Signal boost: vote in the ITSOC BoG Election!

The IEEE Information Theory Society election of Members to the Board of Governors is now open.

We hope you will take the time to exercise your vote and help choose the future direction of the society. Let’s increase last year’s voting percentage of 23.1% by voting today! Your vote counts!


You will need your IEEE Account username/password to access the ballot. For quick reference, your username is If you do not remember your password, you may retrieve it on the voter login page.

Voting must be completed no later than 6 September 2018. Any returns received after this date will not be counted. The online voting site will close at 4:00 pm Eastern Time.

If you have any questions about the IEEE Information Theory Society voting process, please contact or +1 732 562 3904.

Thank you for your participation in this election.

Alon Orlitsky,
Chair, Nominations and Appointments Committee


TPDP Last-minute CFP/Extension (July 27!)

Via Sasho Nikolov: the deadline for the Theory and Practice of Differential Privacy (TPDP 2018, co-located with CCS 2018) is now:

July 27, 2018

This was done to avoid conflicts with SIGMOD.

Submissions of already published work is also allowed, as long as it was published after the last TPDP. The goal is to get people in the room. The formal CFP is here.


This NSF report from the Office of the Inspector General has some really horrendous examples of data fabrication, plagiarism, and other misconduct by PIs and graduate fellowship (GRFP) recipients. It’s true that bad behavior taints the whole program: how good is the GRFP selection process if students like this get awards?

This article on Bhagat Singh Thind is fascinating. We need a modern Ghadar Party here. But this is so bizarre: “[o]ut of necessity and ingenuity, Thind, along with several dozen South Asians during the interwar decades reinvented themselves as itinerant spiritual teachers and metaphysical lecturers who would travel from city to city, giving lectures and holding private classes.”

A photo gallery by Lotfi Zadeh: some of these are really beautiful portraits. Also the variety! I remember not really understanding portraiture when I was younger but I think I “get it” a bit more now. Or at least why it’s interesting. There’s even a photo of Claude Shannon… from the email:

Prof. Lotfi Zadeh, who passed away in 2017, was an avid photographer who grew up in a multicultural environment, surrounded himself with a cosmopolitan crowd, and always kept his mind open to new ideas. In the 1960s and 70s, he enjoyed capturing the people around him in a series of black and white portraits. His burgeoning career gave him access to a number of artists, academics, and dignitaries who, along with his colleagues, friends, and family, proved a great source of inspiration for him.


I helped organize a workshop at IPAM on privacy and genomics. Videos (raw) are up now.

What’s new is old in ethics and conduct

(h/t to Stark Draper, Elza Erkip, Allie Fletcher, Tara Javidi, and Tsachy Weissman for sources)

The IEEE Information Theory Society Board of Governors voted to approve the following statement to be included on official society events and on the website:

IEEE members are committed to the highest standards of integrity, responsible behavior, and ethical and professional conduct. The IEEE Information Theory Society reaffirms its commitment to an environment free of discrimination and harassment as stated in the IEEE Code of Conduct, IEEE Code of Ethics, and IEEE Nondiscrimination Policy. In particular, as stated in the IEEE Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct, members of the society will not engage in harassment of any kind, including sexual harassment, or bullying behavior, nor discriminate against any person because of characteristics protected by law. In addition, society members will not retaliate against any IEEE member, employee or other person who reports an act of misconduct, or who reports any violation of the IEEE Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct.

I guess the lawyers had to have a go at it, but this is essentially repeating that the IEEE already had rules and so here, we’re reminding you about the rules. This statement is saying “the new rules are the old rules.” We probably need more explicit new rules, however. In particular, many conferences have more detailed codes of conduct (NeurohackWeek, RSA,
Usenix, APEC) that provide more detail about how the principles espoused in the text above are implemented. Often, these conferences have formal reporting procedures/policies and sanctions for violations: many IEEE conferences do not. The NSF is now requiring reporting on PIs who are “found to have committed sexual harassment” so incidents at conferences where the traveler is presenting NSF-sponsored should also be reported, it seems.

While the ACM’s rules suggest making reporting procedures, perhaps a template (borrowed from another academic community?) could just become part of the standard operating procedure for running an IEEE conference. Just have a member of the organizing committee in charge, similar to having a local arrangements chair, publicity chair, etc. However, given the power dynamics of academic communities, perhaps people would feel more comfortable reporting incidents to someone outside the community.

Relatedly, The Society also approved creating an Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (I’m not on it) who have already done a ton of work on this and will find other ways to make the ITSOC (even) more open and welcoming.

SPS: no edits after acceptance

I got an email recently saying that the Signal Processing Society‘s Publications Board has decided to “no longer allow any changes to papers once the papers are accepted… the accepted version of the papers will be the version posted on Xplore.” Associate editors are supposed to enforce this policy.

I can only imagine that this is the result of abuse by some (or many) authors to make substantive changes to their manuscript post-acceptance. That is clearly bad and should probably be stopped. However, I think this hard-line policy may not be good for a couple of reasons:

  • Even after reviewers sign off on a manuscript from a technical standpoint, there are often several small issues like grammar, typos, and so on. The only solution then would be to enter an endless cycle of revise and resubmit, unless SPS is ok with typos and the like.
  • I have had galley proofs come back with several technically substantive errors and have had to go back and forth with IEEE about fixing these. This can only get worse with this policy.
  • Due to the fast pace of research and the slow pace of reviewing, many times the references for a paper need updating even after acceptance: a journal version of a conference paper may have come out, or an ArXiV preprint may have been updated, or any host of other changes. This hard requirement is bad for scholarship since it makes finding the “correct” reference more onerous.

Overall, this shifts the burden of fine-level verification of the manuscript to the AE. For some journals this is not so bad since they don’t have long papers and AEs may handle only a few papers at the same time. For something like the Transactions on Information Theory, it would be a disaster! Thankfully (?) this is only for the Signal Processing Society. However, my prediction is that overall paper quality will decrease with this policy, driving more papers to ArXiV for their “canonical version.” Is this bad? Depends on your point of view.

Hello from the IPAM Workshop on Privacy for Biomedical Data

I just arrived in LA for the IPAM Workshop on Algorithmic Challenges in Protecting Privacy for Biomedical Data. I co-organized this workshop with Cynthia Dwork, James Zou, and Sriram Sankararaman and it is (conveniently) before the semester starts and (inconveniently) overlapping with the MIT Mystery Hunt. The workshop has a really diverse set of speakers so to get everyone on the same page and anchor the discussion, we have 5 tutorial speakers and a few sessions or shorter talks. The hope is that these tutorials (which are on the first two days of the workshop) will give people some “common language” to discuss research problems.

The other big change we made to the standard workshop schedule was to put in time for “breakout groups” to have smaller discussions focused on identifying the key fundamental problems that need to be addressed when thinking about privacy and biomedical data. Because of the diversity of viewpoints among participants, it seems a tall order to generate new research collaborations out of attending talks and going to lunch. But if we can, as a group, identify what the mathematical problems are (and maybe even why they are hard), this can help identify the areas of common interest.

I think of these as falling into a few different categories.

  • Questions about demarcation. Can we formalize (mathematically) the privacy objective in different types of data sets/computations? Can we use these to categorize different types of problems?
  • Metrics. How do we formulate the privacy-utility tradeoffs for different problems? What is the right measure of performance? What (if anything) do we lose in guaranteeing privacy?
  • Possibility/impossibility. Algorithms which can guarantee privacy and utility are great, but on the flip side we should try to identify when privacy might be impossible to guarantee. This would have implications for higher-level questions about system architectures and policy.
  • Domain-specific questions. In some cases all of the setup is established: we want to compute function F on dataset D under differential privacy and the question is to find algorithms with optimal utility for fixed privacy loss or vice versa. Still, identifying those questions and writing them down would be a great outcome.

In addition to all of this, there is a student poster session, a welcome reception, and lunches. It’s going to be a packed 3 days, and although I will miss the very end of it, I am excited to learn a lot from the participants.