Monday, 31 August 2009

Alan Turing

Excerpts from the BBC News website, Monday 31st August 2009:

"Thousands of people have signed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous government apology to World War II code breaker Alan Turing.... In 1952 he was prosecuted under the gross indecency act after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself...”

To read the full article, click here (opens in new window).

To sign the petition (British citizens only - bizarre - does no one else have an opinion that the UK government is willing to listen to?), click here (opens in new window).

Many of us who spent time working on “artificial intelligence” will know Turing for his seminal contributions to that field (amongst others). It is fitting, to me at least (and the other signatories of that petition), that we acknowledge the mistreatment he suffered through the institutionalized discrimination of the day.

An update describing my windsurfing (and ringo-riding) antics in Turkey will follow...

[update - 11th Sept: Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister, wrote the following in a statement to all signatories to the above petition: "[...] Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction [...] So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better."]

Monday, 10 August 2009

three months, three continents

I just realized, as I gazed wistfully at the Patagonian moon, that in the last three months I’ve been on three different continents. The two trips that preceded this one were:

Stockholm. The most expensive city in Europe, I believe. Even the cheapest-looking restaurants are just that: cheap looking. But you won’t get much change out of your month’s salary if you have anything more than bread and water. Admittedly the bread was fantastic... Almost as fantastic, but a definite tourist trap, was the Absolut Ice Bar - essentially a room that has been turned into a large fridge, into which they have fit a fairly standard-sized bar. It’s so cold that they give you protective clothing to wear and limit you to some small number of minutes. Not because they’re afraid that any harm will come to you, but to save the ice inside from melting from all that body heat... So the idea is you go in and marvel at the ice walls, the ice bar, the ice bench, the ice table, and the ice sculpture, and you then down a vodka that’s so sweet it makes a sugar cube taste bitter by comparison, and you then leave. The sugar, apparently, is to help you burn up the required calories with which to keep the frostbite at bay. I can attest to the cold, and the fact that if you do attempt to lick the walls your tongue will stick... Overall, the trip (to attend a conference) was worthwhile. Largely due to a couple of friends whom I went with, and various others whom I met over there. It’s just a shame that it cleaned me out financially.

Philadelphia. I went to the USA’s historical heartland to set up a collaborative project with a group there that do neuroimaging (brain scans, for any reader fortunate enough not to be an academic). The folk there were fantastically nice. Made me feel incredibly welcome. I guess they took pity on the visiting Brit who knew nothing about neuroimaging and had a bewildered look on his face most of the time... so the combination of friendliness and patience was much appreciated, as was the visit to the Barnes Foundation, which is an astonishing and unexpected place. The night that I arrived, I got off the plane, found my hotel, and made my way around the corner to a bar called Tria - the place for cheese and beer in Philadelphia. It was so noisy, full, and exhilarating that I barely stood out as the oldest person there by a decade or two. I did try my best to hide the fact that I couldn’t read the dimly illuminated menu without my reading glasses... but I failed miserably when it came to reading the bill... or rather not being able to read it. Or the pin machine that was thrust at me after I handed over my credit card. Someone recently told me that the best thing about reaching 50 (I’m not quite there yet) is that one ceases to care about such things. Yeah, right... The other thing I failed at, apparently, was being sociable.THE thing to do, I’m told, is to sit at the bar and just start chatting to whoever is sat next to you. I’m just too shy to risk anything as exciting as that. I also discovered on this trip, around a further corner just off Rittenhouse Square, the best café on the American continent: La Colombe. They don’t do sandwiches, or toasties, or fruit yoghurts drizzled on a bed of cereal and salad leaves... they just do coffee. Cappuccino to rival any cappuccino in Southern Italy. And the effortless way in which artistic patterns were poured into the froth was inspiring. So much so that I tried it myself when I got back home. It worked a treat - artistic patterns were poured, by an excited me, onto my coffee, the surrounding counter, and a substantial portion of the floor. Probably I shouldn’t have been quite so optimistic that anyone without years of experience could so instantly ascend to the level of a black belt barrista...

And now I am in Argentina, where I have been for the past two weeks. Next week I fly off again, after a day and a half in the UK, to Turkey for a week’s holiday with my kids (and most definitely without the journal). A couple of weeks later, I’m off to a conference in Barcelona. And then I’ll have an only-slightly interrupted 4 weeks before flying back to Washington. Maybe I’ll make a small detour and drop by La Colombe again...


Not the city. The café. Am back in Neuquén (still in Patagonia). One of the great things about Argentina is that many cafés and restaurants (and petrol stations - “gas stations” for the one N. American reader who I know will read this) have free wifi and internet connection. So am about to upload several entries to this blog, a chapter to a very patient editor (sorry, Simon!), and various emails to various people. All while downloading a system update for my MacBook Air, and various application updates for my iPhone. Needless to say, these updates could perfectly well have waited till I got back to the Northern Hemisphere. But where’s the fun in traveling the world with out-of-date software?

The drive back from Bariloche to Neuquén was stunning - with mountains, desert, huanaco (llama-like creatures that you can see by following the link in my last entry), condors, eagles, even an ostrich!

It’s now 4 days that I’ve done nothing for the journal. I feel like I’ve been given a new life. That’s not to say I haven’t done any other work. I have, and I enjoyed it. I finished the chapter that I’ve just emailed off, and that I needed to finish for a Handbook of Eye Movements (yes, such things do get published, and people even buy them!) It’s only about 6 months late. Probably that ever-so-nice editor will write back to say I’m too late and the boat has sailed (I’m hoping he didn’t forget I was meant to contribute to the volume). In which case you’ll shortly have exclusive access to the chapter here.

I’d best get back to the coffee. And I’d best just loosen that trouser belt a little more to accommodate the pastry...

Thursday, 6 August 2009

what not to do when traveling

  • Fly Air France to Buenos Aires and uncomplainingly accept, despite checking in ages in advance (and apparently before three quarters of the other passengers), that the rude and unhelpful ground-staff will have no option whatsoever but to allocate you the two rear-most seats in the plane - the ones that don’t recline.
  • Squirt liquid soap onto your hands before checking whether the taps are more than just decorative and actually dispense running water. It’s not exactly easy to wipe the sticky stuff off with tissue paper.
  • Visit a sister (Silvia’s sister) who lives in the most idyllic spot in the Andes, by a lake, surrounded by trees, mountains, and astonishing peace and quiet. I now no longer wish to return home.
  • Bring work with you (or worse still, do the work you brought with you).
  • Bring your cellphone with you (or worse still, use the thing).
  • Gain three kilos in just 11 days. I so hope the scales are wrong - but the weight gain is totally plausible.
  • Climb up a modest mountain in freshly fallen, but rapidly melting snow, forgetting that if you have to scramble up the slippery slope to reach that very special rock from which to view the condors, the way back down will most likely end, or even begin, in an uncontrollable but strangely graceful fall that will remind you of the good fortune you had in taking out health insurance.
  • Buy more clothes in the local town than you need, can use, have space for on the flight back, have space for in your closets back home, or, perhaps most importantly of all, can afford.
  • Drive. Better to let your partner drive so that you can take in the herd of huanaco, the ostriches, eagles, condors, and miscellaneous horses, cows, and goats (those that you hadn’t previously eaten at an exceptionally nice grill) that can be seen on the drive to/from the Andes.
[update: I’m only writing this entry because I today stayed in, except for a quick limp to the lake, to finish those remaining manuscripts I mentioned in yesterday’s entry. I’m now officially on strike. Anyone expecting me to do anything for the journal over the next few days had better not hold their breath! And whatever work I do next week will be research-related and will not be in service of Elsevier, the journal, its employees, or their dependents. Terms and Conditions apply.]

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

under a pile of snow... and a pile of manuscripts

Am now in Bariloche, in the Andes. Snow everywhere. It’s amazingly beautiful. My calm is interrupted only by the occasional sound of the melting snow falling from the trees, and the incessant Tourette-like swearing that I hear emanating from a voice inside my head each time I think about the manuscripts that I’ve dealt with since my last entry and the ones still to do. My sense of well-being would be complete if I could just find that little homunculus editor inside of my head and shoot the bstrd...

The drive to the Andes was spectacular. The only problem with the Andes is the existential angst brought on by the contrast between their calm beauty and the unstructured chaos that is my life back home. Much of the drive here was through desert. Very low scrub-like bushes punctuated by the occasional horse or cow. As we got higher, what should have been a rainstorm became a snow storm, and seeing the desert covered in snow was a once-in-a-lifetime experience... unless, that is, you live here, in which case it’s a several-times-a-winter experience. But if you do happen to live here, you probably don’t have internet access so you won’t be able to contradict me...

Silvia’s sister lives just by a lake near Bariloche in the Andes. Bariloche is the equivalent of a Swiss ski resort (or whatever the equivalent would be in Colorado...). Except there are almost no Europeans or N Americans - the majority of tourists are Argentinians, Brazilians, and Chileans. The economic crisis is hitting hard, although Argentina is permanently in crisis - in part due to the corruption that is endemic amongst politicians. Apparently, the President and her husband, to take one example, bought a ton of state-owned land, near Tierra del Fuego (the southernmost point of Argentina), at a much reduced price of course, which meant that they made very many times more than they had paid for it when they sold it within some very short time. Anyhow... the economic crisis means that Bariloche is not heaving with tourists as it has done in the past (when I last visited, 18 months ago). So the peace and quiet is even more peaceful and quiet than usual. Nice for us, but not so nice for the people who rely on tourism for their livelihoods.

But I have done my bit to prop up Argentina’s ailing economy, and have bought not one but two leather jackets. And a rug. And the obligatory t-shirts for my kids. You may ask what I could possibly do with two leather jackets when most people only need the one... Undeniably a good question to which there is no satisfactory answer.