Fun fact of the day

The Beaufort scale was developed almost exactly 200 years ago by Sir Francis Beaufort, an English admiral. According to the Beaufort scale, wind speeds of around 60 km/h are counted as wind strength 7-8 (“moderate to fresh gale”): “Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind” to “Twigs broken from trees. Cars veer on road.”

I’ve been living with fresh gales for several days now. As long as I can pretend the squeaking and rattling of my windows is really sails and planks, I feel totally nautical.

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Java on MacOS

As you know, I’m extremely unhappy about the fact that Apple didn’t deign to finally provide us with a Mac version of Java 6 when they released Leopard. I’m so upset that I’m postponing to buy Leopard until they finally get their act together.

This is why I’m really happy about the fact that someone ported the FreeBSD version of OpenJDK, Sun’s recently open-sourced version of Java 6, to the Mac.  I’ve downloaded the Tiger version, and it even appears faster than the Apple Java developer preview that came out a year ago: Utool enumerates solved forms about 15% faster than before. :) This may just be due to a different JIT compilation strategy, but it’s still hella cool, and it’s even cooler that one guy ported this all in his spare time. The one big drawback is that the OpenJDK is limited to displaying Swing windows in X11, which looks just terrible after you’ve gotten used to Aqua Swing. But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until we break free of Apple’s tyranny and can finally get new versions of Java as early as everyone else!

Internet in Edinburgh

I am currently sitting at my gate at Edinburgh airport, waiting for my flight to depart. This airport is pretty nifty in that it provides rather comfortable numbers of electricity outlets, and it is also covered by BT Openzone Wi-Fi access points, which I just discovered I can use for unlimited amounts of time thanks to my BT broadband contract. So I’m now sitting next to the cafe writing blog posts on my laptop. I am so teh geek jet-set.

In other news, I am annoyed at Apple for making it currently impossible to run Java 1.6 on Leopard: Not only did they not release a final version with the new OS version (as many had anticipated), the clunky old beta version of 1.6 doesn’t run on Leopard any more either. This is a total show-stopper for me, and I’ll delay upgrading until they get their act together. (I mean, come on, Java 1.6 has been out for all other major OSs for almost a year now.) I just hope this will be soon, because some of the new features (particularly Time Machine and Spaces) do look pretty sweet, and with the new Finder I will finally be able to get rid of my old version of Yep that has been getting increasingly slow.

Entertainment in Edinburgh

Over the past year, I’ve gotten used to spending my spare time in the New York style: People meet outside of their apartments and go to a musical or the Nerd Nite or the Amato Opera or some other of several hundred options that take place on any given evening. There are so many things you could do that the art is to learn how to live with the fact that you’re missing almost everything.

It’s been a bit of a culture shock to me that Edinburgh style entertainment works very differently. Yes, people go to concerts, such as last week’s RSNO performance (which was not bad, but then I’ve been spoiled by the New York Philharmonic, and the RSNO could have been more expressive). But they also actually have time to go see a movie (such as the fantastic 3:10 to Yuma), or classical sci-fi TV series at Sciffy’s weekly meetings, and they actually visit each other at home to play board games. However, the primary thing that’s done in Edinburgh by way of entertainment is to go hike in the nature. And I’ll admit that this is something that was difficult in New York.

Last weekend, we ended up hiking to Yester Castle, a ruin in East Lothian, perhaps a 45-minute drive and then a one or two hour hike away from Edinburgh. Yester Castle is really cool in that the knight who built it, in 1250 or so, was rumored to be a necromancer, who had summoned creatures build a subterranean vault called “Goblin Ha'”. Apparently, goblins build to last, and thus unlike the rest of the castle, Goblin Ha’ is still pretty much intact:

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It’s really really dark, though, and it took my eyes a few minutes to adjust so I could actually see anything through the barred windows. The ruins are a pretty good place for ghost stories; the surrounding area supports this pretty well too:
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And then there’s a golf course right next to it, and all remaining feelings that Sir Hugo might be watching you are dispelled; the story of the cursed pear he gave his daughter’s husband for safekeeping (the curse being activated several hundred years later) seems quite insubstantial when you have to watch out so you don’t get whacked in the head by a golf ball. That was a pretty cool hike, even though it made me realize that my shoes, which were sufficient for hiking in dry Colorado, are totally not up to the job of trudging through Scottish mud and I need to buy new ones if I want to do this more.

Another feature of outdoors life in Edinburgh that we explored yesterday is Portobello. (Interestingly, there’s a short path on Wikipedia from Portobello via burgh, Five Burghs, and Five Boroughs back to New York.) Portobello is a beach resort which is approximately twenty bike minutes away from my house. Although we had nice and sunny weather yesterday, it’s still October and so you can’t swim in the Firth of Forth because you would freeze to death instantly (I did test the waters with my foot). But apparently it can be used as a real swimming beach in the summer. I don’t think I’ve ever lived this close to a beach in my life! This is what it looks like:
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The main problem is that while the bike route to the beach is extremely scenic — it circles around Arthur’s Seat and offers a number of pretty dramatic views, e.g. of Duddingston Kirk over Duddingston Loch –, it goes up and down and up and down, and mostly up, the entire time. I’m so not in shape, and the way back in particular was terrible in places. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my outing to the beach, and it’s nice to be able to get there in twenty minutes rather than a one-hour subway ride. Entertainment in Edinburgh is different, and I have to adjust, but perhaps it’s not so bad after all.

Alexander in Edinburgh

Hokay. I haven’t actually been that good in updating my blog in the past few months, for reasons that I’ve explained in previous posts. I won’t even apologize. But now that I’m no longer actually in New York (and the title of the blog should be “aedicase”), perhaps a new post is in order.

The last few weeks of my stay in New York were as hectic as the first few were relaxed. In mid-August, I embarked on a totally crazy trip that took me to Dublin for ESSLLI, Edinburgh for apartment-hunting, Columbus, Ohio and Austin, Texas to work with people at the universities there, and back to New York. Within the space of eight days, I visited five cities in three countries (four if Texas counts as a separate country), which I think is a new record even for me. I made the jetlag work for me to help me catch flights at 7am in the morning, and among many other things ended up seeing a rodeo in Johnson City, Texas (pop. 1200), birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson. The rodeo was like a big village festival, complete with hamburgers and lemonade and cotton candy and lots of cowboy hats, and consisted of a series of different competitions involving staying on a bucking horse or bull, lassoing and tying up cattle, and riding. There are also versions for children, such as sitting six-year-old kids on sheep to figure out who can hold on the longest. (The longest in this case was about three meters.) I had a great time, except for nagging doubts regarding the treatment of animals; but according to some research based on the Wikipedia site, the jury is still out on that issue, with both rodeo friends and rodeo critics citing really stupid arguments (of the form “Look at this cow’s cute eyes! Could these eyes lie?”).

Back in New York, I whizzed through a bunch of things that still needed doing and packed up my stuff. The highlight of my last two weeks was perhaps to watch Absinthe, a burlesque show in an original Spiegelzelt (mirror tent) from the 1920s which they put up at the South Street Seaport (remember? the same place where I performed on the singing Christmas tree last winter). This was perhaps one of the niftiest shows I’ve ever seen, with amazing acrobats and a pretty weird announcer. There was a rollerblade show which ended in the guy and the girl being connected only by leather straps around their necks, and the guy rotating the couple around their shared vertical axis while the girl, whose feet were lifted off the ground by that rotation, spinning really rapidly around her own body axis (see the picture). But my personal favorite was the stripper, who I now discovered is called Julie Atlas Muz. Both of her acts were just so classy and funny. She started the first by carrying a huge air balloon and doing an Atlas impersonation; but then she popped her head into the balloon, and ended up climbing into it with her whole body, without letting any air out (you can see the general principle here, although the Absinthe version was different and better). In the second act, she made her hand look like it was an alien fake hand, which fought and then undressed her. Her whole performance was so witty that it was almost irrelevant that she was almost naked (although I didn’t mind that at all). Fantastic! Compared to this, the otherwise very solid Blue Man Group show we ushered for and then got to see for free a couple of days later was nothing to write home about.

Anyway. With luggage that was too heavy I took off towards Edinburgh, where my flat is still as pretty as I remembered it. Here’s a picture of my living room:

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As you can barely see, the bottom of my kitchen is all mirrors, which can be lit from above. You can also guess at the mother of pearl lamp above my couch table, which the previous owner (before my current landlady), who also designed the look of the entire flat, made himself. It’s kind of weird and overly 70s-ish for my taste, but I suspect it will actually grow on me.

But the really cool part about the flat is the view. If you turn by 180 degrees of where I’m standing to take the picture above, you will see this:
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Now that’s a far cry from my view in New York. If you go close to the window and look to the left and right, you will see this:

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(the Pentland Hills)

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(yes, Edinburgh Castle, with a bunch of cranes from the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics construction site in the foreground)

So although the flat itself is pretty small, the fantastic view makes it feel much more spacious than it actually is. If you climb on the roof (which is admittedly harder than it was in NYC), you also have a view of Arthur’s Seat. And the building shares a garden with Sciennes Hill House, which was the location of a dinner party at which Robert Burns and Walter Scott met for the only time ever. If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.

The one huge drawback of my flat is the shower. For the past few days, all I have managed to get out of it was a trickle of cold water. As you know, I’m a huge fan of extended hot showers. In a pinch, I will tolerate a cold shower for a day or two, if it’ll at least get me clean. But the waterflow was so slow that not even that was possible. After some initial confusion, my landlady figured out today how to make the water flow properly. But they are still going to have an electric heater installed into the waterpipe, so there’s a chance that at some point next week I’ll be able to shower properly.

The other problem is that the windows are a bit drafty, and even now it’s getting a bit cold in the nights and mornings. I shudder (hah) to think what it’ll be like in the winter.

Now. It’s really strange to move into a furnished flat. I’ve never done this, and it’s been taking me a while to shake the feeling that I’m really just a guest in somebody else’s apartment. It’s really nice that I don’t have to bother with buying furniture and kitchen equipment and such, but furnishing an apartment is a really important step towards making it your own, and I’m almost sad that I don’t get to do it. Another step that would help me make the flat my own is if I finally had a real Internet connection at home. Right now, I’m making do with my shiny new T-Mobile Vario II phone with a generous Internet usage allowance, which is a fantastic new little toy and allows me to access the Net via Bluetooth and a 3G data connection, but the connection is limited (Skype doesn’t work well, some of what I assume are Julie Atlas Muz’ more open-hearted webpages are blocked as adult content) and keeps breaking down every couple of minutes; not fun. But because there’s no phone line in the flat, it will take British Telecom a week to install the phone line, and then another week to activate the DSL connection. Bah! At least they gave me a pretty office with Internet access at the University.

That’s it for now. This is the third evening in a row that I’ve been spending by myself. I really need to figure out what you can do with your time in Edinburgh, reactivate my old friends and acquaintances, and make new ones. It’s a nuisance to have to completely exchange my social circle every year or so, especially given that I have no real way of communicating with people abroad from home. If someone happens to know cool people here that I don’t know, please do send them my way, I’d have time to burn right now.

Cyc and Google

In preparing for my ESSLLI course and evening lecture in two weeks, I’ve been trying to find out what state Cyc is in these days. I still can’t find any reasonable kind of technical documentation (if you know of any, let me know), but I did find a really cool talk that Doug Lenat, the founder of Cyc, gave at Google last year. I think everyone who works on knowledge-based AI should find an hour to watch this talk really soon. It has a fantastic motivating introduction on why we really need formalized commonsense knowledge, and shows a couple of things that Cyc can do. Of course, this doesn’t answer my original question, but perhaps I can use some of it for my talks anyway.

Now, the other thing that really impressed me is how easy it is to watch Google videos. I knew before that Google records the public talks that people give there and makes them available, but hadn’t really looked at any of them. But what’s really nifty is that you can use the Google Video Player (available for Windows and Mac) and have the video automatically downloaded for offline use, in much better quality than the online video. Now if I could just find a way to read just the subtitles (the entire video is subtitled) without watching the video in realtime, that would be even cooler.

Edit: I finally figured out how to access FACTory, an online game that asks users questions and uses their answers to add more stuff to the Cyc database. This seems like almost exactly the right thing to do, and gives you an idea of what sort of things Cyc knows about. You can find it here (your browser needs to support Java applets), and it’s really fun to play for a bit.

Boston

As I am posting this, I am sitting on the MIT campus, using the MIT wireless network. A bunch of students are playing volleyball on the lawn, and the sun is shining. Boston is one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen. I’ve just had two productive conversations with colleagues at MIT and Harvard. The computer science building at MIT has to be seen to be believed, the architecture and geek things lying around are so nifty. Tonight I’m meeting with two German post-docs for drinks. Tomorrow, I get to see the Media Lab, a book about which was one of the first things that ever attracted me to AI. And, hello, I get to spend two days at Harvard and MIT; I’m alternating between intimated, awed, and proud. Life is good!


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