Fee, Φ, Foe, Fum.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the SoulPhi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phi attempts much, and achieves most, but not all, of what it attempts. It is a masterful work. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was extraordinarily heavy – the paper is very thick, and there are a tremendous number of beautiful images and illustrations in every chapter.

Tononi’s approach here could be viewed as derived from a combination of Dante’s Divine Comedy or from Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. For the first, our protagonist (Galileo) is led by a guide (in our case a great thinker rather than Virgil) to meet various people through history and on a quest to identify the je ne sais quoi that is consciousness. For the second, after each of the encounters, the author includes his own notes (à la the GEB dialogues) describing the relative success or failure of the chapter in a metatextual context, as well as identifying the accompanying illustrations.

Tononi’s prose is lyric – far more than any writing about neuroscience has any call to be – and bears re-reading. His central thesis is that phi (Φ) is a measure of irreducible organized consciousness, and that a substrate such as a brain is required for consciousness (of high Φ at least) to exist. He begins by examining many possible ways brains can fail, some more tortured and hellish than others, and showing their effects on the consciousness of the individual (and perhaps unwittingly on the people around them).
He does a masterful job unravelling the challenge posed by the question “can a camera be conscious?” and shows that while only a single neural complex may be necessary to fire to recognize that it is “dark”, “darkness” can only be understood in relation to being not-anything else: not hot, not round, not pointy, not red, not salty – and that this unstated exclusion is the difference between the person in a dark room and a photodiode.

There are missteps: there is a chapter where Tononi admits his inspiration was Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and that chapter is as disturbing as the Kafka, although mercifully shorter. I think that Tononi could have gotten to the same points regarding the nature of pleasure and pain without resorting to horror and evil, but perhaps he tried and failed. I am not sure whether the book would have been better without that chapter, but it certainly would have been prettier.

The great fault to my mind is that for a book which includes the word “soul” in the title, they are inadequately treated – they seem little more than little more than more personable versions of the consciousness in Tononi’s view. He sees them as evanescent, brilliantly illuminating during life, and then winking out in a breath with the destruction of their host. This is disappointing to me: I would have hoped that there would be a greater distinction – perhaps that the soul is the part which would live on after the substrate has been vanquished. Or, to put it in Tononi’s terms, if there is a God, because by definition He does not cease to exist, then all of those Φ would continue in His sight. Tononi does not make that argument, but it would not have been out of place coming from one of several characters (not in the least Galileo).

The fault and the misstep do not make this book anything less than a masterpiece. I first got it from the library, and will buy a copy so that I can re-read it at leisure. I could not recommend this more highly.

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Can I play with [Katniss]?* (spoilers below the ===)

I had had The Hunger Games on my “to read” list for a long time – I had seen a quick synopsis, and it sounded great. Then it started to get more attention, and I heard things like “If you liked Twilight. you’ll LOVE this,” which was a humongo-turnoff, so I put it out of my mind. Sarah read and devoured the books, and she’s normally a slow reader, so I looked at that as a vote in favor, but then again she did actually *like* Twilight, so it was still a mixed vote. When the movie came out, she and I saw it on opening day (!) in good seats at the Uptown (!!) and it was excellent. So it got back onto my list to read.

I figured that it would be a good airplane read, so I picked it up from the library last week when I found out I’d be going away. Well, I was wrong about one thing – I couldn’t wait for the flight, and finished it within about 30 hours of starting, which then left me extremely hungry for the remainder of the series. Happily, the airport bookstore had used copies of the other two, and I made equally short work of those.

These are excellent books – they are everything that a “classic” juvenile novel (in the tradition of Robert Heinlein) is supposed to be: thought-provoking and challenging, rip-roaring, and extremely relatable. To really talk about the book requires spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, go read it and come back: I’ll still be here.

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Welcome back. The libertarian sensibility of the overarching story is appealing to me – that the biggest enemy is the government, and that the government would think nothing of drafting its children for gladiatorial combat is a classic SF extrapolation of the evils of the totalitarian states of the 20th century. I particularly like the book-not-movie-Tolkien-style demonstration of how being in and complicit to warfare changes a person for the worse – even a just war is still dehumanizing. Apparently the revolution will be televised.

I didn’t catch until it was pointed out that the name of the country, Panem is Latin for “bread” (my old teachers are certainly shaking their heads at the schoolboy fail there), but I should have – certainly the Roman allegory is played up in the dystopian environment.

I thought that Collins did an excellent job of making Katniss appealing and competent without any of the hyper-competence which is all too common in much fiction (Harry Potter, I’m looking at you) – her failures and mistakes are the teaching moments which allow her to grow, and allow us the readers to be brought along in the narrative. Collins did abstract the world – as far as we know, there aren’t any countries other than Panem: if there were, why wouldn’t district 13 (or the capitol for that matter) have enlisted aid?

There was one blind spot – the books had a complete absence of religion, which calls out for an explanation. During all of the other oppressive regimes in human history, religion has been one of the things to which the subject population has turned – think of American slaves singing spirituals, or of the various folks who rebelled against the USSR or currently against China – religion ends up being a non-state-based force (not always for the good). It’s possible that Collins didn’t want to go into it in the context of a YA book (in much the same way that there is no sex, although there are oblique references to it), or it’s possible she’s making some larger point, but if the latter is the case I would not consider the point fully made.

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All in all, these are fabulous, worth reading, and exceedingly thought-provoking.

* Paraphrased from Iron Maiden.