Category Archives: language

Threads

I’ve been using Twitter (@awojdyla) more frequently over the last 3 years, finding a lot value in this tool which allows to address a worldwide audience and reach out to people in a very effective way.

Straight goals

Twitter is a very strange medium, in that it can be extremely helpful to reach out to people (the six degrees of separation collapse to one, basically), but whose rules and purpose are hard to understand.

Here’s a few remarks on my experience, and some resources if you’re interested in engaging the tweet game!

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Good optics

Here are collected pictures from the vendor exhibition at the SPIE Optics+Photonics 2019 conference in San Diego, CA.
I always find these exhibitions strangely fascinating, and I wanted to capture why. Enjoy!


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The New Yorker and the current times

Since I arrived in the US about six years ago, I’ve been interested in learning about the culture of my new country. An obvious way is to read the magazines and learn what people are talking about. Alas, the free press is usually not very interesting. Some magazines are standing out; I’ve been subscribed to The Atlantic, the Pacific StandardWired and Rolling Stones, and I’ve read GQ, Vanity Fair, The Economist (though British), but while there’s a bunch of good articles, they are plagued by terrible layouts, dull advertisement, and I can’t find any thing that matches some of my favorite French magazines, such as Les Inrocks or Le Nouveau Magazine Litteraire, though I must say I now realize they often feature subjects that have been thoroughly digested by US magazines.
There is however a publication which is consistently good, entertaining, frequent (every week) and almost free of advertisement: The New Yorker, which contrary to its name suggests doesn’t delve too much on the (otherwise great) city of New York.

“He tells it like it is.” August 18, 2016

Agency

Not only the quality and the length of the articles, which are often sheltered from the ceaseless stream of news, allows go deep into some subjects (some arcane but always interesting), but they do make an impact.
For witness:
It is quite remarkable for a journal to be able to uncover so many stories. Maybe the times are ripe for that and comes the reckoning…

Legacy

The publication has a tremendous legacy, with writers such as Hannah Arendt (who published her series on the banality of evil there), James Baldwin who covered the civil rights movement and Susan Sontag who mused on various topics (see her collected articles in Against Interpretation and On Photography.)

I am speaking as a member of a certain democracy and a very complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded. Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too. – James Baldwin

Culture

There are many contributors to the magazine, but there are three I am particularly fond of, maybe because I can relate and they write things I don’t even know to express. Jia Tolentino covers Millenial generation with great nuance, and how we navigate the navigate the culture rift; Adam Gopnik often writes about culture in the broad sense, often threading from his experience in France (he has a very acute knowledge of France culture and how it differs from US culture); Louis Menand writes excellent book reviews.
It is interesting to see that both Gopnik and Tolentino released books in the past month (“A thousand small sanities” and “Trick Mirror”), which both deal with the current, heavy, atmosphere that lingers over the country as a whole, not complaining, but trying to find an outlet.

Open access – redux

Wow the levy is about to break on Open Access!

I’ve written a few times on Open Access (here, and here), and things have been changing at an incredible pace.

A quick explanation about the topic: scientists share their research by publishing into very specialized journals. These journals then either charge a fee (>$10) for any reader to read a specific article, or as is more often the case, collect a subscription for an institution so that all of the people who work for this institution get complete access to a journal or a set of journal. The problem here is that the research submitted by the authors is often funded by public entities, which do not have the right to read the publications of other group freely (open access.) And the subscription fees have skyrocketed (e.g. in the order of $10 million for UC Berkeley.)

But now, large entities are rebelling.

The first salvo came from funding agencies, which require the papers to be made freely available, either by sharing the pre-prints (e.g. on arxiv) or by publishing in an Open Access journal (journals where the authors pay (usually $1000!) to get published, and where anyone can read.)

Then came Germany, which reached an impass with the academic publisher Elsevier (one of the leading actors, together with Springer and Wiley) and decided not to pay for the racket (projekt DEAL). The issue has not been resolved yet and German researchers still do not have access to publications such as Cell (they can however directly contact the authors of the papers to get the papers — which actually sound like a good way to start off collaborations!)

Next is the University of California (the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, … including Lawrance Berkeley National Lab and Los Alamos), who decided not reneged a deal with Elsevier. That’s a lot of people, for the most important public university system in the world. The impact can be quite dramatic…

And soon will be the turn of Europe as a whole, with Plan S, starting next year…

I can’t wait to see the science literature being unshackled!

Still, don’t expect much changes in the conduct of science… “Authors do not publish to get read, they publish to get reviewed.”

 

Poetry as philosophy in action

Every now and then, I read bits of poetry. Lately, I nibbled on Apollinaire, whose Alcools my father offered me, and I discovered W. H Auden’s Sonnet from China thanks to Shoshana Zuboff:

Falling in love with Truth before he knew Her,
He rode into imaginary lands,
By solitude and fasting hoped to woo Her,
And mocked at those whose served Her with their hands
— W. H. Auden

While I enjoy reading poetry, it only occurred to me recently that poetry is more than a thoughtful collection of word. Poetry is actually philosophy in action —  and even the Greeks knew that: ποιεῖν (poiein) means “to make”.

poenies

The reason for that has to do with the distinction between axioms and theorems (if you want to learn about that, I have an excellent book for you), or between things that are self-evident and things that are derived. Philosophy, being very rigorous, deals with theorems. Poetry enunciates subtle truths and help us navigate the blind spots of philosophy, such as beauty, love and meaning: everything that sets us in motion.

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Ojai Music Festival

Every year, early June in Ojai, CA, a quiet town half an hour away from Santa Barbara, the Ojai Music Festival takes place.

The festival has a glorious history of convening the cream of the crop of new classical music (Stravinski, Messiaan, Boulez and Copland are among the artistic directors who brought their vision to the festival), and is a wonderful crucible for geniuses in music.

I went there for the first time in 2016, and I was struck by the brilliance of the pieces I saw – a delightful blend of music from all around the world, mixing ICE and the Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam, under the tutelage of Peter Sellars. I remember being particularly impressed by Leila Adu‘s performance (wonder what she’s up to nowadays…)

In the years since, I could just go to Berkeley’s CalPerformances to see the show (Ojai in Berkeley),  held a week after the main festival. I fondly recall Vijay Iyer’s take on the Rite of Spring with Radhe Radhe: Rite of Holi, and some standout performances by Tyshawn Sorey, a regular of the festival who never stops to amaze, though I’m more impressed by him in live settings than by the recordings I’ve heard since.

Sadly, this year the Berkeley program no longer exists, since since CalPerf’s director Matías Tarnopolski left for Philadelphia. Therefore, I had to drive down the California 1 to see what was happening there.

And boy I wasn’t disappointed! This year’s artistic director Barbara Hannigan prepared wonderful program, going from Stravinski (again!) Berg to Steve Reich. Some of the concerts that really struck a chord were Patoulidou performance on Vivier’s Lonely Child, Barbara Hannigan rendition of John Zorn’s Jumalattaret, and Steve Schick leading Terry Riley’s in C (the latter can be on a viewed video of the festival here, at 1h48.)

Ojai Music Festival 2019

Not only the artistic content was great, but there is also a sense of passing along the baton (in a way beautifully narrated in Maria Stodtmeijer‘s Taking Risk) to younger artists such as Aphrodite Patoulidou and Yanis Francois.

Sure, I’m painting a fawning picture of the festival here, but I’m so drained of creativity that I will leave it to better voices than mine:
Outsiders (2015 edition)
The Sonic Fury of the Ojai Music Festival (2018 edition)

Autopilot

Lead by lidar

At the moment (April 2019), the economy is in a weird quantum superposition of doom (yield curve inversion) and exaltation, with Lyft recently joining the public markets (always loved the irony of the term…)

I’ve been talking to a few people involved in driverless cars and AI lately, asking them…. when? They usually tell me soon, the problem they have is that the main drawback with learned neural networks is that they are almost impossible to debug. You can try to get insight on how they work (see the fascinating Activation Atlas), but it’s really difficult to rewire them.

And it’s actually pretty easy to hack them — you can easily do some random addition to find noise that will activates the whole network. In the real world, you can put stickers at just the right location and… make every other car crash. Pretty scary…

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Kolmogorov Access

Back in undergrad, I remember being fascinated by the notion of Kolmogorov complexity in computer science.

Put simply, the Kolmogorov complexity is the minimal length (number of lines) of the code needed to generate a signal, would it be a mathematical sequence (such as one listed in the OEIS) or an image, irrespective to the size needed to store it. It bears deep relations with the notion of entropy (a great book on the topic is Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms by the late David MacKay.)

For example, a series of eight billion ones in a row would require 1GB of memory, but can be written in a few lines of code:

for i in 1:1e9; print 1; end

(To some extent, this is why computer science is often problematic, since one of the goal of a good code is sometimes to reduce its Kolmogorov complexity, but the final code does not show all the lines that have been erased to get there…)

In the field of arts, culture and science, this description seems naive: can you really generate a book based on a script, or has it infinite entropy?

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.
– Immanuel Kant

In the age of the Internet, can we do better?

update 6/10/2019: I’ve seen recently on Twitter the embodiment of these ideas, see Nicole R.‘s thread. Way to go!

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The wonders of West Berkeley

I do love Berkeley, with its wonderful atmosphere and its people, daring to live on a different beat!

The spring and the fall are the most notably beautiful, and walking in the street is always an amazement.

Berkeley in the spring

In the winter, you get the magnolia; in the spring come the fragrant wisteria and the gentle jasmine; the summer has the river flowing to the sea, and the fall, oh the fall with the ginkgo glowing gold on Russell street!

Berkeley in the fall

I’ve seen a few friends moving nearby, and they seem to enjoy every bit of it.

Here’s a few places to check out:

  • Skates to get a drink right at sunset
  • Casa Latina for the best tacos of the East Bay
  • Berkeley Bowl West is such a paradise for the grocery shopper
  • Cal Sailing Club lets you sail and windsurf for less than a dollar a day
  • Bette’s Diner has some amazing brunch
  • Market Hall Foods on 4th street has the best cheese selection I know, plus a hundred of other delicacies
  • Albatross is the oldest pub of Berkeley, with a great selection of beer, darts and pool
  • Ashkenaz has a great music programming; don’t miss Stu Allen’s Grateful Dead!
  • Sola Lucy is the only place to go for thrift shop

For the news, check out Berkeleyside.com and the East Bay Express (free, out every Wednesday.) There’s also a lot of other places closer to downtown which are unique: the Back Room, the Pacific Film Archive, Yoga to the people, Half Price Book, Café Panisse, the Strawberry canyon pool, the Skyline boulevard, the Butcher’s son restaurant, the Melo Melo kava bar, and so many other things!

Savant

In other news I was recently promoted to a staff position at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab!

It’s still tenure track (hopefully the position will be fully secured in two years from now) , but I’m getting closer to my childhood dream: to become a savant.

I am extremely lucky to be there, working on a major US scientific infrastructure project (ALS-U), in a fantastic lab with my window literally overlooking the Silicon Valley.

The golden gate

Right now, I’m mostly doing beamline design and simulation, with some wavefront sensing and adaptive optics. Lots of very challenging topics (we have to deal with a laser-like beam hundred times smaller than a hair blasting kilowatts of light), and I’m learning a lot along the way. Amazing times!