Books

Finished reading Capitalism 3.0, missed speakers, drank dark beer

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I finished reading Capitalism 3.0 a couple of days ago, and it was quite good. I promised a review, so that will be coming shortly. I also noticed that Joseph Stiglitz (ex-Chief Economist for the World Bank) wrote a new book as a follow-up to Globalization and its Discontents which is titled, Making Globalization Work, probably a nice follow-up to Capitalism 3.0.

Today after work I headed to NYU to hear Jimmy Wales give a talk on Wikipedia, but was dismayed to discover that the auditorium was packed and I couldn’t get in.

Then, I noticed that Ralph Nader was at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue presenting the new documentary made about him called “An Unreasonable Man,” and I was about to go to the 4:55pm showing of that, but tickets sold out for that! Man, what bad luck!

At the end of the day, I ended up meeting Max for drinks at McSorley’s, so that’s not so bad. We talked a bit about Richard Dawkin’s book “The God Delusion,” and whether it’s a good thing that there is a zealous atheist roaming the streets of intellectual-dom.

Currently Reading: Capitalism 3.0

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

A great book so far, and guess what? You can read it too, since it’s given away for free in a beautifully-produced PDF.

Check it out.

Comments to follow.

Free and DRM-Free E-Books

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

I got a Nokia 770 for Christmas, to replace my aging and dying Palm V. I’ll probably write more about the 770 and the Palm V later, but suffice it to say that I got the Palm V when it came out, approximately 10 years ago, and have used it ever since. My main uses for it were AvantGo and Vindigo, although in the past I did get other uses out of it as well. I plan to keep the Palm around mainly for the Vindigo features, which I haven’t seen done better anywhere else. (No book on the planet has as much information about NYC as my 8MB Palm V with Vindigo loaded on it.)

I basically got the 770 because of all the great stuff I heard on Teleread and other sites about its use as a portable e-book reader. Indeed, that has been the most pleasant experience on the device. With the Evince PDF viewer and with FBReader (an Open Source ebook reader for a lot of different formats, including HTML, Plucker, and zTxt), I am able to read a ton of stuff while I’m in my commute, and all on a beautiful 800×480 screen that fits in the palm of my hand. (Yes, finally I get to read with serif, anti-aliased fonts!)

I have been overwhelmed with how many free e-books you can find online, thanks in part to efforts by groups like Creative Commons. Here are some good ones:

Feel free to post more in comments!

Calculus Made Easy

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

I am taking “remedial” Calculus II alongside Numerical Computing this semester. My Calc course is “remedial” in that I haven’t seen any Math over the reals for about 4 years (took Discrete Math and Linear Algebra, which both focus on integers) and this semester I am overloading on real numbers (and even complex numbers) just when I had forgotten they even existed 🙂

That said, after spending some time in the humanities (where writing quality is high) and much time in Computer Science (where literacy is defined as being able to read code), coming back to traditional math textbooks has been quite a culture shock. They are so horribly written, it really blows my mind.

So, in response to my horrible Calculus II textbook (published at NYU only for NYU classes, this book features minimal explanation and the maximum amount of notation), I have been using it only for the homework problems and using instead James Stewart’s excellent book, Calculus: Early Transcendentals for rigorous proofs of concepts (because Stewart really does present them nicely), and the lighter but infinitely more illuminating Calculus Made Easy, by Silvanus Thompson.

A somewhat controversial book, Calculus Made Easy chooses to skip the notation-laden explanations of Calculus concepts provided by typical textbooks, and opts instead of a clear, textual elucidation of core concepts in the context of their applications. The philosophy of the book is well-described by this excerpt from the Epilogue.

I think this is wonderful writing, however damning it may be:

It may be confidently assumed that when this tractate Calculus Made Easy falls into the hands of the professional mathematicians, they will (if not too lazy) rise up as one man, and damn it as being a thoroughly bad book. Of that there can be, from their point of view, no possible manner of doubt whatever. It commits several most grievous and deplorable errors.

First, it shows how ridiculously easy most of the operations of the calculus really are.

Secondly, it gives away so many trade secrets. By showing you that what one fool can do, other fools can do also, it lets you see that these mathematical swells, who pride themselves on having mastered such an awfully difficult subject as the calculus, have no such great reason to be puffed up. They like you to think how terribly difficult it is, and don’t want that superstition to be rudely dissipated.

Thirdly, among the dreadful things they will say about “So Easy” is this: that there is an utter failure on the part of the author to demonstrate with rigid and satisfactory completeness the validity of sundry methods which he has presented in simple fashion, and has even dared to use in solving problems! But why should he not? You don’t forbid the use of a watch to every person who does not know how to make one? You don’t object to the musician playing on a violin that he has not himself constructed. You don’t teach the rules of syntax to children until they have already become fluent in the use of speech. It would be equally absurd to require general rigid demonstrations to be expounded to beginners of the calculus.

One thing will the professed mathematicians say about this thoroughly bad and vicious book: that the reason why it is so easy is because the author has left out all the things that are really difficult. And the ghastly fact about this accusation is that — it is true! That is, indeed, why the book has been written — written for the legion of innocents who have hitherto been deterred from acquiring elements of the calculus by the stupid way in which its teaching is almost always presented.

I should note that my Calculus professor is actually quite good, and provides very nice explanations of complex topics, usually beginning with an elucidation of the general idea, and then going on to the formalities. But our assigned textbook is not nearly as clear, and many professors I’ve had in the past have lived entirely inside their constructed notational apparatus.

This reminds me of an old joke I heard awhile back:

A math professor begins his lecture by writing on the blackboard. He only pauses for brief moments of notational explanation, but continues writing and writing, one symbol after the other, for thirty minutes on end. He fills up six blackboards full of derivation, algebraic manipulation, and what have you. At the end, he smiles and draws the open box, indicating the completion of the proof. “Is that clear?” the professor asks. Blank stares all around.

At that point, the professor stops himself. “Oh, no, I believe I’ve made a mistake.” He then looks at the six boards of writing, and begins pointing at certain sections while nodding his head, clearly doing calculations internally. He then paces back and forth across the front of the classroom, with his head bent down and his fist to his chin. For five full minutes, he paces and nods, thinking about the proof just presented.

Then he stops pacing, looks at the students, and says, “Ah, yes, yes. It’s clear.”

Here’s an interesting read, by the way. Came as especially relevant to me, as I “rediscover” math for math’s sake.

My Facebook Profile, and Everyone Else’s

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

-“You need to change your Facebook profile.”
-“Why?”
-“My friends all think it’s weird.”
-“Why?”
-“Because you mention things like ‘corporate power’ on it.”
-“So?”
-“The Facebook is supposed to be fun, you’re supposed to not take it seriously.”

So here, let me propose my new Facebook profile so it can be more amenable to social pressures. I’ve decided that the Facebook has become just as insane as real life, and, unfortunately, just as predictable.

Here is my Facebook profile for the alternate reality in which I care about making Facebook friends:

Relationship: Married to someone of my own sex even though I’m obviously straight. Hah hah, I’m so ironic.

Political Views: Moderate, even though I’m obviously liberal or conservative, but I don’t want to offend anyone. It’s not cool to talk about politics!

Interests: in truth, none whatsoever, so let me just write cute unfunny stuff here, like “Drinking with roomie,” or “duh, The Facebook.”

Favorite Music: A mish-mash of hip-hop, indy rock, and classic rock, because then you’ll know my musical palate isn’t vulgar.

Favorite Movies: here’s my chance to wow everyone with how cultured I am, so I’ll have at least one Coen Brothers movie here, and one or both of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Waking Life.

Favorite Books: I don’t read on my own, because that’s not being social. So here are my choices: (1) my textbooks, because that’s ironic, and dodges the issue; (2) Catcher in the Rye or 1984, because I read that in high school and maybe no one will notice; or, (3) obviously bad books I’ve never read and no one will think I have, like “Treason” by Ann Coulter.

Favorite Quote: Something my roommate said while drunk. Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it? No, really, it’s funny… you had to be there. Or, if I take myself a bit more seriously that I can at least allow a quote, make sure it’s something about postmodernism or from a modern poem that makes minimal sense.

Now that you guys see I am capable of writing a Facebook profile exactly like all the others, perhaps you’ll stop asking me to. In the meanwhile, to make you all more comfortable being apathetic, I’ve censored political content from my interests. I’ve also deleted references to a comedian you’ve never heard of from my quotes section. If you’re lucky, I’ll promptly replace them with Jon Stewart quotes. (Politics is cool, apparently, only if it’s on TV.)

Disclosure: I have never read “Design Patterns”

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

But I decided I will now. Gonna buy this introduction plus the original by the Gang of Four in the next couple of days. Shame on me for waiting this long.

Just For Fun: The Story of Linus Torvalds

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

For the last couple of weeks, my bedside reading has been this half-biography, half-autobiography on Linus Torvalds. I have to say, however, that the book is like two books mixed into one. Chapters alternate between Linus talking about his life and about big moments in Linux’s history to David Diamond describing modern-day Linus with a kind of forced wonder. Truthfully, Diamond comes off as a sycophant who could care less about Linus’s flaws and positive characteristics, and cares more about molding some kind of “image” of Linus as containing a humility and genius simultaneously. Near the end, I started only skimming the chapters not written by Linus. Diamond’s really not a good writer, either. (Sorry Dave.)

Truthfully, the book kind of pops the lid off Linux and makes you understand it as much less glamorous than say Wired Magazine described it to the public. Linus really just talks about not having a social life, sitting in his room with curtains covering his window, coding all day. Not exactly the ideal role model, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Linux kernel (as much as one can love imperfect software), and Linus made a great contribution toward keeping the UNIX world and UNIX principles alive, but it’s just that I like to think of open source developers as something other than the stereotypical, introverted geek. In fact, much of Linus’s chapters is devoted to his apprehension about giving a public talk about Linux. When I think about the fact that I’ve given three or four of them to date, and enjoy it more every time, I see how different I am from this kind of stereotypical geek.

It also kind of made me dislike Linus. When I saw Revolution OS (a DVD on the rise of open source), the movie kind of endeared me to Linus’s practical nature as opposed to Richard Stallman’s religious idealism. I like idealism, but Stallman is really religious about it. And he’s bitter. Linus, on the other hand, has that great Northern European, “I’m just gonna go with the flow” attitude.

But this book made me realize that Linus is religious is his own sort of way. Included in the book is Linus’s flame war with Andy Tanenbaum on monolithic versus microkernel designs. Truthfully, I’ve studied operating systems and I’m not even sure which design is best, and Linus makes a decent argument of why microkernels end up being just as complex, or more complex than monolithic ones. But what I didn’t like is that in the flamefest, Tanenbaum said that deficiencies in MINIX were due to it being a hobby, and that he had duties as a professor. Linus responded, “Re 2: your job is being a professor and researcher: That’s one hell of a good excuse for some of the brain-damages of minix. I can only hope (and assume) that Amoeba [Tanenbaum’s future OS project] doesn’t suck like minix does.”

This just shows me that Linus really is an asshole sometimes. He states this outright in his book. So now, truthfully, I may like the open source movement, but I think I “at least dislike” two of its most major players (Torvalds and Stallman).

Finally, I think a clip from Tanenbaum’s website points out a nice principal in OS design:

Also, Linus and I are not “enemies” or anything like that. I met him once and he seemed like a nice friendly, smart guy. My only regret is that he didn’t develop Linux based on the microkernel technology of MINIX. With all the security problems Windows has now, it is increasingly obvious to everyone that tiny microkernels, like that of MINIX, are a better base for operating systems than huge monolithic systems. Linux has been the victim of fewer attacks than Windows because (1) it actually is more secure, but also (2) most attackers think hitting Windows offers a bigger bang for the buck so Windows simply gets attacked more. As I did 20 years ago, I still fervently believe that the only way to make software secure, reliable, and fast is to make it small. Fight Features.

I agree. But does a microkernel design actually reduce the overall size of the operating system, or does it just reduce the size of whatever you consider to be the “microkernel”? That is, just because a file system is implemented as a file system daemon talking to a driver subsystem through message passing doesn’t necessarily mean the file system, or driver subsystem, are secure. Insecurity could exist even at the boundaries, no? Not to mention instability.

I think Linus and Tanenbaum have to agree that this debate isn’t an open and shut case. The best kernel is probably one that mixes modularity, a strong kernel/userspace boundary, and some of the fancier features of a microkernel approach, while not sacrificing elegance of design or performance.

Gangs of America: The History of Corporate Power

Friday, August 19th, 2005

I am totally engrossed in this book at the moment. My Dad gave it to me to read, and I flew through about 100 pages today while allowing the aforementioned backup processes to run.

Among other such gems you discover in this book are these facts:

  • The Boston Tea Party wasn’t so much about taxation without representation or hatred for the British crown as it was about anticorporatism. Colonialists were worried about the East Indies Trade Company moving into the colonies and taking their business. Colonists used to see “globalization” for what it was even back then, calling the East Indies Trade Company a vile institution which “enslaves one half of the human race to enrich the other half.”
  • The founding fathers were thoroughly against the idea of the corporation, and thought that large monied enterprises were the greatest threat to democracy, as they could subvert the political system if they were not placed in check.
  • Even Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson saw these threats, and they were themselves supported by Adam Smith, the economist whose theories are nowadays oft-used in justifying corporate existence.
  • During the days of robber barons, one man essentially created the modern corporation by lobbying the government for the right to intercompany ownership, namely one corporation owning stock in another. Through this law, he established “holding companies,” whose only purpose was to hold stock in other companies. And via holding companies, he was able to take over other corporations and place his corporations outside of any regulation by the state governments. Furthermore, this same man whose foresight gave him great wealth, also provides a nice historical example of corporate greed that is unchecked by government power: he managed to buy up newspapers to fire editors who didn’t print what he liked, and he managed to buy politicians by offering them posts on the board of his major corporate entities.
  • Corporations were not always this way. Corporations do not have to be separate legal entities, completely unaccountable to any of its investors, able to integrate across industries by gobbling up other corporations, able to subvert democracy through political contributions, and able to ruin people’s lives through “externalities.” Once upon a time, American society and American government knew corporations were dangerous, and knew they needed to be carefully monitored and controlled. What happened?

I hope this book answers that last question.