Sunday, September 30, 2007

Highlights and lowlights

Highlight of the conference:

My paper did not suck. And this was 80% thanks to all your wonderful suggestions, 10% thanks to me pulling an all-nighter the day before, and 10% thanks to the fact that at least half the other papers I went to sounded like they had been scraped together 10 minutes beforehand from the mouldering remnants at the bottom of someone's research barrel, making me look good in comparison.

Lowlight of the conference:

Friday night, 8pm. Due to nerves and last minute paper rewriting, I hadn't really eaten all day. I was tired and overwhelmed. And then I missed the bus back to my hostel. Walked back, 30 minutes, in the rain. Spent the whole walk dreaming about how I would eat a hot dinner and crawl straight into bed.

I reached the hostel, let myself in, and noticed a piece of paper taped to the door of my dorm: Tess, since you didn't pay for tonight yet, we have sold your bed. Since I am not Tess, not even in real life, I ignored the note and walked on in. One of the guys in the room shot me a Look and said, "Read the note on the door."
"Yeah." I replied. "Who's Tess?"
"The note. On the door," he said. "Your bed is gone."
"I'm not Tess," I repeated, baffled. Went over to my bed. There was someone in it.

Turns out the hostel had mixed me up with someone called Tess who hadn't paid. The place was full. My stuff was piled out by reception, which was empty and locked. The phone number on the door reached nothing but a disconnected signal. At 9pm, I realised my chances of finding alternative accommodation for the night were pretty low.

It did take a lot of walking around in the dark, knocking on closed doors and full hotels before I found something. But when I did, they were wonderful. They felt sorry for me, gave me a half-price room all to myself, with an ensuite bathroom, and it included a free pancake breakfast the next morning. And when I went back to the first place the next day and metaphorically kicked the metaphorical shit out of the not-so-metaphorical receptionist, she apologised and gave me a full refund plus compensation.

But it's strange, because if someone had said to me that I could upgrade from the overcrowded, deteriorating hovel that was Annie's Place (bedbugs, spiders and inconvenient location all included at no extra cost), to a friendly, clean, quiet place like Sunny's, have a room to myself, an ensuite bathroom, and free pancakes for breakfast, and that they would pay me to do so, I would have been overjoyed. As it was, this is essentially what happened, but I'm still pissed off about the whole situation.

The bastards.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Still no trousers

But instead, I bring you Adelaide's most photographed object: The Mall's Balls.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Two lists with a complex and unpleasant relationship to each other

Things I can't find but should be able to
My new brown trousers
My black handbag
My pajama pants. Any of them.

This doesn't make sense to me, given that this house only has three non-kitchen cupboards, and I've taken everything out of them and put it back in again twice during tonight's search already.

My day tomorrow
9am Doctor's appointment
10–11am Teach class 1
1112 Teach class 2
12 Meet with student about his essay
12:301:30pm Meeting
2pm Meet with student about her essay
34pm Teach class 3
4:30pm Leave for airport
5:40pm Fly to Adelaide for conference

And it looks like I'll have to do it all without trousers or pajama pants.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The weeks of doom are nearly at an end

Two weeks ago I sobbed all over Geekman, brandishing a list of upcoming things I had to do before mid-October, any one of which had the potential to be a horrible disaster. Now I think I'm finally over the hump, and nothing has gone at all wrong yet.

  • Finish marking 82 assignments.
  • Design the next piece of assessment.
  • Pre-prepare two weeks' worth of lectures and tutorials.
  • Organise the first round of a competition for an organisation I belong to.
  • Organise and run a dinner and the semi-finals of this competition: approx 50 attendees.
  • Host two sets of house-guests.
  • Write conference paper.
  • Attend conference.
  • Submit dissertation.
Although the final item on that list is kind of a big one, you wouldn't believe how reassuring it feels to have got this far.

Audible gasp

One of the topics I wanted to cover in today's lecture was one that had left an impression on me when I first encountered it in my own undergrad days. There was some data in particular—evidence for the psychological reality of a theoretical construct—that I couldn't remember the details of, but did recall finding compelling and cool and spooky. I wanted to show this to my students today.

It took me a long time to dig up the relevant information, to come up with good illustrative examples, to make the appropriate slides, and to tie it into the rest of my lecture, and in the end, it just didn't seem as cool as I had remembered it being. I nearly left it out, but fortunately did not.

I say fortunately, because when I got to that bit in my lecture, I revealed this piece of data (without any especial emphasis or drama), and from a few of the students came an audible gasp. One of them let out a quiet, "Oh, my god!"

So for the rest of the day I have been remembering what it was like to come across new ideas like this, and compelling evidence for a theory, and to tie it all together for the first time. It gave me goosebumps then, and the reactions of my students gave me goosebumps today.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Advice sought

I'm going to a conference later this week, and haven't really written my paper yet. Too many other things have come up (teaching, visitors, the thesis, more teaching, 82 fricking assignments to mark, sitting in a corner panicking, more teaching). The topic is something from my thesis, but something I've only really touched on a little. I had planned to spend a few weeks doing some extra work to turn it into a better supported idea. If I try to give a paper on it with this little preparation (four days), it will be pretty craptacular.

There's no question of cancelling my attendance at the conference: the plane tickets are paid for and non-refundable ($300), as is the conference fee ($250), and even my accommodation will charge one night's stay if I don't show. So my dilemma is whether it is a potentially worse career move to give a craptacular paper, or to cancel my talk at this late notice when it will be pretty obvious to everyone present that it isn't because I am sick or maimed, but just disorganised.

What would the rest of you do?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is this really something to be proud of? Or to tell your lecturer?

I ran into one of my students today at a secondhand book fair. She was standing in a corner without any books.

"Haven't you found anything you liked yet?" I asked her.

"Oh no," she replied. "I'm just waiting for my brother. I don't, like, read books or stuff."

Par for the parental visit course, or midlife crisis?

So far on this visit my father has gotten drunk, insulted my friends, spent more money than he can afford, and hidden himself away for hours at a time to make whispered phone calls to his secret girlfriend.

I don't know why everyone expects priests to be paragons of virtue!

Friday, September 21, 2007


A young woman sitting on a park bench, talking into her mobile phone, "So I'm taking four weeks off uni... Yeah, I was meant to have two exams this week, but I'm putting them off until next month... No, I'm not sick. I just don't feel like studying. It's like, it's all spring and stuff, so I just want to sit outside and read trashy novels. So I'm going to do the rest of my coursework in the final week of semester instead... Who? No, I haven't told him yet. Well, it's not like I could get a medical certificate or anything, so what's the point?"

I have a sneaking suspicion that the who in the last bit of the conversation referred to her professor. In which case she is probably going to get a bit of a surprise when she does get around to letting him know about her plan.

Bonus Australian wildlife!

One of the nice things about having visitors is it makes you wander around the city more. And then you see things like this:

Echidna, looking snuffly.

Water dragon, looking superior.

The same water dragon, wondering if I was ever going to stop taking photos and leave him/her the hell alone.

Coincidence? Or maybe my car hates my parents.

My parents have visited three times in the past two-and-a-half years. My car has broken down three times in the past two-and-a-half years. Guess when?

This means my parents believe my car to be much less reliable than it really is. ("It breaks down every time you use it!") It also means they intimately associate this city with time spent on the side of the road waiting for the Roadside Assist people.

(Of course, three breakdowns in two-and-a-half years doesn't make my car a winner in the reliability pageant. But yesterday's was pretty minor: the headlight switch stopped working, so the headlights wouldn't turn off. Which is a problem because I didn't realise it until after it had drained the battery, but isn't going to take much money or time to fix.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Signs that your scrabble partner isn't an experienced player

"What sort of a word is fa?!?" (or re, or qi, or de, or any of the standard 2-letter words).

"What does qat mean? How can you not know? Why would you learn a word without knowing its meaning?"

"That's not a word!"
"It's in the Scrabble dictionary. You can look it up if you like."
[He looks it up.]
"It's in there, but I still don't think it's a word."
"If it's in there, it's a legal play."
"But it's not a word! You're cheating!"

"I can't believe you used that triple letter score! I set that up for ME! You aren't playing fair."

(Yes, my father is visiting this week. Blogging may be light, or it may be whiny. Maybe even both. Are you excited yet?)

Spring is here!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Geekman is just plain weird.

"You're up early, Geekman."

"The religious people woke me up."

"What religious people?"

"All of them. I was lying in bed thinking about religion and it irritated me so much that I had to get up."


And, once again looking over my shoulder at some teaching preparation, "What's an unaccusative? It sounds like a parlor scene with a really bad detective. 'I accuse.... the BUTLER! No, I take it back. He didn't do it after all.'"

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Geekman does linguistics

Geekman, looking over my shoulder at a worksheet on syntactic relations that asks students to give an example of a complement and an adjunct:

"A complement: 'You're so pretty!' An adjunct: 'You're so adjacent!"

An observation

If you have two friends who also are friends with each other, and one is chronically early (frequently by an hour or so), and one is chronically late (frequently by 3 or 4 hours), you will all spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for each other.

(I love you both, anyway, guys.)

Peeping Tom

And, no, I don't clean my windows very often. Why do you ask?

Polling time

So, there's a student who got 16% on the assignment, but loses 20% in lateness penalties (10 days late at 2 percent per day). Do I give him 16% (many people in my department waive the lateness penalty if the student has failed anyway), 0%, or -4%?

Friday, September 14, 2007


On the post about the haka I should have noted that it is universally respected and feared across Australasia.

Things you don't want to hear your husband say while he is dying your hair

"I'm trying to make it look artistic."

"This will make it more interesting."

"No one looks at your head from both sides at once, anyway, do they?"

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Obviously the last post needed more explanation

Rugby and soccer are different. Rugby is closer to American football, but without all the girly padding. There is more mud and glory in rugby. And the game doesn't get interrupted every three seconds by an over-zealous referee.

Plus, rugby players are cuter. Look!

Joe Rokocoko

Doug "get a haircut" Howlett

And my favourite, Tana Umaga. He's so cute that he gets two photos. But then he went and retired, so it's hardly worth watching the World Cup this year. (Except for Rokocoko(kokokokoko), the one at the top. He's worth watching. Not just for cuteness, but because that man can run. And smile. His smile is the best bit.)

The NZ team, the All Blacks, do a Maori war dance before each game, known as the Haka. Other Polynesian cultures have similar traditions, which is why you get Tonga and NZ facing off in the video below.

In my opinion, the haka is the main point of the game. After that and the national anthems, it's all downhill and you might as well give up and go to bed. Unless Rokokoko or Umaga are playing, of course. Which Umaga isn't, because he retired. Did I mention that? I don't think he realised how much his retirement would affect my ability to watch rugby games, otherwise he'd never have gone and done it.

The other thing worth knowing about the haka is that traditionally the All Blacks have always done the Ka Mate (Death) haka. This is very popular, but has slightly cryptic words (very hairy man doing something, up and down and up and down, and something something sun shiny shiny, whatever), unless you know the story behind it, and/or your Maori is better than mine. Two years ago the All Blacks commissioned a new haka, Kapa o Pango (All Blacks), which is pretty cool, and with words that are more clearly relevant (not so much of the hairy), but it upset people because of a throat-cutting gesture at the end. Now they kind of alternate between the two.

The Ka Mate haka can be seen here.
Here's a slightly less usual variant: the leader takes his clothes off :)
Here's a karaoke version (you know you want to).
Kapa o Pango here.

In honour of the Rugby World Cup

Gingerbread men doing the haka! (Warning: don't put the volume too high. Gingerbread men have shrill voices. (Who knew?))

Following youtube links around this video, I found someone had uploaded a NZ vs Tonga faceoff where each team does their own haka. A bit too much focus on the All Blacks, unfortunately: I would like to have seen more of the Tongan one. Still very cool, though.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Being able to read is one of the skills that got us here

If there's one thing worse than a presenter who reads every word of every slide to you, it's one who follows along under the words with the laser pointer as he does so. Ugh!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The geekiness is strong in that one

I went to hear a talk by Jorge Cham of PhD Comics fame today.

If he ever gets sick of cartooning, he'd easily find a niche as stand-up comedian. Unfortunately the sheer scale of Teh Funny meant that the audience was soon conditioned to laugh at the end of each sentence. Which was awkward when Jorge transitioned to talking about PhD student suicide statistics.

Congratulations should go to whoever briefed him beforehand on Australian terminology. I was very impressed at the smoothness with which he replaced the term "ramen" with "two-minute noodles." The jokes about "quals" fell a little flat, though. (Huh? Exams? We aren't undergraduates! We don't DO exams.)

As for the free food and drinks, it was very impressive. I couldn't get near the food table for sheer swarminess of large engineering students, but there were so many drinks that one could, theoretically, have stuffed a few bottles of beer into one's bag to take home and drink later. Not that one would, of course. (Unless the catering was close to packing up and there were still some left. But even then, one wouldn't admit to it on the internet.)

Styleygeek understands statistics

Me to Geekman: "I'm always slightly concerned when the grades for an assignment form a perfect bell-curve."

Geekman: "Why?"

Me: "Because they never have before! (So maybe "always" wasn't the right word.) And it makes me worry I have set an assignment that tests intelligence rather than what they should have been learning."

Geekman, cryptically: "A convolution of two Gaussians is still Gaussian."

Me: "Two? What's the other one?"

Geekman: "I mean, if they are normally distributed for intelligence, and for hard-workingness, then you will still get a normal distribution."

Me: "But I don't think their success or failure in the assignment should depend on intelligence and hard-workingness."

Geekman: "What should it depend on?"

Me: "Whether or not they learned the material. And it's not hard, so they bloody well should have. Which means they should all get 100%... except for the ones who didn't come to class. They should get zero."

Geekman: "And then there's the morons. There will always be some morons."

Me: "Okay, so I want a trinominal distribution. A lump of absentees together near the bottom; a blob of morons in the middle; and everyone else together at the top. Do you think I can scale for that?"

(Posted here instead of at the secret hiding place, because I've run out of non-teaching-related material for here.)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Why I worried about my students today

Almost all 81 of my students have had a collective brainfart and decided that worried cannot be a verb.

In part of the assignment they have just had, they had to identify errors in simple sentences and explain (using correct grammatical terminology) what it is that makes these usages wrong. Often there were several mistakes per sentence.

In the sentence: "Him worried about that my problems", they correctly replaced him with he and that my with that OR my, and explained why these were wrong. Then almost 100% of them also corrected worried to is worried or was worried, explaining that it is not a verb.

These are (supposedly) native speakers of English.

As far as I'm aware, there aren't prescriptive grammarians going around telling people that he worried is incorrect, and the few non-native speakers I have did not "correct" it. So what's going on?

Birdwatching is so educational

"The rosellas are pecking each other! It's the big one. He's picking on the littler one. He's pecking her all over, poor thing. I'm going to go out there and stop him. Why would he be pecking her like that for no reason? Oh... wait. It's THAT sort of pecking... I guess there was a reason after all."

How long before we have baby parrotlets, do you think?

More observations from the assignment

It's so disappointing when a student misinterprets the instructions for an assignment, and by doing so sets themselves a task that I would never assign, is boring as hell, and will probably put them off linguistics for life.

And then I have to try and work out how to mark it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

And again!

The student I mentioned below wasn't the only one who thinks grammar is a pain.

From another assignment:

"English grammatical inflection poses a particular hazard to young children."

Friday, September 07, 2007

I guess this student finds grammar a little painful

Marking assignments today, I came across this little gem:

"Played is the verb play with the past tense affliction."

Question for the Australians

Who spray-paints roadkill green and why?

Up in the mountains last weekend we saw the usual mounds of dead kangaroos, wombats, possums, and so on on the side of the road in the early mornings. Then when I passed them again that evening, they each had a lime-green stripe spray-painted across them.

Theories various Australians have suggested, in order of decreasing plausibility:

  • The wildlife rangers use the paint to mark that they have checked the pouches for joeys.
  • Someone is counting them for some statistical reason, and they mark them as they go so they won't end up counting anything twice.
  • It's the newest trend in graffiti: using dead animals as your canvas.
  • They are being assimilated by aliens, one green stripe at a time.

What surprises me is that people don't know. If someone were decorating my roadkill, I'd be wanting an explanation.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

I'm such an overachiever

Remember how I set myself a goal of skipping one meeting a week?

Since then, I have missed every single meeting I could possibly have attended. That's a total saving of around 12 hours.

I need to set goals like that more often.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Apathetic Eight have an adventure!

The snow trip was a fucking nightmare. A very pretty fucking nightmare. Snow white and the fucking nightmare.

The main problem was that someone needed to explain to the trip leader that an intermediate-to-advanced trip does not automatically become a beginners' trip just because you say to beginners, "Yeah, it's for all levels! You'll be fine! If you can't ski it, you can just walk for a bit."

Walking 18 km (11 miles) uphill on a solid sheet of ice (yeah, the weather was a little bit to blame as well) while carrying skis and poles is no fucking fun at all.

Something else I learned
: You get what you pay for. Specifically, if you pay $10 to hire "everything you need for a weekend of snow camping and skiing", what-you-pay-for includes skis that are 20cm too long (they were out of my size, but "she'll be right, mate!"), a broken ski boot, and a sleeping bag that absolutely, no matter what they say, is not rated for minus degree temperatures (even when inside it you are wearing three pairs of socks, thermals, trackpants, pajama pants, jeans, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a polar fleece, a pajama top, a thick ski jacket, two hats, a scarf and two pairs of gloves).

A catalogue of my (thankfully minor) injuries:

  • A slight lack of skin down one arm (when you are sliding rapidly on your side down a hill towards a cliff, you start to really hope that enough skin will attach to the ice that it will provide a little bit of friction).
  • A chunk missing from the back of one foot (see broken ski boot, above).
  • A pulled leg muscle (from doing the splits one of the two times I did attempt to use the skis)
  • Bruises all down one leg (that sliding rapidly down a hill thing)
  • Cuts all over both hands (a falling forward onto ice thing)
Most of these happened at the start of the first day's six-hour "walk". (I prefer to refer to it as a "valiant uphill struggle against wind and ice, heroically ignoring searing pain and the fact that I couldn't lift my right leg more than 5cm in the air.")

At least there were wombats.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The foot meme, now with bonus wombat

This next photo is of my very first wombat. It's weird that I have been in Australia for more than three years and not seen a wombat. But that just made it all the more exciting. Even if it did spend the first five minutes of our encounter playing the "If I can't see you, you can't see me" game.

Eventually it came out to say hello, but I was a little bit nervous, in case it charged me. Which made the Australians laugh (a lot). But these things are big (around 3 feet long and 40 kg/90 pounds). And see the section on their behaviour in Wikipedia (which page incidentally has the best photo captions ever (Common wombat in the snow and A Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat sniffing).

Actually, pretty much every possible title gets better if you stick the word wombat in it.
Wombats on a Plane.
Brave New Wombat.
Wombats of the Caribbean.
The Wombats of Wrath.
The Wombat in the Rye.
The Lord of the Rings in all three incarnations:
The Fellowship of the Wombats, The Two Wombats, Return of the Wombats.
Wombats in Black.
The Wombat Ultimatum.

I could go on. But (you'll be glad to hear) I won't.