Saturday, December 29, 2012

This Week's Book: Stranger in a Strange Land

This finishes Book a Week 2012! It's been a fun ride. Watch for how things'll change a little around here in 2013.

December 23-29: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Science Fiction (1961 - 655 pp.) 

This is the original edition, packed with 60,000 more words than the already decently long first pressing. 

The premise of the book is incredibly interesting. If a human born and raised by a highly intelligent race of Martians came to Earth, how would he react to his surroundings? Valentine Michael Smith wakes up in Bethesda Hospital under military watch facing exactly this problem. His subsequent adventures are highly interesting in that Heinlein explores the world as a Martian might consider it, like the understandably insatiable attraction to water. The ability to levitate objects feels excessive but it adds enough sci-fi camp to be worthwhile. The libertarian, rational egoistic philosophy of the early part of the book plays off of the power-driven obsession various powerful parties have with possessing the Martian and his parents' sizable bank accounts. 

My chief qualms with Stranger in a Strange Land are its length and its overbearing armchair philosophy. Neither seem like necessary additions to what was a perfectly fine book. The last quarter or so felt unnecessary - I felt like the book had in all meaningful ways ended by then. Once the possibilities of how Michael could react to Earth were more or less exhausted, whether obvious (like not understanding money) or outlandish (whether he would be considered sovereign of Mars), there was nothing left to say. The creation of the Church of All Worlds feels more like a strangely inserted authorial fantasy than any short logical leap from a Martian landing on Earth. Stranger in a Strange Land is very successful at being science fiction. There it should stay. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 3

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Week's Book: Aesop's Fables

Another collection of things, which is working nicely. How many of us read these stories as children? Now, looking back, how many of us really knew what we were reading?

December 16-22: Aesop's Fables translated by George Fyler Townsend

Literature (1871) 

Aesop's fables were a staple of my childhood. I owned an illustrated copy of many of the fables, which my parents gave me so early into my young life I don't recall ever not owning it. Like then, the fox is my favourite animal to pop up in the stories. Unlike then, I've now read a copy with an introduction detailing what a fable is, a brief biography of what we know of Aesop, and a history of where and when the fables have popped up in European lore. In short, the craft of a fable is a cross between the storytelling of a tale and the didacticism of a parable. 

As with anything over 2000 years old yet so universal in the lessons it teaches, some of these fables are extremely applicable to the present day, others are utterly horrifying, and most lie somewhere on the vast continuum between. Still others have applications or ramifications Aesop could never have anticipated. In this last curious category, "The Ass and the Grasshopper" is a lesson in corporate strategy (i.e. that homegrown strategies can be more effective than benchmarking); "The Prophet" and "The Quack Frog" taken in a modern context appear to question the wisdom of social science professors (a famous example being a psychologist who is the expert in the psychology of money yet is not super-rich), "Jupiter, Neptune, Minerva and Momus" seems oddly pro-trailer park (the sin of the poor house being that it lacks wheels), and "The Widow and the Sheep" feels like an Econ 101 lesson in profit maximization. "The Fisherman and the Fish" and "The Lion and the Hare", applied today, are virulently anti-stock market. 

The best and worst messages range from heartwarming to horrifying respectively. "The Lioness"'s message of quality over quantity is well taken in almost any context, "The Fir-Tree and the Bramble" is a reminder that a wealthy life is not necessarily easier or more desirable, and "The Traveler and Fortune" scolds anyone who wants to blame, or credit, everything on luck. "The Fox and the Mask", one of my favourites since I was about two feet tall, is a reminder that style is useless without substance. "The Rose and the Amaranth", my other favourite, is a reminder that lasting beauty is often the best kind. Less happily, "The Man and His Sweethearts" supposes that a woman should feel ashamed of being courted by a younger man (but then how do we have Cougar Town?), "The Three Tradesmen" advocates a social isolationism mind-boggling to any modern person, and "The Mother and the Wolf" reproaches anyone foolish enough to listen to a woman. 

Other fables reflect the Victorian society George Fyler Townsend inhabited. "The Oxen and the Axle-Trees" is stoicism incarnate. "The Crab and the Fox" hearkens back to the old belief that every person had his or her place in the world and to defy that would be foolish. Those of us with ambition look back unkindly on that particular strain of Victorian thought. "The Astronomer", "The Wolf and the Lion" and "The Monkey and the Camel" send the horrible message of telling people not to think beyond one's immediate surroundings or to learn uncharacteristically new skills. The days of women learning to ride bicycles have since eroded this belief. 

Still other fables have either been grossly misinterpreted or were hazy to begin with. "The Swallow and the Crow"'s contribution of the phrase "fair weather friend" refers to friends who are unable, rather than unwilling, to help when times are difficult. The eponymous character of "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" is attempting to find shelter, not to become a danger (although there are apparently alternate versions of this fable that state otherwise). "The Oaks and Jupiter" and "The Oak and the Woodcutters" are clear instances of victim-blaming. "The Huntsman and the Fisherman"'s moral does not at all match its story; the story describes the ability of the characters to engage in trade with each other, whereas the moral reads "Abstain and enjoy". The moral of this entry, were it to have one, would be that Aesop's Fables is a cultural construct, of Ancient Greece in its original form and also of Victorian England in this translation. Many of the lessons persist over time yet others are quaint relics of earlier days. 

NOTE: With these types of books, page count is an estimate at best. The particular copy I read is one for Kindle for my laptop. There are doubtless many others out there. The fables are all so short and so easily available that to refer to any of the ones I mention here, a few seconds' search should yield what you need. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 5

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This Christmas...

Today, at my favourite local coffee shop, I overheard a man say in a conversation that the upcoming alleged apocalypse of December 21st, 2012 "won't be the end of the world, just the end of time." I turned to the barista, whom I happen to know quite well, and said, "If that's the case, this Christmas will be timeless." He smiled.

Hope everyone has a wonderful final week of Advent en route to a timeless Christmas.

Last Week's Book: Chicken Soup for the Soul

A fitting accompaniment for law school exams... also my third last Book a Week. Hard to believe.

December 9-15: Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

Non-Fiction (1993 - 193 pp.) 

Now apparently also the provenance of a TV show and a health food line, Chicken Soup for the Soul started as this solitary book. It is compiled by two motivational speakers, and consists of a collection of stories submitted by various people, mostly from the United States. Others are by Canfield and Hansen. Each details someone who did something extraordinary. The usual fare consists of people who ran after having their legs amputated, children who sold more cookies than the other children, that sort of thing. The overarching message - that people should be nice to each other and that we can all do something special in the world - is a good one, no matter how cynical the recent economy may have made people. 

A few of the stories surprised me, some in a good way, some not so much.  "The Animal School" shows a libertarian leaning that I was not expecting, not so much for being libertarian as such but because a book by motivational speakers doesn't strike me as political. "I Love You, Son" is probably the most touching story here, for the combined reasons of speaking to what it means to be a father as well as making me look back a little guiltily on my own experiences as a child. (It concerns whether children ever truly appreciate their fathers enough.) "Rest in Peace" is probably my favourite story, having to do with telling people to bury everything they think they can't do, and it resonates the most with my life. "Service with a Smile" is an adorable story that will resonate with every dog lover. "The Touch of the Master's Hand", aside from its uplifting message about the value we often miss in things, mentions potage, which I know better than most thanks to reading If Walls Could Talk this past August. 

"Big Ed" and "Just Say It!" discuss the difficulties people have telling each other they love each other, and not in that first time ever telling a significant other way but even within a family. That something so natural should be so difficult is something I find troubling. "I Know You, You're Just Like Me" may have seemed heartwarming such a short time after the collapse of the USSR but is, to make an understatement, less than heartwarming to Central Europeans. "Ask, Ask, Ask" and "Tommy's Bumper Sticker" feel overly reliant on the fact that their protagonists are children; relying on being a cute child to sell products should not be seen as the hallmark of salesmanship. "Rick's Little Quest", "John Corcoran", and "She Saved 219 Lives" send some likely unintentionally morose messages. The first validates a young man's decision to drop out of school, the second discusses the successes of a man who was admitted all the way through the education system despite being illiterate, and the third glosses over someone's premeditated forgery of birth certificates. None of those warm my heart in the least, no matter what good came at the end. 

Hypothetically, Chicken Soup for the Soul is an exercise in challenging everyone to be the best s/he can be, regardless of adverse circumstances. "Run, Patti, Run" is the story that embodies this message the best. At the end of a story about a woman who ran record-setting distances in face of epilepsy, in question form no less, it asks, "If Patti Wilson can do so much with so little, what can you do to outperform yourself in a state of total wellness?" Whether this is inspirational or guilt-inducing depends on who you are, I suppose. 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 4

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Saving Money: 10 Things I Will Do, 5 Things I Won't

Maybe it's the terrible economy. Maybe it's the wider availability of technology, not least sites like this one. Maybe it's just that I'm an adult now. For whatever reason, it seems like for the past little while, money-saving columns are everywhere. As someone who develops some economics-based personal finance in my spare time, I figure that rather than bore you with the theoretical analysis that shapes my money decisions, I'll throw my hat into the "I do these things to be frugal" ring like everyone else.

A few articles I've picked up today are this one by a guy, this one by a girl, this other one by the same girl saying what she won't do to save money, and this one by a different girl who makes it gender-neutral. Most of the tips are good (like harvesting seeds from your garden), some aren't so much so. One that absolutely needs mention right here is the tip at the end of the last article: that you "shop" at lost and found bins. That is something I've never seen as a money-saving tip before. It's so beyond the pale I can't justify putting it on my list of things I won't do to save money, if only because it would never have occurred to me. It's not quite as bad as forging food stamps or stealing from the Salvation Army, but it feels like it's trending toward that end of the ethical spectrum.

Before I begin with my list of ways I do and refuse to spend money, I may as well begin by saying why it's important I noted the above links by gender. Something that I had probably known but had never really realized is that I save a significant amount of money just by being a man. I have never bought makeup or feminine hygiene products (that's what they're called now, right?) in my life. If tasked to do so, I'm sure I would appear very confused to the store's employees.

Another thing that's worth mentioning is that certain tips that are great for some people simply don't work for others. For example, the biggest single way I save money is by not having a car. No purchase or lease costs, no gas, no insurance... which turns around and becomes thousands in savings, vacations, and the peace of mind to know I can treat myself to a few extras without going broke in the process. However, I understand not having a car simply isn't an option for those who don't live in urban or other eminently walkable areas. I'm sure everyone has his/her own version of this: some people don't drink, others have family and friends all nearby so they have less need to buy plane tickets, and so on. I also don't smoke, which is helpful but is pretty normal for my generation.

Here are 10 Ways I Save Money and 5 Ways I Refuse to Save Money.

To save money, I...

1. Make use of the local library, as well as free promotional e-books.

Libraries, especially campus libraries, have amazing selections of books. Books that have passed into the public domain are often available as free e-books, and many newer indie authors are releasing their books for free. Thanks to the free e-book option, I've read books as far-flung as Bleak House and Machine of Death, both of which I'd recommend. Without these resources, Book a Week may not have been possible. Although I love my home library dearly, I simply don't need to own a hard copy of every book I ever read. Moving a lot helped this decision along too. I still buy books I feel like I'll want around in paper form but I spend a lot less on books than before.

2. Use coupons mercilessly.

I know this is on everyone's list, so it's not exactly the most original thing here. It's on everyone's list for a reason. It's also a great way to buy clothes, as opposed to the horror stories of patching up holes the size of a Buick. My favourite coupon-driven purchase: a pair of running shorts, from $36 down to $2. Remember, when combining coupons, take the percentage discount before the flat dollar discount.

3. Use hotel soaps and shampoos at home.

For those who travel even semi-frequently, this is a great way to save. I honestly have difficulty recalling the last time I bought shampoo. I understand each container won't last most people almost a month like it does for me, but even so... A fringe benefit is that you get to try a bunch of different kinds.

4. Make sure I do full loads of laundry.

I have way too much experience with commercial washers and dryers for someone of my tender years. As a result, watching a few articles of (usually white) clothing bounce around inside a washer or dryer is a frustrating use of a couple bucks. Waiting to wash darks or lights until I have a full load's worth, or close to it, saves money that is otherwise spent on absolutely nothing.

5. Think purchases through before making them.

This doesn't mean waiting weeks on end to see if you still want to buy something. That's a great way to lose out on sales. It just means having a logical reason for making every purchase, even if that purchase is a chocolate bar by the checkout counter. If you don't feel like you can defend a purchase to someone asking you why you made it, it's probably not a good idea. ("I'm worth it" isn't a defence.)

6. Don't throw out food.

This one seems simple, yet people throw out food all the time. Knowing what's in your fridge and freezer not only helps determine when you need to eat certain things but also prevents you from accidentally buying something you already have. Not letting food expire - or refusing to keep buying foods that often do, like a seldom-used salad dressing - is another way to stop spending money for nothing.

7. Take more napkins than necessary from fast-food restaurants.

This was more of a thing from my undergrad days, considering how rarely I eat fast food now. (Saving there too.) I don't see napkins as something to buy from a store. They're used for a few seconds and then discarded. Hard to justify paying for something with that quality when the place where you last bought a sandwich on the way home from work/school will do it for you. It doesn't have to result in guests knowing where you went last week, either, if you keep cloth napkins around for company and use the ones you got for free when you're by yourself.

8. Keep plastic bags from the grocery store.

I use my canvas grocery bags all the time. I own about half a dozen of them, most of them given to me for free. During big trips, when those bags are full, I'll generally get plastic bags. They've carried my track shoes to the gym/track, they've sat inside small garbage cans, and they've also been great donations to my parents for when the cat's litter needs to be cleaned out. Throwing out plastic unnecessarily isn't just horrible for the environment, it's literally throwing away something you could be using.

9. Reuse freezer bags.

Whenever they're empty, I wash them with soap and water. Then they can hold more of whatever was in them before, usually meat. Like the plastic bags above, there's no reason to throw something out that is still just as good as when you got it. The difference with freezer bags is that you actually paid for them. (For those who pay 5 cents per plastic bag at the grocery store, this still applies to you.)

10. Don't put off purchases until the last minute.

If an item you're looking to replace isn't something you only ever need one of (like a pair of shoes), there's nothing wrong with owning more than one while the original's life is fading. If said item is something you only ever need one of (like a microwave), it may be worth trading a couple extra months of life for a huge discount on the successor. Desperation doesn't come out to getting the best deal. The more time you give yourself to replace something, the more chances you give yourself to come away with a great deal.

Hopefully all that applies to everyone as much as is possible with personal finance, as much as peoples' individual circumstances vary. I've also excluded ways to make the most of credit card reward points, as I view that as more of a way to make money than to save it. All that said:

To save money, I won't...

1. Do anything that takes more time than it's worth.

Whenever I undertake a task that results in a financial net gain, I view it as though I'm performing a job. For example, if I attend a one-hour focus group and am given $50 for my efforts, I view myself as, for that hour, a $50/hr focus group attendee. That same logic is applicable in the home. If I take half an hour to make a meal that cost $2 of ingredients, provides no leftovers, and doesn't involve any creativity on my part, rather than microwave a prepackaged $4 meal, I'm essentially working as a low-level chef for $4/hr. (The difference in costs, doubled because I used half an hour as my example.) Those little ways to save money around the home could actually be short-term sub-minimum wage jobs in disguise. There are better uses of my time.

2. Cut my own hair unless I actually want a buzz cut.

For whatever reason, this one comes up frequently on frugality lists, including the men's one above. If a buzz cut is your personal style and you feel reasonably capable of doing a good job, go for it. If not, just go to a barber and fork over the cash. It's one thing to be defined by your frugality in terms of the wisdom of doing things like, say, not wantonly dumping food in the trash. It's another thing entirely to be so defined by frugality that people can tell you're frugal by looking at you. Worse yet, imagine if everyone followed this advice, resulting in the only difference in men's haircuts being measurable in small numbers. A personal style is not something I'd give up for a few bucks.

3. Compromise my clothing choices, whether for fashion or for quality.

I haven't done any formal research on this but I'm willing to guess that the average person wears clothing every day. There are so many sales on clothing from various retailers you'd think there was a world oversupply so blatant they'll have to turn the unsold items into rags. Fashion-wise, the personal style comment above applies. Wear what you'll enjoy wearing, because if you buy any reasonably good clothes they'll last for a while. Quality-wise, better clothes last longer. If a clothing item costs twice the price of a lesser counterpart but lasts at least twice as long, you aren't really paying more for it at all. Much like with the fridge and freezer example above, knowing which clothes you own is helpful so you can make the best of your durable purchases.

4. Regift.

It may seem resourceful and frugal to regift - if you're the one doing the regifting. Now imagine you're the person who bought that gift in the first place, possibly spent hours picking out just the right one, and it gets regifted. Not exactly quite so cheery anymore, are you? If someone buys you a gift, that gift is for you. It's not a proxy that waives your need to buy someone else a gift. Regifting is also less generous, as it removes the time and effort that demonstrate your care for the recipient. The only real defence for regifting is that neither the person whose gift is being shipped off nor the person who's getting a gift you didn't put any time or money into will usually end up knowing. In all, you've shown no appreciation for the time someone took to pick out a gift for you, shown no effort in shopping for someone else in your life, and justified the whole exercise by keeping both of those people in the dark. If that's how far you're willing to go to save money, I'll start hesitating before buying gifts for you at all.

A notable exception is if you truly believe something you got is absolutely perfect for someone else and the original giver agrees with you. This tends to occur more in terms of things like gift card swaps than in the giving of actual items. In this case, though, you're regifting in order to make a good faith attempt at making multiple people in your life happier, not to save money.

5. Cut up the credit card.

In addition to the aforementioned reward points, a credit card represents flexibility. I never carry a balance and view a credit card expense as though I had paid cash. Certain purchases, especially online ones, require a credit card. (One curious quirk of living in Canada versus the States is that Canadians don't have Visa debit cards.) There's also no guarantee I'll have enough cash in my wallet to cover a purchase every time I leave home. An unexpected sale at the grocery store could be out of reach but for a card sitting on the night table at home.

On that note, feel free to buy something at the grocery store that isn't on your list... as long as it's reasonably priced and you'll eat it. Handcuffing yourself doesn't make you more responsible, only less able to pounce on  deals.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

This Week's Book: Haunted

So I finally read a book by the vaunted Chuck Palahniuk, perhaps best known for the film rendition of Fight Club. (Yes, I've at least seen that. I am, however, a unique and special snowflake.) Haunted was a fun read - I liked the pacing and the angle.

December 2-8: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Horror (2005 - 411 pp.) 

The premise of Haunted is an interesting one: a whole ton of writers on a retreat that consists of being locked in a building for three months. They make the best of the time, if that's what you consider slowly killing each other and themselves. Most have names in some way related to their conditions, like the lip-free Baroness Frostbite or the psychic Countess Foresight. Each tells a sordid, twisted back story through a strategically placed vignette. These stories, interspersed with poems about the characters, sit between the twenty-four chapters. 

The book is at the same time hilarious, scary and disturbing. My favourite story is "The Nightmare Box", which on its own could have been the premise for an entire collection of stories. My least favourite is "Obsolete", which didn't present anything I found particularly gripping and was one of the longest to boot. The book's funniest quotation comes about halfway through: "You could put Mahatma Gandhi into a convent, cut off his nuts, shoot him full of Demerol, and he'd still take a shot at your face if you played him that 'Wind Beneath Your Wings' song." (186-187) (For those interested in reading this book, this is in no way spoiled. When you see it in context, you'll hopefully double over just like I did.) Most of the stories are entertaining, with helpful insights into how the characters got to be who they are. There is relatively little character development during the chapters, which Palahniuk uses to focus on the horrifying character of the writers' retreat. 

Amazingly, the characters know what awaits them. There's no element of kidnapping here. The book starts with the question: "If you were planning to be stranded on a desert island for three months, what would you bring along?" (6) In some ways still the kid who grew up reading choose your own adventure books, I naturally had to compile a list of my own. My suggestions appear to have been too practical for Haunted's deranged writers; not a single one had thought to bring astronaut ice cream or GORP (i.e. calorie-dense foods that won't spoil easily), a Brita filter in case the water isn't very good, lightweight synthetic outerwear to maximize the warmth-to-space ratio in the suitcase, and of course a whole ton of pens, pencils and paper. Each writer presumably took the last of those, although we curiously never see anyone writing during this retreat. It all consists of building a story. How each character builds stories is the story. 

Palahniuk started on the mishmash of short stories that would eventually morph into Haunted all the way back in 1991. This was no surprise to me, as throughout the book I kept feeling like I was reading something from the '90s. Maybe Haunted would have been a more effective release 5-10 years before it came out. The strings of one-word sentences detailing how bleak the world is just didn't feel edgy anymore in 2005, for example. Regardless, I enjoyed it, and the story behind "Guts" was especially amusing considering that was one of my favourite entries. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 2