# Machine learning and magic

When I first heard about a lie detector as a child, I was puzzled. How could a machine detect lies? If it could, why couldn’t you use it to predict the future? For example, you could say “IBM stock will go up tomorrow” and let the machine tell you whether you’re lying.

Of course lie detectors can’t tell whether someone is lying. They can only tell whether someone is exhibiting physiological behavior believed to be associated with lying. How well the latter predicts the former is a matter of debate.

I saw a presentation of a machine learning package the other day. Some of the questions implied that the audience had a magical understanding of machine learning, as if an algorithm could extract answers from data that do not contain the answer. The software simply searches for patterns in data by seeing how well various possible patterns fit, but there may be no pattern to be found. Machine learning algorithms cannot generate information that isn’t there any more than a polygraph machine can predict the future.

# Robust in one sense, sensitive in another

When you sort data and look at which sample falls in a particular position, that’s called order statistics. For example, you might want to know the smallest, largest, or middle value.

Order statistics are robust in a sense. The median of a sample, for example, is a very robust measure of central tendency. If Bill Gates walks into a room with a large number of people, the mean wealth jumps tremendously but the median hardly budges.

But order statistics are not robust in this sense: the identity of the sample in any given position can be very sensitive to perturbation. Suppose a room has an odd number of people so that someone has the median wealth. When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett walk into the room later, the value of the median income may not change much, but the person corresponding to that income will change.

One way to evaluate machine learning algorithms is by how often they pick the right winner in some sense. For example, dose-finding algorithms are often evaluated on how often they pick the best dose from a set of doses being tested. This can be a terrible criteria, causing researchers to be mislead by a particular set of simulation scenarios. It’s more important how often an algorithm makes a good choice than how often it makes the best choice.

Suppose five drugs are being tested. Two are nearly equally effective, and three are much less effective. A good experimental design will lead to picking one of the two good drugs most of the time. But if the best drug is only slightly better than the next best, it’s too much to expect any design to pick the best drug with high probability. In this case it’s better to measure the expected utility of a decision rather than how often a design makes the best decision.

# Book review: Practical Data Analysis

Many people have drawn Venn diagrams to locate machine learning and related ideas in the intellectual landscape. Drew Conway’s diagram may have been the first. It has at least been frequently referenced.

By this classification, Hector Cuesta’s new book Practical Data Analysis is located toward the “hacking skills” corner of the diagram. No single book can cover everything, and this one emphasizes practical software knowledge more than mathematical theory or details of a particular problem domain.

The biggest strength of the book may be that it brings together in one place information on tools that are used together but whose documentation is scattered. The book is great source for sample code. The source code  is available on GitHub, though it’s more understandable in the context of the book.

Much of the book uses Python and related modules and tools including:

• NumPy
• mlpy
• PIL
• twython
• Pandas
• NLTK
• IPython
• Wakari

It also uses D3.js (with JSON, CSS, HTML, …), MongoDB (with MapReduce, Mongo Shell, PyMongo, …), and miscellaneous other tools and APIs.

There’s a lot of material here in 360 pages, making it a useful reference.

# Machine Learning in Action

A couple months ago I briefly reviewed Machine Learning for Hackers by Drew Conway and John Myles White. Today I’m looking at Machine Learning in Action by Peter Harrington and comparing the two books.

Both books are about the same size and cover many of the same topics. One difference between the two books is choice of programming language: ML for Hackers uses R for its examples, ML in Action uses Python.

ML in Action doesn’t lean heavily on Python libraries. It mostly implements its algorithms from scratch, with a little help from NumPy for linear algebra, but it does not use ML libraries such as scikit-learn. It sometimes uses Matplotlib for plotting and uses Tkinter for building a simple GUI in one chapter. The final chapter introduces Hadoop and Amazon Web Services.

ML for Hackers is a little more of a general introduction to machine learning. ML in Action contains a brief introduction to machine learning in general, but quickly moves on to specific algorithms. ML for Hackers spends a good number of pages discussing data cleaning. ML in Action starts with clean data in order to spend more time on algorithms.

ML in Action takes 8 of the top 10 algorithms in machine learning (as selected by this paper) and organizes around these algorithms. (The two algorithms out of the top 1o that didn’t make it into ML in Action were PageRank, because it has been covered well elsewhere, and EM, because its explanation requires too much mathematics.) The algorithms come first in ML in Action, illustrations second. ML for Hackers puts more emphasis on its examples and reads a bit more like a story. ML in Action reads a little more like a reference book.

//www.johndcook.com/blog/2008/06/27/wine-beer-and-statistics/#comment-170809

# Machine Learning for Hackers

Drew Conway and John Myles White have a new book out, Machine Learning for Hackers (ISBN 1449303714). As the name implies, the emphasis is on exploration rather than mathematical theory. Lots of code, no equations.

If you’re looking for a hands-on introduction to machine learning, maybe as a prelude to or complement to a more theoretical text, you’ll enjoy this book. Even if you’re not all that interested in machine learning, you might enjoy the examples, such as how a computer could find patterns in senatorial voting records and twitter networks. And R users will find examples of using advanced language features to solve practical problems.