The fires I mentioned in yesterdays post have turned into major fires. The Witch Creek fire is the one of the two that most directly threatens where I live and play. By play I mean probably 75% of my bike ride routes go through already burned areas. That number will probably be higher when this is all over.

There is a non-zero chance that we will have to evacuate from where we live. I'm not too worried right now as there is very little wind in and to our location right now. Without the high winds, the fire will not advance here very fast. We have thought about what we'll take and where we'll go if conditions change. Luckily, we have renters insurance so as long as we remember to take irreplaceable items, we'll be fine financially. We have no idea where we'd live if the apartment burns down.

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Birthday Fires


I am a lifetime Californian, and in my nearly 28 years, there have been two major fires that have started during my birthday parties. Having a birthday on October 25th will do that.

On my 12th birthday party, held on the Saturday before my actual birthday, the Oakland Hills Fire started that evening, October 19th, 1991. I had a slumber party and one of my friends was unable to return home in the morning. His parent left home to fetch him and was unable to return; that's how fast that fire moved once the winds increased in the morning. His house didn't burn down, but I had numerous friends who weren't as lucky. There was a very good chance that the fire might have burnt down my family's home. Fortunately for us, the wind shifted and burned other people's homes. Over 3,000 of them.

Fire Tree

For my first year here in San Diego, I spent my actual birthday evening with a few new friends, and unknown to us the Cedar Fire had already begun. It did not get big until the 26th, and continued to burn for days. School was canceled and the sky turned deep orange with all the soot in the air. The photo above is a true-color image taken on October 28th, 2003.

Well, it's starting to look like a near-repeat. As I sit here, four days from my birthday, there are two major fires burning east of here, and it's getting smoky and orange here already. The culprit is what it always is, Santa Ana Winds. Today has been very gusty and as you can see from the normally straight tree, the wind is strong. It's actually very unpleasant when the air gets this smoky. We've tried closing all the windows but our apartment is very poorly sealed.

The fires already have names, the Potrero Fire and the Highway 78 fire. There's also a major fire burning in Malibu. It's very unlikely that the fires will make their way all the way west to La Jolla, but the Cedar fire made it onto Miramar MCAS, which is only a few miles directly east of here.

The photo below I took an hour or two ago. That's a large cloud of smoke drifting just north of me. I fear that we will have a repeat of four years ago and we'll live in a smoky, orange world for the next few days.


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Yahoo! Does Know All

Yahoo! has rolled out a new search service with predictive search hints. As you type it tries to guess what you're searching for. It will also give you an "Explore Concepts" tab which gives you words to associate with the search you just performed. I was playing around with this and I searched my friends name, Chris Nekarda, and I discovered that Yahoo! pretty much has him nailed down.

Chris Nekarda

Donuts are truly the gateway to understanding his soul. It does a slightly worse job with me. I don't own anything made by Nikon.

Stephen Skory

And it misses Melissa by a wide margin.


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Tropical San Diego

La Jolla Dew Point

According to wikipedia and Weather Undeground, at 7:50 am today, the dew point in La Jolla was somewhere between "somewhat uncomfortable: and "quite uncomfortable." I would agree with that.

For over the last week San Diego has been subject to a flow of warm and humid air from the Gulf of Mexico. The temperatures haven't been all that high in absolute terms, perhaps as high as 30C (85F), but the humidity has been unpleasant. Furthermore, my apartment is uninsulated and has no air conditioning – so the windows stay open 24 hours a day. By the mid-afternoon, it's often a few degrees warmer in the apartment than outside. And our neighbors smoke on their patio about dozen times a day, which is annoying. It gets worse: One of the buildings next to us is having its roof replaced and all week the smell of fresh tar has been wafting inside the apartment day and night.

I usually don't complain about warm weather, I actually like it. But, lately, I'm looking for a little relief from the sticky humidity, the cigarette smoke and the tar.

(P.S. Of my faithful readers, my brother Adam has it the worst, of course, being in Vietnam right now. It's much more humid and oppressive there. However, Vietnam is 20 degrees farther south than here, so that's to be expected.)

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Las Vegas

This last weekend I drove to Las Vegas for a one night stay to celebrate Chris Schroeder's upcoming wedding. Las Vegas wouldn't have been my first choice for such an occasion, but I'm not getting married.

A nice rock formation

A nice rock formation

The drive itself is actually much more interesting than, say, the drive on I-5 in the central valley. Unlike that drive, there's lots of topography to see. The Mojave is surrounded by fairly high mountains and to get to Las Vegas you have to drive over them. The weather provided a point of conversation too. The desert southwest was in a heat wave over the weekend and we saw a high of 116 in Baker, CA. I'm sure my mother was happy to not be on this trip.

I went with three other people besides Chris: Paul and Shane, both physicists, and Francisco, a Portuguese bioengineering graduate student. He's Portuguese by nationality, not his studies. We stayed over Saturday night in Las Vegas at Binion's hotel on the old strip. The old strip of Las Vegas was the strip until about the 1950s. Since then, most of the development money has gone to the new strip which is farther South, outside of the Las Vegas city limits. Because the new strip is where most people go, the old strip tries really hard to attract tourist and gambling money.

One of the things the old strip has done to attract visitors is to convert the main street into the Fremont Street Experience. The road was turned into a pedestrian mall and a 5 block long canopy was erected. The inside of the canopy is covered in millions of LEDs which plays video throughout the night. It's all very excessive. The videos celebrate what's great about the USA: NASCAR, dancing ladies, loud classic rock and country music, and cool computer graphics. They also have free street attractions, like four motorcycles in a sphere.

There's other evidence of the USA in its finest form in Las Vegas. I was aghast at the number of people with small children with them at 11:30pm.

No good

Also the number of amazingly fat people. The convergence of so many temptations is unique too. My submission to temptation of gambling cost me $10. I did not submit to the other temptations which would have further emptied my wallet.

A fool and his money

Overall I found Las Vegas more interesting than entertaining. I have a strong enough mathematical background and not enough greed to find gambling worthwhile. I find nudie bars boring. The various shows in Las Vegas are out of my price range (most start at around $70). I suppose if I was a heavy drinker I could find all of the above compelling (or at least a good idea while intoxicated), but, alas, I'm not. It should be a while before I visit Las Vegas again.

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Damn You May Gray

No, May Gray isn't a person, it's a Southern California phenomenon that happens during the months of May and June. In June it's called "June Gloom." Let me put it simply. Here is the Berkeley 5-day forecast off of Wunderground:


and here is the La Jolla 5-day forecast:


I miss the sun.

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Site5 Could Be Better

A week ago I saw a posting on digg about how Dreamhost sucks. It got me thinking about the problems I've been having with my account with Site5. Let me say that at no point has my experience been anywhere as bad as the one described in that link.

My hosting plan is on a shared webserver. Here is an informative page (broken link) about my machine, named iaso. It has four Intel 2.8Ghz Xeon processors, and four gigabytes of RAM. It runs Linux which is a solid server OS.

My big problem are periods when this very website is unresponsive. There are lots of other websites on the same computer. And by lots I mean on the order of 600 websites:

-bash-3.00$ cat /etc/passwd | grep -v nologin | wc -l<br />

The number of users with logins is not a one to one list of websites served, but it's probably a good estimate. All it takes is one of the 600 users with a bad webpage to clog up the machine.

Below is a plot of the load level for iaso over the course of 15 days last month. Without going into specifics, a load level of one means that there is one process needing a processor at any given moment. It will be many different processes, and that's fine. Practically, a machine can stay responsive with up to about a load of three or four per processor. So, on a four processor machine like iaso, a load level of 10-15 is about the highest comfortable level.


What you see above are many occasions when iaso went well above load levels of 25. The highest peak was a load of 230. In my experience, once the load reaches 25 my website becomes more than slow: it doesn't work anymore.

For comparison, below is a plot of the same thing on one of the nodes of the supercomputer I use, Datastar. This is the node where scientists do heavy-duty analysis on their datasets. For instance, I use this node to process my multi-gigabyte datasets using IDL. People also run Mathematica and other very computationally intensive tasks on this machine. It's got 32 1.7Ghz Power4 processors and 256GB of RAM (what do you have on your workstation, huh?). It runs IBMs AIX 5.3. As you can see below, for the first four days, the load level stays below one process per processor. In the fifth day something happens and it goes above 60 for a while, before the machine gets rebooted and things return to normal.


The kind of processes that run on the two computers above are very different. However, the supercomputer is supposed to run big jobs and get beat on. A webserver isn't. Anytime the webserver's load goes above 25, it's like the supercomputer's load shooting to 256. At no time did the supercomputer shoot to 256, while the webserver goes above 25 many times. Of course, I'm comparing 15 days to 5 days in the two plots, but I think the differences are clear.

Site5 pays a third party to monitor their webservers, with results listed here (link broken). iaso (link broken) has 99.8% uptime overall and 99.4% over the last month. This is bad enough that apparently I'm due a 5% credit on my next billing cycle. iaso isn't even living up to Site5's own service standards.

Every time I catch my website being slow, I contact Site5 tech support. I know that this is a common problem with shared hosting. I'm sure that Site5 is aware that these outages, and does what they can when they happen. But, when it does happen, it's annoying. It shouldn't happen in the first place. Sometime this summer, Site5 is changing their hosting solution which may help with these problems. We'll see.

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Ethics Course

I guess the UC system has been working it's way down the ladder of the compensation scandal hierarchy. I thought they had forgotten about that sweetheart deal I gave to absolutely no one. I finally got my invitation today to learn how to stop myself from doing absolutely nothing again. I've decided to include you with me as I clean up my act. Off we go!

Page 1: What? No pig latin? Utbay tsiay hatway mIay ostmay omfortablecay ithway!



Page 2: It's our President, Robert Dynes, with a video message. From the video it's clear he's not used to the talking head bit. His eyes are a good 15 degrees away from the camera the whole time. My favorite part is when he says "I liked it" when referring to taking the ethics course himself. If he really did enjoy it, he's disturbed.

Page 3-5: Blah blah blah. Introductory text, a short outline of the course.

Page 6: This reminds me of Dilbert comics I've seen before. The last one below has me thinking -- when was the last time a graduate student really felt like their dignity was being respected? I suppose in the end we only have ourselves to blame since we got ourselves into this mess.

We are committed to the following principles:

Integrity. We will conduct ourselves with integrity in our dealings with and on behalf of the University.

Excellence. We will conscientiously strive for excellence in our work.

Accountability. We will be accountable as individuals and as members of this community for our ethical conduct and for compliance with applicable laws and University policies and directives.

Respect. We will respect the rights and dignity of others.

Page 7-8: I'm given the "Standards of Ethical Conduct." In summary, except for the financial reporting bits, it's pretty much the same thing you might get in your high school welcome book. Respect others, respect yourself, do right for yourself, snitch on others. That sort of thing.

Page 9: Oooh. We're finally getting relevant to me now. We're going to follow the ethical decisions of "Edna" the Business Manager of a large department. This describes my position and responsibilities as a physics graduate student.

Page 10-13: Uh ohs, Thuvan (a name I've never heard before) is taking perks from hotels. Thuvan schedules large conferences and chooses hotels which will receive this business. Thuvan is spending all day hanging out at hotels getting free food and services. It looks like Edna has to talk to her about following ethics rules.

Edna Tim

Page 14-17: A professor just got a big grant, and wants to hire the department chair's wife for a position, but without doing a proper job search. Tim wants to play along so there's no trouble from the professor, but Edna knows better. It looks like Edna has to sit down with another employee. Notice the slick graphics to help me visualize the situation.

Page 18-22: A professor has found a desirable, young and grant-rich researcher at another institution, and would like to hire her. But in order to do this, her salary would be higher than university standards. Oh no! Do we follow the rules or ";make a secret promise to raise the salary in a year?" We follow the rules, of course.

Page 23-45: I'm going to be nice to you and speed you over the rest of Edna's ethics situations. She really has got a bunch of lousy employees. The only things I learned that apply to me are: Don't steal lab equipment (no one will notice a super computer missing, will they?) and don't gossip to the media when your lab-mate gets arrested (I'll just do it anonymously, guys).

Page 46-48: Just use common sense, dammit! Well, it didn't say dammit, but it should have.

Page 49-51: Here they're just insulting me. They give an example of a campus gardner who used what he learned from an online ethics course in a few sticky situations. They're attempting to show that even low-level employees have ethics choices to make. But even here, this gardner has more power over facilities and purchasing decisions than I do. I want them to give the example of an employee like me that applied what he learned. The problem is, I have power over nothing. No one is going to put me in a sticky situation because I have nothing to offer in return.

Page 52: Regent Parsky gives me a video message thanking me for taking the course. No, thank you Regent Parsky.

Page 53: An offer to provide feeback and a certificate of completion!!! Whew. Now I feel validated. This is going up in my office so everyone knows my ethics are unreproachable.

I'm ethical

Congratulations to you if you read this far.

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Yahoo! Mail support is a joke

For some reason, lately when I go to Yahoo! Mail (mail.yahoo.com), occasionally instead of going to my inbox, I get a page of raw PHP. Here are the first few lines:

ini_set('display_errors', 0);
$data = yahoo_reg_login_setup();

if ( $data === FALSE )
else if ( ! isset( $data['DISPLAY_FORM'] ) )
    error_log( "yahoo_reg_login_setup didn't set the DISPLAY_FORM field" );
    header( "Location: http://login.yahoo.com/");

Here is the rest of the PHP code. It is obviously the PHP code that runs the base of Yahoo! Mail, which decides where to forward you: either to your inbox or to a login page. At any rate, there's no reason why Yahoo! Mail's servers should be sending me raw PHP.

When I get this page, if I hit 'refresh' I'll get the correct page, so things aren't totally broken. This slightly annoying, and it's obviously a problem with Yahoo! Mail's servers. My web browser is incapable of producing raw PHP code, much less with a Yahoo! Mail bug tracking number (see the full text).

Trying to be proactive, I sent this code to their help department. I also wrote "Please don't tell me it's my problem, as there is no way my browser can generate raw PHP." They wrote back telling me:

We understand that you're receiving a HTML error message in your account ... To help us troubleshoot and assess the issue, please take a screenshot of the entire page when the issue occurs next.

They then proceed with instructions on how to take screenshots in Windows. As a Mac OS X user, I found this help insulting and useless. I am no common Windows user, and they shouldn't assume I am. Furthermore, providing a screenshot is even less helpful than my original post, as the PHP code covers more than one contiguous window - I have to scroll to see all the PHP code. It's clear that either my message wasn't read, or the person reading it had no idea what I was saying and put in the most general pre-written reply they could find.

It says something about your company when this kind of 'help' is allowed. This person should have forwarded my message to someone who had a clue. They shouldn't have sent me anything, much less nonsense, when they no idea what I was writing about. Perhaps there is no conduit for this kind of thing between the Yahoo! Mail help staff and the actual programmers. If that's the case, it's a shame, and it's more evidence why Google is kicking Yahoo's butt.

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College Sports Heterogeneity

Most of my faithful readers are not college sports fans. Therefore, you are probably not aware that the men's basketball national championship in two days will be between Ohio State and Florida. These are the same two teams that met in the football championship in January of this year.

As a Cal fan, I've learned that the Berkeley football team and men's basketball team cannot both be competitive at the same time. More likely, neither will be all that successful. When I was in school, the football team was awful. I believe they lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 in a row over two seasons. They also never beat Stanfurd in the "Big Game" while I was an undergraduate. The basketball team was somewhat more capable. While they would usually lose against top opponents, they at least won more games than they lost by a comfortable margin.

Lately, the rule has stayed true. The football team has been excellent for the last few years, while the basketball team has been less than mediocre. All as is it should be in the Cal athletics world.

The best explanation of this phenomenon is that Cal is a legitimate academic powerhouse. Any school that's worth attending will, and should, stink at high-level popular sports. Sure, Cal is dominant at rugby. The Cal women's basketball team made it to the NCAA tournament this year, unlike the men. Cal is good at water sports like swimming and crew, too. Actually, Cal is all-around good, as their current third place in the Sears Directors Cup shows. All of that doesn't matter to me. Let me know when NCAA lacrosse makes it to prime time and I'll update my rules (a.k.a. chauvinism).

All of this is leading to my main point: Ohio State and Florida graduates should be on high suspicion of their worth for the next few years. They should be looked at with the same eye as Devry or University of Phoenix graduates. It is no secret that athletes are not academic superstars. There's a reason why these schools have attracted the best performers. If you're looking to attract the best athletes, you've got to show them that they can keep their grade point average high enough for NCAA eligibility. Bluntly, they ain't gonna get it done at a place like Cal.

Perhaps, someday in the future, Cal will be proficient at both men's basketball and football at the same time. And I will be forced to eat my words. If you are a true blue like me, you're not too worried about this.

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Workplace Ethics & The Little Guy

While I was in college, I took a part-time job working on a small internal library website for the Forest Service. The pay wasn't great, but it was fairly easy and I learned a bunch about website administration.

Since I was an employee of the service, at one point I was required to watch a video on workplace ethics and fill out a questionnaire after watching it. I'm all for workplace ethics. It's just this video was about being fair in granting federal farm loans. I now know that if a woman in a wheelchair comes in to borrow money for her farm I shouldn't reject her based on her sex & disability. The same goes for brown people, stupid people, annoying people, bad actors and lepers (*).

The federal government doesn't do anything unless they have to. So obviously, somewhere, sometime, some bigoted ass-face loan officer rejected a loan to a qualified person because she voted for Clinton. Years of litigation later and this computer jockey in Albany, California, has to waste over an hour of his time learning to not be an ass-face when granting loans.

Fast forward to today: I'm now a highly valued employee of the University of California. The UC system has had a bunch of executive compensation scandals in recent years where ethics rules weren't followed. As a graduate student, I obviously have lots of power when it comes to:

  1. Hiring/firing employees;
  2. Demanding perks from the administration;
  3. Granting these shady deals;
  4. Leaking things to the media;
  5. Ruining the budget and driving admissions fees up.

This is why I'm going to watch an ethics video soon on how to not do all of the above. This response is totally out of proportion. Of the 230,000 employees of the UC system, only a small fraction are responsible for or capable of these gross ethics violations. Me and my fellow little guys shouldn't have to waste any time on this crap. The big wigs should instead have to attend a week-long course on ethics taught by a former Catholic school nun. Yes, she'd be an excellent wielder of a ruler.

You can look forward to future commentary when I actually see this video. Stay tuned.

(*) I'm making the lepers part up.

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My Bowl Rankings

Now that the full bowl schedule is out, I've done some rough analysis, ranking the bowls by their computer ranking. Since the human rankings don't go as deep as all the various bowl-bound teams, I've used the Sagarin computer rankings to do my mathematics. Simply, I added the Sagarin number for both teams, and also took the difference between the two teams. The first is supposed to roughly gauge the quality of the bowl, and the second the competitiveness of the two teams.

Skory Rankings

I've lowered the totals (in true USA Today front page style), so the worst bowl, the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl between Rice and Troy, has a value of zero. The bowls are arranged in order, with the national championship on Jan 7 on the far right.

In my opinion, the bowls should get better towards and beyond January 1. New Years Day has always been the day for the best bowls -- the Rose Bowl, for example. This graph makes it clear that bowls don't get better in any kind of pattern. In particular, the Pioneer PureVision Las Vegas bowl between BYU and Oregon is way too early for its quality. And the two bowls right before the National Championship (a grand canyon of stink in the graph above), the International and GMAC bowls, are in fact two of the worst bowls of the season.

My team, California, plays in the Holiday bowl on December 28 against Texas A&M. There are 11 bowls after that until there's a bowl of better quality (the Outback bowl between Tennessee and Penn State on the first). By far the best bowl of the season will be the Rose Bowl (between USC and Michigan), which has quality only second to the National Championship, but has a much smaller difference between the teams.

There are all kinds of people out there complaining about the BCS, arguing for a playoff system. I'm on my soapbox asking for the schedule to be changed. Awful bowls don't belong in January, and good bowls don't belong in Mid-December. Especially when my Bears play way too early!

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La Jolla Income Bell Curve

I got a mailer today from a publication, the La Jolla Blue Book, which lists local businesses. They're taking some demographical statistics of their readership (which are the people they send the book to -- for free). I had no intention of filling it out, until I saw this line:

I'm poor

Let me emphasize: I cannot truthfully check any of these boxes. What's astounding here is they didn't even consider that someone might make less than $25,000 and live in La Jolla, but they spend a whole checkbox on $1+ million bracket.

My new Krups waffle maker (thanks Melissa & Mom!) comes with a warranty card, with a similar demographic-culling intention.


Since Krups sells their products nation-wide, they have to cover all income ranges, which are quite a bit different than La Jolla. I'm thinking maybe I'll fill out the LJ Blue Book form now, but make my own box so I don't have to lie about my income. That'll show 'em poor people live here too!

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Most Time Ago

Last Played

I have a playlist on my iPod that automatically updates to include the 25 songs that have gone the longest without me listening to them. (Huh. Can you think of a better way to put that?) I made it some time ago on the idea that songs would migrate there, and then I'd look at the list and listen to something neglected. It doesn't actually happen that way. Today I noticed that the songs at the top of the list had been unlistened to for over three years! I think the time would have been much longer if it hadn't been for an iSight-firewire related hiccup that forced me to reformat the iPod sometime in mid-2003.

I bought my 20 GB 2nd Gen iPod in January 2003 at the Macworld show. According to the Wikipedia page linked previously (a dose of NaCl crystal, of course), since I last listened to these songs, 65.5 million of the total 67.6 million iPods have been sold. Put it another way -- these songs have sat unused on my iPod longer than most people have even had their iPods.

Below is a graph of Apple's stock prices over the last five years, since the introduction of the iPod. When I first heard the name, "iPod," I actually thought it was pretty stupid. Perhaps that's why I'm not in marketing. The red arrow shows when I bought my iPod, when Apple's stock was below $10. As always, Apple's death was right around the corner. Coincidentally, I purchased a good deal of Apple stock around this time, which I have yet to sell.


What were these songs neglected for so long? Well -- a few of the longer and slower Dave Matthews songs and some of Stevie Wonder's poorer licks.

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I came across this transcript of the Chancellor (link broken) of UC San Diego, Marye Anne Fox, answering students questions during an online chat. The questions were not very interesting. Missing is a question about the vowel shortages in Bosnia, and why she's not helping them out, because she's got some extra "e"s to lend.

I guess in the chatroom format, complete answers aren't really called for. Sometimes I think she hits it just right:

beebop> Hey, Marye quick question: I was just wondering, what is your favorite sandwich?
MA_Fox> that's easy. a cheeseburger

On the other hand, sometimes she doesn't answer at all, in full politician mode:

fitfreak> I'd like to know more about the upcoming vote to raise fees to help pay for Division 2 scholarships. Why is this necessary?
MA_Fox> I encourage you to get involved with student govt so that you may weigh the pluses and minuses of expanding athletic scholarships.

And there's the people with their little problems:

maricket> I'm a cheerleader on campus, I am wondering why we do not receive priority registration. We are now considered "athletes" and I think we do more than our part to contribute to UCSD's spirit and athletic program. Having practice at least 12 hours a week plus games, rallies, and fundraisers, I believe that we deserve a chance to plan around those events with that priority registration. What do you think?
MA_Fox> I was not aware of this issue and will discuss it with the VC for Student Affairs.

I wonder how MA_Fox would have answered if maricket was a cheerleader off campus?

Overall, I get the distinct feeling that she's not really earning the $408,510 she's being paid as the Chancellor. Honestly, do her answers strike you as concise and to the point? She really doesn't know what students care about. If she was being verbally grilled by a thesis comittee, she'd be flunked. And since this is a university, I think that's a fair measure of her performance.

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