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Friday, October 23, 2015

Review: Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

I try my best not to re-read books. But somehow Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman made it into my kindle library (probably in an attempt to use up Amazon credits before they expired), and wow, what a great book.

What comes through with the book is how much fun Feynman had with his life, coupled with how much hard work he was willing to put in (starting from first principles) compared to other people in his life.

For instance, I love the story where before he went to Japan, he painstakingly learned Japanese, because that's what his department chair told him to do. Then he shows up there and discovers that nobody else learned Japanese, including the department chair! But because he had learned Japanese, he happily engaged in life there: negotiating a release from his Western-style hotel so that he could stay at a Ryokan, for instance. It's good fun, and it's great reading.

Another story from his book that resonated with me was when he got roped into being on a committee to evaluate California's Math textbooks. Well, nobody else on the committee bothered reading the books, but he did! So he ended up being the only person on the committee who could explain why certain books sucked and were wrong, and which books were at least not completely broken. I remember being on Google's intern conversion committee for an international office. Nathan York and I would end up being the only people on the committee digging into the source repository to see what the prospective employees were doing. In doing so we uncovered outrageous acts of intern abuse: interns assigned to demo projects (i.e., code that would have hard coded data in the program), interns assigned to pair program with each other so the mentor wouldn't actually supervise, teach, or actually do any work related to interns, etc. We were apparently the first people to actually try to verify that what intern supervisors said the interns were doing was actually the work that was done!

In any case, the degree of intellectual honesty and hard work that goes into what made Feynman the man he was comes through, despite the book's breezy tone and sense of humor that permeates the entire book. It's worth reading, and re-reading carefully. Highly recommended.

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