Craig Citro

Book reviews

Posted at — Sep 13, 2020

explanation of ratings


Best Writing on Mathematics 2020, by Mircea Pitici (ed). 4/5

This series continues to be fantastic, and is worth a read.

My favorite article was definitely The Inescapable Casino. The article’s broader point is sobering, and TBH I’m still digesting it. However, it also had an incidental probability puzzle that tripped me up at first: if you have a game with positive expected value, my gut instinct is that you want to play that game as much as possible. However, it turns out there’s a subtlety!

Let’s call these “additive” and “multiplicative” versions of the game; a winning additive game may well be a losing multiplicative game. This is easy to work out once you realize it, but was surprising to me – I’ve never run into this before! (Amusingly, I noticed Andrew Gelman making basically the same mistake on his blog, so I don’t feel as bad.)

Make it Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. 3/5

There’s definitely some interesting content here, but it’s about one (short) chapter of interesting content dressed up with about seven chapters of fluff, to fill it out to “normal book” length. If there’s a TED Talk version of this, it’s a much better use of your time.

Three Keys, by Kelly Yang. 4/5

Best Writing on Mathematics 2018, by Mircea Pitici (ed). 4/5

This is the second book I’ve read in this series, and I’m hooked. This volume was a bit heavier on the why and how of doing math than the 2019 volume, but had some excellent articles (including Francis Su’s essay which is also now a book). The education articles were more immediately useful than I’d expected.

A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockhart. 4/5

This is a classic, which I’ve written about before. This is a book-length treatment; worth reading if you’re interested, but the essay has all the main ideas.

I think my commentary above stands up; maybe the only new thing that jumped out at me is his general disinterest/disdain in applications of mathematics – he goes out of his way to effectively define math as pure math. There’s a lot of other interesting math out there.

That said, it’s worth calling out that I’m a bit of a coward – I’m sitting here and writing this, but Lockhart’s gone out and devoted his entire career to fixing K-12 education. whistles

Math from Three to Seven, by Alexander Zvonkin. 4/5

Anyone involved in teaching kids should read this book immediately. (Especially if you’re teaching math.)

On the face of it, this book is a list of activities for a math circle for young children. On that front, it’s great: a number of interesting activities, along with references to sources for additional material. (Polyhedron Models by Wenninger is already a hit.)

However, far more exciting than the activities is Zvonkin’s commentary, both about what the kids take away from it, and his own experience.

The real gem here is Zvonkin’s understanding of how the kids experience these lessons. He recognizes something that’s missing from basically all education for kids in my experience: the goal is getting kids to think about the problem themselves. Watching his patience in setting up a question, and letting them wrestle with it repeatedly over the span of weeks or months is awe-inspiring. His cynical-but-honest commentary on the impact of starting school is excellent.

As to his own experience, he’s delightfully honest, going out of his way to highlight the places where a lesson fell flat, or where his own emotions got in the way. Anyone with teaching experience knows how big a factor those can be, and it’s nice to see someone being so frank about it. (Or maybe I’m saying I’m glad it’s not just me.)

Espresso Coffee (2013), by David Schomer. 4/5

If you’re looking for guidance on how to improve your espresso, this is a great book. He details every step in the process, describing details of what’s worked and what hasn’t for his shop (Espresso Vivace). IIUC the first edition of this book made a case for using a PID controller, which is now the norm in my experience.

The only gripe I have is that his audience is really folks running a coffeeshop – for folks who make espresso once or twice a day, it’s overkill. I would love it if he decided to write a “home espresso” book next, but I’m not holding my breath.

Several tips here have already noticeably improved my espresso, so worth every penny.

Unstoppable, by Adam Rex. 5/5

In fairness, this one may be funnier for parents than children, but still a solid choice for both audiences.

The Common Sense of Teaching Mathematics, by Caleb Gattegno. 2/5

My read is that someone gave Gattegno a syllabus, and said “think up interesting ways to teach this material.” Some of the ideas are interesting, but someone gave him a bad syllabus. For example, the first section builds up to teaching kids about counting in bases other than 10. His setup is interesting – but why on earth would you want to teach kindergarteners about counting in base 8?

I ran into this book via five books.

What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences (vol 11), by Dana MacKenzie. 4/5

This book reads like a book-length issue of the Notices of the AMS, which is just what I was looking for, and the topic selection was great. That said, I couldn’t help but compare this to Best Writing on Mathematics, which I think is stronger for having a wide variety of authors contribute.

Best Writing on Mathematics 2019, by Mircea Pitici (ed). 4/5

I ran into this series by accident, and I’m so glad I did. There’s a lot to enjoy about this book; the “guide to interesting math writing this year” in the introduction is a nice surprise. The writing quality is uniformly quite high, and I appreciate the clustering of semi-related articles.

I can’t wait to start working my way through some of the back issues.

UNIX: A History and a Memoir, by Brian Kernighan. 3/5

This is a firsthand account of the history of UNIX at Bell Labs; there’s some interesting commentary here (esp. around management), but it ended up a fairly dry read.

How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. 3/5

This is an odd book, and I’d be wary about recommending it, but I definitely got something out of it.

I feel like this book sets itself a lofty goal: if you wanted to send a young person out into the world, with the goal of being able to read and think critically about what they’re reading, this book wants to impart everything they’ll need.

Of course, that’s an impossible goal, but there are still a number of gems:

There’s also plenty to dislike: the book is easily twice as long as it needs to be, and the uniform use of only male pronouns is tedious (yeah, yeah, I get that “that’s how it was” but it’s still grating).

Annabel Scheme and the Adventure of the New Golden Gate, by Robin Sloan. 4/5

As always, a little off-the-wall, but fun and full of twists. The serial format was surprisingly enjoyable, though I didn’t have the self-control to pace the book out over several days.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. 5/5

This one’s been on my list for a while, but (unsurprisingly) made its way to the top of the list due to current events. Like several of the other books in this group, I suspect what you get out of this has a lot to do with your attitude going in.

There was a lot that was new for me here, which is maybe a statement about how easy I have it: I can ignore racism, and it doesn’t directly affect me. The most significant takeaway for me was reframing the discussion around systemic racism rather than a single person’s actions or attitudes; I don’t think this is new here, but it was new to me.

I think the two topics were particularly well-done here, both centered around making conversation around racism more constructive. (This makes perfect sense, given her background.) First, she spent quite a bit of time unpacking why framing racism as a binary attribute makes discussion impossible. Second, she pointed out all the ways that focusing on reactions from white people when discussing racism can completely derail the conversation.

All the Pieces Fit, (Hilo 6) by Judd Winick. 5/5

I’m always nervous about the end of a series, but Hilo totally delivers. I won’t say anything to spoil the plot, but this one’s good, clean fun I’d recommend to kids of any age.

The Old Guard, vol 2, by Greg Rucka. 3/5

The Old Guard, vol 1, by Greg Rucka. 4/5

The first book gets credit for a really clever setup – I’ve got many years of reading comics under my belt and it still struck me as a novel idea for a “superpower”.

The art is a little meh, and too much “oh look people are nude for no reason, it’s Mature Content (TM).”

I’m a little wary about being able to wrap this up in one more volume, but I’m still interested enough to read the third book. Right now my take is “the movie is a better format/pacing.”

The Wild Storm (vol 1 - 4), by Warren Ellis. 2/5

I’m a huge fan of reboots, but this was … just as heavy as the original Wildstorm universe. Too many different characters, with several not really different from the original. Meh.

A Philosophy of Software Design, by John Ousterhout. 2/5

The Phoenix Project, by Gene Kim. 3/5

This is … fiction about software project management. As a story, it was iffy, but that was really just a guise for lessons about how to manage work and teams. Points for being an interesting vehicle.

Grunge is Dead, by Greg Prato. 1/5

I was so ready to love this book – but a third of the way in, it was still jumbled recountings of high schoolers getting into fights at concerts, and I had to give up.


Front Desk, by Kelly Yang. 4/5

A Dream About Lightning Bugs, by Ben Folds. 4/5

OK, I stan Ben Folds way too hard to give this one a fair review. There’s a lot of honesty here, which makes for a compelling read. If you want some storytelling about Ben’s life, it’s great; if not, skip it.

Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore. 4/5

I originally read this in middle school, and I remember being pretty blown away; I was pretty underwhelmed on rereading it.

That said, I think this feeling “meh” may be a sign of Moore’s impact. IIRC, part of what made this book groundbreaking was making the Joker a more nuanced and three-dimensional character. Here in 2019, I can take that for granted, since it’s commonplace; I suspect Moore (and this book in particular) having been an influence on so many of today’s writers is why it’s commonplace.

On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas. 4/5

Not as good as The Hate U Give, but still a fun read. (Or maybe I’m a sucker for books about people trying to make it in the rap scene?)

Mind and Matter, by John Urschel. 3/5

I enjoyed this book, and hearing the account of a life in football was more compelling than I’d expected. He spends a lot of time setting up a contrast between college football (“play for love of the game”) and pro football (“it’s my job, balanced against all my other responsibilities in life”), and explains that it’s part of the motivation for why he prefers doing math. However, that same contrast applies all the same to grad school life vs. being a academic, at least in my experience.

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier. 4/5

Then Everything Went Wrong, (Hilo 5) by Judd Winick. 5/5

Superman: Earth One (vol 1 - 3), by J. Michael Straczynski. 3/5

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. 5/5

There are definitely flaws here, but I thought it did a great job at handling an impossibly thorny topic, especially for a YA audience.


Eat and Run, by Scott Jurek. 4/5

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. 4/5

This book is a lot of fun, but it’s important to set expectations: it’s a lot of fun storytelling in the orbit of running, and not an authoritative source of information or instructions on how to improve your running. Read it for a good time, and for some inspiration.

The Wild Robot Escapes, by Peter Brown. 4/5

The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown. 4/5

The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, by Ben Rhodes. 5/5

Maybe not for everyone, but fantastic nonetheless. I suspect you’d know if you were interested in this book based purely on the synopsis; if you’re interested, it’s well worth your time.

The early part of the book is the “wow this all happened so fast” part of the story: fun, but unsurprising. The rest of the book is about what happened once the presidency was in full swing, and gives a sense of how hard any progress is in government. Good, but it left me with a real sense of despair.

Waking the Monsters (Hilo 4), by Judd Winick. 5/5

Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou. 5/5

I couldn’t put this one down. I knew the punchline to the Theranos story before I read the book, and at one point, I was floored by just how out of control things were; I looked and noticed that I was only about 20% of the way into the book.

Python Interviews, by Michael Driscoll. 1/5

Birth of a Theorem, by Cedric Villani. 2/5


Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate. 5/5

Artemis, by Andy Weir. 3/5

Fun, but not mind blowing.

This was an easy read, though not as good as The Martian. A little bit more heist movie on the moon, with enjoyable but mostly one dimensional characters.

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan. 5/5

I won’t lie, I love everything Robin Sloan writes.

This didn’t disappoint in the least. Like his other books, there are probably equal parts interesting-yet-plausible scientific advances and character development, with a dash of the fantastic (to taste).

Also, the descriptions of tech company life maybe hit a little too close to home, much like watching Silicon Valley.

How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia. 4/5

He doesn’t say anything surprising (spoiler: schedule time for writing, and use it, that’s the whole system), but it’s a fun read, and has some cute jokes mixed in.

The Sun, the Genome and the Internet, by Freeman Dyson. 2/5

Interesting, but by the halfway point, I couldn’t muster up the energy to keep going. If there was a deeper point to be made, he definitely buried the lede.

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. 3/5

This book had some interesting content, but is a great example of a book that felt like a long-form article that the author turned into a book.

Sure enough, I mentioned it to a friend, who pointed out that it was originally a New Yorker article. I’d recommend that instead, and only come back if you’re looking for more particulars (especially around aviation or medicine, which are his long-running examples in the book).

(But seriously, I wish it were easier for people to write ~40 page books.)

Like so many people, I’ve often got too many things going on at once; my goal in reading this book was for Gawande to sell me on checklists as a useful supplemental tool. He did, but as my phrasing describes, I went in wanting to be sold.

The Great Big Boom (Hilo 3), by Judd Winick. 5/5

Saving the Whole Wide World (Hilo 2), by Judd Winick. 5/5

The Boy Who Crashed to Earth (Hilo 1), by Judd Winick. 5/5

My daughter picked this up while we were on vacation – I thought “oh, man, that looks like Barry Ween,” and then saw the author and realized why!

It’s not a bad approximation to call this an updated, kid-friendly Barry Ween, and that’s high praise. Funny, engaging, and it even manages to hide a little learning in there; now there are two people in our house waiting for more volumes.

Saga (vol 1), by Brian K. Vaughan. 2/5

Not bad, and I’ll give him credit for setting up a fairly broad universe. But I can’t lie, I’ll always compare hist comics to Y: The Last Man, and this didn’t hold up. I suspect I could retry this one in a different mood and have different results.

What Is Mathematics?, by Richard Courant. 5/5

I loved this book. My quick summary would be “this is all the parts of a high school/undergrad math curriculum that so often get lost.”

The book consists of an overview of much of mathematics through what’s normally taught in the first ~two years of undergrad, with a few extra bonuses (projective geometry!), but with little to no linear algebra (boo!). The book spends nearly all its time focusing on motivations and ideas, and much less on mechanical details. This is a sharp contrast to most undergrad classes, where lack of time means the professor ends up working plenty of examples and hoping the quick tour of big ideas sticks. (It never does, but we always try.)

This book would be the perfect supplement for a mathematically-inclined undergrad who wanted a bit of context and history; I think it could be good for an eager and interested high-schooler, though it wouldn’t hurt to have someone on hand to help talk things through.

Of course, a few bits didn’t age as well as they could, eg the commentary about infinitesimals was a bit more awkward in light of the development of nonstandard analysis. Can’t fault Courant and Robbins for not predicting the future, of course; the new final chapter does a great job of these sorts of updates.

I’m sad it took me so long to read this book – I’d seen it a zillion times, and a college roommate even had a copy in our dorm, but I’d never cracked it open. I wish I had, both for my own enjoyment and to recommend to others. I was finally turned on to it while reading On Teaching Mathematics by V. I. Arnol’d, which deserves its own review; I’m now more excited about reading the rest of the books listed there.


Ajax Penumbra: 1969, by Robin Sloan. 4/5

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold. 4/5

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. 3/5

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. 5/5

What is a p-Value Anyway?, by Andrew J. Vickers. 2/5

This was a nice idea for a book, but it didn’t really deliver. It tried to be a nontechnical book about technical content, but unfortunately ended up being useful to neither audience. I was expecting that the second half of the book would unfold into some equations and exercises, but I was sorely mistaken. I personally appreciated the geeky humor, but I’m sure it would only help to scare off those nontechnical readers he’s ostensibly trying to draw in.

Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear. 3/5

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. 4/5

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn. 4/5

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely. 2/5

The Master Algorithm, by Pedro Domingos. 2/5

I really wanted to enjoy this book, but at least the first part was guilty of many of the worst sins of pop science, notably overselling its own importance. (I say this as someone who works in/near ML.) I suspect I wasn’t the right audience for this book.

On the flipside, some of the author’s papers are fantastic. Go read A Few Useful Things to Know about Machine Learning instead.

The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely. 3/5

The Victory Lab, by Sasha Issenberg. 2/5

The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson. 5/5

The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford. 1/5

I started this because I’ve heard Harford on a variety of podcasts, and always enjoyed hearing him talk about economics. To my great disappointment, the book version didn’t come together at all – I gave up about a third of the way in.

The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow. 3/5

Indiscrete Thoughts, by Gian-Carlo Rota. 5/5

First up, I’ll admit I’m a cheater – I skimmed or skipped pretty much all of the second section.

I bought and read this for the mathematical reminisces, and I wasn’t the disappointed in the least. Rota was witness to such an incredible slice of history, so this is a delightful read on that front.

Where it shines and earns the 5 stars, though, is the honesty (which was apparently one of Rota’s trademarks). As Rota confronts head-on in the book, it’s too easy to fall into the halo effect, failing to see our mathematical heroes as real people. In some sense, it’s almost nicer to find out that these legends had their own issues, too – real people are so much more interesting than flat, one-dimensional ones.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. 3/5

I had to work a little to make it through this one, which is possibly more of a statement about my expectations than the book itself.

I didn’t really know anything about the Spanish Civil War going into this book, which I think would have been good for background. (As I understand it, Hemingway is famous for explicitly avoiding writing and commentary about the larger context in his stories.) The writing is of course quite vivid; my main takeaway from the book was happiness that I wasn’t a soldier in the war, but I feel like there was more I just didn’t catch.

In the Plex, by Steven Levy. 3/5

Genome, by Matt Ridley. 2/5

This book was interesting, but a bit of a grab-bag, and the format made some chapters feel a little forced.

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe. 5/5

Just as with What If?, if you like xkcd, you already know you want this.

It’s amazing how effortless Randall Munroe makes this seem; if you’ve never tried writing anything technical with this limited a vocabulary, give it a spin, and it’ll give you even more respect for this book.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, by Jeff Ryan. 3/5

Fun, but not particularly stellar. If your childhood also involved an unbounded number of hours playing Nintendo, and you’re the sort of person who enjoys history and backstory, it’s a fun and easy read.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. 3/5

I’ll admit that part of my reaction here may be pettiness on my part: I always find it a bit wearing when the main character is “into math,” especially when it’s clear that the author isn’t.

On the flipside, I remember enjoying the portrayal of the main character. So many authors try to portray people on the autism spectrum as quirky-but-normal, or more broadly wanting to be like other people and frustrated that they’re not. The difference is that the folks I’ve known on the spectrum aren’t busy wanting to be like other people; they’re often just confused about the difference in perspective. (Of course, take this with a huge grain of salt, since I’ve never been inside their heads.)

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. 3/5

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard H. Thaler. 3/5

The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. 2/5

Ghost in the Wires, by Kevin Mitnick. 1/5

Programmers at Work, by Susan Lammers. 3/5

This one’s an interesting contrast to Coders at Work – there’s a similarly interesting set of interviewees, but I felt like Seibel did a much better job steering the conversation.

The Paperbag Princess, by Robert Munsch. 5/5

Spark, by John J. Ratey. 1/5

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult. 3/5

Like so many of Picoult’s novels, this book is a study in layers of depressing events. Given the subject matter, that’s probably appropriate.

How Not to Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg. 5/5

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien. 5/5

Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi. 3/5

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin. 5/5

Bad Pharma, by Ben Goldacre. 4/5

Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. 4/5

Armada, by Ernest Cline. 2/5

My 16-year-old self would have tried to give this six stars.

I would have given this one star based solely on plot and characters, but the solid 80s nostalgia once again earns an extra point. If you’re looking for something fun to read, say, on a plane, this could be fantastic. If you’re awake enough to notice the utterly ridiculous characters and plot, and be annoyed by the few good ideas being a complete rip-off of 2001, skip it.

The Vision (vol 1), by Tom King. 1/5

So concludes my once-every-two-years “read the comics people are raving about” – or, at least, it’s time to find new people whose raves I use for guidance. This was … dreck.

Faith: Hollywood & Vine (vol 1), by Jody Houser. 3/5

This had its moments: it’s hard to read a scene where superheroes carpool in a Prius on their way to save the day and not chuckle. But other than a few wry moments, most of the book is slow, and (as always) tries to avoid actually making any progress with the story in order to leave the door open for the future. Meh.

Guardians of the Galaxy (vol 1), by Brian Michael Bendis. 2/5

This may be better than I’m giving it credit for – but frankly, the movie was a way more enjoyable version of the same content.

Hawkeye (vol 1), by Matt Fraction. 1/5

Sandman (vol 1), by Neil Gaiman. 1/5

I know it’s sacrilege for a comic fan to admit they didn’t adore this book, but … it was really boring. I think I had to try 3-4 times to force myself through it; even then, I didn’t want to read the second one. Meh.

Midnighter (vol 1), by Steve Orlando. 2/5

I have a soft spot for the Warren Ellis Authority run, and went into this looking for a little throwback fun over the holidays. Sadly, this fell way short; if you’re looking to get a taste of classic Midnighter, re-read The Authority.

Fortunately, by Remy Charlip. 5/5

We found this by accident, but it’s a delight.

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. 5/5

Maybe I’m a big softie, but I was completely charmed by this book: I was listening to it on audible, and I think I even volunteered to do dishes an extra night just so I had time to finish it. :)

The two main characters are really compelling, and probably as nuanced as I could reasonably expect from a young adult novel. But there’s so much more here; in particular, Rainbow Rowell does an amazing job conveying how AWKWARD every interaction was in high school. (Plus, c’mon, great 80s music and comic books? This one has my name all over it.)

The BFG, by Roald Dahl. 5/5

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio. 5/5

The Mustard Flu, by Melanie Weiner. 4/5

Basic Category Theory for Computer Scientists, by Benjamin C. Pierce. 2/5

Category theory is hard to learn, in large part because there’s no content at first – it’s a language and a way of framing things; you need some additional context to understand why it’s powerful, eg by seeing it used in homological algebra and algebraic topology.

But this book doesn’t have that context, so it ends up being an oddball collection of examples with no motivation.

Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie. 1/5

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie. 2/5


A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. 2/5

I remember this book being one of my absolute FAVORITE books in elementary school; sadly, like so much media from my youth, rereading it just makes me question my tastes.

There’s so much about this book that didn’t hold up – most of all, Meg spends basically the whole book whining. Compared to that, I didn’t even mind the awkward and overt religious themes. For what it’s worth, the strongest memory I’d held onto was the idea of a tesseract – at least that was still fun years later.

The Box, by Marc Levinson. 2/5

This would have been an outstanding long-form magazine article. Or, to be fair, maybe the right way to say that is that the level of interest I had would have been well-served by a long-form article.

Data Driven, by D.J. Patil. 3/5

If you’re at all interested, it’s short and free enough to be worth your time.

Doesn’t say anything earth-shattering, but it’s the kind of thing I could imagine having a positive effect if handed to a manager or TL.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. 1/5

I tried hard to make it through this one, but … couldn’t care. I think I got about halfway through before finally giving up.

To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg. 2/5

This book seems well-written, and the content is fantastic. But man, it’s … slow. I wish he’d ignored the obvious urge towards chronology and started with something a bit more modern and enticing.

Miracleman (books 1-3), by Alan Moore. 2/5

I really enjoyed the first two volumes of Miracleman – I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this is an early example of the same cynical “this is what heroes would really be like” that made comics like The Ultimates so enjoyable here.

Somehow, this all fell apart for me in the third volume, enough so that it spoiled the first two a bit. Maybe this volume is “this is what a super villian would really be like”, but it’s just … tedious. And all the “weird transcendent future” scenes were a chore to read.

The Elements of Data Analytic Style, by Jeff Leek. 3/5

Paper Towns, by John Green. 2/5

My main beef here is that I think this book was actually better as a movie, which makes me think it would have been a great short story.

Or maybe I’m getting too crochety to read YA fiction.

Data-ism, by Steve Lohr. 1/5

Maybe I wasn’t the audience for this book, but I thought it was long on words and short on content.

What If?, by Randall Munroe. 5/5

If you enjoy xkcd at all, you already know you’ll enjoy this one. As a bonus, though, most of these questions are really fun for science-loving young kids.

Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, by Hugh Howey. 1/5

I generally like Hugh Howey, but this was just bad. It wasn’t even sci-fi so much as mediocre young adult romance that happens to be set in space. Blech.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. 5/5

As You Wish, by Cary Elwes. 4/5

Good fun – if you think you might enjoy it, definitely give it a try. It’s especially fun as an audiobook, since most of the original cast read their own parts.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. 5/5

This book was a fantastic good time – definitely some of the most fun scifi I’ve read in a while.

There are definitely things I could nitpick, and on that front I’d almost say four stars. But he really nailed the length and pacing – so that gives it a bump in my mind. It doesn’t hurt that the author’s sense of humor (and by extension Mark Watney’s) is right in line with mine. On more than one occasion, I had to stop myself from laughing out loud (and waking my 2yo).

As a plus, I was the fourth in sequence to read it (father-in-law, mother-in-law, wife, me) – so despite being scifi, there’s clearly some broad appeal that he got just right.

Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt. 1/5

There might have been some interesting content here, but I couldn’t make it through the writing to get there.

Plus, for the “Why is the other lane always faster?” question, watching the beginning of Office Space is a faster and more illuminating introduction, with a better soundtrack to boot.

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan. 5/5

Sync, by Steven Strogatz. 2/5

I couldn’t get into this one. Maybe the author and I were just out of … sync.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris. 3/5

Interestingly, I enjoyed this one more than Me Talk Pretty One Day, which I think is atypical. I feel like the fact that Sedaris narrates his own works makes the audiobook version a special treat.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. 3/5

I enjoyed this, but as with all collections of this sort, the stories are bound to be a bit hit-or-miss. I think I tend to enjoy Sedaris much more in smaller chunks.


Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. 2/5

Why are people so excited by this book?

Sand, by Hugh Howey. 4/5

Wool, by Hugh Howey. 5/5

Data Scientists at Work, by Sebastian Gutierrez. 3/5

Much like Coders at Work, this is almost guaranteed to have something worth your time if you’re even vaguely interested in the topic. There are a few can’t-miss interviews, along with some that i skimmed in parts.

I thougth the LeCun and Wiggins interviews were (expected) highlights, and enjoyed Smallwood and Jonas way more than I expected. Tunkelang, Foreman, Porway, and Perlich were all interesting.

The parts I found most enjoyable were those where common elements popped up in unexpected places – eg Caitlin Smallwood pointing out that Netflix has a group of people hand-annotating data, much like Google does with Maps.

The Everything Store, by Brad Stone. 4/5

Dataclysm, by Christian Rudder. 2/5

How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt. 1/5

Automate This, by Christopher Steiner. 3/5

This book wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t terribly exciting. Like so many books in this vein, it falls halfway between pop science and actually technical, and fails to satisfy either audience.

Spell or High Water, by Scott Meyer. 1/5

I was partway into the second novel (as audiobooks) when I realized I really couldn’t care less what happened next.

Off to Be the Wizard, by Scott Meyer. 1/5

Sex Criminals (vol 1), by Matt Fraction. 4/5

This one’s a hell of a lot of fun, though clearly adult-themed. As with the first part of any story, it’s so much fun to set things up and get to know the characters; the jury’s still out on whether or not he’ll be able to deliver.

Quantum Man, by Lawrence M. Krauss. 3/5

Being about Feynman, there are plenty of fun stories here. If you’ve already read one or more of the other books about him, there’s no need to rush out and read this one; that said, he does two things that distinguish it a bit from the rest:

  1. it’s a much more physics-centric view of Feynman’s life, and he spends much more time explaining some related physics, and the impact of Feynman’s work.

  2. While he clearly sees Feynman as a legend, he’s not afraid of pointing out some of Feynman’s flaws.

Remote, by David Heinemeier Hansson. 2/5

As someone who works remotely a lot, I was excited to read this. As it happens, I think the book was targeted more at management/business types. This makes sense, but made for a somewhat boring read.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi. 4/5

Oh, man, this book is such a good time. Nothing particularly deep, but if you’ve read/watched your share of other sci-fi, especially Star Trek, you might not be able to put this one down.

Mind candy of the tastiest order.

Lock In, by John Scalzi. 1/5

I usually like Scalzi, but I just couldn’t get into this book. The setup is definitely novel, but I was halfway into the book and realized I didn’t care at all.

Everything is Obvious, by Duncan Watts. 5/5

The Improbability Principle, by David Hand. 1/5

If there was a deeper point here, I didn’t find a hint of it in the first third of the book. Meh.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. 2/5

This book was entertaining, though mostly at a “mind candy” level - definitely not a classic for the ages or anything. I clearly enjoyed it more for the 80s references (though there was a bit more of a span with some).

That said, after letting it roll around in my head for a few days, I realized that the rampant 80s references were letting me look past some pretty awful characters and plot; I feel like the story’s about as sophisticated as I would have come up with as a ten-year-old.

As a fun bonus, I listened to the audiobook, and Wil Wheaton was doing the narration – making the part where Wil Wheaton was mentioned in the story happily self-referential.

The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi. 3/5

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke. 4/5

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. 3/5

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukerjee. 4/5

I really enjoyed this book – compared to so many other pop science books, he manages to give a fairly nice historical arc without being totally boring.

That said, I did have to give up a little over halfway in … mostly because reading about cancer is depressing.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. 2/5

This was OK, but I don’t quite see why people were so excited about this book – or how the series has gone on to have six books.


Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi. 4/5

This was really fun – I can’t think of a better way to juxtapose sci-fi with what people in LA are really like. I suspect I got an extra kick out of this one on account of having lived in LA and experienced “hollyweird” first-hand.

The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny. 2/5

Another “classic” that I didn’t love. I don’t know if it’s that it didn’t age well, or if I’ve just passed my limit on epic fantasy, but I got worn out by book 7 and had to throw in the towel. If I hadn’t heard so many times what a classic this is, I would have quit somewhere in book 2.

Irrational Exuberance, by Robert J. Shiller. 3/5

I suspect that as with most people who read behavioral econ books, you love the first one or two you read, and they all blur together after that. This was well into “blur together” territory for me.

Masters of Doom, by David Kushner. 2/5

If you’re just looking to get a bit of backstory and history on Carmack and Romero, this book has it. That said, as the subtitle makes clear (“How two guys created an empire and transformed pop culture”), it takes itself a bit more seriously than I could enjoy.

Shift, by Hugh Howey. 3/5

More fun in the Wool universe.

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. 5/5

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, Book 1), by Charles Stross. 2/5

Not bad, but largely forgettable. I think I even started the second book and realized I just didn’t care enough to keep going.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. 4/5

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. 3/5

I enjoy Pollan’s writing style quite a bit, and felt drawn in by the whole argument in the first two parts of the book.

It was instructive to read the third part, involving mushrooms and “moon calories,” and realize that so much of my interest in the first two parts was based on enjoyment of the writing as opposed to being convinced by actual evidence.

Luminous, by Greg Egan. 5/5

Nudge, by Richard Thaler. 3/5

I enjoyed that this has a slightly different perspective than some other behavioral economics books, focusing on how to use the ideas of behavioral econ to push people in the right direction. But I think I’d apparently already reached saturation by the time I got to this one.

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. 4/5

I was recommended this book by several folks at work, and I think the evidence is really compelling.

That said, the writing is a mixed bag: I feel like it’s 50% balanced data-driven analysis, and 50% bad pop science. I would be curious to see how well that split lines up with the authorship (as it was written by a father + son duo).


The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. 1/5

Everyone loved this series, so I forced myself through two or three of these. I can’t fathom why.

Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne M. Valente. 2/5

Startide Rising, by David Brin. 1/5

Much like my experience with Sundiver years ago, I made it about 15% of the way into this book and realized I didn’t care at all. Part of this was the poorly-done scifi-ese, but I also wonder if the fact that I already knew part of the punchline (the idea of uplift, and that humans had uplifted themselves) spoiled some of the surprise?

The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. 4/5

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. 2/5

I read this book in early college and couldn’t get enough Stephenson. I read all four of his existing books, and went on a long hunt to find The Big U (which was, as promised, bad).

Rereading this was a big disappointment. I knew to lower my bar a little, but it was just so … juvenile? The most I can say for the main plot is that it was complicated, but that’s not intended as a compliment. The characters were lame, as was the writing. I worry that the reasons I had for liking this book the first time around were the obvious ones: a crush on YT and “Ooh! Swords! Awesome!” Stephenson also does one thing that annoys me to no end: throwing around “binary code!” and “ones and zeroes!” like it has anything to do with a programmer’s day-to-day.

The Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. 4/5

I’ll admit that I probably enjoyed this book more than average, largely because I was so excited to pick up the world of A Fire Upon the Deep.

Daemon, by Daniel Suarez. 1/5

Blood Sisters, by Greg Egan. 4/5

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner. 4/5

If you enjoy pop science history, this is top-notch. Great material, well-written, and rarely boring.

He also does one particular thing that I wish more science writers did: he doesn’t tie himself down by doing things strictly chronologically. Each chapter/section follows a different storyline, and rather than go back and forth, he follows each one basically to the end before picking up the next story. I wish more writers would do this.

The Theory That Would Not Die, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. 3/5

I’m a little wary about recommending this, since it definitely tries to feed a bit off the “frequentist vs. bayesian” drama in the world, which is a shame. This book can totally get by on its own merits, especially if you’re looking for a pop science stats history book.

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. 3/5

The first third of this book gave me a good sense of how little I really knew about language and linguistics.

The fact that I was bored after only the first third of the book gave me a good sense for how much interest I have in the topic.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel. 4/5

Easy reading, but fun and well-done.

Annabel Scheme, by Robin Sloan. 5/5

I had so much fun reading this book. The book prioritized a fun story over details about the science, which was great, but I could see annoying some folks. But I think bananas and quantum computing are now forever tied together in my mind.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 5/5

Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel. 4/5

Seibel’s actually a fantastic interviewer, so the overall quality here is higher than in most “interivew the big names in our field” books I’ve read.

The Change Function, by Pip Coburn. 3/5

Getting Things Done, by David Allen. 3/5

Beautiful Code, by Greg Wilson and Andy Oram (eds). 3/5

As with most collections, this one varies wildly in interest (to me, but probably to any reader). IIUC this was the first of the “beautiful” collections, and had a good bit more planning/curating than some, but it’s still a hodgepodge.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. 4/5

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. 5/5

Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt. 1/5

The longer it’s been since I read this book, the less I like it. The whole book is centered around the idea that a cute/pithy explanation must be the right one, but so many of the “amazing insights” here are well accepted as nonsense.

Skip it.

Republic Lost, by Lawrence Lessig. 4/5

This was incredibly engaging and depressing at the same time.

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. 1/5

I made it about halfway through this book; there’s really nothing terribly exciting about it. It seemed too “middle school science” to me – lots of cataloguing and names, not a lot of explanations and cause/effect relationships.


R in a Nutshell, by Joseph Adler. 2/5

Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. 4/5

I read this expecting it to have aged poorly, but I was pleasantly surprised. This book is a nice example of just how well sci-fi can hold up over time.


The Local Langlands Conjecture for GL(2), by Bushnell and Henniart. 4/5

This book is amazing; I wish I’d discovered and read it earlier, and that I’d used that as an excuse to do more representation theory. Incredibly clear exposition.

An Invitation to Arithmetic Geometry, by D. Lorenzini. 4/5

I never learned enough about function fields or curves; one day I found this book and realized it would have happily taught me a ton, along with a clear picture of the analogy between number fields and function fields over curves.


Modular Forms: a computational approach, by W. Stein. 4/5

I learned so much from this book. That includes learning all the concrete bits I thought I knew about modular forms but didn’t, but also a lot about how to compute with modular forms in practice.

Automorphic Forms on Adele Groups, by S. Gelbart. 3/5

I learned a lot from this book, but I feel like I didn’t give it enough time: we did a group reading course out of it, but I never came back to the material after that. It’s especially interesting in that (AIUI) it was written as some of the material was still quite new; it’s a good experience to see only-partly-formed material, especially if you have someone on hand who can tell you the end of the story.

That said, I wish I’d spent time with Borel & Casselman instead: I might not have a “big picture” view, but I’d have a better handle on the bits I did learn.

Fourier Analysis on Number Fields, by Ramakrishnan and Valenza. 4/5

As they state in the introduction, they want to give you all the background you would need to read Tate’s thesis, but probably wouldn’t pick up in a “standard” algebraic number theory education. They do an excellent job – this is the place to look for lots of things that aren’t well-explained elsewhere.

I also have a real soft spot for books that have a “fill-in-the-gaps” flavor, rather than “here’s the eleventeenth book with the same title and table of contents, but ever-so-slightly different proofs.”

$p$-adic numbers, by F. Gouvea. 5/5

I really enjoy Gouvea’s writing, and this book is top-notch. It’s an introduction to $p$-adic numbers (and a bit of $p$-adic analysis) that explains things in as down-to-earth a way as you could hope. Importantly, Gouvea isn’t afraid to write down examples and details.


Algebraic Number Theory, by Jurgen Neukirch. 5/5

I only read parts of this, but it’s the book I wish I’d run into earlier in grad school: every part is interesting, and well-written to boot. The exercises are fantastic (though I’ve heard some are quite difficult). Feels more modern than Lang, but is definitely not for the faint of heart.

A First Course in Modular Forms, by Diamond and Shurman. 5/5

This is the modular forms book to read if you want to do algebraic number theory. Uses the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture (and Fermat’s Last Theorem) to motivate the study of modular forms, and makes it all look easy. (And, of course, good exercises.)

Analytic Number Theory, by Donald Newman. 2/5

Foundation series, Issac Asimov. 2/5

Look, I know, I know, admitting this is boring makes me a bad person and a bad sci-fi fan.

But seriously, it’s REALLY boring. Sure, there are some great ideas here, and they’re but the writing itself was as compelling as watching paint dry. I mean that literally – I was reading this while painting my apartment, and at some point I decided I’d rather just watch between coats than read another chapter.

Lie Algebras and Lie Groups, by Serre. 4/5

Lie Groups, Lie Algebras, and Their Representations, by V. Varadarajan. 4/5


Algebraic Geometry, by Robin Hartshorne. 3/5

This book is a classic, and for good reason: it was one of the first books to write down all the machinery of scheme-theoretic algebraic geometry. I suspect any student of algebraic geometry or (algebraic) number theory should still spend time with this book.

That said, this book is heavy on the algebra and light on the geometry; reading this without balancing it out with something like Shafarevich will leave you with good technical chops and a lack of geometric intuition.

Representation Theory of Finite Groups, by J-P Serre. 5/5

As with all of Serre’s books, it’s terse, beautiful, and worth a read. I don’t think I ever made it through the third section.

The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, by Judd Winick. 5/5

I’ve read this one several times, and I thoroughly enjoy it every time. I think Judd Winick and I seem to have a similar sense of humor; also, I am apparently still a 13-year old maturity-wise.


Algebraic Number Theory, by Lang. 3/5

This is where I learned class field theory, and it does a solid job. In retrospect, I feel like I learned a lot about the “what” and less about the “why”, but that could be my fault. I wouldn’t start here for the basics on number fields, but the class field theory section was the intro for a whole generation.

TBH, though, these days I’d say read Neukirch instead: it’s clearer, it has better exercises, and it makes a better reference.

A Classical Introduction to Modern Number Theory, by K. Ireland and M. Rosen. 5/5

This book is fantastic – as promised in the title, the authors take you from elementary number theory all the way to the Mordell-Weil theorem. The exercises are amazing, and worth the time. I was the TA for a course where we did a chapter a week, with the homework being “do all the exercises”, and I can’t describe just how much I learned.

Introduction to Commutative Algebra, by Atiyah & MacDonald. 5/5

I can’t think of a more pleasant way to get comfortable with the basics of commutative algebra one needs for algebraic geometry than reading and doing all the exercises in this book. Marvelously well-written. Sadly, the current paperback edition is despicably overpriced for the quality of the printing; look online for a used hardback, it’s worth it.

An Introduction to the Theory of the Riemann Zeta Function, by S. J. Patterson. 4/5

I Want to Be a Mathematician: An Automathography, by Paul R. Halmos. 3/5

If you think you might want to read this, definitely get it. If you’re not sure, you’d probably be bored.

This is just as advertised: an automathography, meaning that it’s a description of Paul Halmos’s life as a mathematician. I loved Halmos, and I think he was much more self-aware than most mathematicians. Two of my favorite quotes (paraphrased):

A curious aspect of the book is that all the other aspects of his life get at most a passing mention – for instance, I remember one point later in the book where it comes up that he’s been divorced and remarried, but it’s only mentioned as related to a move between universities.

If you think you might be interested in the mathematical travels of a mid-20th-century mathematician, get your hands on this and the companion picture volume (I Have a Photographic Memory).

Number Fields, by D. Marcus. 4/5

This was the book where I learned the basics of algebraic number theory; it’s another “do all the exercises” one, and you won’t be sorry. Totally global (no $p$-adics at all!), which is a bummer, but fantastic for what it is. Happily, it’s recently had a new edition which was rewritten in LaTeX.

Number Theory, by Borevich and Shafarevich. 4/5

I only read bits of this book, in part because I realized I wasn’t going to work in analytic number theory. It has a much more “hands-on” feel than most algebraic number theory books (in part because it also covers a lot of analytic material).


Algebra, by S. Lang. 5/5

I have mixed feelings about some of Lang’s books, but this one is a gem. I believe I read every section fo this book at some point in my first three years of grad school, and got something out of every single one. I can’t imagine trying to learn the basics here, but it’s the place I’d go to re-learn any part (and discover what I missed the first time). The later chapters are filled with interesting stuff, too.

A Course in Arithmetic, by J. P. Serre. 5/5

This book is a delight. Serre gives an intro to modern number theory: five chapters on the p-adics and the local-global principle for quadratic forms, a chapter with Dirichlet’s proof on primes in arithmetic progressions, and a chapter introducing modular forms of level 1. Serre is a masterful expositor; his style is definitely terse, but worth the effort.

To expound a little: if you think of understanding a proof as a long journey, Serre’s exposition is “shooting the azimuth”: for each high point in the proof, he gives you a clear sense of “the next step is in this direction, and it’s a bit far away, but here’s what you’ll need”.

Introduction to Analytic and Probabilistic Number Theory, by G. Tenenbaum. 5/5

I only spent time with the first two chapters, but there’s so much in this book. The beginning is dense, but well-written.

Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture, by Apostolos Doxiadis. 3/5


Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, by Richard P. Feynman. 4/5

I love reading about Feynman, and I loved this book, and I’m sure I’ll read this several more times. Strongly recommended.

That said, it wasn’t until I was a bit older that I noticed there’s a whole lot of sexism in this book. Sure, you can say “oh that’s how things were,” but that doesn’t make it any better. Be warned.



I won’t lie, I do enjoy a scathing book review.