The Open Library Is Magnificent

In general, the Internet Archive is a wonder and delight. They should get orders of magnitude more funding. They do a lot of what Google should do or sorta claims to do.

The Open Library contains scans of books you can check out and read in their surprisingly nice browser based ebook reader or as a PDF.

I was just chatting with someone about Jean Anouilh’s Antigone which is one of my favourite plays. My copies are in a box in PA. I am not in PA. I could grab some fragments off Google Books but there’s a collection for borrowing in the library. It’s like magic, but without compromising my privacy.


Scribd Regoes Unlimited

There were a number of entries into the “Netflix for books” arena (Oyster anyone?) but there are only two players left: Amazon and Scribd.

I’ve been a Scribd subscriber for a few years now and love it. Most of my reading these days is Scribd and it’s broadened my reading. There are a lot of great cookbooks on it. I’ve knocked things off my longtime list. It has both text and audiobooks and I’ve listened to a lot of a lot of audiobooks (with a ton of pleasure). At $10/month, it’s a bargain. That’s an Audible subscription which only gets you one audiobook a month (though the catalog is better and you “own” the books).

A few years back they moved from all you can eat to a credit system (3 book and 1 audio credit a month with an accumulation cap of 9 book and 3 audio credits). It was a blow somewhat mitigated by the “Scribd select” monthly offerings which, at the start, were quite varied month by month and very high quality. I listened to a bunch of Cormac McCarthy that I would never have done otherwise. Alas, it degenerated but by that point I still had more than I could read.

The rationale was that they were getting killed by a small percentage that of “superreaders” who would read on the order of 100 books a month (and high price stuff for them like romance novels). Moving to limited credits killed that but also hurt one use I had which was to skim a ton of tech books looking for good texts to recommend. I settled on a good model for me but that was a loss.

But it paid off! They are turning a monthly profit and are back to unlimited with throttles on superusers. This should be interesting!

They, as will all ebook anythings, still have the discovery interface of suck. And one big hole in their categories is philosophy which makes it nigh impossible to figure out their collection.

However, the catalog is pretty damn solid both text and audio. It’s a bargain. I highly recommend it.

Zombie Economics

Zombie Economics popped up on Scribd. I’d seen some bits of it on Crooked Timber so I thought I’d read it. I doubted I’d get much new big picture over having read a bunch (esp Krugman) during the financial crises of 2008, but I was hoping for some depth.

I was really disappointed.

It’s readable enough. And there’s lists of papers at the end of each chapter. But it didn’t feel very informative with the polemic being more rhetorical than substantive. Part of this, I’m sure, is the general reader audience. Consider this bit on privitization:

Most evidence on privatization comes from developing countries and is decidedly mixed. There are favorable cases, such as that of the steel industry in Brazil  where privatization turned loss-making and declining public enterprises into  profitable and growing private corporations. On the other side of the ledger, there  are cases like that of Russia where privatization was the occasion for wholesale  looting, allowing self-described democratic “reformers” to enrich themselves mas-  sively. Most cases fall between these two extremes, but the view that privatization  is always, or even mostly, beneficial is not supported by the evidence. 

Examining a number of actual privatizations in Australia, I found that the government made net fiscal gains in only two cases. In both cases, the sale took  place in a bubble atmosphere, with the result that the buyers subsequently resold  at a loss. Looking at cases where privatization was proposed, but did not go ahead,  the returns to government under continued public ownership clearly exceeded  the benefits they would have obtained from selling the assets. On balance, there  was a net fiscal loss from privatization in most cases. This was not offset by benefits to workers (who were mostly worse off) or consumers

If we look at footnote 7:

As discussed below, these were the privatization of the Victorian electricity  industry in the early 1990s and the second stage of the privatization of Telstra,  the former telecommunications monopoly, and also the dominant Internet service provider. In the Victorian case, the deregulation of the U.S. electricity industry had produced a group of cashed-up buyers, competing for a limited pool of assets. The Telstra sale took place during the dotcom boom. 

Oy! We’re in squishly land here. He examined “a number” of cases (how many? out of how many?) I mean, getting net fiscal gains in only two case is less impressive if there are only two cases in toto! [Ed note: Reading Quiggan’s response, I’m worried that this might give the impression that I think Quiggan’s being deceptive. I don’t think so!]

The first paragraph sets up two extremes and then says “most case fall between”! What?! This is supposed to refute the idea that privatization is always or “mostly” beneficial (to what? government finances? consumer choice?). Why not show at least some of the evidence? [Ed note: in line with the prior note, Quiggan says in the comment that it’s tricky to present and technical. I believe him, though I’d like to see an attempt. So this complaint just is, “It’s for a general audience.” I’d still have preferred a bit more caveating about how it’s tricky over his categorical tone.]

This sort of thing makes the book largely useless, I think. At least for me. There are some howlers, too:

Given the  state of the U.S. economy and the failure of the Obama administration to do much about it, the Republicans ought to be guaranteed of a sweeping victory in  the 2012 elections. In reality, the process of nominating an alternative candidate  has descended into farce, and the congressional Republicans have plumbed unheard of depths of (un)popularity. In large measure, this reflects the total sepa-  ration between ideology and reality now required of Republicans. 

Is the bolded sentence true? Or even justifiable? Remember that prima facie, being an incumbent is a strong place to be and Obama is super talented as a retail politician and he was extremely motivating for his base and he had incredible campaign structure. Is it obvious that the Republicans should have had a ginormous edge? I don’t think so. The way I’d adjudicate it is by looking at what various “fundamentals” models predicted.

And this is more of a PITA to dig out than I wanted for a quick blog post. Grr. But here’s two bits of evidence:

  1. A Nate Silver article from 2012 wherein he writes:
    “Although the model — which is distinct from the electoral map put together by The Times’s political desk — relies fairly heavily on polling, it also considers an index of national economic conditions. Right now, the polls and the economy are broadly in agreement with one another — both point toward an extremely tight race — although the economic risks to Mr. Obama are somewhat to the downside.

    Still, while the economic indicators suggest that the economy is growing sluggishly — at a below-average pace of about 2 percent growth per year — it is not yet in recession and incumbent presidents often receive the benefit of the doubt from voters. A favorable precedent for Mr. Obama is George W. Bush, who narrowly won re-election in 2004 under similar circumstances.”

    So the “state of the economy” was similar to another election where the incumbent was re-elected!

  2. The Moody’s economic trend based prediction model said that economic factors predict an Obama advantage:
    “In 2000, Moody’s Analytics began developing a model of the economic factors influencing American presidential elections that can be used to forecast the outcome. The 2008 version of the model proved accurate, predicting not only the election results that year but also the number of electoral votes received by the winner, Barack Obama. This year the election model has been updated and modified to take account of the recent recession, the deepest seen in many decades.Assuming the economy takes its most likely course between now and November, the model’s initial forecast calls for President Obama to win a second term. This prediction is tied to the Moody’s Analytics current baseline forecast for U.S. growth, which assumes that most states will continue to recover at slow to moderate speeds.”WHAT?!?!?!? Since Quiggin has given no detail about what the conditions were that were supposed to produce a strong Republican advantage, I can’t say it’s been refuted. But a big ole burden of proof shift has happened!

Now Quiggin is an economist, not a political scientist or election forecaster. His claim is exactly the sort of thing that lots of people are prone to make post facto. Indeed, it’s exactly a kind of zombie idea (cf Kerry as terrible candidate, Clinton as terrible in 2008, etc…these start with a claim that obvious these candidates had overwhelming advantages, then squandered them; the poly sci literature generally says that fundamentals dominate candidates or campaigns, esp in the modern era of polarisation).

And yet. It’s something he should have checked out. [Ed note: From his comment, I’m not sure that he did.] Fundamental models are hardly esoteric for people like him. It makes me nervous about the rest esp as I know less about those topics. The effort to check is high and I don’t have a good feel for what’s sensible and what’s fishy. So I, in principle, have to check it all.

And that could be fun, but it’s writing a whole other book!

[Ed Note: So, is this an exceedingly uncharitable review as Quiggan claims?

I don’t think so. I believe that the things that griped me are mostly things done for the sake of a general audience. So I am not the target. OTOH, I don’t know I would recommend it to a general audience because I worry about details like this and that it would do more net harm than good. I don’t feel that I get a toolbox for understanding (even at the lay level). And I don’t like even tangential strange claims which filter out.

I need to reread the Worldly Philosophers. I remember loving that in high school and feeling that I gained a lot of (lay) understanding. But maybe I wouldn’t like it today. Maybe I want to read textbooks.]

3 Recent Books on Bodies and Suffering

I have a Scribd subscription and have been going through the rocky road as they change their model from all you can eat to limited monthly credits. (More on that in another post.) One great thing about it is that it has a great selection of audiobooks, which I never really got into before. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement: The typical price and hassle made me disinclined. For a while, we were getting books on tape from the Durham Public Library and that was good fun (still one of the best libraries of my experience). Zoe and I would read to each other (which really helped with my insomnia), but we don’t do that so much anymore.

Audiobooks are really really nice for walking, which I do a lot more of than I used to.

In any case, I just finished 3 audiobooks which formed a bit of a theme:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (read by the author). A letter from father to son about being Black in the modern United States.
  2. Elie Wiesel, Night (read by Geroge Guidall). The second most famous Holocaust memoir (probably the most famous by a survivor; Anne Frank didn’t make it).
  3. Carolyn Maull McKinstry, While the World Watched (read by Denise George). A memoir by someone who survived the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. (The four girls who died were her friends including her best friend.)

Between the World and Me is by far the most lyrical. Probably the most common word is “body.” Coates directs our attention relentlessly to the bodily area but there is a systematic interplay between the body and our various conceptualisations. Corporal punishment is discussed extensively as a manifestation of black parents’ love under conditions of profound, pervasive fear. Coates’ own struggle with that fear and how it affected his interactions with his son are lucidly and honestly laid out. It’s a wonderful book. (And now I’m feeling the pain of not having the non-audio version ready to hand!)

I do not remember reading Night before, though it’s a standard book-list book. I remember having a copy. I remember reading The Painted Bird, but I don’t specifically remember reading Night. The role of fear, the body, and the fragility of the relationship between father and son had resonances for me with Between the World and Me. One recurring element in Between the World and Me is the death at the hands of the police of a young black man,  Prince Jones, and how that death weighs on Coates. (Coates interviews Jones’ mother.) And that is significant. In Night, Wiesel loses everyone.

While the World Watched is best in the early bits, when McKinstry describes the bombing (she was nearly killed in it!) and the protests she participated in. The world she describes there is similar to the one Coates’ describes, but, for her, the world grows better. I felt her discussion of her PSTD, associated alcoholism, and recovery elided a lot. Pretty much God does all the work with her alone and the effects on her family are little touched up except by key symbolic moments (e.g., her children were outside alone and a neighbour brings them in after some minor danger).  The last bit is mostly preaching (she has become a Dr. of Divinity).

I felt that hearing these together made them stronger, but I struggle to articulate how. I feel myself falling back on comparisons, a la Vessels of Evil, but that feels wrong. Each author uses superlatives to describe their evil experiences, but they don’t seem, objectively, similar. Each author has, to a great degree, transcended the horror they describe and are flourishing. Which almost had to happen for me to have access to their accounts. At my age, background, education, and prior knowledge, there is not much new in these. I appreciate the stories and the writing, but I’m not transformed. Not my feelings; not my thinking; I am richer afterwards, but somehow the same.

I can recommend them all. And I wouldn’t be surprised if one (or all) of them was a life changer for other people.