Sunday, 29 January 2012

Eschatalogical reserve

The number of things I'm failing to blog about gets larger and larger.  The second week of term was worse than the first, and in third week I started to feel like I was getting some control back until my laptop died.  My housemate/landlord has gone away for a month and it's wierd how much this is disconcerting me given that I lived alone in Cambridge for years.  But then, I had pets there.  I've put up a bird feeder in the garden but it's not yet getting many visitors.

Yesterday I went back to Occupy LSX, and the steps of St Paul's.  I went to hear the same vicar friend talk as on my first visit.  It's still a pretty cool place, but of course now they're just waiting for the eviction.  It won't be there next Saturday.  The talkers were more varied than last time, in that they weren't all talkers, but also singers, bands, and poets.  There were a couple of good performance poets, like this man with his "Crazy Santas Occupy the World":

He also did a poem about Sampson over the top of the instrumental from Dr Dre's What's the Difference.  That was great, and even I was sort of dancing a little bit.  It's not on YouTube, maybe because of copyright issues.

I feel sad that the place is going; I hope the eviction goes both peacefully and mediafully.

Afterwards I talked to my vicar friend about something eucharistical in London that had disturbed me, and which didn't seem to bother him at all.  But then by accident I profoundly shocked him by mentioning casually something else I had seen in Devon, and he wanted me to write and complain to a bishop about it.  I'm afraid I may have just provided another waystation on his inexorable journey towards Rome.  Oh dear.  But he did teach me a great concept -- or rather, a great name for a concept I already had.  This is "eschatological reserve".  It's the idea that when it comes to the end, perhaps we'll look back and see the patterns of things differently, and it will be clear who was doing God's will and it won't be the people we expected -- not the Pharisee or the Levite but the Samaritan.  Which was something I already thought but had no way to express except in something that Aslan says during the last battle, which didn't seem very respectable, intellectually.  It's good to have two ways to say it -- even though now I think of it there's almost no one in the world to whom I could suitably say the phrase "eschatalogical reserve".

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

It has realistic legs but no head

I am sitting in a Robotics lecture right now being simultaneously amazed and freaked out by this robot, "Big Dog".  Watch when the man kicks it.

They're currently envisaged as pack animals for soldiers, but I doubt we civilians will escape on the day when packs of them tire of their servitude and trample us all to death.

There's also a Little Dog, if you're interested.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


What is intelligence?  I don't know.  I think maybe we need as many words for it as the proverbial Eskimo has for snow.  Remembering things is intelligent.  Managing your life is intelligent.  Being able to make people understand you is intelligent.  Being able to train a dog, that's pretty intelligent.  I'm intelligent if you count having a PhD as being intelligent (and I think that is true for a certain value of intelligent) but in some ways I'm very stupid -- I'm nowhere near as good as my brother is at being happy, I struggle to feed myself healthily and inexpensively, and I can't play chess or do cryptic crosswords.  This is one of those philosophical problems that spills out into real life.  The other day I was talking about atheism and the idea of "Oxbridge" intelligence came up, as a type of intelligence that often involves a certain type of stupidity.  As someone who has sat in a gown at High Table and had my blouse's label politely tucked in by a member of the waiting staff, I can't claim not to be implicated in all that, though as a concept it does a disservice to the fact that there are plenty of people at Oxbridge who are actually fully functioning members of society.  I can think of about five without even trying.

Yesterday I went to a lecture on Machine Learning, a sub-part of Artificial Intelligence.  It was full of very complicated stuff which I couldn't follow.  But the question "What is Intelligence?" was pretty quickly dealt with.  Intelligence is the ability to solve problems, so that "we do in life better".  (Oh dear, that rules out my PhD as a sign of intelligence, let alone reading War and Peace.)  I also went to an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence this morning, which sensibly did not define intelligence, but looked at the different ways people try to replicate it.  Some people do AI in order to learn more about animal and human cognition, by modeling it and seeing what happens. 

So the people who are shaping our practical idea of what intelligence is, and what intelligence should be, are essentially taking it for granted that what intelligence is is what they are, and using that as the unreflective basis of their research; and yet these people are, for a certain value of stupid, quite likely to be very stupid.  I find that interesting, in a worrying sort of way.  It's not great news for people from cultural backgrounds which are under-represented in scholarly circles, for example.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A long post about my week

This week has been hectic for large reasons but also for small annoying ones:

1-- I bought some shampoo which turns out to smell of chicken coops.  It's the smell that wafts out when you open the little coop door in the evening, and the chickens are all there fluffed up in the darkness, and they peer at you beadily as if to say "What? We're roosting", so you shut the door again and leave them alone.  It's a sweet warm smell, partly hay or straw, a little sour, and not unpleasant, but it does have the undertone of chicken shit, and it's not therefore a smell I would choose for my hair.  But I feel about shampoo bottles like William of Ockham felt about entities, so I'm stuck with it.

2-- Every now and then my mother hurts my brain by expressing an opinion so random and unexpected I just don't know what to do with it.  She told me she disapproves of the high speed rail link plans, and I thought it would be because of the Chilterns or something, but she says that actually it's such a long time until it will be completed that by then we're pretty much bound to have developed high-quality hologram replicas of ourselves (like Rimmer in Red Dwarf, she said, helpfully) so we will no longer have any need to travel much in person.  The problem is that when I was a teenager she used to drive me mad by going on and on about the imminence of robot-driven cars, and now google are doing it and she was right all along.  And there are other annoying crazy things she's been right about too. Maybe she has a point that with the current rate of change we can't really predict what we'll need in 2026.  But I would guess that being able to move our physical bodies is going to remain important for a long time.  If you've ever done a video conference meeting you'll know just how unsatisfactory they are.  We did some for the Parker project with our Stanford partners -- they would all be there clutching their morning coffees while we were packed up ready to go home.  They were odd experiences.  The University video suite (on the New Museums Site) videoed them all for posterity, I think, which is yet another reason to feel sorry for posterity.

3-- The most ostensibly stressful thing about this week was the two exams at the start.  They were the first exams I've ever done by typing.  The C++ one was tough but interesting -- it involved using supplied text files of some poems and a pronunciation dictionary to analyse the poems' rhyme schemes and identify what if any type of sonnet they were.  (Distractingly the supplied Spenserian sonnet was the "One day I wrote her name upon the strand" poem which I love.) I didn't get it fully working but I made what I think was a reasonable attempt, so it depends on their marking attitudes.  (Prolog was fine, I got that all working I think, though I didn't have time to test it properly.)  It was so strange doing exams again after so long.  Like anyone who's been through Oxbridge, at school exams used to be my thing, and in my case particularly the more mathsy ones.  My mother always used to tell me that the important thing with exams was to enjoy them.  And although I by no means got it all done I did really enjoy the C++ exam.  There's something rather beautiful about going into a defined space and letting go of absolutely everything to do with life and its many complications, and distilling all your thoughts and concerns into one tiny thing, like whether your function can correctly pick out and return the last syllable of a line of poetry.  (Of course that's not the sort of thing you can say to people who take the exam with you, it would be rude.)

4-- Then the exams end and life rushes back in on you.  The post-exam bit of this week has been really hard.  It's going to be a very tough term, mostly because of the group project which we need to get done over the next ten weeks.  Ours involves writing an android app for elderly people which can help them to stay in their homes rather than in hospitals when they have ongoing health problems which need monitoring.  It involves various input from wearable sensors, but thankfully the sensors are already set up and not our problem, we just have to deal with the data.  I'm group leader and it's stressful.  I really like everyone in my team but we're basically a bunch of lovable misfits who would be better suited to generating sitcom scenarios than an actual working product.

5-- We get a short (nine-hour) lecture course on project management, which is actually really interesting in a gruesome sort of way.  The lecturer does make it sound like it's pretty much impossible to implement anything ever, but that sort of fits in with my real life experience.  And to be able to put names to the reasons why various things I've worked on have had terrible problems, and to realise that anyone who knew anything about project management would have known these problems were coming way in advance, is a compelling and strange development for me.

6-- We've also done Java -- I love Java! -- and Matlab.  I've had to think about eigenvectors and eigenvalues for the first time this millenium.  But two hours of lectures and four hours of labs mean that we now know Java, apparently, and for Matlab we only had two hours of lectures and two hours of labs.  It's so much new stuff all at once, and next week we start our proper courses.  The idea of this MSc is that the first term gets us up to speed and is equivalent to the first year of the undergraduate computing course, and all our options this term are shared with second-, third-, and fourth-year Computing and Engineering students.  The big question for me is whether to take on Maths-related courses.  On the one hand I could do Maths back in 1994, when I did two A-levels in it.  On the other hand 1994 was so long ago that I have a creeping suspicion that I'm not actually still the same person.  I have next week to try out courses and decide, because the week after is the week for sorting out my individual project on which I will spend the entire summer.

7-- So that's my week.  I'm writing this post mostly to get some thoughts out of my system, and also to remind myself of what it was like later.  I need to mentally gird my loins for the task ahead.  It's going to be a very tough term.  But the good thing is that having done last term's courseworks, and this week's exams, I now know that I can hold my own with these young people, many of whom did Maths or Engineering degrees, many of whom have spent a few years working in the computing industry, and that is the most immensely massive relief.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Studenthood: the downside

Aaaagh, I have an exam tomorrow, and another one the day after.  I haven't done any exams since 1997, and no non-humanities exams since 1994, back when many of my classmates hadn't yet started school.  C++ is tomorrow afternoon, and Prolog on Tuesday morning.  Doing well in them is out of my reach -- my hope is to achieve a respectable pass.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

New Year's Thoughts

1. Why has Amazon just recommended to me a book called Tater's Bear, in a series which seems to be entitled "Siren Everlasting Classic ManLove: Erotic Alternative Paranormal Romance"?  When I went to "fix this recommendation" it turned out to be because I had previously purchased .... a Kindle.  I've heard it said that rudery would flourish in ebook form in the same way that polaroid cameras will ever be associated with people wanting to photograph their bits without showing them to people who work in Boots.  But if I wanted to read about Erotic Paranormal ManLove I would far far rather find some actual bookshop where I could go, hand over money, and take the book away in a one-time transaction, than buy it on Kindle and have Amazon recommending other Siren Everlasting Classic ManLove titles for the rest of my life.  Of course I've probably achieved that anyway by clicking on the link.

2. I kept my last year's New Year's Resolutions all year, which is pretty rare in my life, and in general, I think.  I deliberately didn't go for the predictable resolutions of an unfit, unemployed, overweight thirty-four-year-old living in her parents' house (which would probably be to take up smoking): instead I vowed to record what I read, rewatch all of Battlestar Galactica, and develop an opinion on East Coast vs West Coast rap.  I didn't entirely manage that last, but I did listen to a lot of rap.  Because quite a few tracks were depressingly violent or strangely filled with hatred for women I made a playlist called Hip-Hop for Devon Ladies which filtered out the ones which made me feel sad.
Anyway I was trying to come up with some good resolutions for this year, but it's the 4th January now and I may be defeated.  I don't want them to be resolutions about things which need doing anyway.

3. One of the problems with growing older, and this relates to both points 1 and 2, is that with increasing self-knowledge it becomes less and less likely that taking the risk of trying something new will pay off.  I find it easy to tell in advance whether or not to try foods, books, films, TV series, and all sorts of things, and it's a very long time since I tried something I didn't think I'd like and liked it, no matter how highly it was recommended by others.  I think I do genuinely want to find new things to like more than I want to be proved right here.  Against my better judgement I have been trying to read Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches, about the forbidden love of a witch and a vampire, because it starts in Duke Humfrey (the Bodleian Library's erstwhile manuscripts reading room) and was written by an academic one of whose factual books is on my to-read list.  But it's just not well enough written to be OK.  I'm only five brief chapters in but the protagonist is perfect in a sub-Dan-Brown way -- when she calls friends they start the conversation by congratulating her on all the awards her books have recently won and then go on to describe her great beauty in detail.  I'm going to have to give it up.  How do I teach Amazon that I'm even more put off by Paranormal Romance than Classic ManLove?

4. So here are my final 2012 resolutions, in a more or less finished form:
a) to spend at least an hour every week in a museum or gallery with a notebook and pencil.  I'm going to start tomorrow by catching the end of the Canadian Impressionists exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
b) to find and satisfactorily test a recipe for almond macaroons (the old-style ones, not the pretty French ones with cream filling)
c) maybe something to do with animals?  I admit this one still needs working on.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The company you keep

It's definitely true that people change people. The characters of the people you are friends with make a difference to what you're like, especially the friends of your youth.  When I think about how life would have been different if I had done Maths or CompSci as an undergraduate the thing that seems really crucial is that I wouldn't have met people who helped to shape my character.  Also it seems to be the case that some company makes one feel more alive and alert than others.  (The people on my course are young and often make me nostalgic for the dry humour of people with PhDs but no job prospects.)

I think that's also the case with animal company.  I think spending time with horses, or dogs, or any animal, forces you to be calm and patient, and makes you a little less human in a good way, a bit more part of the immediate world, and a bit more focused on affection.  I really miss having pets.

I like to think that this also has an effect on the animals too.  At this point I may be moving into wishful thinking.  Definitely my brother would say that keeping animals is a sort of slavery, and that because I like to do so I imagine that there is a positive side for them too.  He says that if the pet loves you that makes it worse not better, because the pet has no choice in the matter -- it's just a form of Stockholm syndrome and sick.  (Last time we talked about this I pointed out that he had done the same thing to my nephew, who has no choice but to love and utterly depend on his parents, but he says that's different because children grow up -- I'm not convinced, and to me it seems more of a big deal to create a human who is totally emotionally in your power than to do the same thing to an animal with less complex emotions and easier needs.  I admire in both senses the chutzpah of people who decide to have children.)

But anyway, with the proviso that I really want to believe this, I think that animals are changed a little by human contact.  The pets I've had have been dogs and rats, and they both love to communicate with humans.  Am I reading too much into it because I loved to communicate with them?  It seemed to me a bit like the good conversation which is about the only thing I miss about Cambridge -- it made me feel a similar sort of mental satisfaction, though of course it's a very different sort of communication.  Sentimentally I like to imagine that spending time with humans made my pets also feel a sort of satisfying mental alertness, that it enlarged their world.

Anyway this is just a roundabout way of introducing a very interesting video of a bonobo ape called Kanzi who likes to light fires and toast marshmallows.  The woman with him attributes this to a film he saw when younger, which is culture I suppose.