April 30, 2008

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

Richard Bookstaber, A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation
One part "financial crises I have known" to one part general thoughts about market dynamics, and in particular the difficulties that arise due to complexity, "tight coupling" of markets, and leverage. The stories are going to be familiar to most people interested in the subject. The latter are interesting but under-argued. This is true even when I agree with him, about, e.g., the limitations of statistical modeling in financial markets. (The pages on Gödel's Theorem, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and chaos were painful, but also completely logically independent of the stuff about finance.)
This may get a full review later. For now I'd just say that his main recommendations — avoid complex and novel financial instruments, avoid leverage, and avoid trying to optimize to current conditions, in favor of responding adequately to a wide range of situations, including ones you can't currently anticipate — are not bad as words of wisdom, but he has no hint as to how they could be implemented under current conditions, i.e., in the actually-existing capitalist financial system he describes.
This interview with Andrew Leonard in Salon serves as a decent summary.
John McGowan, American Liberalism
Unapologetic advocacy of modern liberalism as an attempt to provide equal and, crucially, effective freedom to all. Liberalism tries to achieve this by creating institutions which make arbitrary, unaccountable, unchecked power ineffective, because powers are checked and balanced by other sources of power and made to answer for theirs actions to those over whom power is exercised. (This distinguishes it from anarchism, whose ideal is simply to eliminate power.) The means by which these things are achieved are secondary, and evaluated pragmatically, by their effectiveness and side-effects in given conditions as compared to available alternatives. (Liberalism, though he doesn't put it this way, becomes in his hands a general ideology of the second best.) Seen thus, there is a clear line of descent between the 18th century liberalism of (most of) the American founders and the modern ideology, with the main development being taking seriously the bit about all men being created equal.
McGowan tries very hard here to reach the general educated public, rather than fellow academics, and almost succeeds. (There are turns of phrase which make it obvious that he's read his post-structuralists, but they're not unreadable ones.) The ideal book along these lines would be something at the level of, say, Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, and McGowan isn't there, is still a little too committed to academic forms, but this is clearly a labor of love, and I hope it will succeed in being influential.
(I confess, though, that I don't get why he thinks cell phones are worse for involvement in the public sphere than land-lines. The reverse, if anything.)
John McCleary, A First Course in Topology: Continuity and Dimension
Well-written textbook of topology, with a historical flavor (but modern methods), and an emphasis on (as the subtitle suggests) the problem of showing that dimension is invariant under continuous and invertible mappings (homeomorphisms). The reader needs a solid grasp of basic real analysis, linear algebra and abstract algebra.
Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800--1850
A very solid historical work, though it presumes a fair degree of familiarity with the Protestant sects of early 19th century America, and even with the political history of New York. (I lose any right to review this by the fact that I had to look up the Holland Company, and was boggld by what I found.) Though he does not put it this way, a big part of his thesis as to why much but not all of western New York was so susceptible to religious and semi-religious fads then was that the pure products of Yankeedom go crazy. He makes this very plausible, in a way which nonetheless manages to be sympathetic to the enthusiasts.
Some remarks about feminine weaknesses, and the places where he seems to blame the Civil war on, of all people, the Abolitionists, are distasteful, but also a sign of the moral progress separating us from 1950...
David Ruelle, The Mathematician's Brain: A Personal Tour Through the Essentials of Mathematics and Some of the Great Minds Behind Them
An eminent mathematical physicist's take on mathematics and mathematicians. It manages to be sane, pragmatic, thoroughly unromantic, and yet highly enthusiastic for the subject. I actually think anyone who remembers high school math could follow everything; his trick, here, is to start with that sort of stuff and explain how mathematicians generalize it, why they generalize it, and especially why they generalize it in certain ways and not others. — Despite the title, this is strictly psychological, with negligible neuroscience. Given the utter lack of useful neuroscientific data about mathematical thinking, this is sound.
Draws on his "Conversations on mathematics with a visitor from outer space" (PDF), but with all traces of Gallic whimsy removed. (They would probably have become unbearable at book length.)
Matthew Yglesias, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats
Young master Yglesias finally delivers on that early promise with a book, which, mercifully, is not about blogging and not just a collection of his blogging. Rather it is a sustained, sober, well-written argument in favor of robustly and forthrightly re-embracing the tradition of liberal internationalism, which tries to create institutions that will channel international affairs in peaceful directions and restrain raw power, in order to create a better world for all, including the powerful. As against this we have various strains of nationalist and/or imperialist viciousness and idiocy. Yglesias argues for liberal internationalism and against other ideologies on grounds of morals, practical benefits (the life of a hegemonic power being nasty, brutish and short), and sheer political expediency for the Democratic party, since the alternative hasn't been working out all that well. (He also offers up some brisk but sincere mea culpas.) I would have preferred more argument about morals, e.g. reminding people that the point of our country is not supposed to be a thousand years of crushing global military dominance, but suspect my own impulses in that direction.
Can be read in a day, if you're stuck on planes. Highly recommended if you're in to this sort of thing.
Warren Ellis and Salvador Larroca, Newuniversal: Everything Went White
Comic-book candy. — OK, it deserves a little more than that. From time to time Timothy Burke complains about how astonishing things happen in comic books, which ought to transform the world, but somehow life goes on exactly as before. This series starts from a world slightly askew from our own, where the appearance of superhumans does, in fact, change things.
Charles Stross, The Jennifer Morgue
Sequel to The Atrocity Archive. More lightheartedly chilling Lovecraftian spy fiction, from the perspective of the geeks in IT. Only, this time, haunted by the ghost of James Bond. — Sequel.
John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action
"And now abideth liberty, individuality, and the critical use of intelligence, these three; but the greatest of these is intelligence." (Not an actual quotation.)
Brian K. Vaughan et al., Ex Machina: Tag; Fact vs. Fiction; March to War; Smoke Smoke; Power Down
Comic books. Actually, I read these back in February, not too long after the first in the series, but forgot to mention them here. I suspect I can guess where this is going, but even if I'm right I want to see how they get there.
Margaret Maron, Up Jumps the Devil; Killer Market; and Home Fires
More unreasonably charming mystery novels about murder in increasingly-exurban North Carolina. Series fatigue will doubtless set in eventually.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Cthulhiana; The Continuing Crises; Mathematics; Psychoceramica; The Beloved Republic; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Dismal Science; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime

Posted at April 30, 2008 23:59 | permanent link

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