Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Twelve Tomes of Christmas

It being December, it will come as no surprise that I have been reading the usual array of Christmas books. Herewith the brief reviews:

1. Dickens, A Christmas Carol. I have read this every single year for I do not know how many years (20?). I love it. This year, following up on the Wind and the Willows experiment, I read it a chapter a night. The book is still amazing, but it is much better to read it all in one night. If you have never read it, then you simply must do so at the first available opportunity.

2. Babes in Toyland. After reading my maudlin tale of this movie, Aimee (who for reasons heretofore unexplained comments on this blog using her son Noah's blogger account) and her family tracked down a copy of the book. I was stunned; it was exactly the same book I had when I was a kid--I haven't seen those pictures for over 30 years, yet as soon as I opened the book, I recognized them. After rereading the book, it is no wonder I wanted to see the movie so much as a kid--it had everything an 8 year old boy would love---maps and mother goose characters and villains and talking trees and toys and soldiers and a big battle. Thanks Gould Family!

3. Wojciechowski, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. A relatively new entry into the Christmas book canon, but a worthy addition. Great illustrations and a wonderful story.

4. The Gospel of Matthew, chapters 1-2. A relatively old entry into the Christmas book canon. The wise men story is the highlight. And Herod is a magnificent villain--the slaughter of the innocents is a part of the Christmas story which really should be more regularly included--it adds much to the amazing fact of the birth and survival of the hero of the story.

5. The Gospel of Luke, chapters 1-2. The best of all the Christmas books. The Magnificat is amazing and nothing can beat the story of the Joseph and Mary and the inn and the manger and the shepherds. This (and Matthew too) are best read in the King James Version at Christmas.

6. The Gospel of John, chapter 1. A nice bit of poetic prose which marvelously puts the point of the previous two books (and, really the whole point of Christmas) into cosmic perspective.

7. Schultze, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The book version of the TV special. When Linus walks out on stage and relates the story of the shepherds, it is always a shock to realize this was made for commercial television. When was the last time a commercial television Christmas special for kids quoted Scripture? The TV show is better than the book.

8. Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. A funny story with a rather nice ending; it is easy to forget the power of the Christmas story when one has heard it so often.

9. Johnson, The Candle in the Window. OK, but not great. The whole story is far too predictable and Gunther is seriously schizophrenic is the story.

10. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A classic.

11. Favorite Christmas Poems. I just bought this book this year. It is a really nice collection of classic poetry relating to Christmas. As of now, it is a yearly staple.

12. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi." Well, it's not really a book. But, a) it is not included in the previously listed book, presumably for copyright reasons and b) it is my favorite Christmas poem.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Exit Sandman

In The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman returns to tell seven more tales of the Endless. This volume was published 7 years after he wrapped up the Sandman series. I suspect that if one had been reading The Sandman when it was first being published, the return to this world would have been charming. I just read the series this last summer though, and the present volume was...OK. A few of the stories were good, but not great. A few of them were rather tired. I think this is a case of "You Can't Go Home Again, so leave well enough alone." (Hello Hollywood sequel...)

The goal of the book was to have a tale for each one of the Endless, and the tales really do feel different as the character in question changes. Delirium works the best in this way, but that is part of the problem; while the tale certainly feels like a state of Delirium, that doesn't make it the most interesting thing to read. The Despair chapter was a nice try, but in the attempt to paint 15 portraits of Despair only some of them worked. Dream had the best tale, and the Destruction tale was OK. Death and Desire both aim at the 18+ age group and are tedious. Destiny wraps it all up in a short bit which isn't exactly a story and doesn't seem to say much that isn't obvious.

All in all, skip it until a decade after you finish the 10 volume Sandman series.

[As some will know, the blog title is a reference to one of the three good Metallica songs. Why Metallica, whose members obviously have some talent, is not able to consistently produce better music is beyond me. ("No Leaf Clover" and "On the Road Again" is the answer to "What are the other two?" Emma and I have tried to rank those three songs; her ranking is consistent, mine varies by mood.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Did I Like it? Left Hand

I recently finished Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The book was highly and repeatedly recommend to me by one of my former Western Civ Students, who, I will note is eagerly awaiting this blog review of this book. (Side note (and what constitutes a side note in a blog that is nothing but side notes?); what are the ethics of mentioning former and current students by name in a blog post? Is it improper to mention students by name? Is it improper to always refer to everyone in vague terms like "former student"? Would the typical student be glad to be mentioned by name in a professor's blog of seemingly random musings or would said student feel some norm of professional etiquette has been breached to be mentioned by name? Miss Manners is oddly silent on this point.)

The book review: A rather clever and nicely paced book which makes for an enjoyable read after the end of a semester. Foer does the whole "Let's break the traditional norms of a novel by including all sorts of pictures and different page formatting" bit quite well. The oddities do not feel forced, but rather are a natural part of the novel itself. The story was a bit too cute to elevate the book into potential Great Books level--a lofty standard of excellence to be sure--and the plot twists were not all that shocking. There are three narrators in the book, and Foer does a nice job of giving them distinctive voices, in part by formatting the narratives quite differently. There are all sorts of literary touches which may or may not be significant--e.g., one of the narrators has a set of pictures of doorknobs interspersed with the narration--it is not clear to me whether this is merely meant to be quaint and charming or has some hidden deeper meaning. (The same is true of the reference in the title of this post.) That's the problem with a book like this--I enjoyed it, I would recommend it to others looking for a nice read on a plane, but I have no idea if the book merits serious attention to detail.

Anyway, thanks for the recommendation, Maggie.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Vagaries of Fortune

Until now, I have never once given Fortune Cookies a second thought.

Last night I was out with Lily on our annual Dinner and Christmas Shopping Expedition. (I take each of the kids out individually every year. (And, yes, I take Janet out too. (Christmas is the only time of year I enjoy shopping.))) As part of our yearly ritual, Lily chose the restaurant. She wanted Japanese food so she picked the Teapot. Now the Teapot is one of those old-style Fusion restaurants where they combine cuisines not by interesting combinations of ingredients, but by having two sections on the menu (Chinese and Japanese). We, as was noted, had Japanese food. Good dinner, good company (Lily is always fun). At the end of our meal, they brought us fortune cookies; not Japanese Fortune Cookies, but Chinese ones. I suppose I should have had culture shock, but I didn't. I opened my cookie to reveal my fortune. My jaw dropped; my heart stopped. Well, OK neither of those happened, but they could have, though if the latter had happened, I suppose I wouldn't be writing this now. (Which, come to think of it presents an interesting puzzle: Is there blogging in Heaven? But, I digress.)

My fortune (to return to the point) read in its entirety, with line break preserved:

Force equals too much effort equals
too little being equals enough.
I am seriously undecided: should I forget the whole thing or spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what that means?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I read this on the recommendation of one of my former Western Civ students--she said that it seemed like the kind of book a Western Civ aficionado would like. It isn't hard to see why she said this--the chapter titles alone are great: the First chapter is "Othello, William Shakespeare;" the last chapter is "Metamorphoses, Ovid." And every chapter in between is titled with the name of a famous book (or at least presumably famous--one book I have never heard of and one book is a fictional book written by one of the characters in the novel).

The story is a standard bildungsroman of a high school girl. The girl, named Blue, is, to put it mildly, bookish. The book is written in first person. I believe this book may have the highest number of book references per page of any novel ever written (and at least some of those references are to real books--I have no idea how many of the scholarly tomes referenced are real). And thus, for someone who is probably over-obsessed with books (Hi, my name is [fill in the blank] and I am a bookoholic") the book does have an immediate charm.

The story itself was fine--it took me until about page 300 to start caring what would happen in the story, but the last 200 pages were interesting. The book ends with what is meant to be a series of shocking plot developments, but after the first big surprise, the rest were not all that surprising. (And, this isn't a mystery novel in which one looks for clues to solve the big surprise before it comes--there is no way to decipher it before the fact.) Even still the last 200 pages are clever.

On the whole, I liked it and I am glad I read it. That being said, I doubt I would rush out to buy Pessl's next novel (assuming there will be a next novel).

And the book has absolutely nothing to do with Physics.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

As I Lay Living

I recently reread As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for my tutorial (the last book of the semester). I first read this book back in grad school--it was the first Faulkner book I ever read. Not only did I really enjoy it then and now, I think it is probably the best choice for someone who has never read Faulkner and wants to see what he is like. It isn't all that long, has the Faulknerian touches of not explaining what is going on until much later in the book and a prose style that is rather unique. (Cormac McCarthy is the only other author who even remotely reminds me of Faulkner.)

As I Lay Dying also has one of the best chapters in all of literature:
"My mother is a fish."
[That is not the title of the chapter--that is the chapter.

In addition to a rather memorable cast of characters and plot developments, the book is an interesting meditation on life--what does it mean to be alive? There is a chapter in which Addie speaks after she is long dead--it is probably a flashback to when she was alive, but in the chapter she talks about how Anse is already dead and he doesn't know it, when Anse is most obviously alive. Darl tries to figure out if he exists. Varadman thinks Addie is alive when she isn't. Dewey Dell--similar issues (but that is a spoiler). Now, this isn't a zombie book or anything--these are real people and only Addie is really dead. But, when we say someone is alive now, what do we mean? Are they also alive in the past? Do I exist only now or also in the past? Does the person who is writing this still exist when it is done being written? Where and when does that person exist? Do the past me and the present me and the future me all exist simultaneously or only one at a time?

All this also has a nice relation to Augustine's meditation on Living and Dying: What is the opposite of Living? Dying? If one is living, one is alive. If one is dying, one is...alive. So the state of living is exactly the same as the state of dying. (We are all dying with a little patience?) So how do you move from Life to Death?

At any rate, the book is still quite enjoyable even if you don't want to follow Darl into madness by thinking too much on these things.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Babes in Toyland

When I was quite young, I had a book. (Well, truth be told, I had more than one book, but this tale is just about one of those books.) I don't remember the title of this book, nor do I remember most of the contents of this book. I do remember that I liked this book. I assume it had pictures as well as words. It might have been a collection of Disney Stories. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck both have some sort of harmonic convergence with my memories of the book, but that may just be Projection. There is just one thing related to this book about which I have an actual vivid memory. At the end of the book, there was the story of Babes in Toyland. That story had pictures from the movie Babes in Toyland. The pictures were neat. There were real people and toy soldiers. I do not know whether I ever read the story accompanying those pictures, but I do remember the pictures. [Now, I can't form a mental pictures of the images from the book--I seem to completely lack the ability to form mental pictures--I discovered a few years back that this is an oddity--I really cannot close my eyes and bring a sharp picture to mind. But, my mental deficiencies are not the subject of this post--so, I'll save that for another day.]

Because of this book, I really wanted to see the movie Babes in Toyland. But, I grew up in the pre-VCR days. So, I never saw it. When VCRs became all the rage, one went to these video stores to rent VCR tapes. I never found the movie at one of them. When Netflix entered my life, I looked for the movie. It was not out on DVD.

Until now.

Last night, I sat down with Clara (and truth be told, Lily--but Lily left after 10 minutes--Lily almost never watches movies--I think she lacks the attention span to watch a 2 hour movie--she would rather be on Facebook (sigh)) to watch Babes in Toyland.

I had no idea what to expect from the movie. It turns out it is a standard Disney movie--think Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I have always had a soft spot for that genre of Disney movies--they are charming in a sort of desultory way and the randomness and cuteness of it all amuses me a bit. The big take away moral of the movie? I don't are good? The way to a woman's heart is not killing off her fiance and stealing her sheep? You can return from the Forest of No Return? Vital lessons to be sure, but even still.

Clara's evaluation of the movie: "It was weird." She didn't like it too much. That fact interested me. I suspect with two changes she would have loved it: 1) The main characters were of the type "Beautiful People in 1960." So change 1 is: Switch that to "Beautiful People of 2009"--get Zach Efron and Selena Gomez as the leads. (Similar changes would have to be made with the other characters.) 2) The special effects were state of the art Disney Special Effects of 1960. So change 2 is: make that LucasArts special effects of 2009. Keep everything else the same, and I'll bet Clara loves the movie.

In the end, I would highly recommend the movie to anyone who had that same book I had when I was a kid and has also been wanting to see this movie for over three decades.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RMV woes

Last night, I was at Home Depot with Janet buying a door for the new greenhouse. In order to get it home, we ended up needing to rent the Home Depot pickup truck--not a big deal. I went to get it and was told that there was a problem. My Driver's License had expired on my birthday. I had no idea. It turns out that our current Governor has decided to stop telling people when their Driver's Licenses are about to expire, so you actually have to look at your license periodically to figure out when you need to renew. So, Janet got to drive the big pickup truck--she wasn't thrilled.

When I got home, I went on-line to renew my license. It turns out if your picture is over nine years old, you can't renew online.

So, this morning, I had to go the RMV. It opens at 9. I got there at 8:45. There was already a line.

But, it an amazing turn of events, the way the RMV now works is that when they open the door, you go in, pick up the form to get whatever you need, fill out the form and then get a number to see a person who will help you out. If you fill out the form faster, you get in the second line faster. I filled out my form very quickly, completing just enough so that it looked completed, got my number and then looked to see if I had checked all the relevant boxes--sometimes being an economist is good because I am always looking for the production function and then maximizing. I was out of there by 9:15 with my new temporary license in hand.

But, here is the puzzle for the day--in an e-mail age, it would cost almost nothing to set up a reminder system which automatically notified you when your license was about to expire. And, lo and behold, there is such a reminder service. But, the Powers that Be don't seem to have told anyone about it. And, when I signed up for my license renewal, there was nowhere to put my e-mail address to sign up for this service. You have to go to the RMV site, and then look down the long list of options to see that there is, in fact, an automatic reminder service. So, what is the point of having such a service but not automatically signing people up for it?

The moral: Governments are not the most efficient organizations in the world. Shocking, I know.

But, then again, if we just have the Audacity to Hope that the government will do things better, then, by golly, they surely will. Can we do it? Yes, We Can.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


The fashion to add the suffix -gate to everything to indicate a scandal has really worn out its welcome, but I think we are stuck with it. The most interesting thing about the whole set of e-mails from Climatologists in which it is obvious that they have been manipulating data and the public debate is that everyone is acting so surprised--it is a Casablanca moment--I'm Shocked! Shocked!

Anyone who has paid attention already knew this was happening. I once was in a forum with local professors on this topic in which one of them said, "You have to present the global warming disaster scenario because that is the way to get grants"--and the person saying that thought this was a good thing rather than a bad thing. (For more on this, see this nice article.)

Meanwhile in actual scientific news, the Science of Climate Change is as uncertain as always. Of course nobody ever believes an economist when he talks about it--what do you know?--but in this case I actually do know something. I have spent a lot of time thinking about modeling. Climate models are just like economic models. And Climate models are not very good models.

But, you don't have to take my word for it.
Here is a really nice article on the actual science of climate change by an MIT meteorologist.

By the way, the clever change from talking about "Global Warming" to Talking about "Climate Change" was an implicit acknowledgment that the world hasn't actually become any warmer in the last decade. But the climate changes every day, so that is a great new catch phrase because the evidence of climate change will be obvious tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

I have always had a certain fondness for Thanksgiving. I was born on Thanksgiving. So, I always tell my kids that the whole nation is gathering to give thanks for me. My kids seem to think this is a bit egocentric.

For what am I thankful? That question is hard to answer--does one list the things for which one is truly thankful, but which don't change from year to year, or does one give the list of things for which one is thankful only in this particular year? Those are quite different lists, with the former being the more important and the latter being the more idiosyncratic.

The things for which I am really thankful:

1. Jesus Christ. Once one realizes that debt, it is hard to list anything else as second because the gap between 1 and 2 is necessarily immense.

2. Janet. I honestly don't think I would be a functioning member of society without her. She has been my best friend for over a quarter century now--in fact, she has been such a friend to me that I have never really felt any strong need for other friendships. She is an amazing wife and mother, truly the most wonderful person I have ever known.

3. Emma, Lily and Clara. All three of them make me smile. Yeah, they test my patience at times, but that is what kids are supposed to do, after all. I really hope they know deep down inside that I love them an immense amount and I only want what is best for them.

4. The United States of America. The greatest country on Earth. Period.

5. Stony Brook Community Church. The best extended family one can imagine.

6. Mount Holyoke College. Not only did Mount Holyoke hire me, thereby providing an income (which is something naturally thank-inducing), but I have met so many fascinating students there. All those conversations in my office and over lunch and on Skinner Green and in classrooms and lounges around campus have never ceased to teach me and amuse me. I don't think many of my students have ever known how much I appreciate the fact that they talk to me about the most interesting and random things imaginable.

That list never changes.

I meant to move to the list of things I am grateful for this year, but they all seem so trivial compared to the list above.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Life is too short to drink bad coffee

At long last, my life has now adapted to my motto in the title of this post. The Economics department has rather bad coffee--not instant coffee bad, but still it isn't good at all. For 16 years, I have been drinking it because it is there and bad coffee is better than no coffee and having a coffee pot of my own in my office is messy and a hassle. But, today, my wonderful family gave me one of the Keurig single serve coffee makers as a birthday gift. (Yes, as the Reader has cleverly deduced, today is my birthday (and, yes, as the Reader has also deduced, I am old, but I was old yesterday too, so that fact hasn't really actually changed all that much (yes, for the pedantically inclined, it has changed by exactly a day, which in some cases is a non-negligible unit of time, but in the present case, we may take it as approximating zero)).) So, tomorrow, my work habitat will have good coffee. Life is good.

And, yes, I did get my annual new shirt from my mother and father in law--if they didn't give me a new shirt every year, I would be living my Thoreauvian ideal of having just one shirt which I would wear every day. Those of you who are glad that I own more than one long-sleeved collared shirt may thank my in-laws.

My mother sent me a new Raiders T-shirt and Raiders Calendar. My mother is well acquainted with my love, deep, deep love, for the Raiders.

Janet made Indian food for dinner. Emma and I watched another episode of Twin Peaks--we are getting near the end, but I am not sure if she knows the show ends with Season 2--and I suspect she isn't going to be very happy with the way the show ends--but, I will be amused at her reaction.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The State of First Things December 2009

Next in a continuing series documenting the state of First Things

1. Well worth Reading

1. Mary Eberstadt, How Pedophilia Lost Its Cool
Pedophilia had begun to gain some respect on the Left a few years back (Eberstadt gives the examples of New Republic, Vanity Fair, Nation (of course), and the American Psychological Association's, Psychological Bulletin). Suddenly, however, the Left has stopped defending pedophiles. The cause of the change? The Catholic Church Scandal. Faced with a chance to bash the Catholic Church, the Left discovered that pedophilia is bad, really bad. Welcome to the rediscovery of morality on the Left.

2. Wesley Smith, Pulling the Plug on the Conscience Clause
A very nice account of the continuing advance of the Culture of Death. Can a doctor refuse to perform an abortion? Can a pharmacist refuse to provide drugs designed to cause an abortion? Can a doctor refuse to euthanize a patient who requests it? Depressingly, many say no.

3. John Sutherland's review of Nabokov's The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)
The Nabokov book isn't really a novel; it is a set of notecards which were the start of a novel. The notecards have now been published and there is enough of them to figure out the rough storyline. In other words, the book sounds like a mess. Sutherland's review did nothing to convince me to want to look at the book, but it did convince me that there is a good reason for the book to exist. It also has some nice reflections on the idea of publishing a manuscript against the will of the author (Nabokov wanted the thing destroyed when he died) and the way Nabokov worked in thinking about crafting a novel.

2. Flawed, but worth the time

1. Thomas Berg's review of Gilbert Meilander's Neither Best nor God
The review wasn't that interesting, but it started with an interesting question that Berg has posed to the other members of the Empire State Stem Cell Board. Is there anything that you would say should never be allowed to be done with a human embryo? "One colleague conceded he would not want them served in an upscale restaurant as a kind of caviar; another, that she would not want them used for cleaning floors or for powering cars." The interesting question, which Berg does not discuss (he is reviewing a book after all) is what is really wrong with those sorts of uses for a human embryo? If a human embryo is a human, then I get it, but then of course killing them is wrong for any reason. But if the human embryo isn't human, what is wrong with eating them or using them in a cleaning fluid?

2. Julie Stoner's poem "Advent Carol" is clever and funny and decent poetry.

3. Jody Bottom's end of magazine column was also good.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New QB, New Result

Raiders 20 Bengals 17! The Raiders bench Russell, start Gradkowski--yeah, that Gradkowski--and what do you know, the Raiders win. Life is good, very good.

The Raiders next play on Thanksgiving. It is times like this that it is not very fun being the only football fan in the extended family. Janet offered to rearrange Thanksgiving Day so I could watch the game, but I felt too guilty to take her up on the offer. So, I'll record it and watch it after everyone has gone to bed. Hopefully, my joy-filled screaming at the Raiders new-found winning ways will be so loud that everyone wakes up from their slumber.

I am ridiculously optimistic about the game this Thursday against Dallas. I think this is called Irrational Exuberance.

In other football news, the Sunday night game between Philly and Chicago is painful--the Raiders could beat either one of these teams--come to think of it, they already beat one of them.

At least I wrote two midterm exams during football games today. Tomorrow, I have to give both exams--it makes for an odd day--two classes, no lectures. And, since it is Thanksgiving week, that means I have no lectures all week. But, I do have a lot of grading to do on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Speaking of Sunday Night football, Chris Collinsworth is really, really good. I never would have imagined that Madden would be so ably replaced. The MNF crew this year is finally good again--getting rid of the resident joker and replacing him with Gruden was a great move--finally ESPN/ABC realized that people who watch MNF want to watch football.

I love football--why doesn't anyone else in my family love football? Seriously. I have three kids--why couldn't I get any of them addicted to watching football with me? Janet used to watch football with me every Sunday before we were married. I think there is an explanation of such phenomena in the literature on dating.

But, the Raiders won, so right now, everything is good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

No Plot, No Character, No Problem

I recently finished 'Noh' or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound. It is, as the title suggests, a treatise on the Noh Plays, complete with numerous scripts for such plays.

I knew quite little about Noh plays before reading this book. "Quite Little" means: I had heard the word "Noh" before and I knew Noh plays were Japanese.

The conclusion after reading a book about Noh plays: to put it mildly, Noh plays are horrible. Even the best of them are barely worth reading.

But, the Noh play is supposed to be more than just a written play--it is a combination of play and music and dance--and of those the dance is far an away the most important. In other words, what I am reading is a book about a form of dance but the bulk of the book is not about the dance at all, but rather some "plots" of a dance in which the words are in translation, and so the music and visual aspects of the whole Noh experience is completely absent. Is it any wonder the scripts are terrible?

Two interesting notes from the book.

1. "But in Noh everything comes down by tradition from early Tokugawa days and cannot be judged by any living man, but can only be followed faithfully." That is a genuinely interesting idea--what if there was an art form that literally nobody on earth found meritorious--is it sill art simply because someone in the past thought it was Art? Is it worth watching today?

2. "Our own art is so much an act of emphasis, and even of over-emphasis, that it is difficult to consider the possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art, an art where the author trusts so implicitly that his audience will know what things are profound and important." I suppose if that is true, it is no wonder that I have a hard time appreciating the Noh play.

I did YouTube "Noh" and saw some clips which I can only hope were horrible amateur imitations of a genuine art form.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Welcome to Gopher Prairie

The report on the next installment of my tutorial's tour of the Gilded Age: Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. Before now, I had only read one of Lewis' books; Babbitt is an interesting portrayal of a type of middle manager from the early 20th century. Mencken uses the term Babbitt to refer to that entire class of people frequently in his writings, so I read the novel back when I discovered Mencken.

Main Street came right before Babbitt; same general idea, different class of people. This novel mocks either 1) small town America or 2) those who want to reform Small Town America to make it more sophisticated. Or maybe it is mocking both. It is hard to tell.

It's an odd book; I would have said that it was terribly tedious--nearly 500 pages of Carol, our protagonist, alternating between whining about how small-minded the citizens of Gopher Prairie are and deciding to enjoy life in the town--but interestingly, Main Street was a best-seller in its day. So, obviously, at the time people thought it was great reading. Why? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect it appealed to the Eastern Elite of the day as a vehicle for confirming their prejudices about how terrible life was in Middle America. Read that way, it is a mocking satire on small-town life. On the other hand, Carol was a horrible bore; perhaps I have too much sympathy for the fine citizens of Gopher Prairie--despite the fact that I have a hard time imagining being friends with anyone who lives in the town.

The most fascinating thing from the tutorial discussion was that nobody in the room had much patience for Gopher Prairie; everyone seemed to think the people in the town were rather small-minded and dull. But, the last book we read was The Age of Innocence, and nobody thought the members of the New York Aristocracy about whom that book revolved were small minded or dull. Yet, it is very hard to figure out any difference between the New York Aristocracy and the Gopher Prairie yokels except that former are richer and dress in more glamorous clothing. Elitism runs deep.

On the whole, I think Babbitt is the better book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Economics in the Morning

I gave a talk at the South Hadley Chamber of Commerce's annual economic forum this morning. It was a breakfast meeting in which they asked a financial planner and me to talk for 15 minutes or so and then we took questions. The topic was the State of the Economy. Here is my take:

We are recovering from a textbook recession. Despite all the fear and angst a year ago, this is not the Great Depression and the world did not end. GDP fell, and now it is rising. The people who are doubting that the recession is over note that things are still bad; but that is the point--the recession ends and growth starts by definition at the lowest point. The recovery will take some time--nobody is sure how long.

There are many things going on that are interesting, but there are two which particularly intrigue me. First, the lack of a financial regulation bill. When I spoke at this event last year, I noted that we could be certain that there would be a new set of financial regulations in 2009. I was wrong. Washington has been obsessed first with the Stimulus Bill and then with the health care bill, so this rather important bit of legislation has not been discussed at all. The lack of action on a new regulatory bill is certainly slowing down the recovery of the financial markets--financial firms have no way of knowing what sort of activities will be prohibited or encouraged in future regulation.

The second intriguing thing is the possible inflation in the future. The Fed has increased the monetary base (essentially bank reserves) by a substantial amount. In normal times this would lead to a very rapid increase the money supply and thus a high inflation rate. At present banks are hoarding reserves, largely because they are still nervous about the financial and regulatory climate. The Fed is promising to act before the money supply has a chance to go up. This sounds nice--and this is certainly possible to do on a chalkboard. But, no country in the history of the world has ever done what the Fed is pledging to do. So, either they will pull off the greatest act of monetary management we have ever seen or we are going to see double digit inflation at some point in the next few years.

The questions ranged all over; the comment I made that seemed to arouse the most opposition is that there is nothing in this recession that is fundamentally different than what we have seen before. I have seen this before--many people really want to believe that this recession or the reaction to it are completely without precedent. I have no idea why people want to believe in the novelty of the economic events of the last two years.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Update Again

While straight cut and paste still isn't working, a web search indicates this may just be an intermittent problem with blogger--so maybe, just maybe, Windows 7 is off the hook on this one. In any event, I can cut and paste into the hyperlink box on blogger and thus, you can now directly go to the aforementioned (please refer to the aforementioned explanation of the use of this word in blog postings) video clip.

This leaves only the printer problem, which past experience suggests may not be the sort of problem best tackled at 12:30 AM, and the antivirus problem which fairness compels me to acknowledge is due in part to Windows 7, in part to Dell, and in part to my own failure to anticipate that this could be a problem. On the other hand, the antivirus problem is probably fixable with 4 hours of my time or certainly fixable by spending $40.

Pity the poor Mac users who don't get the thrill of fixing all these problems.


The aforementioned (which given the ordering of the posts on a blog, the aforementioned actually follows this, thus the "afore" is temporal, not spatial) problem of Word not working in Windows 7 has been remedied with the help of the handy Microsoft Office Diagnostics tool, buried in the list of programs I did not know I owned.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Winders VII

I do believe Mr Squeers designed the new Windows 7.

I installed it today. The upside--it does seem faster and simpler than Vista. That's good. The bad side? In order to install it, I had to uninstall the virus protection program, so now I have to buy a new one of those. And, I just noticed that Microsoft Word isn't working--that would be a Microsoft program showing incompatibility problems with Windows. Go figure. The printer is also not working, but I probably just have to reinstall the printer drivers. Cutting and pasting into this blog entry also doesn't seem to work. New computers are such marvelous fun, no?

Cue the Mac Vs PC ad, Broken Promises: I'd link to it, but, well, I can't cut and paste the link.

Of course I still think Macs are for wimpy people who can't handle problems...

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Wired World

Last year I received a free subscription to Wired magazine after buying something on Amazon (I forget what). I knew little about Wired, other than that it had technology articles; I'd never even seen a copy of it, but there is little reason to refuse a free subscription. I got my first issue earlier in the year, and after reading it a) I enjoyed it and b) I had no idea what connected all the articles--a seemingly rather bizarre set of topics--some of the articles were about new technology, but most of them were not. The next month I again read straight through the issue--same seemingly random set of articles. The weird thing was I enjoyed reading almost everything in the magazine--and it was not immediately obvious why I would enjoy a randomly selected set of articles. It took me a few issues to figure out the theme: Wired is a magazine for Geeks.

My free subscription is expiring. It costs $8 to renew for another year. I didn't hesitate to renew. I really like Wired.

So, if you are looking for a great Christmas gift for a Geek in your life: $8. Done.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fascist Poetry

Of late, I have been reading Ezra Pound's poetry. The Library of America has done its usual masterful job in putting together a collection which allows one to read widely in a particular poet. I have never been able to figure out if I like Pound or not. On the one hand, his volume of translations of Chinese poems, Cathay, is one of the best books of poetry ever. On the other hand, the Cantos are a mess. The rest of his poetry lies all along that spectrum. In the last week, I have been perusing a couple of his books.

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a long poem (or maybe two) in parts. Its a very mixed bag. It starts off marvelously well--from "II":

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

But, the poems soon descend into Canto-like obscure references--popular with the crossword puzzle crowd, no doubt.

More intriguing is Alfred Venison's Poems, a series by Pound pretending to be an uneducated everyman. An example:

The pomps of butchery, financial power,
Told 'em to die in war, and then to save,
Then cut their saving to the half or lower;
When will this system lie down in its grave?

The pomps of Fleet St., festering year on year,
Hid truth and lied, and lied and hid the facts.
The pimps of Whitehall ever more in fear,
Hid health statistics, dodged the Labour Acts.

All drew their pay, and as the pay grew less,
The money rotten and more rotten yet,
Hid more statistics, more feared to confess
C.3, C.4, 'twere better to forget.

How many weak of mind, how much tuberculosis
Filled the back alleys and the back to back houses.
"The medical report this week discloses..."
"Time for that question!" Front Bench interposes.

Time for that question? and the time is NOW.
Who ate the profits, and who locked 'em in
The unsafe safe, wherein all rots, and no man can say how
What was the nation's, now by Norman's kin
Is one day blown up large, the next, sucked in?

That poem, and the rest in this volume are clever; many of the poems in the volume are redone classics (Half a loaf, half a loaf,/Half a loaf? Um-hum?" begins "The Charge of the Bread Brigade.") But, here is the thing that really intrigues me: if I were to hand these poems to the average Socialist/Communist/Marxist of my acquaintance, they would find nothing in the content to which they would object--the poem's content is all much like that above. But, then ask that same person if they like Fascist Poetry, and they would vehemently assert they are not a fascist. Now, Pound was, if nothing else, a Fascist--and a rather nasty Fascist at that. (He worked for the Italians in broadcasting anti-American propaganda in WWII--he may or may not have been insane when he did that.)

So, what does one do when faced with a poem of solid literary merit and obnoxious political ideals? Is Fascist Poetry (or Marxist Poetry, which is, of course, roughly the same thing), inherently bad? Can one separate literary merit and political intention so easily? Could there be a great poem praising the Holocaust? Then why can there be a great poem praising the underlying ideas which led to the Holocaust? I am not entirely sure how to answer that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gilded Tedium

For last week's tutorial, we read Edith Wharton's, The Age of Innocence. I have now spent close to a week trying to figure out how to review it. It's funny--not in a Wodehousian way, but in a sly, sardonic way. The three main characters all have some depth and are interesting--May, in particular, is fascinating (how naive is she?). But, and here is the thing that leaves me unable to decisively evaluate the book, the novel is another example of that huge genre: The American Gilded Age Novel. And the problem with those novels is the old "Read one, read 'em all" characteristic. Sure, The Age of Innocence has a different plot than Sister Carrie or McTeague or anything by Henry James, but nonetheless, the whole time in reading Wharton, I felt more like I was rereading the book than reading it for the first time. Now, I have never read Wharton before, and I liked her enough that I will certainly read more in the future, but nonetheless, Wharton read like James or Dreiser with a sense of humor--and come to think of it, it's the sense of humor that makes Wharton appealing--while Henry James bores me to tears with his earnest prose and plots, at least Wharton has the good sense to laugh at herself.

The interesting matter to ponder in The Age of Innocence is deciding how much we should feel bound by social conventions. The characters in the novel are all trapped by late 19th century New York Aristocratic rules. They all feel bound by them, two of them may want to break clear, but they don't and one suspects they don't because deep down, they know the importance of maintaining the social conventions. May, the third character, rather than trying to break away, uses the conventions to her advantage in rather clever fashion. Are we more or less free when we are bound by societal norms? Would we really be free if there was no society to constrain our impulses? (Cue Isaiah Berlin and the Apostle Paul.) The tutorial was mixed; one the one hand, everyone wants to be free, on the other hand, there seems to be something instinctively horrible about the idea of breaking social norms. Would you be willing to do something playful and fun (e.g., throw a sandwich across a dorm dining hall) even if there was no consequence to doing so other than social opprobrium? Why not? Would you be willing to divorce your spouse to run off with someone better if the society would frown on doing so? Is a social convention forbidding divorce a good thing? Does the pain of the spouse being left matter? Why?

Next up for the tutorial: Henry James visits the frontier.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nessun Dorma

I saw the Met's production of Puccini's Turandot yesterday; the Met has been broadcasting their Saturday productions live in HD to movie theaters around the country. I wasn't sure how it would work--is watching an opera at the Hampshire Mall movie theater really any good? Would the sound be good? The picture? The experience? The answer: it was fantastic.

I'd never seen a Met stage set before--it was about three times bigger and more lavish than I would have guessed. (An interesting aside--why have I never seen a picture of a Met production? ) The camera work was great--rather than making it seem like you are watching a movie, they make it seem like a live performance. The music was the usual Met level of amazing--I have listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, but seeing it in the movie theater was vastly superior--perhaps the movie theater has a better sound system than my car.

Turandot itself is a pretty good opera. The high point is Nessun Dorma, which is incredible. (You can hear Pavarotti sing it here and here and here.) The opera as a whole has a good emotional range--Liu is genuinely tragic and Ping, Pang and Pong are amusing. Turandot herself is a tough role--she starts out as a sadistic homicidal terror and ends up as a lovesick puppy--this is just a part of the general weakness of the plot, but then, of course, operas don't really exist for their plots.

I took my tutorial to see this on the Mount Holyoke tab. But, now, I think I am addicted. I am definitely buying tickets to see Carmen in January--I hope I can talk one of my family members into going with me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I Blog, Therefore I Am

On the one month anniversary of this blog, here is the explanation for its existence.

I started it a month ago. I have not mentioned it to anyone. I did reference it on my Facebook home page, replacing the "Book Recommendation of the Day." I don't actually use Facebook; I have a page, and I accept friend requests, but that is about it. There is no reason to assume that anyone would ever look at my Facebook page. I thought about simply starting the blog and not linking it to anything, but the I figured it might be interesting to see if anyone would find it through Facebook. Some people have found it; I have been averaging about 10 visits a day (with a low of 1 and a high of 49). I have no idea if that is one person visiting 10 times a day or ten people visiting every day or lots of people who have visited only once.

The spread of blogging has interested me. It is an oddly egocentric act to blog--not only is one posting one's thoughts in a public forum, but there is the implied assumption that somebody would actually want to read those thoughts. Why does anyone assume that others want to read their thoughts? Now obviously people do read blogs, so the egocentrism of blogging is not necessarily delusional. But, what prompts a person to decide that his thoughts are worth posting for the world to read? I don't think anyone has ever said to me, "You should really start a blog because I want to read what you think."

In some ways a blog is simply an online diary. I have never kept a diary. In some ways a blog is a forum to talk to others. My whole job involves talking to others, so I hardly need a new forum to do that. Some blogs are forums to post behind-the-scenes information. I have no such information. Some blogs are devoted to gathering interesting tidbits from the world at large. I don't spend enough time browsing the web to have blog like that--in fact, my principal source of news is the Wall Street Journal from the day before (I get in in the mail and read it with breakfast the following morning--as a result, if something happens on a Tuesday, I learn about it on Thursday morning).

So, why did I start this blog? Honestly, I am not sure; I was mostly just curious what the experience would be like. When I was last in India, our family kept a blog so that people back home would know that we were still alive and all, but that blog ended as soon as we returned to the US. This time it seems very different.

So far, I have enjoyed it. I can grouse about life and write about the books I have read. The blog, in other words, is terribly self-indulgent. Then again, I didn't really expect anyone to read the thing. When I started it, I figured I would try it for a month and decide whether it was worth the bother. I think it is.

I do hope that if I ever mention the blog to anyone, I'll have enough shame to end the whole experiment. I don't mind talking to anyone who has stumbled upon this blog about it or the content therein, but I shudder at the idea of telling anyone about it who was blessed by not knowing about it. I really do hate the idea of anyone feeling some compulsion to actually read it--as long as it is the Reader's own fault for reading this blog, I don't feel terribly guilty for the lack of anything of universal interest in the content of these musings.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Real Health Crisis

With all the discussion of a) the health crisis and b) the problems of poverty and lack of development and c) the need for giant international cooperation to solve the pressing problems of the day, why is so little attention paid to a huge public health disaster in the world today? The problem: malaria. It is deadly, widespread and could be prevented, and yet nobody seems to want to do anything about it. The invaluable Bjorn Lomborg has yet another column about it in The Wall Street Journal. As he notes, right now there are people arguing that to curtail the effects of global worming, we should make changes which will cost $40 trillion per year. (To get some perspective on that number, US GDP in 2008 was $14.5 trillion. (As an aside, this perhaps explains why some people aren't too keen on the whole End Global Warming campaign.) To stop the spread of malaria would cost, not $40 trillion per year, but $3 billion per year. (To get some perspective on that number, $3 billion is what the US federal government just spent on Cash-for-Clunkers.) The malaria problem is devastating sub-Saharan Africa, and yet it is almost impossible to find anyone who realizes malaria is a serious problem. HIV-infection rates are also a serious problem in sub-Saharan Africa, and people talk about that all the time. We don't have an easy remedy for HIV infection. We do have easy remedies to stop the spread of malaria. Why isn't that the Cause of the Day?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Japanese Sandman

I just finished The Dream Hunters, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. In it Gaiman takes an old Japanese tale and retells it replacing the King of All Night's Dreaming with the Sandman from his earlier series. (The Sandman is amazing--yes, it is a comic book, but it is as good as most of the best literature being written these days.) This story was very good and the illustrations are a fantastic addition. I have read many books with illustrations, but rarely do the illustrations help tell the story in such an effective manner. The illustrations are all watercolors, and many of them are brilliant. Gaiman's prose is as good as ever.

What I don't know, and have no real way of discovering, is whether the book would be as interesting to someone who had not read through the Sandman series. In other words, how much of the reason I enjoyed this book is because it was immediately lumped in with a series I thought was amazing? In this respect, the story here felt much like the issue of Sandman entitled "Ramadan." One note in favor of the independent quality of this book is that Gaiman also wrote a couple of other books tied into the Sandman world in which Death was the star--and those two books were terrible.

Anyway, if you liked The Sandman or if you like the idea of reading an illustrated Japanese fable, I'd recommend it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Brush with Fame

Lynn Pasquerella was just hired as the next President of MHC.

I met Lynn at the Phi Beta Kappa national meetings I attended a month ago. I talked to her for a bit after I heard she was a Mount Holyoke grad--I liked her--she seemed interesting, smart and no nonsense. Here is the funny thing--at that time she knew she was being interviewed for the job here, but I had no idea. If only I had known--I could have asked her an interesting question or two and had some inside knowledge of what she will do, but as it is, I have no more idea than anyone else who heard her speech today.

Her acceptance speech today was rather good--articulate and intellectually substantive. The emphasis on the liberal arts gives me some hope that the college will rediscover its reason for existence.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Alan Jacobs recently wrote a review of a couple of new annotated editions of The Wind in the Willows which prompted me to reread the book. I followed Jacobs' method--only one chapter per night. The book was, as Jacobs noted, utterly charming. If you haven't read it for some time, I'd highly recommend it. I'd also highly recommend the one-chapter-at-a-time rule. It is not a book to be rushed.

I must admit, though, pace Jacobs, that Toad is the best character; the model of charming conceit is terribly appealing. Perhaps this is simply a Rorschach test, but how can anyone resist:

"He got so puffed up with conceit that he made up a song as he walked in praise of himself, and sang it at the top of his voice, though there was no one to hear it but him. It was perhaps the most conceited song that any animal ever composed.

'The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

'The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half
As much as intelligent Mr. Toad!'


There was a great deal more of the same sort, but too dreadfully conceited to be written down. These are some of the milder verses"

I talked Clara into reading it too--she really enjoyed it at first, but gave up around chapter 10 (out of 12)--then again, I didn't encourage her to read it at a slow pace.

The ride at Disneyland has been one of my favorite rides since I was very young.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The End of the World

In my misspent youth, I never once read a Shel Silverstein book. I am not entirely sure why--perhaps because I never learned to appreciate poetry as a kid, or maybe because I opened one once and the drawings scared me. While talking to Clara earlier this week, I thought of this fact and decided to remedy it. Herewith a review of Where the Sidewalk Ends: I don't think I would have liked it very much when I was a kid either. It's OK--some of the poems are clever, but many are rather predictable. For example:

Early Bird

Oh, if you're a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you're a bird, be an early, early bird--
But if you're a worm, sleep late.

Cute, with an interesting moral. It leaves one with something to ponder--who is a bird and who is a worm? But, and this is the problem with the book, that was one of the better poems. All that being said, I wish I had read it when I was 10--I might have enjoyed it more, and I might have discovered poetry 20 years earlier than I did.

By way of contrast, consider A.M. Juster, whom I mentioned a few days back (published in First Things a while back):

Lifeboat Ethics

Since I'm a utilitarian,
I'll eat the vegetarian.

Now that poem is genuinely funny and easily the best summary and critique of utilitarianism I have ever seen. But, I wouldn't have liked it whan I was 10.

Organized Begging

I just returned from taking Clara out to beg for candy. How did this tradition ever start?

In other news, GDP grew at a 3.5% rate in the third quarter. Pity the poor Marxists--I guess capitalism isn't coming to an end after all.

Determining the connection between the previous two paragraphs is left as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

Now that October has become the deadliest month for US troops in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq has been seeing an increase in bombings and Pakistan is slowly collapsing and Iran is developing its nuclear program without pause, can we all agree that the current Presidential Administration has been a complete disaster on this front? Things are worse, far worse, now than they were in January.

[And I have to admit, seeing Kerry say we shouldn't send more troops to Afghanistan is brazen. As I recall, four years ago, he argued that Bush was mistaken to fight in Iraq because Afghanistan is where the problems were--he argued we needed to increase the force in Afghanistan and reduce it in Iraq. Suddenly, he doesn't want to fight in Afghanistan either.]

The puzzle for the day: If a person really believes that the world is a nice place and that if we all could just get together and hold hands everything will be wonderful, what happens when the other kids on the playground are bullies?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The State of First Things November 2009

This is the first in a continuing series evaluating First Things (First Things, the magazine, as Hadley Arkes calls it). I am trying to figure out whether the magazine is still worth reading cover-to-cover. Articles will be classified as 1) well worth reading; 2) flawed, but still worth the time; or 3) not worth the bother. Only the first two categories will be discussed.

Well worth reading
1. Do Whatever He Tells You, Evangelicals and Catholics Together
The latest in the series written by this group. The general series has been outstanding, looking for common ground between these two groups. The ultimate pay-off would be an end to the Reformation divide. But, the group has been very careful to avoid the usual ecumenical trap of pretending that there are not real, substantive differences. This article looks at Mary. It is not a hopeful as other issues. There is quite a bit of common ground in evaluating the importance of Mary and her role as a disciple, but the differences are substantial and it is not clear how they can be bridged. There are four areas of substantial disagreement: 1) Perpetual virginity, 2) Immaculate Conception, 3) Bodily Assumption, and 4) Invocation of Mary. The Roman Catholic Church has a firm position on all four of those, and there are Papal Decrees declaring official church doctrine on them. Now I (an evangelical) have no problem if someone believes in the perpetual virginity or bodily assumption of Mary--I have no reason to think either doctrine is true, but I don’t see anything in Scripture that would forbid belief in either one. The Invocation of Mary also doesn’t bother me--if you assume the saints have knowledge of earthly happenings after their death, then asking Mary to pray for you seems little different than asking your friend to pray for you. Again, I am not at all sure why we would assume that Mary can hear a thing we say, but if someone really believes she can, I have no real problem. The Immaculate Conception is a bit more troubling, but I think I could be persuaded it is not a dangerous doctrine. However, and here is the problem, I have a hard time imagining being a full participant in a church which mandated the Roman Catholic view on such things. In other words, I think the real differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics on Mary is a difference of opinion about the Authority of the Pope to pronounce on Doctrinal matters.

The authors mention that papal authority is on their future agenda, and I do hope it is soon. John Paul II, in one of his encyclicals, mentioned that the role of the Pope would need to be discussed in order to further the ecumenical project; I would be quite glad if such a rethinking were to commence. Evangelicals and Catholics together strikes me as the perfect group to begin that discussion.

Flawed, but worth reading
1. Gambling with Lives, Maura J. Casey
This is an argument against legalized gambling. While I agree with the conclusion (legalized gambling brings more harm than good), the article is a mixed bag--parts of it are well argued, parts are sloppy. I wish the article had been stronger so that it would have been useful as a highly recommended case against legalized gambling. With legalized gambling seeming to be on the slippery slope to becoming reality in Massachusetts, a solid case against it would have been nice. I do not look forward to the day when there is a large casino in Holyoke.

2. Review of Simon Schama's The American Future, James Nuechterlein
A useful review because now I know that there is no reason to even look at Schama's book.

Jody Bottum's brief notes at the end of the magazine are nice too, but they suffer from the fact that it is hard not to compare them to Neuhaus' back-of-the-issue comments, and nobody was better than Neuhaus at that.

There is also a new poem by A.M. Juster--I love Juster's poetry. If you are looking for an excellent book of modern verse to give to someone as a gift, Juster's The Secret Language of Women is a good bet. Much of it is in the tradition of light verse, but in addition to making me smile, it makes me think.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Way a Conference is Supposed to Be

This last weekend, I was at the Philadelphia Society's Fall Regional meeting in Indianapolis. (The Philadelphia Society is an organization of conservative intellectuals.) It was a great conference--the organizers put together a superb list of talks.

The highlights (in the order they presented):

1. Peter Wood is the author of a really interesting book on Diversity, in which he shows how that construct has been manufactured within the Academy. He is now taking on the next big craze in Academia--Sustainability. That term too has no real meaning, but schools across the country are using the phrase to justify all sorts of the usual Leftist policies. (My favorite useless activity that for some reason makes people feel virtuous--getting rid of trays in dining halls.) It sounds like he is at work on a book about this--it's sure to be good.

2. Thor Halvorssen, formerly at FIRE, now at the Human Rights Foundation, argued that the problem in the Academy these days is the overwhelmingly Leftist tilt of the faculty (one conservative on the faculty at Mount Holyoke would be a good example of that, I suppose) and tried to persuade everyone that all the attempts to fix the academy won't matter unless the number of conservative faculty rises. He argues that will take money. The argument sounds nice, but it isn't clear to me how this will happen.

3. The panel on the Economics of Education explained why the proposal in 2 will run into problems. This panel was overwhelmingly negative about the academy, arguing that it is a fairly hopeless institution. Insofar as this is the argument that Conservatives make about Colleges, it is hard to see how many conservative students will be persuaded to become professors.

4. Steve Ealy from the Liberty Fund gave an interesting talk an the importance of conversation as a means of learning.

5. James Bowman gave a great talk arguing that the internet is dumbing us all down because it is removing our ability to have the patience to read sustained arguments. We jump from thing to thing so quickly these days that we have lost the power (and practice) of concentration. I suspect he is right. You can read his talk at:
And, by the way, Bowman's book Honor: A History is fantastic--if you are looking for a book recommendation, read it.

6. Charles Murray gave, as always, a highly thought-provoking talk. Murray never ceases to amaze. His talk was based on his latest book Real Education (also well-worth reading--then again every Charles Murray book is well-worth reading). The talk argues that there is an increasing problem in America today of an entire generation which has grown up having two highly educated and intelligent parents who have raised their kids in an intellectual bubble. One effect of this bubble is that the generation has no idea a) what the majority of the population is like and b) how goods are actually generated. Having gone to high-schools in which the IQ of the worst students is above the national average for IQ and having never held a regular job in which actual work is required, this generation has no idea how people work and build a business. Murray argues that it is very important for the highly educated, high IQ parents to live in areas with a cross-section of humanity and to make their kids get regular jobs. That book had a rather practical outcome--Emma is now looking for a job--a menial labor job. (We already live in the sort of town Murray describes--Granby is fantastic in this respect. I am afraid all my colleagues who live in Amherst are not doing as well.)

That's just the highlights--most of the other speakers were also worth hearing. Great job by the organizers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life in Nebraska

My tutorial just read Willa Cather's My Antonia. It's the third time I have read that book, and I am still not a big fan. The first time I read it was for the Academic Decathlon in high school; then I reread it a few years back just to see if it was actually better than I remembered it being; and now a third time. It's nice in a sort of adult version of the Little House on the Prairie books way. Cather is adept at creating a microcosmic world. My favorite book of hers is Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The tutorial discussion was interesting. Everyone thought the scenes of life in Nebraska were wonderfully appealing and yet nobody would actually want to live such a life. I have run into this general phenomenon a lot--there is something very appealing about a simple rural life, and yet few people can stand the thought of actually living such a life.

One unrelated note--one of our cats is named Willa. I have long insisted that all pets must have names with some sort of literary connection. My family just wants names which sound normal. So Willa made it as a normal name with the literary pedigree of Willa Cather.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mr Racine

Mr Racine is Emma and Lily's history teacher. Of all the teachers they have had, he is easily one of the best. But, this isn't about him.

Book report:

Racine, Phaedra and Britannicus
Racine was a 17th century French playwright. So, post-Shakespeare, not Greek. Phaedra is exactly like what would happen if Euripides or Aeschylus wrote one of their plays after reading Shakespeare. It had all the feel of the classic Greek dramas, yet it felt liberated from the conventions of Greek drama. No chorus, a slightly larger set of main characters, longer speeches and monologues. But, still, somehow, it seemed like reading a Greek drama. The story of Phaedra was great; the characters were quite interesting. I have a very hard time, however, imagining any actress who would be good enough to play the title role, and only a marginally easier time imagining actors to play the primary male roles. I suspect seeing this play would be a terrible disappointment.

Britannicus was also good, but not as great. Set in the court of a young Nero, we get to watch the young ruler grow up to be, well, Nero. While the setting was Rome rather than Greece, the play still has the underlying tone of a Greek drama.

I read the George Dillon translation of both--I haven't compared translations to know how this one rates as a translation--but, it read well in English.

I asked Emma and Lily if they would ask their teacher if he has any relation to the author, but neither of them seemed to care.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tears of Joy

Today was Clara's 10th birthday and the Raiders beat the Eagles. One of those events made me ridiculously happy.

Father Brown meets Zaphod Beeblebrox

A pair of book reports.

1. G. K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown
I first read the Father Brown books years ago, and since then I have read many other Chesterton volumes. I figured it was time to return to Father Brown, and, wow, is he even better than I remember him. The tales are philosophical and theological ruminations posing as detective stories. Chesterton wrote a lot of books in that vein, but Father Brown is his best detective. The books are wonderfully fun to read--if you have never read Chesterton, it is a great place to start.

[G.K. Chesterton makes a rather interesting appearance in Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I have no idea why Chesterton is in that story, but it was rather nice to see him.]

2. Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Now this is one incredibly disappointing book. Adams' Hitchhiker series is amazing, and the Dirk Gently series was good, but this book was ridiculously bad. It was a collection pasted together after Adams died, collecting many of his shorter pieces. Here is the odd thing--almost nothing in this book was worth reading. How could Adams not have accidentally written some interesting short pieces in his lifetime? A few funny bits, but not many. Lots and lots of rather silly attempts to be serious. I did skip the whole "parts of the novel Adams was working on when he died" for a couple of reasons: 1) In other pieces, Adams repeatedly says that the novel he was working on was a disaster and if he thought it was worse than the other things in this book that he published, then it can't be very good, and 2) I am not a big fan of the "Well, the author died and left an unfinished book, so let's publish the fragments" genre. (It worked for Virgil, Thucydides and Kafka, I suppose, but even still...)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Is it really that obvious?

I am often asked for recommendations of books relating to Economics. (Shocking, I know.) Well, I now have one I can recommend lightly. Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational is a nice introduction to behavioral economics, the branch of economics which takes seriously the study of how real people (as opposed to those mathematical people who inhabit models) act. The book is in the Freakonomics genre--summary of an author's work which oversells how different the work is from what all sorts of economists are doing. (Seriously, Steven Levitt's work is fun and interesting, but is is straightforward Economics--there is nothing Freaky about it.)

Ariely reports on a wide array of experiments he and his co-authors have done--they run experiments on people--well, most of them are undergrads, but we like to pretend that undergrads act like regular people. The research is fun; the experiments are interesting (particularly when you get to just read about them and think, "I wouldn't act as irrational as those people in the study.")

Ariely wants to argue that behavioral economics is somehow a radical break from conventional economics, but I suspect it would be hard to find any regular economists who aren't at least interested in the behavioral economists' approach. The problem with behavioral economics is not what they are doing or finding, but that they want to overturn conventional wisdom on this or that matter on the basis of two or three tests on undergrads. The behavioral economists like to pretend that their tests have some sort of scientific rigor akin to an experiment in a Physics lab, but their results are a bit too messy. In time, if we keep finding results like these, then there would be good reason to completely believe them, but it will take more than one paper to convince anyone of something.

The problem really shows up in Ariely's afterword explaining the Financial Crisis to all of us--it is a mixture of some interesting ideas and some painfully slapdash remarks.

On the whole though, the book is worth reading. (I assigned this book in my introduction to microeconomics class this semester, but I haven't heard any feedback about it yet.) If you liked Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational is along the same lines. (By the way Levitt has a new book coming out, with the groan-inducing title SuperFreakonomics.)

Twin Peaks Book Report

Emma, Janet and I have been watching Twin Peaks. Janet and I watched it when it originally aired, but Emma has never seen it, so with the aid of Netflix, we are all watching it. Twin Peaks, for those of you who don't know, is the Greatest TV show EVER. No contest here. Agent Cooper is right up there with Captain Kirk as Best Characters in a TV show.

So, if you haven't ever seen the show, do so. The whole thing is now out on DVD.

While watching it, I remembered that when the show was on, there were a few books that came out at the time--I read the Diary of Laura Palmer back then. This time through I looked up the other books--through the wonders of, I found a cheap copy of The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life. My Tapes. The evaluation: It was OK. The whole thing is Dale Cooper's tape recordings starting at an early age--and if you have seen the show, you'll get the joke. A few parts are good--the background on Windom Earle is nicely done, the eccentricities are fun. But, some parts are just goofy--Dale Cooper was *way* too interested in girls throughout--seriously, that isn't the Agent Cooper we all know and love. If you are madly in love with the show, I suppose the book is worth reading, but only after you have watched the whole series.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Demanding the Incomprehensible

Why is it that people who cannot read a balance sheet and who proudly announce, "I am not a numbers person" are always the ones standing up in meetings demanding, yes demanding, more access to the data and information about budgets? No matter what you tell such people, they can't understand it, so why do they always demand "More."

Oddly, this makes me sound like Mr Bumble.

But, I am staying the course in my grouse.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Deserved Nobel

The Economics Noble this year went to Williamson and Ostrom. You'd never know why from reading the accounts in the popular press, continuing a long tradition of stories written by reporters who cannot be bothered to read the citations. So for those interested, you can read the details at:

If you have an economics background, the "Scientific background" paper on the Nobel site is always very good.

In some ways this is a bit of a surprise. The British betting company which allows betting on such things had them both at 50 to 1 odds--but they were both on the short list of people for whom there were odds. Also, 6% of the votes in the Harvard grad student pool picked Williamson.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Henry James and the Raiders

Last Tuesday, I was in a discussion with a tutorial group about Henry James' Washington Square. For those who haven't read it it is good--I am not particularly fond of Henry James, which may well be a failing in literary taste on my part, so I was not overwhelmed by the story, but it is good. Part of the discussion in the tutorial was on the question: are parents obligated to think highly of their children? For example, if a daughter is rather plain and not particularly intelligent, is it OK for a father to think his daughter is plain and dull, and is it OK for a father to say his daughter is plain and dull? The students were unanimous that parents are supposed to think their children are wonderful; even if nobody else thinks they are wonderful, a father who loves his children will naturally think they are wonderful even if nobody else can recognize that beauty.

During the discussion, I was wondering if this is true or not. It is hard for me to know--my three daughters are all very good-looking, brilliant and wonderful in every way. So, I didn't know how to figure out what I would think if they weren't so wonderful.

Then I was watching the Raider game today. Now on so-called objective factors, the Raiders are horrible this year (and, to look at the statistics, for the last half-dozen years). Today, if one listened to the announcers, the Raiders were cover-your-eyes awful. They lost 44-7, and the game wasn't really that close. I love my Raiders--I have loved them since I was 10. And even watching them get systematically dismantled, I still am there, thinking, they really aren't this bad, they cannot, simply cannot, really be this bad. Next week, maybe, just maybe it will all click. Now I know better--I have watched a lot of football and I know when a team is truly bad. But while part of my brain knows this team is hopeless, the other part of my brain just sees them and thinks they are wonderful.

So, then I realized that it was rather strange for the good doctor in our story to think ill of his daughter. I could never think about my Raiders like that.

While I was typing this Peyton Manning (the greatest QB ever) just led the Colts down the field to score right before half-time. Wow, the Colts look good. I think The Raiders could beat them though if they could just get a little pressure up the middle and if the receivers had a little more experience (both starting WRs for the Raiders are rookies) and if the OLwasn't so injured. The Raiders could beat the Colts. I know it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Another thing They never tell you about Job Interviews

When you are being interviewed over lunch it is your responsibility to make sure you actually eat your lunch. Seriously. None of the people interviewing you are going to be upset that you took a bite of food. The trick is simple; whenever someone else is asking a question take a bite of food. Take the bite as soon as they start talking. Chew and swallow while they are talking. If the questions is long-winded, take another bite. You have to be deliberate about this.

Two of the three people we interviewed this week did not follow this simple rule.

Mr. October

Can we now finally stop with all this "A-Rod is not a clutch hitter when the post-season comes" nonsense?

Friday, October 9, 2009

More on the Nobel

I wish I had thought to write something like this:

The Nobel as Comedy

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 was awarded to...Barack Obama. [Insert Laughter.] You couldn't make this up if you tried. To advance Peace around the world, Obama has accomplished many fine things like...hmmm.

The Prize Committee cites his outreach to the Muslim world--he gave a speech in Cairo--and his attempts to end nuclear proliferation--which has certainly halted the nuclear programs in...where exactly? The head of the Nobel Prize Committee noted that while Obama hasn't actually brought peace anywhere yet, he has changed the climate so that peace is now possible.

If SNL did a skit mocking the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, they wouldn't have done something as silly as this.

This is seriously funny. It is right up there with TIME magazine's announcement some years ago that it's Man of the Year award for the year was...well, The Planet of the Year: Earth.

My sober analysis: The Nobel Prize Committee really wanted to give the Prize to Obama. Normally, they would have waited at least a year to be able to point to something he has actually done. But, they too look out at the world and see the deteriorating situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, the former Soviet Republics, Central America, South America, and the High Seas. The Nobel Committee was afraid if they waited even a year to give this prize, then giving it to Obama would be an even greater joke. So they rushed to give the Prize before it becomes too obvious that Obama is not bringing peace on earth. In some ways it is pretty sad to see the Nobel Peace Prize committee lose faith in their Messiah.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Looking for a Job?

I have been interviewing people for a job this week. It is a job in the library, and to be honest, I am not sure I really care all that much who is hired. But, I have noticed one thing: I really don't like it when people are visibly trying to seem more impressive than they are. I much prefer the understated approach. I suppose this is because I make rather quick judgments about how smart someone is, and when someone is overselling himself, I think I unconsciously interpret it as a sign of not being terribly bright. Why do people try so hard to seem impressive? I think it is insecurity.

My advice to job candidates for any job: Just be yourself. You really only want a job which wants to hire you, not some fake projection of you. And if you aren't really good enough to get a particular job without trying to pretend you are something other than what you are, then look for a different job which wants to hire someone exactly like you. That strikes me as pretty obvious advice, but I find few people either follow that approach or are terribly happy when I say such things.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When does Autumn Arrive?

You know it is bad being a Raiders fan when you spend a few moments wondering whether putting in Gradkowski at QB might give the team a bit of a spark; you know it is really bad being a Raiders fan when you spend even longer wondering if having your head coach arrested for breaking the jaw of an assistant just might be the thing needed to make the season a little better.

Quotation of the Day

"I don't think it really matters if it's true or not, because it is a possibility....The fact that people believe the allegations means they can be true and happen in other places. I think the possibility of it being true is what's really scary, and that's why people are so up in arms about it." Thus spake a student at Mount Holyoke College.

Proving once again: You simply cannot parody the modern college.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Demise of Phi Beta Kappa

I just returned from the Triennial Council of Phi Beta Kappa. They require each local chapter to send a delegate; this year, it was my duty to attend. A complete waste of everybody's time. There was literally no point to have this meeting at all.

So, onto the book reviews; the only part of the trip worth reporting.

1. Eichengreen, Globalizing Capital
I assigned this book to my intermediate macroeconomics course. It's a nice history of exchange regimes. Perfect for anyone who is interested in such things. Utterly horrid for anyone who doesn't care about such things. You know who you are.

2. Louis L'Amour, Hondo
I gather this was L'Amour's first novel. I like L'Amour, but not so much that I am overly excited about reading more of his books. There is something refreshing about reading a book in which the men are Men. Oddly, things like the nature of Manliness don't get discussed much where I work. (Though for a really interesting discussion of such matters, see Harvey Mansfield's outstanding book, Manliness.)

3. Agatha Christie, Poirot Loses a Client
Standard Hercule Poirot book. In other words it was a wonderful way to spend an rainy morning in Austin, Texas.