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February 01, 2010

Apologies & Book reviews

To all regular readers of this blog:

I apologize for the lack of posts recently. I have had way too many things going on for me to sit down and write a blog post, and I'm afraid that there's probably not going to be another one soon. In a few weeks time, I should have sorted a few things out, and my compulsion to write blog posts will have returned.

In other news, I have decided to stop writing book reviews for this blog. That being said, I am still going to make book reviews -- except now they will be in video format! I have no idea if it will work, or if it's just a plain bad idea. Call it an experiment. If you want to see the first video book review, 'The Hunt For Red October', click here.

Discoveries so far: Talking to a camera is a strange and somewhat unsettling experience.

December 28, 2009

Popular Maths

Christmas is over, and a lot of us are presumably already enjoying our new presents. For me, no Christmas is complete without getting at least a couple of books, a present I always welcome. Lest I should sound like a total dweeb, I'd like to point out that I also wished for, and received, more standard presents. Still, a geek is a geek, and if you have followed my blog thus far -- or if you've had a peek at the 'About Me' section -- you may not be surprised to hear that I'm often given books discussing mathematical topics.

This year, however, I explicitly stated that I did not wish for any such books.

The reasons are twofold: First, it is a lot easier for me to decide which books are interesting and at the right level, and which books are too dull or too trivial. Additionally that means I can buy them second-hand, which saves money as well as paper. It is the second reason, though, that I want to focus on in this post. It may sound odd, but the majority of popular maths books that could potentially be a Christmas present, do not in fact target mathematicians like myself. Rather, they are meant to be enjoyed as gentle introductions to certain maths-related topics, to people whose main area of expertise is not maths. An appetizer, if you will. So whenever Iget one of these books, I always feel a little sad that whoever bought the book for me, did not buy it for him- or herself. 

Popular science books (books on popular science), such as Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' and Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything, are cropping up everywhere. Likewise, there are also plenty of popular maths books out there, some of which have received considerable attention and praise from the general public. Ian Stewart is worth mentioning in this context due to the popularity and success of his popular maths books, ranging from the serious, but still accessible, works ('Does God Play Dice', 'Letters to a Young Mathematician') to the more playful ones ('Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities', 'Math Hysteria'). Then there are books which explore presents one concept in detail, but in layman terms (like 'Imagining numbers', 'Fermat's Last Theorem'), books which explore a wide range of topics on a superficial level (like "Why Do Buses Come In Threes?' or 'How to Cut A Cake'), books which give a brief introduction to maths in general ('Introduction to Mathematics'), and so on.  Not to mention the somewhat childish yet extremely enjoyable 'Murderous Maths' series. I have read many of these, and always find them agreeable to read, but when I'm confronted for the 55th time with a detailed presentation of the golden ratio, I can't help thinking: I shouldn't be the one reading this.

Stephen Hawking writes in 'A Brief History of Time':

Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales

Most popular maths books are therefore written in an informal style and contains as few equations as possible, so as not to scare the reader. In fact, this is the main feature that distinguishes a popular maths book from a standard maths book. The author usually takes care not to lose the reader in his reasoning, and it is these clear explanations that sometimes make me realise: someone else should read this. I think this is where the problem lies. People think that any kind of maths is beyond them, and that they will never be able to understand or appreciate it. They think that what lies between the covers of those books is an inaccessible world, when in fact the content of such books is not the 'real' maths that university students are being taught, but a modified version of it, specifically designed to be understood by the non-specialist. My Algebra lecture notes are an example of a text that requires a certain degree of mathematical ability to read; 'How To Cut A Cake' isn't.

Please, come visit Mount Maths. It's a little lonely up here. But the view is incredible.

November 14, 2009

Review: The Black Swan

Not rated

I'd like to invite my readers to perform an amusing experiment. First, search the web for a page outlining the causes of the current financial crisis (I recommend the Wikipedia article on the matter), and skim through the sections to get an idea of how many different events could supposedly have been used as indicators of the upcoming disaster. Then, perform a new search, to find out how many experts saw it coming and how early they predicted it.

You should find a puzzling contrast between the two.

'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not a book about the global recession. In fact, it was first published in 2007 and does not even attempt to make any economic forecasts whatsoever. Still, the book bears a relation to the crises, as it is about the unpredictability in general. According to Taleb, the more significant events of human history, the ones that have the most impact, are not following a traditional cause-effect structure, but are intrinsically unpredictable events which He calls these events 'Black Swans' -- a reference to the unexpected discovery of the non-white swans -- and describes them as having the following three characteristics: Rarity, extreme impact, and restrospective (though not prospective) predictability.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next (Don't cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher.) How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet Bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

Taleb then goes on to describe two hypothetical worlds, Mediocristan and Extremistan. The former is a place where the common is the rule and where anything out of the ordinary is so insignificant that it can be ignored, while the latter is the exact opposite, a place where the highly improbable can have an massive impact, i.e. a place where Black Swans occur. In our world some things do belong to Mediocristan, like the height distribution of people ("extreme" cases have little to no effect on the global average), but a lot of other phenomena belong to Extremistan, like book sales (a few bestsellers can completely outweigh the enormous mass of lesser-known books) and often we don't realise it. Taleb uses these concepts to segue into various other related topics, such as the problem of induction, the flawed notion of an 'expert', empirical skepticism, and even the 80/20 rule and the Long Tail, which I wrote about in this post.

The style of the book is rather singular in my opinion. The book content is quite serious and displays profound insights and deeply held opinions of the author, and yet it is written in an entertaining and casual way. It is full of sophisticated expressions ("Epistemic arrogance", "Platonic fold") and references to well-known thinkers (David Hume, Karl Popper, Henri Poincaré, etc.), and yet in the same time it contains a lot of informal language, blatant sarcasm and cynicism, as well as several Yogi Berra quotes. If we set aside the actual content for the moment, I'd say it's definitely an enjoyable reading experience for anyone.

It is, however, the content that matters in a book like this. I personally found myself pleasantly agreeing with the author half of the time, and strongly disagreeing with him the other half. Taleb has a strong dislike for academics (due to their tendency to allegedly think inside the box and ignore unpredictable Black Swans), whereas to me the Academia is one of the most respectable and honest communities there is -- so there's already one point on which we don't see eye to eye. Furthermore I like to think that the world in which we live is predictable to some extent, and that through continuous effort and research it may be possible to construct more realistic models of reality,so 'The Black Swan' goes against much of what I believe in. But as Taleb says himself, you learn more by reading authors with whom you disagree. Taleb himself is very well-read, a fact which pervades the book, so while it is true that much of what he presents is his personal opinion, he has some strong evidence on his side and presents convincing arguments for his case. I also enjoy his bashing of macroeconomic theory and his criticism of financial experts and economic forecasters, not to mention his depiction of bankers, statisticians, and other people who pretend to be mathematicians. Finally, I am totally awed by the fact that he knows Benoît Mandelbrot personally.

I read 'The Black Swan' in the way I believe Taleb would have wanted me to: skeptically, and with an open mind. I do not blindly accept every word of his book, and still disagree with him on certain areas. But I have definitely learnt something from his book. I now see the world in a slightly different perspective, as I am sure anyone taking his book seriously would. If you are a firm believer in the predictability of historical events or in the principles of modern financial theory, I cannot promise that you will like what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has to say. That, however, doesn't stop me from recommending the book, especially if you are one of those people.

Other similar books include 'The (Mis)behaviour of Markets' by Mandelbrot, or 'Fooled by Randomness', Taleb's previous book.

August 18, 2009

Review: Praying Mantis

Not rated

I'm back! With another book review. Yay, I guess you all missed those terribly! This time presenting to you, one of those tragic books about the misery in Africa!

First of all, Praying Mantis is not the kind of book I usually spend my time reading. I tend to need something more fictitious, written for the sake of entertainment rather than information or awareness. In fact, I did not buy this book myself but was given it as a present a good while ago. I finally got round to reading it because I felt bad for leaving it unread for so long.

That being said, Praying Mantis is still a very good book by an author who has earned several prizes and whose works have been translated into thirty languages. I'll even go as far as saying that Praying Mantis is the best book about Africa that I have ever read. Okay, so I've only read two (the other one being Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), but my point is still valid.

The story is based on the life of Cupido Cockroach, a South African Khoi (or 'Hottentot' as they were known then) who was born sometime around 1760. Despite being based on a true story, it is written as a piece of fiction, and we thus get a detailed account account of Cupido's life and adventures, in a time where two colonial powers, the Netherlands and Great Britain, are disputing the control of South Africa. Cupido is born to a black slave and raised by his mother as a true Khoi, with stories about eagles, mantes, Tsui-Goab, Heitsi-Eibib, and more. However, his mother soon leaves him and Cupido ends up becoming a devoted Christian instead, after a lengthy period filled with all the things that Christians consider sinful (drinking, fighting, sex, etc.).

The book itself is divided into three parts:
The first one is about Cupido's life before becoming a Christian. It is told as a story, like the stories Cupido himself are being told by his mother, and constantly balances on the line between fact and legend, the explainable and the supernatural. The language is also surprisingly neutral, leaving it up to the reader to recoil at the shocking attitude of the white farmers.
The second part is written from the point of view of Reverend James Read - a missionary who befriends Cupido - and covers the period from Cupido's baptem to him becoming a missionary. The language is much more developed and subject to a slight Christian bias, in contrast with the first part of the book which has a more Khoi perspective on reality. As always, here's an extract from me to you:

[Brother Cupido's preoccupation with the Word] also led to wholly unforeseen excesses and convolutions. The most exorbitant, and also the most fantastic, came to light on a late Sunday afternoon when I chanced upon Brother Cupido some distance away form the mission in a small kloof overgrown with euphorbias, aloes and blue plumagoes (which I had by then laboriously begun to identify). It was a year or so after Anna Vigilant's death, and he was sitting with his Bible on his knees, tilted at an angle to catch the last deep yellow rays of the setting sun. [...]
He had not seen me approach as he was so engrossed with what he was doing, so I stopped in some perplexity to observe him. He was reading aloud to himself, following with one finger the words on the big page, as if each were an insect he had to crush before moving on to the next. [...]
When he reached the end of this page, just as I was preparing at last to step forward and address him, he performed a most stupendous action. He tore out the page of which he had just read recto and verso, crumpled it, and proceeded to stuff it into his mouth.
Both fascinated and horrified, I exclaimed, 'Brother Cupido!'
He looked up, startled, snapping the great book shut, then shook his head and continued to masticate for a good while before, with slightly bulging eyes and quite considerable effort, he swallowed.
By this time I was kneeling in the dust in front of him.
'Brother Cupido,' I repeated in complete consternation. 'What's happening? What are you doing?'
'I am consuming the Word of God,' he said in his sermonising voice, seemingly unperturbed.
'But...' I was at a loss for words. 'It is a new Bible, Brother!' I stammered stupidly, as if that made all the difference.
He shrugged.
'Why are you doing that?' I insisted in a much more peremptory voice than I customarily adopt.
'There is so much that I still do not understand, Brother Read,' he explained patiently, as if I were a child to be taught something of importance. 'So I decided I must eat it and swallow it to absorb it in my body. Only then will the Word of God be fully part of me. Then no-one can ever take it from me again. Is it not so?'
'But you have devoured nearly the whole Bible.'
'I still have Corithians to go. Then Galatians. Then Ephesians. Then --'
'I know, I know,' I interrupted. 'But surely this is not the way to go about it.'
'I spoke to God,' he said, 'and that is what He told me.'

The third part of the book concerns Cupido's doomed solo adventure as a missionary in Dithakong, a lost corner of South Africa. This is the hardest part to read, and in the same time the most important one. The objectivity of the first part has been forgotten, and the harsh behaviour of white people towards anyone black is clearly exposed. What makes this bit especially painful, is that everything keeps getting worse and worse for the poor Cupido we have come to love. Fortunately - and this is all-important in my opinion - Brink manages to turn things around in the end, and leave the reader with a perfect, almost magical ending.

The reason I enjoyed Praying Mantis more than Things Fall Apart, is that while the latter is written as one long mourning lament, pointing the finger at Christian settlers and categorising everything by either 'good' or 'bad', this books keeps a more neutral stance throughout most of the book and hence becomes a more pleasant reading experience. The injustice present in South Africa is still just as obvious, but it is sometimes up to the reader to deduce it, rather than having it slapped continuously in one's face. It is also less explicit in denouncing good and evil, which leaves us with a more realistic picture of the political situation, with Khoi, Xhosa, the English settlers, the Dutch farmers, and the Church, a very inhomogenous group in itself.

Recommending the book is tricky. If depiction of a historical setting through a work of fiction is your thing, go ahead and read it. Most probably will you enjoy it, and maybe even become an André Brink fan. If, however, you've never been thrilled by anything of this kind, Praying Mantis is not the book that is going to change this.

Next on the list is The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. I'll have to admit that the reading is proceeding far more quickly for that one.

April 05, 2009

Review: The Long Walk

Not rated

First book review on this blog. My first review ever, for that sake. I won't give any kind of ranking, because I don't believe a mark reflects anything. I would never give 1 or 2 stars to a book anyway, I simply would stop reading it.

The plot in The Long Walk is very simple and can be explained in a few sentences. In a dystopic future, a marathon called the Long Walk is organised once a year. 100 boys between 16 and 18 start at the Canadian border in Maine, and walk south; we follow the steps of Ray Garraty, number 47. It is not immediately clear what the Prize for winning is, but it's clearly something big. Downside: if you stop walking, you "get the ticket"... I won't spoil anything, but knowing Stephen King, you can come up with a qualified guess as to what "getting the ticket" means. The winner is the last man walking, so keep your pace above the required 4 mph!

The Long Walk is a remarkable book. Just like Rage (another novel Stephen King wrote under the pen name 'Richard Bachman'), it had a profound impression on me. If you're just looking for a nice and realixing horror book, The Long Walk might not do the trick. It's slow, and filled with cryptic passages during which not much happen. Plus, the ending is unclear, but we'll get back to that. However, if you delve into the book, and try to make sense of the seemingly random comments and outbursts of some of the boys, the development of Garraty's thoughts, the symbolism of the road and the crowd, and so on, a whole new layer is added to the book. Every boy in the Walk must have a reason to be walking, and with a bit of close-reading and imagination the reader can try to figure these out. Look out for references to surreal worlds, like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

That being said, the novel can easily be read and understood without paying attention to small details. It's entertaining in a very macabre way. Here's an extract so that you may see what the book is like. Two Walkers, Pearson and Scramm, are talking to each other. Scramm has caught a cold.

"You don't sound so good," Pearson said, and there might have been careful optimism in his voice.

"Luggy for me I god a good codstitution," Scramm said cheerfully. "I thing I'be rudding a fever now."

"Jesus, how do you keep going?" Abraham asked, and there was a kind of religious fear in his voice.

"Me? Talk about me?" Scramm said. "Look at hib! How does he keep going? Thad's what I'd like to know!" And he cocked his thumb at Olson.

Olson had not spoken for two hours. He had not touched his newest canteen. Greedy glances were shot at his foodbelt, which was also almost untouched. His eyes, darkly obsidian, were fixed straight ahead. His face was speckled by two days of beard and it looked sickkly vulpine. Even his hair, frizzed upin back and hanging across his forehead in front, added to the overall impression of ghoulishness. His lips were parched dry and blistering. His tongue hung over his bottom lip like a dea serpent on the lip of a cave. Its healthy pinkness had disappeared. It was dirty-gray now. Road-dust clung to it.

He's there, Garraty thought, sure he is. Where Stebbins said we'd all go if we stuck with it stuck with it long enough. How deep inside himself is he? Fathoms? Miles? Light-years? How deep and how dark? And the answer came back to him: Too deep to see out. He's hiding down there in the darkness and it's too deep to see out.

"Olson?" he said softly. "Olson?"

Olson didn't answer answer. Nothing moved but his feet.

"I wish he'd put his tongue in at least," Pearson whispered nervously.

The Walk went on.

Then there's the ending. Some endings make you go "No don't stop now, I want to know more!"; others make you go "Oh, that was a perfect ending"; others "That ending sucked."

The ending of The Long Walk made me go: "what."

One the one hand, the ending fits perfectly the rest of the book, because it is left to to the reader to decide what happened and what will happen. The last few pages are crammed with innocent words that are loaded with special meaning (or maybe I'm just imagining stuff). On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded getting a proper explanation of the ending. It's the ending that could probably spoil this book for some readers.

Then again, it's a genre that doesn't use "Happily Ever After".

April 02, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire was a book

Every time someone mentions 'Slumdog Millionaire', and stresses how wondeful a film it is, I can't help feeling slightly smug. Because years before the film came out, I read the book!

'Slumdog millionaire' is based on a 2005 novel called 'Q&A', by Vikas Swarup. And it doesn't surprise me that the film became such a success, because the book is absolutely magnificent! I bought it on a whim in an airport somewhere, and it then proceeded to become one of my favourite books. I won't explain the plot, bacuse chances are you've already seen the film, and therefore know the story. If you haven't, all I will say is that it's an original plot, a fascinating story that depicts the different facets of modern India in a captivating way, and a twisted but perfect ending. It's up to you if you want to see the film or read the novel, but by all means, do either.

I haven't seen the film myself, so I can't say if they've stayed faithful to the book in making 'Slumdog Millionaire' - but given its immense success, I'd say they have. I don't really have anything else to say in this post, so I'll end it with an extract from 'Q & A', a part that supposedly has been left out in the film. In the book, the protagonist is not called "Jamal Malik", but something different. He's adopted by a catholic priest, Father Timothy, who names him Joseph Michael Thomas. One day Father Timothy is visited by two men:

'We are from the All Faith Committee,' the fat man said. 'I am Mr Jagdish Sharma. This is Mr Inayat Hidayatullah. Our this board member, Mr Harvinder Singh, representing the Sikh faith, was also to come, but he is unfortunately held up at the Gurudwara. We will come straight to the point. We are told, Father, that you have given shelter to this little orphan boy. [...] What name have you given this boy?'

'Joseph Michael Thomas.'

'Isn't that a Christian name?'

'Yes, but-'

'How do you know he was born to Christian parents?'

'Well, I don't'

'Then why have you given him a Christian name?'

'Well I had to call him something. What's wrong with Jospeh Michael Thomas?'

'Everything. Don't you know how strong the movement is against conversion in these parts? Several churches have been set fire to by irate mobs, who were led to believe that mass conversion to Christianity was taking place.'


'What do you suggest I do?'

'Change the boy's name.'

'To what?'


Mr Sharma and Mr Hidayatullah debated the respective merits of Ram and Mohammad for the next thirty minutes. Finally, Father Timothy gave up. 'Look, if it takes a name change to get the mob off my back, I will do it. How about if I accept both your suggestions and change the boy's name to Ram Mohammad Thomas? That should satisfy everyone.'

Luckily for me that Mr Singh did not come that day.

March 29, 2009

Pi Day and more

Accoring to Wiktionary, this is the definition of a blog:


blog (plural blogs)

  1. personal or corporate website in the form of an online journal, with new entries appearing in sequence as they are written, especially as dealing with reflections or opinion, and typically incorporating links to other articles.
  2. An entry in a blog.

And according to UrbanDictionary:

1. blog 2345 up444 down love ithate it
Short for weblog. 
A meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life. Consists of such riveting entries as "homework sucks" and "I slept until noon today." 

Both definition seem to suggest that the entries in a blog should look like journal or diary entries. Hence, I apologise for the lack of details on personal events in my life. To make up for it, I'll write a small blog on what's been going on recently. It's not that I particularly enjoy writing such posts - indeed I'd much rather write something on the book behind Slumdog Millionaire, or an Anosmia FAQ - but I feel that posts like these ought to appear from time to time on a blog. Here goes.

Saturday 14th of March: start of Easter Break. And more importantly, International Pi Day! Given that the 14th of March would be written as 3.14 in American, this day has been chosen as an annual holiday in celebration of the mathematical constant pi. I had a Programming project due the following Monday, but I still managed to find the time to buy ingerdients and bake a pie (as any self-respecting mathematician would on Pi Day). I then proceeded to offer a slice to anyone still lurking around in Knightcote, and was very disappointed by how few people knew about this day. Some even thought it was something I'd made up myself. I must've loo ked like a lunatic. Anyway, here's the pie:

Pi Pie

Other Pi Day activities include learning digits of Pi, and doing the Pi Dance. One year, hopefully, I'll manage to gather enough other mathematician (or pseudo-mathematicians, like physicists, computer scientists or, God forbid, statisticians), so that we may have a true Pi Day Celebration.

Thursday 19th March: Going home. That is, back to Brussels, Belgium (is that still home? I honestly don't know any longer). The inexistant stalker who's been attentively reading every post of this blog, may wonder why my home is not somewhere in Denmark. Well, having Danish parents makes me Danish, but I was born and raised in Brussels. Danish is still my mother tongue. And no, I don't speak "belgianese". I speak French, but not Flemish.
So anyway, going back to Brussels means getting a bus to Coventry (20min), getting a train from Coventry to London (1h30min), walking from Euston to St-Pancras (5-10 min), waiting an hour or more in St Pancras because you're too early, getting your train from London to Brussels (2h30min), and then lose one hour because of time zone differences. But I'm not complaining, I actually quite enjoy riding trains.
This time, though, there was a problem at St-Pancras. I'd taken the wrong tickets with me. Don't ask. I'll spare you the details, but I managed to get a duplicate of my ticket got on the train just in time. Even though I'd walking around idly for more than an hour, doing nothing. Oh yes, I spent some time looking for a god-damned bin, in the entire St-Pancras train station, and concluded that there wasn't one. Minutes later I noticed that people were actually hired to walk around with wheeled bins. For anti-terrorism purposes, I presume.

Thursday 26th March: Finished watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. Fortunately, I was prepared for the rather quizzical and open ending. And you know what? To me, the ending was just as I wanted it! I have my own interpretation of what happened after the attack of Tabris, the meaning and goals of Seele, the goal of Gendo Ikari, and why the Angels attack. What I especially like about the ending is precisely how open it is: it is up to the viewer to come up with a coherent and consistent explanation to various events and statements in the series; while in the same time, hints are scattered through the anime as to what the "true" explanation is. All that being said, I shall probably watch The End of Evangelion one day, and see how that ending fits with my ideas.

29th March: Finished reading The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen. It's an autobiography, and it's the first biography I've ever read that I actually enjoyed. Alright, I've only read two or three, but that's because biographies usually don't appeal to me, I need some fiction. But this one was a delight to read! Chances are that the reason I liked it is because I can relate to what he says, so I guess reading a biography is a very personal experience. Still, the book in itself is quite nicely written, it's both reflective and funny.

Next book on the list: The Long Walk by Stephen King (under his pen name Richard Bachman). Maybe I should use this blog to write book reviews...

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