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.