Book reviews

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The Art of Computer Programming

Donald Knuth, 1968, 1969, 1972, 2011. Reviewed 30 October 2020.

Having recently finished Volume 4A, I thought I'd review the whole set of The Art of Computer Programming books together, even though I read the others over a year ago. I would also like to qualify this review that by "finished," I mean to say that I read the books from cover to cover, doing only a handful of exercises and not necessarily fully grasping a concept before moving on. This is, I believe, the best way to read Knuth. Some people complain that the books are too dense, but I think that these people are trying to understand every single little detail — which would take a lifetime! My opinion is that Knuth's writing style is very enjoyable and that one can get a lot out of these books by just reading his overarching explanations of concepts, stopping to smell the mathematical roses now and then and doing the exercises that seem fun. This also makes it easier to use these books as a reference later on. If I ever come across a concept in class or while doing research that I know I've seen in TAOCP somewhere, I can usually locate it within a couple of minutes.

Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms

(Finished 10 June 2019.)

The first TAOCP book is the most foundational, as the title suggests, and if you only have it in your budget to buy one of these books, it's the one I'd recommend. The first hundred-or-so pages give a crash course on the mathematical concepts and tools that Knuth employs most. The next hundred pages are a description of the imaginary computer that Knuth uses in all his code examples, as well as some basic programming techniques. This brings us to one of the biggest complaints about this series of textbooks: all of the code examples are written in assembly! But I had a lot of fun learning how Knuth's strange imaginary computer worked and writing a bunch of programs in MIX assembly. The highlight of this section is a MIX simulator, written in MIX itself! The fact that this simulator only requires about 300 lines of assembly really demonstrates how bare-bones this computer is. But of course, the goal of these books isn't to teach the reader how to program in assembly. The hope is that seeing the algorithms implemented at such a low-level will make programming them in any higher-level language a breeze. And of course, every program is accompanied by a detailed description of the algorithm in the highest-level programming language of all: plain old English! This is the format of the second half of the book, which introduces linked lists, trees, and uses this concept to describe methods for automatic garbage collection and dynamic storage allocation in a low-level computer.

Volume 2: Seminumerical Algorithms

(Finished 1 August 2019.)

This is the TAOCP book I see referenced/recommended the least, and admittedly it is the one I have found least useful as a reference so far. But, for me, it was the most enjoyable read of them all. The first two-hundred pages deal with methods for generating random numbers and checking if a sequence is sufficiently random. At times, Knuth gets quite philosophical, and the main takeaway of this chapter is that there isn't a totally well-defined concept of what a random sequence should be, at least as far as computers are concerned. The second chapter of this volume deals with arithmetic, starting with methods for representing floating-point numbers in memory and then diving into algorithms for adding, multiplying, factoring, etc. A detailed analysis of every single algorithm is given, and Knuth doesn't just restrict himself to real numbers; this chapter discusses generalises many of these operations to modular arithmetic, polynomials, matrices, and power series as well. All in all, this volume concerns the concepts that modern programmers take for granted on a day-to-day basis: the ability for a computer to perform basic arithmetic operations quickly.

Volume 3: Sorting and Searching

(Finished in late September 2019.)

Because of the emphasis placed on sorting and searching algorithms in the undergraduate curriculum, this volume is the most likely to show up on a computer science class' "recommended reading" list. True to its title, Volume 3 is split almost evenly between sorting, in the first half, and searching in the second. All of the bread-and-butter algorithms and data structures are covered, from quicksort to binary heaps to tries, which makes this a very important volume, but also perhaps a bit boring, since any computer science major will have seen many these concepts in undergraduate classes (though certainly in only a fraction of the detail that Knuth devotes to them). There is a somewhat large section, complete with a wonderful foldout, devoted to the ins-and-outs of merging large files stored on huge physical rolls of magnetic tape. I found this section quite entertaining because of the novelty of learning about how people used to store data, but most of it is quite useless to the modern reader. I believe that Knuth intends to scrap it and replace it with something else in the next edition.

Volume 4A: Combinatorial Algorithms

(Finished 18 October 2020.)

Unlike the other three volumes, which contain two chapter each, Volume 4A doesn't even cover a whole chapter. The reason for this is that when Knuth sketched out the skeleton of his books in the 1960s, the subject of Chapter 7, combinatorial searching, was a rather small subject. But all of that changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when the field of combinatorial algorithms exploded. The result is that Knuth took nearly forty years to write just two sections of Chapter 7, but these two sections fill more pages than any of the other three books. The first half of this volume deals with boolean functions, while the second half deals with the daunting task of enumerating all elements of some combinatorial structure (e.g., tuples, partitions, trees). I found the math in this volume to be harder than in the previous three, but I am happy that (in this volume as well as the others) Knuth is always willing to pause the flow of a section to dive into the mathematical theory. For example, in the section on set partitions, Knuth gives a detailed description of the saddle-point method of deriving asymptotics. Where this volume possibly suffers is in its breadth. The other three books all offer enough variation so that, even if you might not be interested in one particular section, you might really enjoy a different one. But with 200+ pages on boolean functions and 200+ pages on enumeration techniques, Volume 4 definitely feels a lot more laser-focused in its subject matter.

The Art of Computer Programming deals with the timeless fundamentals of computer science theory, and it is for that reason that they continue to be an important reference work even fifty years on. Because of Knuth's wonderful exposition and beautiful typesetting, they are also a joy to read, and to skip them would be to miss out on some of the best mathematical writing of the last century.

Surreal Numbers

Donald Knuth, 1974. Finished 9 October 2020, reviewed 30 October 2020.

The premise of this book is somewhat outrageous: two young lovers, living alone on a deserted beach for some unknown reason, discover stone carvings that reveal a deep mathematical theory. Because the storytelling is in the form of a dialogue, Knuth can somewhat sketch out the different thought processes one goes through when undertaking mathematical research. The definition of a surreal number is somewhat reminiscent of other set-theoretic constructions of numbers: a surreal number is a pair of two sets, each of which contains previously-created surreal numbers. The protagonists, Alice and Bill, are certainly a lot smarter than your average deserted-island inhabitant, and they slowly uncover more and more properties of what, at first, seems like a rather simple concept. The book only takes about an hour or two to read through, but the theory and its ramifications will take a lot longer to sink in. Some interesting exercises are provided in the postscript.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond, 1997. Finished 5 October 2020, reviewed 30 October 2020.

Presents a sort of scientific approach to the history of human societies. The main thesis of the book is that the differences in the trajectories of human societies has much more to do with variation in geography and environment, rather than being due to innate differences among human populations/races. Of course, we are told in school that this is true, but without concrete evidence, people might be tempted to secretly believe the old racist theories anyway. Well, this book attempts to remedy that by providing clear, convincing arguments as to why some parts of the world "developed" at a faster rate than others. The first two-thirds presents the main topics, e.g., the presence/absence of domesticatable plants and animals, the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies, and the formation of centralised governments. Then, the arguments developed in the first two-thirds are applied to five historical examples: the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and Australia, the homogenisation of China, the Austronesian expansion, the European colonisation of the Americas, and the Bantu expansion in Africa. The prose gets repetitive in some places, because Diamond will often reiterate his arguments in different contexts to get his point across, but ultimately Guns, Germs, and Steel was quite an interesting read.

Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman, 2005. Finished 20 August 2020, reviewed 9 October 2020.

A really funny book. More lighthearted than the other Gaiman books I've read, with the exception of Good Omens, but that was also written by Terry Pratchett. The plot is outrageous and has a few unexpected twists and turns. The characters are all very likable. I see it as Gaiman's take on a romantic comedy, with a generous helping of the spooky fantasy that made American Gods so great. Highly recommended.

The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway, 1952. Finished 17 August 2020, reviewed 9 October 2020.

Captivating and inspiring. I read this book in the span of an evening and the next morning. Hemingway's prose made this very easy: with its short, snappy sentences, it is almost written like a children's book. Made me want to be a fisherman.


Joseph Heller, 1961. Finished 2 April 2021, reviewed 2 April 2021.

I got this book back in first year, on my first visit to The Word. I read the first couple chapters, then forgot about it and it sat on my shelf for three years. I just went back to read it and wow. This is definitely one of the best novels I've read in awhile. I was expecting a comedy, and on that front I was not disappointed—the absurd narration is laugh-out-loud hilarious in many places. But this book is also extremely dark as well, and the skill with which Heller weaves the horrors of war with irreverent and often blasphemous jokes really made Catch-22 memorable. It's quite a famous novel, and perhaps some parts would have been less shocking to me if I had been preempted that, at its heart, Catch-22 is a novel about World War Two, and not quite in the sense that, say, Blackadder is a programme about World War One. I wouldn't say that there is a turning point where the jokes go from lighthearted to disturbing. Instead, the whole experience feels like a slow descent into madness, culminating in a chilling finale.

Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, 1973. Finished 5 July 2021, reviewed 5 July 2021.

This is my first Vonnegut novel, and I really enjoyed it, on the whole. There is something about reading a book with pictures that makes me want to devour it like I devoured books as a kid. However, this is definitely not a book for kids, and for a novel chock full of jokes it also deals with a whole host of dark themes. The narrative style is one-of-a-kind, with attention paid to all sorts of random details about the characters and setting. The narration is also often matter-of-fact and blunt, to the point of being offensive in many places. In particular, this book is laden with an alarming number of racial slurs. But I don't think one can come away with the impression that this is a racist book; indeed, many passages are explicitly anti-racist. It is depressing that Vonnegut's various critiques of American society (e.g. with respect to race relations, mental health, exploitation of natural resources) are still very relevant today.

Shovelling Trouble

Mordecai Richler, 1973. Finished 12 April 2022, reviewed 12 April 2022.

The first and only time I read Richler was in grade ten when I was forced to read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I remember next to nothing about that book and don't even remember liking it all that much but, being in love with Montréal, thought I should give one of its most famous authors a second chance. But Shovelling Trouble, quite literally, not what I was looking for. I took one glance at the contents and assumed it was a collection of short fiction. This is actually a collection of essays and book(?) reviews. That being said though, I did still read it all the way through real fast because Richler's writing is easy to read. I didn't get much out of the reviews because I am familiar with neither the source material nor the social context of the time. But some of the essays were pretty good and "Why I Write" and "Êtes-vous canadien?" in particular I found very funny. Good news: Apparently Richler does have a collection of short stories called The Street and they're all set on our very own St. Urbain Street. Quite excited to read that if I can track down a copy.

Dance of the Happy Shades

Alice Munro, 1968. Finished 19 April 2022, reviewed 19 April 2022.

I rated each individual story as I read them (I won't list all of them out), and the average came out to 4, but there were five stand-out stories to me: "Walker Brothers Cowboy", "The Time of Death", "Day of the Butterfly", "Boys and Girls", and "A Trip to the Coast". I decided to give this 5 stars because I don't think I remember short story collections based on the average story in them; I just remember the really good ones. And honestly what more can you hope for, from a collection of short stories, than to be blown away by a third of them and for all the rest to be pretty decent. The characters are compelling without being exceptional in any way---these are ordinary people in quiet backcountry Ontario and they don't even really do interesting things to be honest. But Munro shows you how they navigate their world in a way that makes you feel things about your own (presumably ordinary) childhood and young adult life. I did grow up in a small town, so maybe that's why I felt like the stories were so relatable, but I think everyone will see a bit of their own lives in these stories. Will definitely read more Alice Munro.

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