Saturday, September 17, 2011

Version 0.6

Did William Poundstone sell the answers in How Would You Move Mount Fuji? to Microsoft?

Not sure how else to explain things there... I'm not thinking that he allowed Microsoft to directly censor the book or anything, but more like an arrangement in which they would look over the book, ostensibly to check for mistakes and to protect him from liability, and Microsoft would offer a few suggestions and so forth. Perhaps even with a variable payment schedule that took into account the degree of his cooperation?

What's bothering me about the book is mostly the number of 'troubled' solutions. I hit the first one just after I started reading the book, as described in the slightly redacted email that appears below. However, the one that is bothering me most now is the puzzle about the village of philandering husbands. The supposed key to this analysis is that the wives suddenly knew that there was at least one philandering husband in the village--which directly conflicts with the premise that every wife already knew that there were 49 cheating husbands. There's also a contradiction between the 'friend' used in the presentation of the problem and the later description of the perfectly logical and utterly friendless pseudo-people used in these puzzles, but that doesn't bother me as much as the more obvious contradiction. Apparently the visit of the oracle resets the clock in some mysterious way, but if the chain of logic is actually valid then I can't see why THAT particular 50-day clock should be unique. The puzzle forbid certain kinds of knowledge sharing among the wives, but NOT obviously or specifically the knowledge that there is at least one philanderer in the village, and as soon as any wife realized that all the other women knew this simple existential claim, then the 50-day clock would start running for her. Or in other words, any of the wives could start the clock at any time with a statement similar to the oracles. There's something rotten in Denmark, or wherever this weird village is located, and at this point I'm just too suspicious of the logical flaws.

Microsoft's motivation for 'tampering' would seem to be obvious. They could plant seeds in the book to quickly spot the book-reading game-players among their interviewees. That could involve both seeded answers or bogus questions...

Not sure if it's related, but I recently concluded that Microsoft's essential interface design philosophy is fatally flawed, and this may be an inevitable result of the mental straightjackets created by this kind of interview process. Even if it works exactly as they intend, they can only wind up with the best configuration for the largest number of users--but no individual user is really the perfect fit for the resulting straightjacket.

Meanwhile, here's the earlier email messages:

On Wed, Aug 24, 2011 at 10:09 AM, Shannon Jacobs wrote:
Answer to the fourth question of Chapter 4 in "How Would You Move Mount Fuji", first need for errata. However, my main interest at this point is how many people have already [sent] you these [kinds of] comments--and remember you could probably short-circuit most of this kind of email with an errata page on your website... However, in the lack of any response, I probably won't say more. (The way my memory works these years, without highly specific prompting I'll barely remember the details in two weeks.) [Evidently an exaggeration?]

The part about the natural 180 degree rotation of the right hand was good, but called for some mention of the starting position of the key. Why assume it's vertical? However, my own thinking was more along the lines hinted at by your note at the end, that the passenger side door is reversed. Your analysis of the supposedly correct answer didn't say anything about the mechanism of the lock. A convenient and natural design for an outside door of a home is to open outwards with the hinge on the right side. If it opens inwards it wastes that space inside the house and if the hinge is on the left side the right-handed person has to shift the door to his left hand to avoid his own right arm as he enters the house. If the key mechanism is a rotating cylinder and the bolt it is rotating against is located above the lock, then the natural direction of rotation to retract the bolt is to rotate to the right which is clockwise. (No, I've never studied locks, but I heard that my grandfather knew a lot about them.) Therefore my guess would be that the clockwise direction became traditional to unlock doors, and the designers of the locks for car doors followed that convention for the driver's door. [However, rather than] design a completely different mechanism for the passenger's side, they just mirrored the design from the driver's side [causing it to turn in the other direction].

P.S. My own assessment is that the only position I could possibly qualify for at Microsoft would be CMO--but Microsoft wants a morality officer like a hole in the head. If by some misfortune I had wound up there, based on your book I'm pretty sure they would have classified me as a tester, but only briefly.

On Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 10:24 AM, Shannon Jacobs <redacted email address> wrote:
Just stumbled across your "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" book in the local library. Before actually starting to read it I ran a few tests, including with one of the top scientists of my acquaintance (since I work for a research lab at one of the so-called biggies). Upon starting in earnest, my initial thought was that I should check for errata on the Web, lest I go nuts over a typo.

Quickly found your website, but it didn't help much in my quest. These days we live and die by the search webform... Probing around, your quicktime poems killed my poor computer, which has been suffering pretty badly since the latest round of security software was installed. (The option of buying a more muscular machine out of my own pocket was eliminated by a previous change in corporate security policies...) No joy (so far as this particular book goes, and none of your others are conveniently available in English around here).

After poking around your website a bit more, I do have a reaction to your "Ann Coulter: Human Document". At first I wondered if it was some kind of endorsement. However, now I see it as related to knowledge dysfunctions, an area I've been thinking about a lot these years. It fits into the category of super-ignorance, where Coulter is one of the high priestesses. In brief, most people tend to believe what they want to believe, and the Internet now makes it not merely possible but convenient for people to completely saturate their input channels with whatever garbage they want to believe. You might call it search engine personalization, but I predicted it a couple of years ago as pandering.

Just in case you're curious about the topic or even interested in new ideas to worry about, I've concluded that the most serious category of knowledge dysfunction is abuse of personal information. I may have a twisted mind, but it isn't the corporate theft by collection of personal information that should belong to the real persons (of which corporations are NOT, my friend), but the potential for more subtle forms of abuse. From consideration of the recent Norwegian madman, for example. Imagine that there are terrorists who figure out how to spot such incipient or potential loonies by their writings on the Web. Then the real troublemakers send anonymous email to the police about the possible 'lone wolf attacker', and of course the police can't ignore it. With the other hand, they send anonymous email to the potential loony--and possibly even help push him over the edge. I still feel like knowledge is fundamentally a good thing, but the tools remain morally neutral, and it increasingly seems that the bad guys have more energy... (I see my tangential angel has run amok again.)

Anyway, if there is any errata for this book, I'd appreciate a pointer.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Happy for No Reason

Version 0.2

The American Love of Pseudo-science such as Happy for No Reason by Marci Shimoff

Justification is that Dubya would never admit he needed to be more happy, though he'd like the "no reason" part of it. Tie breaker is that the book is introspective and Dubya ain't, so he wouldn't read it.

The pseudo-science is supposed to be something like science of happiness.

The basic ideas are old, going back to The Power of Positive Thinking and similar books and similar motivational speakers.

Entire book is full of fake scientific veneer, though it was in Chapter 5, which is basically a plug for an obvious scam called the Institute of HeartMath. She tries to give them plausibility with a claim that it was verified by Stanford University and some other institute--but with no citation. Then you reread it more carefully and even the claim is meaningless. Maybe they rented a room in a building owned by Stanford? Nothing there. However, the kicker was the bogus graph, which is supposed to show pulse fluctuations over time as influenced by your mental state. It's easier to start with the supposedly good graph, which shows the pulse varying from 60 to 80 bpm--but within one minute. Wait a minute. Think about it. The pulse is about once a second, but from that data you are supposed to calculate smooth fluctuations in the average rate over the course of a few seconds? It's nonsense, which is exactly what the other graph shows. They are obviously playing some kind of game with the minor fluctuations, but the entire passage is just stuffed full of meaningless fake jargon and obviously false claims that are intended to sound scientific.

Other especially bogus and fraudulent claims involved the power of prayer and mental control over crystals (which was a Japanese scammer). Those are just some of the most glaring examples that came to mind now. Basically I just have to repeat it on a larger scale, the entire book is stuffed full of false claims that are intended to sound scientific.

I do think there is a tiny kernel of truth at the heart of the book. A positive attitude is a good thing and helps you in life. It's possible to be happier, though she never goes as far as saying that happiness is just a state of mind. It's one thing to be content and to adjust your expectations to be more content, but she's arguing for delusional states.

Another aspect that bothers me is the circular nature of the business. They basically endorse each other and help sell each other's books and classes and lectures.