December 31, 2008

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

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke and Key, vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft
Psycho killers, life in a haunted house, and realistic grief. No Cthulhiana (yet), despite the subtitle.
Pat Lewis, The Claws Come Out
An affectionate send-up of various staples of the horror genre; effectively a short-story collection in comic-book form. I was tipped into buying my copy by the fact that Lewis is a local author, but worth it without that.
Fall of Cthulhu, vol. 3: The Gray Man
More Lovecraftian apocalypse-fiction. Only worthwhile if you've read the previous installments; but good if you have.
John Dewey, Freedom and Culture
A defense of liberal democracy against its 1939-vintage rivals, along with some rebukes (especially to Americans) about the gap between statements of democratic faith and actual conditions. Plus pleading for the scientific attitude as a natural accompaniment of democracy, with support going in both directions. (One wonders what Dewey would have made of the Lysenko affair.) No specifically pragmatist or instrumentalist doctrines are in play. — A systematic comparison of this with say Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies would be interesting, but beyond me right now.
Overall, I'd say that you're better off reading The Public and Its Problems, unless you have a special interest in Dewey or mid-20th-century thought.
Andrew M. Fraser, Hidden Markov Models and Dynamical Systems
Full-length review: Statistics of Moving Shadows
Wen Fong (ed.), The Great Bronze Age of China
Catalog of an exhibit of artifacts loaned by the People's Republic to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979. Mostly an collection of bronze vessels, covering a span of over 2000 years. Also some contemporaneous jade work, and some of the then-newly-found sculptures from the tomb of the First Emperor.
The Shang dynasty bronzes are (in my supremely unqualified opinion) some of the most beautiful things in the world. This is a great source of high-quality pictures, explanations of the casting process, and descriptions of both the internal artistic development and the role the object played in ancient Chinese societies. (Also some historical oddities, like Fu Hao.)
Objectively considered, that role was to display the power and wealth of aristocrats in maximally-impressive forms, charged with superstitious awe, and the art dwindled and died out when controlling bronze-casting no longer meant controlling the leading technology of the age. But most conspicuous embodiments of power and wealth are ugly, not beautiful...
John Kenneth Galbraith, Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went
Despite being 33 years old, this remains crystal-clear, funny, and on all important points correct. The main failure comes at the end: Galbraith was not pessimistic enough to anticipate that inflation would be broken by deliberately inducing a huge recession, together with a general policy of crushing the labor movement and upwards redistribution. (Actually, it's a nice question whether developments since c. 1982 haven't transferred inflation to asset prices.) We could do with a new edition of this book, perhaps with an epilogue by James K. Galbraith on what's happened since 1975.
Joe Abercrombie, The First Law: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings
Witty, yet serious, epic fantasy trilogy. Warning: there are rather a lot of fairly detailed torture scenes. (One of the main characters, and it must be said far from the least sympathetic, is an inquisitor.) In a way, this is a reworking of the core epic fantasy material inherited from Tolkien, under the influence of a rather cynical view of human nature, and especially of people who end up seeking and holding power. (Spoilers: It's clear from the start that Bajaz, the Gandalf figure, is not a nice man, but still I was rather surprised to see at the end just how much of a manipulative and hypocritical tyrant he was. Indeed, everything the evil wizard Khalul does, he does too, though perhaps not quite at the same scale, along with contravening the First Law. (Which leaves me wondering who did in fact kill Juvens.) But, and I think this might be Abercrombie's point, if you imagine a near-immortal man with wizardly powers and an interest in the affairs of mortals, who likely is it that he will be benevolently disposed towards us, rather than treating us like insects? Would the relationship between such a wizard and a man he plucks from obscurity for kingship be that between Gandalf and Aragorn, or that between Bayaz and Jezal? And of course a near-immortal would have a deep appreciation of the power of compound interest...)
Update: Jonathan Goodwin has reasons for not liking these books.
Peter Whittle, Networks: Optimisation and Evolution
This is an unusual and interesting book, which provides an interesting perspective on some, but by no means all, of the mathematics of networks. The first part, which I found the most interesting and learned the most from, concerns distributional networks (e.g., pipes, roads), including material structures whose goal is to distribute stress optimally. The part on artificial neural networks following was alright, as far as it went, but did not go very deeply into the capacities and limitations of neural networks, nor into learning theory, nor into their evolution (as opposed to incremental adaptive weight changes). The final parts concern queueing networks, including their optimal control, and a look at communications networks such as telephone exchanges, Internet routing protocols, and the growth of the web. (Most of that last is in fact devoted to a model Whittle proposed some time ago of polymer growth; regarded as a network model it appears to be a special case of the more general class of exponential families of random graphs.)
The implied reader is someone who is very well-versed in Lagrangian optimization theory and reasonably familiar with physics, though not so much with statistics. Very little is said about real-world phenomena, nothing systematically. The only probabilistic models of network formation discussed are the Erdos-Renyi model and Whittle's own. Social and biological-but-not-neural networks are omitted. In general, Whittle is at his best when discussing designed networks, especially ones whose design admits of a clear objective function. He is less illuminating on ones which have grown. In short, I found Part I immensely better than the remainder, but that part was extremely good, and I'm happy to have read the rest for the sake of that.
Thanks to Cambridge University Press for sending me a review copy of this book.
(Erratum: The last paragraph of section 7.4, on p. 105, looks like it was cut-off, since the "very simple result, due to Clerk Maxwell" is never descrbed.)
Caitlín R. Kiernan, Daughter of Hounds
Ghouls, a la Lovecraft, and the human children they kidnap, in the modern world. There are repeat appearances by characters from Kiernan's earlier novel Threshold, and apparently from other books as well, but this stands alone.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Progressive Forces; Networks; Mathematics; Philosophy; The Dismal Science; Enigmas of Chance; Writing for Antiquity

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

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