July 2009


I updated the poster package that I had written for doing large-format conference posters in LaTeX. The updated package uses PGF and TikZ, which is a way of making beautiful figures in LaTeX. I’ve been using pstricks to make figures for a while, and while it works for me, getting it to work with pdflatex is a pain. Luckily, TikZ works in both the PostScript-based workflow as well as the direct-to-pdf workflow. Many thanks are due to Massimo Canonico for his feedback and comments.

I learned today that my grade school librarian, Dorothy Vickers-Shelley, passed away last week. It’s difficult for me to explain how much she affected my life and the lives of all the children she taught. She struck fear into our little hearts by threatening to hang us up by our toe-nails or skewer us with her purple-pointed stick if we were naughty, and thrilled us by reading us stories and personally picking out books she thought we would enjoy. She gave me a job when I was in middle school and I spent part of a glorious summer working in the library. She was the library at Yankee Ridge. But the most important thing she taught us is encapsulated in the creed she wrote that we would recite every time we went to the library:

Life is short. Therefore I shall be a crusader in the fight against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.

Goodbye, Ms. Vickers-Shelley. You will always have a place in my heart.

He meant to say “China,” not “India.”

I learned today that Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) believes we are in danger from India…

We’re fighting — we have graver threats and greater threats than that: From a rising India, with increased exercise of their military power; Russia; Iran, that’s threatening to build a nuclear weapon; with North Korea, shooting intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of hitting American soil.

I figured out how the insidious Indian plan works:

  1. Get America addicted to the sweet tunes of A.R. Rahman, as featured in Slumdog Millionaire.
  2. ???
  3. Profit / world domination!

Clearly the only way to save ourselves is to destroy Bollywood with our F-22 fighter jets… oh wait, Slumdog was made by white people…

Kyle Gann had a rather disturbing revelation about how copyright intersects with scholarship, and in particular scholarship about experimental music:

… you are no longer allowed to quote texts that are entire pieces of art. This means I’ve been trying to get permission simply to refer to Fluxus pieces like La Monte Young’s “This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean,” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” And of course, Yoko (whom I used to know) isn’t responding, and La Monte is imposing so many requirements and restrictions that I would have to add a new chapter to the book, and so in frustration well past the eleventh hour, I’ve excised the pieces from the text.

Normally, I’d expect the publishing companies to be the most obstructionist, as this commenter said:

Just last week I found out that, even for a thesis that will not be published, Shirmer [sic] now asks money to permit me to reproduce musical excerpts. If I paid every institution (libraries for manuscripts / publishers for printed matter) that holds rights to the excerpts that I need to reproduce to illustrate points and arguments, my dissertation would cost in excess of 15.000US dollars for permissions alone.

Some months ago I was warned that I may not have had the right to TAKE NOTES while studying Cowell manuscripts at the LOC in 1998.

Apparently, however, the artists themselves are also the problem. Way to make yourselves even more irrelevant…

Some reads from the first half of this year, in no particular order…

American Karma (Sunil Bhatia) — A qualitative study of a professional South Asian community in New England. Bhatia explores issues like how home/work are separated, how South Asian identity is maintained, and the stresses faced by these corporate employees. Of particular interest was how many would take accent reduction classes to move up the corporate ladder and the ways in which they would justify or apologize for their co-workers’ tokenization of them. There was also a lot about how the families interacted via their children with the school district. I thought it was a worthwhile read for people who are interested in South Asian American studies, but it might be a bit jargon-laden for some.

Funny You Don’t Look Like One (Drew Hayden Taylor) — This was a collection of essays by Ojibway writer Drew Hayden Taylor, collated from several different publications. I lacked context for a lot of what he talked about, such as Oka (warning, Wikipedia article is highly contested) and the Akwesasne cigarette “smuggling” debate. He is an engaging writer, and I enjoyed reading this book — it spurred me to read a bit more about the context, and that’s always a good thing.

The Karma of Brown Folk (Vijay Prashad) — Unlike Amardeep, I still think this book has a lot to offer South Asian Americans in terms of contextualizing the ties between India and the US diaspora and the ties that should exists between South Asians and other people of color in the US. Prashad paints a rather dire picture of things, but I think what is most lacking in South Asian youth is critical thinking, and this book does a good job of questioning the sociopolitical underpinnings of South Asian American culture, especially among the professional diaspora. Maybe it’s not a great book to teach from, and for sure it it biased, but it’s a groundbreaking work, I think. It has aged a bit (I last read it around when it came out), but I think it’s still valuable.

Making Money (Terry Pratchett) — This was a Discworld novel, this time sending up the banking industry. It was topical given the current crisis, and I found it entertaining in its formulaic way…

Steppin’ on a Rainbow (Kinky Friedman) — A sort of gonzo mystery novel set in Hawaii and full of schlock pulpy native stereotypes. Avoid.

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich) — I really enjoyed this multi-generational novel about an extended Ojibwe family. It was a bit difficult to get into at first, but it definitely hooked me. What got me was how Erdrich gets under the complicated ways in which people show their love for each other and how inexplicable actions can make sense with the proper context…

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) — This novel came highly recommended but I have to say that I wasn’t as enthralled with it. Ishiguro wrote an engrossing pseudo-dystopian narrative but the complacency of the narrator, rather than being harrowing, was simply disappointing. It did remind me a bit of some of the chapters in Cloud Atlas, but in the end I felt like the novel failed to make me care, somehow. Which is sad, because I really should care about these people. Maybe it’s more of a judgement on me…

Fifth Business (Roberton Davies) — This was also a recommendation, and I liked it, although not as much as R. Fifth Business is a memoir of a school teacher who grew up in a small town in Canada, fought through WWI and has the scars to show it. Although I did find the narrator a bit tiresome at times, I did like the form of a life-long bildungsroman.

The Ghost Brigades (John Scalzi) — This is a sequel to Old Man’s War and I didn’t like it as much as the original. Scalzi is often called the modern Heinlein, and like Heinlein, I found it a bit repetitive and was not too keen on its politics, such as they were.

Unruly Immigrants (Monisha Das Gupta) — This is a study of alternative social/political/economic movements within the South Asian American community. In particular, she looks at feminist, queer, and labor groups. She uses the phrases “place makers” to describe their activities versus the “place taker” actions that often characterize the majority South Asian community. I liked that turn of phrase. The book relies a lot on her own experiences with some of the groups as well as extensive interviews. One thing that pops out is the complexity of relations between South Asians from Asia and from the Caribbean and Africa, between different economic class groups when trying to organize domestic workers, and gender differences in labor and queer groups. It’s definitely worth reading for those who are interested in activism in the South Asian American community.

This is the penultimate post on papers I saw at ISIT 2009 that I thought were interesting and on which I took some notes. I think I’m getting lazier and lazier with the note taking — I went to lots more talks than these, but I’m only writing about a random subset.

Existence and Construction of Capacity-Achieving Network Codes for Distributed Storage
Yunnan Wu

This paper looked at the distributed storage problem using the framework of network coding that Alex has worked on. The basic idea is that you have a bunch of drives redundantly storing some information (say n drives and you can query any k to reconstruct the data). You want to make it so that if any drive fails, it can be replaced by a new drive so that the new drive doesn’t have to download too much data to maintain the “k out of n” property. The problem can be translated into a network code on an infinite graph. This paper talked about how to achieve the optimal tradeoff between the bandwidth needed to repair the code and the storage efficiency/redundancy. The key thing is that even though the network graph is infinite, the network code can be constructed over a field whose size only depends on the number of active disks. Schwartz-Zippel reared its head again in the proof…

Achievability Results for Statistical Learning under Communication Constraints
Maxim Raginsky

This talk was on how to learn a classifier when the data-label pairs (X_i, Y_i) must be compressed. Max talked about two different scenarios, one in which you can use R bits per pair, and the other in which only the labels Y_i must be sent. He defined a rate-distortion-like function where the generalization error the classifier played the role of the distortion. In the first case it’s easier for the encoder to learn the classifier itself and send the classifier over — this takes 0 bits per sample, asympotically, and incurs no extra generalization error. In the second case he uses a kind of Wyner-Ziv-like scheme which is a bit more involved. Compression is not a thing many machine learning folks think about, so I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in this direction.

On Feedback in Network Source Coding
Mayank Bakshi, Michelle Effros

This paper was about how feedback can help in distributed source coding. In some lossless and lossy problems, feedback can strictly increase the rate region. Some of these problems took the form of “helper” scenarios where the decoder wants one of the sources but gets coded side information from another source. They show that this scenario holds more generally, and so feedback helps in general in network source coding.

Feedback Communication over Individual Channels
Power Adaptive Feedback Communication over an Additive Individual Noise Sequence Channel

Yuval Lomnitz, Meir Feder

These talks were near and dear to my heart since they dealt with coding over channels which are basically unknown. The basic idea is that you know only X^n and Y^n, the inputs and outputs of the channel. The trick is then to define a corresponding “achievable rate.” They define an empirical mutual information and show that it is asymptotically achievable under some circumstances. The scheme is based on random coding plus maximum mutual information (MMI) decoding. When feedback is present they can do some rateless coding. There’s a full version on ArXiV.

Upper Bounds to Error Probability with Feedback
Barış Nakiboğlu, Lizhong Zheng

Baris gave a nice talk on his approach to modifying the Gallager exponent bounds to the case when feedback is available. The encoder constantly adapts to force the decoder into a decision. The upper bound is based on a one-step/channel-use reduction to show an exponentially decaying error probability. One nice thing he mentioned is that at rates below capacity we can get a better error exponent by not using the capacity-achieving input distribution. Even though I read the paper and Barış explained it to me very patiently, I still don’t quite get what is going on here. That’s probably because I never really worked on error exponents…

I guess I’m nostalgic for old educational TV shows, but The Electric Company, which I barely remember, is (partially) on Hulu now.

The commercial interruptions are new, however. It’s not on the PBS station, after all…

Via MetaFilter, I learned of Detexify, which is a neat widget for finding pesky symbols in LaTeX. I tried it out and it’s not too bad. It also tells you what package to add for more esoteric symbols. Also, it learns from its input, so you can help train it while you’re looking for things.

This is the second post on talks at ISIT — it’s been going a bit more slowly because of extra travel.

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