Thursday, June 29, 2006

I'm a mind reader, that's how

Today in my last class I thought I'd get away early. I had a test scheduled, and it wasn't a very big test. I'd arranged another activity, but I was fairly sure it would not fill up the entire class.

I was right, but I didn't get away nearly as early as I'd hoped. I'd completely forgotten that this was the class whose homework I collected last week, when I found the plagiarism and computer translation. I realized, when we were halfway through the test, that I'd chucked the rest of the homework aside in disgust and subsequently forgotten all about it, which meant that I hadn't marked any of it yet. And I'd promised to give it back today.

After we'd finished the test, I decided to confess. I held up the handout I'd given them about NOT USING COMPUTER TRANSLATION SOFTWARE and NOT PLAGIARIZING, which is written in English AND Japanese.

"Do you remember I gave you this, a couple of weeks ago?" I asked, and half the class nodded. The other half looked confused. After a bit of shuffling around of papers they discovered they had it, too.

"And do you remember the homework you gave me last week?" I asked, and half the class nodded again. I reminded the other half by showing them what they had given me, and eventually they nodded, too, but still looked a little confused. (Did I really expect them to remember something that happened LAST WEEK?)

"Well," I said, smiling benevolently at them all, "When I got home last week I started looking at your homework. I picked up the first one," and here I waved it at them, "and it was COPIED! From the INTERNET!"

I called the student's name, and he blushed and came to collect his paper, which was stapled to a printout of the web page he'd taken it from and another copy of the handout about plagiarism. He was laughing in an embarrassed way. The rest of the class hooted, including the one whose homework I held up next.

"And THIS one," I continued, holding up the next one, "used COMPUTER TRANSLATION SOFTWARE!" I called that name, too.

The offender came to the front and took his paper, also laughing and looking abashed. Everybody cheered him, laughing themselves silly. What wonderful entertainment!

I told the two students that if they didn't want a zero for their homework, they should do it properly and bring it next week.

"Use your own English," I said. "I am not interested in what someone on the Internet has to say, and I cannot understand computer translation English. All right?"

They nodded.

I stopped for a moment, with my hand on the pile of papers I still had on the desk. The other students had relaxed. They thought I'd finished. I had caught their classmates CHEATING, how FUNNY - but they were all right. They continued to tease the two guys who'd got caught, who were staring at their papers in amazement, as if they'd never seen them before. Some of the others wanted to see them, to find out how I'd known.

I waited for them to stop laughing at their unfortunate friends. Then I carried on.

"After that," I said, "I didn't want to check any more. I only did two, and they both got zero. I felt bad, so I stopped. And then I forgot."

I waited for that to sink in.

"So I haven't looked at the others yet," I said. "Maybe there are more. If YOU used computer translation software, or copied your homework, do it again, properly and bring it next week."

There was a silence.

"What did she say?" said one student to another, sounding slightly panicked.

I wrote it on the board as well. If you copied your homework, or used software, do it again. I haven't checked yet, but YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Then I got them started on the other activity I had for them.

While they were doing that, I flicked through the other homework assignments, and instantly found two more computer software translations. Then a student needed help with the activity, so I stopped checking and got back to the job at hand.

In a small break, I went back to the board and wrote,

I found some more computer translations. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Please do the homework again, properly. It is 15% of your final grade.

I went back to helping the students with their work. After a while somebody noticed what I had written, and turned to his friend, who was seated near the back. He waved frantically and shouted, in Japanese,


Aside: This student always speaks Japanese to me, and I always respond in English, but he doesn't seem to have noticed that I understand Japanese. Sometimes I pretend not to understand him, to make him use English, but often I can't be bothered. This makes me wonder whether he thinks he is speaking English when he speaks to me. I cannot understand why else he would admit to cheating RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME LIKE THAT.

"How does she KNOW?" he called to his friend, who was busily trying to ignore him and pretend his was not another paper that had been written with computer software translation. He was trying to be clever. In fact I'd had doubts about his paper (he hadn't written enough for me to be sure) and I could see he was mentally urging his friend to shut up, stop talking about it, maybe she hasn't noticed my one. He KNEW I could understand Japanese. He ignored his frantic friend.

Eventually I told the students that we'd finished and they could go. The cheating student pointed at the board.

"Am I safe?" he asked, in Japanese. "Is my homework all right?"

"What do you think?" I asked, in English, and laughed. I couldn't help it.

Another student approached with a real, actual, VALID question, and I started to answer him. The cheating student would not let up, though.

"Sensei! Sensei! I think you should tell us," he said, still in Japanese. "Who was it?"

I grinned at him. "You already know," I said, and went back to the student with the valid question.

"But SENSEI!" he persisted, loudly. "Is my homework all right?"

I got really impatient.

"Why do you want me to say it?" I snapped. "Do you want everybody to know?"

I waited, staring at him expectantly.

He waited, staring at me expectantly.

I didn't know what to do next, so I did the only thing I could think of. I turned to face the rest of the class, most of whom were packing up to leave.


Everybody laughed, and he grinned and shrugged at them in an Oops! I got caught! way. Then he turned back to me.

"Oh SENsei!" he whined. "I have to do it AGAIN?"

He sighed hugely, as if he thought I was being totally unreasonable.

Then he left.

As he went out the door I heard him telling his friend, who was waiting outside (and pretending all this had nothing to do with him),

"She knows!"

He sounded totally baffled and disappointed. "But HOW?"

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Some days I just can't focus

Faster Than the Speed of Light

On Saturday I was feeling depressed. This was not a serious depression (I never seem to be serious about anything, really), more an end-of-semester rainy-season bad mood. Work is absurd. My life is absurd. My so-called 'career' is going nowhere fast (which has been true for as long as I have been doing it, and doesn't usually bother me, but never mind that). I still have the lingering effects of my third cold of the year, a pile of paperwork backed up, and the weather is disgusting.

Because I was feeling so crappy, I did not get any work done. Instead, I went through the unread books I still have left over from the giant booksale at the beginning of the year (or was it the end of last year?) looking for one that would have the greatest chance of banishing the blues. I chose a book from the 'hard' pile, about cosmology. There is nothing like contemplating the Big Bang to add a little perspective to one's life, I find. When you are contemplating the beginnings of the universe, a bad mood becomes supremely irrelevant.

The book worked, wonderfully. Joao Magueijo's Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation is a roller coaster of a book, and it is impossible to remain depressed while reading it. Some reviewers dismiss the book as a self-involved whinge and its writer as a bristly protagonist, and so on, and a quick web search (or just a glance through the Amazon reviews) will reveal that there are plenty of people out there who think he is an arrogant upstart. But I didn't think he came across as arrogant. I thought he came across as a wildly enthusiastic clever person with no patience for stupidity or for meaningless paperwork or silly bureaucratic nonsense. He seems PERFECTLY sensible to me. It is true he is not particularly modest, but if he were modest he would not be coming up with theories that contradict Albert Einstein's. Also, his book would be much less interesting.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of endless, meaningless red tape that keeps you from doing your job properly, this book will probably make you laugh, because Magueijo says out loud the insulting things you will have wanted to say yourself but didn't dare, for fear of losing your job. He has been criticized for biting the hand that feeds him, but if you ask me it is the other way around. If it were not for scientists and academics (and humble teachers) doing their jobs, the bureaucrats and administrators who inhabit the academic world would be out of work. And when they muck things up for the educators, who's biting whom, eh? EH?

Also, I came across one critic (can't remember where I found this one) who complained that Magueijo has a cushy, secure job and complaining about it is ungrateful. But if you prohibit the people with job security from complaining about absurdities and ridiculousness in the system they work in, then who is going to complain, and push for change? The people who do not have security? THINK AGAIN, SHERLOCK. Secure, cushy-jobbed academics SHOULD be as loud and obnoxious and pushy as possible when they encounter ludicrous behaviour in administrative idiots who make it harder for educators to do their jobs well. If I complained I'd be fired, and there are far too many people in my situation. He SHOULD do it, for the insecure, uncushy-jobbed people, like me.

Yes, I know, he is at a British institution, not a Japanese one, and what he says is largely irrelevant to my job, but still, I got a vicarious thrill every time he got irate and insulting, which was often. It was music to my ears. Maybe if enough people complained something would get done about the problem of non-educators with no knowledge of what it means to educate being in charge of education. (These are not the only people he insults, but it is the problem I identified with the most.)

But I'm going off track. Really, it was the imaginative wanderings around the sci-fi-ish further reaches of physics that kept me on the edge of my seat while reading this book. The academic wrangling was just icing on the cake. I LOVED this book. I could understand it, mostly, and I did not expect to. Magueijo is a brilliant science writer for dummies like me. Everything made sense, and you can't imagine how shocking that was. By the time I was halfway through I was feeling so clever I had dreamed up about fifteen theories about how the universe began and what shape it is, each one madder than the one before. What fun! (Science fiction writers should read this book. It is inspiring. I came up with several science fiction plots, too, none of them in the least bit plausible, but ... WHAT FUN!)

And the book is exactly what it claims to be: the story of a scientific speculation. It is a book about people. It is not really so much a science book; it is an 'about doing science' book. It gives you a glimpse into the minds of some very clever people and does it in a way that the layperson can understand. (Particularly when the clever people get all cranky. Everybody understands cranky.) Of course the book has faults, but as far as I'm concerned Magueijo is a genius. It takes a genius to explain cosmology in a way that I can understand it.

Incidentally, he even explained the Big Bang in a way I could understand, and tonight as I was passing the book along to a friend I told her so.

"But you're clever, BadAunt," she said, doubtfully. "I'm sure I won't understand it."

"Oh yes, you will!" I said, and explained it to her. The Big Bang for Beginners, minus all the tricky bits I didn't get.

You should have seen the look on her face.

Then I found a page where Magueijo describes a particularly revolting bit of paperwork educators have to deal with in British universities.

"Remember that paperwork you told us about a couple of weeks ago?" I said. "The one where you had to write your aims for the coming academic year, and explain what you did to meet your aims of the last academic year? The one that was so meaningless it was driving you up the wall, and was taking forever to do?"

She nodded. (She is a full-timer. Part-timers like me are spared this particular brand of nonsense, although we do occasionally get self-assessment forms to fill in, which I generally manage to 'lose.')

"Read this!" I said, pointing at the page.

She did, and as she read, she started laughing, because Magueijo points out exactly what every teacher knows is wrong with this system of assessing what educators do, which is that the lower your aims, the more chance you have of being wildly successful. It is a procedure that could have been specifically designed in order to lower the standard of education.

She found it as extraordinary as I did to discover that this procedure is used elsewhere. But somehow, discovering that other places have similarly (or, in this case, identically) stupid procedures in their education systems was perversely comforting. Japanese universities do not have a monopoly on anti-educational practices. It just feels like it sometimes. (And I suspect the anti-educational practices here are more successful.)

So now you know why I liked the book so much. It made me laugh, taught me a lot of things I didn't know, encouraged me to think, gave me back perspective, banished the blues, and made me feel clever.

What more could you ask for?

Saturday, June 24, 2006


The other day, passing the little river, I noticed that the grey heron was having terrific success with his fishing. I stopped to watch.

"How did you get to be so good at that?" I asked.

"Practice," said the grey heron.

"Really?" I said. "Do you think I could be that good if I practiced enough?"

"Probably not as good as me," said the heron. "But if you practice your sneaky walks and disguises enough, I expect you could become reasonably good."

"Sneaky walks and disguises?" I said. "I didn't know it was so complicated."

"Oh, yes," said the heron. "Watch. This is a sneaky walk."

"And here it is from another angle. Note how careful I am with my feet. No splashing! The fish should not hear you coming."

"But what if they see you?" I asked.

"That's where the disguises come in," said the heron. "I have a range of disguises. For example, I call this one the Surprised Cat."

"That's ... er ... remarkable," I said. "But I thought fish were afraid of cats."

"They are," said the heron. "But they don't expect to see one in a river, so they freeze in shock. Then before they get their wits together you immediately follow it up with the Surprised Cat Caught in Spin Drier With Toothpick Up Its Nose. It confuses the fish so much they forget to swim away."

"Golly!" I said. "And then you pounce?"

"Yup," said the heron.

"I don't know if I could manage that one," I said.

"It is a little difficult," said the heron. "Perhaps you could start off with a basic Cockatoo disguise instead, like the egret is doing, over there. It's simple, but effective. Cockatoos don't eat fish, so the fish think they are safe."

"Oh, my goodness!" I said.

"You have to be careful about the radio waves you can pick up through the aerial thingies on your head, though," said the heron. "Sometimes the egret just can't help singing along, or arguing with talk-show hosts, and it scares the fish. Listen! He's doing it now. Humming."

I listened.

"But not very loudly," I said.

"No," said the heron. "He's getting there. Maybe one day he'll have perfect self-control, like me."

"I don't know what to say," I said. "You are amazing."

"Funny you should mention that," said the heron.

"I was just thinking the same thing myself."

Thursday, June 22, 2006


I worried about my students not reading books. Perhaps I should be worrying about them not reading handouts that I give them, telling them that they are VERY, VERY IMPORTANT. Today I collected some homework I had told a class was important for their grades. At the same time I assigned this homework, I gave them the handout on plagiarism and so on, which I mentioned here before. This is written in both Japanese and English, to remove any possibility of students saying that they 'didn't understand.'

Today I collected the homework. After getting home just now I picked up the first assignment and had a look, and the first thing I noticed was that it was plagiarized. This class does not have students who can write in complete sentences, although I wanted them to try, and this student had written something in perfect English.

I typed in half of one of the sentences, and Google obliged me with exactly one hit, from Wikipedia. My student had cleverly copied alternative sentences from the entry, perhaps in an attempt to trick me, or perhaps he just thought it was too long. I printed out the Wikipedia page, highlighted the bits he'd copied, wrote a big fat 0 at the bottom of his paper in red, and stapled it all together with another copy of the plagiarism handout. It will be interesting to see his reaction when I give it back to him next week.

For this homework, I had asked the students to write about their favourite band or musician. This student had written about Paganini. While I'm sure I have students who listen to classical music, I am fairly sure he is not one of them.

I just picked up the second assignment on the pile to see if it is any better, and discovered that this student has written the name of the musician twice, spelt differently each time. In the title it is spelt Bob Mary. In the first sentence it is spelt Bob Marlee.

And OH, BUGGER. He has used translation software! That is another thing in the handout I gave them. Do not plagiarize or use software translation, the handout says. If you do this, your score will be zero. I added, in parentheses, Also, you should know it is very easy for the teacher to notice.

I tell them that it is silly to use software translation because it does not make sense, so that even if I could not tell it was software translation (which I always can), I would give it a very low grade. Their writing is better than that.

Perhaps they did not read the handout, or perhaps they simply did not believe me. But I was telling the truth. What am I to make of sentences like these?

It is the maximum man of merit who made it known, and he is inscrutable and the influence on the music field is still inscrutable to the world of reggae young of 36 years old in 1981 though a life ... death... short. It is born in 1945 between mothers of British father and Jamaican people.

The class where I caught a couple of students plagiarizing a few weeks ago was a different, first-year class, and I am fairly sure they have read the handout and will not plagiarize again. Today's lot are second year students, and I am really annoyed with them. They should know better.

I don't think I want to check the rest of the assignments tonight. Two is enough. I must say, however, that if they all follow the same pattern my weekend will be only half as busy as I thought it would, although it will be twice as depressing.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Personal library

Daryl Sng writes about lusting after the new MacBook and being able to try out Delicious Library.

Library? I thought. What's this library?

If there was a library involved, I wanted it. So I clicked.

I discovered that Delicious Library is a way to catalogue your books. Just point any FireWire digital video camera, like an Apple iSight®, at the barcode on the back of any book, movie, music, or video game. Delicious Library does the rest. The barcode is scanned and within seconds the item's cover appears on your digital shelves filled with tons of in-depth information downloaded from one of six different web sources from around the world.


But then I thought about it, and realized it is brilliant for somebody who doesn't have several hundred (or thousand) books scattered all over their house. How long would it take to collect all my books from their various shelves (and boxes, and on the floor, and on the desk, and in cupboards, and so on) and scan them? I don't have that sort of time! I'd have to do them one by one as they came into the house, and REMEMBER to do them one by one as they came into the house, and also remember to DELETE them one by one as they LEFT the house, because the books around here are on an ex-pat greedy-reader merry-go-round, and there would be no point to the function where you can (k)eep track of the items your friends are borrowing using Delicious Library's loan management system, which integrates with Apple's Address Book and iCal. When I give away a book it stays given away. There are new ones coming in all the time, and usually I do not want the old ones coming back. Where would I put them? (Besides on the floor, in cupboards, in boxes, on the desk, under the desk, and so on.)

If I were to use Delicious Library, I'd need a personal secretary to keep track of everything. I concluded, reluctantly, that there is no reason for me to purchase a new MacBook, or to purchase iSight for my iMac.

But I still think it is a brilliant idea, especially for readers more organized than I am, and for people who are not fortunate enough to have friends like mine who pass on new books as quickly as (or more quickly than) they accept the ones I'm passing on to them. My personal library (doesn't that sound grand?) is growing faster than I can cope with already. I need to get rid of books, not catalogue them.

I love new gadgets, and a gadget connected with books is even better. What a shame it doesn't come with a personal secretary.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Net disaster

First there was a demonstration, and then my blog got worms.

(It was all SheWeevil's fault, but what fun!)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Messing with their heads

Today I had my low level class, the one with the students who copy everything I write on the whiteboard, in some cases including the colours. I wasn't thinking about this when I started writing on the board today, but first I wrote something in black, and then later went back and picked up the first available pen and it was blue, and yet later went back and added a word or two in red. I was pleased because every pen I'd tried so far worked. It is unusual to have so many working pens on the little ledge.

Shortly after that I was wandering around and sure enough, there was a student faithfully copying everything I'd written in glorious tricolour, his pens all lined up neatly. Every time I'd switched colour, so did he. A couple of other students were doing the same thing. Most of my students write in pencil, and not only in pencil but in very light pencil, so that their notebooks often look blank until you peer closely. Students using pens are a rarity, and I am happy to have three or four in one class.

The university only provides blue, black and red pens for the whiteboards, but just for these pen-wielding students I am thinking of buying my own, extra colours. Some green would be nice, I think. Also, purple, if I can find it. I don't think yellow would show up too well, but orange might, and pink, if it's bright enough.

I'd better not introduce too many new colours at one time, though. If I produce a colour they don't have a corresponding pen for it might cause a panic. But if I introduce the new colours one at a time, and only use the new one for one or two especially important words in the first week, they'll be able to prepare themselves for the next week's festive explosion of colour.

Most of the time I feel like a failure in this class. But today I decided to feel happy that even if my students haven't managed to produce anything much resembling the English language by the end of semester, at least a few of them have produced something pretty to look at.

(I think they need better illustrations, though. Today I noticed that my stick figures (red, mostly) had been copied far too accurately. Perhaps I'll take drawing lessons, too.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Today after work a colleague and I went out for coffee.

She had a bunny cappuccino.

And I had a panda cappuccino.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I heard a wonderful story today from a friend, about a friend of hers who moved into a new place and wanted to get her kitchen bench remodeled, here in Japan. This friend was a gaijin, and a very tall, large woman. She wanted the kitchen bench to be raised. Kitchen benches here tend to be very low, and not at all suitable for a person of her height.

Because this woman was working, she wasn't able to oversee the workmen doing the job in her kitchen, but she met them on her way out the door, late for work, and quickly explained what she wanted.

They had never seen quite such a tall woman before. Just how impressed they were by her height, however, wasn't apparent until she got home that evening and discovered they'd raised her kitchen bench so high it was almost up to her shoulders. I guess she hadn't specified the exact height she wanted it, or was misunderstood. However it happened, she ended up with a bench perfect for a giant.

She got the workmen back to lower her kitchen bench again to make it useable, so all ended well. But my friend saw it before it was lowered, and told me that she had to stand on a chair to use it at all. My friend is not short.

What amused me most, hearing about this incident, is the 'fish tale' aspect to it. You can imagine what kind of conversation the workmen had while trying to decide what height to make the bench.

"She was tall, eh? How high do you reckon we should make it? This high?"

"No, she was MUCH taller than that. THIS high would suit her."

"Rubbish! That would give her backache from stooping. Didn't you SEE her? We'll have to make it THIS high."

And so on, until they ended up making the bench just the right height for the impression she had made on them.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Today I was a bit worried about losing my voice. This cold has got me in the throat this time, and I can't take time off. So I planned classes where the students would be either writing or doing all the talking themselves.

It was time for the quiz cards, which I hold back for emergencies each semester. I can only use them once. This qualified as an emergency, I thought. These quiz cards came from a colleague who has been using them for years. They are brilliant, and I wish I had more of them at that level. (I do have some more difficult ones, but don't have many classes whose level is high enough for those.)

The students loved them. They always do. These cards have questions and answers on them, so that in groups, one student at a time takes a card and asks the rest of the group the question. Since the asking student has the answer, she (or he) can then keep giving clues until someone gets the answer.

But usually the problem is not that they don't know the answer, it is that they don't understand the question. They often need the question repeated, so they can try to understand it. This means that the asking student gets lots of practice pronouncing the words, and changing the intonation and stress to make it easier to understand, and the others get lots of listening practice. Whoever understands fastest and gives the right answer gets the point, which discourages them from translating in their heads. I always insist that no Japanese be used, pointing out that if they use Japanese the questions become too ludicrously easy and therefore boring.

Only a couple of the questions are what you would call general knowledge questions. Most of them are very simple, for example: What colour is chocolate icecream? (to which, surprisingly, the students often answer, Black). The idea is for them to use their English skills, not to test their general knowledge. To answer a question like, say, Ed has five clocks. Three are broken. How many still work?, they have to know that Ed is a name, the meaning of broken, and that a clock can work. Usually they figure this out from the context, but it can take time.

One of the general knowledge questions is this:

Who sailed from Spain to America in 1492?

One group had a huge amount of trouble with this question today. They knew they would know the answer when they heard it, but couldn't come up with anything plausible, although they kept trying.


"Queen Elizabeth...?" (Everybody stared at her.) "I know ... but it's the only name I can think of ... "


"Queen Elizabeth. I can't think of any other name!"

"Let me see, what American names do I know... Bush! Ha ha ha!"

They laughed and laughed and laughed at that one. They knew that wasn't right (although they were worryingly hopeful about Gulliver and Napoleon).

"Queen Elizabeth. Help! Why can't I think of anything else?"

The questioner kept giving clues until they got it, finally, but then she insisted they had to give his first name as well. This stumped them. She gave clues.

"His first name begins with C," she said.

That didn't help, so she gave another clue. "Chris is his short name," she explained. "Like Tom is the short name for Thomas."

They stared at her. None of them had any idea what Chris was short for.

"It's not Elizabeth," muttered the student with Queen Elizabeth on the brain. The others started laughing.

Suddenly one of them jumped up.


Everyone in the group thought this was hilarious. They laughed so much they could hardly speak. One of the laughing students turned to the rest of the class and gasped,

"Sorry! We are noisy. We are VERY LAUGHING!"

It was true. They were.

But that was all right. So was everybody else.

Perhaps I will use my general knowledge quiz with this lot some time. They seem to enjoy a challenge.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


At one of the places I work I teach a very small, very high level non-credit course. It is fun, because we can actually talk about things. Every week I get the students to choose a topic for next week, and I look for materials about it, and we go from there.

Last week one of the guys wanted to talk about the difference between people who plan carefully and those who act on impulse. He had the idea from his recent reading that the most successful people in life were those who had a goal, and worked hard to achieve it. He wanted to know which kind of person I was. Did I have long-term goals?

I had to think about this. He had just made it sound like people without goals are doomed to be pathetic failures, and I didn't want to admit that long-term goals are not my forte. In the end I told him that my goal in life was to be surprised a lot, and that so far I have been very, very successful. I never know what is going to happen next, or what I will do.

This discussion eventually segued onto the topic of reading. I asked the same guy how much reading he did. He told me that he didn't read much, not like a friend he has who reads one or two books a day. He read only two or three books a week, and recently he had been reading a lot of biographies. He wanted to know what I thought about this. Was it better to read slowly and carefully, or to read fast and more?

I told him I thought it depended on the type of book you were reading. We talked about that a bit, then I asked the other three students (there were only four) how much reading they did. All three of them said that they didn't read books at all. Ever. They didn't seem ashamed to admit this, even though they are all university students in their third or fourth years. They don't even read textbooks. I asked. They said they didn't need to, to pass their courses, and since they found reading hard work and didn't enjoy it, what was the point?

Then one of them looked thoughtful.

"Do you think reading is good for anything?" he asked. "Do you think people should read?"

He really wanted to know.

How do you answer questions like that?

I told a colleague about this on the way home, and she told me that she had a Japanese friend with a PhD who was puzzled by the number of books my friend had in her house.

"Do you read them all?" the woman asked when she saw them.

My friend said she did.

"Why?" asked the PhD.

It was a great mystery to her that anybody would read when they didn't have to. She didn't read, not even in her own field. She hated reading.

I know most of my students don't like reading, but it's a bit depressing to find out that their professors don't read either.

How would you answer those questions? Why do you read? What is reading good for? Do you think people should read?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

New Look

Today I had a list of things to do as long as my arm. There is homework to mark, a test to write, and various mundane housework chores. But I also seem to have caught yet ANOTHER cold. I felt like rubbish when I woke up.

So instead of working on my to-do list, I decided to redesign my blog, as you have no doubt noticed. I've been wanting to do this for a long time but didn't really know how to start. Today I got lucky. A quick Google search led me to a wonderful blog by Pam Blackstone, in which she gives easy-to-follow instructions for how to give a Blogger blog a three-column layout, and also how to change the header. For the next few hours I forgot I had a cold. I tweaked and fiddled and got hopelessly confused. I THINK the result was worth it.

Please tell me if you find anything wrong, but also, don't expect me to fix it quickly, because although I saved the old template for just in case things went wrong, at some point I cleverly pasted over it, and then hit the save button. I thought I was in the new template file, not the old one. The next time I do anything like this I will save TWO copies of the old template, because clearly one backup is not enough for me.

I'm not TOO sure about the header picture. That was supposed to be an experiment to see if I could do it, before I made the real one. Now that I know how I can change it easily I will keep an eye out for any suitable picture I can find, but for the meantime the crows will stay because I've run out of energy and want to have dinner.

The other addition is links to all the picture stories, down in the right sidebar. I was going to add a categories hack as well, which would take away the need for that, but it looked too complicated and I was too tired by then. Maybe another time.

Welcome to the new look!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Yesterday, listening to Naked Scientist during my commute, I learned that the average person produces from one to one-and-a-half litres of flatulence a day.(Note 1) Coincidentally, just as I was being informed of this disturbing fact, someone decided to silently release an undisclosed amount of their daily allowance into the atmosphere of the train. This was in the ladies' carriage, which caused an awkward moment as we all looked around for a man to blame and there wasn't one available. It then became an even more awkward moment for me, because as the only foreigner in the ladies' carriage, and with no man around, I was the next most obvious culprit.

Let me state for the record here that IT WAS NOT ME.(Note 2)

Note 1: The Naked Scientist scientists seem to be rather interested in flatulence, but a little confused about the amount of gas produced. They told me it was a litre and a half daily yesterday, but today they repeated the flatulence fact and it was a different amount, which I have now forgotten. And on yet another podcast it was four to five litres. I have been wondering how they managed to come up with such different 'facts,' and have come to the conclusion that they all measured their outputs individually and are reporting their own results, being convinced that they are 'average' in this respect.

If I am right about this, I have a question to ask the person who measured four to five litres: Were you on my train yesterday?

Note 2: Not this time, anyway.

Unsuitable friends

Down at the little river the water was a mucky colour. There was dredging or something happening a bit upstream. I was disappointed, but the birds didn't seem to think anything of it.

A duck was having a nap.

A cormorant was messing around in the murky water.

Suddenly the cormorant spotted the duck. It popped out of the water and flapped over to the rock.

"HEY, DUCK!" it shouted.

It all happened rather suddenly. The duck woke up with its head under water and its bum in the air.

"For goodness' sakes, WHAT?!" said the duck. "You have no manners at all!"

"Manners?" asked the cormorant. "Who cares about manners? I had a BABY! Did you know I had a BABY?"

"So what?" said the duck as it paddled off. "Who cares?"

"I care!" said the cormorant. "My baby is the most beautiful baby in the entire universe! And the most intelligent!"

"Oh, nonsense," said the duck. "No baby is more beautiful or intelligent than a duckling. Everybody knows that."

"But my baby is beautiful and intelligent and TOUGH!" said the cormorant. "He's a killer! He's going to grow up just like me. NOBODY STANDS ON MY ROCKS!"

I heard a call from down the river.


"What?" asked the cormorant.

"Look! My new friends let me share their rock! And later we're going flying together!"

"Eh?" said his father.


"How embarrassing," he muttered, and took off.

The duck came back to the rock almost immediately.

"Someone ought to teach that bird some manners. Parenthood has made him worse."

I cycled on to work, past the little cormorant.

"Oh, right. No wings," I heard him saying. "I wonder what happened to them? And what did Daddy mean, 'unsuitable'?"

The turtles mumbled something inaudible.

"Never mind," said the little cormorant. "I don't care what he says. I'll be your friend."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Missing missing images

A couple of times recently I've had this warning message from Eudora:

The message you are sending is missing at least one of its images. It will be sent without the missing image(s).

The message pulled me up short the first time I saw it, and the second time as well, at which point I copied it before hitting OK.

I've looked at it again a couple of times since then, and I can't make up my mind whether it makes sense or not. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. It seems to depend on how I'm feeling at the time. I know what it means, but does it really say what it means?

Is missing the problem? If the sentence said, It will be sent without the images, it is clear, isn't it? We already know that the images are missing. When missing is used again, it is redundant, because the implies missing already. It is like saying the message will be sent with missing missing images.

Or ... is it?

Wait ... maybe it depends on whether you understand without to modify images or missing images.

Or, maybe ...

I am becoming very sleepy. Aren't you? Why are you still here?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Shooting geezers

I've become addicted to the Naked Scientist podcast, and have been listening to it on my commutes, and learning all sorts of interesting things.

Yesterday morning was my very early start, so I was not feeling very alert when I started my commute. Near the beginning of the podcast, where they do a sort of roundup of the week's science news, I heard something about the Cassini spacecraft discovering things about a moon of Saturn called Enceladus, then I missed a few seconds as the train went over a noisy bit, and then the guy said something like,

"So there's this geezer shooting up from the surface..."

And then there was another noisy bit and the guy added something about the geezer ending up at the south pole of the moon.

I wondered whether I had in fact woken up at all. Was I dreaming this podcast? This was supposed to be a SCIENCE show, but was sounding like something my sleeping brain would make up. I looked around sharply, to see if anything else looked a bit off. There's generally something that gives things away when I'm dreaming. Everything seemed pretty normal, though.

So I went back a bit and listened again, and finally realized he was talking about a GEYSER.

When I got to work I wrote the word down on a bit of paper and went around the teachers' room telling people to pronounce it. The Americans pronounced it the way I do (guy-ser) and the Australian wasn't quite sure, but thought it was gay-ser. The English bloke, however, said, geezer. We all told laughed and told him he was wrong unless he was talking about himself. But then another English bloke arrived and confirmed his pronunciation, and just now I looked it up on Oxford, and sure enough, the British English pronunciation of geyser is geezer, and the American, guy-ser. The word comes from the Icelandic word Geysir.

How funny. Why do I pronounce it the American way? Have I been around Americans too long? Can any Kiwis out there tell me how I should be pronouncing it?

I was glad it turned out I wasn't dreaming, anyway. It would have been too annoying to have to get up early twice in one day. I've done it before. The time I did it before I got up, got ready, had breakfast, caught the train, walked up to the university, and was halfway through my first class before something alerted me to the fact that something funny was going on. At that point I catapulted out of bed and had to do the whole morning routine again, only without breakfast. That was no fun at all.