August 2012

When I moved to Chicago I realized I had a ton of conference bags. I was lucky enough to have a large closet in San Diego, and they kind of piled up in a back corner, from various ISITs and so on. I gave a few to Goodwill, but I have no idea if they will get used. I was recently talking to folks who work in public health and they were shocked that we get these “nice” bags at conferences — they get water bottles. Computer science conferences give out shirts. Why do we get bags? It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, for a number of reasons.

How much do these bags cost? I should find this out, but I imagine a full messenger bag with laptop sleeve (c.f. ISIT 2012) isn’t cheap, and that cost gets directly transferred to registration fees. It probably only works out to 20 bucks but still…

Why don’t we get pens and paper? Most of the time you get a bag, a USB stick with the proceedings, the program booklet… and that’s it. I was shocked at SPCOM in Bangalore that they gave us a spiral notebook (handy!) and a pen (and really nice one at that) on *top* of the bag (which is pretty nice, as backpacks go).

Don’t people already have bags? You’re traveling halfway around the world with your laptop. You must have some sort of bag that you use already — why do you need another one? How are you going to fit it into your luggage?

Of course, after thinking of these complaints it turns out my ISIT 2012 bag has been a lifesaver — my apartment was robbed and they took all of my computers and electronics and carried them off in my bag, so having a ready replacement sure was handy. Furthermore, I use the tote bags (ISIT 2007-2009) all the time for groceries or going to the gym or the beach, so those are great.

What kind of schwag would you prefer? I use my IPSN 2005 mug all the time at work for tea…

Did I mention I love the Chicago Public Library? It can be frustrating at times, but the main branch is right on my way to and from work.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman) — The sequel to The Magicians, sometimes described as Hipsters in Narnia. This book is actually darker, if such a thing as possible. I think it’s interesting to look at it plotted in terms of the lives of likely readers. The first book is for college kids. The second is for post-college working kids who have nice jobs and realize that their lives feel a bit empty.

Odd and The Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman) — I’ve been on a children’s book kick. A lovely little tale set in Viking mythos.

The Alchemyst, The Magician, The Sorceress (Michael Scott) — Children’s/YA fantasy series. I had mixed feelings about it but it featured John Dee as a villain, and having read so much of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, I was interested in Dee as a character. Very different here — he’s a supervillain.

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum) — A fascinating tale about the rise of the medical examiner’s office and forensic medicine. The descriptions of how to detect various poisons in the tissues of the deceased is not for the squeamish!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) — This book tells the story of the cell line HeLa, taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American patient in the 50s who died of cancer. Her cells were able to multiply on their own in the lab and ushered in a new era of research, but the way she and her family were treated epitomizes the ethical void at the heart of many scientists’ view of human subjects research. Despite this being an important story to tell, Skloot manages to make a lot of the story about herself — there’s a rather vigorous critique here.

1Q84 (Haruki Murakami) — Pretty classic Murakami, but a little more focused in content if expansive in scope. Investigates in fictional form some of the cult phenomena that seem to have captured his imagination lately. Critical opinion has been pretty divided, but I’d recommend it if you like Murakami, but not as an intro to his oeuvre.

The Atrocity Archive (Charles Stross) — sysadmins battle Cthulhu-eqsue horrors from the beyond. This is the first book in the Laundry series, and while the narrator is entertaining, I’ll probably give the rest of the series a pass.

Halting State (Charles Stross) — a near-future in which massive fraud/theft in an online game threatens to undermine the real economy. Takes gold farming and selling of WoW stuff on eBay to its extreme and then looks at what happens. Stross is good at extrapolating economic scenarios, and this was certainly more fun to read.

Applicants are sought for postdoctoral scholar position(s) at Cornell University in the areas of smart grid, learning, optimization, and control. Topics include, but are not limited to,

  1. the economics and operation of power systems with significant penetration of intermittent renewables.
  2. stochastic optimization, learning, game theory, mechanism design, and their applications.
  3. inference and control involving heavy tail distributions.

Successful candidates will participate in research activities led by Professors Lang Tong and/or Eilyan Bitar.

To apply, please send your CV, two recent papers, and 2-3 names references to Lang Tong ( and Eilyan Bitar (

Some people have told me about postdoctoral position openings that are opening up, and I figured I’d repost some of them here as they come along. Of course, there are other places to post announcements, but I find that postdoc opportunities are a bit harder to advertise/hear about. I think a lot of systems EE people applying for academic positions right out of grad school tend to put off applying for postdocs until they hear back about their faculty interviews — I’d tend to say this is a mistake:

  • If your graduation date may be a little flexible, pinging someone early on (e.g. in the fall) about possible postdoc opportunities can be a good plan. NSF grant deadlines are in the fall, and so they could write a postdoc position into a current proposal.
  • Of course you’re going to apply for faculty positions, and the people you’re talking to about postdoc positions know that. However, if you get to May and haven’t talked to anyone about postdoc options, you may find that those positions have filled up.
  • Don’t think of a postdoc as a “fallback plan” (akin to a “safety school”) — it’s an opportunity and a chance to make a strategic decision. Do you want to switch areas or learn about something new? Do you want to dig deeper into things you’ve already been working on? Do you want a springboard to get a job in a specific country? Do you want to build closer ties to industry? Do you want closer mentorship?

I went to a panel at Allerton once on “whether you should do a postdoc” starring (among other people) Aaron Wagner and Todd Coleman, I believe. Everyone was very enthusiastic about doing a postdoc. Everyone on the panel had faculty positions lined up for after their postdoc and deferred their start date to do that postdoc. This is the best of all possible worlds but is pretty unusual, so don’t count on it.

This is all dodging the issue of whether or not you should even do a postdoc. That might be a topic for a different post (or a debate for the comments) — I know people have strong feelings on both sides. I tend to think our system is broken or veering into brokenness.

However, more information is more power, so if you have a postdoc announcement (details are helpful) and want me to post it here, please do send it my way. You can also try to post to the IT Society website.

Watch this now : Diana Davis‘s entry into the Dance Your PhD contest, entitled Cutting Sequences on the Double Pentagon. (via Dan Katz).

This Friday, tax inspectors arrived in the island of Hydra located in the Aegean sea near Athens. Hydra (also spelled Ydra) is a high-end tourist destination with a strong yachting and maritime tradition. 

As reported, one restaurant owner was caught for tax evasion and fainted. Tax inspectors arrested her son and led him to the local police station.

Subsequently, protesting locals besieged the police station where he was kept. The tax inspectors were forced to remain in the station until the morning, when special police units arrived from Athens to set them free.



Shanghai Jiao Tong University recently published its Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for 2012. As usual, it contains both general university rankings and many specialized field and location based lists.
Ranking universities is an impressive dimensionality reduction challenge:
map from academic institutions to one dimension, hoping that your projection relates to loosely defined concepts like academic reputation. Think of trying to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier while reading Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to understand the concept of landing.

Rankings of specific departments are much less meaningless compared to university rankings and serve different purposes. As a student, I must admit that rankings seemed very useful. They allegedly help in another aircraft carrier landing task of choosing a school.

Just like everybody else, I still look rankings but now I have several concerns. Graduate school rankings in particular create a self-fulfilling prophecy: the best students and young faculty join higher ranked schools when given the option, hence creating a positive feedback loop.

US News almost has a de-facto national ranking monopoly, especially in the eyes of students. This sounds like a dangerous thing. Universities and departments have strong incentives to optimize a specific formula involving indicators like PhDs awarded per year and papers per academic staff. Aligning with a specific ranking methodology might not necessarily align with society’s or student interests.

Instead of thinking about these important questions, I compiled my personal ranking of world university rankings. The methodology is highly scientific: I read through each list and counted how many times I screamed: ‘Seriously, you ranked this school higher than this other school?‘.

The ranking with the lowest number of screams wins. Interestingly, ARWU wins my least absurd ranking award. The rest are:


2. Times Higher Education World University Rankings

3. QS World University Rankings (aka US News world)
(Imperial at #6 and Stanford at #11 /facepalm)

(RatER, Forbes remain unranked)

Via Amber, a collection of grassroots feminist political posters from India.

Via John, some fun investigations on how 355/113 is an amazingly good approximation to \pi. Also related are the Stern-Brocot trees, which can give continued fraction expansions.

I had missed this speech by a 10 year old on gay marriage when it happened (I was in India), but it’s pretty heartwarming. For more background on how the principal originally deemed the story “inappropriate.”

What is a Bayesian?

Unrelatedly, ML Hipster — tight bounds and tight jeans.

TTI Chicago is located on the University of Chicago campus. I am a UChicago affiliate, which means I get to use the libraries here. Unfortunately, the University is almost opposed to the idea of engineering, so things like institutional subscriptions to IEEExplore are out. Compounding this is a kind of old-fashionedness about the university which makes a lot of their collection… dated. However, since information theory is math-like, the university does have a fair number of information theory books and resources, including a number of textbooks and monographs which I had not seen before. One such is Stanford Goldman’s book, whose first chapter is entitled:

Le charme discret de l'entropie?

Le charme discret de l’entropie?

There is also a cute figure:



Differentially Private Filtering and Differentially Private Kalman Filtering
Jerome Le Ny, George J. Pappas
These papers apply the differential privacy model to classical signal processing and look at the effect of adding noise before filtering and summing versus adding noise after filtering and summing. The key is that the operations have to be causal, I think — we usually think about differential privacy as operating offline or online in very restricted settings, but here the signals are coming in as time series.

Finite sample posterior concentration in high-dimensional regression
Nate Strawn, Artin Armagan, Rayan Saab, Lawrence Carin, David Dunson
They study ultra high-dimensional linear regression (cue guitars and reverb) in the “large p, small n” setting. The goal is to get a Bernstein-von Mises type theorem — e.g. assuming the data comes from a linear model \beta_0, then using Bayesian inference the posterior should concentrate around \beta_0. They of course need a sparsity assumption, and the prior must assign reasonable mass around the true parameter and assign low probability to non-sparse signals. The methods use some ideas from compressed sensing (the Dantzig selector) and should be of interest to people working in that area.

Identifying Users From Their Rating Patterns
José Bento, Nadia Fawaz, Andrea Montanari, and Stratis Ioannidis
This is a paper about recommender systems as part of the 2011 CAMRa challenge. They look at the problem of re-identification of users in this data and show that looking at the time stamps of movie ratings is much more useful than looking at the rating values. This suggests to me that people should use a masking system like Anant and Parv’s “Incentivizing Anonymous ‘Peer-to-Peer’ Reviews” (P. Venkitasubramaniam and A. Sahai, Allerton 2008) paper.

<a href=""Mechanism Design in Large Games: Incentives and Privacy
Michael Kearns, Mallesh M. Pai, Aaron Roth, Jonathan Ullman
This proposes a variant of differential privacy which they call joint differential privacy and look at mechanism designs that satisfy privacy and are incentive compatible. At first glance, these should be incompatible, since the latter implies “revealing the truth.” The model is one in which each agent has a finite set of actions but its own payoff/value is private. This is somewhat out of my area, so I can’t really get the nuances of what’s going on here, but a crucial assumption here is that there are a large number of agents. Joint differential privacy seems to be a form of (\epsilon,\delta) differential privacy on the utility functions of the users.


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