As the field of Data Science matures and everything in it is categorized and turned into a teaching module, compartmentalization may seem easier and more efficient as a learning strategy. After all, there is a bunch of books on specialized topics of the craft. That’s all great and for some people, it may even work satisfactorily, but that’s where the risk lies and it’s a pretty big risk too!
Learning about something specialized in data science, particularly without a good sense of context or its limitations, can be catastrophic. The old saying “for someone who only knows how to use a hammer everything starts looking like a nail” is applicable here too. Learning about a specialized aspect of data science can often make you think that this is the best approach to solving data science related problems. After all, the author seems to know what he’s talking about and some employers value this skill. However, if this know-how is out of context, it is bound to be ineffective at best and problematic at worst. Data science is an interdisciplinary field with lots of different tools in it, from various areas. Anyone who tries to dissect it and focus mainly on one of them is doing a disservice to the field and if you as a data science learner pay attention to this person, you are bound to warp your knowledge of the craft and delay your mastery of it.
Also, this overspecialization in know-how may make you think that you are better than the other data science practitioners who have not developed that niche skill yet. This will limit your ability to learn and perhaps even cooperate with these people, significantly. After all, you are an expert in this, so why bother with less fancy know-how at all? Well, sometimes even the more humble aspects of the field, such as feature engineering, can turn to be more effective at solving a problem well, than some fancy model, so it’s good to remember that.
That’s why I’ve always promoted the idea of the right mindset in data science, something that no matter how the field evolves, it is bound to remain stable in the years to come and help you adapt to whatever know-how becomes the norm. Also, no matter how important the algorithms are, it’s even more important knowing how to create your own algorithms and change existing ones, optimizing them for the problem at hand. That’s something that no data science book teaches adequately, as the emphasis is covering material related to certain buzzwords, sometimes without the supervision of an editor. The latter can help immensely in making the contents of a book more comprehensible and relevant to data science in general, providing you with a sense of perspective.
So, be careful with what you let enter your data science curriculum as you learn about the craft. Some books may be a waste of time while others, especially those not published through a publisher, may even hinder your development as a data scientist.
Before starting the new data science book, I made one video on a very fascinating topic that I've delved in for a while now: Cryptanalysis. Although I'm not a hacker, I've researched this topic sufficiently and even broke a few ciphers myself over the years. This video (available on Safari/O'Reilly) is a gentle introduction to the topic and ties very well with my other Cybersecurity videos. Check it out when you have the chance!
Note that in order to view the video in its entirety, you'll need an account (e.g. through a subscription). If you are an employee of a tech company, you may have full access to the Safari platform already. The latter is a useful resource for both videos and books, all of which you can access through a mobile device too.
For some reason, people who delve into data science tend to focus more on certain aspects of the craft at the expense of others. One of these things that often doesn’t get nearly enough attention is the concept of distance. If you ask a data scientist (especially one who is fairly new to the craft or overspecialized in one aspect of it), they’ll tell you about the distance metrics they are familiar with and how distance is a kind of similarity metric. Although all of this is true, it only portrays just one part of the picture.
I’ve delved into the topic for several years now and since my Ph.D. is based on transductive systems (i.e. data science systems that are based on distances), I’ve come to have a particular perspective on the matter, one that helps me see the incompleteness of it all. After all, no matter how many distance heuristics we develop, the way distance is perceived will remain limited until we look at it through a more holistic angle. So, let’s look at the different kinds of distances out there and how they are useful in data science.
Distances of the first kind are those most commonly used and are expressed through the various distance heuristics people have devised over the centuries. The most common ones are Euclidean distance and Manhattan distance. Mathematically, it is defined as the norm of a vector connecting two points.
Another kind of distances is the normalized ones. Every distance metric out there that is not in this category is crude and limited to the particular set of dimensions it was calculated in. This makes comparisons of distances between two datasets of different dimensionality impossible (if the meaning is to be maintained), even if mathematically it’s straight-forward. Normalizing the matrix of distances of the various data points in the dataset requires finding the largest distance, something feasible when the number of data points is small but quite challenging otherwise. What if we need the normalized distances of a sample of data points only because the whole dataset is too large? That’s a fundamental question that needs to be answered efficiently (i.e. at a fairly low big O complexity) if normalized distances are to be practical.
The last and most interesting kind of distances is the weighted distance. Although this kind of distance is already well-documented, the way it has been tackled is fairly rudimentary, considering the plethora of possibilities it offers. For example, by warping the feature space based on the discernibility scores of the various features, you can improve the feature set’s predictive potential in various transductive systems. Also, using a specialized weighted distance, you can better pinpoint the signal of a dataset and refine the similarity between two data points in a large dimensionality space, effectively rendering the curse of dimensionality a non-issue. However, all this is possible only through a different kind of data analytics paradigm, one that is not limited by the unnecessary assumptions of the current one.
Naturally, you can have a combination of the latter two kinds of distances for an even more robust distance measure. Whatever the case, understanding the limitations of the first kind of distances is crucial for gaining a deeper understanding of the concept and apply it more effectively.
Note that all this is my personal take on the matter. You are advised to approach this whole matter with skepticism and arrive at your own conclusions. After all, the intention of this post is to make you think more (and hopefully more deeply) about this topic, instead of spoon-feeding you canned answers. So, experiment with distances instead of limiting your thinking to the stuff that’s already been documented already. Otherwise, the distance between what you can do and what you are capable of doing, in data science, will remain depressingly large...
Lately, there has been an explosion of interest in Data Science, mainly due to the appealing job prospects of someone who has the relevant know-how. It is easy, unfortunately, to get into the state of complacency whereby data science become all too familiar and you find yourself working the same methods and the same processes in general when dealing with the problems you are asked to solve. This situation can be quite toxic though, even if it’s unlikely someone will tell you so. After all, as long as you deliver what you have to deliver no one cares, right? Unfortunately, no. If you stop evolving as a data scientist, chances are that you’ll become obsolete in a few years, while your approach to the problems at hand will cease to be as effective. Besides, the field evolves as do the challenges we as data scientists have to face.
The remedy to all this is exploring data science with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, something akin to what is referred to as “beginner’s mind” in the Zen tradition. Of course, enthusiasm doesn’t come about on its own after you’ve experienced it once. You need to create the conditions for it and what better way to do that than exploring data science further. This exploration can be in more breadth (i.e. additional aspects of the craft, including but not limited to new methods), and in more depth (i.e. understand the inner workings of various algorithms and the variants they may have). Research in the field can go a long way when it comes to both of these exploration strategies. It’s important to note that you don’t need to publish a paper in order to do proper research. In fact, you can do perfectly adequate research with just a computer and a few datasets, as long as you know how.
It’s also good to keep the breadth and depth in balance when you are exploring data science. Going too much in breadth can lead you to have a more superficial knowledge of the field while going too much in depth can make you overspecialized. What you do first, however, is totally up to you. Also, it’s important to use reliable resources when exploring the field, since nowadays it seems that everyone wants to be a data science content creator, without having the essential training or educational mindset. A good rule of thumb is to stick to content that has undergone extensive editings, such as the stuff made available through a publisher, particularly one specializing in data related books and videos.
Whatever the case, it’s always good to explore data science in an enjoyable manner too. Find a dataset you are interested in, before starting to apply some obscure method. This way the whole process will become more manageable and perhaps even fulfilling. Fortunately, there is no shortage of datasets out there, so you have many options. Happy exploration!
After noticing a subtle but clear gap in the data science education of today, and after discussing this matter with a couple of my associates, I decided that a new data science book would be in order. So, after some negotiations and refinements of this idea, over the space of 3 months, we are now ready to initiate this publication project. So, once the paperwork is done, I'll be working on a new title, one that would appeal to a large audience of data science related professionals. We expect the first draft to be ready by the beginning of summer, and if all goes well, the book should be available for purchase by early autumn.
A big thanks to my publisher Technics Publications and to all of you, particularly those buying my books and watching the videos of mine that are made available on Safari. Cheers!
Zacharias Voulgaris, PhD
Passionate data scientist with a foxy approach to technology, particularly related to A.I.