Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Fundamentals

What changed me from an amateur into a professional was getting a really firm grip on the fundamentals -- Toshiro Kageyama (7d Professional Go Player)

It was pretty much the only advise I remember my dad repeatedly give me, both before starting undergrad and before starting my masters just a few months ago: focus on the fundamentals. He may have said other things, but focus on the fundamentals is the only phrase that really stuck.

You might have heard of the story of Da Vinci and the egg that illustrates this concept:
It has been said that when Da Vinci first came to Verrocchio’s workshop, he was told to draw eggs. Day after day, Da Vinci was told to draw eggs all the time. One day, Da Vinci finally got tired of drawing eggs so that he came to his master Verrocchio for complaint. However, his master explained to him of profound significance “Drawing eggs is not a simple thing to do, even for the same egg, if you change the observation angle, the light will change as well, and you will find the different shape of it.” Da Vinci suddenly understood the purpose of his master. After then, Da Vinci accepted drawing eggs with an open mind which actually helped him built the foundation of further achievement.
The fundamentals can often be less interesting than whatever is new and shiny. It requires patience and honest self-assessment about how much one actually understands. It's always so tempting to "move fast and break things". But a firm grasp on the fundamentals is necessary to be able to intuit deep connections and do meaningful work.

There's a second part to the argument for focusing on the fundamentals. Popular research will move on, and that whatever is new and shiny now will cease to be important in a few years. The skills that will stay relevant for a long time will end up being the fundamentals, the things that won't change or go out of favour. This is even more crucial in a field like machine learning that moves lightning fast.

But what exactly are the fundamentals of machine learning? There are the obvious tools like linear algebra and multivariate calculus. There's regression and its generalizations, gradient descent and its second-order extensions, back-propagations and the like. What about all the types of neural networks with the many acronyms like CNN, RNN, LSTM, ...? At what point do we break away from the fundamentals and find ourselves in the arena of popular research, the kind of things that will cease to be important in a few years?

What's been smelling most like fundamentals in the last few months have been variational inference and variational autoencoders (VAE's). They come up everywhere in recent research, but VAE's were only introduced in 2014!

It's possible that something else will take its place in another few years. If so, is it still a fundamental? Perhaps machine learning is just such a young field that the fundamentals are still being built?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Less boring

You've become boring. -- Jee (~mid 2015)

The truth is, I had become boring. I had become boring because happiness is boring and comfort is boring. The formula is really quite simple: a loving relationship, engaging and well-paid work, a nice place to live, good health and lack of serious responsibility. It's all one can ask for.

So, instead, here I am, back in school to study Machine Learning.

...and then when you graduate, you can get a job as a Senior Data Scientist! Oh wait... -- Matt (May 2016)

It might not make sense financially. It might not make sense as a career move. It might not even make me a "better" person.

All I can say is, it's making me less boring.

I might even have more to say now.

I might even say it here.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Education is entertainment (and vice versa)

The Lampsilis mussel is an interesting creature: it imitates another fish in order to lure a bass. You really have to see a video to understand how amazing it is:

Did you learn something new just now? Would you consider this video "educational"? Can you imagine one situation where knowing about the Lampsilis mussel would somehow help you in life?

"That's a very high standard", you may say. Quite right. A lot of things that we learn would be considered "educational" but would otherwise not be useful on a day-to-day life. Take calculus, or introductory cell biology, or the difference between a catabolic and an anabolic reaction. Even if they are not referenced daily, they may be very interesting and deeply satisfying to master.

But wait, "interesting"? You mean, "interesting" the way some will find learning Middle Earth geography in Elvish would be "interesting"? "Deeply satisfying" like knowing the truth about Snape and Lily?

What's really the difference here?

"Maybe", you may interject. "It's just that some very smart people find very serious uses of calculus." Certainly more so than Harry Potter. But then what would you say about philosophy and art history? What about the Lampsilis mussels?

"Maybe you're forgetting something," you may say. "Information is just information. It's the context in which we consume it that determines whether it's educational or not. If you watched the video about the Lampsilis mussel while writing a paper on evolution, then it was educational. Otherwise, it was entertainment."

Yet even that's unsatisfying. Why would you be researching evolution? Why would you be taking that course? Why are you getting a Ph.D. in marine biology? Somewhere along those lines of questioning, an answer should pop up that sounds awfully like "because I find it very interesting".

And so, education is entertainment.

"Wow, hold your horses," another person (who is not you) might interject. "I'm studying because I have to graduate to get a job."

Well Bob (because those people are always named Bob), it seems like society doesn't need you right now. Not in a bad way -- you're still very special, just that this particular moment, there are enough people producing enough stuff to sustain all of our lives. There's a cognitive surplus, so to speak. It looks like forcing you to be entertained educated is one way to "deal" with this surplus.

And so, education is still entertainment.

Let's not talk about the Lampsilis mussel. Let's talk about sports. Has knowing about the outcomes of your local sports team somehow helped you in life? I know it had in mine -- from the perspective of building rapport. Then again, you could really extend that to any piece of information! Watching Star Wars has been useful -- very educational about, um, culture, yes -- culture. And binging on Game of Thrones? That, uh, brought me closer with, uh, people.

You learn things about human nature from film. You learn teamwork in games. I learned about the different types of alcohol from a text-based MMORPG. Friend of mine swore that he used to learn much more from anime than anything else.

And so, entertainment is education.