Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2016
Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.
- Guido W. Imbens and Donald B. Rubin, Causal Inference for Statistics, Social, and Biomedical Sciences: An Introduction
- While I found less to disagree with about the over-all approach than I
anticipated, I am genuinely surprised (not
"shocked, shocked!" surprised) to find so much sloppiness in the mere data
analysis. I can't recommend this book to anyone who isn't already
well-trained in applied
statistics. To say any more here would preempt my review
for JASA, so I'll just link to that when it's out.
- — I will however mention one grumble, which didn't fit in the
review. From p. 174:
The possible advantage of the frequentist approach [over the Bayesian] is that
it avoids the need to specify the prior distribution $ p(\theta) $ for the
parameters governing the joint distribution of the two potential outcomes.
However, this does not come without cost. Nearly always one has to rely on
large sample approximations to justify the derived frequentist confidence
intervals. But in large samples, by the Bernstein-Von Mises Theorem
(e.g., Van Der Vaart, 1998), the
practical implications of the choice of prior distribution is limited, and the
alleged benefits of the frequentist approach vanish.
I don't see how to unpack everything objectionable in these few sentences
without rehearsing the whole of this post, and adding
"the bootstrap is a thing, you
- Tarquin Hall, The Case of the Love Commandos
- Mind candy: the latest in the mystery
series, though enjoyable independently; this time, we find Vish Puri
unwillingly drawn into the nexus of caste and politics in rural Uttar Pradesh.
- Jack Campbell, The Dragons of Dorcastle,
The Hidden Masters of Marandur, The Assassins of Altis
- Mind candy science fantasy. There are some thematic similarities to
Rosemary Kirstein's (much
superior) Steerswomen books.
Those themes are, as it were, here transcribed into the key of Teen's Own
Adventures (Campbell gets points for having the Heroic Engineer with a Destiny
be a young woman), with less compelling world-building than Kirstein. Still, I
zoomed through these and await the sequels.
- ROT-13'd for spoilers: Bar jnl va juvpu Xvefgrva'f obbxf ner fhcrevbe
vf gung ure cebgntbavfgf unir gb npghnyyl svther bhg gur uvqqra gehguf bs gurve
jbeyq, jurernf Pnzcoryy gnxrf gur ynml snagnfl-jevgre jnl bhg bs univat gurer
or uvqqra fntrf jub pna whfg gryy gur urebrf rirelguvat. Nyfb, V nz abg fher V
unir rire frra "orpnhfr bs dhnaghz!" hfrq fb funzryrffyl ol nal jevgre jub
jnfa'g n zrqvpny dhnpx.
- Paul McAuley, Into Everywhere
- Further into the future of his
Coming Through, in which finding that we are only the latest in a
galaxy full of the remains of much older, much more powerful, and much weirder
alien civilizations is not very good for humanity. For instance, the
scientific method seems to atrophy as we move up the time-line,
in much the way Chomsky fears will
result from cheap computing [*]. There is
- ROT-13'd for spoilers:
Gur eriryngvba ng gur raq, gung gur gehr nvz bs
nyy guvf nyvra zrqqyvat vf abg gb qb fbzrguvat gb uhznavgl ohg gb trg hf gb
cebqhpr NVf, orpnhfr gur shgher bs nal vagryyvtrag yvarntr vf hygvzngryl
znpuvarf, vf bs pbhefr fgenvtug bhg bs Pynexr'f 2001. Guvf yrnqf
zr gb jbaqre jurgure gurfr abiry'f nera'g ZpNhyrl va qvnybthr jvgu Pynexr,
rfcrpvnyyl jvgu 2001 rg frd. naq gur Guveq Ynj, va zhpu gur jnl
gung, fnl, Pbasyhrapr jnf ZpNhyrl va qvnybthr jvgu Jbysr naq
gur Obbx bs gur Arj Fha.
- *: From Chapter 59, "Synchronicity":
They didn't appear to use any kind of analytical reasoning to confirm their
conjectures, employing instead a crude form of experimental Darwinism, seeding
a matrix with algorithms modelling variations of their initial assumptions and
letting them run to a halting state, selecting those that most resembled the
observed conditions, and running and re-running everything over and over again
until they had derived an algorithm that reproduced reality to an agreed level
of statistical confidence. The wizards didn't care that this method gave no
insights into the problems it attacked, or that they didn't understand how the
solutions it yielded were related to the vast edifice of Euclidean mathematical
theory. They weren't interested in theory. As far as they were concerned, if
an algorithm gave the right answer, then plug it in: it was good to go.
- Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton
- This is a really good global history of the development of the world's
cotton industry from the opening of trans-Atlantic navigation down through
about 1950. (An epilogue considers later events, but very cursorily.) The
central incident is of course the industrial revolution that began in England
in the late 18th century, which could only attain the scale it did because
there were other parts of the world, notably the Americas, which could supply
cotton on the requisite industrial scale; they did so through slavery. After
abolition, the Americas also provided the pattern for making sure formally-free
rural cultivators produced cotton for the market, rather than farming for
subsistence, a pattern eagerly and often explicitly copied by imperial powers
across the globe. Cotton was not just the first truly modern industry, it was
for a long time the most important, and is arguably still one of the most
important on a global scale, and so its story is, in large part,
the story of how we got here.
- I have, as a supremely unqualified but opinionated non-historian, some
quibbles. Stylistically, he over-uses pet phrases like "the empire of cotton"
and "the white gold", and keeps reminding readers that they are probably
wearing cotton. Analytically, and more seriously, Beckert makes much more of
this world-wide division of labor than of machinery, which is a mistake.
Industrialism within one country (say, the American south) would have been
quite feasible; a worldwide capitalism limited to animal power and manual labor
would be at best a flexible and adaptive poverty. His account of the decline
of cotton manufacturing in Europe and North America in the 20th century refers
only to the difference in wages between those countries and places like China
or India, ignoring differences in productivity.
- On a different plane, this is possibly the only genuinely crypto-Marxist
book to ever win
prize. The over-lap in themes just
with Capital is very
striking: the violence of capitalist primitive accumulation, the division of
labor on a world scale, the struggle over the working day in the Lancashire
mills, the deep importance attached to the American Civil War, the praise of
capitalism for developing the productive forces to the point where something
better becomes feasible and necessary. And also some post-Marx Marxist themes:
late 19th century imperialism as driven by rivalry among capitalists, an
autonomous role for the state (as something more than just an executive
committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoise, though it is that too),
very odd statements about the Soviet Union and Maoist China. That Marx is
mentioned only once, and that in passing, is surely no coincidence.
- Emily Horne and Joey Comeau, Anatomy of Melancholy: The Best of A Softer World
- Calling A Softer World one of the
best web-comics gives no idea whatsoever of its merits. I was deeply
saddened to learn it would end in 2015, and only partially consoled by the
prospect of this book. I commend it to anyone who reads this blog with
- Elliott Kay, Dead Man's Debt
- Mind candy: sequel to Poor Man's
War and Rich Man's
Fight, bringing the series to a satisfying stopping point. Probably
not enjoyable without the previous books.
- Salla Simukka, As Red as Blood,
As White as Snow, As Black as Ebony
- Mind candy, aptly described by
Davis Nicoll as what would happen if a plucky girl detective like Nancy
Drew wandered into a Kurt Wallander novel?"
- Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
- Mind candy: Further literary, historical competence porn.
- Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites
- First, go read
by Aaron Swartz (peace be upon him). I started this four years ago, then set
it aside when I got busy, and only now took it back up (for obvious reasons)
and finished it.
- Part of me reads this going "preach, brother, preach!" In particular, the
Iron Law of Meritocracy seems like a real contribution. (Pedantically,
priority goes to James
Flynn, though.) As a product of the meritocracy, whose parents are also
products of the meritocracy, and who makes his living teaching at an elite
school, this is not happy news, but there we are.
- Other parts would like to see more: allowing that we have a self-serving
and dysfunctional elite now, were previous elites really any more functional or
less self-serving? This is hardly an obvious point or one Hayes establishes.
Generally, Hayes seems strongest when he's documenting the ways things are bad
now, but he also needs to say that they're worse than before, or at
are bad in new ways, and that's lacking. [*] Of course this amounts to
asking that he have written a different and much more academic book. As
something at the border between a political tract and popular social science by
a working journalist, it's astonishingly good.
- *: Reading the bits about how the country feels like it's falling apart, I
couldn't help thinking of the incredible opening to Joan
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices
and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of causal killings and
misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the
four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely
disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted
from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes
shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the
games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were
missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory
missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
Of course, Didion goes on:
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country
under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring
of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many
articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might
have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and
more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that
seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the
- Seanan McGuire, Indexing: Reflections
- Mind candy: more contemporary fantasy about fairy tales
trying to escape from the dungeon dimensions and/or collective unconscious.
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Scientifiction and Fantastica;
Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;
Tales of Our Ancestors;
Writing for Antiquity;
The Dismal Science;
The Great Transformation;
Enigmas of Chance;
Constant Conjunction Necessary Connexion;
The Continuing Crises;
The Beloved Republic;
Posted at March 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link