Grr. I really need to write blog posts other than book reviews. But until then, here are some notes on two books I read recently:
Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Superforecasting is a book about what qualities it takes for a person to be good at forecasting events. These qualities were teased out of a multi-year study in which participants were presented with a precise question about a future event(for example a question could be “Will Donald Trump serve the full term of his presidency?”); the participant has to come up with what she believes to be the probability of the outcome(an example response could be “yes, with 85% probability”). Among participants in this study, some performed much better than others— the book calls this group of people “superforecasters”. What made this group so good at forecasting? That’s what the book is all about.
Besides the mental habits of “superforecasters”, the book also makes the case that forecasting is important— not just for its own sake but because we make decisions based on our forecasts. And that for forecasting to improve we must subject it to some rigor, instead of making vague statements whose accuracy can’t really be assessed even after the forecasted event has/hasn’t taken place.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Shoe Dog is the story about the origins of Nike, written by one of the founders of the company. I enjoy reading these “here’s how we did it”-type books and this one is particularly well-written and fun to read throughout.
Spin is a sci-fi trilogy comprising of the books Spin, Axis and Vortex.
The first book in the series, Spin is a really great science-fiction story and the Hugo award it won is well-deserved. Since it is a story that can be easily spoiled, I’ll try to sell it without giving away too much: it is a story of a crisis that hits the Earth. The first book is mostly about unraveling the nature of this crisis and what caused it. What makes the book great, of course is that this crisis, called “the Spin”, is an interesting idea.
The latter two books– Axis and Vortex are okay-ish. They’re not boring books per se, it’s just that as follow-ups to Spin, I think they do pretty poorly. I think the problem is that while Spin introduces a fairly novel concept, instead of expanding upon that, Axis and Vortex spend a lot of time on mundane and overused-in-scifi stuff like how the bad guys are going to mis-utilize some technology.
So yeah, in summary, at least the first book is worth the read. If you are the kind of person who can live with reading only the first book of a three-part series, then I’d skip the latter two.
Just finished reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. I think I put the book in my to-read list after Alan Kay recommended in a talk of his(I don’t remember which one).
The book is about how any communication medium dictates the kind of discourse taking place in that medium. It was written in 1985, and so it is very much focussed on television and how in that medium, which is so dedicated to turning everything into entertainment, critical thinking and rational discourse are endangered. Despite having been written more than 30 years ago, however, I think it is still relevant today, perhaps even more so. Obviously, television is still around but social media dominates a large part of the social conversation. Postman’s point is that no medium should go unexamined. That is, we need to think about how any form of media— be it typography, television or the Internet— affects the information it carries, the culture at large, and the minds of the people who consume that form of media.
Postman talks only briefly about computers— recall that in 1985, personal computers were just taking off and the Internet wasn’t even a thing yet. It is surprising that he foresaw one issue that today is very much talked about(emphasis mine):
Thus, a central thesis of computer technology—that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data—will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.
Some random updates:
I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. This is the second time I’ve started to read the book and I must say that I’m just having a lot of trouble getting into the book. That said, I haven’t abandoned it yet- I’ve enjoyed all of the other Stephenson novels I’ve read so far. Also, the last book I read, Gore Vidal’s Creation got me excited about the genre of historical fiction. I’m still hoping Quicksilver gets better eventually.
The other book I’ve been working through is Compiler Construction by Niklaus Wirth. This is a concise, and in my opinion, great introduction to compilers. I have also been building a small compiler written in C. It doesn’t have much yet, but here’s the test program, which it can successfully compile:
a := 11; b := a+12; if a > b then c := b*5 elsif a > 20 then c := b + 5 elsif 0 > 1 then c := 2*b else c := 101 end; repeat a := a - 1; b := b + 3 until a < 1; d := 14
No procedures, arrays or types yet(of course, it doesn’t have plenty of other stuff missing, these three just happen to be on my immediate backlog). But hey, baby steps!
I haven’t posted here in quite a while, and I’d like to re-boot the site with something easy. So I wrote up “mini book reviews” of some books that I read recently and liked quite a lot.
Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich
This is a book about an MIT blackjack team who were counting cards in Las Vegas casinos. They were quite successful at it too.
The movie “21” is based on this book and I had really enjoyed it, so this book was on my to-read list for a while. I enjoyed the book just as much as the movie.
The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll
The Cuckoo’s Egg is an awesome account of how Stoll tracks down a hacker who was breaking into his lab’s computer to access military computers, apparently searching for classified information.
What I liked best about this book is Stoll’s writing style: it’s simple and honest- he keeps you in the loop about how he’s trying to get his next lead, and his frustrations too. And you can tell he’s an interesting guy. You should check out this Numberphile video about how he manages the warehouse for his Klein bottle business.
Oh, and even though it is non-fiction, the book feels very much like a thriller. Highly recommended.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
This is a collection of short science fiction stories. I’d never heard of the author and in fact, he has very few stories published, which is a real shame.
In all of the stories, Chiang has taken what is the essence of science-fiction and really run with it. He shows you a universe where things work differently, or some technology that doesn’t really exist, and imagines how such a world would look like. And the intricacies of how these universes and technologies work is what Chiang seems to have focussed on. After he’s happy with that, he treats the plot as secondary and just drops it off. Bold, but effective.