Category Archives: Literature

Posts about books and short stories. Usually things I have read recently.

On Intelligence

I recently finished On Intelligence, a book on the underlying mechanism of cognition by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee. I very highly recommend it to anyone interested in brains and cognition, it is a very accessible read, with excellent content.

I’d been slowly, slowly working through the book, which should have taken me about 3 hours in two sittings, over the course of several weeks, due to lack of free time, and finally got a block of time on the bus on to the way to SoutheastCon to finish. The cohesion and detail of my understanding probably suffered from reading half of it in 10 minute sittings over the course of several weeks, and the other half on a single shot later, but it was still excellent.

The important thing is that the book has a wonderful main argument: Basically, they argue that the neocortex is running a single, simple hierarchical memory-prediction model everywhere, for all the senses, and this algorithm is intelligence. It is a beautiful, simple model, and like most such models is largely untestable with current technology. Unlike most such untestable models, the end of the book includes a list of “just out of reach” testable predictions, which shows welcome understanding and acknowledgment of the issue.

I only had a few objections to the ideas in the book. Chiefly, I object to the degree to which he rejects behavioral equivalence. I pretty firmly do believe that any system which perfectly emulates intelligence over all sets of inputs and outputs in a given domain is intelligent in that domain, and tend toward the “Virtual Mind” argument on such things. In particular feel that if there IS a single, simple algorithm for intelligence, there should be a (probably unbounded) number of “intelligencally equivalent” algorithms which yield intelligence, just as there are an infinite number of computationally equivalent mechanisms for computation. In general, it seems unlikely to me that there is only a single mechanism by which intelligence (which may be sufficiently different than our own to be difficult to recognize) can arise. This fits well with the idea of domain-specific intelligences he suggests in the latter portion of the book.

The authors themselves are neat as well; Jeff Hawkins was the founder of Palm and Handspring, and is roughly the father of handheld/ubiquitous/mobile computing. He was initially trained as an electrical engineer, then, like many other interesting EEs, decided he was more inclined to pursue his interest in intelligent machines, which has resulted in the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience and Numenta, to understand the brain and build brain-like machines. He has a TED Talk on the same topic.

I’d like to find a book (or other large body of relatively accessible text) on the “Emergent property of parallel systems” or the similar “Society of Mind” theory of intelligence, it’s the only other one I’m aware of that seems both reasonable and testable.

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What the Dog Saw

I went on a binge a while ago and read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books available at the time. They’re all pop-science pieces on sociological/psychological matters, with really spectacular breadth and readability. The only big downside is that they tend to have glaring issues with correlation v. causation and statistical rigor, which make some of the conclusions he draws a little irritating, and more than a little suspect. I enjoyed all three, so I was pretty excited when I heard he was coming out with something new.

A friend bought me a copy of his new book, What the Dog Saw: and Other Adventures earlier in the break, and I devoured it in a couple of sittings, finishing up earlier today.

What the Dog Saw is a little different than his previous books; instead of having a central topic, it is simply a collection of 19 articles he wrote for the New Yorker, broken into three loosely themed sections. Interestingly, all the articles used in the book are available in an archive on his website (along with many others), so the book is more of a convenient selection than a sole source. This decision may be an experiment to see if free availability affects sales; based on some other authors who have performed similar experiments, it probably won’t, and may actually boost sales as people get hooked and decide they would rather not read the whole thing off a screen.

In my opinion two of the articles stand out above the rest; John Rock’s Error, which discusses the public health implications of some strange decisions by birth control pioneers and Million-Dollar Murray, which discusses fundamental issues with the way social service issues are handled. The other thing I really enjoyed is that reading through the set, a large number of the articles work together to form a ringing and very thorough condemnation of the goals and methods of modern business culture, from risk perception, analysis and handling, to hiring practices, which agree with my feelings on the matter (feelings which form a part of my inclination to remain in academia on a permanent basis).

The book is both better and worse for lacking a central theme; worse in that it doesn’t have the depth of the earlier books, better in that it avoids the overwrought, dubiously justified conclusions that made the last bit of each of its predecessors painful to read. Not an extraordinary book, but fun, and way better for you than reading more Internet garbage. Certainly worth reading (as are his other three) if one has the time.

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Nabokov Explains Retro

I’ve been working thorugh The Stories of Vladmir Nabokov for a while “in my copious spare time”(which has become something of a catchprhase in my department), and it is expectedly excellent. One particular passage is prominent enough to perscribe posting: in A Guide to Berlin (One of the many “I am such an amazing author that you’re going to love and find meaning in this mundane vignette” style stories in the collection), Nabokov perfectly explains the retro aesthetic:

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform. Then he will go home and compile a description of Berlin streets in bygone days. Everything ,every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful: the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine — everything will be ennobled and justified by its age.
I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dress up for an elegant masquerade.

While on the topic of retro aesthetic, check out Jake Von Slatt’s 2009 Steampunk Gift Guide. David Gingery books and Buffy DVDs, Power Tools and Prissy Bags (although personally I would go for a Torrente if I were to pay too much for a Marcopoloni bag; I just like vertical messengers), truly a man after my own heart.

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I recently finished Cory Doctrow’s new novel, Makers, which I really didn’t have time to read, but between geek book club and starting it on the plane to portland I was compelled. Like his last novel, Little Brother (which is YA fiction, but everyone should read anyway), I read it as an eBook on my n810, which is a bit of an odd reading experience, but one that is growing on me (No additional mass/volume per book! Searchable! Ever-Present! Until the damn battery runs out or it breaks!)
It is a pretty fun read, but I must say I liked the first two “lighter” sections better than the third. Some observations:

* Kettlewell seems to be largely borrowed, without the transparently symbolic name, from Willam Gibson’s character Hubertus Bigend

* Suzanne Church strikes me as a sort of composite of the notable female Internet-People, particularly Ana Marie Cox but Xeni Jardin also come to mind. I also wonder if the name isn’t a slight homage to Susan Kare, who is responsible for a starting portion of the art for early iconic computer interface elements (this is a stretch, but only a little). A little googling shows there is also a fairly appropriate real Suzanne Church, which must be a little confusing right now.

* The tech in the story is not embarrassingly wrong; its all plausible and sound except for some fanciful detours near the end. This does not normally happen when engineers read fiction, so good job Cory.

* Cory has clever ideas to try, and the hackers are damn well going to implement them. I suspect many of the things that seem clever in the book (RFID tagging all your crap to make it searchable, for example) won’t actually pan out if implemented, but I’m onboard with other things, especially the mechanical-computers-as-art hobby one of the main characters engages in.

Overall, a fun light read, worth the couple hours it takes to get through. Surprisingly, I think someone who isn’t well-versed in the workings of electronics could read the whole thing without missing much, which is remarkable considering how much fun can be had by those of us who are by working out the minutia of how the nifty plot device gadgets would actually work.

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I finally finished Lolita, and it really is fabulous. I haven’t had time to read long pieces of involved fiction in far too long, and this was a real winner. The prose is unbelievably excellent, and the latter chapters perfectly convey the (perhaps disquietingly familiar) sensation of “Oh shit, I think I’m losing it.” For people considering reading, the tight prose means it is not a quick read, so you might want to invest the two hours in watching one of the movie adaptations first, I’ve only seen the newer one, and, while naturally lacking in richness, I thought it conveyed the texture of the story quite well.

I usually hate defacing books, even my own, but while reading I’ve dogeared and margin-marked about half a dozen passages I’m particularly found of in my copy. I’ve actually memorized the opening paragraph, partly for sport and partly as a memory exercise (I’ve always been terrible at rote memorization, I remember things by collapsing their meanings); the prose here is complicated and significant enough that it resists my usual reduction. A few of the other lines that I really, really enjoy (”Nuggets” in the parlance of my peculiar senior English teacher):

“Despite my manly looks , I am horribly timid. My romantic soul gets all clammy and shivery at the thought of running into some awful unpleasantness”

*Waves excitedly at the familiarity* I’m pretty contextually shy, so most people who don’t know me well only see one mode or the other, and assume that’s how I am. It makes for some interesting double-takes.

“…and the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher…”

I just like the phrasing for the process of enacting one’s desires.

“The very attraction immaturity has for me lies not so much in the limpidity of pure young forbidden fairy child beauty as in the security of a situation where infinite perfections fill the gap between the little given and the great promised — the great rosegray never-to-be-had.”

I love the expression of the (again, disquietingly familiar) sensation of almost preferring to remain in the perfect purity of potential instead of plunging oneself into the ambiguities of reality. (The pedophilia isn’t the familiar part, I don’t do that, although some people might snarkily invoke my reproducible taste for the slight and strange in argument.)

One of my favorite features is the author’s retrospective On a Book Titled Lolita appended to later printings, which is almost better than the novel itself: Nabokov, in his perfect prose, provides a humorous, high brow, critique of criticism from publishers received in attempting to get the novel published, which develops naturally into a clever social commentary. In particular, it contains all the jadedness toward classical literary analysis that keeps me away from the literary in any formal capacity.

(I’m partially conscious that I’m trying to emulate Nabokov’s peculiar alliterative prose here, I enjoy doing so too much to try to correct it. At this point it’s probably good for me anyway.)

In a partially related matter, I’ve been listening to Bif Naked (Who is an (adopted) child of a former UK professor. Colorful company.) while I finished Lolita. I got Lucky stuck in my head from my previously mentioned recent fascination with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is really a pretty typical example of Joss Whedon’s excellent taste for integrating pop music into his TV projects. It’s a bit melodramatic and punk-ish for my usual tastes, but suits the reading.

Perhaps my next post will be about one of my various technological projects, I’m finding that I most want to blog about things which are outside the mundane for me, while I know that really at this point in my life the technical endeavors are the novelties, and the novel amusements are comparatively mundane.

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I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, continuing my quest to take advantage of having some time to read and culture myself. Like all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, it is very nifty, but also frustratingly lacking in rigor. The really, really irritating part of this one (to me) is the shifty metrics he uses for success; he poses that somewhere around an IQ of 130, the competitive advantage flattens out, which I actually am not disinclined to believe. The proposed reason for this cutoff is that somewhere around the quoted 130 IQ, individuals’ increasingly weakened ability to relate to the world catches up to their intellectual advantage; this seems entirely reasonable. The problem is that this conclusion is based almost exclusively financial metrics for success; my observation has always been that the very bright tend to have a pretty strong predisposition for taking positions that are more personally than financially rewarding (he does admit to the problem. He just doesn’t do anything about it). Conversely, the best part of Outliers for me is contemplating the group of gifted kids I grew up with as samples for the described phenomena; we so match.
Sadly, one of the better matching points is the “gifted kids have trouble relating to others” portion. I’ve been feeling it more than usual lately, I blame seeing the dwindling collection of old (GT) friends passing through as the summer begins for starting it. Now it’s mostly exhibiting as frequent bouts of the “alone in a crowd” sensation most times I’ve been out of late (with one surprising exception…hurray cute smart girls, boo deeply ingrained shyness). I’ve actually heard similar remarks from a few of said old friends as well. This probably also relates fairly directly to both my failure to post anything for over a week, and my recent urge to watch through Buffy. Theres nothing quite like watching a show based around metaphors which gratuitously translate personal issues into genuine otherworldly (stabable) daemons to soothe the soul….

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Very Short Introductions

I learned about Oxford Press’ “A Very Short Introduction” series from Dr. Goldsmith during CGS500 last semester. Think of them as cliffs notes for reality; little 100-150 page volumes on a wide assortment of topics, written as an introduction to the topic by an expert. The only problem is they are rather expensive at around $9 a pop, and I’m not the only one I’ve heard look at the list and realize they want pretty much the whole set (around 200 at the moment). This is where the Internet kicks in. The Internet always brings me such great things. I’m not linking to it from here (that would be illegal…) but the usual places furnish a torrent of 85 volumes, a torrent of a partly overlapped 32 volumes, and some individual volumes that add up to about half the series. I’m still missing a few that I would like, especially “Intelligence”, “Sociology”, and a few individual philosophies/religions… hopefully the power of the interwebs will come though on that. I find this arrangement pretty ideal; to me PDFs are of comparable value to physical copies. On one hand; they don’t contribute to “stuff” (physical possessions to which I am attached), which I’m generally opposed to, and I can pack them onto the n810 and literally have a library in my pocket. On the other hand, reading extensively from screens isn’t at all good for the eyes, and isn’t quite as versatile as dead trees. This kind of thing almost makes me want one of the various “e-paper” reader appliances… its a shame they’re so damn expensive and limited (reading about them a while ago, the iRex iLiad looks like the winner of the bunch at the moment, but is even more expensive than the more common Kindle and Sony Readers). A full set of these on a connected eBook reader comes surprisingly close to the dream.

The books are incredibly, incredibly dense; I’ve been working on the Maquis de Sade one for two evenings now, and I’ve made it through about 50 pages of actual text. This is really, really unusual; for a reference point, when I gave in on the “You can’t criticize it until you give it a [serious|better|honest|another] try” argument (an argument I hate for all things) on the Harry Potter series, the whole series took me about 8 hours (for the record, my opinion of it didn’t really improve). This, however is EXCELLENT by every metric. It is thorough, well written, and intensely thought provoking; part of why it takes so long is that I’ve had to stop to evaluate my own beliefs on various topics. Some interesting things I have had to clarify to myself:
* I’m a materialist (no non-physical “self”) who believes in free will, or at least higher order effects which are indistinguishable from it. This is apparently an unusual combination.
* I don’t believe it’s reasonable to model humans as rational actors. That is the degree to which we are, mostly unconsciously, influenced by objectively irrelevant circumstance leads me to believe that, on average, for any given decision by any one individual, the decision is not made by a rational process. Dr. Pushkarskaya’s talk on biases in decision making in CGS500 provided concrete evidence for that assertion. I also prefer to imagine people are simply irrational, rather than immensely shortsighted and/or incredibly stupid.
* I tend to evaluate things based on net misery (or, conversely net happiness), which is an odd sort of Buddhist-tinged humanism. Net means net, the discussion of the conventional wisdom about removing bandages in this TED talk gets into that nuance pretty well.
* Based on the metric above, I DO believe that humanity is, on the whole, progressing, as a direct result of cultural, social, and technological development.

Thinking about this sort of thing makes me want even more to some group reading this summer with friends, there are SO MANY things I want to get to there should be plenty of opportunities. I think I might pass around (post?) my current list and go with whatever others want to read from it.

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Summer Reading?

I’ve been considering projects, some from the (poorly maintained) public list and some that never made it there to play with this summer while I’m not taking classes (I will be working on research, just not taking classes). It occurred to me recently that this will be longest continuous time I wasn’t enrolled in a class since the summer after my sophomore year of high school (which is weird), and that makes it an excellent time for projects that require some sort of repeating time commitment.
One idea that appeals strongly is trying to run an internet-based reading group (as not to exclude people scattered elsewhere/require everyone be there at the same time) for some thematic subset of the vast backlog of “Things I need to read to feel like a cultured human being.” (I’ve talked about this phenomena with a couple friends, I suspect most interesting people have such a list, if just in their head. My favorite postsecret card was about this. ) I did a little bit of intensive reading a while ago, when I read several design/usability books in rapid succession, and I think it would be fun to do with a group.
A logical implementation to me is as a mailing list, probably using GoogleGroups (set to private?) AND a chat system of some sort (IRC channel or gTalk or AIM room), so that there was both persistent and immediate (log the chats to the list for both at once?) communication options. Using a community blog/wiki/bbs sort of thing would also be a good option, but that would require a little more infrastructure.
One possible topic that seems like fun given the collection of weirdos I know would be to read (honest) classical erotica, things like Justine, Venus in Furs, and The Story of O. I’d like suggestions for other possible topics, I want something that isn’t what I do most of the time (ie. NOT an Engineering/Math sort of thing), but there are definitely choices a wider group of people are (willing to publicly admit they are) interested in.

Any interest? List ideas? Etc.

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Hugo Award Nominees

This year’s Hugo award nominees are up. The big thing to note is how many of the entries have “read online” links next to them.

The only novel nomination I’ve read is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother which, while definitely not high-end prose (its usually classified as young-adult fiction), is something everyone should read RIGHT NOW to understand the way our paranoid society and technology interact. Seriously, go, right now, Free in your format of choice or on dead trees from a bookstore. It’ll only take a couple hours at most. I also find Anathem promising; its on my reading list, but I haven’t got to it yet and doubt I will for some time.

Otherwise, I’m not terribly impressed by most of the options, too many of the nominees are derivative, or adaptations, even down into the short stories. Some of them are very good adaptations, and many of them are very enjoyable if you’ve read the precursors, in particular, “Shoggoths in Bloom” is good fun if you’ve read “At the Mountains of Madness” (Available here via Aussie copyright law and Project Gutenberg) or any of Lovecraft’s related works. I’m working my way though the ones with read links, thus far “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” is the most original thing in the collection, both in terms of content and format. The format and diction is genuinely bizarre, but I found it well suited to the story and the context of reading it online.

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RIP Philip José Farmer

Apparently Philip José Farmer died this morning (via boingboing). Farmer has been one of my favorite (Up there with William Gibson and Kim Stanely Robinson) SciFi authors for some time, his Riverworld series is arguably one of the best efforts in world building ever, and is a wonderful widely allusive piece in it’s own right.
I’ve heard it advanced in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way that people go to whatever afterlife they believe in; if so I’ll see you at the grailstone “Peter Jairus Frigate

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