On Numbers and Games — John H Conway

On Numbers and GamesThis amazing book sets out a mathematical framework for describing and constructing numbers, and then generalises this to a way of analysing certain games. You probably need a postgraduate degree in mathematics to really understand all of it. I am not quite that qualified, but I know enough to be awed by what can be done by simply starting with nothing. Literally nothing: Conway starts with just an empty set, and proceeds to show how to spin this out into integers, rational numbers, real numbers, infinite numbers, infinitesimal numbers, and (believe it or not) more.

The whole class of numbers he constructs is called the Surreal numbers, and that’s a fair evocation of the way this book stretches my mind. I can generally understand the steps in the various derivations, but it takes some time and effort to develop the intuition to really understand the later constructions and to see where they are heading. Conway obviously had this intuition: after working on the ideas for some years, he wrote this book in just a week.

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The Ego Trick — Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini

This is a pretty good exposition of the “bundle theory” of consciousness. The idea is that “consciousness” does not exist: all there are are discrete conscious experiences, which combine to form the illusion of an integrated cohesive mind. This is … Continue reading

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A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

a-visit-from-the-goon-squad-cover

This is a fun story of life in, around, and tangentially related to the music industry in the USA, a few years ago before the Internet changed everything. It’s told in a series of (initially) separate narratives of different characters, … Continue reading

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim — David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

These stories are clever and funny. The book makes me think of a grown-up version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, without the pictures. Actually that probably makes it sound far less good than it really is. There is a … Continue reading

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Roots of Empathy — Mary Gordon

Roots of Empthy

Roots of Empathy is a program that tries to teach schoolchildren empathy. Empathy is a crucially important quality: it can help overcome the problem of the “ethical fade“. And it seems obvious that empathic people are probably just nicer people. … Continue reading

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The Fall Of Light — Sarah Laing

The Fall Of Light

I like this book. It has a story to make you happy and sad, pictures to make you wonder, and themes to make you think. Sarah Laing is a cartoonist as well as a writer — I knew of her … Continue reading

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How Children Succeed — Paul Tough

How Children Succeed

How do you rate for the following personal qualities? Grit Self-control Zest Social intelligence Gratitude Optimism Curiosity Continue reading

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There But For The — Ali Smith

There But For The

Have you ever been at some awful social gathering and just wanted to get up and walk out? Have you ever been at a stranger’s lovely house and wished you lived there instead of your own hovel? That’s what happens … Continue reading

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Redirect — Timothy Wilson

Redirect

Redirect lays out a set of techniques for achieving real, lasting change in our behaviour and improving our lives. Actually, this book doesn’t really tell you what to do — it isn’t a self-help book — instead, it describes why … Continue reading

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Life After Life — Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” This plot micro-summary was enough to make me pick up this book. That and Kate Atkinson’s reputation. I had planned to … Continue reading

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