Teaching in Turin

A few weeks ago I returned from teaching “big data analysis with MapReduce” at Big Dive in Turin, Italy. Big Dive is a technology training program about data science (applied statistics), visualization (displaying data in an understandable way), and computer programming. Most of the students are in some type of grad school. The tools they learn at Big Dive are helpful for processing and presenting data for scientific purposes.

I was there to teach mrjob, a programming tool that makes it easy to run code on lots of computers at once so analyses can be run in minutes or hours rather than days. I was tapped to teach the course because I worked on it while I was at Yelp.

After the nail-biting process of getting my passport on short notice and buying some very expensive plane tickets, I boarded a plane. 18 exhausting hours later, I met Alessandro Molina, one of my hosts. He took me to dinner and then to my hotel, where I collapsed for the night.

My hotel was on the river. If I walked for 60 seconds, I saw this:

River

Monday

I woke up in time to order breakfast at a restaurant where none of the staff spoke English. Pointing, gesturing, and pronunciation mangling was involved. My stomach full, I walked to Big Dive early to get acquainted with the people and the building, and to finish my notes and slides for the day. The walk between my hotel and the Big Dive building (below) was consistently nice the whole week despite the heat.

Big Dive building

Two hours later I was ready to teach, but no lesson plan survives contact with students. Having written much of the software they were learning, I was used to just knowing things and don’t have much of a beginner’s mind about it anymore. Additionally, their skill sets ranged from almost no programming knowledge to proficient physics PhD.

By the end of the day, though, most students seemed to understand all the relevant concepts. For dinner, Alessandro took me to Eataly, a well-known collection of restaurants with authentic dishes from across Italy. I had this:

Pasta

After dinner, we had Italian ice cream. What’s “ice cream” in Italian? “Gelato.” I should also mention that “coffee” in Italy is straight espresso in a tiny cup, “American-style” coffee is espresso and water (“Americano,” same as you can get at any American coffee shop), and drip-brewed coffee is really nowhere to be found. Strange and redundant language crossings abound, apparently. I found out later that World War II plays a part in those linguistic shenanigans.

Tuesday

On Tuesday morning I went to the Egyptian museum. I enjoyed myself with an English audio tour and don’t have much else to say about it. Here’s a cool photo of a sarcophagus.

Marching band

On my way out, I came across this police marching band. I think some kind of ceremony was beginning, but I never figured it out.

Marching band

I had too much coffee before teaching my second class and experienced an intense caffeine crash at the end. I imagine the students were more than a little confused about some of the material.

For dinner, I was taken to an old school Italian tavern with Puria, one of Alessandro’s coworkers. I ate a large amount of delicious food and drank a large amount of delicious beer. Afterward, we found one of his friends and enjoyed ourselves at a nearby bar until bed time. Here’s a quick snap of the inside of the tavern:

Marching band

Wednesday

My last class of the week was in the morning. This one went much better than the last, and by the end of the day I was confident that everyone understood all the relevant technology. After class we all went to lunch, with gelato for dessert. Then I resumed my tourist activities by going to the Mole Antonelliana, which houses the Museum of Cinema. It’s the tallest brick building in the world. Here’s the outside:

Mole Antonelliana

I took the elevator to the top:

Mole Antonelliana

I didn’t get any photographs of the inside of the museum, but it’s amazing. Most of the interior is a single huge room stretching up into the spire. The main exhibits are little rooms on the edges, and the special exhibit is a ramp that spirals up the inner walls.

Puria took me to dinner again. I had a pasta dish and half a lobster.

Thursday

Although my classes were over, I had to go to Big Dive once more to help answer questions while the students worked on their final projects. From 10:30 AM until 6:30 PM, excluding lunch, I sat in the event space and read Wikipedia. Once in a while someone would ask me for help.

We all had to leave at 6:30 so they could close the building, even though most students weren’t finished with their projects. Everyone agreed to meet half a mile away in a couple of hours for aperitivos, i.e. happy hour with food.

I arrived first because I thought I might get lost and padded my departure time. Half an hour later everyone had arrived and we walked to the bar. Over the course of the evening I solidified my friendship with the group (all the students were there) and had a lot of interesting discussions about sports, culture, movies, and personal lives. At the end of the night, I finally felt like I had actual new friends.

Most of the students

Seth, a friend of a student, was visiting and needed something to do on Friday. We agreed to be tourists together. His family moved to Canada from Bulgaria when he was young, and now he’s studying at a university in a European country I can’t remember.

Friday

Seth and I met at 11 to see the royal palace. I can confirm that it was both royal and palacious.

Palace dining room

Here’s a cheesy tourist shot of me outside a different palace:

Cheesy tourist shot

After the palace, we visited the Royal Armory and the Archaeology Museum. We weren’t allowed to take photos, so…there aren’t any photos.

We had lunch at a hip baked potato joint (Did I mention Yelp is near useless in Turin?), followed by “coffee with cream,” i.e. espresso with heaps of whipped cream on top. Our stomachs full, Seth and I crossed the river to walk up a big hill to a church. The view from there should give a better idea of the size of the Mole Antonelliana, and how few really tall buildings there are in Turin.

View from across the river

Having just hiked up and down a big hill, lesser travelers might have gone for a nap. But Seth and I are urbanites accustomed to hoofing it across the city at all times of day, so we opted to walk the length of a nearby park instead. It reminded me of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco because of its length, general atmosphere, and proximity to the water. There were beautiful views of the river the whole way. After we had walked for a few hours, incuding through a recreation of a medieval village, we got gelato and then parted ways.

Later that evening, I boarded a tram. But it wasn’t an ordinary tram; it was a moving gourmet restaurant!

The magic tram

Even though no one on the train spoke English, I managed to order red wine and enjoyed my dinner immensely. (One of the reasons I chose this event in the first place was its fixed menu.) It was an appropriate end to a great week.

On top of the world