Kenneth Arrow, Nobel-Winning Economist Whose Influence Spanned Decades, Dies at 95 | The New York Times

Kenneth Arrow, Nobel-Winning Economist Whose Influence Spanned Decades, Dies at 95 by Michael M. Weinstein (New York Times)(13 hours 40 minutes 58 seconds)
Professor Arrow, one of the most brilliant minds in his field during the 20th century, became the youngest economist ever to earn a Nobel at the age of 51.

Kenneth J. Arrow, one of the most brilliant economic minds of the 20th century and, at 51, the youngest economist ever to win a Nobel, died on Tuesday at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 95.

His son David confirmed the death.

Continue reading “Kenneth Arrow, Nobel-Winning Economist Whose Influence Spanned Decades, Dies at 95 | The New York Times”

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🎧 Spam: a special edition | Eat This Podcast

Spam: a special edition by Jeremy Cherfas from Eat This Podcast
I did not know that that the famous Monty Python spam sketch was recorded on 6 June 1970. At least, that’s the claim of a Tumblr obsessed with Minnesota in the 1970s. (Wikipedia says only that “[i]t premiered on 15 December 1970”.) However, I need no encouragement to share a programme on Spam that I made for BBC Farming Today back in 1997, a programme that was both very well received and a blast to make. the people at Hormel couldn’t have been nicer, and the butterfly spam balls weren’t bad either.

Monty Python and Spam
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There’s so much more to spiced ham than one could have ever thought. It’s not only a great slice of Americana, but there’s some science and interesting economics behind the things that go into making it. Both a fun and fascinating episode.

🔖 Evidence for a limit to human lifespan | Nature Research

Evidence for a limit to human lifespan by Xiao Dong, Brandon Milholland, and Jan Vijg (nature.com)
Driven by technological progress, human life expectancy has increased greatly since the nineteenth century. Demographic evidence has revealed an ongoing reduction in old-age mortality and a rise of the maximum age at death, which may gradually extend human longevity. Together with observations that lifespan in various animal species is flexible and can be increased by genetic or pharmaceutical intervention, these results have led to suggestions that longevity may not be subject to strict, species-specific genetic constraints. Here, by analysing global demographic data, we show that improvements in survival with age tend to decline after age 100, and that the age at death of the world’s oldest person has not increased since the 1990s. Our results strongly suggest that the maximum lifespan of humans is fixed and subject to natural constraints.
[1]
X. Dong, B. Milholland, and J. Vijg, “Evidence for a limit to human lifespan.,” Nature, vol. 538, no. 7624, pp. 257–259, Oct. 2016. [PubMed]
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🔖 Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott, Alex Tapscott

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott, Alex Tapscott (Portfolio, May 10, 2016)
The first generation of the digital revolution brought us the Internet of information. The second genera­tion—powered by blockchain technology—is bringing us the Internet of value: a new, distributed platform that can help us reshape the world of business and transform the old order of human affairs for the better.

Blockchain is the ingeniously simple, revolution­ary protocol that allows transactions to be simul­taneously anonymous and secure by maintaining a tamperproof public ledger of value. Though it’s the technology that drives bitcoin and other digital cur­rencies, the underlying framework has the potential to go far beyond these and record virtually everything of value to humankind, from birth and death certifi­cates to insurance claims and even votes.

Perhaps not necessarily this particular book which appears to be on the overview side, but sometime this year I’d like to delve more deeply into the concept of blockchain and the tech behind it.

Anyone have recommendations of books they liked?

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Chris Aldrich is reading “How Donald Trump is changing the rules for American business”

The president and corporations: How Donald Trump is changing the rules for American business (The Economist)
HIS inauguration is still six weeks away but Donald Trump has already sent shock waves through American business. Chief executives—and their companies’ shareholders—are giddy at the president-elect’s promises to slash burdensome regulation, cut taxes and boost the economy with infrastructure spending.

This article takes much the same view of Trump’s economic policies as I (and I’m sure many) do. I’ve been hoping every day for more than a year and a half that more politicians would take Cesar Hidalgo’s book Why Information Grows as the basis for their economic policies. Alas…

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

American capitalism has flourished thanks to the predictable application of rules. If, at the margin, that rules-based system is superseded by an ad hoc approach in which businessmen must take heed and pay homage to the whim of King Donald, the long-term damage to America’s economy will be grave.

Such tariffs would be hugely disruptive. They would make goods more expensive for American consumers. By preventing American firms from maximising their efficiency using complex supply chains, they would reduce their competitiveness, deter new investment and, eventually, hurt workers’ wages across the economy. They would also encourage a tit-for-tat response.

The role of lobbyists will grow—an irony given that Mr Trump promised to drain the Washington swamp of special interests.

Nonetheless, Mr Trump’s approach is worrying. Unlike the Depression, when Hoover and then Roosevelt got companies to act in what they (often wrongly) saw as the national interest; or 2009, when Mr Obama corralled the banks and bailed out Detroit, America today is not in crisis. Mr Trump’s meddling is thus likely to be the new normal. Worse, his penchant for unpredictable and often vindictive bullying is likely to be more corrosive than the handouts most politicians favour.

Mr Trump’s mercantilism is long-held and could prove fierce, particularly if the strong dollar pushes America’s trade deficit higher (see article). Congress would have only limited powers to restrain the president’s urge to impose tariffs. More important, even if rash protectionism is avoided, a strategy based on bribing and bullying individual companies will itself be a problem.

But over time the damage will accumulate: misallocated capital, lower competitiveness and reduced faith in America’s institutions. Those who will suffer most are the very workers Mr Trump is promising to help. That is why, if he really wants to make America great again, Mr Trump should lay off the protectionism and steer clear of the bullying right now.

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Chris Aldrich is reading “Trump and Carrier: How a Modern Economy Is Like a Parking Garage”

Trump and Carrier: How a Modern Economy Is Like a Parking Garage by Justin Wolfers (nytimes.com)(20 hours 36 minutes 40 seconds)
It’s a constant state of flux, with jobs being created or lost. The challenge is to have a business climate in which you have more of the former.
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📖 On page 16 of Dealing with China by Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

📖 On page 16 of 448 of Dealing with China by Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

A simple preface followed by an anecdote about the beginning of a deal relating to telecom. The style is quick moving and history, details, and philosophy are liberally injected into the story as it moves along. This seems both interesting as well as instructive.

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

“There are some who believe that an immutable law of history holds that conflict is inevitable when a rising power begins to bump up against an established one. But no law is immutable. Choices matter. Lessons can be learned.”

—page XIV

“Prescriptions, after all, are easier to make than predictions.”

—page XIV

“Note taking allows Party and government officials to get quick reads on what went on at meetings they didn’t attend. […] Private meetings with senior government officials without recoring devices or note takers are rare and highly sought after.”

—page 10

“…the so-called iron rice bowl, the cradle-to-grave care and support guaranteed by the government through the big companies people worked for.”

—page 11

“The Party had made a simple bargain with the people: economic growth in return for political stability. That in turn meant Party control. Prosperity was the source of Party legitimacy.”

—page 11

“Messages in China are sent in ways that aren’t always direct; you have to read the signs.”

—page 14

“It was the nature of dealing with China: nothing was done until it was done.”

—page 14

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📗 Started reading Dealing with China by Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

📗 Started reading Dealing with China by Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

Former head of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson , Jr. and the cover of his 2015 book Dealing with China
Former head of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson , Jr. and the cover of his 2015 book Dealing with China

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🔖 Want to read Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower by Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

🔖 Want to read Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower by Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

Picked up a copy at Little Free Library #21797 at 8:29 am
ISBN: 978-1-4555-0421-3 First Edition Hardcover

Former head of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson , Jr. and the cover of his 2015 book Dealing with China
Former head of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson , Jr. and the cover of his 2015 book Dealing with China
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Disconnected, Fragmented, or United? A Trans-disciplinary Review of Network Science

Disconnected, Fragmented, or United? A Trans-disciplinary Review of Network Science by César A. HidalgoCésar A. Hidalgo (Applied Network Science | SpringerLink)

Abstract

Applied Network Science

During decades the study of networks has been divided between the efforts of social scientists and natural scientists, two groups of scholars who often do not see eye to eye. In this review I present an effort to mutually translate the work conducted by scholars from both of these academic fronts hoping to continue to unify what has become a diverging body of literature. I argue that social and natural scientists fail to see eye to eye because they have diverging academic goals. Social scientists focus on explaining how context specific social and economic mechanisms drive the structure of networks and on how networks shape social and economic outcomes. By contrast, natural scientists focus primarily on modeling network characteristics that are independent of context, since their focus is to identify universal characteristics of systems instead of context specific mechanisms. In the following pages I discuss the differences between both of these literatures by summarizing the parallel theories advanced to explain link formation and the applications used by scholars in each field to justify their approach to network science. I conclude by providing an outlook on how these literatures can be further unified.

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Some Thoughts on Academic Publishing and “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone” from Science | AAAS

Who's downloading pirated papers? Everyone by John Bohannon (Science | AAAS)
An exclusive look at data from the controversial web site Sci-Hub reveals that the whole world, both poor and rich, is reading pirated research papers.

Sci Hub has been in the news quite a bit over the past half a year and the bookmarked article here gives some interesting statistics. I’ll preface some of the following editorial critique with the fact that I love John Bohannon’s work; I’m glad he’s spent the time to do the research he has. Most of the rest of the critique is aimed at the publishing industry itself.

From a journalistic standpoint, I find it disingenuous that the article didn’t actually hyperlink to Sci Hub. Neither did it link out (or provide a full quote) to Alicia Wise’s Twitter post(s) nor link to her rebuttal list of 20 ways to access their content freely or inexpensively. Of course both of these are editorial related, and perhaps the rebuttal was so flimsy as to be unworthy of a link from such an esteemed publication anyway.

Sadly, Elsevier’s list of 20 ways of free/inexpensive access doesn’t really provide any simple coverage for graduate students or researchers in poorer countries which are the likeliest group of people using Sci Hub, unless they’re going to fraudulently claim they’re part of a class which they’re not, and is this morally any better than the original theft method? It’s almost assuredly never used by patients, which seem to be covered under one of the options, as the option to do so is painfully undiscoverable past their typical $30/paper firewalls. Their patchwork hodgepodge of free access is so difficult to not only discern, but one must keep in mind that this is just one of dozens of publishers a researcher must navigate to find the one thing they’re looking for right now (not to mention the thousands of times they need to do this throughout a year, much less a career).

Consider this experiment, which could be a good follow up to the article: is it easier to find and download a paper by title/author/DOI via Sci Hub (a minute) versus through any of the other publishers’ platforms with a university subscription (several minutes) or without a subscription (an hour or more to days)? Just consider the time it would take to dig up every one of 30 references in an average journal article: maybe just a half an hour via Sci Hub versus the days and/or weeks it would take to jump through the multiple hoops to first discover, read about, and then gain access and then download them from the over 14 providers (and this presumes the others provide some type of “access” like Elsevier).

Those who lived through the Napster revolution in music will realize that the dead simplicity of their system is primarily what helped kill the music business compared to the ecosystem that exists now with easy access through the multiple streaming sites (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) or inexpensive paid options like (iTunes). If the publishing business doesn’t want to get completely killed, they’re going to need to create the iTunes of academia. I suspect they’ll have internal bean-counters watching the percentage of the total (now apparently 5%) and will probably only do something before it passes a much larger threshold, though I imagine that they’re really hoping that the number stays stable which signals that they’re not really concerned. They’re far more likely to continue to maintain their status quo practices.

Some of this ease-of-access argument is truly borne out by the statistics of open access papers which are downloaded by Sci Hub–it’s simply easier to both find and download them that way compared to traditional methods; there’s one simple pathway for both discovery and download. Surely the publishers, without colluding, could come up with a standardized method or protocol for finding and accessing their material cheaply and easily?

“Hart-Davidson obtained more than 100 years of biology papers the hard way—legally with the help of the publishers. ‘It took an entire year just to get permission,’ says Thomas Padilla, the MSU librarian who did the negotiating.” John Bohannon in Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone

Personally, I use use relatively advanced tools like LibX, which happens to be offered by my institution and which I feel isn’t very well known, and it still takes me longer to find and download a paper than it would via Sci Hub. God forbid if some enterprising hacker were to create a LibX community version for Sci Hub. Come to think of it, why haven’t any of the dozens of publishers built and supported simple tools like LibX which make their content easy to access? If we consider the analogy of academic papers to the introduction of machine guns in World War I, why should modern researchers still be using single-load rifles against an enemy that has access to nuclear weaponry?

My last thought here comes on the heels of the two tweets from Alicia Wise mentioned, but not shown in the article:

She mentions that the New York Times charges more than Elsevier does for a full subscription. This is tremendously disingenuous as Elsevier is but one of dozens of publishers for which one would have to subscribe to have access to the full panoply of material researchers are typically looking for. Further, Elsevier nor their competitors are making their material as easy to find and access as the New York Times does. Neither do they discount access to the point that they attempt to find the subscription point that their users find financially acceptable. Case in point: while I often read the New York Times, I rarely go over their monthly limit of articles to need any type of paid subscription. Solely because they made me an interesting offer to subscribe for 8 weeks for 99 cents, I took them up on it and renewed that deal for another subsequent 8 weeks. Not finding it worth the full $35/month price point I attempted to cancel. I had to cancel the subscription via phone, but why? The NYT customer rep made me no less than 5 different offers at ever decreasing price points–including the 99 cents for 8 weeks which I had been getting!!–to try to keep my subscription. Elsevier, nor any of their competitors has ever tried (much less so hard) to earn my business. (I’ll further posit that it’s because it’s easier to fleece at the institutional level with bulk negotiation, a model not too dissimilar to the textbook business pressuring professors on textbook adoption rather than trying to sell directly the end consumer–the student, which I’ve written about before.)

(Trigger alert: Apophasis to come) And none of this is to mention the quality control that is (or isn’t) put into the journals or papers themselves. Fortunately one need’t even go further than Bohannon’s other writings like Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? Then there are the hordes of articles on poor research design and misuse of statistical analysis and inability to repeat experiments. Not to give them any ideas, but lately it seems like Elsevier buying the Enquirer and charging $30 per article might not be a bad business decision. Maybe they just don’t want to play second-banana to TMZ?

Interestingly there’s a survey at the end of the article which indicates some additional sources of academic copyright infringement. I do have to wonder how the data for the survey will be used? There’s always the possibility that logged in users will be indicating they’re circumventing copyright and opening themselves up to litigation.

I also found the concept of using the massive data store as a means of applied corpus linguistics for science an entertaining proposition. This type of research could mean great things for science communication in general. I have heard of people attempting to do such meta-analysis to guide the purchase of potential intellectual property for patent trolling as well.

Finally, for those who haven’t done it (ever or recently), I’ll recommend that it’s certainly well worth their time and energy to attend one or more of the many 30-60 minute sessions most academic libraries offer at the beginning of their academic terms to train library users on research tools and methods. You’ll save yourself a huge amount of time.

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Can a Field in Which Physicists Think Like Economists Help Us Achieve Universal Knowledge?

Can a Field in Which Physicists Think Like Economists Help Us Achieve Universal Knowledge? by David Auerbach (Slate Magazine)
The Theory of Everything and Then Some: In complexity theory, physicists try to understand economics while sociologists think like biologists. Can they bring us any closer to universal knowledge?

A discussion of complexity and complexity theorist John H. Miller’s new book: A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society.

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Global Language Networks

Recent research on global language networks has interesting relations to big history, complexity economics, and current politics.

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.

Abstract

Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

Related posts:

“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

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To Purchase, Rent, or Pirate? The Broken Economics of Textbooks in the Digital Age

What's wrong with the economics of the textbook industry, and what students, parents, professors, and universities can do to mitigate the ever-rising price of textbooks.

I

t’s the beginning of yet another quarter/semester (or ovester, if you prefer) and a new crop of inquiries have come up around selling back used textbooks and purchasing new textbooks for upcoming classes. I’m not talking about the philosophical discussion about choosing your own textbooks that I’ve mentioned before. I’m considering, in the digital era,

What are the best options for purchasing, renting, or utilizing textbook products in what is a relatively quickly shifting market?

The popular press has a variety of evergreen stories that hit the wire at the beginning of each semester that scratch just the surface of the broader textbook issue or focus on one tiny upstart company that promises to drastically disrupt the market (yet somehow never does), but these articles never delve just a bit deeper into the market to give a broader array of ideas and, more importantly, solutions for the students/parents who are spending the bulk of the money to support the inequalities the market has built.

I aim to facilitate some of this digging and revealing based on years of personal book buying experience as well as having specified textbooks as an instructor in the past.

Reading Formats

Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.

Before taking a look at the pure economics of the market for the various forms of purchase, resale, or even renting, one should first figure out one’s preference for reading format. There are obviously many different means of learning (visual, auditory, experiential, etc.) which some will prefer over others, so try to tailor your “texts” to your preferred learning style as much as possible. For those who prefer auditory learning modes, be sure to check out alternatives like Audible or the wealth of online video/audio materials that have proliferated in the MOOC revolution. For those who are visual learners or who learn best by reading, do you prefer ebook formats over physical books?  There are many studies showing the benefit of one over the other, but some of this comes down to personal preference and how comfortable one is with particular formats.  Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.  It’s taken me (an avowed paper native) several years, but I now vastly prefer to have books in electronic format for some of the reasons indicated above in addition to the fact that I can carry a library of 2,500+ books with me almost anywhere I go. I also love being able to almost instantly download anything that I don’t currently own but may need/want.

The one caveat I’ll mention, particularly for visual learners (or those with pseudo-photographic or eidetic memory), is that they attempt to keep a two-page reading format on their e-reading devices as their long-term memory for reading will increase with the ability to place the knowledge on the part of the page(s) where they originally encountered it (that is, I remember seeing that particular item on the top left, or middle right portion of a particular page.) Sometimes this isn’t always possible due to an e-reader’s formatting capabilities or the readability of the size of the text (for example, a .pdf file on a Kindle DX would be preferable to the same file on a much smaller smartphone) , but for many it can be quite helpful. Personally, I can remember where particular words and grammatical constructs appeared in my 10th grade Latin text many years later while I would be very unlikely to be able to do this with the presentation of some modern-day e-readers or alternate technologies like rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP).

bookstore-bookshelves-1024x768

 

Purchasing Options

Purchasing to Keep

Personally, as a student and a bibliophile (read: bibliomaniac), I would typically purchase all of the physical texts for all of my classes.  I know this isn’t a realizable reality for everyone, so, for the rest, I would recommend purchasing all of the texts (physical or electronic, depending on one’s preference for personal use) in one’s main area of study, which one could then keep for the long term and not sell back. This allows one to build a library that will serve as a long term reference for one’s primary area(s) of study.

Renting vs Short-term Ownership

In general, I’m opposed to renting books or purchasing them for a semester or year and then returning them for a partial refund. It’s rarely a great solution for the end consumer who ends up losing the greater value of the textbook. Even books returned and sold later as used, often go for many multiples of their turn in price the following term, so if it’s a newer or recent edition, it’s probably better to hold on to it for a few months and then sell it for a used price, slightly lower than the college bookstore’s going rate.

Free Texts

For tangential texts in classes I know I don’t want to keep for the long term, I’d usually find online versions or borrow (for free) from the local college or public library (many books are available electronically through the library or are borrow-able through the library reserve room.)

Most public libraries use systems like Overdrive, Axis 360 (Baker & Taylor), Adobe Digital Editions, 3M Cloud Library, etc. to allow students to check out a broad array of fiction and non-fiction for free for loan terms from as short as a week up to a month or more. Additionally well-known websites like the Project Gutenberg and Archive.org have lots of commonly used texts available for free download in a broad variety of formats.  This includes a lot of classic fiction, philosophy, and other texts used in the humanities. Essentially most works published in the United States prior to 1923 and many additional texts published after this as well can be found in the public domain. Additional information on what is in the public domain can be found here: Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States.

Why pay $10-20 for a classic book like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan when you can find copies for free online, unless of course you’re getting a huge amount of additional scholarship and additional notes along with it.

Often college students forget that they’re not just stuck with their local institutional library, so I’ll remind everyone to check out their local public library(s) as well as other nearby institutional libraries and inter-library loan options which may give them longer term loan terms.

General Economics in the Textbook Market

One of the most important changes in the textbook market that every buyer should be aware of: last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. the US Supreme Court upheld the ability for US-based students to buy copies of textbooks printed in foreign countries (often at huge cut-rate prices) [see also Ars Technica]. This means that searching online bookstores in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. will often find the EXACT same textbooks (usually with slightly different ISBNs, and slightly cheaper paper) for HUGE discounts in the 60-95% range.

Example: I recently bought an international edition of Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis (Amazon $121) for $5 (and it even happened to ship from within the US for $3). Not only was this 96% off of the cover price, but it was 78% off of Amazon’s rental price!  How amazing is it to spend almost as much to purchase a book as it is to ship it to yourself!? I’ll also note here that the first edition of this book appeared in 1964 and this very popular third edition is from 1976, so it isn’t an example of “edition creep”, but it’s still got a tremendous mark up in relation to other common analysis texts which list on Amazon for $35-50.

HintAbe Books (a subsidiary of Amazon) is better than most at finding/sourcing international editions of textbooks.

For some of the most expensive math/science/engineering texts one can buy an edition one or two earlier than the current one. In these cases, the main text changes very little, if any, and the primary difference is usually additional problems in the homework sections (which causes small discrepancies in page number counts). If necessary, the problem sets can be easily obtained via the reserve room in the library or by briefly borrowing/photocopying problems from classmates who have the current edition. The constant “edition-churning” by publishers is mean to help prop up high textbook prices.

Definition: “Edition Churning” or “Edition Creep“: a common practice of textbook publishers of adding scant new material, if any, to textbooks on a yearly or every-other-yearly basis thereby making older editions seem prematurely obsolete and thereby propping up the prices of their textbooks. Professors who blithely utilize the newest edition of a texbook are often unknowingly complicit in propping up prices in these situations.

Book Outlets

Bookstores

One may find some usefulness or convenience in traditional bookstores, particularly Barnes & Noble, the last of the freestanding big box retailers. If you’re a member of their affinity program and get an additional discount for ordering books directly through them, then it may not be a horrible idea to do so. Still, they’re paying for a relatively large overhead and it’s likely that you’ll find cheaper prices elsewhere.

Campus bookstores

These are becoming increasingly lean and many may begin disappearing over the next decade or so, much the way many traditional bookstores have disappeared in the last decade with the increasing competition online.  Because many students aren’t the best at price comparison, however, and because of their position in the economic chain, many are managing to hang on quite well.  Keep in mind that many campus bookstores have fine print deals in which they’ll match or beat pricing you find online, so be sure to take advantage of this fact, particularly when shipping from many services will make an equivalent online purchase a few dollars more expensive.

Used bookstores

There are fewer and fewer of these around these days and even fewer textbook-specific stores that traditionally sprouted up next to major campuses.  This last type may not be a horrible place to shop, but they’re likely to specialize in used texts of only official texts. Otherwise, general used bookstores are more likely to specialize in paperbacks and popular used fiction and have very lean textbook selection, if any.

Online Retailers

Naturally when shopping for textbooks there are a veritable wealth of websites to shop around online including: Amazon, Alibris, Barnes & Noble, AbeBooks, Google Play, Half/EBay. Chegg, Valore, CampusBookRentals, TextBooks.com, and ECampus. But in the Web2.0 world, we can now uses websites with even larger volumes of data and meta-data as a clearing-house for our shopping. So instead of shopping and doing price comparison at the dozens of competing sites, why not use a meta-site to do the comparison for us algorithmically and much more quickly.

Meta-Retailers

There are a variety of meta-retailer shopping methods including several browser plugins and comparison sites (Chrome, Firefox, InvisibleHand, PriceBlink, PriceGong, etc.) that one can install to provide pricing comparisons, so that, for example, while shopping on Amazon, one will see lower priced offerings from their competitors. However, possibly the best website I’ve come across for cross-site book comparisons is GetTextbooks.com. One can easily search for textbooks (by author, title, ISBN, etc.) and get back a list of retailers with copies that is sortable by price (including shipping) as well as by new/used and even by rental availability. They even highlight one entry algorithmicly to indicate their recommended “best value”.

A screencapture of GetTextbook.com's search and sort functionality and layout
Example of GetTextbooks.com‘s search/sort functionality

Similar to GetTextbooks is the webservice SlugBooks, though it doesn’t appear to search as many sites or present as much data.

When searching for potential textbooks, don’t forget that one can “showroom” the book in one’s local bookstore or even at one’s local library(s). This is particularly useful if one is debating whether or not to take a particular class, or if one is kicking tires to see if it’s really the best book for them, or if they should be looking at other textbooks.

From an economic standpoint, keep in mind there is usually more availability and selection on editions bought a month or so before the start of classes, as often-used texts are used by thousands of students over the world, thus creating a spot market for used texts at semester and quarter starts. Professors often list their textbooks when class listings for future semesters are released, so students surfing for the best deals for used textbooks can very often find them in mid-semester (or mid-quarter) well before the purchasing rush begins for any/most titles.

Black Market

And finally, there is also the black market (also known as outright theft), which is usually spoken of in back-channels either online or in person. Most mainstream articles which reference this portion of the market usually refer tangentially to a grey market in which one student passes along a .pdf or other pirated file to fellow students rather than individual students being enterprising enough to go out hunting for their own files.

Most will know of or have heard about websites like PirateBay, but there are a variety of lesser-known torrent sites which are typically hosted in foreign countries which extend beyond the reach of the United States Copyright law enforcement.  Increasingly, mega-pirate websites in the vein of the now-defunct Library.nu (or previously Gigapedia) or the slowly dying empire of Library Genesis are hiding all over the web and become quick and easy clearing houses for pirated copies of ebooks, typically in .pdf or .djvu formats, though many are in .epub, .mobi, .azw, or alternate e-book formats. The typical set up for these sites is one or more illegal file repositories for allowing downloads with one (or more) primary hubs that don’t necessarily store the pirated materials, but instead serve as a searchable hub which points to the files.

Creative advanced searches for book authors, titles, ISBNs along with the words .pdf, .djvu, torrent, etc. can often reveal portions of this dark web.  Naturally, caveat emptor applies heavily to these types of sites as often files can be corrupted or contain viruses to unwary or unwitting thieves.  Many of these sites may attempt to extract a small token monthly fee as a subscription or will rely heavily on serving banner advertising to help to offset large web hosting and traffic fees associated with their maintenance, though it is posited that many of them make in the millions of dollars in profit annually due to advertising arrangements, though this is incredibly hard to validate given the nature of these types of markets and how they operate.

Rather than stoop as low as finding textbooks on the black market this way, students should place pressure on their professors, the faculty of their departments, and their colleges or universities to help assist in smoothing out some of the pricing inequities in the system (see below). In the long run, this will not only tend to help them, but many future generations of students who will be left adrift in the market otherwise.

Long Term Solution(s) to Improving the Textbook Market

The biggest primary issue facing the overpriced textbook market is that the end consumers of the textbooks aren’t really firmly in charge of the decision of which textbook to purchase. This is why I advocate that students research and decide by themselves which textbook they’re going to use and whether or not they really need to make that purchase.  Instead, individual professors or the departments for which they work are dictating the textbooks that will be purchased.  The game theory dynamics behind this small decision are the massive fulcrum which allows the publishing industry to dictate their own terms.  Students (and parents) should, in a sense, unionize and make their voices heard not only to the professors, but to the departments and even the colleges/universities which they’re attending.  If universities took a strong stance on how the markets worked, either for or against them and their students, they could create strong market-moving forces to drastically decrease the cost of textbooks.

The other larger issue is that market forces aren’t allowed to play out naturally in the college textbook market. Publishers lean on professors and departments to “adopt” overpriced textbooks. These departments in turn “require” these texts and students aren’t questioning enough to use other texts for fear of not succeeding in courses. If the system were questioned, they’d realize that instead of their $200-300 textbook, they could easily purchase alternate, equivalent, and often even better textbooks for $20-50. To put things into perspective, the time, effort, energy, and production cost for the typical book isn’t drastically different than the average textbook, yet we’re not paying $250 for a copy of the average new hardcover on the best seller list. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that universities, departments, and professors are colluding with publishers, but they’re certainly not helping to make the system better.

I’ve always taken the view that the ‘required’ textbook was really just a ‘suggestion’. (Have you ever known a professor to fail a student for not purchasing the ‘required’ textbook?!)

In past generations, one of the first jobs of a student was to select their own textbook. Reverting back to this paradigm may help to drastically change the economics of the situation. For the interested students, I’ve written a bit about the philosophy and mechanics here: On Choosing Your Own Textbooks.

Basic economics 101 theory of supply and demand would typically indicate to us that basic textbooks for subjects like calculus, intro physics, or chemistry that are used by very large numbers of students should be not only numerous, but also very cheap, while more specialized books like Lie Groups and Lie Algebras or Electromagnetic Theory should be less numerous and also more expensive.  Unfortunately and remarkably, the most popular calculus textbooks are 2-5 times more expensive than their advanced abstract mathematical brethren and similarly for introductory physics texts versus EM theory books.

To drastically cut down on these market inequities, when possible, Colleges and Universities should:

  • Heavily discourage “edition creep” or “edition churning” when there really aren’t major changes to textbooks. In an online and connected society, it’s easy enough to add supplemental errata or small amounts of supplemental material by means of the web.
  • Quit making institution-specific readers and sub-editions of books for a specific department
  • If they’re going to make departmental level textbook choices, they should shoulder the burden of purchasing all the textbooks in quantity (and taking quantity discounts).  I’ll note here, that students shouldn’t encourage institutions to bundle the price of textbooks into their tuition as then there is a “dark curtain,” which allows institutions to take the drastic mark-ups for themselves instead of allowing the publishers to take it or passing it along to their students. Cross-reference Benjamin Ginsberg’s article Administrators Ate My Tuition or his much longer text The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Discourage the use of unpopularly used textbooks written by their own faculty. Perhaps a market share of 5-10% or more should be required for a common textbook to be usable by a department, and, until that point, the professor should compete aggressively to build market share? This may help encourage professors to write new original texts instead of producing yet-another-introductory-calculus-textbook that no one needs.
  • Discourage packaged electronic supplemental materials, which
    • are rarely used by students,
    • could be supplied online for free as a supplement,
    • and often double or triple the price of a textbook package.
  • Strongly encourage professors to supply larger lists of relatively equivalent books and encourage their students to make their purchase choices individually.
  • Consider barring textbook sales on campus and relying on the larger competitive market to supply textbooks to students.

Calibre: E-book and Document Management Made Simple

As an added bonus, for those with rather large (or rapidly growing) e-book collections, I highly recommend downloading and using the free Calibre Library software. For my 2000+ e-books and documents, this is an indispensable program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality. It works on all major OSes and is compatible with almost every e-reader on the planet.  Additionally, plug-ins and a myriad of settings allow for additional extensibility for integration with other e-book software and web services (for example: integration with GoodReads or the ability to add additional data and meta-data to one’s books.)

 Further Reading

Be sure to read through the commentary on some of these posts for some additional great information.

What other textbook purchasing services and advice can you offer the market?

I invite everyone to include their comments and advice below as I’m sure I haven’t covered the topic completely or there are bound to be new players in the space increasing competition as time goes by.

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César Hidalgo on Why Information Grows | The RSA

I’ve just recently finished the excellent book Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo. I hope to post a reasonable review soon, but the ideas in it are truly excellent and fit into a thesis I’ve been working on for a while. For those interested, he does a reasonable synopsis of some of his thought in the talk he gave the the RSA recently, the video can be found below.

The underlying mathematics of what he’s discussing are fantastic (though he doesn’t go into them in his book), but the overarching implications of his ideas with relation to the future of humankind as a function of our economic system and society could have some significant impact.

“César visits the RSA to present a new view of the relationship between individual and collective knowledge, linking information theory, economics and biology to explain the deep evolution of social and economic systems.

In a radical rethink of what an economy is, one of WIRED magazine’s 50 People Who Could Change the World, César Hidalgo argues that it is the measure of a nation’s cultural complexity – the nexus of people, ideas and invention – rather than its GDP or per-capita income, that explains the success or failure of its economic performance. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order itself.”

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