On Machine Learning and Self-Directed Learning

In mid-September, Simon spent a couple days learning how to build a Feed Forward Neural Network, together with a friend. It all started after the friend shared a cool business idea he had and the two of them realized that in order to even imagine a prototype for that idea, they needed to dive into several natural sciences and machine learning. Machine learning being “the most fun part”, they started with it. They followed along Sebastian Lague’s latest video How to Create a Neural Network (and Train it to Identify Doodles) sharing their screens on Discord and created their own neural network, both writing code in their machines. It was so cool to hear Simon yell “It’s learning!” like a maniac.

Simon having fun learning (and teaching)
“It’s learning!”

On the second day, they covered the Calculus they needed for this particular neural network.

Simon’s notes on the math needed for this NN

Simon says he had expected the learning curve to be much steeper, but that it went surprisingly smoothly.

I tried really hard to have it not fly over my head (not to zone out), but once I concentrated, it wasn’t as difficult as I though it would be.

more notes on the math

Simon has tried learning neural networks a couple times before. The topic has fascinated him on and off since he was 7 years old – that’s when he created a perceptron following along a Coding Train tutorial. When Simon was 8, he binge watched Siraj Raval’s machine learning videos. Siraj even ended up visiting Simon at our home in Antwerp, Belgium! Over the years that followed, Simon also did a Brilliant course on neural nets and worked on his Calculus, until he hit Integral Calculus, which he has found to be too challenging to wrap his head around and gain an intuitive understanding of, at least for now. As it turned out, he didn’t necessarily need Integral Calculus to build a functional neural network.

Sadly, the friend didn’t have any more time to collaborate on this project because of school. I dare to assume the project is a much more complex, vibrant and cutting edge learning experience than what school has to offer, but that’s not what the friend’s parents think. They have restricted the friend’s computer access. We are not even sure how aware they are of what Simon and his friend were working on.

This is the disappointing reality Simon and Neva have to be dealing with on a regular basis: their friends succumb under school pressure and their days have little to no pockets left for unstructured communication, self-organized exploration and play. Most parents have no idea what their kids are doing online, Simon and Neva told me the other day. “All of those friends of mine you know about, their parents don’t know I exist!” Neva said. In fact, when a friend of hers did mention her to their parents, the parents first assumed Neva was a creepy adult pretending to be a young girl. It’s hilarious, but it’s also profoundly disturbing once you realize how disconnected most parents are with their kids. Online activities are frowned upon, unless they are a structured assignment. Connecting with far away and “not in real life” but like-minded peers is seen as something unworthy, deep connections and conversations in a gaming environments are feared as addictive behaviors. Parents are almost expected to restrict their children’s online exploration in favor of schoolwork and “real life” activities.

Simon is a huge fan of mathematician and author Ben Orlin. We have enjoyed playing quite a few games from Orlin’s new book. Recently Simon showed me a blog post Orlin wrote about how his mother didn’t let him play online games, unless they were “educational”. After his mother passed away, Orlin did exactly what she had been restricting him from doing while she was alive: gaming. He ended up turning a sports simulation game into an optimization puzzle, a math problem. In his own words, “Looking back, my mother needn’t have worried about non-educational games. Her son could turn even the most pleasurable and frivolous of them into a spreadsheet”.

one of our favorite games from Ben Orlin’s Math games with bad Drawings, quantum tic-tac-toe
another favorite, called Sprouts

On a brighter note, Simon has experienced another math-related epiphany, this time by gaining a better understanding of Group Theory, all thanks to a mysterious YouTuber called Nemean.

I understood Group Theory before on a very basic level. But now I’m like, Ah! I’m intrigued!

So now, as a self-diagnosed smart person, Simon can just feel his brain growing in size physically! Just kidding, it’s a quote from another current favorite, Ryan George ☺️ This is not a math channel. It’s not an education channel at all. And yet, we have learned a whole lot from it. And maybe even more importantly, laughed our heads off, together.

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