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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.

Book ReviewCollapse )

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.**

Other Books, 2016Collapse )

* 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.

Other Books, 2016Collapse )
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Nudge [Jan. 26th, 2016|03:13 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein:

This book is scary. Not because Thaler and Sunstein are scary, but the general idea behind a "nudge:" government producing outcomes through subliminal actions. Thaler and Sunstein want to produce government actions in accord with what they call Libertarian Paternalism, that is they want government the structure things so that you'll make the choices you'd make if you were choosing what is best for you.* It's libertarian because you still make the choice, its paternalistic because they get to choose the structure in which you make those choices. And even though when Thaler and Sunstein describe their program in the first part of the book it sounds scary, when they discussed specific ideas later on, everything seemed quite reasonable.

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Did I say it was creepy?

If I thought that the people who would be structuring choices were just like Thaler and Sunstein I wouldn’t mind too much – because they do come across as thoughtful and benevolent, I rather doubt that the average government bureaucrat would strike me the same way. We see more than enough abuse of regulatory power right now, let alone bad laws, and both regulation and legislation are comparatively visible (but not really very visible – do you know how commercial fishing licenses and peanut permits are doled out? they affect how much you pay for your peanut butter and tuna sandwiches). The old jaw about libertarians comes to mind, “if everyone were like Thaler and Sunstein, then I could trust the government to nudge me.”

But they aren’t.

So I can’t.

* But, they say, these are the choices you'd make if you were making the choices with full information and without any sort of time pressure.
** I compensate in supermarkets and clothing stores by shopping like a guy. I know what I want (usually with a list), I know where it is, and I just get that stuff and get out.

Other Books, 2016Collapse )
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Final List, 2015 [Jan. 6th, 2016|08:49 am]
De Horror Vacui
Found one book when I got back that I'd read and forgot to put on the list; I have the nagging feeling that I've already forgotten a book that I finished in the last week, but I'm not completely sure. I have definitely finished two. That means I could have made 50 if I stretched after the last post, but Y. probably wouldn't have been happy with me.

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Expert Political Judgment [Dec. 29th, 2015|12:08 am]
De Horror Vacui
Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, Philip E. Tetlock:

There are some ideas that are too good to ignore. And this one is it. Tetlock, and I assume whoever he was working with, had the bright idea to check up on those experts in political and economic ideas whose divinations Those Who Rule consult before they act -- to invade a country or design a tax credit or some other good that is evil or evil that is good. They had these experts answer many different questions over many years based on what sort of things could possibly change in a reasonable amount of time (and all questions were time-boxed: e.g., "Will Leonid Brezhnev release a new country and western album in 1981?"). These were then run through statistical analyses.

ReviewCollapse )

A few years ago, I was approached to do a study like this one (I don't remember who was in charge), but I dropped out after a few months. The main reason is because the questions were so far out of my expertise. I'd fill out these questionnaires and constantly have these answers like "I kind of think Idi Amin's next release will top Benito Mussolini's record sales record, but there's still a chance that he won't make it past Fidel Castro's 2nd place" and then have to tell the people in charge of the study that "I'm not terribly qualified to make judgments about despotic rock music" and "I'm only 20% sure in the prediction." Obviously, the questions weren't quite that detailed, but the extra should give you a feeling for what I'm doing.

That makes me wonder a little about the drop out rate for Tetlock's previous studies and how it affects his evidence, especially about his foxes.

However, I think that the basic results of this book are wonderful:

(1) The best prognosticators are experts that are least sure of themselves.
(2) The best prognosticators are no better than flipping a coin.
(3) A linear extrapolation is better than flipping a coin.
(4) The worst expert prognosticator is the one who is the most sure of himself.
(5) The prognosticator who is most likely to be listened to by others is the one who is most sure of himself.
(6) The worst expert prognosticator is better than a very, very smart amateur.

We are already well past the point when the machines should be in charge. If nothing else, a random number generator is cheaper to run than the government.

And it's a lot smarter.

* Interestingly, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox was the last book I bought by Gould, and the first one I couldn't get through because it was so bad. After reading this book, I tried again, with no luck -- even on a transpacific flight.

Other Books, 2015Collapse )

I could possibly get three more (two almost certain), unless I brought a lightweight like "Nudge" with me to Houston or run off to the used book store and find a nice, old novel that reads well (current novel: too much description and talk, not enough plot). That means no chance of hitting fifty. Another year within 1 or 2.

What happened to the days when I could read three novels in a weekend?
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The Agricultural Revolution in Prehisory [Dec. 7th, 2015|01:47 pm]
De Horror Vacui
The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers become Farmers? Graeme Barker

This book is the winner in this year's very slow read contest. I've been reading it more or less from the beginning of the semester, and I only finished it a few weeks ago. So, 2 1/2 to 3 months. This sometimes happens with history and archaeology books because there is so much information to sort through to get to the arguments. And that is exactly why this book took so long to read: it goes through each continent and each region and the evidence for the development of agriculture there.

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All in all, despite the small print and the unavoidable repetition, this was a very nice book to read and should be useful to me in the future if my future plans pan out in the future. And next time I visit Costa Rica, I'll be able to contribute to the conversations about why their beef is so bad.

Other Books, 2015:Collapse )
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Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress [Dec. 2nd, 2015|02:11 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress, Peter Tyson:

I've been dicking around with Dwarf Fortress for several years now, off and on, and while searching for the Bay12 website some time ago one of the pictures that showed up was the cover to Peter Tyson's Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress: learn to play the most complex game ever made. I said to myself, "Well, isn't that nice. Someone self-published a book on Dwarf Fortress." Then, I noticed the O'Reilly logo on the bottom. O'Reilly is one of the two companies that I go to to get computer programming books -- the company I go to if I want to buy an advanced book on a programming language and the company whose books I steal most from in my Video Game Physics course.

So, I had to see what this book was like.

Book ReviewCollapse )

The book is a little tongue in cheek, but it is an interesting tutorial for getting started in the game. Since the Adamses just released a new version of the game yesterday, I think maybe I'll use it with the new version to see how difficult it is to use it. I doubt there's much of a difference in the initial stages, which probably won't depend on the random poetry generator or the in-game alternate histories.

Other Books, 2015:Collapse )
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Dungeon Hacks [Oct. 30th, 2015|02:11 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Dungeon H@cks, David L. Craddock:

Because I spent the summer playing with making a roguelike game, I got a little bit hooked on them. Now that the semester's in session, I haven't been able to keep up with it as much as I like -- even my programming has gone on towards next semester's video game physics course -- I've moved out of it slightly. But the plan is to get back to it later. But, I keep thinking about it and working things out on paper, I just don't have the time for the coding right now.

I hadn't wanted to write a review, but one showed up anyway.Collapse )

Craddock doesn't talk about the games, so much as talk about the process that the different games took in their development. Although some of the games were commercialized, none of them were really commercial successes. Some of them were always free and had their code distributed on the usenet, like NetHack, others released their code after some time. The book discusses the motivations and the lives of the programmers of these games.

Other Books, 2015Collapse )
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