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What I've Been Reading

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel

Not bad. I'm a sucker for this type of history of a single commodity or common household object. It did make we want to try to get my hands on one of the few non-Cavendish cultivars of bananas that ever make their way to America.

Banana, Dan Koeppel

Very short summary/background info: all of the bananas at American grocery stores are genetic clones. This leaves them very susceptible to disease. This is not a theoretical concern: the variety which was previously ubiquitous was wiped out in the middle of the 20th century, and the current variety is being decimated in many growing regions. The fact that they're sterile fruits propagated clonally also makes it extremely difficult to breed other, more resistant varieties the way we do with the majority of our produce. Also important to the story is that banana production for the US and European markets has historically been very oligopolistic, leading to some … unsavory … business practices.

(Digression: The artificial banana flavor used in candies tastes nothing like our modern Cavendish bananas but I have heard that it is a very good match for the flavor of the Gros Michel that the Cavendish replaced. I've never been able to find definitive confirmation of that though, and I wish it was mentioned in this book. This a minor was disappointment. On the other hand, I was unreasonably amused by Koeppel's tongue-in-cheek translation of the "Gros Michel" as "The Big Mike".)

There is a temptation when people right books about subjects that have been overlooked to try to swing the pendulum too hard the other way to make the audience realize how important the subject is. Koeppel mostly avoids that trap, but falls in to it somewhat when discussing more current history. There's a lot more to Latin American politics and the rise of Bolivarian Socialism than the treatment of workers on banana plantations, which Koeppel asserted as a primary cause. Similarly he drew an analogy between the Clinton administration filing a complaint with the WTO about EU banana import duties and the active role that United Fruit played in shaping US foreign policy in Latin America between the beginning of the century and the middle of the Cold War. Both have fruit companies involved in international relations, that's where the similarities end. One of those is egregious cronyism, and one is a rules-based order in action.

Koeppel was on the shakiest ground towards the end of the book, when he was discussing the future of the banana market. His discussion of Fair Trade could benefit from reading Amrita Narlikar and similar critiques. I do give Koeppel much credit for his recognition of Consumer Sovereignty. If the conditions of banana growers are going to improve it won't be because Chiquita/Dole/etc. become kinder and gentler, it must be because consumers decide to spend more money buying bananas. Our stated preferences for better conditions for poor agricultural workers do not match our revealed preferences as consumers.

I also commend Koeppel for admitting that researching this book caused him to change his mind about transgenic food. He had previously been anti-GMO but became convinced genetic manipulation is the only way to save the banana crop. I do wish he had extended more of the same enthusiastic acceptance of transgenics to other crops, which he only went halfway to doing. Yes, bananas sterility makes them somewhat of a special case, but only somewhat.

A couple of months back I read Dan Reader's Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. If you're going to pick up one book about a non-cereal staple crop (and why wouldn't you?), I liked Potato much better.

Pilot X, Tom Merritt

This is a time-travel adventure story. It seemed like it could have been a Doctor Who episode. Merritt handles the oddities that result from time travel with deftness and wit. (A couple of examples that make you stop and think. 1: "This will be the last time I meet you, but not the last time you meet me." 2: The main character spends twelve years in training for a job, but it takes only four years, because when he gets to the end of the four year period he goes back in time and starts again twice, so that there are three of him all operating in parallel.) Amusing, but not great.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

I had previous read Liu's short story collection The Paper Menagerie and loved it. Grace of Kings didn't disappoint. Highly recommended. One of the blurbs on the back cover described it as "the Wuxia version of Game of the Thrones" and that pretty much covers it.

One downside to the book is that characters experience rapid changes in fortune within the span of several pages. It's a nice, fast pace — most contemporary fantasy authors would lumberingly stretch out plot points like this for scores (hundreds?) of pages — but it does rob the story of some of the potential dramatic tension. One minute I've never even considered the possibility of a character rebelling against their overlord, and then within ten minutes they've plotted their rebellion, rebelled, been suppressed, and then punished. That doesn't give me much chance to savor the possibilities of what might happen. All in all though, I prefer this pace to the prolix plodding common to so many contemporary fantasy authors. I appreciate GRRM-style world building as much as the next reader, but not every fantasy novel needs every minor character to have their entire dynastic history spelled out, complete with descriptions of their heraldry, the architecture of their family seat, their favorite meals, and their sexual peccadilloes.

I'm not actually sure 'fantasy' is the correct term for Grace of Kings, come to think of it. There's some minor divine intervention and a couple of fantastic beasts, but no outright magic. I suppose it's fantasy in a sort of Homeric way, rather than a 20th century way.

Anyway, I've got my hands on the sequel, The Wall of Storms, and will be starting it as soon as possible. Hopefully we don't have to wait too long before the third and final volume is published.

The Art of War, Sun Tzu, translated by the Denma Translation Group

I listened to this audio edition from Shambhala Press. I don't pay much attention to which publishers produce which books, but I've been quite happy with several volumes of theirs that I've bought.

I hadn't read Art of the War in probably 20 years, so this was a good refresh. The way they structured this was to first have a recording of the text being read, and then start at the beginning with another reading but this time with interspersed commentary. That was a very good way to do it.

The text itself is short, and the commentary in this edition is good, so I'd recommend this even if you have read Art of War before.

The Map Thief, Michael Blanding

This is the story of an antiquities dealer specializing in rare maps, E. Forbes Smiley III, who turned to theft to build his inventory. I don't usually go for true crime stories, and indeed that was the least interesting aspect of this book. However, it was an interesting look at a little corner of the art/antiques market that I did not know about. There is also good information about the history of cartography, exploration and printing.((Everyone loves to hate on the Mercator projection, but this book does a good job of explaining how revolutionarily useful Mercator's cartography was in the 16th century. His projection is a tool that is remarkably good for its intended purpose, i.e. helping navigate over long sea voyages. It shouldn't be used the way it has been (hung on every classroom wall, making choropleth infographics, etc.) but that doesn't make it a bad tool per se, just one that is misused. The fitness of a technology, just like that of a biological organism, can only be usefully evaluated in the environment it is adapted for.))

Perhaps the most interesting part of the case for me came after Smiley confessed and the various libraries he stole from had to go about figuring out what was missing and from whom. In the case of normal thefts, or even art thefts, this is pretty straight forward, but the nature of the material — rare, poorly or partially catalogued, incompletely and idiosyncraticly described, existing in various editions with only marginal differences, etc. — make it quite a puzzle. Coming up with a good cataloging system for oddities like antique maps would make a good exercise for a library science/information systems/database project. (Indeed it was only thanks to the work of a former Army intelligence analyst that things got sorted out as well as they did.) Even something superficially simple like figuring out which copy of a printed map is which makes for a good computer vision challenge.

There are also Game Theoretic concerns at work: libraries would benefit if they all operated together to publicize thefts in order to track down stolen materials, but it is in every individual library's interest to cover up thefts so as not to besmirch their reputation and alienate donors, who expect that materials they contribute will be kept safe. The equilibrium is not straightforward, nor is it likely to be optimal.

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Marketing to Algorithms?

Toby Gunton :: Computer says no – why brands might end up marketing to algorithms

I know plenty about algorithms, and enough about marketing.1 And despite that, I'm not sure what this headline actually means. It's eye catching, to be sure, but what would marketing to an algorithm look like?

When you get down to it, marketing is applied psychology. Algorithms don't have psyches. Whatever "marketing to algorithms" means, I don't think it's going to be recognizable as marketing.

Would you call what spammers do to slip past your filters "marketing"? (That's not rhetorical.) Does that count as marketing? Because that's pretty much what Gunton seems to be describing.

Setting aside the intriguing possibility of falling in love with an artificial intelligence, the film [Spike Jonez's Her] raises a potentially terrifying possibility for the marketing industry.

It suggests a world where an automated guardian manages our lives, taking away the awkward detail; the boring tasks of daily existence, leaving us with the bits we enjoy, or where we make a contribution. In this world our virtual assistants would quite naturally act as barriers between us and some brands and services.

Great swathes of brand relationships could become automated. Your energy bills and contracts, water, gas, car insurance, home insurance, bank, pension, life assurance, supermarket, home maintenance, transport solutions, IT and entertainment packages; all of these relationships could be managed by your beautiful personal OS.

If you're a electric company whose customers all interact with you via software daeomns, do you even have a brand identity any more? Aren't we discussing a world in which more things will be commoditized? And isn't that a good thing for most of the categories listed?

What do we really care about: getting goods and services, or expressing ourselves through the brands we identify with? Both, to an extent. But if we can no longer do that through our supermarkets or banking, won't we simply shift that focus it to other sectors: clothes, music, etc.

Arnold Kling :: Another Proto-Libertarian

2. Consider that legislation may be an inferior form of law not just recently, or occasionally, but usually. Instead, consider the ideas of Bruno Leoni, which suggest that common law that emerges from individual cases represents a spontaneous order, while legislation represents an attempt at top-down control that works less well.

I'd draw a parallel to Paul Graham's writing on dealing with spam. Bayesian filtering is the bottom-up solution; blacklists and rule sets are the top-down.

Both of these stories remind me of a couple of scenes in Greg Egan's excellent Permutation City. Egan describes a situation where people have daemons to answer their video phones that have learned (bottom-up) how to mimic your reactions well enough to screen out personal calls from automated messages. In turn marketers have software that learns how to recognize if they're talking to a real person or one of these filtering systems. The two have entered an evolutionary race to the point that people's filters are almost full-scale neurocognitive models of their personalities.

  1. Enough to draw a paycheck from a department of marketing for a few years, at least. []
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Some Long Overdue Book Reviews

More Money Than God Cover
"More Money Than God," Mallaby

More Money Than God, Sebastian Mallaby

Excellent. Far too many general audience finance books are written at what I think of as a newspaper reading level. (Defining even the most basic terms, assuming the reader is intimidated by any math as complicated as calculating a percentage, feeling the need to frame everything in a protagonist/antagonist arrangement, etc.) This is way, way better than that. There's an appropriate mix of the human element in there. The more factual stuff is covered well without needing resorting to lots of technicalities. (I have other books for that.)

It's hard to draw large conclusions from this book. One that comes to mind is that hedge funds seem to fail (either catastrophically, or in the more prosaic sense of failing to deliver the expected alpha) when they stop being hedge funds, where "hedge" is the operative word.

This book also made me start thinking more about the connection between financial risk and ecological monoculture. Trading strategies seem to have a discrete lifespan. Traders seem to underestimate how their strategies will be affected by being in a crowded field of other people with the same strategy. LTCM is a good example. Their system worked very well for a while and then crashed and burned. Is it that the system was actually bad all along, or was it great when they were the only ones doing it, and terrible when everyone else in the market was copying them and putting on the same trades? I don't think you can judge a strategy in isolation; you need to consider it's utility in both crowded and sparse niches.

"Panic," Lewis

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Michael Lewis

Very well curated. File under: "nihil sub sole novum," "the more things change," etc.

I think the only piece I would have left out, IIRC, was the Paul Krugman one. But that has more to do with being utterly exhausted at trying to reconcile vintage 1990s Krugman-the-Scholar with late model Krugman-the-Demogogue.

Saga #5
Saga #5

Saga, Volume Two, Brian K Vaughn + Fiona Staples

Saga is still absolutely brilliant. The story and art are both outstanding. Comics needs more Space Opera. The genre cries out for a visual medium, but the budget required to do something like this in film would be off the charts. Only James Cameron gets the opportunity to try something like that. (Although after Pacific Rim maybe del Toro will get the chance too. Or perhaps Neill Blomkamp if Elysium rakes in enough. Sign me up for some widescreen baroque space opera directed by either of them.)

"Hackers and Painters,"

Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham

I read most of these essays back in undergrad but it's great to revisit them. It's interesting how the things that have stuck in my mind aren't the major theses of the essays, but little asides and trivialities. Every CS student and programmer should read this. I think it would also make a good read for the family members, managers, etc. of those people too: anyone who wants to understand how we think and see would benefit. Even when I read Graham discussing completely non-technical subjects (e.g. adolescents and popularity) there's something in his method of analysis which resonates with me as distinctly hackerish. On the flip side, it's nice to have someone else in the computing community who is interested in Art. I would need a whole Paul Graham-level essay to unpack this, but I think there's an unfortunate degree of antagonism between the geek and art tribes.

Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett

This is one of my favorite Discworld books so far. I didn't realize going in that the focus of Pratchett's satire here is not just academia but also soccer/football culture.

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Too superstitious and mystical, but I think there are a lot of overlaps between the way scientists (and especially doctoral students) work and the way writers and artists work. Learning about how various writers (e.g. Neal Stephenson, DFW) work has helped me to be a better researcher.

A Red Mass for Mars, Jonathan Hickman + Ryan Bodenheim

A little hard to follow the plot, but absolutely gorgeous. Hickman consistently turns out books that are so visually different from most comics. Here there's a great contrast, similar to what he did in Pax Romana, between the stark black inking and the luminous aquarelle of the backgrounds.

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Some recent, brief book reviews

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman

"Fairy Takes from the Brothers Grimm," Pullman

I knew these were darker than Disney (and everyone else in the 20th C.) would have children believe, but wow. I think there was a stretch of seven stories in a row in which at least one person was casually executed. Cinderella's avian helpers not only dress her up nice and pretty before the soirees, they peck out her step-sisters' eyes! For the sake of professionalism I won't discuss what wakes up Briar Rose or turns the Frog Prince into a man, but let's just say they're a bit more intimate than the chaste smooches that are typically depicted.

Pullman does a first-rate job editing, especially since the various versions the Grimms published are a self-contradicting mess. He's managed to whip some of the stories into shape without losing their pre-modern, fever-dream, nonsensical character. He includes a brief analysis at the end of each story which I would have liked to have even more of. There are also lists of similar stories from other cultures, which given a large windfall of time I would like to track down. Pullman deserves credit for really editing this, not "editing" it in the way that David Foster Wallace discusses editing the Best American Essays 2007. (See his forward, Deciderization 2007: A Special Report, [fulltext pdf] included in his posthumous 2012 collection Both Flesh and Not.

Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas

Very disappointing. I previously read Thomas' PopCo, which I loved, and whose cleverness and vitality only further overshadows OTU. I'll save you a lot of trouble: the main character of OTU is a struggling author who is debating writing a novel in which nothing happens — a "story-less story." OTU is, eo ipso, a novel in which nothing happens. The end.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

Would have been twice as good if it was half as long. ("Don't worry about getting to your point; I am going to live forever.")

"Don't worry about getting to yoru points; I am going to live forever."

The conceit of using citations to reference works as similes was clever, especially since the narrator was an over-acheiving college freshman, but it wore out quickly.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf

"Proust and the Squid," Wolf
"Proust and the Squid," Wolf

Wolf did a sterling job balancing the history, neurobiology and pedagogy of reading and writing. I was (am?) dyslexic, so this was of special autobiographical interest to me. If I am reading her correctly, my difficulty learning to read when young, my continued ineptitude at foreign language and music, and my visuospatial and pattern recognition interests and skills are actually all rooted in the same cause and not independent as I had casually assumed.

Wolf has also informally tracked which sub-careers dyslexics end up in. Dyslexic doctors are more likely to be great radiologists, for instance, since it requires more visuospatial cognition. I was fascinated to learn that dyslexics in business gravitate to finance, and those in computing towards AI/ML/Pattern Recognition and Graphics/Vision. Those interests fit me perfectly. Score one for being neuro-atypical, I guess.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

It would be a ton of fun to do visual effects for a film adaptation of this. The illusions are brilliantly described. Actually all of the visual imagery is very well done. These characters would make good fodder for 15-minute sketch exercises like Chris Schweiser used to post.

"Some Remarks," Stephenson
"Some Remarks," Stephenson

Some Remarks, Neal Stephenson

Be advised the pluarilty of this is a single essay from the mid 90s about laying undersea fiberoptic cable. Stephenson manages to make that more interesting than I would have thought possible, but I picked this up looking forward to multiple, bite-sized essays so a single 125 page piece was tough to swallow.

(Side note: a recent BusinessWeek had a map of current undersea cables, and FLAG, which is the focus of Stephenson's essay and was bleeding edge in 1996, dwarfing previous cables' capacity by magnitudes, was just barely big enough to even make it onto the map 17 years later.)

It was also a little odd reading all these interviews and essays which revolve around the progression of Stephenson's career and how it relates to his "Baroque Cycle" since he's published three novels between that and Some Remarks and all of them are very different. The commentary has been left behind by events. It feels like picking up a book written in 1985 that's full of interviews with Reagan about transitioning from actor to SAG president to GE-backed orator but completely ignores his becoming governor and then president.

The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro

Not my usual kind of book, but still a lot of fun. It was a nice coincidence that I started reading this right as I began watercolor classes. You can tell Shapiro has a real passion for art; various passages really got me fired up to work on my own stuff (both digital and aqueous). She does a good job describing the artistic process in terms of both physical and internal manifestations.

"Stardust," Gaiman
"Stardust," Gaiman

Stardust, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman described this as "a fairy tale for adults," which is extremely apt. It diverges pretty significantly from the film version. Unsurprisingly I like the book version better, but this is one of those rare times when I don't find the movie to be drastically inferior.

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"Traffic," Tom Vanderbilt

This is a good compendium. Nothing too ground-breaking here, but Vanderbilt does cover a lot of ground.

I especially liked that Vanderbilt addressed self-driving cars. Traffic was published in 2009; I didn't expect then that producers would have made as much progress towards autonomous vehicles as they have in the last four years. I am more optimistic about overcoming regulatory hurdles than I was then, but I still believe those will be bigger obstacles than any technological difficulties.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt

I find any serious discussion of congestion, mass transit, electric vehicles, hybrids, land use, urban planning, fuel usage, carbon emissions, etc. pretty pointless if it doesn't consider the transformative effects of autonomous vehicles. Planning a new highway or commuter rail line that's supposed to be useful for the next fifty years without considering robo-cars feels like some 1897 Jules Verne-esque proto-steampunk fantasy that predicts the next century will look just like the last one except it will have more telegraphs and longer steam trains. You might as well be sitting around in a top hat and frock coat micromanaging where you'll be putting all the stables and coal bunkers for the next five generations, oblivious to Messrs Benz, Daimler, Peugeot et al. motoring around on your lawn.

I think you can wrap most of the problems of traffic congestion up into several short, unimpeachable statements:

  1. Costs can take the form of both money and time.
  2. Lowering the cost of something means people will do more of it, ceteris paribus.
  3. Reducing traffic congestion reduces the time-cost of driving.
  4. The reduced cost of driving causes people to want to drive more, raising traffic congestion again.

Unless someone can show me one of those four statements is incorrect, I'm comfortable concluding that traffic is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Plenty people think they have the cure for congestion: roundabouts, light rail, "livable communities," bike sharing, HOV lanes, high-density residences, abolishing free parking, mileage fees, congestion fees, etc. Some of these are good ideas, and some aren't. But I'm not taking anyone who claims to solve (or even alleviate) the traffic problem seriously unless they can address how their solution interacts with #1-4 above.

For some of the proposals the resolution is simple: they lower the time-cost but explicitly raise the monetary cost (e.g. congestion pricing, market-based rates for parking). Others don't have such an easy time of it. But either way, I'd like people to at least be able to address how they would break out of this feedback loop.

PS I once sat through an hour-long keynote by an eminent professor from MIT Sloan on modeling market penetration of alternative fuel vehicles. Half of his talk ended up being about gas shortages, both in the 1970s and after Hurricane Sandy. At no point in those thirty minutes did he once mention the word "price"! Everything I had heard about the distinction between freshwater and saltwater economics snapped into focus.

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"Ragnarok: The End of the Gods," A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

This is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which has contemporary authors re-telling ancient myths.

I soaked up all the Greco-Roman mythology I could get as a kid. My parents cleverly gave me a gift-wrapped copy of D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths right before boarding a flight to Florida. That was an extremely effective way to keep an eight year old Jared quiet for three hours.

Despite an interest I've never immersed myself in other cultures' myths to the same degree. Having them actually presented as fiction like Byatt does here worked better than attempting to read about it as non-fiction. Previous non-fiction sources I've tried are either superficial or fractally labyrinthine. I think the framing story Byatt chose was a little superfluous though it does get points for lyricism.

Harriet Walter's narration in the audiobook version I listened to was quite good. There were several passages of extended lists of beasts and plants and such that worked much better narrated than it would have in print. What would have been skimmed over in print had a hypnotic quality when spoken. (See lyricism remark supra.)

As a whole it was certainly good enough for me to pick up other books in the series.

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"Social networks in fact and fiction"

The Endeavour :: John Cook :: Social networks in fact and fiction

In a nutshell, the authors hope to get some insight into whether a myth is based on fact by seeing whether the social network of characters in the myth looks more like a real social network or like the social network in a work of deliberate fiction. For instance, the social networks of the Iliad and Beowulf look more like actual social networks than does the social network of Harry Potter. Real social networks follow a power law distribution more closely than do social networks in works of fiction.

If you read one version of Beowulf and it's not Seamus Heaney's translation you better have a very good reason.
If you read one version of Beowulf and it's not Seamus Heaney's translation you better have a very good reason.

I vaguely remember reading about some astronomer's using Homer's descriptions of constellations to pin down dates for various events in the Odyssey. Perhaps it was this PNAS paper by Baikouzis & Magnasco?

It seems however that an accurate historical account might have a suspicious social network, not because the events in it were made up but because they were filtered according to what the historian thought was important.

Indeed. Although I suspect this form of Narrative Bias would be less of a problem with Beowulf, the Illiad, etc., because the composers of those tales, and their audiences, had less exposure to the way fiction is "supposed" to be.

I would like to see someone do similar analysis for contemporary non-fiction. I prefer authors who tell a sprawling, tangled, less narratively driven story (Keay, Mann, Lewis, and Mukherjee come to mind) to one that fits a more conventional structure.  It's difficult for me to accept a story that takes place in a high causal density environment and yet somehow only a couple of people have any agency.

Nate Silver apparently feels the same way:

When we construct these stories, we can lose the ability to think about the evidence critically. Elections typically present compelling narratives. Whatever you thought about the politics of Barack Obama or Sarah Palin or John McCain or Hillary Clinton in 2008, they had persuassive life stories: reported books on the campaign, like Game Change, read like tightly bestselling novels.
— The Signal and the Noise, p. 59

Those are not the books I'm interested in.

NLP is very much not my area, but I can't help but wonder about automatically generating some sort of metric about this for a book. Count up how many proper names appear, and build a graph of them based on how closely together they are linked in the text. (That is, two names appearing often in the same sentence are more closely linked than two which appear in consecutive paragraph.) Perhaps simply looking at the histogram of name occurrence frequency might give you some preliminary ability to separate books into "realistic social structures" and "fiction-like social structures."

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