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World domination through machine learning: a review of The Master Algorithm

Pedro Domingos likes big ideas. He sets out to describe to us how computers can write their own programs. For example, there is the well-established case of handwriting recognition. This is a form of machine learning in which the computer is provided with sufficient examples (and a training set) to enable the machine to learn to do something. If you show the machine the number “9” written enough ways, the machine eventually becomes as good or even better than a human at recognising a handwritten “9”.

Unfortunately, he alternates between very sensible and clear description like this, and sweeping optimistic generalisations. Mr Domingos is in no doubt who the new masters of the world are going to be. In his potted description of commerce, he describes the how “the progression from computers to the Internet to machine learning was inevitable ... once the inevitable happens and learning algorithms become the middlemen, power becomes concentrated in them.” In fact, there is no future for any company without using machine learning: “a company without machine learning can’t keep up with one that uses it ... businesses embrace it because they have no choice.” That’s a very stern conclusion!

Sparklines: Beautiful Evidence or Muddled Graphics?

Do you understand this graphic? It is an example of a sparkline, by Edward Tufte. Tufte was, if not the originator of sparklines, one of its earliest advocates. He wrote about them in his book Beautiful Evidence (2006); he defines sparklines as “small, intense, wordlike graphics, embedded in the context of words and numbers”. Tufte’s ideas were very influential and were taken up by Microsoft in their 2010 release of Excel. But I don't agree with him about sparklines. 

The seven classic books about computing

Library Image by Dmitrij Paskevic (CC0)

 

The books I’m thinking about might not be quite as old as the ones in the photo, but at least some of them will have I hope the patina of age. One of the slightly poignant aspects of working in computing is that the skills of many gifted individuals working in IT is lost within a few years – even if they commit their thoughts to a book. Unlike a novel or a work of art, the solutions and tools created by (say) Kernighan and Ritchie in The C Programming Language will one day be completely forgotten, as new languages and new processes replace them. That seems a shame.

The Lean Startup, or how the best entrepreneurs don’t listen to customers

 

"We really did have customers in those early days— true visionary early adopters— and we often talked to them and asked for their feedback. But we emphatically did not do what they said." This startling admission appears in the first page of The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries (2011). Should we congratulate him on his fresh approach, or laugh at him for missing the only true guidance that product development can trust, that is, the customer? The truth is somewhere between the two. Ries has written a book that some have labelled a key management text of the 21st century, while to a more jaundiced eye it reads like so many business books that come from America, combining evangelical fervour with rather dubious and questionable statements that have not been tested.

Classic computing titles: The Inmates are running the Asylum

Whatever they teach you on a computing degree, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient to create an effective web site. One of the paradoxes of the modern world is that we are surrounded by IT, and yet those who have studied IT formally seem often incapable of creating software that genuinely meets our needs – a glance at a few developer-led websites is often sufficient to demonstrate that. Alan Cooper’s book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, although published some fifteen years ago, provides an idea why that might be. The author himself has a highly respectable track record as a developer – he was responsible for Visual Basic, so he can claim some understanding of the programming process, and of the programming mentality. So if he says that programming alone is not sufficient, then you are right to take notice. Everyone with an involvement in IT, whether as a user, or as an information professional as a sponsor and influencer could benefit from his assessment of how programmers think.

 

The Accidental Taxonomist

Hedden, H., 2010. The accidental taxonomist, Medford, N.J.: Information Today.

Heather Hedden has written an excellent introductory manual for anyone involved in setting up, running or expanding a taxonomy or thesaurus. Unlike many books on the subject, this is one for the practitioner, based on lots of practical experience — as Patrick Lambe describes it in his foreword, “this is taxonomy from 100 feet”.

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