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