A map of racial segregation in the US.

Vi Hart explains serial music (h/t Jim CaJacob).

More adventures in trolling scam journals with bogus papers (h/t my father).

Brighten does some number crunching on his research notebook.

Jerry takes “disruptive innovation” to task.

Vladimir Horowitz plays a concert at the Carter White House. Also Jim Lehrer looks very young. The program (as cribbed from YouTube)

  • The Star-Spangled Banner
  • Chopin: Sonata in B-flat minor, opus 35, n°2
  • Chopin: Waltz in a minor, opus 34, n°2
  • Chopin: Waltz in C-sharp minor, opus 64, n° 2
  • Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat major, opus 53 ,Héroïque
  • Schumann: Träumerei, Kinderszene n°7
  • Rachmaninoff: Polka de W.R
  • Horowitz: Variations on a theme from Bizet’s Carmen

The Simons Institute is going strong at Berkeley now. Moritz Hardt has some opinions about what CS theory should say about “big data,” and how it might be require some adjustments to ways of thinking. Suresh responds in part by pointing out some of the successes of the past.

John Holbo is reading Appiah and makes me want to read Appiah. My book queue is already a bit long though…

An important thing to realize about performance art that makes a splash is that it can be often exploitative.

Mimosa shows us what she sees.

The Wizard of The Crow [N'gugi wa Thiong'o] — This is an epic political farce about an African dictatorship. It’s a bit slow getting into it, but once I was about 70 pages in I was hooked. It’s absolutely hilarious and tragic at the same time. I’ve not read a book like this in a while. Ngugi’s imagination is broad and open, so the absurd situations just keep escalating and mutating. One of the effects is that if you looked at the situation midway through the book, you would ordinarily have no idea how things came to such a state, but thanks to the storytelling you can see the absurd (yet stepwise somewhat reasonable) sequence of events that led there. From now on I will always have the phrase “queueing mania” in my head. Highly recommended.

Proofs and Refutations [Imre Lakatos] — “Why did I not read this book years ago?” I asked myself about a third of the way through this book. Lakatos breaks down the process of mathematical reasoning by example, showing how arguments (and statements) are refined through an alternating process of proof-strategies and counterexamples. It’s a bit of a dry read but it made me more excited about trying to take on some new and meatier theoretical problems. It also made me want to read some Feyerabend, which I am doing now…

The Crown of Embers [Rae Carson] — a continuation of Carson’s YA series set in a sort of pseudo Spanish colonialist fantasy land. It’s hard to parse out the politics of it, but I’m willing to see where the series goes before deciding if it is really subverts the typical racial essentialization that’s typical of fantasy. The colonial aspect of it makes it most problematic.

The Wee Free Men [Terry Pratchett] — a YA Discworld novel. Feels fresher than the other later Pratchett Discworld books.

Equal Rites [Terry Pratchett] — an early Discworld novel. Feels a little thinner than some of the others, but it had some cute moments.

The Republic of Wine [Mo Yan] — Another political farce, this time set in China. This has to be one of the more grotesque and crass novels I have read… maybe ever. The title might be better translated (and Americanized) as “Boozelandia.” The novel is part correspondence between an author (named Mo Yan) and an aspiring writer from the state of “Liquorland,” partly short stories by said aspiring writer, and partly a story about an investigator sent to ascertain whether state officials are raising children to be eaten at fancy dinners. It’s got a kind of gonzo style that will definitely appeal to some. I liked it in the end but I was also totally unaware of what I was getting into when I opened it.

The Fractal Prince [Hannu Rajaniemi] — the sequel to The Quantum Thief is a bit of an arabesque (fans of Grimwood or Effinger may like that aspect). There are some interesting ideas about stories/code/viruses in there but some of it felt more like poetic gesture. I rather liked the Oubliette as a setting, but Sirr has some interesting bits too. I found the sequel a bit thinner than the original. Recommended for those who have read the first book and who are fans of the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks.

One Red Bastard [Ed Lin] — Third in the series of police/detective novels about Robert Chow, NYC Chinatown cop. This one focuses on the murder of a mainland representative who was going to smooth the way for Li Na to defect to the US. A fun read, although you probably want to read the first two novels in the series first.

Kingdom’s End and Other Stories [Saadat Hasan Manto] — A collection of short stories by a Pakistani writer who lived through Partition (and hated it, more or less). The stories are often dark, and depict a sordid underlife of violence, sex, and drugs in post-Independence worlds of Bombay and Punjab. I had never encountered Manto before — his sour cynicism is a counterpoint to the kind of knowing parody typical of R.K. Narayan, for example. I also checked out a new book about Manto from the Chicago Public Library.

Railsea [China Miéville] — A young adult book set in a world in which the sea is made up of traintracks and instead of hunting whales people hunt giant moles (moldywarpes). Captains have philosophies — everyone is out to hunt for their Moby Dick. The narrator, Sham ap Soorap, is a well-intentioned but somewhat immature fellow, and the world is just-enough-imagined to make you want to go along with it. A fun read.

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice [Tom Slee] — A popular non-fiction book about how the rhetoric of “individual choice” is woefully misleading. Slee uses simple game-theoretic models to show how information asymmetries, power relationships, externalities, free-riding, herding, and other factors can make rational (and reasonable) individual choices result in (very) poor social outcomes. It’s a nice and accessible description of these results and a useful reminder of how dangerous it is to accept as an axiom that more individual choice is preferable. Collective action is also a choice. Recommended!

I’ve been on some flights lately and skived off of work to read a bit more.

The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga) — a farce told from the perspective of a murderer-turned entrepreneur in Bangalore writing letters to Wen Jiabao. I think there are definitely some interesting issues here especially with Adiga trying to write the voice of the subaltern. The point of the book seems to be to skewer the rich in India (and by implication the middle class which seeks to emulate the rich) but I’m not sure if the hits land where they are targeted. Definitely worth reading and discussing if you care about India. People who have never been there may find it less… familiar, and so their reading experience would be quite different.

Interworld (Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves) — a Young Adult science fiction/fantasy novel. A bit of a thin premise, world-building-wise, but a breezy read. Can’t really recommend it but it was ok.

Rule 34 (Charles Stross) — a follow-up to Halting State. Set in future-Scotland and has all of the techno-econo-conspiracy together with some interesting takes on the effect of how ubiquitous internet and custom-3D printing and fabbing can affect life.

A Man of Misconceptions (John Glassie) — a fascinating biography of Athanasius Kircher, whose fascinatingly incorrect “scholarship” makes for some enjoyable reading. Glassie’s book is a really engaging read and brings a lot of the context of Kircher’s world to life. Highly recommended.

Endless Things [John Crowley] — Book four of the Aegypt Cycle, and the one most grounded in the present. The book moves more swiftly than the others, as if Crowley was racing to the end. Many of the concerns of the previous books, such as magic, history, and memory, are muted as the protagonist Pierce Moffett wends his way through his emotional an intellectual turmoil and into what in the end amounts to a kind of peace. Obviously only worth reading if you read the first three books.

Understanding Privacy [Daniel Solove] — A law professor’s take on what constitutes privacy. Solove wants to conceptualize privacy in terms of clusters of related ideas rather than take a single definition, and he tries to put a headier philosophical spin on it by invoking Wittgenstein. I found the book a bit overwritten but it does parse out the things we call privacy, especially in the longest chapter on the taxonomy of privacy. It’s not a very long book, but it has a number of good examples and also case law to show how muddled our legal definitions have become. He also makes a strong case for increased protections and shows how the law is blind to the effects of information aggregation, for example.

The Fall of the Stone City [Ismail Kadare] — An allegorical novel by a Man Booker prize winner chronicling the Nazi occupation and the communist takeover of Gjirokaster, an old Albanian city. It’s a dark absurdist comedy, partly in the vein of Kafka but with a bit of… Calvino almost. The tone of the book (probably a testament to the translator) has this almost academic detachment, gently mocking as it describes the ways in which the victors try to rewrite history.

Invisible Men [Becky Pettit] — A sobering look at how mass incarceration interacts with official statistics. Because most surveys are household-based, they do not count the increasingly larger incarcerated population, thereby introducing a systematic racialized bias in the statistics used for public policy. In particular, Pettit shows how this bias leads to underestimation of racial inequity because the (mainly young black male) prisoners are “erased” in the official records.

The Rise of Ransom City [Felix Gilman] — A sequel to The Half-Made World, and a wondrously engrossing read it is too, filled with the clash of ideas, the corruption of corporations, the “borrowing” and evolution of ideas, and the ravages of industrialization. Also has a healthy dose of Mark Twain for good measure.

Baumgartner’s Bombay (Anita Desai) — I had heard about this book but never read it. A day in the life of Hugo Baumgartner, who as a teenager was sent as a refugee to India from Nazi Germany. He lives though the war (in an internment camp) and ends up decades later in a run-down flat surrounded by cats. It’s sad and fascinating.

The Light Fantastick (Terry Pratchett) — mind candy. It’s nice to read older Pratchett, which seems less lugubrious than the newer Pratchett.

Privacy (Garret Keizer) — a slim volume which ruminates widely on the notion of privacy. There’s a lot of research in here but it meanders a bit. I found it to be real food for thought and while I don’t always agree with him, the book is certainly a provocation to think and discuss. Recommended for people who like that sort of thing.

Fuzzy Nation (John Scalzi) — mind candy. Reminds me a bit of one of the Aspirin Phule novels.

The Jennifer Morgue (Charles Stross) — someone convinced me to take another chance on the Laundry novels. This one was better than the last one I thought, and held up rather nicely. I liked the Bond-esque ness of it. Recommended for people who like smart and snarky Cthulhu-like novels.

Snuff [Terry Pratchett] : this was standard Discworld stuff, but I found it a little below-average. I’m finicky that way though.

Snakes Can’t Run [Ed Lin] : a follow-up to This Is A Bust, this book is about human smuggling in New York Chinatown in the 70s. Recommended if you like thing Asian and mysterious.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China [Fuschia Dunlop] : I found this memoir to be engaging but it’s definitely got that feel of “Western person’s observations about China.” Dunlop is more aware of her situation as outsider/observer, but sometimes its hard to shake that narrative vibe. That being said, you should definitely read this if you want to know more about Chinese cuisines.

Among Others [Jo Walton] : it won a Nebula and a Hugo and I could see why. This is a really sharply observed and narrated coming-of-age story about a high school girl who is not part of the “main crowd” and finds her solace in voraciously reading all of the SciFi/Fantasy novels she can get her hands on. Really lovely writing.

The Lost Soul of Higher Education [Ellen Schrecker] : a pretty sobering read with a lot of historical background on the state of academic freedom, the corporatization of the university system, and possible ramifications for the future of the US. It was a bit depressing but well worth reading.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] : this is Solzhenitsyn’s first book, a first-person narrative of one person’s life in a Stalinist labor camp. It really brings the grimness of the place alive — Cool Hand Luke’s prison camp had nothing on this. They’re worth comparing, I think.

Did I mention I love the Chicago Public Library? It can be frustrating at times, but the main branch is right on my way to and from work.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman) — The sequel to The Magicians, sometimes described as Hipsters in Narnia. This book is actually darker, if such a thing as possible. I think it’s interesting to look at it plotted in terms of the lives of likely readers. The first book is for college kids. The second is for post-college working kids who have nice jobs and realize that their lives feel a bit empty.

Odd and The Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman) — I’ve been on a children’s book kick. A lovely little tale set in Viking mythos.

The Alchemyst, The Magician, The Sorceress (Michael Scott) — Children’s/YA fantasy series. I had mixed feelings about it but it featured John Dee as a villain, and having read so much of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, I was interested in Dee as a character. Very different here — he’s a supervillain.

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum) — A fascinating tale about the rise of the medical examiner’s office and forensic medicine. The descriptions of how to detect various poisons in the tissues of the deceased is not for the squeamish!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) — This book tells the story of the cell line HeLa, taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American patient in the 50s who died of cancer. Her cells were able to multiply on their own in the lab and ushered in a new era of research, but the way she and her family were treated epitomizes the ethical void at the heart of many scientists’ view of human subjects research. Despite this being an important story to tell, Skloot manages to make a lot of the story about herself — there’s a rather vigorous critique here.

1Q84 (Haruki Murakami) — Pretty classic Murakami, but a little more focused in content if expansive in scope. Investigates in fictional form some of the cult phenomena that seem to have captured his imagination lately. Critical opinion has been pretty divided, but I’d recommend it if you like Murakami, but not as an intro to his oeuvre.

The Atrocity Archive (Charles Stross) — sysadmins battle Cthulhu-eqsue horrors from the beyond. This is the first book in the Laundry series, and while the narrator is entertaining, I’ll probably give the rest of the series a pass.

Halting State (Charles Stross) — a near-future in which massive fraud/theft in an online game threatens to undermine the real economy. Takes gold farming and selling of WoW stuff on eBay to its extreme and then looks at what happens. Stross is good at extrapolating economic scenarios, and this was certainly more fun to read.

The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (Olaudah Equiano) — a classic autobiography of a 18th century African who was captured and sold into slavery, managed to save enough to buy his freedom, and then had a number of adventures in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Arctic. It’s a real window into the time period as well as one of the oldest textual accounts of Europeans through African eyes during that period.

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (Carlo Emilio Gadda) — a allegorical murder mystery / police investigation. The use of language is dazzling, but the plot, as such, is a bit flat. Recommended for those who like florid prose, extreme vocabulary, and political satire. In this case Gadda is mocking fascism. It may be appealing to those who liked The Master and Margarita.

Red Plenty (Francis Spufford) — a lightly fictionalized history of the moment when it looked like central planning was going to work in the Soviet Union, and how it all then fell apart (later to be buoyed by oil prices). A tremendously engaging book about a moment in history that we never hear about in the US due to our stupid jingoistic Cold War know-nothing attitude. There was also a Crooked Timber event on it, which I am going to read now.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns — an engaging fantasy set in pseudo-Iberian (or colonial South American?) land. A bit heavy on the religion aspect, but that’s the world she builds at least. Has some of the endemic race issues that much fantasy suffers from, but that might get mixed up in later books.

Re-imagining Milk (Andrea S. Wiley) — a short monograph on the history, biology, and anthropology of milk consumption. It’s full of interesting analysis and critique of how the purported health benefits of milk drinking after weaning intersect with policy. For example, why push milk consumption as a public health issue in parts of Africa when many/most people cannot process lactose? Why do we call the (normal) process in which the body stops producing lactase with the pejorative “lactose intolerance”? See also this piece by Mark Bittman on the NY Times site.

A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss) — a mystery novel set before the South Sea Bubble and full of gritty and grimy London locales, brawling, the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, and some discussions of probability . The book grew out of dissertation research, so it’s meticulously researched, although some of the probability discussion seems ahistorical (c.f. Ian Hacking).

A Moveable Feast (Kenneth F. Kiple) : The first half is a somewhat condensed version of the Cambridge World History of Food and covers different plants and foodstuffs from around the world. The rest of the book is about how eating habits changed over time as food exchange has diversified and now homogenized our eating habits. The only problem with the book is that it has a fair bit of apocrypha and debunked origin stories, so YMMV. I enjoyed it.

Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel) : Bechdel’s memoir about her relationship with her mother. It is stuffed to the brim with references to D.W. Winnicott, which can be a plus or minus depending on whether you like psychoanalysis. I thought it was engaging and worth reading, but to be honest I am not sure to whom I would recommend it. I feel like if you read the synopsis and think it sounds interesting, you will like it, and if not, you won’t.

The Learners (Chip Kidd) : This is a follow-up to The Cheese Monkeys, which I rather enjoyed. The Learners is a little leaner but still has those nerdy and fun (to me, tedious to others) asides on the art of graphic design and typography. The Milgram experiment features prominently, so if you are fascinated by that you might also like this as a piece of (sort of) historical fiction.

This Is A Bust (Ed Lin) : A novel set in New York’s Chinatown in the 1970′s and featuring Vietnam vet and alcoholic token Chinese cop Robert Chow as he struggles to turn his life around and find himself. It’s the first in a series and I will probably read the rest. Recommended for those who like detective novels.

Fisher, Neyman, and the Creation of Classical Statistics (Erich L. Lehmann) : The title says it all. It’s more about the personalities and their history than it is particularly about the math, but there’s a nice discussion at the end of Fisher’s confusing notion of fiducial probability and Neyman’s confidence intervals. I think it’s hard to put yourself back in that time period when people really didn’t have a good sense of how to think about these kind of statistical problems (maybe we still don’t have a good idea). Fisher’s work has become near-dogma now (unfortunately), but it’s interesting to see how these basic frequentist methods came about historically. Plus you get to learn more about the enigmatic “Student!” Recommended for those with an interest in the history of statistics.

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