Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sooo Tricky

The other night, Clara and I were reading in the family room. Clara was reading How You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. She was clearly enjoying her book. (I was moderately enjoying mine, but I haven't finished it yet, so the review will have to wait. (Life is full of disappointments, I know.)) When she finished, she walked over to me, stuck the book in front of my face and said, "You have to read this."
I said, "But, I am reading my book."
"No, you have to read this. It's sooo tricky."
She threw the book in my lap. "It's short, you can read it in a night. You have to read it."
She was right--it was short--200 pages, big kid-book style font.
So, I read it.
Clara wanted to tell me the end before I finished it. She was really excited about the book. It was, you see, sooo tricky. Make that SOOOOOOO TRICKY!

My review: It was a pretty good kid's book. It just won the Newbury, which is how Clara heard about it. Well, actually, she called me up at work and asked me to get the book from the Mount Holyoke library and she was sure they would have it because it just won the Nobel Prize. I told her it couldn't have just won the Nobel Prize because they give out the prize in October. She patiently explained that in that case, it must have won it in October. I told her it didn't win in October because last October the Nobel Prize in Literature was given to some woman who doesn't write in English. She was a bit troubled by that news. But, when I mentioned that it must have won some award for children's literature, she brightened back up.

Anyway, it may well have deserved its award. (I haven't read the other contestants, so I really don't have any basis for judging.)

The tricky, make that the SOOOO TRICKY, part was a basic time-travel story which has a character coming back into his own time line to change the outcome of his life. It has the usual array of continuity problems which such stories inherently have. It was well-written and charming--though I think most of my enjoyment from the book was really just knowing that my daughter liked it so much.

I don't think I would ever travel back into my own past to alter the outcome of my life. I am far too risk averse. Though, come to think of it, maybe I would overcome my risk aversion if something really terrible happened in my life--I suppose if the event was bad enough, there would be no downside risk, but, then again, things can always get worse, so perhaps there is no such thing as an event for which altering it presents no downside risk. I'll have to think about that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life after the Slave Revolt

For my tutorial this week, we read Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. I've read it before, but as anyone who has ever read a Nietzsche book knows, it is impossible, literally impossible to completely figure out what Nietzsche means in his books, and as a result he is well worth rereading. I like Nietzsche--he amuses me. This isn't the best starting place for Nietzsche--I think The Genealogy of Morals is much more comprehensible for a first book (it is the one I assign in my Western Civilization class). But, this book has a wide array of topics--and a middle section full of short pithy aphorisms, which is the best part of the book. You could spend a long time ruminating about his aphorisms, which is the point of the section.

As for his philosophy, what I really like about Nietzsche is that he faces squarely what the world would be like if there was no God. In this sense, I think he is completely correct--either there is a God or Nietzsche is right. If there were no God, then the moral code we all use would be strange and would seem calculated to help weak, inferior people rise to the top while suppressing the naturally strong and noble.

And, I suppose I should also admit that Nietzsche is fun to talk about with Mount Holyoke students because his views on women are...well, nobody ever called Nietzsche a feminist. Consider:
"Comparing man and woman on the whole, one may say: woman would not have the genius for finery if she did not have an instinct for a secondary role."
"Where neither love nor hatred is in the game, a woman's game is mediocre."

But, Nietzsche is fun for other reasons too, so ending on a different note:
"In the end one loves one's desire and not what is desired"
"The familiarity of those who are superior embitters because it may not be returned.--"
"A matter that becomes clear ceases to concern us.--What was on the mind of that god who counseled: 'Know thyself!' Did he mean: 'Cease to concern yourself! Become objective!'--And Socrates?--And 'scientific men'?--"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Deja Vu all over again

One of the most frequent things people said to me in 2008 was that I was surely needing to rewrite my entire money and banking syllabus in light of the financial crisis. I always said that actually I didn't have to rewrite a thing, that nothing that was occurring was any different than things we have seen over and over again. Every time I said this, I was told, sometimes more politely than not, that I didn't know what I was talking about because the events in 2008 were different than anything we had ever seen before. Everyone knew this (well, apparently everyone except me knew this) because all those talking heads on TV said so.

And now comes the first wave of books written after the financial crisis of 2008--I have assigned a bunch of them in my money and banking course. The first one was:

This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Reinhart and Rogoff. The title comes from a comment made by an unnamed trader: "More money has been lost because of four words than at the point of a gun. The words are, 'This time is different.'" It turns out that the financial crises for the last 800 years all look pretty much the same--and the events of 2007-2008 are no different. Who knew? Well, everyone who was paying attention knew--all you had to do was spend a little time reading what economists who weren't on TV were saying at the time. But, those economists don't make TV because "Well, actually, there is nothing new in this crisis" is not nearly as compelling TV as "The economy is falling apart and everyone is going to become unemployed and there will soon be people starving in the street and fighting with dogs for food scraps in the trash."

As for the book--it is for serious economic nerds only. The book came out a year too early--the authors have put together a really interesting data set, but rather than spend a year working with it, they rushed a book to print with only a cursory look at the data. Even the cursory look is enough, though, to show how financial crises are both quite common and quite similar to one another.

Last year I assigned another book with the same conclusion but a different approach. Michael Lewis' Panic is just a series of journalistic reports from the last 4 financial crisis--it was uncanny how identical the journalistic reports during, say, the Long-Term Capital Management meltdown sounded exactly like those written in 2007-2008.

The one thing that made the recent crisis different from some of the others in the recent US past was the breakout from the financial crisis to the rest of the economy. We have seen that before too, of course. I suspect, when the story is done being written, we will discover that a large part of the reason the financial crisis spilled out to the rest of the economy was because the crisis was unfolding in an election year, and the candidates (both of them) decided to ramp up the anxiety for political gain. That's speculation at this point, though.

And on a lighter note: Yogi Berra

Friday, February 19, 2010

Le Freak

After Levitt and Dubner's best-selling and generally good Freakonomics, a sequel was inevitable, I suppose.

Superfreakonomics was the result. It is...OK. Freakonomics had the advantage that it was based on Levitt's long career of interesting, offbeat research. But, all the good stuff went into that. So, nothing was left for this book. As a result, they had to drum up some new material, which ends up being a) research other people have done, 2) cursory research Levitt and Dubner have done in the last two years, or c) wild speculation about research that might actually be done in the future. The book is well-written, some of the material is fun to think about, but there isn't much in here that has the feel of Levitt's research showing that school teachers in Chicago were systematically changing their student's answers on state mandated exams to make it look like the students did better than they actually did.

The global warming chapters have received the most attention--if you have been paying attention to the details of the global warming science instead of the press about them, there isn't anything surprising here. But, it will be a good introduction for people who have only seen the headlines. People like the kids in Janet's girl scout troop. Janet's greenhouse is now up and there are plants in it. Last week, her girl scout troop was over, so she showed them the greenhouse. Some of the kids were a be nervous going in. She found out why. When they were leaving the greenhouse, one of the kids left the door open. Several kids became immediately alarmed because the Greenhouse Gases were escaping.

The first chapter of Superfreakonomics has me a bit worried. I assigned the book in my introduction to microeconomics class. I hadn't read it when I assigned it, so I wasn't sure what it contained. Chapter 1 is all about prostitution. It is a combination of some research into lower class prostitutes and the prices they charge and then a nice puff piece about a high-end prostitute who gets $500 per hour from rich clients. The tone of the chapter is that it is good to be a high-end prostitute--high wages, easy work. So, here is my troubling thought--if some of the 18 year olds in my class decide after reading that chapter that this prostitution thing looks like a good career move, am I responsible?

The title of the blog post is a reference to a song that was very popular when I was in Junior High. You can relive it here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Camera Eye

I told Janet about the Gettysburg's Address PowerPoint slideshow. She looked at me and deadpanned, "Is that an example of Professor Humor?" Sigh.

I am seriously behind in the book review department here. I am still trying to figure out where writing up book reviews falls on the priority list--more or less important than writing letters of recommendation? finishing a paper I promised to have done by the 28th? reading a new book? contemplating the universe while drinking a cup of coffee in silence? sorting out the Town of Granby's finances?

Last week's book for my tutorial was John Dos Passos's The 42nd Parallel. This is the first book in his trilogy U.S.A. Not too long ago, I saw that trilogy labeled as The Great American Novel (which is, of course, the Questing Book of Scholars). I enjoyed volume 1 of the trilogy, though I now suspect whomever it was who called it The Great American Novel did so because if its scope and not its quality. It reads like a series of short novellas about different characters--but the novellas are interwoven. Some of the people meet toward the end, but their interactions aren't really the point. Interspersed throughout the narrative are: 1) biographies of real people written in a stylistic manner, 2) Newsreels, which are a jumble of newspaper headlines and song lyrics, 3) the Camera Eye, which are first-person stream of conscious entries--sort of like a proto-blog. The biographies of real people were my favorite parts of the book. The newsreels were a mess, but did convey a sense of history and furious pace, which I assume was the intention. The Camera Eye bits--well, I didn't pay much attention to them--they were OK, but they started mid-thought and ended mid-thought and I couldn't figure out if it was worth the bother to decipher them. The volume ends just as WWI is starting. I am not sure if there was a theme--if anything it is that socialists are good, but that doesn't really fit perfectly with the book. I assume by the end of volume 3, there will be some larger message.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Abe's Great Talk

Ah, at long last, something that captures the Curse of the Powerpoint Presentation:

Seriously, how did Powerpoint become the crutch of choice for bad speakers? When was the last time you were at an event where the Powerpoint presentation actually enhanced the talk?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Another Super Sunday

Great game last night--then again, the Super Bowl is always a great game, easily the finest moment in sports. Indeed, Super Sunday may be second to only Christmas in terms of being one of the greatest days of the year.

It was nice to see the Saints win--for those with no sense of football history, not only have the Saints never been to the Super Bowl before, the last two years are the first time in Saints' history when they have even been relevant.

My only disappointment--after last night, making the case that Peyton Manning is the Greatest Quarterback of All Time just got a bit harder. I still think he is, but last night really took the edge off that claim.

Now, the long dry time commences--training camp doesn't start for months, and between now and then, there is only the draft. But, given the Raiders drafting of late, I look at draft day with more trepidation than expectation. Of course the Raiders win it all next year, though--somehow, someway, they win it all. You heard it here first. In fact, this may be the only place you hear it.

The next few months are particularly bad sports-wise--baseball doesn't start until April, and there is nothing of interest in the meantime. Well, I guess I can start working on my fantasy baseball draft rankings now...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shaw and the Cross

I finally finished plowing through George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion. Generally, I like Shaw's plays, and his prefaces are also usually quite fun to read. (For those who have never read Shaw, the published versions of his plays usually include a long preface he wrote in which he expounds upon his philosophy of life and how the play illustrates that.)

This play was short, very short--41 pages in my edition.
This preface was long, very long--100 pages in my edition.

The play was just silly. A number of Christians are about to be fed to the lions and within 41 pages, we find out every one of the Christians was merely shamming and that none of them actually believe any Christian doctrine at all.

The preface set out to prove just one point:

Jesus, properly understood, is exactly like George Bernard Shaw. Before Peter started going around telling Jesus he was the Christ, Jesus was just a proto-George Bernard Shaw. But, when Jesus started being told he was divine, he let it go to his head and he started getting absurd and then went and committed suicide on the cross because he really did believe he was God.

Fortunately, Shaw never let his fame go to his head.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Translating Irish

Over the last few weeks I have been perusing Seamus Heaney's volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist. Until now, the only Heaney I have read was his translation of Beowulf, which is, incidentally, a marvelous translation--in terms of translations, it is on the level of the Hollanders' Dante, Fagles' Homer/Virgil and Pevear/Volokhonsky's Dostoevsky (and presumably Tolstoy--reading their Tolstoy translations is on my list of books to read).

The present volume was really quite good. I had no expectations going in. He reminds me a lot of Robert Frost--transplant Frost to Ireland, add a half-century, and I think this is the sort of thing you would get; in fact, so great is the similarity, that I would be rather shocked if that comparison hasn't been made hundreds of times before. His verse is good; it reads well and you aren't tripping on unnatural lines. What he does best is evoke a scene--after reading this, it isn't hard to imagine that there is some charm in growing up on an Irish potato farm.

Well, not too much charm--I don't think I would enjoy living on an Irish potato farm, because a) I don't really want to live in Ireland, and b) I don't really want to live on a farm. Though, come to think of it again, the home in which I do live and which I enjoy living in a tremendous amount, is growing more and more farm-like all the time. Today, in an odd coincidence, Janet is off to Boston to go to a giant Agricultural convention where she will spend the next three days talking to people about growing plants, which is somewhat farm-like. So, maybe the farm thing wouldn't be so bad. I suppose I should work on my Irish accent, now, to see if I would like the Ireland bit too.

And by the way, when I talk in an Irish accent, it really annoys Lily and Clara. Especially when I do so in public. Of course, I don't really have an Irish accent, and I suspect nobody who heard it would ever think I was Irish--they might think I was a bit strange, but I doubt they would think I was Irish. But, as I try to tell Lily and Clara--how would a complete stranger know, really know, that that wasn't the way I always talked? If you heard someone with some odd accent, would you automatically assume, he must be someone who grew up in California talking in some oddly accented voice because it amuses him to do so? Imagine being a Californian and thus growing up without an accent--wouldn't you like to try one out every now and then?