Last week, I had a midterm that covered formal languages and automata theory. I went to the Davis Centre Library at the University of Waterloo looking for books on Automata Theory. I stumbled upon that very book. And though I dismissed it because the formatting was horrible, I did notice its odd epigraphs. I found the cover a bit mysterious and amusingly out of place, and went with something else.
Now, I read here on Hacker News, a high-profile website, about this most obscure review of this most obscure book written almost ten years ago - what's more? The person who wrote the review is also the one that requested that the library orders the book in the first place. He is one of my professors. Quite frankly the personification of what you would hope a scholar and teacher to be.
I know I have no reasons to feel agitated but why do I feel like this is the prologue of a thriller?
Could it be that he wrote under a pen name?
Reading some of the preview material at Amazon, the chapters often start with brutal depictions of violence against African American slaves. I get no sense of the purpose of these passages; they don't appear to be taking a stance in anyway, just quoting from old sources.
The only charitable interpretation I can think of is something along the lines I remember Asimov writing about: humankind always uses slaves; they stop when it's economically viable to use machines instead. And in a way automata theory is a very general theory of abstract machines which we use to substitute human labor in many ways... So maybe he's giving a visceral reminder of the importance of the subject matter at hand (automata theory)?
Additionally, the table of contents does look interesting. I've read Sipser, and I'd now be interested in this different angle on the subject (Sipser felt more isolated from other parts of mathematics; this starting out by connecting to semigroups for instance seems interesting)—but that said, it's just too bizarre:
Its 'Chapter 0,' titled "Mathematical Preliminaries," opens with a full-page passage of the sort I described above. To give the flavor, here are a few lines included in it:
"... Who are generally presented, being secur'd by Bastias or negro drivers, And instantly tied Up to the Beams of the Plaza, or a Tree, Without so much as being heard, When the flogging begins, men, women, or children, without exception, on theyr long naked bodies, by long hempin whips that cut round at every lash, and crack like a pistol, during which they alternately repeat Dankee Massera, /Thank You Master/, but while he stalks up and down with his overseer..."
—and on and on. wtf.
The next page is the standard sort of presentation of mathematical notation you'd expect.
On the other hand, you can look into algebraic automata theory (a subject I know nothing about) and play with monoids (the kleene closure of an alphabet with the concatenation operation is the free monoids over that alphabet).
What about that do you find amusing?
You can browse a little bin on google books:
Must say, the content looks rather interesting to me. I am actually consider buying it.
Many of OP's objections come off as petty, like "the author uses the capital letter "X" to represent ×, the cross product symbol." Come on, really? I think the OP's real reason for hating the book was the strange quotes Simon used; it was a bad decision for Simon to use those quotes even if he had absolutely no political agenda, because someone somewhere is going to take it the wrong way, and academia being the leading edge of the politically correct movement is especially dangerous.
- "Introduction to the Theory of Computation" [Part I] by M. Sipser
- "Introduction to Compiler Design" by Torben A. Mogensen
- "An introduction to Formal Languages and Automata" by P. Linz
- "Languages and Machines" by Thomas A. Sudkamp
>Many of OP's objections come off as petty
I have had the book in my hands, I have turned the pages and seen the typesetting myself. It's not an exaggeration. It looks like one of those books written by a typewriter with some of the lines are misaligned, except it wasn't and that is overall a pain to parse. Also the pages are small and margins wide.
Why inflict that upon yourself when there are plenty of other books that show a modicum of effort in editing.
Yes, really. It's exceedingly annoying to read a mathematics text that does not conform to the usual typographic conventions. These kinds of considerations are particularly important if one wants to teach out of a textbook, because it gets annoying and confusing for students to constantly have to transcribe notation into the modern convention.
NB the person writing the blog had bought a copy, so it's effectively a warning—and a negative review. Nothing inexplicable about that.
Curiosity value aside, buying an advanced textbook on spec based on the specific topics it promises to cover doesn't seem that uncommon, particularly if you are somehow isolated.
In a world of information-overload, I don't think it helps to call attention to things that aren't worth other people's time.
More generally, though, a lot of people pay attention to value cues like the simple fact that something has been professionally published. With books, I'm sure you would agree that there are multiple filters that people apply. The general availability of a book attests to the fact that it passed some kind of quality control, however feeble.
The general condition when it comes to reviewing is that the products are out there anyway, so both positive and negative reviews are appropriate. The tradition of literary book reviews (e.g. the NYRB, LRB) is to turn the review into an timely essay, maybe cover a few recent releases, express an opinion, pass on the most interesting facts etc. The point is to make the review a self-contained literary work, capable of being read for its own sake, for information or for pleasure.
I think that's what this blog post does, it takes something curious and makes an entertaining story out of it. You might think that this isn't "worth other people's time", in the sense that it doesn't advance an alternative, more relevant approach to covering the book's subject matter. But the review is potentially worth their time if it sheds light on anything (academic eccentricity, the importance of typesetting in scholarly work, anxieties about systemic racism in 21st C academic writing, etc.)
There's another discussion to be had about fields where negative reviews are rare, like visual art. In that case, publishing any review at all does serve to draw attention to/advertise/"surface" the artwork in question. Critics aren't really able to distance themselves from the world of artists and curators, so they can't really say anything too negative.
But that's a bit of a digression.
The book might not be worth people's time as a CS text. That doesn't mean the blog post isn't worth their time as a reflection on other phenomena.
Underwood Dudley wrote multiple books about mathematical cranks. Cranks get a bad press for wasting mathematicians' time and being impossible to convince of the errors in their work. But isn't the phenomenon of crank culture interesting, and couldn't it potentially teach us something about human nature?
I would also argue with your point about most books being worthless. All books from an actual publisher will have been read by someone who has decided that the book will likely make money (and so should be printed), and that it will make money because it is worth money to the people who buy it. Eg I think the author of the article would probably consider any of the other books on the subject to not be worthless. All fiction books can basically be considered to have entertainment value, in the same way that a movie has value even if you won’t make money from seeing it.
There are books that many would consider worthless to themselves (eg books about advanced mathematics or some particular small region in history and space), and there are also books that many would consider worthless to any person (I suppose this is what you are referring to as worthless? Things that are more like terrible self-published fiction or conspiracy theory treatises).
I think this is interesting because it is unusual to see the second category disguised as the first for mathematics textbooks. I think it is also interesting to wonder why the author wrote such a book and why they made the strange choices in it. I would certainly guess that the author is some kind of not-very-formal linguist rather than a mathematician. I suppose it is more common to see the second class of “worthless book” trying to look like history books than mathematics books.
The Theory of Computation