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?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Back and Forth from Paradise to Hell

Let us take the following as Axiomatic:  Paradise Lost is a Great Book.  It is deservedly in the Pantheon of Great Books.  Everyone who wants to be Well Read (a Noble Goal, that) should read it.  It is Brilliant, Beautiful, Clever, Thought Provoking and Stunning.  There has been nothing like it, nothing even close to it, ever written in the English language.

I just reread it (with my tutorial).  The last time I read it was when I was a senior in high school.  And my reaction:  a rather tedious book whose tedium is frequently interrupted by moments of lyrical and poetic beauty as stunning as anything ever written.  The high points of this book are jaw-droppingly good.  But, the connections between those high points--well, I could do without reading all of them again.  The problem is interesting--the poetry of this work is incredible--that Milton could pull this work off is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  But, the plot is simply too short for the book.  Satan, one of the most amazing figures in literature (and certainly a lot more interesting than his namesake in the Bible), is only in a fairly small portion of the book.  When Satan is around, the book ranges from Stunningly Great to Pretty Good.  When Satan isn't around, well, that's when the tedium tends to set in.  God and Jesus are, to be honest, terrible bores.  The histories of the world--both the creation account and the prophecy of what is to come after Eden--are ridiculously tedious.  But it is an odd tedium--take any small portion of it, and the poetry is incredible--but the poetry in much of the book has a narrative flow that is not compelling at all.  So, if you want to admire finely crafted poetic lines, then there is no bad part in the book.  But if you want your books to have things like interesting characters and plots, well, then much of  Paradise Lost is lacking, seriously lacking.

The narrative high points are the first two chapters when we see Satan in Hell, rising up to his further rebellion, the scene where Satan first sees Adam and Eve, the whole chapter covering the temptation and fall, and bits of the war in heaven and bits of the interaction of Adam and Eve.  Those parts of this book are as good as anything ever written. 

This then makes for an odd Great Book--Milton was a genius, and he picked a story that has some incredibly compelling plot developments and characters, but the story simply isn't long enough to sustain a book of the length he wanted to write.  The book is an epic in the mold of Homer and Virgil.  I didn't notice this the last time I read it because I had not yet read Homer or Virgil.  But, the way Milton deliberately apes the Great Epics is also incredibly brilliant.  From the idea of mortals simply being pawns in a great war of Divine beings, to the telling of the back story in the form of conversations between characters, Milton has captured the spirit of Homer and Virgil quite nicely.  But, his basic plot simply doesn't have the narrative breadth of Homer and Virgil's epics, and thus the book falls flat in parts.

Now as noted at the outset, this is unambiguously a Great Book.  But it falls into the category of uneven Great Books--books whose Greatness is obvious, but whose flaws are localized, so that the experience of reading them is much like repeatedly journeying up and down the mountain of greatness. If you haven't read it, do so--it is not to be missed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy is, perhaps, the oddest book I have ever read. Once upon a time, it was a Great Book (Samuel Johnson said it was "the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise") and maybe it still a Great Book (Nicholas Lezard recently said it was "the best book ever written"), but the estimations of it being a Great Book hinge on not treating it like a Book.  And therein lies the fundamental oddity.

The book was written in the early 17th century--Burton spent his whole life revising it, and it kept getting longer and longer--it is well over 1000 pages.  It is, as the title suggests, a complete and thorough discussion of melancholy--a complete description of the causes of melancholy, the types of melancholy, the cures of melancholy.  Oh, and Burton has no problem wandering off into a tangent to discuss whatever else Burton decided was worth relating.  Burton seems to have read everything ever written about melancholy and included it all.  This means the book is in part a pure scientific treatise, but one in which every mythological or literary mention of melancholy is treated with the same sense of authority as every medical treatise.  Thus, in reading about the causes of melancholy (for 400 pages) we discover that just about everything (well, make that everything) causes melancholy--after all, someone somewhere once mentioned that X, whatever X is, has caused someone somewhere to be melancholic.  Oh, but do not despair, everything also cures melancholy.  And since everyone is melancholic, then everyone already knows about being melancholic.

So, one might think that a book detailing every aspect of being depressed would be, well, depressing.  But, there is yet another oddity.  The book isn't depressing.  If you open up at random, it is actually funny.  Consider a passage picked at random:

"Who can give a reason of this diversity of meteors, that it should rain stones, frogs, mice, &c. Rats, which they call lemmer in Norway, and are manifestly observed (as Munster writes) by the inhabitants, to descend and fall with some feculent showers, and like so many locusts, consume all that is green. Leo Afer speaks as much of locusts, about Fez in Barbary there be infinite swarms in their fields upon a sudden: so at Aries in France, 1553, the like happened by the same mischief, all their grass and fruits were devoured, magna incolarum admiratione et consternatione (as Valleriola obser. med. lib. 1. obser. 1. relates) coelum subito obumbrabant, &c. he concludes, it could not be from natural causes, they cannot imagine whence they come, but from heaven. Are these and such creatures, corn, wood, stones, worms, wool, blood, &c. lifted up into the middle region by the sunbeams, as Baracellus the physician disputes, and thence let fall with showers, or there engendered? Cornelius Gemma is of that opinion, they are there conceived by celestial influences: others suppose they are immediately from God, or prodigies raised by art and illusions of spirits, which are princes of the air; to whom Bodin. lib. 2. Theat. Nat. subscribes. In fine, of meteors in general, Aristotle's reasons are exploded by Bernardinus Telesius, by Paracelsus his principles confuted, and other causes assigned, sal, sulphur, mercury, in which his disciples are so expert, that they can alter elements, and separate at their pleasure, make perpetual motions, not as Cardan, Tasneir, Peregrinus, by some magnetical virtue, but by mixture of elements; imitate thunder, like Salmoneus, snow, hail, the sea's ebbing and flowing, give life to creatures (as they say) without generation, and what not? P. Nonius Saluciensis and Kepler take upon them to demonstrate that no meteors, clouds, fogs, vapours, arise higher than fifty or eighty miles, and all the rest to be purer air or element of fire: which Cardan, Tycho, and John Pena manifestly confute by refractions, and many other arguments, there is no such element of fire at all. If, as Tycho proves, the moon be distant from us fifty and sixty semi-diameters of the earth: and as Peter Nonius will have it, the air be so angust, what proportion is there betwixt the other three elements and it?"

Now consider that passage.  First, what it is doing in a Treatise on Melancholy?  I have no idea.  Second, note everything which falls from the sky--how do we know all those things fall from the sky--well, someone said they did.  Burton takes all those accounts seriously, and then weaves it all into a scientific sounding account of meteors.  (The paragraph from which the above was taken, by the way, goes on and on for quite a bit longer.)

Glancing through the book, it becomes obvious that Burton is laughing the whole way through, but the joke is simply taking everything seriously.  It is not that melancholy is funny or that people wrote strange things about it, but the sum total of the attempt to understand melancholy leads one to realize that the whole history of man's attempt to understand himself is so fraught with curiosities and oddities and cranks that it is in the end pretty funny that we are like that.  Burton would have loved blogs--here we have lots of people pretending to explain something, anything.  Imagine taking all the blogs seriously.  Imagine for a second thinking the thoughts of a random person writing on random things was seriously worthy of attention.  What is more idiotic and inane that a random professor writing up thoughts on Burton's 17th century book?  It's funny when you think about it. And the joke is on both the blogger and the reader of the blog.

So, yeah, I liked Burton's book--but I didn't enjoy reading it. At all.  It is, to put it mildly, one of the most tedious books I have ever read.  Imagine reading 50 pages of prose exactly like the passage above.  Now imagine reading 500 pages of it.  The mind rapidly numbs after about a page.  It is funny, really funny, that Burton wrote this book.  It is funny, really funny, that I read it.  And even funnier that I assigned it in my tutorial.  And even funnier still that I am writing about it on this blog.  And even funnier that the Reader of the blog (another funny thing there) is now deciding not to read the book when the book is so funny.  And if you can learn to laugh at the whole joke of this book from its Creation to the Reader reading a blog post about it, then maybe, just maybe, that is the cure for melancholy.  If we can learn to laugh at the Comedy of Human Existence, then why be depressed?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The State of First Things, October 2010

Next in a continuing series. Since I have now been doing this particular series for a year, I have been wondering whether to expand it to the other magazines I read.  But, I haven't figured out how to do that. Almost every article in The New Criterion and Wired is well worth reading, and there is never very much in National Review worthy of comment.  I have been toying with an alternative format for those journals.

But, on to First Things

A. Must Read Articles
1. "Human Embryos in the Age of Obama"
A statement signed by 21 people.  It is an extremely good summary of both the state of the science behind research involving embryos and the problems arising from the Obama Administration's rather incoherent policy with respect to human embryos.  The short summary--murder in the name of Science is still, well, murder.

B. Flawed, but Worth Reading
1. Barr, "Fearful Symmetries"
Stephen Barr regularly writes articles about how the state of physics research in specific and science research in general lends itself nicely to a belief in a Divine Creator.   This article itself is not the best thing Barr ever wrote, but it, like his other articles, has some interesting tidbits.  My favorite discovery:  Grassmann numbers which have the property that AxB = -BxA.  I really want to know more about Grassman numbers now.  That is unbelievably intriguing.  The general point of this article is that the deeper physicists probe into nature, the more elegant the symmetries they discover underlying the laws of nature.

2. Rosenbaum, "Rescuing Evil"
A nice plea for the need to contemplate evil as a thing.  Too much modern psychology dispenses with evil by explaining everything in terms of external situations.  Why can't we just say that some acts are simply evil?

3. Briel, review of Weigel's The End and the Beginning
Weigel's book is the completion of his 2-part biography of John Paul II, who was easily one of the most important people in the last 500 years.  What he accomplished during his time as Pope is simply staggering. 

4. Franck, review of Arkes' Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths
As Franck notes, Arkes makes you think long and hard about the Law even if you disagree with him.  I am a bit leery of Arkes' case that judges need to use underlying moral law in deciding cases--while properly applied, I have absolutely no qualms, but I think allowing the judges to make cases based on moral laws causes enormous problems in a fallen world.  In may ways, Arkes' argument suffers from a problem Martin Luther noted:  if the world was full of perfect Christians, there would be no need for Law, but in the world in which we actually live, there is a need for law.  In a world where everyone agreed about the Truth, basing decision on Moral Law makes sense, but in a fallen world, we need some restraint on judges.

5. Hibbs, review of Blatty's Dimiter.
Neither the novel being reviewed nor the review itself impressed me much, but I did learn something--I had no idea that Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist (both the novel and the screenplay) is a Catholic writer, in the mold of Graham Greene.  Having never read The Exorcist nor seen the movie, I assumed the author was simply a schlock horror writer, but as it turns out, there is something more to his work.  Knowing this does not induce me to want to see the movie or read the book, however.

6. Duke, "Fired, in a Crowded Theater"
The tale of a professor who was fired for explaining the Catholic view of Homosexuality and Natural Law.  The article wasn't very crisp, and the case is a bit muddled (the teacher in question is a adjunct professor), but the general story was still an interesting picture of the modern academy.  In the end, the professor is back teaching.

7. Rose, "Fighting for Life"
Actually, this article wasn't very good at all, and on the face of it, it wasn't worth reading.  But, the article is by a young woman who has been active in fighting against abortion.  What made me think the article was fun was imagining what would happen if the author was invited to Mount Holyoke to talk about how she had become a leader in the fight against abortion.  Young female leader--just the sort of thing Mount Holyoke would want to celebrate, right?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Music and McMusic

Within a 96 hour period,  I had two quite different experiences withe World of Music.  The contrast was stark.

1. On Saturday, I went to the Met Live in HD broadcast of Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first part of the Ring Cycle.  Stunning.  Simply Stunning.  I have wanted to see Wagner's Ring cycle for a very long time, and the Met is putting it on over the next two seasons.  (Part 2 in in May.)  A technically impressive set along with some amazing voices.  Quite the spectacle--which is, after all what Wagner is supposed to be.  The storyline of part 1 of the Ring Cycle is a bit weak--too many things going on at once which are all supposed to hang together into a coherent whole.  But, the weak plot is more than made up for by the moments of brilliance.  Eric Owen as Alberich was incredible.  Sadly, there Met doesn't seem to have a YouTube clip of this performance, but you can get a sense of the opera from another production of it here.

2. Big Time Rush's new album, clever titled B.T.R., came out yesterday, and I took Clara and Lily to go get a copy of it.  We listened to it in the car on the way home.  Big Time Rush is a fake band in the TV show of the same name and the fake band just put out a real album.  You can, if you want (and I don't recommend it) see a music video by the fake band here or here.  My kids love, and I mean love, this show--they laugh hysterically the whole time.  Clara has been almost as excited about this album as she was about the Selena Gomez album that came out a few weeks back.  Lily was excited enough to split the cost of buying the album with Clara.  (Emma, who refuses to admit she likes the show, will sit through every episode and laugh the whole time, but she didn't help buy the CD.)  For those of you who wisely skipped the links above, Big Time Rush's music is pure Paint-By-Numbers Pop.  Treacle.  Insipid.  And downright awful.

So, here is the interesting thing.  I could not get any of my children to go see Wagner with me.  My children like Big Time Rush.  Where did I go wrong?

By the way, you can see the original version of Big Time Rush here.  My kids wouldn't like that either.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nobel Hat Trick

It is rare that I have a kind word to say about the Nobel Prize Committees.  (Committees, plural, by the way--each Prize has it's own committee).  But this year--wow!

In descending order of impressiveness:

1. Literature:  Mario Vargas Llosa

Normally, this Prize is a Joke--they give it to all sorts of mediocrities.  But, this year, they got it right.  Llosa is excellent.  I have read a half-dozen of his novels and a collection of non-fiction essays.  I  enjoyed them all.  Interestingly, though, I have never recommended any of them to anyone else.  The best one I have read was The War of the End of the World, which is too long to be a good book to recommend to a first-time reader.  The others, I have read were all shorter, and while I enjoyed every one of them, I was never quite certain that anyone else would like them as much as I did.  But, now with the stamp of the Nobel Committee on them, I will happily start recommending them widely.  I would recommend starting with either The Storyteller or Death in the Andes--but if you get a recommendation from someone who has read more of his work, take it--since I have read only a third of his novels, it is quite possible that I still haven't read the best.

2. Peace: Liu Xiaobo

This prize is always a Joke.  But, this year, they actually stumbled into giving it to someone worthy of attention.  I have no idea what Liu has done to promote the cause of Peace since he is now in prison.  But, by giving attention to a political prisoner who has been unjustly imprisoned for daring to ask for greater freedom in China, the Prize has some merit.  And, just to show how open and honest they really are, China is now censoring all mention of Liu on the Internet in China.  Sadly, the Chinese authorities do not see the irony of censoring all mentions of Liu on the Internet in order to prove that he is a criminal for accusing them of depriving people of freedom.  [Incidentally, if their filter is working well, this web page is as of right now censored in China.]

3. Economics: Diamond, Mortensen, and Pissarides

This Prize has lately turned into the Prize in which the committee picks an idea and then figures out who will get the award.  This year the Prize goes to the idea of Search Frictions--markets do not always clear instantly and sometimes there are things which slow down the market clearing process.  This is particularly noticeable in the labor market.  All three of these guys did good, solid work on that idea.  None of them would really merit the Nobel on his own, but they are a good set of people to receive the ward on behalf of the Idea.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Slugs and Rats

Since last Friday, there were two Events which are not particularly Worthy of Note in and of themselves, but which will hereby be Noted, not for the Amusement and Edification of the Reader, but for a Reason which will probably still be Most Murky at the Conclusion of this Rambling, and possibly Incoherent, Tale.  Consider the Reader to Have Been Duly Warned.

1. Clara returned from 6th grade camp on Friday.  While at camp, she licked a slug which made her tongue numb, and she was the only girl in her group to be willing to lick said slug. She also dissected a rat, and took pictures of the proceedings.

2.  The Lords of Ithaca triumphed in the Stony Brook Fantasy Baseball League--and since The Lords of Ithaca were managed by Your Humble Narrator, this occasion is Not Without Interest to the author of the preceding Sentence.

Both of the aforementioned Events brought some Not Inconsiderable Measure of Joy to Your Humble Narrator--they would have also brought Pride to Your Humble Narrator but for the fact that if Pride ever infused the Heart of Your Humble Narrator, there would be an Obligatory Change of Moniker and Your Not-So-Humble Narrator, while perhaps being a more accurate Moniker, lacks somewhat in poetry and has not the Stamp of Approval of High Literature (cf, A Clockwork Orange--which is not a bad book suggestion in and of itself (the movie was not nearly as good, on the other hand)).  The matter for consideration is why the aforementioned events bring Joy.  The latter is easy to explain--the fantasy baseball season starts in March, when the time begins to start perusing material necessary for The Draft and ends in October with the end of the season.  Doing well in the game requires both attention to statistics, which is inherently enjoyable, and steady attention over a period of months--managers who lose interest in May or June or July or August or September never fare well.  So, after months of attention, emerging victorious is not surprisingly something which makes one happy.  Moreover, this year the Lords of Ithaca crushed Craig's team in the championship game, and since Craig was on a three year winning streak, there was the added joy of ending his string of Victories.

The first listed event also brought joy, which is, when one pauses to consider the matter, odder.  After all, Your Humble Narrator neither licked the slug nor carved up the dead body of the rat.  Indeed, your Humble Narrator was not present when either event occurred.  And yet, there was undoubted Joy, and truth be told, Pride.  Why? 

Meanwhile, I recently read King Lear.  (I have no idea how many times I have read King Lear, by the way--that is the funny thing about Shakespeare's plays--I have read many of them several times, but I have no idea what number corresponds to "several.")  King Lear is, in part, about the relationship between fathers and daughters.  Was Lear proud when he thought about his daughters?  Probably--well, at least in the first part of Act I, Scene 1--it doesn't take long for him to lose the Joy of Having Daughters.  Lear had Three Daughters--am I just like Lear?  Will my daughters with Whom I am Most Pleased turn on me in my Dotage?  Will I go mad and howl at the wind?

I read King Lear along with As You Like It with my tutorial this semester.  We talked a lot about what children owe their parents.  (We also talked about Love, naturally enough--it also is a theme in both plays.)   Do my children owe me anything in later life?  And if so, what?  What can I reasonably expect of them?  Strangely, and it is surpassing strange in historical terms, I don't expect anything of my children when I am older.  I'll be glad to see them, I'll always enjoy talking with them and visiting with them, but I cannot imagine imposing on them in later life.  Why not?  Why should I not expect that they will provide me and 100 of my Cronies with lodging  (well, except for the fact that I don't have 100 Cronies, but pretend I did)?   This is, by the way, the strongest evidence I have seen that children are now consumption, and not investment, goods.

And, thus, to return to the point which started these reflections--why am I so pleased at Clara's actions in 6th grade camp?  There is no doubt that I am pleased--my daughter licked a slug and cut up a rat!  How utterly fantastic!

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Technological Divide

Driving While Texting is now illegal in the Commonwealth (not State, mind) of Massachusetts.  This new law interests me because it is further evidence of my theory about The Technological Divide.

Here is my theory:  There is a sharp Technological Divide in this country between people who were born more than a few years before me and people who were born more than a few years after me.  (People born around 1966 (a fine year) are in No Man's Land, some tilting to one side of the Divide, some to the other.)  The Technological Divide is a sharp difference in the reaction to new technology.

I was 10 when I got my first Atari.  I used a PC to play computer games in high school (though we didn't own one--I couldn't afford a PC until I was in grad school); I used the UNIX system at the UC Davis when I was an undergrad.  In other words, I came of age exactly when computers were starting to become consumer goods.  Everyone born a little bit after me grew up in a world in which computers were consumer goods;  everyone before me grew up before computers were consumer goods.  Growing up with computers, it turns out, increases one's ability and inclination to learn about new technology.  Take a person from each side of the Technological Divide and sit them in front of a new computer game or hand them a new gadget.  Those on one side of the technological divide will start fiddling with new item and figure out how it works.  Those on the other side will, at best, at best look around for a printed owner's manual or, more likely, just freeze up and not know what to do with the item.  [And, there are of course exceptions--there are people on the older side of the Divide who are quite adept at using new technology and technophobes on the young side--but there are remarkably few exceptions in my experience.]

The Technological Divide plays out in many curious ways, but to return to the matter at hand, the new law against texting while driving is a perfect example of it.  People on one side of the Technological Divide find texting to be difficult, time-intensive, and something requiring great amounts of concentration.  People on the other side of the technological divide can text with one hand while thinking about something else.  So, the people on the Old side of the Technological Divide think texting while driving is one of the most dangerous things that can be done; the people on the Young side don't see why texting is even a problem.

Now, it is fairly obvious to anyone with Wisdom that texting while operating a motor vehicle is exercising something less than perfect Good Sense and Caution.  I am happy to report that I have never once texted while Driving and the new law will have precisely zero effect on my behavior.  However, it is the fact that this particular act has been deemed illegal which intrigues me.  Using a cell phone to talk while driving is still legal.  Why the difference?  I do not think it is coincidental that people on the Old side of the Technological Divide use their cell phones for talking; cell phones used for talking are a lot like land lines, which predate the Technological Divide.  (People on the Young side of the Technological Divide use their phones for many purposes other than talking by the way; indeed, talking is not even the primary use of the cell phone for many people on the Young side of the Technological Divide.)  So, the people who make the Laws have outlawed an action which they find confusing and time intensive, while allowing an action which they find convenient and easy.

So, again, let us agree that texting while driving is distracting.  But so is dealing with screaming kids in the backseat (still legal), fiddling with the radio (still legal), engaging in an engrossing conversation with a passenger (still legal), reading a book while driving (still legal), applying makeup while driving (still legal), eating while driving (still legal, even if you are eating a very messy sandwich), driving while extremely tired (still legal), and so on ad nauseum.  What makes all these different from driving while texting?  It is not the level of distraction--it is hard to imagine anything more distracting than a screaming infant in the backseat in a rear-facing infant car seat, yet there has been no law to ban infants from cars.  The difference between texting and all those other activities is that texting while driving is not the sort of thing done by people on the Old side of the Technological Divide; it is new and thus suspect; it is done only by people on the Young side of the Technological Divide, and thus it was a simple matter to outlaw the practice.

While I have been noticing the Technological Divide for some time now, this is the first time I can recall of legislation marking the Divide.

And, for your enjoyment, here is the anthem of the Old Side of the Technological Divide.