March 9, 2017

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review added on 03/09/2017 after second reading.

Date first read unknown. I was either a teenager or in my early 20s at the time.

What I remembered about this book before picking it up again was that Big Brother was always malevolently watching. That's about it. The particulars were absent from my long term memory. I could not recall much about either character or plot.

I think I will remember more after reading it a second time, not only because the story is fresh in my mind but because there was so much in this story that seemed to resonate with current events. We know that American intelligence agencies are fully capable of - and likely are - eavesdropping on citizens. The technology exists and the threat of terrorism provides fearful incentive to loosen privacy rights. In fact, on the radio this morning the FBI director pretty much said no one should expect privacy. So, yes, Big Brother is definitely watching and listening and monitoring.

This book also introduces the concept of doublethink. One has only to do a quick Youtube search to find video footage of Kellyanne Conway using the phrase "alternative facts" to explain away the current administrations lies. Further, by persistently labeling the mainstream media as liars, the administration is laying a foundation for those already predisposed to have faith in the goodness of the President they've elected to dismiss anything that might challenge their worldview.
This willful denial of reality on one hand and the eagerness to believe in these "alternative facts" is strikingly similar to doublethink.

Luckily, the similarities between Oceania and America end there. In reality, the press fights on and the three branches of government offer checks and balances sorely missing from The Party's style of governance. We do not rewrite history books, textbooks, or newspaper articles to suit a carefully structured present narrative. We object to torture where false confessions may be uttered simply to stop the pain.

Orwell's Oceania is definitely not the future anyone would wish to mold into being. Instead, it is a warning of power unchecked. It is a call to awareness, encouraging the reader to think critically and to fight against governmental oppression.

View all my reviews

January 26, 2017

Educating Myself on Economics

Oh, boy.  I just finished reading this here book and, boy, was it painful!  So much so that there were several times I almost marked the book DNF; Did Not Finish, for those of you unfamiliar with the terminology.  Pure will power kept me going.  That and a refusal to let a book I was really struggling to understand defeat me.

Pride.  It cometh before the fall, yes?

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler was recommended to me by an economics professor here at the university where I work.  It was one of many titles, actually, that he provided when I sent him a note in the middle of 2016 presidential election asking for books a newbie like myself would be able to grasp.  I explained to him that despite two degrees I had somehow managed to avoid taking a single economics course and had decided it was well past time for me to get a basic understanding of some general principles.  He sent back this list:

  •  how economics as a discipline analyzes how people make choices and how markets work/fail: How Markets Fail by John Cassidy (he writes for the New Yorker); 
  • Misbehaving by Richard Thaler (about behavioral economics, which argues that people are not as good at making choices as economists have traditionally assumed)
  • capitalism as an economic system: Capitalism by David Coates
  • summaries of what famous economists have said and why we still care: The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner

After a moment's consideration, I made a hasty purchase.  I picked Misbehaving because I find psychology so much more compelling than economics and that book seemed to promise a bit of psychology with its economics messaging.  That assumption wasn't far off.  The author began his pioneering career in behavioral economics by working with members of psychology departments across the academic landscape.

I will admit there were bits and pieces in the book that made me smile.  Perhaps knowing this subject is not an easy one to digest, the author does inject some self-deprecating humor along the way.  It helps.  Some.  Unfortunately, there were only a few sections of the book that really managed to break through to me.

In the section on American football, I actually found some of his observations to be of interest only because my husband is an avid fan of the sport and I thought he might find some of these studies of interest.  What I remember:

  • The teams don't make smart draft decisions because they're more interested in immediate payoff than long-term team composition.  This can be seen when they'll make poor trades to get a big name player that may or may not pan out when the smarter move would have been to let the big name player go and get more for their money in future drafts.  There was some math involved; I couldn't explain it if I tried. 
  • Statistically, not enough teams go for the fourth down.  Too many punts. 
The section on game shows gave him an opportunity to study risk assessment when big money was on the line.  He used a game similar to Deal or No Deal as his case study.  What I learned there was that people are not good at assessing loss and gains as pure math.  They use their gut instincts, which usually results in loss. Again, more math I can't explain. 

It wasn't until the end of the book that he hit on a couple of topics that I found of great interest: government and education.  I cannot summarize as well as he can state, so allow me a few quotes. 

Government andTaxes:

"One important macroeconomic policy begging for a behavioral analysis is how to fashion a tax cut aimed at stimulating the economy. Behavioral analysis would help, regardless of whether the motive for the tax cut is Keynesian—to increase demand for goods—or supply side—aimed at getting “job creators” to create even more jobs. There are critical behavioral details in the way a tax cut is administered, details that would be considered SIFs in any rational framework. If Keynesian thinking motivates the tax cut, then policy-makers will want the tax cut to stimulate as much spending behavior as possible." 

"The same questions apply to a supply-side tax cut. Suppose we are contemplating offering a tax holiday to firms that bring money home to the U.S. instead of keeping it stashed in foreign subsidiaries to avoid taxation. To design and evaluate this policy we need an evidence-based model that will tell us what firms will do with the repatriated money. Will they invest it, return it to shareholders, or hoard it, as many U.S. firms have been doing since the financial crisis? This makes it hard to predict what firms would do if they found themselves with a greater share of that cash held domestically. More generally, until we better understand how real firms behave, meaning those run by Humans, we cannot do a good job of evaluating the impact of key public policy measures."


"This intervention involved sending texts to half the parents in some school in advance of a major math test to let them know that their child had a test coming up in five days, then in three days, then in one day. The researchers call this approach “pre-informing.” The other half of parents did not receive the texts. The pre-informing texts increased student performance on the math test by the equivalent of one additional month of schooling, and students in the bottom quartile benefited most. These children gained the equivalent of two additional months of schooling, relative to the control group." 

"Considering that schools are one of the oldest of society’s institutions, it is telling that we have not figured out how to teach our children well. We need to run experiments to figure out how to improve, and have only just started doing so. What should that tell us about creations much newer than schools, such as modern corporations? Is there any reason to think we know the best way to run them? It is time for everyone—from economists to bureaucrats to teachers to corporate leaders—to recognize that they live in a world of Humans and to adopt the same data-driven approach to their jobs and lives that good scientists use.."

Perhaps the most interesting and salient quote of the book, though, is rather short and simple: " we agree about the facts, we just disagree about the interpretation."  This truism appeared continually through the book as the author and his various co-authors went up against more traditionally-minded economists in both print and in person. 

Rating this book on Goodreads is difficult for me because I don't think I can give the content a fair assessment.  I can only rate it based on my emotional reaction to the text.  This seems unfair because I think had I understood more of it better, my rating would improve.  Therefore, with this in mind, I've given this a slight bump to a three star rating.  

January 23, 2017

The Post I've Hesitated to Write

My intentions for this blog are fluid.  One day, it's a place to talk about books and writing.  The next, I've decided I don't have enough to say on those two topics alone and this space would better serve as a kind of family or personal journal.  A mommy blog, if you will.  I try not to post anything too intimate or controversial.

Yet, here I am, going where I'm not even sure I want to go.  

Politics and religion.  Feminism.  Liberal ideology and conservatism.  These are topics I normally avoid writing about without a fictional filter.  These are topics I know bring out the trolls in groves, and who has the time or energy for angry, argumentative people?  Not me.  In fact, before writing this post I debated for several days on whether or not I would close down comments.  Because while I feel compelled to write down the thoughts that are overwhelming me these days, I really do not feel the need to justify how I feel or think or believe to anyone.  Also, my beliefs are well ingrained and not so malleable.  

So, if I'm really not interested in debate, why do I feel compelled to write on these hot topics?  It's a reasonable question.  

I write because I can. 

I write because I have strong opinions on a variety of issues.

I write because I hope there's someone out there who will find a like-minded soul and feel a little less alone.  

I write because I know there are many who call those like me precious little liberal snowflakes that need to get a life, get a job, and check into reality.  They say the protesters this weekend following President Trump's inauguration are just sad that their free hand-outs are coming to an end (insultingly dismissive).  They mock the participants of the Women's March as being overly sensitive feminists who seem to be unaware that women have achieved perfect equality (they haven't). Those kind of comments tend to rile me a bit because I want to point out this precious little liberal snowflake is immersed in reality and wonders if the person complaining about those protesters and marchers has ever looked beyond their own privilege. 

You see, I check off a lot of boxes that my Facebook feed tells me conservatives alone think they fulfill.  For example, I don't get any government (state or federal) handouts.  Instead, I'm employed and make a decent living wage.  I have employer-provided healthcare.  I pay taxes.  I am Christian.  I support the Second Amendment.  I uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.  I support the police.  I condemn violence. I support veterans and active military personnel. I honor our flag. 

That a liberal can be a contributing member of society and can support some of the same things conservatives do should come as no surprise, but I imagine it does to some.  Sadly.    

This last weekend I've experienced a multitude of emotions as a plethora of negative comments streamed across my social media.  I've been dispirited, outraged, saddened, disgusted, and uplifted. I've struggled to keep my opinions to myself with mixed results.  For everything I say on Facebook or on Twitter, there's so much more I keep to myself.  

But I've reached the point where I feel more needs to be said, which brings us to this post.  This is my space in a way that Facebook and Twitter are not.  Here I can take time and space to say what I wish without worrying about bombarding my friends with yet another political post they do not want to read on Facebook.  Here I have more than 140 characters to express myself.

As I have already outed myself as Lefty Liberal, it should come as no surprise that I did not vote for Trump.  I have a great many reasons, none of which are because I'm afraid of someone taking away the free ride I don't get.  I didn't vote for Trump because I found him problematic in a number of ways.  I doubt his ability to run this country in a way that will uphold the democratic values of the United States of America.  Frankly, I think he's unfit.  

That being said, as much as I dislike it, he is my president.  At least, he will be my president until he's impeached and Mike Pence takes over the position.  And that's not wishful thinking because I really don't want to see what a Mike Pence presidency would look like, either. 

Instead of focusing on all the reasons why I detested Trump on November 8, 2016, though, I'd like to focus on what has happened since his inauguration.  When people tell me to "give him a chance," I can already point to some troubling trends that tell me he's already wasting that chance to prove he's the man I want representing this country.

1.  The birth of Alt-facts.  

A combination of photos taken at the National Mall shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies to swear in U.S. President Donald Trump at 12:01pm (L) on January 20, 2017 and President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, in Washington, DC, U.S. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (L), Stelios Varias

The emergence of Alt-facts followed Press Secretary Sean Spicer's accusations that the press misrepresented the crowd sizes of the 2009 and 2017 inauguration ceremonies in this side-by-side visual of the two events.  It was coined when Trump's best defender and spin-doctor attempted to defend Mr. Spicer's lies.

Yes, all this over something as ridiculous and petty as the crowd size at Trump's inauguration.  That our new president's ego is so fragile that his Press Secretary felt the need to condemn the media for simply reporting a demonstrable fact is alarming. I see this as a continued attack on not just the press but on American reality.  I say this because I know - just know - there will be Trump supporters who will buy into the alternative facts being spun by Kellyanne and now Mr. Spicer.  And I find this alarming.

It worries me because I wonder how far our new administration will go to control what the masses consume.

It brings to mind Orwell's 1984.

The only thing that gives me some reassurance is this amazing letter written by the U.S. Press Corps.

2.  His Aggressive and Mocking Tone on Twitter

I was raised to respect the office of the President of the United States even when you dislike the man in the chair or disagree with his policies.  Trump makes it difficult for me to respect him as a person, which means I can only respect the office in which he has been appointed and hope the man holding it does not tarnish it in such a way that we're years in repairing the damage he does to it.

President Trump's thin skin and delicate ego make headlines almost daily because he uses Twitter like some people use their best friend's sympathetic ear.   Only, instead of bemoaning the world's abuses in the privacy of one's home or over a glass of wine or beer at the local pub, he does it on the internet for the entire world to read.  I find this embarrassing.

Allow me to demonstrate and try to remember citizens and leaders around the WORLD are able to read these tweets.

These are from January 2017 and they are mild in comparison to what came during and before the election.  There have been so many petty and childish whines on his Twitter account that many people, myself included, do not find funny or acceptable.  I try to imagine a world were those tweets were written by Hillary Clinton or President Obama, and when I do I can almost hear the outcry of conservatives across this nation.  The only reason I think they excuse Trump's thin-skinned retaliatory nature is that they can't admit to any disappointment in someone they've championed for so long.

That or they delight in his petty childishness, which I find even more saddening.

Maybe this is the kind of behavior you find amusingly inappropriate when it's your friends or family, but our president should have a better temperament when operating in the public sphere.   He should show more class and restraint.  More graciousness.

3.  His First Moves

For the most part, his cabinet selections have been appalling.  I didn't realize his "drain the swamp" slogan meant he was going to fill every high level administrative position with individuals who appear to mostly oppose the mission of the departments they've been asked to run.

Then again, I have to remind myself that while I find this problematic, most of his supporters want so many different things dismantled.  What I mourn, others celebrate.  That's been the hardest lesson learned this election.

I want clean drinking water, clean oceans, and breathable air over jobs that have historically been responsible for destroying those very things. Yet, I know others are willing to sacrifice the environment by easing EPA regulations because they believe those regulations prevent jobs from being created in their states.

I want someone in charge of education that actually understands and has experience in the public sector as an educator.

I want someone to protect workers over corporate bottom lines. Someone who wasn't sued by his employees because he denied them lunches and asked them to arrive early and work late while "off the clock".

I want someone who is able to engage in diplomacy in the highest office in this nation and, if he's not up to the task, I want the Secretary of State to be able to moderate his knee-jerk, playground bully mentality.  I also want the Secretary of State to have the general citizen in mind while making decisions and not cater to corporate greed.  This pretty much sums up my thoughts on what I'm seeing in the cabinet selection process and Trump's ascension.

Not my image.  Borrowed from original copyright belongs to Occupy Democrats.

January 16, 2017

Movies I'm Willing to Pay to See in 2017

Going out to the movies is expensive.  While I'm not at all opposed to going by myself, I prefer to take the husband, our boys, my sister, or a friend with me.  While my sister or a friend will pay for themselves, my boys and the hubby tend to be on the same bill I am.  Most of the time - 9 times out of 10 - it's me and the boys, which means our tickets and concessions run anywhere from $40-50 per visit.  Because of this, we usually pick and choose which movies we'll wait to watch on Netflix and which ones will help support our local Emagine Cinema.

There are a lot of movies I'm content to wait for, that I feel lose little in terms of viewing quality by being watched on our flat screen at home.  Then there are these movies that I'm perfectly willing to temporarily pauper myself to watch at the theater.

Not shared because I'm still waiting on an official trailer...