Martin's Blog

Houston Arrival

Posted by Martin Orr on Sunday, 03 July 2005 at 21:41

We travelled yesterday to Houston, Texas for our training camp. This meant leaving home at 5:30 am, and then a six-hour time zone change. Staying in continuous, mostly natural light for 22 hours, with 30-minute dozes at peculiar points during the flight should have destroyed my natural sleep cycle; then a solid 9 hours sleep has got me synced up to Houston time.

On the way I went through Gatwick South Terminal, which strikes me as probably the worst designed airport terminal I have been in: I came out of the domestic baggage reclaim area, and straight into Continental Airlines check-in area (of course this is where I wanted to be, but I doubt it is where most people want to be when they come out of domestic baggage reclaim).

The people in immigration impressed me favourably. They seemed fairly good-humoured and efficient. Matthew was caught out though on being asked to prove that he was going to leave the country, since he didn't have our tickets. Some others were in difficulty simply on being asked when they were going to leave. One thing they are good at is realising that they can make use of the time you are standing in the queue to check your forms are filled in correctly. In Gatwick, the American security people were even better: they actually moved with you in the check-in queue, while asking the questions about did you pack your own bags etc. in great detail.

The temperature here is very hot and it is reasonably humid. It looks like what you would expect a hot country to look like (well I do anyway): brown and green, with softly-coloured buildings and everything fairly spread out.

We are staying in Rice University, where we have a very nice chef who cooks wonderful meals (even for vegetarians) and is continually offering more dishes - except there is far too much of everything already. Perhaps this is because there are very few other people about.

-- Martin

no comments Tags imo, usa

2005 Week 26

Posted by Martin Orr on Friday, 01 July 2005 at 21:09

Yes, I know the week isn't over and it's two days since I last posted but I shall post again for the last time before I go away, to Texas until 11th for training and then to Merida, Mexico for the IMO itself, during which time I shall adopt a different posting strategy (any time I get a computer, probably every 3 days or so).

About the question of post length, I have to say posts look far longer on the blog than when I am writing them - the text box I enter them in is much wider (perhaps this is to do with me using a wide screen laptop to post from). Does anyone know: 1. Is it a bug in the Blogger software that when I choose to display N days, it still displays N posts? 2. Surely there is a quicker way of making a new post than the four clicks I have to go through ATM from my front page? 3. Is there a Blogger bug-reporting page?

Anyway, I have managed to do a couple of things in that short space of time. Primarily the Leavers' Service yesterday, followed by barbecue. Especially pleasing for me was getting the printed Yearbook, given all the work I put into producing it. I also was awarded the Lord Grey Award for Excellence, "the highest accolade we can give in the College" (Dr Mulryne, 2003 Prize Day Address). There was a severe shortage of coffee shop space on Botanic Avenue following this service. The idea that I might well never see many of these people again is a hard one to get round (I will be heading for Poland on results day).

-- Martin

no comments Tags blogger, blogging, imo, methody, yearbook

2005 weeks 24 and 25

Posted by Martin Orr on Wednesday, 29 June 2005 at 16:36

I never got around to posting anything last week, so I shall have to do two weeks at once. And despite that I still don't have that much to say. Clare tells me I write far too much anyway so perhaps this will help.

In the last two weeks, I have done exams in Russian, Computing, French and Chemistry. Nothing particularly difficult in any of them except one question in the Chemistry paper. Plus I had my last prefect duty which was probably one of my least enjoyable.

When I haven't been revising for all those exams, I have spent most of my time on my computer. I have now got a wireless router, so I can use the Internet from my bedroom on my laptop (as I am doing now), and stop getting in the way of the rest of the family by using the computer downstairs.

I have got my DNS and email (for the domain) moved off the school servers, since for one thing I will be leaving the school and for another our Internet connection will be going, replaced with one via C2K. If you are interested, my DNS is hosted at (for free) and my email at Tuffmail (who seem to offer a very good service for my requirements). I have also been trying Thunderbird as my MUA (having previously always used text-mode MUAs). I'm not sure that has the mailing list support I require so I may soon be moving back to mutt.

-- Martin

no comments Tags alevels, hosting, laptop, mua, tech

2005 week 23

Posted by Martin Orr on Monday, 13 June 2005 at 10:32


Well this week began with some rather unusual activities. On Monday our Russian class went up to the folk museum to show some Russians round. We (especially me since I had been in England when it was organised) had very little idea who they were. Anyway there were 10 girls and 2 boys of around 15 from a school in St Petersburg, who had come to perform at the Waterfront at the Pushkin Trust's 18th birthday celebration. This is probably the first time I have spoken to foreigners whose native language I speak better (or at least as well as) they speak English. We spoke mostly in Russian and it was great fun although sometimes of course difficult to make yourself understood. It is so much easier to speak Russian in the classroom!

I should explain what the Pushkin Trust is in order that you are not as confused as I was - I only found out gradually. It was established by Sacha, the Duchess of Abercorn, to encourage creativity (primarily creative writing) in schools across Ireland. Pushkin was a Russian poet in the 19th century, and an ancestor of the Duchess. We met her briefly as we were leaving the folk museum although I did not know who she was - just someone called Sacha.

Then on Tuesday I went to their performance at the Waterfront - still not really knowing what to expect. Ever been somewhere where you had no idea what was going on or why you were there? Anyway there was an exhibition of the written projects and artwork several schools involved in the project had produced on the theme of Threads, then a number of schools gave a performance. Each school had written a poem, then worked with professional composers and choreographers to produce a music/dance setting of the words of the poem, which they performed. Due to the link with Pushkin (who worked much of his life in St Petersburg), several Petersburg schools had also participated this year, and one of them was selected to come over and perform their dance as well.


On Tuesday evening my new laptop arrived and I have spent much of the week playing with that - I am using it to write this. Also, sarge (the latest release of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution) was finally released on Monday - hurray! We can stop arguing about release dates and move on to coding for the next release. So I bittorrented the CD and installed that on my laptop, removing the pre-installed Windows XP as quickly as possible. It is an amd64 laptop, but so far I am only using it in 32-bit mode. Amd64 is not yet officially part of Debian, but there is an unofficial port which I will install this week. Also, I will not be getting a wireless router for a couple of weeks so accessing the Internet from the laptop is rather awkward at the minute - I have to bring it downstairs, set it on the desk beside the desktop PC and transfer the Ethernet cable from the desktop. Plus the cable modem has to be rebooted every time you change the card it is connected to.

Yearbook Photo CD

Besides setting up my laptop, I have been involved in another major computer project this week. You may know that I was responsible for all the IT stuff for the school Yearbook. This was finally despatched to the printers about 2.5 weeks ago and I thought that was the last I would have to do with it. Well I suppose it was the last I have had to do with the printed book.

There was also a plan to put together a CD of assorted photos that could be distributed with the Yearbook. As far as I remember, this was put forward as a vague idea at one of the early committee meetings but nothing then happened on it for quite some time. Eventually a notice went up in the Sixth Form Centre asking for people to give photos to Peter Wasson or Becky Webber. This was at the same time that there were lots of Yearbook posters in the Centre, about articles, profiles and photographs that were to be taken (e.g. Fullerton/Downey/Stranmillis alumni, the Ginger Society) - on one particular day I counted seven different Yearbook-related posters. Given the amount of work I did on the printed Yearbook, especially technical formatting work after all the editorial stuff was done, I am quite glad that putting this CD together was not my responsibility although it would have helped if they had coordinated with me occasionally. Some people did assume I was responsible for it and gave me photos, which I simply passed on to Peter.

Mr Slater took a look at the photo CD, as he took a look at the printed book, for censorship reasons, and decided he wanted nothing to do with it. Based on what he said at our meeting and on having looked at every photo on the CD myself, I believe it was a single photo that caused him to take this decision. Whether people were originally informed that the CD would be included in the price of the Yearbook I am not sure but the position now is that it is entirely unofficial. Incidentally on financial grounds I am unsure whether the price would have covered CDs - my calculations suggest that the Yearbook is only just above break-even. I suppose 300 CD-Rs do not cost that much.

So Peter and Becky announced that they would burn and distribute the CDs themselves, and make a charge to cover expenses. Alan then had the idea of using BitTorrent to distribute these CDs, running our own tracker on The school's 2MBit symmetric bandwidth gives a good start for downloads, but clearly if 100 people try to use it to download 532 MB it takes a long time. So we get other people to seed as well, and generally use all the advantages of BitTorrent. (Note: this is on our legacy network; it would clearly be impossible on C2K. This Internet connection will stop at the end of June, and this is almost certainly the only time we will use a significant part of its upstream bandwidth.) I have quite a while learning about BitTorrent, how to run a tracker and seed a torrent, plus we had to get the thing uploaded to henry to start with. This was hampered by the fact that after we thought we were ready, Peter and Becky decided to revise the CD and give more sensible names to a number of files. However, we knew better what we were doing with the second CD. On the other hand we were hampered by Internet connection failures (my own connection has been down for most of the afternoon for the past several days). When I had nothing else to do, I amused myself writing convoluted shell scripts - for example to figure out which files had been renamed by matching up file sizes and copy files across from the old directory tree to the new, thereby getting 99% of the torrent even while off-line. We now have at least 3 (I think 4) seeds plus another downloading, and are planning a general announcement tonight.


The majority of my A-levels are on or after 21st which is why I have so much time to spend on computer stuff at the moment. Nonetheless it is necessary to squeeze in a few exams: on Thursday I had Computing modules 1 and 2 (I am doing both AS and A2 Computing this year). I only even started reading the syllabus for this on Tuesday, but I know the vast majority of it anyway so the exams were quite easy. The one thing I am not 100% clear on is communication systems, and the difference between bit rate, baud rate and bandwidth. A question did of course come up on this. They give you far too much time for these exams - not just me but most other people were finished in half the time. The exams are 90 minutes each so went on until 1630; Mr Welshman was apologising at 1620 that he had to keep us another ten minutes, and suggested people might check through their work in order that the time would pass more quickly.

An altogether more daunting prospect was my piano diploma on Friday. For this I was playing J. S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 No. 2), Mozart's Sonata in B flat K.333, Schumann's Arabeske Op. 18 and Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. The rag is my best piece; I played it for my Grade 8 a year ago, although not then particularly well. The Bach I can also play well and the Mozart mostly so - there are one or two bits that give technical difficulties. The Schumann is not great and a week ago I could not keep the main theme steady at all. For the Bach and Mozart I had trouble getting a decent dynamic range out of the exam piano - it seemed rather different from my piano at home. By the Schumann I was getting used to it, and I think I played that well, including conquering my pulse difficulties; the exam piano was perhaps more suited to this piece than mine. The rag of course was good but I don't think I did well on the sight-reading. Still that is over now, probably the last serious piano playing I will do - I want to learn the violin next year.

-- Martin

no comments Tags alevels, debian, languages, laptop, methody, music, tech, yearbook

2005 week 22

Posted by Martin Orr on Monday, 06 June 2005 at 17:38

I began the week in Oundle for a Maths camp - the final selection of the team for the IMO. On Tuesday we sat NST (Next Selection Test) 1. This is an IMO-style exam i.e. there are three questions in 4.5 hours. It was however an easy exam and I had solutions to all the problems in 70 minutes. After working out a solution, it is necessary to write it up carefully so that the markers can understand it. I spent the rest of the exam doing that very slowly and carefully, ensuring there were no holes at all and since I had so much time, even provided a summary of each solution to guide the marker and cross-referenced the page numbers between rough work and final solution. I still had quite a bit of time to spare. In all, four out of the eight squad members claimed three questions although they did not all get full marks on every question.

I missed NST 2 on Wednesday because I had to come home for my French oral. In this oral you debate a topic of your own choice for five minutes: I had chosen to argue against nuclear energy. I first did this topic at Christmas, when we were only given a choice of five topics; to my surprise I ended up the only one choosing nuclear energy (Kathleen initially chose to be for it but switched to a different topic). When I first picked the topic, I did not feel strongly either way; the more I researched it the more convinced I became against it. Then I left the topic for several months until Easter when it came time to choose the A-level topic. To make things easy and since I had been the only person doing it at Christmas (and would therefore almost certainly be the only person to do it for the A-level since you have a completely free choice), I stuck with nuclear power (although unfortunately I had kept my presentation and some other French notes, but little of my original research). When I got back to thinking about it again, I became less and less convinced that it is a bad thing. Apart from the nuclear waste argument: it seems to me foolish to produce all this dangerous waste we don't know what to do with, although again I am no longer as convinced of the unfeasibility of some options as I was.

Following your chosen topic, you speak on at least two other topics of the examiner's choosing for another ten minutes. He asked me about the environment (a natural thing to follow on from nuclear power), the pace of modern life, and the European Union. The EU was an obvious choice given the referendum on Saturday; in conversation however it arose from the previous question, when he had asked about the 48-hour EU limit on the working week, and I mentioned the French 35-hour week. I think I did fairly well, though looking back I'm not sure how much I did to justify my opinions as well as state them. The examiner seemed nice enough, and he phrased his questions very slowly and ponderously; that fits with my style of answering them, which is hopefully a good thing.

The rest of the week I have had off, as I don't have an exam until Thursday coming. I spent much of my time on the computer, ordered a laptop on Friday of which I am eagerly awaiting delivery, went to a Make Poverty History rally in Belfast on Saturday and completed a first draft of my Gloria.

I have also spent quite a bit of time doing Maths - I have been working through all the questions 2 and 5 from the 1990 IMOs. If you don't know about the IMO, you will ask: why questions 2 and 5? Well in each IMO there are two exams, questions 1, 2, and 3 on the first day and 4, 5 and 6 on the second day. Questions 1 and 4 are (relatively) easy, 2 and 5 of medium difficulty and 3 and 6 are hard. Each question is marked out of 7, making a maximum total of 42. In 2002 and 2003, 29 marks were required for a gold medal; in 2004 it was 32. So you can see that to get a gold you really need to get questions 1, 2, 4 and 5. If they are perfect, that makes 28 marks so you can pretty well assume that you still need a mark or two on 3 or 6; depending on the difficulty of the paper, how many additional marks are required will vary a bit, but a full extra question ought to be sufficient.

Questions 1 and 4 usually are quite straightforward if you are well trained and the UK works very hard on knocking them off like clockwork: in 2003 we got 82 marks out of a possible 84, placing us in third place on these 2 questions (while we were tenth overall, with something like 3 marks in total on questions 3 and 6). I should have no trouble with those questions, which is why I have been practising on 2 and 5. I have now tried all the 2s and 5s back to 1996 and got almost all of them in under an hour, which is a good thing. Questions 3 and 6 are often out of my reach, but as explained above I need to make some progress on them so I will try a range of questions 3 and 6 later.

What have I been reading this week? Molière's Le Misanthrope: it's seventeenth century French drama, not the best thing to read before your French oral (like reading Shakespeare to improve your spoken English, several of the grammatical rules and words have changed). So I've been thinking in iambic hexameter in French.

-- Martin

no comments Tags alevels, imo, languages

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