Did I mention I love the Chicago Public Library? It can be frustrating at times, but the main branch is right on my way to and from work.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman) — The sequel to The Magicians, sometimes described as Hipsters in Narnia. This book is actually darker, if such a thing as possible. I think it’s interesting to look at it plotted in terms of the lives of likely readers. The first book is for college kids. The second is for post-college working kids who have nice jobs and realize that their lives feel a bit empty.

Odd and The Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman) — I’ve been on a children’s book kick. A lovely little tale set in Viking mythos.

The Alchemyst, The Magician, The Sorceress (Michael Scott) — Children’s/YA fantasy series. I had mixed feelings about it but it featured John Dee as a villain, and having read so much of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, I was interested in Dee as a character. Very different here — he’s a supervillain.

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum) — A fascinating tale about the rise of the medical examiner’s office and forensic medicine. The descriptions of how to detect various poisons in the tissues of the deceased is not for the squeamish!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) — This book tells the story of the cell line HeLa, taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American patient in the 50s who died of cancer. Her cells were able to multiply on their own in the lab and ushered in a new era of research, but the way she and her family were treated epitomizes the ethical void at the heart of many scientists’ view of human subjects research. Despite this being an important story to tell, Skloot manages to make a lot of the story about herself — there’s a rather vigorous critique here.

1Q84 (Haruki Murakami) — Pretty classic Murakami, but a little more focused in content if expansive in scope. Investigates in fictional form some of the cult phenomena that seem to have captured his imagination lately. Critical opinion has been pretty divided, but I’d recommend it if you like Murakami, but not as an intro to his oeuvre.

The Atrocity Archive (Charles Stross) — sysadmins battle Cthulhu-eqsue horrors from the beyond. This is the first book in the Laundry series, and while the narrator is entertaining, I’ll probably give the rest of the series a pass.

Halting State (Charles Stross) — a near-future in which massive fraud/theft in an online game threatens to undermine the real economy. Takes gold farming and selling of WoW stuff on eBay to its extreme and then looks at what happens. Stross is good at extrapolating economic scenarios, and this was certainly more fun to read.


This is an awesome approach to getting consensus on neighborhood boundaries in Boston. They should do that for Chicago!

A history of currywurst.

Classical Movies in Miniature Style. I like the horses in the Terminator II picture.

I have a rather long-ish commute on public transit, and sometimes it’s hard to get a seat on the train/bus, so I’ve been listening to a lot more podcasts. Here are a few which I’ve been enjoying recently:

  • 99% Invisible, which is a design podcast. I’ve been catching up from the beginning, but this little bit on flags may appeal to Chicagoans and San Franciscans.
  • Backstory is a podcast about American History. They usually take a theme (e.g. “national monuments,” “birth,”, “booze”) and do a number of segments running through different centuries.
  • Story Collider : story telling about science(-ish).

Music with giant Tesla coils.

Dogs and cats and babies can get along.


The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (Olaudah Equiano) — a classic autobiography of a 18th century African who was captured and sold into slavery, managed to save enough to buy his freedom, and then had a number of adventures in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Arctic. It’s a real window into the time period as well as one of the oldest textual accounts of Europeans through African eyes during that period.

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (Carlo Emilio Gadda) — a allegorical murder mystery / police investigation. The use of language is dazzling, but the plot, as such, is a bit flat. Recommended for those who like florid prose, extreme vocabulary, and political satire. In this case Gadda is mocking fascism. It may be appealing to those who liked The Master and Margarita.

Red Plenty (Francis Spufford) — a lightly fictionalized history of the moment when it looked like central planning was going to work in the Soviet Union, and how it all then fell apart (later to be buoyed by oil prices). A tremendously engaging book about a moment in history that we never hear about in the US due to our stupid jingoistic Cold War know-nothing attitude. There was also a Crooked Timber event on it, which I am going to read now.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns — an engaging fantasy set in pseudo-Iberian (or colonial South American?) land. A bit heavy on the religion aspect, but that’s the world she builds at least. Has some of the endemic race issues that much fantasy suffers from, but that might get mixed up in later books.

Re-imagining Milk (Andrea S. Wiley) — a short monograph on the history, biology, and anthropology of milk consumption. It’s full of interesting analysis and critique of how the purported health benefits of milk drinking after weaning intersect with policy. For example, why push milk consumption as a public health issue in parts of Africa when many/most people cannot process lactose? Why do we call the (normal) process in which the body stops producing lactase with the pejorative “lactose intolerance”? See also this piece by Mark Bittman on the NY Times site.

A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss) — a mystery novel set before the South Sea Bubble and full of gritty and grimy London locales, brawling, the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, and some discussions of probability . The book grew out of dissertation research, so it’s meticulously researched, although some of the probability discussion seems ahistorical (c.f. Ian Hacking).

Tracking the origin of genies

Lalitha Sankar asked Gerhard Kramer about my earlier question about genies. Gerhard wrote:

I got the name from Jim Massey who had suggested it as part of a title for the thesis of another doctoral student I know.

I have heard this attributed to Gallager, but the word “genie” might even come up in the Wozencraft-Jacobs book from the mid-60s (not sure!). I suspect that it goes back even further.

A little further searching along those directions turned up some more hits. On page 366 of Viterbi and Omura’s 1978 text Principles of Digital Communication and Coding, while discussing the distribution of computation in convolutional codes they write “[W]e begin by considering a sequential decoder aided by a benevolent genie who oversees the decoder action on each incorrect subset.”

But indeed, as Gerhard indicates, there is a reference in Wozencraft and Jacobs (1965). From Rimoldi and Urbanke’s paper on rate splitting, they write “[C]onceptually, we follow the lead of Wozencraft and Jacobs [29, p. 419] and postulate a genie who always knows the codeword of user 2…” Following up on that reference, in reference to the decoding of convolutional codes, Wozencraft and Jacobs write “… assume initially that a magic genie directs the decoder to the correct starting node for determining each \hat{x}_h…”

In the bibliographic notes in Viterbi and Omura, they write

As was noted previously, the original sequential decoding algorithm was proposed and analyzed by Wozencraft [1957]. The Fano algorithm [1963], with various minor modifications, has been analyzed by Yudkin [1964], Wozencraft and Jacobs [1965], Gallager [1968], and Jelinek [1968a]. Two versions of stack algorithms and their performance analyses are due to Zigangirov [1966] and Jelinek [1969a]. The precise form of the Pareto distribution on computation emerged from the works of Savage [1966] for the upper bound, and of Jacobs and Berlekamp [1967] for the lower bound.

So it seems that if the argument is due to Wozencraft, the source of the genie argument in this context is probably due to the Wozencraft and Jacobs book, but the credit for the analogy to genies is probably lost in time to us.


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.