31 July, 2009

To Singapore

Filed under: Student life,Travels by Joel @ 6:03 pm, 31 July 2009.

I’ve neglected this blog for quite a while, but as one does on long flights, I might as well say hello. Yes, I’m flying again, for the third international trip this year. This is in great violation of an ideal I’d conjured up a few years ago: that international travel should be minimal and efficient.

On that scale, perhaps it’s not as terrible as Athens in April (it’s a shorter flight — the shortest I’ve made out from Australia — for a slightly longer stay), but it is another quick-and-dirty conference trip. I’m out of Sydney for 10 days, for the Conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics. (The astute will note this is similar to the last conference title, but lacking “European Chapter of the”.)

While slightly up on the flight efficiency, there is less reason for me to attend, as I’m not presenting any papers, just supporting my co-authors who are. I have my name on two papers in the ACL Workshop on Collaboratively Constructed Semantic Resources, which, for the jargon-uninitiated, basically means “research using wikis to help computers understand language”.

But I do hope to see and taste a bit of the city too. Singapore’s taste sensation is sorely limited by my choice of diet. Fortunately, there are many vegetarian restaurants which should suffice, and a Jewish community centre not far from my hostel or the conference site. At 42km long by 23km deep, about half of which is built up, most places I might want to go aren’t exceedingly far (thanks to Fisher Library‘s Lonely Planet collection for providing geography tidbits).

Sadly, I’ve booked my return flight for the morning of the 9th of August, not realising it is Singapore National Day, one of the highlights of the calendar. If only I’d arranged to stay a few more hours… (and maybe it still can be arranged? is it worth it?)

As a perk on the side, I had not realised that I would also be travelling further west in Australia than I’ve ever been. On the flight, I happened to want to know the time, and turned on the only reliable channel on the barely-renovated 1980s inflight entertainment system of Singapore Air’s Boeing 737-400, which pinned its pixelated aeroplane icon at Uluru. This surprised me, as I’ve previously only travelled northward to Asia. So I’ve finally been to Central Australia (not that I could see it from row G). Next time I should make a stop-off.

31 May, 2009

Upset by evolution

Filed under: Judaism,Religion,Society and culture by Joel @ 1:48 pm, 31 May 2009.

I did not attend a Shavuot dinner hosted by Young Adult Chabad with Emeritus Professor of Statistics Abraham Michael Hasofer speaking on the conflict between Science and Religion: Do they Conflict?. I have only heard one attendee’s summary of the argument, and in public rhetoric the audience’s response is perhaps more important than what was said itself.

The summary suggested that since science has not decoded the mechanics of genetic mutation on the scale required for functional evolution, humans were created by God and are not descended from apes.

Seeing as the person who attended and summarised the talk for me had no desire to be descended from an ape, this was preaching to the converted. I hope it was not what Hasofer said, as I would think it clear to a statistician that the lack of clear scientific evidence to fill in all the holes in a theory is no real support to a counter-argument. I still fail to see the exclusive disjunction between creation and evolution.

But I was just as shocked by the idea that someone I know would have real aversion to the idea of being cousin to a gorilla or chimpanzee. Is this person equally shocked that our food is grown in something as disgusting as manure? Do they forget that they are cousin to genocidal serial killers, murderous tyrants, and fraudulent businessman? Do they find no compassion for animals, be they apes, or our more distant relatives the dogs and the snails that they are so upset to call them “cousin”, “friend”, “granddad”? Surely, we humans are at least as disgusting, even if we claim to be so with greater sophistication.

18 May, 2009

Four letter words

Filed under: Language by Joel @ 10:41 pm, 18 May 2009.

As one does at birthday parties, some friends of mine attempted on Saturday night to find words which have newly appeared in English in the last 50 years or so and which have exactly four letters. (Of course looking up a list of neologisms online would be cheating!)

The only completely new word I’ve found is blog.

Other words since suggested include [to] text [someone], spam and perhaps [the] dole. All of these are new senses to words, rather than wholly new words.

Can you add to the list (without cheating)?

Edit: where possible, make sure that it is a recent addition to the language, perhaps with citation.

13 May, 2009

Too much to learn!

Filed under: General,Judaism by Joel @ 11:36 pm, 13 May 2009.

The Limmud-Oz 2009 programme is out. It’s the tiniest shard of what’s available at London’s Limmud, or other copycats in North America, Europe or Israel. It clearly lacks their masses of Jewish-learning celebrities, but does what it can considering our distance from the rest of the Jewish world and the fact that we have a habit of exporting our best.

Still, it is exciting to see a Sunday scheduled with 11 hours each generally packed with over 10 presentations. Warning! Keep away from me: I will be a black hole of indecision.

It’s the first time I’ll present, too. Unfortunately, one session, on finding the correct Hebrew accent has been stuck in the last slot. Another, on learning the Bible with secular and traditional texts is in the same evening hour of the previous day. I guess I’ll need to find a way to keep people awake… I’m also helping to bring the Limmud chavruta programme to Sydney together with Lior.

All very exciting. Hope to see you there!

10 May, 2009

Finally, a zemirot wiki

Filed under: Chazanut,Music,Siddur,Technology by Joel @ 4:07 pm, 10 May 2009.

Of sorts. One project I no longer need to do because someone else has. I don’t know how long has been around, but I’ve long intended to create a site where people can share Jewish tunes with each other. And break down a monopoly of tunes from the Virtual Cantor, who is being over-used now that taped chazanut is no longer as popular.

Of course (in my way of doing things), my idea was somewhat more ambitious. Which is why it never got done. I’d like to see:

  • More annotation of the origin of lyrics and tunes
  • Links between tunes which are applied to different prayers

Essentially this means that the tune and the words are separated, and each of them could be annotated with Hebrew, transcription, translation, authorship/variant notes… and somewhere in the intersection people would upload recordings. Maybe I can ask Mendy and Gabe to work on it. Or mabye it was just too much to ever make a site out of and they’ve got it right.

Either way, I’ll need to find some time to record some tunes. (Because most of their voices are terrible…)

17 April, 2009

Matzah without the crunch

Filed under: Food,Halakha by Joel @ 1:20 pm, 17 April 2009.

I want fresh, soft matzah served daily in Pesach! Why do the Yemenites get all the fun?

It is clear that biblical matzah isn’t in fact referring to our crisp (if sealed i the factory), indigestible, bubbly sheets:

16 April, 2009

Finding Israel’s moment

Filed under: General by Joel @ 10:33 pm, 16 April 2009.

I’ve belatedly decided to enter the “Israel In A Moment” photography
competition being run for Yom Haatzmaut. I need a max of three, chosen and sent in tomorrow (Friday April 17).

Which are your favourites? Let me know ASAP!

  1. Evening on Rechov Yafo
    Evening on Rechov Yafo
  2. Train views of Haifa
    Train views of Haifa
  3. Fences and fruits of hebron
    Fences and fruits of hebron
  4. Boy at the Wall
    Boy at the Wall
  5. Many types of Jew
    Many types of Jew
  6. Sunset over the West Bank
    Sunset over the West Bank
  7. Paper prayers 1
    Paper prayers 1
  8. Paper prayers 2
    Paper prayers 2
  9. Haifa rooftops
    Haifa rooftops
  10. Olive branch over Jerusalem
    Olive branch over Jerusalem
  11. Overlooking Jerusalem
    Overlooking Jerusalem
  12. Jerusalem’s children
    Jerusalem's children
  13. Haifa’s cats
    Haifa's cats
  14. Mall in snow
    Mall in snow

14 April, 2009

Athens in brief

Filed under: Europe by Joel @ 12:44 am, 14 April 2009.

View of Athens from Lykavitos Hill

On arrival in Athens last Monday, weary from 24 hours in travel, I was faced with a round of poker and lost. Don’t use EuroChange. I thought I was being careful, and even made calculations on my computer before approaching the counter. But they take advantage of the tired and naive. I bid low, they pushed me up to a higher bid, and I was sold a deal I didn’t need: too much money; too much commission (foolishly absent from my accounts); and a guarantee of the same rate and no charges to exchange up to 30% of it back, when there was no chance I’d spend 70%. So really I was just conned. And as I exited the airport to get a bus ticket, there was Piraeus Bank with a better rate. So said a recently-skimmed finance textbook: banks can always offer better rates; they exchange much larger quantities in one go. Again, don’t use EuroChange.

So I spent the week trying to spend money, but the opportunity didn’t arise. The hotel was pre-paid and fed me each morning. Lunches were provided at the conference (I survived on salads and bread). James shouted me dinner on the first night; the conference had a cocktail dinner on the second (identical to the lunches), and a banquet on the third (different chef, but similar salads); and Itamar, an Israeli student with British sponsorship wouldn’t suffer the indignity of me paying for my own dinner on Thursday night. (Note that the vegetarian situation isn’t as harsh as suggested by My Big Fat Greek Wedding: some Greeks avoid meat a couple of days a week for religious reasons, there are spinach pastries, etc. But there’s still a lack of all-vegetarian venues and even fresh fruit, despite the orange trees standing in public squares.)

Train station madnessAthens' Sefaradi synagogue Friday night and Saturday lunch with a Chabad couple were free meals, but I hoped to bring a 20 Euro donation to synagogue as shabbat was entering. Close to shabbat, I was ready to hop off the metro at Thission Station when the train drove right past it, seemingly closed off for some time already. I had to change trains and go back. The sun was on the verge of setting as I left Monastiraki Station, so I had to dump the cash according to shabbat rules. I hope it found its way into good hands.

Despite my loss, I enjoyed Shabbat, the Greek traditions, the company and the cooked food that it brought. And stunning weather, in which I walked around all afternoon wherever I could go without a ticket. I saved the ticketed places for Sunday.

The National Archaeological MuseumInside the National Archaeological Museum And yet when I turned up to buy a ticket when the National Archaeological Museum opened at 8:30 on Sunday morning, they let me in for free, because it was the first Sunday in April. Even the ticket I’d already bought for the Acropolis was useless, as they would let me enter gratis. Not surprisingly, by the time I got back to EuroChange at the airport, I’d only spent 56% of my cash, and that was some effort.

A view of Athens through the Temple of HephaestusPhilopappos Monument, Acropolis and Lykavitos Hill The archaeology of Athens is wonderful, both its larger preserved monuments and ruined capitals, and the huge collections of smaller artefacts spanning thousands of years of art. While its ancient temples and chambers of democracy are something to behold, for tourists they are essentially the city’s beginning and its end, especially as almost everything worth visiting closes by 3pm out of peak season. It was the first city I’ve travelled in where I’ve been tempted to leave for the airport early, for lack of anything better to do.

Like all cities, it does have its secrets, those places just a little off the beaten track that are cheaper and just as rewarding as the traditional traps. The view from the Hill of MusesA pleasantly empty Monastiraki Square In particular, I enjoyed the Philopappos Hill (or Hill of Muses), and the view it gave in all directions, to the sea and to the hills. Starting out before everyone else turns up is also key: the sites close early, but they tend to open at 8 or 8:30, at which time you don’t need to push people out of the way just to get some quiet time with a statute of Hermes for a photo.

So I’m glad I wasn’t hanging around in Athens for much longer than needed to see it, but next time I hit the Agaean Peninsula, I’ll hope to spend more time on islands, at Delphi, Olympia, Thessaloniki, etc. Maybe by then they’ll have caught up with the world in smoking bans, and perhaps by then I’ll be wiser with my finances.

2 April, 2009

Talking syntax at Syntagma

Filed under: Europe,Student life by Joel @ 6:28 pm, 2 April 2009.

I’m in Athens for a week. It’s the shortest trip I’ve ever made out of Australia, with a day’s padding on either side for travel. I’m here for the 12th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, a small mouthful, like many titles of the papers being presented here.

Conferences are all about communication and learning, but I feel like the main thing I’m learning is how to attend conferences. My supervisor considers that having spent a lot of money to get here, we should make sure we see as much of the conference as possible. Other people seem to think, that having spent so much to get here, one should make sure to see as much of the city as possible. It’s a matter of learning to know which sessions to take off and get out to see the city. And I’m apparently a slow learner, and have seen almost nothing of it, which means I’ll be cramming it into the next three days.

And then there’s the idea that once I’ve travelled halfway across the world, I should at least stay here for a little longer than a week. I was bound by two major concerts last week and Pesach (which I enjoy spending with my family in Sydney) next week, but I still feel guilty to be hopping back on a jet so soon.

And of course I could do with learning a little better how to present a paper. I gave my presentaton on Analysing Wikipedia and Gold-Standard Corpora for NER Training yesterday afternoon. Having gone over-time in my practice runs, I cut it down a little on stage. Apparently too much. The session chair didn’t need to hold up a single warning sign. Still, it left more time for questions, which showed people were interested, and I’ve had many compliments on an interesting presentation. I also need to work on fluency a little, but my supervisor tells me I’m much improved…

The learning curve’s a little steep. There are many PhD students here who seem to be becoming naturals at conference-going. Soon by me?

PS: I’m not really doing much on syntax myself; nor is the conference actually at Syntagma Square, the focal point of modern Athens…
PPS: Typed on my new MacBook.

21 March, 2009

Looking for a new laptop..?

Filed under: General by Joel @ 9:55 pm, 21 March 2009.

My laptop’s been beaten up a bit much over the last three years. It’s not the most stable/reliable machine, although it became somewhat less stable in some senses since I deleted Windows and installed kubuntu a few months ago, which has trouble going into “hibernate”, among other useful things. It’s an ugly, heavy, widescreen Dell Inspiron, with a broken hinge to its monitor, and with great troubles at properly sleeping and waking up if I close the computer.

And recently, its battery finally told me it’d carked it. While I can live without it working detached from power, it’s got its obvious advantages. And I’m still in the habit of pulling out the power-cord when it’s not completely shut down, and it doesn’t like that without any other power source to rely on.

I need a computer to rely on, and one I can carry around on my back. For the next three years at least.

Do I keep the laptop and find myself a new battery? Or should I go and buy a new one, and forget all my worries for at least another few months until I’ve damaged it enough? What should I get? What do I do with my old one.

I have no interest in Windows currently, and am enjoying my experiment with Linux, but would be happy with an apparently more reliable, and certainly better-supported, Mac system. But I have little idea about what’s worth purchasing out there… Help! And quick!

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