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.