Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Poutine Day: Update

It appears I was misled on the nature of Poutine Day. From that same friend who told me about it in the first place:

"We kind of just made up poutine day since we all like poutine so much. In fact, every day could be poutine day."

I'm glad we've that got that cleared up. But every day could be poutine day? I'm now worried that my friend has joined some sort of death cult. She's already on facebook, though. How many cults can she be a part of?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Political Alternatives

Given my obsession with alternative political structures, I'm disappointed things didn't work out better:

"WASHINGTON, DC—Political scientists at the Cato Institute announced Monday that they have inadvertently synthesized a previously theoretical form of government known as megalocracy.

"We were attempting to recreate a military junta in a controlled diplomatic setting, and we applied too much external pressure," said head researcher Dr. Adam Stogsdill, a leading expert in highly reactionary ruling systems. "The resultant government has the ruthless qualities of a dictatorship combined with the class solidarity of a plutocracy—it's quite a remarkable find."

Stogsdill explained that megalocracy is extremely unstable and can only exist in idealistic conditions for a few minutes before collapsing into anarchy."

From The Onion

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Facetiousness immitates the academy...

...sort of.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a rather lengthy post on an alternative voting system, based on Google's algorithm for ranking websites. It was more of a thought experiment than a serious proposal.

Recently, while researching something on a different, though related, topic, I found out that the main idea behind Google's algorithm is a variation on something called the Kendall-Wei method. Wanting to know more about it, I decided to google Kendall-Wei. To my surprise, the fourth page that came up is a paper titled "An Introduction to Vote-Counting Schemes" [1]. So I'm not the first person to make a connection between Google's ranking of websites and the ranking of political candidates. Although, the use of the Kendall-Wei method described in this paper is quite different from my suggestion (thus the "...sort of" at the beginning of this post). Nevertheless, the fact that someone else besides me has connected elections with the use of the Kendall-Wei method, suggests that perhaps I ought to be taking my ideas more seriously. Expect me to announce the publication of my paper on the subject soon.

[1] You probably won't be able to download the paper, unless you happen to be on a university campus with a subscription to JSTOR.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

From the Mouths of Undergrads

Me: Do you recognize this sequence?
Student: It's not the Fibonacci sequence is it?
Me: No.
Student: Then what -nacci is it?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thanks to the magic of facebook, I've discovered that today is poutine day. I'm not sure that today is actually poutine day, but supposing that it is, then, you're probably interested in knowing what it is. According to the facebook friend that I learned about the day from, "poutine day is, quite simply, the day on which we all eat poutine. Nothing says friendship more than fries smothered in gravy and cheese." Nothing like celebrating friendship by eating food that will likely end all of your lives early. Anyway, now you know. The 24th of October is poutine day. A great way to kick off the last-week-of-October season, which ends with Hallowe'en, that long slow feast of sugar consumption which could finish off the job that the poutine didn't.

Speaking of days with names, apparently, October 2 is Name Your Car Day. I've decided to name my car John Coffey. So. Happy belated Name Your Car Day. Last time I named my car, it ended up needed replacing within half a year. Hopefully the naming of the car was not the cause of its unexpected demise.

It's old news now, but one of McGuinty's first moves in his second term as Premier of Ontario is to declare a new holiday called Family Day, to take place on the third Monday of February. I think a better name would be Thanks For Nothing Day. I've been getting this day off for quite some time now, including the four days following it. These five days, as a whole, are referred to by students as "reading week". It's a secret we've all been keeping that we get these days off in February. Now that I see that I'd be getting shortchanged on a holiday, though, I think it's time to let the cat out of the bag [2]. The third Monday in February is also known as Heritage Day. I know this because every year around the time of our (formerly) secret week off, we get an email saying that the administrative staff have the day off [3]. I'm pretty sure it applies to a lot of other public servants too. So they don't get anything off either. Maybe that's why one of the secretaries nearly bit my head off the last time I locked myself out of my office and needed her to let me back in. Furthermore, the proposed holiday is in February. February folks. It's cold then! Presumably, by the name, the purpose of the holiday is to spend time with family (which, was the purpose behind other holidays). It makes sense to have a week off during this time of year, because you can go away to somewhere warm. But how far away can you get on a long weekend? Not very far, and wherever that is, it'll probably be just as cold. If Thanks for Nothing Day doesn't just doesn't have that ring, perhaps you could call it Take Your Kids Outside and Have Them Freeze Day. Speaking of weeks off. There's another week off around them time of year. This was a well kept secret too until the passport fiasco of earlier this year, when hordes of people were lined up for hours to get their passports so that they could go away for March Break. I guess I shouldn't speak for everybody. Not everyone lives the comfortable academic life like I do. If you're one of those, I hope you have fun with your family in the middle of winter. I, on the other hand, will be too busy with my reading week to enjoy Family Day.

[1] A friend with whom real life communication has almost exceeded by facebook communication. Real life communication itself has centred around the pros and cons of facebook.

[2] It wasn't really that hard to keep this a secret, since, as a graduate student, I mostly just talked to other graduate students, if I talked to anyone at all. It was a bit tricky, though, to come up with a fake reason for skipping a week of class on the third week of February six years in a row.

[3] And when the administrative staff have the day off, then there's not much point in the rest of us coming in. We're pretty much lost without them. Well, I know that I am. Whatever it is they get paid, it's probably not enough [4].

[4] I'm still too lazy to hyperlink my footnotes [5].

[5] I'm also too lazy to proofread. Please don't mind the typos.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Post Election Thoughts

This past Wednesday, the province of Ontario held its latest provincial election. I didn't vote. If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first provincial election that I have not voted in since I've been eligible to vote. The party I would normally vote for doesn't seem to do well in this riding, and, besides, most of the campaign seemed to pass me by with out my noticing. I've been busy [1] and didn't have time to register in this riding (since it's not my home riding). All in all, it didn't seem worth my while to seek out a local polling station for them to tell me to go to another polling station where I would then find out that I lack sufficient documentation to prove my residency. Anyway. Enough with the excuses.

As usual we--and by we, I mean everyone but me--voted on who would form the next Government of Ontario. We also voted on whether to maintain the current first past the post (FPTP) system of representation, or to implement a new mixed member proportional (MMP) system of representation.

The Election

Aside from one issue, as far as I could tell, the election was mostly a matter of The Dud We Know vs. The Dud We Don't. Perhaps Archie comics have had a more profound effect on my life than they should have, but I don't think I could vote for a party led by a guy named Dalton. Even the new and improved Dalton seems to be at least 50% weenie. The main features of John Tory are that is first name is not Dalton, and that his last name is also the nickname of the party he leads.

I don't recall much that Dalton's done during these last four years. Somewhere along the line he did one or two things that I thought were good ideas at the time. I can't even remember what those were. He might even have broken one of his promises in order to do one of the things that I liked. For the most part, however, I didn't care enough to vote against him. John Tory didn't have much to offer me to get me out to vote for his party. I think he campaigned against Dalton's broken promises. As you may have guessed, that wouldn't be enough to entice me to vote for his party. There was the usual talk about tax cuts that we expect from the PC's, but nothing really inspiring. Then there was the issue of extending public funding to faith based schools. I doubt that this was part of any grand philosophy, nor that he meant it to be an election issue like it was. My guess--I feel it's more like stating the obvious than guessing--is that the leader was trying to win some votes from religious conservatives.

The spectre of religious groups receiving public funding certainly frightens a lot of people, myself included. As a religious person, the spectre of having my faith based organization funded by--and ultimately controlled by--the government certainly frightens me.

It was rather amusing to witness the reactions of the not-so-religious to the proposal here in Canada, where separation of church and state seems much more like something we fell into--if we really do have it at all--than a founding principle, and especially in Ontario, where a large number of students attend Catholic schools, which I presume, by their name, are based on some sort faith that I've heard about once or twice called Catholicism. Correct me if I'm wrong. If it is fear of funding fundamentalism, then the opponents need only take look at these schools. Hardly hotbeds of extremism. If they were to become so, the government would likely step in and stop them, as they've done before. If the Catholic schools are any example, then extending funding to all faith based schools is likely a better antidote to extremism than not. If it is the grand principle of separation of church and state that concerns them, then they should be agitating to withhold funding from Catholic schools just as passionately as they are to keep it withheld from other nonCatholic faith based schools. It doesn't seem like those who are arguing against it know what they're really arguing against. Nor does their position seem all that consistent.

Dalton disallowed all forms of religious arbitration, including Catholic, when Sharia courts were proposed a few years ago. He wasn't going to pick and choose which religious groups should be allowed arbitration, so he banned them all from doing it, even if they had already been doing it. If he is so opposed to other religious groups receiving public funds, why hasn't he taken the same position he did with religious funding as he did with religious arbitration? It's not like he hasn't taken a position on continued funding of Catholic schools. A quick google search will yield quotes from the man himself assuring the schools that they will continue to be publicly funded. So much for consistency. Sure there's the issue of the constitution. Damn the constitution, I say. This is important! Other provinces have gotten over this hurdle. I don't see why we can't.[2]

The Referendum

As I predicted, the No vote won. I'm surprised at how much it won by, however. I was expecting popular support for MMP to be at least 50%, but it didn't even make 40%. The number of ridings with more than 50% support was much smaller than I expected, too. Only 5 riding had more than 50% support for MMP.

Initially, I was opposed to any form of proportional representation (PR). There were primarily two parties who advocated it. These parties, of course, were the ones who had the most to gain if some form of PR was adopted. Much of their advocacy came across as thinly veiled self-interest, clothed in the rhetoric of fairness. Not only that but telling me "If Ontario had PR, then we would have more seats/at least one seat" was certainly not the way to advertise PR to me. I was happy with the number of seats those parties had, and wouldn't be upset if they had less. But to have more of them? I'll pass, thank you.

After hearing more about it from less self-interested parties, though, I warmed up to more. Not enough that I wanted it, but enough that I was disappointed that it didn't receive more support. If I could have voted "maybe", I'm might have been passionate enough about that option to have registered and gone out and voted.

There were a number of other objections that I raised to PR before I was told about any specific form of PR (there seem to be many). The MMP system seemed to take care of a lot of them. I wasn't crazy about the fact that there would be two types of MPP's. Don't ask me why, though. I don't know. Perhaps the hordes of objections to two tier health care that I've heard have instilled in me a latent dislike for two tiered anything, including MPP's.

I did like the possibility that I would be able to vote for the party and the local candidate separately. When I was back in Hamilton on Thanksgiving weekend, for example, I saw that there was candidate who I thought would be a good MPP, but who wasn't running for a party that I would normally support If we had MMP, I could have voted for him, but some other party. (Well, actually, I wouldn't have been able to vote for him, even I were voting in Hamilton. He was in the wrong riding.)

There are other things that MMP would have left unfixed, and might actually have made worse. For example, even under FPTP, MPP's are often elected with considerably less than 50% of the vote in their ridings. In that case, it is not so much that the MPP's are the best representatives, but rather they are the least-bad representatives. This is in part a function of the size of the ridings. Under the proposed MMP system, there would have been fewer ridings than now, so they would be larger, exacerbating the problem.

One of the strangest criticisms of the referendum that I've read in the wake of its outcome is that the material given out by the government was presented neutrally and without bias. How terrible that they would give me only the facts and let me think for myself and make up my own mind. Fascists the lot of them. Is it too late to vote out the bums? What? It is? Dammit!

I wonder why electoral reform has to go to referendum, as it just did in Ontario, and as it has previously in BC. What's to stop a (purportedly ill-gotten majority) government from simply legislating it. I wonder if McGuinty comes off as a hero to PR advocates for putting it to referendum, or if he comes off as a coward for doing so rather than just legislating it. If 60+% of the voters are happy with the system through which he obtained his ill-gotten majority, could that mean that it is not so ill-gotten? If the ill-gotten majority government did legislate some form of PR, would that new system be illegitimate because the government that legislated it had a majority of seats with less than 50% of the popular vote?

I've heard that some PR advocates are saying that MMP is the wrong form of PR to use. I wonder what they think is wrong with MMP and what they think would be better.

The issue of PR vs. FPTP reminds me of an example of a "paradox" in statistics that I heard about last year. There was an issue of whether Maori were represented adequately on juries in New Zealand. Statistics on Maori representation were presented in two different ways. In one presentation, only local statistics were given. In each jurisdiction, Maori's were underrepresented [3] on juries. In another presentation, only national statistics were given. In this case, Maori's were overrepresented [4]. Arguing that Maori's are underrepresented by the first presentation is analogous to choosing governments by FPTP. Arguing that Maori's are overrepresented based on the second is analogous to choosing governments by PR. It is not clear to me which statistics are relevant in determining whether the Maori are adequately represented on juries. Assuming that the analogy is legitimate, is it any clearer whether we should choose FPTP or PR?

[1] Read "lazy". But really. I didn't even use what spare time I had to do stuff for myself, such as grocery shopping. I'm so lazy, in fact, that I'm not going to bother hyperlinking my footnotes today.

[2] I once read that Ontario Catholics (and not Catholics in other provinces) have a strong tendency to support the Liberal Party. I wish I had a reference. I don't remember if this support was for the federal party, the provincial party, or both. If this support holds for the provincial party, then I doubt that the Liberals will be advocating this solution the the funding issue any time soon. I could get into conspiracies about McGuinty's own Catholicism, but I won't. Surely it's a coincidence. Surely.

[3] Under suitable definition of underrepresented.

[4] Under suitable definition of overrepresented.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Google Democracy

I wrote a post on this topic some time ago, but then decided to abandon it. However, a few days ago I received a brochure from some branch of the Ontario Government regarding the upcoming referendum on whether to replace the current First Past the Post system of representation with the Mixed Member Proportional system. In light of that, I decided to rewrite the post.

About a year and a half ago, I did a presentation in a math seminar on the PageRank algorithm that Google uses to rank pages on the web. They came up with a clever, though simple, idea to rank websites based on links between pages which greatly improved the quality of searches over search engines that predate Google. The algorithm is also resistant to abuse (though not completely abuse proof).

When I was researching the presentation, one of the things I read from Google itself was that it "relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web". My first instinct when reading that is to groan. Thinking about it a little more, I realized that Google's algorithm really doesn't much resemble any democratic system that I've ever heard of. Later on, I asked myself what if? What if a country were to adopt a system modelled after the PageRank algorithm? How would/could that work?

The main idea behind Google's algorithm is the assumption that a link from webpage A to webpage B means that the author of page A thinks page B is good (of course, the author of A might link to B because of how bad B is, but, to imitateChandler Bing, perhaps the author of A thinks B is a good bad-website.) The term often used is authority. Thus, by linking to B, the author of A confers authority on B. The authority of web page B is then calculated based on the number of links pointing to B from some other website, but in a recursive way, which I'll try to explain now. Using the recursion, their algorithm calculates a score for each page as follows.

  1. Give each page a score of 1.
  2. For each page A, add up the points of the pages that link to A to get a new number. (This will be the number of pages that link to A).
  3. Replace A's score by this new number.
  4. For each page A, add up the points of the pages that link to A to get another new number
  5. Replace A's score by this new number.
  6. Go back to step 4.

At each step, each page gets assigned a new number. The numbers are going to get very large, so at each step they are also "normalized". That is, the numbers are all divided by one number to keep things from getting too large. (The number chosen may differ at each step). This is okay since it is the ranking of scores that is most important, and not so much the score itself, since we want to know the which websites are better than others, and not necessarily how good each site is. The process is repeated until the scores do not differ too much from one step to the next, so that each page has a ``final'' score.

There are a few other steps that are taken to prevent undesirable things from happening. For example if one page has a large number of links to other pages, then that page could have a strong influence on the algorithm and thus the overall ranking, so the "strengths" of links are scaled so that each page (or the author of each page) has the same amount of influence. For example, if there are 10 links from site A, then each of those links counts as one tenth of a link. If there are 2 links from site A, then each of those links counts as a half of a link. If there are n links from site A, then each of those links counts as one n-th of a link.

So why does this work? A rough measure of the authority of a page is the number of other pages that link to it. This is the score after the Step 3. Two pages, call them page A and page B, could have the same number of pages linking to them. At first we might think that the authority of A and B is the same. However, we could look at the pages that link to each of these, and count the total of the number of links into each of those pages instead. That is, we are counting the number of links to pages that link to each of A and B. These will be the new scores for A and B after we do Step 5 the first time (I'm fudging a little bit here). If there are many links to pages that link to A, while there are few links to pages that link to B, then intuitively, we feel A is better than B. So Even though A and B receive the same number of links, A is linked to by sites with more authority than those that link to B. We could go one step further back and count the numbers of sites that link to sites that link to sites that link to A and B and compare them (same fudge as before, but more of it). These numbers are the scores after we do Step 5 the second time. At each stage, the scores of A and B are updated in terms of the scores of the pages that link to them, so that the authorities of A and B are reinforced by the authority of the pages linking to them. A website that is linked to by many sites with a high authority score at each step will end up with a high authority score in the next step. Repeated enough times, the scores stabilize. That is, the scores don't change much from one step to the next. I illustrated this using two sites with the same number of links in, but it is possible that A could have a small number of links in, while B has a large number, but A's authority is higher than B after the process is repeated enough times.

So how would we use Google's idea to decide our elections? Suppose that we were to allow eligible voters to defer all or a portion of their voting rights to someone else. In such a system, I could retain all of my voting rights if I wanted. Otherwise I can defer my voting rights to someone else. In the language of the internet, I have linked to that person. Linking to that person implies voting authority. In the case that I retain my vote, I link back to myself. In between these two extremes, I could retain retain a portion of my voting rights, one half, while deferring the other half of my vote to you. I have linked to myself with a link of weight 1/2 and linked to you also with a link of weight 1/2. Perhaps I could split the remaining half of my vote between you and someone else, so that there is a link to myself with weight 1/2, and a links from me to you and someone else, each of weight 1/4. Otherwise, I could split my voting rights between the three of us evenly, or.... I could divide my vote any number of ways between any number of people, so long as the portions of my vote that I've given to everyone else adds up to 1, in line with the principle of "one person, one vote".

Then a "vote-authority" score would be calculated by a process similar to that described above. The process will be slightly different, because the "weigths" of the links from me to each person can be different, but I won't get into that here. The vote-authority score of person A is reinforced by the vote-authority score of the people that defer a portion of their voting rights to A. On election day, the weight of each persons vote is their vote-authority score. Instead of adding up the number of votes that a candidate gets, the scores of the people that voted for that candidate are added up. Whichever candidate has the highest score wins the riding (or whatever is at stake in the election), rather than the candidate with the largest number of votes.

You might ask why I would want to defer my voting rights to anyone at all besides myself. On election day, I am required to choose one of the candidates in my local riding who I think would best represent the constituents that riding in the legislature, which of course is the one that best represents my own political preferences. Usually, I don't know much about the candidates (though some are easy write-offs). Finding out is a lot of work, and what information I do find may not be reliable. Somebody else might know the candidates better than I do, or else they might know somebody who does. In the first case, they can make a more informed decision than I can. In the second case, they can choose to defer their judgement to a person who knows more about the candidates. Perhaps I just trust that person's judgement on political matters more than I trust my own. Perhaps I'm just lazy, and I want you to vote for me.

The idea that one person's vote could be worth more than another on election day is probably offensive to some. Those people shouldn't get too worked up. I'm not seriously proposing that we implement such a system, or any variation of it (it would probably be hard to implement). I am, however, curious to see how different things would turn out if such a system were implemented. Would the election results be more or less the same as they've always been? Would one party end up dominating? Would the major parties parties receive a larger or smaller share of the "popular vote" than they do now? Even if I were serious, however, I don't think that there would be that much to object to. We would each get one vote. The main difference is that how we use that one vote. Instead of using that one vote to decide on politicians, we use it to decide on who is qualified to decide on politicians. One of the claimed benefits of proportional representation is that it would increase participation in elections. If my crazy system is implemented, people can exercise their right merely by deferring all of their voting rights to someone else, and then staying home at night enjoying the election coverage on tv. How could the privilege to vote without leaving the comfort of your armchair nothing fail to increase participation?

If you think this idea is dumb, by the way, blame it on Google. They're the ones who connected the notion of hyperlinks to democracy in the first place. If you think it's a good idea, however, I expect full credit.

Since the referendum is on MMP, you might be wondering what my thoughts are on that. I think it probably won't pass, since, in order for to pass, it must receive the support of 60% of the population, as well as 50% of the vote in at least 60% of the ridings. Those seem like pretty strict conditions to me. So who cares.

I have my own idea for a system of proportional representation. See, a lot of people criticize the first-past-the-post system on the basis that voters are misrepresented, especially those in less popular parties, since the percentage of province wide (or nation wide) vote share does not translate into the same percentage of seats. MMP would still have 90 of the MPPs chosen by the first-past-the-post system to represent ridings. Of course, as is often the case now, someone could get elected to a riding with less than 50% of the vote in that riding. That means that more than half of the people there are misrepresented. This is simply unfair. In fact, it would be unfair even if the winner received more than 50% of the vote in that riding, since those who voted for other parties get no local representation by their preferred party. Second place candidates often get support in the 20-30% range, and sometimes even higher. If it's unfair that roughly 10% of the population votes Green, yet the party receives no representation, then it is most certainly unfair that an even higher percentage of voters in a riding receives no local representation by their preferred party. Since each voter in a riding should be fairly represented in the legislature, I propose that each candidate be appointed as the MPP of the riding for a time proportional to the vote share. Thus if a candidate gets 40% of the vote, then they are appointed MPP for 40% of the term. The candidate with the highest percentage would go first, followed be the next highest, and so on, until the end of the term. (Thank you McGuinty for fixed election dates, without which this entirely rational scheme could not be implemented.) This would solve both province wide and local discrepancies between voter preference and representation. It would also take care of the fact that we get tired of hearing the same politicians talking for four years straight. Queen's park would be a mad house by the end of the four years, what with the Libertarians picking fights with both Marxist-Leninists and Communists, while latter two parties fight vehemently with each other over policies that are indistinguishable to any unenlightened onlookers. But I'm willing to pay that price for the sake of fairness. What about you?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected

Near the end of this (rather lengthy) post, I described my car as driving on the green mile, because of the problems with my car that mean it is very likely destined for the scrap yard within the next two years. In particular, the car is certified environmentally unfriendly.

While preparing the post, I googled the phrase "driving on the green mile". To my surprise, among the hits that were not about Stephen King's movie, there was a site referring to Ford's commitment to produce cars that are more environmentally friendly, and later on there is another referring to Mercedes doing the same.

Question Answered

Many times I've been asked "How much wood would a wood chuck chuck if a wood chuck could chuck wood?" though I never knew the answer. In fact, I didn't think there was answer, like that other age old question "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Courtesy of Oscar Leroy from Dog River, however, I've finally learned that a "A wood chuck would chuck all the would he could chuck if a wood chuck could chuck wood."

Farewell insomnia, and good riddance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

While you're waiting

Haven't posted much lately. Been busy. Sorry 'bout that. I've got a couple of posts in the making, but they are taking a bit longer than I expected. I hope to get to them soon.

I was just flipping through a math text and came across this newspaper clipping that I had been using as a bookmark. I thought that I would offer its contents to keep you entertained until I can give you something better.

"Things aren't always what they seem. the cucumber, for instance, is not a vegetable -- technically, it's a fruit

So are the tomato, eggplant, pumpkin, squash, gherkin, green beans, corn, avocados and okra.

Rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, not a fruit.

A banana tree isn't a tree; it's an herb.

A peanut is not a nut; it's a legume.

The onion is a lily, botanically speaking.

'Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts, but to cook well, one must love and respect food.'
-- Craig Claiborne."

-- Sara Perks, The Hamilton Spectator.

The contents of this newspaper clipping do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the author of this blog, nor does it necessarily reflect the facts of botany.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


I finally made the fern curry last night, though obviously too late to use fresh fiddleheads. While I was making it, I realized that I had written 12tsp. of salt when it should have written 1/2 tsp. I hope that none of you tried to make it using 12tsp. I've corrected it along with a few other typos.

Motel Camping, etc.

On the third last week of the summer, I usually go away on the remnant of a family vacation [1]. The day I would normally leave happened to be the day of my defence. Fortunately for me, the older of my two sisters and her husband decided to come up for the first weekend of the vacation because of my mom's birthday. They were leaving later in the day than my mom, so I was able to leave Saturday morning, instead of the usual Friday evening, and go to my sister's house to get a ride with her from there.

My car had failed it's e-test the Saturday before. I had mentioned this to my niece, daughter of the same sister, earlier that week. She mentioned that her fiancee's boss, a mechanic, was great at getting cars to pass e-tests, legitimately of course. She does not live too far from my sister, so I could leave my car at my sister's house and someone could come pick up the car and work on it while I was away. It was perfect.

On Saturday morning, I was on the road by 10:00. Before I left Kingston, I dropped off a fish at a friends house, and then headed for the 401. I decided to stop at the Tim Horton's right before the highway. This was a great way to waste a half an hour. So much for fast food [2]. It didn't matter much in the end, mind you. I had to meet someone in Toronto at 1:00 to sign a lease, and I still arrived early, at 12:58. We were done at around 1:30. I couldn't stay too long--though I wouldn't have minded--since I was supposed to be in Brantford by 4:00 at the latest.

Unlike from Kingston to Toronto (Scarborough, actually), the traffic from Toronto to Brantford was bad. It was bumper to bumper for at least half the way, aside from the 427 and a short stretch of the QEW. I arrived at my sister's house around 3:30, about an hour later than I would have if the traffic had been good [3]. It turned out that my sister and her husband were running behind schedule too, so I had no reason to hurry. We were on the road shortly after 5:00. Normally when I make this trip, or any trip for that matter, I am the driver. This time around, however, I was able to be a passenger. Perhaps not everyone is so easily amused, but I thoroughly enjoyed being able to look out the window at the scenery.

The week was mostly just relaxing, and not really too eventful. I was able to relax more this year, having finally defended my thesis. Regular activities included watching my nieces play T-ball and sitting around the campfire. One day we drove up to Tobermory and took the ferry from there to Manitoulin Island and back. On my last full day there, I had lunch with a friend in nearby Owen Sound. When I got back from lunch, I made an attempt at windsurfing. I didn't get much actual windsurfing done, unless you count being blown around by the wind while trying to pull the sail out of the water as windsurfing. If you do, then I'm proud to say that I successfully windsurfed my way across the bay. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to use that technique to get back to my starting point, and had to be rescued (my signal for "I need help" was sitting kind of hunched over on the surfboard. It's a rather slow signal. I don't recommend it.) The rest of the day was more or less like any other, with more T-ball and campfire. The next day, after cleaning out the motel unit and going out for breakfast, we headed home.

I was looking forward to being able to go to my sister's (the other sister) house to pick up an e-tested, problem free car. I had been talking with my niece's fiancee throughout the week, though, and suspected that my car would not be ready. On my way home, about a half an hour to forty-five minutes from my sister's house, I got a phone called confirming my suspicions. It sounded like it would be ready to go on Monday morning, and they were confident that whatever repairs they were going to do would get my car to pass. I had dentist appointment in the afternoon, and I was also planning on heading back to Kingston later that day, so I headed up to Simcoe, where my niece lives, to pick the car up without bothering to wait for a phone call. Just as I got there, the mechanic left with my car to go get it e-tested. Unfortunately, it was a busy day for e-tests at a nearby Canadian Tire (I wouldn't recommend going there for any other automotive work, based on my own past experiences, as well as the experiences of others, but apparently Canadian Tire is a good place to go to get your car e-tested). They ended up waiting longer than they expected, and were not back in time for me to drive back to Hamilton for my dentist appointment. Thinking that the car would pass the e-test once they had a chance to test it, I simply headed back to Simcoe once the dentist appointment was done. The car didn't pass however. When I got there, the mechanic was trying to get a conditional pass. My car was the first ever that he had not been able to get to pass, and he wasn't sure what the procedure was, so it took him longer than expected. He didn't quite make it in time, so my car sat in Simcoe one more night, and I made one more trip back to Hamilton. I could have taken a chance on driving back to Hamilton without a sticker. The chances of getting caught were pretty slim, but I wasn't in a risk taking mood at that point.

Here's why. Of course, I had expected that the car would pass its e-test, and it's a bummer that it didn't. You know that I had to get a conditional pass, so you can figure out how much I was already going to pay the mechanic. On top of that, there were a number of other things that were wrong with the car too. They were all mostly small, but the cost added up. Still, the total was less than the upper limit that I was hoping to pay, though not by much. When I bought the car, the mechanic told me that the engine was not the original, but I didn't know just how unoriginal the engine was. The mechanics noticed that the wires were cut. No big deal. Except that the wiring in my car did not match the wiring diagram they they had on file for my make and model. The number of wires at certain spots didn't even match their diagram, which made it hard to fix certain components. They were "mindfreaked" by this. Not only that, but the car didn't have an EGR valve. It's not like someone took it off. It was never there. The EGR valve is a key component in controlling the type of gas that my car was failing on, and every car sold in North America (or Japan, or Europe, or anywhere with emissions standards) in the last, say, 20 years at least, would have one. Basically this means that the car will never pass an e-test. It turns out, not surprisingly, that the engine doesn't even belong here. It comes from some country without the same emissions standards as North America. I'm now wondering if the mechanic (different mechanic) that I bought the car from got a hot e-test from someone. Certainly he must have known that the engine he was putting in the car wasn't a normal engine. But wait. That's not all. One of the other things that I took the car in for was an oil leak. It had been there for a while, but the oil spot underneath my car had been getting larger and larger. I thought it was just the gasket for the oil pan deteriorating more and more. Part of the oil leak was due to the a leaky gasket, but once they got that fixed, they noticed it was still leaking oil. Just after the e-test was finally done, they diagnosed the problem. There is a crack in the engine block, right at the point where the oil filter screws onto the block. Apparently, it's the first time that the mechanic's ever seen a crack in the part of the block. In case you are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of automobiles, a cracked block means NOT GOOD NOT GOOD NOT GOOD REALLY REALLY NOT GOOD. It also means that my car will leak oil forever, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. To sum up, since the car has no EGR valve, it will never pass an e-test, so I can never sell it, and since it has a cracked block, nobody would want to buy it, even if I could. So you can see why I wasn't in a mood to drive around without a licence sticker. The next day, when I arrived the car was ready to be picked up. I paid my bill, and then headed to my niece's house (which is virtually next door to the mechanic), had some lunch, and finally drove home in my own car.

I'm glad that I was able to take it to the mechanic that I did. He and his crew spent a great deal more time on my car than they charged me for, and on top of that, he charged me family rate instead of the full hourly rate. For that I am extremely grateful. I can't imagine how much I would have had to pay somewhere else for a car that's driving on the green mile.

[1] Since I was 13, and possibly since I was even younger than that, the family vacation has only included me, one of my two brothers, and my parents. If you go back far enough, it included one my two sisters when the location of the vacation was somewhere else. I don't remember when she stopped coming. Since my brother started working, it has mostly been just me with my parents, and now that my father has passed away, it's just me and my mom. It feels strange to call it a family vacation when only 2 out of seven members of my immediate family participate. My one sister has family vacation with her husband and two kids that same week, but I'm pretty sure that this is more a happy coincidence than anything else, since she never actually stayed with us while we were there.

[2] This was my first time visiting this particular Tim Horton's, but slow service seems to be my usual experience with any Tim's in Kingston, other than the two on Queen's campus. If the brand name weren't so popular around here, I doubt that any of these restaurants would still be in business.

[3] The traffic is never good on that stretch of the highway. Even late at night (well late to me), I usually have to drive in the passing lane just to drive the speed limit.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thesis Pieces

About 5 years ago, when I had to decide whether or not I wanted to do a PhD, I had a number of reservations. One of them was the fact that, in order to actually finish the program, I was required to do an oral exam. The longest that it could have taken was three hours. It's a very small amount of time when you consider that it took 4-5 years to get to the point where I could do the defence, but up to the time that I had to make the decision, and for quite some time after that, I was terrified by the idea of public speaking of any kind, even if it was just in front of a small number of people. The fact that every member of my audience would be evaluating my performance to determine whether or not I actually deserved the degree that I had been working on for more than four years didn't make the idea any more appealing.

Now, here I am, and I've done it.

So how was it?

You already know that I passed.

The defence consisted of two parts. The first is a twenty minute presentation, which is public. The second is a question period, which is not.

I've only been to one other defence presentation other than my own, and in both mine and his it felt like far too much material was covered in those 20 minutes. I feel like nobody who didn't already know what was going on would be able to understand the material [1]. Not so much because it's hard to understand, but because it is spoken about so quickly and in such sparse detail that it would be hard to absorb what little could be said long enough to appreciate it.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the question period in terms of the character of the examiners and in the types of questions that would be asked. I'd heard a few stories from people who had already done their PhD's. At least one person said that the examiners question you until you feel stupid. Not that this is their goal. They are trying to determine the limits of your knowledge, and that limit is reached when you can't answer a question that they ask, at which point you feel stupid. Or so went the reasoning. More recently, a friend told me that his friend's father was a professor, and he would actually try to make the candidates that he examined cry. Other than the external, I knew all of the examiners on my committee beforehand, and of those I knew, none seemed like the type to do that. The only unknown was the external. My experience did not reflect either of the above scenarios. On the contrary, when one of the examiners sensed that I was feeling uncomfortable he assured me that it was natural to feel that way, given the setting. My performance wasn't flawless, and so I felt a bit silly here and there when I my answers didn't come out quite as well as they should have, but I never felt stupid because of the content of my answer. There was a point where I knew that I knew the answer to a question, but I couldn't remember it right away. It was something that I felt I should have been able to answer immediately, but it took a few leading questions before I gave the examiner the answer he was looking for. The most difficult questions to answer, though, were not the ones about things that we knew were true, but about the open questions. Do I think that the answer to this question is yes or no? If it is no, do I think that the answer is almost always yes. Some of the questions required me to talk about things that I'm only vaguely familiar with, leaving me to fumble around awkwardly trying to find the right words. Most of these negatives, though, I feel are minor.

I don't think that I could have done much to prepare for the questions in the five weeks between submission and defence. Some of them I was able to anticipate, but most of them I wasn't. I did spend some time reading through the thesis trying to make sure that the material that I thought was important was actually committed to memory. However, I would have been able to answer almost all of the questions without this extra effort. It wasn't that I had committed every important detail to memory. It was more that the questions could mostly be answered without having memorized them.

Overall, the defence didn't feel too different from a presentation that I might have given in a seminar. The main difference between the two is that the presentation is shorter and the question period is much longer. It was hard to forget that I was being evaluated, but I don't think that my answers would have been very different if I wasn't. Certainly it wasn't nearly as horrible as I had expected it would be when I started the program.

[1] This was confirmed by the chair of the committee. During the defence, his role is to maintain order (could things really get that out of hand?), so he didn't say anything to me or ask me any questions. After the defence, however, when he was no longer required to maintain order, and all chaos broke loose, he told me that he was lost after the first slide.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Thursday, August 09, 2007

X and Found

Reuters reports, in their oddly enough series, that a giant Lego man shows up on the beach. Oddly enough, they don't seem to consider the oddness of fact that someone had a giant Lego man to go missing, and they never reported it. Unlike my laundry key, my credit card, my bank card, or my camera, such a thing does not get easily misplaced.

"Ummm. Honey. Have you seen my life size Lego man?"
"No dear I haven't."
"Oh. It's probably underneath this pile of newspapers then. That's where my keys were last time I couldn't find them."

Monday, August 06, 2007

Happy Day Off Day

Well that time of year as come again where we celebrate... we're not sure what. Nevertheless, we celebrate it by taking a day off. "Civic Holiday" they call it in most of Ontario, and some other provinces. Civic Holiday is also a generic term for... a day off! Perhaps we are supposed to spend that day figuring out why we are taking that day off. I'm not sure, really. It's celebrated in 8 of our 10 provinces, and 2 of our 3 territories, and goes by different names depending on province, or, in the case of Ontario, depending on municipality. So, whatever it is that you're celebrating today, if anything, have fun celebrating that.


How am I celebrating it, you might be wondering? I'm working. It's not as bad as it sounds. I'm finding it strangely satisfying.

Friday, August 03, 2007

So that's what they mean by hot e-test

The time has come again for me to get my car e-tested.

I found the name of a business in Kingston that does e-tests, and called them up to see when I could come in.

"Not right now," she said, "the testing machine is on fire."

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Questions answered, unanswered

I was discussing publishing papers with my supervisor today. There are at least two papers, though he has reservations about both. This prompted a question from me. Part of my reluctance to commit to the world of academics is the worry that I won't be able to come up with anything publication worthy. I know that I'm not alone in this. How will I know when something I've done is ready for publication? How will I even know whether my questions are interesting enough that they would even be worth trying to answer them? On this second question, I feel somewhat validated that papers on ideas and questions that I've come up with on my own have already appeared in the literature. The first question I am less certain about, and this is what I ask my supervisor. It's subjective, he responded.

After his response, I added that it depends on whether my goal is just to get a certain number of papers in print, or whether I could actually be proud to associate myself with the papers that bear my name. This reminded me of a former graduate student from Queen's who had published a large number of papers, about 10 times as many as I have had published or accepted. He gave a presentation on some of the material from these papers at a seminar once. The results weren't very interesting. I said as much to my supervisor, and this was enough for him to be able to identify the student that I was talking about. His opinion was about the same as mine.

He then told me that this student tried to insist that the department hire him for a faculty position straight out of the Ph.D. program. He didn't get hired. In fact, no Queen's Ph.D. graduate, no matter how well qualified, would ever get hired by the department for a full time faculty position without having gone somewhere else first for. It sounds like even a post-doc somewhere else is not enough. This answers another question that a number of people have asked me. Do you think Queen's would hire you? Maybe 10 or 20 years down the road, they would, but the question is clearly being asked about the present. In that case the answer is no (though a number of students have done short post-docs, or limited term teaching positions, but in most cases I don't think this is what the questioners have in mind either).

Monday, July 30, 2007

I kept using these words. You do not think they mean what I thought they meant.

In a recent conversation, I asked a friend whether or not he had ever been to Kamloops, BC. He had. I asked how many times. Several, he said. How many is that? About four, he replied. That's not several, I said. Several to me was around seven, maybe even more. Regardless of the range of numbers that the word represented, it was a large quantity word. Usually four is a small quantity, unless you're talking about the number of sleeves on a t-shirt, in which case its far too many. Thus four could not be represented by the word several.

I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. It was on my side. One of the meanings given was "a good many". Mind you, the OED labels this usage as obsolete. If only I had lived in the period from 1695 to 1883. I would have won that argument hands down. Of course, every other meaning given, especially those that appear to be more current, agreed with him. In particular entry 4: "As a vague numeral: Of an indefinite (but not large) number exceeding two or three; more than two or three but not very many. (The chief current sense.)" Boy was I wrong.

There are a number of other uses of the word, most of which are obsolete, or else their usage is restricted to certain contexts, such as the law. Most of them are consistent with the use of the word to mean a small quantity. In some contexts, it only means more than 1, and it appears that long ago, it was almost synonymous with individual. Clearly the meaning of the word is drifting toward meaning larger and larger quantities. Be patient Randy. Sooner or later, the meaning of the word will be what you think it does now, and then you'll win the argument.

For the time being, I think I'll avoid using that word. I'd appreciate if you didn't use it around me either. I just can't fathom that it could mean something as small as four, even if that were the number of sleeves on a t-shirt.

Another word whose proper meaning I recently discovered is the word ambivalent. I don't why I happened to be looking this one up in the dictionary, though having it wrong neither won nor lost me any arguments. None that I am aware of, anyway, though perhaps I've unwittingly embarrassed myself by using it incorrectly. Ambivalence to me had a sense of apathy. Having to choose between two options, I was ambivalent if I didn't care enough about either to choose one or the other, or in the case of my attitude to one particular thing, the word was synonymous with apathetic. In the case of having to choose, however, ambivalence has the sense of caring too much, while in the case of my attitude to one particular thing, it has the sense of passionate but opposite feelings, a love/hate sort of attitude. Look it up if you want something a clearer definition.

I'll have an easier time adjusting to this discovery than I will to the proper several, though I still feel like it's best for me to avoid this one for a while too.

I had also been using the words "insofar" "inasmuch" as if they were synonymous with "as far as". They are not. Not having had a reason to use either of these in some time, I think I've taken a long enough break, and the adjustment period is over. I'll be using these words at the next possible convenience. Inasmuch as it is appropriate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

She said yes!

On Tuesday night I was doing laundry, and one of my worst fears came true. The door to the laundry room is self-locking, and I was always afraid that I would leave the key on one of the machines and then walk out. Normally I would check my pocket to make sure I had it, and every time up until but not including last night I did. Sure enough, the one time I forget to check is the one time that I forget to put it in my pocket. Of course, I didn't realize that I had done this until I was about to go back to the laundry room, when I finally decided to check my pocket and the key wasn't there. I frantically searched all over the apartment, and eventually concluded that it wasn't there.

I decided to ask the only other people on my floor if I could borrow their laundry key to see if I actually did leave mine in the laundry room. As I walked up to their apartment I could hear them chatting away, with the TV on in the background. I knocked on the door, and the chatting stopped within a few seconds. I thought perhaps they had stopped talking so that one of them could come answer the door. After about a minute, though, I was pretty sure that nobody was coming, so I left. The tile floors cause quite a bit of reverberation and make it hard to walk away quietly, even for a sneaky guy like myself. Even with the TV on, they would have heard me. I hadn't even walked past the next apartment, and already they were back to talking.

Isn't this the sort of thing that you only see on TV sitcoms? The mother-in-law with tragically annoying character flaw shows up and everyone inside wants to avoid her, so they quickly hush up, sit still, and turn off the lights, in order to make it appear that nobody is home. On TV, this usually works, though pretty much anybody watching knows that if this happened in real life, then, no matter how quickly they do all these things, the mother-in-law would already know that someone is home, and it would be too late. But I guess, in real life, that doesn't stop people from trying.

So (how) did I get my laundry back?

I had taken out the garbage earlier that night, and thought that maybe I had accidentally dropped the keys in there, so I decided to check the garbage. This proved to be fruitful. I checked the garbage, and sure enough, my keys weren't in there. However, on my way back in, somebody else was taking out her garbage. Having just moved in, and never having met me before, she smiled at me as she passed me by. Seeing as she already appeared to be more friendly than the people who I have seen at least once a week, and even held the door for on occasion, I asked her if I could borrow her laundry key.


Sure enough, the key was right there on top of the laundry machine.


Other things lost or almost lost this week:

  • My bank card. I used it to take money out at the bank on Friday. That's the last time I remember having it. I needed it on Tuesday, but couldn't find it. I cancelled it later that night, and no damage was done to my account.
  • My camera. I was at the post office on Wednesday with my camera. After I had mailed what I needed to mail, I walked away and heard someone say "Did someone forget their camera?" I still kept walking away, until one of the post office staff got my attention and asked me if it was mine.
  • My credit card. Last night I was at the Toucan. At the end of the night, I paid for my meal with my credit card. Someone offered me a ride home, so I got up to leave. Someone else at the table reminded me that the waiter hadn't come back with my credit card yet.

Not a good week.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lexical Laxity

When I was in grade 7, some kids did a little skit/presentation when a recycling program was introduced into our school. It was terribly corny, even by grade seven standards and was expectedly made fun of by at least one classmate. The teacher heard one of the students, and as punishment, he had to write out the definition of recycling a hundred times or something like that and hand it in the next. The next day, when he came to class, however, he did not have anything to hand in. Why not? He couldn't find a definition for it in the dictionary [1]. I was rather shocked by this. A word that I only learned of the day before is not in the dictionary? How could this be? The word did not seem that unusual, being composed of a common prefix and a familiar word. Thinking about it now, if I had put two and two together then, I would have realized that since they are doing a skit to introduce this new concept of recycling, then the word for that concept must itself be new. This was probably my first encounter with a word that wasn't in a currently available dictionary.

Fast forward to 2007. I recently installed the latest version of Firefox. When I did this, I was brought to a website telling me about a spell checker add-on. Since I do a lot of writing via Firefox (for example, this post), I thought it made a lot of sense to me, especially considering my weakness with spelling (see, I keep trying to apply the spelling rules that I learned in grade 1, to my disadvantage) [2]. Now when I'm typing stuff for the internet, there is a word that comes up quite a lot that the spell checker add-on identifies as an incorrect spelling. The word? internet. [3]

[1] The student was not let off by this technicality. As a class, we came up with our own definition for him to write out. (Take that Oxford!)

[2] Being a math student, you would figure that I would know how to spell the word amount. However, for the longest time, I wanted to spell it with two m's, since the m is preceded by a short vowel. A friend then told me a little trick. Think about it this way... he said. It worked. But when I tried to apply the trick to the word account, I misspelled the word. I now conclude that his little trick actually has nothing to do with my ability to spell the word properly, even if the event of being told did. Now, having learned the proper spelling of account, I tried to spell the word recommend, but, by analogy with account, I used two c's instead of one resulting in an incorrect spelling (which in turn resulted in an insult by a friend, as if to imply that I was somehow being illogical and stupid. The only illogic and stupidity that I can be accused of is trying to be logical and smart, and not just looking up the stupid word in the dictionary). So basically it comes back to that old fact that the exception is the rule in English. Or, as Brian Regan so elegantly puts it "I before e except after c, or when sounding like ay as in neighbor or weigh, and on weekends, and holidays, and all throughout May, and you'll always be wrong, no matter what you say!"

[3] To be fair to the spell checker, it does recognize the capitalized version. There is some debate as to whether it should be capitalized or not. Apparently, it has something to do with it being a proper name. The Randy disagrees.

So maybe this lets the creators off the hook. When it lists suggestions for correct spellings, however, the capitalized version of the word is not an option. This to me seems like a basic feature of a spell checker, and I'm surprised that they overlooked it. The free software that they have designed for me is clearly inferior, and I am ungrateful.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Key Evidence Obtained in Murder Case

A few weeks ago, it was particularly windy. I came home to find one of the plants on my balcony overturned. I uprighted the plant. It seemed there was less of it there than before it had been overturned, though not much less. Some plant bits must have blown off the balcony. The next day I came home to find the same thing. Only this time, it was worse, and there were almost no leaves left on the plant or anywhere else (photos here and here). The one leaf that I could find had bite marks in it. Clearly it was not the wind, and foul play was involved. I looked around. It seemed like quite a jump for a squirrel from the nearest tree branch. It could not have been one of the pigeons that attempt to alight on my balcony now and then, since they are blocked by a plastic mesh. I have seen them try, always unsuccessfully.

This morning, I awoke to the sound of rummaging in my kitchen. Which of my housemates is rummaging in the kitchen, I thought. Then I recalled that I don't have housemates. What else could it be? Whatever it was was rummaging in my food. It's the only thing I have to rummage in that would make the kinds of sounds I was hearing. Must be an animal of some kind. I started to panic a little bit because I know it can be difficult to deal with trapped animals. I walked into the hallway to see something with a bushy tail on top of my food, as I had suspected. The thing turned around. It was a squirrel. Squirrels aren't known to have the greatest memory, and I was a bit scared that it wouldn't remember how it came in. I knocked on the wall and disappeared. I wasn't sure where it went, though I couldn't hear anything anymore. I advanced into the living room and looked out the sliding glass door to see the squirrel on my balcony. To my relief, it remembered the way out. I walked up a little closer to see that something had made a squirrel sized hole in the screen door. I also found a plastic lid with fresh bite marks in it.

Impressions of the bite marks in the lid and the plant leaf have been taken. Furthermore, fingerprints at the site of the hole in the screen door have been taken and ran against AFIS. A suspect, one Mr. P. Nutbutter, has been identified, and confirmed by dental records. He has been arrested by police and charged with attempted robbery and herbicide. Investigators are still not sure how Mr. Nutbutter was able to get on the balcony. A nearby family of sparrows claimed that the pigeons were angered by the mesh, and were seen cooing with the squirrel. The pigeons are currently being interrogated.


Note: While this story has been embellished somewhat, a plant on my balcony was killed a few weeks ago, and there was a squirrel in my kitchen this morning.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

If I can do it with an incapacitated finger...

...I can blog about it with an incapacitated finger.

Sometime last summer, I ran into an acquaintance sitting on a bench in front of one of the libraries here at Queen's. He told me that his girlfriend had recently bought a small sailboat, and was looking for people to sail with. He asked me if I wanted to go sailing sometime. I was interested, though I had never been before. He told me that no experience was necessary. She would do all the hard work, and I would mostly just follow a few simple orders. Sure. Sign me up. I was told to expect a call or an email in the next few weeks. The next few weeks passed, however, and I hadn't heard anything yet. Later on, once the term started, I ran into the acquaintance at the Tim Horton's on campus and interrupted him from whatever he was busy with. It turned out that something had come up that required them to be out of town for a while. He apologized for my not being able to go sailing. It's okay, I said. Not having been before, I didn't really know what I was missing out on. I could live without knowing. Since then, I have become better friends with him than her (more due to difference in quantity time than difference in quality time), and by the end of the term, they broke up. I saw her bike down the street one time after, and, while she saw me, there was barely an acknowledgement that we might have met each other at a party we both went to at a mutual friends house. Surely, if there was ever any hope of going sailing with her up to that point, it was gone after that.

Of course, I wouldn't be telling you about this if nothing ever came of the original request to go sailing. And indeed it is not the case that nothing did. A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from her. It was clear from the beginning of the call that her apparent lack of acknowledgement was more due to the awkwardness of the situation than it was a snub or anything like that. The purpose of her call was that she wanted to know if I was still interested in sailing (surprise!). Of course. I gave her a rough idea of my schedule, and she told me that she'd call me back by the end of the week to make more definite plans. She didn't. Unlike a game of racquetball [1], say, when to go sailing depends on whether conditions. It's not really sailing if you're just floating on the water hoping desperately for even the gentlest of breezes. I figured this is what happened. Earlier this week, she finally called me back. Same routine as before, but with less awkwardness, though she called me twice when I was unable to talk.

We planned to go this morning at 8:00. There was a sailing event at the marina this weekend, so we wanted to get there early enough to avoid them. She called me at 7:30 to tell me that there was no wind, and that there was a small craft warning (it's a rather small boat, 14.5 feet in length). Within two hours, the small craft warning had been lifted, and the wind had picked up. I left my place at around 9:30. When we got there, it must have been between 10 and 10:30, and we were probably in the water by 11:00. It would have been nice if the weather conditions had permitted us to leave sooner, since we barely had time to get in the water before the young sailors launched. The two volunteers were rather rude to her when she asked if she had time to launch before all the competitors did (we would have had to wait up to an hour if we had waited for them), in distinction from the friendliness of other sailors out that day. We were nowhere near getting in anybody's way.

After a bit more mucking about to get the boat ready to sail, and an explanation of the two main manoeuvres that the crew (me) must know, we were on our way. The first of these was tacking and the second of these was hiking.

While sailing, other than at slow speeds, both of you are sitttng on one side of the boat, while the sails are opened opposite to you. At some point (many points, actually) it is necessary to switch sides. That process of switching sides is called tacking. It involves letting go of one end of a rope, grabbing on to the other end, and avoiding hitting your head on the boom (aluminum bar to which the bottom of the main sail is attached) as you switch sides. Apparently I was the first of any of her sailing partners who had to try to avoid hitting their head.

If the sailing is to be any fun at all on such small craft, you can expect there are times where the boat will capsize if you just sit happily on side of the boat (if you try this, you will no longer be happy, sitting, or on the boat). In order to avoid this you have to shift your body weight to compensate. Occasionally you have to lean in, though much more frequently, if my experience means anything, you will have to lean out. Sometimes far. This is called hiking. It's hard to do unless you're actually in a situation where you need to do it. Trial by fire (water?).

(For better more detailed explanations of these things, ask somebody who knows what they're talking about. Failing that, ask Wikipedia.)

One this stuff was explained to me, we headed out. Getting out of the marina was a bit tricky. I was able to get a lot of practice at tacking while doing this. Apparently this is unusual. Once we were out, everything was ummm... smooth sailing. Well not so much. It took me quite a while to get a hang of tacking, especially while avoiding hitting my head on the boom on my way to the other side, and sometimes it felt like I was so slow that I almost caused the boat to tip, and in such a way that hiking would not have been able to help us avoid that (see, it's hard to lean out when you're fumbling awkwardly in the middle of the boat) . It took a while to get the hang of hiking too. There's something a little frightening about extending your body as far as you can, your backside hovering completely over the water, the only thing keeping you from falling in being a strap on the floor of the boat to put your feet under and your own muscles. Once I did that a number of times, however, and figured out where the best place was to put my feet, it was fairly easy, and not so frightening. I didn't quite get the hang of getting back in after hiking, though. In fact, we ended when we did because we needed to tack while I was hiking. In the clamour of trying to get in the boat, I grabbed the rope with my left hand, and ended up putting too much stress on the injured finger. While the splint had been getting in the way the whole time, this was the first time I felt any pain. It's probably nothing, but I decided not to push it after that. All in all we were in the water for at least two hours.

All things considered (head bruises, finger pain, future muscle soreness, etc.), it was a great way to spend the morning and early afternoon. Given the opportunity to do it again, I would. Given the opportunity, so should you.

[1] Not completely true. You probably shouldn't play on days that are so hot that the university shuts down the air conditioning out of fear that the Ontario hydro grid could get overloaded and cause another blackout like what happened a few years ago.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Copper Stop

A proposal to scrap the penny. It's not the first. It probably won't be the last, as long as that crimson coin continues to circulate.

The mint itself is clearly not nearly as enthusiastic about the penny as they are about other coins. The only special reverse that it's ever had was in 1967, to commemorate Canada's centennial, and that was quite a while ago, long before the current binge.

I myself rarely use pennies. They might get tossed in with the tip on one of those rare occasions when I pay for my meal at a restaurant with cash and one comes with my change. Even then, it seems kind of rude. I feel like I'm just offloading an unwanted encumbrance. "Here. In exchange for your exquisite service, may I offer you the burden of carting around some copper discs that may be worth more in copper than their value as currency." Plus, I like nice round numbers, even when giving tips, and if I'm getting pennies with change, my bill wasn't round, so neither would be the tip. If I happen to have one or two of them in my pocket, they might get used to make giving change easier for a cashier. Otherwise they get tossed in a container with the rest of my change, unlikely ever to be used. So, while my change wouldn't be quite as colourful, from a practical standpoint, I wouldn't miss it much.

Australia gave up their penny in 1992. Our currency and theirs are often fairly close, relative to the US Dollar. If they can live without it, why should we be so attached? They also melted down the copper to make bronze medals for the 2000 Olympics. We've got some Olympics coming up here in a few years, of which we know the mint is aware. Perhaps, if our legislators get on it quickly enough, the mint can make a more sensible contribution to the Olympics.

If we actually went through with it, those evil people who run businesses could round up to the nearest nickel, thereby increasing their ill-gotten gains up to four cents (not four pennies, for they would be no longer) at a time. Certainly this could be cause for revolt! (Why revolt? Why wouldn't we just protest the legislation before it passes. One quote says it all: "I moved here from Canada, and they think I'm slow, eh?") Then again, before or during 1973, when our precious penny was worth what a nickel is now, there weren't pleas for the production of a 1/5th of a cent coin on the basis that those shady shopkeepers were rounding up to the nearest penny. In fact, that would have been absurd! So really, rounding up is immaterial.

Of course, in contrast to Australia, our penny does bear our national symbol, the maple leaf, which might make it tough to sell (or not to sell, as the case may be). Theirs only had the feathertail glider. Is that even a real animal? Probably not! Surely the coin must stay on this basis alone, even beyond the point at which the nickel has diminished in value so much as to warrant its abolishment!

According to the article, it's not like it would save the mint a mint, though. $30,000,000.00 is quite a lot for you and me, and even quite a lot for the Liberal Party of Canada to launder. But it's peanuts in comparison the national budget. So even the purportedly penny pinching party presently in power may not be persuaded on the premise of pecuniary prudence. If it is a good idea, it probably won't happen since, just like annexing the Turks and Caicos Islands, it's just not a priority.

Some other facts about pennies:

  • I have $2.12 in Canadian pennies. Or, better, I have 212 Canadian pennies. Giving them a dollar value is misleading, since I am unlikely ever to spend them (except perhaps to a copper depot in exchange for twice their face value). One of these pennies is a centennial penny, featuring the rock dove.
  • When I was in high school, one of my classmates would chase after pennies if someone rolled them down the hallway. This was discovered when some of my other classmates, having discovered already then that pennies were more or less worthless, would flick them at people. After people noticed this, they would bring bags of pennies to school for the sole purpose of throwing them down the hallway to watch my classmate chase them. It seems cruel now, but still I don't think he minded all that much. I think he really enjoyed the candy that he would purchase with his hard earned money.
  • In Canada, a penny was known as a copper. It is not surprising that a penny would be called, but it is surprising that only Canadians would call it that. But perhaps I am inferring too much from my source. I discovered this after I chose the title for this post, while looking for an archaic sounding phrase involving the terms "two bits" and "fortnight", neither of which have anything to do with copper or pennies, aside from the fact that 25 pennies, all of which contain at least some copper, are worth two bits.

Friday, July 06, 2007

This week in review

[unedited for your proofreading enjoyment]

Well the 168 hour period that began a couple hours from now last week is almost up, so I should get to posting, before it's too late and this is old news. The weekend started like any other. I was sitting at home doing nothing on a Friday night, in anticipation of doing something on a Saturday. Well, not completely nothing. I typed up an email in order to make sure I didn't show up late for Saturday's early afternoon of mayhem. Then I sat glued to my computer waiting for the reply. Actually, I don't remember what I did. Maybe I wrote another email. Who knows?

Anyway. I was told to show up at 10:30. I was planning on showing up late, but decided not to, since one of the participants is rather quite punctual, and seems to get visibly irate in the presence of minor delays which could turn out to be very inconsequential even in the short term. I had forgotten about his girlfriend, however, who isn't quite as punctual. In fact, before the early afternoon of mayhem, I hadn't met her. I showed up a minute late, and was worried that the car would have left without me. It turns out that 3 out of 5 of us weren't even there yet. Sooner or later everyone showed up and we were on our way. Three of us were jammed in the back seat of a Honda Civic, and I got stuck in the middle, which meant that my legs were squeezed tightly against each other. In a way that was a blessing, since I had consumed a large coffee in my way there.

We arrived at Sandbanks at around 12:00. We sat around for a bit, and then threw the football around, until such time is a tried to catch the football with the tip of my finger rather than the palm of my hand (well hands, I guess). I decided that throwing the football around wasn't fun anymore. My friends decided the same. What power I wield, I never knew! We sat around a bit more, absorbed some sun, and then decided to toss the frisbee around for a while. This I could do with one hand, mostly. It was rather windy, however, and after some time, I was having a difficult time getting the frisbee to go where I wanted it to (other than that, they were great shots). The person that I was playing had very good aim, though pretty much all of his throws were on the ground, and rolling sideways by the time they reached me. We decided to switch positions, and magically, we also switched errors. Moments later, we decided that playing frisbee was also boring. We sat around some more, and headed for home at about 3:00. Perhaps 15 minutes into the ride, it began to rain quite heavily, so we had picked a good time to end the mayhem.

The rest of the day was spent doing not much at all. I started a blog post, but my finger got the better of me, so I saved the draft, and haven't touched it since.

On Sunday, I went to Ottawa with an old roommate (who is from Ottawa) to celebrate Canada Day. Among the things I did to celebrate was drinking enough beer so that I could bend my finger without it hurting, and also enough that that seemed like a good idea. Other things included taking a ridiculous number of photos with my recently acquired digital camera, walking around listening to a friend of the roommate complain about what clearly appeared to him as some sort of fascism regarding the manner in which Ottawans were expected to celebrate the initialization of their country, and watching the fireworks under the watchful eye of our apparently fascist overlord's servants, the RCMP. We killed a bit of time, and eventually made it back to my roommates house. I think I lost five dollars somewhere in there.

The next day we headed back to downtown to do some touristy stuff. We had intended to go to the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, but it was closed, so we went to the Modern Photography exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada instead. Highlights of the Gallery included a giant sculpture of a spider (which was inspired by sculptor's mother. How flattering.) and a number of photographs that were similar in style and content to some of my own (not that I'm trying to draw any comparisons about my photo skills). Also amusing was the fact that taking photographs was not allowed at the photography exhibit, while it was elsewhere in the museum (not everywhere else mind you). We ate lunch, made our way back to his house, and eventually drove back to Kingston, mostly taking back roads.

On Tuesday, the swelling in my finger had gone down enough that I was getting some movement back. Accompanying that movement, however, was a clicking feeling that I'm pretty sure wasn't there last week. I decide that this warranted a visit to the doctor. She decided that it warranted a visit to the X-ray department at the local hospital, and so I spent a good part of Tuesday afternoon waiting around for X-rays. I also finally made it back into the gym.

Not much happened on Wednesday, except that I weighed myself for the first time since April, which is also the last time that I went to the gym before Tuesday. Turns out that, after all that laziness and bad eating, I actually lost weight.

Thursday, nothing really to report.

Today, while walking to school to run some errands, I ran into a Japanese friend. She didn't think much of Kingston's 10 minute Canada Day fireworks display. I told her that Ottawa's was 20 minutes. You could tell that she didn't want to hurt my feelings by telling me what she thought of that. She told me that they're usually an hour in Japan. Oh I see. Come to think of it, 20 minutes is kind of lame for a fireworks display in the nation's capital on the day which is supposed to celebrate the birth of the nation. Municipal governments can't necessarily afford to put on huge displays, but if the city of Hamilton (yes, it's my hometown, but I'm under no illusions) on it's own can afford a comparable display, then I would think the feds could have given us a whole lot more than a local government could. In any case. I had to main orders of business on campus today, both of which involved paying fines of some kind. The library's fine extraction system was malfunctioning, so I didn't pay that one. I was going to pay a fine at the doctor's office, but I decided to try dispute it instead. It was a pretty hard sell too. First off, the women didn't come across as someone who was easy to bargain with. I blamed it on a dead watch battery. I showed up for the appointment when my watch said that I was supposed to. According to their records, though, I was on time for another appointment earlier on the same day as the missed appointment. Why was the watch a factor for the second and not the first? Not only that, but the appointment was a long time ago. Why didn't I come in within a week or two to dispute it? Nevertheless, in the end, I was successful.

I returned home, and kept myself busy trying to gain some insight into an open problem from my thesis. I looked at a related paper that I had picked up quite some time ago, and realized that, even though the main result of the paper is rather complicated, parts of it are simple enough to cover almost everything in a special case of the open problem, the few things that it doesn't cover can be dealt with separately (vague enough for you?). It doesn't actually solve the open problem, though it does make another more central open problem "easier" to solve. And that's not nothing.

And, to end the excitement of the day, I got a call from the doctor's office regarding X-rays. It turns out that I fractured my finger. I've been instructed to splint the finger, or else tape it to the one beside it (or is that the same thing?) for at least 3 weeks. Currently I'm doing the latter, which means that two of my left hand fingers are pretty much useless for typing, which makes typing a bit difficult (though clearly I'm getting a lot of practice with 6 finger typing). So, until this thing fixes itself, blog posts will be short, if they happen at all. I'll save my typing energy for electronic forms of communications that are more interactive.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Where ya bin?

Too busy to blog or somethin'?

Nope. Not busy enough, really.

Funny how that works.

A couple weeks ago, my thesis made it into submissible form. Haven't done much since. Haven't submitted either, mind you. Seems we won't be doing that until the examination committee is all figured out. May as well keep it unsubmitted in case we happen to notice things that need to be changed, I suppose. Organizing the committee is proving to be quite a challenge. I'm getting the sense that this is normal. Keep that in mind for when you're on the way to finishing your Ph.D. Other than that, I haven't been up to much that's productive, except insofar as doing nothing after doing lots can be productive in its own way. I appear to have said nothing in the latter portion of that last sentence, but I think you know what I'm getting at. You've all been there before. Maybe you're even there right now. Perhaps that's why you haven't been blogging either. Haven't been up to much fun stuff lately either. I shouldn't say that. I haven't been up to much that's out of the ordinary. Hangin' out with friends here and there, when they've all got the time. That's fun. But I haven't been sailing. I did go home for a weekend. Most of you knew that already. It was sanctioned by my supervisor this time, which is nice. I bought some clothes that weekend (hat tip to the Blogless Erica). I quite like them, though I haven't had the opportunity to wear all of them. If you don't mind, could you please hold an event where a light blue short sleave shirt with cargo shorts would be appropriate. That would be great. Please remember to invite me if you do. That shirt really needs to debut with an audience. That's all I have to say for now, if indeed I've said anything at all. Hopefully soon I'll be busy enough to blog again.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


I've mentioned my love affair with grammar in the past, and how it got me through my high school English courses. I do, however, have a weakness when it comes certain types of punctuation. There were about a dozen rules for the comma that I could never get straight, and, while I would normally do quite well on grammar quizzes, I barely passed the one on the comma. I'm pretty sure that I'm consistently breaking at least one on of the comma rules in my thesis, though if I leave them out, my supervisor tells me to put them back in. At least I'm being consistent. The punctuation that mystifies me the most, however, is the semi-colon. The rules for its usage are fairly simple. It is to be used to join two sentences that are closely related, perhaps in place of a conjunction. It is also used as a sort of "super comma", used in place of a comma when the things normally separated by commas contain commas themselevs. I have rarely, if ever, seen a semi-colon used in this way. As for the first rule, I am sure that I have seen them used in this way, but any of attempts of my own to do so have been foiled by my editor. Though they appear in my thesis, none of them were put there by me.


Lament for/Ode to a semi-colon

Is there a curse on
The semi-colon?
It seems Chesterton
Is the only one
allowed to have fun
w' that punctuation

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

You're only supposed to do that on a bike!

Last night, a somewhat unusual thing happened while I was walking home. I was crossing an intersection with the light (which is unusual for Kingston pedestrian traffic). As I was crossing, a car pulled into the intersection "against" the light. The light was red for her, and she was stopped for a moment before she pulled into the intersection. I slowed my pace, hoping the presence of a pedestrian in her path would make her realize that it wasn't her turn to go yet. It didn't. She looked at me like I was confused, and once I had gotten out of her way, she just kept on going. Right now, you're probably thinking, "Randy, when the lights are flashing on the police car, you're supposed to wait for it to go." There were too many rust spots, and not enough flashing lights for this to be a police car. Also, there were too many crazy looking old ladies driving.

I've almost done it a few times myself in the past, though. But I have never even gone far enough into the intersection to get in the way of pedestrians trying to use the crosswalk (in one of those rare Kingston moments when someone can't get through the intersection before the light turns green). Usually when it happened it was when I'd been biking a lot. When I'm on my bike, as with walking, I don't often bother waiting for the light to turn green. I just wait until the cars have cleared. When I would get in my car, my cycling instincts would still be in play. The worst that happened was when I was making a left hand turn one time, and almost cut off a cyclist who was going straight. I did wait for the light to turn green though. So did the cyclist, and it was almost his downfall.

Embedding Beef

A few of the blogs that I frequent occasionally embed youtube videos on their blogs. The astute Idiot Strings regular will notice that I have never done so. This is in part due to laziness. You'll notice I don't do much hyperlinking either. Though the primary reason that I haven't embedded any youtube videos is that my experience with embedded youtube is almost invariably bad. When I watch them, they almost never load fast enough to view them in realtime. The videos seem to get downloaded in chunks, but each chunk is usually finished playing before the next one gets downloaded, making for a choppy youtube experience.

If I want to watch the video smoothly, I can either let it play through once in choppy mode, and then watch it again once it's been fully downloaded, or else get the url (which can be obtained via the menu in the embedded youtube window) and go directly to youtube and watch it there. Neither of this options are that terribly inconvenient, though it does often result in my not watching the video. Also, having to do so defeats the point of embedded youtube videos, don't you think? It ceases to be an advantage to embed a video when I the viewer has to do more work than I would have if a good old fashioned hyperlink had been used.

Does anyone else have this problem?

It's not my connection, since when I view the videos on the youtube website, the whole video downloads in seconds, and there are no problems.

Minty, Not So Fresh

When I was a kid, I was always excited to get a "horse quarter", one of
the quarters issued in 1973 to commemorate the centennial of the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police, in my change. A lesser thrill, though a thrill
nonetheless, was when I would get one of a few other coins with
something other than their usual reverse, most
of which were issued at Canada's centennial in 1967, or one of the 12
sided nickels (1942-1963). Basically anything that stuck out from the
standard issue was of interest to me.

Since 1992, however, the Royal Canadian Mint seems to have gotten a bit
carried away. In that year, they issued a set of 12 circulation coins,
one for each province or territory, to commemorate Canada's
sesquicentennial, or 125 year anniversary. I did enjoy collecting these
coins, though it seemed a bit strange to me at the time to celebrate 125
years (less strange than, say, 137 years, mind you). Perhaps the board
of the Mint concluded that Canada would cease to be an independent
country in the face of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement or the then
upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement which superseded it, and
they thought that they should celebrate an anniversary while they could.
Who knows?

They were mostly inactive until the turn of the millennium when they
issued 24 quarters, one for each month of 1999 and 2000. I'm not sure if
striking a series of coins was what Prince had in mind when he said he
was gonna party like it's 1999. I guess fun is relative though. Some of
the designs I like. Others are corny, and a few are downright hideous in
my opinion. I managed to collect them all, though I did it mainly for
the sake of completeness, and not so much because I enjoyed the designs.
It did take me at least until late 2002, and probably as late as Winter
of 2003, before I ever saw the January 1999 coin, which was the last coin
I needed to complete the set. I got two of them not too far apart from
each other, and haven't seen one since.

Nothing special was produced in 2001, but from 2002 to 2006, there were 8
different commemorative quarters introduced (not to mention the various
special pennies, nickels, and dimes, loonies, and toonies).

About a month or so ago, I received in my change yet another variety of
quarter. On taking a closer look, I saw that coin was commemorating the
2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I think this was the point where I
concluded that the Mint has become just a bit too obsessive in producing
commemorative coins (I had been on the verge of concluding this for at
least a year now). Up until this point, the coins they've issued have
celebrated anniversaries, like centennials, or else were related to
current events, like remembrance day. But this time, they've issued a
series of coins in recognition of something that's happening 3 years from
now, and really isn't all that special in comparison (recognizing those
who served and died in various wars, finding a cure for breast cancer,
vs. an amateur athletic competition). Now if a series of coins is to be
produced before the actual year of the event, then I suppose that this is
the year to do it. Last year was too soon after the 2006 Winter
Olympics. If they were introduced next year, they would interfere with
the 2008 Summer Olympics, and I'm sure that they've got something planned
for that too. 2009, only one year before, is not soon enough. So 2007
would be the year, if any, to issue the coins. But I just don't get why
they thought it necessary to introduce a series of coins in advance of
the games at all. I know that they're going to be in Canada this time,
but, as entertaining as they are and as cool as that is, they're not that
important in the grand scheme of things. Adding the small logo for the
Vancouver Olympics to the regular circulation coins is enough. Strike
the usual Olympic loony that gets issued during the games, and put out
the funky quarters at the same time as that.

I shouldn't be too hard on the Mint, though. I'm just as obsessive about
collecting the coins as they are about making them, and these will be no