Customer Reviews: The Logician and the Engineer: How George Boole and Claude Shannon Created the Information Age
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon October 18, 2012
Despite the title, the detailed description of this book on its cover and in accompanying material by its publisher, it is NOT a biography. It only gives the appearance of being biographical. The title subjects only make their (brief) appearance in chapter three. Then it's on to the real business - math. I was expecting a very cool, parallel story of how the 19th century Boole foreshadowed the brilliant 20th century Shannon, how there were parallels in their lives, how coincidences piled up, how hints from one resulted in achievements in the other - how Shannon cashed in on what Boole couldn't even imagine from his own work. How Shannon redeemed Boole.

There's none of it.

This is a book on electrical circuit design, by a professor of electrical engineering and mathematics. It is a textbook for the enthusiastic student entering the field. Nahin is clearly far more at ease in formulas than in narrative. The ubiquitous exclamation points and overuse of italics are vivid testament to that. The biography reader will be lost after the first formula is built. This book is about the math, not the people.

But as such, there is nothing wrong with this book. It is clear, organized, inviting, and easy to digest if you are interested in the subject matter. But let's be clear - the subject matter is circuit design, not Boole and Shannon. After chapter three, Boole barely gets mentioned at all, while Shannon pops up here and there because of a relevant paper (and the occasional joke). But these appearances are as scientific references, not biographical events or descriptions.

Ironically, Nahin ends the book with the story of The Language Clarifier, a black box used to interpret legalese so that mere mortals could comprehend what the fatheads (his term) had written. If only the publishers had been required to use it, this book might not be so misleading.
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on December 7, 2012
I wanted to learn more about how Shannon conceived his Channel Capacity concept and equation. Nahin may understand this, but he certainly didn't explain it in his book. I also wanted to learn something about the relative contributions that Shannon and Nyquist made to the argument that analog data can be perfectly represented by digital samples. I was disappointed here, as well. Nahin is probably an excellent teacher of digital circuit design. He covers Boole's not-so-well-known contributions to math pretty well. But, don't buy this book if you mainly want to understand the deep significance of Shannon's early work.
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on February 25, 2013
I found this book interesting and easy to read. It is written in a sort of drive by, essay style. There are many noteworthy (but sort of random) facts I did not know in this book. I checked it out of my local library, and I enjoyed reading it, but I was not looking for anything other than entertainment (infotainment?). I would not own it, however, because it warrants only one reading. It does not present anything in enough detail to justify buying it. It does not really live up to its title, either, but is more of a smattering of tidbits, facts, and reminiscences than a focused treatise on the 'creation of the information age' as it purports to be. Never mind that it is not a biography by any stretch. Still, I think the book would be fun (if you hang out with mathematicians, engineers, or programmers) as a conversation starter, or a list of topics to discuss. It is definitely entertaining, but probably not so much to non-techies.

Should you trust a book about logic when itself contains muddled reasoning? I found one section of this book where the author apparently did not read what he wrote. In section 8.1 p 139 ff the author is explaining 'states' with the classic example problem of the two adults and two children on one side of a river, with a boat that holds only one adult or two children, the problem being how to get everyone over to the other side when anyone can row. Fair enough, he shows 10 'states' where everyone ends up safely on the other side of the river. But then, writing that sometimes we want the two children to be left on the original side of the river with the boat, and not to end up across the river, because they are running a 'transportation service,' he makes the embarrassing error of writing that we now need an additional eleventh 'state' to get the children back to the original side leaving the two adults across the river. But the children were already on the original side of the river with the boat at 'state' number 9, and the two adults were safely across the river! This is clearly not simply a typo. The author leaves no doubt that he was not paying attention to his own writing when he directs us to note that the same 'state' never occurs twice. But 'state' 9 is exactly the same as the 11th 'state' he says we now need!

It is clear this book was scarcely edited or proofread and (probably) written in a hurry.
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on December 26, 2012
Paul Nahin's book, "The Logician and the Engineer," is deficient
in several ways.

Its first deficiency is that Nahin has relatively little to say
about the putative subjects of his book, filling in with a
congeries of topics of interest to himself. In spite of the
book's sub-title -- "How George Boole and Claude Shannon Created
the Information Age" -- Boole and Shannon are minor actors in
this book. Of its more than 220 pages, one 24-page chapter
provides brief biographies of Boole and Shannon, and another
chapter of the same length discusses Boolean algebra. The bulk of
the book, however, is given over to digital circuit-design,
probability, Turing machines, logic puzzles, and speculations
about future computers.

The reader gets a warning of strange things to come in Chapter 1,
entitled "What You Need to Know to Read This Book." The chapter
focuses heavily, and weirdly, on potentiometers, ending with a
demonstration of the parabolic shape of the resistance-function
of two ganged potentiometers. Oddly for an electrical engineer,
Nahin states that the term "rheostat" is "a rather old-fashioned
word" for a potentiometer. Potentiometers and rheostats are
actually quite different devices. Although both are three-
terminal variable resistors, a potentiometer is a voltage-divider
that uses all three terminals, whereas a rheostat uses two
terminals (the slider and one other terminal) to control current
by connecting a variable resistance in series with the load.

A second deficiency of this book is its pervasive carelessness.
An example is the section-title, "The Mathematician," that begins
the chapter on Boole and Shannon -- even though Boole is called
"The Logician" in the book's title. This carelessness is also
exhibited by misspellings such as "Pierce," "Goldstein," and
"Baggage." These are readily interpreted by readers interested in
computers and logic. More likely to cause confusion is his
reference to "the 1940 Alfred Nobel Prize" awarded to Shannon.
This prize is named after Alfred Noble, not the famous Swede.

The rest of my comments concern a final deficiency of this book:
its shaky grasp of Boolean algebra and the work of Boole and

Nahin's chapter on Boolean algebra is particularly muddled. In
the section, "Boole's Algebra of Sets," he announces that Boole
"used our inclusive-or + symbol for his exclusive-or." Boole's +
is not, however, exclusive-or. Boole invented two algebras in his
"Laws of Thought." In the first, the sum x+x has no meaning; the
addends must be disjoint. In the second algebra, x+x=2x. In the
section of this chapter entitled "Propositional Calculus," Nahin
defines a proposition, discusses some propositional operations,
and then announces that he's really been talking about Boolean
algebra: "There is nothing more to Boolean algebra than what I've
already told you." Later in this section he asserts, "Boolean
variables can have just one of two values (0 or 1). So, to
confirm an identity, all we have to do is examine, one by one,
all the possible combinations of variable values (a finite
number)." Unlike propositions, however, Boolean variables can
have values other than 0 or 1. Some examples are a subset of a
set, a divisor of 30, and a'+b. It is indeed true that one need
only consider the values 0 and 1 to verify an identity (this
property is confirmed by the Lowenheim-Muller Verification
Theorem), but not because a Boolean algebra is necessarily two-

Nahin is enthusiastic about Shannon's "famous epiphany of
marrying Boolean algebra with electrical switching circuits" in
his 1938 paper, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching
Circuits" -- but seems not to have read the paper. Rather than
Boolean algebra, Shannon's analysis is based on propositional
logic. (Shannon mentions Boole as an historical figure, but does
not cite Boole, or any work on Boolean algebra, in his
references.) In a further misunderstanding of the paper, Nahin
reverses Shannon's association of series and parallel connections
with logical "or" and logical "and," respectively.

Anyone buying this book to learn "How George Boole and Claude
Shannon Created the Information Age" will be disappointed.
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on March 5, 2015
The Logician and the Engineer provides the interested reader with a short history of George Boole and Claude Shannon as well as a brief overview of how Boolean logic can be used to craft circuits for computation. The book covers much ground and doesn't assume too much background to the reader, though it does require more than high school math to appreciate many aspects (despite the authors claims otherwise).

I actually started the book being frustrated as the author poses to the reader an example of an electrical circuit to the reader and claims one should at least understand that before continuing. After having read that the book requires only high school math and then being shown a problem which is poorly worded and hard to understand I was immediately annoyed with the author (for whom I own other books from). Nonetheless I moved on from that and the book went into the history of both Boole and Shannon. These sections are short but informative, there are some aspects of the writing which don't add to the content but I guess it is the author's style which unfortunately aren't the most coherent, for example discussing how a comment from Shannon's first wife was evidence she knew he might have mental problems 40 yrs later. The author then moves on to more math and engineering. The author provides the reader with the ideas of Boolean Algebra and how to use Karnaugh maps. This is clear and well written. The author then moves on to circuits and how they can be used to represent logical statements if constructed properly. The author goes in to some basic probability theory and sets up the reader in the next chapter for some ideas in information theory which was one of Shannon's main research focus. The author discusses flip flops next and sequential state digital circuits. The material here is not nearly as clear as can be found elsewhere. The author switches gears towards the end and introduces the ideas of universal computation and Turing machines. The examples used are interesting but the author goes in to some tangent about an eager beaver program and how it takes exponential time to halt which doesn't add to understanding Turing machines and is just a random diversion that happens to interest the author. The author then moves in to some more complex ideas and how heat generated by computers can be considered a result of thermodynamics and information theory. He also discusses quantum computation briefly.

This book will give the patient reader a sense of what goes in to circuit design and how computation can be done via using electricity to represent Boolean logic. Without assuming knowledge from the reader, the author is able to communicate some basic ideas fairly clearly. I think the author can be arrogant and testing with the reader (in a bad way). There are times when he brings up some nostalgic story about his early days in graduate school designing a circuit and the nuances in connecting wires but given his target audience including this is both likely to be uninteresting and a distraction. The book has many parts in which the author tries to show how clever he is which is totally unnecessary as he is supposedly writing for a layperson audience. Given some chapters are excellent introductions to the subject but the general writing is really bad I gave 4 stars but would lean lower to be honest. I am glad I read it though, but would skip much of the material on a second read.
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on July 28, 2016
First, let me just say this rating may be for me as much as for the book itself. Many reviews stated this book had "some" or "a little" math in it necessary for the average reader to follow the narrative, but even that little bit was apparently beyond me. I have a master's degree, so I don't think of myself as being particularly dull or uneducated, but I was a humanities guy (History and Education), so I really had a difficult time understanding the mathematics in this book. If you don't slog your way through the math, the rest won't be nearly as engaging. So be warned: you do need to have some math background to fully enjoy/comprehend this book and, if you don't, you'll probably cry "uncle" like me and move on to a nice biography or WWII book.
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on February 5, 2013
Whenever I see a title of a book authored by P. Nahin, I am looking eagerly to by it and I won't be disappointed. This book is no exception and actually from its title, as a mathematician, I was more confidence that this book is more interesting for me. Nahin shows in this book how a pure logic thoughts of the 19th English logician George Boole are the backbone of the spine of the incredible technology advances of present world. Nahin's admirable style is lucid, informative, and charming. No doubts the book deserve the highest rate, the five stars and more ..
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on April 27, 2014
Another great book by Paul J. Nahin. He picks out the most useful and interesting aspects of the work & lives of these two men. The math is explained well with examples and analogies to enable a deeper understanding. It helps to know the math but not a prerequisite for someone willing to work at it a bit. It is well worth the effort. He covers the basics but also delves into much deeper aspects. As in his other books the info is always very practical, and technically accurate (to the best of my knowledge). The book is filled with great references for more reading, and the references come from interesting angles including science fiction. A sense of humor clearly comes thru - sometimes missing in technical literature. I will be reading this book again and also more of his stuff.
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on October 22, 2013
This audio book comes with a PDF of some of the equations presented in this book. I expected the book to reference these equations but instead each equation is read as part of the book!

If you thought "John Galt's Speech" chapter was boring in Atlas Shrugged then you are about to find out what boring really is. Don't get me wrong, the first 3 chapters of this book contain a pretty interesting narrative. And then you get hours of equations read to you.

Like many audio book listeners I like to listen while doing some other tasks such as driving, and so following along with a PDF was not an option. If I wanted to read, I would have bought the hard cover!

The worst came during my 2 hour plane ride. I started the chapter on probability and had literally had 30 straight minutes of equations read to me.

I finished the book because the parts were equations aren't being read are actually pretty interesting, but they are hard to find.
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on October 2, 2015
I enjoyed the parts of this book that were biographical and a bit psycho-philosophical, and I even enjoyed the more technical parts, but the problem is that Dr. Nahin doesn't segue between the personal and the technical very well at all. When he starts to talk about the technical, he just starts shoveling jargon at you abruptly, when he could just as easily have clarified little things for the reader, such as the fact that the current being talked about in the various circuits is actually an antiquated notion of POSITIVE current that began with Benjamin Franklin, who happened to get it wrong because what actually flows in a circuit is not positive charge, but NEGATIVE charge. Because of this, the newbie and conceptually rusty reader is left feeling confused and even stupid.

Also, would it have killed Nahin to have just simply come out and said that diodes serve as one-way valves for current flow? How hard is it, really, to dispense with all the technical fetishism for a sentence or two, and just spill the beans that diodes are used to force a one-way flow of current? Not at all, but clearly Nahin would rather alienate "unworthy" readers with the deliberate withholding of easily-expressed down to earth language here and there.
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