Saturday, May 27, 2006

Super Mario sucks


No, I think this is a very cool hack. Who would come up with this thing? What was the original idea, or the original "need" that made him do it? Boredom and too much free time? Anyway, great stuff, I'm eagerly awaiting the Roomba-orchestra!

I'm glad it's finally sorted

I can go to sleep now.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Almost there!

This is painfully true... :-)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Monsters Inc.

They did it! As BBC put it, "Lordi came. They rocked. They conquered."

The first ever victory for Finland in the Eurovision Song Contest, and it was a sweeeet one. It's so easy to be cynical about the ESC; how the music is so bad, the performances so cheesy, how it repeats itself year after year and is just a waste of time and money. In one word, it's Eurotrash.

What these cynics forget, is that ESC is entertainment and a bit of tongue-in-a-cheek fun. It has immense camp-value for exactly the above-mentioned reason: the songs and performances are cheesy. We like to hear the mock-ABBA -tunes, the johnnylogan-esque power ballads, the freak shows and hare-brained entries from "weird" countries. We like the fact that the show follows a clear formula, and that we can mock the frocks and laugh at the jerky dance moves and banal choruses.

This doesn't mean it's all a joke. No, you have to take it seriously enough, but not be serious about it. It's about entertainment and putting on a show people can enjoy. Lordi did just that. For too long the Finnish ESC-establishment has had a false idea that it's about the tune. But, ESC is not a competition for composers, it's a competition for performers. And the Finnish acts before this year have been bland, boring, and insignificant. Some of them might be good artists, some of the songs have deserved better than the 3 points they got, but now for the first time we sent a full, proper show.

To win the ESC you need to grab the attention of the masses, make yourself known.
Finns are usually not very good at that, but this time the show was so strong that they didn't need to push themselves - the media was after them. Rather than trying to do it with sex, they did it with fire and a hell of a stage show.

Undoubtedly there will be copycats. But as much as people like the repeating formula of ESC, they like uniqueness, and the more outrageous your idea, the more likely it is to work only once.

Just like any entertainment, ESC can be seen as more than it is, a symbol for - well, many things. For example, for the Estonians and the Ukrainians, winning the ESC was about belonging in Europe, being accepted as a nation after decades behind the iron curtain. While that's a bit grand, it seems that the ESC has often been seen as a force that brings Europe together, promoting understanding and plurality. The freaks and weirdos have been knocking on the doors of Europe and the Europe has welcomed them in. Odd countries, strange LBGT-types and Nordic monsters, all in harmony with the pretty boys and girls in white suits and their good old three chords.

(cynical post scriptum: I wonder how valuable the ESC victory will turn out to be for Lordi commercially...)

Edit: The Eurovision website has a nice interview of Mr Lordi that ends in a typical way: a quote from Mr Lordi: "‘Kitos’ means ‘bye-bye’ in Finnish.” ESC replies: "Kitos, Mr. Lordi."


Thursday, May 18, 2006

High horses

This must be a world record in hypocrisy and double standards. Fox News "debating" with the Westboro babtist church (yes, the ones who hate Sweden for being gay-friendly etc.) representative about whose side God is on in the Iraq war and what he wants etc. It's either hilarious or appalling, depending on your point of view. No, I couldn't watch all of it either - 15 seconds is my personal record of continuous Fox News watching in general. Scary thing, I almost started to agree with the Westboro nutcase.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Just a bicycle

They say Cambridge is a city of cyclists. At least it seems to be full of them and they are the only sane mode of transport that can get you to places in the town centre. It might not be the city FOR cyclists, however. The facilities for cyclists - well, I've seen worse but I've seen better. There are good bicycle lanes here and there, there is access to the historic city centre (that is closed from cars other than buses and taxis) and there are places you can leave the bike while shopping, at lectures etc.

On the other hand, many cycle lanes are shared with the buses, who don't give a damn about cyclists, the city centre is so full of tourists walking here and there on the roads that you can't really cycle through the centre without killing a few of them every time, and there are not nearly enough parking places for cycles in the centre.

So, some good, some bad. I'd still rather cycle in Cambridge than drive a car in Cambridge. But that brings me to the issue that has annoyed me a lot lately. The behaviour of car drivers, and the utter disregard of cyclists. When turning across the lane, pulling over for parking, making a u-turn or doing anything else similar, any driver would first need to make sure the road is clear for them to do the manoeuvre. And for 95% of the drivers, the road is clear if there are no cars. For the rest 5%, the road is clear if there are no cars larger than the one they are driving. No one gives a fiddle about cyclists.

Today I almost crashed to a car that was coming towards me on the opposite lane, but just in front of me changed to my lane, stopped, and started to pocket park to the parking space on my side of the road. She would have left any car to go first before doing this, but since I was just a cycle...

Cyclists are better off crossing roads with pedestrian greens rather than waiting for the car signal to go green, since the cars turning right across your lane will not look, stop or wait for you to cross the road first, they are cars and can comfortably mow a few cyclists down without blinking an eye.

Sitting in the inevitable queue in the car is a skill as well. Most people already know to stay in the middle of the lane or closer to the centre line, so that cyclists can pass from the left, between the sidewalk and the cars. Some people don't. Some people will move to that space without looking, possibly to give more space (a lane and a half) to the oncoming vehicle and to save their precious wingmirrors from scratching. I will personally thrash the other mirror of the next idiot who does that, since I'm getting rather pissed off with these I-can-only-see-it-if-it-weighs-two-tons-and-has-four-wheels -bimbos.

BTW, how come so many crazy people still cycle without helmets?


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Another talk

I gave a talk in my college last week. With my parents and girlfriend in the audience, I was feeling a bit more giddy than normally, also because this was the first "popularisation" lecture I've given. On the other hand, since the theme was more general than my own work (actually, I didn't talk about my own work at all), I found it easier. It was easier to truncate things, leave irrelevant or uninteresting stuff out, just surf on the waves of anecdotes, and in general, just have fun with it rather than worry and frown over the academic validity and complexity of the issues.

Other than being half an hour late, then failing to get the data projector to work, and having to cut the talk a bit short as a result, I think it went OK!

It was a bit hilarious, actually, I was sure it was supposed to start at 6, and at 5.30 a friend of mine calls and asks whether I was planning to attend my talk: they all were there at 5.30... Luckily they had some wine and crisps to keep themselves content. The data projector just refused to power up, I suppose a fuse had blown somewhere, but since he projector was permanently fixed to a high ceiling, there was no way to even reach it properly, not to mention repair it or change the cord or anything. So, I had to just speak, try to explain things without the help of graphs and figures, and try to keep the audience entertained without the help of the funny stuff and visual jokes I had put in the slides.

It was a positive experience, and the dinner afterwards very nice.

Google Notebook

In their quest to organise ALL the information in the world, Google (and other companies involved in the search-business) are doing great services to scientists and students, who often spend most of their time trying to find and organise information. And often, the crucial info turns up too late: as the article or thesis is being submitted, a random search produces hits of previous research that should be referred to. In the worst case, the stuff you find last minute demonstrate your approach wrong or second-grade, or at least not as innovative and unique you thought it to be. Nobody likes to make major changes last minute (or after), and while everyone is aware that there is no way they can find all the relevant information, researchers like to think they've got the major parts.

Google entered the "academic market" with their Google Scholar, a search engine that searches databases of scientific publications, providing links to abstracts and full-texts (which you of course can access only if your institution has the subscription to the services it links to). Google Scholar saves time, as it searches several sources at the same time. It still has a bit to go in terms of integrating the search results to a form where they can be manipulated and downloaded to citation managers, but it's great in finding what there is.

Google Books has been in the centre of a debate over digital copyrights, as have been other similar initiatives to digitise books and publish them in searchable form in the net. In spite of its limitations, I've found this service useful for the purpose of quickly checking the reference or quote I vaguely recall, and verifying the "correctness" of other people's quotes, especially if I think they are being misquoted or quoted out of context.

Now another product hits the campuses, and why not homes as well. Google Notebook. It's a beta-version, i.e. not a finished product but a test version, which in Google lingo means it is available through "Google Labs". (Actually, Google Scholar and Google Books are also beta versions, although they've been around for longer). You download a little item to your toolbar (for those using Firefox, as you all should, it's just another extension that shows up as a icon in your browser bottom bar) and you are ready to go. While you browse the net, you can highlight stuff and by clicking "add" in your notebook toolbar, add that text, picture and the link of the source to a notebook for later use.

This is brilliant, and I've unknowingly wanted one of these for long. I've done my explorations by arduously copying stuff from browser to TextPad or Word, with the result that some text is huge, some tiny, and all tables look skewed and corrupt. And then I often have to copy the links separately, and of course I can't be bothered with the pictures. Naturally, the Google notebooks that users have made public are searchable by everyone, and your private notebooks are searchable by you. Good stuff, having just downloaded this thing makes me feel I accomplished something worthwhile today! :-)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


If baby buggies are large in the UK, everything is larger in the US. Even the pensioners. Rather than being the tiny shrinked-down grey-haired grannies and old-timers with their cuppas and teacakes, the US third-age population, at least in southern Florida, seems to be well-tanned, blue-haired and wide, gulping down huge lattes and carrot cakes the size of Wales.

And they tend to be very demanding and unapologetic, it seems. They want service, know how to demand it, have the green to pay for it and are stopping for no-one in their pursuit to get it. Including other guests or customers. That's what I heard from the local graduate students, who have the pleasure/pain of doing academic work in what is basically a beach resort. Florida Atlantic University's modern campus is in Boca Raton. Relatively unimpressive and unidentifiable architecture, surrounded by huge parking lots and a lot of nothing, it probably provides very nice functional facilities for higher learning and research, but doesn't really impress you like some campuses do.

Cambridge is a tourist attraction as well, but unfortunately we don't have the beaches or the sun. But, we don't get the type of tourists beach resorts usually get, which is a good thing. One-all score, I suppose. All in all, even though the trip was nice, the morning swims in the Atlantic really great, I'm glad to be back home. It all seems a bit more real and genuine. I'm sure it's just in my head.

It's not just the SUV's...

It's not only the SUV's and other gas-guzzlers that are getting bigger. The baby buggies are going through the same thing. Just saw a mother trying to push the baby in a pushchair through a crowded cafe. The pram had all-terrain wheels and the same aggressive look we're used to seeing in the Humvees and other Chelsea tractors. Also, the modern muscle-buggies seem to be loaded with similar useless extras as their motored counterparts: cupholders, storagespaces, disc brakes, suspension systems and cooling/warming units.

I guess having huge cars means that you don't need to worry about how to transport the buggy, so you can boost the size of both. In this case, both the baby and the pusher seemed to be size XL as well, so perhaps I just landed to a strange Swiftian parallel reality.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Certainty and scientific method

This brilliant article on certainty takes me to a topic I've long wanted to address in this blog, as it's one of those issues that every scientist deals with every day, and which at the same time seems to be the most difficult to convey to the "general public".

Won't write more now, as there's too much work to do at the moment (I'm off to Florida for a workshop in two days, and it's +35 degrees there!!), but perhaps the necessary evil of transatlantic travel, the endless hours in airports and jumbo jets will produce the next post on these topics.

Meanwhile, think why Woo Suk Hwang wanted to make up research results, and why he didn't get away with it, and why a seemingly "proper" British scientists come up with formulae for perfect toast, most depressing day of the year, or perfect ways to dunk bisquits to their tea? And in return I promise to think why I didn't feel guilty for passing my opinions and impressions as scientifical results to a TV crew last week.