What I read in 2009

12/19 P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

The book that introduces Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, I believe. It's not as good as Joy in the Morning, but, after all, it's Wodehouse and it's Jeeves and Wooster, so what more could anyone want?

12/8 Ananth Grama, Anshul Gupta, George Karypis, and Vipin Kumar, Introduction to Parallel Computing (second edition)

“Introduction” is accurate: a discussion of basic issues like parallel architectures, a tour of a few real-world systems for parallel programming (MPI, pthreads, and OpenMP), and a discussion of parallel algorithms for matrices, graphs, sorting, FFT, and other problems. The parallel algorithms are about half the book.

If you've worked in computer programming for a while, you probably know some of this material already. Probably not all, though, unless you're a parallel programming specialist. (And if you are, you'll probably want this book as a reference.) Some of the parallel algorithms were new to me, and so were some of the formal techniques for analyzing them. The isoefficiency function is a useful tool.

I also came away from this book with more respect for OpenMP. The syntax is horrible, yes, but the underlying ideas are sound and even elegant. You could imagine a much prettier formulation of those concepts, perhaps extending C in a better way instead of using #pragma, or perhaps as an entirely new langauge.

12/8 Terry Pratchett, Making Money

A study of economic modeling and the basis of currencies.

11/27 Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games

This is probably the least subtle of the Culture books. Banks wrote the Culture as the closest thing to a Utopia that he could imagine humans living in; the Empire of Azad, by contrast, is an exaggeration of all the worst element of our own world. Well, not everything has to be subtle. It works, and it works in part because of the stark contrast between the main character's culture and the world he's visiting. This is the first Culture book I read, and I liked it a lot—enough to go on to read all the rest.

11/23 Catherynne Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice

More stories within stories within stories, which finally do come together. I bought this book at WisCon, where the author assured me that this really was the end, that all of the loose ends are as resolved as they will be. I believe her—although I'll probably have to reread both books so I can read earlier parts in light of later ones, and maybe use Graphviz to represent the timeline as a DAG, to understand how it all fits together. The narrative structure in this book is one of the most intricate I've seen, and reconstructing it, seeing those carefully constructed interconnections, is one of the reasons it's such a joy to read.

The two books are really two halves of a whole. I thought there were more passages in this one that were individually beautiful for their language, though, than in the first.

11/14 Alexandre Dumas (fils), Camille (tr. Edmund Gosse)

The original French title is La Dame aux Camélias. In English, for some reason, it's universally known as Camille. It's odd that Marie Duplessis (1824–1847) is still remembered, but the story that Dumas made of her life has been told and retold many times. Dumas wrote the first stage adaptation of this book, in 1852; there have been dozens more since then, including a Greta Garbo film.

Nowadays the story is probably best known as La Traviata. That's certainly how I know it best; I couldn't count how many times I've listened to it, and I was thinking about Verdi's music all the time I was reading this book. The characters' names are different (Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval instead of Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont), but the story is very recognizably the same. There are sections of dialogue that the opera takes from the novel almost verbatim.

La Traviata is famously an emotionally compelling opera. (“Any soprano can make you cry in the third act. It takes a great soprano to make you cry in the first act.”) Camille is a romantic story, but in several ways it's more distanced. For one thing, it goes into much more detail about how the economics of Marguerite's life worked. The book begins, after her death, with an auction of all her possessions to pay her debts. It's also distanced because of its structure: it's told by an anonymous narrator, who learns the story mostly by chance.

Reading the book, much more than seeing the opera, reminds you what an alien world this was. What exactly was Marie/Marguerite/Violetta, and what did that imply about her social status? This translation uses the words “kept woman” and “courtesan.” Neither of those is a particularly familiar term in 21st century America. “Prostitute” would be an obvious but inaccurate choice. We have no word to describe what she was because the concept just doesn't exist today.

11/11 Dorothy Sayers, Busman's Honeymoon

The War and its consequences are more prominent in some of the Lord Peter books than others, but it's never very far away. This is in some ways one of the more cheerful books, but its ending, focusing on what today we'd call Lord Peter's PTSD and what in his day would have been called shell shock (“I suppose I've never been really right since the War”), is unusually gloomy.

10/24 Ian McEwan, Amsterdam

This book didn't turn out to be what I thought it would be, and I'm not entirely sure it knew what it wanted to be. It only gradually turned into a black comedy, and in the end Molly seemed less like the focus of the book than like a MacGuffin. Structural issues aside, though, it was well written and never less than enjoyable.

10/16 Drew Goddard, Georges Jeanty, and Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Volume 3: Wolves at the Gate

Between Dracula and Dawnzilla, this installment got very silly.

10/14 Catherynne Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden

Stories within stories within stories within stories. It's partly reminiscent of the Arabian Nights (certainly not a coincidence), and partly reminiscent of Douglas Hofstadter's illustration of pushing and popping in Gödel, Escher, Bach (quite possibly also not a coincidence). If I really wanted a full understanding of how it all fit together I'd probably have to draw two diagrams, one representing the stories as a stack and the other as a flattened timeline.

9/26 Justin Fox, The Myth of the Rational Market

This book is essentially the intellectual history of an idea: the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), which was an important part of 20th century economics. Along the way it addresses other related ideas, including the capital asset pricing model, the rise of quantitative finance as an academic discipline related to but somewhat separate from economics, and the challenges to the EMH from behavioral economics. The book ends with the 2008 financial crisis, which many people consider to be a definitive refutation of the EMH.

Economists sometimes talk about the Weak EMH and the Strong EMH. In fact there are several versions, some, such as the claim that stock market pricing is the best measure of the social worth of different resource allocations, explicitly ideological. There are arguments that the different formulations are equivalent, just as Kant had an argument that his two versions of the Categorical Imperative are equivalent. Whether you find those arguments convincing is another matter. As a matter of logic: if stock prices always reflect a company's true intrinsic value, it follows from that that they are the best possible aggregation of information about that company, and it follows from that that in the absence of new information a time series of stock prices will pass statistical tests for randomness, and it follows from that that it's impossible to make money by outsmarting the market, and it follows from that that it's hard to make money by outsmarting the market. There's no logical reason to believe the converses, but historically, for several decades, an awful lot of people acted as if there was.

Eugene Fama wrote in the 60s that “In an efficient market, the actions of the many competing participants should cause the actual price of a security to wander randomly about its intrinsic value.” That is, there are no such things as bubbles or panics. Is this supposed to be a definition of efficiency, or is it supposed to be a fact that follows from efficiency as defined some other way? Either way, it doesn't appear to describe our world. As it turns out, not even the random walk observation that began all of the EMH theorizing seems to be quite true: short term fluctuations appear to be mostly but not entirely random, and even to the extent that they're random they don't seem to follow the gaussian distribution of a true random walk.

This book was based on an article, and its headline still makes a pretty good summary of the book: “Is the market rational? No, say the experts. But neither are you—so don't go thinking you can outsmart it.”

9/23 Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

A very witty mystery novel about gender, textual criticism, and chancery law. It also reminds me that I need to reread the Odyssey.

9/22 Brian O'Sullivan, John Goerzen & Don Stewart, Real World Haskell

This book is what it promises to be: it's a book about Haskell, not just a book about functional programming. It discusses how to use and define monads and Haskell's module system, and it doesn't dodge practical issues like multithreading, network programming, error handling, linking to C code, profiling, and installing and distributing packages. It's certainly the best book about Haskell that I've seen. The book does have the annoying mechanical flaw that it sometimes uses functions and operators before defining them (it used the GHC ! pattern extension long before explaining that it was a strictness annotation, and I don't think it ever actually said what the $ operator does, although it became clear in context). This wouldn't have been too bad except that the book's index is also quite incomplete, so it wasn't possible to just look these undefined functions up. This book is really best read sitting at the computer, with ghci running in one window and the Haskell library reference or Google in another.

The other question, of course: is Haskell actually worth using for practical programming, or is “real world Haskell” an oxymoron? I'm still not sure. What's distinctive about Haskell is that it's a statically typed functional language with type inference, monads, type classes, and lazy evaluation. It's the monads and type classes and lazy evaluation that distinguish it from, say, ML. Type classes are interesting and simple, but I'm still not persuaded about monads—they seem to me like a tremendous amount of machinery for pretending that computers don't have mutable state. And this book made me more scared of lazy evaluation than I had been. It did show a few cases where laziness makes code simpler or more elegant, but it also showed many cases where laziness is a terrible performance trap that you have to think about constantly. It's still not clear to me that there's a good mental model for that, or that the whole business is worth the trouble.

9/11 Mark Twain, Sketches New and Old

An 1875 collection of short pieces. (My copy seems to have been printed in 1917, but I don't think it differs from the earlier edition.) Much of the book is pretty minor — forgettable after dinner speeches, for example — but a few, like “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “My Late Senatorial Secretaryship,” are deservedly well known. This collection is Twain the humorist, though, not Twain the angry social critic. That other Twain came later. With the notable exceptions of “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” and “A True Story,” the pieces in this book are just funny for the sake of being funny, not using humor to make any particular point.

9/7 Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

8/31 China Miéville, The City & The City

Unlike China Miéville's previous books, this is not fantasy. It's a police procedural, set in the doppelganger city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma—physically colocated, but separated by language and culture and custom and harshly enforced law, where residents of each city must “unsee” the people and streets of the other. There's limited travel and trade between the cities, but the two cities have different foreign policies, a phone call from one to the other is an international call, and it's no easier for a Besź citizen to visit Ul Qoma than, say, Istanbul.

Can I believe that people could live this way? Not quite, although the implications are worked out more thoroughly than one might expect. It's an insane premise, but when you're reading this book, asking yourself just why it's insane, it's hard not to notice that some of the real world accomodations to ethnic tension are pretty insane too, and some work much less happily than this. Besźel and Ul Qoma are separate because everyone believes that they're separate, which is ultimately how governments and languages and borders always work. You could almost imagine a coexistence like this, not for Besźel and Ul Qoma but for Yerushalayim and Al Quds. Almost.

8/27 George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For?

I read this essay collection because of the discussions of it, and the high praise, in the Crooked Timber seminar. It's worth reading.

Almost all of the essays are book reviews. Scialabba discusses a diverse group of people, but this book feels more unified than one might have expected. After reading it I have a pretty good idea of what he thinks—or at least what questions he thinks are important, since one of the things intellectuals are good for is raising questions.

And indeed, the question posed by the title essay is one of the themes that appears throughout the book. Scialabba is concerned with the role of the intellectual in American society—or more narrowly the public intellectual with a humanities education and a commitment to some kind of left politics, as exemplified by the “New York intellectuals” of a half century ago, people like Irving Howe and Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy, who didn't necessarily have academic affiliations but whose focal points were Partisan Review or the magazines that Woody Allen conflated as Dissentary. Are there public intellectuals like that today? If not, does it matter or do we just live in a different kind of world now with different needs?

Ultimately, though, that's not the major theme of this book. As Scialabba says in the very first paragraph of this book, all of these questions “presuppose, or at any rate seem to correlate with, political commitments.” This book discusses many people but it's dedicated to three: Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, and Christopher Lasch. An odd collection, but eventually it seems coherent. Scialabba wants democracy and socialism, in some broad sense. (And of course he realizes that both concepts are hard to define and that we don't have a very good idea of what either one would look like.) He's concerned about imperialism and state power—closely related, because, as Randolph Bourne, one of his intellectual heroes, pointed, out, “War is the health of the State.” At the same time, while he fundamentally agrees with the ideas of modernity, he fears that they might have come to a dead end. One way to look at modernity is that we've dispelled one intellectual illusion after another. We've increased personal freedom in many ways, but we've also weakened some of the things that hold communities together. Now the antifoundational philosophers, from Nietzsche through Rorty, have made a convincing case against philosophy's own metaphysical premises. What's left? Scialabba doesn't think it's possible to go back to believing in God, or metaphysical absolutes, but also isn't sure that it's possible to have a decent society without something better than nihilism. He (like me) is old fashioned enough to believe in progress. This book has wide ranging concerns, but many of them relate, at least indirectly, to trying to understand how we can reconcile socialism and democracy and modernity and the hope for a world that can eventually be better.

That's one of the reasons Lasch comes in. Scialabba is willing to think about radical answers to that question, including the radically conservative critique of modernity from people like Lasch and John Gray. One of his greatest strengths is his willingness to take ideas seriously on their own terms. This is one of the other things intellectuals are, or should be, good for: “To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one's own position as those of one's opponents; to take pains to discovery, and present fully, the genuine problems that one's opponent is, however futilely, addressing.” He usually lives up to that standard. The only two essays in this book that seemed wholely unsympathetic were the reviews of The Closing of the American Mind and Culture and Imperialism, and even there he at least tried to understand what the authors' concerns were and why they were trying to address them with these books.

Of course, it's hard to treat an idea with respect if you fail to notice its existence. Scialabba writes in passing that our usual aesthetic standards are “inconsistent with giving Robert Mapplethorpe a one-man show, or Karen Finley a National Endowment for the Arts grant, or Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize.” A considered judgment based on looking at those people by their own standards, judging their ideas in the best possible light? Possibly, but it doesn't read like it. And then there's an omission that seems especially glaring to someone like me. Scialabba quotes Irving Howe writing that “the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” But of course that wasn't true of Howe. His field was literary studies; maybe, if you want to describe it as broadly as possible, you could stretch it to say that his field was the humanities. As my father once pointed out to me, Howe barely noticed that science existed. And Howe isn't alone. With very few exceptions (the only ones I can think of are Noam Chomsky and Bertrand Russell), none of the people discussed in this book know the first thing about any scientific field. Scialabba doesn't seem to be bothered by this narrow scope, but I am—partly because political ideas need to take the world into account and partly because scientific ideas are, well, ideas. C. P. Snow's “The Two Cultures” may have been simplistic, but every so often, when I read something like this, I think Snow was on to something.

8/22 Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

The world has held great Heroes,
   As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
   Compared with that of Toad!

8/16 Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl: talks & essays on how & why fantasy matters

Essays, mostly about fantasy and children's literature. The longest and most interesting is “Cheek by Jowl: Animals in Children's Literature.” It reminds me how many children's classics I haven't read in a very long time, or in some cases not at all. I don't think I've ever read Bambi (which Le Guin praises as unsentimental and true to the nature of real deer—very unlike the movie) or Watership Down (which she criticizes for gender politics that distort the nature of both rabbits and humans).

8/15 Seyed M.M. “Saied” Tahaghoghi and Hugh E. Williams, Learning MySQL

I don't think I'll ever love SQL. It just feel clunky and nonorthogonal, with tons of special cases. But you've got to know it if you're going to use databases, and I grudgingly have to admit that databases are sometimes useful.

8/14 Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

The cover flap says that Pynchon is “working in an unaccustomed genre” in this book. What genre is that, exactly? Sort of the doper version of a hard boiled detective novel, perhaps, but I don't think there is any name for that genre. Among other things it's a historical novel set in the tail end of the 60s. (Some time after 1969 but before 1974: ARPANET exists, and Nixon is president.) The characters don't realize that their culture is ending, but we do.

This is shorter and simpler than most Pynchon books, and in style it reminded me of The Crying of Lot 49, but the themes are reminiscent of Vineland.

8/6 Karen Joy Fowler, Wit's End

8/2 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

7/24 The Iliad (tr. Robert Fagles)

Is it really possible for me to say anything about this poem that some scholar didn't already write decades or centuries or millennia ago?

7/19 Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint

I thought I should get around to reading this, since it's the first Roth I'd ever heard of. It's an early book, though, and not his best: it doesn't take its subjects seriously, but it also isn't all that funny. I suspect it became famous partly because a Jewish novel with explicit sex and explicit sexual language, was, at the time, a novelty.

The parts I liked best weren't so much about the characters, but about the world they lived in. Newark in the 40s certainly wasn't the same as the Bronx in the 30s, but it was at least something like the world my father grew up in.

7/3 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I don't remember the last time I read this; probably when I was about Tom's age. Parts of it were familiar, but I'd completely forgotten others—like the part in the cave. Good illustration of why you should always bring three reliable light sources when you go caving.

6/24 Charles Stross, The Revolution Business

The penultimate book in the Merchant Princes series.

This is very much a Cheney-era book. Will the next one be too, or will it move on to the next administration? If the latter, of course, there's no guarantee about what that next administration will be! It's already clear from this book that “our” world in this series isn't quite our world. Perhaps that's just the author's way of protecting himself from historical contingencies.

6/13 Ellen Klages, White Sands, Red Menace

Continues the story of The Green Glass Sea into the postwar years. The Green Glass Sea has more personal resonance for me, because my family and professional background makes a story about physicists in Los Alamos seem very close to home, but this one is at least as good a book. Like the earlier book, one of the main reasons it works is that we, with our knowledge of history, understand more about the times the characters are living in than they do. We know that they're living in a time of transition, and we know what comes next. The world they live in feels very real in the small details of everyday life, and one of the reasons it feels real is that the things that seem terribly important in retrospect don't always have an outsize importance at the time.

Ellen said that there are “easter eggs” in the book. I noticed a few: I noticed the Tom Lehrer quote near the beginning, and I started noticing that an awful lot of the chapter titles seemed very familiar. I'm sure I missed more than I caught.

6/6 Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Volume 2: No Future for You

6/2 Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Sort of like The Jungle Book, except that instead of India it's England, and instead of a jungle it's a graveyard, and instead of animals it's ghosts (and a vampire). It deserves its Newberry.

5/24 C. J. Cherryh, Foreigner

First book in the first of four trilogies. Eek! Cherryh really likes writing books where the main character is vulnerable, exhausted, and cut off from everything human, doesn't she?

5/24 C. J. Cherryh, Cuckoo's Egg

5/22 C. J. Cherryh, Forty Thousand in Gehenna

5/20 C J. Cherryh, Regenesis

Sequel to Cyteen. It doesn't feel complete, though, or up to Cyteen's level. Maybe there's more to come?

5/14 C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen

At first it seems like it's going to be a murder mystery, but it's much more complicated than that. It's probably Cherryh's best work.

5/12 George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism

Book of the month of the Obama Book Club.

The elevator pitch: behavioral economics meets macroeconomics. Or to expand it slightly, this book tries to answer the question I wondered about when reading Dan Ariely's book: if you accept that behavioral economics is important, that homo sapiens does not actually behave like homo economicus, then what should economics textbooks of the future look like?

The title comes from a famous passage in Keynes, and a big part of the authors' answer is: Keynes was right. Keynes was more right than the neo-Keynsian school that dominated the mid 20th century, which was more mathematical than Keynes's General Theory but which deemphasized his important qualitative observations.

Akerlof and Shiller don't write as well as Keynes, but that's not much of a putdown; very few people do. The book is short, clear, and easy to read. It also seems to have been written and published very quickly. It's a sketch of an important subject; the real book on this subject remains to be written.

I suspect that the intended audience for this book isn't so much professional economists, or even interested laypeople like me, but a few dozen high level policy makers: in large part it's a guide to action. Considering that the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors appears in the acknowledgments, and that one of the authors is married to the CEO of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, I suspect that the book did reach the intended audience.

4/24 Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Like Sapir-Whorf, only more so.

4/17 Samuel R. Delany, Empire Star

Simplex, complex, multiplex.

4/12 Lois Bujold, Brothers in Arms

3/28 Vikas Swarup, Q&A

The movie took very little from this book other than the framing device—not even the name of the main character. I can see why this book inspired a film, though; its double framing device reads as cinematic, and it's a fun and fast read.

3/24 Octavia Butler, Fledgling

A rather creepy book about vampires and racism. I'm told that the author originally intended this to be an easy and light book, to unwind from Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, but it isn't. I don't think she wrote light books.

I didn't know Octavia Butler, but I did meet her once at a con, and I remember a discussion people were having there. The context was something like what subjects were interesting for erotica. Her answer: symbiosis. That has a lot to do with why this book, like so many of her books, is so unsettling.

2/27 Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall

The casual racism is a little hard to take (yes, it's bad even by the standards of 1928), but that's mostly just in one chapter. Other than that it's a lot of fun, mostly because of the contrast between the main character and what happens to him.

2/24 Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

2/21 Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home

Book of Honor for Potlatch 18.

“This is a mere dream dreamed in a bad time, an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps by a middle-aged housewife, a critique of civilization possible only to the civilised, an affirmation pretending to be a rejection, a glass of milk for the soul ulcered by acid rain, a piece of pacifist jeanjacquerie, and a cannibal dance among the savages in the ungodly garden of the farthest West.”

2/8 R. F. C. Walters, Categories and Computer Science

I didn't find most of the computer science examples very compelling, I'm afraid. To the extent that category theory has any genuine application to computer science it's probably in type theory, and this book barely mentioned types.

I'm still wondering if there's any better way for me to learn category theory for real than studying graduate level algebraic topology and then reading Categories for the Working Mathematician.

2/1 Sir Terry Pratchett, The Truth

A sort of companion to Going Postal, which is about the invention of the telegraph. This is about the invention of the newspaper. In our world newspapers came first and the telegraph changed them—not entirely for the better. In Discworld the connections are less direct, but still present.

1/30 John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless

Book of Honor for Potlatch 18.

1/20 Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Obama's memoirs, written before he entered politics. It's surprisingly good; it would be well worth reading even if he weren't President.

1/19 William Joyce, A Day with Wilbur Robinson

I suspect this wasn't really intended for three year olds, but Alice liked it.

1/3 Sir Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

1/1 Nick Bantock, The Forgetting Room

Partly a surrealist puzzle (possibly without a solution; it is surrealist, after all), and partly a book about the process of creating art. In the latter respect, anyway, it seems very personal. The author/artist himself used the title of this novel as the name of his gallery.

Matt Austern