September 30, 2014

fBooks to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, September 2014

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters
In which Detroit, which evidently hasn't suffered enough, must deal with an outbreak from the dungeon dimensions, cleverly disguised as a mere psycho killer loose in its art scene. But also, remarkably, a lot of humanity and sympathy for all the characters, even the ones it would have been easy to make into mere caricatures (like the hipster failed writer), even for the monster. I read it as quickly as life would let me, and wished there were more.
— Further comments outsourced to Steph Cha at the LA Review of Books.
J. F. Traub and A. G. Werschulz, Complexity and Information
A survey of information-based complexity, as it appeared in the late 1980s. This is a branch of computational complexity theory, but it takes continuous real numbers (indeed, continuous function spaces like Hilbert or Banach spaces) as the primitive objects, rather than finite strings of bits. A typical problem might be calculating the action of a path, i.e., to approximate something like $A(f) = \int_{0}^{1}{L(f(t), f^{\prime}(t)) dt}$ where the form $L$ is known and fixed, but $f$ is allowed to vary over some class of functions $\mathcal{F}$. What distinguishes information-based complexity from plain numerical analysis is that we are not supposed to have $f$ in some explicit form, but are merely able to evaluate it at some limited number of points, say $f(t_1), \ldots f(t_n)$, or more generally evaluate $n$ functionals of $f$. It is this set of $n$ functionals that are meant by "information" in this context; they constitute the information we have on $f$. One then wants to know how closely $A(f)$ can be approximated in terms of some measurable, or even linear, function of the $f(t_i)$. Turned around, one asks how many functionals of what kind are required to get an $\epsilon$ approximation to $A(f)$.
Complexity and Information is just an introductory sketch, without any proofs or details, and in many places I wish it had made deeper connections with related subjects (e.g., conventional information theory, or minimax bounds on optimization). But it covers an awful lot in just 100 pages, and made me want to learn more, and know about what's happened in the last 25 years. Also, I imagine that if the book were being written today, the pricing of collateralized mortgage obligations might not receive quite so much attention as a success story.
(The Wikipedia page on IBC is, if not necessarily descended from the text, is at least a very close relative.)
Disclaimer: I have a slight acquaintance with Prof. Traub, professionally and socially, since we're both on the external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute.
Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
It would be unkind to gloat how much of this book about mathematical thinking is specifically about statistics. (After all, it's almost an act of filial piety on the part of the author.) It is however quite fair to point out that there is a deep reason for this: statistics is the branch of mathematical engineering which is concerned with designing reliable ways of drawing inferences from imperfect information. (I realize "applied mathematics" is more usual than "mathematical engineering", but too often "applied math" translates to "solving partial differential equations".) As such it's one of the places which has had to realize that "not being wrong" is a distinct goal in its own right, separate from "being right". Less portentiously, it's one of the places which has had to think very hard about how to avoid fooling yourself. There are however other, quite distinct, branches of mathematics, which have very different purposes. These are, it seems to me, articulations of, first, extrapolating from assumptions ("If I'm right, then...") and sheer delight in solving puzzles. Since Ellenberg's own mathematics is very much of the latter varieties, these get touched on somewhat, but the focus is very much on statistical concepts.
(I think the extrapolative side of mathematics is actually related to one of the characteristic failure modes of the mathematically-inclined, namely bullet-swallowing. We have a weakness for taking axioms as, in the vulgar sense, "axiomatic". If, following their implications very far, we encounter what seem like absurdities, we are tempted to regard that as a sign of superior insight, rather than as an indication that the axioms need to be revised. Russell, characteristically, realized this was a serious issue even within mathematics, since it bears on our choice of axioms. I do not know enough about, e.g., Galton's biography to say how much this might explain how he came to be so very wrong about some important subjects.)
Disclaimers: I'm a fan of Ellenberg's blog, and even his writings for Slate; he flatteringly used one of my favorite posts as the launching point for one of his chapters; and he sent me a copy of the book. But if I thought it was bad, I could just stay silent about it.
Christopher Moore, Fool and The Serpent of Venice
Mind-candy: affectionate send-ups of Shakespeare, with added slapstick, gratuitous sex, and sea-monsters. That is, it is exactly what you would expect if the author of The Lust-Lizard of Melancholy Cove re-told two of the great tragedies.
David Shafer, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Mind candy. Literary fiction in which a consortium of US security agencies and international for-profit corporations engages in a lawless campaign of total surveillance and information privatization, opposed primarily by an equally lawless transnational network of hackers and the occasional attack of conscience on the part of the conspiracy's minions. Normally, I don't care for this sort of unrelieved social realism, but the writing was engaging, and after a while it wandered away from the headlines into not-very-rigorous science fiction.
Spoiler-laden comments (ROT-13'd): V nz dhvgr fher gur fvyyl pbqr anzrf va Qrne Qvnel, naq gur ovg nobhg gur cbfgny vafcrpgvba freivpr, jrer Clapuba fubhg-bhgf. Hayvxr Clapuba, Funsre frrzf gb unir fbzr nssrpgvba sbe uvf punenpgref, naq fbzr novyvgl gb gryy n fgbel juvpu qbrfa'g ober zr.
Deborah Coates, Deep Down
Mind candy: in which the approach to problem-solving and tactics that worked so well for Our Heroine in Afghanistan and the first novel proves equally effective when it comes to getting friends and neighbors in the Dakotas out of various supernatural jams.
Spoiler-laden comments (ROT-13'd): (1) V yvxrq gur wbhearl guebhtu gur haqrejbeyq; gur Bceurhf/Rhelqvpr ebyr erirefny jnf n avpr gbhpu. (2) Vf gurer fbzr pbzzba fbhepr sbe n snagnfl Jrfgrea vaibyivat n crefbavsvrq Qrngu, bar be zber qnhtugref, naq n ercynprzrag bs fnvq naguebcbzbecuvp crefbavsvpngvba? Orpnhfr vs abg, gur pbvapvqrapr orgjrra guvf naq Cerggl Qrnqyl vf ernyyl fgevxvat.
Yashar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk
A novel from the 1950s, apparently set in the 1920s or 1930s, about how life in rural Anatolia is so brutal you end up a bandit. It's apparently a beloved modern classic in Turkey, and even the translation (*) had some lovely writing, though the characters weren't very deep --- that may have been a deliberate attempt to sound like a folk epic, though. I'd class it as mind candy, though with a footnote that it may have lost substance in translation.
*: I read an older edition of the same translation linked above, one I'd been lugging around since early graduate school...
Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays
A delightful collection of bookish and personal essays. There are some I'd argue with, but Fadiman succeeds admirably in giving the sense that there'd be an enjoyable, intelligent, amiable argument.
Jenny White, The Sultan's Seal
Mind candy: historical murder mystery set in late 19th century Istanbul, largely from the view-point of the modern-minded Ottoman official Kamil Pasha. I'd cheerfully read more, if I run across them. (White's day-job is a social anthropologist who studies Turkish nationalism.)
ETA: the sequels are good.

Posted at September 30, 2014 23:59 | permanent link