[Missed many weeks. Time management is difficult, you guys.]
Books: A History of the U. S. Economy in the 20th Century, Money Management Skills
Movies: Burn After Reading, Inside Llewyn Davis
A History of the U. S. Economy in the 20th Century
This is the Teaching Company economics course that covers, well, pretty much what's on the tin. I'm in a frustrating position with economics and finance, in that I can never seem to nail down the fundamentals of the field, no matter how many times I try. Basic concepts, like idealized supply-demand scenarios, or monopoly rents, or the tragedy of the commons -- I can roll with those. But as soon as it moves out from ECON 101 into the world of, say, government financial policy -- then I get lost.
So this was another attempt to scramble up the hill. I think I got a little further this time -- I could at least understand the overall story as it was happening. And I can remember a few interesting details, like how electrification was a massive technological leap that was strangely analogous to the Internet revolution (just substitute "we'll have electrified <x>!" for "we'll sell <x> on the Internet!"). But there are still embarrassing gaps in my understanding. I keep forgetting, say, how interest-rate adjustments actually influence the economy. (It doesn't help here that most descriptions of this in popular media are blinkered, one-sided, partisan screeds.) In the 70s section, "stagflation" barely made sense in the moment, and now I only vaguely remember the details.
None of this is a swipe at the lecturer, who explained things very well, and was pleasantly non-partisan most of the time. He clearly distinguished his own opinions from the consensus of modern economists. He clearly described the tradeoffs implicit in all the various policies the American government has implemented over the years. I may circle back to this one after a few years, once I (hopefully) understand the core concepts a little better.
Side note: this originally came out in 1996, so it's missing the entire economic rollercoaster ride that's happened since then. It's sad but fun to see his descriptions hint slightly to, say, the Internet bubble, or the subprime mortgage crisis, or the various stock-market adjustments we've had since.
Money Management Skills
Another Teaching Company course; this one is, predictably, about personal financial management.
This wasn't a really useful course for me, on balance. The material fell into three categories: (1) the common-sense financial stuff I already knew; (2) the material about life circumstances that aren't really relevant to me; and (3) some useful metaphors for describing material I already knew. For instance, describing loans and investments as one of those bank pneumatic-tube setups that shuttles money forward and backwards through *time* was an interesting way of looking at things.
Generally, though, I didn't get much use out of it. It covered the basics, which was fine. Then it veered off into home ownership and investing in your kids' education. I'm not particularly interested in having a house *or* kids, so those parts resisted my attention.
Burn After Reading
This is the 2008 Coen Brothers crime farce about... um... whew. It's always a bit hard to say what a farce is 'about', really. Most descriptions usually default to just describing the location or the event that brings the characters together -- "a large group arrives at a stately mansion for a funeral", "a group of actors take a cheesy musical on tour" -- because what *happens* becomes something of a whirlwind. In this case, it's "about" a variety of characters in Washington D. C. who are involved, however indirectly, with a missing tell-all memoir from a dismissed CIA operative.
The Fiasco RPG draws on the Coen Brothers' films for inspiration, and of those films, Burn After Reading may well be the most Fiasco-y. It shares that game's mechanic of setting up a chain of characters -- this CIA operative is married to this woman who is cheating with this guy who is dating this woman who is a coworker of this other guy who is blackmailing the CIA operative -- and shares the game's penchant for giving most of them strong, fierce goals, and plenty of illegal or illicit plans to achieve them. Plus, every fan of Fiasco can readily point out where "The Tilt" is in this film -- that is, the single event where things get markedly even *worse*, sending the rest of the story spinning madly out of control.
And you can see the game's mechanics in play in the film: because of this circular chain of relationships, one to the next to the next, no single character has an overview of what's going on in this story. Hilariously, the upper-level CIA manager played by J. K. Simmons -- the one who should have access to *all* information about everything everywhere -- has the least clue about what's happening, and his constant, detached bewilderment is one of the funniest things in the film.
So the plot whizzes through loop-de-loops as the desperate, information-starved characters make very confident, very misinformed, very bad decisions. There is something kind of dry and mechanical about it, which is odd -- the film has a murderers' row of actors doing phenomenal work throughout. The plot works itself out, and the whole scenario, in the end, sort of implodes and disappears without outside consequences, and that's that. In the end, the plot is sort of a pleasantly-distracting lava lamp that keeps you watching a series of really sharp, tense, fascinating, hilarious, and well-acted scenes. There's no emotional catharsis at the end, but you still get your money's worth.
Inside Llewyn Davis
This is the Coen Brothers film about an acerbic musician in the early-60s Greenwich Village folk scene.
About half an hour into the movie, I tweeted, "Hmm -- pretty sure this movie was made expressly for me, and the rest of you are just receiving a collateral benefit." And this was a strange, unexpected response for me. The film has no particular plot. Tensions rise up, and you vaguely wonder how they might resolve themselves, but the film as a whole isn't *aimed* in any particular direction. Instead, we just get a perfect, idealized window on that artistic community.
And I think it captures something most of us have felt, but few of us have seen onscreen: art is hard. Yes, we've all seen depictions of the artist who struggles, makes sacrifices, and it all leads to some moment of triumph where they finally impress everyone, gain fame and fortune, blah blah blah. But nobody depicts the slog. You're trudging from one gig to the next, and you're getting paid in, basically, shiny beads for your trouble. You're doing good work, but it's just not connecting with people. You're told it's all hopelessly uncommercial, and you know they're not wrong.
I had heard that the protagonist was, basically, an asshole. And that assessment, well, it's not wrong. But I sympathized more with Llewyn than with the folks around him. I think we all have phases where it takes everything we've got to just keep slogging -- that alone feeds you a massive amount of adversity. And when it's time to show people courtesy, or generosity, or to be self-effacing or self-sacrificing, you just can't. There just isn't anything left in the jar, so to speak. To be clear, I would steer clear of anybody like that in real life, but onscreen, I could only think: I know. I know, man. It's rough.
For next week: I'm watching season 3 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising. I've also been watching Fullmetal Alchemist and reading The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker's disquisition about the macro-scale historical decline in violence.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none