April 27, 2018

Course Announcement: Data over Space and Time (36-467/667)

Attention conservation notice: Notice of an advanced statistics class at a university you probably don't attend, covering abstruse topics you probably don't care about. Also, it's the first time the class is being offered, so those who do take it will have the fun of helping me debug it.

This course is an introduction to the opportunities and challenges of analyzing data from processes unfolding over space and time. It will cover basic descriptive statistics for spatial and temporal patterns; linear methods for interpolating, extrapolating, and smoothing spatio-temporal data; basic nonlinear modeling; and statistical inference with dependent observations. Class work will combine practical exercises in R, some mathematics of the underlying theory, and case studies analyzing real problems from various fields (economics, history, meteorology, ecology, etc.). Depending on available time and class interest, additional topics may include: statistics of Markov and hidden-Markov (state-space) models; statistics of point processes; simulation and simulation-based inference; agent-based modeling; dynamical systems theory.

Co-requisite: For undergraduates taking the course as 36-467, 36-401. For graduate students taking the course as 36-667, consent of the professor.

Course materials will be posted publicly on the class website (once that's up).

Corrupting the Young; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at April 27, 2018 09:19 | permanent link

April 12, 2018

Major depression, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Attention conservation notice: 1100+ words on a speculative scientific paper, proposing yet another reformation of psychopathology. The post contains equations and amateur philosophy of science. Reading it will not make you feel better. — Largely written in 2011 and then forgotten in my drafts folder, dusted off now because I chanced across one of the authors making related points.

As long-time readers may recall, I am a big fan of Denny Borsboom's work on psychometrics, and measurement problems more generally, so I am very pleased to be able to plug this paper:

Denny Borsboom, Angélique O. J. Cramer, Verena D. Schmittmann, Sacha Epskamp and Lourens J. Waldorp, "The Small World of Psychopathology", PLOS ONE 6 (2011): e27407 [Data, code, etc., not verified by me]
Abstract: Mental disorders are highly comorbid: people having one disorder are likely to have another as well. We explain empirical comorbidity patterns based on a network model of psychiatric symptoms, derived from an analysis of symptom overlap in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV).
We show that a) half of the symptoms in the DSM-IV network are connected, b) the architecture of these connections conforms to a small world structure, featuring a high degree of clustering but a short average path length, and c) distances between disorders in this structure predict empirical comorbidity rates. Network simulations of Major Depressive Episode and Generalized Anxiety Disorder show that the model faithfully reproduces empirical population statistics for these disorders.
In the network model, mental disorders are inherently complex. This explains the limited successes of genetic, neuroscientific, and etiological approaches to unravel their causes. We outline a psychosystems approach to investigate the structure and dynamics of mental disorders.

In the initial construction of the graph here, two symptoms are linked if they are mentioned in the DSM as criteria for the same disorder. That is, Borsboom et al. think of the DSM as a bipartite graph of symptoms and disorders, and project down to just symptoms. (There is some data-tidying involved in distinguishing symptoms and disorder.)

The small-world stuff leaves me cold — by this point it might be more interesting to run across a large-world network — but the model is intriguing. Each node (i.e., symptom) is a binary variable. The probability that node $i$ gets activated at time $t$, $p_{it}$, is a function of the number of activated neighbors, $A_{i(t-1)}$: \[ p_{it} = a + (1-a) \frac{e^{b_i A_{i(t-1)}-c_i}}{(1-a)+e^{b_i A_{i(t-1)}-c_i}} \] In words, the more linked symptoms are present, the more likely it is for symptom $i$ to be present to, but symptoms can just appear out of nowhere.

Statistically, this is a logistic regression: $b_i$ is how much symptom $i$ is activated by its neighbors in the graph, $c_i$ is a threshold specific to that symptom, and $a$ controls the over-all rate of spontaneous symptom appearance and disappearance. Using a very interesting data set (the National Comorbidity Survey Replication of about 9200 US adults), Borsboom et al. in fact fixed the $b_i$ and $c_i$ parameters by running logistic regressions. The $a$ parameter, which was kept the same across symptoms, was tweaked to make the rate of spontaneous occurrence not too unreasonable.

What Borsboom et al. did with this model was to run it forward for 365 steps (i.e., a year), and then look at whether, in the course of the previous year, it would have met the DSM criteria for major depression, and for generalized anxiety disorder, and then repeat across multiple people. It did a pretty good job of matching the prevalence of both disorders, and got their co-morbidity a bit too high but not crazily so.

Now, as a realistic model, this is rubbish, for a host of reasons. Lots of the edges have to be wrong; the edges should be directed rather than undirected; the edges should be weighted; the logistic form owes more to what psychologists are used to than any scientific plausibility. (Why should psychopathology be a spin glass?) The homogeneity of parameters across people could easily fail. And yet even so it comes within spitting distance of reproducing the observed frequencies of different conditions, and their co-morbidities.

Notice that despite this, there are no underlying disease variables in this network, just symptoms. So why do we believe that there are unitary disease entities? I can see at least three routes to that:

  1. Perhaps this symptom-network model simply fails to match the detailed statistics of the data, while latent-disease-entity models can. This might be a bit boring, perhaps, but it would be persuasive if one could show that no model without the disease entities could work. (I find that dubious, but my doubt is not evidence.)
  2. Alternately, one might appeal to causal autonomy. The temperature of a gas, in a strong sense, amounts to the average kinetic energy of its molecules, and one can accurately simulate gases at a molecular level without ever invoking the notion of temperature. But if I manipulate the gas to have a certain temperature, then, very quickly, the effects on pressure and volume, and even the velocity distribution of individual molecules, is always (pretty much) the same, no matter how I bring the temperature about. This is what lets us give sensible causal, counter-factual accounts at the level of temperature, and thermodynamics more generally. (Cf. Glymour.)
    Now, in the network model, we can imagine "giving someone" generalized anxiety disorder, by activating some set of nodes which meets the DSM criteria for that condition. There are actually multiple, only partially-overlapping symptom sets which will do. In the network model, these different instantiations of generalized anxiety disorder will have similar but not identical consequences (for other symptoms, duration of the condition, response to treatments, etc). If, in reality, it makes no difference how someone comes to meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder, the implications for the future are always the same, that would be a powerful argument that the disorder is something real.
    More medically: think how we distinguish diabetes into type 1 (the body doesn't make enough insulin) and type 2 (the body doesn't respond properly to insulin). This is, I'd say, because they differ greatly in their causal implications, but once you find yourself in one of these classes, it makes little difference how you got there.
  3. It could be that a description in terms of higher-level entities like depression allows for a higher efficiency of prediction than just sticking with symptoms. This notion could even be made fairly precise; it may also end up being the same as the second route.

Of course, it might be that to make any of these three defenses (or others which haven't occurred to me) work properly, we'd have to junk our current set of disorders and come up with others...

Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Networks; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at April 12, 2018 14:30 | permanent link

April 01, 2018

An _Ad Hominid_ Argument for Animism

Attention conservation notice: Note the date.

A straight-forward argument from widely-accepted premises of evolutionary psychology shows that humans evolved in an environment featuring invisible beings with minds and the ability to affect the material world, especially through what we'd call natural forces.

  1. (Premise) Humans have evolved psychological modules, which carry out specific sorts of computations on very specific sorts of representations, as triggered by environmental conditions. These modules are in fact adaptations to the "environment of evolutionary adaptation", or, rather, environments.
  2. (Premise) Indeed, when we encounter a human cognitive module, we should presume that it is an evolved adaptation.
  3. (Premise) Humans have modules for theory-of-mind, social exchange, and otherwise dealing with intentional agents by reckoning with their beliefs, desires, intentions, and (crucially) capacities to act on those intentions.
  4. Therefore, the human modules for theory-of-mind, social exchange, and dealing with intentional agents are evolved adaptations to our ancestral environment.
  5. (Premise) Humans often engage those modules when dealing with invisible beings, often manifesting as (what scientists categorize as) natural forces.
    (In fact, such engagement of those modules was near-universal up to the emergence of WEIRD societies. The historical record shows aberrant individuals who did not do this, but it's plain even from texts those individuals authored, when they have come down to us, that their bizarre behavior had absolutely no traction on the vast, neurotypical majorities of their societies. [One is reminded of the militantly color-blind trying to convince others that colors do not exist.] Moreover, treating natural forces as manifestations of invisible beings who are intentional agents, amenable to bargaining, threats, supplication, etc., etc., is still very common in WEIRD societies, perhaps even modal.)
  6. (Premise) Engaging a wrong or inappropriate module is expensive, even potentially dangerous, and thus mal-adaptive, and so should be selected against.
  7. If natural forces are mindless and invisible beings did not exist in the EEA, then engaging theory-of-mind and social-exchange modules to deal with natural forces and invisible beings would be mal-adaptive.
    (Occasionally, people suggest that it's so dangerous to ignore another intentional agent that it was adaptive for our ancestors to suspect intentionality everywhere, on "better safe than sorry" grounds. I have never seen this supported by a concrete calculation of the costs, benefits and frequencies of the relevant false-positive and false-negative errors. I have also never seen it supported by a design analysis of why our ancestors could not have evolved to realize that storms, earthquakes, droughts, diseases, etc., were no more intentional agents than, say, fruit, or stone tools.)
  8. Since those modules are adaptive, we must conclude that invisible beings with beliefs, desires, intentions, and the power to act on them, especially through "natural" forces were a common, recurring, predictable feature of the environments of evolutionary adaptation.

Of course, none of this implies that those invisible beings aren't as extinct as mammoths.

To spoil the [not very funny] joke: even if the relevant modules exist, they are engaged not by intentional-agent-detectors, but by human mental representations of intentional agents. Once the idea starts that storms are the wrath of some invisible being, that can be self-propagating. For further details, I refer to the works of Dan Sperber, especially Explaining Culture (and to some extent Rethinking Symbolism). Credit for the phrase "ad hominid argument" goes, I believe, to Belle Waring, back in the Early Classic period of blogging.

Learned Folly; Minds, Brains, and Neurons

Posted at April 01, 2018 22:59 | permanent link

February 28, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Joel Michell, Measurement in Psychology: A Critical History of a Methodological Concept
Comments having passed the 1500 word mark, including long quotations, this will have to be a separate review.
H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
This is an umpteenth re-read, of course. (I tend to do them in the winter.) This one made me want to read a history of subsequent Elder Thing archaeology, where the mountains and the city were revisited during the International Geophysical Year, and it's become obvious that 99% of this is as much a product of the discoverers' imagination and preconceptions as, say, Arthur Evans's views of the Minoans. (But that 1%...)
ObLinkage: The Lovecraft Reread tackles AtMoM in three parts.
Lauren Willig, The English Wife
Mind candy historical mystery, set in New York and London just a bit before 1900. An interesting aspect of the writing is that here, as in her historical romance novels, Willig uses two time-lines, where the characters in one time-line are trying to discover what happened in the other. But in the romances the time-lines are parallel, whereas here they converge; what this signifies, I couldn't say.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science
I can easily say that this is the one of the best modern introductory books on the philosophy of science I've ever read. (Another, of a very different sort, is William Poundstone's Labyrinths of Reason.) It's presented roughly historically, beginning with Logical Positivism and moving forward, through Popper, Kuhn, such post-Kuhnians as Lakatos, Feyerabend and Laudan, and classic 1970s/1980s "sociology of scientific knowledge", before ending with a range of contemporary topics. Throughout, Godfrey-Smith strikes a good balance between persuading the reader that there are problems worth wrestling with, and that they're not hopeless.
To the former: too many scientists, encountering issues from the philosophy of science, find them pointless, or at most things which could be cleared up in an afternoon with a little clear thinking and maybe some algebra. (Occasionally this results in weird little cults like self-styled "strong inference", which is firmly put in its place here.) Godfrey-Smith is very good at conveying how there are real issues here, which very smart people have wrestled with, without coming to any truly satisfactory answers.
This then raises the possibility that the exercise is futile, not because it's unimportant but because it's doomed, that the problems are just too hard for us. Against this, Godfrey-Smith is good at conveying how, if we're still confused about questions like "When does observing something that a theory predicts confirm the theory?", or "How can the social organization of a scientific community support its cognitive goals?", we're at least understanding the issues much better. (For example, it's become very clear that social organization does matter.)
This book is worthwhile reading for any scientist interested in philosophical issues. It might be even more worthwhile for those who aren't interested, but...
--- Two thoughts which occurred to me while reading Godfrey-Smith's discussion of how "naturalistic" philosophy of science is anti-foundationalist, in the sense of eschewing the search for philosophical foundations for the sciences which are somehow prior to the sciences themselves.
  1. Strong forms of this would say that such foundations are impossible or undesirable. A weaker form, however, would compare the track-records of philosophy and science, and say that it's rash to expect philosophy to be more secure than (say) neurophysiology any time soon. (Where this would leave, say, social psychology is a nice question.) I am not sure whether anyone has taken this position within the philosophical literature, or even what it would be called.
  2. Saying that we will use the results of scientific inquiry to understand the process of scientific inquiry can sound like a vicious circle, but can also, more reasonably, be just a self-consistency check. If our best scientific understanding of the world and ourselves implied that scientific inquiry was unreliable, we would have a real problem. Worries about science being self-undermining are a a long-running theme in the history of the sort of philosophy of science that Godfrey-Smith writes about, going back before the Logical Positivists into the nineteenth century (see, e.g., Leszek Kolakowski's The Alienation of Reason / History of Positivist Thought from Hume to the Vienna Circle and his Husserl and the Search for Certitude), and continues on today (naturally in meme format). Even if all naturalistic philosophy of science achieves is showing that science doesn't undermine itself the way that the more ambitious and outrageous forms of sociology of knowledge do, this would be a real accomplishment.)
Richard Thompson Ford, The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse
Let me spoil the ending:
No doubt some readers will wish to ask whether I really think playing the race card is now the biggest racial justice issue this society faces. No, I don't. I hope it's clear that I believe old-school bigotry remains a severe social problem and that subtler and systemic racial disadvantages --- even when they can't be blamed on "racists" --- are profound social evils that demand redress. These are bigger problems than playing the race card. But the race card is an impediment to dealing with these problems. It distracts attention from larger social injustices. It encourages vindictiveness and provokes defensiveness when open-mindedness and sympathy are needed. It leads to an adversarial, tit-for-tat mind-set ("You're a bigot!" "No, you're just playing the race card!") when a cooperative spirit of dialogue is required.
The race card is symptomatic of a real crisis in the way we currently think and talk about race: a crisis borne of our failure to keep up with a changing social world, a crisis of social change and of intellectual stasis. We need new intellectual tools and new language to deal with the new realities of American racism. Thus far we've failed to develop them, so we find ourselves increasingly unable to discuss issues of race intelligently and convincingly. We find ourselves listening to and repeating the slogans and catch-phrases of the past, whether or not they apply, like a catechism that's long since lost its power to invoke or inspire, or like a curse that damns guilty perpetrator and innocent bystander with indiscriminate contempt. [p. 349]
And this was in 2008! (Ford's skepticism about the Implicit Association Test is looking pretty good these days. His confidence that open expressions of outright racism have been driven to the fringes of American public life, maybe not so much.)
More constructively, I found chapter 2's discussion of "racism by analogy" thought-provoking, and chapter 3 on legal criteria for discrimination and disparate impact quite eye-opening.
John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration --- and How to Achieve Real Reform
This is a thoughtful book about the causes of mass incarceration, and what can and should be done to reverse it. I should say at the beginning that Pfaff is as outraged as anyone about how many people we have in prison (or otherwise subject to "corrections"), so that when Pfaff challenges elements of what he calls the "standard story", it's not to minimize the disaster and disgrace, it's to help efforts at reform actually improve things. I found a lot of it convincing, but I should say up-front that I haven't tried to independently check any of Pfaff's figures or calculations.
The most convincing parts of the preliminary de-bunking are as follows:
  1. Private prisons are awful, but they are quantitatively too small to account for mass incarceration. Also, the lobbying efforts of private prison corporations are too small, and come too late in the surge in incarceration, to explain it.
  2. Most of our prison population isn't there for drug offenses, or non-violent offenses in general, but for violent crimes, and so undoing mass incarceration will mean changing how we deal with those convicted of violence. Pfaff presents this as a refutation of the idea that mass incarceration is due to the war on drugs, which I think is a bit too hasty (as I will explain below).
  3. Maximum legal prison sentences have gone way up, and longer prison terms would naturally lead to more people being in prison. But this can't explain most of the growth in incarceration, because the actual average length of time served hasn't increase very much.
It then behooves Pfaff to explain why, in his view, we have so many more people in prison than we used to, even adjusting for population. Implicitly --- this is a popular book and he does no explicit models here --- he works with a "compartment" model, where the compartments or stages are something like: \[ [\text{Commit crime}] \Rightarrow [\text{Arrested}] \Rightarrow [\text{Charged}] \Rightarrow [\text{Convicted}] \Rightarrow [\text{Prison}] \Rightarrow [\text{Release/Parole}] \] where at each stage before prison one might be diverted away (e.g., arrested but not charged), and prison is of course of variable duration. The advantage of approaching the question "why are so many people in prison?" this way is that if you can track the number of people in each stage, and the flows of people from one stage to the next, they have to add up: the number of people in prison on 1 July 2018 will be the number who were in prison on 1 July 2017, plus those convicted and sentenced over the year, minus those released over the year. (At the risk of being dis-respectful, I am counting deaths in prison under "release".) Changing the proportions who go on from one stage to the next changes the flows, and hence will accumulate over time to the number of those in prison.
Pfaff claims that the big change which drove up the number of people in prison wasn't at the stage of being arrested, or convicted, or even the length of time spent in prison, but rather in the proportion of those arrested who are actually charged with a crime. This is a decision made by local public prosecutors. If we believe Pfaff's numbers, this locates a key source of the problem.
Unfortunately, as he is at pains to say, we have very little systematic information on prosecutors' offices and how they make their decisions. We do know that they face a somewhat perverse set of incentives, in that declining to charge someone who goes on to do something bad is electoral poison, but charging someone who's really harmless has almost no downside (for the prosecutor; it has plenty for the person charged, and their family and community). Prosecutors also face little opposition from public defenders, which is a big part of why almost all criminal charges are settled by plea deals, not brought to trial. The whole business is a mess, with almost no accountability (either to hierarchical superiors or to the democratic public), and scarcely any systematic reporting. Pfaff does not attempt to say why any of these issues should have gotten worse during this period, however.
Popular books about policy or social problems usually have a last chapter which talks about what to do about the issue. Pfaff follows this practice, and, as usual, it's the weakest part of the book, because his proposals are so much smaller than his own account of the scale of the problems. (Whether this is better or worse than the alternative tradition, of proposing measures which would solve the problem but also be totally unworkable, is a nice question.) In no small part this is because he has fairly convincingly localized the problem, but he's localized it not so much to a black box as to a mob of 3,000-odd ill-coordinated black boxes.
--- I said above that I am not sure Pfaff is entirely fair to the blame-the-drug-war camp; in particular, I think he ignores a fairly obvious counter-argument. He attacks the idea that the growth in incarceration is a result of the war on drugs, by pointing out that only a minority of those in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses, while the majority are there for violent crimes. Grant that this is true (as I said, I haven't checked his figures*.) How much of that violence is due to the war on drugs? Legal businesses get robbed, of course, and from time to time one even reads of, say, dentists conspiring to assassinate rival dentists, but this sort of thing is rare in trades where the law is available to settle disputes and protect property. A criminalized but lucrative drug trade, on the other hand, seems conducive to violence. Localizing the trade to specific neighborhoods make those dangerous, law-less places, further inciting violence (cf. Allen and Levoy). Effects like these are hard to quantify --- we can't just read them off from administrative data, as Pfaff likes to do --- but they could be very important. I'm not sure where this leaves us.
*: One point which would be good to check is how possessing of a firearm while committing another crime gets coded in these records. If every drug-dealer who gets busted while also carrying a gun counts as "violent", for example, that might make a substantial difference. (Or it might not; that's why someone should check.) ^
Danielle Allen, Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.
A memoir of the life, imprisonment and death of Allen's cousin Michael. It's at once the specific story of a unique person and their family, and a slice through what's gone wrong with our country*, that someone could be thrown in prison for eleven years for some stupid crimes committed at fifteen (where Michael was the only one hurt), ultimately setting his life on a path where, at age 29, his corpse was found in a shot-up car on the street. Michael made bad choices, which Danielle never shies from, but he made them in a foolishly, evilly un-forgiving context, in a society which essentially threw his life away for no good reason, and that is messed up. It's horribly, horribly sad, but beautifully told.
Disclaimer: I know Prof. Allen, and have participated in a series of workshops she organized and contributed to a book she edited, but I feel under no obligation to write a positive notice of her books.
*: One of the things which makes this a complicated book is that it is also, implicitly and in glimpses, the story of what has gone right with our country that it now creates people like its author. ^

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Beloved Republic; Cthulhiana; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Philosophy; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Tales of Our Ancestors; Commit a Social Science

Posted at February 28, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

January 31, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game: And Why We Fall for It... Every Time
An engaging popular-science look at confidence games, their players and their marks. (Konnikova references a lot of the social psychology literature, which is certainly better than ignoring it, but I haven't had the heart to check how many of those studies have failed to replicate.)
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
TL;DR: It's about some Russians.
This book is a lot of things: at barest bones, a look at the history of the Bolshevik party, the Russian Revolution and the USSR from, say, the 1880s down to about the out-break of World War II. But it is also a kind of collective biography of the Old Bolsheviks, which particularly emphasizes their imaginative lives as readers and as writers of literature, and their family lives. It is also an analysis of Bolshevism as a millenarian sect, closely following Norman Cohn's Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come and (less crucially) Mircea Eliade. (On the one hand, this point is kind of obvious to any non-Bolshevik from the definitions; on the other, I know of nobody else who has (i) worked it through in detail, without (ii) being a propagandistic right-wing hack-job.) This leads to looking closely through the Bolshevik's literary output for mythological themes and symbols, especially re-workings of Exodus and of creation out of the primeval swamp. It is an account of the up-bringing and youth of the children of the Old Bolsheviks, and of how they became patriotic Soviet citizens without really getting Marxism. It examines architecture, winter holidays, witch-hunts from early modern Germany to 1980s America, and window curtains. It is the story of the building, life and decay of a particular building in Moscow, the eponymous House of Government. Finally, it is the story of the many awful things which the Old Bolsheviks did and suffered. It is vast, detailed, humorous, learned, intensely arguable (*), and over-all magnificent.
One comment seems worth making: it is striking to me how modestly the occupants of the House of Government lived, for the unchecked rulers of a huge country. A four-room apartment, a nanny, the shared use of a vacation home --- this put them near the pinnacle, which is to say, on a par with moderately successful big-city professionals and executives in the contemporary west. (Some of the provincial managers seem to have been more ostentatious.) I think this really does indicate that whatever else might be said about them, they weren't in it for personal gain. Of course, living like the western upper-middle class in a country where millions of people were literally starving to death indicates incredible relative inequality...
Finally, I feel compelled to mention that I actually "read" this by listening to the audiobook, read by Stefan Rudnicki, who did an absolutely magnificent job at delivering the text, and in particular capturing Slezkine's use of repetition as a deliberate rhetorical device. (I can't judge Rudnicki's pronounciation of Russian.)
*: When I was in college, under the spell of Eliade and (less defensibly; but I was an adolescent) Joseph Campbell, I tormented my humanities teachers with analyses of literary works along the same lines as what Slezkine does here. They were very patient with me, and eventually got me to see that this mode of interpretation is just too flexible, that there is basically nothing it couldn't seem to account for, hence uninformative. (As I would now put it, the Rademacher complexity is too high.) I am not saying that Slezkine's efforts are on a par with my undergraduate effusions, but I do wonder, once he's decided that such-and-such a period's novels are variants on Exodus, how hard is it for him to find examples? how hard would it be for him to find Exodus stories from other periods, if he wanted to? how hard would it be for another critic to take the same text and read it as a variant on Genesis?
David N. Schwartz, The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age
This is a nice biography of Fermi, who wasn't, of course, the last man who knew everything (Schwartz says as much!), but was the last great physicist to be both a great theorist and a great experimentalist, and whose work helped create the world we live in. It's not ground-breaking (Schwartz has no pretensions in that direction), but it is very readable, and especially good at explaining the physics, with the imagined reader being an intelligent non-scientist, albeit one who sort of remembers what atoms and electrons are.
The one complaint I have is that I wish Schwartz had taken the space to explain and work through at least one of the canonical "Fermi problems". This would have made his descriptions of how Fermi worked much more concrete. As it is, those passages come across as quite abstract, and perhaps unconvincing. (After all, what who wouldn't prefer to ignore the irrelevant aspects of a problem?)
Jim C. Hines, Terminal Alliance
Mind candy: comic science fiction from a post-apocalyptic future, told from the view-point of military janitors. In addition to being funny, Hines has done a much better job of world-building than many writers of ostensibly more serious SF.
Mira Grant, Into the Drowning Deep
Mind candy techno-thriller / predator porn, set just a few years into the science-fictional future, featuring carnivorous mermaids. Grant has clearly given a lot of loving attention to their biology, and I look forward to the nigh-inevitable sequel.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Physics; Writing for Antiquity; The Progressive Forces; Commit a Social Science; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;

Posted at January 31, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

June 30, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism
An expansion of his essay of the same name. This short book is very much worth reading if you like my blog at all. (Unless you're only here because you wish I'd write more about theoretical statistics, in which case you may be disappointed on many levels.)
Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest
Tufekci is one of all-too-few social scientists and humanists studying computer technologies who actually understands, at a technical level, how they work, meaning that she is capable of actual critiques, rather than mere complaints. (Thus the only time I have ever recommended a TED talk, and probably the only time I ever will, is is this one by her about on-line advertising *.)
This book is the outcome a major area of Tufekci's research, which is studying contemporary more-or-less leftist protest movements and how they use on-line communications. My account will not do this rich book justice, but I will attempt it anyway. Unfortunately, even my summary effort have already grown past 800 words, so it will need to be a separate review.
ObLinkage: Tufekci has a website for the book, with a free, creative-commons copy there. But if you can afford it, I encourage buying a copy, as the proceeds will be donated to supporting refugees.
*: I can't resist adding some caveats, though. In her talk, Tufekci is essentially taking companies with Facebook at their word about their ability to influence behavior, and I am more skeptical about their current capabilities. For example, the infamous study about the spread of negative emotions used software for sentiment analysis, LIWC, which is very common, but also so bad ** that, without exaggeration, I have no idea what we can conclude about the relationship between network neighbors' emotions from a small relationship between their LIWC scores. For another, and more consequential, example, the equally famous Facebook voter-encouragement experiment doesn't actually show that Facebook can mobilize social influence to get Americans to vote, because of poor experimental design ***. But "the evidence for these claims is weaker than it looks" isn't the same as positive reason to think "this doesn't work", much less "this can never work". And even if companies like Facebook **** are engaging in pure investor story-time now, it would be imprudent to think that they, or their successors, will never be able to manipulate behavior, so Tufekci's point stands. ^
**: For example, as of 7 December 2017, putting "I can't complain" into their free demo scores the sentence as entirely negative in sentiment. Even if we could treat the gap between LIWC scores and actual sentiment (whatever that is) as random measurement noise (which would itself have to be carefully established), the magnitude of the noise is clearly huge. When looking at the influence of Irene's emotions on the emotions of their friend Joey, the noise would appear not only in the measurement of Joey's emotions (the regressand), but also in the measurement of Irene's (the regressor), making any estimate of the relationship (the regression curve) extremely imprecise. At the very least, one would need to do an error-in-variables analysis, rather than a straightforward regression --- and that's assuming the measurement noises in the regressor and the regressand were independent of each other and of the true values. ^
***: More specifically, the design they used confounded direct exposure to a pro-voting message (which they randomized), indirect exposure through social influence, and whatever characteristics of users lead to American accounts having more or fewer American Facebook friends. (As I once heard Cyrus Samii put it, "Randomization for treatment does not randomize influence.") And a confounded design does not get more informative for being run at a large scale. ^
****: To be clear, the fact that I happen to have poked holes in two studies from Facebook doesn't mean I think they're unusually bad at this sort of work. Indeed, I know there are people in the company who could do better. In context, this is not entirely reassuring. ^
Harry Collins and Robert Evans, Why Democracies Need Science
My remarks, having grown to about 1700 words, have become a separate review.
Richard Grant, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
In which a British travel writer and his American girlfriend buy a house in, and move to, the Mississippi Delta, and Southern-ness ensues. (Not really a spoiler: You can tell it's a comedy because it ends with a wedding.) Excellent travel-writing and as-others-see-us Americana.
ObLinkage: I picked this up after reading a teaser by Grant in the New York Times, which conveys something fo the flavor.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; Commit a Social Science; Networks; The Beloved Republic; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts

Posted at June 30, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

May 31, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, May 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town and The Kept Woman
Mind candy mysteries. Cop Town is a historical mystery, set in the distant and alien past of early 1970s Atlanta. The Kept Woman is the latest thriller in Slaughter's long-running contemporary series, and features some spectacularly bad parenting, even by her standards.
Chris Hayes, A Colony in a Nation
This is passionate and resonant, but it does make me want to see a really detailed comparison of policing in black and poor white communities. (I'd be very surprised if there wasn't a substantial difference, but how big?)
Marie Brennan, Within the Sanctuary of Wings
Mind candy: Conclusion to Brennan's excellent fantasy series of pseudo-Victorian natural history. Many mysteries get resolved, in ways which genuinely surprised me. (Previously.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Beloved Republic; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Tales of Our Ancestors

Posted at May 31, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

April 30, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Jean d'Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, a History (translated by Barbara Bray)
This must be one of the strangest and most brilliant of alternate histories, covering thousands of years in the life of "The Empire", its people and its rulers. I can only try to convey its effect by means of a figure. Imagine the real histories of ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Sassanians, and many other countries depicted on intricately-decorated ceramic pots and vessels. Now imagine that d'Ormesson took all those vessels to the top of a cliff, and, with great ceremony, dropped them to shatter on the rocks below. Then imagine that he assembled some of the shards into one new vessel, guided by a rather romantic taste. The result is simultaneously a parody of historiography (the narrator-historian obviously is very romantic and sentimental, while insisting on his objectivity), a monument to the author's eccentric erudition (I am sure I missed many references), and an astonishing work of fiction.
Ruthanna Emrys, Winter Tide
Lovecraftian-revisionist mind candy / historical fiction for the US in the 1940s. I am on record intensely admiring Emrys's short story "The Litany of Earth", to which this novel is a sequel. (The story is included in the book as an appendix.) Perhaps inevitably, the longer novel does not pack the same force. Reading it left me with a slight feeling of disappointment --- it's a bit too meandering, and it came across as a bit more presentist in its concerns (whereas "Litany" seemed more-of-its-setting). But, as mind candy, it's still really good, and I will happily pick up any sequel.
Disclaimer: I've corresponded very slightly with Emrys, about matters touching on our day jobs.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Tales of Our Ancestors; Writing for Antiquity; Cthulhiana

Posted at April 30, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

March 31, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Check Wendig, Invasive
Mind candy technothriller, drawing on obviously-loving research into ants. Fun enough, but takes its own oracular pronouncements about The Future a bit too seriously.
Alice Dreger, Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science
This is Dreger's apologia pro vita sua. I like her more abstract conclusions or reflections about the proper roles of scholarship and activism, and on freedom of expression generally, but I believed that stuff already; and she's very sound on the creeping take-over of universities by administrators as a threat to academic freedom. All of this makes me inclined to trust her. So...
If you believe Dreger's accounts of the various controversies she's gotten involved in, she is a flat-out heroine on behalf of truth, justice, and the American way. (I say this with absolutely no irony or sarcasm whatsoever.) It is very unfortunate that I don't see any way in which I could make up my mind about this without re-investigating every damn thing.
ObLinkage.
Juliet Marillier, Dreamer's Pool
Mind candy fantasy, set in Christianizing Ireland. (The Celtica is not too overwhelming.)
Harry Collins, Are We All Scientific Experts Now?
Collins is a sociologist of science who has spent many years studying the physicists searching for gravitational waves, and, in doing so, has developed some very interesting and persuasive-sounding ideas about different forms of expertise. In particular, he distinguishes usefully between the knowledge needed to actually contribute to a scientific discipline, and what's needed just to interact with its practitioners. To put it much more vulgarly and dismissively than he ever would, "interactional expertise" is the ability to bullshit your way through a discussion. (Cf.) This little book is partly him expounding his ideas about different forms of expertise (unhelpfully but harmlessly arranged in a "periodic" table, with no actual periodicity), and partly also an expression of worry that the cultures and polities of the developed world are coming to dis-value scientific expertise in all its forms. That worry is a bit rich, considering his larger theoretical commitments*, but sound and welcome. This is a small, well-written little book which I warmly recommend to anyone interested in either expertise or science as a social process.
*: Collins has long advocated an out-and-out relativism, arguing (I paraphrase only slightly) that we should realize that science is always just a cover for the temporary outcome of local political struggles, because this conclusion is so overwhelmingly established by reliable empirical studies by social scientists. This absurdly self-undermining thesis does not, fortunately, make much of an appearance in this book.
Update: More Collins.
Jane Haddam, Quoth the Raven
Mystery. This was the first book by Haddam I read, back in 1995 or 1996. My memories, despite being old enough to legally drink, are pretty accurate, though I had forgotten exactly whodunnit. It may have helped that the culture-war campus politics which forms part of the background have moved very, very slowly.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Commit a Social Science; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Tales of Our Ancestors; The Progressive Forces

Posted at March 31, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

February 28, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree
Continues the long-running series, and went by pleasantly, but I don't think it really advanced the plot very much. (Previously.)
Jen Williams, The Iron Ghost
Sequel to The Copper Promise, continuing the same high quality of fantasy mind candy.

--- Yeah, I know, but you move out of the house you've lived in for eleven years and tell me how many books you finish that month.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime

Posted at February 28, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

January 31, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

David Wong, This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It
Mind candy horror and juvenile humor (informed by reading about actual social solidarity during disasters); loosely a sequel to John Dies at the End, but pretty much independent. A guilty pleasure, but a pleasure.
Auston Habershaw, The Oldest Trick and No Good Deed
Mind candy fantasy, which is much more fun than novels about reforming a thief through magical operant conditioning really ought to be.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica

Posted at January 31, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

December 31, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, December 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account
Historical fiction, in which the Narvaez expedition across what's now the American South and Southwest in the early 1500s is told from the view-point of the Moorish slave Estebanico. It works well as both a historical tale and a lovely piece of writing.
Palani Mohan, Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs
Beautiful black-and-white photographs of, as it says, Mongolian Kazakhs hunting with eagles, and their landscape. Many of them are just stunningly composed.
M. J. Carter, The Strangler Vine
Mind-candy historical mystery, set among the sahibs of pre-Mutiny British India.
N. K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate
Sequel to The Fifth Season, continuing the story at the same high level of quality.

Books to Read While Algae Grow in Your Fur; Tales of Our Ancestors; Scientifiction; Afghanistan and Central Asia; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime

Posted at December 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

December 14, 2016

In Memoriam Stephen E. Fienberg (27 November 1942 -- 14 December 2016)

Steve was an inspiration to me long before I came to CMU, when he was just a name on the page. When I did meet him, he was only more impressive. He seemed to know everything and everyone, to be interested in everything, to have thought seriously about it at all, and to have boundless and infectious energy for all his projects. He was equally at home discussing the intricacies of algebraic statistics, the influence of Rashevsky on the development of social network analysis, or the history of the US Census's racial classifications. He got involved in a huge range of scientific and scholarly areas, always with exemplary seriousness of really engaging with their substance and their practitioners, not just "consulting". Much of his activity revolved around public service, trying to help make sure policy was more informed, more enlightened, and more just.

Being Steve's colleague was a pleasure and a privilege. We will not see his like again.

Enigmas of Chance; Kith and Kin

Posted at December 14, 2016 13:46 | permanent link

November 30, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, November 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914--1949
An absorbing history, emphasizing politics and social change. (Overlap with Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler is appropriate, but surprisingly limited.) Beginning it the day before the election was... not conducive to optimism.
ObLinkage: Interview with Kershaw about his career as a historian.
Miyuki Miyabe, Crossfire
Mind candy, at the police procedural / psychic vigilante / shadowy nefarious conspiracy triple point.
Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia
In which Chairman Bruce takes one of the weirdly consequential episodes of the 20th century, the occupation of Fiume by Italian paramilitaries under the leadership of a decadent poet, and spins off an entertaining little alternative history. You have to step back a bit from immediate engagement with the characters and the story to appreciate just how sinister his scenario is, which I'm sure is deliberate.
Laura Lippman, Baltimore Blues, Charm City and Butchers Hill
Mind candy mysteries. I read these back in 2001, and was prompted to revisit them by Lippman's excellent Wilde Lake. They're still fun, but she's gotten better.
Walter Jon Williams, Investments and Impersonations
Mind candy science fiction: two short novels, following characters from Williams's excellent Praxis series. These can probably be read separately, especially Impersonations, which is billed as the first of three. They are not quite as good as the old trilogy, but since those are some of Williams's best books, that would be a very high bar.
Peter Straub, Magic Terror: 7 Tales
Mostly horror, though some of them (e.g., "Isn't It Romantic?") have no supernatural elements at all. They're very good.
David Wong, John Dies at the End
Mind candy comic horror. Wong writes for Cracked, and if that sort of humor appeals to you, you will probably enjoy this. (I confess it's a guilty pleasure.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity

Posted at November 30, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

October 31, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, October 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Thomas Levenson, The Hunt for Vulcan: And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity and Deciphered the Universe
A short, but engaging and wide-ranging, history of how scientists became willing to hypothesize a planet inside the orbit of Mercury, thought they had found it, and ultimately gave up on it, because the idea that the mere presence of distorts space and time was a much more reasonable explanation of tiny anomalies in delicate, recondite observations.
Disclaimer: I've admired Tom's work for many years, he's written nice things about my own blogging, and we've corresponded and met.
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale
Mind candy, continuing to mine Night Vale's peculiar hybrid of small-town slice-of-life comedy and cosmic horror. Heretically: the formula actually works better at the length of a single pod-cast episode. But I think many people would enjoy this even if they've not previously been initiated into the cult.
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon
This is an odd mix of personal memoir, policy reflection, popular exposition of legal theory, and account of the continuing crisis. The anecedotes are great, and the rest is at least worth listening to.
--- Brooks ends with calling for developing new legal categories and theories which will protect human rights when a global hegemon is in a state of perpetual targeted not-quite-war. I can't altogether fault her for not explaining exactly what those might be, but this sounds very much like a counsel of despair. It may be warranted. One of the things which makes me the most depressed about American politics during my adult life is our seemingly complete inability to even contemplate reining in the national security state. [That last sentence was written before the election.]
Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel and Lee Sullivan, Rivers of London: Body Work
Marguerite Bennett, Ariela Kristantia and Bryan Valenza, Insexts
Lauren Beukes, Dale Halvorsen, Ryan Kelly and Inaki Miranda, Survivors' Club
Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl, Gotham Academy: Welcome and Calamity
Caitlin R. Kiernan, Steve Lieber and Rachelle Rosenberg, Alabaster: Grimmer Tales and Alabaster: The Good, the Bad, and the Bird
Peter Milligan and Brett Parson, New Romancer
Scott Snyder and "Jock", Wytches
James Tynion IV, Eryk Donovan and Juan Manuel Tumburus, Cognetic
Comic-book mind-candy, assorted. These were all fun, but a few call out for special comments:
  • Wytches was the most genuinely creepy.
  • I will be astonished if the writer of Cognetic hasn't read John Brunner's old pot-boiler The Atlantic Abomination, and mildly surprised if they haven't read Octavia Butler's (infinitely better) Wild Seed.
  • Insexts works much better than feminist Victorian erotic body horror has any right to.
  • I am curious how well Survivors' Club will appeal to those who weren't kids in the 1980s.
Paul Trembly, A Head Full of Ghosts
A highly self-aware, even meta-fictional, Gothic story of possession and reality TV; it's skillful and remarkably chilling.
Dan Simmons, The Abominable
Simmons can (or perhaps could) write extraordinarily well; Hyperion is phenomenal. This vast, bloated thing is really not good at all. Despite the jacket copy, it is not horror (which Simmons has excelled at), but merely an over-full historical thriller, swollen by the authors's apparent compulsion to share everything he learned in his research. The first two-fifths is a plotless infodump about mountain-climbing in the 1920s, including outfitting his heroes with anachronistic kit. When the plot does begin, it makes so little sense that the narrator-protagonist comments on how little sense it makes. (And is essentially told by his Wise Elders, "Because, that's why.") I really hope Simmons returns to being, oh, a quarter as good as his peak.
Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone
Mind candy: an odd mix of Cthulhiana and fossilized noir style, set in contemporary London. The writing was good enough on a sentence-by-sentence level that I'll look for more by Khaw, but I'll also hope that she's got these influences out of her system.
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
The story of the great migration of black Americans out of the South to the north and west, as told, mostly, through the parallel lives of three individual migrants. It's a thoroughly researched, beautifully told, and deeply patriotic book. (Being plain about the country's faults, north and south, is part of the patriotism.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Beloved Republic; Writing for Antiquity; Cthulhiana; The Continuing Crises; Physics; Tales of Our Ancestors

Posted at October 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth