Europe 2016 diary: day 14 and 15

22 May, 2017

Friday, 11 November, 2016

We woke up a bit after 07:00 and got organised for leaving Nice. M. had a shower before we headed out for breakfast, but I decided to delay mine until after we’d eaten. We went out again to Boulangerie Blanc, where I tried the pain au chocolat after M. had said it was incredibly good yesterday, perhaps the best one she’d ever had. She had one too, and a cappuccino, while I also added a plain croissant but no drink today. The croissant was good, but the pain au chocolat was amazing. Warm, buttery, flaky, and filled with delicious melted dark chocolate. Oh my goodness, yes, it was the best one I’ve ever had anywhere.

Blanc cakes
Cakes and pastry selection at Boulangerie Blanc

Before leaving Blanc, we bought some baguette sandwiches to take to the airport to eat for lunch there, since our flight left at 14:30. We figured this was much preferable to having to buy lunch at the airport. M. picked the only vegetarian option, which was chevre with salad and walnuts. I chose a smoked salmon sandwich. The lady wrapped them for us in waxed paper and gave us an optional plastic bag for an extra five euro cents.

Read more: Travelling to the airport and the flight home

Europe 2016 diary: day 13

22 May, 2017

Thursday, 10 November, 2016

We woke up in a leisurely fashion as the sun came up around 07:00. This morning we did not have a breakfast included in our hotel stay, so after showering we set out to a boulangerie we’d seen yesterday called Boulangerie Blanc. It had good looking pastries and cakes and bread, and a few tables around the back. M. got a pain au chocolat, while I liked the look of the almond croissants on display so chose one of those. M. got a cappuccino, while I had a hot chocolate. It was all good, the pastries especially so. M. said it might have been the best pain au chocolat she’s ever had, and my almond croissant was nutty and rich and delicious.

Monkey enjoying an almond croissant
Breakfast at Boulangerie Blanc

After this relatively simple breakfast, we returned to our hotel briefly to freshen up and collect my camera gear for some walking around Nice. We crossed over to the beach to have a look at that first, with the morning sun making the scene very picturesque. There were a couple of people in the water, with one old man lying on the pebbles at the surf line and letting the waves wash over him. A group of other men were nearby, peeling off clothes to reveal swimming gear.

Read more: Climbing the hill to the Castle of Nice, the old cemetery, flea market, a relaxing afternoon in a cafe, sunset along the beach, and dinner in the best restaurant in Nice!

Doing commercial research

9 May, 2017

I do scientific research in my job, but I don’t work in academia. I work for a company, and my research goes into commercial products. If I was in academia, I’d be publishing my work and presenting it at conferences all the time. Working for a company, things are rather different.

I have just finished (yesterday) writing a presentation that I hope to give at the Electronic imaging 2018 conference in San Francisco, in February 2018. If accepted by the conference, this will be my first conference presentation since 2014. The deadline for submission of my presentation is 15 August, so I’ve completed it more than 3 months in advance. And I haven’t just completed the slides; I’ve also written a talk script, which will be almost word for word what I say during the presentation. And in the time between now and February next year, I won’t be able to change either the slides or the talk script.

The reason for this is that my talk has to go through the company intellectual property and legal department, to make sure that I am not disclosing anything which is a corporate secret. Besides writing my slides and script, I also had to highlight everything in my talk that was about scientific or technological knowhow from my research, and cross-reference it to published patents that I have written. This is to make sure that I don’t disclose anything that the company hasn’t protected in a patent application. Note that this is published patents. The patent office publishes patent applications 18 months after the filing date. So there could be some technology for which we filed a patent a year ago… and I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it.

The process of vetting and approval by the IP and legal department takes up to 10 weeks. Thus the need for me to finalise my talk nearly 3 months before the conference submission deadline. Assuming my talk passes the IP/legal checks to make sure I’m not disclosing anything we haven’t got protected by a published patent, the company then still has to decide if it wants to let me talk about my work, or if it would simply rather keep it a secret. (At least, as secret as it can be if it appears in a published patent. It makes no sense to me, but yes, sometimes they quite specifically do not want you to talk about work that is disclosed in a published patent application.) This is the gamble phase – it’s impossible to know if the company will approve or reject the application to publish at this stage. So the only way to find out is to go to all the effort of writing your publication and putting it through this process. I could very well have wasted the past two weeks at work writing my complete, finished talk, hoping to present it, and be shot down at this stage. The same would go for a journal paper.

Speaking of journal papers, I am going through this long process for the first time in four years because Electronic Imaging has started accepting “oral presentation only” papers. These are delivered as talks at the conference, but do not appear as printed papers in the conference proceedings. They did this specifically to allow industry researchers such as myself to give talks. Because if I had to submit a written version of my work to go into the conference proceedings (as I did 4 years ago), it has to go through the same external disclosure approval process as the talk slides and script. This makes it much more difficult to publish, because as a printed paper it goes through anonymous peer review. And peer reviewers often request small additions or clarifications to the paper before they agree it is suitable for publication. That can be the kiss of death for my paper, because (a) I often don’t have additional time to devote to revising a paper, particularly if they ask for additional experimental results, and (b) the referee’s request may involve needing to disclose further potentially secret information. I have managed to pull all of this off before, but after the difficulty I had in 2014 getting my previous paper through, I had all but given up, until Electronic Imaging instituted the “oral presentation only” papers.

Anyway, assuming all of the IP/legal and corporate secrecy checks are passed and the company is okay with me disclosing the aspects of my research in my talk script, I can submit it to the conference! And if it’s approved, I can give the talk next February.

As I mentioned, I’m not allowed to change the content of my talk between now and then. If I do more research which improves on the results I plan to talk about, or which solves one or more of the outstanding problems before February, I won’t be allowed to mention it. If I’ve already done work now which improves on the results in my talk, but which I couldn’t include because it’s covered by a patent that has been filed but will not be published by the conference submission deadline, I’m not allowed to talk about that either.

This was in fact the situation for my last talk in 2014. I presented some work, and at the end I mentioned the elephant in the room: the most obvious problem with the results. I had already solved that problem and filed a patent describing the technique. It’s a beautiful piece of science and I am incredibly proud of it – it is I think the best piece of science I’ve done at this job. But the patent was not published by the time that talk had to be submitted to the conference (in mid 2013), so I had to leave it out. And then during the talk I had to raise this very obvious problem as an “unsolved problem”, and stay mum about the fact that I had already solved it over a year earlier. And hope that nobody in the audience pointed out the same solution during question time after my talk! (They didn’t – thankfully it’s not an obvious solution. It took me a lot of effort to come up with it, prove it worked, and solve the secondary problems it raised.)

Anyway, if my current application for the talk next year, in 2018, is approved by my company, I will finally be able to talk about the solution to that problem to an audience of fellow researchers. A solution I came up with in 2012.

I’m not sure I could survive in academia with its “publish or perish” mindset. I don’t have the workaholic temperament necessary to do well there. I’m happier in my corporate research job. But this approach to publication and dissemination of my work is incredibly frustrating. I have good work that I’m proud of and want to share with fellow experts in my field, and I want to establish a reputation as a quality researcher, but I have to jump through these multifarious hoops to do it.

So, if you’ve read this, I hope it provides some insight into the life and publication trials of a corporate research scientist.

Europe 2016 diary: day 12

7 May, 2017

Wednesday, 9 November, 2016. 14:22

We woke up around 07:00, after I had a better sleep, which was nice. We cleaned up and went for breakfast in the hotel restaurant again. I had muesli topped with fresh fruit and some dried figs, with yoghurt. I didn’t feel like anything else, so had two of the small bowls of this. M. ate some slices of bread with Nutella before getting some cereal with milk. She also asked for a cappuccino made upstairs at the bar, rather than getting one from the push button coffee machine in the buffet, since the one she’d had from there yesterday wasn’t very good, and the bar made them better. She also made me a pot of tea from the selection, seeing that they had a peppermint and liquorice blend. It tasted pepperminty but the liquorice was very subtle.

After eating, we went to pack all our things and check out of the room. I handed back the ticket for our car, and the receptionist gave me the car key, a parking garage exit ticket, and a note on which was written the parking spot. She said the car was in the garage under the same block as the hotel and how to find the lift to get down there from the street outside. We wheeled our bags out, but had to climb two steps to the lift before descending down four levels to the bottom of the car park, where we found the car. We packed it carefully, then set up our route to Nice on Google Maps so we could navigate our way safely out of Monaco and to the rental car drop off spot in Nice.

The Rich Spot and the Sea
Goodbye to Monaco

We pulled out of the garage, turned onto Avenue Princesse Charlotte, and promptly ended up taking a wrong fork somewhere that saw us descending a hill on a sinuous road that diverged from the Google route, which headed up the hill. There was nowhere to turn around or even stop to check the map, but by taking brief glances at red lights to help M. we managed to determine that we could get onto a parallel road that eventually merged with the route we wanted to take. I followed some signs to Cap d’Ail, which I recognised as a small cape on the coast between Monaco and Nice, and that turned out to be the correct road to get us back on track. We rejoined the blue line route and managed to stay on it the rest of the way.

Read more: Arriving in Nice, walking through the Marché aux Fleurs, and Vieux Nice, and the central shopping areas, and along the beach, followed by a huge dinner

Europe 2016 diary: day 11

30 April, 2017

Tuesday, 8 November, 2016. 18:43

We got up a little lazily, and didn’t head down to breakfast until about 08:00 after having showers and dressing for a day in Monaco. The breakfast buffet served in the hotel restaurant was similar to others, but with a bigger selection of chopped and fresh fruits, and also pancakes. I had some muesli with fruit salad and yoghurt, and then tried the pancakes with maple syrup. They were luke warm and really not very good; thin and dense, almost more like small crepes. M. had some slices of bread with Nutella after some cereal. I also had a banana, since they were amongst the available fruits. The hot food selection includes sausages, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, and potatos, but I didn’t have any of those.

Saint-Charles Market
Farmer’s market near Église Saint-Charles

After eating, we set out for a day of walking around Monaco. First we headed over to Avenue Saint-Charles and the Église Saint-Charles, where there was a farmers’ market in the morning. This turned out to be quite a small affair, with just seven or eight fruit and vegetable sellers and a couple of flower stalls. They had some interesting things though, like really long skinny zucchini with the flowers attached. We walked through the stalls and then entered the side entrance of Église Saint-Charles to have a look at its interior, before exiting from the front to see the facade before continuing our walk.

Read more: Walking around the port of Monaco, exploring the old city of Monaco-Ville, the royal palace, the cathedral of Monaco, then having a wonderful dinner

Primary Ethics

25 April, 2017

Here in Australia, scripture is still taught in schools. One of the problems with this is that scripture classes eat up some of the scheduled classroom time, and children whose parents don’t want them to attend religious education are specifically not allowed to do anything during that time which might give them an academic advantage over students attending scripture. So the students not attending scripture are typically not allowed to use that time to study, or do homework, or do anything else that might be “educational” in some sense. Often they just sit in a room and watch videos.

About 15 years ago, a group of people decided to do something about that and offer secular ethics classes during this time when other students are doing scripture. Since the scripture classes purport to be offering ethical education, it couldn’t be argued that the non-scripture children were doing anything additional.

However, this campaign fell foul of religious interest groups, who felt that ethical instruction without religion was inherently evil or something. The religious groups fought long and hard to have secular ethics classes banned from schools.

I’m pleased to say, however, that they lost the fight and some years back a completely non-government-funded volunteer group called Primary Ethics was granted permission by the NSW Department of Education to offer ethics classes as an alternative to religious scripture in New South Wales primary schools. The curriculum very specifically does not attempt to teach children “what is right” or “what is wrong” – rather it teaches them skills in critical thinking, and that many issues are complex and that not everyone agrees on what is right or wrong, and the value of considering things from other people’s points of view.

Since its inception, Primary Ethics has grown to be extremely popular, with many parents (including many religious ones) wishing to enrol their children in ethics classes. The problem is, being non-funded, Primary Ethics needs volunteers to actually teach the courses.

Recently, I volunteered to become an ethics teacher, and I just completed my training (which includes federal police background checks and clearance to work with children). I will be starting tomorrow, with a class of Year 4 students (about 9 years old). I’m proud to volunteer my time to teach a new generation of people the principles of ethics and critical thinking, and I hope they all go on to become better adults because of my efforts.

Line and Length

24 April, 2017

Some years ago a friend recommended to me the band The Duckworth Lewis Method, and their self-titled album. He described it as a “cricket concept album”, which made sense, as it was named after what has become the most common rule governing run targets in rain-affected one-day cricket matches. I bought the album, and I enjoyed it – it’s a folky mix of songs about cricket, with lyrics full of cricket jargon and a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.

Anyway, yesterday I was browsing around on iTunes, and I tried entering “Duckworth Lewis Method”, and I discovered they’d released a second album – back in 2013 – called Sticky Wickets. Since I liked the first album so much, I decided to buy it.

I was listening to the album for the first time, and the 8th track began, a song called Line and Length. As I listened to the lyrics, an odd feeling of recognition came over me. The lyrics seemed to be using the definitions of the cricket jargon terms “line” and “length” from Wikipedia.

The line of a delivery is the direction of its trajectory measured in the horizontal axis.
The length of a delivery is how far down the pitch towards the batsman the ball bounces.

Then I realised why the words sounded so familiar. I checked the edit history of the Wikipedia article.

I had created that article, on 5 November 2005. I had written those lines. Here’s the exact edit where I added those lines.

Holy cow. I wrote the lyrics to a song by The Duckworth Lewis Method.

Europe 2016 diary: day 10

15 April, 2017

Monday, 7 November, 2016. 20:56

We woke up a little later today, getting up only after 07:00. After showering, we went down to breakfast and filled up for the day. They had some chocolate biscuits half dipped in chocolate, and I had to try one, and it was good. I noticed while having breakfast that the hotel dog was in the kitchen next to the breakfast room; I guess that’s just a thing that happens in Italy. I wondered aloud if they had bananas, and M. said yes, there were some in the fruit basket. I got one and returned to the table. M. said I could save it for later… just as I cracked the stem to start peeling it. I realised saving it was probably a good idea, but it was too late now! So I had to eat it right away.

We packed our bags and checked out. We decided to walk over to the Arione shop to get some photos of this historical place, and by the time we got back to the car it would be after 09:00, when ticketed parking started. So M. fed the meter to get a ticket, with the help of the hotel guy. He’d also helped us take our luggage out to the car, and had generally been very friendly and helpful.

Unfortunately when we arrived at the Arione shop, it was shuttered, and a check of the hours revealed that it didn’t open on Mondays until 12:30! So I took some photos of the posters outside, and we walked back to the car. This led us past two chocolate and pastry shops there were open, right next door to each other. Both also sold cuneesi al rhum, but what caught my eye was bottles of amaro bitters of various brands in one of them. It sold small bottles, and I decided to get one to take home. After purchasing this, we went to the car and drove off, heading towards France.

Tunnel queue
Cars and trucks queuing to pass through the Col de Tende tunnel

We drove up into the Ligurian Alps, passing the last Italian town of Limone on the way to the border. Just before the Col de Tende pass at the top of the valley, we ran into a queue of cars, stopped at a red light. Next to the light was a display showing the number 14. After a few seconds, I divined that the 14 was indicating how many minutes until the light would go green and we could proceed through the tunnel immediately ahead. Seeing others ahead of us turn their cars off and get out for a stretch, I did likewise, taking the opportunity to take some photos of the scenic valley with the forest around us. One guy ahead of us let his dog out for a walk too.

Read more: A day exploring the village of Tende, driving through Mercantour National Park, ending up in Monaco, the Monte Carlo Casino, then dinner and drinks

Europe 2016 diary: day 9

4 April, 2017

Sunday, 6 November, 2016

We got up just before 07:00 and had showers before descending to the breakfast room. We had cereal and cornetti, and I tried making a toasted cheese roll in the sandwich press, but it wasn’t very hot and the cheese didn’t melt at all.

Before leaving La Spezia, we walked back to the bakery where we’d had lunch yesterday, to buy some things to take with us for lunch during today’s drive. We asked what the brown focaccia-like bread was that yesterday the lady seemed to be saying was filled with cherries. After some to and fro with language, we determined she meant cereals, that it had different grains in it. M. got a slice of that, while I chose a slice of one that looked like it had cheese with lumps of feta on it, and the woman said “Gorgonzola” as she cut a piece for me.

Taking these back to the hotel, we repacked our bags to fit all our new things and our freshly cleaned laundry in, then checked out and headed off in the car. Navigating out of La Spezia was not too difficult, and we picked up the autostrada north of the city, where we’d got off it the other day when we’d arrived. We took the route towards Genova, west along the coast. The road was good, passing over many viaducts and through lots of tunnels as it cut through the rugged coastal landscape of hills and steep valleys. We saw the Mediterranean Sea a few times but never got really close to it.

After an hour or so of driving, we passed Genova, skirting around the edge of it. This was a tricky bit of navigation, as there were several exits and forks and they all had place names we didn’t know. M. used Google Maps to assist and we managed to pick the correct forks, which followed signs pointing to Ventimiglia. (I checked where Ventimiglia is later, and this was certainly the right direction, as it’s the last large Italian town on the coast before the French border.) However we didn’t follow the coastal road all the way, but instead turned inland at Savona, heading towards Turin.

At a rest and fuel stop along this road, we stopped for a break in the drive. M. got a cappuccino in the roadside bar. While she drank it, I spotted packs of Fonzies, the Italian equivalent of Twisties, in the same distinctive red and yellow packet. I had to get a pack to try them, so she paid for one when she paid for the coffee. I ate them outside, while M. had two pocket coffees for some extra coffee hit. While eating the Fonzies, I noticed an area near the car park which was specially set up for dogs, with a tap and water dishes, and even a special wooden pole for them to relieve themselves on. There was quite a graphic cartoon picture showing a dog using the pole, on a sign nearby.

Returning to the autostrada, we continued northwest until a turn off to the A33 route west to Cuneo. As it turned out, Cuneo was the end of the line for the autostrada, as it simply ended with a toll plaza and then turned into a regular road. This time the toll was €25, which I paid with an Amex card as the only booth with human assistance was closed. The toll machine worked fine thankfully.

Piazza Galimberti
Piazza Galimberti, the heart of Cuneo

Read more: wandering the streets of Cuneo’s old town, discovering the local chocolate specialty, relaxing in a cafe, exploring the cathedral, taking in the views, and finding the best place for dinner of the trip

Europe 2016 diary: day 8

2 April, 2017

Saturday, 5 November, 2016. 21:01

We rose just before 07:00 this morning, to the sound of heavy rain outside. It had moved in during the night and looked set in for the day, as the forecast had predicted. We showered and went down to the breakfast room to see what was on offer. There was no hot meal option, unless you counted various cornetti in a warmer so that they were warm as though freshly baked, or the sandwich toaster press with which you could assemble your own toasted sandwiches if you had such a desire. But certainly no eggs or bacon or sausages. There was however a bran flake cereal with fruit pieces in it, which both M. and I had. The yoghurt I added to mine was very runny, and I almost spilled the first tub all over the place as I tipped it over the cereal, expecting to have to use a spoon to coax it out of the tub, whereas it actually came pouring out rapidly. M. told me the cornetti she had were nicely warm, so I grabbed a chocolate one. These Italian cornetti are sort of like croissants, but straight rather than curved, and quite a bit smaller. At this hotel, like the last one, there was also a large tart with apricot jam on it. The Italians sure love their apricot jam, it being the typical filling for cornetti con marmellata as well.


The rain in La Spezia, from our hotel window

After breakfast, we packed a paper bag with dirty laundry and went for a walk in search of a laundry that would do a bag wash for us. Google indicated two dry cleaners nearby, the nearest just a block away, named Casa della Penna, and a second one three blocks in the opposite direction from the hotel, named Lavanderia Everest. With umbrellas raised against the heavy rain, we tried the nearest one first, but couldn’t see a laundry anywhere near Google’s indicated location. I went into an open pharmacy and asked a lady in there, “Sto cercando una lavanderia, il nome è Casa della Penna.” This seemed to confuse the woman for a second, before she began saying in Italian that there was no laundry nearby, and that Casa della Penna was a “negozio”, a shop. I didn’t fully understand her Italian but got enough of a gist, and asked where was Casa della Penna? She pointed at a shop just across the street and down a couple of doors. We looked and sure enough, it had “Casa della Penna” above the door. But far from being a dry cleaner, it was a fancy pen shop, selling Mont Blanc pens and other similar items of luxury! No wonder the lady had looked confused when I asked about a laundry by that name! I’d thought “Casa della Penna”, or “House of the Feather”, was an odd name for a laundry, but now it made sense as a fancy pen shop, as “penna” is also the Italian word for pen.

Read more: The heavy rain spoils our plans for the day, but we make the most of it, eating good food, drinking hot chocolate, and checking out a couple of interesting local museums