Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “Beyond Infinity” by Eugenia Cheng

Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng

Mathematician Eugenia Cheng really enjoys math, and her popular books bubble with her own excitement. And she’s a pretty darn good teacher, too.

Her recent book is all about the weird, twisty and awesome world of infinity.

We all have some nebulous ideas about “forever” and “more than you can count” and so on, but trying to make the idea of “infinity” logical is very difficult and, not to put too fine a point on it, mind-breaking.   Cheng’s book recounts how mathematicians have tamed this concept, and the cool ideas that had to be invented.

Infinity is weird.

One moment you think you know what is going on, and the next moment you look in a slightly different direction and everything falls away.” (p. 211)

But mathematics has worked hard to get solid footing.

It’s the joy of Infinity. The real joy, to me, is understanding the logic behind it, and seeing how to deal with these things with mathematical rigor.” (p.  270)

Throughout the book, Cheng uses phrases like “when a child is first learning” or “a young child who doesn’t know how to count yet” to introduce simple intuitions which underlie mathematical concepts. It sounds like she spends time playing with young kids (which she may well do), but this is also a way to defuse the ignorance of the non-technical reader (such as moi).

The result is one of the most painless explanations of, say, set theory, I’ve ever read (and I’ve been trying to grok set theory since Lyndon Johnson was President of the US).  Cheng also gives a mathematician’s explanation for why all those one-dimensional opinion scales (“strongly agree” – “strongly disagree”) drive me nuts (pp. 171-176). (Hint: they are projecting a multidimensional space onto a one-D line, which makes it impossible to actually express your actual (more than 1D) opinion.)

For that matter, now I have a much better (non-technical) of what “category theory” is about (Chapter 13). I’ve heard mathematicians talk about it for years, but no one ever explained it very clearly to a civilian like me. Cheng explains the basic idea, and in only a few pages.

Brava!

Actually, I’m not quite a “civilian”. After decades of programming computers, I have no problem at all understanding not only binary arithmetic and trees, but also the weirdness of whole numbers and the “gaps everywhere” in the number line.

Computer math is all Integers, and all computers have only so many numbers they can count—they are finite. All those fractions, and even those negative numbers on your computer are done with extremely clever and nerdy tricks that simulate continuous math. Cheng makes these groaty engineering problems fit into the larger picture of abstract math.

Above all, we get the sense of Cheng’s own lifelong love of math, and why it is interesting.

I often feel that I’m making no progress in math because everything I already know seems easy and everything I haven’t done yet is difficult….” (p. 39)

The most beautiful things to me are the things just beyond the boundary of logic.” (p. 278)

This is a remarkable and surprisingly enjoyable book. It is easy to see why her popular math books are praised so highly.


  1. Eugenia Cheng, Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics, New York, Basic Books.

 

Sunday Monday Book Reviews

Book Review: “How Not To Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

This is a widely praised book, and I can see why. It’s a really nice piece of popular mathematics, presenting many deep topics without distracting details.

I’ve booked enough college by now that I have heard of most of this stuff before. But even so, Ellenberg does such a great job of organizing and explaining things that I kept reading even when I already knew the “surprise ending”.

I also liked the serious tone. He didn’t succumb to the Hollywood rules, didn’t try to make it an exciting story, tragic or triumphant or conspiratorial. And, thank goodness, he didn’t try to tell how everything is connected to everything else. I’ve had enough of that stuff.

Ellenberg aims to be useful, and to show how mathematics applies to everyday life, even if you didn’t realize it. He says you can think carefully, following mathematical knowledge, even if you hate math.

To that end, he has a rather lot of discussion of lotteries, which these days are state sponsored mathematics tests. It’s still the case that the only way to win is to not play.

But, Ellenberg shows that there is a lot more to it. He also has a fine old time dissecting cases where a glitch in the design meant that you could win by playing the lottery. Or rather, some people could win.

And so on. The Laffer curve. The perils of statistical significance. Bayesian inference. Correlation and regression.

It’s difficult to be an informed citizen without a grasp of these issues.


Reading Ellenberger actually helped me in a couple of my own ongoing writing projects.

His explanation of survivor bias made me realize that this phenomenon holds a possible answer for the questions “Why are coworkers so satisfied with coworking?”

Survey after survey reports that members of coworking spaces say they are happy, productive, “thrive”, etc. (E.g., [3]) These rates are much, much higher than workers in any other type of workspace. Reading Ellenberger crystallized my intuition that this could well be selection bias, a survivor bias. Unhappy coworkers don’t cowork, and aren’t sampled.

A second highlight for me is Ellenberger’s extensive discussion of voting schemes, and the dilemmas and paradoxes found in trying to assess opinions of groups. His chapter gave me a better understanding of my intuitive skepticism of enthusiastic (often techie) advocates of blockchain based voting schemes [4], “reputation economies” [2], and Distributed Autonomous Organizations.

There are any number of variations of these themes, people searching for just the right algorithm that will automatically, and uncorruptably, represent group opinions and magically save democracy and humanity. (These are the same folks who sometimes think that the solution to creating trusted systems is to use “trustless” algorithms.)

Reading Ellenberg throws cold water on a lot of these ideas. There is no one right way to do voting, even for abstract versions of the problem that ignore the messiness of the real world. No formal system (algorithm) can represent the will of the group in all cases, however you define “the will of the group”. Speaking mathematically, Ellenberg also feels that any election so close as to be within the margin of error might just as well be decided by the toss of a coin. There are days when I agree with him.


This is an excellent book. It won’t actually help you always be right, but it will help you be numerically literate in the contemporary world.


  1. Jordan Ellenberg, How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, New York, Penguin Books, 2014.
  2. Michael Fertik and David C. Thompson, The Reputation Economy: How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation is Your Most Valuable Asset, New York, Crowne Business, 2015.
  3. Gretchen Spreitzer, Peter Bacevice, and Lyndon Garrett, Why People Thrive in Coworking Spaces. Harvard Business Review, 93 (8):1-7, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/05/why-people-thrive-in-coworking-spaces
  4. Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2016.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book review: “Made With Creative Commons” by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson

Made With Creative Commons by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson

The Creative Commons (CC) has been around for a while now (since 2002, which is several eons in Internet years), and has to be considered very successful, at least in its initial ambitions. Creative Commons licenses are widely known and used, and they solve the technical problem they were created to solve: they are a universally recognized standard for controlled sharing of intellectual property.

I have always admired the clear sighted way CC laid out and explains their licenses. “There is no one right way.” ([1], p. 41) But they have worked out a range of very sensible alternatives, which make it easy to do what you mean to do in a standard way.

If nothing else, CC has given the world an array of possibilities. No one is forced to share via CC, but the multiple CC licenses lay out ways that you can share if you want to. Do you want to share, but always preserve your credit (Attribution)? Do you want to preserve your creation whole, or allow people to modify it (No Derivatives)? Do you want to preserve rights to make money (No Commercial)? Do you want to share, with the provision that everyone who uses the work must also share what they do (Share Alike)? Just asking myself these questions, inspires me to want to try it out!

Of course, Creative Commons has always been about more than license language,. The overall goal is to foster global culture and to use the Internet as the repository of shared, common information. The Commons, for the benefit ao all humankind.

In recent years, CC has been moving to new directions, and this book is a part of the new direction.

Basically, the “strategy” aims at three goals:

We need to talk about sharing,”
Towards a vibrant, usable commons,” and
Let’s light up our global commons.”

Boiling these down, CC is moving to try to make it easier to share, and generally to get a lot more sharing going on. I note that the essential accomplishments of CC’s first decade is succinctly summed up in only two and a half pages of this book, Chapter 3. The rest of the book is the new stuff.

One aspect of this new project is to consider financial models. The global commons may be powered by “joy and gratitude”, but people need to eat.

Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson’s new book, Made With Creative Commons, is all about this topic–economic viability. As they say, the original notion was to document successful “business plans” that use CC. But the “open business plans” they found are not really about the money, they are about how to succeed in a very broad sense.

What we didn’t realize was just how misguided it would be to write a book about being Made with Creative Commons using only a business lens.” (p.20)

To this end, the book includes short but useful chapters that define “commons”, particularly the “digital commons”, and the challenges of navigating commons in a world of markets and states.


Even though this book is about how to make money using CC, it’s not about money. It can’t be, because it’s about values.

Sharing work with Creative Commons is, at its core, a moral decision.” (p.20)

Being Made with Creative Commons is not just about the simple act of licensing a copyrighted work under a set of standardized terms, but also about community, social good, contributing ideas, expressing a value system, working together. “ (p. 30)

sharing with a Creative Commons license is a symbol of how you want to interact with the people who consume your work” (p. 20)

Stacey and Hinchli suggest that using CC is beneficial in a variety of ways.

First, CC can be very valuable with ‘Problem Zero: getting discovered’. Specifically,

  • CC can help grow audience, gain name recognition, differentiate
  • CC can be a marketing tool (loss leader)
  • CC can foster “hands on engagement”—tinkering creates demand, and committed followers

CC can be used in business models that make money in a variety of ways. These concepts aren’t especially novel, but CC can play a valuable role. Many creators or companies share part or all of their work, and sustain themselves viaL

  • Selling other services. E.g., Sell in-person version (e.g., live concerts). Advertising. Help or other consulting.
  • Charging some users (e.g., charge content providers for uploads)
  • Memberships, pay-what-you-want, crowdfunding

But, by sharing via CC,  “Rather than simply selling a product or service, they are making ideological, personal, and creative connections with the people who value what they do.“ (p. 30)

The authors consider that sharing is also a personal connection between a creator and the people who consume their work.

“the common strategies that creators, companies, and organizations use to remind us that there are humans behind every creative endeavor. To remind us we have obligations to each other. To remind us what sharing really looks like. (p.31)

This seems to require more than a commercial relationship. It is a human relationship.

  • Be human (“But it can’t be a gimmick. You can’t fake being human. “ p.31
  • Be open and accountable
  • Design for the good actors
  • Treat humans as humans
  • State you principles and stick to them
  • Build community
  • Give more than you take….
  • Involve people

Clearly, there is much more to CC than digital rights.


The bulk of the book is 24 case studies, ranging from ‘Arduino” to “Wikimedia”. These cases reveal a great variety of ways to do it. For that matter, there are quite a variety of “its” to do. There is a common theme, throughout:

Regardless of legal status, they all have a social mission. Their primary reason for being is to make the world a better place, not to pro t. Money is a means to a social end, not the end itself.” (p. 14-15)

I am familiar with some of the cases, though I did not necessarily understand their business models. (‘Open source’ means that users do not need to know how you make money!)

The enterprises studied are mainly digital, but some have substantial “analog” components. Even in cases that offer similar products and services, there are different approaches to making money.

The cases in this book examine some of the business models for these enterprises.

  • Grants
  • Charging for uploads and publication
  • Custom implementations for institutions
  • Crowdfunding
  • Value added (e.g., metrics, tools for assessment)

Pretty much every business model you can think of is represented except purely commercial ownership and slavery.

The enterprises include:

Individual creators (e.g., writers and musicians): Fans are your friends, friends share. CC lets creators retain credit, allow reuse or not, and reserve commercial rights.

Media distribution: digital images, music, etc. – Individual creators benefit from large markets that attract users and expose their work. CC licenses protect the interests of creators who wish to share, while allowing services to make enough money to operate.

Journalism – The purpose of journalism is to share information, but it must be available to everyone, and it must be authoritative. CC licenses let journalists share while protecting the integrity of the product, through Attribution, controlling Derivatives, and controlling commercial use.

Knowledge Enterprises: Libraries, Archives, Journals, Textbooks, etc. – The vast common heritage of humankind needs to be shared by all. This includes school books, science journals, cultural museums, and lots of other kinds of knowledge. CC licenses make it possible to share widely with the people who need the information, which protecting the interests of creators and sustaining the services that make the sharing possible.

Things: design and know-how for building – The vast common heritage of humankind include making. CC isn’t limited to digital artifacts, and these days “how to” is usually represented in digital materials including plans, software, tutorials, and consulting.


While sharing is “a moral decision” (p. 20), this book surveys all the ways that people manage to both freely share and accrue enough resources to continue to share. Whether formally “for-profit” or “not-for-profit”, the main point is not to make money, it is to make enough money to continue the mission.

The business models described in these case studies are surprisingly diverse, ranging from conventional grants, sponsorship, and advertising, through a variety of user fees and “extra” products, and ultimately the “pay-what-you-want” model (essentially, digital busking). Many operations use a combination of approaches.

The book documents the ways that CC helps these enterprises accomplish their goals. A CC license is the clearest possible signal that the creator wants to share, as well as a universal declaration of the rules that apply in each case.

This signal is used by creators to publicize their own values, and to define a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with their audience and consumers. For most of the cases, these values and relationships are the social capital that is the very core of the enterprise.

It’s hard to know the ultimate importance of these kinds of enterprises in the grand scheme. The world economy seems to be dominated by a mixture of restrictive property rights and uncontrolled appropriation. I think that CC offers an interesting middle way.

This book helps make the case that sharing is both a morally and economically rational.

Very interesting, and highly recommended.


  1. Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson, Made With Creative Commons, Copenhagen, Ctrl+Alt+Delete Books, 2017. https://creativecommons.org/made-with-cc/

 

Sunday Saturday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Discovering the Mammoth” by John J. McKay

Discovering the Mammoth by John J. McKay

Speaking of paleontology….

Before there were dinosaurs and other prehistoric wonders, there were petrified remains of animals, plants, sea shells. From earliest days, humans have found them, and recognized that they appear to be life that no one has seen alive.

But to understand fossil remains, you have to be able to imagine that what we know now is not all there is to know. You have to be able to accept that the Earth is old, that it has changed a lot through time, and, above all, species of animals and plants emerge, change, and may even die out.

These concepts are hard to grasp, even when there aren’t dogmatic religious or folks stories contending.

McKay recounts how European thinkers “discovered” the Mammoth, a prehistoric elephant that died out at the end of the last ice age. As he notes, the tusks and other bones of Mammoths were known for many centuries, as well as other related species. But the notion of extinction was alien to the Western philosophy (Pagan, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, alike), and almost no one thought of the world as being millions of years old.

Most of the book is a history of Renaissance and Enlightenment times, during which Europeans became aware of the wider world, including the remains of unknown animals. He tracks down nearly every written mention of Mammoths and related fossils. This is a tangled mess of speculation and blinkered assumptions that only slowly recognized the actual evidence.

This story meanders through central Europe, Colonial New Spain, Colonial America, and, above all Siberia. In Siberia, there are not only massive numbers of Mammoth tusks and bones, but there are whole frozen Mammoths! It’s difficult to mistake or deny that these remains are a real and once living animal when you can smell the rotting carcass from miles away.

I learned lots about the early exploration of Siberia, and more than I really care about the politics of eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia.

McKay says that understanding the Mammoth is basically the beginning of paleontology, and he has a good point. Working out that Mammoths are related to but not the same as modern elephants, that they lived a long time ago, and that they are extinct took huge leaps of imagination. Furthermore, establishing the case required moving from travellers’ tales and biblical analogy to careful excavation, comparative anatomy, geological stratigraphy, and knowledge of similar finds all around the world. These are the very definition of modern paleontology, and the problem of the Mammoth was one of the first real successes.

Ironically, the Mammoth is also one of the most intriguing of all the extinct species because it overlapped with Homo Sapiens, even if there is no living memory of that fact. We know this because we have paintings and etching of Mammoths and other extinct fauna, made by our ancestors, who knew them and likely hunted them.

Thus, figuring out the story of the  Mammoth also helped push the history of humans far into the past, and far beyond most folk stories and Biblical narratives. This is one of the crucial intellectual turning points where a thinking person is forced choose between science and received revelations.  Do I believe the traditional story, or the evidence of my own eyes?

The beginning of paleontology is also one of the great beginnings of natural science in general. Mammoths are not only old and extinct, but they were normal (if extraordinary) animals who lived by the same natural laws that we live by today. This notion that scientific theory extends to all times and places is the essence of the scientific enterprise.

McKay appears to be really, really into Mammoths. The book jacket says he is “the Mammoth Guy”, and that seems to be accurate. He is also a historian, and it shows. This book has some interesting history in it, possibly too much history. (Honestly, I completely lost track of who was who in Russia circa 1800.)

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a lot more about Mammoths, and less about eighteenth century opinions about Mammoths. I suspect that McKay could write such a book, and maybe he will.


  1. John J. McKay, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science, New York, Pegasus Books, 2107.

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Weird Dinosaurs” by John Pickrell

Weird Dinosaurs by John Pickrell

You had me at “Dinosaurs”! : – )

I mean, a big part of the appeal of Dinophilia is that Dinosaurs are, and always have been mind-blowingly weird.

Pickrell’s point, of course, is that the last two decades have seen an explosion of new fossils, as well as new information from Buck Rogers technology. The weirdness we knew and loved has gotten even more weird.

Just as a for instance: when I was a lad, Triceratops was Triceratops, with three horns. One of the plates in this book is a painting of dozens of different species of Triceratops with an astonishing variety of facial horns and crests. It’s stunning.

This fine little book is a quick tour around the world, sampling the newest Dinosaur discoveries from China, South America, Australia, Antarctica—everywhere. Mostly, this is about all the new species of Dinosaurs that have been discovered, but the main point is the diversity and wonderful strangeness of the new understanding of the ancient times.

Some of the discoveries have had a splash of publicity, but almost all of the big finds are part of a stream of equally interesting, but less known new discoveries.

Pickrell gives a lot of attention to the history and lives of Paleontologists. These Dinosaurs didn’t discover themselves, and the story of how they were found and interpreted is important and cool.  He’s also a working paleontologist, so he explains the techniques and challenges of the field work that yields these wonders.

In some cases, fossils were uncovered a long time ago, and have been reinterpreted in light of later information. Other finds have been lost forever, but reconstructed from new data. Yet others have been discovered in some dusty back room. And, of course, whole new regions of the world are being scientifically explored for the first time.

Altogether, the story of Dinosaurs, and birds and mammals, too, is becoming much more complicated and nuanced. Everywhere we look there are more and different Dinosaurs, and we know that there are far more to be found.


Pickrell is a good writer, and his love of Dinosaurs comes through on every page. He seems to get to travel all over the world visiting Paleontologists, which is good work if you can get it.

The biggest problem with the book is that there are so few pictures. Honestly, telling me a list of all the species found at a given location is impossible for me to follow, especially with no illustrations to help. This is definitely a book that deserves a plate on every few pages. I know that is probably impractical, but I can wish for it.


  1. John Pickrell, Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, New York, Columbia University Press, 2016.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

 

Book Review: “Will Save Galaxy For Food” by Yahtzee Croshaw

Will Save Galaxy For Food by Yahtzee Croshaw

This is a deep, dark and thought provoking novel, tightly interwoven and densely textured.

Not!

If that’s what you were looking for, I have no idea why you thought you would find it here! 🙂

What’s the point here? We don’t need no steeking point!

The cover suggests that this is “A Satirical Sci-fi Adventure”. I have no idea what exactly is being satirized here. Bad science fiction? Video games? I dunno. And I don’t care.

Blasters!  Star ships!  Aliens!  Space pirates! Gritty working class space pilots!

‘Nuff said.

Croshaw is apparently known as a video game commentator, and also designs video games. It’s no surprise, then, that WSGFF reads like a video game. One “puzzle” after another, lots of blasting things, tons of visual effects, shallow jokes, and thin characters.

The plot makes no sense, and the technology is definitely video game cartoony. The situations are silly, and the characters trivial. The dialog is, again, video game grade.

I didn’t find this story exceptionally interesting or funny. But then, I grew bored with video games about thirty years ago, so this isn’t my cup of tea.

WSGFF is light read, not requiring much concentration. If you like video games, you might like this story.


  1. Yahtzee Croshaw, Will Save Galaxy For Food, Milwaukee, Or, Dark Horse Books, 2017.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Seven Wonders” by Adam Christopher

Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher

Another one by Adam Christopher from a few years ago.

Seven Wonders (2012)  is the pure white powder—a superhero comics without the pictures. We know that Hollywood can’t get enough comic book stories these days, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that screenwriter Christopher seems to like this style, and is pretty good at it.

Seven Wonders is pretty well written, an alternative world filled with wonder and superheroes—lot’s of them. There are hundreds of superheroes and a few super villains, with costumes and preposterous names. No two super beings have the same powers, so it is all quite exhausting to keep track of.

Unfortunately, these beings are comic book grade characters; shallow, stupid, and violent. Much of the dialog is idiotic. The alternative world is long on wonder and short on logic. Nothing makes sense, and the plot of the story is pretty pointless.

I read it right through. Did I like it? Not a lot.

The story itself is comic book level silly. Nothing of interest happens, though a lot of people get hurt and killed. Lot’s of flashy violence, not much meaningful talk or action.

The story itself is complicated and rather dark. Hewing to the comic genre, there are lots of fist fights, and not a lot of thinking-before-you-punch. There are only fragments of love stories, which last a few pages before someone kills someone, usually for almost no reason.

For that matter, there seems to be no normal life in this world. Families, friends, jobs—these are just the civilian background upon which the mighty superheroes play out their games. And there are a lot of civilian casualties.

The super beings appear to be scheming dunces. Every one of them is keeping secrets from their own allies, and they seem to lack any sort of understanding of people or strategy. Their vast technological and magical capabilities seem to give them little intelligence about the city, its people, or the various crimes and threats out there.

In short, these are highly unattractive and less than heroic heroes. Perhaps that’s the joke, but if so, it’s an awfully long and tedious joke.

Throw in the hazy line between good guys and bad guys, and their tendency to switch sides, and its no wonder that some of the civilians have a rather cynical attitude.

Enough already, Bob.  This story obviously isn’t my cup of tea exactly.

But Christopher does exhibit a fine, if rather limited imagination. Given his other works, I have to assume that the limitations of this book were intentional, staying within the boundaries of comiciness. I’m not sure that a comic without pictures is an especially great format, at least not for me. If I’m doing to read 300 pages of prose, it might be nice to have a bit more substance.

I can’t resist a comparison to Valente’s Refrigerator Monologues, which plays with the same comic-iness, but has a lot more interesting characters and situations. A lot more.

This book is not terrible, but it’s not Christopher’s best work, as far as I’m concerned.


  1. Adam Christopher, Seven Wonders, Long Island City, Angry Robot, 2012.

 

Sunday Book Reviews