A Moveable Feast (Kenneth F. Kiple) : The first half is a somewhat condensed version of the Cambridge World History of Food and covers different plants and foodstuffs from around the world. The rest of the book is about how eating habits changed over time as food exchange has diversified and now homogenized our eating habits. The only problem with the book is that it has a fair bit of apocrypha and debunked origin stories, so YMMV. I enjoyed it.

Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel) : Bechdel’s memoir about her relationship with her mother. It is stuffed to the brim with references to D.W. Winnicott, which can be a plus or minus depending on whether you like psychoanalysis. I thought it was engaging and worth reading, but to be honest I am not sure to whom I would recommend it. I feel like if you read the synopsis and think it sounds interesting, you will like it, and if not, you won’t.

The Learners (Chip Kidd) : This is a follow-up to The Cheese Monkeys, which I rather enjoyed. The Learners is a little leaner but still has those nerdy and fun (to me, tedious to others) asides on the art of graphic design and typography. The Milgram experiment features prominently, so if you are fascinated by that you might also like this as a piece of (sort of) historical fiction.

This Is A Bust (Ed Lin) : A novel set in New York’s Chinatown in the 1970′s and featuring Vietnam vet and alcoholic token Chinese cop Robert Chow as he struggles to turn his life around and find himself. It’s the first in a series and I will probably read the rest. Recommended for those who like detective novels.

Fisher, Neyman, and the Creation of Classical Statistics (Erich L. Lehmann) : The title says it all. It’s more about the personalities and their history than it is particularly about the math, but there’s a nice discussion at the end of Fisher’s confusing notion of fiducial probability and Neyman’s confidence intervals. I think it’s hard to put yourself back in that time period when people really didn’t have a good sense of how to think about these kind of statistical problems (maybe we still don’t have a good idea). Fisher’s work has become near-dogma now (unfortunately), but it’s interesting to see how these basic frequentist methods came about historically. Plus you get to learn more about the enigmatic “Student!” Recommended for those with an interest in the history of statistics.

The NIPS deadline is coming up, so I’ve been a bit harried. However, there are many cool things out there on the internet…

IIT Kanpur wants to open an office in the US to recruit faculty.

Via my father, don’t you wonder where the center of mass of a pizza slice is? This is more of an issue for those New York-style fans — in Chicago the deep dish is a little more stable.

A fascinating post from the NY Times about ephemeral islands which appear and disappear as sea levels shift.

Via BK, a musical film about coffee. It’s part of the Jazz Dance Film Fest, which promises to be my undoing, productivity-wise.

An interesting article on the Dalit movement in Maharashtra.

The Education of a British-Protected Child (Chinua Achebe) – A collection of essays over the years by noted Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. On the one hand, one might say he has a number of central issues he raises over and over again, but on the other, it might be said that he repeats himself. This is not surprising — these essays were written in different contexts and for different purposes (op-eds, speeches, and so on) and represent a set of concerns Achebe has about the relationship between himself and Nigeria, the Biafran conflict, Joseph Conrad, and the effects of colonialism. One of the more interesting pieces is a strong disagreement with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s decision to write only in Gikuyu — Achebe views denying the use of English as a kind of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “LALALALALALA.” Reading the collection, one is reminded that the easy distinctions we make here between revolutionary and conservative are just insufficient for understanding how one negotiates the legacy of colonialism. Worth a read!

The Taming of Chance (Ian Hacking) – A fantastic book and a must-read for those who care or are interested in the history of probability and statistical thought. A major point in the book is that as printing got cheaper and people were able to measure things, there was an explosion of publication of tables of counts — like how many loaves of bread were sold each week in a city, or the heights of soldiers, or… basically anything. People would survey and measure and publish all sorts of data. To make sense of this data deluge, people developed new ways of seeing populations in terms of aggregates. Individuals began to conceive of themselves in relation to the population. Notions of “statistical law” and “deviance” were a result of this process. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay) — This book was extremely long and epic and I think would appeal to more literary minded Game of Thrones fans, but I found it too… consciously “aching” as it were. It’s a novel about loss and memory, and while that’s a rich field to plow, the book to me got a bit over-trodden (and overwritten).

Tomatoland (Barry Estabrook) — A rather depressing (but ultimately hopeful?) look at the tomato industry in Florida. Florida is not a great place to grow tomatoes, but it’s warm enough in the winter to supply mealy flavorless red baseballs to industrial kitchens further north. Estabrook spends a lot of time with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that tries to get better conditions for agricultural workers. You know, things like not being enslaved, or being paid by the hour instead of by the bucket, or not being sprayed with pesticides because growers don’t want to spend the time to clear the field of workers. Little things like that. It’s harrowing but worth reading.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber) — Graeber gives an engaging and far-ranging discussion of the notion of debt and credit. He’s trained as an anthropologist and has an axe to grind against economics. I found it to be an important book to read for anyone who cares about how we got to the society we have now. Some major theses : human relations are structured around communism (sharing), exchange, and hierarchy, and the interplay of these is complex and drives notions of debt. Credit systems have been around for a long time and in many cases predate “money” as we think of it. Current credit systems are backed by the coercive power of the state. People take issue with how starkly he puts the last point, but I think that as an anthropologist, Graeber has a much better vantage from which to look at and critique where we are now. It seems daunting, but he’s a clear expositor.

Via Brandy, Kenji breaks down perfect hard boiled eggs. See also sauceome.

Bret Victor talks about Inventing on Principle — the first half are a lot of demos of some pretty amazing applications of his major driving principle, which is that creators should be able to see what they are creating in real time. He sometimes waxes a little TED-like, but overall, quite inspiring.

My high school history teacher, Chris Butler, has turned his award-winning lecture notes and flowcharts into an iPad app which is available on the App Store.

Queen, live at Wembley. (via MeFi)

Some pretty cool visualizations of sorting. (via logistic aggression)

The other day I found myself wondering “so what does the word martingale come from?” A short time on Google later, I came across this paper from Journal Electronique d’Histoire des Probabilités et de la Statistique, which had a special issue on The Splendors and Miseries of Martingales (Splendeurs et misères des martingales):

The Origins of the Word “Martingale”
Roger Mansuy
(earlier version : “Histoire de martingales” in Mathématiques & Sciences Humaines/Mathematical Social Sciences, 43th year, no. 169, 2005(1), pp. 105–113.)

It’s 10 pages and worth a read just for fun. Some of the fun facts:

  • Doob is the one who really made the name popular (in addition to proving many fundamental results). He got the name from a thesis by Ville.
  • A martingale is the name for a Y-shaped strap used in a harness — it runs along the horse’s chest and then splits up the middle to join the saddle.
  • A martingale is a name for a betting strategy (usually we think of doubling bets) but it’s not clear which one from the historical record.
  • “To play the martingale is to always bet all that was lost” (dictionary of the Acad ́emie Fran ̧caise, 4th ed.) — there are earlier dictionary definitions too, to 1750.
  • “A very slim trail seems to indicate a derivation of the word from the Provençal expression jouga a la martegalo, which means ‘to play in an absurd and incomprehensible way’.” Apparently Provençal is also the origin of Baccarat.
  • So what is martegalo? It might refer to a place called Martigues, whose residents are supposedly a bit naïve.
  • “Martingale pants” are from Martigues, and have, according to Rabelais, “a drawbridge on the ass that makes excretion easier.”
  • There’s a woman in the 17th century who called herself La Martingale and who made a number of prophetic predictions.
  • There were sailors called martégaux who gave their name to a rope called a martegalo used on sailboats. Perhaps this is where the horse connection comes in?
  • Apparently “martingale” is also vernacular for “prostitute,” but the etymology for that usage is not well-documented.

All in all, perhaps this essay ends up raising more questions than it answers, but I certainly had no idea that there was this much to be unearthed behind a simple word.

Some readers of this blog may be interested in a project by Alison Weiss, a history grad student at UC Berkeley, who is working on breaking a code used in a Civil-War era diary:

I’m writing on behalf of Professors Carla Hesse and Mark Peterson in U.C Berkeley’s History Department, where I am a PhD candidate. We recently got hold of a Civil War Diary that has multiple sections written in code. No one in the Department has any idea how to decipher it…

The code appears to have been broken by Qingchun Ren. Kudos!

… statistical research accompanies the individual through his entire earthly existence. It takes account of his birth, his baptism, his vaccination, his schooling and the success thereof, his diligence, his leave of school, his subsequent education and development; and, once he becomes a man, his physique and his ability to bear arms. It also accompanies the subsequent steps of his walk through life; it takes note of his chosen occupation, where he sets up his household and his management of the same; if he saved from the abundance of his youth for his old age, if and when and at what age he marries and who he chooses as his wife — statistics looks after him when things go well for him and when they go awry. Should he suffer a shipwreck in his life, undergo material, moral or spiritual ruin, statistics take note of the same. Statistics leaves a man only after his death — after it has ascertained the precise age of his death and noted the causes that brought about his end.

Ernst Engel, 1862

Tiassa, by Steven Brust. As Cosma puts it, mind candy, and only worth reading if you’ve read the other 10 books in the series. Quite enjoyable, however.

Kraken, by China Miéville. A rollicking adventure involving a giant squid, horrific monsters and gruesome deaths, a dark underbelly of London, the end of the world, and… a ghost piggie. Among other things. I enjoyed it.

Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley. A travelogue of a gay Englishman who becomes an attaché to a gay Raja in a princely state in the early 20th century. Often full of colonial condescension (though in a light tone) about things Indian. Most of us are tragically sad of buffoonish. The homosexuality is not overt but explicit enough that the book was censored when published. Still, it’s an interesting historical read, just because it is so weird.

The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, by Risa Goluboff. A really fascinating book about the history of civil rights litigation in the US from Lochner to Brown. The term “civil rights” was in a state of flux during that era, transitioning from a labor-based understanding to discrimination-based standing. The main players were the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Service and the NAACP. By choosing which cases to pursue and which arguments to advance, they explored different visions of what civil rights could mean and why they were rights in the first place. In particular, the NAACP did not take on many labor cases because they were actively pursuing a litigation agenda that culminated in Brown. The decision in Brown and subsequent decisions shaped our modern understanding of civil rights as grounded in stopping state-sanctioned discrimination. However, the “lost promise” in the title shows what was lost in this strategy — the state-sponsored parts of Jim Crow were taken down, but the social institutions that entrench inequality were left.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. I had to read this since I just moved to Chicago and I work right near Jackson Park. This was a very engaging read (Larson just has that “style”) but a bit creepy in that “watched too many episodes of Dexter” way. I enjoyed it a little less than Thunderstruck, but I had more professional attachment to that one.

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!

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.


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