The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

The best thing I read today was a short story by E.M. Forster titled “The Machine Stops.” I found out about it while reading Atul Gawande’s tribute to Oliver Sacks.

“The Machine Stops” is a story about over-reliance on technology,in which people live alone in small podlike rooms in a honeycomb of vast underground cities spread across the globe. The physical comforts of food, clothing, and shelter are all taken care of by the global Machine. We meet a female protagonist named Vashti, who has to simply press a button to receive food or listen to music or summon a hot-bath :

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. She opened with a humorous account of music in the pre Mongolian epoch, and went on to describe the great outburst of song that followed the Chinese conquest. Remote and primæval as were the methods of I-San-So and the Brisbane school, she yet felt (she said) that study of them might repay the musicians of today: they had freshness; they had, above all, ideas. Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she fed, talked to many friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.

And how Vashti’s son named Kuno wanted to meet his mother face-to-face:

The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.

Who knew that a story published more than 100 years ago would be so prescient of the world that is today–with social media pulling us at every angle, allowing Sacks to lament how it can absorb people, “to the exclusion of everything else, throughout their waking hours.”

The story reminds me of 1984, Blade Runner, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” It’s definitely worth reading. You can follow the link or purchase a Kindle edition of the short story for $0.99 here.

On the Pleasures of Not Reading

Dan Piepenbring, web editor of The Paris Review, pens a great piece about the pleasures of not reading.

Given the curious mix of flux and stability that describes our lives as readers—sorry, our lives, period—it’s next to impossible to know when we’re really missing out. A lot of the tragedy in the consumer preference algorithms deployed by Amazon and Netflix is in seeing the limits of your own taste: in recognizing how many things you will definitively not enjoy, and wondering by what aesthetic contortion you could find something new.Must Love Dogs has always been there for me; why have I so steadfastly refused to be there for it?

This gives rise to a kind of nervous contrarianism: we deny authors who would clearly suit us, and seek out those who will almost certainly disappoint us, all in the name of eclecticism. And soon enough, it seems that what passes as taste is an arbitrary extension of our insecurities and neuroses, and that an insane hubris undergirds every value judgment, and that the best thing to do would be to start over, bringing no preconceptions at all into our lives as readers. This is a position I find myself in about once a day. On that point, at least, I can agree entirely with Jones: I am always crushed by how many books I have not read.

This is a timely essay for me: I haven’t been doing much (or as much as I would like) reading in the last month or two…

The Millennial Generation and Communal Living

An interesting piece in The New York Times profiles how a certain subset of the millennial generation is choosing to live in a communal apartment. While your credit history doesn’t matter, you have to pass an interview to get accepted to live in one of these places:

[A] few companies are assembling bundles of apartments in New York with plans to fill them with cherry-picked inhabitants. Promising “a modern, urban lifestyle that values openness, collaboration and relationship building,” Common has entered into agreements with developers to renovate properties in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. This fall, it will begin renting 19 rooms at a Crown Heights property.

“We live in a super-disconnected city that has tons and tons of people, but it can feel really lonely here,” said Harrison Iuliano, who until last week worked as the programming director of Pure House, which rents out rooms to about 40 people in nine apartments in various buildings around Williamsburg. “Our goal is to make that a nonissue.”

Russell Jackson relinquished a studio six months ago to live in a six-bedroom Pure House apartment with a rotating cast (he presently has three flat mates). “I’m getting exposure to stuff and things that I would not have had sequestered on the Upper West Side,” said Mr. Jackson, a 52-year-old chef.

“Laundry services and cleaners and masseuses — all of that is icing,” he said. The real perks are the people he has met along the way. “How cool is it that I walk in the door and they ask me, ‘How’s your day?’ And I am genuinely interested in hearing from them,” said Mr. Jackson, who considers himself the Den Dad to the other tenants, who generally are two or three decades his junior and stay a month or two at a time.

Mr. Jackson, who has appeared on “Iron Chef America,” also orchestrates Pure House’s food events, including its pop-up dinner parties. At one such party, none of the 30 guests knew one another, but most embraced when the night was over…

I think this kind of thing can take off in large urban center like NYC and San Francisco. I’m less convinced that it could take off in larger, spread out cities like Atlanta.

On the Future of Machine Intelligence

This is a very thought-provoking read on the future of machine intelligence and how we will cope with its advancement. The author, Douglas Coupland, begins the narrative with some hypothetical apps that track data (geolocation, etc.) and then paints a dystopian view:

To summarise. Everyone, basically, wants access to and control over what you will become, both as a physical and metadata entity. We are also on our way to a world of concrete walls surrounding any number of niche beliefs. On our journey, we get to watch machine intelligence become profoundly more intelligent while, as a society, we get to watch one labour category after another be systematically burped out of the labour pool. (Doug’s Law: An app is only successful if it puts a lot of people out of work.)

The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

Do we at least want to have free access to anything on the internet? Well yes, of course. But it’s important to remember that once a freedom is removed from your internet menu, it will never come back. The political system only deletes online options — it does not add them. The amount of internet freedom we have right now is the most we’re ever going to get.

I found the notion of Artificial Intuition (as opposed to Artificial Intelligence) worth highlighting:

Artificial Intuition happens when a computer and its software look at data and analyse it using computation that mimics human intuition at the deepest levels: language, hierarchical thinking — even spiritual and religious thinking. The machines doing the thinking are deliberately designed to replicate human neural networks, and connected together form even larger artificial neural networks. It sounds scary . . . and maybe it is (or maybe it isn’t). But it’s happening now. In fact, it is accelerating at an astonishing clip, and it’s the true and definite and undeniable human future.

Worth reading in its entirety.


Note: I usually don’t link to The Financial Times (because of its stringent paywall), but at the time of this post, the article is free to access.

On Learning Data Science

I’ve been learning more about data science in the last couple of months and recently stumbled upon a very good blog post from Dataquest on how to learn data science.

First, it’s important that there is some inherent motivation to learn data science:

Nobody ever talks about motivation in learning. Data science is a broad and fuzzy field, which makes it hard to learn. Really hard. Without motivation, you’ll end up stopping halfway through and believing you can’t do it, when the fault isn’t with you – it’s with the teaching.

You need something that will motivate you to keep learning, even when it’s midnight, formulas are starting to look blurry, and you’re wondering if this will be the night that neural networks finally make sense.

You need something that will make you find the linkages between statistics, linear algebra, and neural networks. Something that will prevent you from struggling with the “what do I learn next?” question.

My entry point to data science was predicting the stock market, although I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the first programs I coded to predict the stock market involved almost no statistics. But I knew they weren’t performing well, so I worked day and night to make them better.

There are good links throughout, including 100 data sets for statistics.

I like the suggestions on communicating your findings and/or your learning process:

Part of communicating insights is understanding the topic and theory well. Another part is understanding how to clearly organize your results. The final piece is being able to explain your analysis clearly.

It’s hard to get good at communicating complex concepts effectively, but here are some things you should try:

Start a blog. Post the results of your data analysis.

Try to teach your less tech-savvy friends and family about data science concepts. It’s amazing how much teaching can help you understand concepts…

More resources and links here.

The Cascadia Earthquake

A thought-provoking, and frightening, piece by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker on the very big earthquake that is likely to strike the Pacific Northwest sometime in the future:

The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves. That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems, such as those in use throughout Japan, to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover. The Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system. When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest.

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

Worth reading in entirety.

The Difficulty in Translating Seinfeld to Other Languages


This Verge piece profiles the difficulty in translating the sitcom Seinfeld to other languages. In particular, the show has had difficulty finding a solid audience in Europe (such as in Germany). Seinfeld often relied on word-based humor, American customs, and Jewish references–difficult to convey to other cultures.

Jokes are the hardest things to translate into another language, another culture, another world. A good script for dubbing an American sitcom for foreign consumption does more than literally translate. It manages to convey the same meaning, the same feeling, the same story — the same direct hit to the lower frontal lobes of the brain that produces a laugh, even though those frontal lobes are steeped in a completely different cultural brew.

More so than the average American sitcom, Seinfeld has had difficulty reaching global audiences. While it’s popular in Latin America, it hasn’t been widely accepted in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Two decades after it went off the air, Seinfeld remains relevant to American audiences — thanks in part to omnipresent syndicated reruns — but in much of Europe it is considered a cult hit, and commonly relegated to deep-late-night time slots. Its humor, it seems, is just too complicated, too cultural and word-based, to make for easy translation.

An interesting note on dubbing:

According to Israel-based translation company Trans-That, among European countries, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain tend to opt for the more expensive option of dubbing, while smaller countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands prefer subtitles. Dubbing countries often have a long history with the practice that goes back to the beginnings of the film industry. In the 1930s, when many American films were being exported to Europe, the strong preference for dubbing grew out of nationalist concerns — preserving language meant preserving cultural identity. In these countries, entire industries developed around dubbing. Today, certain voice actors will specialize in playing specific American stars, to the point where audiences expect to hear their voice each time they go to see, say, a Tom Cruise movie.

Lip-synch dubbing, despite its ultimate benefits, can get very complicated. It’s not just that the lines may not translate directly — they also have to take just as long to say in both languages and approximate, to the best of their abilities, the lip movements of the original actors. That can pose an added challenge when translating from laconic languages like English into verbose languages like German. And Seinfeld was already a very wordy show, making accurate translation that much more critical.

Definitely worth reading in entirety if you’re a big fan of Seinfeld.