February 29, 2012

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2012

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Jennifer Safrey, Tooth and Nail
Mind candy: portrait of the tooth fairy as amateur boxer (and pollster!).
Jennifer Crusie, Welcome to Temptation and Faking It
Mind candy; romance with a dash of con-artistry. "First, get the mark to smile..."
Thomas W. Young, Silent Enemy
Mind candy; thriller based on the author's experiences as a US military cargo pilot. There was something oddly compelling to the self-consciousness about being part of a vast and complicated system of humans and machines. I can't decide if it's rebuttal of ideas about technological alienation, an exemplification, or just an acceptance that this-is-what-it's-like.
Steven Berlin Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
Johnson has a couple of theses in this book. (1) Popular culture products — by which he overwhelmingly means American popular culture — has become more cognitively complex and demanding over the post-war decades, though he puts most of his emphasis on what's happened since 1970, and especially since 1980. (2) Comparing products of equivalent levels of popularity and (in some sense) quality, popular culture is at least as complex as it's been since the invention of the mass audience, and quite likely much more complex. (It makes no sense to compare cheap schlock movies of 2000 to the artistic peaks of 1970; you need to compare schlock to schlock.) (3) This increase in the complexity of the culture surrounding us, and which we use to entertain ourselves, drives the Flynn Effect.
I find points (1) and (2) pretty convincing, though this is necessarily impressionistic. (The thing which actually gives me the most pause is Johnson's forthright admission that the features which make shows like The Sporanos or The Wire demanding — huge casts of characters with multiple interacting plot threads extending over multiple episodes, or even over many years — have been parts of soap operas since time out of mind.) His description of what it's like to actually play modern videogames, for instance, is remarkably persuasive.
Point (3), however, is something else again. The possibility he doesn't give enough attention to is that the causal arrow points the other way. Suppose, for whatever reason, the kinds of habit of thought Johnson is talking about have become more widely distributed. This increases the size of the potential audience which could enjoy complex entertainments — and, perhaps more importantly, shrinks the pool of those who wouldn't find simpler ones boring. Makers seeking audiences then shift accordingly, accommodating an exogenous change in the audience. (Analogously, pulp fiction didn't teach people to read; it was a response to the innovations of mass literacy and cheap printing.) One would have to look elsewhere for an explanation of the Flynn Effect — the cumulative impact of generations of soap-opera-consuming mothers? — but I suspect that's true anyway.
Anyway, recommended if you care about these issues, or just like unusually intelligent (not clever) cultural criticism.
Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
Mind candy. This review on Tor.com is pretty good, and the excerpt on Ahmed's website is representative.
ObLinkage: Ahmed's self-presentation.
John Billheimer, The Contrary Blues
Mind candy. First book in the mystery series where I started with no. 2, Highway Robbery. A bit shakier writing than that one, but still enjoyable.
Jianqing Fan and Qiwei Yao, Nonlinear Time Series: Nonparametric and Parametric Methods
Full-length review: Everyone Their Own Oracle.
Shorter me: Modern non-parametric time series methods are immensely more powerful than Good Old-Fashioned ARMA-mongering. Fan and Yao have provided a nice introduction to time series for people who know non-parametric statistics; I doubt it will be helpful to ARMA-mongers. Given a choice to serve one or audience or the other, I'd have made the same choice, but it does contribute to science advancing, in this field, funeral by funeral.
Walter Jon Williams, The Fourth Wall
Sequel to This Is Not a Game and Deep State, in which Dagmar Shaw and co. take Hollywood; which is of course a cover for a much deeper game. (I think I can avoid spoilers in what follows; let's see.) Unlike the previous books, the viewpoint character is not Dagmar, but a former child actor, now adult and desperate to do anything to get back into the limelight. (In the first chapter we see just how desperate Sean is.) Sean, as the narrator, is intelligent but also profoundly indifferent to everything outside the little world of Hollywood movie-making, which leads to an interesting skewing of perspective on the events he witnesses. The reader who gets to the end will see what has gone before in a very different light.
While this makes it possible to enjoy this book without having read the previous ones (without "in our last thrilling episode" exposition), those of us who have read those books will realize that Sean is mis-understanding what he sees, and be tantalized by the sense that the story he is telling us is peripheral to something with much higher stakes. It's an interesting choice on Williams's part, but it did leave me wanting more Dagmar.
ObLinkage: Williams's self-presentation.
Jay Lake, Endurance
Sequel to Green, in which she continues her run-ins with the Powers That Be — as well as Powers That Were, and Powers Yet to Come. The ending promises a sequel, which I very much want.
(A propos of my complaining about the melanin-depletion of the cover of Green, Lake's preface here indicates that he's OK with that, which is his right. So I will switch to just complaining that Green, as depicted here, not only does not look five months pregnant, but will never show up on Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Enigmas of Chance; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Commonwealth of Letters; Commit a Social Science

Posted by crshalizi at February 29, 2012 23:59 | permanent link

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