Book Report: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution

Ron and Sua are moving soon; last night I helped Ron to pack up the library. "You should read this," he said, showing me a book. Its title was Skepticism and ... uhm, Skepticism and .... Uhm. I forget what the rest of the title was because it was a pretty boring title. I think I kinda fell asleep partway through reading it. I said "Are you sure I want to read this? It looks really boring." You might think that's a shallow way to judge books, but it's worked pretty well for me. Books with boring titles are boring. Books with interesting titles are often boring, too, but you boost your chances by choosing a book with an interesting title.

Thus, I considered reading Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution as a sort of calculated risk.

This book is trying to explain some theory of natural & unnatural selection which is different from some other theory. So it talks about selection. I got a few dozen pages in without figuring out what, exactly, the book was trying to explain. What is the new theory? I missed the part where the book explained the new theory. Probably it did explain the difference between the old theory and new but the difference as so subtle that I never realized that the book was stating its thesis. I guess that's what happened. There's no way I'm going to go re-read that thing to figure out what it was talking about. No way. It started talking about the history of the philosophy of the mind. Do I need to point out that any book which discusses the history of the philosophy of the mind is probably irrelevant? I slogged through a few more pages of the history of the philosophy of the mind. One has to make sure that an book hasn't temporarily meandered into something frivolous, eventually to reemerge into relevance. One must confirm that the book has fully set its course on folly with no sign of return. And that's what seemed to be going on, so I stopped reading.

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Book Report: Sand Cafe

I have now eaten ramen noodles that were prepared on one of those espresso machine milk-steamer attachment thingies. I am told that the espresso machine cost a few thousand dollars. However, the noodles tasted pretty much the same as ever. Maybe I should try to turn that into a segue about military spending, but I don't think that's going to happen. Anyhow: the book today is Sand Cafe.

This novel is set in the time of the first USA-Iraq war. Its characters are reporters. Most of the action takes place in a claustrophobic hotel. Reporters sit tight, let the military spoon-feed them news, and whine that the results aren't very good. A few reporters head out on their own and perhaps make a difference. Along the way, there's comedy and romance. This is a fun novel.

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Book Report: Accelerando

Tonight, I bought some ramen. It should have been a pretty simple operation. I was in a supermarket. There was ramen. There was my shopping basket. But it was difficult. This ramen was 25 cents a packet. That's pretty expensive for ramen, albeit cheaper than most things one might recognize as food. I've got a full-time job. Shelling out a couple of extra bucks for ramen was not a big deal. But it was hard to get past that mental hurdle. There are benefits to getting past mental hurdles. That's what Accelerando is about.

Thinking is hard. We should have machines to do it for us. This science-fiction novel explores what could happen as we move more of our brains into computers. It's fun. It's only disappointing when it slows the rate of change in its described universe. I suppose the author (Charles Stross) wanted to ensure that we readers, who still think via meat, could understand what was going on.

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Site Update: Updated Resume

I updated my resume.

If you know about any tech writing jobs in San Francisco, please let me know. Yes, in San Francisco. No, I don't think that's very likely. But it's worth asking!

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Book Report: The Starfish and the Spider

Yesterday, I was on my way to the comic book store when I saw Professor Karp. That is to say, I saw that computer science NP-Completeness guy. (Note to non-computer geeks: NP-Completeness is A Big Deal. Karp is a Big Deal.) Immediately, I felt shallow. Why was I on my way to the comic book store instead of hunched over a laptop, thinking deep thoughts about algorithmic complexity?

Now as I sit down to type this, I remember historical precedent. Back when I was a student, I took a computer science theory class from Karp. He was kind of intimidating. This was partly because he's that, you know, NP-Completeness guy. It was also because--maybe he was nearsighted?--he had this way of kind of leaning, of looming over you as he talked to you.

So I can still remember the rush of embarrassment when Karp began a lecture by holding up a copy of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip collection (Yukon Ho? I forget which one) and asked who had forgotten and left it behind after the previous lecture. "Oh, me me me!" I said. I learned a valuable lesson that day: if you're willing to embarrass yourself in front of your peers, then you might be rewarded. You might not need to buy Jimmy a replacement copy of that comic book you lost track of a few days ago.

So here it is almost twenty years later, and Professor Karp can see that I'm still reading comic books like a shallow undergrad. Maybe. He might be nearsighted--that would explain the leaning thing. Maybe he didn't recognize me.

Oh, I'm getting sidetracked, aren't I? What was my point? Oh right. Priorities and comic books.

Comic books can be pretty rewarding. There are worse things. You can read books that discuss Social Phenomena so that you can pick up some jargon to sling around with other people who read the same book. But I'm not sure that's any less shallow than comic books.

Anyhow, you already know I read shallow things, so I guess I can admit to you that I read that book The Starfish and the Spider about leaderless networks. I didn't get much out of it. Did you read "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" a few years ago when everyone was reading "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"? Have you spent time in any communities and seen emergent... I guess I'm saying that you've probably already picked up some chatter about leaderless networks and this book might just be telling you things you already know.

Some organizations spread by defining a "franchise-able" set of behaviors that can spread. For example: AA, Apache tribes, P2P file-sharing networks.

Some organizations are centralized.

Centralized organizations can sometimes accomplish more because they have direction.

Distributed organizations can sometimes accomplish more because the "legs" don't need to coordinate with "headquarters".

It's hard to squash out a distributed organization because you can't just behead it.

If you looked at those sentences above and said "I already know that. I don't need to slog through 200 pages about that", then go ahead and skip this book.

OK, I got one thing out of this book: I learned how to conquer the Apache tribes. Give each shaman control over a gift of cattle. Once a shaman has real power and doesn't need to convince people through cogent argument, then any jerk can become a leader, and society falls apart. I got the impression I could have learned this from a book they mention--Michael Nevins' "The Apache Indians: In Search of the Missing Tribe". And maybe I would have learned more instead of just hearing a bunch of stuff I hear every day.

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Book Report: Invisible Man

Yesterday, I went to a game party at work. I won a couple of games, which was more than my share. You might think that means I'm a brilliant strategist, until you find out what games I won (and how). There was Syzygy, where I drew many many wildcard tiles. Lucky, lucky. And there was The Great Dalmuti, wherein I won the original low-card draw, thus setting myself up for a big advantage in the game proper. Lucky, lucky. Maybe I'm a lucky person. When people ask me if I really believe I'm a lucky person, I point out that I was born a white male in the USA; then they don't know what to think. So that makes two of us. Ah, race. Race race race.

As I started reading The Invisible Man, I thought I knew the gimmick: a story about an invisible man which pokes fun at the social invisibility of African Americans at the time. But that wasn't it. This book is about the politics of race. It doesn't even seem to be about invisibility--its protagonist is a public speaker; people act on his suggestions.

In the end, I enjoyed this book but it took a while after I finished it to figure that out. As I read it, I waited for it to turn into a book that matched its title. When the protagonist goes to work in a paint factory and works with chemicals he doesn't understand, I was so ready for the mysterious accident which would... Don't trust the title; don't trust the prologue; they seem like foreshadowing; they are not really, not unless you're willing to jump through some hoops. There is "invisibility" in that people care more about the protagonist's roles than about him as a person--but that's not the main thing going on in the book.


It's funny in places, sad in others. It is nightmarish in places and it achieves some of that nightmarish effect by lingering overlong in scenes; those bog down, but you can skim them. It talks about politics, about great causes pulled down by petty squabbles. If you're in the mood to read an Important Book, this would be a good one; don't worry that you'll miss things if you skim the horror-ish bits.

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Quechup: Do NOT trust them with your address book

Quechup is a new spam site disguised as a social network. When you join up, they ask for your address book. Then they send invite emails to every address in your address book.

If you receive a Quechup "invite" from a friend, I suggest you ignore it. I've received a couple of them... and was saved from joining only because the main thing that I saw when I googled [quechup] was a lot of apologies from people who discovered that they had spammed all of their electronic acquaintances.

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