Recent books not to read

My last batch of books were very good, and so my bar is raised. I couldn’t get through either of these:

  • The Witch of Lime Street” by David Jaher. This gets great reviews, but is incredibly choppy, and the characters are unappealing, or to be precise, the author does a poor job of introducing them in appealing fashion.
  • The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos. This falls into the classic trap that many books of this type fall into — in its attempt to make a technical topic more interesting to a broader audience, it dumbs down its treatment of the topic, and is simplistic and repetitive. And so pushes away readers who have more background. It is obviously hard to achieve the right balance, I could not stay with this book.

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Recent Books — Boys in the Boat, Phishing, Slade House

  • The Boys In The Boat sladehouseby Daniel James Brown. Recommended by almost everyone else in the family, this is a great tale of the UW crew team which went to the Berlin Olympics. Especially interesting probably to Seattle residents, but very well written. I had no idea that crew was such a popular sport at the time.
  • Phishing for Phools by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. OK I have great empathy for the material, an expose of how we are manipulated and deceived (and how we buy into this). But the book honestly was a little thin, I would have liked more examples and depth.
  • Slade House by David Mitchell. Lord can this man write, I love everything he touches. A great creepy haunted house tale, written in the Mitchell style. Hard to put down.

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Loving the ML framework battle.

Facebook has open sourced Torch, Google has open sourced TensorFlow, and now Microsoft has responded with CNTK (Catchy name, guys). This is awesoem for startups, three great frameworks on reasonable licensing terms, and I am sure they are going to kill each other in an attempt to “win”, which is going to result in a flow of tools and data available to the world at large, since part of winning is building the biggest community. If you are not one of these companies, and you think you need to build and promulgate your own ML framework, I would think hard about that decision.

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Recent Books — Coates, Tahir, Leckie, Antrim

Is this thing on?

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A challenging but important read. It is difficult to really comprehend the road that less privileged have had to travel, but it is important to try to understand and address.9780316246682_custom-b990a1e1d99f5af6bd343b01493a274a4b8e6a6e-s400-c85
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Yet another dystopian YA trilogy, but well written and very enjoyable.
  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Third in the series and it is still holding up. Fascinating far future tale of empire and intrigue with a very unique set of ideas about identity.
  • The Verificationist by Donald Antrim. Very well written, the self-absorbed main character is having a breakdown or trip, and you are along for the ride.
  • Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. Eh, near future spread of technology through the less developed world. Some nice ideas but ultimately bored me.

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We promise ourselves that we will know better, next time, than to order pancakes in any size or in any amount.

Truth, from The Verificationist, by Donald Antrim:

We eat pancakes to escape loneliness, yet within moments we want nothing more than our freedom from ever having soveri much as thought about pancakes. Nothing can prevent us, after eating pancakes, from feeling the most awful regret. After eating pancakes, our great mission in life becomes the repudiation of the pancakes and everything served along with them, the bacon and the syrup and the sausage and coffee and jellies and jams. But these things are beneath mention, compared with the pancakes themselves. It is the pancake—Pancakes! Pancakes!—that we never learn to respect. We promise ourselves that we will know better, next time, than to order pancakes in any size or in any amount. Never again will we be tempted by buckwheat or buttermilk or blueberry flapjacks. However, we fail to learn; and the days go by, two or three weeks pass, then a month, and we forget about pancakes and their dominion over us. Eventually, we need them. We crawl back to pancakes again and again.

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Recent Books — The Red, Zero World, Farmer, Nesbo

  • The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. theredVery nice near future novel tactical warfare, cyborg soldiers, hacking, ad tech gone crazy, etc.
  • Zero World by Jason Hough. Started out nice with some speculations about a guilt-free mind-wiped assassin, but turned to crap quickly with a really stupid many worlds interpretation. Don’t bother.
  • The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. Yet another YA dystopian novel, tho this at least wasn’t in the games/maze/stupid challenge space. Kind of forgettable tho.
  • Nemesis by Jo Nesbo. Solid scandinavian mystery, the main character is an appealing misfit.

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Recent Books — The Hidden, Heaven’s Shadow, 13th Tale, Hare with Amber Eyes

  • The Hidden by Tobias Hill. An amazon review 200px-Thirteenthtalementions “style without substance” and that seems dead on. A moody setting and some interesting construction, but a really boring book.
  • Heaven’s Shadow by David Goyer and Michael Cassutt. Probably should just re-read Rendezvous with Rama.
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. A biographer uncovers an unexpected tale, and resolves issues in her own life. A good tale, possibly the ugliest cover art ever tho.
  • The Hare With The Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. A family history as told thru their ownership of Japanese netsuke. Strangely compelling. The author’s rationalization of his family’s ownership of these netsuke in contrast to his justified outrage about the appropriate of his family’s property during WWII is a little hard to accept.

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Recent Books — Lock Artist, Good Lord Bird, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Maisie Dobbs

  • The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton. Fantastic story of a young man struggling with a turbulent life, a turbulent background, and his really unique attributes. Really enjoyed.lockartist
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. The story of the abolitionist John Brown told from inside his troop. Engaging and depressing and uplifting.
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. The coming of age of a young art student who realizes that she and her family are actually something quite unnatural and important. This is well travelled road, but a solid tale nonetheless.
  • An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear. Solid English countryside mystery. Totally enjoyable if you are into that kind of thing (which I am). Apparently many more in the series.

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Recent Books — This Idea Must Die, Dream of Perpetual Motion

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  • This Idea Must Die, ed. John Brockman. Ben pointed me towards this. A bit repetitive, but a lot of pithy observations by very bright people. Will be interesting to revisit in 20 years.
  • The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. Need more mushrooms to enjoy this book. And a greater tolerance for farce.
  • Night Dogs by Kent Anderson. This is a rough book — a rough tale, written roughly, edited roughly. All that said, it is compelling though not always easy to stomach.
  • Wraeththu by Storm Constantine. I just don’t know about this. It seems poorly written at times, and a little too mystical, and a little bizarre at times. I haven’t finished but I haven’t given up. It is resting on my desk and I am trying to decide whether to have another go.

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Yay College Football! Is your program heading in the right direction?

Thank goodness the season has started, and in robust fashion for Ohio State! The program is in great hands and great things are expected. How about your program? This time of year everyone is always filled with great hope for their team, but dreams will soon be dashed (in WSU’s case, horribly so). Unfortunately, some programs are destined for disappointment because they are fundamentally on the wrong strategy, mostly because demographics have passed them by.

I’ve been trading some notes with my other college football buddies, and we’ve articulated the 5 ways that a program can succeed in the modern era:

  1. Be in a region with a large natural talent base. Southern regions are best for this — Florida, Texas, Southern California — and US demographics continue to flow this way. Neighboring schools in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona can get in on this too. There are a few northern regions that also qualify — Ohio & environs, Northern California (not well exploited), Chicago, Boston-Washington corridor (not well exploited). This strategy works because most players like to stay somewhat close to home — because they are young, because they want family to see them. The best schools following this strategy also generate enough of a profile to allow them to recruit nationally for top talent. Schools in any other region cannot follow this strategy.
  2. the sugar daddy approach. This is the Oregon strategy — make an insane investment in the program so that you can draw kids from anywhere who are wowed by your staff and facilities. Oklahoma State is trying this with T Boone. Maryland may try this with UnderArmour. Any school can try this if they have a sugar daddy. (I am sure Nebraska has tried this, but they should be groveling at Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger’s feet).
  3. the system approach. Focus on a particular type of 3 star talent that is available near you and nationally, and build a system to optimize that talent. This is the Tom Osborne era Nebraska strategy, the RichRod/WVU strategy, the Chris Peterson/Boise strategy. This can be very successful but requires a strong individual and strong culture. It is fragile and tends not to survive coaching changes. Any school can try it.
  4. the academic excellence approach. Be a top 5-10 institution but leave an admissions door open for athletics. This is the Stanford, Northwestern approach. Your typical school cannot follow this approach.
  5. The Notre Dame strategy. To a lesser extent the BYU strategy. Be the favorite choice for a particular demographic segment. Not generally available to other schools.

Those are the options. Nothing else seems terribly viable. Now it is interesting to look at various schools that I follow and see how they line up against that:

  • USC, Ohio State are on strategy 1 and generally executing well. USC was better in the last decade at it, OSU may be better this decade.
  • Michigan. A confused program. They are trying strategy 1 but the demographics have run away from them. Is Harbaugh the guy to build a system approach? He doesn’t think that way and he is a demonstrated mercenary. Hmm.
  • Washington. Perhaps also confused. While the Northwest has had great population growth, I don’t think it has translated into great high school football growth. Yet Washington is trying strategy 1, tho they hired a strategy 3 coach. An interesting experiment.
  • Nebraska. Years of coaching changes have left them adrift, the Osborne era system has been torn down. They need to figure out how to recommit to that strategy.
  • It is interesting that Cal has never been able to capitalize on the bay area talent base.
  • It is interesting that no one has capitalized on the Northeast talent base. It will be very interesting to follow Maryland with their Underarmour ties, a potential double whammy strategy.

Enough meandering, Go Bucks!

Sep 7, 2015; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Braxton Miller (1) runs for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 7, 2015; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Braxton Miller (1) runs for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

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Recent Books — Misterioso, Orenda, Connolly, Grant

The_Orenda_(Boyden_novel)

  • Misterioso by Arne Dahl. I’m not sure what the state of the art in book translation is these days, but I am sure it is heavily automated. This story is ok, but feels like a rush translation job — some strange and stale structuring, some pronoun confusion at times. I suspect the original is better than this.
  • The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Life during the 1600s in the Americas from the viewpoint of a Huron tribe. Fascinating milieu and great characters. Not for the squeamish, life was brutal.
  • The Gates by John Connolly. Suburban idlers accidentally open the gates to Hell, and it is up to young Samuel Johnson to save the day. Kind of funny but forgettable.
  • Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant. Light Horror, don’t screw around with mermaids, they are not what they seem. Fun, but I mostly read because Grant has done such other good work.

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Recent Books — Stephen King, Girl With All The Gifts, Snake Pass, Legend, Fire with Fire

girlwith

  • Finders Keepers by Stephen King. A fine detective novel, but makes me miss the glory days of the author.
  • The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey. Not all zombies are bad. Not all people are good. Maybe we should just let the zombies win.
  • Snake Pass by Colin Campbell. An attempt to start a Jack Reacher-like franchise, and not a bad attempt. I will read the next.
  • Legend by Marie Lu. Yet another post-apocalyptic dystopia. Probably better than most, but I don’t know that I need another series in this genre.
  • Fire with Fire, Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon. Fun space romp with aliens, world-ending threats to humanity, interstellar politics, etc.

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Recent Books — Road to Character, Matchbox Theatre, Mists of Avalon, Pirate Hunters, Shadow Divers

shadow-divers

  • The Road to Character by David Brooks. The opening essay (largely reprinted in the NY Times a while back) was terrific, but the character studies themselves were only OK. I would have preferred to see some more contemporary stories. Tho the message got through — building great character doesn’t come easily to anyone, it is a lifelong daily struggle, confronting and overcoming the weaker parts of your nature.
  • Matchbox Theatre by Michael Frayn. A quick read, some gems, but grew a little old.
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Been on the shelf forever. Good read from a very different viewpoint, I’m not sure I could have waded thru yet another typical retelling of the story.
  • Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. Great true story about deep sea divers after a mysterious U-boat. Great characters, life and death drama, an excellent window into a world I knew little about.
  • Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson. An attempt to capture the magic again of Shadow Divers. A fine story but pales next to Shadow Divers.

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Canary seems like a better Dropcam, modulo some quality issues

I installed the Canary home monitoring cam this am.

It is positioned as “Smart Home Security for Everyone”. It is about an 8” tall sleek cylinder with a usb power connection. Key product details:

  • HD camera with wide-angle lens + mic. Purportedly also has night vision support.
  • wifi or ethernet backhaul. If you choose wifi, rather than doing the private wifi network dance that many of these devices do, you use a provided audio mic cable and the smartphone app. the smartphone app sends setup info over the audio cable using modem protocols. it seems simpler than the wifi dance.
  • smartphone app
  • temperature, humidity, airquality monitor. also accelerometer, i guess you can monitor whether it is moved?
  • 90 db alarm. this only activates if you ask it to from the smartphone app.

You have several plan options:

  • Free: last 12 hours recorded, 5 clips in the cloud permanently. so this seems better than dropcam free tier.
  • $10/month: last 7 days always available, 50 clips stored permanently. dropcam-ish — i.e. egregiously expensive app-specific storage
  • $20/month: last 30 days available, 100 video clips stored permanently. In case you wanted even more egregiously expensive storage
  • $40/month: last 90 days available, 250 clips stored permanently. And even more.
  • for an additional $10/month they will hook you up to call center monitoring. i imagine that video is not sent to call center, just events (i.e. akin to existing home security systems). This seems like competitive pricing.

Initial Reactions:

  • install was painless. i like the audio cable approach. tho if the device has a camera, why do you need an audio cable at all — why can’t you just display a sequence of QR-codes (or equivalent) on the smart phone app.
  • it really struggles to deliver HD video over wifi. lots of frame drops. the video is close to unusable as a result. There must be a compression choice that could address this.
  • it uses your smartphone location to auto switch from home to away mode. i.e. when i am in the house, it notes events, but doesn’t send me alerts. when i leave house, it will start sending me alerts. this is nice.
  • it has a “privacy” mode where camera and mic are disabled.

This is a much more focused and complete security solution than drop cam — alarm, remote monitoring service, etc. Setup was simple. I could see replacing my dropcam with this.

It is still tho terribly expensive. The frame dropping issue is a problem. There might be some robustness issues, I’ve had some problems reliably connecting to my streams. If the quality improves tho this might be a good step up.

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I am dubious about the Tesla Powerwall

buderusI spent the morning decoding error messages and tracing water lines for my radiant heat boiler. Initially the codes told me that I had insufficient water pressure on the feed line, and when I fixed that, then the boiler said that the output temperature was not responding as expected — likely because I left the resupply line open, and was trying to heat up a very large body of cold water. Or maybe not, because there is supposed to be a backflow valve preventing that. Whatever, I am operational again after downloading two very large manuals and learning more about burner error codes and operations than I ever wanted to.

This was on top of a separate plumbing issue we’ve been wrestling with for a month.

I don’t think most people want to spend time on the electricity, water, hot water, sewer, or other utilities. They just want it all to work when they hit the button. And are willing to spend a little bit of money to make that happen. Most people just want centrally supplied and centrally managed utilities. To switch to local supply/generation/storage, the savings have to be incredibly dramatic, or you have to value your time at a very low rate, or there must be no central alternative (ie off-grid locations). I am dubious that this will ever be the case in urban/suburban US or other major economies.

I also don’t want a 200 pound lump of lithium in my garage.

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Recent Books — The Grapes of Math, The River of Doubt

  • The Grapes of Math by Alex Bellos. Supposed to be a fun exploration of math in our lives, but I don’t think anyone is going to really like this book. For people that hate math, there is too much math and too little backstory. For people like me who like math, there is too much rehashing of math we already know, and too little backstory.
  • The River of Doubt by Candace Millard. The story of Teddy Roosevelt’s Amazon expedition after his last failed presidential run. I never realized what an epic disaster this trip was, the team was in no way ready for the rigors of the Amazon. Great tale, makes me both want to see the Amazon basin, and terrified to see the Amazon basin.

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Alexa, re-order three wolf moon shirt

This latest Amazon Echo feature is awesome and horrible. Amazon is making it so easy to buy things.

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AMAZON ECHO
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Re-ordering your favorite Prime products is now even easier with Echo — just use your voice. If you’re low on kitchen supplies, want to restock on snacks, or need more rolls of duct tape for the garage, simply ask Echo to place an order for you.

Just say “Alexa, re-order laundry detergent” — Echo will search your order history and can order the item for you using your default payment and shipping settings. If Echo can’t find the requested item in your order history, it may suggest an item for your approval using Amazon’s Choice, which picks highly-rated, well-priced, Prime products. You can manage your shopping preferences and set an optional confirmation code in your Amazon Echo App.

Some customers, like @chmarch, will be happy to know that baby lotion works particularly well (Congrats!).

As always, the Amazon Echo team looks forward to your feedback via the Amazon Echo App and on social media (#AmazonEcho).

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AMAZON ECHO
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