Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

This collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun but also uneven. As he says in the introduction, the poems are thrown in for free. There's a Doctor Who story and an American Gods story and an reinvented Sleeping Beauty fairy tale (which is the best of the three). But all the stories, with the exception of that fairy tale and the masterful "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains," seem to be missing something that would take them to the next level. Also, some of the ideas are recycled, which normally is fine with me but in this instance makes them seem a little repetitive. This is more like a good anthology TV show than a must-read blockbuster. But it's still very good for all that and well worth the read.

The Natural Chain of Command

One of the take-home messages of A World from Dust is that concepts like causation and function can look different at different "levels" of the world. I was listening to Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution this morning when a historical analogy occurred to me.

You may have heard that the Internet was created as a radically decentralized system so that it could withstand a nuclear attack. You have also have heard the scientists who invented the Internet loudly proclaiming that it had no such purpose. Which purpose was it? Both are true, and Isaacson does a good job of showing how.

The engineers and academics working on the nascent Internet technology were building a new way to pass around information. They had no reason to anticipate its military use or purpose. Yet the higher up the chain of command you go, the more you find the military purpose layered on top of the basic communications purpose. The people getting the money from Congress justified its expense with the military purpose that it could withstand a major, disruptive attack. The scientists didn't need that purpose at their "layer" of knowledge; the politicians required it at theirs.

In the same way, a process that is for one purpose locally may serve an additional purpose globally. A chemical process may serve and shape a biological function. Random gene flow and change may interact with a chemically ordered environment to produce a predictable change and even increase in complexity. In fact, a random process can gain a function at a higher level. The genes and elements may not "know" that the network they're building has a biological purpose, but that in no way negates the biological purpose.  (For more on how this might happen, read Terrence Deacon's Incomplete Nature.)

In A World from Dust I focus on the "politicians" of the process, the legislative branch of chemical law-makers that we call the periodic table. These chemical rules result in predictable patterns emerging from random flow. You can stand close to the waterfall to see the random flow, or step back to see that it inexorably flows down and looks similar from moment to moment. It's all a matter of the width of your scope and your point of focus on the chain of command.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: The Many Faces of Christ by Philip Jenkins

This is book on a fascinating topic, but it doesn't go quite far enough. As in his previous books, Jenkins explores the reality of Christianity in places and times that you didn't know enough about before. This time, he focuses on the apocryphal writings that were treated as Scripture in some contexts. This means he takes on Dan Brown and shows that, yes, there was a time when texts were suppressed, but it was only by a part of the church, and it was in the 16th century, not the 4th. Before the Reformation, non-canonical scriptures fluorished, and though they were certainly discouraged and persecuted, the fact of the matter is that the pre-modern state didn't have the ability to truly repress gospels it didn't like. Only with the advent of the printing press did such suppression become possible (which is a historical irony if ever I've seen one). The suppressor is not Constantinian -- he is Protestant!

To find out more about what this surprising statement means, you'll have to read the book. Unfortunately (I say with irony), Jenkins is a careful scholar, and so at times the book reads more like a card catalog than a thriller. Only in the final chapter does he really expand on the central thesis that these alternate Christianities and heresies, however fuzzy the line between them may be, are emblematic of the eternal variation and struggle in Christianity itself, and in every Christian's heart. This conclusion means that the history of the previous centuries can apply to us, today -- but Jenkins is cautious in his application, so those connections are mostly left up to the reader. So much thinking to do, so little time. Here Jenkins brings new treasures out of old storehouses, and the result is fascinating and even, in an odd way, encouraging. Dan Brown is nothing new.

Book Review: The Laws of Medicine by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This short, pithy book could be the start of an admirable project, if other academics follow Mukherjee's lead. I don't see why experienced scientists can't assemble three laws specific to their disciplines. Sure, it tells you as much about the writer as about the discipline, but it's a provocative thought exercise. In a sense, my own in-press book is looking for biochemical laws. My only regret is that this book is $17 (unless you get it from the library like I did). I'm not sure it would be worth that much money, but it was worth the time to read. The laws themselves are useful, especially for those considering a career in medicine, and interesting for scientists to eavesdrop on. I won't spoil them in this review -- read it for yourself and then consider how you'd expand on it in your own "field," whatever that may be.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Book Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

This book suffers from the middle-book blues in which the second book of a trilogy is neither here nor there. The first book in the trilogy, Annihilation, was told from the perspective of an expedition member, and the sense of exploring a new environment was exhilarating. This book shifts perspective to that of an agency director for the government's science facility that sent all those expeditions.

Narratively the sense of discovery is actually more natural in this second book, because there's less "hypnosis made me forget" artificial suspense enhancement, and some of the descriptions of the facility are creepy enough to evoke the Dharma Initiative from LOST in the best moments. But it ultimately doesn't pay off or answer enough questions to justify the time spent in telling it, and feels like a shaggy dog story. Some narrative jumps make the story harder to follow without building suspense, and the really weird reveals are mostly in the first half, while the second half seems more predictable. It might pay off in the third book, but reading it seems more like a duty than a pleasure at the moment. Don't get me wrong, I will read it, and the atmosphere itself almost makes this second book worthwhile -- I just think it'll be better if I keep my expectations low.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels fails to find the alchemy that made Selznick's Hugo Cabret work so well. It's more like the lower-key Wonderstruck, but even that made a deeper impact on me than this story. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I don't think the spirit of London is truly captured the way it needs to be for this story to work. Although the rich history of London seems like an ideal setting for Selznick's storytelling skills, the book doesn't seem to live into its setting or tap into London's mix of past, present, and future. Perhaps in the end, it's a story that sets up something like Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle and pretends that the fake castle is what's real. It's much better to me to recognize that the castle is fake but then to ask how was it made, and why do we still love it so much. So this story stops short of what it should be. I surprise myself a bit with my reaction, because the story is well-crafted and warm (with some quibbles about the way the pacing of Selznick's characteristic pictures holds back the story rather than promotes it), and there's a nice melancholy yet comforting vibe to the ending. For some reason it doesn't come together the way Cabret did.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher

This is the book I was hoping someone would write about the effect of Dante on a person's life (or, most precisely, a person's mid-life) today. What's interesting is that Dreher's circumstances are very different from mine, and yet his main conclusion is the same. It's like this: At the end of Purgatorio, Dante sees a vision of history that prepares him for the ascent to Paradise. At the time, another poet, Statius, is there as well, but Dante only mentions him in passing, implying that Statius didn't see Beatrice in his vision, but that he saw something else, something personal that would only make sense to Statius. In the same way, I see different things from Dreher, but at the end, the different things I see serve the exact same function of healing and restoration. Near the end, I increasingly dogeared the book, thinking "this is me."

The biggest flaw in the book may be a result of its own success. Throughout the first half of the book it's not clear exactly why Dreher's crisis is such a big deal. In the second half, it becomes more clear what the precise conflict is, and yes, it is a big deal. Maybe the redemption Dreher experiences is so complete that he can't quite remember the cutting nature of the hurt in the first part?

Although How Dante Can Save Your Life is written to a reader who has not read Dante yet, reading it post-Commedia I still found it very useful to see which passages resonated with Dreher. My hope is that there would be a genre of "Dante books" in which people write about how Dante helped them. I'd read that.