giving no credit where it is not due

Luca pointed to a paper by Chierichetti, Lattanzi, and Panconesi, which has an amusing comment in the last section (I don’t want to spoil it).

The paper itself is interesting, of course. Conductance often appears in bounds on mixing times for Markov chains, but the rumor spreading problem is a bit different than the consensus problems that I have studied in the past. A nice quote from the introduction:

Our long term goal is to characterize a set of necessary and/or suffcient conditions for rumour spreading to be fast in a given network. In this work, we provide a very general suffcient condition — high conductance. Our main motivation comes from the study of social networks. Loosely stated, we are looking after a theorem of the form “Rumour spreading is fast in social networks”. Our result is a good step in this direction because there are reasons to believe that social networks have high conductance.

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Not-so-recent reads

Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Ishmael Reed) — This is a collection of Reed’s more recent writings, with big pieces on Don Imus, Kobe Bryant, and the John McWhorter. He also has a set of interviews with Sonny Rollins and a nice essay on Charles Chesnutt. Reed’s writing is ascerbic as ever, but I found the essays a mixed bag. For me, some of the nicest pieces were the shorter ones, but they were all thought-provoking.

Karnak Café (Naguib Mahfouz) — This is a short novella set after the war in which Egypt lost Sinai. The narrator frequents this cafe where three younger university students also hang out. The three disappear one day during a string of arrests and return months later. The narrator begins to learn of their experiences and how their lives were destroyed by the government’s manipulation. It’s a tightly written and compelling story that seems all-too-relevant these days. I highly recommend it.

Jhegaala (Steven Brust) — This is the latest in the Vlad Taltos series, and is mainly about untangling the hidden relationships in a small town of Easterners. If you like the series already (or are addicted) you will read it anyway, and it definitely will not make sense without reading the rest of the series…

Yellow : Race in American Beyond Black and White (Frank H. Wu) — One of the earlier books on Asian Americans and politics that was targeted towards a large readership. Although it feels a little dated now (if that is possible), it still makes some solid points. However, the end of the book was a bit disappointing, with its big love for Deep Springs.

Let’s Get Free : A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice (Paul Butler) — After a riveting first chapter, ex-prosecutor Butler takes us on a tour of how the modern criminal justice system is stacked and requires active resistance from the public. He’s an expert on jury nullification, which I didn’t know about before. However, the book kind of derails in the last few chapters with its discussion of new technologies feeling a bit more rambling than making a tight point. It was a quick and interesting read, though.

New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground (Khyati Joshi) — This was a study of mostly middle-class 2nd generation desis and their religious practices. The strong parts of the book came from the interviews, but I wasn’t sure if I agreed with all of its conclusions. Also the focus on professionals versus working-class people makes me feel like the picture was incomplete.

Slumberland (Paul Beatty) — A deeply weird tale of DJ Darky (Schallplattenunterhalter Dunkelmann), who moves to Berlin to find an old jazzman and complete the most perfect beat. I couldn’t put this book down, but I think it appealed to me because of the combination of Germany and jazz.

Faceless Killers (Henning Mankell) — An early Kurt Wallander mystery. People say his mysteries are more violent than the norm, but I found it engrossing albeit depressing.

Maus I and Maus II (Art Spiegelman) — This is a re-read — I had read them apart and now I read them back to back. A must-read.

Writing for Social Scientists (Harold Becker) — I’m not a social scientist, but this book has a lot of useful advice on how to write and edit, which I think would have been useful while writing my thesis but is also good for thinking about research projects in general.

Asterios Polyp (David Mazzucchelli) — It’s a pretty amazingly constructed graphic novel about Ideas about Art, incredibly controlled to the point of sometimes feeling trite, but the way in which style and substance are married on the page makes it a real delight to read.

Black Hole (Chris Burns) — Deeply disturbing and somewhat traumatic and somewhat hopeful. I’ve been wanting to read this since an excerpt was published in McSweeney’s comics issue.

Interracial Intimacies (Randall Kennedy) — The first (and largest) part of the book is a history of black-white race relations in America from the perspective of interracial relationships. Kennedy chooses historical examples carefully to advance the thesis that deep and meaningful romantic relationships existed even during slavery. He then spends the last two chapters of the book railing against any and all race-matching in adoption, including a rather stunningly misguided argument against the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). In all of these arguments, Kennedy blithely dismisses some studies as wrong because they contradict his opinion (invalid), others for having low sample counts (valid), but in all cases argues his own point via anecdote. While detailed research and example cases help bolster his points about history, they fail stunningly to make a rational case about policy, and his un-nuanced view further highlights the poverty of his own evidence. In a sense, Kennedy advances a moral argument (“race matching is bad”) by saying contrary evidence is not representative but never making the case that his own evidence is representative. Maybe lawyers shouldn’t make arguments about ethics. In any case, this book left a bad taste in my mouth, not because I think race-matching is always good, but because the argument was so bad.

Netflix Prize II is cancelled

Via John Langford, I learned that the sequel to the Netflix Prize has been cancelled due to privacy concerns. The paper by Narayanan and Shmatikov (also at the Oakland Security and Privacy Conference, 2008) showed that by combining the public information available via IMDB and the Netflix data, certain individuals could be re-identified. Netflix was sued over the privacy problems, and they’ve settled the suits and decided not to release the new dataset (which was to have demographic information).

Demographic information is known to be pretty valuable in re-identification. The most famous example is Latanya Sweeney’s re-identification of the Governor of Massachusetts by linking (free) hospital discharge records and ($20) voter registration records. In the healthcare field, these kind of disclosures violate HIPAA, but this Netflix case raises an interesting question with regards to privacy promises. When a company assures you that your private information will only be used internally for quality control purposes, what are they actually promising? If they issue summary statistics and give those to third parties, is that privacy preserving?

The answer is no. However, people seem quite loath to worry about these kind of disclosures unless there is a public (and dangerous) privacy breach. This is why Narayanan and Shmatikov’s paper is important — the way to get the public (and hence policymakers) to take privacy seriously is to demonstrate that existing methods are insufficient.

What’s the point of an X department?

Over at Crooked Timber there’s a discussion on eliminating some majors to save money, particularly if they don’t have many graduates.

The issue made it to Leiter because several of the Philosophy departments in those institutions fall into the low-major category. But is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department? In Our Underachieving Colleges (CT review still on its way: DD to blame if I never get round to it) Derek Bok claims that the standard assumptions within most departments in research universities is that the undergraduate curriculum is for attracting and then teaching majors, and, further, that our attention to the majors should be shaped by the aim of preparing them well for graduate school. This means that the curriculum is designed for a tiny minority of the students who take classes, and even many of them, probably, would be better off doing something other than going to graduate school (that’s me, not Bok, saying the last bit).

Philosophy departments should take heed of Samidh’s observation that philosophers are good entrepreneurs and point out that they may produce the next big alumni donor!

I wonder the degree to which Bok’s claim is true in mathematics, science, and engineering. I think it’s probably true that the average biology major or electrical engineer is being prepared for work at a company. Even senior electives are useful in this sense, especially if they are project-oriented. However, it’s probably the case that if you major in math and do not plan to go to graduate school, then your senior seminar in commutative algebra is pretty much useless for the work you’ll do later. But is the average math major at a public university being prepared for (some) graduate program? Is math in this sense closer to the humanities programs mentioned above?

In electrical engineering, it’s to go work in a company (or for the government) designing/building stuff, and those specialized classes are geared for that. On average, I think undergraduate programs in engineering in the US don’t emphasize going on to graduate study. An exception is the profit-turning one-year masters programs that have become popular in recent years. Designing a program to prepare people primarily for graduate school or designing a program to prepare people primarily for the workforce misses the point of college.

The story you hear is that a classical liberal arts education in the US is supposed to teach you to think critically and be an active and thoughtful member of society. So what does that mean for engineers? In a sense, design choices are a form of critical analysis within the context of engineering, but I think that kind of perspective can be construed more broadly. We’re so keen on formulating notions of optimality or engineering tradeoffs that we don’t also consider the societal aspects of the things that we design. It would be nice to get upper-division engineering classes that talk about where technology is headed, where society is headed, and how those interact on a more technical level. This kind of thinking is good preparation for work and for research. I think there are some classes like that out there, but they’re more or an anomaly than the norm, and they’re not really required. But it would be valuable for the students, regardless of where they go.

broadband tidbits

Despite all of the talk about the Comcast/NBC merger, they only filed a supplemental economic report last week, says FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. The public comment period will begin soon.

The National Broadband Plan will be unveiled next week.

I thought all the talk about broadband accessibility was about rural areas, but the FCC is talking about people with disabilities as well.

My hometown, together with the U of I, won a 22.5 million dollar grant to connect “40 K-12 schools, 17 social service agencies, 14 healthcare facilities, nine youth centers, four public library systems, and two higher education institutions” and bring high speed internet to low-income neighborhoods.

Papers : you know, to organize ’em

I ponied up the money and bought Papers recently — it’s not perfect but it does let me store all of those pesky PDFs I have lying around in a convenient single location.

The program acts like “iTunes for your papers.” It has its own internal storage system (which is also customizable) and lets you create collections (e.g. playlists). The best feature is the interface to various repositories such as PubMed, ArXiV, JSTOR, ACM, and Web of Science. It technically lets you search IEEEXplore as well, but IEEE just upgraded their system (color me unimpressed), which broke the current version of Papers’ search interface. I’m sure it will get fixed soon enough.

What I wish it let you do was to tag papers so that you can click on a tag to see all papers tagged with that topic; while this functionality is there, it’s not transparent to do it. I’d also like it if the BibTeX was associated as metadata with the paper file, so that I could integrate it better with BibDesk. I had contemplated getting DEVONthink to organize all of my files, but I felt like that was overkill.

Does anyone else out there have a killer system for organizing papers? I know it’s just a crazy dream that I’ll actually get a chance to read most of the papers I have sitting on my hard drive, but I’ll be more likely to read ’em if I can find ’em.