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State of the Elsner
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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in m_elsner's LiveJournal:

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Saturday, March 6th, 2010
12:46 pm
O my dear Wife, said he, and you the Children of my bowels, I your dear friend am in my self undone, by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me: moreover, I am for certain informed, that this our City will be burned with fire from Heaven, in which fearful overthrow, both my self, with thee, my Wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruine; except (the which, yet I see not) some way of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered. At this his Relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed, that what he had said to them was true, but because they thought, that some frenzy distemper had got into his head: therefore, it drawing towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains, with all hast they got him to bed; but the night was as troublesome to him as the day: wherefore instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and tears.
--John Bunyan, "Pilgrim's Progress"

This month I have begun the draft of my thesis proposal. Even without any superhuman efforts on my part, I think it is inevitable that it will be finished at some point. Other than that, research continues. Results so far are equivocal, but might be improved if I am fortunate. Also, I (and most of my labmates) plan to go to the NESCAI student conference in April.
I have still not bought tickets to go home at Passover, but still plan to. This will be about the 19th through the 23rd, so if you plan to be in MD at that time, let me know.
Otherwise, the last month was for the most part uneventful, and the next one promises to be the same (though with slightly improved weather). Therefore I will cut this short.
Saturday, February 6th, 2010
2:00 pm
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom
I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch
who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!
Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch!
Light streaming out of the sky!
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!
skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic
industries! spectral nations! invincible mad
houses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
--Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"

Work has been going ok this month. I believe I'm still on track to propose this spring. On the other hand, the paper was rejected as I predicted. Ah well, can't win them all.
California was fun, but tiring fun. A day with my cousins was pretty cool; visiting Stanford afterwards was also enjoyable, but required some mental effort, since I kept meeting researchers, as well as just visiting former labmate David. I got soaked to the skin the morning of my talk and shivered all through it, but I think it went well. The Google visit was a lot of networking. Their campus is huge and designed to fulfil practically all the urges a techie might have without them having to leave-- naps, massage chairs, game rooms, food, exercise-- even laundry. They scrupulously avoided any comment on the China situation, though, and the talks they gave were mostly uninspired. (One exception: a blind guy who designs user interfaces for the iPhone. His main point was that accessibility isn't just for the disabled-- it's also for the distracted, the multitasking and so forth. Given a better user interface, we're likely to use the device in more situations.)
In other news, my brother's band True Womanhood released their EP, "Basement Membranes". You should go check it out!
Plans for this month: keep working, get together a committee, submit two short papers to ACL, social stuff. Thinking about going home for Passover in early March, so if you'll be there then, let me know.
Wednesday, January 6th, 2010
10:30 pm
Pass it along to Stand-to.
To peel back those eider-ducks me slumberin' lovelies---Prince Charming presents his compliments. Who's this John Moores in his martial cloak---get off it, wontcher---come away counterfeiting death---cantcher---hear the bird o' dawnin'---roll up---it's tomorrow alright.
Sergeant Charming's through your thorny slumbers, who bends over sweet Robin's rose cheek.
Morning sergeant---kiss me sergeant.
--David Jones, "In Parenthesis"

Been a slow month, which is to say I haven't wanted to work, and by and large haven't. I did get a short paper on the copyediting project typed up... but the results aren't very good. I've also been working on fixing up the broken software from last month's awful submission, and trying not to be the kind of reviewer who will print everything.
There's been snow twice, which I like to watch and shovel, but mostly followed by warmish days when everything turns to sludge. A few people have been around over the break, leading to the usual games, movies, interminable conversations... My social circle has recovered pretty well from all the graduations, actually.
I'm going to California later in the month to visit Google at their invitation. That should be cool. On the minus side, it isn't really compatible with the Rochester idea, since that was around when I'd planned to go.
This coming semester, I really do need to get my thesis proposed, results or no results. My most recent status report says May is the deadline. Well, if I don't get it done by then, I can't think what I'll have been doing.
Happy new year to all!
Wednesday, December 9th, 2009
9:06 pm
"Listen, Petra, I know whatever I say, you'll always have a dozen answers for me. If this were a high school debate, you'd win, no question. That still doesn't make you right."
--Alan Elsner, "Romance Language"

The above is my Dad's standard argument-ender. I always hated it, since it boils down to "You're so *cute* with your 'reasoning'." Of course, Petra is trying to talk a guy into bed, so the rest of the scene has nothing to do with me. It's odd to see little bits of yourself reflected in a family member's writing-- my dad's using my quiz bowl t-shirts as a metaphor for horrible unattractiveness, for instance, which is fair, I admit. It's a bit like reading your own Securitate dossier and realizing that all these years you've been living with a spy.
If anyone reading this wants to read the book, by the way, I have two copies, so I can lend you one.
Rest of the month-- horribly stressful trying to get the NAACL submission out. All the software turned out to be broken, which is totally my fault. We got the simplest model working again and wrote it all up over Thanksgiving-- Eugene thinks it has a fighting chance. Some reviewers will print anything!
It was nice to be at home for a while even though I had to work... the family's doing pretty well, as are several friends I got a chance to catch up with.
I ran a great 10k this year (42:15 net time) by running fast off the front.. It's the best strategy, but makes you feel like a loser in the back stretch because you're ahead of your proper pace group, so people keep passing you. The time makes up for it though.
Taking things a bit easier this month, trying to fix the stupid software and also write a short paper for ACL in February. Maybe in Jan. I'll have a chance to go to Rochester for a few days.
Hope all reading this are well... merry Christmas, happy Chanukah, good end-of-semester, and for all you atheists with real jobs, Bah Humbug and a happy new year.
Saturday, November 7th, 2009
10:44 pm
Here let me rest- and snatch myself, while I yet am able, from the fascination of EGOTISM:-a monster who has more votaries than ever did homage to the most popular deity of antiquity; and whose singular quality is, that while he excites a blind and involuntary adoration in almost every individual, his influence is universally disallowed, his power universally contemned, and his worship, even by his followers, never mentioned but with abhorrence.
--Frances Burney, "Evelina"

Through October, I managed to get a moderate amount of work done on various projects-- the one for Eugene's class, the one I have to write for NAACL, the one I have to propose as my thesis, and the stupid journal paper. Unfortunately, I haven't actually *finished* any of them except the journal paper, which hardly counts since Eugene's express instructions were to do as little work on it as possible. Now it's time to work hard and focus. I could accomplish a lot, or I could just miss all the deadlines and end up with nothing. Since I don't think I can graduate this year, at least publishing something would be nice.
The newcomers to the department are all working harder than I am, which doesn't surprise me (classes encourage it, since there's a definite endpoint to each assignment), but they seem to be doing fine. This is good, since by the end of the year, I will be the lone survivor with more than a year's experience in my lab-- it's been confirmed that Mark Johnson, my coadvisor, is going to Australia in January, and his students will probably also leave.
I, by contrast, have managed some hanging out and exercise and so forth this month. It appears that I can still run ten miles if I want to, though I regretted it a bit the morning after, when I was horribly stiff. I also managed a bike ride, since we've had excellent fall weather, although the wind on the bike path was so stiff that I rode over some of the bridges with my feet out of the clips in case the bike blew sideways.
I am planning to go home for Thanksgiving, so if you'll be in town, give me a call. Other than that, I am unsure of my schedule over the winter and might go anywhere (although one possibility is that I'll live like a hermit in Providence trying to do more research).
My father has just published his latest book, "Romance Language", which is set in Romania, partly during the revolution against the Communists and partly in the present day. You can find out more at his website, alanelsner.com .
Wednesday, October 7th, 2009
10:41 pm
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
--Dylan Thomas

End of the first month of the new semester. Research is poised at a balance point... I think if I get just a bit further, several parts of the project could fall into place together, but so far, nothing really impressive has happened. Of course, I can't be sure about the balance point thing-- it could be I'm just stuck.
This has been a month that makes me want to reconnect with friends before I just lose track of everyone. A friend of mine was murdered-- not a close friend, but still someone I wished well. Yet another reminder that the universe isn't ordered so as to give people what they deserve. On Yom Kippur, we read that God saves Jonah and the Ninevites alike-- and they're basically a bunch of jerks. It's the sailors from Tarshish who he would have killed.
I skipped Rosh Hashana this year, though I usually manage to get to services. I signed up for a 5k on the same day by mistake, then figured I'd run it since I paid the fee. I ran 21 flat... felt like I was getting there faster, but apparently that last sprint was longer than it looked. Still a personal best, since my last timed 5k was high school. I'm trying to run with friends a few times a week. Now, if I can keep up training until Thanksgiving, maybe I'll finally better my 10k time.
My lab, and the department, seem to have survived the recent departures of several good friends of mine. (For the second time, I got to throw the doctoral rubber chicken... good times.) Despite missing them, I'm not really at a loss for people to chat with in off-hours or bounce ideas off. More departures are expected, including a member of my thesis committee, if I ever get around to having a thesis committee.
Plans for October: revise journal paper. Get some damn results, so I can make definite plans for the NAACL/ACL deadlines in the winter. Call, email or IM you. Yes, I mean you. But if I don't, feel free to preempt me.
Monday, September 7th, 2009
10:24 pm
Bowing before the inevitable...
I kept saying I'd get on facebook before the semester started, so now I am. If you read this, you are probably my friend, and should friend me. I plan to use facebook to get party invitations from people who no longer use email, chat with people who no longer use AIM, and keep track of people who no longer inscribe their accomplishments in cuneiform on giant granite obelisks... you know, early adopter types.
11:37 am
Even the blooming flowers
Will eventually fade.
Even our world
Is not eternal.
The deep mountains of vanity--
Cross them today
And superficial dreams
Shall no longer delude you.
--attr. Kukai, "Iroha" (This is an ancient Japanese poem which contains every character of the Japanese hiragana syllabary exactly once. It was historically used as an ABC. The translation here is from wikipedia.)

So here's the start of yet another semester. Still no results-- my adviser doesn't think I can manage to leave within the year. I'm taking his class, a project-based seminar, which will probably occupy all my time this fall, so I'm also beginning to doubt. It'll be lonely being the last survivor of the lab-- two of the three senior students are already gone, and I know, because I helped pack all their worldly possessions into trailer trucks. There are more losses anticipated as well. We do have two new Phd. students and two masters students incoming-- they seem very enthusiastic, and make me feel cynical and bitter.
This last week, I've been trying to go to lots of orientation events to meet the incoming class for this year. Mostly it's been fun-- the new grads are pretty sociable, and some of my other friends are back from summer jobs and so forth. Some of the newbies already have a veneer of competence, others seem nervous. Outside one's own tiny little specialization, this aura of competence is almost always a combination of cockiness and thinking on one's feet, so I try not to form first impressions based on it. Of course I do anyway. I also met a few attractive single women... if you know me, you know where that will lead.
The days are starting to grow chilly here, although there are a few summery spots left here and there, especially in direct sunlight. It'll probably be true fall before we know it. This happens every year, and I'd like to say I'm not sure where the time goes, but I am-- I waste it doing stupid things that don't matter. I am pretty sure this is what everybody does, even you. You're reading Livejournal, aren't you?
Friday, August 7th, 2009
8:57 pm
THE TROLL KING. What is the difference between Trolls and Men?
PEER GYNT. There isn't any, as far as I can gather;
Big Trolls would roast and little ones would claw you
Just as with us if only we dared do it.
THE TROLL KING. True; we're alike in that and other things too.
Still, just as morning's different from evening,
So there's a real difference between us,
And I will tell you what it is. Out yonder
Under the skies men have a common saying:
"Man, to thyself be true!" But here, 'mongst Trolls,
"Troll, to thyself be enough!" it runs.
--Henrik Ibsen, "Peer Gynt"

Thanks to everyone who posted last month-- it seems that people still read this newsletter, and so I'll continue to write it. Not a whole lot to report this month, though. Mainly, this was the month for vacation, though that took a little more doing than it should have. My first attempt, a planned mountain hike with my dad, started off with an ugly family conflict, followed by a bout of the flu which hit me in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. So I had to take the rest of the week off, but sleeping, not hiking. Then the rest of my family got it too. We should all have stayed home. My next try turned out better-- I went home, overlapping my aunt, uncle and cousin from Israel. We did a bunch of Washington-area tourist stuff... I've now inflicted DC's awful weather on my Israeli relatives in summer and winter. Unfortunately, the timing of the trip kind of ruled out hitball for this year.
I keep telling people I'd like to finish in a year. If that's going to happen, I have to get some results soon. Some days this is a difficult proposition to contemplate. At least all three of my graduating labmates are now employed.
My brother's band is in some kind of net-based popularity contest. If you see this in the next few weeks, go to: http://popmontreal.com/en/popthumbs and use the amazingly crappy Flash voting program to vote for True Womanhood (and against everyone else). If they win, they get to go to Canada.
Sunday, July 5th, 2009
10:38 pm
Subterfuge was by no means a new tactic in Japan. Japanese culture has traditionally assumed that a distinction occurs between "public" or "official" reality (known as tatemae) and "private" truth (known as honne). It was accepted that companies would want to keep "embarrassing" secrets out of public view and LTCB itself had done this before. When the Bank of Japan announced that it was conducting an inspection of LTCB's operations in the early 1990s, for example, the most junior bankers were ordered to pack any "embarrassing" files into boxes and carry them down to a "B3" basement, three floors beneath the bank building, before the inspectors arrived. There they were hidden away in a concrete manhole. "It was an absolute pain", one of the young bankers later recalled. "We went up and down, carrying these heavy boxes, to put them in this manhole thing-- and then when it was all over we had to do it again!"
--Gillian Tett, "Saving the Sun: a Wall Street Gamble to Rescue Japan from its Trillion-Dollar Meltdown"

Seems I missed last month's post due to conference busyness, so there's a lot to cover. I guess the conference itself comes first-- it went pretty well, I think. My paper on named entities got more buzz than I expected, the clustering paper got at least some attention, and it seems there are a few people out there extending my chat work from last year. I also got the chance to hang out with various people, which was productive both research-wise and socially. (The coolest place to eat in Boulder was the Dushanbe tea-house, a tiled building which was apparently donated to the city by the Tajiks. They also had ceviche; Dan Jurafsky had just given a talk tracing the etymology of the word back to a Persian dish of meat in vinegar broth, so we had to order it.) After the conference, David McClosky and I stayed on for a few days to go hiking and be conference volunteers. The hiking was great; Boulder is only a few minutes from the Flatirons, huge slabs of rock that hover over the town and offer a great view. I did get a bit sunburnt though. The volunteering was at least bearable. My main duty was hand around the microphone to people who raised their hands during question period, which is like playing real-life whack-a-mole in a big room full of academics. On our last full day, we went to Garden of the Gods, another bunch of weird rock formations, with some Israeli NLP people. We finished up the trip eating breakfast in the most sought-after brunch place in Denver (we'd failed to get a table the day before, so we knew it was pretty popular).
Since then, I've been working on coreference again. I'm a little nervous that none of it will work-- so far, I've managed to replicate, but not improve, Eugene's results for pronouns using a more flexible type of model.
I'm also trying to get outside, when it's not clammy or raining. Luckily I still remember how to ride a bicycle. And the usual social stuff is ongoing.
What I'm wondering at the moment is if anyone still reads this thing-- it used to be, when I missed a month, at least one person (besides my Dad) would ask me what was happening. If you are reading this, please leave a comment to let me know... even if we haven't talked in a while. If you don't want to leave your name, anonymous is ok, I suppose-- at least it'll give me an idea of the numbers.
Friday, May 8th, 2009
11:30 am
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet 'tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment; 'tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep: and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up; there is no other reason to be given why you han't gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don't this very moment drop down into hell.
--Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

Business as usual this month, which is to say that not much is getting done. Sometime this month, I'll have to prepare my talks and code release for the NAACL conference, which is at the beginning of June in Boulder, Colorado. Other than that, I'm doing some exploratory research, but I don't know what will come of it. The class I'm TAing is over; I think I did ok, but will do better at organizing (making sure the assignment handouts are consistent &c) next time.
Tuesday, April 7th, 2009
8:58 pm
'It goes like this: a guy borrows money on credit. He uses the credit to rent an office and buy a Jeep Cherokee and eight crates of Smirnoff. When the Smirnoff runs out, it turns out the jeep's wrecked, the office is awash with puke and the loan is due for repayment. So he borrows money again-- three times more than before. He uses it to pay back the first loan, buys an Jeep Grand Cherokee and sixteen crates of Absolut vodka. When the Absolut...'
'Ok, I get the picture,' Tatarsky interrupted. 'So what's the ending?'
'There's two endings. If the bank the guy owes to is one of the mafia banks, then some time or other he gets killed; and since there aren't any others, that's what usually happens. On the other hand, if the guy's in the mafia himself, then the last loan gets shifted on to the State Bank, and the guy declares himself bankrupt. The bailiffs come round to his office, inventorise the empty bottles and the puke-covered fax, and in a little while he starts up all over again.'
--Victor Pelevin, "Homo Zapiens"

Last month was basically frustrating, and this month will be more of the same. The editing project turns out to be harder than I thought it would be, and probably won't get submitted this year. I've been banging my head against it for a while now, with little real success, but it's clear that there is something to learn if I can just get a handle on it. On the plus side, Warren and I got our workshop paper in.
The faculty candidate talks are all done, and we managed to hire someone. Now I should be dealing with lots of graduate student bureaucratic stuff that I've been ignoring. Hopefully I'll get to it.
Doesn't look like I'll be proposing my thesis till next year, either. There's not enough time left in the semester. Ideally I'll still graduate next winter. Not sure if that's practical, but you've got to have a goal.
Not sure what this month holds socially (the next eight days of mandatory abstinence from decent food won't make it easier to hang out with anyone) but no doubt I'll end up doing the usual stuff. If it ever stops being overcast and rainy (on a day I don't have ten million meetings), I'll be taking the bike out; it's started to warm up enough to make that enjoyable again. I wish they'd open the bridge leading to the bike path in India Point Park, but so far it's still under construction, several months behind schedule.
Can you tell I'm a bit on edge this month? I'll shut up and hope you're doing better than I am.
Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
11:15 pm
"The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles."
I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.
"And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity."
Apparently there is no limit, Joe [the narrator's soul is named Joe!] remarked. Anything can be said in this place and it will be true and will have to be believed.
--Flann O'Brien, "The Third Policeman"

First off, sorry this entry is late. I was lazy posting in the first few days of the month, which I suppose is sort of pardonable since I had a good deal of work. At that point, I was working on three separate things, none of them my thesis. I've been nominated for a fellowship I have almost no chance of getting, so I had to write a research statement. Then there was the paper with Warren (now submitted to a workshop, we'll see). And finally a research presentation to be given at UPenn; this was partly but not entirely recycled out of older talks.
The Penn presentation seemed to go pretty well, and I had fun visiting there. (Finally got a chance to meet Emily Pitler, with whom I've been corresponding since last summer, and had interesting conversations with Pfs. Mitch Marcus and Ben Taskar.) After that, I got turned loose to enjoy the first days of spring weather in Philadelphia. My friend David and my parents came down to enjoy it with me-- David just for dinner, the 'rents spent a day and a half. We saw some nice art (and some lame art). We also bought amazingly overpriced tickets to a flower show, which was kind of stupid, and ended up making up ridiculous stories about the various competition winners-- "Mrs. Samuel Hamilton" took so many prizes I just had to picture her as some old-age version of Rappaccini's Daughter.
Next up for research is the copy-editing project, where we hope to use data from Dad's work to learn about the kind of changes editors make to improve a document. The eventual goal is some kind of data-driven grammar checking program that learns from examples. We're almost done with the license agreement negotiations. Lurking on the horizon is the thesis topic issue, but I'm putting it off, partly because if I don't graduate, I don't have to look for another job yet.
I should give a review of the True Womanhood concert here. The band, as usual, was great; the venue was lame, putting them on at 12:30 am after three opening bands (The Interminable Theremin Soloist, The Guy Dancing With a Guitar, and the Spanish Rockers in LED Masks-- only the third was remotely listenable). Then the whole band drove back here and slept on my couches. Housemate Dan tells me that having a band sleep over makes me cool. Do I get even cooler since we went out for crepes together the next morning? I doubt it. The week after, one band member quit, which is colossally lame. I hope it wasn't because of the hideous orange couch, especially since a prospective grad student is getting it on Thursday.
In the month ahead, we're having grad recruitment, one more faculty candidate talk in CS and a bunch more in Cog-Sci, which means I won't get much work done. TAing Eugene's course is still going ok. I've been a little behind on grading, but I'm caught up now. I'll be giving more lectures at the end of the month.
Ideally I'll spend a lot of March working and a lot of the rest outside. We'll see what really happens.
Saturday, February 7th, 2009
5:44 pm
The problem is that a number fitted from the world's experiments can be important economically without being noise-free. And it can be wonderfully noise-free without being important.
On the one hand: It's completely obvious, you will agree, that a "statistically insignificant" number can be very significant for some human purpose. If you really, truly want to know how the North American Free Trade Agreement affected the average worker in the United States, then it's too bad if the data are noisy, but that's not the point. You really, truly want to know it. You have to go with what God has provided.
--Deirdre McCloskey, "The Secret Sins of Economics"

Not much to report this February. I finished up the two research projects I discussed last month (a journal version of the chat paper and a camera-ready version of the pronoun paper). Current projects include work on copy-editing, correlation clustering and the ever-elusive planning for a thesis topic (probably the inferrables "plane-pilot" task, but we're waiting to see what kind of data we can lay hands on). My paper on named entity structure got into NAACL on some fair, but very mixed reviews (along the lines of "this paper is ambitious but flawed"; I agree). I'm going to Boulder in the early summer.
Currently I'm TAing Eugene and Mark's computational linguistics class. So far it's not so hard, but we'll see how it goes. I'm giving a lecture Tuesday which will be videotaped by the teaching certificate people. The first assignment, which I made up over break, seems to be working out ok. However, I need to remember not to make assumptions about what everybody knows; it was missing some important details, especially for the several students in the course are cognitive science.
My vacation this winter was pretty cool, despite not covering Christmas and New Years. I got to ride to the DC border on election day, keeping my Dad company as he went to work. It was freezing, but there was a huge crowd of Obamaphiles nonetheless. I got to see True Womanhood live (although the concert organizers put them on a stage in a basement decorated like a cave, and in a totally different building from the main stage, so not too many other people got to see them). A bunch of my friends happened to be in town, and I enjoyed seeing all of them. I also walked waist-deep into the Chesapeake with one of them. My feet went completely numb, which is a disturbing feeling to have. It was a charity fundraiser, but let's be honest, I am a sucker for doing stupid things. I also visited UMD and gave a talk there. Networking is always useful; ideally I'll be on the job market in about a year. Since the economy is still retching and begging Congress for the hair of the dog, every little advantage counts.
If you are in Providence, or anywhere near Providence, you need to know that True Womanhood is going on tour. The show is Saturday, Feb 28, 8pm at Firehouse 13. It's going to be awesome.
Thursday, January 1st, 2009
9:26 pm
Other pioneer researchers of the day, like Pasteur and Madame Curie, are remembered as patron saints in their fields. But no practitioner of modern rejuvenation (life extension, practical immortality, it goes by different names now) wants portraits of the groundbreakers in his line hanging in the waiting room because these men were so deeply deluded that even to mention their theories now could turn a potential client into a fading scream. Nevertheless, great blunderers like these have a place in the history of science. Wrongly, they helped point the way for others to be right. They fought as bravely for error as more fortunate prophets fought for the truth. In science, as in love, it is sometimes extraordinarily hard to draw the line between faith and folly.
--Pope Brock, "Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam"
[For interested parties: the man described is John R. Brinkley; the therapy is xenotransplantation of goat testes. A more reputable, but equally idiotic pioneer in the field was Serge Voronoff, inspiration for Bulgakov's "Heart of a Dog".]

New Year's Day in Providence: again, the town is basically empty, and I am not entirely sure that choosing to stay here until late in the month was wise. On one hand, it saves probably $200, and on the other, most people I know are home now. Nonetheless there are things to do-- when I can summon the spirit to do them! Yesterday's snowfall gave me the excuse for some shoveling, one of the few kinds of outdoor exercise I can stand when it's freezing out. It was a pleasantly fine powder, too, and somehow hasn't turned either to slush or black ice today. I've read a lot, done some walking around, and (let's be at least slightly honest) slept way too late and spent hours surfing the internet.
I'm not working as hard as I should be-- and who among us is? Well, if you have a real job and don't want to be fired, probably you. Go ahead and hate me for being a student. If I can actually come up with a cool noun-phrase related topic in the next month or two, it'll be over in a little more than a year. But what, exactly, am I doing? Well, the journal version of the chat paper is coming along. Today I ran some final experiments on the test data. As is becoming obnoxiously familiar, the model that worked in development is useless on test and the algorithm that was useless on dev is excellent on test. As it's a journal version, I'm sticking it all in regardless-- the good results were already in the original conference version, but we need to stretch it out since the journal won't take an article with no original material. Eugene's paper on pronouns is in at the European Assoc. for Comp Ling. conference. It's in Athens this year. I doubt we'll have the money to send me as well as Eugene, which is a mixed blessing (for instance, I won't be be beaten by rioters). I still have some work to do on creating a final version and fixing mistakes found by the reviewers (an odd slate this time-- two good ratings and a request for us to commit seppuku out of shame for having written it).
I don't hold with new years' resolutions, since they are stupid and arbitrary-- why hold off till one particular date to change your life? And what makes anyone think they can change just for wanting to? Nonetheless we shall see if I can deal with my various problems any better in 2009 than 2008. Current prognosis is doubtful, but as a Bayesian statistician, I refuse to believe anything is impossible.
On the off chance you're in the DC area or can get there, my trip home will be 16th through 26th Jan. Have a happy new year!
Sunday, December 7th, 2008
11:55 am
Each vague turn of the world has such disinherited ones,
to whom the former does not, and the next does not yet, belong.
Since even the next is far from mankind. Though
this should not confuse us, but strengthen in us the keeping
of still recognisable forms. This once stood among men,
stood in the midst of fate, the destroyer, stood
in the midst of not-knowing-towards-what, as if it existed, and drew
stars towards itself out of the enshrined heavens. Angel,
I’ll show it to you, also, there! It will stand
in your gaze, finally upright, saved at last.
Columns, pylons, the Sphinx, the stirring thrust
of the cathedral, grey, out of a fading or alien city.
Rilke (trans. Kline) 7th Duino Elegy
When I last used a Duino Elegies quote here, I had no German at all. Now I do, so I'll supply the original. It's better (more concrete) than this translation, but I can't really read it all.

Anyway: December, first snowfall. Haven't done anything all week, and now spent the morning mostly sleeping and reading German poetry on the net. I'll get to the phonology presentation I'm supposed to be doing real soon now... this is my last assignment for my last required class ever. That should be all bittersweet and nostalgia-inducing, but in fact I just can't make myself care.
November finished hard, with a paper deadline that kept me working over Thanksgiving. We got it submitted (this is the one about grouping proper noun phrases into person/place/company, remember?); now we wait. I'm also reviewing papers for the same conference. We'll find out about the pronoun paper we submitted last month on the 16th. Work targets for this month are to expand the paper on IRC chat into a journal article, and write a paper with my housemate perpetualponder on machine learning techniques for clustering. And I need to think hard about a thesis topic. Something about noun phrases... looking back, all my papers are about noun phrases.
Despite the work, Thanksgiving was fun, and I got to see a fair number of my friends. Gordon deepfriar and I went into DC (took me longer than it should have to find Twinbrook Metro) and saw some art, notably Dutch Master Jan Lievens. Lievens' best stuff is just sub-Rembrandt, and his worst is crap. Had lunch with David, who is doing well... Ben was over for Thanksgiving, in good spirits despite anatomy class. Everyone else I pretty much missed. I also hit my target time for the Turkey Chase 10k, coming in just under 45. By now I remember the course the way I do the couch in my parents' living room, especially the long uphill in the middle. Of course that doesn't mean much without being in the shape to run it, so I'm glad I managed this year.
I won't be home until January, and I'm not sure when. Happy holidays to all, and listen to True Womanhood!
Wednesday, November 5th, 2008
6:33 pm
I said that I was not quoting him, that the question was off the record because I wanted to know the truth. How could a man of his caliber be this sanguine about a war we had barely begun to fight? He gave me the McNamara look, eyes focusing boldly through rimless glasses. "Every quantitative measure we have shows that we're winning this war", he said.
--Neil Sheehan, "A Bright Shining Lie"

It's been a busy and exciting past month, so I'll start with the boring stuff: research. Eugene and I did indeed submit a paper on pronouns (mostly him, really). We'll find out if it gets in in about a month. I also have a deadline in December, and plan to submit the named-entity work (clustering proper noun phrases into people/places/organizations, and also separating out parts of names like titles, first names &c). After several weeks of stasis, results are improving again, so I think we have a shot, though perhaps not an incredible one. Then again, what do I know about how good my chances are? A few months ago, I was complaining that my chat study had utterly failed to attract any attention-- last week we were asked to submit a journal version. I have to wonder if we can come up with the 5-10 additional pages we'll need, but I think there are some relatively easy experiments we can add. I also have a few other side projects ongoing, but I won't waste time describing them here.
I've also done a good deal of stuff over the last month. My cousin Elizabeth (heyeac) got married in Vermont, amid beautiful fall foliage. Good luck to her, of course. My brother got a job. Same to him. Various social things also happened. Probably the funniest was the evening of Halloween, when I attended a series of parties without costume, only to receive, in sequence, a black paper dot adhered to my shirt-front, a pair of mouse ears which a passing acquaintance insisted I wear "until her friend came for them", and a bokken (wooden Samurai sword), with which my officemate showed me how to gut my enemies. All this did not help me to answer the usual question, "what are you dressed as?", to which I was forced to answer that I hadn't a clue. The next weekend, my friend Marie (auburnfox, but she doesn't update) came down and we spent a very pleasant day wandering the city.
I will also say a few words about the election, I guess... it seems to be the thing to do right now. I voted for Obama (not that it matters in RI), and I believe that was the right choice to make. Although I'm nervous about his stance on trade, and what he'll do to the market in an attempt to solve the credit crisis, I think he's stronger than McCain on diplomacy, and (most importantly) doesn't owe the conservatives on social issues. He's managed to keep his head throughout the campaign, which suggests he's pragmatic enough not to kick the other half of the country when it's down. I do wish McCain had had a chance to be president, but eight years ago, not now. Switching parties every so often is a good way to discourage the government from locking in thousands of executive orders, mid-level civil servants, judges and their associated precedents-- the areas where Bush did most of his damage, actually. (Although admittedly some of the damage is in the form of actual lousy laws. Wiretappers, I'm looking at you!) We'll see what happens. I'm particularly interested in whether the Republicans see this blowout as a signal that they need to recapture their base (more culture wars), or dump it and reach back towards smaller government and free markets.
If you remembered the 5th of November, you get a point (warning: cannot be redeemed for anything, void where prohibited). Have a happy Guy Fawkes day!
Tuesday, October 7th, 2008
6:35 pm
I nodded, thinking I understood. "So even if you succeed in avoiding the misfortunes that your older self experienced, there is no assurance you will not encounter other misfortunes."
"No, forgive an old man for being unclear. Using the Gate is not like drawing lots, where the token you select varies with each turn. Rather, using the Gate is like taking a secret passageway in a palace, one that lets you enter a room more quickly than by walking down the hallway. The room remains the same, no matter which door you use to enter."
This surprised me. "The future is fixed, then? As unchangeable as the past?"
"It is said that repentance and atonement erase the past."
"I have heard that too, but I have not found it to be true."
"I am sorry to hear that," said Bashaarat. "All I can say is that the future is no different."
--Ted Chiang, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"

"For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn."
--George Orwell, 1984

Well, so much for September. I am indeed taking phonology. I'm also listening to teaching lectures at the Sheridan Teaching Center. (I'm trying to get a certificate claiming I know something about education for my CV.) The lectures so far have been heavy on buzzwords and common sense, light on content.
I'm also doing research (still the same project as last month). I've had to take a long break from it, though, to evaluate other peoples' code for a project Eugene just finished. I hate over-engineered, Java/XML systems where the most trivial modification takes days to figure out. Also, it's great when researchers release their code to the public. It's also good if they test it once or twice, just to check that it... does something. If actual working code is too much to ask for, just give us code that doesn't crash on standard datasets, or occasionally produces some output, or something.
The next couple of months will be busy: conference deadlines are 1 Dec and sometime in February. Eugene gets back in November, which means I'll need to start planning my thesis proposal. Cousin's wedding, Thanksgiving, Yom Kippur, Election Day and God knows what else are also all queued up for the near future.
Finally, let me seize the opportunity to keep plugging True Womanhood, DC's newest buzz band. (Also feedback band, chime band, beating-a-metal-funnel-on-a-timpani band, and whatever other weird noises they've come up with this week.)
Friday, September 5th, 2008
9:46 am
At the height of it all, after Macedonia, I had actually envisioned myself preaching out of my car with a Bible, a trunkload of rattlesnakes, and a megaphone. I had wondered what it would be like to hand rattlesnakes to my wife and daughters. I had imagined getting bit and surviving. I had imagined getting bit and not surviving. I had thought about what my last words would be. It sounds funny now. It wasn't always funny at the time.
--Dennis Covington, "Salvation on Sand Mountain"

As usual, I can't believe the summer is over already. Wednesday was the first day of classes; this semester I must take one additional class (probably phonology). Then that's it for required classes, forever. That's approximately 20 years of school, which when you put it that way, sounds like a long, long time. As far as research goes, my old friend David mentioned a metaphor, which he attributed to Dick Cheney of all people: research is like catching a chicken. It's a non-linear process-- you can be close enough to touch the chicken, time after time, and still not catch it. Or you can be all the way across the pen from it, and a second later manage to box it in and grab it. Right now, en route to coreference, we're clustering proper noun phrases by named entity type (person/country/organization). Results are looking up, but so far nothing solid.
In lieu of something interesting about my life, I recommend my brother's band to you all. New tracks at True Womanhood. Got to love lyrics like:
a pack of statisticians
chase me home from school
they pull me all to pieces
oh my god!
i am a diviner
they chase me to the metro
and pull me down the stairs
they fill my head with numbers
and useless garbage

See? Statisticians are vicious. Speaking of which, I'm probably giving a guest lecture in Mark Johnson's machine learning class on the 19th. That's only two weeks from now and he still isn't quite sure of the topic. It'll be fine, but I keep thinking I should start brushing up my math now.
Anyway, if this post gives you the impression that my life is like a pack of statisticians running after a chicken, my duty for this month is done. Have a good one!
Friday, August 8th, 2008
10:19 am
Two Tails stamped his foot till the iron ring on it jingled. "Oh, I’m not talking to you. You can’t see inside your heads.”
“No. We see out of our four eyes,” said the bullocks. “We see straight in front of us.”
“If I could do that and nothing else, you wouldn’t be needed to pull the big guns at all. If I was like my captain–he can see things inside his head before the firing begins, and he shakes all over, but he knows too much to run away–if I was like him I could pull the guns. But if I were as wise as all that I should never be here. I should be a king in the forest, as I used to be, sleeping half the day and bathing when I liked. I haven’t had a good bath for a month.”
--Rudyard Kipling, Her Majesty's Servants

Apologies for the lateness... I haven't actually failed to post in the first week of the month for longer than I can remember. But I imagine no harm is done, since I'm not sure if anyone actually reads this in the first place. Partly I forgot to write for so long because this has been a really uneventful month. Work has continued much as it did last month (same project, same slow and dubious progress). And although I have by no means been a hermit, I've done nothing really exciting on the social front since hitball at the very beginning of the month.
This year's hitball was great as usual. I managed to escape any injuries, which is certainly a good thing. And it was excellent to see all my college friends again. As always I promised to keep in closer touch, and perhaps I will manage it this time. But at least I don't feel awkward when seeing them face-to-face, even if I haven't spoken to them in ages. As for the actual hitball: no victories in official singles play, although I played a nearly miraculous match against former champion Brad, keeping him tied till the last play. I've won plenty of singles matches but somehow never even one in the championship. One win in doubles, with the point scored by first-timer Beth White with a classic volleyball bump.
I don't think I'll be back to Washington before Thanksgiving. Have a nice summer, everyone.
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