Books I read in 2014

(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.)

Part I.

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.

Part II.

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.

Part III.

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.

Part IV.

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

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Katie on 01.20.15 at 11:40 pm

Digital Type sounds like an interesting one