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. 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. 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. 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. 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!”



Hum-drum fairy tales

The subtitle of That Hideous Strength is “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups.” C. S. Lewis explains in the preface why the book begins with mundane scenes even though he calls it a fairy tale.

If you ask why—intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels—I nevertheless begin with such hum-drum scenes and persons, I reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories.

A strange mixture of luxury and squalor

The second chapter of Out of the Silent Planet opens by describing a room as “a strange mixture of luxury and squalor.” It gives examples such as the room as having fine armchairs but no carpets or curtains, strewn with debris. The room has “empty champagne-bottles” and “teacups a quarter full of tea and cigarette-ends.” The room belongs to a scientist and an investor who have the resources to live in beauty and comfort, but instead have a few luxurious items in a pigsty. The scene is a metaphor for science and business detached from humane uses, one of the themes of the book.

Book review: Practical Data Analysis

Many people have drawn Venn diagrams to locate machine learning and related ideas in the intellectual landscape. Drew Conway’s diagram may have been the first. It has at least been frequently referenced.

By this classification, Hector Cuesta’s new book Practical Data Anaysis is located toward the “hacking skills” corner of the diagram. No single book can cover everything, and this one emphasizes practical software knowledge more than mathematical theory or details of a particular problem domain.

The biggest strength of the book may be that it brings together in one place information on tools that are used together but whose documentation is scattered. The book is great source for sample code. The source code  is available on GitHub, though it’s more understandable in the context of the book.

Much of the book uses Python and related modules and tools including:

  • NumPy
  • mlpy
  • PIL
  • twython
  • Pandas
  • NLTK
  • IPython
  • Wakari

It also uses D3.js (with JSON, CSS, HTML, …), MongoDB (with MapReduce, Mongo Shell, PyMongo, …), and miscellaneous other tools and APIs.

There’s a lot of material here in 360 pages, making it a useful reference.

NYT Book of Physics and Astronomy

I’ve enjoyed reading The New York Times Book of Physics and Astronomy, a collection of 129 articles written between 1888 and 2012. Its been much more interesting than its mathematical predecessor. I’m not objective — I have more to learn from a book on physics and astronomy than a book on math — but I think other readers might also find this new book more interesting.

I was surprised by the articles on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. New York Times reporter William Lawrence was allowed to go on the mission over Nagasaki. He was not on the plane that dropped the bomb, but was in one of the other B-29 Superfortresses that were part of the mission. Lawrence’s story was published September 9, 1945, exactly one month later. Lawrence was also allowed to tour the ruins of Hiroshima. His article on the experience was published September 5, 1945. I was surprised how candid these articles were and how quickly they were published. Apparently military secrecy evaporated rapidly once WWII was over.

Another thing that surprised me was that some stories were newsworthy more recently than I would have thought. I suppose I underestimated how long it took to work out the consequences of a major discovery. I think we’re also biased to think that whatever we learned as children must have been known for generations, even though the dust may have only settled shortly before we were born.

Hilbert space methods for PDE

When I was in grad school, my advisor asked me to study his out-of-print book, Hilbert Space Methods in Partial Differential Equations. I believe I had a photocopy of a photocopy; I don’t recall ever seeing the original book. I pored over that stack of copies line by line while preparing for my qualifying exams.

Then this evening I was browsing a used book store and was shocked to find a copy of the book, a Dover reprint.

It was an odd feeling to find what was once a precious and mysterious book available for $5.99 as part of a rag-tag assortment of mostly elementary/popular used math books.

Related posts:

Odd little bookshops
Nonlinear is not a hypothesis
Mathematical genealogy

The Drug Book

There’s a new book out in the series that began with The Math Book. The latest in the series is The Drug Book: From Arsenic to Xanax, 250 Milestones in the History of Drugs.

Like all the books in the series, The Drug Book is a collection of alternating one-page articles and full page color photographs, arranged chronologically. These books make great coffee table books because they’re colorful and easy to dip in and out of. The other books in the series are The Space Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book.

The book’s definition of “drug” is a little broad. In addition to medicines, it also includes related chemicals such as recreational drugs and poisons. It also includes articles on drug-related reference works and legislation.


21st Century C

I ran across a copy of 21st Century C this afternoon. I hadn’t heard of the book, but the title was intriguing.  I wrote more C in the 20th century than the 21st, so my ideas regarding C (sans ++) are out of date. (I’ve written a fair amount of C++ this century, but I have only written C under duress and with difficulty.)

I’ve only skimmed through the book so far, but one thing I like about it is that the first 100 pages are devoted to tools, not the C language per se. There’s a lot more to using any language than the language itself, and I find it harder to learn about tools than languages. It’s hard to know what tools to learn, and what features of those tools to learn first.

Bottom-up exposition

I wish more authors followed this philosophy:

The approach I have taken here is to try to move always from the particular to the general, following through the steps of the abstraction process until the abstract concept emerges naturally. … at the finish it would be quite appropriate for the reader to feel that (s)he had just arrived at the subject, rather than reached the end of the story.

From the preface here.

When books start at the most abstract point, I feel like saying to the author “Thank you for the answer, but what was the question?”

SymPy book

There’s a new book on SymPy, a Python library for symbolic math.

The book is Instant SymPy Starter by Ronan Lamy. As far as I know, this is the only book just on SymPy. It’s only about 50 pages, which is nice. It’s not a replacement for the online documentation but just a quick start guide.

The online SymPy documentation is good, but I think it would be easier to start with this book. And although I’ve been using SymPy off and on for a while, I learned a few things from the book.