Another month older...

Sorry I haven't updated lately. Honestly, it's hard to find time to write when I'm also with Will, and also I spent two weeks in the US with no datahands (and lots of jet lag / sleep deprivation) so my arms were not in good shape for just writing. In fact, now, I've just spent a week in Nottingham and I'm writing on a train, so I will try to be short here too.

Four weeks ago I was in California for a AAAI spring symposium on emotions, personality and social behaviour. I generally am radically preferring to spend my time in primatology meetings, but it is remarkably easier to hang out in the discipline where you are actually educated. I mean, I can use the first metaphors (and jokes) that come to my mind, rather than having to translate them into another scientific dialect. It's kind of like the difference between German and English, except that mysteriously I seem to be much more competent in primatology than German, even though I had three terms of German at University of Chicago, but none in primatology.

I got three quite nice collaboration / funding offers in California. One is probably a dead end but was interesting in itself -- I got to visit Willow Garage. It was a bit of a misunderstanding --- someone I met thought Willow would like to hear me talk, whereas Willow thought I was there to ask for funding or a robot. But it was interesting. They have their own money and are trying to facilitate the development of domestic robots. Their two rules are no military funding and all open-source software. Of course, I have open-source software for robots on my web page, but I got some useful advice on how to license it. Also, of course, I haven't used it on robots for years, and never on a dextrous robot. I have to admit it is quite tempting to apply for one of their semi-subsidised robots when I get back to Bath and address that.

The most promising of the three opportunities in some sense was to use my software to assist a big EU project I'd already wished were using it, but they had to use one of their partners' planning systems, but now they want to use mine, which is great. I hope it happens, but it's not going to take much of my time either way. But the weirdest thing was that I was approached twice by a guy who turned out to be an Air Force programme manager who wanted to give me money to help him model social behaviour. He was particularly interested in understanding why sometimes religions morph into fundamentalist extremism.

I'm of two minds about this. I know that the military is both useful and necessary, but I also know that the dynamics of the military / industrial complex are such that they can encourage military actions that are not necessary, since so many people's livelihoods depend on continued military spending. Part of the reason I'm not in the US was to avoid the necessity of taking US military funding, which is pretty unavoidable when doing AI research on any significant scale in the US. But this question is quite close to my real scientific research, and clearly is aimed at avoiding the need for violent interventions.

Anyway, one of the things the air force want is that the models should be grounded in real "anthropology" (that is, tested or validated against real human data, to see if they are actually useful.) Most of the anthropologists I know work on apes, but I wrote one anyway and one of his suggestions reminded I'd read this great article in Science about how people in some cultures will spend money punishing other people who are being "too good", even though the good guys are benefiting the people doing the punishing with their good acts. This may sound rather depressing, but to me it was amazingly cool research, because it seems to demonstrate that costly punishment isn't necessarily a rational action, but is rather just an example of a culturally evolved behaviour for maintaining norms. In this sense, it's quite related to the work I'm doing at the KLI, as well as in the evolution of social structure work I've been doing with Hagen, my PhD student.

As it happened, the authors of this article are at Nottingham! So I emailed the first author suggesting we meet there. But I am getting ahead of myself...

Three weeks ago, after California, I went to Chicago and saw Barb, Kevin, Rebecca and Mom. I should say, in California over the weekend (after the
conference) I saw my coauthor from Harvard Jonathan Leong, who is now doing an MD PhD at Stanford, stayed the weekend with my old housemate Pearl Tsai Renaker and her family (two girls and Steve her husband), saw both of the only other two people my PhD supervisor supervised the PhDs of (Ian Horswill, who ran the workshop I attended & supervised me for 8 months at MIT; and Ellen Spertus who was head of department at Mills but has been at Google for rather a long sabbatial), and two of my friends from LEGO, Chris and Laura --- all of whom are doing very well. Pearl has resigned from Google but didn't want to set a bad example for her daughters by not working so is doing an Architecture degree. Meanwhile Steve has taken up building & tuning harpsichords! (They need a lot of tuning... as will said "that's why there are pianos.") So anyway, in Chicago I took two days off with my family, and then went to Chicago with Will. Thursday I gave a talk at Northwestern about action selection in agent-based modelling, and we discussed how it would be quite easy to get my action selection working in my favourite tool (which they make), NetLogo. The only problem is I need a programmer, and while I'm on sabbatical I don't really have anywhere to put one, even if I dug up the money for one. Friday I just worked and then Saturday -- brace yourself -- I went shopping for clothes! I actually found Chicago a little freaky from a shopping perspective. They did a great job of investing all the affluence of the last twenty years in the infrastructure of the city, but now Macy's / Marshall Field's was empty, and no one was using the new Apple Mac laptops anywhere. I don't think the economy has really started shutting down on people yet, but I think they must be very scared, too scared to spend money, and that will kill the economy if it isn't already dead. Anyway, I got nice clothes which is useful since I'm getting old & semi-respectable, and I did it on a weak currency.

I have to say by the way, I don't entirely support the bonkers idea that Macy's has to bring back Marshall Field's. In fact, it is awesome that they have brought the building back to its glory, and also the best service I've ever had there. That's a better tribute to the memory of that store than the version I knew in the 70s and 80s, regardless of the name.

So the week I got back to Vienna there had been rather a bizarre political event at the KLI that I won't go into here. Anyway I had a ton of work to do since I'd been travelling e.g. wrapping up final reports on the grant that funded Hagen and my first PhD / postdoc, Emmanuel. Here's the web page I wrote about that grant. So anyway, I was working quite late and keeping distracted from the general uproar, but I also did a bunch of reading up on organisational behaviour which helped me understand better not only my current situation and a couple previous ones, but also the research topic that air force guy suggested (remember him?) I also spent a lot of time talking to other fellows at the KLI --- I wish we talked about science that much! Hopefully we will from now on.

But now is when I get back to talking about that interesting paper those guys from Nottingham wrote. I emailed the first author, Benedikt Herrmann, from Vienna and asked to meet with him when I was in Nottingham the next week (now the week before last) and he wrote back "why don't we meet on Saturday in Vienna -- I'm staying with two cool people I think you'd like." It turned out he was visiting the University and staying with some people he barely knew, but judging just from my email thought we'd all get along. As it happens, he was totally right. His host, Christoff Koch, is a biologist at University of Vienna, and his friend Thomas, turned out to be expert in all kinds of interesting thing while working mostly in business (including helping restore Persepolis in Iran). I had absolutely the best time visiting them, as we all talked about
fascinating academic and political things.

In fact, I had such a good time that it made me really reflect on my life. I think I used to have fun like that a lot more in Edinburgh and in Chicago, but never so much in Bath and Boston. There just haven't been enough people in my life really enthusiastic about knowledge and what they do. I think in Bath part of that is just that too many of my peers have kids and live in villages rather than really doing the urban lifestyle thing. And in Boston, well, I'm not sure. I always found it weird there, both Harvard and MIT. Actually, when I first worked for Marble there, there was more flat-out intellectual fun. And when I lived with Pearl and Elizabeth, they were fun, and the AI Lab was more fun sometimes (too rarely!) in the earlier days. But in Chicago, I used to wind up at these parties with people working in all kinds of businesses and we had the most fascinating conversations. I suppose part of it could be I've just learned more so less things surprise me! But the world is full of complexity, so that seems pretty unlikely.

Anyway, the next week I was meant to go to Nottingham on Wednesday, but my PhD student Mark Wood turned out to be defending his thesis in Bath on the Monday, so I had to go to Bath Sunday night. I'd managed to leave my wallet in Chicago, so Will had to come to Luton airport and meet me so I could get train tickets. (In Vienna, my bank just gave me money, but I forgot to get enough to change into pounds.) We spent a couple of nights with our friends the Lewises. Mark passed with minor corrections! (Although quite a few of them which has been a matter of ongoing discussion...) I have had one other PhD student graduate before, but I was only his second supervisor, so this was (and still is) a big deal. And obviously, for Mark, it's a huge accomplishment. Though he won't really be happy til his corrections are all through and he has graduated.

Monday afternoon and evening I took out Mark's external examiner, whom some of you might have met in Edinburgh when I was in Brendan's lab, Mark Humphrys, so then Tuesday we went to Nottingham -- although we stopped in London on the way (since we were going via Luton anyway) and celebrated our anniversary that day with a nice lunch. Of course then we worked until midnight when we got to Nottingham! Wednesday I went to Computer Science and then to Economics. I was amazed at the latter attending a CeDEx weekly meeting, which is this research group that does experimental economics. I've been a lot of good universities, but I've never seen one where so many faculty turn up to essentially student talks and give really useful feedback and discussion of research and methods. Maybe the Stanford AI group was that good when I visited in 2001. But hardly anywhere do the faculty seem to make time to know what all the graduate students are doing.

The rest of that that week Will taught a clinic on regression that was really interesting and I really need to use what I learned already on my results from the models I had last month, but haven't gotten to it yet. Hopefully today...

Normally I would leave on the weekend, but as I said my original tickets were Wednesday to Wednesday, and I only changed the first one. So we spent the weekend unpacking --- 9 months after Will moved! We finally finished unpacking the kitchen and dining room, and then we had some friends over for dinner Sunday night. By coincidence they were all German and we talked about working in academia in Europe & the UK.

Monday I mostly caught up on the previous 3 weeks of email, but that evening we met and had dinner with two of the authors (from Economics) of that anti-social punishment paper. This is Will and I, Benedikt and his postdoctoral supervisor Simon Gächter. Simon is almost exactly my age, but he stayed in academia the whole time and has been a full professor now for about five years. I would like to have a chair in the next two years like him! (Since he is seven years ahead.) He was amazing too, though he saw the data totally differently, and was quite unhappy about it, whereas the data matched Benedikt's experience so surprised him less. Simon is in fact also Austrian so we discussed Vienna a bit too. Anyway, besides being scientifically interesting, this all my have quite a practical upshot, as we may write a grant to study what their data tells us about cultural evolution and variation.

Then Tuesday I was invited go to to a reception at the UK Parliament in London. I went down early and had lunch with Frank Binns, a Bath undergraduate who is working on his placement year there. Together we finally debugged some last stupid piece of code on the games AI thing my group has written, so I was able to upgrade all that code (a bit late for all the traffic from the AI games site!)



I had never been to the British Parliament building before. The front part of it is quite old, like 1100AD-ish, a huge hall for the time. It wasn't originally for democracy, but for festivals. On the way to the toilets (which were stunningly nice) there were two TV screens showing current debates in the two houses. Only the Commons had sound, they were talking about road safety. I didn't have time to wait in line and get into the visitor's galleries, even though the invitation had gotten me through security etc. quite quickly.

The actual reception of course had a very large number of people I knew, plus the older important people. I think mostly people from the house of lords bother to come to these things, but there was also a lot of media. There were several real robots there, and a couple of them were actually working -- it seems ridiculous that in the 21st century anyone was trying to get funding for robots that didn't work! But I can't talk since I have no robots at all so no demo --- I was there because the organisers knew I was good at talking to people and know a lot about robots, and I have done that kind of role for British research councils before. But this time I felt less significant -- I think the only "clients" / decision makers I really got to attempt to educate were some people from the Royal Society, who were otherwise being unimpressed, but I convinced them (I think) that real progress was being made (even if slowly) and this was going to have social impact. So maybe it was worth it from that standpoint -- the Royal Society has a lot of impact on British science policy.

On the personal networking front it was more successful. I saw a number of big people in the field who said hi or at least smiled (Kevin Warwick! It's surprising he smiles at me... actually met Ben Goldacre in a pub in London less than a year later (we have a mutual friend), and he said it was the first time ever he was forced to print a retraction.) I went out afterwards with Murray Shanahan, professor of cognitive robotics at the best technical university in the UK, Imperial. We found a nice pub across the street, and eventually Owen Holland (who works on Conscious Robots) and an entourage from his robot company, Noel Sharkey (who publicises robotics and is doing really good work right now on the ethics of robot use), and Alan Winfield and his entourage from "Walking with Robots" (which largely organised the event), including the wonderful Claire Rocks, who I met at my Science Café last January.

The point of the event was trying to keep the UK competitive in the domestic (and surgical and space) robotics market, which is also a big priority generally in the EU, though for some reason no one mentioned that. Actually, for some reason this was the first time I really noticed British academics being defensive about Europe, not really feeling a part of it. Maybe it's because I was living in Austria, or because the pound is following the dollar rather than the euro right now. Anyway, it's ludicrous -- the British have a huge impact on the personality of the EU and the EC, it's very weird that they don't always see how important they are.

The rest of the week I was in Vienna desperately trying to finish some obligations such as reviewing and assisting with grant proposals, which meant I wasn't catching up on email (or blogging -- well, half of this I wrote Wednesday on the train to the airport.) Sunday I had expected to be working, but the weather was amazing so we went up the Alp closest to Vienna, Schneeberg (snow mountain). We took a cog-wheel train part way up, then walked as far up as the beginning of the snow. We bought a cake and some water in a little hut, then walked the whole way down through a valley, having dinner in another town, Schneebergdorfl. We had a camera with us, but not a download cable, but anyway we didn't even try to take a shot like that, Will thought it was impossible to get that light, but it looked just like that picture.

This week so far I have been getting back to some science -- as usual, helped by students. My new MSc student (who wants to do a PhD) has done a ton of good work and we were able to discuss modelling the Baldwin Effect and to learn a bit more about its history and understand better the precise details of some of the controversies. The Baldwin Effect is a phenomena in evolution whereby individual learning can accelerate evolution, even when what you learn can't be passed directly on to your children. The very fact that some individuals can learn better than others shows that they may be genetically nearer to a good solution. This was all established theoretically in the 1800s, but not really proved until the 1980s (by Geoff Hinton and a student with a computer model. Geoff Hinton is the guy who gave the ScD lecture at Will's graduation that Patricia took pictures of). I took it for granted that everyone knew about it, but it turns out not to be a part of general biological education, and the extent of its utility is not yet well established. Now that people are thinking about EvoDevo, it is of course a bigger deal (though it is sometimes referred to as just "phenotypic plasticity" and treated as a great mystery rather than a known or at least hypothesised effect.)

And of course my own research now is about the case where you can pass information to your children and peers. Cultural and biological evolution will also interplay. But the case where the information born in intelligence and learning is only transmitted indirectly in reproductive success is more basic, so we should start there.

As of today I've finally caught up on my unread email for the first time since I left for Chicago! So you can see my priorities --- it is more important to be sure there isn't something important to be read than to write blogs. But it is even more important to spend at least a few hours every day really doing research.
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