January 31, 2011

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2011

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

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 set.
Bill Pomidor, Murder by Prescription, Skeletons in the Closet, Ten Little Medicine Men, Mind over Murder
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 a left-wing 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, adorable) cover. 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. His The 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" [New Left Review 210 (March-April 1995): 33--47] and "The Diffusion of Christianity" [European Journal 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 counter-examples.
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], psychological aspects, 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, it is Socratic trolling, the truly desired reaction being thought rather than outrage.
I read it all in one sitting back in April, but then somehow forgot to post about it!
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 and errata.)
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 on identifiability (cf.), 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 textbook.
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 the "Republic of the central bankers", who we should leave the to do their jobs as they see fit.
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 regarding, 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 Revolution
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 "melancholic" 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
Series 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; Philosophy; The Running Dogs of Reaction

Posted at January 31, 2011 23:59 | permanent link

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