“I just read books.”

Others, like Willard McCarty for one, are much more the historians of computational humanities as well as representations of computers and reading than I am, but every time I watch Three Days of the Condor I am taken both by some of the initial scenes of machine reading and by the protagonist’s later description of his work:

I work for the CIA. I’m not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world, and we … we feed the plots … dirty tricks, codes into a computer, and the computer … checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and … journals. I … I can … Who’d invent a job like that?

The latter scene is available on MovieClips, but that infrastructure is overwrought with Flash Player requirements so they can shovel ads at you. I can’t find the former scene anywhere. I will try to find a way to post them.

What I find interesting is that the opening scene suggests that books are consumed in toto: the viewer is presented with images of books being scanned, pages being turned, entirely by machines. But what Redford’s character asserts is that the books are transformed somehow into “plots” and “codes”.

Fascinating, but what to do with it? I don’t know. For now they go into the drawer in my cabinet of curiosities marked “machine reading”. Maybe Yung-Hsing Wu will have a need for them at some point.

Here’s a Youtube video of the opening credits. It’s from an Italian source, so the voices will be dubbed later in the clip:

If the video doesn’t work, here’s the sequence as I view it:

A teletype prints out two columns of text: on the left are lines that appear to be foreign words of an inscrutable nature — KANG JEAN CHAR GWON DYI FARNG TSANG — and on the right are English words — TO THE ONE HE HAD JUST IN-. Superimposed are the beginning of the opening credits DINO DE LAURENTIIS PRESENTS in a futuristic typeface — which might very well be a representation of “machine readable” type (at the very least it is supposed to be “computer-ish”):

The very first shot of "The Three Days of the Condor"

The very first shot of “The Three Days of the Condor”

The next shot is a machine reading a book. We can “see” it reading because a line of light moves across the spread pages, held down by a metallic arm. As the machine finishes, the camera swirls about it. We see the arm that has been holding the pages down lift up and another arm reach over to turn the page. As the camera continues to swirl about, a figure moves into the frame, a woman, who appears to be checking the work of the machine.

The Reading Machine

The Reading Machine

We follow the woman, from the other side of the machine, as she moves to the teletype, again as if checking the results. She picks up the printout and then lays it back down again. As she does this, the camera continues to circle around and we are again on the same side of the machines as the woman. She then moves onto the “data bank” machine in between the reading machine and the teletype: she checks some settings, flips some switches, removes a spool.

Checking the Data

Checking the Data

From there we follow the woman into another office where debate over a plot point in a story is already in full swing.

When I have the time, I want to read more science fiction. When I read more science fiction, I like it when someone has already given me a sense of what is worth reading and what is not worth reading. It’s not because I will follow their advice, but if I get part way into a story and find myself struggling to want to finish it, it’s nice to know someone else had the same reaction — and it’s just as nice to race through a story constantly saying “Wow!” out loud because the writing is so good and know that somebody also had that reaction.

In other words, I guess I don’t like to read alone. Well, I do, but I like to know other people are out there.


And so thank you to Locus magazine for reviewing a month’s worth of science fiction periodical contents. Very cool. And so thank you to Slashdot to linking to the Cory Doctorow video that he himself linked to on BoingBoing but then that got me reading BoingBoing and Doctorow links to himself a lot and I actually clicked on one of those links, and while the link itself — the one about how to talk about the future that was in Locus magazine on-line — turned out to be really not worth reading — see, I have now returned the favor! — there was other stuff on Locus that was worth reading.

Doctorow, by the way, is a very smart guy, and prolific to boot. So if he occasionally publishes something that doesn’t quite hit the mark, he also regularly publishes stuff which is not only very smart but completely from his heart. In fact, he is not only to be admired for the way he conducts his career but to be emulated. And by that I mean me. I want to write more from my heart and less from the weird technocratic perspective that a lot of academic publishing requires.

And, sigh, that probably means that I will be less successful as an academic than I would like — I’ll admit it, I would like to be successful in terms of being cited and linked, but my editor at the University Press of Mississippi assured me that my prose is too novelistic for most academics. It’s not very quotable in the traditional, scholarly way.

And sigh again.

Reading on an iPad during/as Prime Time

Apps like Read It Later do collect interesting kinds of data from their users. Interesting in the aggregate: it would appear that one of the things that iPad users are doing is spending their evening hours on the couch not watching television but reading. (Or perhaps both.) There are a variety of cool graphs and charts at the link.

Reading Ruskin

During one of my business trips to London in the late nineties I picked up two books by Ruskin. Bother were published by George Allen of 156 Charing Cross Road. I gave one of the books to Henry Glassie as a thank you for being my dissertation director. I kept the other book, which is entitled “The Two Paths.” I have picked it up now and again and read here and there, but as I focus more seriously on getting “The Makers of Things” written I thought what better way to start the enterprise than to read Ruskin?

“The Two Paths” is particularly interesting, I think, because it is subtitled: “Being Lectures on Art and Its Application to Decoration and Manufacture.” Close to my topic, and here was Ruskin thinking, and talking about it, in lectures delivered in 1858-1859.

I’m happily reading along when I came across this happy character:


I liked him so much I have decided to make him my mascot for the time being. (I am fairly certain he must be in the public domain by now.)

Ruskin rules!