From the monthly archives:

December 2020

Room for debate

by John Q on December 31, 2020

A new regular feature on CT! Once a week, we’ll be posting an open thread, where you can post on any topic you like, subject to the usual moderation rules.

The other purpose of this regular post will be to deal with thread derailment. An example is a recent thread on Brexit which deviated into a lengthy analysis of labelling rules for marmalade and chocolate. Disputes of this kind will be directed to the open thread, where the participants can argue to their hearts’ content.

The first suggested topic for discussion: what should we call this feature? The current title is not very imaginative, so feel free to suggest something better. Is Marmalade and Chocolate too obscure?

End-of-year positives: fiction

by Eszter Hargittai on December 31, 2020

I decided to dedicate two separate posts to books, this one is for fiction. I usually don’t read much fiction so last year I wouldn’t have had enough to write about for such a post (and what I did read I didn’t like so wouldn’t have wanted to write about it). I still don’t have that much, the hope is that you’ll add your own. Like last year, this is not about books that were published in 2020, I am just sharing what I read in 2020 and recommend.

My big reading innovation this year, by the way, was listening to audiobooks. It helped me read more since I can still follow along comfortably at 1.5x speed, often even 1.75x or 2x speed, which is definitely faster than I read. Importantly, it lets me multitask so I can make progress on a book while cooking or working on a jigsaw puzzle (one of my pandemic sanity preoccupations although some of you may recall that this wasn’t a pandemic novelty for me).

This book is definitely not new, it’s even been made into a movie already (I haven’t seen it), but I only came across it this year: Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007). It’s a tough topic, early onset Alzheimer’s in an academic. It’s beautifully written and the best fictional depiction of academia I have seen (but again, to be fair, I don’t see that much fiction). It did make me rather paranoid, but following up on the book I also read about things one can do to help delay onset (FWIW, solving crossword puzzles is not one of them).

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Public debt after the pandemic

by John Q on December 30, 2020

Another extract from my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have issued huge amounts of public debt, much of which has been purchased by central banks. In the US, for example, Federal public debt increased by $3 trillion over the course of 2020 (this is about 15 per cent of US national income)

while the monetary base (money created directly by the Federal Reserve) increased by around $1.6 trillion. This money was used to buy government bonds along with corporate securities in open market operations (what is now called Quantitative Easing)

These policies represent a complete repudiation of assumptions which were considered unquestionable by the political class until relatively recently: that budgets should be balanced, and that public debt is always undesirable.

Even the most widely-accepted modifications of these assumptions are now problematic. A standard view is that budget balances should be stable over the course of the economic cycle. If measured appropriately, this entails a stable ratio of public debt to national income.

But where should this ratio be set?

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Positive note #8: it’s recipe exchange time!

by Eszter Hargittai on December 30, 2020

Is there anyone who hasn’t spent more time in the kitchen this year than usual? Perhaps healthcare workers. I don’t eat bread so I skipped all the sourdough discussions, but I did end up trying all sorts of new recipes. I’ll just share one savory and one sweet, and am otherwise hoping folks will contribute their own favorites.

A Late Show with Stephen Colbert was my go-to daily entertainment watching the previous night’s episode around lunch time. I was so impressed by how he and his team pivoted to the lockdown. In one episode, he cooked a dish based on shallots with Alison Roman that sounded very intriguing since I like shallots, but few recipes ever call for more than a bit of it (or I don’t tend to know them, please educate me). I made the dish the next day and have made it a bunch of times since, it’s excellent. I substituted sardines for the anchovies, because I already had those at home and since it worked well for me, I’ve stuck with that variation.

For sweets, I tried a sweet potato casserole for the first time this Thanksgiving and was so impressed that I’ve made it twice since (and will definitely be making it again). It seems to be presented as a side dish, but in my book it’s definitely a dessert. I do recommend two modifications to that recipe though that I picked up on from reading the comments on the site: (1) half the white sugar (1/4 instead of 1/2 cup); (2) double the topping except for the butter. Commenters noted that it was too sweet otherwise and they were right. I forgot these modifications the last time I made it and it was indeed too sweet. It’s a straight-forward recipe and doesn’t even really require a food processor (I haven’t used one for it). Try it out!

Your turn, please share your finds (or oldies, but goodies if you prefer).

Positive note #7: tech tools

by Eszter Hargittai on December 29, 2020

It’s time to share your most helpful tech finds for the year, this time more on the software than the hardware side. My big find was a task management tool that is the mother of all task management tools. It’s called Amazing Marvin and amazing is indeed the word I use when I describe it to friends and colleagues. If there is one downside, it’s that its versatility makes it a bit hard to navigate at first, but the investment is worth it.

Let me take a step back and explain the problem I was trying to solve when I searched for a tool back in the Spring. The search was not necessarily prompted by the pandemic, but launching into a huge data-collection project a week into lockdowns certainly gave a nudge. I had never had a good system for keeping track of tasks, ranging from very specific small to-do items to components of large multi-year projects. I had tried several programs over the years, but none had met my needs, whatever those might have been. (Sometimes you don’t realize what works well until you try to get a program to do what you need and then it hits you that that missing feature is a must-have.) I was using a mix of approaches from putting some things on my Google Calendar to keeping emails unread until I had tended to them, etc. It was a sad patchwork of solutions that, frankly, left me wondering how I wasn’t dropping balls left and right.

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Hobbies that have brought you joy

by Eszter Hargittai on December 28, 2020

(Are there hobbies that don’t bring joy?)

In this sixth installment of end-of-2020 positive notes, let’s talk about hobbies that have helped us get through this crazy year. I started the following a bit before the pandemic, but it proved to be the perfect distraction (except for those beginning months of global postal confusion).

A little less than a year ago, I signed up for two postcard exchange Web sites: Postcrossing and Postcard United. “Exchange” is not entirely the right word for it since you are sending postcards to people different from the ones sending you postcards so it’s exchange in a global sense, but not concerning the specific items. (In reality, on occasion such an exchange does happen, but it’s rare.) You might think the model wouldn’t work. After all, there is no direct incentive to sending out something nice since the person you are sending to is not the one sending you a card. Do people put any care into sending thoughtful cards then given that there is no obvious incentive to doing so? It turns out many do. On the user profile, it’s possible to signal what is of interest and many of the cards I’ve received (over 200 at this point) have addressed my stated likes such as cards (and stamps!) of turtles and modern and/or local art. Similarly, I try my best to send something the person has requested and have amassed quite a postcard collection to assist me in this.

With all the distancing that 2020 has involved, it’s been genuinely lovely to connect with people from across the globe. There are a great number of participants in East Asia, I’ve sent numerous cards to and received many cards from China, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. The hobby seems to be very big in Germany and Russia as well. Some of this is just a numbers game (countries with large populations), but it doesn’t seem to be entirely about that. Of course, the activity comes with its set of costs not least of which is the postage and so this will pose constraints on who can participate. There are accounts in places like Germany with more than 10,000 cards sent and received, in such instances we’re talking some major financial investment in the hobby. Not that many other hobbies don’t come with costs, but I do find that interesting.

The sites put limits on how many cards you can have traveling at any one time, which can be a bit frustrating if you’re ready to jump in full speed, but is also realistic from the site’s perspective to establish that a new member is serious and will continue sending out cards. This is why one would end up joining more than one site, by the way, that way you can have more cards traveling at the same time (and thus also be receiving more).

Through this hobby, I’ve learned some interesting tidbits about philately around the globe. I was not aware, for example, of so-called maxicards (examples here through an image search). These are special issue stamps with corresponding cards with the stamp on the front side of the matching postcard. They tend to look wonderful and I’ve enjoyed getting a few from various corners of the globe. (If you have one to spare, I’m interested! As far as I can tell, neither the US nor Switzerland issues them these days so I haven’t been able to buy them for trade. Please correct me if I am wrong.)

From social media I gather that lots of people picked up bread baking as a hobby this year. I skipped that as I don’t eat bread. Has anyone started new hobbies this year that have worked out well? (I realize some of the previous posts have covered some related topics and I will have a post dedicated specifically to book reading as well as art making, but feel free to post about those types of hobbies here as well.)

Sunday photoblogging: tree

by Chris Bertram on December 27, 2020

Oak tree at Ashton Court

Working-from-home comforts?

by Eszter Hargittai on December 27, 2020

Fifth in this little end-of-year series I would like to exchange tips on how to make working from home suck less. This is mostly for those who work in an office type job. I suspect some of you have been doing this for years and perhaps then it was not a huge shift and may even work well. I, however, had not had a home office since graduate school (when my living room doubled as a study in my one-bedroom apartment). The sudden closure of offices was tough given zero office setup at home. It’s not that I hadn’t ever worked from home, it’s just that I had only done it by sitting on my living room sofa feet up on my coffee table, laptop in my lap (a laptop in a lap, imagine that). This was not sustainable for full-time work, however. I suffered on my definitely-not-for-constant-sitting dining room chair. It turns out that a lumbar cushion can make a significant difference. I use the Samsonite Memory Foam one and it has worked well. I have found the halfmoon-shaped one less effective. (Curiously, neither of these seems visible on Samsonite’s own Web site, I hope it’s not because they have discontinued it. It looks like lots of retailers have it though.)

Now, if you have the budget to go all out on chair supplies then I highly recommend the Herman Miller Aeron Chairs, but after ordering one in May (with which there was an administrative glitch so actually in) July, I only received it in November so I had needed other arrangements for much of the year. (I knew of the chair as it’s what I’ve been fortunate to use at work for about twenty years now.) I’m sure there are other more reasonably-priced ergonomic desk chairs out there that would also be much better than a dining room chair.

The other hardware arrangement was getting a monitor to supplement the laptop, which was a very good decision. The IT staff in my department was amazing back in March helping folks get set up especially for remote teaching. (Unlike many schools in the US that seemed to be on Spring break when lockdowns first occurred, at UZH we were told on Friday afternoon that starting Monday we’d have to be teaching online so there was some serious last-minute shuffling going on.) A friend convinced me to get a curved monitor and that’s been surprisingly helpful even though I had already had a rather large monitor in the office before.

In Zurich, we were allowed back in the office by June and I spent much of the summer and fall there so I didn’t have to keep innovating on my setup. However, as infections rose in the past few months, I started feeling uncomfortable going to the office so am again on the lookout for new ideas. I’ll have a separate post for software finds. In this thread, I’m especially curious to hear how folks made their physical home setup work well. And yes, I recognize my very fortunate position of having support for all these things and the privilege I have had of continuing a job I enjoy with ongoing support from my employer.

What music did you enjoy this year?

by Eszter Hargittai on December 26, 2020

If Tim Walters hadn’t asked me about music in response to the first post of my end-of-year list then I would have completely forgotten about it, which tells you how much I focused on it this year. Basically, after not listening to any music during the first couple of months of lockdown (not sure why), I realized it may do me good and I started listening to some albums from my college years (Suzanne Vega, Alanis Morissette). Later I started listening to audiobooks and that took up listening time so I have nothing for you by way of music recommendations. Hopefully some of you do so please share here. Tim, this is the thread for you. :)

The Day After Brexit

by John Q on December 24, 2020

A Brexit deal has finally happened, so I’m reposting these thoughts, originally from 2016 , which seems like a thousand years ago, and previously edited and reposted in 2019.

Since the collapse of faith in neoliberalism following the Global Financial Crisis, the political right has been increasingly dominated by Trumpism. But in most cases, including the US, this has so far amounted to little more than Trilling’s irritable mental gestures. To the extent that there is any policy program, it is little more than crony capitalism. Of all the Trumpist groups that have achieved political power the only ones that have anything amounting to a political program are the Brexiteers.

The sustainability of Trumpism as a political force will depend, in large measure, on the perceived success or failure of Brexit. So, what will the day after Brexit look like, and more importantly, feel like? I’ll rule out the so-called “soft Brexit” where Britain stays in the EU for all practical purposes, gaining some minor concessions on immigration restrictions. It seems unlikely and would be even more of an anti-climax than the case I want to think about.

It’s easy to imagine a disaster, and maybe that will happen. But suppose everything goes relatively smoothly. That is, Britain leaves the EU and the single market, but gets deals in place that keep trade flowing smoothly, retains visa-free travel for visitors and so on.

What will the day after feel like?

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End-of-year positive note #3: movies, series, video

by Eszter Hargittai on December 24, 2020

On this third day of kick-2020-to-the-curb-on-a-positive-note post series, I’d like to discuss video entertainment. Whether movies, TV shows, Web series, one-off YouTube clips, etc, I’m curious to hear what you enjoyed this year. It can be new or old, whatever you recommend. As we head into some quiet days, I suspect many of us can use some recommendations. To facilitate access, please note where something is available as these days that is no longer self-explanatory.

One of my favorite TV series is The Good Fight on CBS All Access (requires a paid subscription and I think is sadly only available in the US or through US VPN). Covid halted their production in the Spring so it was a short season this year, its 4th season. It’s a spin-off of CBS’s excellent The Good Wife from years ago. It’s very political (all-out anti-Trump) and very not-fit-for-network-TV. It centers around a majority African American law firm in Chicago filled with very smart and passionate lawyers.

A series new to me this year was Borgen on Netflix, recommended by a friend after I told him I was thinking of rewatching The West Wing. It’s a Danish political drama about a woman prime minister. The first episode didn’t grab me, but I tried another and after that I was hooked.

For films, I very much appreciated After Class, a Chinese short film I saw through the deadCenter Film Festival in the Spring. I’m not sure where you can access it, but it’s worth hunting down. (There are other films with that title, this one is directed by Charles Xiuzhi Dong.) I won’t say anything about it, it’s just 15 minutes and I don’t want to give anything away.

I rewatched the excellent 1945 (from 2017), a Hungarian film that takes place at the end of WWII in rural Hungary. I first saw it in a theater in Budapest in 2017 and it was gripping. Having just watched the trailer to post it here, I’m inspired to watch it a 3rd time. So yes, I recommend it highly! If your library has a Kanopy subscription, you may have free access there. If not, Amazon has it for sale (or included as part of Prime Video, it looks like – I don’t have Amazon Prime so I can’t double check that).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Stephen Colbert’s The (A) Late Show for delivering the news this year in a palatable way. (I’m not saying the news itself was palatable.)

What have you enjoyed this year?

Positive note #2: fresh herbs

by Eszter Hargittai on December 23, 2020

Yesterday, I kicked off the “Let’s end 2020 on a positive note” series, which I continue today with a very different angle (we’ll be back to other content types later this week). With Covid-19 imposing lots of restrictions on where we could go this year, many of us spent considerable time in the kitchen. This likely included some innovations. Let’s talk about fresh herbs in particular (I’ll have a separate post about more general cooking/baking finds). What is a fresh herb that you added to your cooking repertoire this year that you definitely plan on keeping long term? Or if you were already a fresh herb aficionado then feel free to mention what was not new per se, but brought continued joy.

I wasn’t big on fresh herbs in the past, my most consistent use was of rosemary sprigs as adding them to even the simplest dish of oven-roasted vegetables is already a great touch. My most exciting fresh herb addition this year was fresh thyme. I now have fresh thyme on hand all the time as it has proven to be so helpful in numerous dishes. Whether on chicken (my most common go-to meat) or veggies, it has never disappointed. I don’t even have a particular recipe to point to, it’s just been extremely helpful all around. Pictured: chicken hot dogs with apples, plumbs, sliced almonds and, of course, fresh thyme (you can spot it).

I’ll mention a failed attempt: fresh turmeric. Turmeric was the major spice addition to my cooking in 2019 so in 2020 I thought I’d go to the root directly. For me, this was not worth the trouble. First, it’s rather tedious to deal with. More importantly, it stains everything. So unless you want everything in your kitchen to look orange or are extremely careful, beware. I also find turmeric in spice jars to be quite effective so the trouble was not worth it to me.

What fresh herb did you enjoy adding to your cooking and baking this year?

Scarcity and plenty

by John Q on December 23, 2020

[Warning: half-formed thoughts ahead]
One of the most striking characteristics of the 21st century economy (divided into goods, human contact services and information) is that even very poor people have access to information-based services that were almost unimaginable 30 years ago. Given free wifi and a second-hand phone, someone lining up at a food bank can blog about the experience, and possibly attract readers all around the world[1]. Or they can entertain themselves with an endless supply of free books, news media, music and videos. That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that people in both rich and poor countries are going hungry.

Economics has traditionally been about scarcity. But now we have one part of the economy where scarcity remains dominant, and another, growing part, where it has just about disappeared. That raises a lot of different issues.

First, while we are accustomed to think of things like economic growth and inflation rates as objective facts, they are actually based on index numbers, which are the products of theoretical models. Those models don’t work well when an increasing part of the economy consists of information services that are becoming radically cheaper all the time. As a result, much of the debate about the desirability or otherwise of growth is misconceived.

A positive implication is that we can anticipate improving standards of living, because of ever-increasing access to information services, without economic growth in the 20th century sense of steadily increasing throughput of materials and energy, and correspondingly increasing environmental damage. T

A negative implication is that real incomes (that is, incomes deflated by a consumer price index) can increase, even as basic needs like food and housing become less affordable, because the price of inforamation related services is falling fast. I can’t find much that’s readily accessible on this – pointers would be appreciated. One notable fact is that the proportion of disposable income spent on food, which fell sharply between 1960 and 1998, has remained almost static since then. The price of food seems to have risen a little faster than the CPI over this period.

I haven’t talked yet about human contact services. Scarcity is just as relevant here as in the goods economy. Governments are heavily involved in funding and providing these services, and the quality of services is hard to measure. As a result, the kinds of services people get aren’t determined simply by their capacity to pay.

A question to which I don’t have an answer. Is there some way to exploit the massively increased productivity of information services to allow more, and more equal, provision of basic goods? This question underlies a lot of discussion about Universal Basic Income and similar ideas, but is rarely posed in a satisfactory way, let alone answered.

As you can tell, I’m struggling with some complicated problems here, so any thoughts welcome.

fn1. In the early days of blogging, thehomelessguy [Kevin Barbieux] did exactly this. His most recent site is here.

Let’s finish 2020 on a positive note (or ten)

by Eszter Hargittai on December 22, 2020

For the last ten days of this insanity of a year, I am going to blog about various positive things and ask you to share your related experiences. They’ll concern new books you’ve read and liked, new recipes you’ve tried and recommend, etc.

I’m starting with an entirely self-serving category, which concerns the sharing of something you created (minus images, which will be a separate post). I was fortunate to get to do a lot this year and perhaps most exciting was putting the finishing touches on a new edited volume about digital media research.

My book Research Exposed: How Empirical Social Science Gets Done in the Digital Age just came out from Columbia University Press. It includes a dozen chapters of social scientists discussing the behind-the-scenes realities of doing empirical research using digital methods and/or studying the social aspects of digital media. The pieces cover a wide range of methods from analyzing millions of tweets to careful sampling for qualitative work, from recruiting hard-to-access populations for surveys and focus groups to using mixed methods for studying various groups. The authors are unusually candid about all the ups and downs they faced during their studies. It’s a very informative and engaging read.

The book is third in a line of related books I have published. There was Research Confidential: Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have (University of Michigan Press) whose title was inspired by a CT reader and whose cover design I crowdsourced here and elsewhere. Then came Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online from The MIT Press, which I co-edited with Christian Sandvig. And now we have Research Exposed, whose title was recommended by an anonymous reviewer so I don’t even know whom to thank for it.

In the strictest sense, the book is targeted at social scientists – across fields from communication to sociology, from political science to journalism studies – who want to understand better what methodological approaches from earlier are still very relevant and what new challenges and opportunities digital media bring to the table. It is certainly great for students – from upper-level undergraduate to graduate – but also for scholars at all levels wanting to understand doing research better. I would hope it would also be of interest to non-scholars who would like to have a sense for how high-quality social science gets done these days.

And now it’s your turn. What did you create this year that you are especially excited to share? This can be a published book, journal article, oped, blog post, tweet, podcast, video, etc. (I will have a separate post for sharing images such as photographs and drawings, paintings, etc. so perhaps hold off on those for now.)

The 21st century economy

by John Q on December 21, 2020

Last year, getting started on my book I posted some facts and claims about the 21st economy. The key points (slightly elaborated)

(1) Most economic activity in the 20th century, including ‘primary’ industries like agriculture and mining and services such as wholesale and retail trade, was fairly directly related to the production and distribution of manufactured goods

(2) This is no longer true: around half of all employment is now related to human services, information services and finance, and these are at most indirectly related to goods production.
On the basis of (1), the 20th century economy could properly be described as ‘industrial’. The economy of the early 21st century is harder to classify. Information technology and communications play a central role in the economy and society, and are the main focus of technological progress, but don’t employ all that many people. Service industries employ most people, but it’s critical to distinguish between services that are part of the industrial goods economy and human services like health and education. So, neither ‘service economy’ nor ‘information economy’ captures the whole picture. ‘Post-industrial’ carries too many implicit assumptions, as does the use of the ‘post’ prefix in general.

But that’s just semantics. The key point for the book is how the pandemic changed the different parts of the economy, and to what extent those changes will be sustained. A general observation is that the changes most likely to be permanent are those that reinforce processes that were already underway. So, some thoughts

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