“Selected Papers on Computer Science” is a poorly curated collection of essays, speeches, and articles authored by Donald Knuth (the father of algorit“Selected Papers on Computer Science” is a poorly curated collection of essays, speeches, and articles authored by Donald Knuth (the father of algorithmic analysis in computer science). There are a few interesting chapters that stand on their own, but as a whole, this is more-or-less a dump of random memos that is hard to recommend to even the most die-hard CS enthusiast.
The book starts off on a high note. The first few chapters focus on the relationship between computer science and mathematics, and for the most part, they’re pretty insightful. Knuth is a mathematician by training, and he does a good job explaining how computer science both draws on - and inspires - mathematics. Some of his examples are unnecessarily technical and discussed well past the point of pedagogical value, but he occasionally makes some interesting comments:
Sometimes this tolerance for diversity is a weakness of computer scientists, because we don’t try as hard as we should to find uniform laws. But sometimes it is a strength, because we can deal fluently with concepts that are inherently nonuniform. (110)
Of course, almost all of these essays are available via internet, and things go downhill pretty quickly from there. A few chapters in, you’re presented with four transcribed talks on the relationship between "theory and practice" that are, in places, word-for-word identical. Later on, there’s an examination of the extent to which Babylonians thought algorithmically, which - I’ll be the first to admit - sounds really interesting, but turns out to be nauseatingly, way-too-caught-up-in-the-details boring.
The same can be said of the last few chapters in the book, in which Knuth muses, in WAY too irrelevant, low-level terms, about how fun it used to be to write assembly code for his IBM 650:
RUNCIBLE had four version called AX, AY, BX, and BY, where X stood for object code that invoked subroutines for floating-point arithmetic while Y stood for object code that used the 650’s optional floating-point hardware; A stood for SOAP output, while B stood for directly loadable machine language problems punched five per card (bypassing the need for assembly). (232)
… you get the idea.
The preface suggests the book “assembles under one roof all the things (Knuth has) written about computer science for people who aren’t necessarily specialists in the subject,” but this statement feels like an after-the-fact attempt to find a common theme to tie together a random collection of un-vetted memos. Sure, a few of the chapters were interesting, but on the whole, this "book" was a huge letdown.
“People like myself look at mathematics as a device for articulating computer science, but there is of course a converse relation: many mathematicians see computer science as an instrument for developing mathematics.” (116)
“It has often been said that a person does not really understand something until after teaching it to someone else. Actually a person not really understand something until after teaching it to a computer, i.e. expressing it as an algorithm.” (10)
“Methods are more important than facts. The educational value of a problem given to a student depends mostly on how often the thought processes that are invoked to solve it will be helpful in later situations.” (176)...more
Summary “Free Software, Free Society” is a collection of essays by Richard Stallman - author of eMacs, primary contributor to the GNU operating systemSummary “Free Software, Free Society” is a collection of essays by Richard Stallman - author of eMacs, primary contributor to the GNU operating system project, and the outspoken founder of the “free software movement”. The book serves as primarily as an introduction to the free software movement, an enumeration of its tenets, and a defense of its principles. As an introduction to Stallman’s values, the book is decent; as a defense of those values, it fails spectacularly.
While you’ll leave with a good understand of what Stallman believes, it’s never quite clear why you should, too. What’s left is a ranty compilation of redundant essays. A few are interesting in isolation, but taken together, they constitute a collection that’s ultimately not worth your time.
The Four Fundamental Freedoms Stallman believes there is an ethical imperative for all software to be free, where “free" refers to freedom, not price (free as in "free speech”, not free as in “free beer”). For software to be free in the Stallman sense, it must grant its users the ‘four fundamental freedoms':
0. Freedom to run the program 1. Freedom to study and modify the program (i.e. access to the source code) 2. Freedom to redistribute the program 3. Freedom to distribute modified versions
Stallman goes to great lengths to explain what each of these freedoms imply. Unfortunately, he spends almost no time explaining why they're fundamental, inviolable rights in the first place. Stallman is more into asserting than he is into explaining, and as a result, his philosophy falls flat.
Silliness and Strawmen While Stallman doesn’t present many arguments in favor of his worldview, his does offer a few rebuttals directed at his opponents. These range from silly to simplistic, and strawmen are strewn about.
A one point Stallman argues that the sharing of programs is “the fundamental act of friendship among programmers” (29), so by not letting people share code, we’re basically preventing them from being friends. Later we’re told that “signing a typical software license agreement means betraying your neighbor.” (47) Some of these statements are so silly as to not merit a response.
On the strawman front, Stallman spends a lot of time attacking what he calls the “economic argument,” which, by his estimation, goes like this: “I want to get rich… and if you don’t allow me to get rich by programming, then I won’t program. Everybody else is like me… and then you’ll be left with no programs at all!” (44)
Frustratingly, the real economic argument is one of the most potent practical rebuttals to Stallman’s ideas. Stallman’s actual opponents might argue that the option to keep your software proprietary creates an economic incentive, which results in the development of more software than you'd otherwise get. Unfortunately, Stallman’s imaginary opponents are a simple-minded bunch, and the misrepresented arguments presented make for irrelevant rebuttals.
Copyleft is Cool Fortunately, Stallman doesn’t restrict himself to philosophy. He also delves into the practical measures he’s taken to further his cause, and copyleft - a type of software license - is perhaps the most interesting example.
Copyleft “uses copyright law, but flips it over to serve the opposite of its natural purpose: instead of a means for restricting a program, it becomes a means for keeping the program free.” (13) When you publish your software under a copyleft license, you effectively release it along with its source code, and you don’t place any restrictions on what people do with said code. Except for one: if someone else use your source code in their program, then they’re legal bound to make their program ‘free and copylefted.’
Copylefted software is “free,” and it carries the “virus of freedom.” It’s a neat idea, and one that’s gone a long way towards furthering Stallman’s cause.
Some Interesting Bits A few chapters I genuinely enjoyed. In "Misinterpreting Copyright - A Series of Errors," I was surprised to learn that, when the constitution was being drafted, the idea that authors are entitled to a copyright monopoly was considered - and rejected. Instead, the founding fathers decided that intellectual property rights are just licenses granted simply so that society as a whole benefits. In other words, “copyright is not a natural right of authors, but an artificial concession made to them for the sake of progress.” (111)
There’s also an interesting discussion on the open source movement ("Why Open Sources Misses the Point of Free Software"). It turns out Stallman isn’t a big fan of open source, since it only cares about ‘practical values.’ In his words: “open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.” (84)
Conclusion When all is said and done, “Free Software, Free Society” is a frustrating book.The writing is ranty; the essay selection is hap-hazard and redundant; and Stallman’s philosophical musings are disorganized and shallow. While some of the material is genuinely interesting, as a whole, “Free Software, Free Society” is a mediocre collection of unconvincing essays. I respect Stallman’s intentions and intensity, but conviction alone is unconvincing....more
Poignant and uplifting, “Everyday Matters” is a short but unique graphic memoir in which Danny Gregory tell us, in doodles and handwritten commentary,Poignant and uplifting, “Everyday Matters” is a short but unique graphic memoir in which Danny Gregory tell us, in doodles and handwritten commentary, how he rediscovered meaning in the world by taking up drawing.
After his wife becomes disabled in a terrible subway accident, Gregory falls into a cycle of depressive self-pity and guilt. Life becomes a "meaningless hell" (8), until one day - one a whim - Gregory starts drawing. The experience has a profound impact on him: "I took my time and suddenly I zoned out. My mind went blank, my breathing slowed, and when I finally stopped to look at my page, I was amazed that I had managed to create something so beautiful." (13)
The rest of the memoir is more of an exploration of art, meaning, and the beauty of everyday life than it is a biography. The tone is personal, and the writing is thoughtful, if meandering - a sort of dreamy, stream-of-consciousness internal dialogue.
Gregory’s thoughts are interesting and insightful; I especially enjoyed his speculations on why drawing the world around him gave it meaning: "We lump people into things and experiences and categories… it’s efficient but it strips the world of texture and chance. … What I began to see by drawing is that everything is actually special and unique and interesting and beautiful." (17)
The book is unique in the way Gregory interweaves his words and drawings. The store is told in as many pictures as sentences, and this juxtaposition of words and images gives an unforgettable texture to the story told and thoughts conveyed.
“Everyday Matters” is a memorable, uniquely-told tale that left me inspired to return to drawing. It’s a bit light on content - expect to finish it in less than an hour or two - which makes it hard to recommend, but if you can borrow a friend’s copy, it’s well worth your afternoon....more
"Hyperbole and a Half" is hilarious. I mean, laugh-out-loud funny - and I mean laugh-out-loud funny. Expect to alternate between fits of giggles and o"Hyperbole and a Half" is hilarious. I mean, laugh-out-loud funny - and I mean laugh-out-loud funny. Expect to alternate between fits of giggles and outright hysteria.
As far as subject matter is concerned, most of the stories fall in one of three categories: "stuff that happened when I was a kid" (ex: going to extraordinary lengths for cake), "dogs" (ex: my dog has down syndrome), and "how my brain works" (ex: ways I try to convince myself I'm not actually a bad person). Keep in mind, however, that it’s not the subject matter that makes this book – the magic’s in the presentation.
"Hyperbole and a Half" is a book / cartoon hybrid, insofar as the writing is interspersed with silly, almost childish drawings, and as much of the humor comes from the ridiculous cartoons as from the frank, clever writing. Despite having the apparent artistic ability of a retarded five-year-old, Allie Brosh has an uncanny ability to capture body language in caricature, and her drawings complement her stories perfectly.
It also makes for some awesome narrative layering: there's Allie the grounded, rational narrator, and then there's Allie the crazed, freakish stick figure. The former is your friendly guide; the latter is the star of the show. "I sit down and tell myself how I'm going to start cleaning the house every day," narrator Allie says. Stick figure Allie puts it differently:
My only complaint, then, is that it's all over too soon. If you don't pace yourself, you'll probably make it through all 369 pages of picture-text in about two hours. It's also worth noting that about half of the content comes from the similarly-titled blog, so you can get at some of the material there for free.
Still, I unhesitatingly recommend this book. It's that good. Sharp writing and hilarious drawings join forces, and delightful ridiculousness ensues. Don't miss out - go read "Hyperbole and a Half" now. ...more
"The Enjoyment Of Mathematics" is one of those books that's either really easy to recommend, or really easy to not recommend. Not really interested in"The Enjoyment Of Mathematics" is one of those books that's either really easy to recommend, or really easy to not recommend. Not really interested in math? This book will definitely not change your mind. Simply curious about mathematics? Even so, stay away. "The Enjoyment of Mathematics" will make your eyes glaze over unless you either majored in mathematics, or kinda wish you did. In which case - this book is pretty dope.
This is essentially a collection of proofs. The chapters vary as far as the subject matter is concerned, but the format of each chapter is pretty consistent: 1) An easily digestible, page-long introduction to a problem. This might include historical background, of simply some toy examples that exhibit a property we're interested in exploring. 2) The statement of a theorem. 3) A full, uncompromising proof of said theorem, along with all its supporting lemmas. 4) A brief discussion of why this result motivates related questions.
Your reaction to the above paragraph is a good indicator as to whether or not you'll enjoy this book. If you're still interested, there are three further considerations: 1) how interesting are the problems? 2) how good are the proofs? 3) how difficult is the subject matter?
For the most part, the problems are pretty awesome. Most of the material falls under the umbrella of geometry and number theory, though the authors also touch on combinatorics, set theory, and topology. Notably, this means that none of the material presupposes any mathematical knowledge beyond the high school level. The star of the show is the reasoning, not the results.
Here are some representative chapters, along with the theorems they're concerned with proving:
The Sequence of Prime Numbers: there is an infinite number of primes; the set of numbers that have a reminder of 2 when divided by 3 include an infinite number of primes; for any given N, it's possible to find N consecutive composite numbers
Some Maximum Problems: the square is larger than all rectangles of equivalent perimeter; the geometric mean is always smaller than the arithmetic mean; the equilateral triangle has a larger area than any other triangle inscribed in the same circle
Pythagorean Numbers and Fermat's Theorem: the derivation of a formula for all Pythagorean triplets; proof by infinite descent that "a^4 + b^4 = c^4" has no integer solutions
"Periodic Decimal Fractions: the period of a/b can be no longer than the number of remainders that are prime to b; the length of the period when a/b is written in decimal form is the smallest n for which 10^n - 1 is evenly divisible by b; all reduced fractions a/b with the same denominator have periods of the same length; Fermat’s little theorem
The proofs themselves are, for the most part, quite good. The authors never make large leaps in logic, so with enough effort, it's always possible to follow along. My main complaint here is the some of the proofs are totally unmotivated. More than once I found myself thinking "sure, but how does this get us any closer to the result we're after?" It all makes sense in hindsight, of course, but it's often nice to outline a difficult proof before taking the plunge.
Finally - this is a difficult book, though never an impossible one. You're unlikely to enjoy this book unless you've previously encountered at least a few of its results, so some of the material makes for easy reading (think: the infinitude of the primes, perfect numbers, and diagonalization in set theory). For the most part, however, you'll have to pay close attention, and a few of the chapters are downright difficult (ex "The Indispensability of the Compass for the Constructions of Elementary Geometry"). Fortunately, the difficulty is a function of the material, not its presentation, so it never feels unfair. If you take the time to make sure you agree with the correctness of every last bit of reasoning, expect to make it through between 10 to 20 pages an hour.
In sum, "The Enjoyment of Mathematics" is a demanding but enjoyable foray into proof-based math. Again, this is not your everyday pop-math book aiming to convince non-believers that math can, in fact, be fun. "The Enjoyment of Mathematics" reads more like a textbook than anything else - and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Presupposing only a minimal foundation of background knowledge and using nothing but deductive reasoning, this book presents varied and ingenious proofs of some fascinating results. As "best of" collection of proofs, then, this book will delight some - and sedate others. If you truly enjoy mathematics, there's plenty of enjoyment to be had here. If not, this book will only further the conviction that its title is a contradiction in terms. ...more
Kevin Dutton's "The Wisdom of the Psychopaths" would have made for a terrific Rolling Stone article. It presents a fun thesis - that being a psychopatKevin Dutton's "The Wisdom of the Psychopaths" would have made for a terrific Rolling Stone article. It presents a fun thesis - that being a psychopath, at least in moderation, can be useful; it's full of cheeky, colorful language ("if there's one thing psychopaths have in common, it's the consummate ability to pass themselves off as normal, everyday folk, while behind the facade - the brutal, brilliant disguise - beats the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator"); and it does a decent job of interweaving interviews with research and commentary. Unfortunately, it does not make for a terrific book. "The Wisdom of the Psychopaths" tries to stretch 20 pages of interesting content across 200 pages of paper, and the end result is a diluted book that makes for an easy but ultimately unsatisfying read.
First, it's worth mentioning that Dutton's definition of psychopathy differs from the official line set forth by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM defines psychopathy as synonymous with "Antisocial Personality Disorder," which is defined as "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the right of others." (51) Dutton and many of his colleagues argue that this definition overemphasizes social deviance and ignores the "core affective impairment, the shadowy emotional twilight, redolent of the psychopath." (52) Psychopaths aren't necessarily deviant or violent - rather, they're distinguished by a total lack of empathy, and curiously, a complete absence of anxiety. They're characterized by a "grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, and the manipulation of others." (9) The recipe for a killer? Sometimes - but Dutton will argue that there are more psychopaths in the workforce than there are locked up bars.
Like any other psychological "condition", psychopathy lies on a spectrum, and of course you can be ruthless, manipulative, and free of compunction without being a killer. Indeed, in many professions, psychopathic traits can be a boon. For instance, if you're a surgeon, businessmen, spy, trader, or soldiers, you're likely to find yourself professionally advantaged if some of you psychopathic knobs are cranked a bit higher than normal. High-powered business executives in particular tend to score high on the psychopathy scale: one study found that "a number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals." (21)
Dutton's central thesis, then, is essentially that being a psychopath "can be good for us, at least in moderation." (xvii) He's certainly qualified to make such a claim: Dutton is research psychologist from Oxford, and it's clear he's done his research here, both as a professor and as a journalist. Some of the studies he cites are really interesting: for instance, you'll learn that psychopaths can detect people with a history of trauma after watching a 10 second clip of said person walking, or that, unlike most people, psychopaths have no emotional response (as indicated by physiological signals) to words like "cancer" or "rape." These studies serve to describe the psychopathic persona, and they constitute the highlights of the book.
Unfortunately, the studies are sparse and often feel disconnected from the rest of the book, as they're flanked by a glut of over-narrated interviews and forays into territories the author doesn't much understand, or at least doesn't have the time to develop (evolutionary biology, game theory, and epigenetics, to name a few). The topics can get pretty random. For instance, there's a chapter that examines similarities between psychopathy and religion, which I actually rather enjoyed - the author makes a rather compelling case that the biblical figure of Paul is as psychopathic as they get. The book concludes by arguing (stating?) that psychopathic traits are useful in certain contexts, and that it's the ability to turn them on and off that makes for a functional psychopath. I'm inclined to agree - though I think almost everybody would, so this point makes for a pretty underwhelming conclusion.
In sum, "The Wisdom of the Psychopaths" is a mixed bag. It's often interesting, mostly thanks to its subject matter, and it makes for a pleasant read, due to the author's jazzy, flamboyant writing style. Unfortunately, it's light on substance and lacking in structure - so while this might be an interesting book, it's not really a good one. If you're stoked on psychopaths, this is probably the most entertaining-yet-accurate resource out there. If not - well, just wait for the Rolling Stones article to come out.
The empathy scores of college kids have dropped 40% in past 3 decades.
Psychopaths are less helpful when directly asked for help, but are more likely to volunteer help when they observe someone in need (say what!?)
Most psychopaths are non-violent, and most violent psychopaths were sexually abused and otherwise mistreated when children. ...more
This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.
The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally sc
This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.
The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "save us!"
... and I'll look down, and whisper "no."
Thus opens "Watchmen," a dark and weighty graphic novel about an assortment of uncomfortably human costumed vigilantees. From the outset, it's clear that Watchmen is not just another comic book. Sure, it's about superheroes, and yea, it's full of pictures and word balloons. But don't judge a book by its cover – or its subject matter and medium. Watchmen is a dark, complex, and artfully crafted work fiction that will leave you enthralled, exhausted, and altogether entertained.
The tale is told from the perspective of the semi-crazed and nihilistic Rorschach - a violent, lonely vigilante with a disturbed past and a disturbing lack of remorse when it comes to killing those he deems morally corrupt. Our story begins with the apparently unmotivated murder of a retired former watchman, and our narrator - sensing a deeper ploy at play - steps in to investigate.
His inquiries bring him into contact with a number of fascinating characters: the cold, emotionally distant Dr. Manhattan - the result of a particle accelerator experiment gone wrong; Laurie - the Silk Spectre - his depressed young lover who's living in the shadow of her superhero mother; Jon - the Nite Own - a lonely and reticent technophile who struggles to find an identity outside of his outfit; and Adrian - Ozymandias - an idealistic genius who's capitalized on his former fame to become one of the world's richest men. Each character is uniquely appealing, distinctly defective, and (mostly) memorable.
Watchmen is lovingly crafted, with fantastic writing an stunning visuals to match. The illustrations are delightfully intentional: scenes are often interwoven, with dialog from one scene serving as metaphorical commentary for the visuals of the next. The camera pans purposefully to accompany the narration, and the art style maintains a consistently gritty feel. Chapters are separated by fictional newspaper clippings, police arrest records, and handwritten notes that serve to flesh out the backstory and add depth to this fictional universe. It's readily apparent that this graphic novel was crafted with the utmost care.
All in all, Watchmen is a mature, wildly inventive tale, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. This is a decidedly dark piece of fiction, but not superficially or gratuitously so. Morality is muddled, the cast is crazed, and the plot - while slightly out there - will keep you glued to your seat. Don't let the apparent subject matter fool you: Watchmen is a cartoon about superheroes about as much as Breaking Bad is a sitcom about a high school chemistry teacher. In short - leave your preconceived notions at the door, and be sure to check it out. ...more
"Shipping Greatness" is a guide to 'shipping software' in the broadest possible sense. Chris Mey walks you through the software development process fr"Shipping Greatness" is a guide to 'shipping software' in the broadest possible sense. Chris Mey walks you through the software development process from start to finish, and it’s readily apparent that he knows what he’s talking about. As far as content is concerned, then, the book is pretty comprehensive. Unfortunately, when it comes to presentation, "Shipping Greatness" comes up short. This is a how-to guide where the author just can't seem to decide on who his target audience is. As a result, he tends to dive too deeply into widely divergent topics, to the extent that pretty much everybody is bound to find a lot of detailed instructions they'll never have the opportunity to follow.
This particular topics Chris tackles include: finding and pitching product opportunities, writing specs, managing software development, debugging code, and finally, shipping finished software. If pressed, I'd say that these stages are described from the perspective of a product manager, though again, perspectives shift frequently and without cue. "Shipping Greatness" is best appreciated if you think of it as a broad overview of how products are developed at establish, respected software companies (Chris hails from Google and Amazon, and he uses lots of examples). In this sense, the book is very informative.
Unfortunately, Mey is not out to inform: he's out to instruct, and he tends to get very specific with his advice. This is exactly how to create a revenue forecast model in excel, he tells you. That is how to use the omnigraffe to create wireframes - and here are a dozen screenshots to walk you through it. If you're an entrepreneur examining a market opportunity, knowing how to make a good revenue model is critical. If you're a product manager or designer, you might – might! – find his step-by-step guide to using omnigraffe useful. But for anyone else, you'll be left scratching your head - and skipping ahead.
To conclude, then, "Shipping Greatness" has a lot of legitimate, field-tested knowledge to offer. The content is there: distracting digressions aside, you'll learn a lot about how great software companies do their thing. Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to recommend it. The book tries too hard to teach too much, and the author's didactic efforts are obstructed by his inability to focus on a target audience. "Shipping Greatness" is too preoccupied with the roles of various people where it’d be better off aiming to explain complex processes. It tries too hard to teach you disparate specific lessons without bothering to ground them in a coherent narrative framework, and as a result, it's not always clear what the takeaways are supposed to be. That is to say, there's goodness to be had - you'll just have to work for it. ...more
"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is a collection of autobiographical short stories, narrated by the renowned and famously eccentric physicist Rich"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is a collection of autobiographical short stories, narrated by the renowned and famously eccentric physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman is brilliant, and his intellect shines throughout: he's insightful and on point, and his insatiable, childlike curiosity will have you smiling from start to finish. He's also strikingly bro-ish and fantastically weird: a prankster, a womanizer, and a troublemaker - your crazy, spontaneous friend that doesn't take himself too seriously and is down to try anything once. As a result, "Surely You're Joking" is a lot of fun.
Feynman’s adventures are delightfully crazy. He joins a Samba band in Brazil, makes best friends with a hooker in Vegas, and causes endless amounts of trouble picking locks while conducting nuclear research at Los Alamos. He gets himself hypnotized, get in a fistfight in a bar, and spends hours in a sensory-deprivation tank trying to hallucinate (spoiler alert: Marijuana helps).
That said, he is a physicist, and this is a book about his life - not necessarily just a collection of crazy adventures. So, expect a bit of nerdiness: you'll read about fixing radios, doing biology research, and math-offs between professors. These chapters are rarely exciting, but I enjoyed them nonetheless: the fact that this is the same person that was stealing the front door off a fraternity just a chapter ago make Feynman that much more of an interesting character.
"Surely You're Joking" manages to be easy and entertaining without being meaningless. Feynman isn't a great writer, but his no-nonsense style and childish sense of wonder make him an endearing narrator nonetheless. Most of his stories are a lot of fun, and even those with a boring premise are enlivened by his colorful personality. A vicarious intellectual that's also an adventurous troublemaker, Feynman is a rare breed of awesome. This collection of stories is bound to inspire you to be the same, and for that alone, it’s worth a read.
Quotes "Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools... THAT, I CANNOT STAND!" (284) ...more
Overview "The Quantum Universe" is an approachable book that attempts to explain the mathematical ideas underpinning modern quantum theory. In this regOverview "The Quantum Universe" is an approachable book that attempts to explain the mathematical ideas underpinning modern quantum theory. In this regard, it is quite different than most other books of its kind. Take Brian Greene's brilliant "The Fabric of the Cosmos," for instance: whereas Greene attempts to provide intuitive descriptions of quantum phenomena, Cox and Forshaw attempt to provide intuition for the mathematics of quantum theory. In other words, whereas most pop modern physics books strive to explain how the quantum world behaves, "The Quantum Universe" is more concerned with explaining the mathematical formalisms we use to describe quantum behavior.
Complex ideas are explained by analogy If this sounds a bit intimidating, don't worry: there's very little math to be had. As in every good science book for the masses, the authors explain by way of analogy. You're invited to think of "quantum interference" as water waves canceling each other out; of "propagating probability waves" as a set of clocks moving through space; and of logic gates in semiconducters as simple hydraulic valves. For the most part, the analogies are enlightening, and they make a lot of intuitive sense.
That said, this book IS a lot more technical than most of its compatriots. If you've never picked up (and read through!) a popular presentation of modern physics, this probably isn't the place to start. The quantum world is a strange place, and you'll want to make sure you've had some exposure before you let Cox and Forshaw guide you through the particulars. On the other hand, if you've ever felt like every pop physics book tends to rehash the same analogies - and you're ready to probe a bit deeper - "The Quantum Universe" is a breath of fresh air.
Short summary of content About half of the book is spent explaining electron propagation. The authors do a great job of explaining deeply mathematical ideas without invoking any complex equations. Schrodinger’s wave equation is describe in terms of clocks: "numbers in the complex plane" are replaced by the "clocks," complex addition amounts to "combining clocks," and so. We're told to imagine a propagating probability wave (read: traveling electron) as the aggregate sum of a bunch of winding, traveling clocks, and to find the probability a certain electron will show up at a certain place, you learn to add up all of its clocks and take the height of the resulting hour hand. It all sounds pretty confusing and nonsensical, summarized in a paragraph like this, but the authors really do use this analogy to great effect.
The rest of the book uses this simplified model of electron propagation to explain some pretty deep concepts. The highlight of the book comes when the authors effectively derive the Heisenberg uncertainty principle using nothing but said "clocks" and a clever bit of reasoning. The authors go on to explain why electrons only swirl about atomic nuclei in quantized (read: "discrete") energy levels; they introduce you to the Pauli exclusion principle, and use it to explain why we don't simply fall through the floor; and they attempt to convey the utility of quantum theory by explaining how it led to the development of semiconductors.
Conclusion The authors probe ambitious depths, and for the most part, they succeed. Unfortunately, they sometimes over-reach. Certain topics, it seems to me, simply cannot be penetrated without fully delving into some serious mathematics. Clocks can only do so much, and as a result, you often have no choice but simply take the authors’ word as they ask you to make one unmotivated leap of faith after another.
Despite this occasional wand-waving, "The Quantum Universe" is a great book. Most books like it focus on describing the quantum weirdness we observe, they as such, they tend to leave you a bit bewildered. Here, Cox and Forshaw focus on explaining how it we're able to model this weirdness, and as a result, you'll leave feeling like it at least makes sense that someone out there really understands this stuff. "The Quantum Universe" appeals to your intuition without dumbing down its subject matter, and if you're willing to delve a bit deeper than usual - and you're still able to surface at the end - you'll come out with a profoundly deeper understanding of the weird, weird ways in which our world works.
Quotes: "Quantum theory is perhaps the prime example of the infinitely esoteric becoming the profoundly useful" (2)
"The job of quantum theory should be to predict directly observable things... it should not be expected to provide some kind of satisfying mental picture for the internal workings of the atom, because this is not necessary and it may not even be possible." (13)
"We have learned that our perception that objects move smoothly from point to point is, form the perspective of quantum theory, and illusion. It is closer to the truth to suppose that particles move from A to B via all possible paths." (90)
"...point-like particles are really of no size and to as 'What happens if I split an electron in half?' makes no sense at all - there is not meaning to the idea of 'half an electron'." (116)
Appendix: what is a "propagating probability wave"? To begin with, let's briefly talk about "wave-particle duality." The idea here is that electrons sometimes behave like particles, and other times behave like waves - in other words, electrons are both particles and waves. Huh?
The idea that electrons are particles is fairly intuitive. It’s pretty easy to imagine an electron point orbiting an atomic nucleus. In fact, it turns out that electrons look like particles whenever they're observed: that is, we never detect electron waves. We only detect electron points.
On the other hand, electrons sometimes behave like waves, in that they 'interfere' with one another. If you shoot a bunch of electrons at two tiny side-by-side holes in front of an electron-sensing plate, the electrons hit the plate in a 'striped' pattern. It's as if the electrons were waves - some entering through the right hole, and others through the left - where at some places, the waves cancel out, and at others, they combine. The end result of this ' wave interference' is the observed striped pattern.
But it gets even weirder that this: apparently even a single electron interferes with ITSELF. Let’s say you shoot an electron through the two holes. Once it hits the plate on the other side, you shoot another. You repeat this for a while. At the end of this one-electron-at-a-time experiment, you'll see the same stripped pattern as before. Again, here electrons were all fired in series, and yet, at the end we observe a pattern that indicates interference.
To explain this so-called double-slit experiment, we assume that a single electron is actually many places - at the same time. Essentially, we assume that an electron is a PROBABILITY wave. An electron travels as a sort of "wave of possible electron locations." The wave is "highest" at locations the electron is most likely to be found. And as soon as the wave is observed, or interacts with something, the electron simply manifests itself at a SINGLE location, where the location was picked, at random, from the probability distribution.
This basically means that it makes no sense to ask "what path did the electron take to arrive at the location of measurement"? In a sense, it took EVERY path touched by its probability wave, and in doing so, it "interfered with itself. "
Weird? Totally. True? Almost certainly. Interesting? That’s for you to judge, but cool shit, as far as I’m concerned. ...more
"Children of the Mind" is a pretty weird, mostly entertaining, and often surprisingly thoughtful bit of science fiction. Taken as the conclusion to an"Children of the Mind" is a pretty weird, mostly entertaining, and often surprisingly thoughtful bit of science fiction. Taken as the conclusion to an ambitious series, it's found wanting: as the fourth and final book in "Ender Quartet", it resolves all of the obvious conflicts raised over the course of the series, but leaves a number of deeper questions unanswered. Taken in isolation and on its own merits, however, "Children of the Mind" is an interesting novel that probes some weighty philosophical questions, and as such, it deserves a place among its fantastic predecessors.
The book mostly follows Ender's two "children" - Peter and Valentine - as they strive to save their adopted home planet, Lusitania. Valentine scours space in search of the origins of the descolada virus, as Peter attempts to exert political influence in hopes of convincing Starways Congress to recall the planet-destroying Lusitania fleet. All the while, Jane - a sentient computer intelligence with the ability to instantaneously transport ships across the universe - is slowly dying, as Starways congress conspires to shut off the ansible communications network in which she lives.
The plot managed to hold my attention, even if it never quite captured my imagination in the same way its predecessors did. Part of this might have to do with the fact that things get pretty weird - even by science fiction standards. Two of our primary protagonists are, after all, beings created by Ender's mind during instantaneous cross-galaxy traversal induced by a hyper-intelligent computer program. The author does a pretty good job of making sense of some of this madness, but to be frank, I could have done without it.
That said, this weirdness does sometimes lend itself to some interesting philosophical speculations, and Orson Scott Card uses his mind-children to good effect. Valentine likes to remark that she isn't a real being, since she's but an extension of Ender's soul. Peter struggles with similar thoughts, and tries to reconcile this lack of identity with his self-evident conscious rationality. And of course, Jane - probably the most interesting complex character of the bunch - continues to fascinate as an 'artificial intelligence with a soul.' Consciousness, identity, and dualism are common themes. And even if Card's treatment is unfocused and confused, it does add some depth to what would otherwise be just another weird piece of science fiction.
In sum, Children of the Mind is a weird but thoughtful novel. It makes for a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to a great series, but it's a worthy read on its own right. Card raises some interesting philosophical questions, and - even if he struggles to answer them - it's fun to speculate alongside his protagonists. ...more
"Frogs Into Princes" three-part introduction to NLP (short for "Neuro Linguistic Programming"), a form of therapy conceived of in the 1970s. NOverview
"Frogs Into Princes" three-part introduction to NLP (short for "Neuro Linguistic Programming"), a form of therapy conceived of in the 1970s. NLP is founded on the premise that "the kinds of problems that people have usually have nothing to do with content; they have to do with the structure, the form of how they organize their experience." (47) The central thesis of NLP, then, is that the best way to help others overcome emotional, behavior, and psychosomatic problems is to discern the processes by which they organize and access their thoughts and feeling and alter it.
It's ironic, then, "Frogs Into Princes" fundamentally fails to convey it's central message due it's lazy structure and disorganized presentation. Yes, process matters - as in therapy, so in literature. "Frogs Into Princes" is essentially a transcript of a three-day seminar. It's as if the publisher came across a recording, transcribed it in its entirety, stamped on a nonsensical title, and called it a day. In the forward, the authors somewhat guiltily admit that this is "a record of a story that was told", and that they would like to "reassure the reader that the non-sequiturs, the surprising tangents, the unannounced shifts in content, mood or direction... had a compelling logic of their own in the original context." And perhaps they did. But here, they only serve to confuse and otherwise detract from what might have otherwise been an interesting message.
Onto content, then. The "book" is "organized" into three parts, each corresponding to one-day of the seminar. The subject matter of each day is somewhat disconnected, though the central theme of "content-free process therapy" is evident throughout. Let's examine each day in turn.
Day 1: sensory experience
Day one is all about sensory experience, and how to read the subtle cues that reveal the systematically different ways we each process, store, and access our feelings. The idea here is that different information is stored using different "representational systems" (visual, auditory, etc). The hope is that once you've determined which "representational system" a person uses, you can then employ this system to better communicate with them.
How, then, do people cue you in on how they're accessing information? Primarily with eye movements, it seems. If they look down and to their right, they're accessing kinesthetic feelings; up and to their left, visually constructed images; and so on. Besides having a sort of pop-psychological appeal, this idea has something awesome going for it: it's a testable hypothesis.
Unfortunately, the authors don't bother citing empirical evidence. Instead, they call out a person or two from the crowd, and give forceful, guided demonstrations: this is what you were thinking, Mary. Isn't it? (um... well, yea, I guess it is). I guess I didn't find these primed, sample-size-of-one experiments very convincing. In fact, I did my own sample-size-of-one experiment with an unsuspecting subject: the results were less than spectacular. Some cursory googling indicates that experimental evidence is weak. There might be a rough correlation between eye movements and representation system, but otherwise - nothing to see here.
Day 2: changing personal history and organization
Day two is a bit more concrete, from a therapeutic perspective: the author's start to talk about things to do in a therapeutic setting to help people resolve their issues. The authors start by noting that "the relationship between your experience and what actually occurred is tenuous at best... Made up memories can change you just as well as the arbitrary perceptions that you made up at the time about 'real world events'." (97) The idea is that you can change the way people cope with unpleasant memories by giving them new ways to process those memories. The methodology here can be summarized as content-free guided meditation, with a dash of pavlovian conditioning.
The therapist begins by asking the client to go back in time and relive the unpleasant experience. While this is happening, the therapist "anchors" the memory by say, touching the client in a certain way, or by taking on a certain tone. The same thing is done with a behavior or emotional tool the client wishes they'd had at the time. Finally, the therapist "binds" the emotional resource to the unpleasant memory, essentially telling the client: 'next time you feel or see this (the bad thing), feel this (the resource anchor)'.
Note that throughout, the therapist has no idea what the "bad thing" is, nor what the "good resource" is - he or she simply gives content-agnostic process instructions. This approach doesn't really resonate with me personally, but I can imagine it might work for some.
Day 3: finding new ways
Whereas day 2 is mostly concerned with overcoming phobias and coping with past memories, day 3 is all about modifying your current behavior. The main practice advocated here is called "reframing" - a "specific was of contacting the portion or part... of a person causing a certain behavior to occur." (138) The point of reframing is to "find out what the secondary gain of [and undesirable] behavior is," (138) with the ultimate goal of creating a new, alternative pattern to replace the old one.
The NLP therapist attempts to "speak privately with your unconscious mind" (152) in, as always, a content-free manner. The interaction goes something like this: "let's give the code name X to the pattern of behavior you presently have, which you would rather replace with something else more appropriate." (139) "Go inside for a moment and ask a question... Your job... is simply to attend to any changes you sense in your body sensations." (140) "The question I would like you to ask is 'will the part of me responsible for pattern X communicate with me in consciousness?'" (141) and so on. The therapist is simply a sort of consultant, instruct the client on how to proceed, without ever directly discussing the content of "pattern X."
Again, this circuitous, procedural way of going about things doesn't really appeal to me, but that's not to say it doesn't work. Indeed, this way of 'speaking with your unconscious mind' is not unheard of in therapy. It turns out to be foundation for an established therapeutic model called "Internal Family Systems," where consciousness is viewed as being composed of various "parts" or unconscious "sub-personalities." That said, this isn't a strong vote of confidence for "Neuro Linguistic Programming". Indeed, the primary criticism of IFS is that there is no empirical evidence to back it up - a concern that, it seems to me, is strikingly applicable here.
If it doesn't work, it's because you don't believe
So, we've discussed the content of NLP. The question now is: does it work? As I've now alluded to more than once, the authors don't offer much in the way of objective evidence. Support is provided in the form of stage demonstrations, wherein willing participants are forcefully pushed towards whatever outcome the instructors desire. As stated in the preface, this might have been compelling in the original context, but here, even if instructive, it's rather unconvincing.
Perhaps what irked me most about this book, however, is the extent to which the authors describe their theory as unfalsifiable. Some quotes are in order: "You will try it and it won't work. However, that's not a comment on the method. That's a comment about not being creative enough in the application of it, and not having enough sensory experience to accept all the cues that are there [emphasis mine].” (164) Elsewhere, we're told that there are only two ways to fail with this material. One is to be too rigid. The other is to not 'believe in it': "If there's a part of you that really doesn't believe that phobias can be done in three minutes, but you decide to try it anyway, that incongruence will show up in your non-verbal communication, and that will blow the whole thing" (178) The implication, of course, is that if NLP isn’t working, you're either not doing it right, or you simply 'don't believe.'
This is nothing more than the excuse of the ineffectual miracle worker, who defends himself by arguing that prayer always works. And when it doesn't, it's because you never really "believed" in the first place. This kind of reasoning drives me absolutely crazy. Outside the realm of pure mathematics, if a theory is unfalsifiable, it's absolutely uninteresting. This kind of solipsistic reasoning about abounds, and greatly detracts from the author’s credibility throughout.
"Frogs and Princes" is full of interesting, underdeveloped, and unsubstantiated ideas. The idea of content-free therapy is interesting and provocative, and I do hope it's been examined in greater detail elsewhere. I'm intrigued by the idea of representational systems, and I like the authors' constant reminders that "when you do something that doesn't work, do something else" (160) - even if complete flexibility detracts from the viability of NLP as a well-defined therapeutic model.
As a work of informative piece of nonfiction, however, the book fails. Thoughtful organization and carefully reasoned arguments be damned: this is hurried transcript of a three-day seminar, and it shows. The end result, even if interesting, is ultimately unconvincing. Maybe NLP works - or maybe, it works for you. In any event, this probably isn't the best place to find out. ...more
Said with all the usual disclaimers: "The Count of Monte Cristo" is "Pride and Prejudice" for boys. Set in early 18th-century renaissance France, theSaid with all the usual disclaimers: "The Count of Monte Cristo" is "Pride and Prejudice" for boys. Set in early 18th-century renaissance France, the majority of the book follows the social lives and machinations the Parisian upper class - except that, instead of being concerned with topics such as manners, upbringing, and marriage, "The Count of Monte Cristo" is about justice, revenge, and generally being an insane badass.
Given its age, "The Count of Monte Cristo" – or at least, the translation I came upon – makes for a surprisingly easy read. The language is straightforward, and once you’ve taken a second to sort out all the names, the plot is pretty easy to follow. You probably already know the outlines: Edmond Dantes - an innocent, hardworking, and naive young sailor - is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes after years of suffering, and dedicates the rest of his life to raining total and complete destruction upon the lives of those who ruined his life.
In short, this is one of my favorite stories of all time: Dantes’ vendetta is utterly engrossing, and the Count of Monte Cristo – think of him as a coldly calculating, vengeful 18th century batman – is a terrific and fearsome protagonist. That’s not to say the book isn’t without its flaws: most of the supporting characters are somewhat one-dimensional, sometimes the plot gets a bit contrived. The count’s revenge is insanely elaborate, and in general, things tend to work out just a bit too neatly.
But that’s a trifling concern. This isn’t meant to be a historical account, or a profound, nuanced examination of what it means to be human. This is a thrilling adventure novel, meant to entertain – and on that front, it succeeds gloriously. “The Count of Monte Cristo” is an enthralling, inventive tale, featuring one of the most badass protagonists ever conceived. No offense, Jane Austen, but Alexander Dumas - for the win!...more