[Book Review] Leonardo’s Brain by Leonard Shlain

Leonardo's Brain: Understanding da Vinci's Creative GeniusLeonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a great idea for a book! A mixture of History, Art History, Psychology, and Brain Science, Leonardo’s Brain is a wonderful attempt to try to get inside da Vinci’s head. The book makes a convincing case that da Vinci was the first real scientist in addition to being the greatest artist who had lived up until his time, and details many of the groundbreaking scientific ideas and artistic techniques he originated. Each chapter is an easy read walking through various aspects of what is known about da Vinci with respect to his life at the time, (homosexuality, vegetarianism, etc.) and how that must have been received by his peers and patrons. The chapters also cover various aspects of what is known about brain function and tries to map these onto what is known about da Vinci. Towards the end of the book Shlain starts to reach into a bit of mysticism with claims that da Vinci had ESP in the form of “remote viewing,” which diminishes the quality of the book (hence four instead of five stars). Shlain’s writing style is very readable and touches on many additional topics, which is sure to fire the imagination of the reader and encourage further reading about the unique genius that was Leonardo da Vinci.

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Microsoft: EmbraceR, ExtendeR, ExtinquisheR

I read with great interest the new blog post over at R Revolutions about the release of “Microsoft R Open 3.3.0.”  And for those of us old enough to remember the Browser Wars of the late 90s, and the resulting  FINDINGS OF FACT concerning Microsoft’s abuse of monopoly power, the first sentence is really eye-catching:

Microsoft R Open 3.3.0, ClarkHeadthe enhanced distribution of open source R, is now available for download for Windows, Mac and Linux systems.

“enhanced.” That sure does sound a lot like “extend.” As in Embrace, extend, and extinquish. Since we’ve already seen this movie, with the only slight plot change, where  there’s a bit of “open” to it, we already know what the intention is. With this admission, Microsoft is either being very honest, or cocky, or just lazy.

I use R Studio when I have to use R. (I love ggplot2!) But in general I hate a lot of things about R. And now when I have to go full-contact script-mode, I have more reason to use Python every day.

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[Book Review] The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos

The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our WorldThe Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While coached as a guidebook to help find “The Master Algorithm,” the one AI algorithm “that will rule them all” (his words, not mine), this book is much, much more. At times written whimsically, and at times treating very advance material in a way that non-sophisticated readers can understand, the book is part history lesson, part cultural commentary, and part description of the scientific process. I work exactly in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and I am definitely a member of the target audience. Maybe I’m just an ML fanboy, but I found the treatment of everything, including that of the author’s own work, to be at just the right level to keep the non-specialist interested, while informing the specialist about those other areas, where he is not a specialist.

The book finishes with musings about what it means to be a source of data for the corporations (and governments) that would use that data for good and/or evil. This alone makes the book worth reading. Such candor from those in the field of machine learning is really refreshing.

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Microsoft and LinkedIn: Probably not good. Maybe not bad.

Oh, what to do about the Microsoft and LinkedIn deal? You may decide to delete your LinkedIn account, like Cathy O’Neil did. Or you may just decide to keep it, although unless you’re looking for a job, or looking for newhires, LinkedIn doesn’t really seem to have much value. I haven’t decided to delete my LinkedIn account–mostly because the data is already there, and even if I delete it, I’m sure it’s just “deleted.” I can choose not to use LinkedIn anymore, but I actually do have friends and contacts on LinkedIn, who aren’t on any other social media platform. Maybe I could start using email again. (Do the kids even call it “email” any more?)

When Microsoft bought Skype, it didn’t make any sense. The technowags at the time were calling it an attempt for Microsoft to appear cool, or monetize subscriptions or… they, like I, were just scraching our heads. Mostly, I thought it was stupid move by a company that had long lost its way. Maybe they had a crystal ball that would point to Messaging being the OS of the future. A little later, we found out that Microsoft, unlike Skype, was reading everything you wrote. Even later we found out that the real reason was that the NSA needed somebody to allow them into encrypted Skype, which at the time was a Swedish company. And what better way than to strongarm an American company rich in cash and that earns a large amount from government contracts? Maybe Microsoft was the only one dumb enough or amoral enough out of the Facebook/Google/Amazon/Apple/Microsoft techopoly to actually do it. It’s not like Microsoft hasn’t demonstrated a lack of business ethics before. Oh, well. That data got sucked into Prism long ago.

If Microsoft really does Clippy-ify LinkedIn, I’ll certainly delete (or “delete”) my account, but Skype is the only Microsoft product I actually use. I got off closed source OS train a long, long, time ago. I don’t really expect to be personally affected by the future integration.

“Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” My suspicions about the last stupid acquisition turned out to be not all that far of the mark. My suspicion about this acquisition is that it’s not nearly as nefarious: Microsoft wants social network graph data to work on and figure out how to monetize in a way that LinkedIn wasn’t able to. No matter what, LinkedIn was an American company subject to National Security Letters, so that data’s been sucked into Prism long ago, too.

Microsoft Research has spent a lot of money to get top researchers hooked on the corporate teat. Maybe the Microsofties just needed a new playground.


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[Book Review] The Math Book by Clifford Pickover

The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of MathematicsThe Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics by Clifford A. Pickover

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idea of devoting a one page explanation to a particular mathematical topic, explaining it in simple (enough) language so that a mathematical person, but not necessarily a mathematician, can understand the concept, and accompanying it with a beautiful related image is a wonderful idea, and it is executed here very well. What greatly takes away from the book is Mr. Pickover’s raging anti-German comments, using every opportunity to pull in the Holocaust either in reference to a Jewish mathematician directly or tangentially thereby affected, or to a German mathematician. The comments approach snark and self-parody, and are uncalled for in this otherwise wonderful volume.

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[Book Review] Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh

Big Bang: The Origin of the UniverseBig Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simon Singh is an excellent writer and popularizer of science and science history. He goes to great length to explain some of the more abstract concepts in an accessible manner, with success. Some of the analogies fall a little flat, or seem a little too simplified or cutesy, but the book is still very readable and enjoyable. Cutesy but cool are the handwritten notes at the end of each chapter as topic summaries.

This book is well worth the read!

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[Book Review] The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible by Lance Fortnow

The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the ImpossibleThe Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible by Lance Fortnow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Writing a Popular Science book is tough work. Very few authors seem to be able to walk the line between too technical for the layperson and technical enough to keep the more advanced reader interested. (James Gleick and Simon Singh seem to do this effortlessly.) Put on top of that the tackling a topic as abstract as P =/!= NP and the task is formidable indeed. Mr. Fortnow tries very hard to make it accessible, but errs a little too far on the side of simplifying things for the layperson without leaving enough meat for the technically inclined. That being said, his somewhat light-hearted treatment of the P vs NP problem is enjoyable, and this short little book has some nice adaptations of what the problem means, but in the end, it left this reader hoping he would have gone a layer or two deeper.

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