Relocation Relocation Relocation

As part of my pretty sweet relocation package from Google, I have the help of a “flat search consultant”. If you’ve ever watched Location Location Location or A Place in the Sun, you’ll more or less know what this is. If not: why not?

I have a couple of friends in the Kingston area (and several others in South London as a whole), and now work in Victoria, so my plan was quite scientific: throw darts at a map.

Not really. I basically drew a line between between these two areas and declared that I wanted to live somewhere along it. Furthermore, this place should neither be shit, not overlay expensive. In particular I thought Richmond looked like a very cool place to live, and seemed to be in reach of many of the places I wanted to go. That said, it has the potential to be a bit of a slog into the centre, and unfortunately it’s quite expensive. Thus, my flat search consultant wanted me to look at a couple of other places.

We started in Richmond and straight away viewed a really nice flat, which set the bar a little high. It already had offers, and thus I would have make a decision fast if I was interested. This is generally the case with rentals in London at the moment, though this one had a particularly short fuse. I came very close to putting in an offer, but n the end came to the conclusion that it was too small.

Next we went and had a look at the outside of a flat the agent wasn’t able to show us, to get an idea of the area. I’ll come back to this one. We also viewed a flat in a quite cool art deco development, which was a bit crap on the inside. Single glazing and on a main road? I think not…

After this we checked out a slightly dingy  flat which was essentially in the landlord’s basement. I don’t, quite frankly, want to feel quite that much like a tenant. This was the last spot in Richmond, so it was on to Clapham, via a fairly spectacular drive through Richmond Park.

The first flat in Clapham was amazing. Really big, nicely finished and in a decent area, if a little ways off the main drag. This was probably my favourite from the entire day. I’m not sure how I feel about the location. Transport wise it’s very cool, and you can get just about anywhere from it, but… I don’t know. You know?

Next we viewed a couple of really nice new builds in an utterly unspectacular area of Battersea. Nice price (for London!), nice size, nice big garden (in one case), nice finish (aside from the one wonky switch in one of the kitchens, so that flat was out). But… right on a busy main road, in part of Battersea which seems to mostly be a place people pass through when going to other places? No. Well… probably not.

Lastly was had a look at a mansion flat in a gorgeous building… but that’s about all it had going for it. If you gutted it, it could become something spectacular, but work would be required.

On the whole, non of the flats I saw were utterly terrible, and all of them will get rented. This is definitely a seller’s market. We’re going to go back to the Richmond flat we couldn’t see today, because the pictures look great, then it’ll be a straight choice between it and the Clapham flat. Perhaps there’ll also be a couple more viewings. We’ll see. Tomorrow, a choice must be made, otherwise I have nowhere to live after I get back from Mountain View. No pressure!

In other news, I stopped by the office to finish of a last bit of admin, and then attend my first ever Google meeting, which also included participants from Mountain View and Dublin. I’m starting to understanding things more, which is good, because I have an absolute ton of stuff to learn. I also briefly petted a very cute West Island terrier, which either belongs to one of my colleagues, or IS one of my colleagues.


Day One

This is going to be short. Suffice to say: almost everything you’ve heard about working for Google is true. That being the case, there is no slide in my office. I’m told they have them in Mountain View and Zurich, however, and I’ll apparently be visiting both this year (Mountain View next week!).

The food / restaurants / kitchens are awesome in a “we’ve thought of everything you need” kind of way. The people are really nice, but also intimidatingly smart. For a tech firm, a lot of them are girls as well, which makes for a more balanced working environment.

On the whole it was a good first day, though mostly consisting of administration. I’m itching to get into the code!


Yes. That’s right. I did it. I used a sed expression as post title.

I’ve been very quiet as of late, though in my defence I’ve been very busy for a few months. In the middle of that I had a potentially life changing decision to make, and then I was dealing with the ramifications of the choice I made.

As you may have gathered from the post title (even if it mostly looks like crazy speak to you), the choice was whether I should accept a job at Google or not. Believe it or not, it was a choice, and a fairly hard one. There are various reasons for this. I’m not going to go into all of them, though I will go into some, but let’s start with a little bit of background.

It started with the receipt of a LinkedIn message with the subject “Hello from Google.” and ended with me standing in a car park being offered a very good job. Regarding what happened in between: the Google interview process is lengthy and pretty hardcore. Reputedly the most hardcore in the entire of the tech industry. But having a gruelling four and a half hour viva a little over a week before your main interview can make it seem like a walk in the park, albeit a mentally tiring one.

So then I was left with a choice. I could stay at my good job at a small but growing company with a lot of potential, at which I knew I had some prospects. I’d still be working in an industry which I know, and which to some extent knows me. I’d stay in a city I love (and have loved since the moment I set eyes upon it ten years ago), surrounded by a wonderful group of friends.

Alternatively I could accept an incredible opportunity to work at one of the most exciting companies in the world, which is famous for treating it’s employees incredibly well, and has projects which excite me more than I can adequately express in words. But I’d be changing industries and I good portion of my existing knowledge might be useless (or more useless, as the case may be). I’d have to move to London, a city I like but don’t know that well, and feel slightly intimidated by. As luck would have it, though, I do have a group of close friends living in London, who are also awesome.

It was a very hard choice, and it came down to a couple of things:

  • A former colleague put it to me that if I turned this offer down I’d hate myself for it every time I had a bad day (or spent a year putting my life on hold for a field trip which was consistently two weeks away from happening);
  • Another colleague suggested that I would be swallowed up by Google. A tiny cog in a huge machine. Which is potentially true… and a little scary. But… the other analogy people use here is “small fish in a big pond.” There’s a distinction to be made: fish grow, cogs don’t. Unless you put yourself in a bigger pond, you’ll never find out if you have the potential to get any bigger.
  • It would be nice to not work for the oil companies and the military. Not necessarily because either party is evil, but because of the shear amount of red tape involved.
  • I’d been feeling as though I’d been stuck in a rut for a while, and really wanted to shake things up somehow.
  • It’s frickin’ GOOGLE!

So. Here I am. In London. Staying in wicked temporary accommodation. Tomorrow is my first day at my shiny new Google job, and right now I should really go to bed!

PS More updates coming soon I swear, though it may be a month before I can get back to my Clockwork Aphid project, for logistical reasons.

The Day Job Part 2: Let’s get SAUC-E!

If you know when I started my PhD you’ll be aware that it took quite some time for me to finish it. There are various reasons for this. One is that I spent quite a bit of time working and getting industrial experience during it. The other is that it took me something in the region of 18 months to figure out what it was I was actually going to do. This happens quite a bit at the Ocean Systems Laboratory, you don’t actually start working on a particular project or problem, you just sort of find something which seems to need doing. It also didn’t help that it talk me 9 months to get any feedback on the first draft of my thesis. One of the major things which took up my time, though, was the Student Autonomous Underwater Challenge – Europe, or SAUC-E for short.

This post is going to focus on my own part in the proceedings, but you should assume that everyone else on the teams worked at least as hard as I did, and their contribution was at least as important as my own. This is my blog, though, so I’ll mainly be talking about me.

Basically, teams of students build an underwater robot which then has to complete an obstacle course. Let me stress: it is not in any way like Robot Wars, so you can abandon that notion right now. The crucial word here is autonomous, as in you have no contact with the vehicle after you push go; it all has to run on autopilot. The first competition was just ramping up when I joined the OSL and I offered to go along to the site and help out. The fact that it was held at Pinewood Studios (which is a movie studio, not a furniture store) was no small bonus (I’ve wandered about on the sets for Casino Royale and Stardust), but the competition itself was also very cool indeed. I leapt at the chance to be part of the team for the second year of the competition, and then stared in disbelief as a technical issue nuked our chances right before the final. Up until that point we’d been leading the field by quite a margin, so finishing second to last was no fun at all.

The next year myself and one of my colleagues decided this wasn’t going to happen again, so we damn near killed ourselves working sixteen hour days for a couple of months, and then we took the robot to France for SAUC-E 2008. Each year there are a number of supplementary tasks which must be completed. One is to write a paper (or “report” if you’re not down with the academic lingo) about your entry, another is to produce a video diary. Our video diary for the 2008 competition does a pretty good job of showing our frustration at the previous year’s result and the amount of preparation we put into it this time round:

It was a hell of a lot of work, but we got there and we damn well kicked everyones’ asses. In the final we cleared the entire course on our first try. Everyone else used their entire twenty minutes of time. We used about seven. It was a good feeling. This isn’t a hugely fascinating video to watch and, but here’s the official video of out final run:

What you don’t say in that video is me standing on a table with a microphone in my hand narrating what I think the robot is doing, then the entire team practically leaping into the air when it completed the course. Still, here’s a picture of us (minus one team member who had to leave a day early) from an article in an industry journal:

Team Nessie victorious at SAUC-E 2008. Click for the article this picture is taken from.

The next year we reworked a lot of the electronics and moved to a much more hydrodynamic external design. This was a good thing, because previously Nessie had been slow, and now the competition area was a lot bigger. The 2009 video diary sums it up:

Most of the tasks were adaptations of those from previous years, but a fairly intense new one was also introduce: dock inside an elongated box placed on the floor of the pool. None of the other teams even attempted this last task, but I’d arrived a little late to the on site practice time thanks to other commitments. Everyone had their jobs and things were running pretty well. My responsibility was the mission controller (the captain, if you want to use a ship’s crew as a metaphor) and we weren’t quite ready to start doing any serious tests with this yet. So I started working on a strategy to do the docking. There was plenty of grunt work for me to help out with; I did some code review and put together some mission plans, but at this point I was essentially surplus to requirements. So I messed about with the docking thing.

Nessie IV in the practice pool.

First of all, I built a detector which could find the box from above. I’m not really a computer vision guy, but after a lot of experimentation and playing I managed to put something quite stable together. There was no space in the practice pool to actually attempt the docking itself, though. I put a behaviour together which I was pretty sure would get the vehicle into the box, but I had no reliable way of testing it. I put it to one side and got on with the serious business of the competition itself. This was held at a different location, so needless to say every algorithm needed to be re-tuned to the new environment.

One of the other teams did very well in the qualifying stages and went into the final in second place by a very narrow margin. We new what we could do, and we know what they could do. They had a much better sonar, but no cameras, so some tasks were just plain out of their reach. Even so, it was going to be close. The day of the final we got a bit of extra practice time in the morning. At this point the docking had received about ten minutes worth of practice time, and it’s performance had not been what you would call “successful,” exactly. I was fairly sure the last night’s late night coding session had found all the bugs, though. “Fine,” said the team. Give it a shot, but we don’t want to waste too much of the practice time on it.

It worked first time.

“Did anyone see that?” There was a judge at other side of the pool, but no one was looking at us. We wouldn’t get any points, but still, we wanted the judges to SEE it. Someone from one of the other teams saw some of it though, it seems, because they took this video:

Out supervisor came running over. “Was that autonomous?!” He demanded. Apparently one of the other judges was standing at the monitors and there was a camera inside the box. There was a little bit of a buzz.

We tried it again. It worked again. This time someone had actually put a tape in the VCR, which is nice, but I don’t have that video.

The organisers were smiling, but not in a 100% friendly way. No one was actually supposed to pull off the docking this time around. But we had. There was no time to add this behaviour into the plan for our main run in the final, but this year there was a new rule: you could demonstrate the tasks individually to pick up extra points. The final, as it turned out, was not quite as close as we were worried it might be, and Team Nessie picked up another first prize.

Team Nessie victorious at SAUC-E 2009. Click for the article this picture is taken from.

As well as the industry journal from which the above picture has been taken, the BBC paid some attention to the competition this time around, as well (which you can find here). Yep, that’s me at the end of the video. They interviewed me for the article they wrote on the competition and used a lot of my quotes. I learned an important lesson from this: assume anything you say to a journalist will be taken literally, and don’t assume that they’ll check their facts, even if you specifically tell them to because you’re not certain of your numbers. For example, the figure of £10,000 mentioned in the article is actually closer to £100,000.

The Day Job: Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

If you’re reading this blog and don’t actually know me in the real world then you might be wondering “who actually is this guy?” and possibly even “what is it that he actually does, aside from starting to talk about procedural landscape generation, and then falling suddenly silent?” Well, clearly I’m a person who is currently coming to the end of a PhD, and I have a full time job. But doing what, exactly?

If in fact you do know me in the real world, you still might be wondering about that.

For the most part, what I do is work with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), either at the Ocean Systems Laboratory or SeeByte Ltd, depending on which hat I’m wearing. Let’s talk a little about that now, in general terms. Or rather, let’s watch an educational video about it.

First, a bit of preamble: this video was made around three and a half years ago (according to my reckoning) in order to present a potential example of the capabilities of AUVs and related technologies. At the time it was very much “looking forward,” rather than presenting results. In particular: most of what you’re seeing is “mocked up,” rather than part of a real operation, and features several technologies which hadn’t progressed beyond early prototypes at the time. It’s now quite out of date, but it still gets shown at conferences by some of my colleges, since it makes a fairly good introduction.

The video was also aimed primarily at the defense industry, which is why the presented scenario has that sort of slant. Rest assured that not all uses of AUVs are militaristic in nature, but yes: they can be used to help save soldiers lives.

Furthermore, I did all of the camera work and direction (except for in any stock footage), as well as the editing and titles. Writing was a joint effort between myself and several of my colleges. As such I consider the video itself to be part of my “portfolio of work.” That’s not my voice, though.

So, here’s the video (you can click for a bigger version):

If you know what you’re looking for, you can see a very early version of my PhD work in amongst all of that. Perhaps I’ll come back later and talk a little more about how what I do specifically fits into all this.

Slight digression: I’m using Vimeo rather than YouTube because it seems like a better fit. Also the website appeals more to my aesthetic sensibilities.


I’ve been traveling around for work for the vast majority of the last month, so generally speaking I’ve been anything but at a loose end. Evenings were full of work or spent with the colleagues / friends I was traveling with. But now I’m back and finding that I don’t know what to do with myself a lot of the time. It’s giving me time to think about things, and that never ends well.

I think my PhD is in better shape than I had been supposing. I found a couple of stupid mistakes in my code today and now it actually seems to be working quite well. With a bit of tweaking of settings it might produce valid, or even impressive, output. This is good. It means I can stick to my plan to only put in eight hour days at the lab (though I might do a bit of writing up at home). An eight hour days feels pretty short just now. Thus the stress levels may reduce. I’ve more or less been running on stress and adrenaline/caffeine for the last few months though, so once again: time and head space to think about things.

It’s making me very uncertain about a lot of things. The financial market is clearly well up shit creak, and it ate its paddle some miles back. This also coincides with a financial meltdown of my own, precipited by my funding running out and exaserbated by my purchase of a car. Yep, I reckon I’ll look back on that one as a particularly retarded mistake in years to come. I’ve got things on a more or less stable footing now, but my long term security is… clouded… not what I’d like it to be… in a lot of respects.

I also find myself thinking about sex, love, friendship, their relationship to each other, and my relationship to each. Things I had, things I’ve lost, and things I want in the future. I’m not feeling quite introspective enough to textualise any of that just now, but you should probably be thankful for that.

These are indeed uncertain times.

I’ve also decided to try and get back into going to the gym. I’ve had no time for excersise in the last month and have probably been eating a little too well and it’s stating to show. I went for the first time in what feels like an age last night, and, you know what, it felt pretty good. I’ve missed that post gym sensation of having actually done something and made my muscles (such as they are) work for a living.

I just looked out of the window. The sun is shining! Time to go out into it, I suspect!

Well… Here I am…

…In Iceland!

I wanted to come here for a long time (this is no secret), and as the result of a highly unsubtle campaign of strategic hint dropping, here I find myself. It’s not under ideal circumstances, though. I’m here for work and so I’ll be spending most of my time working 12 hour days, doing fiddly embedded computer programming and ridding about in boats waiting for robots to do their thing. I’m also here with my boss (or someone far higher up the chain of command than myself, at least), and though he’s a really nice guy there’s always going to be a significant disconnect. He’s not my first choice(s)* to share this experience with. I’d rather be here with my friends. My friends are awesome, you see.

A particular subset of my awesome friends, appropriately: the Icelandic ones, have furnished me with a list of things I might like to see, do and eat while I’m here. It’s not a challenge on the scale of “cook every single recipe in a recipe book”, but it’s a fun list all the same and one I plan on making an impression on. I’ve found a guide to Icelandic punctuation online and am even working up to actually asking for some of the foodstuffs on the list, rather than simply writing them down, pointing at them and smiling hopefully. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully it won’t be a repeat of the Turkish “thank you” debacle**.

So far I like it here. It’s pleasantly calm and quiet (except for the boy racers who just went screaming past the office). We went for Italian food last night (not my choice), but I’m hoping for something a little more geographically appropriate tonight. Perhaps I’ll try puffin, it’s always good to try new things. More news as I get it.

It might amuse some of you to know that I’ve typed this while my boss was out of the room, launching into a long explanation of… something.

More news as I get it.

* Why is there no legitimate plural for “first choice”? That’s a linguistic deficiency, right there…

** It’s about 20 syllables long and never elicited anything more than a blank stare from anyone we said it to.