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[Book Reviews] Dueling Australian librarians, magical Japanese sheep, hackers with djinns

Wed, 2014-08-27 07:00
Still working my way through the review backlog! But I got most of the books I didn't like out of the way in my post of a few days ago, so these are all but one books I would lend someone I liked. [grin]

After having enjoyed Ramez Naam's debut "Nexus" some months back, I was interested enough to go read the sequel, "Crux". I think I had enough carryover from the first book to stop going "brains don't work that way!" and maintain more of a suspension of disbelief for his head-hacking posits. "Crux" focuses on the ways in which governments and human systems of control seek to exploit the usability of Nexus, and how that conflicts with the peaceful sharing intentions of the technology's pioneers. In that way, it's kinda like a Bourne plot... "secret government agents are after you!" has driven many an action genre piece. But there's also a lot of Singularity-flavored thinking in there, with an explicit cyborg/"posthuman" plot. (I am biased by really hating the phrase "posthuman". Humanity isn't something one just gets over one day. But I didn't hate the characters or the way Naam handles it; that's all my peeve vs. the implications of the phrase.) While I was pretty displeased at his handling of one character near the end, that's not enough to sour me on the book entirely, and I really want to see where he goes with Ling Shu. Like its predecessor, three and a half personality uploads out of five. (It would have been four, but ooooh that thing he did with that character!)

justbeast gave me the turned-out-to-be-fantastic recommendation of "Souls in the Great Machine", the first of Australian author Sean McMullen's far-future trilogy. ("The Miocene Arrow" is the second. Still waiting on the third to arrive.) In this world, humanity's terrible war in our modern day had far-reaching effects. Any mechanized vehicle longer than 30 meters, sizable use of electricity, or anything like an internal combustion engine gets shot down from space. In addition, most lands are subject to varying sweeps of the Call, where any animal larger than about 30 lbs will walk mindlessly in the direction of the Call until either it dies, is stopped by a wall or something that impedes progress, or the Call passes over it. As you might imagine, these worldbuilding strictures make the far-future civilizations interestingly different. Australia is sort of desert-steampunk, ruled by a plurality of ambitious dueling librarians and engaged in a series of revolutions in technology. North America has small havens in the mountains, and rather than being driven by wind-powered trains, has diesel compression engines and aircraft just under the limits permitted. Separate fiefs are held by chivalric airlords. And then the wars over genetic engineering start. [grin] They're the best sci-fi I've read recently for having innovative and interesting worlds, I liked the hat-tip to the early days of computing, the characters are well fleshed out and generally likable, and the plots were pleasingly unpredictable. I was also delighted that many of the world-moving, planet-changing characters were women; if they made movies out of these books they'd pass the Bechdel test easily and often. A pure delight despite some of the premise being a bit far-fetched; four Spock flashbacks out of five.

The one book I didn't like (and was warned that I wouldn't, but I read it anyway) was G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen". I *wanted* to like it; I was pretty excited about the author's reimagining of Miss Marvel and have been following some of her writing there with pleasure. But with a lead character who's allegedly an amazing hacker, nothing he did made any kind of technical sense, and the constant flow of "computers don't work like that!" was really disruptive to me. I recognize that it's fantasy, but I think it's fantasy for the nontechnical person. I did enjoy the setting and the code switching between cultures that went on, but between not believing in his skills and feeling like the protagonist was rather more dense and self-centered than I liked, I just didn't find a lot to love in the book. I want a book about Dina instead. Two cups of mint tea out of five.

In contrast, I very much enjoyed Murakami's early work "A Wild Sheep Chase". Fantastic, lyrical, hilarious, it was just the kind of absurdity that I particularly appreciate. I regret that my Japanese is not better; I would have loved to read it in the original and see how many of the bits I particularly appreciated were the same in nuance. (I am totally adding this to my list of future goals, though!) I also enjoyed the little glimpse at Hokkaido; I don't know that much about the history of that region of Japan and have a couple nonfiction books of the sort on my reading list. I might read through all of Murakami in chronological order, but I think it more likely that I'll just skip to his running book next. Four mysterious ovine spirits out of five.

When I discovered "Mountain Weather: Backcountry Forecasting and Weather Safety for Hikers, Campers, Climbers, Skiers, and Snowboarders" at REI, picking it up was a no-brainer. I'm out there pretty often; I will happily take any knowledge or improvements in how I should make my go/no-go decisions. Meteorologist and avid outdoorsman Jeff Renner does a pretty good job of outlining the basics of how storms and problematic weather forms (most of which I already knew), and then tries to lay out some simple rules for figuring out what's going on. It's a challenging set of problems to make simple rules for, though -- I've definitely had experiences where I had a day-old forecast that was clearly insufficient and yet better than nothing, cases where I could tell that the weather had changed but I wasn't sure what to expect next, and a whole lot of looking at snow slopes and trying to figure out how bad things were from what I knew about recent weather. The guidelines (and weather forecasting in general) are a lot more actionable if you're spending several days in the same place so you can get that continuity of "and then what happened?" so essential to avalanche forecasting. But if you're a day hiker and itinerant like me, you're basically never going to have that. ("Did it rain here yesterday?" "Well... it rained in Seattle, 60 miles away and with some mountains in between... and the system came from the south... but we're on the east face of this mountain... which is southeast of Seattle... aaaaaagh!") Sometimes historical local data is available, but often it isn't, and that does make things riskier. That's not the fault of this book, of course... the author is aiming for a more informed and better readership, even if the results of being more informed are to feel surrounded by risk and depressed at all the things you don't know and probably can't find out. So, useful but kinda discouraging because it is a hard problem; four mixed front enlightenments out of five.

The bestselling authors of "Thinking Strategically" revised their work and produced "The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life", aimed at a popular audience. It's a good introduction if you're not familiar with the field, but it also brings out a number of things that I find frustrating about the field. Even in explicit discussions of non-zero-sum games, there's an underlying assumption that you are an individual actor out to win the game for you. If your best outcome also comes from helping other people do well, great, but if you do better long term by cooperating until the very last round and then cutthroat, well, that's what's best for you! (But like Vizzini, a rational actor would know that, so they cooperate until the second to last round, but your opponent would know that you know that, so they cooperate until the third to last round.... and so on.) It's interesting if you're a programmer, but it gets frustrating if you're a neurologist or a behaviourist or an ethicist. So despite being a widely spanning introduction to a good number of fundamental concepts of game theory, I was left with the sense that people who read this book and only this book will be like the pickup artists of strategy... they'll have a few tricks that will allow them to feel like they've "won" and that they know the secrets of successful negotiation now. So I want to recommend this book, but only to people who will also read other books which do not presume Homo economicus. Hardly the fault of the authors, they do point out where peoples' actual experimental behaviour deviates from what a good programmer/mathematician/strategist would optimize for... like the weather book, it's just a hard problem to bookify. Three and a half "and also read something else"s out of five.

I bought Dave Egger's "The Circle" because I hadn't read any good cyberpunk in a while, and I had hoped from the description that it would be a modern day social media novel in that genre. (Naam for bioengineering, Egger for social engingeering?) Given my political tendencies, I expected this book to be a thoughtful exploration of what we as a society are doing by sharing so much about ourselves, how it shapes our interactions, and how irrevocable that is. I didn't expect to do most of the reading with my shoulders around my ears; the culture of the Circle company felt like it was written to give me personally the heebie-jeebies. I suspect many other privacy geeks would feel the same way. Aaaaaah! One of the people I normally push books upon when I am done with them... I actually asked him, as much as I could without giving away spoilers, if this was something he would even want to read. (He's like me but more so there.) It's trenchant social commentary, but it wasn't the revolutionary thinking many of the critics are lauding him for... it's more like "aaaand here are the consequences that my friends have been wargaming for twenty years". So good on him if he gets more people thinking about that, but it feels very arrogant to think that there aren't already tons of people thinking about that. Three unsettling heebies out of jeebie.

Back to things I straightforwardly loved, John McPhee's "The Control of Nature" had me at Atchafalaya. [grin] Everyone recommends him and I can't think why I didn't try him long ago. ("You're one of today's lucky ten thousand!") After "The Emerald Mile" from last batch, I thought I was on a dam kick -- I knew something about the Old River Control, but not with the personal touch that McPhee brings to it. (I also want him to write a post-Katrina update now, and I want to go find my friend who was with the Army Corps of Engineers down there and ask him about his time serving.) I also wanted to get this book read before my trip, given McPhee's coverage of Iceland's attempt to save a town from being overrun by lava with high pressure hoses and seawater. I now appear to be on a volcano kick. [grin] Your recommendations for good volcano books gleefully accepted. I will certainly go look up the rest of McPhee's work; four and a half submerging islands out of five.

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[Book Reviews] Excellent anthologies, an epic Grand Canyon run, and two awful books

Tue, 2014-08-19 21:15
Hello, Internet! I read a couple of terrible books as well as several that I liked. In an attempt to whittle down my backlog of book reviews some, have a post. Books I disliked:
I got a recommendation for "The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club" from a lady I was corresponding with; she swore that Laurie Notaro was the funniest woman alive and that everything she wrote was gold. I was expecting comedy stories about a group of women out adventuring. Instead, what I got was more like "it's soooooo hard having a Jersey Shore style life". I... had assumed that the title was self-deprecating. I didn't expect the author to genuinely be someone I thought was stupid. I should have read Powells rather than just jumping to Paperback Swap: She writes about a world of hourly-wage jobs that require absolutely no skills... and hangovers that leave her surprised that she woke up in the first place. The misadventures of Laurie and her fellow Idiot Girls (“too cool to be in the Smart Group”) unfold in a world that everyone will recognize but no one has ever described so hilariously. She delivers the goods: life as we all know it. Uh. That is not life as I know it. I didn't find it hilarious. I was torn between "wow, that is completely obnoxious and self centered", "you realize you could have trivially avoided this problem, right?", and just a complete lack of connection with the protagonist. Our priorities are so different that I disliked basically everything she decided to do, and that made it hard to find this funny. One episode of falling asleep on someone else's lawn in your own vomit out of five. :/

I know, I'm a heathen, but I hated Paul Park's "A Princess of Roumania" too. It's a portal fantasy full of characters that I don't care about, in a world where the only person I liked gets turned into a silent dog pretty much immediately. Bah. It's the first of a trilogy, and it doesn't stand alone very well, but I didn't care about the characters or the world enough to read the other two. If you liked the "mucking about in tents" part of Harry Potter 7, you will like this book... there are nontrivial similarities. Our Heroine (and her small entourage) are very lazily pursued by the bad guys, the weather is awful, there's always a vague feeling of threat, nothing feels resolved. Even when things happen, it doesn't feel like there's progress of the plot, it's more just like "and then in the winter of 1638 Such And So fell sick and died unexpectedly, also barley harvests were down but winter wheat taxes were lucrative". The younger characters whine and bicker a lot, which does not add to their likability. The adult characters all took a triple dose of Inscrutable Motives And Secret History, so they're all swanning about giving the fourth wall meaningful glances but never actually saying anything. Bah. One pointless winter march out of five.

Better books:
I was a Kickstarter backer for "Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History", and I had pretty high hopes for it. I like anthologies, I like the chance to get to discover new authors, and I was particularly looking forward to an anthology that wasn't just going to be a million Play Ren Fest With Magic stories about being a noble in medieval Europe. (Even or perhaps particularly as a Celt, the avalanche of magic medieval Ireland stories get really really old.) Favorite stories included Tananarive Due's contribution -- I'm not a horror fan but she writes so well that I grit my teeth and read through the creepy anyway. Ken Liu’s “Knotting Grass, Holding Wing” was also excellent; Green Siskin is a wonderfully well developed heroine. L.S. Johnson's “Marigolds” and Nnedi Okorafor's “It’s War” were also among my favorites. The anthology as a whole is certainly serving a market looking for its stories; about two days after I'd finished, a new book friend of mine said that she liked postcolonialist literature and speculative fiction but rarely found the two in the same works. I cackled and sent her a recommendation. For sensitive readers, a lot of the stories deal with difficult subject matter... there are plenty of cases where the plot is driven by the characters asserting themselves against an unfair world, and the harshness of their surrounding circumstances is pretty apparent. But I was regularly delighted by the narrative focus remaining on these characters as people who decided and acted... the stories were not about how hard they had it, but rather about what they did with their lives. A++ for that! Many of the stories do not end happily, which is pretty consistent with how many of the referenced periods of history used as settings went, but even when they were hard to read I still enjoyed having read them. Four and a half complex plots out of five.

"Athena's Daughters: Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy" was another Kickstarter project (and it's worth going to that page for all the associated art, but by the time I found out about it I was too late to fund it. Instead, I ended up ordering the ebook through Amazon. Pun sort of intended, it's a stellar anthology -- I found out about it through Sherwood Smith's blog, and with her story and a couple of my other favorite authors (Cleolinda Jones! Nisi Shawl!) it would be hard not to be. It was icing on the cake that astronaut and all-around badass Colonel Pam Melroy (one of only two women to command the Space Shuttle) wrote for them as well. I know I'm a sucker, but the Amelia Earhart story was my favorite. Like "Long Hidden", the included art was lovely and added to my enjoyment as a reader, even if I do always try to figure everything in the story out in advance from the art. I understand they're doing a second volume with submissions opening this summer, and I'll definitely read that one once it's out too. Four wise owls out of five.

My book friend to whom I recommended "Long Hidden" lent me Stephen King's foray into mystery/hard boiled crime fiction "The Colorado Kid". More than anything, I read it as an ethnography of Maine island life. It wasn't badly told, but if you are the kind of reader who likes all their loose ends wrapped up and everything neatly packaged, you will not like this book. It's much more "old-timers talking about a cold case" than it is a detective hurtling across the landscape trying to solve a murder before getting offed themself. Short, interesting, but not a neat fit in any genre. Three and a half ferry boat drivers out of five.

From my first trip to Third Place Books, I had to pick just one book to take home with me. (I was on a bicycle. It's a long way.) That book was "The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon". It's excellent outdoor writing -- lots of history, some geology, and enough background to understand the tension and opposing worldviews of the engineers who built and maintain the dams on the Colorado as well as the environmental activists who oppose their existence and management. Readers who like high context and understanding how things came to be will like this book. While it takes quite some time to get around to the Emerald Mile's record-breaking run down the river, by the time you get there you can appreciate what it was that just happened. I am still substantially astonished that nobody died... like the Powell party, heading dwarfed but undaunted into a partially known river of that scale is straddling the line between crazy and legendary. I sure wouldn't want to do it, but I enjoyed reading about people crazier than myself doing it. Four new faces of Crystal out of five.

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[Book Reviews] "Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind"

Fri, 2014-08-15 15:59
It probably says something about me that I had already read about every study cited in Robert Kurzban's pop science work "Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind" and all of the philosophers, but 75% of his movie references were lost upon me. I fail at pop. (Pretty funny, since that's what most of the Amazon reviewers loved about the book.) I was predisposed to like his book, though, because his thesis of the complexity/multiplicity of mind pretty much tallies with my own experience of consciousness. Briefly, he posits that we are not each one solitary controlled actor, but rather each a collection of competing and cooperating neural responses and cognitive processes (he refers to these as modules of the brain) which don't necessarily share information with each other. So we aren't always (or even often) consciously aware that we have done something (heart beating, breathing, etc.), or how we have done it (detectable decision making is not the first neural activity associated with that decision) or, most crucially, why we have done it. He tackles confabulation and split-brain patients, touching on the work of my favorite neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, and then extends this thinking to other neural processes that aren't strictly hemisphere-limited.

The central useful idea of the book discusses cases where we simultaneously hold two conflicting ideas, and explains this as different modules of the brain being adapted for different purposes. That certainly happens and has clear ties to Ramachandran's split-brain work, and when asked how we resolve these seemingly conflicting pieces of information, we usually just make shit up (technical term: confabulation). He explains our brains as adapted for living as social animals, and so one module (he calls it the press secretary) has as its function the favorable presentation of ourselves to others. If this were true, it would sometimes be to our advantage for that module to be strategically ignorant of other things we do or think, much as politicians tend to deny knowledge of whatever inconveniently unpopular thing is advancing their agenda. So in Kurzban's framing, the self-interested modules that are pursuing our own advantage simply don't inform the press secretary module of this, and this explains why you get family values politicians having affairs, Eliot Spitzer, etc. (He didn't reference the GLBT versions thereof, I suspect because some readers will think that's a harder evolutionary sell than het sex.) The thing I would have loved to see discussed that didn't get covered is how these various brain modules arrive at a decision when there is conflict between them. I suspect that the answer is "Nobody knows!", but he spends so much time debunking the little-decider-brain-within-a-big-brain approach that I felt like he owed the reader an alternate hypothesis for how this decision making actually happens, or at least an admission that we haven't the faintest idea.

Kurzban is a straight-up materialist and nothing else is considered, just referenced as history... he comes within a hair of titling a section "Why Your Religion Is Wrong And There Is Nothing But The Brain". But if that doesn't bother you or if you agree with him, you'll probably like this book. I think he's too exclusionary there -- even if you're a materialist too, he doesn't reference or look at the known effects of digestive bacteria on mood or neural activity, for example, and only kinda touches on the substantial body of literature on hormones and their expressions. When you're writing a 220 page book I can kind of understand not wanting to open those cans of E. coli, though. I appreciated his clear delineation of the differences in playing a game against other humans (where you may win via persuasion even if you are wrong) versus playing a game against nature (honey badger don't care about your press secretary) and the cases where that does and doesn't work out for people. But I do think it would do most of us good to be able to think of ourselves more as ecosystems rather than as singly motivated beings... we pretty clearly are. I have found it cognitively useful when thrashing through a complicated problem to not kick myself for "Why do I hold both A and in-this-case not-A?" -- realizing that it's a case of dual inputs which happen to conflict rather than "you suck at logical consistency" helps me figure out what I'm actually going to do. I didn't learn a lot from reading this book -- the one new-information takeaway that I got from it was that Stephen Jay Gould attributed ideas his fellow evolutionists never held to them just so that he could "debunk" them. Pretty annoying to have someone try to prove to you adversarially your own position! Heh. "Gould's strategic errors, painting himself a defender of a completely sensible view in opposition to views held by no one, was thoroughly effective. He died famous, wealthy, and wrong." Dang. (Stephen Jay Gould was one of my childhood heroes; I was reading and loving his books about the time that all this was going on in academia.)

Four monogamy-policing nesting birds out of five.

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