Building Machines That Make Machines

This week, I basically implemented an entire RLAIF pipeline that can scale up to thousands of topics, generating scads of synthetic data, all with open-source software and models, and from start to finish of the first 7bn parameter model rolling off the assembly line was four days. And it would have been three if I had had the courage to kick off the training on Wednesday evening instead of Thursday morning. Oh, and it works, too.

It is nice to actually be building things again.

Anyway, we’re now officially into “it is X days until we travel so I will now start making noises about suitcases and packing like an absolute weirdo seeing as how we still have over two weeks until we fly home” season. It is a fun game that I’m sure Maeryn will be absolutely sick of by the time she’s 4. I also need enough space to bring back around 32kg of Cadbury Mini Eggs, so you can see my need for upfront planning. And also a reserve suitcase. We’ll be going to London as well, so maybe I need a Pelican case to cover the eventuality of visiting the booksellers at the South Bank?

By the way, if anybody wants me to bring something back overseas, now is your chance to speak out before the cases get filled with soap for my family back home…

Sick Day Again

Another week in the series of: “Did Maeryn get sick and pass it on to Daddy, or was it the other way around?” I personally have to blame the person who spends all her time playing with other small infection vectors (okay, I guess infants is a more ‘appropriate’ term) rather than the one who works from home. Just saying.

Anyway, will try to get up a longer post before the end of February, but March and the return to the UK awaits!

21 Knots, Sir

What happened was this: I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and past a Temu advert. I was distracted by what looked like a knock-off of the recent Lego Titanic, which additionally seemed to include an iceberg. Laughing at the tastelessness of including that, I tracked down the product page over at Amazon, AND BOY DID IT GET BETTER.

It’s not a knock-off of the Lego set at all, really; yes, it’s the Titanic, but it’s at a smaller scale (which does mean that instead of $680, its list price is $79, which makes it much more acceptable as something to actually buy). Here’s how my train of thought went as I went through the images:

  • Oh, it comes with a break-apart mode so you can display it…as it went down? That’s silly, but okay…

  • It has diorama bits inside…wait, is that the staircase? IT IS



  • Wait, is that…THERE’S A PRINT OF THE PORTRAIT???

Reader, I bought it. It was also reduced to $65 with a further 10% off at checkout, so I felt that if nothing else, ~2300 pieces of Lego for under $60 is not that bad. And damn, so here’s the thing. In proper Lego sets, even expensive ones, you’ll often end up with a sticker sheet which you have to apply to blank Lego tiles, because actually investing the money to print thousands of tiles with a print bonded onto them is a lot, compared to just using blanks and stickers. The company behind this set went to the expense of printing an entire run of naked Kate Winslet tiles, and for that we can only sit back in awe.

(Honestly, the only thing the set is missing is a door for the Kate minifigure. Yes, just the Kate one)

Apparently the build is terrible, and the instruction manual is printed about a third of the size that it should be to make all the steps clearly visible, but I think that’s a fair trade-off for the insanity that the set provides. One thing, though: because it isn’t minifigure scale, it doesn’t really fit into the plans for our Lego city. Which led me to a different set of thoughts. I could, maybe, get hold of a knock-off of the Parisian Restaurant modular building. And then? REBUILD IT AS RENÉ’S CAFE I have even given thought as to how to make the RAF airmen work in the attic, and how to hide the portrait in the kitchen. WE CAN MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

I probably need to be stopped before I do.

Oh, and I did computer-y stuff during the week. BUT NONE OF THAT MATTERS NOW. I HAVE A QUEST.

Culture Event Horizon

As part of my campaign to be a Proper Dad, I now have a 650 lumen light on my keyring. You know, just in case. It goes right next to the TARDIS (and the USB-A and USB-C keychain drives. It’s important to be prepared!).

Two different, but similar echoes this week. First: R.E.M. were on stage together for the first time this week since…2003? Although they didn’t perform. But it did lead to Tammy asking a question — are R.E.M. one of the biggest bands of the 90s to just seemingly disappear from the Culture? People who are younger than Gen-X or late-Millennial don’t seem to know almost any of their songs, which given the prevalence of Everybody Hurts back in 1993 just seems unthinkable. I’m guessing that back home, the only place you’d probably hear them on networked Radio these days is Radio 2, and even then only in a blue moon. There is not yet a 90s-based TV series willing to bring them back into the zeitgeist like Stranger Things did with Running Up That Hill or Saltburn has recently done with Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

This also ties in to other thoughts I’ve been having of late, of how Spotify has essentially created a context collapse in music culture. To take a big example — when I was growing up, The Beatles were this monolith that had to be investigated - sure you might hear one or two things on Radio 1, but to actually really hear them, you had to rifle through your parents’ record collection1 and they lived entirely separately in your head from what you were reading in Smash Hits or the NME. But now, it’s just what the recommendation algorithm suggests - an obscure Beatles album track can follow a 2024 new release and it’s just another AAC track to the algorithm - it doesn’t care one whit about the cultural impact of The Beatles at large; just that the neural network has decided that the salient features of Cry Baby Cry are what it thinks you need to hear next.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing, either - I was so tickled when Life Without Buildings, of all people, suddenly became TikTok famous. It’s just different. But also, the experience of growing up in the UK with Top of The Pops and Radio 1, was a big difference from growing up in the USA with formatted radio stations and only a few nationwide music slots on late-night television. Imagine being in the 80s and not really hearing Fast Car or Back To Life on the radio. I do wonder what music Maeryn will end up listening to — I’m reminded of Mark Radcliffe once saying “if your parents like Belle & Sebastian, I’m sorry, it’s Norwegian Death Metal time.”

And now for something completely different2, oh wait, no.

Now, putting aside that Eric Idle complaining about income streams brings into mind a goose chasing him shouting “What about Neil Innes, Eric? WHAT ABOUT NEIL’S MONEY?", the attack on Holly Gilliam seems wildly misplaced. After all, under her aegis, we finally got the most comprehensive remaster of the Monty Python series that we will likely ever see.3 Albums were re-issued, and the BFI did a series of screenings for the 50th anniversary. But…nobody cares. Streaming has caused physical sales to dive off a cliff, and even the BFI shows were sparsely attended. The once-majestic stride of the Pythons across British comedy is just now…a bunch of old 16mm and videotape sketches, some of which hit, and some of which miss.

(we’ll never see a complete Not The Nine O’Clock News release, but that’s another story4)

Obviously, I don’t know the full details, but the issue to me seems that there is only so much blood you can squeeze from four series, a few albums, and the films, the most recent of which is 41 years old. Unless somebody has the rushes of series 1 ready to give to Peter Jackson, there’s not much you can do except clean them up, sell physical copies, and bung them up on streaming services. All of which Holly Gilliam seems to have done. And honestly, when you compare Python availability to the works of Peter Cook, Joyce Grenfell, and Spike Milligan (and the rest of the Goons), the Pythons come out so well. Trying to even source a Pete and Dud album these days is a frustrating affair — it’s all gone, and the loss of Network means that you’re not likely going to find Q on any shelves in HMV any time soon either.

The problem in the Python case isn’t availability; it’s that the potential audience has dwindled down to sad cases like me that desperately hoard YouTube VHS uploads of a live Sunday comedy show5. And maybe that isn’t enough for a Hollywood lifestyle anymore…but Neil never got that, did he?

  1. Well, okay, in my case, that was a little harder, as my parents wouldn’t have The Beatles or Bob Dylan in the house. So it’s a terrible example in my particular case, but I think in general it’s a good point. As for me, you can substitute Hounds of Love above. ↩︎

  2. (I see what you did there — Ed.) ↩︎

  3. Yes, Network is no longer with us. But the boxset came out in 2019, so not connected with their troubles. ↩︎

  4. I know John Lloyd says that it’d take too much work to be worthwhile, and I can imagine clearing the library footage might be a mammoth task, but I can’t help feeling that the real problem is a combination of “oh my God, we made Pamela strip off that much?” and Atkinson still being pissed that she was there at all. I lost a lot of respect for him when I found out he didn’t rate her one bit… ↩︎

  5. This Morning With Richard Not Judy was a programme that should not have existed, and yet somehow managed to last for two entire series and eighteen episodes. Aaaaah. ↩︎

Buggy — Transform!

I’m not saying that the restarting of Stormont was waiting on me getting my Irish passport, but I’m not not saying it either…

I was underselling how sick we were last week, I think. This Tuesday morning, I woke up with the feeling that something bad was inside me (at 2:30am, mind you), and raced to the spare bedroom, not even taking my phone with me. Yes, I was without my phone for almost five hours, to give you an idea of how bad I was that I didn’t want to leave the bed to get it.

And then things are a bit of a blur until late Wednesday, if I’m honest. I’m on the mend now, and the tests swear it wasn’t Covid, but it was not fun. Or fun for Tammy, who isn’t well herself, and Maeryn either. Hopefully by the end of this coming week, though, we’ll all be somewhat better? Please?

As I do recover though, thoughts are turning towards the impending trip to London, and this weekend, we tested out what appears to be a marvel of 21st century baby technology: the gb Pockit+ All-Terrain buggy. It’s a buggy that transforms from a buggy to…well, a small block, but a small block that doesn’t look like it is a buggy, and small enough to be taken on a plane as a carry-on item. Maeryn’s only been in it inside the house so far, but she seemed to enjoy herself immensely - at daycare, her class goes in a massive buggy contraption across the building about once a fortnight, and she loves that too. I worry she’s going to love rollercoasters. I’m not prepared for having to try and stay composed for those. Anyway, the buggy seems to be a hit and will likely be put to good use on the streets of London towards the end of March.

Next week: let’s be well!

Ahead of the Zeitgeist!

Apparently, we accidentally made an East-West mashup with our escape room two years ago - mixing the role-play aspects that Quinns sees here in the Jubensha games with more ‘traditional’ escape puzzles. And it worked pretty well, though our story was a little under-developed due a mad rush to get everything ready to the end. But! We had secret objectives, multiple endings for characters and whatnot, so I feel like we did have something there.1 We were ahead of the curve! Go us! And things.

Otherwise, we’ve all been sick this week. Check again later.

  1. The sequel room, which was somewhat inspired by Meow Wolf, would have been (and still might be) something else. Imagine having a conversation along the lines of “how can we make time-travel work in the basement”, and “sure, I can use Pepper’s Ghost to make the group have a holomatter avatar guiding them”, with a side-helping of cutting-edge AI techniques and…look you’re just all lucky that Maeryn is too young for us to build her an escape room party, that’s all I’m saying. ↩︎

Warrington Via Bicester

Another long week that I mostly can’t talk about yet, but two things that cropped up:

  • I have adapted to Midwestern life. Three inches of snow came down on Friday morning, and I needed to pick Maeryn up from daycare in Kentucky later that day. Even before the snow had stopped falling, I had grabbed my big snow shovel, cleared a large section of my driveway, put down salt, and dug my car out enough so that I could get on the road. I even managed to clear things before the neighbour across the road, who normally shames us all with his excellent snow-clearing skills, had even come outside. Victory! (this time, at least)

  • I was introduced to another British person this week. Here’s how that went:

Me: Where are you from?

Them: Manchester!

Me: Oh really? I went to university there!

Them: It’s odd - you know who you sound like? That Radio 1 DJ?

Me stares blankly as I haven’t interacted with Radio 1 for over ten years: Really? Who’s that?

Them: Hmm…Chris…Chris scrolls on their phone

Me _thinking “please don’t say Chris Moyles, please don’t say Chris Moyles”

Them: Oh! Chris Evans!

Me: stares wider in a Southern accent

Other person: Chris Evans?

Both of us: Not that one.

Perhaps the first and only time I’ve been mistaken for a Northerner. I am sure my accent has drifted, but to Warrington???

Finally, I have settled on what might be the first tech blog post of the year…but that’s only if it works. If it doesn’t, then I delete everything from the hard drive and you’ll never even guess. Though a clue is that I spent part of last night downloading The Great Gatsby in a form I can easily vectorize (but also: I am known for terrible, terrible clues). So that may be upcoming! Or not! You see? I’m starting the year by kicking some excitement and drama back into the blog…

Rabbiting Rabbit

I’ve been thinking about the Rabbit R1 all week. Dan Hon has already summed up a good deal about what he thought was lacking, but for me, the big problem comes with the ‘flashiest’ part of the Steve Jobs-aping demo: the booking of a holiday in London. My first reaction was to complain bitterly about the Rabbit CEO asking to book an SUV on his trip to central London, but my real problem is that the Rabbit went ahead and just did it, voicing little except asking for approval.

There’s no personality there whatsoever. I want an AI assistant to politely say “you want an SUV in London? Here’s a list of reasons that’s a terrible idea, hoo-man, and here’s a guide to the London Underground.” In short, I want Orac. But there’s also the contextual knowledge that Dan talks about– if I ask for a way to get back to the hotel at 3am, then maybe it’s time to get a cab rather than exploring the night transit network for the first time. So, then, I’m after Zen. Or if you’d prefer allusions that aren’t to dystopian British 1970s TV serials, I want Jeeves. It needs to have an opinion — I want it to raise an arched eyebrow at me when I ask it to make a stupid pizza order and suggest if sir would rather pick something like a classic pepperoni pizza instead of a feta and olive combination. What does this really give me over opening the app?

(And this is putting aside the idea of selling a device for $200 where all the computation takes place in the cloud with no current concept of subscription charges. How can Rabbit afford that GPU time for 30,000 users - the three tranches that have sold through already and will be supposedly delivered in the first half of this year?)

Anyway, my secret origin is a mixture of Dynac-X, the Knowledge Navigator video, and segments of BBC2’s The Net on General Magic. Sure, getting an assistant to order a pizza is…bordering on useful, I guess, but I want to be able to say “go to arXiv and generate a review of the literature on task vectors, and choose three papers I should really read in-depth.” I want it to go off, plan out a task, query me on things that don’t makes sense, engage in a back-and-forth when required, and actually provide a personality behind the model. We laugh at the people using local LLMs to build their own AI waifus, but at least they are trying to produce that spark of life in their interactions (even if perhaps for not great reasons).

So, I probably won’t be getting the R1. But we’ll be doing some tinkering, both at Bookend, and at home…

Hello 2024

I feel like the first new post of the year is supposed to be full of my plans and ambitions for the next twelve months. But I haven’t really had a chance to sit and think about any of that yet — due to visitors and things, we’re still in holiday mode to a large extent. But eventually things will settle down. Hopefully.

We don’t have a huge amount on the horizon; only the trip back home to the UK in March, although that’s going to be a big event. Oh, and San Francisco later in the year.

Anyway, for the rest of the year, you can probably expect meandering but still short posts most weekends, the odd technical post here and there, and all the other bits I’ve been moaning on about for the past twenty-one years.

And maybe, come August…something special to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this. YEAH! YEAH!

Christmas Roundup

  • Having not been violently sick for fifteen years, twice in six months seems a little harsh. I don’t really remember much of the Thursday before Christmas except sitting on a couch with a baby in my arms for most of it…
  • I’m never going to consider myself a proper pastry person, but I did manage to come up with and execute a completely different dessert (gingerbread namelaka trees!) in under a day and using only the current content of the pantry. Which wasn’t bad.
  • Maeryn needs to calm down and enjoy being able to crawl before trying to walk. Just give us a few weeks, girl!!
  • (also, a baby grabbing hold of a walker for the first time is terrifying)
  • This may be the first Christmas where I did not watch any TV. Not even The Snowman.
  • Was not expecting the remake of the Relax video in Body Double.
  • Ricky Gervais getting a kicking for his latest tired scribbles is a long-overdue reckoning. Insert obligatory James Acaster link
  • We did not get to see the lights before Cincinnati’s Coney Island closes tonight, so that’s one local attraction (the largest recirculating pool in the world!) that we’ll never see.
  • Buying a load of hardback books makes you less popular when other people have to bring them across the Atlantic.
  • But there’s always more room in the suitcases!

It’s been a very different year. New job, new life. A lot has changed, and will continue to do so as the years roll on. I’m looking forward to it, even as I wince every time Maeryn slips over. I won’t always be there to catch her, but I’ll do my best to make sure she’s got all the tools for getting herself back up.

Happy New Year, everybody…