Even though it's published in 1999 the book is still useful today. I was reluctant to get it because I though it might be dated. He really does explain the human genome better than anything I've read. The book was a necessary background to educate me about all of this talk I've been hearing about the human genome. Some of his assertions haven't held up since the publication of the book, but don't let that dissuade you from reading this highly informative book.
This book is biography for how we got to the current internet age and all the major steps that took to get there. The author starts the story with Lady Ada Loveless and Charles Babbage's analytical machine up to the development of the internet. That's the problem. There's just too many good stories to tell and the author seldom gets into the nuts and bolts of the story leading the listener wanting more.
As in any good narrative of a biography there needs to be some themes that tie the stories together. The author pretty much tries to tie his story together with a couple of themes, "execution trumps creativity" and "cooperation leads to creation".
In general, biographies don't excite me. They deal with personalities and superficiality. The author's biography on Einstein is the one exception. The author not only taught me about Einstein the man, but what his work was all about. He explained the physics (in that biography) even better than Brian Greene does when he was talking about how Brian Greene explained the physics. Unfortunately, in this book the author seldom gets into details. A couple times he did get into the weeds. His section on Lady Loveless was marvelous and she becomes a recurring character in the book. I only wish he had explained what all the other characters were creating instead of what they did.
I think there are much better books out there that cover the same kind of material better and I would recommend them instead. I would start off with the wonderful book "The Master Switch" by Tim Wu. It delves into why Google is so important and how it got that way much better than this book does.
In general, I much prefer nonfiction books because they make you understand each of the pieces that go into the whole system in order to understand the big picture. This book is better than nonfiction because it makes you understand holistically in order understand the pieces.
Ostensibly, this book is about a concierge in a fancy condominium in Paris hiding her intellectual true nature in order to blend in as invisibly as possible. The real theme of the book is along the lines of "is there meaning to life or are we just an accident of the universe". The author brilliantly interjects philosophical lines of thought into the story by clever interactions with the characters and some digressions. The ending surprised me, and not to give a spoiler of any kind, after having listened to it, I realized that was the only ending possible.
I need to broaden my horizon and stop listening to mostly just science, technology, history and philosophy books, and find more books as good as this one because they challenge the listener even more while simultaneously elucidating the listener.
It's our curiosity that drives us. Our curiosity is the best refutation to the Myth of Sisyphus and to what is the purpose of life. Our curiosity makes us different from all other animals and it keeps us engaged. Sometimes our purpose in life can be as mundane as the conclusion to your favorite comic book serial or as complex as to knowing if the discovery of the Higgs boson implies that the multiverse is real? We just have to know the answer or to better understand the question.
This book steps the listener through all of the steps needed for understanding about curiosity. Puzzles are questions with answers and they are the stepping stones to mysterious which sometimes lack answers to things which may not be knowable. Knowledge must first have a foundation from which to build from. The harder it takes to learn something the more likely that knowledge will last. The more you know the easier it is to acquire more and put the pieces together for wisdom.
From the knowledge we build on, we learn to synthesize and become creative. Sherlock Holmes was exactly wrong when he used to say his mind was like a filing cabinet and he didn't want to store it with too much useless information. It's that useless information that we have that gives us more connections and which can make us creative.
The book is an enjoyable listen. It helps the listener put the pieces together that we need in order understand why we are curious and leads to even more awe for wanting to know more and ultimately could even lead one to listening to more science books. The author has a coherent system about curiosity and shares it with the listener.
Who would have thought a series of essays written by multiple scientific experts could have been as spell tingling as this book was? I know I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Part of the reason this book works so well is because none of the essays are that recent. We've learned a lot in the past two years for which the authors with their wild speculations at the time were not aware of.
Two things the current reader should be aware of before listening to these essays. 1) The Higgs Boson is real and is at 125 Giga Electron Volts which is half way between the string theorist wanted (115 GeV) and what the multi-universe supporters expected (144 GeV), and 2) Gravitational waves have probably been found and if that is true Inflation Theory has more support than the authors of the essays realized at the time.
For most of the essayists, I've read their books for which they are going to write or have written at the time they wrote the essays. The essays cover the subject matter of their books fairly well, and you can save yourself from reading 25 or so books by listening to these essays. (The one exception is the essay by David Deutsch. He's talking about something beyond anything in his books).
You get two things with this book. You get an incredible interesting exposition on the workings of the mind (consciousness) and a narrative that ties that story together by showing how mirror neurons almost certainly aren't what you thought they were.
The author does not reject the existence of mirror neurons in humans, but he does poke holes in most of what you probably have been told about them in a host of other books and articles. He gives very nuanced arguments to how the available data doesn't always mean what mirror neuron experts say they do. The author is an expert in the understanding of how we communicate. He'll delve into the "motor theory of speech" and how that deservedly fell out of disrepute over time and was resurrected only because that gave mirror neurons such a central role. The results of various experiments supporting that hypothesis are not always best explained by the ways mirror neuron advocates claim and sometimes they ignore the better explanations.
This is a real strength of the book. While showing how better explanations for the experiments and data are available which don't excessively rely on mirror neurons the author never shies way from educating the listener on the embodied processes of thinking.
I love neuroscience and books about the workings of the mind and human behavior. While reading such books, mirror neurons kept popping up in sections of those books, but over time, I started to realize that the advocates for the magical workings of the mirror neurons did not always make sense and there seemed to be better explanations available. This book tells me why my caution radar was beeping.
I'm sure a lot of experts in the field probably hate this book, but I can recommend this book because it will teach the listener to be cautious about mirror neuron claims, and help the listener learn a little bit more about the way the brain works without overwhelming the listener with too many names of brain parts which I only end up forgetting.
From the first page onward, this book never lets the listener down. Sometimes I hated to pause the story because it was getting so exciting and other times the story would make me laugh out loud. The ensemble of characters investigating the anomalies became like a family to the observer of the story and consequently the listener feels as if he is part of the family too.
If your looking for something strictly for entertainment, this story can fill the bill.
How special are we? We no longer consider ourselves the center of the universe, but we are in a fortuitous place and time for understanding our place in the universe, and complex life can exist at the nexus of order and chaos at least we have one data point.
Most of the current thought about our place in the universe rest on false premises and incorrect conclusions. This book gently takes the listener through the step by step process necessary in order to think about the problem in the most correct way. We generally make two kinds of a error in thinking about the problem 'a priori' and 'a posteriori' errors, before the fact and after the fact. (Did you know that most biographies on Thomas Bayes start off with the statement "he was probably born in 1701", funny stuff and this book will tell you why that kind of thinking is needed to understand our place in the universe).
There our subtle faults in most fine tuning arguments and purely probabilistic arguments for calculating life such as the Drake's Equation (though, I don't think the author used the eponymous equation by name). The author looks at both the telescopic and microscopic data we have, and for example delves into the Prokaryotic (simple single cell) merging into a Eukarotic (complicated single cell, the building block of complex life) and how unusual such an event really is.
This book is full of cool ways of thinking about the problem. I did not realize how unstable our solar system is and how our current epoch or order within our solar system will almost for sure not last for more than 10 million years or so. The planets orbits aren't stable and the three body problem's solution is always robust (sensitive to initial conditions). The architecture we have to observe leads to how we understand, and the better our tools the better are data becomes.
The author is just a good science writer. His books should be read by a larger audience, because he really does explain science that well. The author doesn't answer the question whether or not we are the only complex life in the universe, but he teaches the listener how to think about the problem so as not to make the common errors in thought while thinking about the problem.
There's a revolution going on around big data and this book explains it better than any other that I've read so far. The author explains how data is cataclysmic (like a flood), how it is changing the way we can study the world, and what are some of the kinds of conclusions we can draw about people by analyzing the data correctly.
Today is a social scientist's dream world. We can learn things about how individuals (or segmented groups) behave unlike any other time before in history and our abilities to understand our networks, desires and motivations are just waiting for some behavioral scientist (or even more nefariously an evil corporation or a corrupt government) to fully analyze the data trail we leave behind. Instead of guessing about human nature we are in a position to know about our behavior (at least for people up to the age of 50!, post 50 year olds aren't always fully represented in the datasets).
There is one warning about this book for audible listeners. Of all the books I have listened to this one handled tables and graphs the least effectively. Note to author: take a minute or two and re-write the graphs and tables with the audio version in mind. Sometimes the narrative got lost in reading a table out loud. I could follow the conversation, but it got deadly boring at times.
This book reminds me of a Gladwell book or Freakenomics, but is much better because it never strays from the data and never lets the model under discussion stray to far from what the data (reality) is really saying. The real strength of this book is not so much the specific examples he gives in the book, but it acts as a guide to how a smart person can change the data from just a bunch of messy information, to organized data, then to knowledge and then finally wisdom.
Very good fiction can be better than non-fiction at explaining your place in the universe and this book does just that by considering the life and times of just one character, William Stoner. There's not much to his story but for those of us who have had a fairly mediocre life (and who embrace that mediocrity) Stoner's story helps us understand ourselves just a little bit better. It's good to see that university politics never change over time. The stakes are so small making the professors ever more vicious.
As for the narrator, he made the events come alive and at times I felt as if I were alive in the early part of the last century while being transfixed by the story and the storyteller.
The hard question is "what is consciousness". In the past we had Leibniz's monads and Descarte's homunculus unsatisfactorily explaining consciousness. 'Cogito ergo sum' gave western thought the mistaken impression that there is a single self inside the brain. The author suggests another path for understanding the hard question namely gaining self awareness (of our non-existence) through meditation from which one can discover the illusion of the self which leads the individual to 'enlightenment' and the realization that the 'self' does not exist.
The author puts his spiritualism without mysticism in to context by reasonably looking at how we think about thinking and gives the listener just enough names of the brain parts without overwhelming the listener, and all the time supporting his path to self understanding by learning to first deny the self.
In the end the author thinks that the denial of self leads to a greater understandings about who we are and that a guru or some selective use of drugs will help the listener achieve enlightenment and lead to a more ethical person with greater appreciation for life. As for me, I think I'll continue learning about the universe by looking outside of myself and use reason, coupled with empirical data (induction) and properly constructed models and seek enlightenment that way and not get a guru or use drugs and spend too much time thinking about denying myself through meditation and self reflection.
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