Monday, April 13, 2009


Brad Delong writes by way of Plato:

Agathon: "Under appropriate conditions of perfect competition, non-increasing returns, and the absence of externalities the market's decisions about the production and allocation of goods and services attain a point on the Pareto frontier. Every point on the Pareto frontier maximizes some social welfare function."

Glaukon: "Yes, of course."

Agathon: "Therefore the market, considered as a collective mechanism for making social decisions, chooses to maximize a particular social welfare function. It is instructive to consider what that social welfare function is."

Glaukon: "I resent the tone in which you are talking down to me."

Agathon: "You do not. This part of this conversation never took place in even approximate form in the real world. It is interpolated in order to bring readers of this weblog up to speed. Since I never said my last speech to you, you could not have resented it."

Glaukon: "And I want readers of this weblog to know that I am considerably smarter and more clued-in than he is letting me appear to be."

Agathon: "Are you quite finished?"

Glaukon: "Plato at least worked harder to make his information dumps fit more gracefully into the conversation. I want a better author.

Agathon: "Are you quite finished?"

Glaukon: "Yes."

Read the whole thing!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Good Critic, Bad Critic

I am often asked why I like to read book reviews, and what it is that they really do. I mean: why not read the original book, for God's sake? It's a hard question and the best answer is, as it often is , the pragmatic one. With non-fiction, book reviews often serve as a substitute for the book itself. With fiction, it is harder to justify. But life is short, so is time and when one has a pile of books to read, it only makes sense to be judicious when adding to it.

I bring this up because I read three reviews of a book recently and taken together, they all bring out the fine line between book reviews that function as, well, just book reviews and book reviews that manage to be works of genuine criticism.

The book in question is the latest sensation from France: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

For a book review that is truly nothing more than book review, see Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times.

For a review that rises to the level of criticism, see Daniel Mendelsohn's fine, searching analysis in the New York Review of Books.

And for a review that is written in the spirit of criticism but doesn't quite make it primarily because it follows the fairly predictable arc of the New Republic takedown, see Ruth Franklin's review for the New Republic. (I knew what she was going to say even before I started reading the first paragraph and true to form, she didn't disappoint.)

(Interestingly, both Franklin and Mendelsohn make some of the same points, but they both take them in different directions. In Kakutani's defence, she has to summarize the book and evaluate it in just 2 pages so she really doesn't have that much space to produce genuine criticism.)

[X-posted at Crack a Book.]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Old Joy

A line from Jon Raymond's Livability that has been playing in my mind since I finished reading the story:
What is sorrow? I thought. What is sorrow but old, worn-out joy?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Articles without a point?

I've never understood the purpose of articles like this (now at the top of the NYT "Most Emailed" list).

I understand the purpose is to be funny and wacky but to my mind, this one goes way off the mark. The overwrought hysterical tone doesn't help although I suppose some find it funny. Now if you want something really funny about technology, then check out this video (the embedding is disabled, sorry): the tone is perfect, IMHO. Learn something from it, Virginia!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Best line I read today

There's a nice Q&A with Q & A (now Slumdog Millionaire) author Vikas Swarup in the Times. I say nice because I developed a liking for the man just by reading it. After all how can you not like someone who says:

You’ve described the book-to-film process as giving away one’s daughter in marriage. But you consulted with Simon Beaufoy over a couple of preliminary drafts. Did you have major input on the screenplay?

I only made a few suggestions. They had $20 million riding on this film. My comfort level was high. If I tinkered with it too much and the film didn’t do well, they might say, “You scuppered our chances.” Simon told me he loved the novel and would remain faithful to the soul of the book. But when somebody tells you they will be faithful to the soul, you know the body will get mangled.