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On teaching kids to program

What is a good framework to teach kids programming? For several years, I and my son were playing with Scratch. We have been making a slow progress and finally reached a point of understanding basic concepts. Scratch is a great environment, which hides a lot of implementation details from you. You have a few basic graphic primitives (the stage and the sprites) and a bunch of functions to manipulate them. Coding is easy because you create scripts by drag-and-dropping basic programming primitives: loops, conditionals, etc... Overall, Scratch is a powerful framework that allows one to create simple games/programs quickly (implementation speed is important here!).

The Scratch paradigm is not exactly event-driven programming. Yet, it involves parallel processing. For example, if one sprite (a hero) bumps into another sprite (a villain), it is easy to detect and process this event. However, there will be one script that controls the behavior of the hero and another script that controls the behavior of the villain. There are "naturally" occurring events (e.g, one sprite touches another) and programmatically initiated messages (broadcasts).

If you want to start with Scratch, there is a good project book. Beware, though, that there seems to be bugs in the program descriptions: be prepared to debug and fix them.

One big problem with the Scratch is that it is all parallel. As many of you know full well, parallelism entails race conditions. This is truly bad news, because even full-grown bearded software programmers have troubles with race conditions. How can we expect kids to tackle them easily? This is why it may be easier to start with a (mostly) single-thread programming.

There is a good a review of platforms/languages that can be taught after or instead of the Scratch (via Greg Linden). One option it suggests is JavaScript. After pondering for a while, I think this option is best. JavaScript is not terribly hard, there are exceptional interactive tutorials, and it is a production language, which is used in Web-development.

The latter reason seems to be quite appealing. Teens like to do cool things. And what can be cooler than an interactive HTML page that you create yourself?

UPDATE: interestingly, it seems that we will be studying Python instead. In that, it seems that the Code Academy is a good place to start.

On an inconsistency in IBM Watson papers

A classic factoid question answering system is looking for facts about simple entities, such as names, locations, dates, etc... One common misconception is that such facts are always retrieved from a knowledge base. Perhaps, Google, which cares a lot about precision of its factoid answers, works exactly this way. However, for a less precise system aiming for a broader coverage, a direct answer lookup is not sufficient. Despite being very precise, the answer lookup can be used to answer only a handful of questions.

More commonly, factoids are extracted using a simple information retrieval-based algorithm. To this end, a question is superficially transformed and is subsequently fed as a query to an information retrieval engine. The result of such a query is a set of passages or documents which match the query well. Then, we extract entities (e.g., person or location names) from text snippets or document titles and finally rank them. One of the most useful ranking features is an answer type. For example, an answer to the question "What is the capital of the USA" is a location, so that we can ignore (or downweigh) entities that are not locations. Another common feature is a popularity (i.e., how often an entity appears in search results). The true answer tends to co-locate with query words, more frequently than unrelated entities.

The retrieval-based approach works pretty well, unless there is a substantial mismatch between question words and words that appear in the text. Query reformulation and expansion may sometime help to overcome the vocabulary mismatch. Yet, this is not always possible, because adding synonyms improves recall at the expense of precision. Consider the following Jeopardy! question: "Unlike most sea animals, in the Sea Horse this pair of sense organs can move independently of one another" (answer eyes). As argued in the paper "Finding needles in the haystack: Search and candidate generation", it is quite hard to find an answer using standard retrieval techniques, because the question mentions an obscure fact. In that, it is much easier to lift the veil of obscurity by checking knowledge base entries related to "sense organs". The IBM Watson creators call this type of search as the PRISMATIC search (named after the knowledge base PRISMATIC).

Further, they say that the PRISMATIC search is both precise and has a good coverage:
"On a test set of 3,508 Jeopardy! questions, the PRISMATIC candidate generator produces answers for 42.6% of them (1,495 questions). ... In addition, the PRISMATIC candidate generator produces far fewer wrong candidate answers than other candidate generation techniques. On average, 1 out of 57 PRISMATIC candidates is the correct answer to a given question, compared with 1 out of 134 candidates from the rest of the candidate generation pipeline."

One may interpret the previous statement as follows: The binary recall of this answer-generation technique is close to 50%. That is, for roughly half of the questions, the PRISMATIC search generates a short list of answers, one of which is the correct one! If this were true, it would have been great news for all QA folks. However, in another paper "Finding needles in the haystack: Search and candidate generation" creators of Watson present a more systematic evaluation of the PRISMATIC search. They find that a related binary recall (see Table 1) is only 8%. In other words, this strategy is potentially useful only for about one question out of ten.

It is a bit unclear as to how reconcile both statements. One good suggestion came from Petr Baudis. Petr proposed the following explanation: When authors say that the PRISMATIC candidate generator produces answers for 42.6% of all questions, this does not necessarily mean "42.6% of questions for which we get at least one correct answer on the candidate list". It may simply mean that in 42.6% of all cases, the PRISMATIC produces some answers, but, as we learn from another paper, they are mostly incorrect. The binary recall of 8% is still substantially better than the binary recall of the answer lookup (which is 3.5%, see Table 1), but much lower than that of the retrieval-based approach (which is almost 80%).

To conclude, the PRISMATIC search appears to be a good complementary strategy that fits somewhere between the classic retrieval-based approach and the exact answer lookup. Yet, it is not a replacement for the classic information retrieval-based approach.

What is a non-metric space library?

A Non-Metric Space Library (NMSLIB) is an ongoing effort to build an effective toolkit for searching in generic metric and non-metric spaces. It originated as a personal project of my co-author Bileg (Bilegsaikhan Naidan), who is also a major contributor. In the spring of 2013, we needed to evaluate similarity search methods for non-metric spaces. Yet, no good software suite was available (nor was there a collection of benchmarks). This is why we created one by expanding Bileg's codebase and making it public.

There are important contributions from other people as well. In particular, I would like to mention Yury Malkov and David Novak. Yury has contributed a blazingly fast variant of the proximity/neighborhood graph . David has proposed a way to greatly improve the quality of pivot-based projections for sparse vector spaces.

We presented our main experimental results at NIPS'13 & VLDB'15 and our engineering work at SISAP'13. Some of the experimental results are available in our VLDB'15 report. We also participated in a public evaluation, codenamed ann-benchmarks in 2015 and 2016. Both times our graph-based implementations were quite competitive against state-of-the-art methods designed specifically for the Euclidean and the angular distance: random-projection KD-trees (FLANN and Annoy) and LSH (MIT's FALCONN). Please, check our May 2016 results in the end of the post. It may very well be new state-of-the-art in kNN search.

While our methods are fast in the well-studied Euclidean space equipped with scalar product, they also generalize well to non-Euclidean, non-metric, and non-vector spaces. For example, check our VLDB'15 evaluation. Fast search times often come at the expense of longer indexing times. From this perspective, LSH and random projection methods do outperform NMSLIB. However, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. For example, it may be possible to rely on recent major advances in LSH (the efficient FALCONN library) to build proximity graphs in the Euclidean space faster.

From the engineering perspective, our implementation is mature. Nearly all methods can run in a multi-threaded mode. We have Python bindings and a multi-threaded query server. In particular, there is a native Java client. In general, we steadily drift in the direction of a production-friendly library. However, our main focus is on the ease of experimentation and comparison to the existing baselines. Here, our work is far from being finished. In particular we now attempt to apply our toolkit to NLP problems. I summarized some thoughts on this topic in a talk at ML lunch. Currently, we work on replacing a term-based retrieval in the ad hoc search task. Some preliminary results will appear in Leo's thesis proposal.

When average precision is equal to recall

In certain situations, an average precision is equal to recall. Proving that this is the case and finding ways to deal with this issue can be a good problem for an IR course homework and might help students to grok the notion of the average precision. This problem was inspired by the real research paper where authors used the mean average precision without realizing it was equal to recall.

Imagine that a nearest-neighbor search should retrieve 10 images most similar to a query image. The search is typically not ideal and some found images would be quite different from the query image. If we make humans judge retrieved results, it can be possible to evaluate search effectiveness via the (mean) average precision. If human judgments are not available, one may decide to use a proxy metric: An image is relevant if it is a true nearest neighbor, i.e., it is one of the 10 most closest images with respect to the values of the distance function. An exact search method always returns the true 10 nearest neighbors, but an approximate method may fail to do so. A degree of "sloppiness" can be estimated using the average precision, right?

I think that this wrong and here is why. In this formulation, a retrieved image is relevant when a distance from this image to the query object does not exceed the distance from the query image to the 10-th true nearest neighbor. Furthermore, all returned objects are normally sorted in the order of increasing distance from the query. Consequently, there will be $R\le10$ objects with distances not exceeding the distance to the 10-th nearest neighbor. And these images will clearly be considered "relevant". The following $10-R$ images will have distances larger than the distance to the 10-th nearest image and, thus, they will not be considered relevant.

It is not hard to see that in this case the average precision is equal to $R/10$ (by the definition of the average precision, P@N is one if $N \le R$ and is zero otherwise). However, the recall (the fraction of true nearest neighbors returned) is also $R/10$.
A good homework problem can ask the following:

1) To prove the equality of the average precision and the recall;
2) To describe ways of dealing with this issue, i.e., can we still use the average precision (after some fixes)? If not, what else can be used?

The second question is clearly open-ended, because (in addition to introducing real human judgments) multiple solutions are possible, which include but are not limited to using a rank approximation error.

Update/Addition: The situation is different if distances are computed only approximately, i..e, if the order of returned neighbors is not necessarily correct. For example, if we retrieve 5 nearest neighbors out of 10 and rank them as 1st, 2d, 4th, ..., 10th. In this case, computing precision makes a lot of sense.

Neat code to compare floating-point numbers

Floating point arithmetic is not exact and not even deterministic. Not only results may be different across platforms and compilers, but in a non-strict (but fast) mode an outcome of the same operation may depend on the invocation context. If you use an aggressively optimizing compiler (such as Intel), it is silly to assume that same function arguments will always produce same results. The outcomes will be the same in many cases, but the results might also fluctuate by a few units in the last place (ULP). Code written with the assumption that results are always the same (i.e., assuming that floating point arithmetic is always consistent) may contain bugs that are hard to reproduce and fix.

To avoid such bugs, we may need to compare floating points numbers approximate rather than exactly. So, how do we do this? It is apparently easy to come up with a simple comparison code that works in most cases, but likely to fail in some rare cases. After some googling, I found a neat implementation of the Bruce Dawson algorithm from "Comparing Floating Point Numbers". The implementation was buried in the Google C++ Test Framework (authors Zhanyong Wan and Sean Mcafee). Thanks to Fred Richards, it was extracted and repackaged (see Fred's blog entry for a detailed description of the algorithm).

Fred's version was a bit inflexible and included only the hard coded threshold value (for numbers to to be considered the same). Thus, I had slightly modified the code to accept a threshold value as an argument of the comparing function. In addition, I made the ULP_diff function publicly available and improved the testing example. If you need a code to compare floating point numbers approximately, you can grab it from my repository.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Boost does have the code with similar functionality. Yet, I was looking for the code without Boost dependencies.


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