The Uncarved Block

An Introduction to Genetic Algorithms

Review of Melanie Mitchell's excellent book

So today is Ada Lovelace Day, and the challenge has been thrown down to write about women in technology. Now there are many obvious candidates (Grace Hopper for one), but I decided to write instead a review of an excellent computer science book that just happens to have a female author. I originally bought this book from a second-hand bookshop for five pounds. I liked it so much that when I lost my original copy I bought it again at full price.

I have been interested for years in GAs and have read fairly widely. Koza, Holland etc etc etc. Many of those books adopt either a sort of messianic tone, implying that this one technique will solve all the problems of the world, or the typical academic approach of attempting to make your work sound as difficult and important as possible while simultaneously undermining all the work of your peers in the field.

Mitchell's book could not be more different. It explains the basic approaches clearly, and in enough detail to inspire further study. She has an excellent grasp of the pros and cons of the approach and it's promise, and it's mercifully short. An excellent read and real kudos to Mitchell for an approachable and readable introduction to the field.

permalink Updated: 2009-03-25

Changing to a kinesis keyboard

I thought I would never find a keyboard that I liked better than Typematrix, but I may have to eat my words...

Until yesterday, I used to use a typematrix dvorak keyboard. Typematrix is a fabulous keyboard with lots of terrific design features but its primary strength is that it has a small desktop footprint, and that it uses straight forward and back movements of the fingers without any of the small left and right movements that are required due to the staggered layouts of conventional keyboards. This is a massive improvement if you do a lot of typing or if you have problems with your hands and wrists.

The one weakness of the typematrix in my opinion is that the modifier keys (ctrl and alt) are not placed in a very convenient spot. This used not to bother me as I am a Vim user and so didn't require lots of control keystrokes. However, recently I have been doing almost all of my programming in a proprietary in-house environment and this has been causing my pinkies to take more and more of the strain. I finally decided to make the switch when I had a marathon coding day where I wrote something like 600 lines of very formulaic code in a day and my fingers were aching from the funny contortions I had been putting them through with all of the control keystrokes that had been required.

I briefly tried out one of my colleagues kinesis "Advantage" keyboards and immediately decided that it was weird enough that I should buy one. I opted for a model that has an inbuilt hardware dvorak mode. I prefer this so that I am able to use dvorak mode right from the login, rather than switching in user preferences or dotfiles.

So, the kinesis keyboard feels like a substantial unit. When you are typing on it, it has a pleasing clackiness, and the general functionality is good. It has a very cool hardware remapping thing that means you can move the keys you don't like around to your heart's content. It's a really nice keyboard.

permalink Updated: 2008-07-29

Undercover Economist

A review of 'The Undercover Economist' by Tim Harford

Inspired by my friend Erich Schlaikjer, I intend to write some reviews of books and music and put them up here, so I'll start with the book I have just finished, which is "The Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford.

This book is an entertaining and thought-provoking exposition of some key principles of economics and how they interact with big questions (such as "Why are rich companies rich and poor companies poor?"), small questions (such as "Why does my morning coffee cost as much as it does?") and all sizes in between. In that respect, it grows out of the author's "Dear Economist" column in the weekend ft, in which he offers often amusing "agony-aunt" style advice using the principles of economics to shine a light into normal everyday activities and moral dilemmas. The same mix of clear, reasoned argument and amusing and thought-provoking style is in evidence in this book.

All of the economics is explained and argued in a way that someone (such as myself) who has interest but little understanding in this field can easily follow, and there are references at the back to academic papers and journalism that back up the author's points and provide a starting-point for additional reading.

As another entry in the growing field of "popular economics" books, and with it's ostensibly similar promise of using economics to shine a new light onto everyday things this book is bound to provoke comparisons with "Freakonomics", but both books are worth reading in their own right and there is very little that is covered in both. Actually I enjoyed "The Undercover Economist" more, not least because it lacked the selfcongratulatory sections of Freakonomics that annoyed me so. (That book has sections that are just one of the authors telling you how clever and amazing the other author is- I don't want someone to tell me they are clever, I want them to show me!). It is also more deeply thought-provoking for being less willfully controversial.

permalink Updated: 2006-05-11