Friday, March 31, 2006

Look how much "easier" technology makes our lives

A couple of minutes ago, my office mate told me she needed to ask a question of the guy in the office next to ours. This is a good friend of hers, so not remotely scary or likely to be perturbed by her dropping in.

She stood up, walked out the door and took a few steps down the hall (so got 90% of the way to his door).

Next thing I know she's back at her desk booting up her computer.

"Didn't you find [guy next door]?" I ask.

"He's probably there," she replies, "but then I thought to myself, what's Instant Messenger for, if not moments like these?"

Friday poetry blogging

I feel slightly ashamed of admitting to liking work by a person who has committed such crimes against poetry as The Magpies, which is kind of the literary equivalent of pop "songs" like that one by ATC that came out a few years ago: My heart beats like a drum (dum dum dum).

But I've always liked Dennis Glover's "Sings Harry" cycle, so I'm going to post a poem from it anyway. Let's just pretend it was written by someone else, okay?

Once the days

Once the days were clear
Like mountains in water,
The mountains were always there
And the mountain water;

And I was a fool leaving
Good land to moulder,
Leaving the fences sagging
And the old man older
To follow my wild thoughts
Away over the hill,
Where there is only the world
And the world's ill,
Sings Harry

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Unusual juxtapositions inspire creativity, right?

Does anyone out there have experience with organising conference sessions? I've been fiddling with the programme for the conference workshop I am organising for July (which has now (d)evolved into a two day affair), and I just cannot find a sensible way to order them into groups that doesn't leave at least one random person all by themselves.

I feel a bit like I'm planning the seating for a wedding where Aunt Edna can't sit next to Cousin James because they haven't spoken in ten years, and Uncle Arthur isn't allowed to be too close to the bar, while Cousin Amanda in her gothic makeup will give the religious side of the family a heart-attack if she's in their line of sight.

I finally thought I had something workable (although it left the one person who's giving a talk on Spanish tacked onto the end of the Australianist afternoon), but now I've had requests from two people to be moved from Saturday to Sunday because they'll be arriving late, and that screws up all the sessions all over again.

Also if anyone pulls out at the last minute, I have four substitutes waiting in the metaphorical wings, but their papers are on completely different topics, so I can't just slot them into the sessions that have a gap without it being really obvious they are last-minute fill-ins. On the other hand, I don't want to have to reorganise the whole programme again later down the track if anyone does pull out.

There's the added complication that the main conference sessions running parallel to ours are being planned around us (i.e. we have sent our preliminary programme to their organiser, and she will try not to schedule parallel sessions that will be of interest to our presenters for times when they are speaking.) So any major changes now will not just screw things up for us, but also for the organisers of the main conference.

Does anyone have any helpful tips? Or opinions on how important it is that papers at conferences follow some sort of thematic grouping?

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A student shows a fundamental misunderstanding...

...of the amount of work that goes into marking.

My classes handed in their second major assignment on Tuesday (deadline = 5pm). Most students handed in between 8 and 10 pages of densely-argued work. I have 67 of these to mark, and the less troublesome ones seem to be taking me between 15 and 30 minutes each.

At my first class this morning (11 o'clock, so less than 48 hours after they submitted these assignments), the first student to arrive bounces up to me all bright-eyed and excited and asks, "Do we get our assignments back today?"
I laugh scornfully, then try and turn it into a cough, because students don't like to be scorned. (Look! -- I know the fundamentals of how to be a good teacher). "No, you won't get them back until next week," I reply.

"But we handed them in days ago!"

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Any other procrastinators out there?

I've spent the last half hour muddling my way through the Linguist List's "game without rules". Most of the levels are easy for linguists, because they are often things we've given our intro classes ourselves (or used at our dept trivia nights).

But I'm stuck on level 14.

I'm sure the answer should be cranberry, but obviously it isn't, because that doesn't work. But because I am so sure it should be cranberry, my brain is refusing to come up with any other possibilities. How many synonyms are there for "crayon", anyway, dammit?

I was feeling guilty about wasting time playing this game, especially when I turned around and saw one of my supervisors standing in my doorway, watching me play. But while I sat there blushing, he asked, "What level are you up to? I've just finished level eight." So I'm not alone.

But if anyone knows the answer to level 14, please send me an email. (I promise I'll only read it if I still haven't worked it out for myself by tomorrow).

What Starbucks has done for Australia

Coming into uni this morning, I saw a gang of louts: guys in their late teens or early twenties, wearing hooded sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up, sneakers with the laces undone or missing, trouser crotches halfway down to their ankles. They were lumbering along, jostling each other and grunting as only young louts can do.

And each of them was carrying a Starbucks takeaway cup of what looking to be some sort of flavoured macchiato with sprinkles on top.

Now that's what I call street-cred.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Geekman on how to be articulate

"I cooked dinner! Its horrible look belies its nectar... ness... tasting... thing."


Turns out that the Microsoft update my computer was trying to download from the mothership this morning was a patch to solve all my time/clock problems. Guess it didn't fall for the New Caledonian ruse after all.

I know what they're up to

Sitting proudly on every desk in the country, they sneer scornfully down their monitors at us. Puny humans, they think to themselves, they dare to pretend to know what time it is. What time zone they're in. Bah! What arrogance!

The computers are smarter than us, faster than us and much, much better connected. Now, finally, they have tipped their hand and taken the first step on their mission to wrest control of the world from the humans they despise so much.

This year, because of the Commonwealth Games, Australia gets an extra week of daylight saving time before we switch the clocks back. Which now happens next Sunday. Except that the computers don't like changes to their routine and have stubbornly dug their heels (powercables?) in.

On the Sunday just been, I came in to do a few hours' work at university. I told Geekman I'd be home by 6:30, so left the office when my computer clock showed 6:20. Which turned out to be 7:20, because computers know best and daylight saving should have ended. Thus saith Microsoft.

On Monday morning I set the computer clock (at my exciting new government job) forward by an hour, so that it was no longer wrong. When I wasn't looking it changed itself back.

We continued this battle of wills on and off all day, my computer and me. Finally I realised that the only way I was going to get any peace was to convince it we had moved countries. So I made a few jet-engine noises to support the illusion, then scrolled through the available list of countries and settled on New Caledonia. Nice and balmy. Good food. Good wine. And most importantly, the time in New Caledonia is the time my computer should be displaying for Australia right now.

That'll show it.

But still my computer sneers at me. Now it is requesting unreasonable Microsoft updates. I think it's got all suspicious because no one around it is speaking French and it's trying to contact the mothership for further instructions.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Something we all wish someone would say to our students

Me to Geekman: "My biceps are killing me from our gym workout last night, and my lower back has pain in muscles I never knew existed."

"Yeah, my pecs are a bit tired this morning, too."

"And my trapezius is just this big seething mass of soreness. And my glutes -"

"One of us whines more than the other."

"It's me!"

"I've noticed."

"I win!"

"There's no extra credit for whining."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Who's with me on this one?

I'd like to found the Society Unconditionally Against Vague Exhortations (SUAVE), whose role would be to abolish such stressful semi-invitations as "You really must stop by and say hello sometime."

The HOD's wife is an archivist in the government department I have just started doing a little bit of work for. At the department party on Saturday when she heard I was going to be working in her building, she uttered the dreaded, "Then make sure you stop by and say hi to me."

As people always do.

Now HOD's wife seems to be a lovely person, but I've only met her two or three times. If I did stop by, what would I say?


What's the point in that?

Best/worst case scenario: she'd invite me for a coffee or to have lunch with her, and we would each have to find things to talk about with a total stranger for at least 15 minutes.

Probably HOD's wife doesn't really mean me to drop in at all. But then why say it in the first place? And what if she does mean it and I don't drop by, and she thinks that I think that she thinks that I think she hates me? Or that I've snubbed her? Or something.

I had a lecturer once do this to me on the last day of class for the year. "Come by my office and say hi whenever you get a chance next semester," she told me. And of course I didn't. And then I ran into her at a conference a few years later and she complained that I'd never come back to chat with her any more after her course was over.

So to avoid these sorts of fraught situations, I propose we ban this sort of half-invitation completely. If you really want someone to come and see you, why not suggest something specific like, "Do you want to meet up for morning tea on Monday?" If you don't know the other person well enough to do that, then you have no business saying anything at all. So there.


Work work work work work work

I started (another!) new part-time job today. I'm working one day a week for the next two or three months for a government department, updating their website, and fixing various technical glitches.

I only did seven hours today, but my god! I had forgotten what it was like to do what I think of as "essence of work" for so long at a stretch. "Essence of work" is essentially (hah!) what you actually get done in between answering emails, attending meetings and seminars, talking to people who drop by the office to chat, making coffee, etc, and I generally don't cope well with doing more than an hour of it at a time.

In one of my parallel lives (a.k.a. other part-time jobs) as a research assistant, I only get to bill for the time I actually spend working, so I tend to spend less time doing all these frivolous bits and pieces and more time achieving measurable goals. All the same, on an afternoon devoted to research assistant work, I might "work" for four hours, but only be able to bill for three.

Today, though:

  • I didn't know anyone yet (apart from one person who is working on another floor), so had no distractions from people stopping by to talk to me.
  • I'm just casual staff, so didn't have to attend any meetings.
  • I had my own office, so no distractions from office mates.
  • I was still feeling ultra conscientious (and only Internet Explorer was available), so spent no time at all surfing, checking email, or similar.
  • It turned out the building has no cafeteria or nearby shops, so I took no lunch break.
  • There was nowhere to walk to, and no cups in the tearoom, so I didn't have any reason to leave the office much at all.
All of which led to me spending seven hours straight doing essence of work.

This was a bit of a wake-up call to my slacker PhD student persona. But I'm hoping that the rhythm set up by starting each week with a day of full-on work like that might spill over and influence my work ethic for the rest of the week.

There's no harm in dreaming.

The OTHER real life. The one outside your computer

Going into university yesterday afternoon, since it was a Sunday, we would have had free parking. So Geekman asks me, "Shall we take the car or cycle?"
"Let's cycle. We haven't had any exercise all day."
"Speak for yourself!" he says. "I've been running all over the empire, jumping over stone walls... not to mention spending half the bloody day swimming around the lake looking for slaughterfish to whack."

Realisation dawns.

"You meant in real life, though, didn't you?"

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Some neat sentences I came across

Here are some fun examples of sentences that are unparsable (or nearly) due to too much embedding. Most of them can be interpreted if you pull them apart very slowly, or replace some of the conjunctions with different ones.

* The cheese that the rat that the cat chased ate was rotten.

* That that the world is round is obvious is dubious.

* If, if the sun is round, the moon is also round, a shark would be a mammal because a whale is a mammal.

* That that that they are both isosceles is true is obvious isn't clear.

The next one, amazingly, works fine (as long as said out loud with the right intonation) despite having four "that"s in a row:

I believe that that that that child said isn't quite true.

I think these things are almost (though not quite) as much fun as garden-path sentences (which are things like "The horse raced past the barn fell").

(Click on "read more" if you can't work out what any of the above sentences are supposed to mean.)

Here are some slightly improved versions of the first three sentences in the list above:

? The cheese that the rat, while the cat chased it, ate, was rotten.
? That, if the world is round, the moon must also be round is dubious.
? If the moon, if the sun is round, is also round, a shark would be a mammal because a whale is a mammal.

And the garden path sentence I gave should be parsed as:

[The horse [(which was) raced past the barn] fell]

Because our brains are trying to second-guess everything, though, they interpret the the horse raced bit at the beginning as "agent" + "transitive verb" and then won't let us rethink this when the rest of the sentence doesn't make sense.

Another observation from the party

The more linguists drink, the worse their puns get.

Case in point:

HOD was telling us about a guy he knows who is studying secret trading languages in (I think) Papua New Guinea. Each tribe in a particular area has a different trading language, which is taught to any male members of the tribe who are to become traders. When two traders run into each other in the bush, they each use their variant of the language. If they can understand each other, then they know they must be from related tribes, hence they can trust each other, and therefore they trade. No shared secret trading language = no trade.

After telling us about this, HOD mused aloud: "It's funny how which secret language you know depends on who you are related to. I suppose you could say these are clandestine languages."

Suddenly a year doesn't seem such a long time after all

I went to a linguistics dept party last night for a friend of mine who has just submitted. (Submitted her thesis, that is, rather than generally submitting to linguistics, though that happens too.)

And we got to talking, as we have at each of these things I've been to, about who in the department is Next In Line To Hand In.

Turns out that now it's me.

Urp. Not for another year and three months, but it's still a scary thought.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The curse of approachability

As I mentioned in this post, ScaryLecturer made it fairly clear that this semester I would have more students coming to see me in (and outside) my office hours than I usually do. But this is getting ridiculous!

This week there were perhaps only three or four times that I would arrive at my office in the morning, after lunch or after being somewhere else, that I would not find a queue of students waiting to talk to me. I have also been inundated with emails. And after the lectures (which I attend, but I usually hide near the back and do marking), the students make a beeline for me to ask stuff, rather than going to talk to ScaryLecturer.

The thing that bothers me most is that there are usually three or four students ten minutes before their tutorial who want to ask questions. I just don't understand why they can't ask them during class. Like, in the bits where I say, "How did you all find this week's lecture material?" or "Does anyone want to ask anything about the assignment?"

I have tried everything I can think of to make tutes a non-confrontational place to talk. I begin each class with a five minute discussion where they brainstorm what they think the new concepts and skills are that have come up in the last few lectures and readings, which occasionally leads to one or two people asking some questions as well. I've tried splitting them into small groups and getting them to talk to each other about what they are finding fun, hard, or incomprehensible, so that they will hopefully see they all have similar problems. I've had them anonymously write down one thing they want us to go over again, or a question they want answered, then I've collected up the papers and answered them in random order, so that they can see they aren't each the only one with questions.

In terms of classroom atmosphere, I think I have done everything the same as last year, and last year I didn't have this problem.

I have tried confronting the students directly about it when they come to me
with a question before a tute. "Before you go," I say, "I'm just curious about why you didn't wait and ask this in the tutorial in five minutes."

The answers I have had fall into three groups:
"I thought it was a really dumb question."
"My English isn't very good and I'm embarrassed to talk in front of native speakers."
"No one else would be interested in the answer to this question."

My response to these has been lots of reassurance (and sometimes pointing out that the three people who were in front of them in the queue outside my office had the exact same question). But this doesn't seem to have stemmed the flow.

I have thought about directly addressing the problem in class, but I am worried that the students who aren't the culprits (e.g. the ones who might just have one or two things they want to see me about all semester) will take this as a brush-off and will be too scared to come and see me the one time when it might be important. Also I did start the semester by telling students they were welcome to come and talk to me anytime I was in my office (stupid, stupid, I know, but last year no one took me up on this, so I thought I was safe). The course evaluations, however, have a whole section on whether the instructor was "available to assist students outside class times". And we all know I don't want negative evaluations.

So what do I do, dear internet?

The main problem I would like to solve is the issue of people asking questions before the class (or afterwards) because they are too shy to ask them in the course. Especially since a lack of people asking questions in class reinforces the idea they each have that everyone else is way smarter than them because no one has any questions.

The other issue I need to address is the few students (I can think of three) who are treating me like their own private tutor on retainer, and who drop by several times a day with questions, requests for clarification, wanting to go over material again one-on-one. There's one in particular who came past six times this week. The last two times were yesterday afternoon, and as she left after the second time (when I had told her to go ask ScaryLecturer about her questions, since "he is the real expert"), she turned at the door and asked, "Are you always here on Friday afternoons?"
"Not always," I said, suspecting where this was going. "I'm in and out a lot."
"But you are around some of the time?"
"Um, yes..."
"Great!" she beamed. "I'll stop by every Friday, then! See you next week."

I'm not so worried about people coming to see me in other circumstances, like the horde of one-off supplicants I had yesterday who had questions they needed to talk about before the weekend so that they could do their assignment. Ideally, this shouldn't be happening either -- they should be coming in my office hours, or seeing ScaryLecturer -- but I really don't mind putting in a bit of extra work when it isn't sabotaging my classroom atmosphere or reinforcing the belief that I have no other responsibilities except to my students.

But any suggestions you have for dealing with the rest of the little sods darlings will be met with undying gratitude.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Poetry Friday

I've been wanting to join the crowd that's been posting poetry on Fridays for weeks now, but I keep forgetting it's Friday until it isn't anymore.

This week I remembered, but my three all-time favourite poems are *gasp* not available on the internet. And although I think I know them off by heart, I can't be sure I wouldn't get a word or phrase wrong if I post one from memory. So you'll have to wait until next week for one of those, by which time I will have corrected the sad gap on my bookshelf that whispers, "Fill me with poetry," at me whenever I walk past.

So here is a poem I like a lot, although it's not my favourite. The second verse especially appeals to me.

(Warning: pretty much every poem I am ever likely to post here will be depressing. I love miserable poetry).

No Worst, there is None

Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

I didn't think I was so androgynous

In a Homeric Greek reading group I go to, there are always three or four times as many women present as men. Today, for example, 12 women and three men were there. One of the three men is an elderly gentleman who studied Greek at his private boys' boarding school in a decade that has long since been swallowed by the mists of time.

In one of our many many diversions from the topic at hand, we all got to talking about which of Homer's characters we'd like to be seated next to at a dinner party. After a few people had mentioned their favourite fighters, this gentleman spoke up.

"None of us would be seated next to any of these heros! A proper dinner party seating arrangement is always male female male female and so on."

"Yes, and most of us here are female," replied the person who'd posed the question in the first place.

The elderly gentleman looked around the room slowly, as though seeing us all for the first time. Gradually his face took on a look of genuine surprise. I think all these months he must have been sitting there dreaming he was back in his schoolboy days, and hadn't for a moment realised that he was surrounded by women! who are reading! Greek!

Poor man. I hope his heart can stand the shock.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sleep? What is this sleep you speak of?

My copy of Oblivion has arrived!

But since I am having my busiest week in ages, I am now faced with difficult decisions. Such as whether to make time in my horrible schedule for sleeping OR eating OR playing Oblivion.

I think Oblivion is going to win.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Giant sentient ant nearly costs StyleyGeek her sanity

See this? See it? This freakily large insectoid is what, in this country, passes for an ant.

See it being bigger than StyleyGeek's finger. Now spend a moment imagining what an ant of that size could get up to in its spare time.

Given what short work your average-sized ants can make of a picnic, I'd say it's no exaggeration to fear that this one could get together with his mates and carry off everything in your house.

As this thing poses such real and present danger to our hearth and homes, I just knew the minute I spotted the Creature above my front door early this evening that it was my sacred duty to bring evidence of the Great Australian Ant Mutation to the attention of the internet.

Selflessly risking life and limb, I rushed inside, carefully stowed my shoes and bag (and keys) in the Careful Stowage of Shoes & Bag Place, and ducked back out the door to procure photographic evidence of this anomaly.

I am convinced that it was use of Evil Ant Mind Control powers that caused me not to notice the door swinging shut behind me.

Locked out.



Carrying nothing but a camera and a dining room chair (for standing on to photograph the ant).

There were, however, a few happy coincidences that meant this evening wasn't as big a disaster as it could have been:

  • Geekman was due back from New Zealand tonight, along with his set of keys to the appartment.
  • He was arriving back at the bus-station, which is walkable from our appartment, not at the airport, which definitely is not (although half an hour's walk at night barefoot through this city is not something I can recommend all that highly).
  • It is still early enough in the year that spending three hours outside in a t-shirt and without shoes, while unpleasant, is not likely to kill a person.
And I have learned some useful lessons, which I might even manage to implement before tonight fades from my memory entirely:
  • Make a spare key to the appartment and leave it with friends
  • Leave a little cash, a warm pullover and some socks in the car (which is easily break-into-able in an emergency).
  • Memorise the phone number of at least one friend so that you can call someone to come rescue you.
And most important of all: ignore the siren song of giant sentient ants.

I support free food freedom

One of the things I love about this university is the amount of random free food around the place. Just about every week for one reason or another (and often for no discernable reason at all) there is a free BBQ in the central courtyard.

So most students have got in the habit of joining whatever queue they spot anywhere on campus in the hope that there are free sausages at the front of it (your choice of kosher, halal, vegetarian or rabid meat lovers'). This does have the disadvantage of near-rioting occuring whenever someone has the audacity to try and actually raise money by selling sausages and burgers (the bastards).

But yesterday some sort of record was broken, even for this uni. On walking through the courtyard at lunch time, I not only spotted a free BBQ, but was approached by random people offering around giant platters of tropical fruit, and I kept nearly tripping over enormous vats of rice crackers that had were not-so-surreptitiously scattered around in the middle of the lawn. It turns out this was all in aid of something called Harmony Day, which as far as I can tell involves lots of orange balloons and a small band of tambourine-playing Hare Krishnas.

Better yet, as I got closer to the library, I found all the peace-love-and-harmony type student groups were giving away samples of various types of Foreign Muck, presumably in an attempt to make Australians associate immigrants with such delights as baklava, spring rolls, marinated olives, dimsims and various unidentifiable Asian sweets.

All of which I sampled happily. Because I am a whole-hearted supporter of peace, love, harmony and free lunches for all. Known for it, I am.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dinner with MacGyver

"What the fuck happened to that saucepan?"
"I think that one was an incident with a circular saw."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Best sandwich ever

Cream cheese, smoked chicken, and cranberry jelly.

What's your favourite sandwich? (Yes, I am getting desperate for ideas for my increasingly monotonous lunches).

Today's corny joke is brought to you by StyleyGeek

For reasons I can't go into without admitting I'm an even bigger geek than you all thought I was, I spent yesterday out in the middle of nowhere, helping friends dig wells and concrete over small children anything that moved random squares of dirt.

Here is a picture of the middle of nowhere (Australian flavour).

But the whole point of this story is that I got sunburned, again. This time my excuse was that my sunhat fell into the creek when I was hauling out water* to use for mixing concrete.

So I guess you could say that I burn at the drop of a hat :)

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha HA HA HA!

I am not mad.**

*I said we dug wells. I didn't say they worked.
** I link to ScaryDuck here because this is apparently What One Does when one uses his catchphrase "I am not mad" and I am a good citizen of the blogosphere who knows all the rules and plays nicely with others. (Please be my friend).

Sunday, March 19, 2006

In which we narrowly miss a chance to get massive amounts of compensation

Geekman has been in hospital in New Zealand* this week for knee surgery.

Because -- lucky him -- he has two knee injuries. One for each knee. His right knee was damaged ten years ago in an ice-hockey accident, and has had numerous operations with little success. The cartilage is entirely gone, and there is severe arthritis, making movement difficult. What he really needs for that knee is a joint replacement, but they won't do that on someone of his age (35), since they only last for about 7-12 years and each future replacement has dramatically less chance of success than the last.

His left knee, on the other hand, Geekman damaged a few months ago when he randomly slipped on the pavement. A recent scan showed a cartilage tear which has not repaired itself. So this surgery was for the purpose of smoothing out the rough edges of the cartilage on this left knee. Or something. I don't claim to understand medical terminology.

However, when he had his appointment with the surgeon to arrange for the operation, he also got to talking about his right knee, the more seriously damaged one, and whether there was anything that could be done for that. The surgeon said that there were two possible procedures that might improve the situation, but that he couldn't guarantee either of them would work. One was called a "lateral release", which as far as I (don't) understand it, involves some sort of slicing of ligaments, and the other is removal of the kneecap. (Which is apparently about as necessary as the appendix, wouldn't you know.)

In the time between that appointment and the surgery for the minor cartilage damage to the left knee, Geekman has emailed the surgeon once or twice with follow-up questions about the two possible right knee procedures, thinking that maybe he could opt to have both knees dealt with at the same time.

I really don't think there was any ambiguity in his emails. The most recent email to the surgeon, for example, began:

"The current situation is that I am booked in for arthroscopic surgery for the suspected cartilage tear in my _left_ knee. The decision I need to make is whether I should have the lateral release on my right knee at the same time."

As it turned out, the surgeon was unable to fit both procedures in on the day the surgery was scheduled for, so Geekman and the surgeon agreed to just do the left knee for now. A few days after all this was arranged, he received the consent form from the hospital, which required him to sign his consent for "surgery on the right knee".

As you can imagine, he contacted the hospital and babbled wildly to anyone who would listen about how everyone is trying to kill him calmly informed them the surgery was supposed to be for his left knee, not his right. And when Geekman left for New Zealand on Monday, I made him promise he would double-check with the surgeon beforehand that the message had been passed on.

This is an excerpt from the email Geekman has just sent me:
"The doctor stopped by briefly before the op because I'd left messages all round the hospital demanding to see him before they put me under, and he wanted to know what I was all fired up about. Good thing that I insisted on seeing him because while he had the correct leg, he was planning on performing the wrong procedure, i.e. the one that would be done on my right knee if I were to have something done to it. I would have woken up with unnecessarily slashed ligaments.

Also, in the course of the conversation we talked about the emails I had sent him. "Oh," he said, "I thought all that was about the same leg.""
You have to wonder how come people like this are allowed unsupervised access to a scalpel...

* Some of the cost of the operation is covered by insurance if he has it done in NZ, but not if he has it done here.

Deeper than your average graffiti

Seen today, spray-painted on a wall (I would have taken a picture, but my camera batteries were flat):

My audience has not yet been born

Saturday, March 18, 2006

You want change, YOU go to the bank!

Middle-aged, heavily made-up woman with steely helmet hair, standing by a parking meter: "Hey! Hey!"

I look around. She does mean me.

"Do you have change for a $5 note?"
"Let me see." I fumble through my purse. "I'm sorry, I only have 20 cent coins, which I need for something myself."
"That's okay. 20 cent coins are just perfect." She holds out her hand.
"No, I mean, I need them for me. Sorry."

Helmet woman gestures at the bank behind us. "Can't you just go in there and get some more?"

In which StyleyGeek's students win an award for the highest proportion of plagiarizers

I'm having plagiarism issues.

At the start of the semester, I gave all my classes the standard "what is plagiarism and how to avoid it" talk, in which I specifically mentioned things that students in past years "haven't known" were not allowed (such as working together and handing in identical assignments, copying notes word-for-word from the textbook as an answer, etc).

One thing I apparently didn't mention was that they aren't allowed to copy and paste directly from their online lecture notes. Now, I would have thought it was self-evident, and would have had no problem coming down hard on one or two students who did this in their first assignment.

But of 67 students, I had 12 (12!) who handed in assignments that were pastiches of copied-and-pasted lecture notes, complete with all the original typos and irrelevant asides.

It took me a long time to work out what had happened. For each of the twelve it was obvious there was something weird going on, since some of the answers seemed to refer to examples we had talked about in class, rather than the examples they were specifically asked to comment on.

Then there were the irrelevant asides, such as, when addressing the question of what the word order patterns were in some Swahili example sentences they were given, the students wrote: "The word order here is SVO. As is common in Langauge [sic], strong transitive verbs such as "hit" and "kill" tend to cause the agent to be mapped to subject and the patient to map to object". There were no verbs "hit" and "kill" in the examples! And they had not been asked about the mapping of agent and patient.

I quickly realised that there were 12 papers that had entire paragraphs that were identical to each other, but since these were students from different groups, and also since I had specifically told them not to work together and there was no attempt at disguising the similarities, I couldn't believe that was what had happened. It took me another couple of hours to track down the source of the copying, starting by looking at the textbook, the rest of the assigned reading, the class handouts, and finally thinking to check the online lecture notes. And there it was.

So what do I do? The department guidelines distinguish between deliberate plagiarism, for which the student automatically fails the whole course and has a note put on their permanent record, and "accidental plagiarism", for which the policy is to give them no marks for the assignment and put a note on their permanent record. For all except the best of them, the latter course of action would also mean they fail the course, since this assignment is worth a large percentage of their total marks. We are also required to meet with the course convener, the HOD and the dean about each case, as well as prepare a document on the evidence of plagiarism. This is a lot of work even for one student (as I discovered last year). I don't think I could handle doing it for 12 of them.

Also, the fact that such a large proportion of the class seemed to think this copy-and-paste method of writing an assignment was okay maybe points to the problem being some sort of miscommunication of expectations, for which I am presumably partly at fault.

The course of action I am tending to at the moment is:
(a) being really brutal about taking off marks for inclusion of irrelevant material (which will mean none of the 12 will get much above a bare pass on this assignment)
(b) giving each of the students a verbal warning, and the class in general a talk about how this sort of thing is not okay, AND
(c) keeping a note of who was involved so I can scrutinise their work in future very carefully for signs of repeat offending.

ScaryLecturer told me the response is entirely up to me, but that he would have no problem treating it like standard plagiarism. On the other hand, he also believes that a student handing in late work (even an hour after the deadline) without having previously negotiated an extension should get no marks for the work whatsoever.

Also... 12 students!

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Go ye hence and read

Teaching Carnival VII is up at the Salt-Box.

Not one, not two,

but three different people (or different IP addresses, at least) have now found this blog by googling for "random haircuts".

What sort of person googles for "random haircuts?" For that matter, what sort of person googles for "random" anything?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

How to confuse an Australian

There's (at least) one thing that Australians do that still catches me out every time.

It's the "How __ is __?" when they mean it as an exclamation rather than a question.

My office mate turned to me today and said, "How hot was it last week?!"
I'm still not entirely sure what the correct response to this would be. But judging by the look of bafflement on her face and then the way she rolled her eyes, I am pretty certain it's not what I replied, which was, "32 degrees."

A question of nomenclature


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The joys of market segmentation

I flew a budget airline. This is nothing new for me, but this time it all went pear-shaped.

Due to the nebulous "family issues" that I mentioned earlier, I had to get to New Zealand for a few days to see my parents. I could only go from Friday to Tuesday, since I teach Wednesdays and Thursdays and couldn't get anyone to cover for me. So I booked myself on the Earlier Than You Would Think Humanly Possible Flight on Friday morning, and a Later Than You Might Ever Want To Consider Flight on the Tuesday coming back.

Because my city has no direct flights out to anywhere interesting (I am convinced this is a badly-disguised attempt to stop people leaving, for fear our population might dwindle to nothing), I was forced to catch the So Early It's Still The Night Before connecting flight to Sydney. Between the arrival of this flight in Sydney and my Budget Airline From Hell flight out again, I had a slightly narrow window of 1 hour 50 minutes. I am usually paranoid about having enough time when travelling, so this made me a bit uncomfortable, but the other options were:

  1. flying to Sydney the night before, which would require me to find accomodation that didn't mind me arriving after 11pm, and was within my budget
  2. catching the only other budget flight that day from Sydney to Christchurch, which would get me to Christchurch at 11.30 pm instead of midday and thus lose me almost a whole day of my five day trip
  3. paying $400 more for one of the few remaining tickets on Qantas, which, as even the $800 price tag of my budget flight was over the limit of what I could really afford, was not an option.
So the upshot of it all was I was a tight-arse and booked the budget flight, trying to suppress the thought that my plane from here to Sydney might be delayed and screw it all up.

Which it was.

I did still get to the check-in counter for my flight to Christchurch 58 minutes before the flight was due to depart, however. Sydney airport is not very large and the departure gate was only 5 minutes walk from check-in, through very quick and easy customs/security checks. Nevertheless the bastards nice men from Jetstar refused to let me check in because check-in closes 60 minutes before departure. Even when I *blush* begged, pleaded and cried all over their counter they couldn't/wouldn't bend the rules, but did helpfully explain to me about market segmentation and how if Jetstar didn't have horrible service, there would be no reason for people to fly Qantas any more.* So I watched my flight depart from the viewing lounge and spent the next ten hours in Sydney airport waiting for the evening flight that they charged me lots of money to be put on instead.

They were also unable to get a message to Christchurch airport for me, so that my poor mother, who wasn't at home to get my phone message about the change of flight, had no idea what had happened to me and had a bit of a crisis in the airport herself.

Finally, when I went to check in for the evening flight, despite having taken my money earlier in the day, Jetstar had no record of my booking and tried to tell me the whole thing was a figment of my imagination. Fortunately I still had my receipt and the flight wasn't full.

I would like to be able to say that I at least got lots of marking done during the ten hour wait at the airport, but in actual fact I spent most of the time being fully brought up-to-date on the exploits of the five children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren of Nancy Watkins, age 82, who comes from a sheep farm just outside Invercargill.

Mrs Watkins was travelling back from visiting a grandchild in Australia and was just delighted that she was not the only one to have missed her flight, since she gets so lonely waiting in airport lounges on her own. If her granddaughter had been there, she would never had let such a thing happen. Oh no! Her granddaughter will be contacting Jetstar and the Flight Centre and Qantas and probably the Prime Minister to let them know that such behaviour is Just Not On. Her granddaughter is very pretty and clever and has two darling little boys.

I have seen photos.

* Qantas owns Jetstar.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Life in the Stone Age

There's the world's slowest dial-up internet connection here and only Internet Explorer as a browser. So no more posts until I get back on Wednesday, when I will write something about my Flight From Hell.

Oh, and I'll also do something about the fact that this blog layout is all trippy when viewed with Internet Explorer (although I am tempted to say it serves you all right and you should go and use Mozilla Firefox instead).

But I'm all sweetness and light and don't want to alienate my readers. Except for any Jetstar airline employees among you, who can just go and do something highly unpleasant to yourselves with an sledge-hammer.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


A student came up to me after my final class today and, red-faced, stammered quietly, "Um... uh... there's something I should... um... probably, like, kind of tell you about."

All sorts of scenarios began to play through my mind. Was she about to admit to cheating on the assignment? Had she made some sort of complaint about me? Was she about to out herself as my secret stalker?

"It's like, um... well..." and then she finally got to the point: "You've got a hole in your bottom."

I have to admit that my first thought was, doesn't everyone?

Unfortunately, her meaning quickly became clear. I did indeed have a very large rip in the back of my trousers, and my left arse cheek was happily enjoying the light of day. Checking with my office mate later, she verified that it had been like that all day (but she hadn't thought it worth mentioning).

Which makes me wish today's classes hadn't involved quite so much writing on the blackboard.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

You, too, can rediscover the joy of marking

It's my experience that almost any unpleasant task can be made less trying by having a special song to sing while doing it.

When I first learned to drive, I really hated the whole process. Until I came up with my Driving Song, which made it so much more fun (and, oddly enough, discouraged pesky passengers). It was sung to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell", and went something like this:

We're all going to die,
We're all going to die,
Hi ho the derry-oh
We're all going to die.

As I lived in Christchurch at the time, which has a road named Kilmore Street, a friend kindly made up an extra verse (to a slightly different tune) for me to use on special occasions:

Kill more people
on Kilmore Street,
la la la la la la la
something something feet.

You can see from this that Unpleasant Task Songs don't exactly have to be works of art. Which is good, as I am not a working artist.

I have, however, composed a special marking song for times of great need, such as this afternoon when I started on the 67 assignments I have to mark by Tuesday. So I thought I'd do the whole internet a favour by posting it here. (Names in this version of the song are fictitious; when I sing it in real life they most certainly are not):

Sarah, Sarah, you write in sparkly pink pen
You dot your "i"s with hearts
I refuse to ever read this again.

chorus: Tra la la, tra la la,
You fail, you pass,
Tra la la, tra la la,
I wish you weren't in my class

Jason, Jason, why was yours five days late?
Let me see, could it be?
You have no clue what the point of the exercise was? I hate

repeat chorus

Katie, Katie, there are 79 of you.
Is it too much to ask that
you write down your last name too?
You fail.

repeat chorus

Alan, Alan, you write like a thesaurus
On steriods.
It's a shame that in class you ignore us
so that your paper is contentless crap.

chorus: Tra la la, tra la la,
You fail, you pass,
Tra la la, tra la la,
I wish NONE of you were in my class

Except Mandy, because she worked out the answer to question seven.

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Someone sent this to me "on the email"*

Check out these pavement chalkings by Julian Beever! (Scroll down to the 3D illusions set).

I had no idea such 3D illusions were possible just by using perspective like that. (In fact, I didn't believe these were real until I saw the two photos of his globe drawing: one from the illusion perspective and the other from the side, so that you could see how it was done).


Please excuse the continued blogging of photos and links in lieu of actual, written posts. This week is rather stressful. You will be returned to your regular scheduled programme, um... eventually.


* What is it with elderly people and the phrase "on the email"? This is not normal, right? Is it some sort of extension of "on the telly", or "on the phone"?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More soothing cuteness

My office mate took these photos in her garden last night:

She's been hand-feeding the mother possum for about a year now, and last night the little baby came along for the ride. Mama possum was even tame enough that she didn't mind baby possum being handled.

In my country we make them into socks:

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Monday, March 06, 2006

And they wonder why so many of us are moving to Australia

I was shocked by an article in the New Zealand news today that claimed the average New Zealander's income from wages and salary, when adjusted for inflation, has decreased by NZD $148 per week (approx. US $100) in the past 15 years. That's a decrease of 25%!

In 1989 the average NZer was earning $529.98 per week (about US $350). Last year, the average was $592 (US $394). Australia is doing better, with the average wage over here last year 37% higher than the New Zealand average, while the cost of living in the two countries is approximately the same.

Admittedly the minimum wage in NZ has risen a lot during the same 15 year period, so there are probably fewer people living in the worst sort of poverty, but I bet there's a much higher number of families who are finding it really hard to make ends meet.

I guess it's time for us to stop congratulating ourselves on having the lowest unemployment rate in the world and to start worrying about the fact that there doesn't seem to be quite enough money to go around.

(You can read the rest of the article here.)

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Is there a doctor in the audience?

I'm suddenly suspicious of this flu-like bug I have developed. Mostly because my beestung finger from last Monday swelled up again a couple of days ago and has been red, swollen and itchy ever since. And I just realised that it's been doing that since I got sick.

So I'm wondering: could that just be a side affect of whatever bug I have, or are the flu-like symptoms maybe a delayed reaction to the bee sting? Is that even possible? It would certainly explain why I can't think of anyone I've been in contact with who I might have caught this off, and also why no one else around me has come down with it.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

I blame these incoherent ramblings on my currently equally incoherent life

Still sick.

And now I'm off to New Zealand on Friday. Just for four days: a trip which I could never justify in real life, but some family issues have come up which demand that I be there.

Since no one's actually died, I can't get anyone to cover my classes (actually, I'm not sure the university has official provision for that even if someone does die, but that's the only situation where I've seen it happen before). So I'm just going from Friday until Tuesday, so as to be back for my Wednesday and Thursday classes.

I've never done this spur-of-the-moment-plane-ticket-buying thing before, and it's all scary. Especially since it ended up costing nearly three times as much as it would have if I could have booked more than six days in advance. But on the other hand, these are circumstances in which I would have been willing to fork out even more than that, if it had been necessary.

Don't tell anyone, Internet, because I feel terrible about admitting to feeling glad about any part of what is going on with my family right now, but it's kind of nice to have an excuse to go and visit. It's over a year since I visited my parents last, and about six months since I saw them when they visited us here. Usually I don't feel I can justify forking out the $1000 or more that it costs for both Geekman and me to get over there unless we have time to stay for more than a week. Which only happens about once a year. And between us we have three sets of family (it's complicated), spread out across a distance of 1000 km, so we can't usually visit everyone in one trip.

I got to thinking about this a few days ago, actually -- before this whole thing came up -- and realised something scary: if I continue to see my parents only once a year (it's probably more like 1.5 times a year at the moment, but may well be less than once a year if we move away from Australia), and if we assume that my parents will live to the age of 95, which is probably overly optimistic, that means I'll only get to see them maybe 35 more times. Ever. And that sucks. Because I like my Mum and Dad.

So what to do? Moving closer to them is not an option at all, since there isn't any group in New Zealand that does Geekman's brand of physics, and physicists, while generally loners in real life, apparently have to be part of a herd in order to work.

The obvious answer, then, is just to make more trips. At least, that is the conclusion I came to a few days ago. It means that I have to persuade myself that it is worth making such a big trip even just for a week (or less?), if that means I can get there more than once a year.

Hopefully the few days I'll be spending with my family next weekend will help convince me of that. After all, how could I possibly put a monetary value on the possibility of adding to that (horribly, shockingly small!) number of times to spend with them that I have left?

Making me feel like the country cousin

"I just love New Zealand! It's so... retro."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

How to ensure you come down with a lurgy

Post on your blog about the fact that you haven't been ill in three and a half years.

Profgrrrrl (I think -- I can't find her archives to check) has often noted that she only has to post about having lost something in order for it to immediately show up again. So maybe the same sort of contrary magic works for other things we blog about too.

*snuffle* *snuffle* *sneeze* *cough* *cough* *wheeze* *ache* *shiver* *tremble* *snuffle* *snuffle*

Friday, March 03, 2006

Rush rush *gasp* rush rush *sigh*

Too busy to write a real post right now (and probably for the rest of the day) and you're probably too busy to read one.

So here are some completely irrelevant pictures of baby pandas to soothe your frazzled brows.

They are from Wolong Giant Panda preserve in China, where 16 baby pandas were born last year.

More pictures on this (somewhat one-track) blog.

I can't help hoping they don't have to spend too much time snoozing on hard wooden floors, though, the poor wee dears.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Yay for repeats!

My 11 o'clock and 4 o'clock classes today were such a contrast to yesterday's group. And I really can't work out if it was due to them or me. Probably a combination of factors (warning, death by bullet points ahead):

  • I was more relaxed
  • I changed a few things that didn't work so well with the first group
  • More of the class had done the assignment (like, 60% instead of 20%)
  • There were at least five students in the 11 o'clock group and three or four in the 4 o'clock one who had "really got" the material and had smart questions (in yesterday's class there had only been two)
  • And best of all, the students were more talkative (they even replied directly to each other rather than always through me -- we almost had *shock horror* a discussion on our hands, and that in the first week of class!)
I like the fact that with multiple repeats the tutor gets three shots at getting it right. But it kind of sucks for the students in the first group that they always get to be the test rabbits* rather than getting the finished, polished version.

The only crappy thing about today's classes was a fundamental mathematical problem:

21 (the number of students in each group) > 19 (the number of available chairs and desks) > 15 (the number of chairs and desks that would comfortably fit into the room).

* I know, I know. I meant "guinea pigs". But I typed "test rabbits" first, probably due to some weird cross-pollination between the part of my brain where German lies in storage and the rest. And then I decided I liked it better that way after all.

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Bring on the fear and worship

Me talking with my office mate:

"I've just had another email from someone who didn't get her abstract in by the conference deadline. But I'm inclined to view this one favourably."

"Why? Did she have a good reason?"

"No, but she started the email with, 'Dear Professor StyleyGeek, I am pleading with you to extend the workshop deadline'. I like people calling me professor and throwing themselves on my mercy."

"In that case, you're perfectly suited to a career in academia."

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I need to get out more

create your own visited countries map

Seen at Lucy's. Thanks to Lucy also for pointing me in the direction of these funky things, which I spent far too much time last night playing with after that "Exhausted... going to bed now" post.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

And another thing

Why oh why is it that no matter how many times I tell myself to associate each student's name with a physical characteristic, I leave the class with each name closely linked in my memory not to the corresponding face, but to where they were sitting?

Exhausted now.

Next year someone remind me not to set a deadline for conference abstracts that I am in charge of for the same day that teaching starts. And not to volunteer to format and send out the department's newsletter, well, EVER, but especially not the same day as teaching starts and conference abstracts (and excuses and pleas for extensions) are flooding in.

Going to bed.

Why, oh why, oh why...?

So I just had my first class. And am left mulling over the same questions I find myself mulling over every year. The difference between this year and every other year, however, is that this year I have a blog. So instead of keeping this mulling thing to myself, I get to mull out loud to the whole internet:

  • Why do students always spend the first week doing baffled frog impressions? (Eyes wide, mouth slack, looking like they'll leap 100 ft into the air if I so much as make eye contact with them).

  • Why, in a class of silent people, is there always one person who feels bad for you and ends up answering every question? And why doesn't the rest of the class feel bad for him/her, even if they don't feel bad for me, and pull their weight?

  • Why is there always a student who writes something so hilariously and unintentionally funny on their assignment that you desperately want to share it with the whole internet?*

  • Why is there always one person who has looked up every technical term from the lectures in the Concise Oxford dictionary? Then the fact that the dictionary definitions are not identical to the ones used in the course makes her brain explode and she lies in wait for unwary tutors in the hallway to point out (nicely) that you are wrong because the dictionary says so. (Actually, that isn't every year. I guess this semester is just special.)

  • Why does no one ever ever ever read the syllabus? You know, the one that explains that you had to have your first assignment handed in by last Friday. So that I could return it in class today. Which means that (a) saying "I didn't do it because I didn't know it was assessable" (b) bringing it to class today because you couldn't find the box to put it in on Friday or (c) saying "I didn't know we had to hand it in" (because, you know, I can mark things by telepathy) are all going to get you penalised. What sort of penalty? The penalty listed on the syllabus. you. freaks.

  • And when a student asks a smart question about the assignment -- one that shows he has been thinking about it and making connections and maybe even doing extra reading, and you answer it and he "gets" it so that his eyes light up and you see his mind scrabble around and heave itself up to the next level of the rock-pile that is the discipline, and then you see him realise how much better the view is from up there than it was five minutes ago -- how come then, all of a sudden, these hassles and irritations are just so worth it?
* But you won't because you know that there's a real danger the student might google the keywords from their sentence and find their own work being mocked by their tutor. (Which is probably not a good way to go about encouraging them to open up more in class.)

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