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Books & Articles I wrote.

Monday, June 05, 2006


The bookshop around the corner - why I think Amazon could be a bad thing

I read a hell of a lot - i also buy a lot from Amazon. I bought a book about Amazon - on Amazon. However, over the last year or two i have purchased far more than before and i no longer exclusiverly buy computer books. I buy entrepreneurial, business, marketing, maths, psychology, physics, sociology and more - oh as well as computer books :)

Many computer books tend to have a very short shelf life in comparison with these other topics (preferred programming langauges have moved up and down in the recent past, but Gravity, ironically, hasn't). So what is more common is that the scientific books can carry themselves over a number of years.

So i saw a book in Borders and came home to add it to my wish list on Amazon (i did also buy some books at Borders i should add) - "How to solve mathematical problems" by Wayne Wickelgren. All very normal i hear you say, until this (and this is now not the first time this has happened to me). I tend to "check out" the authors of books - i go beyond the simple reviews - i like to know *who* wrote the book, what their interests are, what they are doing now - mainly as i can get a better idea of whether they are the kind of author i will associate with and hence there is a higher chance of my liking the title.

So, i go check out Wayne Wickelgren. The first Google result is here. If you read this, you will see that he has just found out he has Motor Neruon disease (like Jimmy Johnstone and Stephen Hawking). That comes as a bit of a shock. Until you start to read what he has been doing since he found out and his intentions.

A link on the page leads you to a new updated site, where upon i discovered that he unfortunately passed away last November (2005). A bit of hunting around can give you further information about him which i won't go into. In short, i was a little taken aback, especially as you read his text in the present tense, but discover it was written 9 years previous.

So how does this relate to Amazon? Well, if you type in the book name, or visit the authors titles on Amazon (and all the other major online stores i tried), you basically get an unemotioanl list of books. So maybe you argue that Amazon is just an online bookstore. Well, this worries me a little - mainly as it has now happened on more than one occassion. You don't get ANY background (what you do get seems very mechanical once you realise the additional context that is missing). In this case it was quite significant detail (if like me you tend to lose yourself in the books you are reading rather than viewing them as black and white text). In other cases you just may not know where they are now relative to what is said in the book, their opinions, other peoples opinions (other than some basic reviews) and so on. In other words, you miss a whole bunch of context around the book which can really bring it to life - the story behind the book itself. This is often a huge influence i the reading of the book and especailly your choices afterwards (its the most effective cross-selling technique for me).

Now, the "bookshop around the corner" doesn't really exist (well, one doubtless does exist, but not one for a specific title), but what i am getting at is the context can be added (in the physical sense) by people who know their stuff and work in these places. The "did you know" type of people who seem to know facts, metafacts and so on. This *should* be even more effective online, but the more i think about it, the less i beleive it actually happens. I am increasingly hesitant to buy any book now without a reasonable background search which is a problem considering the number of books i (try to) read.

So, Amazon is a great online database. But to become a book store i think some magic has to be added.

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This weekend i read "Everything and more" by David Foster Wallace.

I am still recovering. I actually enjoyed quite a bit of the book, but i can't really believe that simple High School maths would be enough to get you through it... unless you did stuff like advanced Fourier Analysis and Riemannian Geometry in high school.

I have a Physics background, but found the way soe of the maths was thrown in and just stated for the record (with sometimes a footnote) a little hard to deal with. However, with a bit of effort i was able to do so.

What i found hardest was some of the prose - particularly as related to some of the theories of inifinity and some of the solutions to given paradoxes were explained to get round other oparadoxes that had caused them.

The eird thing was that i did come out with a fairly solid picture of what is going on with inifinity as well as a much better idea of where it all came from. It's also quite a funny book to read and when he says things like :

" (“Parts of E.G.II are going to be brutal . . . regrets are hereby conveyed”)"


... “inaccessible ordinals,” “transfinite recursion”—are “fun to say even if one has no clear idea what they’re supposed to denote.”

i do appreciate where he coming from having come through many a Quantum Physics class - there ARE topics that have significant amounts of material, but ultimately no-one really knows what they mean. I would argue inifinifty is perhaps teh best example of that - certainly that's where i stand now.

For all the proofs, equations, solutions and ideas, i don't yet know what ∞ actually IS - and i don't know that there is an answer that would satisfy me anyway. If we do take ∞ from the abstract mathematical sense into the "concretete" universe, then i'd have to ask where the universe (or time) "ends" and in many cases that isn't even a sensible question.

But that fact that you can have larger infinities (via their power set) is just as mad as it gets for me.

Read an in depth review of the book here.

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