Monday, April 30, 2012

This Week's Book: Terms of Labor

This was a tough one. I had to read it, of course, but I chose to and it was worth it. Nice to see a history book on the front page again.

As an aside, all seven of the entries on this blog so far are on even-numbered days, completely by accident at that. Well... I find that interesting.

April 22-28: Terms of Labor, ed. Stanley Engerman

History (1999 - 271pp.) 

I can barely qualify this for Book a Week considering how academic it is, but that's life, isn't it? 

Terms of Labor is an interdisciplinary book, covering history, social science and law, that is essentially a history of freedom. It spans six centuries, three continents, and subjects as wide-ranging as slavery, women's rights and the American labour movement. It really is quite an ambitious book, and it's pulled off well. 

Each article is written by an expert in a different field. This results in a chapter on the early modern slave trade, a chapter comparing the Russian serf emancipation of 1861 to the freeing of slaves in the Southern United States during/after the American Civil War, a chapter on indentured servitude in Northwest Ordinance cases, and so on, all the way up to a closing chapter on the merits of the American dream. To list everything would basically require writing a term paper but the table of contents shouldn't be tough to find. 

Any book like this is bound to be a little disjointed, but as a plus, it never gets boring. The main criticism I would have is in the structure, specifically that chapter breaks can never really be that smooth here. Then again, the main cachet of a book like this is how much different material a reader can cover in under 300 pages. If you're interested in off-the-wall comparisons of seemingly disparate subjects and have a history and/or industrial relations background, I would definitely recommend this book. If not, you might get lost a little, but I imagine you'll learn a ton. 

Ease of Reading: 1 
Educational Content: 10

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This Week's Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

More fiction, this time published a little earlier. Apparently I just can't get enough of the nineteenth century.

April 15-21: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Literature (1819 - 41 pp.) 

This is by far the shortest work I have read for Book a Week so far. Expect more of these whenever I have exams and/or papers and/or excursions all at the same time. Still loving the classics, just in bite size! For the record, although The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is widely considered a short story, it checks out at about 12,000 words. By the standards of our day, it's a typical novelette. 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, if only two things, reminds us how much early nineteenth-century American literature takes after eighteenth-century British literature, and expands a relatively simple plot into a surprisingly long work. For the former, expressions like "coquette" abound, describing the female main in a way students of eighteenth-century British literature can immediately understand. There is also an element of didacticism in Irving's work, not completely unlike something Dr. Samuel Johnson would have done, if not quite as overt - and, of course, any didacticism is revealed as a joke. Fitting for a post-Revolution American story... 

As for the latter, my one qualm with the story is its attention to detail. Despite hearing Ichabod Crane's life story and then some, I do not feel particularly attached to his character. Likewise, although the other characters are described well and the plot is readily understandable, I feel absolutely nothing for any of them. I can certainly understand why this was not a novel, as I cannot imagine what is, in essence, a single scene with some background, extending any further. 

Interesting read and a nice little peek into the literary side of American history. Having read Rip Van Winkle, I had to read this one too. I enjoyed Rip Van Winkle more, but The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has a fun, twisted ending... once you get past a virtual almanac on Tarrytown. 

Ease of Reading: 7 
Educational Content: 3

Monday, April 16, 2012

This Week's Book: White Oleander

Meeting new people is fun! One of them recommended this book to me.

April 8-14: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Literature (1999 - 390pp.) 

Finally, some more fiction! 

White Oleander is a book that made headlines when it came out, inspired a blockbuster movie, and all for good reason. Everything from the writing style to the cover art is so late '90s. It's interesting to look back with a little perspective on a period you know so well and see an artefact for the little piece of history it is, like how I had never heard Sevendust as a full album until about 2008. 

As for the actual book: it's interesting, to say the least. The story is at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and really touches upon a lot of personal aspects people prefer to leave not discussed. I felt for Astrid at times and was upset at her at others, as I suppose one would expect of a victimized teenager who makes some... questionable life choices. I will avoid getting normative with Astrid's life, but it is quite the study in how many of our actions we truly control. A nice takeaway was how close she often came to really being turned around in a hurry, showing how quickly peoples' lives can get righted, at least hypothetically. 

One of my favourite aspects was how well narrated the story was; for all the criticisms made about how poorly men narrate as women, Janet Fitch's example makes me truly believe women do this better. A lot of the concerns Astrid raises are ones that would never occur to me and never come up in my writing, so having that perspective was nice. 

At its worst, White Oleander is melodramatic to a fault. There are dizzyingly large statements about life in general, and a lot of the more poetic passages read like something out of a 15-year old's diary. That said, the story is told in first person by a teenager, so it is easy to see how this came about. There are also lots of comma splices, of all things. That is this style of writing, though. It is what it is, and the over-the-top bits ultimately work well enough in context that the overall quality of the book does not take much of a hit. This is still a great book. (For reference, it is the second here to receive the genre tag "Literature", and the first was Bleak House...) 

Thanks to a non-RYM friend for the recommendation. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 2

Last Week's Book... I Know...

I'm finally back to posting these things. This book is for April 1-7, although I finished it this past Wednesday. Easter weekend will do these things to you...

April 1-7: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Psychology/Economics (2010 - 325pp.) 

Yet another behavioural economics book, I'm well aware. It's one of my areas of interest, somehow. 

Much of the book goes over previously developed material, such as anchoring effects and merchants' use of perceived value. Ariely's examples for these are interesting. For the former, he exposes students to unpleasant noises and then offers them small amounts of money based on an anchor to listen to them again. For the latter, he mentions the lucrative sale of supposedly worthless black pearls based on rarity and perceived value. It's true - people often act in ways that seem incompatible with economic analysis, most notably with expected utility theory. Where this is measurable, in monetary terms, is where the distinction is most easily seen. Otherwise, it would be difficult to imagine (many) people carrying as much debt as they do, or any number of other financial situations that appear irrational from an expected utility theory perspective. As to whether we are all completely irrational, though, I like to have a little more faith. 

Even more so than the other practitioners of this field, Dan Ariely provokes. A chapter called "The Fallacy of Supply and Demand" is a good example of this. While challenging existing knowledge is admirable, and Ariely does a good job of it, there are certain times when the need for irrationality overshadows our surprisingly rational nature as human beings. For example, Ariely's discussion of peoples' willingness to sacrifice financial payoffs feels as though it is answered very well by Matthew Rabin's influential work on ego utility - that is to say, that making ourselves feel better about ourselves can be expressed as a form of utility, and thus has to enter any utility-maximization problem. This works in much the same way as the Duke basketball tickets discussion, in which no owner would be willing to sell for a price a buyer would be willing to pay. The endowment effect is not so much irrational as it is a way to express a certain type of utility. To this end, the book could be called Predictably Human

Predictably Irrational is a fun read that taught me a lot. Praise from the illustrious George Akerlof - that "Ariely not only gives us a great read; He also makes us much wiser" is merited. As to what constitutes rationality, that could probably be argued over for thousands of pages and never truly solved. 

Ease of Reading: 7 
Educational Content: 7

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why Don't Americans Walk More?

As a transplant in America for at least a few more months, articles like this no longer surprise me while still never ceasing to amaze me. I probably walk 30-60 minutes per day, and don't even own a car. I can't identify with commuter city life, though, so I can't cast any judgments on perennial drivers, only fail to understand how little people can manage to walk. The bank (hopefully) isn't that far away, etc.