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Aaron C. Brown RSS Feed (New York, New York United States)

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The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It
The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It
Price: $16.17

3.0 out of 5 stars Good history and anecdote, weak logic, June 1, 2015
The strength of this book is its review of the economic history behind the rise of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to become the most popular general measure of economic prosperity. It's not a neat history, the author flies off into ideological rants and tangential discussions (on topics as diverse as baseball statistics and sex) with any excuse. For some this will make the book entertaining and enrich the argument beyond its technical details; for others it will be tiresome. Personally I would recommend some broader and more precise works like Trust in Numbers and The Politics of Large Numbers, but this book is more provocative and timely.

Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses as well. The biggest one is the author's wildly inflated idea of the importance of GDP in political decision-making. Candidates spend much more time speaking about the unemployment rate, inflation, the purchasing power of median working families, tax rates, debt levels, inequality and other metrics; GDP growth is a focus mainly of professionals. Of course, not all discussion is public. But when lobbyists and ideologues press their cases in private, they are arguing for personal advantage for their clients, or advancement of specific ideas like environmentalism or religion, not GDP growth in general. Moreover, even the economic statistics are only a small part of the topics for political discourse, and decidedly less salient than crime, education, social issues, wars, terrorism, the environment and other issues.

Another systematic weakness is the constant identification of GDP with free markets. National economic accounts are actually a conflation of three historical threads dating back to the mid-18th century. Germans invented the word statistics (as in State-istics, the study of the State) as a field to add up the resources available to the Prince, and like the author of this book, emphasized qualitative description over numbers. They wanted to know what the State owned, and what could be produced from its resources. French revolutionaries adapted the idea in the name of the People, so experts trained at the grandes écoles could make cost/benefit decisions for everyone. The engineers needed to aggregate and compare, so they used more numbers and less description.

Both of these traditions involved official government collection of numbers that were kept secret. In contrast, English political economy was developed by amateurs and relied upon public communication of ideas and data. GDP makes sense only if there is a State whose income and wealth are meaningful, that hires experts to manage its economy, and that is controlled by a broad public that needs transparency into the job the elected leaders are doing. Totalitarian regimes want to know the capabilities of their economies, but they don't value things by what individuals pay in voluntary transactions, and they don't publish any numbers they cannot control. Free marketers don't want the government trying to control the economy. GDP is a tool of democratic socialists who may call themselves lots of different things ("liberals" in the US, "social democrats" in Europe, among many other names) and differ on a lot of issues, but who believe in some degree of government regulation and control of the economy, government transparency and values established by arms-length transactions rather than fiat.

The author is aware, and says many times, than his attack on GDP does not fit into conventional political categories. This is true if he means that he has allies and enemies on both the Left and the Right. But he fits squarely into the French Republican tradition (the 1792 - 1799 version, not the recently rebranded center-right political party). He is Puritanical, he wants to end spending on entertainment and stop population growth, and he considers disfavored consensual activities (prostitution, illicit drugs, hiring of undocumented workers, etc.) to be negatives. He wants experts to decide what things are worth, not ordinary people. He reasons entirely on the national level, he applies the same standards to all countries but does not discuss either global or subnational economic entities as meaningful.

While this philosophy is unpopular, after all it has the Reign of Terror to mark its birth, and if you're going to be a Leftist you ought to get good sex and drugs out of it, the author does not dwell on these aspects. He spends most of his time on firmer ground decrying the problems with GDP. Even conceptually it does not measure value, either to individuals or society, and when you think about it, it's conceptually incoherent anyway. Even if you agreed on what it should measure in principle, the actual measurements are bad; moreover reporting lags mean that the information content is available too late to be useful for policy decisions. As long as he is on the offensive, the book is convincing. It only gets scary when he starts talking about what he's going to do after he guillotines GDP.

The final weakness of the book is it's one-sided. The criticisms of GDP are all sound, but he never mentions that for all its problems, it correlates pretty well with prosperity. With the exception of some countries with unbalanced or unequal economies, higher per capita GDP tends to be associated better health, more freedom, more justice, more innovation and generally a better life (the only major negative is it also tends to be associated with heavier environmental footprint, although even this is mixed). While the author doesn't value much of this stuff, even he would have to concede that higher GDP means fewer deaths in natural disasters, less absolute poverty and better education.

Another feature of GDP is that it's harder to lie about than the kinds of measures the author favors. Again, with all of its defects, it is heavily influenced by reasonably voluntary transactions; things are worth what people actually pay for them. I admit conceptual and measurement errors, as well as market imperfections, mean the link between revealed preferences and GDP can be stretched, nevertheless it does exist. This in fact is the author's main objection to it. Once you leave it up to politicians or experts to make up the numbers, the author thinks he can influence the results in his preferred direction. Not only don't I like the idea of letting officials choose what truth to report, but I think the author is naïve to think his views will triumph.

Overall, this is a wordy and rambling critique of GDP, that is nevertheless incisive and comprehensive on the negative side. Some people will find it fun to read, or at least better than formal economics, others will disagree. But it is too one-sided in its approach to be a really good book. I recommend it only if you agree with the author, or if you are well read enough on this topic to provide your own balance.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 2, 2015 10:04 AM PDT

Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries: A British Library Crime Classic (British Library Crime Classics)
Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries: A British Library Crime Classic (British Library Crime Classics)
by Martin Edwards
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.05
14 used & new from $7.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting collection of mostly second-rate mystery short stories, May 29, 2015
Like Capital Crimes by the same editor, this is a collection of English short stories from the first half of the 20th century, with two or three paragraph pedestrian introductions. The earlier book chose stories set in London, while this book follows the detectives to holiday resorts in the British Isles, France and Switzerland.

Unlike the earlier book, all the stories are at least fair quality, and most are mysteries. "The House of Screams" by Gerald Findler, "Cousin Once Removed" by Michael Gilbert and "Where is Mr. Manetot? by Phyllis Bentley are horror stories with thin mystery angles (and the first is the only story in the book that doesn't involve a holiday or resort). "A Posteriori" by Helen Simpson is a humor piece with no mystery angle at all. But all are enjoyable short stories, and the rest of the stories in the book are solidly in the mystery genre. None of the stories is frequently reprinted, I'm pretty well read in this area and was only familiar with three of the stories.

Surprisingly, the resort angle turns out to be more than just a random selection criterion for a new anthology. There are some interesting commonalities among these stories. Without any individual story spoilers, I will say that more criminals get away with murder than is typical for this genre and era, and more often due to either deliberate inaction on the part of the detective, or humorous incompetence. The emphasis is on recreational detecting, not crime and punishment. In most there is little attention paid to either victim or perpetrator, we may not meet the murderer, or he or she may be a stereotype sketched in carelessly.

One barrier to modern readers is many of these stories rely heavily on outdated class assumptions. The detective is an upper-class dilettante superior in every way to the professional police and often to the criminals and victims as well, who plays with other people's lives for his own amusement. The resort setting makes this more natural, we still have places where accomplished rich people are waited on hand-and-foot by locals who are generally poorer and less well educated. It's not as rigid as the English class system between the World Wars, but the gap is narrower at resorts than in other modern settings.

A number of these stories are lesser efforts by great detective authors, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" by Arthur Conan Doyle, "Razor Edge" by Anthony Berkeley and "The Finger of Stone" by G.K. Chesterton seem to have been written in about half an hour each, based on simple ideas that will be obvious to the reader long before the conclusion. However, the skill the the authors and the pleasure of reacquainting with their signature detectives makes these worthwhile despite the minimal plots and transparent mysteries.

"A Schoolmaster Abroad" by E.W. Hornung, "The Murder on the Golf Links" by M. McDonnell Bodkin, by "The Hazel Ice" H.C. Bailey and "Holiday Task" by Leo Bruce are average or better stories from these authors. Today all seem unlikely, forced and mannered; but that is what these authors wrote, and what their fans liked back in the day. They are readable today, but few modern people will be tempted to sample other stories from these authors. The stories have mainly historical interest.

Finally, "A Mystery of the Sand-Hills" by R. Austin Freeman, "Murder!" by Arnold Bennett and "The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" by Basil Thomson are among the best stories of these authors. While they are a bit dated, all mystery fans should enjoy these immensely.

Overall, this is a nice collection of fair to excellent stories that gain from being presented together. I think it will please both casual and serious mystery fans.

The Last Drive: And Other Stories
The Last Drive: And Other Stories
by Rex Stout
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre literature but interesting for Nero Wolfe fans, or students of early 20th century America, May 26, 2015
In my opinion, the great strengths of Rex Stout as a writer are his characters--not just the immortal Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe but the many regular and one-off characters in the story--his erudition and his assurance. His unwillingness to bend his characters to fit the plot make most of the solutions pretty silly from a whodunit perspective, but they are dramatically and psychologically satisfying.

These early short stories written for popular magazines of the 1910s display only flickers of character and erudition. There is not a lot of assurance either, and most stories are about twice as long as necessary. The plots, from a logical standpoint, are even less plausible than a typical Nero Wolfe, but are are also not very satisfying as literary devices. The best stories really have no plot at all. There are obvious tips to the magazines, stories in golf magazines lard in slang golf terms of the era like "foozle," "mashie" and "niblick," and the romance ones are filled with detailed points of contemporary etiquette. In style they are vaguely reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, but without anything like his wit and charm.

There are notes focusing mainly on the cataloging of these works, with a lot of information of interest to book collectors and literary researchers, but nothing to help interpret the stories; either in matters of vocabulary or contemporary life, or in links to events or other works (with one obvious and well-known exception). That doesn't matter much, the stories are pretty simple and rely mostly on timeless characteristics. Nevertheless, it's clear this book is aimed at collectors and Nero Wolfe fans rather than general short story readers.

Despite the derivative nature of the stories and their obvious commercial aspects, not to mention the lack of the signature virtues that would mark Stout's mature work, this book is pleasant to read. Even before he learned his craft and gained assurance, Stout was a better than fair writer, and there are enough eccentric dashes of energy to lift the work above comparable potboilers from the early 20th century. If you are a fan of the Nero Wolfe books, you will see many seeds that would sprout and thrive in the brownstone on West 35th street (and not in the orchid rooms). For everyone else, there may be some mild interest in reading pretty good magazine serials and short stories from the era.

The Complete Crime Stories
The Complete Crime Stories
by James M. Cain
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.99
3 used & new from $14.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good stories, but I wish the publisher had tried a little harder, May 26, 2015
I'm not sure of the strategy of the publisher in reprinting James M. Cain's shorter fiction. This book overlaps about 50% with The Baby in the Icebox Collection it came out with less than two years ago; and it reprinted the longest story in this one ("Career in C Major") in another book that same year. There are no story notes, and the introduction is reprinted from a 10-year-old article; it's short and not specific to the stories. This is certainly not "Complete" anything, and the stories less about crime than average Cain stories. Even the dates the stories were written, which matters for interpreting events (was there a war on? or a Depression? did people send telegrams or use long-distance telephone?; the dates range from 1929 to 1963 and a lot happened in those 35 years) are only available in the fine print copyright notices in the back of the book, and the date of first copyright doesn't always correspond to date of first publication (one says 1858, I assume it's a typo for 1958).

As best I can tell, this is a random collection of James M. Cain short fiction, brought to market with minimal effort and thought by the publisher. I prefer the earlier The Baby in the Icebox collection as it ferreted out some of the more obscure stories and has more historical resonance. On the other hand, this collection has better stories. So if your interest is in early 20th century American culture, or in the range of Cain as a writer, start with The Baby in the Icebox; but if you just like to read good hard-boiled short fiction, this one is better.

All of Cain's work, even the darkest, has a strong humorous undercurrent, and that aspect shows to advantage in this collection. Some of the stories actually try to be funny. It's not successful as comedy, none are likely to make you laugh. But it does provide an offbeat dramatic energy, and it distinguishes Cain from writers who took themselves more seriously. When Cain tries a tearjerker, Mommy's a Barfly, the humor is most obvious (as was the case in Mildred Pierce, his most famous tearjerker, which is not included in this book).

The stories range from fair to very good. Only the ones based on crude ethnic and class stereotyping seem dated, humor has a longer shelf life than social commentary. There are no great stories, but Cain's unequaled talent for stripping out everything but essential plot and dialog, and his laser focus on human obsession, elevate this far beyond the ordinary. In this collection you see him apply this style to the drawing room in light social comedies and mild romances, where it works as well--or perhaps better--than in the morgue or police line-up.

I recommend this to Cain fans, of course, unless they've already read all the stories. But I think most readers who enjoy short stories will appreciate it as well. If you're looking for crime fiction, however, this book will likely disappoint.

CHOETECH 40W Smart Desktop Multi Port USB Charger with 1700 Joule Dual AC Power Supply 2500W USB Power Strip Surge Protector Power Socket Charging Station for LG G4/Galaxy S6/S6 Edge/Nexus 6 and Other Apple Samsung Google Smartphones and Tablets
CHOETECH 40W Smart Desktop Multi Port USB Charger with 1700 Joule Dual AC Power Supply 2500W USB Power Strip Surge Protector Power Socket Charging Station for LG G4/Galaxy S6/S6 Edge/Nexus 6 and Other Apple Samsung Google Smartphones and Tablets
Offered by Greenjia
Price: $50.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A well-made power strip for USB chargers, May 24, 2015
I am very impressed with this power strip. It is solidly made, it may surprise you with its weight. Even with all five USB ports in use, and both power plugs used for high-current devices, it does not heat up at all, and it delivers steady current. I did not test its surge protection. It does work fine with both 120 and 240 volt power supplies, and it charges three iPads at once at full speed (I didn't test more than that).

Independence (Two Democracies Book 0)
Independence (Two Democracies Book 0)
Price: $0.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Taken for what it's worth, I recommend it., May 23, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This is an interesting work of fiction. It's not a short story, it's more of a meditation or essay put into a story wrapper. Although there is plenty of dramatic action, there is no sense of pace. The main action happens before the story begins, both in the sense of the forces that caused a space battle, and the space battle itself. The characters gradually become aware of the situation, but have only limited control. The characters are focused intensely on the present, but the author's interest is in the past and future.

There is a good deal of scientific speculation implicit in this story, deeper and more intelligent speculation than is common. But the allusions are so indirect that is only raises questions, it does not address them. I could imagine many different novels that could be inspired from this, but the author has not yet done the work to choose and write one. There may be some messages as well, about militarism, and death of consciousness mirroring its birth, and science versus survival, but if so they are buried deeply.

You won't waste your time reading this short book, and you will probably remember it longer than most polished works of science fiction. But it's not either entertainment or instruction, and it's not satisfying in any way. It's more interesting than it is good. Taken for what it's worth, I recommend it.

Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules: Separating Fact from Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life
Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules: Separating Fact from Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life
by Dr. Joe Schwarcz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.19
49 used & new from $10.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Teaches some good facts, isn't much interested in understanding fiction, May 23, 2015
These are some smoothly-written essays on science, mainly nutrition and chemistry, applied to everyday questions like cooking and health. The style is clear and lively, although the author does occasionally veer to the edge of professor-jokes (overelaborate telegraphed jokes that have been told too many times, and weren't all that funny to begin with).

The strengths of the book are the author's expertise and straightforward explanations. In addition to his scientific specialties, he works in some bits of history and other subjects. A weakness is that the questions he discusses are not particularly interesting.

For one example, he tells us there are people who think chewing gum is bad for you, in part due to additives and chemicals it contains. He makes the point that all additives are chemicals, then mentions some of the slandered ingredients and defends them as either not present in chewing gum, not harmful or not in sufficient quantity to be harmful.

Now if you don't chew gum or know about the people who dislike it, none of this seems like relevant information. It's always nice to know something, but there seem more useful bits of knowledge. The author doesn't try to understand why people dislike gum and debate the issue fairly, the reader gets the impression that he thinks they are scientifically illiterate, and thus not worthy of refutation. I took the trouble to look them up and they're more reasonable than the author suggests. They list some reasonable sounding objections, such as links to temporomandibular joint disorder, headaches and increased mercury uptake for people with mercury fillings. There are real studies to back these claims, although they are small sample and not the most authoritative. There's no consideration of the amount of risk relative to the pleasure of chewing gum, but the author commits this same sin frequently, for example with respect to cantaloupe (he strongly recommends thoroughly washing it before cutting, because some people have died from ingesting bacteria from the outside of a cantaloupe, but he gives no numbers to compare the additional life expectancy from washing versus the time it takes to wash, nor the health benefit of this compared to things of similar effort).

The anti-gum people also seem to dislike ingesting things were not present in preindustrial human diets. This is their objection to the chemicals they complain about, not specific claims of health damage from them. And they use the word "chemical" in the sense of "molecules extracted or created in refined forms via industrial processes" in contrast to the scientific sense in which any molecule is a chemical; so complaining about chemical additives makes sense. So they're not as foolish as the author implies, or at least they're not inconsistent, and he hasn't addressed their points. So whether you care about the issue or not, this book doesn't add anything useful to the subject.

More generally, the author tends to pull out what he considers to be the scientific question in a controversy, and answer his narrow questions; but suggest that he has settled the broader controversy. In the first topic of the book, he traces the history of nutrition advice to reduce heart disease, which was usually overconfident and often wrong. But he does not draw the lesson that scientists should be more humble. Instead he gives his opinion about the current state of knowledge. I grant that his opinions are more nuanced and reasonable than the historical views he criticizes, but I suspect those earlier scientists were more nuanced and reasonable than the people they were refuting. For all of this, it's not clear that scientific nutrition advice has saved net lives since the first expert made the first pronouncement.

Despite these defects, the book teaches a lot of science in terms that range from mildly entertaining to painless. It's not a great popular science book, but it's a pretty good one.

No Title Available

5.0 out of 5 stars Nice organizer, well made for its purpose, May 23, 2015
I bought another charging organizer from this company, and gave it a good review, and they sent me this one free. It does not match the picture exactly, but it's functionally the same. Instead of three three vertical slots to hold the devices, it has a single vertical slot divided into three compartments, two cell-phone sized and one Kindle-sized, with a back shelf for larger devices. The material and finish are the same. I prefer the design of the one I bought, which is similar to the picture here but a different material, but this one works fine as well.

This is only a case with slots to keep cords organized, it has no power strip or cords. The case is sturdy and reasonably attractive. No one would buy it as a work of art, but it doesn't look cheap or ugly.

I recommend this for someone who wants to keep devices and cords organized, especially if lots of people use the same cords, and not all of them have good memories or neat habits. Of course, you could achieve a similar effect more cheaply, but if you don't mind paying electronic-accessory prices, this has the material and workmanship to justify a premium price.

No Title Available

5.0 out of 5 stars Well built organizer for charging cables and devices, May 23, 2015
I have somehow acquired five devices that I need to keep charged, and I don't even have a phone. I have an iPad, iPod, Kindle (I actually have two, but that's another story and I don't need to keep both charged), and bluetooth headphones and speaker. Still, I would not have bought this for myself as I'm usually charging only one or two at a time. But family members and assorted transient friends, nephews, nieces and others are apt to breeze through and leave devices in random places, and charging cords in other random places. Having a single stand with three different charging cords saves a lot of clutter and frantic searching. And buying new charging cables.

This is only a case with cleverly designed straps and slots to keep cords organized, it has no power strip or cords. It has five cut-outs for cords, but you could put two or three cords through a cut-out if you want (although then can then tangle, which reduces the neatness factor somewhat). I would have preferred a case with a power strip built in, and a single power cord for a strip of five USB slots, but of course you can buy one of those yourself and put it in. I probably will do that.

I also would have liked some kind of hooks and shelves for headphones, speakers and other electronics; this seems designed for touchscreen devices only. But it keeps all the cords organized, so you can put the other devices on the shelf next to it.

The case is sturdy and reasonably attractive. No one would buy it as a work of art, but it doesn't look cheap or ugly.

I looked at a few of these cases, and choose this one. I'm quite happy with it, and recommend it. I can't say it's a great value, because there are desk organizers for a fifth the price that would hold your devices just as well, and a few twist ties would keep the cords in place. But everything built for electronics seems to be overpriced and in this case you really are getting materials and construction that justify the price, even if you don't really need that kind of quality for this purpose.

The Alchemist's Daughter (Bianca Goddard Mystery)
The Alchemist's Daughter (Bianca Goddard Mystery)
Price: $9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sloppy historical mystery with some dark elements, May 20, 2015
This is an average mystery story set in Tudor England. The main plot is satisfying and the characters are clearly drawn and decently complex. The writing style is clear but a bit pedestrian, except for some vivid horror scenes, which are intense and florid, but only tangential to the story. In fact, this seems like a mixture of two books, a Gothic horror story with magical elements, and a light romance mystery about a plucky young girl scientist-detective with her long-suffering boyfriend and zany companions.

I found the historical setting sloppy to the point of distraction. For the most part, the characters speak and act in 21st century ways, but they throw in occasional words or concepts from any period between about 1200 and 1900. Muckrakers were city employed street cleaners in 1543 when the novel is set. They form an essential part of the plot, and the author thinks they searched the muck on the banks of the Thames for jewelry. Women wear clothing from a variety of eras. In one scene a poor apprentice casually offers to make tea, a century before it reached England as an exotic luxury. He mistakenly uses Cayenne pepper, a decade before it reached England, also as an exotic luxury. He and his companion spit out the brew, although Cayenne makes an excellent infusion (on the other hand, neither of them would have dreamed of drinking London water, even after boiling), and throw out the remains, which would have been worth a fortune.

The same apprentice uses words like "philter" because they sound historical, but he was a generation ahead of his time, and he uses it to mean "sleeping potion" when of course it meant love-charm from the Greek. Most of the archaic language is Victorian rather than Tudor, and the London life described would have been more familiar to Charles Dickens than to Nicholas Udall, specifically with regard to the treatment of orphans, prostitutes and the helpless poor. Moreover, nothing in the writing brings home the day-to-day realities of mid-16th-century life.

Of course, these kinds of sloppy historical settings are common in movies, and many people don't seem to mind. So if you want an okay mystery with a little romance and horror thrown in, in a setting with elements from a variety of historical eras, this book should suit you. If you care about historical accuracy or stylistic consistency, look elsewhere.

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