Friday, December 25, 2009

Where I Make a Premature New Year's Resolution

I better post more, or give up. Lots going on, some maybe interesting, but my attention has been diverted too often until this socially enforced quiet of Christmas.

NIPS (Dec 7-12) was worth it. I helped with two posters and a workshop talk, I caught up with many friends and colleagues, did some recruiting, and I discussed favorite research problems -- sparse models, unsupervised learning from text, Web-scale inference. I also skied icy groomers and a some softer high-elevation wind buff off-piste (Blackcomb Glacier, Harmony Bowl, and Whistler Bowl) with some my usual NIPS ski partners, who unaccountably tolerate me even though I'm older and slower, especially this time, feeling tentative as I was from the April ankle break and the big powder skis that are not ideal for icy or narrow. It was good to take an extra day to just ski, which helped me get back to a more satisfying skiing form.

Less than a week after that, I flew on what might have been one of the last planes to land at PHL as the big Saturday snowstorm got going. Exciting landing, zero visibility until almost touchdown, snowpacked runway. Passengers applauded spontaneously as the reverse thrust roar died down. First time I heard applause on a domestic flight in decades.

It was also interesting to travel between Philly and NY on Monday. Acela going in was a bit late, and moved more slowly than normal. Return train was cancelled, but I got on another one that was running several hours late, where the vestibules (or whatever they are called) at the end of the cars where the doors are were packed with snowdrifts that the conductors had only partially cleaned out. Spent a useful, fairly quiet day at the Google office followed by dinner with friends before the train back.

All of this travel gave me enough time to finish two paused books:

  • Reading in the Brain: the best neuro-cog book I've read in a long time. Dehaene covers a lot of terrain, goes deep, but he is always engaging, never confusing or ponderous. He writes very well, gently demanding concentration and laying out sustained arguments with a long history. Only in criticizing the whole-language approach to reading instruction does he show some (justified) impatience.
  • Nothing to Be Frightened Of: How can a book all about death be simultaneously truthful and entertaining? Besides Machado de Assis's Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, that is? Julian Barnes, here in memoir form, solves the puzzle with repeated short dips into family history, literary history, and cultural critique. He never stays more than a few pages on any topic, meandering about as his disturbing topic demands. He certainly does not relieve his deep funk, or the reader's, but he sprinkles everywhere aperçus and paradoxes that enliven the subject, as it where. His fears reflect how far affluence, sedentary life, democratic public safety, and medicine have replaced rapid, violent demises by long-drawn decay and illness. Having taken a wilderness first aid class recently, and having experienced how close to the edge one can quickly get in the wild, my dread list is, maybe deludedly, somewhat different.

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