Magic, mayhem, and inspiration — A review of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll

A few months ago, I was in Finland, and I asked two education professionals over dinner, “What are the books that every Finn has read, whether in school or outside?” They gave me two: Seven Brothers, by Aleksis Kivi (published in 1870), and the Moomin books, by Tove Jansson (published between 1945 and 1993).
moomin and snufkin
When I returned home, I picked up Finn Family Moomintroll from the library and read it aloud with my 6-year-old daughter. It is delightful and crazy and continually surprising. Moomintroll is the protagonist, a good-natured, roundish creature who lives in Moomin Valley with his mother, his father, and a whole pile of other creatures. Early on, Moomintroll and his friends Snufkin and Sniff find a hat. Back home, they use it as a wastebasket and discard some eggshells in it. The eggshells then turn into mini-clouds that Moomin and his friends are able to fly around on. All kinds of other adventures ensue. At one point, a character discovers a significant amount of gold.
“I wonder what you’re all thinking of doing with the Snork’s gold?” said Snufkin.
“I think we shall use it to decorate the edges of the flower beds,” said Moominmamma, “only the big bits, of course, because the little ones look so rubbishy.”
Two creatures — Thingumy and Bob — show up who speak largely in spoonerisms: “‘Don’t nake any totice,’ whispered Bob.” Ultimately, a magician called the Hobgoblin shows up — it turns out the hat was his — as he realizes that the ruby he was seeking in the valleys of the moon is actually in Thingumy and Bob’s suitcase. The Hobgoblin then grants wishes to everyone, not without a little mischief: The Muskrat had been reading a book entitled On the Uselessness of Everything; his wish is merely for his book to be returned, but when he gets it back,
“‘On the Usefulness of Everything’,” read the Muskrat. “But this is the wrong book. The one I had was about the Uselessness of Everything.”
But the Hobgoblin only laughed.
Peppered throughout the inspired lunacy are these little nuggets of anti-materialism and optimism. I keep wanting to compare these books to others: They’re like Winnie the Pooh but less safe (in the best possible way). They’re like the Smurfs but smart. But it’s ultimately a futile task: the Moomin inhabit their own world entirely. What the book lacks in narrative momentum, it makes up for in inventiveness and hope. I loved it.
Bits and pieces
  • My daughter and I are now reading Tales from Moominvalley (another book in the series), and I’m reading the collected Moomin comic strips that Jansson also wrote to all my children together.
  • Moominmamma on education: “Moomins go to school only as long as it amuses them.”

How to read a lot more books

While hopefully not as annoyingly as Aziz Ansari’s Saturday Night Live character The Bookworm, many of us would like to read more.

Two recent articles highlight how to read more. If you want all their tips, read the articles. Here, I’ll highlight those that resonate with me. In Neil Pasricha’s 8 ways to read (a lot) more books this year, he talks about going from five books a year to 50. He recommends the following steps among others; I just chose my favorites. The bolded words are his; the rest is my editorializing.

  1. Centralize reading in your home.  He suggests having a bookshelf rather than a TV at the center of your living space.
  2. Make a public commitment. Among some of my siblings, we usually run some sort of reading challenge from year to year. Sometimes it’s a bingo board where you try to reach books in a wide range of categories. This year, we’re trying to each read at least ten books by non-U.S. authors.
  3. Reapply the 10,000 steps rule. Here, he refers to the idea of walking 10,000 steps, taking advantage of every opportunity. “When do I read now? All the time. A few pages here. A few pages there. I have a book in my bag at all times.”

He shares a wonderful (undocumented) anecdote about author Stephen King:

A good friend once told me a story that really stuck with me. He said Stephen King had advised people to read something like five hours a day. My friend said, “You know, that’s baloney. Who can do that?” But then, years later, he found himself in Maine on vacation. He was waiting in line outside a movie theater with his girlfriend, and who should be waiting in front of him? Stephen King! His nose was in a book the whole time in line. When they got into the theater, Stephen King was still reading as the lights dimmed. When the lights came up, he pulled his book open right away. He even read as he was leaving.

In Charles Chu’s In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books, he talks about reading 200 books each year. One tip is to “go multi-medium.” Chu writes:

If your goal is to read more, you can’t be picky about where you read or what mediums you use. I read paper books. I read on my phone. I listen to audiobooks. And I do these things everywhere—on park benches, in buses, in the toilet… Wherever I can. Make your reading opportunistic. If you have a chance, take it. If you don’t have a chance, find one.

I’ve found this to be my single best strategy for reading a lot. Right now I’m reading an ebook on my phone, listening to an audiobook on my phone, listening to another audiobook on my swimming iPod (you know, so I can swim and listen to books at the same time), and reading one print book around the house. That way I can read anytime, anywhere.

Chu also recommends stepping away from social media and TV. In his not-at-all-judgmental way, he writes:

Here’s how much time a single American spends on social media and TV in a year: 608 hours on social media. 1642 hours on TV. Wow. That’s 2250 hours a year spent on TRASH. If those hours were spent reading instead, you could be reading over 1,000 books a year!

Unlike Mr. Chu, I enjoy my TV consumption and my social media use, and I learn from them, like this bit I learned from Joan Cusack the TV show A Series of Unfortunate Events:

32654688170_227b8dfa13_o

That said, I’d probably be happier and wiser with a little less time on Facebook and more with my nose buried in a book. I remember visiting the wonderful Tinkertown Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over 40 years, Ross Ward carved and collected his way to an amazing museum collection of wooden figures. Near the exit, I saw this sign.

ward television

[Source]

So my aspiration isn’t to carve a museum of wooden figures, but I do like reading books. Maybe I’ll read or listen to 50 this year.

Happy reading!

Bonus reading:

Ixcanul: A celebration and a caution around indigenous culture

This week I saw Ixcanul (a word in the Mayan language Kaqchikel for “volcano”), a beautiful, compelling movie about a young Mayan woman in rural Guatemala who seeks to rebel against the life laid out for her. Just when I though the plot was unfolding in predictable ways, it surprised me again and again.

Maria and her family are tenant farmers, speak only Mayan, and observe traditional practices, which the film observes and admires. But at the same time, each encounter with the Spanish-speaking world reveals the enormous disadvantage this family is at. They can never speak for themselves, as demonstrated in this exchange when a woman comes to take the population census.

health-department

The ultimate results of this communication barrier — which parallels a massive socioeconomic gap — are disastrous. The film is devastating and gorgeous. See it.

Other reviews: 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 28 reviews and 83/100 on Metacritic (“Universal acclaim”) with 16 reviews.

The trailer

In the US, it’s currently streaming on Netflix and is rentable on Youtube and Amazon, at least.

How development economists think about development vs how other economists think about development?

In a recent EconTalk episode, Russ Roberts interviews Chris Blattman about his experiment with Stefan Dercon on sweatshops in Ethiopia. 

This exchange amused me.

BLATTMAN: Getting a bad shock when you’re poor means–

ROBERTS: Death.

BLATTMAN: –can mean really terrible things. For these guys, not death. If you have a Grade 8 education in Ethiopia and you have a family that can support you, they’re outside option in the end is living at home and not having anything to do and not being able to contribute to the family, not having any spending money, and maybe having a harder time finding a husband or a wife. Maybe also bad things happen in the household. Maybe you’re contributing to your younger brother going to private school. But these people are not on the margins of death. This isn’t who sweatshops are hiring, at least in this case.

This is NOT to critique the great work that Russ Roberts does on the EconTalk podcast.

But it’s a reminder that many choices in developing countries are not about life or death, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have major implications for human well-being.

Why every academic should have a Twitter profile

If you are interested in greater exposure for your research, I recommend that you create a Twitter account with a recognizable, professional picture and a link to the page where you list your research. You can just use the picture from your research page, if you have one there. (The picture isn’t even essential; your affiliation and the link to your research website will do.)

I recommend this even if you have no intention of using Twitter. I recommend this even if you think Twitter is a waste of time.

Here is why: People who want to popularize research are on Twitter. Other researchers are on Twitter. When someone mentions your research on Twitter, then they often will “tag” you IF you have a recognizable Twitter profile. That tag means that curious people can click over to your profile, then EASILY follow the link to your research page and learn about the rest of your research. 
There are good reasons not to be active on Twitter. I’m listening to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, and he makes the case that social media gets an outsize influence because we don’t have good metrics of productive impact. So we spend time chasing short-run retweets and likes rather than serious impact from concentrated, uninterrupted work. All good.

But in this case, the cost is low and fixed, probably ten minutes of your time. Again, this isn’t an argument to be active on Twitter. Just make it easy for the people who ARE on Twitter to find your work.

Here’s mine:

In January and February of this year, about 10,000 people have visited my profile page. Some (probably small) fraction of those clicked through to read more about my work.

What do you think? Why am I wrong?

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Twelve years cold. In a production of the Tempest. Performed by prison inmates.

A review of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed

Felix Phillips is the artistic director of a theater festival. His style is avant-garde: “What was so bad about MacBeth done with chainsaws? Topical. Direct.” But he is pushed out by an underhanded business partner and goes off the grid for twelve years. He starts running a Shakespeare class for inmates at a local prison, and his plans for vengeance ensue. The whole novel is written with eager delight, pushing the plot forward. I couldn’t stop listening to it. 

Margaret Atwood has written an update to the Tempest in which the protagonist is fired during a production of the Tempest, enacts his vengeance during another production of the Tempest, all while his life adheres to the broad outlines of the Tempest. Despite some required suspension of disbelief, it’s an adventure.

You don’t need to be a Tempest expert to enjoy this, but I’d recommend skimming a plot summary of the Bard’s original, just to put Atwood in context.

Odds and ends

On paying taxes: “Such was the minimum price to be paid for the privilege of walking around on the earth’s crust and continuing to breathe, eat, and sh**, he thought sourly.”

On getting fired: “Felix climbed into his unsatisfactory car and drove out of the parking lot, into the rest of his life.”

On swearing: During the class, prisoners had a running competition. They could only use swear words found in the text of the play, and they lost points for any other swears.

Don’t believe me? Read other reviews.

POSITIVE

Viv Groskop, The Guardian: “This is written with such gusto and mischief that it feels so much like something Atwood would have written anyway. The joy and hilarity of it just sing off the page. It’s a magical eulogy to Shakespeare, leading the reader through a fantastical reworking of the original but infusing it with ironic nods to contemporary culture, thrilling to anyone who knows The Tempest intimately, but equally compelling to anyone not overly familiar with the work….It’s riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun.”

Rebecca Abrams, Financial Times: “Rap songs, Disney dolls, video montages and special effects spin her version off into a deliciously brave new world of its own….Hag-Seed is not only a fine example of the shape-shifting versatility of Shakespeare’s texts, but a successful novel in its own right….Hag-Seed displays Atwood’s inventiveness at its shining best, a novel that enchants on its own terms and returns you to the enchantments of the original.”

MIXED

Emily St. John Mandel, The New York Times: “The novel to this point is a marvel of gorgeous yet economical prose, in the service of a story that’s utterly heartbreaking yet pierced by humor, with a plot that retains considerable subtlety even as the original’s back story falls neatly into place. But the prison production of “The Tempest” leads to some of the book’s clunkiest elements.”

Books and authors mentioned in the book (read by the prisoners), besides Shakespeare:

  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Stephen King
  • Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Nighttime 

Chris Blattman on the incubation of ideas until opportunity strikes

Is a factory job better than a cash grant and some training? Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon have a recent study in Ethiopia where they test these two options with a randomized-controlled trial. Back in December, Chris Blattman discussed with study with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast.

In one interesting bit, Blattman highlights how holding onto an idea and repeatedly seeking an opportunity to implement it can ultimately bear fruit. I transcribed it (abridging a little for readability).

Since you have 300 people lining up for these jobs, instead of taking the first 50 in line who are qualified for the job and hiring them, why not see if we can find a factory owner who will find 150 who are qualified and instead of taking the first 50, we’ll flip a coin and we’ll take 50 out of those 150 qualified applicants as random and we’ll follow them over time and we’ll look at what happens to their incomes and their health and their career trajectories.

I had this idea as a graduate student 10 or 12 years ago, and I always thought, “Every time I meet a factory owner I’m going to feel him out. And I did. Once in a while I’d be on a plane to Uganda to work on one of my projects, usually related to poverty or conflict, and maybe I’d sit by a factory owner, and I’d say here’s this idea that I have, and they’d usually look at me kind of funny. They wouldn’t leap at the possibility. I was just this person they met on a plane, and I was a graduate student. I probably didn’t approach it well, and so it never really materialized.

So I was at a conference in London and there was an Ethiopian businessman who was sort of a real estate mogul. He was giving a talk to a group of development economics at the International Growth Centre, and I approached him afterwards and said, “That was terrific,” and I really enjoyed talking to him and we kept chatting and I said, “I had this idea. I think that your firms not only help achieve growth, but I think they might actually be tools of poverty alleviation. Here’s an easy way to answer that question.” And he said, “That sounds great. Let’s do it.” And so literally five or six weeks later we were on the ground in Ethiopia doing the first randomization.

I recommend the whole conversation.