Tuesday, 24 November 2015

book review: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned

Kenneth O. Stanley, Joel Lehman.
Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: the myth of the objective.
Springer. 2015

Imagine you are lost in a maze, with thick dark hedges all around you. In the distance, poking above the greenery, you can see a tall post with a sign at the top saying EXIT. How do you get out of the maze? A naive approach would be to walk towards the sign as much as possible. This is a form of greedy algorithm: trying to solve a global problem by making a sequence of always-improving moves.

But a greedy algorithm fails for complicated problems: in your maze, you will initially get closer to your goal, but you will sooner or later get stuck in a dead end. To escape the maze, you will have to abandon your simplistic approach of heading directly towards the exit, and instead, you will need to move away from your goal in the short term. The path to success has many twists and turns.

More sophisticated search algorithms employ a combination of exploration (wandering around looking for a good approach and avoiding the dead ends) and greedy exploitation (finding something good and locally making it better). The skill is in balancing these two processes: too much exploration and you never achieve anything except by chance; too much exploitation and you get trapped in dead ends.

Stanley and Lehman are computer scientists who have taken this insight—that to achieve your goal, heading directly towards it is rarely the best approach, and in some cases may even be the worst approach—and applied it more widely. The real world is hugely more complicated than a puzzle maze, yet many management practices employ greedy algorithms: reach your (complicated, ill-defined, distant, changing) goal by moving directly towards it. Yet no matter how much you improve candlewax and wicks, you will never achieve electric lighting; no matter how many trees you climb, you will never reach the moon.

This slim book is one long discussion of why our current obsession with objective setting, with a pure greedy exploitation-only approach is not a good idea. We need more exploration in our management, research and education, if we are not to get stuck in dead ends, and the authors set out how this could be achieved.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

overcoming biases

How scientists fool themselves – and how they can stop
Some nice ideas on how to overcome biases in scientific research

[via BoingBoing]

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

airport tech

Windows 3.1 is still being used in a French airport!  Incroyable!

blast from the past

Be not the first by whom the new are tried, / Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
— Alexander Pope

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Monday, 16 November 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LIII

The latest batch of fiction:

Again, the unrelenting impression is of series.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

book review: Cakes, Custard, and Category Theory

Eugenia Cheng.
Cakes, Custard, and Category Theory: easy recipes for understanding complex maths.
Profile. 2015

The purpose of mathematics is to make difficult things easier; the purpose of category theory is to make difficult mathematics easier.

So argues research mathematician Eugenia Cheng in this excellent book. She starts off gently, with relatively simple mathematics, and oodles of real world examples, many based, unsurprisingly given the title, on cooking. These culinary examples serve both to illuminate the concepts, and to demonstrate her thesis: for example, finding out how much icing a cake needs is made easier using mathematics.

The first half of the book is about mathematics in general, and what it can and can't do. There are some lovely descriptions of the role of abstraction and generalisation, and the process of doing mathematics. By the end of this part we are confidently reading about axiomatisation. The second half then delves into the promised category theory. This covers the role of relationships and structure, along with a discussion of sameness. This is all achieved with a lightness of touch, whilst covering some quite profound ideas.

By the end, Cheng has explored an broad range of concepts, illuminating a lot about the philosophical stance of mathematicians, and the relationships of mathematics to the world. And now I want some cake.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

TV review: Orphan Black, season 2

One. Of a kind.
Sarah Manning [Tatiana Maslany] and her clone sisters [Tatiana MaslanyN] are closing in on the secrets behind their existence.

This is just as brilliant as season one. New levels of bad guys are revealed, characters we thought discarded return to play an important role, other characters are discovered to be not quite who we thought, and relationships between the clones get more complex. The plot twists and turns in interesting and novel ways. As just a small example, the scene between Alison's husband/minder Donnie, and escaping geneticist Leekie, in the car – and its knock-on effects – was totally unexpected. It all races and builds to another stunning revelation.

In a way, I feel a bit sorry for Tatiana Maslany: where will she ever get another role as great as this one? She gets to play street punk Sarah, pill-popping up-tight Alison, scientist Cosima, corporate droid Rachel, severly disturbed Helena, and more, all at the same time! Well, at least she's got season 3…

For all my SF TV reviews, see my main website.