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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Outstanding Overview of the Subject
Many general books on "complexity" either lapse into "gee whiz" amazement at the novelty of the insights that emerge to challenge the conventional wisdom of "the enlightenment project", or else are somewhat abstruse and technical for the interested lay person to absorb. This book avoids both of those traps. If the title, "Complexity: A Guided Tour" conjures up images of...
Published on 7 Oct 2009 by T. J. Cooke-Davies

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44 of 54 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Eyes opened by a thorough disappointment
Complexity a Guided Tour
Review of Melanie Mitchell's book "Complexity: A Guided Tour"

This is a thoroughly disappointing book; or an eye opener. Or maybe both.
Disappointing because the book does not cover much more than many popular science books already in the market (and it promised a bit more than that). An eye opener because the topic surveyed...
Published on 24 Nov 2009 by Un francais en angleterre


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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Outstanding Overview of the Subject, 7 Oct 2009
Many general books on "complexity" either lapse into "gee whiz" amazement at the novelty of the insights that emerge to challenge the conventional wisdom of "the enlightenment project", or else are somewhat abstruse and technical for the interested lay person to absorb. This book avoids both of those traps. If the title, "Complexity: A Guided Tour" conjures up images of some ill-informed tour guide providing a party of tourists with a mixture of fact and colourful "pseudo-fact" in the form of various apocryphal stories, then think again. This is much more akin to a personal guided tour of a stately home by one of the family that has lived there for generations. Dr. Mitchell's love of the subject never seems to lead her into making exaggerated claims, and her extensive knowledge and experience prevent her from presenting as "fact" the usual collection of myths that are repeated in the populist accounts of the subject. For anyone interested in gaining an understanding of what insights are emerging from this broad and diffuse field, this book provides as good a place to start as any - better than most. For those with an informed interest in certain aspects of the filed, this book provides an excellent context for the topic as a whole. This is a book that I cannot recommend too highly.
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44 of 54 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Eyes opened by a thorough disappointment, 24 Nov 2009
Complexity a Guided Tour
Review of Melanie Mitchell's book "Complexity: A Guided Tour"

This is a thoroughly disappointing book; or an eye opener. Or maybe both.
Disappointing because the book does not cover much more than many popular science books already in the market (and it promised a bit more than that). An eye opener because the topic surveyed is still fairly fashionable and comes up in the end as fairly vacuus.

Who is the author, what are her stated goals?

The author is a well known computer scientist from the world renowned Santa Fe institute. Her goal is to survey what she implicitly holds to be "the great unexplored frontier of science". So far so good. She is actually careful to point out that as she will be talking about work in progress, some of the concepts might be a bit fuzzy around the edges and the book will be as much about clarifying "whether such interdisciplinary notions and methods [as complexity, emergence etc...] are likely to lead to useful science and to new ideas for addressing the most difficult problems faced by humans such as the spread of disease, the unequal distribution of the world's natural and economic resources, the proliferation of weapons and conflicts, and the effects of our society on the environment and climate".

Judge and party

The first problem with the book is that it is far from being impartial. Mrs. Mitchell does not hide her fascination for the topics that she studies (as a matter of fact someone not enthusiastic about one own's work would probably not go very far), but this makes her less credible in her attempt to provide an objective assessment of the usefulness of her own field of studies. I found she was doing a credible job until chapter 17 (out of 19), which would not be too bad if the last chapters were not those dealing most directly with the relevance and prospect of "complexity science". But a couple of sentences really rubbed me the wrong way. More on this in the note about "the mystery of scaling", but suffice it to say at this point I don't believe anybody deserves my attention who writes with a straight face that the so-called "metabolic scaling theory" has "the potential to unify all of biology" (or for that matter anyone relaying such a claim as even credible).

Surveying old chestnuts

For a book attempting to survey "the cutting edge of science", much is covered that is fairly old and well established. Let us survey the table of content. The chapters 2 to 6 are respectively "dynamics, chaos and prediction", "information", "computation", "evolution" and "genetics, simplified". While each chapter in itself is not particularly bad, one would find better introduction to all these topics elsewhere. As I don't imagine too many readers of Mrs. Mitchell are complete science novices, the material in these chapters is therefore not particularly useful. One could object that maybe the idea is not to expose the readers to the basic facts of these disciplines, but rather to present them within a new framework that would act as an eye opener. Unfortunately, I did not find that the presentation made of these topics was enlightening in this way.

Evolution in Computers and "Computation Writ Large"

These are the parts 2 and 3 of the book and in my view one of the better ones. The presentation of genetic algorithms through one example was one of the more interesting I've seen (little robot picking up garbage comes up with a neat trick that one would not necessarily have programmed a-priori). Again, I'll levy the charge that the author does not make it particularly clear how the material she deals with in this part of the book relates to the rest and fits into the big picture. The author also covers cellular automata (a topic beaten to death by Wolfram's A New Kind of Science) and provides some examples of current research in this field that are less likely to have been previously encountered by the reader. Then comes a vanity chapter dealing primarily with the author's PhD thesis. While not uninteresting in itself, the subject does not warrant being put on equal footing with the other themes dealt within the book, but this is probably one of the lesser shortcomings of the book and one of the most understandable one.

Network Thinking and "The Mystery of Scaling": I'll bite

The next part of the book annoyed me to the extreme. Full disclosure: this is going to get emotional and somewhat ugly. If you don't like this type of stuff, please move on! Ok, if you're still reading, here's my main issues with this part of the book: the "science" it describes is all style no substance. At its mediocre seems to specialize in producing factoids that can be usefully integrated in your average popular science article or Malcolm Gladwell book. At its pathetic worst, it becomes some sort of post-modern science where the clever positioning of the results matters more than their intrinsic worth. I won't cover here all the issues I have, but will instead focus only on one example provided by the author (and already mentioned in my review above), the so-called case of the "mystery of scaling". What's going on here is that big animals have less surface to dissipate heat proportionally to their volume than smaller animals. This is something a high school student can easily understand. Given big animals do not routinely die of overheating, they must have a lower metabolic rate than small animals. One can through some sort of back of the envelope calculation predict how the metabolic rate should vary with size. The naive calculation does not seem to match experimental data very well. Then low and behold, a few heroic complexity theorist come up with a fractal network theory that seems to fit the data a bit better. My view is that this is a "cute and clever" explanation for a marginally interesting factoid. The book presents this as a revolution. I mean, come on! that's just a bit of basic geometry that does not provide any insight whatsoever into any underlying biological process. Any assertion something like this would play a role in biology "similar to the theory of genetics" is either shameless and cynical self promotion, or the result of a total lack of perspective. To be fair, the author mentions that the claims made here are a bit controversial, but I find this part a bit disingenuous to say the least. If this type of theory can in any way be put on equal footing with genetic theory, one would expect at least some sort of application. Look for it and return when you've found it... you're not going to be back any time soon.

I said I'd cover only one example, but the last chapter has a couple of nuggets that I just can't avoid mentioning. Basically according to this chapter, biology and genetics are a massive failure (I'm exaggerating somewhat, but this is a summary). Junk DNA is not junk (that's actually possible) but the most important bit of our genome (highly speculative but not flagged as such) and really understanding biology will require understanding biological networks (well, as the Dude said in the Big Lebowski, that's like your opinion). It's hard to keep one's cool when reading things like this. Basically, bench scientists who have sweated all their life to look at the details of how things actually work are wasting their time. All that one needs is a self indulgent theoretician who will come up with suggestive analogies that a biological system is like the internet and then we'll have the final word. Hmm.

Putting It All Together

Ok, I'm getting carried away a bit, so let's come back to factual facts. I quoted Mrs. Mitchell when I started my review. Her goal was to clarify "whether such interdisciplinary notions and methods [as complexity, emergence etc...] are likely to lead to useful science and to new ideas for addressing the most difficult problems faced by humans such as the spread of disease, the unequal distribution of the world's natural and economic resources, the proliferation of weapons and conflicts, and the effects of our society on the environment and climate". Did she clarify this at all?
As a matter of fact, she touched upon these topics only briefly and certainly did not provide any evidence that complexity theory had anything useful to say on these topics. If one is looking for interesting ideas on how to deal with the tragedy of commons for instance, one would be much better served by referring to the work of someone having looked carefully at practical, real world examples. Someone like Elinor Ostrom for example. One will find recommendations on how to manage the complex by understanding the specifics of one complex situation. This looks to me much more promising than drawing remote analogies between non-commensurable systems. How long can scientists get a job to ponder fascinating similarities between fractal exponents? This would actually be a good subject for a sociology of science study.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unreadable in spite of interesting looking content, 3 Jan 2011
I got this on the basis of a recommendation by Cosma Shalizi. Cosma Schalizi is usually a lethal critical intelligence, but he is too kind to his friends. More seriously, the editors at Oxford, who should also be Prof. Mitchell's friends, if only for the most instrumental of reasons, fell down badly on their various obligations, because this is simply not readable. I started into it looking forward to a relaxed survey of stuff that I more or less know, but was stopped dead by the prose inside a page or two. If you open it at random you will encounter sentences (in this case, in fact, even a paragraph), like

'The DNA of a viable organism, having many independent and interdependent regularities, would have high effective complexity because its regularities presumably require considerable information to describe.' (p.99)

'Complexity' is 300 pages of this. I really did open it and put my finger down to find this example, I didn't search it out.

I will live with writing like this if (a) I have no alternative, and (b) someone is paying me a lot of money; i.e. if I am reading a commercial software manual. I won't live with it if I am reading an actual real book aimed at an elective audience.

I don't really blame Prof. Mitchell, who is clearly enthusiastic and learned, but on the evidence has no idea how to write; I do blame OUP, who should have gently told her so, and taken appropriate action before this went to press.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This an ideal book for beginners, 23 Aug 2009
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A. Wilegoda-wickramage "Poth Gulla" (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This is an excellent book for postgraduate and people who are interested to know about "complexity". The author started with rabbits, ants and bees and finally explains on theoretical background of complexity. The book explains the "complexity" in different areas in science marvellously. I strongly recommend this book for beginners who are keen to understand "what is complexity".
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just beginning a Complexity course, 5 Feb 2013
By 
cgp (London, UK) - See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Santa Fe Institute has a Complexity MOOC and the author is the primary tutor. I bought it as support material and it looks very interesting.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A challenging but very rewarding read, 28 Nov 2010
This is one of my favourite books. The reason: During my medical degree I had to study all the fundamental fields of biological sciences before they let me close to a patient and hospital. In all this time there was one thing that really bugged me and that I could not figure out. This was the simple question of why on earth monozygotic twins (identical twins) with the same genome at birth require immuno suppressive drugs following organ donation and transplantation between each other. In doctor science this should not be the case, the same genome means the same HLA immunological profile and therefore rejection should not be a problem, right! If you were really picky you could argue that viral infections could lead to different antigen presentation for a few months after transplantation but after this point the transplanted organ would effectively be the same as the recipient, right? Well not quite, as things often turn out in medicine and indeed in science generally, the clinical reality is different from the theory.

But here is the reason I love this book so much. Discovering this rather random fact out I decided to search for an answer, intrigued why my scientific understanding did not match observed medicine. So for a couple of years between the drinking, sports and music (aka the glorious university life) and after getting no answer from a couple of my lecturers I would occasionally open up the genetics books they had in the university and hospital libraries to look for an answer, but to no avail. Then having taken a year out to do a Management masters, by chance I stumbled across the application of complexity theory principles to management and leadership. This led me to read this book when my tutor recommended it as a way to oneself into this massive and confusing topic. To my complete surprise having enjoyed the rather challenging (for chap with no informatics / programming background) but rewarding first 2/3 of the book I discovered the answer to my silly but in my mind fascinating problem. The answer, jumping genes! Hurrah

So in summary and to contradict one of the other reviews, I found this book very interesting and informative. As somebody who has done both a medical degree with the according science as well as a social science masters I found this book both interesting, informative and directly relevant to both these very different fields. Yes, indeed some of it wasn't 100% new to me but despite this it still improved my understanding of the topics covered providing me with a new and interesting perspective on some old and fundamental fields of science. I'm sure there are very clever people out there who know all about most of the content of this book. But for the rest of us who don't live in dark offices at the end of very long corridors on a university campus and who want to learn about this field without doing a PHD in it I would suppose this is a great book to read!
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting indeed, 21 Aug 2009
By 
M. Murdoch "erratic reader" (London) - See all my reviews
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I found this book incredibly fascinating. It gives a good tour around Neuroscience, immune systems, ecosystems, programming and an array of different systems.

Although some of the bits could be seen as being too much detail, it's worth reading as the way of thinking described in the book is very different to the conventional ways.

It definitely got me playing with cellular automata which was a very new thing for me.
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Complexity: A Guided Tour
Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell
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