June 30, 2013

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2013

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologiae (trans. Joanna Zylinska)
This was Lem's main attempt to think through the relations between human intellect and human technology. It's not a book with a central thesis so much as a series of explorations along related lines, with Lem pushing various ideas as far as he can go. This means that it considers information, feedback, self-organization, complexity, biological evolution, evolutionary optimization algorithms, artificial life, complexity, virtual reality, the social organization of scientific research, the extent to which public policy can guide technological development, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, "miracles in the heavens", the ethical implications of duplicating people by transmitting descriptions of them, the minimum description length principle, and much, much else.
The themes Lem keeps returning to are the comparison between human cognition and natural evolution, the importance of self-organization and homeostasis, and the possibilities of one process creating another of a radically different nature. All three themes are clearly very influenced by cybernetics, especially Wiener (e.g., God & Golem, Inc.) and Ashby (e.g., Design for a Brain). In some ways the influence makes this a bit of a period piece, but as always Lem had good taste in ideas, and isn't distracted by the less valuable parts of cybernetics. This means that while some of Lem's ideas about implementations are obsolete, his general notions are still very relevant. (What is this but a step towards an information farm?) I'd go on, but David Auerbach's review is already out there, so just go read that, and then Summa.
(Please ignore the attempt, in the introduction to the translation, to push Lem as the Next Big Thing in Contnential theory; we owe the translator a debt for her labor of love on this book.)
Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot (= Rivers of London), Moon over Soho and Whispers Underground
Mind candy. Adventures and investigations of London constable Peter Grant, apprentice sorcerer. I learned about these from Kate Nepveu's review, and devoured them.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Great Transformation; Complexity

Posted at June 30, 2013 23:59 | permanent link

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