July 31, 2016

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution
Wood's thesis is that the revolution's radicalism wasn't so much in class struggle as it was in over-throwing the idea of a society of orders, of hierarchical chains of dependence and patronage descending from a monarch through aristocrats all the way down. I am not sure I find this fully convincing; Wood shows lots of examples of hierarchical-dependence before the revolution, lots of examples of its dissolution after, and lots of attacks on it during, but how hard would it be to find comparable anecdotes which don't fit his scheme? Similarly, how hard would it be to find anecdotes which fit Wood's scheme, during these periods, for England, or for that matter for the British colonies in the West Indies? If the answer in both cases is "very hard", then I'd be more persuaded; but that's not something I am competent to assess.
Elsa Hart, Jade Dragon Mountain
Mind candy historical mystery: one part imitation of Judge Dee (from the early Qing, rather than the Tang, and from a lower point of view on the social scale) to one part Arabian Nights; more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
Linda Nagata, Deception Well
This is one of Nagata's republished novels from the 1990s, when she was, quite simply, one of the best hard-SF writers going. It shows all her virtues: elegant writing, rigorous large-scale imagination, a story growing naturally from the setting, and a certain emotional detachment from her characters which does not interfere with the narrative drive. (I have my suspicions as to why Nagata's writing career went into hiatus.)
Peter Sis, The Conference of the Birds
There is something incredibly charming about the thought of a Czech-American illustrator adapting a 4500-line medieval Pesian Sufi epic poem as, essentially, a comic book. It becomes even more charming when it's pulled off very well, as it is here.
Stephen M. Stigler, Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom
Stigler is, it's fair to say, the pre-eminent historian of statistics from an "internal", technical-development-of-the-field perspective. This is him explaining where seven key principles came from. I enjoyed it, but I am going to be a jerk and say that this book narrowly but decisively misses being great. The reason is that Stigler's implicit reader is someone who already knows modern statistics. The text goes along happily explaining (for example) why randomized experiments are such a great idea, and then will make references which are incomprehensible unless you've done analysis of variance, remember what "interaction" means in that context, and recall what kind of experimental designs let you get at interactions. I think that with a little more work Stigler could have produced a book which would have actually explained our ideas to non-statisticians, which would have been a triumph. Instead, this is just one for consumption within the tribe.
Ruth Downie, Vita Brevis
Mind-candy historical mystery novel, in which moving from Britannia to Rome to seek one's fortune results only in plot. Enjoyable separately from the rest of the series.
Charles Stross, The Nightmare Stacks
Mind candy contemporary fantasy, in which England is invaded by the Unseelie Host; also in which a nerdy vampire boy meets a manic pixie dream girl with a very evil step-mother, depicted under the light of Stross's take on common notions of romance... This is a really fun book, on multiple levels, and I endorse it strongly as mind candy. Stross has clearly tried to make it an alternate entry-point to the series, though I don't know (having been enjoying the series since the beginning) how comprehensible a new reader really would find the book, especially Alex's situation.
Tim Shallice and Richard P. Cooper, The Organisation of Mind
This is a learned, judicious, rather-comprehensive attempt to synthesize what we have learned about how human minds work, by studying the human brain, especially by studying evidence from selective brain damage (the theme of Shallice's earlier From Neuropsychology to Mental Structure) and from functional brain imaging.
Shallice and Cooper give two early chapters to the assumptions underlying neuropsychological studies, on the one hand, and imaging, on the other, and make the simple (but neglected) point that we should feel a lot more confidence in conclusions which are supported by evidence from both types of studies. They also, soundly, emphasize that both types of studies overwhelmingly rely on tasks, on asking people to do things, and then observing what happens. Drawing conclusions from such experiments thus relies on psychological theories of how people understand the instructions, the processes involved in carrying out the tasks, and the resources and capacities those processes call on. As the book moves on from verbal semantics and short-term memory (especially sensory memory) to complex forms of action and planning, autobiographical memory and abstract thinking, the case studies they consider become increasingly inconclusive and, if not quite mutually contradictory, then at least confused in aggregate. Shallice and Cooper argue, convincingly to me, that this is largely because investigators are not relying on analyses of the tasks which are well-thought-out and widely-agreed-upon task analyses, but rather on ones which are vague, merely-intuitive, or even tacit. They further argue that this is what really needs to be fixed if there is going to be actual scientific progress, rather than a mere assembly-line production of experiments. While this book is from 2010 and so pre-dates projects like NeuroSynth, I think an examination of how that valuable tool gets used (e.g.) would only reinforce their position.
(The next-to-last chapter is about consciousness. While they have some sensible things to say about what a neuropsychological theory of consciousness should try to explain, their account of Deheane et al.'s "global workspace" theory just left me confused, because the Cartesian theater makes no more sense as a distributed network than a localized nodule. It does, however, make the theory sound interesting enough that it goes on the very long list of things to read.)
Over all, I would strongly recommend this to anyone with a serious interest in cognitive neuroscience, some prior acquaintance with at least one of its constituent fields, and the time to read 500 big, densely-printed pages.
Erratum: Despite p. 9, Norbert Wiener was an American, not a Hungarian, mathematician. (This may be the result of confusion with John von Neumann, who was Hungarian-American, and is also mentioned on p. 9.)

Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Tales of Our Ancestors; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Beloved Republic; Enigmas of Chance; Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; Islam

Posted at July 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

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