ISIT 2007 : general impressions

I had meant to start blogging ISIT as it was going on, but that turned out to be infeasible due to a number of factors. The most relevant was that I spent the first 3 days of this year’s conference battling a fever, so by the time I got back to the hotel I was in no mood to type up any of the notes I had taken from the talks, and I also had to leave early the first two days so that I could lie down. Another downside was that my attention was not as sharp as it should have been, so I apologize in advance for the facile nature of my observations.

In general, the program this year felt way more Shannon-theory heavy to me than last year’s. Perhaps that’s because I wasn’t hanging out with many coding theorists, so I didn’t hear about the talks, but I felt like the coding talks in which I was interested were few in number. Furthermore, I ended up missing the one or two that I really wanted to attend (such as the new Reed-Solomon list decoding algorithm).

My biggest gripe was the lack of water at the sessions — there were two snack breaks, between the two morning and two afternoon sessions. There was juice, water, coffee and caffeinated tea, and everything was cleared out immediately upon the resumption of the sessions. I understand taking away the coffee and juice, but there was no water to be had in the session rooms and none in the convention area unless you bought it at the overpriced bar. Perhaps that’s in the contract with the convention center, but it’s a lousy deal.

This year they were also quite zealous in checking that everyone had their conference badge to prove that they had registered. The stinginess with respect to the water complemented (in some sense) their concern that freeloaders not be allowed into the sessions. I left my badge at the hotel one day and was made to get a temporary one for that day.

The big news of course was that Bob Gray won the Shannon Award for next year, which made me happy. I heard some people say beforehand that he seemed like an outside shot since he’s not a pure information theorist per se, and that’s what the award is about. In some sense Sergio Verdú is an Information Theorist’s information theorist, and I think one would be hard-pressed to find a candidate like him. You wouldn’t say Kailath is a pure IT guy either, right?

All in all, I had a good time, and had a few interesting research discussions with different people. I find myself wanting to work on some new problems, which is good from the perspective of learning some new areas, but bad from the perspective of trying to wrap things up and write my thesis. I was asked by several people if I was graduating soon and what I was planning on doing next, which is always a terrifying question. Hopefully I’ll get some of that sorted out this summer…

my trip to jolly olde England

I spent part of the week before last in Cambridge, UK, which is a very different town than Cambridge, Mass., although it has some of the same problems with (for lack of a better term) local deformation effects in the street mappings. Another point of similarity is the density of bookstores, although I have to say that I prefer the ones here a bit, because some of them specialize. I was particularly tempted by a music store which had Eisler’s score to Mahagony and some nice Purcell collections and…

But I digress. Some unfortunate things I missed — punting on the Cam, any and all May Balls or Garden Parties (although if they think I’d shell out 500 quid to go to some poncy event at a college in which some of the boys have the gall to show up in a black suit with a bow tie rather than a proper tuxedo they’d have another thing coming), and a day trip to Oxford that had to be cancelled at the last minute (sorry, Jeff!).

I did manage to meet up with my ex wife for a pint and a somewhat languid production of Alan Ayckbourne’s Bedroom Farce, which was spot-on in some moments (with some pretty effective physical comedy) and churned in place for others (long pauses for laughs that did not come). I should read the play to see how much Ayckbourne writes in himself and how much he leaves to the director. Some of the characters are quite brilliant. Perhaps it’s because I now know some married people that I can see the types a bit better — the last time I saw a play of his was in high school I think. In particular, Trevor is a real piece of work. “I’m a destroyer,” he says, trying to puzzle out why his relationships go sour.

I’ve been staying here with my friend Tony, who I hung out with last year in Seattle before ISIT 2006. Perhaps next year he will be close to Toronto for ISIT 2008, but I somewhat doubt it. We get to have fun arguments about Bayesian statistics and other light topics. On Friday we managed to make it into London, where we got 5-quid tickets to see The Merchant of Venice. It was a period production, and I think part of the appeal of going to the Globe is to get a historicized experience of “what it was like back then.” The ushers are pretty ridiculous — there was plenty of room to sit in the “groundlings area” but they would not let you sit down at all. Because if was trying to be more “authentic,” the production did little to tone down the Jew-hating in the script or contextualize Shylock’s position, which I found quite problematic. The audience brings its own cultural context to a production, and to present a play as a cultural artifact outside of its original cultural context is misleading, I think. The audience should be alienated from its own cultural Gestalt in order to get a critical perspective on a “historical performance.” But maybe that’s just me blathering on a bit.

After the play we went to the Tate Modern (just next door!) and saw the Global Cities exhibition, which was pretty awesome. They took a number of major global cities and compared them, asking tough questions about whether better urban planning can really solve our problems. We also got to see an exhibit on Surrealism and its influence, which was pretty cool. I saw a few minimalist pieces that I remembered from the exhibit at the MOCA in LA. We didn’t pay to see the Heitor Oiticica exhibit, but they had a few of his other pieces outside (perhaps to entice you to pay?) which I thought were pretty cool in the “uses motors and so on in a fun way.”

All ln all I enjoyed my time in England, even if they don’t know what to do with vegetables and a “salad” to them is “grated carrots, sauteed mushrooms, two slices of tomato, and pickled cabbage.” Perhaps the next time I come back I’ll see more of London, but Scotland also seems quite appealing…