Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2020
conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine
about mathematical biology, the history of science, or comparative sociology
and political science.
- Jane Haddam, Fighting Chance
- Mind candy mystery novel: the 29th, and
of her Gregor Demarkian series. This is the only one where the solution, while
logical, "fair" and completely unexpected, did not feel right. (I
refrain from saying any more to avoid spoilers.) It is also,
profile notes, one where the background crime, outrageous though it sounds,
was entirely real, and it's astonishing that it did not end in murder.
- Nicolas Bacaër, A Short History of Mathematical Population Dynamics
- This is very much a scientist's history of science, rather than a
historian's. It consists of a series of very brief chapters, most of just a
few pages, giving thumbnail biographies of historical figures, and explaining
their contributions in modern terminology and notation. It begins with
Fibonacci and his series, noting that this had absolutely no influence on any
later work at using mathematics to understand population. The real development
begins with stuff like life tables and actuarial calculations, Malthus and
population growth, and so on. The re-appearance of the basic reproductive
number in numerous contexts is a running, though not exactly high-lighted,
theme. Developments in data collection (e.g., comprehensive censuses by states
effective enough to actually count people, ascertain their ages, etc.) are
mentioned only in passing, though without such data there would be nothing to
model. The most fully developed historical study is actually one of the last,
in the chapter on China's one child policy, in which a bunch of control
engineers, cut off from the broader scientific community, manage to re-invent
key ideas of demography, derive radical conclusions from their models, and get
men in power to act on them.
- I learned from this, I appreciate its perspective and its brevity, and I'd
assign it to my students if they were curious, but I'd also like to see
something more historically serious.
- Meg Gardiner, UNSUB,
Into the Black Nowhere,
The Dark Corners of the Night
- Mind-candy thrillers, psycho-killers-and-profilers flavored. Competitive
with Shadow Unit
as high-quality Criminal Minds pastisches.
- Brian D. Ripley, Spatial Statistics
- On the one hand, this is from 1981, so all the detailed computational
advice is laughably obsolete. (At one point, Ripley discusses strategies for
not having to keep all of a 128 kb image in main memory at once.) There has
also been a lot of advances in some aspects of the theory, notably for point
processes. On the other hand, Ripley's basic advice --- visualize; do less
testing for "randomness" and more model-building; simulate your models,
visualize the simulations, and test modeling assumptions with
simulations and visualizations; smooth, and remember that
"kriging" is just the Wiener filter --- remains eminently sound.
- --- I have been reading bits and pieces of this book, off and on, since
around 2000, but I have a rule about not recommending something until I've
finished it completely. Having finally now read it all, including the chapter
on tomography (!), I can safely say: anyone seriously interested in spatial
statistics probably ought to read this, but you can skip the tomography chapter
as obsolete. I have to say that the idea of paying the list price for the paperback is outrageous, but lots of potential readers will
have access to Wiley's online version, which is a perfectly decent scan
of the printed book.
- Victor LaValle, The Changeling
- Magical-realist urban fantasy, about being a parent in contemporary New
York. It's intense, but it's great because it honors the genre
conventions of both literary fiction (the attention to
that tries to renew the perception of the ordinary world) and urban
fantasy or horror (creepy, thrilling supernatural weirdness).
- Göran Therborn, What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?
- A collection of long, tightly-linked essays from the 1970s, attempting to
formulate a serious Marxist sociology of the state and of political authority.
The starting point is his answer to the title question, which is, roughly, that
the ruling class, through the state, acts to reproduce the social conditions
for its own dominance. This basic thought is then elaborated with a wealth of
historical and sociological examples, and a lot of intelligence given to ideas
like different modes of state organization being different forms of technology,
and different "formats of representation".
- Therborn's over-all answer is a reasonable one, but not without its
difficulties. There are two which especially struck me while reading, one of
which he could have fixed fairly easily (intellectually if not personally), the
other, I think, is more fundamental.
- Therborn quite properly includes the post-1917 Communist states
as examples of states with a definite class character, and analyzes how they
acted to reinforce the dominance of the ruling class. These analyses are,
however, completely undermined by his conviction that the ruling class in those
states was the proletariat, which collectively appropriated the
surplus for its own use. This was, of course, nonsense, and was easily
observed to be nonsense at the time. Therborn even admits that management,
Party officials, etc., are not exactly the proletariat and look an awful lot
like a ruling class, but insists that they weren't, all appearances and his own
criteria to the contrary notwithstanding. A more clear-eyed advocate of
Therborn's own theoretical positions should, I think, have frankly admitted
that the Party and the technocracy together constituted a new ruling class,
engaged in collective expropriation of the surplus for its benefit and
in ensuring the reproduction of its own conditions of domination. In other
words, Therborn should have endorsed the thesis of
New Class. Reading between the lines, I'm sure this would have been
personally unacceptable to Therborn, at least at the time of writing, but it's
where his logic should have taken him.
- The more serious problem, to my eyes, is the cognitive one.
Therborn assumes that the ruling class knows how to reproduce its
rule, but in reality it would need to figure out how to do this. Even
if we suppose that the ruling class (and/or its state) wants to advance its
interests, it's not obvious what concrete courses of action will do
that, let alone do it well. Presumably it doesn't wait for Comrade Therborn to
come along and tell it, and presumably it doesn't secretly employ historical
materialism in its innermost councils, so what does it do? (Cf.
Dewey.) How do these ideas about what the ruling class and its
state should do become
effective for real, concrete individuals? What mechanisms keep those
individuals in line with class interest? What happens when the ruling class
and/or the state are wrong about what will advance their interests? I am
tempted, on Therborn's behalf, to advance a selectionist explanation: ruling
pointing them in the right direction, so they try all kinds of things, but the
ones which are wrong about how to secure the reproduction of their domination
will cease to rule, so we'll only observe ones which were right.
(Cf. Quine's "Creatures
inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy
tendency to die before reproducing their kind".) But changes in ruling classes
are rare, so there'd be little evolutionary information in the signal of their
failures (as in footnote 2 to
of Ober), so there would need to be some kind of selection at the level of
practices or policies, and I don't see the feedback channel which would tell
the state apparatus "stop doing that, it's not helping the dominant
class reproduce itself". (There are plenty of other feedback channels.) In
any case, such selectionism is entirely against the "feel" of Therborn's mode
- To repeat, there's a lot of interesting historical and sociological
material in here, arranged by an intelligent and honest partisan in support of
some fixed convictions. I'd be very curious to see how Therborn's thoughts
have moved on since 1978. (This edition is a 2008 reprint without any new
- Chelsea Cain et al., Man-Eaters (1, 2, 3)
- Warren Ellis et al., The Wild Storm (1, 2, 3, 4)
- Victor LaValle et al., Destroyer
- Comic-book mind candy. Man-Eaters is a very broad satire
about what would happen if the onset of menses caused teenage girls to turn
into literal man-eating were-panthers. The Wild Storm is Ellis
giving a familiar kaleidoscope (ancient aliens, secret space programs and
hidden governments, personified electricity as the animating spirit of the 20th
century) another shake. Destroyer melds some of the concerns
about black parentage LaValle explores in The Changeling with a
sequel to Frankenstein.
- The Americans
- A serial about a family of prosperous, hard-working immigrants raising kids
in the DC suburbs in the 1980s, with complicated feelings about America and the
Americanization of their children, might as well have been targeted at me.
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Scientifiction and Fantastica;
Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;
Enigmas of Chance;
Commit a Social Science;
The Progressive Forces;
Writing for Antiquity;
Data over Space and Time
Posted at March 31, 2020 23:59 | permanent link