Machine Learning (Theory)


CI Fellows program renewed

Tags: CS,Funding jl@ 4:01 pm

Lev Reyzin points out the CI Fellows program is renewed. CI Fellows are essentially NSF funded computer science postdocs for universities and industry research labs. I’ve been lucky and happy to have Lev visit me for a year under last year’s program, so I strongly recommend participating if it suits you.

As with last year, the application timeline is very short, with everything due by May 23.


Compassionate Reviewing

Most long conversations between academics seem to converge on the topic of reviewing where almost no one is happy. A basic question is: Should most people be happy?

The case against is straightforward. Anyone who watches the flow of papers realizes that most papers amount to little in the longer term. By it’s nature research is brutal, where the second-best method is worthless, and the second person to discover things typically gets no credit. If you think about this for a moment, it’s very different from most other human endeavors. The second best migrant laborer, construction worker, manager, conductor, quarterback, etc… all can manage quite well. If a reviewer has even a vaguely predictive sense of what’s important in the longer term, then most people submitting papers will be unhappy.

But this argument unravels, in my experience. Perhaps half of reviews are thoughtless or simply wrong with a small part being simply malicious. And yet, I’m sure that most reviewers genuinely believe they can predict what will and will not be useful in the longer term. This disparity is a lack of communication. When academics have conversations about reviewing, the presumption of participants in each conversation is that they all share about the same beliefs about what will be useful, and what will take off. Such conversations rarely go into specifics, because the specifics are boring in particular, technical, and because their is a real chance of disagreement on the specifics themselves.

When double blind reviewing was first being considered for ICML, I remember speaking about the experience in the Crypto community, where in my estimate the reviewing was both fairer and less happy. Many conferences in machine learning have shifted to doubleblind reviewing, and I think we have seen this come to pass here as well. Without double blind reviewing, it is common to have an “in” crowd who everyone respects and whose papers are virtually always accepted. These people are happy, and the rest have little voice. With double blind reviewing, everyone suffers substantial rejections.

We might say “fine, at least it’s fair”, but in my experience there is a real problem. From a viewpoint external to the community, when the reviewing is poor and the viewpoint of people in the community highly contradictory, nothing good happens. Outsiders (i.e. most people) viewing the acrimony choose some other way to solve problems, proposals don’t get funded, and the community itself tends to fracture. For example, in cryptography, TCC (not double blind) has started, presumably because the top theory people got tired of having their papers rejected at Crypto (double blind). From a process-of-research standpoint, this seems suboptimal, as different groups using different methods to solve similar problems are particularly the people who you would prefer talking to each other.

What seems to be lost with double blind reviewing is some amount of compassion, unfairly allocated. In a double blind system, any given paper is plausibly from someone you don’t know, and since most papers go nowhere, plausibly not going anywhere. Consequently, the bias starts “against” for all work, a disadvantage which can be quite difficult to overcome. Some time ago, I discussed how I thought motivation should be the responsibility of the reviewer. Aaron Hertzman strongly disagreed on the grounds that this belief could dead end your career as an author. I’ve come to appreciate his viewpoint to an extent. But, it misses the point slightly—the question of “What is good for the community?” differs from “What is good for the author?” In a healthy community, reviewers will actively understand why a piece of work is or is not important, filling in and extending the motivation as they consider the problem.

So, a question is: How can we get compassionate reviewing? (And in a fair way?) It might help somewhat for reviewers to actively consider, as part of their review, the level and mechanism of impact that a paper may have. Reducing reviewing load is certainly helpful, but it is not sufficient alone, because many people naturally interpret a reduced reviewing load as time to work on other things. And, some mechanisms seem to even harm. For example, the two-phase reviewing process that ICML currently uses might save 0.5 reviews/paper, while guaranteeing that for half of the papers, the deciding review is done hastily with no author feedback, a recipe for mistakes.

What creates a great deal of compassion? Public responsibility helps (witness workshops more interesting than conferences). A natural conversation helps (the current method of single round response tends to be very stilted). And time, of course, helps. What else?


COLT Treasurer is now Phil Long

Tags: Conferences,Funding jl@ 2:14 pm

For about 5 years, I’ve been the treasurer of the Association for Computational Learning, otherwise known as COLT, taking over from John Case before me. A transfer of duties to Phil Long is now about complete. This probably matters to almost no one, but I wanted to describe things a bit for those interested.

The immediate impetus for this decision was unhappiness over reviewing decisions at COLT 2009, one as an author and several as a member of the program committee. I seem to have disagreements fairly often about what is important work, partly because I’m focused on learning theory with practical implications, partly because I define learning theory more broadly than is typical amongst COLT members, and partly because COLT suffers a bit from insider-clique issues. The degree to which these issues come up varies substantially each year so last year is not predictive of this one. And, it’s important to understand that COLT remains healthy with these issues not nearly so bad as they were. Nevertheless, I would like to see them taken more actively into account than I’ve been able to persuade people so far.

After thinking about it for a few days before acting, I decided to go ahead with the transfer for another reason: I’ve been suffering from multitask poisoning. Partly this is Ada, but partly it’s many other things, each of which takes a small bit of my time, in aggregate leaving me disappointing people, myself in particular. The effect of this has been quite obvious in terms of the posting rate on

Fortunately, Phil Long was ready to take up the duties, and he’s well positioned to do so.

Despite the above, I found being treasurer not particularly difficult. The functions of the treasury part of ACL have been

  1. Self-insurance for the conference each year. Prior to the formation of ACL-the-nonprofit (which Bob was instrumental in), COLT used to buy insurance against the possibility that some disaster would strike canceling the conference while leaving the local organizer on the hook for substantial expenses. When I came in, the treasury was a little bit low for this function, and when I left, somewhat too high.
  2. Budget fragmentation avoidance. Local organizers typically have a local account from which they spend for expenses and collect registration fees. Without the ACL, dealing with net positive or negative local accounts from year to year was awkward. With the ACL, it’s easy to square things up at the end of each year.
  3. A stable point of contact for funding related things. COLT is partly sponsored by several big CS-related companies including IBM, Microsoft, and Google. Providing a stable point of contact definitely helps ease this process. This also helps on the publishing side, where Omnipress is the current publisher of proceedings.
  4. Budget advice for local organizers. Somewhat to my surprise, the proper role of the treasurer was typically asking the local organizer to reduce registration fees rather than increase. The essential observation is that local organizers, because they operate out of a local account, tend to be a bit conservative in budget estimates. On the other hand, because ACL has an adequate interest bearing account, we should expect and desire to spend the interest in each typical year. In effect, ACL is naturally in a position to sponsor COLT to a small but nontrivial degree.

After having been treasurer for a little while, I’m convinced that having a nonprofit to back a conference is a good idea easing many difficulties with relatively small effort.


MLcomp: a website for objectively comparing ML algorithms

Tags: Machine Learning jakester@ 8:37 pm
Much of the success and popularity of machine learning has been driven by its practical impact. Of course, the evaluation of empirical work is an integral part of the field. But are the existing mechanisms for evaluating algorithms and comparing results good enough? We (Percy and Jake) believe there are currently a number of shortcomings:

  1. Incomplete Disclosure: You read a paper that proposes Algorithm A which is shown to outperform SVMs on two datasets.  Great.  But what about on other datasets?  How sensitive is this result?   What about compute time – does the algorithm take two seconds on a laptop or two weeks on a 100-node cluster?
  2. Lack of Standardization: Algorithm A beats Algorithm B on one version of a dataset.  Algorithm B beats Algorithm A on another version yet uses slightly different preprocessing.  Though doing a head-on comparison would be ideal, it would be tedious since the programs probably use different dataset formats and have a large array of options.  And what if we wanted to compare on more than just one dataset and two algorithms?
  3. Incomplete View of State-of-the-Art: Basic question: What’s the best algorithm for your favorite dataset?  To find out, you could simply plow through fifty papers, get code from any author willing to reply, and reimplement the rest. Easy right? Well maybe not…

We’ve thought a lot about how to solve these problems. Today, we’re launching a new website,, which we think is a good first step.

What is MLcomp? In short, it’s a collaborative website for objectively comparing machine learning programs across various datasets.  On the website, a user can do any combination of the following:

  1. Upload a program to our online repository.
  2. Upload a dataset.
  3. Run any user’s program on any user’s dataset.  (MLcomp provides the computation for free using Amazon’s EC2.)
  4. For any executed run, view the results (various error metrics and time/memory usage statistics).
  5. Download any dataset, program, or run for further use.

An important aspect of the site is that it’s collaborative: by uploading just one program or dataset, a user taps into the entire network of existing programs and datasets for comparison.  While data and code repositories do exist (e.g., UCI,, MLcomp is unique in that data and code interact to produce analyzable results.

MLcomp is under active development.  Currently, seven machine learn task types (classification, regression, collaborative filtering, sequence tagging, etc.) are supported, with hundreds of standard programs and datasets already online.  We encourage you to browse the site and hopefully contribute more!  Please send comments and feedback to (AT)

Powered by WordPress