Searching for Great Conversations

21 Mar

“When was the last time you had a great conversation? A conversation that wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, but when you overheard yourself saying things you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that found places within you that you thought you had lost, and the sense of an eventive conversation that brought the two of you into a different plain and then fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing afterward for weeks in your mind? Conversations like that are food and drink for the soul.”

John O’Donahue h/t David Perell

Siamese Networks for Record Linkage

20 Mar

For the uninitiated:

A siamese neural network consists of twin networks which accept distinct inputs but are joined by an energy function at the top. This function computes some metric between the highest level feature representation on each side. The parameters between the twin networks are tied. Weight tying guarantees that two extremely similar images could not possibly be mapped by their respective networks to very different locations in feature space because each network computes the same function.

One Shot

Replace the word images with two representations of the same record across any two tables and you have an algorithm for producing good distance functions for efficient record linkage. Triplet loss is a natural extension to this. Looking forward to seeing some bottom line results comparing it to generic supervised results, which reminds me of the fact that I am unaware of any large benchmark datasets for the fundamental problem of statistical record linkage.

The Risk of Misunderstanding Risk

20 Mar

Women who participate in breast cancer screening from 50 to 69 live on average 12 more days. This is the best case scenario. Gerd has more such compelling numbers in his book, Calculated Risks. Gerd shares such numbers to launch a front on assault on the misunderstanding of risk. His key point is:

“Overcoming innumeracy is like completing a three-step program to statistical literacy. The first step is to defeat the illusion of certainty. The second step is to learn about the actual risks of relevant eventsand actions. The third step is to communicate the risks in an understandable way and to draw inferences without falling prey to clouded thinking.”

Gerd’s key contributions are on the third point. Gerd identifies three problems with risk communication:

  1. using relative risk than Numbers Needed to Treat (NNT) or absolute risk,
  2. Using single-event probabilities, and
  3. Using conditional probabilities than ‘natural frequencies.’

Gerd doesn’t explain what he means by natural frequencies in the book but some of his other work does. Here’s a clarifying example that illustrates how the same information can be given in two different ways, the second of which is in the form of natural frequencies:

“The probability that a woman of age 40 has breast cancer is about 1 percent. If she has breast cancer, the probability that she tests positive on a screening mammogram is 90 percent. If she does not have breast cancer, the probability that she nevertheless tests positive is 9 percent. What are the chances that a woman who tests positive actually has breast cancer?”


“Think of 100 women. One has breast cancer, and she will probably test positive. Of the 99 who do not have breast cancer, 9 will also test positive. Thus, a total of 10 women will test positive. How many of those who test positive actually have breast cancer?”

For those in a hurry, here are my notes on the book.

What’s Best? Comparing Model Outputs

10 Mar

Let’s assume that you have a large portfolio of messages: n messages of k types. And say that there are n models, built by different teams, that estimate how relevant each message is to the user on a particular surface at a particular time. How would you rank order the messages by relevance, understood as the probability a person will click on the relevant substance of the message?

Isn’t the answer: use the max. operator as a service? Just using the max. operator can be a problem because of:

a) Miscalibrated probabilities: the probabilities being output from non-linear models are not always calibrated. A probability of .9 doesn’t mean that there is a 90% chance that people will click it.

b) Prediction uncertainty: prediction uncertainty for an observation is a function of the uncertainty in the betas and distance from the bulk of the points we have observed. If you were to randomly draw a 1,000 samples each from the estimated distribution of p, a different ordering may dominate than the one we get when we compare the means.

This isn’t the end of the problems. It could be that the models are built on data that doesn’t match the data in the real world. (To discover that, you would need to compare expected error rate to actual error rate.) And the only way to fix the issue is to collect new data and build new models of it.

Comparing messages based on propensity to be clicked is unsatisfactory. A smarter comparison would take optimize for profit, ideally over the long term. Moving from clicks to profits requires reframing. Profits need not only come from clicks. People don’t always need to click on a message to be influenced by a message. They may choose to follow-up at a later time. And the message may influence more than the person clicking on the message. To estimate profits, thus, you cannot rely on observational data. To estimate the payoff for showing a message, which is equal to the estimated winning minus the estimated cost, you need to learn it over an experiment. And to compare payoffs of different messages, e.g., encourage people to use a product more, encourage people to share the product with another person, etc., you need to distill the payoffs to the same currency—ideally, cash.

Expertise as a Service

3 Mar

The best thing you can say about Prediction Machines, a new book by a trio of economists, is that it is not barren. Most of the growth you see is about the obvious: the big gain from ML is our ability to predict better, and better predictions will change some businesses. For instance, Amazon will be able to move from shopping-and-then-shipping to shipping-and-then-shopping—you return what you don’t want—if it can forecast what its customers want well enough. Or, airport lounges will see reduced business if we can more accurately predict the time it takes to reach the airport.

Aside from the obvious, the book has some untended shrubs. The most promising of them is that supervised algorithms can have human judgment as a label. We have long known about the point. For instance, self-driving cars use human decisions as labels—we learn braking, steering, speed as a function of road conditions. But what if we could use expert human judgment as a label for other complex cognitive tasks? There is already software that exploits that point. Grammarly, for instance, uses editorial judgments to give advice about grammar and style. But there are so many other places where we could exploit this. You could use it to build educational tools that give guidance on better ways of doing something in real-time. You could also use it to reduce the need for experts.

p.s. The point about exploiting the intellectual property of experts deserves more attention.

5 is smaller than 1.9!

10 Feb

“In the late 1990s, the leading methods caught about 80 percent of fraudulent transactions. These rates improved to 90–95 percent in 2000 and to 98–99.9 percent today. That last jump is a result of machine learning; the change from 98 percent to 99.9 percent has been transformational.

An improvement from 85 percent to 90 percent accuracy means that mistakes fall by one-third. An improvement from 98 percent to 99.9 percent means mistakes fall by a factor of twenty. An improvement of twenty no longer seems incremental.”

From Prediction Machines by Agarwal, Gans, and Goldfarb.

One way to compare the improvements is to compare differences in percentages —5 and 1.9. That is what I would have done. That is so because conditional on the same difference in percentages, lower the base, the greater the multiplicative factor, which makes it a cheap way of making small improvements look better. Even then, for consistency, the comparison would have been between percentage increases in accuracy, between (90 – 85)/85 and (99.9 – 98)/98. But, AGG had to flip the estimand to percentage errors to make the latter relative change look better.


7 Feb

Vegetarians turn at the thought of eating the meat of a cow that has died from a heart attack. The disgust that vegetarians experience is not principled. Nor is the greater opposition to homosexuality that people espouse when they are exposed to foul smell. Haidt uses similar such provocative examples to expose chinks in how we think about what is moral and what is not.

Knowing that what we find disgusting may not always be “disgusting,” that our moral reasoning can be flawed, is a superpower. Because thinking that you are in the right makes you self-righteous. It makes you think that you know all the facts, that you are somehow better. Often, we are not. If we stop conflating disgust with being in the right or indeed, with being right, we shall all get along a lot better.

The Best We Can Do is Responsibly Answer the Questions that Life Asks of Us

5 Feb

Faced with mass murder, it is hard to escape the conclusion that life has no meaning. For how could it be that life has meaning when lives matter so little? As a German Jew in a concentration camp, Victor Frankl had to confront that question.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl gives two answers to the question. His first answer is a reflexive rejection of the meaninglessness of life. Frankl claims that life is “unconditional[ly] meaningful.” There is something to that, but not enough to hang on to for too long. It is also not his big point.

Instead, Frankl has a more nuanced point: “If there is … meaning in life …, then there must be … meaning in suffering.” (Because suffering is an inescapable part of life.) The meaning of suffering, according to him, lies in how we respond to it. Do we suffer with dignity? Or do we let suffering degrade us? The broader, deeper point that underpins the claim is that we cannot always choose our conditions, but we can choose the “stand [we take] toward the conditions.” And life’s meaning is stored in the stand we take, in how we respond to the questions that “life asks of us.”

Not only that, the extent of human achievement is: responsibly answering the questions that life asks of us. This means two things. First, that questions about human achievement can only be answered within the context of one’s life. And second, in responsibly answering questions that life asks of us, we attain what humans can ever attain. In a limited life, circumscribed by unavoidable suffering, for instance, the peak of human achievement is keeping dignity. If your life offers you more, then, by all means, do more—derive meaning from action, from beauty, and from love. But also take solace in the fact that we can achieve the greatest heights a human can achieve in how we respond to unavoidable suffering.

Ruined by Google

13 Jan

Information on tap is a boon. But if it means that the only thing we will end up knowing—have in your heads—is where to go to find the information, it may also be a bane.

Accessible stored cognitions are vital. They allow us to verify and contextualize new information. If we need to look things up, because of laziness or forgetfulness, we will end up accepting some false statements, which we would have easily refuted had we had the relevant information in our memory, or we will fail to contextualize some statements appropriately.

Information on tap also produces another malaise. It changes the topography of what we know. As search costs go down, people move from learning about a topic systematically to narrowly searching for whatever they need to know, now. And knowledge built on narrow searches looks like Swiss cheese.

Worse, many a time when people find the narrow thing they are looking for, they think that that is all there to know. For instance, in Computer Science and Machine Learning, people can increasingly execute sophisticated things without knowing much. (And that is a mostly a good thing.) But getting something to work—by copying the code from StackOverflow—gives people the sense that they “know.” And when we think we know, we also know that there is not much more to know. Thus, information on tap reduces the horizons of our knowledge about our ignorance.

In becoming better at fulfilling our narrower needs, lower search costs may be killing expertise. And that is mostly a bad thing.

Experiments Without Control

4 Jan

Say that you are in the search engine business. And say that you have built a model that estimates how relevant an ad is based on the ‘context’: search query, previous few queries, kind of device, location, and such. Now let’s assume that for context X, the rank-ordered list of ads based on expected profit is: product A, product B, and product C. Now say that you want to estimate how effective an ad for product A is in driving the sales of product A. One conventional way to estimate this is to randomly assign during serve time: for context X, serve half the people an ad for product A and serve half the people no ad. But if it is true (and you can verify this) that an ad for product B doesn’t cause people to buy product A, then you can switch the ‘no ad’ control where you are not making any money with an ad for product B. With this, you can estimate the effectiveness of ad for product A while sacrificing the least amount of revenue. Better yet, if it is true that ad for product A doesn’t cause people to buy product B, you can also at the same time get an estimate of the efficacy of ad for product B.

The Benefit of Targeting

16 Dec

What is the benefit of targeting? Why (and when) do we need experiments to estimate the benefits of targeting? And what is the right baseline to compare against?

I start with a business casual explanation, using examples to illustrate some of the issues at hand. Later in the note, I present a formal explanation to precisely describe the assumptions to clarify under what conditions targeting may be a reasonable thing to do.

Business Casual

Say that you have some TVs to sell. And say that you could show an ad about the TVs to everyone in the city for free. Your goal is to sell as many TVs as possible. Does it make sense for you to build a model to pick out people who would be especially likely to buy the TV and only show an ad to them? No, it doesn’t. Unless ads make people less likely to purchase TVs, you are always better-off reaching out to everyone.

You are wise. You use common sense to sell more TVs than the guy who spent a bunch of money building the model and selling less. You make tons of money. And you use the money to buy Honda and Mercedes dealerships. You still retain the magical power of being able to show ads to everyone for free. Your goal is to maximize profits. And selling Mercedes nets you more profit than Hondas. Should you use a model to show some people ads about Toyota and other people ads about Honda? The answer is still no. Under likely to hold assumptions, the optimal strategy is to show an ad for Mercedes first and then an ad for Toyota. (You can show the Toyota ad first if people who want to buy Mercedes won’t buy a cheaper car if they see an ad for a cheaper car first.)

But what if you are limited to only one ad? What would you do? In that case, a model may make sense. Let’s see how things may look with some fake data. Let’s compare the outcomes of four strategies: two model-based targeting strategies and two target-everyone with one ad strategies. To make things easier, let’s assume that selling Mercedes nets ten units of profits and selling Honda nets five units of profit. Let’s also assume that people will only buy something if they see an ad for their preferred product.

Continue reading here (pdf).

AutoSum Plus

23 Nov

Nearly four years ago, I released autosum. Autosum exploits work by other scientists to harvest key points from (and key concerns with) a paper. The software grabs the sentence before or after the citation to build that knowledge. The output is pretty useful. See for yourself. But you could do one better by using it as a label for supervised text summarization tasks. You could learn the BERT embeddings and then use them to predict key phrases (or more).

Making an Impression: Learning from Google Ads

31 Oct

Broadly, Google Ads works as follows: 1. Advertisers create an ad, choose keywords, and make a bid (on cost-per-click or CPC) (You can bid on cost-per-view and cost-per-impression also, but we limit our discussion to CPC.), 2. the Google Ads account team vets whether the keywords are related to the product being advertised, and 3. people see the ad from the winning bid when they search for a term that includes the keyword or when they browse content that is related to the keyword (some Google Ads are shown on sites that use Google AdSense).

There is a further nuance to the last step. Generally, on popular keywords, Google has thousands of candidate ads to choose from. And Google doesn’t simply choose the ad from the winning bid. Instead, it uses data to choose an ad (or a few ads) that yield the most profit (Click Through Rate (CTR)*bid). (Google probably has a more complex user utility function and doesn’t show ads below a low predicted CTR*bid.) In all, who Google shows ads to depends on the predicted CTR and the money it will make per click.

Given this setup, we can reason about the audience for an ad. First, the higher the bid, the broader the audience. Second, it is not clear how well Google can predict CTR per ad conditional on keyword bid especially when the ad run is small. And if that is so, we expect Google to show the ad with the highest bid to a random subset of people searching for the keyword or browsing content related to the keyword. Under such conditions, you can use the total number of impressions per demographic group as an indicator of interest in the keyword. For instance, if you make the highest bid on the keyword ‘election’ and you find that total number of impressions that your ad makes among people 65+ are 10x more than people between ages 18-24, under some assumptions, e.g., similar use of ad blockers, similar rates of clicking ads conditional on relevance (which would become same as predicted relevance), similar utility functions (that is younger people are not more sensitive to irritation from irrelevant ads than older people), etc., you can infer relative interest of 18-24 versus 65+ in elections.

The other case where you can infer relative interest in a keyword (topic) from impressions is when ad markets are thin. For common keywords like ‘elections,’ Google generally has thousands of candidate ads for national campaigns. But if you only want to show your ad in a small geographic area or an infrequently searched term, the candidate set can be pretty small. If your ad is the only one, then your ad will be shown wherever it exceeds some minimum threshold of predicted CTR*bid. Assuming a high enough bid, you can take the total number of impressions of an ad as a proxy for total searches for the term and how often people browsed related content.

With all of this in mind, I discuss results from a Google Ads campaign. More here.

The Value of Predicting Bad Things

30 Oct

Foreknowledge of bad things is useful because it gives us an opportunity to a. prevent it, and b. plan for it.

Let’s refine our intuitions with a couple of concrete examples.

Many companies work super hard to predict customer ‘churn’—which customer is not going to use a product over a specific period (which can be the entire lifetime). If you know who is going to churn in advance, you can: a. work to prevent it, b. make better investment decisions based on expected cash flow, and c. make better resource allocation decisions.

Users “churn” because they don’t think the product is worth the price, which may be because a) they haven’t figured out a way to use the product optimally, b) a better product has come on the horizon, or c) their circumstances have changed. You can deal with this by sweetening the deal. You can prevent users from abandoning your product by offering them discounts. (It is useful to experiment to learn about the precise demand elasticity at various predicted levels of churn.) You can also give discounts is the form of offering some premium features free. Among people who don’t use the product much, you can run campaigns to help people use the product more effectively.

If you can predict cash-flow, you can optimally trade-off risk so that you always have cash at hand to pay your obligations. Churn can also help you with resource allocation. It can mean that you need to temporarily hire more customer success managers. Or it can mean that you need to lay off some people.

The second example is from patient care. If you could predict reasonably that someone will be seriously sick in a year’s time (and you can in many cases), you can use it to prioritize patient care, and again plan investment (if you were an insurance company) and resources (if you were a health services company).

Lastly, as is obvious, the earlier you can learn, the better you can plan. But generally, you need to trade-off between noise in prediction and headstart—things further away are harder to predict. The noise-headstart trade-off is something that should be done thoughtfully and amended based on data.

The Other Side

23 Oct

Samantha Laine Perfas of the Christian Science Monitor interviewed me about the gap between perceptions and reality for her podcast ‘perception gaps’ over a month ago. You can listen to the episode here (Episode 2).

The Monitor has also made the transcript of the podcast available here. Some excerpts:

“Differences need not be, and we don’t expect them to be, reasons why people dislike each other. We are all different from each other, right. …. Each person is unique, but we somehow seem to make a big fuss about certain differences and make less of a fuss about certain other differences.”

One way to fix it:

If you know so little and assume so much, … the answer is [to] simply stop doing that. Learn a little bit, assume a little less, and see where the conversation goes.

The interview is based on the following research:

  1. Partisan Composition (pdf) and Measuring Shares of Partisan Composition (pdf)
  2. Affect Not Ideology (pdf)
  3. Coming to Dislike (pdf)
  4. All in the Eye of the Beholder (pdf)

Related blog posts and think pieces:

  1. Party Time
  2. Pride and Prejudice
  3. Loss of Confidence
  4. How to read Ahler and Sood

Loss of Confidence

21 Oct

We all overestimate how much we know. If the aphorism, “the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know” is true, then how else could it be? But knowing more is not the only path to learning about our ignorance. Mistakes are another. When we make mistakes, we get to adjust our parameters (understanding) about how much we know. Overconfident people, however, incur smaller losses when they make mistakes. They don’t learn as much from mistakes because they externalize the source of errors or don’t acknowledge the mistakes, believing it is you who is wrong, not them. So, the most ignorant (the most confident) very likely make the least progress in learning about their ignorance when they make mistakes. (Ignorance is just one source of why people overestimate how much they know. There are many other factors, including personality.) But if you know this, you can fix it.

Canonical Insights

20 Oct

If the canonical insight of computer science is automating repetition, the canonical insight of data science is optimization. It isn’t that computer scientists haven’t thought about optimization. They have. But computer scientists weren’t the first to think about automation, just like economists weren’t the first to think that incentives matter. Automation is just the canonical, foundational, purpose of computer science.

Similarly, optimization is the canonical, foundational purpose of data science. Data science aims to provide the “optimal” action at time t conditional on what you know. And it aims to do that by learning from data optimally. For instance, if the aim is to separate apples from oranges, the aim of supervised learning is to give the best estimate of whether the fruit is an apple or an orange given data.

For certain kinds of problems, the optimal way to learn from data is not to exploit found data but to learn from new data collected in an optimal way. For instance, randomized inference also us to compare two arbitrary regimes. And say if you want to optimize persuasiveness, you need to continuously experiment with different pitches (the number of dimensions on which pitches can be generated can be a lot), some of which exploit human frailties (which vary by people) and some that will exploit the fact that people need to be pitched the relevant value and that relevant value differs across people.

Once you know the canonical insight of a discipline, it opens up all the problems that can be “solved” by it. It also tells you what kind of platform you need to build to make optimal decisions for that problem. For some tasks, the “platform” may be supervised learning. For other tasks, like ad persuasiveness, it may be a platform that combines supervised learning (for targeting) and experimentation (for optimizing the pitch).

Don’t Expose Yourself! Discretionary Exposure to Political Information

10 Oct

As the options have grown, so have the fears. Are the politically disinterested taking advantage of the nearly limitless options to opt out of news entirely? Are the politically interested siloing themselves into “echo chambers”? In an eponymous Oxford Research Encylopedia article, I discuss what we think we know, and some concerns about how we can know. Some key points:

  • Is the gap between how much the politically interested and politically disinterested know about politics increasing, as Post-broadcast Democracy posits? Figure 1 suggests not.

  • Quantity rather than ratio: “If the dependent variable is partisan affect, how ‘selective’ one is may not matter as much as the net imbalance in consumption—the difference between the number of congenial and uncongenial bits consumed…”

  • To measure how much political information a person is consuming, you must be able to distinguish political information from its complement. But what isn’t political information? “In this chapter, our focus is on consumption of varieties of political information. The genus is political information. And the species of this genus differ in congeniality, among other things. But what is political information? All information that influences people’s political attitudes or behaviors? If so, then limiting ourselves to news is likely too constraining. Popular television shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Narcos, and Law and Order have clear political themes. … Shows like Will and Grace and The Cosby Show may be less clearly political, but they also have a political subtext.” (see Figure 4) … “Even if we limit ourselves to news, the domain is still not clear. Is news about a bank robbery relevant political information? What about Hillary Clinton’s haircut? To the extent that each of these affect people’s attitudes, they are arguably pertinent. “

  • One of the challenges with inferring consumption based on domain level data is that domain level data are crude. Going to is not the same as reading political news. And measurement error may vary by the kind of person. For instance, say we label as political news. For the political junkie, the measurement error may be close to zero. For teetotalers, it may be close to 100% (see more).

  • Show people a few news headlines along with the news source (you can randomize the source). What can you learn from a few such ‘trials’? You cannot learn what proportion of news they get from a particular source. you can learn the preferences, but not reliably. More from the paper: “Given the problems with self-reports, survey instruments that rely on behavioral measures are plausibly better. … We coded congeniality trichotomously: congenial, neutral, or uncongenial. The correlations between trials are alarmingly low. The polychoric correlation between any two trials range between .06 to .20. And the correlation between choosing political news in any two trials is between -.01 and .05.”

  • Following up on the previous point: preference for a source which has a mean slant != preference for slanted news. “Current measures of [selective exposure] are beset with five broad problems. First is conceptual errors. For instance, people frequently equate preference for information from partisan sources with a preference for congenial information.”

Computing Optimal Cut-Offs

7 Oct

Probabilities from classification models can have two problems:

  1. Miscalibration: A p of .9 often doesn’t mean a 90% chance of 1 (assuming a dichotomous y). (You can calibrate it using isotonic regression.)

  2. Optimal cut-offs: For multi-class classifiers, we do not know what probability value will maximize the accuracy or F1 score. Or any metric for which you need to trade-off between FP and FN.

One way to solve #2 is to run the true labels (out of sample, otherwise there is concern about bias) and probabilities through a brute-force optimizer and gives you the optimal cut-off for the metric. Here’s the script for doing the same along with an illustration.

Online Learning With Biased Sampling

3 Oct

Say that you train a model to predict who will click on an ad. Say that you deploy the model to only show ads to people who are likely to click on them. (For a discussion about the optimal strategy for who to show ads to, see here.) And say you use the clicks from the people who see the ad to continue to tune the parameters. (This is a close approximation of a standard implementation of online learning in online advertising.)

In effect, once you launch the model, you only get data from a biased set of users. Such a sampling bias can be a problem when the data generating process (how the 1s and the 0s are generated) changes in a way such that changes above the threshold (among the kinds of people who we get data from) are uncorrelated with how it changes below the threshold (among the people who we do not get data from). The concerning aspect is that if this happens, the model continues to “work,” in that the accuracy can continue to be high even as recall (the proportion of people for whom the ad is relevant) becomes lower over time. There is only one surefire way to diagnose the issue and address it: continue to collect some data from people below the threshold and learn if the data generating process is changing.