Monday, November 26, 2012

BIRS news

I'm delighted to report that my BIRS workshop proposal, entitled "Biological and Bio-Inspired Information Theory" (co-organized with Peter Thomas and Toby Berger), was accepted. The workshop will take place in October 2014.

BIRS is a gem of Canadian scientific research. My thanks to all the BIRS volunteers who make such a wonderful facility possible, especially the amazing Nassif Ghoussoub.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

This Charming Man

As a fan of The Smiths from way back, I always thought Johnny Marr was the more talented member. After bouncing around several bands after The Smiths broke up, he'll be releasing his debut solo album early next year.

Monday, November 12, 2012

IEEE Dumps Bad Conferences from IEEE Xplore

This is interesting: the IEEE has a "Technical Program Integrity Committee" which has reviewed recent IEEE-sponsored conferences, looking for "inconsistencies in some conferences with regard to the quality of the peer review and technical program development." Some 160 conferences from 2010 and 2011 did not make the cut, and will now be barred from IEEE Xplore, the IEEE's digital library. This looks like the first action of the committee, which apparently started work in 2009.

First off, 160 bad conferences is a surprisingly large number. They say this is "less than 5%" of conferences from 2010 and 2011. I guess we can assume it's close to 5%, which still seems kind of high. In other words, out of every 20 conferences that the IEEE sponsors, one is bad.

Second, if you read their FAQ, it seems like they are concerned not only with quality, but with scope. For example:

Q - IEEE has notified us that the proceedings from this conference will not be included in IEEE Xplore® because they are out of scope. What is the scope of IEEE Xplore?
A - Content in IEEE Xplore must contain a significant electrical (and related) engineering component.

Q - How many out of scope papers can the conference proceedings have?
A - The conference proceedings should not have any out of scope papers.
Emphasis is added. So how is the committee judging this? There are several rejected conference titles with a life-science focus (an area in which I do some research), so were these rejected for scope or for quality? Where can we read this "scope"? What exactly are the rules surrounding interdisciplinary research in the IEEE?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nate Silver's odd wager

Let's say you figured out a way to predict a coin toss. It's not a sure thing, but you think you can call the toss with 82% accuracy. Naturally you're excited about this, so you tell everybody.

The neighborhood bully gets wind of this, and confronts you. "That's stupid," he says. "Nobody can call a coin toss. It's fifty-fifty for everybody."

So you offer the bully a bet: you'll try to call one coin toss. If you call it right, you get $1000, if you're wrong, the money goes to him.

Wait, what? How does that decide anything?

Nate Silver is a brilliant statistician, and I think his call of the election is on the money. But his bet with Joe Scarborough solves nothing and confuses his point. Silver can be wrong and still win the bet with 50% probability, which Scarborough would be sure to point out. Worse, Silver can be completely right and still lose the bet with 18% probability. That's around one in six -- or the odds of rolling a one on a fair die. Not something I'd bet my reputation on.

If Silver wants to bet, surely he can craft a bet that he is sure to win if he is right, and sure to lose if he is not. This should be a case study in decision theory.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Would you include your blog in your T&P file?

What's the difference between a blog and a book, as far as "publications" are concerned? It's not quality -- it is not much harder to get a book published than it is to write the equivalent material in a blog. So if you are happy to list a book in your Tenure & Promotion file, would you also include your blog?

I know of people who have done it, like our former science librarian John Dupuis (his excellent blog is here). But I expect John is the exception rather than the rule.

I see a couple of things holding most researchers back from using their blog professionally.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On False Positives


One mature Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) participated in the fMRI study. The salmon was approximately 18 inches long, weighed 3.8 lbs, and was not alive at the time of scanning. The task administered to the salmon involved completing an open-ended mentalizing task. The salmon was shown a series of photographs depicting individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence. The salmon was asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing. Stimuli were presented in a block design with each photo presented for 10 seconds followed by 12 seconds of rest. A total of 15 photos were displayed. Total scan time was 5.5 minutes.
 Source. See also.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Low bandwidth

So the sabbatical is more intense than expected. I am SO BUSY sipping sherry or drinking mojitos on the beach or whatever us lazy-ass do-nothing professors do (LOL @ Margaret Wente).

All this to say, updates will be infrequent for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Some alternatives to the word "Webinar", in no particular order

I hate the word "webinar". It sounds like a piano falling five stories onto pavement. But sadly, it is a real and widely used English word.

So here's my attempt find alternatives.
  1. Webtalk
  2. Binar (Web log -> weblog -> blog, Web seminar -> webinar -> binar)
  3. Reminar (Remote seminar?)
  4. Electure (e-lecture, like electronic lecture, but first syllable like "election")
  5. Caplet (Captured lecture, for lecture capture, i.e. recording and streaming lectures)
Or, the wild card: a category-killing company in the webinar space, whose whimsical company name will be used instead of "webinar" from now on, like saying "Google" instead of search.
Any other ideas? Throw them in the comments.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why is WiMob so expensive?

WiMob -- officially the IEEE International Conference on Wireless and Mobile Computing, Networking, and Communications -- is a prominent conference in communications and networking, organized by the IEEE Computer Society. It also happens to be far more expensive than its peers.

Suppose you're a professor with two graduate students; both your students have accepted papers, and all three of you want to attend the conference. The cost (just for registration) is given below for WiMob, compared with several peer conferences, from 2011 and 2012.

(For the professor, we're assuming the least expensive "limited" registration, at the early-bird IEEE or ACM member rate. For the students, we're assuming the student IEEE or ACM member rate. The plot is sorted in increasing order of 2012 cost.)

First off, kudos to ComSoc for running some of the least expensive conferences in the space.

So what makes WiMob 50% more expensive than PIMRC? It's the double whammy of a high student registration rate ($570, compared with $300-350 at most of the others), plus the requirement that each paper have a non-student registration (or an extra paper fee, almost as much as a registration). Three papers per registration is typical of the other conferences.

However, even if we consider a professor and one student with one paper, WiMob is still the most expensive for 2012, and second-most for 2011:
On the WiMob 2011 web site, the organizers say that "Due to the low acceptance ratio, each paper must have one full registration." And WiMob is a smaller conference than, say, ICC or Globecom, so it doesn't have the same economies of scale.

Yet ACM's Sigcomm is a smallish conference with a lower acceptance ratio than WiMob (see here), and still manages to be quite a bit less expensive. So what's going on with WiMob?

(Hat tip to Allen Mackenzie for pointing this out.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The incredible growing Transactions on Information Theory

My complimentary copy of the Transactions on Information Theory came in the mail today, my reward for publishing this paper. I haven't received one of these copies in a few years, so I was pretty surprised by the size of it. You're looking at 891 pages of journal right there.
It's not just me. The Transactions on Information Theory are getting much, much bigger.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

ISIT 2012 as it happened

I created a Storify of my tweets tagged #isit2012, after the jump.  (As far as I know, I was one of only three people using this tag: the others were Josep Font-Segura and Da Wang. We need more information theorists on Twitter.)

It was an excellent ISIT -- one of the best I've attended. I missed 2010 and 2011 but I'm now motivated to attend more regularly. See you next year in Istanbul, hopefully!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Let's review talks [Updated]

[Update: I see I'm not the only one talking about talks this week.]

At ISIT 2012 this week on the campus of MIT, I've noticed that ISIT has changed very little since the first time I attended, in 2003 in Yokohama. In fact, as far as I can tell, the format of ISIT hasn't changed much in decades.

To be clear, ISIT is a popular, prestigious, and high-quality conference, so I wouldn't want to go all "new Coke" on it. But there are two things that bug me a bit:
  • Too many parallel sessions make it hard to find the most interesting talks; and
  • In general, there's lots of great work but not so many great talks.
The plenaries are always great talks, and I would learn so much more if ISIT could be one track, all plenaries. What makes the plenaries so great? These are specially invited talks from senior professors, who can be depended upon to give great talks. But if this were model for the entire symposium, it would be unfair to students and junior professors, who would never be asked to present their work.

So here's my suggestion. We have the technology to record our talks. I do it all the time, and you don't need specialized equipment -- I own at least five devices that can make a video recording, and I bet you do too (phone, laptop, ...). So why not record and submit your talk for review, along with your paper?

Papers should still be accepted or rejected on their own merits -- but only the best submitted talks should be accepted for presentation at the conference. So we would have fewer, but higher quality, talks; ideally, we could cut ISIT down to a single track of very informative and engaging presentations. We would all have to think about how to make a good talk, and even the rejected talks would get feedback for improvement. (In this world, accepted papers with rejected talks could go to an expanded poster session, or some other means of offline presentation.)

And if you want some pointers for your own talks, here's Frank Kschischang's famous Giving a Talk guide.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

July 1

Three things happening on July 1:
  1. I'm heading to Boston for ISIT. I'm looking forward to it -- this will be my first ISIT since Seoul. Come see my paper in session S16.T9 (Information Theory in Biology). I'll blog more about the paper later, but in the meanwhile, Trailhead is cool. And as Anand notes, the unconnected papers might be the most interesting -- they're the ones bringing the new ideas.
  2. My first sabbatical officially gets started. I'll be spending the year with a startup, Engage Biomechanics, focusing on wearable wireless sensors and body-area networks. The company is looking at applications in medical devices. I've never been an entrepreneur before, so it should be interesting and I'll blog when I get a chance.
  3. It's the 20th anniversary of the day I reported to basic training and joined the Navy. With recruiting ads like this, how could I say no?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Video: Keynote at Research to Standards workshop

Here's the video of my keynote (joinly with Steve Bush) at the Research to Standards workshop on June 10, alongside ICC 2012 in Ottawa.

"Standards and Innovation in Emerging Technologies: Why Industry and Academia Need Each Other"

This is a playlist. You can also see it directly on YouTube.

Abstract and speaker bios after the jump.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The capacity of molecular communication: Molecular efficiency

Say you've got two genetically engineered bacteria, which you're using as a communication system. Maybe you've engineered the organism's quorum sensing abilities, or its calcium receptors, to do your bidding. Whatever way you're doing it, what you want to do is to send a message, encoded in a pattern of molecules, that propagate from one bacteria to the other. This is molecular communication.

So exactly how fast can you send information? In other words, what is the Shannon capacity?

Would you believe that it's infinite?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. Keynote, keynote, keynote.

I'm giving a keynote (well ... half of a keynote, the other half by Steve Bush) this Sunday at the Research to Standards workshop, held alongside next week's ICC in Ottawa. We'll be talking about the role standards play in emerging technologies, like nanonetworking. This is related to our own work in leading the IEEE 1906.1 nanonetworking standardization effort.

1906.1 is a new idea for the Communications Society. Historically, standards have been used to consolidate industrial interest around established technologies. Now, we're using the standardization process to get everyone talking the same language, get interest from industry, and avoid dilution of the idea at the beginning of the technology cycle. So far the project is a resounding success: we have academics from around the world, plus representatives from large industrial players, as well as several government research bodies.

We're speaking from 9:15 to 10:00 on Sunday. I don't have the location yet, but check here for the details. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

CWIT 2013 etc.

I'm the general chair of CWIT 2013, which will be held in Toronto next May. We just issued the first Call for Papers [PDF]; submission deadline is February 1.

CWIT is not just for Canadians - it's more of a "Canadian showcase" than a "Canadian club". And Toronto is lovely in May. So please give some thought to a submission.

Meanwhile, congrats to my old PhD supervisor, Frank Kschischang, for winning the 2012 Canadian Award for Telecommunicaitons Research.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Eckford's Rules of North American Air Travel

  1. Never connect through ORD. 
    • If you must violate this rule, allow at least 4 hours for your connection.
    • Add an additional 2 hours if you have to clear customs.
  2. If you're flying to a final destination that is less than a three hour drive from a major northeastern hub (e.g. IAD, EWR), forget trying to connect and just drive from the hub. 
    • Unless the driving route passes through a notorious traffic area.
  3. Never fly codeshare. If an airline offers you a codeshare flight, make the booking directly with the codeshare airline.
    • Avoid affiliate airlines (United Express, American Eagle) and fly on the mainline if possible.
I broke all three of these rules on a recent trip. Result: 14-hour overnight delay.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ceiling function considered harmful

Often in my 4th year mobile communications class, I'll ask a question like the following:
A cellular telephone system is intended to cover an area of 36 square km. Suppose FDMA is used, where the total system bandwidth is 100 MHz, and each call occupies 30 kHz. The system should support 40,000 simultaneous calls in the entire coverage area. Assuming a cluster size of 7, how many cells are needed?
This is a very easy question to solve, and I ask it to get students thinking about radio resources. (Granted that circuit-switched telephony is now obsolete with LTE.) The solution looks like this: at 30 kHz per call, 100 MHz supports 3333 calls; to get 40,000 calls, you need 40,000/3333, or about 12 times the system bandwidth (i.e. 12 cell clusters); with 7 cells per cluster, that's 12 x 7 = 84 cells.

But the problem is that 40000/3333 is slightly more than 12; it's exactly equal to 12 + 4/3333, or 12.00120012... . Multiplying this number by 7, we get 84 + 28/3333, or 84.00840084... .

Since the number of cells must be an integer, a typical student reaction is to take the ceiling of the answer: ceil(84.00840084...) = 85.

But that's bonkers. We "need" an extra 0.0084 of a cell, so the answer is to build a completely new cell tower to satisfy this tiny demand. Cell towers are expensive. And in fact, 12 clusters can cover 39,996 users, so the extra cell would serve a grand total of four calls. The revenue from that -- and even, let's say, the possible contractual penalties for not hitting exactly 40,000 calls -- would never be worth it.

Instead of blindly using the ceiling function in response to these questions, we should encourage students to think about the assumptions behind the question. Allowing a bit of flexibility (e.g., slightly relaxing the "40,000 call" assumption) would lead to a much more realistic and useful answer, and better engineering.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Thomas M. Cover, 1938-2012

I never met Tom Cover. But like every PhD in information theory, I came to know him through his book.  

Elements of Information Theory, better known as Cover and Thomas, is the gold standard for a graduate-level mathematics textbook: always readable, rigorous but never tedious, and comprehensive; one that captures both the elements and the spirit of the discipline. You have to imagine that, if The Book has a section on information theory, it's just Cover and Thomas, verbatim.

Its influence on the field has been so vast, a colleague once said, that "we're not information theorists, we're Coverists."

Thomas M. Cover August 7, 1938 - March 26, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hidden York: Power generation and distribution facilities

The chimneystack is York's most widely ignored major landmark. Yet at the base of that chimney is enough heavy machinery to generate and distribute 10 MW of electrical power (about half of the university's maximum power needs), plus all of York's heating and cooling. Without it, we would all literally freeze -- or swelter -- in the dark.

Because the university's facilities department wants to play a role in our new electrical engineering program (especially our planned Power specialization), I had the rare opportunity to take a tour of the generation, distribution, and steam generation facilities. Many thanks to Brad Cochrane and Gary Gazo for showing me around. Pictures after the jump.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The zombie Sheppard subway must die: A rant

I ride transit to work. And like every Toronto transit rider, I have an opinion. Here it is.

Council has spoken: the Sheppard subway is a failure. It's costly and underused. It's not worth extending, even if it could be done for free. Now, east of Don Mills Road, Sheppard will be served by LRT; outside of the mayor's fever dreams, the Sheppard Subway will never be extended beyond its 5.5 km, five-stop stubby existence. It's dead.

But not really: council committed the key horror movie mistake of not finishing the job. After all that rhetoric of how terrible the Sheppard subway is, how short and pointless, how worthless it would be to extend (all good points!) ... it's still on the map. People are still going to ride it for the foreseeable future. The Sheppard LRT plan sets its undead, poorly designed, unexpandable failure in concrete for our childrens' children to admire.

This zombie subway will haunt every discussion about transit in the north end from now until kingdom come. Any time rapid transit north of Eglinton gets discussed, some bright-eyed person will ask, "Well, wouldn't it be better just to extend the Sheppard subway?" And then we get to have the very same knife fight about transit over and over, like that time Kelsey Grammer was on Star Trek.

There's only one solution: the zombie Sheppard subway must die.

How does that happen? We cut out its heart: convert the subway so that the LRT can use it. One seamless trip from the current subway tunnels, on to the surface and into the east end.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How do people tweet their Roll Up the Rim wins? They exaggerate (Update)

UPDATE:I had planned to make this a two-part series, with the mathematical details in the second part. Instead I'm going to turn the whole thing into a paper. I'll post more when the paper is written. Original post follows.

Canadians love them some Roll Up the Rim, the annual Tim Hortons coffee contest. They also love to tweet about it. And if ever there was a great experiment to see how people perceive -- and report -- random events, Roll Up the Rim and Twitter are it: known odds, random selection, and mass participation.

Last year around this time, I wrote a quick program that accessed Twitter's API, and extracted all available public tweets with the hashtag "#rolluptherim" (thanks twitter4j). I gathered 876 tweets covering Friday, March 18, to Wednesday, March 23, 2011. They were then promptly stored and forgotten about until a couple of weeks ago, when Roll Up the Rim began again in earnest.

So what do people tweet about, when they tweet #rolluptherim? For one thing, they tweet about their success rates: of the 876, I extracted 387 tweets containing something like "1/8", "3 for 10", and so on.


So here's my question: how do people report their own success?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


This is probably the most brutal semester of my academic career so far, so I'll be posting at reduced frequency until mid-April or so. I've got lots of stuff to talk about (Korea trip, thoughts about the BIRS workshop, my upcoming sabbatical) but no time to write.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The university at night

The university is a different place at night, as the boisterous crowds of the daytime give way to a very different quietness and studiousness.

Looking up at the few remaining lights from professors' offices, and the desks in the library where students are poring over books, I wonder what they're working on; I always imagine great research breakthroughs come after dark.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Another reason to delete conference spam

If you're like me, you get an immense amount of conference spam, even for conferences that are not remotely in your area of interest. (This morning I got a message inviting me to an international geography and geology conference. All right then.)

According to a new report, conference invites are now being used to infect victims' computers with malware. It works like this: the attacker takes the PDF Call for Papers for a legitimate conference, infects the PDF with malware, and spams it to various targets as a conference invitation (with the malicious PDF as an attachment). The targets open the PDF and get infected.

So far, the affected conferences include ISSNIP, an IEEE-sponsored conference on sensor networks; but the malware version of the CfP may have only targeted one particular defense contractor.

(Previously in our irregular series on academic spam: 1, 2)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

BIRS ... brrrrr

This week I'm at a workshop on Interactive Information Theory at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS). More or less, interactive information theory is what happens when transmitter and receiver are allowed to go back and forth. This includes things like feedback capacity, interactive function computation, secret key exchange, and so on.

It's been an outstanding workshop so far and I'll blog more about it later. But it's been very cold. (Not to complain. I grew up in Edmonton so this is like coming home for me.)

We just took the group photo, below, so you can play "name that information theorist". (I'm in the yellow parka and grey hat on the right hand side.) Weather conditions when the photo was taken: light snow, -30C.

Monday, January 2, 2012

An odds start for the new year

What's going to happen in 2012? I like odds better than predictions, because future events are inherently uncertain. Here are the odds I would give on events in 2012, if I were a betting man. Add yours in the comments.

(Odds are of the form against-for, e.g. 10-1 is 10 to 1 against, 1-10 is 10 to 1 for. Rely on them at your own risk.)