mtbc: maze H (magenta-black)
I realized a little of why I do not make much progress on the projects I want to get on with on computers at home. I am comparing with my productivity at work but there I get to focus for a few hours at a time on a task. The kinds of projects I want to pursue at home take enough thought, and use rusty enough skills, that it takes me an hour's work just to properly get back into them and gain some momentum. By that time it is pretty much time for me to wrap up and come do something with my family, with whom I do want to get to spend time.

This is why I still manage to do jobs like posting entries to this journal: it is the kind of thing I can switch right into with little preparation and handle in a shorter span of time. Yesterday [personal profile] mst3kmoxie kindly handled the children's afternoon visit to Dundee which gave me time at home that mostly went into upgrading our OpenBSD machines to v6.1, a slightly fiddly process. I manage to keep on top of these maintenance tasks, I just don't get to make the additional time around job and family and sleep to really push forward on anything. I do need to do something because my present job is not secure and by this point is not really advancing my own career, though I am likely to soon be learning about Vert.x and at least my paid work helps scientists.

On reflection, there are a couple of solutions. I do not make the progress even with smaller-scale easier-to-start tasks that I should, even if I enjoy them, so there is something to address there; maybe I could better notice what it is that I am doing instead though that may often simply be feeling tired. I also waste time in being available to my family at times when none of them feel interactive: perhaps I need to actually plan family time a bit better and remind of my interruptibility at other times. Further, I might need to more firmly set aside a long solid chunk of some weekend day toward useful ends so that the getting-started time does not dominate.
mtbc: maze C (black-yellow)
In the School of Life Sciences where I work we produce systems like the Image Data Resource which is full of strange pretty pictures acquired from expensive microscopes and used to justify scientific conclusions. There is also some initial proof-of-principle code for reproducing analyses via the IDR Jupyter Hub. OMERO.figure is also rather neat: turn the raw image files acquired from the microscope into figures ready for Adobe Illustrator to put into your paper; information in the figures like timepoints, scalebars, etc. is derived from the metadata encoded by the microscope as it acquired the images.

Modern academic life is highly competitive and journals are far more keen to publish interesting new discoveries, however lucky, so there is great career pressure report the right kinds of findings. Further, many of them turn out to be difficult to impossible to reproduce. Even despite this, my impression is that the kind of research misconduct I have in mind is, at its core, well-intentioned: the results may be a little doctored, or an unusually significant subsample, or whatever, but the researcher does generally believe the hypothesis that they are trying to prove, they are just exaggerating the evidence for it.

I figure that our work stuff might be useful if it helps to encourage a culture of sharing all the raw data and the procedures by which it was analyzed. But, I wonder if this papers over a more fundamental problem: that the people generating the hypotheses are also those testing them. I am amused to be thinking of this as a conflict of interest.

I can see why it happens. The people who have the idea are probably the more enthusiastic about testing it. Maybe not many labs are used to working with those cell lines or protocols or whatever at all so it is not like any lab could just pick up the work. And, even if we had a system where the people who generate hypotheses are separate from those who test them, one can see that there is still scope for mutual back-scratching and the like. One can imagine the specifics of the experimental design would be something of a negotiation between the hypothesizer and the tester.

So, I am not saying that even this pipedream idea of having researchers' hypotheses tested by third parties is a good one even if it were workable. But, I do wonder if there is some related but realistic way in which scientific research could be restructured to make it more trustworthy.
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
When I was starting out in computing hardware and software was often a joy to behold. )

Coincident with the rise of Microsoft Windows I have seen software quality go down. Now it is entirely normal to run into bugs. It is also normal for software to frustrate me: it insists on doing something I don't want or I can't get it to do something it clearly ought to be able to. Mostly things went downhill … )

It isn't all bad. … there are some pleasing exceptions. )

It feels like most software developers now care about little more than getting things working well enough so that their employers can sell them comfortably. The developers wanting to use their mathematical gifts to create systems that are both solid and flexible are largely dwarfed or otherwise out-competed by the many who just want to deliver something that appears to work sufficiently well that everybody gets paid and management either do not appreciate or do not care about the difference.

Maybe the change is partly in the user community: they increasingly find poor quality acceptable. )

I don't have any answers, I think it's just how the world works. I would look at retreating to high-assurance systems but look at the Department of Defense's move away from Ada or Ericsson's from Erlang: I think the only refuges are in the past. I could be frustrated to know that modern computer systems are typically no longer built anywhere near as well as they could be but I instead find myself grateful to be able to recall a time when it was normal for them to be both useful and reliable.
mtbc: maze C (black-yellow)
For a few years I led technical hiring in a small business. Within reason I had the freedom to run that hiring largely as I wished. Seeing as Americans tend to have detailed college transcripts I typically wanted to see some coding examples and their transcripts for a first interview and by the seat of my pants I would let these and the applicant's answers to questions lead the course of the interview in a very personalized way. For different candidates I had correspondingly different concerns and often some latitude to tailor the position to them after hiring. For some applicants who seemed to be doing passably but without any dazzle I would sometimes extend the interview to give them a few more questions to see if they could manage a late jump above the bar. With one candidate, whom I became very glad to have hired, during their first interview they made a dumb mistake halfway through and seemed to fall apart afterward: I risked offering them a second interview in which they did fine.

Colleagues would tell me that I give tough interviews; they felt sorry for the candidates. This is partly because I wanted to know how far the applicant could go and how well they can still dance a little way out into new territory so I would typically ask enough to find if they knew a bit more or could guess intelligently. It was a good sign if they couldn't answer all of my questions confidently because it meant I was interested enough in them to find what the extent of their ability was. Further, I wanted to know that what was listed for them on paper was actually still somewhat also in their head: if they cram for an examination then forget the material then that is of no use to anybody.

This is not to say that I was perfect at hiring: one time I managed to hire somebody with A grades in a three-course undergraduate series in analog electronics. In later needing to construct some interface hardware for high-speed data acquisition I was alarmed to apparently be introducing them to the concept of an operational amplifier. I also managed to hire a software developer who was clever but unfortunately confidently thought themself to be cleverer than they were. Mostly I did well though.

Last week I was on an interview panel for a position at the university. It was interesting and odd to be working within a formal process imposed by those above me. Especially, each candidate is to receive the same interview, very much down to duration and questions. While it is not how I would run my own business, I can certainly understand the organization's desire to ensure fairness and as their employee I play by their rules. Still, it makes for new challenges: for example, noting what I would have liked to ask each of the diverse candidates then trying to generalize that to questions also useful or applicable with the others. So, we asked what we needed while indeed doing our best to interview the applicants identically. It was a very odd experience for somebody with my recruitment background but I think that it worked well enough.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
I have been quieter lately through feeling tired and irritable. I am usually at my desk by 8h or so and, in fasting, I don't take time for lunch, but I don't want to leave too weirdly early so I usually stay until 16h30 or so. Sometimes I stay later, for example on Tuesday I stayed beyond 17h because, as I was wrapping up, a series of three people came to ask me things. This is okay, I like to be helpful, but it did mean a longer workday.

Unfortunately, I awoke rather prematurely on Wednesday. I do not make much use at home of unexpected morning time because I am distracted by knowing that I have to leave the house so I just head to work unusually early. Over the afternoon I had a migraine, though not quite bad enough to prevent me from working, and on the way home I had a detour via the doctor's office which added maybe a half-hour to my trip, so that became a long day indeed. Yesterday I again awoke well before the alarm and started my workday correspondingly early.

An early workday makes sense for me. )

I have wondered if, though I do not eat at lunchtime, I could instead use the time well for some other personal task. I am not sure what that might be, though. Especially, I like to keep my own work separate from my paid work, on different computers, but I do not want to risk routinely bringing my own laptop into work. I do at least sometimes take a brief walk, as I did today to the mailbox.

Recently my work has been difficult. )

I have also been unusually busy at home. For example, last Saturday one of my children needed to be in Dundee all day and tomorrow they both need to be. So, that is basically a day of the weekend rather perturbed. I thus wonder if everything has added up to push me a little over a tipping point lately.

Feeling myself to be much inclined to utter screw this and let chips fall, I skipped exercising for a couple of days and have instead treated myself a little: for instance, after exercising yesterday I took a bath instead of a quick shower. Today I felt somewhat better. Not only did I sleep for longer but I also felt a little more enthusiastic. I did well in my exercising. Perhaps I am returning to a more tolerable state of mind but I will try not to push it too far.
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
My son soon turns sixteen and now he has been revising and taking examinations my thoughts have moved to summer work that he could do. I had it fairly easy: through my mother's professional contacts as a book-keeper I got basic clerical work and even some computer consulting for businesses quite early on: it was later when I was an undergraduate that my summer jobs had actually been advertised vacancies. I don't have commensurately useful contacts.

In some initial searching online, compromised somewhat by the awful search interfaces of many sites, I find it hard to find plausible opportunities. I know he's helpful, polite, learns technical detail well, and is numerate and computer-literate, so theoretically he should be sufficiently useful to somebody, especially as minimum wage for sixteen-year-olds is like just £4 or somesuch. We can get him to Perth or Dundee on a regular basis. However, I find it hard to identify vacancies that fit high school students looking for temporary work; it would be nice to not have to fall back to McDonald's or its ilk.

Maybe we actually have to go in and talk to people. Had I planned slightly better we could have stopped in at the Jobcentre Plus in Dundee's lovely Wellgate Shopping Centre this afternoon though perhaps an appointment is required. I wonder if we should have been looking into this matter weeks ago or if word of mouth is key. I should have him talk to his school careers people too: they already find students work experience placements. Our landlord back in Cambridge, England, knew pretty much all the local businesses: I am sure he would have been a great help.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
An online conversation earlier today reminded me of some work I had done ten to twenty years ago back when I was mostly working on government-funded research and development projects. It is now long enough ago that sometimes I forget how very much I enjoyed the challenge of solving various problems in science and engineering, inference and decision-making by devising software-based approaches. I turned out to be very good at it but haven't had to much do it for what must now be a decade or so. It is hard to get good applied research work without a doctorate and while needing enough income to support a family especially as my better work was also defense work that I cannot talk about especially outside the US. So, over the past decade I have done more regular software development: I am good at it but not as great as I am when faced with more need for creative solutions to technical problems.

Having been decidedly obese when I moved to Scotland I find it strange now to be in a position when on many nights I am positively trying to eat a bit more. I suppose that my diet may have had lasting effects on my appetite. For the past couple of days I could have easily eaten comfortably less than what I allowed myself when trying to lose weight. Last night after a perfectly satisfactory dinner I later decided to also have a heavily buttered piece of toast with a generous amount of Gouda, then a few mini creme eggs left over from Easter, but it is not like I was ravenous at the time, the challenge was more to think of something that seemed appealing. On the one hand, I do want to listen to my body about when it feels hungry or not, but I have still been losing a little weight on my maintenance plan so I do not want to be drifting far below even that.

I got to thinking about why, when I have been overweight for so very long, it is only in the past couple of years that I seriously addressed the issue. What switch flipped in my head? In watching a documentary about schizophrenia I came to wonder if it was about control: my best talents are not greatly exercised in my current work, I barely earn enough to get by, I live in a small, cluttered house, maybe my effort toward improving my weight and fitness stems from wanting to successfully grasp at least some facet of my existence and addressing my health was the most plausible remaining option? I do not know. Now that I have generated the hypothesis it doesn't feel as if it obviously rings true but it is also not assaulted by competition with rival explanations. (One of my military projects involved creating software for generating, evaluating, assembling hypotheses.) I thus do now wonder if my diet and exercise might indeed partly be about gaining some control and feeling good about something.

The mention of schizophrenia reminds me of a lady who used to roam the streets around our apartment in Providence, RI. She was often off her medication and would indignantly berate pedestrians and drivers for all manner of creatively imagined slights, sins like trying to sell her into prostitution to workmen down the road. While she was not causing anybody any real harm then it was her legal right to be in such a state. When I would first spy her ranting from the window I initially thought that she was speaking on her cellphone via a Bluetooth headset but her interactions subsequently made the unfortunate situation quite clear.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
This morning helps to remind me of one reason why I plan to return to the US in several years' time: I am heartened already by glimpses of blue sky through the windows here. If I could have plenty of windows all over without curtains drawn, and porches or decks with enough warm weather, then I could enjoy the light and the outdoors even over many workdays if I could telecommute again.

It's not a pipe-dream. The last house I owned in central Ohio was actually cross-shaped, letting in plenty of light through many windows. It is cheap there to buy several acres of land so I could enjoy windows and porches without feeling overlooked. It is easy to get permission to put a small, even prefabricated, house on a full cellar excavated in a hayfield, with none of the tight planning regulations of the UK. We had plenty of lovely weather through much of the year. I am more productive when telecommuting and it might reduce ageism in hiring for me to be mostly remote anyway.

Living in that way somehow made me more content, glimpsing deer and groundhogs in my yard, wandering around the property to clear fallen branches and whatnot. Although I am stuck back in the UK for the meantime to make higher education affordable for my children, I know that I am still lucky: I have already discovered what makes me happy and in the long term it feels within reach.
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
I was chatting recently with somebody who shares my observations on the apparent decline of the quality of software and figured that I may as well capture the broad strokes of my thoughts here.

Certainly back in the 1980s, maybe also the 1990s, software often impressed me. I could easily figure out how to use it, how to get it to do what I wanted, and it was genuinely a surprise to discover a bug. These days I often find software to be difficult to get on with, trying to force me into specific workflows of what somebody thinks users ought to want to be able to do, and positively bug-ridden.

One thing I am curious about is to what extent this trend is quantitatively corroborated. Organizations like NASA put research money into assessing software quality. I wonder what they have found.

Another is, what's the cause? Is it that there are so many people now entering the software industry that their typical ability level is much lower? Is it the false economy of building one's software atop a whole stack of complex third-party libraries that are all too often both buggy and barely maintained? I suspect that those two are connected: that it may take a certain skill level to recognize a steaming pile of festering liability just as it takes a decent programmer to be able to recognize one in recruitment interviews. Or maybe they have to use the third-party cruft because they don't see how they can easily just build the part they need themselves and wouldn't recognize clean elegance even if it lived next door to them.

Or maybe it's a social change in what's acceptable: professional pride giving way to commercial expediency, a market failure of rewarding feature lists over reliability, etc. Perhaps I am a poor fit for the modern world in caring more about software being clear and correct rather than featureful.

I see so much poor quality software )

I am not against learning new things, I just find few of them worthwhile. some of them are, though )
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
My taking of vitamin supplements and my improvement in mood coincided with the arrival of other seasonal distractions. Now life is returning to normal I find my mood again declining: I am sufficiently bothered to not be falling asleep easily tonight. I ran out of vitamin D this evening; perhaps it is not worth refreshing stocks.

I feel that after meeting my various obligations and getting enough rest I have too little time left for myself and for pursuing what would make me happy. One way to address this might be to rethink my obligations: perhaps I construct my own jail. But, others depend on me and I love them and want to do what is right for them.

The world is strange and irrational: I do not greatly blame myself or anybody else for my present circumstances. Indeed, I have much to be thankful for: my health, my children's health, my time with them, my nice colleagues at work, that I have a job that allows me to support my family, that I live in a pretty area, that I have many good memories. Life is full of surprises: if I just keep on going then there may be something good and lasting around a coming bend.

I think that my experiment with reversing my withdrawal and returning to more social interaction has reached its safe extent for the meantime. It is probably tolerable, even healthful, to continue using Dreamwidth and a couple of other small avenues but I don't plan to push any further back out into the world for the meantime.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
For around a decade I worked for Aetion. I helped to keep the business alive via military research and development projects ) And, eventually, the music stopped. Fortunately, I had seen that coming and arranged to live near Boston before I was made redundant; Aetion won no further work.

There were plenty of computing jobs around the Boston area, especially in Cambridge which for me was a short bicycle ride away. However, in my mid-thirties I found that my age was already counting significantly against me: in describing me employers put scare quotes around experienced and feared that I would not easily take instruction from those who, in experience, were considerably my junior. I also found military research projects closed to me through my not having, nor wanting, higher security clearance. I did manage to find work but more suiting a new graduate than a creative well-rounded professional with a good track record.

Now I find myself in Scotland. in a nice job ) However, from a personal point of view, the situation is uncomfortably precarious. My team is funded by a series of fixed-term grant proposals. I want to keep my children in their local school but there are few local jobs ) My contract is not permanent. I pray that our group leader continues to be so good at the hard work of winning funding but I wish it were more secure: I dare not consider buying a house here in case the music stops again. If I do have to look for work then I may well be in my mid-forties and living near far fewer employers with a recent work history rather less impressive than the previous.

These issues were weighing upon me last winter too; [personal profile] gerald_duck pointed out that telecommuting might be viable and indeed I am more productive in working from home than I am from an open-plan office; also, that currency of skills may matter more than age. The thoughts about the above are back in my head though so maybe writing them out in this new entry will palliate them while I focus on other issues.
mtbc: maze C (black-yellow)
At work this morning I left some notes on a Trello card about where I am up to with a current effort on a new feature; it had been some days without my doing more on it than quietly beavering away. I also try to maintain a steady stream of small work products that are more immediately tangible such as opening a relatively trivial GitHub PR before returning home. Back when I wasn't supervised but had an intellectually challenging problem to solve then it might be quite some days before I felt as if I were verifiably making progress but I learned to trust the process and know that the initial stage in which I'd cogitate was both necessary and valuable. Now I am back in a more junior role I find myself again actively providing a steady stream of observable evidence that I am indeed continuing to effect received instruction.
mtbc: maze H (magenta-black)
Benjamin likes the collectible card game Yu-Gi-Oh! and indeed there are now many more such cards than people in the world. I am okay with games like Magic: The Gathering and I usually do well with complex systems of rules but Yu-Gi-Oh! overwhelms me with tedious detail: there are so many cards each with their own special rules and interactions with other cards that the optimization problem of deck-building seems thorny indeed.

I have wondered if this suggests any future career for Benjamin. The larger challenge is probably that of finding something that interests him sufficiently but I do think that it may be important to note if it is the kind of thing where Benjamin's facility with sizable rule systems affords him unusual advantage.
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
My drop in net pay was actually slightly better than I had feared so at least my budgeting has been sufficiently conservative. With the increase in pension contribution and changes in both taxation and national insurance codes occurring simultaneously it wasn't easy to estimate perfectly. If I am lucky then whatever cost-of-living increase we get later in the year will cover the additional voluntary contributions I elect to pay in order to get what employer matching I can.

I had forgotten that many others were in the older pension scheme: it transpires that their net pay is not much changed. They used to pay plenty into a better pension scheme and I used to pay less into a worse pension scheme. Now we all pay more into a worse pension scheme. Still, it remains a far better deal than my previous employer's 401(k).
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
Apart from my GCSE English oral in which I spoke for five minutes on UFOs, without slides, I didn't have to give a presentation until it was actually warranted in my full-time work in Ohio after graduation. Indeed, it was less than a year ago that I finally had to use PowerPoint: previously I had used LaTeX's Beamer class. (Currently for things like workshops for users I use reveal.js.) In applying for jobs in Boston I didn't have to give any presentations: I largely took written and oral tests and people bought me lunches. Benjamin made it partway through middle school there without having had to give a presentation.

However, presentations seem ubiquitous in Britain. I had to give one as part of the interview process for most jobs I applied for; for my present job, they forgot to tell me to, and I hadn't even brought a laptop computer; they mentioned the night before that they expected a presentation in the morning, but that seemed to go okay: they got an extemporaneous talk on the selection of spare parts to include when the US Air Force deploys a set of aircraft to a different base. Another British employer got one on multi-sensor fusion for reconstructing situations in 3D: fortunately I had written code to output the actual data structures as PostScript so the sensor views and projections of the target situation were easily translated into PDF diagrams for the slides. I think it's mostly just about that one can speak intelligently and coherently.

It's not just British employers: recently Miranda has been working on yet another set of slides, even in primary school, this time on her achievements outside school. Her previous one was on salmon's contribution to Scotland's economy. Since moving to Scotland both our children have had to prepare many PowerPoint presentations. I suppose it goes hand-in-hand with employers apparently now expecting such. Why and when this love of PowerPoint occurred here I've little idea but it has been an unexpected facet of our return to this country.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
Aha, I now have something concrete against which to try budgeting: the Times Higher Education reports,
A lecturer on £46,414 a year – the median salary for the sector in 2014-15 – will pay an extra £1,175 a year (about £100 a month) owing to the twin changes from April if they are part of the USS career average scheme …
That's pretty much my position. Ouch. I am sure that our gym membership will be one casualty.

Update: Yes, our gym membership was a casualty.
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
For some years I led technical recruitment at a small company, basically hiring sysadmins and programmers. While we were quite small and I am not in favor of quota systems or suchlike I hoped that we might nonetheless end up with a diverse group of employees. I took some action toward this: for instance, I would mail posters advertising vacancies out to historically black colleges and universities. To my disappointment there was a significant shortage of credible minority applicants getting even as far as initial interview. It's not a large sample size but I have to guess that whatever principally causes inequality in hiring might thus start at a rather earlier stage.

In the end every one of my hires was a young white male. The most-nearly-exceptions I can think of include,

  • There was one middle-aged guy who unusually was largely hired on a probationary basis outside my process; he lasted a few weeks before we all agreed that he just didn't have what we needed.

  • There was an older man, actually now deceased, to whom I took a liking, so I held on to his resumé, but at the time there was a clearly better candidate for the vacancy.

  • There was a young Chinese chap where I may be guilty of some cultural insensitivity here: he got as far as in-person interview but I just couldn't get him to do anything other than agree with us, and I was looking for people who think for themselves.

  • There was one young white guy who has attention-deficit disorder whom I did hire. It seemed to work well enough to be sure to summarize any non-trivial instructions in followup e-mail.

So, I suppose, a couple of older white guys got close, and one young white guy with a kind of disability did get in but, for instance, no black female applicants were at all qualified, and goodness knows Columbus, OH, is a fairly diverse city, indeed I was friends with a black female student in the computer science program at the university.

I don't know what to make of that. I wonder if I was just unlucky in what fell across my desk. (Not that unlucky, a couple of our white guys were great hires.) Maybe there are more good minority candidates out there but (admittedly without any official mandate) I somehow failed to reach them.
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
We have some pensions changes coming up this year. Of course in April my tax code will change, moreover to a particularly Scottish one now that income tax rates are a little devolved. I now pay a reduced rate of National Insurance (like Social Security) because of the adequacy of my employer's pensions provision but I believe that lower rate is to come to an end, perhaps because adequate pensions provision is becoming universally required. Also, some changes to our pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, come into force at that time. Then, I believe, later this year we have the opportunity to voluntarily contribute a little more toward our pension with matching from our employer; it is typically worthwhile to take advantage of opportunities for matching contributions. I am therefore not sure that my net pay won't actually be lower later this year than it is now.


mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
Mark T. B. Carroll

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