Machine Learning Explosion

[Why the explosion in machine learning?][q] As always, major and minor reasons. Major reason? Data. Lots and lots of data, both because we human beings have put so much up ourselves, but also because businesses, and other organizations — Hello!, NSA! (Call when you’re ready to talk about how I can help!) — have collected so much. And that’s the minor reason right there, if one can consider it minor: organizations want to “learn” things from all this data.


“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.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers

NASA’s JPL has a nice photo of two engineers standing with three generations of Mars rovers. There’s quite a difference in size when you start with Sojourner (1997) which looks like a large radio-controlled car. Next up in size were Spirit and Opportunity (2004), which are about the size of a small four wheeler. Finally there’s this year’s Curiosity, which is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

This is a small version of the image. [Bigger versions are available at the JPL website](

Flying Lawnmower

Perhaps this is best described as an internet moment, though I think this kind of smart aleckiness has always been around — smart alecks just have more and better sources of material in our present age, but a story on ArsTechnica about Iran’s capture of a fairly low tech surveillance drone, described by the writer as the equivalent of a lawn mower, made it possible for one commenter to post a link to [an actual flying lawnmower](

Speaking of imagination, [Melvin the Machine]( is a short film, about four or five minutes, about a Rube Goldberg machine that travels in two suitcases and does nothing more than stamp a postcard with “Wish you were here” and then affix postage. Well worth the watch.

Like The Unfinished Swan, Melvin the Machine came to me via [The Verge](