I strongly recommend Mel's beautiful and moving review of this book. We both loved it, and tried really hard to explain why without spoil...moreJune 23, 2012
I strongly recommend Mel's beautiful and moving review of this book. We both loved it, and tried really hard to explain why without spoiling the story.
There are many other exceptional reviews from friends and others, and I would never have known about it without their guidance. My thanks to all.
June 19, 2012 (Pre-review) - Thanks so much to all who supported and commented on this (now slightly edited) lead-in! My full review follows this section.
I absolutely loved it. Plopped it straight onto my all-time favorites list. Knew it would be there before I got halfway through.
There is a strong temptation to just say READ THIS BOOK - DON'T READ ANY FULL REVIEWS UNTIL YOU READ THE BOOK. Not just a strong temptation - probably the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.
But then, there is this. Not everyone will love it, and some won't even like it very much. This is a book that dares to be different, and asks you to think really hard while following a lot of action at a distance.
My mission - and I decide to accept it - will be to convey some sense of the incredible thought-passage and events that take place in this slender volume. But not too much - that would be telling. Hopefully, just enough to let you decide whether you want to buckle up and take the ride.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx June 22, 2012 (Full review)
This is a beautifully written book which is intricately layered around classical, quasi-biblical and technical themes. It can be appreciated on several, conceptually independent levels: - as a suspenseful and unpredictable narrative - as an age-old philosophical quest with a major technical twist - as a set of dialogues for exploring the definitions of intelligence, consciousness and ideas - and as a brain-bending, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t workout for your head. For me, all of these elements were handled brilliantly, seamlessly and with extreme originality. This book is NOT like anything else I have ever read.
I need to discuss certain basic elements of the story, but will try to stay (mostly) within the boundaries of the publisher’s synopsis. To appreciate the sudden and dramatic shifts in the narrative, you really should just read the book. My major focus will be on the big-picture issues which the book explores, with some (hopefully) cryptic hints here and there of how the story goes.
The setting for the book is an all-day examination of the young historian Anaximander (Anax), by a panel that will rule on her application to the Academy - the ruling body for her society (The Republic). This setting may seem mundane and unpromising, but its execution here was anything but droll for me. In my career, I have been both the examined and (mostly) the examiner on many occasions, in roughly analogous situations. The dramatic tension in such exams is palpable for everyone involved, and was beautifully depicted here. Good people can break down in these intensely stressful situations - but they usually rise to the occasion and perform well, with just a few bumps and bruises along the way. It is an intellectual rite of passage.
In the early portion of the exam, Anax is called upon to sketch the history of The Republic in some detail for the committee. From her narrative, we learn that this society was built in the aftermath of worldwide catastrophe, and set up to be both sustainable and in many ways ‘ideal’ - along the lines of Plato’s Republic, but with modern variations.
The examiners and Anax build on that historic framework and move on to subsequent developments, and the role of one person in particular. The story of that person’s life is one key to the puzzle that Anax must analyze - to the committee’s satisfaction - to pass the exam.
Now, all of this may sound very dry and uneventful, and I think it was very daring of the author to choose this format for his electrifying story. I was never bored with it, not even a little bit. But this story-telling vehicle is a checkpoint for readers, and some will not find it as fascinating as I did.
I do want to emphasize this point - there is major dramatic tension and suspense in the narrative of Anax and the world she describes. It isn’t easy to convey that tension in a review. But I certainly was drawn, throughout the book, to keep turning pages and finding out what happened next.
The Republic was designed to maintain order in perilous times.
In this environment it was a simple matter for The Republic to maintain its structure. People did as they were told because they were working together, focused on a common threat, a shared enemy.
But problems arise in this utopian society.
...time passes. Fear becomes a memory. Terror becomes routine; it loses its grip.
The founders of The Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored a simple truth. The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them.
New solutions are sought to maintain order. And one component of the initiative is the development of Artificial Intelligence algorithms. Anax must discuss this sequence in detail, and outline the strategies used to achieve it.
During its infancy, at least until the end of the twentieth century, the Artificial Intelligence industry had faced an imagination deficit. Because researchers wrongly assumed that their early computers were good models for the working of the brain, they persevered in programming thinking machines. It wasn't until the second decade of this century, when the scientists and artists began working together, that they began to understand the nature of what we now call emergent complexity.
Along the way, big decisions are made in pursuit of the goal.
A radical thinker, he pioneered a new model, which he called chaotic emergence. Under this system, the program itself was written by the learning environment using what we now refer to as the cascade heuristic.
And major technical problems are identified.
It is crucial he be exposed to an outside influence before his trimming and redirecting mechanisms shut down, and he becomes like a child deprived of stimulation, his curiosity left to wither.
But as in normal life, decisions have consequences, and a path once chosen may lead in quite unexpected directions.
There is a beautifully written series of exchanges between human and machine. As the discussion proceeds from opposing perspectives, each learns from and is influenced by the other. I was completely mesmerized by these brilliant Platonic dialogues.
“I talk to you, you make a sound. I kick this wall, it makes a sound. What's the difference? Perhaps you're going to tell me the wall is conscious too?" "I don't know if the wall's conscious," Art replied. "Why don't you ask it?"
Yes, these exchanges got some major gear-grinding going on in my head. Especially when I read bits of dialogue like this thrust:
My actions are deliberate. I do them with a purpose in mind. To the outsider there is no difference. The difference is in the intention, not the effect. We call this difference thought. You deal in data. I deal in meaning.
And this counter:
You think you're the end of it, but that's what thinking is best at: deceiving the thinker. Just as clay found carbon life forms hitching a ride, once the brain was up and running, so too carbon found there was another little hitchhiker waiting for its turn to pounce. Do you know what I'm talking about? You must know.
And just one more:
There is a battle happening as we speak, two thoughts fighting to the death inside your head. The old Idea is very strong. It has held its grip upon all of humanity, ever since the time you began telling one another stories. But the new Idea is powerful too, and you are beginning to find how reluctant it is to be dismissed.
Are these conversations tied to events? You Betcha. But you will have to read the book to find out how. I don’t think any reviewer is going to go there, and certainly not this one.
What I do want to say is that the pieces of this book work together as a seamless whole. But they also stand up to close scrutiny as individual units, and each is powerful and thought-provoking in the best sense of those terms. For me, the overall effect of this magnificent book was like a Vulcan mind meld, with Mr. Spock at the controls. Your head is opened and the contents inspected, shifted around and transported. You are left transformed, humbled and energized, all at the same time. Maybe scared too, but definitely in a different place from where you started.
Man, this book is awesome! If I didn’t have 700+ rocks on Mount TBR, I might start reading it again tonight.
I am going to recommend this now because I am quite familiar with the author's work, and I regard her as a hero in the campaign to understand and trea...moreI am going to recommend this now because I am quite familiar with the author's work, and I regard her as a hero in the campaign to understand and treat autism from a whole-body perspective. Martha Herbert is a pediatric neurologist at Harvard, and an incredibly gifted thinker and doer in the autism research and treatment community. This book is new and current, and I just learned about it today.
I have started reading it, and will have more to say soon. It appears to be very well-written - in the plain-spoken style, and with the paradigm-shifting intellect and expertise that I was privileged to witness first-hand.
I would recommend a close look at this, if you are dealing with autism or ASD among your family or friends, or you just want to learn more about the issues.
You can learn more about the author at her website. Or you can just Google 'Martha Herbert' and find many links to interviews, publications, etc. (less)
At the top level, this is a fictional story about a teenage boy (Christopher) who tries to solve a mystery involving a dog in his neighborhood. But it...moreAt the top level, this is a fictional story about a teenage boy (Christopher) who tries to solve a mystery involving a dog in his neighborhood. But it is far more significant for being a first-person, full-immersion view of the mental processes of autism. It must have been extremely challenging to write, and that job was done very well. It has a lot of parallels with the real-life story of Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, which I WILL get around to reviewing one day.
The book was a leaving-the-lab gift to me by my last PhD student. She told me it was the book that got her excited about working on an autism-related project, which she did in my lab for her dissertation. From the prime-numbered chapters, to detailed discussions of the nonsensical ways that ‘normal’ people think, every page is loaded with examples of the autistic thought process. In this case, the individual also shows special skills in areas like math and spatial relationships. The mental processes of these autistic savants bring into very sharp focus the seemingly inexplicable – that autism can completely degrade a set of normal social skills, while enhancing other not-so-normal skills to a truly astonishing degree.
As one example, Christopher cannot be too close to people, and cannot bear to be touched by them. To relieve stress, he sometimes counts to 50 or higher, while cubing each number as he goes (!). In other stressful episodes, he solves extremely complex spatial puzzles in his head, to take his mind off the unpleasantness of too much going on around him. The story is painful to read at times, because it portrays in detail the extreme frustrations and everyday hardships on both sides of the autism divide – for those who have it, and those who provide care.
Awareness of autism is growing in our society. Still, many of the too-typical views of autism are badly misinformed. Wrong about what causes it (vaccines? Very unlikely). Wrong about how to deal with it (blame the parents; give the child some old-fashioned discipline). Wrong about the numbers of affected individuals – roughly 1 in 110 children in America, though some very recent estimates are even worse. Some of the exponential increase in recent years can reasonably be explained by diagnostic criteria and improved testing methods. But most investigators would agree that something very scary is happening out there in the way that genes, the environment and modern life interact. The kids are, very likely, a leading indicator.
In the context of these appalling numbers, the book forces us to think carefully about the monumental struggles attached to seemingly normal, simple activities of everyday life – for the affected individuals, and for their parents, teachers, and society. For those who are interested and/or dealing with these issues in their own lives, there is an excellent series of review articles in the recent issue of Nature: