Thursday, May 31, 2012

All in one place - the AIMS philosophy

AIMS South Africa is - to a large extent - a one-building institute. That is, the main AIMS building contains:
  • the student residence,
  • the cafeteria,
  • the classrooms,
  • the library,
  • the computer lab,
  • faculty and tutor offices,
  • social spaces,
  • and also houses visiting lecturers (like me).
In other words, I live and work in the same building that my students live and work. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to throw myself into this environment, and it's amazing. I actually know all my students' names, and that's quite a feat when you consider they have names like Vuyokazi, Mashudu, and Tshepisho.
Sidenote: I showed my class a couple pictures of my cats, and they chuckled. It later occurred to me that our cat Charles has the same name as one of the students. I mentioned THAT at the next class, and they laughed.
There are about 50 students here in total, and they all seem to know each other. What do you expect in this incubator?

I can easily imagine how each of these students will take their place in a pan-African network of math professors, teachers, researchers and innovators. Years from now, these students will look back in awe at how special a place this is.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Moving money the old-fashioned way

AIMS purchased the ticket for my wife, Tricia, to come to Cape Town to join me for a vacation. It was just easier for them to book both sets of tickets so that we could fly back together on the same plane. Of course, we must pay them back.

In this age of PayPal, VISA, debit cards and world banks, you would think that moving money around the world would be as easy a pressing a few buttons. So I went to my bank branch and gave them the account information for where our money should go. The teller said that "wiring" the money would cost me $30, and intermediate charges would be levied resulting in an additional $45 charge when the money is claimed on the other end.

So, it would cost about $75 to take some of my money and transfer it into a South African bank account.

Does that sound ludicrous to anyone else?

Instead, I had a certified cheque printed and sent via registered mail for a total of $26. That's right, a piece of paper is going to embark on a journey half-way around the globe.

It's time for the banks to wake up to the information age. If they don't, then they'll be overcome by the PayPals of the future.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hike up a mountain

In just one hour of walking, we made it to Muizenberg Peak. One hour of brutal up-hill walking, that is. But it was worth it. Check out the view!

That's Muizenberg in the background. I'm about 500m above it.

The arrow shows the main AIMS building.
And here's the opposite view, looking up from Muizenberg.

I found out today that "Muizenberg" is Dutch for "mouse mountain". I guess I can see that.

Monday, May 28, 2012

AIMS: Why me?

AIMS was started in 2003 when Neil Turok's family donated a hotel in Muizenberg, a coastal sub-urb of Cape Town, South Africa. I heard of the school from Neil's TED talk.

One day I got an e-mail at work, sent to everyone in my faculty, stating that if we wanted to teach at AIMS, we could fill out an online form. I did that, but thought it would just disappear into the ether and I'd never hear about it again. But I got an e-mail a few months later asking if I'd consider making the trip to teach the course I had named "Modeling Neural Systems". I was ecstatic! I've never taught that kind of course, though. Neuroscience, I mean. So I've spent time over the last year patching up holes in my knowledge, preparing to teach the basics of computational neuroscience. You know what they say, "If you want to learn something really well, teach it."

Getting to South Africa

Total travel time: 28 hours, consisting of a 7.5 hour flight to London (Heathrow), an 8.5-hour stopover, and then a 12-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa.

The first flight was tough; the plane was packed, and we flew through the night. I don't sleep well, or at all, in those situations. I watched a National Film Board documentary called Project Grizzly.

Turns out that an 8 hour layover in London is plenty of time to take the "tube" (subway) from Heathrow to downtown London. That's what I did, and it was very nice. Had lunch in an English pub, walked around "London's Eye", saw Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and a few other sights. I was intrigued by the Wellcome Collection, but didn't think I had enough time to do it justice. I'll go there some other time.
Lunch (calm down... I had food too.)

London's Eye

Thankfully, the second flight (London->Cape Town) was only half-full, and everyone had an empty seat beside them. I was able to lay down for this over-night leg of the journey. That helped a lot. First I watched Mission Impossible (not bad), and then Rise of the Planet of the Apes (mediocre). Notice the trend... the more sleep deprived, the worse the movie seemed.

I arrived on time, and was greeted at the airport by the groundskeeper, Igsaan. During the 30-minute drive from the airport, I got up to speed on AIMS and some local info.
  • We drove past some shanty towns. Very interesting to see.
  • I learned that about one person is killed by a shark every year.
  • Don't go on the trains at night, and don't go out alone after 10pm.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Series: African Institute for Mathematical Sciences

If you talk to me at all, then I've probably told you that I'm going to Cape Town, South Africa, to teach a course at the African Institute for Mathamatical Sciences (AIMS). The following series of blog posts are like my travel diary, outlining what I did and what I noticed. You might notice that as you're reading, I'm actually back in Canada. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I didn't want to advertise to the world that I'm far away from my wife and kids for an extended period of time. Each blog post is scheduled to appear exactly one month after being written. For example, I wrote this post on April 27, but it will appear on May 27.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Google street view protects the identity of statue

I thought this was cute. You know how Google street view blurs out faces to protect people's identity? Well, it offers the same courtesy to statues too. Like this one in Kalk Bay, South Africa.

Addendum: The statue's true identity revealed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A proofreading service for those who hate themselves

I got this e-mail from Eureka Science Ltd. regarding their "Proof Reading solutions". The letter was OK, until I got to the last line, which reads,
Should you not want to receive any further emails, and then please click here Please also provide any other email address that you might be using for complete unsubscription
Copied verbatim.

I think I'll send my proofreading elsewhere, thanks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Virtual Barber Shop

You've got to try this. Get your headphones and listen to this video (there's nothing to look at... it's just sound). Don't worry, it's not some trick to scare the crap out of you. It just sounds like you're really there. Amazing!