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I should confess, at this point, that I've become something of a politics junkie in recent years. Not, ironically, of british politics, but the rather more exciting american variety. I started getting into it three or four years ago, and watching The West Wing (repeatedly, in the case of the earlier seasons) really caused it to take off.

Frankly, american politics is just far more exciting than the homegrown sort - our main parties fundamentally agree on all the major issues these days, while in America they're still fighting over things like whether abortion should be legal. Even their scandals make recent blowups here like whether a £5000 donation was properly declared pale in comparison to bribes involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So the recent primary season has been a very good time for me - I read electoral-vote.com daily, as well as a few other sites, and right now I'm sitting up refreshing CNN's reporting page for Super Tuesday, even though only Georgia's showing any results right now. While it's mostly academic, Barak Obama definitely seems the candidate to pick - I read his very well-written autobiography over Christmas, and on the basis of literary merit alone I think he's worth a punt.

And I don't even own a TV

With various people posting TV reviews recently, I feel a need to confess my irrational love for CSI, prompted by today's arrival on my doorstep of Season 6 on DVD from Amazon.

On the downside, it's unrelentingly formulaic, and after the first season (where one character had a gambling problem, another was coping with a messy divorce and raising a single daughter, etc), the cast's social lives have mostly been reduced to background mentions and the occasional episodes that focuses on them specifically. Also, they do love their extremely gorey 3d reconstructions rather too much, and at times the tests they do can become moderately ludicrous (prize for silliest so far going to when the team took grainy security-cam footage of a victim and had their tech guy enhance it to the point where they could zoom in to get a high-resolution print of a suspect off the reflection from the victim's eyeball).

But on the upside, it's consistently entertaining, extraordinarily watchable, and ultimately it revolves around half a dozen geeks fighting crime... with science.

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I finished off my recent spate of trips abroad with a visit to Norway. Aside from having to get up at 4:30 to make it to Stansted for the morning flight (it had been moved forward so I could make it to a 2pm meeting), the flight was made very smooth by not having any baggage. So smooth in fact, that I was on the express train when I realised I had no Norwegian money (to get on you just swiped your bank card), leading to an amusing period where I wandered around Lysaker industrial estate in the rain looking for a cash machine, finding that Abbey had helpfully stopped my card for my own good, and finally managing to change what British money I had at a post office after having no luck at a travel agent and bank.

After that, though, everything went very well. I met people, had a useful meeting, rang Abbey up and argued with them until they reactivated my card, and went to bed early. By the next day everyone else from the office had turned up, and there was a big technical conference, where I went to talks on things from how open source licenses worked to the technical details of NAT traversal in SIP. In the evening there was considerable amounts of drink, I rocked out on Guitar Hero (OK, so it was on Easy mode since I'd never played before, but it certainly felt like rocking out), got whupped at table hockey and drank some more. There was time to see a bit of Oslo the next morning before flying back to the UK.

There will be eventually be photos, from this and the previous trips, when I get around to writing some php to automatically generate photo galleries. In the meantime, a couple of cool links that caught my attention:

Breaking and restoring - four people repeatedly break into a French building over the course of a year to painstakingly restore an antique clock.

Sci-fi style powered armour is starting to get worryingly plausible.

Beijing

I've been in Beijing since the weekend, thanks to SIPit, the biannual interoperability event where a bunch of developers of audio/video conferencing get together and try to test against as many of each others products as possible to ensure we all play nicely together. I's previously given me the opportunity to visit New Hampshire and Antwerp, and since it rotates America-Europe-Asia this time it's in China. The idea was somehow a bit intimidating (you need four different forms not including your passport on arrival), but also very cool, as it's not somewhere I've ever been before.

skyline


As far as the theory 'everyone will speak english' goes, that turned out to be decidedly untrue. Getting a taxi at the airport, despite the fact we came prepared with preprinted directions in chinese to show the driver, a map of Beijing showing the hotel and even GPS coordinates, proved impossible until we resorted to phoning someone who spoke Mandarin. And going to a restaurant in the evening quickly degenerated into a flurry of smiling, nodding and pointing at the menu; one of the waiters did speak two words of english - 'beef' (which turned out to be chicken) and 'chicken' (which turned out to be fish), but otherwise mime was very much the order of the day. The food was still excellent, but somewhat random, and we didn't figure out a way to order rice, since it was too mundane to warrant a photo in the menu.

The food, and indeed everything else, has however proven to be embarrasingly cheap - a heavy meal for five with beer, tea and some sort of lethal alcohol served in eggcups came out at just over £20, while the hotel rooms are about £15 a night. We haven't done anything particually touristy yet, but I'm staying on until Monday, and there are schemes afoot to hit the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and maybe one of the big temple complexes Friday-Sunday, which apparently present ample opportunities to spend money. The one downside I anticipate from sight-seeing is the smog. If you look at the photo above, you can just about make out the grey haze, which is omnipresent, no matter the time of day or night (when the beams from car headlights are made visible much like spotlights in a club when they turn the smoke on). Though apparently they're clamping down a bit, particually for the Olympics - Patrick told me that ten years ago it was considerably worse.

One other negative that stands out somewhat is the way in which they censor the web - even from just casual browsing I've run into the Great Firewall a number of times. For instance, BBC News Online is banned, as is Wikipedia, and even Livejournal (I'm posting this thanks to the magic of an encrypted VPN to my work computer in the UK), as well as some seemingly innocuous minor sites, which pretty handily knocks the most useful sites I browse to. They even stop you using Google's cache, so when I search for something I get a few teasing lines for the wikipedia article on the search page itself, but can't read it in full.

Still, I'm very much enjoying it, all told, and am looking forward to getting out and seeing more of the city itself over the weekend.

I love my job

One of the nice things about my job is that from time to time I get the chance to go to random countries for one reason or another. But this month various things are overlapping to the point where things go a bit crazy - I'm off to Athens tommorow for a three-day 'So, we just bought your company' meeting thingy with some of the new bosses, then two weeks later I'm going to Beijing for a week and a half for an interoperability conference, and then two weeks after that I'm off to Oslo for a couple of days to meet some of our opposite numbers in engineering. I wouldn't want that sort of schedule on a regular basis, but since I've never been to Greece, Beijing or Norway, I'm looking forward to it.

On the downside, it means my carbon footprint, previously quite reasonable, will be roughly Godzilla-sized, but since all of this is to facilitate the creation of better video-conferencing kit I suppose I could claim I'm on the side of the angels in the long run.

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Was really good to see people again in Cambridge - apologies for fading towards the end of the party and not seeing people the next day, but I was feeling increasingly grotty as the night wore on. Initially thought I had drunk far more than I realised, but it continued through Saturday and Sunday - trying to get back from Cambridge to Slough while the line between Cambridge and Kings Cross is closed is made even less fun when you are throwing up every hour or so. Still, it could have been worse, and I managed to make a slight dent in my ludicrously long to-watch movie list since I spent the rest of the weekend propped up on the sofa.

Sicily was great - always nicely warm without ever becoming uncomfortably hot, with beaches, towns and ruins to divide time between.

It served loyally

My PC rolled over and died last night - according to the beep codes the motherboard's gone, which is annoying. Still, it gave me five or so years of solid service, and the data on the hard disks should be fine (and I back everything of import up these days anyway), so it's not the end of the world. I'll need to sort out a new one at some point, but in the mean time I've got my work laptop.

But replacing it'll have to wait, as I'm off to Sicily on holiday tomorrow with family. Should be nice and warm, with sights and beaches and volcanos. I'll be back on Monday the 24th, hopefully with many photos.

In other news, it turned out the Nissan garage wanted £300 to replace my wing-mirrors, so instead I spent £50 buying a pair of second-hand ones on eBay, and after several hours of unscrewing just about every screw in the car managed to replace them without doing significant damage to myself or the car. I also decided to learn to program in DirectX so I could play around with an open-source physics engine, which is a lot of fun. Things at work have been a bit up in the air after we were bought out by a Norwegian company, but we're pretty much back to business as usual now.

And now, a handful of random videos:

A Gentleman's Duel - you might have seen this one, but if you haven't it's a fantastic short film with amazing 3d animation, humour, victorian stereotypes, breasts (safe for work) and giant robots. What more could you want?

Windwalkers - Kinetic sculptures by a Dutch artist that use the wind to 'walk' across beaches. Absolutely stunning, particually the one shown at 2:10 (which I can't help feel has a definite Lovecraftian vibe to it with its lumbering many-angledness).

80s ending - I'm not a great connoisseur of eighties movies, but I've still seen a fair few in my time. This clip manages to parody all of them. All of them.

Well, that's annoying

Got into the car to drive to the shops only to discover someone had broken in and stolen my CD player and the boot backboard which had a pair of built-in speakers. Given that the CD player was was actually broken (and lacking its faceplate) it wasn't much of a haul. Somehow they managed to break in without breaking a window, or apparently damaging the doors (before you ask, I'm pretty sure I locked the car), but aggravatingly they broke both wing mirrors in the process.

So now I need to figure out how I'm going to fix that. Some Googling suggests I could get hold of a pair of used spares for around £50, and new ones for about twice that (though they seemed to have changed the style of mirrors on my model of car since it was made, which complicates matters further). There's a Nissan dealership in Slough, as well as a tiny garage I use for my MOT, so I guess I'll ring round tomorrow and see what this is going to cost to sort out. If it turns out to be extortionate I'll probably have a go at fixing it myself, though the owners manual doesn't include any details for swapping out the wing mirrors. Yay for trial and error, I guess.

In other news, tomorrow I find out if I can start wearing contacts again - I stopped about eight months ago because my optician told me my eyes were too dry and my tear glands weren't working fully - this may be connected to my 'ingenious' plan last year of rigging up a fan on a box directly behind my computer monitor to keep me cool by blowing directly into my face, which in retrospect may not have been the best idea...

Otherwise, you may have already seen this, but if not the Simpsons Movie website has an extremely cool 'make yourself as a Simpson' flash thingy here, which is even better than the South Park one that's been around for a while (go to the 'Create Your Simpsons Avatar' tab at the top).

Thanks, y'all

Thank you to everyone who volunteered to help out with my psychology experiment, both in comments and by Email. The thrust of the experiment was whether people generally value advice from members of one gender more highly than another: half the participants got a vignette where the person providing advice was male, half where the person was female. Statistical analysis showed no meaningful difference, which is I suppose a good thing.

The question was kind of screwy, though; someone I know at work who did this course a few years ago mentioned that the whole think was ruined by the fact that more than half of his participants gave an answer of 0, and that's what I found too (the questions to be asked are predefined, so I couldn't fix them up). Ah, well, as least it gave me something to talk about in the section on limitations and improvements.

I'm off to Norfolk on holiday this week, which I'm looking forward to; I haven't taken leave from work this year so far, and it's been very busy this past week. In the meantime, I leave you with the ultimate evolution of the whole lolcats internet meme thing: lolcode. "O NOES" is definitely the best exception-handling statement ever defined.