May 31, 2011

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

K. A. Stewart, A Devil in the Details
Merline Lovelace, Now You See Her and Catch Her if You Can
Mind-candy, assorted. I imagine that having worked on a DARPA grant for several years probably made the Lovelace books more amusing to me.
Stephen King, The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed..." I do not care for the revisions — I see why King made them, but I think they are nonetheless mistakes — but I think the sory is still there, and still great.
Laura Bickle, Embers and Sparks
Mind-candy. Protecting Detroit from supernatural menaces, whether it wants it or not. (Arson investigation has long been a particularly thankless task in mundane Detroit.)
Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth, Stumptown: The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)
Mind-candy: a love-letter to Portland, in the form of a comic-book detective story, which does not insult the reader's intelligence.
Thomas R. Rochon, Culture Moves: Ideas, Activism, and Changing Values [JSTOR]
A book about how intellectuals develop new values and social movements spread and entrench them, explicitly inspired by the great moral regeneration of this country in the second half of the twentieth century, at the hands of the civil rights movement, feminism and environmentalism, but also looking at other, more or less successful, progressive movements. (Various right-wing movement actually fit his schema fairly well, but are only mentioned in passing.) The basic idea is that "critical communities" come up with new ideas about values (mostly by changing the application of old values, sometimes by bringing new areas under the domain of valuation in the first place, as the environmentalists did), but that then these get taken up and spread by social movements, which transform their participants in the process.
The book is interesting, decently written for sociology, and reasonably convincing. I suspect that the scheme is too tidy --- it seems overly influenced by the French Enlightenment, and the idea of a vanguard party, and to give insufficient weight to how activists themselves develop and change ideas through struggling to realize them --- but not at all absurd.
The data analysis, however, annoys me. Why oh why do people insist on taking (Pearson) correlation coefficients among categorical variables? The one which killed me is when Rochon used what sounds like a fantastic longitudinal data set to show that participating in protests in the 1960s and 1970s had long-term impacts on the values and attitudes of then-young adults. The problem is that those who participated in the protests began as detectably different from non-protestors, so seeing that protestors and non-protestors later diverged doesn't get at the impact of being in the movement --- we could just be seeing two developmental trajectories, one more common among the protestors, the other less. The right comparison (for once) would be to match protestors with those who were similar before the protest, but did not, as it turned out, join the movement, and look at how they diverged. This may not make a big difference in the end, but it wouldn't've killed him to do it right, would it?
Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu, The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal
An economic history of the construction and operation of the Canal, centering on how much it was worth to the US, and how much we paid for it. "Worth" here is evaluated by asking how much more it would have cost to move the same flows of goods by the next-cheapest alternative, which for the earlier part of the story meant a combination of trans-continental railroads, and sailing around South America. Initially, the Canal was a great deal for the US --- and, unsurprisingly, an even better deal on the terms we extracted from our puppet state of Panama than we could have gotten from Colombia. By the post-WWII era, however, it was no longer so important for us, in no small part because of the creation of the Interstate highway system. Giving it back made sense, but was hampered by the lobbying of the rent-capturing, and solidly reactionary, American "Zonians", as well as a wide-spread distate for abandoning an imperial possession. As they put it in a nice phrase (which I cannot re-find right now for exact quotation), the Canal went from being a tool of American national defense, to a symbol of defensive American nationalism. America never really operated the Canal on a profit-maximizing basis, at first deliberately (the un-extracted surplus for users went into the American economy), and then by default (institutional capture by the Zonians). Panama, not being so constrained, has done very well on this score, at least post-Noriega.
No technical knowledge of economics is needed to read this book;
Disclaimer: Carlos is an on-line acquaintance, but I bought by own copy of the book and have no stake in its success.
David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World
I'm reviewing this for American Scientist, so I can't write much here now (but will update when the review comes out). I will just say that this is at once a very impressive achievement, and marred by the economist's uncontrollable urge to tell lies to children (and undergraduates, and lay-people...) about economics, without admitting that they are lies-told-to-children.
Update: and the review is out.
Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan
World War I re-imagined as a young adult fantasy epic, complete with a trans-continental quest, a Lost Heir and a plucky heroine disguised as a boy. — That sounds more dismissive than is really fair; it was a perfectly enjoyable distraction from exercise, and after a century (if not less), every tragedy drifts into the mythic background... The conceit here is that Darwin discovered DNA ("life chains") and genetic engineering, so that the technology of the "Darwinist" powers (Britain, France and Russia) is based on genetically modified organisms, or purpose-built ecosystems, while the "klanker" central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans) all use machinery. To descend to the level of geekish nit-picking, while Westerfeld clearly enjoys his "fabricated beasties", I don't think he's adequately thought through the premise. Metal's advantage over flesh and bone is that it is much harder, much sharper, and can tolerate much higher temperatures. This means metal plus combustion (or even batteries) can deliver much more power (energy per unit time) --- more acceleration, higher velocities, more firepower. A fabricated animal couldn't out-run or out-gun even an actual WWI-vintage tank, so if it was to have a comparative advantage, it would have to lie in being self-replicating; Darwinist tactics would have to rely completely on swarms, rather than huge hydrogen-breathing airships. But while I personally think that hybridizing The Glass Bees and Daedalus makes an awesome premise for a young-adult novel, I suspect that's very much a minority taste.
Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt
Theological fantasy, with historical settings based on late-medieval Spain (the first two) and post-Carolingian Germany (the third). Re-read to celebrate the end of classes. Intensely satisfying, as Bujold almost always is. On re-reading, I particularly admire the way she handles a middle aged heroine in Paladin, though the romantic sub-plot feels less convincing than the rest.
Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontiers: Dreadnaught
Having wrapped up the Anabasis plot nicely with the last volume, I am not sure where this is headed, but happy to enjoy the ride.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Dismal Science; Writing for Antiquity; Networks; Power Laws; Complexity; The Beloved Republic Commit a Social Science; The Progressive Forces; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts

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

Three-Toed Sloth