Monday, April 28

Guess what's back?

The jdbgmgr.exe virus hoax. This time round I was sent it by someone saying 'I think this is a hoax - what do you know about it?', but all the same that means it's still going round. Don't go deleting files just because an email from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend told you to, and do follow the link for more information about this.
posted @ 11:19 PM -

Saturday, April 26

My shorter term plans

I haven't really posted anything since leaving Nelson. I went from there back to Wairakei, where I worked for a little while again. Things didn't go quite as well as last time, but having briefly got very bitter about it I now have no desire to wind myself up again by ranting, so I'll let that one lie, just saying that I felt a little used, and that the terms of my employment were certainly less generous than at Woodgrove. Last week I cycled along Lake Taupo to Turangi, which was a convenient base to explore the Tongariro National Park for a day (spectacular volcanic peaks, strange coloured rocks and lakes, and above the plant-growth-line (there's growth of small hardy plants for a few hundred metres above the treeline, but I'm not sure what the boundary of this is supposed to be called) the landscape looks really rather moon-like). Naturally I have plenty of photos.

After that I came back to Wairakei for a final few days, and yesterday I moved into Taupo town, because on Friday night we had the first frost of the year, and frankly it's just too cold to live in a caravan now. Tomorrow Auckland, then on Wednesday I fly to Brisbane. I still have no idea what I'll be doing in Brisbane, but turning up in places with no plan hasn't exactly caused me problems so far.

Finally, on Friday the 9th of May I'll fly to London via Bangkok, arriving on the 10th. I'll have a lot of people to catch up with when I recover enough from the jetlag to be able to speak in words of more than half a syllable.

I think I'll be starting in Cleveland about 3 months later (I'm not totally sure because term doesn't start till the end of August, but it has been suggested to me that getting there a few weeks in advance would be a good idea), and I think I'll spend the time in between temping in London, because as the length of this gap shrinks I get progressively less inclined to bother looking for good jobs, but I do need to earn some money.
posted @ 10:13 PM -

From one Great Lake to another

I have known about this for some time, but wanted to wait until it was 'official' to write about it.

I've had answers from all my PhD applications now, and the result is that I will be going to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, to work under Randy Beer's supervision, on minimally cognitive behaviour (by which I don't mean my usual mode of operating, but the simplest behavior that raises issues of genuine cognitive interest) in simulations.

In short, I'll be managing to make a living (well... so far I only have funding for my first 2 semesters, but I'm reasonably confident that that buys me enough time to sort out the longer term) out of playing with toys on a computer.

In more detail, I'll be working with a class of neuron model that is more complex than the usual 'on/off' simplification used in classic neural network models, but nowhere near as complex as the real thing (for many reasons, including the need to be able to actually understand what's going on in there, and the need to be able to finish large numbers of experimental runs within my lifetime). I'll be picking up from existing work, which uses controllers made of small numbers of these model neurons to get simulated agents with very simple sensors (typical a pair of straight-line distance sensors at an angle from each other; we're talking less than is on the front bumper of current BMWs) to perform simple tasks.

The sorts of tasks involved require short-term memory and some degree of decision making (an example is getting the agent to catch a number of falling objects - it has to move in line for the one that will arrive first, which is not necessarily the closest one, but also then move to the right place for the next object as soon as it is caught), so while they aren't whizz-bang 'intelligent' tasks that grab headlines for the field, they can be considered 'cognitive' (a minefield, and I expect that as much of my dissertation will be devoted to considering what counts as 'cognitive' as to describing and analysing what I have done). That makes them interesting to analyse (and this is clearly going to be one of those projects where extremely exhaustive analysis takes up far more time than simply getting the things to work), though the main interest of the work strikes me as not the behaviour we can get out of the things, but how little architecture is needed to achieve it.

I'm very excited about the work; the paper I've linked to above is one of the pieces that I've found most inspiring over the past few years, and not only do I now get to work on it myself, but also when I went to Cleveland in January, I discovered that they had had considerably more success with this work than I had previously realised. It's going to be bloody hard, because I still have gaps to fill in my education because of never having been a proper computer science student (pure maths here we come), but that's material I need to learn anyway, and I have no doubt that it will be worth the effort. I'm also looking forward to living in America for a while, as much as anything else so I can have a first-hand experience of what the place is like, rather than the mess of very coloured received opinions that most people outside the US have. When I was sending applications in, many people asked me whether I saw myself settling in the US or not. My answer was usually to the effect of I see myself returning to Britain, but it depends on how I feel after a few years living there. Really, it was way to early to be asking me that question, and it still is. When I start writing up will probably be about the right time, because then I can actually answer based on experience.

I'm trying to keep as much of an open mind about this as possible; trying not to really have expectations of what it will be like, because they can so easily colour the experience. However, I do have some ideas. For starters, I hope that Michael Jennings observations about how nice girls from Ohio are turn out to be a fair generalisation. I don't think I've met any girls from Ohio myself, but I did meet 3 of the other students (all male, naturally. This is the penalty for being a computer scientist and not a biologist) in the lab I'll be based in, and they are certainly very nice people.

More seriously, from what I know of American culture, and judging by the Americans I've encountered over the years, I'm looking forward to the directness and lack of reserve (on my travels, the only times I've found it difficult to start conversations have been with other poms; I won't miss the ability of British people to sit lonely in a bar, not talking to the other people who are also sitting there lonely, and killing any attempt at conversation with monosyllabic answers), but I also know that the lack of taboo about showing lots of enthusiasm occasionally translates into an irritating social pressure to do so.

There are also some specific things about the area I'll be in. It gets horribly cold in winter (when I was there in January it was as cold as Ulaan Baatar, though I think that was a little worse than normal). I'm not concerned about Cleveland being a relatively small city with a less-than-stellar nightlife scene (let's face it, I am not a party animal, and a couple of nice quiet bars [I definitely will miss the institution of the local pub if I can't find an equivalent place out there] is all I need), but I am a little concerned that it's not the most cosmopolitan of places. Hopefully working at a university with a significant contingent of foreign students will offset that, but if I do find myself in a culturally (and linguistically) homogeneous place it will get tiresome after a while, and if I can't find a decent oriental supermarket my diet will really suffer. And finally, Ohio is very, very flat. This may sound flippant, but everywhere I've lived there have been hills reasonably nearby (Alexandra Park and Hampstead Heath when I last lived with my parents, the South Downs around Brighton, the Mendips around Bristol) that I could ride my bike up, to be completely alone, on top of the world, and have a view for miles and miles. That, seriously, is something I will miss badly.
posted @ 8:27 PM -

Super Mario

I think this might be the first and last time I find myself wishing I were a plumber, because just now it would give me the opportunity to work in one of the most awesome places on earth.
posted @ 8:05 PM -

Wednesday, April 23

sorry all has been quiet here for rather longer than usual. I just haven't been spending much time online, so what time I have been has been pretty much filled up with email. Nothing bad's happenned to me or anything.
posted @ 11:02 PM -

Saturday, April 12


I'm going to be very brief because I'm in no state to discuss anything complicated, but I feel like having previously written a long rant about why I oppose the war on Iraq I have to say something in the face of the current euphoria.

The war is not over. The easiest part - toppling a regime that was hated by a lot of people and weakened by a decade of sanctions - looks like it's probably over, but there is much work to do. Nothing I have seen so far has convinced me that I was wrong to oppose this war, but now there is a chance for this to happen. I will eat my words and accept that the death and destruction was for a greater good in a few years' time, if and only if the chaos (which was probably inevitable) is short-lived, America manages to keep Turkey out of this (which it can't do by arm-twisting; it will have to convince the Turkish government that the threat of a new war against the Kurds is not serious), Iraq gets a genuinely representative government as opposed to a government of America's choosing, the lives of Iraqi people actually start to improve (unlike Afghanistanis, whose lives are pretty similar now to 5 years ago, unless they happen to live in the small area around Kabul that is actually peaceful), and America succeeds in convincing the Arab world that Iraqis really are better off, so that this war doesn't end up sparking a huge rise in anti-western sentiment among Arabs.

I am not optimistic about these things. Sadly, anti-western sentiment is so entrenched in much of the Arab world (and such a useful tool for demagogues of many varieties) that even if all of the other things are achieved, that final goal will be difficult. If it is not achieved, the world will be a more dangerous place as a result of this war.
posted @ 8:40 PM -

a happy day

Yesterday Tom & Caroline (who lived with me in Brighton for much of 2001, and moved into my old room when my move to Bristol coincided with their return from Canada) got married. Funnily enough this is the first time I've made it to a friend's wedding, even though it's on the far side of the world (somehow I've missed three weddings in the UK by managing to be abroad at the time of each of them). It was a beautiful ceremony, as much as anything else because the bride and groom did so much smiling, and the parents were so obviously proud. Then the party... let's just say that I haven't been awake very long and have a rather sore head.
posted @ 8:29 PM -

Friday, April 11

coming down to Earth

Yesterday I finished a 1000 mile (1601 kilometres, to be precise, which is probably closer to 995 miles, but that doesn't sound so good) bike ride. It wasn't actually a very good feeling. Partly I think because my last day was rather soured by a succession of log trucks (by far the biggest vehicles on NZ roads) overtaking me dangerously close (if I have to lean out against their slipstream I get scared. I think this is a reasonable reaction), and I have lost my voice from screaming abuse at them (an utterly futile thing to do, but how many people can really claim they act rationally when scared witless?). Mainly, though, I think it was not a very good feeling because apart from a couple of hours yesterday, and one previous bad day when every turn of the pedals seemed too much like hard work, it's been a great experience. I don't have an overwhelming sense of achievement, because I never doubted I'd make it (seriously - unless you are horrendously unfit or have some kind of injury/disability, cycling an average of 30-35 miles per day for a month is not difficult), but I do have a sense that one of the best parts of my trip is over, and the holiday itself is drawing to a close.

I am kind of looking forward to living in London for a while, catching up with old friends and re-acquainting myself with a city that at various times in the past I have either loved or hated. At the same time, my return to London will be when I have to face up to the reality of having spent almost all of my money, and having to earn some back quickly while knowing that I won't be in town for long enough to get stuck into an interesting job [I don't expect or even want any sympathy for this - I chose to continue my holiday after giving up on getting a job in Wellington, and I have no doubt that it's been worth doing]. It's not that any of this is really going to be that hard to deal with, just that the real fun is almost over.
posted @ 6:26 PM -

Thursday, April 10


I am due to fly back to the UK via Bangkok. I was (when my information was vague) considering re-routing that because of SARS. Since then I've looked into it, and realised that it's pointless to re-route. Partly because the outbreak in Thailand seems to be over (at least it isn't on the WHO's list of currently affected areas), and partly because the only practical alternative routes are via Kuala Lumpur (same status as Bangkok), Singapore (far worse hit by SARS than Bangkok), or LA. I don't actually know if LA has any cases, but as the WHO's list of infections to date shows, the US has had exponentially more cases than Thailand.

On something of a tangent, why does it have the tautological name severe acute resiratory syndrome? I can't help thinking it's just because they didn't want to call something deadly serious ARS....
posted @ 2:52 AM -

Tuesday, April 8

back on the road

just for a few days. I should arrive in Nelson on Friday.
posted @ 1:50 PM -
Some other peoples' words:And a minor point: after all my griping about referring to the [ex?] president of Iraq by first name only, it's become apparent to me that he named many things after himself, simply as the Saddam international airport (for example). So I think I was wrong to make an issue of that, because it sounds like Western media have simply followed his lead.
posted @ 3:12 AM -

Monday, April 7

voilà: the Woodgrove Farm website.
posted @ 8:38 PM -

Thursday, April 3

sound effects

Today I found myself using a film camera for the first time in years. The controls are actually very similar to my digital camera, the shape similar if perhaps a little more ergonomic, and I don't yet know what the picture quality is like. I'm finding it very disconcerting not being able to immediately look at the results, so I can't be sure whether a given picture has come out right, and when Doug asked me what I'd snapped I had some difficulty listing it for him. There was one thing I really appreciated about it though - the click and whirr when I take a picture. Somehow digital cameras are just too quiet, and hearing and feeling that click is satisfying. It made me think though - some sports cars have been designed to make beefier noises than they have to, so why don't digital camera makers just add a simple mechanical part to the camera that gives an optional click?
posted @ 2:43 AM -

Wednesday, April 2

The Good Life

Yesterday I arrived at Woodgrove Farm, just north of Kaikoura. I'll be here for a week or so, working for Doug (the farmer, who seems like a particularly nice bloke) on repairing and updating the farm's website (sign of the times, I know), and probably also helping out round the grounds. I don't know how much I'll be online (right now I'm online just to demonstrate that I have got the PC working), because I don't yet know how much this is costing him (I'm getting free food & board for not very hard work, so I shouldn't really cost the place money, should I?), and I have no cellphone reception (I'll live).

Just in brief: this is a really really lovely place. It sits at the foot of the Seaward Kaikoura mountains, with the Pacific Ocean a kilometre or two away across some flat fertile land. It's totally self-sufficient in food, so we have fresh bread each morning, as well as fresh fruit & veg (and there's even a banana tree), and I have a feeling I'm not really going to want to leave next week....
posted @ 2:58 PM -
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