Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A play

Going through some old documents I came across my first attempt at writing a play. Maybe a little embarrassing now, but I am afraid I will lose the document sooner or later. This is for the record. I remember that I couldn't settle on a name for the play, and the file that I found is called "ytbn" - short for "yet to be named". As far as I remember, it never was named.


The play is an incident in a society that dictatorially enforces conformance of deeds and ideas. This society is loosely fashioned after the society portrayed by George Orwell in his book, “1984”.


The salesman (our protagonist)
The shopkeeper
Merry, assistant to the shopkeeper
Agents of the government

The curtains open to melancholy setting of a neighborhood. It is evening. Our protagonist, a salesman, walks on a street lined with shabby looking houses. He, apparently, is new to the neighborhood, since he walks slowly and allows his eyes to inspect every signboard that he notices. Shortly he comes near a lamp post and is momentarily shocked to see two men, dressed in black overcoats standing beneath it. Their surreptitious presence makes him pause, but with a voluntary effort he resumes his pace, to stop again after a few brisk strides. He has found what he was looking for. His eyes travel over the signboard of a shop. The shop is small, and almost looks as if it has been forcefully tucked into an incredibly narrow space between two houses by a superhuman cause. The sign reads, “The Curio Shop”. Without further deliberation the salesman walks in.

            The shop is dimly lit. In the prevailing semi-darkness it is difficult to see any merchandise that the shop might deal in. Presently a person appears and addresses the salesman.

New character/Shopkeeper: Good evening! I am the shopkeeper. How may I help you? (Smiles pleasantly)

Salesman: I am a salesman. I am looking for a few things (clears his throat) that I might find here – so I have been told.

Shopkeeper: (Pleasantly smiling) Yes, of course! We sell quite a few things here that are hard to come by otherwise.

He gently sways his hand in a gesture of welcome towards his left. The light adjusts to reveal an array of mantelpieces.

Shopkeeper: (Continuing, with unmistakable excitement in his voice) Mantelpieces like these, Sir, I assure you, you will find nowhere. We also have some exquisite furniture, and certain other things I would like to show you, should you have the leisure to look at them!

Salesman: (Shuffles his feet and looks uncomfortable) Er..yes. (Pauses) But this is not what I came here for.

Shopkeeper: (Narrowing his eyes, but keeping his smile intact) I am not sure what you are talking about. Perhaps, you would want to quote a reference?

Salesman: Frank.

Shopkeeper: (Pauses, but quite commendably still holds his smile) Ah, yes. This way please.

The shopkeeper leads the salesman to a wall in an inner room. Placing his palms together on the wall, he gently slides them towards himself. A faint click… a hidden door!
The door opens to reveal another badly lit room, the contents of which are not immediately visible.

Shopkeeper: Before we enter ….(looks about himself)…Merry! Merry!

Another man appears, He is unremarkable in any other way but for the calmly morose expression he wears.

Shopkeeper: (To the salesman) This is Merry, my assistant.

Merry looks at the guest but doesn’t attempt a smile. It is almost as if Merry and the shopkeeper complement each other as far as their expressions go. The shopkeeper is a perfect salesman with a ready smile at his disposal. He seems almost incapable of any other expression, something that can be said equally well for Merry, who, however, is a picture of gloom. They are like two poles of emotions in a balanced conversation, embodied apart.

Shopkeeper: Merry would watch the shop while we are inside. I apologize for my earlier behavior. You are obviously aware of how things stand today.

The salesman, the shopkeeper and Merry stop mid-air in their actions, as another part of the stage lights up to depict their thoughts at the moment. Here we see a bonfire of books and paintings, tended by men wearing black overcoats. Nearby, a person, presumably the owner of the property that feeds the spiteful fire, is being forcefully dragged away by more men in black overcoats. He resists, but his face is painfully calm, proclaiming that this was inevitable, and he knew that such a day must arrive. This distressing sight stays for a moment and then vanishes, with the portion of the stage returning to darkness, as our three characters become animate again.

The shopkeeper and salesman walk into the newly revealed room while Merry stays outside. Inside the room, we now see shelves lined with transparent masks.

Shopkeeper: (Smiling) These masks, as you would know, have no features, only expressions. When you wear them, they take on the features of the face underneath, but the expression is theirs. A happy mask makes you look happy; a sad mask makes you look sad. Always.

The salesman reaches inside his pocket to draw out his purse to pay the shopkeeper.

Shopkeeper: (Smiling) Which one will it be then?

Salesman: The one that smiles, of course.

Taking down a mask from the shelf, the shopkeeper wraps it in a piece of brown paper.

Shopkeeper: Here it is. Please hide it well when you carry it outside. Our shop is already being watched.

The salesman and the shopkeeper leave the inner room and the sliding door is pushed back into place. Merry, with his unchanging morose look, who has been waiting at the other side, disappears as soon as they return.

The salesman carefully tucks the wrapped parcel into his jacket and makes to leave the shop.

Salesman: Thank you!

Shopkeeper: You are welcome! But be very discreet about this little affair.

Smiling a knowing smile, the salesman walks out. He makes brisk pace on his way back. As he nears the lamp post, he spots the two men in black overcoats still present. Distracted, he tries to take a quick step, and trips and falls. The brown package is thrown away from his person due to the impact. The wrapping was not well done, and a part of the mask is now clearly visible in the package, which is now lying on the ground.

The men become suddenly alert, and lose no time to run to the shop after they notice the now ill-guised contents of the package. The salesman is paralyzed with fear, and not knowing how to react to this new development, watches panic stricken in the direction of the shop.

The men disappear into the shop. Awhile later Merry and the shopkeeper are brutally dragged outside into the street. As they shout, scream and their limbs flail wildly in the air, the salesman notices that the shopkeeper can’t help but still smile pleasantly. Merry, too, like a vivid contradiction to the world around him, to the reaction of his body and his very name, wears a mask of calm moroseness.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thoughts on Online Learning

When online learning became a reality for me with MIT OpenCourseware, I was excited. I could watch Gilbert Strang teach Linear Algebra for free and learn at my pace. So when Coursera and Udacity were launched I was as happy as the next guy, if not more. I work with Machine Learning at my job and it is extremely valuable to me that I can watch related videos online, for free, with the content taught by some of the most prominent researchers/practitioners in their respective areas.

But it doesn't seem to have worked out very well for me. And apparently not for a lot of other people either. Personally, I am back to reading books. With a year of Coursera/Udacity behind us, I am seeing articles, like these, discussing shortfalls. In this post, I want to discuss where these fell short for me.

To be clear this is an extremely subjective article discussing things from my point of view. One that is not called "What's wrong with online learning?".

What I find missing

My first two online courses were Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang offered by MIT Open Courseware and Machine Learning taught by Andrew Ng offered by Stanford Engineering Everywhere.When I had initially started going through the material, I wasn't doing much beyond watching the lectures and occasionally scribbling notes. Although the courses filled me with an immediate sense of achievement, I realized that my ability to recall finer details later was essentially broken. In most cases, when coming across a concept elsewhere, I could relate to it at a high level - but to dwell on the workings was difficult, and I often had to go back to the videos for a quick revision.

At this point, other problems would crop up - videos are not text books that you remember the layouts of. That makes skimming and visually searching difficult. They don't have indexes that can facilitate quick look-ups. I would typically narrow down to a specific couple of videos (one - if lucky) and then rummage about with the playbar till I found what I was looking for. Not  to mention I needed a computer and my video lectures around for that. Thus, not only was I unable to recall specifics, but digging them out was no walk in the park either.

To fix this, I re-visited the lectures and prepared extensive notes this time. That worked out amazingly well for me - I remembered most of the stuff, and had a ready reference to consult (my notes).

Fig 1. Notes from Machine Learning

But these came at the cost of a huge amount of learning time - if a particular video lecture was an hour long, listening to it and making notes seemed to take roughly twice that time, assuming I took detailed notes, and not merely wrote down what I heard/saw but phrased it in my own words.

Given that I was never much of a note-taker in class, and still did well on most of my courses, I had to wonder - why is it different now? Here are a few things I missed in my online learning experience:
  1. Active participation in the learning - in classes, I could ask questions. Equally important - others could ask questions. All during the class. The opportunity to ask questions worked to my benefit in two significant ways:

    • It kept me engaged. At some level, it felt as if the class was collectively and organically working towards discovering something

    • It prevented technical debt. Usually that term is used in the context of software development, but I feel it is equally applicable here. One shoe doesn't fit all - so if the material prepared by the lecturer falls short in satisfying a student he can immediately ask a question to satisfy his information need. With video lectures, I had to make a note to Google up something later. You could pause the video and do that instantly. Or, you could let these pile up and attend to them later. Either way, that wasn't the best of experiences for me for subjects I really cared about.
  2. Learning in a class for the want of a better term, is an immersive experience. This helps recall and motivation. You remember more than just the content from the class - you remember people, places, a comment that made you laugh, etc. Sometimes, these help recall stuff better. You also see real people sitting next to you trying to be good at the same thing as you. If you want to discuss a specific concept with them, it is easier verbally than posting on a forum. There is collective motivation to learn and communication with peers is easy.
  3. If you want to go back to revising something you can refer to your notes, the lecturer's notes or the textbook the class is following. With video lectures this is tough.
In a nutshell, for online courses, I don't think the content registers too well because they don't do great on the first couple of fronts. And what doesn't register, should at least be easily searchable -  unfortunately, that doesn't happen either.

I mentioned I have moved back to text books. Why am I learning better with them? With regards to the first two factors I think textbooks actually do worse than online learning. But they do way better when it comes to ease of revisiting stuff - and that ease aids reinforcing of material which sort of makes up, over a period of time, for the relatively lacking engagement.

It hit me when I started taking the course on Probabilistic Graphical Models by Daphne Koller. The lectures were detailed -I loved them- but the need for taking detailed notes increased too. Given my full-time job it was becoming difficult - I was not sure how long I could keep up.

Fig 2. Notes from Probabilistic Graphical Models

One weekend I ended up with a sprained neck trying to take notes for a bunch of lectures.  I gave up, re-enrolled when the course was offered the next time, only to again drop out for similar reasons. The gamification (deadlines) made me feel stupid and was demotivating. I realized that this wasn't sustainable for me and went back to books.

To sum up the comparison, textbooks provide me with a medium I can easily revisit, and the time I am not spending creating this easily searcheable medium - which I would have to for video lectures i.e. take extensive notes - makes up for the other benefits video lectures have to offer.

Possible solutions

To be frank, I don't know what changes would make online courses better for me. It's hard to know without actually trying. Personally, I should probably focus on only one course at a time and accept the fact that it is going to take me much more than the stipulated time to finish it.

However, if I were to take guesses as to what might make courses better, this would be my list:
  1. Make lectures more interactive - this would promote engagement. Interaction in courses exist - the operative word is "more". Better engagement would help better recall and drive down the need for extensive note taking. Note that this does not completely do away with the need for taking notes - but only eliminates the need to do it in painstakingly copious amounts.

    Interaction is one way to promote engagement. There might be others too. Perhaps, something on the lines of what the Head First guys did for programming? They made reading programming books as easy as reading story books. Is there a way to make watching video lectures as effortless as watching a movie? Or, playing a game - like this experiment from UCSD.
  2. Make them searchable - somehow. Find a way so I can revisit the course for specific topics with ease. Transcribe the speech of the lecturer and index the video timeline with words from the transcription if that's what it takes!
  3. I like how Erik Demaine prepares his courses.

    Fig 3. Geometric Folding Algorithms by Erik Demaine

    Fig 3. is from his course on Geometric Folding Algorithms. There is a lecture video on the page, there is a frame with handwritten notes in it (shown in a black box) and there is another frame with slides in it (shown in a red box). The video, the notes and the slides are synchronized: when Erik moves ahead with  his lecture, the slides and notes change pages too.

    This helps the learner associate textual content - notes/slides - that can be searched (probably easier after printing) with the actual lectures. This is a clever way of maintaining the engagement videos give us, and making the content easy to revisit later without actually revisiting the video. All depends on how strong you can make the association between the text content and the video in the presentation.

    InfoQ and do this to some extent too.