Archive for May, 2020

Review: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

Carlo Rovelli wrote a series of short essays on physics for the European press recently that Seven Brief Lessons collects. They are very short – a few pages each – but do a remarkable job introducing and motivating the ideas for a lay audience. I think I have a reasonable grasp of physics for a lay person and I got a couple new insights on the ideas and their importance.

If you’re even mildly curious about physics, these are a nice introduction to some of the exciting and evolving areas. They’re small enough to read in a few minutes each, which makes Seven Brief Lessons is a tasty physics appetizer.

Strongly recommended.

Review: VALIS

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

VALIS distills a lot of the themes that draw readers to Philip K. Dick. It’s an amazing mix of personal experience, paranoid fantasy, speculation, analysis, research, and gnostic epistemology. That sounds impossible to pull off, and it is. And it’s a classic.

It has its flaws. There are parts that are primarily street preacher rantings. There are parts that are droning exposition. There are parts that are pages of unorthodox interpretation of meticulous religious scholarship. There is a bit of internal self-therapy.

And yet, a shape emerges from this oddly formed piece of writing that wormed its way into my psyche and stuck there, probably permanently. Some of it is the creative interpretation of philosophical and Fortean ideas. Some of it is genuine insight into the workings of our imperfect minds. Some of it is the bold honesty of projecting his life onto the page. Dick presents ideas and connections between ideas in ways that ring powerfully when struck by conventional ideas.

That’s not a great capsule for people deciding whether to read it or not. I think if your path has led you to VALIS, you should read it and it may connect. If not, I wouldn’t go looking. It’s the kind of book that finds you.

Strongly recommended if it does ring your doorbell.

Review: What’s Wrong With The World

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

One of these days I’m going to send a forensic team in to figure out how these sorts of random books show up in my library wish list. I suppose it would be nice if there were some sort of elves in the stacks tagging e-books for me, but I think it’s just random late night browsing.

This is G. K. Chesterton opining on the state of English society in 1910 or so, and it’s massively frustrating for me. He consistently writes concise, charming sentences that invite novel thoughts but they connect to reach conclusions with which I disagree. For instance, he writes in support of the position that women should be restricted to domestic roles because that strengthens society. I dropped three or four of his supporting sentences into my quotes file because they make fun of patriarchical structures in society and men’s bluster in support thereof, but I think those structures are anachronistic.

I actually hope that this is satire and I’m missing the point.

It’s a good reminder that great writing does not imply support for my values.


Review: University Park, Los Angeles: A Brief History

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

I keep picking up Chris Epting books from the various Los Angeles libraries. This time my local county library enticed me into it.

University Park is very much in the same vein as Victorian Los Angeles. It is driven by the architecture of the area Epting is looking at. That approach has its power; he’s described several places I plan to visit on future jaunts around LA. However, the narratives and personalities of the history makers get less attention that I prefer in a history.

Very good for an architecture-driven history.

Review: Agency

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Agency takes place in the same continuity as The Peripheral, and it surprised me again. This time the surprise was how resilient the setting turned out to be.

Gibson has often turned his mind toward anthropomorphizing artificial and collective intelligences. He has a remarkable skill at making that dry idea engaging and entertaining. He makes robots human like no one else.

His artificial intelligence is the star of the show and he primarily uses the thriller plot of Agency to illuminate that intelligence’s emergence and maturity from multiple perspectives. One of the things that delights me about this is that he makes his human characters real and interesting enough that their perspectives are authentic and enhance his ideas about artificial life.

Beyond this extended character study, Gibson is an SF master who also cheerfully throws out other ideas to play with along the way. He’s also quite good at constructing the thriller that underlies all of this.

While I liked it quite a bit, I don’t think it’s his most profound work. It is very entertaining and very engaging – emotionally and intellectually – but he has been even deeper. That may say more about how I rate the quality of his other work.