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Confessions of a Muppet 

Hello everybody! After a brief stay in Cambridge last fall, I headed back to North America to attend the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference in Vancouver, BC. During the conference I presented a demo of my Speech Dasher work, getting a lot of good feedback. The coolest thing I saw was a video of a paralyzed man controlling a mouse cursor using only his thoughts (and a probe implanted in his cerebrum), wild! The lamest thing I saw was the two-hours of “comedy” skits created and performed by machine learning researchers, kill me now!


Punts on Granta pond.

After the main conference was over, we adjourned to Whistler for the post-conference workshop. I had planned to be a good boy and ignore that I was in Whistler and focus on the workshop. But after returning late from a coffee break, the interesting workshop I had been in morphed into something horrible. After about the fifth slide of solid and poorly explained math, I bailed out. I grabbed my snowboard and headed to the slopes. The snow wasn’t great, but the turns sure helped clear out a week of conference cobwebs. The next day Art arrived and we had the pleasure of snowboarding on pure ice in gale force winds- worst Whistler conditions ever. We gave up at midday and decided to take some turns in the Westin’s spa; first we gave the sauna a turn, then the pool, then the steam bath, then the hot tub… With no real point to staying in Whistler, we headed back to Seattle early. In route we did a day hike to the top of a cliff along the Sea-to-Sky highway. I had forgotten to fill my water bag so I was forced to take the only liquid available in the car- bottles of beer, oh darn. After climbing several thousand feet in a few miles, we had great views of the valley to go with our remaining beers. Good thing Art was driving.


Drea trying to look innocent.

Back in Seattle, I got to meet Drea- Art’s super-sized puppy dog. She took immediately to me, my socks, and trying to sneak under the covers while I was trying to sleep.


Gillian and Kate in their holiday outfits. Which is which? Who knows.

From there it was on to Minnesota for Christmas. My nieces and nephews were doing well. Apparently Kate and Gillian were competing in a fat baby contest, each sporting substantial rolls. Owen was the winner in the toy contest, sporting a gigantic fire truck. I spent some time ice fishing from the couch in Hayward before heading to Kristian’s log cabin for New Year’s.


Andrea and Kristian in the spear fishing house. Which is which? Who knows.

Up at the cabin, ice fishing and spearing were the activities d’jour. The first day I was on fire, catching fish left and right. At one point, I saw a tip up thrashing violently back and forth on the ice. The line had jammed but I managed to pull in a big pike despite there only being two feet of line out. We would have limited out if it weren’t for the leader on one of the rigs spontaneously popping open- strange that.


Hard core New Year's crew at the log cabin.

On New Year’s Eve we had a large crew up enjoying a fish fry, sauna, and bonfire. I even had to try the sauna pre-jump through the ice after someone questioned my Fin-hood. It was definitely tingly, but I still prefer the post-jump.


Kristian gets teased by a large red scarf.

My original flight back to the UK was overbooked. Despite being way down the volunteer list (I got distracted playing Galaga in the arcade on the way to the gate), I still managed to get bumped. I got a $700 voucher and a business class seat the next day, yeah baby.


Some of the competition at the cocktail party.

Back in Cambridge it was time to turn my attentions to important scholarly pursuits. After a thorough literature search and after debating the merits of various possibilities, I had a plan. I would make the Amarula-rula for the competitive cocktail party. I won the best tasting cocktail award (but how can you lose when you’re packing a drink made of Amarula?). After spending the fall perfecting my kayaking moves on the wild waters of the Cam, it was finally time to cut my teeth on some real British whitewater. We headed down to southwest England via numerous London traffic jams, finally arriving at the bunkhouse after 8 hours.


Fall colors on the ivy at Darwin College

In the morning, after copious amounts of faffing (translation: putzing), we arrived at the put-in for The Dart Loop. I was paired with Tor, another muppet (translation: beginner) under the watchful guidance of some more experienced paddlers. The water was quite low allowing Tor and I ample opportunity to color rocks with the plastic from the bottom of our boots. Despite our best rock colliding efforts, Tor and I managed to stay upright down various rapids such as The Washing Machine and Spin Dryer. We ran the biggest class III rapid Triple Step without prior scouting. Discounting my leader Becca’s line, I found my own spiny route down the extreme left side, it worked but only just barely. Having made it down Triple Step, we got out to walk back up for another run. The other group was carefully scouting the rapid, so I joined in contemplating at length the various features of the rapid. And so I learned my first kayak truism: the probability of swimming is directly proportional to the time spent scouting. As I headed over the first drop sideways, I had enough time to appreciate that this was indeed a better line but perhaps proper execution was slightly more important. After abandoning ship, I hauled myself and gear back up to the top again for another go. This time I was able to both take the right line and keep the boat pointed downstream. The second drop went perfect as well. With a sigh of relief, I paddled into the eddy where I celebrated by flipping over for no apparent reason- swim number two.


Impromptu concert during brunch in our backyard.

Having had such a good time on The Dart, I signed up for the next trip to North Wales. On the first day, we paddled the lower Tryweryn. The rapids were more continuous than the Dart, but fairly easy so Dave my partner in muppetness kept up the excitement by getting up close and personal with a tree. The largest rapid of the day was a class IV with a bit of a hole at the end. Dave and I decided to let discretion be the better part of valor, walking past most of it and taking the “Chicken Chute” at the bottom so we could claim to have paddled it. The next day, we paddled a short section of the river Dee. No sooner had we got on than we were faced with Serpent’s Tail, a class IV. After scouting, the experienced paddlers setup safety for Team Muppet (Dave, Tor and I). In the entirely likely event we swam, there would be boats or throw lines available virtually everywhere. My descent involved a constant barrage of support strokes, each barely keeping me from tipping over. My lack of forward paddling doomed me to accept whatever the river dished out. I was happily surprised to join the rest of the team at the bottom, all still warm and cozy in our boats.



Four new brake pads:
£12
New brake cables:
£15
Wire cutters:
£4
Being able to actually stop my bike:
priceless

This was too good a showing given all the safety setup faff, so back to the top we went. Tor went first, inspiring confidence by flipping over right before the rapid, rolling back up, and then swimming further down. We waited for Tor to be fished out and safety to be reset. Dave headed down next, with a throw line shortly following. While Dave was being fished out, I had plenty of alone time to contemplate my fate. I however bucked the trend, enjoying a better run the second time thanks to our friend forward paddling. Town Falls was the other big rapid on the Dee. It wouldn’t have seemed as bad if it weren’t for the growing throngs of spectators lining the town bridge. By time safety was set we had quite the audience. I went down first finding a decent line and basically just kept on paddling. Tor followed in similar good style. Dave, not wishing to disappoint, bailed out of his boat mid-way down, inspiring numerous ohhs and ahhs from the crowd.


Map I use to track my visits to the pubs in Cambridge

Back in Cambridge, with the rivers drying up for the summer, I’ve had to set myself new challenges. For example, there are 120 pubs in Cambridge, how many can I visit? It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. I’ll keep you posted. keith


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