December 18, 2016

Reviews 12.18.2016

The Best American Poetry 2016

To be frank, this masquerades as the “best” but it is the result of multiple editorial decisions that put this here: first the magazines and then the anthologizers. I can’t say myself that this is the best, or by what criteria I would use if I were trying to determine the best.
No matter. There are a bunch of good poems here, with their own structures and voices. My favorite is a trivial one, “32 Fantasy Football Teams” by Chapman and Engel, blending humor and poetic awareness. There are poems from greats who have passed like Tate and Levine, and poems by people who (Had to check twice) are younger than I am.
One note on the structure. There is biographical material at the end for the reader to peruse after the poems have been read. I’d prefer if that were closer in the book to the poem itself. That’s just reflective of how much my experience of reading had been shaped by the doorstops of the Norton Anthologies with tissue thin paper.
One other thing I noticed: a lot of the writer’s work at least part time at a low-res type of MFA. None of the ones list those schools as where they graduated from. I found that odd.

Weapons of Math Destruction

This book shows us how an overreliance on big data and algorithms can have the opposite effect than intended. Trying to use data to be more fair to students and teacher and prisoners can reinforce our biases and cement them because they now are objective facts that have some sort of quantized justification. O’Neil goes a long way to show that we can’t just let these algos run our lives, but there needs to be a human at the wheel.

Ultimately while I still believe in the promise of “Big Data,” I think we’re at that early part of the adoption of a technology where we over-promise what we can do without fully examining the philosophical ramifications of it. As Jeff Goldblum says as Ian Malcolm in the movie Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Right now, we’re at that point where we’re exploring what we can do, hopefully O’Neil’s book will help us explore what we should do.

The Curse of Cash

Rogoff argues that we should eliminate big bills like US $100 and its big economy equivalents. Doing so will have two benefits.
The first benefit is that most people do not use large bill. These are in the financial system in the gray and black economy where having dense stores of value that are also a medium of exchange facilitates crime like drug dealing and human trafficking. There is profit to the issuing countries of these bills, a seignorage income that would be lost if these bills were pulled from the economy, but the ills caused and made easier by their presence are worse than the loss.
The other benefit is that by not having cash around, it gives the central banks more space to move interest rates if necessary. Right now, there is an effective floor at zero percent that the Federal Reserve and its sister institutions can’t go much lower because once you impose significant costs to keeping money in reserves, then the option is to hold cash. There is some cost to holding large quantities of cash so Japan and some European banks have gone a bit below zero, but not that far. This space is important because even conservative Taylor rules of setting the interest rates would have been significantly negative in the aftermath of 2008. The zero-bound kept the Fed from going lower and it may have significantly increased the duration of the downturn in the aftermath of the crisis (especially since in the US and Europe where there was little help from fiscal policy because austerian parties bought into the fallacious idea of the family analogy for governments).

I’m on Rogoff’s side here, especially since it isn’t new to me as I have seen the idea at length in the work of Miles Kimball (ex-Michigan, now at CU) as he has made the argument on his blog. I’m more a supporter because of the second reason, which I am sure is the more controversial part of his argument – many people are suspicious of central bank activity, and they feel that giving the banks more leeway would encourage the activist central banks. I am of the opinion that independent monetary policy needs all possible weapons in its quiver as we have seen inaction at the exchequer cause real damage in the real economy.

The Games People Play: Tetris    

I picked this one up because for a long time my favorite game was Tetris. It was the one game I went back to all the time when I was a kid and the Gameboy version was the only one I had. I did play around with it on windows machines at school, but that Gameboy version with the Russified music was something else.
I did not know the game had such an interesting history in getting out there in the world, and its aftermath. I just knew it as a Russian game but with universal appeal – it is a great trainer for spatial reasoning and is instantly learnable but infinitely challenging.

Building the Commune

Most of the stories that we get about Venezuela from the mainstream media are ones about the decline of the Venezuelan state – ones that show just how alien to the world the socialism of Chavez and his heirs are to the global world order. The money is inflated into valuelessness and there are no goods so that people are streaming over the border to go buy what they can in Colombia.

In “Building the Commune,” George Ciccariello-Maher shows that there is another side to the coin. From the top-down Chavezimo that we see in the news, there are other ignored stories of collaboration and group strength through local organizing that has promise of creating that other world that is possible. It is the focus on these stories and the struggles in both rural and urban communes that show that there is no one-sized-fits-all answer to making the world work (and that at times the communes have had to fight against the nominally socialist Venezuelan state). But what it does is show the promise of organizing in real life examples. I know not how the next world will be made, but it will arise like a phoenix from the ashes of the one we live in now. This book is a light in a path forward.


When I saw that Ariely had another book coming out on social media, I immediately bought it since I am a fan of his work. When I got it, and saw how small it was and that it was branded a TED book, I was a little worried. I feel that the TED talk infrastructure trades on the novelty effect – show something that makes someone say gee-whiz and ignore the complicated understratum that makes up the bulk of a subject. Which is something that happens a bit here, but a 100-page book is better for depth than an 18-minute speech but only just a bit. Overall this is a good introduction to behavioral economics without a lot of overlap with the author’s other works. The framing for looking at “Motivations” works to create a narrative in the book that helps show what we know about what makes people tick. But I would still point people to the author’s other works.

Chicago is Not Broke:

In this book, Tresser et al look at the different ways that Chicago is spending money and leaving money on the table, giving lie to the idea that there is no money for the schools and transit and other things that make the city work for all the people of the city. The authors make a persuasive case that the reforms listed in the book would make the city more solvent. This matters not just for the residents of the city, but also for people like myself in the metro region. Chicago is so big it has a gravity all its own. Chicago problems become problems here in Brookfield too.
What was most interesting was the look at the TIF districts. These were originally created to help development where there would be no development, but instead have morphed into a way to enrich developers at the expense of residents throughout the city. This TIF money is like a slush fund and oddly there’s not a great accounting of where it all is. This is not just a Chicago problem, but they do it well there. Ultimately, it is civic activists like Tresser who make the needed changes happen. Maybe not all the hoped-for changes will happen, but this is a good starting point for a larger conversation about civic budgeting.


On one level, I’m glad that Baker makes his work freely available. Anyone can download his last three books that I know of off the CPER website. I bought the hard copy because I hate trees so much. But on another level, the fact that he doesn’t push his work out through a traditional publisher makes it so that there’s no publicity push for his work and potential readers aren’t made aware of his work.
And the thing is that Baker needs to be read. What makes Baker unique is his look at globalization and trade, where what we call free trade has really been a method to endanger the jobs at people at the bottom but the people at the top have job protections. You see manufacturing going out, but we’re not importing new doctors to drive the price of medicine down. It’s the flip side to the coin that people think of more when they speak of the ill effects of globalization and free trade. Not only are some left behind, we pay more.  And it’s all here, with nice charts and graphs. We’re entering an era of protectionist rhetoric in part because the gains from globalization have been oversold to so many people. There is a way to do it right, but we’re losing that opportunity from an electoral perspective.

Success and Luck:

In this book, Robert Frank is doing to things in my opinion.
The first is that success in life is due in large part to luck. Your economic outcomes are dependent on lots of things that can be assigned to random chance outside of the old canard of hard working men pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. I think the case is made in the book for that hypothesis to viewed as mostly true.
The second part is that there should be a progressive consumption tax. This is dropped in the last third of the book, and I had all sorts of questions about how it would be applied. Most of them were answered in an appendix but I’m still not sure how businesses are taxed (if at all in his paradigm).

The problem for me was that these two separate ideas felt very loosely connected. The idea is that since success is random, then we need to prevent the thing where people strive to keep up with the Joneses and spend beyond their means or at the top limit of their means. It seems weird to me because it is designed to discourage spending and growing consumer spending is one of the things that makes capitalism grow – and degrowth in a capitalist economy is recession and people thrown out of jobs and deflation. There seem to be a lot of knock-on effects that are unaddressed here.
For me, though, this seems to be one of those things where it is a solution looking for a problem, and as a reader I wasn’t sold on the solution as much as I was sold on the problem and still wonder about the link between the two.

November 30, 2016

The Stories are Important: Grace's "Tranny"

I finished this book this week. I enjoyed it. But I’m not entirely sure what to say about it.

From the start, I am a fan of her band, Against Me! I’m still a fan even if it becomes just another name for what she does. But I’m not a huge fan. I know bigger fans, who have seen her (in both fake Tom and real Laura phases) than I have. AM! Is like a top 20 band for me and I was trying to think if another similar artist in my own esteem wrote something would I have preordered it sight unseen six months in advance of the release date?

Probably not.

Why is that? Well, look at the title. Grace’s dysphoria is the story, for better or worse. This book, thigh, is different. Despite the title, it is more a straight narrative about growing up and wanting to be in a band and then being in a band. And then the band does ok and then it does better and then it alienates some of the original fans.

The hints at the dysphoria are there. But it feels like a bit of a bait and switch. If the dysphoria is the story and someone grabs the book for that, it is only hinted at in the opening chapters. For me, this is the part where I allow myself to say that I’m glad I never had to face even a marginal level of fame. And I create the illusion that my 2000 followers on twitter are just the right amount.

But at the end Grace start to get deep about the story that makes her story the thing that people want to read about- no matter the reason. The problem is that there’s the earlier hints, and lines about life living in the closet, but the out of the closet stuff has been covered in other publications.

I want Laura to live her truth. I’m glad she can now. But this either seems too exploitative or not exploitative enough. I’m not sure. What I can imagine it does is allow other transwomen to live their truths, so that the details here are unimportant if they focus too much on the band or not. Ultimately, as a society we are better off when more people tell their stories and we approach closer to a universal truth (if it even exists).  

Picking through the Library at the end of November

Cosplayers: Dash Shaw

The best part of this for me was the small side story where a presenter at a conference can’t afford a hotel room and ends up sleeping in a dumpster. That part hit home.
Otherwise, it is the story of two women who make movies on their own, find a brush with fame, and (spoiler alert) find that they were better off doing the thing they wanted to do, not doing the thing they wanted to do.

I thought it was a bit weirdly episodic, until the end when I read that the stories were supposed to be looser and less connected and not 100% serve the larger arc. They were indie comics, as is the book.
Worth reading, but maybe the title is a bit of a misdirection (though there are cosplayers, so only just).

In the Sounds and the Sea: Galloway

The biggest recommendation here is the art. The black and white drawings are full of detail like that thing where you see a mass of maggots devouring some decaying flesh but you don’t want to look too deeply at the detail because you’ll see every single maggot so you just understand that there are maggots there in a lump. And you look away. If you smoke, you take a long hard pull off of your cigarette. And you exhale, smiling.

The big thing here is that there is no dialogue. The narrative is implied in language-les bubbles. It works, only just. I couldn’t tell you what happens. The ship burns, but it all goes back to the art. The art is good. Can it transcend the other structural, purposely chosen barriers? I’m not sure.

The Last Shift: Levine

We lost one of our greatest voices when Philip Levine sucked in his last air.

These are those poems right before that.

They’re worth reading, even if they don’t shake you to the core. At least they’ll shake you to the mantle.

I really liked “Louie Lies” (p. 61). I’m not sure if I wanted to be Louie or the one being lied to.

Pirate Utopia: Sterling

Oddly enough, this is the second book I’ve read about the revolutionary city of Fiume. There’s a deep mine to be exploited there, so it makes sense that our modern myth-makers look at it as a looking glass to reflect our world into it.

For those out of the loop, there was a conference after the first world war that divided the lands of the losers. Italy was on the border with the Austrian Hungarian Empire, which splintered into several states, these new borders inclined Italy but also a new polyglot state of Yugoslavia.

There were borderlands for all of this – places where it wasn’t one place at one step and another at the next, but gray areas and liminal spaces. Fiume was one of them. And the people there made it so. They created their own free state.

But it seems, in my limited reading, Fiume wasn’t about nationalities as much as it was about the borders between the past and the future. The rebels of Fiume weren’t necessarily fascist or communist (though it appears they were both, with a bit of anarchism aside) but they were between the past and the future. Sterling here captures that potential so much that this book isn’t self-contained. It feels like an opening slavo from our present against the unwritten future.