Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Great Divorce



In this Christian work, C.S. Lewis uses an allegorical story to discuss the afterlife and freedom. He has a character visit "lands" that have their own personal "quirks" representing various aspects of the "good" or the "bad". People that do almost everything good, yet maintain "favorite sins" will find company with others that enjoy these favorites, and will not make it elsewhere. A world where "everything is provided" will also not be a pleasant place to live.

This story form works will for explaining some complex doctrine.

Tha Map That Changed the World



This is one of my least favorite Simon Winchester books. Usually I love the deep tangents that he takes as he gradually brings about the importance of a person or place. However, in this book, I was never really convinced of William Smith's importance. Sure he did some great work for geology and mapmaking, but the book didn't make a good case for why we should care.

Who Put that Hair in My Toothbrush



A 15 year old boy works out all summer in order to make a good impression on a girl he has a crush on. Only problem is that she moves to a town 10 miles away. D'oh! He ends up hooking up with one of her friends and discovers where her school is. One day he decides to ride his bike over there and ends up getting pulled over for sailing down the hill at 51 miles per hour - in a school zone! Oh, and he also kisses the friend and at the end decides that he really does like her.

Then he has a sister that loves hockey and has her own set of foibles.

The story is told in "alternating first person", with each chapter alternating between him and her. They never repeat the same events, but linearly proceed forward in time. This narrative device works great here.

The book is a rollicking read of sibling rivalry, where they only become "friends" after struggling through harrowing circumstances.

Eggs



Eggs is one of the more drab Spinelli books. A young boy who has lost his mother to a freak accident is convinced that he can get her back by obeying every rule. However, he can't stand his grandmother and tries to do everything possible to irritate her. He discovers what he thinks is a dead body in a field during an easter egg hunt. He later discovers that it was in fact a living teenage girl. He befriends the girl, who lives in a car outside of her house because she cannot stand her mother.

Eventually, they decide to go on a voyage to Philadelphia to see a "waving man". They never get there, but they do worry everyone when they are gone. When they get home, they make peace with everyone and live happily ever after.

The story is rather trite, with cliched plot elements (the pictures of her "Dad" are actually of Clark Gable.) It does have its moments, but is one of the worst of his books.

Conference Expansion: WCC version

The WCC comes out as one of the big winners in the latest rounds of conference expansion. WCC adds BYU and its significant fan base, just in time for TV rights negotiations. St. Marys, Gonzaga and BYU have all been regular NCAA tourney teams, so this should become one of the premier "mid-major" conferences. People in Utah will also suddenly find a lot of teams on their radar.

As for BYU, this is likely a temporary stop. I'd imagine they have an easy out, and probably a fairly lopsided revenue distribution agreement. (I'd guess that BYU keeps a good chunk of their own money, and probably reserves some rights to television broadcasts.) The WCC also gives them a stable conference with all private religious schools.

BYU will be the "big Kahuna" of the WCC. In both student body size and basketball stadium size, BYU is about the size of the four largest WCC schools combined.
Most of the WCC schools are located in major metro areas with significant LDS and BYU alumni populations. Local BYU fans could probably fill some of the smaller stadiums on their own. This could be a boon to ticket sales (perhaps BYU and some of the premier non-conference games would be packaged with some of the "lesser" games.)

Being the big guy in the conference lets BYU dictate their terms. Key among them is "no games on Sunday." (It's probably hard for a religious conference to turn that one down.) As a little guy in a big conference, they may have much more trouble with that one.

BYU also gets some good exposure. San Diego. Portland. San Francisco. They may be playing in small arenas, but they will be in the biggest cities on the west coast. WCC also does well in other sports like soccer and tennis. The MPSF will likely hold some of the other sports that are not in the WCC. This seems to be a strong west coast push by BYU. If the independent football thing works well, they may just decide they like it. Otherwise, they may be nothing more than a short term blip in one of the most stable conferences.

Basketball Arena Size
BYU22700
Gonzaga 6000
San Francisco 5300
San Diego 5100
Portland 4852
Top 4 current WCC combined21252

Number of Students
BYU 32955
Loyola Marymount 8972
San Francisco 8722
Santa Clara 8377
San Diego 7548
Top 4 current WCC combined33619

Friday, August 27, 2010

Darwanism and the Modern World

Evolution and It's Discontents: Darwin, Darwinism and the Modern World (Portable Professor)
The delivery of these lectures has something to be desired. Even at double speed it is still very sloooow. The content is fairly basic. It starts with a little of Darwin's biography and the days that he lived. (Then, most scientists were non-professional "lay-people". It then proceeds to give a basic explanation of the theory of natural selection. The most intriguing part was the section on the responses to Darwin's theories. Genetics, though now seen to go hand-in-hand with evolution was seen to disprove Darwinism. Religion at first got on fine with evolutionary theory, while science seemed to voice the most objections.

The lectures close with some of the contemporary issues in evolution, from internal challenges (such as "selfish gene") to external challenges (such as creationism). In all, its a decent, simple, non-technical introduction to evolutionary thought.

Madeleine is Sleeping

Madeleine Is Sleeping (Harvest Book)

This is an experiment in hypertext turned in to a novel form. I loved the style of the book - a number of very short chapters, each with its own descriptive title. The actual 'content' of the book was, however, not to my tastes. (Though there were a fwe good parts.) Its almost like bopping around web pages. You hit a few interesting things even when going down a not-so-interesting route.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Medieval World II: Society, Economy, and Culture

The Medieval World II: Society, Economy, and Culture

This is a well done course on the "people" of the Medieval World. It presents the Middle Ages as an important time of growth. It focuses on the "social" institutions of the age and their origins. The "fuedal" system was a gradual "improvement" over the existing systems. With the decline of the Roman Empire, cities began to fall apart. Without all their shipments (of food, goods, etc.), people were left to fend for themselves. They left for the country. The country, however, was no panacea. With the decline of law, bandits also roamed the countryside. Thus people needed food and protection. This eventually evolved in to the middle age systems. Advances in technology (such as the stirrup) lead to different forms (knights). Improved technology lead to improved production.

Even the black death was a benefit to European society. The massive decline in human population lead to advances in technology as people sought to minimize labor costs. This helped lead to the European dominance of the later centuries.

What would happen if some of our institutions or cities collapsed today? Would we learn from the middle age institutions?

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design


I wasn't expecting much from this book on Intelligent Design. From what I'd heard, ID was just a watered down version of creationism - and the PI guide series tends to be filled with right wing rants. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.
"Darwinist" thought has dominated biological discussion and taken credit for most of the advancement in biology. This book pokes holes in some of those arguments. Many advancements in biology have occurred without regard to Darwinist thought. Even when evolutionary principles are involved, they are usually micro-evolution principles - principles that do have real world proof. (Intelligent Design advocates agree with these ideas.)
The author points out that Darwinist "macro-evolution" of species generation has rarely (if ever) been seen "live."
Also, while "Darwinists" often criticize Intelligent-Design advocates as merely propagating religion, many of the most ardent Darwinists are also ardent atheists (such as Richard Dawkins). Their pushing of Darwinism is tightly couple with a "religious" viewpoint.
In the end, religion is probably the only thing that can settle the evolution debate. Even Darwin has admitted that the geological record has problems. Without some sort of divine intervention it will be impossible to definitively determine the origins.
The funny thing is that despite the rhetoric, it probably doesn't matter very much to biology whether life was "designed" or purely "evolved". Even literal creationists give the world at least a few thousand years of age - which would still allow for substantial "evolution" to occur after creation.
The big problem with intelligent design is the difficulty society has with religion. Years ago, laws prohibited the teaching of evolution in favor of creation. Now that Darwinists have the law on their side, they seek to prohibit anything other than Darwinism. A better balance would be to allow all possibilities to be taught. After all, even Darwin was an advocate of pangenesis and other "consensus" theories that have been debunked. Silencing "unproven" theories just because they go against the orthodoxy could merely be seen as another form of "religion".

Stargirl


Stargirl is the uber-nonconformist. She seemingly comes down from outer-space to "infect" an utterly conformist Arizona high school. She serenade's students, asks questions in class and (horrors) cheers for the home team and the opponents. At first, the other students are baffled. Then they become enthralled by the freedom that she represents. She sparks a new interest in individual expression and school spirit. However, this all comes apart as the basketball team goes on winning. The school holds her responsible for the playoff loss and eventually shuns here. She attempts to be a "normal" student, but after that fails to help, she returns back to herself. She goes on to win the state speech contest and is well celebrated by the people in Phoenix. However, in her own town, she is pretty much ignored.

Finally at the end of the year, she arrives in a "chauffeur-driven" bicycle to the big dance, enthralls the school with a wild bunny hop, and then disappears to fond memories.

The story is told in first person, from the view of Leo, a high school TV producer who becomes Stargirl's boyfriend. This creates a fairly shallow version of her character. (Stargirl's character comes out as a more authentic, well-rounded character in the sequel, Love, Stargirl, which is told from Stargirl's perspective.) Leo is caught in a quandary. He likes her, but he also likes being popular. He is unable to accept being shunned by classmates in order to stay with Startgirl. He tries to make her "one of them" and seems to enjoy it when she tries, but is upset that it didn't help remove the shunning. He eventually disassociates from her in an attempt to improve his standing.

We see very little of what makes Stargirl tick. She seems to be mostly aloof from feelings. She does what she wants to do. She brings a ukulele to school and freely gives people cards. She pretty much tells Leo that she will be his girlfriend. She has none of the beat-around-the-bush teenage behavior. Even her attempt to be "normal" seems to be of the "this is something to make Leo happy" variety. We only glimpse a bit of her "needs" in the speech contest episode. She seems like a typical teenager flirting with Leo on the drive there. She longs for the praise of her classmates (and seems torn when she doesn't get it.)

The message is a similar one from Crash: be true to yourself, regardless of what others think. The sequel is a stronger book, but Stargirl does a good job of bringing out the internal conflicts in the quest to "be true".

Crash



Crash is a "typical" junior high kid, addicted to football, and a slave to fashion. When he was young, he was befriended by a Penn Webb, a poor vegetarian quaker. While Crash really didn't want to be associated with somebody so uncool, Webb still continued to be friendly to Crash.

In 7th grade, Crash is the undisputed star of the football team. He is attracted to a girl, however, the girl wont have anything to do with him, and prefers to spend time with Webb. (Crash's younger sister also runs with Webb's nonconformist group.)

Eventually, Crash's beloved grandfather moves in with them, has a stroke, and becomes incapacitated. Crash eventually lets Webb beat him in a race and starts a two-way friendship.

This novel is weaker version of Spinelli's Stargirl books. (Crash's younger sister Abby would probably be best friends with "Stargirl") The student body "mass" is utterly obsessed with designer labels and conformity. Even Crash's parents come across as over-the-top "conformists", even disguising name-brand clothes as "second-hand" to appease Abby. Only by throwing away the obsession with conformity can the characters become alive. In the end, Crash and his parents "break free" to join Abby, Webb and his family in their "freedom".

Conference Expansion

College football conferences will have a different look in 2011:

Big 12 : 11 teams (minus Nebraska)
Big 10 : 12 teams (plus Nebraska)
Pac 10 : 11 teams (plus Utah)
WAC : 6 teams (minus Boise, Nevada, Fresno)
MWC : 11 teams (minus Utah, plus Boise, Nevada, Fresno)

There is still some flux in this. BYU is mulling going independent. Colorado may still find a way to get out of the Big 12 a year earlier. Nevada and Fresno may end back in the WAC for a year. Hawaii, Utah State and Louisiana Tech could also leave the WAC.
However, as it stands now, the one previous 11 team conference now has 12 teams and the ability to stage a championship. Three additional conferences are one team short of the number, while one conference teeters on the brink of extinction.
As the dust is settling, the Big 10 seems to be better off, while the entire college football landscape west of the Mississippi is in shamples.
Perhaps the biggest shame is poaching going on in the Mountain West and WAC. College football could really use another western BCS conference. The Mountain West was poised to be the conference, especially with the additional of Boise State. However, with the defection of Utah and possibly of BYU those hopes are looking weaker. The Mountain West picked up a couple of ok WAC teams, but now has a large conference to deal with. Perhaps the best option now would be to simply start over. Grab the best teams from the Mountain West and WAC to make a quality conference. (Wait, wasn't this supposed to be what the Mountain West was all about?)
Who would you drop? UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State are horrid in football, yet all made the NCAA basketball tournament. Wyoming is in a small market, but they did make a bowl last season. Colorado State is in one, of the largest markets in a conference. However, they don't have much a hold on that market (which they also somewhat share with Air Force.) They could be dropped, leaving only teams that made a bowl or the NCAA tourney. With Boise, Nevada and Fresno, you'd have a somewhat respectable 10 team conference, but one still with some football weakness.

The Big 12 and Pac 10 pose some additional issues. The Pac-10 has already assigned Utah a "probationary" membership, so they can probably limit the amount of money doled out to the new mouth until the championship game is going. In the Big-12, Colorado will be ponying out a good amount of change to leave, so its not like they will be hurting.

Will the Big-12 go for expansion? BYU could be a logical addition. They could help bring in revenue and easily compete in the Big-12 north. That gives another season to look for another team. (unless Missouri decides to leave.) A second team is more of a challenge. Air Force could provide a travel partner for BYU and restore the Colorado toe-hold. Going in to Texas is another option, though that could create geographical (and Texas politcal) issues. Houston and TCU both have respectable programs. Though it would be odd to have Houston competing in the North.

Another option would be to take two Texas schools and make an entirely Texas south division, while bumping the Oklahoma schools to the north.

Perhaps even more overzealous would be a Southwest Conference revival. Add SMU, TCU, Houston and Rice [uh, for academics] to the south division, bump the Oklahoma schools up north and add BYU and Air Force. TCU and Texas would be the powers in the south, with Houston, Tech and A&M nipping at their heals. In the north, Oklahoma, BYU and Oklahoma State would probably dominate, though Air Force and Missouri should be respectable.

Conference USA can grab New Mexico, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech to complete their 12.

These leaves 11 western teams from the WAC/MWC. Perhaps a IAA moveup can be added to get a championship game going. (Or Hawaii may go it solo.)
Boise, Fresno, Nevada, Hawaii, Idaho, San Jose State, Utah State, Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV, Wyoming.

And then in the next season, Texas A&M will bolt to the SEC and Texas will head to the Pac-10, and everything will start all over again.

Perhaps we will see BYU stay in the Mountain West and the BCS bid come through.

Maybe the WAC will find a way to survive.

Where will Utah State and Hawaii end up?

Will the Pac-10 and big-10 continue expanding?

What about the Big east?

There is also the matter of being an incumbent BCS conference. You get more money. You have an easier time scheduling. You find it easier to stay BCS.

Perhaps we should just create 'football-only' conferences. Teams that can fill stadiums and win games go in the top conferences. Other teams go in lower conferences and move up if they are successful.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thirteen Days to Midnight


Ripping narrative. Great characters. A somewhat baffling premise.
Jacob Fielding is a "ward of the state" who has lived in a foster care system. He is now going to a Catholic school that appears to be barely hanging on to its existence. (Most students are transferring to the posh public high school in town.) His only real friend is Milo, a kid who's parents have a bizarre used book store. Jacob miraculously survives a car crash that kills his foster father. He now lives with the retired priests next to the school. Milo and Jacob befriend Ophelia, a new girl in the school. Jacob signs her cast with "you are indestructible". Shortly afterward, she hits a rock on her skateboard and takes a huge fall - which should have caused serious damage. However, she gets up without a scratch. That's when they start the think something weird is going on. They try a number of death-defying activities to verify the "power", and then use it to "save" people. However, they discover that it also has a dark side.

The characters of Jacob and Ophelia are very richly done. They don't drift in to the stereotypes of "foster kids" or "catholic school" kids. They are just "regular" kids who have the same concerns and relationship trials of teenagers. While bizarre stuff happens, that is only one part of their lives. They are contemporary teenagers, who struggle with the challenge of communicating by "texts". They have run ins with teachers, and interpersonal spats over girls and bullies.

The action and suspense make this book a real page-turner. The ending of the book somehow manages to be both "happy" and "gruesome" without feeling like a cartoon. Jacob is resigned to having a great power that he cannot use for feat of the evil it will unleash.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Great Masters: Tchaikovsky

Great Masters: Tchaikovsky -- His Life & Music (The Great Courses, 753)
In these 'lectures', Robert Greenberg focuses on Tchaikovsky's life and his lesser-known works. His most popular works, such as Nutcracker and 1812 Overture are fairly well ignored. Most attention is given to his private life and personal relationships, with occasional bits of his music as it pertains to his life.

The biography feels rather spotty, with more time spent putting his analysis on the events than actually describing the events. He is also prone to excessive changes in tone, making him sound more like a political orator than a college lecturer. I would like to see more objective content and less political persuasion. It would also be nice to hear more of how his popular works would fit in to his life.

New Spring


During a time of war, a couple of girls with special talents attend a school for girls with "superhuman" talents. They become involved in a quest to find a special "dragon baby" that was foretold to do very bad things. On completion of their schooling they are initiated in to the cult of "gifted" women. They then discover that some leaders of this cult are corrupt and causing problems in the world and manage to kill one. And then the book ends.

The book is very descriptive, but the pacing is slow and the plot really goes nowhere. It feels like it is setting up some larger story (as it is.) I wonder if there is a concise fantasy writer out there?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Inventing a Nation



Most historians attempt to write in an objective manner. Their personal beliefs and opinions are subtly incorporated in the spin on their work. Not so with Gore Vidal. His opinion and political views are front and center, with the historical facts buried underneath. The goal seems to be to use the founding fathers to provide a critique of the early Bush administration. Alas, the many contemporary allusions to 2003 politics already seem quite dated. The sarcasm and irony and modern asides gets tiring through this history. Reading separate histories of the founding of the US and critiques of the Bush administration would be a better use of time than fumbling through this book.

Origin of the Species


Origin of the Species is a decent size tome that primarily provides examples supporting Darwin's theory of natural selection. Most of the science now appears rather mundane. After all, this is commonly accepted now. Darwin does, come across as extremely cocky. It makes me wonder whether Darwin was given his credit because he was really smart, or just because he had the force to evangelize his positions. (Much of the work is filled with examples of other people's research.) In the conclusion, Darwin goes out on a limb and disparages anyone who disagrees with him, providing some of the arguments that are now common in any evolutionary debates.

Perhaps most ironically, however, is that he concedes that most of the species in existence could have been descended from five original species. (Hmmm... That almost sounds like a contemporary intelligent design argument.)
The book spends some time discussing the problems with the geological record. There are a great many holes in the geologic history due to the way organisms are preserved. The lack of certain fossils does not mean that the organisms did not exist. Without evidence, it is impossible to disprove long-term evolution through natural selection. (And it is also impossible to disprove evolution of species through other means.)
The book provides many examples supporting micro-evolution and the creation and plausible creation) of new beneficial features. He stresses that only new traits that provide a benefit to the individual organism will be propagated. (Though some traits could also provide benefit to others.) Creation of new species (and larger divisions) is primarily supported by supposition.

Darwin's pomposity is probably what gives him, rather than Wallace, the role of "evoution" standard bearer. While there is some decent scientific content in the book, the political rants are what have endured most.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Love, Stargirl

The book is fashioned as one long letter written by "Stargirl" to her ex-boyfriend. In the letter, she provides, a diary-like account of her adventures and feelings on the other side of the country. The style works really well, and provides a fresh account of Stargirl and all the other "characters" that she runs in to the city. Her principle companions include a rambunctious five year old girl and an eleven-year old tomboy. In their "adventures" they befriend an "agoraphobic", a man that spends all the day at his dead wife's grave, as well as a "wild" boy who she can't keep out of her mind.
All is told in a well-paced, upbeat manner. Stargirl has troubles and challenges, but she tries to put a positive spin on everything (after all, this is a letter to a "boyfriend").

Thursday, August 12, 2010

blindness



A mysterious ailment causes "white blindness" to suddenly appear in a victim. This disease is highly contagious, with a variable incubation period. The blindness lasts for a period of weeks (or months), then just as suddenly disappears. Some people are immune to this disease. The cause and cure are not as yet known.

This sounds like an interesting plot for a science fiction book. However, in this case we have an attempt at societal allegory in literary fiction.

In an attempt to have us relate to the characters, all people and places are anonymous. People are only known by their characteristics or professions (the doctor, the woman from the office, etc.) This anonymity works fairly well, though it would have worked equally well if they had names and were located in a specific place.

The grammar is bizarre. Paragraphs and sentences are extremely long, with an excessive use of commas for division. Is this just a misapplication of a common literary device in the translation from the original Portuguese? Or did he really attempt to write in such a bizarre manner? It doesn't really matter. While it looks bizarre on paper, it actually "sounds" normal. The audiobook "erases" the oddities of the grammar, and sounds simply like a book.

The main point he attempts to make is the utter depravity of society once everyone turns blind. At first, people try to help the blind. Then as more people become blind, they attempt to kindly separate them from society. As things get worse, their treatment becomes worse. Finally as everyone becomes blind, society degenerates in to roving hoards trying to get whatever advantage they can. Kind or caring people are fairly nonexistent. (No wonder blind advocacy groups voiced objections to the movie.)

At the end of the book, people start seeing again. This throws out any last remaining shards of believability. If the disease lasts only a short period of time, how did everyone seem to come down with it at once? Wouldn't basic epidemiology require that some of the "early blind" recover before the later blind become infected. There would also have been more people (like the doctor's wife) immune to the ailment. Where are these people? In an attempt to show a terrible falling apart of society, the author focused too much on the bad, the author lost the believable applicability he was trying so hard to obtain.

Born to Run


After reading this book, I was dying to go for a long run. I remembered the runners high I felt the first time I ran home from high school. Running was a source of freedom and pure pleasure. I remember feeling this pure enjoyment again on a 15 mile run. It was only supposed to be 5 miles, but the runners high and the pure enjoyment kept me going back for more. This is the running the book describes, not "training runs" or workouts, but pure pleasure runs.

The focus is on Mexico's Tarahumara tribe. They run long distances as part of their normal life, with only flimsy foot coverings, yet never seem to get injuries (or "old person" diseases.) From their, the author delves in to long distance running, anatomy and physiology and evolution. The conclusion? Humans were born to run, says biologist David Bramble. Homo sapiens have the bodies to complete long runs. They may not be as fast as other animals, but they can outlast them. Humans can breathe multiple times per stride, release heat through sweat and continue a moderate aerobic pace over long distances. Human feet also seem to be configured well for long distance running. Athletic shoes tend to be a leading cause of athletic injuries, often fighting problems that never existed. Most important of all, to really succeed in running, a runner needs to enjoy it. A runner having fun can go further and longer than a runner running for glory or simply to complete a goal.

In the course of reaching these conclusions, the history of "ultramarathons" (like the Leadville Trail 100) is discussed along with profiles of many ultramathon champions. The pinnacle is the "Copper Canyon" run staged by Caballo Blanco in the Tarahumara homeland in Mexico. The author participated here along with the locals and some champion racers from the United States. (A local ended up winning, but not without a close fight.) The story is told in a dramatic fashion, but still filled with interesting facts.

Picture Bride



Picture Brides were Japanese women who went off to Hawaii to wed field-workers - with only letters and pictures to identify them. In this story we follow a young woman who goes to Japan to find her husband. Alas, her husband had sent a 20 year old picture of himself. She is annoyed at this turn of events and immediately decides to return. She starts saving up her money working in the fields and doing laundry to earn the passage back. She lives with her husband, yet rebuffs his physical advances.
The movie seemed to be setting us up for the point where she finally comes to peace with her husband - and the movie does not disappoint. However, this happens only indirectly via an epilogue from one of her grandchildren.
Along the way, we see the struggles of fieldwork as well as cliched interaction with the "bosses". Some of the events seem to be added merely for dramatic effect (a child dies in the cane-field fire because the field boss refused to let them move the children closer - the mother then commits suicide.) Other events inject humor (the field workers don't understand the English (Irish?) higher boss, and need to have his words "translated" in to broken English by the Portuguese field boss.
The dialog is an "appropriate" mixture of Japanese and English (with English subtitles as needed.) The movie was intriguing and fairly well made, but it didn't quite pull off its story in a convincing way.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Breaking Away


It is a super-popular bike moving. It is loaded with bike racing scenes (including a cyclists drafting a truck at 60 mph.) It even won an academy award. I wanted to like it, but I just couldn't get in to it. The profanity got annoying. It seemed overly cliched. A guy that grew up in a college town hangs out with a bunch of losers. He is an avid cyclists, idolizing Italian champions. He falls for a sorority girl who thinks he is an Italian exchange student. His father hates his Italian and cycling obsession. One day, he races with the Italians who turn out to be real jerks (sabotaging him in a race.) He becomes disillusioned with all things Italy and comes closer to his father - just as his father is becoming more accepting of his love of cycling. He tells the girl that he is not really Italian - she gets mad, but later makes peace with him (she seems to ambiguously want to keep something going.) He takes a college entrance exam, nearly single-handedly wins the "little 500" bicycle race, and at the end starts trying out his French with a new French exchange student.

I liked the cycling parts. I didn't mind the romantic interests. The main character is intriguing and dedicated. His friends, however, distract from the movie. They become annoying and seem to be there just to cause some town-gown conflicts. His parents also seem overly cliched blue-collar people. (A used car salesman who specializes in selling lemons to college students. Uh yeah.) There is a lot of potential that is, alas, battered down with with trying to do too much.

Jeremiah Masoli

Jeremiah Masoli decides he wants to go to Mississippi, and presto he is admitted to the Park and Recreation graduate program and ready to practice with the football team.
(Interesting: olemiss.com has a prominent like to University of Alabama... Hmmm...)
So what does it take to actually get in to that graduate program? Plenty of programs don't require a GRE and have late application deadlines. (Though perhaps he had been intending to go and had already taken any tests and applied.) Park and Rec does not exactly sound like an academically intensive program, so it is probably not a stretch that he go in.

From the website it shows an application deadline of April 1. Ok. Very likely he missed that one. However, it has "roling" in parens, so that gives them the slack to say "sure you can get in now." The Park and Recreation Management - Health, Exercise Science, and Recreation Management / School of Applied Sciences requirements doesn't provide anything other than requirements, while the department-wide Graduate Handbook mentions that the graduate office has a March 31 deadline and "recommends" a certain grade point average and GRE scores. It also has a mechanism for "provisional admission" for those that don't meet the requirements.
Did Masoli get special treatment in being admitted to the program? Probably. Would a non-football player in equal circumstances also have received similar treatment? Fairly likely also. Masters programs are the "bread and butter" of department revenue. An incremental student that is willing to come in and pay his tuition can help with the departments bottom line, while only causing minimal use of resources. With Masoli playing football, his use of department resources will probably be even less than the average student. From his acounts, he was a pretty smart guy who was even recruited by Harvard before his first run-in with the law. Park and Rec also does not tend to strike one as the most academically competitive of programs. It is not a stretch to think that he may rank among the "more qualified" of applicants. (However, you have to think the only reason he is in the program is because Oregon did not have a similar program.)

This brings up the NCAA rule. Is it fair that a player that graduates can immediately play at another graduate school just because his school doesn't offer a degree? Absolutely. However, it would be even more fair to allow players to go to another school that offers any degree. Just because a school offers a specific degree does not mean it is the one you are interested in. There can be a significant variation in focus, quality and instruction among programs with the same title. Athletes should be free to compete immediately (providing they have eligibility) regardless of where they go or what they study. Sure, it could be abused, but this is the type of abuse the NCAA should want to see. "Schools experience a rash of players graduating early and transferring to other schools." Isn't getting a degree supposed to be the primary focus of the programs after all? This should be rewarded. The NCAA lets players transfer freely if the football program goes under probation. Resuming athletic endeavors because the academic program no longer fits their needs is only fair.

Now on tot he curious case of Masoli. Was Oregon right in dropping him from the team? Absolutely. He may have had a couple cases of being in the "wrong place at the wrong time." Perhaps once would have been forgivable. However, lying about it was perhaps a greater crime. Once he admits to lying, the coach can no longer trust him, and has no choice but to let events speak for themselves. When he was caught with the marijuana, Oregon really had no choice to boot him. He could have claimed some Beaver fans planted it, but nobody would believe him due to his untrustworthiness. The Pac-10 is not the SEC. They actually expect their players to obey the law. If he truly was a good guy that just happened to be running with a bad crowd, then getting booted should be a benefit. It would allow him to go elsewhere and find better friends, thus helping to show his innocence.

The typical player in his situation would probably have dropped out of school and entered the NFL supplementary draft. Masoli, however, finished his degree. Sociology is a real degree, not a tough one like engineering, though not a "fake" one like PE. That he was willing to graduate shows that he is actually somewhat serious in his academic pursuits. You could probably count on one finger the number of players that are booted from a team and eligible to transfer because they graduated. Mississippi did the right thing in letting him walk on to the team. He proved he was able to get things done even in adversity. He had no more chance at Oregon, but showed enough resolution to continue elsewhere.

Economic Facts and Fallacies


The author attempts to provide "facts" to counteract economic "fallacies". Unfortunately, his arguments are highly opinionated and riddled with their own half-truths and fallacies.

The chapters tend to vary in their quality. Discussions on women and income were loaded with factual analysis to back up the arguments. Others, such as "education" and "urban areas" were much weaker.
The education section was mostly fluff, with a lot of supposition, and and only a few examples (such as Colorado law school.)
The urban area and "sprawl" discussion was filled with contradictions, with an attempt to revive the 1960s. Facts were cherry-picked to make points. Houston was said to have low housing prices because it had no zoning or open space restrictions, while Palo Alto was expensive because no new houses were built. Not mentioned was that Palo Alto was a small, mostly built area that was highly desirable; while Houston went on an annexation tear, adding plenty of new land. Houston was also a much larger area that was less desirable - and it did have plenty of house size restrictions that would supposedly reduce housing options. And while he objected to taking private land by the government, he seemed to advocate slashing through built up areas to add freeways. Huh?
He also claimed "freedom" was the ability to have an endless proliferation of car-centric suburban subdivisions. Any form of planning or "smart growth" is seen as an anathema to freedom of choice. He conveniently ignored the fast system of subsidies and regulations (mortgage tax breaks, oil subsidies, road building, etc.) that made those developments so desirable. (This in spite of an earlier section extolling the benefits of toll roads.)

In the end, the message for a lot of the "fallacies" seems to be "incumbents try to use regulation to help secure their position." Companies, residents, professional organizations and institutions all try to use government and self-regulation to secure their position - just as they would be expected to do. It is important to try to see through the rhetoric to the true rationale. However, it is also important to not be so biased by opposing views that things are merely swept in the other direction.

If You Follow Me


A girl's father commits suicide. She then falls in love with another girl and moves off to teach English in Japan. There, she has all sorts of problems with garbage sorting falls in an akward professional/romantic relationship with her male supervisor. She has a falling out with her girlfriend, but really comes to like the Japanese people, and decides to stay there longer (outlasting her former girlfriend.)

The novel is well-written and properly paced. It provides a nice balance between introspection (primarily regarding her past relationships with her father) and current experiences with the Japanese. The main complaint I had is the number of Japanese characters initially introduced. It becomes difficult to distinguish between the many characters - especially when they are referred to by different names or titles. Overall, it provides interesting observations in to the lives of small-town Japanese while at the same time providing a "memoir" of the struggle with death.

Supercapitalism

I didn't agree with some of his "solutions" to modern economic problems, yet I found his arguments sound. That is a great compliment. Is great to read a book that does a good job separating out the well thought-out reasoning from the highly-opinionated analysis.

In this book, Reich argues that capitalism has gone amuck and overpowered democracy. However, we should not blame corporations for this. They are doing what they are supposed to do - maximize shareholder value. They do this by seeking to implement rules and regulations that are favorable for their business, while fighting against those that are unfavorable. They devote resources to things that help them earn money, especially if they can get others to carry the cost.

He further argues that the "anthropomorphism" of corporations exacerbates this problem. The current legal system treats corporations on the same ground as individuals. They are taxed, they can fight court cases and they can contribute to political campaigns. Since they are much larger and focused on singular issues that impact them, they have a greater ability to influence public policy. However, they are not responsible for the negative impacts. A corporation does not have to breathe polluted air or live with poor bus service. It is also not strictly held responsible for its actions. (And when it is, it is often misguided. The criminal indictment of Author Anderson is used as an example - it ended up hurting a lot of innocent people and destroying a corporation, yet those high up in the current leadership were the most likely to land well afterwards.

He argues that corporations should be treated as a strict legal entity, without the ability to be considered as a "person". Even corporate income tax should be abolished, with all earnings taxed directly as individual earnings. Democratic institutions should rein in the power of corporations. Encouraging internal fixes to companies (corporate governance, philanthropy, and environmental activities) are mere window-washing that keep us away from true fixes. Regulations is also a strong negative - it is often twisted in to a vehicle that merely favors the incumbents. Even forcing companies to provide health insurance is a negative - it simply encourages more dependence on the broken corporate model.

He also argues for further strengthening of unions as a means to reform the capitalist system. This, however, seems to merely create another oligarch in the system. Luckily he makes this clear it is only his opinion and separates it out from the other well thought-out conclusions. Overall he provides a convincing argument against both Republican laissez-faire and Democractic regulation in favor of a true democratic reform of capitalism.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Amish Grace

This is a "popular academic" account of the Amish people and their response to the Nickel-Mines shooting. It provides a good introduction to Amish culture and its connection with Mennonite and other Anabaptist groups. The Amish have a history of martyrs and are against inflicting punishment on others. Thus, they were more than willing to comfort the family of the shooter. (They saw that the fmaily had also suffered, due to the loss of husband and father. They had forgiven the shooter and thus helped to comfort the others.)
It also gave a good account of the 'separatism' of the Amish. They shun car ownership because it breaks apart communities. They are still willing to get a ride in a car when in cases of special need (like hospital visits.) The communities are all self-controlled, and individual communities vote on whether or not to accept a new technology as beneficial or detrimental. (Thus we have the site of horse and buggies with modern lights and reflectors.)
The book does touch on some of the concerns people have with the Amish (such as 'shunning'), however, the view is primary positive in its view of the evolution and current implementation of Amish grace.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

red planet


The martians are advanced but peaceful. They tolerate earthlings on their planet. However, they tire of them and decide they must go. Luckily, some earthlings were nice to them, and they decide that they can stay if they behave themselves. That, in a nutshell, is Red Planet. However, that could also describe the last 10% of the book. Most of it is about the interactions of the earthlings on Mars. The main character has a Martian "pet", but it is more of a friend. When he goes off to school, the new headmaster is a real power-hungry jerk and tries to send the pet off to the zoo. This eventually leads to his death. There is also a doctor who expresses strong libertarian views. These come to the forefront as the "corporation" tries to restrict the rights of the people.
On one hand, Heinlein provides both a cautionary tale, advocating the importance of freedom and personal control over corporate control. On the other hand, he provides a blueprint for proper "native" relations, with the "visitors" assuming a mild footprint, interacting with the natives but not impeding their lives.
And he does this while providing a rollicking adventure on mars.

Feed


Cool premise: three quarters of the world have a "feed" implanted in their head. This provides entertainment as well as non-stop shopping opportunities. It is able to analyze every last detail of their interactions, life and purchasing habits to provide the perfect set of recommended purchases. (Based on a recent Wall Street Journal article on x+1, this may not be too far off.) However, it also has the downsides, with some people having their feed get "hacked" and forced to chant the desires of some eccentric.
Lame execution: He tries to provide 'contemporary teen' characters. They try to talk and act like reject early 2000s mallrats. It seemed like a good idea, but without a good story, it gets tiring. And the characters are fairly flat. Then the plot. The loser dude finds some girl on the moon. They become a couple. She is about to die (some feed issue that the corporations wont fix because she doesn't buy enough.) She becomes really attached to him. He just wants to drop her. Pretty lame.

Invention of Air


The Invention of Air is ostensibly a biography of Joseph Priestley. However, the principle argument is that surplus energy provides the impetus for scientific revolution. Thus, England was the source of the recent boom industrial and scientific revolution due to the plentiful and easily accessible coal measures. Priestly was fortunate to live in this time, and thus had sufficient free time to devote to some of his experiments.
The author argues that his discovery that plants produce "air" that animals need to survive is his greater (but overlooked) discovery. (His discovery of oxygen is overshadowed by his willingness to lock on to a debunked "flojisten" theory.)
At the outset, the author argues that Priestley is one of the most important figures in the early American history - pointing out that in letters, he is referenced many more times than others like Ben Franklin. However, he does a poor job of proving that argument.
Instead, he spends more time rambling on about how innovation happens, with a lot of attention paid to Thomas Kuhn's, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". It does make for some interesting reading. But, alas diverges from the central focus.