Thursday, April 19, 2012

Someone asked me what I thought of the PSP Vita

To me it seems a physical embodiment of Sony's frantic desperation. As if they threw every controller/button/sensor/gizmo on to the thing that they could in hopes that SOMETHING would resonate with consumers & developers. All these things made the device bigger and pricier too, though. 

In the end the handheld device that the Vita best emulates is a shovel. One which Sony is using to dig themselves a tiny bit further into a hole.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Seven Fables

I've read (and reviewed herehere) a couple of my friend Mark Meadows' books here before. Last year, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a book of fables that would exist as an iPad app/ebook and a limited edition hard copy. I backed it both because I knew he'd do an interesting piece of work and because the hard copy looked promising.

I'm sure glad I backed it. Wow, what a treasure the hardcopy is. A large, leather-bound book with thick prints of his hand-painted illustrations. A couple pics off his kickstarter page:

Branding the leather covers

One example illustration

They are fables in the traditional sense (more Grimm than Disney-esque) and so a bit gruesome for youngsters in a place or two - though not so bad really. A fun read with the kids and a real conversation piece to have on the shelf.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: Republic Lost

I had Lawrence Lessig's recent book, Republic, Lost on my to-read list for some time. However, after hearing that he narrated the audio version, I snapped it up in prep for a recent road trip. Lessig is a fantastic speaker and in general I believe that audio books narrated by their authors are better than those narrated by others.

Best known in the tech community for his work on copyright & Creative Commons, Lessig turned his attention a few years ago to corruption in government. Republic Lost is his first full-length book on that subject.

It is an important book that I highly recommend reading, though I can't promise you'll find it uplifting. It's downright depressing in parts. Solutions are offered but the author is the first to admit that they have very slim chance of working and that without them things will only get worse.

The main point of the book is that government (and he focuses on Congress in particular) is corrupt, and that this corruption is not so much the corruption of individuals but rather a systemic corruption that makes it impossible even for honest politicians to succumb to it.

What makes it a unique work is that Lessig, in his usual style, provides what to me anyway seems like a near-bullet-proof breakdown of his argument. I fail to see how someone, in the face of all he argues, could deny the systemic corruption exists or hast the effect it does.

Lessig provides a number of options on how it could be addressed, ranging from the likely-possible-but-minimal-impact (e.g. everyone should post/tweet every example of such corruption they see) to the high-impact-but-near-impossible (hold a constitutional convention for campaign finance reform). He himself acknowledges that most of his solutions have a very slim chance of working, but as he also puts it, what choice do we have but to fight?

Personally, I'm going to do three things: First, I'm going to read more on the subject and post when I see good examples, per Lessig's recommendation above. Secondly, I'm going to give some money to his organization, RootStrikers. Finally, I'm going to recommend this book to others, which is what I'm doing here. Go read it. It's important.

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: The Numerati

Had a lot of plane time this week on the way too/from Beijing, so I finished off some books. Among them was The Numerati by Stephen Baker. It was a somewhat interesting read, despite the fact that it suffered from some flawed thinking.

The book makes the point that all fields are benefiting (or suffering, depending on your point of view) from a change brought on by the information age: the sudden influx of massive amounts of data. The author asserts that those that learn to master this fire hose of data and make sense of it will revolutionize their industries and beat their competitors.

The book then looks at how this availability of enormous data has affected a number of industries, talking to experts in fields including politics, marketing, security and online dating, among others.

There were a number of flaws in the book. The first of two that stood out was that the author asserts that 'the numerati' will rule the world. Those that can crunch numbers will of course have more value, but in many cases they'll just be acquired/managed/leveraged by those already in power in one way or another.

The second, and I think bigger issue, is an assumption implicit throughout the book that given a wide and deep enough sampling, all these fields are solvable or predictable. This of course isn't the case. Some problems are too noisy, some are influenced by outside factors far less dependent on past trends. And of course sometimes the link between the data and the result may non-existent (look up Phrenology if you want an example to wrap your head around ;-). The book should have spent some time looking at Wall Street quants and their collective miss on the mortgage securities bust, as an example of a field too reliant on a flawed model.

In the closing section of the book, the author acknowledges these flaws and some others as well, but after ignoring them through the rest of the book it feels like he's just doing it to offset potential criticism.

Though I found the book to have these flaws, I nonetheless found it interesting, as the anecdotes from the different fields was interesting, and overall it provoked a lot of thought on my part. I would just read it with these flaws in mind.

The Numerati

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Review: The Physics of the Future

This was a horrible book. I gave up on it a third of the way through. I'm not sure why people give the author high marks. Perhaps his earlier works are better and he phone this one in.

The book claims to look at scientific advances in a number of fields (computers, biology, etc), and drawing from interviews with hundreds of leading scientists, make predictions about the next 90 years.

What it does instead is the worst kind of pop-science futurism. The author picks and chooses from science that supports his favorite hypotheses, and then draws them out to extreme predictions. In doing so he pays almost no attention to factors that could influence other directions, gives no insight into his calculations (if any were done) on how to get to the endpoint. I'm OK with the idea of making concepts accessible to the layperson, but the leap from there to "trust me, I'm a scientist" is one that goes too far.

In addition, the areas of the book he covered that I have some expertise in (silicon design & manufacturing, augmented reality, virtual reality) were so riddled with error, unimaginative future use cases, and misuse of terminology, that I couldn't trust him on other areas in which I'm not an expert.

To add insult to injury, he uses a horrible amount of adverb-laden hyperbole. The first chapter alone had enough "we will have the power of the gods of mythology!" mentions that I almost didn't make it to chapter two.

Not recommended!

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100