The Bactra Review
About The Bactra Review
The Review is a hobby of a single person, an
evidently-underworked statistics professor named Cosma Rohilla
Shalizi; to drop out of the third person, me. Reviews are posted on no
particular schedule. There are no particular limits on subjects, though I try
to refrain from venting opinions in public on matters about which I know little
or nothing. Sometimes I read to rectify this, and then review the books I
read... Some of the books I review are related to my research; I try to keep
those reviews comprehensible to J. Random Educated Public, though some are so
specialized it doesn't seem worth the effort, and I make no promise about being
Since 1998 I've gotten review copies from some publishers. I add a
disclaimer to those reviews mentioning this. (If that disclaimer isn't there, I
either bought or borrowed my own copy.) I'm happy to accept review copies of
just about anything --- I won't promise to review it, but I will promise to
send a copy of any review I do write. Write me before sending a review
All the reviews are copyright 1994--2011 (as the case may be) by Cosma
R. Shalizi. The contents of the Bactra Review can be reprinted for
noncommercial purposes with my written permission, but not otherwise.
The contents of the reviews are entirely my opinions. (Well, and some facts,
too. But the rest is opinion.) It's really not fair to blame anyone else, or
any institution for anything in the reviews which offends you.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Why "Bactra"?
- The word has strong associations for me (which I shan't bore you with); and
nobody else was using it, it being an ancient name of a long-ruined city in the
middle of a war zone.
- Why do you write the reviews?
- I started because (1) I was deeply envious of Danny Yee and his Ramblings of a Pathologically Eclectic
Generalist, and (2) I was spending too much time on the phone
telling my father about what I'd been reading. I kept it up because I've found
it a good way to clarify my own thinking about what I've read, because some
people have been kind enough to tell me I'm good at it, and because I like
- Why'd you stick your name on all the reviews?
- At first I didn't, since it seemed egotistical (they're all written by the
same person, after all), but enough people suggested that it'd be helpful for
those reaching the reviews from outside links and search-engines that I caved
- How should I cite a review?
- I suggest: Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, The Bactra Review
N (XXXX), URL, where N is the review number, serving
as the volume number of a regular journal, XXXX is the year, and URL
is the of course the URL of the review. Editors are often particular
about citation formats, however.
- Why do you only review books?
- They're the only medium I really know enough about that my views are at all
worth listening to. When it comes to music (or movies), I know what I like of
course, but I couldn't tell you why to save my life.
- Do you have any qualifications to review books about X?
- If by "qualifications" you mean "academic credentials," the answer is
usually "none whatsoever". I have credentials in physics, math, and some parts of computer science, chemistry and
engineering. My academic research (i.e. the stuff published in peer reviewed
journals) is on self-organization, cellular automata, and statistical inference for non-linear
dynamical systems; my Ph.D. is in physics. I have (going over my subject list)
no formal training at all in anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, cultural
studies, ecology, economics, education, evolutionary biology, genetics,
geography, history of any sort, linguistics, literary studies, logic,
methodology, military science, philosophy, political science, religion,
sociology or women's studies. I've taken survey courses in cognitive science,
neuroscience and general psychology, which is a completely inadequate basis for
writing about them.
- So long as we're playing the humiliation game, I may as well confess to
never having read Moby Dick or Henry James, and to never having
gotten beyond page 100 of Gravity's Rainbow, despite three
tries. All told, a shocking series of omissions for someone with a bachelor of
- Does anyone edit the reviews?
- I spell-check 'em, and try to fix all the mistakes I can see. But we all
know about proofing our own work. Typo reports are deeply appreciated.
- Do you take submissions?
- No. (Note to the amateur publicity flack who keeps sending "submissions":
what part of that don't you understand?)
- Do you take requests?
- Sure, but I mightn't do anything with them.
- What's your address?
- E-mail: cshalizi at cmu dot edu dot oryx. (It doesn't really end in the name of a kind of antelope.)
- Do you have an e-mail address for X?
- Probably not. Even if I did, it's not the kind of thing I'd pass on. If you
want to get in touch with an author, send them snail-mail care of their
publisher. If they're an academic, hunt down their departmental
- Can I link to your page on X?
- Of course. It's not like I could stop you even if I wanted to, but I
actually like being read and being linked to. Thanks for letting me know about
- One/several of my students lifted large chunks of one of your
reviews/handed in the whole thing as their own work. What do you have to say
- That was not what I had in mind. As a fellow teacher, I urge you to show no
mercy towards the cheating bastard(s).
- [Long message, often as not a mime-attachment of MS-Word, or HTML in
duplicate, and reading "RATAK! Crustaceans * OF * Mars!" or something of that
- Thank you for your generous donation to the Archive of Particularly
- Do you want to learn how to Make Money Fast?
- Not really.