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Guiana impressions [#1]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2022 by xi'an

As our daughter Rachel has started her (five year) medical residency with a semester round in a French Guiana hospital, we took the opportunity of the Xmas break and of acceptable travel restrictions to visit her and the largest (and sole American) French departement for a week! This was a most unexpected trip that we enjoyed considerably.

While hot and humid is not my favourite type of weather (!) the weather remained quite tolerable that week, esp. when considering this was the start of the rain season (guiana means land of plentiful water in Arawak!) This made hiking on the (well-traced) paths in the local equatorial rain forest rather interesting, as the red soil is definitely muddy or worse. I however faced much less insects than I feared and mosquito bites were rare beyond the dawn and dusk periods. Plenty of birds, albeit mostly invisible. Except for the fantastic marshes of Kaw, where the variety of birds is amazing, including aras and toucans. Very muddy trails, did I mention it, but beautiful explosion of trees. Green everywhere.My first sight of a sloth was quite the treat, but I regret not spotting anteaters. Or a tapir. Swimming in the marshes of Kaw was great as well, with no worry from local caimans! Which we went spotting after nightfall. The place reminded me in several ways of Tonlé Sap lake, near Angkor.

Ate there an atipa bosco fish from the same place. Which has samurai armor. And two front legs to move outside water! As we had no say in what was served, we also ate paca meat in this restaurant, the agouti paca being a local rodent. Unfortunately because bush meat should not be served to tourists for fear of reducing the animal populations.

Visited several remains of former penal colonies, the whole country being a French penal colony at a not-so-distant-time, from the era when Louisiana was sold to the U.S. to the abolition in 1938, only implemented in 1953… Appalling to think that political and criminal prisoners were sent there to slowly rot to death, with no economical purpose on top of it! To the point of dead prisoners being immersed at sea rather than buried on island gallows, the local cemetery being reserved to guardians and their families….

WoT first three impressions

Posted in Kids, Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2021 by xi'an

As I was pessimistic about the adaptation of the behemoth (14 volumes) Wheel of Time adaptation as an Amazon TV series, I was not particularly disappointed after watching the first three episodes! Regarding the following comments, I do realise that having started reading these books in 1990 and having completed reading the 15 volumes puts me in a tiny minority and that anyone unfamiliar with Jordan’s universe would take the story as it comes rather than checking for discrepancies from the gospel.

Good stuff:

  • Egwene and Nynaeve are delivering strong personalities to their respective character, kudos!, in a sense improving upon their book counterparts!
  • Moraine Sedai is reasonably well rendered, although she could have appeared as more ambiguous though (and why did they add this injury in the Bel Tine scene to the original story?)
  • this includes her telling of the story of Manethren
  • the way Trollocs and Fades are rendered is great
  • the scenery is mostly fabulous, esp. the entrance to Shadar Logoth
  • meeting the Tuatha’an was great, except for the fake scare at the beginning, and the arguing about their non-violent commitment is pretty convincing
  • the idea making the first Darkfriend we meet  more humane and ambivalent than in the book is hopefully going to be seen again

Bad lines:

  • the choice of having the Dragon being one of the five friends, incl. Egwene and Nynaeve, clashes with the structure of Jordan’s world, as well as Moraine’s early infodump
  • Matt, Perrin, and Rand appear incredibly naïve, but maybe this was already the case in the book
  • Matt is decidedly downright unpleasant from the start (i.e., even before Shadar Logoth)
  • the notion to have Perrin already married and the ensuing trauma are terrible novelties, the more because he doesn’t look so traumatized by the ending
  • the special treatment of Nynaeve by one trolloc is missing from the book and unclear as to its contribution to the plot (and why would Moraine leave without her?)
  • costumes are terrible, almost uniformly!, and too modern, looking like they were bought from second hand stores (and more globally there is a feeling of cheapness in the set designs, from Shadar Logoth to Tar Valon)
  • Moraine’s and Lan’s fight in the Two Rivers is rather unconvincing and messy (why did she need to turn this nice inn building into missiles?!)
  • why would Rand and Tam miss the village Bel Tine celebration to return to their farm?
  • The Guardian got highly negative about the show and even about the books (which the first reviewer had never read) maybe seeing too much in the (admittedly terribly heavy) writing style of Robert Jordan and maybe trying too had to draw a comparison with Game of Thrones (just like so many critics). So did the New York Times
  • making the only Darkfriend so far coming out of the open and a sword expert
  • Lan not commenting on Rand’s father’s heron sword, while zooming on said heron several times
  • the sooo slooow walk of Egwene and Perrin in the third episode once they get on track(s), thanks to the wolves
  • the Whitecloacks being depicted as just too evil from the start, with no ambivalence whatsoever (this was also true in the book, which [spoiler alert!] makes Galad joining them later—sorry for the spoiler—difficult to fathom)
  • similarly, the first Red Sister we meet (Liandrin) is similarly too one-sided to give a balanced picture of the different Ajahs in the White Tower


Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2021 by xi'an

I went to the cinema last week, for the first time since 1917!, and with my daughter (in a sort of ritual of going to see a film the day before a major exam, and this was the majorest of all major exams!). And she selected Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. I had little a priori on the contents of the film, apart from the main theme, and it had not yet been discussed on my favourite France Inter weekly critical show. And I got very impressed by a unique film, staying away from cheap miserabilism, crude ideology or voyeurism. Maybe due to our sitting quite close to the screen, I was stuck by the way the characters were shot at their closest and how this would bring them to a higher level of reality, again without any form of caricature or judgemental detachment. The humanity of the film is purely staggering, with portraits of people with a complex and rich life. And Frances McDormand is fabulous, as she merges with the non-professional actors so seamlessly she shares their ethereal, transient attitude. There is no idealisation of the van life either, from the hardship of living with no toilet to the need to grab a tough living from temporary jobs all across the Western US. (The closest to a conflictual situation is when the main character, Fern, has to listen to much wealthier relatives droning about the ideal life of these nomads!) This being a movie about a van, there are also numerous (too many?) great shots of the Western USA, between Nevada, the Badlands [with a very brief historical reminder that this was the land of Lakota people, via the forefront of a 1906 saloon], some redwoods, and the (northern?) California coast. Which reveals a strong contrast with the places where Fern needs to work and live, like the Amazon warehouses, the beet processing plant, the soulless and exchangeable gas stations and laundromats along the road, the dirty camping toilets she cleans as a National Park worker… But again without delivering a message or adhering to an agenda. After watching the film, while biking home, I was reflecting that this was both a form of post-Trumpian film, since demonstrating the complexity and fundamental goodness of the people captured by the camera, away from binary statements and vociferation,  and a post-Bernie film as well as these people are not actively engaged against a harsh social system that does not provide basic help during their retirement years and let them with no further horizon than the next payslip. It is more complicated…

democracy suffers when government statistics fail [review of a book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2020 by xi'an

This week, rather extraordinarily!, Nature book review was about official statistics, with a review of Julia Lane’s Democratizing our Data. (The democratizing in the title is painful to watch, though!) The reviewer is Beth Simone Noveck, who was deputy chief technology officer under Barack Obama and a major researcher in digital democracy, excusez du peu! (By comparison, Trump’s deputy chief technology officer had a B.A. in politics and no other qualification for the job, but got nonetheless promoted to chief…)

“Lane asserts that the United States is failing to adequately track its population, economy and society. Agencies are stagnating. The census dramatically undercounts people from minority racial groups. There is no complete national list of households. The data are made available two years after the count, making them out of date as the basis for effective policy making.” B.S. Noveck

The debate raised by the book on the ability of official statistics to keep track of people in a timely manner is most interesting. And not limited to the USA, even though it seems to fit in a Hell of its own:

“In the United States, there is no single national statistical agency. The process of gathering and publishing public data is fragmented across multiple departments and agencies, making it difficult to introduce new ideas across the whole enterprise. Each agency is funded by, and accountable to, a different congressional committee. Congress once sued the commerce department for attempting to introduce modern techniques of statistical sampling to shore up a flawed census process that involves counting every person by hand.” B.S. Noveck

This remark brings back to (my) mind the titanesque debates of the 1990s when Republicans attacked sampling techniques and statisticians like Steve Fienberg rose to their defence. (Although others like David Freedman opposed the move, paradoxically mistrusting statistics!) The French official statistic institute, INSEE, has been running sampled census(es) for decades now, without the national representation going up in arms. I am certainly being partial, having been associated with INSEE, its statistics school ENSAE and its research branch CREST since 1982, but it seems to me that the hiring of highly skilled and thoroughly trained civil servants by this institute helps in making the statistics it produces more trustworthy and efficient, including measuring the impact of public policies. (Even though accusations of delay and bias show up regularly.) And in making the institute more prone to adopt new methods, thanks to the rotation of its agents. (B.S. Noveck notices and deplores the absence of reference to foreign agencies in the book.)

“By contrast, the best private-sector companies produce data that are in real time, comprehensive, relevant, accessible and meaningful.”  B.S. Noveck

However, the notion in the review (and the book?) that private companies are necessarily doing better is harder to buy, if an easy jab at a public institution. Indeed, public official statistic institutes are the only one to have access to data covering the entire population, either directly or through other public institutes, like the IRS or social security claims. And trusting the few companies with a similar reach is beyond naïve (even though a company like Amazon has almost an instantaneous and highly local sensor of economic and social conditions!). And at odds for the call of democratizing, as shown by the impact of some of these companies on the US elections.

What the …?!

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by xi'an


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