Suggested Reading: Geek Sublime

June 13, 2015

Vikram Chandra — Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software — Faber & Faber, 2013, 272 pp. ASIN  B00ER809R0

(Buy at Amazon)

(Buy at Amazon)

Here’s a rather strange book. First, it seems to be about writing code, but we digress on how to build logic gates out of LEGO, discuss the macho culture of Silicon Valley, and meander through classic Sanskrit literature and the theories of aesthetics of Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta.

The main discourse isn’t much about code as the subtitle suggests. It is about the power of expressivity and suggestion of various forms of writing, whether prose, poetry, or, incidentally, code; on the necessity for a writer to transmit the right mental images.


Suggested Reading: Computing with Quantum Cats

May 30, 2015

John Gribbin — Computing with Quantum
Cats: from Colossus to Qubits
 — Prometheus Books, 2014,
295 pp. ISBN 978-1-61614-921-5

(Buy at Amazon)

(Buy at Amazon)

The book presents the genesis of the various ideas that may lead, one day, to a practical quantum computer. Gribbin takes a well-documented historico-biographical approach to the topic, while avoiding getting too deep into the science part of the story. On great many occasions, he cuts short an interesting avenue with a “but that’s another story”, which I find most frustrating. Those are the good parts I want to know about!

Despite all this, the book is still worth reading. It will expose you clearly (albeit summarily) the various ideas behind quantum computing, and is a good starting point if you’re interested in quantum computing, as the book also ends with a bibliography on the topic.

The quantum cats of the title refers, of course, to the famous Schrödinger cat gedankenexperiment, but the term also to macroscopic objects exhibiting quantum behavior.


Suggested Reading: Information Gathering in Classical Greece

May 16, 2015

Frank S. Russell — Information Gathering in Classical Greece — University of Michigan Press, 2002, 268 pp. ISBN 0-472-11064

(Buy at Amazon.com)

(Buy at Amazon.com)

While Amazon’s blurb speaks of cloak-and-dagger and other spy clichés, this book has little to do with a thrilling espionage novel, and is as far from an ‘easy read’ as anything can be. Well documented, Russell’s book brings us back to classical times and tells us about war, politics, oracles, and “spies” (for lack of a better term) and a lot about the Greek mind. We learn, for example, that the Greeks did not consider intelligence gathering in the same way we would today with professional spies and information-gathering network, à la NSA, but rather in a rather ad hoc way.

The narrative is really fascinating but the form itself remains difficult. First, there are quite many ancient greek words to remember (will you remember what are a proxenoi and a presbeutai in two days?), and very often we find more than half of the pages being footnotes. This excruciatingly well documented book is still a must-read for one interested in classical Greece as well as one interested in the history of espionage.


Suggested Reading: The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets

June 8, 2014

Simon Singh — The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets — Bloomsbury, 2013, 255 pp. ISBN 978-1-62040-277-1

(Buy at Amazon.com)

(Buy at Amazon.com)

Using, as an excuse, the fact that The Simpsons (and their sister series Futurama) use mathematics as part of the plot or as a “frame freeze gag” (a gag that is so short that unless you look at the show frame by frame, you might miss it), Singh (which you may remember from books such as The Code Book and Fermat’s Last Theorem) brings us along a mathematical walk, presenting us the mathematically-inclined writers of the shows. But, as I said, The Simpsons are merely a convenient excuse to introduce mathematics and theorems: if you expect to learn a lot about The Simpsons themselves, you’d be disappointed. The book is about the mathematics and the writers.

However, it’s an interesting read: prime numbers, \pi, combinatorics, computation and algorithmics. I especially liked the Futurama Theorem that describes how, using a mind-swapping machine that can swap minds between two same individuals once only, we can un-scramble minds and bodies and put every one in their rightful body (not a new plot device, Stargate did it first, in s02e18).


Suggested Reading: How Mathematics Happened: The First 50000 Years

May 19, 2014

Peter S. Rudman — How Mathematics Happened: The First 50000 Years — Prometheus Books, 2006, 314 pp. ISBN 978-1-59102-477-4

(Buy at Amazon.com)

(Buy at Amazon.com)

What first got me interested in this book is the “50000 years” part. I was preparing lectures notes for my course on discrete mathematics and I wanted my students to have an idea of what prehistoric maths might have been, say, 20000 years ago. Unfortunately, you wont learn much about this in this book

The book does hint about what mathematics might have been in hunter-gatherer times, and how it might have affected later developments. But that lasts for about a chapter or so, and the remainder is devoted to historical mathematics: Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Classical Greek. All kinds of numerical algorithms are covered, presented in great detail, making the book more technical than historical. Some part are speculative as the historical record is incomplete at best, but it is speculative in the best way possible, with every assumption backed by an actual historical observation.


Suggested Reading: Demystifying Machine Intelligence

December 26, 2013

Piero Scaruffi — Demystifying Machine Intelligence (Why the Singularity is not coming anytime soon and other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence) — ISBN 978-0-9765531-9-9

(Buy from author)

(Buy from author)

The title of the book is as explicit as it gets: it’s a collection of meditations on the nature of artificial intelligence, what it is not, and what it may mean for us in the near future, especially making the case that intelligent machines (for whatever definition we want to give that) aren’t making us smarter, but may actually make us more stupid, more dependent, and more influenceable. And that the singularity isn’t coming anytime soon because there’s a deep disconnect between computing power and the understanding necessary for it to happen.


Suggested reading: Da Vinci Cod

October 6, 2013

Don Brine — Va Dinci Coddah — Bragelonne, 2006, 200 pp. ISBN 2-915549-70-2

(Buy at Amazon.com)

(Buy at Amazon.com)

This parody of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is much more entertaining than the orginal that I found boring, predictable, and pseudo-intellectual —so much in fact that I gave up reading the original after about one third of the book! The author of the parody (Don Brine… Dan Brown, get it?) does a very good job exploiting all of the very annoying devices of the original: digressions, historical factoids, and all the other silliness.

In this parody, some really evil and even more really secret society rules the world on the behalf of sentient and transcendant cods that are the real superior beings on Earth… or under the oceans, whatev. The parody reuses all the plot devices of classical mystery/conspiracy novels, but with just one extra serving.

Of course, this book isn’t great art, but it has its moments. It got me to laugh a couple of times, and it made a great read for a lazy sunday in the last days of summer (or early fall)