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Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Freakonomics

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
Publisher: William Morrow (April 12, 2005)
ISBN: 006073132X

The Basics:
Freakonomics isn’t really about any one thing, which makes it a bit hard to summarize. In essence, it’s economist Steven Levitt playing around with economic principles and basic statistical analysis to examine various cultural trends and phenomena. He tackles a variety of questions, from whether or not sumo wrestlers cheat (they do) to whether or not a child’s name determines his success (it doesn’t). He does this all through examining statistics and data, trying to find facts to back up various assertions rather than relying on conventional wisdom.

The Good:
As a person who is sick of the inability of most people to have a rational discourse on any even vaguely politicized topic, and a self-proclaimed skeptic, it’s nice to read anyone who endorses looking at hard data to make judgments about possibly controversial issues. Levitt does a nice job of not only proclaiming the advantages of this sort of rational outlook, but also of showing that when you actually examine the data, you sometimes get surprising results. Furthermore, he takes the time to point out that there is a difference between correlation and causation, and that many people mistake one for the other. Again, a nice touch.
The actual questions that Levitt asks are all fairly interesting, though some will appeal to certain readers more than others. In addition to cheating sumotori and strange names, Levitt also examines cheating teachers, the economics of crack dealers, and the effect of abortion on crime. Crime, in point of fact, seems to be Levitt’s greatest interest, and I wonder if he might not have been better served by writing an entire book on the relationship between economics and crime, as opposed to trying to touch on a number of different subjects that are all largely unrelated. It might have made for a tighter, more focused book.

The writing is solid; simple and easy, but solid. Despite being a book about economics, it’s not a terribly dense read, as witnessed by the fact that I finished it off in about two days. Granted, it was two days of heavy reading, but it was still two days.

The Bad:
For a book that’s so gung ho about statistics, there aren’t many statistics in here. Levitt claims that the numbers back up his research, but he rarely provides the data itself, which makes it difficult to tell how much he might be manipulating statistics to serve his own ends. It makes the book seem like it’s been dumbed down for the plebeian masses, which will be very frustrating to any intelligent reader who wants to look at Levitt’s data themselves. Any reader who doesn’t feel like reading the numbers can do what most of us did in undergrad—skip the numbers sections. It’s just sloppy; I can’t imagine Levitt would do this in a formal economics paper.

The book also lacks much in the way of an unifying theme, a problem that is acknowledged within the text itself; that isn’t only sad, it’s sloppy. I doubt that a writer of Dubner’s skill and an economist of Levitt’s apparent genius (more on that below) are totally incapable of thinking of and describing some kind of unifying theme throughout this work. It just smacks of laziness, even more so when there’s a half-hearted “well, I guess you could say it’s this…” sort of thing in the epilogue. Again, I have trouble imagining that Levitt would submit a paper that was this disjointed to a serious economic publication; why should the general public be treated less seriously?

The Ugly:
The self-aggrandizement. Oh, the self-aggrandizement.

Every chapter is preceded by excerpts from an article about Levitt, which all tell us what a brilliant and unconventional economist this man is. In the introduction, we’re told that he really wasn’t that interested in writing a book, unless he got to work with this wonderful journalist who had written an article about him earlier. The cover promises that we will be “dazzled” by a “rogue economist” who explains “the hidden side of everything.”

For all of this talk of brilliance and dazzling explanations, the book doesn’t seem that brilliant. It seems like a transcript of some interesting dinner conversation with a smart guy, the sort that makes you go home and think, “hey, this stuff is interesting, I ought to go pick up a book about it.” Of course, the problem here is that you’ve already picked up the book.

The fact that Levitt wasn’t that interested in writing a book in the first place is telling; this book feels like something written by a person who needed to get the work done, but really wasn’t engaged in what he was doing. Maybe he should have waited until he was a little more motivated.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Dragon and Slave


Dragon and Slave: The Third Dragonback Adventure

Timothy Zahn

Publisher: Starscape (June 1, 2005)

ISBN: 0765301261


The Basics:

Dragon and Slave is the latest addition to Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series. It’s a young adult science fiction series that follows the adventures of Jack Morgan, a young thief/con man, and Draycos, the lone K’da survivor of an expeditionary force that Jack encounters at the beginning of the series. The K’da are symbiotic beings that require a host to survive, and Draycos ends up teaming up with Jack because, well, there’s no one else available; ever since then, Jack and Draycos have been trying to figure out who ambushed Draycos’s people, and how to stop them from ambushing the main refugee fleet that’s coming towards human space. They are aided by Uncle Virge, an artificial intelligence created by Jack’s deceased Uncle Virgil, who somehow uploaded himself into their ship’s computer core. Uncle Virge is also an unrepentant con man, thief, and general ne’er do well, who feels that Draycos’s poet-warrior philosophies are lunacy at best, and certainly not the sort of thing that Jack needs in his life. Naturally, Draycos disagrees.

In Dragon and Slave, Jack and Draycos’s quest for information takes them into the slave compound of the Chookoock family, which they believe is connected to the plot against Draycos’s people. Jack gets a taste of slavery, and discovers that there are things a lot worse than being a solider.

The Good:

This is good, fun, fast-paced space opera. Jack’s plan to get information from the Chookoock compound is an act of lunacy that is rivaled only by the sort of plans concocted by the average gaming group; there’s plenty of action, intrigue, danger, and narrow escapes. It’s a good time all around.

The relationship between Jack and Draycos continues to develop in an interesting way; it’s nice that they both seem to be rubbing off on each other, rather than Draycos simply transforming Jack into a good and noble warrior. Draycos’s interaction with Uncle Virge is interesting as well, though Virge doesn’t really get very much “screen time” compared to the other two.

The Bad:

Not much, really. The writing is a bit simplistic, but that’s to be expected—the book is aimed at a younger audience.

My only real complaint is that Zahn seems to have a very fleshed out universe behind these books, and we really only get the barest hints of what it’s like. This isn’t entirely a bad thing—it gives the series the nice, pulpy sort of flavor that makes it so much fun. But all the same, I wouldn’t mind getting just a few more details; Robert E. Howard’s writing is about as tight and pulpy as you can get, and he still gets some great world-building/explaining done in his stories.

The Ugly:

The Brummga: they’re basically space orcs. Did we really need space orcs? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with space orcs, I guess, but they aren’t even INTERESTING space orcs. Which is kind of sad, because I know Zahn can make some really interesting aliens when he puts his mind to it. Oh well. They aren’t awful, just…space orcs.

If you’re searching for deep, thoughtful, provocative science fiction, read something else. But if you like space opera, pulpy sci-fi, and a general good time, this is definitely worth the read.