> sobota, marec 04, 2006
> komentarjev: 13

... your thickest?

This posts of mine aren't that bad, when I come to think about, but they surely become good whenever master ill-advised leaves a comment, although his lasts steer a bit, in a direction I can't understand.
He did it again.
Not only that he beat me at the "pissing" contest, he also informed us of two really huge books, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, and GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali (Champion's Edition), a monstrous 60 kg and 1.5 x 1.1 m, and 35 kg respectively.
Will anybody care to fund me 15,000$ on my next Amazon shopping spree?





Written before, on February 27:


Which was the fattest book you have ever read, or - if you don't read fat books - held in your hands, or - if you are a bit weak - merely touched, or seen?

For me myself it was Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. The book has all the details one never finds in any other book, on the page just before the back cover: 1280 pages; 583,313 words (main text: 227,580, notes: 283,751); 2,799,438 characters; 973 illustrations; 1350 notes; 796 Mathematica programs; 14,967 entries, and so on.
Cool! Now don't get me wrong: I am not bragging about reading it, I think Stephen Wolfram somehow brags about writing it himself. But he has delivered perfection, as usual, so it's ok for him to brag about that. If you have something to brag about, do it! I won't put you down.



Also deserved to be mentioned, and following on Wolfram's tail:
- Pot samouresničevanja by Janez Rugelj (hardcover, 1217 pages),
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (paperback, one volume edition with the index and appendices, 1150 pages),
- The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose (hardcover, 1111 pages).

And here is also one special book, The Earth from the Air by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, that hasn't got that many pages (464), but it's unusually large: 37 x 29 cm, and quite heavy (2.5 kg), and it's an earthshattering beauty for that matter, - really, it tries to kill you by asphyxiation, so be careful when you read it.

Have I read these books? Sure I have, what else would I be doing?

Beat me if you can.

Komentarji: 13

Anonymous Luka:

Hhm, I think the fattest book I've read from the first to the last page without leaving any in between is "Fernand Braudel: Čas sveta" (918 pages).

28/2/06 04:43  
Blogger ill-advised:

Woo hoo, everybody loves a pissing contest.

Well, I'm not sure if I've ever read anything that has more than 1280 pages in a single volume. I do own several such books, but I haven't got around to reading them yet: the Penguin Classics ed. of Montaigne's complete essays is 1340 pp. or so; the Library of America paperback of Poe's complete fiction is 1500 pp., as is the Oxford World's Classics Life of Johnson. I've read about half of the latter two. I also have a one-volume edition of Jane Austen's complete novels, which is also terribly thick, but I can't find the volume now so I'm not sure exactly how many pages there are.

Another thing I might brag about is that several years ago I found a free on-line etext of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, printed the whole thing out using my trusty inkjet, and read it. Set in 8pt Tahoma, it ran to a glorious 1152 double-columned A4 pages. I've still got it in a binder somewhere. 1.59 million words, 7.9 million characters of some of the finest, most polished, most pompous, most delightful eighteenth-century English prose ever composed.

I haven't got anything that compares in size to the Arthus-Bertrand volume you mention. But I have a couple of suggestions for your next Amazon shopping spree :)

As for the Wolfram book, I've gotten about 200 or so pages into it, then gave up for the time being. I think most of the scorn heaped upon the book by all manner of reviewers was quite well-deserved (and not just because of the style). Maybe I'll pick it up again some day, but I've got a feeling it won't be soon.

28/2/06 08:12  
Blogger Bo:

It is like every comment of yours, master ill-advised, is a feat of its own.

Did you know for the "pissing competition" in Monkley Island?

The two Amazon suggestions are drop dead: interesting, but huge, large and heavy, and I wouldn't trust the ordinary shipping delivering them to me reasonably intact. And I would never spend 15,000$ on a book which is "tact". So I could spend 15,000$ on a book, but I would have to be very rich, and I would also want to pick the book personally.

Your opinion about Wolfram's Science bothers me just a bit. I heard many alike, I was listening to them before I read the book, and I am listening to them now. I believe only a bit of the "scorn heaped upon it" is well-deserved. Wolfram has made himself fully aware of all the problems in fundamental theoretical physics before many of his critics know how to write. And some are criticizing him just for that, the understanding of fundamental physics! After that he spent an awful amount of time developing what he thinks is a new kind of thinking about the world. Much of what his results imply makes sense to me. They imply just about everything traditional mathematics and physics do, and in addition much more.
I think the book is grand, and it will be more cherished as time goes on.
I love the fact that you got into it.
A lot can be said about the style, formatting, etc. I think it is very good. And again, Wolfram knew how to write beautiful prose before many knew how to count. Could it be that Wolfram is altogether on a higher level of consciousness, and people criticize something they can't see?
It's also said that the book is worth buying only for its images. This is also true. I tell you, it's perfect on all accounts.

28/2/06 12:31  
Blogger Bo:

And, ill-advised, you beat the hell out of my Wolfram with that Gibbon of yours. You beat me. Eight million characters ... was he cloned; how many times?

28/2/06 14:28  
Blogger ill-advised:

Well, I can't comment very much on the Wolfram book, because it's been several years since I've read those first 200 pages. But I certainly wasn't particularly impressed. My general impression was that his main ideas were things like "simple formalisms can lead to complex behaviour" (big deal, as if it weren't obvious in the first place) and "you can use cellular automata to produce pretty pictures and model/simulate this, that, or the other phenomenon" (that's nice, but does it really tell us anything new about those phenomena?).

I agree that the illustrations were nice. The style of writing, however, is atrociously bad.

I doubt this book will be more cherished as time goes on; on the contrary, I think it is already on its way to well-deserved oblivion.

Could it be that Wolfram is altogether on a higher level of consciousness, and people criticize something they can't see?

Could it be that he's just a former genius turned into a crank with a vastly overinflated ego?

was he cloned; how many times?

Well, I'd say that 18th- and 19th-century writers were on average more prolix than modern ones. By the standards of his age, his History was long but not really that abnormal.

There's a nice anecdote saying that when Gibbon presented the second volume of his work to the Duke of Gloucester, the latter commented: "Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?" :)

As for Monkey Island, I remember the spitting contest, but not any pissing contests in the literal sense :)

1/3/06 20:02  
Blogger Bo:

So you are not fond of Wolfram's book. Many aren't. But you must know that some are, and many of them are very bright, students and professors alike. I don't see how they would all gone mad.

Listen to this. I am just implementing a particular computational scheme (a lattice-Boltzman scheme for computing the solid-liquid flow) in my work, which lends itself also from Wolfram's work. I am not pioneering it of course, I am at the moment just following a number of articles. But the method shows potential and it's efficient for large simulations. It is a very good model.

Perhaps we two would be better off if we stop commenting on Wolfram for now. But then maybe you would just care to explain what's so wrong with his style of writing, or anything about his writing for that matter? Because I dig it. I have wet dreams about it. His words are simple. I don't think I ever used a dictionary. But that doesn't mean the vocabulary of the book is shallow. I'd say the vocabulary is deep, it's just that he uses the words that really come with a certain phenomena. He never over stretches, so everybody understands what he is saying. Even a school boy, if he ever saw a rainbow would know what Wolfram was saying about the rainbow. Why use some obscure words when there is a lot more beauty in plain understanding? You are saying how atrociously bad his writing is. But you know I must use a dictionary for such words. The word may be handsome, some other would do just fine. I don't understand why you used it. You have to do something about that. But back to Wolfram: he is efficient with words, and runs smoothly over what he wants to communicate over. He discusses fundamental issues, and you must admit that it's hard to write clearly about fundamental issues. He pulls it off admirably. I would definitely agree upon him not being modest. But this is also a big part of the reason why he is so crystal clear 1000+ pages long. He is perhaps also extremely self confident about everything, but then one just has to admire that again.
I hope you comment on his writing. (If you'll admit you were partly wrong in his writing calling atrociously bad, I won't make fun of you, I promise that, here and now. But please, comment do.)

Also will you enlighten me how you concluded that Wolfram is passing to oblivion. I can show you a picture that indicates Wolfram is heading the other way, even exponentially so.
I know of a physicists who won some important award for his work on phase transitions. Very important work. When he read Wolfram's work and particularly parts relating to his own field, and saw how Wolfram came to conclusions fast and them DIFFERENT, he started criticizing Wolfram big time. Could it be that his not so friendly face showed at the time? Ok, he got this big award, but at that critique he also showed himself so not human, that I don't think he deserved that award in the first place.
Along the same lines there is a story on pages 999-1000 with a similar lesson: People are unfair to Wolfram. Why? They don't understand and they are scared.

I must say, I heard of Gibbon before. I never dared to acquire it though. Richard Dawkins briefly mentions the book as an 18th century history book that "spans some 13 centuries in six volumes of about 500 pages each." That would make it around 3000 pages long, or 2.3 of Wolfram's Science!

4/3/06 00:57  
Blogger ill-advised:

So you are not fond of Wolfram's book. Many aren't. But you must know that some are, and many of them are very bright, students and professors alike. I don't see how they would all gone mad.

Well, merely because a lot of bright people agree about something doesn't make it true, especially if a lot of other also quite bright people think just the opposite. In the end, I'm not an expert in the field, so even after listening the arguments of both groups my opinion must inevitably be formed on the basis of trust: whose judgment do I trust more, the supporters' or the detractors'?

I personally have been persuaded by the arguments of reviews, such as the one by Cosma Shalizi or by various readers on amazon.com, that much of the material in Wolfram's book is not particularly new and original (and what is worse, that Wolfram is often sloppy on acknowledging other people's previous work in the field), nor particularly insightful or important. What little I've read of the book itself has not persuaded me to alter that opinion in any significant way. I may yet change my opinion if and when I get around to reading the rest of book, but based on my current impressions I'm not terribly keen to start reading it again, so it may take a while before I do anything of that sort, and until then I'm quite satisfied to persist in my current low opinion of the book.

You are saying how atrociously bad his writing is. But you know I must use a dictionary for such words.

Well, I know it now. I didn't know it at the time I wrote that sentence. Even if I had known it, I'm not sure if I would have avoided that word. First of all, I think using a dictionary every now and then will do you good. Secondly, I write for selfish purposes, i.e. because I enjoy it, and being able to exercise my vocabulary is part of the pleasure. When I am choosing a word, it is never my purpose to obfuscate, to intimidate, or indeed merely to impress, but simply to find some suitable word that sounds good and that conveys approximately the meaning that I have in mind at the moment. (If you want a writer who genuinely will bitch-slap you with his vocabulary in every second sentence, go read Michael Burleigh.) I refuse, however, to dumb down my choice of words merely for the sake of the remote possibility that some reader will occasionally need to look up a word or two in the dictionary.

Also will you enlighten me how you concluded that Wolfram is passing to oblivion. I can show you a picture that indicates Wolfram is heading the other way, even exponentially so.

You conflate Wolfram and his book A New Kind of Science. I referred to the latter, not the former. Firstly I must emphasize that I am not an expert on cellular automata, so whatever impressions I have about that field are basically those of an innocent bystander who picked up one or two factoids in various ANKOS-related reviews and web pages. Anyhow, given that disclaimer, my impression is that Wolfram certainly made some perfectly decent and valid contributions to the field of cellular automata. I also don't doubt that, as Wolfram's chart shows, the field is still going strong and attracting an increasing amount of interest. (The claim that the growth is exponential seems an obvious overstatement, though. Surely, if you start with very low numbers, almost any growth will appear exponential for a short while, but it's obviously impossible to sustain it over a longer period -- sooner or later you'd run out of researchers.)

What I complain about is not the relevance of cellular automata as a field, or of Wolfram's earlier contributions in that field -- I complain about the claims that Wolfram's 2002 book is somehow extremely relevant, ground-breaking, etc., etc., and that it will be remembered and worshipped for ages to come as some kind of paradigm-shifting work comparable to those of Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, etc., etc.

It may have some value as a work of popular science that can introduce the general reader to some interesting concepts in the field of cellular automata. But I very much doubt that it will have any kind of significant long-term impact on the actual scientific work in that field.

Why use some obscure words when there is a lot more beauty in plain understanding? You are saying how atrociously bad his writing is. But you know I must use a dictionary
for such words. The word may be handsome, some other would do just fine. I don't understand why you used it. You have to do something about that.


Whoa, mister.

Firstly, when I complained about Wolfram's style, I never said that I wanted him to use more obscure words. And indeed I don't.

Secondly, merely because you happen to have to look up a word in a dictionary doesn't necessarily mean it's obscure, and even if it actually is obscure it doesn't necessarily follow that the word should be altogether avoided. A large number of words have evolved because someone somewhere (and not just someone, but a significantly large group of people in most cases) felt that they support some worthwhile shade of meaning, or some desirable degree of emphasis, etc.

I am not an ascetic, nor do I aspire to be one. I believe that a great many things are better and more pleasant when embellished than when plain. I don't subsist on gruel and oatmeal, and I put salt in my food. If I could, I'd put some salt in my writing too, but I don't have the talent for it. I believe that a suitable breadth of vocabulary, when employed with judgment and moderation, can make a text clearer, more pleasant to read, and it can increase the ability of the text to convey information. In other words, it can aid understanding rather than hinder it. I am not fond of unnecessary complexity, but that won't make me cross over to the other extreme: I don't believe that simplicity is a virtue in and of itself.

Thirdly, I most emphatically don't have to do anything about it, regardless of whether you understand why I used some particular word or not. I might do something about it (or, then again, I might not), but that depends not on some supposed obligation on my part but simply on whether I want to do it or not.

If you'll admit you were partly wrong in his writing calling atrociously bad, I won't make fun of you

With my next comment I'll probably come across as some insensitive boor, but here it is anyway: people making fun of you is only troublesome if you value their opinion.

Anyhow, I now went and reread a few pages from Wolfram's book. I agree that his writing is clear and not hard to understand. The main complaints that come into my mind right now, however, are the following:

- His sentences are too short. Too often he begins a new sentence (and, worst of all, begins it with words such as "and" and "but"!) when the text would flow so much better if he had just continued the preceding sentence instead.

For example, I counted the sentences in the body of the text on pages 23-28. There are 60 sentences, of which 16 begin with "and" and 11 with "but". That's almost half of all sentences! And this goes on page after page, constantly irritating the reader. That's what I mean by "atrociously bad writing".

Perhaps you get off on this sort of granular style, but I don't. All that remains for me to do is to wish you many happy wetdreams.

- He is immodest to the point of megalomania. His writing is full of "I"s, as if he tried to convince the naive reader that he single-handedly founded the whole field and is not merely rehashing things many of which have been commonly known for ages.

I don't admire self-confidence, never, but especially not when it's excessive and unjustified. Even if the material of his book were as original and important as he seems to think it is (and I think it's not), I would not consider him absolved of the requirement to be decent and modest in his writing.

The very title of the book is a case in point. Insofar as it is science, it is not particularly new (and most emphatically not "a new kind"), and insofar as it is new, it is not really science but just lots of mindless experimentation and looking for patterns in pretty pictures.

Ok, he got this big award, but at that critique he also showed himself so not human, that I don't think he deserved that award in the first place.

I guess it's silly of me to comment on this, since I don't know the incident in question, but anyway: firstly, if the award was for achievements in physics rather than for being a Goody-Two-Shoes, then I don't see how his acting like an asshole (if that's indeed what he did) make him unworthy of the award. Secondly, if he acted the way you
describe, I think that's precisely what shows he is indeed a human and not some kind of idealized machine. If he was, as you seem to imply, motivated by envy, jealousy,
prejudice, etc., all these are human characteristics par excellence. Having these faults makes one more human rather than less. Absence of them is to be expected in saints, not in most people. And thirdly, I can easily imagine that from the point of view of that physicist
himself, or indeed of anyone who is not infatuated with Wolfram, the situation may have appeared quite different. It may have appeared that Wolfram had stumbled onto
a field with which he was but poorly acquainted, jumped hastily to a few conclusions without bothering to compare them with the results of work by people actually familiar
with the field, and was now blithely declaring these conclusions to be new, original, correct and enormously important, and using his promotional machine to announce this to the public at large.

I don't think that a supposed lone genius locking himself up into a garret for ten years and then coming out with a huge non-peer-reviewed tome supposedly full of paradigm-shifting discoveries is a meaningful or productive way to do science nowadays. Alchemy perhaps, but not science.

4/3/06 15:53  
Blogger Bo:

Fair but not entirely square. 92%
I admire your serenity, I must say that again. I did't find any trace of mindless aggression.

No no no, I didn't do no such thing as conflating Wolfram and his Science. I couldn't've done that that, for Wolfram today means his Science, or Mathematica, all combined, everything or nothing.

4/3/06 16:18  
Blogger ill-advised:

Fair but not entirely square. 92%

I haven't got the slightest idea what you mean by 92%.

I also don't quite see the distinction between "fair" and "square". In the phrase "fair and square", they always felt largely synonymous to me.

I admire your serenity, I must say that again. I did't find any trace of mindless aggression.

Well, there's plenty of aggression in me, some of it rational, some quite mindless (and that's the most entertaining kind!). But maybe it doesn't show in my posts. It's true that I don't have any particular wish to appear aggressive in my writing (or indeed in my everyday life).

No no no, I didn't do no such thing as conflating Wolfram and his Science. I couldn't've done that that, for Wolfram today means his Science, or Mathematica, all combined, everything or nothing.

I can't make heads or tails of this. To say that "Wolfram" equals his ANKOS, the Mathematica, [and presumably everything else he's ever done], all combined -- surely this is just what I complained about when I wrote that you are conflating him and his book. Anyway, this is just silly. Wolfram has done many things in his life. He has made some contributions to automata theory back in the 80s; nobody's trying to deny the relevance of that. He developed the Mathematica, which is a remarkable achievement, and everybody will be happy to praise him for it. But then, he also published his 1280-page wankfest of a book. I complain only about the latter of these three achievements; I don't in the least dispute the former two. Surely it doesn't make any sense whatosever to say that making this distinction is somehow meaningless, that all three things are somehow inseparably linked simply because they all emanated from Wolfram, and that they must all either sink together or swim together.

4/3/06 17:19  
Blogger Bo:

I admire you saying you don't feel the urge to be aggressive, because I am observing people and it seems to me that they all want to get in some sort of conflict. Is the general belief that conflict is constructive or what?
But then do people really want to be constructive?

Now look, about Wolfram: He is a grown man. What he did in his early days, I just read here and there. I heard he was a genius and tireless thinking machine, and that he also made some mistakes (with life). I know his later work in more detail. I am referring to that! I am familiar with his work on Mathematica (he didn't build it completely by himself!) and cellular automata. In his Science he continues that. The way I see it, at the heart of all his work lies the same philosophy: The world is terribly complex. Take some phenomena to model, it's still very complicated. Now start zooming in and dumbing down until you capture the essential features in something very simple.
This is how Mathematica is built, and it's also the best way to tackle problems with Mathematica. Many people who use Mathematica don't know his Science. I agree, they can't sink together. Still, I believe that both things are very similar, and that they were inseparably linked if Mathematica would somehow depend on Science; even more, his Science is somehow above Mathematica. I think that it has a lot of potential, just like Mathematica.

5/3/06 20:35  
Blogger Bo:

Hey Lillit!!
Is this post number 11 or is it not? Did you believe we could ever get over ten, ha did you?

5/3/06 20:38  
Blogger ill-advised:

I admire you saying you don't feel the urge to be aggressive,

But I didn't really say that. I said I don't particularly wish to appear aggressive. I often feel aggressive urges, but I don't usually wish them to be expressed externally because that would lead into problems with other people around me.

because I am observing people and it seems to me that they all want to get in some sort of conflict. Is the general belief that conflict is constructive or what?

To me it seems that nobody particularly wants to get in some sort of conflict. Everybody would prefer to just get along with other people. But it often just so happens that one person may wish one thing and another person may wish another thing and the world cannot accommodate both of them at the same time. That's a conflict. None of the persons really wanted to be in it, it just so happened that the combination of their wishes led to a conflict.

But all of this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with aggression. That's just one way of resolving such conflicts.

But then do people really want to be constructive?

I guess that depends on how you define "constructive". People just want to get what they want. Whether by construction, by trade, or by looting, is really just a matter of which of these options appears the most convenient to them at the moment.

Now look, about Wolfram: He is a grown man. What he did in his early days, I just read here and there. I heard he was a genius and tireless thinking machine, and that he also made some mistakes (with life). I know his later work in more detail. I am referring to that! I am familiar with his work on Mathematica (he didn't build it completely by himself!) and cellular automata. In his Science he continues that. The way I see it, at the heart of all his work lies the same philosophy: The world is terribly complex. Take some phenomena to model, it's still very complicated. Now start zooming in and dumbing down until you capture the essential features in something very simple.

But for pete's sake, this is a triviality! Not some kind of profound, new, original, important discovery! It's what damn nearly every single human being has been doing since the dawn of time. See, that's one of the things that I so much hate about all this Wolfram-worship. He peddles these obvious vacuities as if they were the best thing since sliced bread.

Still, I believe that both things are very similar, and that they were inseparably linked if Mathematica would somehow depend on Science; even more, his Science is somehow above Mathematica.

Sorry, I can't comment on this, as I can't make any sense of these new-agey nebulosities. If you can reformulate this in a way that actually says something, I'll try to think about it again.

I think that it has a lot of potential, just like Mathematica.

Fine, feel free to think that way. But I don't. I agree about Mathematica but not about Wolfram's tinkering with cellular automata in his 2002 book. And even if the field of cellular automata eventually does reach some kind of important discovery, I wouldn't bet that Wolfram's book will have contributed much to that.

6/3/06 20:58  
Blogger Bo:

But for pete's sake, this is a triviality! Not some kind of profound, new, original, important discovery! It's what damn nearly every single human being has been doing since the dawn of time. See, that's one of the things that I so much hate about all this Wolfram-worship. He peddles these obvious vacuities as if they were the best thing since sliced bread.

The first paragraph in Zienkiewicz (2000):
"The limitations of the human mind are such that it cannot grasp the behavior of its complex surroundings and creations in one operation. Thus the process of subdividing all systems into their individual components or 'element', whose behavior is readily understood, and then rebuilding the original system from such components to study its behavior in a natural way in which the engineer, the scientist, or even the economist proceeds."

While I agree with your sense that such logic is common among almost everybody, I disagree that the notion is being put into practice 1:1. One thing is to say, the other to do. I would say that the ratio is strongly on the side of "saying", which means that many people are aware of the logic, yet only few truly follow it. Unnecessary complications are often.
Wolfram has put the idea into practice many time. He did it with Mathematica (applying math with a computer), and one more time with NKS (modeling natural phenomena).
This is my opinion. I never wanted to force it to you. That was not my intention, also I don't think it's much possible to force someone's opinion through blog comments. :)
Anyway, thank you for the comment thread!

19/3/06 14:47  

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