Monday, 1 August 2005

Bizarre coincidence of the day

I added the paperback edition of The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America as the August book of the month yesterday; today, what shows up in my mailbox at work? A freebie paperback edition of The Right Nation (along with some crappy screed by Lewis Lapham I was sorely tempted to sell on Spooky.

And, for the record: I paid retail for my hardback copy.

Sunday, 10 July 2005

Textbook pricing sucks, news at 11

The Durham Herald-Sun must be short on story ideas, since a leading local story is that textbooks are overpriced:

UNC professor Hugon Karwowski is so exasperated with the state of textbook pricing these days that he no longer assigns a particular book for the 70 or so students in his introductory physics class.

Instead, he has told the students enrolling in his course this fall to go out in search of their own physics book. As long as it is at least 700 pages long and is a study of calculus-based physics, it’s fine with him.

“They can get one on the Internet for $20, or they can use the one their brother used five years ago,” Karwowski said. “If they’re so poor they can’t afford [it], I’ll give them a book.”

I’d say that the observation that too many books are lightly revised and republished in barely-altered form is probably accurate; I’m at a loss as to how the calculus or Newtonian physics would change enough to justify a new textbook edition every few years (at least for an introductory textbook). In other disciplines, though, things change enough to justify new books—students would be suspicious of an American government textbook that was last revised in 1998 or so, and political science in general has to keep pace with history. To note a couple of examples, I’d have a hard time selling the Midterm Loss theory today, while a book covering Bowers v. Hardwick in constitutional law without Lawrence v. Texas would seem downright quaint.

My general observation is that students will almost always get most of their money back out of a book (particularly if it’s used) if the same course is being taught again the next semester by the same professor (and if the self-same professor has put in his book order in time!). Unfortunately, at small colleges that doesn’t happen much outside the introductory survey course (if I’d stayed at Millsaps, there’s a good chance I’d have had 3 new courses to prep for 2005–06), and even at the bigger schools most professors don’t want to teach the same damn course over and over again.

So, if you’re a student, my advice would be to hang onto your books if you aren’t getting most of what you paid for them back. Alternatively, check into selling them at the Marketplace and cut out the bookstore middleman—it’s almost guaranteed that someone will be using the same books somewhere in America next semester.

From a faculty member’s perspective, I tend to think that the cheapest readable textbook you can use is probably the best; four-color graphics of the Electoral College may be nicer than grey-and-teal to the Virgin Mobile generation, but my observation is that most of the four-color jobs are either written for idiots who shouldn’t be in college in the first place (condescending to your students with your choice of textbook—which they may very well see before they see you—is probably not the way to get off on the right foot) or otherwise bear the mark of writing-by-committee. Give me Fiorina et al. or Kernell and Jacobson any day.

Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Shelby Foote, RIP

Popular civil war historian Shelby Foote passed away last night in Memphis, according to the Associated Press.

Thursday, 16 June 2005

More books I need to read

In Borders today (I had a 25%-off email coupon that expires Sunday), I saw a new book by Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory, on the shelf. I was sorely tempted to buy it, even though I already had picked out something I was using the 25% coupon on.

Good thing, too, since when I checked out, I got a coupon worth 30% off a single book purchase next week. Now I just wish I was flying somewhere so I’d be forced to read all the books already in the queue.

Wednesday, 15 June 2005

Accomplishment of the day

I feel like I actually achieved something this morning—I finished packing all the books in my office, except the ones I’m using for classes this summer (and the ones I’m bequeathing to my successor):

My office, in compressed format

Now I get to deal with the shelves full of books at home.

Sunday, 5 June 2005

All boxed in

My brilliant plan to use shipping boxes I bought at Sam’s Club to pack up all the books in my office has been foiled, mainly because if I tried to put my books in them they’d be impossible to lift. Time to think of Plan B, which is most likely to be “beg the campus bookstore for boxes”; I’ve already used up all my boxes.

That said, I’m sure the Sam’s Club boxes will work for lighter stuff like my clothes, so there’s that at least.

Friday, 27 May 2005

Armchair tourist

Surfing around via Technorati, I found this blog post with satellite photos of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge and a few other Memphis bridges.

Not entirely conincidentally, I started Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America on the flight back from Durham, and probably would have finished it if I hadn’t fallen asleep on the Baltimore-Jackson leg; what I didn’t realize, since I bought the book at least a year ago, but only now got around to reading it, is that the author is a future colleague. Small world and all that.

Saturday, 21 May 2005


I finished Moneyball on the flight from Jackson to BWI today. As I mentioned at the other place, the story of people getting ahead by bringing data to the problem warmed my little empiricist heart to no end. Plus, Michael Lewis is a really good writer—the ideas he expresses come across clearly and with good humor (compare, if you will, Jill Jonnes’ horribly-written Empires of Light, about a topic that ought to be at least as interesting; the difference is as between night and day).

I realize I’m probably the last person in America to read the book, but if you haven’t (particularly if you like baseball), do so immediately.

Sunday, 8 May 2005


I think I’ve given up on Empires of Light for now… maybe I will become sufficiently bored in the coming weeks to resume reading, but given that I have a few other books to read around the apartment, I probably won’t.

It may prove my geekiness that the first book I picked up was The Design and Evolution of C++, which I rediscovered while searching my shelves for books to sell on

Saturday, 7 May 2005

My new career as a bookseller

In preparation for moving, I’ve decided to get rid of most of my collection of computer books, including a large chunk of O’Reilly’s catalog. If I could figure out how to make a link to the list at, I would… in the meantime, here’s my lameass storefront where you can at least search my listings…

Update: Here's the full list of what's for sale.

Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Somewhere Brock is smiling

The sales of David Bernstein’s oft-plugged tome You Can’t Say That! are apparently flagging. It certainly doesn’t reflect a lack of marketing effort by the author…

Thursday, 14 April 2005


Keith Taylor has a discussion of a number of Bill Bryson’s books up at Dean’s World; like Taylor, I’m a big fan of Bryson’s writing, although I haven’t gotten around to reading a few of his more recent books yet.

Wednesday, 6 April 2005

Dinner, dessert, but no detox

Dinner with Dirk was at the MPSA-legendary Berghoff; I thought the meal was fine, but I’m not quite sure why people who come to Midwest rave about the place—I’ve eaten better elsewhere in the city.

Also today, I finally finished reading The Lady Tasting Tea; I may or may not have a review soon. I just started Empires of Light; I’m enjoying it so far, but I agree with the reviewers that complain about the author’s overuse of adjectives and flowery language.

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Off the QT

Now it’s public, I’d like to congratulate my cousin Melvin Patrick Ely, author of Israel on the Appomattox and professor of history and African-American studies at the College of William and Mary, on winning the Bancroft Prize in American History. More here.

Sunday, 27 February 2005

Book review: Give Me a Break

Book four in the Fifty Book Challenge is Give Me a Break, by 20/20 co-anchor John Stossel, who’s arguably the most well-known libertarian in America. As you’d probably expect from a book by a TV journalist, it’s not a hard read and largely autobiographical in nature. If you’re looking for a book to gently introduce someone to libertarian ideas, Stossel’s book may be ideal: less doctrinaire than Boaz’s Libertarianism: A Primer and lacking the serious liability of What It Means to be a Libertarian—Charles Murray’s public reputation. If you’re already familiar with libertarian ideas and Stossel’s journalistic career, there’ll be little new for you here, but it’s an entertaining read nonetheless.

Monday, 21 February 2005

Book review: Free Flight

Well, I’m massively behind on the 50 Book Challenge, but I did finish reading the copy of James Fallows’ Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Air Travel that I threw in for $6 with an order for “work” books. As Robert mentioned last month, it’s a pretty interesting look at some of the new innovations in small planes (or “general aviation”). The book slightly suffers from being dated—in particular, I think there’s a good chapter that needs to be added on the last two years of the Eclipse 500 saga.

It’s also not entirely clear how Fallows sees “air taxis” fitting in the larger aviation system; he talks a lot about the threat they pose to what most transportation folks call “legacy carriers” (e.g. American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways) but not so much about how the air taxis would affect the regional jet networks associated with the legacy carriers or the “no-frills” carriers like Southwest and airTran. I suspect that, by further drying up the pool of high-revenue customers that the legacy carriers depend on to stay in business, the “hub and spoke” system will fall apart and two classes of travel will emerge in the aviation hinterlands of flyover country: on-demand “air taxi” travel for the rich (or those who can convince their company that an extra $200 in airfare is worth saving a night in the hotel) and increased once-a-day point-to-point travel to popular destinations. Of course, like any other predictions, these may be completely wrong.

Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting book and I recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in general aviation.

I got your outrage right here, pal

Mitch Townsend disagrees with Cathy Young’s suggestion that Thomas E. Woods’ Confederate apologia The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History has been excessively fêted in conservative circles, asking “Where’s the outrage?” On the other hand, Eric Muller still has plenty of outrage to spare.

Sunday, 20 February 2005

Hunter S. Thompson whacks self

AP story here (and Denver Post story here), although there are no real details yet. (þ: Protein Wisdom)

Wednesday, 16 February 2005

It's not scholarship just because you got one to go to college

Everyone’s favorite piece of neoconfederate propaganda, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, continues to pile up negative reviews, this time from Max Boot in The Weekly Standard. (þ: Instapundit and Eric Muller)

Friday, 4 February 2005


Daniel Drezner received a gratis copy of a sex manual in the mail and is plugging it as one of his books of the month. I have two comments for Dan:

  1. Given Jacqueline Passey’s thoughts on the matter, I suspect that if some of Dan’s under-18 readers (is that a null set?) got hold of the book, I doubt many of their future mates would disapprove.
  2. Speaking of null sets, anyone considering throwing a copy my way should be aware that me having a copy of this book might possibly be even more useless than tits on a bull.

Our book of the month, however, is less likely to get you laid but may nonetheless be of interest to readers.

Wednesday, 12 January 2005

“America” returns

After a brief haitus, the Jackson-George Regional Library Board voted 5–2 yesterday to reverse its earlier decision and return Jon Stewart’s America: The Book to the shelves.

Wednesday, 5 January 2005

The Big Five-0

Via Will Baude and Amber Taylor, I see that bloggers are being challenged to read and review 50 books this year. This may be a bit of a daunting challenge—even for those of us expected to read (and write, not to mention teach) for a living—but since I’m currently ahead of the curve, I might as well participate.

Book the First: Time Lord. Reviewed (somewhat unfavorably) here.

Book the Second: The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America. Mini-review: a brilliant, accessible, non-scholarly look at the contemporary political right (broadly defined) in America. Minor faults: the book is sometimes confused over which left-right axis it’s talking about (for example, it sometimes refers to the political left in Europe as “liberals,” a mistake I wouldn’t expect Britons to make), and it underemphasizes the role of political institutions (aside from the Senate, which is overemphasized) in making the United States a generally more conservative nation than other industrialized democracies—the role of federalism and the Constitution gets about a page of treatment in nearly 400 pages of body text. I strongly recommend this book for either the general reader, or as a supplemental text in an undergraduate course in either political parties or American political culture (if such a beast exists).

Book the Third: The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the 20th Century. Just bought it; the book got a favorable review by Simon Jackman in The Political Methodologist a year or so ago.

Monday, 3 January 2005

Book review: Time Lord

I picked up an autographed copy of Clark Blaise’s Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time a while back at Square Books in Oxford, and just got around to reading it. While I have no doubt that the Scottish-born Sandford Fleming was an interesting individual—in addition to being a driving force between the adoption of standard time zones, he was one of the architects of the unification of Canada and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway—Blaise’s book almost makes him seem boring.

The narrative flow of the book is horrible, employing no discernable organizational approach, and the book seems semi-randomly to leap into discussions of the use of time in literature—which may be one of Blaise’s scholarly interests, but has little to do with Fleming. Except for details of the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference in Washington and some confused recounting of Fleming’s role in surveying and building the CP, little of Fleming’s exploits get much attention. Blaise’s lament is that Fleming is being lost to history, but if he was such an important figure in Canadian and world history, his book does little to solidify his reputation, except as a crumudgeon who was annoyed that politics intruded on his efforts to create a “universal” reckoning of time.

Monday, 27 December 2004


My cousin Melvin Ely’s most recent book, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War continues to draw rave reviews; the latest is from James A. Miller in Sunday’s Boston Globe.

Update: Joe Gandelman uncovered the article on his own and has some interesting thoughts (and discussion) on the matter. Comments of my own below the fold.

Thursday, 23 December 2004

Global Warming? Hot Air.

George Will on Michael Crichton's State of Fear:
"State of Fear," with a first printing of 1.5 million copies, resembles Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" -- about 6 million copies sold since 1957 -- as a political broadside woven into an entertaining story. But whereas Rand had only an idea -- a good one (capitalism is splendid), but only one -- Crichton has information. "State of Fear" is the world's first page turner that people will want to read in one gulp (a long gulp: 600 pages, counting appendices) even though it has lots of real scientific graphs, and footnotes citing journals such as Progress in Physical Geography and Transactions -- American Geophysical Union.

Crichton’s subject is today’s fear that global warming will cause catastrophic climate change, a belief now so conventional that it seems to require no supporting data. Crichton’s subject is also how conventional wisdom is manufactured in a credulous and media-drenched society.


Climate-change forecasts, Harvey writes, are like financial forecasts but involve a vastly more complex array of variables. The climate forecasts, based on computer models analyzing the past, tell us that we do not know how much warming is occurring, whether it is a transitory episode or how much warming is dangerous—or perhaps beneficial.

One of the good guys in “State of Fear” cites Montaigne’s axiom: “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known.” Which is why 30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling. The New York Times (Aug. 14, 1975) reported “many signs” that “Earth may be heading for another ice age.” Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned about “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.” “Continued rapid cooling of the Earth” (Global Ecology, 1971) could herald “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” (Science, March 1, 1975). The Christian Science Monitor reported (Aug. 27, 1974) that Nebraska’s armadillos were retreating south from the cooling.

My feelings on Crichton’s book are mixed. I was pretty bothered by the movie The Day After Tomorrow and its attempt to influence people with hysterical claims about global warming. If Crichton’s book is more factual, for a fiction book, then it might be useful. Even so, I’m not crazy about the blurring of actual science and fiction.

Update: Crichton's name corrected in post.