Archive for Pittsburgh

“a rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity”

Posted in Books, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2020 by xi'an

“I don’t object to speculation or radical proposals, even to radical, grandiose speculative proposals; I just want there to be arguments to back them up, reasons to take them seriously. I don’t object to scientists displaying personality in their work, or staking out positions in vigorous opposition to much of the opinion in their field, and engaging in heated debate; I do object to ignoring criticism and claiming credit for commonplaces, especially before popular audiences who won’t pick up on it.”

A recent post by Andrew on Stephen Wolfram’s (mega) egomania led to a much older post by Cosma Shalizi reviewing the perfectly insane 5.57 pounds of a New Kind of Science. An exhilarating review, trashing the pretentious self-celebration of a void paradigm shift advanced by Wolfram and its abyssal lack of academic rigour, showing anew that a book recommended by Bill Gates is not necessarily a great book. (Note that A New Kind of Science is available for free on-line.)

“Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author’s. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community.”

When I bought this monstrous book (eons before I started the ‘Og!), I did not get much further into it than the first series of cellular automata screen copies that fill page after page. And quickly if carefully dropped it by my office door in the corridor. Where it stayed for a few days until one of my colleagues most politely asked me if he could borrow it. (This happens all the time: once I have read or given up on a book I do not imagine reopening again, I put it in the coffee room or, for the least recommended books, on the floor by my door and almost invariably whoever is interested will first ask me for permission. Which is very considerate and leads to pleasant discussions on the said books. Only recently did the library set shelves outside its doors for dropping books free for the taking, but even there I sometimes get colleagues wondering [rightly] if I was the one abandoning there a particular book.)

“I am going to keep my copy of A New Kind of Science, sitting on the same shelf as Atlantis in Wisconsin, The Cosmic Forces of Mu, Of Grammatology, and the people who think the golden ratio explains the universe.”

In case the review is not enough to lighten up your day, in these gloomy times, there is a wide collection of them from the 2000’s, although most of the links have turned obsolete. (The Maths Reviews review has not.) As presumably this very post about a eighteen-years-old non-event…

dominating measure

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2019 by xi'an

Yet another question on X validated reminded me of a discussion I had once  with Jay Kadane when visiting Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Namely the fundamentally ill-posed nature of conjugate priors. Indeed, when considering the definition of a conjugate family as being a parameterised family Þ of distributions over the parameter space Θ stable under transform to the posterior distribution, this property is completely dependent (if there is such a notion as completely dependent!) on the dominating measure adopted on the parameter space Θ. Adopted is the word as there is no default, reference, natural, &tc. measure that promotes one specific measure on Θ as being the dominating measure. This is a well-known difficulty that also sticks out in most “objective Bayes” problems, as well as with maximum entropy priors. This means for instance that, while the Gamma distributions constitute a conjugate family for a Poisson likelihood, so do the truncated Gamma distributions. And so do the distributions which density (against a Lebesgue measure over an arbitrary subset of (0,∞)) is the product of a Gamma density by an arbitrary function of θ. I readily acknowledge that the standard conjugate priors as introduced in every Bayesian textbook are standard because they facilitate (to a certain extent) posterior computations. But, just like there exist an infinity of MaxEnt priors associated with an infinity of dominating measures, there exist an infinity of conjugate families, once more associated with an infinity of dominating measures. And the fundamental reason is that the sampling model (which induces the shape of the conjugate family) does not provide a measure on the parameter space Θ.

RSS tribute

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2018 by xi'an

remembering Joyce Fienberg through Steve’s words

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by xi'an

I just learned the horrific news that Joyce Fienberg was one of the eleven people murdered yesterday morning at the Tree of Life synagogue. I had been vaguely afraid this could be the case since hearing about the shooting there, just because it was not far from the University of Pittsburgh, and CMU, but then a friend emailed me she indeed was one of the victims. When her husband Steve was on sabbatical in Paris, we met a few times for memorable dinners. I think the last time I saw her was a few years ago in a Paris hotel where Joyce, Steve and I had breakfast together to take advantage of one of their short trips to Paris. In remembrance of this wonderful woman who got assassinated by an anti-Semitic extremist, here is how Steve described their encounter in his Statistical Science interview:

I had met my wife Joyce at the University of Toronto when we were both undergraduates. I was actually working in the fall of 1963 in the registrar’s office, and on the first day the office opened to enroll people, Joyce came through. And one of the benefits about working in the registrar’s office, besides earning some spending money, was meeting all these beautiful women students passing through. That first day I made a note to ask Joyce out on a date. The next day she came through again, this time bringing through another young woman who turned out to be the daughter of friends of her parents. And I thought this was a little suspicious, but auspicious in the sense that maybe I would succeed in getting a date when I asked her. And the next day, she came through again! This time with her cousin! Then I knew that this was really going to work out. And it did. We got engaged at the end of the summer of 1964 after I graduated, but we weren’t married when I went away to graduate school. In fact, yesterday I was talking to one of the students at the University of Connecticut who was a little concerned about graduate school; it was wearing her down, and I told her I almost left after the first semester because I wasn’t sure if I was going to make a go of it, in part because I was lonely. But I did survive, and Joyce came at the end of the first year; we got married right after classes ended, and we’ve been together ever since.

algorithm for predicting when kids are in danger [guest post]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2018 by xi'an

[Last week, I read this article in The New York Times about child abuse prediction software and approached Kristian Lum, of HRDAG, for her opinion on the approach, possibly for a guest post which she kindly and quickly provided!]

A week or so ago, an article about the use of statistical models to predict child abuse was published in the New York Times. The article recounts a heart-breaking story of two young boys who died in a fire due to parental neglect. Despite the fact that social services had received “numerous calls” to report the family, human screeners had not regarded the reports as meeting the criteria to warrant a full investigation. Offered as a solution to imperfect and potentially biased human screeners is the use of computer models that compile data from a variety of sources (jails, alcohol and drug treatment centers, etc.) to output a predicted risk score. The implication here is that had the human screeners had access to such technology, the software might issued a warning that the case was high risk and, based on this warning, the screener might have sent out investigators to intervene, thus saving the children.

These types of models bring up all sorts of interesting questions regarding fairness, equity, transparency, and accountability (which, by the way, are an exciting area of statistical research that I hope some readers here will take up!). For example, most risk assessment models that I have seen are just logistic regressions of [characteristics] on [indicator of undesirable outcome]. In this case, the outcome is likely an indicator of whether child abuse had been determined to take place in the home or not. This raises the issue of whether past determinations of abuse– which make up  the training data that is used to make the risk assessment tool–  are objective, or whether they encode systemic bias against certain groups that will be passed through the tool to result in systematically biased predictions. To quote the article, “All of the data on which the algorithm is based is biased. Black children are, relatively speaking, over-surveilled in our systems, and white children are under-surveilled.” And one need not look further than the same news outlet to find cases in which there have been egregiously unfair determinations of abuse, which disproportionately impact poor and minority communities.  Child abuse isn’t my immediate area of expertise, and so I can’t responsibly comment on whether these types of cases are prevalent enough that the bias they introduce will swamp the utility of the tool.

At the end of the day, we obviously want to prevent all instances of child abuse, and this tool seems to get a lot of things right in terms of transparency and responsible use. And according to the original article, it (at least on the surface) seems to be effective at more efficiently allocating scarce resources to investigate reports of child abuse. As these types of models become used more and more for a wider variety of prediction types, we need to be cognizant that (to quote my brilliant colleague, Josh Norkin) we don’t “lose sight of the fact that because this system is so broken all we are doing is finding new ways to sort our country’s poorest citizens. What we should be finding are new ways to lift people out of poverty.”