Monday, September 22, 2003

Finally, Some Non-Fiction

Well, my boss lent me 4 non-fiction books after I lent him the Wolfram, and I've felt compelled to read them so I can get them back into his book collection.

The 1st was a pretty astonomy picture book -- but no pictures I hadn't seen already.

I read the 2nd, "The Universe in a Nutshell", by Stephen Hawking in a couple of hours. Pretty pictures, more stuff on brane cosmological theories. The Theory of Everything (TOE) will have to involve multiple universes cause ours just doesn't balance by itself. Two interesting non-physics ideas:

  1. People like Star Trek because the people are so much like us -- not very likely for 400 years in the future.
  2. When we can grow infinks in artifical wombs, we can give them great big heads with great big brains. All the sci-fi I have read, I don't remember this one. I guess Hawking definitely values mind over body more than most, who I think would find this somewhat gross.
3nd book I really enjoyed: "Genome" by Matt Ridley, 1999. The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters (one per chromosome). He picks a gene or two off of each chromosome and uses it to explore many aspects of current genetic and evolutionary theory. Dozens of FFTKAT. Examples:
  • Continous evolutionary war in the genome itself. Junk DNA full of deprecated sequences, sequences inserted by viruses, sequences designed to fight specific diseases.
  • Only a few percent of the genome actually codes proteins. Large percent of junk DNA.
  • Warfare between X and Y chromosome. 3 times as many X's as Y's, they're winning: Y chromosome has only 1 gene.
  • Genome can change rapidly. All infinks loose their ability to digest lactose when weaned, i.e., lactose intolerance is the default condition in adults. Herding milk-producing domestic animals in the last 10,000 years has provided 70% of some human populations with the ability to digest lactose as adults.
  • Nature vs nurture: heredity is 50%, peer groups 50%, parents 0% ?!?!?
  • AB blood type provides immunity against cholera.
  • Imprinted genes in which the mother or father dominates: maternal genes grow the cortex, paternal genes grow the limbic region. The placenta comes mostly from paternal genes -- it helps the baby successfully invade the mother's body, suppresses her immune system, moderates her hormone levels.
  • Prions seem to be non-digital -- basically different from the rest of life.
and many, may others. I was only sorry when I read this that it is 4 years old. A 2e published more recently would probably have lots of things corrected and lots of new things right. My wife the pharmacist was actively disagreeing with lots of these, she's supposed to read and give me the overall FOS (full of shit) rating. Still, a really fun book to read.

Also read the 2nd Dan Simmons hard-boiled detective novel "Hard Freeze". I liked it a lot better than the 1st ("Hardcase"). The 1st had this annoying return to a minor subplot after the main plot had concluded -- kind of like the trite "no the monster isn't dead" at the end of a scary movie.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Book Reviews

I was excited to hear that Dan Simmons had written a new sci-fi -- except for short stories, his 1st since the 4 Hyperion books. Simmons writes really well. After winning all the SF prizes for Hyperion, he moved on to write horror, mystery, hard-boiled detective, spy stories, and straight fiction. My favorite book of his after Hyperion is probably Phases of Gravity, about a former astronaut who walked on the moon trying to cope with the fact that nothing in his existence would ever measure up to moonwalking. Gravity is used throughout as a metaphor for existential angst, it worked for me.

So, I read Ilium weekend before last. A great read, but a little disappointing. It looks like it is going to be "our literary and mythical figures really exist in alternative universes" -- which has been done before and doesn't do much for me. Still, hard to not enjoy Odysseus in the 24th century. You can't go wrong with Ulysses, the 1st great humanist, who trusted his wits and defied the gods.

It seems to me that reusing literary figures is a kind of a cheap ploy, and I usually interpret it as a lack of imagination. I read lots of Heinlein in my teen years, then gave up on him as he descended into DOM (dirty old man) syndrome. After the one with the old guy coinhabiting the body of a young woman, I said enough. Then his "The Number of the Beast" made the best-seller list and I thought, I should give it a try. Ach, it was painful -- and it did the "let's borrow other fictional characters" thing.

Herbert also seemed headed into DOMdom -- like the last two Dune novels with the tantric Bene Geserit. Seems like, some of these authors hit 60, maybe sexual powers fading, they start obsessing on sex -- and you can almost see the lears.

Last weekend I read Greg Bear's new one Darwin's Children, sequel to Darwin's Radio. Ten years ago, Bear really had edge -- good physics and good mind science. Forge of God and Anvil of Stars were great, as were Eon and Eternity, and the overall idea of City of Angels, that we figure out how minds work and fix them when there are problems, really appealled to me. Lately, tho, I think Bear has lost the edge -- I think Greg Egan may have stole it from him. For the amount of research Bear seems to have done into evolution, genetics and virology, the end result -- that entirely new and completely different features develop in homo sapiens novus -- seems highly unlikely and non-Darwinian to me. If he wasn't working so hard at the science, it might be easier to take. I have enjoyed many tales of mutated, more advanced humans (X-man, Slan by A.E. Van Vogt) -- that just kind of said, it happened.

Another really weird thing in the novel is that Bear has one of the main characters get a mental visit from God -- according to his afterword, based on many descriptions by people to whom this has happened?!?!? His father-in-law, Poul Anderson, died last year, maybe he found religion then? Anderson was one of my favorite SF authors throughout his career. Always a good read, hard SF and norse mythology based stuff, no DOM syndrome in his declining years. I periodically go though my SF and "evolve" it -- remove stuff that hasn't aged well and take it to the used book store. I could never bring myself to remove any Anderson. Anyway, I don't know, when my mother died, if anything it made me even more hostile to religion. The priest is up there selling his snake oil, "your mother's not dead" -- bullshit, she was dead, we all had to deal with it, and here the asshole is, pushing his product, eternal life.

I also recently reread "Vacuum Flowers", blogged earlier, Michael Swanwich, 1987. One thing I noticed that I had forgotten about, when the commando team is going down to earth, they have a librarian who can load them up with any specialty skills they need. Shades of "The Matrix", but 15 years earlier.