Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book Review: Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-Box at the Vatican Observatory
Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
Science, theology

DISCLAIMER: I've heard Brother Guy Consolmagno speak several times, and spoken with him very briefly.

In some ways I'm the wrong reader for this book. None of the science, and not much of the philosophy, is new to me. Even the specifically Catholic aspects of the dialogue are not entirely unfamiliar. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? is genially written and unsophisticated, but I didn't find it terribly challenging.

In essence, WYBaE? is an extended riff on what Steven Jay Gould termed "Non-overlapping magisteria." Science explains some things. Religion explains some things. They don't explain the same things, but that doesn't invalidate either domain.

It's a familiar refrain, but it's not an entirely satisfying one. Both science and religion make some claims to universality. That is, most scientists would agree with the statement "Nothing is exempt from scientific inquiry," while theologists have historically been very clear that "Nothing is irrelevant to the Divine purpose."*

But some universalities are more universal than others.

The difference becomes clear in WYBaE? in the chapter "What Was the Star of Bethlehem?" The authors first discuss a variety of plausible astronomical hypotheses. When they turn to the religious side, they aver that the story of the Star doesn't have to be taken literally to be religiously meaningful. The Bible operates in many modes, including story-telling. Sometimes a good story is the best way to communicate a truth.

Fair enough. But they do not--they cannot--entertain some hypotheses that the scientist would consider equally plausible. Is it not possible that the episode of the Star, as written in Matthew, is no more nor less than a propaganda piece? That, in other words, it was either (a) a folk tale (or what we'd now call an urban legend) that eventually got written down, or (b) a conscious attempt to "sex up" the story? 

Such things manifestly do occur. I certainly don't assert that they did occur in this case. As a matter of science, however, I'm free to suppose that they might have occurred. Brother Guy and Father Paul, for all their erudition, are prohibited ex cathedra from even considering these explanations. So they don't.

Still, the book is a quick yet searching overview of the interface between science and faith. I'd recommend it as an introduction for non-scientists who are interested in Catholic teaching on the subject. I wouldn't recommend it to religious fundamentalists, however, because the authors flatly state that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally; if that doesn't square with your beliefs, nothing in this book will sway you.

*The relative prestige of the two has certainly flipped over time, though. 18th-century scientists were anxious to assert that science didn't undermine religion; 21st-century "creation scientists" are no less eager to pretend that Biblical literalism is compatible with science.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous Regiment
Terry Pratchett
Fantasy (reread)

I wanted to reread something in honor of the late Sir Terry Pratchett. I picked Monstrous Regiment because, of all of his Discworld books, it's the one I've reread least. There's a reason for that: I remember thinking previously that it was a long way from being his best work.

When I reread it, I discovered that it's still a long way from being his best work. Gad, I'm perceptive! Or consistent, at least.

It's not that it isn't fun to read. Virtually any Pratchett—at least prior to Unseen Academicals, in which his illness was starting to show—is a pleasurable reading experience. This one has the usual quota of clever sentences, insight, running gags, and so forth. If that's what you want in your Pratchett, don't worry.

But Pratchett at the top of his game is something better than that: he's a top-notch teller of stories. And this isn't one. It's filled with incidents, which follow one another in sequence, but that's not the same thing.

Take the nominal protagonist. Polly Oliver is smart and observant and sympathetic, but she never actually does much. She doesn't make any hard choices on her own, or think about what she's doing, or put herself in special danger. She goes along in a group, and does what the group does.

The antagonist, on the other hand, is ... what? I'm not sure. The situation, maybe? Pratchett himself seems unsure. There's a nasty character, Corporal Stroppi, who starts out making Polly's life difficult, but he runs off around a quarter of the way through the book; he reappears near the end, briefly, and is quickly disposed of. There's an enemy officer who makes even less impression. I suppose you could say that the antagonist is "society," but "society" doesn't actually throw many obstacles in Polly's way either, because on page 1 she's already pretty well gotten a successful angle on the situation.

As a result, while Polly starts with a goal, any progress she makes towards it is purely accidental. She even achieves it ... by asking the right person at the right time. Oh, and there's a near-literal deus ex machina as well, which solves the "society-as-antagonist" problem with no effort on anyone's part.

Finally, as my friend Allen pointed out: in a book about war and soldiering, it's pretty lame when your nominal soldier-y heroes never have to actually do the one thing that soldiering is all about: killing and/or being killed. It's like they're in Disney's Warland theme park.

Late in the book, Polly reflects that it's odd
... finding out it's not about you.You think you're the hero of the story, and it turns out your part of someone else's story ... Alice will be the one they remember. We just had to get her here.
Couldn't have put it better myself. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--But Some Don't
Nate Silver
Statistics, cognitive psychology

The Signal and the Noise is a user's manual about how to make better decisions with imperfect information. As is often the case, the people who would benefit most from the book are the ones who are least likely to read it, or to believe it if they do.

It turns out that foxes make better predictions than hedgehogs, that thinking in terms of probability is really important, that people who refuse to apply mathematics often talk hooey, that self-proclaimed "experts" often aren't, and that it pays never to be too certain of your initial assumptions. This book, in fact, confirmed all of my prejudices.

Therefore, it's obviously wonderful.

Put that way, it sounds stupid. And yet this is one of Nate Silver's (and others') key findings: we all think that way. The difference is that truly rational people know that they're not rational--and factor that into their thinking. Put another way, one of the most important sources of human error is to look at the data with an eye towards confirming your own biases: in real-world data, there's usually enough noise clouding the signal that a determined eye can pick out a false pattern from it.

The book doesn't put great mathematical demands on the reader, although in fact basic probability and statistics don't require much beyond high-school algebra. There are a good many charts and graphs, which are clear and easily understandable. The book is written in straightforward, entertaining, clear, and fluent prose. It perhaps loses a little steam towards the end, where Silver chooses to multiply examples rather than honing his conclusions. Aside from that nitpick, I'd recommend The Signal and the Noise to anyone who wants to be a better thinker, which I assume includes anyone who's read this far.

Pairs well with Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow or Dubner and Leavitt's Freakonomics.

Book Review: The Stones of London

The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings
Leo Hollis
Architecture, history

"A good building must do two things; firstly it must shelter us, secondly it must speak to us." - attributed to John Ruskin

Every building encodes many messages: what its builders thought was important, what their economic concerns were, what the city around them was like, who they wanted to impress, what social problems were most pressing ... Different people and different ages have had different answers, but they've all had the same questions. And the answers have to be embodied in a way that navigates the constraints of time, physical location, materials, and (of course) money. 
John Nash's All Souls Church, Langham Place, London 

BT Tower, London

Stones of London takes twelve buildings—ranging from the world-famous to the quotidian—and uses them to snapshot how these questions have been addressed over history, within the same city-space. It would be an especially enlightening book for anyone planning a trip to London: rather than presenting a "horizontal" survey of the city in space, it's a "vertical" explanation of the city in time. It's a very enjoyable read in general, although it will make more sense if you have some level of interest in or knowledge of the city. My only minor criticism is that I wouldn't have minded a higher level of architectural/engineering detail (which was my reaction to Hollis's previous book as well).

If this stuff interests you, and if you do visit London, visit Sir John Soane's house--be sure to take the guided tour.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Review: The Green Road Into the Trees

The Green Road Into the Trees: An Exploration of England
Hugh Thomson
Travel, archaeology

The United Kingdom, like the United States, is essentially an urban and suburban nation. And, also like the United States, there's some kind of deep-seated voice that whispers, irrationally but compellingly: "but the small-town/village is the real America/England."

But one big difference is that the UK has managed its dense population centers much differently. Fly over Britain and you'll see a pattern: cities and towns cluster densely around a center, radiate outward, and then, at a certain point, just ... stop. Here, we get sprawl without end. There, the countryside—the actual, working, non-Disneyfied rural landscape—is within easy reach even of the big cities.

Standing stones in Avebury

That tension, I think, is at the heart of The Green Road Into the Trees. Hugh Thomson traces the path of the ancient Icknield Way across southern England—never far from the madding crowd, yet curiously insulated from it. There's some nice descriptive writing, but the book ultimately isn't about the landscape; it's about the relationship that the English have with the landscape. In some cases that takes the form of correcting old shibboleths: Thomson, in walking this Bronze-age path, does a nice job bringing that ultimately unknowable time into his present picture.

Cotswold Way 

So Thomson divides his book among Bronze- and Iron-Age land use, his own personal reactions, and a series of encounters with people who are on, in, or of the English countryside—farmers, festival-goers, Travelers, pub owners, conservationists, would-be Druids, archaeologists, and just ordinary folks. It's an odd but appealing journey, without any overt direction or focus or message. American readers, at least, will be struck by the extraordinary persistence of English rural mores; many (though not all!) of the people Thomson meets would sound perfectly at home in an Agatha Christie novel.

Chalk path

Rather like The Wind in the Willows (a book Thomson references many times) some of the best passages are not about anything except the experience of being there. For anyone who has walked or biked the English countryside, The Green Road Into the Trees is an exceedingly evocative book. And yet ... even more than his archaeological musings, Thomson's conversations with the locals—something that we Yanks can't carry off in quite the same way—makes me think that there are a lot of layers beneath that beautiful surface.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thoughts on the Passing of a Giant

R.I.P. Sir Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett was a genre writer. He entertained people. He could never win the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer, or the Nobel, or much in the way of critical notice. All he ever did was write seventy or so books, become the second-most-popular author in the UK (after J. K. Rowling), be widely beloved by fans and admired by fellow scribblers, and leave a corpus of work that will surely be read--voluntarily! by non-academics!! for pleasure!!!--in a hundred years' time.

Genre writing is never intellectually respectable. It's popular. It's easily comprehensible. Perhaps worst of all, it's not modern; it's premodern, and in many cases antimodern. Fantasy, especially, is a throwback form of storytelling, tracing its ancestry straight back to the Iliad and Beowulf and the Morte d'Arthur. Modernism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but one of those things is an explicit rejection of the "outmoded," the "traditional," and the "bourgeois." In the visual arts, that meant rejecting realism for abstraction. In writing, it went the opposite way: the hero's struggle was rejected in favor of what Michael Chabon has aptly dubbed "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story".

Even the language is loaded. The adjective "modern" has connotations that are all positive. Its antonyms are words like "premodern", "antique", or just plain "old"--all negatively charged.

So we get a literary canon in which boring, ordinary people do boring, ordinary things, in a boring, ordinary setting, as a result of which nothing much happens. Books that violate those genre conventions are defined as Not Literature, don't win prizes, and don't enter the cultural conversation. Admit to liking this stuff, and you're instantly a plebeian--a mere escapist entertainment-seeker. Cultivate a lofty sneer, on the other hand, and you may be admitted to the club.

Maybe I'm too dumb to understand real literature. Maybe I'm too short on empathy. Maybe--OK, undoubtedly--my tastes are fundamentally adolescent. But I don't like it when the books that readers actually like are reflexively marginalized.

It matters, because reading matters--in a way that virtually nothing else does. And yet, as a friend of mine recently noted, the habit of reading is neither inevitable nor particularly natural. I don't think it's coincidence that a quarter of Americans don't read any books, or that pleasure reading peaks at age 13-16 and declines steadily thereafter. (Similarly, I don't think it's a coincidence that the years which saw the canonization of John Cage and Philip Glass and other "modern" composers saw the accelerating decline in the popularity of classical music, or that fewer and fewer people are looking at art nowadays.)

To their credit, a few people within the literary Establishment recognized just how good Sir Terry Pratchett was. On their behalf, and mine, and my friends', therefore, I say: fare thee well, good sir knight; your quest was a noble one, and it outlives you. And if there are any naysayers out there who want to show me the error of my ways, I'll be in the library, reading stories about heroes.

P.S. If you want to try Pratchett but aren't sure where to start, Guards! Guards! is a good place; it begins a wonderful sequence that continues with Men at Arms and Feet of Clay.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Lincoln's Greatest Case

Lincoln's Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America
Brian McGinty
History, biography

This is the first half of an excellent book combined with the second half of a decent book.

The "Greatest Case" monicker is not mere hyperbole. In 1856, the Rock Island Railroad opened the first bridge across the Mississippi. Two weeks later, the steamboat Effie Afton collided with one of its piers. The boat sank; the bridge was damaged. The steamboat owners sued for damages. Had they won, they might have halted bridge construction across navigable waterways--an outcome that would have pleased, among others, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis: river transport favored the South, and in any case Davis wanted a southern railroad rather than a northern one (to promote the spread of slavery).

These are the big issues that the first half of Lincoln's Greatest Case brings up, and a fine job it does therein. It also gives an excellent portrait of Lincoln as a lawyer (one of the best in Illinois) and as a soon-to-be-famous man.

The second half of the book is the story of the trial. It's interesting, readably told, and perfectly clear, but:

  • It wasn't primarily Lincoln's case; he was one of three lawyers, and not the leading one. His role in the case wasn't minor, but neither was it the starring part--and much of it consisted of preparing documents and doing research.
  • It's a courtroom drama without the drama. Real life is seldom as satisfying as fiction, and real lawsuits aren't John Grisham territory. McGinty does a good job narrating the course of the trial, but he can't disguise the fact that it was kind of ... routine. Neither the verdict nor the journey getting there contains any surprises.
  • McGinty also has a slight tendency to lose himself in lawyerly byways. For example, there's a solid page-and-a-half of text on pp. 104-105 that could have been replaced with the single sentence "Lincoln almost certainly visited the bridge in person before the trial."
Lincoln's Greatest Case is a good read for anyone who's specifically interested in Lincoln himself, the 1850s, or trials for their own sake. If you want an introduction to the period, Bruce Catton's classic The Coming Fury (volume 1 of his Centennial History of the Civil War trilogy) is a better place to start; if you're interested in Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals deserves the praise it's received.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: Wobble to Death

Wobble to Death: A Sergeant Cribb Mystery
Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey has written a number of fair-to-middling mysteries. This is the first-published of his Victorian tales. The setting is absolutely first-rate, the pacing is good, the characterization is adequate to the purpose, and it is a fair-play puzzle ... but the ultimate reasoning that Sergeant Cribb uses is very, very tenuous. Much of the "investigation" section in the middle of the book is not ultimately very relevant--although the final sentence is a clever small twist.

Mildly recommended if you like historical fiction, and are less of a purist than I am about the logic-and-clues aspect of the detective story. If it's Victorian murder you're after, though, nobody can touch the incomparable Sherlock Holmes (at least at his best); modern worthies include the magnificent Steve Hockensmith and his Holmes on the Range series. There are several other well-known historical series out there, but I'm afraid I find most of them vastly overrated.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review: The King's Speech

NOTE: This is the story behind the movie. If you haven't seen the movie, beware spoilers.

The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy
Mark Logue, David Conradi
History, biography

This is a good, readable, not-very-deep book. Its strength is that it has a vast wealth of material to draw on; Mark Logue is Lionel Logue's grandson, and he managed to assemble a kind of family archive consisting of Lionel's diaries, letters, commonplace books, notes, keepsakes, photographs, and so forth. David Conradi, the co-author, is a reporter, and that's about how The King's Speech reads: as a well-written long newspaper story. It's not ground-breaking, but I liked it.

Now, the spoilers: the movie sexed up the plot a great deal. For excellent dramatic reasons, let me add--the truth doesn't usually make a good story (cf. The Imitation Game, a movie I very much enjoyed in spite of having previously read the book it was "based on"). A film made strictly from the book would run something like: prince meets speech therapist, prince improves very quickly, prince and speech therapist become amiable if not intimate (no "Bertie," you may be sure), prince becomes king, king gives many speeches without incident, partnership continues on same basis for many years, the end. No arguments, no controversy, and no dramatic leadup to THE speech.

The one place I will fault the movie a bit is that it actually lies about one thing. Lionel Logue was notable because he insisted that the causes of stammering were not psychological but physical--exactly the reverse of the film. I understand why they did it; movies about people and relationships are more interesting than movies about abdominal muscles. But it misrepresents Logue's achievement, all the same.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu (author), Ken Liu (translator)
Science fiction

[UPDATE: The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo Award winner. Its sequel, The Dark Forest, is next on my reading queue.]

This is a classic big-idea novel. (In fact, I first read about it in John Scalzi's "Big Idea" feature.) It's an outstanding piece of work—it's a Nebula award nominee—but it won't be to everyone's taste. If your idea of science fiction includes a lot of action and not too much talk, this isn't the book for you. It's not a difficult read, particularly, but it's meant to be thought-provoking rather than simply escapist.


Do not read the cover blurb before reading this book. Do not read the Amazon capsule description before reading this book. They contain significant and totally unnecessary spoilers. 

One of the ways it's especially interesting to an American reader is its depiction of an alien society, namely China during the Cultural Revolution. Most American SF is profoundly American-centric, even today; characters from non-Western cultures are there, but they're seldom given a distinctive voice or viewpoint. In The Three-Body Problem, almost everybody is Chinese, and it's us who are peripheral. 

In furtherance of this, translator Ken Liu choose to preserve the original's tone and pacing:
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture's patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another languages rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people's gestures and movements.
I liked the effect very much, but if you're expecting it to read like Volume 47 of some typical American author's mediocre series, you're going to find it slow, stilted, and confusing.

As to the Big Idea itself, it's not without precedent in science fiction—what is, nowadays?—but it's well-handled, well-presented, and interestingly worked out. The Three-Body Problem isn't hard SF in the sense of Larry Niven or Hal Clement, but it's certainly hard-ish, and it introduces some really intriguing riffs off of current cutting-edge physics. It reminds me a bit of Greg Egan, a bit of Arthur C. Clarke, and a bit of David Brin. If you like those authors, and you don't find the idea of the tone-sensitive translation off-putting, definitely give this one a whirl.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Emperor of the West

Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
Hywel Williams

I wanted to adore this book, I really did. Not only was my knowledge of the subject a bit lacking, it's tailor-made for a lover of high adventure. Decaying empires? Check. Barbarian kingdoms? Check. Swords? Check. The original of the Chanson de Roland? Check. Heroic warrior-king who conquers an empire and initiates a golden age? Check.

And it's got all that stuff ... somewhere. It's never a good sign when an author spends multiple pages of his introduction telling you what he's going to tell you. In this case, it's a sign that Hywel Williams doesn't realize that he's got a story on his hands. Instead, he treats his material as if he were writing Wikipedia articles: organized by topic, confusingly interrelated, largely colorless, and complete without being cohesive.

A few examples will stand in for a great many others:

  • Absolutely inexplicably, there is neither a timeline nor a family tree, and there are precisely THREE smallish maps.
  • The lack of a genealogy is made acute by the repetition of names, or similar names. In the index, I count five Carlomans, seven Charles, four Childberts, five Pippins, and ten Louises (Louisiae? Louii?). Since the main text is in no way chronological, it's often unclear which one is under discussion at any give ntime.
  • On page 116, we get a mention of Charlemagne's wife Fastrada. Wait--who the hell is Fastrada? Last I remember (page 65), Charlemagne was married to one Hildegard. The first index entry for Fastrada is not until page 192. This sort of thing happens a lot.
  • Frequently the same event is referred to many times over, in a multiplicity of contexts, discussing different facets of the event, without explaining or describing the event itself. When and if we finally do get the explanation, it's impossible to fit it in with what's gone before.
  • The temporal dimension is dizzying. I appreciate a determination to show Charlemagne's historical context, but zipping back and forth among the 740s, the 790s, and the 860s isn't the way to do it--and the swings in places go much further than this.
  • He spends a certain amount of time concocting complicated explanations for things that can be explained simply.
  • Finally, and most damaging, Williams never sets his scenes. He just assumes that all the basic facts and personalities are too familiar to need introduction, and goes from there. Even if this were true--and it seldom is--it's poor technique.
If I'd been writing or editing Emperor of the West, I'd have started with the scene that Williams puts on page 140--Charlemagne's coronation as Emperor. It gives a nice capsule portrait of the man himself, explains who he was, and gives a vivid picture of why it matters. That would ground the entire work in giving, first the background leading up to the scene, then the following consequences. It's a pity that Williams didn't think that way. As it is, I can only recommend the book to those readers who want completeness at the expense of the other literary virtues.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Geek Sublime

Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
Vikram Chandra
Aesthetics, software

Software developers talk a lot about a piece of code being "beautiful" or "ugly". Mathematicians do something similar: "Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics", wrote the great number theorist G. H. Hardy. Scientists, too, use the language of beauty to describe their work. And many people (myself among them) think that engineering designs and engineered objects can be beautiful in their own right--there's even a "movement", sometimes called Machine Art or Precisionism, to that effect.

Suspended Power, Charles Sheeler. Image from the Dallas Museum of Art

On the other hand, it's a commonplace to observe that there is a deep cultural divide between humanists and scientists (and engineers). Vikram Chandra, who's both a software developer and an award-winning novelist, wrote this book to try to explore whether and how these ideas of beauty cross that divide.

As you'd expect, the book is wide-ranging. It's got some (largely non-technical) discussion of software and the software writing process in it, but it also has a good chunk of fascinating autobiography, and a deep dive into Sanskrit language and classical Indian aesthetic theory. The latter is particularly novel to a western reader, and in some ways quite extraordinary.

As you'd also expect, it's beautifully written. In fact, it's so beautifully written that it took me a while to realize that its various parts don't always cohere very well. The discussion of the lowest level of the computer (the logic gate) is very clear, for example, but it's not clear what it has to do with the rest of the book. Similarly, the dearth of women in U.S. computer science compared to India is a very interesting topic; I'm just not sure what it's doing in this book.

But if we're talking about "the beauty of code", cohesion is vital. So, ultimately, Geek Sublime left me a little unsatisfied; I'm not entirely sure what conclusion Chandra really reaches, if any.

So I'll favor you with my own conclusions instead. For reference, I am a practicing software engineer. Although I'm not an award-winning novelist, I write both fiction and non-fiction for pleasure. I do artwork and illustration (they're not the same, although they're related). I've composed and performed music, to my own satisfaction and occasionally to others'

In my subjective experience, there is certainly a connection between beautiful code and good writing—a connection which I can only describe as a shape. Good code and good prose both have a definable structure, a sense of which is almost a kinesthetic experience; I find myself waving my hands around in the air, as if molding invisible clay words, when I'm trying to describe it. In a work with a good shape, everything relates to everything else. Nothing is missing. Nothing is wasted.

The difference, thought, is that in engineering a lovely shape is never enough. An engineered design, like an equation or a scientific theory, has to work. No code can be beautiful if it doesn't do anything, or if it does something wrong. For a book or a poem or a painting, beauty does not serve function; to be beautiful is the function.