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Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

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  • Posted May 16, 2013

    Reading Surfaces and Essences is like biting an apple and findin

    Reading Surfaces and Essences is like biting an apple and finding half a worm. It's like a pancake eating contest. It is the Phantom Menace of cognitive science literature. What should have been a monumental work about understanding via analogy undermines itself by being too repetitive, too unfocused, too obvious, too silly and too self-referential.

    I wanted this book the minute I saw the title because I'm a big fan of well-crafted analogies. I remembered hearing good things about Dr. Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach from college roommates who'd read it, which added to my sense of anticipation.

    Sadly, other than the prologue and parts of the final chapter, I find very little to recommend here.

    The book opens with an exploration of the "zeugma", which is the use of a single word in two different ways in the same sentence. An example of a zeugma from a song I wrote is "I can make you a cup of tea/And you can make me smile." This begins to get at the ability of the human mind to make and break lexical categories in unexpected ways.

    Yet starting with the first chapter, Dr. Hofstadter and his co-author, Emmanuel Sander, seem intent on removing everything that was interesting about analogies by taking a particular word or expression and overanalyzing its figurative meanings for a number of pages. The reason this comes across as extremely tedious is that the point has already been made, and it's easily understood. No one who knows what an analogy is needs to ruminate over why a mother board is a little bit like a real mother. Most people who read this book will go dozens of pages at a time without learning anything new.

    A number of pages compare airport "hubs" (for airlines) to the hubs of wheels. Who cares?

    There's a section on the difference between "and" and "but", as if anyone on Earth could have reached page 109 without understanding that.

    They bother to point out that understanding is not actually standing under anything.

    One particularly unreadable section uses letter patterns to illustrate how we are reminded of past events. They somehow thought that people wanted to read about how iijjkk-->iijjkd is different from iijjkk-->iijjd and iijjkk-->iijjll. This reminded me of how in high school a classmate thought that the page numbers had some connection with what was happening in the novel. I can't bring myself to care about that.

    Chapter 7: Naïve Analogies and Chapter 8: Analogies that Shook the World were the only two worth writing, though they were not particularly well done. Naïve Analogies discusses the ways that using physical terms to explain abstract concepts limits our understanding. The best example is that people think of division as splitting something up, thereby making it smaller. However, this is a limiting analogy. If you have four bags of chocolate chips, and you need half of a bag to make one batch of chocolate chip cookies, you can make eight batches of chocolate chip cookies, ending up with a number (8) that is larger than the first two (4 and .5). Thus, 4 ÷ .5 = 8. The last chapter explored analogies in physics, concentrating primarily on Einstein's theories. Unfortunately, the language was so abruptly technical that it seemed like it had been written by a different author.

    The Epidialogue has to be the worst possible way to end a book. It's a made-up conversation about two friends discussing categories vs. analogies and referring to parts of this book, Surfaces and Essences, including this very epidialogue. Then one of the characters wakes up, and has a conversation about the crazy conversation it had just dreamed. Then one of the characters wakes up, and it turns out that the second conversation was all a dream, too. It's bad.

    Lastly, (analogy alert) the authors' rampant use of clunky, mixed metaphors reminded me of Stephen King's "dandelions" from On Writing. Dandelions are unobtrusive until you notice them on your lawn, and then you really notice them, and they get on your nerves. (For Stephen King, dandelions are adverbs, as in "she replied nonchalantly"). For example, Hofstadter and Sander write: "Once he had glimpsed this analogy, Einstein went way out on a limb, placing all of his chips on it, in a move that to his colleagues seemed crazy." And "The turning point when light quanta at last emerged from the shadows came only in 1923." I'm not sure if the authors are trying to be cute or if they just don't proofread, but this stuff is not good.

    It makes me annoyed and write a long negative review.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2013

    A deep, well-conceived, deceptively simple exploration of the wo

    A deep, well-conceived, deceptively simple exploration of the workings of the human mind. As well as, I think, an outline of where AI research and development needs to concentrate its efforts...Ignore the detractors, there isn't a misplaced or redundant word, thought, or concept in this book. Highly recommended!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2014

    I loved reading this book very much. It is original in many ways

    I loved reading this book very much. It is original in many ways. Two authors of different tongues (French and English) compose a book which
    I read in German. The authors wrote the book in a very careful way, scientifically precise and I could see that they enjoyed composing it. They themselves inserted here and there examples of analogies by their own. It was fun to detect them. I was interested in chapter 5 how analogies manipulate us. I found out that politicians and managers (people of influence) make use of analogies in order to narrow down our thinking (black and white thinking). Thus we are occupied by their analogies which are not valid in this context and whose only purpose is to detract us from a matter. That's why I prefer to come to the point. Now I learn from this book that we cannot help thinking in analogies.Anyway: I have deep respect of the profound knowledge of these two authors.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2013

    I only got through the first 200 pages.  He could have covered a

    I only got through the first 200 pages.  He could have covered all of that in 20 pages.  I skipped to the last chapter and he was still saying the same things over and over.  I do not recommend this book.  

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

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