Holiday reading

Posted on September 13, 2011

Last updated on February 28, 2013

Summer is nearly finished, and only recently did I finish my summer internship job. Here is a couple more books that I’ve read over the summer, and would like to give a quick overview of.

1 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I have heard a number of times of this book before, and saw engineers quoting it on a number of occasions, and decided it’s finally the time to read it. The subtitle of the book is “an inquiry into values”, and most of the book is the main character trying to understand and come up with the meaning of “quality”, just what is “quality” ? This was the first book that I’ve read on the theme of philosophy, and I found some points quite confusing and hard to follow, having been always the science type of person that relies on hard facts, while philosophy is more of a subjective topic. Nevertheless, I definitely recommend the book to anyone who is even just a little bit of curious about what it means for something to possess “quality”, and just what is it in today’s world.

2 Flatland

This is another classic, dating back from the 19th century, written by Edwin Abbott. The book is about life in 2 dimensions - women are simply lines, and the social hierarchy is defined by the number of sides you, as a regular polygon, possess. I have never before thought of what it would feel like to live in two dimensions - it is difficult to distinguish between members of society solely by looking (unless there is fog !), one must be careful not to bump into women (you might kill yourself, they are lines, and depending on the orientation, could appear nearly invisible), and just how hard it is for creature in n dimensions, to imagine what it is like to live in n+1 dimensions.

The narrator, a square in 2-dimensional space, first tells us about the life in 2 dimensions. Then, we are taken on an expedition to Lineland, the 1-dimensional land. In there, whenever you are born, your neighbours are defined for life, as you can’t skip over or move around others in 1-dimensional space. Communication is done via voice - the inhabitants of Lineland shout to each other to determine how far away they are from each other, and hence who is who. The square from 2-dimensions tries to explain to the people of Lineland the concept of the 2nd dimension, width, and how he, with his other dimension, is able to inspect all of Lineland at once from above, unlike the people of Lineland. We also visit Pointland, the home of 0-dimensional creatures. It consists solely of points, which no nothing of length, width, height or anything. They just exist, and to the Point, the whole world consists solely of itself.

The culmination of the book is the visit of a 3-dimensional cube to Flatland, and the conversation between the cube and the square. The cube tries to explain to the square the concept of the third dimension, height - not left, right, forward or backwards, but up and down. It takes some serious work for the cube to convince the square of the existence of this third dimension, but the square is eventually convinced after visiting 3d-land, and being able to inspect all of Flatland from up-above.

The obvious take away point of the book for me, was how 4-dimensional space looks, and were I to be visited by a creature inhabiting the 4th dimension, just how would I to be convinced of the existence of that dimension. Reading the book, it seems obvious how to imagine and reason about Pointland, Lineland, and Flatland, and finally 3-dimensional space. At first one finds it very weird that someone doesn’t understand the 3rd dimension, it is intuitively obvious for us, but not for everyone living in the dimensions below.

2.0.1 Screw It, Let’s Do It: Lessons in Life and Business

This was a very short, and motivational book about the story of Richard Branson. I have never before realized how many times Richard Branson has come close to death, but also how motivated he was to do whatever he wanted. From now on, I will try more to adhere to Richard Branson’s motto of “screw it, let’s do it”, instead of over-analyzing situations, which currently seems to be a problem of mine.

Whenever time permits, I will read the full non-abridged biography titled “Losing my Virginity”.

2.0.2 Siddartha

“Siddartha” follows the life of a Brahmin in India, during the times of the Buddha. We see the various paths of life explored by Siddartha, the main character, from living in the forest and fasting, to being a wealthy merchant, and eventually a ferryman. The book explores the idea of finding Oneself, understanding youreslf, your soul. Siddartha chooses not to to follow the doctrine of the Buddha, saying that his goal of finding Oneself is not reacheable by listening to the doctrine of others, and must be reached in other ways.

Again, like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, this book is not easy for me to fully understand and analyze, considering I’m a computer scientist and don’t know much about literature, or Buddhism. Nevertheless, Herman Hesse, the German author of the book, has kept me captivated throughout the story of Siddartha.

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