Character Heatmaps in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

This post is a continuation of a series where I use natural language processing (NLP) to analyze the text of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time (ISLT). Here is the Python code for this series.

In my previous post I showed that the five most frequently mentioned characters in ISLT are Albertine (2338 mentions), Swann (1338), Charlus (1303), Robert Saint-Loup (1091) and Odette (971). But when do these references occur?

Readers of ISLT know that characters come and go as the story progresses. Swann and Odette play prominent roles in Volume 1 (Swann’s Way), whereas Albertine does not enter the story until Volume 2, coming to the fore as an object of the Narrator’s obsessions in Volumes 5 (The Prisoner) and 6 (The Fugitive).

I thought it would be interesting to try and visualize these transitions, so I recorded the chapter and paragraph of each reference of each character, in effect producing “coordinates” for every portion ofthe text. For example, the first proper name in the text (appropriately, François Ier), is (1, 1). I counted the number of references for each name within each of the 486 chapters.

These counts constitute a kind of “character heat map”: when characters are referenced frequently in a chapter, these counts are high, and are zero if a character is not mentioned at all.

I created the following heat map of the top five characters by ripping off some stuff I read on stackoverflow:

The tick marks represent the seven volumes of ISLT and each slender vertical line represents a chapter. Of course, not all chapters are the same length so the diagram is not accurate in that respect. From this visualization you can see the following:

  • Albertine does enter the picture in volume II and dominates volumes V and VI;
  • Odette features heavily in Volume I (especially in “Swann in Love”), with only intermittent appearances thereafter;
  • Saint-Loup is introduced in Volume II and taking over the focus from the Swann-Odette relationship in Volume I;
  • Swann is a central figure in Volume I and has occasional reappearances thereafter. When he enters the story he is typically a central figure.

Proust treats places as characters of their own, so it’s also interesting to examine where places are referenced. Here are four frequently referenced places. Combray is where the story starts, of course, whereas Balbec later becomes a place of relaxation and refuge to which Proust returns repeatedly. Doncières is where Saint-Loup (an aspiring officer) is stationed, and so references to Doncières are correlated to those of Saint-Loup. Paris, the beating heart of society, is mentioned throughout ISLT.

I also produced heat maps of five of the most frequently occurring words (each a theme):

There are other ways to visualize and juxtapose references to characters, places, and concepts, of course, and perhaps in future posts I will explore further.

For the next post in this series, however, we will examine the context in which characters are mentioned. Which are referred to in positive and negative terms, and when do changes in sentiment occur?


Names and Places in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

This post is a continuation of a series where I use natural language processing (NLP) to analyze the text of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time (ISLT). Here is the Python code for this series.

In my previous post I examined which words most frequently occur in ISLT. You may have noticed that both “faire” and “faisait” – variations of the verb “to do” – appear in the list. If we group variations of the same root word together (for example in English, “am”, “are”, and “was” all group with “be”), then we end up with a better characterization of word frequency. This process is called lemmatization. Lemmatizing reduces the number of unique words in ISLT from 38,662 to 20,948.

The table below summarizes word frequencies for this reduced set. Verbs are dominant: “to do” and “to have” on top, closely followed by “to see”, “to be”, “to know”, “to come”, “to take”, “to say”, “to go”, and “to want”.

faire 5669
avoir 4790
voir 3506
être 3307
savoir 2661
venir 2605
dire 2406
aller 2398
vouloir 2378
Albertine 2339
croire 2162
jour 2124
femme 2028
chose 2022
grand 2012
pouvoir 1988
connaître 1934
donner 1856
petit 1827
Twenty most frequently occurring lemmatized words in ISLT

But we should pivot from verbs, shouldn’t we? After all, names and places are of deeper interest to the Narrator of ISLT; in fact the third part of Swann’s Way is called “Place Names: The Name”.

Which names and places are most referenced in ISLT? Using spaCy, I was able to determine the answer. Here are the top 30 names:

Mme de Guermantes897
Mme Verdurin660
Andrée 383
Mme de Villeparisis375
duc de Guermantes328
Mme de Cambremer182
M. Verdurin158
les Verdurin137
Mlle Vinteuil136
The 30 most frequently referenced names in ISLT

There are certain to be some errors in these counts, but I gave it a shot. I tried to combine references to different names for the same individual, for example “Robert” and “Saint-Loup” for Saint-Loup, “Mme Swann” and “Odette” for Odette, “Basin” for duc de Guermantes, and so on. Perhaps in the future I will revise this table slightly as I add to my list of aliases.

I will leave deeper analysis to others, but there are two obvious points worth making. The first is that characters are not always referenced by their proper names. Often definite pronouns such as “you”, “him”, “her”, etc are often used in the text. This analysis fails to account for that fact. To do so, I’d need to trace the reference of each definite pronoun back to its source, which I don’t know how to easily do. (I do know that if I did, the most referenced character in ISLT would be, of course, the narrator Marcel – who is mentioned by name only five times, twice in the second paragraph of chapter 345 and three times in the second paragraph of chapter 356, but as “je” countless times.)

Secondly, in my view, the list itself does reflect the true importance of each character within ISLT. For example, Gilberte is quite a critical figure in ISLT, linking the first volume to the last, and symbolizing the theme of regaining time…however she barely makes the top 10 in terms of frequency. Are there better ways of trying to capture the “deeper significance” of characters within a story? Perhaps a future post will revisit this topic.

Moving on, here are the ten most mentioned places:

The ten most frequently mentioned places in ISLT

(It seems weird that Champs and Élysées are not recognized by spaCy as belonging to a single compound token; I need to look into the details on that.)

In my next post, I will further examine the use of names and places in ISLT.

Text Analytics on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

Seven years ago I analyzed the text of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to find the five longest sentences (in English). This is the first of a series of posts where I use natural language processing (NLP) to analyze the text of Proust’s sprawling, introspective, and intensely human epic.

The Python code supporting this analysis is provided here. I make frequent use of the popular NLP package spaCy in my code. Unlike my previous Proust posts, here I use the original public domain French text as provided by

The complete text of In Search of Lost Time (ISLT) is comprised of seven volumes consisting of 486 chapters. Including chapter titles there are 6,023,707 characters, including punctuation. There are 1,175,999 words in all, and 38,662 unique words. (The average adult English language vocabulary is 20,000-35,000 words.)

Here the five most used words, with their frequencies. They are boring:

The five most frequently used words in ISLT

This is not really what we want, of course; it’s just a bunch of conjunctions, articles, and prepositions – all examples of what the NLP world calls “stop words“. The list of most common words changes significantly when we exclude spaCy’s list of French stop words. The results are given below. Even in a simple analysis such as this, some of ISLT’s key themes emerge: place, time, women, men, Albertine, Swann.

The twenty most frequently occurring words in ISLT, excluding stopwords

Word frequency changes in interesting ways. Here is a plot of the 200 most frequent words; a visual representation of my first table. You can see that the frequency drops off quickly from over 50,000 to under 1,000 quickly, followed by a long tail of seldom-used words:

Frequency plot of the 200 most-used words in ISLT

If I exclude stop words, I get a similar result. The curve seems to fit a power distribution reasonably well.

Frequency plot of the 200 most-used words in ISLT, excluding stop words

In the plot above, the most frequent word “y” has rank 1, the next most frequent word “faire” has rank 2, and so on. It is has been observed that the rank and frequency of words in a large corpus of text often follow’s Zipf’s law. Another interesting writeup of Zipf’s law can be found here.

If we plot the log of the rank and the log of the frequency, Zipf’s law says that the result should be linear. When we do this for all 30,000+ unique words in ISLT, we do see something that roughly follows Zipf’s law:

I don’t know what it means, or if it means anything at all…but it’s interesting.

This is just a start. In future posts I will explore references to characters and places within ISLT, and share some interesting findings.

A Lazier Way to Solve Knuth’s Skeleton Multiplication Puzzle

Last time, I described a solution to the following “skeleton multiplication puzzle” from Don Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming:

        N N N  (1)
x N N N N (2)
N N N 7 (3)
N N N N (4)
N N N N (5)
N N N (6)
7 7 7 7 7 7 (N != 7)

The answer found by Knuth is the following:

        5 3 9  (1)
    x 1 4 4 3  (2)
      1 6 1 7  (3)
    2 1 5 6    (4)
  2 1 5 6      (5)
  5 3 9        (6)
  7 7 7 7 7 7 

I was able to find a second solution where there was a leading zero in row (4). To find it, I considered all the prime factors of 777777 and reasoned about which pairs could fit the pattern of the puzzle.

In this post I want to show you how I originally found this solution.

I wrote a bit of code in Python to express part of the problem as a constraint programming (CSP) model. Instead of trying to work out the solution myself, I write down the conditions that must be true, and let the constraint programming solver do the work.

The basic approach for solving a puzzle using a solver is:

  1. Write down the variables (unknowns) that I want the solver to find.
  2. Write down all of the constraints (logical conditions) that need to be true.
  3. Turn the above into the right API calls for the solver I am using.

Here’s how it works (and here’s a link to my code). I used the python_constraint package as my CSP solver. To specify the puzzle we need a Problem() object:

problem = Problem()

In a CSP I first define variables that I want the solver to find. The variables I care most about are n_1 and n_2. I know that n_1 < 1000 and n_2 < 10000. addVariable‘s first argument is the name of the variable and the second is the domain.

problem.addVariable("n_1", list(range(100, 999+1)))
problem.addVariable("n_2", list(range(1000, 9999+1))) 

I also am interested in the digits of each number. I will call the digits for the first (d_11, d_12, d_13), and the second (d_21, d_22, d_23, d_24). Remember that none of these digits can be a seven.

not_seven = [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9] # no sevens allowed!                

# n_1 = d_13 d_12 d_11                                                      
problem.addVariable("d_13", not_seven)
problem.addVariable("d_12", not_seven)
problem.addVariable("d_11", not_seven)
# n_2 = d_24 d_23 d_22 d_21                                                 
problem.addVariable("d_24", not_seven)
problem.addVariable("d_23", not_seven)
problem.addVariable("d_22", not_seven)
problem.addVariable("d_21", not_seven) 

Now I start writing down conditions that I know to be true. The first is that the product is a bunch of sevens:

problem.addConstraint(lambda n_1, n_2: n_1 * n_2 == 777777, ['n_1', 'n_2'])

Even if you know Python this may be confusing because you may not be familiar with the python_constraint package. The point is that I am providing an anonymous (lambda) function that evaluates the product of n_1 and n_2 as the first argument, and the names of the variables I defined earlier as the second.

Next, if I put the digits d_1x together, I get n_1:

problem.addConstraint(lambda d_11, d_12, d_13, n_1:
                      100 * d_13 + 10 * d_12 + d_11 == n_0,
                      ['d_11', 'd_12', 'd_13', 'n_1'])

Same for n_2:

problem.addConstraint(lambda d_21, d_22, d_23, d_24, n_2:
                      1000 * d_24 + 100 * d_23 + 10 * d_22 + d_21 == n_2,
                      ['d_21', 'd_22', 'd_23', 'd_24', 'n_2']) 

Also, as considered earlier, when I multiply the last two digits of n_1 and n_2, the result must end in 7:

problem.addConstraint(lambda d_11, d_21: (d_11 * d_21) % 10 == 7, ['d_11', 'd_21'])

Now, if I wanted to be complete, I would write down a bunch more conditions for all of the Xs that appear in rows 3-6, using the rules of long multiplication. But why would I want to do that? The point is to be lazy.

Let’s just solve the problem, ask for all the solutions, and print them out.

s = problem.getSolutions()
# s is a list of solutions. Each solution is a dict of variable values.     
     for t in s:
         print(f"{t['n_0']} x {t['n_1']} = {t['n_0'] * t['n_1']}") 

Wow! The same four that I discovered above. This was “easier” for me in the sense that I already knew how to use the python_constraint package, so I could just do the coding above without having to “think”. Doing it “the old fashioned way” was in the end more fun, but requires more deliberation and focus for me.

Knuth skeleton multiplication puzzle.

A Skeleton Multiplication Puzzle by Knuth

I want to share with you two ways to solve an interesting puzzle from Don Knuth’s “The Art of Computer Programming“. Here is the first!

The puzzle that caught my attention, quite by chance, is the “skeleton multiplication puzzle” given in Exercise 50 of Pre-Fascicle 9b (called “A Potpourri of Puzzles”). We want to find two numbers whose product is 777777, but we are given very little information. Here is the puzzle:

        N N N  (1)
    x N N N N  (2)
      N N N 7  (3)
    N N N N    (4)
  N N N N      (5)
  N N N        (6)
  7 7 7 7 7 7  (N != 7)

All of the “Ns” are unknown, and none of them can be a 7. Notice that I’ve numbered the rows (1) – (6) because I am going to obsess about them below.

This doesn’t seem like a lot to go on, does it? I’ll give you some space to think about it, then I will show you Knuth’s solution.


OK, here’s what Knuth says:

“The only 3-digit divisors of 777777 = 3 x 7 x 7 x 11 x 13 x 37 that contain no 7s and don’t end in 1 are (143, 259, 429, 539). Their cofactors are (5439, 3003, 1813, 1443). And only 539 x 1443 gives just seven 7s.”

So that settles that, right? Well, not quite. Let’s dig into the details.

Let’s call the number in row (1) n_1, and the number in row (2) n_2. We want n_1 * n_2 = 777777.

Remember (or perhaps learn for the very first time…) that for every positive integer, there is a unique set of primes whose product is that number. This is called the prime factorization of a number.  We can use the prime factorization of 777777 to narrow down the possibilities for n_1 and n_2.

From Wolfram Alpha, we can get the prime factors: (3, 7, 7, 11, 13, 37).

Since n_1 * n_2 = 777777,  the prime factors of n_1 and n_2 also come from this set. Let’s focus on n_1. If I go through all the subsets of (3, 7, 7, 11, 13, 37) whose product has three digits, here’s what I find. Hopefully I didn’t miss any!

7 * 37 = 259
11 * 13 = 143
11 * 37 = 407
13 * 37 = 481
3 * 7 * 7 = 147 
3 * 7 * 11 = 231
3 * 7 * 13 = 273
3 * 11 * 13 = 429
11 * 13 = 143
3 * 7 * 37 = 777
7 * 7 * 11 = 539
7 * 7 * 13 = 637

But remember that N != 7, so that means:

  • n_1 can’t have a 7 as a digit
  • The last number of n_1 cannot be 1, otherwise the last digit of n_2 would be 7, because the last digit of the product is 7: look at row (3).

So now we’re down to these possibilities:

259 (cofactor is 777777/259=3003)
143 (cofactor 5439)
429 (cofactor 1813)
539 (cofactor 1443)

But a full solution has to avoid 7s in rows (3)-(6). So we need to work out the long multiplication to see which of these possibilities are actually solutions. Go ahead and do that on paper now, or you can cheat here. When you do, you will see that Knuth’s solution using 539 and 1443 does solve the puzzle. Of course it does; he’s Don Frigging Knuth.

But hang on a moment…what about this?

        4 2 9  (1)
    x 1 8 1 3  (2)
      1 2 8 7  (3)
    0 4 2 9    (4)
  3 4 3 2      (5)
  4 2 9        (6)
  7 7 7 7 7 7  

Hey, this works too! This new solution is a bit strange because it has a leading zero in row (4), but nobody said I can’t do that. When I wrote Prof. Knuth, he agreed.

There is one more plot twist. It turns out that what I have written here is *not* the way I discovered this alternate solution; I am far too lazy for that. Instead, I used Python to do the thinking for me. Read more next time!

Creating Equation Haikus using Constraint Programming

Bob Bosch pointed out (in a response to Shea Serrano, wonderfully…) that 77 + 123 = 200 is a haiku in English:

How many such haikus are there? Well, we can use constraint satisfaction (CSP) to give us an idea (Python code here for the impatient):

A traditional haiku consists of three lines: the first line has five syllables, the second seven, and the last five, for a total of seventeen syllables.

We can write equations that describe our problem. First, let’s define the function s[n] as the number of syllables in the English words for n. For example, s[874] = 7; try saying “eight hundred seventy four” out loud. It’s not that hard in English to compute s[n]; at least, I don’t think I messed it up.

Let’s call A the number in the first line of the haiku, B the second, and C the third. If we want a haiku with the right number of syllables and for the equation it describes to hold, all we need is:

s[A] = 5
1 + s[B] = 7 (since “plus” is one syllable)
2 + s[C] = 5 (since “equals” is two syllables)
A + B = C

If you let A=77, B=123, C=200 as in Bob’s example, you will see the above equations hold.

Using the constraint package in Python, it’s easy to create this model and solve it. Here is the code. A great thing about CSP solvers is that they will not just give you one of the solutions to the model, but all the solutions, at least for cases where A, B, C <= 9999. It turns out there are 279 such haikus, including

eight thousand nineteen
plus nine hundred eighty one
equals nine thousand

and the equally evocative

one hundred fourteen
plus one hundred eighty six
equals three hundred

Of course, this is not the only possible form for an equation haiku. For example, why not:

+ B + C
= D

I invite you to modify the code and find other types of equation haikus!

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 2.35.14 PM

Optimizing 19th Century Typewriters

The long title for this post is: “Optimizing 19th Century Typewriters using 20th Century Code in the 21st Century”.

Patrick Honner recently shared Hardmath123’s wonderful article “Tuning a Typewriter“. In it, Hardmath123 explores finding the best way to order the letters A-Z on an old and peculiar typewriter. Rather than having a key for each letter as in a modern keyboard, the letters are laid out on a horizontal strip. You shift the strip left or right to find the letter you want, then press a key to enter it:

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 12.40.38 PM.png

What’s the best way to arrange the letters on the strip? You probably want to do it in such a way that you have to shift left and right as little as possible. If consecutive letters in the words you’re typing are close together on the strip, you will minimize shifting and type faster.

The author’s approach is to:

  • Come up with an initial ordering at random,
  • Compute the cost of the arrangement by counting how many shifts it takes to type out three well-known books,
  • Try to find two letters that when you swap them results in a lower cost,
  • Swap them and repeat until you can no longer find an improving swap.

This is a strong approach that leads to the same locally optimal arrangements, even when you start from very different initial orderings. It turns out that this is an instance of a more general optimization problem with an interesting history: quadratic assignment problems. I will explain what those are in a moment.

Each time I want to type a letter, I have to know how far to shift the letter strip. That depends on two factors:

  1. The letter that I want to type in next, e.g. if I am trying to type THE and I am on “T”, “H” comes next.
  2. The location of the next letter, relative to the current one T. For example, if H is immediately to the left of T, then the location is one shift away.

If I type in a bunch of letters, the total number of shifts can be computed by multiplying two matrices:

  • A frequency matrix F. The entry in row R and column C is a count of how often letter R precedes letter C. If I encounter the word “THE” in my test set, then I will add 1 to F(“T”, “H”) and 1 to F(“H”, “E”).
  • A distance matrix D. The entry in row X and column Y is the number of shifts between positions X and Y on the letter strip. For example, D(X, X+1) = 1 since position X is next to position X+1.

Since my problem is to assign letters to positions, if I permute the rows and columns of D and multiply this matrix with F, I will get the total number of shifts required. We can easily compute F and D for the typewriter problem:

  • To obtain F, we can just count how often one letter follows another and record entries in the 26 x 26 matrix. Here is a heatmap for the matrix using the full Project Gutenberg files for the three test books:

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 12.58.40 PM.png

  • The distance matrix D is simple: if position 0 is the extreme left of the strip and 25 the extreme right, d_ij = abs(i – j).

The total number of shifts is obtained by summing f_ij * d_p(i),p(j) for all i and j, where letter i is assigned to location p(i).

Our problem boils down to finding a permutation that minimizes this matrix multiplication. Since the cost depends on the product of two matrices, this is referred to as a Quadratic Assignment Problem (QAP). In fact, problems very similar to this one are part of the standard test suite of problems for QAP researchers, called “QAPLIB“. The so-called “bur” problems have similar flow matrices but different distance matrices.

We can use any QAP solution approach we like to try to solve the typewriter problem. Which one should we use? There are two types of approaches:

  • Those that lead to provably global optimal solutions,
  • Heuristic techniques that often provide good results, but no guarantees on “best”.

QAP is NP-hard, so finding provably optimal solutions is challenging. One approach for finding optimal solutions, called “branch and bound”, boils down to dividing and conquering by making partial assignments, solving less challenging versions of these problems, and pruning away assignments that cannot possibly lead to better solutions. I have written about this topic before. If you like allegories, try this post. If you prefer more details, try my PhD thesis.

The typewriter problem is size 26, which counts as “big” in the world of QAP. Around 20 years ago I wrote a very capable QAP solver, so I recompiled it and ran it on this problem – but didn’t let it finish. I am pretty sure it would take at least a day of CPU time to solve, and perhaps more. It would be interesting to see if someone could find a provably optimal solution!

In the meantime, this still leave us with heuristic approaches. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Local optimization (Hardmath123’s approach finds a locally optimal “2-swap”)
  • Simulated annealing
  • Evolutionary algorithms

I ran a heuristic written by Éric Taillard called FANT (Fast ant system). I was able to re-run his 1998 code on my laptop and within seconds I was able to obtain the same permutation as Hardmath123. By the way, the zero-based permutation is [9, 21, 5, 6, 12, 19, 3, 10, 8, 24, 1, 16, 18, 7, 15, 22, 25, 14, 13, 11, 17, 2, 4, 23, 20, 0] (updated 12/7/2018 – a previous version of this post gave the wrong permutation. Thanks Paul Rubin for spotting the error!)

You can get the data for this problem, as well as a bit of Python code to experiment with, in this git repository.

It’s easy to think up variants to this problem. For example, what about mobile phones? Other languages? Adding punctuation? Gesture-based entry? With QAPs, anything is possible, even if optimality is not practical.

The Origin of CC and BCC

Those born into the computer age unwittingly use metaphors without awareness of their origins. I will explain one such metaphor painfully, and at length: CC.

Before the advent of word processors and personal computers, the typewriter was the dominant tool for producing professional documents. Here is a picture of Robert Caro’s typewriter, the Smith-Corona Electra 210:


An advantage of typewriters is that they can produce legible, consistently formatted documents. A disadvantage is that they do not scale: 1000 copies requires 1000 times the work, unless other accommodations are made. The mass production of a single document was the primary job of the printing press. Later, the mimeograph and the photocopier began to be used in certain schools and organizations. But printing presses, mimeographs, and photocopiers were all expensive.

So along with these more sophisticated tools, there was a simpler, more primal method for document duplication – the carbon copy. Carbon paper, a sheet with bound dry ink on one side, was placed in between two conventional sheets of paper, and the triplet fed into the typewriter. When the keys of the typewriter were struck, the type slug pressed against the ribbon, marking the top page with a character. The slug also pressed against the carbon paper, pressing the dried ink on the back side of the carbon paper onto the second plain sheet of paper, making the same mark. In this way, one key press marked two pages at once. Magic!

Style guidelines for typewritten letters and documents directed authors to indicate when multiple copies of the same document were being distributed to multiple recipients. The notation for this notification was to list the recipients after “cc”, for “carbon copy”.

In other words, an abbreviation for the means of duplication became a notification of duplication.

A variant is the “blind carbon copy“, or BCC. This originally meant carrying out the physical act of duplication – using carbon paper – but omitting the notification. Hence the “blind”: if you are looking at the document, you cannot determine the list of recipients. This carried over to email too.

If you are my age or older, you already knew this. If you are younger, you very likely did not. I was interested in computers in middle school but computer classes were not available. I did the next best thing and took a typing class. That’s how I learned.

Chaining Machine Learning and Optimization Models

Rahul Swamy recently wrote about mixed integer programming and machine learning. I encourage you to go and read his article.

Though Swamy’s article focuses on mixed integer programming (MIP), a specific category of optimization problems for which there is robust, efficient software, his article applies to optimization generally. Optimization is goal seeking; searching for the values of variables that lead to the best outcomes. Optimizers solve for the best variable values.

Swamy describes two relationships between optimization and machine learning:

  1. Optimization as a means for doing machine learning,
  2. Machine learning as a means for doing optimization.

I want to put forward a third, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Relationship 1: you can always describe predicting in terms of solving. A typical flow for prediction in ML is

  1. Get historical data for:
    1. The thing you want to predict (the outcome).
    2. Things that you believe may influence the predicted variable (“features” or “predictors”).
  2. Train a model using the past data.
  3. Use the trained model to predict future values of the outcome.

Training a model often means “find model parameters that minimize prediction error in the test set”. Training is solving. Here is a visual representation:

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 3.40.32 PM

Relationship 2. You can also use ML to optimize. Swami gives several examples of steps in optimization algorithms that can be described using the verbs “predict” or “classify”, so I won’t belabor the point. If the steps in our optimization algorithm are numbered 1, 2, 3, the relationship is like this:

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 3.40.39 PM

In these two relationships, one verb is used as a subroutine for the other: solving as part of predicting, or predicting as part of solving.

There is a third way in which optimization and ML relate: using the results of machine learning as input data for an optimization model. In other words, ML and optimization are independent operations but chained together sequentially, like this:

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 3.40.46 PM

My favorite example involves sales forecasting. Sales forecasting is a machine learning problem: predict sales given a set of features (weather, price, coupons, competition, etc). Typically business want to go further than this. They want to take actions that will increase future sales. This leads to the following chain of reasoning:

  • If I can reliably predict future sales…
  • and I can characterize the relationship between changes in feature values and changes in sales (‘elasticities’)…
  • then I can find the set of feature values that will increase sales as much as possible.

The last step is an optimization problem.

But why are we breaking this apart? Why not just stick the machine learning (prediction) step inside the optimization? Why separate them? A couple of reasons:

  • If the ML and optimization steps are separate, I can improve or change one without disturbing the other.
  • I do not have to do the ML at the same time as I do the optimization.
  • I can simplify or approximate the results of the ML model to produce a simpler optimization model, so it can run faster and/or at scale. Put a different way, I want the structure of the ML and optimization models to differ for practical reasons.

In the machine learning world it is common to refer to data pipelines. But ML pipelines can involve models feeding models, too! Chaining ML and optimization like this is often useful, so keep it in mind.

Other Minds: Consciousness and Evolution

I highly recommend Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It’s a fascinating exploration of the minds of cephalopods, who independently from vertebrates developed sophisticated nervous systems and what any reasonable person would call intelligence. In so doing, Godfrey-Smith explores the tree of life, the origins and components of complex thought and consciousness, and the ways of formless, curious creatures deep below. Read this book!


Godfrey-Smith describes two important revolutionary periods in Earth’s evolutionary history. In each case, a means of communication between organisms became a means of communication within them.

The first is the Sense-Signaling revolution. Roughly 700 million years ago, the first organisms that we could reasonably call animals – sensing and acting organisms – evolved. Just a bit later, around 542 million years ago according to Godfrey-Smith, certain organisms began to develop not only sensing mechanisms, but signaling mechanisms too. Both sensing and signaling, directed outward, provide evolutionary benefits: they help animals navigate and influence their environments. There is another advantage: these same sensing and signaling mechanisms can be used inside the space of the organism to better coordinate its sense-action loop. Input is processed through the senses, and then signaled in a targeted fashion to another part of the organism (be it tentacle, flipper, paw, or hand) to generate a specific response. Sensing and signaling happens inside only higher order organisms like animals. The internalization of sensing and signaling marks the beginnings of the development of the nervous system. Millions of years later, the sensing and signaling mechanisms found in animals are often incredibly complex.

The second is Language. Less than half a million years ago, human language emerged from simpler forms of communication. Language is nothing but an elaborate, auditory form of sensing and signaling. Its more rudimentary forms are used by our primate cousins to warn, coax, plead, and threaten. In humans, these signals became more universal in expressive power, and more nuanced (despite recent examples to the contrary).

Godfrey-Smith, building on Hume, Vygotsky and others, notes that speech is not only for our others, but for ourselves. Each of us has an inner dialogue that runs through our heads from wake to sleep, and even in our dreams. Our inner speech is inseparable from our conscious selves. In a beautiful passage, Godfrey-Smith writes, “inner speech is a way your brain creates a loop, intertwining the construction of thoughts and the reception of them.” This loop not only helps us direct our action, but it can clarify, integrate, and reinforce our conceptions. For Godfrey-Smith and others such as Baars and Dehaene (whom I’ll cover in a future post since Consciousness and the Brain is amazing), our inner speech is a necessary ingredient in our integrated subjective experience as human beings. It helps us to direct our thoughts in a deliberate, planful way – the “System 2 thinking” that Kahneman writes about in Thinking Fast and Slow.

The Sense-Signaling and Language revolutions were both forerunners of radical planetary change. In the first case, the Cambrian explosion, in the second the rise to primacy of homo sapiens.

Speaking of us: it is interesting to compare the revolutions described by Godfrey-Smith to those described by Yuval Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (link). Harari’s, as summarized by Wikipedia, are the following:

  • “The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  • The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of farming).
  • The unification of humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
  • The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science).”

Harari’s Cognitive Revolution, in my view, maps reasonably well to Godfrey-Smith’s Language revolution. The remaining items in Harari’s list, when considered in Godfrey-Smith’s context, seem like nearly inevitable consequences of the first. Perhaps I am giving us too little credit, or perhaps too much.