February 28, 2015

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2015

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Paul J. McAuley, Something Coming Through
Mind candy science fiction: in which the aliens showed up some years in the narrative past, and offered us access to the same dozen habitable planets orbiting red dwarf stars that they had apparently offered many previous, now-vanished species. Of course, we took them up on it... The combination of bizarre ancient inhuman technologies and ecosystems with all-too-human vice, folly and social malaise proves to work about as well as you'd expect to be a fertile generator of Plot. There are also some really fine descriptive passages, and McAuley returning to a theme of some of his earlier books (e.g., Fairyland), of Europe (especially England) being gradually filled with weirdness seeping in from the margins, a weirdness driven by not-human, or no-longer-human, forces.
While this isn't one of his very best, like the Confluence trilogy or The Quiet War and its sequels, it's still really good; I read it in as close to one sitting as teaching allowed, with great enjoyment.
McAuley's self-presentations: 1, 2.
Russell A. Poldrack, Jeanette A. Mumford and Thomas E. Nichols, Handbook of Functional MRI Data Analysis
A brief (~190 pp. of main text) introduction to analyzing functional neuro-imaging data. It's not until about page 90 that they get to statistical models of the relationship between stimuli or actions and the neural signals. This is because the whole first half of the book, entirely appropriately, is about how "the data" are actually constructed.
When neurons spike, they consume energy and need oxygen. The blood vessels in the brain respond by delivering more highly-oxygenated blood to them, over-compensating, with some delay, for the original oxygen consumption. Oxygen-rich blood has slightly different magnetic properties than oxygen-poor blood. Functional MRI is able to measure changes in this "blood oxygenation level dependent" (BOLD) signal over space and time. But what we're really interested in is the neural activity, and the BOLD signal is full of noise and artifacts. To get values suitable for statistical models of neural activity out of this, we need to go through a very complicated process, where every step itself relies on a different statistical or computational model, itself resting on a more-or-less explicit theory --- about how the MRI signal is acquired, about the nature of the "hemodynamic response", about anatomical variation between people, etc., etc. The end result of all this transforming, manipulating, filtering, adjusting, distorting, and discarding is what people like me are accustomed to calling "the data". The authors are very sound on all this, including the vital importance of human quality control at every stage.
They are also pretty good on the statistical methods which come after that point, in the second half of the book, though rather conventional in their emphasis on linear regression models. The mathematical level is kept deliberately elementary, but it does a good job of clarifying some common pitfalls (circularity, a.k.a. "voodoo correlations"; in-sample evaluations of predictive power). Neither half of the book gives all the technical details which a complete newbie would need, but both are quite good at both painting the big picture and including crucial details. I strongly recommend it as a first book for anyone seriously contemplating working with fMRI data.
Disclaimer: I know both Poldrack and Nichols professionally, and correspond with them occasionally; this led to my picking up the book, but isn't, I think, enough to make me give it a positive review.
Laura Kipnis, Against Love
There are a few passages of genuinely good and insightful writing here. (The catalog of things people in couples are not allowed to do, for instance, is simultaneously hilarious and cringe-inducing.) That said... By intellectual conviction, family history and personal temperament I'm pre-disposed to doubt that contemporary American serial monogamy is the optimal way of arranging the sexual, family and emotional lives of the East African Plains Ape. But most of Kipnis's book is, so help me, uncritically recycled "critical theory", primarily Marcuse and Foucault, complete with the "if X is the Y of Z, then U is the V of W" stylistic tic. Kipnis's addition to the Masters of '68 is to double down on the assertion that there is some sort of mutually supportive relationship between serial monogamy and capitalism. It would be a tricky exercise in both rhetoric and logic to work out whether Kipnis's text puts this forward as a mere series of similes, which neither require evidence nor possess implications, or as a piece of functionalism bordering on a conspiracy theory. Worse, the masses of such argufmentation overwhelm the funny, pointed and/or insightful bits.
I was entirely in the mood, this Valentine's Day, to read a polemic against our contemporary ideas of love; I wish it had been good. I am a bit sad because I suspect it could have been good, if only Kipnis had thrown out a whole bunch of books from graduate school.
Disclaimer: Kipnis is three degrees of separation from me in blog space, so I may be motivated to go easy on her book.
Charles Stross, Rule 34
More near-future techno-financial crime in Edinburgh. It says bad things about me that I found myself wanting to channel some of the Toymaker's rants during office hours.
Ben Aaronovitch, Foxglove Summer
In which our London-born-and-bred hero confronts the alien horrors of the English countryside. (Given the setting, I kept half-expecting a cameo from the Rev. Ms. Merrily Watkins.) Very enjoyable, and in terms of plot fairly distinct from previous books, but I'm pretty sure it's not the place to enter into the series. (Sequel.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Enigmas of Chance; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Philosophy

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