John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

RPM, Pirates, and Science

Today has been quite a busy day...

Now that I've been at my new job for a year, that means that I'm eligible for a company pension, so I met the advisor today. I'm not going to be making any payments myself in the near future, so this was just a case of giving permission for the company to make payments - not really a tough choice! I'll need to examine it in more detail later, e.g. to decide what kind of risk level I'm happy with, and whether I have any particular areas that I want to invest in, but the default choice will do for now. So, I have a mortgage and a pension - I'm definitely getting older...

In the evening I went off to the local gym for an "RPM" class (exercise bikes). Although I've been a member of the gym for about 2 years, that's the first class I've actually attended - I normally just use the pool. That's partly because most of the classes take place during the day, i.e. when I'm at work, but there's a certain amount of apathy there too. I wound up missing my train (a combination of the bus being delayed and the station staff doing an extra ticket inspection between the barriers and the platform), so that left me running 30 minutes late. That said, if I'd been paying closer attention then I could have caught a different train that was only 15 minutes later. Ah well, at least I know about the extra route now, which is useful information.

I more or less got there in time for the start of the class, which went pretty well - it was certainly very tiring, so I'd say that's the most vigorous exercise I've done in quite a while. In the "live and learn" category again, it would have been a good idea to take a bottle of water in with me, so I'll remember that next time. The bikes themselves seemed slightly odd to me, in that they didn't have any dials. Normally I'd expect to see things like the revs per minute, or the gear that I'm in, or the speed that I'm effectively travelling, but in this case all they had was a control on the crossbar which could be turned clockwise/anti-clockwise to adjust the difficulty level.

The main problem was that I didn't really understand everything that the instructor said. In some cases I literally couldn't make out the words, e.g. I thought she said "open", but then she was standing up on the pedals, so I'm guessing that she said something else. In other cases, I didn't have the right context for her remarks, e.g. she'd say "We're now in phase 3" - what does that mean? More generally, there was some ambiguity about the difficulty level. For instance, at one point she said "now turn it up to the max", but I got to the point where I couldn't even move the pedals before I ran out of "turnability". Since she then said "now turn it up another notch" a few minutes later, this presumably means that she didn't intend it to be the literal maximum in her previous instruction. Personally, I'd find it simpler if the instructions were specific, like "change to 12th gear". However, I also think that it makes sense for people in the class to gauge their own levels of fitness, and choose a level that's appropriate for them individually. Back when I used to do aerobics at school, one exercise involved stretching a big rubber band thing. These were colour coded, and I'd always go for purple (the hardest one); after a while, I went up to two purple, because one wasn't a challenge. At the same time, there were girls in the class who were on the easier colours, so if the teacher said "Everyone must use orange" then that wouldn't really suit anyone.

I did find today that I wasn't able to follow all of the movements; more specifically, there were times when I just had to pedal in my seat because I couldn't keep going while standing up. I'm not sure whether that means that I need to choose an easier level, or whether it just means that the rest of the class are significantly fitter than me - probably a bit of both. Anyway, I still exerted myself by doing that much pedalling, so I don't think it matters as long as the instructor doesn't get upset that I'm not doing it properly. All in all, I'd say that this was a success given that it was my first time, and I intend to go again if I can work around my other commitments. With practice, I should be able to judge the difficulty level more accurately, and then I can gradually crank it up.

After that, I went upstairs to the cinema to watch the new Pirates of the Caribbean film. My original plan was to buy a ticket before I went to the gym, but I abandoned that due to running late. When I did get to the cinema, I found that Vue have changed things around a bit - I don't know whether it's specific to that branch, or if they do it everywhere. Basically, they've closed down the ticket desk, so you now buy tickets where they sell snacks - this means that you have huge queues there. I'm not sure whether the ticket machines are still operational, but I've never got them to accept my Visa card, and they're no good for the "Orange Wednesday" 2-for-1 offer anyway. After 15 minutes I got to the front of the queue, and they said that the 20:00 showing was sold out. I'm not sure whether they really had sold every ticket for it, or whether the computer was just programmed to stop selling tickets after the film officially started (this was at about 20:02). So, I got a ticket for the 20:30 showing instead. Fortunately (and aptly), the people I'd vaguely arranged to meet at the cinema stuck to the pirates' code ("if you fall behind, you're left behind"), so this delay only really affected me.

The film itself was pretty good. Unfortunately, it was rather spoiled by the two girls sitting next to me who were talking through most of it, including making mobile phone calls. "Hello ... I'm in the cinema ... gawd, yeah, that was, like, really awful, innit..." In fairness, they were speaking quietly, so I assume that they were making an effort - this may mean that they only disturbed me, rather than everyone else, although I've found that when anyone opens a mobile phone in a dark room it does act as a beacon of light that attracts attention from far away. The problem with this kind of situation is that I'm never sure how to handle it, and I suspect that any solution I could come up with would be more disruptive than the original actions.

By the time it got to 23:00 I decided that a polite request was worth a shot; I tend to assume that anyone who's rude enough to act like that in the first place isn't going to behave just because I ask them to, and I'll wind up looking impotent because they're now actively ignoring me, but opinions of etiquette do vary, and I didn't have much to lose. So, I leant over to the girl next to me and said "Will you please stop talking!" She then nudged her friend (who was talking on her phone), and said "Yeah, you ought to stop talking now, that man said he wants you to." "What man?" I then repeated the same words to the second girl. She did finish the phone conversation soon afterwards, and they stayed quiet for a few minutes, but then resumed their conversations again, so I left them to it. I don't like acting like that, and as I sat there afterwards I could literally feel my heart beating in my chest (without having my hand anywhere near it), which is probably a sign that my pulse rate was up. I don't know whether that makes me a coward; I like to think that I handle situations better where there isn't the same ambiguity, i.e. where I can act without restraint. Sadly, I don't seem to encounter that type of situation very often as I get older, either because my environment is changing or just because I have a greater awareness of consequences.

In hindsight, I think I should have gone to see the film on opening night - that way I'd be with people who were actually interested in watching it. (It was probably a warning sign when they sat down at the start and one of them said "I hope this is good, I haven't seen the first one". They had a trailer for Superman Returns, which does look good, so I'll need to think carefully about when/where I watch that.

On the plus side, I did make it through the film without needing to pee, despite it being so long (it finished at about 23:20), so I think that's a fringe benefit of my weight loss. (Last time I went to the cinema, I'd just shifted down to a smaller waist size, and the trousers were applying a certain amount of pressure to my bladder...)

Ending on a positive note, I'm currently reading Artificial Life by Stephen Levy. I read his Hackers book a few years ago, which I liked, so this one has been sitting on my unread pile for a few months. It's fascinating stuff - not a book that I can blaze through, but certainly something that keeps my attention. Arguably I should have read this a few years ago when I was working on my bee project, but I'm not too bothered about that - I ran out of time rather than ideas, and the cellular automata work is a slightly different direction to the approach I took anyway. Actually, it reminds me a lot of Egan's metaverse, which I mentioned a while back.

This book mentions Stephen Wolfram, and I have his book (A New Kind Of Science) sitting on my pile too, so I need to read that soon - mind you, it is quite a weighty tome (about 1200 pages). I had no idea that E. F. Codd (the relational database guy) was also interested in cellular automata; since most of my work experience has involved databases, it's nice to know that the fields aren't as separate as they might appear. Sadly his book on the subject has long been out of print, but I may be able to get hold of it through a university library.

I do like the idea of "garage band science" that the book describes - the idea is that it's now feasible for people to do this kind of research as a hobby, i.e. with an affordable home computer, rather than requiring access to a massive mainframe at a university. That said, there are certainly speed benefits to having bigger machines - when I went to a recent lecture on consciousness, they mentioned IBM's Blue Gene Project; this uses a ridiculously large amount of power/time in order to accurately model one second of a human brain cell. Still, I do intend to devote more time to my bees, along with a few related "proof of concept" applications, e.g. Life as a screensaver and a sheep herding game. This was part of the problem that I found with natural language understanding - I think that any realistic research has to be done as part of a large project, rather than involving a lone programmer working in isolation.

One other idea that's been coming up in the book is the merging of different disciplines. That's something I've been thinking about on my own, and I think that it makes sense - basically, any extra knowledge tends to come in handy sooner or later, even if it's not immediately obvious. For instance, when I was a kid I remember seeing a TV program about astronomers, and this mentioned that they will load two photos of the night sky into a special machine that will swap them backward and forward at high speed. That way, if a particular star has moved, it will leap out at you, because you'll effectively see it flashing. I don't remember why I was watching this, but it stuck in my mind. Later on, I started doing shared development without the aid of a source control application - I soon persuaded the company to buy SourceSafe, but for a little while I had to find an alternative approach. I remembered the astronomers, and so I'd load up both source code files into text editors, then flick back and forth between the windows. As I gradually scrolled through the document, I didn't have to read every line closely - any changes would flash at me. People sometimes ask me "How did you learn to do X?", but often there isn't any specific learning resource that I can direct them to; you just need to keep your eyes open.

Mind you, the flipside of that is the trap where you get so bogged down in trying to absorb all the current knowledge before you try to add to it. This is basically what happened to me when I did my first MSc project - I was still working through the textbooks a few days before the project was due in, without having written any code, so it's not entirely surprising that I failed. (There were some other issues, e.g. my errata reporting, but the basic point is valid.) The novel Devil on my back by Monica Hughes has quite a stark warning of this. The basic premise is that there's been an apocalypse, and so a group of people have moved into a big dome to wait until the world is habitable again - in the meantime, they and their descendants are trying to use the time wisely, by learning everything that there is to know, so that they'll be ready to rebuild civilisation. This leads to people acquiring exobrains (basically extra computer memory to supplement their own), and walking around being bent over double by the time they get their third pack. Meanwhile, they're not actually doing anything to fix the problems.

One of these days I'm going to write a proper review of The Know-it-all (a book about a guy who reads the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica in a year), but I'm becoming more and more convinced that it's a worthy endeavour. He mentions that as he goes through the volumes, he's forming more and more links between concepts in his head, which is something that I've experienced on a smaller scale.

Coming back to a-life, Levy mentions the driving force behind several researchers, namely that they're trying to unlock the secret of life itself. I don't have that same passion, which worries me a bit, i.e. it may be an indication that this isn't the right field for me. However, I do think "Hey, that's pretty cool", which may be enough. I certainly like the idea that it can be a quest for elegance, by striving to make the programs as simple as possible. I think it was pozorvlak who had a sig-quote about "I know the program is finished, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing more to remove", and that sounds about right.

Anyway, I think that I will always have more things on my "to do" list than I actually have time to do, but I am hopeful that I can achieve something.
Tags: bees, books, computers, cycling, diet, films, hmr, pension

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