Month: November 2011

Best fiction and fiction-related books of 2011

1. Murakami I now have finished it, don’t think it adds up to anything but it is consistently fun for 900+ pages.  How many other books can claim that?

2. Steve Sem-Samberg, The Emperor of Lies, A Novel.  “I don’t want to read any more about the Holocaust” is not good enough reason to neglect this stunning Swedish novel.  A fictionalized account of the Lodz Ghetto, it looks at the lives of the ghetto rulers and whether they were heroes or collaborators.  I found it tough to read more than one hundred pages of this at a time; by focusing on the suicides rather than the murder victims, it is especially brutal.  Get up the gumption.

3. Audur Ava Olafsdottir, The Greenhouse.  From Iceland, it’s funny and sheer fun to read and short and easy yet deep and moving.

4. Habibi, by Craig Thompson.  I don’t enjoy many graphic novels, but this is my favorite of all those I have read.

Away from fiction proper we have:

5.  The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom.  In part this is a lifetime achievement award, but his best passages are still stunning.

6. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003, by Roberto Bolano.  Will make you want to read a lot more Latin American fiction.

Soon I’ll cover the best economics books of the year.

Electoral memo to Truman in 1948, from Clark Clifford

Here is one excerpt:

Although not as inevitable as death and taxes, it is almost certain that in the election year of 1948—whether the Administration likes it or not—taxes will be reduced. The Republicans plan to cut them, and Democratic Congressmen in sufficient numbers simply cannot stand up in a campaign year against the pressure to support tax reduction and to override the president’s third veto if it comes.

This is different, yet still oddly familiar:

It is inconceivable that any policies initiated by the Truman Administration no matter how “liberal” could so alienate the South in the next year that it would revolt. As always, the South can be considered safely Democratic. And in formulating national policy, it can be safely ignored.

The only pragmatic reason for conciliating the South in normal times is because of its tremendous strength in the Congress. Since the Congress is Republican and the Democratic President has, therefore, no real chance to get his own program approved by it, particularly in an election year, he has no real necessity for “getting along” with the Southern conservatives. He must, however, get along with the Westerners and with labor if he is to be reelected.

The whole thing is here, interesting throughout.  We will have another election less than a year from now, so the news cycle will continue to get worse.

Sentences to ponder

En Argentina, ¡el precio del Big Mac subió casi el doble que el IPC oficial! Mientras el IPC oficial aumentó en 10% en 2010, el precio del Big Mac aumentó en 19%.

In other words, the real price of the Big Mac rose nearly twice as much as the official statistics were willing to admit, in Argentina of course.  That’s not right, so the government sprang into action.  The minister of the commerce department “persuaded” McDonald’s to price the Big Mac at $16, while other sandwiches at the chain are in the $21 to $23 range.

The outlets now keep the Big Mac well-hidden, full story (in Spanish) here.  For the pointer I thank Raphael Corbi.

Economist Big Mac index, be warned!

What I’ve been reading

1. Habibi, by Craig Thompson.  I don’t enjoy most graphic novels, but this is my favorite of the ones I’ve read.

2. Roger Farmer, “The Stock Market Crash of 2008 Caused the Great Recession: Theory and Evidence.”  I don’t agree with every part of the model, but it focuses our attention on what has become the #1 question of the American macroeconomy: to what extent can a boost in nominal flow make up for a shortfall in wealth?

3. Robert Levine, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.  An important book in cultural economics, this clear, energetically written tract is perhaps the best critique of where our culture is at today.  It’s about parasitism more generally, not just copyright violation.  Everyone who follows cultural economics should read this book.

4. Robert L. Bradley, Jr. Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies, home page here.  The second part of a three-volume series on the history of American energy, told through the distinction between productive and predatory capitalism.  Bradley is a very much underrated economic historian, largely because of his “amateur” status, but there is a remarkable amount of learning in his books..

5. Douglas A. Irwin, Trade Policy Disaster: Lessons from the 1930s, self-recommending.  Another new and self-recommending book is Mark Miller’s Salsas of the World, he is one of my cooking and restaurant heroes.

“Let’s go tickle some rats”

They compiled data establishing, among other things, that certain areas of the body are particularly ticklish (the nape of the neck, for you do-it-yourselfers), that the most playful rats tend to be the most ticklish, that rats can become conditioned to chirp simply in anticipation of being tickled, that tickle response rates decline after adolescence, that young rats preferentially spend time with older ones who chirp more frequently, that the tickle response appears to generate social bonding, that chirping decreases in the presence of negative stimuli (such as the scent of a cat), that rats will run mazes and press levers to get tickled, etc. Based on their research and observations, Panksepp and his fellow researchers hypothesized that rats, when being tickled or engaging in other playful activities, experience social joy that they vocalize through 50 kHz chirping, a primordial form of laughter that is evolutionarily related to joyful social laughter in young human children.

Here is more, with further references and links at the bottom, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Assorted links

1. The Leijonhufvud-Clower corridor, as experienced in the Greek bookselling market.

2. Eleven facts about the Icelandic book market, via Literary Saloon, and Icelandic capital controls.

3. “The Right to be Lazy,” a view from the Left, circa 1883, recommended by Chris Bertram, and how to revive the Plains.

4. The culture that is Montgomery County: let’s make big box stores negotiate with the community.

5. New claims about Shakespeare.

The Bond Market on Education

…Stark Investments is staying away from all student loan bonds right now. It is instead focusing on mortgage-backed debt with comparable yields and less risk…

You know it’s a bad job market when bond investors would rather invest in mortgages than students. As the article in the WSJ notes, investors in student loans have an incentive to be realistic about the value of education and the job market.

Investors like Mr. Ades have a unique view on the future for America’s job-seekers. Their investments depend on accurately predicting young people’s ability to repay their loans, which means they obsess about everything from employment rates by profession to the long-term earning potential of young graduates.

Historically, investors have assumed 25% to 30% of student loans bundled into their bonds will default. But today they are baking in between 30% and 40% default rates among the current crop of graduates…

Not every investment in education is a poor bet:

…This analysis translates into some surprising insights for students and policy makers. For example, in the current economy, it may make more sense to enter a technical college than to go to law school.

…”It’s not just about where you can get the best education,” he said during an interview in the Miami Beach office of his hedge fund, Kawa Capital Management. Students should pick schools where the payoff from higher salaries upon graduation exceeds the cost of the education by the widest margin, he contends, especially when the job market contracts.

By that arithmetic, technical colleges come out on top, Mr. Ades said. “We’re in a skills based economy and what we need is more computer programmers, more [nurses],” he said. “It’s less glamorous but it’s what we need.”

How to leave the Uros zone (no typo, if only it were so easy)

…the Uros have managed to retain their independence and lifestyle by living on 93 floating islands, which they build and maintain from totora reeds, some five kilometres off the coast and accessible only by a 20-minute boat ride from Puno.

…Should there be disputes between families living on the same island it is easy to cut a single home off and float it to another island.

The full story is here, much more information here.

*The Origins of AIDS*

The author is Jacques Pepin and this is a splendid book.  It is a remarkably thorough epidemiological detective story, which breaks new ground, and on top of that it serves up an excellent (partial) history of Zaire, history of the African sex trade, and history of Haiti.  Excerpt:

In tropical Africa, the median number of infective [mosquito] bites is 77 per year, but in the rural and rainy areas of central Africa this number is generally >>200.  The record belongs to a village of Equatorial Guinea, where humans sustain 1,030 infective bites per year, three per day!

It is the most impressively researched book I’ve read all year, as suspenseful as a thriller, and tragic in mood.  It’s amazing how far back Pepin can trace back the history of AIDS and the diversity of sources and records he draws upon.  Here is one overview of the book.  Definitely recommended, one of the best books of the year.

Capitol Gains

I have written several times before (e.g. here and here) about how Washington insiders, politicians and staff, use their knowledge of behind the scene deals to profit in the stock market (see also Megan McArdle’s recent piece from which I stole the headline). Last night 60 Minutes reported on the story based on new research in Throw Them All Out a forthcoming book by Peter Schweizer.

Here is one bit from the transcript:

In mid September 2008 with the Dow Jones Industrial average still above ten thousand, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke were holding closed door briefings with congressional leaders, and privately warning them that a global financial meltdown could occur within a few days. One of those attending was Alabama Representative Spencer Bachus, then the ranking Republican member on the House Financial Services Committee and now its chairman.

Schweizer: These meetings were so sensitive– that they would actually confiscate cell phones and Blackberries going into those meetings. What we know is that those meetings were held one day and literally the next day Congressman Bachus would engage in buying stock options based on apocalyptic briefings he had the day before from the Fed chairman and treasury secretary. I mean, talk about a stock tip.

While Congressman Bachus was publicly trying to keep the economy from cratering, he was privately betting that it would, buying option funds that would go up in value if the market went down. He would make a variety of trades and profited at a time when most Americans were losing their shirts.

Even though the Congress is exempt from insider trading law, many of 60 Minutes’s findings are hugely damning, which you can tell just by looking at the stunned faces of John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi when Steve Kroft questions them about their special dealings. The video is here.

I never understood gambling in the first place (model this)

Why hire someone to do your gambling for you?  This report is from Singapore:

A hard day’s work for Bangladeshi construction worker Salim used to mean toiling under the burning sun. But nowadays, at least once a week, he finds himself assigned to a very different kind of ‘job’ – playing the jackpot machines in the cool air-conditioned comfort of Resorts World Sentosa.

The 29-year-old is one of a number of foreign employees being sent to the casino to gamble on behalf of their employers to feed their own habit, a Straits Times investigation has found.

Five bosses – some with exclusion orders against them – told The Straits Times that they have been handing workers cash, notebooks and mobile phones, then dispatching them to the casino. They claimed to know several other employers doing the same thing.

The ‘proxy gamblers’, dressed mostly in company polo T-shirts and jeans, get a cut of the winnings, but if they lose too much, their pay is docked.

The link is here (part of the article is gated), and for the pointer I thank Daniel Riveong.