October 2011


Perhaps I should say “facts” since I got them from his Wikipedia page (corroborated by more official accounts):

  • “He was prevented from enrolling in university in 1939 due to the anti-Jewish laws then in force, but enrolled at the University of Budapest in 1940 and finished his studies in 1944. At this point he was drafted to forced labour service, escaped, and completed his Ph.D. in 1947 at the University of Szeged, under the advisement of Frigyes Riesz.” Hardcore!
  • Rényi said “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems,” not Erdös.
  • He passed away at the age of 48!

I figured I would blog about this week’s workshop at Banff in a more timely fashion. Due to the scheduling of flights out of Calgary, I will have to miss the last day of talks. The topics of people’s presentations varied rather widely, and many were not about the sort of Good-Turing estimator setup. Sometimes it was a bit hard to see how to see how the problems or approaches were related (not that they had to be directly), but given that the crowd had widely varying backgrounds, presenters had a hard time because the audience had to check in a new set of notation or approach for every talk. The advantage is that there were lots of questions — the disadvantage is that people insisted on “finishing” their presentations. By mid-week my brain was over-full, and a Wednesday afternoon hike up Sulphur Mountain was the perfect solution.

The view from Sulpur Mountain

The view from Sulpur Mountain

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Bayesian nonparametrics is a bit like the Catholic church : there is a fair bit of dogma, mystery, and reliance on countably infinite populations from the developing world.

I’ve just arrived in chilly but beautiful Banff for a workshop on Information theory and statistics for large alphabets. I’m looking forward to it, although I will have to miss the last day due to the timing of flights out of Calgary that get me to Chicago before midnight. My itineraries there and back seem especially perverse : ORD-SEA-YYC and YYC-SFO-ORD. However, thanks to the new gig I have a new laptop with a functional battery so I am doing a bit more busy-work and less New Yorker reading in the plane. I might try to write a bit more about the topics in the workshop — although the topic seems focused, there are a wide range of approaches and angles to take on the problem of estimating probabilities/prevalences in situations where you may not get to see each outcome once. Certainly I hope I can get the journal version of a paper from last year’s Allerton squared away.

In an effort to get myself more philosophically informed with regards to probability and statistics, I’ve been reading about various notions and their discontents, such as symmetry, or Bayesianism, or p-values. I was delighted to find this recent pair of papers (part I,part II) by fellow Berkeley-ite and occasional puzzle-partner Kenny Easwaran (now a prof at USC) on Bayesianism in Philosophy Compass. In the first paper he goes through basic tenets of Bayesian approaches to probability in terms of subjective belief, and their philosophical justification via rational actions or “Dutch book” arguments and representation theorems. What’s also interesting from a scientific view (somewhat off-topic from the article) is the angle being advanced (some might say “pushed”) by some cognitive scientists that people are actually doing some kind of Bayesian conditionalization in certain tasks (here’s a plug for my buddy Pradeep‘s work). The second article talks about the difficulties in developing a consistent and quantitative “confirmation theory” in Bayesianism. In different fields there are different questions how how to do this, and as Kenny points out, the anti-Bayesians in different fields are different — the null-position is not necessarily frequentism.

They’re a relatively quick read, and I think provide some different perspectives for those of us who usually see these concepts in our little fiefdoms.

I am reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, which I picked up from The Seminary Coop upon arriving here. They just had it on the shelf! The book, as he puts it, is a way to understand why probability has been “an incredible success story” in the realms of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics. By success he means probabilistic ideas have radically changed these areas. On the last point:

Ethics is in part the study of what to do. Probability cannot dictate values, but it now lies at the basis of all reasonable choice made by officials. No public decision, no risk analysis, no environmental impact, no military strategy can be conducted without decision theory couched in terms of probabilities. By covering opinion with a veneer of objectivity, we replace judgement by computation.

Sacra Profana, a San Diego choir with whom I have performed before, is hoping to get funding for a new CD via a kickstarter campaign. There’s less than two weeks left in the campaign and we are getting close to our goal, but if you read this blog and are feeling generous (every $5 counts), please consider supporting this group. They are doing some really innovative programming — we did Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, a piece I have loved since high school and never thought I would get the chance to perform.

Despite Yury‘s attempts to get me to “stop blogging,” here is my much-delayed recap of Allerton. Because of moving to TTI-Chicago right after Allerton and then almost immediately shuttling back to UCSD for the iDASH Privacy Workshop, things have been a bit delayed. I could only attend for two days but I wanted to highlight a few interesting talks that I saw. More Allerton blogging was done by Michael Mitzenmacher (part 1, part 2) and a bit by Maxim Raginsky about his talk on causal calculus (since he blogged about it I don’t have to, ha!). The conference has gotten too big and the rooms are too small to hold the audience, so it probably is time to move the thing. We have similar issues at ITA and the 2012 ITA Workshop is moving off campus next year (you heard it here first, folks!)

But here are some interesting talks I saw:

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From a recent read, Risa Goluboff’s The Lost Promise of Civil Rights:

The process of doctrinal distillation was particularly powerful in the years leading up to Brown. The multiplicity of the civil rights practices of the 1940s reflected both the unsettled nature of legal doctrine and the complexity of challenging a seventy-five-year-old racial and economic caste system. As lawyers transformed into legal claims attacks on the unwieldy thing called Jim Crow, they chose particular cases, particular legal theories, and particular formulations of injury that they thought legal doctrine could remedy. As a result, the civil rights case that took the definitive step towards undermining Jim Crow would, as Brown did, both embody a legal understanding of what Jim Crow was and begin to define the constitutional response to it. In so doing, that case would, as Brown also did, elide the forms of civil rights and understandings of Jim Crow that lawyers had chosen to filter out of the litigation process.

This book is a fascinating read (more so if you are a lawyer, I imagine) about how it is that we think of civil rights in the way that we do now, and how a lot of the multiple meanings of civil rights (in particular labor rights) were articulated in the years before Brown vs. Board of Education. Civil rights claims were launched on behalf of black workers by the Civil Rights Section of the DoJ as well as the NAACP, and the latter chose a very particular approach to Brown which did not build on a lot of the victories won in those earlier cases.

In a further procrastination about Allerton blogging, I want to share two items from the UChicago Statistics department.

The first is that there will be a conference in early December in memory of Partha Niyogi, who passed away last year. Registration is free, so if you are in the area, you may want to come.

The other is that Patrick Billingsley passed away in April. I had no idea that he “also became an accomplished actor of stage and screen” (ideas are now percolating in my head). He was in the The Untouchables! The next time I am over there, I will take a picture of a poster they have up advertising his tenor voice performing a “tragicomic rendition” of ergodic theory and coding. I gotta find a new shtick for myself, I think.

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