Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Dark Talent

The Dark Talent is the final book in the Alcatraz series. I had loved the earlier books in the series and had been eagerly anticipating this conclusion. Alas, it did not live up to my expectations. Perhaps it was due to the long wait. The story had plenty of good parts. However, it felt more forced than the other books. The unsatisfying ending also seemed to open more questions rather than resolve them. I was wondering where the rest of the book was. Perhaps the next "final" book in the series will preserve the magic.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Grit

The ability to persevere and continue in the face of adversity is a strong indicator of success. Grit's thesis is that success is often a result of this "grit". People that keep trying in spite of failure and adversity can eventually succeed despite overwhelming odds.

Hallucinations

There are a number of different neural conditions that can cause hallucinations. Different senses can also be involved. Visual hallucinations are well documented. However, sound and smell also occur. People may be reluctant to admit to "hearing voices" for fear of being branded crazy. Some medical conditions such as migraines and epilepsy may be associated with hallucinations. They can also be triggered by drugs (including recreational ones as well as others lake that used to treat Parkinson's disease.) The author of Hallucinations did some self-experimentation with various drugs in the 50s, but found he had to stop before his "experimentation" started creating problems in his life.
Hallucinations are usually outside the control of the person. Somebody may see people multiple or hear people where there are none. With some, it is common to see hallucinations based on past experiences. Musical notes appearing randomly seems to be a fairly common manifestation for those that spend a great deal of time reading music.
Some religious experiences may be scientifically explained as types of hallucinations. (If God works through natural means, then this could be a logical means that are used.) A final type of hallucination covered is "false limbs". People often "feel" a limb still present even after it has been amputated. However, when they start to lose other sensual confirmation, they gradually lose control of it. This can be counteracted by seeing visual confirmation of the activities (by a prothesis or other tricks.)
The book has a somewhat random assortment of stories and descriptions of cases where people's senses show them something that is not actually there, and seems to be written primarily to entertain.

Shadow Throne

Shadow Throne is a Medieval war book. Gunpowder makes a brief appearance. However, most of the battles are fought with swords, daggers and clubs. Jaron goes about doing things that seem patently stupid, yet they all work out in the end. The story-telling hides some of the aspects of the plan from the readers, letting us discover things just as the other characters are discovering them. However, even these plans often have some bits that require a bit of dumb luck. I didn't see how they could get out of some of the pickles they get in. However, once things are explained afterwards, it all makes sense. The romantic interests also take a number of turns. We are lead to believe things are set up for a courtly marriage, before all things turn around and everyone can marry for love rather than politics.

Runaway King

In the False Prince, Jaron is pretending to be a street thief, even though he is the rightful heir to the throne. In this sequel, he is royal, but goes back to the street in order to help stave of a war with his kingdom. He grows as a person, realizing that while there are people just trying to take advantage of his position, there are many people are truly his friends He also starts to realize his romantic interests and how they play with the political needs of a king. The storytelling is great. It remains very suspenseful, with the turns just plausible enough to be believable. It is a book that is difficult to put down. The world is developed just well enough to serve the purpose of the story. The world appears medieval in character, with swords and knives as the primary weapons. We also get a general feel of the geography. (There are some cliffs and water down by the pirates.) The details are just enough to serve as a backdrop for the fast-moving plot and the development of character. The author also does a brilliant job of letting the evil characters bring about their own destruction, while enabling the "good guys" to remain noble.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age

The term Narcissist is often abused today to describe any action that appears self absorbed. In psychiatric, there are strict criteria used to diagnose a narcissist. In our everyday world, the middle ground of "extreme narcissism" is more useful. It helpful to identify people with lack empathy and behave in a self-centered fashion in order to cope appropriately. Often these people have are responding to an earlier "shame event. Attempting to fight them at their own game is a recipe for making tempers flare. The best way to deal with them is often to just get away.
The Narcissist You Know describes many common types of narcissist by giving celebrity as well as clinical examples. Some Narcissists must always be right. Others have great charisma and the ability to make others feel great. Some will perceive everything as an attack on them and respond harshly, while drugs and other addictive behaviors are the desired response of others. The single-handed focus on self, together with the drive and willingness to step on top of others helps narcissists to excel and achieve notoriety. It also can lead to their fall, as they feel that rules don't apply to them. Confrontation rarely helps. The person will simply fight back more. In families where escape is not possible, it is important for parents to set appropriate boundaries and apply consistent rules.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War

I remember an old Commodore 64 video game that would have the word "Rommel" uttered when you were in trouble.
Since then, I've wanted to know more about this German commander. This book presents his story together with that of his American and British counterparts. Montgomery is portrayed as a very British commander who was concerned with status and enjoyed schmoozing with his men. He would regularly "bend" the facts to his version of the truth. Patton was a realistic Jerk. He'd resort to coarse language to relate to his troops and denigrate the enemy. Montgomery and Patton were allies during World War II, but they did not get along. They did both admire Rommel. He is the brilliant commander who could always seem to outmaneuver the allies. His biggest fault was his allegiance to Germany and Hitler. He would often do thing that Hitler ordered that were against what he knew was the best military solution.
I found myself most annoyed with Patton. He just seemed like a know-it-all jerk who was just itching to start a fight. I wanted to see him canned during the war. However, during the post-war reconstruction, his ideas were prescient. He was against de-Nazification, and wanted the best civil servants on the job, regardless of what they did during the war. He also saw the Soviets as the true enemy, and wanted a strong Germany to help defend against them. Were he to prevail, we may have been able to reduce much of the pain of the cold war. Alas, he died shortly after the end of hostilities in a freak motor vehicle accident. (That should make him a poster child for seatbelts.)
Rommel met his end shortly before the end of hostilities. He was significantly injured due to enemy fire. However, he was able to survive that. He was not able to survive the forced "suicide" at the hands of his own side. He was suspected to be a member of the plot to overflow Hitler with the briefcase bomb. (Had the briefcase not been moved and Hitler killed, things may have been very different.) It is not known whether he had knowledge of the incident. When people thought they could have their punishment reduced by fingering conspirators, he was accused. Immediately after the war when Germany was looking for post-war national heroes, he was seen as having no knowledge. Later, when Nazis were seen as evil and the west was looking for a good model, he was portrayed as the "good general" who wanted to fight a just war and was willing to overthrow an evil dictator. We are not sure of his involvement. We do know that he was tiring of Hitler and wanted Germany to cut its loses to help preserve some of the gains.
The book starts with brief biographies of each of the generals and then intertwines their stories as they battle for North Africa and Europe. Montgomery and Patton seemed to be involved with skirmishes with each other as often as with Rommel. The British and American public needed to see Britain pulling its weight and achieving victories under Montgomery. However, it seemed that the American troops were often set up more capably to win. (The Germans would even use this conflict in their propaganda, amplifying the conflict.) The book ends with a brief postwar status. Montgomery was the only one of the three to live for some time after the war's end. He published his memoirs in which he tried to raise himself up further and smear others. Rommel and Patton had the courtesy of dying around the war's end, leaving biographers to tell their stories and raise them up as was seen fit at the time.

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer

Theodore Boone has two lawyer parents and he can't wait to be a lawyer himself. He knows everyone at the local courthouse and can't wait for an excuse to visit. Asthma prevents him from athletics, but he excels in academics and the study of law. Everyone at school knows he is the legal guru and comes to him for advice. His advice has done everything from helping a classmate's family to save their home to helping a cute girl get her dog back. However, what he is really interested in is the murder trial in town. He secures good seats for his class on the first day, but wishes he could spend more time there on other days. Eventually, he is able to play an active role in seeing that justice is served in the case.
The books is foremost a youth courtroom drama. There is not a whole lot of character development and the characters are not very believable. (The protagonist seems to be more one-dimension-ally obsessed with the law than any real 8th grader.) They are vehicles to advance the plot, with just enough backstory to keep the story going - and the story does go quick. This is a book that can be read in one sitting. I didn't want to stop, but after it was done, but would probably not go back and read it again.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

Bayes' rule seems very simple. However, it has produced a great deal of controversy throughout its history. Even the name itself is controversial. Bayes does appear to have been one of the first people to produce a paper on it. However, the paper we have was substantially edited by Richard Price and presented at the Royal Society after Bayes' death. Laplace later independently discovered the algorithm and ran with it. Since he was the more renowned mathematical mind, it would make sense to name it after him. However, it was later referred to as Bayes rule by those who popularized it, and that is what we have today.
The Theory That Would Not Die does not spend much time covering the details of Bayes' rule. It is assumed the reader already understands it, or will be able to understand it well enough by following the story line. Instead, the focus is on the conflicts between the "bayeseians" and the "frequentists". Bayes can help determine probabilities given scant data or unknown occurrences and was derided as "subjective". Frequency analysis deals with known observations as was considered a more theoretically accurate. Bayesian analysis would come and go in spurts during its history. In world war ii, it helped lead to cracking the German code and significantly helping the Allied war efforts. Alas, it was deemed so important that it was classified, and thus not disclosed to the general public. The ability to adjust probabilities based on past outcomes made it especially useful for insurance actuaries. Today it has applications in multitudes of fields from medical research to spam filters. It is great at helping to tease out the signal from the noise and find high probability answers given scant data.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

How Music Got Free

In How Music Got Free, the author starts with his case of the music bug. He downloaded gigabytes of music, but rarely listened to it. If he were a little older, he would have had the thrill of seeking out. I remember the thrill of being able to find the record store that had the rare album. Alas, online music stores made it easy to order even the rarest of CDs and get it within a few days. Online music made it even easier. Record companies made purchasing music online expensive and difficult, so people logically responded by downloading it for free. (I wonder how much of this came out of the software piracy and the "demo scene".)
The bulk of the book focuses on the stories of a few characters in the piracy scene. One is a blue-collar worker at a North Carolina CD pressing plant. He is a super hard worker as well as a little of a tech geek. He discovers ways to sneak pre-release CDs out of the plant so that they can be be ripped and released by a "scene" group he has joined. Leaking the CDs also gets him access to topsites where he can download movies. He in turn sells DVDs to augment his income. (He is one of the rare people that attempts to make money off the distribution of pirated goods - even if it is not the CDs that he pirates.) Interspersed with his story is that of the record company executive. He earns crazy amounts of money as he presides over a sinking ship. In spite of the decline of the industry, he consistently manages to have a positive return on investment. He admits to knowing very little about technology (and losing money on failed tech investments during the dotcom era.) However, he does come up with the idea of monetizing music video which has provided one of the few new positive sources of income.
A third character in the novel is a British student who had taught himself PHP and SQL. He used those skills to set up a torrent site. He eventually had an invitation-only site that focused on high quality music. He kept everything open, believing that there was little that needed to be hidden.
These threads become somewhat intertwined by the RIAA. The recording industries organization is on a quest to improve music revenues by clamping down on digital piracy. Alas, the attempts have provided a stream of bad publicity and done little to stop the bleeding. Of the characters involved, only one received time in prison (after pleading guilty). There was little if any income generated for the music industry. The only thing that helped eliminate the piracy was the easy availability of streaming. Why spend effort finding and storing music, when you can just stream whatever you want whenever you want it? It does provide income to the performers, but not a whole lot. Live music, however, has risen as the primary revenue driver. It becomes the one "scarce" experience that can be a primary revenue generator.
One sideline of the book was the story of Pirate's Bay and the rise of the Pirate Party in Europe. They seek to drastically curtail intellectual property rights. Alan Greenspan is quoted as calling this something that will greatly harm the economy. Interest rates and economic growth are dependent upon scarcity. With the abundance that limitations on IP rights will enable, the economy would not function as it does now. The unasked question is whether this will be a problem? Have we gone way overboard on IP rights? Would we really be better off with a more limited timespan for rights. (Do the royalties received by the estates of dead musicians do anything to encourage music creation?) Perhaps the huge revenues of the CD era were just an aberration.