Thursday, September 08, 2005

Gettin' classy with it

Somewhat like other people [like being a bit more, ahem, mature than most of my classmates and having some experience outside the Academybubble], it's time for some more formal edju-ma-cation, in the form of classes. So far, I've checked out a machine learning class, two statistics classes ["Statistics for Applications" and "Statistics for Scientists and Engineers"; still no idea what the difference is ...] and a genetics class. I expect I'll take the machine learning class and one of the statistics classes for credit and just sit in on the genetics class. [After all, there's only so much opportunity a man can handle, especially if said man wants to also get some research done.]

And, in the span of two days of class, there have already been a couple of funny moments. The first one occurred during the genetics lecture, when the professor was talking about the Shi gene in fruit flies. It turns out that there is a version of this gene that's what's called "temperature-sensitive", which means that the protein made by that gene only works properly at certain temperatures. Well, the nomenclature for temperature-sensitive genes is to add a "ts" to the end of the name of the gene. Now, what do you get when you add "ts" to the end of "Shi" ? That's right. You'd think this would have at least gotten a titter out of a class of about 300 sophomores, but other than seeing a couple of people smirk, I observed nobody with a similarly juvenile reaction.

The second and third moments happened during one of the statistics lecturers. After about 45 mins of the (substitute) professor going through a review of elementary probability theory, he suddenly got bored and said "And, for those of you who are bored by this, let's jump to something a bit more advanced, which will use some concepts that will be covered in future lectures" and then proceeded to solve Buffon's Needle Problem. In context, that's a bit like a teacher going from reading "Spot is a dog. See Spot run. Spot runs around the house." to saying "Ok, now that we've got this reading thing sort of down, let's read Moby Dick" -- not what I'd call a smooth transition.

But it got better. Solving the simple version of this problem took about 40 minutes, and he really wanted to get to the more complicated version, so in the last 5 minutes of class he set up the more complicated version, said "Ok, I'll leave actually doing this to you, but I'll give you the answer" and then proceeded to pull out a little black address book in which he had written the answer. Try as I might, I really can't come up with a scenario in which I would write down the answer to something like that in an address book in which I presumably keep more ... pragmatic things, like phone numbers and addresses. I mean, is that algebraic expression something he has to refer to a lot ? Does he really like the way it looks and so he pulls it out occasionally to marvel at it ? Is it something he pulls out at cocktail parties ? I'm just at a loss.

On a more "meta" level, I feel like the last couple of years have been somewhat ironic in that I'm now embracing all the academic areas I ran away from previously. I couldn't wait to be done with biology in high school, steered clear of probability and statistics in college and had no idea why anybody might want to know something about a subject as boring as "machine learning". In the meantime, I've switched to thinking biology is the most interesting stuff to work on, I actually enjoyed learning probability this summer and I'm looking forward to my statistics and machine learning classes this semester. I guess I've finally grasped that statistics and probability really are essential tools for making sense of a complicated world. [Bill, as usual, already knows this.]

With age comes wisdom =)


Anonymous Tozier said...

What?! You sayin' I'm old? I ain't old, man. Ain't old. An doan. choo. fergit. it.

[shuffles away, mumbling]

Birthday ain't for a couple days yet.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Andre Brown said...

Similarly juvenile: I just realized that the standard abbreviation for Analytica Chemica Acta is Anal. Chem. Acta and I couldn't stop myself from laughing.

Does self control also get better with age?

11:01 PM  

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