THE CAMBRIDGE QUINTET

A WORK OF SCIENTIFIC SPECULATION

A fictional dialogue between five seminal modern thinkers, on the thorny subject of artificial intelligence. Casti (Would-Be Worlds, 1996) postulates that in June of 1949, the British government asks physicist and novelist C.P. Snow to sound out the scientific community on the subject of “thinking machines.” In response, Snow throws a special dinner at Cambridge for mathematician Alan Turing, geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, physicist Erwin Schrîdinger, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This book is an account of their imaginary meeting, as well as a portrait of these five remarkable personalities. By 1949, Turing’s mathematics had laid the groundwork for the idea of a programmable computer, which he explains to the other guests to begin the discussion. At first, the gruff Haldane acts as the voice of “common sense,” asking what a simple “Turing Machine” is actually good for. Schrîdinger is quicker to see the mathematical implications, but Wittgenstein questions whether a finite machine can mimic any natural phenomenon at all, let alone one as complex as thought. Over the course of the evening, Turing continues to explain his ideas (including the “Turing test”) using various dishes and implements as the dinner progresses, while the urbane Snow acts as host and master of ceremonies. The others offer insights or criticisms of Turing’s model, bringing in such familiar concepts as the “Chinese room” (here recast in terms of hieroglyphics) in which a translator merely manipulates symbols without understanding them; can he be said to think? The holes in the various arguments are exposed, and many of the central ideas of today’s artificial-intelligence debates are clearly outlined in these discussions. While Casti’s attempts to blend exposition and dialogue are wooden, he does a good job of laying out the key philosophical issues raised by artificial intelligence, and of delineating the thought of these five men. Historians of science will enjoy this imaginary meeting of minds; others may find the fare too esoteric.

Pub Date: April 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-201-32828-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1998

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER

New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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