January 31, 2008

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2008

An Inconvenient Truth
I may loose some friends by saying this, but having finally watched it I really liked it, and approve. It's true that Gore's occupying a familiar social role, that of the prophet, but so what? (How consciously he's doing this, I couldn't guess.) As Scott Aaronson says in a different context, this is a familiar role because it is is something that works, given human psychology and social organization. "Even when the prophet exhorts us to reason, skepticism, and empiricism, he does so by hijacking a delivery system that is thousands of years old. And that is why he succeeds." The value of a prophet depends on what they prophesy. What Gore is saying about climate change is true, and his recommendations for what to do about it are reasonable; maybe not optimal, but reasonable, and certainly not presented dogmatically. He's calling on us to come up with an industrial infrastructure which doesn't qualify as a self-inflicted wound, not to repent of our whoring after the false gods of material progress and Mammon.
This is a technological issue, but it is also a political one, because it involves large, persistent, consequential externalities, which must be dealt with somehow if we are not to all be in a lot of pain; or, more realistically, a lot more pain than we are already stuck with. It is further a political issue because of the collective action problems, which arise from the way our choices are made in contexts of larger networks. (In large parts of the country, for the most part making a living entails driving from one suburb to another, which entails burning fossil fuels. Preferences don't enter into it.) It is finally a political issue because it involves competing interests, and politics is how we trade those off against each other.
The Wire, season 4
"No corner left behind." In some ways, the saddest part of the story yet.
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Secret
More on the magical power of words, names, and writing-on-the-body. (Previous installments. Sequel.)
Patricia Briggs, Moon-Called; Blood Bound; Iron Kissed
Mind-candy contemporary fantasy, with auto repair and struggling with bills in addition to the shapeshifters, vampires, and the very unpleasant denizens of fairy-tales. WARNING/SPOILER: the ending of the third book is very and unexpectedly brutal. It works, narratively, and is not gratuitous, but it's not pleasant.
Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden
This may well be the best fiction I read in 2008.
When not actually under Valente's words' spell, the thing I admire most about this is the sheer control of rhetoric it displays on her part; the multiple stories-within-stories-within-stories all have their distinctive voices and styles, which all seem appropriate to the teller and the tale. And then on top of that she manages to make them weave through each other and twist back on each other, in ways which change their meaning and hint at other, unrevealed connections.
I think I might have been directed to this by a post of David Moles's, but if so I can't find it again.
Denny Borsboom, Measuring the Mind: Conceptual Issues in Contemporary Psychometrics
A thorough, searching, sober, drily funny, restrained, and in the end mostly damning survey of psychology's attempts to measure mental attributes. (It did, however, make me look more favorably on Piaget and his balance-beam task.) Borsboom gives particular attention to the quite hopeless way in which the validity of measurement has been tackled --- which seems to have involved every consideration conceivable, except the one of whether what you are trying to measure exists, and can influence your measuring device. This is a scientific question which no amount of calculating Cronbach's alpha will answer. (This paper by Borsboom, Mellenberg and Van Heerden is a self-contained version of the argument about validity, and strongly recommended to those who are interested.)
Some familiarity with basic statistics, especially linear regression, will be helpful. So would some knowledge of philosophy of science, though it's probably less important, since Borsboom spends more time explaining it.
Brian K. Vaughan et al., Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
Comic book. Man acquires super-powers; parlays them into a successful run for mayor of New York City; then gets to deal with the fun of being a very human mayor. First in a series; I've bought the others.
G. Willow Wilson and M. K. Perker, Cairo
Your basic magical-realist Muslim love/adventure comic book about the Arab-Israeli conflict, life in the City of Victory, the ancient Egyptian afterworld, journalism in authoritarian countries, Orientalism and its after-images, and Sufism.
Read on Aziz Poonawalla's recommendation.
Clifford A. Wright, A Mediterranean Feast
Or: Cooking with Fernand Braudel. I mean that fairly literally; this is a combination of cookbook with a thematic history of Mediterranean food, cooking and cuisine, strongly and visibly influenced by Fernand Braudel and the rest of the Annales school, which makes for a possibly unique reading experience. Certainly there can be few cookbooks which so emphasize grinding poverty, famine and mass death. — Many of the recipes are very tasty, but Wright has consciously made no concessions to American tastes, or to the typical equipment of American kitchens.
Read, over the course of a year and a half, on Carlos Yu's recommendation.
The Wire, season 3
The rise and fall of the city of Hamsterdam. (Am I a bad person because I found myself rooting for Stringer Bell?)
Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, Action Philosophers Giant-Size Thing Volume 2 and Action Philosophers Giant-Size Thing Volume 3
Great Thinkers in comic-book format. Highly variable, ranging from excellent (i.e. clear, accurate and funny: Aristotle, Hume, Spinoza, Descartes, Macchiavelli, Sartre, Aquinas, Wittgenstein) to weak (i.e. not very deep and not very funny: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Hobbes; and the chapter on Marx is a class of its own, propagating Maoist deviationism as it does). Probably still funny even if you have not read the philosophers in question. (Volume 1 not reviewed becaue they didn't have it at my local comics store.)
Clark Glymour, Thinking Things Through: An Introduction to Philosophical Issues and Achievements
As I recently mentioned, in Larry Laudan's great philosophical dialogue, Science and Relativism, the positivist position is represented by one Rudy Reichfiegl, author of Everyman's History of Philosophy: Great Thinkers from Frege to Carnap.
This is not quite that book, for two reasons. First, Glymour was the student of one of the students (Wesley Salmon) of Hans Reichenbach, so he can't also be Reichfiegl. Second, it's even less historically-oriented than a book of great thinkers would be. But as an introduction to the kind of philosophy which can claim achievements, it's first-rate.
(Disclaimer: Glymour teaches at CMU, and in fact his office is one floor below and a little way up the hall from mine. On the other hand, I read this seven years ago, long before I came here.)
Warren Ellis and Max Fiumara, Blackgas
Zombies! Yankee zombies! Gross Yankee zombies! (Just eating the brains would waste the rest, you know.) Contagious gross Yankee zombies!
Discuss: Ellis should adapt The Road as a graphic novel.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Food; Writing for Antiquity; Philosophy; The Beloved Republic; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Enigmas of Chance; The Progressive Forces; Islam

Posted at January 31, 2008 23:59 | permanent link

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