Equitation Elysee

If you are searching for a new activity this semester, and you think you want to give horseback riding a chance, then you can go to the McGill Athletics website and sign up for 1 of 12 available slots. The lessons take place at a school called Equitation Elysee, in a farm in St. Lazare, one-hour drive away from downtown Montreal.

Commuting there by public transportation is next to impossible, but if you don’t have a car, the instructor will put you in contact with other students who do, so you can share the ride. The students range from 5-year olds to 70-year olds, and a previous background is not assumed.  The instructor, Jo Sweet, is very experienced, she will tell you when you’re doing things wrong and will help you individually to improve your technique. A typical lesson starts with the student grooming the horse in the stables before the ride, then guiding the horse to the arena for the exercises. I should mention that the purpose of the lessons is to control the gait and speed of the horse, and eventually perform jumps; not to simply go riding along trails. The arena is cool though, and there is classical music playing while you’re training. The school runs all year round, and you can contact Jo even if you’re not a McGill student.

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Equitation Elysee

Cool courses

This semester the Computer Science department at McGill is offering a couple of courses for which my friends and I are very excited. The first one is Structure and Dynamics of Networks, which apparently is otherwise known as Network Science, but it really should be called Applied Graph Theory for Large Graphs. Naming aside, the lectures seem to be very promising, as examples will involve networks from different areas, such as biology, political and social science etc.

The second one is Topics in Game Theory, where I believe we’ll study algorithms for selecting strategies to minimize the probability of loss (or maximize the probability of winning) in games where there are many participants. Or at least, that’s what I am expecting — the syllabus doesn’t seem to be posted yet.

Last but not least, the graduate Mobile Robotics class is offered again this year. This course starts with lecture-style material in the first half, during which the students are exposed to motion planning algorithms, sensors, and some fundamental problems in algorithmic robotics. The second half consists of student presentations of research papers. The class is highly interactive and lots of fun.

Cool courses

Don’t skip your guitar lessons

In the beginning of the semester I decided it was time for me to finally take guitar lessons. I had tried in the past to teach myself, but I couldn’t get past the beginner stage. So, when the opportunity arose to take guitar lessons through McGill’s mini courses I seized it and I was really looking forward to them. My instructor was Denis Chang, without a second-thought one of the most talented guitarists and gifted teachers I have ever seen. The man is the ideal teacher: he’s really experienced and knowledgeable, a master in his craft, supportive whenever you need him to be, extremely funny and quite the teaser. Besides, he has some of the coolest guitars I’ve seen. Going to his classes is a real joy. Lessons were held once a week for about two hours and initially there were around ten people registered for the course, but somehow he managed to give individual attention to each of us.

 

During the last three weeks, though, my coursework and the requirements of my research project didn’t allow much time for me to dedicate to my guitar. I had to skip my three last lessons, but I thought that most other students would attend. Today, which was the day of the last lesson, I decided to go meet Denis and tell him that he’s been a great teacher and he’s made me like the instrument much more. I discovered to my surprise (which is why I’m writing this post) that almost everyone in the class had been skipping the last lessons, just like me. I found Denis waiting for his students in the usual room where we practise (in the SSMU building) playing the piano and killing time. After feeling perplexed that I found none of my classmates there, I started feeling angry and disappointed. It was really depressing to see that one of the best teachers I’ve had was receiving this kind of treatment from his students — myself included, of course. He said that it’s OK, that it’s understandable because it’s the last week of classes and everyone is busy with course work, but that didn’t make me feel better at all. It didn’t seem fair to me that he wouldn’t receive an applause on the last lesson like all good teachers do.

 

I really like my coursework this semester, and my working hard for the moment is something that just feels right, because I’m doing it for myself and something that I enjoy doing. Yet, this was the first time since I’ve started at McGill that I’ve felt guilty about my efforts. I hope it’s the last. In the meantime, here’s what Denis can do:

 

 

Don’t skip your guitar lessons

Netflix prize winners at McGill

Almost every Friday at 3pm there is a talk at McGill’s Computer Science department. Today was definitely one of the coolest ones: two members of the team that won the Netflix prize gave a talk on their machine learning techniques. Martin Chabbert and Martin Piotte, graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal were members of BellKor Pragmatic Chaos that won the $1 million, 20 minutes before the deadline. Among the most interesting lessons in their fascinating talk, was the fact that at the end they had intelligently combined about 800 predictors using machine learning techniques and clever approximations. However, as they said, it was becoming evident towards the end of the competition that the only way to win, by hitting the mark of 10% improvement on Netflix’s movie recommendation algorithm, was to join forces with other teams, namely BellKor and BigChaos  — explains the weird team name. This meant sharing technical expertise, sharing predictors to be combined in ensemble classification, and of course sharing the money 🙂 Here are the technical documents that explain how they did it: Pragmatic Theory, BigChaos, BellKor.

Netflix prize winners at McGill

Let the games begin

This week was my first week of classes at McGill and my second in Montreal. Being a grad student is quite enjoyable at the moment: I have more freedom in my course selection than when I was an undergrad, I get to explore the topics I’m studying in a greater depth than before, and generally the whole feeling of starting at McGill as a new student is quite exciting. Living independently in Montreal has its perks: a very vibrant and creative European-like city with a large student population, plenty of interesting activities to engage in and lots of opportunities to learn French. For now, I want to write about something other than Montreal, though, which I am sure is going to come up frequently in future posts.

My coursework for this semester, which I hope I have chosen so that it is neither too easy nor extremely time-demanding looks like this:

  • Computer graphics. There is no required textbook in this course either. The OpenGL Programming Guide is a recommended one, and I suspect it’s going to be quite necessary for our assignments, but I think I should also consult Fundamentals of Computer Graphics and some online articles and tutorials because I feel that the lecture notes leave me with many questions.

Needless to say that all of these courses require careful preparation and equal attention. I should also keep in mind that I’ll have to start reading a couple of papers each week to familiarize myself with the work that is being done at the Mobile Robotics Lab. I’m still not sure whether I should spend the rest of the time learning French or experimenting with something I haven’t tried before — I’ll just have to see how the following couple of weeks will be.

Let the games begin

A tourist in Montreal

A very good friend of mine gave me a detailed list of todo items that I’d better try out in Montreal. I don’t think she’ll be very mad at me for sharing them here:

  • Mont Royal.  There’s a cross somewhere up at the top, which can be seen quite clearly when it’s illuminated at night.  Try figuring out how to actually climb up to it.  There’s also a viewing area about halfway up the ‘mountain’ (it’s really just a really tall hill) from which you can see all of downtown Montreal.
  • Schwartz’s Deli.  http://www.schwartzsdeli.com Order a smoked meat sandwich (I would suggest either ‘medium’ or ‘lean.’)  Get a pickle with it and enjoy the best smoked meat in the country.  If you don’t like the sandwich, then you can be quite certain that you don’t like smoked meat.
  • Gelato in the Old Port.  Right around Place Jacques Cartier (the Eastern most section of the Old Port) there is an entire strip of good gelato/ice cream places.  They’re all just west of the Place JC, on Rue De la Commune (the southernmost street).
  • St. Denis, the Plateau, The Village part of St. Catherine Street. There’s a building somewhere downtown that has a piece of the Berlin Wall on display.
  • Eat crepes.  If you find some with Creme de Marron (chestnut cream/paste/jam), try it!

Thank you for the orders suggestions Z.C., I’ll happily follow them 🙂

A tourist in Montreal

Graduated!

After four years in the making, I graduated from the University of Toronto, got my Honours B.Sc. in Computer Science & Math and celebrated the finale of my undergraduate life with my family and friends. Looking back at these four years I realized that it was definitely a process of growth, both professional and (especially) personal. What stimulated this growth was the decision I made early on when I started my studies at UofT:  to do well in a demanding academic environment, and at the same time have fun and do exciting activites outside of the classroom. I wanted to explore as much of the world that was unknown to me as possible, without putting school to a second fate.

Along the way I tried things that I hadn’t tried before I went to university: from baseball to salsa dancing, from white water rafting to skating, from juggling to driving a car (I still find a lot of similarities between the two), from camping in serene nature to exploring big cities, from playing the guitar to programming robots.

I also met a lot of interesting people who opened up a sea of possiblities for me. The funny thing is that most of them didn’t realize the positive effect they had on me. Fortunately, I tend to notice details in their stories that are invisible to them.

Academically, I took a range of stimulating courses. I managed to become better in programming, and I even learned a new language: mathematics. It is amazing how many people speak it and how it connects those people. On the flip side, those who don’t speak it or have never tried to learn it tend to look at you as if you just escaped from an asylum — especially in parties 🙂 I remember once talking to a member of the Glendon Musical Ensemble (a very beautiful bilingual campus, part of York University, where most students study psychology, french, english and arts). After she introduced herself, she asked me what do I study. I swear that my answer horrified her and her eyes passed through a number of phases: first denial (it can’t be…there are actually people who study those things?), then silent contemplation (what kind of a person would study something like that?), then disgust (ewww). OK, fine, maybe I’m exaggerating, but you get the point: math usually makes it difficult to be immediately accepted by people who hate it, because they assume they can infer everything their is to know about your personality just by the fact that you’ve decided to study something they consider hard and hideous. That said, I am always amused by how quickly their impression changes as soon as they make the effort to get to know you a little better; all the stereotypes collapse.

So, thank you UofT for the last four amazing years! Hopefully our roads will cross again in the future. In the meantime, my next journey is going to begin in September at McGill University. I’m going to do my M.Sc. at the School of Computer Science, hopefully working at the Mobile Robotics Lab or the Reasoning and Learning Lab. I’m looking forward to the adventures I am going to have in Montreal.

Graduated!