Technical memento mori

The Latin phrase memento mori means “remember that you must die.” It has been adopted into English to refer to an object that serves as a reminder of death, especially a skull. This is a common theme in art, such as Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St. Jerome in His Study.

Saint Jerome in His Study (Dürer)

I keep a copy of the book Inside OLE as a sort of technological memento mori.

Inside OLE by Kraig Brockschmidt

At some point in the 1990’s I thought OLE was the way of the future. My professional development as a programmer would be complete once I mastered OLE, and this book was the way to get there.

Most of you probably have no idea what OLE is, which is kinda my point. It stands for Object Linking and Embedding, a framework that began at Microsoft in 1990. It was a brilliant solution to the problems it was designed to address, given the limitations of its time. Today it seems quaint. Now I’m doubly removed from OLE: hardly any Windows software developers think about OLE, and I hardly think about Windows development. The thing I was anxious to understand deeply was irrelevant to me a few years later.

Despite my one-time infatuation with OLE, throughout my career I have mostly focused on things that will last. In particular, I’ve focused more on mathematics than technology because the former has a longer shelf life. As I quipped on Twitter one time, technology has the shelf life of bread, but mathematics has the shelf life of honey. Still, man does not live by honey alone. We need bread too, even if it only lasts a day.

Related post: Remembering COM

Rigor and Vigor in Mathematics

I just started reading Frequency Analysis, Modulation and Noise by Stanford Goldman. The writing is strikingly elegant and clear. Here is a paragraph from the introduction.

Rigorous mathematics has a rightful place of honor in human thought. However, it has wisely been said that vigor is more important than rigor in the use of mathematics by the average man. In the particular case of this volume, the amount of rigor will be used that is necessary for a thorough understanding of the subject at hand by a radio engineer; but when it appears that rigor will confuse rather than clarify the subject for an engineer, we shall trust in the correctness of the results established by rigorous methods by the pure mathematicians and use them without the background of a rigorous proof.

The back of the book says  “Professor Goldman’s exposition is both mathematically and physically enlightening and it is unusually well written.” So far I agree.

(I found the 1967 Dover paperback reprint of the original 1948 hardback at a used book store. I looked at Dover’s site while writing this and it doesn’t seem to be in print.)

Non-technical books I’ve written about this year

Here are some of the non-technical books I’ve mentioned in blog posts this year. I posted the technical list a couple days ago.

Maybe I should say “less technical” rather than “non-technical.” For example, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is a book about a physicist, but it’s at least as much a human interest book as a science book.



Technical books I’ve written about this year

Here are some of the books I’ve mentioned in blog posts this year. One of these books may be just the present for a geek in your life.

This post looks at technical books: math, science, engineering, programming. I’ll have a follow-up post with non-technical books I’ve written about. (Update: here’s the non-technical list.)


Science and engineering



Deserted island books

You’ve probably heard someone ask someone else what books they would take to a deserted island. It’s usually implied that you’re bringing books for pleasure, not books that would help you survive on the island or leave it.

People often answer the question with a list of their favorite books, perhaps skewed in favor of long books. But I don’t think you should take books that have been your favorites in the past. You should take what you think would be your favorite books on a deserted island. I expect my tastes there would be very different than they are in my current suburban life.

I think of books that I could only read on a desert island, books that I’ve enjoyed in small portions but ordinarily would not have the patience to read cover-to-cover. For example, I’ve found portions of Donald Knuth’s series The Art of Computer Programming enjoyable and useful, but I can’t say I’ve read it all. Perhaps on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions I’d enjoy going through it carefully line by line, attempting all the exercises. I might even learn MMIX, something I can’t imagine doing under ordinary circumstances.

Along those lines, I might want to take some works by Thomas Aquinas such as his Summa Theologica or his commentaries on Aristotle. The little I’ve read of Aquinas has been profound, and more approachable than I expected. Still, I find it hard to read much of him. Alone on an island I might take the time to read him carefully.

For math, I might want to take Spivak’s differential geometry series, depending on how long I expect to be on this island. If I’m going to be there too long and I’m limited on books, I might want to take something else that’s more dense and less familiar.

For science, I’d take Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. I’ve intended to read that book for many years and have started a couple times. In college I couldn’t afford this price; now I can’t afford the time.

For fiction, I’d take Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series because I haven’t read it, I’ve heard it is very well written, and it’s long.

The name we give to bright ideas

From The Book of Strange New Things:

… I said that if science could come up with something like the Jump it could surely solve a problem like that. Severin seized hold of that word, “science.” Science, he said, is not some mysterious larger-than-life force, it’s just the name we give to bright ideas that individual guys have when they’re lying in bed at night, and that if the fuel thing bothered me so much, there was nothing stopping me from having a bright idea to solve it …

Ursula K. Le Guin has it backward

Ursula K. Le Guin is asking people to not buy books from Amazon because they market bestsellers, the literary equivalent of junk food. She said last week

I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.

I agree with that. That’s why I shop at Amazon.

If I liked to read best-selling junk food, I could find it at any bookstore. But I like to read less popular books, books I can only find from online retailers like Amazon. If fact, most of Amazon’s revenue comes from obscure books, not bestsellers.

Suppose I want to read something by, I don’t know, say, Ursula K. Le Guin. I doubt I could find a copy of any of her books, certainly not her less popular books, within 20 miles of my house, and I live in the 4th largest city in the US. There’s nothing by her in the closest Barnes and Noble. But I could easy find anything she’s ever written on Amazon.

If you’d like to support Amazon so they can continue to bring us fine authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, authors you can’t find in stores that mostly sell packaged microwavable fiction, you can buy one of the books mentioned on this blog from Amazon.

Quaternions in Paradise Lost

Last night I checked a few books out from a library. One was Milton’s Paradise Lost and another was Kuipers’ Quaternions and Rotation Sequences. I didn’t expect any connection between these two books, but there is one.

photo of books mentioned here

The following lines from Book V of Paradise Lost, starting at line 180, are quoted in Kuipers’ book:

Air and ye elements, the eldest birth
Of nature’s womb, that in quaternion run
Perpetual circle, multiform, and mix
And nourish all things, let your ceaseless change
Vary to our great maker still new praise.

When I see quaternion I naturally think of Hamilton’s extension of the complex numbers, discovered in 1843. Paradise Lost, however, was published in 1667.

Milton uses quaternion to refer to the four elements of antiquity: air, earth, water, and fire. The last three are “the eldest birth of nature’s womb” because they are mentioned in Genesis before air is mentioned.


Four brief reviews

Princeton University Press and No Starch Press both sent me a couple books this week. Here are a few brief words about each.

The first from Princeton was The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014 (ISBN 0691164177). My favorite chapters were The Beauty of Bounded Gaps by Jordan Ellenberg and The Lesson of Grace in Teaching by Francis Su. The former is a very high-level overview of recent results regarding gaps in prime numbers. The latter is taken from the Francis’ Haimo Teaching Award lecture. A recording of the lecture and a transcript are available here.

The second book from Princeton was a new edition of Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma (ISBN 069116472X). This edition has a new cover and the new subtitle “The Book That Inspired the Film ‘The Imitation Game.'” Unfortunately I’m not up to reading a 768-page biography right now.

The first book from No Starch Press was a new edition of The Book of CSS3: A Developer’s Guide to the Future of Web Design by Peter Gasston (ISBN 1593275803). The book says from the beginning that it is intended for people who have a lot of experience with CSS, including some experience with CSS 3. I tend to ignore such warnings; many books are more accessible to beginners than they let on. But in this case I do think that someone with more CSS experience would get more out of the book. This looks like a good book, and I expect I’ll get more out of it later.

The final book was a new edition of How Linux Works: What Every Superuser Should Know by Brian Ward (ISBN 1593275676). I’ve skimmed through this book and would like to go back and read it carefully, a little at a time. Most Unix/Linux books I’ve seen either dwell on shell commands or dive into system APIs. This one, however, seems to live up to its title and give the reader an introduction to how Linux works.

Titles better than their books

What got you here won’t get you there. I’ve been thinking about that title lately. Some things that used to be the best use of my time no longer are.

I bought Marshall Goldsmith’s book by that title shortly after it came out in 2007. As much as I liked the title, I was disappointed by the content and didn’t finish it. I don’t remember much about it, only that it wasn’t what I expected. Maybe it’s a good book — I’ve heard people say they like it — but it wasn’t a good book for me at the time.

* * *

I’ve written before about The Medici Effect, a promising title that didn’t live up to expectations.

* * *

“Standardized Minds” is a great book title. I haven’t read the book; I just caught a glimpse of the cover somewhere. Maybe it lives up to its title, but the title says so much.

There is a book by Peter Sacks Standardized Minds: The High Price Of America’s Testing Culture And What We Can Do To Change It. Maybe that’s the book I saw, though it’s possible that someone else wrote a book by the same title. I can’t say whether I recommend the book or not since I haven’t read it, but I like the title.

* * *

I started to look for more examples of books that didn’t live up to their titles by browsing my bookshelves. But I quickly gave up on that when I realized these are exactly the kinds of books I get rid of.

What are some books with great titles but disappointing content?

Every exercise in the book

When I did an independent study course with Ted Odell, he told me to get a copy of De Vito’s Functional Analysis and work every exercise. I don’t recall whether I actually worked every problem, though I believe I at least did most of them. I heard of someone who learned algebraic geometry by working every problem in Hartshorne.

Doing all the exercises in a book isn’t a bad way to learn something, though it depends on the book, what you’re trying to accomplish, and on the quality and quantity of the exercises.

Have you ever gone through a book working every exercise? If so, what book? How was your experience?

Paper and pixels

This morning a friend came up to me and said “I really liked that article you linked to the other day, though I can’t remember what it was about.”

He said something else that made me think which one he might have meant. “Was it that article that says we don’t remember what we read online as well as what we read on paper?”

“Yeah! That was it!”