Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cold War II

Henning Mankell’s second Kurt Wallander mystery, The Dogs of Riga, finds our hero, a Swedish police officer, trying to solve a crime in Latvia.  Don’t ask.  Remarkably thin explanation for why a Swedish police officer would be running around covertly in Latvia trying to solve a crime.  The story wasn't bad once you lump it into the Ludlum-esque genre of “This is so absurdly implausible, I’ll just think of it as an alternative reality where things like this happen” and then go along for the ride.  One hopes the authors of books like this know that their plots are absurdly unrealistic, but alas, one suspects this is some sort of fantasy life for authors in which the hero is standing in the for author’s fantasy of being himself a better version of James Bond if only fate had not been so cruel and condemend him to being a writer of fantasy novels.. 

So, as a novel, perfectly acceptable schlock fiction.  (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading perfectly acceptable schlock fiction if it is done well—and this book was done well for that genre.  Mankell writes better than the average schlock fiction writer.)

But, the setting of the novel was Nostalgia City.  Latvia here is 2001 Latvia.  The Soviet Union has just disintegrated, and Latvia is in the midst of struggling to figure out if it is going to remain a police state or not.  Lots of old-style Soviet oppression going on in this novel.  In other words—this is a Cold War novel set as the Cold War was dying.  Ah, the good old days when there were villains in this world.

Except that the Good Old Days are back, but for reasons I cannot fathom, nobody seems to be noting.  And I am not talking about Russia and the Ukraine here—which has perfectly obvious Cold War overtone.  (Hey President Obama—The 80’s called: The Cold War is back in fashion.)

I am more puzzled by the way we are discussing what has been euphemistically called The War on Terror.  It’s not terror we are fighting here.  It is a particularly nasty, large and growing number of people with beliefs that result in things like beheading people and flying planes into skyscrapers and setting off bombs at marathons.  That part doesn’t puzzle me: there are lots of evil people in this world.  What puzzles me is this:  After  the skyscraper incident, we decided it might be a good idea to go do something about this, so we sent our military out and did something.  Then, we apparently got tired of doing something , so we stopped doing anything.  Now people are being beheaded.  And we are doing what exactly to stop this?

Where did we ever get the idea that a war against the type of people who fly planes into skyscrapers and kill people watching a marathon and behead journalists would be a war that lasted a decade or so and then we can all just go home and have a nice party or something?  Imagine we had taken the same approach with the Soviets.  Long about 1955, we get tired of the whole thing and go home.  The world looks really different today.  It’s a good thing we settled in for a 60 year war.

Why is it so implausible to imagine the same thing happening here?  Does anyone really think that those Islamic State types are going to vanish from the earth in the next year or two?  Does anyone really think we won’t be fighting those types of people in a decade?  Or two decades?  It seems pretty obvious that this is a battle we are either going to be fighting for quite some time or we are going to lose.  And losing here—well that isn’t a very pretty world—maybe we don’t want to do that.

But, to fight a 60 year war, we are going to have to stop trying to declare victory and come home.  In the Cold War, we had large numbers of troops stationed in Germany and South Korea for decades.  We fought active wars in Korea and Vietnam and Central America.  We funded allies all over the world and tried to destabilize enemies.  We used covert operations and tried to kill heads of state.  It was a long, involved war.  And we won.  Ad the world is better for it.

Isn’t it time we got serious about Cold War II?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

End of the Line

Summer ended yesterday.  Convocation was this morning.  Time to change to Semester-Mode.

But, first:  one of my summer goals was to read Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy.  Finished it Sunday night.  Mission Accomplished.  I didn’t make it to every book I wanted to read this summer—Emile, poor Emile, will have to sit forlorn for another year.  Hopefully that won’t stunt his educational prospects.  Not sure why Emile is always a low-grade “Probably should read that book” but never gets to the level of, “I’ll read the first page.”  Always a bridesmaid, I guess.  Maybe, if it is lucky, it will eventually graduate from bridesmaid to Plane Book.

But, Snopes.  The final volume of the trilogy, The Mansion, seemed not just a wrap up of the trilogy but a wrap up of Faulkner’s career.  When Jason Compson shows up for a perfectly gratuitous scene, you know Faulkner is just tying up loose ends before he ends his career as a chronicler.  (The book was published in 1959; Faulkner died in 1962.)  (And, Faulkner did write one more novel after this, so while the book does feel like a summation of his career, he wasn't quite done yet.)

In one of those strange moments when the time in which you are reading a book coincides with the book you happened to be reading, the end of the Chronicle of Flem Snopes had the same sort of finality as the end of the summer.  Both end with the thought that while it is the end of the line, somehow, oddly, what just ended becomes a part of what comes next.  Our lives sink “down and down into the ground already full of the folks that had the trouble but were free now.”  The parts of our lives do the same thing, and stepping back to see the Snopes clan evolve over these three novels is a lot like stepping back to see your own life evolving in semi-predictable ways bringing you to the place where you are now.  Why should  you should be here now reading these thoughts?  Why should your life be the way it is?  In the end, does the path of your life really make sense?

In the second best author preface I have ever read, Faulkner explains:

This book is the final chapter of, and the summation of, a work conceived and begun in 1925. Since the author likes to believe, hopes that his entire life's work is a part of a living literature, and since "living" is motion, and "motion" is change and alteration and therefore the only alternative to motion is unmotion, stasis, death, there will be found discrepancies and contradictions in the thirty-four-year progress of this particular chronicle; the purpose of this note is simply to notify the reader that the author has already found more discrepancies and contradictions than he hopes the reader will—contradictions and discrepancies due to the fact that the author has learned, he believes, more about the human heart and its dilemma than he knew thirty-four years ago; and is sure that, having lived with them that long time, he knows the characters in this chronicle better than he did then.

When I ran into that at the outset of the novel, I thought it was admirably bold.  Having finished the novel, I realized it is not as much bold as making a statement about the way we put together our own lives.  I tell a story to give my life meaning and a narrative.  Decades later, I tell a story to do the same thing.  Those stories will not be the same.  Why not?  Because the story I tell now, having lived with myself for that many more years than when I told the story the first time, involves knowledge I simply did not have decades ago.  I like to think I know myself and those with whom I interact better now than I did decades ago.

But, do I?  If we take the three novels in this trilogy as an example—which one is accurate?  Are the contradictions there because mistakes in earlier books are corrected in the later telling?  Or was the original correct and the later books introduced inconsistences because memory fades and facts are invented to create a narrative storyline when there is none.  This is not an idle rumination when it comes to these books.  The central figure in this trilogy is Flem Snopes.  But there is nowhere in any of the three books a chapter which gets inside Flem’s head.  We see Flem only thought the narrators which surround him.  How well do we know Flem?  We speculate about what motivates him, we see his actions, or at least things we are told are his actions, and from that, we, and the narrators, infer motives and a story of Flem’s life.  Is it the right story?  How would we ever know?

In the end, the South Faulkner has created throughout these novels, throughout his whole life’s work, is dissolved into dust.  And what emerges?  It’s not clear—but whatever comes next will certainly bear no resemblance to the South which Faulkner created and destroyed and not even like the South which the destroyers intended, but rather it will be a South unimaginable from either the South before the destroyers or the South of the destroyers or even the wreckage of the South which was destroyed or the wreckage of the South as it was being destroyed.  Flem lives and dies (not much of a spoiler there—there was really no way to end this trilogy before the end of Flem Snopes’ life) and it isn’t clear at the end what changes were caused by his life—it isn’t even clear if the arrival of the Snopes in the county had a measurable effect or whether the changes—what is to come—were going to happen Snopes or no Snopes.  Ratcliff and Gavin spend much time trying to figure out and guard against Snopism—but in the end, do their efforts matter?  Young Charles grows up and it isn’t clear who he will be other than that he will be, in some strange way, the future, but what sort of future?

Part of me wants to make sense of this trilogy.  Part of me realizes that if I tried to do so, I would just be falling into the trap of providing an authoritative narrative which simply isn’t there.  I don’t know why Flem and Eula and Linda and Mink and Gavin and the host of minor characters act the way they act.  Why did I ever think I could understand them?

So, why do I pretend I know the reasons I act the way I act?

But, it’s Convocation Day.  New chapter.  Same unreliable narrator.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hopefully not The Final Problem

Tomorrow is a Big Day in the Hartley Household.  Well, technically, a Big Day for a Subset of the Hartley Household.  Well, if you want to be really technical, a Big Day for Clara and Me.  [As an aside, I told Clara that in honor of the Big Day, we could have a Special Dinner—whatever she wanted.  She said she would make crepes.  Who knew she could make crepes?  Clara is a woman of many hidden talents.] 

The new season of Doctor Who begins.  New Era.  New Doctor.  The New Doctor Moment is always a bit spine-tingly.  One never knows—will this work or not?  Shockingly, in the reboot, this will be the fourth Doctor and the previous three were all incredibly good.  I have high hopes. 

[There is a point to this essay beyond mere fan-boy crushing.  Honest.  Just wait.  It’ll come.]

There is a curious idea at the center of Doctor Who—that as one actor leaves the role, make that The Role, another actor steps in.  The Doctor is “regenerated” and he not only gets a new look (new actor after all), but a new personality as well.  Yet, despite the fact that the main character changes, the show has a remarkably consistent Feel.  Everyone has a favorite Doctor.  It is always sad when wen Doctor leaves, but the show keeps fresh with the steady personality transplants.  It is truly a great show.

These thoughts were prompted not, as one might think, by the excitement of tomorrow night.  They were prompted by Sherlock—another BBC series.  Clara and I finally got around to watching Season 3 a few weeks ago.  Season 3 was quite good.  The actors portraying Sherlock and John are outstanding.  The show is funny.  The whole season was great.  Though, in a genuine oddity, a season of Sherlock is only 3 episodes long.  As a result, all three seasons of Sherlock combined are less than a full season of every other show on the planet.  Sherlock is really bending the definition of “season.”

Sherlock, the series, is impressive purely because of the actors portraying the main characters.  The mysteries and the ensuing the deductions of Sherlock are terribly weak.  As a mystery show, it is not very good at all.  One watches Sherlock to see the characters in action, not because one wants to delve into mysterious occurrences and watch the mysteries be explained in clever ways.

Having watched the third season, I decided it would be a good time to go back to the books.  As noted many months ago in this space, I haven’t read the stories for decades, so I started them anew.  Next up was The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  This is the fourth book.  Two novels, followed by a collection of short stories, followed by this collection of short stories.  As a book, it was pretty good.  Sherlock Holmes stories are rather consistent—not jaw-droppingly great, but always a pleasant way to pass the time.

But, I noticed something shocking when reading this book.  [Here, at long last, we are getting to the point of this essay.  I’ll bet you didn’t really believe there was a point.]  The mysteries in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes aren’t very good.  Sherlock does not really solve them with clever deductions.  I had noticed this in earlier volumes, but I assumed that Doyle was just warming up in the early books.  But, now, half-way through the corpus, it is official.  Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t very good mysteries.  The stories are good because the two main characters are interesting and fun to watch interact and muddle their way through the events of the story.  Sherlock Holmes is funny. 

In other words, Sherlock Holmes books are just like Sherlock, the TV series. 

Which, coupled with the Doctor Who reflections above gets me wondering something I once spent a long time pondering decades ago.  Is every good story really only good because the characters are good?  Are there, for example, great mysteries where the characters aren’t very interesting, but the mystery is just so excellent you don’t care?  Or is a good mystery by definition a story with a detective you enjoy having along with you for the ride?

And, bringing it back, if this is true, and I suspect it is, that the thing that makes a mystery great is the greatness of the detective, then the accomplishment of the Doctor Who reboot is stunning.  Three Doctors so far and the show has remained excellent,  but if the goodness of the show relies entirely on the goodness of the Doctor, then there is nothing about the formula which guarantees success.  A New Doctor who isn’t very good could kill the show.  [Again.  (That is after all why it needed to be rebooted.)]

On the encouraging side, Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes and failed.  It’s rather amazing that not even the author could kill the character.

At any rate, to conclude a blog post that probably was not worth the Reader’s time (so fortunately the Reader doesn’t actually exist), tomorrow night, Clara and I will settle down at 5 pm to turn on BBC America to watch the last two episodes with the previous Doctor and then the new episode with the new Doctor and we will eat crepes and we will enjoy our evening and we will look at each other when the whole thing is done at 10 and I do so hope we will say to one another, “So good.”

[I have no idea what Janet and Lily will do all evening.  But Clara will certainly banish them from the room—she does not like non-devotees watching her shows with her.]

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Emperor has no Capital

OK.  I have been asked and asked and asked and asked again what I think about Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  I have read it.  All the way through.  I have read more reviews of it than I think I have ever read about a contemporary book. The reviews have an interesting pattern.  The first wave of reviewers were the enthusiasts and the haters.  Neither set had read the book (more about that anon).  Then along came the economists.  They read the book and starting doing what economists do best; they take it apart into tiny little pieces and hold up each piece to see if it is a good piece.  No book ever survives that kind of scrutiny.  Capital did not survive that kind of scrutiny.  There are many reviews like that out there now—my favorite is Larry Summers’ review because Summers likes the book and takes it apart anyway.  My first temptation was to join the chorus here.  Lots of details in the book annoyed me; some things really annoyed me; some things I thought were interesting; some are really interesting. 

But, the sort of technical review is just treating this work like it was a technical bit of economics.  But, technical bits of economics don’t make bestseller lists and, more importantly, nobody ever asks me what I think about them.  So, how good is Capital?  Not as a technical paper in economics, but as a book.  I have yet to see it reviewed on that criterion.  Is this book any good? 

Sadly, the book as a book is terrible.  I have seen it praised for being readable, but the comparison set being used is articles written by economists.  So, let’s state up front: this book is much easier to read than an article selected at random in The American Economic Review.  Normal people (i.e., not economists) could, theoretically, read Capital.  But, compare this book to books normal people read and there is no doubt: it is an awful book.  Unreadable.  It is a slog, a real slog and the punchline is already known.

You don’t have to take my word for it, by the way.  The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article a while ago in which they used data from Kindle to estimate how far people got when reading books.  Clever idea.  Kindle records when people highlight passages.  So, you can look where people stop highlighting.  Best-selling novels: people are still highlighting  close to the end.  Nonfiction:  people don’t get as far.  Capital?  The lowest of the books they looked at: 3% of the book.  That seems about right—I suspect few people have read past page 25.  If someone made it to page 100, they must be determined.  If they read the whole thing, they are almost certainly an academic economist who is thinking about the technical economics and is determined to get through the whole book and has too much time on their hands.  Most economists don’t read regular books, so most economists may not know this, but anyone who says this book is really readable and good needs to read more non-economics books. 

Let me repeat—this is not an assessment of the economics in Capital; it is an assessment of the book as a book.  In other words, I would have liked this book vastly more if Piketty had just taken the interesting data and put it all in a 100 page article in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.   But, then, if he had done that, he wouldn’t be a star right now, so you have to admire his choice at that level.

How bad is the book?  Well, let’s take the much discussed fact that Piketty uses literary references in his work.  The fact that it is shocking that Piketty mentions literature shows how low economists have sunk in being generally readable.  Look! An economist who has read a novel!  Serious Carnival Freak Show material here!  But here is the dirty little secret nobody mentions when saying how exciting it is that Piketty mentions literature.  From the evidence of this book, one can safely conclude that he has read exactly one novel (Pere Goriot) and some summaries of a couple of Jane Austen novels.    Now, I am sure Piketty has read more novels than that.  But, for all the discussion about the literature in this book, it is surprising how little literary reference there is.

And even what literature there is mentioned was incredibly poorly used.  The endlessly repeated literary reference: there is a character in Pere Goriot who tell another character that it is better to marry a rich woman than to try to work your way up through the professions.  Piketty uses this quote to show that in the Old Days, the only way to wealth was to marry rich, that working people could never get rich, and so they all would be better off just marrying rich.  This, Piketty argues, is Bad, really Bad.  And, Piketty says, those Olden Times are Back.  Piketty doesn’t like that fact.  So he quotes that passage from Balzac.  A lot.  But, here is the thing: that character in Balzac’s novel is wrong.  Even if we grant that marrying a wealthy woman will make you richer than, say, going to law school ever could, that doesn’t mean you should skip law school.  Because, you see, there are a limited supply of  available wealthy women.  Sorry to break this to you, but not everyone can marry a wealthy woman.  If your main goal in life is to become wealthy and you have the chance to marry a multi-billionaire, then don’t hesitate.  No matter what era, no matter what else is going on in the economy, don’t hesitate.  But, again, sorry to break this to you, but not only are there few multi-billionaires available for marriage, the ones that exist do not want to marry you.  So, you might want to go ahead and work after all.  Piketty doesn’t seem to have enough literary sense to realize that just because a character in a novel says something, that doesn’t make it true.

A similar sort of thing happens with his economics.  There is a great deal of bluster in this book.  Bluster is not the sort of thing which is normal in economics articles, but this book is full of bluster.  Piketty knows the answer, and thus he sees evidence for his conclusions everywhere, even when it isn’t there.  Again, at one level this is the sort of technical stuff the economists are picking apart.  But, as a book, it makes the argument shockingly weak.  Anyone who actually read this thing with a critical eye would notice holes in the argument everywhere—there is way too much of the “As we all know” sort of thing going on.  As we all know, inherited wealth is immoral, but wealth you earn by working is moral.  You knew that, right?  Because, that is the sort of thing that is underlying the entire tone of this book.  And Piketty never pauses to even notice that simply because Piketty thinks wealth acquired by writing long economics books is moral and wealth inherited from your parents is immoral doesn’t in fact mean that this is true.  Unless, of course, Piketty is God and gets to set the moral standards for the rest of the universe.  What if, crazy thought, there is nothing inherently immoral about inherited wealth.  Then is there still a problem here?  That is the sort of question which Piketty doesn’t manage to address in 577 pages of text.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on.  I have lots of marginalia in this book.  But, as I said, watching economists be economists is a bit dull for the rest of the world.  So, instead I’ll say this.  If you haven’t read Capital, you are safe to skip it.  Prediction:  2 years from now, nobody will be reading this book, and if anyone remembers it, it will be as that big book nobody read that was all the talk for a brief time.  Ten years from now, some people will have a hazy memory of it.  Twenty-five years from now, it will be totally obscure.