Saturday, April 13, 2019

Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ariely is an entertaining writer and does a good job of explaining, in laymen's terms, the experiments and ideas of behavior economics. This is a trade book and doesn't, for good or for ill, get into the nit and gritty of the science beyond the experiments. I think it is a book worth reading to get a better understanding some of the patterns of thought or circumstances that influence our decisions and actions.

I would say on the negative side, however, that I think Ariely oversells the results of the experiments and tends to straw man traditional economic thinking. The experiments are nonetheless interesting with surprising results-but he tends to draw much broader conclusions from these than is warranted (at least in terms of the explanations in the text). And some of the criticism of the traditional economic explanations hit the mark, but too often his presentations of the traditional ideas are way too broad, simplistic, or caricatured.

Still, there is value in this book, and at worst, the discussion and results of the experiments are interesting.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The audio performance of this novel was beautiful and enchanting. The characters really come alive and you can experience the rhythm of the work. I can't recommend Ruby Dee's reading highly enough.

Janie's transformation into womanhood, her strength, her demand for life are an inspiration. Although it comes close at times, she is not beaten down by the average, mundane-ness of life, she doesn't give up in the face of tragedy. Though entirely devoted to Teacake, she is her own woman. But she has to become this. Teacake helps her to become her full self--mainly by just not keeping her down the way Logan and Joe did; but it is her own achievement.

This is classic work that should be more widely read and appreciated. Not just as a novel of a particular time and place, but as important piece of American literature: a beautiful coming of age story, a story about finding one's passions and following them, a story about having the strength and integrity to be an individual-regardless of the categories society tries to put on you.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy

The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Allitt is great as always. The course covers a broad swath of American history all from the perspective of what the western frontier was, what it meant, and how it moved over time. Allitt discusses the important role of geography as well as the history of the West before it came in to US possession. His presentation of the interaction of whites and native Americans is well done: it neither ignores the disgraceful and shameful treatment by whites of native Americans nor romanticizes the native Americans as a monolithic, idyllic people. I'm sure there are details that are missing, inaccurate, or somewhat fudged over: this is not an in-depth rigorous history. But it does a great job of telling the story of the West.

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author does a great job of maintaining suspense even though we know, broadly, how the story must end. Vader and the Emperor battle against the Free Ryloth movement which is engaged in open rebellion against the Empire. Since this is years before the events of A New Hope, they and their Empire obviously survive. Yet, the author creates enough tension that you almost begin to believe that Cham and his allies might succeed.

One of the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Vader. There a lot of Vader’s inner monologue. He remembers moments from the past; the pain and anger that drive him. He chafes somewhat under the Palpatine’s commands. Just as when he was Anakin and commanded by the Jedi Council, Vader is impatient and independent and doesn’t take to being told what to do that well. Well, at least inwardly. Outwardly, Vader still obeys Palpatine without flaw. This look into the inner life of Vader is disturbing and insightful. The anger and pain that has consumed Anakin is everywhere. Vader fights to suppress his memories and his past but at the same time he is both incapable of doing so and still needs this to fuel the anger that is his connection to the power of the dark side. There are many allusions to past events in Anakin’s life and foreshadowing of events we know come to past later.

Vader is the most fascinating character of Star Wars—maybe even of contemporary culture. He is evil; a murdering, unstoppable machine. And yet…and yet, he is redeemed. Unlike Palpatine and many of the imperial flunkies, Vader is not driven by a hunger for power, rapaciousness, or sadism. He wants to impose order; he wants power to make sure things work (and we see this in Anakin very early). He murders without any qualms, but he doesn’t take pleasure in it nor does he do so wantonly. We see this throughout the canon with Vader, including here in a few important scenes. It sometimes comes across almost like mercy. Almost, but not quite. It is more about what serves the imposition of order and his connection to the Force. The conflicts that Vader has in his inner monologue in Lords of the Sith shows us this. The novel shows Vader continuing to commit himself to the Emperor and the dark side primarily because he can so no other way to achieve order and serve the force. And this partly sets the stage for his redemption in Return of the Jedi.

There are also several interesting elements of the Free Ryloth movement. Cham, who fans will know from the animated series, has an important role to play here. The beginning of Cham’s transformation from a principled freedom-fighter for Ryloth to a more full-fledge Rebel is one of the sub-themes of the novel.

The execution of these thematic elements in the book was inconsistent. Not every “note” was hit as well as it should have been. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read and fleshes out important aspects of the Star Wars universe.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

People who know me, know that I love coffee. So this book was a natural. But, ultimately, I was disappointed. It is not bad, and there are a lot of interesting bits in the book. However, it gets bogged down at too many places. In particular, there is far too much focus on the intricacies of coffee businesses and international markets. Obviously, these are important aspects of coffee and its impact, but Pendergrast focuses a lot on the details that often just don't seem all that relevant.

More to the point, I was looking for much more of the ways that coffee transformed the world more broadly, per the subtitle. What the book is, is more of a history of the markets in coffee. That's fine, but not what the book is billed as. There is a lot of discussion, in general, of how these markets impacted the coffee growing countries. But even here, it veers too much to the "one damned thing after another" telling of history or makes broad generalizations about economics that, frankly, I am skeptical of. (why? they are rather general and conventional, and the author is not a trained economist). Now certainly the coffee market could be used to explore many themes (as suggested by the book description). But the book just doesn't pull this off well.

The author knows (and loves) coffee and there is some good stuff here. But the book doesn't live up to what it could be.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By the end of the book, I felt so deeply connected to Joe Rantz and his teammates that I cried as I listened to the epilogue. An incredible story, too unbelievable to be fiction--no publisher would buy it as a novel. The things that individually and as a team, the Washington Crew had to overcome to make it to the Olympics and then win them was just ridiculous. Time and time again, everything was stacked against them and it looked like their tale was over. Time and time again, they found each other and prevailed.

The story primarily follows Joe Rantz from his childhood up through the winning of Olympic Gold. I am not sure why his story was the focal point rather any of the other boys. Maybe because his circumstances were from the start the most tragic, that he had the most to overcome. (More practically, it was probably because the author was able to interview him the most before Rantz passed away in 2010).

The first third or so of the book is a little slow and less interesting. This is largely about the travails of Joe's childhood. Once he is at the University of Washington and on the team, the story gets much more compelling.

The author does a good job of keeping the story on task. There is a lot going on the 30s that could have sidetracked things. While the story has to deal with the Depression and the rise of Hitler--the author does so only so much as necessary for the story.

I would have liked even more of George Pocock, the man who designed and built the racing shells for University of Washington (and many other teams). Each chapter starts off with an epigraph quotation from Pocock and he comes across as the 'Yoda' of the crew.

Edward Hermann does a masterful job, as always, with the reading.

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