Justin Li


Book Reviews

2009-01-21

I finished 3 books in the last 2 weeks, and I would like to jot down some thoughts on them. 

The Essential Turing, edited by Jack Copeland

This was a heavy book, and I don't mean weight (although it was too). Turing is one of those people I find hard to reconcile; while I simultaneously know of the Turing Machine and the Turing Test, somehow I separate them so far in my mind that I forget it's the same person who made those two. The first part of this book is highly mathematical, as it contains the very paper which Turing suggested his universal Turing machine. I skimmed most of that paper, as I didn't want to follow all the details, but I did learn the basic reason why the halting problem is undecidable. The book goes through another paper, then talks about Turing's involvement with breaking the Enigma. Only the last part is on AI, and in retrospect Turing does have some far-sighted ideas. The editor seems a little bit too fond of Turing though. Overall, the book was not too bad a read (not including the mathematics part).

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes 

My first fiction book in a while. While I've felt empathy with the character on human relations, I also share his feelings on academia. On talking with some people at his local college, the protagonist finds that people take their fields too narrowly, and there's not enough overarching work being done. I really am afraid of falling into the mold of Ziman's scientists, knowing "more and more about less and less". That aside, this book is worth a read.

Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter

I had high expectations for this book, as it was highly recommended by many people, especially for compute science/artificial intelligence types like me. After reading it's entirety in a week, however, I find the hype a little inaccurate. While the concepts in the book are somewhat novel, I don't like several choices in Hofstadter's writing. The first definition stems from this book being 30 years old, during which computers reached the world class level of chess, genetic programming developed, and computers in general became a lot more powerful (computationally, not mathematically) than at the time of writing. These, however, are merely artifacts of when the book was written. I am more mindful that Hofstadter prefers to give his own names to theories than use the original. I feel it actually made the proofs a little more opaque. Hofstadter tries to tie the book together with a theme, but this theme is hard to detect - no wonder other readers have been confused as to what the central message of the book was, as the author noted in the 20 anniversary preface. In praise of the book though, I think the dialogues are ingenious, not only through their formal (form-related) isomorphisms to Bach's works, but in various word play and other humor.

I did, on the other hand, get one or two - not too many, just one or two - ideas from the book. I would say that they have been near the surface of my thoughts for a while, although no doubt Hofstadter would argue that the information was all in the book...

As a result of reading these books, and taking courses in operation semantics and knowledge representation, suddenly my quarter is filled with references to Godel, Church, and Turing. Which isn't bad, I suppose; I've always wanted to learn about them.

PS. I highly recommend book darts (also available on Amazon) to note interesting passages. Despite their crappy website, they have been invaluable in keeping track of worthwhile sections to transcribe later en masse.

comments powered by Disqus