August 31, 2010

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

John A. Hall, Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography
I've said my piece about Gellner himself elsewhere, and I'd just be repeating myself here if I went into that. Hall's book, appropriately for the intellectual biography of a major thinker, mixes relating the story of Gellner's life with an exposition and (fair) criticism of his ideas, more or less in chronological order. The tone is serious, the research into the historical and academic backgrounds of various phases of Gellner's life and thought obviously thorough, but the prose is quite readable --- though Hall wisely doesn't even try to match Gellner's style.
(The biggest surprises for me were learning about Gellner's osteoporosis, and the photos of how handsome he was as a young man, but then I have been a Gellnerian since a chance encounter with The Psychoanalytic Movement led me to spend the summer of '97 reading my way through all his books.)
See also Scott McLemee; thanks to Henry Farrell for letting me know about this book.
Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want
Very fine mystery, as always. Previously; sequel.
Laurence Gough, Killers
Partha Dasgupta, Economics: A Very Short Introduction
I wanted to like this a lot, and I can see that it does have some very nice features. It emphasizes that economics is about actual processes of production, distribution and exchange, not about abstract optimization theory, and that the goal is to improve the human condition, especially that of the most destitute. It makes clear that markets are one of many different economic institutions, which have important virtues in many circumstances, but aren't the end-all and be-all of the subject. It puts a lot of justified emphasis on environmental issues (Dasgupta's professional specialty), and is appropriately skeptical of fellow economists pushing "efficiency" as an end in itself. It is clear and (mostly) correct. Someone who doesn't know any economics would in fact learn a lot from it, and be better prepared both to understand economists and to learn more.
I didn't even dislike reading it. I just didn't like doing so at all, and I'm not sure why --- some incompatiblity of style, or over-familiarity with the subject on my part, maybe. It's probably worth your checking out, if a brief primer on modern economics sounds interesting.
(The one error I noticed: pace what Dasgupta says on p. 78, Oskar Lange was not a "market socialist" because he argued that an ideal central planner, with perfect information, could be as efficient as an idealized market. [If anything, that is an obvious truth about the neo-classical set-up.] Rather, as is easily checked from Lange's papers [I, II], he wanted the socialist economy to actually use markets (plus a procedure which is basically a sped-up simulation of a Walrasian market), precisely in order to overcome critics like Hayek and von Mises. ["A statue of Professor Mises ought to occupy an honourable place in the great hall of the Ministry of Socialisation or of the Central Planning Board of the socialist state."] In fact, I think it is fair to say that Hayek's two papers on economics and knowledge, while permanent contributions to social science, do not adequately deal with the market socialist idea. But I have written too much about this elsewhere, including the real issues with Lange's proposal, and this is a mere page in Dasgupta's book.)
Shamini Flint, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder
Mind-candy. A well-constructed mystery, nice writing, and an adorable detective. Apparently there are at least two other books in the series, published abroad. (ETA: Sequel.)
Collaborative graphic novel about a haunted apartment house. Goes beyond "creepy" into "disturbing".
Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel
"There's life in the old dame yet."
Karl Sigmund, The Calculus of Selfishness
I'm reviewing this for American Scientist, so I won't say much right now. To preview: really good, though I am a little dubious about the specific model for public goods games. (It looks like a lot turns on the private utility of the public good going down proportional to the population size, which is not true for many public goods, such as light-houses, sanitation, policing, etc. Also, it's assumed that abstaining from participation is free, but providing, say, a private substitute for the police would be very, very expensive.)
— And the review is now out: Honor Among Thieves.
Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and The Masque of the Black Tulip
Mind-candy. Fun if you are willing to accept them on their own terms: bucklers are there to be swashed, bodices are there to be ripped, dungeons are there to be escaped from, and graduate students are there to uncover, well, secret histories. (One of these, admittedly, is not like the others.) Query presupposing a mild spoiler for Pink Carnation: Fvapr gur Checyr Tragvna'f vqragvgl orpnzr choyvp, naq Rybvfr jnf fghqlvat uvz vagrafryl, fubhyqa'g fur unir vzzrqvngryl erpbtavmrq gur znvqra anzr bs uvf jvsr, naq xarj jurer gung fgbel jnf urnqrq?
Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper
Mind-candy; hilarious and griping crime/medical novel; I read it in one sitting. The climax was a truly remarkable instance of the gun casually set on the mantlepiece in Act I going off at the end.
Hope Larson, Gray Horses
Charming little fable about adventures in the dreamlands, coming of age, and Chicago Onion City.

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

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

Three-Toed Sloth