March 31, 2010

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2010

Dylan Meconis, Bite Me! A Vampire Farce
Funny comic book satirizing, simultaneously, vampires a la Anne Rice and the French Revolution. Meconis apparently wrote and drew most it, online, while in high school; it's people like her what cause unrest.
I came to this by way of Meconis's current web-serial, Family Man, which has superior drawing and a more serious plot, but a similar sensibility. (If the idea of a comic about Spinozism and lycanthropy in eighteenth-century central Europe sounds the least bit interesting, you really need to read Family Man.)
E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany
More exactly: how Winckelmann invented an ideal of ancient Greek life and art, and how that ideal influenced Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin and Heine, followed by a sort of appendix on Nietzsche, Stefan George and (of all people) Heinrich Schliemann. This is a very curious book of a sort that I think humanists have mostly abandoned. Butler is not just relentlessly biographical (readers are expected to have Goethe's sexual history memorized), but very free with her speculations about the inner-most drives and natures of her heroes, and even about what they should have done to be "saved", or reconciled with their hypostatized "genius". Worse, she presents these guesses as just as certain as the prosaic facts of their biographies, sometimes to unintentionally comic effect: Nietzsche's mind was not, after all, "rent asunder by ecstatic worship of the god Dionysus", but by syphilis; he needed penicillin, not a convincing modern mythology. (Likewise Holderlin's "reason was destroyed" by schizophrenia, as Butler herself admits, and calling this "homesickness for the land of the gods" is unilluminating.) No comparison is attempted to imitations or admiration of the ancient Greeks in other times and places, or to contemporary German attitudes to other ancient and foreign cultures (except for some stray remarks about Herder), so it's hard to pick out what was particular to this tradition, as opposed to more general antiquarianism/primitivism and exoticism. Still, it is an interesting tradition...
Clark Glymour, Theory and Evidence
I'm not sure how much of this even Clark would still argue for (it was published in 1980!), so I won't belabor it, but I also think the most fundamental point is sound. Namely: it's possible to use parts of a theory, plus empirical evidence, to test other parts of the theory, or even (using different pieces of evidence) the same parts of the theory. (For instance, many theories include hypotheses which say that certain quantities must be constants, and provide multiple routes to estimating those constants; the estimates need to agree.) This means that theories which make the same predictions are not necessarily equally tested by those predictions, and that the Quine-Duhem problem of not being able to assign credit or blame to parts of theories is soluble. I think the account of what makes something a severe test in Error is superior, at least for statistical theories, but clearly this was pointing in the same direction.
(Insert the usual disclaimers here.)
Lucy A. Snyder, Spellbent
Mind-candy contemporary fantasy, set in Columbus, Ohio and adjacent hells. As good as one might expect from the author of the brilliant "Installing Linux on a Dead Badger", but much grimmer.
Update: sequel.
Carrie Vaughn, Kitty's House of Horrors
Mind-candy. The continuing adventures of a werewolf named "Kitty". What could go wrong with volunteering for a reality show to be filmed in middle-of-nowhere Montana? — One of the nice features of Vaughn's stories is that the supernatural is announcing its presence in a world otherwise much like ours, and people are reacting in ways that seem plausible, ranging from scientific research through media sensationalism... (Previously: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; but they're not necessary to read this.) — sequel.
A. C. Davison and D. V. Hinkley, Bootstrap Methods and Their Applications
One of the most useful textbooks on the bootstrap that I've read. They are good at combining just enough theory to make it clear why some things work and others don't with lots of carefully-chosen examples and advice on practicalities. Background familiarity with statistical inference at the level of, e.g., All of Statistics is required, but no more. The code, in S, forms the basis of the R package boot; most of the examples I re-tried ran without any modification. Recommended without reservation for self-study (do the exercises!); it would also make for an excellent text for a computationally-oriented course for beginning graduate students, or even (selecting chapters) advanced undergraduates.
Davison's page on the book has errata and reviews.
Leann Sweeney, Pick Your Poison, A Wedding to Die For, Dead Giveaway, Shoot from the Lip
Mind-candy. Amiable series mystery centering around adoption.
Philip Palmer, Redclaw
Mind-candy. I rather liked the first two hundred pages or so, but the last half dragged on too long for my taste. (It would've been better at, say, 50 pages.) Recommended for those who enjoy scientifictional Lord of the Flies scenarios more than I do.
Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong, The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money
I admit I bought this out of a certain sense of obligation: DeLong's website, in its various incarnations, has been entertaining and informing me since the mid-1990s, and it seemed only fair to reciprocate somehow. But it's actually a good (if very short and somewhat repetitive) book, which is really about guessing what might be coming next in international political economy, now that the "neo-liberal dream" is, or ought to be, thoroughly discredited by events.
Since my reaction to the book is largely positive, but I find it hard to convey that except by writing a summary, I will follow academic/Internet tradition and dwell on annoyances. First, they're not, obviously arguing that the US will become an uninfluential country; even if we gave up spending more than most of the rest of the world put together on our military, etc., we'd still have 5% of the world's population, in an extremely advanced, diversified and prosperous economy, and a state which, whatever its frustrations, is highly effective. Cohen and DeLong know this; a better title might've been something like The End of Supremacy. For that matter they never clearly say what they mean by "other countries having the money", or what it meant for the US to "have the money"; something like "be a major net lender to other countries" seems to what they have in mind, but it's unclear. And the suggestion that becoming a net debtor nation will undermine US cultural and intellectual influence is seriously, seriously under-argued.
Diana Rowland, Blood of the Demon
Mind-candy. Continuing contemporary fantasy/police procedural series. A bit more angsty this time; still fun. Cries out for sequels.
Call of Cthulhu
Mind-candy. Silent movie of the short story made a few years ago by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Nice Expressionist-influenced sets for R'lyeh, and the worst of the creepy racist bits thoughtfully elided. Worth 45 minutes of your Netflix-streaming time if you're into Cthulhiana.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Mind-candy. Am wrong to I suspect that only in France could you make a big silly monster action movie centered on the struggle between les philosophes and the reactionary elements of the Church? Pairs well with a suspension of the critical faculties and a few glasses of Côtes du Rhône.
Jen Van Meter et al., Hopeless Savages vols. 2 and 3
More adorable first-family-of-punk mind candy. Sadly, this seems to be the end of the series.
James H. Schmitz, The Demon Breed (a.k.a. The Tuvela)
Mind-candy. Intensely enjoyable lone-human-and-her-otters-versus-alien-invaders-in-a-floating-jungle novel from 1968. (Update: the original cover image, which I just ran across, via.) Re-read in connection with donating, back in January, several hundred books my parents had been storing for me for over a dozen years. This was as fun as I remembered it, though very short by modern standards. — I must say it boggles the mind that when one of an advanced, technological civilization's domestic animals acquires both language and tool-use by apparent macromutation, the response is "huh, aren't they cute?", as opposed to a massive research effort. The old SF writers were often really lazy at thinking through their conceits... (The completely superfluous mentions of psychic powers at the beginning and end are in a different category, namely placating Schmitz's editor at Analog, the crankish and credulous but talented John W. Campbell.)
Relatedly, I finally got around to reading an earlier book my Schmitz I'd owned since c. 1995, Legacy, which didn't work nearly as well, because the early-1960s-vintage gender politics were inseparable from the story, while entirely absent from Demon Breed. It seems doubtful that Schmitz had his consciousness raised between 1962 and 1968 so I guess he simply improved his craft...

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Enigmas of Chance; Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; Philosophy; The Dismal Science; The Continuing Crises; Cthulhiana

Posted at March 31, 2010 23:59 | permanent link

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