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Quick Reviews [Aug. 28th, 2017|07:52 pm]
De Horror Vacui
The Clocks By Agatha Christie:

This is a 1964 attempt by Agatha Christie to, once again, get Poirot into a spy novel. But unlike the unsatisfactory The Big Four, this book uses another Agatha Christie trick that saves the day. Hercule Poirot isn't the protagonist. He shows up in three chapters, to solve the case (and certainly not just to sell novels), and the novel focuses on hsi fine young friend, Colin Lamb. Really, not something to recommend.

Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers:

In these books Dorothy Sayers has not one, but two, Mary Sues for your reading pleasure. Obviously, the first Mary Sue is Lord Peter Death Wimsey, her extra-aristocratic super-sleuth. And the second is his love interest, Harriet Vane. The first book is the Harriet Vane cycle is loosely based on Dorothy Sayers' own scandalous affair with a foreign detective fiction writer. Only in this case, "her" lover was murdered, "she" was prosecuted, and Lord Peter has to save the day. And, it turns out to be a good read.

Usually, Dorothy Sayers' average work is better and deeper than Agatha Christie's, but not so Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night. Have His Carcase is on par with an Agatha Christie novel, but Gaudy Night is insufferable. It is long, boring, and nothing much happens. In the former, Harriet Vane stumbles upon a dead body, and she and Peter Wimsey need to solve the convoluted case. It's very readable. In the latter, the mystery is that someone is sending nasty notes to and playing practical jokes on the members of a fictional Oxford women's college (similar to the one Sayers went to). It gets so bad that one of the undergraduates tries to kill herself. That's how mean the practical joker is. It is a little like The Clocks in that the story focuses on Harriet Vane and Lord Wimsey only shows up now and again. To solve the case.

There's a reason why Tolkien, who liked Sayers' earlier work, hated Gaudy Night, and it's because it is bad.

Finally, Busman's Honeymoon saves the series by again being a good outing. In this case, Lord Peter buys a nice country cottage to live in with his new bride, Harriet Vane. They go there as a honeymoon, and someone has been kind enough to give them the best wedding present: a dead body in the cellar. It starts with a long, tense sequence filled with humor before the body is found, and the investigators only half-heartedly do their investigation for obvious reasons. Only the ending is spoiled by several chapters discussing how Peter Wimsey acts after he solves a case, which are dull.

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Books to Date, 2017 [Jun. 15th, 2017|06:37 pm]
De Horror Vacui
19. Think Java: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, Allen B. Downey and Chris Mayfield
18. Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War: Unique Counterinsurgency Capability for the Contemporary Operating Environment
17. Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers
16. Abstract Algebra and Famous Impossibilities, Arthur Jones, Sidney A. Morris, and Kenneth R. Pearson
15. Symmetry Principles and Magnetic Symmetry in Solid State Physics, S. J. Joshua
14. Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms, Hynes and Doty, eds.
13. The Mexican War 1846-1848, Douglas V. Meed
12. American Gods, Neil Gaiman
11. Energy for Animal Life, R. McNeill Alexander
10. The Texas War of Independence 1835-36: From Outbreak to the Alamo to San Jacinto
9. Lord Edgeware Dies, Agatha Christie
8. Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference, David Halpern
7. The Mathematical Mechanic: Using Physical Reasoning to Solve Problems, Mark Levi
6. Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers
5. Procedural Content Generation in Games, Noor Shaker, Julian Togelius, an Mark J. Nelson
4. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw
3. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, Richard E. Nisbett
2. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
1. The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith
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All Books, 2016 [Apr. 26th, 2017|07:21 pm]
De Horror Vacui
A Little Too Much Last YearCollapse )
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Think Bayes [Nov. 22nd, 2016|12:21 pm]
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Think Bayes, Allen B. Downey:

This is really the most accessible book on Bayesianism that I've seen. Which is strange, since it's a programming book. I had been trying to get through Savage's Foundations of Statistics, but there's a reason why it's been cited by more people than have read it, so I went ahead with this book which takes the same approach to a statistical valuation of knowledge as Savage had, but is more focused on practical problems. In fact, in being so practical, he discusses many of the problems I'd run into with a Bayesian view of induction in the past and some work-arounds.

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The book also has a lot of nice examples of particular situations. Data analysis, observer bias, and so on. It also goes into how to work around some of the issues I discussed. But mostly, it's just a very clear and concise description of what Bayesian statistics can do for you. It is not deeply philosophical or mathematical like Savage, but I think you get a better idea of what Bayesianism is about through this book than from more analytical treatments (I would say technical, but this is a very technical book -- very practical, just not deep).

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The Myth of the Magus [Jun. 30th, 2016|10:22 pm]
De Horror Vacui
The Myth of the Magus, E.M. Bulter:

The Myth of the Magus is an academic-like investigation of the lives of sorcerers from antiquity to early modern times... literally from the Magi before Zoroaster to the last resurgence of sorcerers in the Flagellants like Rasputin. Bulter, of course, has a theory. Actually about three theories. The basis is that the mage is always related to fertility, crops and weather -- the ancestral myth is shamanic in nature, and it has been modified for larger and more sedentary groups. Next is that there is a ten-stage template on which the particulars of the mage's life is told. And finally, that Christianity modified the magus myth by moving the sorcerer's role from that of the folk hero to that of a villain subordinate to the Satan and all his little wizards.

Or, I guess, get to be one of his little wizards.

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"It is doubtful if the weight of skepticism will ever be enough to sink the magus myth beyond men's sight forever."

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* Prior to Faust, the tales always have stupid devils who are always outsmarted in the end, according to Butler.
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Don't Make Me Think [Jun. 10th, 2016|01:26 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Steve Krug:

Don't Make Me Think is an old, famous book on making web pages friendly. The first edition came out in 2000, the one I have came out in 2005, and another one came out quite recently -- but this one was cheaper. The basic idea is pretty good: the user of a website should be able to use it when it loads up. There are some corollaries, like if the user makes a mistake he should be able to recognize it by itself and self-correct. It's nice and simple, just like he proposes you be. It's very useful, and I'm using some of this for other purposes -- like things I'll do to my game.

He's also a big proponent of usability testing. Basically, periodically grab people off the street, see how they interact with your page, and make corrections and additions accordingly. I did that with my students when they unsuspectingly wandered into my office for a chat (or weren't active enough in lab), I let them play the game and watched what they did (and how they quite brilliantly found ways to crash the program).

But the cool part of this book is the description of "religious debates" in the chapter "The Farmer and the Cowman." This was a very specific problem (designers vs. developers, hype vs. craft), but the description looked like every meeting I've ever been in:

They consist largely of people expressing strongly held personal beliefs about things that can't be proven -- supposedly in the interest of agreeing to on the best way to do something important...[and] they rarely result in anyone involved changing his or her point of view.

Straight from the faculty senate, curriculum committee, and design meetings.

Fortunately, this had nothing to do with the Mexican firing squad of a post-mortem on a failed product launch.

Those sessions are the fun.

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I Am the King of France [Jun. 9th, 2016|06:15 pm]
De Horror Vacui
One of the most obtuse discussions I remember from reading Russell ("On Demarcation," which I liked) and the logical positivists (where it got twisted) was the analysis of the sentence, "The King of France is bald." Or, as the positivists became more and more scholastic, "The present King of France is bald." The idea, as I remember it, is to try to understand what a sentence without referents means, which is very important if you're a logical positivist. In this case, since there is no King of France,* how can you determine if he's bald or not? And I just ran into the same problem in reading a 1994 book called Inevitable Illusions by -Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini - although not with the King of France.

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So, some implications require the founded assumption that a member of a set exists -- the definition of a set or an implication about its members in insufficient. But when we do have members of a set that could be part of multiple subsets (such as Linda), we can use these definitions and relationships to estimate a probabilities for the member to be in each of them.

* Or, rather, since there is "presently no King of France with executive authority recognized by the constitution of the Republic of France." Which is why the discussions started getting obtuse.

** See (*).

*** Right now, I think that even Bayesianism doesn't escape this problem: in the end, the number that is found in Bayesian decision theory still needs an objective interpretation of probability to interpret its meaning.
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The Art of Game Design [May. 15th, 2016|09:26 pm]
De Horror Vacui
The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell:

In a way, this is a big book of lists. There are 100 "Lenses" with anywhere from one to eight questions to ask yourself about a product grouped into 31 chapters of different topics. In another way, the lenses and the lists are unimportant. Schell's discussion and thinking about video games is what's really interesting in this. These discussions end in very short morals, being the lenses. Owning a video game company and having run Disney's Imagineering department make up for his teaching game design at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center...or however that works.

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All-in-all, I think this is a worthwhile read. It doesn't look like it has much to offer Logic Lights, but it does look like it can help more advanced games.*

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* In part that's because I've already done a lot of these things by mistake, like modifying the game based on how people try to play it rather than trying to force people to play it the way I would want to.**

** Also his take on fairness gives a clue as to what is meant by fairness. It's based on player response to losing points or powers -- they hate it and will stop playing your game because of it (this also is one reason games don't mix with education -- students think of not getting 100s as "losing points"). After talking about it, he goes on to say, "A fair way to take away a player's powers is..."

Which tells you a lot about "fair."
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Magic in the Middle Ages [Apr. 26th, 2016|10:43 am]
De Horror Vacui
Magic in the Middle Ages, Richard Kieckhefer:

I adjure you, Demon of the Dead cause N. to pine and melt away out of passion for F., whom B. bore. Inflame her heart and cause it to melt and suck out her blood out of love, pain, and passion over me. And let her do all the things in my mind, and let her continue loving me, until she arrives in Hell.

I don't know the image you have in your mind from that slightly modified Egyptian love charm. What would this Demon of the Dead look like? How would he attach himself to N.? Does an ancient Egyptian love charm work in a digital environment? But after reading such a realistic, unschmaltzy adjuration I couldn't stop reading this book.

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Interestingly, there wasn't too much legal persecution of witches in dark ages and the Medieval world: the court system was accusatory. In an accusatory system, someone has to bring a case against another person, and if the case isn't proven, then the accuser accepts the punishment that he would have had delivered upon the defendant.

So, a false accusation of witchcraft was punished just as harshly as witchcraft.

And so, no one accused the angry old lady or their husband's lovers of casting spells.*

Not until the inquisition.

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* Parenthetically, Think Like a Freak explains Trial by Ordeal in a way that explains how come not every person who grabbed the hot iron bar, or whatever, was burned in fact, most weren't. The parish priest was the person who administered the punishment.

Now, Levitt and Dubner suggested the priest may have doctored the test by giving 2/3 of those tried by ordeal a bar that wasn't hot enough to burn. What I asked my students was: what extra information might a Catholic priest have about a case that would help him to make the determination?
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Engines of Creation [Apr. 19th, 2016|10:24 am]
De Horror Vacui
Engines of Creation: the coming era of nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler:

This book reads like an advertisement. Drexler is an evangelist for nanotechnology, and his overly optimistic ideas about its power. When reading this book it sounds like self-replicating molecular nanoassemblers are just around the corner (in 1986), and they will cure all the badness: resource scarcity, human aging, and basic cable. His overoptimistic take on nanotechnology for the first 12 chapters leads to a very pessimistic take on the dangers on nanotechnology in the last three. Fortunately, the world hasn't transmogrified into a ball of grey goo.

What has not come to pass? Nanoassemblers and bottom-up nanotechnology in general;
artificial intelligence, and so on.
What has he gotten right? Hypertext ( and I just heard a couple of podcasters making fun of hypercards* ).

Still, this is at least the third time I've read this book, and the second time for the book club. Even if it's hopelessly polyannish, or perhaps because it is, it's a good introduction for engineering students.

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* Of course it is. I had to do it for just that reason.
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