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Eugenie Grandet (Penguin Classics)
Eugenie Grandet (Penguin Classics)
by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.41
151 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Is it love or greed that conquers all?, January 25, 2016
Felix Grandet is a successful peasant in Saumur, a small town some way west of Paris. In 19th century France, peasants are not serfs, they are farmers and Grandet is a success. He raises a cash crop (wine), he trades the wood from his land holdings, he buys a castle. He constantly and publicly worries about money while hiding that he is the richest man in town. He is parsimonious almost to the point of being a miser. Almost. He does love gold, but he also cares about his daughter Eugénie and he wants to insure her future. On his terms.

Grandet has a brother, Guillaume, who went to Paris and became a rich man. Unfortunately, a bad business transaction has just bankrupted Guillaume. The matter is not yet public so Guillaume entrusts his son Charles to Grandet just before committing suicide.

Charles arrives in Saumur ignorant of his father's situation. At first disdainful of his uncle's parsimony and of the quaintness of small town life, he becomes genuinely humble after learning of his father's death. After a long period of mourning, he finally resolves to restore his father's honour. He and Eugénie also fall in love. They secretly engage themselves and Charles leave to make his fortune, with his uncle's help.

That help is not as generous as it appears. For one thing, Felix is also worried about the honour of the Grandet family and while he is too stingy to offer outright reimbursment of his brother's debts, he is shrewd enough to buy them at a heavy discount with guarantees from the remaining underlying assets. He conveniently omits to tell his nephew of this.

Will Charles remain true? Will Eugénie's naive but sincere love hold her man to her? Will the tiny spark of human feeling remaining in Felix Grandet's heart save him or will his miserliness ultimately infect his family? Which conquers all: love or greed?

Vincent Poirier, Québec City


Pere Goriot (Signet Classics)
Pere Goriot (Signet Classics)
by Honore de Balzac
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.95
58 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars What counts is who you know and what you dare, January 24, 2016
Le Père Goriot centers not on the title character but around a young man who befriends him.

Eugène de Rastignac comes from the provinces to Paris to make his fortune. He expects at first that hard work will get him a law degree, a practice, and eventually a stellar public career. He lodges in the Maison Vauquin, a rundown pension at the end of a dismal street.

The rent is cheap and the Maison is out of the way. A menagerie of tenants animate the place with gossip and crass conversation, but a few people stand out: there's Bianchon, a young medical student who becomes friends with Rastignac; Vautrin, a mysterious adventurer who advises Rastignac on the ways of the world; there's Old Man Goriot himself, a quiet widower who made his fortune as a pasta wholesaler shortly after the revolution. Goriot cared for no worldly thing outside his work and never loved anyone but his late wife and the two daughters she gave him. He tended his business that they might enter the Grand Monde. He educated them and with huge dowries, he found them prominent husbands.

Rastignac is soon disillusioned about his life prospects. A walk in the garden one fine day with Vautrin reveals to him that hard work won't do: the sums simply don't add up. Four years of study might make him a clerk in a cabinet where ten clerks vie for each available partnership, in a court house where a hundred sollicitors seek one magistrature, where thousands of lawyers fight each other for high government office. Vautrin suggests marrying money instead, and there living with them at the Maison Vauquin is a nice plain girl besotted with Rastignac. Her rich father won't acknowledge her, but should he die, she will legally inherit. For a cut of her fortune, Vautrin could arrange an accident and Rastignac could manage his bride's money.

The young student refuses the adventurer's offer. He is too sure of his abilities to even be tempted, but Vautrin has nevertheless convinced him that he must seek another path to success. He needs contacts. He calls upon a female cousin who holds one of Paris’s premier salons. He also befriends Goriot but out of pity at his loneliness: his ungrateful daughters visit him only when they need money. Yet, Rastignac’s indignation doesn’t stop him from conducting an affair with Delphine, the younger daughter. Perversely, the affair brings joy to Goriot, who can now meet one daughter, at least by proxy.

The novel stands at the center of Balzac's sprawling Human Comedy. Goriot appears only in this episode of the Comedy but Rastignac is central. He and his friends appear again and again throughout Balzac's novels and short stories.

Bianchon eventually becomes a renowned physician who appears in many novels caring for the dying as well as dining with the living. Delphine is married to the Baron de Nucingen, the banker whose doings rule many of the lives we meet.

And Vautrin is the villain of the Comedy, and unusually for Balzac there's something of the archvillain about him. For Balzac, evil is usually ordinary and unkind, petty and greedy rather than malicious. Vautrin is evil but his brand of the stuff is other worldy, like Lex Luthor’s .

I found the daugters’ mean, ungrateful pettiness far worse. The pain they caused their doting father is real, while Vautrin’s schemes and crimes are abstract. I won’t go so far as to say I like Vautrin, but one can’t help but hate the daughters.

And Rastignac? He first arrives full of ideals but cynicism eventually wins out. He ends by setting out to conquer Paris with the famous line "À nous deux!" (Put'em up!). But his image of life in Paris is no longer the romantic illusion he held of work, integrity and reward; that life is now revealed to be a tawdry game of money schemes, connections, and betrayals; a game Rastignac will play to win.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
by Ted Koppel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.60
85 used & new from $10.25

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lacks gravitas and overstates its case, December 16, 2015
There are good bits in this book. Ted Koppel explains the effect a nuclear device would have on the north american electric grid; he explains the difficult logistics of ordering, transporting and installing the large electric transformers that allow sharing electricity over Canada and the United States; and he effectively demonstrates that preparations are either non existent or insufficient.

He even does a good job of explaining the difference between losing power in large cities and losing power in rural states. In a rural state, a long term blackout would be easier to manage because small towns are more self-reliant than are large cities. No electricity in a city would mean no food or water after a few days, while typical rural homes have large stores of canned food and often get their water from a well on their property.

But then Koppel looks at survivalists, the people who build themselves well-stocked end-of-the-world shelters in the backwoods. People holding a two year supply of oatmeal and beef jerky. I suppose it's OK to mention survivalists to show there are some who have seriously thought about the threat of a nation wide power outage, but he devotes too much space to them. They are at the fringe and the solution they adopt isn't practical at the national level. The chapter on the Mormon's preparations in Utah better addresses this point.

Another problem I have with the book is that Koppel leaves out a textbook example of what happens when a large city loses power for weeks. The Ice Storm of 1998 cut power in the middle of winter for millions of people in Montreal and over large parts of Québec, Ontario, New Brunswick, New York state, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

This is exactly the kind of scenario his book analyses but he doesn't even mention this event. Did he leave it out because civilization didn't end and there was no looting? In fact, the Ice Storm of 1998 demonstrates that a large scale loss of power for several weeks won't have nearly the impact many natural disasters would have, such as the 2011 earthquake that killed 30,000 in Japan or the Indian ocean tsunami of 2004 that killed 200,000 people.

Finally I can't excuse the hysterical tone we find so often in books about cyber-this and cyber-that; I expect more gravitas from a journalist of Koppel's stature.

Vincent Poirier, Québec City


Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words
Offered by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $12.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly manifesting intelligence while pathologically eschewing obfuscation, December 1, 2015
First off: don't even think of getting the Kindle version. Kindle is great but this is not a Kindle book. It's not even a paperback book. Get the hardback!

I am a big fan of Randall Munroe's Web comic xkcd.com and I very much liked panel 1133 titled "Up Goer Five" a diagram with explanations of NASA's Saturn V rocket. All the descriptions were written in only the one thousand most commonly used words in the English language. The idea was cute I thought, but I had reservations about taking this one joke and expanding it into a full book with 44 new posters.

How nice to be not only wrong, but so wrong. It's true that as a joke, it wears thin a third of a way into the first page but who says this book is about a joke? It will actually teach you quite a lot about civil engineering, the space program, plate tectonics and the geologic history of the earth, radio waves, the US constitution (and the USS Constitution, too!) cameras, biology and household plumbing.

Munroe packs an incredible amount of detail packed into each page. Each item has a very intricate diagram showing hundreds of parts making up the whole of what he wants to explain.

My favourite diagram is the periodic table. The whole table takes up two dense pages and is titled "The Pieces Everything Is Made Of" wherein Munroe describes each of the table's 118 elements. All the elements created in nuclear laboratories with very short half-lives are tagged "Stuff that doesn't last". Lithium is described as "the metal in your phone's power box", carbon is "the stuff all known life is made from", nitrogen is "the part of air we don't need to breathe to stay alive" while oxygen is of course "the part of air we DO need to breathe to stay alive"!

There is an ever so tiiiiny little bit of cheating: he uses pictures to explain. For instance, what could he do with Einsteinium, a metal with no industrial application that lasts? Easy: draw a stick man cartoon of Einstein and tag it "Metal named after him". Tungsten? He draws a light bulb with an arrow pointing at the filament and writes "This stuff".

So this is no way a one-joke coffee table curiosity. It's an engrossing book that will hold your attention and teach you much you didn't know. About stuff.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Anathem
Anathem
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A longer time horizon, a different way to think, November 29, 2015
This review is from: Anathem (Kindle Edition)
Two things inspired Neil Stephenson to write Anathem: first, the Long Now Foundation's Ten Thousand Year Clock project and second, Roger Penrose's book The Emperor's New Mind.

On the planet Arbre, Erasmas is a twenty year old avout (a monk or a nun). Like all avouts, he spends his days in deep study of science and philosophy and also takes turns at cooking and cleaning the math (the monastery). Avouts are forbidden from using most forms of praxis (technology).

Outside the maths lies the Saecular World, where there are few scientists but many technicians and engineers, doctors, priests and ministers, politicians, accountants, government officials, civil servants, and families.

The avouts are segrated into classes according to how often the doors of their sub-math open and lets those avouts go out into the world for a ten day period known as an advent. Erasmas, like most avouts, is a tenner, and he goes out into the world with his friends every ten years. There are also unarians (one year) but they are generally not commited avouts, merely Saecular students who come to study a little science and technology to take back to their world. Finally there are the mysterious centenarians and millenarians whose doors open every one hundred and one thousand years, respectively.

Stephenson spends about two hundred pages presenting us the Arbre and its maths and how the avout interact with the Saecular world during an advent. Up until this point, Anathem reminds me of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game: a monastic-like order devoted to study for its own sake that is mostly but not completely isolated from the world.

The history and culture of Arbre is reminiscent of our own Western culture but with different people coming up with the same ideas: the Pythagorean theorem is called the Adrakhonian theorem, there's a conflict between Halikaarnians (Platonic formalists) and Procians (logical positivists and phenomenologists) and so on.

After that introduction *something mysterious* happens. A centarian avout is evoked (he's ordered to give up his monastic life at the request of the Saecular Powers) for an unknown reason. Then, a tenner is subjected to the aut (rite) of Anathem (excommunication) for using forbidden technology. This is where the real story begins and where the Ten Thousand Year Clock part of the book segues to the Emperor's New Mind part.

I won't give any spoilers, but at this point quantum physics begins to matter. Stephenson presents Big Questions that are debated by physicists today and the plot turns on proposed answers to these big questions. Why is the universe the way it is? Why do the physical constants have exactly the right values to permit chemistry and therefore life? Are our minds a manifestation of quantum states?

These are fun questions to think about and while knowing math and some physics helps, that knowledge isn't a prerequisite to understanding the book. What you need to enjoy Anathem is a basic layman's knowledge of western culture (you need to know about the Pythagorean theorem, about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, about Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein and their place in the history of western thought) but you don't need to have read Euclid or Heidegger or done the math.

Anathem's plot turns on answers to these big questions and because I have my own opinions on those answers, which disagree with Neil Stephenson's, this spoils Anathem for me just a little bit. On the other hand, Anathem always feels like hard science fiction and never like fantasy. It is *speculative* fiction at its best.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Napoleon: A Life
Napoleon: A Life
by Andrew Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.44
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Napoleon: what a life!, October 10, 2015
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This review is from: Napoleon: A Life (Hardcover)
Andrew Roberts's biography is titled Napoleon the Great in the UK, so one would expect nothing but uncritical praise. On the other hand Roberts is British and one would expect the scorn reserved for tyrants and demagogues.

What we get in fact is a deep analysis of the man, of his times, of his accomplishments, and of his failures and while there is praise aplenty, there is no shortage of criticism and myth busting.

The first hint that this will not be a hatchet job comes from Roberts's life itself: an ardent Thatcherite, Roberts supports meritocracy; the now obvious idea that someone should be appointed to a position if he has proven he can discharge the duties that come with it rather than because he was born to it. And Napoleon promoted soldiers to general if they won battles, he appointed civil servants that could deliver results. He made dukes of haberdashers and grocers that could dress and feed his Grande Armée.

He destroys the British myth that Napoleon was some sort of ogre. His portrait shows readers a charming man who instantly commanded the love of the crowds he addressed and who encouraged frank and forthright speech. An ogre would have executed an innkeeper who overcharged him for breakfast, but Napoleon laughed at the innkeeper's quip on why he overcharged him.

Another myth to go is that of the great love affair between Napoleon and Josephine. Roberts replaces that romance with a more realistic assessment. Napoleon held a deep affection for Josephine and he came to realize she had been his good luck charm. And perhaps she was first amongst all his loves. But for Napoleon, destiny and legacy came first.

And Napoleon's legacy did not emerge from Austerlitz or Rivoli or from any of his battles. Roberts makes a perfect case that his greatest achievement was without a doubt his Civil Code. He did not actually write the code, that was the work of one of the many men he appointed because of their abilities, but only Napoleon could have pushed it through a throng of competing interests. With it, he standardized all the different legal customs in force in different regions of France. He forced his Code upon Germany, Spain, Italy and interestingly no one got rid of it after Napoleon was overthrown. Oh, and Napoleon also standardized weights and measures. Would we use the metric system today without him?

But Roberts is not all praise. He faults Napoleon when he needs to and Napoleon did make mistakes. Those he made at Waterloo cost him his throne for good. That loss was his own fault, brought about through series of mistakes and bad judgement that cannot be blamed on weather conditions or his own health on that fateful day.

Napoleon bashers are quick to point out the lavish sums and titles Napoleon bestowed on members of his family, and in one of this book's few shortcomings, Roberts shies away from the obvious explanation, or at least doesn't emphasize it enough: Napoleon was Corsican and Corsicans, like Sicilians and Sardinians, find it difficult to trust those outside the family. Given that background, one ought to be astonished at how many appointments were made outside Napoleon's relatives and Corsican friends.

During his exile on St Helena, Napoleon recounted his glory days for the benefit of his biographer. Looking back on all he had experience, he supposedly said "Quel roman que ma vie!" ("What a story has my life been!")

Indeed it was, and Andrew Roberts recounts it in an excellent biography. Critical but fair and sympathetic.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
by Francis Fukuyama
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.61
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good government means high quality administration, August 24, 2015
This is the second volume of Francis Fukuyama's treatise on the origin and development of political order, as well as how political institutions decay. Fukuyama asks what makes a political body desirable to those living in it? Taking Denmark as model of good government services, he asks the key question of both volumes: How do we get to the Denmark?

The first volume, The Origins of Political Order, defines an institution as a rule that persists over time and presents the three institutions central to political order: the state, rule of law, and accountability. It explains how states evolved in various regions of the world and the very different ways in which governments operate and how they are held accountable.

In the second volume, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama explains what makes government good or bad, effective or ineffective, efficient or inefficient. He studies how good government (as opposed to simply "government") emerges, and how it can decay.

There are big surprises in this book. Fukuyama takes the United States and Germany as examples and makes a convincing case that adopting democracy early on can hinder the development of quality government administration.

The United States adopted democracy (with a franchise limited to property holders) in the late eighteenth century before it had any government departments to speak of.

There was nevertheless work that needed to be done by a government and therefore government agents had to be hired. Ideally, the work of government should be carried out by competent people, hired and promoted based on their ability to do the work. Instead, in many societies offices such as tax collecting were sold to nobles or bourgeois in return for a share of the takings or for simply an outright sum. France under the Bourbon kings is an example of this. Fukuyama call this form of government "patrimonial" and he calls the process of allocating government offices this way "patrimonialization".

The young United States did not sell offices outright but neither did it create a merit based civil service. Its solution was quite novel: government jobs were used as a reward for political support. Fukuyama calls this form of government "clientelism", after the ancient Roman instution of patron and client where clients supported their patron politically in exchange for judgements, jobs and other political favours.

(To a much, much lesser extent this is still the case today for top government jobs within the gift of the President. Top campaign staff expect to be rewarded with top government positions. This cannot be termed corruption since, in theory anyway, the civil service job seekers want to serve the public rather than fill their pockets. Further, they obviously share goals with their chosen candidate, which makes it plausible for the elected candidate in turn to trust them with top positions from which they all can work towards these shared goals.)

The US's move towards a merit based civil service began slowly in the wake of President Garfield's assassination; it was helped along by Woodrow Wilson; it finally arrived with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But hardly anyone would call the result "high quality government" : the beast is too big and its different parts too often work against one another.

The fact is that the checks and balances in the Constitution of the United States impeded the work of government by having to justify every action as coherent with existing laws while simultaneously being given contradictory directives by the same laws against which their actions are checked. This explains, according to Fukuyama, the gridlock we see today.

Now, contrast this with nineteenth century Germany unified under the Hohenzollern princes by the Prussian aristocrat Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck built an effective and efficient army that forced France and Austria to accept a Prussian led Germany while in parallel constructing civil service staffed with educated professionals. All this without a single election.

The absence of strong democratic institutions led to two world wars and a genocide but it also allowed the creation of a high quality government bureaucracy. And now that Germany is ruled through solid democratic institutions, its civil service is the envy of the world.

This is not to say that war and tyranny are necessary to get good government. Denmark is an example of this. It was built by an enlightened monarchy that bypassed the elitist aristocracy and went straight to the people, so that its merit based civil service evolved together with democracy.

As for decay, it is inevitable when situations change and institutions cannot respond. In the United States, the gridlock created by the (democratic!) checks and balances can lead to politicians interfering with government departments for short term interests eventually leading to a loss of autonomy within these departments, for instance over hiring and promoting capable and competent personnel.

China in contrast seemingly works very well these days without democratic checks and balances but historically we know that if power is held by an incompetent authority (a "bad emperor") there is no mechanism short of violent revolution to rectify the situation. It is the *lack* of democracy that leads to decay.

So how do we get to Denmark? Fukuyama cannot say and he admitted as much in the first volume. Political science does not have enough cases to examine and so it cannot produce a coherent and complete theory of state development. The numerous failures in Africa and in South America demonstrate how difficult the task is. But at least Fukuyama has clarified what conditions are needed.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World
Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World
by Amir Alexander
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.48
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The birth of modern mathematics, August 14, 2015
Isaac Newton is reputed to have said that the reason he saw so far and so clearly was that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Newton was an unpleasant fellow, unsociable and jealous of his reputation, so we ought to pay attention when he acknowledges greatness in others.

It is to those other giants that Amir Alexander introduces us in Infinitesimal. It is a refreshing history of mathematics that deals with the century *before* Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who may have independently developed differential and integral calculus, but who did not discover the underlying concept of infinitesimals.

An infinitesimal is a point with no length at all except that if you add up enough infinitesimals, you can get any length you want. If you think about it, this is nonsense, but if you think about it some more, you soon realize how useful the concept is. For one thing, it resolves the problem of understanding how Achilles catches up with the turtle. He should not be able to do this because he first has to cover half the distance between him and the turtle, then he must cover half of the remaining distance, then half of that remaining distance, and so on, and so on… In short he must cross an infinite number of distances in a finite amount of time. The Greeks gave up on the problem and studied triangles instead.

But Italians like Cavalieri and Galileo found a way to explain this. They first made use of infinitesimals to solve those old difficult problems, and to give simple intuitive proofs to already solved problems. Italy might have retained its place of pre-eminence in the field had it not been for a man named Clavius. A Jesuit who found a link between God and the perfect unchanging nature of mathematics, of Euclidean geometry to be precise. He championed the study of geometry as second only to theology in the Jesuit curriculum. Clavius was also the brains behind the Gregorian calendar reform of 1583 and this gave him the political clout he needed to give mathematics the importance it deserved in Jesuit schools.

The Jesuits thus became the Catholic arbitrators of what was scientifically correct and they simply could not accept the fuzzy ideas that came with infinitesimals for a simple reason: it flew in the face of the unchanging nature of geometry that underlied their view of God and of the world.

In England, Francis Bacon invented what became the modern scientific method, the essence of which was to explore, discover and analyze, then to guess at an explanation of some phenomena, check that explanation, then finally accept or reject it. Above all Bacon wanted to keep an open mind. What Catholics on the continent rejected, English protestants gobbled up. To be sure, there was opposition in England as well. Notably from Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. Hobbes, although an atheist, appreciated mathematics for the same reason Clavius did: it represented absolute truth, and his Leviathan state rested on absolute truth. Without that, Leviathan would dissolve and anarchy would triumph.

But England thrived on healthy debate. Its politics always mixed talk with action. Above all, English society was practical. Infinitesimals were wishy-washy objects, but they worked. The Royal Society and a self-made mathematician named John Wallis championed infinitesimals, so Hobbes lost.

Still, strictly speaking, the Inquisition was right and that is the great irony in the story of the infinitesimal.

Those mathematicians who embraced the idea of using the infinitely small were right to do so. Our modern world is built on engineering and science and none of that would be possible without differential calculus. Without the idea of the infinitesimal, we'd all still be living in the sixteenth century.

But the Jesuits who condemned the notion as heresy and forbade its teaching were actually correct because there is no such thing as an infinitely small object that nevertheless has a size. Early in the nineteenth century, Gauss and others began feeling dissatisfied with the concepts of infinity and infinitesimals. Those concepts lack the necessary rigour to completely and unequivocally force the truth of a proof upon the mind.

So they jettisoned those ideas, and took all the theorems of calculus and proved them without infinitesimals. They replaced infinity with the "absence of an upper bound", and they replaced infinitesimals with "any value strictly larger than zero" (a.k.a. epsilon/delta values).

Nevertheless, we cannot do without the concepts of infinity and infinitesimals in first year calculus. They allow students to accept without too much fuss theorems used in physics to calculate how fast things accelerate or the terminal velocity of a falling object hanging from a parachute. It's later in their college career, if at all, that students will study analysis and its epsilon/delta methods.

A college curriculum in math or quantitative sciences thus follows history: first you learn calculus because it works and never mind that you can't divide zero by zero or infinity by infinity. Then, when that begins to bother you, you do analysis and history repeats itself.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 12, 2015 12:36 PM PDT


The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life
The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life
by Alex Bellos
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.97
68 used & new from $5.96

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A survey of interesting math topics, July 26, 2015
Ten chapters, ten essays, ten topics explored in appropriate depth for a non technical analysis. This is what The Grapes of Math has to offer.

The essays cover very different areas of mathematics: statistics, geometry, algebra, calculus, the square root of minus one, and self-referential logic. My favourite chapter explains why the digit "1" appears more often as the lead digit in statistical results. There's also a great chapter on John Conway's famous Game of Life, that explains how people came up with the really interesting patterns in that game.

But I must admit I feel ambivalent about the title. I suppose shameless puns are necessary when giving a title to a pop math book given that "pop" and "math" don't obviously go together.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal


How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
by Jordan Ellenberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.71
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We do use algebra every day, believe or not, July 26, 2015
"When am I ever going to use this?"

Except for the very few who really love math, every students asks this. And teachers don't know but they have to give an answer so they come up with lines like "You need it if you want to become an engineer".

To which students reply "But I don't want to become an engineer! And even if I did, I'll have the answers I need from the computer!".

And the teacher finally snaps and gives the real answer: "You need it to get your diploma!"

The answer is real enough except that it is wrong and with "How Not To Be Wrong" Jordan Ellenberg gives us the correct answer: math is to thinking what training is to sports. It may be true that once you've graduated high school you'll never have to solve a quadratic equation, just as you'll never see a football player curl barbells in the middle of a game. But just as having curled barbells countless times in the gym will help football players throw further and tackle harder, having done the algebra will train your mind to concentrate and to think outside the box.

But this is not a book about doing algebra or calculus. This is a book the results that come from knowing algebra and calculus. The theme running through HN2BW is that lots of things are counterintuitive. Here are a few.

In World War II, the air force wanted to know where to put armor on planes. Armor is heavy and putting it everywhere would make the plane too heavy to fly. They looked at the damage on their planes and realized the area with the most bullet holes was the fuselage, while the area with the fewest bullet holes was the engine. The answer is obvious: put the armor on the fuselage rather. But the military men knew enough to ask professional mathematicians and they had a statistical analysis department.

"Where did you get the data from?" asked the statisticians.
"From our planes, after they came back from a mission."
Obviously not before, or there would have been no bullet holes at all.
"Very good, that is important data to have. But what about the holes in the planes that didn't come back?"

And that is the correct question to ask. It's reasonable to assume that bullets fall on the plane more or less evenly but if planes come back with bullet holes in the fuselage, it means that bullets don't damage the plane much when they hit the fuselage. If few planes come back with holes in the engine area, that means that a hit to the engine will down the plane, so that it where the armor should go.

Apart from such counterintuitive insights, Ellenberg also teaches us a few things we really ought to know. Every thinking person understands that correlation doesn't imply causation. And everybody knows that if two things are equal to a third then they are equal to each other (ie if Jack and Jill are as old as James, then Jack and Jill are the same age).

But that doesn't apply to correlations: a stock portfolio made up of automobile manufacturers and software developers will correlate with a portfolio made up exclusively of automobile manufacturers and with a portfolio made up of exclusively of software developers but fluctuations in the automobile portfolio won't have anything to do with fluctuations in the software portfolio. Equality is a transitive relation but correlation is not transitive.

This isn't a book about beautiful mathematical results: you won't find Euler's jaw dropping identity here. Ellenberg explains statistics, those lies even more damnable than just plain damn lies but he shows us how mathematical thinking helps us to better understand data.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal


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