Month: May 2013

Whose entire body of work is worth reading?

Ryan T. asks:

I’d be curious to see Tyler’s “completist” list. In other words, authors whose entire body of work merits reading. If this does get a response, I’m most interested in seeing the list begin with literature.

I’ll repeat my earlier mention of Geza Vermes.  And to make the exercise meaningful, let’s rule out people who wrote one or two excellent books and then stopped.  Adam Smith is too easy a pick.  I won’t start with literature, however, but here are some choices:

1. Fernand Braudel.

2. George Orwell.  Plato.  Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.  Hume.  William James.

3. Franz Kafka, he died young.

4. T.J. Clark, historian of art and European thought.

5. J.C. D. Clark, the British historian.

Let’s stop here and take stock.  Many historians will make the list, because if they are good they will find it difficult to produce crap.  Without research, they cannot put pen to paper, and with research a careful, thoughtful historian is likely to be interesting.  With thought you could come up with a few hundred historians who were consistently interesting and never wrote a bad book.  Then you have a few extreme geniuses, and J.S. Mill might make the list if not for System of Logic, which by the way Mill himself thought stood among his best works.  Timon of Athens hurts Shakespeare but he also comes very close.

Do any producers of “ideas books” make this list?  Other than those listed under #2 of course.  And are there truly consistent (and excellent) authors of fiction, other than those with a small number of works?  I’m not thinking of many.  How about Virginia Woolf or John Milton or Jane Austen?

One also could make an “opposite” of this list, namely important authors whose works are mostly not worth reading, and you could start with Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley.  The existence of Kindle makes it easier to discover who these people really are.

Red Lights for Profit

TAMPA BAY, Florida — A subtle, but significant tweak to Florida’s rules regarding traffic signals has allowed local cities and counties to shorten yellow light intervals, resulting in millions of dollars in additional red light camera fines.

The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state’s policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).

…Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year…with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies….”Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state,” said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association. “The (FDOT rule-change) was done, I believe, deliberately in order that more tickets would be given with yellows set deliberately too short.”

See Buchanan and Brennan’s The Power to Tax for an analytic approach and Benson, Rasmussen and Sollars for another example of bureaucratic revenue maximization.

Hat tip: Radley Balko.

Assorted links

1. Google flu trends, and Google dengue trends.

2. Against empathy?

3. Kevin Drum on robots.

4. Japanese butter grater, and the standing restaurant (Japan also, coming to New York), and more Edward Hugh on Abenomics.

5. Italian designed sneakers.

6. The place names of Orkney and the Shetlands.

7. The wisdom of Steven Pearlstein, on austerity.

8. Geza Vermes has passed away, read all of his books.

Markets in everything, the culture that is Manhattan

Some wealthy Manhattan moms have figured out a way to cut the long lines at Disney World — by hiring disabled people to pose as family members so they and their kids can jump to the front, The Post has learned.

The “black-market Disney guides” run $130 an hour, or $1,040 for an eight-hour day.

“My daughter waited one minute to get on ‘It’s a Small World’ — the other kids had to wait 2 1/2 hours,” crowed one mom, who hired a disabled guide through Dream Tours Florida.

“You can’t go to Disney without a tour concierge,’’ she sniffed. “This is how the 1 percent does Disney.”

That is by the way much cheaper than Disney’s own “VIP service,” which costs over $300 an hour.  Here is more, and I thank Neal and also Adam Cohen for the pointer.

Stereotyping in Europe


Each column is interesting, for instance read down for “Most Compassionate.”  It’s funny how many individuals do the same for themselves, I might add, in what has to be one of the simplest and most common of all intellectual mistakes.

Those results are from the new Pew report, summarized by David Keohane here.  The French are growing increasingly disillusioned with the European project, and on key questions the French see the world as the Italians or Spanish do, not the Germans.  And there is this: “The report also takes down a few German stereotypes. Apparently, Germans are among the least likely of those surveyed to see inflation as a very big problem and the most likely among the richer European nations to be willing to provide financial assistance to other European Union countries that have major financial problems.”

Attempted fish markets in everything, economies of scope edition

The headline is: “Desperately Seeking Cichlid: Fish Species Down to Last 3 Males, No Known Females.”

Once upon a time the Mangarahara cichlid (Ptychochromis insolitus) lived in a single habitat: a river in Madagascar from which the species gets its name. That river has now been dammed and the habitat has dried up. Today there are just three Mangarahara cichlids left—all males. Two reside at the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) London Zoo Aquarium; the third lives at the Berlin Zoo.

Although the species appears to be extinct in the wild, ZSL London Zoo hopes that somewhere, somehow a female or two might exist in private hands. “We are urgently appealing to anyone who owns or knows someone who may own these critically endangered fish, which are silver in color with an orange-tipped tail, so that we can start a breeding program here at the zoo to bring them back from the brink of extinction,” aquarium curator Brian Zimmerman said in a press release last week.

The zoo has already reached out to other facilities around the world, with no luck. Now the only hope lies in private aquarium owners, fish collectors and hobbyists who might see the zoo’s appeal and realize that they own a female cichlid. The zoo has even set up a dedicated e-mail address for anyone with information: [email protected].

Of course you can’t count on the market alone, as there are cultural preconditions for cooperation:

…even if a female does turn up, breeding won’t be guaranteed. Zimmerman told the BBC News that the Berlin Zoo used to have a female that it had hoped to breed with its male. Instead, the male killed its potential mate. “It’s a fairly common thing with cichlids,” Zimmerman said.

We’ll see how the supply elasticity works out on this one…

For the pointer I thank Chris MacDonald.

Save the World Bank’s *Doing Business* report

Yesterday I received an email from Michael Klein:

We are writing to you about the World Bank’s Doing Business report.  Published since 2003 the report benchmarks 185 countries annually on key dimensions of the legal and regulatory environment for small businesses.  It has supported numerous reforms all over the world helping small businesses and employment.

There is currently a serious risk that the report may be abolished or severely curtailed as part of an ongoing review that will be finished in the next few weeks.  The report has always been subject to controversy as it highlights shortcomings that countries may not appreciate.  The World Bank’s President and its Board of Executive Directors will consider the future of the report in the next few months.

We would like to ask you to support an open letter to the World Bank’s President and its Executive Directors supporting the Doing Business project and recommending general directions for the future.  The letter (see below) is informed by our review of the arguments about Doing Business (attached).

This is our private initiative and without any institutional affiliation.

Please, reply by return email, if you agree to support the open letter. If you wish, indicate in which capacity you want to be mentioned.  If you want to forward this email to ask others also to support the letter, please, ask them to reply to this email address ([email protected]) so that we can keep an accurate record of support.

I support the report very much and I have found it useful in my own work.  It is one of the best things the World Bank does, and you can read more about the report here.  Please do email at the above address if you think your support can be useful.  Here is some back story on how China is seeking to push around the Bank on the ratings.  Here is FT coverage of the same.

Jim Manzi on the Oregon Medicaid study

Via Megan, here is an excellent discussion of the study, here is one excerpt:

In summary, based on statistically insignificant effects of coverage from the Oregon Experiment: (1) The effects that are closest to statistical significance are that coverage would increase the rate of smoking and damage the cardiovascular prognosis of sick people; (2) the best estimated net effect on total population cardiovascular health is extraordinarily tiny; (3) this effect would be achieved by making the sick sicker, while very slightly improving the health of already healthy people ; and (4) this effect is almost certainly unattractive on a risk-adjusted basis. This is not a series of effects that makes a very attractive argument for an increase in health from the experiment.

…When interpreting the physical health results of the Oregon Experiment, we either apply a cut-off of 95% significance to identify those effects which will treat as relevant for decision-making, or we do not. If we do apply this cut-off (as the authors did; as is consistent with accepted practice for medical RCTs; and as is what I believe to be a good way to make decisions based on experiments), then we should agree with the authors’ conclusion that the experiment “showed that Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years.” If, on the other hand, we wish to consider non-statistically-significant effects, then we ought to conclude that the net effects were unattractive, mostly because coverage induced smoking, which more than offset the risk-adjusted physical health benefits provided by the incremental utilization of health services.

Do read the whole thing, there are many more points of interest.  For instance “Almost half the people offered free health insurance coverage didn’t bother to send back the application to get it.”

Thailand book bleg

From Chris Acree:

I’m planning a trip which will take me through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I recently began selecting a few books about each country to read to cover the history, culture, or other interesting aspects of the area. In particular, my favorite books in this vein are Country Driving and China Airborne, both about China.

However, in searching, I’ve found Cambodia has plenty of literature (Cambodia’s Curse by Pulitzer winner Joel Brinkley seems a good starting point), and Vietnam has at least a couple good books (I picked up Vietnam: Rising Dragon at your recommendation), whereas Thailand seems bereft of strong English-language histories or non-guide travel books. Amazon searches return almost exclusively books targeted towards sex tourists, and the Economist article here is mostly over 10 years old. Kindle availability is also unavailable for most of their selections, which, while not a necessity for me, hints at books that aren’t aging well or being actively updated.

Has no reputable author written a great Thai travel book in the last 10 years? If not, why not? What books would you recommend on Thailand?

How about this biography of Bhumibol AdulyadejFalcon of Siam is historical fiction of note.  Thailand — Culture Smart! is good for browsing.  You can read a variety of books on Jim Thompson, and speaking of Thompson this cookbook by David Thompson is a must.  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one of the best movies ever made; watch these too, noting that Syndromes and a Century offers insight into the Thai health care system.  I am not recommending use of such services, but perhaps the best of the books for sex tourists are interesting too?  Siamese Soul is a good retro collection of Thai popular music from the 1960s through 1980s, hard on some ears but I like it.

Here is where Amazon sends you.  Here is where Lonely Planet sends you.  While you’re at it, why not read about Skyping with elephants in Thailand, in the service of science of course.

People, what else do you recommend?

Private Schools in Developing Countries

Tina Rosenberg has an excellent piece on private schooling in developing countries at the NYTimes blog:

In the United States, private school is generally a privilege of the rich. But in poorer nations, particularly in Africa and South Asia, families of all social classes send their children to private school….

BRAC used to be an acronym for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, but now the letters stand alone. It was founded in 1972 to provide relief after Bangladesh’s war of liberation. Although you’ve probably never heard of it, BRAC is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, with some 100,000 employees, and it services reach 110 million people.

…And since 1985, it has run schools… BRAC has more than 1.25 million children in its schools in Bangladesh and six other countries, and it is expanding.

BRAC students, in fact, do better than their public-school counterparts….BRAC students are more likely to complete fifth grade — in 2004, 94 percent did, as opposed to 67 percent of public school students. (The BRAC number is now about 99 percent.)  On government tests, BRAC students do about 10 percent better than public school students  — impressive, given that their population is the most marginalized. (emphasis added).

In my own work on private schools in India I also found suggestive evidence that private schools–mostly very small, urban slum schools–produced better outcomes than their public counterparts (paper (pdf), video).

Catch-up splat

Having been traveling, I neglected some of the more controversial issues of the last week, but here are a few points of catch-up.

On the immigration study, I liked Reihan’s recent post very much.  It is now the case that 23 student organizations at Harvard’s Kennedy School are protesting the fact that the dissertation was awarded, while nominally defending academic freedom of course.

For all of the brouhaha over Niall Ferguson, everyone is forgetting what Robert Skidelsky wrote in 1977, Skidelsky too it seems.  I don’t agree with either the immigration study or with Ferguson (at all, in either instance), but the response has been a case study in…something or other.  There is a glee and also a selectivity to it all which I am uncomfortable with, to say the least.

Within the span of a week, it is remarkable how rapidly the UK has moved toward a serious debate over leaving the EU, and that is after the UKIP election results were revealed (calling Timur Kuran!).  Our London cabbie, on the drive to the airport, still calls it “the EEC.”  With apologies to Thomas Friedman, I say this movement is for real.

The Novel Coronavirus seems to be human-to-human transmissible in a manner which is very worrying (more here).  When your thought is “that one might be too deadly to be a real problem,” it isn’t actually good news.  Fortunately the French health minister tells us that “Nothing is being left to chance,” including presumably which mutated strains of the virus will survive and spread.

What’s remarkable about the IRS tax scandal is that it was admitted, keep that in mind when revising your Bayesian priors.  Don’t forget about Bloomberg too.  Are all of our phone calls being recorded?

I do understand the back story, but still I become uneasy when the Secretary of HHS goes on a fundraising campaign from affected parties.  In lieu of naming rights, you get…what?  Can you say you “gave at the office”?  The voting booth?  Can they then rent out the mailing list of which companies gave?

The Republicans on Benghazi have learned from the Democrats on Mitt Romney and leveraged buyouts; define your opponent early in the public eye.  It is working, if only because most media accounts, even sympathetic ones, do not include pictures of a radiant and smiling Hillary Clinton with the story.

A twelve-year-old stabbed his eight-year-old sister to death.

Might we have a budget surplus in two years’ time?

The WSJ reviews Knausgaard, and “Babs” Walters will be retiring.

What have the old gods done for us lately?

Could it be this pizza?

OK people, now you can go nuts in the comments, get it out of your system.

C.S. Lewis on TV cooking shows

Well, in a time travel sort of way.  Lewis once wrote this:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage.  Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

That quotation is from the new eBook by Steven Poole, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture.  The book is cranky, often self-contradictory, and also reasonably entertaining.