Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, November 2010
- Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
- If you need someone to explain why the appearance of a new book in this
series is a "Run, go read" event,
- Easily the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation I've run across in a long time;
they do a great job of maintaining the characters and atmosphere, while
updating the setting, and telling good stories. I also like that they make
Holmes rather a jerk, which no doubt he would be. (Conjecture: this last was
inspired by House, but then Dr. House is what you get if you
hybridize Holmes and Dr. Watson, and update the IV cocaine habit. [Spoiler for
a joke in the show: Fureybpx vf nqqvpgrq gb avpbgvar cngpurf.]) The
cliff-hanger at the end of the season is monstrous — and come to think of
it, doesn't "cliff-hanger" come from
the original episode
at the Reichenbach Falls?
- Streaming for free from PBS through December 7.
McAuley, The Quiet War
- Space opera, confined to the solar system two centuries or so from now:
terrestrial dynasties, with Green ideologies, against the democratic,
decentralized, genetically-engineered inhabitants of the outer solar system.
McAuley maneuvers a fairly large but also well-realized cast of characters (all
sympathetically portrayed, even when not very nice) through a complicated and
plausible world, or rather, worlds. One of the most striking parts of the
novel is how he conveys a vivid sense of weird, stark beauty for the landscapes
of the outer solar system. (I can't, obviously, say that he gets
them right, though
tried, but he makes them feel right.) All of this is embedded in
the matrix of a complex but fast-moving and engrossing plot, which ends at a
natural point, though one open for a sequel (currently on its way to me). It
is not so much mind candy as mind confectionery.
- Aside, for those into scientifictional intertextuality: The Quiet
War is obviously heavily indebted
to Bruce Sterling's
Shaper/Mechanist stories (now collected
Plus), as well as directly to Sterling's source material in Freeman
Dyson. (In somewhat the same way, McAuley's superb Confluence
[1, 2, 3]
channels Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Jack Vance's Dying Earth, and a
number of Big Artificial World stories.) But while the setting and themes owes
much to the previous work, it's a solid and independently valuable
re-fashioning of the material. I find the Shaper/Mechanist stories very
compelling but viscerally unpleasant, and sometimes wonder if Sterling set out
to illustrate Haldane's principle that "every
biological innovation is a perversion". McAuley has more sympathy for his
characters, and for his reader's sensibilities, and I can't recall anything in
Sterling like McAuley's eerie moonscapes. On the other hand, The Quiet
War lacks the sheer blow-your-head-off power and scope
- Update: Some backstory.
- 2nd update: The sequel is great.
- Tim Shallice, From Neuropsychology to Mental Structure
- A detailed consideration of how much can be learned about the organization
of normal human minds from studying the deficits and pathologies of cognition
produced by damage to the brain, i.e.,
from neuropsychology. Chapter
1 is historical; chapter 2 is an initial look at the issue of modularity, of
associations between symptoms, and (more importantly) dissociations
between them. To keep this from being an entirely abstract affair, chapters
3--8 cover specific syndromes in great detail: forms of short-term memory loss,
[acquired] dyslexia, agraphia, other language disorders, and visual processing.
The findings here are strange and fascinating, though, when I stop to think
about what they meant for the people living through them, very sad.
- Chapters 9 through 11 resume the methodological discussion. The central
place here is taken by "double dissociations": if patient Alice can read words
normally but cannot do arithmetic, and patient Bob, with a different lesion,
can't read but can calculate, it is very natural to conclude that there must be
different, functionally distinct, neural assemblages required for reading and
for calculating --- some amount of anatomically-localized modularity. (If we
only had a single dissociation, say Alice's pattern, then perhaps arithmetic is
just harder than reading, in that it demands more of the same resources, which
are impaired in her case by her lesion.) Shallice carefully considers
non-modular architectures and what patterns of deficits they can produce, and
(rightly, I think) finds it hard, though not quite impossible, to come up with
ones that can produce a classical double dissociation. Shallice is also is
very scrupulous about noting the assumptions which go in to drawing inferences
about normal behavior: for example, Alice cannot, post-lesion, have learned a
way of reading to a normal level of performance, but using parts of her brain
that wouldn't ordinarily be involved in the action.
- The remaining chapters turn to applying neuropsychological methods to
"higher" or "more central" processes, such as visual attention, disorders of
intentional movement and planning, memory, and conscious awareness. (They kick
off with a very restrained rebuke to some astonishingly ignorant and fatuous
remarks by the philosopher Jerry Fodor.) A vast amount has been done on all of
these topics since 1988, making me wish there was an updated edition.
- I find Shallice's methodological arguments convincing, though they leave me
wanting more formalism and abstraction. (It feels like there should be some
way of expressing the double-dissocation argument in more statistical terms,
but a little toying around doesn't reveal it to me.) While the empirical
findings are no doubt somewhat dated now (and I'd be very curious to learn his
take on fMRI), I have not found a better exposition and defense of the methods
of neuropsychology, or a better explanation of what it can offer cognitive
- Update, next day: Fred Mailhot, in e-mail, points out some
on getting double dissociations without modularity, which I've yet to
- Kurt Jacobs, Stochastic Processes for Physicists: Understanding Noisy Systems
- I have mixed feelings; which will be elaborated upon in a review
in Physics Today, so I'll hold off until that's out.
- Update: And here it is.
- Steven Berlin Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural
History of Innovation
- My remarks grew into a full
review: Go to the Reef, Thou
Dullard, and Consider Its Ways.
- Simon Blackburn, Plato's Republic: A Biography
- Not really a biography of the book, but rather an exposition by a good
modern analytical philosopher. What Blackburn ends up saying about Plato is
actually very close to what Popper wrote
in The Open Society and Its Enemies, only without Popper's hostile
tone. So I pretty much agree with Blackburn, but wish he'd displayed more
- ObLinkage: Jo
Walton on The Republic.
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Scientifiction and Fantastica;
Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;
Minds, Brains, and Neurons;
The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts;
Enigmas of Chance;
Posted at November 30, 2010 23:59 | permanent link