New Caelifera

New Caelifera

modern methow cabin

Book: Crystal Fire


Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson

We live in the age of the transistor. One estimate is that humanity has made over 2.9 sextillion transistors (sextillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). This number is amazing, though whenever I think about counting numbers, I remember, Agravados number and am humbled by complexity of biology.

Crystal Fire is a history of the development of the transistor. As such it focuses on the three who won the Nobel Prize for this discovery: Bardeen, Braittain, and Shockley. The book is well done, and a good introduction to the story. I guess because I’ve read a lot about the early history of the transistor I was, however, a little bit disappointed. The book doesn’t delve into the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld’s early patent (though it is mentioned as a motivator for the speed with which the transistor was patented), a story which I find fascinating. It also doesn’t discuss the “second” invention, the Transistron. It also doesn’t give as thorough accounting of Shockley’s wild time after the invention of the point contact transistor in which he needed to make his own ideas real. I did learn a bit more about Braittain, probably the most famous graduate of Washington state’s Whitman college (and definitely the most famous person from the Okanogan valley).

Recommended for a good introduction to the early invention of the transistor.

admin August 19, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: Moore’s Law


Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary by Arnold Thackray, David Brock and Rachel Jones.

Gordon Moore once said my name. I’ve always been pretty stoked about that. Mostly because he was at the center of one of the greatest technological revolutions that humanity has seen: the rise of the silicon microprocessor. This book is a detailed biography, including lots of back story on Moore’s family. Moore’s personal life and even his personality was, in some ways, not too remarkable. This is not a book full of amusing stories, but instead focuses on the long pull of Moore’s life work. I came away from it with a greater appreciation of how complicated the story of the integrated circuit really was. We forget how long and how many challenges were overcome over the many decades of the rise of Moore’s law. Seeing how these were attacked was illuminating. The attack was generally first by putting on the scientist hat to try to understand, and then pivoting to engineering to see how to fix it, but often was a messy mix of the two, with an amazing amount of prior “expertise” necessary to make progress.

Recommended for nerds of the history of computing.

admin August 12, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: Amusing Ourselves To Death


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

This book caused me to uninstall multiple apps from my phone. I suppose that is a strong recommendation. It also inspired Roger Waters album “Amused to Death”, which I am quite fond of. While some of the book is dated by its focus on television, the central ideas about how technology has shaped culture feel even more relevant today.

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Recommended.

admin August 12, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: John Stewart Bell and Twentieth-Century Physics, Vision and Integrity


John Stewart Bell and Twentieth-Century Physics: Vision and Integrity by Andrew Whitaker

The strangeness of quantum theory shows itself in Bell’s theorem. At its root it says that if quantum theory behaves as it’s formalism predicts, you have to give up locality if you want to think about there being some underlying mechanism behind quantum theory. When Bell came up with this theorem, he was motivated by the Bohm-de Broglie nonlocal hidden variable theory, which he thought had been badly maligned. But the cool thing is that he did not just add another philosophical argument about interpretations of the foundations of quantum theory, but turned this into a question about how different ways of thinking about quantum theory might lead to testable predictions. Local realism, it seems, can’t be a good description of our world. Today there are loophole free experiments confirming this. I once wrote a paper on modifying Bell’s theorem when you have just a little tiny bit of non-locality, so you can guess I’m a big fan.

This book is a rather academic look into Bell’s life. It covers in detail his childhood and covers almost every paper Bell published, including the vast majority that were outside of the area of foundations of quantum theory. I’m hesitant to recommend this book to anyone first encountering Bell, but if you are interested in his life and especially the physics beyond foundations that he worked on, it is worth going through this book. One nit would be that the book constantly points out when a physicist thought highly of Bell, perhaps as a sensitivity to the reputation that people who work on foundations of quantum theory have in physics.

Book: Dark Pools, The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market


Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market by Scott Patterson.

A bit of a misnamed book, mostly this is about the rise of electronic trading markets, with a good discussion of role of high frequency trading in these new markets, and not solely focused on dark pools. The book focuses in particular on the ideals of the early creators of these electronic markets in contrast to how they eventually ended up catering to the high liquidity provided by many high frequency traders. The one thing I would have liked more of was to understand in more detail the authors claims about how particular order types in these markets cause an unfair advantage over other market players. Another area that would have been interesting would have been to better understand the claim that high frequency market makers disappear during times of high volatility. The book is definitely well written, but I did find myself wanting more info at exactly the place where the author seemed to get a bit out of their depth (in particular the AI section towards the end really doesn’t do a good job delineating different machine learning techniques.) All in all, though, this is a good read, with a lot of entertain real world characters, so I recommend it to those interested in learning a bit about this part of the financial world.

admin February 26, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: A Man for All Markets, From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market

A Man for All Markets: From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market by Edward O. Thorp.

Edward Thorp has does some amazing things. He invented card counting for the game of blackjack. He built, with Claude Shannon of all people, one of the world’s first wearable computers. That computer was used to beat roulette. He came up with Black-Scholes formula for pricing options before Black and Scholes. He ran for many years a very successful statistical arbitrage strategy before such arbitrage was on anyones radar.

This an autobiography which covers much of Thorps life. There are some pretty amazing scenes, like the time he asked Feynman whether roulette was beatable and Feynman said no. Thorp’s reaction was to then think he was definitely onto something (interesting Feynman’s student Hibbs, shortly after this encounter, exploited misbalanced roulette wheels to great success.) But I think what comes through most in all of this is how clear of a thinker Thorp is. The ideas he describe sound straightforward, I think, because he does an incredible job laying them out from a foundational perspective. This is a rare gift.

Another important part of this story is that Thorp gave up the life of an academic mathematician. (Here example of one of his papers). In the book he describes this transition. Even all these years later you can feel how much of a change this was for him, he had sort of always planned on being an academic. OK, I guess mostly it’s just that I can really relate to this transition, so it was good to read someone else’s thoughts through that journey.

Recommended for those whose first thought when encountering a game is to analyze it and those interested in the history of games and finance.

admin February 14, 2017 1 Comment Permalink

Book: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

An ambitious look at humanity from the time when we could first call ourselves human. The book shines the brightest when it takes a step back and looks at humanity without the prior lens of how we frame our history and culture. This is especially true in the first half of the book, where the author digs into the many created myths and ideas that shape history. My one beef would be that at times, the author turns pastoral, though often while admitting that he can’t really judge whether this idealism about the past can be justified. Recommended.

admin February 12, 2017 1 Comment Permalink

Book: Overcomplicated, Technology at the Limits of Comprehension


Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Samuel Arbesman

Time, or at least today’s society, points in the direction of more technological interconnectedness. In this book Sam Arbesman lays out the increasing complexity of our technological world and how we have moved into a regime in which we can potentially not even understand what causes these complex systems to misbehave. As someone who works with complexity daily (what do you think software development is, these days?) I can attest to this in spades.

This book will be eye opening to those who believe our increasing technological sophistication marches hand in hand with our increasing comprehension. My one quibble would be that I think there is a missing portion of this story which is the techniques that everyday practitioners use to work in this increasingly complex environment. I mostly agree with both Arbesman’s observations about our current complex state, and his argument that we will require new approaches to understanding the complex artifacts we create. But tomorrow I must go to work, and build a system that works in this complex world. What techniques can I use to best insulate myself from this complexity, indeed to get anything done? Here I think there is an untold story filled with cool ideas from distributed computing.

admin February 5, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: Proofs and Refutations, The Logic of Mathematical Discovery


Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery by Imre Lakatos

The flow is a mental state in which you are totally immersed in what you are doing. It’s been a long time since I got into the flow while reading a book, but this book did it for me. Written as a socratic dialogue it is a discussion between a teacher and many students who work on proving Euler’s polyhedron formula. The great thing about this book is that the proof (really plural proofs) here are easily comprehensible to someone with only a small mathematical background, but the way in which the story unfolds is both dramatic and insightful. Or at least it was for me.

The best book I’ve read in a few years, I highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in how mathematics and mathematicians work, and in general to anyone who wonders about how discovery and newness appear in the world.

I’d give you mine, but Imma dog ate it (apparently she had some disagreements with Gamma):

admin February 5, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: The Quantum Handshake, Entanglement, Nonlocality and Transactions by John Cramer

The Quantum Handshake: Entanglement, Nonlocality and Transactions by John Cramer.

The transactional interpretation of quantum theory is probably the most neglected interpretation of quantum theory (I know, you would have thought all interpretations of quantum theory would be fodder for gossip mags and the glitterati!)  Invented by John Cramer it was inspired by the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory of electromagnetism.  In this later theory Wheeler and Feynman examine the consequences of taking both advanced and retarded solutions of electromagnetism seriously.  You may recall from your hours spent reading Jackson (I will not link to the blasphemous third edition) that when solving Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism you end up in the tricky situation of having solutions to the equations that seem to go the wrong way in time.  When you wiggle (accelerate) a charge there are solutions to the electromagnetic fields which are waves propagating away from the charge into the future (called retarded waves).  But there are also solutions that have waves essentially propagating backwards into the past (called advanced waves).  Of course this should make you head hurt, and so the normal thing to do is disregard the advanced waves.  What Wheeler and Feynman attempted to do was to not make a theory of electromagnetism without this kludge of disregarding advanced waves.  They were in a sense successful, able to show that in essence they could recover the retarded only electromagnetism via an assumption that all emissions must result in absorption.

What Cramer’s transactional interpretation does is to attempt to use advanced (backwards in time) solutions to the relevant quantum mechanical equations to help us overcome our difficulties understanding quantum theory.  Roughly this works as follows, an emitter at some time emits and “offer” wave.  In nonrelativistic quantum theory this is just the normal wave function for Schrodigner’s equation.   At some later time an absorber interacts with this offer wave.  In particular the absorber sends a wave backwards in time to the emitter, in nonrelativistic quantum theory this is the solution to the complex conjugate of Schrodinger’s equation.  The emitter then receives this “confirmation” wave.  Now, interestingly, if one thinks about the amplitude of the wave function at the emitter, it will be the norm squared of the wave function at the absorber.  An emitter can receive many “confirmation” waves from future absorbers.  In order to change this into reality, a “transaction” must be established: a choice is made so that only one of the confirmation wave “survives”.   Because the emitter has access to the amplitudes, we can see that this choice could be made so as to follow Born’s probability law, at least in so much as the information necessary to get the correct probability law is at the emitter.  Supporters of the transactional interpretation like to say that the interpretation “derives” Born’s law, though I find this slightly wanting in this area since I still wonder how probabilities arise here, why is a field norm squared turned into the probability that a transaction is chosen?

The nice thing about the transactional interpretation is that it can help one attempt to reason about seemingly paradoxical setups in quantum theory.  For example in a Bell experiment, one can reason about the probabilities that violate local realistic theories, by imagining backwards in time propagation of measurement directions to an original emitter, who because they receive confirmation offers from spacelike separated detectors in the future, can make the same probabilities arise as those in quantum theory.  The thing I most like about the interpretation is that it attempts to keep locality of information propagation intact, at the price of these backwards propagating solutions.

“The Quantum Handshake: Entanglement, Nonlocality and Transaction” is a gentle introduction to the transactional interpretation. I begins with a description of the history of quantum theory and conceptual problems that arose. It then introduces the transactional interpretation. And then comes my favorite part of the book, which is where Cramer applies the interpretation to just about every paradoxical quantum experiment ever proposed. In my view this is the best part of the book, an amazing collection of these different issues and what led people to get confused. In each Cramer attempts to show how the transactional interpretation would deal with these issues. But it is a seriously good list of the experiments that makes this book worth picking up, even if you are not likely to be converted to Cramer’s view of the world. The book also includes a bit on an objection to the transactional interpretation due to Maudlin. This involves, Cramer’s approach, an additional assumption about the hierarchy of transactions, which is interesting to ponder.

Recommended for quantum theory buffs and anyone who want’s to beat their head up against understanding quantum theory.

admin February 5, 2017 Leave A Comment Permalink