June 30, 2006

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2006

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Chris Eliasmith and Charles H. Anderson, Neural Engineering: Computation, Representation, and Dynamics in Neurobiological Systems
This is one of the few ventures into describing how the brain works that is solid and general enough that I would call it a theory. It is however more a theory of how one would construct the optimal computational device (adaptive control system) to get an organism through the world, given that certain types of neurons are available, and as such all the limitations on optimality analysis in biology apply. They apply with extra force here, because of course the brain has to learn connections, and there are real obstacles in the way of local learning processes producing globally optimal outcomes. (It is, to steal Ashby's old title, a design for a brain, not necessarily for ours.) Still, this is really good stuff. Anyone who cares about these subjects ought to read it. (In fact, I should probably write a full-scale review...)
Alan Furst, Night Soldiers
Mind candy. Just a simple country boy, sailing down the river for the NKVD... I think this was his first novel, but can't quite tell, which is to its credit. (See also: earlier remarks on Furst.)
Dean Baker, The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer
Convincing portrait of modern conservative economic policy as a series of quite blatant attempts to selectively interfere with the workings of the free market, so that certain groups enjoy economic rents at the expense of the rest of the population. (Or: class struggle, a phrase he never uses.) My biggest complaint: the best econometric studies I know (e.g., L. G. Kletzer's) say that the growth of trade accounts for about a quarter of the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US in recent decades, the rest being (pretty much) due to increased productivity, so it's not clear how much impact trade in manufactured goods, but not in professional services, has on income inequality; I wish Baker had talked about this. (Of course, manufacturing wages haven't gone up at anything like a rate corresponding to productivity gains, which is in a larger sense Baker's point. I could well imagine --- but have no evidence to back this up --- that even if trade does not account for a lot of job-loss in the U.S., the fact that employers could threaten to relocate any particular plant overseas would serve to hold down wages. And the threat would only have to be credible to employees, not actually practical.)
Full-text free online under Creative Commons, intellectual property rights being Exhibit C in Baker's case (after trade and Federal Reserve policy).
Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Popular account of recent work by anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, etc., on the nature, extent and impact of pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas. Well-written, mostly convincing, and good at pointing out where there are controversies and why. It did strike me as reaching in a few places (e.g., on his evidence, I fully buy that the Aztecs had a very sophisticated literary tradition, but that's not philosophy on the level of ancient China, Greece or India). Still, very much recommended.
Stephen King, The Dark Tower
The end of the story of Roland, the last gunslinger, and his quest for the Dark Tower. There are two endings; both made me want to cry. "There I will sing all their names..."

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Writing for Antiquity; Scientifiction and Fantastica

Posted at June 30, 2006 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth