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Columbia Commencement Ceremony

So, let’s pretend that it’s not true that I haven’t really posted here in three months. This involves not writing about such things as my winning the Novice Barbershop Quartet contest in late February, my actually earning money by singing, or about two trips to Germany, etc., but it will simplify things.

In the past few days, Columbia has been a sea of light blue. Light blue #75B2DD is the color of Columbia University (how cool is it that there’s even a Wikipedia page about it?), and the entire university has been working up to tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, which in a strange inversion of terminology celebrates the graduation of the current class of students. And so thousands of students have been running around campus in their blue gowns and hats (see a close-up here), and there are flags and banners everywhere. The university does its best to look pretty, and the weather helps (constant sunshine and temperatures in the high 20s).

I really like the atmosphere that surrounds this whole commencement thing. Yesterday I caught some speeches for the graduates of the Engineering school, and the speakers congratulated them on graduating from one of the finest universities in the world, in the greatest city in the world, and from an engineering program that goes back to 1753 and produced alumni that invented this and this and that. Very nice, and it must be impossible not to leave this ceremony as a student (or parent) with a thoroughly warmed heart, and feeling proud of one’s achievement and membership in such a cool group. I envy them, especially given that my Master’s graduation ceremony was totally lame, and I just went to pick up my PhD certificate from the administrator’s office.

I am particularly fascinated by the academic robes. While my first reaction on seeing the procession of graduating students in gowns was “Hogwarts!”, now that I’m more used to them, I can see them as an element that adds some extra dignity to the whole procedure. I read up on the academic dress code on Wikipedia, and it turns out that you can read a lot of information from a gown:

  • The silk lining in the hood is the color of the school that graduates you — except that some extra cool universities, including Columbia, just go all the way and color the entire gown. I also saw a guy walking around in a very intensely purple doctoral gown today; perhaps he’s from some other Ivy League school with that color (Harvard Crimson?).
  • The velvet lining in the hood is the color of your discipline.
  • As you progress through the academic degrees (bachelor / master / PhD), you add extra inches to the width of the velvet lining and extra feet to the length of the hood. Doctors are also entitled to wear three velvet stripes on each sleeve, and at Columbia get to wear a different kind of hat.

All this makes me wonder: If I ever end up having to wear academic regalia (say, I’m on the committee of some student in a country that still uses them), what would I do? After all, Germany abolished the use of academic gowns in 1968. Well, if I understand the Wikipedia article correctly, my alma mater must have had their own academic regalia before 1968, given that they were founded before that year (even if it was only 1945 or some such). So the historically most correct solution would be to find out what they looked like and then try to reconstruct that. Failing that, I could still try to adapt, say, a standard gown of whatever hypothetical place we’re talking about, and then add an orange velvet lining for computer science and a silk lining in whatever the color of my school is. This should be easier to figure out; I just hope it’s not that lame blue that the logo is in.

Anyway. Tomorrow morning I’ll have a quick look at the final commencement ceremony and then try to find a way to get to my office despite some 100.000 students and relatives celebrating in the quad. Let’s see how that goes; perhaps I’ll get around to taking some pictures.


Fourth of July

Oh no! I just realized that Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest takes place every year on the Fourth of July. But I can’t be there and at the International Barbershop Competition in Denver at the same time!

It just won’t be the same to go to the qualifying event in Shea Stadium on June 3 instead. For one thing, I’m going to miss “Tsunami” Kobayashi, who set the current world record of eating 53 3/4 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Damn!

Ice storm warning

Well ok, I said I was looking forward to a blizzard. Now we’ll see how I like it.


People have emailed that they will be working from home today. How exciting!

Social Democracy in Unexpected Places

Columbia University is one of the places in the world with the highest concentration of Nobel Laureates. It is second in Wikipedia’s list of Nobel laureates by affiliation, and just recently in 2006 Columbia faculty won two Nobel prizes (for Economics and Literature).

I would be crazy not to make use of this as much as I can. And so of course I went to a public discussion on “An emergent India: Prospects and Problems” between Prabhat Patnaik, apparently a renowned Indian econonist, and Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize 2001), whom even I had heard of. It was interesting! They were both entertaining and interesting speakers (unlike the moderator, who only mumbled and had to be constantly reminded to speak into the microphone). Of course everybody was duly impressed by India’s GDP growth rate (although Patnaik didn’t completely trust the figures) and had a lot of economic insights to share, but what I did not expect was this outburst of unmitigated social democratic opinions from both speakers. They criticised the growing disparity between the living standards of the reasonably well-educated urban population (about 250 million people) who benefit from the rapid growth of the IT industry and the unskilled rural population (about 800 million), where literacy among adult women hovers around 50%, 35% of the population live off $1 or less per day, and 47% of children below the age of five are malnourished. They applauded China for preventing an imbalance of the same magnitude by maintaining high prices for domestic agricultural products, which they do by manipulating currency exchange rates in order to avoid introducing import tariffs and pissing off the WTO (clever people, the Chinese). And they openly advocated raising taxes on the use of environmental resources and imported luxury goods in order to finance improved education at all levels. (And Stiglitz looked positively sly when he said that the WTO doesn’t want you to tax luxury imports, but “we’ve found ways around this in other cases too”. :)

Having lived in Western industralised countries all my life, my primary exposure to the economy of India so far has been whenever they closed down factories over here and moved the jobs to Asia. I’ve always felt that this is a strategy that might eventually backfire; there is a lot to be said for the excellent infrastructure and social stability that European countries offer. But I had no idea what “social stability” really means before they mentioned today that there has been a wave of suicides among Indian peasants, who live less than an hour away from the major IT centres, and peasant riots in rural China are frequent. And it’s an interesting perspective that if the movement of jobs from Europe and the US to India is because European and Indian workers compete with each other for lower labour costs, then one would expect that the wages in India would go up, but they don’t. Instead, they analysed the current trend towards lower wages and the “renegotiation of the social contract” as an effect of capital being able to move, while labour cannot (and hence the negotiation position of the capital anywhere improves). So: Labourers of all countries, unite! Who would have thought I’d have to go to New York to hear this?

Speech acts in Mac ads

Whoo boy, am I ever behind in blogging. In the past few weeks, I have been doing a number of really fun things (looking at Mozart manuscripts at the Morgan Library, visiting a wolf reservation in New Jersey, seeing the Museum of Natural History, doing a day trip to Philadelphia), and I promise I’ll find the time soon to post about them.

For now, however, I’d just like to point out the new “Get a Mac” ad. It’s really nifty: They use speech acts to make fun of Vista’s security features. Who ever said that pragmatics would never pay the bills?

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:

Img 3306 450X338.Shkl

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 …)


May 2018
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