Content from 2013-09

Multiple Cursor Mode
posted on 2013-09-26 15:35:00
In case you haven't already tried it, Multiple Cursor Mode for emacs is awesome. I actually got chills the first time I used it to edit multiples lines of work on a physics problem. All those repeated lines of LaTeX code, and now I can change them all at once!

It's in Marmalade, so go try it out!
The First Days
posted on 2013-09-25 15:31:00
So now I'm about two weeks in, I have homework, about 40 lab reports to grade, and need to find a sub for my lab TA section. I've gotten a social insurance number from the government of Canada (the Canadian equivalent of a social security number) and it seems likely that I might get paid this Friday. Now, while I have a few minutes before I go upstairs to get to better know some of my new colleagues over lunch, seems like as good a chance as I'll get to go over what I've been thinking about since I started here at the IQC.

First, dealing with office staff is always frustrating. As a foreigner, even from the US, it was a mess of people not telling me what I needed to do in time. I still laugh thinking about the email that came out a week or two before classes from the international office explaining how to put off coming to school for a term because they hadn't really told people in time to apply for visas.

Getting my study permit was something I got done well in advance and, consequently, without much help from the university at all. The SIN was another one of those things. Sarah and I biked out to the service Canada center on a hot day and arrived sweaty, carrying our stacks of documents, only to find that Sarah, who doesn't yet need a SIN because nobody is paying her anything, could get a number, but I – the reason we were in the country in the first place – hadn't been supplied the right paperwork by the University to get mine. There were a number of other small things as well, but that was the one that required the most physical effort by far.

I'm now slowly being won over to the idea that the university might actually care about some of us, but they certainly didn't show it at all until long after I'd arrived and started attending classes.

Now that I'm here, though, it's nice to be teaching a little (as a Teaching Assistant) and good to have some things to think about during the day. The minor office snafu's keep coming (I wasn't given a key to the room I TA in yet), but we'll iron them out and hopefully I'll have less and less to ask of confused people in offices as time goes on.

There are people from a lot of different countries here. It's hard to tell how much is the university and how much is Kitchener-Waterloo generally, because both seem to be fairly diverse. The grad students from India have commented that they can get some of the same food as at home since there's such a large population with Indian heritage here.

After our year in Evanston/Chicago, I think we're doing a pretty good job of setting up a life here. Making new friends is hard, and takes a lot of time. Sadly, I don't really get to see the other grad students much other that at lunch, which I try to make the most of. Hopefully, some of them will be friends, and perhaps someday, we'll make it to Food Not Bombs here in Waterloo or in Kitchener, closer to home, and meet some people there, too.
Rocks in the Road
posted on 2013-09-05 14:07:31
I've often thought about how damaging advertisements have been to the structure of the internet. Recently, I think it started to impinge on my life in a specific way – I'm looking at new smartphones.

There are plenty of shiny, mostly closed source Android phones. Google didn't do anything to stop proprietary drivers or other forms of walled garden and now they're working on DRM extensions for HTML5 so they can keep pushing content with devices that have been turned against their owners.

As a matter of fact, there was a great interview with Cory Doctorow recently on how the deal has soured for libraries. It also makes some points I've wanted to articulate about how they're doing their customers a disservice in the name of short term gratification - by accepting a shit deal so they can loan ebooks - while giving publishers permission to rent them ebooks that disappear far quicker than a paper edition ever would. You can listen to the interview here, and I suggest you do!

In the last few years, and increasingly as it makes it into the wild, there has been a slowly growing buzz about Mozilla's OS for smartphones, somewhat predictably called Firefox OS. I'm excited, because I trust Mozilla more than Google. (I don't really think Google is evil, although I think as it grows, what is in its interest will diverge further from the interests of its customers.) Mozilla, though, seems to have similar ideas about what the internet means as I do. That it can be a force for even greater good, bring the world together in meaningful ways, and that making information available in machine-readable forms means people can manipulate it in new, better ways.

With all of that bubbling in my head, I was excited to see there was a phone being made with more mid-level hardware that would run Firefox OS. It's called the Peak+ and is made by a Spanish company called Geeksphone. It doesn't seem like many apps are out for the OS yet, but that's probably to be expected for something that only just had hardware announced in the last month or so.

It made me wonder how well apps made with HTML5 would work. It made me think of RSS. I've tried to use RSS readers over and over again for years, but they are always stymied by the ad-supported web. If you've tried to use an RSS reader, you've probably encountered how many feeds will only give you the first few sentences of an article and then require you to go to their site to read the rest. They've already published a story online for free, so why do we need to go to the website to read it? The only thing that makes sense to me is that they need you to load all of their ads.

It makes me think how special things like Wikipedia are, which let you use their content for free, with no ads. Those are the bits of the web that make me proud of humanity. It's the sort of thing I hope Firefox OS will be, in its own way: software that exists for the users.

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