Books : reviews

William Poundstone.
The Recursive Universe.
Oxford. 1985

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

William Poundstone.
Labyrinths of Reason.
Penguin. 1988

rating : 3.5 : worth reading

William Poundstone.
Prisoner's Dilemma.
OUP. 1993

William Poundstone.
How Would You Move Mount Fuji?.
Little, Brown. 2003

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 12 August 2012

You've probably heard stories about the bizarre questions asked at Microsoft hiring interviews, and that other companies are following the trend. Here we get some background into how these practices arose, why the companies think they are a good idea, and a selection of various questions. What is good about the section on answers is that it doesn't just say what the answer is, or even just the reason why it's the right answer answer, but also the reasoning you can use to get the answer. It covers both "logic puzzles", where there is one right answer, and more "open questions", where the aim is to see how you think about and tackle the problem. A fun read, plus a few puzzles I hadn't come across before.

William Poundstone.
Priceless: the hidden psychology of value.
Oneworld. 2010

William Poundstone.
Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?.
Oneworld. 2012

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 17 December 2013

Pit your mind against the world’s best companies

You are shrunk to the height of a penny and thrown in a blender. The blades start moving in sixty seconds. What do you do? If you want to work at Google. or any of the world’s top employers, you’ll need to have a convincing answer to this and countless other baffling puzzles.

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? reveals the new extreme interview questions in the post-crash, hypercompetitive job-market, and uncovers how the best companies will go to extraordinary lengths to find the right staff. Bestselling author William Poundstone guides readers through the surprising solutions to over a hundred of the most challenging conundrums used in interviews, as well as covering the importance of creative thinking, what your Facebook page says about you, and what really goes on inside the Googleplex.

Discover how not to think like a Microsoft engineer, what it takes to infiltrate the Church of Apple, and what to answer it someone asks you “On a scale of 1 to 10. how weird are you?” How will you fare?

This is sort of an update to Poundstone’s 2003 book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Essentially, it is a book of the kind of puzzles that are allegedly posed at interviews, particularly at high-tech companies. In 2003 the focus was on Microsoft, here it is on Google (with a few snipes at MS). The puzzles again include ones I haven’t seen before, and the explanations of how to answer them (and why to keep answering, even if you think you’ve finished) are interesting.

Despite that, my favourite answer to the (alleged) Google question of being shrunk and put in a blender has to be this, from a Google+ post:

So, let’s say you’re shrunk to the size of an insect and thrown into a blender. There’s no lid, and the blender is going to start in thirty seconds. What do you do?

How am I shrunk?

What do you mean?

I mean, are my atoms smaller? Are my cells smaller? Do I have fewer cells?

Uh, okay. Your atoms are smaller.

How did that happen? Did you change the strong coupling constant?


Okay, then I’m dead. Unless you change electromagnetism as well, I’m not sure my atoms hang together particularly well. I mean, to compress atoms that much, you have to change the constant a lot.

Okay, then I change that too.

Great. Now I’m made of small atoms. I’m still dead.


Because I’m breathing big atoms. And they’re going to interact with my little atoms. And I’m going to die as soon as these giant oxygen atoms end up mixing with my little atoms.

Also I hope these little atoms with different coupling constants aren’t more stable than the big ones.

Otherwise you just destroyed the universe.

You monster.

So, okay. Maybe you just have smaller cells?

Okay, I’m dead.

Sorry, my biology depends on a certain ratio of cytoplasmic volume to membrane surface area. The most relevant thing that happens now is that my brain blows its entire load of neurotransmitter vesicles in accidental collisions with my neuronal membranes.

I go into status epilepticus, and I die. This spares me the blender, though. So there’s that.

Fine. Fine. You have fewer cells.

Okay, I’m still probably dead.

Well, I don’t know. I think what happens when you reduce the number of cells in my brain is not sufficiently well-defined. I mean, right now, the loops that run my autonomic nervous system require billions of cells. Is that not the case now?

Sure. Yeah. Whatever. That isn’t the case.

Okay. Still dead. Sorry.

Now that my number of neurons has been decreased by orders of magnitude, I’m now just a little machine that runs on instinct, and can’t even conceive of ‘blenders,’ much less my own death.

Also, I can’t see for shit. The resolution of my vision is determined by the number of rods and cones I have.

Ignore the details! You’re just as smart as you were before!

Okay. Still dead.

The surface area of my lungs is way too high relative to my blood volume. Every time I inhale, presuming that I still have the same sort of instincts, I’m giving myself escalating oxygen poisoning. I might also get the bends at normal pressure. I’m not sure about that one, but I’ll put it on the list of things that I’m dead of before worrying about blenders.

Oh, and my kidneys have too high of a membrane surface area relative to my blood volume. I’m rapidly pissing out my entire bloodstream as I sit here in this blender, thinking of a solution to my conundrum. Really, the blender is looking pretty good right now.

Actually, there’s probably something wrong with all my organs that are in contact with my blood, as a matter of fact. Though I can’t immediately think of what’s wrong with my liver or pancreas.

Okay, ignore your organs. Assume we fixed all that before we put you in the blender.

Still dead. Sorry.

My skin surface area is too high relative to my volume. My stupid moist skin is bleeding out all my water into the air. Unless I coat myself in wax like an insect, I’m going to dehydrate to death real soon now.

Also, how warm is the room? If it’s not near 98.6, I’m not even homeothermic anymore. See, my volume is –

We get it. You have problems with your volume relative to your surface area.

I’m really strong though. I’ll give you that. Except –

What, this kills you too?

Well, eventually. Probably not yet.

See, the nice thing about being the size I am right now is that I can carry around a lot of energy. Animals as small as the one-inch me sitting in the blender need a more constant energy intake, because they can’t store as much at the same time. I have all these big inefficient muscles relative to my size, and insects, well, don’t.

Wait, what? Aren’t insects super-strong?

Yeah, for their size. But most of the amazing feats of strength are just these little bundles of muscle fibers and some amazing biomechanical hacks.

Huh. What?

Grasshopper legs work like a crossbow. A slow-twitch muscle fiber draws back against a tendon, and then another muscle fiber releases the latch and sends it flying. It’s pretty cool, and way, way more efficient – at least at that scale – than my big, dumb fast-twitch muscles.

Same thing with mantis shrimp claws, springtail furculas, and other, similar things. I’m going to need a lot to eat. And I’m probably not going to be able to get it. Because I’m tiny.

Wait. Now you’re not dead.

Oh. So, is this the part where I’m supposed to remember the square-cube law?


Oh. Then I jump out of the blender, I guess.

If you knew that all along, why didn’t you tell me earlier?

Uh, because I assume you weren’t looking to hire the person who thinks of the benefits of changing scale at the very last minute, when it’s too late to do anything about it? You can’t just shrink me down to the size of a bug and expect that the only thing that’s going to change is my ability to jump.

I am designed for the scale I’m built at. This is not something which you can simply insert later.

Wait. In this hypothetical, am I Google?

Uh, no. There’s a reason that Google’s banned questions like this for a decade. This is that reason.

— Andreas Schou, Google+ post, 5 Aug 2013

William Poundstone.
How to Predict the Unpredictable: the art of outsmarting almost everyone.
Oneworld. 2014

From rock-paper-scissors to the stock market, the economics and psychology that will help you play to win.

We are hard-wired to believe that the world is more predictable than it is. We chase ‘winning streaks’ that are often just illusions, and we are all too predictable exactly when we try hardest not to be.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky coined the term ‘representativeness’ to describe this behaviour. Since then, the principles of their psychological theory have been used by auditors to catch people fiddling their tax returns and by hedge fund managers to reap billions from the emotions of small investors. Now Poundstone makes these techniques fun, easy, and profitable for everyone, in the situations that matter. You’ll learn how to tackle multiple choice tests, what internet passwords to avoid, when the housing market is going to crash, and the best ways to invest your money. This is a hands-on guide to turning life’s odds in your favour.