Book report: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

(Link)

One of the most important books I’ve ever read. It gives insight into how our minds work and why we fall prey to as many errors of judgement as we do.

Kahneman observes that our mental reactions to situations can be categorized into two groups, fast and slow, and that the fast ones are both more influential and more prone to error.

The fast system, which he calls system 1, does things like distinguish between near and far objects, identify the direction of sounds, auto-complete common phrases, make and identify facial expressions, read tone of voice, answer the most familiar math problems (2+2), read easy words, do familiar tasks like riding a bike or driving a car under easy circumstances, and comprehend stereotypes.

The slow system, system 2, does things that require attention, such as: Get ready to start in a race, pay attention to particular people in a crowd, search for things meeting a description, recall memories that require searching, do familiar physical tasks under unusual circumstances, keep your foot out of your mouth, count more than a few instances of a thing, compare lists of attributes, do difficult math or evaluate logical reasoning. System 2 is a very limited resource, which is why it’s difficult to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time.

For my own future reference, I decided to itemize his findings here:

  1. It’s difficult or impossible to do more than one system 2 task at the same time; you can’t do a multi-digit multiplication while dealing with dangerous traffic. This is why you don’t see the guy in the gorilla suit while counting ball passes. (p.23)
  2. System 2 tasks require effort that we prefer to avoid. It’s a noticeable mental effort. Most of the time system 2 will just rubber-stamp suggestions from system 1. (p.24)
  3. Your pupils dilate and your heart rate increases slightly when working on system 2 tasks. The pupil response is body language that can give away your level of interest to someone trying to sell you something. (p.32)
  4. You’re more likely to make bad decisions or put your foot in your mouth while system 2 is occupied. (p.41)
  5. Low blood glucose makes high cognition tasks harder. People are more likely to make hasty decisions when hungry. (p.43)
  6. System 1 performs memory associations and is responsible for the priming effect. (ch.4)
    • IMPORTANT NOTE: there have been some replicability problems with chapter 4 of this book. The author may have fallen victim to some of the same overconfidence fallacies he documents.
  7. Tasks that cause cognitive strain, such as reading a poorly legible font, make you more accurate but less intuitive and creative. (p.60)
  8. Cognitive ease, or anything that makes our associative machinery run more smoothly, can cause bias by making it easier to reach a conclusion that is primed than a conclusion that is true. (ch.5) This is one of the mechanisms of propaganda: repetition. This is also why using simpler language makes speakers appear more credible to some.
  9. Norms shape a lot of our thinking and are what we draw on to explain behavior we witness when an external explanation isn’t available. For example, norms make it possible to tell a simple story with abstract shapes by moving them in ways that mimic the human body language for different emotions. Norms are also very easily changed by our experiences, and therefore are very likely to be wrong. (ch.6)
  10. Our brains are highly optimized for jumping to conclusions, and it saves a lot of time and effort, but it’s risky when the cost of being wrong is high. (ch.7)
  11. The Halo Effect is a form of jumping to conclusions, in which we are likely to judge someone favorably based on irrelevant favorable impressions of them in other contexts. It’s also why first impressions carry the most weight. There are techniques for avoiding halo effect bias in some circumstances, such as blinding yourself to earlier impressions by anonymizing the data you’re presently evaluating. (p.82-84)
  12. What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) fallacy: Coherence-seeking system 1 and lazy system 2 combine to cause judgments based on available evidence, without making much effort to seek additional relevant evidence or even to notice that relevant evidence might be missing. This causes lots of kinds of biased judgement, including overconfidence, framing effects and base-rate neglect. (p.86-88)
  13. System 1 deals well with tasks such as averaging or comparing similar objects, but not with things like summing or judging the relative impact of numbers. This is why statistics so easily mislead. System 1 likes things that can be mapped to intensity in some way. This is also why we judge people by their faces – system 1 maps certain facial features to intensities of important attributes such as dominance and competence. (ch.8)
  14. We often unconsciously answer difficult questions by answering a simpler proxy question and then using an intensity scale to map that answer back to the original question. For example, when asked how much money you would be willing to contribute to help clean oil-soaked seabirds, there is no obvious mapping from oily birds to money so you might instead ask yourself what the emotional impact of the birds’ condition is on you, then use that intensity to judge how much money to give. This effect can be exploited easily by first priming you to have a more intense reaction to the question. (ch.9)
  15. The Law of Small Numbers: Small sample sizes produce more remarkable results, because they are more likely to generate sampling biases. This is one way you can get two studies of the same thing reaching contradictory conclusions. Faith in small numbers is what causes belief in winning streaks in sports and gambling. (ch.10)
  16. The Anchoring Effect: Exposure to an intensity can bias your answer to a completely unrelated question. For example, first being asked “Was Ghandi older or younger than 144 when he died?” will cause people to give higher answers to the subsequent question “How old was Ghandi when he died?”, and hearing temperatures mentioned that you recognize as being warm or cool will make it easier to recognize words related to summer or winter, respectively. This is a form of priming and can be used to bias surveys. (ch.11)
  17. Availability (easier recall of recent information) biases our decisions. (ch.12)
  18. Our evaluation of risk depends on the choice of measure used when presenting the statistics, including the choice of what the measure is compared to. This is why it’s so easy to be misled by death statistics; they’re rarely presented with enough comparative context, and this is usually done deliberately to produce bias. (ch.13)
  19. Base rate neglect: We perform our own unconscious statistical sampling of other people, and this is called stereotyping. In some circumstances stereotypes can be usefully accurate, but often they are misleading and we’re not good at recognizing when. (ch.14)
  20. Conjunction fallacy: People tend to favor more specific explanations even though they are always less probable than less specific ones. Another form of this is a tendency to favor a smaller uniform set over a larger disparate one (example: a smaller dinnerware set was valued higher than a larger one that contained everything in the smaller one and more plus some broken pieces.) (ch.15)
  21. Statistical results with a causal interpretation have a much stronger impact on our evaluation than pure statistics, even when the statistics suggest the causal interpretation is wrong. In other words, humans are terrible at Bayes’ theorem. Also, we love generalizing from small samples but are unwilling to go the other way and assume general rules apply to specific cases. (ch.16)
  22. Regression to the mean: We mistakenly believe in “streaks” of good or bad luck or performance and assume they will continue. It’s always a safer bet that things will return to the average, but we never bet that way and when we’re wrong we tend to mis-attribute the reason. (ch.17)
  23. Hindsight bias: If a predictions actually happens, we retroactively assign it a higher probability and will tend to erroneously assign more of the responsibility to personal attributes than to luck. We tend to say mistakes should have been obvious after the fact, when they were not. (ch.18)
  24. Illusion of validity / skill: Having a poor record of prediction does not shake our faith in our ability to predict. Example: Stock market analysts who consistently predict worse than random chance are still considered to be doing a good job. We reward luck as if it were skill. A coherent story feels better than chance. (ch.20)
  25. We value intuition more than we should. Despite negative reactions, the right algorithm can always produce good decisions at a higher rate than humans. (ch.21)
  26. The way to avoid the Planning Fallacy (unrealistically optimistic project estimates) is to use statistics about similar cases: how many of them fail, and how long does success typically take? The fallacy comes from having an insider’s view and not knowing the unknown unknowns. Past data gives you a partial outsider’s view. (ch.23)
  27. Humans rarely reason based on expected value (economics) but on perceived value (prospect theory). Wealth change has a greater effect on our happiness than absolute value. Amount of change as a percentage is more important than the absolute value of the change. Context matters, as does priming. (ch.25)
  28. Most people are risk-averse when it comes to gain, but risk-seeking when it comes to avoiding loss (prospect theory, loss aversion). (ch.26)
  29. The Endowment Effect: Owning a good increases its value to you. Your sell price for something you value is typically much higher than the maximum price you would pay to get it. Another way of putting it is that you may not care what you get until you get it. (ch.27)
  30. Decision weights: Probabilities close to zero or close to 100% are curved differently from the rest of the range. 5% is seen as a huge improvement over 0% (experimentally, it has been weighted at 13%). 95% is seen as vastly inferior to 100% (experimentally, 95% is felt as valuable as 79%). (ch.29)
  31. The Fourfold Pattern (ch.29):
    • High probability produces a certainty effect.
    • High probability of gains produces risk aversion, fear of disappointment, and willingness to accept unfavorable settlements. (Bernoulli’s theory fits this quadrant)
    • High probability of losses produces risk-seeking, hope of avoiding loss, and rejection of favorable settlements.
    • Low probability produces a possibility effect. (fighting losing battles)
    • Low probability of gains causes risk-seeking, hope of large gains, and rejection of favorable settlements. (lotteries benefit here)
    • Low probability of losses causes risk aversion, fear of large loss, and acceptance of unfavorable settlements. (insurance benefits here)
  32. We overestimate the probability of unlikely events and over-weight them in our decision making. (ch.30)
  33. Denominator neglect: Larger numbers given for the numerator and denominator of a probability can have more effect on our decision than the probability they represent. (8/100 is more popular than 1/10 even though the latter is better.) (ch.30)
  34. Vivid or well understood events are over-weighted relative to their probability in our decision making. This is why the “poster child” concept works. (ch.30)
  35. We weight the pain of loss more than the pleasure of gain. Losing $1 feels as bad as gaining $2 feels good; even an economist won’t make that bet unless they can make the same bet many times to get the expected return of 50 cents per bet.  (ch.31)  This 2:1 weighting applies in multiple contexts. (ch.32)
  36. The Disposition Effect: We want to close each transaction with a gain, rather than an average gain. This leads to the Sunk Cost Fallacy, which mistakenly uses existing investment in a failure to justify more investment in the same. (ch.32)
  37. Exposure to a wider context can affect your decisions even if the extra information is irrelevant. (ch.33)
  38. Framing matters: “Team A won” is very different from “Team B lost”. Costs are not losses. Gain is not the opposite of loss. (ch.34)
  39. We rate the painfulness of an experience by the difference between its peak and its end. The duration is largely irrelevant. Our experiencing self is different from our remembering self. (ch.35)
  40. The Focusing Illusion: Nothing is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it. Your emotional context at the time greatly affects your answers to questions about feelings. (ch.38)

Summary of the characteristics of system 1 (reproduced from p.105):

  • Generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations. When endorsed by system 2 these become beliefs, attitudes and intentions.
  • Operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control.
  • Can be programmed by system 2 to mobilize intention when a search pattern is detected.
  • Executes skilled responses and intuitions, after being trained.
  • Creates a coherent pattern of activated ideas in associative memory.
  • Links cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance.
  • Distinguishes the surprising from the normal.
  • Infers and invents causes and intentions.
  • Neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt.
  • Is biased to believe and confirm.
  • Exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect).
  • Focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI).
  • Generates a limited set of basic assessments.
  • Represents set by norms and prototypes, and does not integrate.
  • Matches intensities across scales.
  • Computes more than intended (mental shotgun effect).
  • Sometimes substitutes easier questions for difficult ones.
  • Is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory).
  • Over-weights low probabilities.
  • Shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity.
  • Responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion).
  • Frames decision problems narrowly and in isolation.

 

What I’ve been reading

Benford and Niven: Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar

It’s always good to see Niven back in the Big Dumb Object game, and a team-up with Benford is a welcome surprise.

This one’s about another Ringworld-like object, only this one goes tooling around the galaxy on a slow cruise. I can’t say a whole lot more without giving away several of the many big reveals in the story, but suffice the say the back-story here is quite different from that of the other BDO books I’ve read.

I found this pair “just one more chapter” engrossing, and I couldn’t wait to find the second after reading the first. There are plot hooks in place for a possible third installment, and I hope it occurs.

Alastair Reynolds: On the Steel Breeze

Rollicking good adventure. The setting is a good example of an updated plausible future taking into account recent advancements in science. The plot centers around the tension many seem to believe is inevitable between the emergent machine sentients and the meatbags that spawned them.

This book has an uncommonly strong heroic-lineage trope, in that the already accomplished protagonists come from a family full of accomplishments that affected the course of human civilization. But I can accept that now and then in the service of good, comfy escapism.

Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

This is one of those stories where you’re late for a family reunion and then arrive to discover that someone has assassinated nearly everyone there. The rest is about figuring out who, why, who gave them inside help, and what to do about it. In a science fiction setting six million years hence, with some interesting set dressings.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other Reynolds books I’ve read, but it did feature a great example, in the historical character of Ludmilla Marcellin, of what I would like to do: She created thousands of identical clones of herself and sent them in all directions to explore the galaxy, re-convening on rare occasions to share memories.

Charles Sheffield: Dark as Day

I didn’t realize when I started this that it was the third book in a series. Thankfully that didn’t matter much; from what I can tell a couple of characters were carried over, but this installment mentioned as much of their history as was needed.

The story was interesting enough to keep me involved, but I didn’t find it remarkable. For most of the latter half I was wondering where it was going; there were multiple threads going on that didn’t look to be related in any way, and I was wondering if there was going to be any connection at all. In the end he did tie almost all of them together, but not in the usual big reveal way that shows why things turned out this way. Instead it was, here’s a massive coincidence that all of these people ended up in the right place at the right time to avert a huge disaster. A bit less satisfying, though it could be seen as refreshing in its unconventionality.

There is a slight chance I might read the other books in this series if I stumble over them, but I’m not likely to hunt them down.

Alan Cooper: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Nonfiction about software user experience design – read as part of a UX reading group at work.

At first this book infuriated me; it read like a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about how programmers are evil bastards who delight in tormenting nontechnical users (true, but it’s supposed to be a secret) that had been forcibly toned down by editors. By the end of the book though, I found myself violently agreeing with him about almost everything.

The central messages are:

  1. User-friendly software should not be designed by the programmers implementing it. They are too close to the problems to see them, and they will inevitably and unconsciously use themselves (or “The User”, who is as flexible as Reed Richards) as the person they design for.
  2. Software should not only be designed by UX specialists, but the designers should be the ones accountable for the quality of the software, not programmers. Designers should make the decisions that affect users and mandate changes in the best interest of the users.
  3. Long-term planning is a must. Even the common annual release development cycle is too short to properly do the concept-design-code-debug-market cycle, and trying to overlap design with coding doesn’t work. Focusing on short-term gain results in crufty software. Long-term planning, even at short-term expense, is vital to produce a lasting quality product.

There’s lots more. I highly recommend reading this book if you develop software for which usability is important. Just try not to hulk out and rip it in half during the first few sections. :)

Alastair Reynolds: Terminal World

The cover art and blurb of this one reminded me of Inverted World, a novel I disliked because it (probably intentionally) conveyed a fuzzy and confusing image of the world. Thankfully there wasn’t much more resemblance than that; this one had enough exposition for my taste. It left a lot unrevealed even at the end, but I understood the setting well enough to be able to fill in the blanks.

I didn’t like this as much as Reynolds’ other works, but I think there is room for another novel or two set in this universe – one in in the distant past and one in the near future.

Charles Sheffield: Aftermath

I didn’t like this one very much. Heroic ordinary people struggling for survival after a major natural disaster has been done, as has throwing in a secret cult as the foil. Also I tend to dislike stories featuring cults – I read science fiction to escape, dammit!

There was one tantalizing hint about the cause of the disaster that might convince me to read the sequel, if its cover copy is further encouraging, but I’m not in a hurry to seek it out.

Alastair Reynolds: Chasm City, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap

Finishing off the Revelation Space series to date. I really, really liked this series and I’ve decided that Reynolds has become one of my favorite authors. Could not put down any of these books, and I’ve taken to reading everything else of his I can find to try to capture more of the flavor – which led me to:

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth and Poseidon’s Wake

Precursor and sequel, respectively, to On the Steel Breeze, mentioned above. I didn’t know these existed when I read the middle book, and I was afraid reading them out of order would spoil the first one, but not at all; it stands independently because there is a large time separation between the first book and the other two, and few characters in common.

Blue Remembered Earth was not as strong as the other two, but still worth the read. I preferred the latter two though, because they’re set further from home in both time and space, and are largely post-Mechanism. The Mechanism is a super-invasive surveillance state described in the first book and part of the second, where crime and violence have been almost totally eliminated but at the cost of privacy. Not worth it in my opinion.

 

What I’ve Been Reading

The Heritage Universe quintilogy by Charles Sheffield

A very fun adventure series set against the common background trope of a mysterious vanished alien civilization having left amazing and incomprehensible toys behind for the younger civilizations to puzzle over. The arc follows a gang of human and alien characters with a healthy mix of motivations as they get caught up in events that lead to some answers about the long-vanished Builders.

The first two books in this series don’t stand well on their own, but they work well in the context of the overall arc. At first I didn’t like that Summertide didn’t really reveal anything about the Builders, and then I didn’t like that Divergence revealed too much too quickly, but later books damped those oscillations retroactively.

I like the creative variety in alien forms and civilizations presented here; they seem to fit well. I also like the quietly implied moral present in the reason for the Builders leaving their artifacts lying around: Cooperation is better than conquest.

One thing I didn’t like was the complete silence about the fate of the Zardalu in the latter part of the series. Here’s this ruthless, menacing race whose subjects hated them so much they attempted genocide against them, and everyone has been happy thinking the Zardalu have been dead for thousands of years. Now they’re making a comeback but were discovered while in a position of weakness, and… nothing.  Some time was bought by convincing the Zardalu that they’re in danger of being stepped on by other races grown more powerful in the interim, but they have to eventually figure out that’s not the case.  No governments have taken any initiative to contain, protect or negotiate with the Zardalu, and their ambassador became little more than a thug and plot device to help the plot in the fifth book.  This better be addressed in future books.

The setting of this series is one of the most MOO-like I’ve encountered. It could also potentially make for several good movies or a TV series.

 

The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

As mentioned in previous posts I’ve been on a quest to read all of Lovecraft’s stories. One story I was having a hard time finding was The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which based on the implications of other stories sounded like it might be one of the most epic. It was, but it was also disappointing in a few ways – the silliness with the cats being first and foremost.  It was a good story, but I enjoyed At the Mountains of Madness more.

I was delighted to find a handful of other stories in this volume that I had not previously read.

 

Free Will by Sam Harris

A short, easy read about the experimental evidence that suggests free will is an illusion, and what it implies for our justice system and for our thoughts about choice and self-determination.  I found it a fun and easy read and it extended my awareness of the matter a little by exploring some implications I hadn’t thought of.

 

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while but it became more opportune when I discovered the audiobook version was on YouTube.

This is a book I’ve been thinking for a long time needs to exist, and I’m glad someone else went to the trouble of writing it so I don’t have to. And that he then read it to me in his nice accent. See the wikipedia article at the title link above for detailed information on the content, but suffice to say he enumerates most of the major things about religion that bother me, and adds more I wasn’t aware of.

Can we abolish this supernatural nonsense now, please?

 

Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan

A well-written and interesting hard SF story about a galaxy-threatening accident and the scramble to mitigate it. Less tiresome and more engrossing than some of Egan’s more exposition-heavy, visualization-taxing efforts.

I found it odd that the titular construct played only a tiny role in the story.

The best part of this story, in my opinion, was the interesting model of future human sexuality presented. This is a future where humans are heavily bioengineered and have gotten over their gender-induced hangups. Children do not have genitalia nor do lone adults unless they want to for some odd reason. When two or more people start to develop romantic attachments with each other, their hormonal systems negotiate via pheromones and initiate the growth of appropriate combinations of sex organs based on the emotional dynamics of the relationship. Under this system non-consensual sex is very difficult and sex hormones are less likely to poison rationality.

 

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Quite enjoyed this. It’s a story of survival, discovery and human politics over deep time. But more than anything else it ends as a setup for one or possibly two sequels that I hope will prove as engrossing if they’re ever written.

I require a character in the sequel to use the phrase, “Let’s caul ass!”

 

Hold Still by Sally Mann

A few years ago, on impulse, I started a collection of books by and about controversial photographers with some half-baked idea of making a study of what gets fussbudgets wound up. So far I only have a couple of autobiographies in the collection, and this is the most recently written of them. I decided to read one to see how one of these photographers reacted to the fuss over her work.

If you don’t know, Sally Mann has several series of photographs that have drawn some flak, but the biggest noise came from nude photos of her own children. She was accused of everything from poor taste to abuse of trust to child pornography.

She seems to have been more naive than photographers would be today (partly thanks to her example), and was taken by surprise by the reaction. She even went to the point of taking her kids and all of her photos of them to an interview with an FBI investigator, and was assured that none of her work was illegal but that she should expect some trouble with stalkers. Sadly, that did come to pass but not as badly as you might fear.

But that story was only a tiny part of the content of this book. This is the story of her life, interweaving the distant history of her family back to her great-grandparents, her unbelievably film-like growing up in the Southern USA – as in “Suthan” – the complex racial situation there that she was oblivious to until adulthood and now has complex feelings about, and her relationships with horses, dogs, men, her children, the land, photography and other artists. It’s all a lot more fascinating than you might expect, and for me it was a window into a very alien lifestyle.

 

ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

This is a fast and easy read; it’s a collection of one-page theses that each attempt to justify a one-sentence quip about how to run a workplace. It came up in the book club at work, which is why I read it.

While I actually agree with a lot of what they say, this book irritates me because it’s written in a very cocksure style. Reading between the lines – and sometimes not between them – the authors are saying, “We ignored conventional wisdom in the following ways and created a small business that happened to be famously successful at the time we decided to publish this book, so therefore we are qualified to assert that this is the Right Way To Do Things.” Even if they’re right, nobody likes braggarts. Actually, especially if they’re right.

There are a few items in this book that I strongly disagree with, though sometimes it’s the presentation that I disagree with. As an example, in the section titled “Build a Rockstar Environment / Skip the Rock Stars” they assert that instead of trying to recruit star talent, employers should try to create a work environment that naturally boosts everyone’s productivity. I think these two things are orthogonal and they’re presenting them in a false dichotomy. It is simultaneously true that the work environment affects everyone’s productivity and that some people are inherently more productive than others. You should do both – create a good environment AND try to hire good people.

 

What I’ve Been Reading

Incandescence by Greg Egan

Pretty decent hard-SF first-contact story. A lot of it details the reasoning process of figuring out the nature of movement under gravity using natural observations, and some of the experiments described I found a little difficult to visualize.

What I liked most about this story is how the two threads almost sailed right past each other. Often in first-contact stories there are two narrative threads, usually one from the “explorer” perspective and one from the “native” perspective, and at some point they meet and usually combine into one thread or two parallel threads after that.  This book follows that model, except for the meeting part – basically the two threads are only joined together by one sentence near the end; no characters from either thread ever meet any characters from the other thread, but one thread still depends heavily on the other.

 


Halting State by Charles Stross

A pretty fun spy vs. spy mystery-thriller with a strong nerdish bent and good plot twists near the end.  It had a lot of near-future Scottish slang that I couldn’t figure out, but that’s acceptable in stories where the author is making up a future regional slang.

I like how the three narrative lines were arranged in such a way that two of them almost merged to provide quick gratification of some of the end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

Stross was wrong about facial recognition software being a hard problem though.

 


 

Manta’s Gift by Timothy Zahn

Pretty much what it says on the cover: Political maneuvering between human with shadowy, presumed-evil overlords and aliens with unclear motivations in an exotic environment, with a little bit of adventure thrown in.  It was a pretty decent read and kept me going from chapter to chapter.

 


JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford

A friend recommended this when I expressed an interest in learning JS, and I’m glad she did. This book makes sense out of a potentially very powerful programming language that gets a few things wrong in very confusing ways.  Getting a tour of the language features from someone who can explain what’s good and what’s bad and why they’re good and bad is the perfect approach.  Highly recommended.

 


 

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury

I’ve had this book on my inbound shelf for decades. I tend to have a habit of being slow to getting around to this sort of classical science fiction, but I tend to find it rewarding to read when I get around to it.

This book was definitely rewarding; seldom have I read such a well-written story. Kingsbury manages to weave an engrossing tale of a historical event in a slightly bizarre human society on a far-flung colony world, without any narratorial exposition until the very end. It gradually expands from the very small scope of one familly, to the machinations of a few small societies, and then at the end very satisfyingly zooms out to put it all in the context of a suddenly very fascinating galactic diaspora.

I now want to read more stories set in this universe.

 

Lethe by Tricia Sullivan

A reasonably interesting post-apocalyptic adventure with an unusual vision of the grim meathook future. Some interesting plot devices and characters, but although the minor plot points of the ending were not predictable, the big revelation was telegraphed far ahead of time.

 

507 Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown

Exactly what it says on the title – patent diagrams and descriptions of 507 mechanisms for performing different kinds of transformations on mechanical power.

I’m not disappointed, but I did find some of the diagrams and descriptions difficult to follow, partially because more views would have been useful and partially due to use of opaque and archaic language.

There was one mechanism that I had a hard time believing would work, but all attempts to search for it online lead back to this book.

 

 

 

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:

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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.

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