Adventures of a Computational Explorer

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Nov 2019

Member Reviews

I’ve been mulling over this review for a while now, and have to conclude that I’m still pretty much on the fence about this collection of essays and articles.

On the one hand, it makes no doubt that the author is a smart and clever person, with such an insatiable curiosity for a lot of things, and this for his whole life, that in itself, his writing is lifting and passion-inducing. I was absolutely fascinated, with the first essay, where he chronicles his participation to the “Arrival” movie (he was asked to come up with plausible science to use during certain scenes), partly because I liked this movie, and partly because I love physics even though I don’t have an actual scientific background.

On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be any thread truly linking these articles, and I felt more like I was grabbing posts at random from a blog, some of which (like the one above) were really exciting, and some others I had no interest about. (I’ll be very honest and say that I couldn’t care less about his filing system, for instance, or statistics about his e-mail activity habits…) Because of the originally standalone nature of these “chapters”, there was also a lot of repetition and overlap, such as the many mentions to Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha. Again, on a blog with updates at different times, it’s OK, but as a book, it didn’t work so well. The whole, in the end, felt more “promotional”, where I had expected (and wanted) something that would appeal more to the computer/science geek in me.

Conclusion: had more of the “chapters” been on the level of the first one, I would definitely have liked this collection much more.
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Stephen Wolfram collects various articles, presentations and memoir accounts from his life of enjoying physics, disliking maths, and designing computers so he doesn't have to do the math. If you know who he is and have used Wolfram Alpha you might enjoy this book more; if you have not, well, this man's firm invented the popular Raspberry Pi. 'Nuff said. (Earlier this year I was in a draw for a Crow Pi, don't think I got it though.)

The book contains many photos, drawings and diagrams; unfortunately less than a quarter of them were viewable by me in the Net Galley download. I am sure the generally accessible standard I saw is maintained. A few chapters do get into complex equations, but we can skip those and get on with seeing how this man organises his business day. The fact that the book aims for two markets and isn't all that cohesive, but spends much time on the development of a 3-D logo or deciding the words for the name of a new tool, mean that I won't give five stars, but some readers will undoubtedly find the contents fascinating. 

I downloaded an e-ARC from Net Galley. This is an unbiased review.
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This compilation of essays, blog posts and speeches is great reading for the curious reader and rewards the attention of those who come to it from Stephen Wolfram's earlier New Kind of Science or Idea Makers titles.   

For anyone who watched all three episodes of the Netflix documentary "Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates", that  Bill Gates' life story and kept tuning in, this compilation from Stephen Wolfram dares to go a couple steps further.  Wolfram's curiosity and problem-solving mind makes reading along fun. 

Some chapters, like the one on personal productivity, give the reader a glimpse of the "man behind the computation".   From an illustrated look at Wolfram's filing solution [spoiler: yes, it's like a mailbox slot], to a way to take a walk in the woods with your laptop .  On Wolfram's blog (writings.stephenwolfram.com) you can get a taste of how fun it is to think inventively reading his companion post "Seeking the Productive Life"  on which the chapter is based .   There you'll see him out on the trails getting in his steps with a cigarette-girl style walking desk,  and keeping up with the world with his laptop perched on a stadium hawking tray-type apparatus at the same time .  

Wolfram shares with the reader the notion that " the same intellectual thought processes can be applied not just to what one thinks of as science, but to pretty much anything. And for me there’s tremendous satisfaction in seeing how this works out."   Indeed! And, Adventures of a Computational Explorer lets the armchair traveler have a front row seat . 

If you're trying to decide which edition, especially for gift-giving, the illustrations are part of the information AND part of the fun with this book.  I found them to be easier on the eye in the print edition than the e-book. 

I would like to thank NetGalley & Stephen Wolfram, LLC for providing an e-copy & reviewer's print copy for use in the preparation of an honest review.
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An incredibly interesting collection of observations, essays, notes etc about the work of Stephen Wolfram - a physicist, computer scientist & all round geeky nerd who is passionate about what he does & his philosophy that somehow, everything can be reduced to computation.
I really enjoyed the section on his input into films - its this scientific input to a film that makes it believable & realistic for the viewer - even if they don't realise it! 

This book isn't so much an autobiography, but an insight into a scientific mind - a piece of research, a snapshot into his life ... It's a hard book to describe but one that is fascinating to read, and a great read for the geek in your life!

Disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of this book free via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
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TL;DR

Stephen Wolfram’s Adventures of a Computational Explorer swings wide from a movie set to the design review process to a memoir in the form of data analytics. This collection is for anyone interested in computational sciences, AI, and fans of Mathematica. Recommended.

Review

Back in my undergrad days, before I transferred to an engineering school, I studied pre-engineering in the physics department of Eastern Illinois University. While there, I got a chance to help a professor with his research, which involved learning Mathematica, a technical computational software. I don’t remember any of what I learned, but it made an impact on me. It had an easy user interface with an ability to make some amazing graphs. Mathematica introduced me to 3D graphs. While waiting for the movie Arrival to release, I read an article that Stephen Wolfram was consulting on the film. I knew exactly who he was because his software made such an impact on my life despite only a few months of using it. When the opportunity to review his latest collection of essays came up, I jumped at the chance. Adventures of a Computational Explorer delivered on all my expectations.

Disclaimer

The publisher, Wolfram Media, provided a free copy of this ebook in exchange for an honest review.

Adventures of a Computational Explorer

Stephen Wolfram’s collection of essays explores scientific computing in a number of ways. The book discusses his interests with a lot of nods to the Wolfram family of products. One of my favorite essays discussed the art of naming functions. (I struggle with this when writing my own programs.) Another was a sort of memoir using personal data analysis. The essays cover a lot of ground from cellular automaton to distributing time capsule beacons around the universe to artificial intelligence. Each gives a fascinating look into Wolfram’s curiosity. The collection shows the breadth of Wolfram’s interests and the depth of his knowledge.

The essays reminded me of blog posts more than narrative articles. They are dense, information packed, and worth a slow, deliberate read. The ideas come at the reader fast and in multitudes. Many of these ideas were unfamiliar to me, and I learned a ton reading this book. While we all know that science, math, and computers are huge subjects, it’s always weird to encounter areas that one is not familiar with.

Because it’s by Stephen Wolfram, a number of Wolfram Research’s products grace the pages. While I didn’t keep track, I’m pretty sure there’s multiple mentions on each page. It did slow down my reading a bit as it felt like an extended commercial for Wolfram products. But I kept in mind that he’s just discussing his life’s work.

Innovative Ebook

There was a lot in this book that I didn’t understand; luckily for me, links litter the text. They point to the Wolfram Alpha website. While not all were helpful, I liked this feature. It slowed the flow of the text but actually sped up my reading because I didn’t have to search on my own. This has differed from a lot of the scientific reading I’ve done lately, and I appreciate the links.

By adding the links, it creates a better view of the author’s intent. It allows less room for misinterpretation. This makes it easier to research more in-depth or search for alternate points of view.

The Creation Process

I enjoyed how Wolfram approaches his products from naming a function to design reviews. He covers the creation process from the micro to the macro when it comes to his products. Creativity is an important aspect of science, but it’s rarely discussed. What exactly does it mean to be creative as a scientist? Wolfram addresses the creative process in Adventures of a Computational Explorer.

I liked learning that he is still involved in the design reviews. It shows that after all these years the passion for the product is still there. The first essay documents his time as a consultant for the movie Arrival. [Excellent movie based on the short story Story of Your Life. Both movie and short story are worth your time.] The look behind the scenes at his contributions showed his work ethic and how he creates ideas to fit an existing paradigm. The iterations between the science and the story provide a good look at Hollywood’s process.

Conclusion

Stephen Wolfram’s Adventures of a Computational Explorer gives insight into the creator of Mathematica and the driving force behind Wolfram Research. The essays are technical, challenging, yet interesting. Recommended for science readers.

7 out of 10!
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Such an interesting book about Stephen Wolfram - computers, tech and world views all blended into one.  I really enjoyed this one!
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Book Review: Adventures of a Computational Explorer by Stephen Wolfram

This book is a collection of essays, journal pieces, and speeches that Stephen Wolfram has written over the past several decades. It functions as a memoir and an autobiography of his life and what has motivated him to start and continue his work of applying computational principles to every conceivable field. It is a fascinating window into the thought processes one of the brilliant minds of our time. 

Although the book is meant to be written for a general audience, some of the concepts and technical details could be difficult to follow. What helped was that (at least in my review e-book) numerous hyperlinks were provided that would open up a browser to a relevant site where I could get more details about the subject matter. 

At times I felt that the writing was repetitive and tedious, especially with the near constant references back to Stephen’s prior and ongoing projects. To me, it felt like almost reading a sales and marketing copy of his offerings. Perhaps that is what happens when individual writing pieces spanning many years are all collected verbatim into one place. 

If the reader can get past that, the book offers very interesting insights into how the practice of computation intersects with so much of even daily life. For example, the opening chapter of the book relates how Stephen’s computation algorithms ended up in the movie Arrival. But computation doesn’t just end with mathematics or the “hard” sciences. It goes into linguistics, sociology, anthropology, music, art, and pretty much every part of what we know as this universe. There is a good deal of history in this book about computation, programming, and software development in the latter 20th century up to the present day. Those who have been a part of that history (as I have been) might find resonance with the vignettes found within these pages.

The takeaway of this book for me is the importance of multidisciplinary work and approach. Solutions to difficult life and world problems aren’t often found in a single disciple, but across disciplines and at their intersections. In the final entry in this book, Stephen addresses high school graduates and speaks about how there are centuries of experience in educating people in narrow fields. What is important isn’t always specific knowledge in a field, but general approaches. Computational methods and tools can be one of them. But I believe that in the end, it is the person who knows how to utilize approaches and tools from a wide variety of fields and disciplines who will find the most success. That is the message I received from this book.
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Rating: 2/5
Source: eARC from Netgalley for review
Genre: Essays
Pages: 421
Publication Date: October 15 2019


Blurb: A pretty random assortment of essays, speeches and blog posts by Stephen Wolfram, the inventor of Mathematica and things like Wolfram Alpha and voice recognition used in Siri.

Overall impression: I'm not a fan of all the arrogance, but even beyond that it's not great. Some interesting ideas.

The Good

There was an interesting chapter doing data science on Facebook data, looking at the clusters of people's friend networks and at lots of different parameters like the amount of people saying they were single, in a relationship, engaged, married, separated and widowed by age. His chapter looking at the personal analytics of his life over decades was also quite interesting, though I thought it must be an intense security risk having all his keystrokes logged and sending stats about himself automatically to his email every day. Assuming he cares about people knowing, I suppose.

He had an interesting point about purpose and how to recognise man-made or alien-made objects, saying that the way we recognise things as purposeful depends on our particular societal history. He said there are some things that are computationally irreducible, where to figure out what happens you just have to follow it along every step, and that traditionally humans have only produced things where we understand the outcome, but that in future we can search the computational universe of possible solutions and select things that work even if we don't know how - like many biological features that we would never be able to invent from nothing but that nonetheless do work. I guess that's sort of a neural net approach.


The Bad

The cockiness is insufferable. Yes, it seems like he is in fact very smart with his PhD at 20 and Eton-Oxford-Caltech and all that, but did we really need to go through him finding the exact day he got his PhD to see that he is still the record-holder for youngest Physics PhD? I feel like as you get older you're supposed to stop making things about you and start making them about the ideas. He sounds iike he might be a proper nerd and not just an asshole but man, how do you come across so arrogant in your own book? He also keeps promoting Mathematica/Wolfram Alpha/Wolfram Language etc, and while it was interesting to learn about abilities they have that I didn't know about, it was a bit much.

Some of the chapters I really just had to wonder why on earth they were included. In particular:

an entire long chapter about the many options they considered for naming their programming language - ending in just naming it after himself!
a chapter or two about naming functions for Mathematica and how it's like poetry
a whole chapter about his personal file system, complete with a picture of the icons currently on his taskbar and of his primary-school Geography homework. I just didn't need to know the details of his folders, I really didn't.
The details of his personal productivity infrastructure, like how he sets up his laptop with an iPad for presentations and how he runs work calls. 
There was just so much stuff that it seemed utterly egomaniacal to include and think the general public would be interested in. 

Some other chapters I didn't like were probably more just not my thing, like the chapter digging into polyhedra.

It's also largely stuff he's already published elsewhere, so I'm not sure why you'd buy it. Perhaps if you were a Wolfram fan already? That's something that bewilders me about why this was put on Netgalley for review: if your goal is to get good reviews and you already have so many fans who love your work, why not just send ARCs to them? Especially since it seems to be published by his own company.

This is especially the case because a lot of this doesn't seem intended for a general audience. He keeps referencing physics problems I don't know and never explaining them, and I am doing a science degree so I know more about it than the general public. Some of the ideas sounded interesting, like the Principle of Computational Equivalence (seems to be about how simple patterns can end up constructing extremely complex or computationally irreducible things so sophisticated results don't imply complex patterns, which apparently means that beyond a low threshold all intelligence is as good computationally and we can't use complex patterns to infer inteligence), but he didn't explain them properly so it was a waste. I think it's set out in a 1300-page book he spent a decade writing, A New Kind of Science, but if you're going to keep referencing something I don't think it makes sense to expect people to have read a different 1300-page book. You should at least call it a sequel.

He also had a weird bit implying Africans and 'Amerindians' didn't historically use fabric...?

Finally, many of the pictures were impossible to make out on my iPad.

In summary: This was a book by someone who seems to think everything he thinks and does is fascinating, and not the book about the ways we can think about things computationally I thought it was
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For anyone who hasn't come across Stephen Wolfram he is the highly successful CEO of his own company, probably best known for Mathematica software.

This collection of essays and talks is not an easy read (unless you have a deep understanding of physics) but you should not let that put you off.

The ideas and reflections are never less than interesting and at times inspiring. For example, the synthesis of quantum physics, mathematics and cellular automata and their application to the possible understanding of the origins of this universe (and the possibilities for others) make for a mind bending and inspiring proposition.

I found this book better approached as a discrete series of ideas to be read and digested slowly rather than at one sitting. Use this approach and you will be rewarded with mind food for the long term.
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I was very pleasantly surprised with this read.  I received an invite to read and honestly review "Adventures of a Computational Explorer".  Before accepting, I first read the bio and background of the author, Stephan Wolfram.  I was expecting a dry, monotonous and boring book solely about coding and computer tech.  I was concerned, since my interests lie more in physics and mathematics - come to find out I hit the jackpot with Mr. Wolfram's book.  The author was educated in physics and has a love for all things science and problem solving (hence the computer tech).  The book was quite animated and well written..  His series of stories/writings were well researched. He took each subject and crafted a very logical and easy to read compilation.   I am very thankful to have received the invitation to read and review the book, because I probably would not have read it otherwise; thinking it would have been too heavy on the computer science side.  There was plenty of science, physics and computer information for all who engage in these genres of reading.  

I highly recommend buying the E-Book version.  There are many links embedded in the body of the book that take to to areas of much more significant depth on the given subjects.  Truly this is a book within a book.  I appreciate any book that expands my mind and clarifies thought process - "Adventure of a Computational Explorer" definitely fulfilled that role.  If you are interested in computer tech., Physics and science give this book a read it discusses all and brings them all together very well,
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As somebody who considers herself a creative thinker, Adventures of a Computational Explorer was an incredible read. Composed of interesting, insightful, and intellect challenging ideas written in essay form. I was absolutely captivated by the range of ideas introduced, the process of computational thinking, and AI ethics. Where Liebniz was two centuries or more too early with his concept of a universal language, Stephen Wolfram is right on time. There is a lot about this book I found to be very interesting while also being informative. 

This is my first time reading a book by Mr. Wolfram and also my first time reading so thoroughly a book composed of essays about computational thinking and language creation. That being said, I could still understand the fundamental concepts and ideas written about enough to appreciate them. So much so I have found myself with a desire to read more of this author's work. Understanding mathematics came late to me in my life as I completed degrees in finance and business. Once you understand mathematics you understand so much, maybe everything, about the universe. Adventures of a Computational Explorer is a narrated journey into the author's ideas, curiosities, lifelong work in the fields of mathematics, computer science, and theoretical physics, and more.  

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thinking outside the box, is curious, likes to be challenged, enjoys science,  AI, physics, theory--this book really and truly is for everyone. 
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for allowing me to read and review Adventures of a Computational Explorer by Stephen Wolfram.
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Stephen Wolfram’s latest book “ Adventures of a Computational Explorer” captures the essence of his intellectual journey as an expert in computation in all its forms. Who would buy this book? Clearly users of Mathematica such as me ( I started out with version 2.0) are an obvious source of interest but anyone with an interest in the technology that underpins much of modern life can get something from reading the book. Because the book  is a series of articles there is some repetition and lack of overarching editorial control, and continued references to Wolfram’s massive tome  “A New Kind of Science” will be lost on some readers.  Of course he plugs Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha and he is entitled to do so. He has a lot to be proud about.

Wolfram reminds me a little of Jim Simons, a world class Princeton mathematician (the Simons in “Simons-Chern theory”) who established a highly successful hedge fund called Renaissance Technologies  which made him immensely wealthy. He and Wolfram both get their hands dirty with the technical details. The book reveals all sorts of snippets about Wolfram’s daily habits over the years, like how at one stage he banged out 1000 lines of C code a day. He reveals details about his personal filling system and how he still has over 850,000 emails he’s written over the last 30 years and the 2.3 million mostly non-spam emails has has received. This is nerdy detail but it gives you an understanding of how someone who was a creator of something highly technical also transitioned to be a remote CEO of a company employing 800 people. You can listen to Wolfram discussing issues with staff via his live streams here: www.stephenwolfram.com/livestreams.  There is not much an employee could get past him!

To really understand this book you have to get into the Wolfram mindset which is a computational one.  His 2002 book “A New Kind of Science” actually received equivocal reviews.  One of the reasons for this I believe stems from where Wolfram sits in the world of mathematics and physics.  In mathematics it is said there are problem solvers (like Erdos) and theorem builders (like Langlands) and in physics there are experimental and theoretical physicists.  Wolfram straddles both of these classifications. His motivating intellectual force is that computation is basic and it leads to useful abstraction. Simple computational rules can give rise to immensely complex structure. He is clearly right. Those who study Ramsey theory have no problem with this concept.  One of the delicious intellectual dimensions of debates about “intelligent design” is a counterfactual argument that the complexity of life is “impossible” without some divine intervention. Wolfram’s work in “A New Kind of Science” might suggest otherwise. 

The way to approach the current book is to go with the flow or equivalently view it as a computation and replicate all the steps.  It starts with Wolfram’s role in giving scientific input into “Arrival”, a movie about alien contact. For the Mathematica aficionados there is Mathematica code to enliven the story. Wolfram’s use of Mathematica is really fundamental - when confronted with a problem he scopes  the intellectual limits of what is physically possible (something he is quite able to do) and then he hits the keyboard to do some computations to see where that takes him.  It is all transparent.  This is what the did in “A New Kind of Science” - the footnotes with detailed code snippets could have been a book in  themselves. The point is that he invites you in - anyone can have a go. His is not a closed intellectual shop. When you read these essays watch how Wolfram abstracts various propositions. You can see the indefatigable programmer working. He actively invites you to take part and provides you with the tools to do so. Every time someone uses Siri they are in fact using the fruits of Wolfram’s algorithmic loins!

Wolfram is an entrepreneur with a true philosophical core, unlike Elon Musk who strikes me as a big picture person you would not let loose on his own on something  highly technical that you really wanted to work.  There is a lot behind Wolfram’s statement that “there is no bright line behind intelligence and mere computation” and his other comment that “in future a smaller and smaller fraction of human-created technology will be recognisable and understandable”. His references to the Principle of Computational Equivalence must be understood in the context of the theory of Turing machines, Godel’s theorem and related theory. We live in an age of data and its manipulation ( with that word connoting neutral and negative senses ) and Wolfram has been at the forefront of developing the technology to deal with vast mountains of different types of data.  The development of Mathematica reflects this via its machine learning algorithms, connections to Facebook and much more.  Wolfram shows how Facebook data can be used to draw inferences - as always he demonstrates the use of the technology he developed. There are many examples of how he applies the technology to his daily life: keystrokes per day, the probability he is one the phone and so on  - it is all there.

I loved the little personal gems about Wolfram’s life such as Steve Jobs’ role in the naming of Mathematica, Roger Penrose’s registration card for Mathematica, references to Sergey Brin, how Mathematica was used in the space station and what happened when Wolfram defended his PhD thesis. Nerdy stuff, sure, but if you are into technology you will like it.

I enjoyed reading the book and if you are interested in technology I think you will too, but be prepared to think.
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I am a casual user of WolframAlpha, so when I saw this title I thought it would be an interesting way to learn about how it was created, used and who the people behind it were.  The content turned out to be a bit of a rabbit hole however.  I do believe that authors should attempt to cater to the audience they are trying to connect to.  However, I also think that readers have a responsibility to pursue content that is within the scope of what they are looking for and can realistically process.  I will therefore rate this book from the standpoint of what I suspect is the real target audience of this book, and from the view of a reader a bit more conversant with the content provided.  Hence my rating of 4 stars.

To truly appreciate this book, I think that you have to enjoy mathematics, computational analysis, computers and some physics, and be reasonably conversant with Wolfram Alpha, The Wolfram Language and maybe some of Mathematica.  If you are that type of reader then I think you will enjoy the insights given by the author about these topics, how they were developed and used and who the writer is and how he developed all these clever tools.

Stephen Wolfram is no doubt a very intelligent and insightful person.  His writing style however is quite granular - again probably not an issue for the right audience.  The book is really a collection of what appear to be articles or blog posts.  As such, one of the things I would probably have suggested as a way to maybe facilitate understanding, is attempting to organize the material into themes or a progression of ideas.  The way it is currently set up, it comes across as a stream of consciousness on a variety of topics that are connected only by computational analysis and the Wolfram ecosystem.  The content is not even laid out in a chronological sequence.

The actual topics vary in engaging the reader.  Once again the type of reader will react differently.  For example, I found the section on consulting for the movie Arrival and communicating with aliens interesting because it was written in a more non-technical manner.  However, I found the section on the corporate Wolfram logo (Spikey) so granular that I honestly skipped about half of it.  I am sure it was a lot of work, was very meaningful to those that worked on it, and probably to mathematicians and programers.  Just not for me.

I am glad I read this book.  It was interesting.  Parts were very engaging for me.  But it has taught me the value of researching up front what the content really entails.  Pick your lanes and everyone will be happier.  I may have missed the book summary that is usually found on the back side of physical books.  I do not know what it says/will say, but I hope it is written in a way that allows the potential reader to evaluate what he will be reading.

Thank you so much Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to read this book!
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“’You work hard...but what do you do for fun?’ people will ask me. Well, the fact is that I’ve tried to set up my life so that the things I work on are things I find fun. [... ] Sometimes I work on things that just come up, and that for one reason or another I find interesting and fun. [...] It [ the paradigm for thinking] all centers around the idea of computation, and the generality of abstraction to which it leads. Whether I’m thinking about science, or technology, or philosophy, or art, the computational paradigm provides both an overall framework and specific facts that inform my thinking. [...] I often urge people to ‘keep their thinking apparatus engaged’ even when they’re faced with issues that don’t specifically seem to be in their domains of expertise.”

In “Adventures of a Computational Explorer” by Stephen Wolfram


“The real payoff comes not from doing well in the class, but from internalizing that way of thinking or that knowledge so it becomes part of you.”

In “Adventures of a Computational Explorer” by Stephen Wolfram


What do “Arrival”, “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems”, TCE (Theory of Computational Equivalence), Theory of Computational Irreducibility (TCI), AI, Coding, ..., Physics (e.g., Quantum Mechanics], and Computer Science have in common? Stephen Wolfram.

If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review elsewhere (vide link on the GR's review).
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Adventures of a Computational Explorer is an illuminating and entertaining collection of essays. You get the impression that Wolfram, the author, loves his job and loves sharing his genius level knowledge with others.
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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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