Mark Lawrence's Reviews > Adventures of a Computational Explorer

Adventures of a Computational Explorer by Stephen Wolfram
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This is a hard one to rate.

Wolfram is clearly an extraordinarily clever man who has done a fair bit of original thinking.

The book itself is a collection of articles, presentations, talks etc from the last ten years or so. Because they weren't intended as chapters of a book this means that there is no sense of a narrative or of constructing a point. Additionally it means that there is a fair bit of overlap and the repetition can irk.

It should be noted that I have both worked as a researcher in many areas falling under the umbrella term "AI", and I used Mathmatica for many years. So that provides some context for my comments. I am not, however, particularly enthusiastic about coding.

One gripe about the book is the miniscule size of most of the figures, so that any writing within them is nearly impossible to read. I felt that the author was imagining we would see them in a larger format in colour - perhaps like those on the power point presentations accompanying the talks they originally came from.

Another gripe is that barely a page goes past without some exhortation of the merits and wonders of Mathmatica &/or Wolfram/Alpha &/or The Wolfram Language. In the originals each of the chapters was a stand alone presentation and Wolfram clearly wanted to get his plug in. But en masse they constitute a relentless assault.

A final (?) gripe is that a number of the chapters were simply rather dull (to me, obviously - another reader might be fascinated). I was not, for example, overly interested in the process of naming Mathmatica functions, or the mechanics of a product design meeting. Nor was I fascinated by the mass analysis of 30 years worth of data about Wolfram's life - seemingly endless charts breaking down his email activity on an hourly basis and the distribution of his 100 million keystrokes etc. And given that I am often teased for being a numbers guy and making charts of everything … I'm thinking that other readers might be even less engaged by these sections than I was.

This all sounds rather damning and it shouldn't be taken that way, because there was also quite a lot of very interesting stuff. This is stuff that I imagine is presented far more fulsomely in his more famous book A New Kind of Science which I have not read but now want to. It's his ideas about computational irreducibility and computational equivalence combined with an appeal to a more fundamental and simple set of rules underlying physics which are of most interest to me. Those ideas were touched on multiple times but lacking any of the detail that might make them convincing.

So, all in all, it's a book that entertained me in parts, and certainly intrigued me. It wanders through a great deal of territory from communicating with aliens to designing computer languages to AI to geometry... and it's sprinkled with quite interesting anecdotes. I think rather than me recommending or not recommending that you read it you should judge for yourself whether the kind of things I've mentioned float your boat.

As for me, I'm definitely going to give A New Kind Of Science a read one day.

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Reading Progress

September 18, 2019 – Started Reading
September 18, 2019 – Shelved
September 18, 2019 –
page 20
4.75% "Interesting so far.

The figures are making me feel old though. The writing in them is so minute I can't read it. I need one of those magnifying reading bars :o"
September 25, 2019 –
page 40
9.5% "Interesting stuff. Wolfram seems to be have been ahead of the curve on some of the stuff I've read in New Scientist lately. His "super fundamental" approach to universe building goes beyond (beneath?) established physics and is quite appealing.

There's a lot of hard-sell for his language but I guess these chapters were all standalones originally and he felt he had to promote it in each one."
October 6, 2019 –
page 172
40.86% "There's a lot of interesting stuff in here, though the relentless focus on Mathematica is starting to wear at me. Particularly in this chapter where I learn far more about design meetings and naming functions than I ever wanted to know."
October 6, 2019 –
page 172
40.86% "Additionally, almost all of the many figures are too small to see and rather poorly reproduced in greys."
October 11, 2019 – Finished Reading

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