Saturday, April 2, 2016

Through the Ardennes

DSC00002 (1300x862)If you’re visiting the eastern Ardennes, the handiest starting point is big and gritty Liège, an industrial sprawl from where it’s a short hop south to the historic resort of Spa and the picturesque town of Stavelot, with its marvellous carnival. You can use Spa or Stavelot as bases for hiking or canoeing into the surrounding countryside and to venture into the Hautes Fagnes, though the attractive little town of Malmédy.  --The Rough Guide to the Ardennes

A short drive across the border from Maastricht, the hilly green  region along the German border of Belgium has always been a draw for a day trip.  Although the site of many battles during the first and second world wars, today’s  roads wind through picturesque villages, along peaceful streams, and through quiet forests that are time and worlds apart.

It’s hard to envision tanks and infantry being able to navigate the rugged valleys and dense DSC09885 (1300x867)brush that covers most of the region.  While it provides cover, it must have been slow going for any campaign.  The abundant memorials suggest that progress got stuck, allowing battles to be fought, almost everywhere.

We started in Spa, predictably the home of one of the oldest mineral cold spring baths in Europe.  Casinos joined the baths in the eighteenth century, and the German Army used the town as it’s principal headquarters in World War I.  There’s a lovely local beer, Bobeline, for washing down ham and cheese croque whilst people-watching along the main boulevard.

Spa is relaxing.

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DSC09928 (1300x867)Stavelot is the historic center of the region, the home of an Abbye that dominated culture and politics for centuries.  The museum follows the evolution of the complex and the personalities who dominated it, some inspirational and some venal.  The ebb and flow of wealth,  repeatedly built up to the glory of God and then dissipated for the pleasures of  men, mirrors both personalities and power. 

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So little is left: I didn’t realize the significance of the low walls and high arches when we arrived, then had to take a long walk around the outline before we left.  It’s a remarkable construction.

Stavelot is thoughtful.

DSC09991 (1300x295) Stitch

Incongruously, beneath the Abbye is the F1 Racing Museum. It’s   a delightful collection of vintage cars and motorbikes, linked to the nearby Circuit de Spa Francorchamps.  My son was a big fan of F1 racing, he didn’t understand my neglect of it.  I made some amends today.

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We made the stop at Malmédy late in the day, more for completeness and hunger than anything.  A quick round of the church, then abundant frites, blond beer, and spiced meat-on-a-stick made the world right again.

Malmédy is comfort

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Building a better ‘Tay’

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Conversation will be our new User Interface. – Satya Nadella

My day is filled with goal-directed tasks.  They range from simple (scheduling, search) to complex (negotiation, persuasion).  The more complex the task, the more likely it is to involve a dialog, passing messages to exchange information, to signal agreement, to assign actions.

True Conversational dialogues are held between people, composed of exchanges involving language, non-verbal cues, emotional nuances, and storytelling asides.  When I turn to the computer, it is usually for simple tasks (search, compose, compute, connect) that are command/respond interactions.  I can’t imagine how those could be made easier by making them conversational.

Microsoft envisions creating conversational apps with three levels of capability to support three different kinds of user tasks.  Mediating people-to-people conversations invokes assistance in checking spelling, making connections, and translating languages.  A step up finds Digital Assistants that know your context, and are able to take on tasks like scheduling appointments, planning travel, discovering music, and finding nearby places to eat.  ‘bots add technical capabilities for machine learning and natural language understanding, and so are able to inform, advise, and anticipate user’s needs, enhanced versions of Cortana / Siri.  (Somehow, they are always depicted as a bit creepy…and too often as young female servants)

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Tay was intended to be one of the latter apps, but failed miserably when released into the wild to learn about people.  Set upon by trolls, the algorithm was taught a set of wild untruths, which it happily used without any contextual understanding or moral discrimination.


At this year’s Build conference, Microsoft released the libraries and APIs that allow anyone to have  a go at making a better version of ‘Tay’.  There are basic tools for recognizing speech and faces, libraries that sense emotions and others to identify faces and voices.  Some claim to Explore relationships among academic papers, journals, and authors  or Contextually extend knowledge of people, locations, and events

I confess to being especially intrigued by the Text Analytics API: Detect sentiment, key phrases, topics, and language from your text. Imagine imagegetting writing and pitching advice at that level…

If it were true.  I’ve been playing with the Linguistic Analysis tools, parsing structure from sentences.   it’s pretty good on straightforward text.

But, maliciously, throw it some good colloquialisms and its a much bigger challenge:

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Arguably, it’s assigned the tokens in some justifiable way, but I don’t know how you could make sense of the returned array.

I know I stagger through replying to ‘Don’t you want to go with me?’:  Yes, I don’t…not…want to go with you…there, maybe.

And this is, I think, where the project, grandly named Microsoft Cognitive Services, goes wrong.  There is nothing cognitive about deterministic logic, isolated from intuitive thought, consciousness, and free will.  Computers win chess games through deep search, they translate languages by statistical matching, they win at Go by neural network learning

These are marvelous technical advances, but they are pattern matching exercises within closed problem spaces with well-defined rules.  Release the same algorithms onto the road in an autonomous car, and it hits a bus when the situation exceeds it’s experiences.  It can learn, but it can’t intuit.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

‘kind of nice to be back

DSC09841 (1300x867)Its a working few days in Maastricht, time spent with design groups that are working for the business, and a lot of catch-up with lapsed pieces of everyday life that scatter in my absence.  The PT clucks about how stiff my ankle has become since we last met; my housekeeper stops by to discuss the mail, (my) legal and (her) insurance conundrums.  Our lives are never simple.

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Still, my bike has not been stolen and it’s nice to wake to the chimes ringing across the rooftops (even at 2 am).  Work seems almost complete on sinking the A2 below ground, but the sporting goods store next to me looks to have gone out of business.  I see change in glimpses, registering differences.

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Visitors to the ‘skade have left plants and flowers which are, surprisingly thriving: I leave thank-you notes ahead of their next visit.   We discover that most of the cans and jars are years past their expiration date, and lug it all to the recycle bins up the river.  I catch up with folks in the restaurant downstairs and the cafe/pub next door, who all seem to be doing well.  The bier van de maand is Bush 12%: headaches ensue.  I’ve been gone too long.

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We get out in the evenings for borrelje: bitterballen en drinken, talking as the sun sets, watching the fietsers drift by like luie vis. I’ve missed my things, the people, the pace, of Dutch life.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Musings on megafloods

DSC09818 (1300x867)‘up early and off to Dover this morning for a circle through Belgium, the Netherlands, and north England.  The weather started out wintry on the drive east, rainy and windy, ill omen for the ferry crossing.  But it opened to sunshine on approach to the refurbished Port entry, maybe a smooth sail?

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‘not to be, the wind and waves picked up as we left the harbour, and the boat pitched and rocked for the whole two hours to Dunkirk.  I took my favored spot at the fore-windows, a table near the cafe, and kept my eyes on the horizon.  unable to do any reading, the mind starts to wander.

What body of water are we crossing to France?  The English Channel?  Well, mostly.  The eastern limit of the channel lies along a straight line stretching from St. Margaret’s Bay, a couple of miles north of Dover Docks, to Wade Lighthouse, a couple of miles east of Calais.  Beyond lies the North Sea, with the ferry pretty closely tracing the boundary.

Ice SheetMore interesting, this line approximates a shallow ridge that is the remains of the land bridge that once connected Britain to France.  At the end of the last ice age, the ridge  rose above sea level, damming waters flowing from the Thames and Rhine rivers into the North Sea, forming a large lake behind the retreating ice sheets. 

A quarter million years ago, the lake topped, then breached, the chalk ridge.  A vast surge of water flowed south and west, scouring the seabed and creating the English Channel.  It may have lasted months, yet released a million cubic meters of water per second.

 channellake Megaflood Channel

These findings are actually from very recent research (Nature, 2007), a result of improved technology able to map the ocean floor with sufficient resolution (10 cm) to reveal the streamlines and erosion features left by the surge.

arkstormAre megafloods still a risk to coastal areas?   No, but yes.   Other recent research suggests that, although vast reservoirs from melting ice no longer exist, atmospheric rivers resulting from extreme weather conditions may have similar effects.  

Geologic studies suggest that massive floods, caused by rainfall alone, have occurred in California every 100-200 years (the last one, ominously, was in 1861).  The USGS published a study in 2010 modeling the results of an ARkStorm of this scale, its a fascinating read.

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‘Safe across the Channel and tucked into Dunkirk, we made a quick provisioning stop at the Auchen near the port, and motored on towards Maastricht.  It was well past dark on arrival, I retrieved the key from Bert and got things unloaded, the apartment opened, and unpacked to settle in.  It’s been too long, but (despite a weather eye on the Maas after all of the high-water stories) very nice to be back.