The Huffington Post series, Sophia, brings ‘life lessons from fascinating people’. Their latest interview is with Andrew Ng, a Stanford University professor, co-founder of Coursera, and key member of the deep learning teams at first Google and now Baidu. I really like some of the insights in his interview, the practicality with which he treats innovation and the easy way he explains hard concepts.
For example, here he talks about career advice:
I think that “follow your passion” is not good career advice. It’s actually one of the most terrible pieces of career advice we give people. Often, you first become good at something, and then you become passionate about it. And I think most people can become good at almost anything.
On retraining the workforce for a more heavily automated future:
The challenge that faces us is to find a way to scalably teach people to do non-routine non-repetitive work. Our education system, historically, has not been good at doing that at scale. The top universities are good at doing that for a relatively modest fraction of the population. But a lot of our population ends up doing work that is important but also routine and repetitive. That’s a challenge that faces our educational system.
On why machine learning is suddenly more popular, despite the technology being around for decades in some cases:
I often make an analogy to building a rocket ship. A rocket ship is a giant engine together with a ton of fuel. Both need to be really big. If you have a lot of fuel and a tiny engine, you won’t get off the ground. If you have a huge engine and a tiny amount of fuel, you can lift up, but you probably won’t make it to orbit. So you need a big engine and a lot of fuel. We finally have the tools to build the big rocket engine – that is giant computers, that’s our rocket engine. And the fuel is the data. We finally are getting the data that we need.
And the challenges of talking to computers:
Most people don’t understand the difference between 95 and 99 percent accurate. Ninety-five percent means you get one-in-20 words wrong. That’s just annoying, it’s painful to go back and correct it on your cell phone. Ninety-nine percent is game changing. If there’s 99 percent, it becomes reliable. It just works and you use it all the time. So this is not just a four percent incremental improvement, this is the difference between people rarely using it and people using it all the time.
It’s a really interesting interview, I encourage you to read it in full.
“Serious hobbyists” use filters only to correct a problem—say, correct the exposure. “More casual photographers” are more likely to manipulate their images with filters or adjustments that make them appear more “artificial,” according to the study.
I used to be a bit of a filter snob, but now I tend to think that, certainly on Instagram, using a filter is less about trying to capture a moment than it is about capturing the way that moment felt. It’s like, when you take a picture on a hot day but that hotness doesn’t come across in the photo, Sierra or Valencia are tools to help communicate that feeling to everyone else who views it.
Just before 9am on 1st May 2015, my sister, Sarah Lynham, died.
In 2013 Sarah was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix. In early 2014, after long chemotherapy, she was pronounced all clear — with the proviso that the cancer could return. In October the same year, a few days before her 35th birthday, she received the news that the cancer had returned, had spread into her lungs, and was treatable but not curable. She had further chemotherapy to try to arrest the spread and give her a little more time. In April 2015 the cancer had spread to her brain and she fell unconscious and was taken to hospital. After a few days she was moved to a hospice where she was kept sedated to avoid pain. And there she spent her final days.
I now understand the difference between grief and mourning. I grieved when I heard the news of Sarah’s cancer, again when it returned and the forecast was terminal, again when she went into hospital, and once more when she died; grief occurs in phases. You mourn only once, when someone is gone. Grief is sharp, it rolls over you in waves, it hurts, it racks your body with sobs. Mourning is blunt, flat, an absence.
Grief is unfair on those who can’t process it. Sarah has three children, who each dealt with death as their understanding of it allowed. On finding out that Sarah had gone to hospital the youngest child (aged seven) screamed that she couldn’t live without her mummy. But after that, through the weeks of decline in the hospice and the death, she barely revealed any sadness at all. Grief will find her in a different way, and it won’t be nice to be around.
For the first few days of her hospital stay, Sarah would wake up occasionally and you could exchange a few sentences with her. Sometimes what she said would make little sense, which was largely because she was on a high dose of morphine and having rich dreams. One time I asked her if she was okay, and she said yes, she was just rediscovering the island. But as the tumours in her brain became more aggressive, her happy hallucinations turned into nonsense, before she stopped speaking entirely.
She died in Spring, with skies that were blue and largely free of clouds. This weather felt indecent. The trees were in rich blossom and the fields around the hospital in Dorset full of new-born lambs. A rude and mostly welcome reminder that life goes on.
Because her dying was extended over weeks, and because life goes on, the mundane routines of the day-to-day had to happen. You still have to take the bins out when your sister is dying, you still have to make phone calls to British Gas. I took my nephews and nieces to Nando’s for lunch, but felt too ashamed to check in on Swarm in case people thought I was enjoying myself and not being sufficiently solemn. I was enjoying myself, I was with my family, but felt I had to self-censor to give the appropriate appearance. Also, there are a lot of hours involved in waiting for someone to die; you have to pass the time between the peaks of grief with banal and trivial activities: reading, social media, television.
Questions of propriety… when I heard she was dying and went to visit I needed to pack a case, but found myself completely paralysed by indecision: what clothes do you wear to your sister’s death? And what is appropriate behaviour at the side of the death bed? One time all my immediate family were around the bed and someone made a rude joke, and we all fell around laughing. I don’t know if I’m meant to feel guilty about that.
I’m not angry about any perceived unfairness at her death; I know that life seems cruel because it’s impartial. But I get angry at the mysticism around death. I know people have different beliefs to me, and if it’s comforting for them to believe that Sarah’s gone to a better place, then I welcome the sentiment. But it hurts me to hear people say that Sarah has become an angel, she was flown to heaven on the wings of a dove, she’s smiling down on us… It’s not true. She’s dead, and she’s gone, and she’s never coming back. Perhaps that’s unreasonable, I don’t want to tell people how to deal with loss; but for me, the end of her considerable pain should be sufficient solace to take from her death.
I dread having to talk to people about her death. I don’t know what to say. There is nothing nice or original to be said about death. On the night she was admitted to hospital I took a taxi home, and the driver tried to make conversation. Was I visiting someone? Yes, I replied, my sister. Well I hope she gets better soon, he said. How could I respond to that? I didn’t want to make him feel bad for asking a question with a horrible answer. All I could say was, unfortunately not, then we sat in silence for ten minutes.
This post doesn’t have a conclusion, it was about me trying to make sense of the past few weeks, putting my thoughts into some kind of order. And really I just wanted to write that I loved her, and I’ll miss her.
To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.
Postscript: Sarah’s end was made easier for everyone by the gentle and humane staff of the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust. They made Sarah’s last days more comfortable, and helped her family — especially the children — come to terms with the loss. I’ve made a private donation to their trust, but wanted to do more to help other families dealing with cancer.
Because of this, I took part in the Nightrider 2015 event, a 100km overnight cycle around London, and I chose to raise funds for Marie Curie. Although the event is over now, donations are still open. If you could spare a few pounds, you can donate through my Just Giving page, or if you’re in the UK you can text your donation to 70070 using the code PGNR72. For example, to donate £5, you would send: PGNR72 £5
Im very grateful for every contribution, which all go to help thousands of families going through the pain of losing someone they love.
Another in the occasional series of blog posts about the highlights I make in books I read. This time it’s Alex Bellos’ Alex Through The Looking Glass (called The Grapes of Math in the US), a look at the hidden patterns in mathematics, and mathematical patterns in life. There’s some quite complex maths in it and I found it quite tough going at times, but there are also many fascinating facts and stories.
Another clever menu strategy is to show the prices immediately after the description of each dish, rather than listing them in a column, since listing prices facilitates price comparison.
I find these little psychological manipulations endlessly interesting. It’s about the concept of bounded rationality, how we think we make rational decisions but are in fact constantly manipulated.
Benford argued that the phenomenon must be evidence of a universal law, which he called the Law of Anomalous Numbers. The coinage didn’t catch on. His name, however, did. The phenomenon is known as Benford’s law.
Benford’s Law is a law of frequency of digits in many data sets, and has been used reliably to detect falsified data in accounting, science, economics and more. It’s quite fascinating.
In other words, well-connected nodes become even better connected. The rich get richer. The famous get more famous. The node with the most links has the highest chance of getting new links, and the more links it gets the more attractive it becomes.
Networks — whether that’s hyperlinked pages on the Web or followers on Twitter — tend to follow power laws and grow in very predictable ways.
More recently it has been argued that 360 was chosen because six equilateral triangles fit snugly within a circle, as shown below, and that each of these angles was divided into 60 as demanded by sexagesimal fractions.
Why do circles have 360 degrees? It could be because the Babylonians counted in sixties rather than tens. Ancient origins of everyday concepts fascinate me.
In the second century BCE the Greeks appropriated Babylonian fractions, which have been in use ever since. The degree was traditionally divided into sixty smaller units, each a pars minuta prima, or first minute part, which were then divided into sixty smaller units, each a pars minuta secunda, or second minute part. From the translation of these Latin phrases we get the words minute and second, our units of time, which are the most prominent modern relics of the ancient practice of counting in groups of sixty.
[Tycho] Brahe was a flamboyant aristocrat. He wore a prosthetic gold and silver nose, after a cousin sliced the original one off in a duel about a mathematical formula.
Actually they exhumed the astronomer in 2010 and found out that his nose was probably brass.
… Christopher Wren, a young English astronomy professor…
I had no idea Wren was an astronomer before an architect. Seems to have been a very common profession.
To keep his position as professor of mathematics at the Collège de France, the country’s most prestigious seat of learning, [Gilles Personne de Roberval] had to provide the best answer to a problem announced publicly every three years.
He set the problems himself, but still this is a great test of suitability for a role.
[John] Whitney could adjust the speed and size of the sinusoids electronically, giving him much more control and eliminating the effects of damping. The patterns he produced were dazzling and became some of the most iconic images in the history of mathematical art. They were famously used in the title sequence and posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo.
The first computer-generated art used in a Hollywood feature film, in 1958.
It was not long, however, before engineers were using catenaries. Before the computer age the quickest way to make one was to hang a chain, trace out the curve, build a model using a rigid material and stand it upside down.
Catenaries are a curve where the tension is so perfectly distributed that it makes an arch which needs no brace or buttresses. Gaudí used them extensively in designing the Colònia Güell.
Underlying the whimsy, however, is a whole field of incredibly useful theory, called ‘optimal stopping’, or the maths of when is the best time to stop.