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The Maths Gene: Why Everyone Has It, But Most People Don't Use It
The Maths Gene: Why Everyone Has It, But Most People Don't Use It
by Keith Devlin
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gossip. Is this really it?, 20 Dec 2000
This is a book from a well-known and respected popular science writer, Professor Keith Devlin, on a very intriguing question: how and why did people acquire the skill of doing mathematics. Unfortunately, many readers will probably still be looking for more after finishing this one.
Devlin starts with our sense for numbers. Not all numbers are the same: we instantly recognize one or two objects; beyond that number, we have to count them. But counting itself is not yet mathematics. So what is mathematics? Devlin fancies the answer that it is a science of patterns, and spends a whole chapter on what he really means by the extended concept of pattern. In order to describe abstract patterns, mathematics has developed a specialized language. So is it possible to learn anything about mathematics from what the linguists have already learned about the generalized structural grammar, underlying every known language? How did the full language - with grammar - evolve at all from the "momma hungry" protolanguage? And why?
The above arguments pose a grandiose ouverture for Devlin's thesis, which we are finally ready for in the second-but-last chapter: in order to be able to plan and predict, human ancestors have some 300.000 years ago developed what Devlin calls "off-line" thinking. With off-line thinking came grammar and language. Language is, and always was, used predominantly to build the "team spirit" among humans, or, with other words, for gossip. Mathematicians can avoid one unnecessary level of abstractions if they visualize the entities they are working with. So for them, doing mathematics is like gossiping. Well, sort of.
And that is it. The book is actually quite a pleasant read, with lots of interesting stuff. On the other hands, Devlin drags us on and around general linguistics and the evolution of speech and God knows what else before getting to the promised topic. The final thesis comes then rather unculminating. On the plus side, Devlin is fair at citing books and articles he had learned from. I wish I could say the same about some other popular science authors.

The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (Penguin Press Science)
The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (Penguin Press Science)
by David Wells
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.39

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No recreational mathematician should be without it, 10 Dec 2000
In the foreword to G.H. Hardy's book A Mathematician's Apology, C.P. Snow tells an anecdote about Hardy and his collaborator Srinavasa Ramanujan. Hardy, perhaps the greatest number theorist of 20th century, took a taxi from London to the hospital at Putney where Ramanujan was dying of tuberculosis, Hardy noticed its number, 1729. Always inept about introducing a conversation, he entered the room where Ramanujan was lying in bed and, with scarcely a hello, blurted out his opinion about the taxi-cab number. It was, he declared, "rather a dull number," adding that he hoped that wasn't a bad omen. "No, Hardy! No, Hardy," said Ramanujan, "it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways."
Usually it takes a great deal of insight as well as considerable mathematical training to discover a yet unknown properties of some number. Only recognizing the beauty of a number pattern is much easier, though, especially with a friendly book like this one on hand. Wells, a long-time mathematics popularizer, has collected over 1000 numbers he considers interesting. Each of them is given a short explanation, often accompanied with a bibliographic reference. Celebrities among the numbers, like i, e or Pi, are given a more comprehensive treatment. Included are also several sequences, like Fibonacci's, Mersenne's, Fermat's, Carmichael's or Kaprekar's, each accompanied with its explanation. So are cyclic, amicable, untouchable or lucky numbers, and many more sequences you probably didn't know about.
While Wells' dictionary certainly gives the impression of a well-researched work, the list of numbers is by no means exhaustive. Anyone familiar with chaos theory will notice the absence of Feigenbaum constant; prime hunters would probably be interested in discussion on Woodall primes, Sophie-Germain primes, or Proth primes. But they are better off with Paulo Ribenboim's book on primes, anyway, while Wells' book, with its easily understandable explanations and accessible price is probably more suited for the "recreational mathematics" audience.

The Deeper Meaning of Liff
The Deeper Meaning of Liff
by Douglas Adams
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Save the language - recycle place names!, 6 Dec 2000
The idea behind The Meaning of Liff, first published in 1983, as well as The Deeper Meaning of Liff, which followed seven years later, is actually quite simple. As the authors put it: there are hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no word exists. On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.
Douglas Adams - the one of the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy fame - and John Lloyd have done their best trying to pair the two. Just for the gusto, here's an example of dictionary entry: Wyoming (ptcpl.vb.) Moving in hurried desperation from one cubicle to another in a public lavatory trying to find one which has a lock on the door, a seat on the bowl and no brown streaks on the seat.
Although The Deeper Meaning of Liff is significantly expanded in size over the original, I guess I would choose the latter. While The Meaning of Liff mostly covers place names from the Britain, the expansions seem to be predominantly reaching abroad, resulting in somewhat diluted compendium. After all, there is some logic that English place names are fitting best in an English dictionary, isn't it?

Penguins (Photobook)
Penguins (Photobook)
by Frans Lanting
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!, 14 Sep 2000
This review is from: Penguins (Photobook) (Hardcover)
Dutch-born nature photographer Frans Lanting should be a familiar name to the readers of National Geographic, Audubon, LIFE or several other prestigious high-circulation magazines. With a Master's degree in Environmental Economics, he devoted himself full-time to photography in 1980. Since then, he won numerous awards, including the Sierra Club's 1997 Ansel Adams Award, and was named the Photographer of the Year 1991 by BBC. Lanting now lives near Santa Cruz, California.
This monograph, which is actually his eight book, was conceived during his three visits to the Antarctic waters. The first of them brought him amidst the rockhoppers, gentoos and Magellanic penguins on the Falkland Islands. The second one was a two-month cruise around South Georgia, South Orkney and South Sandwich islands, where he observed the king, Adelie and chinstrap penguins. And finally, as a crown, he spent several weeks among the emperor penguins on the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. In total, there are over 100 photographs. Lanting's photography is always brilliant. True, penguins are always cute, but as other birds, they have no facial expression. It is therefore amazing how he managed to capture the spirit of the moment of a bird's life.
The book will surely attract any nature lover, ornithologist or not, and amateur nature photographer. For these latter, Lanting added some short notes on photographing penguins. And finally, if you are interested, you can learn more about Lanting on his internet site, triple W dot lanting dot com.

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Penguin Press Science)
Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Penguin Press Science)
by John Allen Paulos
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Combinatorics, probability and statistics made fun, 18 Aug 2000
"A million dollars, a billion, a trillion, whatever. It doesn't matter as long as we do something about the problem." Does it matter, or does it not? Perhaps you can more easily visualize what jumping by six orders of magnitude means if you divide it by 10^6: "One dollar, a thousand dollars, a million..."

Or perhaps consider this: Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846 and was elected President in 1860. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, and was elected President in 1960. Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy. Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy was born in 1939. There is some mysterious harmony ruling the world, isn't it?

Most likely not. Politicians' careers do follow certain patterns - people are very rarely indeed elected presidents at 19, then elected to congress at 86. Furthermore, there are very few records of assassins in the age group over 65, for instance. You also have to take into account that, taking into account US constitution, there is nil probability that Kennedy would have been elected president in 1961, or 1958. And Lincoln isn't all that uncommon as the last name, is it? And finally, we have been rather selective which facts we have included: Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 and died in 1965, while John F. Kennedy was born in 1917 and died in 1963, for instance, but along with all other facts this simply didn't fit the intended story, so it was omitted.

Throughout the book, Paulos tries to demystify such mysterious occurances by providing more or less elaborated examples, where he applies combinatorics, probability and statistics. All relatively simple concepts, but people tend to forget about them once they leave high school. Is it true that if the flipped coin has come up heads for fifteen consecutive rows, it is much more likely to come up tails on its next flip? And what about the statistics claiming that one out in eleven women will develop breast cancer, on the average?

Some sections - whining about the incompetent elementary school math teachers etc. - are too whinny for their own good, but otherwise this short booklet is a fun read. But then again, with a degree in physics, I probably already fall among the numerate. What I was very much missing, though, is a list of references from which professor Paulos has taken his examples from.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 8, 2011 2:31 AM BST

The Unix Philosophy
The Unix Philosophy
by Mike Gancarz
Edition: Paperback
Price: 41.92

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Yada yada yada, 20 July 2000
This review is from: The Unix Philosophy (Paperback)
I suppose this is the kind of book that should be adored by managers. First, it has a stylish cover. Second, it doesn't take much of your time. You should be over with it in about one hour - not only it's thin, it is also typeset in a size larger than the usual book letter size. And third, it comes with ready-made slogans like "Small is beautiful", "Make each program do one thing well" etc, that can come handy at staff meetings.

Even at its rather modest size, this book is stretched to the limits. There is about enough material in it to make a decent article in UnixWorld or some similar magazine, perhaps even two; it could also be made a chapter in some compendium. But that doesn't nearly make it enough for a standalone book.

True, Gancarz writes well, and anecdotical stories in his book make a pleasant bathtub reading. To convince you that Unix indeed is a great design, however, get something substantial instead. If you are a programmer and seeing some actual code doesn't scare you off, I would recommend The Unix Programming Environment by Kernighan and Pike. Though dated, in my opinion it still makes a better introduction to the Unix design philosophy...

The Unix Programming Environment (Prentice-Hall Software Series)
The Unix Programming Environment (Prentice-Hall Software Series)
by Brian W. Kernighan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 42.32

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oldies but goldies, 20 July 2000
Merely half an inch thick, and employing the same cover design - or lack of it - as the C Programming Language, this is probably the least pretentious looking book on my bookshelf. However, the look is misleading - there are very few books, regardless of length, that aim to teach you as much as this one, and even fewer than succeed in it.

Unix programming environment might sound a rather ambitious title nowadays, when a tutorial on each specialized tool can easily exceed 400 pages. However, this one actually delivers everything that it promises. Kernighan and Pike start with the basic description of Unix file system and the basic set of commands, continue with the command shell, redirection and piping. Next come the filters: regular expressions, grep, sort, sed and awk. At that point, the reader is ready for the full-fledged treatment of the command shell programming. Next come standard I/O and Unix system calls, followed by the program development tools: make, lex and yacc. The course is concluded with a chapter on document formatting with troff.

The chapters on I/O and system calls imply familiarity with the C programming language. The already mentioned tutorial on C by Kernighan and Ritchie, written in much the same style and spirit, can serve as the introduction to it. Also, while the book keeps up with its age remarkably well, there are some points where the described Unix system differs from the modern POSIX systems (most user commands are however backward compatible and still accept the old syntax). The required changes are really minor, but can nevertheles annoy an innocent reader.

The book belongs to nowadays rare breed of books on computers written for engineers and CS students rather than for dummies and idiots. Although primarily written for individual study, it can be used for one-semester course on Unix (like in C Programming Language, the exercises are lacking solutions, though). I would love to see it made-up with POSIX syntax and generally reflecting the changes made to Unix during the past 15 years.

The Meaning of it All (Allen Lane History)
The Meaning of it All (Allen Lane History)
by Richard P. Feynman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Feynman on life, the universe, and everything, 19 July 2000
This short booklet is actually a typescript of a series of three John Danz lectures which professor Feynman delivered in April 1963 at the University of Washington. They show yet another of his many facets -- aside from the ingenious scientist, the wonderful science teacher and the hilarious storyteller -- one of an intellectual thinking of the interaction between the science and the society.

The thread that can be followed throughout the series of lectures is the value of scepticism. Scepticism and doubt kept science sane for centuries. After describing what he considers the essence of science, Feynman tries to answer several questions arising at the boundary between science and the society. Is there a conflict between science and religion? Can science be applied to moral and ethical questions? How can the inspirational value of religion be preserved when the belief in God is uncertain? In the last lecture, Feynman elaborates some abuses of statistics he encountered, like mixing up the probability with the possibility, a posteriori statistical reasoning etc.

The book will probably first and foremost attract Feynman devotees, who already have all the other books he has written and cannot miss one. The book also reflects some of the atmosphere of the cold war 60's, so it might be of some interest for those who either lived in that era or have some special historic interest in it. But aside from this, no collection of Feynman's papers published after his death has ever reached the mastership of books he actively prepared.

The Cartoon Guide to Physics
The Cartoon Guide to Physics
by Larry Gonick
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.69

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as The Cartoon History of the Universe, 6 July 2000
I was delighted when some time ago I received two volumes of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe as a present from a friend. It is absolutely hilarious! Being a physicist, I considered it a must to add Cartoon Guide to Physics to my Larry Gonick collection.

However, I was disappointed. The guide indeed tries to cover a significant amount of the usual high-school physics course - mechanics, electricity and magnetism (missing are thermodynamics and optics) - but it is not really as charmingly funny as the Cartoon History of the Universe. As a physicist, I can assure you that the problem does not lie in the simple fact that the history is more interesting topic than physics - physics is plenty interesting, thank you! But the desired blend between the textbook and the cartoon resulted in something that is not educational enough to actually learn something from it and too boring to make a good cartoon.

Trying to find some bright spot, I am happy to report I have not discovered any major flops in the science part of the book. Also, I believe the book actually becomes somewhat more interesting toward the end. But then again, if I would have to choose between, say, the chapter on relativity and Joseph Schwartz's Einstein for Beginners, I would probably opt for the latter.

Running Linux
Running Linux
by Matthias Kalle Dalheimer
Edition: Paperback

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A classic, 23 Jun 2000
This review is from: Running Linux (Paperback)
With its first edition dating back to early 1995, Matt Welsh's book is widely regarded as classic, to the extent this term can be applied to Linux. Mr. Welsh, now continuing his PhD studies at UC Berkeley, is a renowned Linux expert, and was actively involved in Linux development since 1992. In particular, he is known in the Linux community for starting the Linux Documentation Project, for contributing to it with Linux Installation and Getting Started (LIGS) Guide (available freely from the Internet) and, lately, for being the founding editor of the Linux Magazine.

Running Linux grew out of LIGS as its expanded and professionally edited version. This has its pluses and minuses. When it came out, there were hardly any other books on Linux available, so it tried to teach the reader everything, from Linux installation to Unix administration, from the command shell basics to compiling the kernel, and from using the C compiler to configuration of X Windows. Its breadth is thus encyclopedic, and yet it is surprisingly sharp at details. The third edition added all the things that happened since: KDE, GNOME, Samba... It may be my personal feeling only, but the new chapters somewhat stick out, without really growing into the tissue of the text.

More important, the book fails to recognize that the structure of new Linux users changed since 1995. At the time, it was written as a "getting started" guide, and it served its role perfectly. However, nowadays you cannot assume any more that every new Linux user is familiar with command line commands or other Unix systems. Therefore I don't think I could still recommend Running Linux as a beginners' guide.

Being one of the top-selling books on Linux, it doesn't need any particular recommendation, anyway. Still, Running Linux is a book edited to high O'Reilly standards, and written by some of the most knowledgeable people in Linux community - which is to many a definite plus compared to books written by journalists. I would say its best target population are seasoned Unix users wanting to try Linux, technically minded people in general, and CS students in particular. Others might find its learning curve somewhat steep.

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