February 28, 2019

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2019

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on Roman history, or even on demography.

Juha Alho and Bruce D. Spencer, Statistical Demography and Forecasting
A thorough introduction to the leading concepts, issues and methods of demography for an audience of statisticians, interested in what our cousins are up to, why they do it that way, and how they might make more use of conventional statistical notions about modeling, inference and uncertainty. (Alho has a particular interest in the financing of public pensions, which shows up in a bunch of the examples.) Statistical concepts are reviewed as needed, but the intended reader is plainly familiar with most of these to start, so I doubt it would work as well for the stats-curious demographer.
If I ever get to teach the space-and-time course again, I will mine this shamelessly for examples.
Brian Lee O'Malley, Snotgirl: Green Hair Don't Care and California Screaming
Mike Mignola, Hellboy in Hell: The Descent
Philippe Thirault et al., Miss: Better Living Through Crime, 1: Bloody Manhattan
Saladin Ahmed et al., Abbott
Comic-book mind-candy, assorted.
Dubravka Ugresic, Fox
Meta-fiction, cultural essay, tragedy, literary anecdote spun out into novelettes... This was my first Ugresic, but it won't be my last.
James H. Matis and Thomas R. Kiffe, Stochastic Population Models: A Compartmental Perspective
Most of this is actually given over to one-compartment birth-death, or birth-death-migration, processes, though when they do get around to multi-compartment processes, the treatment is good. There's no systematic account of statistical inference for these models, though I appreciated the ad hoc effort to connect them to empirical data.
Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many, Monk's Hood, St. Peter's Fair, The Devil's Novice
Mind candy: classic medieval mysteries. Having read these as a boy, I'm very relieved that they have not been visited by the Suck Fairy.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
I started this in August of last year, with no previous experience with Gibbon, but with a credit for an audio book* and the prospect of a lot driving back and forth between Pittsburgh and DC. I have now spent 100 hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike being taken from the age of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius to the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the ruins of Rome in the age of the Renaissance Papacy. There are obviously a million ways in which it's been superseded as history, but it's still a magnificent achievement of scholarship, and an incredible work of literature.
Some obvious things: Gibbon was sexist, racist, and anti-Jewish (it'd be a bit anachronistic to call him anti-Semitic). He poses as an orthodox English Protestant who regards the inexplicable parts of Christianity (e.g., the Trinity and the Incarnation) as mysteries beyond reason --- but clearly he thinks those parts are really nonsense. (This explains, I think, his surprising-to-me sympathy for Islam.) But he is also a good enough historian to admit to facts which fly in the face of his prejudices, like courageous, just and manly "orientals" --- though not good enough to revise his views. (Likewise, the passages which contain gratuitous swipes at the intellectual capacities of "Negroes" are also the ones which call the slave trade of his time a moral disgrace.)
Related to this ambiguity, I think, is a certain inconsistency in his Eurocentrism and parochialism. Sometimes he talks about "the world" to mean western-Europe-and-the-Mediterranean basin; sometimes he knows fully well that Rome at its height was always balanced by Persia, and writes intelligently about how China's relations with its nomadic neighbors ultimately affected Rome. Sometimes "barbarian" is used in the Greek way, to include everyone who wasn't a Hellene, and sometimes he admits the Persians, Chinese, Indians, etc., to the company of civilized nations. He trembles on the verge of a properly global perspective, and I wish he'd made it there.
Rhetorically, his use of irony is clearly modeled on Tacitus. But where Tacitus is highly compressed, Gibbon is not so much prolix as leisurely and expansive. The result is a layering of irony, both within sentences and across paragraphs. Tacitus gives us lapidary expressions like "We make a desert and call it peace", or "conspicuous by their absence"; Gibbon gives us passages:
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
(This is succeeded by paragraphs on "The superstition of the people", the "philosphers ... deduc[ing] their morals from the nature of man", and the role of religion in "the Roman councils".) Or, again:
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
(The latter clearly inspired Gellner.)
--- In George Steiner's In Bluebeard's Castle, he writes about how some novelists and historians, by their "many-branched coherence of design", "build a great house of language for memory and conjecture to inhabit". What strikes me about Gibbon is how he has two such houses. One of them is fourteen centuries which are his actual subject, depicted as an eon of decay and disaster, but also full of colorful, if generally appalling, incident. The other, constantly present by implication and contrast, is the classical Rome of the Republic, and classical Greece, especially Periclean Athens. He might put forth the age of the Antonines as the happiest and most prosperous period of humanity, but it's clear that his heart is with those earlier, and to him brighter, times. I half suspect that one of his aims was to narrate the fall of Rome, as though told by a Roman of an earlier time; certainly he carries out the affectation of using classical place-names long past the period of their relevance.
*: The reading by Charlton Griffin was, for the most part, quite good, but there was at least one place where a later editor's footnote accusing Gibbon of anti-Christian bias crept into the text and was narrated.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Tales of Our Ancestors; Writing for Antiquity; Enigmas of Chance; The Natural Science of the Human Species; Commit a Social Science

Posted at February 28, 2019 23:59 | permanent link

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