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Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: The Intelligent Brain

I'm of two minds about Great Courses' The Intelligent Brain.On the one hand, the first 10 lectures of this 18 part series is great, giving me a view and insight into intelligence research which I'd not had exposure to before. For instance, I'd always thought of IQ testing as being like the SATs: it's effectively a test of how good you are at taking IQ tests. What Professor Haier provided is insight into how an IQ test is composed, and what it actually means.

Effectively, an IQ test is a battery of tests that seeks to define the boundary of various mental abilities. Each subsection of tests seeks to test one facet, but all subsets have a positive correlation to what researchers call g, which is general intelligence. This highlights several things:

  • Since it's impossible to test for g directly, we can only glimpse at it via factor analysis.
  • IQ score aren't an absolute, but are only relative to the rest of the population. An IQ score doesn't quantify anything.
  • IQ scores are fairly stable in adult life.
  • When it comes to IQ, you really find out that life isn't fair. People with higher IQ are healthier, have better jobs, make more money, are happier, and live longer.
  • The Multiple Intelligences stuff has no empirical evidence to support it. And that doesn't bother Howard Gardner!
  • IQ has a highly heritable component. In fact, the research studies in existence indicate that identical twins have IQs that converge over time, rather than diverging as you might expect!
  • Different brains work differently, and what gives one person high IQ could be a completely different subset of abilities that work differently from another individual who has similarly high IQ. Men and women, for instance, demonstrate different brain areas that are correlated with high IQ, so a man and a woman with the same IQ score still could have brains that work differently.
This is all great stuff, and the lectures on Race and Gender differences are full of data and are potentially very controversial, but Professor Haier does a great job of just stating the facts, and then separating that from his personal opinion. The problem is, the amount of research is very very small, since nobody wants to risk doing research on such controversial topics, and there's a severe lack of funding on intelligence research. (Though apparently China has a huge team dedicated to doing intelligence research at the genetics level, so that might change once there's an arms race)

The lack of funding shows in particular with some of the studies cited: in many cases, the sample size is pathetically small (33-66 people is very very subject to poor sample bias). In one case, he cites a study he did on video games that apparently didn't even have a control group! Fortunately, the results I listed above a drawn from wide-ranging IQ test and studies that have huge samples and population (in one case the entire country of Ireland!), which means that those results are pretty reliable.

As such, I can recommend the series, especially the first 12 lectures or so. And it's hardly Professor Haier's fault that the state of the field is abysmal. Perhaps we can hope for an IQ arms race that will lead to more funding and progress in this field.  Though unfortunately watching the presidential primaries this year makes me fear that we're descending into Idiocracy instead.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Dark Intelligence

Dark Intelligence is Neal Asher's new Polity novel, set after the Polity/Prador wars of the "Gridlinked" novels. True to form, it's not really science fiction, but really an action-thriller, with lots of big explosions, planet-busting weapons, and planetary AIs.

One of the big problems with post-singularity work is that stories that are interesting to people fundamentally have to be about people, and a post-singularity AI isn't human enough to be either comprehensible or easy to identify with. The conceit then, is that either humans are AI pets, deployed only as a front to other species as an interface (as in the Iain Banks' Culture novels) or that for some unfathomable reasons, human type brains can occasionally be so smart and interesting that they are of value to an AI.

Dark Intelligence starts with the latter premise, with Thorvald Spear awakening after the war, and immediately deciding that he needs to go after a rogue AI that had committed all sorts of atrocities during the war. Of course, that justifies him in performing all sorts of atrocities as well, and we learn that Spear isn't just any old unreliable narrator, but that he himself might be some form of construct.

With this plot, we get a romp through the Polity/Prador neutral zone, an exploration of the crab people, and some drone intelligences, but mostly a lot of exposition and high action sequences. It's fun, but one is left thinking: "Did you need a novel to do all this? It could easily have been a short story." The characters are simple and not really developed, though the plot is. And of course, the rogue AI that's at the core of the story only gets viewed from external sources, so we get a very incomplete picture.

The cover of the novel bills itself as the first part of a trilogy, but I'm not sure I'll bother continuing. Read it only if you've enjoyed past Asher novels.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive

Invariably, whenever I read or review a book on parenting, the comparison is to John Medina's Brain Rules for Baby, and the comparison highlights how bad parenting literature usually is. Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive is the only exception to this I've encountered for years, and I think it's a must-audit.

Professor Vishton is a faculty member at the College of William and Mary, and not only is he a great lecturer, his presentation is outstanding. The scientific approach part of the title is not a joke: for every assertion he makes, not only does he tell you the results, he provides the details behind the experiments, the methods scientists used to distinguish correlation from causation, and detailed analysis of "why" the assertion is true.

All this would be worthless if the results weren't actionable or interesting, but they are. Here's a sampling of various issues I've not encountered in other parenting resources:

  • The Montessori method has actually been shown to be more effective at teaching math, language, and executive function (and hence social skills) than traditional methods. The approach can be scaled up to older kids and not just pre-school. The control in this case was a school in a school district in Milwaukee where kids had to win a lottery to enter the school. This random selection process allowed researchers to isolate the study to the teaching method.
  • The primary factor identifying success in Math is whether kids understand fractions by age 10. This is a strong result, indicating that if your child doesn't understand fractions by then you need to take aggressive remedial approaches.
  • On a related point Math is one of the few skills where an early advantage sustains itself: in other words, a child who's advanced in math at kindergarten keeps that advantage over time, whereas a child who walks or runs early doesn't necessarily sustain that advantage over time.
  • The more parents help with a child's homework, the less successful the child does in tests in school. A parent's role should be limited to providing a space to study, keeping distractions to a minimum, and letting the child figure things out by himself.
  • Learning is extremely contextual, so much so that providing different study areas actually helps. One reason why homework is useful is that they encourage students to study in a different location than the school.
  • 3 sessions of 20 minutes of study is more effective than 1 60 minute session. If you can't do 3 separate periods of 20 minutes, rotate subjects at 20 minute intervals.
  • Unstructured play time is important, and is correlated with increased creativity and social skills. The benefit of this is lost if the parent even provides a suggestion as to what to do, so it's important to let the child direct this play time, even at the cost of letting him be bored for a time.
  • If you want kids to be pro-social, it's important to avoid using incentives to encourage pro-social behavior. Using extrinsic incentives undermines the child's natural instinct to be helpful for its own sake, and ends up backfiring.
Unlike any other parenting book (even Medina's), Vishton covers the effects of a second language, why it was originally thought that bilingualism was a bad thing, and why the recent shift in understanding. He also addresses Amy Chua's Tiger Parenting approach, and explains why the authoritative approach is better than the authoritarian approach, and the costs of the Tiger parenting approach on the child. (This lecture, along with the above notes on unstructured play time, helped me understand why I encountered so many high achieving students who had trouble making simple decisions, but in keeping with this review, that's just my personal observation/anecdote, and hence unscientific)

Needless to say, this audio book from The Great Courses wins my highly recommended rating. If you can't be bothered with any other parenting resource, listen to this audio book (there's also a video version, but it's unnecessary, though nice to have for the section on Montessori math). I say this despite being an avid reader and therefore prejudiced against acquiring information via any other method. This one is just too good to pass up.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: The Rosie Effect

The Rosie Project was a delightful novel, so much so that I immediately placed a hold on the sequel, The Rosie Effect at the library. The reviews for the second novel weren't nearly as great as the reviews for the original, and some even told me to avoid reading it as it was dreary.

This is inevitable, as the first novel ended with a marriage, and in all stories, that's always attached with a "and they lived happily ever after." That's a fantasy, of course, as in real life, as Yishan Wong notes that even successful marriages involve a lot of conflicts.

Since The Rosie Effect is about post-marriage and a baby, it's reflective of these conflicts, though of course from the point of view of Don Tillman. In characteristic fashion, Tillman explores and investigates the idea of having a baby, and this gets him into hot water in more ways than one. Since the novel is written from his point of view, he's bewildered by society's (and his wife's) negative reactions to his attempts to explore this space, and muddles through as best as he can.

There are scenes that look like they were written to be in a sitcom, with a setup and then an unexpected delivery. They're funny, and of course in the end we realize that the man with Asperger's is a far better person than most of the normals in the novel.

The minuses is that to get these situations to happen, lots of setup is required and we get some very unlikely events as a result.

This is not as good a read as the original, but it's not unreadable, and had enough fun moments to justify my continued reading to the end of the book. While I hesitate to attach a "recommended" tag to this novel, it's nevertheless not as bad as some of the reviews would have you believe. Of course, whether a merely "OK" novel is worth your time is a different story.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Review: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

One chapter in Peopleware that always resonates in my mind is the chapter on "Spanish Theory Management":
Some years ago I was swapping war stories with the manager of a large project in southern California. He began to relate the effect that his project and its crazy hours had had on his staff. There were two divorces that he could trace directly to the overtime his people were putting in, and one of his worker's kids had gotten into some kind of trouble with drugs, probably because his father had been too busy for parenting during the past years. Finally, there had been the nervous breakdown of the test team leader. As he continued through these horrors, I began to realize that in his own strange way, the man was bragging. You might suspect that with another divorce or two and a suicide, the project would have been a complete success, at least in his eyes.
Elon Musk is a biography of the man, and if you weren't aware of the era that both books were written in, you might well suspect that Elon Musk was the manager Tom DeMarco was referring to. Consider this: in this book alone, he scolded an employee for attending the birth of his child instead of attending a work event. He repeatedly set impossible schedules, and then push employees past the breaking point and then discards them:
“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”  (Loc. 4911-15)
At one point, he even fires his administrator who'd been with him for more than 10 years:
Brown often felt like an extension of Musk—the one being who crossed over into all of his worlds. For more than a decade, she gave up her life for Musk, traipsing back and forth between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley every week, while working late into the night and on weekends. Brown went to Musk and asked that she be compensated on par with SpaceX’s top executives, since she was handling so much of Musk’s scheduling across two companies, doing public relations work and often making business decisions. Musk replied that Brown should take a couple of weeks off, and he would take on her duties and gauge how hard they were. When Brown returned, Musk let her know that he didn’t need her anymore, and he asked Shotwell’s assistant to begin scheduling his meetings. Brown, still loyal and hurt, didn’t want to discuss any of this with me. Musk said that she had become too comfortable speaking on his behalf and that, frankly, she needed a life. (Loc 4926-32)
There's also a section where Jeff Bezos poaches one of SpaceX's employees by doubling his salary. Characteristically, Musk, rather than consider whether he underpaid that employee, thinks that Bezos and the employee betrayed him.

Keep in mind that I'm sympathetic to Elon Musk's goals and background. Not only was Musk a huge science nerd and programmer, he also played D&D in his youth, and of course, if electric cars replace the internal combustion engine, the world would be a much better place. I also enjoyed the section on Musk bringing startup-style mentality to the aerospace, which apparently needs a huge kick in the pants and massive cost-cutting.

What's unfortunate about this book is that Ashlee Vance treats Musk's approach to engineering, scheduling, and design as being par for the course: that abusing employees, creating impossible schedules through optimistic CEO-level views on how long something ought to take was the only way for Elon Musk to achieve his goals and get his results.

Imagine an alternate world in which Musk was a better leader: it could be that instead of having a large number of rocket failures and massive amounts of drama, his rockets could have had fewer test cycles, and finished in approximately the same amount of time. Of course, maybe launching something without drama and having it work properly the first time wouldn't merit a book.

In any case, it's worth reading the book, as it does provide a behind the scenes look at Tesla and SpaceX that's entertaining and interesting. But you do have to read between the lines to see a few interesting underlying principles:

  • Certain non-tech related fields like Space/Aerospace and Cars are ripe for disruption by Silicon Valley startups. In particular, fields that have fossilized and gotten used to fat margins and inefficiency workflows are vulnerable to attacks from Silicon Valley.
  • Ironically, part of this attack is due to the ease of exploitation of the underlying workforce: nobody who's actually a good mechanical or aerospace engineer enjoys working under the bureaucracy of the entrenched businesses. You can therefore lure such people to work for you at below market pay and work them hard for an extended period because you offer effectively more responsibility and freedom of action than the bureaucracy. When those people burn out, replace them with more fresh graduates. This is known as the EA model of HR management.
  • If you succeed, you'll get lauded in the business press, and then have books written about you.
This is obviously excessively cynical, and as noted above, I do agree with Elon Musk's goals, and think that in the coming battle between Silicon Valley and Detroit, there's no question Detroit is going to lose. But it's still sad to see obnoxious business practices praised and lauded as though there aren't better alternatives.

Nevertheless, read the book, and see if you agree with me. Recommended.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Review: Nalgene ATB Bottle

The last couple of months of mountain biking has been great. I've gone from being terrified to being able to do 2-3 foot drops and jumps. My gear, however, has gotten dirtier and dirtier: despite the "drought", it's been a relatively wet California winter, and I've done enough stream crossings and puddle crossings to soak my shoes right through multiple times.

As previously mentioned, the usual mountain biking solution of using a hydration pack just doesn't work for me at all. I hate having anything on my back for a bike ride, and philosophically, I've always thought that it's crazy to carry something on your body when it can be carried on the bike.

The Nalgene ATB bottle comes with a cap that closes over the drinking nozzle. You'll probably be surprised to find out that I've done extensive searches but this is the only water bottle that seems designed to keep your drinking nozzle free from dirt, mud, and horse poop. None of the other bottles that are similarly protected will fit into a standard water bottle cage.

What's more important, the cap is easily flipped open and drunk from while riding, and then closed back up. I was using that feature one day when I pushed the cap in the wrong direction, and pop, off went the cap and it disappeared from the trail without a trace!

I can't complain about Nalgene's customer support though! I sent them an e-mail, and a new cap is now on its way. While I think that some sort of retaining cord should be designed into this bottle, the fact that it's the only one available that fits my need means pretty much that I'll keep using it, and be more careful about the cap next time.


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Review: The Time of Contempt

As mentioned in yesterday's review of The Witcher 3, the video game in this case is much better than the source material. I picked up The Time of Contempt in order to see if the second novel (as opposed to the first two books, which were mostly short stories) was any better, but unfortunately the answer is no.

Andrej Sapkowski loves run on sentences. Whether this is an artifact of Polish and a resultant translation I do not know. What's wacko about the book is that Sapkowski chooses to emphasizes relatively unimportant scene. A scene about Dandelion crossing a river could take 3 pages long with no effect whatsoever on the plot. Alternatively, a scene between Geralt and Yennefer would be reported at once remove, from the perspective of Dandelion and Ciri spying on them from a place where they couldn't even hear the conversation. It all makes for a very disjointed approach, and a story where payoffs are very few.

I'd recommend skipping the books past the first two, and I won't bother reading any further books in the series.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Review: Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PS4)

In recent years, I'd pretty much given up on CRPGs as a genre. They pose multiple problems from my point of view:
  • The typical CRPG "grinding" mechanic is onerous and leads frequently to player abuse. It's one thing for a game to boast 50 hours of game play or whatever leads to good advertising copy, but if it's 50 hours of "rinse & repeat", I consider that player abuse. (I consider A Song of Ice and Fire "reader abuse" for similar reasons)
  • The length of time it takes to complete a CRPG is excessive. Now, if you're 9 years old and only have money for 1-2 games a year, that's a feature. But if you're a busy parent, or have hobbies other than sitting down in front of a computer or console, CRPGs frequently over-stay their welcome. And if you end up rushing through the story because you just want to be done, then frequently those CRPGs don't have much more than the 15 hours of real game play.
  • The amount of work required to master the mechanics and min-max your character frequently takes you out of immersion from the game world, and you find yourself doing quests to level up. Alternatively, if the game scales the challenges to your level, you find yourself running to stand still, and discover that no matter how powerful you get you're never going to be high enough level that the final challenge is doable if you don't have the reflexes of the above-mentioned 9 year old.
I say this despite being (as far as I know) still the record holder for the longest running D&D game at Google. In a moment of weakness, however, I found a copy of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for sale over the holidays and picked it up. One of the main reasons for playing games mostly on the console is that if you're unsatisfied or dislike them, you can easily re-sell them, and if you're good at shopping for sales, you might even discover that you can buy games, play them, and then sell them used for more than the price you paid!

Little did I know that once I started the game it would push all other games on the PS4 aside, and become the only game I wanted to play for the entire period of the main story. The game deals with the issues I listed above through a number of techniques:
  • The game's an action RPG. What this means is that while the game mechanics are there, you almost never have to min-max your character: how you manuever and fight during the action sequences also has a dramatic effect on your character's effectiveness. It also helps that the game doesn't let you create characters from scratch: you pretty have to play Geralt of Rivia, and you get to decide which of his abilities to emphasize, but there's no excessive freedom. I played through the first act of the game in pretty sub-optimal configuration, and only got serious about maxing out capabilities in the second act. This meant that my early game was challenging: there were more than a few fights where I had to load and reload the game after dying in order to get past an encounter. Those made me wish I'd bought the game on my PC, where an SSD would have rendered loading times moot or irrelevant, but the reality was that my PC is 7 years old and I probably wouldn't be getting more than 20fps on the PC on medium settings (which would look horrid at 1440p) anyway.
  • There's no grind. Every quest in the early game is meaningful, and even when the game throws you 3-4 main story quests at you, and you tackle them in a random order, they come together and weave tightly into a narrative which converges to your goal. This is beautiful story-telling with great game play at work. In fact, the quality of the stories and side quests (none of which are the usual "fetch an item for me" quests which litter other CRPGs) so enthralled me that I did every secondary quest I could get my hands on during the first part of the game, only abandoning that in the city of Novigrad when I'd "over-levelled" to the point where certain side quests would net me very little XP. Even then, I finished nearly every secondary quest that wouldn't get me killed repeatedly before heading off into the islands.
  • The time component is huge, with How Long to Beat estimating 44.5 hours to complete the game, which seems about right. There was one occasion in the third act when I thought I'd built up to the climax, and instead realized I had several more hours to go before the actual climax. But I didn't mind: the story's good, the game play's a lot of fun, and I enjoyed the characters and the choices.
The game's so full of denouements that they're scattered all throughout the third act of the game rather than being clumped together at the end. I thought that was very well done, providing resolution as to the fate of various characters Geralt had interacted with earlier in the game.

Overall, the game feels very much like one that a DM would layout without regards for character levels: it feels very organic, and even in the early game you can end up at a location where monsters would wipe the floor with you.

What about objections from the previous games? The first witcher game was notorious for giving you in-game rewards for sleeping with various women. That's been done away with: the romances and relationships in this game feel a lot more mature, and yes, there's a love triangle, but the consequences are much more real than in the first game. I wouldn't let the first witcher game's approach deter you from trying this game. While there are indeed sex scenes, and I could imagine that someone might try to get their version of Geralt laid as frequently as possible, the game does a great job of only delivering those only because of actions you directly chose: you could easily play a very Puritan/Victorian version of Geralt.

What's most important is that the RPG part of the game isn't neglected. Yes, it's a computer, so your responses are distilled down into conversation trees and dialog choice selection. But this is where the game being a "Geralt-simulator" makes is stronger: you're never given a dialog selection that breaks character for Geralt, and your dialog/decision choices shape the ending in ways you would not expect, but are despite that, very reasonable and have you thinking that of course, that's how it would work. Do yourself a favor and don't read any spoiler/walkthroughs. The choices you make have an impact on the ending and it's better to go through at least your first playthrough blind and then read about the choices you can make (or watch them on youtube) later.

Rather than opt for a "good-vs-evil" approach to game play, the story is actually interesting. My Geralt, for instance, was always stuck in a situation where he had to decide who was telling the truth and who was lying. Early on, this was fairly easy: you could pursue the truth and eventually collar the person who was lying. As the game progressed, however, the nuances of the story became more complex, until by the time I got to Crookback Bog, I was no longer able to tell who was lying, and in fact, made a poor decision at one point because for whatever reason, I thought that the witches were the world's version of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Having re-read some of the books recently, I realize that this is entirely within the world's setting: the books' short stories loved to make some allusion to commonly known fairy tales and then put a twist into it, either by running the logic of the fairy tale to its conclusion, or by making the nature of the beast different from the stories. I was very impressed that the writers for the game managed to invoke a similar bent in the story. Certainly by the end of the game, my version of Geralt had gotten fooled and cheated by many of the other characters, and had become very distrustful of pretty much everyone except for Ciri, the adopted-daughter who's a McGuffin for the main storyline.

The game's cutscenes are incredible. In fact, some of the most beautiful moments in the game occur during the cut scenes, and I loved the scenes between Geralt and Ciri or Geralt and Yennefer. These are as beautifully rendered as any movie. What blew my mind was that I could hear the PS4's fan spin up to speed during those scenes, and then realized that these scenes are rendered in-engine (so that the character's clothing, etc reflected your choices and load-out of the moment), complete with all the foilage, draw-distance, etc. If you're the type to take perverse pleasure in using every iota of CPU/GPU power on your machines, this game will not disappoint.

The game is not without flaws: on the PS4, loading times are long, about 45 seconds if you die, and fast travel costs a similar amount of time. (The game's rock solid though: suspend/resume has saved me a ton of time, and the game crashed only once) The early levels are very challenging, and the potion/bomb crafting system is wonky: I'd frequently find myself with no idea how to find a component needed to craft an item, or find schematics for a high level item that required a lower level item that I didn't have schematics for. The game doesn't do a great job of telling you which quests aren't going to be doable past a certain point, so I'd sometimes choose to proceed along a story only to be immediately notified that "Such a Quest has failed!". Fortunately, the game does a good job of auto-saving, so I'd be able to load up the game and then play that quest before going on with the main story, but if I hadn't been alert enough to see those messages (which appear for only a fraction of a second!), I might have gotten very disappointed at the ending/resolution of those storylines. At least every cut-scene is skippable, so if you never have to sit through long expositions more than once.

All in all, the game is excellent, and deserves its Game of the Year accolades. In fact, having read a few Witcher books, I'd say that the game's much better than its source material (Andrezej Sapkowski's a terrible writer --- he loves run-on sentences and spends a lot of time on minor scenes, while frequently summarizing important scenes when you'd rather have detail).

Sometimes while playing a game on the PS4, I'd think: "Well, this is nice and pretty, but it's not fundamentally any different from what the PS3 could do." I never thought that of The Witcher 3. It makes full use of the power available on modern consoles and PCs, and it delivers a stunning experience. So much so that I'm tempted to pick up the DLC for the game, something I hardly ever consider.

Highly Recommended.