Random thoughts about random subjects… From science to literature and between manga and watercolours, passing by data science and rugby; including film, physics and fiction, programming, pictures and puns.
It is that time of year when we have an opportunity to look back and see what we have achieved while taking an opportunity to see what the next year will bring. This may be of interest just to me, so please accept my apologies… Here we go:
During the year I had a opportunities to attend some great events such as the EGG Conference by Dataiku or the BBC Machine Learning Fireside Chats as well as multiple events with the Turing Institute
I continued delivering training at General Assembly, reaching out to people interested in learning more about Python and Data Science. It has been an interesting year and it is great to see what former students are currently doing with the skills learnt
The work delivered for companies such as Louis Vuitton, Volvo, Foster & Partners, and others was fantastic. I am also very proud to have tackled some strategy work for the Mayo Clinic and deliver a presentation in a lecture theatre at Mayo
I contributed to some open source software projects
It was a busy year in terms of speaking engagements having delivered keynotes at Entrepares 2018 and the IV Seminario de Periodismo Iberoamericano de Ciencia Tecnología e Innovación both in Puebla, Mexico. I also ran an Introduction to Data Science workshop at ODSC18 in London and an Introduction to Python at Entrepares 2018. I gave a talk about Data Science Practices at Google Campus in London. The interactive Q&A session was an fun way to answer queries from the audience. I also was a member in various debate panels
I rekindled playing board games with a couple of good friends of mine, and it has been a geeky blast!
I started a new role and still looking to get my foot through the door with Apple
I’ve been delving more into Machine Learning systems and platforms, learning about interpretability, reliability, monitoring, and more. There is still plenty more to learn
I met Chris Robshaw and attended a bunch of rugby matches through the year
Looking forward to 2019, learning and developing more.
What do I think when I hear the name “Ballet Folklórico de México“? Well, I think of colourful clothes, big smiles, joyful music and great “zapateado”. I also think of Sunday TV and weirdly enough, school. I do remember the end-of-year festivals at school, when señorita Caballero would choreograph some traditional dances for us.
I was thus very pleased to see in the Guardian Weekend, that Ballet Folklórico was coming to London, and that it would be the first time in 20 years that they would be in the British Isles. I had never seen them live, so it was a great opportunity to do so, and boy was I pleased to have done so!
They had their show at the London Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera, and it was a great venue to hear some well-known songs. I was expecting great dancers, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear live music from start to finish.
The programme was divided into 9 distinct parts, going from Mariachis to pre-hispanic dances and indeed a lot of zapateado:
Los Matachines: as many cultural expressions in Mexico, La Danza de los Matachines (also known as “Moros y Cristianos”) is a clear mix of European and pre-hispanic influences. It is a popular dance in religious festivals in the North of the Country. The interpretation presented in London was simply superb.
Guerrero-Guerrero: The name of one of the Mexican independence heroes; one of the states in the country is named after him and perhaps best known for places such as Acapulco. The company presented three parts here Solo de Mariquita, Las Amarillas and El Gusto.
Mexican Revolution: There is no November 20th parade in Mexico without the mention of Adelita and Las Soldaderas. This makes reference to the brave women who joined the fight during the Mexican Revolution in 1910. I really liked the reference to the railways as an important means of transport for los revolucionarios.
Charrería: Sometimes dubbed the “Mexican National Sport”, Charrerías incorporate equestrian competitions and demonstrations, specific costumes and horse/cattle trappings, music, and food. I was truly amazed by the lasso skill of the main Charro who never stopped dancing.
Fiesta en Tlacotalpan: Tlacotalpan is a town inthe state of Veracruz. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the Ballet Folklóriko celebrated the traditional 2nd February Candelaria party with a Carnival. It was great to see real mojigangas on the stage. Even La Bamba made an appearance!
Los Quetzales: A quetzal is a magnificent bird with beautiful plumage. And with just a few movements, I felt transported to Puebla de los Ángeles. Great headwear and lots of colour!
Danzón and Jarana: Once again the mixing of cultures in Mexico brings a fantastic result and in this case Europe, Africa and the Caribbean give us dances such as Danzón and Jarana, from Veracruz to Yucatán.
Danza del Venado: And from the South of the country, to the Sonora Dessert in the North. La Danza del Venado (or dance of the deer) is a visceral performance representing the hunt of a the deer by the Yaquis. Truly magical performance!
Jalisco: If Mexico is known for anything in particular, it would definitely have to be for teh recognisable sombreros, and Mariachi music from Jalisco. How did I enjoy the Jarabe Tapatío, La Negra and Viva México.
What a great way to finish a fantastic performance. People could not be stopped from joining in from their seats. I am truly glad that I had a chance to join la fiesta while El Ballet Folklórico de México came to visit London. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did!
I’d forgotten just how full the first day of an ICM is. First, you need to turn up early for the opening ceremony, so you end up sitting around for an hour and half or so before it even starts. Then there’s the ceremony itself, which lasts a couple of hours. Then in the afternoon you have talks about the four Fields Medallists and the Nevanlinna Prize winner, with virtually no breaks. Then after a massive ten minutes, the Nevanlinna Prize winner talks about his (in this case) own work, about which you have just heard, but in a bit more detail. That took us to 5:45pm. And just to round things off, Jim Simons is giving a public lecture at 8pm, which I suppose I could skip but I think I’m not going to. (The result is that most of this post will be written after it, but right at this very moment it is not yet 8pm.)
I didn’t manage to maintain my ignorance of the fourth Fields medallist, because I was sitting only a few rows behind the medallists, and when Martin Hairer turned up wearing a suit, there was no longer any room for doubt. However, there was a small element of surprise in the way that the medals were announced. Ingrid Daubechies (president of the IMU) told us that they had made short videos about each medallist, and also about the Nevanlinna Prize winner, who was Subhash Khot. So for each winner in turn, she told us that a video was about to start. An animation of a Fields medal then rotated on the large screens at the front of the hall, and when it settled down one could see the name of the next winner. The beginning of each video was drowned out by the resulting applause (and also a cheer for Bhargava and an even louder one for Mirzakhani), but they were pretty good. At the end of each video, the winner went up on stage, to more applause, and sat down. Then when the five videos were over, the medals were presented, to each winner in turn, by the president of Korea.
Here they are, getting their medals/prize. It wasn’t easy to get good photos with a cheap camera on maximum zoom, but they give some idea.
After those prizes were announced, we had the announcements of the Gauss prize and the Chern medal. The former is for mathematical work that has had a strong impact outside mathematics, and the latter is for lifetime achievement. The Gauss medal went to Stanley Osher and the Chern medal to Phillip Griffiths.
If you haven’t already seen it, the IMU page about the winners has links to very good short (but not too short) summaries of their work. I’m quite glad about that because I think it means I can get away with writing less about them myself. I also recommend this Google Plus post by John Baez about the work of Mirzakhani.
I have one remark to make about the Fields medals, which is that I think that this time round there were an unusually large number of people who could easily have got medals, including other women. (This last point is important — one should think of Mirzakhani’s medal as the new normal rather than as some freak event.) I have two words to say about them: Mikhail Gromov. To spell it out, he is an extreme, but by no means unique, example of a mathematician who did not get a Fields medal but whose reputation would be pretty much unaltered if he had. In the end it’s the theorems that count, and there have been some wonderful theorems proved by people who just missed out this year.
Other aspects of the ceremony were much as one would expect, but there was rather less time devoted to long and repetitive speeches about the host country than I have been used to at other ICMs, which was welcome.
That is not to say that interesting facts about the host country were entirely ignored. The final speech of the ceremony was given by Martin Groetschel, who told us several interesting things, one of which was the number of mathematics papers published in international journals by Koreans in 1981. He asked us to guess, so I’m giving you the opportunity to guess before reading on.
Now Korea is 11th in the world for the number of mathematical publications. Of course, one can question what this really means, but it certainly means something when you hear that the answer to the question above is 3. So in just one generation a serious mathematical tradition has been created from almost nothing.
He also told us the names of the people on various committees. Here they are, except that I couldn’t quite copy all of them down fast enough.
The Fields Medal committee consisted of Daubechies, Ambrosio, Eisenbud, Fukaya, Ghys, Dick Gross, Kirwan, Kollar, Kontsevich, Struwe, Zeitouni and Günter Ziegler.
The program committee consisted of Carlos Kenig (chair), Bolthausen, Alice Chang, de Melo, Esnault, me, Kannan, Jong Hae Keum, Le Bris, Lubotsky, Nesetril and Okounkov.
The ICM executive committee (if that’s the right phrase) for the next four years will be Shigefumi Mori (president), Helge Holden (secretary), Alicia Dickenstein (VP), Vaughan Jones (VP), Dick Gross, Hyungju Park, Christiane Rousseau, Vasudevan Srinivas, John Toland and Wendelin Werner.
He also told us about various initiatives of the IMU, one of which sounded interesting (by which I don’t mean that the others didn’t). It’s called the adopt-a-graduate-student initiative. The idea is that the IMU will support researchers in developed countries who want to provide some kind of mentorship for graduate students in less developed countries working in a similar area who might otherwise not find it easy to receive appropriate guidance. Or something like that.
Ingrid Daubechies also told us about two other initiatives connected with the developing world. One was that the winner of the Chern Medal gets to nominate a good cause to receive a large amount of money. Stupidly I seem not to have written it down, but it may have been $250,000. Anyhow, that order of magnitude. Phillip Griffiths chose the African Mathematics Millennium Science Initiative, or AMMSI. The other was that the five winners of the Breakthrough Prizes in mathematics, Donaldson, Kontsevich, Lurie, Tao and Taylor, have each given $100,000 towards a $500,000 fund for helping graduate students from the developing world. I don’t know exactly what form the help will take, but the phrase “breakout graduate fellowships” was involved.
When I get time, I’ll try to write something about the Laudationes, but right now I need to sleep. I have to confess that during Jim Simons’s talk, my jet lag caught up with me in a major way and I simply couldn’t keep awake. So I don’t really have much to say about it, except that there was an amusing Q&A session where several people asked long rambling “questions” that left Jim Simons himself amusingly nonplussed. His repeated requests for short pithy questions were ignored.
Just before I finish, I’ve remembered an amusing thing that happened during the early part of the ceremony, when some traditional dancing was taking place (or at least I assume it was traditional). At one point some men in masks appeared, who looked like this.
Just while we’re at it, here are some more dancers.
Dancers of various kinds
Anyhow, when the men in masks came on stage, there were screams of terror from Mirzakhani’s daughter, who looked about two and a half, and delightful, and she (the daughter) took a long time to be calmed down. I think my six-year-old son might have felt the same way — he had to leave a pantomime version of Hansel and Gretel, to which he had been taken as a birthday treat when he was five, almost the instant it started, and still has those tendencies.
If you are a Sci-Fi fan you might have come across all sorts of different films: long and short, good and bad, new and old. Furthermore, you might have gone out of your way to catch that unseen gem or attend an all-nighter, ahem… Well, if oldies are the sort of thing you want to see, I recommend having a look at the latest season in the BFI – Kosmos: A Soviet Space Oddyssey.
As part of the season, I attended the screening of “Der schweidende Stern” aka Silent Star or “This first spaceship in Venus”. The film is a co-production of East Germany and Poland, made at the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) film studios and for its time it was indeed a big-budget one. The story is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem about an expedition to Venus where the international crew of the Cosmokrator spaceship encounter what is left of a civilisation that brought destruction upon themselves. So, why is an East German/Polish production part of this Soviet-themed season? Well, simple enough, in the film the Soviets are portrayed as being all-inclusive and offer their ship, the Comokrator, to an international team of scientists. The team include a Chinese linguist, an Indian mathematician, a Japanese medic, an African (country not specified) communications officer, an American astrophysicist, a Polish engineer and a German pilot… Great!
The team is sent to Venus because a strange (alien) cylindrical rock was unearthed in the Gobi Desert and after initial examinations it is found that the cylinder contains some communications sent by the inhabitants of Venus. While on route the team discovers that the message is actually a warning about an imminent attack on Earth… The film presents us a very interesting Venus and even a Venusian city, the atmosphere of the planet is dense and very reminiscent of… the 60s!
The Der schweigende Stern does not escape the opportunity of presenting some propaganda, for instance, the Americans are shown as not very cooperative and I really liked the whiskey-enhanced discussion they have while trying to convince their compatriot not to go in a Soviet mission. Also, the ghost of Hiroshima shows its face in more than one occasion and the references to the horrors of atomic war are ever present.
So, if you find that Harry Potter does not have the appeal for you on a rainy Sunday evening, try having a look at what is on offer at the BFI.
Fonts are all around us and they have become a bit more familiar after software such as MS Word or Apple’s Pages put them at the fingertips of their users.In this manner, terms such as serif, kerning, pica, point and boldface have become part of (almost) every day language. Similarly, the names of different fonts are familiar to many of us. How many times have you used Times New Roman, Lucida, Arial or Calibri? Or for that matter, have you noticed how many signs, ads, books, films and stationary use Helvetica?
If so, you would not be at all surprised to hear that there is even a documentary dedicated to the ubiquitous Helvetica! That’s right, Gary Hustwit’s documentary is a film about typography, graphic design and visual culture and if you are a bit of a geek like me, then you would definitely enjoy it. I had the opportunity to watch the film at the ICA in London this weekend, and I was very pleased to have seen it.
Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman back in 1957 and its original name was “Neue Haas Grotesk” because of its relationship to the sans-serif German type Akzidenz Grotesk and because it was commissioned by the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland. The change in name came about after the type began to be marketed internationally in 1961, and the rest is history.
The film came out in 2007 just in time for the 50th anniversary of Helvetica and shows a myriad of examples were the font is used and some of the reasons behind its proliferation. The film presents short interviews with some of the most renowned people in design: Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf, Tobias Frere-Jones, Wim Crouwel, Jonathan Hoefler, Michael Bierut, etc. Their comments show the interesting relationship that we have, not only with Helvetica, but with other typefaces and with design in general. The font has its advocates and its detractors, but it is undeniable the impact that the font has had in the world over the past five decades.
So, if you are the kind of person that notices the wrong physics in films and complain about typecasting, i.e. notice when filmmakers used the right or wrong type for the period of the film, Helvetica is a film to watch.
“The end of the World” is, has been and will be a source of inspiration for stories, books and films. For the latter, we have accounts that go from the silliness of “2012” or “Armageddon” to the more accomplished “12 Monkeys” passing by the “Dr Strangelove” treatment. And so one of the questions hanging in the air with these films is “what would you do on your last day on Earth?”. Perhaps you would go for the “Keep calm and carry on” attitude or maybe for the “Now panic and freak out” perspective.
Yesterday, I faced that same question yet again while watching Don McKellar‘s Last Night in the BFI. In this particular case we are not told any scientific (or otherwise) explanation at the heart of the doom scenario: no sign of a nuclear winter, Sun dying, global warming or Gods’ wrath. In that sense, it is great because there is no heroic figure that rises from the ashes of the Earth to save the day Bruce Wills’ style. Instead, we are in placed in Toronto, Canada, where normal people go about their not-so-normal lives. Everyone in the film, even those who are causing havoc in the streets, seems utterly resigned to the unfolding events. So much so that, downtown Toronto, will host some sort of New Year’s Eve-like ‘countdown’ to the end, which quite aptly for them is scheduled to happen at midnight. Quite handy, really!
I am not too sure that most people would react as imagined in the film when faced with the prospect of the end. I guess there would be far more rioting and panicking, but you never know. I was quite pleased with the way in which the media react to the news: rather than a painstaking 24/7 reporting on every single detail of the demise, they treat it as well as a New Year Eve-like opportunity to play ‘The 500 Greatest All-time Hits’.
Great performances of McKellar himself as Patrick, a gloomy man disaffected by the recent death of a woman he loved, and of Sandra Oh as Sandra, a young woman stranded in the city after her car is vandalised while she is shopping. Patrick has chosen to spend the last moments on his own after having had a cringey ‘Christmas Dinner’ at home, while Sandra is desperately trying to get home and close the pact with her husband Duncan (played quite suitably by the director David Cronenberg). Patrick and Sandra are drawn together by the circumstances and in the same way that their stories collide, the rest of the characters are shown to have some form of connection. This reminded me of the narrative style used by González Iñárritu in “Amores Perros“; the inevitability of the end is reflected by the unavoidable fortuitous encounters.
In that manner, Duncan, a gas company executive ends up talking to the rest of the characters as he spends his last hours at work leaving messages on his costumers’ answering machines. Or Patrick’s best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie, of Cylon fame in BSG) who has chosen in his final hours to try and complete a check list of sexual fantasies that include sleeping their old French teacher (Geneviève Bujold), and even with Patrick. The professeur-étudiant dialogue between Mme Carlton and Patrick does put a smile on your face.
There were a couple of things that I really liked: 1. the unmistakable seventies decor and 2. the fact that the entire drama is played out in broad daylight: darkness never falls, even at the inescapable demise at midnight. Finally, should the world come to an end as seen in Last Night, at least there seems to be a flicker of human spirit and solidarity, for instance in that scene when Patrick explains to Sandra the socialist significance of Pete Seeger’s version of José Martí’s “Versos Sencillos” used in the well-known song “Guantanamera”.
I first heard about this film in The Culture Show in the BBC. It was good to see how the director of “Monsters”, Gareth Edwards showed Mark Kermode how he made the monsters in his own bedroom using some 3D computer generated tentacles. You can catch the clip here.
The plot is quite promising: We are presented with a futuristic world where NASA has definitely found extraterrestrial life, and no, we are not talking about arsenic-based lifeforms. A probe containing samples crash lands in Mexico, where the aliens spread throughout the U.S.–Mexico border region leading to the quarantine of half of Mexico. The film then becomes some sort of Sci-Fi road film, where we follow the story of Sam and Andrew, two Americans who are trying to make it back to their home country.
Surely the film is worth talking about in terms of the special effects, which considering they were done is Edwards’ bedroom, are quite impressive. The film is indeed an independent film with a low-budget and although the Monsters are brilliant, I was not impressed by other bits and pieces.
On the one hand, they paid a lot of attention in creating road signs and maps of Mexico where the “infected zone” was marked. On the other hand, the combination of English and Spanish in a lot of them was quite shocking and some of the Spanish was actually what I would call “Spanglish”. I guess they wanted their English speaking audience to understand what was written, but it just looked quite fake among the rest of the carefully conjured sets. Not only that, but at the beginning of the film we are explicitly told that the action takes place in Mexico, then they put some subtitles mentioning “Central America”… Indeed they were in Central America, as they filmed in Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica. But they explicitly mention Mexico and USA. I am sure that they could have taken better care of following their own plot.
I still do not understand what a Mayan pyramid from “El Ceibal” archeological zone in Guatemala is doing overlooking the border of Mexico with the US. I would like to think that people with a bit of geographical knowledge would know that there is a desert in that part of the world, and that the Mayan civilisation was never present in that region. I fail to see why there is a thick jungle in the supposed Mexican side, whereas on the other side of the border they faithfully reproduce the barren desert landscape. Finally, I could not understand why the Mexican population in the North of the country were listening to Jaranas or Sones Huastecos, which are from a completely different part of the country… And as for the dialogue, well, do not even start me up…
By far the best part of the film was when the Monsters appeared, glowing along and destroying things. I wish they had shown more about the monsters and researched their depiction of Mexico a bit better.
All in all, do go and watch the film but bear in mind that you won’t be able to glance at the US border from the top of a Mayan pyramid in the middle of the jungle.