Life in Books: Richard Palethorpe
11 min read
We are delighted to have Richard Palethorpe - who works as a Software Engineer at Suse - for the latest installment in our My Life in Books series.
We asked Richard to tell us about the non-fiction books that have had a major impact on his life, and he went deep!
How To Solve It - George Polya
There are a number of great misconceptions about mathematics. One is that it is accurate, neat and tidy. In fact only the final proofs and techniques, refined over many years or centuries are concinse, neat, logical steps.
In school you are generally given a set of problems to solve and a set of procedures to solve them. Not much is said about the meta-procedure of applying specific techniques. I have taken many courses in mathematics and now read text books as a hobby, but it was only when I read "How to Solve It" was I explicitly introduced to the heuristics of mathematical problem solving.
Unlike famous mathematical proofs themselves, the process of creating a proof is messy, unstructured and an often random search for a solution. I wondered for a long time if I simply was missing something or just had the wrong type of brain for maths, but Polya's book helped me to understand, that no, it really is a fucking mess.
It is also a practically useful book, even if you are not interested in mathematics. If you study enough problems you will figure out the techniques for yourself, but it's a potentially very large shortcut and demystifies mathematics.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas R. Hofstadter
This is the most sacred book of the programmers. When I was beginning my studies in hackery, I read an article, similar to this one where all the prophets of computing were asked "what are your favorite books?". Almost all answered "1. GEB!". I now proudly continue that tradition.
Like any true masterpiece this book defies any attempt at creating a summary. It is irreducible; only a lossy compression is possible. It both educates you on the power of symbolic computation, in a way accessible to the uninitiated and at the same time shows its boundaries. There is a lot of abstract stuff in this book, but thanks to the mighty computer it also contains practical knowledge.
I have bought at least two copies of this book.
The Incerto Series - Nassim Taleb
This is cheating because it is actually a series of books, but Nassim meanders about and the chapters of one book could be transplanted to another. Like GEB, these books defy compression and it is Taleb himself who points out that it is a bad sign if a book can be summarised.
In recent years both Taleb's books and his book recommendations have drastically altered my thinking. He ties together many domains under a framework of probabilistic reasoning and time tested philosophy.
It's joked that Taleb's acolytes become experts on everything. There is fair criticism in this joke, but also I think many miss the point. Taleb only claims expertise in probability, yet provides insights into many areas, by providing tools for dealing with uncertainty.
You can not know everything about everything, in fact I don't even know everything about software I have created. The set of possible behaviors my code is capable of, vastly exceeds what I can compute in my head or even formally verify. Taleb can tell you the same thing despite not being an expert in my area*. He points out that people often suffer from domain blindness and despite being aware of phenomena leading to dangerous randomness in one domain, can not see it in another. This is despite the fact the same mathematics and other forms of reasoning apply to both.
In one book he quips that adding randomness (or stochasticity) to a process often improves the result. Indeed I used some stochasticity in a library I created for reproducing bugs in the Linux kernel. This was much simpler than other possible solutions and more robust. He gives examples in completely different domains.
It takes a great deal of expertise to create a rocket ship, but only common sense to decide whether you should take a ride on one. Note that the less you know about rockets the simpler answering this question becomes. Let's say you at least know the history of this ship's safety, so you know there is some chance you might die. Then it's a question of what you will get for riding on it.
However the type of randomness described above is not what Taleb is most concerned about, although it is important when deciding whether to go skiing off piste or smuggling cocaine. The most dangerous type of randomness is modeled by fat-tailed probability distributions. It is characterised by exponential growth and/or violent non-linear changes which vastly exceed what was previously seen.
Taleb goes off on many tangents, but it usually comes back to how to act, both morally and successfully. It's easy to misinterpret what he is saying as he switches mental models depending on the phenomena being dealt with. He's not a simpleton with an absolutist view of the world and also a bit of a character who sees it as his moral duty to attack dangerous bullshitters. This puts him at the center of a lot of controversy and creates noise around his work.
I have bought the Incerto series twice (another of Taleb's favourite aphorisms is never to read a book you wouldn't read twice) and many of the books by authors he takes his inspiration from. So far it has been the gift which keeps giving.
*Of systems coding in particular, he is a finance quant which requires considerable coding abilities.
Peak - Anders Ericsson
Over the years I have come to believe that all human beings have roughly the same "natural intelligence", whatever that means. This comes from my own experience of learning, mathematics, computer science and languages as an adult, when as a child I was, for the most part, a certified idiot. Definitely there are people with disabilities, however I believe everyone else hovers around an average.
That is to say I think the raw computing power of human brains are normally distributed. To use a phrase from The Incerto, they exist in Mediocristan rather than Extremistan. You may get people who, for example, are able to store 1.1x to 1.5x of the average in short term memory. However you will not get someone with the innate ability to store 100x or a 1000x the average.
However we do see in the world that there are people who are 100x better at even simple tasks such as memorising numbers. Anders does a beautiful job of explaining how this can happen. Some of the book is merely hypotheses, but he also gives a concrete example of how people have achieved 10-100x performance. Essentially while short term memory can only store so many symbols and genetics, exercise, diet etc. may only increase this incrementally, there are tricks which allow one to achieve many multiples the performance.
Anders also speculates that the abilities of high performers who are identified as natural geniuses, can in fact be explained by environmental factors. For me, in my daily life, it doesn't matter too much how true this is. What matters is that whatever effect genetics has on intelligence it is less important than factors which we can control. This is an empowering and useful belief, or perhaps it would be better to say it is a useful assumption which leads to better courses of action.
On the other hand, and somewhat ironically given the front cover of the book, I think elite sports are limited completely by physical strength and therefor genetics. It's only where pure thought is concerned that you can achieve multiple times the performance.
Dune - Frank Herbert
Dune, of course, is a work of fiction and therefor is expressed in a way that allows for more meaning to be imposed upon it than a work of non-fiction expressing the same concepts. With that in mind, every time I read Dune, I find more profound philosophical, socio-political-theological-economic-ecological commentary for which the narrative of Dune is merely a backdrop, an allegory. Perhaps it would be better to call it religious fiction because it is perhaps religion for secular nerds.
Out of the books listed here, I probably read this at the youngest age and so it may be the most formative despite being fiction. It introduced the idea that in order for some things to get stronger, they must endure hardship strong enough to remove the weaker components, but not so strong it destroys or cripples the whole. This should not be an unfamiliar concept given natural selection is taught in school, however people are still surprised by it and fail to see all the places it applies. It can be seen in hormesis and antifragile processes (a term coined by Taleb).
I don't know how much I really learnt from Dune and how much I am layering on top of it with more recent knowledge. Ultimately though I think it tipped me towards seeking out harder paths that in the long run have made my life better.
Unfortunately a new film is being made and while it does look like a good film; the themes of Dune are not things which can be expressed in film. The film will be a collection of attractive people riding CGI sand worms occasionally uttering simplified dialog designed to reach the widest audience possible. I will probably enjoy the film, because I like special effects, but will then have to endure people discussing "Dune", after only watching the film.
The True Believer - Eric Hoffer
People often like to wave 1984 around in the air at every available opportunity while calling their opponents fascists or leftists. Which is good (except that 1984, Animal farm etc. suffer from the same issue as Dune), but in the other hand they should have a copy of The True Believer. It's a travesty that this book isn't slapped in people's faces every time mass movements begin their descent into radical nonsense.
Eric points out that Stalin and Hitler did not worry so much about their followers defecting to the Allies, but instead to each other. For a number of reasons, but largely because extreme ideologies offer mostly the same things to the extremist. Your moderate progressive is less likely to switch to conservative, than a hardline leftist to a fascist.
The reason being the moderates have genuine differences in beliefs whereas the extremists both just want the same thing: to burn it the fuck down in an orgasmic flurry of violence and end their own painful existence in the process. Whether they are fighting for God, against religion, in some race war or against racism doesn't matter so long as their is the opportunity for pandemonium.
What amuses me about this book is how I found it; it is mentioned by Theodore Kaczynski in his manifesto which he committed acts of terrorism in order to achieve circulation. If you have ever wondered "What would happen if a highly technical and erudite person, who completely rejected society and had zero fear of repercussions developed an idealogy", then check out Industrial Society and Its Future (needless to say the content requires some emotional detachment). Unfortunately for Theodore's movement, there is nothing man-made more powerful than technologie, it co-opted religion and now there is nothing left to stand in its way. I'll leave it as an open question as to whether Theodore himself is a True Believer.
Other notable mentions Hell's Angels by Hunter S. ThompsonAgainst Method by Paul Feyerabend The Dao of Capital by Mark SpitznagelComplexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell *The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Software priest in the church of Operating Systems, enthusiast of discrete mathematics, complexity theory, lifting weights and sprinting, classical architecture, mountains, oceans, conspiracy theories, mindaltering substances...