Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: The China Governess

The China Governess
Margery Allingham

At one time Margery Allingham had a reputation, along with Christie and Sayers, as one of Britain's Golden Age Queens of Crime. I haven't read all that much of her output, but what I have read leaves me puzzled as to why anyone would think so. The China Governess did nothing to enlighten me. It's a mess. In fairness, it's the next-to-last book she completed; I'll assume provisionally that it does not represent Allingham at the height of her powers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: The Poison Squad

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Deborah Blum
Biography, science, politics

In 2010, Deborah Blum published an excellent book entitled The Poisoner's Handbook. The Poison Squad is in many ways a sequel, or para-quel. Unfortunately, the comparison doesn't work in the current book's favor. In The Poison Squad, Blum slips over the line from writer to cheerleader.

The book is centered strongly on Dr. Harvey Wiley, "Father of the FDA". That in itself is a good choice; Wiley was a remarkable character, and provides a unifying thread. However, Blum makes a dreadful choice in her presentation of facts: a reader of The Poison Squad could be pardoned for concluding that everything that Dr. Wiley said, did, or proposed was absolutely righteous, because it was Dr. Wiley saying, doing, or proposing it.

This is nonsense. However well-intentioned Wiley was, and however nefarious his adversaries--and some were pretty nefarious!--he was not a prophet. The eponymous Poison Squad studies were far better than the previous standard, which consisted of nothing; but they would be laughed out of court today, due to tiny sample sizes and a lack of rigor. To use the existence of those studies to support their conclusions is absurd--but Blum does it, over and over. In no case does she even refer even glancingly to the actual, you know, currently-accepted facts. No: Dr. Wiley was always right, and his foes were always wrong (and not just wrong, but EEEVIL).

Blum likes horror stories. She flings around the fact that formaldehyde was used as a food additive like a mad card sharp pulling aces out of her sleeves, apparently because the phrase "formaldehyde in food!!!!" is a scary phrase. She doesn't mention that formaldehyde occurs naturally in some foods, much less give us meaningful facts by which we could compare quantities or make reasoned judgments. She kicks up Wiley-quotin' storm on the terror that is sodium benzoate, but does she include anything like Science Magazine's commentary on the stuff? I'll give you one guess. (Hint: Science uses the terms "idiotic", "stupid", and "Your reasoning is faulty and your science is wrong".) 

At several points Blum's text reads like the "arguments" of today's anti-vaccine zealots. That is not a compliment.

Blum really shows her colors in a rather bad afterword. Here she tries to connect Saint Harvey Wiley to global warming, the Trump Administration, the heartbreak of psoriasis, etc. (Okay, I made that last one up.) This is not only off-putting; it shouldn't be necessary. If Blum had written her book better, she could have--should have--trusted her readers to make the connections for themselves. Instead, the addendum just looks like more frothing and propaganda.

A pretty good book covering some related topics (among many others) is Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Book Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois
Science fiction

This anthology is a mixed bag, which gives it a leg up on a some other contemporary counterparts that I've read. At least it's not universally depressing. I don't think any of the stories here rises to the level of an instant classic--Ted Chiang is your best bet for that nowadays--but some of them are pretty good. I observe that the verb "print," in the sense of 3D printing, is overused; that having at least one character with non-quotidian sexuality and/or gender is is très hip; and that, contrarily, anything -punk seems to have fallen off the radar.

The stories I'd give an actual "I liked this" to are:
  • "Dear Sarah", Nancy Kress. Not totally original, but a good (and topical) inverted view of the friendly-aliens-are-here setting.
  • "Night Passage", Alastair Reynolds. Very nice plotting.
  • "The Martian Job", Jaine Fenn. Nothing groundbreaking, but an entertaining heist tale.
  • "The Proving Ground", Alec Nevala-Lee. Great Scott! A science-fiction story that revolves around actual science! The message is hoary, but the development is good.
  • "Number Thirty-Nine Skink", Suzanne Palmer. Disclaimer: Suzanne is a friend of mine. A very oddball . . . love story? . . . between a probe and a man.
  • "A Series of Steaks", Vina Jie-Min Prasad. Cute crime story (with 3D printing that's actually intrinsic to the story!).
  • "Nexus", Michael F. Flynn. I'm not quite sure what this story is trying to do, but it does it in an amusing way.
For the rest, here are my notes, which (I stipulate) are totally biased, and will be useful mainly to readers who share my prejudices.

The Moon is Not a BattlefieldIndrapramit DasD, UWar is bad, and grunts get the worst of it both during and after. Who knew?
Vanguard 2.0Carter ScholzNPSubstantially weakened by a lady-or-the-tiger ending.
Starlight ExpressMichael SwanwickNP
We Who Live in the HeartKelly RobsonAP, DF
The Dragon That Flew Out of the SunAliette de BodardNP, U
Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty's Place CafeNaomi KritzerMS, UConfronted by major external crisis, woman learns what's really important. It's been done.
The Hunger After You're FedJames S. A. CoreyAP, NP
The WordlessIndrapramit DasD, NP
Pan-Humanism: Hope and PragmaticsJessica Barber and Sara SaabAP, NPStar-crossed lovers are star-crossed. Repeat.
ZigeunerHarry TurtledoveUAn enjoyable read, well-written, with excellent detail, but hopelessly predictable.
The Influence MachineSean McMullenUSexism, like war, is bad.
Prime MeridianSilvia Moreno-GarciaAP, DF
TriceratopsIan McHughWTF
There Used to be Olive TreesRich LarsonAP, D
Death on MarsMadeline AshbyAP, MSCould be set anywhere.
Elephant on TableBruce SterlingDFI got less than five pages into this before I gave up.
The Residue of FireRobert ReedWTF
SidewalksMareen F. McHughUDid I say the Turtledove story was hopelessly predictable? I take it back.
  • AP: Annoying protagonist (or main viewpoint character)
  • D: Depressing
  • DF: Didn't finish (or skimmed)
  • MS: Mainstream fiction masquerading as SF
  • NP: No point that I could discover
  • U: Unoriginal 
  • WTF: WTF
This isn't all of the stories in the volume, but the comment "This story made no particular impression on me" covers everything else.

Even if not all the stories are (in my humble (but obviously correct) opinion) winners, I tip my hat to the authors. They're doing something hard.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Book Review: The Consuming Fire

The Consuming Fire
John Scalzi
Science fiction

The Consuming Fire is the sequel to The Collapsing Empire. If you liked that, you'll like this. I did, and I did. My reservations: there's really not enough description of people, places, and events; the villains aren't especially competent; and the final resolution seems like something that the protagonist really should have done around chapter four. There's couple of nice bits in the middle about how people interpret other people's intentions through their own lenses, though.

Like the first book, this is not a must-read instant classic. It's good workmanlike old-school SF, with John Scalzi's typical strengths and weaknesses. Start with the first book.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Book Review: The Flatiron

The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose With It
Alice Sparberg Alexiou
Architecture, Biography

There is a surprisingly substantial sub-subgenre comprising biographies of buildings. The Flatiron Building is perhaps a little less known nowadays, but it was interesting and important in its own time. The notable thing about The Flatiron--the book, that is--is that spends relatively few pages on the engineering and construction of the edifice. It does some work on telling the building's story throughout its subsequent life, which is nice, and which many other books in this sub-subgenre neglect.

More than anything else, however, The Flatiron revolves around a person. Specifically, it's the story of one Harry S. Black, the would-be "Skyscraper King" of New York, whose ambition and vision--or, if you prefer, ego and monomania--drove the construction in the first place. This improves the book if you're one of those readers who prefers stories about people; Black was certainly colorful enough to carry it.

On the other hand, it also makes the book more conventional. It'd make a good episode of a TV show: there are decidedly soap-operatic threads. Gilded-Age tycoon melodramas, however, are a dime a dozen. The building's story is more unique than its progenitor's. I didn't dislike The Flatiron, but I didn't think it quite lived up to its potential.

Some notable books in the biography-of-a-building category include Skyscraper: The Making of a Building, by Karl Sabbagh, and Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, by Daniel Okrent. Moving from buildings to edifices in general, David McCullough's The Great Bridge is a classic for a reason.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: The Book of Why

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect
Judea Pearl
Mathematics, computers, statistics

The Book of Why reminded me strongly of The Evolution of Beauty.
  • The author has a Theory, referred to with Capital Letters (here, the Causal Revolution; there, that Beauty Happens).
  • The Theory was actually discovered long ago, but it has been forgotten.
  • Mainstream investigators have sneered at, pooh-poohed, and generally neglected the Theory.
  • Fie on them.
  • They are enslaved to their own outdated notions, which lead them to more and more outlandish convolutions to explain things that the Theory explains quite simply.
  • The Theory is nothing less than revolutionary, and has profound implications.
  • The assertions of significance are maybe a little more extravagant than the book can establish.
There's even a shared villain of sorts, the statistician R. A. Fisher.

Among the differences is that The Book of Why is more technical. I won't say it's written for a specialist audience, but to get a lot out of it you should have at least a basic understanding of probability and statistics. (Bonus points for knowing what Bayes' Theorem is.) You'll need to do some simple probability math if you want to verify what Pearl is saying. 

Put it another way: if you're not familiar with the stock phrase "correlation is not causation," this isn't the book for you--because this is exactly what Pearl is arguing about. Specifically, The Book of Why argues for the power of making inferences based on causal diagrams, and demonstrates rigorous ways to manipulate them to draw powerful conclusions. 

This sounds hazy, so let's go with an example from the book: the low-birth-weight paradox. We've all learned that smoking is bad, and that it's especially bad for pregnant mothers. And yet: babies with low birth weight do better if their mothers were smokers. This isn't a fluke; the statistics establish correlation quite firmly. What gives?

What gives, says Pearl, is that we're settling for a correlational answer when we need a causal one. Specifically, we need to understand that low birth weight may have different causes. Smoking can cause it. But so can developmental defects, or malnutrition. What the paradox show is that babies whose birth weight is low because their mothers smoked do better than babies whose birth weight is low because of other, much more serious conditions. Which makes perfect sense.

Interesting stuff. On the other hand, classical statisticians have good ways to talk about this sort of effect without resorting to Pearl's "Causal Revolution." Maybe it's clearer and simpler with causal calculus--I'm inclined to believe that--but The Book of Why rather implies a stronger claim.

Moreover, Pearl seems to tack sideways around one of the standard arguments against causal thinking. When you create a causal model, you're making assumptions. All the graph-theoretical rigor in the world won't help you answer questions if your graph is wrong--if, say, you assume that plowing the prairie causes rain (don't laugh, people did this), you'll have an incorrect diagram. Sure, this is often trivial--snowy weather causes traffic accidents, not the other way around--but when it's that trivial, why do you need a causal model in the first place?

The power of standard statistics is to tease out correlations that you didn't expect. That's why statisticians, AI researchers, and machine-learning people love it: you dump in a bunch of data, push a button, and poof! you learn something. (In practice, I haven't found it to work that way, but the notion is seductive.) Causal modeling seems like an interesting and powerful approach to quantifying what it is that you've learned. As to whether it merits the designation of "revolution," though, I'm still agnostic.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Professor Allen Guttman

My uncle, who taught English and American Studies at Amherst College from 1959 to 2013, just turned eighty-six. He's still running every day and writing academic articles.