08 May 2008

Predictably Irrational

Just finished this book by Dan Ariely, which got a lot of notice when it came out, including pieces on NPR and in the New Yorker. Ariely is a social economist (or something like that) who studies the way we make decisions. And his "startling" conclusion is that, while we think we are rational, we make decisions for all sorts of irrational reasons.


While some of the observations are no-brainers, the detailed mechanics of how we make decisions (when provided) can be very interesting. For example, he talks about how we have a hard time deciding between two different things (e.g., a colonial house and a modern one), but if we have three things to choose from, and one is a defective version of another (e.g., a colonial house, a colonial house with a leaking roof, and a modern one), we tend to have an easier time, choosing the thing that is not defective, but has a defective version (e.g., the intact colonial house). Also, in general, our sense of what things are worth can be dependent on an unrelated number we have in our head (a price anchor).

The book as a whole is conversational and jokey (irritatingly so, Victor thought) but offers some interesting ideas to chew on.

A quick read.

07 May 2008

Exhausted and Relieved

I couldn't get to sleep last night because I was waiting for the results of the Indiana primary. I kept flipping between news sites and blogs, hoping that Obama would pull an upset there.

Almost, but it looks like close does get the cigar. It looks like nobody is suggesting she can win anymore, and attention is turning to the November race.

I'm thrilled that Obama has stayed ahead in spite of (one hopes, because of) a campaign that has been remarkably free of cant and catering to small interests. Brother-in-law Bob pointed out this blog entry, which pretty much lays out how I feel. Some things are more important than winning; it's nice to have a candidate who lives by that, for once.

06 May 2008

From Terns to Technology...

Sat for a while out by the lake and listened to Caspian terns as they soared over me, back and forth between Belmont Harbor and Lake Michigan. For such a beautiful bird, they make a pretty awful sound; that's not too unusual, though. Great blue herons, also great beauties, don't sound too pretty, either.

Which brings me to a poem by Charles Reznikoff, which all this puts in my mind, and which I would never be able to put my hand on so quickly were it not for the wonders of Google. This is a poem that an old teacher of mine copied out for me ages ago (and his 20-odd-year-old letter is doubtless at the bottom of a box somewhere) in response to my guilty confession that I wasn't very productive. Here's the snippet, from Reznikoff's "Jerusalem the Golden":

You tell me that you write only a little now.
I wrote this a year or two ago
about a girl whose stories I had read
and wished to meet:

The traveller
whom a bird's notes surprise--
his eyes
search the trees

And when I met her she was plain enough.
So is the nightingale, they say--
And I am glad that you do not belong
To those whose beauty is all song

How did I find this obscure poem without going into the other room and poring through the several volumes of Reznikoff sitting on my bookshelf? Simply typing "beauty is all song" and "nightingale" into the search box brought up not simply the proper book, but the page.

Google. What did we ever do without it?

05 May 2008

Bride and Prejudice

This movie is a silly idea that turns out to be highly entertaining: tell a Jane Austen story Bollywood style. It certainly doesn't lead to any profound understandings, and I can't say the script improves at all on the original, but it is fun to watch.

03 May 2008

The Man with a Shattered World

I've been a fan of Oliver Sacks for many years. Hie empathic accounts of people with bizarrely specialized neurological problems (people who can't see parts but can see wholes, people who can't remember what happened 5 minutes ago but can remember their childhoods, people who can't stop swearing) have always enthralled me. What drew me was both the way the physical details seemed to resonate so richly with more commonly metaphorical ways of experiencing the world, and also Sacks' evident humanity.

I learned about this book, by A.R. Luria, from Sacks; he often mentions Luria as a hero and cites this book as an example of what he's trying to do. It is a case study--collaboration between doctor and patient--of a man who suffered severe effects from a brain injury incurred during the Second World War; he's lost most of his memory, including his education and how to do the simplest things; however his brain's intact when it comes to his personality. He's in the worst possible position, in a way, because he's conscious of all his deficiencies, but he's almost powerless to correct them.

Almost. But he can try. The part of him that can try is intact. This is a great book to read when you're depressed and feeling sorry for yourself because it makes you feel how lucky you are. The patient tries to get his life back back by writing about his experiences: what he can do, what he can't do, what he's trying to do. It's heartbreaking but also stunning, what can be accomplished by will alone--will is pretty much all the patient has left.

A fascinating and moving book.

The Cyclist

I wanted to like this book, by Viken Berberian, better. The prose is lovely and strange (even rhyming at times), but in the end I couldn't make head or tail of it. Yes, the narrator is a prospective terrorist, yes, he's planning--with his comrades--to blow up a fancy Beirut hotel, but why is more mysterious. There's anger and determination, but the focus of those emotions is unclear. What's clear is that the character loves food and loves his girlfriend; with so much focused love, it's hard to credit the muddled motivation to violence.

02 May 2008

The Hungry Tide

This book by Amitav Ghosh kept me up past my bedtime last night, although I found it not entirely convincing. Still, parts were enthralling. Ghosh throws together an American cetacean researcher of Indian descent, a translator from New Delhi, an illiterate fisherman, and the turbulent landscape of the Sundarbans, and comes up with a tale that is part adventure story, part romance, part history and resonates with the hybrid mythology of its location throughout.

But while there is much to be savored in this novel, it flounders a bit in describing straightforward adult interactions--people explain themselves (in their thoughts and out loud) rather woodenly.

Still, it kept me reading, and I was glad to learn about a part of the world I'd barely even heard of. But I've enjoyed other Ghosh books more.

UPDATE: Days later, I'm still thinking about it, so it has had more of an impact than I'd have imagined.

UPDATE 2: Coincidentally, just read a fascinating article about the Sundarbans in a recent New Yorker. Isn't it funny how things converge?

01 May 2008

Spring is Back

We've had the nuttiest weather this year. It's only our fourth winter in Chicago, and we were told that this was more like a real Chicago winter--the past three were unusually mild.

The coldness of the winter wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part has been the reluctance of spring to really settle in. Some warm days here and there, enough to get you excited, and then all of a sudden, snow.

But today temperatures are in the 60s, the sun is out, and I'm remembering that it's never consistently nice until Mother's Day, so I shouldn't be surprised. And also, the bonus is that it typically stays nice until almost Thanksgiving, which isn't bad at all.

The migrating birds have been doing their thing regardless of the weather's fickleness; brown creepers and other woodpeckers are visible, and a variety of sparrows and wrens. In the lake, we have seen various grebes passing through; I think the buffleheads and goldeneyes (winter visitors) are gone now.

And the bunnies have been back for a few weeks already, but the grassy fenced lot on Sheridan Road, where I always look for them, has a sign posted announcing construction of a new apartment building.