Monday, 27 May 2013

A few things

1. I think it's quite interesting what this whole "Internet of Things" thing says about the human mind. We like to represent the abstract with the physical -- we like symbols that are more than just symbols, and are in some way actually are the thing they mean. I quite want this little printer that makes flipbooks out of gifs, even though I know both the printouts and the camera would just be more junk in my house.

2. Charlie Stross wrote something interesting about spimes a while back, pointing out that it makes a difference whether the spime was started on the internet or in what the kids call meatspace: "my cat is a spime, but she was instantiated via another cat". I like Stross's blog enough that some day I may revisit his fiction.

3. Fuzzy rainforest caterpillar looks like Donald Trump's toupee

4. There are some good weather maps on the Met Office's website. Go to the five-day forecast page -- click on "Get detailed forecast" in the 5-day forecast box on the front page, or try going straight here. (This will give you the chance of rainfall as a rough percentage, by the way, which is a bit more grownup than the usual pictograms.) Then click on the Map tab at the top of the table of information. You'll get a map with tons of different options available as radio buttons down the side. My favourites are: temp. map; cloud and rain; and surface pressure. The cloud and rain are based on satellite imagery (though of course the forecasts are predictions of the satellite imagery). For surface pressure you might need to zoom out to a UK-wide rather than a local perspective. If you click on the play button underneath the image it will improvise an animation by showing you a series of images -- it might have to do one cycle slowly before it has them all loaded up, depending on how good your broadband is. I do like to watch the Atlantic warming up the Cornish peninsula, or a band of frontal rain sweeping across the nation with little bubbles of cumulus behind it.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Ducks in the summertime

I've gone to my parents' house for the long weekend, mostly for IKEA-related reasons. This Easter my father, whom my mother says has never quite got over being an 11-year-old boy, went a bit crazy and bought huge numbers of fertilised eggs to hatch out. Also his silver pheasant has been laying a lot, and he's been hatching those out too. As a result we have a pen full of adolescent chickens, quails, and runner ducks, a pen full of silver and golden pheasants which are about at the older child stage, incubators full of turning eggs, and a set of six silver pheasants which hatched out yesterday evening. This morning I helped my dad move them from the incubator into a cardboard box in his study, because he's done his back in. They really are amazing when they're that little, with long legs and big feet which must have taken up a lot of the egg space, and scrawny bodies which join the legs to bulgy-eyed heads. They peep and peep because they want something. When I put my hands down into the cardboard box to put in a water-dish (mostly filled with stones, so they don't drown themselves) they immediately decided that my hands were what they wanted. I sat there for about a quarter of an hour with six sleepy chicks piled onto one hand; if I moved at all they would fall off and then scramble back on making loud noises. Eventually I managed to persuade them that the space under the heat lamp was a better bet, once it had warmed up a little. But what particularly charmed me was that in this time one of the chicks hopped down from my hand, ran off to a corner, relieved itself, and then ran back and fell asleep on my hand again.

Of course it doesn't do to get attached. This is sort of one of the big problems at the heart of being human -- you shouldn't get too attached to many things, but then if you're not attached to anything how alive are you? When I was eleven and had just started a new school I remember deciding that the answer was not to love anyone or anything (I was also experimenting with not believing in their existence, having come across the word solipsism goodness knows where). I tried really hard for a few days but found that it just wasn't possible. (I was a strange child but then again I think probably most children are strange, really.) Out of those six chicks, will three make it to adulthood? Others will die casually and unexpectedly of stupid things, or nothing. When I got here on Thursday evening my dad took me out to see the pen of younger pheasants. They have two heat lamps, but they do not necessarily have the sense to go under the heat lamps when they are cold, and one was lying stiff in a corner, in just the place where my father had found one dead earlier that day. I saw its eyelids flutter when another chick trod on it, so I picked it up and warmed it with my hands. It felt quite dead at first, but I took it inside and it started peeping and moving more. This was the point at which I wondered whether I had done a cruel thing, because it wasn't able to stand up alone, and it occurred to me that it might not regain the use of its legs. My mother said that yesterday morning all the chicks were running around happily. Two died during the day. I don't know if mine lived or died, but at least it isn't stuck there crippled, waiting for my father (or more likely my mother, who is tougher) to euthanise it. Nature is bloody depressing sometimes.

On the other hand, an actual wild duck decided to nest by our pond this year. She found herself a spot where she was so well camouflaged that you could look right at her for a while without seeing her, and she hatched out eight ducklings on Tuesday. My parents put an old polystyrene surfboard, with an improvised anchor, in the middle of the pond so that they have a retreat from the local cats, foxes, and badgers. We expect she'll try to take them to a bigger piece of water at some point, but an attempt she made to leave on Thursday went badly wrong when one of the ducklings managed somehow to get stuck in a ten-inch-high empty flower pot. My parents heard the duck quacking and quacking and went out to see what was wrong, so they were able to rescue the duckling. She hasn't tried to leave again since.

Every now and then the drake turns up. My father represents this as him visiting his family, but it's hard to be sentimental about ducks when you've seen Ze Frank's True Facts about the Duck.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

What I have been doing lately

For the first five months or so in my new job I was learning so much stuff all the time that it was utterly exhausting. It made me feel vulnerable but also young in a good way. I had a lull of a month or so and now I'm back to the same thing again. I don't think I have ever had a job where I've had to learn so much all the time, and think so much so consistently. All the jobs I've had as a post-doc have had at their core a sort of glorified data-entry, and any thinking I've done has been either for my own research (when I could find time for it) or very problematic because it involved getting my superiors to see that they were wrong. I'm glad I made this change but it's not what I was expecting. I took it for granted that I would have my exciting M.Sc. year when I got to learn new things, but that that would be my last chance to do thinking-learning for a long time (perhaps until I do a theology degree when I retire). Of course I realised I'd have to learn lots of new things in a job but I thought it would be along the lines of learning new procedures or software packages, like learning to use Powerpoint -- something you learn without thinking. Instead I'm learning things like Design Patterns, which are pure logic, and very hard. I assumed that I'd get good at my job eventually and then it would be boring, but it looks like maybe there will always be new things to understand because there will always be bright people out there coming up with new programming languages based on a particular logical insight, or new frameworks which handle particular problems through doing something unexpected and very clever. I find this wierd to think of. And I feel a bit like a sixth-former again, when I was doing two Maths A-levels and regularly coping with things right at the outermost stretch of my understanding.

The other thing I've done in recent years which has been right at the outermost stretch of my understanding is my edition of the Anglo-Saxon Charters of Wilton Abbey. My original plan was to give myself a year to settle into this job and then pick that up again and finish it off -- I still have the introduction to write, which will be fun, and all the indices of things like Greek loan-words to produce, which will be very hard. I do really want to finish that book. I feel mildly apprehensive about whether I have the brain capacity for both.

So, anyway, I still feel like I'm in the middle of a massive transition in my life, when I had expected that by now I'd feel like the transition was largely made. This job is not what I expected -- I think it's better, but I still feel a little disconcerted. I'm so glad I changed directions: to be honest I am a little bit in love with the idea of myself as someone who can be part of both worlds. If I'd gone the Computer Science route as a teenager (for a while I was certain that I was going to go into Artificial Intelligence and make neural networks) I wonder if I would have spent the last year doing an M.Phil. in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic? And marvelling at my new-found permission to think broadly (and cynically) about things pertaining to humans? I hope I would have.