Tuesday, May 01, 2012

An attempt at a Cape Town catch up

Time simply doesn't allow to do all things I want to do, and to write about them. As of the last post my life has been taken over by the online courses I mentioned, and this means working till 2 most mornings to get through the material while having a normal time in the department during the day. I wrote the following when waiting for my plane in Cape Town, and while it's by no means a polished blog post, I want to post it before I disappear again tomorrow morning for Copenhagen. The next 3 days are part of an absurd trip which has been in the planning for several years and will come to its climactic conclusion on Thursday with lunch at NOMA.

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I find myself once again sat in a cafe, in an airport, waiting for another 12+ hours of plane flights. This time I'm in Cape Town, waiting to go via Johannesburg back to Munich. Another overnight flight, another night of watching others loll in and out of sleep as I wander the aisles trying to get tired enough to ignore the discomfort of folding my frame into a spasm-inducing gap.

Anyway, the above sounds a bit negative perhaps and the rest of the post, I hope will not be. I've met enough interesting people on flights now to know that flights have the possibility to be as enjoyable as they are ghastly.

I've spent the last three weeks in Cape Town, my second time here, and each extra day I spend here makes me realise even more what a wonderful place it is. Scenically it is almost unrivalled for a city. With the sea surrounding it and the mountain defining its geography, you are never away from a spectacular view. I've been for a couple of sundowners (a phrase I'd not heard before but means, unsurprisingly, drinks drunk during sunset, generally with a majestic view to accompany them) which have been wonderful evening highlights, a time to really sit back and appreciate.


The city itself is made up of an incredible diversity of populations and cultures, the mixing of which is often not present but always available. I've met some incredible people here, in taxis, in shops, in cafes, from refugees of Rwanda to ex-militants who fought in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the spear of the nation, the group that was the force behind the ANC when talks and peaceful action only managed to tighten the grip of Apartheid. Everyone here seems to have a story to tell and I've met so many people who are actively pushing to make the situation better. In many ways South Africa has come a long way since Apartheid, but in others it has gotten nowhere. There are many embarrassments of the current social and political situation but there are people out there who are really trying to make a difference in a non political context. One of the taxi drivers I met also worked as a coast guard guarding the local ecology from abalone poachers, who often come armed with guns during the night. This is a man who puts himself in a place of enormous danger because he cares - lessons to take from this, for sure.

I am in no way qualified to make judgement calls on the current situation but I can recommend these books that I've read over the last couple of years to give some picture of South Africa's history and recent developments. Sadly time does not allow for in depth reviews of any of them but I can say that from the point of view of someone who knew very little about Africa or its politics, these are great starters (Thanks to Ben for all of these recommendations):

The State of Africa - a history of the states of Africa since independence
Country of my skull - a journalist's eye view of the truth and reconciliation commission
My traitor's heart - a white man with a difficult family pedigree coming to terms with his place in Africa
The shackled continent (don't read this without reading The State of Africa as it will give you a terribly biased view) - a view of why things have not improved since independence. As I say, this does not give anywhere near the whole story and for the reason behind these reasons you have to read more.
Long walk to Freedom - Mandela's pre-freedom autobiography.
The autobiography of Ghandi also gives some very interesting insights into the relatively recent history of South Africa.

The trip has been as eclectic a mix as the city is and I've been both giving seminars as well as starting some collaborations with the string theory group. I gave my atmospheric optics talk to the undergraduates which is always a pleasure, though I still struggle at times not to include too much material in this talk. After this I gave a series of lectures on a particular method of machine learning as applied to neuroscience. This was my first time lecturing on a non-physics subject and it was a great experience. The subject is fascinating and thankfully there were a huge number of questions which I find always make a lecture course a lot more enjoyable. It also makes me, the lecturer, understand the topic much better when you have a lot of intelligent people giving you questions that perhaps you would never have considered.

Some light photo relief:
 The outrageously beautiful University of Cape Town campus
Ivydene guest house, where I would sit and work at the weekends under the tree with the dogs and cats resting in the garden. This is without a doubt my favourite guest house having stayed at many over the last decade or so. Lucille, who runs it is absolutely fascinating and introduced me to a slew of amazing people while I was there. Her daughter Jackie and son-in-law Rob also make the place feel like family.

And finally I gave a couple of talks about one of my last string theory papers which again was a lot of fun. The group ranges from those working in emergent geometry (how space and time can emerge from some other theory which don't include space and time as input) to AdS/QGP - how we can use string theory as a tool to understand the internal constituents of the nucleus in particular conditions. It's always good to have a diverse audience like this because, again, you get a great range of questions, from the abstract to the very practical. The outcome of this was some really nice ideas for future investigations which I hope to continue remotely.

and apart from a little socialising my life has been almost entirely overtaken with the online courses that I discussed in the previous posts. As an information addict these are truly fatal. How can I turn down a perfectly good course on automata theory given by a world expert, even if it means sleeping a few hours less a week.

The first round of courses on computer science finished a couple of weeks back which I can highly recommend, CS101 for those without much experience in programming and CS373 for the more advanced and those who may be interested in control theory and dynamical programming.

The course on natural language processing (NLP) is now over half way through and is the best taught and most instructive from the point of view of programming assignments and problem sets, of the Coursera courses I've been taking. Right now I'm struggling, along with most of the rest of the class to write our own English language parser (how do you write a computer program which can work out the logical structure of a sentence - ie. which nouns do which verbs and prepositions relate to - in the sentence "fish people fish tanks" does the word people correspond to a verb or a noun - does the second 'fish' correspond to a very or a noun, etc. These are the sorts of question that an automatic parser would try to answer in a probabilistic fashion (ie. it will find various ways to break down a sentence and give probabilities for each possibility)).

The NLP course also ties in very nicely with material in the automata course and the programming languages course from Udacity. The link being finite state machines and Markov networks.

Probabilistic Graphical Models is also very good, but it really does need 10-15 hours a week to truly understand the material. This is a large investment and something that I will probably split over two runs through the material.

In other news, the publication I was working on about Malaria has now been accepted for publication which is great to have finished. More work is ahead on this front and there are some very exciting possibilities in the pipeline. Through the same link that gave me the Malaria connection (many thanks Victor!) we've started also on another investigation into an area called medical ethnography - a subject whose existence I was unaware of until I dove into some data analysis on a related project. This area is related to the interaction between society, ethnological behaviour and medical practice and is so far very interesting to work on.

So, with the above I have very little time for a normal life right now. I work until late at night including at weekends on these projects and courses, which is great in terms of learning and in terms of the excitement of pursuing new areas of investigation but I am aware that this is not a sustainable pace. I am also aware that I am out of a job in 7 months and am desperately trying to mold a future which will be interesting, sustainable, economically viable and will allow for some constancy in my life. Most of these factors are falling into place, it's just the small matter of economics which may be the biggest hurdle. It's easy to find people with whom I can work on interesting projects, it's not so easy to get them to pay me for it. The thinking cap is on and I have a few ideas as to how to construct this Rube-Goldberg machine of a life out of gaffer tape and fuzzy felt.