January 3rd, 2016 — Links, Reading
Some of the books I read (and liked) in 2015, and my impressions of them. Previously: 14, 13, 12, 11.
John Maynard Smith, Eörs Szathmáry:
The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language
A very clear explanation of evolution from the chemical basis up to “cultural evolution”. Updated version of older book “Major transitions…” of same authors. Describes evolution at the level of genes, individuals and groups. Often takes an “information-theoretic” view. Doesn’t give the “full picture” of life and evolution but gives a flavour of the forces at work, and the messiness, in some cases arbitrariness of local details, of conflicts and co-operations, etc. Together with work of Dawkins, some of the clearest explanations of evolution.
While at it, I opened Darwin’s original and skimmed about a third of it. The first impression of “The Origin of the Species” is how readable and accessible it still is almost 160 years after its writing. It is organized in a logical way, starting with a wealth of examples, building up evidence until the inevitable conclusion almost presents itself. Especially interesting is the frankness with which Darwin discusses possible objections to his theory. One must agree with the reviewer who writes about the Origin of Species that it “makes me proud to be a human being”.
Ha-Joon Chang: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism
Funny and accessible book with critique of globalization and mainstream economic theories. Main thesis could be summed up as: countries that are rich today became rich through policies and strategies that are in many ways the opposite of what they propose as development strategies for poor countries. Many contrarian ideas (e.g. corruption not automatically bad, etc.), most of them well argued. Enjoyed chapter that ridicules “culturalist” views in economics.
Douglas R. Hofstadter, Daniel C. Dennett:
The Mind’s I: Fantasies And Reflections On Self & Soul
Charming collection of essays and short literary works loosely around the topics of the mind, consciousness, identity, etc. The essays are from various sources, including fiction authors like Stanislaw Lem or Jorge Borges, or the authors themselves, who also comment on the essays of others. Favourites: Hofstadter’s tortoise and achilles dialogues, “A Conversation With Einstein’s Brain”, Smullyan’s “Is God a Taoist?”, etc.
Bertrand Russell: The Conquest of Happiness
Lighthearted essays — sometimes surprising opinions (e.g. praise of boredom, etc.), tries to understand the sources of happiness and unhappiness. Reaches a similar conclusion as Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow”-theory, his “recipe” summed up as: skillful preoccupation – such as the exercise of a craft + a friendly interest and curiosity towards people and phenomena. Written almost 100 years ago, still timely, notices some changes in society that are even more profound today.
Randall Munroe: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Bought as gift, but ended up reading it myself. Predictably funny and interesting.
Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities
Masterful, gigantic, complex, fragmentary, sometimes with quirky humor, etc. Have been reading it on and off for the whole year, and will be continuing it in 2016 as well :)
An enthusiastic review (apart from the first 5-6 mins): http://french-italian.stanford.edu/opinions/shows/eo10021.mp3
David Nicolle: Ottomans: Empire of Faith.
Short history of the Ottoman Empire. Especially beautiful maps and illustrations.
R. Feynman: “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures…
The first part contains anecdotes and letters in the spirit of “Surely you are joking…” and similar books, with some overlap. The second, more interesting part is about the Challenger space shuttle accident investigation in which Feynman was involved. The methodical inquiries and observations are fascinating, as well as the final report.
Transilvania Mea (English: My Transylvania)
A collection of articles and essays (in Romanian) about various aspects of the history of Transylvania and its inhabitants. Informative and beautifully written.
Elemér Kiss: Mathematical Gems from the Bolyai Chests
This book is the result of the in-depth study of the unpublished manuscripts of the mathematician János Bolyai, and his correspondence with his father, Farkas Bolyai. The book convincingly argues that contrary to popular opinion, Bolyai continued productive mathematical work throughout his life (after his early work on non-euclidean geometry), and working in isolation, he made independent observations esp. on number theory and the theory of complex numbers, some of which were only discovered later by others. (I read the Hungarian version.)
(disclaimer: the following book cover images are “Amazon Affiliate” links. If you click them and buy a book, I will receive a few cents in the form of an Amazon coupon. If you dislike this idea, you can simply remove “mybookbox-20″ from the end of the URLs.)
August 13th, 2015 — Math
: able to live through difficult conditions (such as a cold winter or a drought)
: strong and able to accept difficult or unpleasant conditions
G.H. Hardy was an eminent English mathematician, also known for his popular and influential book “A Mathematician’s Apology“.
In this extended essay he argues among other points that mathematics has a deep intrinsic beauty, and it is worthy to be pursued for its own sake.
I tried very hard to like this essay, but failed miserably on every occasion. It would be too easy to mock from our 21st century perspective Hardy’s mistake when he uses number theory as an example branch of mathematics with absolutely no practical applications (which by the way Hardy views as a huge positive). However, I also find the main point about mathematical beauty (mentioned before) not very convincingly presented, even if you agree with him before opening the book.
But what I disliked most were Hardy’s strong opinions such as “there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds”, and in another paragraph “it is a tiny minority who can do something really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible” and finally the notorious “mathematics is a young man’s game”.
To express my dislike of this essay, I am making the modest proposal of a Hardy prize in mathematics, to be awarded to people who achieve significant mathematical results in ways contrary to the letter and the spirit of Hardy’s book (we can never know of course, whether Hardy himself would consider the results of any significance, although we can guess with good confidence.)
More positively, the fictional Hardy prize recognizes:
- pure mathematical work deeply influenced by practice and applications or by teaching and other expository work
- mathematicians (men or women) who started their mathematical career or achieved their most significant result at a relatively late age
- mathematicians who went about their mathematical career in a less than straightforward way, possibly having strong interests or accomplishments outside mathematics, possibly doing mathematics as a hobby
Ignoring historical examples (some of which Hardy must have known), as a small (and quite random) initial sample from our times I would suggest as first recipients: Persi Diaconis, Marjorie Rice, Preda Mihăilescu, Yitang Zhang, Raymond Smullyan.
This post is of course only half-serious and half-ironic (unless someone takes a serious initiative in this direction). Would such a prize make sense? This post benefited from discussions with colleagues, who would probably prefer to stay unnamed. I was also informed by this post.
August 12th, 2015 — Math, Research
Recently, together with my colleagues Parinya Chalermsook, Mayank Goswami, Kurt Mehlhorn, and Thatchaphol Saranurak, we published three papers about binary search trees. All three are available on ArXiv as preprints. In this post I briefly and informally describe some results and ideas from these papers.
Binary search trees (BST) are perhaps the simplest data structures that are not entirely trivial, and they form the basis of several more advanced data structures and algorithms. BSTs are part of every computer science curriculum, and there is a rich theory describing their properties. Surprisingly, many aspects of BSTs are still not understood, so they are an active field of research.
Searching a single element in a BST is straightforward, and the cost of the search depends on how far the searched element is from the root of the tree. If we search more than one element, we might want to change the tree after each search, to make future searches more efficient. What is the best way to transform the tree after each search? The splay tree of Sleator and Tarjan from 1983 gives one possible such strategy. Splay trees have many nice properties, for example, they are as good as the best static tree for a given sequence (“static” here means not changed between accesses, and I am sweeping some details under the rug here). Sleator and Tarjan conjectured that even more strongly, splay trees are as good as any “dynamic” tree, i.e. any sequence of changes in the tree between accesses. This last statement is the famous dynamic optimality conjecture. If true, this would be quite surprising: splay trees just “react” to each access, without knowing what accesses will come next. The conjecture says that knowing the future doesn’t help much. Even the best strategy for changing the tree (tailored to a given sequence) cannot beat splay trees (again, some details omitted here). The conjecture is wide open. For more information about such questions I recommend the survey of Iacono. Now our recent results.
1. Self-adjusting binary search trees: what makes them tick?
Splay trees are considered quite mysterious: they execute some local transformations that just “happen to work”. We know that splay trees have many nice properties (including the static optimality mentioned before), but the proofs are a bit unintuitive. What is special about splay trees that gives them these properties? Are there other algorithms that have similar properties?
So we look at a general class of algorithms that preserve some properties of splay trees and relax others. Such an algorithm accesses an element in a BST, then transforms the search path into some tree, such that the accessed element becomes the root. We identify some simple conditions of this transformation that are sufficient to guarantee that the algorithm shares some of the nice properties of splay trees. We look at splay trees in a different way, that makes it obvious that they fulfill these conditions. We also show that some other known algorithms and heuristics fulfill these conditions, which explains why they are efficient. We also identify some new heuristics that fulfill the conditions but have not been studied before. Finally we ask, are our conditions necessary for a BST algorithm to be efficient? In a limited sense, we show that they are, but the results in this direction are not conclusive. See the paper for details.
2. Pattern-avoiding access in binary search trees
I mentioned that splay tree is conjectured to be as good as any other BST algorithm, even those that can see into the future, for any possible sequence. However, for most “random” sequences, even the theoretically best BST algorithms are quite inefficient, making the question vacuous in that case. The interesting cases are those sequences that have “some useful structure” that BST algorithms can exploit. So, if we want to show that splay trees (or some other algorithm) are efficient, we need to show that they do well on such “structured” input.
The literature on dynamic optimality describes a number of such “useful structures”. One example is “dynamic finger”: loosely speaking, if successive searches are for values that are close to each other, then search should be efficient. A special case of this is “sequential access”: if we just search the values in increasing order from 1 to n, then search should be really efficient.
In this paper we describe a new kind of structure, that has been studied in depth in mathematics, but not in the context of BSTs. We show that search sequences should be executable efficiently by a BST algorithm if they are free of some fixed pattern. See this page for a description of patterns. This generalizes the “sequential access” mentioned before in a different direction, and it also includes other known structures as special case.
We explore this topic in detail in the paper, giving some general results, and some stronger results for special cases.
3. Greedy is an almost optimal deque
Again, studying input with some structure, we look here at a sequence of insert and delete operations into a BST, with the restriction that we can only delete or insert “at the two ends”, that is at values that are the current maximum or minimum of the values in the tree. Such sequences are called deque sequences. It was conjectured a long time ago by Tarjan, that splay trees can execute deque sequences very efficiently (in linear time overall). This is not yet known, but the known results are so close to this, that the difference is only theoretically interesting (which makes it even more interesting :). In this paper (and the previous one) we look at a different algorithm, introduced independently by Lucas and Munro a few years after splay trees, and later extended by Demaine, Harmon, Iacono, Kane, and Pătraşcu. We show that this algorithm (called Greedy BST) is almost linear on deque sequences. This “almost” again hides a small factor that is only of theoretical interest, although a little bit larger than the corresponding factor known for splay trees. The details are in the paper.
July 24th, 2015 — Uncategorized
Here is a post on a lighter topic. Being a big fan of unusual sweets and candies from faraway places, ranging say from this to this, I was excited when Bemmu Sepponen offered a free trial package from his Candy Japan service , with the condition that I write a review about it. Thus this post.
The service is simple, you sign up, (pay), and every now and then he sends you some surprise selection of candies from Japan.
the package I received is a neat black box, with dimension around 3*10*20 cm. Inside there were three bags of sweets.
1st (Candemina Cola Hard Gummies)
This contains some ring-shaped gummi-candy, that is both cola-flavoured and sour at the same time. The unusual thing is that the whole (quite strong) flavour is released very quickly in the first second of chewing. This is quite pleasant, but immediately afterwards it becomes almost tasteless for the remaining 15-20 seconds of tedious chewing.
2nd (Caplico Mini)
This is a sort of faux ice cream, a foamy, strawberry-flavoured thingy inside a soft cone. Overall way too sweet and artificial.
This is the most interesting of the three, a kind of roasted caramel, with both texture and shape very similar to popcorn, but (obviously) very different taste, but still pleasantly not too sweet.
Overall, I was happy with the box, as were those around me who tried them. Honestly, I find the price a bit too high to become a customer, but otherwise I found it quite nice as a service, and it seems to be working very well as a business idea.
December 26th, 2014 — Links, Reading
(disclaimer: the book cover images in this post are “Amazon Affiliate” links. If you click them and buy a book, I will receive a few cents in the form of an Amazon coupon. If you dislike this idea, you can simply remove “mybookbox-20″ from the end of the URLs.)
Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. A series of observations about the world economy, capitalism, free trade, planning, development, inequality in society, etc. – the chapter titles sound contrarian and provocative, but the opinions are mostly common sense and argued with clarity although not equally convincingly – many of the statements are challenging mainstream economics dogma, but the author does construct a few strawmen too. One of the recurring themes is that economic systems are never of a “pure” kind as described in textbooks, instead, they are both messier and more interesting. Readable, pragmatic, non-ideological. Some of the ideas reminded of NN Taleb’s work.
Michael Nielsen: Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. The book describes several recent (and some less recent) developments and projects that have changed how scientific research is done and to some extent make us think about what scientific research even means. It presents a compelling vision of the future of science and it is a “calls to arms” to embrace and popularize these new ideas and techniques, and to invent new tools.
More concretely, the book talks about open access publishing (e.g. arXiv), open source software (e.g. Linux), online collaboration (e-mail, wikis, forums, but more specifically the recent Polymath project), “data-driven intelligence” (predicting influenza, automated translation, Sloan Digital Sky Survey), citizen science (protein folding, amateur astronomy), etc. etc. The book also discusses limitations and obstacles, often due to misaligned incentives in the academic world. The book is excellent, it inspires and motivates — two minor criticisms: selection is somewhat arbitrary – could have included other projects too, and the overall narrative that all these fit into a common thread is slightly forced.
David Gale: Tracking The Automatic Ant: And Other Mathematical Explorations. A book that contains puzzles, interesting mathematical ideas and results, short opinions on various aspects of mathematics. The topics are loosely connected, the format is similar to that of Martin Gardner’s or Douglas Hofstadter’s collections. A common theme throughout the book is the exploration (often computer-assisted) of large mathematical structures, such as the solution space of a puzzle, particularly when classical approaches fail. It is one of the best recreational mathematical books I’ve ever read, covering a rich variety of topics, difficult to summarize in a review.
Donald E. Knuth: Digital Typography. A collection of Donald Knuth’s articles and essays on the topic of digital typography, mostly related to the creation of the TeX and Metafont systems, and the transformation of digital typesetting (esp. of math-y text). Wonderful in its attention to detail (there is a chapter on the letter S). I found the linebreaking algorithm and the design of the AMS Euler font in collaboration with Hermann Zapf especially interesting, as well as the whole idea of parametrized fonts. We get glimpses into the intricacies of typography, where nothing is as simple as it seems from the outside.
Masha Gessen: Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. I read the German translation of this biography of Grigory Perelman. What I liked:
– the fascinating story of Perelman with interesting facts and details I didn’t know before
– interesting facts about the school system and the academic world in the Soviet Union
What I didn’t like:
– fascination with Clay Prize and other external accolades
– the author somewhat unsympathetic to Perelman and to mathematicians in general – taken out of context any personal quirk can be made to look monstrous (I quite agree with this review here).
– occasional “narrative fallacy”, attempt to make various facts fit together smoothly
William Aspray: John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing. A book about the life of John von Neumann and his contributions to several fields, with special focus on computer science and numerical calculus, as well as about his work in science planning and management. Unusually for a biography, the book gets quite a bit into technical details (which I liked), and tries to trace the evolution of von Neumann’s thinking on various topics. The book focuses on his work and not so much on his personal details, when it does “get personal”, it is almost universally positive, leaving any unflattering aspects to other biographers.
Andrew Hodges: Alan Turing: The Enigma. Less worldly-smart and successful than von Neumann, but his work just as important to the foundations of computer science. Also the intellectual interests of these two men are somewhat parallel, going from mathematical logic to the theoretical foundations of computing, to the engineering task of actually building computers, and finally to biological systems.
This biography is incredibly detailed and well documented – not only discusses technical ideas, but also sets the broader context of the intellectual currents of the day. Describes the life and thoughts of Alan Turing (reconstructed mostly from letters) to an extreme level of details. The parts about the work at Bletchley Park on breaking the Enigma are very interesting. Also the parts about the Colossus and Ace computers – the technical details and decisions are interesting but in some places the administrative back and forth gets bit too tedious. In summary, this is a definitive biography that paints a comprehensive picture of Alan Turing.
Martin Aigner, Günter M. Ziegler: Proofs from THE BOOK. A collection of some of the most beautiful mathematical proofs. I was at first suspicious that such a concept would work as a book, and the selection is of course somewhat subjective, but the book is in fact excellent, and seems accessible for the most part from high school level onwards (requiring significant effort of course, but repaying it well). I think this book is one of the best possible gifts to anyone who loves mathematics.
Andreas M. Hinz, Sandi Klavzar, Uros Milutinovic, Ciril Petr: The Tower of Hanoi – Myths and Maths. I reviewed this book for William Gasarch’s column.
Most people remember the Tower of Hanoi puzzle as something quite simple, interesting mainly as a textbook example of recursion, and as an example of a problem where powers of two appear naturally. In reality, as the book demonstrates, the Tower of Hanoi has a very rich mathematical structure, and as soon as we tweak the parameters we surprisingly quickly find ourselves in the realm of open problems. The rest of the review can be read here.
Günter Ziegler: Darf ich Zahlen? (German). A nice, light-hearted book amout mathematics and the process of doing it, also containing anecdotes about famous mathematicians. Makes a nice present and good for learning German.
Früher war noch viel mehr Lametta (German). A pleasant collection of short-stories loosely related to Christmas. As the stories come from different sources and styles, the difficulty of their German is very uneven – so it is quite good to test and improve language skills.
Michael Kohlmeier: Sagen des klassischen Altertums (German). The myths and stories of classical Greek antiquity retold in an informal style with insight and wit. Based on a popular radio and TV show of the author. The book is quite amazing, and good for practicing German, although the informal style does not necessarily make it very easy to read.
Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis. A classic about which nothing can be said that hasn’t been said already. I found it rather disturbing in places. Also, of the classics, maybe among the more easily accessible in German. 4/5
Paul Auster: The Invention of Solitude. A novel developing some autobiographical themes and stories – the first half is in a straightforward memoir format, the second part is a fictitious “book of memories”, written in third person and mixing storytelling with essayistic parts of varying depth. Overall, the main theme of the book is fatherhood and the relationship between father and son. As such, I found it insightful and moving in places, with good stories to tell, a bit sentimental and overwritten in others. 3/5
Charles Bukowski: Women. The thinly veiled autobiographical (anti)hero of the book, Henry (Hank) Chinoski describes himself as M Sade without the intellectual depth. Maybe the same applies to this book and Bukowski himself. A more generous critic calls him the great de-Disney-fier of our age. A bit annoying narcissism, good storytelling and turns of phrase. 3/5
Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle. I found this book both very clever and very entertaining. On the surface a short and funny Dr Strangelove story – describing as an aside possibly the best fictitious religion ever created, and throwing in concepts that haunt you long after finishing the book: karass, duprass, granfalloon, wampeter – several layers of satire intermixed with insight on human character and society. Like all good magic realism, walks the fine line between cynicism and significance. 5/5
December 16th, 2014 — Links, Reading
October 22nd, 2014 — Tech, Visualization
Cuckoo hashing is a simple and elegant method for collision-resolution in hash tables. The resulting dictionary data structure is easy to implement, quite efficient in practice and it is also interesting theoretically (there are several interesting open questions about its properties).
The demo is loosely inspired by Jason Davies’ Bloom filter visualization. Here is my old post about Bloom filters.
September 3rd, 2014 — Puzzle
I made a small logic game/puzzle called Recursi. It consists of independent “memory” games with two pairs of cards each. These games are nested recursively, behind each game there is a card of the game at a higher level. If you find two pairs, you get to flip the card at a higher level behind the current game. Sounds like fun? :) Go ahead and try it. Recursi, a fractal memory game.
December 28th, 2013 — Links, Reading
Here are a bunch of articles/essays/comments I read, enjoyed and bookmarked in the past two years – some of it is deep, some shallow, some funny, some sad, some inspiring, some cynical. Let me know if you find something particularly interesting here, or if you particularly dislike some article. Enjoy! (previously)
Mandelbrot, Zhang, Wolfram, Higgs, Erdős, Erdős and Graham, Erdős, Erdős, Frankl, Linus, Alan Kay, Coppola, Bellard, Kolmogorov, Taleb+, Taleb-, Zeilberger
Derek Sivers: It’s all who you know?
Leo Babauta: Tips to simplify
Philip Guo: Productivity tips
James Altucher’s Anti-tips (funny writing)
Legacy of the 60s
Comments/threads: great comeback, too old, burnout, quality
The Hardy-Littlewood axioms of collaboration
Luc Devroye’s authorship commandments
How to read mathematics
How to write mathematics
Emancipatory aspects of mathematics
The prime gap story
Bernard Chazelle: the Algorithm
Timothy Gowers: examples first, trivial mathemathics
Oded Goldreich: advice, stories, awards
Gödel’s letter to Neumann
Erick Carreira’s “work ethic” letter
A critical reading of Hamming’s “you and your research”
Douglas Comer: CS identity-crisis, measuring research
A common statistical error
Dijkstra: teaching formal methods, course organization
Terence Tao: what is good math, partial progress, rigour
James Mickens: The Slow Winter – witty and insightful essay on computing speed
What’s wrong with C++ (in summary)
Programming and personality traits
Early job ads: MS, Amazon
A cold look at startup jobs
Solutions to spam
Real artists ship
Pinboard architecture and interview
Zed Shaw programming advice
37signals writing on bootstrapped business
Comments/threads: social networks and TV shows, acquihire, ERP software, niche-vs-universal
Contronyms: 1 2 3 4
Robert Dickau’s tweets – an explosive concentration of self-deprecating humor
Raganwald: the internet made me sad today
G.G. Marquez: The solitude of Latin America
Top ten reasons to play Go
Chris Lightfoot: real pirates and copyright “pirates”
Miles Davis blindfold listening
Bernard Chazelle: My 29 favorite pieces by Bach
The worst argument in the world
Moravec’ Paradox – the only lucid explanation I know of why perception is harder than chess
Notch: I love you, dad
If by Whiskey…
Slavoj Zizek: Shostakovich in Casablanca
William Gibson: the Net is a waste of time (1996)
Linds Redding: A lesson in perspective
Charles Bukowski: People empty out
Nassim Taleb: Understanding, or Convexity
Doron Zeilberger’s favorite quotes
Ribbonfarm: Hacking the non-disposable planet
December 22nd, 2013 — Links, Reading
I was fortunate to read quite a few good books in 2013. Here is the list of them except for those that I couldn’t finish or which I thoroughly disliked. Initially I wanted to write just a one-sentence blurb about each, but I couldn’t resist expanding them into short summaries/reviews in some cases. (Here was my 2012 reading list.)
If you have read any of these books and came away with an opinion totally different from mine, I would love to hear about it.
(disclaimer: the book cover images link to Amazon using “Amazon Affiliate” links through my Bookbox project. This project earns me a few dollars a month that (partially) offsets the hosting cost of the website. If you dislike this idea, please remove “mybookbox-20″ from the end of the URLs.)
Steven Callahan: Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea. This short book tells the story of Steve Callahan, who suffered a sailing accident a few hundred miles off the coast of the Canary Islands, then floated on an inflatable liferaft for 76 days, until reaching Guadeloupe on the other side of the Atlantic, together with the small ecosystem that developed around the raft. The book is fascinating, both the descriptions of concrete events (the obtaining of water and food for survival, maintenance of the various systems on the boat) and the philosophical commentary about hope and despair, solitude, man’s place in nature, etc. are amazingly well-written. One of the best books I read in 2013.
Eric Weiner: The Geography of Bliss. The admittedly light-hearted question that the book explores is what makes people in different parts of the world happy – the answer could have been simply “it depends on the person” – but what we get instead is a travelogue of sorts through a number of faraway places, where the author meets and interviews people, sharing with us his own observations intermixed with “a new study has found…”-type of pop science and with tired stereotypes about each place. I wanted to like the book, the text has a nice flow and the author does make some amusing and occasionally some insightful observations – but for the most part I found it shallow and didactic, lacking any real curiosity or reflection, the author trying too hard in some parts to sound cute, in other places writing in an annoyingly defensive style – overall, a somewhat entertaining read, but quite pointless, unfortunately.
Albert Hofmann: LSD: My Problem Child. This is a leftover from 2012 which I forgot to write about last time. The book is a short autobiography of the chemist who inadvertently invented LSD – an interesting story well told, and an exceptionally clear and objective look at the effects of the invention, its potential, its dangers, and the ramifications to society. We meet interesting characters, including Timothy Leary, Ernst Jünger, and Aldous Huxley, and we follow the author and others on trips into to the mountains of Central America where they go through various psychedelic experiences.
Richard P. Feynman: The Meaning of It All. The book contains the transcripts of three public lectures given by Feynman in 1963 for a non-specialist audience. In his usual entertaining, anecdotal style, he discusses many loosely related topics, such as the scientific method, the value of science to society, religion, pseudoscience, dictatorships, conspiracy theories, and so on. Overall, a nice and accessible read, but less deep and original than his “Surely you are joking..” book, and apparently published against Feynman’s stated intentions.
Karen Pryor: Don’t Shoot the Dog! The book talks about techniques for getting dogs, cats, dolphins, and other animals to do (or not do) various things. The methods are gentle, they are mostly based on well timed reinforcement signals and rewards, and the research and philosophy behind them seems sound. As the author points out through many examples, some of the techniques are no doubt useful when trying to influence human behaviour too (our own or of others) – for example when teaching children, or when trying to (un)learn some habit. There are also insightful observations about certain behaviors and phenomena, such as e.g. superstitions – overall, however, I found the method slightly oversold – and some of the case-studies involving human situations seemed a bit manipulative.
Maria Tatar: The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. After recently re-reading some of Grimm’s fairytales in original, I was curious to read Tatar’s analysis, as she appears to be a leading expert on the work. While it is interesting, the book also disappoints slightly: by “hard facts” she really means just that – we learn a bit (too much) about the biography of the brothers, the author dispels many myths about the way the tales were collected and edited, and she gives a detailed catalog of all the types of characters, heroes, villains, beasts, magical items, as well as the different turns of plot appearing in the tales. Few comments are made on deeper psychological symbolism of the tales, when such interpretations are mentioned, it is usually only to ridicule them. In large parts of the book, the author convincingly proves what the tales aren’t, without giving alternatives as to what they are instead. All in all, I found the book to be a well researched scholarly work, but (a bit) less colourful than expected.
Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The autobiography of Nelson Mandela, his personal life and the anti-Apartheid struggle: detailed, inspiring, written in an understated, no-nonsense tone and with exceptional clarity, radiating with optimism and strength on every page – one of the best non-fiction books I read in 2013.
Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight. I cheated here and I read this in the original Hungarian, but according to reviews, the English translation isn’t too shabby either. This is one of just about three or four novels written by Antal Szerb, who died tragically in 1945 and who was also an exceptionally erudite scholar and historian of literature. From such an author one might expect a “scientifically” written novel, but contrary to expectations, the novel is accessible and playful – it has subtle twists of plot, it shows deep understanding of character, and it never seems to take itself too seriously. This was by far the best fiction I have read in 2013.
John Maynard Keynes: The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It is a rare opportunity to have one of the decisive historical moments witnessed and narrated by one of its sharpest and most eloquent contemporaries. In this case, this is exactly what happens, as Keynes gives a detailed account of the Paris Peace Treaty, an opinionated description that has more or less become the canonical interpretation of the historical event. He mixes keen observations on the characters (and character flaws) of the main participants, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson, and others, with a detailed analysis of the economic contents of the treaty and its projected consequences. The description is interesting for the back-of-the-envelope estimates Keynes makes, and for the detailed snapshot of how the world economy looked around the time of the first world war. The predictions about the untenability of the treaty and the ensuing catastrophes have mostly stood the test of time, further cementing Keynes’ reputation.
Richard Brautigan: Trout Fishing in America. An amusing short novel written with dry humour, containing small vignettes about various characters in rural (and occasionally in urban) America. One source of the humour is the usage of “trout fishing in America” in several ways: in its original meaning referring to the act itself, as the name of a person, as an adjective, etc.. Some reviewers compare Brautigan to Hemingway – which seems accurate – but the sensation one gets from this small book is that of an angrier, less focused but sometimes more imaginative author.
Richard P. Feynman: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. This is a selection of Feynman’s personal correspondence, lovingly compiled by his daughter Michelle. We can follow through Feynman’s career and personal life, learn about his working style, travels, everyday routine, opinions on science, education, politics, etc. Some of the letters contain advice to colleagues or strangers, others are replies to fans, dispelling misunderstandings in physics, with patient and crystal clear explanations, some are diary-like accounts of events, others concern official business. Especially funny are the letters that show Feynman’s ambivalence towards accolades such as honorary degrees, academy membership and the Nobel prize. Also interesting are Feynman’s big picture explanations of theoretical physics and science in general, as well as his reviews of elementary textbooks – particularly his poignant criticism of the “New Math” of the 60s. The text is obviously less polished than his work written for a general audience, but nevertheless, it gives a glimpse into Feynman’s amazing (and amusing) personality, sharp mind and intellectual honesty, and occasional goofiness. The collection is worth a read even just as an example of a no-nonsense, precise style of letter-writing.
E. F. Schumacher: Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher’s 1973 book was ahead of its time in many ways, bringing up topics which today are known as sustainable development, environmentalism, anti-consumerism, simple living, organic movement, “go local” movement, regional development, decentralisation, etc. Some of the predictions in the book proved to be slightly inaccurate, and some of the statements might be overly general, but these detract only marginally from the overall message, which seems as relevant as ever and at a large scale as ignored as ever. The author’s main point is a criticism of global economy which he sees to be on a collision course and of prevalent economic philosophies that can be summed up as a pursuit of growth at all costs and an “idolatry of gigantism”. In Schumacher’s words “the most striking thing about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little”. He sees as illusory the desire to create, in Gandhi’s words “systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good”. He exposes many inherent contradictions of mainstream economics and proposes sensible (if sometimes naive) alternatives. Memorable concepts of the book include: small scale operations, meta-economics, Buddhist economics, appropriate technology, intermediate technology. An inspiring and timely short book.
Imre Lakatos: Proofs and Refutations. This acclaimed book contains a series of Socratic dialogues on the nature of mathematical discovery and proof, using Euler’s polyhedron theorem as a running example. The dialogues explore how definitions and theorems co-evolve, the role of formal and informal arguments, and most importantly, of local and global counterexamples. The dialogue format makes the book a pleasant read and also allows the author to present differing historical and modern views of mathematics.
Jean-Dominique Bauby: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. A short memoir whose text was composed by selecting letters one-by-one, the author only being able to use his eyelids, as he suffered from locked-in-syndrome caused by a massive stroke, and died shortly after finishing the book. Some of the chapters depict small episodes from his earlier life, others explain his situation after the accident and his strategies for dealing with it. Tragic, hopeful, poetic, occasionally humorous, humbling. One of the most powerful books I’ve read.
Keith Johnstone: Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. Impro seems to be the classic book on improvisation theatre, but it is a very enjoyable read for someone with little knowledge (and perhaps interest) in theatre too. Firstly it offers a glimpse into the mechanisms of a strange but beautiful microcosm (that of improv theatre) – it is always fun to learn about the concerns, the “rules of the game”, the system of values of some subculture totally different from our own. Furthermore, any field of human activity has its own metaphors, it influences thinking in its own way, and it spills over its boundaries, giving a toolset for its practitioner to tackle problems in other domains of life – thus taking a shot at becoming a “theory of everything”. This book is improv’s attempt at doing so, and not an unsuccessful one at that. We find insights about improvisation, acting, status, spontaneity, creativity, storytelling, concepts that are relevant to any human interaction, and the author has interesting things to say about all of them. The last part is a bit different, as the author discusses his experiences about teaching improvisation with masks, and relates it to trance-like states and hallucinations – slightly bizarre, but powerful and interesting nevertheless.
Werner Herzog: Conquest of the Useless. Herzog’s very entertaining diary from the time of production of the movie Fitzcarraldo. Mirroring the plot of the movie itself, the production is an endless ordeal in the Peruvian rainforest, apparently dragging on from failure to failure until the eventual completion. Besides the forces of nature and the bureaucratic obstacles, the erratic behavior of lead actor Kinski sets the tone for the book. Herzog gives a detailed account of the over-the-top everyday events of the production, as well as his own equally over-the-top commentary and reflections.
Douglas R. Hofstadter: Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies. In this book Hofstadter describes the research projects of his group, on attempting to model human thinking and problem solving. Rather than looking at the full messiness of the real world, the projects concern abstract microworlds, such as arithmetic puzzles of a certain kind or anagrams of words. Some of the studied problems are interesting in their own right – starting from a simple puzzle in recreational mathematics, deeper concepts are reached, others are thought-provoking due to their open-endedness, such as the analogies between strings in the CopyCat project. The approaches appear original and unconventional compared to mainstream AI or machine learning research – although they mostly fall short of efficiently solving the given problems. Hofstadter insists that his main goal was not efficiency (he doesn’t have much praise for world champion chess programs) – but rather to approach the problems in psychologically realistic ways. This might explain why there is no mention of computational complexity or other central concepts of computer science – however, without this connection, the study of heuristics seems a bit naive. This shortcoming is less apparent in the domains where the objective itself is ill-defined – for example when looking for a “reasonable” or “nice” continuation of a sequence of numbers. Here I think that it would have been beneficial to relate to other classical concepts, such as Kolmogorov complexity.
The most interesting parts of the book are those in which the author speculates about the workings of the mind, analyzing the way humans might approach and solve certain puzzles. Hofstadter has a knack for introspection, deconstructing a thought process into small explicit steps that seem entirely plausible on reading but which would be performed mostly unconsciously. These parts have a similar feel to Pólya’s “worked problems” in his books about problem solving. However, when the insights are translated into programs something is lost – while Hofstadter sees intelligence as an emergent phenomenon, the programs still appear to have his high level ideas for the particular domain “baked in” – something he vigorously criticizes in other projects. Taking all this into account, the results produced by the programs are rarely surprising.
The book is accessible and slightly more focused in scope than other books of Hofstadter, although there are some loosely related digressions. Some chapters are devoted to criticism of other research projects of the time – these seem to be mostly of historical value only. The “letter spirit” concept in the last chapter is fascinating on its own, but again, it tells more about the creativity of Hofstadter and his colleagues than about creativity or intelligence in general.
Seymour A. Papert: Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas. The book describes Papert’s vision of learning and the profound change that computers can bring about in education, especially at an early age. Inspired by Piaget’s theories and starting from his own experience of “constructively” learning mathematical concepts while playing with gears as a child, Papert presents a set of loosely connected ideas about curriculum-free, explorative learning and creativity, particularly related to mathematics. One of these ideas is to avoid a complete separation of the abstract thinking from physical, sensory-motor experiences. Another idea is that of a participatory, spontaneous, almost unconscious learning. As a concrete embodiment of these concepts, Papert advocates the use of his Logo system (turtle geometry) as an instrument for exploration. Such a use of computers by children is markedly different both from playing videogames and from using educational software that are little more than glorified textbooks: Logo lets children discover geometry in a natural, “local” way, it also effortlessly teaches modular, procedural thinking, and other algorithmic concepts. Papert’s vision is compelling, and a certain aspect of it has become reality: computers have indeed become powerful and widely available to children. However, the sweeping transformation in education that Papert envisioned has not been realized. While there are many options available to individuals, the mainstream trend has hardly been towards experimentation and imaginative tinkering, and more towards passive consumption and endless distractions. The “angry birds” of today seem to have far less potential than the turtle geometry of the 60s. Having already been fond of Logo, I still learned a great amount from the book, and I found it both informative and inspiring.
Marc Kac, Gian-Carlo Rota, Jacob T. Schwartz: Discrete Thoughts: Essays on Mathematics, Science and Philosophy. A beautiful collection of essays on the nature of mathematics and the state of its various subfields. A recurring theme is the interplay between experimental mathematics, applied fields, and the mathematical problems they inspire on one hand, and abstract, internal development of mathematics on the other – unsurprisingly, the debate on the relative merits of the two sides goes back to the ancient Greeks. The book is indeed less indiscreet than its companion, the quality of the writing and the depth of the essays is slightly uneven, but most parts of the book are interesting and stimulating.
Richard Branson: Losing My Virginity. The autobiography of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson – the story of his childhood and youth, his first business ventures, the early days of Virgin Music and Virgin Records, mainstream success after discovering Mike Oldfield: the ups and downs of building his business empire, personal life events, his sailing, ballooning and other stunts, the different domains into which his group expands and his philantropic initiatives. Overall, very entertaining and well written, interesting to learn about his approach to business, and the particularities of different businesses, as well as about his everyday life – a book filled with optimism and energy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile. After having thoroughly enjoyed Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan, I was eagerly awaiting the latest installment from Taleb – this time on the concept that is the opposite of fragility, which is, as he insists, not just robustness, i.e. resistance to damage, but antifragility, i.e. the capacity to actually improve in the face of mild stress, or of random perturbations. Taleb explores this deceptively simple concept in depth, bringing examples from economics, biology, medicine, ethics, and everything in between.
When it comes to Taleb’s three main books, many (though not all) of his critics admit the sharpness and originality of his ideas. Many are put off, however, by the strongly stated opinions and the aggressive, often self-congratulatory tone. On the contrary, I actually found these traits contributing to the charm of the book, it is enjoyable to read how commonly held beliefs are plain wrong and how everyone is stupid (as long as we imagine a “those present excluded” fineprint while reading, of course) – however, I was slightly annoyed by some of the repetition, and some of the case studies which seem more shaky than the others. The book gets much better towards the second half – Taleb is at his best in his philosophical asides and anecdotes involving Fat Tony, Socrates, and other characters.
One memorable concept in Taleb’s overall work is “domain dependence”, the failure to transfer competence from one domain to another – there is the story of the businessman paying the porter to lift his luggage, only to lift weights in the hotel gym ten minutes later. Taleb doesn’t suffer from domain dependence, in fact he has the opposite, which (in the spirit of his book) is not the ability to see connections between related fields, but the compulsion to draw analogies between any two things, sometimes even when there aren’t any or when they are obvious. Overall, I think the book contains many deep and counterintuitive observations, it gives a powerful perspective of looking at phenomena in terms of convexity or concavity of payoff, as well as excellent and usable practical philosophy. As all of Taleb’s writing, it challenges assumptions and provokes thinking – the fact that some parts are thought through less than others reduces its value only marginally.
Lucian Boia: History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness. This review refers to the Romanian original, “Mit şi istorie în conştiinţa românească”, which has been a bestseller in Romania and is credited with starting a current of “demythologization” of historiography. It has provoked heated debates and prompted adjectives ranging from the “courageous” and “first-of-its-kind” to the “unscientific” and “unpatriotic”. Considering its reputation, the book does relatively little myth-busting. The author finds questions such as “what really happened eight hundred years ago” less interesting than those of the type: “what did people a hundred years ago think about what really happened eight hundred years ago”. Questions of the second kind are easier to answer, and as Boia argues, they often hold more relevance to who we are and how we think today than questions of the first type.
As such, the book is not so much a Romanian history, but rather a “metahistory”, a history of Romanian historiography, which might sound like a dry topic, but the book is anything but – Boia describes in an entertaining, often subtly ironical style the mechanisms of myth-making, and traces how the dominant views of historical events evolved throughout the ages. These views were influenced partly by the intellectual currents of the time, partly by the political realities and necessities of each era. Especially interesting is the study of how the perceived significance of historical figures fluctuated throughout the ages.
The mythologization of history is not unique to Romania of course, but Romanian history does seem to offer a combination of a scarcity of resources for certain periods (resulting in a relative lack of consensus among historians), and a tendency (especially during the later part of the communist era) of considering historiography a tool for “nation-building”, legitimization of the regime, and a means of diverting attention from everyday (economic, social) problems. As Boia vigorously points out (and as some of the reactions to the book illustrate), the legacy of these trends largely lives on today. Boia’s book thus makes the important step of presenting historical myths for what they are, and treating them unemotionally, as prime objects of study. Due to the fine observations, intimate knowledge and sympathy towards the sources, and intellectual honesty displayed, the book is an excellent read, although possibly slightly confusing for someone not immersed in Romanian history.
Tony Hsieh: Delivering Happiness. An autobiography of sorts of successful web entrepreneur, Tony Hsieh. The first part of the book is more personal, telling the story of the founding of his companies, different business decisions, ups and downs of running the businesses and some personal life events. The tone is lighthearted and the stories are funny. The second part focuses more on the approaches in managing zappos.com, and includes a codified “company culture” document with ample discussion on its margin. While the ideas about fanatical customer support and encouraging group cohesion within the company are interesting and probably of practical value to entrepreneurs, as the book progresses, the tone becomes disturbingly cult-like – despite claiming the opposite, the text steers into a pretentious and generic business mumbo-jumbo.
Avinash K. Dixit, Barry J. Nalebuff: Thinking Strategically. The book sets itself the goal of analysing elements of strategy in the abstract with illustrative examples from history, politics, business, sports, movies, or parenting. This might sound like a lofty approach, but the book is in fact excellent, and the examples are analysed with insight and humour. The book can be read as an introduction into elementary game theory, and it is one of the most engaging attempts at this that I have seen. It explains with clarity concepts such as sequential and simultaneous games, mixed strategies, the basics of voting systems, bargaining theory, and incentive schemes. While the book is readable for a wide audience, it doesn’t shy away from including some mathematical details when describing the structure of certain systems.
Alternatively, the book can be read as a collection of practically useful tactics and tricks one can employ in diverse situations. I find it hard to imagine how one could memorize all such “patterns”, but some simple concepts, such as that of “brinkmanship” are certainly memorable.
Johan Huizinga: The Waning of the Middle Ages. (originally written in 1919)
This beautiful and influential book paints a broad picture of the Late Middle Ages, describing a world of contrasts and extreme passions, in which a feeling of decadence and insecurity, a “sombre melancholy” permeates everything. In Huizinga’s Middle Ages religious excess, solemn rituals, ceremony and pompousness are omnipresent but slowly becoming superficial, turning into parodies of themselves. In Huizinga’s words, the culture of the era is “overripe”, about to be fundamentally transformed (although Huizinga sees the transition to Renaissance differently from many other authors). Behind the carefully maintained idealized facade, we get occasional glimpses into the violent realities of life in the Middle Ages – often irrational, sometimes grotesque or comical.
The main premise of the book is that contrary to popular imagination, people in the Middle Ages had a worldview and a set of ideals and aspirations vastly different from ours. The book explores many aspects of this worldview, pertaining to love, religion, politics, art, life and death. After convincingly arguing and illustrating this thesis, in the end, the book still leaves us with the feeling that at a deeper level, or at least in its fragments, the mentality of the Middle Ages was not so alien afterall. The book is insightful and opinionated, the descriptions are vivid, they rely on ample documentation, and the arguments are compelling. The author is at his best when interpreting works of art. However, given the goal of capturing something as fuzzy as the general mood of an era six hundred years ago, the book is perhaps closer to an extended literary essay than to a precise scholarly work. Many of the passages are thought-provoking, although many of the ideas have long become part of the mainstream narrative about the Middle Ages in the time since the book was written.
Andrew S. Grove: Only the paranoid survive. The author shares his insights about the IT industry and about working in technology, drawn from his successful career as CEO of Intel. Interesting topics include the story of the pentium bug, the decision of Intel to focus on microprocessors instead of memories, the transformation of the computer industry from vertical to horizontal stratification (although, arguably, later the opposite has also been happening). The recurring theme is that of “inflection points” in technology, periods of fundamental change, in which, well, “only the paranoid survive”. The author describes subtle signals that hint at an impending change and describes strategies for dealing with it. Drawbacks of the book include the slight repetitiveness, and somewhat self-congratulatory tone, but overall I found the book insightful and also prescient for a work written almost twenty years ago.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Harmless People. We get a glimpse into the life of the Bushmen (also known as San people) in the Kalahari Desert during the 50s, when the author spent long periods of time living among them. The book describes in a simple, sympathetic manner the Bushmen’s everyday life, their hunting-gathering activities, their family life and customs, their music and celebrations, as well as their views of life and the world. There’d be little to be unsympathetic, observing the simplicity, gentleness and naivety, as well as the extensive practical knowledge about the surrounding natural world of these people. The book is beautifully written, the author avoids any trace of condescension or stereotypical portrayal – she observes the characters respectfully and lovingly and describes them in a precise and vivid way. In the last chapter the author revisits the places and people thirty years later, to find the world she earlier described in an irrevocably transformed state. She finds this transformation to be mostly for the worse: the lives of most of the characters have taken tragic turns, the traditional way of life has proven powerless against the encroaching modern society, and the implicit social order previously observed has broken down. Despite the sobering analysis, the book ends on a note of optimism about the future.
Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. A writer, a computer scientist, and two illustrators make a comic about the foundations of mathemathics, telling embellished stories about the lives of Bertrand Russel, Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel and other great logicians, with cameo appearances by the authors themselves. How can the end result be? The answer is: surprisingly (or predictably) good.
Did you read some of these books and have a different opinion? Let me know in the comments.
What was the best book you read in 2013?