June 30, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World
This is just as impressive, enlightening, gracefully-written and thoughtful as I'd expect from the author of Eaters of the Sun. The subtitle might lead you to expect simple boosterism for geoengineering as a response to climate change; nothing could be further from the truth. Instead this is an informative and nuanced look at what forms of geoengineering might be practical, what forms of it have (arguably) taken place (especially notable: a magnificent chapter on the planetary nitrogen cycle, and how it's been changed by artificial fertilizers), and why geoengineering needs to be investigated, rather than either advocated for or against. Morton is quite passionate, and quite right, that these cannot be technical decisions taken outside of politics, and that they will only do good if the decision-making is at once technical and political, about who will gain and lose what, with what justice and what accountability for the (literally) monstrous acts being contemplated --- or for the failure to undertake them.
If you find what I write at all interesting, I can hardly recommend this too highly.
Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit
Mind candy military space opera. The conceit that getting human beings to accept the right sort of mathematically-designed ritual calendar could change the local laws of physics, permitting interestingly-gruesome "exotic" effects, is I think new, and used well; the writing is also quite good, though not spectacular. (The convoluted schemes are however too convoluted, or at least it feels like they should suffer more unforeseeable complications.)
Marisha Pessl, Night Film
Mind candy literary thriller, playing at being a horror story. (Or is it?) It's really quite gripping, and surprised me multiple times. I would happily read a lot more like this, but it seems like the sort of book which was a lot of work to write.
(I will gripe very slightly that the first-person narrator doesn't sound altogether convincing as a middle-aged divorced man. Of course he's much more convincing than most attempts by people like the narrator [or me] to write people like Pessl.)
(I will also gripe, carefully, that Pessl's characters present a lot of myths about Satanic ritual abuse from the 1980s and early 1990s as simple facts.)
Michelle Goldberg, The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Women Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West
This is awesome. It's very much a popular book but Goldberg has clearly dived into the scholarly literature about things like the Mughal-era history of yoga, the role of Theosophy, etc. It also helps tremendously that Goldberg doesn't take her subject's self-presentation(s) at face value. This is fascinating stuff even if you don't care about yoga.
(It's also a bit depressing that a woman of such obvious energy, determination, openness to novelty and multi-form abilities found nothing better to do with herself for much of her long life than promote quackery and cults. Whether she, and the world, would have been better off with a career in finance or marketing is, however, a nice question.)
Stephen King, End of Watch
Mind candy. This is the end of a trilogy which began as a mundane (but good!) thriller, and had a second book which was almost entirely free of supernatural elements. This one, however, is just a flat-out horror novel, and its biggest flaw to my mind is that the characters accept the super-natural much too readily. It's still fun, but it's a bit weak.
K. B. Spangler, State Machine
Mind candy science fiction mystery. This is the third Rachel Peng novel; it'll make a lot more sense, and be a lot more enjoyable, if you've read the first two; having done so, I found this outing enjoyable. However, there certain plot elements whose significance will only be clear to readers of Spangler's web comic, which is rather different in tone than these books. I'll be curious to see how she handles this going forward.
Martin Anthony and Peter L. Bartlett, Neural Network Learning: Theoretical Foundations
In the usual way, my brief remarks grew to a full review. Shorter me: it's really a mathematical introduction to statistical learning theory, and still quite good even if you couldn't care less about neural networks.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity; Physics; Biology; The Great Transformation; Psychoceramica; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at June 30, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

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