February 28, 2009

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2009

Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008
How can Paul Krugman get away with re-issuing a book he wrote ten years ago as being about the current financial meltdown? Because the problems are the same: nobody listened. (More exactly, our madmen in authority didn't listen.) The new chapter on the US "shadow banking system" and its collapse is especially good.
Steven N. Durlauf and H. Peyton Young (eds.), Social Dynamics
Economists attempting to assimilate non-market, non-"rational" (but adaptive) social interactions. Highlights: Blume and Durlauf's chapter on the statistical mechanics of adaptive games; Young's summary of his book on institutions; Bowles's summary of his work on group selection and the evolution of preferences (expanded on in his book (which everyone should read); Axtell, Epstein and Young's model of how invidious, inefficient, self-sustaining social distinctions can arise endogenously and persist for immensely long times, even though "in the long run" egalitarian conventions are more stable.
There are two chapters on the problems with actually detecting social interactions from survey data. Scheinkman and Glaeser simply assume certain forms for interactions a priori (unhelpfully cast in the form of utility functions, when only the behavioral decision rules matter), postulate an absurd topology for interactions, observe that the variance of aggregates (e.g., cities) will scale one way with the size of the aggregates if people make decisions independently, but another way if there are interactions, and proceed merrily to fit and estimate coefficients. (At no point do they do any specification-checking, at least not that I can see.) Moffit considers many of the ways in which strictly linear social-interactions models with unique equilibria can fail to be identifiable --- though why that class of model should be thought plausible, I couldn't tell you. (It would have been interesting to read these authors' reactions to each others' papers.)
The final chapter, by Binmore on social contracts, did nothing for me.
Disclaimer: Axtell, Blume, Bowles, Durlauf, Epstein, Young and I are all affiliated with SFI.
Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite
Proof: The Company of Men
The Walking Dead, book I
Various flavors of comic-book mind-candy.
Simon Oliver and Tony Moore, The Exterminators, vol. 5: Bug Brothers Forever
A fitting conclusion to the saga; but it will only make sense if you've read the previous parts [1, 2--4].
Alan Moore, Steve R. Bissette and John Totleben, The Saga of the Swamp Thing, vol. 1
Supposedly a classic among graphic novels. I read it in high school (loaned to me by a teacher!), but didn't really remember anything. On re-encountering it at my local avatar of The Android's Dungeon... the story-telling is decent enough (but: planarian worms? wasn't that pretty retro even then?), but it doesn't leave me wanting to see what happens next. And the art-work is ugly. Does it get better?
Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, Freakangels, vol. I
Collects the beginning of the webcomic about life in London after the end of the world.
Paul R. Krugman, The Self-Organizing Economy
I read this, and reviewed it, twelve years ago (where does the time go?), but re-read it in preparation for teaching some of this material. I see no reason for altering my review.
John Tyler Bonner, The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds
The cellular slime molds are exceedingly strange creatures. For most of their life-cycle, they are single-celled amoebae, crawling through the soil eating bacteria and reproducing by fission. When stressed by lack of food, however, they spontaneously aggregate, in a quite freaky-looking self-organizing process, which is actually an excitable medium. The result is a "grex" or "slug", which is to all appearances a differentiated, multi-cellular organisms that responds to stimuli (light, heat, chemical gradients, etc.), and crawls up through the soil and then uphill. Having rooted itself in place it further differentiates into a base or stalk, where all the cells die, and a fruit body full of spores, generally dispersed by insects. (They also have a version of sex, which is too weird for me to describe here.) They obviously raise a lot of questions: How do they do that? Why do that do that? How did they evolve to do that? Is that how our multicellularity evolved? etc.
There are many species of these oddities, but the most commonly studied one, on its way to being a standard model organism, is Dictyostelium discoideum. Bonner is about the second scientist in the world to study D. discoideum (it was discovered by a previous graduate student of his thesis adviser), and has been plugging away at it for sixty years now. This is his second book on the subject (his old monograph is long out of print, and anyway came just before his lab made some crucial discoveries), intended as a synthesis of what we know about the cellular slime molds in general, and Dictyostelium in particular. The result is a slim but comprehensive, well-written and thought-provoking book from an old master, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in evolution or development, or indeed in self-organization.
Lois McMaster Bujold, The Sharing Knife, vol. 4: Horizon
Jeff Linsday, Dearly Devoted Dexter
Dexter: Season 2
Words I never thought I'd write: the TV show is better. In particular it does a much better job of creating and sustaining other characters. (Such as the manic pixie dream girl from hell.) I realize that from Dexter's point of view, everybody else is a one-dimensional obstacle-or-resource, but that quickly gets old.
Subsequently: 3, 4, 5--8
Carrie Vaughn, Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
Mind-candy; makes me very glad we did not elope to Vegas. Previous installments [1, 2, 3, 4] probably not absolutely necessary but would definitely help. — Sequels: 6, 7.

Read this month but not exactly recommended:

Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises
This comes highly recommended from usually reliable authorities (Samuelson and Solow most notably), but, at least in the edition I read (the 5th, of 2005, revised by Robert Aliber), it's a disappointing. There is a lot of information in it, and the basic story about the credit cycle is sound, but the writing is fragmented, disjointed and repetitive. More fundamentally, it tries to be an analysis, or even an anatomy, of the recurring parts and phases of crises, and it tries to illustrate this by recounting the appropriate sections of the histories of many crises in each chapter, without giving these tales any kind of narrative or historical context. (For instance, I don't think he ever explains what the South Sea Bubble was, or John Law's land-company bank in France, despite many consequential references to both.) This might work if you already know the stories of all the major and many of the minor financial crises of the capitalist core from the 18th century until now, but not otherwise.
George Cooper, The Origin of Financial Crises: Central Banks, Credit Bubbles and the Efficient Market Fallacy
A good exposition of credit cycle ideas and well-deserved mockery of the efficient market hypothesis, melded with a very unfair take on actual economics (apparently books and papers like these do not exist), and some truly weird and regressive Friedmanite policy proposals. (Not all his policy ideas are bad, but he doesn't seem to realize that "keep the money supply stable" isn't exactly a new idea.) The invocation of "Maxwell and Mandelbrot" for, respectively, control theory and heavy-tailed distributions is pretentious, and if I took it seriously (as invited by the fact that he reprints Maxwell's paper "On Governors"!), dumb. (For example: Maxwell's remark about how there are only four possible kinds of responses to perturbations only applies to linear systems.) But it would be more charitable to regard these bits as ill-advised rhetorical flourishes.
(Thanks to John Burke for pointing out typos.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Complexity; The Dismal Science; Biology; The Progressive Forces; The Continuing Crises; Incestuous Amplification

Posted at February 28, 2009 23:59 | permanent link

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