Book Report: Devices and Desires

Monday did not go as I hoped.

Monday, I thought I was going in for HEAD & NECK SURGERY. Instead, I was going in to the Head and Neck Surgery department so they could look at my lip, diagnose that icky bump, and then schedule the actual surgery for a later date. (It's not cancer, Ron! It's not serious--or else they would have scheduled the surgery sooner, I guess. It's seriously gross, though.) Then I went to visit my parents. That Monday afternoon I woke up from a nap, felt dizzy, was hyperventilating, and my heart was beating super-hard. Apparently, if I was an experienced fainter, I would have known that this was "feeling faint" and would have called up my doctor. Not an experienced fainter, I thought Wow this must be serious and I asked my parents to call an ambulance. So I spent Monday night in the emergency room and Tuesday getting tested in the hospital. All this so that at the end, the doctors could tell me that probably most of my symptoms were results of me freaking out over feeling faint. (The doctors didn't say "freaking out". They were nice. Don't refuse an ambulance because you think the doctors will make fun of your nonimpressive health problems; the doctors I talked to were nice. And if you aren't sure whether or not to call the ambulance, you should probably call the ambulance.)

Anyhow, enough with all of the health whining. Reading someone's descriptions of their own medical complaints is rarely interesting. The writer wants to go into more detail than you want to read. It's like a novel whose author has grown to love the characters so much that those characters can do no wrong...

Oh, yeah. This is a book report. I picked up the book Devices and Desires because it had a cool cover and the blurb said that the hero was an engineer. Great way to choose a book, right?

Devices and Desires did not go as I had hoped.

In this novel by K.J. Parker, an engineer beats two trained guardsmen in a fight after they have him pinned. Wow. And all of the protagonists are very reasonable and carefully explain their clever reasoning and... I gave up on this book; the protagonists were all just a little too perfect. Oh, part of the book's premise is that there's a city of engineers under such tight government control that it runs like clockwork. How... clever.

If someone's read further than I have and can tell me "Later on, the book gives a darned good reason why that engineer is such a badass at hand-to-hand combat," please let me know. I can give this book another chance.

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Puzzlehunts are Everywhere: even the Googolplex

I just woke up. I thought I was running late for work--it was 9! But it turns out it was 9pm, not 9am. I was most of the way through my morning routine before I noticed it was dark outside. Why is my sleep schedule off? Why am I so clueless? Because I pulled an all-nighter volunteering at the Googol game.

I took some incoherent notes about it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to bed.

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Book Report: The Wisdom of Crowds

Ron and Sua were in town on Friday. That's why I was stuck on a train. I'd had dinner with them on the peninsula, caught the train back, blammo. But it was good to see Ron, good to see Sua. This blogging software lets me "tag" my posts, assign them to categories. A while back I named one of my tags "wisdom of ron". This was a joke on the book "The Wisdom of Crowds". I guess if I'm going to make fun of books, I should read them. I finally got around to reading this one.

I'd heard a lot about this book before I read it. I thought it was going to be a "Casablanca" book--you read it, you say "there's nothing original here", and then you realize that's because the ideas have already leaked out into the world so much. Some of that had happened. I'd heard plenty of people talking about the ideas in the book. But the book is more interesting than what I'd heard; some distortions had crept in. So I'll assume that you've heard the same things that I have, but that you haven't read the book (or else why would you be reading this book report?), and I'll try to point out some things I'd heard that weren't quite echoing what the book had to say.

Word-of-mouth says that this book says that a group of 100 randomly-chosen people can make better decisions than an expert. But that's not quite right. This book says that 100 people who are at least kinda interested in some topic can make better decisions than an expert in that topic (assuming those decisions are in the relevant topic). It also says that if you grab 100 randomly-chosen people, not necessarily interested in your topic, they'll make better decisions than you would probably expect.

Of course, it's not so easy to get information from 100 people. Do you poll them? Ask all questions such that they have numerical answers so that you can find the average answer? Markets do this--they want to find out where supply and demand meet. The answer emerges in the form of a price. A market can tell you how much a chair is worth. But if you're wondering: I have two ideas for totally new chairs, one with rockets, one with flowers... you can't poll the market to tell you which you should build. The market isn't a polling service; it can't answer questions about future developments. The only way you can get the market to tell you the answer is to build both chairs, attempt to sell them, and see which one generates more demand. Our political elections can only tell us "yes" or "no". They don't tell us "We'd like another candidate very similar to this one but with more free speech and less blaming violence on video games."

You can get small groups together and ask them to come to a decision. That's a way you can get an information that's more rich in detail than "The price is 12" or "We voted yes". However, you need to be careful of group dynamics. A persuasive ignoramus might sway the answers of some gullible folks, throwing off the results. You want to find a way to let people learn facts from neutral sources, then negotiate with each other to reach a decision. But you don't want to let persuaive people sway other people about what the facts are, what the priorities are. It's not clear how to prevent this, however--to encourage people to be stubborn about some things but pliable on others.

This book was better than I thought it would be based on people's reports. I learned from it; it made me think. I recommend reading it.

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Site Update: Contact Info

The next time you visit the site's contact info page, you might notice that I got a mobile phone. You're not the only one who noticed. Ron figured it out right away: "Ha! You got it so that you can use Google on those puzzle hunts!" Yes, yes I did. And I don't even consider mine to be hard-core behavior.

If I'd got a Braille phone, that would have been hard-core.

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