June 30, 2021

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2021

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on cryptozoology, folklore, economics, or humanistic geography.

Anne Perry, The Cater Street Hangman
Mind candy historical mystery. Enjoyable, but I fail to see why this should have sparked a series of dozens of books over decades.
Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell, Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures
Shorter: There are no lake monsters, just logs, otters, and stories about lake monsters.
Longer: Mostly this is an account of the authors' travels to various lakes which are claimed to have monsters, and the authors' (very tame) adventures debunking the stories, i.e., providing mundane accounts of what could have caused sightings or what's really in particular photographs. They are very fond of invoking logs, tree stumps, and otters. (I am persuaded about the timber and open-minded about the otters.) This is pretty standard fare, of the kind I have enjoyed since I was a boy and my mother would buy me issues of Skeptical Inquirer.
There is also a not-quite-fully-articulated theory of lake monsters hinted at here. If I try to draw this out explicitly, it'd be something like this: lake monsters are a modern myth, originating with Loch Ness in the 1930s, with the idea being that lakes are inhabited by surviving plesiosaurs, or something near enough. (One ancestor of the myth is thus the genre of "lost world" adventure stories.) Pre-modern stories about strange creatures in lakes get invoked by the myth as "evidence", regardless of their content or context; occasionally accounts of pre-modern stories are fabricated as needed. When people who know the myth see strange things on lakes, which is common enough, knowledge of the myth provides an interpretation for an ambiguous experience, and an opportunity for recounting the myth with an additional report attached. (It is enough for these purposes that the people be able to say "I don't know what I saw, but I saw something".) The myth spreads from lake to lake, partly through natural diffusion, and partly through the efforts of local chambers of commerce to drum up tourism.
As I said, the theory of lake monsters in the previous paragraph is me trying to articulate Radford and Nickell's hints by stringing their scattered remarks together with bits of Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer. The authors themselves repeatedly refer to a work by an actual folklorist (Michel Meuger's 1988 Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis) in ways which make me eager to track down a copy.
Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, Black Hammer: Secret Origins
Alex Robinson's Lower Regions
Rick Remender, Eric Nguyen et al., Strange Girl
Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds, The Mercenary Sea
Comic book mind candy, assorted.
Pierro Sraffa, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Preliude to a Critique of Economic Theory
This is a little book drafted in the 1920s and published in 1960, which became the subject of a huge literature. I have read a lot about it over the years, since it became a touchstone for some strands of heterodox economics, but never actually read it until this month. Having done so I find it very strange, not least because I feel like it could have be shortened still further, and yet clarified, if Sraffa had just used some basic theory for directed graphs and invoked the Frobenius-Perron theorem. (It's possible that the theory about directed graphs didn't exist when he first wrote, and even that the Frobenius-Perron theorem was then too obscure, but by 1960?) I am in fact tempted to re-write it doing just that, but I presume somebody out there in neo-Ricardian / post-Keynesian / post-Marxist land has done so, and I call upon the LazyWeb for a reference.
(Thanks to Z. M. Shalizi for lending me his copy.)
Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets [JSTOR]
This is a beautifully-written and thought-provoking, perhaps even disturbing, book. It's an examination across history and time of the ways people make others --- plants, animals, and indeed other people --- into playthings, into objects which they can manipulate, and consequently bestow affection upon. I am sure there are people who can read it without coming to look at their own affections in a different light, but I'd prefer not to know them.
This book is part of a loose series that Tuan wrote, looking at what one might call the moral psychology of different aspects of humans' experience of their environments --- Segmented Worlds and Self, Landscapes of Fear, Escapism, Cosmos and Hearth, etc. These are all marked by the same virtues as this book: vast learning worn lightly, smooth-flowing writing, and an acute ethical sensitivity that is never preachy. I recommend them all very highly indeed.
(Thanks to Jan Johnson for the gift of this book.)
Norbert Wiener, The Fourier Integral and Certain of Its Applications
Recommended purely for historical interest. If you already are familiar with Fourier analysis and are curious to see it at any earlier stage in its development, this is interesting work from a pioneer. (And it's full of curious sidelights, such as the fact that Wiener in 1933 doesn't have the word "convolution" in its modern mathematical-English sense, but uses the German Faltung for lack of any translation.) But I don't think there are insights or techniques which aren't fully assimilated into the modern mainstream.
Glenn C. Loury, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality
Re-read for course prep. If it was in print I'd probably make it a required text; as it is I expect to assign passages from chapters 2 ("Racial Stereotypes") and 3 ("Racial Stigma") in the unit on mechanisms that create and perpetuate inequalities.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Mathematics; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Tales of Our Ancestors; The Dismal Science; Commit a Social Science; Philosophy; Psychoceramics

Posted at June 30, 2021 23:59 | permanent link

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