you don't understand

Ugh, that title sounds like some awful teenager.  Luckily, there no teenagers in this post.

Today I had the opportunity to listen to a guest lecture by the famous machine learning theorist Vladimir Vapnik.  Since he lives locally, I've heard him talk about the same topic three times now: in this class, at the annual NYAS Machine Learning Symposium, and at general Princeton CS Lecture.  (These are more-or-less the slides he used today.)

Warning: this next paragraph is geeky; skip it if you aren't interested.
The theory he presents is interesting, as are the results; he proposes that information other than input and result can be used in training a machine learning algorithm.  The idea is that some description of how we get from input to output, even if the description isn't enough to reproduce the result exactly, helps us learn.   He gives an awesome example of labeling OCR numbers with essentially poetry, describing the personalities of the writers in flowery, adjective-heavy text; each digit in the training set had some text written exclusively for it. He shows that providing that text when training the algorithm (in addition to the input pixels and labeled outputs, of course) results in better OCR recognition than just providing the standard training data exclusively.  Permuting the text associations got rid of the improvement. Crazy stuff.

During the lecture, he said to the class several times "you don't understand."  It wasn't a question, nor did he always attempt to re-explain, perhaps deeming us incapable of understanding those particular points at all.  I've often found that the most brilliant people have a hard time explaining themselves so that everyone can understand--they just can't understand not understanding, and so can't see the path people need to follow in order to obtain understanding.

It seemed like Vapnik has reached a point in his life were he is comfortable with people not understanding him; he's a very well-established individual and is possibly entitled to that luxury.  At this point, it's on us to try and understand him, instead of the usual more balanced responsibilities of teacher and student both needing to do their best to teach and understand, respectively.

That isn't to say that Vapnik isn't a good lecturer; he's fairly clear and entertaining, but there are some details that could use more illumination.  Perhaps I'm not being fair, though, since everything is in contrast to the usual lecturer for the course Rob Schapire, who is possibly the best lecturer I've ever encountered.  I also contrast it to my own teaching, where I've been thinking hard about how to explain simple computer science concepts like objects or static methods to students that have never seen the material or anything like it ever before.  It's a lot of fun, but it's also exhausting to some extent.

Anyway, I find it funny that I felt the need to write a commentary about the teaching style of the lecturer whose talk was entitled Learning with Teacher: Learning using Hidden Information.  Maybe there was something hidden in there...


goodbye, google reader

Last week, Google announced that they were closing up shop on Google Reader.  Earlier this week, I attempted the transition to Feedly, which is a fine service, but I need to re-tweak my reflexes.  Today, they removed Reader from the general "more" dropdown menu, which is exactly what I needed to finalize the transition. 

Feedly isn't quite right for me, at least not yet, so I might end up starting my own RSS/Atom reader projet.  There are all sorts of great machine learning techniques that could be applied to feeds, and I've worked on some myself.  Feeds could also be integrated into a massive life management application that handles email, calendaring, todo lists, etc.

This hypothetical app could spoon feed you exactly what you need when you need it.  For example, I'm not a morning person, and I tend to read a few webcomics over breakfast to warm up my brain.  While opening a new browser tab, getting to feedly, and clicking comics really isn't that hard, I do the same three clicks almost every day.  And then I usually check my email.  This could certainly be streamlined manually, but why not automate it and make the whole process easier for everyone?

Ideally, we'd be able to detect importance and urgency of emails, posts, or other messages, and figure out when someone would like to be interrupted for something (or a batch of somethings).  If work was automatically paced like this, would some people be more productive?  I probably would.  I hate email clients that ding or give you a popup every time you get an email.  But I also hate the feeling that I'm missing something important if I go for a while without checking my email.

This has turned into a rant about tools for streamlining productivity instead of an obituary for Google Reader.  Reader was good, but not perfect, and it obviously wasn't well-used enough to survive.  Hopefully Google will spend their energy on bigger and better things, and maybe it'll force me to write some awesome productivity app.  Regardless, I used Reader a lot, and I'm a little sad to see it go.  Goodbye, old friend.


winter to spring

Last week, the weather was gorgeous, so I spent a bit of every morning prepping the community garden for spring.  And then, in an attempt to be as contrary as possible, mother nature gave us snow this weekend. Now, we have a strange wintery mix going on as I type. Inside, my poor little tomato seedlings look out at the snow and shudder.  Don't worry my dears, it'll be warm soon.


work, work, work

This semester is wickedly busy for me, and I feel like that's all I talk about with anyone, mostly because things never get past the hi-how's-it-going phase of the conversation.  I hate it, especially because it's so me-me-me to moan about how crazy things are.  I already know that I'm busy and most of my friends do too.  They're busy too.  Everyone's busy.  But since I haven't adjusted to this level of busy yet, I don't have much time to think about anything else, and thus I don't have much stored up in my conversation-worthy-topics well.  So, sorry friends.  I suck this semester.

I was feeling like I hit my stride and things were going smoothly, but then I got sick this week.  Everything is still fairly in control, and hopefully I can still do some fun stuff this weekend, but I may have set a personal record for sleeping on Thursday.  And I'm a freaking talented sleeper.

Now that I'm able to eat more than applesauce and broth again, I finally have enough energy to get back to work.  And given that what I do (at least part of it) is called data mining, sometimes I find myself humming...