Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The State of First Things, April 2010

Next in a continuing series

I. Must Read

1) Armond White, "Do Movie Critics Matter?
White is the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, and this was a speech he gave at their annual awards banquet, at which, as the author's note states, "With movie luminaries such as Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Mo'Nique, Kathyrn Bigelow, and others in the audience, White's remarks were met with stony silence." That description alone made the article worth reading. The article is an argument for the importance of movie criticism, which is interesting because it answers an important question--why bother having movie critics? Most movie criticism, as White notes, is simply a poor substitute for film advertising. There is not much movie criticism for sophisticated thinkers. (And no, what passes for film criticism in the Academy doesn't count.) Good movie criticism would require art appreciation, not the fan-boy enthusiasm for movies, yet few movie critics are well-versed enough in the liberal arts to offer thoughtful criticism. I really noticed this when I read a year or so ago, the Library of America's volume American Movie Criticism, which was a best of movie criticism from the earliest 20th century until today. It was really pretty interesting--some of the critics in that volume were literate, thoughtful and generally quite perceptive. It was possible to imagine a substantive intellectual disagreement with those authors--something beyond "I liked that movie more or less than the critic did." I assume thoughtful movie critics still exist out there, but they don't regularly show up in any forum I generally read--though I do like Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal. (James Bowman also reviews movies and puts the reviews on his web page--and I do like James Bowman, but I don't regularly visit his page to read the reviews--maybe I should. Come to think of it, maybe he has an e-mail service where he e-mails the reviews when they are posted--I'll have to check sometime.)

2. David Novak, "Why are Jews Chosen?"
Easily the best article I have ever read arguing for the importance of preserving a Jewish identity. The purpose of the Jews is to preserve the Torah; if the Jews died out, the keepers of the Torah die out. Since God clearly wants the Torah to be preserved, it is vitally important that Jews maintain their identity. Now, I disagree with the premise of that, of course--the Torah has been completed in the work of Jesus--but if you do not accept that Christ was the Messiah, then the logic of Novak's argument is very good.

II. Worth Reading

1. John Lamont, "The Prophet Motive"
This is a decent review of the economics of religion literature. I had read most of the material the article discusses before, but the article has a good survey of that literature. The punch line--churches that have a rigorous theology and high expectations are thriving; churches that have watered down the theology and expectations are dying. Why? People who attend church want something; the watered down churches aren't actually offering anything at all.

2. Eric Cohen, "The God-Seeking Animal"
This is a review of Leon Kass' work. Leon Kass is interesting, so reviewing his work is inherently interesting, but the article is only OK. The main issue for discussion is how humans alone of all the animals can use their bodies in thoughtfully purposeful ways. That quick summary sounds pretty obvious and lame, but the article, insofar as it is summarizing Kass, has some interesting observations. For example:

"When we see an outstanding athlete in action, we do not see—as we do in horse racing—a rational agent riding or whipping a separate animal body. . . . So attuned is the body, and so harmonious is it with the heart and mind, that—in the best instance—the whole activity of the athlete appears effortlessly to flow from a unified and undivided being. At such moments the athlete experiences and displays something like the unity of doer and deed one observes in other animals, but with this difference: For humans, such a unity is an achievement. A great sprinter may run like a gazelle and a great boxer may fight like a tiger, but one would never mistake their harmony of body and soul for the brute instinct that spurs an animal toward flight or fight."

3. Robert Chase, "Science Friction"
This is a review of the history of religion in science fiction. A friend of mine, Al, once gave a talk about the same thing, and Al's conclusions were much the same as Chase's. Religion is making some interesting inroads into the science fiction genre. While it would seem that science fiction as a genre is antithetical to religion, there is actually a surprising amount of religious insight and respect for religious devotion throughout the genre. In this realm, it is pretty obvious that science and religion can interact quite well. Now, if only we could drop the presumption that they clash outside of literature.

4. Jill Colvin, "Down for the Count"
A report on the 2010 Census, which is shaping up to be a disaster. The 2010 Census may get nowhere close to being and actual count of the population--and that presents some very interesting Constitutional questions. Should representation be based on the Census results (which is constitutionally mandated) even if we know the results are inaccurate?

Oh, and just to register the normal state: Joseph Bottom's end of the issue remarks were solid, as always. In particular, he has a nice explanation of the decision to include poetry in First Things when it started--the general reader was no longer encountering modern poetry anywhere, so First Things decided to fight against the tide by regularly including poetry.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Flogging Molly

Years ago in one of my tutorials, the group Flogging Molly was mentioned constantly--I can still hear Erin saying "I love Flogging Molly." Now I had never heard of them before that year, but I mentally lumped them in with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Harry and the Potters as a dull college band and I never bothered to find out who they actually were. A couple of weeks ago, Amazon's MP3 Download of the day was Flogging Molly's album Drunken Lullabies.

(Insert commercial announcement: If you don't know about Amazon's Download of the day, you should immediately start looking at it. Every day, Amazon offers an MP3 album at a steep discount--usually $2.99 for the whole album--they change the album every day, and there is no way anyone would want every single album they feature, but if you look often enough, you are sure to find a ready supply of cheap music.)

So, for $2.99 I figured I might as well listen to a band I once heard mentioned all the time.

Wow! It is a truly great album. I listen to it all the time now--of course my kids all hate it (Oh, Dad, Not that Irish music again...) But, since you, the Hypothetical Reader, obviously have better taste than my Children, here you go.

Speaking of albums (by the way, Clara seems to be under the impression that using the word "album" signifies that one is quite old--I tried to explain to her that the term still applies even to an MP3 downloaded song list, but she didn't buy it), Janet also got me a great album for Christmas: Rodrigo y Gabriela's 11:11; it's a pair of guitarists and what they can do on guitars is utterly amazing. But you don't have to take my word for it: Have a listen. Then buy the album. It's all that good.

As long as I am reviewing recently acquired albums of note: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Night Castle is good. Not their best album, but it is still pretty good. I also bought Savatage's Dead Winter Dead for Emma for Christmas--Savatage is the band from which TSO sprung--they are basically redoing a lot of Savatage songs with an orchestral back-up. The orchestra makes a big difference, and so the TSO versions of songs are much better.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Faculty Show 2010 has now ended. Once again, I have no voice. My classes tomorrow could be quite short. My friend, Dave, the music teacher, recommended hot water with lemon and honey--that involved getting the honey out of this giant plastic container that Janet bought at Whole Foods once upon a time--I think it was a lifetime supply of honey (it looked like a 16 oz bottle)--I also think the container was designed to make it so annoying to get out the honey that one would be induced to simply throw it out and buy another bottle. Instead, I got a pair of scissors, cut up the bottle and put the honey into a shorter glass jar. I am not sure that Janet will approve. But, I figure since I needed the honey for medicinal purposes, she can't complain too much. Right?

By the way, hot water with lemon and honey doesn't taste very good. But, maybe I have the wrong ratios or something.

Faculty Show has been an interesting phenomenon--this is the fourth time I have been in it. Students clearly love the idea of their professors getting on stage and making fun of the college, students and themselves. Most faculty, however, refuse to participate. It is yet another sign that lots of faculty take themselves way too seriously.

In other news, my NCAA bracket is still alive as of this morning--if Baylor wins out, I come in first place. I have never watched a college basketball game in my life, by the way, and I pay absolutely no attention to basketball at either the professional or collegiate level. So, it is with a great deal of amusement that I contemplate the prospects of winning in a league full of people who actually care about this sport.

Basketball is marginally better than soccer, though. Both games are terribly dull, but if you are going to watch a silly game, it might as well be one where the two teams combined score 200 points than one where the two teams each try to be so boring that other team falls asleep and a point can be scored.

I miss football.

At least baseball season starts next week. Something to fill the time until football season starts.

My fantasy baseball draft is Saturday--fortunately faculty show is done, so I have time to figure out if there are any good shortstops who will be available in the 15th round of the draft. If anyone has a tip on sleepers at any position, I am, of course, quite interested. After narrowly losing in the championship game last year, I am determined to win this year.

Then again, I am determined to win every year. When it comes to games, I am terribly competitive. I know, for example, that good parents are supposed to let their small children beat them at mindless games like CandyLand, but I never once let them win--I always just played by the rules, so of course they won half the time (in case you didn't know--CandyLand is purely a game of luck; there is absolutely no skill required to play since you never actually have to make a choice--why didn't I figure that out when I was 4?), but I never rearranged the cards to make sure my kids won.

I've liked competitive games since I was very young. Once when I was about 8 or 9, I saw a book of games at one of those cheap discount knock-off stores entitled (the book, not the store) Beyond Competition. I was very excited--something beyond competition--what could be better than something even more competitive than competitive? So, I bought it. When I got home and stared reading the rules of the games, I was puzzled--it wasn't clear how anyone could win. I kept rereading the rules and it just didn't make sense. Then it dawned on me--"beyond competition" meant "cooperative"--in these "games" everyone was working together for a common goal. I don't think I have ever been as disappointed with a purchase in my life. I could not figure out who would design games in which the goal wasn't to win. Now that I am older I know it was undoubtedly some hippies, and even worse--it was hippies who took money away from little kids on false pretenses.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Year of the Comic Book

1986 was a landmark year in the history of comic books. In one year, three of the most important comic books ever were published. I have never seen an explanation of why such a thing would have happened in a single year.

1. Art Spiegelman, Maus
I just finished this one, which is the reason for this post now. It is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. It is the story of the Holocaust, which, to be honest, does not seem like the most promising subject matter for a comic book. But the conception, art and writing are undoubtedly top-notch. Indeed, this book is better, much better, that the now standard Holocaust tale, Night. If this weren't a comic book, it would be the staple reading for every high school class.

One of the brilliant details is that the story is all being told second-hand. There is a surrounding story of our narrator hearing the tale from his father, who survived the Holocaust. (This is a true story, by the way--Art is telling the story of his own life and the lives of his parents.) The surrounding story is fascinating in its own right--the father is, to put it mildly, rather difficult. Indeed, as the narrator laments at one point in the story, by writing his father in this manner, isn't he just confirming every stereotype of an elderly Jewish man? Yet, one can't help but like the father, and when the father resumes telling his life story, one can't help but feel an enormous amount of sympathy for him.

If you have never read a comic book, in your life, this is the one that is worth reading. No superheroes. Just mice representing all the Jews, cats for the Germans, Pigs for the Poles, frogs for the French, and so on. The art doesn't look impressive, but as you read the story, you'll notice the art is perfect for the story being told.

As I said, this is the best Holocaust tale I have read. It isn't as great as the best Soviet Gulag tale (Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago) or the best tales of the Rwandan genocide (Hatzfeld's Machete Season and Life Laid Bare), but it is still well worth reading.

2. Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns
This story is the best re-imagining of a stock superhero ever. Batman has aged, he must be in his 50s--when the story starts he has retired. But, a wave of violence starts sweeping through Gotham and Batman returns; older, not nearly as physically imposing, but wiser. Jim Gordon is retiring; a new police chief who does not approve of Batman's vigilante ways is coming in. Two-face and the Joker return. So all the stock pieces for a Batman tale are in place.

What elevates this far above the standard superhero story, though, is the the whole book becomes a reflection on the Idea of Batman. Is a masked vigilante a good thing? Is Batman sane? Is he a cult leader? Are the criminals of Gotham arising as a response to the existence of Batman or is Batman a response to the criminals? Great writing throughout, and the moral questions are never quite resolved.

This is the book that spawned the recent two Batman movies, by the way--so, if the sort of questions being asked seemed familiar, it is because you saw the movies. So, if you liked the movies (and who didn't?), read the book. (It's a different plot, by the way, so you don't already know what happens.)

3. Alan Moore, The Watchmen
First off, if you have seen the movie, I am really sorry. That movie was an utter disaster, and I am not sure that the book will be enjoyed by anyone who has first seen what must be one of the worst superhero movies ever made.

For those who haven't seen the movie, this book is amazing. This a different world than the standard Superhero world--all the superheros here are normal people who wear masks and run around beating up bad guys. No superpowers at all, until Dr Manhattan is formed due to a freak nuclear accident. Dr. Manhattan is omnipotent and omniscient. The rest of the superheros are obsolete once Dr. Manhattan is on the scene and nobody liked the old superheroes anyway. So, when the story starts, we have some aging superheroes who don't know what to do in retirement, another one who is an industrial titan, and one, Rorschach, who is still wandering around fighting crime. Rorschach is brilliantly conceived; easily one of the best superheroes ever, and this is the only book in which he appears.

The story is pretty interesting in its own right, but the book itself is brilliant. There are all sorts of stories being woven in and out. After each installment, there is a narrative passage which is designed as a book from this world of the Watchmen--e.g., there is the autobiography of one of the retired superheros, there is the technical report on Dr. Manhattan, and so on. There is also another comic book within this one; a kid on the street is reading a pirate tale, which has some interesting similarities to the larger story in The Watchmen.

After reading The Watchmen it is really hard to believe that this is the only book in this world--it feels like you have known these characters forever.

So: in 1986 all three of those were published. There hasn't been a year like it before or after.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The State of First Things, March 2010

Reviewing the March 2010 issue feels like cheating. It is the 20th Anniversary issue, and they decided to do a Best of First Things issue. The format was interesting--they have around a half-dozen short paragraphs from assorted issues from each of the 20 years plus reprints of seven full-length articles.

The summary--First Things used to be very, very good. Determining whether it still is that good is the whole point of this series of reviews.

There is a real need for a magazine like First Things; there simply aren't any other places which have a serious discussion of the place of religion in the Public Square. On the whole, the magazine has done a great job putting religious thought back into the center of the political discussion. The one mistake was the issue they ran about the End of Democracy, in which they wondered when it was time to remove support for the American Government, with some vague hints about armed resistance. A serious mistake, that--but I suspect Neuhaus was happy about all the attention it drew to the magazine. The general point of the essays was entirely correct, however--increasingly, democracy is dying in America as Americans now look to an unelected Supreme Court to decide all matters of right and wrong.

The other interesting feature of First Things is that it is funny. Indeed, conservative publications tend to be funnier than liberal publications. Reprinted in this issue, for example, is the essay in which Alan Jacobs absolutely destroys Kahlil Gibran's collected works by mocking them in style and substance for three pages--it is funny, brilliant and devastating. You can read it here.

Also, consider this, written by Robert George in "Killing Abortionists: A Symposium" from 1994:

"I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go so far as to support mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even nonjudgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity--not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately pro-choice."

That's why I keep reading First Things.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Amazing Grace played on a Musical Saw

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism by James K. A. Smith was a Christmas gift. (I think it probably says something about me that this is the sort of book I receive as a gift for Christmas.) The subtitle paints an amusing picture: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church--imagine those three guys in a church...I just can't do it.

Smith's thesis in the book is that it is possible to be believe in both postmodernism and Christian theology. It's an odd thesis. At one level, it is perfectly trite--there is nothing in the Nicene Creed, for example, which is contradicted by postmodern thought. So, at one level, the obvious answer to Smith is, "Well, of course one can be both."

But, the more intriguing experiment is imagining what a postmodern scholar would make of the book. I think they would barely recognize their thoughts in Smith's descriptions of postmodern thought. Smith does his best to tame the whole enterprise--but, postmodern scholars have a reputation for being intellectual nihilists for a reason. I suspect that the average postmodern scholar would simply scoff at Smith's attempts to show that what they believe is really a natural entry point to Christan theology.

On the other side, sure a Christian can be a postmodernist, but why would anyone want to be? Smith never gets around to explaining why I should junk my old modernist beliefs in things like Truth and Reason.

Now, the book is good for the most part. Each chapter starts in a very silly way with a plot summary of some movie which is theoretically going to help illuminate the chapter, but which really should just be skipped altogether. However, the argument is somewhat interesting and Smith does a great job of avoiding all the standard jargon in describing postmodernists.

But, his view of a great church service at the very end of the book is an example of my living nightmare of church--lots of video screens and U2 songs and "surrealist stained glass" and the "scent of good Sumatran (fair-trade) coffee" and a "jazz combo" including a guy playing a "musical saw" (no, I am not making this up) and theater in the round (literally, there will be dramatic reenactments of Bible stories in the middle of the audience, which sits in concentric circles--around a communion table, so I am not sure where the actors do their play, but then again, there are those video screens all over the place, so maybe you aren't supposed to be watching the actors anyway), and readings from a wide array of inspirational works (e.g., the Bible (obviously) and Anne Sexton and "one of the congregation's gifted poets")--it is like some sort of Postmodern Hell with the gospel preached in the midst of it.

In the end, this is the sort of book which is akin to something Paul talked about: "The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice." Now I am fairly certain after reading this book that Smith's motives are true, so the middle clause would need to be rewritten as "whether from absurd postmodern viewpoints or sensible modernist ones."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sense and Census

I just got our 2010 Census form. It asks some basic questions about each member of the household--over half the space is devoted to asking questions designed to pinpoint each person's race. Now, why is that *so* important?

My favorite part is the categories. There is a special category for "Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin" in which you need to indicate if that is "Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano" or "Puerto Rican" or "Cuban" or "Other, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Domincan, Nicaraguan, Salvadorian, Spaniard, and so on." [Pity the poor Peruvians and Chileans and Bolivians, who are so blatantly ignored as to be lumped into "and so on."]

There are also categories for "Asian Indian" "Native Hawaiian" "Japanese" "Chinese" "Korean" "Filipino" "Vietnamese" "Guamanian or Chamorro" "Samoan" and the "Other Asian, for example Hmong, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on" [Pakistani, but not Indian!!! and what about the poor Tibetans, are they Chinese or Other Asian?] also "Other Pacific Islander, for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on"

The "American Indian or Alaska Native" get a space to list their particular tribe.

But, the "Black, African Am., or Negro" races get no line or special way to pick their country of origin. So, while the Census is vitally interested in knowing if one is Vietnamese or Cambodian, whether one is Liberian or Ghanaian doesn't matter and Tutsis and Hutus are all the same "Black, African Am. or Negro" in America (in Rwanda, things are a little different).

Then there is the "White" category. Not "White or European American" of course, and no line to specify country of origin. Germans and French and Greeks are all the same, but Spanish, well that gets into the earlier category, but Portuguese I think is in the general "White" category, and Turks are either in the "White" category" or the "Other Asian" category, but it isn't clear which.

Fortunately, the category I use in all these forms is still there: "Some other race"
I check that and in the space provided write "American"

Friday, March 12, 2010

Did Sinatra like Warm Coffee?

1. Clara has to do a Science report for school. She could pick the topic, so she decided to write about how a greenhouse works. She figures she can get some great pictures of the one sitting right next to her house, that Janet can tell her everything she needs to know, and since she works in Janet's greenhouse now, she is naturally wondering what the thing is supposed to be doing. Step two in the School-Mandated Paper-Writing Process was the requirement that Clara write down three questions she was going to answer in her paper. Her teacher crossed out all three of Clara's questions and wrote in a different set of questions. Now this is puzzling enough--I am not sure why Clara's questions were bad. Not only that, but Clara's first question was "Why is the greenhouse covered in plastic?--which is a pretty good questions one would think. The teacher crossed it out and wrote something else. Odd, I thought. Odder still was that Clara's third question was crossed out and the question the teacher wrote in was "What are greenhouses made of?" Great question, of course, but it sure looks like Clara's Question 1 to me--but what do I know?

That's not the funny part, though. The second question the teacher decided Clara needs to answer in her Science report on how a greenhouse works is:
What is the relationship between greenhouses and the greenhouse effect?
Egads! The charitable explanation of this is that the teacher is really trying to encourage Clara to write a paper about the earth's climate instead of the stated topic of how does a greenhouse work. The uncharitable explanation is that the teacher is terribly clueless. I, naturally enough, opted for the latter and was ready to encourage Clara to protest the teacher's anti-scientific bias. Janet thinks we should just make Clara write about the Greenhouse Effect even though it has absolutely nothing to do with explaining how a greenhouse works.

I could spend my whole life writing long letters to my kid's teachers about the errors of their ways.

2. On a similar note, Emma and Lily have the same Environmental Activist posing as a Science Teacher this year. One day this week, Emma's class was discussing Global Warming, and Emma expressed her skepticism about the whole matter. The teacher was not pleased. Later that day, Lily's class was discussing the same topic (different class, mind you--but when one is an environmental activist, all science is about environmental activism). Lily expressed her skepticism about the whole matter. The teacher then exclaimed, "I don't understand why my students are skeptical about this." Pity poor Janet, who is afraid that the Hartley girls are causing people to think their parents must be some sort of Right-Wing Wackos.

Last week, someone in another one of Emma's classes mentioned global warming, and a different kid in her class exclaimed "Global Warming is sooo 2008."

3. My friend Aimee told me last night that she is glad there are time stamps on these posts so she can tell how much caffeine I have had when I write because I sound different when I am on caffeine. I was glad to hear that the beneficial effects of caffeine are evidenced in my inimitable Prose Style--sometimes I worry that I have built up a tolerance to caffeine and that I am thus losing the wonderful effects that the substance has on brain-wave activities. As I tell everyone who will listen--caffeine makes you smarter. So drink more coffee. But not too much--if you drink 100 pots of coffee at a sitting, you will die. And we wouldn't want that. If someone died from a coffee overdose, who knows what the FDA would do?

4. Why don't my kids like Frank Sinatra? I am not a big fan of the whole Crooner genre of music, but Frank...well, Frank is amazing. But, every time I put him on, my kids exclaim, "No, not Frank."

5. Then again, I think they like listening to Frank more than they like listening to T.S. Eliot read "The Waste Land".

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Year of the Black Sox

The second part of John Dos Passos, U.S.A. trilogy, 1919, is better than the first part. Even still, I am not sure whether I really like it or not. There is no doubt that Dos Passos can write well. This book, like the first part, consists of the stories of a few different people, some of whom meet, some of whom never meet. Some of the characters in this book meet some of the characters from the first part. In other words, this feels like a sprawling epic of intersecting stories. What makes the book so hard to love is that just about the time you have settled down into enjoying the story of a particular character, there is a break in the action and we are off to some other character's story. Sometimes we return to the character we just left, sometimes not. Joe Williams--did he died or was he just knocked out in that bar fight? Maybe we'll find out in the third part of the trilogy, maybe not. That's the sort of book it is--people wander in and out, and there is no way to tell who is going to be relevant later on. That resembles life, of course, which is presumably the point.

This part of the trilogy mostly takes pace during World War I. But, oddly for a book taking place during a war, there are remarkably few parts involving actual fighting. I am not sure why not--it would seem to have been a simple matter to have introduced a character who died in the trenches.

The Socialists-are-good angle is getting more pronounced in the second part of the trilogy--I suspect that it will be the grand conclusion of the trilogy. But, I'll find out next month.

A story that amuses me more than it should: One of the Chinese students in my tutorial was telling her friends back home that she was reading this book, and now there are a whole bunch of Chinese students reading the Chinese translation of Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy. I think I am surprised that there is a Chinese translation of this book, but I know I am amused that this book, of all the great American books, is one that Chinese students would pick to read.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

To Wiki or not

My Dilemma of the Day:

Like all those non-academics on earth (you know who you are), I love Wikipedia. There is a certain academic snobbery about Wikipedia which always baffles me. Yes, it is a lousy reference for an academic paper--students who use it as a reference in a term paper are always students who write a lousy term paper (but the causality undoubtedly runs the other way), and I would never even think to cite it in a paper to be published. But, if I want to find out something quickly when being roughly correct is good enough, Wikipedia can't be beat. And there is no better place for quick answers to "Who was X?" or pop-culture references.

So here is my dilemma. I know all sorts of useless information. (Insert shocked gasp.) Sometimes when I am reading a Wikipedia entry, I notice a) there is something I know that isn't in the entry, or b) the entry isn't quite correct. To date, I have never corrected or added to a Wikipedia entry. But, I keep thinking--I am an academic; part of my job is to teach; so shouldn't I be editing Wikipedia entries when I notice something can be improved?

So, why don't I do it? I am afraid it is a bit of Hamlet:

Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event—
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Should I watch a movie tonight?

For a few weeks now, I have been puzzling over whether to add movie reviews to the blog. On the one hand it might be interesting to force myself to actually think of something to say about a movie after I watch it. On the other hand, once I start writing up movie reviews, I know it will turn into a compulsion, and I'll feel the psychic need to actually think of something to say after every movie. So, my puzzle is whether starting it to find out how interesting it would be is worth the risk of discovering it is tedious and then feeling the need to do it anyway.

Now, I know what you are thinking, because I am thinking it too. Why not start writing up movie reviews and then if it is tedious, just stop? A perfectly reasonable suggestion, but I know myself too well. You see, watching movies for me is both enjoyable and an academic exercise. It's the latter than needs some explanation.

I like movies--which in some ways is odd because I don't like to watch TV, and I am not sure why there is such a big difference in my mind between watching a movie and watching TV. For some reason, I don't mind at all the prospect of spending 2 hours watching a movie that isn't particularly good, but I can't stand the idea of watching television programs for 2 hours. I cannot honestly say that this is because there is some inherent quality difference between movies and TV shows--the worst movies are pretty bad and the best TV shows are excellent. I wonder if it is the commercials that really bother me about TV--for example, watching old TV shows on DVD doesn't bother me as much--but then commercials really aren't that much of an intrusion--on the other hand, I would never watch a movie being shown on network television. So, if it is just commercials, why does the prospect of commercial interruptions annoy my subconscious so much?

The other possible explanation for the reason I think movies are so different than TV may be related to the fact that I hate not finishing things. I hate not finishing books. Every now and then I don't finish a book I start, but the book has to be really, really bad and really long for me to stop. Movies all end in short order. But TV shows? Well, they keep going week after week. So, they never feel done and then I feel the need to see the next episode. I notice this when I watch TV shows on DVD--I am reluctant to start watching a series because I know once I start, I'll feel obligated to watch the whole run of the show. And if the show is bad, then I'll feel this lingering sense of vague guilt for not finishing watching all the episodes of the show. Years ago, for example, I started watching the first season of 24 on DVD--I kept hearing how good it was--I hated it, really really hated it. I stopped halfway through season 1. I still feel bad about this. Also, years ago, Janet talked me into starting Lost. We got Season 1. I made it through three episodes. I still feel bad about this too. Every now and then, I think I should go back and watch the rest of each of those shows. So, if you ever want to make me feel bad, ask me what I thought of 24 or Lost, and when I start to tell you, ask, "Well, did you watch it all the way through?"

So, to return to the point (yeah, I know), I'm afraid that if I start to write movie reviews, I'll feel a compulsion to watch enough movies to make writing reviews of them worthwhile. But, when I watch a movie, I am not reading a book, and I always feel a vague sort of guilt when I am not reading a book (this is a serious psychological problem, by the way). But, I like movies, so I watch them anyway. I also like playing Madden, and I feel guilty about that too. (By the way, it is absurd that Brady Quinn--Brady Quinn!!--completed 16 straight passes in the second half leading the Brows to victory last night--I hate when Madden cheats.) (And, yes, yesterday was Janet's birthday, but I didn't play Madden until after she was asleep, so it is OK. Oh, I had read for an hour before I played Madden, so that is OK too.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Euripides on the Financial Crisis

As noted earlier, the first wave of books about the financial crisis of 2007-2008 are now out and I have assigned a bunch of them in my money and banking class. We just finished Sorkin, Too Big to Fail. The review in a word: Outstanding.

Sorkin is a journalist for the NY Times (but the book is good despite that fact). He seems to have interviewed everyone working on Wall Street, and this book is a blow-by-blow story of the back rooms of Wall Street throughout 2008 (from Bear Stearns to TARP). An absolutely riveting read.

Here are my quick conclusions:
1. The whole story of 2008 is exactly like a Greek tragedy. The CEOs at the top are so full of pride that they resemble the captain of a ship which is slowly sinking who refuses to acknowledge that there is a serious problem here. This was not a fast moving crisis at all--there were months, literally months, between Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, everyone knew the trouble, but nobody could just take the steps necessary, painful steps to be sure, to avert a crisis.

2. A big part of the problem was the government's staggering indecision in all of this. After bailing out Bear Stearns, the other troubled institutions kept waiting for the government to bail them out too. The government kept saying it wouldn't bail them out, but then it kept calling up everyone trying to arrange assorted deals. Because the government was constantly in the middle of the discussion, everyone kept waiting for the bail-out details. The government responded by continuing to say there wasn't going to be a bailout, but then they kept playing along. It was a grand game of Chicken, but the government's promise not to bail out anyone simply wasn't credible enough for anyone to take the government seriously. Then Lehman Brothers failed and the government did not bail them out. However, the next day, the government suddenly bailed out AIG. In other words, the government blinked.

But here was the fascinating part--when Lehman Brothers failed, everyone knew AIG was also going to fail within the week. There was no doubt about this in anyone's mind. So, the government could have decided to bail out both firms or neither firm, but instead they panicked in the middle of the inevitable chain of events.

This problem of the government panic was pretty serious all year long. It most certainly added to the problem.

3. TARP was a joke even before it passed. Between the time the legislation was proposed and the time it was voted on, the Treasury had decided it wasn't going to buy troubled assets after all; but rather than announce that they had no intention of doing what the legislation authorized them to do, they realized that the wording was broad enough that they could use the TARP funds for other purposes after the legislation had passed.

4. There is a large disconnect on Wall Street between what the senior management knows and what the guys in the trenches are doing.

5. Nobody comes out looking good in this book, but on the other hand, there are no real villains here either. It was an old-fashioned financial crisis.

Great book--I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes a good story, well-told.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Proud to Perpetuate the Patriarchal Kinship System

One of the many pleasures of teaching at Mount Holyoke is hearing from students about the sorts of things being taught in other classes around campus. Today's amusing tale comes from the required reading for a class:

"Female heterosexuality is not a biological drive of an individual woman's erotic attraction or attachment to another human animal who happens to be male. Female heterosexuality is a set of social institutions and practices defined and regulated by patriarchal kinship systems, by both civil and religious law, and by strenuously enforced mores and deeply entrenched values and taboos. Those definitions, regulations, values, and taboos are about male fraternity and the oppression and exploitation of women. They are not about love, human warmth, solace, fun, pleasure, or deep knowledge between people."

Now if you didn't laugh out loud when you read that, then you just weren't paying attention. I suppose we should all be thankful for that evil male fraternity, though, because if it weren't for that artificially created female heterosexuality, then we would be....what's the word?...Oh, yes....extinct.

If only women hadn't been so oppressed and they had been able to avoid the curse of female heterosexuality, then we wouldn't be here to complain about it, and think how nice the world would be if we weren't here to think about how nice the world would be.

But wait, there is more:

"Female heterosexuality joins females in racial and/or class solidarity to dominating males and offers for their compliance the bribe of a share of the benefits their men extort from other groups. Female heterosexuality, whether literally sexual or not, is profoundly implicated in the racism of white women in our present time and place."

Ah, yes. Of course. To be a female heterosexual is to be complicit in racism. I suppose I must concede the point--if females would just stop being heterosexual, within a generation, there would be no more racists.

By the way, the student who passed along those quotations to me also noted that the Mount Holyoke library had not managed to purchase a copy of John Paul II's Theology of the Body--we wouldn't want the writings of such an insignificant person as the Pope to clutter up the shelves full of the more enlightened reading like that assigned in classes here at Mount Holyoke.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dem Bones

I recently finished the Bone series by Jeff Smith. It was fun, very fun. Clara and Emma both read the whole series too. I read the color versions of the comic book put out by Scholastic. There is also a one-volume black-and-white edition, but I suspect it is more fun to see the pictures in color.

It is a bit surprising to me that Bone is not more widely known--the ending was a bit weak, but other than that, the whole thing is as good a Tolkien clone as anything else out there--it is probably not up to Harry Potter standards, but it is close. Once you read it, there is no way you will ever forget Phoney Bone or Smiley Bone as character types; the rat creatures are perfect; the villains are nicely evil, the humor is excellent--some parts are laugh-out-loud funny, and there are jokes that build for a long time before the punch line comes along. With a slightly better resolution, the fantasy-tale would be great. And talking about Quiche is now a joke unto itself. A nice Quiche made with a small mammal...

Monday, March 1, 2010

The State of First Things, February 2010

Next in a Continuing Series.

A. Must Read articles
1. Reno, "Brain Food"
A very interesting meditation on the nature of knowledge, using Griffiths' Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar as the launching pad. Reno concludes by arguing that the modern obsession toward intellectual and academic specialization comes from the same root as the obsession of man with the personal lives of celebrities--it masquerades as knowledge, thus letting us avoid the realization that there is a whole realm of Truth out there that is scary. I think Reno it right.

B. Flawed, But Worth Reading
1. Anderson, "The Bible, Rated R"
A review of R. Crumb's new comic-book version of the Book of Genesis. When I first heard about the book (Crumb's version, not the old Hebrew one--I'd heard about the latter quite some time ago), I figured it was just a gimmick for Crumb to draw some more of his tired semi-pornographic pictures. But, the review convinced me that Crumb's book was not without merit. I still doubt I'll ever actually read Crumb's version, but after reading Anderson's review, I understand why someone might want to read it.

2. Anderson, "Some Like it Warm"
Another shot in the Climate Wars. I think we may be seeing the end of the Global Warming Crusade.

3, White, "Filmmaking by Numbers"
Compares the new movie Nine to the Fellini movie 8 1/2 it imitates and convinces me that the latter is worth watching (and the former is not). I saw La Dolce Vita and was underwhelmed--it was good and all, but too repetitive to be the masterpiece many seem to want it to be.

4. Wieder, "Fast and Furioso"
A review of a new translation of Orlando Furioso. The new translation sounds wretched. But the review convinced me that some other translation should be added to my list of books to read.

5. Bottum, "The Papal Difference"
I mention this mostly because I never know whether to list Bottum's articles in "The Pubic Square" here--suffice it to say, that I think he is always interesting and worth reading, but I always discount him because Neuhaus did this section so much better--that is a terribly unfair comparison, but it is the curse of following the Great One every time.

Special Mention:
Nuechterlien reviews George Nash' new book, Reappraising the Right. I mention this only because George is a friend of mine and his book deserved a better review. The review is positive, very positive in fact. But, the bulk of the review is simply Neuchterlien's cursory history of Conservatism--the review as a whole reads like some canned speech he gave bookended by some nice remarks about George's book. Lee Edwards has a great review of George's book in National Review.