Brits in Berkeley

personnel
Topos
Author
Published

2022-03-22

Abstract

Throughout the past calendar year, Topos Oxford has mostly comprised just two people: Toby St Clere Smithe and myself (Tim Hosgood). Since Berkeley has been the Topos site of initial focus, we’ve been working mostly remotely from the rest of the team. But last week was an exciting one for us all at Topos, because Toby and I travelled over to Berkeley for a research visit!

Throughout the past calendar year, Topos Oxford has mostly comprised just two people: Toby St Clere Smithe and myself (Tim Hosgood). Since Berkeley has been the Topos site of initial focus, we’ve been working mostly remotely from the rest of the team: Toby is currently visiting Glasgow, Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿, and for this year I’m working in Stockholm, Sweden 🇸🇪. But last week was an exciting one for us all at Topos, because Toby and I travelled over to Berkeley for a research visit! This blog post is an excuse for me to talk about what we got up to while we were there, and to share some nice photos, and nothing much more than that really.

A few days before Toby (left) and I (right) arrived, the office had just gotten a new Topos Institute sign. Such excitement at the start of our trip boded well for the rest of it.

A few days before Toby (left) and I (right) arrived, the office had just gotten a new Topos Institute sign. Such excitement at the start of our trip boded well for the rest of it.

Despite having been working with Brendan, David, Valeria, Evan, and Tish since the very end of 2020, this was actually the first time that I met any of them in person. In fact, apart from the very early days, when Topos was but a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, this was the first time that the whole team was in the same physical location. We decided to make the most of this by having an offsite day, but, just to make it easier to organise, we ended up actually doing it onsite (though with a small walk up a nearby hill to have a picnic for lunch and take some photos, so I guess there was some offsite component of it after all). This day was dedicated to strategic planning, asking questions, discussing and debating all levels of the institute and how it should function, thinking about our values, and many other things that are integral to, not just forming, but maintaining, a cohesive team structure. One direct output of this was the strategic plan, which you can now read online (and we would love for you to do so!).

The onsite portion of the onsite offsite day (and just one of the many team selfies that I insisted that we take)

The onsite portion of the onsite offsite day (and just one of the many team selfies that I insisted that we take)

The offsite portion of the onsite offsite day (just before I fell down the hill trying to run back before the self-timer on the camera went off)

The offsite portion of the onsite offsite day (just before I fell down the hill trying to run back before the self-timer on the camera went off)

Aside from this big picture stuff, we also spent a lot of time just talking about maths, language, and some other things. Toby had some lengthy chats with David and Brandon about sense-making, Poly, and some sort of generalisation of the Para construction for applications to categorical cybernetics and Bayesian lenses (but I’ll save writing any more detail about this for Toby to do, because I’m already out of my depth just saying some of these words). You can watch a recording of a talk Toby gave on some of this stuff here: Categories by proxy and the limits of Para.

I spoke to Valeria a bit (and learnt a lot) about type-theoretic approaches to natural language translation; Evan and I worked on a forthcoming paper with two other co-authors about diagram categories and their applications to multiphysics (and, again, I learnt a lot about… well, a lot of things); and David explained polynomial functors to me in a language that I finally understood: ringed spaces! Sometime in the near future™ I’ll write up some things that, although known to any moderately fluent Poly speaker, helped me to think about lenses and optics and all these lovely concepts that I know nothing about in a way that made some sense to me (and I’d also like to write a bit about some of the stuff that came out of the Workshop on Polynomial Functors last week, since it was remarkably more algebraic-geometric than I was expecting, which made me happy!).

The green in California is so very different from the green that I’m used to seeing anywhere else. This also looks like a more dramatic version of the custard label (see below).

The green in California is so very different from the green that I’m used to seeing anywhere else. This also looks like a more dramatic version of the custard label (see below).

For me, this was about six-hours (by plane) further west than I had ever been before, so of course it wasn’t all just maths and admin while we were there. David drove Toby and I out to some nice hills for a walk, where I spilt orange juice all over myself and Toby ate a mystery citrus fruit. Valeria hosted a lovely pot-luck (a new concept to both Toby and I, who both ended up bringing mostly just cheese) at her place one evening, so we got to drive over a bridge from the east of the bay area to the west of the bay area (and who doesn’t love a good bridge) and see a whole different sort of scenery. Another day, Brendan took us to the Mission in San Francisco where we had our first “proper” burritos, and then we all drove up to a big hill (maybe the tallest one in the city?), looked at the city lights, and then had a tiny road trip to the west coast to see (for the first time in my life) the Pacific. (Brendan even indulged me by playing both the Beach Boys and Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” in the car on the way there, so it was just like I’d always imagined.)

Neither Toby nor I had ever seen the Pacific ocean before, so Toby paddled in and ate some sort of exotic fruit (with Brendan, after he took this photo for us) while I settled with staring into the night sky (though I did at least touch the water before leaving).

Neither Toby nor I had ever seen the Pacific ocean before, so Toby paddled in and ate some sort of exotic fruit (with Brendan, after he took this photo for us) while I settled with staring into the night sky (though I did at least touch the water before leaving).

Basically everybody who found out that this was our first time in Berkeley told us we had to go to the Berkeley Bowl, which is… a supermarket? Toby was very excited by all the fun fruits, but I was, I’m very sad to say, overwhelmingly underwhelmed (apart from the price of custard, which made me feel sad for all the people who clearly never got the chance to grow up drinking it out of tubes or having it stolen from them by a small little underground mole-like animal flying through the air holding onto an unexplained balloon).

One of the few well-known (let alone good) things to have come out of my place of birth (found in Berkeley at over five times the price of what it costs back home)

One of the few well-known (let alone good) things to have come out of my place of birth (found in Berkeley at over five times the price of what it costs back home)

Time flew by, and I’m now back in Stockholm (with considerable jet lag), but the long dark winter here is almost at an end, and spring is sneaking up on us. Indeed, this Sunday just gone was the spring equinox (happy Nowruz!), and with a little more sunlight, the late-night Topos meetings (which are in the early morning for the Berkeley office) should be just a little bit more bearable 😉.

A vintage instant-camera group selfie, in which I look like some cross between a ghost and a thumb accidentally covering the camera lens

A vintage instant-camera group selfie, in which I look like some cross between a ghost and a thumb accidentally covering the camera lens