July 31, 2011

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2011

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Charles Sherrington, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System
This is from 1906; Ramón y Cajal had just established that the nervous system actually divided into discrete cells, i.e., neurons, and Sherrington himself had just named the synapse. (The part, in Lecture I, where Sherrington lays out the argument for localizing lots of the interesting properties of reflexes at synapses is a wonderful display of scientific reasoning.) One is staggered both by our ignorance of how the nervous system worked (nobody knew whether nerve impulses were electrical, chemical, mechanical, or something else) and by the sheer crudity of experimental methods.
Clearly, this work is only of historical interest now, but that interest is considerable, since the big, synoptic picture of the nervous system which it draws is still pretty much the one neuroscientists use. It goes (in somewhat modernized language) as follows. The nervous system exists in animals to control muscles, i.e., comparatively rapid motion. Some motions (like those of the heart, lungs, and bowels) are to be kept up continually in more or less steady rhythms; others are sporadic, adaptive responses to circumstances. The later are triggered by sensory organs, and the nervous system provides both what we now call "pattern generators" for rhythms, and the links connecting sensory organs to effector organs, especially muscle fibers. The key to making all this work is that nerve cells transmit impulses to each other, which can, depending on the relations between the cells, either excite or inhibit further transmission on the part of the downstream cells; neurons are themselves excited by sensory cells, and can cause muscle cells to contract. The character of the interaction between neurons depends, somehow, on what goes on at the synapses between them, and it is asymmetry at the synapses which makes the propagation of nerve impulses go in only one direction. To produce useful, adaptive responses, each sensor generally must be able to control multiple effectors; conversely, each effector is generally under the partial control of multiple sensors. This many-to-many linkage means that the nervous system must be a network (a word Sherrington uses, e.g., towards the ends of Lectures IV and VI), where what we would now call functional and effective connectivity changes dynamically. The "integrative action" of his title consists of coordinating the effector responses to sensory stimuli, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes antagonistically (as when different reflexes would move the same body parts in different ways). Some of this can be handled in comparatively local and stereotyped ways, which is more or less what goes on in spinal-cord reflexes, but in an intact, healthy animal, the pre-eminent organ of integration is the brain.
The book seems to be out of print. There is a scan at archive.org, but I haven't looked at it to check its quality.
Charles Saunders, Imaro
Mind-candy. African-themed swords-and-sorcery fantasy, from someone who realizes that Africa is not all one thing.
Patrick O'Brian, H.M.S. Surprise
"Jack, you have debauched my sloth!" (It is characteristic that what sets up this adorable punch-line actually shows a great deal about the characters.)
Carlo Gaetan and Xavier Guyon, Spatial Statistics and Modeling [Prof. Gaetan's website for the book]
For readers who are reasonably comfortable with statistical theory and have some knowledge of stochastic processes. (Someone who had made it through Larry's All of Statistics, and perhaps the Markov chains chapters of Grimmett and Stirzaker, should be in good shape.) They consider three broad classes of spatial models: those defined by second-order moments (covariances or "variograms"), Gibbs-Markov random fields, and point processes. (Spatio-temporal processes are handled mostly by occasional asides about adding an extra coordinate for time, though the Gibbs-Markov chapter gives a little more attention to the fact that time is special.) Chapter four covers simulation methods, including various forms of Monte Carlo. The very long (~100 pp.) fifth chapter actually lays out statistical methods, more or less divided up according to the model type, and giving welcome attention to nonparametric estimates and heuristic checks on models. These are complemented by extensive appendices which state, but do not prove, the necessary ergodic theorems and central limit theorems for random fields, and general results about minimum contrast/quasi-likelihood estimation. The problems at the end of each chapter are a reasonable mixture of theory, calculation, computational mini-projects and data analysis.
Overall, the book is decent but unspectacular. There are a few places where the text is actively unclear (e.g., the definition of a Markov random field on pp. 55--56), and others where more explanation might have been useful (e.g., why the Propp-Wilson algorithm [p. 136] works). Against this, it is up to date, and over-all accurate and has sensible priorities. I am not altogether sure about recommending it for self-study, but would be fine with assigning it for a class.
Jay Lake, Green
The best new fantasy novel I have read these last six months or more. The world is vivid and complicated and mysterious, Green is a compelling character (and her changes in viewpoint are startling, natural, and sometimes heart-aching), the action thrilling and momentous and self-contained, and Lake actually appreciates economy of story-telling. (I have read whole series which just get up to the point where Green leaves Copper Downs.) Lake is now on my "buy on sight" list, despite his apparently having committed some steampunk novels.
My one complaint, and I realize this is in some ways petty, is the cover art: it's attractive, skillfully drawn and actually reflects a lot of important elements from the book, but makes Green oddly melanin-deficient for someone supposed to be from somewhere analogous to the Indian subcontinent and who repeatedly describes her skin as "brown".
Jon "Lost in Transcription" Wilkins, Transistor Rodeo
I see why Jon likes Agha Shahid Ali. There are some samples at his website, but perhaps I may quote one more:
Love Song

What can I offer you, lady?
A fig, perhaps? You are April
and morning and I would line

every street with blueberries
who would tip their tiny crowns
whenever you appeared,
border your life with trumpts
until your shadow was famous,

but I would still be filthy,
and you so starry and upturned,
so yes, perhaps a fig.

Disclaimer: Jon is a friend, but I have no stake in the success of this book, and paid for my own copy.
Carol O'Connell, Mallory's Oracle
Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death
Mystery-flavored mind candy. I cannot decide which heroine --- the 12th century forensic pathologist or the late-20th-century 1337 haxxor policewoman --- is more implausible, but they both worked as the stories carried me along.
Albert Sánchez Piñol, Cold Skin
Tolerable in its own right, but I feel let down, because the extravagant praise on the cover led me to expect something more than a story worth of a Star Trek episode and occasional asides about loneliness, hatred and fear which came across as more over-wrought than profound. (Perhaps they were better in Catalan?)
The story, and why I quite deliberately compare it to a Star Trek episode: A nameless man, disillusioned with Europe after the Great War (evidently; the date is vague) takes a year-long post as the weather monitor on an isolated and improbably warm Antarctic island. The only other person on the island is a strange man supposedly keeping the lighthouse (which is useless since no ships come). As soon as the ship sails away, the protagonist is attacked by scaly bipedal vertebrates which come out of the sea. The light-house keeper has been fending them off for at least a year, and keeping one as a pet/sex-toy. The protagonist is let into the fortified lighthouse to help with its defense. After a few months of this, he has sex with the lighthouse keeper's pet, which is really really good, because she's, like, all natural and uninhibited and doesn't have any, y'know, civilized hang-ups about it.* Then he realizes the creatures are actually intelligent beings, and that maybe they should try negotiating, what with being vastly out-numbered and having only a finite supply of bullets and all. (Kirk at least put recognition of sapience before getting it on with the green-skinned babes.) Some unconvincing sentimental scenes follow, but I spoil nothing by saying that the humans and the amphibians fail to find a satisfactory basis for mutual co-existence.
Over-all: short, some entertainment value, not scary, neither beautiful nor sublime. Worth reading if expectations are suitably low.
*: I mock, but "sexual liberation of exiled civilized person via uncorrupted native" is, if not older than dirt, then at least as old as Enlightenment-era fantasies about Tahiti and the South Seas. (And of course, as here, it's almost always a civilized male and a barbarous female.) If an artist is going to use a theme that worn-out and familiar, they need to either use it really well, or do something new with it, e.g., and off the top of my head, present it as the self-delusion of a rapist. (I offer that suggestion at random; Sánchez Piñol, so far as I can tell, wants us to take the trope at face value.)
Diana Rowland, My Life as a White Trash Zombie
Mind-candy: in which becoming one of the walking dead, dependent on a steady supply of fresh human brains to keep from rotting, turns a young woman's fortunes around, which gives you some idea of her life before. (In other words, it is everything the cover promises.) I found it quite hilarious, but might not have enjoyed it nearly so much in a different mood.
Kathleen George, Taken, Fallen and The Odds
Really excellent series of mystery novels, set in Pittsburgh but definitely worth reading even without the local connection. (Afterimage, which I read about a year ago, is the third book in the series, between Fallen and The Odds, but not too much is lost from reading out of order.) In most cases the reader finds it pretty plain, or even explicit, whodunnit very early on; the pleasure here is the character studies, as well as watching the detectives (and others) piece things together, and the criminals deal with their crimes. Remarkably enough, the books keep getting better. (Sequel.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Commonwealth of Letters; Enigmas of Chance; Minds, Brains, and Neurons

Posted at July 31, 2011 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth