Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category


Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

I just finished reading the Quantum Thief by an author named Hannu Rajaniemi (a native Finlander).

I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure why because I found it very hard to follow. Not in that I didn’t know what was going on from moment, but that the twists and the way the world function is completely alien and never explained. That said, the world that Mr. R. has created is epic and excellent. The book begins with a breakout from a prison that literally subjects its inhabitants to repeat prisoner dilemma games and other theoretical constructs used by residents.

From there though, the book moves to Mars and the premise of the book is that the main character, a master thief is hired for a robbery, but what he’s hired for doesn’t really end up mattering and instead he gets drawn into trying remembering who he is, because apparently in his past life, he was the ruler of Mars and he saved his memories in architecture all over the planet, but I don’t really know how it works.

The epicness of the book is immense, and as I said, the world is incredibly imaginative and creative, but that’s exactly why it’s really hard to understand what does what. There are, for example “the Quiet” who have kind of died. They used to be residents of Mars, but then they are brought back to do menial tasks. Some are “Atlas” quiet, and they support the city and move it around the surface of the planet (think God of War if you ever played it). Also, there are random mutants always trying to destroy the city, but even though they are mentioned all the time, they are mentioned in such a passing way that you don’t know what they are until the last few pages of the book. Also, everyone has multiple identities through time because of body switching and the way consciousness can be manipulated.

There are also two huge technologies that play a role in the novel that are never really explained. One is the “time” that serves kind of a unit of money. Each person only has so much time before they must become “quiet” and so “die” in the limited way I explained above. The time is kept in “clocks” that are very special. They somehow work on quantum entanglement and can’t be duplicated, but the thief manages (seems like fairly easily) to duplicate the time and to fool the mechanism that enforces death when the time runs down.

The most confusing thing in the whole book is a a GEVULOT. I have no idea how this author came up with this name or word, but it functions as a kind of electronic cloak (or like a really sophisticated facebook page) in which the person can choose to reveal or not their memories and personal information to people. All people on Mars are equipped with this technology, and it allows people to share information by “co-remembering.” Rather than receiving a message, the target of a co-remembering, simply remembers that they have an appointment at some time, or remembers a person that they have in fact never seen. Memories can also be time limited so that two people can extend a gevulot contract to each other and have the contents of the resulting conversation wiped. The issue I have with this is that I still have no idea how it works or what it really is. The word “gevulot” gets inserted all over the novel as a way for characters to do all sorts of things, some of which are very important to the plot. There are also ways of interfering with one’s gevulot and “taking” another’s gevulot.

This is a really interesting book with an incredibly dense, artistic, and hard to follow plot. The most helpful thing I can say though is that this book is very much like Gibson’s neuromancer, but in fact, I think much better. The same poetic abstraction is here, as well as the way the novel treats memories, social structures, and political systems. If you liked Neuromancer, I expect you will REALLY like Quantum Thief. Otherwise, you’ll probably just like it the normal amount.


Powell’s Bookstore

I’m in Portland for a wedding and it’s been pretty interesting to learn about the place. It’s definitely a hipster paradise, but it’s not obvious what that means and why it’s the case. It’s true, people do wear a lot of camping gear, and I think it does look ugly, and it’s definitely the provoking element for some insults hurled at the place and its people from people I’ve been out with. But I think the camping gear is probably explained by the abrupt changes in temperature and constant rain. It probably gets tiresome to carry an umbrella with one at all times and since there’s a huge forest right in the middle of the city, it probably makes sense to have some rain resistant tube pants.

But then there are the hipsters with mohawks, faux hawks, and black pants and all that get up. They’re interesting too and uniquely northwestern. Oregon “Ducks” shirts are allowed in certain circumstances. It all just reinforces my belief that though stereotypes are not true, they do have something true about them. I think stereotypes are a kind of crude way to capture the fact that there is something very different in what people from different places take to be right, fashionable, delicious, normal, rude, and on and on. These evaluative categories and their automatic triggering in daily life are very different from person to person and when the brain tries to agglomerate them or theorize them as one unit, the result is a stereotype. For instance, the stereotype that Oregon kids are pot smoking, sandal wearing, drunkards with a lot of body hair. It’s not true of course, but there’s something right about it. It’s very hard to pin this phenomenon down.

Anyway, back to Powells. It’s really great for many reasons. First, it’s really well kept up with nice signs and attendants. The people who run it also seem to care a lot about books. Hell, the people who GO THERE seem to care a lot about books. A father took his son passed me and said to the no more than 9 year old child that he needed to get a book in his section first before he could go with her to her section. He told her though that it would be quick to get the book since he was getting the next one in a series. He then explained about series and about his series. He just talked to her a lot about books.

Borders Books and Music recently went out of business and the cause to me is clearly their inability to fight the amazon  phenomenon (this is a nice book but now I know how to order it on Amazon). Barnes and Noble seems to be able to keep physical locations open largely by turning them into show rooms for the nook.

Gag me. Bookstores are awesome, but they’re going the way of comic book stores I guess. My solution though is simple. Bookstores should charge a very small cover, like 1 dollar (trouble is that the the transaction costs for this fee would be more onerous than the fee, no one wants to pay a dollar for walking into the store). The reason this is justified in my mind is that people want to go to a bookstore for the atmosphere. I go to hit on girls who like to read, and to read the recommendations from the staff (a lot of these at Powell’s–awesome), and to see the eclectic books that they sell (Powell’s has a place that has books organized and collected just because of their cool cover pages.).

Keeping an atmosphere of coffee aroma combined with the smell of turned over book pages and faded covers cost money. Many people feel at home in such environments and enjoy walking around in them and so, it seems, should be willing to pay for that privilege. This may result in a transition away from selling books to selling a place where reading is comfortable and enjoyable. Maybe bookstores would become more like for-profit libraries in which there are comfortable chairs and nice coffee (similar to how it already is).



Infinite Jest and Sex

One of the main plot points of infinite jest is a movie made by a character who killed himself. The name of the movie is “infinite jest” and it is referred to by various government organizations as “the entertainment” and is considered a national security threat. The reason is that anyone who watches the tape has an irresistible desire to continue watching it forever. The movie is so pleasurable that people forget to eat and do anything else, no matter how uncomfortable they become. The movie also fries their brain.

The commentary is pretty blatant (especially in the context of the rest of the book). American culture is too obsessed with its desires and not enough on the control and mediation of those desires through principles and cognition. I don’t think rationality and cognition are the be all and end all of being human, in fact I’ve argued against that many many times in this blog. However, if you foster a culture that takes the satisfaction of all desires as the criterion for its success, you have disaster. And in the book, the CIA (well, not the CIA, but the big intelligence agency) is trying to get the tape because it represents the distillation of American life. It is the contradiction at the heart of the American system and though it gives overwhelming pleasure and satisfies one’s desire to keep watching it, it threatens society.

One of the main characters, Orin Incandenza (close to “incandescent” and I think the play on a synonym for light is probably intentional) is a player. He has sex with tons of women. At first, he just enjoyed having sex with them and seeing how much sex he could have and without how many people at once. But then, he needed to make the girl fall in love with him completely and utterly; to be come psychologically dependent on him. And this feeling of control is what he came to live for.

Now what’s interesting about this is that he wants to BECOME the Infinite Jest. The tape floating around stunning all its viewers becomes a very nice symbol for the motivations of Orin and for many other things in the book.


How Do Sentences Work (this is interesting)

I’ve written many times on this blog about rich perception — how our mind creates frameworks for us to see the world which let us do certain things like take action, recognize pain, and  build friendships.

But now I am investigating (and becoming convinced by the idea that) the idea that LANGUAGE can be enriched in a similar way, and many philosophers  of language count this phenomenon as one of, helpfully enough, enrichment.

The idea is simple. There are semantic rules — these are the rules that linguists and philosophers try to come up with for how language works. For example, the word “and” in English does many things and can be used many ways, but as a semantic matter, at least according to many people, it works truth functionally, meaning that it combined the truth values of two clauses and makes the truth value of the whole sentence depend on those two truth values.

For instance if I say “Twitter is new and stupid,” then I say the same thing as “Twitter is stupid and new.”

Of course and functions in a ton of ways. These two sentences are not the same, and it seems like they should be if “and” is only working truth functionally.

I brushed my teeth and got into bed.

I got into bed and brushed my teeth.

Anyway, the semantic rules governing and are not critical. What is important is enrichment, which is when THE PROPOSITION that a sentence relates goes beyond the proposition that encoded purely by the semantics.

Here is a great example.

He took out his key and opened the door.

Semantically, this sentence says that someone took out his key and that he opened the door. It LITERALLY, says nothing about the relationship between the key-taking-out and the door-opening. The sentence would be true if I pulled out a key with one hand, tossed it aside, and then opened the door with my other.

However, when we hear that sentence, we hear the following, ENRICHED proposition (enriched part of the proposition is in italics).

He took out his key and with that very same key opened the door.

The truth conditions of this sentence are very different than those of the previous one. One condition is that I must use the same key that I took out to open the door.

I think this is fascinating because it shows that what a sentence “means” is VERY malleable.

There are a lot of fun examples that illustrate this point (these both are taken from Prof. Jody Azzouni).

1. A boy skins his knee and the mother says “You aren’t going to die.”

2. A scientist begins his lecture on the recently found cure for mortality and says “You aren’t going to die.”

The same words are uttered in (1) and (2), but in (1), we hear

You aren’t going to die from this.

In (2) we hear

You aren’t going to die ever.

Context makes a big difference to how we understand things.

Why is this interesting? Well I think for a ton of reasons, and I’ve become pretty obsessed with it lately.

But here’s one interesting application.

The ability to write well is often taught as the obedience to grammatical rules and to conventions about topic sentences and so forth. These are all important, but they get us only so far, and the reason is that reading something is a rich activity of enrichment. Subtle word choice, organization, pauses, and emphasis can drastically alter how we “see” (again, my use is not that metaphoric) things.

Take this two sentences, where a comma makes ALL the difference (saw this example the other day).

I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

The lesson here is that good, clear writers now to how get inside people’s heads and master the unseen, UNSYSTEMATIZED relationships between the situation, word choice, and connotation to generate ENRICHED propositions. And so good writing is quite literally RICH; it is conscious of the various ways in which we can say something without writing it — conveying a mood or additional action or even a relationship that wouldn’t be present. As these examples demonstrate, this isn’t something that only intellectuals can latch on to. The artful wordplay of good books exploits a COMPLETELY DEMOCRATIC and UNIVERSALLY available part of the human linguistic capability.

As I’ve said a thousand times before, I suggest Infinite Jest as an object lesson in this type of democratic wordplay.





Infinite Jest and Fractals

I JUST wrote about infinite jest here, and a friend hooked me up with this video. Watch the first few minutes at least.

My reaction is in one part self-congratulatory. I really did feel like there was something related to chaos theory going in this book, and so it was. According to DFW, there is chaos theory organization here by HIS INTENTION. Point Jordan.

My next reaction is: really? Did he really mean that or is he just going with what the interviewer is suggesting. He says something like “the extraordinariness of the banal” and c’mon. That’s something very cliche that I never thought DFW would say. Whatever though.

This book resembled “a piece of glass that has been dropped from a great height.”

“chaos is more beautiful than order.” You betcha

There is so much wrapped up in this book, including DFW’s life, who accepted money for this book in advance because he wanted to “finish it.” For someone who lived a life of depression and killed himself, the DEPTH of those words is almost incomprehensible for someone like me. I mean, giving his attitude toward things, you KNOW he was just dead-set against accepting that money for the book. DEAD-SET. But the importance of this work to this human was enough for him to compromise that.

Last, the fact that there are fractals in this book, and that it doesn’t feel like bullshit to say that means that this book is for real. When you sit down to read this book, you don’t fuck around. And this further confirms for me that real art is a real force and its not just kids wearing black doing word-masturbation. However, you do have to find the good stuff, and when you’ve found it, you know you’ve found it; just like when you find a beautiful woman who you can’t be with.


A Joke that Goes for 800+ pages

I am currently reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace,  and it is really impacting my life. I won’t say it’s changing my life, partially because that’s cliche, and partly because it’s not true. Rather, its confirming my life; supporting it, and making me laugh at it.

I have so many things I would like to write about this book, but I’ll start with my most profound.

Here’s an analogy. We have the Guinness book of world records, and in it are feats like people who rapped for 24 hours straight, or made 3000 free throws in a row, or whatever.

Infinite Jest, is nearly what it purports to be — a joke of infinite length, and the artistry behind this book in that respect is totally uplifting to me, especially since I think humor has a deep relationship to living a good life.

Let  me try to get across what I mean, which is that not only are their jokes writ small in the book that make me laugh out loud, but that each joke is an entry into another punchline and another larger joke, which in turn can be transmuted, molded and controverted to form a new punchline or a new premise from which to draw new jokes and realizations. In fact, the book could be understood as a single, complex, nearly infinite, joke expanding itself in fractal form, always splitting and rippling with other humorous bits. The idea that something like this could come from the brain of one person is mind-boggling.

When I’m done with this book, I will expect that my mind will have been given access to a single, enormous joke. In guinness, terms, the world’s LARGEST joke.

The joke of course, and this is cliche, but I hope to expand on it at another time, is life itself. The joke is that we are alive and given certain faculties that we find perverted and stunted by our attempt to use it. To coin a phrase that I think has not been really used before: humankind is the self-defeating animal, and in using our talents and celebrating them, we inevitably create new problems and sorrows for ourselves.


It’s My Life

The title of this song doesn’t really relate to this post, but the music video does — no I’m not talking about about the Gwen Stefani (?) version of this song. This is the real 80s version by a band called, repetitively enough, Talk Talk.

Also, I  haven’t written a post for like a week now, and the problem isn’t really lack of ideas: I have been accumulating them. The issue is that I have some philosophy stuff that I’m trying to make precise, and when I read and write about that stuff, I get kind of perfectionist and its hard for me to just put some provoking thoughts on paper in a haphazard way.

So I’ll try to do that now.

I’ve been reading a book by a woman named Temple Grandin, and her book, Animals in Translation, is for the most part worth reading, both because it corrects a bunch of prejudices I had about animals, and it makes some philosophical points about consciousness as well, as well as another extension I’ll mention.

Grandin is autistic, and this makes her perspective very interesting, and she positions herself (convincingly) as a kind of animal mystic. Indeed, she makes her living traveling to breeding farms, cattle ranches, slaughterhouses, dog pounds, and other places, all to improve the environment for the animals. Her goal is to make animals less stressed out in human made environments, and she works as what one could call an animal detective. She will show up at a ranch and the owner will say something like “the pigs are really stressed out and they’re biting each other” or “these cattle won’t walk into the feeding area so we have to tazer ’em to get ’em in there.” She then tries to find out what the problem is and usually solves it by notice a flapping piece of yellow cloth or a shadow created by the bars of the pen. In other words, she claims to be able to see the world in terms that animals see the world.

Tidbit — cattle guards work by playing off cow’s unique perception. To them, even painting lines on a road (not actually putting metal rods along the road as a grating) is enough to make them believe that there is a CLIFF there. They will not pass over them.

She ties this to a fascinating point about consciousness and perception, which is that in her mind, autistic people, because they have trouble with language and conversations, are a halfway point — at least in terms of consciousness — between animals and people. In her words, autistic people see the world in terms of pictures and not words. At some points Grandin speaks about her experience as one of being hyper aware of certain perceptual clues.

Animals she thinks must see the world as an extreme autistic person might, totally in terms of pictures and not in terms of words at all. As a philosopher would say, animals see the world NON-CONCEPTUALLY. She presses the analogy in an interesting direction when she brings up the idea of savants — autistic people who have many mental problems, but can perform some extremely complicated tasks with ease (such as solving large multiplication problems).

She thinks that animals may be savants of various types. Sharks would be hunting/eating savants, cats would be balancing/acrobatic savants and so  on. In other words, animals don’t have concepts to represent temporally or spatially distant or general ideas, but they do excel at solving certain experiential problems that present themselves in the environment, just as Dustin Hoffman can count the matches on the ground in Rain Man.

The analogy goes still deeper. Many autistic people  (according to Grandin anyway, and one problem with the book is that one isn’t sure which tidbits are scientifically based and which is anecdote or provocative suggestion. A lot of the stuff is scientifically backed) are hyper-aware, just as animals are. Grandin gives the mind-blowing story of a dyslexic friend who could hear the idling vibrations of nearby radios and so knew what programs were on WHEN THE RADIO WAS TURNED OFF. This friend would say “NPR is doing a show on lions” and then the radio would be turned on and that would be right.

So anyway, autistic people might be an incredibly useful halfway point for studying consciousness because it might allow us to unify data gleaned from animal behavior, and related it to a model of consciousness, as well as giving us insight into what aspects of HUMAN consciousness draws from animal perception of the world.

And as I promised, there are also just some bizarre and cool results about animal life that someone like me — animal hater that I am — had no idea about.

Apparently, elements communicate through ULTRA low moans that only other elephants can hear. They also probably communicate through stomping the ground and some hypothesize that elephants may have sonic receptors in their feet. WOW!

Other random stuff, like Monkeys have wars with each other, and dolphins are actually very vicious in the wild, killing young dolphins for sport and practicing gang rape.

Lastly, and this is pretty cool too, but mostly dog-people probably know this, is that dogs are neotanized wolves. In other words, dogs are just wolves who remain locked at a certain level of a maturity so that the most mature dog is still a juvenile wolf. One way of confirming this fact is that mature wolves have an aggression pattern called “the long stare” in which, as the name suggests, the wolf will stare down a rival. Dogs cannot perform this technique, EXCEPT for huskies which are genetically VERY similar to wolves. How sweet is that? I have to work on my long stare.

Last, predators don’t kill in rage. When they execute the “killing bite” (an extremely genetically scripted behavior), they are coldly carrying out a reflex. Animals do feel anger though, but only when in pain or when sparring with other members of their species. A lion snapping a gazelle’s neck feels nothing.