Thursday, December 30, 2010

The State of First Things, January 2011

Next in a Continuing Series:

A) Must Read Articles

B) Flawed, but Worth Reading

I wish I was exaggerating in the above.  When I first started this series, I was wondering if my impression that there were only a few truly exceptional articles per issue was accurate.  I wondered if reading a magazine in which only, say, 2 of the articles were great and a few more were worth reading was a good use of time.  I have now reached the point where I am hoping that there will be at least a few articles that are worth my time.  This last issue didn't even rise to that standard.  Seriously, there wasn't a single article which made me think anything other than, "What was the point of that?"  Even the book reviews were bad--only one of the books reviewed was even worth reviewing (Roger Scruton's new book on pessimism), but the reviewer forgot to, you know, review the book and instead just had an axe to grind which was ground along with a summary of what one could learn about the book from reading the dust jacket.

But, I did notice something extraordinary in this issue.  Joseph Bottum is no longer the editor.  James Nuechterlein is listed as the Interim Editor.  I was shocked.  And looking back, this change happened in the last issue.  So, we now have two issues edited by an interim editor--and here is the shocking thing: Nowhere in either issue is there a mention of this change--you have to look at the masthead to see any change--there is not even the pro forma "Joseph Bottum has left to pursue another project. We wish him well" dismissal.  Nothing at all.  So, I did a cursory Google search--it seems the change was made in late October and there is still no word about the matter.  Nothing.  Nobody has said a thing.  This is incredibly odd.

The timing of this change is interesting.  It seems to have happened right after the disastrous College issue came out.  I suspect--with, I hasten to add absolutely no evidence--that there is a connection.  If the Powers That Be at First Things had the same reaction which I had to that issue, then the Powers that Be may have realized that First Things was going downhill fast.  But, even still, if Bottum was fired as editor, there is no excuse for not saying something, anything about it.  And if he wasn't fired as editor, then the lack of any notice is serious wrong.  The whole way in which this has been handled is lacking in the appearance of  Christan Charity, which for a journal of religion and public life is a pretty serious failure.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


A veritable potpourri of topics:

1. One class done, one to go.

2. New Year's Eve is near at hand.  Of all the major holidays, this is easily my least favorite.  Janet, whom I love dearly, hates New Year's Eve--always has; always will.  She sees absolutely no point in  staying up late for no apparent reason, and New Year's Eve is all about staying up late.  I started dating her in high school--she hated New Year's Eve then.  Now, I have no particular fascination with New Year's Eve, so it wouldn't bother me in the least to simply skip worrying about it.  But, then social expectations intrude--one is expected to do something exciting on New Year's Eve. Turning down invitations for New Year's Eve is acceptable when one can say, "Sorry, but we already agreed to do something else."  But, try turning down a New Year's Eve invitation with, "Sorry, we are just staying home and ignoring the whole holiday."  We do celebrate New Year's Day, though--does that make everything OK?

3. I do have fond memories of camping out on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena on New Year's Eve--I did this a few times in high school.  Great night--and it's fun to watch the Rose Parade in person.

4. Christmas was great, as always.  I got Madden '11 from my mom--that is a tradition which dates back to the early years of Madden.  It's still the best video game.

5. Emma was accepted to Mount Holyoke a couple days before Christmas.  No shock there.  I bought her a Mount Holyoke sweatshirt for Christmas.  So, now it's official.

6. Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita was the last book we read in my tutorial in the Fall semester.  I am still trying to figure out how to write a commentary on it.  An utterly odd book.  It's the second time I read it--but the first time I read a horrid translation, so this time was much, much better.  It is wryly funny and has some great mocking of the Soviet state.  Satan is one of the main characters, but he is nothing like any Satan in any other book.  Satan's coterie is a bunch of amoral mischievous types.  In other words, Satan brings little evil, but a great deal of wrongness.  There is a subplot about Pontius Pilate which is cleverly done and quite interesting.  But, what does the book mean?  It clearly draws analogies to Goethe's Faust, but maybe it is a satire on Goethe too.  Again, it's hard to tell.  In the end, it strikes me as a very clever book.  I think it is nihilistic in the end, but I could easily be persuaded otherwise.

7.  Oddly, while typing that last paragraph, "Anarchy in the U.K." was playing on my iPod.  Mikhail Bulgakov and Johnny Rotten--what a combo.

8.  I thought about providing a YouTube link for the song, but I have a hard time imagining that there is a YouTube video which is suitable for a general audience.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Letter

I am grading today (sigh).  I really hate having to grade final exams at this time of year.  But, I have been remiss in acknowledging Christmas herein, so herewith is a copy of the Christmas Letter we sent out in our Christmas cards this year.  There was a card with it, but you can read all about the card in the letter.  And, if you want to see said card (and, let me hasten to add, that there is no real reason to want to see said card), then the means to accomplish that feat can be deduced from the contents of the letter.
And, so Merry Christmas!

(And yes, the following is the start of the letter--it begins in medias res for no real purpose)

            A Word of Explanation is in Order.  The Annual Hartley Household Christmas Epistle (which the Reader now holds in Hand (unless, of course, Said Reader has placed Said Epistle upon a Lectern before perusing it (though, Truth Be Told, Your Humble Narrator is Reasonably Certain (but not Metaphysically Certain) that the Reader does not actually use a Lectern for Purposes of Reading Yuletide Greetings))), due to Events Beyond the Control or Desire of Your Humble Narrator (details given below (said parenthetical Aside was added for those Readers who have Developed a Distrust of Your Humble Narrator’s Desire (or Ability) to Provide Relevant Details in a Timely Fashion)), must now be Rechristened as The Occasional Hartley Household Christmas Epistle due to the Lack of Any Such Epistle in The Year of Our Lord 2009, which, as the Reader is No Doubt Aware, Caused an Insignificant Amount of Depression and Woe to be Spread Throughout the Land in What Should Otherwise have been a Season of Goodwill and Cheer.   Gentle Reader, Your Humble Narrator would like to say “Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” but is Prevented from doing so by Honesty, that Cruel Mistress. The Fault Lies Elsewhere.
            [Insert Dramatic Pause.]
            Either Dupin or Poirot would have already solved the Case, which those Readers not Bestowed with Equivalently Copious Numbers of Little Grey (note British Spelling in honor of Dame Agatha) Cells may still find Befuddling.  The Clue, the vital Clue, is contained in the Same Envelope which delivered the Letter now being perused to the Domicile of the Reader.  It is (pause) The Picture Card (insert dramatic shudder and gasps of shock). 
            For Reasons Your Humble Narrator does not Comprehend, Lily, the second Hartley Offspring, proving that the Apple Does sometimes Fall Very Far from the Tree, decided last year that the Hartley Christmas Card lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, that the inclusion of the Annual Hartley Household Christmas Epistle did not add enough of that Mysterious Substance, and thus what was necessary to Bring Joy to the Reader was a Christmas Card which contained not cheery scenes of the Birth of Christ nor faux amusing portraits of Saint Nicholas nor even sappy scenes of winter, but rather what the Reader Truly needed in order to Make Christmas Complete, what would fill that Void which the Reader feels every Yuletide knowing that something is Lacking at Christmas, something which even Linus’ Wise Words does not Fill, what would Return that Joy the Reader recalls feeling when given a Video Game Console as a small child, what the Reader Desired More than Any Other Possible Gift at Christmas was A Picture Card Containing Pictures of the Hartley Household.  Lily, quite obviously, will Never be Known as a Humble Narrator.
            Now the Clever Reader suspects a Flaw in the Reasoning Heretofore Offered:  Why should Lily’s sudden Desire to Send a Picture Card, coupled with the Long Suffering Wife of Your Humble Narrator’s (LSWYHN’s) consent to Said Scheme, prevent the Annual Hartley Household Christmas Epistle from being Penned and sent Out along with Said Card?  Your Humble Narrator is Glad that the Reader Asked (or, to be Accurate, that the Humble Narrator has pretended that the Reader asked).   While Many of the Recipients of The Hartley Household’s Annual Christmas Greetings have managed to Obtain photographs of Themselves and send them Out to One and All, Organizing such an Activity Proved beyond the Capabilities of the Hartley Household Last Year.  Now, as Longtime Readers of this Space are Acutely Aware, the Problem is Not the Hectic Activities of the Hartley Household, since Said Household has heretofore never had any Activities of Note.
            But Fear not.  After two Years of Trying, Lily did manage to Create a Picture Card which the Reader has Undoubtedly already placed in a Receptacle Suitable for Containing Items With the Degree of Artistic Merit Evidenced in a Picture Card.  [Insert Loud Hosannas.] 
            Alas, the Sound of the Hosannas is Quickly Followed by Two Notes of Puzzlement arising from the Great Picture Card Debacle of 2009 (henceforth GPCD2009). The First Puzzle is Seen on the Picture Card of 2010 (not to be confused with the nonexistent Picture Card of 2009).  Until Recently, Your Humble Narrator was Apparently Deluded in Believing that there were only Five members of the Hartley Household, but the Picture Card (which Cannot Lie) clearly has Six (6!) names listed.  Dante seems to have Been Added to the Hartley Roster.  Now Dante is, as the Observant Reader with even a passing Acquaintance with Genetics has Observed, not one of the natural offspring of Your Humble Narrator and the LSWYHN.  Indeed, until the Picture Card, Your Humble Narrator was inclined to Think that Dante was, not to mince words, a Dog.  Said Dog would have normally been included in the Livestock Report of the Epistle.  So, why has Dante been elevated to the same lofty status as the Hartley Offspring?  Your Humble Narrator is Seriously disturbed by this turn of events.  Back when there were only Three Hartley Offspring, Your Humble Narrator was Inclined to note that the Average Intelligence, Charm, Wit, and Ability of the Hartley Offspring was Simply Stratospheric.  But, the presence of Dante in that otherwise Lofty Company has seriously lowered the Average.  Dante is, not to mince words, not nearly as bright, charming or well-behaved as the other Offspring, though he is as Tidy as the Others.
            And, speaking of the other Offspring, Your Humble Narrator turns to his second Puzzle:  Why does Lily, who at the age of 15 lives not on Planet Earth, but has moved to Planet Facebook, feel the need to send out a picture of the Hartley Household?  Lily already has copious numbers of pictures on her Facebook page, and since all but 163 residents of Planet Earth are Facebook friends with Lily, anyone desiring to see a picture of the Hartley Household need only look there.   When not designing Picture Cards, though, Lily is continuing to turn into a ridiculously intelligent and attractive young lady, whose artistic abilities are simply staggering to behold.  (Exhibits are freely available on the aforementioned Facebook page. (Yes, that is the penultimate commercial for Facebook.))
            Emma is now a senior in High school, and would like the Reader to know that she loathes the Picture Card.  Emma likes horses and Dante; said information is vital for those of the Readers who would like to interact with Emma; speak ill of either at your peril.  One year from now (assuming the Occasional becomes the Annual again), Your Humble Narrator will be faced with a Most Difficult Moral Dilemma:  Do children in College merit attention in the Annual Christmas Epistle?  Your Humble Narrator will commence a detailed study of the norms in this Regard during the course of the Year To Come.  So, let the Reader be Forewarned:  Should Emma vanish from the next Installment of this Epistle, it may be due to the Dictates of Tradition and not, as the Reader would Otherwise Assume, to Alien Abduction.
            Clara is finishing sixth grade this year, which will bring about the End of Hartley Household’s Association with Elementary school.  (Dante failed out of Puppy Obedience School, and has been abandoned to Perpetual Ignorance).  Clara is Brilliant, Funny and likes, no Loves, Harry Potter.  She has also finally arrived at the Age where she Dislikes being Discussed in the Annual Christmas Letter.
            The Powers that Be have Decreed that the Following paragraph merits an Advisory Warning.  Caution: May Contain Actual Substance.  Janet, breaking with Family Tradition, actually did something Worthy of Note this year.  The Annual Christmas Letter may never be the Same.  Terra Verde Nursery is now open for business (both on Planet Earth and, thanks to Lily, on Planet Facebook).  Janet provides plants of Exquisite Beauty to Households other than her own.  In addition to her Entrepreneurial Activities, she also managed to keep the Hartley Household functioning.  The latter feat is more impressive than the former.
            And with that, Your Humble Narrator bids you, as always, A Very Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Must See TV

A colleague just showed me this.  It's incredible.  Don't even think about skipping the link.

On Robots

Consider the word "Robot."  (Yes, I know, not the most promising beginning for a blog post.  After all, why should anyone consider the word "robot"?  (Thanks for asking that.  You are of course, correct.  There is no plausible reason you would want to consider the word "robot" right now.  (But, then again, if you wanted to be reading something which has some hope of being relevant to your current thoughts or your life, you really shouldn't be reading this blog in the first place.)))  Everyone knows what a robot is.  Even if you speak a different language than English, it is likely that you use the word "robot."

Whence came the word?  It was introduced to the world in 1920 in Karel Capek's play, R.U.R.  (For the pedantic, Karel didn't invent the word; his older brother did.)  I have known this bit of trivia for quite some time.  I recently read the play.  I am sorry to report that the trivia is far more interesting than the play.

Indeed, the play is so downright silly that it is a wonder the word caught on.  Much to my surprise, the first introduction of the worked "robot" to the word is in a play about robots taking over the world.  It also has robots which are indistinguishable from humans.  The first robots were placid servants.  Then a do-gooder convinces the makers of robots to give them more human emotions.  The emotion our do-gooder wants to introduce is...are you  ready for this?...irritation with humanity.  So, the robots become irritated and decide they really hate humans and so they exterminate humanity.  I wish I was making this up.  Even better--the robots in the play are more human than the humans in the play.  The humans have zero depth of character; the robots at least have something interesting about them.

In short, we owe the use  the word "robot" to a really bad play.  I suppose the play was a lot better in the early 1920s before everything in it became cliche.  Maybe the problem is just that all old science fiction looks really silly later on.  (Exhibit A here.  I used to really like that show; I haven't seen it since I was a kid, though, and it is hard to imagine that I would enjoy it now.)

While on something resembling the subject:  why is the idea of a robot which look like a human so appealing to people?  Isn't it creepy to imagine having a robot around which could not be distinguished form a human?  Why would anyone want such a thing?  And does anyone still think it is a good idea after watching Blade Runner?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

And Justice For All

Michael Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Perhaps my biggest surprise about this book is that I had never heard of it before my father-in-law handed me his copy and told me I would like it.  He was right.  I liked it.  A lot.

Sandel teaches philosophy at Harvard to a packed house.  It's not hard to see why.  The first 8 (out of 10) chapters in this book are undoubtedly his lectures, and they are great.  He has a wonderful ability to get right to the heart of he matter by introducing the well-chosen example in a good manner to illustrate a philosophical problem. (Many of the philosophical problems he uses are commonly used--I have used several of them myself--but Sandel has a pitch-perfect way of introducing the problems.)  The chapter on Kant is easily the best introduction to Kant I have ever read.

The book goes off the rails a bit in the last two chapters when it moves from Dispassionate Lecture Mode into Advocacy Mode.  That switch could have been a disaster, but it (surprisingly) wasn't all that annoying--underneath the sudden change to a tone of "Let me tell you the Right way to think about it" there is still the foundation of the dispassionate lecture on the topic.

So, what is Justice?  After reading the book, I am now fully convinced there is not a good, universal answer to that.  Sandel identifies three main streams of thought: the utilitarian, the freedom advocate (both libertarian and Rawlsian variants), and the Aristotelian.  I'm an Aristotelian in this sense--Justice is doing the Right thing even if the Right thing does not make people happier (the utilitarian answer) or does not provide more "freedom" (however defined).  But, giving that answer does not solve the problem at all--which is a bigger problem than Sandel wants to admit.  He too fancies himself an Aristotelian, but his Aristotelianism and mine are quite different.  I have no hesitance in saying Justice is doing what God wants us to do.  Pleasing God is the ultimate aim to which all of our actions should aim--it is, to be technical, the telos of our lives.  Sandel has some sort of seemingly mushy communitarianism as his telos.  (He may actually have a less mushy view on the matter--this all comes up in the last two chapters of the book when the argument gets fuzzier.)

So, once I have a telos, I can answer the abstract questions of Justice.  Should I torture a terrorist's cute little 5 year old daughter to get him to reveal the location of a nuclear bomb in New York City?  Well, Justice is doing what God wants done in that situation.  Or, for Sandel,  Justice is doing whatever it is that communitarians want done in that situation.  See how easy that is?

When faced with actually making real decisions in real time, it is useful to have a starting place-- a view of Justice from which reasoning about the matter needs to start.  But, knowing your starting place is really not enough.  For a utilitarian to say the Just outcome is the one that maximizes the sum of human happiness is nice in the abstract, but not terribly useful in the concrete.  Rawls...well, I better not get started on Rawls...I never liked Rawlsian solutions.  At all.

This lack of  answers is what makes philosophical matters so ultimately intellectually fulfilling.  Sandel's book tries too hard to wrap up the discussion so that it looks like there is an answer to the question of Justice.  But, there is no answer.  And if there were an answer, then it wouldn't be nearly as fun to think about the question.  Nor would it be as fun to read Sandel's book.  Which, by the way, I highly recommend that you do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The State of First Things, December 2010

A. Must Read Articles:
Sadly, none.

B. Worth Reading
1. Goldman, "Why We Can't hear Wagner's Music"
 I almost put this in the first category, simply because it is sad to see that category empty.  (I weep for First Things.)  But, in the end, the conclusion isn't really all that earth-shattering.  Nonetheless, the article was a very interesting discussion of Wagner.  Wagner is a curious case: as Shaw put it, Wagner's music is better than it sounds.  There is much that is truly great in any Wagner opera, but, truth be told, there is much that is overdone and long, long, long.  Goldman argues that the very length of the matter is the point of Wagner--he deliberately breaks the idea of time in music.  Western Music before Wagner is the imposition of order; Western music after Wagner is the destruction of order.  We can't hear Wagner anymore because we no longer expect order in music.  So, where does that leave us?  Oddly, still eagerly looking forward to seeing The Valkyrie when it comes to the Met.

2. Altman, "Whit Stillman is Running Late"
Curiously, this article was written for someone exactly like me.  If you have never heard of Stillman, the article would have been boring and pointless (I suspect).  If you actually know something about Stillman, then the article would have been boring and pointless (I suspect).  But, if like me, you had recently watched Stillman's first movie, Metropolitan (which I mentioned in a post some time back), really enjoyed that move, had no idea who the director was, and so learned something about him in the article, then it was a pretty interesting article.  Stillman only made three movies.  Reading the article made me want to watch another one of his movies--so I did.  The Last Days of Disco is also pretty good--not as good as Metropolitan, but still pretty good.  His third movie, Barcelona, is now in my Netflix queue.  He is working on a fourth movie; from the sound of it, it may actually get finished, but don't hold your breath.  At any rate, it is better to watch Metropolitan or The Last Days of Disco than to read this article, but after watching one of them, the article is nice.

3. Samuels, "The Perfect Harmony" and Weigel, "Fail, Britannia"
Neither of these articles alone had any particular measure of Greatness, but combined, they are quite good.  (They are published sequentially in the magazine, but the first one is in the new glossy section and the second one is in the old-fashioned, not-glossy section (if you have seen a recent issue of First Things, you know what that means).  So, it isn't clear if the editor knew the two articles made a pair of bookends.)  The general point of the two combined:  Modern Leaders in the West are a feckless bunch, faced on the one side by genuinely malevolent people like Ahmadinejad and on the other side by genuinely benevolent people like Benedict.  Western leaders are, in other words, neither hot nor cold. It is pretty sad to see an unwillingness to side with good against evil--the pair of articles makes it pretty clear that this is happening.  In the face of evil, the West cannot stand up and oppose it.  In the face of good, the West pushes back in all sorts of silly and, truth be told, pathetic ways. 

Come to think of it, perhaps items 2 and 3 are related.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Kingdom Far and Clear

The pleasant surprise of the month:

Mark Helprin, A Kingdom Far and Clear

Mark Helprin is one of the best prose stylists writing today.  I have read a number of his books, and they are always great.  Truly Great.  Indeed, Winter's Tale is on my list of recent books which I am absolutely certain will still be read in 100 years.  If you like Great Literature and haven't read it, you are in for a treat.

All that being said, I wasn't expecting all that much from A Kingdom Far and Clear.  This volume puts together Helprin's three Children's books--the Swan Lake trilogy.  I hadn't read any of those three books, but when I saw they had been published together in one volume, I figured it would be nice to read.  Was I ever wrong about that.  It wasn't nice to read.  It was incredible.  Stunning.  Jaw-droppingly good.

First off, it isn't really children's literature at all--it is a fairy tale for adults.  Children would like it too, but it is really a serious Fairy Tale.  (Fairy Tales get far too little respect in the modern age.)  Helprin writes with what can best be described as Achingly Beautiful prose--I really can't think of a better description than that even though I know it doesn't really describe it in a way that would be comprehensible for someone who has never read Helprin.

The trilogy works really well--each book has a different narrator, but the three stories are part of one giant story which has everything you would want in a good fairy tale--heroes and villains and beauty and sacrifice.  It crystallizes what is Good and highlights what is Evil.  Moral choices must be made, and they are not necessarily easy to make.

The only possible discordant note is that the underlying Beautiful world for which Helprin is arguing is a world of religious morality and political freedom.  I suspect my Marxist colleagues will resent the fact that they identify a little bit too much with the villains.

This is most certainly a book I will read again--I am curious to see how much of the symbolism becomes apparent only on a second reading--I have no idea how tightly crafted the story is.  But it doesn't really matter--the memory of reading this book for the first time is indelibly etched into my mind--one of those rare reading experiences I will never forget.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Yuletide Quinzaines

A Quinzaine for this Yule by Ezra Pound

I have been perusing this short volume of poetry of late.  Despite its title, there isn't any Christmas poetry in it.  Nor is there a Quinzaine in it. 

It's relatively early Pound (1908), back in his pre-Canto days when he was at least making a nod in the direction of comprehensibility in his poetry.  Quite a few poems about Venice, which are nice, but I suspect they are even nicer if you have been to Venice. 

My favorite Poem:


No man hath dared to write this thing as yet,
And yet I know, how that the souls of all men great
At times pass through us,
And we are melted into them, and are not
Save reflexions of their souls.
Thus am I Dante for a space and am
One Francois Villon, ballad-lord and thief
Or am such holy ones I may not write,
Lest blasphemy be writ against my name;
This for an instant and the flame is gone.

'Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
Translucent, molten gold, that is the "I"
And into this some form projects itself:
Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
And as the clear space is not if a form's
Imposed thereon,
So cease we from all being for the time,
And these, the Masters of the Soul, live on. 

That's a nice image--and it's nice to think that the immortals do live on in brief moments in the lives of those around.  It is also presents an interesting thought--do we have an obligation to enable those Masters of the Soul to live?  If nobody ever gave a space for Dante, we would obviously be the poorer for it.  But what about Villon?  I've never read Villon.  Should I feel some obligation to do so? 

And what about Ezra Pound himself?  Now he is a hard case.  He wrote some really interesting poetry, but he was, to put it bluntly, a traitor.  He was a paid propagandist for the Italian Fascists during World War 2 and he wrote some great poetry.  Do we laud him?  Now normally I wouldn't really wonder about such a thing, but Ezra Pound has an odd hold on me--he is from Hailey, Idaho, a town which my grandfather spent a good part of his career developing.  I have spent many a vacation in Hailey.  So, can I consider him a home-town hero or do his traitorous activities mean that he is the black sheep of the family?  Hailey, Idaho doesn't brag about him much--there is a little display about him in the back of the Hailey museum, but it isn't prominently displayed. (You can see it here.  On the drop-down menu, pick the "Military Heritage/Ezra Pound" option.  It is the display case in the blue alcove.)  Indeed, I have often wondered how many residents of Hailey even know that a world-class poet is from their town.

So, when I read Ezra Pound and he thereby occupies the translucent sphere within me, am I bringing light or darkness to the world?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Should five percent appear too small

Last night I finished up the last book I assigned in a class this semester (review forthcoming at a later date) and I engaged in my annual ritual of reading A Christmas Carol.  The end of the semester is obviously nigh.

Now I have to turn my attention to picking out the books I am gong to assign next semester. It's odd in a way--during the semester, my reading list is largely dictated by the books I have assigned.  When the semester ends, my reading list becomes terribly serendipitous.  Some day I want to work out a class in which the reading is entirely whatever I feel like reading at the moment--but I am pretty sure such a course would a) have a hard time getting approved for college credit and b) have a hard time attracting students.  (Imagine the description--"We will be reading whatever the professor decides to read at any given moment.")

But, back to the last semester. I have not yet reviewed two books which I finished weeks ago:
Taxing Ourselves, by Slemrod and Bakija
Animal Spirits by Akerlof and Shiller
Both books present the same serious problem for reviewing:  they are both encyclopedic, with no natural hook or anything which particularly struck my fancy.

Taxing Ourselves is meant to be an encyclopedia of taxation.  It's subtitle: A Citizen's Guide to the Debate over Taxes.  It is now in its 4th edition.  It is comprehensive.  Why are taxes the way they are?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of all the reform proposals?  And so on.  And on.  And on.  And on.  I haven't yet heard whether the students liked this book--I think I would have liked it as an undergrad, but reading it now wasn't all that fun--I didn't learn anything.  That's the problem with books which aim to be an encyclopedia--there really isn't any new argument or information in the book.  But, if you are fascinated with taxes and you don't know much about them, then this book has a good chance of satisfying your yearning to know more.

Animal Spirits also aimed to be comprehensive, but it was a failure.  (My students liked it a lot more than I did, though.)  Animal Spirits is a technical economic term:  the Animal Spirits are waves of optimism and pessimism which affect human behavior--one can be bullish, thinking the world looks wonderful, or bearish, thinking everything is a Lost Cause, and said attitude will affect how much you consume, for example.  This book falls into the genre "Take an interesting economic idea and try to force the idea to explain Everything." But, the idea doesn't explain Everything.  So, first, the authors redefine Animal Spirits to mean "Human psychology" and then they to show that the way people think affects the way they act.  Shocking, no?  But, that isn't enough--then the authors need to show that the way humans think means that the way Other economists talk about lots of things isn't right.  But, that isn't enough either, so then the authors need to show that if everyone thought about things the way the Enlightened Authors do, then we would have all sorts of government polices that look suspiciously like the sort of policies which would be endorsed by, say, Obama.  And, lo and behold, Akerlof was formerly an adviser to Kerry when he was running for President.  So, much of the book just made me think, "That's enough.  You can stop now.  You've pushed this idea way past the breaking point."  But, like I said, my students liked it--well at least the ones who have told me about it--so maybe it isn't as bad as I thought it was.

And just to end on a high note.

Monday, November 29, 2010

From Smart People to Sarajevo

1.  From the November 27-28 Wall Street Journal:
Economic Smarts
Economists are more likely than average citizens to view trading with other nations as a win-win scenario, to prize the efficiency of markets and to see recessions as cyclical downturns rather than systemic collapses. Some research has found that the more education people have, the closer they move to this economist's-eye view of the world. A new study suggests that, even more than education, intelligence itself leads citizens to "think like economists."
The researchers wanted to tease out the independent effects of intelligence and education. They made use of the National Opinion Research Center's massive General Social Survey, which includes demographic data, queries about economic attitudes and (for half the respondents) a short vocabulary quiz, which the authors treat as a workable (if not ideal) test of intelligence.
The authors found that intelligence supplanted education as the primary predictor of whether one took an economist's typical point of view. Education moved into second place, followed by party identification (Republican) and recent growth in income. The correlation between the views of intelligent people and professional economists offers "another reason to accept the 'economists are right, the public is wrong' interpretation" of differences in opinion, these economists argue.
"Intelligence Makes People Think like Economists: Evidence from the General Social Survey," Bryan Caplan and Stephen C. Miller, Intelligence (November-December)"

That must be the most insightful and brilliant bit of research ever done.  Well, OK, maybe the Principia was better.

2. In the last week, I celebrated a birthday, Thanksgiving, and the arrival of our Christmas Tree.  The Raiders were also crushed for two weeks in a row.  It is left as an exercise of the Reader to determine whether this is a net increase or decrease in happiness.

3. We traditionally get our tree on the first Saturday in December, which the Clever Reader will note was not in the last week.  Lily, however, vetoed our the Traditional Date of the Christmas Tree Arrival.  It seems that Lily would rather attend the Formal Dance for her High School (said dance is named for reasons I do not fully understand a Cotillion.  Nothing occurring at said event will resemble a Cotillion in the least, so why the name?  Why not just call it "Gathering of a bunch of Awkward Teenagers"?), which for reasons that elude me was scheduled for the first Saturday in December.  December!  Really, now.  Didn't it occur to anyone that maybe December is already full of social engagements?  And so, my daughter whom I love has decided that Tradition is less important than a misnamed social gathering of the same people she already sees five days a week.  And moreover, she had to buy a new dress to attend said event.  Apparently Lily has not read enough Thoreau: "I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes."

4. In unrelated news (or if there is a relation, then it is better left unarticulated), a book review:  The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Tolstoy, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  We read a few of these stories for my tutorial, and I finished the book mostly because I like finishing books.  Tolstoy has a reputation as a great short story writer to go along with his reputation for writing two of the best long novels ever written.  The stories here are good, no doubt about it.  But, I am still left with my fundamental dissatisfaction with short stories.  I cannot figure out why short store always leave me a bit flat.  I can recognize their brilliance; I see the point; but even still.  And it isn't shortness that leaves me unsettled--I can really appreciate an excellent play and I enjoy poetry.  Short stories are, when I think about it, my least favorite literary form.  Why should that be?  I honestly have no idea.

But, if you like short stories (and you should), then this isn't a bad volume at all.  They probably aren't great when you want an emotional lift unless you are the sort of person who gets an emotional high from seeing other people in misery before dying.  Lots of dying here.  Lots of bleakness.  Russian are a very depressing lot.  It must have something to do with the weather.  Or maybe it is because their national beverage has no flavor.

5. And speaking of Russians and Christmas:  I recommend to you the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Time Thief

Last weekend I was looking for a nice quick read to while away some hours in the evenings.  I grabbed my copy of the Library of America volume, Crime Stories: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.  Next up in the book was Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us.  I finally forced myself to finish the story on Wednesday night.  Obviously, it wasn't a good book to pass the time on a Friday or Saturday night.  Indeed, it was terribly disappointing.  The LOA volume has 6 novels in it--the idea that this was one of the best six Noir novels published in the 20 years covered by the volume is a bit hard to accept.  So, how did this novel get selected?  I wondered, so I looked it up on Wikipedia--a great source for figuring out things like "Why would anyone like this book?"  The Wikipedia entry is a placeholder--in other words, nobody in Wikipedia World has even wanted to bother writing a plot summary.  So herewith is the plot summary:  A guy gets out of prison, gets together with a couple of other criminals and  robs a few banks.  He also hooks up with a girl.  Everyone dies in the end.  But, the book isn't as interesting as the summary.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Queen Elizabeth 2

I recently finished Thomas Sowell's The Housing Boom and Bust (revised edition), which I had assigned to my intermediate macroeconomics class.  It is a decent overview of the housing portion of the recent financial crisis.  It doesn't aim to be a comprehensive overview of the whole crisis, but does a pretty good job asking why housing prices rose so much and then fell, and why this caused some problems in financial markets.  To give some idea of the flavor of the book, Sowell documents that during the boom, housing prices rose faster in areas with extensive restrictions on land use--with less land available on which to build houses in a given area, housing prices rose faster.  This is important, in Sowell's telling, because it implies that it was not simply the Greenspan Bubble causing a rise in housing prices, but other government failures combined with the Greenspan bubble.  Not surprisingly, then, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac come in for quite a bit of abuse in the book.  The chief virtue of the book is that if one knew nothing about all this, it is written in a manner that explains part of the problem very well.  The chief disadvantage of the book is that if one knows quite a bit about the financial ciris, the book seems horribly incomplete.

And, I may as well take the opportunity to answer a question I get asked a lot these days.  What is QE2 and is it a good idea?  QE2 or Quantitative Easing 2 is simply the recent Fed decision to expand the money supply.  Rapidly increasing the amount of money is commonly known as an "easy money" policy, and thus the Fed is being Easy in providing a higher Quantity of money.  The only thing unusual about this is that they are not using the standard method of deciding how much more money to provide.  In normal times, the Fed would announce an easier money supply by announcing a lower target for the federal funds rate (the rate banks charge each other on overnight loans).  Once the target was lowered, the Fed would simply  increase the monetary base until that particular interest rate fell to the desired level.  However, right now the federal funds rate is near zero, so they can't announce the policy that way.  So, they announced that they will buy longer term assets and provide a certain amount of funds to the market.  They did this before; so this is the second time they have announced such a policy, hence the 2 in QE2.  Plus, it sounds a lot hipper and cooler to talk about QE2 than it does to say things like increase the monetary base.

What will be the effect of the policy.  Bernanke thinks that QE2 will provide enough new money to the market that interest rates will fall a bit and then firms will invest more and consumers will borrow more and the increase in investment and consumption will help kick economic growth into a higher gear.  There is an obvious concern that the long term effect of this policy will be higher inflation, but Bernanke is convinced the Fed can get the money back out of the economy in time to prevent inflation.  Critics of the policy come in two forms: 1) the mild critics think hat the policy won't actually do much good, that there is limited ability to lower the interest rates (they are already low), so the stimulative effect of the policy will be tiny;  2) the stronger critics agree that the policy won't do much good, but moreover, the Fed is unlikely to get the money back out of the economy in time to avoid generating high inflation.

There is really no way to forecast what will happen with respect to inflation--it is purely a matter of predicting whether the Fed will have the willingness and knowledge to act in time.  So, the big determination in whether one is a mild or strong critic is simply determining whether you think Ben Bernanke will have enough knowledge and will to pull off shrinking the money supply before inflation becomes unavoidable.  (I don't think anyone questions his motives here.)  You can put me down as a strong critic.  I really don't see the Fed stomping on the breaks in time to stop inflation from coming at the risk of generating another recession.  It can be done in theory, but I will be surprised if it works out well in practice.  I really hope I am surprised.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Collecting Butterflies

Nabokov's Speak, Memory is a curious book.  It is, in a sense, an autobiography, and I really am not a big fan of autobiographies.  It is also, in a sense, a collection of short stories originally published in magazines about the author's life, and I have mixed feelings about short stories in magazines, especially autobiographical ones.  The book has no plot whatsoever.  The author does not discuss anything that is of particular interest--Nabokov is famous because he is a great novelist, but nothing in this book discusses the writing of novels or anyhting close to that. 

Yet, I really enjoyed the book.  It is amazingly well-written, and so the prose style alone makes it worth reading.  Each chapter (and originally each magazine piece) starts off with some rumination about an event in Nabokov's life and then rambles all over the place--it reads like the way memory works--first you think of one thing which reminds you of something else, which leads to something else entirely.  So, rather than being a conventional autobiography ("I was born and then later I turned 1 and a year later turned 2 and then surprisingly one year later I had my 3rd birthday, and then..."), it wanders all over.  And it was fun to read. 

It makes one think about memory, naturally enough.  But the thing which rally made me puzzle was the chapter in which he discussed his butterfly collection.  Nabokov loved collecting butterflies.  His whole life he tracked them down to capture them. I think  I read more about butterflies in this book than I have read about them in all the other books I have read combined.  I don't really care all that much about butterflies.  There is allegedly a fantastic butterfly zoo very close to where I live, and I have never once been tempted to go see the butterflies.  Yet, I found this chapter utterly riveting.  The butterfly part wasn't that interesting, but the discussion of collecting was amazing.

You see, I don't collect anyhting.  There are things I own and things I like to get, but I just don't have the collector's impulse.  For example, I really like getting Raiders paraphernalia, but I never hunt it out, scouring through stores to find rare items.  I never buy anything just to add to my collection.  I also like books, and I buy lots of books, but again, I don't have that collector's impulse to find a rare copy of a book.  If I want a book, I look on-line and find the cheapest copy and buy it.  Yesterday, I asked the students in my tutorial (in which I assigned the book for this week--the students liked the book too, by the way) about this collecting thing.  They collect things, and they described the joy of discovery with the same reverential tones that Nabokov discusses finding a new butterfly.  I asked why they just don't buy the things for their collection online, and they scoffed at the idea--that, it seems, would destroy the whole joy of the quest. I was told in no uncertain terms, that finding a rare Harry Potter edition in the dusty corner of a used bookstore is fun; buying the same book online is boring.

My lack of collecting has bugged me for years.  Every now and then, I  think that I should start a collection of something.  But every time I decide I should do this and try to think of what to collect, I can't think of anything I would get excited about going to a giant flea market to find.  So, I am left perpetually thinking I am missing out on some pleasure that  normal people in the world enjoy.

At least that I what I thought until it suddenly hit me this morning.  I do collect something.  I collect books I have read.  It isn't the physical book collecting that makes me happy, it is the fact that I have read yet another book.  I get happy about reading a particular book even when the particular book isn't all that good.  I am always happy when I read the last page of a book.  When I think about the joy of reading a book, I realize that it sounds just like Nabokov discussing butterflies.  He wants to find another butterfly not because it is a particularly beautiful butterfly, but just because he hasn't found it yet.  That's what I feel about reading a not particularly amazing book--I am still glad to be able to put the book in my metal register of books I have read.  Suddenly I feel a lot better--I have a collection!  And just like collecting another butterfly or stamp or egg-shaped rock makes collectors of such things happy, reading another book makes me happy.  And, best of all--my collection doesn't take up space in the house.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


On Saturday, I went with my tutorial  to see the Met's broadcast of Donizetti's Don Pasquale.  It was, not surprisingly, amazing.  There is something quite satisfying about seeing the best opera singers of the age in a beautifully done high-level production.  The opera itself is funny--I am not sure how funny it would have been with a different cast, but all four parts in this opera were played marvelously well.  The moral:  Old men should not get married.  Wise words, those.

And, as long as the topic is Wisdom, I recently finished Robert Alter's new work of translations: The Wisdom Books.  These are translations of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  The Job translation is fantastic; it made Job, which has before now always struck me as a tiresome book, come alive.  The poetry in it is incredible--I had never noticed that before.  The translation of Ecclesiastes is also extremely good.  Proverbs?  Well, Proverbs is a rather tedious book to read straight through--it is like reading one of those quote a day books in one sitting--the mind numbs pretty rapidly.  Alter's introductions to each of the books are good, but the notes within the text are not quite up to the level of his earliest books.  The same thing was true of his last book (translations of the Psalms)--obviously, he had much more insight into the Books of Moses and the David story--but he has now become a translation machine.  (It will be interesting to see how much of the Old Testament he eventually translates--I would guess that Ruth, Esther and Song of Solomon are next.  And it is hard to imagine he won't do Isaiah and Lamentations at some point.)  But, even with the weaker set of textual notes, the book is well worth reading, if for no other reason than that the book of Job will never seem the same again.

Wisdom, by the way, has really fallen out of favor in the modern age.  We value intelligence and charisma, to be sure.  But wisdom?  When was the last time you heard a public figured being praised as being particularly Wise?  Who is the Wisest person in the modern age--the equivalent of the Public Intellectual or Leader? 

(Does Mick Jagger count as an answer to that last question?)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Age of Frances Perkins

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes is a rare object: it is an economically-literate history book written for the general reader.  That combination is depressingly rare--mostly because economists are notoriously bad writers and popular authors know notoriously little economics.  This book, though, is a very nice tale about the Great Depression--giving vivid portraits of Hoover and FDR as well as a host of other characters.  (And, in what will endear the book to MHC students and alums--Frances Perkins comes off rather well in the book.  I assigned this book in my intro class; I suspect it is the first time most of the students learned anything about Frances Perkins beyond the fact that there is a subset of MHC students called Frances Perkins scholars (For non-MHC folks, the Frances Perkins scholars are "nontraditional students" which in effect means they are over the age of 21 or they are married or they have children when they matriculate.).)  (Also, by the way,  in her convocation speech, Lynn  referred to Frances Perkins as a former Secretary of the Treasury--so apparently the confusion about who she was extends up to the President's office as well.) 

The big lesson of the book is something macroeconomists have known for some time, but has never permeated the popular conscience:  the New Deal was a miserable failure.  It never did any good, and may in fact have prolonged the Great Depression.  In the cartoon history of the Great Depression which is in high school history books, the New Deal saved the economy.  But when you actually go back and look at the range of the New Deal programs and evaluate what they actually did, it's hard to find anything coming out of the New Deal which had and immediate positive effect on the economy

I think Hoover comes off better than FDR in the book, but not much better.  In fact the other big lesson of the book is that Hoover and FDR really didn't differ all that much in the types of things they were trying during the Depression. 

The most curious character in the book is Father Divine--I had never heard of him before.  (Here is a 7 minute intro, or you can just read Shlaes' book.)  [When I was having lunch with George Nash after I read the book, I talked to him about it, and threw out a few oddities like the existence of Father Divine--he knew about every one of them--plus, of course, he added a bunch more interesting anecdotes about the era--someday I will discover a bit of historical trivia about the Hoover era or the history of conservatives which is unknown to George, and then I will be able to say to that moment, "Tarry a while! you are so fair!"]

All in all, The Forgotten Man is a pretty good book if you like reading history books.  Lots of great stories which capture the whole era.

Incidentally, the reason I decided to assign the book in my intro class was because I am really tired of hearing people talk about current events as if we are in a situation comparable to that of the 1930s.  There is no way to read something about the 1930s and think modern times are anywhere near the same neighborhood.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Two Cheers for Imperialism

Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion

I recently reread this book after assigning it to my introduction to macroeconomics course.  It is part of the genre "Books trying to explain recent thinking among economists about how to turn poor countries into rich countries."  This one, like most of the others, suffers from being less a general overview and more "Let me, the author, tell you why my research is the most important research in the whole world explaining how to turn poor countries into rich countries."  So, in effect, the book is also just a summary of Paul Collier's research.

But, at least Paul Collier's research is interesting.  The "Bottom Billion" are the roughly billion people living in countries which are not only not growing, but stagnating or regressing with no real hope that they will start growing anytime soon.  So, while the other 5 billion people on earth can reasonably expect that the quality of their lives will improve over time, the bottom billion have no such expectation.  Figuring out what could be done to help the Bottom Billion is easily the most pressing economic problem in the world today.  Yet, it is a problem which does lend itself to an easy solution.

Collier does a nice job identifying what it is that keeps the Bottom Billion from improving--a combination of bad government and bad neighbors and wars and too many natural resources.  (Note the last is too many, not too few--if you are sitting on a lot of natural resources, it is bad for you because you spend all your time extracting wealth from the natural resources, which does not lead to economic growth, instead of doing all the sorts of things which lead to a vibrant economy.)

But  here is the ultimately depressing thing about this book and all the other books like it--identifying the problem is relatively easy.  Writing down solutions is also relatively easy.  But, the very things that create the problem in the first place also prevent the solution from ever being implemented.  If your problem is that your rulers are power-hungry kleptomaniacs, then saying you need a better government is not the sort of policy recommendation likely to be implemented.  If your problem is that a few people can get very wealthy selling off the country's natural resources, saying that you should switch your economy over to something more broad-based isn't going to be very persuasive to those who are enriching themselves.

Collier has lots of nice sounding ideas, but ultimately he founders on this implementation problem.  He seems aware of this problem, and thus one of his solutions is, and I kid you not, military occupation.  If the wealthy stable countries would just take over the governments of the poor, dysfunctional countries, then there is some hope for reform.  Now saying that sort of thing does not make you popular at the cocktail parties which all the Right and Beautiful People attend, and in the wake of Iraq, Collier certainly has his work cut out for him to avoid sounding like one of Them (you know, the Neanderthals voted for Bush).  So, Collier hints here and there that Iraq isn't really what he means, it is just, you know, other military occupations.

So, the real virtue of Collier's book is not exactly what he intended--it presents a pretty coherent case that rich countries are morally obligated to intervene in the countries in which the Bottom Billion live, whether the  rulers of those countries want such intervention or not.  That argument is a nice Rorschach Test--which is more important: 1) Improving the lives of the Bottom Billion or 2) Keeping you hands clean of anything that might even appear to be imperialistic?  If you can't have both, which do you choose?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I Love Jacoby Ford

Seriously.  I love him.  Unbelievable game.  The Raiders were horrid on offense all day, and won in overtime anyway, thanks to my new hero.  Captain Kirk, step aside for the day; I have a new hero for tonight.  And they beat the Chiefs.  What an unbelievably wonderful day.  The Raiders haven't played like this for almost a decade.  The Defense was incredible all day.  And Jacoby Ford was unbelievable.  A KO return for a TD.  A huge catch, stealing the ball from a DB to set up the tying FG.  A huge catch in OT to set up the winning FG.  We haven't seen a Wide Receiver dominate like that since Tim Brown was in his prime.  Life is very, very good.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The State of First Things, November 2010

Well, this month's review will have a different format because this month's issue is quite different.

First Things, in what we can only hope is not the first of an annual series, decided to publish a College Issue.  And the first item in this College Issue is a 38 page long College Guide with college rankings and descriptions of the schools being ranked.  And, it is, in a word, Terrible.  Or Silly.  Or Pointless.  Or one of the most absurd publishing ploys I have seen in a long time (OK, that's more than one word.).  Seriously, it is Awful, just Awful.  They decide to rank schools on three measures: academic, social and religious.  Their method for giving each school a rank (on a 50 point scale) for each category is absurd--truly absurd.  (I have spent quite  a bit of time thinking about college rankings for a research project I worked on for quite some time, so I flipped to the description of how they calculated their index numbers before I read anything else--I was shocked at how utterly ridiculous their method of evaluation was.  It was not designed by anyone who had given more than about 10 minutes of thought to how to construct an index number which would have any actual meaning.).  Then they get overall rankings by combining the goofy scores they just calculated.  The top four schools in America:  1) Wheaton; 2) Ave Maria; 3) Princeton; 4) The United States Air Force Academy.  Since 2003, when Ave Maria was founded, there has not been a single student who sat down to try to debate about which of those four schools he should attend--fortunately, First Things has weighed in to tell us how to rank those four schools.  Then the write-ups on the schools?  I just read the write-ups for the schools about which I know something (including Mount Holyoke (and Amherst, but not Smith (there was no review of Smith (grin!))))--they are trite beyond belief--you can get more information about any of the schools from any other college guide on the market.

I could go on, but what's the point?  This enterprise was so ill-conceived it boggles the mind.

The rankings are followed up by four articles about education.  The first two essays at least have an audience--Hauerwaus gives decent advice to a college student about how to think about being in college (nothing in it surprised me and I have a hard time thinking of a single student I have ever known that would have benefited from reading this article, but at least there was nothing in the article that made me wince); Eberstadt relates that colleges are, as her title says "Bacchanlia Unbound."  (Shocking to be sure--did you know there is a lot of alcohol and sex at fraternity parties???)  Then it goes downhill:  D'Souza, Starr and Garvey, presidents of Christian Colleges (King's  College, Baylor and the Catholic University of America) turn in essays about how wonderful their schools are--all three articles read exactly like the boilerplate which constitutes a university's mission statement.  Finally, Reno provides an impressionistic review of Ph.D. program in theology--I think all 10 of the people who might care about this article already knew everything in this article.

If this is the future of First Things, then it doesn't matter whether I decide to renew my subscription or not--the magazine will be dead in 2 years.

But, at least two of the book reviews were good.  David Hart has a great review of the first volume in Twain's autobiography which has some really interesting insight into Twain.  "And this, I think, turns out to have been the strange secret that was usually concealed behind Mark Twain's legendary mirth: a vision of the world marked by an utterly abysmal, utterly unrelieved bleakness."  Also worth reading was Douthat's review of Franzen's Freedom, mostly because it has some interesting reflections on the nature of the modern novel and how it differs from the old-style novel with "big, thick stories of intimate life."

But two decent book reviews in an utterly depressing issue of a magazine--not much consolation at all.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One night just isn't enough...

As everyone knows, this week marks a very important moment in determining the future of this country.  On Wednesday, the Fed will be announcing the next incarnation of the continuing evolution of monetary policy.  (What? You thought I was talking about the election on Tuesday?)  And in anticipation of that announcement tomorrow, I offer the following:

Quantitative Easin'

Ah, Macroeconomist Humor.  The best kind.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Treat on Hallowmas Eve

1.  33-3!   And the score doesn't even begin to tell the story.  For the second week in a row, the Raiders absolutely crushed their opponent.  This week's sacrificial victim was the Seahawks--a team I used to hate a lot before the Seahawks decamped to the NFC when the league realigned--now I really don't care about the Seahwaks--though I must admit that I still have a hard time thinking kind thoughts about Steve Largent, even though he has turned into a very fine politician.  But I digress.  The Raiders were once again Dominant.  The Raiders haven't looked this good since their Super Bowl season--for two weeks, they played like a team that knows how to win.  Next up: The Kansas City Chiefs.  (By the way--I hate the Chiefs--not as much as I hate the Broncos, but pretty close.)  If the Raiders play this way for a third week in a row...well, playoffs, here we come.

2. This Sunday night presents the annual test of Sports Loyalty.  Right now, the Giants and Rangers are playing in Game 4 of the World Series and the Steelers and Saints are playing a regular season game.  You can tell a lot about a person by finding out which game is being watched.  The Steelers don't look nearly as good as I thoght they were going to look.

3.  The Raiders play the Steelers in three weeks.  I think they can beat them.  Easily.

4. I reread T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets tonight.  Amazing poetry--but, that is pretty obvious.  It got me to thinking--as Eliot's poetry always does.  (And note, what follows is not meant as a summary of Four Quartets or even the main idea or overview of it.  The Summary of Four Quartets?  You are joking, right?  It cannot be summarized.)  The following lines got me wondering:

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age?
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

(that's from East Coker, II)

Much of the Four Quartets is about the nature of time.  We spend most of our lives living either in anticipation of the future or dwelling in the past.  To live in the present is difficult--well, maybe it is impossible.  Can we ever live in the present--I mean really live in the present--not thinking about where we are going or where we have been?  Now that passage above got me pondering--why do I spend so much time reading?  What knowledge or wisdom do I hope to gain?  I read because I am thinking about the future.  But why do I watch football? Why did I love to see the Raiders destroy the Seahawks today?  I started wondering while reading Eliot if perhaps football is, for me, a succession of times in which I live in the present.  For 3 hours, the rest of the world is set aside--it is a timeless bubble of joy and agony.  The joy and the agony last after the moment--in the world outside the game, the feelings of the game persist.  But in the moment of the game, there is no outside world intruding in.  For 3 hours, whether the Raiders score and whether they stop their opponent from scoring is all there is.  Timelessness.

I suspect when I think about this more, I'll realize that the above isn't quite right--but it sure seems right.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Best Book in the World

You can thank or blame Clara for today's book review.

For some time now, Clara has been persistently bugging me (as only Clara can do (she has the most pitch-perfect whining voice ever)) to read a book.  Not just any book--which I suppose is obvious because she, like the Reader, knows that I do, in fact, read books in general--but a specific book.  A book that is, according to Clara, The Best Book in the World.  And, since Clara has read Said Book, it is also, necessarily, The Best Book Clara has Ever Read.  Now, lest you be unduly impressed with Clara's prodigious reading talents, said Best Book in the World is not, as the unsuspecting Reader might Suspect, War and Peace or Hamlet or Confessions or the Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot or the Divine Comedy.  While Clara, if she had read any of those books would presumably be willing to acknowledge that books such as those are good, perhaps even very good, they cannot be anywhere Nearly as Good as The Best Book in the World.

Until recently, I had resisted Clara's insistent demand (in the aforementioned whiny voice)  (By the way, Clara, if she ever reads this post, will immediately say to me, "I don't have a whiny voice" and when she says that, she will be using her whiny voice--and even the fact that I have now predicted that she will whine in such a manner about how she doesn't whine will not prevent her from doing exactly that--you see, she can't help herself.)  (But, lest the Reader get the wrong impression, she is a Very Good Whiner.  Very Good; indeed, Excellent.  Much better than her sisters.), but things had changed (and, yes, I am aware that the Reader was forced to go back to the Point before the parenthetical asides began to recall the beginning of this sentence) of late, and I came to the Realization, that perhaps by Reading The Best Book in the World, I could attain a Secondary Objective.  (The primary objective was, of course, reading The Best Book in the World--or, at least determining if Said Book merited Said Moniker--after all, I have now heard said book called The Best Book in the World more frequently than I have heard any other book ever written called that--the fact that every application of the honorific to the title in question was provided by my daughter does not change the fact that I have heard the designation/book title combination more frequently than I have seen a lesser work like Hamlet designated as The Best.)

The Secondary Objective mentioned in the preceding paragraph was to stop Clara from whining about Hans Christian Andersen.

Some explanation may be in order.  For several years, my wife and I (well, mostly the latter) have been insisting that our children read Books of Merit.  Emma and Lily have long been handed books and given a two week period of time in which to finish said books.  Emma has dutifully read a vast sum of great literature in the last half-dozen years; Lily has sporadically read great literature over the last 4 years.  This year, we started Clara on her own Personalized Reading Program.  On October 16th, I handed her a collection of tales by Hans Christian Anderson and a list of the more noteworthy tales to read.  Now, mind, Hans Christian Andersen wrote short stories, indeed, he wrote short "short stories"--many of them are 4 whole pages in length.  They are, as the reader is aware, famous tales.  So, Clara's assignment for the latter half of October was actually a remarkably short assignment.  (Emma, by way of contrast is reading 1984.  She likes it, I am happy to report.)  Upon seeing the book, Clara began whining (have I ever mentioned how good she is at that activity?).  She didn't like the cover of the book, and as I mentioned in some prior post, Clara is a Judge-a-Book-by-its-Cover aficionado.  So, she whined and whined and whined about how she didn't want to read that book.

Then I had an idea (a wonderful awful idea).  I obtained a copy of the Best Book in the World from the UMass library (note that the Mount Holyoke library, much to my surprise, does not have The Best Book in the World.  The Mount Holyoke Library is obviously run by Philistines.)  I brought it home, and sat down in a chair to read with Clara.  She started whining about her book.  I said I was just stating mine.  Then she looked at my book--now note, I had the hard cover version without a dust jacket, so it was not possible to tell what book I was reading--and declared that my book was "weird" (Clara calls every book I read "weird").  I asked why she thought it was weird and showed her the title.  She became immediately and ridiculously excited and happy.  Ah, I thought, my plan is working.  I then noted that since I was reading the book she told me I should read, she could surely read the book I told her to read without whining.  She started whining.  My plan failed. I read the book anyway, but every time I picked it up, I had the bitter aftertaste of disappointment and defeat.

But, now to the book review itself  The Best Book in the World is:
Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society

The review:  Robert Ludlum for children.  I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot when I was Clara's age (11 for those of you keeping score at home).  It has a team of kids who are Supertalented joining with the Uber-Brilliant Mr Benedict to thwart the nefarious and Evil plans of World Domination by a Secret Society.  Said Secret Society is Insanely Powerful, said group of Children have nothing but their wits, and thus an epic clash between an Evil Organization with unlimited funds and manpower against a group of pre-teens.  Guess who wins in the end?

So, not a bad book if you are young enough.  But, the Best Book in the World?  Sorry, Clara.  Not even close.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Job 42

 1.  I am still ridiculously happy about the Raiders incredible win on Sunday.  59-14!  And they destroyed, completely destroyed, the Denver Broncos, the team in professional sports for which I have the greatest loathing.  You know how Red Sox fans hate the Yankees?  That looks like true love compared to how much I hate the Broncos.  And there were the Raiders utterly destroying them on Sunday.  What a fantastic, truly fantastic day,

2. I recently reread Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited.  McCarthy is one of the best contemporary novelists--I have liked every one of his books (and I have read them all except his screenplay for a mid-70s PBS special).  This book is, as it says on the cover, "a novel in dramatic form."  But I am not sure what the difference is between "a novel in dramatic form" and "a play."  This book sure looks like a play, reads like a play, and oddly enough, was performed as a play.  But, whatever it is called, it is brilliant--absolutely brilliant.  And it is a fantastic starting point for reading Cormac McCarthy.  Most of McCarthy's books are drenched in violence--brutal, ugly violence.  He is the best examiner of the depths of human depravity I know.  This book has very little violence, so for those who don't like violence with their philosophy, it is not a bad starting place.  (For those who don't mind stunning portrayals of violence and ugliness, Blood Meridian is his best work--but seriously, it is not for the faint of heart--it is a depiction of unbelievably ugly and vile men as a conduit for one of the most thought-provoking examinations of sin and evil I have ever read.)  This book, The Sunset Limited has limited violence--the whole thing is a conversation between two people--a highly religious ex-convict who is named "Black" and a jaded atheistic college professor who is named "White."  It is a brilliant exploration of the meaning of human existence. 

3, Speaking of jaded college professors, a colleague just forwarded this along to me.  Not recommended for anyone who wants to preserve a romantic view of the academy.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Economic Gangsters

In my Macroeconomic Theory class this semester, I assigned Fisman and Miguel's book, Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations.  It seems my students really liked the book.  I was less impressed than they were.  I was impressed by the title, though--how can you not like a book that promises to combine economics and gangsters?  Keynes as the Godfather--surely that would be a Hollywood blockbuster, right?

The book is part of the genre of "economic researchers summarize their papers in a book aimed at a popular audience."  This particular book documents that, shockingly enough, some nations are more corrupt than others, and some nations have higher levels of violence than others, and that such corruption and violence plays a big role in keeping poor countries poor.  This, by the way, is the sort of research which is interesting to economists, but about which non-economists all say in unison, "Well, isn't that rather obvious?"  [Whether you said that when reading the book description is a good test of whether you are an economist or a normal person.]  Well, no it isn't obvious, thank you very much--you non-economists just think it is obvious, but without an extensive study of parking violations by diplomats to the UN, we really don't know if corruption is inherent in some country's culture and whether the countries with inherently corrupt cultures are poorer than those those countries with cultures which are less corrupt.  At least we have to assume the non-obviousness of the conclusion in order to justify doing the research, writing a book like this one and then reading it and assigning it to one's students.

So, is the book worth reading?  I don't know--I thought it was worth reading once, but I don't think I would recommend it to others.  However, the students I have talked to about it loved it, so maybe I am wrong to hesitate recommending it.

The parking violation story is the best chapter.  The authors figured out which diplomatic corps had the highest rate of parking violations in New York.  Since diplomats don't have to pay for their parking violations, there is no consequence for breaking the law.  There is no consequence for any diplomats to break the parking laws, but some countries' diplomats violate parking laws much more frequently that others.  The range:  249.4 violations per diplomat over a 5 year period is the worst offender; 0 violations per diplomat over the same 5 year period is the best record.  The worst offenders: Kuwait, Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Bulgaria, Mozambique, Albania, Angola, Senegal, Pakistan.  An interesting group, that.

Speaking of corruption and violence, someone called in a bomb threat at Emma and Lily's school today.   So, they had to evacuate the building and they sent everyone home early.  Now, this might have been good news for some kids, but not mine.  You see, the students were not allowed to go back and get their things, so Emma had to leave her car keys inside.  So, she is annoyed.  Lily took the bus home, but today the electrician is at our house today replacing our electrical panel, so we have no electricity, and so being home isn't all that exciting today.  Emma went a friend's house nearby the school ostensibly because that way she has some hope of getting back over to the school to get her keys, but also perhaps because said friend still has electricity.  Clara, meanwhile, gets to spend the whole day in school, but since Clara's school is next door to the high school, I suspect that classroom instruction (or that which everyone pretends to be instruction) was disrupted by all the faux excitement.

In talking with a colleague about the bomb scare, we got to wondering--is it still possible to make an anonymous phone call?  I have no idea.  It is rather hard to find a pay phone these days, and with Caller ID, don't they have a record of every call being made?