## March 31, 2016

### Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Guido W. Imbens and Donald B. Rubin, Causal Inference for Statistics, Social, and Biomedical Sciences: An Introduction
While I found less to disagree with about the over-all approach than I anticipated, I am genuinely surprised (not "shocked, shocked!" surprised) to find so much sloppiness in the mere data analysis. I can't recommend this book to anyone who isn't already well-trained in applied statistics. To say any more here would preempt my review for JASA, so I'll just link to that when it's out.
— I will however mention one grumble, which didn't fit in the review. From p. 174:
The possible advantage of the frequentist approach [over the Bayesian] is that it avoids the need to specify the prior distribution $p(\theta)$ for the parameters governing the joint distribution of the two potential outcomes. However, this does not come without cost. Nearly always one has to rely on large sample approximations to justify the derived frequentist confidence intervals. But in large samples, by the Bernstein-Von Mises Theorem (e.g., Van Der Vaart, 1998), the practical implications of the choice of prior distribution is limited, and the alleged benefits of the frequentist approach vanish.
I don't see how to unpack everything objectionable in these few sentences without rehearsing the whole of this post, and adding "the bootstrap is a thing, you know".
Tarquin Hall, The Case of the Love Commandos
Mind candy: the latest in the mystery series, though enjoyable independently; this time, we find Vish Puri unwillingly drawn into the nexus of caste and politics in rural Uttar Pradesh.
Jack Campbell, The Dragons of Dorcastle, The Hidden Masters of Marandur, The Assassins of Altis
Mind candy science fantasy. There are some thematic similarities to Rosemary Kirstein's (much superior) Steerswomen books. Those themes are, as it were, here transcribed into the key of Teen's Own Adventures (Campbell gets points for having the Heroic Engineer with a Destiny be a young woman), with less compelling world-building than Kirstein. Still, I zoomed through these and await the sequels.
ROT-13'd for spoilers: Bar jnl va juvpu Xvefgrva'f obbxf ner fhcrevbe vf gung ure cebgntbavfgf unir gb npghnyyl svther bhg gur uvqqra gehguf bs gurve jbeyq, jurernf Pnzcoryy gnxrf gur ynml snagnfl-jevgre jnl bhg bs univat gurer or uvqqra fntrf jub pna whfg gryy gur urebrf rirelguvat. Nyfb, V nz abg fher V unir rire frra "orpnhfr bs dhnaghz!" hfrq fb funzryrffyl ol nal jevgre jub jnfa'g n zrqvpny dhnpx.
Paul McAuley, Into Everywhere
Further into the future of his (excellent) Something Coming Through, in which finding that we are only the latest in a galaxy full of the remains of much older, much more powerful, and much weirder alien civilizations is not very good for humanity. For instance, the scientific method seems to atrophy as we move up the time-line, in much the way Chomsky fears will result from cheap computing [*]. There is a reason for this.
ROT-13'd for spoilers: Gur eriryngvba ng gur raq, gung gur gehr nvz bs nyy guvf nyvra zrqqyvat vf abg gb qb fbzrguvat gb uhznavgl ohg gb trg hf gb cebqhpr NVf, orpnhfr gur shgher bs nal vagryyvtrag yvarntr vf hygvzngryl znpuvarf, vf bs pbhefr fgenvtug bhg bs Pynexr'f 2001. Guvf yrnqf zr gb jbaqre jurgure gurfr abiry'f nera'g ZpNhyrl va qvnybthr jvgu Pynexr, rfcrpvnyyl jvgu 2001 rg frd. naq gur Guveq Ynj, va zhpu gur jnl gung, fnl, Pbasyhrapr jnf ZpNhyrl va qvnybthr jvgu Jbysr naq gur Obbx bs gur Arj Fha.
*: From Chapter 59, "Synchronicity":
They didn't appear to use any kind of analytical reasoning to confirm their conjectures, employing instead a crude form of experimental Darwinism, seeding a matrix with algorithms modelling variations of their initial assumptions and letting them run to a halting state, selecting those that most resembled the observed conditions, and running and re-running everything over and over again until they had derived an algorithm that reproduced reality to an agreed level of statistical confidence. The wizards didn't care that this method gave no insights into the problems it attacked, or that they didn't understand how the solutions it yielded were related to the vast edifice of Euclidean mathematical theory. They weren't interested in theory. As far as they were concerned, if an algorithm gave the right answer, then plug it in: it was good to go.
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton
This is a really good global history of the development of the world's cotton industry from the opening of trans-Atlantic navigation down through about 1950. (An epilogue considers later events, but very cursorily.) The central incident is of course the industrial revolution that began in England in the late 18th century, which could only attain the scale it did because there were other parts of the world, notably the Americas, which could supply cotton on the requisite industrial scale; they did so through slavery. After abolition, the Americas also provided the pattern for making sure formally-free rural cultivators produced cotton for the market, rather than farming for subsistence, a pattern eagerly and often explicitly copied by imperial powers across the globe. Cotton was not just the first truly modern industry, it was for a long time the most important, and is arguably still one of the most important on a global scale, and so its story is, in large part, the story of how we got here.
I have, as a supremely unqualified but opinionated non-historian, some quibbles. Stylistically, he over-uses pet phrases like "the empire of cotton" and "the white gold", and keeps reminding readers that they are probably wearing cotton. Analytically, and more seriously, Beckert makes much more of this world-wide division of labor than of machinery, which is a mistake. Industrialism within one country (say, the American south) would have been quite feasible; a worldwide capitalism limited to animal power and manual labor would be at best a flexible and adaptive poverty. His account of the decline of cotton manufacturing in Europe and North America in the 20th century refers only to the difference in wages between those countries and places like China or India, ignoring differences in productivity.
On a different plane, this is possibly the only genuinely crypto-Marxist book to ever win the Bancroft prize. The over-lap in themes just with Capital is very striking: the violence of capitalist primitive accumulation, the division of labor on a world scale, the struggle over the working day in the Lancashire mills, the deep importance attached to the American Civil War, the praise of capitalism for developing the productive forces to the point where something better becomes feasible and necessary. And also some post-Marx Marxist themes: late 19th century imperialism as driven by rivalry among capitalists, an autonomous role for the state (as something more than just an executive committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoise, though it is that too), very odd statements about the Soviet Union and Maoist China. That Marx is mentioned only once, and that in passing, is surely no coincidence.
Emily Horne and Joey Comeau, Anatomy of Melancholy: The Best of A Softer World
Calling A Softer World one of the best web-comics gives no idea whatsoever of its merits. I was deeply saddened to learn it would end in 2015, and only partially consoled by the prospect of this book. I commend it to anyone who reads this blog with pleasure.
Mind candy: sequel to Poor Man's War and Rich Man's Fight, bringing the series to a satisfying stopping point. Probably not enjoyable without the previous books.
Salla Simukka, As Red as Blood, As White as Snow, As Black as Ebony
Mind candy, aptly described by James Davis Nicoll as what would happen if a plucky girl detective like Nancy Drew wandered into a Kurt Wallander novel?"
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
Mind candy: Further literary, historical competence porn.
Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites
First, go read the review/precis by Aaron Swartz (peace be upon him). I started this four years ago, then set it aside when I got busy, and only now took it back up (for obvious reasons) and finished it.
Part of me reads this going "preach, brother, preach!" In particular, the Iron Law of Meritocracy seems like a real contribution. (Pedantically, priority goes to James Flynn, though.) As a product of the meritocracy, whose parents are also products of the meritocracy, and who makes his living teaching at an elite school, this is not happy news, but there we are.
Other parts of me would like to see more: allowing that we have a self-serving and dysfunctional elite now, were previous elites really any more functional or less self-serving? This is hardly an obvious point or one Hayes establishes. Generally, Hayes seems strongest when he's documenting the ways things are bad now, but he also needs to say that they're worse than before, or at are bad in new ways, and that's lacking. [*] Of course this amounts to asking that he have written a different and much more academic book. As something at the border between a political tract and popular social science by a working journalist, it's astonishingly good.
*: Reading the bits about how the country feels like it's falling apart, I couldn't help thinking of the incredible opening to Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem":
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of causal killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
Of course, Didion goes on:
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job...
Seanan McGuire, Indexing: Reflections
Mind candy: more contemporary fantasy about fairy tales trying to escape from the dungeon dimensions and/or collective unconscious.

Posted at March 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link