Tag Archives: computer

Deep Learning with SAS

I don’t know if you’ve seen SAS‘s campus. It’s a collection of enormous glass buildings. Abstract art greets you throughout the grounds. Outside the S-building stands a thirty-foot structure of red pipes bent at 90 and 45 degree angles and inside is what looks a bit like the cross-section of a cube. Looking out a window, one can just see the top of another big glass building over a copse of conifers.

As of the Friday before last, this is the organization that offers the funds that provide my stipend and pay for my tuition. Leaving the Leonardo project happened so subtly that my team and I all forgot to have some sort of commemoration ceremony. Last Friday I stood up from my desk shook my team leader’s hand, telling him it was “good working with him,” then he said we should arrange for one last team celebration. Our co-workers joked that this might be like the going-away parties in the Godfather, and I recommended we make sure to  eat at a popular, well-lit restaurant.

Now my way is paid to work on deep learning for language. Really, I couldn’t imagine a better fit to my interests. Of course I’m interested in Natural Language Processing, and my zeal for deep learning is such that I need to actively temper it to avoid poisoning conversations by implying to other researchers that all the techniques they’ve been using are outdated and soon to be obsolete. Now I get to work with a group of people to put my money where my mouth is and actually make something revolutionary, or at least useful.

Since we’re just starting, right now I’m reading papers about deep learning language techniques. I’ve found twenty-five papers over the last three years in the small set of conferences that I’ve checked. There’s an awful lot of interest in the domain of machine translation, but my favorite paper thus far has taken a sentiment analysis approach to identifying ideological biases in written text. With deep learning, it is able to understand that “the big lie of ‘the death tax'” is ideologically liberal, whereas an old-style system would take words two or so at a time and likely see “death tax” and think conservative.

I spoke with my new team leader, Brad, about using the big, fancy computer they’ve offered me for my personal research. He said that would not be a good idea, as it would complicate the ownership of whatever research I produced. “If you want a bigger computer,” he said, “I’ve just got one laying around that nobody’s using. I can get that to you within a week.”

Things are going pretty well.


Last week I was in Indianapolis at a conference:  Learning Analytics and Knowledge. This was the first conference at which I gave a presentation, and it went pretty well. It was difficult to tell how I was doing as I was giving the presentation – there’s not much audience reaction to a research presentation for the most part, it turns out. However, I put my twitter handle at the top of the first slide of my presentation, and I got some nice comments.  I also had a number of people talk to me afterwards about various issues surrounding the topic of elementary school short answer assessment, which was a good sign.

Besides presenting, I had a number of interesting experiences in Indianapolis. While I was at the conference, a keynote speaker showed off the “Fish-ix” tutor, finally linking the two very different disciplines of science education and talking fish.  Outside the conference, I got to enjoy the attractions of Indianapolis. I got locked out of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and was warned not to enter the Indiana State Museum with the explanation that in the 45 minutes before closing I would not be able to get my money’s worth.

Outside the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument I went to a soda shop that collects sodas from around the world. This excited me because I had heard of a drink called “Leninade.”

When I asked the cashier, she said “sure, we have Lennonade,” and showed me this bottle.

John Lemonade

“No, no no,” I said, “I’m looking for Vladimir Leninade.”

“Oh, we don’t have that, the cashier said,” but we do have a long line of other dictatorades.  She pointed me to the cooler where they kept a variety of interesting sodas.

This was no substitute for Leninade, so I decided not to get a soda at all. I kept looking around at the different kinds, though, and my eyes landed on the unusual flavors section.IMG_20140325_195144945[1]

This was where my troubles began. You see that “Sweet Corn” soda there? The cashier insisted that everyone who tried it loved it so much they came back again and again for it. I enjoyed the story, but was not yet moved to try the soda myself.

As we were returning to the register, I asked the cashier to recommend Leninade to whoever stocked the shelves. She told me, “you can ask him yourself if you want,” and gestured behind me to a man in a gray-and-black beard. “Hi, I’m the manager,” he said. I  asked him about Leninade and he brought me to his “long line of dictatorades.” At this point I figured he wasn’t going to get the message, so I asked him about the strange flavors.

Without missing a beat, the manager  began singing the praises of the sweet corn soda. “This soda is extremely popular because it tastes exactly like sweet corn.” That swayed me.  I purchased the soda, popped off the cap on a wall-mounted bottle-opener, and took a swig. Fortunately, I managed not to spit it up immediately. To this day I cannot describe what it was I was drinking or the exact nature of my revulsion towards it, but I do know that the look on my face was enough to horrify the manager.

The manager apologized profusely and insisted that I take another soda of my choice free of charge. At first I refused his offer, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so rather than try another strange flavor I got a sarsparilla, which was nice. It tasted like an alternative cola recipe.


The Future of Education: Part 1 – Dreams


I mentioned to an old college teacher a while back that I was working to develop educational technology. “So this is how you thank me? By replacing me?” He said. There’s no point trying to deny that advances in technology render obsolete certain professions, but teaching need not be one of them, at least not until long after my professor’s retirement. Teaching is about the most necessarily social job out there, along with diplomat, counselor, psychologist and many more. Technology is not even close to where it can effectively perform these tasks. If society knows what’s good for it, none of these professions will be replaced for a long, long time. Whether society knows what’s good for it, however, has been an open question since people have had the time to ponder questions of the greater good.

Let me share with you a vision of a possible future where technology aids human teachers in providing an experience to students unparalleled by today’s standards, The Inverted Classroom. I have not invented this general concept, but I’ll describe how it might play out. Imagine you our your child taking lectures at home and doing “homework” at school. The lectures are delivered by subject matter experts who have devoted their life work to making amazing lectures, the “homework, ” which we shall from here on out refer to as “coursework,” is done under the supervision of a teacher, who instead of stressing over how to reinvent the same lectures that other teachers have perfected thousands of times before, can spend his time doing what a human still does better than any computer – giving individual attention to the particular needs of each of his students. We already have the technology to accomplish this, but let’s think further into the future.

The students don’t write their answers on paper with feedback only once every day at best. Instead, they work on tablet computing devices, answering short answer questions and completing virtual labs to learn the content interactively. The digital notebook can do simple analyses of their work and to a limited extent help them to stay engaged and scaffold them towards proper learning. It can even provide a simple digital tutor for each student to help them feel comfortable and encouraged to stay on task. Moreover, the teacher doesn’t have to just look over her students shoulders and check their work because she will have her own portable device with a list of the students in her class. Beside each student is a progress bar and a simple indicator, perhaps color-coded, that can tell the teacher when a student is falling behind or is not learning the material. Freed from the need to constantly be devising and presenting curriculum herself and with the ability to easily see the progress of her students, a teacher will be better prepared than ever before to lead the next generation’s students on the path to becoming the productive citizens of tomorrow.

What do actual teachers think of this? I know I have more than a couple teachers and former teachers who read this blog. Is there anything you’d like to see technology help you with? Does this dream seem like more of a nightmare to you? Next week I’ll discuss some of my nightmares in part 2 of this two-part blog post.

Treadmill Desk

As I write this post to you, dear readers, I am standing and walking forward at 0.6 miles per hour. Well, I would be if I were writing from Raleigh rather than Chapel Hill visiting my family where I have no such treadmill desk. For the moment, let’s imagine that I am doing now what I have been doing for the past week and there are no unusual circumstances screwing things up.

I have wanted a treadmill desk ever since I learned of their existence years and years ago. The problem? They’re expensive. They generally run around $1000 on average. At a minimum (from a cursory glance at Amazon) they’re about $800. Even for a purchase for my health that felt steep.  Then my roommate Joe announced that he had acquired a treadmill desk for $200.  How did he do it? He took advantage of the fact that, in the end, a treadmill desk is just a treadmill under a standing desk. The cheapest treadmill on Amazon goes for $200 and with a little work can have its arms removed so that it slides neatly under most tables. Then stack up some (relatively stable) boxes and crates to make a standing desk and voila! For more details you can consult this guide.

Let me tell you about owning and regularly using a treadmill desk: It’s tiring. The first few days I would walk for a few hours working and feel like my feet were going to fall apart. I got used to it eventually, but I still take my computer down to the side of my table for a simple sitting desk now and then.

One issue with this treadmill desk that has actually turned out to be an advantage of sorts is that the treadmill itself is so cheap that it only has one timer setting – thirty minutes – that cannot be turned off. I will be working for a while getting into what I’m doing when suddenly GLOMP I stumble forward on my abruptly motionless treadmill. Sounds pretty annoying, right?

Well, it turns out that I tend to get absorbed in activities, so having a literal jerk back into reality every thirty minutes can be terrifically helpful. In particular playing Civilization 5 recently I would say I’d play for an hour (two GLOMPs) so I would play until the second GLOMP at which point I would be reluctant to pull away just yet from my attempts to convince Luxembourg to join my empire, so I would start the treadmill again and say I’d stop playing when I’d annexed Luxembourg. Of course by the time I’ve achieved that goal, a few more are just within my reach, so it is very difficult for me to stop playing until GLOMP I stumble forward again and say “all right, that’s enough.”

Stay tuned for another entry today on my recent foray into ChefScript.