notes on books by ~pgadey rss
Science And The Unseen World
2016-05-11

Eddinton, Arthur. Science and the Unseen World. 1929.

This is a Quaker book that I had been trying to track down for a long time. Soon after getting in to star-gazing I realized that it had a fairly strong connection to reverence and awe. Quakers tend to think a lot about Light, and I wanted to know what a Quaker oberservational astronomer and astrophysicist had to say about the Light. Unfortunately, that just was not in the Swarthemore lecture that Eddington gave in 1929. He focused on other interesting things, but I did not find what I had been looking for in his lecture. That said, I will try to track down more of his writing because I'm still curious about these issues and his writing is pleasant to read.

He does make some very pleasing arguments, or explanations, that I will keep coming back to for a long time. For example, if you and a friend are sitting together you might run the risk of being intruded upon by a wild philosopher. The reason crazed man might convincingly argue that neither you nor your friend exist. You would put up with the fellow, but once he left you and your friend would simply laugh it off. It would seem quaint and strange, but the verbal arguments of the philosopher could never dissuade you from the reality of the experience of your friend. Eddington concludes, "The most flawless proof of the existence of God is no substitute for it; and if we have that relationship the most convincing disproof is turned harmlessly aside. If I may say it with reverence, the soul and God laugh together over so odd a conclusion."

Occasionally Eddington shows himself as the academic. He describes the various levels of "purity" among the sciences, snuffing the sociologists and lifting up the mathematicians. He practically writes out a descrption of the famous xkcd comic on this theme. Sometime this training shows in a beautiful turn of phrase: "In the world, seen or unseen, there is place for adventure as well as for triangulation." One over riding theme that came out in the lecture was an attempt to sway the audience away from their preconceptions about science. He really hammers home the point that the theories of physics were rapidly becoming disconnected from reality in any concrete sense. His audience in 1929 probably would still have held a very Cartesian or Newtonian world view where physics describes the evolution of systems by precise deterministic rigid means. In academic reality however, physicists were coming to grips with statistical mechanics and quantum theory. All sorts of people had to leave behind the rigid billiard balls in a void model and Eddington wanted to point out that contemporary physical theories are just refined mathermatical symbolisms modelling the world for reasons that we know not why.

The closest that Eddington came to answering my searching was the following, delivered with a long passage of sensitive writing : "It arises, let us say, from a passage in an obituary notice which mentions that the deceased had loved to watch the sunsets from his peaceful country home." Eddington then discusses various hypothetical letters to the editor that get sent in to set the poor dead fellow straight. A writer, called A, writes in something. Then B corrects his myopic world view. C rises to the charge. Letters keep advocating either sciene, or theology, or an appeal to the wise pagan ancients. It is a total mess. Each writer stumbles on to the podium, steps on everyone's toes, and falls off. "And so it goes on. And the simple reader feels himself in an age of disquiet, insecurity and dissension, all because it is forgotten that what the deceased man looked out for each evening was an experience and not a creed."

Note: The letter writers go on until H. They could go indefinitely, I'm sure.

St Franciss of Assisi
2016-04-19

Chesterton, G.K. St. Francis of Assisi, 1924.

This is a book length essay about St. Francis. It is gauged to a very high caliber of English style. Chesterton is a fierce stylist full of dazzling comparisms and soaring generalizations.

As for me, the two main points of the essay were: Francis was amazing and Dante was a Franciscan. To have learned only that Francis started something called Les Jongleurs de Dieu would have sufficed to make this book worthwhile.

The thing that I appreciated most was Chesterton's sense of appropriate examples. Throughout the essay he gives very few concerete examples, or illustrations from the life of Francis, but the ones he does give are incredibly apt and poignant. He manages to say a great deal in so few words by choosing excellent examples that speak volumes to the kind of person Francis was. Chesterton can show a lot without saying very much. For example, he chooses a single example from the Clare and Francis story to illustrate their relationship: a whole Italian village was woken up by a red blaze surrounding an old church. The poor pious villagers swarmed the streets at night, to witness the conflagaration. They found the church perfectly intact, with Francis and Clare inside, breaking bread and speaking of God.

Another thing that I appreciated about Chesteron's telling of Francis was that he was very adament that it took place in medieval times and that things were very different then. To come back to Clare, he said for example: "a girl of seventeen in the thirteenth century was certainly old enough to know her own mind." It is precisely this sort of attention to history that can make or break an essay. If a writer completely ignores the reality of the historical situation, they can mistake a thing for what it could not have possibly been. If they pay too much attention, the historian can lose the forest for the trees. Chesterton kept both the historial background and the saintly foreground in elegant balance and focus throughout.

My only complaint is that Chesterton did not quote anything of St Francis directly. The least he could have done would be to some short pieces. The simplest route would be to include the Canticle of the Sun. He assumes that the reader is a familiar with the text of the latter, but does not include it. He assumes that one has it on hand, or would be willing to track it down.

Overall, this is a great and enthusiastic essay. It was written shortly after Chesterton converted to Catholicism. It will be a pleasure to read his short biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, which was written years later and shortly before Chesterton died.

What Is The Name Of This Book
2016-04-06

Smullyan, Raymond. What is the Name of This Book? 1906.

This review will praise Smullyan a lot, since I am really big fan of Raymond Smullyan. If you pardon the excess, I'll note that this is really a joke lifted from another book of Smullyan's The Tao is Silent. And that's not name of Smullyan's What is the Name of This Book?. And so that book is not the book of puzzles that I want to review, or even a book of puzzle at all. Smullyan loves to create elaborate and beautiful plays of words and reference, and I am very happy to have looked at one of his puzzle books.

Previously I knew of Smullyan as an eccentric old logician who wrote a book about Taoism that I happen to really enjoy. He writes in a way that made a lasting impression on me, and his short essays always made remarkable points. I had never read anthing else he wrote, but knew that there was a lot out there. Recently I made my first foray into his puzzles and they are indeed very good. I am only on puzzle ten, but I've already felt deeply pleased two or three times. For example, I remember being a little kid and getting excited when I first heard the following puzzle:

7. The following is a very simple problem which many of you
know.  Twenty-four red socks and 24 blue socks are lying in 
a drawer in a dark room. What is the minimum number of 
socks I must take out of the drawer which will gaurantee 
that I have at least two socks of the same color?

When I first heard this puzzle, I was probably in eighth grade or something similar. I was excited and remember telling my classmates about it. It was a great puzzle. The numbers were different, and I think there was a blind person, but it was definitely this puzzle: socks and all. So -- I'm happy to be reminded of it by Smullyan.

But let us linger a moment here and pause for a moment to analyze the genius Smullyan's presentation of it. Right off the bat, I must note that 24 is my favourite number. For an example of why it's such a great number consider that we just learned last month: `The optimal way to pack spheres in 24 dimensions is the lattice packing arising from the Leech Lattice.' (We also know that same holds in 8 dimensions from the E_8 lattice.) Back to Smullyan's socks: did you notice that they are blue and red? Who has such a drawer, full of only red and blue socks? Raymond Smullyan has such a drawer.

Right after this puzzle he introduces:

 8. A new twist on the above problem: Suppose some blue
 socks and and the same number of red socks are in a drawer.
 Suppose it turns out that the minimum number of socks I
 must pick in order to be sure of getting at least one pair
 of the same colour is the same as the minimum number I must
 pick in order to be sure of getting at least two socks of
 different colours. How many socks are in the drawer?

This question put a smile on my face and made me happier somehow. This is exactly a beautiful variation of the classic puzzle. It turns it on its head somehow and thereby makes a beauty puzzle more beautiful.

Exploring The Moon Through Binoculars
2016-04-06

Cherrington, Ernest. Exploring The Moon Through Binoculars and Small Telescopes. 1969.

This book is rather good. It is a very pleasantly British book about observing the moon. It was first written at time when there was a lot of excitement about lunar observation. The US was committed to putting people on the moon and everyone got rather excited about it. It is technical in a mild way. The writing gives off a feeling of mild deference, and keeps reminding the reader that technicalities are just a nuisance invented by experts to befuddle the common people. For example, "if you didn't quite make it with the 56-foot sun globe and the 15.5-foot inflexible but massless rod, don't flounder.If they exist in your mind's eye, they accomplish the purpose fully as well and dar more conveniently than real ones would." His writing sways from technical to flippant to suave armchair scientist rapidly. And yet, the material on building a Earth-Moon system model is very interesting. It seems like a great idea and I want to try it out sometime.

The Book of Tea
2015-07-15

Kakuzo, Okakura. The Book of Tea. 1906.

I've picked this book up a couple of times, but never managed to keep with it until the end. This time, I read an essay a day and got through the book in a week. Thich Nhat Hanh's Miracle of Mindfulness comes to mind as another exceedingly pleasant book which can comfortably be read one chapter per day for a week.

The Book of Tea attempts to convey something of the significance of the tea ceremony to Westerners. The main theme is that the appreciation of art and aesthetics can be cultivated to such an extent as to be indistinguishable from religious adoration. Okakura reminds us that we can be deeply and profoundly moved by the experience of art. The tea ceremony, according to my interpretation of the book, is a non-religious rite performed to aid in the appreciation of art.

The book is suffused with a particular spirit of Zen and Taoism. My first experience exploring world religions was through taking a keen interest in Taoism. Lots of clever people on the internet had clever things to say about Taoism; it was a part of hacker culture. It has become somewhat less of a fad, but it has always held a special place in my heart. Okakura's book was a detailed exploration of Taoism and Zen Buddhism through the lens of the tea ceremony.

Recently I've been on an intense introspective journey into art and nature. It seems to me that one of the most pleasurable things a person can do is appreciate their current situation as deeply as possible. In my understanding of it, the tea ceremony is a way of experiencing the everyday in order to make it more and more pleasurable.

My only complaint about the book is that the book is very flat without having seen the art being discussed. Unfortunately, I will probably never look up most of the art referenced in the text. An illustrated edition would be very helpful in conveying its hyper-aesthetic message. It seems that many such editions exist, but I happed to buy an old used Dover edition without illustrations.

Sartor Resartus
2015-10-12

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus, 1836.

There are very few people who will get to read Sartor with the same surprised glee that I read it. When I was in high-school I became positively obsessed with the Argentinian Man of Letters, Jorge Luis Borges. He was my idol, friend, in-joke, and saviour. The situation came to a head when I almost entirely abandoned high-school in order to learn Spanish in order to read him. In fact, I barely passed Grade Twelve English for the reason that I decided to write an essay about Borges instead of one of the authors approved by my teacher.

The Martian
2015-03-15

Weir, Andy. The Martian (2011)

I had this one recommended to me by Nora Skoze, a hungarian mathematician that I meet at the High Dimensional Expanders Borel Seminar. When she told me about it, an isreali mathematician, Clara, leaned over and said that she too was in love with the book. Thus, I picked up a copy as soon as I got home. I'm of mixed opinion about the book. It's a 342 page technical romp through a complicated manned mission to Mars disaster scenario but it's not a novel. There is a lot of clever scientific nerdiness about how things work on Mars. There's an interesting recipe for a building a bomb using sugar and a airlock full of pure oxygen in zero gravity, but there are no characters in the novel. Every attitude comes out as a shrill one liner. It's not an attempt to tell a tale, as it is a thinly stringed together guide to the worst possible survivable scenario on Mars. It's only saving grace as a story is that it had me rooting for a garden of potatoes being grown in human manure and martian dust. "C'mon little taters, grow!"

Compare with: Letters to Earth: Don Pettit

Fungi Delight of Curiosity
2015-02-09

Brodie, Harold Johnston. "Fungi: delight of curiosity." (1978).

A highly philosophical poetic tour through the realm of fungi. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I learned a bit more about the cultivation of fungi by ants, which was good. The tone of the book made it difficult to enjoy in the same relaxed way that I enjoyed Bonner's book on slime moulds.

Brodie seems to take every opportunity to "zoom out" and bring us back to the "Big (Philosophical) Picture". This tendency made the read a little bumpy since one's attention was was constantly being jostled between hard observation and vague speculation. Occasionally Brodie would point out that this kind of speculation is unscientific, but this didn't ease the transition back to fact absorption.

One excellent bit: The book has exactly one foot note, which consists of a rambly poetic explanation of how sexual reproduction increases genetic diversity through randomness.

Windup Girl
2015-03-21

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl (2011)

Megan recommended this to me a long long time ago, and I finally got around to reading it. It's a triumph of the imagination. The setting is an apocalyptic Thailand, after the world's food resources have been decimated by various forms of blight and pestilence. Most petroleum derived products have disappeared. Lots of technology is powered by kink springs which are wound by genetically modified elephants. The main speculative points of the novel are solid: it doesn't require the reader to suspend belief too much, everything seems like it comes from a reasonably plausible future. This had the mixed effect of making the book easier to read, and more gut wrenching since one really felt that it was possible for things become so bad.

One major thing that the book took on was trying to familiarize the reader with the socio-cultural background of Thailand and south east Asia. There were Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian characters who all had pejorative demonyms for each other. There was a lot of Thai Buddhism in the picture, which was welcome. I felt that most of the time characters conformed to my stereotype of how they should act: in certain situations everyone was immaculately polite, face was an important virtue, etc. Unfortunately I can't say if these characters were correct, and the novel wasn't always upfront about how culturally accurate some actions were. Occasionally a character would appear to be 'flirtatious' in an usual context and I wasn't sure it was accurate or not.

Medusa and the Snail
2015-08-19

Thomas, Lewis. The Medusa and the Snail. 1979.

Another miracle from the hand of Lewis Thomas. He is the best twentieth century essayist that I've ever read. Every page was teeming with microscopic curiousities, and fascinating observations about humanity. The only fault that one might find is that Thomas has an extreme case of repressed awe; brought on by living in Manhatten during the late twentieth century. He doesn't ever go too far with his praise of art. Everything he writes always stays within the tidy margins of respectable literature, but in every bit of praise one can see a glimmer of the fact that he would rave lunatic in the streets praising Bach if no one would mind him doing so.

Looking back on my heavily dog ear'd copy, I'm not sure what to say about any particular page of the book. Almost a quarter of the pages have been turned down; each one folded to remind me of some Very Important Thing. Of course, this phenomena is investigated by Lewis Thomas in his essay Why Montaigne is Not a Bore. Montaigne's style of prescient quasi-satirical social commentary is so effectively conjured on each page of the Medusa and the Snail that if one crosses their eyes and reads with a French Humanist accent one gets the impression that Thomas is Montaigne. Both authors could overturn any stone and find a brilliant insight in to the human condition lurking underneath. Looking at my dog ear'd copy I wonder "what is there in all those un-turned pages that I have read but forgotten, still there to be discovered?"

One essay that stood out of the collection was The Selves. I read it while getting ready for the John Nash Memorial Math Camp, a time when schizophrenia and mental health were heavy on my mind. We decided before the camp to never discuss the fine details of John Nash's life with the students for the reason that the student's parents probably wouldn't take kindly to them hearing praise for a schizophrenic. I'm confident that any highschool kid can understand the difference a man and his circumstances, but I'm not so sure about adults. Thomas is not sure either.

The Selves brilliantly shows that the problem of schizophrenia is not that the schizophrenic has multiple selves but rather that these distinct selves occur simultaneously. Every one who has grown up a bit knows that they have had radically different selves throughout life, but few mature people have paused to seriously think about these phases of life as being multiple distinct selves. Thomas points out that, in his experience, the only times when he's felt afflicted by an illness on account of his successive selves was during 'the gaps in the queue' when 'there was nobody around at all.' Certainly this anxious emptiness is a pain that everyone has felt. One hopes that it'll get a name some day, and that people will become more aware of their sucession of selves.

With regards to The Selves, I can't help but engage in a bit of speculative Quaker mysticism. Lewis Thomas talks of his role in organizing the many parts of his life in terms of Committees. He talks about half-way running these things, serving as an 'administrative assistant' who bumblingly guides things along and eventually brings in refreshments. Is this not exactly the kind of mental relationship to the subjective experience of living that Thomas Kelly meant by acting as a sort of Internal Clerk? We hear the ministry of our various willing faculties, and then carefully discern the sense of the (private) Meeting? It's tantalizing to think that Lewis Thomas might have attended a Quaker Meeting for Business. Next time I'm in New York I'll ask around, since the internet can't seem to help me here.

Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning
2015-04-03

Eberle, Gary. Sacred time and the search for meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.

This is a very good book. It wins my quest for interesting weird reads that make me a happy human being in a modern time living a religious life while liking mathematics, computers, technology, literature, and Sabbath keeping. Eberle managed somehow to hit all my bases. For example: in passing, he managed to mentioned Nicole d'Oresme (ca. 1323-1382), whose proof of the divergence of the harmonic series is one of my favourite mathematical tricks that I devoutly managed to tell all of my first year calculus students, was the first person on record as noting the Universe might be a clock. This is in contrast to the pre-temporal mind set in which the clock imitates the Universe -- which was a living breathing thing yawning and stretching out, much like a monk trying to keep the time in a clock Easter vigil during the tenth century. This kind of thing is on every page.

The book got me seriously thinking of several things simultaneously. This year I became much more deeply involved in the Christian roots of my Quaker faith. I've been trying to understand the Bible, and have tried to be more open to the leadings of a Christian God underpinning my life and prayer. This snuck up on me in subtle ways: During Christmas I really perceived an identity between the return of the Sun and the Son. I understood that Christmas lights are a reminder of a supermondial Light. It brought a sense of depth to the holiday and astronomy going on. To see that this kind of intuition was much stronger before the invention of clocks and that it had strong influences on the guiding principles of a life, made me feel like there was a precedent for the growing sense of unity with the Society and its special pace. A little while ago I realized that the much scoffed Ministry at that we call 'Daffodil Ministry' is really a particularly deep liturgy embedded in our seasons. It is a universally perceived mystery that Life can die, be buried, decay, and resurge anew each year. We get it and, when this Ministry is given, we are to look deeply through it; beyond that Ministry are the endless wonder it reveals.

On the other hand, there is this fantastic engineering story to be told when we look at the important of the liturgical year. We used to use sundials to tell the time of day. If you want to pray all days, that's great. If you want to pray all night, that's a problem. So you get a bunch of people together to start doing it. Someone stays up all night; but that becomes an issue when you're a thriving community of people all living and working together. If that guy falls asleep then everyone's damned. So -- You make a holy alarm clock. It chimes once, and sleeps less than Brother John. It does a human job better than a human; why not venerate it? So we'll all change our calendars to venerate it too, and take out this fidgety living clock. Now we'll put them up in cities and provide the first public access knowledge distribution machines. But now everyone's got to adapt to this new pace of life; the pleasant old inn keepers, their old wives' hands weaving hands, and boys enjoying a feast of the village aren't happy.

Now you want to write some IF: Do you make the game about being a clock builder or a clock wrecker? Is the clock public knowledge, or is guided by a mysterious order of monks. Do you only work alone, by night, hacking clocks? Or are you part of an order sworn to silence? It's a great theme: the culture of clocks in the period 1250-1350. They spread so quickly, and had such an oppressive driving influence on everyone's lives in this way that would seem so surreal to us today. They were the first public information source. The chiming bells of a church were the first automated information distribution system. The story parallels the story of the telegraph in many exciting ways.

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: the remarkable story of
the telegraph and the nineteenth century's online pioneers.
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.

It would be awesome to have a form of semaphore and ciphering any piece of puzzle heavy IF about such clock-punk.

And then the book drops the Sabbath on you. Do you want to think about puzzles all Sunday, while dreaming about Oresme and clocks? Well, Eberle has got you covered too. The last chapter of the book talks about how he decided to keep the Sabbath and go through the Catholic liturgical year while practicing zazen during ordinary time. Eberle is a professor at a Catholic college and would love to do e-mailing on the Sabbath but abstains. It's an honest exposition of his attempts to pull it off and what he learned from it. The kind of autobiographical writing that Eberle pulls off is very much akin to Susannah Heschel's Introduction to her father's book:

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. Macmillan, 1995.

He adequately conveys the daily humble events of his Sabbath keeping along side the philosophical problems that these foibles bring up. It is excellent writing. This is the kind of book that makes me happy to be alive. I love it and I loved reading it at Easter.

The book is so good that it made me love Sam Chapin, my first brother in Christ, more because he was baptised an Anglican last Easter. That anchoring provided by Sam has further enmeshed me in the English Christan liturgical year which is now a part of my heritage. Sam also introduced me to IF, Haskell, and the mysteries of Go.

Randomness in Evolution
2015-02-17

Bonner, John Tyler. Randomness in evolution. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Absolutely amazing book. I'm not a trained biologist and hence my perspective on the book was a little strange. Bonner seems to be very much an apologist for a new twist on evolution, and often begs his reader to suspend belief. It seems that most evolutionary biologists take the stance that all interesting phenomena in a creature must be advantageous for selection, and that all mysterious phenomena will eventually be explainable by selection.

Bonner proposes that there is a balance of power between selection and randomness in evolution, and that this scale is tipped in in favour of selection in large complex organism. He notes that this tipping is due to a phase transition in the developmental cycle of large organism which switches between 'external selection' and 'internal selection'. Randomness is de-emphasized in development because many mutations will result in failure to reach the reproductive phase of development. If anything goes wrong in the developmental process, it will certainly result in death or 'internal selection'. If an organism has an abbreviated developmental cycle then it will experience few possible failures along the way and small genetic variations may produce noticeable large scale differences.

Along the way, I learned about a lot of strange corners of biology. Throughout the book are interesting counter-intuitive evolutionary situations. For example, creatures with mixed sexual and asexual reproductive cycles. These species will have spurts of asexual production where they flood an area favourable to dispersal through cloning, where there is little environmental trouble, and then switch to reproduction to take advantage of a situation favouring adaptation, where something might need to be done. Or large trees, which seem to spread by both methods.

This book makes me wish I knew probability theory and stochastic processes. It is very interesting stuff. I'm surprised that Bonner didn't try to deploy any explicit information theory in his book. It seems like the perfect tool for trying to nail down what he was saying.

The Social Amoebae
2015-02-03

Bonner, John Tyler. "The social amoebae." Princeton University Press, Princeton (2009).

A masterpiece of expository prose. Bonner condenses decades of work in to an easily readable, and interesting, expository book about his beloved subject. Occasionally the technical jargon becomes somewhat heavy, and can make reading difficult. The degree of simplification and explanation are heroic, despite a couple moments.

One topic that was technical to the point of being incomprehensible to a non-specialist was the treatment of slime mould reproduction.

Bonner wrote the book to try to make sense of the vast accumulation of facts that are known about slime moulds. He was trying to paint a comprehensive picture while condensing a lot of technicalities in to simple prose. He admirably achieved this goal, since as a non-specialist I've developed a sense of the field while reading his book.

One special feature of the book, that really inspired awe in me, is how honest Bonner was about his own ignorance of the subject. There is a lot that we don't know about slime moulds, and it was very inspiring to see the absolute expert on the point out his own ignorance. We don't know exactly how slime moulds manage to turn around inside tubes for example. Another example was that Bonner, after decades of studying slime moulds wasn't sure of how they manage to turn. He admits that this was mostly due to the natural hubris of not asking simple enough questions. He assumed it was a straight forward matter, and proceeded naively.

The Triple Helix
2015-02-27

Lewontin, Richard C. The triple helix: Gene, organism, and environment. Harvard University Press, 2001.

Lovely book. Its main theme is the `triple helix' of gene, organism, environment. The book is an elaborate apology for the case that in order for Biology to remain a fruitful explanatory theory of the world concerned with large scale, human accessible, phenomena it must turn its attention (back) to questions about organisms as embodied creatures, carrying genetic information, through real environments. Genes effect the organism, which effects the environment, which effects the genes. Everything is equally important and they all effect each other. The main difficult in making a workable research programme is the natural human hubris to descend in to 'obscurantist holism'. Biology is really complicated, and its all inter-related, but that doesn't mean we should abandon the field.

Lewontin does a good job of highlighting counter-intuitive examples in biology. This makes the book interesting to the casual wanna-be biologist. The text is very lively: one feels that they are in the presence of a lively orator with excellent diction. The book comes off a little thin on references, and its not clear where to go for similar material next. This is not much of an issue since Lewontin is deeply in to philosophical and speculative thinking about biology; but I'd still like to know more about the phenomena that he talks about, or where the ideas discussed might have first been unearthed.

Towards the end of the book, in the section on future goals for biology, he discusses the need for more mathematical work on the geometry of folded proteins. This caught my attention. Bonner also makes the same claims about the need for deeper mathematical work to push through the jungle of molecular knowledge. Roughly put, Lewontin asks for 'geometric biology' and Bonner wishes for a 'big data theory' of biology.

Mindfully Green
2015-05-29

Kaza, Stephanie. Mindfully green. Shambhala Publications, 2008.

This is a book for someone is generally conversant with the major themes of the environmental scene, who knows a little bit about Buddhism, and who is eager to participate in environmental activism. The ideal reader for this book, in my estimation, is a female American undergraduate who has gone to a couple meditation classes and is interested in mixing 'mind expansion' and 'climate change' indiscriminately. These people are real, they're an interesting demographic and they could use a book to guide them. Unfortunately, I'm not a part of that group and the book came off a little strange for me.

The major theme of the book is that spirituality and environmentalism can and ought to go together. This message often takes the form of gentle reminding the reader that: (i) the Buddhist world-view has ecological implication and (ii) sustained activism has significant mental health costs which can be successfully treated with practical non-dogmatic exercises inspired by Buddhist practices, especially mindfulness. Simply put: ecology and Buddhist practices are useful to one another. This is a very important point that could help a lot of atheist activists achieve some mental health gains, and could help apathetic or disillusioned urban youth who are interested in climate change find inspiration.

My only problem with the book is that it doesn't present some ideas fairly and blurs over important points. Someone ignorant of Buddhism and ecology should not read this as their first introduction to anything. It's too fuzzy. For example, it skims over the distinction between what's Buddhism and what's ecology. In the first chapter there is a re-hashing of the Four Noble Truths that leaves one very confused about the precise phrasing of the Four Truths. It would have been more useful to have the Four Truths put down in one column, an ecological riff off of the Four Truths in another column, and a couple paragraphs of explanation about any analogies between them. Instead, one gets a chop suey of ecological Buddhism.

Before reading the book there were sizeable gaps in my knowledge of the ecology literature. Those gaps largely remain after having read the book. It didn't do to constructively build on my existing knowledge. A lot of names were dropped, like passing references to John Muir, but these names didn't build up my knowledge of the field much. I'm still not sure who John Muir is, for example.

Overall, I'm happy I picked it up but I'd rather pass it on to someone who'll enjoy it than keep it on my shelf.

The Real World of Technology
2015-05-31

Franklin, Ursula M. The real world of technology. House of Anansi, 1999.

This book is amazing.

Prior to reading it I felt that "we" ought to reform "our" use of technology. Now that I've read Ursula's book, that inkling has become a full fledged red blooded burning passion to strongly advocate a mindfulness of technology. The strange part of the book is that it all sounds so obvious. While reading the book everything has the feeling of being a contemporary lecture; and yet the haunting fact remains. The first couple lectures were given over twenty-five years ago. The last couple, forecasting the decay in social structure caused by automation of social mechanisms through computer technology, were given about fifteen years ago, well before the rise of the current "social internet".

Read this book.

The main theme of the book is technology as cultural practice. "The way we do things around here," becomes the definition of a technology. Thus, there is a European technology of knitting, and an American technology. The major distinction that is pursued through-out the text is the distinction between prescriptive and holistic technology. Any technology in which the operator has a continuous guiding role, where things are done intuitively with many subtle competing variations, is holistic. Technologies which require few simple discrete choices from the operator are classed as prescriptive. Here, the technology prescribes be behaviour of the operator.

Each lecture traces another aspect of this distinction deeper, and shows how prescriptive technologies had influenced the (then) contemporary social and technological worlds.

I would really like to know what Franklin would think of the tilde-verse. At present the tilde-verse seems to be in the early excited phase of rapid expansion, with much hoping for the future.

The Ideas of Biology
2015-05-06

Bonner, John Tyler. "The ideas of biology." (1962).

More excellent stuff from Bonner. This book could properly be called "A Panoramic View of Life-Cycle Theory". It's very clear from reading this book that Bonner has been thinking deeply about life-cycles since the early 60s, and that his recent writing is a natural out growth of that same frame work. He has been able to put together all the detailed findings of biology, and its theories, in to a coherent picture for the last fifty years. When you read Ideas of Biology you get a sense of the political and biological climate at the time it was written, there is a lot of discussion about 'signal and response systems' and 'the division of labour'. There is a calculation in the style of Horn, comparing surface area and volume and then arguing that certain biological phenoma arise due to the resulting asymptotic weirdness of the quotient. There is a loud and steady beat of the drum labelled 'complexity implies bigness', with only the occasional note that it goes the other way.

It is a nice read, and has lovely sense of old fashioned wit to it. While reading it, I felt Bonner's classy American upbringing show through at times and some explanations occasionally felt like dinner jokes.

In the Company of Mushrooms
2015-02-06

Schaechter, Moselio, and Elio Schaechter. In the company of mushrooms: a biologist's tale. Harvard University Press, 1998.

A charming book. Schaechter manages to achieve a very special kind of auto-biographical writing that mixes expository prose and reflections on science. He doesn't constantly barge in to the science, telling his own anecdotes, and the personal anecdotes are peppered with enough scientific fact-dropping that they're educational even when not especially personally relevant.

The book is a treasure trove of strange mycological facts. It seems that there couldn't possibly be so many cultural facts about mushrooms.

A lot of the book is dedicated to the culinary suitability of mushrooms, a subject which doesn't especially interest me. There was still a great deal of time spent on the aesthetic joy of mushroom morphology, and their role in complex ecosystems. Personally, I could have enjoyed the book without the chapter on cuisine.

This book made me want to actively hunt mushrooms.

The Stonemason
2015-03-01

McCarthy, Cormac. The stonemason: a play in five acts. Ecco Press, 1994.

Stunning play. We've been on a McCarthy kick this year. I've already read his other novel-drama Sunset Limited. The Stonemason had a lot of good for thought, and beautiful thoughts about the significance of masonry. It made me even more curious about Freemasonry. It was a good read, but I would have preferred to see it on stage. It felt a little flat to me as I read it, but I could see it being very powerful on stage

generated by bake