Mathing up for robotics

Finally, I’m feeling human.  Between slamming my endocrine system into some kind of bizarre state and weaning off of Wellbutrin, I spent the last two weeks essentially in a supreme fog.  I think I’m emerging from it now, but boy do I ever dislike having such a huge lack of energy. Bleh.

I love working at AMI.  One of my favorite pastimes when in the office is hanging out with the Robotics team – I’m extremely fond of all of the team members and am fascinated by the topic.  Long ago, as a freshman at UCSC, I had thought I might do something mathy or sciency, but the super bizarre frizzy-haired lunatics who teach the intro courses in those divisions at Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp were enough to dissuade me forever.  Plus I made the horrible mistake one makes when taking a class in Linear Algebra – oh, this is easy… a couple of weeks pass… skip a class or three to write papers for your other classes and then come back, and… WHOA, what’s that?  So I chose Philosophy.  Essentially Math for Dummies.  
So here I am, surrounded by PhDs of various hard sciences, who do amazing things with computers and robots, and wishing I could play with them[1].  Also wishing I could just go to lunch with these groovy folk and have some idea what they’re talking about, although I somehow manage to follow along a lot of the time.  I had thought that my lack of math would eliminate me from the conversation, but it turns out I have a knack for the abstract mathematical theories involved in making robots tie their shoes.  And my clone insists that I understand the math just fine, I just need to work on understanding how the numbers move around.
I asked my boss (MathMan) what math topics I should learn in order to keep up in conversations around here, and he suggested instead that I read up on (or take classes in) Algorithms and Theory of Computability.  He assured me I didn’t really need any math to get through those, and that math wasn’t really necessary to get along around here.  So I got some books on those topics.  Turns out that yeah, you do need some math to get through those.  Apparently when you are the supreme high commander of Math Theory, you don’t realize that there are actually some sentient beings who aren’t cozy with vectors and matrices.  I also found myself fascinated by the NetFlix prize and machine learning, and so I picked up a couple of those books and discovered, again, yeah, I need some math.
But how does someone whose calendar is all full of important things like yoga classes, martial arts, mothering and actual work fit in learning math?  I mean, big math.  Calculus and linear algebra are a bare minimum to even get through the intro chapters in these books – but I don’t want to spend hundreds of hours listening to someone spoon-feed me the stuff.  I want the matrix version of “I know Linear Algebra!”  And here’s where ALEKS comes in – it’s a website which will run you through various math topics, and it really does an excellent job of teaching.  It’s excellent as enrichment for kids, and the parents get groovy reports and pie charts and everything.  And if, like me, you enjoy the game of filling up your various pie chart pieces – and the math is not terribly alien to you – you can learn (or relearn) quite a bit in a reasonably short amount of time.  I took AP Calculus in high school (um, that was a while ago) so I started with “AP Calculus Review”.  Started at 39%, in 2 weeks worked my way up to 97% and so I switched to “College Algebra with Trigonometry” – started at 42% a week ago (the overlap isn’t nearly as large as one might think) and now I’m up to 66%.
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Now, Aleks doesn’t go high enough for me – it stops at College Algebra with Trig, so I’m going to have to tackle real Calculus and Linear Algebra on my own.  But starting from “Just got through all of these topics” is going to make that a lot easier.  I’m still poking along with it (the current topics are much chewier than the earlier ones), but I’ve also started working on my Linear Algebra.  I bought a textbook,  but I also discovered an online text which seems more my speed.  Seems that Linear Algebra texts are the texts that math professors love to hate, and several of those professors have just written their own.  For Calculus I’m going to wait until I’ve slogged through all of my ALEKS pieces, and I have a nice little book.  And a DVD tutorial set with a helpful professor.
Once I’m done with those things I should be able to tackle my algorithms, machine learning, pathing, and recalcitrant computer books.  And then the robotics team and my boss can arm wrestle and figure out what stuff I can work on.
[1]And seriously, I’m just a little tired of web applications.  If nothing else, robots mean you never have to worry about Firefox’s Javascript implementation.  

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