05 December 2007

Nanoconvergence: The Unity of Nanoscience, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science -- William Sims Bainbridge

I actually wrote a review of this on Amazon.com. That is how disgusted I was with this book. The problem is that the title was very enticing to me. I am extremely interested in the convergence of cognitive science, information technology and biotechnology. I suppose the concept of "nanoscience" interests me too, but the term is just so broad that I have trouble saying it without the quotes. I agree with many of the ideas in the book, although I could have written the entire intellectually interesting parts of this book in about 5 pages. The rest was fluff by a sociologist who really wishes he was smart enough to do real science. To the popular reader, he might seem like he actually knows what he is talking about, which is partially scary. The scariest part is that he is up near the top of the NSF, which basically shows how idiotic some of the people making political decisions are. Do not read this book if you can help it even though the title and the pretty cover picture make it seem so appealing. I hope to find some better book on the subject to recommend for this area of interest, but as of yet I do not know of one.

21 November 2007

A Tale of Two Cities -- Charles Dickens

One of those classics that I have always meant to read but just never did. Well, I finally did and I am only slightly sad that it took me so long. I have always loved the history of the French revolution and I did not realize how well this book portrayed this period of history. I highly recommend this book to anyone. The story is very engaging, with many interesting characters and a sufficiently interesting plot. The fact that this could be entirely true adds to the luster although it invariable is fiction. What I mean is that many of the events that seem so unlikely and implausible are but tame versions of the truth. Truly, history is stranger than fiction, but Dickens does a great job of mixing the history of this turbulent time with a brilliantly executed love story.

12 November 2007

Lieutenant Hornblower -- C.S. Forester

The second installment of the Horatio Hornblower series. I read the first one nearly 3 years ago and for some reason waited to read the next one. I really liked the first one but just never seemed to get around to reading the rest of the books in the series. This one did not disappoint either. It is a very quick read and quite simple in terms of language. The only difficulty comes from the use of 18th century nautical terms, however that is what makes it an interesting read. This book introduces the other character that I have heard is a recurring persona throughout the series, this is Lieutenant Bush.

I forgot how much I liked Horatio's character and personality. The contrast with Bush really brings this out. We see that Bush does not really want much responsibility and is much more content taking care of the mundane tasks that he has been ordered to do. On the other hand, Hornblower is ambitious and capable. I highly recommend this book along with all of the other Hornblower books. I have only read the first one, but I plan to finish the series at some point. Hopefully it just doesn't take another 3 years before I pick up number 3.

11 October 2007

Economic Theory and Cognitive Science: Microexplanation -- Don Ross

I finally finished this book. This was by far the most technical philosophy book I have ever read. I spent half my time looking words up that were not even in the dictionary, words that I had to use Wikipedia to understand. The read was definitely arduous, however there was a good deal of substance to this book. I have been looking for someone to lay out philosophical issues related to economics and the interface between economics and cognitive science. This book performs this task quite well. Furthermore, the author puts forth his own hypothesis for what is happening inside our brain and mind. My take on his point of view is that human brains are composed of groups of neurons; these groups can be modeled as straightforward economic agents. These modules of neurons play coordination games in order to arrive at a specific utility structure to implement at a given time for the human as a whole. Over time however, as these games play out, the human as a whole can not be represented as your average rational agent, in the pure economic sense of this term. Moreover, we use public language and external pressures to scaffold our knowledge to overcome the computational challenges that such a paradigm presents.

I personally find this hypothesis appealing and ultimately close to the truth. I would only recommend this book to a trained philosopher or someone who is willing to look up words in every other sentence. The author does not define words, he rather attempts to give them meaning through context, but this does not work well. The economics is actually rather light, meaning the formal structure is not necessarily there. I liked this book for its overall theme and the way it reviews many other areas of thought pertaining to this subject.

13 September 2007

Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics -- Paul W. Glimcher

A fascinating book about the relatively new science known as neuroeconomics. The main thesis of the book is "that the fundamental limitation which neurobiology faces today is a failure to adequately incorporate probability theory into the approaches we use to understand the brain." The book basically begins with a ground up explanation of the history of neuroscience and mathematics (extremely abridged). The examples throughout the book make the ideas from the past and the hypothesis proposed by the author quite easy to understand. The book even includes some interesting pictures that illustrate certain experimental situations.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the brain, decision making, history of science or who just wants to expand their knowledge of how the world works. It is written at a level accessible to almost anyone, but is very illuminating to one with a bit of formal training.

The Myth of Sisyphus -- Albert Camus

Although the actual "Myth" is only 5 pages long, the preceding 115 pages lays the groundwork and is actually the intellectual meat of this piece of work. Essentially this is an exposition of existentialist thought, wherein Camus presents his own hypothesis of the world and then works to justify his claim. The actual Myth of Sisyphus is basically the story of Sisyphus who was sentenced to eternal push a rock up a hill only to have to let it fall back down and repeat the task. Camus presents this story and uses it to demonstrate the ideas he has developed in the opening text. The book is actually a somewhat complicated piece of philosophy and was thus rough as a pleasure read. One interesting quote that I found particularly moving was, "Every man has felt himself to be the equal of a god at certain moments. At least, this is the way it is expressed. But this comes from the fact that in a flash he felt the amazing grandeur of the human mind." The next sentence I separate but still quote because quite fascinating. "The conquerors are merely those among men who are conscious enough of their strength to be sure of living constantly on those heights and fully aware of that grandeur."

In summary, I recommend this book for anyone who is willing to put in the time to re-read a majority of the book in order to get most of the meaning. It is not an easy read but it is, I dare say, the best piece of work describing existential philosophy. A philosophy that I do not subscribe to myself, but I find the viewpoint nonetheless interesting.

07 August 2007

Why Choose This Book? -- Read Montague

I am starting my PhD studies in the fall and I plan to focus my research along the lines of neuroeconomics, specifically optimal decision making under uncertainty from a neuroscience perspective. This book seemed to be the right thing to read for a general overview of what is known and what the open problems in the neuroscience field are. However, I was somewhat disappointed because of the overly general and simple tone of the book. It reminded me of Freakonomics in terms of composition. I suppose the book is written for the public and I know a little more than the public on this subject and wanted more detail so that could be the problem. Therefore, the book itself was good and presented a lot of interesting ideas. The main theme to me was that choice is a matter of valuation and cost. The brain is incredibly efficient at valuing choices and learning from the past and simulating the future. Therefore, reinforcement learning seems to model how the brain works. The author writes a lot about Turing and algorithms and how this applies to the brain. The whole book is interesting and recommended to non-experts or anyone looking for a quick and educational read.

The Bonfire of the Vanities -- Tom Wolfe

What can I really say about this book because I am not really sure if I enjoyed it. I know that sounds strange, but it was good at times and extremely boring at others. I had a lot of trouble because I did not identify with the weakness of the main character, at times I just wanted to slap him in the face. It was an interesting story that does show the weakness that is present in some of the people in power. It also does show some of the similarities that exist across socioeconomic situations where no similarities might seem to be present. I speak of some of the actions of the people in the Bronx relatively the people on Park Avenue and Wall Street, as presented in this book. I wouldn't recommend this book too highly, mostly because I found the ending to be so anticlimactic that I wanted to throw the book across the room when I turned the page and realized that was it. Other than that, it does provide a unique portrayal of some of the characters that exist in New York City, so it could be worth reading. The main problem is that it really just seems dated because it was written over 20 years ago and the world has changed a great deal since then. But all the same, the world has not changed that much and the book was worth the read to me because I see how little has changed in some areas even over two decades.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows -- J.K. Rowling

This one is pretty self-explanatory. I have been reading the Harry Potter books since the first one came out. I have enjoyed them all and this one did not disappoint. While seemingly large at nearly 760 pages, the print and her writing style allowed me to finish the final book in the series in a day. If you do not wish to spoil the ending I recommend you do not read the titles of all the chapters in the table of contents. Personally, I made that mistake and I felt like gave something away but not that much I suppose. I think that Book 6 was better and that Book 4 was the best, but in my opinion this one comes in 3rd. Thus, the order of books in terms of quality is: 4, 6, 7, 5, 3, 2, and 1. I obviously needed to read this book after reading the others, but I would recommend the entire series to anyone, young or old. Once you get past the fact that this is supposedly a children's book and that you must suspend some disbelief at times, the books are in fact very good. They are not classics of literature but they do weave an interesting tale and are worth giving a couple days to.

Freakonomics -- Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The picture is of the revised edition, I read the original edition of this book. After everyone telling me I should read this book and thus making me want to read it less, I was sitting around the house and it happened to be on my parents' bookshelf. So, I decided I would pick it up read it because it didn't look to long and the print was pretty big once I actually opened it. It took less than a day to read and was actually pretty entertaining. However, there are no deep truths in here or really anything too surprising. The central theme of the book seems to be that correlations exist all over in the world, but we must be careful not to confuse correlation and causation. To a scientist/mathematician/economist (I suppose that is what I am), this is an obvious point. But, people who have read this book still make that mistake because they just remember something about abortion, sumo wrestlers, teachers cheating, etc. They do not remember the fine details and hence commit the sin the book seems to be trying to prevent and start to say that X causes Y because they happen to be loosely correlated. I enjoyed the book as something quick and light. I would in fact recommended this book to those who did not study anything difficult in school, i.e. business majors, psychology majors, etc. To someone who knows a lot about the theory of regressions this book is just a nice little compiliation of interesting tidbits, but useless because most people I run into have either read the book or have been told all the little tidbits already.

The Fabric Of The Cosmos -- Brian Greene

Brian Greene has become one of my favorite authors because of the way he presents higher level physics to an inexperience audience, but still provides enough details in the footnotes to satisfy those of us with a little more mathematical training. I read his first book, "The Elegant Universe", when it came out a few years ago. This is a more complete work in my mind that covers almost everything in physics from Newton to the present. It really changed the way I think about certain physical systems that I had previously taken for granted. I have taken physics courses including quantum mechanics, and I have always thought that without the mathematics most of the meaning is lost and certainly it is usually harder for me to understand. However, in this book, several things were presented that I thought I already knew, but I saw them in a completely different light such that know I feel I have a much better understanding of what is going on. The future of physics, all science for that matter, is incredibly interesting and open for a wide variety of new ideas. This book opened my eyes to some of these ideas as well as explaining nearly all of the progress that has taken place so far. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the universe on a deeper level.

The Merchant of Power -- John F. Wasik

This was essentially a biography of Sam Insull, however it was more a biography of the electrification of Chicago and the world. I found this to be a fascinating book about the relationships that existed between some of the intellectual and financial giants of the late 19th and early 20th century. The most interesting part of the book is the fact that it sheds so much light on the importance and prominence of Sam Insull and yet he is all but unknown in popular culture. Many people know Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse, but have no knowledge of Insull. I found his rise to success and his continued drive throughout life to be somewhat motivational, for lack of a better term. His accomplishments were quite varied and he succeeded in almost everything he put his mind to. This book is also a tale of how government intervention and essentially jealously by lessor individuals ruined a great man. This is not unique to Sam Insull and it is sad to see, however it does provide a warning for future regualtion as well as a caution to up and coming inventors.