Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler, explores the author's role in the creation of Behavioral Economics, a field which challenges the assumptions of much of classical economics.

Economics is based on the assumption that people make rational decisions that optimize their decisions.  This assumption provides a handy set of axiomatic points to move from, creating all manner of theories of how people go about making choices.  It has the enhanced predictive power of other sciences which proceed from a unified theory to explain the varying phenomenon of nature.

Thaler details the problems with  rational theory.  He explores the early stages of his career as an economist, when he collected counter-instances to the theory of rational expectations.  This leads to the first tentative attempts to form other theories about people's choices and behavior which do not make assumptions about their complete rationality.  Theories like sunk costs and the fungible nature of money appear to be completely out of sync when tested against the reality of how people consider expenses and money. People make mistakes that are not in their best interests because they do not have complete information, or they act upon emotion rather than correct information.

This book shows the inherent bias in any scientific community. Researchers base their entire careers on looking at a field in a certain way, and are very reluctant to set that view aside. Reputation, position, and power can retard the progress of scientific inquiry. Thaler’s book shows that if enough effort is put behind gathering counter-instances in a field, eventually even the most ardent critic must take note. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lily’s King’s Euphoria

Lily’s King’s Euphoria holds so much promise, and the fact that the novel fails to maintain it, makes reading it so much more of a disappointment.  

King starts with an excellent premise, an exotic location, and an intrinsically interesting psycho-sexual dynamic.  All the pieces are there to assemble a first rate, or even a masterful novel.  

But after a strong start, King simply runs out of steam.  The three main characters are clearly drawn, their motivations, passions, and intellectual inclinations are clear, but as the novel progresses, King appears to be at a loss as to what to do with this set up.

Sot there are abrupt endings, inexplicable disappearances, and in general, the sense that the novel has been left dangling there, unclaimed, a low hanging fruit never picked.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Red Spear on Elf's Ear Creek

Blessed are you, summer red leaf
Gratitude should be granted
Thanksgivings should be hummed
To the red spear of sumac
Floating in the forest green stream
For you expose the lie of summer

A court of Mosquitoes, Poison Oak
Prickers, Ferns, Marsh Clover
All flourishing, stand
Guard over your early passing
And they cry and moan

Blessed are you, summer red leaf
In you I see the rolling pitch
Endless churning, thump and thunder
Of grinding season on grinding season
This tumbling death of all in all
Blessed are you, poor red leaf
Red spear in passing emerald splendor

Monday, July 20, 2015

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

In Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, Kathryn Harrison takes on a rather formidable character in the western imagination.  We all think we know something about Joan of Arc, either from graphic art, or more commonly, movies, but as Harrison shows, the story of her life has far more complexities than any popular rendition can provide.

Harrison is both charmed and cursed in her study of Joan.  Unlike many other mythical figures, there happens to be a great deal of contemporary documents related to her, mainly from her trail for heresy.  Every word she and her inquisitors uttered was transcribed.  Also, over twenty years after her execution, yet another trial took place to exonerate her; there, those who  knew her as a little girl, a divine messenger, and a warrior --- of all ---testified and their words were transcribed.

Yet both sources have serious flaws.  The first trial was made under duress; Joan was kept in appalling conditions, with little food or water, and subject to hostile questions repeatedly asked. Under these trying circumstances, Joan often changed her answers.  The second trial occurred twenty-years after her execution, when the cult of Joan of Arc was on the rise.  She was already becoming the national symbol of a resurgent France, and fading memories were influenced by this growing luster.

Despite this, Harrison does an excellent job of steering through the primary source material, always patient with the documents, always critical of their veracity as she uses them to develop a coherent narrative of one of the most important women of all time.  In the end, her book weaves deftly about these various threads, because both the history and the legend of Joan of Arc are key to understanding who she was, what she accomplished, and her six-hundred year legacy.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Pious Fraud

Visions of a Compassionate World by Menachem Ekstein is purported to be a work of Polish Chasid between the world wars.  Ekstein wrote this book as a meditation manual.  In this regard, it is successful. Visions presents all the major methods of meditation, giving clear and concise examples of both theory and practice.

The problem is, the book has a very contemporary tone and feel.  There is nothing about it that suggests a Chasid in 1930 would have written it, let alone a secular Jew engaged in meditation.  All of the theories and practices in this work are well-known in contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish circles.  I have the strange feeling that the translators of this book, who have the requisite background in modern meditation, are engaged in a bit of pious fraud.
It is my hunch that Starrett and Zeller are the real authors of Visions of a Compassionate World.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Mao Zedong: On Guerrilla Warfare

“When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he stops, harass; when he tires, strike; when he retreats, pursue.”  

This is one of the more famous quotes from Mao Zedong’s small book On Guerrilla Warfare. This book is not so much a how-to venture on the tactics of waging a guerrilla war; the reader does not get instructions, say, on how to blow up train tracks. Rather, the book explains how to create a guerrilla band, organize its members, keep them supplied, and most importantly, provide them with the proper political education so they can view the armed struggle (in this case, against the Japanese) from the proper prospective.

Although Mao writes very much about a national unity campaign against the Japanese (the combined efforts of the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists) this all important political element instilled in the fighters and the peasants who provide them with food and supplies is of obvious and overwhelming importance. 

This is apparent by looking at Chinese history after World War II.  Mao struggle against the Nationalists, who had superior numbers and firepower, led to his victory.  This little book provided some of the ideological base for unforeseen upset.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


If you are going to isolate the two poles of experience in Rebbe Nachman’s world of Chassidus, it would be Azmara and Ayeh.  As is obvious from the title of this book, the topic here is Ayeh.  It is the older Hebrew word for “where” and it is the opening word to the question “Ayeh makom kevodo” or, where is the place of his (G-d’s) glory.

For Bratslavers, losing one’s way in the quest for a greater connection to HaShem is not a shameful thing.  In fact, it is a key component of spiritual growth.  But it comes with dangers.  It can lead to depression, and then, chas v’shalom, to various errors or sins.  So in this state, even asking the question “where is the place of his glory” opens up a channel to HaShem.  Simply stating the question, with all its ramifications of pathos, sorrow, yearning, confusion, and hope, is the first step to an answer.