Month: May 2008

My favorite things Japan, literature edition

I do not know Japanese literature well but nonetheless I recommend the following:

1. Out: A Novel, by Natsuo Kirino.  Vicious fun.  Dark, violent, etc.

2. Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes.  He has been called the Japanese Stanislaw Lem.  Why do I never hear about this book?  The movie by the same name is good too.

3. Yasunari Kawabata, both The Go Master and The Snow Country.

4. Mishima, Spring Snow, others.

5. Haruki Murakami.  My favorite is Hard-Boiled Wonderland (one of my favorite books period) and then Underground, a modern classic of social science (really).  I like most of them but I feel he is repeating himself as of late.

6. Shusaku Endo, Silence.  Very powerful and I remain fascinated by Japan’s so-called "Christian century."

7. Kenzaburo Oe: I like Teach us to Outgrow Our Madness.

Question: Is Tale of Genji actually fun to read?  I would say about half of it, so yes it is worth the time.  The best parts are very beautiful and mysterious and unlike anything else in literature.  Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is fun and is a good introduction to the period.

The bottom line: There is lots and lots more that I have never heard of, not to mention manga.

Electing Judges

The NYTimes has a good piece today on judicial elections, pointing out how odd American practice is compared to the rest of the world. 

Contrast th[e] distinctively American method of selecting judges
with the path to the bench of Jean-Marc Baissus, a judge on the
Tribunal de Grand Instance, a district court, in Toulouse, France. He
still recalls the four-day written test he had to pass in 1984 to enter
the 27-month training program at the École Nationale de la
Magistrature, the elite academy in Bordeaux that trains judges in

“It gives you nightmares for years afterwards,” Judge
Baissus said of the test, which is open to people who already have a
law degree, and the oral examinations that followed it. In some years,
as few as 5 percent of the applicants survive.

My work on judicial elections shows that elected judges serve their constituents (see also Judge and Jury). In particular, when the defendant is an out-of-state corporation awards are much higher in states that use partisan elections to select their judges than in other states.  As one judge put it bluntly:

As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me."

Richard Neely (1988), West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

How to read a vita

Ugo, a loyal MR reader, asks:

If you were in a tenure committee how
would you evaluate an assistant professor who, among other things, has
two papers in a top journal with the second paper showing that the result
of his/her previous paper is wrong.

(a) Consider this situation has having
two publications in a top journal (the rationale for this is that you want
to give incentives to seek the truth and the two papers contributed to
our understanding of the problem, moreover the author showed to be able
to publish in top JNLs)

(b) Consider this situation as having
one publication in a top journal (same as above, but you recognize that
the contribution is less than two papers with a true result).

(c) Give zero value to the two papers
(because the results cancel each other).

(d) Give negative value to the two papers
(because people wasted time on a wrong result).

The best way to read a vita is to think of it in terms of a portfolio.  If all a person had on his vita was a single paper and then its repudiation, I would not think much of the combination.  If the person is producing a stream of papers, as a whole pointing toward greater knowledge and fleshing out a coherent research program, I would view the revisions and repudiations as a sign of intellectual strength.

Most questions about how to read vitas can be clarified by this portfolio approach.  For instance I am often asked how much a piece in Journal X is worth.  The correct response is to ask whether that publication complements a broader research program or not and then to ask how valuable that research program will be. 

The history of Chinese food in Japan

The popularization of other Chinese dishes in Japan dates further back than that of gyoza, however.  The influx of Westerners into Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe during the 1860s set the stage for the diffusion of Chinese cuisine in modern Japan.  Although the Chinese had no legal right to remain in Japan before the first Sino-Japanese treaty was concluded in 1871, they were brought in under the legal protection of Western powers.  Western merchants relied heavily on their Chinese staff — servants, clerks and middle-men — to run the households and enterprises that they relocated from the China coast.  During the 1870s and 80s independent Chinese merchants began to settle in Japan as well, so that the Chinese soon constituted the majority of the foreign population residing in the ports.

That is from Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, by Katazyna J. Cwiertka.  One thing I learned from this book was how much Japanese wartime experience created the notion of a national cuisine in Japan.  Before the war, for instance, soy sauce and rice were not common foods in many parts of rural Japan.

Tuna fish query

Shaun, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I have something that is
bugging me: I have noticed that the small tuna fish cans are cheaper,
by the ounce, than the larger ones. This holds true with every brand
and supermarket. This seems very counterintuitive to me; nearly every
other food product gets cheaper as the quantity increases. I wondered
if you could tell me what’s going on here.

Could it be storage and spoilage costs, thereby making this the corollary of the vending machine question?  Or is it price discrimination against families and in favor of single people?  Or do single people never finish the can and thus they need a lower price as compensation, noting that you still have to cite storage costs to prevent arbitrage?  Those are my quick reactions, can you do better?

Franco Purini on Tokyo

The minute and the colossal follow one another and clash in a powerful energetic flow that knows no rest, while tangled strips of infrastructure wind between buildings in spectacular spatial combinations.  All is bathed in a hazy, dim light, which rarely brightens, and permeates every interstice of the city, from window to window, sign to sign and corner to corner.  At night, artificial lighting transforms Tokyo into a fantastical apparition of artificial mountain ranges that glow like braziers.  The visual trauma is due to Tokyo giving no sense of any recognizable structure.  Compare with Europe, or the West in general, where cities still have a perceptive — albeit residual and fragmentary — urban form which is always based on a more or less rational order, in Tokyo you find a randomness in which every urban rule is overturned or negated.  Or at least so it seems.  As a matter of face, once initial impressions have been overcome, you begin to notice the presence of recurring threads in the urban fabric, first on a subliminal level, than more consciously; a fabric made of multiple, fractal agglomerates of settlements.  These agglomerates are groups in self-similar masses, suggesting urban spaces which are not defined by clearly scaled hierarchies or distinct morphological types.  Here, urban spatiality seems to feature the unplanned coexistence of architectural units and the incidental contiguity or what is small and large, simple immaterial — rhythm beats over everything, constituting an amazing unifying element in its almost hypnotic repetition of the same model.  In this sense you discover that in the end Tokyo is a simple city that is different from European and American cities only because urban planning is practically absent.  If the former are cities of space, governed by the laws of perspective, then Tokyo is a city of situations…in Asia’s greatest city you are completely disoriented from the start. 

That is in a good book called Tokyo: City and Architecture.  I am struck by how much the Tokyo Metro and underground corridors are in fact the defining parts of the city and the most memorable destinations.

Donald C, Lavoie, intellectual father of the econoblogosphere

Don Lavoie taught at GMU many years before he passed away in 2001.  Most of Don’s work was in comparative systems and central planning, but in the early to mid 90s he spent a few years investigating hypertext.  Don claimed that someday economics would be written in linkable, annotatable form, rather than on paper.  Economics, in his Gadamer-drenched view, would become one big giant conversation rather than a series of isolated papers.  Here is one snippet of his views.  For a few years he talking about the idea non-stop.

At the time I thought he was crazy.

The glasses-cleaning machine

The problem with cleaning your glasses is that the drying action can create new smudge.  So the Japanese have invented a machine to address this problem.  The contraption has two pools of whirring water, at different temperatures.  First you dip your glasses into the vibrating pool of warmer water, where some kind of steam action takes place as well.  Afterwards you dip your glasses into the cooler pool of water, which finishes the action and removes the effect of the steam.

I’ve never ever had my glasses so clean before.  I found the glasses-cleaning machine, not surprisingly, in one of the underground passageways near Shinjuku.

How to find new books to read

TLV, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I’ve always been curious about how Tyler goes about choosing new books
to read. Most people rely on recommendations from others, but Tyler
seems like someone who generates a lot of recommendations rather than
relying on them. What is your process?

Children, do not try this at home, but here goes: visit Borders every Tuesday to look for new books, go to a local public library every other day and scan the new books section, subscribe to TLS, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, noting that you should spend more time with the ads than the book reviews, read the blogs Bookslut and Literary Saloon, read the new magazine BookMark (recommended), read the NYT, FT, and Guardian and their books sections, review lots of books on your blog and peruse the numerous review copies you get in the mail (thanks, you mailers and yes I do look at each and every one; keep them coming!). 

It’s rare that I rely on recommendations from other people.

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