Working in a major trend – Machine Learning


I saw recently this from the recent Amazon shareholder letter.

“These big trends are not that hard to spot…We’re in the middle of an obvious one right now: machine learning & artificial intelligence” — Jeff Bezos

One of the hard parts about working professionally on these technologies. Is I take them for granted. So I consider this a post to just reflect on the improvements in image processing, computer vision, translation, natural language processing, text understanding, forecasting, risk analysis.

I’ve worked on some of these technologies, and these challenges, and continue to work on extracting information from CVs and matching candidates to the best jobs for them at Elevate Direct. When you’re in the weeds you sometimes forget what you’re working on, and that you’re part of a major trend.

As Matt Turck says

Big Data provides the pipes, and AI provides the smarts.

The language of…


The language of individual-
ism (i.e., the idea that people make decisions
for themselves and that at least in economic
matters these are the best decisions) serves as
a powerful legitimation for free-market liber-
alism. The irony is that this profoundly anti-
expert, anti-elitist, democratic ideology has its
own expert class, its professionals of market le-
gitimation, and has been the vehicle of a class
polarization far greater than at any other time
since World War II.

I’m often interested in the language of how we speak about markets. I’ve never found the Friedmanite conflation of economic freedom and political freedom to be very satisfying. As this strikes me as an attack on elitism and expertise.

Tony Judt on Society


I posted the following on my Facebook account last night ‎

‘Thinking “economistically,” as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans. There was a time when we ordered our lives differently.’

– Tony Judt
A friend of mine challenged me to provide some analysis, so here I provide some.
Tony Judt was writing a book aimed at young people who en masse seem to have lost a political activism that previous generations have. There are serious problems caused by rampant neo-liberalism and the domination of policy making by economic concerns. Someone quipped to me that the religion of our age is ‘pop culture, economics, business and money making’
Tony was thinking of the fact that policy considerations are largely dominated by economic concerns. Not to mention the economic dogma of the Chicago School – .Empirically the ‘efficient market hypothesis’ is false. We can have an argument about how false it is, some other time. Also I think Judt makes a very clear point (see any of his articles on this on the NYRB on this set of topics) that economic considerations dominating political discussion, aren’t a natural occurrence they are a matter of taste. What about ‘is it right’. I don’t think notions of ‘fairness’ or ‘morality’ should be neglected in political discourse. And this is very important for some defence of the social democratic model.
What is pertinent about this article is that economic thinking which dominates our policy concerns is not necessarily a natural way to think about this. A lot of these problems in policy – for instance bringing morality into it – which I personally think is one reason we should try to conquer the problems of poverty – are discursive. We have forgotten how to talk in different ways. The fields of human endeavour are large and it is dangerous to marry policy and economics )and bastardised economic thinking at that) too closely.
My friend Sam posted this “In the modern age of policy, economic analysis supersedes other decision-making criteria that most of us use every day such as ethics, morality, and principles such as robustness and precaution. As a result we have entered in to a political paradigm which totally relies on models to justify a government’s supposedly utilitarian agenda. The choice and subsequent blame becomes not that of the elected decision maker but put squarely on the models and the limits of human ability in building such a model. Blame becomes diffuse, as does responsibility. This makes for bad policy making.” on his blog a few years ago. It seemed profound then and it seems profound now.

Care: Or the fallacies of Neo-Liberalism


This article probably won’t be too long. There is nothing I can say which is better thought out than the following article in last weeks Guardian Deborah Orr speaks about Care.
There are problems with both the left and the right, certainly in terms of thinking of their views as moral. Deborah Orr points out how false this is. I’ve family members who work in the care industry, they do a fantastic job and the range of social skills and empathy involved is staggering. Yet if one is interviewed (and I cite this interview from memory) about things such as inequality, people will say that those who earn high wages somehow deserve it. Assuming say that wages in management consultancy increase, this doesn’t necessarily mean that wages in the care sector (which I see no reason why they need to be paid low wages). It all reminds me of Baumols Law.
We’ve collectively given economics a lot of power in public policy, a huge number of people in power in the West have Economics backgrounds. Yet it is easily apparent to anyone who spends any time thinking that there are flaws in classical economics and I’ve met enough proto-MBAs to have very little respect for anything masquerading as thought that comes out from these hacks.
Care like teaching should be celebrated, and to paraphrase what Hawking said about Schrodingers Cat, every time I hear mention of the ‘market’ I feel a need to reach for a revolver. We’ve seen that the market isn’t rational or as simple as we think it is – nor does it appear to be efficient. Alternative models and great Mathematics is produced in academia yet these things aren’t used. We need serious debate about care, and the Dilnott report is an excellent start (its recommendations strike me as sound). Yet is it optimal that a society cares more about its footballers, WAGS, Management Consultants, Advertisers and Bankers than it does about its Care workers, Cleaners and Teachers? I think not.

Why Education Ministers should be educated


Michael Gove is reported as arguing that:

Gove said there had been previous attempts to make science relevant, by linking it to contemporary concerns such as climate change or food scares. But he said: “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”


We are now seeing with the new exams regulator how we can make GCSEs tougher. Exam boards need to sharpen up their act. We are also saying in GCSEs that you need to award marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar. We need to have stretching exams which compare with the world’s most rigorous.”

Newton’s laws are those of motion and gravity, not thermodynamics. Those of Thermodynamics were first formulated by Lord Kelvin. Gove’s educational background is in English, rather than science, so some glaring errors in a subject he has no experience of are understandable, if unfortunate in the Secretary of State for Education.

Clearly the education offered to Ministers is not as rigorous nor as broad as it could be. Until Ministers are educated sufficiently in basic scientific principles and history they should be cautious in offering views on their teaching.

I trust that Mr Gove will be undertaking remedial education to bring his understanding up to an acceptable minimum standard and in the meantime will refrain from offering his opinions on teaching standards.
A friend of mine on Facebook summed it up very well.

10 points for the first non-scientist who tells me why this is complete bollocks. If you don’t know, please find out. This is like someone saying Donatello painted the Mona Lisa, or Dante wrote Romeo & Juliet, or jumbo jets were invented in the 18th century.
C.P. Snow lamented the fact that there were two cultures
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” – CP Snow.
It seems we haven’t changed much since then. I mean how many people know about the age of the Universe, or how accurate it is. How many know the basics of Chemistry? Continue reading

Training students for the 21st Century


Education is a hugely politically loaded issue. I want to write today briefly about education. I’ve two years of experience as a tutor and Teaching Assistant in a Northern Ireland Grammar School, and continue to tutor a range of ages while I undergo my Masters studies in Mathematics. I definitely will focus on STEM subjects, although some of the things I mention will be applicable to other disciplines.

Cal Newport who runs the excellent blog Study Hacks in his teaching statement on his professional page, talks about ‘insight centred pedagogy’. When I teach Calculus myself I feel this is also an important issue. It is impossible to really get a feel for calculus and not to get lost in the details of proofs, without for instance knowing that the tangent to a curve is the first derivative. Similarly in something like Differential Geometry, one needs an insight of what a Lie Derivative is for before learning a long and cumbersome expression.
Perhaps then the focus of lectures should be on the ‘big ideas’ and there is also a huge benefit of the usage of computers in this area. Certainly that sometimes means using Mathlab and Mathematica, perhaps to help ‘debug’ peoples ideas. The wonderful resources that students have including for instance ‘Wolfram Alpha’ and Wikipedia are certainly things that need to be used.
I’m going to think some more about this, and the importance of developing the insights first.
Someone like Cal Newport certainly sees the importance of Theory and Practice in the 21st century, and his blog which focuses on cognitive science supported and study strategies that work, is a very valuable resource to students.
My article today was inspired by a piece on the New Statesman website, by Peter Hyman:

The Tory answer is “students who know more facts”, but the answer from most teachers, students and employers would be “students who know how to apply their knowledge, who love learning, who are creative, analytical and flexible; students who can work independently and show resilience, who are moral and kind to others; students who are high-quality written and oral communicators”.

We don’t know what the jobs of the 21st century will be. It is possible that some of them will involve a huge STEM component, especially as the new Mc Kinsey report which shows that there will be a huge increase in ‘Big Data’ jobs, not to mention the growth industries of Biotechnology, Cryptography and Internet Security.

We don’t know what the jobs of the future will be, so we need students to be ready to change, react and adapt. And we need learning in the classroom to be based less on an outdated notion (disciplinarian teacher at the front) and more on what the neuroscience is telling us: that students learn best when their learning is active (not rote learning or overuse of textbooks), experiential (hands-on), in longer periods (not broken up into 50-minute chunks), developed over a sustained period, and connected to a big picture (making connections between subjects and to larger ideas

This certainly ties in with the ‘big picture’ learning, or inverted classroom approach that someone like Seymour Papert certainly encouraged people to cultivate. Or Robert Talbert’s comments on this inverted classroom approach.
A question I regularly ask is ‘do we teach the correct skills?’
A follow up question is what are the correct skills.
I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. But it is something which needs to be thought out carefully, and with respect for reality, not ideological bias.

The truth as a blessing


Obviously it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss, ‘what is truth’. I leave that problem for people a lot smarter than me.
But I came across a beautiful quotation by A.N. Kolmogorov a great Russian Mathematician.
‘I have lived being guided by a principle that the truth is a blessing, and our duty is to find it and to guard it’.
Truth is not the same as fashion. Sometimes we forget that in our lives, regardless of what the public consensus is on certain scientific matters, whether these are climate change or whatever – reality is reality.
We run a great risk post the horrendous Earthquake in Japan of increasing fear about Nuclear Power.
Unfortunately the truth is that we probably can’t sustain our lifestyles without relying on Nuclear Power, and the concern about radiation and a lack of appreciation among the public of scientific evidence is greatly worrying.
Obviously I ask those Scientifically motivated individuals to make others aware of the truth on these matters.
The recent natural disasters and engineering problems has brought to my attention the fact that as my friend Dr Mike Jeffrey said to me ‘we still don’t understand Newtonian Mechanics’. I end this short essay with a link to a Timosenko acceptance speech by Grigory Isaakovich Barenblatt. We still don’t understand how to respond and prevent natural disasters, and these are effectively Applied Mechanics problems.