Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov

(Drawing by me)

I reread this book this month. Nabokov’s protagonists are always fascinating. The one is Despair, Hermann, is almost tragic in how desperately he hides from reality. In this he is like that other great unreliable narrator, Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire. And when people in the real world laugh and point a finger at this naked emperor, he chooses to recede into a reality where his garments are the finest, his wit awes his friends, and his intellect outwits the police.

You are never really certain if perhaps, deep down, he knows but continues to pretend. The monster gets his comeuppance and descends into despair. His fine plots are tangled. For all the world he is a bumbling crook but in his mind he is inches away from the perfect crime, bested only by bad luck.

Highly recommended to read and re-read.

The Happiness Hypothesis

This book is written by Jonathan Haidt. I’d read his other book, The Righteous Mind, and enjoyed it. I liked this one as well. What follows is not really a review. These are just notes I took from the book that I found interesting.


Not a metaphor: there’s literally a  Gut brain , connected by vagus nerve with main one. Runs independently to manage the intestine. Huge lining of neurons in the lining. Triggers anxiety when infections are present.

Confabulation – seen in people with split brain problems. When something is observed by 1 half of the brain and it’s trying to rationalize it with a narrative.

Key to understanding many later parts of the book. Why we obey certain impulses but not others.

Marshmallow experiment: the crucial piece was emotional intelligence and strategy: knowing how to beat your emotions by distracting yourself, focus on other things etc. basically stimulus control.

How to change your mind:

  • Meditation
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Prozac

Signs of a cooked-up hysteria (e.g. communism)

  • Invisible
  • Contagious (young can be influenced)
  • Can only be defeated by all of us getting together

Evil doesn’t just come from the outside. There’s rounds of escalation before it gets violent. And a richer context than what you see on TV. Two things that we encourage as positive that actually lead to evil:

  • High self esteem (when unrealistic or narcissistic, problems arise). Rather than directly raising self esteem you should be teaching skills.
  • Moral idealism – people who believed that they were using violence for a larger cause. Ends justify the means. Outcome rather than path.

Conspicuous consumption is a zero sum game i.e. A Rolex is good only if other people have Casios. So focus on inconspicuous consumption like holiday trips.

Apparently experiences > material possessions

Especially if those experiences are with other people


Whereas early Greek philosophers focused on what makes a person virtuous e.g. should I return a wallet full of money, modern philosophy focuses more on actions and quandaries, e.g. do you kill one person to save dozens.

Some stuff on divinity and disgust that lines up pretty well with his work on Moral Foundations and his other book, the Righteous Mind.

On religion and how Group Selection incites violence only against apostates and outsiders. i.e. shifts the problem one level up, from individuals caring for self to individuals caring for their own group.


So for a Meaningful life: we as a species are social (so we need people), and industrious (we need vital engagement and flow in our work/hobbies).

So get the connections and conditions right in work, love etc. And happiness will come.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves Review

I made this. Maybe I’ll do a drawing for each book review?

This one is for the pedants. Read this book if you’re the kind of person who grits your teeth every time you see a grammatical mistake in a hoarding. The title refers to a statement about a panda that eats (bamboo) shoots and leaves. But a misplaced comma makes it sound like a story about an evil panda that eats, shoots and leaves.

We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation.

Lynne Truss

Starting with the oft-misplaces apostrophe to the lesser used dashes and colons, each chapter deals with the history, usage and evolution of a punctuation mark. What I found most fascinating was the origin story of each of these little marks.

The author is not one of those crufty old people who insists that their crufty rules are the only ones that are worth following. Nor does she favour the semi-literate lower-case-ridden style of the smart phone generation, of course. What still matters is to adhere to some semblance of rules.

As a self-deprecating, fun rant, this was an enjoyable read.

Notes on the book “Flow”

Title: Flow
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’ve long been interested in Active vs Passive hobbies, why one is better than the others, and so on. Here’s a nice reddit post that captures a similar mindset around gaming. So reading Flow gave a lot of clarity to these ideas.

Any programmer who’s been ‘in the zone’ and loses sense of time knows the feeling of ‘Flow’ and that is the subject of this book — Deep hobbies that improve one’s self.

The author categorizes activities with good ‘flow’ if they meet these criteria:

  • A challenging activity that requires skills
  • Requires concentration
  • Has clear goals and immediate feedback
  • Removes awareness of everyday frustrations
  • Exercises control over ones own actions
  • Concern for self disappears
  • Sense of time altered

Here are some sections from the book that caught my attention:

“The wisdom of the mystics, of the Sufi, of the great yogis, or of the Zen masters might have been excellent in their own time — and might still be the best, if we lived in those times and in those cultures. But when transplanted to contemporary California those systems lose quite a bit of their original power. They contain elements that are specific to their original contexts, and when these accidental components are not distinguished from what is essential, the path to freedom gets overgrown by brambles of meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Ritual form wins over substance, and the seeker is back where he started.”

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

“In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point of writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along.”

The middle quote is a satisfactory answer to my question on what differentiates mindless passive hobbies from effort-intensive active ones: the latter create better versions of ourselves.

“Good Math” Notes

Full Title: Good Math: A Geek’s Guide to the Beauty of Numbers, Logic, and Computation

Author: Mark C. Chu-Carroll

Here are some notes I took while reading this book. Overall I felt it was interesting, but there were large jumps in difficulty in some of the later chapters.

Continuous fractions

This was the most fascinating part of the book for me. I hadn’t heard of these before!

For example, the square root of 2 in decimal form is approximately 1.4142135623730951. But if you represent it as a continued fraction, you get [1; 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, …]. All of the square roots of integers that are nonperfect squares have repeated forms in continued fractions.

Interesting how continuous fractions give a new and clean way of looking at previously confusing numbers like sqrt 2 and other irrational numbers. Some nice parallels with how multiplication was hard in the Roman numeral system but drastically improved in tha arabic system.

Another great example is e. If you render e as a continued fraction, you get e = [2; 1, 2, 1, 1, 4, 1, 1, 6, 1, 1, 8, 1, 1, 10, 1, 1, 12, 1, …]. In this and many other cases, continued fractions reveal the underlying structure of the numbers.

First Order Predicate Logic

This chapter was not easy. But the section on prolog looked neat. Every statement is essentially a proof that the language satisfies. Now we’re into CTL i.e computational tree logic maybe?

FOPL has no notion of time, so it’s not easy to make logical statements and assertions with it when there is a time context e.g employee (me, Cisco, 2020) is cumbersome.

FOPL is interesting because it allows us to reason with statements and prove things without knowing a thing about the actual context. The proofs come purely through logic.

Set theory plus FOPL form the foundations of maths.

FOPL summary

In first-order predicate logic, we talk about two kinds of things: predicates and objects. Objects are the things that we can reason about using the logic; predicates are the things that we use to reason about objects.

predicate is a statement that says something about some object or objects. We’ll write predicates as either uppercase letters or as words starting with an uppercase letter (A,B,Married), and we’ll write objects in quotes.

Every predicate is followed by a list of comma-separated objects (or variables representing objects). One very important restriction is that predicates are not objects. That’s why this is called first-order predicate logic: you can’t use a predicate to make a statement about another predicate. So you can’t say something like Transitive(GreaterThan): that’s a second-order statement, which isn’t expressible in first-order logic. We can combine logical statements using AND (written ) and OR (). We can negate a statement by prefixing it with not (written ¬). And we can introduce a variable to a statement using two logical quantifiers: for all possible values , and for at least one value.

Naive set theory

This is what Cantor used for his diagonal trick to measure different sizes of infinities, is limited by things like Russel’s paradox. If you use FOPL to make theories about naive sets, you eventually hit a contradiction that challenges the foundations of logic. In summary It allows you to create logically inconsistent self referential sets. The next chapter has a better alternative: axiomatic set theory.

Axiomatic Set Theory

It uses axioms to give a consistent form of set theory based on some axioms. The one in this book is Zermelo-Frankel set theory with choice, commonly abbreviated as ZFC.

First we define a set by asserting that 2 sets are equal if you pair their objects and those are equal. Ths gives us a mechanism to get and compare elements, and defines a set and it’s main operations.

Once we define an empty set, we automatically get a new one which is the set containing the empty set. Then you define an enumeration axiom that allows you to append 2 sets.

Then the default infinite set is created, out of which other infinite sets are derived. This axiom carefully ensures that these sets are not self referential, thus avoiding paradoxes.

A powerset of A is the set of all possible subsets of A.

Using a powerset axiom, we now provide the ability to take an infinite set and build a second order set that’s larger than it.

Anyway once you have the final ‘axiom of choice’, you have this set theory combined with fopl to create all of maths. Integers come naturally. Axiom of pairing can be used to get the rational numbers. Dedekind cuts can be used to get the reals. And so on.

Todo add a note on what a dedekind cut is. From what I remember, you can define 2 sets, one that has all elements lesser than sqrt(2) and one that has all elements greater. That gives a clear definition for sqrt(2) itself.

Continuum hypothesis

The first infinite set larger than aleph0 (set of natural numbers) has a size equal to aleph0’s powerset (the set of all subsets of aleph0), and this is also the size of all the reals.

Unfortunately it is neither true or false. You can treat it as either and all of zfc maths will still work.

Here we have a hypothesis that is not provable, whereas in Russel’s paradox we had an inconsistency.

Group theory

Last bit went over my head 🙁

Mechanical math

Haskell code doesn’t help 🙁

Hate Inc. Review

Full Title: Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another

Author: Matt Taibbi

I’ve been reading Taibbi for a while now and this was a nice refreshing step back from his usual acerbic style. He covers the media industry’s complicity in creating a toxic political environment. Towards the end is where the book gets really interesting: as an inward-looking view into how the left-leaning media is as bad in creating filter bubbles as the usual suspects in the right.

Here are some snippets I saved from the book.

On Facebook’s curation of news

Chomsky: Take a look at the Facebook phenomenon. Where are they getting their news from? They don’t have reports.

They’re just getting it from the New York Times, so it’s the same sources of information. They’re just putting it out in trivialized form, so that people with a ten- year-old mentality can handle it. It’s a very dangerous thing. They’re not doing any of the things that the media do. They don’t frame things. They don’t select. They don’t send reporters out. They don’t investigate, you know, they just collect information and hand it over to kids to look at in ten minutes so you don’t believe the newspapers.

Red flags to look out for

Tricks used by the government to feed news via allied countries:

This is one reason to always have ears up when you start hearing bits and pieces of important intelligence cases happen to have been uncovered within the borders of America’s closest intelligence allies, particularly England, Australia, the other “Five Eyes” nations, and key NATO members.

Regarding unnamed Ferguson sources:

What is the purpose of the anonymity? Is it to protect someone’s job or freedom? Or to insulate the person against political consequence if the story goes sideways?

Who initiates the communication?

Incidentally: it’s a red flag if the call is coming from the official, as opposed to the reporter calling the officials. The average intelligence official wouldn’t stop to tell you if your child was on fire. When they start cold-calling agencies, and/or rotating scoops by doling them out to different outlets and papers each week, that’s a huge red flag.

Journalist histories:

When you see one of these stories, check to see if that reporter has a history of national security pieces. If he or she does not, if this transmission of classified scoops is taking place in the context of a new relationship, be extra wary.

U.S. Wars

In addition to actions in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Niger, we’d been aiding the Saudi bombing of Yemen for nearly 1,100 consecutive days on December 11, 2017, when the Pentagon submitted its latest “where the hell we’re currently at war” summary—also known as a section 1264 report, which has to be delivered to Congress every six months under the National Defense Authorization Act.