Reading list 2007 : part the first

The Estimation of Probabilties (Irving John Good) This slim volume is subtitled “an Essay on Modern Bayesian Methods,” and is a relatively quick read. I found the going a little tough at times, since the terminology is perhaps a little out of date and I’m not completely at one with all the statistics terminology. He talks a lot about Type I probabilities (priors), Type II probabilities (priors on priors), and even Type III probabilities (priors on priors on priors). Broadly, the book deals with estimation of distributions from samples — given a set of exchangeable samples from a distribution on t elements, how should you estimate the probabilty p_i of seeing element i? Later on, he talks about how to do this estimation when t itself is unknown, which leads to the famous Good-Turing estimator. There’s been a fair bit of work on these questions recently, which motivated me to read the book. Plus it has great quotes like:

If the Bayesian prefers, he can… with some boggle, imagine an infinite sequence of distinct universes selected at random… The notion of a random selection of universes is of course purely metaphysical… and any crutch to one’s judgement can be used unofficially. It might be inexpedient to mention to one’s customers that one had such naughty unscientific private thoughts.

The Thursday Next Adventures (Jasper Fforde) I finally read, or rather devoured, these novels. Set in a world which takes its literature very seriously indeed and the boundary between the written page and reality is thin and permeable, these mystery/adventure novels follow the adventures of Thursday Next, a Special Operations agent in charge of literary misdemeanors. The best thing about these books was that they actually made me want to go back and read Great Expectations and other classics. I suspect that was part of Fforde’s intent. But they’re good stuff.

The Big Over-Easy (Jasper Fforde) A spin-off from the above, this is a murder mystery set in a world populated by nursery rhyme characters. Detective Jack Spratt investigates the foul murder of Humpty Dumpty. Is Solomon Grundy to blame? Sometimes Fforde’s writing becomes a little too precious, but it’s just too fun to read, especially if you like a good mystery.

The Bartimaus Trilogy (Jonathan Stroud) Young-adult fantasy series about an England run by magicians whose power is entirely derived from enslaving djinns. I’d put this stuff up there with Diana Wynne Jones, and good reading if you like that genre.

Longitude (Dava Sobel) A book about the history of the longitude problem, which plagued seafarers for centuries. The historian in me liked the book quite a bit, but the engineer in me wanted more details about the construction of the (very clever) clocks that eventually solved the problem.

Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) A hilarious and touching tale of finding one’s roots and discovering the past, told by a novelist (named Jonathan Safran Foer), who wants to reconstruct the shtetl in Ukraine where his grandfather lived, and his translator, whose English is deliciously massacred. I haven’t seen the movie, and I find it hard to believe that a movie could possibly do justice to the book.

Pastoralia (George Saunders) This collection of short stories was a bit hit-and-miss, subject-wise, but George Saunders’ writing is always spot-on. I particularly liked Pastoralia and The Barber’s Sadness. If you like George Walker’s plays, you would like George Saunders — they have the same concern with getting inside the heads of people whom society might classify as “losers.” I bet there’d be an interesting piece of criticism waiting in there, actually.

Bhopal (Rahul Varma) This play takes a hard look at the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, and the layers of complicity and complication. Varma is an Indian-Canadian playwright, and our “in” on the play is via a Canadian doctor who is doing some medical research on women and babies near the factory in Bhopal. What is interesting is how the play complicates this NGO involvement by asking us to consider how our medical research also manipulates the poor in coercive ways, even though we are doing it for “a good cause.”

Next on the list : Creating Modern Probability (von Plato), Desis In The House (Maira), and Magic for Beginners (Link).

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