Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Faux-pas of the hilarious kind

"This is not what is known as an SPH calculation. This is a real hydrodynamical system."

And with that single sentence from our colloquium speaker today, my week was made.

For those who through incomprehensible reasons have not been reading my thesis as their bedtime story book, 'SPH' and 'AMR' are two rival techniques for simulating gas in astrophysics. The first represents the gas as a series of particles while the second maps it onto a grid. Because these implementations are extremely different and the computer codes large and cumbersome, most people learn only one technique and remain fiercely loyal to it throughout their careers. Yours truly is, as you might have guessed, an AMR grid coder or, as so beautifully put above, the coder of 'real hydrodynamical systems'. (^____^)

Okay, I admit, the guy misspoke and meant 'semi-analytic' (a technique in which a recipe for a process like galaxy formation is used, rather than following the actual event in the simulation) not 'SPH' but we all know it was a Freudian slip.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

RE: Your mail

No one likes replying to distressing emails. If someone has said something to upset you, why on earth would you want to write back? Still, it in an inevitable fact that we all need to deal with such events from time to time. This morning, I had the misfortune of receiving two such missives. The first was linked to my research, the second to my role playing game. The amazing point was that I realised my answer to both parties was essentially the same.

Being able to link a message regarding simulations of galactic evolution with one concerning your alter-ego as a teenage Japanese boy is not something that can be achieved every day. It is therefore with some pride that I present the following delete-as-appropriate response:

Dear ex-advisor / RP moderator,

After giving your email detailed consideration today, I have reached the unfortunate opinion that you are quite mad. Your request that I re-run all my simulations / stop dead a plotline after months of work is excessively unreasonable. Your justifications for wishing this to occur do not make any sense since no one else believes this change will make a difference / this plot line does not involve your characters. Additionally, the work is all done / characters are controlled by me, not you and you do not have the right to interfere with no consideration to the effort I have put in or my views.

I would be more inclined to heed your opinions if this was a single occurrence. The fact remains, however, that I have spent a huge amount of time compromising and altering the wording in the paper / character events to please you, despite the fact you will not do the same in return.

Given I am first author / the mun of these characters, I think your insistence that such minor topics are corrected by me, at huge personal expense in terms of time and energy, is both selfish and upsetting. I should like to remind you that this is not my main priority and that it is supposed to be science / fun.

I do not wish to not publish the paper / quit the game, since I think there are many aspects that are extremely good about it. However, I will not be bullied.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Finger prints

It transpires there are times when twitter's 140 characters are just not enough to get across what I want to say. Actually, that is perhaps a lie since my friend and I managed to thrash out the premise of our argument in about 6 tweets. Personally, I feel this opens the door to how Prime Minister's Question time might be improved if Gorden Brown and David Cameron had to conduct it via an iphone. Is there an app for that yet?

But I digress...

The subject of our debate was the use of fingerprint scanners in school cafeterias as mentioned in the children's news website here. (Why yes, this is where I get my news from. DON'T YOU JUDGE ME!).

Like the concept of national ID cards, such plans tend to open up a can of worms regarding an individual's privacy and even more where a minor is concerned. Words such as 'disgusting' and 'appalling' are banded around before being thrown on placards and taken to the streets. The question I am pondering (and it is a genuine ponder, I have yet to decorate a sign) is what exactly our enthusiastic protesters really object to.

On the plus side for the above mentioned scheme, paying for school dinners via finger prints would remove the need for children to carry money, prevent loss of meal cards and speed up the lunch queue. The first would hopefully save Mum and Dad the trial of finding the required change in the morning and prevent kids being bullied out of the cash everyone knows they are carrying. The downside seems to be a more certain way of identifying the child. Yet, is not the sproglet registered at the school by their name? They had better be, since it's a legal requirement to attend until the age of 16. The record of the finger print will doubtless be held for as long or as short a time as school records have always been held.

The same argument holds for national ID cards. Perhaps there is a point for not making them compulsory, but do not most of us hold passports? Are our wallets not filled with driving licenses, credit cards and other forms of identification that we use regularly for exactly that purpose? Why do we feel better about a system in which a photograph identifies us instead of our biometric data?

I conclude that people prefer a world in which fraud can exist. If they feel that they could, in principal, fake their passport, move to Texas and run for President they feel more free. On the other hand, when they can't get a car loan because some bastard stole their credit card and eloped with an Elvis impersonator to Vegas they get pissed, if only because they didn't think of that first. I like the idea that I could cut all ties and sail off to Fiji any time I desired as much as anybody, but if you want passport you can't do this without breaking a truck load of laws and I doubt any of us are prepared to give up what identity security we do have in order to make that procedure easier.

Even without the finger print scans that US border control diligently collect, if the Government wanted to track me they have school records, college exam results, job contracts, credit card purchases and tax filings (note to self: do these soon). The only addition my finger prints would make is to add a level of assurance that the data was accurate. But then, one of my most recent papers was entitled "A test suite for quantitative comparison of hydrodynamic codes in astrophysics". No one makes up shit like that.

Perhaps the point is; since we choose to operate as a society, it's too late for this argument.

That all said, if anyone is still concerned about the use of such a system for school kids, I would like to reiterate the assurances of Bethany, aged 12 from York:

"In my old school we tried using finger print scanning in the library - it never worked because people's hands were so dirty!"

Monday, March 8, 2010


I went skiing and found an Ewok village. This picture totally isn't doing it justice because I only had my phone camera with me, BUT! There were ramps, and ledges and tunnels all up in the trees.

Ewoks I tell you.

Or maybe a tree top trekking course, but I prefer to think it was ewoks.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Funny business

At the corner of my street is an artsy coffee shop that google revealed to be a front for the more dubious business of comedy shows. (There might possibly have been a sign outside too, but I never believed it until I saw it on the internet.) In particular, they have a small improv. comedy group which does a beginner's workshop on Mondays and a "workshow" on Wednesdays. The latter consists of more experienced performers practicing in front of an audience who pay the princely sum of $2 with the understanding that they might (read 'will') be used as guinea pigs.

This week I went along to the workshow where audience participation became required for the skit entitled "a day in the life...". In this scene, an innocent bystander is called to the stage and asked questions about their typical day after which a ... uh ... 'interpretation' of what they've said is reenacted by the troop.

The best part about this was that I was called up second. This meant I had the first run to consider in detail what I would say if I was pounced on chosen next:

Comedian: "So, what is it you do for a job?"

Me: "I build galaxies in my computer."

Comedian: "...."

And just like that, 7 years of research became entirely worth it.

Comedian: "I ... see. Do they look like any galaxy in particular?"

Me: "No, I try and avoid that since if they were to match actual galaxies, my job would be done and I'd have to find something new to research."

Comedian: "Right... Well .... what else do you do when you're not at work?"

Me: "I make up totally random stories to tell comedians on Wednesday nights."

Comedian: D:

Ticket to an improv. comedy show: $2. Turning the tables when you're hauled up on stage: Priceless.

I have to say, the resulting skit was admirable! I particularly enjoyed the person who represented the (failing) three-dimensional models on my computer. I was, however, totally outdone by the next people to be chosen. The comedian walked up to a group of three teenagers sitting together and asked the two that were sitting closest:

Comedian: Are you on a date?

Boy: Yes

Girl: No

At that point, the instructor froze the scene to point out that this was what was known as a gold mine and clearly both of the teenagers had to be brought to the stage.

Comedian (to boy): So why do you think it's a date?

Boy: Well, she asked me.

Comedian (turns to girl): Why don't you think this is a date?

Girl: Because I asked him (points to third member of their party still in the audience) as well.

After the show I was invited to dinner, which was largely a lure to try and find out whether anything I'd said on stage was true. We went to a Chinese restaurant where I got enough food for two dinners for $10. Not funny. Not ironic. Just tasty.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Soft heads?

A noticeable difference between downhill skiing in Canada and when I last went in France (admittedly 7 years ago) is the donning of helmets. Not just the kids but the adults too. I would estimate well over 50% of the skiers were wearing hard hats and they were also available to rent, along with the usual skis, boots and poles.

It's perhaps likely that this difference between the sides of the Atlantic is a product of the over-safety conscious north America. Although, one cannot rule out the over-fashion conscious French or it being a resort-specific phenomenon due to the vindictive nature of the ski lifts. Not that I am saying it is an idea without sense; in Alpine skiing the risk isn't so much your own skill, it is the buffoon who is barrelling down from above you. I particularly dislike snowboarders period since they tend to go down straight whereas skiers traverse the piste. They also have less control and frankly, they pose too much in their cooler outfits. I vaguely remember attempting to take them out in Europe with my ski poles.

As for a helmet, I was so taken aback by the question at the rental desk I said no. Evidently, I am all about fashion. I stuck with my tuque.