Archive for August, 2011

Review: Game Theory 101: The Basics

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

William Spaniel wrote this pamphlet , Game Theory 101: The Basics, showing elementary game theory concepts applied directly to simple games.  There’s not much actual theory in here, and certainly no deep proofs, but there are many illustrative examples that combine to give a familiarity with the ideas.  I’ve been curious enough about game theory to want to see that, and this was a useful introduction.

He writes clearly and well, and walks through every step of the calculations.  Still, this reads more like a good textbook than like an essay for the layman.  I found the combination of basic explanations and detailed examples very illuminating.  I walked away knowing a bunch more than I did when I started.

Recommended if you want to see the basic nuts and bolts of tame theory.

Review: On War

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Von Clausewitz’s On War is a classic work on war, its ramifications, strategies, and tactics.  It was written in the 1830’s (and technically unfinished), so it is easy to imagine that it is from another age and largely irrelevant.  There are certainly parts that are of their time, but there’s a surprising amount of thinking that is fresh.

All the discussion of the lines between and interdependence of strategy and tactics is relevant, even when the specific examples are from battles of another time fought with old weapons.  Every bit as compelling are discussions of politics and strategy.  Clausewitz is unambiguous that those are never separable and to understand that is to have a hope of understanding a a war.  It makes our current adventures in Asia even less comprehensible to me, probably because I don’t want to think about what our political goals are.

While there are many interesting ideas here, the text – translated from 19th century German – is often opaque.  It doesn’t help that all the examples are drawn from the time as well.  While there are some Napoleonic battles that I have some inkling of, overall I don’t know many details.  The combination of the syntax and obscurity makes for difficult reading.

Worth it if you’re interested enough to penetrate the fog.

Review: Shine

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

I picked up Shine after I had such a good time reading Engineering Infinity.  Shine is billed as “an anthology of near-future optimistic science fiction.”  I was looking for another collection, this was advertised in the back of Engineering Infinity, and I really had to see what they could pull off within those constraints.  Our guide through this happy near-future is Jetse de Vries.

Constraining tone and setting is an interesting approach, and a remarkable set of authors took up the challenge.  From my perspective, the most successful authors in here are the ones who most aggressively subverted one limitation or the other.  That is not surprising; looking at a constraint in a new way is something great SF writers do.  I enjoyed how the folks in Engineering Infinity interpreted the “hard SF” constraint, and I similarly enjoyed most of these.

Optimism is a particularly interesting constraint.  With the exception of Ben Bova’s almost jingoistic odes to space exploration, I can’t think of a lot of SF that is optimistic in tone.  The most Bova-esque story in Shine, Jason Stoddard’s “Overhead” is instructive in how the most successful authors in here attacked the problem.  Setting up multiple perspectives and letting the reader decide who to root for helps, though in “Overhead” there is little mystery where the author’s sympathies lie.  Others provide more complex options.

I should say that “Overhead” is a propulsive, interesting story and that I enjoyed it a lot, but it did not break the mold of a bunch of plucky explorers going into space against any of society’s objections.

Overall, I found Shine to be more hit-or-miss than I found Infinity, but if the lows were more mundane, the highs were higher.  I particularly liked Holly Phillip’s character study of an artist in “Summer Ice,” Marti Ness’s writing clinic in “Twittering the Starts” which expresses a short story as a series of reverse-chronological-order tweets, Alastair Reynolds’s delightful “At Budokan” which I won’t spoil, and Madeline Ashby’s heartbreaking “Ishin.”  Ashby clearly slipped past the “optimistic” requirement with a Hollywood ending, but I’m not fooled.  Finally, I feel like I should mention Gord Sellar’s “Sarging Rassmussen: A Report (by Organic),”  because it is so much the kind of story that resists description, but is so much fun to follow along with.

Because of the high variance, readers are likely to find some stories they dislike in Shine, perhaps some of the ones I like so much. The ones I liked I liked so much that the collection was worth it.  I don’t know that a collection can get a better review than than.


Review: Engineering Infinity

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Engineering Infinity is a collection of recent hard SF short stories edited by Jonathan Strahan.  Strahan does a fine job keeping things hard – which is to say stories that turn on current scientific ideas – without making them heartless or humorless.  Overall this is an excellent selection of stories that encourage thought about old tropes in new ways, which is one of the reasons I enjoy SF.

I should say that I grabbed this collection out of a desire to recapture the fun of spending a rainy day or long car trip sampling cool short stories.  For my money SF is the best genre for this kind of thing, because any story has the chance to turn your assumptions on their head.  In a collection like this, if the one you are reading now does not make your ideas flip, the next one will be right along.

By that metric, this collection was a smashing success.  There was a wide range of ideas and writing styles on display, many of them to my taste.  Even the stories I didn’t like were clearly trying something interesting, even when I did not think they succeeded.  Some clung more closely to genre conventions, but it was rare that a story in here did not offer some new twist.  It is to Strahan’s credit that the topics and tones do not overlap much at all.  This is a great sampler.

As I say, there was much to like in here.  My top three were “Bit Rot” from Charles Stross, “Malak” from Peter Watts, and “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by John Barnes.  The last was particularly successful in throwing ideas out at a rate that well exceeded the length of the story.  And if you don’t want to read a story with that title, I’m not sure I want to talk to you.

If one of your ideas of fun is sitting down to gobble up short blasts of adventurous writing on hard SF kinds of topics, this is a good collection.


Review: The Faith Healers

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

James Randi’s The Faith Healers is pretty much a seminal work in debunking.  Randi is one of the first, if not the first, to take a serious look at these people who travel from place to place claiming to heal the sick through faith for money.  Randi and his team do a great job running down the evidence on how these guys operate and often spectacularly beating them at their own game.  These faith healers are clearly just ripping people off and it’s great to see them called on it.

All that said, there are some problems with The Faith Healers.  The biggest one is that it is a victim of its own success.  In 1987 when The Faith Healers was published, most of these techniques were unknown by people outside the “trade” and their brazenness and  sophistication was surprising.  Today a lot of this work has become much more widely known.  It was a bombshell that these faith healers were using two-way radios during performances; now it’s a plot point on Leverage.  There are lots of other places for someone of a skeptical bent to find this information these days.

While I love the good works that James Randi has done – this book included – I will say that I didn’t find him a gripping writer.  All the facts are here and the information is clear, but he does not have the flair for narration that makes it exciting.  When one is presenting surprising truth, that is not a great limitation in an author.  Combined with the fact that I knew most of the raw information in here from other sources, it made the book something of a slog.

As I say, The Faith Healers is a victim of its own success.  Its success comes from the fact that it is clear, accessible, extremely thorough, and convincing.  If you have never looked into how faith healers operate, or why you should care that they are not on the up and up, this is a great book to read.  As a template for how to lay out an investigative work, it is sound.