Adventures of a Computational Explorer

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Nov 2019

Member Reviews

First, I'm afraid that the graphics on my PC using Adobe Digital Editions were awful and spoilt some of the essays - said graphics were bizarrely shaped, over-wrote the text, had illegible text/legends and mixed up colours compared with what the text implied. Sadly the Cambridge North station design was one of these that suffered. "Data Science of the Facebook World" could have been fascinating if it weren't for those screwed-up graphics. However, it is pre-publication so I would hope that the electronic published version would have this sorted. The book is an autobiography and we certainly have his point of view such that it seems very few other people really helped him at all.  Some of the essays were excellent and interesting - especially the early stages of computing way back in the 80s. I well remember those days when I was a "big" user on the Cambridge University mainframe, being allowed 256k memory ("normal" users were allowed 128k). Ah, the days of ARPANET and JANET. The development of The Logo was interesting but does show that homework can be useful - how many hours could he have spent on other things if he'd chased a few Brazilian embroidery leads first? I laughed at the "Poetry of Functional Naming" - how true! "Advance of the Data Civilization.." - starts off well but then, to me, loses it with poor data which ignore all of Eastern Civilisations. These data may not change the overall effect but he does have a rather narrow minded view. Whilst it is true that the United States show activity before Independence and really takes of in the early 1900s are we surprised? It's a huge country with lots of people. However, he does not tell us what the data are, how he extracted them or anything that a scientist like me would like to see. For someone who has collected data about himself over his lifetime, almost anally it seems, there are some fun bits - how he has a treadmill set up with a keyboard and mouse so that he can walk and work and simply walk faster when he's "in" a tedious meeting. Like that one. Whether audio virtual meetings really are beneficial is doubtful to my mind as I'm not sure that you can properly concentrate upon a meeting whilst also reading emails and so on. Lots of people do it but perhaps meetings should be more focussed and relevant? .Under "My Desk Environment" I was infuriated not to find out how he avoided those piles of paper on his desk - part of an image of a man in trees with an orange something completely obliterated the text. I guess my piles might remain for a while. I totally agree with a pen and paper in the pocket (in my case pencil and small note-book) rather than totally relying upon technology.. His ponderings about filing struck all too real a note although the thought of scanning all of the old paperwork and putting into a digital database seems a) a waste of time and/or money and b) irrelevant. Why should I ever need to know what my 11 year old self wrote in Geography or Maths. Assuming his data survive long-term than I suppose people way in the future might get an idea of 1970s to whenever society. After all, archaeologists only have a very few pieces of jigsaw for their interpretations (2 stones in a line are two stones in a line but three stones in a line are a wall sort of thing). I sympathised with his having 5100 books arrive in scrambled order after a move and taking three days to sort. Only three days? I wish. We had something similar when we moved although the removals men grabbed blocks then filled around with odds and sods in the packing crates. Never computerised a catalogue of them, another missed aspiration, but we went for groupings by subject (with some "discussion") and then by author - sort of as some books were too big for a shelf and we wanted to make best use of shelving. I so sympathise with the red box of computer bits on p 263 (even if stretched and squeezed) - I have several under my desk at the moment, they may just come in handy sometime! He admits that he was precocious but never thought about it as such and that leads to what is, to my mind, one of the best paragraphs in the book "For me, at least, precociousness was a huge win. Because it allowed me to launch into adult life early - before whatever enthusiasm and originality I had was ground down by years of structured education". If more people could have the confidence or precociousness to retain their child self's enthusiasm for any subject society would be all the better for it. Overall an interesting if quirky read about the life of a man hypnotised by data collection, analysis and development. Thanks to NetGalley and Wolfram Media for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review and apologies for the long review, not my norm!
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Adventures of a Computational Explorer by Stephen Wolfram
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a TON to say about Stephen Wolfram, but for the sake of reviewing, I'll highlight. :)

I'm a fanboy. I mean, back in the day when I first saw Wolfram Alpha get released, I practically pooped myself. An all-round science tool that aimed to combine every known function in the world in one easy search bar that you can use real language with? I downloaded the hell out of it and squeed with joy that there were people like this in the world that would make things like this.

Everything that can be computed, in ONE PLACE. As much knowledge as possible, as broadly applicable as possible, available to everyone.

I mean, sure, it's bound to be buggy and a constant work in progress, but this is a pure repository of knowledge, man, and IT'S FREE. :) And it's not just about data, but about how to calculate reality. :) Yay!

Okay, peeps, I know this seems really geeky and all, and I agree. But Stephen Wolfram is a real-life hero. He's putting his prodigious mind into the problem of Everything. Language, Rosetta Stones for aliens, repositories of all knowledge, and working out the problems inherent in his Theory of Computational Equivalence and the Theory of Computational Irreducibility. (Put simply, nature does the same thing as well and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, writ large.)

It also means he's doing all the heavy lifting for an AI that will rule the physical world.

But fortunately, he's also been a real-life SF example of someone who has recorded and programmed, in the Wolfram programming language, every instant of his life, correspondence and thought process, including every keystroke he's ever made, every meeting he's ever been in, and he's now in a very unique position to be uploaded directly into the web, maintaining everything he is and every decision he's made, ready to combat said AI. :)

I joke, sure, but the reality of such a monumental undertaking is REAL. This book is an autobiography of sorts and he loves to share. I kinda wondered where he was going with a lot of it, but then I came up with my theory and so narrative consistency is resolved. :)

Fun fact! All those equations in the movie Arrival? Thank Stephen Wolfram's son. :) Both were consultants to make the math real. :) No BS. :) That's REAL STUFF, man! :)
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Adventures of a Computational Explorer is a delightful collection of essays on the life and work of Stephen Worlfram. Particularly interesting is the essay on how he contributed as a consultant to the movie Arrival.
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The basic message of both Stephen Wolfram’s new book and his life is that somehow, everything can be reduced to computation. This levels the playing field, gives researchers a clear path to follow, and in very many ways, is proving not only true, but advantageous. Adventures of a Computational Explorer is the Stephen Wolfram story, as seen through his work and discoveries. Fortunately, he loves to share. 

For example, his knowledge engine, Wolfram Alpha’s “goal is to take as much knowledge about the world as possible, and make it computable, then to be able to answer questions as expertly as possible about it.” It is a free online service tapping the knowledge of the world. A favorite example of its power is “What is flying overhead right now?”

He has learned to find ways to make theories applicable in far broader ways. “What I’ve come to realize … is that the same intellectual thoughts processes can be applied not just to what one thinks of as science, but to pretty much anything.” The result is creative thinking in science fiction, music, graphic design, search, analytics and productivity. For starters.

Wolfram lives in a meta universe somewhere above ours. He goes big. He is all about the universe of possible theories on any topic: the universe of possible languages for example, and even the universe of possible universes. His two main theories, from which everything he does derives are the Theory of Computational Equivalence and the Theory of Computational Irreducibility. The only thing missing is the single, simple, underlying theory of all physics, he says. He’s hoping we come up with that soon.

This is a man who has collected every spec of data on himself since 1980. It includes GPS location and steps, phone calls inbound and out, emails inbound (2.3 million) and out, every keystroke he’s ever made (7% are backspaces), every meeting he’s been involved in, onset time and length of phone calls… In total, he proudly claims to have 1.7 million files on himself. Of the 230,000 pieces of paper, most have been scanned and OCR’d, with the OCR text overlaying the image. When he goes to events, he wears a small camera above his ID badge. It takes a photo every 30 seconds, so he can remember everyone he met, everything he saw, and if they didn’t exchange cards, the name on the other person’s badge. “It won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is – and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before,” he says.

There are light moments too. On the launch date of Wolfram Alpha, the knowledge engine, someone asked about the world’s fastest bird, and the system replied: “A frozen chicken will reach 200 mph if you drop it from a plane.” 

There is a 40-page chapter explaining Spikey, the Wolfram logo. It is a rhombic hexecontahedron, if that helps. It has 60 sides, all of which are rhomboids in the golden ratio 1.618:1, making them golden rhombuses. Wolfram and his employees went through endless pages of examples they generated, looking for something unique, appealing and dramatic. For years, engineers worked on variations and refinements, and together they determined the ideal version, making it their unique logo. Then, they discovered it is called the giramundo and has been sewn together by women in Brazil for hundreds of years. 

The amount of effort that went into it is staggering, but it is no different than anything else at Wolfram. The name for the Wolfram computer language took three decades to determine. They examined how human languages get names, how computer languages get names, how words sound and feel, what images and associations they raise, how long they are, and on and on. Finding nothing that fit the bill, they settled on The Wolfram Language. After 32 years of research and meetings.

Wolfram the CEO is just as different a breed. His meetings are all livestreamed – publicly. Anyone can chime in, and dedicated employees will feed appropriate public comments to the participants for consideration. This is of course a brilliant tactic. It co-opts minds worldwide at no charge. And since Wolfram is one of the very few large corporations that really has nothing to hide, the light of day is not an issue. Much of the company’s great works become free websites, from Wolfram Alpha to Wolfram Tones, which lets composers generate new music themes through computational rules.

The company employs 800 very bright people around the world, and he is in constant touch through conference calls and e-mail. He doesn’t like video conferences because everyone should be able to multitask without seeming to not be paying full attention to the boss. Wolfram is the place you want to work.

It all amounts to a strange sort of autobiography. Wolfram describes how he thinks, how he works, and how he plays. His work is his play. It’s all he does, and he does it from home, visiting his office a few times a year. In the book, he devotes nearly 50 pages in one chapter to describe the infrastructure he has built for his own (prodigious) productivity. This goes as far as calculating the optimum speed on a treadmill so that no one will know he’s on a treadmill, as well as for optimum control of his laptop and mouse while on it. He keeps a small collection of ready-packed plastic bags filled for different functions, such as Trade Show or Office. Ready to grab and go. His desk computer has two screens, one private and one public that everyone can see on the livestreamed calls. In 400+ pages, his children are only mentioned insofar as they have occasionally contributed to his work. His wife is never named. It’s all about optimizing his personal productivity every waking minute.
It’s a remarkable book on a remarkable style, but it’s not a slam dunk. Wolfram simply repurposed articles and posts without editing. This means you get sentences that begin with “Just last week I …” which only make sense if you look up the date of the post under the title. He also assumes a fairly high level of knowledge, particularly about acronyms. You’re supposed to know what IUPAC and KVM stand for, because he won’t explain them. 

The book is delightfully filled with images. Many are screenshots that show what he describes in the text above them. But they are so small you must have a magnifying glass handy or you won’t see what he’s writing about, making the whole effort pointless. All the intricate graphics they generated and the words on the webpages are wasted. I hope the final version has the images in color, because my review copy was pure monochrome, useless when he indicates the gold bar means this and the brown bar means that. Interestingly, there are no links to online services or references for what he writes. And nothing in the book credits meetings or collaborations or even inspirations from other scientists (though a couple times he mentions employees who have dug deep). It’ all Wolfram all the time.

These quibbles aside, Adventures of a Computational Explorer is unlike any other autobiography, and a noteworthy addition to the canon.

David Wineberg
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Hoo boy, a lot of this went over my head completely. But the Arrival stuff was very interesting! lol
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This collection of essays (or blog posts?) was delightful to read. Most of them had at least one fascinating bit, and none of them were long enough to get boring. Wolfram seems like a moderate to pathological narcissist, but overall that didn’t get in the way too much. There was quite a bit of redundancy throughout the book, but rather than annoy, it served to strengthen the ideas in my head. In the eARC copy I received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, the images were basically unintelligible, but I bet they’re worth checking out too.
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This is an interesting collection of essay and thoughts about life and work written by a computer genius like Stephen Wolfram.
I liked the style of writing and it gave me food for thought.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.
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Adventures of a Computational Explorer by Stephen Wolfram is an immensely interesting collection of essays about the life and work of a fascinating person. Highly recommendable!
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