Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodA thorough exploration of information theory, how communication functions at its most fundamental. Language, mathematics, cryptography, memory, computing, the history of telecommunication, the history of intuitive human information theory before and after it was formalized.

Most intriguing is the third of Gleick's informational themes: the Flood, our modern immersion in quantifiable information. The book ends with allusions to Borges' "The Library of Babel", a short story that seems ever more apt and readily appreciable as time goes on.

Freeman John Dyson has written a substantive synopsis and review entitled "How We Know", here:

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: Physics of the Future: How Science Will Change Daily Life by 2100

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku
I'm not sure about anybody's ability to predict a century into the future (especially if you give credence to the idea of accelerating returns in technology), but I was willing to give this book a shot after hearing Michio Kaku in interviews. In particular he piqued my curiosity with the claim that all the ideas in the book are grounded on currently existing prototypes or established scientific theory.

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100Now after having read it, I think Michio is only giving a survey of some select topics, and the only ones that I think he handled well were the ones most closely linked to physics (e.g. space travel, nanotechnology & quantum behavior, global power generation). The other fields he dives into, particularly his analysis and extrapolation of consumer technologies, were disappointingly off target or lacking in proper depth.

The book is occasionally so superficial in its treatment of some prototyped technologies that it reads somewhat like painfully outdated sci-fi from Michio's childhood in the 50's. The book is written to be highly accessible, but he does uninformed readers a disservice by giving equal weight to illogical and 'improbable but not impossible' possibilities.

My biggest problem with his predictions are that they center on only a set of technologies that Kaku has experience with, extrapolated all the way out to 2100 without much consideration of how all the unmentioned possibilities will change his visions for the future.

As an example, Michio doesn't do the best job keeping our present circumstances and his far future predictions from mixing anachronistically: e.g. the frequently repeated "...when we carry around our own genomes on a CD-ROM" for a "2030-2070" range prediction. I worry that Michio Kaku is just paraphrasing some of the ideas out there without really thinking about them any more critically, like a mediocre science journalist or sci-fi writer. Again this could be an artifact of his intentionally writing this book to be broadly accessible, but I don't think he found the right balance.

The best parts of the book are in the second half, particularly his chapters on The Future of: Energy, Space Travel, Wealth, and Humanity (respectively) and I did enjoy most of this material despite a scattering of the same problems mentioned above. Sadly, I think Michio Kaku completely botched his concluding chapter, "A Day in the Life in 2100", and I think the preceding Future of Humanity chapter would have been a much stronger ending. The "Day in the Life" conclusion is silly speculative fiction and the best (worst?) example in the entire book of his anachronistic and muddled sci-fi visions.

Michio Kaku is great when talking about physics and large scale trends closely linked to humanity's knowledge of physics, but judging from this book alone he doesn't put together upcoming technologies into realistic or compelling future scenarios very well at all, ending up with an incomplete picture somewhere in the uncomfortable border between imaginative thinking and unwarranted speculation.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review: Beyond Boundaries

Beyond BoundariesBeyond Boundaries by Miguel Nicolelis
A neuroscience memoir of thought-provoking work, experimental brain interfaces and thought control tests told through the lens of Nicolelis' own academic history and Brazilian based life story.

The book offers specific and compelling evidence for not only controlling robotic systems remotely, but also for how our brain is naturally built to incorporate external apparatus and sense data directly into the body map and further into the sense of self, for brain connected robotics that restore the ability to walk to the paralyzed, for thought-based personal interaction, and even for direct brain to brain connections that create literal brain networks and a higher order of complexity.

Very inspiring concrete experiments to shake some of these formerly sci-fi concepts loose from their intermediate fiction. Indeed the specifics of the experimental methods are sharp enough to be double-edged, disengaging from the overall visionary narrative to bring the reader back down into the due diligence of science and Nicolelis' experience as researcher and academic, which, while important to establish the validity of the book's premise, are less accessible than the grand ideas described in the preceding paragraph. Still, Nicolelis does it right by interspersing anecdotes of Brazilian football matches or personal history to keep the book moving.


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