March 31, 2015

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2015

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
Shadid's memoir of restoring his family's ancestral home in a small Christian town in south Lebanon, inter-cut with the scenes from the story of how his family came from Lebanon to Oklahoma, and the history of the town itself. It's more fascinating and lovely than an account of a mid-life crisis resolved through remodeling has any right to be, and becomes almost unbearably sad when one knows about how the author died.
Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, Mageworlds series: The Price of the Stars, Starpilot's Grave, By Honor Betray'd, The Gathering Flame, The Long Hunt, The Stars Asunder, A Working of Stars
Mind candy. I'd read the first two years and years ago, and enjoyed them, but was inspired to pick up the rest of the series by James Nicoll's recent review of the first book. While it would be astonishing if the story didn't begin as Star Wars fanfic, one should really think of these as that universe re-imagined by writers of talent and imagination, trying to come up with decent reasons for everything, and freely reworking as necessary. I won't pretend they're high literature, but they are a non-guilty pleasure.
Daniel Davies and Tess Read, The Secret Life of Money: Everyday Economics Explained
A compact series of brief vignettes about the economics of lots of different sorts of businesses, running from trade-shows to martial arts schools. It's not as hilariously funny as the best of Davies's blogging, but it is good, and makes me wish they'd be quixotic enough to write a systematic econ-for-beginners book.
(The writing is colloquial enough that I found myself looking up perhaps half-a-dozen Anglicisms; I didn't mind, but others might.)
Disclaimer: I've been a fan of Davies's blog, and sporadic correspondent, for many years.
Charlaine Harris, A Secret Rage
Harris's second (?) novel, from 1984, a mystery about an ex model returning from New York to a small Southern college town — which is not dealing very successfully with a serial rapist. I hesitate to label this one "mind candy", because it deals with much more serious themes than usual, and does so well. I can't speak to its portrayal of surviving rape, but it's really convincing at the emotional pain, dis-orientation, and shame that can come from experiences that break one's self of who one is, or the kind of live one has, including the feeling of "this can never be repaired". In the end, though, I'm not sure it isn't candy of a sort. (That is not a complaint or a put-down.)
— Of course, this was written more than thirty years ago. It's striking to me how little the cultural politics have moved on, even while many things large and small for the story are quite transformed. Ones which struck me (some of them arguably spoilers, so I ROT-13'd): gur bcravat ivrj bs Arj Lbex Pvgl nf n uryyfpncr, be ng yrnfg n chetngbel, bs ivbyrag pevzr; vg'f abg orvat pbzzba xabjyrqtr gung encvfgf, bapr pnhtug, pna or purzvpnyyl zngpurq gb gurve fcrez; gjb beqvanel crbcyr orvat qrsrngrq ol gur cebfcrpg bs pbyyngvat gjb yvfgf bs n uhaqerq anzrf; gur urebvar'f oblsevraq glcvat ure rffnlf sbe ure (abg uvf orvat pbafvqrengr gung jnl, ohg gur vqrn gung fur jbhyqa'g whfg unir jevggra gurz urefrys ba n znpuvar); gur urebvar'f abg dhrfgvbavat sbe n zbzrag gung n pynff va Punhpre jvyy uryc ure orpbzr n pbagrzcbenel abiryvfg.
Laura Bickle, Dark Alchemy
Mind candy: contemporary Weird Western, heavy on alchemical symbolism (reasonably well-researched). Lots of mysteries are left unexplained at the end; I hope they stay that way.
Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes
Mind candy: no supernatural elements, just a psycho-killer in a country going to hell in a slow handbasket. (Though: "Knights of the Badge and the Gun" is a bit of an internal reference.) The protagonists are somewhat stock characters, but the story moves along well.
ROT-13'd: Ner jr _fhccbfrq_ gb srry gung Ubyyl vf nyzbfg nf zrffrq hc nf Ze. Zreprqrf, naq cbgragvnyyl nf qnatrebhf? (Abg nf pehry, ab.) Orpnhfr gung'f fher nf uryy gur vzcerffvba V jnyxrq njnl jvgu.
A. W. van der Vaart, Asymptotic Statistics
A well-written and thorough introduction to the highlights of classic statistical theory, especially as shaped by Le Cam and his followers. The aim here is to present the classic results in as streamlined, elegant and modern a manner as possible, rather than following the often-cumbersome original proofs of the 1920s--1960s. Thus for instance van der Vaart gives a wonderfully simple, but correct, account of the "delta method" (chapter 3), and of convergence of estimators based on minimizing loss functions ("M" estimators) or solving equations which set gradients to zero ("Z" estimators; both chapter 5), topics which in many other textbooks are so buried in technicalities that the main ideas are almost invisible. While the bulk of the material is on parametric inference, later chapters deal with topics like density estimation and semi-parametric regression.
In addition to Le Cam's device of relating a sequence of "experiments" (really, probability models) to a "limiting experiment", the major theoretical tool here is empirical process theory. My one pedagogical issue with the book is that empirical process theory is introduced relatively late (chapter 19), even though results from it are used much earlier (chapter 5 at the latest). Were I to teach from this book, I'd probably just move that material earlier.
Some prior acquaintance with the usual machinery of hypothesis testing, estimation, likelihood, etc., is required (Casella and Berger would be more than adequate, perhaps even All of Statistics), along with the rudiments of measure-theoretic probability. Given that background, this is the most elegant and up-to-date text on this material I've found, and would make for the core of a very good graduate course in statistical theory.
(A tangential reflection: if you go back to the literature in the 1980s and early 1990s, you can sort of see two strands of ideas about reformulating parametric inference in more advanced and systematic mathematical terms. One of these is information geometry, which draws links to differential geometry and information theory. The other strand, of which this book is a fruit, is empirical process theory. It's interesting to me that information geometry hasn't seemed to lead to much beyond more elegant formulations of the classical ideas of parametric statistical theory, while studying empirical processes has been much more productive of new results and new areas. [And I say this as someone who finds information geometry more attractive intrinsically.] Is this a fair assessment? If it is, is this contrast intrinsic to the two approaches, or just an accident of their developments?)
Disclaimer: I've never met or corresponded with Prof. van der Vaart, but he's a very eminent figure in my field, and might well referee one of my papers or grants some day (if he hasn't already). (Correction, next month: I was wrong, I wrote to ask him for copy of a paper in 2006.)
Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind, 1680--1715
This is erudite, lively, contagiously enthusiastic, and admirably broad-minded. If it has a coherent thesis it frankly eludes me. The introduction makes it sound like this period is an unprecedented rupture in European culture, while the conclusion has it being the return of the Renaissance. Then again, in places Hazard makes it seem like his theme is how European high culture learned to embrace skepticism, but in others it seems to be about how it learned to avoid skeptical conclusions, or rather avoid the Pyrrhonist suspension of all judgment. Instead, it's best read as a series of case studies, with interesting connections drawn between them, like that between Locke's philosophy and the rise of sentiment and sensation.
As usual, part of me laments the lack of quantitative comparisons (yes, this period had a lot of interest in travel and travel writings --- was it really more than the one just before? were there really more enthusiastic religious movements?). On the other hand, I suspect the materials for doing that sort of history weren't available in 1935, and that the result would be much less fun to read.
— Further comment is out-sourced to David Auerbach (with the small correction that Hazard does mention Leeuwenhoek, giving him most of p. 309).
Seanan McGuire, Pocket Apocalypse
Mind candy: in which our heroes confront an outbreak of lycanthropy in Australia. Probably not so fun if you haven't at least read the previous book in the series.
Joe Abercrombie, Half a King and Half the World
Mind candy: Viking-toned fantasy epics. There is a lot of blood and brutality and (it can't be a spoiler if it's in the book description) betrayal, but it seems much more hopeful than Abercrombie's best-known books, in that virtue is not destined to be its own punishment. I read each in one sitting, because they were just that fun, but with some trepidation on the characters' behalf. On the other hand, there's apparently at least one more book to come in the series, so there's still time for every hope to be blasted and every good thing in the characters' lives to be twisted into a burden or a mockery.
— On Half a King: I wonder if this is in some way a reaction to, or even a tribute to, the works of Lois McMaster Bujold? Yarvi, as the clever, deformed prince despised by the warriors around him, is an obvious analog for Miles, and his mother Laithlin is shown dominating by force of personality as Cordelia does, though in a rather different way. And (ROT-13'd) Lneiv'f obgu orvat fbyq vagb fynirel nf n ebjre, naq hygvzngryl fnirq guebhtu yblnygl gb uvf bne-zngrf, vfa'g n zvyyvba zvyrf njnl sebz jung unccraf gb Pnmnevy va _Phefr bs Punyvba_.
Half the World, however, seems inspired by the thought "Eowyn would have been a very difficult teenager".

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Enigmas of Chance; The Dismal Science; Writing for Antiquity; The Continuing Crises; The Great Transformation; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at March 31, 2015 23:59 | permanent link

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