Month: April, 2014

What is a “book”?

Back at the end of 2010, I started keeping a log of all the books I read over the course of the year. At the time, I was mostly reading used hardcovers bought cheaply from Amazon (at least partly to upgrade my library of aging and yellowing paperbacks), and listening to free LibriVox audiobooks on the iPod. Hardcovers and audiobooks are pretty clearly books, and hardcovers have the advantage of being easily shared with other people in the house.

2013 was the year that I finally started reading on an iPad. It’s been great, so much more convenient in so many ways. Reading books on a notebook computer is difficult, because it’s too easy to get distracted by the immense-but-ephemeral literature of the Web, while the opposite seems to be true on a tablet computer.

Yet the iPad can display many kinds of books, and specific book niches have different ecosystems. EPUB3, Amazon Kindle, and Apple iBooks are the most well-known ebook formats, but digital editions of art- and chart-heavy RPG and game rulebooks are more frequently distributed as PDFs at Paizo or DriveThruRPG. If a book is a book, and an audiobook of a book is a book, and an ebook of a book is a book, and a PDF of a book is a book, are not most sustained texts in these formats “books”? This is a much fuzzier definition of “book”. Say, is a series of instructional blog posts on a sustained topic, redistributed as a 50-page PDF, a book? I guess so.

This fuzziness troubled my attempts to recommend a favorite book from 2013, as I did for 2011 and 2012, because one of the candidates is Mike Duncan’s podcast The History of Rome. A podcast?

Podcasts with a group of hosts, like Conlangery, resemble radio shows more than books. But The History of Rome had the single author reading a prepared script, like a serialized book in audiobook form. And it was certainly a sustained work, unfolding over five years, a 675,000-word script, and 74 hours. For comparison, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire becomes a 120-hour audiobook.

I expect “books” will get weirder before the end.

Road to Derby 2014

I posted about the road to Derby 2011 and 2012, here’s the 2014 Derby prep races.

  • March 29—Florida Derby, YouTube: Constitution, Wildcat Red, General A Rod
  • March 29—Louisiana Derby, YouTube: Vicar’s in Trouble, Intense Holiday, Commanding Curve
  • April 5—Santa Anita Derby, YouTube: California Chrome, Hoppurtunity, Candy Boy
  • April 5—Wood Memorial Stakes, YouTube: Wicked Strong, Samraat
  • April 12—Arkansas Derby, YouTube: Danza, Ride on Curlin, Tapiture
  • April 12—Blue Grass Stakes, YouTube: Dance with Fate, Medal Count, Pablo Del Monte

Old horseplayer

Derby Week is here, so here’s Mike’s advice on wagering, from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966):

“Mike amigo, do you also tout horse races?”

“I often calculate odds on horse races; the civil service computermen frequently program such requests. But the results are so at variance with expectations that I have concluded either that the data are too meager, or the horses or riders are not honest. Possibly all three. However, I can give you a formula which will pay a steady return if played consistently.”

Prof looked eager. “What is it? May one ask?”

“One may. Bet the leading apprentice jockey to place. He is always given good mounts and they carry less weight. But don’t bet him on the nose.” (90-91)

…Prof played ponies with two accounts, betting one by Mike’s “leading apprentice system”, another by his own “scientific” system. By July ’75 he admitted that he knew nothing about horses and went solely to Mike’s system, increasing bets and spreading them among many bookies. His winnings paid Party’s expenses while Mike built swindle that financed catapult. But Prof lost interest in a sure thing and merely placed bets as Mike designated. He stopped reading pony journals—sad, something died when an old horseplayer quits. (142)

TIL: Anything worth doing well

Anything worth doing well can be done badly.

Loglan on Free Luna

Was wandering through Lojbanistan recently, and noticed that apparently Robert Heinlein mentioned Loglan in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which I by chance had just picked up the 1997 Tor hardcover used, not having read it in a few years. Such a great, great book. Such a romp, and Heinlein really captures such a unique voice for some memorable characters.

Loglan actually pops up in chapter one, in the introduction of sentient computer Mike:

By then Mike had voder-vocoder circuits supplementing his read-outs, print-outs, and decision-action boxes, and could understand not only classic programming, but also Loglan and English, and could accept other languages and was doing technical translating—and reading endlessly. But in giving him instructions was safer to use Loglan. If you spoke English, results might be whimsical; multi-valued nature of English gave option circuits too much leeway. (12-13)


(Nobody taught Mike to say “please.” He started including formal null-sounds as he progressed from Loglan to English. Don’t suppose he meant them any more than people do.) (17)

Can machines feel pride? Not sure question means anything. But you’ve seen dogs with hurt feelings and Mike had several times as complex a neural network as a dog. What had made him unwilling to talk to other humans (except strictly business) was that he had been rebuffed.

They had not talked to him. Programs, yes—Mike could be programmed from several locations but programs were typed in, usually, in Loglan. Loglan is fine for syllogism, circuitry, and mathematical calculations, but lacks flavor. Useless for gossip or to whisper into girl’s ear. (18-19)

XKCD might agree, and the Lojbanist may sigh:

coi .iu.uinai

No rapture for the nerds

Ramez Naam has some wonderful posts at Charles Stross’s blog about why The Singularity Is Further Than It Appears, including some graphs on Why AIs Won’t Ascend in the Blink of an Eye. In short, a technological Singularity is plausible only if designing smarter AIs is a problem of linear complexity. If it is a more challenging problem, a hard takeoff becomes more unlikely or impossible. William Hertling makes some thoughtful points in rebuttal, which probably depend too heavily on the lack of constraints to Moore’s “Law”.

The techno-utopianism (or even just techno-optimist) of the Singularity too often relies on really naive ideas of the self, even if clever writers subvert them. People can’t achieve immortality by uploading their souls to a computer because souls are an illusion. The human mind is fundamentally embodied; hours in a sensory deprivation tank cause minds to create powerful illusions of sensation. And the tricks computers use to simulate human behavior also demonstrate their profound lack of the human experience that drives human behavior. Machine translation can improve with better representation of linguistic structure, but it’s never going to approach real translation until the machines understand semantics, pragmatics, and stylistics in the way that humans do.

“Capital in the 21st Century”

I haven’t read much of Capital in the 21st Century except this short guide and this review. But I think it may be positive than an AEI economist would liken it to Tyler Cowan’s analysis of the aftermath of the “Great Stagnation”.

Here’s Milanovic’s summary of an important argument from the book:

Using very effectively literary examples from Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, Piketty shows that in capital-rich societies with high returns on capital as was Europe then, it often made no sense to work but to concentrate rather on finding a rich spouse or otherwise inheriting property . The trade-off between a brilliant career, based on study and work, and a much more lavish life style that could be afforded if one married a heiress is presented with unmatched clarity and brutality to the young Rastignac by the world-savvy Vautrin in Balzac’s Le père Goriot. This trade-off, called the Rastignac dilemma by Piketty (does it pay to work hard when one can inherit much more by marrying well?) , is all well known to the readers of English and French literatures of the 19th century. So obvious was the answer that the Rastignac dilemma is not even posed in most cases. No reader of Jane Austen is left in doubt that education is a pleasant activity mostly useful to enhance marriage prospects of young ladies and gentlemen (we are far from human capital here!), work is never to be undertaken (unless characters really get into serious trouble), and everybody’s social position is measured by the annual rent he (mostly he) commands.

This certainly reminds me of the growing attack on the humanities as fields of study, an attack that casts the humanities as a useless luxury for the unemployable. Or also, of the gig economy Sarah Kessler describes in Pixel & Dimed, in which such work is in fact costly, draining, scarce, while paying well below minimum wage: perhaps epitomized in the name of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The most amusing such freelance job I saw advertised recently was writing online dating profiles for sex workers.

The economy of the 21st century can’t be like the economy of the 19th century, of course, but the nature of the information economy don’t necessarily point to it being more egalitarian. If the railroad barons of the 21st century are racing to capture attention rather than transportation infrastructure, they’re still operating in an environment where network effects, as much as capital intensity, drive corporations to natural monopoly positions.

Unicode Hell: torture your type for fun (and profit?)

Sometime at the start of my graduate program in linguistics, I frequently needed to cite examples from differing alphabets and scripts. So I put together a dummy text to weed out fonts that can’t handle Unicode well, mostly edited snippets from Wikipedia. Serif fonts in general do poorly with this, and the best performer overall was Arial Unicode MS. Mostly I wrote in LibreOffice in Gentium Plus, or Hiragino Mincho ProN W3 for Japanese and Japanese/English texts, but even Gentium had difficulty with the wilderness of combining diacritics in a presentation on the Dené–Yeniseian hypothesis. Needless to say, this is overkill for most purposes.

“Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet,” wrote Cicero—there is no one who loves pain because it is pain. “Ðā ne sacað þe ætsamne ne bēoð,” said the canny Saxon—those do not quarrel who are not together. “Hwon gelpeð se þe wide siþað,” quoth he—a little boasts he who travels widely. “Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem,” Masaryk wrote: as many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.

“Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow” is a pangram, and thus contains every letter of the alphabet. “Příliš žluťoučký kůň úpěl ďábelské ódy” is Czech: The too-yellow horse groaned devilish odes. While “Eble ĉiu kvazaŭ-deca fuŝĥoraĵo ĝojigos homtipon” is Esperanto: Maybe every quasi-fitting bungle-choir makes a human type happy. Norwegian blåbærsyltetøy is blueberry jam. The Klingon word lIghoH “He disputes you (pl.)” shows the importance of serifs. It’s hard to pronounce Antonín Dvořák [ˈantoɲiːn ˈlɛopolt ˈdvor̝aːk]. Tau, or 6.28318…, is twice pi.

English idea derives ultimately from Greek ἰδέα “form, appearance, kind,” from the Proto-Indo-European root wid- “see, know,” which is cognate with Sanskrit veda “ritual knowledge, lore” and English wise and witty, Other English words that derive ultimately from Sanskrit include ashram (Sanskrit āśrama “hermitage”), ganja (gāñjā “hemp”), pundit (paṇḍitá “scholar”), and loot (luṇṭhati “he steals”).

ハングル(朝: 한글、hangeul)は、朝鮮語を表記するための表音文字である。「ピリカ チェプ」 means “good fish” in Ainu.