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Learning About Ellipses

You get a circle with radius r. Its area is πr². You get an ellipse with major and minor axes a and b. Its area is πab.

The circle’s circumference is 2πr. The ellipse’s circumference is π(a+b), right? No.

I’m incredibly late to the party, but I just learned that there is no closed formula for the circumference of an ellipse. This blew my mind. I really felt like one of “the lucky 10000“. I also felt like sharing it with you, in case you cared to join me.


This launched me in an exploration which culminated in this paper, that I’m reading avidly. There are so few of these “scientific papers” that are written with the reader in mind. I can only imagine what a world of academics who really cared about being understood — rather than being published — would look like.

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Adding More Maths to Deep Learning

Anybody who has tried to learn Deep Learning quickly realized that it involved a lot of maths. However, despite all the equations you encountered, much of Deep Learning is poorly understood from a mathematical standpoint.

Our understanding is progressing, though, and this Quanta Magazine article does a good job of summarizing recent advances on the theoretical front.

Within the sprawling community of neural network development, there is a small group of mathematically minded researchers who are trying to build a theory of neural networks — one that would explain how they work and guarantee that if you construct a neural network in a prescribed manner, it will be able to perform certain tasks.

Boris Hanin, a mathematician at Texas A&M University, likens the situation to the development of another revolutionary technology: the steam engine. At first, steam engines weren’t good for much more than pumping water. Then they powered trains, which is maybe the level of sophistication neural networks have reached. Then scientists and mathematicians developed a theory of thermodynamics, which let them understand exactly what was going on inside engines of any kind. Eventually, that knowledge took us to the moon.

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Sometimes Things Just Are Complex

When you encounter a complex system it’s very tempting to point at all its flaws and imagine you could rebuild it from the ground up in a much more simple way. I’ve entertained that thought very often myself. I’ve often been wrong, as this article by Venkatesh Rao points out.

The Authoritarian High-Modernist Recipe for Failure:

  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary -Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.

Via Sentiers by Patrick Tanguay

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Cut-and-Pasting Text from Images on Android

I just discovered the most useful hidden feature on my Android phone.

You know when Facebook won’t let you cut & paste an excerpt from a post, or when you wish you could copy the text from an Instagram image? Now you can.

Swipe up to go to the applications carousel which shows a the screen of every application currently running on your phone. Within the carousel you can swipe your finger on any of these screenshots to select text. It works even if this text is not selectable in the app, or if it’s embedded in an image.

It’s a very useful feature when you like to cut-and-paste excerpts for your posts, like I do.

I tested this on a Pixel 3 with vanilla Android 11.

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About Working with Yoshua Bengio

I have the immense privilege to be collaborating with Yoshua and some of his students — shoutout to Anirudh Goyal — on what is the most exciting research I’ve ever done. I love his research direction, but most importantly I love his research philosophy:

What matters to me as a scientist is what needs to be explored in order to solve the problems. Not who’s right, who’s wrong, or who’s praying at which chapel.

Read more about the researcher who’s most influenced me in this IEEE Spectrum article.

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A Fugitive Friend

My friend Simon Hudson wrote this story. It’s about Montana, it’s about difficult teenage years, it’s about finding yourself… And it’s about him.

People come with stories. I could sense that Simon’s was rich and deep. I could sense it through his soft half smiles or the intelligence of his words. He writes beautifully, as you’ll discover if you click through, but it’s the way in which he speaks that made me wonder.

Simon speaks softly, kindly, from the heart. If you discuss with him he’ll take your thoughts and make sense of them. He’ll distill what they mean and offer them back to you in a way that makes everything clearer. He does so modestly, as if he was only responsible for the words, not the thoughts. It’s not true, naturally. He’s not just the wordsmith. He’s the thinker, the analyst.

How does one become such a self-effacing yet deep and compassionate thinker? I guess the big skies of Montana have something to do with it.

Thanks for this story Simon, it moved me.

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💜 Technology for your better self

I’m interested in ideas, startups and research projects that aim at making the Internet a better place. I’m seeking social or technical innovations to reduce online division, filter bubbles, angry comments, or radicalization. I believe that technology can be made more empathetic and that it should care much more deeply about the user than it does today, distinguishing what is immediately pleasing from what will ultimately give people a sense of accomplishment. Recommendation algorithms and social platforms that aim to give more control to users, reducing the importance of shallow signals. In the words of Daniel Kahneman, I’m interested in technology that focuses on System 2 thinking.

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⚙️ Exploded view

As a kid, I really liked playing with legos or gazing for hours at exploded-view drawings of complex objects. I like science when it means impressive scientific experiments. People who get their hands dirty and embrace the do-it-yourself culture. I believe that everyone is a scientist. For example, I love YouTube channels like NileRed, The Backyard Scientist or even The Slowmo Guys.

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🌤️ Solving Climate

I believe the climate crisis is our biggest existential threat right now. I think the best way to overcome that challenge is to come together behind ideas that paint a more beautiful future for all of us. I’m convinced innovative technological solutions can be used for that. That’s why I want to track all the new ideas in climate technology and climate science coming from startups, academic labs or advocacy groups. I take a broad view on what will help us get there: deep tech advancements, innovative social ideas (like a carbon tax), or even something like Waverly that may help us have more quiet online conversations and align on important issues.

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🧑‍🤝‍🧑 New Movements

I’m interested in any new movement popping up around the world. Youth culture, ideas that are gaining momentum, etc. I want to find brands that embody these movements in any space: bars & restaurants, music and culture, retail, tourism. I want to understand how people find their voice and move from apathy to action.