Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman). This was recommended by Vivek Goyal, and is Kahneman’s popular nonfiction book about the psychology of decision making in humans (as opposed to rational-decision making models like those in economics). The System 1/System 2 model was new to me, even though the various biases and heuristics that he describes were things I had heard about in different contexts. While quite interesting and a book that anyone who works on decision making should read (I’m looking at you, statisticians, machine learners, and systems-EE folks), it’s a bit too long, I think. I found it hard to power through at the end, which is where he gets into prospect theory, a topic which my colleague Narayan Mandayam is trying to apply in wireless systems.

Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit). A slim volume collecting several of Solnit’s essays on feminism and its discontents, from the last few years. I was familiar with some of the essays (including the first one) but was surprised by her ultimately hopeful tone (many of the essays come with introductions describing their context and how she feels about them now). Highly recommended, but I don’t think it will help with any Arguments On The Internet.

The Idea of India (Sunil Khilnani). This book is a bit older now but provides a lot of crucial context about the early Indian state, the relationship between urbanism and social change, and the nature of electoral politics in India. Reading this gave me a more nuanced view of the complexity of contemporary Indian politics, or at least a more nuanced view of how we got here (beyond the usual history of communalism). The origins of the cronyism of Congress and the causes and effects of the Emergency were also a new perspective for me.

The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen). This is about an undercover Vietnamese (well, half-Vietnamese, as people keep pointing out) undercover agent who leaves during the evacuation of Saigon and embeds himself in the refugee community, sending coded messages about counter-revolutionary plans. Our unnamed narrator has a an epic adventure, darkly comic and tragic, initially told as a confessional in some sort of prison interrogation. He was educated in the US before going back to Vietnam — this puts him between two worlds, and the novel is fundamentally about this tension. Throughout people are archetypes: The General, The Auteur, the crapulent major. Although long, the novel is rewarding: the last quarter really put me through the wringer, emotionally.

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel). A novel about a post-apocalyptic future (split between pre-slightly post-and much post) in which much of the world has been decimated by a mysterious infection. The novel revolves around a series of connected characters: an actor who dies on stage in a production of King Lear, his ex-wife, who wrote a series of comics about a remote station, a child actor from the same production who survives to become part of a traveling theater company in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was once Michigan, an audience member who was once a paparazzo following the actor. The whole novel has a haunting air to it, a bit of a dreamy sensibility that makes it easy to read (too) quickly. The connections between the characters were not surprising when they were revealed, but they didn’t need to be — the book doesn’t rely on that kind of gimmickry. Read it while traveling: you won’t look at airports the same way again.

# From 300 Ramayanas to The Hindus

With the recent furor over Penguin’s decision to pulp copies of Wendy Doniger‘s The Hindus after some intense pressure, I was reminded of Delhi University’s decision to ban a much less “controversial” essay by A.K. Ramanujan entitled Three Hundred Ramayanas. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and well worth a read. What it points to is the vast plurality of traditions and interpretations.

Mimosa reposted a couple of responses to the recent events that are also worth reading.

Via Amber, a collection of grassroots feminist political posters from India.

Via John, some fun investigations on how 355/113 is an amazingly good approximation to $\pi$. Also related are the Stern-Brocot trees, which can give continued fraction expansions.

I had missed this speech by a 10 year old on gay marriage when it happened (I was in India), but it’s pretty heartwarming. For more background on how the principal originally deemed the story “inappropriate.”

What is a Bayesian?

Unrelatedly, ML Hipster — tight bounds and tight jeans.

# SPCOM 2012

After a fun trip to Mysore this weekend, I have landed at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore (Bengaluru for those more PC), for SPCOM 2012. This is a 4 day conference (yesterday was tutorials) that has been held 8 times before (sometimes skipping years) here at IISc. I’ve never visited here before, but my father, grandfather, and great grandfather are all graduates, so it feels pretty special to finally see the place. My talk is dead last, so we’ll see how many people are still here by the time it rolls around.

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.

Tiassa, by Steven Brust. As Cosma puts it, mind candy, and only worth reading if you’ve read the other 10 books in the series. Quite enjoyable, however.

Kraken, by China Miéville. A rollicking adventure involving a giant squid, horrific monsters and gruesome deaths, a dark underbelly of London, the end of the world, and… a ghost piggie. Among other things. I enjoyed it.

Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley. A travelogue of a gay Englishman who becomes an attaché to a gay Raja in a princely state in the early 20th century. Often full of colonial condescension (though in a light tone) about things Indian. Most of us are tragically sad of buffoonish. The homosexuality is not overt but explicit enough that the book was censored when published. Still, it’s an interesting historical read, just because it is so weird.

The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, by Risa Goluboff. A really fascinating book about the history of civil rights litigation in the US from Lochner to Brown. The term “civil rights” was in a state of flux during that era, transitioning from a labor-based understanding to discrimination-based standing. The main players were the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Service and the NAACP. By choosing which cases to pursue and which arguments to advance, they explored different visions of what civil rights could mean and why they were rights in the first place. In particular, the NAACP did not take on many labor cases because they were actively pursuing a litigation agenda that culminated in Brown. The decision in Brown and subsequent decisions shaped our modern understanding of civil rights as grounded in stopping state-sanctioned discrimination. However, the “lost promise” in the title shows what was lost in this strategy — the state-sponsored parts of Jim Crow were taken down, but the social institutions that entrench inequality were left.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. I had to read this since I just moved to Chicago and I work right near Jackson Park. This was a very engaging read (Larson just has that “style”) but a bit creepy in that “watched too many episodes of Dexter” way. I enjoyed it a little less than Thunderstruck, but I had more professional attachment to that one.

Kenji explains the science of no-knead bread. I have to try making some this summer.

A nice post about Punjabi Mexicans in California, a little-known bit of South Asian immigration history in the US.

Detection of correlations is a snazzy title, but they mean something very particular by it. Also, why does everyone hate on the GLRT so much?

I want to see The Trip, especially after watching this clip. (h/t Adam G.)

P. Sainath on civil society in India. (h/t Soumya C.)

# EVT/WOTE ’10 : Panel on India’s Electronic Voting Machine

I’m attending the…

Panel on Indian Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs)
Moderator: Joseph Lorenzo Hall, University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University
Panelists: P.V. Indiresan, Former Director, IIT-Madras; G.V.L Narasimha Rao, Citizens for Verifiability, Transparency, and Accountability in Elections, VeTA; Alok Shukla, Election Commission of India; J. Alex Halderman, University of Michigan

The first speaker was G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, who is also a blogger on the topic of elections. He is a staunch opponent of Electonic Voting Machines (EVMs). He gave a summary of voting in India — until 1996, all voting was with paper ballots and hand counting. In 1998 there were some EVMs introduced in urban areas, and then in 2004 it moved entirely to EVMs. Vote confirmation was given by a beep, and there were several complaints of machine failure. His claim is that exit polling was accurate prior to 2004 and then after the introduction of EVMs, the exit polls diverged widely from the actual results. In these elections I believe the BJP got a drubbing from Congress (Rao probably got suspicious since he appears to be a BJP political analyst).

Next up was Alok Shukla, the Deputy Election Commissioner of India. He gave an overview of the EVMs in use in India. He gave a review of how India decided to move to EVMs (the Parliament ended up approving the use of EVMs). He claimed that a paper trail was not the solution (mostly due to infeasibility/cost/remoteness of polling locations, etc), and said solutions lie in better transparency and administrative oversight. His main answer to claims that the EVMs have been hacked is that the attacks are infeasible and detectable by election officials. Finally, he said essentially “different systems for different people” (or different strokes for different folks?).

The third speaker was J. Alex Halderman, who is one of the people who attacked the Indian EVM. He described how he got hold of an EVM and showed details on the insides. The first problem is that the devices can be duplicated (or fake ones could be substituted). Another issue is that verifying the code in the EVM is not possible (so they can be tampered with at the time of manufacture). Finally, the reported counts are stored in two EEPROMS which can be swapped out. There are two attacks (at least) that they performed. The first is to hack the display so that false counts are displayed on the LED. A bluetooth radio lets a mobile user select who should win. The second is to clip on a device to reprogram the EEPROMS. Full details will appear at CCS. Halderman’s last bit of news was that one of their co-authors in India, Hari K. Prasad, has been summoned by the police as a result of a criminal complaint that he stole the EVM, which seems like an attempt by the government of India to silence their critics. He called upon Shukla to drop the suit, who was rather upset by this public accusation.

The last panelist was P.V. Indiresan, who is on the advisory committee to the government. He discussed some new security features in EVMs, such as signatures to prevent tampering with the cable between the ballot unit (where people push buttons) and the control unit (which counts the ballots). He claimed that most of the attacks proposed so far are farfetched. Much of his latter complaints were to the effect that to break the EVM is a criminal act (which is a claim of security through obscurity). He ended with a plea to ask researchers to stop (!) hacking the EVMs because they “are working.”

To sum up : the Indian government says the system works and that there is no actual evidence of tampering (with the exception of Prasad, who apparently received stolen goods). Halderman says the attacks show that the system as a whole are not secure, and Rao says that the results are suspicious.

Shukla responded to critics that the Election Commission of India is willing to listen to critics and said that the only kind of attack that is of interest is one on a sealed machine. He reiterated the statement that Prasad was in receipt of stolen government property and needs to be questioned.

The Q&A was quite contentious. I might have more to say about it later… but wow.