Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Conference call bingo

It is interesting to get to see (part of) everyone's home office on video conference calls. I seem to have the most books.

Hat tip: An amazing Dane

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Assorted links

1. Some shelter in place amusement from McSweeney's.

2. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic - one of my favorite of their writers - considers Megxit. The Royal Family is a bit on my mind as we just finished Season 3 of The Crown at our house.

3. Post-pandemic travel predictions from Gary Leff.

Hat tip on #1 to my favorite international relations scholar

Saturday, March 28, 2020

All Hail Literati or, people in Ann Arbor really like books

Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, which in some spiritual sense replaced Borders #1 when the chain went under, managed to raise over $100,000 on GoFundMe in just two days (!) this past week.

Glad to see a couple of former Michigan colleagues on the list of donors too.

Book: Riding the Elephant by Craig Ferguson

Ferguson, Craig. 2019. Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations & Observations.New York: Blue Rider Press.

Craig was (without quuestion) my favorite relatively recent late night talk show host. None of the cuurrent crowd even comes close. So I miss him and his antics and the fake horse and the talking skeleton and the fact that his politics were not completely and utterly obvious (and, by extension, not completely and utterly tiresome). Plus we are very close to the same age, which I think matters a bit too.

So I was bought his new memoir - really more of a collection of sketches from his past than a proper narrative memoir but probably that's better anyway - the first time I saw it in a bookstore. I was not disappointed. Craig is a great teller of stories. I particularly enjoyed the stories about his relatively humble upbringing in Scotland and the chapter on the "four queens".His history of addiction (mainly alcohol) and subsequent recovery via AA is in the background here, rather than in the foreground as in his earlier memoir, but one sees the AA emphases on critical self-reflection and on making amends throughout the text.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that he has become a vegan, or so he claims. It seems both too trendy for someone who generally poses as a genial cynic and outsider and also a bit of an addiction in its own way.

In any case, despite the vegan blot, if you miss Craig's more thoughtful monologues even half as much as I do, you'll quite enjoy the book.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks-and-mortar bookstore where I actually purchased the book (as I recall).

N.B. I am not actually spending every waking minute reading enjoyable books - rather I am catching up on posting about books read over the past 18 months or so.

Gas prices

So I drove by a gas station in Madison the other day selling regular unleaded for less than $1.70 and I thought: could it be that gas is actually cheaper now than it was when I first started buying it after I inherited my grandmother's 1964 Plymouth Valiant as a high school student in 1977?

According to the Gasbuddy website there are actually cheaper gas prices in Madison than at the station I saw. The lowest it lists as I write is $1.29 per gallon. The lowest price I ever paid - I remember explcitly thinking that I was unlikely to ever pay a lower nominal price than I did that day - was $0.299 per gallon. According to the "U.S. Inflation Calculator" something with a price of $0.30 (it rounds) in 1977 would have a price of $1.28 due solely to inflaction. Astounding.

Some issues:

1) I am ignoring the fact that the 1977 price observation was in the Seattle suburbs and not in Madison. I expect that Seattle is nearer a refinery and so might have had lower prices for that reason.

2) I also have no idea about the relative gas taxes in Washington State and Wisconsin in either 1977 or the present, which one also might want to think about as part of a more serious exercise along these lines.

3) There are multiple ways to adjust for inflation and they can tell very different stories. I do not know which one the web site I used relies on. I expect the qualitative point to be similar though.

4) Hard to imagine that essentially no change in the real price (inclusive of taxes) over that time period is really optimal given the intervening changes in what we know about the externalities associated with carbon emissions.

5) Gas prices are presently at a transitory low due to conflict among suppliers plus reduced demand due to the pandemic. In Madison they have fallen by more than fifty percent in a few weeks. Still.

6) It is a testament to something that even though it would be hard to imagine a less cool car to drive in high school than a 1964 Valiant, it was still much cooler to have any car than to have no car.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Book: The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy by Bruce Ackerman

Ackerman, Bruce. 2005. The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

If anyone claims to you that we are, or have recently been, in uniquely polarized times, then you should send that person off to read a book about the election of 1800, such as this one. It will, I expect, make you feel better about the present day; certainly it had that effect on me. I had no idea about many of the political shenanigans that went on - or were considered, as in the case of calling out the Virginia milita to march on Washington DC - during the crisis, which resulted in part from the failure of the founders to lay out how to deal with tie votes in the electoral college.

Ackerman is a political science professor at Yale and a good writer too. He has some valuable broader points to make about the historical development of the presidency and of the supremes. I very much enjoyed and learned from the book.

Recommended if you are into such things.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks-and-mortar used bookstore where I actually bought the book

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book: A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta

Venet, Wendy Hammand. 2014. A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta. New Haven: Yale University Press.

This book provides a history of Atlanta with a focus on the civil war years, but including as well the period of rapid economic growth and development in the years prior to the war and the period of agressive rebuilding following the war. The author is a professor in the history department at Georgia State University.

What distinguishes the book in my eyes is its focus on primary sources: the vast majority of the story builds on contemporary newspapers, diaries, business records, public records, letters and (sometimes at a lag) memoirs. The author does a fine job of weaving these sources togehter with occasional references to secondary sources and more aggregate data into a narrative of pre-war expansion, early war enthusiasm, late war disappointment and dispair, and post-war reconstruction and adjustment to new social realities.

Of course, reliance on primary sources has its issues: literacy was by no means universal at the time, even among non-slaves. Thus, surviving letters and diaries come from a decidedly non-random subset of the population. Similarly, newspaper archives do not survive at random either. The author notes these issues but I would have liked an explicit and extended methodological discussion to complement the narrative, perhaps in an extended appendix so as to allow more casual readers to easily avoid it.

I really enjoyed the book and learned a great deal of a social historical nature about the war and the city. I particularly valued the discussion of how Atlanta coped with the inflow of refugees from union-occupied regions and of wounded soldiers during the latter parts of the war.

Recommended to those interested in the Civil War.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Adventures in applied theology

A Latter-day Saint who writes for the Atlantic reminisces on food stockpiling.  One of my best friends in elementary school was a Latter-day Saint and I remember being quite fascinating by his family's one year (no three month softness for them - perhaps that is an east coast heresy) food supply which they kept in a sort of loft in their garage. It always seemed like a pretty reasonable idea to me.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Assorted links (from a while ago)

1. Academic confessions on twitter.

2. My old friend David Ramsey Steele on George Orwell and Alex Comfort by way of a book review.

3. Looking for a chateau that looks like all the other chateaus?

4. Abandoned Six Flags park in New Orleans

5. Charlie will like this comic.

6. Clearly this faculty member needs more committee assignments.

Quarantine choices

Still sorting out what it means that my (happily married) ex sent this to happily married me.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Online instruction at UW-Madison

The local paper reports on the progress made at UW-Madison, which switches to online courses only for the remainder of the semester starting tomorrow.

The number of students claiming to not have sufficiently good internet at home to allow for streaming  video strikes me as much too high - probably some selective survey response / non-response going on there (though of course no survey response rate is provided in the article).

The university further complicated things a couple of days ago by pushing faculty pretty firmly to start doing their online teaching from home.

It will be interesting to see the lasting effects of this sudden mass payment of the fixed costs associated with online instruction by both students and faculty. Clearly, some courses in the arts and the hard sciences really do need to be conducted in person if possible. Others, like many chalk-and-talk lecture coureses in economics, really do not need to be done in person.

And of course, once lectures go on line, one starts to wonder why we don't just have a few really good lecturers make the videos rather than having local lecturers of heterogeneous quality make them. Does it really make sense for thousands of faculty with highly variable talents in public speaking to prepare, say, introductory econometrics courses every semester? I suspect that some painful efficiency gains await in the (now nearer) future.

Emotive street signs

Who would have guessed that Bittersweet Place would be a dead end?

From yesterday's socially distant sojourn.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Book: Against Prediction by Bernard Harcourt

Harcourt, Bernard. 2007. Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

This is really two books in one. The first part of the book is a completely fascinating history of the use of prediction (a.k.a. statistical treatment rules, a.k.a. profiling) in a criminal justice context in the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, this history dates back to eccentric sociologists in the early 20th century. The history has interest in its own right, but also serves as yet one more reminder that using statistical models applied to what were at the time "big" data to generate actionable predictions is no new thing. The methods have improved, and our standards of bigness have grown, but the idea and an understanding of many of the basic issues go way back.

The second half of the book critiques the more recent literature and policy practice in the criminal justice domain. This critique has three parts: The first makes the point that individuals most likely to engage in some behavior may not be those most likely to respond to some intervention. This is not a new point - it appears in Black, Smith, Berger and Noel (2003) in the context of UI profiling and it was not new there either - but it is one that many people really have trouble understanding. Much of this discussion in the book centers on the literature on police profiling in roadside stops. The second criticism concerns a sort of "ratchet" effect whereby the focus of criminal justice resources on one particular group as a result of the use of prediction models leads to a misguided change in public perceptions of underlying differences in criminal behavior across groups. The third criticism concerns changes in our underlying philosophical notions of justice that might result from the growing dominance of prediction in how we implement the justice system in practice.

I found the first criticism both the best realized in the book and the most compelling. The others are provocative and, in the case of the ratchet effect, have a sort of face validity, but, I felt, a bit underdeveloped in the text.

I enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot from it. Recommended if you are into such things.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Hat tip: Shawn Bushway, for recommending it to me several years ago.

Friday, March 20, 2020

There is no great stagnation - oreo edition

The sad fact of the matter is that it took me a while to figure out these variants were not actually for sale to the general public.

Hat tip: my wife the healthy eater

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Still more academic x pandemic humor

McSweeny's on hastily-prepared online courses.

Not their very best material, but topical to be sure.

I think this is a fine compromise position

Seen on a recent socially distant walk around the neighborhood.

Virtual NCAA tournament

It features a single simulation based on ESPN's power index. Guess who wins?

Addendum: the local paper's coverage of Wisconsin's historic victory.

Hat tip: Tim Smeeding (which provides a clue about who wins)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Monday, March 16, 2020

Book: The Genuine Article by Edmund Morgan

Morgan, Edmund. 2004. The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America. W.W. Norton and Company.

This is a collection of book reviews by a noted American (in both senses) historian. The book reviews, as is standard in the New York Review of Books where they appeared, do more than just narrowly remark on a particular book; instead, they provide brief introductions to particular literatures in the course of putting the book or books at hand into context. I enjoyed it throughout.

But shouldn't it be "An Historian"?

Recommended if you are into such things.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Some pandemic x academic humor

Twitter version here.