Friday, December 21, 2007


How can people not love every scrap of Stata? Before the first winter snow storm I took a meandering route from the lab to Kendall. As you look at Stata from the back you see a bright pile of spiral towers and craggy turrets, brushed steel, orange brick, enameled yellow. A sweep of steps lifts above the nearest entrance. I took the steps. They are half in shadow - bright dappled light through trees on the left cuts them in two. The shadow is punctuated by soft glows from lights set in the left wall. At the flight's crest you reach a hidden valley. Liquid light ripples on the path, reflected there by a central structure. Its curved hull is quilted with mirror-shined plates. The brick path winds between the lake-shine and a small cluster of conifers. Beyond the tarn the view opens onto a grassy area dotted with silver birch. The path tumbles over an unprotected precipice marking valley's end - it is a stepped semi-circular amphitheatre. Descending from the elevated space my footsteps echo on the curved walls. Looking back I see the varied peaks containing their secret tranquility - unknown to the hubbub inside the massif. I pass the main entrance - the path leads away through a copse in the foothills, a risen hillock with a heath-land mix of pine and birch. I take a little fantasy magic with me on my journey to the T.

Monday, October 1, 2007


First day in October and all is well. The temperature has finally dropped and the world looks so different. Everyone is cosily wrapped against the bright leaves, scuffed into their shins by the cool breeze. No more dresses, shorts or skirts, except for the brave few. Goose bumps and cocoa on the way to Halloween.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Eric and Caroline eagerly weaved their way through tables of dining couples to the dance floor. I followed, curious, apprehensive. They spilled into a vacant spot just a new song began, I paused at the precipice. Eric nodded to the music, took Caroline's hands. And moved. They flowed and swayed, hips tilting in time. Caroline waited for Eric's lead attentively, and then they span and whirled in comfortable coordination. I watched from the edge, a smile widening on my face. There is something immeasurably pleasing about seeing good friends out of context. Different skills, new graces, more places to attach hooks of affection.

My reverie was disturbed by another side-liner asking me to dance. "Oh, but I don't know how!" A gentle tug on my arm, a reassuring grimace, and I was out among the pool of revelers. I watched our feet - mine moving awkwardly, his stepping neatly in scuffed brown shoes. Finally I listened to the music and had a figuring epiphany. We whorled and eddied in the currents of dancers and gradually I could afford to look elsewhere. Over his shoulder I could see that Dave and Lea had joined us and I laughed happily. Lea seemed content and Dave was relaxed, smiling cheerfully as he confidently turned Lea without missing a step. I kept a little distance from my partner, not entirely sure where to rest my arm or how much contact I was okay with. He was very patient but did not utter a sound and looked very somber. At the end of the interminable song I leaned in and spoke a loud "Thankyou!" into his ear before taking my leave. I must have been a terrible disappointment to him but I'd had a wonderful time, not quite dancing with my friends.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dim Sum

With the invaluable assistance of Jade we ventured into Chinatown once more. Dim sum is fabulous. At this particular restaurant the vittles were pushed on carts weaving around the tables. Each vendor seemed keen to hand over his or her specific wares - we weren't sure if they got some kind of commission for emptying their carts and they certainly looked forlorn if we took nothing. Until Jade arrived with her friends Dave, being in the best position, waved the carts over and we pointed to various bamboo baskets. The selection grew and we struggled with our chopsticks to divide the spoils. Okay, so Lea didn't struggle what with being Indonesian and all, but I certainly did - chuckling at my inept handling of slippery dumplings.

When Jade finally arrived we were almost done and mostly confined ourselves to jasmine tea. My belly was comfortably full and I had taken the precaution of foregoing a belt in my jeans. The food was too tempting though and I couldn't resist extra helpings as a second wave of baskets arrived. I would groan, "My belly is so full!" and help myself to one more. I had already had a lotus-seed bun or two but then a big bowl of sweet tofu arrived. The 'ice-cream stomach' phenomenon began to work its magic. No matter how filling the main course is, there is always room for dessert. The tofu comes with a strong gingery syrup. "Mmmm..." I couldn't resist. The others gave up one by one leaving a great pile of tofu to be eaten. I took bowl after bowl, "Groo, I'm sooo full, but it's soooo good!" Lea laughed and laughed.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Scenic parcels

The bus pauses by the monument most mornings, it's a meeting of many roads where traffic bunches briefly as it flows into Boston proper. The grounds of the town hall opposite contains a number of broad maples. The light only falls on them for part of the day and so the leaves are not fully reddened yet. As a breeze lifts the branches, ripples of pale green wash through the burgeoning crimson. Hidden mint in secretive scarlet. When the light passes through these leaves they turn the colour of toffee apples, glossy bright sugar windows, red yellow green bronze.

A piece of tall rusting wire fence carries a climbing vine. It has crept over the top and some tendrils are venturing over onto a power line and then to the pavement below. One has dropped far below its companions to the height of my shoulder. It bounces gently, the tips have caught a broken tree branch before it could dash itself onto the ground. It seems a kindly thing to have done.

The leaves of the oak trees here are far larger than the British oak. They are longer and their lobes squarer. Many of these trees line the route I walk to the bus stop. I can reach up and touch the lower branches to greet them every day. One branch hangs just barely above my head. When I walk beneath it I briefly wear a leafy coronet, my daily inauguration - noone has told me what for.

Breakfast on the front veranda with marmite-on-toast and a cup of tea, the strong morning light fills the spaces in the forest across the road. The sun at my left makes bright hazy ladders to the ground in the misty air between the trees. The trunks are dark chocolate and the canopy a vibrant lime. In the clearing nearest to me I can just make out squirrels scurrying between golden pools and the quick flash of birds disappearing into cool mystery. When I get back from work I grab a cold beer and sit on the veranda to watch the light die. Now the beams enter the woodland directly. I realize there is an extra room in the forest, a smaller clearing beyond the first revealed by the heavy red sun. The tree trunks are painted bright pink and the leaves are dark. The gloaming sets in, turning the trees grey and the sky indigo. My bottle is empty.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Racy media

I have, of late, been reading Haruki Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' on the bus to work - a recommendation of Dave Nelson's. It started innocently enough but it soon became clear that rather than having just one obligatory sex scene this book has many spicy pages - erotic enough to raise the heart rate of the most lustless reader. I turned the leaves a little self-consciously, chuckling to myself that for a shy guy Dave was very keen to promulgate this piece of culture. For culture it is, a beautiful story with an engaging atmosphere and lovely descriptions of Japan. Lea, Eric, and I have all read it now though I suspect the others read it without a stranger sharing their seat.

After the first couple of saucy scenes inadvertantly experienced in public I decided I was probably safe and it made me smile, so I decided not to save it for reading only at home. The next such scene carried me all the way to the last bus stop and I had to get out and sit down on a bench to finish the chapter before walking the rest of the way to the apartment. It was the hot lesbian sex scene - now almost obligatory in most forms of entertainment it seems - except it was told in such a matter of fact way that it was more amusing than lubricious. Of course I did not hesitate to inform Dave that he was a very naughty man.

This morning I managed to make the lady next to me get up and move seats. It may have been coincidental but she was looking over my shoulder just as the line 'Three guys at once! They're going to tear her open!' came into view. As a measure of how these scenes are merely accents to a rich and skilful storyline, it was interesting to note the look on Eric's face when I told him of this morning's incident. "I don't remember that line being in there!" He then told us a tale of a book he and his classmates read in highschool (a Catholic school) where his edition had had a line about masturbation removed. Shocking censorship revealed only by frantic thumb-licking, page-riffling comparisons at recess.

This conversation was taking place just outside one of the main entrances to the Harvard Medical School Quad. Dave and I were sitting at a bench having just finished a burrito and coffee for dinner and Eric was just leaving to go home. The racy novel theme led to the mention of 'Lady Chatterly's Lover' - another curriculum favourite. I commented that I now only recalled the awfulness of the TV adaptation with Sean Bean as the earthy adulterer. Eric mused that it must only have been shown late at night on French television or some such, to which Dave and I disagreed. "The BBC tend to air these dramatisations at family friendly hours of the day - just look at 'Tipping the Velvet'."

To Eric's quizzical look there followed a description of the period lesbian tale including such scenes as the heroine posing as a boy soldier and giving oral pleasures to old men on the street to earn money - along with the immortal line "It's a sov for a dubbing, two for a suck, but I won't be buggered!", followed by the scene where - having been taken under the wing of a mature lover - she was shown naked, painted gold, wearing a golden dildo. The contortions of Eric's face were exceptional. "And with that, goodnight." Eric sputtered before continuing his journey home. As he receded with others leaving the Quad he proffered, "I'm off to think of golden women." To which I replied, loudly to cover the distance, "And Dildos!" Eric did not stop or turn, but nodded mutely as Dave shrank redly into his seat beside me.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Helium-filled balloons pat at my face enthusiastically as I sit in the back of Lea's car. We have just finished watching a film (Chinatown) at Eric's place and Dave, in the front seat ahead, will be the first drop-off. The rushing warm night air from Lea's open window separates us with loud silence and I become a distant observer. I can see them both smiling. Dave is in profile speaking to Lea who is watching the road, her shoulders shaking with laughter now and then. Dave glances at me to include me in the joke I couldn't hear and I grin, silver balloons batting my left ear. Clutching at one of innumerable soft toys that get scooped out of the way whenever Lea gives us a ride anywhere (which is often) , I feel happy and giddy and lucky and a part of something.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Public Transport III - vignettes

Continuing with the religious theme, there was another flavour of loon on the bus last night. He had a classic strange behaviour of speaking in a conversational tone and volume to persons who were clearly ignoring him. It's as if the association between speaking-style and interaction-type have only been partially learned. The style is correct but applied inappropriately - instead of being a true interaction he voices his thoughts about the person he is addressing even though they are not voluntarily engaged in the conversation. Perhaps he thinks this is what we are all doing when we speak directly to one another, just airing our thoughts about the other person. Perhaps, in a way, he's right. Anyway, when his accidental companion left and he had noone to talk 'to', he began to kiss the individual fibres of a tassle on his bag as if they were rosary beads. He repeated this a number of times before moving on crossing himself with very large motions - only just keeping within the space of the seats. He seemed kindly and innocent, which was nice.

This bus ride was coincidentally shared by someone I have seen before. A sweet, naive-looking young man with blond hair, blue eyes, and flushed, rosy cheeks. He is always dressed very soberly in a black suit and tie and holds a clip-board, giving him an overall air of earnest teen. His prominent name badge declares him to be 'Elder Anderson' of The Church of Latter Day Saints. Perhaps it was just the suit but I started to look for an earpiece and disturbances in the fabric of reality.

When I got off the bus and crossed the road it was clear that something had crashed into the traffic light controls. The walk/ don't walk post was tilted and loops of electrical cable spilled from its base. Rather than being put out by the damage, the main traffic lights flickered and throbbed - stuttering red with a thready pulse of amber both interspersed with an occasional bright green flare. Amazing how something so thoroughly inanimate could give such a strong impression of being in pain.

Another loon. His main characteristic was the usual social aberrance - talking to strangers as though they were listening. Nobody joined his conversation. Into the empty space around him, he thoughtfully commented, "Ahh, 1987." It sounded as though he had just found something he thought he had lost.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Aerial banner

Saturday was also very warm so I ate a late breakfast on the balcony overlooking the park. There was a race so there was a state police car diverting traffic just below me. I could hear aeroplanes overhead but it took a while for them to circle close enough to read the banners they were towing. One made me smile. I muttered quietly "I'm already here," and watched as the runners slowed and expanded according to their abilities.


Saturday was treating me with beguiling serenity but soon began to show it's true colours with the arrival of my first American evangelical cold-caller. A tall, jolly-looking chap with a clip-board and an arm full of propaganda, he shifted uneasily from foot to foot in his Saturday-best as if he was the harbinger of terrible news. Which of course he was. "Good morning!! Excuse me ma'am," and let's not forget I have padded down the stairs in my pyjamas and dressing gown, "I know you weren't expecting anyone," no kidding, "but I was wondering if you could spare a few moments to talk...". I peered suspiciously through the door and at those words felt my face start to screw up into that get-away-from-me-you-time-waster shape. Until I spied the title of the 'literature' he was carrying.

"Is that an 'Awake!' you have there?" I asked brightly. "...about faith in the community," he trailed off with a stunned pause, "why yes it is!" and he's all smiles now. "May I have a copy?" I ask. He hands one over and starts to explain it. "Yes, we have them in the UK," I absently interject - distracted by the faces of eeeevil on the front cover. He continues, "oh well they're just the same here, do you go to bible readings locally?" I smile and nod, "not exactly, no."

I made my excuses and retreated, noticing as I left that he was jotting down the apartment number. No doubt I can look forward to all sorts of fantastical, exclamation-mark-enriched Jehova's Witness leafleting from now on. I assume they were making a special effort because there was a 'Humanist' convention in Boston this weekend with Salman Rushdie in attendance. I settled back in to the apartment to read about the end of the world!, pollen - the dust of life!, dedication to Jehovah!, the road to eternal life!, and moral breakdown!, chuckling over a hot cup of Yorkshire tea.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Neural networks, both simulated in software and naturally neuronal (sorry this alliteration is horribly har- err... difficult to shake), are wicked cool. I want to attempt to apply the connectionist paradigm to a network made of real neurons. There are three significant hurdles:
  • 1) Getting the neurons to connect up where and how you want them to.
  • 2) Stimulating specific cells within the network you have built.
  • 3) Measuring the response of the network to stimuli you have provided.
If you can control a network of real cells then you have a bio-computer. Now, imagine this is possible in a microfluidic device.... then you can start to teach a mini-brain! Okay okay so this is pie-in-the-sky science, but the what-ifs keep this game exciting :D

Sunday, April 15, 2007

IF: Ad Verbum addendum

George Fifield suggested I look up Nick Montfort's interactive fiction work 'Ad Verbum'. The puzzles, both amusing and engaging, are all based on wordplay and the game pokes gentle fun at the text-adventure genre. Having played it through (not stinting on the hints I might add but still simply scoring 99/100) I am left with a pervasive penchant for abstruse alliteration.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I work at MIT one day a week both on microfluidics (with the Thorsen group) and, on my own time, cell modelling (with JackBackRack). MIT can seem much livelier than Harvard Medical School, but that's mostly due to the hordes of students churning down the 'infinite corridor' which connects many of the main buildings together.

I am becoming quite fond of the place for several reasons:
  • Everybody clearly tinkers with equipment to get the job done; surfaces are always covered in tools and technical detritus.
  • Departments are jumbled together in a very pleasing manner and smell of old schools (building 1 in particular). For example, as I passed a cabinet filled with 3D renderings of mathematical waveforms and a poster depicting reaction-diffusion models I could hear various musicians practising to my left. As I drew level with a skilful rendition of what sounded like Rachmaninov on a grand piano, I noticed that the door opposite was marked 'Scanning Electron Microscope room'. (Incidentally, the next door on the left housed a Dr Suresh for fans of Heroes.)
  • The Stata Center [sic] is the most wonderful place. It is the abode of the computer scientists and is composed of all things unexpected. The angles and curves disorient me but I don't mind, and its interior is brightly coloured in every way. The overall effect is one of infectious child-like enthusiasm and curiosity. The perfect environment.
Sean (the microfluidics lab manager) took me for a brief tour of some of the old interactive displays in the mechanical engineering department. They were mysterious and puzzling, reminding me strongly of the cabinetry in the Myst / Riven series of games (from whence Zork: Nemesis was spawned), as does the architecture of the Stata Center itself. I also recently met a curator of Musée Patamécanique and I think their exhibits might share a theme with those games. I will have to go and check it out!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Interactive Fiction (IF) : my timeline

I think my first gaming experience must have been the educational BBC Micro adventure "Granny's Garden", it certainly didn't feel at all educational and I remember it being so popular that access was restricted. At home, the Fothergill lads over the road had some kind of BBC/Acorn archimedes (I remember the owl logo) on which we were hooked by "Sphinx adventure". The younger Fothergill brother pronounced it 'Spinks' irrespective of the number of corrections attempted.

There were also IF books where you could make decisions (take the knife - turn to page 188, take the rope - turn to page 12) to create different outcomes. Yes, I cheated with those, couldn't bear to lose but wanted to know all the permutations too. Alongside this foray into IF came the tv sensation 'Knightmare' where a team of kids had to guide a blindfolded (actually it was the Helmet of Justice lol) comrade through a dungeons past puzzles and hazards. The whole thing was quite frightening at times mostly due to the chunks of flesh being ripped from the life force icon to the sound of a labouring heartbeat.

After that came a slew of more action-based gaming but my real favourites were the ones I could play at my Dad's house on his Atari ST, 'Uninvited' (which I never finished and I still have pangs of guilt when I remember how I used a can of hairspray to immobilise a spider but never found a use for the mummified mite) and, of course, Zork. Actually it was Return to Zork which is a graphical point-and-click, I didn't get hold of the rest of the anthology with older text-based adventures until much later, at university. One of my favourite pieces of science fiction (Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game") features an interactive educational fantasy game. I totally empathised with the main character's love of an immersive and responsive environment. University also introduced me to the internet and therefore MUDs. I found these a little less appealing because I couldn't be escapist when all these uncontrollable, real-life players kept coming over to clout me round the head for a measly number of experience points.

After I got my Masters I made an abortive attempt at a PhD in Natural Language Processing. Here I met Elliot Smith who was my show-the-newbie-around-the-scary -new-university 'mentor'. Since I had already been at Brum Uni for 5 years we got chatting about more fun things pretty quickly. Elliot is a sci-fi nut, writes his own, grows butterworts, and introduced me to memes. I think I recall some strange musical talents too. Elliot was the first person to convince me that you can be productive and creative outside of your 'day job' without it being just a hobbyist pipe-dream that never sees the light of day. I'm not sure how much of our conversations dealt with strictly 'interactive' fiction, but the subject brings him to mind along with an urge to say 'Ehhh' like The Fonz.

Finally, I was introduced to Emily Short's 'Galatea' by Ian Millington during my brief sojourn with Mindlathe. This particular work I have returned to again and again. The plot is a combination of science-fiction and Greek mythology. My favourite thing is the sensation of quiet space you get when you play it. If you just wait around the environment lets you breathe by not forcing the plot along but also doesn't freeze completely; giving you subtle, non-repetitive environmental cues like a moving curtain or the sound of Galatea breathing.

The point of this rather meandering walk through my past is that I have had a creeping interest in interactive games, books, and whatevers from smallness upwards. I only noticed because I had another one of those 'think about something then see it everywhere' moments yesterday. I was at the Axiom gallery looking at a piece by Jill Magid where she records meetings with a stranger in a diary. I was just thinking "the style of this really reminds me of Galatea" when it appears on the page in reference to the painting of Pygmalion (the sculptor of Galatea) and the lady herself in the Met. Now, I have no truck with coincidence being any more than that, coincidence. However the pervasive connectivity of the world around us sometimes absolutely astounds me.