The Sixth Epistle (020070924)

############################## CHASING WINTER ##############################

So my itinerary is something like:
<<25/11, 1700; Wellington -> Auckland -> Los Angeles -> Frankfurt ->
Heathrow -> Oxford -> Jet lag; 26/11 ~1700>>

Which really spoils the email's punchline, but there you go, if you don't
have the time to read anything else you've got the important stuff. Other
topics to come: skiing and some more abrasion, work and all that, the photos
need captions and I'll definitely talk about RSI.

Let's start with skiing and my strange propensity to graze myself (and then
write to you all and tell you about it?). Susanna, her Dad and I spent a
week or so down at their bach in Cromwell, driving up to the ski field each
day. The weather was perfect, bright and sunny every day. Windy of course,
bitterly so, but that's par for the course at Cardrona. I've been told that
"Cardrona" is Gaelic for "windy ridge", and if it's not it should be!

Unfortunately, the snow was a little bit thin. As anyone who's skied at
Cardrona knows, most of the mountain is groomed. It's a fair bet they move
snow around too, to keep the trails covered. Which is all very well - it's
important to give the beginners somewhere flat to ski. However, it made
already-thin snow completely non-existent off piste. Deceptively so. It
looked like there was snow there, until you skied over the lip and found
yourself facing tussock (bad) and rock (worse). Kind of like the time I did
my wrist in at TC but not nearly as funny. Anyway, that only abraded my skis
and my sense of humour. What got me was a deceptive checkerboard of slough
and sheet ice down the bottom of the Flatlight-star. You'd be surprised just
how much like sandpaper ice is when you slide on it for long enough, even
through a jacket and polyprop, but there you go. Another lesson learnt. No
pictures this time, it wasn't especially photogenic.

Otherwise since the end of April? Well, before I forget again I should
mention that law dropped by the wayside when I realized just how busy I
still was, so that intellectual itch has had to go to the back of the queue.
And dance? It's as fantastic as usual, nothing new to report there. If you
don't or think you can't though I insist that you try it. I haven't killed
myself dancing yet, and that's fair proof that no one will. Besides, every
real man knows how to dance and every real woman wants to dance with him.

The theoretical work for Alex went pretty smoothly, which was nice, and it
turned into a workshop paper which Alex should get most of the credit for,
but which is very nice to have. But also bad, as now I'm re-implementing
java.util using his new Ownership Generic Java. And I've never been a very
good programmer. But it's not entirely my fault. Type erasure is evil and
Java is definitely showing its age. I'm not sure how much further the
language can be pushed. Also, I prefer C# - inconsequential differences
count!

I've tapped away at my own research too. I wrote up a lengthy but pretty
superficial lit survey in July and since then I've been thunking my head
against the arguments in a position paper I'm writing. ECAP 2008? I'm not
sure if I can make it stick but Tony Vignaux didn't shoot me down in flames,
so there's hope. Otherwise, just reading and thinking a little bit about
some corners that I might nestle into and make my bed in for the next 3
years or so. Bayesian model scoring maybe?

On to the photos. I think the first photo is a superb example of my fashion
sense. Who would have thought fluoro socks, long johns and grandpa slippers
could have worked so well? The horizontal stripes on my long johns really
make it a hit, and I love my slippers! The second is another example of my
eye for fluoro style. I don't know who took it, but it was on my camera
after the Architecture Ball. I'm pretty sure I was dancing with Susanna at
the time, but maybe I was just shaking her hand? Actually, I know I wasn't
shaking her hand, any insobriety I'd acquired that evening had long since
evaporated by then, but you can probably tell it wasn't exactly the most
dynamic dancing maneuver. Damn good evening though.

And my skis. I've learnt a lot about their inner construction. Jonno, Ash,
Mum, anyone else who has an opinion on them - I probably won't have a chance
to ski for 2-3 years. Do I need to get them fixed now, or will they wait?

Last but not least, a rather incomprehensible histogram. It shows the second
of four stages in the Sage algorithm, which is that pattern-finding software
I've been working on. Funnily enough, it's a graph of the search for
patterns over time. Cunning.

Truth be told, I was generating graphs like that nearly a year ago. The
algorithms that underlie them are now much tweaked and rewritten though and
I have a lot more confidence that the patterns found are actually real
patterns. The next (and final) steps are also just a few ';' from being in
place as well, so the whole shebang is finally there. That wasn't the case a
year ago, and it's been long enough! And yes, the reason I'm dragging you
through all this is that I'm proud of it. Next step is to apply the
predictions and remove myself from the direct decision making loop as much
as possible. Fingers crossed.

So what does it mean? Well the graph shows the search in one of the
dimensions ("buckets", i.e. frequency) my patterns are evaluated on over
time ("generations"). The height is the number of patterns in each bucket.
You can ignore the colours, they're just there to make it pretty and
comprehensible - the important thing is the lump in the middle, which grows
rapidly at first and then picks up laggards over the next 10 generations or
so. You can ignore the wobbly bit at the end too, that's just some manual
tweaking I do.

Not very exciting, I'll be the first or second to admit that. Still, it's
all come together now and I'm vaguely proud of my obstinacy in getting it
this far. Plus I'd say it was the start of an elegant argument against
efficient market theory, except the economists I talk to tell me no one
takes that seriously anymore? Which makes sense - they wouldn't be teaching
it to high school students unless it was outdated.

And that is *more* than enough about any graph, no matter how pretty! Thus:
RSI. If you've got this far you've got staying power. Which is good, what
I've written about RSI is not very clear and getting it as clear as it is
has taken a while. Not saying anything at all about it last time was a bit
of a cop out though, so I'll try and redress that now.

Is it just me or is RSI the kind of thing people are ashamed to admit to?
I've been open to people about why I'm back in NZ, and the number of
computer scientists and IT people I've had come up to me rather discreetly
and admit that sometimes they're sore too... Hmmmm... Right up front though
I should stress that I'm only writing about my experiences. Also, in case
you didn't realize, I'm not a Doctor, so please don't take this as advice,
OK?

Anyway, cause. It seemed to me that my RSI was a lot like a bad back – there
wasn’t just one thing that was causing it. Physical, physiological and
psychological things all contributed. Things like poor circulation might
also have predisposed me? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’ve had, still get, short-term RSI like symptoms by straining the muscles,
tendons and nerves, clenching my pen, clenching the handlebars of my bike,
clenching the steering wheel of my car, or clenching my mouse. I've been a
bit of a clencher. However once I’ve done that, or once anyone’s done that,
your body heals in a few days at most. We’ve almost all had sore hands after
an essay exam, right? Maybe? First noticeable pain for me was after a long
drive (1.5 days) several years ago. Anyway, it was only when I triggered it
often enough that it became entrenched. I think that muscles and nerves in
my arms responded physically, tightening and shortening. I became more
attuned to pain in that area physiologically, and I paid a heck of a lot
more attention to it when it did hurt! Once things reached a certain point
there was a positive feedback loop operating and it escalated.

The key to treatment was breaking that feedback loop, and that meant
breaking it physically, physiologically and psychologically. It was always a
case of get enough things right and the others won’t matter, but miss too
many and it only got worse.

Before I bog you down in more detail about treatment though I'm going to
tangent briefly to talk about the different medical treadmills I've run for
this. New Zealand gets a big thumbs up. I have immense respect for the NZ
medical establishment, in particular Dr Highet, who managed to chart a
delicate path through the rockiest shoals I could find, and Dr Bellum, who
must be Wellington's preeminent dealer of drugs. The British medical system?
Not so good. Acupuncture? Even worse, at least three thumbs down. Maybe I
just have bad chi or evil energy. Or maybe acupuncture is only a crude
approximation to real medicine. And the problem with crude approximations is
that usually they're wrong. But it's not all as one sided as I just made it
sound, at least UK vs. NZ. Some other day I'll write about the bad things
here, there is no shortage, but not today.

Back to the actual solution itself. Physiotherapy, muscle balancing
exercises, massage and not doing the nerve stretches I got shown in England
all helped. Desk setup and work habits also. It's OK to take a break. Funky
ergonomic equipment was hit and miss - joystick mice are bad, but Kinesis
keyboards are awesome. Keyboard and mouse height is incredibly important,
far more than anything else. Doing some drugs helped. Clonodine is very good
for neuropathic pain.

The psychological side was the most interesting and the most complex.
Dealing with it, to the point I can write about it now without feeling pain,
has been quite an interesting battle. It's taken a certain kind of Orwellian
doublethink. I had to make sure I was doing everything in a way that
wouldn’t aggravate already sensitive nerves. And while doing that I had to
make sure I didn’t think about it, because the very act of thinking about it
aggravated it. If anyone knows of a good solution to this kind of problem,
let me know, I don't have one yet.

A couple of things did help though. Break reminder software? A bad idea. It
just told me how long I’d been "damaging" my body for. Somehow though, and I
still don't know how, I need to learn to take regular breaks without
reminding myself to. Drinking lots of water, exercise, eating well, doing a
variety of tasks. The standard rigmarole, it all helped. And watching what I
thought, it sounds fluffy and silly but how I think does seem to have a real
impact on how I am.

Consciously weeding out the mental habits helped as well. Calculating how
many hours I'd used the computer for and then working out how sore I should
be as a result was a bad one. I try now not to pay any attention to how long
I've used a computer for. Likewise mentally inspecting my forearms to see if
they're sore. Not a good habit. After some work they're finally in full
retreat. I just hope my describing them won't pass them on, they could be
infectious.

There's a lot more, but this is a horribly disjointed ramble so I'll end it
here. A quote: Don't hunt for the pain and it won't find you.

FINIS

[Hover over each image for the caption/filename.]

A - Too Stylish

B - More Fashion

C - My Skis

D - der-histogram.2.png

 
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