You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year's Best Fantasy 7

I've been reading Year's Best Fantasy 7, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, for several months now during workout sessions. It's a good book to have handy then because most of the stories are relatively short and easy to read while exercising.

The stories range from the light to the very dark, from modern fantasy to magical realism to high fantasy. Charles Stross' "Pimpf" is an entertaining and light story about a bureaucracy that deals with demons who sneak into online fantasy games. Both "The Potter's Daughter" by Martha Wells and "The Double-Edged Sword" by Sharon Shinn involve women in fantasy realms who must use their special abilities to help others. Geoff Ryman's story "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" is a dramatic story about modern Cambodia and the ghosts who terrorize a rich and shallow young woman. It begins, "In Cambodia people are used to ghosts. Ghosts buy newspapers. They own property."

I enjoyed Greg van Eekhout's "The Osteomancer's Son", a story about a young man's fight against a powerful Hierarch. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's "Sea Air" involves a mother and son who move into a new seaside town and discover that not only is there a big town secret, but the boy's somehow drawn to the ocean even though he's afraid of water. "I'll Give You My Word" by Diana Wynne Jones is a story about a boy and his special brother and how they fight off a coven of witches led by their teacher. M. Rickert's "The Christmas Witch" is a strange story of a girl who may or may not be in an abusive family and wants to collect bones to make a witch.

The collection's set piece is "Hallucigenia" by Laird Barron. It's dark fantasy, really a horror story in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft. A middle-aged man and his young wife encounter something strange in an abandoned barn. The wife is brain damaged and disabled, with a crack in her head that will not heal. The husband suffers from dreams and vision of dark things creeping though his house. When he hires a private investigator to learn more about the strange property, he discovers a tale of ancient relics, a family with strange powers, and dark secrets. The whole story is infused with a sense of creeping insanity.

Fortunately the book ends on a lighthearted note with the fun "An Episode of Stardust" by Michael Swanwick, a fun caper involving a dwarf, a fox and a "donkey-eared fey."

The stories in this collection were pretty good, and a few shone out, like "Hallucigenia", "An Episode of Stardust", "The Osteomancer's Son", and "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)". I like the mix of styles and genres. A-

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Mind's I

I have had a growing interest in subjects related to the brain and consciousness, including philosophy and AI. After reading Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid I put The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, edited by Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, on my Amazon wish list, and got it for Christmas last year. Unfortunately it sat on my bedside table for nearly a year before I got around to it, but it was worth the wait.

The book is a series of essays or stories and the authors' reflections on different subjects revolving around the concept of self and what it means to be self-aware or conscious. Selections provide different angles on the question, such as whether a computer could ever think; what would it be like to experience life as a bat, or even another human; how our concept of "mind" is linked to the brain; how a system can become more than the sum of its parts; whether the fact that we are all made up of atoms following natural laws means that we are incapable of free will. These are all intriguing concepts that together build an interesting framework for understanding the self; understanding "understanding" itself at its core.

Dennett provides an essay, "Where Am I?", where he purports to have had his brain and body separated from each other, with technology providing the necessary links. He tries to determine where "here" is: is it where his body is located, or where his brain is located?:
...I thought to myself: "Well, here I am sitting on a folding chair, staring through a piece of plate glass at my own brain . . . But wait," I said to myself, "shouldn't I have thought, 'Here I am, suspended in a bubbling fluid, being stared at by my own eyes'?" I tried to think this latter thought. I tried to project it into the tank, offering hopefully to my brain, but I failed to carry off the exercise with any conviction.
Here he is describing the disconnect between where the mind's thoughts are physically manifested and where the perception, which feeds the brain, is oriented. I suspect that it would be an even stranger experience to have one's vision situated at many different locations, like the many facets of an insect's eye or a system with hundreds of video connections. How could we even conceive of this with out limited brains structured to understand a simple visual perception?

Also presented is a selection of Alan Turing's famous Turing test and a comment on it. Some have thought of it as a good test for consciousness, while others have seen it as only "faking" or "simulating" consciousness. For a rebuttal, they include an essay called "Minds, Brains, and Programs" by John R. Searle. Searle presents the analogy of a man who understands only English inside a room who is trained to take slips of paper with Chinese on them, put them through an elaborate process or set of rules to correlate the set of symbols together and produce an output, also in Chinese. The input and the output would be perfectly understandable Chinese, yet the man cannot possibly be said to really understand Chinese. Hofstadter and Dennett maintain that the analogy is flawed because Searle asks us to identity with the man instead of the system as a whole, which is what appears to have the understanding. It would be like saying a set of neurons does not understand English because it only passes along symbols as electric signals. When the system is shrunk down to size, it becomes much easier to identify with the room, or computer, and perhaps believe that is has some understanding. I think they all miss one point. A system cannot be said to be conscious unless it has a sense of self. A computer may have a set of knowledge about the world, itself, and its relationship to the world, but can it really be call "understanding" if it doesn't have a detailed concept of what it is and its place in the world, its strengths, boundaries, and limits? Then again, animals don't have a detailed concept of themselves yet they can be said to have a rudimentary consciousness.

I also enjoyed the story by Christopher Cherniak titled "The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution." The concept is something gets displayed on a computer screen that puts the operator into a coma. Several other people are trapped by this before investigators realize what is going on. Apparently what is displayed is an image or text that, when perceived and understood, "freezes" the component of the brain that keeps thought processes going.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only quibble is that I would like to see it updated--it was published in 1981, and some of the ideas seem a little dated. I would like to see some reflections on the concepts of virtual reality, or the ideas presented in The Matrix. There's been a lot of work over the last thirty years in AI and neurology. For example, doctors can now pinpoint places in the brain where specific activities such as memories and language are processed, and can stimulate the brain to "simulate" certain sensations. We can even tell when someone is lying by watching for activity in certain regions. Other than that, I was pleased with the book. The essays and stories provide insight into these concepts from new and interesting points of view. A

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Earth Logic

Laurie J. Marks's Earth Logic is the sequel to her fine fantasy novel Fire Logic. It's about four years later, and the main characters are living together. Zanja is a fire witch who uses cards to see the present. Medric and Emil are loves who also have fire logic. Norina is a Truthken, able to tell if others are speaking the truth and can bind them to oaths. Leeba is her daughter and J'han, a healer, is her husband. Karis, imbued with earth logic, is the G'deon of Shaftal, their spiritual leader. Much of the story involves Karis's reluctance to take any decisive action against the Sainnites, the soldiers that have invaded Shaftal.

Two new characters enter this story. Garland is a Sainnite cook who is wandering the land, unable to settle down due to being a foreigner and a deserter. Lieutenant-General Clement is a Sainnite woman who is the dedicated to her leader General Cadmar, but who has doubts about the war they are waging.

The action starts with a plague infesting the land, and Clement receives mysterious instructions on how to stay healthy. Karis travels with Zanja and J'han to the lands to the south to heal the sick, and there she finds the relatives of her mother. Meanwhile, a band of raiders attacks the Watfield garrison where Clement and Cadmar live. In response, they go through the countryside stealing children to replace their lost soldiers. The children are sent to the children's garrison to the south to be trained, though many do not survive the plague.

Emil and Zanja find a book written by the last G'deon to Karis and send it to Karis to read. She finally meets Mabin, the military leader of the Paladins, and they make a sort of peace. Emil and the other fire bloods come to the realization that they must send Zanja to another death, one more boundary she must cross. But Norina tricks them and Zanja only loses her memory, survives and is picked up by a pregnant prostitute on the way home to Watfield.

Clement is approached by a man offering critical intelligence for the return of his daughter. Clement makes the trip to the children's garrison in the bitter cold and snow, then learns that the same people who attacked her garrison are planning on attacking the children's garrison to rescue all the children. She takes a contingent there and surprises the attackers, killing them all. When she returns she adopts the baby of the prostitute. Zanja, separated from her spirit and her memories, is known only as the storyteller, who trades stories for stories with the soldiers of the garrison. But she helps Clement find a wet nurse for the baby.

Karis and the others make their way to Watfield to make a peace offer to the Sainnites. Clement is intrigued, having become disillusioned with the war. But Cadmar is stubborn. Clement is touched when Karis gives her a vial of liquid to heal her baby. Karis confronts Cadmar, realizes he is her father, and attacks him. When Cadmar later dies, Clement makes peace with Karis.

This is a good followup to the first book. It deals with the challenge of a peaceful people changing their nature to fight off a violent people. How much of your nature can you keep if fighting violates your values? Clement provides a lot of reflection on the ways of the Sainnites, who always take children to be trained as soldiers. She comes to realize how this had damaged her people. When she adopts the Shaftalese boy, she gains empathy and an insight into what her people have become. Karis breaks out of her paralysis to actually do something. She encounters her mother's relatives, her predecessor's message, and finally her father. She discovers herself and finds a future for Shaftal.

As usual, the characters are fascinating to watch. At first reading about the main characters all living together seemed a bit like watching a familiar sitcom. Then they go about their different activities and things get interesting. The great thing about these books is that it's not just about plot but also character. The characters drive the story. There's a definite sense of purpose behind all of them. A-

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Foreign language books

I came across the blog Three Percent, about international literature in translation. The title comes from the fact that only 3% of U.S. published works are works in translation, and only 0.7% are literary fiction or poetry. Obviously there's a lot of great literature written in languages other than English. I can hope that some of the best are being translated so to be accessible to those of us who can really only read in English. I'd like to be able to read a book in French or Spanish, but realistically I'll likely never be proficient enough.

I've only read two translated books in the last year, Siddhartha and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I think that's going to change in the near future. I hope to read some translated books, more than two a year anyway. I'm already planning on reading 2666. Hopefully I can find more good foreign language books to read.