July 31, 2007

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2007

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Legacy
Sequel to The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, and apparent end of the story. Fun, but the protagonists got off far too easily for Bujold characters — and this [SPOILER] is with the book ending with them exiled and homeless! I am afraid that she may have grown too fond of these characters to deal with them properly. Update: my mistake; there were two more books to the series.
Tom Slee, No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice
Or: how to use unimpeachably orthodox game theory to subvert every single important point of right-wing and libertarian economic policy. Slee, correctly, does not pretend to be advancing economics; he is merely (merely!) bringing together well-established results of the post-1950 literature, explaining them to the uninitiated, and pointing out that they make nonsense of the usual "it's economics 101" defenses of injustice. Of course this does not itself establish what policies should be followed, and I have some disagreements with him about that (e.g., about national content requirements for mass media) — but those are quibbles. This is a brilliant and useful popularization of important social science, and I think basically everyone should read it.
(Full review forthcoming when time allows.)
John Scalzi, Old Man's War
More enjoyable than any novel about post-human soldiers fighting soul-crushing, genocidal wars against equally-genocidal aliens has any right to be; Heinlein without the crankiness or authoritarianism. (Note: this is Cosma Shalizi recommending a novel by John Scalzi; any confusions this might cause in your name-space are your problem.) — Sequel.
Chris C. Mooney, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming
An exposition of the basic science of hurricanes (heat engines!), the history of that science, and the current debates over what, if anything, global warming is doing to hurricanes. So far as an outsider can judge, Mooney is scrupulously fair to all parties, and if some of them (e.g., the Bush Administration) still come off badly, they have only themselves to blame. About the scientific debate, Mooney is appropriately skeptical, approvingly quoting one of my favorite lines from Bertrand Russell:
The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.
If I am ever involved in a scientific controversy of public consequence, I would hope to have Mooney covering it.
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management
An exhortation to the managers (and management consultants!) of America to "seek truth from facts". (Not a slogan they quote.) Much of it comes down to my mother's oft-repeated advice, "why think when you can do the experiment?", and to imploring people to realize when they do not know enough, and to face up to evidence that their decisions might have been wrong. The middle part of the book is a fairly detailed examination of some of the promised half-truths, and the evidence which shows them to be, at best, half true. (Because I am a deeply negative person, I would have liked more about the total nonsense.) Towards the end, they renew their exhortations, and offer the suggestion that the role of leaders should be "architecting" (blech!) durable institutions, which make the quality of specific leaders less important. On the whole, it is a plea for managers to adopt all the usual empiricist virtues (empiricism itself, fallibilism, epistemic modesty, even-handedness, impartiality, proceduralism), backed up the claim that this will lead to better decision-making, i.e., decisions which do more to advance the organization's interests effectively.
I can see how this would be an equilibrium — the firm which follows voices from the air when all its rivals are following the evidence is not going to compete well — but I am not sure how easy it will be to reach that equilibrium from the present. Selection in competitive environments does not always promote rationality, but still, if it makes firms more money then, all else being equal, I am prepared to believe it will come to be adopted. It's the all else being equal part here. Pfeffer and Sutton say some about why so much implemented thought about management is so unsound, which is fine as far as it goes, and a lot less (pp. 30--36) about why evidence-based management isn't already what everyone does, but I don't think they say enough about the role of ideology ("it's obvious to us how this will play out") and authority ("I know how this will play out, and I'm in charge"), not just in producing bad decisions, but sustaining situations where better decision-making procedures can't get established, and in creating an audience for myths which flatter those in power. Hence, I suspect, the modern revival of the führerprinzip cult of leadership, among other things (see, e.g., any issue of The Baffler, passim).
The late social anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Gellner had a really profound analysis of the political aspects of scientific rationality (see e.g. Plough, Sword and Book, or most centrally Legitimation of Belief; or the exegesis by Michael Lessnoff), where he pointed out that one of the effects of rationalism and empiricism was to "locate the well of truth outside the walls of the city", i.e., to create a source of epistemic authority which was not under social control, and which could be appealed to by those currently lacking in power. (He was, of course, fully aware of all the ways in which this is only an imperfect approximation.) This tends directly to undermine traditional sources of epistemic authority, which are overwhelmingly self-justifying and circular — authoritarian in a stricter sense. Suppose he was right about this (as I think he was). Most firms, however, are highly authoritarian organizations. In a firm which adopts evidence-based decision-making, the decisions of superiors become challengeable by inferiors, on grounds which the hierarchy has committed itself to respecting. Whether this advances the interests of the organization or not, it can't be comfortable for those in charge. It is hard to predict how this would play out. Scenarios include: evidence-based decision-making become a ritual shell for business as usual; increasing secrecy and restriction of information, so that higher management preserves its authority on the grounds that it does, in fact, know best; such centralization, followed by the discovery that empiricism in one conference room does not, in fact, lead to better decisions leading to the rejection of evidence-based management as a failure; or, perhaps, some sort of partial democratization within management.
— But the last few paragraphs are me talking, and not Pfeffer and Sutton. Their book is decently written, clear, modest in its claims, and will likely do more good than harm, if people in positions of influence pay any attention to it.
I. J. Parker, The Hell Screen
Takes place several years after the events in The Black Arrow, but was published several years earlier. (Van Gulik, too, wrote out of narrative order.) More highly enjoyable Heian-era mysteries, with worldly and eccentric Buddhist monks, shifty actors, borderline-incompetent noblemen, gruesome murders and equally gruesome art, along with multiple distinct sorts of love gone more or less wrong. (I am not sure if Parker is trying to make a point about how social convention can make us ashamed of our decent impulses, but after seeing it in both books I start to wonder.)
Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
An edition of the old translation of this story, illustrated by an artist signing themselves only as "Rikki", and published in 1983 by a press called the Porcupine's Quill in Erin, Ontario. (Found, presumably mis-filed, in the cultural studies section of one of the two decent used book stores I've found in Pittsburgh.) The illustrations are dedicated to Carl Sagan, among others, and are nicely weird, menacing and suggestive. The map of Uqbar is also well done. I know nothing about the artist but would like to learn more.
Re-reading, I am struck by the terrific economy with which Borges tells the story of an elaborate, centuries-spanning conspiracy to take over the world. It is only too easy to imagine how much more space any contemporary author would take to tell this story, without adding anything to the effect. For that matter, why not a summer action movie version? (It's hardly a greater stretch than what they do to Philip K. Dick.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Pleasures of Detection; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Commit a Social Science; The Dismal Science

Posted at July 31, 2007 23:59 | permanent link

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