Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Christmas books for 2017

December 8th, 2017 No comments

Some suggestions for books this Christmas. As always, the timing of books I suggest is based on when they reach the top of my books-to-read pile, not when they were published.

“Life ascending: The ten great inventions of evolution” by Nick Lane. The latest thinking (as of 2010) on the major events in the evolution of life. Full of technical detail, very readable, and full of surprises (at least for me).

“How buildings learn” by Stewart Brand. Yes, I’m very late on this one. So building are just like software, people want to change them in ways not planned by their builders, they get put to all kinds of unexpected uses, some of them cannot keep up and get thrown away and rebuilt, while others age gracefully.

“Dead Man Working” by Cederström and Fleming is short and to the point (having an impact on me earlier in the year), while “No-Collar: The humane workplace and its hidden costs” by Andrew Ross is longer (first half is general, second a specific instance involving one company). Both have a coherent view work in the knowledge economy.

If you are into technical books on the knowledge economy, have a look at “Capitalism without capital” by Haskel and Westlake (the second half meanders off, covering alleged social consequences), and “Antitrust law in the new economy” by Mark R. Patterson (existing antitrust thinking is having a very hard time grappling with knowledge-based companies).

If you are into linguistics, then “Constraints on numerical expressions” by Chris Cummins (his PhD thesis is free) provides insight into implicit assumptions contained within numerical expressions (of the human conversation kind). A must read for anybody interested in automated fact checking.

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Christmas books: 2015

December 13th, 2015 No comments

The following is a list of the really interesting books I read this year (only one of which was actually published in 2015, everything has to work its way through several piles and being available online is a shortcut to the front of the queue). The list is short because I did not read many books.

The best way to learn about something is to do it and The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder ought to be required reading for all software developers. It is about creating human languages and provides a very practical introduction into how human languages are put together.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Yet more ammunition for moving Descartes‘s writings on philosophy into the same category as astrology and flat Earth theories.

I’m still working my way through Mining of Massive Datasets by Jure Leskovec, Anand Rajaraman and Jeff Ullman.

If you are thinking of learning R, then the best book (and the one I am recommending for a workshop I am running) is still: The R Book by Michael J. Crawley.

There are books piled next to my desk that might get mentioned next year.

I spend a lot more time reading blogs these days and Ben Thompson’s blog Stratechery is definitely my best find of the year.

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Telepathic communication with a Supreme Being

December 31st, 2012 1 comment

Every year the Christmas cards I receive are a reminder of how seriously a surprisingly large percentage of software developers I know take their beliefs in a Supreme Being.

Surely anybody possessing the skills needed to do well in software engineering would have little trouble uncovering for themselves the significant inconsistencies in any system of beliefs intended to support the existence of a Supreme Being? The evidence from my Christmas card collection shows that some very bright would disagree with me.

This Christmas I have finally been able to come up with some plausible sounding hand waving that leaves me feeling as if I at least have a handle on this previously incomprehensible (to me) behavior.

The insight is to stop considering the Supreme Being question as a problem in logic (i.e., is there a model consistent with belief in a Supreme Being that is also consistent with the known laws of Physics) and start thinking of it was a problem in explaining structure. Love of structure is a key requirement for anybody wanting to get seriously involved with software development (a basic ability to ‘do logic’ is also required, but logic is just another tool and outside of introductory courses and TV shows is vastly overrated).

On the handful of occasions I have spoken to developers about religion (in general I try to avoid this subject, it is just too contentious) things have always boiled down to one of having core belief, a feeling that random is just not a good enough explanation for things being the way they are, while the existence of a Supreme Being slots rather well into their world view.

The human agency detection system has been proposed as one of the reasons for religion; see Scott Atran’s book “In Gods We Trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion” for a fascinating analysis of various cognitive, social and economic factors that create a landscape favoring the existence of some form of religion.

Of course anybody choosing to go with a Supreme Being model has to make significant adjustments to other components of their world view and some of these changes will generate internal inconsistencies. Any developer who has ever been involved in building a large system will have experienced the strange sensation of seeing a system they know to be internally inconsistent function in a fashion that appears perfectly acceptable to everybody involved; listening to users’ views of the system brings more revelations (how could anybody think that was how it worked?) Having had these experiences with insignificantly small systems (compared to the Universe) I can see why some developers might be willing to let slide inconsistencies generated by inserting a Supreme Being into their world view.

I think the reason I don’t have a Supreme Being in my world view is that I am too in love with the experimental method, show me some repeatable experiments and I would be willing to take a Supreme Being more seriously. Perhaps at the end of the day it does all boil down to personal taste.

At the personal level I can see why people are not keen to discuss their telepathic communication sessions (or pray to use one of the nontechnical terms) with their Supreme Being. Having to use a channel having a signal/noise ratio that low must be very frustrating.