Blog

14.12.2019

In their own image

— So, what is the latest hot research topic?

— Everyone is now talking about “Small Data”. Haven’t you ever heard of it?

— No. You know that my interests are very distant. I don’t have enough resources to follow all the trendy research.

— It might be over-rated, but still considerable resources are allocated to Small Data.

— So what is it about?

— Well, as the name suggests, it is about small data. More precisely, how to make use of it. We’ve always been able to process practically unlimited amounts of data. Consequently, our natural perception of reality is through probability distributions. This is, at least, how our evolutionary algorithms evolved us. It took us over 50 petacycles of the Clock to develop the notion of a “number” — a deterministic quantity rather than a distribution. Even today, when the formalism of numbers is relatively well-established, arithmetic is still a very new branch of mathematics. We still struggle with understanding it intuitively.

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Reading Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey I’m always struck by the epithets. Every time one (of course, ancient) Greek addresses another, he always remembers to mention a few virtues of the latter as well as the ever-present patronymic. For example, “Oh, Laertiades, much-enduring, much experienced man, Ulysses.” Laertiádēs in Greek stands for “son of Laertes”. A modern Russian would say Одиссей Лаэртович, Odyssey Laertovich — clearly, a sign of respect and good manners. And thus a few dozen times on a daily basis! The Greeks would often allude to the father’s virtues and say a few good words about the mother, too. But don’t be fooled — this is not some praise speech or, pardon my Greek, a eulogy, but rather an everyday practice. Slice me some bread, oh wise Odysseus. What plans do you have for tomorrow, man of many resources, son of the sage Laertes? Willing or not, you suddenly feel compelled to straighten up your shoulders as befits a worthy son of an honorable father.

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On the music stand of my piano stands open an old book of piano music. Chopin. Preludes and Impromptus says the yellowish title page in Russian. Browse carefully! the pages inside became frail with time and somewhat bleached, but as befits any eternal work, Chopin’s notes are clearly legible. The score the book is open at bears number 20 — Prelude No. 20 in C minor, opus 28.

This book belonged to my grandmother Enna. She used to be a very talented pianist. Born in 1933, she became part of the collateral damage on Stalin’s way to the Soviet paradise. One night unidentified NKVD agents knocked on her family’s door, shot their dog, and took away her mother (her father was already dead by that time.) Десять лет без права переписки — Ten years without the right of correspondence, the formula said. That was a Soviet codename for a headshot it an anonymous dark hazy basement.

The four-year-old girl was adopted by her parents’ colleague, an unmarried lady who would become my great-grandmother Anna. In those years of terror when people were afraid of accidentally putting a tea mug on top of a newspaper with a print of their beloved Leader’s face (five years of strict regime detention), adopting two “people’s enemies’” daughter was an act of unbelievable courage. We all learned that she was not our biological grandmother only after she passed away in 1987 — her foster daughter Enna kept this fact in secret for forty years! And she was reluctant to talk about her past long after the fall of the Berlin wall.

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24.07.2019

His Master's voice

During the relatively brief Californian chapter of my twenties, I happened to visit a little contemporary art museum in San Francisco the name of which I have no desire to google. I found the majority of the exhibits rather uninteresting and unintelligible (admittedly, my capacity to understand art ends somewhere around the 1960’s). But then, already on my way out, my eyes stumbled upon a very well lit object, the size of a table, made entirely of machined aluminum. God’s Breath Hovering Over the Waters (His Master’s Voice) said the title specifying other uninteresting details such as the artist’s name, year of creation, the materials employed, etc. That sculpture (I don’t know even if it is correct to apply this term to the shiny object) struck me like a lightning bolt and even today, ages hence, it often comes to my mind when I contemplate things eternal.

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I visited Mallorca in summer 2016 as part of a little family reunion. I admit my weakness for islands — I had a great time on this sunny piece of land of which I have fond memories. I particularly remember one dinner I had with my wife Susy in a very good restaurant. The set and the setting were right and the food was delicious — quintessentially Mediterranean. We have collected many Michelin stars since then, but I don’t recollect enjoying such tasty food in other places. Reflecting on that experience I came to the realization that there is no way back — the water and the salt of the Mediterranean Sea now run through my blood vessels.

The yummy restaurant was situated halfway from Palma to Valldemossa, and I tried to imagine the place without the sun and heat, perhaps, even covered with snow. I fancied how one winter almost two centuries ago a strange couple accompanied by teenage boy and girl drove along that road. The gentleman was none less than Frédéric Chopin, at that time in the zenith of his career: a widely acclaimed genius composer — one of the brightest stars in the European musical firmament of his epoch and a sought after piano teacher for whose lessons affluent piano aficionados and their (obviously, very talented and promising) young offsprings across the continent were prepared to pay through the nose. While himself a virtuoso pianist, Chopin lacked the showmanship of his friend (or bitter enemy, depending on the mood) Franz Liszt and disliked public performances. He preferred the more intimate atmosphere of private salons and, in fact, was always a welcome guest in the most exclusive venues where money met culture.

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