March 31, 2020

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2020

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine about mathematical biology, the history of science, or comparative sociology and political science.

Jane Haddam, Fighting Chance
Mind candy mystery novel: the 29th, and sadly last, of her Gregor Demarkian series. This is the only one where the solution, while logical, "fair" and completely unexpected, did not feel right. (I refrain from saying any more to avoid spoilers.) It is also, as this profile notes, one where the background crime, outrageous though it sounds, was entirely real, and it's astonishing that it did not end in murder.
Nicolas Bacaër, A Short History of Mathematical Population Dynamics
This is very much a scientist's history of science, rather than a historian's. It consists of a series of very brief chapters, most of just a few pages, giving thumbnail biographies of historical figures, and explaining their contributions in modern terminology and notation. It begins with Fibonacci and his series, noting that this had absolutely no influence on any later work at using mathematics to understand population. The real development begins with stuff like life tables and actuarial calculations, Malthus and population growth, and so on. The re-appearance of the basic reproductive number in numerous contexts is a running, though not exactly high-lighted, theme. Developments in data collection (e.g., comprehensive censuses by states effective enough to actually count people, ascertain their ages, etc.) are mentioned only in passing, though without such data there would be nothing to model. The most fully developed historical study is actually one of the last, in the chapter on China's one child policy, in which a bunch of control engineers, cut off from the broader scientific community, manage to re-invent key ideas of demography, derive radical conclusions from their models, and get men in power to act on them.
I learned from this, I appreciate its perspective and its brevity, and I'd assign it to my students if they were curious, but I'd also like to see something more historically serious.
Meg Gardiner, UNSUB, Into the Black Nowhere, The Dark Corners of the Night
Mind-candy thrillers, psycho-killers-and-profilers flavored. Competitive with Shadow Unit as high-quality Criminal Minds pastisches.
Brian D. Ripley, Spatial Statistics
On the one hand, this is from 1981, so all the detailed computational advice is laughably obsolete. (At one point, Ripley discusses strategies for not having to keep all of a 128 kb image in main memory at once.) There has also been a lot of advances in some aspects of the theory, notably point processes. On the other hand, Ripley's basic advice --- visualize; do less testing for "randomness" and more model-building; simulate your models, visualize the simulations, and test modeling assumptions with simulations and visualizations; smooth, and remember that "kriging" is just the Wiener filter --- remains eminently sound.
--- I have been reading bits and pieces of this book, off and on, since around 2000, but I have a rule about not recommending something until I've finished it completely. Having finally now read it all, including the chapter on tomography (!), I can safely say: anyone seriously interested in spatial statistics probably ought to read this, but you can skip the tomography chapter as obsolete. I have to say that the idea of paying the list price for the paperback is outrageous, but lots of potential readers will have access to Wiley's online version, which is a perfectly decent scan of the printed book.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling
Magical-realist urban fantasy, about being a parent in contemporary New York. It's intense, but it's great because it honors the genre conventions of both literary fiction (the attention to character; language that tries to renew the perception of the ordinary world) and urban fantasy or horror (creepy, thrilling supernatural weirdness).
Göran Therborn, What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?
A collection of long, tightly-linked essays from the 1970s, attempting to formulate a serious Marxist sociology of the state and of political authority. The starting point is his answer to the title question, which is, roughly, that the ruling class, through the state, acts to reproduce the social conditions for its own dominance. This basic thought is then elaborated with a wealth of historical and sociological examples, and a lot of intelligence given to ideas like different modes of state organization being different forms of technology, and different "formats of representation".
Therborn's over-all answer is a reasonable one, but not without its difficulties. There are two which especially struck me while reading, one of which he could have fixed fairly easily (intellectually if not personally), the other, I think, is more fundamental.
  1. Therborn quite properly includes the post-1917 post-1917 Communist states as examples of states with a definite class character, and analyzes how they acted to reinforce the dominance of the ruling class. These analyses are, however, completely undermined by his conviction that the ruling class in those states was the proletariat, which collectively appropriated the surplus for its own use. This was, of course, nonsense, and was easily observed to be nonsense at the time. Therborn even admits that management, Party officials, etc., are not exactly the proletariat and look an awful lot like a ruling class, but insists that they weren't, all appearances and his own criteria to the contrary notwithstanding. A more clear-eyed advocate of Therborn's own theoretical positions should, I think, have frankly admitted that the Party and the technocracy together constituted a new ruling class, engaged in collective expropriation of the surplus for its benefit and in ensuring the reproduction of its own conditions of domination. In other words, Therborn should have endorsed the thesis of Djilas's The New Class. Reading between the lines, I'm sure this would have been personally unacceptable to Therborn, at least at the time of writing, but it's where his logic should have taken him.
  2. The more serious problem, to my eyes, is the cognitive one. Therborn assumes that the ruling class knows how to reproduce its rule, but in reality it would need to figure out how to do this. Even if we suppose that the ruling class (and/or its state) wants to advance its interests, it's not obvious what concrete courses of action will do that, let alone do it well. Presumably it doesn't wait for Comrade Therborn to come along and tell it, and presumably it doesn't secretly employ historical materialism in its innermost councils, so what does it do? (Cf. Dewey.) How do these ideas about what the ruling class and its state should do become effective for real, concrete individuals? What mechanisms keep those individuals in line with class interest? What happens when the ruling class and/or the state are wrong about what will advance their interests? I am tempted, on Therborn's behalf, to advance a selectionist explanation: ruling classes don't have Marxometers pointing them in the right direction, so they try all kinds of things, but the ones which are wrong about how to secure the reproduction of their domination will cease to rule, so we'll only observe ones which were right. (Cf. Quine's "Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind".) But changes in ruling classes are rare, so there'd be little evolutionary information in the signal of their failures (as in footnote 2 to my critique of Ober), so there would need to be some kind of selection at the level of practices or policies, and I don't see the feedback channel which would tell the state apparatus "stop doing that, it's not helping the dominant class reproduce itself". (There are plenty of other feedback channels.) In any case, such selectionism is entirely against the "feel" of Therborn's mode of argument.
To repeat, there's a lot of interesting historical and sociological material in here, arranged by an intelligent and honest partisan in support of some fixed convictions. I'd be very curious to see how Therborn's thoughts have moved on since 1978. (This edition is a 2008 reprint without any new material.)
Chelsea Cain et al., Man-Eaters (1, 2, 3)
Warren Ellis et al., The Wild Storm (1, 2, 3, 4)
Victor LaValle et al., Destroyer
Comic-book mind candy. Man-Eaters is a very broad satire about what would happen if the onset of menses caused teenage girls to turn into literal man-eating were-panthers. The Wild Storm is Ellis giving a familiar kaleidoscope (ancient aliens, secret space programs and hidden governments, personified electricity as the animating spirit of the 20th century) another shake. Destroyer melds some of the concerns about black parentage LaValle explores in The Changeling with a sequel to Frankenstein.
The Americans
A serial about a family of prosperous, hard-working immigrants raising kids in the DC suburbs in the 1980s, with complicated feelings about America and the Americanization of their children, might as well have been targeted at me.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Enigmas of Chance; Commit a Social Science; The Progressive Forces; Writing for Antiquity; Biology; Data over Space and Time

Posted at March 31, 2020 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth