Monday, July 21, 2008

Hamilton Island

Well I made it to my conference at Hamilton Island in Australia. Too bad I can't say the same about my luggage, but the Qantas website allows me to track its progress. If it is to be believed, then my bag has arrived at the airport and is almost here. Fortunately, my need for my swimwear has been put on hiatus as the rain comes pouring down. You have to take the good with the bad with these tropical locations.

Even in the rain, the view of the bay is fantastic, and according to the weather people it should be clearing up shortly, so I'll keep my fingers crossed (especially since the conference has planned "beach activities" for early this afternoon.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

To Australia

Well, I'm beginning my flight out to Australia in six hours, and I've finally let myself experience that "I'm about to see a new place" thrill. Much of this week (like it usually is for me before traveling) was the whir of trying to get a list of things accomplished before leaving, so I haven't had time to contemplate the actual trip much.

The poster for the conference I'm attending (ISBA 2008) was job one of course, but also this week I finished off a paper I've been working on for the last three months, and hopefully have completed the data work for another.

I'm also flying in a foreign country for the first time, which brings along with it its own set of challenges. Domestic and International flights have different restrictions on carry-on and checked luggage, and Qantas has different size levels than US airlines do. I bought a new piece of luggage, the Eagle Creek Tarmac 25, to meet their restrictions. I've only had it a few days, but I already love it. I'd long been a user of Eagle Creek's "pack-it" system of containers. They are expensive, but very helpful in organizing different types of clothes, and I've been collecting them since graduate school so I have quite a few.

The pack-it system works with any suitcase, but the Tarmac was designed with the system in mind. Which means that pockets are exactly the right size to hold their "cubes", and there isn't an inch (or cm in Australia) of wasted space. It is very nice, and even staring at it now I find it hard to believe that I was able to fit so much into a suitcase that nominally is much smaller than my old one. And it handles well--at least on carpet in my apartment. Definitely my new favorite suitcase for now.

So now I'm just doing the last minute things that I do when I find myself with a few extra hours before a flight. Checking my DVR so see if I can clear anything recorded for more space; updating the playlists on my mp3 player; throwing out the perishables in my refrigerator. I know--most people do that even when they aren't leaving for three weeks.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who is the Mole?

I find The Mole to be one of the more interesting reality shows. Overshadowing the poor editing and low production values, they have a hook that keeps interest high: one of the players is covertly working against the other players as they try to complete tasks to earn prize money. That player is The Mole.

Since Week 2, my bet for The Mole is Paul, a utility worker from New York. Each week, all the contestants are given a quiz about which player is The Mole, the player with the fewest correct answers is eliminated. So not only is The Mole sabotaging the other players, but all of the other players are also occasionally sabotaging other players in order to get other players to think that they are the mole. Fun!

So what is a viewer to do? Watch for sabotage that does not look like sabotage to the other players. Paul did such a thing in the second week, and again this last Monday which is why I'd bet there is a 70% chance that he is the mole.

Here's what he did. In the competition where half the players tried to solve multiple choice brain teasers while the other half of the team ran to find wine bottles whose location was given by latitude and longitude for the correct answer. There were 7 brain teasers.

Now, Paul had to volunteer twice: once to be on the brain teaser team, and a second time to be the member of the team responsible for communicating the answers of the brain teasers to the team running and looking for the wine bottles. So he put himself into the position he needed to be.

The brain teasers were pretty easy--the brain team got the first 6 correct and only missed the seventh. Here's the fun part. Paul skipped questions 4, 5, and 6 and sent the running team to question 7. Why would he do that unless he knew that the answer to question 7 was the only wrong one? Moreover, at that point none of the brain teaser team knew that the answer was wrong. If Paul knew the answer was wrong and he wanted the money he should have sent the runners there last. If Paul was trying to delay the runners, then because he couldn't tell the others that he knew the answer was wrong (by the rules of that competition), making it was sabotage that couldn't be traced back to Paul. Sabotage that can't be blamed on a person only benefits one player: The Mole.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The poster is done!

This Saturday I leave for Australia and the 9th world meeting of the International Society for Bayesian Analysis (ISBA). I didn't quite make the deadline for a paper submission (only missed it by three months) but did get a poster ready in time for the conference.

This is joint work with Robert Wolpert, and for this poster I wanted to get things right graphically as well as mathematically. Previously, I would just write a regular talk and print it out, putting it up page by page on the provided mounts. But nowadays that seems hopelessly retro, and so I wanted to create a single sheet poster that would do our work proud.

The result can be seen here. My goals: don't overwhelm the reader with details. I'll be at the poster able to answer questions and give details if necessary. Put enough graphs and pictures in to pique the interest, but also have enough text that the reader can get an overview if they are just browsing. And finally, as Robert told me: make sure there's some red in there. People stop and look when they see red.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Web Pages 'R Us

I finished my redesign of my web page today. Knowing that I will be applying for positions in the fall, I of course want to put forth a competent, professional looking website to represent myself. The latest incarnation of my website was also a few years old, and standards have changed.

First to change was the background. Most sites nowadays have settled on black text on a white background. See for example ABC News, Amazon, or the NY Times. Google is the ultimate example: simplicity and austerity to begin, followed by a more complex page of returned results.

I did not want to match the one item basic nature of Google, however. I am a person, and I like to think that I am slightly more complex than a search engine. So I left in the six buttons that were originally on my site, and added three more buttons. I renamed "Documents" to "Newsletters" since that's all that was there, and added extra buttons to directly take viewers to my publications and computer code.

Below the buttons I added written links, which I had never done before. This is absolutely necessary for anyone using text-to-speech software or other accessibility aids who might be using my site, or someone who works faster with the keyboard than the mouse.

I have also switched over to using CSS style sheets. Hopefully, this will help me keep the look of the site closer to uniform over the subpages, and make updating the site easier in the future.

Another difference since I designed the page is bandwidth. I am now assuming that users are operating at least at DSL speeds for access. So I replaced the one smaller picture of myself with three larger pictures.

My web page is my virtual front to the world. For me, maintaining my web page is more fun than mowing a lawn or cleaning gutters, and the improvement tools are definitely cheaper than a trip to Home Depot.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The unexamined life

I saw Wanted last night, and it was much better than I expected it to be. It is rare for a trailer to able to show the soul of a movie, and in this case the producers did not even try. The trailer for Wanted is the standard collage of action scenes and one-liners that could have come from any summer movie of the last ten years.

What sets Wanted apart from your run of the mill action flick is the frame: a sci-fi conceit (that there are people born with the ability to move and react so much faster than the average human) wrapped inside of a fantasy motif (that there is an external force--here called fate--that can communicate with our reality). The central question faced by the hero is: Who am I? What shoudl I be? These are questions I've thought about quite a bit recently.

I will be changing jobs in fall of 2009 when my current contract expires, and naturally this has led me to ask myself: Who am I and what do I want? There is the immediate question of where I want to head next in my career. Do I want to emphasize my teaching, my research? Or move in a third direction? Towards money? Towards a family? Who am I? What do I want?

In Wanted, the choice was made far easier for the hero since Angelina Jolie was willing to act as his guide towards a new life. Most of us have to make our own way without an archetype of sexuality looking over our shoulders. Still, I thank my personal fate that I live in a time and place where I can ask these questions, and take action on whatever I decide the answers to be.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Nothing like ionized air

It's summer in North Carolina, which means that the thunderstorms are blowing through daily.

Tonight I found myself outside the Southpoint Cinemas as a few light sprinkles were coming down. Little did I know that it would move from "sprinkles" to "solid sheets of rain" in about thirty seconds. I've never been down there while it was storming this badly before. The wind was more than strong enough to bend the jets of the fountain about fifteen feet, adding that extra bit of splash to what was already a downpour. Between that and the lightening that could be seen to the south, it was quite a show.

It only lasted about half an hour. Later on the radio said that the storm was blowing through at about 45 miles per hour, so no surprise that it was over so fast. Hurricane winds start at 75 mph and go up to over 150 mph. I think I could live a full life without ever going through that.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Festival for the Eno, Part II

Went back to the Festival for the Eno. Saw several more great bands, but two stood out today.

Fiddlefoxx is composed of a fiddler, a guitar player, and a beatboxer. This combination gives a unique sound that they really take advantage of on both new songs and old favorites.

Midtown Dickens throws technique out the window, bouncing from instrument to instrument and style to style in a kind of inspired chaos. Their set was infectiously joyful, full of starts and stops and random errors that seemed somehow to fit the music rather than interrupt it. The list of instruments they play, and each song seemed to be played using a different combination.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Festival for the Eno

I attended the Festival for the Eno today, an annual crafts and music fair (country, gospel, bluegrass, folk for the most part) held in Durham to raise funds for the preservation of the Eno River watershed. While some acts return, there is enormous turnover and it is a three day concert where most performers are only there for one day. This means that every time I've gone I see plenty of new acts and groups, usually varying sharply in quality.

This year I was lucky to see several acts for the first time that were very good. Peter Siegel, Jamie Anderson and the Broad Street Band, and Girlyman were among the standouts.

The one that rose to the top for me this year was Ellis. Lyrics that would have seemed incredibly cloying coming from a cynic like me fit perfectly with her high spirited performance. She really connected with her audience, letting her natural enthusiasm for music and world shine through, and that in turn excited all of us. It was a standout performance, easily the best I've seen over the few years that I've attended the Festival.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The power of choice

So I popped in the Blu-Ray version of "I Am Legend" and there is was before me: a choice. Theatrical version, or Alternate version.

Looking back on my life, I can really only pinpoint four or five choices that I made that had any long term impact on my life. Before I was 18 of course, my parents made the big decisions about where to live, what religion to embrace, and when to get up. But then the ball was in my court: where should I go to college, what to major in once I was there, where to go to graduate school, which postdoc to accept, whether to accept a position at Duke or Miami. Each of these decisions was mine to make and had a long term impact on my life. The other things, even long term friendships, long term research collaborations, etcetera, were to be honest external in nature; products of fortune and circumstance rather than in my active control.

Of course, what version of "I Am Legend" to watch will (I guess) not be of long term import to my life. But it was still a decision. Like life, you only watch a movie for the first time once, and how you view that movie will be most strongly influenced by the initial version. I could not go back and unwatch the first version before seeing the second, and so had to pick.

In the end, I found the version I did watch first more satisfying than the other.