Distress by Greg Egan
Summary Andrew Worth is a science journalist who has just finished a documentary about frakenscience and whose next assignment is to cover a meeting of physicists attending a conference about “theories of everything” on a biologically manufactured island of anarchists. Distress is the name of a new disease mysteriously breaking out around the world. Put this together in a not so distant future and you’ve got the makings of a good bio/cyber sci fi thriller.
Rating Written in 1996, this book does not show its age. Egan throws us all sort of goodness, biological and technological, but also philosophical, political, and scientific. Fans of Neal Stephenson will dig.
Armada by Ernest Cline
Summary: A flying saucer appears in front of Zack Lightman. Not just any flying saucer, but one from the video game he has been religiously playing. Is he going crazy? Or is he becoming like his deceased dad, who journaled crazy stories of video game conspiracies? Think of this as Last Starfighter meets a mature video game industry.
Rating: This book is pure young adult. In particular, young adult male nerd. Yep, a nerdy dude who plays video games finds that his skills there translate over to a grand adventure, including a fairly painful set of scenes in which, yes, he gets the girl. On the other hand, it’s a rather fun romp through some nostalgic computer and science fiction history, so I’d definitely recommend this to my 13 year old self. Maybe this is what it would have been like to read Ender’s game as an adult when it came out? Not nearly as good as the author’s previous “Ready Player One”.
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
Summary: As an undergraduate physics major at Caltech one of the constant backgrounds of the physics department was its involvement in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Many of my friends did undergraduate research (SURFs) with LIGO, others went on to become professors who were part of LIGOs scientific collaboration. I took a single quarter of General Relativity from Kip Thorne, my god those homework sets were challenging, and remember learning the basics of how gravitational waves work along with the challenge of convincing ourselves that the waves were an actual prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (even Einstein oscillated on this point.) I also remember quite distinctly hearing about chaos in the project itself, mumblings about its large size, and criticisms in the larger physics (and astronomy) community about whether LIGO would succeed. In 2016 the LIGO collaboration reported the first direct detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes.
Janna Levin has written a wonderfully human story about the challenges behind conceiving, funding, and then eventually building LIGO. This is a story less about the science itself (though the descriptions of this are excellent) but more about the journey and the people. With access to many of the main players the book is made up of a a series of chapters focusing on different key players and events. Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Ron Drever are the three physicists at the heart of the story, but there are other equally important characters like Robert Vogt (early director) and Joseph Webber (early controversial pioneer of gravitational wave detection). Dr. Levin does a wonderful job weaving together this history with her own personal interviews of these larger than life characters.
Rating: (taken from my amazon review). I adored this book, mostly because it gives you a different perspective into the world of big physics experiments and how they are originally conceived and then carried to completion. This book isn’t the kind of pop science whose main goal is trying to convey the challenging science of theoretical physics (not saying that these bad, just that this is no that book!), instead this the story of the personal journeys that occur along the way to an amazing achievement like LIGO. With direct access to many of the main players in the collaboration, the book spends different chapters on their different perspectives of the history and controversies (and oh there were a lot) behind LIGO. The closest comparison for the style of this book is “The Soul of a New Machine”, Tracy Kidder’s description of the race to build a new microcomputer. Similar to that book by the time you finish this one you come away even more amazed at the successes of large engineering and science projects, and also see them as the result of an at times messy and chaotic process, not just the result of a “we had an idea” and “then we built it” process. If you dig getting perspective on scientists and their journeys to discovery, this book is perfect for you
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Summary: An ark story of a journey to a nearby star, told by an interesting narrator. Like all good hard science fiction, proposes a variant on one of the solutions to the Fermi paradox. Lots of exploration of the social and biological challenges of survival on a journey to the stars. The later especially noteworthy as often overlooked in hard science fiction.
Rating: The plot, such as it is, is not particularly gripping. But the ideas and thoughts put in to the hard science part of the novel make this one worth the read.
The Player of Games (A Culture Novel Book 2) by Iain M. Banks
Summary: In the Culture universe technology has progressed so that society is satiated. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master game player, respected and dominate in the Culture when the opportunity arises to play an exotic game, a game which a nascent civilization uses to enforce it’s totalitarian government. A musing on games, the shock of fascism, and the future.
Rating: A good romp through a fun universe, if you’ve been following Alpha Go you’ll dig this.
Well it’s that time of year. The WSDOT has announced that they are starting the yearly challenge of clearing off Highway 20. Last year I predicted the pass would be clear on April 5th and the actual date was April 3. Nailed. It. OK, now I’ve jinxed this year.
I’ve added last years data to the prediction. Here is the chart. Using the depth on 3/1/2016 of 39 inches from snotel this means my prediction for this year is April 12 (there is some carefulness about leap year that I am ignoring.)
How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
Summary: Fairly self explanatory: how to write a lot of psychology papers. Intro, silly barriers, motivational tools, support groups, a side rant on style, some specific advice for the field of psychology.
Rating: The advice is simple, mostly set a schedule and keep it. The cheeky way in which it conveys this advice, however, is worth reading, and I suppose the book would be useful as a reminder when you fall of the writing bandwagon.
Two contrasting scifi reads.
Summary: Vernor Vinge does Neal Stephenson circa the Diamond Age. A novel of the future in which a former master poet, Richard Gu, reemerges after being cured of Alzheimers mixed in with a techno-political thriller. Vinge tries imaging a future in which augmented related plays a large role, and does so with some considerable insight into the tools (wearables) that will allow this. Also the spelling in the title is intentional.
Rating: If you like Stephenson, definite recommend. It has some YA elements, read it for the tech.
Summary: The story of a company bent on building ultimate robots, synthetics, as it’s founder lies dying because he won’t accept the technology of another major company that could cure him. A world in which people were devices to broadcast their life to feeds which big corporations battle to dominate.
Rating: To me this read like an action flick plus some pretty routine “what happens when robots pass the Turing test” stuff. Not my personal cup of tea.
Summary: Jeff Hawkins is one of the creators of the Palm Pilot. He is also someone who harbored a strong desire to understand intelligence throughout his life, trying and failing to get into MIT to study AI, and then going on to entrepreneurial success with the Palm Pilot and Handspring. In 2004 he published “On Intelligence” with science writer Sandra Blakeslee, which is his attempt to come up with a theory of intelligence (note that I refer to the theory as Hawkins’ even though the book is by Hawkins and Blakeslee.) There is much here that is likely controversial. But there is also a lot that, reading this in 2016 when multi-layered neural nets are all the rage, now sounds very prescient.
One of Hawkins’ central ideas is the memory prediction framework. Essentially the brain stores memories and then uses those memories to make predictions which then propagate out to actions and influence memories. He talks a lot about “invariant representations” and hierarchies, with a special focus on cortical columns in the neocortex for carrying all this out.
Rating: Strongly recommend. While there are things I found myself disagreeing with (an argument about parallel computers that Hawkins gives seemed way off base to me), or wishing for more details, the book should spawn your own neurons to fire in interest at the wide range of topics the authors attempts to bring together in support of Hawkins’ theory. There is a tone of outsider seeing things clearly when all the narrow academics couldn’t, but this personally didn’t grate on me much (contrast this with “A New Kind of Science” for example).
Speculative: If you must know, I have my own views on predicting the future. The essential idea is that local entities cannot predict their own future due to the local nature of the laws of physics. But in that discussion I fail to point out that this is only true to the extent that mixing in the laws and uniformity of priors about outside-the-light-cone information causes us to lack predictability. But regularity in law and non trivial priors muck with this and make prediction better than chance. In a sense this is deeply tied with Hawkins’ ideas and a core component of modern machine learning. While there is no free lunch, lunch does seem to come in particular packages and opening the bag results in nearly the same results (sometimes turkey, sometimes egg salad). The brain certainly can use this both in perceiving, but also in creating the models it uses to predict the future.
So let’s push this even further. If prediction is essential, and the local laws of physics limit, but do no eliminate, this, then might one be able to derive fundamental constraints on the memory-prediction framework from basic physics? This is along the lines of David Deutsch’s ideas about deriving the Church-Turing thesis from physics. Indeed maybe the memory-prediction framework provides us with a sort of Church-Turing thesis for intelligence. All intelligence arises from prediction feeding back to memory and action, no matter what the substrate. Hmm, seems not quite hashed out, but interesting to contemplate.