October 13th, 2011
Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sign of the Four.
The second of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Not as strong as A Study in Scarlett, but not bad either.
Partha Dasgupta. Economics: A Brief Insight.
Not just a book about economics, but a book about how to think like an economist. Dasgupta hangs his discussions of various topics around two characters, one in the American Midwest, and one in Southwest Ethiopia. The prose is perhaps a bit plodding at times, but the discussion is clear and guided by a genuine interest in human well-being.
Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green. North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction
Perdue and Green make a real effort to stress the agency of North American Indians in this brief history. It’s not all just stuff that was done to them. For all their determination to correct for this emphasis in earlier scholarship on North American Indians, there is nonetheless a tremendous amount of victimization related in this almost unbearably sad story.
David Nobbs. Fall And Rise of Reginald Perrin
Reasonably funny British novel from the 1970s about a middle manager who has a nervous breakdown. It was made into a BBC series, and subsequent novels in the series actually came after their counterparts in the series. I read this first novel and then started the BBC version. But the BBC version—which was apparently quite popular—fell so far short of the version in my imagination that I stopped it pretty quickly and never went on with the series. Anyway, it’s not great, but it had me laughing a few times.
Lawrence J. Cohen. Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way To Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems and Encourage Children’s Confidence
I was very tired of the phrase “Tower of Isolation” by the time I finished this book, but the author actually has a humane, sensible, and creative approach to children and the ways that adults can use play to get them unstuck when they do get stuck. The many examples throughout the book were as helpful as the author’s theoretical observations. Worth reading if you spend any time around children, whether as a parent or not.
Jan Morris. Hav
This offering from the New York Review of Books Press brings together two short books, Last Letters from Hav, published in 1985, and Hav of the Myrmidons, written for inclusion in this book in 2005.
Hav is a small but notable city state perched on the sea in Asia Minor, a dazzling collection of nationalities and influences: Arab, Turkish, Russian, Greek, British—the list goes on. It’s history is tangled up with larger powers, and it’s rather confused architecture reflects all these influences. Although a small city, it was visited throughout the 20th Century and earlier by a parade of notables, from Hemingway to Freud. The only catch—and it eluded some original readers of Last Letters From Hav, who pestered travel agents for information on cheap passage to Hav—is that the only way to get there is through Morris’s books: Hav is an imaginary city. But it is a richly imagined one, and Morris has done a remarkable job of weaving it into our reality. Last Letters from Hav ends with a mysterious Intervention. Morris returns to Hav in 2005 to find that the Intervention, and the strange brand of fundamentalism it ushered in, has swept away much of what she explored on her first visit to the city. Although a bit slow in places, Hav is a fascinating meditation on place, history and modernity. Recommended.
Howls of outrage (6)
April 3rd, 2011
Small Sample Size Theater
The baseball season has begun! Each MLB baseball team has played two games. There isn’t a lot of solid trend data to report on, yet articles must be written – and so, quoth S – “it’s time for another edition of Small Sample Size Theater”.
In baseball, of course, this means things like:
The Mariners, predicted to be terrible this season, are tied for first in the league!
(Also there are nineteen pitchers tied with an unbelievable 0.00 ERA. This season looks set to turn a lot of conventional wisdom on its head.)
We see Small Sample Size Theater in other domains as well; no surprise that most trend reporting is of this type. I wanted to post this today because I think the term is so apt. And of course, if my posting this year keeps up at this rate, I’ll post well over 300 entries, which would more than double my previous record. In year seven, anything is possible.
March 19th, 2011
It’s been agonizing to see the tide turn against resisters of the Gaddafi regime in Libya over the last few weeks. After protests swept unpopular governments from power in Tunisia and Egypt, it really seemed as if a mostly peaceful movement in Libya could accomplish something similar. Instead Gaddafi and his circle have rallied, and the result has been very bloody.
Because it’s agonizing to watch this unfolding, the urge to stop it from continuing to unfold is entirely understandable. But there is, as always, a very strong burden on anyone who wants to argue in favour of war. In this case, the suggestion all along has been to insert a heterogeneous and variously motivated coalition of nations into the middle of what has quickly become a civil war—or rather, to insert it above a civil war, since everyone involved seems to think that we can keep it at bombing from the sky. I doubt that this is the right decision, but I don’t want to argue against the war now. Instead, I just want to make a few quick notes about the burden falling on a supporter of it.
First, a supporter of this war should be able to rattle off his top five favourite books on Libyan history and/or contemporary Libyan politics, and to explain the contribution each of these books has made to his or her understanding of the likely outcome of intervention into the civil war. The point is: If you don’t know a lot about Libyan culture and history, I just don’t think you can advocate a war there. A similar burden does not fall on a critic of the war in my opinion. This is because the default position on killing other human beings is to not do it. If you want to move away from the default position, your first responsibility is to know what the fuck you’re talking about.
All right, then. Too onerous? Gaddafi’s victims are dying and you don’t have time for a trip to the library? Fine. Without peeking at a map, a supporter of the war should be able to name Libya’s six neighbours, and explain how the war is likely to affect each of them—and, how each of them is likely to affect the war, and its aftermath. Again, the first burden on someone who wants to advocate a war is to know shit. This is one of the lessons that Iraq ought to have drilled into everyone’s heads.
Finally, a point about hypocrisy, double standards and the coalition attacking Libya. Let me try to make the stale dialectic a bit fresher and then connect it back to the burden on a supporter of the war. It goes like this:
Con: “But Bahrain (just to take one example), a US ally, is right now brutally cracking down on protesters. How can the US attack Libya for doing the same thing while providing diplomatic cover for Bahrain! Bahrain is even part of the coalition against Gaddafi!”
Pro: “Yes, it’s hypocritical, but so what? The fact that we can’t, or don’t, address every wrong, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address any wrong.”
Of course it would be awful if the US and a few allies were going to war against Libya without the backing of the Arab League. But in order to hold its anti-Libyan coalition together, the US, Britain and France will have to make compromises, and this includes going more easily on Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters than they would otherwise need to. It was tricky enough for the US, with a military base in Bahrain, to criticize the ruling clique there. It only gets harder to apply peaceful pressure to that situation when the ruling clique’s continuing support for the war against Libya is needed.
Notice that choosing war in the one case makes it harder to apply peaceful pressure in the second. War is funny that way. A supporter of the war needs to think not just about whether the coalition position is hypocritical, but also about whether the war will aggravate the hypocrisy.
Update: And see Fallows.
Howls of outrage (3)
January 22nd, 2011
Wow, no posts since November! You all know intuitively that the we post a lot less frequently these days. What you’ve hitherto lacked, however, is a chart setting it out for you:
Yeah, it’s not the world’s greatest looking chart, but you get the idea. (I’ve never used matplotlib before. I’m guessing a log scale on the y axis might have helped.) By the way, that little spike in early 2004 is misleading. Somehow a bunch of posts from that period went missing, and I haven’t tracked down yet where they got to.
To make the chart, I just exported our published posts since April 2004 from WordPress and then ran this script on the xml. You need to install matplotlib first.
from xml.etree import ElementTree as ET import datetime import sys from matplotlib import pyplot as plt import pylab def get_dates(filepath): dates =  with open(filepath) as f: doc = ET.parse(f) root = doc.getroot() for pubDate in root.findall('channel/item/pubDate'): date_string = pubDate.text.replace(" +0000", "") date = datetime.datetime.strptime(date_string, "%a, %d %b %Y %H:%M:%S") dates.append(date) return dates def get_intervals(dates): intervals =  for i, date in enumerate(dates): if i == 0: continue delta = date - dates[i-1] intervals.append((date, delta.days)) return intervals def plot_intervals(intervals): dates = [date for date, value in intervals] values = [value for date, value in intervals] plt.plot_date(pylab.date2num(dates), values, linestyle='-') plt.title("Time Away From You Over Time") plt.xlabel("Date") plt.ylabel("Days Between Posts") plt.grid = True plt.show() def main(): dates = get_dates(sys.argv) intervals = get_intervals(dates) plot_intervals(intervals) if __name__ == '__main__': main()
Howls of outrage (4)
November 3rd, 2010
Isn’t the real story that 30% of Oklahoman voters are fine if judges rely on Sharia law in their decisions, or that 6% of Oklahoman voters want English to be the official language but don’t want to ban reliance on Sharia law in judicial decisions?
What, dear readers, are some of your postmortem thoughts on last night’s myriad midterm election results?
Howls of outrage (3)
October 25th, 2010
What goes around
I had occasion recently to reread bits and pieces of the book that turned me into a lefty. There is really no good reason why this should have been the book, but it was on the right used bookstore shelf at the right time.
The book is Frances Fox Piven & Richard Cloward’s The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences. I did not really know the name then, but glancing now at the Acknowledgments I see the authors thank, in 1982, a one Paul Wellstone for his comments on a previous version of the manuscript.
In the opening pages of their book, Piven and Cloward address the claim that it was concerns over inflation in 1980 that induced voters to toss out Carter and replace him with Reagan. They cite a Walter Dean Burnham (who?) to explain why that explanation won’t fly:
In both relative and absolute terms, the defections from Carter “were concentrated among those for whom unemployment was the most important problem. Among those selecting inflation, Reagan won by 67 percent, up only two points from Ford’s 65 percent showing in 1976.” By contrast, “among those worried about unemployment, the decline in Carter’s support was fully nineteen percentage points, from 75 percent in 1976 to 56 percent in 1980.”
We are seeing a similar defection away from Democrats now, and for the same primary reason. There is no need to cite the evidence in favor of huge Democratic losses next week. But here is recent polling data showing that concern over the economy and, more specifically, jobs decisively dwarfs concern about the budget deficit and/or national debt. And yet talk of the deficit and “ballooning debt” is all I seem to hear from the MSM and from the GOP candidates here in Wisconsin. Absolutely no one–not even Russ Feingold–is making the point that if we had a smaller deficit, unemployment would be much, much higher.
Of course, the GOP today will be just as eager to address these concerns once they regain (partial) power as Reagan was once he took office. And there is still little reason to rule out a double-dip recession, which would mirror the early Reagan years. Perhaps the only ray of hope is that despite those early trials for Reagan, he was reelected in 1984. Then again, at least Reagan could in 1984 ask the electorate with a straight face if they were better off than they were in 1979.
October 16th, 2010
Arthur Conan Doyle. A Study in Scarlet
This was the first Sherlock Holmes mystery to be published and the second I’ve read, after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Although not as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, this was still very entertaining, and I think I’ll keep going.
Like many fans of the mysteries, I find myself delighting in Holmes’ intuitive leaps. Doyle’s presentation of these leaps, as filtered through Watson’s incredulous resistance, is extremely rhetorically effective. When Watson finally relents and accepts some chain of reasoning of Holmes’s as inevitable, it’s easy to feel that we should too. But if you stop and think about it, Holmes’s entire philosophy and approach is built on a totally loopy idea of induction.
P.G. Wodehouse. The Inimitable Jeeves
Of the eight or so books by Wodehouse I’ve read, this is among the very best. In fact, it gives The Code of the Woosters a run for its money.
If you like Wodehouse, read this hilarious book immediately. If you haven’t read Wodehouse, either this book or The Code of the Woosters is a good place to start. Wodehouse was best known for his the Jeeves and Wooster stories, featuring the hapless, dim-witted Bertie Wooster, always getting himself into trouble, and Jeeves, his brilliant butler, who always figures some way out of the mess. It’s mindless fun, but Wodehouse can turn a hell of a sentence and there is always satisfaction in getting to see one of his convoluted plots sort itself out, just as you knew it would, at the very last minute.
P.G. Wodehouse. Much Obliged, Jeeves
Also deliciously silly fun.
A.B. Bosworth. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great
An excellent scholarly account of Alexander’s career, along with a number of peripheral subjects. Bosworth’s is a scholarly and not a popular account, in the sense not just that he wrestles with other scholars from time to time, but that his account of what happened is usually embedded in careful discussions of the source texts. This is exactly the way I like my history; others might find it tedious. The peripheral subjects alluded to above include, e.g,. the finer points of satrapal administration in Alexander’s Persian territories. YMMV, as the saying goes.
Cory Doctorow. Little Brother
A novel about a 17 year old hacker who is arbitrarily detained in a round-up after a terrorist attack in San Francisco, and who decides to fight back against the authorities using all his hacker-fu. At times it seems a bit like Doctorow is trying to jam every thing in the world that he finds cool into the narrative—mainly through the mouthpiece of his seriously precocious protagonist. The good news for me was that there’s a significant overlap between what I find cool and what Doctorow does: programming, cryptography, civil liberties, etc. The book, while not high literature, is also just a satisfying, well-paced read. I sort of wish I could go back in time and give a copy to my 17 year old self.
Cory Doctorow. Content
Little Brother has the distinction of being the first book I’ve ever read on a phone (while commuting on the subway). I downloaded it for free, along with a few other books whose copyright had expired, setting them into the public domain. Doctorow releases all his books under a Creative Commons license, which permits people to download and redistribute his work without paying him a royalty fee. Content, which I also downloaded and read on my phone for free, is a book of essays by Doctorow explaining, among other things, how he manages to pay the rent as a professional writer who lets people read his writing for free. The answer is, in part, just that it costs him nothing to let people download his books, that it often results in free publicity (e.g., blog posts) and buzz, and that many people who could download his books for free end up buying physical copies too (from which he does make money).
But Content is about more than how Doctorow makes a living. It’s about legal restrictions on content, like copyright, DRM (digital rights management, the technology that is supposed to stop you from giving the mp3 you bought on itunes to your friend), and the technologies, policies and trade-offs relevant to these legal restrictions. Although marred a bit by repetition, this is a good, thought-provoking collection. I especially enjoyed re-reading Doctorow’s talk, collected here, but long available free on his site, at Microsoft about DRM technology.
September 17th, 2010
Mark Pauly on (Intra)class warfare
The other day I noted a seemingly bizarre inconsistency in Mark Pauly’s 1995 analysis of why the Clinton health reforms failed politically. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that Pauly’s endorsement of the inconsistent political explanations was designed to promote a given ideological viewpoint. True, he seemed eager to discount the extent to which monied interests influenced the debate over health care. But at least he was willing to draw attention to those interests in the first place. That said, the following passage from the same text seems much less benign:
I hasten to add that this is not my own personal preference; I would prefer more redistribution. But I realize that I am being out-voted by other middle-class people who do not want to play more taxes. Indeed, I strongly suspect that a major blow to bipartisan health reform was the success of the president’s budget plan, which sopped up (and then some) any surplus willingness of the upper middle class to pay more taxes. We could have had universal insurance coverage or a lower budget deficit, but not both.” (Mark Pauly, “The Fall and Rise of Health Care Reform: A Dialogue,” 1995, p. 12.)
Here Pauly is claiming that it was the “upper middle class” who felt the brunt of the 1993 Clinton tax increases. This made them less willing to pay for health reform. Is this explanation plausible?
No, it is not.
According to economist Robert Pollin, the 1993 Clinton tax increases “increased the levy on [family] incomes over $140,000 from 30 to 36 percent, with an addition 10 percent surcharge for incomes over $250,000″ (p. 26). And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, these families had incomes in the top 5% of the national income distribution.
Here is a graphic from a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland that shows the increase in taxes for families at different income levels:
Given that the the median family income was 54,369 in 1990, and given that only families in the top 3-4% (those above $200,000) really saw an appreciable increase in taxes, it seems to me quite inaccurate to say that the “upper middle class” paid for these increases. One might therefore think that the (upper) middle class should have been willing to pay higher taxes in order to finance universal health insurance for their fellow class-mates. That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to note that ostensibly non-ideological analyses misrepresented the nature of the tax increases, and thereby led the middle class to think their taxes had gone up. The point of such analyses, of course, would be to kill the increases politically. And the main reason one would want to do that is so that the rich would not have to pay higher taxes.
So I am beginning to question the sincerely of such Pauly pronouncements as, “I hasten to add that…I would prefer more redistribution.” That said, I’m still learning a ton from reading and re-reading Pauly’s latest book.
September 15th, 2010
Intro, Meet Conclusion (Another in the “right-of-center health care analysis” series)
I recently mentioned Mark Pauly’s recent book on reforming the individual insurance market, which I plan to write more on shortly. But tonight I’m reading an exchange between Pauly and Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt from 1995 or 1996, and I’m simply flabbergasted by two claims Pauly makes. One the one hand, we get this statement from the introduction:
It is..probably true in large part, that the health care reform proposed by the president [Clinton] failed because Harry and Louise were more effective at scaring the middle class than were Ira [Magaziner] and Hillary [Clinton].
Then there’s this from the conclusion:
It might be helpful to point out a logical contradiction: if the middle class are so concerned about the welfare of the nonpoor uninsured that they will not force them to pay for the insurance coverage, why are the middle class unwilling to pay for that insurance for them? It appears that a little altruism is a dangerous thing…If we cannot convince the decisive voters of the value of what we value, then I think we need to accept the verdict of democracy.
So let me get this straight. Health reform failed because of a year-long insurance industry-funded campaign to scare the middle class. And it failed because the middle class decided in its infinite and dispositive wisdom that there is no social obligation to aid those without insurance. Huh?
To be fair, there is also this from the introduction:
[It is] a little surprising that two economists are talking about what is essentially a political issue, but I suppose that is the way it has to be.
God I hope that’s not true.