hannah dee

Travels on the bike

Last weekend I went out on the bike to check out some of the countryside around Grenoble. Grenoble’s got two big rivers – the Drac and the Isère – and on Saturday I went up the Drac for a while (only getting lost three times).

To start with I followed the cycle path from by the Intermarché at Seyssins, which runs along the banks of the river and then ends up in a retail park (Comboire, a big park of shed like shops, coincidentally where I bought my bike from). This path is really rather beautiful – river, mountains, no traffic…

Then there was a stretch of suburbia, with a range of cycle paths both marked, unmarked, and hidden… The cycle map seems to be usually right (if it says there’s a path, there is one somewhere), but the paths often change sides of the road without warning, or disappear down a parallel street for a few blocks. There wasn’t much traffic though so it didn’t matter. Next photo is the old bridge at Le Pont-de-Claix, a fine structure.

Further on I came across some ferocious wild animals.

And a bit later I stopped for a cold beer and some chipsters next to a field of hay, read Libération, and gazed at the Chartreuse mountains. Note my unfashionable pink bike in foreground.

Heading back by a different route, I did consider taking note of the signage and turning back … but decided to carry on and play the stupid foreigner card if anyone stopped me. Nobody did, and it was a great path through some nice shady woodland, and I didn’t see any chutes of pierres so I guess I made the right decision

Sunday was the turn of the Isère. It was a longer ride, but for some reason I didn’t take as many photos. Still got a bit lost though. The Isère is a slightly bigger river than the Drac (and the Drac is fairly bloody big).

In the farground of the next picture you can see another cyclist – we were going at about the same speed and he kept overtaking me and then I’d overtake him back. After about half an hour of this on the rough path (the one in the picture below) he stopped me and asked me where we were. I got out the map and showed him how we’d left the proper cycle path about 25 minutes ago but that I thought we’d pick it up again soon… at which point, he told me he’d been following me as he thought I knew where I was going. Ooops. He turned back. I was right. Ho ho ho.

Moats and so on

I’ve been having some fun reading about the French take on the expenses scandal. Libération ran a piece on Saturday (March 30) on whether the same sort of thing could happen in France, with the obligatory section on moats (les douves), duck houses (une ile à canards construite au milieu d’un étang) and that old favourite les films X of Jacqui Smith.

French MPs can claim for obvious stuff like photocopying, taxis, restaurant bills, website costs (which are high if you run les podcasts), and a whole host of things associated with residences in constituencies and staying in Paris. And as in the UK, French MPs can employ their spouse or child as collaborateurs. French MPs can also claim for clothes; Jean-Jacques Urvoas (Finistère) is quoted as saying “…puisque comme député, je ne peux pas me permettre de me balader dans ma circonscription habillé en souillon” an approximate translation of which is “since I’m an MP, I can’t be permitted to wander round my constituency dressed in rags”!

On the general topic of expenses, Martine Billiard (green, Paris) says: “Ce n’est pas moral mais c’est légal!”. Which is a quotation that could have come from any number of UK MPs over the last few weeks. So it would seem that the answer is yes. It could happen in France, but maybe not at the same level (due to caps on the amount someone can claim), and there’s no real way of knowing. French MPs get an envelope of around 6,000 euros to spend on their expenses, and 9,000 euros a month to employ collaborateurs, and don’t have to justify expenditure. And there’s no French equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, so even if they did have to justify their expenditure, there would be no mechanism allowing sneaky journalists to ask to see the receipts.

So what about Europe1? It would seem that the situation there is different. Libération says that this scandal could have happened 10 years ago in Europe, but not now. For a start, to claim the daily expenses allowance you have to sign the register, so you have to turn up. And you can’t employ your spouse or a family member. According to Hélène Flautre (a green MEP) “le système est généreux, mais très stricte”.

There’s no UK equivalent of Libération, but I wish there were: it’s a tabloid format daily paper, seriously left wing, with in-depth articles on politics, society, art, culture… The language is way above my level but it seems to me that even the sports pages are written thoughtfully. It still takes me about half an hour to read a one page article, dictionary in hand, but I’m sure that will improve.

1The situation with local government in France seems to be more like that in national government than European, but the intricacies of French bureaucracy are such that I simply couldn’t understand that article in enough depth to write anything about it!!

Intermittent internet

Internet’s been a bit intermittent. I have two choices

  1. An internet caff in town, with good music, coffee, friendly staff, two and a half euros per hour, and q bloody french keyboqrd zhich i reqlly hqve to think auite hqrd zhen using.
  2. The library, which has free wifi, but blocks port 22 (so no access to ssh or filestore) and blocks Facebook and Twitter.

The library is where I’ve mostly been going though. The view is better.

The view from the library

Vive la différence!

Some things I’m going to find it hard to adapt to, #1 in a series of N:

  • The prevalence of bank holidays – and the way that people forget they’re happening. It’s all wonderfully laid back. (Actually, people tell me that I’ve turned up at the worst time for bank holidays and it’s much more normal the rest of the year, but hey, by Monday, I’ll have been here 2 weeks and everything will have been shut for 3 weekdays out of 10).
  • Cheques being effectively money: my new landlord is happy to accept a cheque for deposit & rent the day I move in. This is because bouncing a cheque is totally forbidden here, and you can get into all sorts of trouble (i.e., lose your bank account!) if you bounce one.
  • Everyone talking French, really fast.
  • The way things have totally random opening hours (I heard a tale of someone who’d joined a gym called “24 hour gym!” which opened at 10.30am and shut for lunch).
  • The speed (slow) and intricacy (high) of the bureacracy.
  • Being able to see the alps, most of the time. Like, wow.
  • Having to avoid lizards when cycling to the supermarket.
  • Being about 900 miles from Rog

Blog comments

In the month and a half since I opened this blog, I’ve had 258 spam comments and 5 real ones… so I’ve installed anti-spam measures (specifically Akismet). It’s caught 100 new spams since last week, and no real comments, so I’ve decided that life’s too short to check the spam queue. If you post a comment and it doesn’t appear within a day or so, it’s probably just that it got stuck in the spam queue so drop me an email and I’ll sort it out. You can mail me on blogstuff at hannahdee.eu.

The London Hopper Colloquium

I went to the London Hopper Colloquium on Tuesday. It’s a one-day event for women PhD students organised by QMUL & Women@CL, sponsored by IBM and with a lot of BCS support. I’m probably an unbiased reporter as I was an invited speaker this time (my first ever invited talk, whoo!) but I thought it’d be good to post about it so here goes.

There were 60-70 women there, mostly PhD students, doing research in computing. Many of these had entered the poster contest, which as a judge I found awesome. It was so hard to judge. There were posters on such a wide range of topics (Logic programming, networking, medical imaging for cancer, interface design, business systems, cognitive models of language, understanding equations, computational modelling of the vision of the honeybee, project management, the conflict between telecoms and internet industries, … ). The standard was brilliant. It was such a positive experience to see so many clever women doing great computing research, all at the cutting edge of their fields.

The speakers were me talking about behaviour modelling and CCTV, Nobuko Yoshida from Imperial talking about modelling interactions in computer networks, and Holly Cummins of IBM talking about garbage collection (in java – and nobody made any jokes about tidying up being women’s work). The panel session at the end of the day had some fascinating discussions on how to handle difficult questions when you’re giving a talk, and how to balance children with an academic career, and imposter syndrome (I bought that one up after the recent BCSWomen discussion).

And the lunch had some reeaally great cakes.

All round, a fine day out, (and I think my talk went OK! :-)

How I got into computing

Inspired by Wendy Tan White’s post about how she got into tech, this is my story:

At school I was keen on maths and science, and had a great maths teacher (Miss Lolley – truly inspirational). I was (and still am) also a big reader – both my parents have been English teachers at some point in their careers and they transmitted their love of literature early on and it’s stuck. William Gibson’s Neuromancer introduced me to the idea of artificial intelligence and I knew pretty much straight away that building clever systems was what I wanted to do.

And so when it came to university applications I went for courses in AI or cognitive science. At the interview days for AI courses I was the only woman, but at the interview for cognitive science (AI, psychology and philosophy) there were a few of us. I’d not done any computing at school other than word processing in my typing classes, I’d only ever programmed on the spectrum for fun, and the lads at these open days claimed they knew an awful lot. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it now but they did put me off. I also rather liked the idea of keeping up the psychology from my A-levels and studying a bit of philosophy: if you’re going to try and build artificial intelligence there’s a good argument that understanding natural intelligence can help. So I went for the cognitive science course.

After the BSc, I did a masters in philosophy concentrating on the philosophy of AI, and then some years later managed to land myself a PhD place doing computer vision. I think building programs that can see and interpret images and video is one of most interesting sub-fields of AI, and that’s what I do now. It’s not just programming and inventing (although that’s the core of it), you also have to write up your work & publish, and do talks, so there is a fair bit of variety.

Good things about my job:

  • I do interesting work – if it’s not new it’s not research!
  • I sometimes get to play with cool toys (cameras and stuff)
  • I work with a whole bunch of nice clever people.
  • I get to do a lot of travel (going to conferences, giving talks).
  • It’s truly international (in my lab there are about 35 people and more than 15 nationalities, and hey, I’m about to move to France myself).
  • It’s flexible – working from home is easy, hours are up to you within reason.

I’d like to be a lecturer, eventually, as I really enjoy teaching. And I’d like a permanent contract (working on 3 year postdoc contracts is OK but it’d be nice not to be always looking for the next one). But these things should both be within reach after the next postdoc, so it’s all good.

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium was last week. This is a one-day event for women students of computing, and it’s open to students from across the UK. I’ll do a full report for the BCS website shortly, but I wanted to get a few ideas down quickly and to put out a request to attendees for more photos!

It was an amazing day for me – it’s so great to see an event come together and for all the effort to pay off. The posters were fantastic and the enthusiasm of the student presenters was contagious – and after all is said and done it’s the students that make the day.

The speakers – Gillian, Cornelia, Jools, Eileen, and Karen – were all fantastic. The BCS President Alan Pollard came up to lend his support (and judge the poster contest) and I think his presence was also really appreciated; the students went away knowing that they were valued by the BCS and not just its women:-)

Other blogs on the day:

  • Christine Burns has produced a fantastic podcast on the day, as part of her “Just plain sense” equality and diversity podcast series. I’m blown away by how cool this is, and she managed to get the audio captured and edited and up within a day of the event. If you haven’t listened yet, do! Christine also captured a lot of video of speakers – you can find that linked from a page on her blog here.
  • Eileen Brown from Microsoft speaks about her day – as one of our prestigious speakers it’s great to see her blogging about the day as well as contributing
  • Kate Ho from Edinburgh Uni who was one of the many people who stayed at “Hotel Dee” (i.e. in my spare room:) before or after the event.

If you’ve got a blog or a set of photos or anything else on the day, please drop me an email so I can add your stuff to my list! And if you’ve got any decent photos, let me know, particularly if you don’t mind my using them on official publicity stuff.
Here are a few of my better snaps from the afternoon:
gillian arnold & one of the poster contest entrants
Maria Lena frm Bath Uni & Gemma Warnock from Aberdeen Uni discussing Gemma's prizewinning poster
Penny Broadhurst from Open Uni next to her prizewining poster
Beth Massey of Lincoln, Nuhzah Gooda Sahib from Queen Mary (winner), and Alan Pollard