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 guided by romantic taste and sentiment, while insisting on his objectivity), a monument to the authors 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.
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

February 27, 2017

"Partitioning a Large Simulation as It Runs" (Next Week at the Statistics Seminar)

Attention conservation notice: Only of interest if you (1) care about running large simulations which are actually good for something, and (2) will be in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Kary Myers, "Partitioning a Large Simulation as It Runs" (Technometrics forthcoming)
Abstract: As computer simulations continue to grow in size and complexity, they present a particularly challenging class of big data problems. Many application areas are moving toward exascale computing systems, systems that perform $10^{18}$ FLOPS (FLoating-point Operations Per Second) --- a billion billion calculations per second. Simulations at this scale can generate output that exceeds both the storage capacity and the bandwidth available for transfer to storage, making post-processing and analysis challenging. One approach is to embed some analyses in the simulation while the simulation is running --- a strategy often called in situ analysis --- to reduce the need for transfer to storage. Another strategy is to save only a reduced set of time steps rather than the full simulation. Typically the selected time steps are evenly spaced, where the spacing can be defined by the budget for storage and transfer. Our work combines both of these ideas to introduce an online in situ method for identifying a reduced set of time steps of the simulation to save. Our approach significantly reduces the data transfer and storage requirements, and it provides improved fidelity to the simulation to facilitate post-processing and reconsruction. We illustrate the method using a computer simulation that supported NASA's 2009 Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission.
Time and place: 4--5 pm on Tuesday, 10 May 2016, in Baker Hall 235B

As always, the talk is free and open to the public.

Enigmas of Chance

Posted at February 27, 2017 16:26 | permanent link

"Sparse Graph Limits with Applications to Machine Learning" (Week after Next at the Statistics Seminar)

Attention conservation notice: Notice of an upcoming academic talk at Carnegie Mellon. Only of interest if you (1) care about how the mathematics of graph limits intersects with non-parametric network modeling, and (2) will be in Pittsburgh week after next.
Jennifer Chayes, "Sparse Graph Limits with Applications to Machine Learning"
Abstract: We introduce and develop a theory of limits for sequences of sparse graphs based on $L^p$ graphons, which generalizes existing theories of graph limits, and in particular includes graphs with power-law degree distributions. We then apply these results to nonparametric stochastic block models, which are used by statisticians to analyze large networks. We use our sparse graph limit results to derive strong results on estimation of functions characterizing these nonparametric stochastic block models. This talk assumes no prior knowledge of graphons or stochastic block models. The talk represents joint work with Christian Borgs, Henry Cohn, Shirshendu Ganguly, and Yufei Zhao.
Time and place: 4 pm on Monday, 20 April 2015, in Scaife Hall 125

As always, the talk is free and open to the public.

(I'd write something long here about why graph limits are so interesting, but why repeat myself?)

Networks; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at February 27, 2017 16:26 | permanent link

January 31, 2017

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 actually done a much better job of world-building than a great many writers of ostensible 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, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

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

Three-Toed Sloth