Archive for Canada

two years eight months and twenty eight days [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2015 by xi'an

I have now read through Salman Rushdie‘s version of the tales of 1001 nights (which amount to two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights—this would make exactly two years and nine months if the last month was a month of February!, not that it particularly matters). It is a fantastic tale, with supernatural jinns playing an obviously supernatural role, a tale which plot does not matter very much as it is the (Pandora) box for more tales and deeper philosophical reflections about religion and rationality. It is not a novel and even less a science-fiction novel as I read it in some reviews.

“It was the ungodly who had been specified as the targets but (…) this place was not at all ungodly. In point of fact it was excessively godly.”

What I liked very much, besides the literary style and the almost overwhelming culture (or cultures) of the author—of which I certainly missed a large chunk!—, in two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights is the mille-feuille structure of the story and the associated distanciation imposed upon the reader against a natural reader’s tendency to believe or want to believe despite all inconsistencies. An induced agnosticism of sorts most appropriate to mock the irrationality of religious believers, jinns and humans alike, in a godless universe: while jinn magic abounds in the book, there is no god or at least no acting god that we can detect. But gods and religious beliefs are exploited in the war of the jinns against the hapless humans. There are just as many levels of irony therein, which further contribute to skepticism and disbelief.

“Many, including the present author, trace the beginnings of the so-called “death of the gods”, back to this period.”

The book is also very much embedded in today’s world, for all its connections with medieval philosophy and the historical character Ibn Rushdn (whose name was borrowed by Rushdie’s father to become their family name) or Averroes. The War on Terror, the Afghan and Syrian rise of religious fundamentalists, the Wall Street excesses, even the shooting down of the Malaysian airline MH17 by Ukrainian rebels, all take place in the background of the so-called war of the jinns. Which makes the conclusion of the book highly pessimistic if in tune with the overall philosophical cynicism of the author: if it really takes magical forces and super-heroes to bring rationality to the world, there is little hope for our own world…

“He passed a woman with astonishing face makeup, a zipper running down the middle of her face, `unzipped’ around her mouth to reveal bloody skinless flesh all the way down her chin.”

A last remark is that the above description of an Halloween disguise reminded me of the disguise my friend Julien Cornebise opted for a few years ago! No surprise as this is exactly the same. Which shows that Rushdie and he share some common background in popular culture.

a maths mansion!

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2015 by xi'an

I read in The Guardian today about James Stewart’s house being for sale. James Stewart was a prolific author of many college and high-school books on calculus and pre-calculus. I have trouble understanding how one can write so many books on the same topic, but he apparently managed, to the point of having this immense house designed by architects to his taste. Which sounds a bit passé in my opinion. Judging from the covers of the books, and from the shape of the house, he had a fascination for the integral sign (which has indeed an intrinsic beauty!). Still amazing considering it was paid by his royalties. Less amazing when checking the price of those books: they are about $250 a piece. Multiplied by hundreds of thousands of copies sold every year, it sums up to being able to afford such a maths mansion! (I am not so sure I can take over the undergrad market by recycling the Bayesian Choice..!)

Banff snapshot [#3]

Posted in pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2015 by xi'an

Je reviendrai à Montréal [NIPS 2015]

Posted in pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2015 by xi'an

I will be back in Montréal, as the song by Robert Charlebois goes, for the NIPS 2015 meeting there, more precisely for the workshops of December 11 and 12, 2015, on probabilistic numerics and ABC [à Montréal]. I was invited to give the first talk by the organisers of the NIPS workshop on probabilistic numerics, presumably to present a contrapuntal perspective on this mix of Bayesian inference with numerical issues, following my somewhat critical posts on the topic. And I also plan to attend some lectures in the (second) NIPS workshop on ABC methods. Which does not leave much free space for yet another workshop on Approximate Bayesian Inference! The day after, while I am flying back to London, there will be a workshop on scalable Monte Carlo. All workshops are calling for contributed papers to be presented during central poster sessions. To be submitted to and to and to aabi2015. Before October 16.

Funny enough, I got a joking email from Brad, bemoaning my traitorous participation to the workshop on probabilistic numerics because of its “anti-MCMC” agenda, reflected in the summary:

“Integration is the central numerical operation required for Bayesian machine learning (in the form of marginalization and conditioning). Sampling algorithms still abound in this area, although it has long been known that Monte Carlo methods are fundamentally sub-optimal. The challenges for the development of better performing integration methods are mostly algorithmic. Moreover, recent algorithms have begun to outperform MCMC and its siblings, in wall-clock time, on realistic problems from machine learning.

The workshop will review the existing, by now quite strong, theoretical case against the use of random numbers for integration, discuss recent algorithmic developments, relationships between conceptual approaches, and highlight central research challenges going forward.”

Position that I hope to water down in my talk! In any case,

Je veux revoir le long désert
Des rues qui n’en finissent pas
Qui vont jusqu’au bout de l’hiver
Sans qu’il y ait trace de pas

snapshot from Banff [#2]

Posted in Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by xi'an

Salman Rushdie at the Banff Centre

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by xi'an

By a great coincidence, I happened to be in Banff the same weekend as Salman Rushdie was giving a talk at the Banff Centre on his latest book! And got the news early enough to book a seat. The amphitheatre was unsurprisingly full and Salman Rushdie was interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel, first about the book and what led to its creation, especially the influence of his parents, and then second about his life and career, with an obvious focus on Khomeini’s fatwa. (The whole interview is podcasted on CBC.) Rushdie was witty and funny, even about the darkest moments, and discussed how in his youth no one would have imagined that religion would become such a central issue, defining and reducing people rather than being a part of them that would need no discussion. And how his family was de facto atheist, if not in words. The interview spent too little time on Rusdhie’s stand on freedom of expression, although he briefly spoke about the growing threats to this freedom, including those made in the name of religious freedom. (As we were reminded yesterday by the Warwick student union decision to bar Maryam Namazie from speaking on campus.) The experience was quite a treat, adding to the many bonuses of spending this weekend in Banff. Although I must admit I was fighting jetlag that late at night and hence must have dozed at points… (As an aside, I was rather surprised to see no security or police around the Banff Centre theatre, but of course this does not mean there was none. And this is Banff, not New York City or London.)

snapshot from Banff

Posted in Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by xi'an

picture of Vermilon Lake, Banff, Sept. 27, 2015, taken during a nice noon run compensating for the awful morning run in the freezing rain! Too bad I got stung by a bee or a wasp during that run, In the nose. It really hurts!!!


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