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Book Review: A New Kind of Science

by Rutger-Jan van Spaandonk

This month marks the first anniversary of the release of “A New Kind of Science”, a book written over a ten-year period by Stephen Wolfram, and which has attracted a lot of attention in (semi-) scientific circles. You seem to either love it or hate it.

It is not often that you come across a book that leaves you utterly confused, but this one certainly does. Not only because most users will get lost in the intricate scientific details, but also because one is tempted to think that if (and that is a big if) Stephen is right, we will soon solve all the mysteries left in the universe, including that of the universe itself.

The book is a pleasure to read. First and foremost, because the author put it together with attention to detail and aesthetics: he takes care to mention that “the book was printed on 5-pound Finch VHF paper on a sheet-fed press. It was imaged directly to plates at 2400dpi, with halftones rendered using a 175-line screen with round dots angled at 45o.”
The book is a pleasure to read. First and foremost, because the author put it together with attention to detail and aesthetics: he takes care to mention that “the book was printed on 5-pound Finch VHF paper on a sheet-fed press. It was imaged directly to plates at 2400dpi, with halftones rendered using a 175-line screen with round dots angled at 45o.” It is not easy to read, though, and also very long: 1280 pages and 583,313 words. Main text: 227,580, notes 283,751 – yes, that’s why I mention the stats; there are more words of notes than of main text, and at one stage the author wanted to add notes to the notes.

And all this verbiage to show that simple rules can drive systems that exhibit very complex behaviour. That, in essence, is the main tenet of his book. However complicated the environment might seem to us, Stephen tries to convince us that even the most intricate structures and processes can be the result of an infinite loop of very simple rules. And from this follows, in his opinion, that even the most complex structure of all, our universe, came about because of a couple of lines of programming.
And all this verbiage to show that simple rules can drive systems that exhibit very complex behaviour. That, in essence, is the main tenet of his book. However complicated the environment might seem to us, Stephen tries to convince us that even the most intricate structures and processes can be the result of an infinite loop of very simple rules. And from this follows, in his opinion, that even the most complex structure of all, our universe, came about because of a couple of lines of programming.He explains his theories with the help of cellular automata. A cellular automaton in its simplest format consist of a matrix in which the first line of each cell is coloured either black or white (or different shades of grey or even colours in more complicated automatons), and in which a definite rule determines the colour of cells in subsequent lines.

By changing the instruction sets only incrementally every time, Stephen found that, while in the majority of cases the rules resulted in symmetric, or at least neat patterns, in some instances they resulted in patterns without any recurring structure, and that never settled down in a steady state. Traditional mathematics and statistics are unable to capture such chaos in a formula, and thus should lead us to believe that serious complexity is at play. However, the underlying simple instruction set shows that this is not the case.
By changing the instruction sets only incrementally every time, Stephen found that, while in the majority of cases the rules resulted in symmetric, or at least neat patterns, in some instances they resulted in patterns without any recurring structure, and that never settled down in a steady state. Traditional mathematics and statistics are unable to capture such chaos in a formula, and thus should lead us to believe that serious complexity is at play. However, the underlying simple instruction set shows that this is not the case.This one observation sets off a whole gamut of other experiments with more complicated 2D and 3D cellular automata, as well as analyses of biological phenomena, and his conclusions are always the same: simplicity can breed complexity.

Many colleagues and observers have belittled his work as an attempt to reduce God’s creation to a couple of lines of code, and that it is merely the result of his infatuation with computers. As one reviewer commented, “So might a carpenter, looking at the moon, suppose that it is made of wood”, to which Stephen retorted in a recent e-mail to devotees that “introducing a major new intellectual direction is never easy”. He is convinced that his discoveries place him in the same league as Newton, Darwin and Einstein. Interestingly enough, some of his colleagues seem to concur.
Many colleagues and observers have belittled his work as an attempt to reduce God’s creation to a couple of lines of code, and that it is merely the result of his infatuation with computers. As one reviewer commented, “So might a carpenter, looking at the moon, suppose that it is made of wood”, to which Stephen retorted in a recent e-mail to devotees that “introducing a major new intellectual direction is never easy”. He is convinced that his discoveries place him in the same league as Newton, Darwin and Einstein. Interestingly enough, some of his colleagues seem to concur.Stephen has the CV to match his oversized claims. He is a renowned scientist, published his first physics paper at the age of 15, went on to earn a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology at the age of 20 and then, to top it off, won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant a year later in 1981. After an unrewarding stint in academics (he got for example into a fight over the intellectual property rights of his many findings) he started Wolfram Science, the software company that developed and markets the leading mathematical software-programming environment, Mathematica.

But despite these credentials, some of his claims are hard to swallow. For example, he denounces evolution theory – in one interview famously asserting that the vast diversity of zebra-stripe patterns is not the result of natural selection that confers a survival advantage, but rather results from a simple set of colouring instructions. Also (and this one is for the die-hards), he attempts to prove the Second Law of Thermodynamics wrong by showing that not all complex systems are irreversible – something which in certain circles is considered outright heresy.
But despite these credentials, some of his claims are hard to swallow. For example, he denounces evolution theory – in one interview famously asserting that the vast diversity of zebra-stripe patterns is not the result of natural selection that confers a survival advantage, but rather results from a simple set of colouring instructions. Also (and this one is for the die-hards), he attempts to prove the Second Law of Thermodynamics wrong by showing that not all complex systems are irreversible – something which in certain circles is considered outright heresy.

However, as the Economist rightly noted in its review, “A book with an interesting new theory does not have to be right for it to be worth reading”.

More information “A New Kind of Science” and its author can be found on www.wolframscience.com.

Rutger-Jan van Spaandonk is the founding director of FutureForesight Group, a boutique strategy consultancy. He can be reached via rj@futureforesight.com

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The Star Trek guide to a down market

by Arthur Goldstuck

Moving house must be one of the great pleasures and one of the great displeasures of life, combined into one life-changing process. Part of that process is getting rid of accumulated junk, which can be most traumatic for the hoarding-minded, but it often results in retrieving a treasure from that junk.

Star Trek

Sometimes, these treasures were lying before our eyes all along, but we stopped noticing them until we had to make a decision on keeping them or throwing them out.

Such was the case when I came across an old poster that I had seen a thousand times, but had never really thought about, entitled “All I need to know I learned from Star Trek”.

It includes such gems as:

“Enemies are often invisible – like Romulans, they can be cloaked.”
“Insufficient data does not compute.”
“Don’t put all your ranking officers in one shuttlecraft.”

You may well question the relevance to your business of a space vehicle going nova with a bunch of captains and colonels on board, but that’s the beauty of Star Trek: it is so grounded in everyday reality, that even it’s most futuristic expressions remain relevant in this distant past. The genius of Star Trek – and this applies whether you are a science fiction fan or not – is that most of the original episodes were underpinned by a powerful philosophy laid out by series creator Gene Roddenberry.

Among other things, he envisaged a microcosm in which origin, colour and creed made no difference to your standing in life. As long as, that is, they embraced the mission of the Enterprise: to explore new worlds, contact new life forms, and embrace the alien.

A common theme expounded by Roddenberry, as explained in the book “Meaning in Star Trek”, by Karen Blair, is that the process of encountering the unknown involves us with both the familiarity of the past and the foreignness of the future. That theme has become so relevant today, as the business world and the business of hi-tech in particular charts its way through unknown territory, it is well worth revisiting some of the dictums that sounded cute four decades ago, but have a deeper resonance today.

The best line to capture the uncertainty of the present global economy is Spock’s old rule that “Insufficient data does not compute”. In other words, if you don’t know enough about a situation, it’s impossible to analyse the situation effectively. That precisely describes the situation many businesses find themselves in today. But that isn’t the real problem for business. Behind that rule lies a call to gather more data until it is sufficient to compute. And that’s where businesses are reneging on their obligation to stakeholders.

Instead of gathering the data that proves how bad or good things are, most business decision-makers rely on what they read in the newspapers or on what analysts declare on TV. This is even so when it is clear that the media and analyst view of the economy is driven by media and market sentiment and little else. How many analysts call a down market when everything is moving up? And how many go starry-eyed when all about them the downturn intensifies? Precious few. Even those who have been around the block a good few times, and know that trends don’t continue in one direction but are subject to cycles, are seduced by the power of what is happening right here, right now, instead of getting a bigger picture, i.e. data that reveals the long-term, not just the previous quarter’s trade figures.

That poster I found does also declare that “Humans are highly illogical,” but that’s no excuse for acting like a human. Instead, we can all take a leaf out of Mr Spock’s book of leadership. In analysing his qualities, the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote, “We were always ready for First Officer Spock’s cool calm, his rationality and his sense of ethics.”

In the absence of sufficient data, that sounds like the perfect formula for leading a business forward into the unknown: don’t burn your enterprise by responding with frenzy to market volatility; make decisions based on rational analysis and not media hype; and conduct business ethically, even as all about you are cooking the ledgers to make the numbers work, or raiding the piggybank when they can’t. We’ve already seen some of the biggest stars shot out of the sky for disobeying those rules.

There’s just one Star Trek teaching I wouldn’t suggest you embrace too fast. As one discovers in various phases of life, such as looking at the cost of building a house instead of buying one, or trying to convince people to use a new technology when the old on will do nicely thank you, it isn’t always wise to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Oh, and don’t always be in a hurry to throw away old posters from your misspent youth.

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and managing director of World Wide Worx, South Africa’ leading independent technology research organisation. He can be contacted on mailto:arthurg@internet.org.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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