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The week in reading—September 30th-October 13th 2013

Yes, this is actually two weeks. I was lazy last week, in that I spent a few days camping and then jumped straight into work without doing my self-assignment.

You’ll have noticed few technical books or journal in previous lists or this one, despite the fact that I probably spend half my time reading such things. That’s because I don’t actually finish many of them. I’m going to start listing them anyway, and I’ll state how much of the book or journal I read. I probably read 25% of the average technical journal, or 50% of a technical book.


The Kings of Eternity, by Eric Brown

I’m really enjoying reading Eric Brown. This is the fourth book of his I’ve read, and all in recent months. I’ve bought most of his books over the past few years, but they are part of my ever-growing “to read pile”.

This is, for lack of a better term, a scientific romance. It tries to evoke the sense and feel of a 19th-century science fiction book, and marry it with some modern knowledge and sensibility, without being “oh so clever at what we know now”. While I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece, or the book of the year, I liked it a lot.

It’s firmly grounded on Earth; all the off-Earth action happens off-stage, as it were. And it’s largely about the characters and how they respond to big events, and not the events themselves. So in one sense, it feels somewhat muted, but again that’s part of the tone the author was shooting for, it does feel a lot like an H. G. Wells novel, without being any kind of homage or copy.

Lead protagonist and friends get involved in intergalactic war, one goes off to fight, the rest stay on Earth and, well, live. If you happen to read the book, you’ll see what I mean.

1636: The Devil’s Opera, by Eric Flint and David Carrico

I love the 1632 series, so named because that was the first book in the series. In a nutshell, a town named Grantville and immediate surroundings in Marion County, West Virginia, is propelled back in time from the year 2000 to 1631. That’s the one fantastic thing that happens, the rest of it is what you get when you take Americans with modern knowledge and drop them right into the middle of the Thirty Years War, and translocated into Germany to boot. So one moment of science fiction, and then the rest belongs in the “Alternative History” genre.

This is I think the 20th book written in this series. There are actually at least four “series” going on. There the one with the main protagonists, the movers and shakers of the world, both modern Americans and down-time big players (Cardinal Richelieu, for one). There’s a series that involves a bunch of second-string players, although I don’t mean second string in any derogatory sense, it’s just that these people are actors on smaller stages. And then there are at least two other “series”, although it’s more thematic, since these are mostly short stories that explore the changes to the world, either from an “up-timer” point of view (Americans tossed back in time), or a “down-timer” point of view (1600s people confronted with Americans and their way of thinking).

I love this series because most of the book is actually not on masterminds, but on day-to-day events. It’s history, and it’s politics, and it’s religion, and it’s sociology, and it’s technology.

There’s a big cadre of readers who have become writers in this series, people exploring some idea to its logical conclusion. How can you make a jet plane, for example? How do you change a world’s view towards sanitation? What about computers, when the people in this town just have the high school library to go  on, and whatever computers they came through time with?

1636: The Devil’s Opera is in this second series. A number of history-changing events have occurred, and this second series follows up each event from a different point of view. In this specific book, the up-time wife of an up-time admiral commissions a song that solidifies a protest movement, and an opera that is a capstone on an overall shift in behavior. When you take Americans and drop them into a rigidly hierarchical society where farmers and tradesmen are practically owned by nobles, which side do you think the Americans fall on?

Over half the books have been directly written by Eric Flint – I suspect the 1632 world is what he’ll largely be known for, in years to come.

I love it, I highly recommend all the books. They are fun, and you think a bit, and you learn a bit. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article that does a better job of describing the series:

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

This book is phenomenal. I’m not going to call it book of the year, or one of the 100 books you must read, but it really blew me away. Imagine a sentient ship, having lived for about 3000 years, and at the start of the book this being is now in a single human body, and wants to right a great wrong.

Oh, and the empire she toiled within is pretty despotic; it has shades of Warhammer 40k, or the universe hinted at by the Riddick movies, or say some of the dystopian European graphic novelists, or Christopher Moeller’s Iron Empire comics. And yet, it’s not as black and white as that, because people live and eat and have sex and make art.

She moves within the human part of the galaxy, and only interacts with humans in this book, but humans are not the dominant race in the galaxy. There are aliens, but they are pretty damn alien, and while a big part of the forces driving the story, aren’t actors. This is a human-level story, except for the ship AIs, and that story is also only alluded to, it seems like the ships might have been co-opted/enslaved by the dominant human empire during its expansion.

The writer employed a fantastic literary device. The main character (first person), refers to everyone as she. Part of it is explained early on, the character is in a society where she has trouble telling gender, and the language is evidently very gender-driven, and she’s reflecting on that in an internal monologue. But even when she knows someone is a he, or someone else says he, she thinks “she”. I found this awesome, because while in the here and now it can be seen as a statement, it’s also something that will still read properly down the road, it won’t date. Without it, the book would still be great, it’s very minor. But it was cool.

The book could easily stand on its own – it told a story that came to a conclusion. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see more stories told in this universe, and there’s an obvious opening or two.

Read this book. You won’t regret it.


Economist, October 5th-11th 2013

I had to wait until the past Tuesday to read the Economist, since I was camping. I even made a joke about it while camping. But as a result, I’m slightly behind now, I haven’t quite finished the most recent Economist issue, this is the one from last week.

The start of the American government shutdown; Ukraine has to choose between the EU and Russia; climate change; roundabouts as a British export to the world; the dreadful launch of Obama’s health reform; an Anna Nicole opera closes; and that was just the first few pages.

I love the political art in The Economist – although it’s not something you can collect on its own (because the pictures would have little meaning without the context of the stories they are placed in), the art is funny, irreverent, relevant and acts as an exclamation mark. It’s a huge part of the charm of the Economist, but generally has an even tone, even when it is mocking one actor or another. For example, a duel with Silvio Berlusconi shooting himself in the foot while Enrico Letta looks on smirking is even-handed to the vast majority of people (it’s what we saw to happen), but must be infuriating to Berlusconi and his handfuls of remaining supporters.

I also learned that Greece finally cracked down on Golden Dawn; that London has a thriving start-up cluster that may grow big and while Germany has a start-up cluster it has had no breakthroughs yet, that people are trying to turn Frisbee catching into a new big-name sport (really? sounds loony); and an article on Paul Klee and a big retrospective on his work now at London’s Tate Museum.

This issue had the 5th of 5 articles in a series on the 2008 financial crisis; the entire series is well worth reading as a basic primer on modern banking.

Scientific American Mind, September/October 2013

To me, Scientific American is a pale shadow of its former self, much less the spin-offs like this. I periodically pick one up anyway.

The major takeaway from this issue is that we had an unhealthy amount of attention paid to self-esteem starting in the 1980s, and it should stop, because we’re obsessed by self-esteem, and it is bad for us, at least when it comes to high-skill jobs. High self-esteem makes it hard to see your shortcomings, and thus you’re likely to not fix them. And if a surgeon has shortcomings, people die. Or if a musician has shortcomings, no one listens to their music. Unfortunately, the flip side of this is the old trope about the tortured genius, something I have personal experience with. Not the genius part, per se, just the angst and depression.

Evidently the trick is to be compassionate rather than having self-esteem – you can be compassionate and still improve yourself, and you’re less likely to be depressed to boot. There’s a fair amount of research, albeit still fuzzy. I’ll check back on this in a few more years.

The other cool bit in the magazine was a collection of current thinking and knowledge about learning – what works and what doesn’t. This thinking is driven by lots of experiments and tests, and not by anecdotal or testimonial  reporting. In other words, while it may not be the final answer, it’s far better than the tribal lore we had in previous generations. Science is wonderful.

What works?

  • self-testing (especially before you’ve learned the material)
  • spreading study over time
  • ask why (“channel your inner four-year old”)
  • explain it to yourself

What doesn’t work

  • Highlighting
  • Re-reading
  • Summarization
  • Keyword mnemonic

Hopefully at some point this will trickle down to kids, who are still being taught largely ineffective techniques.

The New Yorker, Oct 7 2013

I go through spurts of reading The New Yorker. It’s an interesting magazine, and genuine, I just don’t quite fully live in its world. I easily could. Well, maybe not; I have roots in other worlds that aren’t quite compatible with the world of the New Yorker. But, I can visit and stay for a while.

This issue’s cover was “The Newspaper that took on the N.S.A.” – it was an article on The Guardian, and to a lesser degree on Glenn Greenwald etc. I had actually never heard of The Guardian until Glenn Greenwald’s articles got a lot of attention, and now I am in the camp where I hope The Guardian can continue to exist, because it’s the only remaining example of the Fourth Estate that I know of. All of the previous champions have hobbled themselves – I no longer respect The Washington Post or The New York Times, they’ve bowed their head too much to the government. And most of the British papers are a travesty. I imagine there are some others worldwide, I just don’t know much about them.

There was also an article on Philip Roth, some interesting interviews with Egyptian preachers in the days surrounding the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, a piece on Joyce DiDonato, a reigning mezzo-soprano in the opera world, and a review of the TV show Masters of Sex, which I guess I need to watch – this is about Masters and Johnson.

ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol 20 No 1, 2013

I buy a lot of journals, and skim through them, reading the occasional article. For me, it’s a long-term bet, because most of this stuff is useful 10-20 years down the road.

The theme of this issue was on embodied interaction. This has been trying to come to the forefront for years, although the closest we’ve gotten in terms of large numbers of users is in things like the Wiimotion and Kinect controllers; most of this has been in academic environments. It’s definitely something we as humans want – we like touching things, and involving the whole body sounds like it would be a good thing. But it’s also tough, because most computer input needs to be precise, and it takes a lot of training for gestures or movements to be precise.

I skimmed through the articles, but nothing really caught my attention.

Linux Format, issue 175, October 2013

This is my favorite remaining mass-market technical magazine. Most of them have gone the way of the Dodo (starting with Byte’s departure some years ago).

I keep reading it, and it’s still mildly worth it. I just don’t know what to say about it.

Fast Company, issue 179, October 2013

I sporadically read this, typically when the cover catches my eye. This time it was because this was “the 10th annual innovation by design issue”, and because it had a big article on Apple that promised “the real truth about how Apple does design”.

I enjoyed the timeline in design – they covered the past 10 years of design highlights. There were a number of 2-page interviewlets with CEOS and their design chiefs, and to their credit Fast Company covered a lot of companies, not just the usual tech companies – Burberry, Nike, Pepsico.

But the point of the magazine for me was the Apple article. They tracked down a lot of big and small players, or at least the ones that would talk, and it was an interesting montage, because quotes from one person would contradict another. Instead of trying to create a single story, they just tried to pull on the threads. I can’t say I learned a lot, but it was interesting.

The other article I found interesting was on Fab, the new “I want to be the major player in retail” company. Fab has been growing fast, and we’ll see if they can reach Amazon heights or higher. From the article, it seemed like Fab was looking to displace Ikea, JC Penny, Bed Bath & Beyond, and not so much Amazon or Walmart. I’ll have to try buying something from Fab and see how it goes.

Wired, 21.09 September 2013

I still love Wired magazine, even though I stopped reading it regularly some years ago. I was a reader starting with the first issue, and recently I’ve been reading most issues, so maybe I am a regular reader again.

Lately, Wired has been jam-packed with interesting and useful things. It’s now less about the articles for me that predict the future, and more about the covering of the future that is here today. This is one of those magazines where you want to read it while sitting at a computer, so you can follow up on what you just read.

But, for example, I really want to play Day Z now. Or go work for Github.

The week in reading—September 23rd–29th 2013

I completed relatively few things this week. I tend to read items in parallel, so while I have a lot of things in the queue, here’s what I actually finished reading this week.


Approaching The Future: 64 Things You Need to Know Now For Then, by Ben Hammersley

This is a great book for someone who hasn’t been reading Wired and other probing-the-near-future books and magazines. In other words, I think it’s pretty good, but I didn’t get very much out of it, it was covering ground largely familiar to me.

I did get enough out of it that it was useful, and he’s an entertaining and facile writer who manages to largely keep his own politics and agendas out of what he’s presenting. For example, it made me more enthusiastic about doing my own bio-hacking; I knew it had gotten cheap, but I think I want to order some equipment now and mess around with altering DNA. And I liked the bit about Nicaragua invading Costa Rica based on an error in Google Maps. And believe it or not, I had never heard of (or forgotten) about Spimes.

OK, I take it back. There were lots of bits in this book that were new to me, it’s just that the first half of it was such familiar ground that I was conditioned. But I learned about “human flesh search engines” (literal translation from Chinese), I learned about /b on 4Chan (hey, I can’t be everywhere), I was reminded of why I think favorably of Anonymous (their first big campaign was waged against the Church of Scientology), or that there are now over 900 TED Talks videos. Or that there are online money changers to exchange your WoW gold into FF gil.

So yes, I liked this book a lot. Give it a shot, even though it’s ever so slightly out of date. I mean, it mentions 2012 as the future. Serious!

This is in fact the book I need my wife to read, my parents, and all my other friends and acquaintances that don’t already live in the future. Because, as William Gibson pointed out not too long ago, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

I think I own every book that Steven Brust has published. If there’s one that I don’t own, it’s either through horrible oversight, or that it was published in a very exclusive format and hidden from me. I love Steven Brust’s writing style. This is my first interaction with Skyler White, she was previously unknown to me.

The central premise of The Incrementalists is hoary, but the authors make it work. A set of basically immortals have been meddling with humanity for as long as humanity has been around. And yet, they aren’t exactly immortal. Instead, they are memories and personalities that are transplanted from person to person. And the meddling is small things intended to make people and situations better. It’s also a murder mystery with a twist, and follows a moderately tough double-first-person track (it’s told first person by both of the main protagonists).

Steven Brust, like Roger Zelazny, is a master of dialog; probably half of the text in the book is dialog. It’s snappy, wry, snarky, emotional, and tricky – it’s very hard to have a mystery or surprises with first-person without it being deus ex machina, and there’s a minimum of that.

That said, it’s not his finest book. His first Vlad Taltos books were better, and I don’t think he’s written anything to match The Sun, The Moon and the Stars (my personal favorite of his). But this is still a fun book and a thoughtful book, since it touches on identity and humanity and purpose.


Fewer magazines this week, I think.

The Philospher’s Magazine, Issue 59, 4th Quarter 2012

I’ve been reading this on and off for a few years now, ever since I discovered it on a rack at Barnes & Noble.

This issue covered argument (“Can reasonable people disagree?”), ethics and banking, an article on a controversial experiment by Benjamin Libbet that purported to show free will is weak or nonexistent, genetics and ethics,  women in philosophy (still very unequal), can evil achievements have value, an interview with Frank Jackson (famous for his paper titled “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (google “Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument”).

It’s not a terribly big magazine, but it’s moderately dense, this issue more so than normal.

Psychology Today, October 2013

This is probably one of the most “pop” magazines I read. I usually pick up an issue based on what the cover screams out, and this cover was “When Virtue becomes Vice”. Did you know that fairness taken too far is a vice? Excellence I get – you can become so focused on perfection that you get paralyzed and get nothing done (I’m looking at you, Blizzard). The passion one I’m not so sure about.

I agree with the myth of the balanced life. I’m so tired about hearing that we need balanced lives. Get stuff done! Live a great life! Don’t worry about whether it’s “balanced” or not.

There was also an article on one of the founders of Akamai, Daniel Mark Lewin, who died in the 9/11 attacks (he was on one of the airplanes, Flight 11, that crashed into the World Trade Center). He was brilliant, and who knows what more he would have accomplished had he not been killed.

The other interesting article for me was on sleep. I really need to sleep more. I just find the whole process to be a waste of my time, but I realize it’s important and I’ll think better if I get enough rest. Blah blah blah yeah ok.

Economist, September 28th-October 4th 2013

One near-ritual I have is to buy the Economist Saturday morning, and read it. I really should be subscribing to it, but there’s something about the anticipation of going to the newsstand, purchasing it, and then reading it over a meal or two. I think it takes about 8 hours of reading for me to finish it all (I’m guessing that a typical issue has somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words in it – I counted a few pages and they run at around 1000 words per page). Sometimes I finish it over the weekend, and other times I’ll be reading it (along with other things) for much of the week.

Al-Qaeda is alive and well, alas. The Arab Spring has turned sour, and that bodes ill for the stability of the region and maybe the world. Brazil’s economy is sputtering due to the high taxes insane hide-bound rules laden over everything. Venezuela is trying to blame everything on The Great Satan (America) instead of their own disastrous policies.

The special report this issue was on Brazil. Brazil is facing a milder version of the challenge currently crippling Venezuela – huge resources letting hard decisions be deferred. In the case of Venezuela, it wasn’t tenable even back 10 years ago, whereas Brazil seemed like it was on a sound footing. But Brazil’s maze of laws, its pretty unrepresentative government, its gigantic pension liabilities, and its lack of infrastructure and education investment bode poorly for the future. Venezuela will probably face civil war or something equally dramatic, whereas Brazil could turn into a zombie like Japan was for the past 20 years. Or it could fix its woes.

Angela Merkel won in Germany, or rather both she and the CDU/CSU. This is good for Europe and the world. There’s going to be some drama, because the CDU’s reliable minority partner, the FDP, failed to get 5% of the vote and therefore is not in parliament any more (you need at least 5% to be important enough to have any seats). So there’s going to be a coalition of some sort, but the potential coalition partners aren’t looking forward to it. So there will be interesting times for the next few weeks to months, and all the EU looks towards Angela Merkel to ratify EU-wide decisions.

Blackberry (formerly known as Research In Motion) was worth $83 billion in 2008, and is now likely to go private at $4.7 billion. But unlike Dell, I’m not sure what Blackberry’s future market is – even if they focus on business, businesses are now buying what their users want, and that’s iPhones and Androids.

Buy one of each?

There’s an interesting article about the Apple App Store. Evidently, you could buy (a copy) of every app in the App store for a total of only about $1.3 million.

Is that a low number? There are 750,000-odd apps, but I don’t think that’s a relevant distinction. Instead, let’s consider other categories, and what it would take to buy one of everything.


In 2010, there were 316,480 books published by traditional publishing companies in the United States, and 2.2 million world-wide. Let’s assume an average retail price of say $25 (completely pulling this out of my ass). So, for me to purchase one of every book released in a year would be on the order of $50 million. There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of books written and released (e.g. 100 years ago, the total number of books released was on the order of 9000). But it’s still likely that to buy one of every book for all time would be many hundreds of millions of dollars.

I could be high-balling this, because many books are either released in countries where prices are low, or are available in mass-market editions. But I think a good floor would still be $10 million for “buy one of every book printed in a year), and $100 million for “buy one of every book written”.

Movies and TV

I saw a figure for 2007 that said around 2500 movies worldwide. Let’s round it up for progress, and let’s say I could buy a copy of each one for $30 (many movies are not available for purchase). So I could buy a copy of every movie made in a year for a paltry $75,000. There just aren’t that many movies made.

There’s no easy statistics for TV shows. As of 2010, there were 4,728 television broadcasters, and the estimate is of tens of thousands of TV shows just for the United States. And this is an area where there are many more TV shows in other countries. I’m going to say that probably a million hours of TV content is generated every year. If I could buy it on DVD for $50/25 hours (a guess/average based on what I see released), then I could buy a year’s worth of TV for $2 million.

Video games

Discounting iPhone (because that was accounted for in the App store numbers above), and ignoring Android for now.

How many console and desktop video games are released in a year? Maybe a thousand? This is actually pretty easy to back into – take the size of the video game industry in dollars, get the average budget for a game, divide, and presto, there’s your number (sans profit, which is pretty low overall, some games make a lot of profit, many games run at a loss). A thousand would mean the average budget for a game is $30 million; this is too high. So let’s just say 10,000 for now, although that’s certainly too high. Let’s say the average price is $60 (which is also high, lots of Gameboy games cost closer to $35). I could buy one of each game made in the past year for around $600,000. Lifetime, there are likely on the order of 150,000 games that have been made.

And more

I’ll have to finish this exercise at some point. It’s interesting to consider the cost of information, because all of the things I’ve mentioned have very low marginal costs, unlike say a refrigerator or a car. The marginal cost for an app from the App store is fractions of a penny (the cost of transmitting a copy to your iDevice), unlike the marginal cost for a car, which is thousands of dollars.

In fact, the marginal cost for an eBook is so close to zero that it might as well be zero. The marginal cost for a large game or a movie is higher, but it’s still significantly less than $1, more like about $0.10 to $0.25 at current costs. One hour of TV has a marginal cost of probably $0.10, but I could be off slightly.


The week in reading – September 16th-22nd 2013

This week involved a lot of magazine reading, some non-fiction reading, and only a little fiction reading. I think it’s because the week before I’d read several fantastic science fiction books back to back, and it’s hard for me to read “just really good” after reading “phenomenal”.

I’m trying to put things in the order I read them, although I have decided to group it into Books and Magazines. At some point, I’ll do actual book reviews.


Just My Type, Simon Garfield

The week started off with my finishing reading an amazing book about fonts.

I love typography. I even made my own font once upon a time. Back in the early 1990s, I wanted a better monospaced font for printing code, so I made one using Fontographer and called it Dallas Roman (although it was more inspired by Palatino than Times Roman). I’ve lost track of the actual Type 1 font itself (I was sloppy with backups some years ago), but I probably still have printouts made with the font.

Simon Garfield manages to walk through much of the history of fonts and typographers, with great stories about the fonts, the evolution of design and printing, and classification of font families themselves. This is not a scholarly work, there are other books that attempt to put everything in order. This is a book of the love of fonts.

Read it. You might find a new love of the letterform. At the very least, you will be entertained and informed.

I have to go, though, I need to get a replacement font editor and make a new font for programmers and code…

Digital Rapture, The Singularity Anthology

I did manage to read one fiction book, or rather a collection of short stories, all around the theme of The Singularity – the idea that knowledge grows exponentially and at some point we have a radical transition, whether it’s AIs much smarter than humans, humans evolved as far past Homo Sapiens as we were from our simian ancestors, or something else.

I enjoyed most of the stories in the book. I’d previously read some of them, but many years ago.

“The Last Question”, written by Isaac Asimov in 1956, is an early example of “what happens when things get really smart?”. It’s also notable because it’s a typical example of the portrayal of computers up until the 1970s – computers are vast mainframes covering acres of land with a few faithful priest-like attendants to enter data and read the printout.

I heartily recommend the anthology.

Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene

I tend to read a lot of books at the same time; it’s rare that I’ll read one book entirely before moving on. It’s not that books  become dull or boring, I just find many things interesting.

Stanislas Dehaene is a researcher on neuroscience, focusing on cognition and more narrowly on language and number processing. He’s written a fascinating book on our current understanding of how the brain manages the act of reading. The sheer amount of parallel processing resources thrown at letter recognition is staggering, for example. Our knowledge has grown quickly in recent years due to the use of MRI and other brain scanning techniques, so that we can actually test theories of reading. And as a result, some of our assumptions have been disproved, and others have been expanded. For example, while there is no actual left-brain-is-for-logic right-brain-is-for-creativity split, there are some biases towards specific areas of the brain for specific kinds of processing. However, the brain can also route around damage to some degree or another. Reading in a healthy brain does involve the left hemisphere much more than the other, but the right hemisphere can take up the task if need be.

The central theory is that we don’t have brand new circuitry for reading – instead, we’ve re-used other mechanisms for shape detection for scenery and for actors in the scene. And there’s a feedback loop there in terms of the letter shapes, it looks like the selection process for letter shapes was driven by what matches best against those existing mechanisms.

Learning to read alters the brain. For example, literate people have better verbal memory than illiterates, and this is thought to be related to how both verbal and visual language processing is done. Plato was wrong.

Whole language? Doesn’t match the cognitive neuroscience evidence. Phonics is the way to teach people to read. We don’t actually recognize words in one gulp, even though it feels like it to an experienced reader. Instead, there’s a tremendous amount of parallel processing going on, and an advanced reader has a lot more circuitry tuned to the task than a neophyte.

Reading it gave me ideas for better computer vision. Existing text recognition hovers at the 99.5% accuracy rate, which isn’t all that good in reality – it means a typo every few sentences. Humans’ accuracy rate is phenomenally high, and the ability to recognize letter shape despite rotation, size or accidental features is also much better than anything a computer can do. But it looks like we may have to throw a lot more resources at the first few stages of text recognition in order to get to that point. But it will be worth it.


MIT Technology Review, September/October 2013

I bought this issue because the front matter (the letter from the editor) covered “Seven over 70″. This issue was the yearly “35 Innovators under 35″ round-up, and I’ve gotten a little tired of that, but the editor’s page recognized that this seems to say “no one over 35 innovates”, so he covered seven people he knew who were still innovating past their 70s.

This issue covered some of the advances in 3D printing, like 3-D printing of a battery, or of a replacement (soft plastic) ear with integrated electronics. It was also interesting to get peeks into robotics, 3D imaging, and banking. Speaking of banking, Dwolla sounds like a moderately fresh approach to low-friction electronic purchasing. Unlike Paypal, Stripe and the others, it’s not piggybacked on the current system, so maybe it can really evolve into the super low-cost and yet secure transaction system that we desperately need. However, my money is still on something like Bitcoin, because we need anonymous money.

The other amazing things technology has brought to us are ventures like Evans Wadongo’s solar-charged LED lanterns, being made for about $23 each and being distributed to villages in Kenya, displacing kerosene lanterns that cost a lot more to run (about $1 a week, which is a lot of money) and have far worse light. Light is one of those things that lets us advance, because we can do work outside of the day time.

Or a nuclear reactor that produces almost no waste and has a far safer runaway condition, and can be made economically in a smaller form-factor. Of course, there’s a long road ahead, because this exists only on paper, and the mood is against nuclear energy at the moment.

The most interesting article, though, was on “The Next Silicon Valley”, a chronicle of all the attempts to grow a new one, and some analysis and thoughts into what has made that fail to happen to date.

Harvard Business Review, October 2013 issue

I read HBR about 1 issue in 3. This time the tentpole of the magazine was on innovation – how to engineer breakthrough ideas. There was a worthwhile issue by the previous director and deputy director of DARPA (2009-2012), on their tactics and their explanation for why DARPA has been so effective in terms of generating useful ideas. There was a so-so article about corporate VC activity.

There was an outstanding article about knowledge workers and how corporate operation needs to change. Fortunately for me, its conclusions match the direction I had been operating at –  people are organized around projects, and you move from project to project, instead of the projects coming to the workers (the latter leads to protectionism, inventing of work, stagnation, and bad alignment). I think I like the mystery to heuristic to algorithm flow they described.

Something related to this is going to be one of the big drivers of change in the next 50 years – it’s possible that pretty much every non-skilled job will disappear.

2600 magazine, September 2013 issue

Or, in full – 2600, The Hacker Quarterly, Volume Thirty, Number Two, September 2013.

I haven’t read 2600 in several years now. It just wasn’t interesting enough to me to keep reading it. But I was in Micro Center, and the back cover of the latest 2600 issue had a funny bit about a Micro Center in Cambridge MA that would ring up purchasers of 2600 under the automatic nom-de-guerre of “B. Hacker”, so I figured I’d read an issue, especially given the past few months’ worth of NSA revelations. After all, every paranoid fever dream of the 2600 crowd has seemed to turn out to be true.

But it’s still the same magazine. If I were much younger, it would still be endlessly fascinating. Even now, it’s interesting to see glimpses of subsets of cracker culture (reserving the term ‘hacker’ for those that make things). One thing 2600 does is avoid being dramatic or impressive. It’s all subdued, and while some of it is peoples’ imagination, a lot of it is true. Prosaic, details, no punch lines, but true. And there’s no mockery from me for 2600. I respect it.

Maximum PC, November 2013

I still read this, but I should stop. It’s the best of its ilk, which is probably why it’s still around. But the hard-core PC builder market isn’t one in which I live any more. The magazine is still entertaining, and has great information in it (there was a roundup of 30 consumer cloud-storage systems, surely that was all of them). But there’s only so much time in the day – focus, focus.

Economist, September 21st-27th 2013

I don’t really read or watch the news during the week. Instead, I read the Economist cover to cover every week. I’ve found that there’s very little news while it’s actually happening; instead you get talking heads using a lot of words to say the same few things over and over again. My theory is that if something truly important happened during the week, someone would tell me.

And there’s always a wealth of information in each issue. Aside from the travails of the US Administration vis-a-vis Syria and Bashar Assad, we have thoughts about what forgeries say about the idea of great art, about what impact intelligent machines will have on jobs, the decline of state capitalism (this is good).

It also has a dry but wicked sense of humor. You’ll see lines like “… Gazprom, a Kremlin-run racket masquerading as a corporation…”.

I recommend a steady diet of the Economist for everyone.

I am made of the thoughts of other people

Also filed under: you are what you eat.

I read a lot. And by a lot, I mean a lot. This has changed my brain in ways simple and profound. It makes me wonder what my thoughts are, versus the collected thoughts of humanity as filtered through my brain via the printed word.

Starting at a very early age, I was an avid reader, an assiduous reader, a by-damn-voracious reader. I advanced quickly, because I read all the time – or I read all the time because I was already advanced; I still can’t tell which is the answer. But I read.

Looking at it from one angle, I think I average 2 hours a day of reading, and I’ve been doing so since about 7 years old, so 45 years at 365 days a year and 2 hours a day and 60 minutes an hour and 250 words a minute works out to the neighborhood of half a billion words. Since there are times when I’ve read 10 hours a day or more, the actual average is likely higher.

Or, looking at it from another angle – I own 3000+ books, thousands of magazines, and about 50,000 comic books. I’m also sure I own less than half the books I’ve ever read. If the average book is 300 pages, and let’s say a magazine is 1/10th of a book, and a comic book is 100th of a book, then that works out to well in excess of half a billion words.

Maybe at some point I’ll work harder at getting real numbers, but I’m comfortable with saying it’s in the half a billion to a billion word range. It’s a staggering number, now that I think about it. It has surely rewired my brain. Of course, there are many people who have read a lot more than I have. I am far from unique in this regard.

I don’t read to escape. This isn’t to say that all my reading is high-brow or purposeful. I read for enjoyment, I read trashy stuff from time to time. But I’m not looking to escape from the world into books.

I read for ideas. I was drawn to science fiction at an early age because it is the fiction of ideas. I devoured space opera before it was dismissively labeled as such; but I also read Ray Bradbury as well as John Campbell, Ursula LeGuin along with E. E. “Doc” Smith, John Brunner and L. Sprague DeCamp.

I read for other points of view. When I read, I take on that book’s mindset; I accept it, as much as I am able. I read pro-war and anti-war books, utopian and dystopian, wish fulfillment and gritty realism, science fiction and fantasy. For books that are character-driven, I become that character for a time, even when the character is abhorrent. I find myself rooting for the bad guy’s plans when his turn on the stage comes up, and then I come to my senses afterwards.

I read for extrapolation and exploration, for insight into the human condition, for the wonder and horror in the mundane and the bizarre. I read facts, histories, conspiracies, explanations, flights of fancy, good, evil, truth, justice and the American Way.

Take Nietzsche, Stapledon, Wylie and Siegel & Shuster. Each wrote about the idea of the Superman. I read all of them at different ages in my life, and all these ideas mixed together in my brain. All of this has given me ideas, but it is also a filter on what I take in and what I think. I have an instinctive reaction to thoughts about more-than-human.

The future – good, bad, the same, different? Yes to all of the above, but I’m an optimist. Am I an optimist despite all that I’ve read? Or am I an optimist because of what I’ve read? I still seem like me – I have a strong ego, I don’t change viewpoints after a little bit of reading. But at the same time, I am a slow accumulation of what I take in, because each thing I read lets me see possibilities, but also to reject impossibilities.

Is this true for everyone, or is there some threshold of information you take in that is a tipping point? There is a threshold, we aren’t living in the imaginary world of homeopathy, there is a minimum level below which no effect happens.

This is even more true because everything you read isn’t in your brain forever – you forget, and you forget far more than you realize. In fact, what you’re left with is the distillate of the essence of the summary of the original. I remember having read books, but in reality all I remember is some small piece of it – the attitude of the character, the bare outline of the plot, or even just an overall feeling that is actually mixed with information from other books.

I remember getting tired of the kids’ section of the library when I was about 8 or 9. When I asked to read books in the more adult areas, my mother reasonably said “no, you have plenty of books in this section”.  So in order to graduate, I simply read every single book in the children’s section, or a close facsimile. Fortunately, it was a relatively small public library. But I was tested – once I declared that I was out of reading material, I was asked to demonstrate it. Fortunately, I really had read all the interesting books, and the random sample I was asked about all came from the interesting books. So I went from Encyclopedia Brown and Tom Swift to Phillip Jose Farmer and Harlan Ellison. I had many hours of apotheosis, of feeling like some moment of truth had been discovered, and there is probably merit in writing some of those feelings down, to serve as some sort of Arne Saknussen.

What is me, and what is other? This does matter, because it can’t be that all thoughts are just copies of thoughts from other people – those thoughts had to start somewhere. But how do you know which thoughts originated with you?

One thing I’ve realized is that, as smart as Gregory Chaitin is, that he missed something. Information does come from nowhere. We create it through some alchemical process, far more interesting and important than creating gold or life. We can create gold (expensively) or life (as a stunt at the moment, but that will change). We can’t create thoughts yet, and by that I mean that we can’t write a program to create thoughts. Collating data does not create new things under the sun, it just makes it easier to find them.

I doubt these thoughts are particularly original. I expect that most of them originated from elsewhere, from things I’ve read and forgotten, or abstracted and distilled. But what I do know is that if you don’t share thoughts, they die out.

This deserves a book or two. Maybe after the book on software engineering I’m working on, I’ll take a side tour and invent thinking.

Somebody should.