Being Comfortable With Risk

As college comes to an end there are lot of things that are about to change in my life. From where I live, to how I live, to who I may hang out with, to what my daily routine will look like, all these things are about to change. With so much change comes a lot of anxiety and a lot of uncertainty for what the future holds. I often sit wondering: “How do I manage and prepare for these changes?”

In high school, I had a band instructor that once told me: “Its okay to skin your knee every so often. In fact, you should be willing to skin your knee every so often.” Translated, he suggested that taking risks is a part of growing up and you should be comfortable with those risks potentially failing completely. His point was that if you never attempted to grab the reward associated with that risk, you had basically failed anyways, but instead of having a small probability of success you had zero probability of success since you never took the leap of faith. Its odd to think that this statement resonates with me so much after so many years. He was the band teacher that always forced me out of my comfort zone, and was the one who made me feel comfortable with being loud, heard, and front and center. Even today, I prefer to be the wizard behind the curtains rather than the showman on stage, but my band teacher forced me to realize that sometimes its important to be pushed out of your comfort zone, in fact thats where you get the best growth and learning.

With so much changing, perhaps its time I heed the advice of my old band teacher and meet the changes head on rather than worrying about them from behind the curtain. Maybe, by meeting them head on I can ensure that the sting that comes from skinning your knee isn’t as bad as it could be. Being out of a comfort zone is hard, but it yields so many learnings that maybe just maybe its worth it to be a little uncomfortable.

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Love

What is love.

Love is caring when times are rough.

Love is supporting when all seems lost.

Love is friendship waiting to blossom.

Love is brotherhood and sisterhood all wrapped into one.

Love is looking the other way when our devils appear.

Love is the warmth of the fire that you feel in your heart.

This is love. This is friendship. This is caring.

Machine Learning: How we stole from the Neuroscientists

I am currently taking this psych class on campus. Its all about sensation and perception, about how we see things, smell things, touch things, feel things, and how our brain processes all of this information to make the world perception we see. As a part of this semester, I have spent a considerable amount of time investigating neural networks, and their applications to opinion and sentiment understanding in english text. Now, after having read the biological advances in neuroscience, I have come to fully appreciate how much machine learning has begged, borrowed, and stolen from neuroscience to get to where it is today.

Consider the visual pathway for a second. In humans, the pathway begins in the retina, where proteins (specifically opsins and then chomophores for those who are curious) absorb photons and convert light energy into electrical energy. This mimics the concept of a 1 bit in computer science almost perfectly. The electrical energy is then propagated down the rod or cone (depending on if its daytime / nighttime) to the ganglion neuron connected at the end. This ganglion neuron transmits its signal through the optic nerve all the way up to the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus in the Thalamus. In machine learning, we call that an input layer. You can think of the retina’s cones and rods as a preprocessing step that converts whatever physical function (NLP, visual processing, etc) that we are trying to approximate to a series of numbers that can be expressed as bits. Then the ganglion cells become essentially the input layer of the Neural Network (NN). So far, its a complete copy! The Lateral Geniculate Nucleus serves as a relay point for data. Data from both sides of the eye have crossed over at the optic chiasm to arrange all the bits containing information about the left side of the visual space to the right side of the LGN and vice versa for the right side of the visual space. One can think about this like a fully connected layer, where exactly half of the connections have zero weight because they should only be transposed to a single side of the next layer. However, the dimensionality has not changed yet. The LGN then relays this signal into the V1 or primary visual cortex. While the LGN in reality is multiple layers deep and wide, for our comparison we can consider it to be somewhat more simplified. Its primary purpose is to serve as a relay, and to amplify and organize the signal before forwarding it to the correct destination. One can think of the LGN as a set of fully connected hidden layers of a neural network. The V1 is where the fun begins. The V1 first extrapolates the incoming signals from the LGN to represent receptive field bars with orientation and spatial frequency tuning. We can consider this to be essentially a multi-dimensional convolutional layer. The spatial frequency and orientation tuning comes from a very high dimensional convolution. The tuning is the same as the weights applied to each connection in a NN connection. The big mystery that remains is how is object recognition done in the V1. Due to spatial frequency tuning, we know that the V1 can extract out different frequency bands, such as low, medium, and high, but this doesn’t help us understand how the information is arranged so that objects can be recognized from mostly position invariant situations.

The current theory is that there exist certain position invariant features that our V1 cortex focuses on. The T junctions (where a line is met by a perpendicular one), the Y junctions, and the arrow junctions are considered position invariant as they remain the same no matter how you rotate them. However, clearly position invariance is not a perfect theory as there do exist certain angles at which our brains cannot tell what the object we are looking at is. Specifically, when an accidental viewpoint causes an image that seems impossible to appear. As we uncover how the brain works, it will become more and more evident how we can mimic computers to recognize objects as well.

Internalizing Cultures

I have been a student at Princeton for 2.5 years now. When I walked in, I wasn’t like the rest. I didn’t fit in. At least, that is what my High School brain told me. When people asked me, “Where do you go to school?,” I was hesitant to reply Princeton. It didn’t feel like it was a part of me. 2.5 years later I do not even hesitate to say Princeton University. I may not wear orange colored shirts anymore, but I identify myself as a part of the Princeton Tiger community. What happened in 2.5 years that fundamentally changed my culture?

What is culture? Culture encompasses the customs, the traditions, the practices, the nuances, the good things and the bad things that can be attributed to a group of people. A culture is an identity for a group. When I entered college, I was very much of the culture of my high school. I had learned how to best perform under the styles and conversations that my high school endorsed. In other words, I had learned how to effectively get approved by my high school community. When I entered Princeton, there were a new set of customs and attitudes and personas to learn. Princeton’s culture has become so imbibed in me that it almost seems second nature now to assume that the rights and wrongs laid out by the society around me is the correct set of values. Take for example my comment that Berkeley students are crazy for protesting every little thing, and breaking rules whenever possible. A friend of mine aptly pointed out that that is a reflection of my adoption of a set of values that were simply not “Berkleian” in nature, but instead more Princetonian.

Its interesting how a culture can shape us all. Without realizing it, we have a natural desire to fit in. A natural want to get accepted. Whenever we feel that we are being kicked out of the group, we strive even harder to fit the mold. At Princeton, I have learned to value obedience and careful analysis. I have learned to ridicule bashful or emotional decisions. I have learned that Harvard is bad, and that working hard means beating everyone else. But really, what I have done is accidentally accepted these values without realizing it. Had I gone to a different school I would have accepted different values. Perhaps, it is time I realize that these supposed “truths” are really just opinions of the culture I find myself in. Perhaps, it is time that I stop internalize my culture without realizing it.

Culture can be a powerful tool. Culture forces us all to fit within a box. Culture is the cookie cutter that shapes us all the same. I wonder if you can build a culture that values no common culture.

My Creativity Habitat

The smell of coffee is in the air. I watch people swarm outside in the crisp cold air through the wall like glass window. A cappuccino sits to my right, a pencil and pad to my left. Slowly the beats electronic music filter through my ears, and the drums of my mind begin to beat. Like a train, the engine revs, and thoughts kick into gear. An hour later, the coffee is gone, and the black sheet of paper is covered in thoughts. 

What is a creativity habitat? A year ago, I took a class where we discussed what it meant to be creative and were tasked with figuring out where we individually felt the most creative. A year ago, I said that I felt the most creative surrounded by creative people with a ping pong table and coffee. Not much has changed. This year I have the unique opportunity to observe what others consider to be a creative habitat as the TA for the same class. Unlike when I was in the class, it seems that nature is everyone’s favorite place to be creative. Whether it be Central Park in NYC, a gazebo, or a treehouse, somehow nature sparks ideas within us. Some students challenged the entire concept and considered that any environment is creative as long as you yourself have ideas.

After watching, listening, and thinking about what others thought to be their creative habitat, I did some reflection. I think some people are naturally more creative; however, I am not one of those people. I need the stimulus, and the chaos to generate ideas and to stimulate thought. I need the myriad different faces that people exhibit in their daily routines to spark thoughts. Many people feel that within their own skins they are the most creative. If they are comfortable, than and only than will then be creative. But, I believe that my resting state is one of analytical conservative thinking. Without a break, or some sort of jolt, I would do no better than a Wall Street Trader at a design firm. It is just too comfortable for me to think analytically. After all, CS is all about being analytical. Tracing down bugs, analytical. Writing code, analytical. Organizing APIs, analytical. CS is not a very creative field in the same sense that math is not a very creative field. This is where the coffee becomes essential. The coffee is a rude awakening, a jolt of adrenaline that fuels the body to think at a pace faster than before. That figurative extra step in mental capacity leads to a quickness of thought that doesn’t allow for conservativeness or analysis of pros and cons. It just does. And when I just do I get unpredictable results. With unpredictability comes creativity.

Why does it have to be inside a coffee shop? A coffee shop is filled with interesting conversations. People seem to forget in coffee shops that there are other people around them, and often talk about personal or embarrassing stories. These stories are like random number generators and help reseed the creative process at new interesting points. They provide a mechanism for thinking about disparate thoughts, and allow for random connections. That is something that you just can’t get at home with your morning cup of joe.

Dean’s Date Musings

Its Dean’s Date tomorrow. If you are not from Princeton, you might be wondering, what exactly is Dean’s Date? Actually, to tell you the truth, I don’t really know what it is either. All I know is that a shit ton of assignments are usually due on that day. This last week has been interesting. I think I have discovered something about myself that I didn’t realize. I realized that priorities often change, and that we often change what we need from life. This summer I was frustrated beyond my wildest belief. I desired to do something important with my life, something that would make me feel proud of what i had accomplished. Instead, I was stuck doing some side projects that meant little to my general life. Now, I feel satisfied, and yet I still haven’t accomplished anything of note. I wonder, why is it that suddenly I have become satisfied with whatever state my life is in?

Over winter break, I accomplished so little and enjoyed life so much. I think when I got back to school I was still addicted to that lifestyle. I still wanted to wake up at 10 am, meander around till around 5 PM and then eat dinner and repeat the cycle the next day. I lost the desire to work hard and to always strive to do my best. Somewhere along the way, I decided that whatever I enjoyed doing was good enough, and if I felt like doing it I would do it, otherwise oh well. I kinda like this style of life. Im happier, my body is well more rested, and life feels less rushed. Maybe, Ill keep this style of life. Maybe, I won’t. But priority wise, I think relaxation and happiness definitely top success and achievement.

Till my next musing.

What does it mean to be satisfied?

Satisfaction is a weird quantity. Its so vague, so hard to grasp. I have grown up my entire life searching for things that would satisfy my desires. Whether it be a job that is satisfying, or classes that are satisfying to take, or food that is satisfying to eat. However, as I continue to search for satisfaction it seems that satisfaction seems to get further and further distant. The more you chase it, the further away it seems to get, the harder it becomes to reach, and the more unsatisfied you feel. Why is it that we can never reach satisfaction?

In soccer, or futbol, commentators will often talk about hunger. They will comment on how a player is not hungry enough for goals when a striker goes on a dry spell for a while. They will state that the team is not hungry enough for success and victory when in the 80th minute of a game it appears that the team has lost all will to play. Most importantly it seems that the commentators really are suggesting that these teams have become satisfied with the scoreline, feel that it is what it is and will not change. Similarly, as a person seeking to be the best he can be, should I always remain in a state of hunger? Is that the best way to push forward? Does hunger always have to oppose satisfaction?

See hunger has a downside. It leads to anxiety, constant pressure, and constant dissatisfaction with the current situation. If I was a spiritualist, I would say thats a lot of negative energy to live in. That negative energy takes a toll on everything you do, but most importantly it takes a toll on your willingness to explore. To keep up, you optimize which areas you need to be hungry in. You tune your brain to efficiently process the areas of focus. You make yourself, in other words, into a well oiled machine. One capable of flying progressing along a single branch as quickly as possible. But we are supposed to be humans, not machines. We are supposed to thrive in exploration, not dive through depth as quickly as possible. With this in mind, should we stay hungry?

Without hunger, what prevents one from becoming simply lazy? In short, nothing. Newton’s laws suggest that an object at rest will remain at rest until an outside force acts upon it. In the human situation, this force is the hunger, the driving pain to do better. It forces us to do the unimaginable. It forces us to push our boundaries. Its what allows us to better ourselves.

Perhaps what is really needed is extended alternating sessions of satisfied laziness and extreme hunger. One balances the other, allowing each to serve with maximal impact.