December 31, 2010

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

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr. Shivers
Historical horror novel, set among hobos during the Dust Bowl. To describe it as Carnivale as re-imagined by Cormac McCarthy would be a bit unfair, but Cormac was plainly a big influence on the prose and (for want of a better phrase) the metaphysics. This was a first novel; I will certainly keep my eye out for others from the author.
ROT-13'd spoilers: Ovt puhaxf bs guvf, juvpu V guvax ner fhccbfrq gb erznva hasngubznoyr gb gur ernqre, jrer abg ng nyy zlfgrevbhf, orpnhfr V'q ernq Gur Tbyqra Obhtu (vg cynva gb zr gung Pbaaryyl jnf tbvat gb orpbzr gur arj Ze. Fuviref dhvgr rneyl ba), naq Qnivq Hynafrl'f Gur Bevtva bs gur Zvguenvp Zlfgrevrf, gubhtu V pbhyqa'g fjrne gung Hynafrl jnf Oraargg'f fbhepr.
ObLinkage: Bennett on world-building for this book.
Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
Well-told and intelligent history of the events leading up to the financial crisis of 2007--, enlivened (or marred, depending on your tastes) by business porn about leading participants. ("Hidden history" is mere marketing; they are good at citing their public-record sources.) They emphasize, quite properly, the toxic combination of securitization's destruction of information with quite massive institutional corruption and negligence. The latter, in their utterly persuasive account, embraced mortgage lenders, Wall Street, ratings agencies, regulators, Congress, institutional investors, mythopoetic economists in and out of academia and government, and of course many but by no means all borrowers. (Sample.) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac certainly do not coming out smelling like roses, and their many sins are cataloged in detail, but the idea that they, or shiftless poor brown people, were responsible for the crisis is rightly derided as absurd.
My biggest complaint is that the book is almost entirely focused on America (except to the extent that foreign banks bought into mortgage-derived securities), and I wish they had written more about the international aspects of the bubble and the crash. While it paints a very ugly picture of our decrepit institutions, I suspect that a group portrait would be no prettier.
Picked up because McLean co-wrote the best book on Enron; but they resist the temptation to mention the latter more than is reasonable.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Captain Alatriste
Mind-candy: swashbuckling and intrigue in the Madrid of the Golden Age.
Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, Land of Mist and Snow
Mind-candy: young-adult historical naval fantasy set during the Slavers' Rebellion. (I believe I got that last phrase from James Nicoll, but I'm not sure.)
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection
Excellent brisk survey of key topics in the philosophy and general theory of natural selection. No previous exposure to the debates is really needed. There are some places where I would quibble, but over-all I recommend it very highly.
As for the quibbles: (1) Godfrey-Smith takes some verbal formulations of the conditions people have put forward as necessary and sufficient for natural selection to produce evolutionary change, and constructs counter-examples where everything is balanced just so, and the distribution of the population is static. This seems to be needless pedantry about "change", as though exhibiting a system in mechanical equilibrium exposed a problem for classical mechanics, and explaining "motion" in terms of forces. (2) I think he is too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of population-based, and even more specifically Darwinian, accounts of cultural and social change, even in presence of mass media and the like. But this touches on some unpublished work I've been doing with Henry Farrell, so I won't go into that here. (3) While I agree that the classical Mendelian notion of "gene" is an approximation to what we now understand about how genetic material works, it is a useful approximation in many interesting cases, and I wish he had been clearer about whether he thinks, in those cases, genes could act as "replicators", in the sense of Hull [PDF] or Dawkins.
Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens
An interesting look at how the democratic political institutions of classical Athens worked. Full review: Liberty was Born from Endless Meetings.
Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
A very engaging popular account of the psychology, sociology, moral philosophy and experience of error, in all its many forms. Despite the subtitle, the closest Schulz comes to statistics is mentioning quality-assurance methods, and of course I think omission is (what else?) a mistake. But otherwise, it's really good: funny, informative, moving, and largely persuasive.
Patricia Briggs, Silver Borne
Mind-candy. I am actually slightly hesitant to recommend it, because I know that a large part of my enjoyment derived from the fact that while I was reading it, I was not refereeing social-network-analysis papers for WWW 2011...
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Silence and Cast in Chaos
Mind-candy. In which our heroine adopts otherworldly menaces like stray cats foils outbreaks from the dungeon dimensions.
Previously. Subsequently.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Dismal Science; Philosophy; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Biology; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Continuing Crises

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

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