Christmas letter 2012

In August 1991 I left Chicago to make something better of my life – I thought I'd try doing an MSc in Artificial Intelligence in Scotland.  Though I actually cared more about psychology, I was good at programming so AI seemed like a safe choice.  From then on nearly every friend I made had an email account, so for quite a number of years I wrote a single long email every year to catch my friends up on events.  Since for many it was the only time I wrote people all year, often I discovered a few of the email addresses had changed.  But at some point spam software kicked in and it became impossible to send an email if any one domain no longer existed, so I gave up.  In January 1996 I met Will, and by Christmas that year we were sufficiently close that I spent it at his mother's house.  To be frank, it's well known that relationships take a lot of time, and friendships always lose out.  But since 2006 we have been living apart, which creates extra stress not only from loneliness but also travel.  Christmas of 2006 we spent alone together in India, and now this year we have decided to be alone together in Bath.  So although honestly as always there are a million things I should do from housework to science, it feels like a good day to try to write a Christmas letter again.  It's odd to do it on a blog since it's public, but in a way these letters always have been – you never know where an email will get forwarded, and you should never say anything in email containing anything you really wouldn't want to see on the front page of your favourite (and least favourite) newspaper.

I'll start with the worst things so I can focus mostly on the best things.  The worst thing is living apart from Will, which not only means I'm lonely almost half the time, but also means we have to adjust to living alone, and then we have to adjust to living together.  We are both first born, ambitious & strong willed, so the entire compromise that is a relationship is annoying to keep repatching twice a month.  The second most annoying thing is that in May of 2011 my department got moved into open plan office "temporarily" for 2 years.  I've found it completely impossible to concentrate (not one of my stronger points anyway).  My work has always been a principle feature of my life and my self image, and honestly it's always been a pleasure.  Even when I was just programming for the financial industry.  I love the creative process over almost any other thing.  So losing the capacity to do that, the quiet place where I can be lost with my thoughts and where I can actually build something worth making has been unbelievably disruptive.  Weirdly though I was completely focussed on making the situation work – I still have a very American / Protestant work ethic thing going about how important a job is and how much you owe the organisation that employs you and the people that compose it.  I now have another narrative about the value of altruism in creating a bigger pie (here, a better department and university) rather than competing with the people who you share the biggest stake with.  But whatever the narrative, the outcome was the same and it took a very long time to give up on the idea that there might be some way to be adequately productive in open plan – even when the 2 years were turned into 3.5 by the University.

But finally one day – to be honest, after I got in a fight with my head of department right in the middle of the open plan about the noise levels  – we decided there was no way around it and we just had to get another flat.  And this is one of the best things about this year, we have a beautiful new flat in Bath now.  Well, "new" to us, it's Georgian again.  All the rooms have fantastic views of various nooks of Georgian Bath – even (a bit disturbingly) the master bathroom.  It's the first kitchen I've had that's actually sunny, which makes me regret having moved all my baking stuff and china to Mannheim, where the kitchen also has a window but generally isn't so large.  We've already had several parties and have invited some people over for dinner over the holidays – something we couldn't really do in the last flat because of the neighbours who inserted themselves whenever anything interesting was going on.  The flat in Mannheim is also improving in that we now have a nice, large couch & a dining room table, which is all I really want from a flat (well, and a kitchen & a bedroom, but we had those.  And bookshelves, and quiet... OK, anyway!)

Now that I'm largely resigned to working at home it is absolutely fantastic to be able to concentrate and create again.  I have always disliked it when academics worked from home, because the whole point of a university is to be universal – to have access to academic expertise across the spectrum of human concerns, to have chance meetings with all kinds of people, to see the libraries of your colleagues (and your professors / academic advisers) and to be inspired by their interests.  But Will says I have not become the kind of academic who doesn't go in, only the type that doesn't go in when they don't have an office, which is hopefully a very transitory thing, and in the meantime hopefully I will get a lot of writing done.  At any rate, it is a real pleasure to live somewhere so beautiful and I think for the first time in my life I am keeping house fairly neatly.

The other great thing right now is that we are both extremely happy with our jobs, other than the office thing and the lack of being together.  Will is being treated very well in Mannheim and is being super productive.  He teaches a postgraduate seminar although he doesn't have to (on causality), and we go out sometimes with his seminar students after the lecture – they are very bright and engaged.  We have also started meeting some of his colleagues as we travel around the cities in the neighbourhood.  There's no way around that Mannheim is ugly, and Heidelberg is too precious somehow, but it turns out there are many other towns in the region with amazing art and so forth & many of his colleagues live in these & commute.  We particularly have enjoyed Karlsruhe & Stuttgart but we also spent a holiday up on some of the weird wine villages along the Rhine, ultimately preferring the less glamorous but more real Wiesbaden.  In Bath, at some point (I guess it was this year, but maybe last) my department reformed it's research committee (much needed!)  It now is just six people, four of us representing the four research groups (all Readers), one (young) professor chairing, and one full-time technology transfer guy.  I also got elected to the Senate some time last year.  So I'm getting a better sense of how things work and actually helping make what seems to be a positive difference.  My research group (currently called Intelligent Systems) is actually very small, and it's weird to be a "research team leader" for friends who were hired before I was, but I'm getting the hang of this kind of thing.

The coolest thing though is that I've got I think eight or nine PhD students turning up to weekly supervision meetings.  Only six of them are really "mine" (as in I'm their first supervisor), but the momentum of having a lot of people interested in related research really accelerates progress in the group. They are about 1/3 interested in Systems AI (like my PhD – how to make it easier to build AI), and 2/3 interested in modelling natural intelligence, particularly understanding culture and social behaviour.  My own research has swung primarily to understanding human cultural differences in economic behaviour. This was originally due to being approached by a funding agency, but now I'm really interested in this, and particularly excited because I think it is not only fascinating but also a truly useful thing to understand. Not that I think all academics should be directly useful – anything but, and I'm very happy that we may be able to get back to working on non-human primate research if a few things in the works come through.  But it's nevertheless amazing to see the same academic processes being applied to major problems our society faces.  I attended an economics meeting in Zurich this summer and there was a panel that included the man in charge of risk for the euro, and a nobel prize winning economist (and many other smart people) arguing about systemic risk and networked banking.  Mostly I was learning since it was my first ever economics meeting, but I still had speakers thank me for the questions I asked after their talks and some talk to me about a poster presentation we had there.  This is why it's wrong for academia to be focussed entirely on applications – what I brought that the others didn't know was a greater knowledge of the biology literature, which I acquired studying something "inconsequential" economically (though a major part of human identity: evolution of language and communication).

As usual I also have awesome undergraduate dissertation students too – Bath is great for that.  In fact, we've been winning awards & accolades for our teaching, so many so that we can't realistically do much better in the future.  We came in first in the country in "student satisfaction" (not that anyone's sure what that means!) and we were ranked after only Oxford & Cambridge for best university in the country for undergraduate education.  One of the great things about this is now the university executive is focusing on similarly increase our reputation for our research (our teaching & research were both already good before, we're just a relatively new university) so there are some exciting hires and initiatives going on.  With the end of teaching a couple weeks ago I've been able to get to know better some of the new people and it's all very exciting.

Der Drachen, Karlsruhe July or August 2012, trying mostly in vain to figure out how to take iPhone pictures together.
I hope you all have had a good year, or number of years – since whenever we were last in touch.  And I hope the new year will bring us together.


Tom Bryson said…
A great update of the last 20 years of our. We have parallel paths to satisfaction.
CJ said…
Nice update. Happy Holidays. Merry Xmas. Happy New Year. Thanks. best regards, -chris
CJ said…
The world of work is changing fast. Now, every person I work with is in a different location from me. Also, every meeting is conducted via telephone, chat, and/or screen sharing.

In the past, I have participated in work teams located in Stockholm/Chicago, India/New York/Chicago, and Johannesburg/Chicago, this involves working outside of normal Chicago hours. When things click, you can get two days of work out of 24 hours. When they don't click, cycles get to be quite long. This also involved regular travel.

Your collaborators can be anywhere and so can you. -chris