Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


Sunday, September 9th, 2012

…to form a sentence is to collapse many superposed wave functions to a single thought universe.  Multiplying the lost universes word by word, we can say that each sentence extingushes 10^n universes, where n is the number of words in the sentence.  Each thought condenses trillions of potential thoughts.  Thus we get verbal overshadowing, where the language we use structures the reality we inhabit.  Maybe this is a blessing.  Maybe this is why we need to keep making sentences. Book = “2312”, Author = Kim Stanley Robinson

Chance to think again about the big questions

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

One of the web sites you will see displayed along the right hand margin of Samadhisoft is The Edge. The edge is a place where some of the world’s best scientists and thinkers come to muse about things. If you call yourself an intellectual and you haven’t yet sampled The Edge, you’ve been missing out.

The Edge was setup by John Brockman who is the author of several books I’ve read and treasured immensely. Two of these are:

The Third Culture

The New Humanists

I can highly recommend John Brockman’s books and the web site, The Edge.

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It takes a lot to admit that you have changed your mind about something but dozens of leading scientists, scholars and intellectuals have done just that for a New York-based website that describes itself as an influential online salon for free thinkers.

This year’s annual question posed by asks visitors to the site to submit a short explanation to address the issue of what you have changed your mind about and why?

Previous questions on the site have been along the lines of, what is your most dangerous idea? And, what are you optimistic about?

“When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science. And science is what’s on the minds of the world-class scientists and thinkers on Edge,” said John Brockman, the New York literary agent behind the website.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and language expert, said he had changed his mind about whether humans were still evolving. He used to believe people had so isolated themselves from natural selection that evolution had stopped, but now he was not so sure.

“I’ve had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped at the time of the agricultural revolution,” Professor Pinker said.

“New studies suggest that thousands of genes have been subjected to strong natural selection over the past several thousand years, which means evolution is far from over for man.”

More… or

Book Review – Blindsight by Peter Watts

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

This is a book review – of sorts. I’m not going to tell you anything other than that I love this book. And I’m going to give you an excerpt. Read it and make up your own mind….

You invest so much in it don’t you? It’s what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it’s what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself. Wise man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it’s for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you’ve forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterward, unconscious the whole time. Maybe nobody’s told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity’s already half way down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self “chose” to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary – almost an afterthought – to the homunculus behinds your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: It reads the summary and it sees that hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But ‘s not in charge. You’re not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn’t share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively Human pursuits that must surely rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that’s what sentience would be for – if scientific breakthroughs didn’t spring fully formed from the subconscious mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night’s sleep. It’s the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.

Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.

Don’t even try to talk about the learning curve. Don’t bother citing the months of deliberate practice that precede the unconscious performance, or the years of study and experiment leading up to the gift-wrapped eureka moment. So what if your lessons are all learned consciously? Do you think that proves there’s no other way? Heuristic software’s been learning from experience for over a hundred years. Machines master chess, cars learn to drive themselves, statistical programs face problems and design the experiments to solve them and you think that the only path to learning leads through sentience? You’re stone Age nomads, eking out some marginal existence on the veldt – denying even the possibility of agriculture, because hunting and gathering was good enough for your parents.

Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can’t see both aspects of the Necker cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You’re always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It’s the next logical step.

Oh, but you can’t. There’s something in the way.

And it’s fighting back.

* * *

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains – cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.


– from Blindsight by Peter Watts

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart – 1949

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart can truly be considered to be a ‘lost book‘. An excellent piece of prescient of Science Fiction now largely forgotten, it envisions an Earth suddenly depopulated by a plague (think H5N1 Bird Flu, for example).

What amazed me more than anything else in this book, were the number of themes that Stewart touched on which were obviously known in 1949. The flammability of the forests as a result of our ‘management’, the boom and bust cycles of predator and prey, the likelihood that man’s growth would overrun the planet’s ability to sustain him, the increased probability of plagues as population density increases.

It is a wise and sad book all at once. In these days, when so many people are still in deep denial of the coming problems (see the Perfect Storm), it reminds us that the writing has been on the wall for a very long time indeed.

In the book, Stewart’s main character, Isherwood Williams, makes much of the fact that of the very few people who survived, very few of them have any talent or inclination to think beyond the immediate and they will rarely consider the future and the longer term consequences of today’s decisions.

Nothing’s changed. The evidence for and the information about the coming problems are laying out in plain sight but because they refer to things in the future and things that are far away, very few of us are interested. And like a great flock of sheep advancing upon a cliff and chewing on the grass just in front of our nose, we will go over the edge – and nearly everyone will be utterly surprised.

If you are interested in the coming problems, I recommend this book highly. You can file it in your collection of books on the coming apocalypse under ‘P’ – for poignant.

061222 – Friday – Book reviews…

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

I’ve just finished the last book in Peter Watts’ Rifters Trilogy. To say I like them would be an understatement. But, saying why I liked them is probably more relevant.

The trilogy consists of the following books:

Behemoth: B-Max
Behemoth: Seppuku

Now, how can a trilogy consist of four books? Well, when Watts wrote the third book of the trilogy, Behemoth, if ended up too long and the publishers forced him to divide it into two parts – strange but true.

If you can tolerate Science Fiction, then I highly recommend these books because they provide and excellent view into what our world’s future might look like. The story line, itself, is fictional and imaginative but the world he paints behind the story line is an excellent extrapolation of where today’s trends may well take us.

Like the better SciFi writers I’ve read in recent years, he has a background in science and the attitude of a generalist and these things deeply inform his work. He switches easily from biology to computer science to psychology and back again as he weaves.

I especially like the Notes and References section he includes at the end of these books. Many of the ideas he paints into his plot have a basis in the things science is revealing today.


A Book Report on Five Books

Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

I wrote a five-part book report for some friends in December of 2004. It reviews and compares the following five books.

What these books have in common is that they all, in one way or another, focus on the coming global ecological and climatological crisis and offer their author’s ideas for how we (humanity) should deal with these problems.

1. Plan B – Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble by Lester R. Brown

2. One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future by Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich

3. Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis – and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster by Ross Gelbspan

4. Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment by James Gustave Speth

5. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

This five-part book report can be found here…

Plan B 2.0 by Lester R. Brown now on-line

Saturday, July 1st, 2006

This excellent book, Plan B 2.0, which is a follow-on from Brown’s original Plan B which I reviewed here is now available on-line for free in the form of PDF files here.

I encourge everyone to read this book and to take to heart the warnings he issues. His concerns may seem like remote intellectual matters now but in not too many years, they will be in our back yards and they will have strong adverse effects on everyone of our lives.

Book – One with Nineveh by Paul & Anne Ehrlich

Saturday, June 17th, 2006

Yet, if humanity is to deal successfully with issues of population, consumption, and power, the governance of the world clearly needs to be reorganized.  Impractical?  Not at all; nothing could be more practical to do.  Unrealistic or even politically impossible?  Maybe.  Once again, nothing is bound to prove ultimately more impractical than ignoring the global maldistribution of power, since it is one of the main driving forces of the human predicament.  Corporate behavior, we have seen, is directly responsible for much of the deterioration of the human environment, has played a major role in the generation of resource wars, and is indirectly responsible for many of the world’s consumption patterns.   Corporations have begun to slip out of civilization’s control.  These fictional individuals, functioning as the tools of very real individuals and the governments they often control, are becoming a law unto themselves in their effects on Earth’s environmental systems.   Those who worry about the world being taken over by computer robots actually should have a more immediate concern.

      Paul Ehrlich
      Bing Professor of Populations Studies, Department of 
      Biological Sciences, Stanford University

The thing that most characterizes the Ehrlich’s book for me is their balance and depth, in that they touch on virtually every issue I’ve listed in the issues section.  They tackle all of the major issues and trace each to their causal roots with unblinking clarity.  Paul Ehrlich has been involved with these issues since he wrote The Population Bomb in 1968 and his long years of familiarity with the subject matter show in the completeness of this book.

The Ehrlichs begin by comparing where we are now in history with where Mesopotamia was just before it imploded from abuse of its formerly abundant natural resources.  Today, the area is a wasteland and we have a lot to learn from their hubris.

To my full review:

To the book at Amazon:


Book – Plan B by Lester R. Brown

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Plan B not only argues … for the restructuring of the economy, it points out why this needs to be done at wartime speed.  Time is running out.  Whereas historically we lived off the interest generated by the earth’s natural capital assets, we are now consuming those assets themselves.  We have built an environmental bubble economy, one where economic output is artificially inflated by overconsumption of the earth’s natural assets.  The challenge today is to deflate the bubble before it bursts.

Lester R. Brown
Founder and former President of The World Watch Institute
Founder and President of the Earth Policy Institute
Plan B, like the Ehrlich’s One with Nineveh, is a strongly balanced book written by an author deeply familiar with the subject matter.

In addition to discussing the global environmental crisis in great detail, Brown spends a good deal of time thinking about where the first environmental meltdowns are likely to occur and what effects they might have.  One area that concerns him is China with its 1.3 billion people.

To my full review

To the book at Amazon:

Brown has published an updated verion of his book called Plan B 2.0.

To the new version at Amazon:


Book – Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

 …it is worth repeating that climate change is not just another issue in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It is the issue that, unchecked, will swamp all the other issues.

                Ross Gelbspan
                Long time reporter for The Philadelphia Bulletin,
                The Washington Post and The Boston Globe
                Joint-Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Of the several authors I’ve read on the Climate Crisis, Gelbspan is the most sensationalistic and the least careful about the quality of his sources. He cites facts drawn from newspapers side-by-side with facts drawn from peer-reviewed publications. He is a reporter first rather than dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist and he is relatively new to the subject. One gets the impression that the facts he pulls together are organized as much to shock his readers as to educate them. He is passionate and even angry about his subject. He is honest, however – the facts and the general patterns of information that he provides are, indeed, the same facts and patterns that appear in the other books. But, unlike the others, he is obsessed with the goal of dealing with global warming and unconcerned with impartially telling both sides or in alienating anyone. Whereas other authors will murmur about the inertia of vested interests in the oil and coal industries, Gelbspan will point-blank call the same thing ‘crimes against humanity’. Whereas most of the others want to preserve their ability to work with the administration when necessary, and thus gently coax and chide it, Gelbspan doesn’t care and his recounting of the sequence and events of this and previous administration’s malfeasance on climate issues is brutally candid.
To the full review:

To the book at Amazon: