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Kovas Boguta
Wolfram Science Group

Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 38

My Amazon review

Since over 1000 people seem to have been influenced by the two silly spotlighted reviews on the NKS Amazon page, I decided to write my own. You can find it just under the spotlighted reviews on the NKS page at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/t...=books&v=glance

Im reproducing the text below. If you think it is sensible, it would be appreciated if you gave it a "useful" vote on the Amazon page. I think it is a shame that to many people are getting the wrong idea of NKS based on these biased and uninformed reviews...

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An insider's perspective

Having spent much of the last three years thinking about the contents of this book and doing research in the program it establishes, I feel that it is finally time to set the record straight about what this book is and what it means.

First, what it does not say. It does not say the universe is a cellular automaton. It does not say we need to throw away existing science. It does not say that every other scientist is the world is an idiot. It does not claim every single minute idea contained within it is new, original, or revolutionary.

What it does say, however, is nevertheless as revolutionary as it is inevitable.

The fundamental basis for this book, and the science that it tries to build, is the idea that experimental methods are the only way to discover and understand the computational mechanisms that exist in our universe, and indeed to understand the nature of computation itself. Furthermore, it establishes a set of theoretically grounded principles about how these experiments should be conducted, and how their results connect to the rest of science.

Despite deeply confused claims to the contrary in some other reviews, this core idea is new. This is fairly easily verified -- just flip to Chapter 3 and ask, how many other scientists search through billions of register machines to discover interesting, complex behavior? Who else enumerates the 4096 s2k2 Turing machines and catalogues the computations they perform? This new kind of science is all about enumerating the *very simplest* computational systems and analyzing their behavior without biases towards any existing scientific tradition. This kind of research is simply not done in computer science, mathematics, physics, or the vague field of complexity theory.

Within the first 5 chapters, Wolfram establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that complex behavior is ubiquitous in even the simplest of computational systems. Clearly, these systems do interesting things, and from a purely intellectual perspective deserve to be a pure field of study, much like pure mathematics. But so what? The rest of the book is dedicated to answering that question.

The fact that complexity is so easy to systematically generate suggests a radical approach to science in general. Traditionally, science looks for interesting things in the natural world, and then develops theories to explain certain aspects of their behavior. What Wolfram effectively is suggesting is that by exploring the computational universe, we can start by enumerating and understanding the theories themselves, and then going to the natural world and find places where they apply. At first this sounds crazy and counterintuitive, and from our traditional intuition we "know" that it cannot possibly work. But this book is all about challenging the traditional intuition using actual facts and ultimately fairly simple although abstract arguments.

Much of the criticism of the book - even by supposedly reputable scientists - is so laughably superficial that it barely warrants a response. But I will give one anyway. Critics complain that Wolfram does not give mathematical definitions of complexity, yet one of Wolfram's *main points* is that such definitions are impossible or at best useless. Critics complain that others - Fredkin and Zuse - first had the idea of the universe as a cellular automaton, yet Wolfram explicitly states that he does *not* think that the universe is a cellular automaton. Critics complain that computational methods are already commonplace, but ignore Wolfram's point that they should be leveraged in accordance to the computational realities of the universe. Critics complain that the book is unreadable, yet Wolfram over and over again captures in a single elegant picture what takes several pages of overcomplicated jargon in technical papers. Critics complain that Wolfram's ideas are too vague to be applicable, yet almost every other page contains an experiment that displays his methodology in action. Critics in the same breath say that the book gives no evidence for its claims while at the same time saying it is too big and sprawling. Critics complain that Wolfram has no respect for the ideas of others, yet they do not have enough respect for Wolfram's ideas to judge them on their merits, rather than the style in which they are presented. Critics say that everyone already knows about the power of simple programs. Oh really? Then why is science continuing to be done in ignorance of their consequences? Why is there already no field of empirically, systematically studying very simple computation systems? Because they are too boring? Not likely.

The book does have flaws. First, it doesn't make clear enough the distinction between studying simple programs for their own sake, and using simple programs in applications to the natural world. I also don't think the book makes enough of an effort to show that a science of simple programs is possible - for instance by developing detailed theories of some particular systems. The criticism of existing science is at times difficult to understand - in some instances Wolfram assails it for being computationally reductionist, and in others places he uses more practical issues such as the difficulty of numerical analysis. There is an absolutely ridiculous amount of information in the book, particularly in the notes -- I feel some of it is tangential, and it would have been better to study fewer topics in greater depth. While it didn't bother me, for the sake of others it may have been wise to tone down the use of the first person.

Looking at the trajectory of science, it is hard to imagine that the ideas and methods in this book will not grow to be commonplace. On some level, I feel that Wolfram's focus on experiment, exhaustiveness, abstraction, and simplicity just makes sense. The computational universe is like an ultimately idealized analog of the nature one - just as rich in its behavior, but far more amenable to systematic methods. Now that this resource has been identified, we should leverage its power.

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Old Post 02-20-2005 09:20 PM
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Tony Smith
Meme Media
Melbourne, Australia

Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 168

Good luck

I finally posted my own Amazon review on "May 24, 2004" with much the same motivations, starting out:

Don't throw out the baby with the bath water

It seems Wolfram bashing has become a sport for weak minds. Sure he leaves himself open to criticism for not having stayed quite so engaged with his peers during the decade it took him to flesh out his thinking, but many other common criticisms are wildly exaggerated.

Irrespective, NKS does an important job of bringing a modicum of attention back to discrete systems which not enough people realise have a real prospect of providing better models than continuous models for the world we find ourselves in.
But it seems that even as recently as last year, those determined to condemn Wolfram at every opportunity outweigh those with more open minds, so my review still stands at: "4 of 12 people found the following review helpful".

At the time I submitted my review, I decided I should never try to influence the interesting baseline data by giving "helpful" or "unhelpful" rankings to other reviews of the same book. So I would ask that even if anybody who reads this can dig deep enough to find my review, please don't let my involvement here encourage you to rank it. Sometimes you have to allow the world to admit its own stupidity and take the data it gives you on face value.

And please don't take this as a suggestion that you should not respond positively to Kovas's request. I see he is already winning five-zip and it will be interesting to see how long that can be kept up before the forces of darkness return.

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Old Post 02-21-2005 04:17 AM
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Kovas Boguta
Wolfram Science Group

Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 38

I've noticed the trend as well...

I saw your review and noticed the exact same trend... hate-filled reviews with 0 intellectual content would get something like a 11/12 rating, whereas a thoughful and balanced review would get something like a 6/12 .

The funny this is, when I did a review of all of the published NKS reviews a while back, it was split almost evenly 50/50 between positive and negative reviews. And even the negative reviews - the ones that didnt think the book was revolutionary - often gave it high marks in other areas, such as simplicity and elegance of presentation.

Ordinarily I would be inclined to your notion of letting things take their natural course. But its fairly obvious a very vocal minority has hijacked the perception of this book. I've met plenty of bright people whose only recollection of NKS is that a bunch of people hated it. That is too bad, particularly since it is inaccurate.

I don't know what algorithm amazon uses in doing the spotlighted reviews. The amount of traffic that page receives is no doubt lower now that it was say two years ago, so it might be difficult to get enough positive marks unless they correct for trends like that. But it think it would be only fair to have 1 of the two spotlighted reviews be a positive one.

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Old Post 02-21-2005 04:36 AM
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Hector Zenil
Wolfram Science Group
Paris, France

Registered: Jul 2006
Posts: 3

Amazon

The NKS book overall rate is good even exposed to those intentional attacks. I agree we should not worry but it is a shame that a site that has become a obligated reference be exposed to hoax. We might suggest a change to the Amazon review rating system. Their current rating seemed reasonable. However it is not as we are figuring out, not only because the most popular review is not always the best one but mainly because it can be used intentionally by people looking to despise or to misestimate a book.

Any suggestions to what might or should be?

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Old Post 07-18-2006 10:36 PM
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