How to spoil a party.

Suggest the following game to the host:

Have a friend donate a $1 bill and place it on the table.  There are two general rules.

  1. The dollar bill is awarded to the highest bidder.  Whatever the highest bid is, that bidder pays for the dollar with that bid.  Each bid must be higher than the last and the game ends when there are no new bids.
  2. The second-highest bidder has to pay his last bid, but gets nothing.

It’s easy to imagine how the game plays out. The first bids are pennies, but it slowly rises to bids of $1.00 and $0.99.  Now, the second-highest bidder is now paying $0.99 for nothing, when he can just bid $1.01 and only lose a penny!  Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera… Soon, friends are no longer friends.

Is there a rational way to play this game? This question is the premise of game theory and is the theme of William Poundstone’s Prisoner’s Dilemma.  I won’t describe the prisoner’s dilemma here, but I did appreciate the description and critiques of game

Cover of "Prisoner's Dilemma"
Cover of Prisoner's Dilemma

theory from this book. Poundstone develops the “why” behind people’s motivation to cooperate or defect.  He also presents a brief history of John von Neumann and his contribution to game theory.

A good follow-on to this book seems to be Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier, which explores how society relies on trust to function, even when there are defectors, to use game theory parlance.  For example, when we board the plane, we trust that pilot knows how to fly.

However, I’m going back to fiction for the moment and I’m going to read the Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  I’ve read the previous two books some time ago, but I have this thing against finishing a series…

Visiting Turing’s Cathedral in NYC

NYC has some of the best places to read.  Reading on the bus or subway makes the trip to the East Village fly by and certainly there are plenty of places to sit and grab a coffee, but my absolutely favorite place to read is in the NYPL (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) Rose Main Reading Room.  This beautiful 300 feet long room with 50 foot ceilings reminds me of the monk’s copy room from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.  The room is filled with students studying, readers reading and visitors, well… visiting.  It is an absolutely incredible place to read and for anybody who enjoys books, or is a fan of Ghostbusters, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is a must see.

Rose Reading Room
NYPL Rose Reading Room via Wikipedia

What better book to read, than Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson.  This book turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Focusing on the a history of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) and the men and women who worked there in the first half of the 20th century, it also contains a detailed account of the creation of what we now know as the computer and thoughts on the future of computing, from 50 years ago.

According to Dyson’s account, we owe computing to the race for the hydrogen bomb and meteorology (or as some in the Navy affectionately refer to its Aerographer’s: “Weather Guessers.”) While weather prediction didn’t quite pan out, the computer at the IAS helped perform the calculations required for the H-Bomb.  This was Princeton with Einstein, Oppenheimer, Von Neumann, Goedel, Feynmann, Ulam and many other great minds.

I recommend this book for the history alone, however, what I found most fascinating were the predictions of the future of computing, from those that created it, compared to the state of the art today.  For example, the computer at the IAS was the closest manifestation of Turing’s Universal Machine for that time.  However, a more powerful concept of computing is to use an Oracle Turing Machine, which is a fictional machine that can answer yes or no to difficult questions.  One of Dyson’s insights is that we’ve come close to the Oracle with the Internet today.  With google, answers are a search (or O(1)) away.  Other applications enumerated by Dyson include digital self-reproduction, artificial intelligence, and politics.

Yet, after reading this book, I can’t help but to think of Neal Stephenson’s thoughts on Innovation Starvation.  The first applications of computing, the bomb, game theory, and more came from the original think tank, where useless knowledge was considered useful.  All of which have significantly impacted our lives.

I’ve noticed that I’m most productive and engaged when I’m working on a project that truly interests me, from procedurally generating quests to learning about John von Neumann.  And what better place to do all of this then in the NYPL Rose Reading Room.

What… is your quest?

Quest completed, project presented, and final taken.

For those who wish to see what I’ve been up to, here are some videos: part1, part2, and part3.  I’ve broken the classic trilogy paradigm; parts 2 and 3 are much better than part 1.

The code is available here for those that really want to see it.

Now, I can read more Turing’s Cathedral.  Which surprisingly, has started out with a nice history of Princeton University.

Nassau Hall, the university's oldest building....
A very special building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)