Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Scott Galloway's Advice to Graduates

Let me start with a confession: I love commencement ceremonies.

It's not the elaborate regalia, the tradition, or the choreographed deference that appeal to me - although those do add to the theater.

What I enjoy most is the commencement address, seeing heartfelt hugs between students and their mentors, and cheers from family members in the galleries.

Like Disney movies, they fill me with hope and optimism.

I came across this speech "No Mercy, no Malice" by Prof. Scott Galloway, which condenses so much practical wisdom. It is short; I recommend reading it in its entirety. Here's a snippet to entice you.

from L2

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
Carl Jung
The value of a prototype is in the education it gives you, not in the code itself.
Alan Cooper

Saving money is a non-socially-rewarded, non-observable, 1 player game. Spending money is a socially rewarded, observable, multiplayer game

Eric Jorgenson

Academic life is 10% what happens to you, and 99% making it count for multiple sections on your CV.

Shit Academics Say

"Most papers in computer science describe how their author learned what someone else already knew."
Peter Landin

"Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"
Abraham Lincoln

Friday, May 19, 2017

Smart Machines, Complexity, and 42

In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a poignant moment when a machine is asked the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

It crunches numbers for millions of years, and returns the baffling answer "42".

The scenario that Douglas Adams concocted might be amusing, but given our increasing reliance on machines, it has ripples in today's world.

Computers can often provide answers, without providing insight. For meaning-seeking humans, this can be deeply unsatisfying. Witness the unease surrounding computer-assisted proofs.

Machine learning can help us deduce models to navigate complex systems. Neural network models might start with simple rules for learning. But the models they "learn" or end up with, are anything but simple.

To keep things specific, consider programming a self-driving car. The model may start simple ("keep between the lanes"), but get hellishly complicated as numerous edge cases ("dog jumps into the road", "many people don't check their blind spot", "the night is foggy") are subsumed.

Even if the car works reasonably well, how it responds to a "black swan" situation (one it has never seen before) might be anybody's guess.

Practical models for complex systems might be insanely complicated.

A recent "Rationally Speaking" podcast touched upon many of these issues. In particular, I found the discussion of "physics thinking", which emphasizes universal models by ignoring details, and "biological thinking", which celebrates the diversity of phenomenon by focusing on details, incredibly fascinating. From the transcript:
The physics approach, you see it embodied maybe in like an Isaac Newton. A simple set of equations explains a whole host of phenomena. So you write some equations to explain gravity, and it can explain everything from the orbits, the planets, the nature of the tides, to how a baseball arcs when you throw it. It has this incredibly explanatory power. It might not explain every detail, but it maybe it could explain the vast majority of what's going on within a system. That's the physics. The physics thinking approach, abstracting away details, deals with some very powerful insights.
On the other hand, you have biological thinking. Which is the recognition that oftentimes in other types of systems, in certain types of systems, the details not only are fun and enjoyable to focus on, but they're also extremely important. They might even actually make up the majority of the kinds of behavior that the system can exhibit. Therefore, if you sweep away the details and you try to create this abstracted notion of the system, you're actually missing the majority of what is going on. The biological approach should be that you recognize the details are actually very important. And therefore they need to be focused on. 
I think when we think about technologies both approaches are actually very powerful. But oftentimes I think people in their haste to understand technology, oftentimes because technologies are engineered things, we often think of them as perhaps being more the physics thinking side of the spectrum. When in fact, because they need to mirror the extreme messiness of the real world, or there's a lot of exceptions, or they've grown and evolved over time, often it's a very organic, almost biological fashion. They actually end up having a great deal of affinity with biological systems. And systems that are amenable to biological thinking and biology approaches.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Purdue-Kaplan: Is Disruption Knocking?

Last month Purdue University announced they were going to acquire Kaplan University, an online for-profit institution. The NewU ...
... will be distinct from others in the Purdue system, relying only on tuition and fundraising to cover operating expenses. No state appropriations will be utilized. It will operate primarily online, but has 15 locations across the United States, including an existing facility in Indianapolis, with potential for growth throughout the state. Indiana resident students will receive a yet-to-be-determined tuition discount.
The deal has the potential to bring down tuition costs, enhance access, and provide Purdue's solid brand name. Here are some reactions to news:

1. Purdue's official statement is, of course, positive.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “I’ve always had great respect for Gov. Daniels, and I’m excited by this opportunity for a world-class university to expand its reach and help educate adult learners by acquiring a strong for-profit college. This is a first, and if successful, could help create a new model for what it means to be a land-grant institution.”
2. However, questions are being raised (NPR).
The deal is eye-catching, but also part of a trend. Over the past decade dozens of nonprofit universities have contracted with private companies to expand their online offerings. For example, Arizona State University works with Pearson, and the University of Southern California with a company called 2U. Florida A&M and South Carolina State, both historically black institutions, have partnered with the University of Phoenix. In an atmosphere of ever-skinnier state budgets, these programs enable universities to reach a global market, cater to working adults, and potentially increase revenue without expensive capital investment.
3.  The faculty at Purdue is not happy (InsideHigherEd)
No faculty input was sought before the acquisition decision was made, and no assessment of its impact on Purdue’s academic quality was completed, according to the resolution. The resolution proceeded to fault a lack of transparency and a lack of an impact study on how the acquisition will affect faculty, curriculum, students and staff at Purdue. The resolution also wondered what will happen to faculty governance and academic freedom at Purdue’s newly acquired university. And it said previously Purdue’s administration has gone through University Senate structures -- which include faculty input -- when pursuing program restructuring or creation.
4.  An interview with the seller, Donald Graham, chairman of Graham Holdings.

[Q:] I see what Purdue gets from the arrangement—a jumpstart into providing online courses. But what does Graham Holdings get out of this deal? 
Graham: [...] You asked about when Graham Holdings shareholders might be rewarded. The only way we would be rewarded, the only way we would get a growing stream of revenue, would be if Purdue continued over the years to add students. In other words if the university became a big success under Purdue's leadership, we'll be part of that success. But we will not be a participant in any profits. We're out of the for-profit education business here. We will be paid for our services, and the profits if any will go to Purdue, and hopefully back into the whole educational system.
5. Some older links to universities, MOOCs and online education

Friday, May 12, 2017

Computational Thinking Classes

Here is a collection of "Computational Thinking for non-majors" type of classes:

1. My department's very own

2. Another list which links to classes from Berkeley, and Harvey Mudd.

3. A self-study course package

4. This essay by Stephen Wolfram on how to teach computational thinking 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Wait But Why

I first came across Tim Urban, through his interview with Julia Galef. The interview was one of my favorite episodes of Rationally Speaking.

His website "Wait But Why" is an amazing resource. It is well thought out, and provides historical, scientific, and philosophical context to many contemporary issues.

Listen to this TED talk for a quick introduction.