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Book Review: Bad Astronomy, by Philip Plait

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 28-Nov-2010 by asqui

Bad Astronomy is a book by Philip Plait, Ph.D. (creator of the website by the same name: www.badastronomy.com) wherein he explains the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, and questions that you’ve never really thought about in so much depth before.

Why is the sky blue? Why do the stars twinkle? Was the moon landing a hoax? Where is the centre of the universe?

Often his answers start off which what is common knowledge but then supersede that with a bunch of extra detail and insight; such as the chapter about tides, which starts off talking about the moon, then recedes to cover gravity principles, then involves the tidal influence of the sun, and ends with the following paragraph:

So the next time you're at the beach, think for a moment about what you're seeing. The force of tides may take the water in and out from the shoreline, but it also lengthens our day, pushes the Moon farther away, creates volcanoes, eats stars, and viciously tears apart whole galaxies. Of course, the tides also make it easier to find pretty shells on the coastline. Sometimes it's awesome to think about the universe as a whole, but other times it's okay just to wiggle your toes in the wet sand.

Bad Astronomy is essentially an astronomy-specific variant of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.

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Insane Adventurers

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 21-Nov-2010 by asqui

Over the past few years I have read a number of books that fit into the genre that I like to call “Insane adventurers and their jaw-dropping death pursuits”. From sailing around the world and climbing large mountains, to walking across entire continents; the one thing they all seem to have in common is their relentless pursuit of ambitious goals, often in the face of significant adversity, and bordering on insanity.

Facing Up

Facing Up, by Bear Grylls

Bear Grylls is perhaps more known these days for jumping out of helicopters and eating live animals on his sensational survivalist show Man vs. Wild, however we shouldn’t forget that in 1998 he became the youngest Briton to successfully climb Mount Everest.

If you have any doubts about the significance of this feat you should read the book he wrote about it.

A Voyage For Madmen

A Voyage For Madmen, by Peter Nichols

Nine men set off individually to sail around the world, in various states of preparation:

“The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race, held in 1968–1969, and was the first round-the-world yacht race. The race was controversial due to the failure by most competitors to finish the race and because of the suicide of one entrant; however, it ultimately led to the founding of the BOC Challenge and Vendée Globe round-the-world races, both of which continue to be successful and popular.”Wikipedia 

Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

The peak of Mount Everest pokes into an altitude where aircraft cruise. The high speed “jet stream” winds make it impossible to climb to the top, except for a short window of time each year when the jet streams are redirected. The mountaineers awaiting this window of opportunity each year attempt to find a suitable weather window in which to scurry (slowly) to the top in a semi-conscious daze and (hopefully) make it back alive..

In the 1996 season the jet streams came back early and caught a lot of people by surprise. Jon Krakauer was there as a journalist on an expedition with acclaimed mountain guide Rob Hall, and documented the adversity in this book.

Touching The Void

Touching the Void, Joe Simpson

Mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out in 1985 to be the first to climb Siula Grande (6,344m) in the Peruvian Andes, via its West face which is almost vertical.

They made it to the peak however there were some 'complications' on the descent. Namely Joe Simpson slipped and injured his leg. Initially he thought the injury was not that serious and that he was just being (in his own words) "a bit wet". In reality, his calf bone had been driven up into the knee joint, which is why he was finding walking a little difficult.

"It completely destroyed both of my meniscus cartilages, crushed between femur and tibia, caused disruption of the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and also damaged the fibular head and peroneal nerve. To complicate things further I had also fractured the ankle and the heel of the same leg but didn't notice at the time as I had quite a lot on my mind."

By this time the pair had also run out of fuel for their stove and so, unable to melt snow for drinking water, were becoming dehydrated.

This was only the beginning of their adventures.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan

Steven Callahan set out on a race from the Canary Islands to the Carribean in 1986 but after six days his boat sank and he had to make do in his survival raft for the next 10 weeks, fending off the sharks, fishing with his harpoon gun, and distilling water using temperamental solar sills.

His raft punctured and he had to come up with some ingenious repairs and continually re-inflate it. He used an improvised sextant made out of out of three pencils to navigate. His harpoon gun broke, repeatedly.

Through all this he did not give up and managed to survive until he drifted to salvation.

Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know

Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know, Ran Fiennes

You might think that some of the people described above are quite hard-core, and yes, they sure are. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, however is an absolute lunatic. He is in a league of his own.

In his auto-biography he describes his exploits from the early days through to modern times. The tales of adversity and stamina on his various expeditions are second to none.

There was this one time, when he visited both the north and south poles on foot; or he time that he got frostbite on his hand and, fed up of waiting for the operation to remove his blackened fingertips, amputated them himself, in his shed, using a saw. Or the time that he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest at the age of 65. Or when he ran a marathon (that's quite a long way)… at the age of 59… (that's pretty impressive)… having had a heart attack and double heart bypass only four months prior… (wow, what a recovery!) I mean, that's pretty impressive, and more than a little insane, right?

Except it wasn't just one marathon. He actually did seven marathons, on seven consecutive days, and did them on seven different continents. At the age of 59. Four months after a heart attack. Bam!

Absolute.

Lunatic.

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Book Review: Hackers, by Steven Levy

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 01-Sep-2010 by asqui

Hackers, by Steven Levy Not to be confused with the movie of the same name, this book is a decade older, and presents a view of the MIT hacker culture. Arising from the Technical Model Railroad Club, in the days of the Programmed Data Processor (PDP), where computers were so large and costly that they had to be shared by entire departments. The Technical Model Railroad Club was utterly fascinated by what could be done with this new technology, and spent waking nights hacking on the computers.

Since computer time was scarce you had to book in advance for a specific time slot to run your “Official Sanctioned Programs”. Bookings were taken around the clock, and the enthusiasts chose to hang out at all hours, being ready to jump into any time slot that people didn’t turn up for. (Unsurprisingly these were the late night time slots.)

In these nights they explored the capabilities of this early technology, they wrote games, they wrote the first interactive debuggers. Things were low-level; programs were written in assembly, and the hackers were obsessed by succinctness and efficiency. On one occasion the impromptu “Midnight Computer Wiring Society” actually rewired the mainframe (against all sanctions) to implement a new instruction at the hardware level!

Things were different for computing in those days: Rather than each person having a computer on their desk, and another on their lap, and another in the mobile telephone in their pocket, there was only one terminal. And when you were on the terminal, you often had an audience. (No pressure!)

People would sit at all hours of the night and argue what to an outsider would be bafflingly arcane points. These arguments were the lifeblood of the hacker community. Sometimes people would literally scream at each other, insisting on a certain kind of coding scheme for an assembler, or a specific type of interface, or a particular feature in a computer language. These differences would have hackers banging on the blackboard, or throwing chalk across the room. It wasn't so much a battle of egos as it was an attempt to figure out what The Right Thing was. The term had special meaning to the hackers. The Right Thing implied that to any problem, whether a programming dilemma, a hardware interface mismatch, or a question of software architecture, a solution existed that was just ... it. The perfect algorithm. You'd have hacked right into the sweet spot, and anyone with half a brain would see that the straight line between two points had been drawn, and there was no sense trying to top it. "The Right Thing," Gosper would later explain, "very specifically meant the unique, correct, elegant solution ... the thing that satisfied all the constraints at the same time, which everyone seemed to believe existed for most problems."

From here grew the personal computer revolution. Computers got smaller and more affordable, and entered the mainstream. The classic computer games companies Sierra On-Line, Sirius, and Brøderbund Software (now all sadly defunct) emerged, as well as the very beginnings of companies such as Microsoft, Apple Computer, and Atari.

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Elephants on Acid

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 18-Jun-2010 by asqui

Elephants on Acid Elephants on Acid and Other Bizzare Experiments is a collection of interesting, entertaining, and sometimes disturbing experiments collected by Alex Boese. It looks to have a lot of overlap with Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, Richard Wiseman (author of 59 Seconds), so I’m going to skip Quirkology — I seem to be getting stuck recently reading several books of the same genre or style and finding a lot of overlaps.

From attempts to bring dead animals and people back to life (using electricity), to measuring the weight of a soul (by carefully weighing a terminal patient as they expire), and inviting road rage (by waiting in a stopped car for an extended period after the lights turn green), Alex has amassed a collection of these weird and wonderful experiments, carefully catalogued into themed sections.

True to the promise of the title, there is also coverage of LSD administered to elephants, with rather unexpected and somewhat devastating results, in one case.

An interesting and light read.

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Book Review: Portrait of a Young Forger

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 15-May-2010 by asqui

Portrait of a Young Forger Portrait of a Young Forger is, as the subtitle says, A true story of adventure and survival in wartime Europe. I remember reading this book in school and for some reason I felt the need to read it again. I tracked down and bought a second-hand copy (it seems to be a pretty rare title), but according to the invoice, which I've been using as a bookmark, this was in late 2007. It wasn't until 2010 that I actually got around to reading it again.

Marian Pretzel was a young Jewish art student living in Lvov, Poland. He talks about being fond of sports, the 'Dror' sports club he was involved with, and his decision to go to art school. But when the Nazi occupation came it quickly destroyed his family and landed him in the Janowska concentration camp.

It was painfully clear to Marian that he would not survive long at Janowska, and he soon made a miraculous escape from the camp. Previously, he and a friend were given the challenge of forging some stamps on an official-looking document; now Marian had to rapidly develop his forging skills to help his survival.

The book chronicles his journeys during the war years with various friends, around Poland, the USSR, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Each trip was backed by a well thought-out and rehearsed cover story, and suitable forged documents bearing all the right stamps.

His escape from Janowska was only one of his many brushes with death. Along the way he lost countless family members and friends who were not so lucky as he was. And although his survival was largely based on resourcefulness, ingenuity, and boldness, on many occasions it came down to pure luck. For instance, on one occasion he and a friend missed their train because they had to collect a boarding pass before embarking; the train became full while they were in the queue so they had to wait until the next day. Meanwhile, the place they were going to was bombed, and most of the inhabitants killed — had they caught the train they intended, they would likely be amongst those dead.

This book really puts things into perspective for someone who lives in London, goes to work every day, and has responsibilities including ironing work shirts and feeding the cat. The thought of not having anything to eat and dodging the Gestapo at every corner is quite a startling one.

Amazingly, through all this Marian manages to keep a clear head and a positive attitude at a time when many around him are paralysed, mesmerised, and stupefied, by fear:

I had lost everything but my life... I made a slow and careful inventory of the qualities I possessed and how they could be instrumental in my survival.

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Book Review: Made To Stick

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 26-Apr-2010 by asqui

418clVfrihL._BO2[1] As the subtitle says, Made To Stick is a book about Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. Chip and Dan Heath explore the naturally “sticky” ideas which penetrate your mind and stick around, without your knowledge or intention.

The book comes to life with constant examples; they cover false stories like the kidney heist, where a businessman wakes up in a bath tub full of ice to discover his kidney has been harvested by organ thieves, and true stories, like the guy who lost 200 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches every day.

There are also a number of case studies that explore how to turn an abstract idea, such as a CEO telling employees to “maximise shareholder value”, into something more concrete and sticky, which relates to actual day-to-day work of the employees and is therefore much more likely to be understood and applied!

Chip and Dan set forth the six aspects of generating a sticky idea as SUCCESs:

  1. Simple
    Find the core of what you are trying to communicate. Strip back the detail and make it a simple message, but without dumbing down. (Think proverbs.) Relate it to things that your audience knows about already, to help it take hold.
  2. Unexpected
    Capture attention with a surprise. Avoid gimmickry. Break people’s “guessing machines” by making them guess something counterintuitive about the core issue. Make it “postdictable” — it’s not predictable, but once you know the answer it all falls in to place and makes sense.
  3. Concrete
    Make ideas easy to understand and remember. Strip down the abstractions to something concrete. Use specific and vivid examples; make it real. Involve the audience. Talk about people, not data. The more specific you are, the more sense it makes.
  4. Credible
    Make your message easy for people to believe and agree with. Use external credibility from an authority (expert, celebrity) or anti-authority (regular Joe), or internal credibility derived from things like providing specific details.
  5. Emotional
    Make people care by tapping in to the emotions that appeal to them, be it empathy or rebellion. Don't assume that others care at the same level that you do — make them care! Appeal to self-interest.
  6. Stories
    Use stories as a simulation, to tell people how to act, or as an inspiration, to give people energy to act. Stories can be like a flight simulator to engage people an have them imagine themselves in a situation, play by play.

If these summary notes don't make a lot of sense to you, that's because you should go and read the book in its entirety. Then you'll know how to turn a phrase like "maximising shareholder value" into something a little more... 'sticky'.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."
  — John F. Kennedy, 1961

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59 Seconds: Think a little; Change a lot

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 30-Mar-2010 by asqui

59 Seconds: Thing a little; Change a lot 59 Seconds is a book wherein Richard Wiseman tackles some common myths  and then debunks them by citing scientific studies with differing results.

Myths:

  1. Visualising success will help you achieve it.
  2. “Retail Therapy”: Buying things for yourself makes you happier.
  3. Punching a punch bag can help you relieve stress.

What makes this book unique is that after debunking, Richard then continues to talk about techniques that, according to other scientific studies, actually work.

Truths: (well, hypotheses supported by the cited studies, at least)

  1. Visualising the path to success, including specific actions that you will take, will help you achieve it.
  2. Buying experiences makes you happier than buying things. 
  3. Getting a pet can help you relieve stress more than a punch bag.

These findings are neatly summarised in little sections throughout the book which specify actions you can take (allegedly in 59 seconds) to derive the relevant benefits.

Another thing that makes this book unique is Richard’s casual writing style, with regular bursts of deadpan satire and exaggerations slipped in to make sure you’re paying attention. (And like The Undercover Economist, this book also features an amusing study involving students and an open bar — or so they think.)

See also: Richard Wiseman interview on the Freakonomics blog (includes amusing anecdotes about the practical complexities of “accidentally” dropping your wallet in the street... 200 times... for a study)

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Book Review: The Undercover Economist

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 01-Mar-2010 by asqui

The Undercover Economist book cover Is the coffee in train stations expensive because the coffee retailers are exploiting the desperate and barely awake commuters who are "price-blind"? Not really. The reason the coffee is so expensive is that the retailer needs to pay the extortionate rent charged by rail company, which owns the train station and therefore has a monopoly on the first land those coffee-deprived commuters set foot on. It's that rail company, with its scarce resource, that makes the extra profit from your expensive coffee, not the coffee retailer.

Tim Harford is the Financial Times' Undercover Economist, and his book of the same name applies economic theory to explain everyday curiosities, in a similar manner to Freakonomics. Also like Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist is a fascinating read with no economics pre-requisites, which should appeal to any non-economists.

Why are airport departure lounges so crappy and uncomfortable? Is it because the airport is struggling for money and can't afford more comfortable chairs? Perhaps. How about Tesco own-brand products, with their plain red and blue packaging; is the cost of a few more colours a limiting factor in the design of this packaging? In truth, the regular departure lounges have to be sufficiently bare and uncomfortable to motivate the business and first class passengers to fork out for their drastically more expensive plane tickets (and the associated departure lounge experience). It's not that better product design would break the bank for Tesco’s own-brand vegetable soup, just that better design would make the customer less likely to fork out for the more expensive alternative option.

It is important for retailers to keep the “premium gap” open, and not let the budget options trail too closely behind the premium option. If the premium gap gets too narrow, then some premium customers will “leak” to the budget option when they decide it’s good enough for them.

This is the sort of analysis you can expect from The Undercover Economist, illustrated with engaging examples (such as explaining the effect of zero-marginal-cost by looking at the drunken chaos that results from offering fixed-entry unlimited-drinks parties to university students).

And if you haven’t had enough after reading the book, you can follow the More or Less radio show (also available as a podcast) hosted by Tim Harford and packed with more amusing and topical analysis.

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Book Review: Flatterland

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 05-Oct-2009 by asqui

Flatterland: Like Flatland Only More So Flatterland (2001), by Ian Stewart, is the long-awaited sequel to Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (written in 1884!) — an imaginary story about two-dimensional beings living in a two-dimensional world. I’ve not read the original Flatland, but I have it on good authority that Flatterland is much better.

This book is essentially a mash-up of an easy-going children’s story with hard-core mathematical concepts that will stretch your mind. Flatland is a 2-dimensional world where females are lines with razor-sharp end-points; males are two-dimensional shapes; browsing the interline is always wireless because otherwise you’d be trapped inside a network of cables with no way to get out; meat comes mainly from oxagons – hexagons crossed with octagons; and books come as long lines rolled up into a spiral.

Vikki, a line from Flatland, is taken on a tour of different worlds by her guide, a space-hopper. On the way, they explore 3-dimensional space, 4-dimensional space, higher-dimensions, fractional dimensions, and more.

Although the story is fictional, the facts and concepts are most certainly not fictional. They explain the concepts of Hamming distance and error-detecting/error-correcting encodings in a way that is remarkably clearer than my university lectures on information theory! They visit topological worlds where doughnuts and two-holed doughnuts turn into teacups and teapots respectively. The milk comes from a one-sided cow named moobius, whose tail is joined to its nose with a twist; oh, and the milk is served in Klein bottles.

The book is full of incredibly witty puns, which are highly amusing for the scientifically-minded reader who has come across some of these mathematical concepts, and enjoys geeky jokes. One example: Moobius, the one-sided cow, has a loud marching band playing from within – this music cannot be stopped because that would be incredibly “orienting”, and besides, he is nothing without his “band”. (Geeky-pun explanation: A Möbius strip is a single-sided non-orientable two-dimensional surface embedded in three dimensions, and can be constructed by taking a band of paper and gluing its ends together with a twist.)

A non-technical reader can just ignore all the incredible puns and still enjoy the book, with all its challenging thought experiments and odd situations, written in an easy-to-read style.

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Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 28-Aug-2009 by asqui

Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force, by Daniel Coyle Lance Armstrong may not have won the Tour de France 2009, but let’s not forget that he won a few Tours de France before that. Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force, by Daniel Coyle is a book about one of those tours.

The book is not just about the 2004 Tour de France — only the final one-third covers the Tour. The first two-thirds are all about the rest of the season before that, the wider pro-cycling peloton in 2004, and all the things around it. Training and preparations for the tour, including long hours in the saddle during the off-season, meticulously procuring the best equipment available (which Lance affectionately terms “The Shit”) and the equipment which he hopes will blow away the opposition (“The Shit That Will Kill Them”); Lance’s every-day life, interactions with his then-girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, and his kids. And although Lance is obviously the main subject, Dan does a good job of covering a number of other riders and teams as well.

Dan has an engaging writing style and covers a lot of interesting details, from the style with which Floyd Landis entered the road racing scene, to the words coming over the radio into Lance’s ear during the final time trial. I don’t think this book is just for the cycling enthusiasts; I read a little to my wife (who has no interest in cycling) and she was pleasantly surprised, saying that the writing was a lot more colourful and dynamic, talking more about the riders than the technicalities of cycling. Dan also includes a succinct appendix which can get the complete novice up-to-speed on pro cycling, types of races, teams, tactics, and cheating, in under 9 pages.

Riders eat and drink the equivalent of three Thanksgiving dinners a day during the Tour.”

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Book Review: Gang leader for a day

 3 Comments- Add comment Written on 26-Jul-2009 by asqui

20184200[1] The book I recently finished, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, by Sudhir Venkatesh, is essentially the extended edition of Chapter 3 from Freakonomics.

Aside:

The book Freakonomics was an interesting look into the economic forces that drive everyday things. It doesn’t look like I ever got around to reviewing this book, but it comes highly recommended. Don’t let the “economics” put you off — it is suitable for those who are not inclined toward economics!

Chapter 3 of the book is “Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?” and covers “The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers”.

As a sociology student, Sudhir finds himself spending time with a local gang leader and discovering the intricate details of gangland Chicago.

The structure of a drug gang is not unlike that of a multi-site manufacturing company. There is a hierarchy of bosses who make decisions at various levels. People try to climb the ladder to get more money (and safer work). Violations such as stealing are met with standard disciplinary action.

Gang wars are often the result of “foot soldiers” (the peons of the drug gang) starting fights due to their inflated egos, but are highly undesirable in the grand scheme of things because violence drives away customers. “Turf wars” are more often conducted in controlled inter-gang meetings where negotiations take place without violence. Gangs even engage in mergers with other gangs!

The resemblance to more conventional enterprises is uncanny; I’m curious if this evolved completely independently, or if some gang boss once upon a time happened to have an MBA!

Police and ambulances often don’t attend calls in to gangland, so the gangs and local residents have to make their own structure and justice system. It’s like a miniature country with its own structure of jobs, policies, and taxation (by way of extortion, bribes, protection).

Sudhir, now Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Columbia University, spent a decade studying the gangs and local residents in Chicago’s South Side.

This book is a truly fascinating glimpse into a world that few outsiders get to see.

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Book Review: Crimes Against Logic

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 03-Jul-2009 by asqui

isbn[1]

In this book Jamie Whyte, a former philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University, does pretty much what he promises in the subtitle: “Exposing the bogus arguments of politicians, priests, journalists, and other serial offenders.”

This book starts off with a very in-depth logical approach that is, at times, a little bit too pedantic even for my taste. For example, the first chapter talks about the cliché “You are entitled to your opinion” and goes through the painstaking logical deduction that, although you are free to hold an opinion, it is obviously not guaranteed to be correct. Therefore, when debating the correctness of your opinion versus another opinion, the cop-out “I’m entitled to my opinion” is entirely irrelevant to the topic under debate. Roughly equivalent in merit to a statement such as “I am wearing leather shoes!”

Later in the book he mellows out a little and gets closer to Ben Goldacre’s style in Bad Science — pointing out public blunders and pseudo-scientific nonsense. Such as New Labour’s 1997 claim that 35% of British children live in ‘poverty’, under the rather unconventional definition of ‘poverty’ as “household income less than 60% of the national median household income”. His analysis is sound and comprehensive, but I’ll be flippant and say that this statistic is about as useful as declaring that 50% of children live in ‘poverty’ because they have a below-average household income. Something must be done! Increase taxes!

Another amusing part that makes a good anecdote is The Times reporting a BMA statistic in 2000, saying that anorexia affects 2% of young women and kills a fifth of sufferers. Jamie ran the numbers and concluded that, at this rate, anorexia is so deadly that it kills sixteen times the number of young women that die from any causes, including anorexia. Something must be done!

Overall this book is an interesting read and at only 150 pages in length, it’s not an epic. Persevere through the beginning — it gets better in the latter half and there are a few great gems waiting there for you.

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"Bad Science", by Ben Goldacre

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 05-May-2009 by asqui

Book Cover: Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre In Bad Science Ben Goldacre takes the time to carefully demolish a variety of pseudo-scientific myths that the mass media, industry, and advertising, has induced upon us. He doesn’t make a lot of generalisations or sweeping statements, just presents a lot of  facts and clear evidence – something the mass media rarely does.

He also introduces the reader to a lot of knowledge about scientific methods, the traits of effective (and ineffective) research: control groups; the role of placebos; double-blind trials; why brand name drugs are no better than generic brands, except by virtue of the fact that you pay more for them which, paradoxically, gives you a greater placebo effect (because, subconsciously, a drug that is more expensive must be more effective)!

Two of the biggest medical abbreviations from UK media in the past decade, in my mind, are MMR (the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella combined vaccination, and its links to autism) and MSRA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the hospital ‘superbug’ outbreak). In his book, Ben calmly presents some facts and details that the mass media may have forgotten to go in to (perhaps because “just kidding, we’re not all going to die after all!” is not quite as newsworthy).

He also covers common “knowledge” such as vitamins, antioxidants, other nutritionists’ products and claims, homeopathy, and more.

I’m trying hard not to enter into too much detail here because I know that I’ll degenerate into a cynical rant that simply won’t do justice to Ben’s carefully measured words and well-balanced arguments. Instead, here is a quotation from my favourite part of the book:

“What you are seeing here is a tabloid journalist telling a department of a world-class research microbiologists that they are mistaken about microbiology. This is an excellent example of a phenomenon described in one of my favourite psychology papers: ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning.

They noted that people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent  to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement.
[…]
People who performed particularly poorly relative to their peers were unaware of their own incompetence; but more than that, they were also less able to recognize competence in others, because this, too, relied on ‘meta-cognition’, or knowledge about the skill.”
         — Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, pp.267-269.

See also: The Dangers of Bread

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The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 04-Feb-2009 by asqui

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte is quite possibly the most boring sounding book title for this most interesting book. Perhaps something along the lines of "A picture is worth a thousand words" would be better, but that's just not a geeky enough title, is it?

Perhaps the boring-sounding title was the reason that the author couldn't get it off the ground before getting a second mortgage on his house to finance self-publishing the first printing. (I guess you could say it was a success, as it has now had over 17 printings.)

True to its name, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information drills in to the science and psychology behind all manner of quantitative graphics — the sort of things you see alongside newspaper articles to illustrate, say, the trend of oil prices in recent years.

Train Schedules

This book drills down into the details that make a good graphic, and also displays a large variety of innovative and information-dense graphics. For example, the image on the cover is actually a visualisation of a train schedule, with time on the horizontal axis and stations represented on the vertical. Each of the oblique red lines represents the locus of scheduled times and stations for a specific train.

The information in this graphic is equivalent to a hefty booklet of train times, yet it is elegantly displayed in a single image. If I were wanting to catch a specific train I'd probably prefer to have the train times booklet, with precise time values written out explicitly, however if I wanted to get a holistic impression of the entire train schedule this graphic is far superior. For instance, the relative speed of trains is demonstrated by the angle of its red line — faster trains have steeper lines. Trains with long stop-overs have discontinuities. Some trains don't go all the way to the end of the line.

This image is actually simplified for the cover art, but the original also has labels for each of the stations and the hours of the day, so you can extract even more information from it.

Examples

Other examples of awesome visual displays of quantitative information I have come across recently:

Hans Rosling's Statistical Visualisations

Hans Rosling co-founded the company which produced the Gap Minder
software, shown below, which mines international statistics and turns them
into rich and dynamic visual displays that help you visualise global trends.
gapminder
I highly recommend the videos from his presentations at the TED conference.
Go watch them now. Trust me... His visuals will drop your jaw.

History Flow

Visualisations for the edit history of Wikipedia articles.
small_abortion_date[1]

Name Mapper

Visualise the popularity of names across states the USA, and over time.
NameMapper

UCSC WikiTrust

Coloured overlays on existing Wikipedia pages to communicate
the "reputation" of individual words and phrases in an article.
WikiTrust-Reaganomics

Other Examples

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Blink: The power of thinking without thinking

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 24-Aug-2008 by asqui

BlinkI recently finished reading Blink: The power of thinking without thinking, a wonderfully written book by Malcolm Gladwell which goes into the details of intuition, first impressions, subconscious judgements, involuntary prejudices; the snap-judgements we make within seconds of seeing something.

He illustrates his points with a myriad of fascinating examples and experiments which make this book a captivating read.

More to whet your appetite for this, and his other books, here

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Framework Design Guidelines

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 25-Jul-2008 by asqui

Framework Design GuidelinesSince an overwhelming majority of poll respondents indicated that they "get paid to do geeky things" I figure I it is safe to post on some more technical subjects, such as the book which I recently finished reading at work. (I've been struggling to find chunks of time to read this book, having started it over a year ago, so I'm glad to finally have finished it.)

Framework Design Guidelines, by Krzysztof Cwalina and Brad Abrams, encompasses a lot of the hard lessons that were learnt in bringing the .NET Framework to us. Building an intuitive and powerful programming API is a non-trivial activity, and a lot of people underestimate the importance of framework design and design testing.

This book explains a lot of concepts that are relevant to .NET developers (even if you're not explicitly building a framework) and boils each area down to a set of easy-to-understand "Do" and "Do not" rules (a lot of which are captured by the automatic analysis of FxCop and its successors).

If you want to learn from the mistakes at Microsoft, understand design principles, and build robust, easy-to-use APIs with .NET, then I'd recommend you read this book.

(There's even a Second Edition on the way, "to cover the new features in the .NET Framework 3.0, 3.5, and new advances in languages (e.g. LINQ) that are relevant to Framework design.")

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"Labels" by Louis De Bernieres

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 19-Jul-2008 by asqui

LabelsLabels, by Louis De Bernieres, is a short story about a man who gets caught up with an obsession of collecting the labels from tins of cat food. Entirely random though it may be, it gradually ruins his life.

With only one or two dozen (small) pages of writing this was a refreshing break from Branson's 600 page monolith.

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Richard Branson: Losing My Virginity

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 13-Jul-2008 by asqui

Losing My Virginity: The AutobiographyAmbitious; Unbelievable; Insane; Illicit; Bad-ass. These are just some of the words I wrote down whilst reading Richard Branson's autobiography, Losing My Virginity.

This book gives a unique insight into the life and times of one Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson. From ambitious schoolboy, to business start-up entrepreneur, criminal, adventurer, and philanthropist. It's interesting to see that there was nothing magical about the growth of Virgin to the monstrous brand it is today — some luck, perhaps, but a lot of insight, hard work, and perseverance through minor and major setbacks alike. (You'll never believe how many times Virgin has come so close to financial ruin!)

I highly recommend this inspirational read.

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The Long Tail

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 07-Jul-2008 by asqui

The Long Tail is a recently identified phenomenon in consumer demographics.

Long Tail Boats

The Long Tail

The Long Tail: How Endless Choice Is Creating Unlimited Demand is the book that Chris Anderson started with his 2004 article in Wired Magazine (mentioned above). Over the following couple of years he documented progress with the book on his blog, www.thelongtail.com, posting little snippets and thoughts and ideas every so often, before finally releasing the book.

Key Ideas

My summary breakdown of Chris' sophisticated ideas will not do the book justice, and I highly recommend you read it yourself, but I will attempt to summarise the essence of his main ideas here:

1. The New Producers are you and me, and our neighbours and friends. With low-cost consumer electronics, computers and the internet, amateurs are becoming the new professionals. With the ability to create new content and also re-create existing content through mashups and remixes, the long tail is getting fatter every time someone posts a video on YouTube.

2. The New Markets — Aggregators bring together content from head to tail. Amazon is making "out of print" a thing of the past with on-demand printing, and turning individual consumers into used book salesmen, even if for a single title!

3. The New Tastemakers — Filters are needed to cut all the crap out of the long tail and let us find what we are looking for. Google is a perfect filter for the web — every man and his dog put their crap on the Internet these days, and we need good filters to sift out the gold nuggets from the haystack. Filters include search engines, personal recommendations, blogs, and "people who bought this also bought..." recommendations.

In Summary

This is the essence of The Long Tail, as I understand it: The new producers are able to create a bunch of new content. Aggregators bring this to the new markets. Finally, filters drive demand down the tail, taking you from the world you know ("hits") into the world you don't ("niches"); linking supply and demand to lubricate the market.

"The ants have megaphones."

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Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 10-May-2008 by asqui

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidOn Friday a colleague asked if I'd read "Gödel, Escher, Bach". I thought he was asking about them as individual authors, so I found it a peculiar question. I only knew of Gödel as an author, and Escher as an artist, and Bach as a musician. What he was actually referring to was Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Hofstadter. He said it was captivating when he read it, at age 15.

My initial impression was "Wow, he read this? At age 15? What a geek!" I couldn't even manage Catch-22 at that age. (And this book looked bigger, thicker, had a smaller font, and seemed considerably more intellectually 'heavy' than Catch-22.)

The Library

The very next day I happened to be passing by the local library so I popped in to try and get this book. Their main copy was due back on 24 November 2006, and was therefore marked as lost, but they had a second copy located in the "2nd Floor Store (ask Library Staff)". So I went to the second floor and asked, but they could not find it. I went to look for it on the shelf, in case it had been put back in the general collection by mistake. No dice. I went back to the second floor, my hopes dashed.

Just as I was about to leave in disappointment the woman paused and said "unless..." then reached down beneath the counter and whipped out the very book I was after. It was a brick. A seven hundred and seventy seven page monolith. And it was falling apart. (Perhaps that's why it was under the counter — awaiting repairs.)

I still don't know what the purpose of this "Second Floor Store" is. I thought it might have been a reference collection, with no check-outs allowed, but that was not the case. She let me check it out. So now it's my seven-hundred and seventy seven page falling-apart monolith. For the next three weeks, at least.

 

The Book

The best way to describe this book is probably through a rather indirect and roundabout analogy, based on my experiences as a university gatecrasher...

During my undergraduate course I discovered that as a student of the university I was fully entitled to attend any lecture of my choosing (regardless of whether I was actually meant to be attending it for my degree course or not). I decided I had to take advantage of this, so I got some lecture schedules and started going to any lecture courses that sounded interesting. Some were lectures for students in other years; some were lectures for students doing Masters degrees.

On one amusing occasion I turned up to the first lecture for a particular course. It was scheduled not in a lecture hall, like most lectures, but a room. A small room. There were eight of us there, including the lecturer, and the room was full. With so few people it was actually feasible to check attendance. I'd never seen attendance taken before during my three years of undergraduate studies, but there's a first time for everything, right?

Of the seven students who were there, it turned out that only four of us were actually on the course. Myself and another guy were just on for the ride, and of the five others, one was "standing in" for his friend who was away on holiday. The lecturer was most amused, but he let us stay on.

The course was largely self-taught: he would dish out articles and papers by the handful, written by the likes of Charles Babbage, Marvin Minsky, Kurt Gödel, Terry Winograd, Ada Lovelace, and other such people who are really famous in their field but probably remain unknown to the average Joe. The topics were around fields such as artificial intelligence, philosophy of mind, cognition, machine learning, and such. Generally very theoretical, philosophical and highly abstract.

We were expected to go away with these materials, and to read and understand them. The level of abstraction was pretty high though, and often more than my little brain could handle, so a lot of the materials passed me by. It was like getting lost in a fog, with these ideas slowly drifting further and further away from your realm of understanding. I couldn't grab hold of the ideas firmly because they were just fog to me. Sometimes I could see them, but they were feint, and it was only a matter of time before they would blend back in with the rest of the fog.

That's what this book seems like — a perfect partner to that course.

You probably have no idea what I mean. If you want to experience it for yourself go and read about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and you'll see what I'm talking about: Abstract, theoretical, fog.

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Past Book Reviews

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 07-May-2008 by asqui

Book StackFor posterity, here is a collection of book reviews from my old blog:

The Illustrated Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

CLR via C# (2nd Edition) by Jeffrey Richter

Effective C# by Bill Wagner

Getting Things Done by David Allen

The Money Machine: How the City Works by Philip Coggan

Alice's Adventures ln Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis

Born On A Blue Day by Daniel Tammett

The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works Of Richard Feynman by Richard Feynman (Edited by J. Robbins) [Excerpts in Feynman on Science & Religion; Feynman on The Female Mind]

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

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Investment Banking Culture

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 28-Apr-2008 by asqui

Stock BrokerI recently reviewed the book Jack: What I've learned leading a great company and great people (also known as Jack: Straight from the gut), a book by Jack Welch, who was at the helm of General Electric for two decades through the eighties and nineties.

Chapter 15 presents a particularly poignant account of GE's experience with investment banking: they acquired Kidder, Peabody, & Co 1986, only to find an insane culture gap between GE and the money driven and ungrateful banking industry. "The concept of idea sharing and team play was completely foreign. If you were in investment banking or trading and your group had a good year, it didn't matter what happened to the firm overall. They wanted theirs." The company had a bonus pool 40% greater than the rest of GE, despite having only one-twentieth the earnings!

It was a clear mistake, but whilst trying to devise an exit strategy they got stung in 1995 by a rogue trader: Joseph Jett, who had exploited a flaw in Kidder's computer system to make fictitious trades (to the tune of $350 million) in order to cut out a $9 million cash bonus for himself.

The response of our business leaders to the crisis was typical of the GE culture. Even though the books had closed on the quarter, many immediately offered to pitch in to cover the Kidder gap. Some said they could find an extra $10m, $20m, and even $30m from their businesses to offset the surprise. Though it was too late, their willingness to help was a dramatic contrast to the excuses I had been hearing from the Kidder people.

Instead of pitching in, they complained about how this disaster was going to affect their incomes. "This is going to ruin everything," one said. "Our bonus is down the toilet. How will we keep anyone?" The two cultures and their differences never stood out so clearly in my mind. All I heard was, "I didn't do it. I never saw it. I never met with him. I didn't talk to him." No one seemed to know anyone or work for anyone.

It was disgusting.

With a culture gap like that it was unsurprising that four months after this incident GE sold off Kidder to another company called PaineWebber, which itself was sold to UBS AG in mid-2000 (netting GE over $10 billion for its 24% stake in PaineWebber). Overall this foray into banking gave GE after-tax returns of 10% per year over a 14 year period: Not terrific, but not too shabby, all things considered.

As for Mr. Jett, it wasn't until 2004 that the SEC made him give back $8.2 million in fraudulently-obtained bonuses, fined him $200,000, and told him to keep his nose out of trading. A fairly light slap on the wrist if you ask me — his fraud-bonus for 1993 alone was $9 million (which is more like $13 million in 2004-money!)

As if this wasn't enough, he had the cheek to open his own investment banking firm and continue trading in securities! He was only shut down recently by the SEC, and claimed to be unaware of the restrictions placed upon him (which were sent to him by certified first class mail, and fax).

Some people just don't know when to stop!

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Jack

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 13-Apr-2008 by asqui

JackGeneral Electric

General Electric is a multinational conglomerate that pre-dates the term "conglomerate", was founded in 1878 by none other than Thomas Edison, is the second largest company in the world (by market capitalisation), and has its tendrils in more technological industries than you can imagine.

The Book

I finally finished reading Jack Welch's autobiographical book, Jack: What I've Learned Leading a Great Company and Great People (this book also crops up a lot with the alternative title Jack: Straight from the Gut). It details the experiences of Jack Welch during his time at General Electric, including his two decade tenure as CEO. (That's an impressive enough tenure on its own, but what's more is that it's only half his total time at GE -- all in he was at the company for over forty years!)

Anecdotes

Weighing in at close to 500 pages the book presents a fairly detailed history, from the early days, through his time as CEO, and through to the end of his career at retirement. His history is rich with amusing anecdotes and incredible stories: negotiating with Bill Gates on the MSNBC joint venture; Meeting with Jerry Seinfeld to convince him to stay on for one more season of Seinfeld; and playing golf with Warren Buffett.

On one occasion, Jack met a German mechanic named Horst Oburst. Horst was fixing Jack's car after the engine let out spontaneously on the New Jersey Turnpike. Over the next few days, as he scrambled to get the necessary parts, determined to fix the engine, Jack grew to like him. He offered him a job in the GE Plastics division and a week later Horst began what would be 35 year career at GE. How's that for a sudden career change?!

Golf

Jack has quite a passion for Golf. And much to my surprise, this passion came long before his time as a hot-shot CEO. Apparently it wasn't until he started teaching his second wife to play golf that his game really improved. Jack was known for playing 36, or even 54 holes of golf in a day. He even once beat Australian professional golfer Greg Norman, albeit in a friendly game.

The Big Picture

Interestingly, Jack seems like the kind of guy that likes to get everything down as a diagram, be it on a memo pad, or a restaurant napkin. The book has several examples of his diagrams, which try to succinctly represent non-trivial concepts (like the impact of e-Business, or the future direction of the entire company) as a single diagram.

I think much of his success is down to the having the following:

  • A clear view of the big picture.
  • A strong vision for of future direction.
  • A complete commitment to decisions, without fear, or reservation.
  • A group of talented experts who know how to execute on that vision.

Conclusion

Jack: What I've Learned Leading a Great Company and Great People was an illuminating and thought-provoking read.

Stay tuned for a separate post that goes into more detail on one of the chapters.

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Holistic Learning

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 05-Apr-2008 by asqui

Scott Young's e-book

Scott Young is blogger that churns out some pretty high quality articles for his blog on an almost daily basis, and also seems to be gradually building a virtual bookshelf of e-book publications. He sort of strikes me as a younger version of Tim Ferriss.

I recently read an e-book by Scott Young on Holistic Learning. I'm not entirely sure what the term means to you, but Scott's treatment put emphasis on creating a mental model for whatever you're learning, in order to give your mind somewhere to hang ideas and, most importantly, link them together into a tight web of understanding.

I can't say it was a very illuminating read -- I found myself nodding along and thinking that this was pretty much describing my existing approach to leaning. What was illuminating, however, was the implication that people don't all learn like this already!

Is there any alternative?

The only mechanism for learning I can think of is the one described in Scott's book: building constructs out of ideas, linking different ideas, and forming a mental model that encompasses your understanding and allows you to reason about the subject area. This in turn allows you to make deductions of facts that you were not previously aware of.

I can imagine that if you try to learn a subject by rote memorisation alone you won't get very far at all. It's kind of like memorising that 1+1=2 and 1+3=4 -- it may allow you to answer those exact questions correctly, but it won't let you reason about the result of 3+6 unless you've learnt the meaning of addition. Sooner or later you'll reach a ceiling in what you can do with memorisation alone. Depending on how poorly designed tests are, you or your teacher may not even realise that you're not really learning about the subject area at all, but merely memorising individual facts. I suppose that's a reason that a lot of rote learning could get through early stages of education. Or it could also be down to poor teaching practices, if rote learning is being directly advocated.


My brush with a rote learner

Circuit DiagramI'm reminded of an incident in my first-year electronics class at University: We were scheduled to have a mid-term test imminently, and I was trying to explain some basic circuit analysis concepts to one of my classmates. She kept asking overly-specific questions like "if the question says blah, then the answer is blah", and I began to get increasingly frustrated as this continued. I was trying to explain that you need to learn the concepts, and understand the concepts, and then you'd know when to apply them to answer this question and any variants. All she wanted was a quick answer: "if the question says this, then the answer is this plus that divided by this". She seemed completely unwilling to even entertain the idea of learning a concept, which could then be applied to answer the question -- she was searching for a direct link between the question and answer.

I can see now that we had an impedance mismatch (pardon the pun): She was trying to learn by rote memorisation of specific concrete scenarios. (i.e. 1+1=2; 2+2=4.) Meanwhile, I was trying to communicate to her the mental model that could be used to reason about passive DC circuits. ("The + symbol represents the concept of addition, which can be applied as follows...") This continued until we both gave up in frustration, no-doubt each thinking that the other was an idiot.


Back to Scott Young

Learn More, Study LessThe e-book I read is entitled Holistic Learning, and at 27 pages it's a pretty quick read. It is available as a free PDF download from Scott's website and it actually started off as a controversial article, How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying, followed up by another article, Studying and Holistic Learning. Since then it's grown up into a more complete book of over 200 pages, so if you want something a little more in-depth you can read Learn More, Study Less.

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