Category Archives: books

A brief note on the quantified self

Cathy’s post reminded me to record here what Samuel Beckett had to say about the quantified self, in his 1951 novel Molloy:

I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.  Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.

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Dan Sharfstein wins Guggenheim

Congratulations to Dan Sharfstein, who is one of this year’s Guggenheim Fellows!  I have written before about my admiration for Dan’s book The Invisible Line, and this seems a good occasion to say again — if you’re at all interested in the long, complicated history of race in America, buy the book and read it.  His new book will be about Oliver Otis Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau.  This is the kind of project that requires long, deep research and painstaking thought.  I don’t know if we can Kickstarter things like this, and I’m glad we have the Guggenheim Foundation to help make them possible.


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Math on Trial, by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

The arithmetic geometer Leila Schneps, who taught me most of what I know about Galois actions on fundamental groups of varieties, has a new book out, Math on Trial:  How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom, written with her daughter Coralie Colmez.  Each chapter covers a famous case whose resolution, for better or worse, involved a mathematical argument.  Interspersed among the homicide and vice are short chapters that speak directly to some of the mathematical and statistical issues that arise in legal matters.  One of the cases is the much-publicized prosecution of college student Amanda Knox for a murder in Italy; today in the New York Times, Schneps and Colmez write about some of the mathematical pratfalls in their trial.

I am happy to have played some small part in building their book — I was the one who told Leila about the murder of Diana Sylvester, which turned into a whole chapter of Math on Trial; very satisfying to see the case treated with much more rigor, depth, and care than I gave it on the blog!  I hope it is not a spoiler to say that Schneps and Colmez come down on the side of assigning a probability close to 1 that the right man was convicted (though not nearly so close to 1 as the prosecution claimed, and perhaps to close enough for a jury to have rightfully convicted, depending on how you roll re “reasonable doubt.”)

Anyway — great book!  Buy, read, publicize!



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The Magic Circle, by Jenny Davidson

Strange and kind of great new novel by Jenny Davidson (who, for full information’s sake, is someone I’ve known on and off since college) about young intellectuals who believe in the power of text more than is perhaps good for them.  “Text” here means books, as you’d expect, but also text-as-in-texting and chat windows and games.  A lot of the dialogue is in an interestingly distant Delmore Schwartz register.  It reads strangely at first but makes sense once you get used to it.

What I liked best is this.  The book gestures at being one of those in which real life gives way to the fantastic, but ends up insisting (correctly, I think!) that when the fantastic intrudes into ordinary life, it does not replace ordinary life but rather overlays it — so that one can have the most heightened and extrawordly experience possible, and then go home, with the smell of it still on you, and check your e-mail and brush your teeth.  It is a novel for the world of Google Glass, and should be read whether or not the world of Google Glass turns out to be our world.


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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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