The Singularity Is Near

January 17, 2010

I first stumbled upon Ray Kurzweil’s website some years ago. It immediately turned me off with words like “Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.” It sounded like one of those “How to be happy and get everything you want” books, which rarely accomplish anything but big bucks for the author, and disappointment for the suckers who buy them.

I’ve read The Singularity Is Near now, and my opinion about the book is mixed. I don’t remember what made me look it up in the first place — but I certainly don’t regret reading it.

Kurzweil argues that evolution is an exponential process, and that each new paradigm opens the door towards a faster development of the next one. As evidence, he shows logarithmic plots such as this:

singularity countdown

If this were plotted linearly, most of the “interesting” events (like Homo Sapiens, cities, and the Internet) would be grouped together in a small chunk of recent time, compared to the time it took for life before that to evolve.

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Paper Towns

January 9, 2009

papertowns-rightJohn Green’s latest and greatest novel. After an inspiring debut and a less relatable second novel, Paper Towns was a very pleasant surprise. It is definitely the best young adult book I’ve read this year; and it will be interesting to see if another will take its place as the year unfolds.

In the first part, the book takes us on a dizzying to-do list of adventures (I tend to like novels that contain lists). It promises to be a page-turner with tons of fun and no  deep moral. But the second part makes a character disappear, veering away from such a prediction completely. There is a lot of meditation on understanding other people, and in particular, on misimagining others by seeing them as idea[l]s.

The hunt for clues left by the missing person continues almost until the end, making this another novel for whose answer-in-the-lack-of-answers ending I feared. Although the characters do finally reunite, the message Green sends out is not one that inspires comfort. Basically, he puts Maugham’s tower of brass into words intelligible to the impatient Google generation. True and complete understanding between people is impossible; you cannot be someone else.

The novel ends with a brilliant metaphor about human suffering and understanding.

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Stumbling on Happiness

June 10, 2008

You may have noticed how ridiculously small the TV-screens are in most old sci-fi movies. Or how that low exam score moved from “catastrophe” to “oh well” within a few hours. Or how that long-awaited vacation is so disappointing now that it’s finally there. Or how an I love you written years ago seems so fake now. You may have wondered how you could possibly have had such thoughts or made such decisions. Now you’ve got answers.

From the also-available-in-audio shelf comes Daniel Gilbert with his great non-fiction book called Stumbling on Happiness. The author tries to answer the question of why happiness is so elusive and unpredictable.

What the book basically tells you is:

  • experience is subjective;
  • your imagination lies to you all the time;
  • your memories lie to you all the time;
  • your predictions can never be accurate;
  • you make ridiculous choices all the time;
  • you can never be sure of anything, past, present or future;
  • you are not unique.

Pretty tough truths, huh? Well, I’ve actually exaggerated quite a bit. Besides the fact that it points out uncomfortable things, I loved everything about this book:

  • It’s written in a very accessible and succinct style. If your attention slips for even a few seconds, you’ll have to rewind.
  • The author has a great sense of humor (I rarely laugh out loud).
  • Every chapter starts with a quotation from Shakespeare.
  • It will not trigger your “citation needed” alarm. In fact, it has such a solid scientific basis that the most frequent word combination after “for example” is probably “in one study”.
  • The examples given are logical and straightforward. Hey, the guy’s a Harvard professor!
  • The audio version is read by the author himself. That’s a plus because his tone of voice shows you exactly what he means.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to find out the inner workings of memory, imagination, and future prediction. It’s so good that I’ll probably want to go through it again in a few months. For a more thorough summary check the Wikipedia page.


January 20, 2008

Încă o carte de geniu a autorului ceh Milan Kundera. Personajele: Ludvik, trădat şi trădător, bântuit de trecutul pentru care vrea să se răzbune, Jaroslav, martor al decăderii folclorului în care şi-a căutat refugiul, Kostka, ajungând să nu mai fie sigur de nimic, Helena, disperând în faţa deşertăciunii, (Lucia, înfierată din copilărie, şi celelalte nume episodice), sunt plasate atent pe pânza romanului, surprinzător de densă şi elaborată (deşi poate greu de urmărit). Printr-ul joc al imaginaţiei prozatorului, aceste schiţe de caracter trec prin nişte evenimente şi reflecţii care le aduc pe fiecare în faţa adevărului şocant al vieţilor lor: vieţi deşarte, lipsite de sens, pierdute în vârtejurile trecutului revoltător, ale prezentului meschin şi ale viitorului apatic. Ludvik, căruia îi revine cea mai mare parte a povestirii, vede că nu are rost să mai lupte cu trecutul său, dar în acelaşi timp nu vede nici o lumină în viitor (totul va fi dat uitării, nu există nimic semnificativ). El este întruchiparea nimicniciei umane conştientizate, distrugătoare. Jaroslav este dezgustat de panta pe care a luat-o lumea din jurul său. Susţinător al folclorului, el priveşte decadenţa şi corupţia acestuia ca pe un lucru inevitabil, prezentul diluat de timp, devenind trecut, continuând să se dizolve, pierzându-şi mesajul. Kostka, cugetând asupra deciziilor sale din trecut fără să accepte faptul că nu există răspunsuri, îşi pune la dubiu religia, piatra de temelie pe care stătea toată viaţa lui de până atunci. Helena, dezgustată de inutilitate, de trădare, încearcă să se sinucidă. În cuvintele autorului, toate aceste universuri personale sînt surprinse în momentul descompunerii lor: patru forme de dezintegrare a comunismului, ce simbolizează şi prăbuşirea celor patru aventuri europene.

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