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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Madness or Mockery

1. I have, for reasons unknown, a vivid memory of a media sensation from way back in 1991.  About a book.  And, not a conventional book by a well-known author.  The book: Griffin & Sabine, by Nick Bantock.  What made this book unusual was that it is a Picture Book.  The story was of a correspondence between the two people in the title.  Most of the correspondence is postcards, but there are a few letters.  The gimmick:  The right hand page is the front of the postcard, and then you turn the page and the left hand side is the back of the postcard.  Get it?  Just like a postcard.  For the letters, the right hand side is the front of the envelope and then when you turn the page…try to contain your excitement here…there is an envelope—a real envelope, which you open and inside there is a letter.  As I said, I have vivid memories of the rapturous of joy with which this book was greeted  I remember seeing it in a bookstore, picking it up and realizing—wow!  There sure aren’t a lot of words for a book selling for $17.95.  Sure, lots of pictures, but we aren’t talking Raphael here.

I have vague memories of there being a sequel.  Very vague.  I haven’t thought about this book for probably two decades.

Then, there I was at the local library book sale, when what to my wondering eyes did appear?  A boxed set of the Griffin & Sabine trilogy.  Nostalgia City.  The books were in mint condition.  Insanely cheap price (I do love library book sales).  Done.

Unless you have a story similar to that above, you may safely skip this trilogy.  All gimmick.  Griffin is an artist in England.  Sabine is a woman on some non-existent island in the South Pacific.  Sabine can see what Griffin is painting while he is painting.  Griffin is amazed.  They try to meet and fail.  Many postcards and letters later, what was pretty obvious at the end of volume 1 is obvious.  I’d call this a spoiler, but you won’t ever bother to read this book (or more properly, trilogy) so nothing is being spoiled.  Griffin is insane.  Sabine is purely a creation of his mind.  He goes increasingly mad over the course of the books, and finally vanishes.  So, the books are, in the end, a portrait of madness.  I can’t think of any particular reason this portrait of madness rises to the level of being even remotely interesting.

When I was done, I googled the book.  Shock.  Much, and I mean much, to my surprise there are two other interpretations floating around the internet.  First, Sabine is real and this is a beautiful love story.  You gotta be kidding me.  Some people just can’t read.  Second, Sabine is a malicious demon who ends up possessing Griffin.  Oddly, this is more plausible than the books being a love story.  That being said, if that interpretation is correct, then these books are even less interesting than if it is merely a portrait of madness.  And, therein lies the real problem with Griffin & Sabine.  Who cares which is the right explanation?

2. But, there is another way to look at Griffin & Sabine.  It is a book with pictures and words.  It is, in other words, a comic book.  It doesn’t look like a comic book, and it sure isn’t treated like a comic book, but it really is a comic book.  And not a very good comic book.  However, if you were reading Griffin  Sabine in public and others saw you reading it, you could pass it off as literature and not be embarrassed at all.  But, if you were reading The Superior Foes of Spider-Man: Getting the Band Back Together in public and people saw you, what would they think?

And people would have it exactly wrong.  Griffin & Sabine is silly tripe.  The Superior Foes of Spider-Man is funny.  You’d probably have to be an aficionado of comic books to get the jokes, but trust me, this is easily one of the funniest comic books out there.  A set of two-bit minor villains team up; they think they can be great, but they are really obviously never going to amount to anything.  This is a comic book which gets that comic books are supposed to be fun.  It is like The Big Bang Theory—something that knows how to make fun of geeks because it is itself really geeky.

3. Self-awareness is a rare thing in the modern age.  Even rarer is the ability to laugh at oneself.  Why do people take themselves so seriously?  Given the choice between the self-mocking world of The Superior Foes of Spider-Man and the madness of Griffin and Sabine, why is the latter the one that gets the accolades? 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Plastic Fantastic Lover

Some books are nearly impossible to review.

I just started Surrealist Pillow on Spotify to help me write this review.  That should tell you what is to come.

It should probably also make you stop reading.

Your mind’s guaranteed/ It’s all you’ll ever need/So what do you want from Me?

Let’s pretend I just said something deep.

If you read a book written by a drug-addled 1960’s wannabe poet (I’m looking at you Jackie Kerouac), you probably shouldn’t complain about what you find.  But, if you read a book written in 1925 by a German guy and you realize that it is like a novel from the fevered brain of a drug addict in the 1960s and if you wanted to read a novel like that you would have picked one to read but you didn’t pick one to read because you picked a 1925 German book, then can you complain?

Don’t You Want Somebody to Love?

I just spilled my coffee.  That probably isn't relevant.  But maybe it is a Sign.  You’ll never know.  Because I won’t tell you.  Because I don’t know.  I had a dream about coffee.  It had milk in it and I hated it so I took out the milk and then I liked it.  I didn’t really have that dream.  I just made up that dream.  But, I did really spill my coffee. 

The life of a repo man is always intense.

Repo man should drink more coffee.

Oh, the book.  When I spilled my coffee, some got on my book.  That probably also isn’t relevant.  You just never know.

If you met yourself, would your recognize yourself?  What if you just met your Real Self?  Is your Real Self more or less You than the You that you think is You? 

To be any more than all I am would be a lie. 

Wait. What?

So, getting back to that Real You.  Would you even recognize that Real You? 

Let’s call that Real You your Daemon.  Then, let’s spell it Demian.  Then let’s write a whole book that may or may not be about Demian and Demian's mother and some bird.

The Bird Fights Its Way Out of the Egg

I dreamed about that bird.  Well, no, I didn’t.  Somebody else did.  Well, no, somebody else didn’t.  A character in a book dreamed about that bird.  Well, no, a character in the book didn’t.  Characters in books can’t dream.  They aren’t real.  So, nobody dreamed about that bird.  But, the bird is real and the egg is real. So let’s all go worship Abraxas.

A transparent dream beneath an occasional sigh

Most of the time I just let it go by.  But not this time.  This time I…what?  Don’t let it go by?

I saw you.  If that sounds creepy, it is.  Life is like that.  I just made that up for fun.  I didn’t see you.  My daemon saw you.

I started the summer thinking I would read Herman Hesse.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I should have stocked up on LSD first.  I think Herman Hesse was meant to be read while taking LSD.  

LSD didn’t exist when Herman Hesse wrote Demian.  I just looked it up.  On Wikipedia.  So, it must be true.  Herman Hesse must have travelled through time to the 1960’s, met Timothy Leary, written Demian, traveled back through time to 1925 and published his book.  He must have done that in a dream.  Time travel isn’t possible.  My future self told my present self that it is not possible to travel through time.  In a dream.  Because Time Travel isn't real.  But dreams are Real.

Dreams are more real than Reality.  So, why do we call it Reality?  We need to stop that.

Demian’s mother doesn’t really exist.


Is there any point to exploring a Jungian mindscape?  If Jung was right, then what is the reason to explore the minds of others?  Am I more liberated when I see that Emil Sinclair is insane?  Or am I more liberated when I think that Emil Sinclair isn’t insane, he is more sane than the Sane because the insanity is the Reality and the Reality is the insanity?  Am I more knowledgeable when I realize that Demian’s mother is real and that she is Emil’s mother and my mother and your mother and nobody’s mother and the bird and the egg?  Is my life richer and fuller when I stop trying to live my life in these walls which surround me and I run in circles on the lawn screaming “I am running around in circles” with no other intention than to run in circles on the lawn screaming “I am running around in circles” because the lawn is a stage and my life is an act until that moment when I realize that the lawn is the grass and the grass is out of the seed and is reaching to the sky which is filled with invisible birds screeching that they are flying around the lawn in circles and I am merely the egg and My Real Self is the Bird and You and I and Her are One and we are Four?  Tell me how do you Feel?

I am running in circles on the lawn.  I am dreaming that I am typing in my office.

Some books are nearly impossible to review.