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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Catalyst

The Insignia series feels like Ender's Game or Harry Potter or perhaps even Hunger Games. A young person is an outcast, but he has special talents. He goes off to a special school with all the best and brightest. He has conflicts there, but also finds some close friends. There are some adults that support him, but others that do not like him at all. He helps hatch a plan to save the world from a corrupt system ruled over by a crazed super villain. They live happily ever after. There is also a little falling in love. The boy realizes he really likes his "friend girl", but he has another girl that he loves.

In Catalyst, everything comes to its fairy tale ending. Before that, there is some mass destruction. The earth is nearly obliterated by a meteor, most of society's bigwigs are killed by their own mechanical security and the human race is "infected" with nanocontrollers that make them obey all laws and serve the CEO of the tech company. There is a long chunk of the story where the super villain "breaks" the hero. It seems to drag on forever. However, that probably helps to drive home the point of how painful this torture is. Alas, this torture ends up being what leads to the villain's downfall.

When I started the series, I did not want to put it down. However, the magic faded as I progressed through the books. The final ending felt artificial. (Society is totally upended and everyone is just suddenly peaceful?) There are some good parts in the process (including some "simulated" inebriation programs to "improve" bad dates.) There is also some character growth. However, it seems to happen in spurts. (Tom is away from his friends for less time than he has been with them. However, despite living through extreme situations, they seem to be just like they were before he left.) Blackburn learns that love is more powerful than revenge, but we still don't get an explanation for the murder of one of his students. Tom does learn that he cannot do everything by himself and that sometimes doing things you don't like can be helpful. And everybody lives happily ever after.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vortex

Tom Raines has made it past the first stage of the super-human military training school. We get a better picture of the world dominated by corrupt corporate oligarchs. The government is merely a stooge in their pockets. Tom has pride and refuses to bow to these corrupt rulers. However, this limits his possibilities of advancement in his training program. He has a series of mishaps that seem to drag him further and further down. Only after talking with friends and introspecting does he realize that his pride and behavior are bringing him down. He must be willing to play along with the system in order to destroy it. At the same time, he learns that being too self-centered does not pay off either. One girl (Heather) wanted to be the face of the fighters. The current "face" (Elliot) wanted to leave the position and was eager to hand it to her. However, her attempts at bringing down others led to her losing that opportunity. Further attempts at blackmailing others led to her own demise. Elliot and Tom both learn from each other that giving a little can be beneficial.
The role of Blackburn remains complicated. He still seems to be a sympathetic character. However, just as the characters in the book seem to warming to him, he does things that make his character seem more diabolical. He does seem to have some of the kids best interest in mind - but only to the extent they help him bring down the oligarchs.
This book has the "middle" book feel. It transitions the characters from mere participants in a dystopian state to people that can actual make a difference. I have a sneaky suspicion that the next book will see them rise up against the oligarchs.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Insignia

Our hero is a delinquent who's only strength is excelling at virtual reality games. He uses this skill to earn some money off people in gambling parlors in order to get places for he and his father to stay. He is often in trouble for missing days at his virtual reform school. Outside, World War III is raging in a virtual world. Kids are used to control the vehicles virtually. (They have chips planted in their brains to assist - adults would not have the elasticity to accept the chips.) The world is dominated by corporate/government alliances. They use patent protection to extract money. One company had patents on genetically altered crops. As their crops had mingled with all naturally occurring crops, they asserted rights to all foodstuffs. Another had a chemical that became part of the water supply and thus asserted royalties on water. These corporates control the world, and manipulate the people and the governments to do their bidding. When people in he middle east didn't pay royalties, the company wiped them all out (thus ensuring "peace" in the middle east.)
Our hero gets invited to the special military school. He discovers this entails getting a chip implant. He has typical teenage encounters there and learns to work in the quasi-virtual world. They have "virtual workouts" where they appear to be chased by hoards of enemies. They also have "virtual battle rooms" where they take part in tactical actions. He makes friends, makes enemies and is attracted to girls. He has an extreme sense of loyalty to those he considers friends as well as a strong desire to seek revenge on those that cross him. (It does feel too extreme at times.) The instructor Blackburn draws the reader's sympathies, yet he is hated by the hero.
The first half of the book is a riveting read that I did not want to down. The book then made a few turns that caused me to lose interest. The end was fairly satisfying, but left the hero in a no so good light. At least he is trying.

My Tank is Fight

World War II lead to many great technological innovations. However, with all innovations, there are a string of failures along the way. My Tank is Fight covers the failures. The author uses a humor to describe many of the innovations that never saw the light of day (or that did appear but were never very useful.) For each invention, he provides the factual details of the process and the contraption itself. He then provides a possible history of what would have happened if the invention was actually produced and used on the battlefield. (Usually, this part ended with a catastrophic failure.) A lot of the inventions were "gigantic" or "combination" vehicles. A huge tank may seem great, but it would be very slow. A submarine/tank combo would go anywhere, but would be neither a good submarine nor a good tank. A ship made out of ice mixed with sawdust would be difficult to break, but would also consume a huge amount of resources to build. The book included the narrative with a reporter and the "combatants" from each of the major powers, with the story reaching its humorous end in the post script. If the German's had not spent so much effort in search of the super weapon, would they have won the war? (On the other hand, would they have not made the useful advances if they were not searching so hard for the "big win".) The important thing is to know when to fail fast. Luckily, we can enjoy the humorous story of some of these "failures" that lasted a little longer than they should have.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

William Shirer was a journalist who lived in Germany during the rise of Hitler. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers the life of Hitler and his rise and eventual fall from power. It is extremely verbose, and spends a lot of time covering the early stages of the third Reich (the time when the author was present in Germany.) He inserts plenty of his own opinion in the work. The author seems to have an extremely negative few of Hitler, with an underlying message that he only came to power because of his Stormtrooper thugs. However, that does seem a bit too simplistic. (Were these thugs requiring everyone to buy Mein Kaumpf?) He is quick to demean all aspects of national socialism. (The Nazi "arts" were constantly demeaned.) The rise felt like it was excessively colored by the knowledge of the impending fall.

The "fall" part is more rushed. Much of the space is devoted to the cruelty of the nazi regime. The "science experiments" may have had some intention of finding ways to help German troops, but they were primarily just torture and executions. The torture and extermination of the Jews had no excuse other then that the German's thought they were the source of problems. Even slavs were treated as inferior, with education of these "brutes" seen as something bad.
The book has a strong journalistic feel. It delves into the sensationalist and the strong personality. The historical actions are covered, but not in as great detail as the characters. Hitler's petty attacks and grudges are presented as a reason for Germany's defeat. If he would not have devoted effort to quash Yugoslavia, the Soviet attack could have been carried out earlier, leading to a more likely German victory. If he wouldn't have pandered to his "alies" (or stabbed them in the back) he could have kept his small empire without further conflict. The many attempts to assassinate Hitler are also given plenty of coverage. What would have happened if they had succeeded?

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl is a rich kid that works in the underworld to kidnap a fairy. And he is the "good guy" in the book. He and his loyal servant, Butler, use a fairy kidnapping to collect ransom in order to restore his family's fortune. Fowl is one smart kid who is hatching elaborate plans to reach his means. The setting is version of our world where fantasy creatures (such as trolls, fairies and leprechauns) also inhabit. Fowl is well studied and uses his knowledge to obtain greater knowledge from the fairies which enables him to carry out the plan. A few things don't go as he expected, but he is able to recover via some ad-libbing on his and Butler's part. He takes some big gambles with his life in order to finish out his plan (though they did get some help from the captured fairy in the process.) The book thrives on storytelling and characters, along with suspenseful plot sequences. I did, however, have some difficulty getting involved with the overall plot and purpose.

Disciplined Dreaming

Jazz musicians spend significant time learning the musical framework of jazz music. This framework then gives them opportunity to improvise - and even break some of the rules in the process. Some people are naturally more creative. However, about 80% of creativity is learned. Being in a "heads up" state allows people to get new ideas and be creative. Disciplined Dreaming provides a number of tools to help people be more creative. Often simply asking "why?" can help find new solutions. Fear of change can often be a huge creativity killer. These are all some of the bullet points in "disciplined dreaming." The book itself felt like a serious of points and anecdotes in order to facilitate directed creativity. Focussing creativity can help let the juices flow to find solutions in the area. However, care must be taken to not be too focussed. Most of the points in the book felt like things I had read elsewhere. (I guess the "creative" book was not too creative after all.)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Fuzzy Mud

Fuzzy Mud intersperses the story of a few kids with that of senate hearings about a renewable "biolene" fuel. At first it is unclear how they two are related. However, the stories gradually converge. A girl and a boy always walk home together. The boy is usually picked on by a bully. One day they try to walk through the woods in hopes of avoiding the bully. However, the bully is there, and they attempt to attack him by throwing some fuzzy mud. This ends up causing quite the situation. The "mud" attacks the body and creates a significant rash. The girl tries to fight the rash, but it continues to grow. She is later scared when the bully does not return to school. She cares for him as a person, even after all the problems he has caused. She tries to help him get medical attention - even sacrificing her perfect attendance. Her moves did more than that, possibly even saving the human race from a great catastrophe. In the process, the kids grow and begin to understand each other better. We also get a cautionary tale of the dangers of bioengineering. The fuzzy mud was caused from a "miracle" fuel source. However, mutations can happen that can cause it to grow out of hand and became something harmful to humans. They were lucky that it was discovered before it spread to areas that would not contain it. What would have happen if it was not contained and was able to spread and mutate freely?

The False Prince

The False Prince is the tale of an orphan boy, Sage. He is often getting in to trouble at the orphanage and has mastered arts of escaping and pilfering. One day, a rich aristocrat (Conner) comes to purchase him for his purposes. Conner has a plan of molding him to be the lost prince Jaron. The prince was supposedly killed by pirates four years ago, but attempts to find the body have all failed, so there is still the possibility, however remote, that Jaron still exists. We later learn that the entire royal family (King, Queen and Jaron's older brother) have all died in castle and that there will need to be a new ruler appointed. Jaron would be the only royal in place - if he were found. Conner's plan is to train an orphan boy to pass as Jaron to serve as his puppet king. To this means, Conner has purchased 4 boys and began to train them. He is ruthless and even has one boy killed in front of the others to show the only way out is to win the "contest" to be the "puppet prince". Sage will have none of this, and tries to sneak out on his own. He ends up being returned and suffering punishment. He remains honorable, and keeps his word to others - even when it ends up being less beneficial to himself. He truly likes to help others, even as he has no respect for those that abuse their authority. The book takes a few unexpected turns and follows a path to a satisfying conclusion that is neither telegraphed in advanced nor too far out in left field. Through the process we see the true richness and complexity of Sage's character.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Rule of Three: Will to Survive

The Rule of Three series concludes with the lights turning on along the highway. I wonder how this could actually happen. Wouldn't the grid be significantly beat up in the process of the chaos that had ensued? I'd be interested in reading further exploration of the "reconnection" of society. What happens to old property? There was so much looting and mass chaos in the few months that it would be nearly impossible to make everyone whole gain. How many sections of society would just decide to live in their new structure rather than try to go back? What would become of money, companies, and all the structures of society?
The book doesn't explore any of the future. Instead, it focuses on the building up of a community and a coming of age of the main teenage characters. The youth become a more important part of the community and start to become primary decision makers in key areas. However, they also have to remember to support the people around them along with their own health. There is plenty of suspense and drama as they interact with other communities. (However, some seems a little manufactured. The writing makes it obvious that one encounter is friendly, while the characters are going paranoid over the the possible hostilities.) In the end, the torch is passed and the lights come back on.

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box

Your view of yourself tends to be a lot more positive than your view of others. It is easy to gloss over your deficiencies, while observing those in others. People can also tell when you don't have their best interests in mind - even if you try to say otherwise. If you are "In the box", you are thinking about others as objects. You often justify your behavior, while villainizing others. They are just object to serve you and they can sense that. Instead, you need to remember that they are people that have real feelings also. This doesn't mean you have to be "easy" on them. There are still difficult decisions that require hard actions. However, by treating people as people, you can often reduce the conflict and produce better outcomes.
This book breaks from the common "self-help" approach and is instead presented as a simple dialog at a fictitious company. A relatively new employee spend a day with upper management to learn some of these skills. In process he realizes that some of the people he admired really were thinking of him "out of the box", while his behaviors towards others were causing him to appear as the "bad bosses" that he had encountered previously in his career. He tries to make peace with some of the people he has negatively impacted. At first, he has spotty success. He gradually learns how to fully get "out of the box" and improves relationships at work at home. He also realizes that there is no prescription to follow to get out of the box. You must just do it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Swarm: The Second Formic War (Volume 1)

I didn't realize this series of books could fit in the Endger's Game timeline. I had thought that the first Formic War was immediately followed by Ender's Game. However, there is the matter of Mazer Rackham having been traveling through space to be able to talk with Ender, so I guess it makes sense. This books feels like the previous Formic War series. There are some people that see what is going on. Those with power don't believe them and dilly dally until it starts to get too late. Most leaders are greedy and really in it for their own benefit. They feel threatened by people that are more capable precisely because they are more capable. The "heroes" are crazy smart, but suffer from self doubt and can be a little bit too humble. (And how is it, that the Aliens always happen to be near mining ships that know how to identify them?) Mazer is ignored and in trouble with the military. Young Jukes is working hard and tries to do the right thing, but not ruthless like his father. Victor can fix anything and is brave enough to go into space. His fiance enlists in the military and soon finds herself in command of their now commandeered mining ship. Everyone seems to understand the political reason for their actions - except for the politicians themselves.
The author's seemed to go all George Lucas on the story. In the afterward, they acknowledged that there was not a whole lot of detail on Mazer in Ender's Game. Thus, they got to make an entire backstory to fulfill a couple small, nearly throwaway lines. It must have been a lot of fun to write the story. In reading it, you know how the main arc will turn out, but there are still plenty of sub-plots to keep things interesting. There are obviously going to be a few more books in this series.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Algorithms in a Nutshell: A Practical Guide

A programmer wanted to prevent memory leaks, so he wrote some code to store a record of all memory allocated and freed. However, this code resulted in the programs sometimes taking forever to run. Only after some analysis, it was determined that the binary tree used for storing memory locations was unbalanced, due to the sequential nature of memory allocation in malloc. Balancing the tree reduced the horrible worst-case run times.
This story lead to the promise of a great, practical book on algorithms. Alas, after starting off well, the book soon went of the deep end. Rather than providing simple algorithms to answer real world questions, it dove into deep analysis of algorithms with multiple tables of timings. (Hint: do not use text to speech unless you want to hear endless pronunciations of large numbers.) It went to provide very detailed analysis of implementations of certain algorithms on various platforms. Alas, it only covered a limited number of specific algorithms in this detail. It also went on to cover in significant depth some algorithms with limited use cases. The detail was both too much for a general "nutshell" view of algorithms and not nearly enough for a detailed reference book.

The Rule of Three: Fight for Power

The second Rule of Three book has less direct action and more internal politics. People have now lived for some time without electricity. They need to balance their need for survival with the needs to be ethical humans. The community does not have the resources to help everyone. How can you help people in need when your resources are extremely limited? In some cases, simply communicating and given out things you are not using is the key.
What do you do when people that exhibit valuable behavior also have the tendency to stretch things and act in ways detrimental to the community? Do you keep them around? Do you give them greater freedom to act how they desire, even if it may be outside the realm you want for society?
Unfortunately some of the community begins to unravel from within. The book tends to radio key points from a long way out. As a reader, I had suspicion as to the cause of certain key events. It seems obvious why events were happening, but the characters seemed to have no clue. However, the conclusion totally took me by surprise.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't

We spend a hug amount of money and computational power on predicting weather, yet we still complain about inaccurate weather forecasts. In spite of this, weather forecasting is one of the "success stories". We have much more accurate forecasts than we did prior to the computational advances. However, beyond a week, weather forecasts fare no better than guesswork. Small changes in variables can significantly alter the long term prognosis. People can also cause kinks in the operations. Commercial weather forecasts have a tendency to overestimate precipitation. (They would rather have someone pleasantly surprised by a sunny day than have an activity ruined by rain.) There was also a case of flooding in North Dakota where an accurate river level prediction was made. However, only the average number was shared rather than the range. The river crested within the range, which happened to be just above the flooding level (and above the average level predicted.)
Baseball provides a rich source of data about many players. It also provides many opportunities for inaccurate predictions about players. Successful teams use a mixture of scouting and statistical analysis to find the best players for the money.
There are a number of biases in the data analysis and predictions we see. Bold predictions are most likely to get press coverage, but are least likely to be right. It is almost always possible to find a significant pattern in the "noise", but that doesn't do much good for predicting future signals. People also tend to be really bad at understanding what data means. Furthermore, news coverage tends to focus on the outliers, even though they tend to be the most inaccurate.
Coverage of global warming provides a cautionary example. There is scientific consensus on the negative impact of human activities on the earth's climate. However, consensus does not necessarily mean good science. Rather than being a balanced average of different opinions, a consensus tends to be dominated by the loudest or most forceful voice. For climate change, the initial view was simply that a greenhouse effect existed and that human activity contributed to increasing in gases. After this point, things got wonky. Discussion switched to global warming, with precise numbers given for warming predictions. When these tended to overstate the warming, the predictions were revised down and models were calibrated. However, the more extreme predictions were the ones that received more press coverage. This would distort the public's view of the situation and give greater credence to the opponents. The response to global warming involves politics, and politics is concerned with the short term impacts, not the long term results. Thus, the noise ends up being twisted towards short term purpose, while the signal is left in the scientific circles.
Predicting terrorism is a lot like predicting earthquakes. We know it is likely to happen, with the minor activities being more frequent than the high-body-count ones. However, we are not good at knowing the specifics. The September 11, 2001 attacks were "unknown unknowns". They were just not something we expected or thought to expect. This made prediction difficult. Terrorism does tend to follow a power-law distribution giving us an idea that a terror attack might be due, but no more than that. (Ironically, Israel seems to buck the power law trend. They permit small-scale attacks to happen, but focus efforts on limiting the more damaging large scale attacks.)
The real problem with predictions is people. The sensational tends to be more appealing than well-thought out. A single pronouncement is given more weight than one couched in uncertainty - even though the uncertain one is much more truthful. People also tend to value "loyalty", giving more credit to those that stick by their guns, even though a willingness to change predictions in face of data makes for more valuable predictions. What are we to do?