Comings and Goings

I am back in Vienna -- for two days. Tuesday I will go to Leiden to examine a PhD. Apparently in the Dutch system the viva is mostly a formality (the thesis has to already be published as a book) but you still need to ask challenging questions to show publicly that the candidate is capable of answering them. In a way, I guess, it shows that reputation is still more important than what is in the text. Or, perhaps, just still important.

Another going --- my MPhil supervisor, Brendan McGonigle, died unexpectedly two weeks ago in his apartment in Edinburgh with his wife. I think some of you will remember visiting his lab -- he had a research programme including monkeys, children and robots. There are a few people who do monkeys and children now, but I don't know of anyone who does all three. Although to be fair, the robots were mostly a spin-off of his main research --- I'm not sure how much of what he learned from them ever fed back into his psychology work. That's one of the things I'd like to do during my own career, make it easier to see AI as a basic scientific methodology, part of theory building.

We assume it was a heart attack. He had just been in the Psychology department earlier that day being his usual vivacious self, so everyone there is shocked. What reminded me to post right now is that I just deleted the last email he sent me from my email inbox. Of course I saved it -- I save everything that's actually directed to me and a lot more besides. But still, it is sad. I tried to post a picture of him, but I have not found a single picture of him on the web, nor an obituary. He was a scientist for over 30 years with several articles in Nature. I guess it shows just how amazing the people who really do make it into the press must be.

On more positive news, the meetings I attended in Vancouver (really Whistler) and Göttingen were both fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the Göttingen one, but that's not surprising since it included most of the leading minds in primatology and biological anthropology. But it was fun to hang out with the machine learning and neuroscience folks too in Whistler. Apparently both my talks went well, though I was less clear on that at Göttingen. Unfortunately there was only time for one question after my talk and someone very famous whose work I was marginally challenging (actually, I was supporting the main thread of it, but challenging one detail) asked a question. Also unfortunately, a woman I'd never seen before and really respect, Dorothy Cheyney, had said she was nervous at her talk a few talks earlier --- I think this made me nervous during my talk, since I never normally am. Well, anyway, I said the question was silly, and then I was so embarrassed I didn't do a very good job of explaining why I thought that. (Though I did have the presence of mind to put up the slide that shows why -- he was asking whether one of my variables was over 0.07, and the slide showed that variable ran from about 0 to 1. The only question is exactly how close to 0 "about 0" really is. Well that and whether his 0.07 number really matters at all --- it's allegedly the relatedness of people in hunter-gatherer troops, but probably measured over a lot more alleles than I was looking at.) But anyway, I did get to talk to this guy later and I think it will be interesting to find out who is right.

On the train & plane back yesterday I got very excited about some of the modelling and research ideas I have and planned a paper, and if it goes well maybe I will even try to write a book for the last 6 months of my sabbatical. About the evolution of culture, which I do already have a few papers about. The new one would be a review that puts a lot of people's theories (including my published ones) together. The only problem is finding time to publish all the results --- I have four papers worth of results (at least!!!) I should really submit in the next month or so, let alone the new research I want to do.

In Göttingen they took a lot of pictures which probably will go on the web. I'll post links when they do.