Public Salon returns in 2016 (review from Jan. 27)

Sam Sullivan and his partner Lynn Zanatta keep hitting home runs with their public salons. They bring together a group of interesting people, each of whom is given 7 minutes to speak. The Jan. 27, 2016 edition (#24 in this continuing series) maintained the same standard that I have come to expect from these evenings.

Each salon begins with a musical group playing as people find their seats. This edition was fully booked, a credit to the interesting speakers and the networking possibilities available afterwards. This time the group was The Straight Jackets.

sj(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Sam Sullivan as host is always good-humored and upbeat. He talked a bit about learning an indigenous language (the trade language Chinook Wawa), gave us a sample of what he has learned (the words rolled off his tongue quite fluently) and urged us to participate also.

The evening began with Brett Finlay, a microbiologist talking about how excessive hygiene may be causing the high incidence of allergies, asthma, and other disorders in current Western populations. If infants have certain bacteria in their microbiome at three months, they are unlikely to get asthma. But many factors, including Cesarean births and formula feeding (both of which can clearly be life-saving interventions), can hinder the growth of an ideal microbiome.

ed2(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Next up was Kedrick James, who does what I call “stochastic poetry”. He uses randomness and remixes to create his poetry. From a data science and mathematical and computing point of view, I find the experiment to be fascinating. From a literary perspective, I longed for Keats and T.S. Eliot, or even David Bowie (who did indeed use Brian Eno’s suggestions to introduce randomness into his lyrics).

I guessed that Farzana Jaffer Jeraj might be related to Senator Jaffer, and I was right (the senator is her mother, and her mother was proudly tweeting during the session). Farzana is an author and coach, and as described by tweeter @drshimikang, “#lifehappens & what matters is how we manage it.”

Scott C. Jones talked about recovery from a stroke, and his delight when he could finally manage to read sentences again. He spoke of his appreciation for the bookstores around Pender and Richards, with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Everyone knows Bill Richardson from CBC. He talked of purchasing a house in tiny Holman, Manitoba, and the pleasures he is getting from country living. He was as witty and insightful as always.

Trevor Stokes spoke about his students in the alternative Streetfront program at Britannia Secondary School. Many of his students have taken up marathoning, with incredible results, and some of them attended the salon that night too. It is always a very special thing to see a teacher who is extremely proud of his students.

Eran Sudds was struck with postpartum depression after the birth of her son. She got the help she needed, and seeks to encourage other women to do the same.

Robert Sung operates Wok Around Chinatown food tours. He spoke with pride of his father, who helped build Canada while still not being allowed citizenship. As Chinatown is my neighborhood of choice, I am certain that his clients have no shortage of great places to visit.

Once again, Sam and Lynn brought together a group of eight local people with fascinating stories. Keep your eye out for the next one happening in a few months!



Review: The Inventor of All Things (Revue Stage, until September 20) – Vancouver Fringe

Tickets here

For those who don’t know me, I am somewhat geeky (a few might use an adverb other than “somewhat”). So when I read about this play, about the physicist Leo Szilard, and saw that it was going to be performed by veteran spoken-word artist and storyteller Jem Rolls, I was particularly excited.

What can I say? I was thrilled by this show. It cannot be called a play, but more like the most exciting lecture you’ve ever had. Except that “lecture” does not convey the sense of suspense, drama, fear, and delight that will result from attending.

I have read the biographies of various physicists, including of course Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, but Leo Szilard barely registered to me. I certainly did not know that he was the first person to envision how a nuclear bomb could work. I had heard of Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt, but I did not know that Szilard drafted it.

Are you worried that the physics discussions will go over your head? No equation enters the play at any point. This play is a model of clear communication for laypeople. Plus, there is a lot more than physics to this work–politics (both international and internecine), personal antipathies, and romance are all part of the story too. Jem Rolls did a huge amount of research (I was jealous when he talked of visiting the Bodleian Library in Oxford) to make this all come together, and it does, magnificently.

This performance is hard to describe without summarizing it, and the best way to find out what it’s about is to see it. Jem Rolls frequently has sell-out performances at the Fringe, so buy your tickets quickly.

Want to learn more about Szilard and his cohort of Hungarians who changed the face of modern science? Wikipedia has a lot, but this book looks really good: The Martians of Science.

Wassily Kandinsky

I haven’t had much of a chance to blog in December (although check my Facebook page for some events), but I decided to reblog this interesting article I found (from a great blog too).

Life Through A Mathematician's Eyes

These days, more exactly on 15th December, I saw the new doodle at Google and I thought that it is incredibly wonderful. It just showed me a lot of geometric constructions in just a small image and I thought that it must be math related or geometry and art related. They were celebrating Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s 148th birthday.

New SkitchI tried to find more about the geometry hiden into this picture, but I could find much. For my surprise it seems he is

the first painter to produce purely abstract works, used color as an expression of emotion, often likening the process of painting to composing music.

He studied law and economics, so I am presuming he did some mathematics in economics, but I don’t know how much geometry. His life was a hard one I am sure, living in a period of War (WWI and WWII) and moving…

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Report: Public Salon, November 19, with Sam Sullivan and guests

Thanks to Alice Zhou (of Gracious Host Events & PR), I got an invite to attend Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon on November 19. As typical, this salon had an impressive lineup of guests, as you can see here:

Keep an eye out for the 2015 salons at the Global Civic Policy Society site.

I am sure that many of us have the intuitive sense that the political domain enforces a type of binary thinking that can work against discussing complex problems honestly and finding broad-ranging solutions. Sam Sullivan, of course, was mayor of Vancouver a few years ago, but I had forgotten that he is now a Liberal MLA for False Creek. He did not discuss his political work at all, to my recollection.

The Global Civic Policy Society, which puts on these salons, was founded by Sullivan and funded by the Annenberg Foundation, as described here on Wikipedia.

Due first to work (and just being tired from recent travel to Asia), I did not attend the pre- or post-program networking, so I undoubtedly missed out on some good opportunities to talk to interesting people. When I next attend, I hope to take full advantage of that part of the program.

For this evening’s session, as I entered the auditorium at Vancouver Playhouse, I noticed the sitarist Mohamed Assani and a percussionist playing. They provided perfect ambient music to set the pace. The musicians were dressed in traditional clothing, and although that might seem like a small thing, I felt that it is a step that can help take you of the conventional norm and perhaps cultivate open-mindedness for what was to come. Take a listen at Assani’s site:

Take a look at these musicians (photo credit: Minaz Kurji Photography):


After some introductions, we proceeded with the speakers. Each speaker has 7 minutes, so in that sense, the style is somewhat similar to Pecha Kucha. But the speakers have complete freedom as to whether to use slides or not, and their use of slides varied.

Seven minutes is not very long, obviously. We can get an idea of what each speaker has to say, but it’s our responsibility to avoid superficiality and delve deeper on our own.

With that caveat, here are some moments I really enjoyed (photo credits:  Minaz Kurji Photography):

* Genevieve Ennis Hume talking about the plight of artisanal miners. “Artisanal” might imply a high-quality, boutique operation, but in fact men, women, and children work in appalling and dangerous conditions to satisfy our hunger for precious metals. I know about this with the so-called conflict minerals, but I had not really thought about it in respect to gold.

* Kwiaahwah Jones talking about the renaissance of Haida culture, after the near-eradication of a people and its culture. I really want to see what she is doing as curator at Bill Reid Gallery.

Kwiaahwah Jones, Curator of Bill Reid Gallery

Before Kwiaahwah spoke, a Haida dancer performed onstage. His actions would have been illegal under previous Canadian law until 1951. We cannot forget that Canadian laws and practice were specifically oriented, and stated as such, to destroy the cultures of aboriginal people in Canada.
Dancer performing an act previously outlawed by Canadian law

* Mohamed Assani talking about (and playing) his journey from Pakistan through western classical music studies to his return to the traditional sitar.


* Lance Barrett-Lennard talking about the use of drones to photograph killer whales, in order to assess their weight and health. (Many killer whales starve when salmon stocks are low, and you can chart their demise as they enter a “death spiral”, becoming skinnier and weaker.) Killer whales are easily recognized as distinct beings, once you start to look at them.

There were other speakers and no shortage of insights and interest. There were over 500 people attending. I am really appreciative for events like this for their social and intellectual nurturing of Vancouver.

Review: QUANTUM, Dance Centre (October 16, 2014)

Snap! Sizzle! Crack! Not a Rice Krispies commercial, but the beginning of the score used in QUANTUM. I was amazed at how this score used precise, location-based sound to add more depth to the performance. I was reminded of a Van de Graaf generator in terms of the crackly, somewhat menacing sounds that popped to the surface now and then. In truth, I was tempted, as I typically am when I hear a very engaging piece of music (or perhaps in this case we should say soundscape), to close my eyes and focus just on the sounds. But I did not want to give short shrift to the dancers and the lights, so my eyes stayed open.

The lights, which included what looked like large black heat lamps, were another heavily choreographed aspect of this work. These lamps acted like swinging pendulums. I kept trying to think how to calculate the period of a pendulum (here`s how:

Part of the challenge of consuming and reviewing artistic work is knowing whether to include outside contextual information or not. Do you need to know Beethoven’s biography, or Kurt Cobain’s, to appreciate their work, or is that strictly unnecessary?

QUANTUM, as the name hints at, came out of Gilles Jobin’s artistic residency at CERN in Switzerland, a particle accelerator which sends atoms on long journeys at high speeds where they crash into each other and thereby produce interesting information from the mashed-up particles that result from these high-speed collisions. Scientists are well aware of the fantastical nature of their work — the idea that you can learn more about atoms and their constituent parts from studying the results of manufactured collisions is mind-boggling if you think about it.

This sort of particle physics has been seen as a precursor to the current conceptualization of “Big Data”. Physicists, when they do these experiments, gather every bit of data they can, regardless of what hypotheses they might have in mind for their original experiments. The data provides the basis for investigation, rather than investigation providing the basis for data.

The information requirements of such a data-heavy enterprise led to physicist Tim Berners Lee, who worked at CERN, creating the World Wide Web in 1989 (the Internet was invented in embryonic form in 1969). The Web is one of the most obvious examples of how scientific research can have unexpected spinoff benefits.

But back to QUANTUM. Compagnie Gilles Jobin of Switzerland created this piece based on inspiration from CERN. The composer Carla Scaletti created a score that directly uses research data. The costumes were geometric and looked like they could be schematic diagrams.

My friend and I both have some university training in physics, although it’s been a long time now. So watching the dancers, we could see kinetic energy, potential energy, Brownian motion, chemical bonds weakened and re-formed, magnetic attraction and repulsion, and maybe even the creation of the world. Would we have seen these things if we didn`t know about the CERN connection? Who knows – but in the real world, nothing is ever seen or experienced in a context-free void. The observer always affects the observation, a canonical principle of quantum physics.

Contemporary dance is always a challenge for me. As I have mentioned before, it feels like a language that I just slightly know. QUANTUM was one of those pieces where I felt engaged throughout, even if I was unsure of the interpretation. And, as I mentioned before, the soundtrack was stunning. Every aspect of this work was carefully considered and constructed; it was a pleasure just to see and hear and feel how it all comes together.

Review: Stroke of Luck with Jacques Lalonde, Havana Restaurant (Vancouver Fringe)

Buy tickets (show at Havana Restaurant Theatre):

Jacques Lalonde surpasses our expectations, and he makes everything about strokes and especially stroke recovery as funny as he does with just about everything (and when something is not outright funny, it’s usually very moving). 


Jacques spent the day before his stroke (which occurred on July 1, 2013) helping several friends move, so one reason the stroke caught him off-guard is that he thought he was just experiencing some muscle aches and tiredness from that. Although Jacques did not say this himself, we know that the goodwill that Jacques has built up over decades is what made his fundraiser and Indiegogo campaigns for recovery expenses so successful. 

Jacques talked about the therapists and rehabilitation experts and doctors who helped him so much (and about when they really failed him too). Message: Don’t be afraid to speak up to someone wearing a smock. 

Jacques periodically and lightheartedly referred to this production as a “message play”. Yet, it’s also a hilarious standup routine (how many works combine a message play with standup comedy, juggling, tennis,and gospel singing all in a natural, flowing way–I’m pretty sure this one is unique). I’m sure this presentation of a message is way more effective than a stern and moralizing lecture. If you take your blood pressure three times over a couple months at Shoppers Drug Mart, and the top number keeps going up (even past 200), pay attention and get to a doctor now (not some indefinite time in the future)! Get medical care immediately if you suspect a stroke; if treated quickly within minutes, the stroke sufferer might not even have any lasting injury.

Jacques always makes his work look effortless, whether he’s juggling, or singing, or impersonating Jean Chretien. When he is talking throughout the play, he is conversing with us in the audience. He makes eye contact with audience members and makes you feel like you are part of it. It feels fresh and spontaneous. But you can be sure that Jacques worked very hard to make it all look so easy, not even mentioning how much work he has done to recover from the stroke-induced deficits. 

This is the first time I remember Jacques mentioning science and math in a play, and he makes it fun, interesting, and accessible. I know from the experience of friends and family that the brain can recover from many injuries–it has so many pathways for recovery, and previous beliefs that a brain injury survivor had only two years of recovery time have been shown to be absolutely wrong. Not everyone who experiences a stroke will have as positive a result as Jacques has had; it was very scary for him to learn that 1 out of 6 stroke patients die. But if you do have a stroke, there is an awful lot that can be done and that you can do to make yourself better. Jacques is driving, juggling, singing, and puppeteering again.

I have always had a strong feeling of positivity from Jacques and his work. Stroke of Luck exemplifies this positivity (but not at all in a Pollyanna way or a woo-woo nonsensical way). 

So yes, go and see this play at the Havana Restaurant. So glad to see you back doing what you do, Jacques!

Remaining performances:
Tuesday Sep 9 2014   9:30 PM
Thursday Sep 11 2014  6:00 PM
Saturday Sep 13 2014  6:15 PM
Sunday Sep 14 2014  1:00 PM


Although not related to Jacques’ play, I think some might find this event interesting, if you are interested in neuroscience or want to know more about the brain:

Latest Brew in Neuroscience Research

  • Sep 9, 7-9 pm
Railway Club
Join us for a friendly and informal discussion on the latest in brain research with some of UBC’s best neuroscience students. Everyone is welcome!



Review: Cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin & Beyond

On July 7, I attended the Cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin & Beyond lecture by David Andolfatto (who divides his time between being a professor at SFU and working in the research division of the US Federal Reserve Bank), an event sponsored by SFU Public Square. My concerns about Bitcoin remain the same: the loss of a private key is a huge risk given that it means the risk of loss is 100%. All the methods one might do to preserve and protect the private key can be thwarted, particularly by someone motivated to do so. Credit cards and bank accounts typically offer insurance of some sort. So far as I can see, most open-source software projects lack a serious quality assurance effort (thus we get bugs like Heartbleed in OpenSSL). Andolfatto has an earlier blog entry with some of his thoughts on Bitcoin.

The prospect of finding a fairer and cheaper way for people, such as wage-earners who need to send money to their rural, impoverished families who are, as the lecturer said, “unbanked”, is very worthwhile. He quoted a figure of $500 billion USD for worldwide remittances, which seems low to me, but in any event the middleman (e.g., Western Union or a similar organization) takes 10% (up to 20+% in some African countries). But one problem with using Bitcoin in that case is that it’s not currently a great choice for a low-literacy user, so far as I can see (many sophisticated users have been ripped off, after all). The World Bank has an article on that subject, and a project to reduce remittance rates:

I enjoyed the chance to hear about Bitcoin, although the lecture was not that informative on a technical level.