Archive for April, 2011

‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ by Richard Dawkins

April 20, 2011

Another good book by Richard Dawkins (all his books are good), this time presenting the (overwhelming) evidence for evolution by natural selection: it’s not just the only reasonable explanation for the organized complexity exhibited by living organisms, it is also extremely well confirmed.

I’m afraid the people who are most in need of reading this book will never read it, because they wouldn’t want to endanger their preconceptions. Most of the book’s readers probably will be convinced of evolution already. But there may be some people who, though interested, do not yet have a firm opinion in the matter, and those will be the ones who might read the book and will then likely be swayed by Dawkins. And even if the book shouldn’t succeed in making lots of people change their mind, it might still be useful by supplying the adherents of evolution with conceptual ammunition for discussions.

It’s a book by Richard Dawkins, which implies that it is very well written and argued, enjoyable to read, interesting, and mostly convincing. Nevertheless I didn’t enjoy it (and its predecessor, The Ancestor’s Tale) as much as I did Dawkins’s early books (The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker). I think there are two reasons: (1) When you have read many or all of Dawkins’s preceding books, you have already encountered many of the (types of) examples and ideas he adduces in the later ones. (2) The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype contain his most radical and fascinating ideas; the later books are quite interesting, but the first two are stunning. So, if you haven’t yet read anything by Dawkins and haven’t yet bought any particular book of his, then read The Selfish Gene. (The Extended Phenotype is less accessible to laypeople, but you might try it anyway, after The Selfish Gene.) After that, assuming you have acquired the taste, go on in whichever way you wish to.

“Hiob” von Joseph Roth

April 20, 2011

Eine traurige Geschichte, schön erzählt. Ich bin mit diesem Roman ursprünglich über eine mehrteilige Verfilmung fürs Fernsehen in Kontakt gekommen, schon lange her. Ich habe keine konkreten Erinnerungen mehr an die Verfilmung, aber irgendwie hat sie mich angesprochen; das ist hängen geblieben. (Genauso war’s beim Simplicissimus von Grimmelshausen. Den zu lesen habe ich auch nicht bereut.) Das positive Ende hat mich ein bisschen enttäuscht — vielleicht weil es dem ‘Helden’ der Geschichte so in den Schoß fällt, ohne dass er viel dazugelernt hätte.

Ich hab den Roman in einem bei Zweitausendeins verlegten Sammelband gelesen: Romane und Erzählungen (von Joseph Roth). Dieser Band ist weitaus sorgfältiger gemacht, als der Glauser-Band Studer ermittelt es war. Bisschen klein gedruckt allerdings. Ist aufgrund seines Gewichts auch nicht die ideale Bettlektüre (für Rückenlage-Leser wie mich), aber das kann man ihm natürlich nicht zum Vorwurf machen.

‘Accelerando’ by Charles Stross

April 9, 2011

A nice science fiction novel about (among other things) the impending ‘singularity’, when progress in computing speed and (artificial, self-enhancing) intelligence will have accelerated so much that … what? … it will have become infinite??? Hm. Moore’s Law says (I believe; roughly) that computing capacity grows exponentially, but that still doesn’t make it reach infinity. Probably the Singularity Hypothesis says something more sensible. [Later addition: The point must rather be that computing speed/capacity accelerate in an increasing manner such that they tend towards infinity at a certain future point in time; i.e., it is estimated that, for any measure of computing speed/capacity you care to specify, no matter how great, there is a moment before the singularity point at which that measure will be reached. So, at the singularity point itself, computing speed/capacity would in theory be infinite — if that were meaningful. Since it isn’t, we just don’t know what happens at, and after, the singularity. That’s probably what the Singularity Hypothesis says; I obstinately refuse to look it up in Wikipedia.]

Anyway: Lots of high tech, lots of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, also terraforming and wormholes. On the downside, lots of acronyms and jargon — a little too much for my taste; it made understanding the goings-on rather difficult sometimes. I much prefer Iain M. Banks and William Gibson — not necessarily Dan Simmons (though he’s interesting too) — but still: a nice book. (You might also want to try Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams!)

‘Zero History’ by William Gibson

April 9, 2011

The latest novel by William Gibson. He seems to write them in trilogies: first the Neuromancer trilogy — I see that Wikipedia calls it the ‘Sprawl trilogy’ — then, starting with Virtual Light, the so-called Bridge trilogy; and now Zero History closes the ‘Bigend trilogy’. The one exception is The Difference Engine, a cooperation with Bruce Sterling (I should re-read that one; my English wasn’t so good when I read it the first time).

I wonder how this latest trilogy should be classified, genrewise. Is it still science fiction (as the first two trilogies certainly are)? Modern technology plays no small role in the books, but on the other hand the technology featured seems to be mostly already extant (e.g., the blimps by Festo, which sound fictional but are actually real; there are nice movies under It has some aspects of a detective story, some of a spy story, and of course a slight science fiction feel. Then again, the part of culture most important in the book isn’t technology in a narrow sense, but rather brands and design. The Neuromancer/Sprawl trilogy was the paradigm of cyberpunk; The Difference Engine was ‘steampunk’ — maybe the Bigend trilogy is nerdpunk??? Or maybe not …

Anyway, these books are all quite good. If, however, you haven’t read anything by Gibson yet, then start with Neuromancer, which is a classic, and perhaps the most impressive and stunning of them. If, on the other hand, you don’t like science fiction, try the Bigend trilogy, starting with Pattern Recognition.