Short reviews: non-fiction

The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Richard Feynman)

The Feynman Lectures on Physics (FLOP) is an incredible resource on basic physics. Feynman has an inimitable style: he is always clear, never the slightest bit pretentious, and has an eerie ability to cut through tangles of models, assumptions, and equations to get at the fundamental point. Often you can feel Feynman’s infectious enthusiasm through the page.

There are some issues with trying to learn physics from FLOP. There are no exercises, so you cannot test your understanding very easily.

Another reason is that the easy flow and elegant arguments make it less structured. If a typical textbook is like taking an official tour through a city, methodically exploring everything there is to see, the general feel of FLOP is more of chasing after a boundlessly enthusiastic tour guide as he zips from place to place using various shortcuts, leaving you with the nagging feeling that, while it was certainly very fun, you might not be able to retrace the route afterwards.

Feynman has a remarkable ability to introduce just enough background to pull off some proof or argument. This makes for some brilliant arguments that are fun to follow, but, particularly when it comes to mathematical tricks, left me with the feeling that if I didn’t have more background than Feynman introduces, I would be lost.

(Given a solid understanding of calculus and complex numbers, there are no great leaps required to follow the mathematics in volume 1. Volume 2 deals mainly with electromagnetism, which relies on vector calculus; at the time I was reading it, I didn’t have a solid grasp on that and this made parts difficult to follow. I still haven’t had a chance to read through everything in the second half of volume 2, and have read nothing from volume 3 and so cannot comment on it.)

Overall, FLOP is a brilliant resource. Perhaps it works best as a reference volume; there are many arguments that I do not remember off the top of my head, but which I remember are presented with extreme clarity in FLOP. Of course, without reading through at least once, how will you know what’s in it?

The Character of Physical Law (Richard Feynman)

The Character of Physical Law is based on another series of lectures Feynman that gave. It attempts to squeeze out maximum understanding and reflection about what physics is about from a minimum of abstruse maths.

It succeeds.

The focus is not on what the laws themselves are, but rather on the common themes in many of them: conservation principles, symmetry, and, of course, maths. The combination of clear explanation and reflection without pretence or overstretched philosophy is unbeatable.

If you read one popular physics book, make it this one. It is as close to the heart of physics as you can get without heavy mathematics.

If you are serious about physics, you will of course have to dive into the maths. But read this book anyways.

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (David Christian)

I have rarely agreed with the purpose of a book as much as I do with the purpose of Origin Story.

The idea is that an origin story explaining where the world came from and what humanity’s place in it is has been a foundational part of most human cultures in history. Ironically, just as our civilisation is now figuring out the real answers to these questions, a collective understanding of our “origin story” is missing. This is the gap that Origin Story – and the field of big history in general – aims to plug.

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality (Walter Scheidel)

Inequality is a trendy topic. Coherent insights into its history and how to quantify it are notably less trendy.

The Great Leveler provides both in spades. Optimism is in somewhat shorter supply. Scheidel identifies “Four Horsemen of Leveling” that have historically driven large decreases in inequality: total war, violent revolution, state collapse, and pandemics. If, as Scheidel cautions, welfare democracies probably won’t buck this trend, it looks like coronavirus is our only chance.

The Strategy of Conflict (Thomas Schelling)

You are in a car, driving directly towards another car. You will soon crash. The rules of the game are simple: the first one to swerve loses. How do you win? You close your eyes, throw away the steering wheel - basically, anything that both removes your ability to act and credibly signals this to your opponent.

The Strategy of Conflict is all about delightfully - and sometimes scarily - counterintuitive problems in game theory, in particular conflict of the nuclear sort. The general theme is that reducing your ability to make choices and committing to irrational acts can be the most powerful tools at your disposal. If you can commit to something in advance, regardless of whether it is in your rational interest to do it when the time comes, you can change the payoffs for your opponent, and hence possibly change what they calculate their best action to be.

The Doomsday Machine (Daniel Ellsberg)

My brief notes on this book snowballed into a full review, which you can find here. If you’re getting tired of the coronavirus pandemic, why not put things into perspective by reading about nuclear war?

Founders at Work (Jessica Livingston)

Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with startup founders. The book doesn’t try to be anything fancy, or make any deep conclusions about how the technology industry works. Its main value – and this is not a trivial thing – is as a source of “virtual experience” that you can download into your brain. Reading dozens of founders reflecting on their experiences with the guidance of a knowledgeable interviewer is the second-best thing to having that experience yourself.
Perhaps the two most basic and recurring themes are:
  1. In a (good) startup, everything is as barebones, minimalist, and plain as possible. The working place might be the stereotypical garage, someone’s apartment, or there might not even be one. Money is saved in endlessly creative ways. At most, you occasionally might have to dress up or pretend to have a normal office to impress investors. This theme is summarised by a story told in the introduction: some people tried to figure out how to make a sports car go faster, and eventually realised the key was to remove everything that makes it look like it goes fast.
  2. In the early stages, no one has any idea what they’re doing

Security Engineering (Ross Anderson)

The lecturer for my current software & security engineering course is publishing the third edition of his security engineering textbook online chapter by chapter (“like Dickens’ novels”, as he describes it). The textbook is extremely readable, and many of the case studies are both illuminating and funny. Read it here.

Be warned that most of the chapters will disappear from the website for several years after the book is published. However, they will return afterwards, and the same page linked above also has all the chapters from the second edition, which has already passed this period and is free online forever.

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