Monthly Archives: January 2018

A week in review, 2018-W03






avocado and eel

Chinese vocabulary

From Chinese word of the day:

  • 广泛 - guǎngfàn - extensive, wide-range
  • 演员 - yǎnyuán - actor, actress
  • 经纪人 - jīngjìrén - broker, agent, middleman
  • 羽毛球 - yǔmáoqiú - badminton
  • 运动员 - yùndòngyuán - athlete
  • 柜子 - guìzi - cupboard, cabinet
  • 说明 - shuōmíng - to explain, to show


  • ...

Getting started in a Machine Learning class

This week I started CS498 Applied Machine Learning at the University of Illinois. Getting suplexed by CS498 Database Systems last semester wasn't enough, I guess. There are still a few ribs left intact—let's break those, too.

Jokes aside, the reason I'm taking classes again is that I underestimated how I close I was to obsolescence at work—how close we all are, really. (Frederick Herzberg, Work and the Nature of Man: "How comfortable it is to be able to earn a living today on yesterday’s knowledge, but how often this leads to obsolescence.") You're either getting better or you're getting worse—you're sure as hell not staying in the same place. I used to think that was hokey, but now I believe it.

Back to machine learning: what the hell is it? I don't know. The professor just jumped right into classification of data—an indication of how fast the course will go, I'm sure. Implicitly, that means that if I want to know what machine learning is, its history, where it came from and how it got here, then I'm going to have to piece that together. So be it.

I'm going to use the same approach for this that I've used successfully for other topics where I'm a horrible dilettante: plow ahead, be humble and don't forget the difference between what I actually know and what I think know, and leave a trail for others who are starting from the bottom. I'm sure it's been documented a million times how much more a person can understand a topic when they have to teach it.


Here are some bits of information that I'm starting with...


Wikipedia: Machine learning

Vishal Maini, "Machine Learning for Humans", Medium, 19 August 2017


Samuel, A. L. "Some Studies in Machine Learning Using the Game of Checkers." IBM Journal of Research and Development 3 (July 1959): 210-229.

Mannila, H. "Data mining: machine learning, statistics, and databases." Proceedings of 8th International Conference on Scientific and Statistical Data Base Management. IEEE Comput. Soc. Press, 1996, 2-9.

Wernick, Miles, Yongyi Yang, Jovan Brankov, Grigori Yourganov, and Stephen Strother. "Machine Learning in Medical Imaging." IEEE Signal Processing Magazine 27 (July 2010): 25-38.

Langley, Pat. "The changing science of machine learning." Machine Learning 82 (March 2011): 275-279.

Simon, Herbert A. "Why Should Machines Learn?" Machine Learning. Ed. Ryszard S Michalski, Jaime G Carbonell, and Tom M Mitchell. Symbolic Computation. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1983. 25-37.

News articles

Steven Levy, "How Google is Remaking Itself as a “Machine Learning First” Company", Wired, 22 June 2016.

Alex Hern, "Google says machine learning is the future. So I tried it myself", The Guardian, 28 June 2016.

Some thoughts on slow chess

I asked an old friend on Twitter the other day if he wanted to play chess. I'm no good at chess, but I thought it would be fun to play a really slow—and by slow I mean weeks or months—game of chess.

A few times, back in the day—it must have been graduate school or just after—I would go to Yahoo! Games to play chess, or some other simple board games. I didn't realize it until after writing the preceding sentence and trying to go to Yahoo! Games that it doesn't even exist anymore. (Wired: "Yahoo Games Has Passed Away at Just 17") Anyway, I always got beat, but it was fun to play, and to maybe chat with someone for a while before moving on.

I had a thought that we good just send our moves back and forth to each other via Twitter. Slowchess. Pat myself on the back for coming up with that. But exists and redirects to, which looks like an active but old-school interactive chess game site. And what's more is that there appears to be a term for this kind of asynchronous game: correspondence chess. There's even an International E-mail Chess Club. Should've known better than to think I came up with something that clever on my own.

I'm going to spend a little time developing something anyway, just for coding practice. I'm thinking it will work like this. Start a game with a friend on Twitter by sending a tweet to @slowchess (surprised that handle was still available). Tweet your move to @slowchess for that game, and both players get a tweet with the current game board. Repeat until it's over.

That's it. Maybe it's a lack of vision, or having come of age when the web was fairly half-assed and I wasn't even able to develop eighth-assed solutions, but I'd like to see how lo-fi I can do it while still making it viable. In fact, while developing, I could even make it work Mechanical Turk style. Everything online seems to have features Features FEATURES with artificial intelligence this and machine learning that and that's OK. I'm into it. But I don't want it in everything. I just want to goof off a little and learn how things work.

A week in review, 2018-W02


Chinese vocabulary

From Chinese word of the day:

出轨, 伙伴, 声调, 重要, 出错, 误会, 关注




  • 色,戒 (Lust, Caution), directed by Ang Lee



鳄梨豆腐 (silken tofu with avocado) and 豆豉鸡丁 (black bean chicken) are both an exercise from Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice. 小七 is a cat and he's not supposed to be on the table.


The worst things about running in the cold, in alphabetical order

  1. Breathing
  2. Having fingers

    1. -9°C. Feels like 17°C. And that's a step up from last week.

      Breathing doesn't hurt. It just leaves a funny sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. Air doesn't go down there. Where is that signal coming from? Hypothesis: the stomach is smarter than the brain, or at least has better survival instincts.

      And fingers. Two pairs of gloves. Three pairs of gloves. Doesn't matter. Wind finds a way. And ten minutes into a run, the signal starts to break up, and the fingers don't want to bend, and eventually they are there only if you look at them. Just useless, stiff, painless sausages. But wait, there's more! In twenty more minutes you have a choice between (a) the pain of waking-up-fingers or (b) the anxiety of why-aren't-these-fingers-waking-up.

      Trust me, you really need them to wake up. Try unlocking your front door while holding the key with two sausages. Possible, but not recommended.

Starting over--how hard could it be?

Have you ever looked over a cliff and felt vertigo--not to imagine falling but just feel the dizzying spin of the mind as it copes with the perspective and its implications. To brace for the impact that isn't coming, but feels real nonetheless. To feel unstable even with four points of contact on the rock.

That's what considering a professional shift feels like, anyway. The paychecks are coming, hands are on the rock face, something feels like it is floating down and away.

Instead of doing a web search for something obvious ("mid life crisis") I opted for "know thyself". Don't ask me. I just live in this head.

The first (useful) link (that wasn't about motivation or self-realization or some other claptrap that I'm probably going to be invested in within days at the current rate) was this one: Bence Nanay, "Know thyself is not just silly advice: it's actively dangerous". That's not what I was looking for. I was looking for something a little more soothing so I could sleep tonight and make it through eight hours of work tomorrow. Just give me one of those quizzes and tell me what I am.

There is a huge difference between what you like and what you do. What you do is dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.

The real harm of this situation is not only that you spend much of your time doing something that you don’t particularly like (and often positively dislike). Instead, it is that the human mind does not like blatant contradictions of this kind. It does its best to hide this contradiction: a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

And there's a link in there to this paper: Quoidbach, Jordi, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson. "The End of History Illusion." Science 339 (2013): 96. (Full copy here wink wink.)

Let's just pick off the first sentence to set the tone:

At every stage of life, people make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of the people they will become—and when they finally become those people, they aren’t always thrilled about it. [...] Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?

Google, show me "mid life crisis". Mine, yours, anyone's. I'm not picky. How much is a red convertible?

[...] people may believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that it isn’t who they were yesterday.

That's more promising, right? A person doesn't expect to change much in the future because they don't recognize how much they've changed in the past. That's the "end of history illusion". The vertiginous feeling is leaning into the future over what your brain believes was a horizon not that far away. Imagining yourself becoming something else is, in that case, not much different than poking your head through reality. How else would you expect a healthy brain to react?

Stepped in a self-help book

I avoid self-help, motivational books because they give me the creeps. They're a little unsettling to me. They don't seem to me like they have wildly effective advice--to the extent that they have any practical advice at all, not just some cover-to-cover affirmative statements--but they still irritate whatever gland that is that makes me feel like I'm missing out on something. How does that work? I don't know. It seems best to avoid it.

(Obvious pivot.)

Sometime last year I listened to Tony Robbins on Tim Ferriss' podcast, and this year he popped up in an old version of James Altucher's podcast that I downloaded. He was pitching his book Money: Master the Game. That title... oof. Hard to swallow. That's like someone trying to sell me a pair of pants by telling me that they're women's pants--even if they fit, no thanks.

I got it anyway. (From the library.) The book is mostly vapid so far, but it's interesting. I told my wife that my new year's resolution this year would be to learn how to manipulate people--which was a joke, by the way. This guy has definitely tapped into some frequency that keeps you looking out for the next thing coming in just a few more pages, a few more chapters. I don't want to read it, but I want to read it. What is that feeling? That compulsion? I'm somewhere around page 90 and I'd like to go to the other book I'm reading, but I also don't want to miss anything in this one.

When he was pitching the book on the podcasts, the part that attracted me wasn't the Yes You Can Get Rich part of it, but the idea that money could be a game. That really hasn't been addressed yet in the book. But the idea has stuck in my mind. I bet if I could model my finances, and turn it into some kind of game and learn how to play it better than I'm playing it now, I could do better. And feel less anxious about our national religion, Money. And I could learn how to do the coding along the way to model something like that.

So I'm expecting that aspect of the book--dumbed-down motivational guide--to help me out. There's something about having a published author give me a list of things to consider that feels more valid than ideas that I have myself. I'll take that list of 7 Simple Incredible Invincible Steps For Amazing Freedom And Empowering Empowerment And Whatnot and build a simple game out of it. I'm serious. Why not? If it works, it works. Should be rich by Friday. Gimme $20 on Monday and I'll show you how.

(Bonus: Step Right Up. "The large print giveth / And the small print taketh away.")

A week in review, 2018-W01


Chinese vocabulary

开始, 军师, 当时, 开水, , 已经, 胆量