Friday, December 22, 2006

On Book Reviewing 2006

Of my published reviews this past year, I was most proud of my piece on Richard Powers' novel, The Echo Makers, although not the review as it was published--as it appears here at Books in Heat. There were editorial changes I wasn't given the opportunity to see in advance that hurt the content a bit, but really (at least for me) hurt the writing. The rhythms are very important.

But I was pleased that when that novel was named a finalist for National Book Award for fiction, my review was linked from the official site. And gratified as well that the review by Margaret Atwood in the New York Review of Books echoed the theme my review started with: that Powers' should have received some major awards by now. And now he has: Powers' The Echo Makers won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.

That review was also one of only two published this year that I proposed (the other was Alan Wolfe's Does American Democracy Still Work?, a question that may have been answered in the affirmative by the 2006 election). The others were assignments--I seem to be the go-to guy at the SF Chronicle for science and technology books for a general audience, which is a little baffling considering all the actual science and techology people there are in the Bay Area who could write with more expertise, but maybe that's the point.

The major problem I had as a reviewer of nonfiction this year is the absense of indexes in bound galleys. The Chronicle wants to publish reviews very close to the book's pub date, which means reading the bound galleys that are available a few months ahead of time. No longer marked-up pages bound between generic-looking soft covers, galleys these days are cleaned-up versions packaged pretty much as they will appear in hardback. The photos don't look as good, but non-fiction books often include the author's notes and bibliography. What they don't include is precisely what reviewers--or this one anyway-- would find very useful: the index.

As I read the book I come upon passages that seem key and/or quotable, and I mark or note those. But I can't mark the whole book, and I don't always know until further along, or even until I've finished the book, which passages are going to be important, or memorable. An index would help me find what I'm looking for, when it comes time to write the review.

I don't see a technical or cost problem--if my computer can do an index on command, I expect theirs can. I don't know why they don't include an index, even if it's changed to reflect changes for publication. Maybe it's as crass as discouraging reviewers from selling the galleys to bookstores. But it's my most fervent plea for 2007--give me your indexes, for the sake of my tired poor eyes.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

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The Emotion Machine
Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of the Human Mind
By Marvin Minsky
SIMON & SCHUSTER; 387 Pages; $26

Science may begin with wonder and strives ultimately for understanding, but as a practical matter, science is interested in how to do things. Physics formulated a few simple laws (governing how falling bodies behave, for example), which enabled engineering and technology to develop.

So when some scientists set out to create intelligent machines -- "machines to mimic our minds" -- Marvin Minsky writes, they looked for simple laws that govern how our brains work. They didn't find them, he argues, because our brains are "complicated machinery" and we need "to find more complicated ways to explain our most familiar mental events." Humans adapt to different environments and situations because our brains are resourceful -- we have lots of different ways to solve problems, and if one doesn't work, we can switch to another. This book is about what Minsky believes those processes are.

continued at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review