Archive for January, 2007

Exploration below Columbia University

Having submitted my ACL paper, I’m staying home for a couple of days to get rid of my cold properly. This allows me to websurf as much as I want and consider it relaxing and productive for my healing process, rather than mere procrastination.
One rather nifty thing I just discovered is a series of articles in the Bwog, the official weblog of Columbia’s undergraduate student magazine. They have been exploring the underground tunnels below campus (Part 1, Part 2) and posted pictures. This is quite neat, because one of the buildings above the tunnels they report on is actually the one with my office in it, and I have been in (the most harmless areas of) some of the tunnels they mention. I had no idea they stored uranium there and there were the remains of old railway tracks to discover.

Free food

I’ve been sort of stressed in the past days because I want to submit a paper to ACL. The deadline is Tuesday afternoon next week, and until two days ago, I did not have an implementation of the system that the paper is about.

However, today was a pretty good day. Part of this is that I’ve made good progress with the writing. But on top of that, just when I was kind of getting bored and unhappy with the paper and also getting hungry, I discovered some leftovers from a project meeting in the pretentiously named “lounge” of our floor:

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Isn’t it pretty? See, one of the things that I really like about American universities as opposed to German ones is that free food is readily available, and although I did not undergo the rigorous training that makes American-schooled graduate students extra sensitive to free food, I’m not going to pass up an opportunity like this if it comes up and licks my face. Yay for Columbia. (However, there have been rather frequent reports recently about mice settling down in the CS offices here, and I can only begin to imagine how a mouse must react to a table full of yummy food like this …)


In other news, I am as excited about the Apple iPhone that was announced on Tuesday. It’s teh shiny, and it seems to me that Apple has managed to make the programs that should work together smoothly work together smoothly.

But still, the phone is not what I had hoped for. What’s the point in making it run a mobile OS X if you can’t write your own applications? Why do I want wireless on a mobile phone if I can’t use it for Skype or something similar? Is it really necessary to lock me into a single possible carrier (Cingular), which happens not to provide a sufficiently strong signal in my apartment? And if it’s supposed to be a computing platform and not just a dumb but portable extension of my PC (which was Palm’s classical philosophy), why don’t I get the chance to attach peripherals? It would be so cool to have a USB port in the iPhone that I could use to attach a keyboard or an external hard drive or stuff like that. Don’t tell me that this would raise the power consumption by all that much.

But really, I am annoyed at Apple for claiming to know what’s best for me. The iPod was a masterstroke, because it did one thing and it did it well. The iPhone is a more ambitious thing, and at this point I don’t see how I would spend $500 for a mobile web browser with a two-year contract (considering that I already have a phone and an MP3 player, and it really isn’t that important to me to have them inside the same device). It is applications that define the true value of a computing platform; I would be less excited about OS X if it didn’t have things like OmniGraffle and Quicksilver and Parallels and Delicious Library and the Unix command-line tools and everything that I can imagine to need, and considering that the phone probably won’t have any of these, it’s really not so interesting to me.

Shape note singing

I have seen quite a number of strange events since arriving in New York, including such gems as Reverend Jen’s Anti-Slam and Nerd Nite. But tonight’s performance of The Subliminal History of New York State, Part 1 takes the cake of the weirdest thing yet.

So, remember when I mentioned that Roosevelt Island — the island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens — has a really colourful history involving the crumbling smallpox hospital and a mental hospital that has now been rebuilt into a luxury apartment complex? Well, there’s a woman called Carrie Dashow who made a sort of, um, art or something about it. Her point is that Roosevelt Island is really a sea monster that eats dogs and wants to break free and swim up the Hudson River, except that the people built the Queensborough Bridge across it to tie it down and installed the pneumatic AVAC underground trash disposal system (this is actually true) to avoid feeding the monster with trash.

I hesitate to say what kind of art it was, because it involved Carrie reading from her book, showing pictures on really old-school slides as well as hand-made signs that the audience had to read aloud, distributing little props like toy plates and cutlery, and shape-note singing of some of Carrie’s poems, composed and arranged by a guy called Jesse who was also present. Shape-note singing sounds like a fun idea initially because everyone basically sightreads the music, and so I thought perhaps I could pick up some more mad singing skillz. But, oh. The music and arrangements sounded rather antiquated and not that exciting — apparently shape note singers don’t like thirds –, but actually this was quite appropriate for the sea monster theme. It was the style of singing that really bothered me. Some experienced shape note singers complained in passing about the “pitch police”; I can only assume that this denotes people who actually care about precise intonation and aren’t satisfied with the feeling of community that comes from singing together. I suppose it’s important that people like the guy who started all his notes about a fourth lower than intended shouldn’t feel left out; and it’s actively encouraged to slur from one note to the next, a practice that is a huge no-no in every other form of singing I’ve ever been involved in because it makes you sing everything flat. But what does flat even mean in a setting where they don’t even use a tuning fork and instead estimate the approximate note they should start the song on? Anyway. What they lack in intonation and careful balancing of different parts they make up for in enthusiasm and sheer volume.

I’m not linking to any of the people involved in the event, because they were really nice people, and I don’t want them to find this post and be offended. They don’t deserve that. But I guess it was a mistake to spend two hours at the “shape-note singing workshop” before the main event. Just coming to the show and sightreading everything would have been just fine for me. This way I felt like I wasted two hours of my life, and I almost didn’t stay for the main show. I’m glad I did, because the songs are better in the context of the rest of the story. And they were nice people; I hope I was polite enough in explaining that I couldn’t come to their weekly shape note singing congregations because I don’t have time for another hobby, because I really appreciated the spirit of the invitation. But I think I’ve seen enough of shape note singing for a while.

Regular expressions

If I ever get the chance to teach a class on formal languages, please remind me to use the following cartoon in my slides.

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(from xkcd)


Also featuring the view from my bedroom window:

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And this after we had over 20 degrees on Saturday and I was walking around outside in a t-shirt. The weather this winter is just crazy, I tell you.

No Extreme Singing

Also, because quite a number of people asked me about it: The early-morning singing that we were going to do for some Japanese TV station was cancelled. By them, I should say; there were several dozen chorus members who would have been up for it. In retrospect, I’m glad about the cancellation, because those were extremely stressful days, and I didn’t get enough sleep as it was.

And while I’m posting about cool apartments in New York, I really must talk about the place where we had a (five-hour!) quartet rehearsal on Saturday. This is in a luxury apartment building on Roosevelt Island, an island in the East River with a colourful history of prisons, mental hospitals, and suchlike. Our bass’s brother lives in a three-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor of this building, with huge windows giving you a view over the East River and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I felt like a tourist for asking him to take some pictures out of his windows, but I just had to share this with you:

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I don’t know how he affords this kind of place. He seems like a perfectly cool guy (and gave us lots of good Barbershop advice). But: He didn’t get to see the ball drop from his house. So there.


January 2007
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