July 31, 2015

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
This is by now a contemporary classic, which I should have read years ago. To enjoy it, you need to like geeking out over designing steel boxes; the culture of longshore work, the politics of their unions, and their (totally correct) fears of technological obsolescence; why container ports have economies of scale; and a dozen other things that usually lurk in the background of our world. If you read this weblog, it's probably right up your alley.
Further commentary is outsourced to Steve Laniel.
Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change
This is one of the few genuinely-evolutionary ventures in social science I've ever run across. Spruyt's aim, as his title suggests, is to explain how Europe came to be dominated into sovereign territorial states, which subsequently imposed that some mode of organization on the rest of the world. He wants a genuinely selectionist explanation, which he realizes means he needs to explain why such states survived, or tended to survive, while other, contemporary forms of polity did not. And he realizes that there were alternative forms of polity: not just feudalism, but also city-states (as in Italy) and city-leagues (as in the north), which were, for a time, serious contenders. Spruyt is very sound on how the causes which led to the formation of any of these polities need not be, and generally aren't, the same as the causes of their ultimate selection. It's very nice to see such a mass of historical detail intelligently organized and brought to bear on an interesting theoretical problem.
Being me, naturally I have some qualms or quibbles. (1) Spruyt essentially looks at three case studies: the French kingdom, the Hanseatic League, and the city-states of northern Italy. But his account, if valid, should generalize to at least the rest of Europe; I'd really like to see whether it does. (2) As a methodological point, the number of polities involved is very small, even if we go down to treating every city in the low countries or Tuscany as a distinct unit of selection. On general grounds of evolutionary theory, then, we should expect noise effects to be quite large relative to fitness differences, which in turn will make it hard to learn those differences. In other words, with so few kingdoms, city leagues, etc., to examine, I worry that Spruyt may just be creating narratives to retrospectively match mere chance. (The thought experiment here would be something like: in the alternate history which followed the same path as ours up to, say, 1450, but thereafter city leagues came to dominate western Europe, how hard would it be for alternate-Spruyt to assemble the split evidence into a case for the selective superiority of leagues, over sovereign territorial states?) (3) A lot of Spruyt's argument for why territorial states did better than city leagues is that the later lacked a central locus of authority which could credibly negotiate with outsiders, and make agreements stick by imposing them on the constituent cities. So why did no one invent the idea of a league where the league itself was the sovereign? Or was it just that when they did, they called it the United Provinces, and they happened to form a contiguous territory? (4) Spruyt takes the rather odd position that variation and selection are two temporally successive phases of an evolutionary process, rather than just being logically and causally distinct. (This idea seems to arise from a rather forced-sounding interpretation of Stephen Jay Gould's papers on punctuated equilibrium.) This is, I think, both wrong as a matter of general evolutionary theory, and superfluous to his own actual argument. (5) The opening chapters spill much too much ink on very parochial internal debates of the international relations sub-sub-discipline, giving little sense of its wider relevance to social science.
(Thanks to Henry Farrell for pointing me at this.)
Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire
Hurley's earlier science fiction novels (1, 2) were enjoyable mind candy, but this is great mind candy: world-building in which the human, the fantastic, and the all-too-human mingle; multiple realms of fantastic weirdness; compelling characters; and truly epic scope to the action. It deserves much more intelligent appreciation, but I am still too caught up in the story to provide one. I am very impatient to read the sequels.
The one thing I will raise as a criticism is that I am pretty sure in twenty years the gender politics here will look as dated as those in, say, The Forever War do now. On the other hand, I will not be surprised if people are still reading this in twenty years; and on the prehensile tail, I understand why Hurley hit those notes so hard.
Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score
Latest installment in the series beginning with The Atrocity Archives, in which British secret agents try to deal with the Cthulhu Mythos and modern management. I doubt it's really that follow-able if you've not kept up with the series (though I think Stross intends it as an alternate entry point), so I will cheerfully spoil earlier books in the rest of this comment. Previous volumes, through The Rhesus Chart, have been narrated by IT-staffer Bob; this one by his wife and fellow spook Mo. As we know from The Jennifer Morgue, archetypically, Bob is a Bond girl; Mo is Bond. In this book, Mo is Bond going through a marital collapse, a mid-life crisis, and a nervous breakdown a bit of a rough patch, so her superiors respond by putting her in charge of a new department managing superheroes (= otherwise-innocent bystanders developing sanity- and/or brain- eating magical powers as the Stars Become Right). Hijinks ensue, for rather soul-destroying values of hijinks; also, she fights crime.
Mo, as narrator, sounds a bit too much like Bob (for instance, too many IT allusions, and none arising from music or from epistemology). But otherwise, it's only too convincing as portrait of a marriage collapsing; I have more quibbles with the plot. ( Univat rirelguvat or n snyfr-synt bcrengvba ol gur cbyvpr fdhnerf bqqyl jvgu gur gvzvat bs gur svefg vapvqrag naq vgf crecrgengbe'f qrngu; naq Zb zhfg'ir orra uvg jvgu n ovt vqvbg fgvpx gb znxr ab pbaarpgvba orgjrra ure vafgehzrag naq gur ivyynvaf fgrnyvat rfbgrevp zhfvpny fpberf.) On balance, while I read it in as close to one sitting as I could, I still feel it's below the peak of the series.
Danielle S. Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
An attempt to argue, as the sub-title says, that the Declaration is at least as much about equality as it is about freedom, and indeed about equality as the grounds of freedom. I like it very much, and it is very persuasive; it makes me feel better about our country. But the big point of doubt I have is that lots of what Allen points to seems to really be about a republican form of government, or even what Bagehot called "government by discussion", which is perfectly compatible with vast degrees of in-equality.
ObLinkage: the Crooked Timber symposium of Our Declaration.
Disclaimer: I know Prof. Allen, and have participated in a series of workshops she organized and contributed to a book she edited, but I feel under no obligation to write a positive notice of her books.
Richard D. Mattuck, A Guide to Feynman Diagrams in the Many-Body Problem
I began this one twenty years ago in graduate school, and cannot for the life of me recall why I didn't finish it at once. (I was young, foolish, easily misled...) It's best described in the words it uses for one of its own examples: "a pedagogically ideal illustration of the qualities which made the graphical method famous: its power to do perturbation theory to infinite order (thus enabling it to cope with strong couplings beyond the reach of ordinary perturbation procedures), its highly systematic and so-called 'automatic' character, its vivid pictorial appeal, and its remarkable talent for producing results valid outside their region of convergence" (p. 276). It does presume good knowledge of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics, but no quantum field theory is necessary, nor even, I think, precise recall of classical E&M.
— There must be a general account of when, and why, Feynman diagrams work for arbitrary Markov processes, and/or other situations where a probability density obeys a nice differential equation. Where is it? (This is a start.)
What is this I don't even?

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; The Great Transformation; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Beloved Republic; Philosophy; The Dismal Science; Physics; Enigmas of Chance; Commit a Social Science

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

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