November 30, 2010

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, see Jo Walton.
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.
Paul 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 he's clearly 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 in Schismatrix Plus), as well as directly to Sterling's source material in Freeman Dyson. (In somewhat the same way, McAuley's superb Confluence trilogy [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 of Schismatrix.
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 "central processing" (like acalculia), 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 science.
Update, next day: Fred Mailhot, in e-mail, points out some interest-looking papers [1, 2] on getting double dissociations without modularity, which I've yet to read.
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 hostility.
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; Physics; Philosophy

Posted at November 30, 2010 23:59 | permanent link

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