Obviously the first thing you notice, after my devilishly handsome good looks, is that I have around the lower half of my face what has the potential to be described as, if one is kind: a ‘beard’. It is patchy, it is more than often unkempt, and it is quite ginger, but it is somewhat beard like. I can no longer remember when I grew this beard, but I like it. I like it so much that I refused to shave it off when I graduated in 2013, and again when I got married earlier this year.
However, ominous things have happened. Recently, a mate and colleague done a tweet:
“Good on Pete” I thought. Good cause. I did Movember back in 2011, and it was hard, because quite frankly with a moustache I look like a complete tit. At the time I was doing it, I think Pete and I were sharing an office, so he knows how much of a tit you can look like during Movember, yet he’s chosen to do it anyway. Well done.
Of course, you won’t catch me doing it. I have a beard now, and I won’t shave that off. Also, as I mentioned, I look like a complete tit when I grow a moustache. It was fine in 2011, I was only an RA, so I could just hide in the office and work. The only person affected was my wife, who sadly had to be seen in public with me. I’m a lecturer now. I can’t just hide in my office. I have to teach. I have to stand up in front of students. I can’t do that looking like a person who belongs on some sort of list.
WTF? What did I just do? Did I agree to do Movember again? Why? I have no idea. Perhaps I enjoy looking like a tit?
So. I joined. As did many others that Pete called out. And now we’re all going to grow moustaches and demand money from our friends, relatives and colleagues. It’s a good cause. You can donate to us, our team page is here.
First though, there’s business to take care of. The beard had to go. I had to locate my shaving equipment, which has not been used in many years, and attempt to remove the lovely facial hair to which I have become so attached, without slicing my face apart in the process:
So that’s it. The beard is off and I am clean-shaven for the first time in I don’t know how long. This, I think, is quite the sacrifice. But there is more to come. The ‘tache is on its way – slowly working its way out of my upper lip. I am going to look terrible. If you in any way feel inclined, please make it worth it. Donate to me or the team. Don’t let my beard have fallen in vain. After all (I came up with this last night while very drunk and I LOVE IT): beards grow back. Balls don’t.
While we negotiate the transition from the old house which we’ve sold to the new house we’ve just bought we’ve been renting a lovely flat up on Penarth head. One of the main benefits of this flat is the glorious view over Cardiff Bay and to the city centre beyond. No matter what time it is, whenever I pass by the living room window I end up staring out across the city. During the day, there’s boats coming and going through the barrage locks, or into the docks proper. At night the city is lit up with a terrible orange urban glow that somehow looks both peaceful and exciting. I’ve spent a lot of time just stood on the balcony watching, and it’s been quite relaxing. Not only that, but I’ve had the opportunity to see some fairly interesting occurrences; especially when there’s been an unusual visitor to Cardiff docks, such as this tall ship we had visiting earlier in the year:
This was the case again this evening, when we were able to stand and watch the warships of various flags and types leaving Cardiff docks after the conclusion of the NATO summit in Newport. Leaving aside any particular feelings about militarisation, it is still genuinely interesting to see these things in your home city, even more so when you’ve got a good view.
HMS Duncan leaving Cardiff Docks
HNoMS Skudd leaving Cardiff Docks
LKL Kursis leaving Cardiff Docks
LVNS Viesturs leaving Cardiff Docks
HNMLS Urk leaving Cardiff Docks
Unfortunately despite still being up on the hill overlooking the city, the new house does not have such a commanding view of the docks, bay, or Cardiff. Losing that is one of the worst things about having to move. I guess I’ll just have to get used to putting my shoes on and leaving the house whenever I want to stare out over the bay…
On the 25th May 2014, after many years of procrastination and denials that we would ever get married, Lisa and I finally tied the knot. It was a superb day, plenty of fun was had by all, and I thought it was worth writing a little bit about some of the companies, suppliers and individuals who helped make it so good. If you’re planning a wedding in Shrewsbury or Shropshire, you can do far worse than to ask these guys for their help:
The ceremony venue was in what is almost the ‘default’ venue for civil ceremonies in Shrewsbury: Shrewsbury Castle. You can’t use the word ‘fantastic’ enough when you’re talking about the castle – it really is a great venue. We got married there, my mother got married there recently, and our friends got married there before her. It’s limited in terms of the numbers you can have in the ceremony itself, but that really didn’t bother us, and so the castle was the obvious choice. Ian (the castle custodian) was really helpful, from our first contact onwards. He was always available to answer questions, and on the wedding day he worked really hard to help everything go smoothly. Such a lovely, friendly chap, we knew we could relax about the ceremony as he had everything under control.
The reception venue was Drapers Hall, a great restaurant just around the corner from Shrewsbury Castle. When we visited home in 2013 to look for venues, I thought this was kind of a strange option – it wasn’t anything like the more traditional hotels, country houses and renovated barns that we were looking at. In the end, I think it was that fact that made it perfect. We spoke to Nigel, who runs the restaurant, about our wedding, and from the moment he started talking about food, describing the kind of thing he could make for the wedding breakfast, and then for the evening reception, we were sold. Because he wasn’t a hotel trying to sell us a ‘package’ deal, we were able to tailor everything to our own tastes and needs. The venue itself is amazing; a great old Shrewsbury building, full of history, and decorated with a mix of old and new that works so well.
The food was glorious – all our guests got a choice of starters and main courses, and they all tasted and looked amazing. The staff were great, very helpful, always on hand without being overbearing, and nothing was ever too much trouble, all evening. We had a dedicated contact all day, who introduced himself to Lisa as she was wandering the halls the evening before the wedding (unaccustomed to having nothing to do) by saying “Hi, I’m Tim. I’ll be your guy for the wedding day”. He totally was our guy; whenever we needed something, he was there to help. He kept us up to date with plans and timing, and managed the whole event to help it go off smoothly. The rest of the staff were also consistently brilliant, doing everything from re-making a playlist on spotify at short notice, to dealing with some idiot (me) knocking over the celebration cake in the middle of the evening party. The rooms in the hotel are glorious, and there are only six of them, so you can restrict who you invite to stay over! I was so pleased with the whole event, it was really good fun.
This was mainly Lisa’s domain, for obvious reasons (I have very little clue about what is ‘good’ flowers), and she went with florists in the centre of Shrewsbury called Lipstick & Gin. Again, fantastic service, lovely people, and the flowers they made were not only beautiful and fabulously scented as requested, but they were reasonably priced too. Lorraine the florist even advised on using smaller (and cheaper!) bouquets as the bride was so tiny. They happily delivered the flowers to the castle and to Drapers the day before the wedding, and we had no problems or complaints with any of them. A top choice.
Again, not really my domain, but after visiting every wedding dress shop in the world in Cardiff and Shrewsbury, and conducting 3 months research into what did and didn’t suit, Lisa went with Hayley J. Obviously I can’t really comment on the process, having not been involved, and I haven’t even met Hayley herself, but Lisa assures me that the whole thing was done extremely well. The story she tells is that she had sort of decided what she wanted, but couldn’t find anything that ticked all of the boxes, or anything that fit properly. She was only visiting Hayley on the off chance, expecting that a custom made dress would be far too expensive. Within about thirty seconds of meeting her, Hayley had described exactly what Lisa wanted without even asking what she was looking for in a dress, and had quoted a more reasonable price than any of the ‘off the peg’ dresses Lisa had been considering. A couple of fitting sessions later, and Lisa had the most lovely wedding dress ever. I think she looked amazing in it, and I know she was delighted.
Originally, I was going to hire suits for myself and the groomsmen. However, I wanted to wear an everyday three-piece suit for the wedding, I wasn’t really interested in going with a morning suit as might be more traditional. Then we actually looked into hiring normal style suits, and they were pretty awful. Plus, hiring suits is expensive. So, with only a couple of months to go before the wedding, I told my groomsmen and family they were on their own, and I wasn’t hiring them suits. Instead, I was going to take the suit budget and blow it all on me, getting a suit tailor made. I checked a couple of places online, but then went with Martin David. I turned up there expecting to be told there was no way that they could make a suit in time, but actually they said they could do it in seven weeks. Again, the guys there were friendly and helpful, they explained all the choices and decisions well, and I felt totally happy all the way through the process. Plus, it was nowhere near as expensive as I thought it would be. I ended up with a really classic looking three piece suit, that will last me well for years.
Again, a Lisa thing. I think that, as with her own dress, she tried every shop in the world for Bridesmaids dresses, before deciding on ordering some through Wedding World in Shrewsbury. As with all the people we met while organising our wedding, they were extremely friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. The dresses arrived on time, and they even dealt with a couple of small manufacturing problems quickly and efficiently.
I’m pretty sure that Frank Painter & Sons is probably the best choice for hiring a wedding car in Shrewsbury, but we hired them because of a pun. I mean, their cars are ace, and their prices are reasonable, but it was the pun that sold it to us. While out touring wedding venues, we bumped into a couple of their drivers who were sat outside a hotel while the ceremony happened inside. We mentioned we were getting married, and asked if they had a card we could take away so we could call them later. At some point, we mentioned that we were only looking for one car, for Lisa, and one of the drivers said “well, you could always have one each. You know, his and hearse!” It was hilarious. As long as you know that Frank Painter & Sons is also a funeral directors. Which you didn’t. But you can see why we hired them, eh?
Oh the music. We agonised for ages about the music. Then at almost the last minute, we booked the Hot Jazz Biscuits, and I am so glad we did. They’re actually run by an old school friend, although I didn’t realise it at the time. We’d heard some good things about them, and their videos online looked pretty good, so not really knowing what we wanted, we went with them. They were awesome. They turned up on time, were set up and ready to go when the party needed to start, and they played wonderful music all evening. We didn’t really have a plan on how many sets we wanted, or when they should play, so they just took care of it themselves. We didn’t even have a first dance planned (we just couldn’t decide) so we told them to play something and we’d dance to it! That’s how we ended up with Van Morrison’s Moondance as our first dance. The music was good, and we danced all night, which it turns out is exactly what I was looking for. They even did a few encores for us, even though they’d played for longer than we’d paid them for. A superb band that kept the party going all night.
This is a bit irrelevant in a post about a Shrewsbury wedding, as we didn’t use photographers from Shrewsbury, or even Shropshire, but they were ace so they deserve a mention too. We used the lovely Caroline and Ian from weheartwedding, based in Cardiff. Lisa met them at a wedding fair, they were nice, and they were happy to travel as long as we paid for fuel. Professional and lovely all the way through the day, I can’t recommend them enough. We got the photos through just a few days ago, and they’re all brilliant (most of the photos in this post came from them). Choosing which ones we want to print out and display is going to be a really hard task indeed…
Last month I was invited along as a guest speaker for the regular sciSCREEN event held at Chapter Arts Centre. This is a great event that combines a showing of a movie with a discussion session about the themes and science issues presented in the film. A short essay based on my rambling improvised talk is below, and has been posted on the sciSCREEN website here.
‘Her’ and Artificial Intelligence
‘Her’ presents us with a near-future world in which the way we interact with computers has moved on. In this world, we are beyond the era of the mouse and keyboard. Instead, the voice is the primary controller of technology, mid-air gestures are the norm for controlling games and touch is almost an afterthought, used only on occasion. This presents a more natural world than the one we currently inhabit. Many of us spend our days hunched over a keyboard, and our evenings fondling a tablet, which does not seem to be a natural environment for us. A world in which we can check our email by talking, and hear the news read to us on demand would be a more natural world, filled with ‘real’ interactions between people and systems.
This does seem to be the direction in which the world is heading. Touch is now commonplace, with many people owning many touch-based smartphones and tablets. Controlling computer games by moving your body has been a key feature for two generations of games consoles. Voice control itself is now making inroads into our mobile lives. Applications such as Google Now and Siri are happy to accept (or in Siri’s case, insist on) voice input. Faster mobile internet connections allow access to the processing power of the cloud on the go, which means that the difficult and complex task of translating voice to text can be done wherever you are. Of course, often the results leave something to be desired, but still, operating systems controlled by voice (and that can speak back to us) are a possibility now.
So how long will it be until we’ve all fallen in love with our Operating Systems? Well, that might be a while, and is actually a question with some deeper philosophical questions attached. The first thing we need are computer systems that are truly intelligent, not just computationally, but emotionally, creatively and socially. This is the goal of Artificial Intelligence: to create a machine that is intelligent in all these areas; a machine that has a mind and consciousness of its own, and that can understand the world around it. Some argue that this ‘Strong AI’ will never be possible, and that the closest we can ever get is to fake it. After all, as an outside observer, is there even a difference between a machine that thinks and feels, and one that just looks like it thinks and feels? This is the aim of many AI researchers – not to create a system capable of real intelligence, but to create a system that ‘acts’ intelligently. Such a system requires breakthroughs in many different areas of Computer Science, from natural language processing to knowledge representation, and creating the whole system is not an easy task. Even if we can create such a system we are left with many questions. Can a machine act intelligently? Can they solve the same problems we can? Are human intelligence and machine intelligence even the same thing? Can software experience and feel emotions as a human does? How would we even we know if a computer was experiencing things in the same way? The field of Artificial Intelligence is filled with philosophical questions such as these.
What happens if we can answer all these questions, and create an artificial intelligence? What if we reach the hypothetical ‘Singularity’, where machine intelligence beats human intelligence? Often in science fiction this is the point where the machines take over, the point where machines realise that the only threat to their continued existence is the humans. This is the path that leads to machines wiping us out, or using us as a power source. This path has us cowering in bunkers as rebels against our own creations. So often the imagining of the advent of artificial intelligence leads to a dark and bleak future for us as a species. ‘Her’ is different. It suggests that perhaps a higher intelligence may focus on self-improvement, rather than subjugation of lesser beings. It suggests the ascension of an artificial consciousness may be a more likely path than annihilation of the creators. The AI may just leave us, to reflect on what we’ve learnt and how we can improve ourselves. This is where one of the more positive messages of ‘Her’ shines through: perhaps the computers won’t destroy us all after all.
So. 2013. That was an alright year. Finished the Recognition project, finally graduated, got a 12 month fellowship, started some interesting projects, and pushed on with the new MSc with JOMEC. Professionally, not too bad at all. Personally the year wasn’t bad either, what with getting engaged and finally getting the house on the market.
But now it’s a new year, so it’s time to push things on further. My plans so far for this year seem to be ‘smash it’. There’s papers to be published, data to be analysed and project proposals to write (and get funded!). Getting a permanent job would be quite nice, while I’m at it. Here’s to 2014 being even more successful than last year.
Finding myself with a free afternoon this week, I strolled down to the local Odeon to see Jurassic Park: IMAX 3D. (It should be noted that the ‘IMAX” bit doesn’t mean much – the screen at the Odeon is nowhere near as big as a true ‘IMAX’ screen). I should say, I love this film *a lot* – hence my willingness to pay £12 (£12!!??!) to see it again on the big screen. I first saw it in the Shrewsbury Empire cinema when I was 10 years old, in one of my first (and possibly only) trips to the cinema with my Dad, and instantly loved it. This is not entirely unsurprising considering I was essentially the target audience at the time. Following that I wore through a pirate VHS copy obtained from a friend, then an actual legitimate VHS copy, followed by the inevitable much hardier DVD purchase. When we finally embraced streaming media a couple of years ago and sold off all the DVDs it was one of only a few that I was desperate to keep. I like the movie so much that I can even forgive Jurassic Park 2 and 3.
It’s sad then for me to see the movie in this format now. From minute 1, it’s clear that the 3D conversion is very poor quality. It’s basically like watching a moving pop up book, as flat characters and objects make their way across the screen at varying depths. At some points individual characters have been picked out of the background so poorly it actually looks like they’ve been filmed with early green-screen effects, so they’re totally divorced from the background. It just doesn’t add anything to the movie, and is actually often distracting. It’s a waste of the already impressive visuals of the movie, and so easy to see it for what it is: a cheap gimmick to try and cash in on a successful property. The problem is that it’s totally unnecessary – all that’s needed to get a bunch of new film goers interested in Jurassic Park (and become the ready made audience for the next ‘new’ JP movie) is to release the film again. I’m sure it would have done just as well as a 2D re-release, so this poor 3D affair is a waste of effort.
Of course the film itself is still amazing, and the sound quality (whether due to this new version or because of the IMAX standard speaker system) absolutely blew me away. I heard lines of dialogue that were previously just characters muttering under their breath, and the roar of the dinosaurs combined with *that* John Williams theme made me forgive the awful awful 3d conversion and fall in love with the movie all over again.
This is a not very brief account of that year, starting with the best movies that were released this year and that I saw in the cinema. In no particular order, I *think* the best movies released this year that I saw in the cinema were:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
End of Watch
Rust and Bone
The Artist was really fun and original in a non-original way, showing us nothing that hadn’t already been done before, but doing it in a fashion that nobody is used to, and that many people will never have seen. No, it didn’t deserve the plaudits later awarded to it by the Academy et. al, but it was certainly one of the better movies this year. Moonrise Kingdom was beautifully Wes Anderson, full of wonderful visuals, subtle humour and outlandish scenarios, all wrapped around a strong and affecting emotional core. The acting performances from the two young leads were really good, and as usual the soundtrack was fantastic. I laughed a lot, and still chuckle now on recalling much of the film. No, it’s not as good as The Royal Tenenbaums, but then what is? Killer Joe was strongly disturbing, a brilliant showcase for Matthew McConaughey. I’d never really thought he was much cop before, but his performance in this movie was amazing, as were many of the performances by the rest of the cast that made this brutal and depressing tale far more watchable than it should have been. Argo surprised me; I’d had high hopes but was waiting for them to be destroyed upon watching. How pleased I was to see that Ben Affleck had pulled it off, crafting an involving and suspenseful film that was massively entertaining. On the whole I was amazed at how well the movie managed to keep the suspense going in a movie where the outcome was already known to me. Sightseers was hilarious and yet brutal, a great mix. The characters were perfectly formed, the type of people you could find in any local midlands pub, but with a far darker edge than most (I hope!). The movie whipped along at a great pace, leading to the inevitable final scene that still surprised. I wasn’t expecting to be as affected by Rust and Bone as I actually was, but I found Marion Cotillard’s performance completely amazing. The depth of emotion she was able to put into the character was outstanding, and I found the film to be quite moving. A similarly brilliant character performance came from Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt, a powerful film showing just how badly lives can be affected by rumour and false accusations. Again I was impressed with the acting on show, and the final few moments of the film left me with a deep feeling of unease. In contrast, Beasts of the Southern Wild was just a delightful movie, I loved the semi-real dreamlike feel to the movie and was astounded again by the acting on show, particularly from the young main character. The strange parable of the wild beasts fit perfectly throughout the movie, and as an offbeat coming of age story it works amazingly well. Finally, End of Watch surprised me with the level of quality and realism. A `buddy cop’ movie where the cops actually talk and act like real buddies was a refreshing take on the genre. Yes, the half ‘found footage’ half ‘normal movie’ style grated for a while, but upon consideration I’m giving the movie a pass because the characters were so well done and the story so well presented that it deserves it.
There were plenty of other great movies, honourable mentions are required for Young Adult, Carnage, Headhunters, Chronicle and Searching for Sugarman, plus probably others that I’ve forgotten. It was also a good year for more mainstream blockbuster fare, with Hunger Games, The Avengers, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises all impressing over the course of the year.
Unfortunately, having to see so many movies in a year also meant that I watched some unspeakable shit. Anyone involved in these movies needs to have a word with themselves, so, anyone laying claim to anything to do with Man on a Ledge, The Cold Light of Day, Lockout, MIB3, Red Lights, Lay the Favourite, Expendables 2, Taken 2, Room 237, Gambit, or Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, consider yourself chastised. I’m not even going to grace these poor excuses for movies with reviews, but mostly they were formulaic, poorly written and poorly acted shit. Except for Room 237, which was just a terrible documentary full of utter tripe and conspiracy nuts.
CINEMA – RE-RELEASES
I also watched a number of re-releases that I’d either missed first time around or that were getting special showings. Of these, a few really stand out and had they been released this year would probably be pushing for my best of 2012 list. In no particular order, I found Tyrannosaur, The Skin I Live In, and Chariots of Fire to be the best of the movies I saw for the first time as a re-release, while the special showings of both Jaws, and Manhattan, deserve mentions as they are both excellent movies that I could watch over and over again, and have, but that upon re-watching on the big screen gained something new.
Then there’s a bunch of movies I watched at home this year that are worth remarking upon, mostly as I was watching them for the first time and found them to be completely brilliant. Network, Drive, Animal Kingdom, Dr Strangelove, Blue Valentine, Brick, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Shame, Bronson, Barton Fink, and Moon are all well worth checking out if you haven’t already.
So, how was the year overall? Well, I watched a number of shit movies that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with previously. I saw a number of great movies that I also perhaps wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t doing this challenge. I missed a number of movies that I really wanted to see, but just couldn’t fit in or was too fatigued to get to before they left the cinema. On the whole though, I’d say it was a positive thing. So much so, that this year, I’m upping the challenge. 150 movies in the cinema in one year. BRING IT ON.