## June 30, 2011

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Tourism inspired by the presidential assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Naturally, especially since it was written during the worst of the Iraq War and Bush administration, the book is really about what America means, or should.
Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander and Post Captain
I used to re-read these once a year. I should probably resume doing so.
I. J. Parker, The Masuda Affair and The Fires of the Gods
Mind-candy. Continuing historical mystery novels set in Heian Japan. Akitada is kind of a jerk through the first half or more of The Masuda Affair, but that's sort of the point.
Sarah Zettel, The Quiet Invasion
Humans who have established a research settlement in the clouds on Venus meet aliens from a Venus-like world who want to colonize Venus; the situation develops in a manner not necessarily to anyone's advantage. (This is not a spoiler.) As always with Zettel, the story is engaging, the characters are well-developed and mostly do not line up nearly into good guys and bad guys, the science is harder than Larry Niven*, and a desirable future is attained without destroying most of the human race.
Scattered remarks: (1) Libertarianism seems like a very stupid revolutionary ideology for human colonists utterly dependent on each other and on supply lines to Earth. (Creating an industrial infrastructure on another planet would mean paying all the R&D costs of figuring out how to do everything Earth already does, in a vastly more hostile environment, and then the construction costs of building it, simply to save on shipping. Capitalism will only do this for things where shipping is very, very expensive, and the market to be served is huge.) (2) The alien's economic system of "promises" is a nice conceit, and helps establish that they are not like us (they pretty much do live in an Arrow-Debreu economy), but I can't help wondering what will happen once some of their new friends introduce them to the concept of money.
*: Here, Zettel has interstellar teleportation portals, which is obviously not good from a scientific-accuracy point of view, but otherwise things are quite plausible. (Her Venus, in particular, draws heavily on Grinspoon's excellent Venus Revealed.) Niven's Known Space, on the other hand, had faster than light travel, human psionics, interspecies telepathic mind control, stasis fields, selective breeding for luck, an account of human origins and senescence more worthy of Madame Blavatsky than anyone who had ever heard of the sciences of genetics or comparative anatomy, and multiple physically impossible (but plot-necessary) materials. (I am indebted to James Nicoll and Carlos Yu for these examples.) This is giving him a pass on technologized microscopic black holes.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Shards of Honor
I hadn't re-read this in so long I'd forgotten just how good it was. It astonishes me just that it was a first novel. (My favorite line, of many great lines: "I am an atheist, myself. A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days.")
Sarah Langan, The Missing
Mind-candy, extra dark. Like her earlier The Keeper, to which this is a loose sequel, this is structured as an outbreak narrative (the UK title is The Virus) set in a small town in Maine. In this as in many other ways, we are clearly in Stephen King country, and perhaps the best way to convey the impression it left on me is for you to imagine King minus the sentiment about children and the faith that there is Something opposing his horrors, and plus a background in environmental epidemiology and some serious anger at the patriarchy. These are, to be clear, good things, and her take on the infection-which-turns-people-into-monsters was genuinely creepy and scary. ROT-13'd spoiler-ish quibbling: fur qvq abg, ubjrire, znantr gb znxr vg pbaivapvat gung gur pbagntvba pbhyq trg bhg bs pbageby ba n angvbany fpnyr, ubjrire — abe qvq gung frrz gb or arprffnel sbe ure fgbel.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
Beginning (as the sub-title hints) with the background of ancient Israel and ancient Greece, and continuing down to the present day, covering every branch he can think of, with evident sympathy and at least the appearance of learning. Like his earlier book The Reformation (surprisingly little of which gets repeated here), this aims to be a truly global history, so he gives considerable space to groups like the Nestorians, to the Ethiopian Church, etc. During late antiquity and the medieval period, eastern and western orthodoxy get equal billing, and if the west takes up more room later, it is because the west expanded (and diversified) in ways the east didn't.
MacCulloch likes: toleration, pluralism and ecumenical outreach; personal humility and charity; churches which remember that the Kingdom is not of this world, but struggle against injustice anyway; mysticism (but not obscurantism); music, architecture and painting; and counterfactuals. (Even more than The Reformation, this book is full of remarks about the different paths that various branches of Christianity could have gone, but didn't. None of these claims seem crazy, but their epistemic basis is often unclear.) He dislikes: Biblical (pseudo-) literalism; religion in the service of nationalism, and of temporal power more generally; spiritual arrogance; iconoclasm; aggressive opposition to organized religion.
Lucy A. Snyder, Shotgun Sorceress
Mind-candy. In which our heroine, having previously harrowed the hells of Ohio, and acquired (ROT-13'd spoilers) n yvgreny wrjryrq rlr naq unaq bs synzr juvpu vf abg dhvgr haqre ure pbageby jura fur trgf, yrg hf fnl, rkpvgrq, confronts the forces of darkness in east Texas. It ends in media res, and I have pre-ordered the sequel.
Christa Faust, Money Shot
Mind-candy. Hard-boiled thriller set in the porn-filming sub-culture of contemporary LA. Despite the setting, it has basically no sexually arousing content, which is part of the point. If a fast-paced story of violent, single-minded revenge without the least trace of personal redemption sounds appealing, you will like this. (Since the professional novelists who provided the blurbs for this book have already made every possible porn-related pun, I can skip that.)
Carrie Vaughn, Kitty Goes to War
Mind-candy. In which our heroine, and the city of Denver, must confront the consequences of U. S. Army planners in Afghanistan not having seen Dog Soldiers. Oh, and a chain of nefarious convenience stores. (Previously.)
Amanda Downum, The Drowning City and The Bone Palace
Mind-candy. It's hard out there for a necromancer. (The city of the first book is a bit like New Orleans, inhabited by Sumatrans. That of the second is Constantinople, in some favorable slice of Byzantine history which is probably not profitable to try to identify.)
Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites
Julia Spencer-Fleming, One Was a Soldier
I got about half-way through this before realizing that I was reading, and engrossed by, a perfectly ordinary, perhaps even literary, novel about small-town life and post-traumatic stress. Then, fortunately for my genre-reading ways, some murders happened and got satisfyingly solved. (Previously.)
Hubert M. Blalock, Causal Inferences in Nonexperimental Research
Technically obsolete, of course --- it's from 1961! --- but full of good sense, in no small part because it draws so heavily on Herbert Simon (especially the Cowles Commission papers, "Causal Ordering and Identifiability" and "Spurious Correlation: A Causal Interpretation"), and writes so many graphical models. The aggregation procedure Blalock talks about as a way of checking confounding sounds like a cross between instrumental variables and Pearl's front-door criterion, and it would be interesting to step through it to see what it does identify, if someone hasn't done so already. Recommended for those interested in the history of causal inference, and how ideas come to be behind their time.
Correction: Oddly, Blalock writes that if two variables, say, $X$ and $Y$, are uncorrelated, but both make a positive contribution to a third, say $Z$, then the causes are positively correlated conditional on the effect. This is wrong; they are negatively correlated. The easiest way to see this is to imagine the limiting case where $Z = X + Y$>, with no noise; then, conditional on $Z = z$, $X = z - Y$ and the causes are perfectly negatively correlated. (Blalock seems to have been mislead by the idea that a high value for the effect, $Z$, makes it more probable that both causes are large, which is true but not relevant to the conditional correlation between the causes.) I do not believe, however, that Blalock's arguments ever rely on the sign of the partial correlation between causes, merely that it is non-zero.

Posted at June 30, 2011 23:59 | permanent link