No Freaks, No Economics, Just Good Reading

So an update on my year’s reading… not long ago I finished reading the famous (some might say “infamous”) Freakonomics, a 2005 non-fiction work by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Actually, I should say “re-reading” as I read it many years ago when it was on the Current Releases shelf at a library many miles and years away from here now. It was a pleasant reunion for me.

The first thing you should know about Freakonomics is that despite the title, it has very little to do with economics as we know it. In fact, that has been one of the criticisms of the book by the more scholarly types. Noted economist Ariel Rubinstein for instance says “economists like Levitt have swaggered off into other fields” and the book’s “connections to economics, none.” The second thing you should know about it is that this fact makes it eminently readable! The third thing you need to know about the book with the orange-inside-an-apple cover is that it was wildly popular and influential. According to Publisher’s Weekly it was the 9th best-seller of 2005 and #12 again in ’06. It’s sold over 4 million paper copies to date, which if books were rewarded like records, would surely make it multi-platinum.

The fourth thing you need to know is that if you’re interested and haven’t picked up a copy before, skip the next couple of paragraphs which have spoilers!

Levitt, the economist by trade, and Dubner and newspaper journalist combined to put out a book of interesting anecdotes and studies which make us challenge some of our preconceived notions and ways of looking at things. Not unlike Malcolm Gladwell and his books, which I’ve mentioned are big favorites of mine. They show evidence that sumo wrestlers, despite the Japanese emphasis on honor and integrity, frequently “throw” matches to help out friends within the sport, and that teachers will cheat as readily as their students if the kids test scores can influence their own job appraisals. A fast-moving and wide-ranging book, it touches on subjects as disparate as the downfall of the Ku Klux Klan and if Black people name their kids differently than other parts of society, as well as if so what effect that has,  to the structural organization of a drug-dealing street gang. Among the surprising findings there were that at least one large gang they studied had a college-educated, peace-loving, overpaid boss, a board of directors and a ton of poorly-educated, subsistence-wage street operatives who flummuxed the bosses by going rogue and shooting people.

The most controversial , and thus memorable, finding of theirs was that Roe Vs Wade – i.e., easy access to abortion – had more impact on reducing murder and violent crime rates than the effects of putting more police on the streets, longer jail sentences for criminals and a booming economy combined. Their suggestion is that with abortion legal, the majority of women who took advantage of it were likely to be single, poor, young and quite probably dealing with substance abuse issues which would have made them unfit parents and created unsuitable households for kids, who in turn would have a greater probability of turning into criminals when they hit their teen years. Not something popular among a good swath of the public, but an item worthy of revisiting in these times when numerous states are doing their best to outlaw abortion once more – and an interesting example of how the apparently differing objectives of hard-core right wing law and order types may actually align with those of the opposite, left-wing liberal segment of the land.

I loved the book, and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to be surprised, or to simply open their minds to new ways of looking at things.

Part two of the story though, is that I then watched the documentary movie of the same name. I found the DVD Freakonomics in a dollar store discount bin. There was probably a reason it was there. The big problem with Freakonomics, the movie, is that if you’ve read the book, it’s going to be… well, boring. And if you haven’t read the book, a movie with a fruit on the cover and a tie-in to economics isn’t likely to catch your attention.

The movie highlights some of the book’s sections, with the authors on screen a fair bit of the time. Both Levitt and Dubner are intelligent and seem nice enough, but neither has that special something that make them rivoting personalities on screen. And the little doodle cartoons and interviews they use to illustrate their points seldom do much to elevate the film. They scan quickly over a lot of material from the book, while spending too much time on the Sumo issue and adding only one new “chapter”, a look at trying to bribe kids to do better in school, which also drags and leaves the question unanswered anyway!

In short – Freakonomics book good, movie not so good and neither has much to do with economics. Which is fine with me, since about all I can really remember from university economics 101 is supply and demand. Which would tell us that with demand for cable TV dropping and supply of competitive options (Roku, streaming services, Netflix etc) increasing, prices should drop. Have you checked your cable bill lately?

So I suggest to Mr. Rubinstein, no the book has nothing to do with economics. But maybe economists should read it anyway, since it guides one to look at the world differently!

Christmas Movies Are Like… Beer?

It’s as predictable as the car blocking traffic in the mall parking lot waiting for the perfect spot to open up or the fruitcake under the tree from Aunt Madge – it’s the most wonderful time of the year for people to get hot under the collar debating movies. Or in particular, the best Christmas movies. Every year we seem to be inundated with a new horde of lists telling us what the “best” holiday movies are; every year people argue over said lists endlessly at the work water cooler and family dinners. 

A perfunctory google search quickly offered up Esquire magazine’s top 40 and Rotten Tomatoes list of the best 50. Each had its own quirks and things to get tongues wagging. Both for instance, included the 1974 slasher-horror flick Black Christmas (#38 on Rotten Tomatoes, #19 over at Esquire). Both had more than one version of “A Christmas Carol” – four on Rotten Tomatoes, which picked the 1951 Alistair Sim one as “the definitive”, and three on Esquire which agreed the ’51 B&W take on it is “still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ legendary tale… yet rated The Muppet Christmas Carol higher. If only director Brian Hurst had thought to have Ebenezer Scrooge visited by Fozzie Bear in the night.

Both lists did agree on the top pick. Rotten Tomatoes call it “the holiday classic to define all holiday classics.” Esquire suggest “few films define Christmas like” it. Yet, surprisingly, when It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 1946, fans were indifferent to the now-classic Frank Capra ode to friendship and loyalty.

It’s hard to argue with the choice…particularly if like me, your sweetie’s hung a framed movie poster of it in the bedroom. But to me, asking my favorite Christmas movie is like asking me to pick a favorite color. Well, I like teal blue tones, but not if we’re talking about cuts of meat. Actually, it might be more akin to asking me what my favorite beer is. Sure I might prefer Blue Moon or Sam Adams to Bud Lite, but the answer is still “whichever is cold and in the fridge”! The favorite Christmas movie is often the one that we’re watching in the moment. The one that brings the whole family together sharing old memories and creating new ones.

That said, to me a season wouldn’t feel like Christmas without seeing most, if not all of the following ones from the Silver Screen and small screen: A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Love Actually and A Christmas Story.

The Grinch – the ’60s animated TV version, true to Dr. Seuss’ words and other-wordly visuals- was a family tradition for me growing up and even as I got to be reading adult novels and reference books, was a reminder of how much those Seuss books entertained me and made me want to read on my own. I still feel curiously happy when walking past a rack with hardcovers of it, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop and the like. Subconsciously I guess it harkens me back to one of the happy times in my young childhood; consciously it pleases me to know that kids today are still learning to love reading and words through his rhymes just like I did.

I’ve seen many good adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but I go with the lists I mentioned in adhering to the ’51 version as the definitive one. Sure it’s B&W, the sound a little tinny and the special effects, Scrooge flying through the ghost-ridden air and so on, are cheesy but its tough to beat the charm of Sim as the changed man on Christmas morning or not to break out laughing at the frightened maid who encounters a freak of nature – a singing, cheerful Ebenezer Scrooge! Of course, the real reason it perhaps is my pick of the many is that it was for years a Christmas Eve tradition for my Mom and I to watch it. It would be quite a letdown if no station was running it!

It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderful, plain and simple. It never hurts to be reminded of how we impact those around us more than we know, or how doing the right thing will get noticed and eventually be returned to you. I don’t think I saw it until I was in my 20s, but now not a year goes by without watching it with loved ones.

Love Actually is a bit of a variation. I first saw it at a local library mid-summer, during a thunderstorm. And of course that’s not all together unreasonable. It’s more of a romcom than straight ahead Christmas flick; it just happens to revolve around all those intertwined stories happening at Yule time. Since it came out 15 years back, there’ve been a slew of movies which have imitated its entanglement of storylines, but none I’ve seen do it as well. As a music fan, I’ll forgive it for making Mariah Carey richer still by re-popularizing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because, hey has there ever been a cuter kid than little Sam playing drums watching the love of his life, 12 year-old Joanna, belt it out on stage at the school pagent? Besides, it makes up for that “digression” with the knowing cynicism of Billie Mack and his laughably honest assessment of his “crass” Christmas single as being crap! There are a hundred things that make me laugh every time I see it, from the kids’ dismayed “We hate uncle Jamie!” when he takes off from the house without dropping off presents to the intentional juxtapositioning of the shy, bland conversation of John and Judy with the X-rated sex scene they’re supposed to be filming. Speaking of, it’s a classic you really want to have the DVD of… TV is prone to cut out their whole storyline and edit some other parts so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

A Christmas Story likewise makes me laugh… the father’s joy at the Leg Lamp, his simmering hatred for the Bumpkuses’ hounds , the pink bunny pyjamas and of course the greatest Bad Santa ever… they never get old. Naysayers who’ve popped up this season complaining that it’s not politically correct (being nostalgic for a time when women stayed at home and cooked, making fun of people with accents, a kid who’s only interested in the gifts part of Christmas all rub them the wrong way ) miss the point, and maybe a funny bone. It’s funny because it’s nostalgic and relatable for so many of us. Like Rotten Tomatoes (ranking it #13) it’s “warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous.”

But back to the beer analogy. The one on hand is often the best one. As time goes by and my life changes, my personal list shifts too. I first saw the Family Stone (picked by Esquire as their 30th best) about three Christmas’ back. It was already a favorite of my sweetie. So seeing it with her has made it special to me now, and a newcomer to our joint “must see” list. That one by the way, was surprisingly under the radar for one with as Esquire term it, an “all star cast” headed by the likes of Rachel MacAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Diane Keaton. It blends humor and sorrow rather superbly studying one dysfunctional family”s – is there any other kind?- holiday. Likewise, last weekend we all watched Elf, a bigtime fave and annual tradition for her and her kiddo, which has elevated its status on my personal list considerably.

Some movies for you to consider over the next couple of weeks… but more importantly, a call for you to look back on your own happy holidays of years gone by and make your own, personal and meaningful list. Time flies by, so remember to take a moment or two to live in the present,not just the presents this December. And maybe grab me a beer if you’re going to the fridge!