Why computer scientists and linguists don’t always see eye-to-eye

Linguists have many theories about how language works. How much should computer scientists who work on language care?

Linguists have many theories about how language works. But how much should the computer scientists who work with language care? (CC image courtesy of Flickr/surrealmuse)

“You’ve just explained my entire life to me.” This was the last thing I was expecting to hear from Lori, my graduate advisor, in the midst of a discussion of my career plans. I gave a stiff smile and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “What you just said,” she continued, “that’s why I’m here, not in a linguistics department. In a linguistics department in the 80’s, I might have felt like a hypocrite.”

What I’d said hadn’t been a deliberate attempt to enlighten a researcher 30 years my senior. I’d simply mentioned my preference for application-oriented research groups, because I care more about producing useful insights than true theories. Apparently, though, the distinction between usefulness and truth struck a chord with Lori: in the field she and I work in, what’s useful isn’t always true, and what’s true is often not useful. Lori, a linguist in a school of computer science, has found her career path to be largely determined by that distinction.

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Brain Power on the Baseball Field

titlePictureI was sitting in my college dorm room, working on some engineering homework, but I just couldn’t focus. My mind kept wandering back to the game. How could I have played so poorly? My teammates must hate me. Did I cost us a chance at the playoffs?

In college I played on the varsity baseball team and studied mechanical engineering. I worked hard on the practice team for 2 years and finally got my shot to start at third base as a junior. But things weren’t going according to plan. Third base has a long throw across the infield to first base, and I was having trouble making the throw accurately. By itself, this wasn’t unusual; every player goes through his funks and eventually works out of it. But despite hours of extra practice, I was stuck in a rut. My frustration culminated in a game in which I committed 4 throwing errors and we lost to an important division opponent by 1 run. My teammates had battled tooth and nail to make it a close game, and I literally threw it all away.

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Measuring the Worth of One’s Salt

The crowd milling around the salt boutique is a mix of young bohemians and bourgeois baby boomers, all looking to add some flavor to their lives. The description of every product is written in transcendent prose that describes how each salt formed in a distinct, yet ‘natural’ environment, free of human interference. This salt was then harvested, often times with wooden tools, and transported thousands of miles for your purchasing pleasure. These specialty salts come in a variety of colors and have distinctive names representing their proud origins. For these distinctive salts, you can expect to spend about fifty times more per ounce than you would pay for your average table salt at a supermarket.

Salt_Pic_#1

From left to right: Specialty salts Himalayan Pink Mineral Salt and Kala Namak Black Indian Salt, and generic table salt

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On Mathematics, Mandelbrot, and Beauty

I have a confession to make. I suck at math. I always have, and maybe always will. Despite possessing two engineering degrees and being very close to completing a third, I can’t say that I am comfortable with math. So you might be surprised if you ever drop by my office on a Sunday afternoon. You’ll find me with a broad smile on my face, leafing through a big fat book titled something like ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’. I read it because I want to, and I read it because it is fun.

“But math is hard!”, you say. I agree, but great difficulty does not always breed contempt. On the contrary, years of struggling with math have actually pushed me to a level where I have started to see the beauty in it.

To the uninitiated, the very notion of finding beauty in numbers and rigid logic might seem absurd. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Case in point – the pictures below:

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A Case About Probiotics

Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics.  Are you?

Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics. Are you?

 
Erin Andrews is trying to sell me probiotics.1 She is walking through a bustling gym wearing a sharp blazer and a fresh blow out. Male patrons gawk. She bubbles that the euphoric powers of probiotics can improve digestion and immunity. She takes probiotics, and she has grown tall, healthy, and has a sweet gig interviewing football players. And now every gym member is clamoring to get a slice of that probiotic pie.

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Fixing Urban Sinkholes: A Noisy Solution to a Dirty Problem

Picture of 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala City.

Picture of 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala City.

The pounding starts at 7:00 AM every morning outside my house here in Pittsburgh, and it’s been like that for 8 months now. Every weekday, whether it’s a backhoe ripping through asphalt, a jackhammer shredding up the concrete, or a buzz saw dicing the sidewalk, there is a plethora of noise that I wake up to as they dig holes on my street. And why are they digging these holes? To fix a larger hole – a sinkhole.

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When Do I Start Knowing What I’m Doing?

xkcd #451: Imposter

Nah, we’re all too busy worrying about whether we’re experts in our field. (Source: xkcd)

When my advisor informed her assembled advisees that I was the group’s “machine learning expert,” I nearly choked. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what expertise looked like. An expert possesses a deep, intuitive understanding of his or her subject. An expert exudes confidence in his or her abilities and reputation. An expert fields detailed questions without batting an eyelid. What an expert most certainly does not look like, I thought, is a clueless amateur of a Ph.D. student.

My lofty image of expertise was not my own invention – our society has an unhealthy tendency to fetishize experts. We see the degree of knowledge possessed by professors and analysts and TED speakers as almost mystical. We speak in awed whispers of their brilliance and intuition. And of course, the praise is often well-deserved; I don’t mean to suggest that there is no such thing as expertise. But the way we idolize experts does great damage to experts and novices alike. Continue reading