Tatyana Deryugina (Twitter: @TDeryugina)

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Posted 18 Aug 17 by arbelos in Books

I loved PhD Comics as a grad student. Frankly, I still find them quite relatable as an Assistant Professor (and in a few years, I can let you know if they’re relatable from a tenured professor’s standpoint!). So I was really intrigued when I heard that the author of PhD Comics, Jorge Cham, co-wrote a book (with Daniel Whiteson) called “We Have No Idea”. It’s not about being a grad student (though the title could probably be reused for a book about that as well); it’s “A Guide to the Unknown Universe”. As the title suggests, it’s about some of the current limits of our knowledge.

If you like popular science books, physics, and astronomy, I definitely recommend this book. Most popular science books talk about what we know, and if you end up with a nagging “but” or a question, it’s hard to tell whether it’s because details were left out, because you misunderstood the explanation, or because you stumbled on an question scientists haven’t figured out yet. This book is different because it explicitly discusses big-picture stuff science hasn’t figured out yet (and suggests some possibilities for what the answers could be). It’s written in the easy-to-read and humorous style of Jorge Cham but co-written with an experimental high-energy physicist, so you can be pretty sure the book is both entertaining and correct.

The book covers dark matter, dark energy, elementary particles, and time, among other things. Even if you’ve read books on these subjects before, reading a book that synthesizes our lack of knowledge in these areas is both enlightening and exciting.

Posted 28 May 11 by Tatyana in Books
I finally finished reading "Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, where he documents his quest to win the US Memory Championship (even though the quest starts out with a less ambitious goal).  It was a very easy to read and contained a lot of interesting facts. For one, I had no idea that memorization was such a big part of life in ancient times. When you think about it, it makes sense – many people didn’t know how to read and those who did couldn’t afford to own every book. But I never really thought about it.

Posted 21 May 11 by Tatyana in Books
I just finished reading "Poor Economics” by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both MIT economics professors. The book was amazing and I highly recommend it. In summary, it is an excellent, evidence-based discourse about the behavior of the poor and the policies that work and don’t work to improve their lives. Abhijit and Esther cover how the poor make decision about how much to save, eat, and spend on their children’s education, why so many poor households run businesses but don’t become rich, and how political institutions can be improved.

Posted 30 Mar 11 by Tatyana in Books

This blog works very well as a commitment device. Today, two people have mentioned my "I’m going to memorize the countries of the world” promise, forcing me to sit down and do some creative memorization following the techniques in the "Moonwalking with Einstein”. I had actually already memorized Central and South America and successfully recited the countries to a friend almost two days after the memorization took place. OK, I left out Argentina (ironically, that was one of the few countries I could identify before this exercise). But that’s still an over 90% retention rate.

I’ve moved on to Africa now. It’s much tougher than South America. The memorization techniques calls for coming up with images that evoke the country names (e.g., "guacamole” for Guatemala). The crazier the image, the better. It also has to be concrete (e.g., you won’t be able to remember Mauritania by thinking of "moratorium”). So what am I supposed to picture for Ghana? And why are there three countries with the word "Guinea” in their name?

I’m about halfway done with Africa (Mauritania is Maury Povich). It’ll be interesting to see how much more I can memorize without forgetting Latin America.

Posted 26 Mar 11 by Tatyana in Books

I just started reading "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer. First of all, I want to say that seeing advertisement over and over works: it wasn’t until I saw an article about the book and an interview with the author that I decided to buy it. Second, I’m really happy to be reading books again – I haven’t read any since the New Year holidays.

I don’t have a review yet, but I have decided to take up a challenge in my spare time: memorize the map of the world using the techniques described in the book. Just country names for now, then maybe capitals. My geography is terrible. I could tell you which countries I can’t find on a map and you would be shocked, but I’m afraid to put anything that embarrassing down in writing.

I’ve tried using the techniques I’ve read about so far and it’s working amazingly well. I memorized a random shopping list from the book and hours later, I can still recite it in the right order (pickled garlic, cottage cheese, peat-smoked salmon, six bottles of white wine, three pairs of socks, three hula hoops, a snorkeling mask, etc…). I remember the locations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (those are all grouped together), Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and a few others. I’ll keep you updated on the progress.

FYI, the book is not really a how-to book. It’s a lot more exciting than that  so far :) .

Posted 18 Jan 11 by Tatyana in Books

As I promised a while back, here’s my short take on the book "At Home” by Bill Bryson.

"At Home” is not the best book I’ve read by Bill Bryson, but that’s not too informative because I find Bill Bryson’s books awesome (e.g. "A Short History  of Nearly Everything”, "A Walk in the Woods”, and "I’m a Stranger Here Myself”).

"At Home” was very well researched, very well written, and quite amusing. Disguised as a history of the modern house (and to be fair, it does talk about how various rooms evolved over the years), I would rather describe this book as a history of British society starting from the middle ages, but mostly focused on the 19th century. Bryson touches on the lives of various inventors and the true histories of their inventions (e.g. the cotton gin, telephone, and mass produced glass), childbirth, fashion, servants, landscaping, and much more. Along the way, he presents some quirky beliefs society held at various points in time (e.g. being dirty is good for you). As usual, he describes nearly everything with poignant humor.  If you’re someone who would enjoy a medley of interesting information about how society used to live, this book is for you.

Posted 15 May 10 by Tatyana in Books

My most recent read is "What Do You Care What Other People Think?”, another collection of anecdotes by Richard Feynman (the the sequel to "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”). I expected the first book to be a standard dry-ish biography, and it was anything but. The second book is just as good.

It’s not clear whether Feynman actually wrote all the stories; the first page of the book has the subtitle "as told to Ralph Leighton”. The book was first published soon after Feynman’s death.

After reading the first book, my impression was that Feynman was a brilliant scientist, but also arrogant and slightly out of touch with the world. This second collection paints him as much more humble (though still somewhat arrogant and definitely brilliant), intuitive, and caring.

The first half of the book is much more personal. It tells the story of Feynman’s first marriage and has a chapter filled with letters written by or about Feynman. The second half is all about the investigation of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Feynman was on the commission that investigated the causes of the disaster. The writing paints a rich picture of how space shuttles work, NASA, Washington, and 1980′s technology. There are even diagrams of the shuttle parts. This is all interacted with Feynman’s  cleverness, mischievousness, and intolerance of BS, bureaucracy, and authority.

My absolutely favorite part is the epilogue, a speech called "The Value of Science”, given by Feynman in 1955 to the National Academy of Sciences. You can (and should) read it here.

Posted 06 May 10 by Tatyana in Books

I just finished "Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. When this book was first recommended to me as something that could help me with presentations, I thought it would consist of fluff useful for salesmen and inspirational speakers. Fluff doesn’t work on academics. But just as sick people will go to homeopaths and witch doctors when they’re really desperate, sometimes circumstances call for extreme measures.

As you can (hopefully) guess, I wouldn’t be so open about my reservations if I didn’t like the book. It’s an excellent discussion of the basic principles that make people remember your ideas. After the first few chapters, I was convinced that their recommendations are applicable in many situations, including academic papers and seminars.

Along the way, you also learn that Sherlock Holmes never used the phrase, "Elementary, my Dear Watson”, that the phrase "Nice guys finish last” originated by someone being quoted out of context, that you can get Macy’s purchases gift wrapped at Nordstrom, and that there used to be as much fat in a bag of popcorn as in a table laden with junk food.

"Made to Stick” isn’t "entertainment” reading, but if you’re in a profession where you need to communicate ideas to other people in a way that makes them remember it, I would recommend it.

Posted 28 Mar 10 by Tatyana in Books

I just finished reading "Big Bang” by Simon Singh. It’s a fascinating account of the history of astronomy/cosmology, starting from the days people believed the sun revolved around the Earth. The book is a great combination of amusing anecdotes about the scientists themselves, easy-to-understand description of the major theories, the scientific methods used to arrive at the theories, and (best of all) thoughtful commentary on how science progresses.

This made me think of the progress of economics (mostly because everything makes me think of economics these days) and whether it is or will ever become a science in the standard sense. I think it definitely has the potential to be even more rigorous. Unfortunately, no one is giving economists billions of dollars or approval for large scale experiments. Imagine how much economists could do if we got as much funding as the collider…by the way, I do recommend "Big Bang”!

Posted 31 Jan 10 by Tatyana in Books

From: Karl Marx’s Capital Volume One, Part III: The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value, CHAPTER TEN: THE WORKING-DAY

[66] l. c., p. xiii. The degree of culture of these "labour-powers”
  must naturally be such as appears in the following dialogues with one
  of the commissioners: Jeremiah Haynes, age 12 — "Four times four is 8;
  4 fours are 16. A king is him that has all the money and gold. We have
  a king (told it is a Queen), they call her the Princess Alexandra.
  Told that she married the Queen’s son. The Queen’s son is the Princess
  Alexandra. A Princess is a man.” William Turner, age 12 — "Don’t live
  in England. Think it is a country, but didn’t know before.” John
  Morris, age 14 — "Have heard say that God made the world, and that all
  the people was drownded but one, heard say that one was a little
  bird.” William Smith age 15 — "God made man, man made woman.” Edward
  Taylor, age 15 — "Do not know of London.” Henry Matthewman, age 17 —
  "Had been to chapel, but missed a good many times lately. One name
  that they preached about was Jesus Christ, but I cannot say any
  others, and I cannot tell anything about him. He was not killed, but
  died like other people. He was not the same as other people in some
  ways, because he was religious in some ways and others isn’t.” (l. c.,
  p. xv.) "The devil is a good person. I don’t know where he lives.”
  "Christ was a wicked man.” "This girl spelt God as dog, and did not
  know the name of the queen.” ("Ch. Employment Comm. V. Report, 1866 "
  p. 55, n. 278.) The same system obtains in the glass and paper works
  as in the metallurgical, already cited. In the paper factories, where
  the paper is made by machinery, night-work is the rule for all
  processes, except rag-sorting. In some cases night-work, by relays, is
  carried on incessantly through the whole week, usually from Sunday
  night until midnight of the following Saturday. Those who are on
  day-work work 5 days of 12, and 1 day of 18 hours; those on night-work
  5 nights of 12, and I of 6 hours in each week. In other cases each set
  works 24 hours consecutively on alternate days, one set working 6
  hours on Monday, and 18 on Saturday to make up the 24 hours. In other
  cases an intermediate system prevails, by which all employed on the
  paper-making machinery work 15 or 16 hours every day in the week. This
  system, says Commissioner Lord, "seems to combine all the evils of
  both the 12 hours’ and the 24 hours’ relays.” Children under 13, young
  persons under 18, and women, work under this night system. Sometimes
  under the 12 hours’ system they are obliged, on account of the
  non-appearance of those that ought to relieve them, to work a double
  turn of 24 hours. The evidence proves that boys and girls very often
  work overtime, which, not unfrequently, extends to 24 or even 36 hours
  of uninterrupted toil. In the continuous and unvarying process of
  glazing are found girls of 12 who work the whole month 14 hours a day,
  "without any regular relief or cessation beyond 2 or, at most, 3
  breaks of half an hour each for meals.” In some mills, where regular
  night-work has been entirely given up, over-work goes on to a terrible
  extent, "and that often in the dirtiest, and in the hottest, and in
  the most monotonous of the various processes.” ("Ch. Employment Comm.
  Report IV., 1865,” p. xxxviii, and xxxix.)

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