Category Archives: books

Booklist 2012

Here are the books I read in 2012.

  • 11 Nov 2012:  The Passage, by Justin Cronin.
  • 31 Oct 2012:  Too Good To Be True, Benjamin Anastas.
  • 22 Oct 2012:  vN, Madeline Ashby.
  • 13 Oct 2012:  Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky.
  • 6 Oct 2012:  11/22/63, Stephen King.
  • 15 Sep 2012:  The Signal and the NoiseNate Silver.
  • 26 Aug 2012:  Mr. Smartypants, Michael Showalter.
  • 24 Aug 2012: Immobility, Brian Evenson.
  • 11 Aug 2012:  Permanent Emergency, Kip Hawley.
  • 10 Aug 2012:  Against Security, Harvey Molotch.
  • 6 Aug 2012:  Liars and Outliers, Bruce Schneier.
  • 25 Jul 2012:  The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg.
  • 14 Jul 2012:  The Pale King, David Foster Wallace.
  • 5 Jun 2012:  The Red Book, Deborah Copaken Kogan.
  • 20 May 2012:  The Outsourced Self, Arlie Russell Hochschild.
  • 13 May 2012:  Laughing Man, T.M. Wright.
  • 11 May 2012:  Strange Seed, T. M. Wright.
  • 6 May 2012:  The Scarlet Plague, Jack London.
  • 2 May 2012:  The Nephew, James Purdy.
  • 24 Apr 2012:  Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, Meghan Daum.
  • 1 Apr 2012:  The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins.
  • 26 Mar 2012: 1001, Jason Grote.
  • 13 Mar 2012: The Chicagoan 1.
  • 3 Feb 2012:  Simon: The Genius in my Basement, Alexander Masters.
  • 28 Jan 2012: Malcolm, James Purdy.
  • 22 Jan 2012:  In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman, William J. Cook.
  • 18 Jan 2012:  Freedom, Jonathan Franzen.

Links go to blogposts about the linked book.

So:  27 books.  Of these, 6 were books I was reviewing.  21 pleasure books is a pretty slim total for a year’s work!   There’s a list, too, of books that I read substantial chunks of in 2012 and which I still expect to finish:  Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers, Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus, Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (a re-read),… probably others I’ve forgotten.

This was the year I started occasionally reading books on a device; 5 of these were read on some combination of iPhone and iPad.  Included among these were four of the last five books I finished (along with two I haven’t finished, the Ford Madox Ford and the Julavits.)  This might mean that it’s easier to finish books on the device, or it might mean that I differentially tend to buy SF on the phone, and SF is (in general!  in general!) easy to read very quickly.

Actually, this was a very heavy SF year for me:  9 out of the 27 books, if you count expansively.  My relationship with science fiction is very strange.  I grew up reading it and think of myself as liking it.  But I have not yet found the place in contemporary SF I really like to sit.  Of the 9 SF books I read this year, the two that I really liked were the ones from the 20th century : The Scarlet Plague and The Man in the Maze.  The former is a forgotten book that Joshua Glenn wisely released in his Radium Age series, the latter a forgotten book that Johan de Jong wisely made me borrow.

Best book I read:  The Pale King, no surprise.  And it wasn’t close.  Malcolm is the runner-up.

Worst book I read:  The Passage, I think, even though on average this book was not bad.  The first 300 pages were kind of great, centered on the question:  how would it feel to watch the world be destroyed if the world were already kind of destroyed to start with?  But then after that there are 700 pages of “old West in the future” and people riding around shooting at monsters.  I felt betrayed.  This is my quarrel with contemporary SF.  So many ideas, so much promise, and then the last 500 pages are always people riding around and shooting at monsters!  Sometimes they’re running or flying instead of riding, but always the shooting, always the monsters.

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Is anybody still editing Basic Books?

As a Certified Math Blogger I sometimes get new popular math books in the mail.  I just got one from Basic Books, opened to a random page, and found a reference to “Euclidian geometry.”  Yes, I know this is an arguably acceptable alternative spelling.  But it’s “Euclidean” everywhere else in the book.

(The typo is on p.47, if the self-Googlers at Basic should happen to read this.)

 

 

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Althouse on Gatsby

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my law school colleague and UW superblogger Ann Althouse (and her comments section is a wretched hive of scum and villainy) but I was pleased to see that she’s doing a series of close readings of sentences from The Great Gatsby.  The world needs more close reading.  Today’s entry:

Gatsby’s notoriety, spread about by the hundreds who had accepted his hospitality and so become authorities on his past, had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news.

My own favorite sentence in Gatsby is a simple one.

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

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In defense of Nate Silver and experts

Cathy goes off on Nate Silver today, calling naive his account of well-meaning people saying false things because they’ve made math mistakes.  In Cathy’s view, people say false things because they’re not well-meaning and are trying to screw you — or, sometimes, because they’re well-meaning but their incentives are pointed at something other than accuracy.  Read the whole thing, it’s more complicated than this paraphrase suggests.

Cathy, a fan of and participant in mass movements, takes special exception to Silver saying:

This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field. But we’re not at that stage yet.

Cathy’s take:

…I have less faith in the experts than Nate Silver: I don’t want to trust the very people who got us into this mess, while benefitting from it, to also be in charge of cleaning it up. And, being part of the Occupy movement, I obviously think that this is the time for mass movements.

From my experience working first in finance at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis and afterwards at the risk firm Riskmetrics, and my subsequent experience working in the internet advertising space (a wild west of unregulated personal information warehousing and sales) my conclusion is simple: Distrust the experts.

I think Cathy’s distrust is warranted, but I think Silver shares it.  The central concern of his chapter on weather prediction is the vast difference in accuracy between federal hurricane forecasters, whose only job is to get the hurricane track right, and TV meteorologists, whose very different incentive structure leads them to get the weather wrong on purpose.  He’s just as hard on political pundits and their terrible, terrible predictions, which are designed to be interesting, not correct.

Cathy wishes Silver would put more weight on this stuff, and she may be right, but it’s not fair to paint him as a naif who doesn’t know there’s more to life than math.  (For my full take on Silver’s book, see my review in the Globe.)

As for experts:  I think in many or even most cases deferring to people with extensive domain knowledge is a pretty good default.  Maybe this comes from seeing so many preprints by mathematicians, physicists, and economists flushed with confidence that they can do biology, sociology, and literary study (!) better than the biologists, sociologists, or scholars of literature.  Domain knowledge matters.  Marilyn vos Savant’s opinion about Wiles’s proof of Fermat doesn’t matter.

But what do you do with cases like finance, where the only people with deep domain knowledge are the ones whose incentive structure is socially suboptimal?  (Cathy would use saltier language here.)  I guess you have to count on mavericks like Cathy, who’ve developed the domain knowledge by working in the financial industry, but who are now separated from the incentives that bind the insiders.

But why do I trust what Cathy says about finance?

Because she’s an expert.

Is Cathy OK with this?

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Jane Yeh, On Ninjas

My friend Jane Yeh has a new book of poems out and it is about ninjas.  Here’s the title poem:

They eat four-cheese pizzas with three of the cheeses removed.
They make friendship bracelets out of aluminum foil and poison.
They open windows just by thinking about opening windows.
They take ballet lessons to improve the speed of their circular arm movements.

The ninjas are coming, coming to save us from muggers
And disorganized thieves and slobs who want to kill us.
The way to spot a ninja is to look for someone wearing black pajamas—
Preternaturally neat black pajamas—with a hood for cover.

The way to tell one ninja from another is by the ankles.
The way to tell one ninja from another is you can’t.
They know how to levitate by thinking about birds’ feet.
They make terrible cater waiters because no one can hear them coming.

Their mission is to save us from chaos with their acute tumbling skills
And their climbing proficiency. They don’t want to dismember
Bad jazz musicians or art teachers or con men, but they will.
They know how to escape from a trap by running in place very, very fast.

They can change places with each other by thinking about numbers.
They know how to turn themselves into fog to avoid attending boring parties.
They make single-serving Lancashire hotpots to show their culinary mastery.
They take turns doing the laundry. (It’s easy; no whites or colors.)

The ninjas are here to help us. They are as ruthless as history
Or defenestration. They are pitiless as a swarm of bees, or evolution.
They know how to throw fireballs and do their own taxes.
They hate litter and small children. They are here to fix us.

 

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Triple negative

J Cronin’s The Passage is surprisingly interesting and I hope to blog about it at greater length some other time.  (Short version:  it is the only thing I’ve ever read that imitates Stephen King and gets right what works about Stephen King, and this is sort of a great achievement.)  Still, though, there’s this:

It wasn’t that he didn’t like her, nor that she had failed to make her interest less than plain.

It took me about thirty seconds to figure out what this actually said, and once I figured it out, I was pretty sure it didn’t say what Cronin wanted it to say.  But how could any editor read this sentence and not flag it?

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Make no mistake

Choire Sicha in Slate, in the course of correctly praising Ursula K. LeGuin, remarks:

The literary novel is, make no mistake, as much a pileup of inherited conventions as the worst werewolf cash-in. There are now thousands of young, MFA-toting writers, so many of them aping the weak generation of literary male novelists now in their 50s: pallid and insufferable teachers and idols, in light of the strong and inventive generation before them.

When you find yourself inserting “make no mistake” into an assertion, you should consider the possibility that you’re doing so because you subconsciously recognize that your assertion is not sufficiently well-justified.

Also:  Sicha packs an amazingly dense tangle of sexual politics into just a few sentences!  Literary fiction is stultifying because it’s tied to the cultural practices of men in their 50s.  But they aren’t real men like their forbears, they are instead weak and pallid!  (Katie Roiphe called and she wants her tendentious generalizations back.  But then while she was on the phone Camille Paglia cut in on call-waiting and then things got really ugly.)

And the people with MFAs don’t just have MFAs — they tote them!  Probably in a tote bag!  Probably while drinking some insufferable kind of coffee drink!

Literary fiction — even literary fiction written by MFA-toters — is a big, rich, complicated zone.  At the moment I am reading Peter Carey’s crazy Illywhacker – Carey is indeed a male of the old persuasion, but pallid he is not – and Heidi Julavits’s new book The Vanishers, which is unquestionably literary fiction but which has lots of psychic phenomena and astral travel in it.  It’s a delight.  And I started Justin Cronin’s vampire-apocalypse book The Passage, whose more “literary” parts are better than the other parts.  I was promised it would be as good as The Stand, a great book whose status as literature is an interesting thing to think about.

I keep meaning to write a post about the ways in which Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen have converged on each other as writers, and how this fact helped me think about what “literary” means w/r/t novels.  But there is no time to do it today, only time to snark about something I read in Slate.  There is a lesson here.

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Historical textbook collection

I’m working in the math department library today and have gotten distracted by a collection of historical math textbooks that’s just gone on the shelves.

From College Mathematics:  A First Course (1940), by W. W. Elliott and E. Roy C. Miles:

The authors believe that college students who take only one year of mathematics should acquire a knowledge of the essentials of several of the traditional subjects.  From teaching experience, however, they are convinced that a better understanding is gained if these subjects are presented in the traditional order.  Students who take only one year of college mathematics are usually primarily interested in the natural sciences or in business administration.

The book covers algebra, trigonometry, Cartesian geometry, and calculus.  The definition of the derivative as a limit is given, but the epsilon-delta definition of limit is not.  Startling to think that science majors came to college never having taken algebra or analytic geometry.

Further back in time we get Milne’s Progressive Arithmetic, from 1906.  This copy was used by Maggie Rappel, of Reedsville, WI, and is dated January 15th, 1908.  Someone — Maggie or a later owner — wrote in the flyleaf, “Look on page 133.”

On the top of p .133 is written

Auh!  Shut up your gab you big lobster, you c?

You got me, Maggie!

I can’t tell what grades this book is intended for, but certainly a wide range; it starts with addition of single digits and ends with reduction of fractions to lowest terms.  What’s interesting is that the book doesn’t really fit our stereotype that math instruction in olden times was pure drill with no attention paid to conceptual instruction and explanation.  Here’s a problem from early in the book:

How many ones are 3 ones and 4 ones?  Write the sum of the ones under the ones.  How many tens are 6 tens and 2 tens?  Write the sum of the tens under the tens.  How do you read 8 tens and 7 ones?  What, then, is the sum of 24 and 63?  Tell what you did to find the sum.

From the introduction:

Yet the book is not merely a book of exercises.  Each new concept is carefully presented by questions designed to bring to the understanding of the pupil the ideas he should grasp, and then his knowledge is applied.  The formal statement of principles and definitions is, however, reserved for a later stage of the pupil’s progress.

Would these sentiments be so out of place in a contemporary “discovery” curriculum?

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Nate Silver is the Kurt Cobain of statistics

Or so I argue in today’s Boston Globe, where I review Silver’s excellent new book.  I considered trying to wedge a “The Signal and The Noise” / “The Colour and the Shape” joke in there too, but it was too labored.

Concluding graf:

Prediction is a fundamentally human activity. Just as a novel is no less an expression of human feeling for being composed on a laptop, the forecasts Silver studies — at least the good ones — are expressions of human thought and belief, no matter how many theorems and algorithms forecasters bring to their aid. The math serves as a check on our human biases, and our insight serves as a check on the computer’s bugs and blind spots. In Silver’s world, math can’t replace or supersede us. Quite the contrary: It is math that allows us to become our wiser selves.

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Somewhere a dog barked

From Rosecrans Baldwin in Slate:

As a reader of novels and not much else, I keep a running list of authorial whims. Male writers of the Roth/Updike generation, for example, love the word cunt. Also, where novelists once adorned their prose with offhand French bon mots, Spanish now appears. Here’s another: Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance. I’ve seen it happen across the spectrum—Jackie Collins, William Faulkner, and Chuck Palahniuk: “There was no more rain, just an eerie stillness, a deathly silence. Somewhere a dog barked mournfully.” (American Star) “She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow sad, faraway.” (Light in August) “This is such a fine neighborhood. I jump the fence to the next backyard and land on my head in somebody’s rose bush. Somewhere a dog’s barking.” (Choke)

I checked The Grasshopper King, and nope:  no barking dogs.  There’s a ceramic dog, and one dog who howls (but who appears moments later, and is named) and finally, near the end, a talking dog.  Me 1, cliche 0.

In other Slate literary coverage, Dan Kois reviews Ben H. Winter’s novel The Last Policemana detective story set in a future where Earth is six months away from certain destruction by asteroid collision.  When I was in college I took Spike Lee’s screenwriting course, and my screenplay was roughly on the same theme. It was a meteor heading for the earth, not an asteroid, and the atmosphere was supposed to be roughly that of After Hours or Into the Night.  It was called Planet Earth.  Lee’s total commentary on the screenplay, written on page 3, was “Some parts I laughed, some parts I didn’t,” and he gave me an A-.

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