The new e-bicycle.

April 18, 2017

It’s only about 3 and a half miles from my house to my office, down the main (and rather busy) road. And it’s a bit further, and much hillier going over the Glen Road, a track that was a proper road till parts of it fell into the valley below leaving a track that’s now only for people and bicycles. I use this track now, and have been bicycling it once or twice  week for a few years. But I’d like to use it more often, yet I seem to need a day to recover between cycle runs.

So I finally took the plunge and bought an e-bike at the week-end: a Raleigh Motus Crossbar e-bicycle. I bought it from Easygo bikes in Linlithgow, who had a really big range of e-bikes.

So today I commuted to work on it. It’s got 5 different levels of pedal assist, from none to lots: so far I’ve only used the two lower levels of assist. And it’s like cycling with a following wind: it just takes he pain out of the hills. Back on it tomorrow!


Spring at last!

March 19, 2017

“If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring” (song, which I remember from  Harry Secombe singing it, a long time ago, written by Cyril Ornadel and Leslie Bricusse) seems fitting today. We have a small pond, and for most of this week – and particularly today – the frogs have been cavorting like mad. Now we have some frog spawn too, so we look forward to some tadpoles later in the spring. We dug the pond about 15 years ago, and now it seems very much part of the landscape.

Spring is a little early this year, though there’s a little snow forecast for next week, still. Last week, I planted a tree, a Morello Cherry, and it looks good. The sun is shining now, and it must be 10 degrees C, or even a little more. Better get out in it, and abandon this machine!IMG_1502

Towards retirement (1)

February 4, 2017

Last week, week 3 of the Spring semester here, I finally made up my mind to go to half-time in my post, as from October, when I turn 65. I found it hard to decide: to keep working till I drop (what else is there to do?), to retire entirely (and be an emeritus Prof, and do just those things I want to do), but finally I decided to compromise, and to work half-time. Of course, the  danger is that I’ll actually work full-time for half the salary. What I need to do is to negotiate what half-time actually means for me. My Head of Department reckons a half teaching load, but I’m more interested in continuing to co-chair  SICSA Artificial Intelligence theme, and to keep my work on Neuroinformatics (including the British Neuroscience Association’s first SIG) going as well. So I’d like to be more involved with these than with teaching,  and so do rather less than half a teaching load. In one of this week’s lectures, I was trying to think of an area of mainstream Computing I’d never taught, and I found it hard to find one! So perhaps it’s time to move on.

Interestingly, as part of teaching a slightly more advanced Java course than usual to the 2nd year, I decided to write  a piece of software in Java, rather than my usual MATLAB. This was an interesting adventure, because I hadn’t really written anything serious in Java before (though I had written a substantial program in Objective C). So now I have bits of a spike-based echo state machine , though not yet the readout part. It certainly was useful, both because it helped me teach the class (nothing quite like recent experience!), and because writing the software in an object-oriented language, rather than simply coding a few matrix operations in MATLAB showed me some of the subtleties of ESM’s.

Of course, impending (even if partial) retirement make me ask myself some difficult questions: am I past my best? should I simply stand down? I know I have a bit less energy – I’m quite tired if I have to give two lectures in  a row, like I did last Wednesday and will of again this Wednesday. But for  now, I’m not quite surplus to requirements yet! And perhaps I can gradually take up some of my other interests more, like playing piano, and perhaps even learning a new instrument.


106 days post-Brexit referendum

October 7, 2016

In a previous post, I talked about the hangover post Brexit. Now we’re starting to feel the pain. And we’re nowhere near actually doing any negotiations. The UK Pound is down about 20%, against the Euro and the Dollar, my friends from the EU who work here are worried (and that’s in Scotland, where the Scottish Government went as far as writing each and every one of them a letter telling them they were valued: goodness knows what it’s like in the deepest wilds of rural England where they voted strongly from Brexit: see the Punch cartoon from 1854 – nothing’s changed).

I cannot get over my anger with the Conservatives and the UKIP people, along with the crap peddled by the tabloid press that led the people down this road. Other have suggested that the voters are stupider that they used to be, but that seems unlikely. I’m reminded of the 1924 Zinoviev letter that may have altered the result of an election (and which was undoubtedly a forgery: published in the Daily Mail of the time). But I feel utterly powerless. What can I do about this idiocy? No-one here is admitting to being in favour of Brexit, though obviously, quite a lot were. Down in England, there’s presumably lots of people happy with the turn of events, as they have their country back, G** help them.

Wait till we actually start negotiations, and look at what happens to the UK Pound then: In the mean time, I’m off to invest in cowrie shells! Except that most of my savings are in the form of my pension, and I can’t go and invest it: it’s just been devalued for me.

I’d better stop here.


A busy week

September 30, 2016

I realise I haven’t posted for ages, so I thought I’d write about this week. It’s week 3 of semester at Stirling University, but this week wasn’t busy for teaching (at least, not compared to the previous two weeks). Instead, I gave a seminar on spike coding for sound in Edinburgh University on Wednesday in the MusicA series, went to a meeting about Neuroscience Technology (representing the proposed new Neuroinformatics Special Interest Group of the British Neuroscience Association) on Thursday and Friday morning, near Heathrow, and am now sitting on a train back home from Glasgow, having been to a  new theme leaders in SICSA, at Glasgow University. (I’m now co-theme leader in Artificial Intelligence).

So what’s next? I think a nice quiet week-end is called for, but I don’t really expect to get one. But then, as they say here, “you’re a lang time deid!”. And now my train’s nearly at Dunblane, so I’d better sign off from here. I will try to be a more regular blogger!

After the Brexit vote: the hangover

June 24, 2016

Well here we are, 24 June 2016, after a very close vote to leave the EU. And a very different picture here in Scotland where over 60% voted to stay, putting Scotland in the expected company of Northern Ireland, and the unexpected company of London. I am a staunch believer in the EU, so I’m not at all happy about this.

It seems to me that a populist wave is riding high in  politics in many places, from Putin In Russia, to the rise of Trump in the USA, and now this vote. It seems to have been carried primarily by the English (note for non-UK readers: the UK consist of England, with the majority of the population, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), for reasons that seem strange to me, but then I’m biassed. Am I right in thinking it’s  a harking back to halcyon days of yore, with warm beer, skittles in the pub and summer days, or is that too simplistic? It’s hard to see the economic arguments (I can see the car industry shrinking, and the markets for goods made here getting much smaller), and while I can see some arguments (fishing, for example, particularly in Scotland has not been well served but the EU), the arguments about freedom, and unelected representatives leave me cold. Actually, they sound very much like the arguments used in the Scottish referendum a little while ago.

So what now? I suppose we just have to grin (perhaps girn) and bear it. I fear the unintended consequences, like the destabilisation of the Ireland/Norther Ireland situation, like the almost immediately proposed second Scottish referendum, like the uncertainty over who fees and arraignments there may be for EU students coming to UK (and in particular Scottish) Universities. Not forgetting the situation of the very large numbers of expatriate Britons in the EU, and non-British EU nationals in the UK.  I see lots of instability coming up: what a bloody mess, all because the Conservative party was worried about the UK Independence party stealing their clothes. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle…

Of public lectures

April 16, 2016

Last Thursday, I gave a public lecture entitled The incredible shrinking computer: computer hardware from relays to 14 nanometre transistors, part of a series of public lectures in my Department. This series has been running for a few years now, and this was the third time I’d contributed. In 2014, I did one on sound, Hear here: from the ear to the brain, and in 2013 one on artificial intelligence, Artificial Intelligence: is it finally arriving?

These lectures attract an audience of between about 40 and 60, depending on whether it’s nice night, what else is going on, and so on. And it’s actually a lot of work creating these lectures (for example, for the one I just did, I managed to borrow old computer components, and that’s quite apart from the research of putting together something rather better than my average student lecture, with more and better images, for example). So now I (and I suspect, my co-presenters) are interested in where else we might present these talks. Yes, we understand that each talk will need more work, to make it just right for the particular audience, but even then, we’re interested in other possibilities for presenting these again.

I should add that the talks are well received by their audiences, and that the audiences we have had range in age from about 12 upwards – a long way upwards! Is anyone listening out there in www-land? Any suggestions?

(I have two ideas in mind: one is science festivals, and the other is secondary (i.e. high) schools: I just need to get out there and organise them.)

Dark energy and the accelerating expanding Universe

March 31, 2016

Last night there was a Horizon programme on BBC entitled “The Mystery of Dark Energy”. In essence, it was about the discovery that not only was the Universe expanding, but it was doing so at an accelerating rate, as (at least initially) discovered using a particular type of supernova whose brightness is characteristic. They (more or less) laid down a challenge to think up reasons why this might be the case.

Well, I’m not (at least officially) a physicist (though I am a member of the American Institute of Physics through my membership of the the Acoustic Society of America). But I like a challenge. So here goes…

Much is made of the fact that matter bends spacetime, resulting in gravity. And presumably energy also bends spacetime (though the effect is generally small), because of the well-known relationship between energy and matter. In addition, electromagnetic radiation travels at the speed of light, faster than matter can possibly travel. A great deal of energy has been radiated over the duration of the Universe, and is still being radiated. But where is this energy now (in the sense of: where is the wavefront of the energy from long ago?). Clearly, we see from Earth the radiation from a cone of visibility of this energy, but surely most of the energy that has ever been radiated is now travelling (at the speed of light) towards the outer edge of the Universe (aside: I might suggest that the outer edge of the Universe is actually defined by where the energy has reached, combining energy and space in some way, but this may be a distraction from the point I’m trying to make.) So as time goes by, more energy tends to be at the very outermost edges of the Universe, and the bending of space caused by this concentration of energy causes the matter in the Universe to accelerate outwards.

Now, this may be (i) obvious and/or (ii) wrong. And I don’t have the capability (or the time, though even if I had the time, I still doubt whether I’d have the capability!) to put this into equations. But I think it’s comprehensible, and it might be nice to know why it’s wrong…

Ne’erday 2016

January 1, 2016

Today is New Year’s Day (known here as Ne’erday), a public holiday in Scotland. Virtually everything is closed, and it’s a time to meet up with old friends and relations.

I’ve lost my voice, almost certainly virally, but with luck and care, I’ll be better soon. So I thought it time to gather together a few thoughts.

Firstly, I’ve come to realise just how much I usually talk. Particularly with friends and family visiting, not being able to talk – or only being able to talk a little made me realise how much I do talk. I should listen more.

Secondly, being a little unwell made me able to read the books I’ve been reading through impossibly slowly, and some of those I’d been given for Christmas. Henning Mankell’s “A Treacherous Paradise” is a wonderful recreation of what Africa must have been like to a white person in the early 1900’s. Now I’m reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain“, a recreation in the late 1990’s of a much earlier travelogue by Moschos (The spiritual meadow). This includes a great deal about early Eastern Christianity, particularly in the time around the foundation of Islam: it puts quite a number of issues into perspective, not least the huge differences between the many forms of Christianity practised there at that time, and modern Western Christianity. It puts a very different context into the issues of today. I should read more.

To close let me share a thought I had as I bought a newspaper in the only open shop in the town. Imagine if we had militant fundamentalist Scots whose religion forbade the opening of shops on the Ne’erday holiday – would there have been a crowd of kilted hairy Scotsmen (and women in plaids too) demonstrating against the shop being open, and threatening prospective customers with their sgian dubh’s?

The power of music

December 6, 2015

On Thursday, I went to hear the Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing in the City Hall, Glasgow. They played three pieces, but the one that made the strong impression on me was Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, composed between 1908 and 1909, but as powerful today as ever it was. It’s a long piece, a setting of some Chinese poems by Mahler, in which a contralto (Anna Larsson) and a tenor (Andrew Staples) sang against a whole orchestra. The programme notes included the texts of the poems in German and English: though I do have some German, having the text in both languages strengthened the effect. The programme notes say “…it is in fact a deeply felt farewell to life and the joy of life”, and one might imagine that one would leave the auditorium saddened by it.

But in fact, it made me re-evaluate where I am in my life: I’ve a couple of years before retirement, and (unlike Mahler) I seem to be in good health. I’ve just had a major grant proposal, to maintain the UK’s membership of the INCF, and to strengthen Neuroinformatics in the UK turned down by the Medical Research Council, and I’ve been thinking about ways forward. Mostly I was thinking about working on early auditory processing for robots and for hearing aids, about moving towards a position as an emeritus professor, and about playing more music.

But this made me think: “If not now when?”.

If Mahler could produce such a masterwork when everything was was on a downward spiral for him, why should I move quietly into retirement, or be hurt by the rejection of this proposal. Surely the answer is to think hard about what it is that I can do now, with more than 35 years as an academic, with more than 30 years experience of working at the boundaries between computing, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. What can I do now that will take this work forward, that will use the experience that I have, that will take advantage of what I now can do?

And I think I know the answer to that: to try to bring together the different strands of Neuro research: Neuroscience (of its various forms), Neuroinformatics (as defined by INCF), Neuromorphic systems (of all the different types), in particular.

No, it does’t fit nicely into a research council proposal, but instead crosses three UK councils, MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC. Instead of the giant projects beloved of the EU (the Human Brain Project), of the US (the BRAIN initiative), let’s start something that brings together the different areas of research so that each can learn from the other. My experience shows me that, by and large, these different communities don’t talk to each other much at all. More can be gained by simply getting these communities to talk to each other, to share not only their data and analytical techniques, but their ideas, and their ways of thinking than by creating a big new UK brain research project.

And that’s my plan: to try to organise (and get funded, because without funding its hard even to hold meetings) a network that includes all of these communities, and gets them to work together towards both understanding the brain, and developing engineering from it, prosthetics and synthetic brain-like systems as well.

Where to start from? Probably a little quiet discussion and emailing of a number of selected individuals, followed by some sort of manifesto, to gather together a group big enough to build a proposal, followed by a proposal. And soon. If not now, when?