"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Saturday, September 28, 2019

PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE OUR DECISIONS (audiobook) by Dan Ariely



Published in 2008 by HarperAudio.
Read by Simon Jones.
Duration: 7 hours, 22 minutes.

Unabridged.

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist. This book looks at the assumption made by economists that people make rational decisions based on their input. Ariely delights in pointing out that oftentimes we don't make rational choices - we make irrational ones and we keep making the same types of irrational choices time after time after time.

For example, if you own a restaurant and you want to sell more of your most expensive dish, all you have to do is place an even more expensive meal on the menu. It could be that no one will ever buy that most expensive meal, but they will buy more of what used to be the most expensive meal because it now looks like a comparative bargain.

I enjoyed the commentary on the old marketing campaign called The Pepsi Challenge. In blind taste tests, Pepsi beat Coca-Cola by a wide margin. But, when the taste testers could see the cans of soda, Coca-Cola won by a wide margin. Why? Confirmation bias - taste testers liked Coca-Cola better because they expected to.


Ariely's points are good, but the time required to set up his explanations (in other words, the description of the experiments, how they tried to control for biases, etc.) were so long that they really hurt my enjoyment of the book. I understand that it is important to describe the experiments so that the reader can judge that it was done fairly, but it was, at times, quite tedious. I also think he used his best points at the beginning of the book as a hook to get you into the book but as the book went along, it got less interesting.

The audiobook was read by Simon Jones. He has an interesting and lively voice and made the tiresome descriptions of the experiments tolerable.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

It can be found on Amazon.com here: PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE OUR DECISIONS.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

INVENTING FREEDOM: HOW the ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES MADE the MODERN WORLD by Daniel Hannan



Published by Broadside Books (a division of HarperCollins) in 2013.

The author, Daniel Hannan.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Daniel Hannan is a prominent Conservative Party author and politician in the UK. His book Inventing Freedom is a celebration of the political ideas that are the foundation of what he calls the "Anglosphere".

Hannan's thesis is that the idea of government based on an evolving body of law (he probably would hate the fact that I used the word evolving, but that is what the English Common Law is) that values the rights of the individual before the rights of the state and its leaders is an English invention that has spread and amplified throughout the "Anglosphere". This type of government encourages capitalism due to its influence on the individual.

The Anglosphere consists of The United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, other former British colonies that comprise the Commonwealth. These include Kenya, South Africa, India and dozens of more countries.

The United States is included in the Anglosphere and holds a unique position in Hannan's book. He considers the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to the be the epitome of Anglosphere political theory. He also notes that the United Kingdom learned many lessons from the loss of the American colonies at the end of the American Revolution. The Anglosphere's most influential country is the United States, despite not being a member of the Commonwealth.

The book starts out strong as it emphasizes the common traits of the Anglosphere and their origins in English history. I would give the first third of the book 5 stars. It hums along and offers a fascinating take on the historical development of democracy and capitalism. It includes a very strong look at the development of the English parliamentary system.

The middle of the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of struggles over the English throne (Bonnie Prince Charlie, Oliver Cromwell, various Irish uprisings). The history is slow-paced, often repetitive and, I think, surprisingly dismissive of Irish complaints over the centuries.

If the author is dismissive of the Irish, he is enamored with the United States - to a point. It is clear that he loves my country from afar. He loves the theory of America more than actual American history. He quotes historical facts that didn't really happen, such as his claim that the American word "hillbilly" comes as a reference to the Battle of Boyne and a victory by King William III in 1690. He claims that residents of Appalachia would gather and march in remembrance of the victory every July 12. I simply cannot imagine that this would ever happen. No one in Appalachia cares a wit about a dead English king enough to march around to celebrate his victory, certainly not after the American Revolution. Or maybe they were supposed to be mourning his victory. I don't know, I lost track of what king was fighting what pretender to the throne.  Besides, the first time this supposedly old word ever appeared in print was in 1898 - more than 200 years after the battle.

When it comes to the Boston Tea Party, he misses the point completely. He notes that the taxes on tea were actually lowered before the Boston Tea Party but perhaps he doesn't realize that the same legislative flurry that lowered taxes on tea also made it legal to only purchase from a single vendor that set an artificially high price. The government giveth and the government taketh away.

He studies the larger conflicts within the Anglosphere (the English Civil War, the American Revolution) but is surprisingly silent on the American Civil War - the bloodiest conflict in American history (equal to all of our other wars COMBINED).  This war has often been labeled as THE most important event in the history of the United States and the author labeled the United States as THE must important member of the Anglosphere at this time. I expected more than a few random comments.

In one of those comments he claims the Confederacy tried to save itself by asking Queen Victoria to extend her protectorate over the the rebellious states. I have been studying the American Civil War for 30 years and I have never heard this before. It doesn't make any sense. One of the cornerstones of the Confederacy was slavery and by the 1860's, the English navy had been actively seizing slave ships for 50 years in an active attempt to stop the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery was the main reason the English didn't recognize the Confederacy - the English public wouldn't let them, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation.

I strongly agree with the author on his enthusiasm for bringing India more closely into the Anglosphere. India is a stable democracy, has a commitment to multiculturalism and is becoming more capitalistic. Bringing 1 billion more people who share many of your values into closer political and economic cooperation can only be a plus. Sadly, the last two Presidents (Trump and Obama) have mostly ignored India.

So, the short version - the book starts out strong, gets bogged down in English dynastic struggles, gets repetitive and ignores most of American history after the Revolutionary War era. I agree with the thesis of the book, but it needed editing and a bit of fact-checking. All of that makes it tough to rate, but I am going to give the edge to the strong thesis and rate it 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: INVENTING FREEDOM: HOW the ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES MADE the MODERN WORLD.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

MARVEL'S AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: THANOS: TITAN CONSUMED (audiobook) by Barry Lyga



Published by Disney in 2018.
Read by Tom Taylorson.
Duration: 10 hours, 4 minutes.

Unabridged.

This book is a prequel to the record-breaking Marvel Cinematic Universe's Infinity War movies, telling the early life story of the villain - Thanos.

The story starts with the birth of Thanos on the planet Titan. Thanos is born deformed. His face is deformed, he is freakishly large and he is purple on a planet where people are born all sorts of colors, but not purple. Purple is the color of death.

And so starts the tragic story of Thanos...

Well, it's sort of tragic.

Thanos has a horrible early life but he is pretty horrible in his own ways, even without external prompting. The author, Barry Lyga does a commendable job of breathing life into this story and making Thanos a character that the reader alternately hates and pities. The journey from Thanos: the scorned child to Thanos: the Mad Titan and Destroyer of Worlds makes sense in this telling. I found myself wishing that Lyga had had a hand in the writing of the Star Wars prequels and had told the story of the conversion of Annakin Skywalker (Jedi Hero) of Darth Vader, the evil Sith Lord. George Lucas' story is most unsatisfying on that point.

This is an excellent sci-fi novel. It was made all the more enjoyable by the reader, Tom Taylorson. He created a whole universe of voices and characters with his voice. A first-rate talent.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here:   MARVEL'S AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: THANOS: TITAN CONSUMED.

Friday, September 6, 2019

BUZZ, STING, BITE: WHY WE NEED INSECTS (audiobook) by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson



Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in July of 2019.
Read by Kristin Millward.
Duration: 7 hours, 15 minutes.
Unabridged.


Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, a Norwegian ecologist, specializing in insects, has written an interesting, often funny and thought-provoking introduction to the world of insects.

She gives the reader lots of interesting trivia, such as the story of male bugs that die at the climactic moment of mating due to their genitals exploding. She also tells of plants that trick dung beetles into planting their stinky seeds for them, the importance of wood beetles to keeping soil nitrogen-rich and the super-long (and boring) lives of the 17-year cicada. None of these insects gets an in-depth look because this book is an introduction because you can't seriously expect any book to cover the hundreds of thousands of species of insects in any sort of depth

She looks at how insects could be helpful in the fight against pollution and could be managed to help limit the use of pesticides, but that is not the real value of the book.


Most importantly, she demonstrates the value of insects to the ecosystem. Or, as she puts it, insects could live without people, but people couldn't live without insects. She shows how the entire world ecosystem depends on millions of different species of insects pollinating plants, breaking down the dead plants and loosening up the soil for the new plants. Basically, no bugs = no plants. No plants = no people.

My favorite fact in the book: Every year spiders eat so many insects that their combined body weight is greater than the combined body weight of every human being on the planet. So...leave the spiders alone if you can.

The audiobook was read by Kristin Millward. Her VERY British accent was an interesting change of pace. She helped make the already lively text even more interesting.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars our of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: 
BUZZ, STING, BITE: WHY WE NEED INSECTS.

Monday, September 2, 2019

HEAD ON: A NOVEL of the NEAR FUTURE (Lock In #2) by John Scalzi



Published in 2018 by Tor.


In this near-future sci-fi novel, a horrible disease called Haden's Syndrome has struck, leaving many people stuck in bodies that simply won't obey the commands of their brains. The response was a technological blitz that created an online world for these people (called Hedens) accessed by a technological interface. Later, these interfaces were used to control androids called "threeps" to walk around in the real world. They can actually feel what the android feels.

And, someone figured out how to turn this into a sporting event. Two teams of threeps carrying medieval weapons line up on a football field. On each team one person is "it". The other team is supposed to go after the threep who is it, bash or cut his/her head off, pick it up and get it to the end zone for a score. It has all of the violence with none of the real world consequences because the threep pilot cannot be hurt by this.

Until one of the threep pilots dies, that is.

Chris Shane is an FBI agent who uses a threep. He and his partner, the immensely crusty Leslie Vann, are on the case to figure out how the player died when there's another death. And, that's just the beginning...

This is my first John Scalzi novel and I am a bit irritated. The book I read (the UK edition) didn't even tell me that this book was the second book in a three book series - a fact that I didn't even know until I looked at this book on Amazon before writing this review.

The mystery is pretty good. A mystery in the middle of a science fiction novel is pretty unique. The threep aspect of the story was interesting but ended up making Chris Shane a lot like a small-time superhero. Threeps can't be hurt, they are strong, they can't be killed and they have instant online access. On top of that, Hadens have the power to travel very quickly by simply logging out of a threep in one location and logging into one in another location. Yes, he has his version of kryptonite (his real-life body is pretty defenseless), but it takes some of the suspense of it.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: HEAD ON: A NOVEL of the NEAR FUTURE (Lock In #2) by John Scalzi.

THE DEATH of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR AFTERMATH (audiobook) by Larry Hama



Performed by a multicast.
Duration: 5 hours, 35 minutes.
Unabridged.


Set in the days after the conclusion of the superhero Civil War, this book deals with the aftermath of the assassination of Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) on his way to a courthouse to face a judge for not complying with a superhero registration policy. If you are only familiar with the Marvel movie Captain America: Civil War, this movie will be confusing. The movie is inspired by this comic book series, but does not follow it.

The superhero world (and the regular people, too) is mourning the murder of Captain America. In particular, Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier) is on the hunt for the killer. He is not alone. Falcon, Black Widow, Nick Fury and Sharon Carter are also looking. Turns out that even though Captain America is gone, many of his oldest enemies are still on the prowl...

I really enjoyed Civil War, but the follow up was just so-so. The big plot from the bad guys was unnecessarily complicated and was not made entirely clear in this adaptation (perhaps it was more clear in the book that this adaptation came from). To me, it seemed like the villains could have achieved one of there minor goals (influencing the American Presidential election) for less money by cutting back on minions and secret bases and just throwing a crapload of money  at politicians, like the Koch brothers and George Soros do.

The production was excellent. GraphicAudio always produces stories like old-fashioned radio plays. This one has more than 20 voice actors and lots of special effects but that wasn't enough to completely redeem this disappointing story.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE DEATH of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR AFTERMATH.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

LEADERSHIP: IN TURBULENT TIMES (audiobook) by Doris Kearns Goodwin



Published in 2018 by Simon and Schuster Audio
Read by Beau Bridges. David Morse, Richard Thomas, Jay O. Sanders and the author.
Duration: 18 hours, 5 minutes.
The author, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Unabridged.

Doris Kearns Goodwin often is labeled with the title "presidential historian" and, really, that is a pretty accurate term for her. As a young historian, she worked personally with Lyndon Johnson on his presidential memoirs. She has written about both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her book Team of Rivals is a modern classic and has redefined the popular image of the Lincoln administration.

In this book, she looks at various qualities of leadership that each of these very different men exhibited. She begins with interesting pre-presidential biographies of each of these men. She focuses on Lincoln's expressed desire to become a person that was worthy of the esteem of his community. Theodore Roosevelt's ceaseless energy and desire to experience new things led him to meet all sorts of people and learn about their concerns. FDR's efforts to recover from polio were above and beyond. Also, she focuses on his habit of hiding his own problems from the people around him. LBJ's relentless push to put connect himself to people in power is interesting - a road map to power, if you will. But, it is not particularly inspiring (that comes later on for LBJ).

If the book were just those early biographies, it would be an impressive book. But, it goes on to look at an individual theme (in the case of Theodore Roosevelt, a single crisis) that developed in each man's presidency.

With Lincoln, the theme is the end of slavery. With Theodore Roosevelt, the crisis is a national coal strike (May - October 1902) that threatened to literally freeze millions of people. With FDR, the crisis is the Great Depression and his willingness to try and discard and try again in order to alleviate the suffering. For LBJ, the focus is on his push to pass Civil Rights legislation in wake of President Kennedy's assassination and the political cost he suffered in doing so. She also comments on the Vietnam War being the tragic result of his singular focus on domestic policy.

She identifies individual leadership lessons as she goes along. I have no idea how many there are because I listened to it as an audiobook and was not able to write them down as I went along.

Speaking of the audiobook version, this audiobook is read by five different readers. The author reads the opening and closing. The sections on the Presidents are each read by a different award-winning actor. Beau Bridges was absolutely excellent as the reader for the LBJ section. I wish he'd read more audiobooks.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: LEADERSHIP: IN TURBULENT TIMES by Doris Kearns Goodwin.