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Freakonomics – Book Review

July 10, 2018

I’m torn on Freakonomics. Although the book is missing a bit of academic rigour, it’s greater than the sum of its parts and really did spark a societal trend of actively searching for underlying factors.

The main reason the book missed the mark for me is tied to the reason why I find the related podcast, Freakonomics Radio, so good. The key difference between the two is featuring expert voices versus relying on the author’s research. Dubner provides a crash course in a few topics such as sumo, the KKK, and education. The podcast provides experts who study only those fields. The background topics feel less cursory and more likely to be thoroughly explored when an expert in the field talks about them. After all, to accept many of Freakonomics premises, you have to accept Levitt’s assertions of causation – and how can you know all of the underlying factors if you only have cursory knowledge of the field?

That said, two things save the book. First of all, it doesn’t purport to be an academic study, only an exploration. Second, modern copies of the book include follow-up articles where Dubner admits to some mistakes in their reporting/research. 4 stars because of that, but it would have been 3 otherwise.

Dubner and Levitt definitely started something interesting, and I never felt like anything was too much of a stretch. However, some of the topics that they explored felt rushed and potentially incomplete.

★★★★☆

Stray note:

  • It’s bizarre to see all the 1 and 2 star reviews at the top of this book’s Goodreads page. Many seem incensed at the quality of the research, but only based on one or two points. I wonder where that comes from.

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Books

No Country for Old Men – Book Review

June 30, 2018

There’s a lot to love about No Country for Old Men, as long as you can stomach bleakness and violence. That said, McCarthy can detail anything beautifully, no matter what the subject matter. It’s one of the strongest points of his writing, which might be a bit of an acquired taste due to his frequent running-on and lack of punctuation.

No Country is a novel that seems like a crime story until the rug is pulled out and is suddenly a book about morality and destiny. At the beginning, ex-special forces killer (and strong antagonist) Anton Chigurh is less of a man and more of a representation of unstoppable evil. But as he gets fleshed out, his alien sense of morality becomes less of a plot device and more like the plot itself. Much of the genius of No Country lies there, at least for me. It becomes clear why Chigurh does what he does, just how good at it he is, and how he understands the other characters better than they understand themselves.

In this, I feel as though he’s a better foil for Sheriff Bell than any of the other characters*. Bell lives with daily regret for not doing something that likely would have resulted in his own death, and Chigurh idly views the progression of some lives instead of others as destiny – inevitable, random and unknowable.

What comes out of the character’s intertwining stories is a chase that’s gripping, surprising, and inevitable. No Country for Old Men is greater than the sum of its parts, and a fantastic novel.

Stray thought:
– Moss is in over his head, and everybody knows it except for him. I love the way that this is both shown and told to the reader.

even though the characters never actually meet 

★★★★☆

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Books

Blood Meridian – Book Review

June 20, 2018

I loved Blood Meridian for its characters and general plot. As well, I loved its overt and implied ways of conveying the ideas of violence. Probably worth a read if you like a good tale. Definitely worth the read if you like westerns, but don’t care to see them scrubbed of reality’s horror.

Likely would have rated Blood Meridian 5 stars if not for its plodding midsection, even though it was probably necessary in order for the ending to be so powerful.

★★★★☆

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Writing

Writing with your Words

June 13, 2018

So much copy that I read seems overly stiff – too formal.

A trick I’ve been meaning to try is speaking into voice-capturing software. Google docs does it for free.

Spoken word flows naturally because your brain is forming sentences naturally. When I write copy, I write piecemeal because I work on making every part sound as good as possible. It’s time for a change.

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Books

The Untethered Soul – Book Review

June 10, 2018

Review

I found The Untethered Soul flawed at best and controlling at worst.

Don’t get me wrong, it contains genuinely good advice on living a balanced life, somewhere within its mindless spiritual blather (ie “the soul is infinite”). However, it ultimately presupposes that the reader can identify the root of their deep inner conflict, which I was surprised to see never addressed. Identifying one’s inner fears and driving forces isn’t an innate ability, and advising people to learn to dismiss pain without identifying the source does nothing but paper over the cracks.

It’s worth noting that the last chapter quickly and unexpectedly devolves into random spouting of bible verse. See the following direct quote:

You realize that you, too, can have deep spiritual experiences and be “…in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10).

There’s just no intention for this other than bringing people into the Christian fold, which was out of place and unappreciated. Incidentally, the full text of Revelation 1:10 reads “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet”. It’s unacceptable for an author to halve a sentence just to suit their context. However, this is the most sophomoric that Singer’s writing becomes.

The end of the book boils down to the dichotomy of believing in a loving God or a judgemental God. It asserts that God is loving, and can only be known through letting go of the “lower self”, no matter who says otherwise. Whereas the book had only been slightly losing me by this point, I was gone by here. Unfortunately, the great, grounded ways that Singer describes looking at the Self are lost in his describing them as “divine”. For better reads on the subject, try reading Jon Kabat-Zinn or Chade-Meng Tan.

Stray thoughts

Singer mentions an anecdote of a “great yogi”. The yogi felt as though a sword were constantly suspended above his head by a spiderweb. This leads him to have a great awareness of death. I found it odd to neither source this story (because, of course, a Google search turned up nothing) nor compare it to the more well-known sword of Damocles.

★★☆☆☆

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Books

Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story – Book Review

June 3, 2018

In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to think that our major metropolitan city was an international laughingstock because our “300 pounds of fun” mayor was smoking crack cocaine.

But, it happened, and we’re here to talk about Crazytown – investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle’s attempt to lay out her coverage of said mayor, Rob Ford, in one book.

Reviewing this one was tough. Writing a compelling narrative about Ford isn’t difficult, because his antics really did write themselves. That said, the book has a real sloppy, unfinished quality that makes the earlier chapters a real slog. For example, page 62 of the first edition details the results of the same election twice in two different paragraphs.

This, and many other editing oversights are almost definitely due to the book’s extremely speedy turnaround time of only three months. Why the tight publishing timeframe? Almost definitely because publishing it quickly would give Torontonians enough time to read it before an upcoming election in which Ford was supposed to run for another term as mayor.

But that’s the thing about publishing a book about a story that isn’t done – things can change. In the eight months after Crazy Town was released, more videos of a drugged-up Ford would be released and he would take a leave of absence, drop out of the mayoral election, and reveal a diagnosis of the cancer that would eventually claim his life. Those details might not be key to the scandal, but this is supposed to be the “Rob Ford Story”, after all.

On that note, the book has a lot of fluff about Doolittle’s actions at the time. Following the story of an investigative journalist is interesting, but it means that the title belies the book’s actual purpose. Crazy Town isn’t “the Rob Ford story”, it’s the story of Doolittle reporting on Ford during part of his drug scandal. The book could have been so much more – a dive into the culture around Ford Nation, a look at the political interplay of the councillors who took over city council at the time, or maybe an exploration of what it means for Canada that we let this slide for so long.

Crazy Town, while compelling, just isn’t the gritty, hard-hitting exposé on Rob Ford that Toronto deserves.

Stray thoughts:
– Toronto police were independently tracking the video of Ford smoking crack, and they quietly recovered it as part of an unrelated bust. By the time they revealed they had it, something like 40% of the city was already primed to believe that Ford was being unfairly attacked, and that he could do no wrong. This was, in part, due to the frequent city hall coverage by Doolittle and the Star, even by her own admission. So, the reveal of the video potentially had less of an effect than it could/should have. I’m not saying that Doolittle’s journalism ultimately hurt her cause, although the thought is crossing my mind. She was definitely doing her job – reporting on newsworthy facts related to the mayor – and digging up dirt that seemingly had no end. That said, I wonder what would have happened if police had retrieved the video in a climate where Toronto wasn’t so conditioned to defend our embattled ex-mayor at the drop of a hat.
– Look forward to an upcoming movie about the Rob Ford scandal, with the role of the author being portrayed as male instead of female. How fitting that a story about Ford should be made by people who don’t particularly care to tell a woman’s story.

★★★☆☆

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Books

Earmarks

June 1, 2018

Yesterday I posted about reading habits, but didn’t mention one important thing.

When reading non-fiction books, I always make earmarks and highlights so I can easily recall the important pages. It makes finding the best sections a breeze.

It’s helpful when telling people about the book, when finding important facts, and when writing a review.

Don’t be afraid to write away in your books!

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Books

How to Read Books

May 31, 2018

I committed to reading more books this year, so I needed to learn how to read books.

I don’t mean to say that I was unable to read before, just that I didn’t. There’s always an excuse to avoid reading.

But books provide so much more information than other sources that it’s night and day. Whether it’s non-fiction wth enough space to elaborate on complicated ideas or fiction with pages and pages to explore the story, books are invaluable ways to convey a lot of information.

Maybe too much for an audiobook, which is my preferred form of consumption. Accordingly, my strategy has been this:

  • Every month, try to read two books
  • Choose one fiction, and one non-fiction
  • Listen to the fiction, and get the physical copy of the non-fiction

This is how I read books. Listening to the fiction feels like having someone tell me a story, and having the physical copy of the non-fiction lets me stop and consume the information at my own pace. And that’s how to read books. I hope it helped!

Find my Goodreads account here if you want to connect.

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Books

On Liberty – Book Review

May 26, 2018

My copy of On Liberty was given to me as a gift by an uncle who is such a pro-Trump nutjob that he’s wholly unable to stop blathering on about the man. His incessant ranting over the past year or two has alienated his friends, family, and co-workers – to the extent that he risks losing his job as a university professor because he rants and raves about Trump instead of teaching his unrelated classes. Because of this, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to avoid thinking about contemporary politics and policies as I read this book, and my enjoyment was definitely coloured as a result.

That said, On Liberty is an important book to read in order to understand the reasoning behind modern conservatism. Mill makes solid points in favour of an ideal government that is limited in scope and grants its citizens as much individual liberty as is reasonable. However, his arguments rely on some semi-contradictions on his own behalf – that the populous is smart enough to eventually understand the right side of any argument they hear, but too dumb to band together to make the best laws if given power. If the majority is so “mediocre”, how can they possible create a society where liberty is well-preserved by the law?

My biggest problem with On Liberty as an essay was that using arguments Mill makes in this very book, nearly any form of government intervention could be justified. Almost anything an individual could do has ramifications on others, and self-destructive behaviours have consequences to society even if they’re done in private. Mill admits a few examples where he isn’t sure about the right solution in some such cases, but doesn’t really explore that conundrum.

As far as political philosophy essays go, On Liberty is an interesting read as long as you can get past the language.

Stray thoughts:
1. Mill argues that a person shouldn’t be allowed to take action that would limit their freedom, but would he allow people to democratically vote for a dictator? To limit them would be to limit their liberty and challenge democracy, but the end result would do the same.
2. Mill’s defence of free speech was my favourite section of On Liberty. Although I’m not sure that I agree with the politics, he does give free speech absolutists the good name that they so desperately need.
3. Mill mentions that “wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument; but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it” as a key part of the foundation for free speech absolutism. I suppose he couldn’t have predicted a world in which half of America completely disregards the other half’s “facts and arguments” due to their nothing but their source.

★★★☆☆

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Books

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Book Review

May 24, 2018

I found The Yiddish Policeman’s Union to be inventive, familiar and surprising. Chabon perfectly captures the feelings associated with Jewish diaspora, along with the culture’s dry wit, inflection and dark humour. I particularly enjoyed the curiosities of Union’s fictional world, which are presented begrudgingly and piecemeal. I felt connected to its Jewish Sitka, even though the Jewish community that I grew up in barely extended beyond a neighbourhood.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who was also raised in a Jewish community. Strange times to be a Jew, indeed.

★★★★★

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