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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Hull Zero Three

Hull Zero Three is a hard science fiction novel by Greg Bear. The story brings to life a classic science fiction concept: a large ship with slow acceleration moving toward a distant star. The ship in this case is composed of three hulls connected to a huge comet that provides fuel. The ship contains biological systems advanced enough to generate a vast assortment of creatures from its genetic Catalog, from astrogators to ship's engineers to biologists to cleaners to trackers. The humanoids and other creatures are implanted with memories for their jobs.

The story is from the first person point of view of a human who finds himself waking up in a birthing chamber and forced to run to chase heat and escape the cleaners that intend to take him to the recycling chamber. He is led by a young girl who has memories of the Ship and the Mother implanted in her. The man, who comes to be known as the Teacher, finds that Ship is not hospitable for his kind, though there are other creations who can move about easily and survive the harsh environments. Gradually the Teacher and the girl meet others who are trying to make sense of the Ship. They use their combined memories to try to figure out why the ships systems are not working properly and the cleaners are trying to kill them.

The mystery slowly comes together as they discuss their memories and observe the workings of the ship and the space outside. They find that their hull is damaged and another is nearly destroyed, apparently from the blast of a recent supernova. There is some sort of struggle between the ship's systems, the woman known as Mother, and the people who are a part of Destination Guidance. Destination Guidance was supposed to select an appropriate target and fade away to die, but something has gone wrong with their decision.

The descriptions of the ship and its systems are a central part of the story. It is a massive achievement of human design. The ship feels like it has its own life, its own desires. The goals of the hidden players in the story are carried out by the humans and other creatures that they have created on the ship. The Teacher and his friends have to come to grips with the fact that their memories are false and incomplete. They must figure out how to trust each other and themselves. The story is the mystery of the ship's systems, the people who control them, and the decision that led to the whole situation. B+

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Unscientific America

Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future is an analysis by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of the communication problem between scientists and the general public in the U.S. today. The authors trace the rise of science during the mid Twentieth Century in the aftermath of the Second World War, and especially after Sputnik. For decades scientific research had strong support from the government and society at large. The authors go beyond the basic scientific illiteracy in the general public and make a case the while the public is not necessarily anti-science, they do not have an appreciation for how important science is in our society and are not enough involved in scientific research and discoveries.

I was a little concerned when they attack Richard Dawkins and other outspoken atheists, which makes me wonder if they have ever read Dawkins. They try to make a valid point about science and atheism not necessarily being linked, and the case for scientific naturalism vs. philosopohical naturalism. They fear that too much attention given to atheist scientists will scare away the religious American public, and they may have a point there. I also found little discussion about how science is under attack by moneyed interests. I expect that is because that subject is covered in Mooney's book The Republican War on Science

The central lament is about how scientists no longer have the ear of the President or other national leaders. There is also concern about how much attention scientists and the scientific community gives to outreach and just communicating with the public. There are important organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but the authors call for a more organized approach, as well as more attention given to communication in science degree coursework. They have some interesting ideas, such as more combination science/journalism degrees. Their big central case is that of Carl Sagan, one of the most well known scientists in the last fifty years, who caught blow-back in the science community for popularizing and "dumbing down" science.

More than an assessment of the public's knowledge of science, this book looks at the ways the two cultures of science and the general public do not even speak the same language. Their call is for more interaction with science and a bigger presence for scientists at leadership levels. It is a worthy goal. B+

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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Dragons of Babel

Michael Swanwick is always an exciting author to read. His stories are exciting and different and he is not afraid to shake things up, even half way through a novel. In The Dragons of Babel, Swanwick takes a fantastic short story and expands the central character into a more interesting protagonist as he explores the wider world.

The main character is Will le Fey, and the opening story is about how a war dragon is shot down and drags itself to Will's village, then proceeds to take control of the population. Through the dragon's powers, it forces the villagers to do its bidding. It selects Will as its lieutenant, inserting its mind into his. Will finds himself trapped, forced to do the dragon's bidding. The villagers turn against him, even though they know that they are all doing what they must to stay alive. Will is even forced to crucify his best friend. Finally Will runs away from the dragon and forces himself to stay away until he breaks the control. With some of the tricks he has learned from the dragon he destroys it, yet a piece of its mind stays in him.

Will is forced to leave the village since nobody there wants to see him anymore. The war drives him, yet he helps a young girl named Esme and they stick together. Esme is an old woman full of luck and made younger, but cursed to forget her past. In a refugee camp they find a friend in Nat, a carefree elf who is a two bit magician and con man. Nat gets them into Babel but they get chased by the authorities due to forged paperwork.

Here the story makes a complete change as Will descends into the underworld of Babel. He must draw on the powers of the dragon to defeat a challenger. He becomes second in command to an elf who wants to create an army of underworlders to rise up and fight for their place in Babel proper. Yet when the final moment comes, the whole army disappears and Will realizes that everything has been an illusion created by the elf.

When Will gets above ground, he finds Nat and Esme and they start a large con. It involves a dubious ring, a fancy party, and rumors of a lost prince's return. However, it appears that while the underworld plot appeared real but was all an illusion, the plot for the throne of Babel appears illusion but may actually be real. The final hectic pages involve chases and intrigues, as well as a large variety of creatures.

Swanwick is very inventive. In addition to the quickly changing plot, the story is filled with fascinating characters. There's the vixen who helps Nat with his cons, the toad who is stuck in a crack but keeps growing and now runs a bar that surrounds her, the lively elf who Will falls in love with, the police elf who keeps chasing after Will. Then there is the voice of Will's best friend that comes back to haunt him, or help him. And of course the dragon is still there, giving him strength but threatening to take over and destroy everything. Will's mission of vengeance against Babel takes a new turn as he comes closer and closer to the power of the city. The story is a growing up tale of a young man but also a story of the city itself, how it lives and projects power, how decadent is has become in the absence of its king. There is a deep mythology and the city feels broader than any of the individual parts. The city has its own life, and Will comes to understand it even as he understand himself. A-

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Engineer Reconditioned

The Engineer Reconditioned is a collection of short fiction by Neal Asher, the author of The Skinner. Most of the stories are set in his Polity universe, with several set on the world of the Owner. One story takes place in the universe of his book Cowl. The collection is a fun visit to these other stories.

The centerpiece is the novella called "The Engineer". In it, the crew of the science vessel Schrödinger's Box comes across a mysterious metal sphere drifting through space. They thaw out the contents to find a small creature that immediately starts building things out of its environment. The creations become so complex that they can emulate a small human. Meanwhile, the outlaws of the galaxy learn of this discovery and seek to destroy it lest it become a powerful weapon in the Polity's hands. There is a bit of politics and social commentary, but the action is the substance of the story. My only complaint is that compared to The Skinner, the AI characters are dull and flat. Otherwise, it is a fun story.

Two characters from The Skinner make appearances. In "Snairls", Janer takes his hive-mind companions on a large air snail. In "Spatterjay", we see Erlin the first time she comes to the planet and meets Ambel and his crew. The action is a little fast here and there's not much time for character development. However you can see it's a good seed for the full story.

The Owner world is a place where there is a dispassionate and invisible ruler of a planet with few rules: stay inside the marked areas and no population over two billion. In "Proctors", the action follows a scientist and law enforcement as they seek to find a visitor from another planet who has been abducted by men who don't believe that the Owner exists and want to make their own rules. In "The Owner", a family is on the run for disobeying a religious stricture but find the Owner themselves. Both these stories show societies developing differently under the same basic rules.

Asher takes on religion in two very different stories. In "The Thrake", a missionary comes to a planet to determine if a new humanoid species is sentient, only to get a nasty surprise about the nature of sentience. In the final story, "Gurnard", the religion is based on the life cycle of a parasite. The story got more interesting as I understood the circumstances. The parasite has a complex life cycle involving compelling animals to take actions that further the parasite's needs. Part of the life cycle concerns the rites of a religious order. The story follows a man named Beck as he is compelled to return to a church in order to carry a dying fish to its birth waters.

All of the stories here have a good mix of science and action. Asher never fails to provide a good story based on interesting scientific ideas. A-

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Tom McCarthy's novel C concerns the life of Serge Carrefax, from his birth at the end of the nineteenth century, growing up surrounded by new technologies, and surviving World War I as an observer on a plane. Serge is surrounded by signals, starting with wireless signals even as he is born. His father runs an amateur radio station from his English estate. The estate's main business is the production of silk, and there is also a school for the deaf where children learn to speak in strange cadences. Serge's father insists that the children do not sign, instead they must speak and read each others' lips. Serge's own mother is deaf, placing a wall of silence on their relationship. In these first chapters the themes of communication and encoding are grounded.

Serge and his older sister Sophie make the estate their playground. Sometimes literally, as when they decide to transfer their version of the Real Estate game outside to the gardens, assigning squares for properties and railroads and rolling dice to move. Later, Serge spends his nights listening to Morse code signals from across Europe and beyond, while Sophie searches for a rare insect in their garden. When Sophie dies due to accidentally drinking poison, their father insists that she be buried with a string attached to a bell, so that she may communicate with the outside world if she revives.

Later, Serge travels to a Bavarian spa to be healed of a mysterious malady. The dark water is supposed to cure him, but the enemas only make him feel better for a short while. He examines the pipes that carry the dark water through the town, forming maps and representations in his mind.

Serge gets flight training during the war and is sent off to be an observer at the front. This involves watching enemy gun emplacements and sending signals back to the English artillery about their location and how close the shells are to hitting them. It is during this period that he discovers cocaine and heroine. Flying high, the lines of the landscape take on new depth for him. When his plane is shot down he is sent to a prison camp where the prisoners dig tunnels across the town. The tunnels make new lines and new meanings, though Serge can't make any sense out of them because they never end up going anywhere.

After the war Serge studies architecture half-heartedly (he can only draw the two-dimensional plan view) and meets Audrey, a young woman who introduces him to drug connections. The coded conversations for talking about drugs expand to fill Serge's mind, and he imagines the whole world full of drug codes. The codes take on new meaning when Audrey takes him to a seance. Serge is captivated by the code talking from the dead, until he discovers that the table is tilting by wireless signals from a man in a Fedora hat in the audience. Serge fashions his own device and at the next seance co-opts the proceedings with his own signals.

The story culminates when Serge travels to Egypt for the government to help with the British Empire's radio network. There tourists mingle with striking workers; the English bureaucrats play mind games with the agents of the other foreign governments, who in turn send false messages to themselves and each other. Serge travels with two archaeologists and a chemist up the Nile. He sees the blood of the land in the river and visits a tomb with the young woman archaeologist where they have sex in the dark.

This story is one of levels and layers. Parts take on different meanings as they are transferred or translated. Wireless signals become dots, which become letters, which become codes, which turn into a message calling the doctor for Serge's birth, or instructions for a bombing, or a call from beyond the grave. Serge has to deal with learning the codes of life. The style of the novel is beautiful. The story unfolds from Serge's mind as he sees codes in the world. The insects of the family estate are linked to Sophie's studies, and in the end to the bug that gives Serge his fatal bite. The pieces of the story come together for a satisfying whole. The novel is very enjoyable. A

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Philosphy of Mind

Philosphy of Mind is a Modern Scholar lecture course by Professor Andrew Pessin. Professor Pessin gives a deep look at the ideas of the mind and how we think about thinking. He starts with the basic conundrum of mind and body. He describes how the mental is fundamentally different from the physical, including qualitative sensations (qualia) and intentionality (thoughts). Part of philosophy of mind is coming to grips with this different and trying to figure out how thoughts can arise out of inert matter.

Descartes addressed the dualism of mind and body by claiming that they are two different substances (substance dualistm), but had no answer for how they interact other than saying the pituitary gland is the locus. A less strong form of dualism says that the mental and physical are the same substance but have different properties. Physicalism (materialism) says that ultimately there is only the physical. Pessin addresses theories the theories of physicalism. Identity theories says that mental states are identical to brain states. Functionalism says that mental states are defined by their functional roles. Behaviorism all but denies that there is anything internal in anyone's mind. All these theories have flaws.

I enjoyed learning about Language of Thought, which compares the syntax of thought with the syntax of spoken language. It does describe how mental processes resemble sentences. I could have used more analysis of this, but it is a good overview. I may study it further. I also enjoyed hearing about Daniel Dennett's concept of the intentional stance, but I think I need to study more about it before I can really understand it. I also appreciate the review of Searle's Chinese Room analogy, which I first read about in Hofstadter's work. Much of late philosophical theories seem to concern denying the reality of the mental, which is counterintuitive since the mental feels more real than the physical. Objective facts and science cannot break the barrier into a person's personal thoughts and experiences.

One of the concepts that I found most appealing is that of epiphenominalism. This states that the mind-body link is basically one way. The body and brain are completely physical and thus physical principles can explain interaction with the world. Mental states are just byproducts of brain states that have the main effect of driving nerve impulses. This also seems counterintuitive, for it feels that our thoughts direct our actions. But given the state of modern neuroscience, it makes a lot of sense. I do wish that the course had included more discoveries of brain science, since it is illuminating and shows that more and more mental states can be explained by chemistry and electrical impulses. However, the course is a great overview of the thinking about thinking over the last few centuries. A-

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