lengthening list of news sources, web comics, and blogs that I must check daily? Lucky for me, other nerds got here before me and developed RSS feeds. Now all of my daily web content is automatically plucked from the internet and aggregated in one place, much more quickly and efficiently than even my most frequent checking could accomplish.

Thank you, Google reader. Of course, thanks to Google (blogspot), this blog can be subject to the same process, if anyone out there is reading it at all.

This post's theme word: tatterdemalion, "tattered; worn to shreds; bedraggled; in deplorable condition." A good descriptor of how my own mind and its needs make me feel sometimes.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pi day

In a nod to that second-most wonderful constant, today I ate apple crumble. No, not pie. It's only second-best, after all: nothing can top the mind-dazzling awesomeness of phi.

This post's theme word: lacuna, "an unfilled space or interval."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

CRA-W 2008 I: Air travel sucks

Yesterday I returned from the CRA-W 2008 Grad Cohort Workshop in Seattle, and my head is full of new information, thoughts, strategies, outlooks.

Bookending my conference experience were two unpleasant air travel episodes.

Toronto to Seattle: I arrived at the airport 15 minutes after the cutoff for check-in for my (direct) flight. (I hadn't known there was a cutoff, and figured that arriving with more than an hour to spare was generous.) An airline employee hassled me, refused to let me check-in, and made me use the courtesy phones to change my ticket. After an hour, the agents on the phones said I needed to (a) pay $2000 and overnight in San Francisco, or (b) talk to someone at a desk, so I snuck back in line and threw myself on the mercy of the attendant and her terminal. She very kindly rebooked me, connecting through Chicago, on a flight that was leaving in 45 minutes, and told me to hurry. I did. The customs line was short and quick, and I made it to my flight, to Chicago (what a nice airport!), and to Seattle. My bag made it, too, which I consider a small miracle. Only 4 hours later than I had planned to arrive, and after about 100 times more stress.

Interestingly, my tickets had other people's names on them (and my own name on a separate paper detailing how I had been rerouted, stapled to the back). I figured that these were people who had canceled at the last minute, but one of them didn't. I got to meet her, because I was sitting in her seat.

Observations: I checked-in to the flight I took long after the same "cutoff" that I supposedly missed for my original flight. Airline rules, as observed in many other places, are applied inconsistently, and (seemingly) with an eye towards sadism.

Seattle to Toronto: I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare for even the most ridiculous of arbitrary cutoffs, only to discover that my flight was delayed an hour, so that I would miss my connection. I tried -- and failed -- to fly standby on an earlier flight. I ended up waiting for a few extra hours in Chicago for a later connecting flight. The combination of red-eye flight and time-zone difference reduced me to a zombie, so the stress didn't really sink in. I made it home, again miraculously with my bag. Plus, the airline paid for my breakfast.

Take-home lesson: Always, always talk to a person at a computer terminal. All other people -- in person or on the phone -- cannot really help.

This post's theme word: nefandous, "blasphemous in character, not to be named." This post details my recent dealings with the nefandous airlines.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Chocolate nightmares, ginger immersion

Little sleep. Nightmares about chocolate. Lent. Wandering around the kitchen, not hungry, looking for something that I do not have. (This year, no dining hall, no ever-present temptation.) Ginger ice cream is sweet and tangy, but no substitute. Ice cream, soap, tea, lotion: ginger everywhere. Also, food. Contributes to the synesthesia of sleep deprivation: I smell it, taste it, feel it. Now, having slept 13 hours, the feeling of disembodiment has faded away.

This post's theme half of the population: women. It's "Women's Week" at Harvard. Later this week, I'm attending a conference for computer science women.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lightswitch puzzle

There are three switches on the wall outside a room. (Four, for the more ambitious.) Exactly one of them controls a lightbulb inside the room. You are allowed to change the switches as much as you want, after which you may enter the room only once and see the lightbulb. Then you must say which switch controls the light.

This puzzle is not probabilistic. There is a solution that gives the correct answer 100% of the time.

This post's theme card game: Bang! I, the sheriff, was killed this evening by one of my misguided deputies in the hurried speed-round we did as we were being kicked out of a closing building. So the outlaws won. In retribution, I left them all befuddled by this puzzle.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Just after I arrived home on Wednesday, the power went out. I was (1) talking with M. on the phone, who suggested I find a flashlight (difficult in the dark) and check if any of the other houses on the street had power (they all did). So I pushed my conversation with M. onto the stack and (2) called my landlord. Got voicemail. Left a descriptive and motivating message of the problem. None of the housemates were here, but this problem had happened before, so I was pretty sure it wasn't some psychological manifestation of a twisted, stressed subconscious (either mine or a neighbor's with projective hallucinatory powers).

I sat in the dark for a while thinking about what to do while I waited. I had set this time aside for a coding project... so, I needed to power my computer and the router that connected my computer to the server where my code lived. There's not much computer science to be done in the dark. Even theory requires pen, paper, and light.

Then my phone beeped. Was it the landlord, calling back with a magical fix? No, it was my phone reporting that its battery was dead. The plot thickens.

So I took my charger and boldly went where I had not gone before: to the neighbor's house. I introduced myself to L., who kindly let me charge my phone. In an odd twist indicative of the general direction of the evening's events, we discovered that she's friends with my advisor's wife. And that she grew up on the same block as one of my housemates.

Phone charged, a wild and fun series of phone calls ensued. (3) The landlord: "I've called our handyman and he's coming over, call him so he has your number." (4) Me: "This is my number, I'm at the neighbor's, call when you're here." (5) Handyman: "I'm here." We ventured down the perilous, rickety stairs into the basement (second time that evening for me). While poking around, (6) M.: "So where were we?" And call waiting (7, and M. was on the stack again) the landlord: "So what's going on?" Call disconnected. (8) Me: "We were disconnected. We don't yet know what's going on."

We figured out that only half of the power was out -- the half that all the lights were wired to. The furnace had the other half to itself, so we were comfortably warm in the dark. We swapped some wires so that there was light in part of the house. We (9) called Toronto Hydro, and they dispatched a truck. (10) Told the landlord this update.

At this point, a housemate came home. There was a lot of ruckus, but no discernible cause (since the lights on the first floor were on). The situation was explained again.

The truck arrived, and parked diagonally across the cross-street intersection in front of our house. A cherrypicker was raised to the wires feeding in to the front of the house from those strung along the street lights. I may have talked (11?) to the landlord again. I lost track. Eventually, the official repairmen replaced it (one of the two power lines leading into our house had been "burnt out"), and everything was back to its electrocuted normality. I (12) called the landlord to report this.

Then I popped the stack and (13) called back M., picking up a totally different thread of conversation than the one we had actually been following when the power went out. But, lo! This was to be short-lived, for my new neighbor friend L. knocked on the door and came to apologize for her behavior. (I pushed M. onto the stack again.) I thought that she had been very gracious, since I - a stranger - had dropped in on her at night with a strange request, and been hosted with kindness.

I (14) called M. back, and wound up all our various dangling conversations. The evening was completed with no work done on my project, no grand thoughts thunk, and plenty of strange situation-escalation. On the other hand, we won't lose our power again (unless squirrels or raccoons or neighborhood punks take it out, which L. tells me is not unusual).

I made more calls on my phone in one evening than I usually make in a month.

This post's theme band: I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness. Reader challenge: hypothesize the story behind that name.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ice: my foe

I don't understand it. The past two days have been above freezing, so the snow melts and spreads out as a thin layer of water, freezing at night. In the morning, the sidewalk is covered with an even, smooth layer of ice, and I mincingly make my way at less than half of normal speed. Yet I am passed by people walking normally, and they aren't slipping everywhere (as I am). How is that possible? Do the mechanics of my particular walk rely on a lot of twisting or change-of-direction, so that my momentum is causing me to slide? Are my snow boots less grippy than heels? I am humiliated.

I wish the weather would get back to nice, deep snowdrifts. Or just melt and drain all the ice away.

This post's theme song: "Don't Dance" from the eponymous Ye Olde English video.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Somme: The Experiences of a Very Unimportant Officer

It's the title of a book by Captain Alexander Stewart. I just read an excerpt (in the March 2008 Harper's), and it was fantastic. I wonder whether my generation's dearth of such epic, character-building experiences will lead to a spate of rather boring memoirs when we reach retirement.

Harper's provided this background on the author: "Stewart spent two years fighting... during World War I before he was sent home with a shrapnel injury in 1917. He died in 1964 at the age of eighty-six."

My favorite excerpts from Harper's excerpts illustrate the situation and his attitude:

October 29, 1916
We made an attack this morning at daybreak. Am now sitting in a hole dug in the side of a trench. It is raining, and the thick mud is at the bottom of the hole. Outside, in the trench, the mud is about a foot deep and in many places up to one's knee. A heavy bombardment is going on, and this place continually vibrates. my puttees and boots cannot be seen for the mud they are covered with. I have got on a man's overcoat that on account of the mud must weigh about fifty pounds. Round my neck is a muddy, sodden balaclava helmet that I have put my head right through. I have not shaved for three days, and I have not takend off my clothes for ten. I am itching a lot, and my feet are wet. I have lost twelve very good men owing to a bigshell exploding in the trench. I havve a blister on my left heel. Cannot get any food cooked. Rather expect a counterattack tonight, but have just smoked a good cigarette and my pipe is drawing well, s oI am feeling in remarkably good form.

November 9
I am very much annoyed by the memos sent from Headquarters. They come in at all hours of the day and night and stop me from gettinga full night's rest. Some of them are very silly and unnecessary. When I am just getting off to sleep with cold feet, in comes an orderly asking how many pairs of socks my company had a week ago. I reply, 141 1/2. Back comes a memo: Please explain at once how you came to be deficient in one sock. I reply, Man lost his leg. That's how we make the Huns sit up.

May 27, 1917
Attack Hindenburg. After my fourth shot, I found the bowl of my pipe and the smoke from it were obscuring my line of vision. Much to my annoyance I had to put my pipein my pocket alight.

September 28
Was wounded while coming out of the line. When we were about a hundred yards from a road, I, who was leading, stopped rather ostentatiously to show my contempt for the shells and lit a cigarette. A shell landed about ten yards behind us, and a small bit of its casing cut through the left side of my collar and then through my throat, where it came up flop against my wind pipe. I started to cough and brought up some blood and the bit of shell. McLennan very kindly retrieved the bit of iron out of the mud and, handing it to me, remarked that I might like to keep it. This I did.

This post's theme personality traits: dry wit and pluck.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Caffeine wreaks havoc on my system. But it helps me to solve math problems. C. recounted to me that an ex-smoking professor said he never worked as well as when he had nicotine in his system. Alas! That our poisons also make us function locally better.

This post's theme song (to which I have been continuously listening for the past hour): "United State of Pop" by DJ Earworm. You can listen to it at his site. It deliciously combines all the stick-in-your-head songs into one single, addictive, five-minute-long track.