Going Underground

Having spent the previous week navigating the Underground1, spending multiple days in New York this week was a rude juxtaposition. The Tube is, in parts, over 150 years old. It has serious issues at times. South London is woefully covered by its links.

And yet, you just try taking an E train from Manhattan to JFK and back. You’ll be begging for Baker Street in minutes. Trains that sit still for 10-15 minutes, other trains that pull out of the station only to stop dead, absurdly hot platforms that lead onto plastic-feeling rolling stock2, station and train announcements that somehow manage to sound like electrical screeching rather than actual human voices, escalators that are so thin that the entire station grinds to a halt as the train disembarks, and ticket gates seemingly designed to be as hateful as humanly possible.

All this and the MTA map is a hideous piece of design, made even worse by knowing that they had a decent map in the 70s but discarded it because apparently New Yorkers couldn’t handle spatial maps like every other citizen of a city with an underground network.

You may infer from all this that I’m happy to be back in Durham. I couldn’t possibly comment.

  1. We went on almost every line in a week, including my first time on a DLR route. [return]
  2. Yes, the cars are air-conditioned, whereas most Tube cars aren’t. But, they’re air-conditioned in the American mall fashion, in that they’re set about 5˚C below comfortable temperatures, so you go from sweating profusely to shivering in about thirty seconds. Hurrah! [return]

The 8:15 From Manchester and Other Stories

Room A14, St. Anselm's Hall, Manchester. 20 years later.

A post shared by Ian Pointer (@carsondial) on

It was odd going back to Manchester twenty years after starting university. Above is my room of three years, looking pretty much exactly the same as it did all that time ago (aside from the carpet, I guess).

Manchester itself has changed considerably since I was last there - the sprawl of glass buildings continues apace (not on the scale of London, which seems to be inflicted with a terminal case of this, but much more than previously), and everything has moved more upmarket. But the Magic Bus still runs down the Oxford Road, even if BBC North and the Odeon no longer exist.

Or Halon Menswear, for that matter.

If wandering around Rusholme trying to find a path to St. Anselm’s Hall through new building was problematic, the Kilburn Building hasn’t changed all that much, aside from losing the Maths Tower entrance1. Before I entered, I was hoping not to bump into anybody, due to Britishness. As I wandered through the various different levels, that changed, and instead I ended up on the final floor hoping that I’d bump into somebody, anybody, that could remember me and validate my existence.

Then I bumped into Professor Carol Goble. Okay, so she didn’t remember me, which was a touch sad given as she was the first lecturer to call me by name in a lecture…but it has been twenty years and I wasn’t exactly somebody who lit up notices at the department. She did at least humour me and ran through a bunch of ‘where are they now?’ notices.

All in all, glad I went, but it has made me nostalgic for university and pondering a Master’s again. That obviously leads to a path of sadness, but…still…

Impressively, Affleck’s Palace doesn’t seem to have changed much at all; it is the university experience encased in amber, no matter where or when you actually went there.

But! Manchester was not the only part of my week-long tour with Tammy! A round-up:

  • Saying ‘we’re not supposed to talk about gin’ means that we will in fact, talk about gin.2
  • The women at Bicester North who saw my LC! t-shirt and came over to ask: “Young man, do you really think that you’re doomed?”
  • I did not see the promised USB ports on the S5 to Oxford, but they’re still a bit swisher than in past years.
  • Americans find it wearying to be told ‘hey, that building is older than your country!’ after the fifth time or so.3
  • Sweetcorn and chicken sandwiches are a sign of rot in the Empire itself.
  • Flip-flops, rain, and fancy new concrete paving slabs do not mix.
  • Deep Sea Adventure is a fun game to play in Christchurch with old and new friends.
  • I really don’t remember having to wait so often, and so long, for the cheque in restaurants.
  • Not only did we have a ride to Manchester on a tilting train, but it seemed that every carriage had a gossiping couple of Northern women, as is fit and proper.
  • We even had a Rail Replacement Bus on our travels!
  • I have avoided using Apple Pay for quite some time in the US, but in the UK it was a decent way of circumventing the bewilderment of people having to deal with chip-and-signature cards (go, USA). Plus you feel space-age using your phone to go on the Tube.
  • The amount of ‘American Candy’ shops on Oxford Street was disturbing.4
  • Watching Tammy attempt to deal with British change was an unexpected highlight of the trip. “WHY IS THE 10p SO BIG? STOP LAUGHING WHEN I CALL THE 50p A HALF-POUND! “
  • Also telling her about The Crystal Maze, only for her to start yelling at the stupidity of the contestants five minutes in. She got it!
  • People would not close that gate.
  • We may both have got all ‘Kevin from Grand Designs’ on the concrete-y apartment we were staying in. Perhaps.

And now, a concrete break!

Just before it goes…

A post shared by Ian Pointer (@carsondial) on

Goodnight, sweet Prince.

A post shared by Ian Pointer (@carsondial) on

The Brutalism Tour went quite well, I thought, with particular emphasis on Welbeck Car Park and Robin Hood Gardens, as both will likely not be there the next time I visit London. The latter is a tragedy, especially when you see the designs for the Blackwall Reach5 and how vapid they are.

And the thing is…RHG feels so much more…human when you’re actually standing there. Yes, there’s the scale, but you also get the sense of quietness in the central garden space that the bloody thing was designed to do in the first place, and it feels like as much as a community as Avon Crescent or Redmoor Court did and do. Which is more than a set of ‘standard luxury apartments’ that can only claim to be ‘close to Michelin-starred restaurants’ can ever be.

A post shared by Ian Pointer (@carsondial) on

A Pelican book on post-war British economic policy bought at the South Bank. This may be the most on-brand photo I have ever taken.

All in all, a wonderful trip. Great company who didn’t kill me even after I made her walk nine miles in a single day (oops!), mostly good weather, and so so much food. I may need to live on the exercise bike for the next month…

  1. The loss of the entrance down to losing the Maths Tower. Rather careless, I think. [return]
  2. With hilarious results. [return]
  3. Of course, it didn’t stop me… [return]
  4. The prices, though, were even worse. £6 for a pack of Pop Tarts? [return]
  5. The website leads with “Formerly a pioneering 1960s urban estate…”, which made me want to fly back and slap people. [return]

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

Be Here Now

Looking back, it’s bizarre to realize just how big a deal Be Here Now was in the UK. Yes, a long-awaited album from one of the most popular bands in Britain. Sure, sure. Even people queuing up at midnight to get their hands on it wouldn’t have been surprising, if Ignition hadn’t forced record shops to sign contracts that they wouldn’t sell the album until 8am (seriously). But all that plus a prime-time BBC1 documentary airing the night before (and let’s not forget, this is still in the ‘dark ages’ before multi-channel and Internet video was a thing)? Leading news items and almost blanket coverage on Radio 1? August 21st 1997 was an event.

On a sea of hype, it was unlikely that the album would live up to expectations, even if Creation strong-armed the music press to ensure good reviews. And lo, so it was that the album broke all sales records in the scant three days of sales it had in its first week (it took eighteen years for the record to be broken by Adele’s 25, and that only managed it by virtue of having a full seven days of sales), lighting up the charts for weeks on end…and then ending up in every charity shop in the British Isles as realization dawned.

Over the years, it has become a punchline, the moment when Oasis lost it, the point ‘where Britpop died’, the end of ‘Cool Britannia’, and the moment where Opal Fruits became Starburst (okay, that happened in 1998. BUT STILL). Now, twenty years on, we return to the Album That Ruined Everything and ask: was it really so bad?

D’You Know What I Mean?

This was released to Radio 1 on the day of our Sixth Form Leavers’ Ball. Which made it an event to mark an event.

And look, I still like this song. Even hearing it now, 20 years later, I’m reminded of the things I loved about it: a confident, swirling swagger of a song, brimming with limited promise. A band that might be on the edge of stepping forward; they were never going to make something like Sgt. Pepper, but the backmasking, the sampling of NWA (amusingly the Amen Break loop, so as traditional as you can get) seemed to show that they might have learnt a few things from their collaborations with The Chemical Brothers if nothing else.

And yes, the lyrics are the usual stuff and nonsense with swipes from songs thirty years prior, but again, here and there are flashes of humour along with the paranoia. I mean, come on, the second bridge of Liam snarling “I met my maker and made him cry” followed by Noel’s sly flanged deadpan of ‘It must have been love’ is completely unnecessary, funny, and manages to sum up their relationship in a manner that almost makes you forget how bad Noel’s lyrics can get. But don’t worry, he’ll be reminding us shortly!

My Big Mouth

My Big Mouth was one of the two new songs premiered at the 1996 Knebworth concert, edited out of the original Radio 1 broadcast (an early sign of the control that Creaton/Ignition would maintain over the Be Here Now tracks). Here, it sets the tone for the rest of the album: there’s a wall of guitar threatening to swallow everything in its path. And in this song it succeeds - you can barely hear the drums, you can barely hear the vocal, and somebody disconnected the bass guitar in the recording studio. And somehow it manages to last five minutes despite this. Not a good sign. But don’t worry, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Magic Pie

Even at the time, the day of queuing up to buy the thing at my local record shop, the excitement, the hype, swept up in it all, even then I knew Magic Pie was a dirge that had no basis being on the record. Twenty years on, I remain astounded that Stay Young somehow got relegated to a b-side and this wasn’t.

The organ, the noodling. the chorus that attempts to build…but can’t and just stops the song dead, which would be a problem for a song that comes in under three minutes. Or four. Definitely five.

It lasts for seven minutes and ten seconds.

Even now, I’m looking at the clock, looking at iTunes after typing this sentence and no, there’s still three bloody minutes left of this turgid song that seems so bloated that it slows down spacetime itself. And when it finally has the decency to end, it can’t just fade out, oh no. The kicker is the ‘jazz’ play out on the mellotron that makes the song about ten times more hateable.

Stand By Me

Two things about Stand By Me intrigue me. The first is this: just exactly what was Alan McGee taking when he said that this record was going to be the one that took America by storm? That’s some seriously high-quality hallucinogenics.

Secondly, did nobody during the writing and recording of this song even think about mentioning to Noel that stealing from the same bloody song for the fucking third time looked a bit desperate? Not even one person could pipe up that the clunky chords in the chorus sounded hideous?

And that’s about as interesting Stand By Me gets, I’m afraid. Not only did it fail to conquer America (shock!), it didn’t even hit Number One in the UK either, being stymied by Candle In The Wind (Dead Princess Remix).

On the twenty-year playback, this song makes me angry. So lazy, so full of contempt for anything resembling beyond a half-hearted ‘will this do?’.

I Hope, I Think, I Know

So here’s the thing. This is not a great song. It’s essentially Roll With It with a bit more jaunt. But! It has quite a few things going for it in the context of Be Here Now:

  • It is the shortest song on the album (4:22)
  • The guitars are yes, full on wall of sound, but at least you can hear Liam singing
  • The lyrics may be standard doggerel, But! It’s Oasis swagger circa Definitely Maybe. If you squint with your ears, it could be a b-side to Cigarettes and Alcohol
  • ‘You’ll never forget my name!’
  • It is actually quite fun?
  • The previous track was Stand By Me and anything would probably sound better

And so, as the years have gone by, this has become my 2nd favourite thing on the album. It knows exactly what it is and doesn’t stay any longer than it needs to. Hurrah!

The Girl In The Dirty Shirt


Okay, I was 18 years old and I loved_ The Girl In The Dirty Shirt_. In my defence, I did fall in love with Floodlit World a couple of months earlier, so I had some taste. Honest.

My God, even aside from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl overtones, there’s…just nothing here. Aside from that bloody organ dragged out from the Magic Pie recording. glances at the length Six bloody minutes. I mean, it’s not terrible…it’s just like wallpaper. Wallpaper with an organ.

Fade In-Out

And then things got weird. Yes, Johnny Depp was on the fastest selling album in British chart history. Because Noel couldn’t play the slide guitar for the recording session, they used Depp’s guitar line from the demos instead (this might, in less coke-fuelled times, have been seen as a warning sign).

Oh, and I had forgotten about the Who-esque scream part-way through. sigh

Again, there’s nothing truly terrible about Fade In-Out, but although the fair may be in town today, it does not make me want to go on the roller coaster. And it has no business being seven minutes long, but this album has already worn me down on that front.

Don’t Go Away

You might call Don’t Go Away an ashamedly transparent attempt to create another Wonderwall. I couldn’t possibly comment. I’d actually place it as an attempt to write another Cast No Shadow but with impressive attempts to pronounce ‘situation’ and ‘education’ while trapping your finger in a drawer.

However, unlike Stand By Me, this attempt at the ‘album ballad’ works where the other fails; I mean lyrically it’s clunky but the song doesn’t feel like it’s stapled to All The Young Dudes with knitting needles, and Liam’s delivery actually does feel pleading at various points. Obviously the song is bursting to overflow with strings and compressed as much as the mixing desk would allow, but it doesn’t suffer too much from either, and the coda is classic Oasis balladry, for whatever that’s worth.

Be Here Now

“Your shit jokes remind me of Digsy’s”.

I struggle. I mean, come on, this is Status Quo. With added whistling.

All Around The World

Welcome, my friends, to the song that never ends. The longest running time of a Number One in the UK, their last single of the 20th century.

This was one of the first songs that Noel ever wrote, held back until the band could afford a 36-piece orchestra to record it. I mean, come on, say what you want, the man had some vision. Again, though, you wish that somebody in the studio might have asked a couple of questions about that vision during recording.


Yes. Yes we are.

First key change! Second key change! THIRD key change! The orchestra being compressed to neutron star levels of density. Liam insisting that it’s going to be okay, but it’s fine for him, he doesn’t have another five minutes of the song to face.

Everybody should listen to this once, though: you’ve never heard hubris as distilled into song form until you’ve heard All Around The World all the way through.

It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)

It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!) (tragically, not a secretly ironic Amiga Power reference) was the other song debuted at Knebworth, and it is a forgettable Stones knock-off. The album peters out with a limp and a fade as the bass-less cacophony draws to a close…

All Around The World (Reprise)

…oh God, it’s sodding back. Not just a ‘reprise’, but two more minutes of All Around The World. I mean did nobody at Creation actually listen to this (yeah, I know their internal response was initially something akin to the scene in 24 Hour Party People where Factory has a playback of a lyric-less Happy Mondays album, but seriously).

It ends with a door slamming…which probably sums the album up effectively.

I was hoping that revisiting the album would reveal something worth keeping, but D’You Know What I Mean? aside, time has been even less kind to the album. And, because I suffer for all ten of you reading this, I even listened to the Mustique demos as well. Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot to build on, though it’s clear that the desire to fill every channel with guitars did not help.

So when you see one of the 696,000 CDs bought on those first three days languishing in a dusty corner of a charity shop, nod your head to the perils of cocaine, but take solace in that you may have made mistakes in your time, but you did not stick Magic Pie on an album.

Surprise NY, NY

And that, dear readers, is how you join the @Pinboard-approved club of people blocked by Paul Graham. Bless his heart.

Odd week, somewhat broken up by travelling up to New York for two days for work. Which I’ll also have to do next week as well. Tiring, but I did manage to sneak in a visit to François Payard’s bakery, so not completely terrible.

(as opposed to LaGuardia Airport, which is just as bad as everybody says it is. Thankfully, next week I’ll be flying into JFK instead)

Seven days until flying back over the Atlantic…

Lemon, It's Wednesday

The impeccable timing of a US passport turning up during an escalating week of ‘are we the baddies?’1

After a lovely weekend in Cincinnati last week, I’m just very tired.

It’s also the sixth anniversary of my arrival to the United States today. I wish it was a happier occasion.

I promise, next week, something longer.

  1. Unfortunately, it seems likely. [return]

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — DC Edition

The first inkling that this weekend was not going to go entirely to plan came on Tuesday. American Airlines pushed an update to my phone that evening saying ‘well…er…we think there’s going to be bad weather on Friday evening. Fancy rebooking?’ Like a fool, I ignored it, thinking that it’d all work out, and besides, if I was a little late, it’d be fine. Totally fine.

By the time I got to the airport on Friday (after sending off all evidence that I’m a US citizen in order to get a passport), the flight had already been delayed until 20:30. But the plane was in the air, so I’d still get to DC around 22:00. Not great, but not the end of the world.

We started boarding around 21:00. We got to the runway at 21:30. number one for take-off. Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t be meeting Richard tonight, but I’d get to my hotel no problem.

At which point, obviously, the plane developed a mechanical fault and returned to the gate. Mind you, it’s better to develop a faulty engine on the runway than having one 6,000 metres up. Anyhow, back to the airport we went, and a sinking feeling descended. Especially as the people in front of me in the rebooking line were getting more and more irate about being offered flights for tomorrow evening. As Richard would be flying home on Sunday, it wasn’t really good for me either.

The day was saved by a combination of a ticket agent happy to have somebody not gearing up for a fight, and Tammy, offering a helpful suggestion - there was a Megabus service that would leave Durham tonight and arrive in DC in the morning. Hurrah!

Just one tiny little catch: the bus would leave at 03:30.

Having confirmed with the ticket agent that they’d hold my return flight open for me if I didn’t rebook my outgoing flight, I headed home, had a shower, drank multiple cups of tea, and started working out how exactly I was going to get to the centre of Durham at 3am. I didn’t really come up with a good solution aside from maybe there will still be some Lyft cars about at 3am?1. Thankfully, the downtown bar scene still has stragglers at that point on a Friday, and so there I was, taking pictures of the Mutual Life building at 3am and hopping on a double-decker bus to DC. By hook or by crook, I was going to get there.

We’ll pause now to list some of history’s greatest monsters:

  • The people who sit on the aisle seat but leave the window seat clear but inaccessible
  • The people that have an hour-long call about banking processing charges where they repeat that information approximately every five minutes into the conversation
  • And the people that get on at Richmond, sit next to you and start playing music on their phone. Headphones still exist, everybody2.

Ahem. Anyway, I did get some sleep, and even arrived in DC 15 minutes than scheduled. A full day of tourism approached!

It’s easy to forget how big the Mall really is, and how impressive the monuments and the planning of central DC comes together. We spent twelve miles in the quest of rediscovering that. But it was fun to play tourist and show a friend around. I did have some impressive bad luck on that front - ending up at a Mexican chain restaurant for lunch after walking to a series of either closed or non-seating places.

I made a better choice for dinner (my first Ethiopian in a few years), but my choice of going to the nearest whiskey bar to save on walking turned out to have two slight issues: 1) its whiskey selection was not exactly stellar, and 2) the research I had done online neglected to mention that it was a gay bar. Which is fine…but I don’t think either of us expected to be chatted up in the evening, or to have somewhat risqué conversations about Bicester Village.

After finishing our drinks there, we wandered and wandered, eventually ending up here (look, it’s a local chain, okay?) for the rest of the evening.

The trip back was much easier. The plane worked, I landed at RDU, and I’m now laid up looking at developing blisters. I don’t have to go outside again until Friday…by then they should be going down some…until then, ibuprofen it is!

  1. I have had terrible luck with scheduling taxi services in Durham at early times, so I ruled them out early on. [return]
  2. Another instance of this - somebody in Target last week walking past the show section with heavy metal blaring from his leg. I mean, standards. [return]

Breaking Neural Networks, Part 1 — Turning A Frog Into A Cat

We’ve all seen the hype. Deep Learning techniques can recognize human faces in a crowd, identify seals from orbit, and classify insects from your phone! SkyNet awaits!

Well, not today, everybody. Because today is the day we fight back. But we won’t be sending back John Connor to save the day. Oh no, we’ll be using maths.

Okay, so first, we need a neural network to attack. Today, we’re not going to be sophisticated - we’re simply going to take an architecture from one of the PyTorch tutorials. It’s a very shallow ConvNet for classifying images from the CIFAR-10 dataset, but the principles here scale up to something like Inception. We train the model, again just using the training code in the tutorial, and we begin.

What is this, oh clever neural network?


Model says: Frog

(CIFAR-10 images are only 32x32 pixels, so yes, it’s a touch blocky)

What we’re going to do is change our picture of a frog just enough that the neural network gets confused and thinks it’s something else, even though we can still recognize that it’s clearly a frog, thus proving man’s continued domination over machine.

To do this, we’re going to use a method of attack called the fast gradient sign method, which was detailed back in 2014 in this paper by Ian Goodfellow , Jonathon Shlens & Christian Szegedy.

The idea is that we take the image we want to mis-classify and run it through the model as normal, which gives us an output tensor. Normally for predictions, we’d look to see which of the tensor’s values was the highest and use that as the index into our classes. But this time, we’re going to pretend that we’re training the network again and backpropagate that result back through the model, giving us the gradient changes of the model with respect to the original input (in this case, our picture of a frog).

Having done that, we create a new tensor that looks at these gradients and replaces an entry with +1 if the gradient is positive and -1 if the gradient is negative. That gives us the direction of travel that this image is pushing the model. We then multiply by a scalar, epsilion to produce our malicious mask, which we then add to the original image, creating an adversarial example.

Here’s a simple PyTorch method that returns the fast gradient sign tensors for a input batch when supplied with the batch’s labels, plus the model and the loss function used to evaluate the model:

    def fgsm(input_tensor, labels, epsilon=0.02, loss_function, model):
        outputs = model(input_tensor)
        loss = loss_function(outputs, labels)
        fsgm = torch.sign(inputs.grad) * epsilon
        return fgsm

(epsilon is normally found via experimentation - 0.02 works good for this model, but you could also use something like grid search to find the value that turns a frog into a ship)

Running this function on our frog and our model, we get a mask that looks like this:

Frog Mask

Adding that mask to the frog results in:

Frog Adversarial Example

Clearly, still a frog. What does our model say?

    model.predict() -> "cat"

Hurrah! We have defeated the computer! Victory!

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in order to produce an image that fools the classifier, we need to know a lot about the model being used. We need the explicit outputs so we can run backpropagation to get our gradients, and we need to know the actual loss function the model uses to make this work. This is fine for this example, because we know everything about the model, but if we wanted to fool a classifier where we don’t have access to any of these internals, we’re stuck. Right?

Stand by for Part 2 soon, where we discover how we can extend this approach to defeat classifiers where all we get is ‘this is a frog’. We shall defeat the machines!

Two Feet High And Chomping

A post shared by Ian Pointer (@carsondial) on

And with that, I’m pretty much coming to the end of my recent buying spree of Transformers. Trypticon was one of the toys that never made it to UK shores, so I was always going to be a sucker for Hasbro’s current strategy of ‘let’s do all of G1, but this time with knees’. So I now have a two-foot dinosaur to go with my two-foot robot…but with no idea where I’m going to put them (although I guess I can delay a permanent decision there for a while).

Next week, more adult pursuits: getting my first US passport. Exciting times!

Rusted Ruby

I gave a talk this week! If you’re interested in a 10,000m look at Rust and then a delve into Helix, then here’s your slides!

Rusted Ruby from Ian Pointer

The talk suffered a bit from my usual deer-in-headlights presenting style and that I lost a week of preparation due to wisdom teeth shenanigans, but hey, I implemented a 3x speedup of Ruby’s Pathname.absolute? in less than ten minutes, which isn’t too bad…

Going to a busy six weeks coming up - as of yesterday, I have trips to DC, Cincinnati, and of course Bicester and London before the end of August. And then…and then, things get even more fraught as I begin my 2018 masterplan. Which is much less impressive than it sounds, but will involve quite a bit of upheaval. But all for the better in the end!

Hopefully, I will sleep a little more this upcoming week, too. And fewer exam stress dreams set back in Manchester. It’s been 17 years…


I can drink hot and carbonated drinks again. Which is good, because I seem to have bought all of the Diet Coke in Durham during the past two weeks of Target sales. I may have miscalculated how much even I can drink, but you can’t beat 4 cases of 12 cans for $8.88, can you?

Other than that…it has been a quiet week. I mean, really quiet. The most exciting thing of the has likely been the discovery of 1980’s Fox. Come back next week for more exciting updates!