Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review: Winter's Tale

How can I review this book? I have to give it four stars because depending on the moment I could give it five stars or three stars. It's a sprawling, Dickensian work that jumps across time from the early 20th century to the turn of the 21st, as lush and romantic as any novel ever was, yet ultimately a love letter to the city of New York and the wonder of mechanism. There's a flying horse and a mysterious giant ship in the Hudson. There's hard-nosed suffering and celestial perfection and dare I say virtue. And it made me laugh out loud more than any book I've listened to. On the one hand, you just have to experience it. On the other hand, I think that for all its complexity there is some complexity that it leaves out. It's an account of faith that is solid and wondrous except for holes and inconsistencies that I think real faith fills in. But I can read this and fill in the gaps for myself. It's almost like natural theology in that sense.

If my review seems incoherent it's because the book itself whirls manically about and verges on incoherence itself. I think it steps over the line just a few too many times to get five stars. On the other hand, some passages, such as my absolute favorite when Virgina writes newpaper columns (for that to be my favorite is strange in such a vividly concrete book, but, yes, it is), inspire my work and my entire stance toward life. And I think Helprin even thinks about thermodynamics although I'm not entirely sure.

Winter's Tale is a deeply moral work, and though at the end I think it frays just a bit in this regard, there's still absolutely nothing like it. I think the movie may fail because it keeps the surface events but 1.) the interior balance of the book is edited out in favor of exterior, visual, movie cliches, 2.) the morality and virtue of the book are subsumed as poster slogans such as those mocked in The LEGO Movie, and 3.) the main thrust of the book is the power of the written word which cannot be adequately portrayed in a medium where most of the written words scroll up the screen as the audience walks out, read as closely as a Genesis geneology.

As the saying goes, don't judge a book by its movie. This book is an amazing experience and has to be read by any lover of books. It does have flaws but there is nothing else like it, and it is both beautiful and hopeful in an age that prizes ugliness and pessimism. So can I give it four and a half stars? Please?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: Complexity and the Arrow of Time

Collections of essays on meta-level aspects of science are like attending a conference (and many times originated that way): everyone gets equal time and some chapters/presentations drone on while some are so interesting that you wish they had more time. The collection Complexity and the Arrow of Time has more entries that I wish had more time, so that counts as a win in my book. It helps that the topic at hand is inherently multi-disciplinary and the many perspectives in the book ultimately reinforce each other even when they disagree. The last essay in particular, about how complexity will always be complex (surprise!), gives a narrative form to the book. I could argue that, for example, Michael Ruse's historical essay should come first, and in fact, I wish there was more on history in general, but the bottom line is that this collection does what collections should do and was an accessible and pretty much comprehensive view of what people are thinking about when they think about the development of complexity. Given the diversity of disciplines and authors there does seem to be a decent, coherent theme throughout the book and so I consider it a success. My favorite chapters were 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, and 14.

Chapter by Chapter quick thoughts:
2. Directionality principles from cancer to cosmology Paul C. W. Davies: One interesting idea, that cancer is more complex (yet also more primitive) than its originating cells.
3. A simple treatment of complexity: cosmological entropic boundary conditions on increasing complexity Charles H. Lineweaver: Concept of gravitational entropy still doesn't fit with the others, but that may be because we don't know enough about it to make it fit.
4. Using complexity science to search for unity in the natural sciences Eric J. Chaisson: The most universal yet most succinct of the entries, and my vote for the best single mathematical approach to quantifying complexity, very interesting.
5. On the spontaneous generation of complexity in the universe Seth Lloyd: The quantum computer argument, which I didn't find convincing and seemed more setup than payoff.
6. Emergent spatiotemporal complexity in field theory Marcelo Gleiser: Some good thoughts about energy landscapes in general and how dynamics can create order but could have been summarized more succinctly/applied more specifically.
7. Life: the final frontier for complexity? Simon Conway Morris: Vintage Conway Morris, rapid-fire examples of convergence with a wit usually absent from scientific discourse.
8. Evolution beyond Newton, Darwin, and entailing law: the origin of complexity in the evolving biosphere Stuart A. Kauffman: Too much emphasis on physics and biology without enough emphasis on chemistry; Kaufmann makes a big deal about noncomputability and nonpredictably but the middle to the argument goes missing; directly engages Conway Morris which I'd like to see more of.
9. Emergent order in processes: the interplay of complexity, robustness, correlation, and hierarchy in the biosphere D. Eric Smith: This had some good original thoughts for how things go together and categories for comparing across disciplines; one of the better essays.
10. The inferential evolution of biological complexity: forgetting nature by learning to nurture David C. Krakauer: Cultural evolution, kind of par for the course in my opinion.
11. Information width: a way for the second law to increase complexity David Wolpert: Not as much about information width per se but the underlying argument has legs (and fits with Chaisson's and Gleiser's in productive ways)
12. Wrestling with biological complexity: from Darwin to Dawkins Michael Ruse: Helpful "two kinds of people" argument and application from history, but doesn't really get down to the heart of the difference between Darwinians and Spencerians -- still, the categories seem to have legs for further reflection.
13. The role of generative entrenchment and robustness in the evolution of complexity William C. Wimsatt: Generative entrenchment has aspects that make sense but wasn't clearly defined enough; other essays approached similar ideas more clearly but the fact that someone else has similar ideas is worth the time for this.
14. On the plurality of complexity-producing mechanisms Philip Clayton: excellent philosophical summary and plea for true discussion rather than verbal brickbats thrown back and forth, takes a stand on not taking a stand but, given the state of the speculations, I think it's the best way to end this book and suspect that Clayton's right, no overarching "law" for complexity will work, although ideas like Chaisson's should still help understand some aspects, even a majority of aspects.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: The Hunger Games

Never has high school been quite so brutal. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins creates a world that is like Star Wars: filled with characters filling familiar roles and technically set in the future although really, it is set in the past. Collins does a good job at making the Empire reprehensible and just believable enough to seem possible. (I'm not convinced that the subjects of the Empire would ever be so bloodthirsty in the future as to make this show such a spectacle, but she might be doing something with that.) Collins keeps a fast pace for the most part, one nearly boring "healing" interlude notwithstanding, but the games themselves don't feel fully realized. Most characters die offscreen and just a few really interact. The one death that is fully focused on is surprisingly effective, I thought. Still, that's just one character out of 24 tributes. This chess game feels closer to a four-move checkmate than a championship match.

But it's not really about the games. It's about the characters, and Katniss's discomfort with filling the roles laid out for her is a genuine, nice touch. (Although, is there a law that every book like this must have a love triangle in it?) It's kind of weird to see one side of that love triangle formed by constantly playing to the cameras, and the falseness of that -- how many women feel like they have to "play to the cameras" in a relationship, I wonder?

This book played out about like I thought it would, but I'm more interested to see what happens next. Mostly because the true villain is the empire of Panem and I genuinely want to see that villain brought down, and how Collins eventually orchestrates that downfall. The one thing that seems to be missing is any element of faith, and I only say that because in real life the "Pax Romana" empire was brought down by external pressures and also an internal pressure of Christianity changing the way people think (and blossoming into the Byzantine empire but that's another topic). There's nothing like that here, but I wonder if, in some natural theology way, there might be a few strands that could run parallel to that change.

Not quite up to Harry Potter standards but I can see why this stands out, and I do think it has a good central character. I like Katniss and dislike Panem, so Collins was successful with this book, because those were the two things this book needed to do. I'm looking forward to the next two installments but will wait a while before getting to them because I don't particularly want to live in this world for a long time.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Draw Your Own Graphene Circuits

A strain gauge made of pencil and paper is deformed to compress the graphene network.

The distinct electronic properties of carbon when layered in graphene sheets have always intriguied me. What kind of electronic properties lurk in what is mistakenly called pencil "lead"? And now it turns out that you can unleash some of these properties ... by drawing with a pencil on paper.

In this story the implications of this are explored. Bending even a simple circuit changes how it conducts electricity, and vapors affect the resistance of the pencil circuit lines. Because of this, you can actually draw your own circuit and make a vapor sensor from pencil lines.

So can this be used in the teaching lab? Or could the answer to a test question be drawn on a piece of paper -- and then checked by attaching electrodes to each end?