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.