Grant Stack Overflow

September 28, 2011

Woke up slightly earlier than expected. Shall I get up ? Not sure. Time for a shower. No, wait, cup of tea first. Or maybe coffee. Or… aaggh help somebody just tell me !

Here I am in Swindon again, slogging through mountains of astronomy grant proposals. No leaks, no hints, you know the drill. You will have to wait until after Science Board. But it will not surprise you to hear that it is a difficult and stressful process. Halfway through yesterday I suddenly recalled a conversation with me lovely daughter Zoe who told me of something she’d read about the links between will power and decision making, and how we all have a finite reserve of daily decision making capability. You can read opinions about this all over the blargosphere, but I think the source is a New York Times article . Apart from getting irritated whenever the word “energy” is used, I quite liked this.

At the end of the first day last week seven of us trooped off together to the local Chinese. We slumped into seats around of those round tables. I guess we looked kinda glazed. The waitress looked at us and said “would you like me to order for you ?” I needn’t tell you the answer, but will let you picture the look of gratitude that beamed out from all of us.

Spinning Fees

September 7, 2011

Edinburgh University to become most expensive in Britain. Crumbs. (This is yesterday’s news – eg here and here – but, hey I was busy.) As I am an employee, I had better add that what follows is personal opinion and not to be construed as the stance of Edinburgh University etc – but actually what I have to say is about the Scotttish university situation in general anyway, not really about Edinburgh. And whats more, I do actually feel that Edinburgh University is getting a raw deal in press coverage. There has been a real attempt to put money aside so that anybody with talent can come.

Two days ago, all the academic staff got an email from the University announcing the reluctant decision to charge £9000. Later that evening doing me ironin’ in front of the box, there it was on the televisual news : shock horror Edinburgh most expensive. Of course several English universities have gone for £9000, but we have four year degrees. Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt have also announced £9000/year, but they have capped the total at £27,000. (First year free !!) I thought I should check the University web page and see what our own news story said. Err.. nothing there ?

Then I realised there was a related news story. The headline said “UK’s most generous bursary package”. If you click through to the story the second paragraph explains it was made possible by the decision to go for full fees. So this is the Harvard model – large fees for those who can afford it, coupled with a  commitment to seek out talent regardless of funding. This seems to me a perfectly respectable way of proceeding – if you can keep your reputation as high as Harvard’s. We are within hailing distance but not spitting distance I would say.

Anyway, that spin failed. The news stories the next morning were full of shock horror mega-expensive scandalising. Union guy Kirkpatrick is quoted as saying “…giving the signal that Edinburgh University is more interested in the money you can bring, as opposed to your academic ability” whereas of course our news story aim was just the opposite.

There are two hidden background rumbles. The first is that these are “indicative fees”. What they indicate is that the Scottish government has forced us into it, by insisting that Scottish students are completely free, and providing no subsidy for non-Scottish students. (Very different to Wales).  However the government position is not yet quite finalised, so this must be part of a rather public brinkmanship game.

The second rumble is about EU law. Standard Scottish University understanding is that we have to charge students from the rest of the EU the same as Scottish students – nothing –  but we are allowed to have a differential policy within the UK. There may well be legal challenges by English students. In the US, it is normal for public universities to charge smaller fees for in-state residents. If we see Europe as the United States of Europe, why can’t we do the same ? The answer staring us in the face is that say all EU students – whether German or English – get charged  say 6000/yr, but local subsidy allows Scottish-resident students to be charged say 2000/yr. I believe the Irish achieve something like this in a cunning fashion by distinguishing between “fees” and “service charges”.

Well. Dream on, I guess.

Ancient VMS vs Unix joke

September 4, 2011

My post yesterday (Unix hair tearing) brought a couple of ageing VMS fans out of the wooodwork. Suddenly I remembered an old joke. Its long enough that I will put it in its own post, rather than in a comment. This joke was going the rounds about eighteen years ago when Starlink switched from VAXes to Unix machines, and suddenly we all had to get used to commands that seemed to be compact but incomprehensible gibberish, such as man, ps, rm, biff, ls, cat, etc…

A young scientist has an urgent job to finish, but disastrously the whole departmental network goes down apart from one ancient VAX. He hears there is an old-timer a few corridors away who still knows how to use the VAX, so he rushes down, bursts in, and insists that the old guy shows him what to do, because, you know, sorry, but this deadline is really important.

“Calm down”, says the old guy, “what do you want to know ?”

“Well, ok, for instance, how do I edit a file ?”


“Right, fine, suppose I want to make a copy ?”


“Err, right, ok, now suppose I need to delete the file ?”


“Ah, right, right, err.. now what if I want to print it ?”


“But what if I just want to see it typed onscreen ?”


“What if I need to figure out what a command does ?”


“Ummm.. umm…. suppose I want to create a new directory ?”


“Ok, ok, but look – how the hell am I supposed to remember all that ?”

The list goes on. Check out this comparison table of VMS and Unix commands.

Unix hair tearing

September 3, 2011

I have a Mac because you get nice easy-peasy pretty stuff and proper Unix all in the same machine. Some days when you crack open the terminal you feel a great sense of power and flexibility. Other days you want to strangle the people responsible for Unix. (Anybody for a bring-back-VMS campaign ?)

I use iTerm rather than the Mac-supplied Terminal. It has stopped development, so today I updated to the successor project, imaginatively entitled iTerm2 (strongly recommended – check it out). Suddenly a whole bunch of my alias-ed commands bombed. For example, to check what tunnels I have running I type “tunnels” defined as

alias tunnels=’ps -uaxww | grep ssh’

This gave an error message along the lines of “no such user” whereas when I re-started the old iTerm, it still worked. I narrowed this down to “ps -u” behaving differently in the two apps. In the old iTerm this adds a column to a ps listing which shows the UID owner of processes; in the new iTerm2 the -u switch is for filtering by UID, and so the command expects you to specify that UID. (The regular Mac Terminal behaves the same).

I thought I must be going crazy. In both cases I was simply running a dumb terminal, with the same login command, running the same shell, on the same hardware, running the same version of unix, issuing the same very simple unix command. Wuh ?????

After much hair tearing and some Googling, I found this blog post. It seems that the problem is an environment variable called COMMAND_MODE. When iTerm starts a terminal it sets this to “legacy” whereas iTerm2 and Terminal set it to “unix2003”.

Unix03 is an attempt at Unix standardisation by a body called the Open Group (see here). The other standardisation attempt is POSIX. According to this article no Linux or BSD vendor has achieved full compliance.

So… typical dilemma … do I leave my stuff as it is and set COMMAND_MODE=legacy, or do I try to update my stuff ?

Anyhoo. Sorry for boring you, but ain’t that just bloody typical unix ?