Reviews

Book, music, and product reviews

Google’s Ngram Viewer exposes Gartner’s Hype Cycles

The Books Ngram Viewer from Google Labs provides a fascinating insight into language usage in the past 200 years. An Ngram is a series of one or more items from a sequence, in this case a word or phrase from a published text. Google’s viewer plots the frequency of occurrence for Ngrams found in books published since 1800. It is possible to narrow the search to specific collections of books or corpus. Available corpora include American English, British English, English Fiction etc. Researchers at Harvard University’s Cultural Observatory have put together some tips for using this data and have invented a new word

Culturomics – The application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.


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The Evolutionary Origins of Ritual, Music, and Dance

Evolutionary Psychology posits that many human behaviors are evolved adaptations. In his excellent books The Red Queen, and The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley explains the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, reciprocity, and collaboration. It is an easy mistake to assume that all common behaviors are adaptations of some kind, when in fact many are often merely side effects and confer no direct advantage. Despite this problem, the evidence that many behaviors are advantageous is compelling. With this in mind I am always on the look-out for evolutionary explanations of other behaviors, but remain wary that these may not imply adaptation.

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Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read many books that discuss various aspects of evolution but never a complete overview of the subject. While I understand how evolution works, and have no doubt about its veracity, I was not aware of the overwhelming supporting evidence for the theory from multiple different scientific disciplines: Paleontology, Biogeography, Embryology, Genetics, Comparative Anatomy etc. Mr Coyne relishes his task, clearly presenting the evidence fact by fact. Within the first 100 pages he presents a broad, and consistent body of evidence in which he weaves together facts from multiple fields. It was hugely entertaining reading an academic, at the top of his game, build such an impressive case. The evidence is undeniable and overwhelming. Evolution is true!

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Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been interested in the work of Stuart Kauffman since I first read about him 10 years ago. I have read his other book “At Home in the Universe” and so wanted to read this one. I find Kauffman very difficult to read, but worth the effort. This time I took notes as I was reading, which helped a great deal. Part of the reason I find him so interesting is that his books are, for me, a view into a mind on the edge of discovering something significant. I’m not sure Kauffman will actually discover whatever it is he is closing in on, but he’s barking up the right tree and its fascinating to watch him wrestle with his problems.

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Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Catch 22 is a truly great novel, but it’s difficult to digest. I listened to the unabridged audio book narrated by Jay O. Sanders and I’m very glad I did. The book is arranged into 42 chapters each named after a character in the novel. These chapters contain many anecdotes about the characters and their lives in a bomber squadron on the island of Pianosa, off the coast of Italy, towards the end of the Second World War. The book is not arranged in chronological order and many of its anecdotes and sub-plots are impossible to place on a linear timeline. There are a few key events and plot markers that help position everything but it gets pretty complex trying keep track of all the events and characters. The Audio book really helped in this respect. There is a lot of dialog in the book and the narration by Jay O. Sanders was excellent. His use of accent really helped distinguish between the characters and keep everything in its place.

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had no idea what i was getting into! All I knew was that this was the story of a mad captain hellbent on killing the white whale. I did wonder why it was such a big book with 135 chapters! Not so much a single narrative about Ahab and Moby Dick as an immersion course in the 19th century whaling industry, its practices, myths, and misconceptions, all interwoven with various stories, hung on the framework of Ahab and the great white whale. Of course, there are many subtexts, some of which I could pickup but many ran too deep and escaped me. Mostly I think my lack of biblical knowledge meant i missed out on many nuances of plot and motivators for various characters, not least Ahab.

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Online Banking with Quicken for Mac. Why I don’t give a damn about free checking.

One day towards the end of 2000 my wife finally lost her financial patience with me. As she threw a pile of bills and receipts at me she screamed “That’s it! I’m never doing the accounts or paying the bills again. You never collect receipts, you never write a memo in the checkbook, and your work expenses are impossible to understand!” She then stormed out of the room. I was in no doubt that she meant it and she has remained free of the household accounting burden ever since. I unfortunately have not. It is true that until that day I had never balanced a checkbook in my life and habitually threw bank balances in the trash without even opening them – another contributing factor to my wife’s rant. In fact the only time I ever knew my bank balance was when the ATM refused to dispense cash. So it was with great trepidation that I began my fiscally responsible life. I figured that as I had designed and built large financial software systems I ought to be able to use a small one. So after some research I selected Quicken as they had a large share of the market and had a version for Mac.

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Linksys BEFW11S4 Wireless-B Broadband Router Problems – Low Reliability and Poor Fault Tolerance

Background

Linksys BEFW11S4 Wireless-B Broadband Router

A few months ago I had to setup a home office and decided I would take the opportunity to upgrade my home network. My Linksys BEFSR41 Etherfast Cable / DSL Router had never given me any problems and so I decided to upgrade to the Linksys BEFW11S4 Wireless-B broadband Router. I now have everything working reliably but getting to this happy state and resolving the problems took a lot of luck and in the end the solution was far from obvious. Judging by the bad reviews on Amazon and elsewhere it appears that many people have been unable to fix similar problems with this device. Below is my description of the problem and a solution that worked for me. Hopefully this will help others, but as always, your mileage may vary!

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The Evolution of Cooperation – Social Software and the Shadow of the Future.

The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod is an outstanding book. First published in 1984 it has increased in significance with the evolution of the Internet. In the book Axelrod examines how cooperation can emerge and stabilize in multi-participant environments. The book is fascinating as an analysis of the evolution of cooperation, but is of particular interest to anyone seeking to establish effective; social software systems, peer-to-peer networks, or multi-player gaming environments. Axelrod builds his thesis on the analysis of a gaming tournament he organized. He invited multiple people from many different fields; economics, computer science, evolutionary biology, etc, to submit computer programs employing well defined strategies to play a series of games of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each program played several hundred games against every other program. The results were surprising and enlightening.

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The Biomorph Personal Desk

I recently had to setup a home office. The hardest decision to make was which desk to buy. Given that I will be sitting at this desk for many hours and I have lower back problems, from playing too much rugby, I wanted an adjustable desk to match the Aeron chair I already have. It’s surprising that while there are plenty of adjustable chairs around there are not that many adjustable desks. In the end it came down to a choice between the AdjustaBench from Anthro and the Personal Desk from Biomorph. The Biomorph won on price and looks. It came flat-packed in a huge wooden crate, construction took an hour or so and the engineering quality was evident from the precision with which the parts snapped into place. The best features are:

  • The ergonomic shape – The split desk allows the back surface to be raised higher that the front surface and is robust enough to support the heaviest of monitors. The curve of the desk matches my arms-reach so everything on the back surface is within my grasp.
  • The height adjustment – With a few effortless turns of the hand-crank the surfaces of the desk can be independently raised or lowered. I can even work standing up.
  • The cable management systems – All the cables and transformers for charging the; cellphone, pda and laptop are held on a tray under the desk surface out of sight.
  • The robust engineering – Living San Francisco means one is always looking for a place to hide during The Big One. I now know where I shall be.
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