Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2011
Attention conservation notice: I have no
I'm not sure why I read so many mysteries this month.
- Virginia Swift, Brown-Eyed Girl, Bad Company,
and Bye, Bye Love
- Mind-candy. Mystery series set among the more aggressively eccentric
inhabitants of Laramie. I wish there were more. (Earlier:
the 4th book in the series.)
- Eilen Jewell, Letters from Sinners and Strangers, Heartache Boulevard, Sea of Tears
- Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (no relation)
- School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms and Disconnect from Desire
- Clare Burson, Silver and Ash and Thieves
- The idea of my writing about music is absurd; but I know what I
like, and some people have actually asked what that is.
- Kate Collins, Mum's the Word and Slay It with Flowers
- Mind-candy. Filled an afternoon when I should have been writing a problem
- Mind-candy. Charming cozy medical mysteries, with local color for
mid-1990s Cleveland. I read them in '98, and then re-read them as part of the
great on-going book purge. I found them quite enjoyable on the re-read (it
helped that I'd forgotten whodunnit in every case).
- John Quiggin, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us
- A brisk, non-technical but sound debunking of five economic notions
which ought, by all rights, to lie mouldering in the grave, but instead
continue to prowl the landscape, devouring brains: the "great moderation" of
the economy, the efficient market hypothesis,
dynamic stochastic general equilibrium
models in macroeconomics, trickle-down policy (and the general virtues of
increasing inequality to promote growth), and the wonders of privatization.
Obviously whole books could be written about any one of these
(e.g., this one about the
efficient market hypothesis), or even whole libraries, so one cannot expect a
volume like this to cover every aspect, but it does a very good job of getting
at the essentials, and guiding the reader to more information.
- That these are all right-wing ideas, more or less frequently deployed as
ideological weapons to promote the interests of the already well-off, is no
accident. First of all, Quiggin himself is a social democrat, a partisan of
Keynesian ideas and the mixed economy. (He is also a very able technical
economist.) Secondly, of course, there are no left-wing zombie ideas
in economics that matter. You could argue that (say) Parecon is
undead idea, but it's a ghost, not a zombie: it haunts some cold and drafty
corners of the house of intellect, where it makes rattling noises, but nobody
save a few inhabitants of a few university towns knows or cares about it. The
zombie ideas Quiggin combats, on the other hand, are at once legitimating
charter myths and technical operating instructions for vast industries and
national and international policies.
- I should perhaps say that Quiggin's presentation is quite sober, despite
his title and the (hilarious,
He even resists the temptation to make fun of what he debunks.
- Typos p. 83 note 5: for "as discussed below", read "discussed above" (specifically, pp. 20--21). I think there were some other mistakes in
cross-references, but didn't make notes of the others.
- Disclaimer: Quiggin blogs
at Crooked Timber, and I'm friends
with some of his co-bloggers and have guest-posted there myself. But he and I
have never met or corresponded, and I even bought my own copy of his book.
- ObLinkage: Emerson on Quiggin on zombies.
- W. G. Runciman, The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection
- Runciman's Treatise
on Social Theory is one of the most important books on applying
evolutionary ideas to the development of society, giving an interesting (and
properly selectionist) account of how institutions form, persist and change
through the differential reproduction of practices. In Runciman's view,
it's practices of social interaction evolve, not societies. (Or
rather, societies evolve only in a derivative sense, like speaking of the
"evolution of ecosystems".) His book articulates this idea with great
sophistication and learning, drawing on a wide range of historical examples.
Social Animal is a self-popularization, and quite excellent. He has
many fine papers and essays applying his ideas to particular social phenomena.
(I might particularly mention those on "The 'Triumph' of Capitalism"
Review 210 (March-April 1995): 33--47] and "The
Diffusion of Christianity"
of Sociology 45 (2004): 3--21].)
- All of which is to say I would probably like this more if I hadn't looked
forward to it quite so eagerly. It's not as good as the earlier books. In
fact in many ways Runciman assumes an audience which has already read those
books — how else to explain his free use of his neologism "systact", or
the "three dimensions of social space" or "of social structure", without ever
defining them? (For the record, Runciman's three dimensions are economic,
ideological and coercive power. And a "systact" is a category of people who
occupy a specific, persistent social role, and who, in virtue of this, have a
similar location in the society's structure of power. "Systact" is supposed to
be the genus of which "class", "caste", "rank", "order", "estate", etc.,
perhaps even "race" and "gender", are all species.) And there is what I can
only call a smug tone which was lacking before, and makes me want to
argue against the application of selectionist ideas to culture and
society. (Hell, he makes me want to defend anti-reductionists and even
post-modernists.) It is certainly not a systematic general theory of cultural
and social selection.
- He has also acquired an odd insistence that the social selection of
practices comes after the cultural transmission of information, both logically
and in time. This was not present in his earlier work, and it seems to
oscillate between being either harmless or insupportable. Many animals
have some degree of cultural transmission, apparently without
social practices, so yes, social evolution is recent, if that means "since our
last common ancestor with chimpanzees". But every human population I can think
of does have transmitted social practices in this sense — at the
very least related to kinship — and Runciman certainly doesn't give any
- All of which said, I do think this is a worthwhile book for anyone
seriously interested in applying evolutionary concepts to human culture and
society: it's a restatement of his main ideas by a leading scholar in the area.
(And if he is not so widely recognized as such, so much the worse for the
area.) But you really need to have read at least one of his previous books,
and be ready to argue back a lot.
- Clark Glymour, Galileo in Pittsburgh
- Glymour is an important contemporary philosopher of science for causality
and causal inference; our philosophy department being what it is, this means he
works on algorithms for consistently inferring causal structure from patterns
of correlations. (Previously: the great big book of causal discovery [a huge influence on me],
not-exactly Great Thinkers from
Frege to Carnap,
and Theory and Evidence.)
This book is a collection of non-technical essays on causal inference,
philosophy of science, general philosophy, and living in America in the late
20th and early 21st century. This is some of his best writing — clear,
intelligent, funny and winning — which is saying something. The essays
are also generously spiced with arguments designed to infuriate a wide spectrum
of readers; in some essays these are not so much the spice as the meat.
Glymour is certainly not beyond enjoying provocation, but if this is trolling,
trolling, the truly desired reaction being thought rather than
- I read it all in one sitting back in April, but then somehow forgot to post
- Disclaimer: Clark's an acquaintance, and was kind enough to
give me a copy of this book.
- David De Jong and Chetan Dave, Structural Macroeconometrics
- (Textbook website, with code
- Here "structural macroeconometrics" means
fitting dynamic stochastic general
equilibrium models to aggregate time series, after trying to make the time
series stationary by removing trends. (They give a lot of space to
de-trending, without discussing how much of the apparent predictive power of
the models is due to the trends.) The general procedure is, once the data have
been beaten into stationarity: find a linear approximation to your DSGE around
its long-run average; this will be a linear state-space model or hidden Markov
model. (They give a lot of space to various combinations of linear
algebra and Taylor expansion.) Now estimate the model; they consider
generalized method of
moments, indirect inference,
maximum likelihood, and Bayesian inference. (They also have a chapter on
"calibration", which is way too respectful, though they cite and quote some of
the important critical articles.) A final pair of chapters considers some ways
of avoiding linearizing the system, combining familiar ideas from reinforcement
learning with particle filtering.
- There is some material here on goodness of fit, especially in chapter 6,
and on parametric specification testing — more than
in Christensen and Kiefer, but
still not as much as I'd like. I was a bit surprised by the lack of material
though they do talk a bit about how flat the likelihood functions often are.
Even beyond that, though, a DSGE is only identifiable "up to" the state-space
model, because it's the latter that's brought into contact with the data
— two DSGEs leading to the same hidden Markov model are observationally
indistinguishable. Indeed, it is indistinguishable from any economic model,
general equilibrium or not, which leads to the same HMM.
- The representative agent assumption is used very freely, and without much
comment. (Come to think of it, does any model in the book not have a
representative agent?) There is no discussion
of what the representative agent
actually represents, whether representative agent models really follow from
aggregating multi-agent microeconomic models*, or even whether welfare
calculations based on them make any sense**. It would, I suppose, be out of
place for an econometrics book, especially a textbook, to critique the sorts of
models macroeconomics has fixated on...
- The implied reader is, to my eyes, curious: someone who knows not just
economic jargon, but actually lots of utility theory --- but needs to have
their hand held through basic numerical optimization, and taking Fourier
transforms of time series. Assuming this is a fair guess at the actual
preparation of economics students, it seems like a very reasonable
- Disclaimer: De Jong is an external member of my student
Daniel McDonald's thesis committee.
- *: They do not, except under incredibly strong and
fragile assumptions, such as every person in the economy having identical
tastes, resources, and information. (It would be interesting to know how many
macroeconomists who work with representative agent models also, in their
teaching or public engagements, deploy the Hayekian commonplace that the
wonderful thing about market economies is the
way they make use
of dispersed information, and coordinate divergent preferences.) There is
not even, so far as I know, any result to the effect that general equilibrium
with heterogeneous agents can typically be approximated by a
representative agent model.
- **: De Jong and Dave reproduce Lucas's calculations
which assume a single agent representing the whole economy, getting utility
from current consumption, and compare its utility under the actual history of
the U.S. economy since WWII, including booms and busts, and a fictional history
where consumption grew, without fluctuations, at the average historical rate.
The difference in utility, under these assumptions, is very small, which is
supposed to tell us how wonderfully optimal the economy is, and that we live in
of the central bankers", who we should leave the to do their jobs as they
- But of course, when we have a recession, everyone does not just evenly
reduce their consumption by 5%, possibly smoothed over time by
perfectly-lubricated credit markets. Rather, many people are thrown out of
work and suffer massive losses in income and wealth, to say nothing of
humiliation and anxiety, degradation of skills, etc. Others keep their
incomes, at least most of it, with more-than-usual fear about what would become
of them and their families if they should lose their jobs for any reason.
Everyone is in a worse bargaining position with employers. Lucas is correct,
however, that recessions have not been a big deal for someone who lives off the
dividends of a well-diversified portfolio.
- Jane Langton, The Deserter: Murder at Gettysburg
- 17th (!) installment in Langton's consistently excellent mystery series; in
which her heroes' latest enthusiasm is the Civil War.
(Previously in the series.)
- Victor Pelevin, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
- In which an underage Moscow prostitute who is actually a two-thousand-year
old Chinese fox spirit recounts her adventures with assorted taxi drivers,
portfolio investors, fellow foxes in Phuket and London, right-wing liberal
humanists, simple foresters, eccentric English lords and werewolves working for the state
security apparatus, allowing, in passing, for many improving conversations
inter alia, the structure and function of the hypnotic organ in the
fox's tail, the nature and meaning of post-Soviet life, the Russian soul (and
how and to what extent it resembles a long-distance trucker indulging in sordid
proclivities by picking up hitchhikers), the works of Vladimir Nabokov,
westerns, In the Mood for
Love, Buddhism, the role of amphetamines and cocaine in the
formation of post-modern discourse, bewitchment by language and names, the
sordid proclivities of portfolio investors, why no way which can be expressed
in words can be the true way, how foxes hunt chickens, kundalini yoga, the
philosophy of Berkeley, how foxes hunt English aristocrats, the advantages of
living in tombs, the place of verse in prostitutes' self-advertisements, the
role of ketamine in lycanthropy, whether there exist lower forms of life than
Internet columnists and bloggers, and the liberating power of love (even when
— this is no spoiler — it ends badly).
- Shorter me: Oh, Victor Olegovich, where have you been all my life?
- Rudolf and Margot
Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of
Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French
- A wonderful, thought-provoking, anecdote-filled book which sets out to
undermine readers' ideas about what artists are typically like, ideas derived
from Romanticism (and its late
off-shoot, psychoanalysis). Partly it
does this by sensitively exploring Renaissance and early-modern European ideas
about artists, e.g., their
temperament, caused simultaneously by an excess of black bile, and,
astrologically, by being "born under Saturn". Still more, though, the book is
about the range of artists' actual behavior, as shown in period documents
— and how much, if at all, that differed from the way their peers
behaved. The Wittkowers are agreeable and skeptical authors, who wear a vast
learning lightly, and have considerable, if somewhat amused, sympathy for their
subjects (and less sympathy for fellow scholars). The imagined audience is the
general educated public, not art historians, and I think anyone who enjoys the
paintings and is curious about (but not reverent towards) the people who
produced them should like the book.
- (It's in print from the New York Review, and that's what the link above points to, but I haven't seen that edition; I read an old Norton paperback.)
- Diana Rowland, Secrets of the Demon
mind-candy. (Previously: 1, 2.)
ROT-13'd spoilers: V unq gur fhfcvpvba gung gur tbyrz jnf pbagebyyrq ol
Zvpunry irel rneyl ba, ng yrnfg sebz gur fprar va gur ubhfr jurer ur'f urneq
cynlvat gur cvnab. Ohg jul qvq V fhfcrpg gung?
- Despite being warned by the cover-art about "twisted" and "depraved", I
thought I was seeing a reasonably ordinary Rashomon homage for the
first hour or so, and then was taken completely by surprise. Not sure I'd
watch it again in retrospect.
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;
The Dismal Science;
Scientifiction and Fantastica;
Writing for Antiquity;
Enigmas of Chance;
The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts;
Commit a Social Science;
The Running Dogs of Reaction
Posted at January 31, 2011 23:59 | permanent link