Machine (re)learning: Neural Networks from scratch

Having recently changed roles, I am now in the enviable position of starting to do some work with machine learning (ML) tools. My undergraduate degree was actually in Artificial Intelligence, but that was over a decade ago, which is a long time in computer science in general, let alone the field of Machine Learning and AI which has progressed massively in the last few years.

So needless to say, coming back to it there has been a lot to learn. In the future I will write a bit more about some of the available tools and libraries that exist these days (both expanding on the traditional AI Stanford libraries I have mentioned previously with my tweet sentiment analysis, plus newer frameworks that cover "deep learning").

Anyway, inspired by this post, I thought it would be a fun Sunday night refresher to write my own neural network. The first, and last, time that I wrote a neural network was for my final year dissertation (and that code is long gone), so was writing from first principals. The rest of this post will be a very straight forward introduction to the ideas and the code for a basic single layer neural network with a simple sigmoid activation function. I am training and testing on a very simple labeled data set and with the current configuration it scores 90% on the un-seen classification tests.  I am by no means any kind of expert in this field, and there are plenty of resources and papers written by people who are inventing this stuff as we speak, but this will be more the musings of someone re-learning this stuff.

As always, all the code is on GitHub (and, as per my change in roles, this time it is all written in Scala).

A brief overview

The basic idea is that a Neural Network(NN) attempts to mimic the parallel architecture of the human brain. The human brain is a massive network of billions of simple neural cells that are interconnected, and given a stimulus they each either "fire" or don't, and its these firing neural cells and synapses that enable us to learn (excuse my crude explanation, I'm clearly not a biologist..).

So that is what we are trying to build: A connected network of neurons that given some stimuli either "fire" or don't.

A Neuron

Ok, so this seems like a sensible place to start, right? We all know what a network is, so what are these nodes in our network that we are connecting? These are the decision points, and in themselves are incredibly simple. They are basically a function that takes n input values  and multiplies them by a pre-defined weight (per input), adds a bias and then runs it through an activation function (think of this as our fire/don't-fire function):

In terms of our code, this is pretty simple (don't worry about the sigmoid derivative values we are setting, we are just doing this to save time later):

As you can see, the neuron holds the state about the weights of the different inputs (a NN is normally fixed in terms of number of neurons, so once initialised at the start we know that we will get the same number of inputs).

You may have also noticed the first line of the class, where we require an ActivationFunction to be applied - as I mentioned, this is our final processing of the output. In this example I am just using the Sigmoid function:

As you can see, it's a pretty simple function. Much like the brain, the neurons are very simple processors, and its only the combination of them that makes the brain so powerful (or deep learning, for that matter)

The network

Ok, so a sinple "shallow" NN has an input layer, a single hidden layer and an output layer (deep NNs will have multiple hidden layers).  The network is fully connected between layers - that is to say, each node is connected to every node in the next layer up, and thats it - no neurons are connected to other layers and no connections are missed.

The exact setup of the network is largely problem dependent, but there are some observations:

  1. - The input layer has to correlate to your inputs: If you have a data set that has two input values, let's say you have a dataset that contains house price data, and you have the input values number of rooms and square foot then you would have to have two input neurons.

  2. - Similarly, if you were using the NN for a classification problem and you know you have a fixed number of classifications, the output neurons would correlate to that. For example, consider you were using the NN to recognise hand written digits (0-9) then you would likely have 10 output neurons to group those possible outputs.

 The number of hidden neurons, or the number of layers is a lot more problem dependent and is something that needs to be tuned per problem.

If you have ever worked with graph type structures in code before, then setting up a simple network of these neurons is also relatively straight forward given the uniform structure of the network.

The weights

Oh right, yes. So all these neurons are connected, but its a weighted graph, in CS terms. That is, the connection between each node is assigned a weight - as a simple example, if we take the house price dataset as an example, after looking at the data we might determine that the number of rooms is a more significant factor in the end result, so that connection should have a greater weighting than the other input.  Now that is not exactly what happens, but in simple terms it's a good way of thinking about it.

Given that the end goal is for the NN to learn from the data, it really doesn't matter too much what we initialise the weights for all the connections to, so at start-up we can just assign random values. Just think of our NN as a newborn baby - it has no idea how important different inputs are, or how important the different neural cells that fire in response to the stimuli are - everything is just firing off all over the place as they slowly start to learn!

So what next?

Ok, so we have our super-simple neurons, that just mimic a single brain cell and we have them connected in a structured but randomly weighted fashion, so how does the network learn? Well, this is the interesting bit..

When it comes to training the network we need a pretty large dataset to allow it to be able to learn enough to start generalising - but at the same time, we don't want to train it on all the data, as we want to hold some back to test it at the end, just to see just how smart it really is.

In AI terms, we are going to be performing "supervised" learning - this just means that we will train it with a dataset where we know the correct answer, so we can make adjustments based on how well (or badly) the network is doing - this is different to "unsupervised" learning, where we have lots of data, but we don't have the right answer for each data point.

Training: Feed forward

The first step is the "feed-forward" step - this is where we grab the first record from our training data set and feed the inputs into our randomly initialised NN, that input is fed through the all of the neurons in the NN until we get to the output layer and we have the networks attempt at the answer. As the weighting is all random, this is going to be way off (imagine a toddlers guess the first time they ever see a smart phone).

As you can see, the code is really simple, just iterate through the layers calculating the output for each neuron. Now, as this is supervised learning we also have the expected output for the dataset, and this means we can work out how far off the network is and attempt to adjust the weights in the network so that next time it performs a bit better.

Training: Back propogation

This is where the magic, and the maths, comes in.  The TL;DR overview for this is basically, we know how wrong the network was in its guess, so we attempt to update each of the connection weights based on that error, and to do so we use differentiation to work out the direction to go to minimise the error.

This took a while of me staring at equations and racking my brain trying to remember my A-level maths stuff to get this, and even so, I wouldn't like to have to go back and attempt to explain this to my old maths teacher, but I'm happy I have enough of a grasp of what is going on, having now coded it up.

In a very broad, rough overview, here is what we are going to do now:

  1. - Cacluate the squared error of the outputs. That is a fairly simple equation of
    1/2 * (target - output)^2

  2. - From there, we will work out the derivative of this function. A lot of the errors we will start to work with now uses differentiation and the derivatives of the result - and this takes a little bit of calculus, but the basic reason is relatively straight forward if you think about what differentiation is for.

  3. - We work back through the network, calculating the errors for every neuron combining the error, derivatives and the weighting (to determine how much a particular connection played in an error, it also needs to be considered when correcting the weighting.

Once we have adjusted the weight for each connection based on the weight, we start again and run the next training data record.  Given the variation in the dataset, the next training record might be quite different to the previous record trained on, so the adjustment might be quite different, so after lots (maybe millions) of iterations over the data, incrementally tweaking and adjusting the weights for the different cases, hopefully it starts to converge on something like a reasonable performance.

Maths fun: Why the derivative of the errors?

So, why is calculating the derivative relevant in adjusting the errors?

If you imagine the network as a function of all the different weights, its pretty complicated, but if we were to reduce this, for the sake of easier visualisation, to just be a 3-d space of possible points (e.g. we have just 3 weights to adjust, and those weights are plotted on a 3-d graph) - now imagine our function plots a graph something like this:

(taken from the wikipedia page on partial derivatives)

The derivative of the function allows us to work out the direction of the slope in the graph from a given point, so with our three current weights (co-ordinates) we can use the derivative to work out the direction in which we need to adjust these weights.


The whole NN in scala is currently on Github, and there isn't much more code than I have included here.  I have found it pretty helpful to code it up from scratch and actually have to think about it - and has been fun coding it up and seeing it train up to getting 90% accuracy on the unseen data set I was using (just a simple two-in two-out dataset, so not that impressive).

Next up I will see how the network performs against the MNIST dataset (like the Hello-World benchmark for machine learning, and is the classification of handwritten digits).

Oh, and if you are interested as to why the images look like a dodgy photocopy, they are photos of original diagrams that I included in my final year dissertation in university, just for old time sake!


RESTful API Design: An opinionated guide

This is very much an opinionated rant about APIs, so it's fine if you have a different opinion. These are just my opinions. Most of the examples I talk through are from the Stack Exchange or GitHub API - this is mostly just because I consider them to be well designed APIs that are well documented, have non-authenticated public endpoints and should be familiar domains to a lot of developers.

URL formats


Ok, lets get straight to one of the key aspects. Your API is a collection of URLs that represent resources in your system that you want to expose. The API should expose these as simply as possible - to the point that if someone was just reading the top level URLs they would get a good idea of the primary resources that exist in your data model (e.g. any object that you consider a first-class entity in itself). The Stack Exchange API is a great example of this. If you read through the top level URLs exposed you will probably find they match the kind of domain model you would have guessed:


And whilst there is no expectation that there will be anyone attempting to guess your URLs, I would say these are pretty obvious. What’s more, if I was a client using the API I could probably have a fair shot and understanding these URLs without any further documentation of any kind.

Identifying resources

To select a specific resource based on a unique identifier (an ID, a username etc) then the identifier should be part of the URL. Here we are not attempting to search or query for something, rather we are attempting to access a specific resource that we believe should exist. For example, if I were to attempt to access the GitHub API for my username: I am expecting the concrete resource to exist.

The pattern is as follows (elements in square braces are optional):

Where including an identifier will return just the identified resource, assuming one exists, else returning a 404 Not Found (so this differs from filtering or searching where we might return a 200 OK and an empty list) - although this can be flexible, if you prefer to return an empty list also for identified resources that don’t exist, this is also a reasonable approach, once again, as long as it is consistent across the API (the reason I go for a 404 if the ID is not found is that normally, if our system is making a request with an ID, it believes that the ID is valid and if it isn't then its an unexpected exception, compared to if our system was querying filtering user by sign-up dates then its perfectly reasonable to expect the scenario where no user is found).


A lot of the time our data model will have natural hierarchies - for example StackOverflow Questions might have several child Answers etc. These nested hierarchies should be reflected in the URL hierarchy, for example, if we look at the Stack Exchange API for the previous example:

Again, the URL is (hopefully) clear without further documentation what the resource is: it is all answers that belong to the identified questions.

This approach naturally allows many levels of nesting as necessary using the same approach, but as many resources are top level entities as well, then this prevents you needing to go much further than the second level. To illustrate, let’s consider we wanted to extend the query for all answers to a given question, to instead query all comments for an identified answer - we could naturally extend the previous URL pattern as follows

But as you have probably recognised, we have /answers as a top level URL, so the additional prefixing of /questions/{ids} is surplus to our identification of the resource (and actually, supporting the unnecessary nesting would also mean additional code and validation to ensure that the identified answers are actually children of the identified questions)

There is one scenario where you may need this additional nesting, and that is when a child resource’s identifier is only unique in the context of its parent. A good example of this is Github’s user & repository pairing. My Github username is a global, unique identifier, but the name of my repositories are only unique to me (someone else could have a repository the same name as one of mine - as is frequently the case when a repository is forked by someone). There are two good options for representing these resources:

  1. The nested approach described above, so for the Github example the URL would look like:

    I like this as it consistent with the recursive pattern defined previously and it is clear what each of the variable identifiers is relating to.

  2. Another viable option, the approach that Github actually uses is as follows:

    This changes the repeating pattern of {RESOURCE}/{IDENTIFIER} (unless you just consider the two URL sections as the combined identifier), however the advantage is that the top level entity is what you are actually fetching - in other words, the URL is serving a repository, so that is the top level entity.

Both are reasonable options and really come down to preference, as long as it's consistent across your API then either is ok.

Filtering & additional parameters

Hopefully the above is fairly clear and provides a high level pattern for defining resource URLs. Sometimes we want to go beyond this and filter our resources - for example we might want to filter StackOverflow questions by a given tag. As hinted at earlier, we are not sure of any resources existence here, we are simply filtering - so unlike with an incorrect identifier we don’t want to 404 Not Found the response, rather return an empty list.
Filtering controls should be entered as part of the URL query parameters (e.g. after the first ? in the URL). Parameter names should be specific and understandable and lower case. For example:

All the parameters are clear and make it easy for the client to understand what is going on (also worth noting that for example returns an empty list, not a 404 Not Found). You should also keep your parameter names consistent across the API - for example if you support common functions such as sorting or paging on multiple endpoints, make sure the parameter names are the same.


As should be obvious in the previous sections, we don’t want verbs in our URLs, so you shouldn’t have URLs like /getUsers or /users/list etc. The reason for this is the URL defines a resource not an action. Instead, we use the HTTP methods to describe the action: GET, POST, PUT, HEAD, DELETE etc.


Like many of the RESTful topics, this is hotly debated and pretty divisive. Very broadly speaking, two approaches to define API versioning is:
  • Part of the URL
  • Not part of the URL
Including the version in the URL will largely make it easier for developers to map their endpoints to versions etc, but for clients consuming the API it can make it harder (often they will have to go and find-and-replace API URLs to upgrade to a new version). It can also make HTTP caching harder - if a client POSTs to /v2/users then the underlying data will change, so the cache for GET-ting users from /v2/users is now invalid, however, the API versioning doesn’t affect the underlying data so that same POST has also invalidated the cache for /v1/users etc. The Stack Exchange API uses this approach (as of writing their API us based at

If you choose to not include the version in your API then two possible approaches are HTTP request headers or using content-negotiation. This can be trickier for the API developers (depending on framework support etc), and can also have the side affect of clients being upgraded without knowing it (e.g. if they don’t realise they can specify the version in the header, they will default to the latest).  The GitHub API uses this approach

I think this sums it up quite nicely:

Response format

JSON is the RESTful standard response format. If required you can also provide other formats (XML/YAML etc), which would normally be managed using content negotiation.

I always aim to return a consistent response message structure across an API. This is for ease of consumption and understanding across calling clients.

Normally when I build an API, my standard response structure looks something like this::

[ code: "200", response: [ /** some response data **/ ] ]

This does mean that any client always needs to navigate down one layer to access the payload, but I prefer the consistency this provides, and also leaves room for other metadata to be provided at the top level (for example, if you have rate limiting and want to provide information regarding remaining requests etc, this is not part of the payload but can consistently sit at the top level without polluting the resource data).

This consistent approach also applies to error messages - the code (mapping to HTTP Status codes) reflects the error, and the response in this case is the error message returned.

Error handling

Make use of the HTTP status codes appropriately for errors. 2XX status codes for successful requests, 3XX status codes for redirecting, 4xx codes for client errors and 5xx codes for server errors (you should avoid ever intentionally returning a 500 error code - these should be used for when unexpected things go wrong within your application).

I combine the status code with the consistent JSON format described above.