Archive for the ‘rants’ 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.
So today I had yet another used bicycle slip through my fingers. A never-ridden, $600 bicycle, that was offered to me for $100. Because, after taking the bus all the way across town, waiting for the owner to show up at his storage unit, and convincing him to sell the bike to me (rather than any of the other four people who he also told to come look at it), I didn’t have cash on hand to pay for it. I also didn’t think fast enough to offer him more money to drive me to an atm so I could get cash. Moral of the story: bring cash when you’re buying things listed on craigslist.
I’m writing a life history paper for our Tibetan culture class, and I can safely say that it’s one of the hardest papers I’ve ever had to write. For one thing, it’s totally different than the “find a point and make it” papers that I/we’ve been writing, well, since we could write papers at all. What’s the “point” to a life? Does a life have a thesis, three supporting arguments?
No. Lives are messy and wonderful and above all human. And, given enough time, I think this assignment would be a great opportunity to grapple with that messiness and find meaning in it. Finding meaning in messy things is really the whole point of academia and what makes me love it so much, but right now I feel like it’s a little too much. I wish I had started working on this about a week ago, and done about twice as many interviews, but then again I guess there’s no way to really know that ahead of time.
I think the particularly frustrating thing about this is that I feel like I get it, like I get my roommate’s life and what it and he is all about, but when I sit down to turn it into a paper it’s like I’ve completely forgotten how to write in a way that’s more appropriate for a math proof or a logical argument than the story of a dear old friend’s life (sorry Tara-la…).
However, amidst all this worrying, I take it as a good sign that I’m relaxed enough to reflect like this, and relaxed enough to take time out of my day to check my email (not a once-a-minute luxury here) and think about my independent research project or summer plans and talk . So, back to writing, or maybe not writing for a little while longer.
The photo, by the way, is the room that I share with Lhakpa.
Today is the opening of sho-ton (curd festival), the Tibetan opera festival. In Tibet, it was held in the middle of the summer, when yogurt was made and crops were growing, but now in exile it’s held at the end of the monlam, the month-long prayer festival started by Tsongkapa, the reformer and founder of the now-dominant Geluk-pa sect.
The singing style consists of long held notes sung at high volume and high pitch (especially the men), with lots of really intense-sounding glottal stops. The operas are, traditionally, multiple-day-long affairs with librettos from religious stories, but highly abridged versions are performed today, somewhere between four and seven operas over about a week, each by a different troupe from India or Nepal. On the opening day (today), His Holiness (and the Emory group) comes to see each troupe do about an hour of the most exciting highlights of their operas. There are lots of colorful masks and fun costumes and jumping and twirling and women twirling their hands very gracefully.
In other news, I am a tad stressed out owing to long papers being due this week and surprise classes being sprung on us at the last minute, not to mention trying to figure out what I’m doing this summer and over spring break, and trying to come to terms with the fact that this is my last week at Sarah, which means leaving my roommate whom I love dearly and feel like I have not spent nearly enough time with him. And then, suddenly, I’m wondering why I came here and where I really want to be. I know all of this feeling kind of crappy and uncertain and such will be over soon and I’ll be having a blast again and doingsomething exciting, and I’m not sure how this turned into a kind of moody rant, but there it is. I guess this is the flip side of having a great new experience, that sometimes I’ll have to totally out of my element. But I’ve got a language to learn, a teaching by ageshe-la to go to, a coffee house to patronize and a life-history to write, so I’ll leave you with that.
I’m worried about consciousness. Really worried. I’m not worried about consciousness being too “hard” a problem for science to handle. If it makes a difference, I think that there is no such hard problem, just like there’s no “hard” problem about what makes living things live, no elan vital, once you understand well enough all of the little processes involved in living. No, I’m worried that statements like this one have a place in serious, scholarly discourse about consciousness:
[...] we can arguably imagine someone psychologically identical to me who experiences something different. (Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Unified Theory p. 21)
By way of clarification, what Chalmers means when he says “psychological” is “the concept of mind as the causal or explanatory basis for behavior.” (p. 11). Well, David J. Chalmers, I for one CANNOT imagine such a situation. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I invite you, dear reader, to attempt a similar thought experiment. Imagine me, sitting here, typing these somewhat angry words, but instead feeling something totally different than what I am really feeling right now (whatever that means). I can’t do it, and if you can you must have some sort of imaginative (or delusional) capacity that I am lacking. Read on, o intrepid reader
- email U. Virginia people RE: Tibet
- trim plants
- call tech support about my computer’s insomnia
- make a dentist appointment
- meet with Safa about writing up our data from last semester (!)
I will do them soon, though! Things I did do today included having my JA interview, which was all different kinds of fun/exciting/anxiety-inducing, not to mention my group’s accomplishment of finally getting The Indomitable Tank-Samurai’s (or if you prefer, BeauRot’s) sonar stuff working today. We were in the robot lab until past midnight last night, trying to teach our oft-confused machine to find it’s way to a point that’s 2′ from one wall and 3′ from the other using its sonar. The process of getting it to just work was so unbelievably frustrating, because all of our wonderfully elegant ideas had to be abandoned in the face of time pressure and the inherent complexity of the “real world” including unreliable sonar and inconsistent turning. This frustration with how illogical things can seem, with being unable to understand something like I know I can, is the flip side of the delight that I get by making things that do work with my hands. I only recently realized how very logically I think about things, which allows me to do really complicated and cool things when I “get it” but consequently makes not “getting it” really upsetting and painful.
The prof. I work for as a research assistant told me last semester that one of the biggest challenges of her education was learning to accept that whatever you’re doing, there’s very rarely enough time, or enough money, or enough parts to do it as well as you know you can. In this undergraduate world of always having a few dozen pages of reading above what you can possibly do, or a paper due one day too soon, or so many things to do that you really truly want to do that you can’t possibly do all of them, this is something that hyper-logical perfectionists like me really struggle with. Then again, all things considered, I think I manage to keep perspective pretty well most of the time, but every once in a while I’ll be surprised by something that I simply cannot get my head around, and the more the deadline approaches and the more I struggle the harder it seems to become, and the feeling of frustration cuts deep enough to be transformed into hopelessness. It’s those times that remind me how careful I have to be to keep perspective and be willing to just do what I can at the moment.
The rest of the week is looking pretty good, including possibly going to North Adams with Ruth tomorrow to try to find ice skates, skiing with Steve-o on friday, and a weekend of general fun and relaxation. Finally, a quote from the book about neuroscience/epistemology that I’ve been savoring that really resonates with my thoughts about art and creativity:
Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination
From a story in today’s New York Times:
Michael Palmer, the general manager of television stations WVII and WFVX, ABC and Fox affiliates in Bangor, has told his joint staff of nine men and women that when “Bar Harbor is underwater, then we can do global warming stories.”
“Until then,” he added. “No more.”
Mr. Palmer said he wanted no more stories broadcast on global warming because: “a) we do local news, b) the issue evolved from hard science into hard politics and c) despite what you may have heard from the mainstream media, this science is far from conclusive.” Mr. Palmer said in his e-mail message to his operations manager and two women who served as a news anchor and a reporter that he placed “global warming stories in the same category as ‘the killer African bee scare’ from the 1970s or, more recently, the Y2K scare when everyone’s computer was going to self-destruct.”
Dr. James Hansen, the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, said in an interview yesterday that the station’s policy on coverage was irresponsible.
Um…what? Is this guy serious? Local news should by no means be constrained to talk only about purely local things, especially when it comes to issues that are deeply relevant to everyone and not being handled well by those in power. I agree that Al Gore’s movie was a bit to strong in its politics, but that’s not the issue. If he’s concerned about separating news from politics, maybe TV isn’t the best business for him. I don’t really have anything to say about his claim that “the science is far from conclusive”… as far as I’m concerned, the high quality of recent studies on the subject (including a meta-analysis that showed no real dissent within the scientific community about anthropogenic climate change) and the amount of converging evidence makes it pretty hard to ignore.
I really have no idea how I am going to get prepared for my music test tomorrow…I still haven’t listened to half the pieces we’re supposed to be able to identify.
I’m ready for this week to be over. At least it looks like it’ll be Mountain Day on friday!
(p.s. I think the test went okay…)