Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It's for a good cause and it's everywhere. Donate to help prostate cancer awareness! Compliments on the 'stache optional.


Monday, November 26, 2012

This Week's Book: Priceless

I met a couple interesting benchmarks this week. This is the first time I've started a book for Book a Week before the week in question began (I started this one on Saturday evening). I'd previously had a rule against that, but after seeing how late I could read books in the summer, why not allow this? The important thing is that fifty-second book will be read by the end of the year. The other accomplishment is that this is the earliest in the week I've completed a book. Before this, it was The Satanic Bible, finished on the Wednesday of its week.

I think I'm about done for anything behavioural this year. Interesting read.

November 25-December 1: Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value by William Poundstone

Non-Fiction (2010 - 288 pp.) 

Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value adds to the growing stash of general interest material in behavioural decision theory. Much of this work is by psychologists or economists, but Priceless is by a professional writer. The best comparison would be Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. This perspective is interesting in that William Poundstone is able to report of others' theories without advancing any of his own, so his fifty-seven snippets are anecdotes about a subject rather than forays into it. The format fits the book nicely. The question the book asks is: how are prices set, and why do we keep falling for them? 

The first part of the book is a recap of any book dealing with behavioural decision theory. Some of those books are referenced in this list (Thinking, Fast and SlowPredictably Irrational) and they all have largely the same messages about phenomena like anchoring, the endowment effect, and other classic staples of the discipline. Having read a few of the articles during my education, I would recommend skipping straight to those if you already know why people will pay less for tickets than they would want in return for them. 

The highlight of Priceless is the substantial material on psychophysics, a field with which I was unfamiliar prior to reading. The connection between sensory perception and physical sensation is far outside of any of the social sciences training I have received, yet it is among the most interesting psychology-related subdisciplines I could have imagined. How far does a floor need to move before someone standing on it notices? What if the person is concentrating on something else and has no idea what is about to occur? Questions like these surface in various parts ofPriceless. Their connections to marketers' pricing schemes vary. The quality of the anecdotes is universally high. 

My problems with the portrayal of the ultimatum game could take up an entire entry and more. In light of this, it is too bad so much of the book considers the ultimatum game. Regardless, the ultimatum game responses make plenty of sense in a game theoretic context, with a general veto being the equivalent of a fight response in a first-entry deterrence game. The veto is not an irrational, emotional response; it is a reasoned method of threatening the proposer with punishment. Aside from this and similar issues, the constant "economists are all wrong" diatribe is worn and was never true. Chapter 9's anecdote about Maurice Allais and Milton Friedman demonstrates this quite handily. Some of the studies inPriceless leave much to be desired, but Poundstone was in no position to conduct them. Most of the studies were very interesting, though. 

An enjoyable read for those interested in behavioural decision theory. Books like these make me suspect I have a streak of the dreaded homo economicus in me. 

Ease of Reading: 7 
Educational Content: 6

Saturday, November 24, 2012

This Week's Book: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Probably a less engaging review this time, if only because I'm beat. This was funny.

November 18-24: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Satire (2007 - 312 pp.) 

The Best Laid Plans is rightly organized into two parts. The first details a Liberal campaign trail in a Conservative stronghold, following an unwilling candidate with a budget of $157.23 and all of about half a dozen supporters. The second explores possibilities of what could happen if a Member of Parliament is more forthright than his peers, which is a massive understatement. The protagonist of the book is the aforementioned unlikely MP's executive assistant, who invariably becomes a pincushion of abuse. 

The first part is hilarious, and is exactly what I was hoping I'd be reading. The campaign angle lends itself to all kinds of mishaps, which drag the reader through a tragicomedy of stepping in excrement, woefully unorganized meetings, and being chased by dogs during canvassing. I would be remiss in saying the second part gets too political, as this is a political satire, but that's the feeling I get. The faux-heartwarming story of the firebrand MP isn't as compelling as the campaign story. That the Conservative enemy is being fought on the basis of tax cuts, instead of a more visceral potential Liberal fear like an anti-environment or anti-labour policy, feels empty. The romance subplot between our protagonist and the riding's former Liberal candidate's granddaughter doesn't add much. I really enjoyed this book - I just felt like the climax happened halfway through. 

Thanks to a non-RYM friend for the recommendation and for letting me borrow the book. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 2

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Week's Book: Kindred Spirits by Ashanti Luke

It feels nice to finally read and review a Smashwords book for Book a Week. Hope some of you get a chance to poke around that site a bit.

November 11-17: Kindred Spirits by Ashanti Luke

Science Fiction (2010 - 220 pp.) 

As a Smashwords author (https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/MatthewGordonBooks), I wanted to make sure one of my books I read this year was published there. After some digging, I found one that I thought would be a good fit. If you're interested in reading this book, the author's made it available for free here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/25311 

Kindred Spirits is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller about a man who goes back in time to save a woman and to get her to kill a deranged evangelist. He also possesses an anti-matter shotgun. There's tons of action, with the narration working well - I could really envision the characters struggling through each shootout. There are plenty, for those interested. The combination of science-fiction and urban/low fantasy works well, with the backdrop of Richmond, Virginia being an atypical setting that Luke makes work. My lone qualms are that the end feels drawn out, although I won't say why for spoiler concerns, and that the characters seem predictable at times. Luke knows the tropes and uses them well, which mitigates the second point. 

A couple disclaimers are in order. Firstly, like many self-published books, there are a few typographical and formatting errors. These are thankfully relatively minimal. The other is there is coarse language, violence and graphic sex. Compared to the blood and guts strewn all over White Fang(see my June entry on that very book), this is nothing. Goes to show societal attitudes toward violence versus sex, and toward classic versus modern literature, I suppose. That discussion could be hundreds of pages, though. 

Regardless, Kindred Spirits a quick read and a page-turner. For those of us accustomed to heavier reads, it's a nice break. 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 1

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Last Week's Book: On the Genealogy of Morals

Very opposed to some of the other writings I've read this year, which keeps things interesting.

November 4-10: On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

Philosophy (1887 - 90 pp.) 

On the Genealogy of Morals consists of a prologue and then three essays: "Good and Evil, Good and Bad", "Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Manners", and "What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?" Within them, he develops a brand of scepticism and atheism that is visible to this day. The editorial style of his polemic means there are few citations, which has the dual effect of making the essay collection a quicker read while making his points feel easier to refute. A simple "that's not the way I understood Christianity..." pervaded my reading, although I found many of his arguments persuasive regardless. To others more inclined to agree with Nietzsche in broader ways, this may not be such an obstacle. 

Nietzsche brings up interesting points about the overly restrictive nature of the categorical imperative (with which I agree), the problem of people who claim to perceive events objectively (agree), the concept of the badge of suffering an ascetic wears as a form of desire (which I can concede partially), the opposition of priestly with knightly or aristocratic ideals (disagree), and the use of conscience as self-excoriation (strongly disagree). Other points, like the presence of religion among the oppressed signifying their weakness, are less compelling. In the prologue, he makes a statement that appears in some ways Christian: "For between chastity and sensuality there is no essential opposition. Every good marriage, every genuine affair of the heart transcends them both." This type of thinking has been found in Protestantism dating back to at least the Puritans of the sixteenth century, making it a curious claim of Nietzsche's. Generally, the claims he makes are ones the reader knows if he or she will agree or disagree with going in, although surprises like the one above add to the depth of the treatise. 

It is difficult to appraise how educational a work like On the Genealogy of Morals is. Much like A Tale of a Tub, it conveys a sense of learnedness and research without sharing all of those with the reader. A work like On the Genealogy of Morals forces the reader to consider important issues within morality with sporadic splashes of insight regarding the development of religious traditions over time. It will not act as an authoritative work of religious history or moral philosophy, yet such a work would be unable to properly present the perspective Nietzsche gets across, nor would it be readable within a week. 

Ease of Reading: 3 
Educational Content: 6

Sunday, November 4, 2012

This Week's Book: Moneyball

Another sports book. They're too much fun, really.

October 28-November 3: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Non-Fiction (2003 - 208 pp.) 

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a very fun, very quick read. For those who have missed out on it, it tracks Billy Beane's rise to stardom as general manager of the Oakland Athletics. In the late '90s and early '00s, he assembled a team capable of competing with any in the major leagues, usually beating them (they won 102 and 103 games in 2001 and 2002 respectively), with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Doing this required new ways of thinking about baseball, from valuing draft picks more highly relative to veterans all the way to the use of sabermetrics. The statistics-based approach to baseball was understandably upsetting to old-style scouts, just as mercilessly flipping proven stars for compensation draft picks must have been to the fans. 

Two things struck me about Moneyball, aside from the great storytelling and interesting asides into individual players. (Recalling how fresh-from-injury Scott Hatteberg was made to play first base is up there in the latter category.) The first is how Beane's Athletics teams had not won a playoff series even when they had won 100+ games in a season. Since then, they have only won one playoff series (2006 ALDS), after which they were promptly smoked 4-0 in the ALCS. A little more explanation for their lack of success in the playoffs, and intermittent sub-.500 years between those appearances, would be interesting nine years later. Beane explains the playoffs away as luck in Moneyball - would he still do so now? The other one is how statistically driven baseball can be. Similar attempts have been made since the early days of SABR to turn basketball and football, the sports I know far better than baseball, into statistical test trials. That they've worked to only a limited extent in those sports despite their massive success in baseball speaks to baseball's uniquely stat-driven nature. 

Moneyball is an approach I know only somewhat well to a game I know only somewhat well. It may be a little difficult for those unfamiliar with baseball, but at least of the North Americans reading this, hopefully that won't be an issue. It's educational about baseball, and perhaps a little about statistics. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 6