August 31, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste. I also have no qualifications to discuss folklore, structuralism, optics and painting in the early modern Netherlands, Aztec culture, or Cold War espionage.

Vladimir I. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale [as Morfologija skazki, Leningrad, 1928; translated by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, Indiana University Press, 1958; second edition, revised by Louis A. Wagner and with an introduction by Alan Dundes, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968]
Due to popular demand, I've spun off the 1600 words I wrote about this into a independent post.
Indra Das, The Devourers
Mind candy, historical fantasy/horror division: European shapechangers (not werewolves, exactly) in Mughal India, and modern Calcutta. Angst ensues. (I was very disappointed that the narrator's deep dark secret, at the very end, proves to be something as mundane as cross-dressing.)
Laura J. Snyder, Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing
Parallel lives of two 17th century inhabitants of Delft --- not revelatory as either art history or history of science, but deftly done, even to the explanations of some fairly involved optics.
Garrett Birkhoff, Hydrodynamics: A Study in Logic, Fact, and Similitude
This is Birkhoff surveying the state of hydrodynamics in 1950, and in particular looking at why some theoretical results so conspicuously fail to match observations (the "logic" part), and when the uses of physical scale models can be justified (the "similtude" part). For the former, his diagnosis is not just mathematical sloppiness on the part of physicists, or making inappropriate approximations, but taking inconsistent assumptions. The latter part largely turns on the method of dimensional analysis, its limitations, and how it can be seen as a special case of more general group-theoretic approaches to finding similar solutions to partial differential equations.
These are, of course, more general morals about mathematical modeling, but nobody who isn't pretty familiar with hydrodynamics and group theory will get anything out of this book.
An incidental observation: It's striking to me that Birkhoff cites many much (relatively) older works than a contemporary writer would, and that he cites plenty of French- and German- language publications. (I can't remember if he cites any Italian or Russian works in the original, rather than translations.) There is a little lesson here about the transformation of post-war science...
Donald B. Rubin, Multiple Imputation for Nonresponse in Surveys
"Imputation" is the more dignified name statistics gives for "making stuff up to fill in missing observations". (To be fair, that's a mouthful.) Rubin was, back in the day, a very forceful and necessary advocate for multiple imputation, i.e., for making up a whole bunch of different things to fill in the missing observations, and trying them all out, to make sure that your results aren't just creatures of accidents in your imputation. While this is clearly almost always a better idea than single imputation, there are also, clearly, some details that will need to be pinned down. This short (258 pp.) book does a remarkably good job of pinning down those details in an easy-to-follow way. It also includes a summary of Rubin's equally-influential work on missing data, i.e., when exactly it's a problem for what kinds of inferences. Some of the computational advice is antiquated, and I could have wished it was less Bayesian, but it's still a very nice piece of work.
Ob. "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Academic Publishing System": Wiley has kept the book in print, as a "classic", but the list price is \$ 158, or over sixty cents per page.
Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation
This is a brilliant book, a learned, intelligent and sympathetic attempt to try understand something of how things must have felt to what must stirke most readers as a very strange and unsympathetic society. I also cannot help but feel that huge chunks of it are massive speculations, starting from the first substantive chapter on Aztec notions of "the sacred" and going on from there. The sources seem to me just too thin, and too peculiar*, to support the very elaborate interpretations Clendinnen erects upon them. (Which doesn't mean she was wrong.) But she was the expert who was immersed in the source material, not me.
ObLinkage: Abandoned Footnotes on Clendinnen.
[*]: Largely, they are accounts given many decades after the conquest, and it seems unclear how much of them was the sources recalling what happened, as opposed to giving their views about what ought to have happened, or what they wanted Spanish missionaries and their helpers to think happened. Even if they were doing their best to stick to their memories of the facts, they couldn't possible have experienced, say, the new fire ceremony which took place every 52 years more than once, and that, perhaps, when they were quite young. ^
David E. Hoffman, The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
In which the poisonous legacy of the Stalinist purges inspires a Soviet engineer to volunteer to spy for the US, extremely successfully.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; Physics; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at August 31, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

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