elliot's blog

The Pick Up Artist

Just chanced upon this hilarious programme on TMF, The Pick Up Artist. The basic premise is that 8 geeks compete to become "master" pick-up artists (the word "master" gets bandied about a lot), guided by world-famous pick up artist, Mystery. Yes, that's his name; and he wears a big Jamiroquoi style pimp hat, has a tiny beard, and soft-metal hair. Mystery teaches his techniques (he's written books on them), then judges the performance of his students in real-life pick up scenarios. He sits and watches through hidden cameras as the geeks chat up girls, judging their work with his ex-students and now "wing men", J-Dog and Matador. My favourite parts were where they were watching one of them talking to a girl, and they said something like "He's losing it - he's getting close to the 'Let's just be friends' zone", like there was some science behind it all.

The students then go into elimination, at which point they blub like girls. Mystery hands out medallions to the contestants who'll progress to the next round, accompanied by phrases like "This isn't just about picking up girls; it's about building a life. You deserve it" (as he hands the medallion over).

Watch the trailer to get a taste of the hilarity:

Story understanding: an approach whose time has come?

During my Ph.D. research, the AI community was pretty much obsessed with neural networks, genetic algorithms, and other biologically-inspired, emergent approaches to intelligence. I, on the other hand, was pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum: I was (and am) interested in that awkward place where psychology and AI meet, cognitive science; and in approaches to AI which concentrate at the symbolic level. I've written previously about how I view the differences between the low-level approaches and the high-level symbolic approaches: for me, a symbolic approach helped me explain what was going on during understanding, as I could more easily form a "narrative" of how the understanding was reached. The same could be done using those low-level approaches, but without the abstraction, I think it would be pretty complex.

Anyway, I was therefore pleased to see an inkling that maybe story understanding as a discipline is finding applications in interface design. Specifically, that there is a conference workshop dedicated to it happening next year: Common Sense and Intelligent User Interfaces 2009: Story Understanding and Generation for Context-Aware Interface Design.

Perhaps I should submit a paper? After all, the work I was doing on coherence of inference during language understanding has an application here. For example, a user keeps searching Google for "holiday Devon", and clicking through to websites about cottages for rent, B & Bs, hotels, tourist destinations in the area. You might want to design a butler application which sits in their browser, watches the interface and their searches, and tries to help them find what they're after.

One way to help would be to infer what they might be trying to do, based on what they've done already: for example, a valid inference might be that they're trying to book a holiday in Devon; from that, you could infer that they might want to hire a car, might be looking for a flight (depending on where they live), they might want to know about good restaurants in the area, buy travel accessories, etc.. At the same time, there are potentially a lot of valid but less useful inferences: they want a holiday (not just in Devon), they are a travel agent who lives in Devon, they know someone on holiday in Devon, etc.. Inferences which are probably logically valid (depending on the knowledge base), but to a human, potentially wasteful or even unwarranted. How does a system know when to stop making inferences and how to prioritise them? That was basically what I was trying to address in my thesis. I'm just happy to see these kinds of issues surfacing as more AI creeps into applications.

Stop being your own worst enemy: prevent yourself accessing work email from home

I am pretty bad at dipping into my work email when I should be relaxing at home. (I do work from home, but if I don't have my work computer at home, I shouldn't be looking at work email.) So I decided to take some steps to stop my bad habits.

The first is easy and works cross-platform: I installed LeechBlock, a Firefox extension which you can configure to block you from certain sites on particular days/times, or if you access them for longer than a certain period. Now if I try to visit work webmail, LeechBlock blocks my access and prevents me from reaching the site. You can even tell it not to let you access its options during the block times, but as I was setting the block for the whole week, I thought I might regret it.

Second was a bit more technical and wouldn't necessarily work on Windows. But I added a firewall rule to my iptables configuration to prevent me accessing my work webmail domain altogether:

iptables -A OUTPUT -p tcp -s 0/0 --dport 443 -d -j DROP

(obviously, replace with the IP address of the domain you don't want to access).

Thirdly, I fixed my hosts file to point the offending domain at localhost, so if I try to go to it, I would just get my local web server instead. On Linux, just edit /etc/hosts and add a line like: offending.domain.com

Now, I can undo all this, but it's a pain in the arse to do so, and will hopefully remind me I shouldn't be accessing work email when I'm not working :) Any other suggestions? (I tried putting a content block in my firewall, but it only seemed to work with HTTP domains.)

Residents time again

One minute videos for songs from The Commercial Album DVD. Most of the videos are on YouTube, but these are my favourites.

Picnic Boy:

Perfect Love (perturbing):

Amber (funny):

Phantom (nicely atmospheric):

Not from the DVD, but on the Commercial Album. The guitar solo in this is great. Moisture:

Stephen Fry celebrates 25 years of GNU software

National treasure and all-round excellent guy Stephen Fry has recorded a video celebrating 25 years of GNU. Marvellous to see such a public figure supporting and explaining free software and open source. A good one for friends and relatives in need of explanations.

Colleen, Aphex Twin, Cabaret Voltaire, The Free French

Colleen is (as far as I know) a little known electronic/ambient artist, but her work is very subtle, delicate, plaintive. Just plain lovely. I think more people should know about it.

Quite a lot of her music videos are on Youtube, via her record label's site.

This one is a fan-made video, but for me it perfectly captures the spirit of the song:

In case it's never crossed your consciousness, here's the rather excellent, grotesque and hilarious Aphex Twin video for Window Licker:

Nice to see this Cabaret Voltaire video again (recorded in 1979):

These still sound great to me (more Cabaret Voltaire) - No Escape:

Seconds Too Late:

I also keep meaning to mention The Free French, who have a website where you can buy their music. Do. It is superlative intelligent (slightly reedy and eccentric, but in a good way) pop. I've been listening to it pretty much constantly all year. I think my favourite album is It's Not Me, It's You, which is glorious, and has some of the best lyrics of any pop album, ever (e.g. Ghost Writer - which is available as a free download from their site - download it!).

Spill Twins

Set up another Last.fm page for my other music project, Spill Twins. This is other stuff I've written over the last 15 years or so (since I got a PC). I wrote some stuff prior to that, but it's all on tape and I haven't transferred it yet. All free mp3 downloads, if you like 'em.

Good online record shops

I like Amazon - who doesn't - but sometimes they don't have what I want, or they have it at some extortionate price. I also like to support smaller specialist music retailers, so thought I'd mention a few which have great catalogues, especially if you like electronic music:

  • Boomkat - I've mentioned them before, but it's worth repeating. I particularly like the fact that you can get full track previews and they stock a lot of DRM-free mp3 downloads.
  • Norman Records - an indie record shop in Leeds (Chloe!), which has a good online shop, clean, quick and easy. Just put in my first order there, so we'll see how it goes.
  • Bleep - the original DRM-free download site for Warp records. They stock a lot of stuff on other labels now, too; not just electronica.
  • Detroit Digital Vinyl - just downloads, and mainly Detroit house and related, but good if you're after old Underground Resistance tracks.

Lost tapes by Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire was one of the earliest electronic pioneers, working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop through the 60s. She was a major contributor to the Dr. Who theme music, and produced some amazing, atmospheric, avant garde music, years ahead of its time. Also, importantly, born in Coventry, in the West Midlands.

Pretty exciting for me, then, to see that David Butler of Manchester University's School of Arts, Histories and Cultures has recently revealed some of her previously-unheard tapes. Some of the snippets can be heard on the BBC website. Particularly remarkable is a piece of what can only be described as dance music, from the late 1960s, which is around 20 years ahead of its time.

If you're interested in more of her work, you can download some of her pieces here. You can also get an excellent compendium of BBC Radiophonic Workshop music which contains about half a dozen of her pieces. An album of her work, Electrosonics is available, but sold out within hours of release (I didn't manage to get a copy, though I tried). Also released this week is an album by John Baker, another Radiophonic Workshop luminary: I've just ordered it.

Here's a video of Delia, set to some music by The White Noise (of which she was a member):

I love Sparks

This is truly marvellous:

Sparks at the height of their powers, with one of my favourite tracks from their best album (in my opinion), Indiscreet.

The shorts! The peculiar hat! The sidewards glances! The moustache! The camp dancing! The lyrics!

Get in the swing, pal
Get in the swing
With everybody and everything

My friends are here
Mind if you go out and not come back again
Well, thanks a lot
Hooray, hooray
The night is younger than the girl who's got the touch
But not by much

Well, I ain't no Freud, I'm from L.A.
But I know certain things
That they also serve who sit and wait
They're cheaper than painting
And don't need explaining


When Salmon spawn
A ton of water blocks their motion,
Spoils their game
But on they go
Thrashing 'til their mission is fulfilled or else
Oh, but they have their friends
And have a warm bed waiting
Just like I do with you
I'm happy, so happy, I'm happy, oh happy


All for one, one for all


Hello down there
This is your creator with a questionaire
Hello up there
I don't have the time to fill out questionaires 

I will always love Sparks, for one thing in particular: helping me survive a particularly gruelling, embarassing, disappointing weekend. When I was about 15, I went to trials for the Lincolnshire under-16 rugby squad. I remember distinctly that my mum got me some jeans to wear, which were basically flares; I knew I'd be spending the weekend away from home with other boys my age, and was terrified of them seeing me naked, taking the mickey out of my flares, taunting me for other reasons etc. (I was quite shy).

The morning I set off from home, probably with mum, I heard This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us on the radio. The tune was so infectious, the lyrics so baffling and brilliant, that even though I only heard it once, I was repeating the chorus to myself all weekend. It gave me a moment of space to retreat into, a glamorous fantasy moment I could hang on to amid the painful, eyes-down fear of that weekend:

By the way, I didn't make the team (the disappointment because a stud in one of my boots fell out and I got horrendous blisters which hampered my performance on day 2), I spent the weekend feeling embarassed but wasn't taunted, but did sub. a couple of times for the Lincolnshire rugby team.

Once I got home, I discovered my dad had copies of Indiscreet, Propaganda and Kimono My House, all absolute classic albums. I used to surreptitiously borrow the tapes and listen to them on my Walkman, practically all the time. People are put off by the high singing, I think; but I think that's part of the histrionic joy of their work, and once you listen to the lyrics, you realise they are brilliant song-writers with a unique world view. Sparks have been cruelly underrated for years, but recently they've been namechecked by all sorts of music industry luminaries. Glad to say I was there twenty years ago. But it's still rare to find anyone who'll admit to liking them (apart from my friend Adrian). I'm coming out of the closet right now, in the hope this will encourage others to dig out their 70s albums (I have to admit I am not that interested in the albums they released after 1979).

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