The Library of Babel: December 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for December of 2003.

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January 28, 2004

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. I've used this phrase for a certain class of numerical chicanery for years (see, for example, this post on my other blog), ever since I saw this book on my undergrad advisor's bookshelf. I'd never actually read it, though, and when I saw a copy on a recent bookstore run, I figured I ought to check it out.

This is a convenient layman's guide to the worst sort of statistical manipulations. It covers most of the major topics-- selection bias, means vs. medians, sample sizes, deceptive graphical techniques, post hoc reasoning, and more-- in a fairly breezy and minimally mathematical style. The emphasis is on statistical deceptions in the world of advertising, but you can easily spot these same fallacies in action in numerous other areas.

There is one small problem, that's nicely illustrated by the opening paragraphs of the first chapter:

"The average Yaleman, Class of '24," Time magazine noted once, commenting on something in the New York Sun, "makes $25,111 a year."

Well, good for him!

But wait a minute. What does this impressive figure mean? Is it, as it appears to be, evidence that if you send your boy to Yale you won't have to work in your old age, and neither will he?

It's maybe just the teensiest bit dated...

This is actually a very good compendium of statistical tricks, and once you get your head around the immensity of inflation since its publication in 1954, the examples are very good. Still, I kept tripping over economic data that are just hopelessly out of whack with modern prices and salaries. It'd be hard to beat the descriptions of dodgy statistical tricks that are presented here, but somebody might want to think about doing another edition, with updated examples...

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January 16, 2004

The Ersatz Elevator by "Lemony Snicket." Book the Sixth in the Series of Unfortunate Events. The previous five volumes can be found can be found via the Author Index.

If you haven't read the previous five volumes, don't start with this one. The author helpfully offers an alternative suggestion:

Like this book, the dictionary shows you that the word "nervous" means "worried about something"-- you might feel nervous, for instance, if you were served prune ice cream for dessert, because you would be worried that it would taste awful-- whereas the word "anxious" means "troubled by disturbing suspense," which you might feel if you were served a live alligator for dessert, because you would be troubled by the disturbing suspense about whether you would eat your dessert or it would eat you. But unlike this book, the dictionary also discusses words that are far more pleasant to contemplate. The word "bubble" is in the dictionary, for instance, as is the word "peacock, the word "vacation," and the words "the" "author's" "execution" "has" "been" "canceled," which make up a sentence that is always pleasant to hear. So if you were to read the dictionary, rather than this book, you could skip the parts about "nervous" and "anxious" and read about things that wouldn't keep you up all night long, weeping and tearing out your hair.

So, if you're new to the series, you'd be better off reading the dictionary. Or, you could consider starting with the first book, and following the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans from the bad beginning of their unhappy (but very silly) story. Your choice.

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January 14, 2004

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 2 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. I recently alluded to this in a post on my other weblog, and it's only taken a week and a half to get around to booklogging it...

This is the second volume of a graphic novel following the exploits of a group of heroes in an alternate London at the turn of the 20th century. It's a marvelous conceit, collecting together Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mina Murray (formerly Harker). In the first volume, they gathered together to thwart the latest scheme of the arch-villain Moriarty, and it was all good fun. Somebody really ought to make a movie out of it.

The second volume finds them confronting an invasion from Mars, and was hinted at by the final panel of the first volume. I was eager to see what would happen in this book-- combining The War of the Worlds with the previous volume promised great fun. Alas, I was sorely disappointed in this volume.

There are a number of problems with this book, some of which were probably unavoidable. Part of the fun of the first book was in the introduction of the characters, but with the cast already mostly set, that's cut way back in this volume. There's a prologue of sorts featuring John Carter on Mars, which was fun, and the quest to defeat the Martians leads Our Heroes to another H. G. Wells character, but that's it for major literary games.

Another problem is the incredibly cynical ending. Alan Moore has never been a sweetness and light sort of person, but the resolution to the Martian problem is dark even by the standards of Watchmen. Worse yet, the main characters really don't have much to do with it at all.

The biggest problem, though, was with what it did to the characters. A good part of the fun of the first book is derived from Mina Murray's unflappable nature. When Manly Men are losing their composure all around her, she remains collected, and slaps them back into line. Sadly, something seems to have happened to her even before the action starts here. She's not the same, and it feels like a minor betrayal.

In the end, this book feels sort of like Alan Moore had a vision of being compelled to write a great number of these books, and decided to trash the milieu as thoroughly as possible to preclude that. Which is his prerogative, I suppose, but that doesn't mean I'm happy to read it.

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January 11, 2004

The Austere Academy by "Lemony Snicket." This is the fifth book in the Series of Unfortunate Events (books one through four have been logged previously, and can be found via the Author Index). As with the previous volumes, it tells the sad but very silly story of the Baudelaire orphans, and their attempts to find happiness and evade the evil Count Olaf.

It's also a very educational book, which teaches that there are, in fact, worse sounds than that of someone who can't play the violin but insists on doing so anyway. It also contains some valuable life advice:

Assumptions are dangerous things to make, and like all dangerous things to make-- bombs, for instance, or strawberry shortcake-- if you make even the tiniest mistake you can find yourself in terrible trouble. Making assumptions simply means believing things are a certain way with little or no evidence that shows you are correct, and you can see at once how this could lead to terrible trouble. For instance, one morning you might wake up and make the assumption that your bed was in the same place that it always was, even though you would have no real evidence that this was so. But when you got out of your bed, you might discover that it had floated out to sea, and now you would be in terrible trouble all because of the incorrect assumption that you'd made. You can see that it is better not to make too many assumptions, particularly in the morning.

It's certainly a more memorable lesson about assumptions than the one involving asses and umptions.

If you've read the previous volumes, this one shows no detectable drop in quality. If you haven't, start at the beginning, but remember not to make any assumptions...

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January 9, 2004

New Skies by Patrick Nielsen Hayden (editor). Subtitled "An Anthology of Today's Science Fiction," this is... well, figure it out.

"Today's," in this case, is somewhat metaphorical-- some of these stories date from last century, after all (the oldest is Phillip K. Dick's "The Alien Mind" from 1981-- but they have a similar sort of outlook. These aren't shiny, happy, gadget stories from the Golden Age, where everybody lives in spotless space stations, but they're not ostentatiously gloomy "New Wave" stories, either. They have a dark core to them-- only a handful don't involve death in some way, and most of those have a vague threat of death hanging just off-stage-- but there's also a certain humor to them. They're not humor stories (though Will Shetterly's "Brian and the Aliens" has a Good Omens feel to it), but they're frequently funny, and they manage to be dark and "edgy" without being gloomy.

Normally, when commenting on an anthology, I'd rattle off the titles of the best stories in the collection. Here's that would involve typing in almost the entire table of contents, so I'll mention the ones that didn't work well for me, which would be "Serpents' Teeth" by Spider Robinson and "Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson (which was actually fine, but pretty slight). The rest of the stories are really excellent.

Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has read the Starlight anthologies. PNH may have the most consistently excellent taste in stories of any editor in SF (Gardner Dozois is pretty good, too, but he publishes some stuff that seems weird just for the sake of being weird). Patrick is one of those people who's smart enough that when I don't like something he recommends, I figure it must be my fault.

And the follow-up anthology, New Magics, collecting fantasy stories, just arrived from Amazon.

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January 7, 2004

Archer in Jeopardy by Ross Macdonald. This is actually three novels (The Doomsters, The Zebra-Striped Hearse (see Pam's review), and The Instant Enemy) in an omnibus edition, but I'm so far behind in the booklog that I'll treat this as one book.

Macdonald wrote "hard-boiled" detective novels starting in 1949, up through the Seventies (he died in 1983), which means they occupy a point in time somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker (to put things in terms of authors I've already read. And, indeed, there's probably something to the idea that he represents a transition between the two (or that Parker's Spenser books are more an imitation of Macdonald than Chandler).

The three books are fairly similar in structure-- Lew Archer is hired to investigate a recent event that may have some connection to a much older crime. When he starts poking around, he discovers a tangled mess of murder, deceit, and deep emotional scars going back years. It's all good detective-novel fun.

Since I first read The Big Sleep, I've been looking for another author like Raymond Chandler (who didn't write nearly enough books). In tone, Macdonald is probably as close as I've found-- they share a sunny California setting, and there's a similar theme of corruption and depravity among the wealthy. Lew Archer is a more moderate character than Phillip Marlowe-- he doesn't come on as gruff and cynical as Marlowe does, but Marlowe also has a deeper sense of honor than Archer seems to-- but they both feel a need to help people that leads them to continue poking around a case long past the point where it would be sensible to stop.

These novels lack the poetic quality of Chandler's best writing, though. There are occasional flashes, but the normal run of descriptive prose is pretty flat. To be fair, Chandler's prose is probably the hardest thing to imitate about those books, so Macdonald should actually get credit for not trying too hard. It does bring these books up a bit short of the Chandler level, though.

The other thing about these books that got a little irritating, reading three in a row, was that they tend to contain a fair amount of psychobabble. There's a lot of talk about the psychology of the various characters, and the crimes Archer uncovers always have roots in some traumatic event that is also uncovered in the course of the investigation. (This is one of the reasons that I link these to the Spenser books, some of which have a similar emphasis on psychology.) There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but reading three books in a row where the murderer's crimes can be traced back to childhood events gets a little old.

Anyway, these are very good private eye novels, and Macdonald has gone onto the list of authors to watch for. He doesn't quite have Chandler's flair, but on the bright side, he did write a whole lot of these, which should keep me in trashy paperbacks for a good while to come.

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January 5, 2004

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. As noted in a previous entry, I've been promising Kate that I'd read this for quite a while now, and I finally did get around to it.

This is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, and the series is one of those non-SF series that is much beloved of SF fandom, for whatever reason. Plenty of very smart people whose tastes I respect gush about these books, so I feel sort of bad that my first experience with them, reading The Nine Tailors in the pre-booklog days, wasn't especially good. (Some elements of the writing style were irritating to me, and the manner of one character's death was so obvious that I had trouble believing that it would stump a Great Detective.)

A number of the problems I had with the earlier book seem to have been restricted to that volume. The most irritating stylistic tics were confined to one particular character, and the obviousness problem was specific to that case. The murder here is much harder to figure out-- a case worthy of Nero Wolfe-- and the writing is much more... fun, for lack of a more concrete description.

The plot here centers around the suspicious death of an ad man, which Lord Peter has been hired to investigate. To this end, he has gone undercover as "Death Bredon," taking a job at the ad agency in question. A large chunk of the text is devoted to describing the workings of the agency, and the various campaigns they devise, and those bits are great fun. There's also a lengthy description of a cricket match toward the end, which is utterly incomprehensible to an American:

The innings opened briskly. Mr. Barrow, who was rather a showy bat, though tempermental, took the bowling at the factory end of the pitch and cheered the spirits of his side by producing a couple of twos in the first over. Mr. Garrett, canny and cautious, stonewalled perseveringly through five balls of the following over and then cut the leather through the slips for a useful three. A single off the next ball brought the bowling back to Mr. Barrow, who, having started favourably, exhibited a happy superiority complex and settled down to make runs.

Um. Yes. Quite. This goes on for page after baffling page, but it's weirdly entertaining.

On the whole, this was a much more agreeable reading experience than The Nine Tailors. It's not without its problems, though: Peter is altogether too good at, well, everything. He's like Miles Vorkosigan without the crippling lack of self-confidence. There are also a number of utterly daft plot contrivances-- the "No, I'm not Peter Wimsey. I'm.... his cousin. Yeah, that's the ticket..." device is just too silly for words.

Still, it was a fun read, and I can see why people find these enjoyable. In the end, it's perhaps a little more civilized than I'm looking for in a mystery novel (in some respects, you could compare it to a Nero Wolfe book written without Archie Goodwin to cut the Great Man down to size), but I enjoyed it, and I'll probably read another one at some point.

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January 2, 2004

The Dark Is Rising (series) by Susan Cooper. In an all-too-typical turn of events, I came down with a nasty cold just before New Year's, that persisted until just before classes started up again on the 5th of January. As a result, I wasn't really in the mood to read anything challenging and new, so I turned to reliable comfort books.

I've previously book-logged both The Dark Is Rising and The Grey King individually, which was a great trial, as the books are sort of addictive. This time around, I read all five (the two previously logged, plus Over Sea, Under Stone, Greenwitch, and Silver on the Tree. The two volumes I booklogged before are far and away the best individual books of the series, but they're all worth reading.

Reading the whole thing in one big rush makes a couple of things really stand out. Over Sea, Under Stone is widely cited as the weakest in the series, and Greenwitch is rarely mentioned at all, and both suffer from the same weakness: the focus is not so much on Will Stanton, the youngest of the Old Ones, and heir to great magical powers, but on the drew children, whose "great-uncle Merry" is Merriman Lyon, oldest of the Old Ones. The problem is that the Drews are perfectly normal children caught up in supernatural events, and as a result, seeing things through their eyes robs the story of some of its magic. The books that center on Will are much more effective.

There's also the problem that the puzzles needing to be solved in the Drew books are necessarily puzzles that can be solved by teens with no special abilities. Which makes them kind of lame, as mystical obstacles go, and you wonder just how thick the forces of the Dark must be for these to have gone unsolved for hundreds of years. The Will Stanton books evade this, as Will has magic powers and mystic knowledge that can be brought to bear without upsetting the suspension of disbelief.

(The Harry Potter books suffer from some of the same problem, as do all children's books with kids as the heroes. There are a number of ways out-- J.K. Rowling has the same "magic powers" out as Cooper does, while John Bellairs (The Chessmen of Doom and The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull) relies on the ineffable workings of providence, and Lemony Snicket (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill is just so silly that you don't worry about realism.)

The other big problem with these is the ending. The early books are fairly straightforward collect-the-Plot-Tokens-and-win-prizes books, but the final volume goes all myffic, with a highly metaphorical Ultimate Battle between the Light and the Dark. It's a little disappointing, after all the build-up. There are also some issues with the way the characters are handled after the big showdown, but I can't really discuss those without massive spoilers.

I've focused on the negative in the above, because I pretty much hit the high points with the earlier entries. I don't want to leave the impression that these are bad books, though-- on the contrary, they remain some of the best kids' fantasy novels ever written (and Kate and I have pushed them on a number of young relatives and children of friends). They work pretty well for adults, too, so if you weren't lucky enough to read them when you were young, you could do much worse than to pick them up now.

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As I'm not as ambitious or conscientious as Kate is, this isn't using any weblogging software at the moment-- I don't figure it will be updated regularly enough to require automatic archiving and the like.

The comment feature is provided by YACCS, and is dead simple to install. If you're looking to add comments to a weblog, it's a good way to go.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001