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Think Bayes [Nov. 22nd, 2016|12:21 pm]
De Horror Vacui
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."

Other Books, 2016Collapse )

* 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.

Other Books, 2016Collapse )
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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.*

Other Books, 2016Collapse )

* 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.

Other Books, 2016Collapse )

* 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.

Other Books, 2016Collapse )

* Of course it is. I had to do it for just that reason.
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Your Code as a Crime Scene [Apr. 13th, 2016|11:55 am]
De Horror Vacui
Your Code as a Crime Scene: Use Forensic Techniques to Arrest Defects, Bottlenecks, and Bad Design in Your Programs, by Adam Tornhill

This is a delightful book with a delightful technique for determining where errors and inefficiencies in code are likely to occur. Tornhill's observation is that you can use the techniques coming from criminal justice on the code you're currently working on -- especially in large projects with large groups. The most important factor is where changes occur, basically which classes are changed and how frequently.

If you change a piece of code frequently, that's bad.

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With chapter names like "Creating an Offender Profile", "Treat Your Code as a Cooperative Witness", and "Norms, Groups, and False Serial* Killers" the book, despite being technical and prescriptive, is lively and entertaining throughout. It has plenty of illustrations...mostly useful. I very much recommend this book, even if you're not coding.**

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* One of my students used the Cereal - Serial Killer pun, reminding me of one of the best Sandman storylines.
** Which I currently am. I just got a puzzle game to help my students learn logic to a state that I'm only mostly embarrassed to put it up on-line.
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Feynman Lectures on Computation [Apr. 5th, 2016|02:50 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Feynman Lectures on Computation, Richard P. Feynman:

This is a really nice book about how computers work. It was written in the 1980's, so it's fairly out of date -- it was written at the transition from VLSI to CMOS -- but it's still quite good. Unlike most things I've read which focus on how to make computers what they do or on the silicon processes, this book sits right in the middle. Feynman talks about logic works, theoretical computation like Turing machines, and the physics of computation -- thermodynamics, semiconductor physics, and even the early ideas of quantum computing.

Other Books 2016Collapse )
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Murder Must Advertise [Mar. 25th, 2016|06:36 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers:

This is a great book. First off, the main character, Lord Peter Wimsey, is a cross between Hercule Poirot and Bertie Wooster who solves murders to pass the time. Which is awesome. In this case, Wimsey disguises himself as an almost-adman in the 1930s (when the book was written) to solve a mysterious death and, as an aside, dismantles a sex-crazed flapper dope ring. Very awesome.

Can't say anything more about the plot, of course: it's a mystery.

What I liked so much about Sayers' writing in this book is how she handled the chapters. Most chapters (perhaps all) were little stories, they way they are supposed to be. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the story both advances the plot and gives a clue or two to one of the mysteries (if you pick up on it, because it could be incidental to the chapter). There's enough of a resolution after every chapter that you never feel like you've been left with a cliffhanger -- something I hate as much as I hate to see "to be continued" at the end of a TV show (though not as much as having threads of four different stories run through each chapter, advancing only one -- and that marginally).

I can't say anything more, of course, because I'd just be nitpicking.

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