Book Review: The Undercover Economist

The Undercover Economist
Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!
by Tim Harford
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Hardcover ISBN: 0-19-518977-9

On the jacket cover of The Undercover Economist is a blurb from Stephen Levitt, the author of the bestselling Freakonomics: "Required reading." Quite an endorsement. In this book, author Tim Harford present a lucid exposition of general economic principles, as applied to the big-issue topics of today. For a college student, this book might make some nice supplementary reading, to introduce deeper topics in economics that will not be reached for several semesters in the regular course sequence. For the general public, it is even more important, for there is a deep disconnect at the moment between popular sentiment and economic theory.

Controversial economics

Many ideas that are only minimally controversial in economics circles are highly controversial with the general public. The economist (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman attributes much of the anti-globalization rhetoric to a fundamental understanding of comparative advantage [see his essay: Ricardo's Difficult Idea]. [...]

Book Review: The Box

The Box
How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-691-12324-0

The Box is a 370-page (almost a hundred of which are endnotes) history of the shipping container, the economic phenomenon that revolutionized the world of shipping and underpins today's global market.  The book is not as dense as an article in the Economist, which is unfortunate.  Economist articles frequently read like they were written at twice the length and then edited to add figures and sharpen the analysis to the most salient points.  Levinson's book does not appear to have undergone such a distillation step, which might have transformed an already interesting and insightful book into the standard work on the subject.

The Box traces containerization from its now-mythologized beginnings with Sea-Land's Ideal-X, through the Vietnam War when it proved its worth in the logistics chain, to its maturity as the enabler of global commerce.  Much of the story is told from the perspective of Sea-Land maven Malcom McLean, who conceived of the container in roughly its modern form and shepherded the concept through its infancy.  Along the way, Levinson follows the ASA and ISO discussions of standardized container construction and sizes, and tracks the union negotiations and votes on container handling and compensation.  He also follows politicians' plans for city waterfronts, and explains how containerization caused many traditional ports to decline and newly-built ports to take their place, with a particular focus on the Port of New York.  (Later it would be renamed the Port of New York and New Jersey, as Newark and Elizabeth overtook the City proper in shipping volume).


Explorations: Landing on the Moon


Microsoft Flight Simulator virtually buckles you in the pilot seat without having to shell out $100 an hour to rent a Cessna.  Orbiter has taken the trail blazed by the long-since discontinued Microsoft Space Simulator (1994), and paved it into a multi-lane expressway.  With Orbiter and its add-ons, you can (virtually) strap yourself into the astronaut's couch for $20 million less than it costs to fly along on a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station.  In some ways, it's better.  You can get a flying license and actually control a plane, but even the billionaire space tourists are mostly just sightseeing.  This is truly a geeky thrill that will not be available for decades to come.


Such is the power of Moore's Law.  In Apollo 13, Tom Hanks proudly describes a computer that fits in a single room and has a megabyte of memory.  Film critic Roger Ebert remarked that he was typing his review on a more powerful computer than the one that guided a spacecraft to the moon.  Well, now, we have so much computer power that we can calculate trajectories, render realistic 1280x1024 images of the spacecraft at over 25 fps, and emulate every hardware function of the Apollo Guidance Computer, fast enough for the original software to run in real time.  That's progress.


Film Review: The Crowd (1928)

The Crowd (1928)
directed by King Vidor
Frames in this review are taken from the VHS tape, produced by Thames Silents and released by MGM/UA in 1988.

Hollywood has the convention that a director with a smash hit gets to write his own ticket for at least one more film.  King Vidor had just come off a massive success with his 1925 anti-war film The Big Parade [link to my review], which would've made him a millionaire had he not sold his share of the profits to MGM.  But as a rewards, he got to make The Crowd with the understanding that he could make it an art film rather than a crowd pleaser. This is exactly what he does, for the film questions the attainability of the American dream at a time when the stock market boom of the Roaring Twenties was still going strong.


From Book to Screen: King's Ransom

King's Ransom
An 87th Precinct Mystery
by Ed McBain

Page numbers in the review are taken from the first Permabook paperback printing, New York: Pocket Books, 1960.

This is a follow-up to a previous article on the Kurosawa film High and Low, which was adapted from this book.

Ed McBain’s novel King's Ransom is a hard-boiled detective story, the fifth book in the long-running series of 87th Precinct Mysteries.  The novel tells the story of Douglas King, an industrialist whose son is kidnapped and held for random.  Or so it seems – for the kidnappers had accidentally grabbed his chauffeur’s son Jeffry Reynolds.

Where the Kurosawa film was rather formalistic in style, the source novel is filled with colorful characters.  Of course, a classic detective novel has to have a voluptuous female, and this book has Liz, a friend of King’s wife.  This Liz is not just pretty; rather, she "had acquired over the years a figure which oozed S-E-X in capital letters in neon ... Even dressed for casual life in Smoke Rise ... sex dripped from her curvaceous frame in bucketfuls, tubfuls, vatfuls." (p. 21)


Film Review: High and Low (1963)

High and Low (1963)
[Tengoku to jigoku]
directed by Akira Kurosawa
Frames in this review are taken from the Criterion DVD released in 1998.

This is a series of two articles.  The second article compares this film with its source material, Ed McBain’s detective novel King’s Ransom.

Akira Kurosawa is often mentioned in film critique as a Japanese director who was too Western to be successful in his own country.  This might seem strange, for his best-known works are largely set in Medieval Japan — Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo.  Some of them are based on works of Shakespeare, but the the settings are unmistakably Japanese and the themes are surely universal.  In addition, several of his samurai adventures were later remade into Hollywood or spaghetti westerns, but you can’t blame that on him.

High and Low, one of his less well-known films, supplies an explanation.  Although it is set in bustling Tokyo, the film’s atmosphere comes practically right out of film noir Los Angeles.  There are beachfront locations, remote hideaways, kidnapping plots, corporate power plays over a company that makes women’s high heels, and even little kids playing with cowboy hats and toy revolvers!  What's more, the film is based on an American crime novel, Ed McBain's King's Ransom.  Shakespeare in a Japanese setting is high art, but adapting an American detective thriller?!


Film Review: Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)
directed by Michael Anderson
Frames in this review are taken from the 2006 Warner Brothers DVD.

I first stumbled onto The Shoes of the Fisherman by chance as I was organizing a collection of 35mm trailers. As it happens, Shoes has quite a compelling trailer, coming from the period when exclamation-laden title cards began giving way to voice narration. When I heard the tagline about "the first Russian pope," I was hooked. How could such an incredible plot be told without seeming ludicrous? Besides, the film has got Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier as the protagonists. Either one of them might do a bad movie for lots of money, but probably not both.

But it never came off my list of films to watch "some day," until the 2005 papal conclave. I was reading one of the better-written news analysis pieces, from a journalist who actually knows something about the process. That journalist reminisced about the previous pope, John Paul II, and recalled visiting then-Cardinal Wojtyla in Poland and looking over the books in his study. The only piece of fiction on that bookshelf was Morris West's 1963 novel The Shoes of the Fishermanalt.


Film Review: One in a Million (1936)

One in a Million (1936)
directed by Sidney Lanfield
Frames in this review are taken from the VHS tape released by Fox Video in 1993.

When you see a Hollywood studio film from the Golden Era, you know pretty much what you'll get.  However much the plot may twist and turns, Judy and Mickey will put on a show, Fred and Ginger will dance round and round, and Esther Williams will find a way to get wet.  If the film happened to come from Twentieth Century-Fox and star Sonja Henie, then you’ll be sure to see a skating exhibition.  The Norwegian figure skater Henie was one of the first to cash in on her athletic prowess on a grand scale, and is often regarded as the prototype for Olympians on cereal boxes.


Film Review: La Cage aux Folles (1978)

La Cage Aux Folles (1978)
directed by Edouard Molinaro
Frames in this review are taken from the MGM DVD release in 2001.

It's a funny thing, but humor doesn't translate very well across generations. Bob Hope's wisecracks come across today as merely pleasant banter, and many movies thought riotously funny in their day are now merely bizarre. For example, the James Bond spoof Casino Royale is simply incomprehensible).

But La Cage Aux Folles remains humorous today, despite having the additional hurdle of being a Franco-Italian co-production, with the dialog in French and many roles acted by Italians. Admittedly, the film has lost some of its sparkle in the three decades that have passed, and indeed, most films involving homosexuality would probably feel dated today. But that favorite device of situational comedies, the dinner meeting between the parents of young lovers, manages to packs so much misadventure into a short time span that it easily redeems any missteps.


Book Review: The Measure of All Things

The Measure of All Things
The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World
by Ken Alder
New York: The Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7432-1675-X
Paperback: New York: The Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-1676-8

This book would’ve made for quite the shocker in the 1970s, when the United States attempted and failed to convert to the metric system. Highway crews added kilometers to road signs, grocery stores handed out brochures on cooking with metric units, and metric advocates championed the natural basis of the new measurements. One kilogram of mass for each liter of water, 100 Celsius degrees between freezing and boiling, and 10 million meters from the pole to the equator. Imagine what the opponents of metric units could've done with a book like The Measure of All Things, which exposes the basis of the entire metric system as a fraud!



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