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.

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.

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.

I saw Teatro Luna’s Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way, by Diane Rodriguez. Teatro Luna usually does pieces written by their own collective, so it was a shift for them to do someone else’s play. Living Large tells the story of Lilly, a Latina who has made it into a nice neighborhood in LA and is running for head of the neighborhood watch, but who has just lost her husband and cannot face the reality of her new lonely life — she hides bills in grocery bags in the closet and lives under the illusion that Joe has left her well-cared for. In the meantime, she tries to teach English and refinement to two domestic workers, Big Maria and Little Maria. She’s sure they have their papers (they don’t), and she strikes upon a brilliant idea to get one or both of them to move in with her. As the prospect of this increased contact looms, the comfortable deceits start to unravel. The play is a refreshing tragicomedy and strikes at the heart of the class differences and divisions in the Latino community. It’s well worth seeing, even if it is a little out of the way (The Viaduct near Western and Belmont).

The Education of a British-Protected Child (Chinua Achebe) – A collection of essays over the years by noted Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. On the one hand, one might say he has a number of central issues he raises over and over again, but on the other, it might be said that he repeats himself. This is not surprising — these essays were written in different contexts and for different purposes (op-eds, speeches, and so on) and represent a set of concerns Achebe has about the relationship between himself and Nigeria, the Biafran conflict, Joseph Conrad, and the effects of colonialism. One of the more interesting pieces is a strong disagreement with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s decision to write only in Gikuyu — Achebe views denying the use of English as a kind of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “LALALALALALA.” Reading the collection, one is reminded that the easy distinctions we make here between revolutionary and conservative are just insufficient for understanding how one negotiates the legacy of colonialism. Worth a read!

The Taming of Chance (Ian Hacking) – A fantastic book and a must-read for those who care or are interested in the history of probability and statistical thought. A major point in the book is that as printing got cheaper and people were able to measure things, there was an explosion of publication of tables of counts — like how many loaves of bread were sold each week in a city, or the heights of soldiers, or… basically anything. People would survey and measure and publish all sorts of data. To make sense of this data deluge, people developed new ways of seeing populations in terms of aggregates. Individuals began to conceive of themselves in relation to the population. Notions of “statistical law” and “deviance” were a result of this process. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay) — This book was extremely long and epic and I think would appeal to more literary minded Game of Thrones fans, but I found it too… consciously “aching” as it were. It’s a novel about loss and memory, and while that’s a rich field to plow, the book to me got a bit over-trodden (and overwritten).

Tomatoland (Barry Estabrook) — A rather depressing (but ultimately hopeful?) look at the tomato industry in Florida. Florida is not a great place to grow tomatoes, but it’s warm enough in the winter to supply mealy flavorless red baseballs to industrial kitchens further north. Estabrook spends a lot of time with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that tries to get better conditions for agricultural workers. You know, things like not being enslaved, or being paid by the hour instead of by the bucket, or not being sprayed with pesticides because growers don’t want to spend the time to clear the field of workers. Little things like that. It’s harrowing but worth reading.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber) — Graeber gives an engaging and far-ranging discussion of the notion of debt and credit. He’s trained as an anthropologist and has an axe to grind against economics. I found it to be an important book to read for anyone who cares about how we got to the society we have now. Some major theses : human relations are structured around communism (sharing), exchange, and hierarchy, and the interplay of these is complex and drives notions of debt. Credit systems have been around for a long time and in many cases predate “money” as we think of it. Current credit systems are backed by the coercive power of the state. People take issue with how starkly he puts the last point, but I think that as an anthropologist, Graeber has a much better vantage from which to look at and critique where we are now. It seems daunting, but he’s a clear expositor.

Posting has been nonexistent this week due to being busy and incredibly tired. Hopefully the improved spring weather will thaw me out. On the upside, I’ve been reading more.

The ongoing problem of race in young adult literature (via Amitha Knight)

Speaking of race, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece mocking the whole field of Black Studies based on reading the titles of (proposed) dissertations (and a paragraph description). Tressie mc had a trenchant response. The faculty and students also responded.

And segueing from race via race and statistics (and eugenics), most of Galton’s works are now online.

Dirac’s thoughts on math and physics.

A touching film about 9/11 from Eusong Lee from CalArts.

Links to videos and a special chair.

James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley, Jr. I’ve only seen part of it so far, but it’s pretty interesting (via Ta-Nehisi Coates).

I’ve heard quite a bit about the treatment of agricultural workers in Florida, particularly in tomato farming, but this video with a representative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a good introduction to what is going on there (via Serious Eats). The book Tomatoland is on my reading list.

I didn’t know the origin of the term swizzle-stick until now.

I’m a big fan of Cowboy Bebop, and Shinichiro Watanabe has a new show out called Sakamichi no Apollon (via MeFi). I watched the first episode, and the Art Blakey album Moanin’ features prominently, so I think I’m going to like this show quite a bit. It’s being streamed in a ad-heavy format on Crunchyroll.

That’s a lot of pendulums. That’s right, pendulums.

Why don’t you relax a little in the bear chair?

More attacks on anonymity in DNA databases.

A letter from Kurt Vonnegut to the head of a school board in North Dakota who burned copies of Slaughterhouse Five. (via MeFi)

An interview with Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos on giving a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Tomorrow is National Grilled Cheese Day.

I really enjoyed this exhibit of Tagore’s painting at The Art Institute of Chicago, although my favorite drawing is not online, this bird was pretty cool.

I anticipate I will be doing a fair bit more reading in the future, due to the new job and personal circumstances. However, I probably won’t write more detailed notes on the books. This blog should be a rapidly mixing random walk, after all.

Embassytown (China Miéville) : a truly bizarre novel set on an alien world in on which humans have an Embassy but can only communicate with the local aliens in a language which defies easy description. Ambassadors come in pairs, as twins — to speak with the Ariekei they must both simultaneously speak (in “cut” and “turn”). The Ariekei’s language does not allow lying, and they have contests in which they try to speak falsehoods. However, events trigger a deadly change (I don’t want to give it away). Philosophically, the book revolves a lot around how language structures thought and perception, and it’s fascinating if you like to think about those things.

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Andrew Coe) : an short but engaging read about how Chinese food came to the US. The book starts really with Americans in China and their observations on Chinese elite banquets. A particular horror was that the meat came already chopped up — no huge roasts to carve. Chapter by chapter, Coe takes us through the railroad era through the 20s, the mass-marketing of Chinese food and the rise of La Choy, through Nixon going to China. The book is full of fun tidbits and made my flights to and from Seattle go by quickly.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel (David Mitchell) : I really love David Mitchell’s writing, but this novel was not my favorite of his. It was definitely worth reading — I devoured it — but the subject matter is hard. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk in Dejima, a Dutch East Indies trading post in 19th century Japan. There are many layers to the story, and more than a hint of the grotesque and horrific, but Mitchell has an attention to detail and a mastery with perspective that really makes the place and story come alive.

Air (Geoff Ryman) : a story about technological change, issues of the digital divide, economic development, and ethnic politics, set in a village in fictional Karzistan (looks like Kazakhstan). Air is like having mandatory Internet in your brain, and is set to be deployed globally. During a test run in the village, Chung Mae, a “fashion expert,” ends up deep into Air and realizes that the technology is going to change their lives. She goes about trying (in a desperate, almost mad way) to tell her village and bring them into the future before it overwhelms them. There’s a lot to unpack here, especially in how technology is brought to rural communities in developing nations, how global capital and the “crafts” market impacts local peoples, and the dynamics of village social orders. It’s science fiction, but not really.

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy (Sharon Bertsch McGrayne) : an engaging read about the history of Bayesian ideas in statistics. It reads a bit like an us vs. them, the underdog story of how Bayesian methods have overcome terrible odds (prior beliefs?) to win the day. I’m not sure I can give it as enthusiastic a review as Christian Robert, but I do recommend it as an engaging popular nonfiction read on this slice in the history of modern statistics. In particular, it should be entertaining to a general audience.

Dangerous Frames: How Ideas about Race and Gender Shape Public Opinion (Nicholas J.G. Winter) : the title says most of it, except it’s mostly about how ideas about race and gender shape white public opinion. The basic theoretical structure is that there are schemas that we carry that help us interpret issues, like a race schema or a gender schema. Then there are frames or narratives in which issues are put. If the schema is “active” and an issue is framed in a way that is concordant with the schema, then people’s opinions follow the schema, even if the issue is not “about” race or gender. This is because people reason analogically, so they apply the schema if it matches. To back up the theory, Winter has some experiments, both of the undergrads doing psych studies type as well as survey data, to show that by reframing certain issues people’s “natural” beliefs can be skewed by the schema that they apply. The schemas he discusses are those of white Americans, mostly, so the book feels like a bit of an uncomfortable read because he doesn’t really interrogate the somewhat baldly racist schemas. The statistics, as with all psychological studies, leaves something to be desired — I take the effects he notices at a qualitative level (as does he, sometimes).

From a recent read, Risa Goluboff’s The Lost Promise of Civil Rights:

The process of doctrinal distillation was particularly powerful in the years leading up to Brown. The multiplicity of the civil rights practices of the 1940s reflected both the unsettled nature of legal doctrine and the complexity of challenging a seventy-five-year-old racial and economic caste system. As lawyers transformed into legal claims attacks on the unwieldy thing called Jim Crow, they chose particular cases, particular legal theories, and particular formulations of injury that they thought legal doctrine could remedy. As a result, the civil rights case that took the definitive step towards undermining Jim Crow would, as Brown did, both embody a legal understanding of what Jim Crow was and begin to define the constitutional response to it. In so doing, that case would, as Brown also did, elide the forms of civil rights and understandings of Jim Crow that lawyers had chosen to filter out of the litigation process.

This book is a fascinating read (more so if you are a lawyer, I imagine) about how it is that we think of civil rights in the way that we do now, and how a lot of the multiple meanings of civil rights (in particular labor rights) were articulated in the years before Brown vs. Board of Education. Civil rights claims were launched on behalf of black workers by the Civil Rights Section of the DoJ as well as the NAACP, and the latter chose a very particular approach to Brown which did not build on a lot of the victories won in those earlier cases.


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