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literary criticism directory


“The Most ‘Abandoned’ Books on GoodReads”, Branwen 2019

GoodReads: “The Most ‘Abandoned’ Books on GoodReads”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2019-12-09; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Which books on GoodReads are most difficult to finish? Estimating proportions in December 2019 gives an entirely different result than absolute counts.

What books are hardest for a reader who starts them to finish, and most likely to be abandoned? I scrape a crowdsourced tag⁠, abandoned, from the GoodReads book social network on 2019-12-09 to estimate conditional probability of being abandoned.

The default GoodReads tag interface presents only raw counts of tags, not counts divided by total ratings ( = reads). This conflates popularity with probability of being abandoned: a popular but rarely-abandoned book may have more abandoned tags than a less popular but often-abandoned book. There is also residual error from the winner’s curse where books with fewer ratings are more mis-estimated than popular books. I fix that to see what more correct rankings look like.

Correcting for both changes the top-5 ranking completely, from (raw counts):

  1. The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling
  2. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  3. American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  4. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
  5. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

to (shrunken posterior proportions):

  1. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James
  2. Space Opera⁠, Catherynne M. Valente
  3. Little, Big, John Crowley
  4. The Witches: Salem, 1692⁠, Stacy Schiff
  5. Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan

I also consider a model adjusting for covariates (author/​average-rating/​year), to see what books are most surprisingly often-abandoned given their pedigrees & rating etc. Abandon rates increase the newer a book is, and the lower the average rating.

Adjusting for those, the top-5 are:

  1. The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling
  2. The Chemist⁠, Stephenie Meyer
  3. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  4. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse
  5. Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002), David Sedaris

Books at the top of the adjusted list appear to reflect a mix of highly-popular authors changing genres, and ‘prestige’ books which are highly-rated but a slog to read.

These results are interesting for how they highlight how people read books for many reasons (such as marketing campaigns, literary prestige, or following a popular author), and this is reflected in their decision whether to continue reading or to abandon a book.

“MLP: Immanetizing The Equestrian”, Branwen 2018

MLP: “MLP: Immanetizing The Equestrian”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-10-24; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks):

A meditation on subcultures & review of the cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, focusing on fandom, plot, development, and meaning of bronydom.

I watch the 2010 Western animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (seasons 1–9), delving deep into it and the MLP fandom, and reflect on it. What makes it good and powers its fandom subculture, producing a wide array of fanfictions, music, and art? Focusing on fandom, plot, development, and meaning of bronydom, I conclude that, among other things, it has surprisingly high-quality production & aesthetics which are easily adapted to fandom and which power a Westernized shonen anime—which depicts an underappreciated plausibly-contemporary capitalist utopian perspective on self-actualization, reminiscent of other more explicitly self-help-oriented pop culture movements such as the recent Jordan B. Peterson movement. Included are my personal rankings of characters, seasons, episodes, and official & fan music.

“Race in My Little Pony”, Branwen 2018

MLP-genetics: “Race in My Little Pony”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-06-04; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

In MLP:FiM, the 3 pony races sometimes bear offspring of other pony races; I review 4 complicated Mendelian models attempting to explain this, and note that a standard polygenic liability-threshold model can fit it parsimoniously.

(For background on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, see my review of My Little Pony⁠.)

Another fictional universe with genetic mechanisms is My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, where there are 3 pony races which are heritable. One outlier family which has all 3 races represented challenges simple Mendelian interpretations of MLP races. I review 4 attempts to reconcile the outlier with Mendelian mechanisms, and propose another interpretation, drawing on polygenic mechanisms, treating race as a polytomous liability threshold trait, which is flexible enough to explain all observations in-universe (at least for the first few seasons of MLP).

“Genetics and Eugenics in Frank Herbert’s Dune-verse”, Branwen 2018

Dune-genetics: “Genetics and Eugenics in Frank Herbert’s Dune-verse”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-05-05; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Discussion of fictional eugenics program in the SF Dune-verse and how it contradicts contemporary known human genetics but suggests heavy agricultural science and Mendelian inspiration to Frank Herbert’s worldview.

Frank Herbert’s SF Dune series features as a central mechanic a multi-millennium human eugenics breeding program by the Bene Gesserit, which produces the main character, Paul Atreides⁠, with precognitive powers. The breeding program is described as oddly slow and ineffective and requiring roles for incest and inbreeding at some points, which contradict most proposed human eugenics methods. I describe the two main historical paradigms of complex trait genetics, the Fisherian infinitesimal model and the Mendelian monogenic model, the former of which is heavily used in human behavioral genetics and the latter of which is heavily used in agricultural breeding for novel traits, and argue that Herbert (incorrectly but understandably) believed the latter applied to most human traits, perhaps related to his lifelong autodidactic interest in plants & insects & farming, and this unstated but implicit intellectual background shaped Dune and resolves the anomalies.

“The Second Apocalypse: Freedom In An Unfree Universe”, Branwen 2017

Bakker: “The Second Apocalypse: Freedom In An Unfree Universe”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2017-08-01; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Bakker’s Second Apocalypse vs Frank Herbert’s Dune: time loops and finding freedom in an unfree universe. In Dune⁠, humanity is liberated by growth and development and escaping the predeterminism of prescience; in Bakker, they are destroyed by it, and liberation is achieved only by death and reunification with a deeper underlying block-universe/​monistic reality.

Review of SF/​F author R. Scott Bakker‘s long-running Second Apocalypse series, which finished in 2017. The series, a loose retelling of the Crusades, set in a fallen-SF fantasy environment, has drawn attention for its ambitious scope and obscure philosophical message centering around determinism, free will, moral nihilism, eliminativism of cognitive states, and the interaction of technology and ethics (which Bakker terms the ’Semantic Apocalypse’). In this series, the protagonist attempts to stop the apocalypse and ultimately accidentally causes it.

I highlight that Frank Herbert’s Dune universe is far more influential on Bakker than reviewers of Bakker have appreciated: countless elements are reflected in Bakker, and the very name of the primary antagonist, the ‘No-God’, uses a naming pattern from Dune and operates similarly. Further, both Dune and the Second Apocalypse are deeply concerned with the nature of time and temporal loops controlling ‘free’ behavior.

Where they diverge is in what is to be done about the human lack of freedom and manipulability by external environments, and have radically different views about what is desirable: in Dune, humanity gradually grows up and achieves freedom from the time loops by the creation of a large time loop whose stable fixed point is the destruction of all time loops, ensuring that humanity will go on existing in some form forever; in the Second Apocalypse, liberation is achieved only through death.

“Movie Reviews”, Branwen 2014

Movies: “Movie Reviews”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2014-05-01; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

A compilation of movie, television, and opera reviews since 2014.

This is a compilation of my film/​television/​theater reviews; it is compiled from my newsletter⁠. Reviews are sorted by rating in descending order.

See also my book & anime /  ​ manga reviews⁠.

“Book Reviews”, Branwen 2013

Books: “Book Reviews”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2013-08-23; backlinks; similar):

A compilation of books reviews of books I have read since ~1997.

This is a compilation of my book reviews. Book reviews are sorted by star, and sorted by length of review within each star level, under the assumption that longer reviews are of more interest to readers.

See also my anime /  ​ manga and film /  ​ TV /  ​ theater reviews⁠.

“‘Scanners Live in Vain’ As Realistic SF”, Branwen 2013

Scanners: “‘Scanners Live in Vain’ as realistic SF”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2013-06-28; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Discussion of Cordwainer Smith SF story, arguing that the pain-of-space is based on forgotten psychological issues in air travel, and concerns about worse ones in space travel, which were partially vindicated by the existence of interesting psychological changes in astronauts.

Cordwainer Smith’s classic SF short story “Scanners Live in Vain” is remembered in part for its use of the space-madness trope, “the Great Pain of Space”, usually interpreted symbolically/​psychologically by critics. I discuss the state of aerospace medicine in 1945 and subsequent research on “the breakaway effect”, “the overview effect”, and other unusual psychological states induced by air & space travel, and suggest Smith’s “the pain of space” is more founded on SF-style speculation & extrapolation of contemporary science/​technology and anxieties than is appreciated due to the obscurity of the effects and the relative benignity of the subsequent best documented effects.

“Cultural Drift: Cleaning Methods”, Branwen 2013

Sand: “Cultural drift: cleaning methods”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2013-05-07; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Forgotten chores and their use by Romanticism

Some old books mention sandy floors and sprinkling water on the ground; these asides seem to go unnoticed by most/​all readers. I highlight them, explain and discuss their use as now-obsolete cleaning practices, poll Internet users to see how forgotten they are, and ponder implications. In an appendix, I discuss a similar issue I encountered in pre-Space-Race American science fiction.

“‘Story Of Your Life’ Is Not A Time-Travel Story”, Branwen 2012

Story-Of-Your-Life: “‘Story Of Your Life’ Is Not A Time-Travel Story”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-12-12; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Famous Ted Chiang SF short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ is usually misinterpreted as, like the movie version Arrival, being about time-travel/​precognition; I explain it is instead an exploration of xenopsychology and a psychology of timeless physics.

One of Ted Chiang’s most noted philosophical SF short stories, “Story of Your Life”, was made into a successful time-travel movie, Arrival, sparking interest in the original. However, movie viewers often misread the short story: “Story” is not a time-travel movie. At no point does the protagonist travel in time or enjoy precognitive powers, interpreting the story this way leads to many serious plot holes, it renders most of the exposition-heavy dialogue (which is a large fraction of the wordcount) completely irrelevant, and genuine precognition undercuts the themes of tragedy & acceptance.

Instead, what appears to be precognition in Chiang’s story is actually far more interesting, and a novel twist on psychology and physics: classical physics allows usefully interpreting the laws of physics in both a ‘forward’ way in which events happen step by step, but also a teleological way in which events are simply the unique optimal solution to a set of constraints including the outcome and allows reasoning ‘backwards’. The alien race exemplifies this other, equally valid, possible way of thinking and viewing the universe, and the protagonist learns their way of thinking by studying their language, which requires seeing written characters as a unified gestalt. This holistic view of the universe as an immutable ‘block-universe’, in which events unfold as they must, changes the protagonist’s attitude towards life and the tragic death of her daughter, teaching her in a somewhat Buddhist or Stoic fashion to embrace life in both its ups and downs.

“Earth in My Window”, Murakami & Hoaglund 2012

2005-murakami: “Earth in My Window”⁠, Takashi Murakami, Linda Hoaglund (2012-03-04; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks):

Essay by Pop Art artist Takashi Murakami on Japanese society and on WWII infantilizing Japanese culture as revealed by media, anime, and otaku.

“Earth In My Window” is a long essay by Superflat pop artist Takashi Murakami meditating on post-WWII consumerist Japanese society and on WWII infantilizing Japanese pop culture as revealed by its influences on media, anime, and the otaku subculture.

This transcript has been prepared from a PDF scan of pg 98–149 of Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture⁠, ed. Murakami, published 2005-05-15, ISBN 0300102852. (See also the transcript of a discussion moderated by Murakami, “Otaku Talk”⁠.)

Note: to hide apparatus like the links, you can use reader-mode ().

“Death Note: L, Anonymity & Eluding Entropy”, Branwen 2011

Death-Note-Anonymity: “Death Note: L, Anonymity & Eluding Entropy”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2011-05-04; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Applied Computer Science: On Murder Considered As STEM Field—using information theory to quantify the magnitude of Light Yagami’s mistakes in Death Note and considering fixes

In the manga Death Note, the protagonist Light Yagami is given the supernatural weapon “Death Note” which can kill anyone on demand, and begins using it to reshape the world. The genius detective L attempts to track him down with analysis and trickery, and ultimately succeeds. Death Note is almost a thought-experiment-given the perfect murder weapon, how can you screw up anyway? I consider the various steps of L’s process from the perspective of computer security, cryptography, and information theory, to quantify Light’s initial anonymity and how L gradually de-anonymizes him, and consider which mistake was the largest as follows:

  1. Light’s fundamental mistake is to kill in ways unrelated to his goal.

    Killing through heart attacks does not just make him visible early on, but the deaths reveals that his assassination method is impossibly precise and something profoundly anomalous is going on. L has been tipped off that Kira exists. Whatever the bogus justification may be, this is a major victory for his opponents. (To deter criminals and villains, it is not necessary for there to be a globally-known single anomalous or supernatural killer, when it would be equally effective to arrange for all the killings to be done naturalistically by ordinary mechanisms such as third parties/​police/​judiciary or used indirectly as parallel construction to crack cases.)

  2. Worse, the deaths are non-random in other ways—they tend to occur at particular times!

    Just the scheduling of deaths cost Light 6 bits of anonymity

  3. Light’s third mistake was reacting to the blatant provocation of Lind L. Tailor.

    Taking the bait let L narrow his target down to 1⁄3 the original Japanese population, for a gain of ~1.6 bits.

  4. Light’s fourth mistake was to use confidential police information stolen using his policeman father’s credentials.

    This mistake was the largest in bits lost. This mistake cost him 11 bits of anonymity; in other words, this mistake cost him twice what his scheduling cost him and almost 8 times the murder of Tailor!

  5. Killing Ray Penbar and the FBI team.

If we assume Penbar was tasked 200 leads out of the 10,000, then murdering him and the fiancee dropped Light just 6 bits or a little over half the fourth mistake and comparable to the original scheduling mistake. 6. Endgame: At this point in the plot, L resorts to direct measures and enters Light’s life directly, enrolling at the university, with Light unable to perfectly play the role of innocent under intense in-person surveillance.

From that point on, Light is screwed as he is now playing a deadly game of “Mafia” with L & the investigative team. He frittered away >25 bits of anonymity and then L intuited the rest and suspected him all along.

Finally, I suggest how Light could have most effectively employed the Death Note and limited his loss of anonymity. In an appendix, I discuss the maximum amount of information leakage possible from using a Death Note as a communication device.

(Note: This essay assumes a familiarity with the early plot of Death Note and Light Yagami. If you are unfamiliar with DN, see my Death Note Ending essay or consult Wikipedia or read the DN rules⁠.)

“Why Anime?”, Branwen 2011

Anime-criticism-is-not-about-quality: “Why Anime?”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2011-02-12; ⁠, ; similar):

Objectively, anime/​manga better than American alternatives. So why the need to justify?

The popularity of anime in the 1990s and among nerds reflects in part a historical contingency: the failure of American and Western media to deliver long-form narratives dealing in fantasy, science fiction, and non-realism of every type, and which can cater to a niche or reflect a unique artistic vision (enabled by the cheapness of manga/​LN production and the 1980s–1990s OVA economic model) while benefiting from the flexibility of animation in depicting anything without enormously costly SFX, while instead Western media focused on syndicated mass market lowest-common-denominator live-action series. The post-90s TV renaissance and extraordinary rise of ‘prestige series’, science fiction and superhero franchise, and continuous exponential increase in SFX capabilities/​decrease in cost, sucked much of the wind out of anime’s sails. While still hugely popular both in America & overseas, and an accepted part of the culture, it no longer is as exciting as it used to be, or a growing juggernaut.

So if anime can no longer boast unique access to diversity and long-form SF/​F narrative, what does anime still uniquely offer us? Why not just go geek out over the latest MCU or Star Wars movie ad nauseam? I suggest it is simply that it is one of the most-developed foreign media sources, which gains value simply because it is different–foreign, and not so American. Haven’t you seen enough of that? Even a mediocre foreign work gains interest from the novelty and differences.

“Anime Reviews”, Branwen 2010

Anime: “Anime Reviews”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2010-12-14; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

A compilation of anime/​manga reviews since 2010.

This page is a compilation of my anime/​manga reviews; it is compiled from my MyAnimeList account & newsletter⁠. Reviews are sorted by rating in descending order.

See also my book & film /  ​ TV /  ​ theater reviews⁠.

“Dune Notes”, Branwen 2010

dune: “Dune notes”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2010-10-18; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Observations on Frank Herbert’s Dune series—the notes are probably overstated, the Butlerian Jihad was not a robot uprising seeking to exterminate humanity, and precognition/​prescience in the Dune universe appears to work backwards allowing for retro-causality and stable time-loops as exemplified by Leto II’s Golden Path creating Paul Atreides and the events of Dune.

Frank Herbert’s SF Dune series features as a central mechanic a multi-millennium human eugenics breeding program by the Bene Gesserit, which produces the main character, Paul Atreides, with precognitive powers. The breeding program is described as oddly slow and ineffective and requiring roles for incest and inbreeding at some points, which contradict most proposed human eugenics methods. I describe the two main historical paradigms of complex trait genetics, the Fisherian infinitesimal model and the Mendelian monogenic model, the former of which is heavily used in human behavioral genetics and the latter of which is heavily used in agricultural breeding for novel traits, and argue that Herbert (incorrectly but understandably) believed the latter applied to most human traits, perhaps related to his longstanding autodidactic interest in plants & insects & farming, and this unstated but implicit intellectual background shaped Dune and resolves the anomalies.

“Neon Genesis Evangelion Source Anthology”, Branwen 2009

otaku: “Neon Genesis Evangelion source anthology”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-09-30; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Extensive anthology of Gainax⁠/​Anno/​Evangelion quotes, excerpts, sources, references, and analyses, organized by reliability and year.

This page is an extensive anthology of Gainax/​Hideaki Anno/​Evangelion-related quotes, excerpts, sources, references, & analyses, organized by reliability & year.

The purpose of compiling a large page of quotes & references classified by date & source level is to make it easier to put NGE into a historical context by tracing the evolution of plot or characters, cross-reference statements made in interviews, jump forward and backwards to flesh out otherwise obscure allusions to events, and enable easy keyword-based search for various concepts (eg. the connection of Kaworu to cats⁠, Gainax’s bafflement that viewers might think Misato killed Kaji, the influence of earthquakes on people, connections to Aum Shinrikyo⁠, garbled information about suicide attempts, Anno’s conservative nationalist views or philosophy of “poison”, retcons like swapping the Adam and Lilith plot devices, panspermia & First Ancestral Race being slowly removed from production materials and then post-NGE slowly restored, the many conflicting pieces of information on the end of NGE TV and EoE, Yamaga’s questionable reliability etc).

As I compile more material, I become increasingly convinced that far from Evangelion being a baffling mystery, it is in fact one of the most understandable anime out there, with a wealth of information about almost every detail, from the earliest planning meetings to how long particular episode productions took to the source of minor details like the “A-10 nerve”, and that Hideaki Anno⁠, far from being a reticent auteur of mystery, has collectively been forthcoming about anything one might ask—to the point where multiple interviews could justly be described as “book-length” (the books in question being June, Schizo, Prano, the 1.0 CRC, & the 2.0 CRC). There is so much material that half the difficulty is simply collating the existing materials, and some extensive sources seem to have been lost to both the Japanese and English fandoms (eg. there seem to be no mentions or quotations of the Anata to Watashi no Gainax interviews in the Japanese web).

“Miscellaneous”, Branwen 2009

Notes: “Miscellaneous”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-08-05; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Misc thoughts, memories, proto-essays, musings, etc.

We usually clean up after ourselves, but sometimes, we are expected to clean before (ie. after others) instead. Why?

Because in those cases, pre-cleanup is the same amount of work, but game-theoretically better whenever a failure of post-cleanup would cause the next person problems.

“The Melancholy of Kyon”, Branwen 2009

The-Melancholy-of-Kyon: “The Melancholy of Kyon”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-06-08; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Literary analysis of the light novel/​anime series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Haruhi is not God, Kyon is

The light novel series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, featuring a character named Haruhi who is a god unawares and her search for novelty, has a number of anomalies and unclear overarching plot.

I argue that these anomalies can be resolved, and greater literary depth achieved, by interpreting Haruhi as an ordinary “not special” girl whose wish made her extraordinary, because the first-person protagonist Kyon is the actual unaware god. Like the bluebird of happiness, Kyon found happiness only when he forgot about himself to care more about another (making it a positive twist on Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger’s despairing demiurge).