Category: Books

Learn MATLAB, cheap

Cleve Moler, Chairman and Chief Scientist at the MathWorks, has published an online MATLAB texbook, Numerical Computing with MATLAB.  You can download the chapters as individual PDFs, for free.

Tip from the MathWorks, via email. (I knew there was a reason to stay on that mailing list!)


Worrying about princesses is a “princess problem”

Virginia Postrel explains why girls are still fascinated with being princesses.

For all its Victorian stoicism and sense of duty, this princess dream shares the mixture of openness and elitism that gives princesses their contemporary appeal. Like the superhero, the princess has a special identity and destiny. She is more than an ordinary girl. But her value is not determined by playground hierarchies. You don’t have to be popular to be a princess. You can be an iconoclast, even an outcast, but you must be worthy. You must be good. In this version, as my then-5-year-old niece once wrote me, “Anyone can be a PRINCESS.”

Learn more: read Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess online.

Tip from the Instapundit.

My latest self-improvement book

My students frequently complain that I stay up late at night dreaming up fiendishly difficult homeworks and exam questions for them.  To which I reply, I do much of my best work in the morning.  But now I have help and inspiration! 

During a recent visit to the local Barnes and Noble to pick up the latest Erast Fandorin mysteries, my wife spotted Justin Rosenholtz’ delicious little volume, Deliberate Acts of Needless Meanness.  It contains 366 suggestions of creatively mean things to do to friends, family, co-workers, and complete strangers.  Two of my favorites:

Day 78:  Think people are going to look into your medicine cabinet at your next party?  Fill it with marbles, and the first person who snoops will cause a tremendous ruckus…

Day 128:  Don’t you just hate those organized people who like to fold over the end of their Scotch tape roll?  Make it your life’s work to go around with scissors snipping off the ends, so they have to pick away with their fingernails like the rest of us.

How inspirational.

Skip this book

One of my pet projects is writing across the curriculum
A common complaint among my fellow faculty members is that students
can’t write intelligible statistics reports.  A few of us have
gradually added a "writing component" to our statistical methods
courses; of course this means we need to develop readings and exercises
for our students.  Nevermind that the university offers a
perfectly good technical writing course–math and stats students can’t
fit it into their already crammed degree plans, and they studiously
avoid courses labelled "significant writing component"
anyway.  So I end up teaching them to write, since anything they
picked up along with their C in freshman composition has long since

All of this to explain why I even bothered to pick up a copy of Don Watson’s Death Sentences
The dust jacket and first few pages suggested that Watson, a former
speechwriter for the Australian Labor party, had come up with a
wonderful critique of what I call bizspeak*,
that impenetrable jargon so beloved of our governments, universities,
and major corporations.  Alas, I missed a tell-tale warning
signal, right in the biographical sketch on the dustjacket: "Don Watson
is one of Australia’s best-known writers and public intellectuals." 
Watson’s book is a cheat, nothing more than a politician’s wolf in
sheep’s clothing.  Oh, the first chapter and conclusion are OK,
but everything in between is an extended screed against the Bush
Administration’s War on Terror. 

Watson disagrees with the war, distrusts the Bush gang, and accuses the
President of duplicitous language.  This is like checking under
the hood when your car has a flat tire.  If the evil Chimpy
McBushitler regime was half as good at language as they are at killing
bad guys, we’d be lining up to enlist at age 40, or conducting weekly
Telethons to buy Blackhawk helicopters.  This is the President who
quipped that he was going to take speech lessons from Arnold
Schwarzenegger!  President Bush suffers from excessive loyalty to
his friends and staff, has a tin ear for public relations, and does
lots of dopey stuff for his supporter base, but bad language?  I might as well accuse the dog of using the wrong fork for his salad.

Watson also bugs me with his choice of words and phrases to denigrate, and to use.  He dislikes the term deconflicted,
as though it were used in sense of conquer, subdue, or overcome. 
He’s apparently unaware that in military operations it has a specific
meaning, to arrange airstrikes or artillery fires so they do not
interfere or cause friendly-fire casualties.  Then he runs term public language right into the ground.  By the end of the book, I was convinced that the phrases public language and public intellectual should be categorized with public nuisance, public enemy, and public toilet.

I’m giving my copy away.  If you’re looking for a book on writing, I recommend you skip this book in the first place.

*Watson’s subtitle says "cliches, weasel words and management-speak."

Update (3 October):  Crumb Trail points out another political Trojan Horse.

NOBODY We Know Is Like This, Right?

One of Steven Saylor’s latest Roma Sub Rosa novels, The Judgement of Caesar,
is out in paperback, and I couldn’t resist.  As usual, our hero,
Gordianus the Finder, is right in the middle of events, this time with
Caesar and Cleopatra, and it’s great reading.  Saylor always
manages to connect the ancients to us moderns:

I turned
about and saw that Caesar sat in a corner of the room with a coverlet
draped over his shoulders, so that only his head was showing. Behind
him stood a slave in a green tunic, fussily wielding a comb and a pair
of scissors.

"I hope you don’t mind, Gordianus, but I’m not
quite done having my hair cut. I’ve been so busy lately that I’ve
rather neglected my grooming. Samuel here is the best barber in the
known world; a Jew from Antioch. I conquered Gaul, I bested Pompey, but
there’s one enemy against whom I find myself powerless: this damned
bald spot! It’s invincible. Relentless. Merciless. Every month more
hairs are lost, the line of battle falls back, and the bald spot claims
a wider territory. But if one cannot defeat an enemy, sometimes one can
rob him of the trappings of victory, at least. Only Samuel knows the
secret of holding the enemy at bay. He cuts and combs my hair just so
and eureka! No one would ever know that my bald spot has grown so large."

I raised an eyebrow, tempted to disagree; from where I stood, the shiny
bald spot was glaringly visible, but if Caesar believed that combing a
few strands of hair over his naked pate created the illusion of a full
head of hair, who was I to disabuse him of the notion?

You’ll get no spoilers from me–read the whole thing.

Gaudy Night

Dr Richard Brougham, a philosopher at San Antonio College, has been giving me pointers about the philosophy of science for my fall freshman seminar, Systems of the World. One of the philosophers Dr B put me wise to is Susan Haack at the University of Miami. Her article on preposterism in the Skeptical Inquirer made me an immediate fan; her thoughtful review of Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night has got me reading old mysteries again:

"Why do they send these people here? Making themselves miserable and taking up the place of people who would  enjoy Oxford? We  haven’t got room for women who aren’t and never will be scholars. It’s all right for the men’s colleges to have hearty passmen who gambol round and game in Prep. Schools. But this dreary little devil isn’t even hearty. She’s a wet mess."

"I know," said the Dean, impatiently. "But schoolmistresses and parents are such jugginses. We do our best, but we can’t always weed out their mistakes."

–Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

Of course, that was 70 years ago, in far-off Oxford. We’re modern, and in Texas (search for "Graduation Rate").

Summer Reading: the Baroque Cycle

Young Allison caught up with me after the seminar on Friday to recommend Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s stories. I just laughed and told her that I had read them as they were published, way back in the 20th century. They still are funny.

I recommended Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which is great fun, and is the inspiration for my freshman seminar this fall: Systems of the World. Featured characters: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Jenner, Pasteur, Lavoisier, Einstein, Pinchot, Alfred Wegener, Wiley Post, Watson and Crick, Turing, von Neumann, Adam Smith, and more.