Escape Java Joint

I have spent a fair bit of time in the last week at the Escape Java Joint, a spacious coffeehouse on Williamson St. in Madison that has a lot of art as well as meeting spaces and so on. The tea is pretty good (selections are spotty though), it’s all fair trade, and they play jazz (not nu-jazz or anything like that, but Dexter Gordon etc. streaming from KKJZ). It’s probably the best working environment in a coffeeshop that I’ve come across in years, barring the time I didn’t have my headphones and sat next to the discussion group for new mothers that happens some nights. Now if I could only get the Lagrange multipliers to stop gnawing on my very life essences…


pioneering works in music and more generally

I was reading some Adorno a while ago, and this excerpt (from the meandering essay “Motifs” in the collection Quasi una Fantasia:

Among the most infamous phrases used to defeat changes in musical consciousness is that of the ‘trendsetting or pioneering work.’ A work of art legitimates itself historically only by virtue of its uniqueness and intrinsic validity. Only works which have truth and consistency can impinge on the historical process. The specific work can never be reconstructed or deduced from the historical totality; on the contrary, the totality is contained within its most minute cell. But by substituting a connection with the presumed course of history for insight into that unique concrete arttefact the critic defects from the work and escapes into a future which, as often as not, turns out to be the past. If a work points in new direcions it raises the hope that it will not be necessary to expend too much effort on it, since it is nothing but a stopping point along the track which will surely lead into the Grand Central Station of the great platitudes.

The same critique can probably be applied to other disciplines as well. Information Theory lives in the shadow of Shannon’s landmark 1948 paper, and sometimes one feels that Shannon was Moses coming down from the mountain, to hear people talk about it. It’s not often situated within the historical context or phrased as part of a particular line of thought or collection of concerns. This not to downplay Shannon’s contribution to the field, of course, but it’s more an observation of the post-hoc discussion of his works. Other papers are sometimes accorded a similar status — the Ahlswede et al. paper on network coding may be an example. This is different from papers which have beautiful results, although often the two go hand in hand. Do these pioneering papers really come out of the blue? It ignores the connections between that work and other related ideas that have been floating about.

There’s also a niggling notion that your PhD thesis should also be one of these “trendsetting works.” What’s being ignored again is process. Is a thesis the culmination of work, a demonstration of your potential to do interesting work, a document of “what I did in grad school,” a proposal for a new avenue of research, or…?

paper a day : an LP inequality for concentration of measure

A Linear Programming Inequality with Applications to Concentration of Measure
Leonid Kontorovich
ArXiV: math.FA/0610712

The name “linear programming” is a bit of a misnomer –it’s not that Kontorovich comes up with a linear program whose solution is a bound, but more that the inequality relates two different norms, and the calculation of one of them can be thought of as maximizing an inner product over a convex polytope, which can be solved as a linear program. This norm inequality is the central fact in the paper. There are two weighted norms on functions at work — one is defined via a recursion that looks a lot like the sum of martingale differences. The other is maximizing the inner product of the given function with functions in a polytope defined by the weights. All functions in the polytope have bounded Lipschitz coefficient. By upper bounding the latter norm with the former, he can apply the former to the Azuma/Hoeffding/McDiarmid inequalities that show measure concentration for functions with bounded Lipschitz coefficient.

On a more basic level, consider a function of many random variables. For example, the empirical mean is such a function. A bounded Lipschitz coefficient means they are “insensitive” to fluctuations in one value. This intuitively means that as we add more variables the function will not deviate from is mean value by very much. To show this, you need to bound a probability with the Lipschitz coefficient, which is exactly what this inequality is doing. Kontorovitch thereby obtains a generalization of the standard inequalities.

What I’m not sure about is how I would ever use this result, but that’s my problem, really. The nice thing about the paper is that it’s short, sweet, and to the point without being terse. That’s always a plus when you’re trying to learn something.

Hamlet : Blood In The Brain

I got a chance to see the new Naomi Iizuka play, Hamlet: Blood in the Brain at Intersection for the Arts (15th and Valencia). The production is a collaboration between Iizuka, Intersection, Campo Santo, and CalShakes, and took about 5 years of workshops and fora to come to its current form. The nice thing about going to Campo Santo productions is that they are really about process and it shows. This play is a recasting of the Hamlet story in a 1980’s Oakland devastated by the internecine conflicts between rival drug-dealers. In this story “H” (all characters are initials) stands in the shadow of his father, who was a “legend” and who dealt drugs all across Oakland. Rather than coming back from University, he comes back from the penitentiary and has to cope with the demands of his “uncle” C, who has taken over the business, has married H’s mother G, and who has Big Plans to expand his operation. The gangsta mythos and drama of the street struggle is an appropriate fit for the largeness of Shakespeare’s story, but Iizuka doesn’t really romanticize it. We are very much inside H’s mind the entire time, from his first line “the pounding… of a BASS” to the end, in which the poisoned chalice is done away with and instead we have a real Mexican standoff.

The play is another must-see. Like Love is a Dream House in Lorin, the play deals with local issues and problems, but the focus here is on the dissection of H’s turmoil. He is well and truly stuck here, as opposed to the kind of angsty playboy you see in some productions. To a degree he brings it on himself, but when you see C plans to have L kill H at a club in Oakland you understand the degree to which he is ensnared by business and blood and family and pride and honor. The feeling in intensified by the Chorus, which appears in all the club scenes, taunts H about his own inadequacies. We see it also when H meets L’s sister O near Lake Merritt and tells her that he wants to take her far away but in a later scene when she gets in his car he is paralyzed and cannot leave. Those who want a scene-by-scene adaptation should stay away. It’s more the Iizuka has taken Hamlet, knocked out everything but some posts, sifted through the detritus to find some nuggets, and then found a story in which those can be strategically placed. It’s in those changes that the indictment of the culture itself comes. There’s no reason for O to drown herself here — far better to have her killed in a driveby orchestrated by L himself, who is supposed to take out H.

As with every Campo Santo productions, the performances are huge and powerful. Sean San Jose as H, Donald E. Lacy Jr. as C, and Tommy Shepherd as L were particularly good, I thought, but Margo Hall as G, Ryan Peters as O, and Ricky Marshall as H’s father were also excellent. The play’s been extended and tickets can be reserved in advance at Intersection.

being literal

A: Last night, B said that our candidate has been “seduced by the Calypso of the insurance industry.” We think that B should apologize for this ridiculous and unsubstantiated attack on our candidate.
B: What are you talking about?
A: We have never liked Calypso.
B: It’s a metaphor!
A: Sure doesn’t sound like plain English to me.
B: You’re kidding me. Didn’t you read The Odyssey? Calypso keeps Odysseus prisoner…
A: Are you saying we have imprisoned the insurance industry?
B: What? No! I mean, it’s a literary allusion.
A: My fellow Americans, it is clear that B’s “literary aspirations” are growing out of control and that he is out of touch with real Americans. We want straight talk, and that is what our candidate will bring to you.

The mendacity of politicians who willfully misconstrue and misquote others must appeal to some people. It kind of reminds me of those who walk around talking about how the Bible is the literal word of God. They think words should mean what they say, and there shouldn’t be any “interpreting” going on. Perhaps that’s why you get a lot of “person on the street” interviews in which someone says “I like candidate A, since they seem so straightforward.” Perhaps that’s why we have possibly the dumbest President in the history of the country. “Straight talk” can come from all sorts, but the smart ones still use subtext.