Book Reviews 201507 Jan 2016
One of the big things I wanted to do in 2015 was read more often. I have always lamented the fact that I didn’t read as much as I used to, and have been known to refer to myself as “not well read” when it comes to the classics. So, on a whim one day while browsing, I bought a Kindle Paperwhite that was on sale, and challenged myself to use it.
I had previously used an iPad to read Kindle Books, and while it was definitely a functional experience, it was less than ideal. I found it to be a bit too heavy, the battery life wasn’t great, and it was very hard to carry with me while going about my day. I considered an iPad Mini, but really didn’t want to shell out that much cash to replace something that I already have.
My Kindle has changed all of that! It is light, portable, has an integrated backlight, and I get nearly a month of use on a single charge (not to mention that it charges using a standard USB connection). I now look forward to reading, and have probably read more new books for pleasure in the last 3 months than the last 3 years.
The one major reason for creating this blog was to share some of the more interesting things I was reading. So, without further ado, here are some quick plugs for books I’ve read in the past year.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
If you don’t know me well, you might say that I am quite the extrovert. I teach, I socialize, I have parties, and I am always surrounded by people. However, those who know me best will definitely tell you that I am an introvert at heart. Susan Cain does an excellent job of not only describing what it is like to be an introvert, but also takes some time to deconstruct our modern society’s idolization of the extrovert. She also talks about how being introverted can be a powerful personality trait when understood and used properly.
If you ever find yourself in a position to rate someone and say “She gets along with people so well” or “He is very friendly or talkative” you might want to take a minute and think about what you are really saying about that person. To my knowledge, Tesla wasn’t well known for his people skills. Would he have been hired in today’s world? This definitely made me rethink how I teach my classes and how I rate my students.
Math → Understanding the World
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
Math is an amazing tool, but even I didn’t really appreciate exactly how much it can help explain our world until I read this book. Jordan Ellenberg uses this book to describe many real-world scenarios and how they can be better understood with math. For example, is it possible for the government to raise taxes and receive less tax revenue? Possibly!
From describing how to play the lottery (“If gambling is exciting, you’re doing it wrong…”) to why notable people tend to have less notable children (regression to the mean is a cruel mistress), this book is a must read for anyone mathematically inclined.
As a bonus, here’s a quote from the book that I found absolutely hilarious:
The Pythagoreans, you have to remember, were extremely weird. Their philosophy was a chunky stew of things we’d now call mathematics, things we’d now call religion, and things we’d now call mental illness.
Easy to Understand Algorithms
Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today’s Computers by John MacCormick
One of my goals for 2015 was to explore new textbooks for classes I teach. This one was the clear winner. John MacCormick does an amazing job of describing some of the foundational algorithms in computer science in a way that is easily accessible by audiences of all skill levels. Most notably, he is able to clearly describe very difficult mathematical concepts such as the underpinnings of RSA encryption without getting too deep for most people.
From the concepts behind databases to the sheer magic of PageRank, this book is a must read for anyone studying computer science. Ironically, since it is now a textbook in my class, there will surely be many more budding computer scientists reading it. :^)
Humor and Horror
John Dies at the End by David Wong
Just finished this one, so I guess technically it wasn’t all read in 2015, but it’s my blog so I can bend the rules as needed. (We have rules around here, right?) This one was recommended by a friend late in the year, so it became my holiday read. It is also the only fictional work on this list.
This one is interestingly difficult to describe. The best I’ve come up with (borrowing an idea from a review of the book that I’m too lazy to find again), think of the writing and sensibilities of Douglas Adams as if he were cynical 20-something living in the midwest, then add a heaping helping of Lovecraft style horror, and you might be close.
The best part about this book is the storytelling. It is superb and keeps you coming back for more! The plot is ok, and the characters are a bit flat, but they aren’t really the point of the book in my opinion. I haven’t read the sequel yet, but it is definitely on my list for next year.
Some quick reviews of other notable reads from 2015:
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (XKCD)
XKCD is great, Randall Munroe is funny, and seriously answering bad hypothetical questions makes for a very fun read. (Thanks to M for giving me this one!)
Napoleon’s Privates by Tony Perrottet
History is full of interesting characters, but unfortunately modern sensibilities have covered up some of the interesting details. This book puts everything on display (heh heh) and gives you a bit of insight into the perverted and depraved side of history (as well as a complete review of, you guessed it, Napoleon’s privates).
McKeachie’s Teaching Tips by Wilbert McKeachie & Marilla Svinicki
Ok, kinda cheating on this one since I didn’t read it this year, but had to include it anyway. Let’s say you’ve been asked to teach a college class, but have no experience whatsoever (like me three years ago). Which book should you read first? This one! I still refer to this book from time to time for ideas and advice. Thanks to Dr. Shannon Washburn for loaning me a copy and giving me some of the best advice I ever received.
The Pattern On The Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work by W. Daniel Hillis
Another textbook from my class. If you’ve ever wondered how a computer works and want to peer into the black box sitting on your desk, this is the best place to start. (Or take my class, where is is required reading!)