2015 North American School of Information Theory

The 2015 ​North American ​School of Information Theory ​(NASIT) will be held on August 10-13, 2015, at the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla. If you or your colleagues have students who might be interested in this event, we would be grateful if you could forward this email to them and encourage their participation. The application deadline is ​Sunday, June 7. As in the past schools, we again have a great set of lecturers this year​​:

We are pleased to announce that ​Paul Siegel will be the​​ Padovani Lecturer of the IEEE Information Theory Society​​ and will give his lecture at the School. The Padovani Lecture is sponsored by a generous gift of Roberto Padovani.

For more information and application, please visit the School website.​​

Tracks: Frequenties and Bayesity

  1. Ashkaraballi (Nancy Ajram)
  2. Restless Leg (Har Mar Superstar)
  3. Let The Good Times Roll (JD McPherson)
  4. The Theme From Dangeresque II (Strong Bad)
  5. Wild Stallion Mountain (The Bombay Royale)
  6. Reel It In (Nikhil P. Yerawadekar & Low Mentality)
  7. Central Park Blues (Ultimate Painting)
  8. Piazza, New York Catcher (Belle and Sebastian)
  9. Golden Slippers (The Prince Myshkins)
  10. Nowadays (Del [the Funky Homosapien])
  11. Coney Island Baby (Tom Waits)
  12. J’veux D’la Musique (Tout Le Temps) (Les Nubians)
  13. Howl (JD Brooks & The Uptown Sound)
  14. I Believe in a Thing Called Love (The Darkness)
  15. Last Month Of The Year (Fairfield Four)
  16. A un niño llorando (Schola Antique of Chicago)
  17. Rock & Roll Is Cold (Matthew E. White)
  18. Try A Little Tenderness


I had a rough semester this Spring, but I did manage to read some books, mostly thanks to an over-aggressive travel schedule.

Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing is Changing How Indians Understand Themselves (Shehzad Nadeem). Published a few years ago, this book is a study of how two kinds of outsourcing — business process (BPO) and information processing outsourcing (IPO) — have changed attitudes of Indians towards work in a globalized economy. Nadeem first lays out the context for outsourcing and tries to dig behind the numbers to see where and to whom the benefits are going. The concept of time arbitrage was a new way of thinking about the 24-hour work cycle that outsourcing enables — this results in a slew of deleterious health effects for workers as well as knock-on effects for family structures and the social fabric. This sets the stage for a discussion of whether or not outsourcing has really brought a different “corporate culture” to India (a topic on which I have heard a lot from friends/relatives). The book brings a critical perspective that complicates the simplified “cyber-coolies” versus “global agents” discussion that we often hear.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille (Steven Brust). Mind-candy, a somewhat slight novel that was a birthday gift back in high school. Science fiction of a certain era, and with a certain lightness.

Hawk (Steven Brust). Part n in a series, also mind-candy at this point. If you haven’t read the whole series up to this point, there’s little use in starting here.

Saga Volumes I-IV (Brian K. Vaughan / Fiona Staples). This series was recommended by several people and since I hadn’t read a graphic novel in a while I figured I’d pick it up. Definitely an interesting world, angels vs. demons in space with androids who have TV heads thrown in for good measure, it’s got a sort of visual freedom that text-based fiction can’t really match up to. Why not have a king with a giant HDTV for a head? Makes total sense to me, if that’s the visual world you live in. Unfortunately, the series is at a cliff-hanger so I have to wait for more issues to come out.

This Earth of Mankind (Pramoedya Ananta Toer): A coming-of-age story set in 1898 Indonesia, which is a place and time about which I knew almost nothing. Toer orally dictated a quartet of novels while imprisoned in Indonesia, of which this is the first. The mélange of ideas around colonialism, independence, cultural stratification in Java, and the benefits and perils of “Western education” echo things I know from reading about India, but are very particular to Indonesia. In particular, the bupati system and relative decentralization of Dutch authority in Indonesia created complex social hierarchies that are hard to understand. The book follows Minke, the only Native (full Javanese) to attend his Dutch-medium school, and his relationship with Annelise, the Indo (half-Native, half Dutch) daughter of a Dutch businessman and his concubine Nyai Ontosoroh. Despite their education and accomplishments, Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh are quite powerless in the face of the racist hierarchies of Dutch law that do not allow Natives a voice. This novel sets the stage for the rest of the quartet, which I am quite looking forward to reading.

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell): The latest novel from David Mitchell is not as chronologically sprawling as Cloud Atlas. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is an epic behind-the-scenes struggle going on, some sort of mystic cult stuff, and a whole lot of “coincidences” that Mitchell is so good at sprinkling throughout his book. There are also some nice references to his other books, including Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I liked the latter novel better than this one, despite its gruesomeness, because it felt a bit more grounded. I think fans of Mitchell’s work will like the Bone Clocks, but of his novels, I don’t think I would recommend starting with this one.


Like many, I was shocked to hear of Prashant Bhargava’s death. I just saw Radhe Radhe with Vijay Iyer’s live score at BAM, and Bhargava was there. I met him once, through Mimosa Shah.

Most people know Yoko Ono as “the person who broke up the Beatles” and think of her art practice as a joke. She’s a much more serious artist than that, and this article tries to lay it out a bit better.

Via Celeste LeCompte, a tool to explore MIT’s research finances. It’s still a work-in-progress. I wonder how hard it would be to make such a thing for Rutgers.

In lieu of taking this course offered by Amardeep Singh, I could at least read the books on the syllabus I guess.

Muscae volitantes, or floaty things in your eyes.

Re-identification from microbiomes

A (now not-so-recent) paper by Homer et al. made a splash by showing that one could take a DNA sample from a person and detect whether they were part of the Human Genome Project (HGP) based on looking at the SNP variations from that individual together with the reported allele variations in the HGP data. More recently, a paper in PNAS by Franzosa et al. showed reidentification of individuals in the Human Microbiome Project.

Color me unsurprised. Given the richness of the data, from a purely informational point of view it seems pretty clear that people should be identifiable. As with many machine learning problems, however, the secret is in the feature encoding. Many approaches to comparing metagenomes, especially for bacterial ecologies, try to assess the variability in the population of bacteria, perhaps through mapping the to known strains. As mentioned in the Methods section, “reads were additionally mapped to a database of 649 microbial reference genomes using the Burrows-Wheeler aligner.” However, in addition to these mapping statistics, they used a few other more complicated features to help gain some additional robustness in their identification procedure.

Somehow being able to be identified by your microbiome seems less scary than being able to be identified by your genome, perhaps because we have a sense that genes are more “determining” than microbiomes. After all, you could get a fecal transplant and change your gut flora significantly. Is it the same as burning off your fingerprints? Probably not. But perhaps in the future, perpetrators of certain campus shenanigans may be easier to catch.

Signal boost: Postdoc positions at Tel Aviv University

Two postdoctoral research positions are now available in the Department of Electrical Engineering – Systems at Tel Aviv University, Israel, in the fields of information theory and interactive communications. Starting immediately for up to two years. Funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

We offer two postdoctoral fellowships for researchers in the broad area of information theory, with special emphasis on interactive communications. Specific topics of interest include single-user and multiuser communications with noisy feedback, iterative-refinement coding for two-way channels, interactive coding and its relations to dynamical systems and stochastic control, resource-limited interactive communications, distributed function computation, and combinatorial aspects of multiuser interactive communications. The research will be conducted in close collaboration with Dr. Ofer Shayevitz and his group, and is funded by a grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

The positions are available immediately and for a period of up to two years. Applicants should hold a PhD in either electrical engineering, computer science, or mathematics, and are expected to have a strong background in information theory or closely related fields. Remuneration is highly competitive and commensurate with skills and track record. To apply, please send your CV along with a short statement of research interests to Dr. Ofer Shayevitz at ofersha@eng.tau.ac.il.

Survey on Ac and post-Ac STEM PhD careers

One of the things about teaching in a more industry-adjacent field like electrical engineering is that the vast majority of PhDs do not go on to academic careers. The way in which we have traditionally structured our programs is somehow predicated on the idea that students will go on to be academic researchers themselves, and there’s a long argument about the degree to which graduate school should involve vocational training that can fill many a post-colloquium dinner discussion.

Since I know there are non-academic PhDs who read this, there’s a survey out from Harvard researcher Melanie Sinche that is trying to gather data on the career trajectories of PhDs. The title of the article linked above, “Help solve the mystery of the disappearing Ph.D.s,” sounds really off to me — I know where the people I know from grad school ended up, and a quick glance through LinkedIn show that the “where” is not so much the issue as “how many.” For example, we talk a lot about how so many people from various flavors of theory end up in finance, but is it 50%? I suspect the number is much lower. Here’s a direct link to the survey. Fill it out and spread widely!