GRE in two weeks

Pressed by application deadlines for doctoral programs in the United States, I have booked myself to write the Graduate Record Examination on November 16th.

In an ideal world, I would have more time to prepare for the GRE. As it is, American programs require complete applications including GRE scores between December 1st for the earliest schools and January 15th for the latest. November 17th is the last possible day to write the test and get formal results by December 1st.

In addition to dealing with the GRE, I need to assemble references, statements of intent, research proposals, and so on.

It is all a bit daunting. I am thankful for the efforts of a particular young woman who is doing more than anyone to keep me sane and generally on track.

Night of Dread

Yesterday, I participated in the novel, engaging, and pleasantly pagan festivities at Toronto’s Night of Dread. Put on by the Clay and Paper Theatre Company (whose work I have photographed before), the evening involved both small and gigantic representations of fears including ‘corruption’, ‘nuclear war’, ‘selfish leadership’, and ‘lack of stability’.

Accompanied by drummers and brass instruments, a parade marched out from Dufferin Grove Park and out around the neighbourhood before people assembled to see some of the fears burned atop a massive bonfire, followed by more music and special bread. I can’t explain exactly why, but seeing families and children at the event was comforting and encouraging. It may have something to do with the act of physically coming together within a community, making art, and participating in a non-commercial spectacle together.

The sense of history that accompanies gathering around a fire is also a comforting reminder that humanity has always had troubles. It is easy to look at woes from nuclear meltdowns and tsunamis to wars and currency crises and think that we are living in the worst of times, or even the end of times. Gathering in a manner that would have been recognizable to people from thousands of years ago drives one to think about all the fears, misfortunes, and tragedies that have afflicted the world across that span, and it kindles a hope that we might overcome (or at least continue to contain) the dangers and sorrows that exist now.

The symbolism may not be sophisticated, but it is rather satisfying to see enormous representations of fears marched around and eventually burned. The pyrotechnic element reminded me of Luminox.

Not generic boilerplate text

British journalist George Monbiot has turned the ‘about me’ page on his blog into a sort of mini-autobiography. It is an interesting read. For instance, he describes some of the time he spent in West Papua, traveling with forged papers:

We were as reckless and foolish as only young men can be – this is why wars get fought. We threw ourselves into and out of a great deal of trouble. At one point we had to walk and canoe for four weeks from the central highlands to the south coast. We became lost in the forest for several days and ate insects and rats to stay alive. I was stung almost to death by hornets. We also had some close brushes with the occupying Indonesian army.

It’s comforting to know that people can have such adventures and go on to write books about climate change and columns for The Guardian.

The serial (Oxford) comma

When writing lists, there are two different conventions for what to do before the final item:

  1. Lions, tigers and bears are charging toward us from all directions.
  2. To fend them off we will need rifles, pepper spray, and dynamite.

I strongly prefer the second approach, where the final item is set off with a comma, and not just because of where I did my M.Phil.

I have heard some people argue that the commas in a list are stand-ins for the word ‘and’. Instead of writing “life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, we should therefore write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. To add a comma between “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” while keeping the “and” is redundant.

I can see the point of this argument, but I think it takes too mechanical a view of language. The purpose of every element of language is to convey ideas and – James Joyce aside – it is usually best to do so clearly. The Oxford comma is very clear. The writer has a list of items, and each item is separated from each other item by means of a comma. In the event of a higher level list, with items separated by semicolons, the final semicolon would surely not be omitted:

His crimes were many: some related to property, like theft and burglary; some related to reputation, including many slanders; and some wanton violations of the Law of the Sea, particularly the disregard of established conventions for deciding maritime boundaries.

In this data-driven age, the serial comma is also in keeping with mathematical and computational conventions. The set of prime factors of my telephone number is: {2, 3, 11, 89, 709453}. Comma separated values are also a common way to store and exchange data sets.

My hope is that I have won over a waverer or two to the serial comma approach. If not, can we please at least agree to put only a single space after a period? We do not live in the age of typewriters anymore!

Unusually occupied

Sorry for the recent lack of photos and content generally. In addition to full-time work and three hours a day spent commuting, I am working on job applications, apartment hunting, preparing applications to doctoral programs, and getting ready to write the GRE ASAP.

Despite the many highly valid objections against doctoral programs, they are looking like my best option at the moment.

[Update: 10:32pm] If you want to read something much more interesting than my blog, I suggest T.E. Lawrence’s book about trying to join the RAF incognito after his famous Arabian adventures. The whole thing is available for free online, in two versions. There is one with curse words, and one for those with delicate ears. It’s remarkably modest for a book about a military hero. Right out the outset, he gets embarrassed by a doctor noticing that he has been too poor to eat well during the past few months.

FileVault in Lion

While the interface changes in Mac OS X Lion are confusing, the whole-disk encryption provided by FileVault is a definite step forward.

People who have their laptops stolen and then find their confidential documents posted all over the internet really have no excuse. If it is sensitive, it should be encrypted – especially if it is on a portable device that cannot be wiped remotely.

I hope a future release of iOS includes comparable whole-disk encryption capabilities. iPhones and iPads are even easier to lose than laptops.

Fight spam! Gain life satisfaction!

Spammers are getting especially annoying these days, with targeted messages.

I have been striking back, though. My honey pot has recently caught a few of them red-handed, to be reported to such authorities as there are for such things.

If you run a web server and you want to help combat the scourge of spam, consider joining Project Honeypot.

You get a certain definite measure of satisfaction when they email you to let you know that your honeypot has helped to identify a server contributing to spam, such as by harvesting email addresses.

So far, I have contributed to the identification of a few dozen malicious IP addresses, hopefully preventing quite a lot of spam.