Saddened to hear of the passing of Sir David J.C. MacKay, FRS

Earlier this morning, I was saddened to hear that one of my information theory heroes passed away today.

David MacKay blackboard

I’ve been following a Google Alert for “information theory,” and so on an almost a daily basis for over 15 years I’ve seen thousands of notices and references to his excellent textbook Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms, which he kindly chose to freely share with the world. It’s really a great little textbook, and I recommend that everyone download it or purchase it and give it a read. In addition he has a fabulous series of video lectures to go with it as well. (Someone had actually asked me for information theory lectures on Quora last week, and his are some of the best.)

An instant classic, covering everything from Shannon’s fundamental theorems to the postmodern theory of LDPC codes. You’ll want two copies of this astonishing book, one for the office and one for the fireside at home.

Bob McEliece, information theorist and professor, California Institute of Technology

 
Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms

Sir David J.C. MacKay was the Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and a former professor of natural philosophy in the Department of Physics at at Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge. He was also a leading figure in energy and climate change having written the accessible and highly praised book Sustainable Energy: Without all the Hot Air, which is also available for free on his site. In 2009 he was appointed to a five year term as Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, United Kingdom.

His TED talk will give you an idea of some of his work in this area:

MacKay was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009. His nomination reads:

David MacKay introduced more efficient types of error-correcting code that are now used in satellite communications, digital broadcasting and magnetic recording. He advanced the field of Machine Learning by providing a sound Bayesian foundation for artificial neural networks. Using this foundation, he significantly improved their performance, allowing them to be used for designing new types of steel that are now used in power stations. He used his expertise in information theory to design a widely used interface called “dasher” that allows disabled people to write efficiently using a single finger or head-mounted pointer.

Sir David MacKay was knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to scientific advice in government and to science outreach.

For those interested, he a great little blog. Here’s his last blogpost.

Below, from a variety of information theorists, mathematicians, and scientists is just the beginning of the outpouring of loss the world is experiencing today:



RIP David MacKay, former DECC Chief Scientific Adviser. He was passionate, original, brave. A truly good man. Deep condolences to his family

— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) April 14, 2016

Syndicated copies to:

In Memoriam: Millard Kaufman, WWII Veteran and Front for Dalton Trumbo

On Veteran's day, a memoriam of writer Millard Kaufman.

O

n Veterans Day this year, which lands very near the release of the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston, I thought I’d take a moment to remember my old friend and mentor Millard Kaufman.

Millard not only fought for us in the war, but when he came back home he helped to defend our right to free speech and our ability to pursue happiness in a very fundamental way in his career as a screenwriter.  I often hear friends in the entertainment industry say, “This isn’t brain surgery, we’re not saving lives, here.” but in a great sense Millard was doing that in small steps throughout his career. Millard Kaufman enlisted in the Marines in 1942, served on Guadalcanal, landed at Guam with the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) where he wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette about the battle, then participated in the Battle of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division.

Millard Kaufman

I met Millard 20 years ago in 1995 on a trip to Los Angeles with Matt Gross while we were ostensibly programming the 1995 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium entitled “Framing Society: A Century of Cinema” which coincided with the 100th anniversary of film.  Dr. John Irwin, the long-time head of the Writing Seminars Department at Johns Hopkins, had provided us with a long distance introduction as Millard was a Hopkins alum from the class of ’39. So we met him at his home in the Hollywood Hills looking out over a forested sanctuary. Over our first simple tuna fish sandwich lunch, we began a friendship that spanned the next decade and a half.

Most may remember Millard Kaufman, if at all, as the co-creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, who he based on his uncle, while many others will know his Academy Award nominated films Take the High Ground (1953) or Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). I’ll always remember him for his charm, his wry wit, his ability to swear comfortably in any company, and his sense of fairness.

Millard Kaufman in his youth

Apparently Hollywood itself has glossed over his contribution to helping to maintain Dalton Trumbo’s writing career in the recent release of Trumbo (2015), in which he isn’t mentioned (or portrayed on screen). [I’ll note here that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and may boycott it for the slight.] It is here in which Kaufman’s strong internal moral compass pressured him to help ensure Trumbo’s freedom of speech and, in part, his writing career. In short, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) pressured Trumbo which resulted in Trumbo’s being blacklisted in Hollywood and effectively destroying his writing career.

Trumbo and Kaufman shared the same agent at the time, George Willner. One day, relatively early in Kaufman’s career, Willner approached him to see if he would be willing to put his name on the script Gun Crazy that would turn into the 1950 film-noir crime classic to allow it to get made. As Millard told me many times, “I didn’t have much sense then, but at least I had sense enough to say, ‘Let me talk it over with Laurie’ [his wife].” “But we discussed it and we believed it was rotten that a man couldn’t write under his own name,” Kaufman told Daily Variety in 1992. That same year Kaufman, a board member of WGAw, officially requested that the Writers Guild take his name off the credits and replace it with Dalton Trumbo’s name. Kaufman’s fronting for Trumbo helped allow the film to get made, and Trumbo’s career to continue on, even if in the dark. As a board member of the Writer’s Guild Millard helped to restore credits to many writers of the blacklist era who were similarly slighted as a result of their politics at the time. It’s a travesty, that a film gets made highlighting this exact period in Trumbo’s life, but Millard’s small contribution to it has been all but forgotten.  Fortunately there are enough who do remember to tell the story.

Millard Kaufman

When I think of Millard and his various contributions, my favorite is always that he wrote the stunning script for Bad Day at Black Rock (MGM, 1955), a superb Western suspense film starring Spencer Tracy as a one-armed veteran facing mysterious enemies in a small desert town. The film shows how post-World War II America could be be both horrifyingly racist and cowardly, but it also showed a way out through Tracy’s character which always reminds me of Millard’s high-mindedness. It was such a great film, I was personally honored to screen it on November 3, 1995, as the premiere film in Shriver Hall after we had mounted a year-long renovation of the film equipment, screen, and sound system. The day before we were all honored to have Millard speak on “Censorship in Film” as part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium.

For those who never had the chance to meet him, I’m including a short 3 minute video of several clips of him talking about a variety of topics.  The Millard portrayed here is the no-holds barred man I’ll always remember. Thanks for fighting for all of us, Millard!

 

For those looking for more information about Millard Kaufman, I’ll include the following articles:

Millard Kaufman, on writing novels. Quoted in Vulture while discussing his debut novel Bowl of Cherries.

Kaufman hands to head

“…[Millard] is the only first-time novelist I’ve met who could relate first-hand writing advice from Charlie Chaplin.”

Jordan Bass, editor, McSweeney’s in Salon (April 21, 2010). 

 

4-04-2008 Los Angeles ,CA Novelist Millard Kaufman, who published his first novel, "Bowl of Cherries," at age 90, at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Mr Kaufman is a veteran of WWII , a former newspaper copy boy, and a Hollywood screenwriter. He is also co-creator of Mr Magoo. photo © Jonathan Alcorn
4-04-2008 Los Angeles ,CA
Novelist Millard Kaufman, who published his first novel, “Bowl of Cherries,” at age 90, at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Mr Kaufman is a veteran of WWII , a former newspaper copy boy, and a Hollywood screenwriter. He is also co-creator of Mr Magoo.
photo © Jonathan Alcorn
Syndicated copies to:

Maya Angelou bowled me over…

Her impact was both literal and figurative: It wasn’t just having read several of her books in high school at the behest of Ken Proctor, but on my way to listen to a lecture she was to present at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine c. 1993.

I was a few minutes late, and apparently she was a few minutes later. While rushing around a corner to get to the auditorium, she came around the other side moving even faster than I. She easily maintained her footing while I landed quite soundly on my back side. Her companion, the terrifically imposing Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., leaned over, picked me up completely off the ground and set me gently back on my feet. Her gracious apologies extended to a far nicer seat for the event than I could have deserved being about 15 minutes late. She not only let loose my “caged bird,” she signed my printed copy as well. R.I.P.

Syndicated copies to: