Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Water and Fire

Having just spent the weekend helping Janet sell plants, I return today to my day job.  Farming is a lot of work, by the way; the thing that causes the most work is that plants, unlike people (other than my children), are incapable of taking care of themselves.  So, when it is a really hot day, and the little plants get all hot and thirsty, then someone has to bring them water—lots of water, it turns out.  All weekend, I was remembering our graduate school days; I would go off to my office in the daytime and figure out economic models, and then at night, I would head over to Janet’s lab and help her wash soil (not dirt, mind—dirt is what you get under your fingernails; soil is the substance in which plants live) off of roots so that the weight of the plants could be accurately measured.   In graduate school, we could never leave town for more than a day because her experiment needed to be constantly tended.  And here we are years later with no summer vacation planned because, you guessed, the plants need to be watered.  It makes me feel young again!  All in all, I really like Janet’s new business—in my job, I rarely see the result of what I do all day, but in Janet’s job, the plants grow from little baby plants into nice big plants and then people buy them and said people look really happy which makes Janet really happy which makes me really, really happy.  There is something quite soothing about spending some time watering plants in a greenhouse.  I just wouldn’t want to do it all day every day.

But, now that I have returned to my Day Job, I hereby offer up a review of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (which I read because I needed to read Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound for a paper on which I am working, and so it seemed like a good idea to read the source material first).  Aeschylus’ play isn’t really a play—it is more a set piece in which our Hero is bound to a rock and talks to a bunch of people who wander by—a stage adaptation of this play would realize significant cost saving on scenery—Big rock with chains?  Done.   

The most interesting part of this only mildly interesting play is Prometheus’ boast that he provided all good things to man.  Not just fire, but all the arts and protection from Zeus who had decided to obliterate man for no apparent reason.  Prometheus is, in other words Our Hero, and not just any Hero, but the Greatest Hero Ever.  Without Prometheus, you would still be living in a cave bashing rodents over the head with a stick and eating them raw before dying either from cold exposure because you hadn’t quite figured out that it is cold in winter or from some disease for which you knew no cure.  Life before Prometheus was a miserable affair; Life after Prometheus?  Well you can sit around and read Aeschylus.  And what does Prometheus get for being the Greatest Benefactor Ever?  He gets tied to a rock because Zeus is really mad at him.  And Prometheus howls rebellion and prophesies doom to Zeus.  Quite the Hero.

(You can see why Shelley liked Prometheus so much—greatest benefactor of mankind rebelling against the gods and bringing light to the world.  Shelley was a megalomaniac.  The more I read Shelley, by the way, the more impressed I am with his ability to write a nice line of poetry and the more disdain I have for him.)

The best bit in the Aeschylus play:

Chorus:  Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?
Prometheus: Yes, I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom.
Chorus: What cure did you discover for that sickness?
Prometheus: I sowed in them blind hopes.
Chorus: That was a great help that you gave to man.
Prometheus: Besides, I myself gave them fire.

There is a lot packed into that series of one-line dialogue.  The “Besides” alone is worth the price of admission.  What’s better than fire so that you can actually cook your dead rat and ward off the cold?  Blind hope so that you won’t see that you are still doomed.  I can’t decide if that is true or not.  On the one hand, I’d like to think that we can all face the future even knowing what is to come; on the other hand, I am afraid that Prometheus is right , that if we did know what was to come, we would all just collapse in misery.  Who would fardels bear to grunt and sweat under a weary life if we knew what was to come—not in the afterlife, but in this life?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Taking The Wrong Key

How many times does the fact that a well-meaning program actually does, in fact, do more harm than good need to be documented before said well-meaning program is abolished?  Good intentions are nice and all, but why do people persist in believing that a program must be good because it is intended to be good?  When does the result of the program start to matter? 

Aid to poor countries is the immediate matter raising this question, but the problem is general.  I recently read Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, an argument that aid to Africa has not only not helped Africa, but actually hurt Africa, that the best thing Aid Donors can do is stop giving Aid, and that if Africa wants to actually become wealthier, it needs to implement the usual array of policies which actually, you know, make countries wealthier.  Reviewing this rather quick read presents a bit of a problem; the thing which most surprised me about the book is that there is absolutely nothing in this book that I haven't read many times before in many other books.  This one is neither a particularly good nor a particularly bad example of this type of book—indeed, these books all say the same thing.  This one is probably not quite as good as Collier’s The Bottom Billion, and not as heavy on details as William Easterly’s books, but is a better quick summary of the magnitude of the problem than many others.  If you meet anyone arguing that Rich Countries have a moral obligation to give more aid to Africa, then you can tell them that Bono should have stuck to singing and that this is a book said person might want to read.  If someone isn’t convinced by this book, then you can suggest any of the myriad of other books arguing the same thing.  And if the wealth of all those books put together isn’t convincing, then give it up—you are dealing with someone for whom intentions trump experience.

Don’t get me wrong; I could quibble with many places in Moyo’s book (e.g., she is a little bit too enamored with microfinance in general and the Grameen Bank in specific), but the general impression I had when reading it is that this was all pretty obvious; the fact that the book has a market despite being obvious is really rather sad.

And since I don't want to end on a sad note, here is a happy song.  Chosen because I just got Live at Leeds from Amazon ($5), put in on a CD and heard it in my truck on the way to work this morning.  It feels like Summer listening to The Who with the windows rolled down on what promises to be the start of a sunny Memorial Day Weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Death of the Hound of the Baskervilles

I just read a novel which is the third one of a type I have read in the last year or so, but I have no idea what to call this type of novel.  At the rate in which I am running into novels of this type, it is becoming a genre, and an decent genre needs a name, but where does the name for a genre get invented?  I have been trying to think of any example of this new nameless genre from an earlier age, but I can’t think of one, so perhaps it is a new genre.  But, then that realization got me wondering how a genre suddenly develops out of the blue; why would I suddenly stumble upon three books with a common characteristic nature?  Now interestingly, two of the books in my new found genre were recommended by students—one a former student, one a current student.  The only thing of which I can think that unites those two students is that they both took my Western Civilization Class—which is not a minor similarity.  The third book, the one I just read, I found at a library book sale a few weeks back, and since the title seemed like a title I kept seeing (though I have no idea if I actually have seen the title a lot or not), I picked it up (having absolutely no idea what it was about), and then when I was looking for a book to read a week or so ago, there it was, so I read it. 

The book?  Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The Genre:  Child with some level of Social Dysfunction solves a not particularly Mysterious Mystery while discovering Deep Truths about Life.  (You can see why the Genre needs a better name)

The other two books in this new-found genre:
Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The copyright dates on those three books are 2003, 2005, 2006.  As I said, I can’t think of another book like these three in what makes them the same which was written before the last decade.

I’ve reviewed the other two books in my new-found genre here already.  So, what about Haddon’s book?  First off, the cover blurbs are a bit over-the-top—it isn’t even close to The Catcher in the Rye crossed with The Sound and the Fury (New York Times).

The shtick?  The narrator is an autistic child.  That is both the thing that makes the book something other than a complete waste of time, but also makes the book a little hard to take seriously.  I am no expert in autism, but I have a really hard time imagining the kid portrayed in this book actually writing this book.  The description of the way the autistic child acts and reacts is not what strikes me as unbelievable; what strikes me as unbelievable is that this narrator would actually sit down and write with such literary flair about how he had a hard time in social interactions.  There is thus a complete disconnect in the whole book which was vaguely annoying.  That aside, it was a decent enough book; it read quickly, and it was a moderately enjoyable way to pass the time.  But, I don’t think I would ever recommend it to anyone.  It is a classic example of the beach book—a painless read which won’t actually make you really think about anything, enough narrative punch to keep you going, and an interesting enough plot that you sort of wonder what will happen next.  Now that isn’t the sort of blurb that gets put on the cover of a book to sell copies, but if you do see a copy at a library book sale for 50 cents, and you want a light read which won’t cause your brain cells to die, it isn’t a bad purchase at all. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The State of First Things, June/July 2011

First things first.  As discussed in the reviews of the January and February 2011 issues, the change in editor at First Things has been mysterious.  As evidence, I offer up the continuing strange fact that I am still getting regular visits to this blog after someone does a Google search for things like “Joseph Bottum fired” or “Bottum First Things.”  In just the last week, there are at least 9 such people—and this is months after Bottum left as editor.  As I noted earlier, this is odd because I have absolutely no inside information on the editorial changes at First Things, but since there aren’t many other places on the web where it was discussed at all, people keep wandering here.

R. R. Reno has, at long last, taken the helm for the latest issue of the magazine.  And in an editorial note entitled “About the Cover,” Reno says enough to finally answer some questions.  The conclusion:  Bottum was indeed fired.  The reason was that the Board was quite unhappy with the direction Bottum was taking the magazine.  They objected to the increasing emphasis on things other than intellectual content and the light-weight nature of the articles which were being included.  So, rather than watch Neuhaus’ work fall to pieces, they removed him—as I noted when I first mentioned this, I suspect the final straw was the college issue.  The Board then found an editor who would return the magazine to its roots.

Here are Reno’s remarks which lead the conclusions in the last paragraph:  “A magazine of ideas should put its ideas forward. After all, the feature articles, opinion essays, and reviews are the reasons you subscribe.”  And is a not-so-subtle jab at Bottum’s major innovations, “Fonts, typefaces, and magazine designs don’t have ideas; people do…”  He also noted that they have abandoned the goofy pictures which Bottum started putting on the cover, again with a rather explicit remark:  “We’ll make offering distinctive First Things content—content that is religiously serious, intellectually rigorous, and aimed at influencing the future of our culture—our first priority, and our second, and our third. You get the, er, picture.”  And finally, in a comment which was obviously written for people just like me:  “We won’t be too dry and dusty, I hope, and we’ll perhaps even be amusing at times. But substantive too: worth reading because engaging the issues and ideas—religious, moral, cultural, political—that animate our society and our lives.”

What a great concept—a magazine which is religiously serious, intellectually rigorous, substantive and worth reading.

So, how does Reno do in his inaugural issue?  Well, I suspect I have been critical enough about the magazine over the last year and a half that any praise will not be dismissed as simply being kind.  But, this is easily, and I mean easily, the best issue of the magazine in years.  It was great.  It was the sort of issue that makes me really glad I subscribe.   If Reno keeps this up, in fact, I may have to suspend this feature of the blog—commenting on all the goodness in this issue alone is going to take some serious time.

But, for now, the regular series continues:

A. Must Read Articles
1) Jeffrey, God’s Patient Stet
Before reading this article, the only Richard Wilbur I had read was some of his Moliere translations.  Those translations are excellent—I had read another translation of Moliere before, and was unimpressed.  Wilbur’s translations convinced me that Moliere was indeed Great.  After reading Jeffrey’s article, I am all set to read the rest of Wilbur’s volume of work; the article was convincing that Wilbur is a poet of the First Rank, well worth reading.  I came close to immediately purchasing a collection of Wilbur’s poetry right after I finished the article, but then I realized that the Library of America will certainly be putting out a collection at some point in the near future, so I decided to delay my pleasure until then.  Two things from the article which give a nice flavor of why Wilbur seems so worth treading: 1) Dana Gioia notes that Wilbur excels at “precisely those literary forms that many contemporary critics undervalue—metrical poetry, verse translation, comic verse, song lyrics, and perhaps foremost among these unfashionable but extraordinary accomplishments, religious poetry.”  2) Wilbur noted that he identifies more with Hopkins than Eliot because the former is “the sort of Christian animal for whom celebration is the most important thing of all.”  I am really looking forward to reading lots of Wilbur in the years to come.

2) Happer, The Truth about Greenhouse Gases
Happer is the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University.  In other words, he might just know something about physics.  This article is the best recent summary of the debate over global warming.  You didn’t know there was a debate about Global Warming?  I guess you have just been watching the popular media.  There is a huge debate over the matter, and one side is winning the debate.  (Hint: it’s not the side the media trumpets as the only respectable opinion.)  Happer’s article does a great job at both noting the science behind the matter and the reason for why the issue has been so skewed in the Public Arena.  I first got really interested in the global warming debate because I was fascinated by the models of global warming.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about economic models, and I was intrigued by the idea of climate models with 100 year projections.  I was quite honestly surprised when I started to look at the global warming models—as models, they are terrible, really and truly terrible.  Modern macroeconomic models which missed the financial crisis are much better as models than the global warming models.  Then as I started reading more of the scientific literature, I discovered, again to my amazement, that all the things which are said to be settled fact are anything but settled fact.  For example, as Happer notes, 12,000 years ago “the earth very dramatically cooled and warmed by as much as 10 degrees Celsius in fifty years.”  So much for the claim that the speed of the change in temperatures is higher than ever before.  Or, “The message is clear that several factors must influence the earth’s temperature, and that while CO2 is one of these factors, it is seldom the dominant one”  So much for the greenhouse gases being the biggest cause of global warming.  Or consider the question of the optimal level of CO2; in the preindustrial era, the earth was at 270 ppm; we are now at 390 ppm.  Commercial greenhouse operators like to operate greenhouses at 1000 ppm.  The Navy and NASA have done extensive studies of the range of CO2 which can be tolerated by humans.  The conclusion:  “Atmospheric CO2 levels should be above 150 ppm to avoid harming green plants and below about 5000 ppm to avoid harming humans.”  And, just to put that into some perspective, if we continued our current rate of burning fossil fuels, it will take about 300 years to get the earth up to 1000 ppm, well below the upper limit for humans.   If any of the above is a surprise to you, then by all means read the rest of Happer’s article.

3) Smith, Fig Leaves and Falsehoods
Is it ever acceptable to lie?  Aquinas seems to suggest it is not.  Smith does a nice job at showing that Aquinas (Aquinas!)  may have made a mistake (a mistake!) in reaching that conclusion.  Aquinas readily noted that there are exceptions to blanket prohibitions on killing and theft in a fallen world, yet when he turned to deceit, he allowed no exceptions.  But, as Smith rightly notes, he should have done so.  Lying to the Nazis about Jews in the attic is perfectly acceptable—in a perfect world, there would never be a cause to lie, but in the fallen world, sometimes the Right thing to do is to lie.  I reached the same conclusion years ago when I looked into the matter—as Paul’s letter to the Galatians notes, we are not bound by the Law.  Instead we should strive to demonstrate the fruits of the Holy Spirit—against such things there is no Law.  So, whether it is right to lie or not depends entirely on the motivation behind the Lie; if the motive is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, then there is no law against lying.  Note however that almost every time we fallen humans do lie it is for reasons in direct opposition to a motivation to exhibit the fruits of the spirit.  Smith opens and concludes with asking if Live Actions’ video sting against Planned Parenthood is morally acceptable or not; he oddly refuses to offer a conclusion on the matter.  Then again, I too can’t offer a conclusion—surely it depends on the motive for the deception, which could be either a deliberate love for the unborn or a simple desire for media attention. 

4) Reno, The Preferential Option for the Poor
This is the sort of article social conservatives need to write more often.  If you are on the Left it is assumed you care about the Poor, and if you are not on the Left, it is assumed you don’t care about the Poor.  Reno sets out to explain that one of the reasons he is a social conservative is because he cares about the poor.  And if you really care about the poor, one of the most important things you can do is lead a good, moral life.  Help restore social and moral discipline, the collapse of which has done more harm to the poor than anything else.

B) Articles Worth reading Once
1) Jacobs, A Prophet Wrongly Honored
I came close to putting this in the category above.  Jacobs dissects Terry Eagleton’s Marxist literary criticism.  That part was the reason the article merited being in this category; it was certainly fun to see Eagleton’s thought explored, and to run into such gems as Eagleton’s remarks on cultural theory: “Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity, and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on.”  But, the part of the article which almost elevated it to the category above was that it got me thinking about the difference between Marx The Great Books Author and Marx The Marxist Hero.  They aren’t the same—I’d never really thought about this before, but Marx is just like Ellison’s Invisible Man, a Great Book which is even Greater when you realize it isn’t really about Race.  As soon as the academy is freed of the 60’s Marxists, there is some hope that people will begin reading Marx for what he actually said and arguing with him anew. 

2) Weigel, Blessed John Paul II and His Times
Weigel’s work on John Paul II is always amazing.  Weigel has done a great service to keep writing about him.  But, one of the problems is that I have been reading Weigel on John Paul II for a long time now.  It’s a shame that an article like this gets published in First Things where it is more or less simply preaching to the choir instead of someplace where people who haven’t thought much about John Paul II will see it.  That being said, I am still always glad to read another Weigel article about JPII.

3) McCullough, Westernizing Islam and the American Right
An interesting argument that it is going to take conversation between devout Christians and devout Muslim to help liberalize the Muslim world.  Secular Westerners have absolutely no ability to communicate in meaningful ways with devout Muslims.  This is certainly true—over the years I have had many an interesting conversation with devout students of other religions.  One can completely disagree on theological matters, and yet still completely agree on many things which are necessary to cultivate a moral public square.  But, McCullough’s article really just begs the questions:  How?  How can Devout Christians in the Western World have a positive influence in Muslim societies, especially when many of those Muslim societies persecute Christians?

4) Meilaender, Playing the Long Season  
A pleasant reflection on the fact that some things take time to develop.  Education is one of those thigns; too much of education these days centers around the idea that education is something that happens in crisp shining moments rather than something that happens slowly over many hours of conversation.  Meilaender doesn’t note this, but one example of what he is discussing is the modern college professors focus on the classroom experience—for many professors, education is what happens in the classroom in 75 minutes twice a week.  But, in my experience, education, real education, happens outside the classroom, in wandering conversations in the office or the hall or over lunch.  The classroom is just an appetizer of what education could become.  Most professors don’t notice this and they spend far too little time talking with students outside of class.  Also, Meilaender doesn’t discuss the best example of a pleasure which is derived from being a long season:  fantasy baseball is enjoyable precisely because it is a long season.

What does that leave?  Esolen’s “A Bumping Boxcar Language” is the only article not discussed above—I like Esolen and generally find his writing to be well worth the time, but this article was a bit of a “dog chases cat” kind of story—the New American Bible with its vague, gender neutral, bureaucratized language isn’t very good or poetical.  Esolen was slumming in this article; he can do much better. 

And nothing in the book review section is mentioned above.  That section still needs a lot of work.  It’s an odd problem; noticing how weak the book review section was compared to the rest of the magazine got me thinking about how it would be possible to get an excellent book review section in a magazine.  Bu, those thoughts will have to wait for another day—this blog post is already far too long.

But, anyway: Kudos to Reno.  And to the Institute Board: Well done—I think you may have found a gem of an editor.

(And fear not, Dear Reader, if First Things gets worse again, I’ll be first in line to register disappointment.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Time for Elgar

My annual bittersweet evening is here.  On the one hand, lots of students graduated, so I am very, very happy for them; on the other hand, I am going to miss quite a few of them.

Graduation ceremony notes:
1) Martha Nussbaum was the Speaker.  I was stunned at her speech; literally stunned.  A pure, unadulterated, paint-by-numbers speech.  There wasn’t a moment in the whole speech that rose above platitude about the glories of the liberal arts.  The delivery was flat; the content nonexistent.  Now, don’t get me wrong—I was prepared for annoying conventional leftist platitudes which would cause my colleagues to stand up and cheer at the usual bromides—so I wasn’t disappointed.  And I was glad to hear a defense of the liberal arts.  But, mostly, I was stunned at the complete lack of anything which would make it obvious that she was even remotely aware that she was speaking at a graduation ceremony and expected to say something interesting or at least faux-interesting, that she was supposed to make the students, you know, laugh or cheer or at least pay attention.  Even my colleagues were bored.  And the students?—I didn’t see a single one of them who looked like she was paying any attention at all. 

2) The student speaker was great, though—and that was a surprise.  The student speakers are usually pretty bad.   Over time, she has some potential to be a truly excellent speaker.

3) The rest of the speakers were just there—they only talked for a couple of minutes each, and none of them said anything remarkable.

4) Lynn hugged every grad after handing over the diploma.  Now that is a change in style.   Lynn likes to hug, by the way.  She is always hugging people.  

5) Lynn's robe was bright; very bright.  I had two people ask me why she had four stripes on her sleeves.  The standard Ph.D. robe has only three stripes.  So, I looked it up.  The fourth stripe is for the President of the College.  I never noticed before that the college President gets an extra stripe.  (I have no idea if Joanne had one.) Academic regalia is really weird. For years I have been trying to convince myself to show up to class one day and lecture in my regalia just like in Olden Times.  

5) And now I just miss my students.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Madness is Runnin' Wild

In the midst of the Graduation Weekend Festivities, I must note, with sadness, the death of one of the Immortals, one of my Role Models, one of those Heroes of my Youth.

Randy, the Macho Man, Savage has shuffled off this mortal coil.  RIP.

I did not grow up watching professional wrestling, and I haven’t watched it for over 20 years, but for a brief time in college, I watched it a lot.  You see, my college roommate loved Professional Wrestling.  Loved it.  So, I watched a lot of it in college with him.  (Moral: Be very careful in choosing a college roommate.)  It was a big time in wrestling too—the WWF was shown in Prime Time on NBC.

When you watch wrestling, it is important to have wrestlers you love and hate.  And, my favorite wrestler was The Macho Man.  He was truly inspiring in so many ways (Oooooh yeah!).  I felt empowered every time I saw him being interviewed (For example, here or  here.  And when he fought those magnificent battles in the ring, my heart raced with anticipation and fear.  A modern day Gladiator.

And, lest you have this image of a couple of college guys with no social skills watching wrestling, I hasten to add that my girlfriend used to watch wrestling with us too.  She never missed it, in fact.  Her favorite wrestler was The Ultimate Warrior—a hyper-active freak, to be honest.

You can watch an epic battle between Macho Man and the Ultimate Warrior here (part 1 and part 2)

These days Janet (the aforementioned girlfriend) tries to pretend she never really liked wrestling, but she did and she knows it.  In fact, Janet has even attended a professional wrestling match.  We went with my roommate to a match in Sacramento once—it was a Big Match too—we later rewatched it on TV.  (I think the three of us doubled the average intelligence of the section in which we were sitting, by the way—for reasons I cannot explain, professional wrestling does not attract many high school graduates.)

And, so, in this weekend of celebration, I pause to acknowledge the passing of one of the Greats.  Rest in Peace, Randy the Macho Man Savage.  Rest in Peace.