Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Pirate Cinema

A while back I started Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema but then got distracted by a few other books I had going. I then spotted the audio-book version at the library and finished it that way.

Pirate cinema is a YA novel that is one part Oliver Twist, one part sci-fi, and one part copyright polemic. The lead character, Trent, a UK teen, runs away from home when his family's internet access is cut off after he downloads too many pirated film clips to us in his own amateur film making. After running off to London, he falls in with some other homeless teens, who show him how to make a living and work the system. They then turn their mischievous ways to fighting unjust copyright regulation.

The treatment of the subject matter is a bit blunt but this is probably ok for a YA novel, so I can see past this. The characters are fun, the story is pretty good.

Two flaws that make me give this a 3/5 rating. First, there were a few tangential bits of reference to tech that felt just forced (e.g. reference to Sugru). Secondly, while I was willing to suspend disbelief that the teens in this story could be as street-smart and tech-savvy as they were portrayed, the degree to which they were "foodies" just broke the illusion for me. There were a number of sections that went on at length about elaborate food prep that it's just not likely a teen, let alone a homeless 'freegan' teen, would eat. It read a bit like maybe Doctorow wrote it when dieting himself and was on a diet while writing it.

Those minor complaints aside, it's a fun ride if you don't mind the copyfight pontification.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise

Nate Silver's book, The Signal and the Noise, is among my fave non-fiction reads of the year. Highly recommended, especially for anyone that does any kind of modelling/forecasting as part of their work (as is the case for me).

Silver made a name for himself doing baseball forecasting, then moved on do playing professional poker during the 'poker bubble', then came onto the mainstream radar by pretty accurately predicting the 2008 election.

In his book, he looks at the poor track record many branches of science & business have in making predictions. He also points to some areas of success. In running through his examples (baseball, weather, politics, finance and earthquake prediction, to name a few), he looks at a variance of available historical data, signal to noise ratios, etc. He gives a nice overview of Bayesian principles of taking bias into account.

I don't want to give it five stars only because much of his work has been covered by others (e.g. Taleb's Black Swans for example), but it's a great book nonetheless. It made me realize some of the flaws in much of the modelling that we do in my work, and gave me some tools to (hopefully) improve.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat

Michael Moss' Salt Sugar Fat is a broad-reaching overview of the processed food industry, it's history, leading players, tactics and business models, and most of all, the dependence of the industry on salt, sugar and fat to maximize revenue and profit.

There's plenty in here to open your eyes as a consumer of these products. Hopefully that helps to curb some bad eating habits. Like learning about the negatives of consuming cocaine might prevent you from taking it... only with oreos :-)

For me, I found it most interesting to think about at the high level. Viewed at the macro level and over the long term, it raised interesting questions and showed some successful (and not) examples of how people are tackling them. How does an industry avoid the "local maxima" that may be detrimental to it and it's consumers in the long term? When is giving consumers what they believe they want something you should NOT do? How do you take the high road when your competitors are not? To what degree is industry stewardship YOUR role as a company or as an individual? All interesting food for thought that I believe are applicable to the tech and games industries as well. But that's the subject of another post for another time.

In any case, really good read if either of the above interests you.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Review: Future Perfect

I'm behind on reviews so keeping these short.

The book's main premise is that peer networks, and 'peer progressives' (his term for sort of folk with a neo-progressive mindset and a belief in peer networks as the tool to get us there) will improve many facets of our future.

After a strong opening explaining the concept, the book falls short. Too drunk on the kool-aid for the examples, too short on prescriptive behavior, and not honest enough to take a look at the downsides and possible pitfalls.

Some interesting ideas, but not high on my 'recommended' list

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age