• Posted by Konstantin 02.01.2024 No Comments

    This article has been cross-posted to Hackster.

    What is the best way to learn (or teach) introductory robotics? What could be the "hello world" project in this field, that would be simple for a beginner to get started with, complex enough to be exciting and qualify as a "robot", and deep enough to allow further creative extensions and experiments? Let us try solving this problem logically, step by step!

    First things first: what is a "robot"?

    Axiom number one: for anything to feel like a robot, it must have some moving parts. Ideally, it could have the freedom move around, and probably the easiest way to achieve that would be to equip it with two wheels. Could concepts other than a two-wheeler qualify as the simplest robot? Perhaps, but let us proceed with this one as a reasonably justified assumption.

    The wheels

    To drive the two upcoming wheels we will need two motors along with all that driver circuitry, ugh! But wait, what about those small continuous rotation servos! They are simple, cheap, and you just need to wire them to a single microcontroller pin. Some of them are even conveniently sold along with with a LEGO-style wheel!

    The microcontroller

    Rule number two: it is not a real robot, unless it has a programmable brain, like a microcontroller. But which microcontroller is the best for a beginner in year 2024? Some fifteen years ago the answer would certainly have the "Arduino" keyword in it. Nowadays, I'd say, the magic keyword is "CircuitPython". Programming just cannot get any simpler than plugging it into your computer and editing code.py on the newly appeared external drive. No need for "compiling", "flashing" or any of the "install these serial port drivers to fix obscure error messages" user experiences (especially valuable if you need to give a workshop at a school computer class). Moreover, the code to control a wheel looks as straightforward as motor.throttle = 0.5.

    OK, CircuitPython it is, but what specific CircuitPython-compatible microcontroller should we choose? We need something cheap and well-supported by the manufacturer and the community. The Raspberry Pi Pico would be a great match due to its popularity, price and feature set, except it is a bit too bulky (as will become clear below). Check out the Seeedstudio Xiao Series instead. The Xiao RP2040 is built upon the same chip as the Raspberry Pi Pico, is just as cheap, but has a more compact size. Interestingly, as there is a whole series of pin-compatible boards with the same shape, we can later try other models if we do not like this one. Moreover, we are not even locked into a single vendor, as the QT Py series from Adafruit is also sharing the same form factor. How cool is that? (I secretly hope this particular footprint would get more adoption by other manufacturers).

    The body

    OK, cool. We have our wheels and a microcontroller to steer them. We now need to build the body for our robot and wire things together somehow. What would be the simplest way to achieve that?

    Let us start with the wiring, as here we know an obviously correct answer - a breadboard. No simpler manual wiring technology has been invented so far, right? Which breadboard model and shape should we pick? This will depend on how we decide to build the frame for our robot, so let us put this question aside for a moment.

    How do we build the frame? The options seem infinite: we can design it in a CAD tool and laser cut it from acrylic sheets, print on a 3D printer, use some profile rails, wooden blocks, LEGO bricks,... just ask Google for some inspiration:

    Ugh, this starts to feel too complicated and possibly inaccessible to a normal schoolkid.... But wait, what is it there on the back of our breadboard? Is it sticky tape? Could we just... stick... our motors to it directly and use the breadboard itself as the frame?

    If we now try out a few breadboard models, we will quickly discover that the widespread, "mini-sized", 170-pin breadboard has the perfect size to host our two servos:

    By an extra lucky coincindence, the breadboard even has screw holes in the right places to properly attach the motors! If we now hot glue the servo connectors to the side as shown above, we can wire them comfortably, just as any other components on the breadboard itself. Finally, there is just enough space in the back to pack all the servo wires and stick a 3xAAA battery box, which happens to be enough to power both our servos and the Xiao RP2040:

    This picture shows the FS90R servos. These work just as well as the GeekServo ones shown in in the picture above.

    ... and thus, the BreadboardBot is born! Could a breadboard with two motors and a battery stuck to its back qualify as the simplest, lowest-tech ever robot platform? I think it could. Note that the total cost of this whole build, including the microcontroller is under $20 (under $15 if you order at the right discounts from the right places).

    But what can it do?

    Line following

    Rule number 3: it is not a real robot if it is not able to sense the environment and react to it somehow. Hence, we need some sensors, preferably ones that would help us steer the robot (wheels are our only "actuators" so far). What are the simplest steering techniques in introductory robotics? I'd say line following and obstacle avoidance!

    Let us do line following first then. Oh, but how do we attach the line tracking sensors, we should have built some complicated frame after all, right? Nope, by a yet another happy design coincidence, we can just plug them right here into our breadboard:

    Thanks to the magic of CircuitPython, all it takes now to teach our robot to (even if crudely) follow a line is just three lines of code (boilerplate definitions excluded):

    while True:
      servo_left.throttle = 0.1 * line_left.value
      servo_right.throttle = -0.1 * line_right.value

    Obstacle avoidance

    OK, a line follower implemented with a three-line algorithm is cool, can we do anything else? Sure, look how conveniently the ultrasonic distance sensor fits onto our breadboard:

    Add a few more lines of uncomplicated Python code and you get a shy robot that can follow a line but will also happily go roaming around your room, steering away from any walls or obstacles:

    Note how you can hear the sonar working in the video (not normally audible).

    ... and more

    There is still enough space on the breadboard to add a button and a buzzer:

    .. or splash some color with a Xiao RGB matrix:

    .. or plug in an OLED screen to give your BreadboardBot a funny animated face:
    The one on the image above also had the DHT11 sensor plugged into it, so it shows humidity and temperature while it is doing its line following. Why? Because it can!

    Tired of programming and just want a remote-controllable toy? Sure, plug in a HC06 bluetooth serial module, program one last time, and go steer the robot yourself with a smartphone:

    Other microcontroller boards, BLE, Wifi and FPV

    Xiao RP2040 is great, but it has no built-in wireless connectivity! Plug in its ESP32-based cousin Xiao ESP32S3 and you can steer your robot with a Bluetooth gamepad, or via Wifi, by opening a webpage served by the robot itself!
    If you have the Xiao ESP32S3 Sense (the version with a microphone and camera), that webpage can even show you the live first-person view feed of the robot's camera (conveniently positioned to look forward):

    In case you were wondering, the resulting FPV bot is not a very practical solution for spying on your friends, as the microcontroller heats up a lot and consumes the battery way too fast, but it is still a fun toy and an educational project.

    Finally, although the Xiao boards fit quite well with all other gadgets on the mini breadboard you are not limited by that choice either and can try plugging in any other appropriately-sized microcontroller board. Here is, for example, a BreadboardBot with an M5Stack Atom Lite running a line-follower program implemented as an ESPHome config (which you can flash over the air!).


    The examples above are just the tip of the iceberg. Have any other sensors lying around from those "getting started with Arduino" kits that you did not find sufficiently exciting uses for so far? Maybe plugging them into the BreadboardBot is the chance to shine they were waiting for all this time! Teaching the robot to recognize familiar faces and follow them? Solving a maze? Following voice commands? Self-balancing? Programming coordinated movement of multiple robots? Interfacing the robot with your smart home or one of these fancy AI chatbots? Organizing competitions among multiple BreadboardBots? Vacuuming your desk? The sky (and your free time) is the limit here!

    Consider making one and spreading the joy of breadboard robotics!

    Detailed build instructions along with wiring diagrams and example code are available on the project's Github page. Contributions are warmly welcome!

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  • Posted by Konstantin 21.10.2019 No Comments

    Can't help sharing this lovely example, illustrating the way Python interns small integers, the lower level use of the id function as well as the power of the ctypes module.

    import ctypes
    def deref(addr, type_):
        return ctypes.cast(addr, ctypes.POINTER(type_))
    deref(id(29), ctypes.c_int)[4] = 100
    > 29
    > 29*100
    > 25+4

    Note that depending on the version of Python the value of the integer may be stored at either offset [4] or [6].

    Tags: , , , ,

  • Posted by Konstantin 29.11.2018 4 Comments

    By popular suggestion this text was cross-posted to Medium.

    Suppose you are starting a new data science project (which could either be a short analysis of one dataset, or a complex multi-year collaboration). How should your organize your workflow? Where do you put your data and code? What tools do you use and why? In general, what should you think about before diving head first into your data? In the software engineering industry such questions have some commonly known answers. Although every software company might have its unique traits and quirks, the core processes in most of them are based on the same established principles, practices and tools. These principles are described in textbooks and taught in universities.

    Data science is a less mature industry, and things are different. Although you can find a variety of template projects, articles, blogpostsdiscussions, or specialized platforms (open-source [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10], commercial [11,12,13,14,15,16,17] and in-house [18,19,20]) to help you organize various parts of your workflow, there is no textbook yet to provide universally accepted answers. Every data scientist eventually develops their personal preferences, mostly learned from experience and mistakes. I am no exception. Over time I have developed my understanding of what is a typical "data science project", how it should be structured, what tools to use, and what should be taken into account. I would like to share my vision in this post.

    The workflow

    Although data science projects can range widely in terms of their aims, scale, and technologies used, at a certain level of abstraction most of them could be implemented as the following workflow:

    Data science project workflow

    Colored boxes denote the key processes while icons are the respective inputs and outputs. Depending on the project, the focus may be on one process or another. Some of them may be rather complex while others trivial or missing. For example, scientific data analysis projects would often lack the "Deployment" and "Monitoring" components. Let us now consider each step one by one.

    Source data access

    Whether you are working on the human genome or playing with iris.csv, you typically have some notion of "raw source data" you start your project with. It may be a directory of *.csv files, a table in an SQL server or a HDFS cluster. The data may be fixed, constantly changing, automatically generated or streamed. It could be stored locally or in the cloud. In any case, your first step is to define access to the source data. Here are some examples of how this may look like:

    • Your source data is provided as a set of *.csv files. You follow the cookiecutter-data-science approach, make a data/raw subdirectory in your project's root folder, and put all the files there. You create the docs/data.rst file, where you describe the meaning of your source data. (Note: Cookiecutter-DataScience template actually recommends references/ as the place for data dictionaries, while I pesonally prefer docs. Not that it matters much).
    • Your source data is provided as a set of *.csv files. You set up an SQL server, create a schema named raw and import all your CSV files as separate tables. You create the docs/data.rst file, where you describe the meaning of your source data as well as the location and access procedures for the SQL server.
    • Your source data is a messy collection of genome sequence files, patient records, Excel files and Word documents, which may later grow in unpredicted ways. In addition, you know that you will need to query several external websites to receive extra information. You create an SQL database server in the cloud and import most of the tables from Excel files there. You create the data/raw directory in your project, put all the huge genome sequence files into the dna subdirectory. Some of the Excel files were too dirty to be imported into a database table, so you store them in data/raw/unprocessed directory along with the Word files. You create an Amazon S3 bucket and push your whole data/raw directory there using DVC. You create a Python package for querying the external websites. You create the docs/data.rst file, where you specify the location of the SQL server, the S3 bucket, the external websites, describe how to use DVC to download the data from S3 and the Python package to query the websites. You also describe, to the best of your understanding, the meaning and contents of all the Excel and Word files as well as the procedures to be taken when new data is added.
    • Your source data consists of constantly updated website logs. You set up the ELK stack and configure the website to stream all the new logs there. You create docs/data.rst, where you describe the contents of the log records as well as the information needed to access and configure the ELK stack.
    • Your source data consists of 100'000 colored images of size 128x128. You put all the images together into a single tensor of size 100'000 x 128 x 128 x 3 and save it in an HDF5 file images.h5. You create a Quilt data package and push it to your private Quilt repository. You create the docs/data.rst file, where you describe that in order to use the data it must first be pulled into the workspace via quilt install mypkg/images and then imported in code via from quilt.data.mypkg import images.
    • Your source data is a simulated dataset. You implement the dataset generation as a Python class and document its use in a README.txt file.

    In general, remember the following rules of thumb when setting up the source data:

    1. Whenever you can meaningfully store your source data in a conveniently queryable/indexable form (an SQL database, the ELK stack, an HDF5 file or a raster database), you should do it. Even if your source data is a single csv and you are reluctant to set up a server, do yourself a favor and import it into an SQLite file, for example. If your data is nice and clean, it can be as simple as:
      import sqlalchemy as sa
      import pandas as pd
      e = sa.create_engine("sqlite:///raw_data.sqlite")
      pd.read_csv("raw_data.csv").to_sql("raw_data", e)
    2. If you work in a team, make sure the data is easy to share. Use an NFS partition, an S3 bucket, a Git-LFS repository, a Quilt package, etc.
    3. Make sure your source data is always read-only and you have a backup copy.
    4. Take your time to document the meaning of all of your data as well as its location and access procedures.
    5. In general, take this step very seriously. Any mistake you make here, be it an invalid source file, a misunderstood feature name, or a misconfigured server may waste you a lot of time and effort down the road.

    Data processing

    The aim of the data processing step is to turn the source data into a "clean" form, suitable for use in the following modeling stage. This "clean" form is, in most cases, a table of features, hence the gist of "data processing" often boils down to various forms of feature engineering. The core requirements here are to ensure that the feature engineering logic is maintainable, the target datasets are reproducible and, sometimes, that the whole pipeline is traceable to the source representations (otherwise you would not be able to deploy the model). All these requirements can be satisfied, if the processing is organized in an explicitly described computation graph. There are different possibilities for implementing this graph, however. Here are some examples:

    • You follow the cookiecutter-data-science route and use Makefiles to describe the computation graph. Each step is implemented in a script, which takes some data file as input and produces a new data file as output, which you store in the data/interim or data/processed subdirectories of your project. You enjoy easy parallel computation via make -j <njobs>.
    • You rely on DVC rather than Makefiles to describe and execute the computation graph. The overall procedure is largely similar to the solution above, but you get some extra convenience features, such as easy sharing of the resulting files.
    • You use LuigiAirflow or any other dedicated workflow management system instead of Makefiles to describe and execute the computation graph. Among other things this would typically let you observe the progress of your computations on a fancy web-based dashboard, integrate with a computing cluster's job queue, or provide some other tool-specific benefits.
    • All of your source data is stored in an SQL database as a set of tables. You implement all of the feature extraction logic in terms of SQL views. In addition, you use SQL views to describe the samples of objects. You can then use these feature- and sample-views to create the final modeling datasets using auto-generated queries like
         v3.Purchase as Target
      from vw_TrainSample s
      left join vw_BehaviourFeatures v1 on v1.Key = s.Key
      left join vw_ProfileFeatures v2 on v2.Key = s.Key
      left join vw_TargetFeatures v3 on v3.Key = s.Key

      This particular approach is extremely versatile, so let me expand on it a bit. Firstly, it lets you keep track of all the currently defined features easily without having to store them in huge data tables - the feature definitions are only kept as code until you actually query them. Secondly, the deployment of models to production becomes rather straightforward - assuming the live database uses the same schema, you only need to copy the respective views. Moreover, you may even compile all the feature definitions into a single query along with the final model prediction computation using a sequence of CTE statements:

      with _BehaviourFeatures as (
       ... inline the view definition ...
      _ProfileFeatures as (
       ... inline the view definition ...
      _ModelInputs as (
       ... concatenate the feature columns ...
           1/(1.0 + exp(-1.2 + 2.1*Feature1 - 0.2*Feature3)) as Prob
      from _ModelInputs

      This technique has been implemented in one in-house data science workbench tool of my design (not publicly available so far, unfortunately) and provides a very streamlined workflow.

      Example of an SQL-based feature engineering pipeline

      Example of an SQL-based feature engineering pipeline

    No matter which way you choose, keep these points in mind:

    1. Always organize the processing in the form of a computation graph and keep reproducibility in mind.
    2. This is the place where you have to think about the compute infrastructure you may need. Do you plan to run long computations? Do you need to parallelize or rent a cluster? Would you benefit from a job queue with a management UI for tracking task execution?
    3. If you plan to deploy the models into production later on, make sure your system will support this use case out of the box. For example, if you are developing a model to be included in a Java Android app, yet you prefer to do your data science in Python, one possibility for avoiding a lot of hassle down the road would be to express all of your data processing in a specially designed DSL rather than free-from Python. This DSL may then be translated into Java or an intermediate format like PMML.
    4. Consider storing some metadata about your designed features or interim computations. This does not have to be complicated - you can save each feature column to a separate file, for example, or use Python function annotations to annotate each feature-generating function with a list of its outputs. If your project is long and involves several people designing features, having such a registry may end up quite useful.


    Once you have done cleaning your data, selecting appropriate samples and engineering useful features, you enter the realm of modeling. In some projects all of the modeling boils down to a single m.fit(X,y) command or a click of a button. In others it may involve weeks of iterations and experiments. Often you would start with modeling way back in the "feature engineering" stage, when you decide that outputs of one model make for great features themselves, so the actual boundary between this step and the previous one is vague. Both steps should be reproducible and must make part of your computation graph. Both revolve around computing, sometimes involving job queues or clusters. None the less, it still makes sense to consider the modeling step separately, because it tends to have a special need: experiment management. As before, let me explain what I mean by example.

    • You are training models for classifying Irises in the iris.csv dataset. You need to try out ten or so standard sklearn models, applying each with a number of different parameter values and testing different subsets of your handcrafted features. You do not have a proper computation graph or computing infrastructure set up - you just work in a single Jupyter notebook. You make sure, however, that the results of all training runs are saved in separate pickle files, which you can later analyze to select the best model.
    • You are designing a neural-network-based model for image classification. You use ModelDB (or an alternative experiment management tool, such as TensorBoard, Sacred, FGLab, Hyperdash, FloydHub, Comet.ML, DatMo, MLFlow, ...) to record the learning curves and the results of all the experiments in order to choose the best one later on.
    • You implement your whole pipeline using Makefiles (or DVC, or a workflow engine). Model training is just one of the steps in the computation graph, which outputs a model-<id>.pkl file, appends the model final AUC score to a CSV file and creates a model-<id>.html report, with a bunch of useful model performance charts for later evaluation.
    • This is how experiment management / model versioning looks in the UI of the custom workbench mentioned above:

      Experiment management

      Experiment management

    The takeaway message: decide on how you plan to manage fitting multiple models with different hyperparameters and then selecting the best result. You do not have to rely on complex tools - sometimes even a manually updated Excel sheet works well, when used consistently. If you plan lengthy neural network trainings, however, do consider using a web-based dashboard. All the cool kids do it.

    Model deployment

    Unless your project is purely exploratory, chances are you will need to deploy your final model to production. Depending on the circumstances this can turn out to be a rather painful step, but careful planning will alleviate the pain. Here are some examples:

    • Your modeling pipeline spits out a pickle file with the trained model. All of your data access and feature engineering code was implemented as a set of Python functions. You need to deploy your model into a Python application. You create a Python package which includes the necessary function and the model pickle file as a file resource inside. You remember to test your code. The deployment procedure is a simple package installation followed by a run of integration tests.
    • Your pipeline spits out a pickle file with the trained model. To deploy the model you create a REST service using Flask, package it as a docker container and serve via your company's Kubernetes cloud. Alternatively, you upload the saved model to an S3 bucket and serve it via Amazon Lambda. You make sure your deployment is tested.
    • Your training pipeline produces a TensorFlow model. You use Tensorflow Serving (or any of the alternatives) to serve it as a REST service. You do not forget to create tests and run them every time you update the model.
    • Your pipeline produces a PMML file. Your Java application can read it using the JPMML library. You make sure that your PMML exporter includes model validation tests in the PMML file.
    • Your pipeline saves the model and the description of the preprocessing steps in a custom JSON format. To deploy it into your C# application you have developed a dedicated component which knows how to load and execute these JSON-encoded models. You make sure you have 100% test coverage of your model export code in Python, the model import code in C# and predictions of each new model you deploy.
    • Your pipeline compiles the model into an SQL query using SKompiler. You hard-code this query into your application. You remember about testing.
    • You train your models via a paid service, which also offers a way to publish them as REST (e.g. Azure ML Studio, YHat ScienceOps). You pay a lot of money, but you still test the deployment.

    Summarizing this:

    1. There are many ways how a model can be deployed. Make sure you understand your circumstances and plan ahead. Will you need to deploy the model into a codebase written in a different language than the one you use to train it? If you decide to serve it via REST, what load does the service expect, should it be capable of predicting in batches? If you plan to buy a service, estimate how much it will cost you. If you decide to use PMML, make sure it can support your expected preprocessing logic and that fancy Random Forest implementation you plan to use. If you used third party data sources during training, think whether you will need to integrate with them in production and how will you encode this access information in the model exported from your pipeline.
    2. As soon as you deploy your model to production, it turns from an artefact of data science to actual code, and should therefore be subject to all the requirements of application code. This means testing. Ideally, your deployment pipeline should produce both the model package for deployment as well as everything needed to test this model (e.g. sample data). It is not uncommon for the model to stop working correctly after being transferred from its birthplace to a production environment. It may be be a bug in the export code, a mismatch in the version of pickle, a wrong input conversion in the REST call. Unless you explicitly test the predictions of the deployed model for correctness, you risk running an invalid model without even knowing it. Everything would look fine, as it will keep predicting some values, just the wrong ones.

    Model monitoring

    Your data science project does not end when you deploy the model to production. The heat is still on. Maybe the distribution of inputs in your training set differs from the real life. Maybe this distribution drifts slowly and the model needs to be retrained or recalibrated. Maybe the system does not work as you expected it to. Maybe you are into A-B testing. In any case you should set up the infrastructure to continuously collect data about model performance and monitor it. This typically means setting up a visualization dashboard, hence the primary example would be the following:

    • For every request to your model you save the inputs and the model's outputs to logstash or a database table (making sure you stay GDPR-compliant somehow). You set up Metabase (or Tableau, MyDBR, Grafanaetc) and create reports which visualize the performance and calibration metrics of your model.

    Exploration and reporting

    Throughout the life of the data science project you will constantly have to sidestep from the main modeling pipeline in order to explore the data, try out various hypotheses, produce charts or reports. These tasks differ from the main pipeline in two important aspects.

    Firstly, most of them do not have to be reproducible. That is, you do not absolutely need to include them in the computation graph as you would with your data preprocessing and model fitting logic. You should always try to stick to reproducibility, of course - it is great when you have all the code to regenerate a given report from raw data, but there would still be many cases where this hassle is unnecessary. Sometimes making some plots manually in Jupyter and pasting them into a Powerpoint presentation serves the purpose just fine, no need to overengineer.

    The second, actually problematic particularity of these "Exploration" tasks is that they tend to be somewhat disorganized and unpredictable. One day you might need to analyze a curious outlier in the performance monitoring logs. Next day you want to test a new algorithm, etc. If you do not decide on a suitable folder structure, soon your project directory will be filled with notebooks with weird names, and no one in the team would understand what is what. Over the years I have only found one more or less working solution to this problem: ordering subprojects by date. Namely:

    • You create a projects directory in your project folder. You agree that each "exploratory" project must create a folder named projects/YYYY-MM-DD - Subproject title, where YYYY-MM-DD is the date when the subproject was initiated. After a year of work your projects folder looks as follows:
      ./2017-01-19 - Training prototype/
                      (README, unsorted files)
      ./2017-01-25 - Planning slides/
                      (README, slides, images, notebook)
      ./2017-02-03 - LTV estimates/
                         (another set of 
                          date-ordered subfolders)
      ./2017-02-10 - Cleanup script/
      ./... 50 folders more ...

      Note that you are free to organize the internals of each subproject as you deem necessary.  In particular, it may even be a "data science project" in itself, with its own raw/processed data subfolders, its own Makefile-based computation graph, as well as own subprojects (which I would tend to name tasks in this case). In any case, always document each subproject (have a README file at the very least). Sometimes it helps to also have a root projects/README.txt file, which briefly lists the meaning of each subproject directory.

      Eventually you may discover that the project list becomes too long, and decide to reorganize the projects directory. You compress some of them and move to an archive folder. You regroup some related projects and move them to the tasks subdirectory of some parent project.

    Exploration tasks come in two flavors. Some tasks are truly one-shot analyses, which can be solved using a Jupyter notebook that will never be executed again. Others aim to produce reusable code (not to be confused with reproducible outputs). I find it important to establish some conventions for how the reusable code should be kept. For example, the convention may be to have a file named script.py in the subproject's root which outputs an argparse-based help message when executed. Or you may decide to require providing a run function, configured as a Celery task, so it can easily be submitted to the job queue. Or it could be something else - anything is fine, as long as it is consistent.

    The service checklist

    There is an other, orthogonal perspective on the data science workflow, which I find useful. Namely, rather than speaking about it in terms of a pipeline of processes, we may instead discuss the key services that data science projects typically rely upon. This way you may describe your particular (or desired) setup by specifying how exactly should each of the following 9 key services be provided:

    Data science services

    Data science services

    1. File storage. Your project must have a home. Often this home must be shared by the team. Is it a folder on a network drive? Is it a working folder of a Git repository? How do you organize its contents?
    2. Data services. How do you store and access your data? "Data" here includes your source data, intermediate results, access to third-party datasets, metadata, models and reports - essentially everything which is read by or written by a computer. Yes, keeping a bunch of HDF5 files is also an example of a "data service".
    3. Versioning. Code, data, models, reports and documentation - everything should be kept under some form of version control. Git for code? Quilt for data? DVC for models? Dropbox for reports? Wiki for documentation? Once we're at it, do not forget to set up regular back ups for everything.
    4. Metadata and documentation. How do you document your project or subprojects? Do you maintain any machine-readable metadata about your features, scripts, datasets or models?
    5. Interactive computing. Interactive computing is how most of the hard work is done in data science. Do you use JupyterLab, RStudio, ROOT, Octave or Matlab? Do you set up a cluster for interactive parallel computing (e.g. ipyparallel or dask)?
    6. Job queue & scheduler. How do you run your code? Do you use a job processing queue? Do you have the capability (or the need) to schedule regular maintenance tasks?
    7. Computation graph. How do you describe the computation graph and establish reproducibility? Makefiles? DVC? Airflow?
    8. Experiment manager. How do you collect, view and analyze model training progress and results? ModelDB? Hyperdash? FloydHub?
    9. Monitoring dashboard. How do you collect and track the performance of the model in production? Metabase? Tableau? PowerBI? Grafana?

    The tools

    To conclude and summarize the exposition, here is a small spreadsheet, listing the tools mentioned in this post (as well as some extra ones I added or will add later on), categorizing them according to which stages of the data science workflow (in the terms defined in this post) they aim to support. Disclaimer - I did try out most, but not all of them. In particular, my understanding of the capabilities of the non-free solutions in the list is so far only based on their online demos or descriptions on the site.

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  • Posted by Konstantin 06.12.2017 7 Comments

    Early stopping is a technique that is very often used when training neural networks, as well as with some other iterative machine learning algorithms. The idea is quite intuitive - let us measure the performance of our model on a separate validation dataset during the training iterations. We may then observe that, despite constant score improvements on the training data, the model's performance on the validation dataset would only improve during the first stage of training, reach an optimum at some point and then turn to getting worse with further iterations.

    The early stopping principle

    The early stopping principle

    It thus seems reasonable to stop training at the point when the minimal validation error is achieved. Training the model any further only leads to overfitting. Right? The reasoning sounds solid and, indeed, early stopping is often claimed to improve generalization in practice. Most people seem to take the benefit of the technique for granted. In this post I would like to introduce some skepticism into this view or at least illustrate that things are not necessarily as obvious as they may seem from the diagram with the two lines above.

    How does Early Stopping Work?

    To get a better feeling of what early stopping actually does, let us examine its application to a very simple "machine learning model" - the estimation of the mean. Namely, suppose we are given a sample of 50 points \mathbf{x}_i from a normal distribution with unit covariance and we need to estimate the mean \mathbf{w} of this distribution.



    The maximum likelihood estimate of \mathbf{w} can be found as the point which has the smallest sum of squared distances to all the points in the sample. In other words, "model fitting" boils down to finding the minimum of the following objective function:

        \[f_\mathrm{train}(\mathrm{w}) := \sum_{i=1}^{50} \Vert \mathbf{x}_i - \mathbf{w}\Vert^2\]

    As our estimate is based on a finite sample, it, of course, won't necessarily be exactly equal to the true mean of the distribution, which I chose in this particular example to be exactly (0,0):

    Sample mean as a minimum of the objective function

    Sample mean as a minimum of the objective function

    The circles in the illustration above are the contours of the objective function, which, as you might guess, is a paraboloid bowl. The red dot marks its bottom and is thus the solution to our optimization problem, i.e. the estimate of the mean we are looking for. We may find this solution in various ways. For example, a natural closed-form analytical solution is simply the mean of the training set. For our purposes, however, we will be using the gradient descent iterative optimization algorithm. It is also quite straightforward: start with any point (we'll pick (-0.5, 0) for concreteness' sake) and descend in small steps downwards until we reach the bottom of the bowl:

    Gradient descent

    Gradient descent

    Let us now introduce early stopping into the fitting process. We will split our 50 points randomly into two separate sets: 40 points will be used to fit the model and 10 will form the early stopping validation set. Thus, technically, we now have two different objective functions to deal with:

        \[f_\mathrm{fit}(\mathrm{w}) := \sum_{i=1}^{40} \Vert \mathbf{x}_i - \mathbf{w}\Vert^2\]


        \[f_\mathrm{stop}(\mathrm{w}) := \sum_{i=41}^{50} \Vert \mathbf{x}_i - \mathbf{w}\Vert^2.\]

    Each of those defines its own "paraboloid bowl", both slightly different from the original one (because those are different subsets of data):

    Fitting and early stopping objectives

    Fitting and early stopping objectives

    As our algorithm descends towards the red point, we will be tracking the value of f_\mathrm{stop} at each step along the way:

    Gradient descent with validation

    Gradient descent with validation

    With a bit of imagination you should see on the image above, how the validation error decreases as the yellow trajectory approaches the purple dot and then starts to increase after some point midway. The spot where the validation error achieves the minimum (and thus the result of the early stopping algorithm) is shown by the green dot on the figure below:

    Early stopping

    Early stopping

    In a sense, the validation function now acts as a kind of a "guardian", preventing the optimization from converging towards the bottom of our main objective. The algorithm is forced to settle on a model, which is neither an optimum of f_\mathrm{fit} nor of f_\mathrm{stop}. Moreover, both f_\mathrm{fit} and f_\mathrm{stop} use less data than f_\mathrm{train}, and are thus inherently a worse representation of the problem altogether.

    So, by applying early stopping we effectively reduced our training set size, used an even less reliable dataset to abort training, and settled on a solution which is not an optimum of anything at all. Sounds rather stupid, doesn't it?

    Indeed, observe the distribution of the estimates found with (blue) and without (red) early stopping in repeated experiments (each time with a new random dataset):

    Solutions found with and without early stopping

    Solutions found with and without early stopping

    As we see, early stopping greatly increases the variance of the estimate and adds a small bias towards our optimization starting point.

    Finally, let us see how the quality of the fit depends on the size of the validation set:

    Fit quality vs validation set size

    Fit quality vs validation set size

    Here the y axis shows the squared distance of the estimated point to the true value (0,0), smaller is better (the dashed line is the expected distance of a randomly picked point from the data).  The x axis shows all possible sizes of the validation set. We see that using no early stopping at all (x=0) results in the best expected fit. If we do decide to use early stopping, then for best results we should split the data approximately equally into training and validation sets. Interestingly, there do not seem to be much difference in whether we pick 30%, 50% or 70% of data for the validation set - the validation set seems to play just as much role in the final estimate as the training data.

    Early Stopping with Non-convex Objectives

    The experiment above seems to demonstrate that early stopping should be almost certainly useless (if not harmful) for fitting simple convex models. However, it is never used with such models in practice. Instead, it is most often applied to the training of multilayer neural networks. Could it be the case that the method somehow becomes useful when the objective is highly non-convex? Let us run a small experiment, measuring the benefits of early stopping for fitting a convolutional neural-network on the MNIST dataset. For simplicity, I took the standard example from the Keras codebase, and modified it slightly. Here is the result we get when training the the most basic model:

    MNIST - Basic

    MNIST - Basic

    The y axis depicts log-loss on the 10k MNIST test set, the x axis shows the proportion of the 60k MNIST training set set aside for early stopping. Ignoring small random measurement noise, we may observe that using early stopping with about 10% of the training data does seem to convey a benefit. Thus, contrary to our previous primitive example, when the objective is complex, early stopping does work as a regularization method. Why and how does it work here? Here's one intuition I find believable (there are alternative possible explanations and measurements, none of which I find too convincing or clear, though): stopping the training early prevents the algorithm from walking too far away from the initial parameter values. This limits the overall space of models and is vaguely analogous to suppressing the norm of the parameter vector. In other words, early stopping resembles an ad-hoc version of \ell_p regularization.

    Indeed, observe how the use of early stopping affects the results of fitting the same model with a small \ell_2-penalty added to the objective:

    MNIST - L2

    MNIST - L2

    All of the benefits of early stopping are gone now, and the baseline (non-early-stopped, \ell_2-regularized) model is actually better overall than it was before. Let us now try an even more heavily regularized model by adding dropout (instead of the \ell_2 penalty), as is customary for deep neural networks. We can observe an even cleaner result:

    MNIST - Dropout

    MNIST - Dropout

    Early stopping is again not useful at all, and the overall model is better than all of our previous attempts.

    Conclusion: Do We Need Early Stopping?

    Given the reasoning and the anecdotal experimental evidence above, I personally tend to think that beliefs in the usefulness of early stopping (in the context of neural network training) may be well overrated. Even if it may improve generalization for some nonlinear models, you would most probably achieve the same effect more reliably using other regularization techniques, such as dropout or a simple \ell_2 penalty.

    Note, though, that there is a difference between early stopping in the context of neural networks and, say, boosting models. In the latter case early stopping is actually more explicitly limiting the complexity of the final model and, I suspect, might have a much more meaningful effect. At least we can't directly carry over the experimental examples and results in this blog post to that case.

    Also note, that no matter whether early stopping helps or harms the generalization of the trained model, it is still a useful heuristic as to when to stop a lengthy training process automatically if we simply need results that are good enough.


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  • Posted by Konstantin 27.07.2016 3 Comments

    While writing the previous post I was thinking of coming up with a small fun illustration for Aframe. I first heard about AFrame at the recent European Innovation Academy - a team-project-based entrepreneurship summer school. The team called MemVee was aiming to develop an AFrame-based site which would allow students to design and view interactive "Memory Palaces" - three-dimensional spaces with various objects related to their current study topics, organized in a way that simplifies remembering things for visual learners. Although I have never viewed a "Memory Palace" as something beyond a fantastic concept from a Sherlock Holmes TV episode, I am a visual learner myself and understand the importance of such illustrations. In fact, I try to use and preach graphical references in my teaching practice whenever I find the time and opportunity:

    • In this lecture the concept of a desk is used as a visual metaphor of "structuring the information" as well as to provide an outline to the talk.
    • Here and here an imaginary geographical map is used in a similar context.
    • For the computer graphics course I had to develop some "slides" as small OpenGL apps for visualizing the concepts during the lecture. This has been later taken to extreme heights in the practical materials designed by Raimond-Hendrik, who went on to give this course (alongside with a seminar) in the following years. Unfortunately the materials are closed for non-participants (yet I still hope they will be opened some day, do you read this, Raimond?), but the point is that every single notion has a tiny WebGL applet made to illustrate it interactively.
    • Once I tried to make a short talk about computer graphics, where the slides would be positioned on the walls of a 3D maze, so that to show them I'd have to "walk through the maze", like in a tiny first-person shooter game. Although this kind of visualization was not at all useful as a learning aid (as it did not structure anything at all), it none the less looked cool and was very well appreciated by the younger audience of the talk, to whom it was aimed at.

    I have lost the sources of that last presentation to a computer error and decided to recreate a similar "maze with slides" with AFrame. The night was long and I got sucked into the process to the point of making an automated tool. You upload your slides, and it generates a random maze with your slides hanging on the walls. It is utterly useless, but the domain name "slideamaze.com" was free and I could not resist the pun. [Update from 2018 - the domain expired and the project migrated to slideamaze.ing.ee.]

    Check it out. If you are into programming-related procrastination, try saving the "mazes" generated by the tool on your computer and editing the A-frame code to, say, add monsters or other fun educational tools into the maze.

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  • Posted by Konstantin 18.06.2015 No Comments

    The developments of proper GPU-based implementations of neural network training methods in the recent years have lead to a steady growth of exciting practical examples of their potential. Among others, the topic of face recognition (not to be confused with face detection) is on the steady rise. Some 5 years ago or so, decent face recognition tools were limited to Google Picasa and Facebook, some research labs and a few commercial products, often branded with the word "Biometrics" (that somehow seems to grow out of fashion nowadays).

    Today things are different. Given a decently large labeled dataset, some knowledge of machine learning, familiarity with the GPU-based "deep learning" tools, and sufficient perseverence, one can design a reasonably impressive face recognizer system in a matter of several weeks or months at most. Consequently, now is the time when we can see recognition-based startups receive millions in funding. Just some months ago Microsoft came out with their own public face detection and recognition API (which got its fair share of publicity in the form of a funny age-guessing tool).

    The Hype Cycle

    The Hype Cycle

    Hence, the growth in popularity and use of face recognition is apparent. Given that the initially overinflated hype around the whole deep learning buzzword seems to have more-or-less settled down to reality, this time the growth is realistic. We are probably on the "enlightenment" segment of the hype cycle here, very close to reaching actual productivity (which is not without issues, though).

    Tambet and Ardi of our institute's neuroscience research group seemed to have caught the noospheric trend and are working on a neural-network based face recognizer with the initial aim of using it to sort and organize historical photos from the Estonian National Archives.

    During a Skype University Hackathon, which happened in April I had the chance to join forces with them to present their efforts in the form of a fun public web app. The idea was to let people search for similar faces in the Estonian archive photos. The resulting site was called "teisik.ee" ("doppelganger" in Estonian). Although it does not seem to exactly fulfil the "doppelganger finding" purpose, it does manage to identify persons known to the system from the database surprisingly well.


    Output from teisik.ee

    Output from teisik.ee

    Having observed that finding matches to celebrities, even if they are not perfect matches, is entertaining in its own way, we also managed to put up a second version of the service (all within that same weekend!), codenamed celebritymatch.me. This app lets you search the dataset of celebrity faces for those which are apparently similar (according to the opinion of our neural network, at least). Try it, it is not perfect, but rather fun.

    The implementation of the recognition system is rather straightforward for anyone who knows what a convolutional network is and otherwise pretty impossible to grasp in full, hence I won't go into much technical detail. It is implemented using Caffe and consists of three consequtive convolutional layers (with ReLU and max-pooling), followed by a fully-connected hidden layer, which is then fully-connected to a softmax classification output layer. The outputs of the penultimate layer (of size 64) are used as the feature representation of the face. Those feature representations are then used to find Euclidean-distance-wise nearest neighbors in the database of faces. The future plans are to later apply the probably smarter FaceNet approach to network training for the same use case. The webapp is done using Flask.

    Right after the hackathon Tambet was invited to give an interview about the project on Estonian television. If you understand Estonian, check it out, it is very good.


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  • Posted by Konstantin 21.04.2015 No Comments
    "Hello world" in Flask

    "Hello world" in Flask

    Over the recent years I happen to have made several small personal projects using Python's Flask web framework. The framework is designed to provide a very minimalistic "bottom-up" approach. It feels slightly less cluttered and imposing than some of the popular alternatives, thus fitting nicely for the projects a single person might typically want to hack up in a spare weekend. Minimalism of Flask does not mean it is somehow limited or unsuitable for larger projects - perhaps on the contrary, small size of the framework means there are fewer restrictions on what and how you can do with it.

    What a small framework needs to be applied comfortably beyond its 6-line "Hello-World" use case, however, is a decent starter project template that would include some of the most common bells and whistles. And indeed, there happen to be several such templates available. I used parts of them over time in my own projects, however I always ended redoing/rewriting/renaming bits and pieces to fit my personal aesthetic needs. Eventually I got tired of renaming and packaged a Flask application template in the way I consistently prefer to use it. I am not sure whether it is objectively better or worse than the alternatives. None the less, if at some point you decide to give Flask a try, let me suggest you try this template of mine as your point of origin.

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  • Posted by Konstantin 12.04.2015 1 Comment
    The first axiom of human bananology

    There is a popular claim that "human DNA is 50% similar to the DNA of a banana", which is often cited in the context of "science popularization" as well as in the various "OMG did you know that" articles. It sounds funny, scientific and "plausible", hence I've seen many smart people repeat it, perhaps as a joke, without giving it too much thought. It is worth giving a thought, though.

    Note that depending on how you phrase the statement, it may imply different things, some of them could be more, and some less exciting. The following examples are completely different in their meaning:

    1. If you change 50% of human DNA you can obtain the DNA of a banana.
    2. 50% of human DNA nucleotides are present in the DNA of a banana.
    3. 50% of human's DNA regions have approximate matches in the banana DNA (or vice versa, which would be a different statement)
    4. 50% of human genes have orthologs among banana genes (or vice versa).

    The first one is obviously false, due to the fact that the total length of the human DNA is about 10 times that of the banana. You could include the whole banana sequence verbatim into a human genome, and it would only make 10% of it. The second one is also false, because, strictly speaking, not 50% but all 100% of human DNA nucleotides are also present in the DNA of a banana. Indeed, any two organisms on Earth have their DNA composed as a sequence of exactly the same four nucleotides. Moreover, if you start comparing random positions of two random DNA's, you will get a match once every four attempts by pure chance. There's a 25% basepair-wise similarity of any DNA to a random sequence!

    The last two (or four, if you include the "reversed" versions) claims are more informative. In fact, claim #4 is probably the most interesting and is what could be meant if the presumed "50% similarity" was indeed ever found. Given the wide availability of genomic data, this claim be checked to some extent by anyone with a computer and a desire to finally make sure, how much of a banana he is, after all. Let us do it.

    What proportion of human genes could be very similar to banana genes?

    Although there is a lot of data about gene orthology among various organisms, as far as humans and bananas are concerned, I could not find any proper precomputed alignments. Creating a full-genome alignment for two organisms from scratch is a procedure way too tedious for a single Sunday's evening, so let us try a simplified measurement approach instead. Consider all possible 20-nucleotide reads taken from the gene-associated regions in the reference human genome. We shall say that a human gene "is somewhat bananas" if at least 5% of its 20-bp reads match somewhere on the banana genome. Given this definition, we shall ask: what proportion of the known human genes "are somewhat bananas"?

    At this point some passionate readers could argue that, for example, 20-nucleotide reads are not long/short enough for the purposes of this question, or that the cutoff of 5% is too low or too high, or that approximate matching should be used instead along with some proper string alignment techniques, etc. As noted, we shall leave those aspects to dedicated researchers in the field of human bananology.

    The computation took about an hour to run and came back with the following conclusion:

    Only 33 out of the 24624 human genes (of at least 1000bp in length) are "somewhat bananas".

    In other words, no, you are not "50% similar" to a banana according to any simple definition of such similarity. Not even 1% similar! Of course, there could still be means to torture the data and squeeze the "50%" value out, but those must be some quite nontrivial means and the interpretation of the resulting similarity would be far from straightforward.

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  • Posted by Konstantin 22.01.2015 38 Comments

    Update from year 2017: The tool described in this post DOES NOT WORK with recent versions of Skype. Either these versions stopped saving removed messages altogether, or they are doing it in a novel manner not recognized by the tool.

    In other words - you would only recover "removed" messages if you are running older version of Skype (or these messages were sent at the time you were using that older version).

    Yesterday I happened to attend a discussion about the security and privacy of information stored locally in Skype and Thunderbird profiles. It turns out, if you obtain a person's Skype profile directory, you will be able to log in as him without the need to know the password. In addition, Dominique made a remark that Skype does not really delete the messages that are marked as "removed" in the chat window. I found that curious and decided to take a closer look.

    Indeed, there is a bunch of *.dat files in the chatsync subdirectory of the Skype's profile, which preserve all messages along with all their edits or deletions. Unfortunately, the *.dat files are in some undocumented binary format, and the only tool I found for reading those lacks in features. However, hacking up a small Python parser according to what is known about the format, along with a minimalistic GUI is a single evening's exercise, and I happened to be in the mood for some random coding.

    Skype Chatsync Viewer

    Skype Chatsync Viewer

    Now, if you want to check out what was that message you or your conversation partner wrote before it was edited or deleted, this package will help. If you are not keen on installing Python packages, here is a standalone Windows executable.

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  • Posted by Konstantin 13.01.2015 No Comments

    I haven't updated this blog for quite some time, which is a shame. Before I resume I wanted to reproduce here a couple of my old posts from other places. This particular piece stems from a post on our research group's webpage from more than 8 years ago, but is about an issue that never stops popping up in practice.

    Precision of floating point numbers is a very subtle issue. It creeps up so rarely that many people (me included) would get it out of their heads completely before stumbling upon it in some unexpected place again.

    Indeed, most of the time it is not a problem at all, that floating point computations are not ideally precise, and no one cares about the small additive noise that it produces, as long as you remember to avoid exact comparisons between floats. Sometimes, however, the noise can severely spoil your day by violating the core assumptions, such as "distance is always greater than zero", or "cosine of an angle never exceeds 1".

    The following is, I think, a marvelous example, discovered by Alex, while debugging an obscure problem in one Python program. The choice of the language is absolutely irrelevant, however, so I took the liberty of presenting it here using Javascript (because this lets you reproduce it in your browser's console, if you wish). For Python fans, there is an interactive version available here as well.

    A cosine distance metric is a measure of dissimilarity of two vectors, often used in information retrieval and clustering, that is defined as follows:

        \[\mathrm{cdist}(\mathbf{x},\mathbf{y}) = 1 - \frac{\mathbf{x}^T\mathbf{y}}{|\mathbf{x}| \; |\mathbf{y}|}\]

    A straightforward way to put this definition into code is, for example, the following:

    function length(x) {
        return Math.sqrt(x[0]*x[0] + x[1]*x[1]);
    function cosine_similarity(x, y) {
        return (x[0]*y[0] + x[1]*y[1])/length(x)/length(y);
    function cosine_distance(x, y) {
        return 1 - cosine_similarity(x, y);

    Now, mathematically, the cosine distance is a valid distance function and is thus always positive. Unfortunately, the floating-point implementation of it presented above, is not the same. Check this out:

    > Math.sign(cosine_distance([6.0, 6.0], [9.0, 9.0]))
    < -1

    Please, beware of float comparisons. In particular, think twice next time you use the sign() function.

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