What I’ve Been Reading

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Another excellent romp in the Culture universe.  I’m really sad this one will be the last, because they’re all so good.  The Culture is one of the most sensible and realistic views of the distant future I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading SF.

In regards to this story, I’ll just say the ending was not predictable at all, and the Mountains of the Sound is a place I’d love to visit or perhaps even create.


The Black Wheel by A. Merritt and Hannes Bok

I’ve long had the idea of reading all of Merritt’s books, based on the strength of The Metal Monster.  This is the third of his books I’ve read, and I have to say it wasn’t terribly great.  I didn’t realize until after reading it that more than 2/3 of the chapters were written by Bok, based on a rough outline left by Merritt.  I didn’t notice the transition.

It’s a decent enough adventure story with lots of psychological drama, but I had trouble following some of that drama; there were a lot of intuitive leaps that I suspect made sense for the authors’ culture but not for mine.  It was good enough to keep me reading until the end, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.


The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Fourth book in the highly entertaining Laundry series.  I was expecting a letdown from reading the back cover copy, as it described the plot as centering around a televangelist type, but this book was very much not a letdown – every bit as engrossing as the previous ones in the series.

I like that Stross is not afraid to involve large pieces of the stage dressing in the action.


Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Mixed feelings about this one.  It did provide stuff to think about and had an involving story, but it also felt like the story was made just to be a framework for a guided tour of current thinking in science and cosmology combined with too much conciliation of religious ideas.

Books that are set in places that I’ve lived give me an odd vibe too, but in this case it was better than most – largely because he describes the same trick I always used for getting a seat on the Northbound subway in Toronto.


The Relativistic Brain by Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis and Dr. Ronald M. Cicurel

This one came up in a Facebook thread and the Amazon cover blurb convinced me to read it – it’s good to study your enemies as well as your friends, and their position as represented by Amazon definitely sounds enemy.

Here’s the review I posted in the Facebook thread:


Just finished reading it – it’s short.

In the first two chapters they present a theory that neural firing generates small electromagnetic fields that influence other neurons at a distance, without a direct axon connection, and that in the aggregate these fields are what constitute the meaningful state information in the brain, and encode our mind state in a representation of a Riemann space in which experiences are formed by folding different conceptual and sensory regions together. All of this doesn’t really matter to the important bits though – basically what they’re saying is that brains contain multiple overlapping systems, only one of which (the actual electrical firing of neurons) can be considered digital – the rest are analog.

The rest of the book is a collection of distinct arguments that no digital computer can simulate a brain. For example:

1) Simulating analog phenomena on a digital computer is impossible to do perfectly. While strictly true, I disagree with their assumption that it needs to be done perfectly.

2) It’s impossible to keep all portions of a large-scale simulation synchronized. This is flat-out false; they seem ignorant of basic techniques for keeping simulations stable and synchronized.

3) Brains are special objects. Really, really special. Preciouuussss. Note this is me using a bit of a straw man of my own. They do mention ideas like quantum effects in the brain but don’t go so far as to outright state that brains violate the laws of physics or anything like that.

4) Computers explode in a shower of sparks when you feed them contradictions. No simulation will ever be able to handle contradictory data in a useful way. This is a ridiculous claim to me.

5) Computer simulations are usually created by finding a mathematical representation of a physical phenomenon, then writing an algorithm that solves the math. Even ignoring the analog precision problem from (1), the mathematical representation is often an imperfect representation of reality. This is true of complex systems, but down at the neural level of molecules and electromagnetic fields, I think we’ve got the math down well. Admittedly some of it is probabilistic (ie chance of two protiens bumping into each other) but I don’t see that as a problem.

6) No matter how accurate the computer simulation, it will diverge and fail to perfectly predict the behavior of the organism, because it cannot take into account all the stimuli the organism receives without simulating the entire universe. Well, duh. Also, that’s not a real problem because our senses are pretty limited anyway. And even a perfectly duplicated organism would immediately diverge from itself for the same reason – different sensory input from having a different physical location.

7) If we can’t perfectly predict the original organism, there’s no point in doing this. I completely disagree with this.

8) It is difficult to imagine a simulated brain running in real time, even with more Moore’s Law. If the simulation can’t interact with the world at normal human speed, there’s no point in doing it. Again, this makes absolutely no sense to me.

9) It is difficult to digitally model neuroplasticity – ie the hardware continuously changing while the software still runs. Yes, it is difficult, but not impossible.

Also, the authors seem to conflate simulation with emulation. They’re attacking something that might exist but to my point of view is a straw man: The idea that “digital mind” (my term) researchers are trying to develop algorithms that simulate human minds – that is, actually write code that behaves like a mind. They ignore the approach that seems more reasonable to me, which is that the code is just a dumb physics simulation and the mind exists in the data it manipulates – ie a true uploaded mind, no code involved.


Inferno and Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno, but I gather it was a poem rather than a story so I probably would have found it frustrating anyway.

These two stories I quite enjoyed, but I tend to enjoy everything involving Niven, and his collaborations with Pournelle are always good.

What I take to be the main theme here is that the common image of Hell as a place of internal punishment just doesn’t make sense when you approach it rationally, but if you make the assumption that it’s not supposed to be eternal punishment but only sufficient punishment, then it becomes possible to make some sense of it and of some other Catholic doctrines.


The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

I picked up a signed copy of this from Zoltan himself when I went to hear him speak about his US Presidential platform a few months ago. Zoltan for President, by the way!

It’s a tour of transhumanist thought couched in an adventure story. It was a fun enough read, but there were some spots that could have used some editing and other forms of polish, and as stories go it was a bit lacking in suspense – the threats facing the protagonist just didn’t seem sufficiently credible to create drama.

I did like the philosophical stuff though – there are a few wonderful rants about what’s wrong with the world today. Basically the only part of the mindset presented by the book that I don’t agree with is the assertion that enemies of progress should be killed if they don’t get out of the way. I think people who don’t want to be a part of the future can be allowed to practice the old ways apart from mainstream society, like the Amish.


The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

A delightful full-length story that I wasn’t aware of until I spotted it in a used book store recently. Thoroughly enjoyed this one – it fits nicely into the neighborhood formed by The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Whisperer in Darkness, while mostly avoiding those noxious fish-men and involving some of the more interesting horrors of Lovecraft’s mythos.


The Fox Woman & Other Stories by a. Merritt

Reading that last Lovecraft book left me with a desire for more old-style adventure writing, and lacking another HPL to read I turned to Merritt, who combines a slightly later style with imaginative semi-science-fiction.

The titular short story was good but had an unsatisfying ending – overall it read like the introduction to a novel-length tale and felt unfinished.

Several of the other shorts in this collection were quite good. I quite liked The People of the Pit as it evoked some of the same atmosphere as The Metal Monster but with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in, and I really wish Merritt had been able to finish The White Road as it was an intriguing concept.

Some white knighting may be in order

I just discovered the amazing #YesAllWomen thread on Twitter.  See also this.  I’ve been following this whole online misogyny thing since Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes Kickstarter drew my attention to it.  It’s train-wreck fascinating to me because I always assumed people who behaved like that were just an occasional psycho, or little kids trying to stir up any kind of attention.  I’ve been trying to understand how so many extreme throwbacks can exist.

Here’s the chain of thought the Twitter thread led me to, which is the reason for this post:

I know that I sometimes say things or make jokes or tease too much in ways that may be offensive to women.  I usually realize when I’ve done one of these things anywhere from seconds to weeks later, and I feel bad about it when I realize what I’ve done.  Feeling bad about it leads me to try to correct that behavior in future.  Problem solved – not immediately, but as rapidly as my self-awareness permits.

But maybe I have some unconscious misogynistic behaviors that I’m not aware of.  I can’t fix those if I don’t feel bad about them, and I can’t feel bad about them if I don’t even know they exist.

Therefore, sometimes someone has to tell you that you’re being an ass, and just as importantly why it’s a bad thing.

On top of that, it seems from reading this Twitter thread that not only are many women afraid to tell men when they’re being asses, but they might actually be justified in being afraid.

And maybe these troglodytes that are responsible for both that fear and this climate of misogyny aren’t actually aware they’re in the wrong or maybe they don’t feel bad about it because they don’t know why it’s wrong.  This is a disturbing thought for me – maybe they’re not just shit-disturbers, but somehow actually believe the crap they spout.

It seems like getting more men on board with correcting other mens’ behavior is required.  I’m on board, though I’m not sure I know how to do this effectively.

Some time has passed

I turned 42 today.  Believe it or not, I’ve never been this old before. It’s a new personal best!

Being 42, you would naturally expect that I have become privy to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.  And in fact, I have:

Life, the universe and everything have no inherent meaning, because meaning can only exist in the mind of an observer and is therefore completely subjective.  The meanings that we tend to think are objective are just large-scale subjective; they’re impressed upon us as we grow by our peer groups but can vary between societies and species.

Therefore, your life means what you make it mean to you, and if you care, also what you make it mean to others.  The ancients were on the right track when they said “Life is what you make of it.”

So what does my life mean to me?  I’m not sure.  I’m probably still far too young to figure that out.  But I value enjoying it and I feel like it gains meaning when I observe the natural world, which brings me to:

What does the universe mean to me?  It’s a playground filled with beauty and wonder that needs more minds and longer-lived minds to appreciate it.  The universe is tragically finite in time, so it behooves us and any other sentient species that might exist to fill it with minds as quickly as possible, to maximize enjoyment and appreciation of its beauty, and just maybe to find a way to make it last even longer.

(The “and everything” part is pretty much covered by “universe”, by definition.)


Unique, just like everyone else

(This is a draft I wrote over a year ago and forgot to post.)

The other day I went for a ferry ride over to the Sunshine Coast.  As is my habit, I rode at the bow, on the outside deck, enjoying the brisk sea air and watching the scenery scrolling smoothly by.

I was watching the thousands of small waves – really no more than large ripples – raised on the water by the wind.  They’re all very similar in height, general shape, speed and duration, but I’d hazard a guess they’re also each unique, when you get right down to the specific measurements.

I was thinking about how just in the stretch of water I could see, many thousands of these little waves formed and vanished while I watched, and these waters have been doing this for billions of years.

How sad that all of that uniqueness has come and gone without a witness to appreciate it like this.  I found myself wishing I could pause the universe and levitate out over the water to study some of the waves close up.

There’s an obvious analogy here with people, or beings in general.  Too many lives pass without really being differentiated from the lives around them.  They’re unique, strictly speaking, but only noticed by their immediate neighbors and ultimately remembered by nobody.  How many trillions of minds have come and gone already with only themselves, at most, aware of their uniqueness?  How can people be content to simply exist for a finite length of time, without at least doing something that is meaningful to them?

But the wave-people analogy ends here, as there is no analogue of me on the boat watching the waves.  We must observe ourselves and lend meaning to our own existence.

The second thought that came to me while watching the waves is how very much I want to simply witness all of the beauty and uniqueness in the universe.  Every little wave, every sand dune, every life on every world, even if unremarkable relative to its peers, at least deserves to be observed and remembered.

It was kind of a zen moment and I haven’t really put it into words well, but I did promise myself to write about it.

On the need for colonization

There’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of years, about how the usefulness of the universe to our kind of life peaked before we were even on the scene and is now in rapid decline.  About how Earth probably only has about a billion years of useful life left in it, and how stars don’t last forever either, nor will they continue to be born forever, and how the galaxies are gradually escaping our reach. And about how even matter itself will eventually disappear, and we had better saturate the universe with smart people long before that, both to solve that problem and to maximize enjoyment of life and appreciation of the universe.

But fortunately someone else saved me the trouble.

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