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I am thinking of starting to work on collaborative filtering just so that I can use this sign in a talk;

The amplifier is too deep for the shelf, but it does not fall because it is balanced against the plant; the plant does not topple because it is tied to the shelf. With a pink ribbon:

I just returned from a trip to Rome. While there, I was asked by my friends what I miss most of Rome. Of course what one misses the most is the city itself. Anybody who has walked around, and gotten lost into, the side streets around via del Corso or Trastevere, especially in the late afternoon, when everything is bathed in an odd yellowish light, knows what I am talking about. One thing I don’t miss is Roman traditional food. Roman cuisine is one of the worst of Italy’s and a lot of its delicacies gross me out. One famous dish for example, la pajata, has been (and probably still is) illegal since the emergence of mad cow disease, because it’s made from veal intestines, including digestive juices. The matter of its legality has preoccupied Rome’s mayor to no end, and he has threatened “eat-ins” of pajata as acts of civil disobedience.

Back to the things I miss, in random order:
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Most, but by no means all, things are cheap in Beijing. Some examples:
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“Oh my God, this changes everything!”

[Woman standing next to me at the Bi Rite meat counter, after a butcher put a newly arrived pork belly in the display case. Emphasis in the original.]

A truck selling mini-cupcakes is parked in the Castro and doing business. It has its Twitter feed printed on the side. By subscribing to the mini-cupcakes truck Twitter feed, you can know in advance when it’s in your neighborhood. Or, if so inclined, you can follow it around the city.

A large man with a tiny dog looks at the cupcakes, then he turns to the tiny dog. “Would you like a cupcake?” he asks the dog, “remember when you had cupcake last time, you liked it.” The dog is not making eye contact with the man. “So, do you want a cupcake, or not? Tell me.”

He won’t serve me a cruelty-free tomato, but he’ll serve me a delicious one. And, after dinner, I am on my own.

Alice Waters in full self-parody mode is also priceless. (Hot dogs from grass fed cows?)

The 2009 Theory of Cryptography Conference starts next weekend in San Francisco.

The Center for Asian-America Media has kindly arranged for the 2009 San Francisco Asian Film Festival to coincide with the conference.

Most of the movies are playing at the Kabuki theater, which is about a mile away from the conference hotel. The Kabuki is part of a Japanese mall which is worth a visit (and a dinner) anyways. Across the street, there is Dosa, an oddly located South-Indian restaurant which is also very much worth a visit. If you are coming earlier, on Friday night you should head to the Castro Theater (a great San Francisco landmark) for Serpent’s Path, a Japanese comedy-gangster mix about a mathematician who kidnaps a yakuza. On a more serious note, there is 24 City, playing on Sunday, the new Jia Zhangke movie about change in China. (I thought Still Life was exasperating, but I’ll give him another chance.)

Other than eating and going to film festivals, there is plenty more to do in San Francisco.

For example the new, rather dramatic, California Academy of Science Museum is open to the public. It’s best to buy tickets in advance. Across the street, the De Young Museum is in another rather beautiful new building in a city that otherwise has nearly no notable contemporary architecture. (The third exception is the new Federal Building.)

Check out SF Station for nightlife information, Yelp for reviews of restaurants and bars, and 511 for public transit information. (You can also call 511 from your phone.)

The stretch of Polk street just South of the conference hotel has several popular bars, such as the Hemlock.

As of last week, and with nearly a month to go, Masa, Fleur de Lys and Slanted Door are all booked up for February 14.

There is still time to donate to the No on 8 campaign, and prevent a constitutional amendment that would eliminate same-sex marriage in California. As of the beginning of October, the Yes on 8 campaign had raised about $25 million, of which about 10 millions came from the Mormon church, and another 7 from Mormon families; the No on 8 had raised about$15 million. (The figures have changed substantially in the past two weeks, but I haven’t found a precise reference.) So if you don’t want the Church of Latter Days Saints to dictate what should and what should not be in the California constitution, and you are an American citizen or permanent resident, here is your chance.

Moving on to a happier subject, I’d like to describe what it’s like to eat in a restaurant in Beijing. To make a long story short, it’s fantastic, but here is the long story.

In any nice resturant, each chair has a pillowcase-like thing; one wraps one’s jacket on the back of the chair, as usual, and then one puts the pillowcase thing over the jacket and the chair’s back. This way there is no risk of food spilling on the jacket, and the whole setup is quite aesthetically pleasing.

As we do this, a waiter or waitress, usually the latter, brings one menu to the table, and waits for us to order.

One menu is brought regardless of the size of the party, and when I say menu I don’t mean a half-page minimalist listing of three or four choices per course one may find in the US, the fewer choices the more upscale is the restaurant (culminating in the choiceless prix-fixe menu of downstairs Chez Panisse). I mean a whole booklet, featuring ambiguous pictures and captions. (“Is this fish?” “I don’t know, it’s called ‘delicious three-cooked stew’ on the menu, and to me it looks more like mushrooms.” “But isn’t that the character for ‘pork’?” and so on.)

The waitress will hand over the one menu, and stand there, awaiting for an immediate order. A party of six westerners, say, is going to order ten courses, and each course is going to be discussed (and guessed about) by all six, for a total of at least 60 steps. In one episode, a party of eight took 25 minutes to complete the order (the waitress never budged from the side of the table).

After a short while, the dishes start coming. Except the rice, however. For reasons that no westerner understands, rice is almost never brought to the table when ordered; one needs to ask for it again, sometime three times, and it finally arrives in tiny cups which I finish halfway through the meal.

It could, of course, be worse. At the Little Sheep hotpot restaurant, known for its cumin-flavored soup base, we ordered rice and I noticed the waitress wrote nothing. Then we asked again and the waitress nodded. Then we asked a third time, and finally she said

“we are out of rice.” Out of rice? In a Chinese restaurant? In CHINA? Do you ever go to an Italian restaurant only to be told, sorry, we are out of pasta?

This brings me to another surprising discovery: except on some University Campuses, there are no laundromats in Beijing and there are no laundry stores which will wash and fold clothes by weight. (This has been a bigger surprise than when I moved to San Francisco and I was told that fortune cookies were invented there.) There are, however, dry-cleaning operations, but they are quite expensive by local standards. Recommendation to visitors planning an extended stay in China: bring (or buy) plenty of clothes.

Returning to dining, one has to plead for rice, but it is even harder to get napkins. Very upscale restaurants have cloth napkins which the waitresses pin under your plate so that they hang over the side of the table and your leg. Wiping your face with them feels uncomfortably close to doing so with the tablecloth and appears to not be done. Less fancy places may give a wet cloth to wipe your hands and, upon request, give postage-stamp-size paper napkins. I have taken to always bring a pack of kleenex when I go for dinner. (It should be noted that the combination of no laundry, no napkins, and eating splashy things with chopsticks can be stressful.)

People like to eat early in Beijing, with most restaurants officially closing at 10pm, but often having no customers but us by 9pm or so. At this point, subtle hints are offered that we are overstaying our welcome. Lights are dimmed in other sections of the restaurant, we are told that the kitchen is closing and if we want anything else, we are asked to pay, the kitchen staff comes out to eat, they start washing the floors. In at least one case, the waiters and kitchen staff finished eating and left, leaving behind a couple of waiters to look after us, and we kept eating in the darkened place. Only once, however, (and not in the above episode) were we ever explicitly asked to leave.

FOCS 2007 started yesterday in Providence with a series of tutorials.

Terry Tao gave a talk similar to the one he gave in Madrid, discussing the duality between pseudorandomness and efficiency which is a way to give a unified view of techniques coming from analysis, combinatorics and ergodic theory.

In typical such results, one has a set $F$ of “simple” functions (for example linear, or low-degree polynomials, or, in conceivable complexity-theoretic applications, functions of low circuit complexity) and one wants to write an arbitrary function $g$ as

$g(x) = g_{pr} (x) + g_{str} (x) + g_{err} (x)$

where $g_{pr}$ is pseudorandom with respect to the “distinguishers” in $F$, $g_{str}$ is a “simple combination” of functions from $\cal F$, and $g_{err}$ accounts for a possible small approximation error. There are a number of ways to instantiate this general template, as can be seen on the accompanying notes, and it is nice to see how even the Szemeredi regularity lemma can be fit into this template. (The “functions” are adjacency matrices of graphs, and the “efficient” functions are complete bipartite subgraphs.)

Dan Boneh spoke on pairing-based cryptography, an idea that has grown into a whole, rich, area, with specialized conferences and, according to Google Scholar, 1,200+ papers published so far. In this setting one has a group $G$ (for example points on an elliptic curve) such that there is a mapping $e: G X G \rightarrow G_T$ that takes pairs of elements of $G$ into an element of another group $G_T$ satisfying a bilinearity condition. (Such a mapping is a “pairing,” hence the name of the area.) Although such mapping can lead to attacks on the discrete log problem in $G$, if the mapping is chosen carefully one may still assume intractability of discrete log in $G$, and the pairing can be very useful in constructing cryptographic protocols and proving their security. In particular, one can get “identity-based encryption,” a type of public key cryptography where a user’s public key can be her own name (or email address, or any deterministically chosen name), which in turn can be used as a primitive in other applications.

Dan Spielman spoke on spectral graph theory, focusing on results and problems that aren’t quite studied enough by theoreticians. He showed some remarkable of example of graph drawings obtained by simply plotting a vertex $i$ to the point $(v(i),w(i))$, where $v$ and $w$ are the second largest and third largest eigenvalues of the laplacian of the adjacency matrix. The sparse cut promised by Cheeger inequality is, in such a drawing, just the cut given by a vertical line across the drawing, and there are nice algebraic explanations for why the drawing looks intuitively “nice” for many graphs but not for all. Spectral partitioning has been very successful for image segmentation problems, but it has some drawbacks and it would be nice to find theoretically justified algorithms that would do better.

Typically, I don’t go to an Italian restaurant in the US unless I have been there before and liked it, a rule that runs into certain circularity problems. I was happy that yesterday I made an exception to go to Al Forno, which proved to be truly exceptional.