brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


Getting started with “Getting Things Done”

After reading some of the material on, I decided to order, read and apply some of the lessons in the book. It's good! I'll have some more comments later, but some good additional pointers are here. Try reading them to see the flavor of Allen's approach, and to see if it might be helpful to you.

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Books in the Queue…

Inspired by Dave Slusher's mention of Robert Rodriguez and his Ten Minute Film School, I decided to get a bunch of books on the subject of low budget guerilla film making. To get the total up high enough to get free shipping from Amazon, I purchased

I got them mainly to absorb a bit of the low-budget bootstrap mentality that seems common among film makers. It certainly has never been more affordable for amateurs to develop powerful media, and I'm hoping that by reading them, some of their enthusiasm and knowledge will rub off on my feeble efforts.

I'll be reviewing these in future podcasts, so stay tuned.

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Free Culture

Free Culture by Lawrence LessigI must admit, I've been a slacker. I haven't read Lawrence Lessig's book Free Culture, and since you can actually get free copies of the book off the web, there really is no excuse. Indeed, today I decided to download the audiobook version to my iPod before I hit the treadmill to exercise. The audiobook is actually very cool: because the book itself is licensed under a liberal Creative Commons license, several people each read a chapter of the book and they were all merged together to produce a 9.7 hour long version of the book. Good stuff.

It really is a great book. I find Lessig to be very accessible, and he presents his thesis in a very straightforward manner. He believes (as do I) that increasingly the manner in which we create and extend our collective culture is falling under government regulation. The issue isn't as simple as whether you are pro-piracy or pro-property rights: Lessig himself believes in intellectual property. He believes however that legislation of heretofore unregulated aspects of our culture are increasingly falling under regulatory control, and that this regulation stifles innovation, creativity, and even democracy itself.

It's good stuff, and there is no reason not to read it.

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The Mathematics of Gambling

Thorp's book, The Mathematics of Gambling, is apparently available online with permission of the author.

Thorp is of course the author of the classic book Beat the Dealer, to which an entire generation of card counters owe their heritage.


A Mathematician at the Ballpark

A Mathematician at the BallparkI'm a bit of a baseball fan, and I'm also fascinated by gambling and probability. It's rare that I find a book which talks about both, so I was somewhat pleased to see Ken Ross' A Mathematician at the Ballpark on the shelf at my local Borders. What was even more surprising was the fact that Ken's name seemed familiar, and with some cause: I believe I took Discrete Mathematics from Ken back in 1984 when I was a freshmen at the University of Oregon. The strange coincidences of this world...

Anyway, I bought his book and devoured it in a single evening. Even in my brief perusal of it prior to purchase, I thought that it would prove to be rather elementary, and I was not mistaken. If you have had no exposure to probability then it is perhaps a good place to start, but the level of discussion seems to be appropriate for high school students. It just doesn't dig that deep into either statistics or probability.

I could forgive this as a shortcoming and recommend this book except for one thing: it really doesn't have much about baseball either. Many of the examples are drawn from roulette rather than the great American pasttime, and as a result if you bought it thinking it might help you enjoy the statistical side of baseball, you'll be left feeling dissatisfied as well. I was hoping more baseball in a book with a baseball diamond on the cover.

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Moneyball, by Michael Lewis

Moneyball I received an interesting phone call from my friend Phil last week. I hadn't heard much from Phil, but he called me in the middle of a ferry ride to San Francisco to tell me that he was reading a book called Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and that he was sure that I'd enjoy it. I'm a hundred or so pages into it now, and I must agree, I do like it.


Don’t double down on hard 20…

This weeks whim book purchase was Books: Bringing Down the House : The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Apparently MIT has a long history of blackjack players, and this book details a particular team which aggressively used card counting, team play, shuffle tracking and other aggressive techniques to win over three million dollars from Las Vegas casinos.

In the late 80s to early 90s I went through a brief love affair with blackjack, egged on by books such as
Thorp's Beat the Dealer
(still an excellent read) and Griffin's Theory of Blackjack. I never really graduated to a real card counter, being content to slowly give my money to the casinos by using Basic Strategy.

What's really amazing about this tale isn't the techniques they used (only really sketched at a high level in the book, refer to Thorp or Griffin for the mathematically inclined) but just how aggressively they used these techniques, and how long it took the casinos to catch on. Ultimately team play requires a number of spotters who play at tables and bet constantly, perhaps even playing basic strategy while keeping track of
counts. When the counts go positive, the spotters signal
"Gorillas" and "Big Players" who come
in and bet large until the count goes cold.

To me it seems rather obvious that if you reviewed tapes of big winners employing this strategy, you'd begin to see familiar faces around the table. If the casinos employed
their own card counters, they'd also be particularly wary
of anyone entering mid-deck during positive counts.

And yet this isn't how the casinos finally figured it out. I won't
spoil the book by telling you about how the team eventually became "dinosaurs" (banned from casino play),
but the book has just as much to say about the interactions of people as it does cards.

A fun read. I burned through it in an evening.

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It’s a Small, Stick Figure World…

When I was probably eight or ten years old, I remember going to the Book Vault, our local bookstore and seeing Ed Emberley's Drawing Book: Make a World.
I remember asking my mom to buy it for me, but somehow I forgot about it, even though I thought it was a really cool book. Well, some thirty years later, I now own a copy. It's a terrific little book on how to doodle interesting little stick figures. I find the bright colors, playful images and subject matter to be oddly intriguing as I near the end of my fourth decade on the planet. If you are caught in a dull meeting, this book will inspire you to doodle in new ways.

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Robot Sumo

I stopped by Barnes & Noble on the way home the other day, and was bemused by a couple of books, including this one on the construction of robots to play sumo. Since I am considering a small robotics project, I thought this book might be good, and after a brief reading, it appears to be better than most, striking a nice chord between entirely theoretical and entirely practical. It has a
good section on the use of remote control gear to control robots, something which several other robotics books that I have sort of ignore, and as I am not
an RC enthusiast, something which I need to learn a bit more about. Included are some nice projects using the Basic Stamp, good coverage on IR and ultrasonic proximity sensors, and plans for a mini-Sumo robot. It also has nice pictures and a darn cute cover. I'm sure if you are a genius robot engineer,
you'll learn nothing, but as I haven't built one myself, I give it two thumbs up.

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Eric Meyer on CSS

I just picked up a copy of a new book on Cascading Style sheets by Eric Meyer. He's a wizard of all things having to do with style sheets, and rather than just describe the syntax and options (which are easy to get from he presents style sheet wizardry in the form of thirteen projects that he works through a step at a time. While I just got the book yesterday, it seems quite good, and I'm undoubtably going to spend some time this weekend putting some of it to use redoing the templates for this site. Don't be surprised if this looks worse before it gets better!

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An Essay on Typography

Recently I've become rather interested in the topic of the design and printing of books. It seems that many modern books are incredibly poorly designed and typeset, despite the existence of excellent tools that should make book production simpler. The problem is that while software has been created to reduce the tedium, it has not created tools that replace inspiration and skill. In trying to understand the process of book design and typography, I bought an inexpensive and excellent book by Eric Gill called An Essay on Typography


DIY Metalworking

As part of my experiments with telescope making, I've been exposed through the efforts of some of my friends to the world of metalworking. i did some minimal metalwork (fabrication of some aluminum bearings and C channel using Paul Zurakowski's lathe and mill) for my "Australia scope", and that gave me the bug to learn more about metalworking. A bit of research ensued, where I found Lindsay's Books, a small publisher that specializes in publishing books of interest to metal workers and other technical pursuits. One of their best selling series is
the collection Build Your Own Metalworking Shop from Scratch by Dave Gingery.


Rare Earth

One of the most important and interesting question that science can ask is whether or not life exists elsewhere in the universe. The recent book Rare Earth by Brownlee and Ward hypothesizes that multicellular life is quite rare in the universe, so rare in fact that it is likely that we are the only intelligent civilization in the galaxy. Other's of course have alternative views.