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60 of 72 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Authorial vanity trumps expertise, October 9, 2009
This review is from: Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos (Paperback)
I've always admired the notion (first promulgated by Voltaire?) that the true measure of intelligence is the ability to simultaneously comprehend two mutually contradictory ideas. So I tend to take a mellow approach to ideas that I disagree with. However, this book angered me, not because of its ideas, but because of its serious flaws.

The first serious flaw is that the author cannot keep his ego from seeping into the text. He regales us with triumphant tales of how he confounded his students with deep questions and then nobly revealed the true answers. Sheesh, man, why use the dialog approach using weaklings as your interlocutors? Pit yourself against somebody who can do more than behave as your straight man. Argue with yourself, if you have to! But presenting yourself as the all-knowing professor rubbed my fur the wrong way.

The problem of author vanity permeates the entire book. At no point does the author admit to uncertainty, or present two sides of a case, or even admit that anything he writes is controversial. One gets the strong impression that everything is crystal clear to this author. That impression raises my hackles.

The overwhelming self-assurance of the author explodes in his face when he gets it wrong. In the section "Exorcising Maxwell's Demon" in Chapter 4, he writes:

"The full exorcism of the demon was not accomplished until recently. (I played some part in this ceremony myself.)"

Perhaps Mr. Lloyd is older than I imagine. The exorcism of Maxwell's Demon was accomplished by Leon Brilloun, the physicist who patented the atomic bomb, in a paper published in 1951. Mr. Brilloun does not mention any contribution by Mr. Lloyd. It would appear that Mr. Lloyd is unaware of Mr. Brilloun's paper. Worse, his explanation of the exorcism of Maxwell's Demon is a turgid mess that makes no sense at all. Between claiming credit for another man's achievement and botching the explanation of Maxwell's Demon, I reached the limit of my tolerance. I literally threw the book away from me at that point.

Perhaps the material after Chapter 4 redeems the book; I do not know, because I did not read it.

The other serious flaw in the book is its smarmy vagueness. In attempting to avoid the intimidating reliance on mathematical and technical definitions, Mr. Lloyd resorts to poetic phrasings. These would be acceptable if they weren't so damned cute -- and if they made sense. For example, in attempting to make clear the difference between energy and information he writes, "Energy makes physical systems do things. Information tells them what to do." At first glance, that seems a pithy observation. But go back and read it again; what is the author really saying? Does energy give molecules speed, and information give them direction? Does the energy in an A-bomb make the bang and information tells it what to destroy?

I was disconcerted by the author's fuzziness regarding information. He never defined it -- which is not necessarily a fatal flaw, given that a book for the educated public should not burden its readers with undue technical detail. But he used the term in such a myriad of ways that I started to think that he was using it to refer to any magically powerful force. Information, in this book, seems capable of performing wondrous feats.

Physics is finally coming to terms with the concept of information as a physical concept. The change began after World War II and has been edging forward for fifty years; in the last ten years, progress has accelerated. A clearer concept of information and its relationship to the physical universe is emerging. Mr. Lloyd misses one of the most important factors in this process: that information itself is inextricably bound with the concept of time, in something like the way that mass and energy are bound together, only more complex. It is not information that is the fundamental quantity; it is information flow, or bandwidth.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 16, 2010 3:10:09 PM PDT
Free Thinker says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 16, 2010 4:14:45 PM PDT
It is the author, not me, who injected himself so vaingloriously into the book; had he executed it well, I would have been pleased to give a pass on what is normally a questionable activity. But he not only imposed himself upon the reader, he did so boorishly; I think that justifies my criticism.

And while it is true that my review is incomplete, the first four chapters of the book are so grossly unpleasant to read that I think it fair to conclude that nothing in later chapters could redeem such a bad start. True, I don't know the full magnitude of the awfulness of this book -- but I know that it's awful enough.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 16, 2010 5:06:00 PM PDT
Free Thinker says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2010 5:05:33 PM PDT
OK, that's fine, I don't want to argue with you, but I still don't understand your reasoning. I'm guessing that it has to be based on one of two findings on your part. Either:

a) you do not accept my claim that the author referred to himself many times in the book;

or

b) you do not believe that his many self-references justify criticism of the author.

Perhaps I can resolve our disagreement by suggesting that I pan the BOOK because the AUTHOR referred to himself too often. Does that work for you?

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2010 6:42:33 PM PDT
Free Thinker says:
what is so hard about this for you? you never read the book! don't you get it? you don't write reviews of books you don't finish, otherwise you won't know enough about them to intelligently comment! why is this concept hard to grasp?

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2010 7:09:01 PM PDT
OK, so your criticism isn't really about my criticizing the the author rather than the book; your criticism is that I decided that I didn't like the book after reading only four chapters. Fair enough. Best wishes.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2013 7:36:22 AM PST
Actually, I think recursive doublethink, or cognitive dissonance was Orwell in 1949 rather than Voltaire in 1744?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2013 7:39:29 AM PST
Chris PS: I think you'd really like Max Tegmark's new upcoming book: Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. I've read an advance copy and it rocks. Very close to your predictive and insightful comments.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2013 7:57:50 AM PST
Thanks for the suggestion. I'll go check it out right now!

Posted on Mar 17, 2014 6:13:54 PM PDT
This isn't a review; not helpful *click*
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