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.

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