Friday, January 30, 2015

The Blog With Exactly 40,320 Entries

Most Exalted Reader, I shall relate to you Wonders Beyond what you have heretofore considered Wonders, wonders so vast you will think that I, Your Humble Narrator, am Surely Exaggerating, but I Swear to you, Dear Reader, that everything which follows is as True as the Accounts of Dante to Places Most Wonderful, of Robinson Crusoe to Places Most Remote.  Prepare yourself, Dear Reader to Be Astounded and Amazed.

I have Seen a Blog which has exactly 40,320 entries.  Perhaps the Blog is in Babylon, that Most Magnificent City.  Perhaps not. To reach the Blog you Must travel Paths Most Serpentine.  The traveler must choose the right path despite the myriad of Forks in the path, one path leading onward to the Blog, one path leading back to the internet you are currently using.  I have been to the end of this road, I have seen the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  I have returned to the internet on which these reflections are being written.  I do not know how to return to the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries; my memory fails about the path.  But, I have seen the Wonders of the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  And what I tell you is True.

There is a book.  The book exists in this realm,  You can buy it in the Amazon if you so desire.  The book tells tales of other books, books which you cannot buy in the Amazon, books which have been lost or are difficult to discover.  The Book you can buy is merely a pale reflection of the books you cannot buy.  But the stories in the Book which you can buy are enough to give a picture of Books even more fabulous and wonderful.  In one part of the Book which you can buy, you can read about the works of Herbert Quain.  Herbert Quain has written a Novel Most Magnificent.  A novel which is glorious to comprehend.  The novel begins with a chapter.  It is followed by three chapters, each of which could serve as the chapter before the initial chapter.  That is followed by nine chapters, three of which could be a precursor to the second chapter, three of which could be a precursor to the third chapter, and three of which could be a precursor to the fourth chapter.  This most magnificent novel of Herbert Quain is thus Nine novels, all of which have the same concluding chapter which is arrived at through one of three intermediate paths and begin at one of nine different starting places.  The nine novels embedded into this larger novel are all extraordinarily different despite ending with the same chapter.  I would like to read this novel by Herbert Quain, but it is not available in the Amazon.  All I can read is the account of this novel in the Book you can buy in the Amazon.

The Book you can buy also describes a library.  The library has many books.  Perhaps an infinite number of books.  It contains, it is rumored, every book which has been written and every book which ever could have been written.  There is in this library a catalog of all the book is the library.  There are also catalogs of all the books which would be contained in a different library of all the books which have been written and which could have been written.  There are catalogs which are incomplete.  There are catalogs which are incorrect  There is every catalog which could have been composed.  We do not know the location where the true catalog resides.  But, it exists.   Surely, it exists.

The Book you can buy also describes six other worlds of books, each of which is more magnificent than the books you can buy in the Amazon.  The book you can buy has a title.  It is The Garden of Forking Paths.  It may have other titles in other libraries.  It was written by Jorge Luis Borges, who may have different names in different books.  I did not read a book with the title The Garden of Forking Paths.  I read a book with the title Collected Fictions.  That book was compiled by Andrew Hurley.  Andrew Hurley does not explain how he knows that The Garden of Forking Paths is fiction.  There may be other books with the title Collected Nonfictions which contain The Garden of Forking Paths.  The book I have with the title Collected Nonfictions does not contain The Garden of Forking Paths.

But I have seen the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  And Dear Reader you will be amazed at what I have seen.  The Garden of Forking Paths contains eight stories.  The stories do not seem to be related to one another; they tell tales of different worlds and different books.  But, oh Dear Reader, I have seen the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  And the eight stories in The Garden of Forking Paths are not unrelated.  They contain a single tale.  I did not know they contained a single tale until I saw the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  But I have seen the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries and I swear to you Dear Reader, that The Garden of Forking Paths is not 8 unrelated stories, but one story containing those eight parts.  The Blog of exactly 40,320 entries shows how the stories are connected. 

Ah, Dear Reader, you misunderstand me.  Perhaps I do not explain Myself well.  Each Entry in the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries explains how the eight tales in The Garden of Forking Paths consists of one story.  Each Entry in the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries relates this larger story by putting the eight tales in The Garden of Forking Paths in the correct order and filling in the missing pieces between the entries.  There are 40,320 possible ways to arrange the eight tales in The Garden of Forking Paths. The Blog with exactly 40,320 entries shows that every one of those 40,320 orderings tells a complete tale.  Of those entries, 40,319 of them are fiction.  One of them is the Truth.  And I have seen it Dear Reader.  I know the Truth is in the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  But I do not know how to return to the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries in order to study the 40,320 entries and find the One True Entry.

I do not despair.  Perhaps, you Dear Reader will succeed where I have failed.  Perhaps you Dear Reader will find the True Entry in the Blog with exactly 40,320 entries.  I tell you this so that you may carry on where I have failed.     

Monday, January 19, 2015

The White Lioness

Sweden must be a boring place.

Henning Mankell writes relatively good mystery/thriller type books. (That is praise, by the way.  As anyone who has read much in this genre knows, the average fare is awful beyond belief.)   I recently read the third Kurt Wallander mystery, The White Lioness.  Three books into the saga of Detective Wallander, an odd pattern has emerged.  Wallander is a detective in a small town (city?  Just how big is Ystad, anyway?  Ah, Wikipedia!  18,000. Hmmm, is that a small or large town?  Definitely not a city.  When does a small town grown up to be a big town anyway?  For humans, we break at 18 or 21, but where is the break for towns? Is a town of 18,000 like a human of 6, 18, 21, 30, or what?) in Sweden.   In the first novel, he suddenly had to solve the mystery of a brutal murder.  No surprise there—detective novels need brutal murders.  Nobody writes a detective novel about the person whose bicycle was stolen by teenagers on a Friday night.  (Well, except, now that I think about it, Encyclopedia Brown—my first favorite detective—probably solved mysteries of missing bicycles.)  The book (Kurt Wallander’s book, not Encyclopedia Brown’s book (but, don’t get me wrong, I still have a soft spot for Encyclopedia Brown (though I am not currently rushing out to read another one of his tomes))) was good.  So, you can imagine why Mankell wants to bring back his detective.  But, how many murders can happen in a small (There.  It is decided. Small) town in Sweden?  So, the next book had this whole Latvian angle.  The Latvia part was weird—why would a detective from a small Swedish town be running around Latvia?  Now the third novel.  In this one, mercifully, Kurt Wallander stays in Sweden, but the whole story is really about South Africa.  White supremacists decide to train someone to kill Nelson Mandela and they hook the would-be murderer up with a former KGB trainer and they decide to train in Sweden.  Yeah, that makes sense. 

But, I suppose to complain about a lack of realism in the mystery/thriller genre is rather like complaining about how Krypton never really existed.  (I hope that doesn’t cause anyone too much shock.  Is saying Krypton is fake like telling children there is no Santa Claus?)  So, instead, I am puzzling over Sweden.  Why would a Swedish author who can write well feel the need to introduce a small town detective and then have to keep adding international intrigue in order to get more stories?  Is it impossible to write mysteries based in Sweden?  Are there no country manors with ex-brother in laws, imperious foreign salesmen and the uncle who fought in foreign wars married to the aunt whose family used to have wealth?

Kurt Wallander, by the way, is a lousy detective.  Makes all sorts of stupid mistakes.  Just keeps plodding along.  He will undoubtedly have a nervous breakdown in the near future.  I like that part about Wallander. 

Apparently there isn’t much to say about The White Lioness.  It is what it is.  It is the best of the first three Kurt Wallander mysteries.  So, things are looking up for book number 4.  (I have the complete run already for a very curious reason.  eBay got hacked a while back.  I think what follows is related to the hack.  I clicked on my eBay app one day and got this notice that eBay would allow me to acquire any one item worth up to $50 on eBay for free.  I had one day to use the offer.  I had been thinking about reading a Wallander mystery anyway, and I realized with this offer if I could find someone offering the complete Wallander series, I could get them all at once.  Lo and behold, there they were.  The copies were unread.  Free!  I would thank eBay, but since the offer was not too long after eBay got hacked, I suspect it was related to the hack, so perhaps scorn rather than thanks are appropriate.  This is the sort of useless information which does absolutely nothing to improve the Reader’s Life.  And to think, if I had more mental energy, you could be reading a ruminations about Jorge Luis Borges right now, who is worth pondering and will show up in this here space sooner or later.  But, not today.  Today you get Kurt Wallander and eBay.  You, dear Reader, should ask for your money back.)

So, how about a song?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Age of Marvel

I think it is safe to say we are now living in the Age of Marvel.

This blog post come with a quick test on whether you should stop reading right now.  When you read the phrase “Age of Marvel” did you think the capital M was merely superfluous capitalization or a proper noun?  If the former, you can safely stop reading now—nothing to see here.

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a copy of Guardians of the Galaxy: Prelude

It is a Marketing Stunt comic book, an advertisement for a movie which you, the Reader, saw if you both heeded the warning in the second paragraph and are still reading this blog post.  It is a trio of short stories providing the immediate background to the movie plot lines plus a quartet of rather old comic books which were the first introduction the assorted characters in the Guardians of the Galaxy.

I learned something from reading this.  There was a reason I knew next to nothing about the Guardians of the Galaxy before the movie announcement.  And therein lies a fascinating tale leading to the conclusion in the first sentence.

I have the 2006 edition of the Marvel Encyclopedia in my office.  A useful, as my father-in-law put it when he saw it on the Christmas Day I received it many years ago, reference book for fake stuff.  There is an entry for the Guardians of the Galaxy in it.  It is some 31st century superhero group.  None of the people in the group are the ones in the movie you saw.  After reading my new prelude comic book, I realized that the characters in that quartet of introductory stories had no real reason to ever band together.  So, I looked up the whole matter.  Fascinating.  The Guardians of the Galaxy in my 2006 encyclopedia were dropped long ago.  In 2008, there was a new comic book run featuring this new set of superheroes.  That comic book run lasted 25 issues, and then was dropped.

The reason nobody really knew about the Guardians of the Galaxy before the movie was because they were never worth hearing about.

Even the characters are an odd set.  Strangest was Rocket Raccoon.  He first showed up in The Incredible Hulk’s 20th Anniversary issue.  The opening tagline: “Now somewhere in the Black Holes of Sirius Major there lived a young boy name of…Rocket Raccoon.”  Rocket Raccoon on a quest to find, you guessed it, Gideon’s Bible.  Ha ha.  That is the sort of lame joke Marvel specialized in during the Dark Years (which  included 1981).  There is nothing in this comic book which would make you ever want to read another comic book about Rocket Raccoon.

Groot was also odd.  First shows up in a quick story in Tales to Astonish as an Evil Tree Being, who is thwarted by a nerdy scientist which allows the nerdy scientist to revel in the fact that his gorgeous girlfriend now thinks that maybe the nerdy scientist guy is better than the strapping young man in which she was starting to show interest.  That is old style Marvel fare.  But, again, there is no reason to think Groot would ever merit your attention. 

Indeed, neither Groot nor Rocket Raccoon merit entries in that aforementioned 2006 Encyclopedia—encyclopedia!—and for good reason.

So, they and a few other minor characters get thrown in a comic book called Guardians of the Galaxy which lasts a little over two years and dies.  End of story.

Well, except there is that mega-blockbuster movie about the characters from a failed comic book.  And that mega-blockbuster movie will have sequels because it was a mega-blockbuster movie.  Marvel is cranking out Movies about Nobodies and they are Huge Hits.

Why do they need the movies about Nobodies?  Oddly, Marvel has a problem.  They sold off the rights to make Spider-Man and Fantastic Four movies some time ago.  Then, they sold off the rights to X-Men to a different company.  Marvel is left with the ability to make movies with the leftover characters—which included, fortunately, the Avengers characters.  They have done an amazing job.  But, how to keep going?  Who is left?  Enter Guardians of the Galaxy.

And they turn that into a hit.  They also now have TV shows featuring nobodies.  (Never seen the TV shows—are they any good?)  At this point, I think Marvel could make a blockbuster movie based on Agent Pratt, John Prester, Princess Python, Presence, and Pretty Persuasions all teaming up to stop the Sons of the Serpent and the Soviet Super Soldiers.  (Picking two pages at random from the aforementioned encyclopedia.)

This is the Age of Marvel.  And I am really glad to be living in it. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Be Not Afraid

Define “Courage.”  Go ahead.  Try.  Really.  What is Courage?

I’d never given the matter much thought until now.  But, over lunch today I read Plato’s Laches, which is an extended discussion on the definition of Courage.  Reading the dialogue was easily more time spent thinking about the definition of courage than I have spent in the entire rest of my life doing so up until now.  Courage is just one of those things that you know it when you see it.  I never really tried to define it. 

Having read Plato’s Dialogue on the matter, I have even less of an idea how to define it than I did before I ever tried to define it.  Plato is like that.  You don't read Plato to Learn Something.  You read Plato to realize you Know Nothing. 

Then again, that isn’t entirely right.  I don’t really read Plato to learn how little I know.  I already know how little I know.  I, like Socrates, happily embrace my ignorance, and I, like Socrates, love nothing more than trying to figure things out even when there is no hope of actually figuring them out.  I like puzzling over things.  So, I enjoy puzzling over the definition of courage even though I don’t actually care what the definition of Courage truly is. 

Indeed, the only time I ever personally encounter the idea of Courage is when I make critical remarks about Administrators at Mount Holyoke or publicly make some remark that indicates that I am to the Right of Center in politics or actually Believe my religious beliefs..  Afterwards, someone will occasionally tell me that I was really brave to say such things.  I always scoff.  I have tenure.  The Administrators cannot fire me no matter what I say.  How much courage does it take to say things when your know there is no way to lose your job?  Guys who hold their ground while enemies are shooting explosives at them, guys who dash out in the midst of gunfire to drag a fellow soldier to safety, guys who stand up to oppressors at the risk of death, those guys have courage.  To say what I do is in any way comparable is a mockery of the term.

But, to return to Plato.  I read and enjoy Plato not because of the answer, but because it is fun to follow the meandering arguments leading nowhere. 

For example, this particular dialogue, in true Platonic fashion, doesn’t start with the discussion of courage.  It starts with trying to figure out whom one should ask for advice on a subject.  Is it the person who is skillful in the accomplishment of the matter or the person who is skillful in the means of the matter?  Consider leadership (a subject on which I am soon to commence teaching again): if you want to learn about leadership, should you consult the person who has led well or the person who has studied leadership well?  If it is the latter, then surely you want to know who the teachers were.  And do you evaluate the teachers by whether they led well or whether they studied leadership well?  At the end of the chain, it gets pretty obvious that if you want to know about leadership, you should consult leaders.  But, do leaders know how to articulate what they know?  There is no reason to assume they do.  If I want to study Courage, and I ask the Courageous about Courage, the will probably just say, ‘Well, my buddy was under fire and was going to die, so I went out and got him.”  That’s courage.  The Leader would say, “Well, there was this problem and I got everyone together and we fixed the problem.”  That’s leadership.  Is there any evidence that a study of leadership helps make leaders?  If my class from last year is any indication, then I feel perfectly safe in saying that studying leadership, while fascinating to be sure, does not in any way turn someone into a leader.  You don’t have to take my word for it—many of my students said the same thing.  The same things is true about teaching, by the way—the best teachers did not learn their craft in Education classes.  This is really obvious if you think about Courage—if you study Courage, will you become courageous?  Would anyone think so?  I doubt I am the least bit more courageous now that I have read Plato’s dialogue on Courage.  Indeed, I don’t even have more knowledge about Courage now that I have read this dialogue.  Yet I have studied Courage for an hour or so.  And I am glad I did so.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Blood on the Plow

Every now and then a book comes along which while not really saying anything you didn’t know already, rearranges all those bits of knowledge into a new, and fairly interesting, pattern.  

Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conflict is such a book.

Another Christmas gift (this time from my father-in law (thanks!)).

Here are the bits of information:
1. There is a growing divide in American society (See Charles Murray’s Coming Apart for the best description of this divide.) The divide is not solely income based.  The divide is also a cultural divide.
2. There is a Dominant View among the opinion-makers of society (Academia/media) (see any college campus for a good example)
3. There is a lot of new wealth in the Silicon Valley, Seattle and other Tech hubs. 
4. There is a coming generational storm in which the baby Boomers in their retirement are going to divert a lot of resources away from the young to the retired (see Social Security)
5. There are imploding cities and sprawling suburbs.  (See Detroit and All sorts of second-tier cities in the US)

Now, rearrange all that stuff.
Kotkin argues that the New divide in America is:
1. On one side there is the Clerisy (the academy and media and government) and the Tech Oligarchy (The nouveau riche of the Silicon Age).  These two have partnered together to impose a new order on society.  The new oligarchs are using their money to fund the visions of the Clerisy.  In return, the Clerisy vehemently argue against “the Rich” but somehow the tech Oligarchs always get a pass when talking about the Rich.  Generic Wall Street Banker is bad; but Steve Jobs is good.  But, then in a subtle shift, the Clerisy also props up the New York Bankers.
2. On the other side is The Yeomanry.  This is everyone else.  Al those people who, you know, work for a living.  They want a steady job and enough income to buy a house in the suburbs.

The battle is most vivid in the Environmental debate.  On the one side are the Clerisy and their financial backers in the Tech Oligarchy who want to impose a particular vision on society—no commuting, small houses.  The Clerisy and tech Oligarchs don’t like the yeomanry.  The yeomanry does not fit their vision of the new society.  They want to pack people into those small living spaces in Big cities and keep them quiet.  Think Bread and Circuses.  The Yeomanry are constantly rebelling, but it is hard because the new ruling classes are constantly putting barriers in the way of that steady job in the suburbs.  So, the Keystone Pipeline or fracking become examples of the divide.  On the one side are the Clerisy and tech Oligarchs who oppose such things.  On the other side are the Yeomanry who support such things because it will give them lots of jobs and low energy prices and allow them to lead the lives they want to lead. 

Meanwhile, the youth are growing up and if those youth do not end up in the clerisy or the tech oligarchy, where exactly will they go?  Not much hope there.  The Middle class is drying up.

Like I said, not much new here, but I had never really put things together in this way—I had, for example, never really thought about the Silicon Valley-Clerisy connections before, but Kotkin may be right—they are aligned.

So, where is the way out?  On this, Kotkin is right—the solution here is economic growth.  Without economic growth, there is no way out.  The Clerisy does not like Economic growth.  But, how to get economic growth?  Kotkin has some fantasies of a return to a small-scale existence.  Think Russell Kirk or Wendell Berry, but with a growing, dynamic economy.  People spread out across the country, all self-employed, running their own little businesses, being empowered to lead fulfilling lives, setting their kids up to be richer than their parents.  It is a pretty picture in its way.  It is also nearly impossible to imagine it happening.

Has Kotkin tried to start a small business in modern day America?  Sure, it sounds nice and all.  But, it is a giant headache.  I know.  My wife has her own small business. She grows plants and sells them.  She does garden consulting.  The amount of paperwork and regulations to do something like that are stunning.  In the four or five years she has done this, I have never ceased to be amazed at all the little petty tyrannies thrown up by the government which make it just that much harder to run a small-scale business. 

Take the income tax alone.  I have a PhD in economics.  Long ago, I gave up trying to do our taxes by hand, so I bought TurboTax every year.  That was ridiculous.  But, then add a new business, and now we hire an accountant every year just to pay our own income taxes.  That’s crazy.  Just plain crazy.  And this is, let me remind you a small business.  If Janet wanted do hire someone to help her out, the paperwork goes up to a whole new level.  If she wanted to hire some 17 year old kid at $10/hour to help out on Saturdays from April through July, the amount of extra paperwork involved would mean hiring a bookkeeper.  Moreover, she sells tomato plants (excellent ones—lots of great varieties).  But, if she were to also sell, you know, tomatoes—yep, whole new levels of paperwork.  She sells perennials (those are the ones that live for more than a year (yeah, you probably knew that)), but if she sells “woody” perennials, then, yep, whole new levels of paperwork.  We have a farm stand on our property—self-serve, stop by, get the plants, put the money in the box.  Works great.  But, because we have a farm stand and a greenhouse, we had to add a farm policy to our homeowner’s insurance—and you guessed, it , whole new type of insurance company—and even better, there is exactly one farm insurance company licensed to operate in the state of Massachusetts, so we get to pay monopoly rates.  And, we added  a shed to store some pots.  It had to be on a temporary foundation or else, you guessed it, we would have had to go through whole new levels of paperwork to get a building permit in order to add a shed to store pots.  And…well, you get the point.  I could go on like this for hours.  And this is a small business. 

Kotkin thinks lots of people can set up small businesses—he clearly hasn’t done the paperwork for one.  The Clerisy has already stamped out that route to self-sufficiency. 

So, Kotkin may be onto something in the diagnosis here—the tech oligarchs and clerisy are operating in tandem to restructure American Society in their own image.  But, I am afraid his solution isn’t much of a solution. 

In the meantime, some things haven’t changed much.