Back in 2003, someone suggested that I put a list of ‘fun facts’ about myself here on the site, and it’s taken me more than 6 years to get around to doing it. So here are a few semi-random things about my life either that I’ve found particularly interesting, or that other people have sometimes found interesting or just plain silly. There are dozens more where these came from, but I’ve tried to keep this short enough to be readable. And I’ve mainly kept to solo events and activities to avoid implicating anyone else in my occasionally questionable escapades!
- When I was around 9 years old, I told my mother I was pretty sure I wanted to be either a rodeo clown or a nuclear physicist when I grew up. I’ve never actually been to a rodeo.
- It was also around age 9 that I started my first business, selling toothpicks flavoured with cinnamon oil to my classmates. I did well until I started bringing in other 9-year-olds as ‘investors’, and then the teachers shut me down.
- My Doberman Pinscher Tasha and I used to be practically inseparable pals. We even competed in dog shows and collected a few obedience wins and ‘best of show’ prizes. I loved that dog. When she had to be put to sleep years later, I cried so hard and my chest hurt so much I actually thought I might be having a heart attack. The poor vet had to herd us out the back door of the practice.
- As a child, my first computer was a TRS-80, but I’ve mainly used Apple computers from 1978 until this day. (If sequences like “D5 AA 96” and “DE AA EB” mean anything to you, you’ll appreciate just how into Apple computers I was.) These days, if I’m getting my hands dirty with programming, it’s most likely to be with PHP, but back then it was BASIC or Pascal, then 6502 or x86 assembly language. Nowadays, I’m a Mac guy. Macs work. Windows is dumb.
- I was in a science program where we did experiments with a synchrotron particle accelerator, and as a prank, I stole a lead brick from the outside layer of a pile designed to stop radiation leaking from targets being blasted with high-energy x-rays. I discovered as I picked it up that it was way too heavy to make a good souvenir, but by then it was too late, so I absconded with it anyway and hid it in the refrigerator in my room. The security folks got especially cranky because they weren’t yet sure exactly what it was that had been stolen from their nuclear facility; they launched a major me-hunt when I subsequently disappeared for some innocent exploration in another part of the compound instead of attending a scheduled function. What a hoot. Um, not.
- My favourite dessert used to be blueberry pie with orange sherbet (not the fizzy powder that is UK sherbet, but something like a cross between sorbet and ice cream, as it is in the US).
- When I was 15, I built and launched a 100-pound sounding rocket to an altitude somewhere around 25,000 feet. I’m not sure, but I think I might have been the youngest person at the time ever to have done that. Some of the other participants at the launch actually recovered their rocket payloads successfully — unlike mine, which obliterated itself in the desert floor when it returned to Earth.
- Decades ago, when I lived in the US (rural Montana), I really used to enjoy target shooting. As a teen, I thought it was cool that I could punch a 5.56 mm round through a quarter at about 40 yards with ‘iron sights’, or through a dime at twice the distance with a scope. Nowadays, I’d probably save those 35 cents.
- When I decided to decline several appointments to US military service academies, my father decided that my parents would not support my attendance at a civilian university in any way. I was fantastically fortunate that a series of scholarships and awards, loans and part-time jobs saw me through from the start of my undergraduate studies to the completion of my PhD. I’m still grateful for all that help I received from so many different organisations.
- As part of a computer science class, we had to design an x86-based computer from scratch and then build it with old-fashioned wire-wrap tools — no printed circuit boards. It worked! Toward the end, our team got a bit behind, so I worked alone for 36 hours straight to write an entire disk operating system for the machine in x86 assembler.
- I dabbled in different martial arts for a long time, ranging from karate, kendo, iaido, and even ninjutsu, to Tai Chi Chuan and some foil fencing. By the end of university I’d become more serious about it, reaching nikyu (brown belt) in shukokai karate and later reaching shodan (black belt) in the nunchaku, bo and sai weapons of Ryukyu Kobodu, along with some basic work with tonfa and kama. I think the world would be a better place — and folks would probably be nicer to one another — if everyone spent some time with traditional martial arts training. I also learned along the way that when one settles into a martial art that makes a good fit, the study and the practice never finishes, never attains an ‘end point’, never reaches ‘mastery’. There is always something stunningly basic still to be grasped.
- There was a university class I dropped because I didn’t think I could handle it: Japanese Art History. Slides of various pieces flashed up on the wall for maybe 20 or 30 seconds each, and we were told mountains of things about them. This went on for the whole duration of the class meeting time, and we were expected to remember all that stuff. It still baffles me how anybody could pass that class.
- I successfully argued on ethical and scientific grounds that my university should drop its requirement that students in experimental psychology must randomly lesion rat brains, observe their behaviour, and then section them to infer, ex post facto, what brain damage correlated with what changes in behaviour. In lieu of the course requirement, I conducted a participant observation study of reactions within and toward the homeless community in a nearby city, posing as a homeless person myself. Of course I still gladly learned about rat brains.
- As an undergraduate, I was very active in several animal welfare and environmental causes, including campaigning against purse seine fishing for tuna. Usually, my activities were legal.
- I was an Assistant Warden (called a ‘Resident Assistant’ in the US) in a hall of residence at the University of Glasgow. On the first day for returning students, a third-year veterinary medicine student named Kathryn arrived very late after an all-day journey and serious car problems. I refused to give her the key to her room because, being the clueless newbie left to cover for someone at the front desk for a couple of minutes, I had been told not to give out any keys. She forgave me, we got engaged two years later at a castle, and we married two years after that.
- I read a news report that someone at a BT research centre had claimed that in a few years, scientists would be able to implant microchips in people’s brains and record their experiences. I sent an email to the head of the place telling him why I thought that was preposterous and how reports like that just made all of us look silly who were actually doing serious research in brain/consciousness/artificial intelligence/artificial life kinds of areas. They immediately flew me down to give a talk and hired me to work with the same person featured in the original news report (who, it turns out, hadn’t really made that zany claim after all).
- My work at BT started with research on cognition, artificial life, information theory, evolutionary computation and a bit of quantum decoherence. I travelled literally around the world giving talks on my research and meeting some stupendously interesting people. Eventually I wound up working on corporate venturing projects and contributing to corporate strategy, including consulting on derivatives structures that could be employed in mergers and acquisitions contexts. My last post there was in strategic relationship development.
- One of a couple jobs I was head-hunted for was a Senior Associate post at private equity firm The Carlyle Group. I really anguished over whether to follow my own internal compass on that one — an internal compass which told me to leave big business and strike out on my own — or whether to follow along with what the outside world might be making possible. Much like my choice of undergraduate universities, what a massive bifurcation point in life that was! But it was all moot: Carlyle decided to leave the post unfilled and hire an additional Managing Director instead; neither I nor the other final candidate was offered the job.
- One night over dinner at an Italian restaurant, my wife and I decided we would both quit our jobs, start working differently, and choose somewhere in the country that we specifically wanted to live — as opposed to going somewhere just because one or both of us had been offered a job there. So just like that, we left our jobs, started our own companies, and I went back to university for a time to study counselling, while my wife worked as a locum veterinary surgeon. Then we picked our place and moved to the other side of England to live in Devon. For a long time, I’d thought I’d like to find my way back to Scotland again, but since moving to Devon I’m not so sure.
- My daughter Hannah Sophia was born on Christmas Day, 2006 — the one day of the year that my wife insisted she was absolutely NOT going to give birth. As far as I know, there is nothing in life more magical than meeting your newborn for the first time. Lots of people have that experience, I know. But still, if I were to rank this list in the order of things that are most extraordinary to me personally (as distinct from things that other people might find interesting), this one would be right at the top of the list.
What an Odd Experience
What an odd experience that is, writing down things like this where other people might choose to read them. Throughout the history of this site, I’ve rarely included very much of ‘me’ in it, opting instead to focus on information, reasoned argument, and other varieties of less ‘personal’ material. Although I still haven’t written much above that is very personal or special to me — even when talking about the topics which themselves are very dear to me, like my wife and daughter — it’s still the only time I’ve ever seen so much of this sort of thing about my life written down on a single page.
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