Book Report: Sources of Power

This book came out ten years ago. It discusses how people make decisions. Not necessarily how people ought to make decisions--but how they do. It does have some advice on how people can make better decisions--not by trying to fight our natural decision-making patterns, but by nudging those patterns. It's well-written. I didn't get much out of it-- I'd already heard most of what it had to say. Risk of reading a classic. A fun read, but depending on what else you've read, maybe not the best use of your time.

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Book Report: Matter

It's a novel of The Culture. If you didn't like other novels of The Culture, you probably won't like this one. If you like other novels of The Culture, you probably will like this one. If you haven't read any other novels of The Culture, it's worth checking out. This one is kind of on a Lovecraftian plot-line, with loathsome horror buried sleeping under the water... but it's better written than Lovecraft, and there's plenty else going on. Give it a whirl.

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Glossing my Twits: 2HB

Seth Godin recently blogged "If you've got 140 characters to make your point, the odds are you are going to be misunderstood (a lot)." I'm not really surprised that I get questions about my twitter items. E.g., my parents and D. asked what my recent Twitter means. OK, so I'll explain. But I warn you: it's a long story, maybe not worth it.

This time, I recognized the two-headed baby even though I just saw it out of the corner of my eye. It is a skill; it can be learned.

Why "This time"? Because this Twit refers back to a previous one:

I failed to recognize the two-headed baby. I blame the brutal legendary hair.

That Twit probably only made sense to two people reading it; I twitted it anyhow because I liked the sound of "brutal legendary". Ah, but what sense does it make?

I used to work at a game company called Infinite Machine, and so did a bunch of other people. After I.M. went under us people scattered to the four winds. Paul Du Bois and Lance Burton went to a company named Double Fine. Double Fine's logo is a two-headed baby. They are a game company, thus they have artists working for them full-time, therefore they have an awesome logo. This logo is sufficiently awesome that they stitch it onto patches. You can buy these patches.

I'm fond of the company. Remember how I bought an Xbox so I could play an excellent game called "Psychonauts"? And then when I was done with the game, I gave away the XBox and the associated TV because they would never experience anything so awesome again? Double Fine made that game. Anyhow.

Double Fine's project is a game called "Brutal Legend." I don't know much about it except that it's based on the iconography and imagery of Heavy Metal. And lately, they've been making two-headed baby patches upon which the 2HB sports long headbanger-ish hair. (Available now! Just $5) If you waxed lyrical, you might refer to it as brutal legendary hair. Anyhow.

At work a coupla weeks ago, some of us folks on a project are walking along. One of them asks the project's Tech Lead about the patch on his jacket. I'd kinda noticed that there was a patch on his jacket, but now I looked closer--OMG 2HB! He was wearing a Double Fine Two-Headed Baby patch. His spouse, it turns out, works at Double Fine. (What are the chances?) It looked different from the logo I was used to--it had the head-bangerish hair.

So I'd seen this patch a few times and failed to recognize it until someone pointed it out--maybe because the head-bangerish made it look different. Thus, I failed to recognize the two-headed baby. I blame the brutal legendary hair.

With me so far? OK.

Sunday evening, I'm trotting down my apartment building's stairwell, heading out for the evening. Someone else is coming up that same stairwell. We mutter greetings at each other, drift right, move past each other. And after we'd passed each other, some synapses in my brain finish firing and I ask... I ask something which, if the answer had been "no", would have been pretty embarrassing. I asked "Excuse me, is that the two-headed baby logo?" The answer was yes, yes it was. He was wearing a jacket with the patch. This guy lives upstairs from me. It turns out he sits right next to Paul Du Bois at work, because he works at Double Fine. I was pleased that I'd recognized the logo this time--and noticed it en passant.

Of course, part of the reason I'd succeeded this time is that earlier, I'd stared at that other patch, wondering "why didn't I recognize this?" The image was burned into my brain.

OK, so this time I recognized the two-headed baby logo out of the corner of my eye, probably because I'd been staring at the logo recently. Thus This time, I recognized the two-headed baby even though I just saw it out of the corner of my eye. It is a skill; it can be learned.

Fair warning: April is coming up. April is National Poetry Month. In April, I reserve the right to Twitter things solely because they sound interesting--and they might not have any basis in reality whatsoever.

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Book Report: The Man Who Loved China

Back in 2002, I went to the British Museum where an old illustration maybe showed a punch-card controlled loom from ancient China--long before such were invented in the West. Bookish fellow that I am, I looked for books on the history of Chinese looms. I hit a few dead ends along the way. One particularly massive dead-end was a huge, sprawling multi-volume work on the history of science and technology in China. "Multi-volume" doesn't do this thing justice. There were a lot of books, each of them heavy. It had a volume about silk cultivation in China, with promises of another volume, about silk weaving, to come in the future. But that future volume hadn't materialized, at least not that I could find. And yet this work had plenty of volumes.

I didn't have that set of books in mind when I picked up The Man Who Loved China, a biography of Joseph Needham. But I should have--Needham was the scholar woh organized and kick-started that massive multi-volume work. (Dieter Kuhn wrote the volume about silk-growing, but doesn't show up in this biography.) Chinese people, it turns out, invented a bunch of stuff. Nowadays, we know this. Back in Needham's day, we didn't know this. And by "we", I don't just mean European honkies. Plenty of people in China didn't know this about these discoveries--the local history of science was in scattered notes. Needham listened to a few Chinese scholars claiming that China had invented this or that--and decided to do some research. And encouraged other folks to gather their research. And put together a rather impressive piece of scholarship. Along the way, he ran into political trouble--China was a tricky political entity back then, and Needham was tricked into siding with China in a faked biowarfare attack--yes, really. There are interesting stories about his travels through China, done during the Japanese invasion. Interesting book, check it out.

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Link: Google Reader Hooked up to Automatic Translation

A couple of weeks ago, the Google Reader folks announced that I (or you, for that matter) could use Google Reader to subscribe to foreign-language feeds, automatically translated. I thought I'd like it; I've been using it for a while now, and I think it's going to change my life. Not humongously change my life. But it's going to change my life, kinda, and probably for the better. I'm subscribing to more foreign-language blogs. I'm getting windows into some different points of view. Some of these I'd already subscribed to. And when I was pretty sure they were talking about something I was interested in, then I'd go to the trouble to get them translated. But now it's easy to read all of them.

OK, it's pancake photos and a rant that's only a couple of degrees removed from the usual Slashdot nerdly hissyfits. Calling these things "life-changing" is overblown, granted. But this feels like something that could grow over the next few years.

(You remember those disclaimers about how my opinions are mine, and not necessarily anyone else's? Those disclaimers still apply.)

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Book Report: Pirate Freedom

If you travel through time, are you free? Or are you hemmed in by predestination? (Postdestination? What do you call destiny when time travel is involved?) That's a complicated question, and fortunately Gene Wolfe mostly ignores it, giving us a fun pirate story. Well, maybe "fun" isn't the right word. It's brutal in places. It's... it's a good book. Check it out.

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Link: Muppet Movie Game Blog

I was was avoiding linking to the Muppet Movie Game Site, but have since figured out that was dumb of me. You might say I avoided linking them due to philisophical differences... but really it was mis-placed pre-emptive sour grapes.

I've been around when a couple of the Orange Snoodites talked about philosophy of The Game. I agreed with them most of the way. They said (I'm paraphrasing) The Game is about the experience, not about puzzles. I thought, Right on. If I get to retrieve a puzzle by sticking my hand into a cold cold pumpkinful of spaghetti and finger jello, I think that's pretty darned good. I don't get to experience that working on a crossword puzzle on the bus--they kick you off the bus if you spill mushy pasta and pumpkin innards on your seat. I'm pretty sure they kick you off the bus. I haven't seen a No Pumpkin Innards sign posted on the bus, but I'm pretty sure it's in the regulations somewhere.

The Orange ones said You shouldn't worry so much about your time or your score. I thought, Right on. So much of your team's performance is out of your control; if you agonize over it, you'll make yourself miserable. Different teams approach The Game in a different spirit; comparing your "performance" to theirs might not make sense. (I'll let you decide whether my attitude here reflects my lack of puzzling skills, dot product some more sour grapes.) If your team finishes before RadiKS does but RadiKS gets cooler team photos along the way, then who has won? Two years from now when you're flipping through your photos and only have a blurry snap of the crowd scene at the after party, you'll know that RadiKS won after all.

But then the Snoodists said (again, I paraphrase) Back in the day, we didn't have all of this "application" stuff. There was a Captains List. When you wanted to run a game, you contacted the people on the Captains List and you invited them to play. And I thought, Aw $&#*, screw these jerks. They'd run games years ago. I.e., before I started playing. Who was on their mysterious "Captains List"? Probably a bunch of veteran teams. Probably not any team I could sneak onto. Grr. I didn't like this piece of philosophy, not one bit.

When I heard that the Snoodies were going to run a The Game, I figured there was no chance I'd get to play. I'd blown my opportunity. When I'd talked with them, why had I wasted time nudging them for details on The Overnightmare Game when I should have been sucking up to them, weaseling my way into their good graces?

But my attitude towards this game-application philosophy changed during Ghost Patrol. Specifically, it changed when [this text removed by request of a reader]. So maybe The Orange Snood gaming philosophy is perfect after all. (Not like the Olympic games. $&#*, those jerks never let me play.)

(And it was fun hanging out with O.S. for the Scrabble runaround clue in No More Secrets.)

Now that I figure we have a glimmer of hope of getting in to this game, I'm letting myself read their blog. They're keeping a blog as they plan the game. They've blogged a little about their philosophy, and might do more of that. They haven't said how they'll handle the admissions process. I hope you get in.

Alexandra Dixon, Team Mystic Fish's captain, mentioned how well she gets along with Red Byer of Team Orange Snood. I'd got my history wrong--I'd thought that Alexandra had barely started playing back around the time that the various Orange Snoodites had stopped running games. But there was more overlap than that. So if there was a Captains List, maybe Alexandra was on it after all

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Book Report: Information Development

Last week, I hung out with a lot of technical writers. It was fun. They were from around the world, and they came with some interesting points of view. And with some interesting foreign microbes. Or something. I caught a cold. I think I'm better now. Then again, I thought that yesterday for a while, too. Ah, technical writers, spreaders of knowledge and disease. So I read this book Information Development. It doesn't talk so much about the disease angle, but it covers plenty.

This book is a guide to managing technical writers. You can't teach all of that in just 600 pages. This book is a catalog of things to consider. A few paragraphs about each. Some factors to balance. By following the advice in this book, you could run a great shop or a terrible one. One prejudice does shine through plenty: the author really wants your company to have just one writing organization. Well, maybe she has other prejudices, too. I mostly noticed this one because I disagreed with it. But I do agree with her prejudice towards minimalist writing. She's got a good piece of anecdotal evidence on that (and on the difficulty of measuring the effects of good technical writing):

...the team decided to drastically reduce the volume of the documentation [of an existing product]...

Since the goal was to increase the usability of the documentation, the team members waited with "bated breath" for the results. Once the documentation was released, they were somewhat surprised to learn that the number of customer calls had increased significantly, rather than decreasing as they had expected. However, once they investigated the reasons behind the increase, they discovered that the customers were calling to point out errors in the documentation. In fact, the errors had been in the documents for years. Only with the reduced number of words were the customers reading and finding the mistakes. The result of their innovation was impressive. Customers were using the documentation actively, apparently for the first time.

How many people can possibly want to read this book? How many large technical writing organizations are there out there? I would guess not so many, but apparently there are enough to make a worthwhile market for this book. Maybe that's why the book wants to guide us towards forming big teams of writers--drum up demand for the next version.

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Ghost Patrol: It was awesome, yes

The Ghost Patrol Game was awesome. You just want to lock the creators up in a basement somewhere and force them to crank out more of these things. Uhm, but that would be wrong. Anyhow, there's a write-up; with photos stolen from Dave Shukan.

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Book Report: Code Reading

I am getting ready for a The Game, and am thus hyper-aware of white cargo vans. This is tricky; while team-mate Wesley is in town, he's staying close to Delancey Street. As in Delancey Street Movers. They have a lot of white cargo vans. I was kind of twitchy in that neighborhood. Anyhow, I guess I'll post a book report: Code Reading

When I was in school, I did an internship at a now-defunct software development company called Geoworks. Some folks worry about hiring students--these kids have been "spoon-fed" assignments, can you trust them to take on more amorphous tasks, to figure things out? But that wasn't my biggest problem when I started at Geoworks. It was the code. There was so much of it. I was used to working on little assignments--a few hundred lines of code, built up over a semester. But at Geoworks--I faced the product of dozens of engineers hacking away for years. Just finding my way around the codebase was tough. Figuring out the conventions necessary to make such a codebase manageable...

I wish that Diomedis Spinellis' book Code Reading was available then. He talks about just that--how to get a handle on a big pile of code. He talks about architecture. He talks about low-level code constructs you're likely to encounter. He talks plenty about C programming (common in open-source programs) which might come in handy if you're a student emerging from a Java-heavy program.

There's some good stuff in this book. I learned a little from this book... which sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise. But remember, I've read a lot of code over the years already; this book wasn't really aimed at me. Mostly, I'd like to send this book back through time, send it back to myself 1991. It would have done me a lot of good.

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BANG 19 (aka SNAP 4 simulcast): Photos, Scoring Data, Puzzles

On game day, I mostly watched over the Zombie Chess Clue. Most of the time there was nobody there. Some of the time, there were plenty of people there and they kept me pretty busy. But a couple of times, there were people there but I still made time to SNAP photos. After I was done at my post, I wandered down to Addison Street to take photos of poetry lovers so dedicated to their love of the arts that they stood out in the rain to... uhm, yeah, sorry they weather wasn't better for that one. Anyhow, you can see the photos.

If you approach BANG like baseball and want to construct statistics for your team, I transcribed data from the station checklists, team answer sheets, and the results sheet. I'm not sure how much sense my notation makes, but I'm too sleepy to try to explain it now. Maybe you can figure it out and come up with brilliant reports like: typical range of puzzle-solving duration for each puzzle (and number of teams solving), excluding hint-taking teams:

37 -  58 (22)
20 -  31 (24)
20 -  39 (23)
13 -  21 (21)
10 -  20 (25)
39 -  61  (7)
 8 -  15 (23)
78 - 150  (6)

Not excluding the hint-taking teams:

40 -  66 (26)
20 -  33 (26)
21 -  39 (26)
14 -  25 (26)
10 -  20 (25)
58 -  78 (24)
 8 -  16 (24)
88 - 140 (13)

Transcription errors are possible and/or likely.

Joe sent in a zip archive full of puzzles from the game. They are at The Zombie Chess clue isn't in there because we can't figure out how to upload plastic zombies. And/or because I'm too sleepy to snap photos of a zombie chessboard. Maybe some other day. After I catch up on sleep. (My friends Ray and Nhi got married, yay! The reception on Sunday night went way past my bedtime! I am barely keeping my eyes open as I type tihszzzzzzzz....)

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