Answering Arnold's phone

The mother of all malapropisms from the leader of the gay-baiting party:

All I can tell you is when the governor calls, I answer his phone.

President Bush, last week, talking about California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presumably in reference to sending federal aid to tackle the Santa Ana fires.

Pronouncing Dylan

I recently saw friends of ours who'd just had their baby. "How's Dylan?", I asked the proud papa.

He started to guffaw at my question. Turns out that I'd mispronounced the name. Apparently, the baby shares the name with some very famous fellow named "Bob Dylan" (don't start: I don't keep up with all the singer celebrities) and so I should have known how to pronounce the name.

Google to the rescue. Plug in "pronounce dylan" and the first site that comes up carries a rather plaintive question:

Also, How in the world does one pronounce Dylan?

The next post in the thread (this was in a newsgroup, precursor to blogs) carries the answer:


But shouldn't there be two ells then? But then, the post is on a programming newsgroup. Maybe it's a techie thing to have doubts on how to pronounce the name -- we are, perhaps, too pedantic.

Anyway, I located the Wikipedia entry for Bob Dylan and added the pronunciation. Maybe I should do the same thing for Dylan Thomas (who I'd always thought was pronounced Die-lan Thomas) but I'm not sure if the Dill-an pronunciation is something that this Bob Dylan character originated when he changed his name from Zimmerman.

Adams, Heisman, Football : My Night of Television

One of the things about traveling is that I watch TV, or have the TV going while I work. At home, with 2 young kids, the TV remains mostly off. Thursday night, I had the Boston College -- Virginia Tech game on. Intermittently, I switched over to the PBS documentary on John Adams.

Thoughts from My Night of TV:

(1) Boston College ("A Jesuit, Catholic University") surely are lucky campers. Three consecutive plays in one drive, they fumbled the ball and recovered it themselves. After they punted, Virginia Tech missed a handoff and who should recover that fumble but Boston College!

(2) The US was lucky in its founding fathers -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton. Not all new countries are fortunate enough to have thoughtful, honest men who put their country's needs first. India was reasonably provident as well -- even though Gandhi was not able to prevent partition and Nehru was too left-wing, they did forge a nation out of a country that was 15% Muslim even after Pakistan broke away. The third (!) country I consider home -- Liberia -- was definitely unfortunate in its founding fathers. These were returned American slaves, who formed a class-ridden society where the lighter-skinned American former slaves lorded it over the ethnic tribes who already populated the land, paving the way for a civil war that devastated the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

(3) Ryan sure is Heisman potential. Scoring 14 points in the last 5 minutes of a game should qualify him, no matter that it came about because Virginia Tech could not hold onto an onside kick. But the way he did it ... the Boston College offensive line was thoroughly beaten throughout the game, so Ryan scrambled out of the pocket, creating time to find open receivers. If a great player is one who plays above his team's talents, Ryan's last two drives qualified. The game winning pass was a beaut -- he scrambled out of the pocket as 3 Hokie defensive linemen collapsed the entire offensive line and scrambled half the width of the field and yards from the sideline, without even stopping to gain a stance, he threw a long one diagonally across the field to a receiver who'd momentarily gotten open.

(4) Adams would have been a hero if he had done nothing after the American revolution. After all, he was he one who pushed for total independence over the objections of moderates in the continental congress, pushed for French naval help (it turned the course of the war at Saratoga), the one who negotiated loans from the Dutch that kept the war effort possible and the one who negotiated a very advantageous peace treaty with Britain. But Adams came back, and as the second president, kept America from going to war against France -- a war from which a young nation might not have recovered.

(5) One possibility is a Ohio State -- Boston College national championship. Of course, the Buckeyes play Penn State at Penn State and Michigan at Michigan and Boston College may meet up with a VT team that outplayed them for 54 minutes in their conference championship game. Still, I like the chances of a OSU-BC BCS game. And if Ryan wins the Heisman, and the Heisman jinx holds, then all the better! Go Bucks!

Is this still the Artic?

Looks like I'm going to get you ready for Halloween by sharing chilling stories and videos. See this NASA time-lapse loop and tell me that a chill does not run down your spine:

Crosswords around the world

Crosswords in Indian newspapers follow the British tradition of being mostly word plays. This blog explaining the solution to a crossword that appeared in the South Indian newspaper, the Hindu, gives you an idea of how those crosswords work:
Tots rally around an improbable tale (4,5) - TALL STORY
Anagram of 'Tots rally'. 'rally around' is the anagram indicator

The crosswords that appear in American newspapers involve just straight clues -- these are both easier and harder than the UK/Indian word play crosswords. The easier ones are the ones that are plain definitions. The harder clues (for me at least) often require knowledge of pop culture. For example:
Typically green tube (Ans: garden hose)
"Mr. _____," 1983 comedy (Ans: Mom)
Also depending on the newspaper in question, the straight clues are either quite straightforward (e.g. the ones that appear in the Norman Transcript) or quite snooty. How snooty? Look at this blog explaining the results to a New York Times crossword. You are supposed to know that "Sapsago" is a cheese with a greenish tint. And to explain the statement in the blog about it being a "Saturday" crossword, crosswords on different days of the week have increasing levels of difficulty. Mondays are the easiest and Saturdays are the hardest, with Sunday somewhere around Thursday's level.

Is this still America?

Read this and tell me that a chill does not run down your spine:

The long and the short of it was that an Egpytian national, Abdallah Higazy, was staying in a hotel in New York City on September 11 and the hotel emptied out when the planes hit the towers. The hotel later found in the closet of his room a device that allows you to communicate with airline pilots. Investigators thought this guy had something to do with 9/11 so they questioned him. According to Higazi, the investigators coerced him into confessing to a role in 9/11. Higazi first adamantly denied any involvement with 9/11 and could not believe what was happening to him. Then, he says, the investigator said his family would go through hell in Egypt, where they torture people like Saddam Hussein. Higazy then realized he had a choice: he could continue denying the radio was his and his family suffers ungodly torture in Egypt or he confesses and his family is spared. Of course, by confessing, Higazy's life is worth garbage at that point, but ... well, that's why coerced confessions are outlawed in the United States.

So Higazy "confesses" and he's processed by the criminal justice system. His future is quite bleak. Meanwhile, an airline pilot later shows up at the hotel and asks for his radio back. This is like something out of the movies. The radio belonged to the pilot, not Higazy, and Higazy was free to go, the victim of horrible timing. Higazi was innocent!

Waiting for a foot bridge

I love foot bridges. The sheer beauty of the bridge when seen from the side, the slight sway as you walk across, the feel of the steel cables as you hang on. An architect showcases some foot bridges on Slate.

How many of those footbridges have you been on? I've walked on the Capilano bridge near Vancouver, the Millennium one that spans the Thames near St. Paul's. I may have walked across the one at Gatwick airport -- who knows?

And I can't wait for the one in Tulsa (shown in the photograph) to be complete. Tulsa has another cool bridge already: an old railway bridge across the Arkansas river repurposed as a foot bridge.

Wish I had written that

I was feeling a bit bored and not quite ready to get back to work, so I started to read a few of my web log entries from a decade ago.

There were a few reviews: of a museum exhibit (the horse is still on campus, and no less of an eyesore) and of a book that bored me with its triviality -- it was so boring that I felt the need to review it twice.

I was already trying to relive my college days through bridge (sound familiar)?  And wistfully recalling childhood in Africa.

Also: telling people not to use "karma" when they really mean "kismet".

All in all, nothing that makes me cringe. But one thing I did notice was that I'd named my columns with no concern for Google. Thus, my entry on karma and kismet is entitled " karm.html" whereas any moron nowadays knows you've got to title it karma_kismet.html so that Google's algorithm ranks it higher.

Not dark and dreary

In Chicago, it's crisp, cool and sunny now. The weather forecaster, normally the most chipper person on a news crew, had me concerned when he predicted on his website that it would be "dark and dreary" (his exact words) all this week. Weather forecasters ... what do they know?

Football players or soldiers?

The basketball arena across the parking lot from the National Weather Center (where I work) was packed yesterday. The arena's parking lot and even the fields around it were all full of cars. Around 5pm, the roads were completely congested as nearly 10,000 people tried to leave, all at the same time. This morning's paper carried the explanation, that it was the send-off ceremony for 2400 National Guardsmen, the largest deployment of the Oklahoma guard since the Korean war.

Today, one of my colleagues noticed that the highway south of our office building had been blocked just after lunch. A police car went screaming by, followed by 3 buses. Most likely, the OU football team leaving to play at Iowa State tomorrow.

Just put yourself in the role of the Norman municipal administration. Which of these events would you budget traffic control for? A few buses carrying the football team to an airport 5 miles away at 1pm? Thousands of cars full of out-of-towners trying to leave a basketball arena at rush hour?

Knowing Oklahoma, I'm not surprised that the football team merits special handling. But considering that the patriotism angle also plays well here -- we may not sacrifice much, but we will wear our lapel pins and tell the troops how much they are appreciated -- count me disappointed.

Pregnant or not?

You know the embarrassing situation where you're talking to a young lady who seems pregnant? You're afraid to congratulate her for fear that she has simply put on a little weight ... and yet, you can't just avoid talking about the looming big event in her life.

Well, I encountered the counterpart of that situation this week.  The wife mentioned a few weeks ago that a couple we know were expecting their child.  Yesterday, I happened to see the mother.  I was about to greet her, except she looked decidedly un-pregnant.

What would you do in that situation? Did you really listen to your wife? Was this the person who was supposed to be pregnant? Was the baby born already, or was the baby due 7 months from now? Me, I simply hurried out hoping that she hadn't seen me.

Talking to a mutual friend yesterday, it was confirmed that the baby had indeed arrived a couple months prematurely.

Just in case you need to write a scientific article in Greek

From the department of answers-to-questions-you-never-thought-to-ask, via Thomas:

I use LaTeX and BibTeX to write conference and journal articles. It's easy to just throw all the text and images and have a computer program take care of all the typesetting and formatting involved. One of the nice things is that I can write:
\frac{1 - e^{-\gamma.f(x)}}{1 - e^{-\gamma}}

and the computer takes care of typesetting it to
Pointing and clicking one's way through a GUI would be quite painful. The software package "knows" about different citation formats and journal layout policies and takes care of all that drudgery as well.

But now, the question that you never thought to ask: How do I use LaTeX if I need to write the article in Greek?

Answer here.

A little chicken

Saturday (at the OU-Missouri football game), a couple of Missouri fans showed up in our section which usually contains only OU season ticket holders. These guys were loud enough and energetic enough to grab the attention of the Mizzou band seated three sections (about 50 yards) away.  M-I-Z they'd chant and the band would answer back:  Z-O-U.  The third quarter, when Missouri came back from a 7-point deficit to a 1-point lead (via several OU mistakes) was pretty excruciating. Made me appreciate all the folks who travel to away games -- don't know if I'd be okay with watching my team where 80,000 fans are screaming for the other guys.

It was the OU homecoming game and one of the things about the homecoming game is that band alumni get to march alongside the regular band. I don't know if it was intended to appear that way, but the alumni march turned out pretty cartoonish.  You first saw slim, in-shape, young 'uns marching in crimson-and-cream uniforms in perfect rows and diagonals.  And following them ... a bunch of beer-bellied folks in white polo shirts and navy-blue pants occupying twice the lane width and a little off in space and time.  Another thing I can't see myself doing -- putting myself in a position where physical comparisons with 20-year olds are so facile.

Count me a little scared of competition.

No, not a conference center

If you think this is yet another convention center that sort of looks like a boat (a trend started by the quite spiffy one in Vancouver that looks like a cruise ship):

then obviously you haven't seen the top-down view:

Apparently the owner has a fetish with the things. He plans to launch a World Toilet association and this is his way of attracting attention.

He must have more money than sense.

The presidential dissident

In the 1970s, the Nobel committee made statements about the Soviet menace by giving Nobel prizes to Russian dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
What's their implication when the Nobel peace prize goes to Jimmy Carter or to Al Gore?  Are we the new menace? Do they feel they have to prop up our dissidents?

While the Soviet dissidents were truly outside the system -- Solzhenitsyn was a physicist who was arrested for bad-mouthing Stalin in private letters -- our dissidents are failed presidents and presidential candidates.  Consider also the very likely possibility that two families will be in the White House for a consecutive 32-year period, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that political power and the ability to be heard is very closely held in America.

And yes, I know the Nobel peace prize is awarded by the Norwegians; the other Nobels are by the Swedes.  So, the organization honoring Al Gore is different from the one that honored Solzhenitsyn (he won in Literature).  But it is all part of the same zeitgeist.

Mt Williams Dr

The wife wanted me to return something she'd picked up at the new Kohl's in Norman. This is the first time I have been to that area after the development started and it was amusing to see a road marked Mt. Williams Dr.

I know it's a cliche that developers name streets and subdivisions for the natural features they raze down. Hence all the streets named "Glen" and "Meadow" in Northern Virginia.

But "Mt. Williams Dr." must be a unique occurence -- naming a street after an artificial feature. Because you see, Mt. Williams was just a huge mound of dirt that the Navy (don't ask me why land-locked Oklahoma had a navy base, but they did) used as an artillery target in the 1940s. The developers razed down the dirt mound when the university sold the land for development, but apparently they felt compelled to name a street after it.

Don't get me wrong ... I have fond memories of Mt. Williams. It was right at the exit off I-35 that my apartment was, so I associate the sight of that dirt mound after a long road trip with the feeling of finally being home. Besides, Mt. Williams was one of the features by which one could quickly locate Norman on satellite pictures. And that made it the answer to a trivia question -- what's the largest man-made structure in Norman?

Still, naming a street after an artificial feature is quite lame. Don't give the patriotic argument, that the reason the name sticks around is that it was used for target practice during World War II. Imagine that it was a church that had been razed to make way for a street. Would the street be named for that church? Don't answer that.

A.B.D.s and postdocs: lack of good incentives

Today, before lunch, a colleague (S.) and I were glancing at the profile of one of our aerobics instructors.  She had listed her degrees and on that list was
Ph.D Social Studies (A.B.D)
"What is A.B.D?," he asked me.  "All but dissertation," I told him. Since S. and I had both finished our Ph.Ds the same year, we got to talking about self-motivation, the ability to find an original topic and being able to write when there were no hard deadlines.

As luck would have it, this article on why PhDs take so long showed up on my RSS feed while I was eating lunch.  The article quotes a NSF study to claim that:
For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, that figure surpasses 13 years. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.

That may all be true, but I would have liked to see a breakdown of these statistics by discipline. I think that including the "soft" sciences exacerbates the problem -- an English PhD who will find it very hard to get a job has little incentive to graduate.  It's quite likely that his student teaching job at the university is more attractive than working at a coffee shop. In science and engineering, where PhDs who graduate can expect to find work doing what they trained to do, the problem is a lot less severe. And  even in science and engineering, a field like theoretical physics (where jobs are scarce) sports extra-long PhDs and an almost-mandatory postdoc.

Now, the prevalence of postdocs in fields where jobs are scarce -- that would be a topic fit for a NSF study.  Postdocs are just cheap labor.  I think that funding for new PhD students should be reduced in fields where graduating PhD have to accept postdoctoral appointments.

This is not rocket science -- the lack of jobs for PhDs in some fields is the reason people take so long to finish.  Add in the incentive of good jobs after graduation, and people will finish their PhDs faster.

My excuse for why this blog is not widely read

Long ago (two months ago to be precise), I suggested to all you stuck-in-the-mud readers out there that you should really be reading this blog through a RSS feed. I use Google Reader, but there are lots of others out there.  It is really a much faster way to get updated content than to browse sites one by one.  Browsing the web is so 1990s.

When I set up Blogspot to serve out the blog via RSS, I had a choice. I could serve out the entire article, or I could serve out just the first few sentences and make you, dear reader, click on the link to read the whole thing. I chose to serve out the whole article.  Why? Well, the whole "do unto your neighbor" thing. But at least on the internet, being altruistic can be its own reward. From an economics blogger, comes another reason.  The folks who use RSS readers tend to be journalists, geeks and connectors -- folks who are influential enough to drive more traffic to the site.  Thus, keeping them happy by serving out full articles is a good idea even though the page view statistics suffer.

This brings us to my excuse for why I had only 400 page views in September -- your use of RSS news feeds undercounts my readership but you folks are not doing your part in driving traffic to my site :)  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.