Friday, November 13, 2009

D.C. index vanity 

You know, Washington isn't the only place where checking the index is commonplace.
As a delightful insider's joke on the inbred Washington political establishment, the [Sarah Palin] book has no index. So they can't find mention of themselves while browsing in the store. Buy it or lump it.
Academics do this all the time. Someone writes a paper in your research area? You immediately go to the bibliography to see if your paper was included in the review of previous literature on the topic. There's a very well-known economist who wrote me once a rather angry note (back before the internet was commonplace) complaining not that I had not cited his paper -- I had cited one -- but that he had a second paper I should have also included. I've heard others say "well, this paper is no good, she didn't cite me."

If only I could get people to read my papers first without looking at the bibliography. There was a time where we used footnotes with full citations and no bibliographies. But with the internet we now can just scan Google Scholar and other online indexes for who quoted us. Indeed, there's even a program for that. And it's free!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

The evolution of libraries 

I grew up around libraries. My mom worked near one and I often took the bus there to read and wait for her to get off work. I learned the old Dewey decimal system, snuck down in the basement to read Breakfast of Champions and Ball Four (both of which had bad words in them), find those long rods on which someone put a Globe or a Times for you to read. I loved the library. When I went to college and then grad school, I spent many hours each day in their libraries not just to research my papers but just to read journals.

That's why it rather pains me to write this, but I will anyway: Why do we have libraries? Or more to the point, why are libraries providing these services?

A few years ago, public libraries were being written off as goners. The Internet had made them irrelevant, the argument went. But libraries across the country are reporting jumps in attendance of as much as 65% over the past year, as newly unemployed people flock to branches to fill out r�sum�s and scan ads for job listings.

Other recession-weary patrons are turning to libraries for cheap entertainment -- killing time with the free computers, video rentals and, of course, books.

I wonder if Andrew Carnegie contributed his money for libraries to compete with the local Hollywood Video store? Many Carnegie libraries are now serving other functions, but many are these places now where people are waiting in dozen-deep queues for an internet connection. Aren't these functions available elsewhere? The City of Minneapolis spent $110 million a couple of years ago for its library; is this money well spent? Don't most people do these things in coffee shops now? In a city that offers free public wifi, for example, do we need libraries any more?

I'm quite certain that, once upon a time, a broad cross-section of society had no access to books or print news, etc., without access to a library. When I studied at Claremont it was rather common for people in the community to use this private school's library -- they could even get lending privileges. They still can. The old Carnegie library of Claremont is now a building on the Pomona College campus; the city has its own newer library a few blocks away. I have a soft spot in my heart for that old Carnegie -- I took my first class in grad school there, and a few years later taught my first section of principles of economics in that room to the right of the front door. But it hasn't been a library in over fifty years now.

The same is true in Minnesota
. St. Paul spends $36 per resident on its libraries while worrying over its budget for cops.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Two Mini Book Reports 

Another one of my activities is participating in a book club. This one is a bit unusual - the members are mostly current and retired college professors. The intellectual discourse that occurs can be hyper polysyllabic but it is interesting. I've read two books recently and decided to share my thoughts.

Most of our selections are non-fiction, covering a wide range of subject matter areas (history, politics, economics, philosophy, religion, etc.).

We just completed Infidel by Ayaan Hersi Ali, the Somali woman who was elected to the Dutch Parliament. She is seeking asylum in the USA because of death threats in Holland. There she was under 24 hour a day security because she dared to speak out against Muslim treatment of women. The Dutch are now refusing to protect her in the US yet want her out of Holland. It appears for now that she is living in Holland while security issues are resolved. I thought the book was incredible in many ways. Her life story is absolutely amazing: from Somalia, to Saudi Arabia, Kenya, to Germany to The Netherlands and the US. She is multi-lingual and an excellent writer. Her story is one every woman should read - it is real, it is sad, it is uplifting.

The other book I just completed is Freakonomics, the best seller by Steven Levitt and Setphen Dubner. The book was interesting but after going through all their logic, ideas, stories, results, including sumo wrestlers, real estate, etc.) what I found most valuable was the classic demand/supply theory of economics, as applied to oil prices. Pages 268-271 take the reader through the impact of high and low oil prices, and the ramifications in the West, China, and Saudi Arabia. This is one of the best, clear summaries of oil prices (and any other commodity for that matter) I've read anywhere. You can substitute ethanol, corn, etc. for oil and you get it.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A couple summer book ideas 

Joshua Foust has a good review of Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game. It's a great book to understand Central Asian history, though with a definite Anglophilic slant. I read it during the war in Afghanistan right after 9/11, and it was great to understand the region better. I call it "painless history."

Littlest is engrossed in Memed My Hawk by Yashar Kemal. A great adventure for tweens who want to get away from manga, it's also a very fun book for adults as well. Lots of action without gore or vulgarity, it's one of those books you're happy to give to the child of parents who think they have screened all the good books for their kids. And you can read it after, and enjoy it.

My own pile at home is actually down to three (still working through the books by Michael Scheuer and Thomas Barnett's Blueprint for America Action, and John Agresto's Mugged by Reality.) I'm working through the books of Eric Ambler while waiting for Alan Furst to produce something new. Amazon suggests Phillip Kerr as well, and I've already read the Berlin Noir trilogy. Good for travel reading, but not what I want on the bedstand (where I tend to nonfiction more.)

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