Archive for Montréal

the liberation [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2021 by xi'an

The third volume of Ian Tregillis’ The Alchemy Wars arrived in the mail, and I could not resist bing-read it, induced by a heat wave that made anything close to serious work near impossible in the late afternoons… The characters are essentially the same, with two central (human) female characters whose trajectories once again converge to the critical point. Plus, two female robots playing a contrapunt. And the biblical Daniel, reborn from slavery into a free willed, tolerant and pacific being.

“The Clockmakers had been playing a losing game of catch-up (…) They were too soft, too coddled, too accustomed to standing atop the pile. They weren’t well suited to life as underdogs. They were not French.”

The core of the action takes place in Amsterdam, occupied by liberated robots, prone to pogroms as well as re-enslaving other robots. The weakness in the plot is that there is no strong reason these robots do not completely take over the formerly ruling Guild of Alchemists, and lengthy plot-resolving discussions between fighting characters always irk me no end, but the conclusion still feels proper, with the author not at all reluctant to hack at bits and pieces of his character to raise the body-count. À ls George Martin! And the mild philosophical musing about the reversal of dominant-dominated positions in this society are overall enjoyable if not particularly deep. Overall, a striking trilogy.

ISBA 2021 grand finale

Posted in Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2021 by xi'an

Last day of ISBA (and ISB@CIRM), or maybe half-day, since there are only five groups of sessions we can attend in Mediterranean time.

My first session was one on priors for mixtures, with 162⁺ attendees at 5:15am! (well, at 11:15 Wien or Marseille time), Gertrud Malsiner-Walli distinguishing between priors on number of components [in the model] vs number of clusters [in the data], with a minor question of mine whether or not a “prior” is appropriate for a data-dependent quantity. And Deborah Dunkel presenting [very early in the US!] anchor models for fighting label switching, which reminded me of the talk she gave at the mixture session of JSM 2018 in Vancouver. (With extensions to consistency and mixtures of regression.) And Clara Grazian debating on objective priors for the number of components in a mixture [in the Sydney evening], using loss functions to build these. Overall it seems there were many talks on mixtures and clustering this year.

After the lunch break, when several ISB@CIRM were about to leave, we ran the Objective Bayes contributed session, which actually included several Stein-like minimaxity talks. Plus one by Théo Moins from the patio of CIRM, with ciccadas in the background. Incredibly chaired by my friend Gonzalo, who had a question at the ready for each and every speaker! And then the Savage Awards II session. Which ceremony is postponed till Montréal next year. And which nominees are uniformly impressive!!! The winner will only be announced in September, via the ISBA Bulletin. Missing the ISBA general assembly for a dinner in Cassis. And being back for the Bayesian optimisation session.

I would have expected more talks at the boundary of BS & ML (as well as COVID and epidemic decision making), the dearth of which should be a cause for concern if researchers at this boundary do not prioritise ISBA meetings over more generic meetings like NeurIPS… (An exception was George Papamakarios’ talk on variational autoencoders in the Savage Awards II session.)

Many many thanks to the group of students at UConn involved in setting most of the Whova site and running the support throughout the conference. It indeed went on very smoothly and provided a worthwhile substitute for the 100% on-site version. Actually, I both hope for the COVID pandemic (or at least the restrictions attached to it) to abate and for the hybrid structure of meetings to stay, along with the multiplication of mirror workshops. Being together is essential to the DNA of conferences, but travelling to a single location is not so desirable, for many reasons. Looking for ISBA 2022, a year from now, either in Montréal, Québec, or in one of the mirror sites!

the rising [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2021 by xi'an

When I received this second volume of the Alchemy Wars, the rising, it was most fortunately a weekend, and I devoured it within the two days! As hinted at by the title, hence not truly a spoiler!, this book ends up with the rise of the robots, thanks to the main characters already there in the first volume, Jax (reXened Daniel) the freed robot, Bérénice [missing her acute accents] the French master spy (code name Talleyrand), and Longchamp the charismatic commander of the Montréal (renamed Marseille-in-the-West) fortress. While the author seems to have invested more in the language of the Dutch Empire than in the one of the remaining French exiled to Québec, I did not spot crimes de lèse majesté on my native language (except for the above accents). A mystery remains though as to how, when crossing the Atlantic ocean, fugitives end up in Honfleur, east Normandy, and far inside the Channel. Returning to the plot per se, while its pace is breathless, with the revolutions of the characters’ paths bringing them into predictable contacts, and the dialogues are still great, the recourse to a hidden subterranean complex irked me as usual, while the repeated escapes of Bérénice from certain death, capture, brainwash, are just too much, even with the help of dei ex machina. This second volume is also less into pondering the meaning of free will and freedom, even though the sad discovery by Jax (sorry, Daniel!) of Neverland being somewhat a mirror of Netherlands is well-thought. Now waiting for the last volume and another free wekend (or a trip to Marseille!).

the mechanical [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2021 by xi'an

Read this 2015 book by Ian Tregillis with growing excitement as I was first unsure why I had ordered it. It is a mix of the Baroque Cycle and of the Difference engine, with Huygens playing the central role (rather than Newton). The postulate of the story is that he found [in the 1600’s] a way to create robots (or mechanicals, or yet Clakkers) with autonomy, prodigious strength, and unlimited “life” time. Endowing the Netherlands with such an advantage as to become the unique European power. Except for a small population of French people, living in exile in Montréal, renamed as Marseille-in-the-West, where the descendants of Louis XIV were desperately fighting the Dutch robots with their barely sufficient chemical skills… In addition to this appealing alternate history, where the French are arguing about the free will of the machines, and building underground railways to convey rogue mechanicals outside the Dutch empire, partly for being Catholics and hence following the Pope’s doctrine [and partly to try to produce their own robots], where the Pope is also a refugee in Québec, and where New Amsterdam has not turned into New York, but is a thriving colonial city in America, linked to the mother country by mechanical boats and Zeppelin-like airships, the machines are constrained to obey the humans, with the Queen’s wishes at the top of a hierarchy of constraints. And no Asimov’s law to prevent them from being used as weapons, to the French’s sorrow! But their degree of autonomous thought is such that a mere loosening of a component may remove the compulsion and turn them into rogues, i.e, free willed robots. On the converse side, a nefarious guild in charge of a Calvinist faith and of the maintenance of the robots is attempting to extend this control of the Dutch State over some humans. Which makes for a great setting discussing the blurry border between humans and AIs, with both humans and Clakkers bringing their arguments to the game… I am now eagely waiting for the second and third volumes in the series of The Alchemy Wars to arrive in the mail to continue the story!

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…)

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