Book Review: “Complexity: A Guided Tour” by Melanie Mitchell

Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie MitchellMelanie Mitchell (amzn.to)
Complexity: A Guided Tour Book Cover Complexity: A Guided Tour
Melanie Mitchell
Popular Science
Oxford University Press
May 28, 2009
Hardcover
366

This book provides an intimate, highly readable tour of the sciences of complexity, which seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals. The author, a leading complex systems scientist, describes the history of ideas, current research, and future prospects in this vital scientific effort.

This is handily one of the best, most interesting, and (to me at least) the most useful popularly written science books I’ve yet to come across. Most popular science books usually bore me to tears and end up being only pedantic for their historical backgrounds, but this one is very succinct with some interesting viewpoints (some of which I agree with and some of which my intuition says are terribly wrong) on the overall structure presented.

For those interested in a general and easily readable high-level overview of some of the areas of research I’ve been interested in (information theory, thermodynamics, entropy, microbiology, evolution, genetics, along with computation, dynamics, chaos, complexity, genetic algorithms, cellular automata, etc.) for the past two decades, this is really a lovely and thought-provoking book.

At the start I was disappointed that there were almost no equations in the book to speak of – and perhaps this is why I had purchased it when it came out and it’s subsequently been sitting on my shelf for so long. The other factor that prevented me from reading it was the depth and breadth of other more technical material I’ve read which covers the majority of topics in the book. I ultimately found myself not minding so much that there weren’t any/many supporting equations aside from a few hidden in the notes at the end of the text in most part because Dr. Mitchell does a fantastic job of pointing out some great subtleties within the various subjects which comprise the broader concept of complexity which one generally would take several years to come to on one’s own and at far greater expense of their time. Here she provides a much stronger picture of the overall subjects covered and this far outweighed the lack of specificity. I honestly wished I had read the book when it was released and it may have helped me to me more specific in my own research. Fortunately she does bring up several areas I will need to delve more deeply into and raised several questions which will significantly inform my future work.

In general, I wish there were more references I hadn’t read or been aware of yet, but towards the end there were a handful of topics relating to fractals, chaos, computer science, and cellular automata which I have been either ignorant of or which are further down my reading lists and may need to move closer to the top. I look forward to delving into many of these shortly. As a simple example, I’ve seen Zipf’s law separately from the perspectives of information theory, linguistics, and even evolution, but this is the first time I’ve seen it related to power laws and fractals.

I definitely appreciated the fact that Dr. Mitchell took the time to point out her own personal feelings on several topics and more so that she explicitly pointed them out as her own gut instincts instead of mentioning them passingly as if they were provable science which is what far too many other authors would have likely done. There are many viewpoints she takes which I certainly don’t agree with, but I suspect that it’s because I’m coming at things from the viewpoint of an electrical engineer with a stronger background in information theory and microbiology while hers is closer to that of computer science. She does mention that her undergraduate background was in mathematics, but I’m curious what areas she specifically studied to have a better understanding of her specific viewpoints.

Her final chapter looking at some of the pros and cons of the topic(s) was very welcome, particularly in light of previous philosophic attempts like cybernetics and general systems theory which I (also) think failed because of their lack of specificity. These caveats certainly help to place the scientific philosophy of complexity into a much larger context. I will generally heartily agree with her viewpoint (and that of others) that there needs to be a more rigorous mathematical theory underpinning the overall effort. I’m sure we’re all wondering “Where is our Newton?” or to use her clever aphorism that we’re “waiting for Carnot.” (Sounds like it should be a Tom Stoppard play title, doesn’t it?)

I might question her brief inclusion of her own Ph.D. thesis work in the text, but it did actually provide a nice specific and self-contained example within the broader context and also helped to tie several of the chapters together.

My one slight criticism of the work would be the lack of better footnoting within the text. Though many feel that footnote numbers within the text or inclusion at the bottom of the pages detracts from the “flow” of the work, I found myself wishing that she had done so here, particularly as I’m one of the few who actually cares about the footnotes and wants to know the specific references as I read. I hope that Oxford eventually publishes an e-book version that includes cross-linked footnotes in the future for the benefit of others.

I can heartily recommend this book to any fan of science, but I would specifically recommend it to any undergraduate science or engineering major who is unsure of what they’d specifically like to study and might need some interesting areas to take a look at. I will mention that one of the tough parts of the concept of complexity is that it is so broad and general that it encompasses over a dozen other fields of study each of which one could get a Ph.D. in without completely knowing the full depth of just one of them much less the full depth of all of them. The book is so well written that I’d even recommend it to senior researchers in any of the above mentioned fields as it is certainly sure to provide not only some excellent overview history of each, but it is sure to bring up questions and thoughts that they’ll want to include in their future researches in their own specific sub-areas of expertise.

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Book Review: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial)
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom Book Cover The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester
Biography & Autobiography
Harper Perennial
April 28, 2009
Paperback
352

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

Winchester really is a magnificent writer. Although I am a bigger fan of some of his other works, this certainly fits well into the rest of his life’s opus. Somehow he manages to cover bits of science, technology, philosophy, history, (his love) geology, archaeology, culture, politics and even uses his flair for travel writing with great ethos and pathos to tell an interesting story.

Aside from the breadth of topics he covers while telling the story of one man’s life’s work, he writes about and discusses topics which should be part of everyone’s personal cultural knowledge. As a small example, he makes mention of one of the real life archaeologists who served as a model for Indiana Jones – though sadly he only makes the direct connection in a footnote which many may not likely read.

Though I had originally picked up the book out of general curiosity (not to diminish the fact that I’m on a quest to read every word Winchester has written), I find that it also neatly fits into providing some spectacular background on the concept of “Big History” (see Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History) as it relates to China’s place in the world. In particular “Needham’s question” (briefly: Why, given China’s illustrious past, did modern science not develop there after the 1500’s?) turned around becomes a interesting illustration on the course of human history and the rises and falls of cultures and societies since the Holocene.

For those who may miss the significance, I was particularly impressed with the overall literary power imbued to the book by the use of the book-ended contrasts of Needham’s Chongqing at the opening of the work and modern day Chongqing at the close. This is one of the few times that the mechanics behind how Winchester, the master of telling often non-linear stories, has been patently obvious to me. I hope one day to unravel all of his other secrets. I can only imagine that in his heavy research of his topics, he somehow internally sees the ultimately magical ways in which he will present the information.

I will note that, in contrast to some of his past works, this one had some better physical maps and photos to go along with the text, although I was highly disappointed in their unusable presentation in the e-book version of the book. (Higher dpi versions would have gone a long way, particularly with the ability to zoom in on them in most e-readers.) For those unfortunate enough to have the e-book copy, I commend picking up a physical copy of the book for better interpretations of the photos and maps included.

Finally, perhaps for Winchester’s benefit, I’ll note that typically I would give this book a full five stars in comparing it will all others, but I’m comparing it only with Winchester’s other works and, so it stands at four, and that only because there isn’t the ability to give tenths or hundredths.

Reading Progress
  • 12/17/09 marked as: want to read; “Purchased copy from Amazon.com.”
  • 12/27/09 Purchased copy from Amazon.com.
  • 02/05/10 started reading
  • 04/24/10 started reading again
  • 04/24/2010 8.81% done or on page 31 of 316; “Simon Winchester has such a lovely writing style and grasp of language. I’m depressed that I’ve finished reading most of his works.”
  • 12/03/12 started reading again from the beginning
  • 12/03/2012 09.0% done
  • 12/10/2012 20.0% done
  • 12/17/2012 30.0% done
  • 12/20/2012 40.0% done
  • 12/31/12 Finished book

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

John Hay, America’s secretary of state at the turn of the twentieth century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the “storm center of the world,” and that whoever took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have “a key to politics for the next five centuries.”

Highlight (blue) – Location XXX
China – storm center of the world;
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Guide to highlight colors

Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Blue–Interesting Quote
Gray–Typography Problem
Red–Example to work through

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Book Review: Charles Seife’s “Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception”

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife (Penguin)
Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception Book Cover Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
Charles Seife
Mathematics, Popular Science
Penguin
September 23, 2010
Hardcover
320

The bestselling author of Zero shows how mathematical misinformation pervades-and shapes-our daily lives. According to MSNBC, having a child makes you stupid. You actually lose IQ points. Good Morning America has announced that natural blondes will be extinct within two hundred years. Pundits estimated that there were more than a million demonstrators at a tea party rally in Washington, D.C., even though roughly sixty thousand were there. Numbers have peculiar powers-they can disarm skeptics, befuddle journalists, and hoodwink the public into believing almost anything. "Proofiness," as Charles Seife explains in this eye-opening book, is the art of using pure mathematics for impure ends, and he reminds readers that bad mathematics has a dark side. It is used to bring down beloved government officials and to appoint undeserving ones (both Democratic and Republican), to convict the innocent and acquit the guilty, to ruin our economy, and to fix the outcomes of future elections. This penetrating look at the intersection of math and society will appeal to readers of Freakonomics and the books of Malcolm Gladwell.

Charles Seife doesn’t prove that mathematics is essential for a democracy, but he certainly shows how the lack of proper use of mathematics can fray heavily at the edges!

Proofiness was a great book to have read over a long Fourth of July holiday. Though many people may realize some of the broad general concepts in the book, it’s great to have a better structure for talking about concepts like Potemkin numbers, disestimation, fruit packing, cherry picking, apple polishing, comparing apples to oranges, causuistry, randnumbness, regression to the moon, tragedy of the commons, and moral hazard among others. If you didn’t think mathematics was important to daily life or our democratic society, this book will certainly change your mind.

Seife covers everything from polls, voting, politics, economics, marketing, law, and even health to show how numbers are misused in a modern world that can ill-afford to ignore what is really going on around us.

This is a fantastic book for nearly everyone in the general public, but I’d highly recommend it for high school students while taking civics.

Original review posted on GoodReads.com on 7/9/12.

Reading Progress
  • 07/07/12 marked as: currently reading
  • 07/07/12 23.0% #
  • 07/09/12 52.0%
  • 07/09/12 Finished book
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Barnes & Noble Board Would Face Tough Choices in a Buyout Vote | Dealbook

Barnes & Noble Faces Tough Choices in a Buyout Vote by Steven Davidoff Solomon (DealBook)
If Leonard Riggio, Barnes & Noble's chairman, joins Liberty Media's proposed buyout of his company, the board needs to decide how to handle his 30 percent stake before shareholders vote on the deal.
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This story from the New York Times’ Dealbook is a good quick read on some of the details and machinations of the Barnes & Noble buyout. Perhaps additional analysis on it from a game theoretical viewpoint would yield new insight?

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Book Cover The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, #3
Arthur Conan Doyle
mystery, detective
The Strand Magazine
1892
Kindle e-book
Amazon

Comprising the series of short stories that made the fortunes of the Strand, the magazine in which they were first published, this volume won even more popularity for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes is at the height of his powers in many of his most famous cases, including The Red-Headed League, The Speckled Band, and The Blue Carbuncle.

The original “procedural”, but in fiction form and focusing on logic instead of high tech science.

Read between January 02 – May 09, 2011

Quotes and Highlights:

You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.

Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.

Well, moonshine is a brighter thing than fog, …

…as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.

“My God! It’s Watson,” said he. He was in a pitiable state of reaction, with every nerve in a twitter.

41% Note: An interesting early use of @Twitter…

I should be very much obliged if you would slip your revolver into your pocket. An Eley’s No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.

magnifying lens.

87% First reference to Holmes with a magnifying lens in print that I’ve seen.Like

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Confessions of David Seidler, a 73-year-old Oscars virgin

Confessions of David Seidler, a 73-year-old Oscars virgin by David Seidler (LA Times)
My first realization I was hooked on Oscar was when I seriously began pondering one of mankind's most profound dilemmas: whether to rent or buy a tux. That first step, as with any descent down a...

This is a great (and hilarious) story by and about the writer of THE KING’S SPEECH.

Amplify’d from www.latimes.com

Confessions of David Seidler, a 73-year-old Oscars virgin

The screenwriter, whose first nomination was for ‘The King’s Speech,’ ponders his formalwear options for the big night, his standing in Hollywood and much more.

New Measures of Scholarly Impact | Inside Higher Ed

New Measures of Scholarly Impact (insidehighered.com)
Data analytics are changing the ways to judge the influence of papers and journals.

This article from earlier in the month has some potentially profound affects on the research and scientific communities. Some of the work and research being done here will also have significant affect on social media communities in the future as well.

The base question is are citations the best indicator of impact, or are there other better emerging methods of indicating the impact of scholarly work?

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved | Smithsonian Magazine

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved by Rob Dunn (smithsonianmag.com)
From hiccups to wisdom teeth, our own bodies are worse off than most because of the differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live.

A short and interesting list of examples showing proof of our evolution.

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Brief Review: Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s “Advice for a Young Investigator”

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934)
Advice for a Young Investigator Book Cover Advice for a Young Investigator
Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Biography & Autobiography
MIT Press
2004
book (paperback)
150
Library

This recently rediscovered classic, first published in 1897, is an anecdotal guide for the perplexed new scientific investigator as well as a refreshing resource for the old pro.

Book Cover for Advice for a Young Investigator
Written by Santiago Ramon y Cajal and translated by Larry W. Swanson and Neely Swanson.

This is certainly worth the read for the high qualities of its translation and vocabulary. There are lots of great aphorisms and brilliant bits of advice. Some of the parts about patriotism and information about things like picking a wife are anachronistically funny to read 100+ years after they were written.

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