Readings

Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis, The Shape of Inner Space — This book was about the Calabi conjecture, Calabi-Yau manifolds, string theory, and all that jazz. It’s supposed to be for a general/lay audience, but I found it rather daunting and often confusing. Perhaps I know just enough math to get confused, whereas other readers might gloss over things. I definitely would not recommend it to those without some serious mathematical background (like a few college classes). That being said, I found it pretty interesting, and now I know (kind of) what a Calabi-Yau space is.

Donald G. Saari, Decisions and Elections : Explaining the Unexpected — This sums up a large chunk of the analysis of social choice problems and voting systems done by Donald Saari. It’s a bit overwritten for my taste and veers between some mathematical formalism and a chatty form of argumentation. I don’t think I fit in the right “audience” for this book, which is part of the problem. It discusses Arrow’s Theorem and Sen’s Theorem via a bunch of examples and spends a fair bit of time on the “paradoxes” and perversities of different choice systems. The chattiness makes it feel less than systematic. Towards the end Saari puts on more of an advocate hat and argues that symmetry (in a particular sense) is a desirable property of election systems and puts out a case for the Borda count. That in a sense is the least convincing part of the book. This might be a good present for a precocious high school student, since the math is not so complicated but there are a lot of ideas to chew on in there.

Hannu Nurmi, Voting Procedures under Uncertainty — This also fits into the “slightly math-y books for political scientists” genre, so I found it insufficiently math-y. It’s a survey of different models of uncertainty in voting procedures and a survey of the work in that area. As such, it discusses alternatives to “traditional” social choice theory including Euclidean models of preference and so on. There’s a little more “survey” and less “integrating the different perspectives” but that’s ok. I am not sure who should read it, but it did point out some new literatures of which I had previously been unaware.

Moez Draif and Laurent Massoulié, Epidemics and Rumors in Complex Networks — A nice and compact introduction to rumor-spreading processes, including branching processes, small world graphs, SIS/SIR type models, and concluding with some models for “viral marketing.” I really liked this book because it was concise and to the point, but others may find that it lacks some context and connections to literature with which they are familiar. It doesn’t feel like a tutorial in that respect, but it’s self-contained and great for someone who has seen some of the material before but not all of it.

John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Primrose Path — Reading Rumpole short stories is kind of like relaxing in a pair of old slippers. Enjoyable, but probably not his best work.

Readings

The Gangster We Are All Looking For (lê thi diem thúy) — This is a fragmented and short narrative of a young Vietnamese immigrant to the US and her time growing up in various neighborhoods in San Diego. It’s the KPBS One Book, One San Diego selection so there were 25 copies at the library. The little vignettes are fleeting but touching, but in a sense you don’t feel that the narrator is particularly introspective, at least not in a direct way. However, I think it was definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to hear her unique perspective.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (Jonathan Coe) — A satirical novel which came recommended but which in the end I felt cheated by. Maxwell Sim embarks on a new job after a recent divorce and few months off for depression, and ends up learning new things about himself and his family. He’s a bit of a loser, to be honest, but in the end you kind of feel for him as he muddles through emails, old letters, facebook, and the like. What is a big cheat is the ending, in which the author (!) appears. Blech.

Symmetry and Its Discontents (Sheridan Zabell) — A lovely collection of essays on the philosophy, history, and mathematics of symmetry assumptions in problems of induction. The last two chapters are especially good as they discuss a bit of the history and background of such things as Good-Turing estimators and exchangeable partition processes. I learned about this book a while ago from Susan Holmes at the AIM Workshop on estimating probability distributions.

Electronic Elections (R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall) — A short but dense book that makes the case for a “risk management” approach to assessing the value of electronic voting machines. Electronic voting machines have all sorts of benefits, including better accessibility for the disabled, no “hanging chads,” and so on. But they are also woefully unsecure and hackable, as has been demonstrated time and again by computer security folks. Alvarez and Hall feel like the CS folks are being unfair and think (in a very nebulous way) that the benefits outweigh the risks. I found the data about voter confusion and error rates, etc. interesting, but I think the authors completely miss the point of the security community’s critique of electronic voting systems. Designing a shoddy electronic voting system is bad, regardless of the purported benefits.