Archive for the ‘thought’ Category
My tribe—the data nerds—is feeling pretty smug right now, after Nate Silver’s smart poll aggregation totally nailed the election results. But we’re also a little puzzled by the cavalier way in which what Nate Silver does is described as just “math”, or “simple statistics”. There is a huge amount of judgement, and hence subjectivity, required in designing the kind of statistical models that 538 uses. I hesitate to bring this up because it’s one of the clubs idiots use to beat up on Nate Silver, but 538 does not weight all polls equally, and (correct me if I’m wrong) the weights are actually set
by hand using a complex series of formulae.
The point is that the kind of model-building that Nate Silver et al. do is not just “math”, but science. This is why I don’t really like that XKCD comic that everyone has seen by now. Well I like the smug tone, because that is how I, a data scientist, feel about 538′s success. That is right on. But we’ve known that numbers work for a long time. Nate Silver and 538 is not just about numbers, about quantifying things. Pollsters have been doing that for a long time. It is about understanding the structured uncertainty in those numbers, the underlying statistical structure, the interesting relationships between the obvious data (polling numbers) and the less obvious data (economic activity, barometric pressure, etc.) and using that understanding to combine lots of little pieces of data into one, honkin’, solid piece of data. It is about teasing apart the Signal and the Noise. There are an infinity of ways to combine all the polling numbers that 538 aggregates, and let’s just say there is another infinity’s worth of ways to take all that data and make predictions about what will happen in the space of variables that we ultimately care about (like, “who is President in 2014″). It’s not like Nate Silver just sits at his desk with his TI-83 and types in percentage after percentage.
In fact, Joseph Fruehwald makes this point clearly and elegantly, by quantitatively comparing the 538 predictions and the simple average of the very same polls that 538 aggregates to make those predictions. The 538 prediction is something like twice as good (in RMSE terms), and is especially good where either candidate outperformed the polls, meaning there is some “special sauce” that Nate Silver contributes something substantial. Nate Silver isn’t some kind of prophet; there are other poll aggregators who did comparably well. But this whole enterprise is about a lot more than just “using numbers to determine which of two things is bigger”.
I think a good analogy can be made with the whole Sabermetrics trend in baseball (which Nate Silver was involved in, of course). There are lots of ways that a baseball player can be quantified: height, total biomass of body hair, red blood cell count, RBI, slugging percentage, etc. Some of these are very useful in quantifying the individual contribution of a player to the team’s success—and hence their monetary value—while others are not. Knowing which numbers to put into your model, and how, is a step beyond just having the numbers, and that takes some knowledge about the domain—what the numbers mean.
As the title of this post says, I am starting The Big Push, the Last Hurrah of my undergraduate career. Right now it is April 10th. On May 19th, I defend my thesis, and on June 7th I graduate from Williams. Hopefully. That leaves just a little more than a month for dicking around and actively avoiding my work (presuming, likely fallaciously, that this will not figure prominently in my later life), and lord knows I have a lot of that left to do.
I think, at this point, my friends can’t figure out why I can’t just get my act together and finish things a little early like normal people do. Sure, there are perfectly good reasons that make for tempting rationalizations—I conduct an a cappella group! I write a blog! I have a hobby—but the truth is, I get some kind of sick thrill out of pounding papers out at absolutely the last minute. As miserable as it is from a material/physiological point of view, there is something undeniably awesome about getting jazzed enough to pull off really good procrastination. Sure, I felt accomplished when I finished my last tutorial paper almost a day early, but I was also disappointed about how it came out and in that situation my usual excuse—that I did the best job I could given the time I had to write it in—didn’t apply.
Don’t get me wrong: I am under no illusion that my procrastination is rational or calculated. At the root of it is the disappointment I alluded to. At some deep, reptilian level, I hate the idea that my work will never be perfect or even as good as I think it could or should be, and a lot of my resistance to doing work comes from a desire to avoid that disappointment. Once I get over the initial hurdle of “oh my god this sucks,” actually doing the work is pretty fun, even though the active search for distractions persists in many cases.
That’s the point where I am now with my thesis: getting over that first hump. And I think I’m just about at the top of it. It’s strange to think that, at least in my case, the biggest challenge of writing a thesis isn’t intellectual or academic (although those certainly aren’t trivial) but rather psychological, but there you have it. I suspect that everyone wrestles with these sorts of issues as part of any really big project, and that may be the real value of these things: they force us to confront our inadequacies and personal demons.
The first stop on my grand-ish spring break adventure was Atlanta, GA, to visit some (most) of my study abroad program-mates. We ate, we drank, we lived like kings and queens. Notable highlights were a really sweet potluck dinner in honor of Passang-la, our incredible program coordinator of sorts who is in the states for a year on a Fulbright. Said potluck was hosted at the artist commune where one of the older program alumns lives, which was quirky and charming and well-decorated. There is also a recording studio in the basement, and a backyard with a sizable bonfire pit (where the picture above was taken).
A few of us hit up Little Five, a cute little rasta/hipster/scenester/touristy neighborhood, where we perused the offerings of the local independent book seller. We also sat outside and enjoyed the great truly phenomenal people watching at The Porter, where we were waited on by Sebastian’s South African rugby coach who by turns indulged and belittled our various tastes in beer.
We also had our obligatory night on the town, which is remarkable mostly for where it ended. I think the name itself is enough: Gladys Knight and Ron Winan’s Chicken and Waffles. Just take a moment and let the settle in. Even though we got there around 3 am, we still had to wait an hour to get our chicken and waffles, by which time I was nearly comatose with exhaustion and would have fallen asleep on the spot if it were not for the thought of the Midnight Train (four friend chicken wings and a waffle) that would soon be mine.
The best part, was, undoubtedly, getting to see everyone from India, and being able to just pick right up where we left off, as if the year since we’ve last seen each other hadn’t happened at all. As I get ready to graduate from Williams and head out into the big wide world, I worry more and more about being able to form meaningful relationships with people outside the Williams community, and it was really nice to have a reminder that I can still relate to non-Williams folks. Granted, Emory isn’t exactly culturally that far from Williams in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a start.
Coming soon: Boston, Bangor, my bike, and general musings about life and graduating.
Every semester it seems I have the same realization, sometime during the first week or two, that producing any sort of work to turn in is a long and involved process. This process includes such stages as “the vague feeling of dread when you remember that paper you have to write next week”, and “actively seeking frivolous distractions online so you don’t have to think about that paper that’s due in a couple of days”. And let’s not forgot “not going to bed because you have to stress out about how you are not writing that paper that is due tomorrow”. Still, though, in the end the need to actually do the work becomes stronger than the desire to procrastinate, and a marvelous thing happens: the work is actually fun! Yes, there is a good reason why I go to school where I do, and why I plan on staying in school as long as possible
So, the moral of the story is,for me at least, starting is hard, working is fun. Getting the starting out of the way early is the key for enjoying the work. The funny thing is that I have this same realization every single semester, and yet I still have not learned yet. Maybe it has to do with the subtle changes in the kinds of work I have to do each semester, or maybe it just takes me a long time to “get off the flat part of the learning curve” as my AP Physics teacher remarked about me once.
I gave my math colloquium today (on p-adic dynamical systems, boy-o!), which went quite well (despite a solid 48 hours of panic after a disastrous practice talk), and marks, as far as I can tell, one of the real milestones of my senior year. Things are going well in general, despite still not really knowing about next year and all that. I have certainly settled in here at Williams, which I think is in and of itself a major accomplishment. I have a great class schedule picked out for next semester (god willing), which includes a psych tutorial and Drawing II.
Oh! I’m building a fixie, when I can find the time/money, that is.
I was staring down a thirty-page freight train of a paper, writing about music and well-named tools and generally hoping it would go away. It did go away, after many heavy sighs, panic attacks, and crippling self doubt—and many, many cups of coffee. I somehow managed thirty-eight pages of reasonably coherent writing in a little more than four days, something I never would have thought possible and even now find improbable.
There were a few things in particular that kept me sane throughout the process: lots of sleep, good music (thank you, Brahms, and thank you, Au), coffee, and, probably more than anything else, talking on the phone with Ruth every night. Also significantly, I managed to convince myself I had to finish the bulk of my writing nearly two days early so I could take off for Madison, Wisconsin for Mathfest and a little bit of math-nerdy family vacation. This allowed me to spend the first day of Mathfest in a sleep-deprived and caffeine-withdrawn stupor, writing and editing and compiling references (distressingly few, it turns out).
But! Madison is probably one of my favorite towns evar. I’m sure my impressions were colored by Bob and Colin’s nostalgia for their graduate school days, but it charmed me right from the get-go, with a night spent drinking brew dogs at the pub, apparently unchanged since the 80′s, where escapades were planned back in the day; eating amazing Afgani food at a bustling downtown restaurant; running into long-lost Williams folk on the street (also in town for Mathfest); and soaking up the truly bizarre scene at the famous UW Memorial Union terrace. Madison seems like a bigger, more vibrant, more bike-friendly, and more be-lake-ed version of Bloomington, another town I have become quite fond of. It was also the perfect symbolic and psychological break from the awful abyss of writing far too long a paper in far too little time, and probably staved off my typical post-partem depression.
Summer is almost over, and that means that not only do I really need to get my shit together re: grad school and senior year but I have to move again. Cue Psycho shower-stabbing music. I really dealt badly with the move out here, completely failing to make sensible travel plans and waiting until literally the last minute to thrown some clothes into my suitcase, and I’m in only marginally better shape this time. I am at least no longer homeless for two nights, thanks to the limitless generosity of family friends.
Grad school and I are still “it’s complicated” (on Facebook). I am perhaps less clear on what sort of program I should/want to apply to than I did coming into the summer, which I suppose is a good sign. But academia is scary and I feel like I’ve been rather less successful at doing self-guided work this summer than I had hoped. Still, I am mad excited about language and the mind so I remain optimistic about teh future. Stay tuned!
So in preparation for actually writing my Tibetan paper I’m taking a deep breath of sorts and reading through all my notes and (finally!) transcribed interviews and papers from the semester, and I’ve come to the somewhat distressing conclusion that the first half of what I write for a long paper is utter crap. Maybe not utter crap, but awkwardly composed and rather more rambling and less coherent than I would like. The equally distressing corollary of this result is that I will either a) have to settle for a less-than-stellar first half of my paper, b) finish a few days early so I have time to heavily revise, or c) suck it up and make sure I do a good fifteen pages of brain-farting before I start writing for real.
Or I could try to tame my raging perfectionism and realize that’s it’s probably okay if my paper isn’t dissertation-quality.
A more heartening realization that I’ve come to this morning is that I am capable of pumping out massive amounts of writing under the kind of time pressure I’m facing now. It’s very bizarre to look back on last semester and realize that, not only was I in India when I was doing all this reading and writing and thinking and interviewing, but I very well might still be over there right now, sitting in Moonpeak or First Cup or Ten Yang practicing my Tibetan (now extremely rusty) instead of listening to Belle & Sebastian at Starbucks. I’m really glad that I came home when I did, especially after my exciting soirée with dysentery, but I can’t help but wonder where I might be right now if I hadn’t. To be honest, I’d probably be miserable, hearing what all my Williams friends are up to this summer and reading all of the “zomfg america is the best it has hot showers and hamburgers and potable water!!” emails from the program folks. But I would also probably be much worldlier and maybe a little bit wiser, if less prepared for an academic career in cognitive science. So, like I said, I don’t really regret my choices regarding this summer, and I think I’ve grown just as much being here in Bloomington as I would have if I were somewhere in Asia, but I do have to wonder.
(Photo above of the Klein bottle wrench, seen on the Toolmonger blog, which I came across when googling “kleinbag”. I must have one of these.)