Archive for Canada

Mission implausible

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2021 by xi'an

I watched two movies with the same starting point, namely an old man being forced to take care of an unknown girl, despite his lack of fatherhood experience and no initial inclination to do so, while later defying odds and surviving together… One is News of the World (absurdly translated as The Mission in French, hence my poor pun) with Tom Hanks and (fabulous!) Helena Zengel, the other is Midnight Sky, with the improved French title of Midnight in the Universe, with George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall. The first one is a (modern) Western, set in Texas right after the Civil War and sometimes presented as a modern (and over-washed) version of Ford’s The Searchers, while the second one is an ecological science-fiction film, set in 2049, as the Earth is collapsing under an unspecified but all encompassing disaster. The first is passable if implausible, the second one is a disaster at all levels.

In News of the World Tom Hanks is again doing his Jimmy Stewart impersonation, always doing the “right” thing even when this is rather implausible. The fact that no-one seems to care that a stranger goes away with a young girl may be plausible in the late 1800’s Texas, although I am surprised none of the very few women in the story, one of them the girl’s own aunt, does even object. On the other hand, the motive for the compulsory gun duel sounds very weak if darker than the rest of the story (and is there any chance a shotgun cartridge filled by coins (of the right diameter!) can fly true to its target?!) The choice of depicting Kiowa Indians as silent spectres walking away may be artistically motivated but it does not carry much weight, just like Hank in the movie is not making much progress in denunciation of slavery and genocide, besides keeping his own decency.

In Midnight Sky, George Clooney is a grumpy old scientist stuck in a Far North observatory, in terminal phase of a blood disease and who is gradually revealed as having always failed on the personal relation side. [Anyone wondering at the scientific pertinence of the presence of a most traditional observatory [incl. manual orienteering] at this latitude? Although I found that Canada has recently set an observatory on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.] As Earth is collapsing under deadly radiation, Clooney finds himself alone until he discovers a little girl conveniently left behind during the evacuation of the station. As a space ship is returning to Earth, unaware of the disaster, the pair sets on an impossible mission to reach a better communication station. first on a snowmobile, then on foot!, with no goggles and a woolen hat in a snow storm!, just to make sure we can recognise Clooney!, while the disaster that see the pair stranded with only their clothes on a frozen tundra makes no sense. For instance, falling into Arctic water has a very low survival probability, esp. for a a sick and old man. And the part taking place on the very-low-tech space ship is light-years away from anything remotely realistic. Ending up (spoiler!) with the ship turning back to this habitable moon of Jupiter as if this would make any difference… Have a safe trip!

a journal of the plague year [post-december reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2021 by xi'an

Read a (French) novel by Fred Vargas, Sous les Vents de Neptune, after finding it in the book depository near my office. And enjoyed it very much, partly because it was partly taking place near Ottawa [which I visited many times while my wife was completing her EE Master there] and partly because of the author’s ability to make us doubt the main character and to keep the suspense tight enough for most of the book. There are a trip to Montréal to attend a concert and a journey to Detroit and back to find a lost relation, both reminding me of drives on these roads more than 30 years ago. What annoyed me though was the caricaturesque depiction of the locals, with a Québecois French that sounded overdone. Checking for a local perspective on that aspect, I found a book review in Le Devoir of 2004 sharing the reservation on that aspect, if with humour.  (I would also have rather done without the super-hacker character à la Lisbeth Salander.)

Watched Still Life (三峡好人) a 2006 film by Jia Zhangke, as it was proposed in the list of my local cinema (which I support during the endless lockdown of cinemas and theatres in France). This is an amazing film, which at the same time feels incredibly remote or alien… It follows two characters arriving by boat on the at the Three Gorges Dam under construction in search of a runaway spouse. The search for their respective spouse takes place among the demolition of the old Fengjie, soon to be drowned under 150 meters of dam water. This demolition makes for a unique soundtrack, workers hammering in cadence as blurred black shades against the sky. The dialogues are full of long silences, except for the background hammering, and it often feels theatrical. But the characters maintain a strong dignity throughout the film and the depiction of the last days of Fengjie is gripping. The film received the 2006 Venezia Golden Lion.

Cooked a few Venetian dishes from a Venetian cookbook that was my Xmas gift. And finished that way past-the-date polenta boxes. Managed to escape unscathed from both the bûche and galette weeks! And found that cooking spelt bread with spelt yeast was unbelievably easy, taking less time to work on the dough than to reach the closest bakery!

Could not manage to achieve a coherent discussion with some anti-vaxxer relatives over the Xmas break. And gave up, still hoping they would change their mind.

Watched the first episodes of The Expanse, which started as a collection of eight novels and eight shorter works, before turning into a TV series which won the 2020 Hugo Award. Enjoyable if a rather conventional setting, with the usual disregard for space physics! Reminded me very much of the Takeshi Kovacs novels.  To quote from Wikipedia, “Ty Franck began developing the world of The Expanse initially as the setting for a MMORPG and, after a number of years, for a tabletop roleplaying game.” Some of the actors are terrific (even though Steven Strait’s Holden painfully reminds me of Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow, to the point I wondered for a while if they were the same actor…)

Don Fraser (1925-2020)

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2020 by xi'an

I just received the very sad news that Don Fraser, emeritus professor of statistics at the University of Toronto, passed away this Monday, 21 December 2020. He was a giant of the field, with a unique ability for abstract modelling and he certainly pushed fiducial statistics much further than Fisher ever did. He also developed a theory of structural  inference that came close to objective Bayesian statistics, although he remained quite critical of the Bayesian approach (always in a most gentle manner, as he was a very nice man!). And most significantly contributed to high order asymptotics, to the critical analysis of ancilarity and sufficiency principles, and more beyond. (Statistical Science published a conversation with Don, in 2004, providing more personal views on his career till then.) I met with Don and Nancy rather regularly over the years, as they often attended and talked at (objective) Bayesian meetings, from the 1999 edition in Granada, to the last one in Warwick in 2019. I also remember a most enjoyable barbecue together, along with Ivar Ekeland and his family, during JSM 2018, on Jericho Park Beach, with a magnificent sunset over the Burrard Inlet. Farewell, Don!

Hélène Massam (1949-2020)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2020 by xi'an

I was much saddened to hear yesterday that our friend and fellow Bayesian Hélène Massam passed away on August 22, 2020, following a cerebrovascular accident. She was professor of Statistics at York University, in Toronto, and, as her field of excellence covered [the geometry of] exponential families, Wishart distributions and graphical models, we met many times at both Bayesian and non-Bayesian conferences  (the first time may have been an IMS in Banff, years before BIRS was created). And always had enjoyable conversations on these occasions (in French since she was born in Marseille and only moved to Canada for her graduate studies in optimisation). Beyond her fundamental contributions to exponential families, especially Wishart distributions under different constraints [including the still opened 2007 Letac-Massam conjecture], and graphical models, where she produced conjugate priors for DAGs of all sorts, she served the community in many respects, including in the initial editorial board of Bayesian Analysis. I can also personally testify of her dedication as a referee as she helped with many papers along the years. She was also a wonderful person, with a great sense of humor and a love for hiking and mountains. Her demise is a true loss for the entire community and I can only wish her to keep hiking on new planes and cones in a different dimension. [Last month, Christian Genest (McGill University) and Xin Gao (York University) wrote a moving obituary including a complete biography of Hélène for the Statistical Society of Canada.]


Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2020 by xi'an

The Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute/Institut canadien des sciences statistiques is launching a series of on-line seminars, held once a month.  With journal clubs to prepare the seminar and with student-only meetings with the speakers after each seminar.

Seminars will be broadcast live on the fourth Thursday of the month from 1-2:15 pm Eastern time (18 GMT+2).  Students will meet virtually with the speaker from 2:30-3:30 pm Eastern time. Talks in the fall will focus on Hidden Markov Models, starting on Thursday, September 24, 2020 with Ruth King of the University of Edinburgh.