Pages

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

"Unnecessary Roughness: Inside the Trial and Final Days of Aaron Hernandez" — A Review

Imagine a scandalous legal predicament that combined: the public outrage of the O.J. Simpson trial; the desperate, racist scapegoating of the Central Park Five case; and the similar psychological and criminal circumstances of the Chris Benoit tragedy. This combination would create the Aaron Hernandez trials. And the book I put forward today, dear reader, deals with that subject—”Unnecessary Roughness: Inside the Trial and Final Days of Aaron Hernandez” by Jose Baez and George Willis; and it deals with, as the title suggests, the disgraced football player’s struggle for freedom and justice and survival, all from the perspective of his attorney Baez.

A consequential reason as to why I found this book so immensely pleasing is Baez’s personality, for he exhibits traits that imply a profoundly decent, likable man. He is, first of all, abjectly charming and fiercely honest, managing to find a balance. Throughout the text he criticizes and shews the hideous flaws within our broken, corrupt criminal justice system, without fail or political correctness. On page 107, for instance, he describes how rats—those who snitch on others in hopes of extracting rewards fair or unfair—may be one’s undoing; for they create conflicts of interest, get innocents arrested for crimes they never committed (echoing Michelle Alexander), and allow dangerous criminals to roam liberally. Someone who has to operate and make a living in this system would profit from putting these things mildly. But he demonstrates courage with his bluntness.

But he balances this with charm. He gives his rivals, for lack of superior phrasing, credit whenever is due. On page 128, he compliments the prosecution for accurately displaying the timeline, relationships, and evidence for what transpired when the murder occurred. He even describes their presentation as “airtight.” At one point, he compliments the integrity and fashion-sense of the prosecution. On another note, Baez depicts Aaron as a humble, albeit flawed personality that deserved respect and dignity throughout the book, despite public perception to the contrary; he sticks to his client even after death—’till the bitter end! And I have no reason to doubt him.

Secondly, he reveals much of his personality through his prose style. He, with the perhaps invaluable assistance of Mr. Willis, employed a style that is simple, straight-forward, and, most importantly, intelligent. This style is possibly what kept me going, for he wants to, on one hand, present himself as an everyday gentleman, and, on the other, a principled intellectual; and such a balance is necessary when lawyers are frowned upon by society, so appealing to the lowest common denominator without oversimplification becomes paramount. (Especially defence attorneys handling controversial cases; and I’m still waiting for a memoir by Shannon Smith, who defended a loathsome monster who shall not be named.) There were parts, however, where this style faltered. He doesn’t use proper dialogue formatting (e.g. page 241) and employs synonymous, thus redundant, adjectives (page 138). But I don’t believe such nitpicking is warranted for an otherwise decent book.

Thirdly, I adore Baez’s sense of humour. On page 201, he tries to provoke Alexander Bradley—a backstabbing criminal testifying on the prosecution's behalf—using sarcasm and imitation. I bursted out laughing at this part. Again, this is another effort to appeal to general audiences, which is most respectable.

Finally, I feel Baez managed to convince me of Aaron’s innocence. Throughout the book he pokes holes in the prosecution’s case—such as a street sweeper potentially interfering in the crime scene, thus rendering the evidence procured thereof useless (pg. 71)—which helped convince the jury there existed reasonable doubt. (And if I were the jury, I would have voted not to convict because of the arguments presented here.) But he also explains why the police can be unreliable. Did you know, dear reader, that in only a few states, like Florida, officers are required to endure depositions under oath (pg. 60)? I feel his arguments and professional insight are without flaw.


This book, however, is not perfect. An embarrassing contradiction in the novel became a singular pet peeve. On page 2, Baez writes the following:

Aaron would often describe how he’d sit down on his bunk and rub his temples. His friends knew of his frequent migraines that began with a dull ache in his head. They had become more frequent of late. He would lie down and throw a T-shirt over his eyes to block the light shining through the small, barred window about eighteen inches wide and three feet long.
He continues on page 3:
One moment he is lost in love and thankfulness, looking forward to a future as a free man again. Then the depression and the pain must have come back.
In other words, the symptoms of CTE were obvious from the start, and Baez implies he was aware of this information around the time he agreed to take the case. Yet in Ch. 22, he claims he beheld zero evidence his client had CTE. He makes a similar contradiction shortly after on page 251, claiming he did notice CTE symptoms in Aaron. How did the editor(s) not notice this?

My last complaint: I wish more time would have been spent on the friendship between Baez and Hernandez. Despite this being a work of non-fiction, I believe the rules of character development apply here. While the last few chapters were strong, and even I felt saddened by some of the details, it would have been even stronger, as in more convincing, had he spent more time on their friendship; instead we get only some brief glimpses of Baez and Hernandez’s discussions and the latter’s time in prison. Certainly fixing this would have made the book longer—perhaps exceedingly so—but in a necessary manner.

I think Unnecessary Roughness is a good book. I enjoyed every page. And I would recommend it to everyone who wants: to find an in-depth analysis of the Hernandez scandal, to gather arguments or quotes in favor of criminal justice reform, and to seek discussions about football—its legacy, its players both famous and infamous, and its ethical problems.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

"The Room Where It Happened" by John Bolton — A Review

John Bolton's book before us is truly a warning for those sitting on the fence over the 2020 election. The text, however, suffers because, apart from the few cases that provoke contemplation or cringe in readers, it lacks a soul. By this I mean one could reduce this book to a series of short op-eds; and the effect would have been greater. To a political science junkie, most of the information is not new, and what little new John Bolton shewed did not warrant a 494-page book. A hideous temptation to skim about one-fifth of the text clouded my mind. Furthermore, I question if Simon & Schuster has any proofreaders among their editorial staff, for many errors prove humiliating. On page 312 the author writes:

"Stunningly, HongKongpeople voted in unprecedented numbers..."

This error is laughable. He meant to say "the Hong Kong people" but the editors did not deduce that. Ironically, this typo could have been their mistake. Please, Jonathan Karp, hire people to proof the works you wish to publish.

But there is one aspect of the book I did like: John Bolton's honesty. He does not dumb down or moderate his views for the sake of accommodating left-wing (or left-leaning) readers. Instead, he chooses to be frank, even if that means alienating a chunk of his audience, for he explicitly tells the world how Trump should handle foreign policy. (Hint: Trump's policy is not realistic—not radical enough.) That—plus the 46 pages of notes, shewing the research he depended upon for many claims, and his insider knowledge—makes him a credible source.

But unless you are someone who loves consuming data about the Trump administration, a political science junkie, or someone on the fence about the 2020 election and not too familiar with contemporary issues, I recommend either getting this via your local library or skipping it altogether.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

"Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future" — A Review

Much came to pass in 2011 within the realm of book writing and publication. But one example of acute interest, the subject of this review, is “Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future” by Steve Hallett and John Wright. This book features solid arguments—which the authors affirm with research and intelligent musings—but much of the text suffers from flaws they should have addressed before publication. But ‘tis an enjoyable read that one must consume with skepticism.

Provision of context is justified. Dr. Hallett teaches horticulture and landscape architecture at Purdue University. Between 2002 and 2014 he accumulated many academic awards and honors. Last year, he contributed to the Illinois Agrinews. Mr. Wright is a journalist with a solid portfolio (and past worthy of an autobiography). Before this book, he wrote "The Obama Haters," and more recently "History is Watching: How Do We Respond to Trump?" These distinguished backgrounds led me to develop a theory: that Dr. Hallett conducted the research while Mr. Wright handled the writing. But I do not have sufficient evidence for this.

In summa, Dr. Hallett and Mr. Wright presented before their readership a thesis: peak oil—that the black substance is scarce (who would have guessed?) and, eventually, cannot be extracted, meaning supply will not meet demand—shall bring harrowing devastation to global markets and international political stability. Perhaps not of Biblical proportions, but close enough.

They justify their predictions with patterns and data. They note, for illustration, how ancient civilisations—from the Easter Island inhabitants to Medieval Europe—contributed to extreme environmental decay, namely deforestation, to secure short-term economic success. Dr. Hallett and Mr. Wright also noted other human predicaments. Tying subsidised fishing to the tragedy of the commons. Or the Soviet Union, depending upon petroleum to compete with America, collapsing even after the humiliating de facto colonisation of a resource-rich country like Afghanistan.

What is the greatest strength of this book? Well, dear reader, it is the research and deduction. For the authors justified their points with credible sources and logic. All of which you can verify with their thirty-one pages of notes at the end. They also draw upon many fields like economics, ecology, history, politics, and psychology; ‘tis fitting, because the concept of peak oil intertwines them all by nature. Had they not shewn us their references (like some people. Why am I coughing?) then I would question the reliability of "Life Without Oil." We must, after all, reject assertions made without reasoning or evidence.

The second positive, however, stems from the smooth writing style. Though sporadically passive, the book balances academic verbosity with conversational brevity. The style, therefore, is dynamic, which is a nice touch. But while the authors confess to a pessimistic outlook, despite reasonable solutions like nuclear energy. (Well, not reasonable to the commons.) But they balance out the melancholy with cheesy humour. Even I admit to laughing at the absurd descriptions of real-life events. (Their depiction of the “war” over fisheries between Iceland and Britain is comically poetic.) Dear reader, you shall be glued to that chair upon reading this.

But while I admire how well-researched this text is, there are humiliating o’ersights that should not have survived the editorial processes. (If there were any beyond the final draft.) You can find my favourite example on pages 189-90, where Dr. Hallett and Mr. Wright penned:
Fritz Haber was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1920 for the invention of an industrial process for fixing nitrogen—which must surely qualify as an evolutionary-level invention. The first major application of the Haber process was not in agriculture, however, but in warfare, and Fritz Haber has a very nasty legacy. Cut off from dwindling supplies of Chilean guano when war broke out in 1914, the German Empire used the Haber process for the production of nitrate for bombs and then for the synthesis of chemical weapons in the trenches. Later, Haber would participate in the manufacture of Zyklon B, the poison used to murder millions in Nazi concentration camps. When the Haber process became the mainstay of the fertilizer industry, however, we conveniently overlooked his contributions to genocide and lobbed a tainted Nobel Prize at him.
How should I begin? First, per The Nobel Prize organisation, Fritz Haber earned his award for his process in 1918 (picking it up in 1919) not 1920. If you see this as nitpicking, fine, but, by attacking his character, the authors make notable fallacies. While ‘tis true Zyklon B was his doing, he perished in 1934, eight years before the Nazis used it in concentration camps. And he did seek to shew his patriotism for Germany by developing chemical weapons, yes, during a war with Britain, which implemented analogous measures. What genocide did he knowingly contribute to? I am aware they despise how industrial agriculture exploits his discoveries. However, Haber is not responsible for how entities, private or political, abuse his inventions.

This book scatters comparable factual, fallacious mistakes. I will give them the benefit of a doubt, but readers already skeptical of environmentalist claims shall not. For it seems like an unwarranted, arbitrary attack made by biased individuals. How the hell did they mess this up? And speaking of bias, I wish they spent more time addressing counterarguments. In a post-truth era—where, as Pew Research notes, millions deny man-made global warming, and therefore likely reject the solutions Dr. Hallett and Mr. Wright proposed (which align with climate activism)—'tis an imperative, necessary endeavour.

This book shall convince, or empower, those already in agreement, inclined to accept environmentalist claims like myself, and certain fence sitters, but even they must read this with caution because of the errors. Otherwise, find another book.

References

Bowlby, Chris. Fritz Haber: Jewish chemist whose work led to Zyklon B. British Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-13015210.

Fagan, Moira, and Christine Huang. A look at how people around the world view climate change. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/.

Fritz Haber – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1918/haber/biographical/.

Gassing Operations. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/gassing-operations.

John Wright’s official website: http://www.johnswright.com/index.html.

Rebuttal Sections. Purdue University. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/common_writing_assignments/argument_papers/rebuttal_sections.html.

Steve G Hallet's bio: https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/pages/profile.aspx?strAlias=halletts.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Books I Am Reading for July, And How I Set a Reading List

I have always held an interest in reading, for both entertainment and wisdom, though as I grow older, I prefer the latter (particularly with books). In recent times, my adoration for reading intensified. As such, I felt the need to develop a reading schedule; one so that I can fit in many a book without sacrificing comprehension or too much time. That is why I create a list of texts I wish to read in advance. A personal goal of mine is reading roughly two books a week—not counting the periodicals I read, from The Greenville News to Creepypasta. There are, however, some books that are gargantuan in length, and thus mandate more time, but others can take a single day.

The topics I am interested in the most are: history, language, philosophy, political science, psychology, and speculative fiction (especially horror). I refer to these interests when researching and traveling, hoping to formulate a solid list of books. (Subconsciously, I like to break up my interests into categories, like "practical politics," or arguing for specific policies and why, and "political theory," including the works of Niccolò Machiavelli.) After scanning used bookstores, referring to the library catalog for new releases, and scrolling through recommendations on Goodreads, here is my reading list for July-August:
  1. "The Room Where It Happened" by John Bolton (I finished this book a couple of days ago and I plan on reviewing it)
  2. "The Righteous Mind" by Johnathan Haidt (plan on finishing this by July 12)
  3. "The Outsider" by Stephen King (plan on reviewing this)
  4. "1984" by George Orwell
  5.  "This is Our Fight" by Elizabeth Warren
  6.  "Legality and Legitimacy" by Carl Schmitt

Sunday, May 31, 2020

"President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination" — A Review


Richard Reeves wrote the biography “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination,” having it published in 2005. The book itself is informative, gripping, with a straight-to-the-point but eloquent writing style, emphasis on the humanity of the Gipper, and the domestic and international politics of the 80’s. Indeed, the topics explored by Mr. Reeves include how America dealt with the Israeli occupation of Lebanon; the Shakespearean drama in Congress over budgeting; the relationship between Gorbachev and the U.S. President; and the internal struggles among the cabinet. Riveting information packs each page. In this regard, the book is a masterpiece worthy of those interested in political science, history, and the Reagan presidency itself. This book, however, is not perfect.

Although the author claims to “reconstruct a President’s world from his own perspective” (page xiii), he reveals his personal biases throughout the book. Two pages after this quote, Mr. Reeves pens, “President Reagan did not win the Cold War and end communism, but he knew it was going to happen.” This passage should invoke cringe and nausea in historians. Dear reader, you are aware of the current occupation in Afghanistan, yes? During the Reagan presidency, the Soviet Union attempted a comparable occupation. WorldAtlas reports the natural resources of Afghanistan includes: copper, natural gas, and petroleum; and “Other minerals include lithium, marble (which brings in about $15 million through exports every year), rare-earth elements (whose value is not yet known), uranium, and others.” Picture a world where the Soviets obtained unlimited access to these resources, and the labour of Afghanistan, like they did in Eastern Europe. They could’ve revived their economy with ease, which means they could still be here. By stopping the Soviet invasion, Reagan gave assurance to the world the Soviet Empire would collapse. One of many examples.

Another complaint includes the over reliance upon the same sources, many biased. Funnily enough, he does this after confessing to and denying bias.

I might release an article that explores how to write a proper biography; if I do so, I shall elaborate upon the notion that biographers must, even if they have a personal agenda against the person they are writing about, avoid bias if they wish for serious reactions.

Overall, Mr. Reeves wrote a decent book. I enjoyed it. But it is not completely reliable, for it is informative yet biased.

References

Bada, Ferdinand. "Natural Resources Of Afghanistan." WorldAtlas, Apr. 15, 2019, worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-major-natural-resources-of-afghanistan.html.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

"Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration" — A Review


Today I finished the book “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Edward Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Amy Wallace co-authored the book. I find this text admirable, for Catmull put together a piece that combines charm, history, and management to entertain, inform, and inspire readers.

I shall begin, dear reader, with the writing style. Mr. Catmull balances, with near perfection, elegance and simplicity. With American authors, this accomplishment is a rarity. Intelligent writing, without pretentiousness or bombast, is desirable. And this is best done via variety in sentence length, structure, and vocabulary. Allow me to provide some examples:
"I walked away from [the University of] Utah with a clearer sense of my goal, and I was prepared to devote my life to it: making the first computer-animated film. But getting to that point would not be easy. There were, I guessed, another ten years of development needed to figure out how to model and animate characters and render them in complex environments before we could even begin to conceive of making a short—let alone a feature—film." (Page 20)
"This is the puzzle of trying to understand randomness: Real patterns are mixed in with random events, so it is extraordinarily difficult to differentiate chance and skill. Did you arrive early to work because you left on time, planned ahead, and drove carefully? Or were you just in the right place at the right time?" (Page 156)
"Typically, people imagine consciousness to be something that is achieved inside our brains. Alva Noe, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley who focuses on theories of perception, has suggested another way of thinking about consciousness—as something we do, or enact, or perform in our dynamic involvement with the world around us. Consciousness, in other words, happens within a context." (Page 180)
Catmull, in certain ways, demonstrates his genius temperament and education—but he bears in mind his actual audience: the like-minded among the commons. Arthur Amis and comparable British authors achieved this balance. And I wish American authors—like Mr. Catmull and Mr. Stack have—did as well.

What gives this book extraordinary merit is the useful insight. Mr. Catmull, without a doubt, has profound, intriguing experiences. He discusses: his business relationship and friendship with Steve Jobs; computer programming in the 60’s and 70’s; and the challenges faced while creating films like The Incredibles. And this ties into the management aspect, where Catmull provides useful advice for business majors, inspiring entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers. A summary of his views—which the through, riveting tales and deductions scattered throughout compliment— follows:
"Candor, safety, research self-assessment, and protecting the new are all mechanisms we can use to confront the unknown and to keep the chaos and fear to a minimum." (Page 185)
I recommend this book for:
  • Business majors
  • Computer science majors
  • Inspiring entrepreneurs
  • Managers in training
  • Those pursuing creative fields

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

"The Grey Lady of Westwick" — A Review


A hideous sin in writing is predictability. If someone predicts most, or all, plot points in a story with profound accuracy, the quality suffers. What sin might worsen that? A weak, unwarranted writing style; the combination of these two offences will make the tale a chore, not a story. I discovered a recent example: “The Grey Lady of Westwick” by ShadowintheLight23, published on March 25 of this year by Creepypasta. It is a mess. So, prepare to dive into a swimming pool that isn’t filled with chlorinated water, but acid composed of awkwardness, foolishness, and immaturity.
Before we begin looking over the story, dear reader, I want to start a game. Grab a drink—any type you wish, though alcohol will ease how painful this is—to play. For every cliché occurrence mentioned here, I want you to sip on your beverage.

The story begins at a campfire—drink—whereon the character introductions take place. First is John Watkins— our protagonist, an adulterer and alcoholic—with a wife who stalks him for his escapades. Then a hyperactive, taller gentleman—Regan Hinchcliffe—comes. Alan Mitchell, an agricultural entrepreneur, steps in. Before long, an elderly Noah Simmons, confined to a wheelchair, and an Oxford snob, Maximillian Nichols, are present. What use do these character descriptions serve in the long run, apart from John’s? Nothing. I would think these personality traits, including their careers, would affect the tale. But no. The only relevance they have is they’re members of a club, and they’re on a countryside retreat—that is two drinks.

Maximillian tells the club members a local legend—drink—about a vengeful spirit—drink—who kills men who wrongs women—drink. Her name? The Grey Lady of Westwick. Another worthless character, John Wickman, found himself murdered within the area she haunts—drink—which spooks everyone but Mitchell, a friend—drink. Nobody believes Maximillian—drink. Also, John is an obvious target—drink up.

John has trouble sleeping, so, he decides to head home—drink—and on his way he beholds a stranded young woman who needs assistance—drink. He offers to help with lust—drink—and upon inviting her into the car, he begins asking questions to see if she is worth bedding. She begins smoking a cigarette and displays her physical abnormalities without reason—drink. Then, when she uses John’s real name, despite using a fake name (Adam King) to make himself more alluring, he wants to escape. But this woman is not a moron, and she has little patience. She murders him with a butcher knife—drink. Of course, this woman is not the Grey Lady of the West, but a generic assassin hired to kill John on behalf of another woman, I presume the wife. Ironic, by trying to avoid a cliché, the author uses a clichéd twist—so, take a big gulp.

Upon first reading “The Grey Lady of Westwick”, I predicted every plot detail. The story going one of two directions—the spirit is real or just an assassin—wasn’t difficult to call. Dear reader, if your vision is clear and you comprehend these words, and my apologies to spirit drinkers for the 15 shots, I pray you see the harm clichés can bring. Predictability is a sin because it makes a tale tedious and forgettable and worthless. Now I will get into the second worst aspect: the writing style. 

The writing style is poor. It isn’t Sonic.EXE levels of poor, for that would ensure this tale gets but a single star; it is readable, but awful enough to warrant a critique. First, the grammar and punctuation. I’ll give ShadowintheLight23 credit for not messing up in this area too much, but two I noticed involve not placing a comma after introductory words(e.g. sometimes, so, maybe). Not doing so is ill-advised according to modern standards.
"Sometimes, she would awake…"

"Maybe, she was suspect of his…"
Second, the adverbs. Adverbs aren’t a negative, for they sometimes promote clarity and accuracy. (See what I did there?) However, if an adverb doesn’t enhance the meaning of a sentence or create a Byronian effect, they, as part of an anti-clutter regime, must face deletion. Most of the adverbs ShadowintheLight23 uses can, upon removal, improve the style, adding maturity and authority to the prose. Just examine this:
"That time, though, he really had been screwing around — literally."
This feels like a diary entry from a high school student. Using “really” adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence; “literally” is redundant because of the previous adverb and the paragraph’s context. And the more I think about this, the more I find it insulting. Here is a revision:
That time, though, he had been screwing around.
Much better, isn’t it? Less clutter and more sagacious. This brings me to my next point: the passive voice and prepositional phrases galore. “The Grey Lady of Westwick” is not a first-person narration where the speaker is unreliable, but a third-person omniscient narration. Therefore, unless the narrator is an all-knowing deity with personality flaws— which presents philosophical conundrums—he, she, or they must be dependable and authoritative. (But save some room for dramatic writing.) Shadowinthelight23 appears to not comprehend this.

Passive voice is useful when: the subject of the sentence is unknown, the unreliable narrator wishes to deflect responsibility, when vagueness is preferable, or in scientific reports. Does this tale fit any of these qualifications? No. But people prefer active voice because it promotes certainty and carries an entertaining aesthetic by showing (not telling). The use of passive voice makes many sentences seem clunky. Observe:
"His vision blurred as he watched it ripple — he was drunk."
"He wouldn’t be surprised if she followed him."
"John’s curiosity, despite itself, was peaked."
Let me propose revision for the first example:
Despite promising Sarah he’d remain sober, he drank until his vision blurred, face became blood red, and spoke incoherently.
Sure, this sentence is longer, but it is superior. Why? By using active voice, I showed readers he defied his wife by displaying symptoms of drunkenness, instead of using passive voice to tell them. In future works, Shadowinthelight23 should be mindful of passive voice. And prepositional phrases, which come out of the woodwork, worsening the clutter. Observe the fourteenth paragraph:
"Sitting with him was Noah Simmons in an armchair… who’d been in the club before most of them… was his engagement in the conversation… an academic from Oxford who came out to the country on weekends to get extremely drunk and illuminate his companions on topics of which they knew nothing..." 
Read this out loud, dear reader, and you shall immediately realise this is a revolting exhibit of absurdity. An exercise in obscurity.

The worst part is reading “The Grey Lady of Westwick” out loud. There is no entertaining or engaging flow or rhythm to speak of. While this story is cumbersome and predictable, it is bland, thus despicable. I hope Shadowinthelight23 takes these criticisms to heart for the next tale, because “The Grey Lady of Westwick” is a chore with no merit.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness" — A Review

 “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” is a book by professors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Published in 2008, the professors argue for libertarian paternalism, defined on page 5 as a system that strengthens freedom of choice, but uses state and private sector incentives (nudges) to improve decision-making. They combine psychology and economics—behavioural economics—in doing so. Today, I effectuate the argument this book is spectacular, despite a few flaws.

Relying on a ravishing and formal yet simple writing style, the book is easy to understand, but it isn’t insulting (they don’t state the obvious regularly). The professors keep the reader engaged with thought experiments and good examples of their policies in action. When they propose solutions, they’re reasonable, for they’re rooted in skilled research. I will provide two examples.

On pages 19-22, the professors define the brain’s Automatic and Reflective systems that form much of the basis for their ideology. They challenge you to make their point stronger.
To see how intuitive thinking works, try the following little test… Begin by writing down the first answer that comes to your mind. Then pause to reflect.
1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _____ cents
2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____ minutes
3. In lake, there is a patch of lily pads… the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half the lake? _____ days...
… Most people say 10 cents, 100 minutes, and 24 days. But all these answers are wrong. The correct answers are 5 cents, 5 minutes, and 47 days, but you knew that, or at least your Reflective System did if you bothered to consult it.
The next example comes from page 60:
Consider Texas’s imaginative and stunningly successful effort to reduce littering on its highways. Texas officials were enormously frustrated by the failure of their well-funded and highly publicized advertising campaigns, which attempted to convince people that it was their civic duty to stop littering… Public officials decided that they needed a “tough-talking slogan that would also address the unique spirit of Texas pride. Explicitly targeting the unresponsive audience, the state enlisted popular Dallas Cowboys football players to participate in television ads in which they collected litter, smashed beer cans… and growled “Don’t mess with Texas!… 
About 95 percent of Texans now know this slogan… Within the first year… litter in the state had been reduced by a remarkable 29 percent.
I wouldn’t have used those ugly adverbs, but I digress.

These are just two examples of this brilliance. Many intriguing examples are everywhere in the book. And what would a book of this nature be without humour? They cite anecdotal, but hilarious, examples of their ideas in action. At some points, they use episodes of the Simpsons to drive the point home in a funny, but nostalgic (for many), manner.

But the professors avoid bias. They have an entire section for countering counterarguments: addressing criticisms, acknowledge flaws in their proposed system, and offer solutions.  They favour creating “rules of engagement that reduce fraud and other abuses, that promote healthy competition, that restrict interest-group power, and that create incentives to make it more likely that the architects will serve the public interest" (page 243). Additionally, they advocate for transparency (page 247). By being fair and honest, and dedicating time to researching their points, this book earns additional points.

However, the books has issues. First, let us address the faults that aren’t the fault of the professors. Their outdated approach to healthcare, and the defence of the unstable and predatory mortgage system of the late 2000’s, aged like expired milk (pg. 100-101, 136-137).

In the Afterword, they acknowledged the Great Recession, which made news after the book’s publication. They claim it was the worst recession since the Great Depression. (As I pen this, I find this hasn’t aged well either.)

There are some absurdities simple proofreading should’ve corrected. To illustrate this, on page 59 the professors write:
A dramatic example is communism in the former Soviet bloc, which lasted in part because people were unaware how many people despised the regime.
So, the Soviet regime survived because the people didn’t know how much they themselves despised the government? This is a contradiction. Occam’s razor suggests government brainwashing is the culprit. (Much like North Korea today.) Certain conditions in the 1980’s helped awaken the masses.

But the overall book is a splendid read. I recommend this book to copywriters who must nudge consumers to make a living. Those interested in psychology, economics, and/or marketing should read it, including students and teachers/instructors. What would I do if I taught a course related to these subjects? I’d be tempted into making this book a required reading. That is how much I recommend it.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"It's How We Play the Game" by Ed Stack — A Review


“It’s How We Play the Game” is a business memoir by Edward Stack, the CEO and Chairman of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Published in 2019, Stack shares with the world his life; how it relates to his company and what shaped his current mentality. By incorporating elements of the self-help genre, following a breath-taking writing style, and using immersion with profound success, Stack presents the world a non-fiction masterpiece. This quote from page 21 confirms this analysis.
“No, success is all about what’s inside you, and the most important element of success is simple perseverance—often tedious, sometimes soul crushing, but the great differentiator in whether smarts, talent, and education add up to something bigger.”
Is that not convincing enough? I’ll elaborate.

One aspect of this book, worthy of praise, is the charming writing style. The book uses sentence variety, so it doesn’t bore you with either dull, repetitive short sentences or ugly wordiness and bombast. The prose is magical; it's something discovered upon reading it out loud. Stack challenges you as a reader with longer sentences while using short sentences to give certain details emphasis, making his style engaging. I noticed zero dramatic or distracting offences against grammar, flow, or readability. The economic and management aspects are easy to read. I expected this balance from Stack, a well-educated businessman. In an age where books for an adult audience are reminiscent of the Magic Tree House series, Stack’s style is ramen for the mind.

This memoir also finds the perfect balance between objectivity and subjectivity. For example, Stack gives us a fair observation of Richard Stack, his father and founder of Dick’s. Richard refused to quit after his first business failed; encouraged his son to toil at Dick’s Sporting Goods; had a pleasant sense of humour; stuck with his son until the end. Richard also possessed a fiery temper; manipulated situations, even encounters with the law, in his favour; suffered from addiction; actively berated his children. Stack comes across, to me, as someone who loves his father despite the critical flaws; without pretending those flaws don’t exist. This balance makes the book feel human.

That leads me to another compliment: the immersion. He depicts his situations as relatable. He takes readers back in time so they may grasp the situation in full. On page 35 he writes:
“Everyone smoked, and back then they smoked in the store, which might seem incongruous with a place devoted to sports; at the time, however, even pro athletes smoked in public. It wasn’t unusual to see my dad go through three packs of Pall Malls a day, with a cigarette between his fingers as he roamed the floor…”
Beautifully written! And this passage accomplishes two things. First, it guides readers into a time where smoking was, while deemed healthy, common and sometimes promoted; an alien concept to young American readers who behold “No Smoking” signs at every building. Second, most of us know a smoker. My own father smoked cigarettes since his late teens. He quit recently. The book explores the consequences of smoking (and another deadly addiction). So, I can relate to this predicament—because when I was a child, I feared my father enduring what Richard goes through—and others will too.

The way he frames his situations—even his encounter with Gail at a nightclub, found in pages 78-79, or the deaths in his family—reminds readers that, yes, Edward Stack is wealthy. But he’s still human. This contributes to the self-help aspect; Stack isn’t looking down on you, he wants you motivated—to act and make a difference in your life. It makes me think of how artists depicted the upper class in the 18th century. (Think Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s oil panting: Marie Antoinette and her Children.)
One final compliment: the structure is superb. In the introduction to this book he mentions the topic of mass shootings and leaves unfamiliar readers with one question: how does he handle it? By the end of the book, he reveals that answer with admirable honesty. The book refuses to waste your time by staying on topic, but it doesn’t pull punches either.

This non-fiction book is a work of art. If you want a motivational text then you should buy it. This should inspire regular people, business majors and graduates, and entrepreneurs alike. I found inspiration in various ways from reading this.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Star Wars: Death Troopers — A Review

In truth, I wanted to adore “Star Wars: Death Troopers” by Joe Schreiber. Since my childhood days, I’ve loved the Star Wars franchise. I watched all the movies, played the video games, and dabbled with the novels in the early-to-mid 2000’s. I’m fond of the horror genre; while I don’t find zombies frightening these days, many great stories—with a creepy atmosphere and characters—came from their use, such as the Walking Dead. Natural to me, it was, that the idea of fighting off Stormtrooper zombies appealed to me. This book excited me. The problem with Schreiber’s work is an excellent premise with mediocre execution. It isn’t bad—it gets so much correct—but the central focus of the story almost ruined the overall experience.

There’s two brothers imprisoned on the Imperial Prison Barge Purge: Trig and Kale Longo. As they endure prison drama—including persecution at the hands of a Delphanian criminal—a brute captain named Jareth Sartoris and a team of officers, engineers, and medics awaken a force (no pun intended): a virus that makes victims experience psychosis and illness, then turn into zombies. The virus gives Trig and Kale an opportunity to escape. Zahara Cody, the chief medical officer on the Purge, develops an anti-virus vaccine with the help of Waste—a 2-1B surgical droid. She encounters two smugglers on her way to assist the infected; they doubt the virus story at first… Until one of them almost turns. In time Trig, Kale, Cody’s, and the two smugglers team up. Can they survive the outbreak?

The writing style of Schreiber is the strongest point of the novel. He uses sentence variety to keep the reader engaged, without resorting to redundancies or pretentiousness. Though cases of errors or weak writing (i.e. inappropriate use of passive voice) are present, that mattered little in the grand scheme. Besides being engaging, Schreiber’s writing style compliments an immersive, melancholy atmosphere that fits the novel. The best horror fiction relies on atmosphere to terrify readers. A scene of someone’s murder isn’t scary on its own, but can be terrifying if the atmosphere is gloomy, oppressive, and/or uncanny. Many points in the novel demonstrate this.

Trig Longo had come to dread the long hours after lockdown, the shadows and sounds and the chronologically unstable gulf of silence that drew out in between them… Sometimes he would actually start to drift off, floating away in the comforting sensation of weightlessness, only to be rattled awake—heart pounding, throat tight, stomach muscles sprung and fluttering—by some shout or a cry, an inmate having a nightmare (Page 3).
The first thing [he] felt was the pain of the young ones. It came at him from everywhere at once, a threnody of wounded voices, assailing him from all sides. He didn’t know what it meant except that something bad had happened here aboard the barge, and now it was happening to him, too. In a horrible way he felt as if he were part of it, complicit in these unspeakable crimes, because of the injection that the woman had given him. The sickness she’d implanted under his fur, under his skin, was alive and crawling through him, a living gray thing going up his arm to his shoulder to his throat, and the sickness clucked its tounge and whispered, Yes, you did those things, yes, you are those things (Page 102).
He’d first seen them [dark figures] coming right after all the shooting had died down, only a handful at first, then more, now dozens—traveling en masse, a single organism made up of countless smaller components… They were coming for him (Page 176).
Schrieber's talent is conveying uncanny atmospheres that make someone’s stomach turn.

Yet the weakest point of the novel almost ruins the atmosphere. The plot.

The plot does little to distinguish itself from other zombie tales. It relies upon subgenre tropes—including a biological weapons program to explain the zombies—that makes it predictable. It’s not cliché or bad, per se, but it’s problematic when the characters, the actual focus of this novel, are one-dimensional, lacking depth, memorable personalities, or proper development. Summarising these characters in ten words or less isn’t difficult. Trig is a whiny, cowardly bastard. Kale is the older, braver father figure. Zahara is merely the “strong, independent woman”. Sartoris is a selfish brute. Waste (the droid) spews scientific information. Yet the novel expects readers to care about these characters. I’ll confess that I wanted to stop reading by the end because I couldn’t care, finishing it with a “get this over with” mentality.

The crew that gets the virus first were so forgettable that I couldn’t recollect their names without going back again. Their purpose? Getting the virus and spreading it. Why have characters—with names or personality traits—if their meaning is death within a short time span? Might as well have made them generic Stormtroopers.

Real-life people have complex personalities, and traumatic events, counting absurd ones like a zombie outbreak, would impact them. Yet none of the characters change in any meaningful way by the end. (I can’t elaborate without spoiling anything.) Schreiber is a writer with great strengths but haunting weaknesses. At least this novel is evidence of that claim. I’ve yet to read his other works.

This story would’ve been better off as either a short story or novella. Had the characters been fleshed out, which might’ve required making the novel longer, the story would’ve been fantastic. In its current (and only) form, it’s a mediocre text that isn’t bad because of the great and memorable moments. You want a quick read that might induce nightmares? This text is worthy of you. If you want a text with decent drama, look elsewhere.

"The Legend of Carter Bale" — A Short Story Review



The short story “The Legend of Carter Bale”—penned by Shelton Fisher—is a fine example of mediocrity.

The story takes place during the Great Depression. Carter Bale, a moonshiner within the Riverbend Hooverville's, creates a criminal empire. In addition to defying Prohibition, he tortures people who gets in the way. At some point he tortures the wrong lad; he removes the eyes of a young boy in the woods. It's revealed his mother is a witch. One night, using magic, she removes Bale’s eyes to give her son his vision back—and making the criminal disappear like a rabbit in a hat.

The predicament with this tale is the style. It feels like a second draft—a first one in certain areas. The style is bland, and elementary school teachers should use it for proofreading assignments. The reader discovers bad writing in the first two sentences. The author doesn’t comprehend, in its entirety, the concept of proper nouns. The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression are both proper nouns, thus demanding capitalisation. Not doing this is incorrect and unprofessional. A third grader with a D in English should find this laughable. Such schoolboy errors are persistent throughout the short story, and readers will note the wordiness and punctuation that is suitable only for RPG's.

Had he penned a third draft—or at least revised the current draft enough to leave that impression—with critical contemplation, this tale would’ve been better. (An English textbook used for K-5 students would’ve been useful for self-editing too.)

As for the story itself, there's nothing noteworthy. It’s your typical revenge tale with a moral. Nothing new is present. The setting is interesting; desperate people resorted to crime to afford food—taking advantage of Prohibition—hence the Italian Mafia’s heavy activity throughout the 20’s and 30’s. But Fisher should’ve made the setting more useful. This story could’ve taken place in modern-day Detroit with a few minor tweaks. There are some inconsistencies present. At the start the story implies Bale is intelligent, but he decides to sip moonshine that, obvious to a rational mind, is ruined and burnt? A third draft or heavy revision could’ve fleshed out the characters in this story more, even if attachment is undesirable.

Being a standard revenge story with schoolboy errors and a poor structure, “The Revenge of Carter Bale” is worthy of two people: those suffering from acute boredom and teachers finding samples for an English class. I’m aware of repeating myself, but the author should’ve written a new draft (or revised this one) before sending this to Creepypasta. Being free to read doesn’t vindicate mediocrity. Yet here we are.

You can read the short story here: https://www.creepypasta.com/the-legend-of-carter-bale/