Tuesday, 9 July 2019

where the rubber meets the road

I did my bit for the environment today.

I have an old pair of Clark's sandals.  They are comfortable, and the uppers are fine, but the original tread on the soles had worn down to a high gloss.  The other day I slipped, and decided they were no longer safe to walk in.

Given the fine condition of the uppers, I took the pair along to out local Timpson's, to see if they could be re-soled.  The guy sucked his teeth and looked dubious.  They probably wouldn't take a re-soling.  We discussed it for a bit, and I explained I just needed the soles made less slippery.  He said he would try "roughening them up" on the machine.

Several minutes and a strong smell of buring rubber later, he returned them to me, with a lovely lattice of grooves carved into the previously smooth soles:

Perfect!  That will keep me going for another few years, until they wear down again, and it saves me having to bin otherwise perfectly good footwear.

Timpson's for the win, again.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

prices are weird

I had a trip up to Durham today, to visit a colleague.  I bought a coffee at York station to drink on the early train: £2.05.

On the way back, it was lunchtime, so I popped into a Sainsburys near Durham station, and bought a Ginsters Chicken and Mushroom slice, a banana, and a 500ml bottle of Highland Spring water: £1.80 in total.

Caffeine is really expensive, compared to food!

Monday, 24 June 2019

shadows of clouds

A spectacular sunset this evening, with clouds casting shadows on other clouds:

21:30 BST.  The picture is a bit washed out on the horizon: reality was darker and redder.

Zooming in on the base of the shadow, to show the setting sun shining between two bands of coulds:

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

can this blob of goo compute?

Our new paper published today:
Matthew Dale, Julian F. Miller, Susan Stepney, Martin A. Trefzer.
A substrate-independent framework to characterize reservoir computers.
Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 475(2226), 2019

Somewhat amazingly, various blobs of “goo” can be made to compute simple tasks.  But, given a new blob of goo, can we tell how well it will compute, without having to train it on specific tasks?

That’s what we set out to address in our new paper.  We describe a framework for evaluating the “quality” of a proposed computing substrate, in comparison to a “reference” reservoir computer (an unconventional model of computing that fits well with gooey substrates).

We then use of the framework to evaluate a (physical) carbon nanotube system (it computes, as we knew, but not very much, as we also knew, but now we know exactly how much).  We also use it to evaluate a (simulated) optical delay line, and show that it can be used for many reservoir tasks, but not necessarily all.

We are now going on to generalise this framework to a wider set of computational models and physical substrates, as part of out EPSRC-funded SpInspired project.  Watch this space!

Monday, 17 June 2019

chimneys in the sun

The setting sun lit up a line of golden chimneys:

View of sunlit chimneys, 21:16 BST.  They are not normally golden, but are “white” brick, which reflects more than the red.

View in the other direction, of the sunset lighting up the chimneys, 21:18 BST

Thursday, 13 June 2019

let them not eat cake

This is a few months old, but hasn’t gone the least bit stale:
The only thing we do know is that the people who have been pressing hardest for Brexit are obsessed with cakes. The former Foreign Secretary was convinced in public that we could “have our cake and eat it”. John Redwood, the perfectly normal former Welsh Secretary, talked about making our own cakes instead of helping other countries with their cakes. And UKIP is full of fruitcakes.

So I have decided to explain the Brexit process through the medium of cakes.

(h/t to Danny Yee)

Sunday, 9 June 2019

time to go home

The view from the breakfast bar on the 25th floor, just before I check out to catch the airport bus.

Goodbye, Tokyo!  I had a great time.  An excellent conference, interesting new experiences, lovely people, and a marvellous city.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

boat and dinner

The conference outing and dinner was combined as a boat tour.

Prior to embarkation, we get a good view of the Tokyo Skytree.

As we turn back at the mid-point, we see we are not the only boat on the river.
The view of the Skytree on disembarking.

Monday, 3 June 2019

DIY dinner

Guessing what a menu item might be from a small, interestingly cropped photo, and an ambiguous English translation, can lead to unexpected meals.

a tad undercooked?

The staff helpfully showed us how to cook it all.  And it was very good!

Sunday, 2 June 2019

view from a skyscraper

I’ve arived in Tokyo, after a 12 hour flight, ready for the Unconventional Computation conference starting tomorrow.

Rather than the traditional “view from a hotel window”, I was recommended the “view from a nearby skyscraper”.  So this is the view from the (free) Observation deck in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, on the 45th floor, over Tokyo on a slightly hazy Sunday afternoon.

There are other skyscrapers around here

There is also greenery.  My hotel is the mere 25-storey white block in the centre, the one with the loads of teeny square windows.

One of the many raised roadways.  We have Spaghetti Junction, but Tokyo must be Noodle City!
(Relatively small) tower blocks receding to infinity.  Is this Trantor?

Later on, we went down past the famously huge Shinjuku station (which we will have to navigate tomorrow!) to find a place for dinner: there were plenty to choose from.

A warm Sunday evening in downtown Shinjuku

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

don’t read before flying

Read the whole thing.  It makes for terrifying reading, if only because it’s going to happen again, and again, and again...

How the Boeing 737 Max Disaster Looks to a Software Developer

So Boeing produced a dynamically unstable airframe, the 737 Max. That is big strike No. 1. Boeing then tried to mask the 737’s dynamic instability with a software system. Big strike No. 2. Finally, the software relied on systems known for their propensity to fail (angle-of-attack indicators) and did not appear to include even rudimentary provisions to cross-check the outputs of the angle-of-attack sensor against other sensors, or even the other angle-of-attack sensor. Big strike No. 3.

I believe the relative ease—not to mention the lack of tangible cost—of software updates has created a cultural laziness within the software engineering community. Moreover, because more and more of the hardware that we create is monitored and controlled by software, that cultural laziness is now creeping into hardware engineering—like building airliners. Less thought is now given to getting a design correct and simple up front because it’s so easy to fix what you didn’t get right later.

It is likely that MCAS, originally added in the spirit of increasing safety, has now killed more people than it could have ever saved. It doesn’t need to be “fixed” with more complexity, more software. It needs to be removed altogether.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

view from a hotel window

At the Park Inn hotel, Heathrow, for Ytterbium, this year’s Eastercon.  We arrived yesterday, in beautiful sunshine.  It’s still beautiful Easter weather today.  Off to sample breakfast now.

Thursday, 18 April 2019


400 pages of science: best birthday present ever!  Thanks so much, to everyone who contributed.  And special thanks to Andy and Viv, for pulling it all together.  Lots and lots of lovely reading ahead for me.  Yum.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

TV review: The Good Place season 1

We’d heard good things about this, and it came up on E4, so we thought we’d give it a try. We were rapidly hooked.

Eleanor Shellstrop wakes to find herself dead, and in The Good Place. The boss, Michael, explains that she is one of only a very few who gets to be there, because of all her marvellous humanitarian works during her lifetime. The problem is, she’s actually a selfish unpleasant person, who has been mixed up with a different Eleanor Shellstrop, and isn’t supposed to be there at all. How to ensure she isn’t found out, and sent to The Bad Place? Well, her soulmate just happens to be a moral philosophy professor...

Every episode is interesting, funny, and ends with a twist we never saw coming. There are real ethical dilemmas, real philosophy lectures, people who aren’t nice but you care about, utterly absurd situations, and it’s all just beautifully performed. And the massive twist at the end of season one – well, how are they going to handle season 2?

Witty, funny, clever, and unexpected. E4 don’t seem to be showing season 2, so we went off and got the DVD.

For all my SF TV reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 12 April 2019

dental turf

I haven’t had many of these for a while, but this one is a new one

We express our great pleasure to invite you for the "European Forum on Dentistry and Dental Materials" as a Speaker, scheduled to be held during Sep 04-05, 2019 at Paris, France.

Your expertise and knowledge in the concerned turf would surely unfurl the new insights.

As a leading researcher in the field of Dentistry, your opinions and expertise are valuable and important for the success of the conference.

I’m wondering just what the turf is concerned about?

I’m also concerned about the state of dentistry, if I’m considered “a leading researcher”, or even a researcher at all, in the field...

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

proof read your proofs!

I just got some proofs to correct back from a publisher.

In one place I had written:
In this section I discuss ...

It had been changed in copy-editing to
In this Sect.1 discuss ...

Fortunately I spotted it!

Monday, 8 April 2019

book review: The Serengeti Rules

Sean B. Carroll.
The Serengeti Rules
Princeton University Press. 2016

There is no actual “Balance of Nature”: everything is growing, changing, evolving, in flux. Despite this, there is a kind of dynamic balance: our bodies maintain temperature, animal population numbers don’t tend to grow exponentially or collapse, and so on. These are dynamic balances, because they happen due to active processes.

Here Carroll explains how those processes have much in common from the molecular to the species level: biological regulation is at play. The logic of this evolved biological regulation is different from our engineered mechanical regulators: rather than a positive logic of a process being switched on when needed, it is often of a negative form: one process is constantly suppressing another, and when that suppression is removed, the change occurs.

Carroll gives many examples. Each chapter has a similar structure: take one aspect of biology, and the scientists involved, and describe how they discovered the regulation logic. We start at the beginning, with Cannon’s discovery of the concept of homeostasis, and Elton’s invention of ecology.

After these two introductory chapters, demonstrating analogous regulatory processes on vastly different scales, we get several chapters on molecular level: lactose regulation, statins and cholesterol, and cancer. Some of these have a “double negative” pattern of regulation – X represses Y which represses Z, hence removing X increases Y, which then decreases Z – so a change in one place can have a corresponding change elsewhere, which will be unexpected unless the system is understood.

Next there are chapters about animal population regulation, keystone species, and trophic cascades: it’s not just upward regulation by food abundance; there’s critical downward regulation by predators.

The book finishes with some positive examples about how, once we understand these negative regulatory patterns, we can potentially reverse certain ecological collapses. We need to identify the relevant keystone species: wolves predate on elk, thereby allowing vegetation to survive to support other species; bass eat minnows, reducing predation on the plankton that eat algae, which would otherwise cause blooms. Knowing the system’s structure, we can potentially reintroduce, or at least stop destruction of, the relevant species, to allow the ecosystem to move a healthier state.

This is a good account of a biological process that works over many orders of magnitude in scale. Understanding how biological regulatory processes are negative, rather than the more familiar engineered positive ones, explains many otherwise counter-intuitive effects. And understanding the web of interacting regulatory processes allows us to intervene in an effective manner, allowing us to work with, rather than fight against, the system.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

view from a hotel window

A collegue and I have spent the day visiting CogniGron, the Groningen Cognitive Systems and Materials Center.  We have been talking about our work on evaluating substrates for Reservoir Computing, and hearing about their work in neuromorphic computing, AI, dynamical systems, memristors, and more.  A very impressive team, and lots of fascinating work!

Here’s the view from my hotel window this morning:

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again

From BBC News:
Theresa May and her cabinet are looking for ways to bring her EU withdrawal agreement back to the Commons for a fourth attempt at winning MPs' backing.

From Quote Investigator:
Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

view from a hotel window

I arrived in Bristol last night, ready for a meeting today.  But first, a trip down the infinite corridor to breakfast:

it's all a matter of perspective

The view out of my window is slightly more natural, featuring a young plane tree with its distinctive fruits looking like Christmas tree decorations:

Saturday, 9 March 2019

JavaScript post-Brexit

An oldie, but goodie.  You have to laugh, else you'd cry.

Along with NaN and Infinity, UKMAScript will support a new primitive numeric value called MoneyForTheNhs, whose value is defined to be exactly 3.5x108 until it’s used as an argument to any function, at which point its value will be silently changed to zero after the function has returned.

For all my social networking posts, see my Google+ page

Thursday, 7 March 2019

view from a hotel window

Swindon is its ever-glamorous self:

Sunday, 3 March 2019

little fruit, big fruit

Supermarket grapes come in a surprising range of sizes.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

what a difference a year makes

This time last year we had the Beast from the East.  This year we are very nearly sweltering in a heatwave.

thick with daffodils
gorse in bloom
It’s beautiful, but it isn’t winter.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

pass the parcel

Different second hand book vendors have different attitudes to packing their wares for the rigours of posting.

I just received a book wrapped in a paper bag, then a layer of bubble wrap, then a repurposed cardboard box, then brown wrapping paper sealed with packaging tape.  As I was opening the delivery, I was wondering if there was indeed a book inside at all!

Friday, 15 February 2019

Dominic Grieve

A Tory MP talking sense on Brexit, for once.

For all my social networking posts, see my Google+ page

Wednesday, 6 February 2019


I came across this while clearing out some old papers.  It’s a variant of the liar paradox, as the last of four “limericks”.

There was a young girl from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
     When someone asked why
     She said with a sigh,
“It’s because I always attempt to get as many words in the last line as I possibly can.”

Another young poet from China
Had a feeling for rhythm much finer.
     His limericks tend
     To come to an end

There was a young lady of Crewe
Whose limericks stopped at line two.

There was a young man of Verdun.

Monday, 4 February 2019

clouds at sunset

I love this kind of interplay of clouds and sun at sunset.

16:17 GMT

Thursday, 31 January 2019

as I arrived at work this morning...

Nothing as bad as the polar vortex affecting North America at the moment (thank heavens!), but still a tad nippy:

Monday, 14 January 2019

book review: A Burglar's Guide to the City

Geoff Manaugh.
A Burglar's Guide to the City.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2016

There is a standard way to use a building: enter by the doors, look though the windows. There is a standard way to use a city: travel along the roads. Burglars don’t use buildings and cities in standard way: some enter buildings though windows, drop through hatches and ceilings, cut through walls; some move around cities through tunnels, either pre-existing or self-dug. Manaugh describes many of these alternate uses: some exceedingly clever, some just plain dumb. And he describes attempts to thwart the burglars, from law-enforcement helicopter patrols to high security panic rooms.

I have come across, in fiction if not in reality, many of the concepts here, but they are all engagingly presented. One aspect I found particularly intriguing was how law enforcement could get lost in certain kinds of locations. In one case it was helicopter pilots over a regular grid of streets, in another it was officers on the ground in a huge building with several identical parts. Both were lost in “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”. We know the solution to this: drop landmarks. Law enforcement would like home owners to paint identifiers on their roofs. Alternatively, architects could design more varied structures: “a maze of twisty little passages, all different”, with the necessary landmarks already present.

Being able to think “sideways”, like a burglar, is a useful skill when designing any artefact: it will be misused, if not on purpose, then at least accidentally. Having these misuses catered for up front in the design is a plus. Having these literally concrete examples in mind can makes for more vivid analogies when trying to think sideways.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

film review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Miles Morales is a nerdy kid, sent off to a high powered school, but who prefers producing graffiti art with his shady uncle. One time, he gets bitten by a spider, and starts manifesting strange abilities. On returning to the place, he finds Spider-Man (Peter Parker) fighting KingPin over a huge accelerator; Parker hands Morales a data stick that can close down the accelerator. The accelerator has opened a rift in the space-time continuum, and several alternate parallel universe versions of Spider-Man fall through. Morales must gain control of his spider powers, and work with the other spiders to close down the accelerator before the universe is destroyed.
Peni Parker, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, Spider-Miles, Spider-Peter-B, Spider-Man Noir
the gang’s all here
I confess when I started watching this, I didn’t know it is an origin story, and that there is a new Spider-Kid on the block. That means I probably missed some in-references. But even coming to this relatively cold, I still found it hugely enjoyable. It takes a while to get going, as Morales’ pre-bitten character is established. But the film is clever, and knowing, and funny, and moving, and self-referential: every Spider-character gets an increasingly funny origin-narration; Peni Parker and her robot are drawn subtly differently in anime style; there’s a Stan Lee cameo; Spider-Noir’s monochrome character is drawn using different sized black dots to make shades of grey; the tingling spider-sense seems to be of use only to detect the various other Spider-characters; Aunt May’s response to the various alternate Spider-beings is priceless.

I’m not sure about the message on studying: Morales has to work hard at his new school, where all the kids are bright, but to learn how to use his new powers, he seems to only need to want hard enough, and spung, he gets perfect control. No 10,000 hours of practice needed for super-hero skillz, it seems.
Spider-Ham, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Peter-B, Spider-Miles, Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker

I did some surfing after watching the film, and discovered all these Spider-characters pre-exist in the literature. So I hope there are more films in this multi-verse: having a larger cast of the “same” super-hero riffing off each other gives very rich possibilities.

Highly recommended.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

I now have a hate-on for Decatur Public Library

I buy a lot of books, many second hand, some ex-library books.  I’m used to ex-library books having stickers and stamps and what-not, including “withdrawn” stamps.  Such identifying marks are not pretty, but they rarely damage the book.

But this.  ThisTHIS!!

Sheer bloody vandalism.

Decatur Public Library: shame on you.