After taking STAT 210A last semester (and writing way too much about it), it made sense for me to take STAT 210B, the continuation of Berkeley’s theoretical statistics course aimed at PhD students in statistics and related fields.

The Beginning

Our professor was Michael I. Jordan, who is colloquially called the “Michael Jordan of machine learning.” Indeed, how does one begin to describe his research? Yann LeCun, himself an extraordinarily prominent Deep Learning researcher and considered as one of the three leaders in the field1, said this2 in a public Facebook post:

Mike’s research direction tends to take radical turns every 5 years or so, from cognitive psychology, to neural nets, to motor control, to probabilistic approaches, graphical models, variational methods, Bayesian non-parametrics, etc. Mike is the “Miles Davis of Machine Learning”, who reinvents himself periodically and sometimes leaves fans scratching their heads after he changes direction.

And Professor Jordan responded with:

I am particularly fond of your “the Miles Davis of machine learning” phrase. (While “he’s the Michael Jordan of machine learning” is amusing—or so I’m told—your version actually gets at something real).

As one would expect, he’s extremely busy, and I think he had to miss four lectures for 210B. Part of the reason might be because, as he mentioned to us: “I wasn’t planning on teaching this course … but as chair of the statistics department, I assigned it to myself. I though it would be fun to teach.” The TAs were able to substitute, though it seemed like some of the students in the class decided to skip those lectures.

Just because him teaching 210B was somewhat “unplanned” doesn’t mean that it was easy — far from it! In the first minute of the first lecture, he said that 210B is the hardest course that the statistics department offers. Fortunately, he followed up with saying that the grading would be lenient, that he didn’t want to scare us, and so forth. Whew. We also had two TAs (or “GSIs” in Berkeley language) who we could ask for homework assistance.

Then we dived into the material. One of the first things we talked about was U-Statisics, a concept that can often trick me up because of my lack of intuition in internalizing expectations of expectations and how to rearrange related terms in clever ways. Fortunately, we had a homework assignment question about U-Statistics in 210A so I was able to follow some of the material. We also talked about the related Hájek projection.

Diving into High-Dimensional Statistics

We soon delved into to the meat of the course. I consider this to be the material in our textbook for the course, Professor Martin Wainwright’s recent book High-Dimensional Statistics: A Non-Asymptotic Viewpoint.

For those of you who don’t know, Professor Wainwright is a faculty member in the Berkeley statistics and EECS departments who won the 2014 COPSS “Nobel Prize in Statistics” award due to his work on high dimensional statistics. Here’s the transcript of his interview, where he says that serious machine learning students must know statistics. As a caveat, the students he’s referring to are the kind that populate the PhD programs in schools like Berkeley, so he’s talking about the best of the best. It’s true that basic undergraduate statistics courses are useful for a broad range of students — and I wish I had taken more when I was in college — but courses like 210B are not needed for all but a handful of students in specialized domains.

First, what is “high-dimensional” statistics? Suppose we have parameter \(\theta \in \mathbb{R}^d\) and \(n\) labeled data points \(\{(x_i,y_i)\}_{i=1}^n\) which we can use to estimate \(\theta\) via linear regression or some other procedure. In the classical setting, we can safely assume that \(n > d\), or that \(n\) is allowed to increase while the data dimension \(d\) is typically held fixed. This is not the case in high-dimensional (or “modern”) statistics where the relationship is reversed, with \(d > n\). Classical algorithms end up running into brick walls into these cases, so new theory is needed, which is precisely the main contribution of Wainwright’s research. It’s also the main focus of STAT 210B.

The most important material to know from Wainwright’s book is the stuff from the second chapter: sub-Gaussian random variables, sub-Exponential random variables, bounds from Lipschitz functions, and so on. We referenced back to this material all the time.

We then moved away from Wainwright’s book to talk about entropy, the Efron-Stein Inequality, and related topics. Professor Jordan criticized Professor Wainwright for not including the material in this book. I somewhat agree with him, but for a different reason: I found this material harder to follow compared to other class concepts, so it would have been nice to see Professor Wainwright’s interpretation of it.

Note to future students: get the book by Boucheron, Lugosi, and Massart, titled Concentration Inequalities: a Nonasymptotic Theory of Independence. I think that’s the book Professor Jordan was reviewing when he gave these non-Wainwright-related lectures, because he was using the same exact notation as in the book.

How did I know about the book, which amazingly, wasn’t even listed on the course website? Another student brought it to the class and I peeked over the student’s shoulder to see the title. Heh. I memorized the title and promptly ordered it online. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Professor Jordan then moved on to exclusively material from Professor Wainwright’s book.

If any future students want to buy off the Boucheron et al book from me, send me an email.

After a few lectures, it was a relief to me when we returned to material from Wainwright’s book, which included:

  • Rademacher and Gaussian Complexity (these concepts were briefly discussed in a Deep Learning paper I recently blogged about)
  • Metric entropy, coverings, and packings
  • Random matrices and high dimensional covariance matrix estimation
  • High dimensional, sparse linear models
  • Non-parametric least squares
  • Minimax lower bounds, a “Berkeley specialty” according to Professor Jordan

I obtained a decent understanding of how these concepts relate to each other. The concepts appear in many chapters outside the ones when they’re formally defined, because they can be useful as “sub-routines” or as part of technical lemmas for other problems.

Despite my occasional complaint about not understanding details in Wainwright’s book — which I’ll bring up later in this blog post — I think the book is above-average in terms of clarity, relative to other textbooks aimed at graduate students. There were often enough high-level discussions so that I could see the big picture. One thing that needs to be fixed, though, are the typos. Professor Jordan frequently pointed these out during lecture, and would also sometimes ask us to confirm his suspicions that something was a typo.

Regarding homework assignments, we had seven of them, each of which was about five or so problems with multiple parts per problem. I was usually able to correctly complete about half of each homework by myself. For the other half, I needed to consult the GSIs, other students, or perform extensive online research to assist me with the last parts. Some of the homework problems were clearly inspired by Professor Wainwright’s research papers, but I didn’t have much success translating from research paper to homework solution.

For me, some of the most challenging homework problems pertained to material that wasn’t in Wainwright’s textbook. In part this is because some of the problems in Wainwright’s book have a similar flavor to exercises in the main text of the book, which were often accompanied with solutions.

The Final Exam

In one of the final lectures of the class, Professor Jordan talked about the final exam — that it would cover a range of questions, that it would be difficult, and so forth — but then he also mentioned that he could complete it in an hour. (Final exams in Berkeley are in three-hour slots.) While he quickly added “I don’t mean to disparage you…”, unfortunately I found the original comment about completing the exam in an hour quite disparaging. I’m baffled by why professors say that; it seems to be a no-win solution for the students. Furthermore, no student is going to question a Berkeley professor’s intelligence; I certainly wouldn’t.

That comment aside, the final exam was scheduled to be Thursday at 8:00AM (!!) in the morning. I was hoping we could keep this time slot, since I am a morning person and if other students aren’t, then I have a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, Professor Jordan agreed with the majority in the class that he hated the time, so we had a poll and switched to Tuesday at 3:00PM. Darn. At least we know now that professors are often more lenient towards graduate students than undergrads.

On the day of the final exam, I felt something really wrenching. And it wasn’t something that had to do with the actual exam, though that of course was also “wrenching.” It was this:

It looked like my streak of having all professors know me on a first-name basis was about to be snapped.

For the last seven years at Williams and Berkeley, I’m pretty sure I managed to be known on a first-name basis to the professors from all of my courses. Yes, all of them. It’s easier to get to know professors at Williams, since the school is small and professors often make it a point to know the names of every student. At Berkeley it’s obviously different, but graduate-level courses tend to be better about one-on-one interaction with students/professors. In addition, I’m the kind of student who frequently attends office hours. On top of it all, due to my deafness, I get some form of visible accommodation, either captioning (CART providers) or sign language interpreting services.

Yes, I have a little bit of an unfair advantage in getting noticed by professors, but I was worried that my streak was about to be snapped. It wasn’t for lack of trying; I had indeed attended office hours once with Professor Jordan (who promptly criticized me for my lack of measure theory knowledge) and yes, he was obviously aware of the sign language interpreters I had, but as far as I can tell he didn’t really know me.

So here’s what happened just before we took the final. Since the exam was at a different time slot than the “official” one, Professor Jordan decided to take attendance.

My brain orchestrated an impressive mental groan. It’s a pain for me to figure out when I should raise my hand. I did not have a sign language interpreter present, because why? It’s a three hour exam and there wouldn’t be (well, there better not be!) any real discussion. I also have bad memories because one time during a high school track practice, I gambled and raised my hand when the team captains were taking attendance … only to figure out that the person being called at that time had “Rizzuto” as his last name. Oops.

Then I thought of something. Wait … why should I even raise my hand? If Professor Jordan knew me, then surely he would indicate to me in some way (e.g. by staring at me). Furthermore, if my presence was that important to the extent that my absence would cause a police search for me, then another student or TA should certainly point me out.

So … Professor Jordan took attendance. I kept turning around to see the students who raised their hand (I sat in the front of the class. Big surprise!). I grew anxious when I saw the raised hand of a student whose last name started with “R”. It was the moment of truth …

A few seconds later … Professor Jordan looked at me and checked something off on his paper — without consulting anyone else for assistance. I held my breath mentally, and when another student whose last name was after mine was called, I grinned.

My streak of having professors know me continues! Whew!

That personal scenario aside, let’s get back to the final exam. Or, maybe not. I probably can’t divulge too much about it, given that some of the material might be repeated in future iterations of the course. Let me just say two things regarding the exam:

  • Ooof. Ouch. Professor Jordan wasn’t kidding when he said that the final exam was going to be difficult. Not a single student finished early, though some were no doubt quadruple-checking their answers, right?
  • Professor Jordan wasn’t kidding when he said that the class would be graded leniently.

I don’t know what else there is to say.

I am Dying to Know

Well, STAT 210B is now over, and in retrospect I am really happy I took the course. Even though I know I won’t be doing research in this field, I’m glad that I got a taste of the research frontier in high-dimensional statistics and theoretical machine learning. I hope that understanding some of the math here can transfer to increased comprehension of technical material more directly relevant to my research.

Possibly more than anything else, STAT 210B made me really appreciate the enormous talent and ability that Professor Michael I. Jordan and Professor Martin Wainwright exhibit in math and statistics. I’m blown away at how fast they can process, learn, connect, and explain technically demanding material. And the fact that Professor Wainwright wrote the textbook solo, and that much of the material there comes straight from his own research papers (often co-authored with Professor Jordan!) surely attests to why those two men are award-winning statistics and machine learning professors.

It makes me wonder: what do I lack compared to them? I know that throughout my life, being deaf has put me at a handicap. But if Professor Jordan or Professor Wainwright and I were to sit side-by-side and each read the latest machine learning research paper, they would be able to process and understand the material far faster than I could. Reading a research paper theoretically means my disability shouldn’t be a strike on me.

So what is it that prevents me from being like those two?

I tried doing as much of the lecture reading as I could, and I truly understood a lot of the material. Unfortunately, many times I would get bogged down by some technical item which I couldn’t wrap my head around, or I would fail to fill in missing steps to argue why some “obvious” conclusion is true. Or I would miss some (obvious?) mathematical trick that I needed to apply, which was one of the motivating factors for me writing a lengthy blog post about these mathematical tricks.

Then again, after one of the GSIs grinned awkwardly at me when I complained to him during office hours about not understanding one of Professor Wainwright’s incessant “putting together the pieces” comment without any justification whatsoever … maybe even advanced students struggle from time to time? And Wainwright does have this to say in the first chapter of his book:

Probably the most subtle requirement is a certain degree of mathematical maturity on the part of the reader. This book is meant for the person who is interested in gaining a deep understanding of the core issues in high-dimensional statistics. As with anything worthwhile in life, doing so requires effort. This basic fact should be kept in mind while working through the proofs, examples and exercises in the book.

(I’m not sure if a “certain degree” is a good description, more like “VERY HIGH degree” wouldn’t you say?)

Again, I am dying to know:

What is the difference between me and Professor Jordan? For instance, when we each read Professor Wainwright’s textbook, why is he able to process and understand the information at a much faster rate? Does his brain simply work on a higher plane? Do I lack his intensity, drive, and/or focus? Am I inherently less talented?

I just don’t know.

Random Thoughts

Here are a few other random thoughts and comments I have about the course:

  • The course had recitations, which are once-a-week events when one of the TAs leads a class section to discuss certain class concepts in more detail. Attendance was optional, but since the recitations conflicted with one of my research lab meetings, I didn’t attend a single recitation. Thus, I don’t know what they were like. However, future students taking 210B should at least attend one section to see if such sessions would be beneficial.

  • Yes, I had sign language interpreting services, which are my usual class accommodations. Fortunately, I had a consistent group of two interpreters who attended almost every class. They were quite kind enough to bear through such technically demanding material, and I know that one of the interpreters was sick once, but came to work anyway since she knew that whoever would be substituting would be scarred to life from the class material. Thanks to both of you3, and I hope to continue working with you in the future!

  • To make things easier for my sign language interpreters, I showed up early to every class to arrange two seats for them. (In fact, beyond the first few weeks, I think I was the first student to show up to every class, since in addition to rearranging the chairs, I used the time to review the lecture material from Wainwright’s book.) Once the other students in the class got used to seeing the interpreters, they didn’t touch the two magical chairs.

  • We had a class Piazza. As usual, I posted way too many times there, but it was interesting to see that we had a lot more discussion compared to 210A.

  • The class consisted of mostly PhD students in statistics, mathematics, EECS, and mechanical engineering, but there were a few talented undergrads who joined the party.

Concluding Thoughts

I’d like to get back to that Facebook discussion between Yann LeCun and Michael I. Jordan in the beginning of his post. Professor Jordan’s final paragraph was a pleasure to read:

Anyway, I keep writing these overly-long posts, and I’ve got to learn to do better. Let me just make one additional remark, which is that I’m really proud to be a member of a research community, one that includes Yann Le Cun, Geoff Hinton and many others, where there isn’t just lip-service given to respecting others’ opinions, but where there is real respect and real friendship.

I found this pleasing to read because I often find myself thinking similar things. I too feel proud to be part of this field, even though I know I don’t have a fraction of the contributions of those guys. I feel privileged to be able to learn statistics and machine learning from Professor Jordan and all the other professors I’ve encountered in my education. My goal is to become a far better researcher than I am now so that I feel like I am giving back to the community. That’s indeed one of the reasons why I started this blog way back in August 2011 when I was hunched over a desk in the eighth floor of a dorm at the University of Washington. I wanted a blog in part so that I could discuss the work I’m doing and new concepts that I’ve learned, all while making it hopefully accessible to many readers.

The other amusing thing that Professor Jordan and I have in common is that we both write overly long posts, him on his Facebook, and me on my blog. It’s time to get back to research.

  1. The other two are Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio. Don’t get me started with Jürgen Schmidhuber, though he’s admittedly a clear fourth. 

  2. This came out of an interview that Professor Jordan had with IEEE back in 2014. However, it didn’t quite go as well as Professor Jordan wanted, and he criticized the title and hype (see the featured comments below at the article). 

  3. While I don’t advertise this blog to sign language interpreters, a few years ago one of them said that there had been “some discussion” of my blog among her social circle of interpreters. Interesting …