Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Book: The Stand, by Stephen King

King, Stephen. 1990. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. Doubleday.

What better time to read a classic pandemic novel than at the tail end (locally at least) of a pandemic, albeit one much less deadly than that described in the book.

Post-apocalyptic tales have been a favorite of mine ever since I read Robert Silverberg's Time of the Great Freeze back in fifth grade (and the fact that it concerned too little warming rather than too much signals just how long ago that was). Back in the day I read classics like On the Beach and Alas, Babylon! and I have continued to read one or two post-apocalyptic tales a year (putting aside my general break from reading for pleasure during the second half of gradual school). They've been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately.

If you poke around the internet for lists of the best post-apocalyptic novels, The Stand appears on most such lists, often near the top. So I have been meaning to read it for many years. I went "all in" and read the director's cut version with the idea that I might well never read another Stephen King book, and so I should read this one the way he meant it to be read. The director's cut has 1153 pages of text, though they are not dense and the book reads quickly in a pages-per-minute sense.

The first book-within-a-book  (of three) details the spread of the plague and the ensuing death and destruction. It was my favorite part of the book. The third book-within-a-book documents the great showdown (in which various people make a stand, hence the title) between good and evil. That was my second favorite part. My enthusiasm flagged (sorry, a pun too easy to resist but one you will only note if you have already read the book) a bit at times in the middle book-within-a-book. I suspect that most of the editor's cuts came from this part.

Some random thoughts: I was surprised by the Christian-ness of it; I suspect that feature explains some of its enduring popularity. I was surprised that one of the main characters is a sociologist. The book is very much of its time - in technology, gender relations, and so on. It emphasizes the way tough times can change people for the better and for the worse. And it embodies the sort of lightly paranoid anti-government stance that permeated popular culture in the years after Vietnam and Watergate.

Recommended but only for true lovers of the post-apocalyptic and/or of Stephen King. I will give it four stars on Goodreads, in contrast  to the five stars I gave to Station Eleven.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Book: Plenitude by Grant McCracken

 McCracken, Grant. 1997. Plenitude: Culture by Commotion, Book 1. Toronto: Periph.:Fluide.

I had meant to read this for many years - ever since it became clear how much of an influence it had on two of my favorite reason magazine editors: Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel. Indeed, you can get a sense of the book from the corresponding article in reason in 1998. If you do a search at reason.com you will obtain a long list of citations to the book in the 20+ years since its publication, most of them by Nick.

The reason (cough, cough) for all this attention at reason is clear: McCracken documents and celebrates the technology-driven destruction of gatekeepers and decentralization of intellectual and social life that characterizes the past three decades. Cultural libertarianism marvels at changes that provide so much scope for individuals to live their lives as they please.

One choice bit:

"The fashion system does not work as it once did. Once, what came into fashion was obliged to go out of fashion. The old was forced out by the new. But fads and fashions no longer seem as thoroughly discredited by their fall from grace. Even platform shoes can stay in circulation. It's as if we are surrounded by the archaeological accumulation of all the styles of life we ever cared about. They can come again, and they do."

There is a wise discussion of the dark side of plenitude, which I think McCracken underestimated a bit in the relatively innocent days just prior to the Millennium. There is a most enjoyable takedown of the left's narrow and excessively political notions of diversity; sadly, the takedown defied my efforts to find a short quotation that truly delivers the punch. 

And, on page 40, one very poor prediction:

"Poor Donald Trump, once the "short-fingered vulgarian" so despised by Spy Magazine, is no longer emblematic enough to enrage or embarrass."

McCracken has a blog, called cultureby.com, and is an occasional tweeter @grant27. It will perhaps not surprise that he has a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

The book is out of print. I got mine on Abebooks. The first copy I bought had a printer error (!) and was missing some pages while providing duplicates of others. I am not sure if that makes it worth more (as it would with postage stamps) or worth less (or even worthless). Both copies are signed and dedicated - the one without the printer error to someone called Karal.

Highly recommended: a quick, fun, and surprisingly deep read.

A bit of Independence Day humor from our friends across the pond


 

4th of July

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

Hell yeah. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Book: Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Bythell, Shaun. 2020. Confessions of a Bookseller. DRG.

This book chronicles a year in the life of its curmudgeonly author, who runs the largest used bookstore in Scotland.

There are tales of his eccentric employees, eccentric townspeople, eccentric Scots with books to sell, and eccentric customers. A couple examples of the latter group serve to capture the book's flavor:

A young woman bought a copy of the Kama Sutra and offered to do a reading from it for Facebook. I thought it best to decline.

and

Just one customer by lunchtime, huffing and puffing his way around the shop. He managed to redeem himself by spending [50 pounds] and telling me--with no apparent sense of irony--about a bookshop in Cornwall that has a huge sign at the counter which reads `NO ANECDOTES.'

Another way to get a sense of the book is to watch a couple of the videos whose creation it describes, such as the "kindle fire" video and the "night before Christmas" video.

Amidst all this fun the reader also learns a lot about the business of running a used bookstore in the modern age - e.g. the number of online orders received is recorded for each day, along with the number of said books actually found in this shop, which is often less.

I enjoyed it thoroughly but I am a bibliophile and have some Scots hiding in my family tree. 

This is the other book I got at Kismet books in Verona a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Book: Talking Back, Talking Black by John McWhorter

McWhorter, John. 2017. Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca. Bellevue Literary Press.

McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia and also a bit of a public intellectual. 

This sentence from the book's final chapter captures its main point:

"I have sought to help the reader actually hear Black English in a new way, to hear it as an alternate kind of English rather than as bad grammar and a lively slang." 

Put differently, McWhorter wants you to think of Black English in relation to Standard American English like you would Swiss German in relation to High German or Scots in relation to standard British English. It seeks to persuade intelligent and curious non-linguists to adopt this view by providing a gentle introduction to relevant aspects of the academic literature on the substance and history of Black English. I found the case it makes compelling. 

Along the way, the reader learns fun new terms like "diglossia", "monophthongization", and "variationist socio-linguistics" and receives a short lesson on the history of minstrelsy. I particularly enjoyed McWhorter's takes on Harry Reid's famous comment about Obama's speaking style and on the NFL's "who dat" New Orleans Saints t-shirt controversy. And what one might call his "third way" take on the n-word provides an elegant, linguistically grounded, and new (to me at least) way to think about an old issue.

I found McWhorter's prose a delight to read. The blurb from the New Yorker review on the back cover refers to his "intelligent breeziness" - surely a compliment we can all aspire to. McWhorter also does a fine job of deploying pop culture references. I laughed aloud on numerous occasions.

Finally, the most astounding thing about this book in this age of polarization and cancel culture is McWhorter's generosity of spirit. He assumes his reader is intelligent, reasonable, interested in learning and, perhaps, in being persuaded to change their mind, and proceeds accordingly. Amazing.

Highly recommended.

I ordered this from the soon-to-reopen-for-browsing Seminary Co-op Bookstore. You can too.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Nostalgic for 2020?

I'm not nostalgic for 2020. Probably you, dear reader, are not either. But the Apple Store seems to think its customers are, as not only is the one near us still demanding masks and distancing for all, even those long past their second shot, but our staff person made a big show of taking out little wipes and sterilizing my daughter's iphone before he would look at it. Really? Really? 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book: The Lost Books of Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas

Barchas, Janine. 2019. The Lost Books of Jane Austen. Johns Hopkins University Press.

The title suggests the discovery of heretofore undiscovered Jane Austen manuscripts, but, alas, such is not the case. Instead, the author, an English professor at the University of Texas, concerns herself with lost editions of Jane Austen's familiar books. The missing editions are the cheap ones, which academic bibliographers often ignore in their lists. Barchas finds these cheap editions interesting because of what they tell, via their covers, their prices, and their marketing, about who was reading Jane Austen over time and across space, and about how they were thinking of her as an author. Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about how publishing worked in the 1800s and early 1900s. I had no idea, for example, that a given set of typeset plates might be used to create multiple editions of a book by different publishers over a period of decades. The reader also learns some fun bits of cultural history, including about book prizes, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Society, and obsessive Janeites. Finally, this is a physically beautiful book from the Johns Hopkins University Press, chock full of full-color illustrations of Jane Austen book covers.

Recommended for those of a bookish turn.

Book page at JHU Press.

Mask etiquette memories

 

Yesterday was "mask freedom day" in Dane County and on campus at UW-Madison and most of the mask-related signs had already been taken down by the time I got in to work. But this one remained for me to claim as a COVID memento.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Pandemic endgame

 

Dane County Mask Freedom Day is just two days away.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

And then it was done (sort of, mostly)

Public Health of Madison & Dane County lifts all COVID orders as of June 2.

A not-so-fun thing I hope not to do again.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Book: Sid Meier's MEMOIR! by Sid Meier

Meier, Sid. 2020. Sid Meier's MEMOIR! Norton.

Sid Meier is, of course, the man who single-handedly took a point or two off of the GDP by designing the computer game Civilization! as well as Alpha Centauri and various other pleasing diversions of the screen. This is one of those books where once I learned of its existence by finding it on a bookstore shelf, I had to buy it and read it right away. 

Sid comes off as a super-nice, super-nerdy fellow. I learned a lot about the early days of the computer game industry, a lot about how Sid designs games, and a lot about the origins of many of his games in his childhood hobbies, travels and adventures. Do not expect any deep psychology, or settling of scores, or many personal details (or even as many details as you might want about some of the later games, such as Civilization Revolution!). Do expect a quick, entertaining, and informative read.

Two highlights: 

On page 246 there is a discussion of how the combat system for a game was altered away from simple random outcomes so that the playtesters would like it better. For example, the player will never lose two battles in a row when the odds are in their favor. None of this is clear in the game, of course, which presents as though combats resolve in the same way for the player and the AI and resolve via independent conditional randomizations for the player. 

And toward the very end, a bit of a philosophy: "I think that in life, as in game design, you have to find the fun." Words to live by, indeed.

I bought this at a delightful new book store / gift shop in an old house in downtown Verona called Kismet Books. The stock is not huge - I probably have more books in my house than they have in their store - but it is artfully curated. In particular, they have a lot of Wisconsin history books from the University of Wisconsin Press. I could easily have bought five or six books rather than just two. And the owner is very friendly and helpful. 

UI Waiting Week report

Some of my IRP colleagues and I wrote a report for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development regarding the UI waiting week. You can find the report here

Link to IRP-Analysis-WI-Unemployment-Waiting-Period-Report (PDF)

and the title, authors and abstract below.

What surprised me most when working on this report was the almost complete absence of any discussion of UI waiting weeks in the literature. The waiting week in UI, which many states have but suspended during the pandemic, basically means that the first compensable week is the second week of the claim. The waiting week does not affect the number of weeks a claimant is eligible for but rather tries to deter very short claims by adding a week before the benefit payments begin. SSDI, the main disability program in the US, has a long waiting period, and there is a large literature about it, but the short UI waiting week has not attracted similar attention from scholars.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Analysis Of The Unemployment Insurance Waiting Period In Wisconsin

Jeffrey Smith, Yonah Drazen, Steven Cook, and Hilary Shager

November 30 2020

WI-UI-Report-2020

DWD asked IRP to investigate whether the one-week waiting period policy introduced into Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance (UI) system on January 1, 2012 had effects on claimant outcomes related to UI receipt and use of other social and employment training programs. In particular, this report addresses three research questions, which we list along with our answers.

1) What are the policies other jurisdictions have in place regarding unemployment compensation waiting periods, and how does Wisconsin compare?

Most other states have a one-week Unemployment Insurance (UI) waiting period (though many states waived this following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic). There is a long history of such waiting periods both in the United States and in other developed countries. In recent decades, the usual motivation centers on discouraging UI enrollment by eligible workers expecting very short claims.

2) Did the amount of time participants claimed benefits change in response to the introduction of the waiting period?

We find weak evidence of an increase in the average duration of claims following the introduction of the waiting week. The increase occurs only among claimants required to actively search for work based on their Eligibility Review Period (ERP) code and does not attain conventional levels of statistical significance. We interpret this as weak evidence that the waiting week deters claims by workers who would have short claims and be required to search.

3) Were claimants more likely to also participate in other safety net programs (FoodShare or Medical Assistance) in response to the introduction of the waiting period?

We find no evidence of an effect of the waiting week policy on claimant receipt of FoodShare, Medicaid. Similarly, we find no evidence of an effect on participation in training funded by the Workforce Investment Act(WIA).

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Back to normal at Montlake in the fall?


Washington start soliciting season ticket renewals on Monday (which is months later than usual). Being an optimist, I take that to mean they expect a full stadium in the fall.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Peter Gottschalk, RIP

 I took over Peter's position as an Institute for Research on Poverty Summer Research Workshop co-organizer some years back. He was a great person, a great economist, and a great senior colleague for my student Shannon Seitz. He will be greatly missed.

Obituary from the IRP website.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Vaccination day


 Nails it. Especially the travel bit.



Pfizer for me.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Book: The Box by Marc Levinson

Levinson, Marc. 2006. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton University Press.

As its name suggests, this book offers a history of container shipping, with a particular emphasis on maritime shipping, where containerization first took hold. I found many aspects of the book interesting and useful. Let me remark on a few here:

1) I sometimes mock the first U.S. federal training initiative, the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA), because it was motivated in part by fears of job loss due to automation - in 1962! This book actually gives life to the origin of some of those concerns via its description of the dramatic drops in longshore employment in U.S. ports as containers and cranes replaced gangs of men loading and unloading "breakbulk" cargo. This transition is not really automation, as the cranes had human operators, but it very much is the large-scale substitution of capital for labor.

2) The tale of how standards got set for container sizes via interactions of shippers and governments within the context of various national and international standards settings institutions provides a reminder that politics, power (both economic and political) and personalities all matter for such exercises. Indeed, the story of this process could easily support a book of its own.

3) Also fascinating: the stories, separate for the east and west coasts, of how the longshoremen's unions reacted to the prospect and then the arrival of containerization. For those with rose-colored memories of the private sector trade union past, this part of the story provides helpful reminders of the days of massively inefficient work rules and crippling strikes, too.

4) For readers of a certain age, the text also rekindles fond memories of the costs created by the interstate commerce commission, which was fully captured by the industry it purported to regulate prior to its (surprisingly bipartisan) demise in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It is an academic book written by an academic, but it is written well and at a modest technical level. I very much enjoyed it.

Recommended.

Amazon book page

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Harry Holzer on post-pandemic workforce policy

Today brings a new Hamilton Project paper on post-pandemic workforce policy from Harry Holzer:

Abstract

Workforce development in the United States today is spread across higher education institutions (primarily public two-year and for-profit colleges), labor market institutions, and workplaces, with public funding from a range of sources. But outcomes for students and workers are weaker than they could be, especially among disadvantaged students and displaced workers; funding for workforce development programs is insufficient and not always effective. I propose the following changes: (1) Implement reforms and additional funding in the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) for postsecondary occupational training for disadvantaged students. (2) Add modest taxes on worker displacement along with new funding for retraining. (3) Create a permanent version of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants to fund partnerships among community colleges, workforce institutions, and states. Together, these actions would improve credential attainment and employment outcomes among the disadvantaged and employees at the risk of being displaced.

Harry and I disagree on several things (though we agree on more things than I would have expected when I started reading). I note only two points where we differ. First, we have different priors regarding how much of the earnings impacts of sectoral training programs in RCTs represents increased output. My prior would be about 0.2 while Harry's would be much higher. For some of the programs, views on this will affect the cost-benefit conclusion, as sectoral programs have non-trivial price tags. Second, we disagree on the virtue of wage insurance. My view can be summed up as "To those who had, more is given." 

But, as always with Harry's work, I learned a lot and thought some interesting thoughts. 

Read the whole thing here.


Saturday, January 16, 2021

Important paper on incarceration rates

Shen, Yinzhi, Shawn Bushway, Lucy Sorensen, and Herbert Smith. 2020. "Locking up my generation: Cohort differences in prison spells over the life course." Criminology 58(4): 645-677.

Abstract:

Crime rates have dropped substantially in the United States, but incarceration rates have remained high. The standard explanation for the lasting trend in incarceration is that the policy choices from the 1980s and 1990s were part of a secular increase in punitiveness that has kept rates of incarceration high. Our study highlights a heretofore overlooked perspective: that the crime–punishment wave in the 1980s and 1990s created cohort differences in incarceration over the life course that changed the level of incarceration even decades after the wave. With individual‐level longitudinal sentencing data from 1972 to 2016 in North Carolina, we show that cohort effects—the lingering impacts of having reached young adulthood at particular times in the history of crime and punishment—are at least as large (and likely much larger) than annual variation in incarceration rates attributable to period‐specific events and proclivities. The birth cohorts that reach prime age of crime during the 1980s and 1990s crime–punishment wave have elevated rates of incarceration throughout their observed life course. The key mechanism for their elevated incarceration rates decades after the crime–punishment wave is the accumulation of extended criminal history under a sentencing structure that systematically escalates punishment for those with priors.

Gated link to the paper.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This strikes me as a very important paper and also, at least in a prospective sense, a paper full of good news about incarceration rates for more recent cohorts.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Book: Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself by Florian Huber

Huber, Florian. 2019. Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945. Little Brown Stark.



This is one of the photos in the book, quite famous in its day. It shows Kurt Lisso, city treasurer of Leipzig, and his family following their collective suicide. The photographer is American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White.

The book documents the large volume of suicides that took place in the waning days of the Third Reich, most but not all of them in areas assigned to Russian occupation. It then uses the stories of these suicides to revisit the evergreen question of why it was that the Germans went down the Nazi road. The book combines social history, with lots of references to individual diaries and so on, with more traditional historical material that serves as context. 

Recommended if the subject is of interest.

I purchased this in my first pandemic bookstore visit last summer, which was to the local Barnes and Noble in Madison.

Barnes and Noble book page.


Friday, January 1, 2021

Book: Very Important People by Ashley Mears

Mears, Ashley. 2020. Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit. Princeton University Press.

This is an academic ethnography of high end parties. The author is a former model (her first book is an ethnography of high fashion modeling) turned sociology professor, now tenured at Boston University. She used connections to promoters from her modeling days to set up the participant observations that underlie the book. She also did numerous formal interviews with "girls", promoters, and clients. 

The book provides an inside look at an industry / sub-culture that I would never otherwise have learned about. The author is smart, and impressively well-read both inside and outside sociology. The book is clearly academic but wears its scholarship fairly lightly without losing substance. I particularly appreciated the author's empathy for all the players in the nightly drama she describes. It would be easy to judge pretty much everyone involved on many dimensions but instead she does her best to understand why the promoters promote, the clients conspicuously consume, and the "girls" show up to the clubs with the promoters despite only indirect, though nonetheless very real, compensation. 

One minor negative is that the text bears the burden of a bit of Marxian jargon about "exploitation", which the author (not surprisingly) struggles unsuccessfully to integrate with her (clearly evidenced) understanding of the role of non-pecuniary compensation in this world. I would have liked a bit more discussion about supply and demand too. I expect that the supply of attractive young women interested in free dinners and free parties at high end clubs in NYC is pretty large relative to the demand, and that this fact has implications for how the surplus gets divided among the "girls", the promoters, the clients, and the club owners.. Not unrelated: the author should read about the diamond-water paradox. 

I don't think I would have read this book without the enthusiastic recommendation it received from Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution. His conversation with the author is well worth a listen / watch, though it is more a complement to the book than a substitute for it. One highlight: Tyler gently, and somewhat indirectly, gets the author to admit that no one is really being exploited in the party economy.

One puzzle: why no picture of the author on the inside back of the dust jacket?

Definitely recommended if the subject sounds interesting to you.

I ordered this one from Seminary Coop bookstore, which I hope will still be around when next I find myself in Hyde Park in person. You can order it there too