Before reading this book, I would have answered its question—"Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"—with an almost reflexive "Of course" (being...moreBefore reading this book, I would have answered its question—"Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"—with an almost reflexive "Of course" (being mainly influenced by Nicholas Carr's The Shallows). Now, my answer is different.
In terms of answers, this book has a lot of them (and a lot of questions too). It consists of more than 150 short essays, which are available on the Edge website. The answers vary wildly, from "The Internet is profoundly and irreversibly changing the way I think," to "Hell if I know," to "Not at all." This wild variety is at once the book's strongest and weakest point: you get exposed to (almost) all of the major opinions on the topic, but most, if not all, of the essays are not long enough to support the expressed opinions in a convincing and satisfying manner. Some of the essays are surprisingly well thought out and well written, but generally the signal-to-noise ratio isn't high enough.
Is the Internet changing the way I think? The Internet is definitely changing some things about me, such as the increasing tendency to believe that if I can't find a piece of information online quickly, then it doesn't exist online, and if it doesn't exist online, then it doesn't exist. But is the Internet really changing the way I think? I simply don't know.(less)
The words of Douglas Hofstadter pretty much summarize what I think of this book: "it's a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It's as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can't possibly figure out what's good or bad."
Why am I not convinced? Well, the exponential growth of computing power over the last 100 years is hardly deniable. Extrapolating that trend and predicting that it is will continue for some time is reasonable. But my crap detector starts to go off when Kurzweil goes from there to assert that computers will exceed human intelligence (causing a technological singularity in the not-so-distant future) and to make all those overly-optimistic transhumanistic predictions. For me, the main problem is equating computing power with intelligence. To quote Steven Pinker, "sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems." My current view is that the "brain as a computer" is a very powerful and useful metaphor, but it's still a metaphor: the brain is not a computer. And as Jaron Lanier puts it, "the distance between recognizing a great metaphor and treating it as the only metaphor is the same as the distance between humble science and dogmatic religion."
Other than that, I was mainly disappointed to see that Kurzweil did not discuss different or opposing views adequately (as he apparently does in The Singularity is Near, in which he devotes a whole chapter to respond to critics). For example, he discussed the views of Roger Penrose in less than two pages, and he did not even mention John Searle other than in a footnote and in the Suggested Readings list.
So, until further notice, I will remain in the collective camp of Searle, Penrose, Lanier, and the like despite its shortcomings because I find it more convincing. (Or could it be that I find it more comfortable because it agrees more with the way I want the world to be? Perish the thought!)
In short, I would recommend skipping this book (unless you want to judge for yourself how Kurzweil's predictions for 2009 have fared) and, if you insist on reading Kurzweil, to try instead his later book, where he actually responds to critics (but, as I haven't read it yet, I don't guarantee it will be more convincing).
P.S. I can't help but to draw a parallel to projects such as FuturICT, in which it is hoped that by throwing enough data at the problem, "we might be able to construct models of complicated phenomena even when we don't have any underlying laws on which to build them." But as David Weinberger notes in "The Machine That Would Predict the Future", "the practical difficulties quickly turn exponential. There is always another layer of detail, always another factor that may prove critical in the final accounting; without a prior understanding of how humans operate, we cannot know when our accounting is final." (On a side note, this throw-more-data-at-it also reminds me of the throw-more-hardware-at-it mentality in software development.)(less)
Sitting on the toilet one morning, it suddenly hit me: a Sudoku puzzle is a graph coloring problem in disguise. Such out-of-the-blue moments of mathem...moreSitting on the toilet one morning, it suddenly hit me: a Sudoku puzzle is a graph coloring problem in disguise. Such out-of-the-blue moments of mathematical inspiration, which usually come after struggling with a hard problem for days and then engaging in a different activity, are among the topics that Jacques Hadamard explored in this interesting small book.
As P. N. Johnson-Laird notes in the preface of this edition, the book was prescient: when Hadamard set out to explore mathematical invention, he went against the dominant philosophy of psychology of the time, behaviorism, by using introspection and discussing mental processes. Henri Poincaré's famous lecture before the Société de Psychologie in Paris inspired Hadamard to undertake this study, so he quoted Poincaré extensively, but he also provided his own experiences and insights. More importantly, Hadamard surveyed some of the major mathematicians and scientists of the time, such as George Polya, Norbert Wiener, and Albert Einstein.
In Chapter VIII, Hadamard suggested that under certain circumstances, "even important links of the deduction may remain unknown to the thinker himself who has found them." He cited Pierre de Fermat, Bernhard Riemann, and Évariste Galois as examples. Each of these mathematicians made a mathematical statement and claimed he had a proof but did not enunciate it due to limitations of space or time. These statements were indeed proved (completely or partially) later using facts and theories that were unknown in the mathematician's time. These facts and theories represent, by themselves, significant discoveries, yet no conception of, or even allusion to them appear in any of the mathematician's writings. It may be speculative, but I find Hadamard's explanation of these "paradoxical cases of intuition" fascinating, and I wish he had elaborated on it more.
Despite its interesting content, I felt something was missing when I finished the book; a sense of closure, perhaps. But take this vague criticism with a grain of salt, because it could be a result of the discontinuity of my reading.
In short, this small book is worth reading, or at least skimming, as it provides a window into the creative processes of some of the great minds of the time. Who knows, perhaps that elusive answer that you were looking for will hit you while you are reading the book, especially if you are sitting on a toilet.(less)
Nikolaos van Dam offers an insightful and informative analysis of the role of sectarianism and other forms of factionalism in the struggle for power i...moreNikolaos van Dam offers an insightful and informative analysis of the role of sectarianism and other forms of factionalism in the struggle for power in Syria.
Being born after the bloody events of the early 1980's, living most of the time outside Syria, and being largely uninterested in politics, I have been until recently pretty ignorant of the socio-political history of Syria. That is why I found this book to be very informative. It may be less so to those who lived through that period or who know the Syrian history. Nevertheless, and especially with the current events taking place in Syria, van Dam's account should be of interest to those who want to understand the Syrian political and social landscapes. Since the opinions of my elder relatives (who lived through that period and witnessed the struggle for power) generally agree with van Dam's analysis, I would say that he knows what he is taking about.
This particular edition was published in 1981, so it doesn't cover what happened after 1980; that is taken care of in the later editions, the last of which was published in 2011. (For those who can read Arabic, the 2007 Arabic Internet edition of the book is available on the author's website. It covers the period from 1961 up to 1995.)
With the way events are developing in Syria, it is now more important than ever to use resources like The Struggle for Power in Syria to revisit the past and try to learn from its lessons. For if we "cannot remember the past [we] are condemned to repeat it."(less)
The second edition of Explorations in Quantum Computing is very disappointing because it could have been much better.
The main problem I found in this...moreThe second edition of Explorations in Quantum Computing is very disappointing because it could have been much better.
The main problem I found in this book is the staggering number of obvious, distracting typos, mistakes, and errors that are evident of a very poor editing process (or the lack thereof). I was regularly distracted by incomplete sentences, unclosed parenthetical sentences, and, more alarmingly, inconsistent mathematical notations in almost every chapter. Such mistakes strengthen the association I already have between Springer and poor editing.
It even gets worse: there are notes that someone (apparently, the author) has left for himself! The caption of figure 13.7 on page 532 is:
BB84 protocol TEST ONLY. This figure is copyright protected and cannot be used. A new figure conveying similar information needs to be drawn here. Illustration of the BB84 QKD protocol.
The caption of figure 13.17 on page 543 starts with "this figure needs to be redrawn showing similar concepts."
As for the scientific value of the content, I can't deny that some sections, especially the ones on computational complexity and computational phase transitions, were somewhat informative and interesting for a beginner in quantum computing like me. Nevertheless, the distracting typos and mistakes overshadowed this value and ruined my reading experience.
In a nutshell, the second edition of Explorations in Quantum Computing is an overpriced editorial mess that should have never gone to press. You definitely should not waste your money on this edition; you probably should not waste your time on it either.(less)
The Elements of C# Style is a short, handy, and easy to understand style guide for the C# programming language.
This book follows the pattern used in m...moreThe Elements of C# Style is a short, handy, and easy to understand style guide for the C# programming language.
This book follows the pattern used in most style guides: a list of 174 rules, each containing a short explanation plus some examples of correct, and occasionally incorrect, use. The rules offer standards and guidelines that cover formatting, naming, documentation, programming, and packaging.
You are not expected to agree with all of the rules, but the specifics of a style doesn't really matter; what matters most is that you follow some "good" coding style consistently, and the advice offered by this book is pretty much in line with what is found in other "good" programming style guides.
In a nutshell, if you want to write C# code in a consistent style, this book is worth having nearby, especially if you write code as part of a team.(less)