October 31, 2011

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens, The Nature of Computation [book website]
This is, simply put, the best-written book on the theory of computation I have ever read; one of the best-written mathematical books I have ever read, period. I am horribly biased in its favor, of course — Cris is a collaborator, and, even more, an old friend — but from beginning to end, and all the 900+ pages in between, this was lucid, insightful, just rigorous enough, alive to how technical problems relate to larger issues, and above all, passionate and human. (There were many pages where I could hear Cris, full of enthusiasm for the latest puzzle to catch his attention and wanting to share.) I will try to write a proper review later, but in the meanwhile, let me recommend this most strongly to anyone who remembers a little calculus and how vectors add, and finds this blog at all interesting, whether you think you care about computational complexity or not.
Update: Eleven months later, here it is: Intellects Vast and Warm and Sympathetic
Ariana Franklin, The Serpent's Tale and Grave Goods
Mind candy; historical forensic mysteries in medieval England. Entertaining, though the heroine is rather too much a product of the Enlightenment to be believable for the period. (Previously.)
Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas, The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham: A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Nightmare
Mind candy. A homage to both Hunter S. Thompson and H. P. Lovecraft, merged through the soul-destroying horror that was Richard M. Nixon. They do a good job at capturing not just Thompson's stylistic tics, but also his real themes, and melding them with both the squamous eldritch horrors and political satire.
Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth and Goliath
A pair of delusional and emotionally mangled child soldiers trace a circle of blood around the world. In an appalling lapse of taste on the part of the publisher, marketed as mind candy for teenagers.
Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Cirkovic (eds.), Global Catastrophic Risks
An edited collection ranging over wrangling about "what counts as a global catastrophic risk to humanity?", a survey of such risks, some more fanciful than others, and general reflections on what our attitudes and policies towards them should be. Edited collections usually have a high variance, but it's perhaps appropriate that the distribution here is rather more weighted towards the extremes than your usual volume of academic papers. (Compare, for instance, the contribution by J. J. Hughes to the two chapters by Yudkowsky, and don't get me started on Richard Posner, Robin Hanson, or Bryan Caplan.) Even making appropriate allowances for this, it's full of fascinating information, and it's a very worthwhile effort to think through these issues.
Disclaimer: Dr. Cirkovic is an on-line acquaintance, and, in a somewhat odd turn of events, I critiqued drafts of pretty much every chapter of the manuscript. Not all of my suggestions were followed, which was probably for the best, but to some extent I had a hand in making this.
Emmanuel Farjoun and Moshé Machover, Laws of Chaos: A Probabilistic Approach to Political Economy
My brief notes grew out of control: A Marxian Econophysics.
Taylor Anderson, Firestorm
Mind candy. "What these lemurs need is a boat-load of vintage honkeys", continued At some point, the guilty pleasure of the series will no doubt pall, but not yet, not least because there are real setbacks for Our Heroes, and because the villains are becoming actual characters.
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Ruin
Mind candy. While I found this really quite unreasonably enjoyable, I can't help thinking that it would be a Good Thing for the series if at some point Kaylin had to try to understand the conflict from the Shadow's perspective. What does it want to break out of the dungeon dimensions (to use a Pratchettism) for?
(There is also an essay to be written about just how urban this fantasy series is, and how its vision of the city reflects a sort of early-21st-century multiculturalism which is quite different from the way that, say, Leiber imagined Lankhmar. But I will leave that for someone else.)
(Previously, subsequently.)
John M. Chambers, Software for Data Analysis: Programming with R (errata)
The best thing I have encountered on real programming in R, and on why the language is the way it is. It's really quite elegant, even inspiring, but probably works best after some day-to-day acquaintance with R, and with general ideas of programming. Coming to it after the other books on R is like spending a long time reading about the comparative properties of different sorts of cement, and the specifications for various pipes, and then stumbling into a discussion of architecture. It's important that the walls stand up and the toilets flush, yes, but there needs to be a design, too, and that's where this comes in.
— An optional book for Introduction to Statistical Computing; if I've done my job, by the end of th semester some of The Kids will be able to appreciate it.
W. John Braun and Duncan J. Murdoch, A First Course in Statistical Programming with R (selected solutions, errata, etc.)
This is, indeed, a very first course in programming and in R, assuming no previous programming knowledge whatsoever. (In principle, it doesn't even assume prior use of a terminal, but that transition seems, empirically, bigger than they anticipate, and makes me remember In the Beginning was the Command Line more fondly than before.) Required for Introduction to Statistical Computing, where the first half or so of the course closely follows chapters 1--4 (the language, essential commands for numerical manipulation, graphics, writing and debugging functions). Later chapters cover distributions, random variables and simulation; numerical linear algebra; and optimization. I would have liked coverage of functions-as-objects, and of data manipulation, but we're providing that ourselves. It has the three great virtues of being short, selecting the most important points, and being adapted to the meanest understanding.
Paul Teetor, R Cookbook
Best thought of as a reverse index to R's help: instead of "how does this command work, and what can I do with it?", it answers "what commands do I need to do this?". Not suitable as an introduction to the language, but a handy reference. Required for Introduction to Statistical Computing.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Enigmas of Chance; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Statistical Computing; The Dismal Science; Physics; Kith and Kin; Cthulhiana; The Beloved Republic; Philosophy; The Natural Science of the Human Species; Complexity; Mathematics

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

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