Saturday, September 12, 2009

Good research, but sloppy thinking.

I just finished Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.

The thesis of the book is that the fixation on low price has significant long term costs, mostly hidden. Overall, that thesis is mentioned many times but not fully developed or explored. Most of the book is historical discussions about the rise of discounters and other purveyors of low prices.

The research is mostly very well done. The sections on cheaper food, discount stores and behavioral economics are very interesting. But each chapter stretches at the end to include some meandering thoughts, seemingly attempting to tie into the overall thesis but usually with little success.

In general, the logic and arguments presented in the book are it's weakest points. The author does not seem capable of connecting the data to the thesis and continually makes weak, off-topic or totally invalid argument after argument. One egregious example is the following excerpt from the chapter on cheap food.

Left to their own devices, global food markets pretty much follow the same "race to the bottom" model followed by other unfettered markets. Subsidies and economies of scale make grain and everything it is made of -- including animals that eat it -- increasingly cheap.
The author doesn't seem to notice that the 2nd sentence actually undermines the first, since "subsidies" are not a part of an "unfettered" market. This kind of sloppy thinking dominates the argumentative sections of the book.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Yesterday I finished The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard.

Subtitled How Law is Suffocating America, it would be more accurate to say How Changes in Philosophy of Law is Suffocating America. Howard does a good job providing lots of examples how the law has become less useful, more restrictive and counter-productive. How goes through three areas where he sees this.

The first is the growth of statutory law over common law. Statutory law specifies not only the general principles or rules, but also lays out the specifics of exactly how the law is to be interpreted and implemented, sometimes in grotesque detail. This over-specification is intended to ensure the exact results intended by the lawmakers without any judgment or flexibility and produces laws that become ends in themselves.

Similarly, his second main topic details how process has overtaken progress. In particular, processes that are intended to ensure fairness and lack of bias instead create forums for endless discussion, since there is no alternative once someone asks to be heard.

His third main topic details the growth of what I will call active rights. Starting with the important civil rights laws of the 1960s, some of the same ideas were extended to cover the disabled, etc. moving from the removal of barriers for some to the active support of others. Howard does a nice job in this section of pointing out that real rights are actually defensive in nature - a shield against the law/government, while these new "rights" necessitate action by others in order to support others. As such, they are not actually rights but are instead demands.

An interesting book. I don't know if his proscriptions at the end of the book are the correct fixes, since they don't focus on the philosophical problems that led to the problems, but the problems themselves are nicely delineated. One quibble - the book could have used in line footnotes to better source it's data, rather than just using end notes.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A few minutes ago, I finished The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion by Loren D. Estleman.

I've previously read a lot of Estleman's Amos Walker mysteries, mainly when I was over-dosing on mystery novels in university. This is his first western that I have read, and I wasn't blown away. It's an OK read, a semi-comic take on the Old West, with lots of asides to the reader thrown in about it's semi-comic take.

The story is basic at heart. There is a son of wealth who decides to be a black sheep and gets into robbery, using a travelling band of actors as a cover. Along the way, they interact with a detective from Pinkerton's and a much more serious, and nastier, gang of outlaws. Mix in a few twists and turns, and you have an OK novel but not much more.

Yesterday we saw Julie and Julia, the latest Nora Ephron chick flick.

It was better than I expected. Ephron's work has consistently headed downhill since her biggest success, When Harry Met Sally, but J&J misses some of the flaws that have come to characterize her movies - overly cute dialogue, characters with no real edge to them and extreme sappiness. This is probably due to the fact that she was constrained by this being based on two real stories.

The first is Julia Child's discovery of cooking as her passion while living in France, the second is Julie Powell's story of how she got her life back on track by starting a blog and dedicating herself to cooking all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year.

For me, the most interesting take away from the movie was the contrast between the self-confident, outwardly focused Julia Child's and the whiny, self absorbed, very modern Julie Powell.

The ending is probably the weakest, as it meanders to an end after Julie completes her cooking on time and Julia gets her book published. But overall, it's an enjoyable movie, particularly if you are vulnerable to food porn binges.