A Rant!

A Rant!

Yes, a For-Real Rant!

OK, I promised a rant in yesterday’s blogpost. Thought I could hold off for a while. Turns out I can’t.

Here’s the gist: you’re learning machine learning. You’re deeply immersed in learning deep learning.

You’re more-or-less on your own, and you’re doing this in oddball hours; after work, after taking the kids to soccer practice and the dog to the vet. Keeping some semblance of a relationship going.

You’re moving as fast as you can … but sometimes, figuring out where to put your very valuable time-resources is the toughest thing.

So there you are, pursuing the topic-of-the-day; it could be RBNs (restricted Boltzmann machines), CNNs (convolution neural networks), RNNs (recurrent neural networks), GANs (generative adversarial networks), DBNs (deep belief networks), and … the list just goes on and on, doesn’t it?

So. There you are. You’ve hit Google twenty times in the past thirty minutes; you’ve got somewhere between half a dozen and two dozen windows and PDF files open in front of you … and you’re trying to figure out where to start.

The Rant Begins HERE

The most important thing to understand, at this point, is that not every source that you’ve accessed is your friend.

Let’s make up an example. You’re learning about … say, entropy and how it fits into machine learning. You’ve gotten into a couple of StackOverflow and CrossValidated and Quora sites. These are good places, ok? As one of my graduate students quipped, in his self-introduction at the beginning of a quarter, “StackOverflow is my best friend.”

Amen to that, my brother! I live there, too.

The thing is … suppose, in response to your looking for Q&A’s on the “entropy and machine learning” topic, someone is pointing to some real classic papers, with the (implicit) suggestion that you really should read them.

No. Definitely NO. Absolutely NOT!

(Deep breath.)

Survival While Self-Educating

Your job is to get from here to there.

Here is, metaphorically speaking, Montana. There is San Francisco. It’s 1848 (approximately 130 years ago, minus a few months), and you want to join the gold rush in California.

What you do NOT want is to get stuck in Donner’s Pass over the winter.

Don’t Climb the Mountains; Look for the Mountain Passes

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to know what the classic literature is. It’s good to know, for example, that Claude Shannon came up with notion of entropy as a useful tool for information theory.

Do you have to read Shannon, in the original, to work with that notion?

No. Absolutely not.

Suggesting that you read certain classic, very well done papers is like suggesting that you take a hike up a mountain.

Very nice, fun thing to do – if you have the time to go mountain-climbing. That means, you’ve already gotten to San Francisco; you’ve got that new job using your newly-created tech skills, and your spouse has a new job, and your kids are settled in the new school system. Even the dog has new buddies on his doggy-walk.

Then, if you want, you can take a weekend to read Shannon’s original paper, or any other really major work. Or you can take several months, while watching the kids at soccer practice.

But you do not have to – and do not WANT to – climb mountains while getting from Montana to San Francisco.

You want the safest, sanest, shortest passes through the mountains.

What This Really Means

Evaluate the recommendations as they come up. And evaluate them without, if you please, browbeating yourself because you don’t know enough to read the paper / blogpost / whatever.

There’s this horrible tendency that most of us have, especially when we’re venturing into new waters, to believe that we’re not quite good enough. Then, we wind up being susceptible to things that – if we were more well-grounded and self-assured – we would safely avoid.

The Heart of the Matter

There are certain posts that are the intellectual equivalent of doing something in public that most people keep to the privacy of their homes. (And yes, a snicker here is thoroughly allowed.)

Nothing wrong with that, per se. It’s just that it can become a form of social dominance. It’s a public ego self-massage.

Let’s just give those folks a wide berth, shall we?

I’m certainly not going to suggest that any one post is in one category or another. And any one of us could find that a post that is overwhelmingly out of reach at one time could, even a few months later, be exactly what we’re looking for.

So, my guidance is, quoting a song, “take care of your soul.”

Check in with your gut, when you open up a recommended article, post, or other piece of wisdom.

Do you feel exhilarated? If yes, then flag it and read / watch when you can.

If you have a sinking feeling, a sort of “I could never understand this,” or even, “It would take me months,” then this piece is not your friend.

There’s plenty to learn without beating yourself up for what you don’t yet know.

You’ll learn. It’ll just take a little while.

OK. I feel so much better now. And I hope that you do, also.

Happy weekend!




Live free or die, my friend –

AJ Maren

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.
Attr. to Gen. John Stark, American Revolutionary War




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