Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Sad, Lonely Death Of The American Mall

The American Mall is an iconic symbol of...well, it's up to your particular viewpoint of the world. It could be the culmination of the consolidation of marketplace efficiency, expansive land use, and consumer-driven convenience; or, it can represent the blight of creativity and mass-market banality in postwar America.

In either case, the mall has been important for generations of kids in this country...and it may all be coming to an end.

Well, not anytime soon, really. While a new enclosed mall hasn't been built in this country since about 2006 or so, there's still plenty of thriving malls in varying climates throughout the nation. Trends and demographics change over time, of course, but the death of the mall has probably been proclaimed too soon. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to shoppers, I suppose.

Personally, there's something charming about having an effective self-sustaining consumer complex like an indoor mall. I know "charming" is an odd word to use to describe what is easily the epitome of crass consumerism, but I'll stick to it. If you're not going on a Saturday night or during that four-week hellstorm in December, malls can actually be a remarkably calming place to be.

Still, I'm willing to admit that a lot of this is probably rank nostalgia. If someone told me today they were going to bulldoze a few dozen farms, suck all the water and electricity from neighboring towns, and screw up local traffic so there can be one place where people can go to buy overpriced ill-fitting clothes for teenagers and sell stale pretzels and out-of-date CDs, I'd think you were crazy.

Still, every mall has a certain allure to it.

The Food Court: Oh, sweet Food Court! Sure, you're overpriced, the hygienic qualities are a little suspect, and the meal sizes would barely satisfy a bird, but it's like a brilliant festival of tastes and colors in one awkwardly-shaped semicircle. If you want a slice of Sbarro's pizza and your spouse wants creepy Mexican and your kids want chicken squingets and everybody wants Mr. Pibb and Dippin Dots, you can do that all within a twenty-yard radius. It's like if we took Vladimir Lenin in a time machine to see the greatness of capitalism in a modern-day food court, he'd go back and hitch up in Switzerland and say "Screw all that communist revolution nonsense, I'm gotta have some Panda Express for lunch."

The Arcade: Ah, how the mighty have fallen! Whether it be the classy Aladdin's Castle or the dime-store equivalent called "Arcade," you just can't have as much fun at the mall playing video games now. Sure, back in the 1980s, home systems were ruled by such landmark games as Make That Dot Hit The Other Dot, Stack The Blocky Lines Up, and Beep Boop. Video game aficionados had to hoof it to an actual arcade to play a game that actually made sense and didn't look like someone filling out a sheet of graph paper with a mechanical pencil. As home systems become advanced enough to no longer require profit in 25-cent increments, arcades just gave up and turned into ticket-producing monstrosities like Coin Shuffler Deluxe, Ski Ball Renegade, and Let's Pretend The Claw Game Isn't Rigged. It's the circle of life.

The Trendy Clothing Store That Makes You Feel Old: Malls are easy magnets for teenagers: they can roam freely without parental supervision, they get to hang out with their friends, and they're in a safe, climate-controlled building. (There's also the added bonus of making elderly shopkeepers incredibly nervous, but that's a different discussion for a different day.) So of course a lot of stores cater to this demographic, namely stores like Hot Topic that sell trendy clothes at outrageous prices. And by "trendy" I mean "you are only going to wear that if you are on your way, or just coming back from, auditioning for a part in a high school production of Moulin Rouge, which you're not ever going to do in any circumstances." Which, of course, makes us feel old.

The Anchor Store Everyone Knows Is Gonna Be Dead Soon: Anchor stores are the huge retail outlets  placed in key points in the mall. They're usually big-name stores with lots of recognition and often deal with upscale clothing or big-ticket purchases like appliances or electronics. Of course, with the big box stores effectively stealing a lot of these customers away, these huge stores (with expensive inventories and massive square footage to pay for) make them pretty huge gambles anymore. Store after store has failed, and the loss of an anchor store can often signify the end of a mall's longevity--these places pay huge rents, after all. But as the retail landscape changes, people are going to be more and more comfortable buying lawn mowers sight unseen on Amazon and not have to deal with commission-begging sales associates.

The Novelty Gag Store You're Embarrassed To Go Into: Oh, who are we kidding. We're talking about Spencer's, and you're still going in to look around. You're going to pretend to look at the T-shirts, but you're going to end up "accidentally" looking at the "adult" toys, and then you're going to realize there's like a 12 year old girl standing next to you, and then you're gonna leave and go home and reflect on your life.

The Vacant Storefront: Lots of pressure is forcing many smaller stores out, too, as well as the anchors. Some of these are long-established retailers; some of these are small, independent shops. In any case, when rent can't be paid, you either have to go out of business or uproot your store and move it to a weird mini-mall above a payday loan outfit, or perhaps opposite the shady pizza place that always smells like armpits.
The Weird Social Service That Moved Into A Vacant Storefront: Of course, real estate holders don't want to see vacant storefronts; not only is that rent not being paid, but it devalues a shopper's experience from showing up in the first place. The quickest tenants to sign up, of course, are non-profits and government agencies; whether it be a driver's license place, an army recruitment office, or a fake technical school, it at least fills in the storefront with something other than a big lease sign in an empty window that effectively says "I'm sorry you chose to shop here."

That Weird Exit: We all know it exists. All malls have several different exits. Some are next to movie theaters or by the big fountain or next to the store we all know is going out of business soon*. But there's always one exit that's not next to anything. There aren't any stores down that particular arm of the mall; at best, there's a small, unmarked door that goes to the mall manager's office. There aren't any lights outside; they've long stopped working. Foot traffic is negligible. And it's the polar opposite of where the main entrance from the highway to the entire complex is. On the one hand, it means you'll get a prime parking spot and not have to fight other shoppers; on the other hand, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be assaulted. Although, to be fair, given how malls are going right now, you might just be accosted by the mall manager begging you to spend some money there.

For my tastes, as long as he's offering a cheesesteak sandwich and a Cinnabon, I'm in.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Fer-de-Lance through Too Many Cooks

This is part of the Nero Wolfe Project, where I take a look at all of the books in the Nero Wolfe series.

In this installment, we're looking at the first five novels written by Rex Stout: Fer-de-Lance, The League of Frightened Men, The Rubber Band, The Red Box, and Too Many Cooks.

Fer-de-Lance: The first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, so it's got pretty much all of the establishing character moments that one expects. Archie is introduced as the wise-cracking sidekick, the gang of extra detectives is introduced (Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather, and notably Fred Durkin) although none are really fleshed out yet. Inspector Cramer makes an appearance (smoking a pipe, no less!) And, of course, Nero Wolfe himself, as Stout seamlessly integrates his "eccentricities" into the story itself. (Notable in that Wolfe lampshades his quirks, all but saying that they exist purely to build his reputation as an eccentric genius.)

As far as the mystery itself is concerned, it's a little on the clumsy side (there's a few too many leaps of logic) but it does establish Wolfe as using the usual tactics to solve the case: notably, faking an event to "scare" a suspect (or, in this case, an unwilling witness) into providing key information. Bascially, a friend of Durkin's comes up missing after coming into money, and the suspicious death of a highly regarded university president. Wolfe quickly finds out that the president, despite his stature, was not the target, but rather one of the businessmen in the foursome. By using some pressure (and a fake mugging to get a witness to talk), Wolfe is able to force the murderer's hand and collect his fee.

The League of Frightened Men: This novel is unique in that it used to be difficult to find; in each of the reprinting runs, this is the novel that was most often overlooked, and so there are very few reprinted editions circulating. In this novel, a group of college men, one of whom was tragically permanently injured in a prank, come to Wolfe because several of their members are being killed off. Most suspect the injured party (who comes across as a sociopath, including laying claim to previous murders to drum up publicity for his novels and writing scary poetry to toy with them), but Wolfe casts doubt on his culpability. 

Compared to the first novel, the personalities are smoother and more distinct, and confirms that despite the sedimentary nature of Wolfe he can easily mix some action in with the mystery. While the end reveal is a little disappointing (most of the novel is spent ruling out people rather than finding evidence for someone, and it all seems a little rushed) the road getting there is pretty fun.

The Rubber Band: Two clients are booked for an afternoon. One client is the boss of someone who is unjustly accused of theft, a case Wolfe is not keen on taking; a second group of clients that day gets complicated as one of them is murdered. It turns out the two cases are intertwined. A gang of men from the old west were once promised a hefty reward for (effectively) helping one escape from jail; the original gang (and their descendants) are trying to press the claim, now worth millions. Tracking down the escaped convict, the leader of the gang, and clearing the name of the original client becomes a priority, and it's clear that one person has turned on the others in the gang.

While the previous novels had some amusing moments, The Rubber Band managed to integrate humor into the storyline wonderfully. At one point, Wolfe is trying to hide his client from the police, and the police raid his brownstone, including the orchid rooms. He ends up hiding her underneath a row of potted plants, which he causally waters down as the police search high and low for her. Later, given Wolfe's dislike of women, Archie finds it amusing how he's taken to the client:
"I don't believe it. He always hated women until he saw how nicely they packed in osmundine."
It's also amazing how testy Wolfe can get when he can't crack a case and is being "hounded" by the people not cracking the case:
Archie: ...He says that the publisher of the Gazette told the Secretary of State to go to hell over long distance. He wants to know if we've seen the morning papers.
Wolfe (later): I am sacrificing my hours of pleasure in an effort to straighten out the only tangle that remains in this knot, and you harass me with these futilities. Did the Secretary of State go to hell? If so, tell the others to join him there.
Of course, the entire book starts off with the most ridiculous setup ever: Wolfe, in a valiant effort to get in shape, has taken up exercise in the form of...darts. Which he insists on called "javelins." Wolfe's complete seriousness in that this is a great idea, and Archie's frequent reactions to this clear absurdity throughout the book, form a solid balance of humor, character building, and good old fashioned mystery-solving.

And, finally, there's the three-fold meaning of the title: the rubber band refers to the packet of money (as emphasized on the cover illustration); the name of the gang in the Old West ("The Rubber Band") and it plays a pivotal role in the final clue to solve the mystery.

The Red Box: After a young model is poisoned by a piece of candy, Wolfe takes the extremely rare step of actually visiting the crime scene--prompted by a letter from the orchid grower's association. After catching one of the other girls present at the time of the poisoning in a lie, the client tries to have Wolfe back off, never suspecting to get the girl in trouble. When Wolfe refuses (and will sue for the money--he left his apartment, after all) and more investigation proceeds, it is apparent that the original girl wasn't the intended victim. The uncle of the girl visits the office to give him additional information, but is poisoned in Wolfe's own office--right at the moment that the uncle declares that a leather "red box" would answer who murdered the girl. Of course, he dies before the location of the box can be found, and it is a race between Wolfe, the police, and several other interested parties to find the box. In the end Wolfe is able to solve the mystery sans box.

While this is another solid mystery, it bears a lot of similarities to the previous stories; there's a case of mistaken identity; long-lost relatives suddenly appearing; Wolfe faking evidence to prompt a confession; and so on. While it's not bad, once could note at the time of publication that Stout should come up with some more tricks in his bag or the longevity of the series may be in doubt.

Similar to the previous book, the title has two meanings: the "red box" of candy, and the leather red box left to Wolfe with the evidence.

Too Many Cooks:Wolfe has been invited as a guest of honor with a gathering of some of the world's finest cooks, meeting at a resort in West Virginia. Poor Wolfe starts the book riding uncomfortably in a train, and begins his adventure talking to some old friends (and unsuccessfully trying to pry a sausage recipe out of one of them). It is, of course, established that there is a lot of bad blood amongst many of the world's most egotistical chefs, including stolen wives, stolen recipes, and drama fit for a three-year-old. During a taste testing contest, one of their members is found dead. After one of his dear friend is arrested for the murder (an arrest unwittingly prompted by Wolfe himself) Wolfe must then solve the murder before the return trip in less than a day or be held against his will (and away from the brownstone).

This is the book where Stout really hits his stride. The characters have all been established, and so we, as readers, are familiar with the setup. The mystery itself is pretty solid. Archie's banter with everyone--the girl he's hitting on at the beginning of the book, the clients that insists on seeing Wolfe, and with the irritable Wolfe himself--are natural, humorous, and are clearly effective.
"Of course, Wolfe's declaration that he wouldn't try any tricks because he didn't know any, was the same as a giraffe saying it couldn't reach up for a bite on account of its short neck."

This novel is also an efficient use of characterization, and presents a completely plausible artificial constraint. The entire situation shows Wolfe completely out of his element--none of the novel takes place in his beloved brownstone--and yet completely comfortable in his element--solving a murder and talking about food. Wolfe's interest is only piqued when he realizes that 1) he can use this to get a beloved recipe from his old friend, who otherwise refuses to give it up, and 2) solving the mystery is the only way he will get home anytime soon. It's an exciting, relatively realistic situation compressed into a short time frame and made better by the dialogue and writing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Genius Of Nero Wolfe

I wish more people knew about Nero Wolfe.

Nero Wolfe is the creation of Rex Stout, a writer of mystery novels. By far his most popular character, he wrote over 50 books over the course of several decades, starting in 1934 and stretching through the mid-70s. He's attached to many different types of media, most recently an A&E series starring Timothy Hutton and the near-perfect Maury Chaykin. There was also a well-regarded CBC radio series. That said, the Nero Wolfe franchise has largely disappeared from the cultural consciousness, although the books are often very popular in the out-of-print marketplace.

Stout himself is a fairly impressive character, having made a small fortune in finance before retiring in his 40s to start writing novels. (If you are doing the math on this, yes, he was in his 40s when he wrote the first book Fer-de-Lance in 1934 and was still writing them in the 1970s.) He was briefly tagged as a communist (he unknowingly became the editor for a communist-front magazine, resigning as soon as he found out) and was active in anti-nuclear protests; that said, some of his other opinions were more conservative. Most importantly, very little of this seeped into the writing itself, with just a few broad generations and some clever subtlety.

Of course, the character of Nero Wolfe is the most fascinating of all. Like most private detectives, he's an insufferable genius, albeit a totally self-aware one. And what makes him unique is his eccentricities. He's a huge man (a seventh of a ton!) who refuses to leave his brownstone apartment under any circumstances. (Well, some exceptions must be made, of course.) He loves gourmet food and employs a cook (the ever-suffering and quite proud Swiss cook Fritz) and he is formal in dress, dialogue, and sensibilities. (That said, he's extraordinarily blunt to the point of deconstructing the entire niceties of psychology.) He's disdainful of women (although he certainly respects them). He also has a greenhouse on the top floor of this apartment filled with orchids, with which he tends to them four hours a day (with another employee, the rarely-heard Horstmann). Thus, he leaves hiss office from 9 to 11 and 4 to 6 every day, regardless of who is in the room--clients, cops, or friends--including poor Inspector Cramer, ever the sufferer of Wolfe's personality quirks.

That's not to say the sidekick (and the first person narrator writing the stories) isn't fascinating as well. Archie Goodwin--the eyes, ears, feet, and everything else of Nero Wolfe--is pretty remarkable in his own right, and since he's writing the accounts we sometimes get some additional insight into his personality. Like most good pairings Archie Goodwin was everything Nero Wolfe was not--full of action, good with men and women, but lacked Wolfe's authority and gravitas. (One gets the feeling that Goodwin is just as much a genius as Wolfe is, though Wolfe often withholds facts or thoughts from Goodwin to keep him acting impartial. Or to be an ass.) Goodwin is also a lot rougher around the edges and, at least in the early books, has no problem throwing about some unfortunate language concerning ethnicity. (To be fair, this was 1920's New York, and Stout made a point of Wolfe calling him out on it frequently. But we'll get into that later.)

The mysteries were usually resolved in the same manner: Wolfe would have either Goodwin or Inspector Cramer gather a group of suspects in his apartment, and he would go over the explanation of how he acquired the evidence, his reasoning, and then proof of the murder. (It was almost always murder, although cases may have started out with other crimes, like blackmail or theft.) Usually he would work with the police (letting the police do what they are good at best) while also antagonizing them (by withholding evidence until he collected his fee; Cramer let him get away with it because he knew that having Wolfe on his side was better than not.)

The series isn't perfect. Some of the leaps of logic were pretty weak, and there seemed to be an unrealistic interaction between the cops and Wolfe. (It made a little more sense given the time frame and the personalities of both Wolfe and Cramer, but sometimes it was stretched to incredulity.) Sometimes the writing is a little flaky, with Wolfe simply refusing to divulge information to Goodwin simply because doing so would ruin the mystery (Goodwin being the narrator, after all) when it would make zero sense for him to withhold it. And I won't lie--while the names of the earlier stories were solid and understated ("Some Buried Caesar," "The Silent Speaker") some of the later ones were horrifyingly pulpy even by mystery standards ("Please Pass The Guilt," "If Death Ever Slept"). Still, these are minor issues, and certainly nothing that other writers of the era didn't do a lot worse.

One of the more fascinating things is the fact that--unlike some of the more tired mystery writers of that era--while the characters have a routine and all of their quirks are known and displayed, there's a remarkable level of self-awareness involved. Plus, Stout was keen on subverting these quirks often; some of the best stories involve taking Wolfe out of his element and forcing him to act like a normal person. His genius goes into overdrive as he just wants to get back to the comforts of his office and his orchids as soon as possible.

Now that that is out of the way--about ten years ago or so I tried to collect and read as many Nero Wolfe books as I could. There's over fifty of them, so it was no easy task; and, even though the series had been printed for over half a century, few print runs would include each book. (In addition, about a quarter of the "books" are three short stories lumped together, so it wasn't unusual to find even these stories split up and included in compilations. Since print runs weren't done in order of publishing, and most editions stopped after a while, there was a glorious mess of print runs that made finding all of the novels a challenge. I raided used book stores for years trying to build up the collection (I tried to avoid "cheating" by going on eBay). I managed to get all but a few, and these were harder-to-find books that slipped through the cracks and didn't get included in many of the print runs.

Finally, about a month or so ago, I decided to bite the bullet, drag my box out of the attic, and find out what books I needed and go ahead and buy them. To my surprise, I ended up having all but one--The League of Frightened Men--and the only reason is that I thought I had it but it turns out I had an abridged Reader's Digest version and not the full story. So I bought that copy and decided to start from the beginning. Enough time has passed that even the stories I did read ten years ago will be new enough for me.

And, so, I introduce the Nero Wolfe Project: I'm going to post a short review of the books as I read them. I'm not going to do them each individually (there's fifty of them!) so I'll probably do five at a time or so. Thankfully, this will take a while, so for those uninterested you'll only have to put up with it sporadically.

Friday, June 27, 2014

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

Party In The USA

So I'm a sucker for political quizzes. Like, the sort where you answer a bunch of clearly leading questions and then they drop you into one of four or possibly six poorly determined categorizations that don't match what you believe at all.

OK, actually, I'm not that much of a sucker for them, specifically for the reasons listed above. There is rarely ever only two answers to a question; motives mean just as much as outcomes when determining political philosophies; and, most importantly, I don't think that there's a binary spectrum of political thought. At the very least there are three axis (economics, social, and military) and you could just as easily probably add three more--and even these axis can be split up even more.

Still, every once in a while I'll look one over and take it. The Pew Research Center has one here. I'm not a real big fan of it--the questions are worded oddly, are somewhat repetitive, and don't even come close to plumping the depths of the nuances of ideology. However, they did at least make a pretty decent effort of splitting up the outcomes into eight different categories, from Solid Liberals to Steadfast Conservatives. They've included alternate names for what are traditionally classified as Libertarians ("Business Conservatives") and Populists ("Faith and Family Left") along with the traditional Liberal and Conservative. They've added in "Next Generation Left," "Hard-Pressed Skeptics," and "Young Outsiders," each with their own slight variation of degree on the spectrum. They also set up the "Bystanders" for those who don't engage the process or otherwise can't vote.

Thing is, you can re-calibrate this every few years, plugging in a different set of criteria each time and be a little accurate. I remember (mumble mumble) years ago, taking Poli Sci classes in college and learning about another similar octo-ideology system. Just as the Pew one above slightly favors liberals, back then it sliced conservatives up slightly more. While it can be fun and informative, I'm not sure how useful it is if you have to keep changing the outcomes every so many years.

And, really, I'm not sure it matters all that much. Most people are all over the place on various issues--and that's OK. And many people identify with a party that does not really line up with their opinions--and that is also OK. For me, a few fundamental questions should tell you where you land, and then take each issue as they come. There aren't two positions (Liberal and Conservative) or even four (add Libertarian and Populist); most people take a nuanced look at politics, as they should. And there's also absolutely nothing wrong with surrendering judgement to a collection of people (i.e., a political party) with whom you generally agree--there's no way everyone can know all the details and tradeoffs of every single issue, and anyone who claims that everyone should is naive.

Still, maybe I'll have to make a Crank Ideology Quiz myself just to see where all of you land. Might be interesting.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Supply And Demand

As should be not much of a surprise, my social media feeds are occasionally peppered with economic news (between a picture of a new Pumpkin-Peanut Butter Bliss Bar Explosion recipe, some poorly-thought-out political opinions represented in graphic meme form, and a bunch of gross Tough Mudder pictures). Someone recently linked this article about the different schools of thought, and I thought it deserves some thought.

Here's the thing: the chart the writer provides is actually pretty good. It does a simple outlining of the different schools within the science of economics. While I don't necessarily like setting up categories like this (you could just as easily make 4 categories as you could 20 with roughly the same degree of legitimacy) it's a decent enough summary of those popular disciplines that are different enough to be notable but not so overwhelmingly detailed about each one's nuance.

What I had an issue with is his introduction to the piece, adapted from a book by Ha-Joon Chang:

Despite what the experts want you to believe, there is more than one way of ‘doing’ economics
People have been led to believe that, like physics or chemistry, economics is a ‘science’, in which there is only one correct answer to everything; thus non-experts should simply accept the ‘professional consensus’ and stop thinking about it.

Contrary to what most economists would have you believe, there isn’t just one kind of economics – Neoclassical economics. In fact there are no less than nine different kinds, or schools, as they are often known. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less monopoly over truth.

Contrary to his "what most economists would have you believe" line, I think he's dead wrong. Or, well, maybe not that wrong, in as much as I think he misses the point.

Economics is a science--but, no, it's not a science like chemistry or biology. There's a baseline level of technical "laws" that are no more or less valid than the laws of gravity. For example, the laws of supply and demand are absolute--they will not be violated without some sort of outside factor that economists routinely account for. Same thing with concepts like opportunity cost, comparative advantage, and diminishing returns. These things happen. They happen whether or not you want them to. You can't make the government, or institutions, or anything wish them away. 

It's hard for many people to accept this, mostly because the science of economics is tied so closely to human nature, and human nature is fickle. An atom is always going to behave like an atom, while Dolores down the street is willing to go against any form of rationality or taste and pay $2000 extra dollars to make sure her new car is hot pink. And yet the study of economics can, indeed, account for the preferences and decision-making that goes into each transaction, like Dolores's ugly new car. It's an emotional issue for a lot of people because they engage in economics every single minute of their lives, and it's sometimes hard to disassociate that with the nuclei that spin around in your body without so much as them asking you permission to do so. It's perhaps more accurate to equate the study of economics with, say, psychology; that's a science, too, even though it's made up of a wildly fluctuating and often unpredictable input/outcome situations.

Of course, where economists differ (and where the above schools of thought come into play legitimately) is when we get into the massive transactions that make up a global economy. Of course, it's a tenet of most classical economists that there is no way to track all of this (nor would we necessarily want to), and so the best thing to do is let the invisible hand (or, according to the chart above, eight other different theoretical things) sort the whole thing out. The degrees in which various institutions and macro-level decisions are made make up the differences in how the various schools of thought view the economy.

Really, however, any economic "school" that rejects the fundamental, nuts-and-bolts foundation of economic thought (like, say, supply and demand) really can't be thought of as economic systems, but (as my experience has seen) should be considered political ones. (Or, if you prefer, "social.") That's why I don't consider the sort of surface-level Marxism that most so-called modern-day socialists and communists adhere to really isn't an economic system at all, but rather a way to use brute force to change the laws of economics to fit political ends. (I say surface-level because, throughout its development the last century or so, many intellectual Marxists have made legitimate (if, in my opinion, erroneous) attempts at reconciling Marxism with the commonly accepted laws of economics.)

Why point all this out? It's a disturbing (albeit in no way new) trend to see people reject blatantly obvious economic rules to fit some sort of agenda. You can't simply say "Oh, the cost of health care/minimum wage/etc shouldn't go up because, well, it shouldn't" and completely ignore the fact that there's quite a few centuries' worth of evidence to state that we can't simply ignore the side effect we know full well is going to occur simply because it "shouldn't."

We wouldn't expect a glass jar to not fall off the table and shatter because it "shouldn't" have been dropped, so why would we expect the price of something not to rise if we artificially restrict its supply, simply because we think it "shouldn't"?  Perhaps it should be the role of the government to "fix" it--in fact, there's quite a few reasons why we might want to do just that-- but let's not pretend it's not going to happen in the first place, and we need to acknowledge that adjusting the economy to fit political needs is going to have a hard cost involved.

So Chang is kind of right in the sense that there is "more than one way of ‘doing’ economics." However, I reject that the foundations of economics are any less solid than the foundations of chemistry or physics or biology. Sadly, many people do.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Plan Accordingly

As all good and proper individuals do, I was wasting some time reading random entries in TV Tropes. In case you haven't started, TV Tropes is a web site where they take all of the old, tired tropes from pop culture and index them. It's a fascinating read, and one of those things where you don't realize that you've been reading the alarmingly numerous amount of examples of how the two-way radio getting disconnected is vital to moving the plot along.

Anyway, I was reading the entry on the Indy Ploy. The Indy Ploy is where a character has no idea what they are doing...which is perfect, because then there's no way for the enemy to counter it. Basically, because Indiana Jones (or MacGuyver, or Captain Kirk, or whoever) is making it up as they go along, their enemy at the moment has no way to predict what they are about to do...or if they think they know what he is going to do, it will turn out wrong.

Of course, TV Tropes doesn't just apply to TV. Most entries have a "Real Life" example, and the Indy Ploy has plenty. For example, it can be used in chess, especially against computer opponents; while you do want to use strategy for most of the game, because of an AI's brute-force method of playing it has the ability to counter it fairly easily. By throwing in some random moves, it makes it difficult for the AI to predict exactly what your overall plan is. Of course, you need to be able to back it up. Doctor Who is also a big contributor to this trope, especially during the reboot where The Doctor spends most of his time making stuff up as he goes along.

More importantly (to me, anyway) is the introduction of game theory: in that dismal corner of the science, an inferior "plan" can always be countered by a better one if the plan parts are all well known. The only way to counter it is to take some random moves, effectively "ruining" the best-laid plans of your rival.

And for those who don't know, this trope is more or less how modern football was created: the forward pass was an unplanned decision to get out of a situation, and its appearance was noted by Johnny Heisman. 

Implicit in all this is that you can't simply act randomly and let it play out; you have to have the ability to improvise and use good judgement. "Random" probably isn't the right word; "unpredictable" is probably closer. Basically, making the "right" decisions without planning ahead will always confound the person you are trying to outwit, because they are assuming that you have a plan. Of course, if you want to bump this trope up to iocane powder-levels of meta, if your rival knows you are not planning anything, that in and of itself is a plan...

Anyway, the entire point of this post is that here is something that includes Indiana Jones, game theory, Doctor Who, and football. It's like someone is reading my mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


A few days ago it was announced that some new emoji had been approved and released by the Unicode Consortium (a very nefarious-sounding organization that seems like it should be holding a slimy oligopoly over global typefaces, but in reality is probably, like, six professors on a message board) for use in teenager's cell phones everywhere. Emoji, of course, are the small graphical icons (commonly smiley faces) that small children people use in text messages and forums online. This has been released to apparently sate the pent-up demand for such brand new graphics as "Pocket Calculator," "Card File Box," and the ever-popular "Notched Right Semicircle With Three Dots."

(As an aside, I'd like to officially register my disapproval of the term "emoji." It sounds artificially exotic, especially since we had a perfectly decent term ("emoticons") that covered the exact same thing. Of course, "emoji" is Japanese in origin, so it's actually realistically exotic--but, still, needlessly so.)

Anyway, since they're updating the emoji emoticon database, I don't see why they shouldn't actually provide what is in demand. We all could use some new icons to graphically represent what we're too lazy to type out while we're driving. I propose the following:

  • Obvious Sarcasm
  • Noncommittal Shrug
  • Regular Snark
  • Millennial-Grade Snark
  • Jacking-off motion
  • Passive-Aggressivness
  • I don't have a response for you but I don't want to not respond because you'll freak out like a little kid so I'm sending this confused smiley face instead
  • Spoiler Alert
  • Generic Disney Princess
  • Bacon Cheeseburger
  • Please don't send me pictures of your wiener
  • I don't know why I'm in trouble but whatever it was it's not my fault
  • I forgot to pick up the kid, like, three hours ago
  • What you just said was pants-soilingly stupid
  • I'm not sure if your last message was serious or not so I'm making a ambiguous face
  • The preceding message is mostly bullshit
  • I screwed up and I'm hoping a tiny graphic will make you not so mad
  • I'm being held hostage please send help
  • Tentacle Porn
  • Yay for whatever major sports thing is going on right now!
  • Don't mention menstruation to Brenda right now
  • Holy shit did that just happen on Game of Thrones
  • I could go for a cigarette
  • I don't understand the cultural reference you just made but I don't want to seen stupid so OK that makes sense
  • And, of course, Crank
I expect to either see a certified notice of completion or a dead fish in my mailbox soon for this effort. I, uh, I really don't know how they roll.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jar Of Nightmares

We recently had some extreme weather where I live. Thankfully for us, it amounted to little more than random leaves in the yard and some sour wiener dogs, but there was a fairly long stretch of time where I fully expected munchkins, creepy monkeys, and ruby red shoes to be flying through the air.

Anyway, my phone has a handy weather application I have set on the home screen. It shows the current weather and the prediction for the day. It's pretty standard. However, what it also has is an awesome photographic representation of the current weather. I'm sure it is intended to be an at-a-glance shortcut to find out the weather, but for some reason I find the choices they made to be hilarious.

Cloudy: A streetlamp (because London is foggy, you see)
Sunshine: A shining sun. Yawn.
Rain: Jar of Nightmares (see below, and just try and sleep tonight)
Cloudy At Night? I Think? Irish moor.
Snow: Christmas sugar cookies.Yummmm.
Nighttime: The moon. Because "nighttime" is a weather, I guess.

What makes it even better is that it has an animated background, so not only do you look at that jar of nightmares, but you also get ominous rolling clouds in the background, like Cthulhu is lurking about and thinking about starting a lightning bug collection.* 

Maybe I'm just overly amused by it because when the unusual photos come up on my phone it's usually because the weather is miserable. In any case, "Jar Of Nightmares" would be a good name for a horror flick.

*I've just now realized that i will pay good American money for a Cthulhu-based weather app for my phone. Get crackin', hackers!

Saturday, June 7, 2014


The World Cup is going to start next week, and thus will be my every-four-years declaration that I don't care for soccer.

I realize that, as an American, what I just said was a bit of a tautology; I'm American so of course I don't like soccer. Of course, that's not true; plenty of people here in the US like soccer and approximately 1000% of white suburban kids in this nation played soccer between the ages of 8 and 14. Even Major League Soccer is doing...well enough, anyway, that the entity is modestly profitable (by business standards, not crazy-ass professional sports standards) and have slowly expanded over the past few years.

Why bring this up now? The World Cup, of course, where the entire world pins its hopes and dreams on a contest of skill and determination.

I tried. I really, really tried to like soccer. When American hosted the World Cup in the mid-90s, I tried to follow the team and the entire contest. But I just couldn't. I don't need rapid-fire scoring to hold my interest (I enjoy hockey, after all) and I don't need abstracted chess-like strategy stretched out over four hours of beer commercials and NFL self-promotion. I think it's just the combination of low scoring, slow play, non-flashy dynamics, and lack of a home team. But even when it's the World Cup--where the best that soccer has to offer is put on display--I just can't watch it. I'm not invested enough in the sport to bring myself to care.

And that, of course, is fine. Not everyone has to like everything, of course. But it seems quite the shame; soccer seems like the exact sort of thing that is right up my alley, and I just don't enjoy it at all. And after thirty-odd years of trying, I don't expect that to change any time soon. Good on you if you love it, but until the World Cup starts showing commercials involving hot women and dancing bears I'm probably not coming to your World Cup party.