Standard Deviations

Gary Smith is my kind of curmudgeon. This book is basically a long set of essays on how people screw up their stats. Sometimes this is particular complaints about particular (often famous) scholars. Sometimes it’s discussion of common conceptual errors. I especially enjoy how pretty much nobody is spared, from politicians to famous scholars, to beloved intellectuals like Steve Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame.

If you’re into turning a skeptical eye on everything, or if you want to learn how to think more clearly about science, the news, politics, economics, and anywhere else people are likely to abuse stats, this is a a great book for you.

Standard Deviations (Smith)

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

I have a love-hate relationship with Pollan. He writes well, but for popular science I often find it a bit lighter on science than I’d like. As with many writers who fall somewhere between journalism and pop science, you often get a long story about visiting a person and place instead of a detailed description of the science at hand.

Then again, I have never failed to enjoy one of his books. This one is about plants that have so deeply satisfied human desires (marijuana, apples, potatoes, and tulips) that humans have cultivated them extensively. The conceit here is that the plants have tapped our desire as a means of reproduction. This isn’t a new idea, and I suspect it wasn’t new in 2001, but it is very well explored. And, like all Pollan’s books, it has an engaging structure as it moves from topic to topic – tulips are beauty, apples are sweetness, potatoes are control, and marijuana is intoxication.

In short, I enjoyed it, and to the extent I have criticisms, they are basically unfair. I would prefer more depth in a book that is supposed to read more like an adventure travelogue of food. If that sounds like something you’d like, I recommend it.

The Botany of Desire (Pollan)

Computing: A Concise History

This book is basically what the title claims. I was actually hoping for something a bit more technical, but this book really is concise and focused mostly on basic historical facts. If you don’t know anything about the history of computing, this is a great place to start. If you already know the basic deal, I’d skip it.

Computing: A Concise History (Ceruzzi)

Uncharted

Caveat: I have met and like one of the authors, so I am biased.

I enjoyed this book, though I worry time will treat it poorly, as it has already been victimized by the authors’ success. This book is basically a description of how the authors (and others) created google ngrams. It’s not just technical stuff either – it’s a lot of their philosophy of what they find interesting.

The problem is that a lot of the book consists of interesting patterns and correlation they found using ngrams. The correlations are neat, but given how popular ngrams has gotten (and especially its spike in popularity a few years ago, the examples don’t feel as exciting as they must’ve when the book first came out. This isn’t exactly a knock against the book, but it does make some large sections of it less interesting than they might’ve been.

Uncharted (Aiden, Michel)

My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles (Dover Recreational Math)

I finally got myself into Martin Gardner, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. My only complaint (and, it’s a bullshit complaint) is that I really prefer a particular type of puzzle – the kind that is simple enough to easily hold in one’s head, and which doesn’t benefit from having pencil and paper. Some of the puzzles had interesting results, but really just required you to sit and write out a little algebra.

My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles (Gardner)

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

This book was a bit light, but still very enjoyable. The thesis is that play and pleasure very important to the history of science, technology, and culture. As an example, Johnson argues that interest in automata helped lead (if a little indirectly) to the development of computers. Apparently, Babbage was quite interested in these early robots as a child, and it probably influenced his work. Johnson discusses other topics, such as the spice trade and the development of the Jacquard loom.

I found this book fun, though I’m not quite prepared to buy the thesis as such. After all, anything that reaches fruition as a technology must first have been imagined. It’s hard to think of any interesting contraption whose origins couldn’t be traced back to something fun, in part (I suspect) because fun things tend to be easier to make. It’s hard to think of space-rockets coming into existence without someone first making toy versions. Furthermore, people play with all sorts of stuff that, of course, does NOT lead to technological revolutions.

Wonderland (Johnson)

Neurocomic

This is a short comic, which provides a quick sort of overview of some basic neuroscience and history of brain studies. It’s an interesting idea, but it didn’t really work for me. The artwork is very rudimentary, and the concepts are fairly straightforward. It didn’t feel to me like the ideas especially benefited from a comic format. The book did have an interesting sort of dreamy feel, in which a man goes through a sort of Alice in Wonderland style world of the mind, but ultimately I didn’t feel the concept paid off so much as provided occasional enigmatic bookends to sections.

Neurocomic (Farinella, Ros)

We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe

I’m trying to figure out how I should handle books by people I know, given that it means I’m not a reliable source. I think from now on, I need to just have a blanket caveat. So, here goes:

I know the author (one of them, anyway) so I am not a reliable source.

Bam. OK, so this is a sort of quick primer on all sorts of areas of particle physics and cosmology where we don’t have a good sense of what’s going on, such as with Dark Energy or the nature of time. It is peppered with jokes and comics to lighten things up a bit. So, if you’re a fan of Jorge Cham and want to learn some physics of the universe, I recommend it!

We Have No Idea (Cham, Whiteson)

A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

What a fun and strange little autobiography. Paulos is a mathematician and writer whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. They’re word books, and they’re not for everyone. For instance, this book has a (quite clever!) section on transhumanist pickup lines.

You may ask what that’s doing in an autobiography. Well, this isn’t *really* an autobiography. It contains a few stories from Paulos’ life, but the bulk of the book is either digressions into topics that interest Paulos or discussions of why memoirs are probably mostly false, in that they rely on flawed memories and attempt to create cogent narratives of haphazard lives. In some ways it reads like a long chat with a beloved grandfather who’s quite quirky. All in all, the terrible puns notwithstanding, that’s a pretty good thing.

A Numerate Life (Paulos)