Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely

I was really impressed by Dan Ariely's TED talk a while back, and when I realized there was a book it seemed like a good idea to get my hands on it and read it. Obviously there is more information in a 300 page book than you can possibly cram into a 10 minute talk, although I thought the talk did a very good job of introducing his topic and making his point - which is that we aren't quite as rational as we think we are.

I love that he leads off with his own personal story and how that got him involved in the work he does. Understanding people's motivations makes me happy. Understanding why people do the things they do also makes me happy, and this book helps you understand why people do things. For example, people will make very different decisions when they are aroused than when they are not aroused (he got people to fill out a questionnaire while masturbating). One of the most fascinating results was about how we value things we own much more highly than things we don't own. He visited a university where tickets to the football games were given out by lottery to everyone who waited in line (for up to 3 days!), and found that people who had won tickets were willing to sell them for ~$2000, but people who hadn't won tickets were only willing to pay ~$200 for them. Folks with the tickets felt like they already owned the "experience" of going to the game, while folks who didn't have tickets were thinking in terms of what they would be giving up in order to purchase a ticket.

Another point he made was how we value "Free" much too highly - and often ignore the opportunity cost of things that are free. He set up a table with chocolates, one per customer, either a Hershey's kiss for 1c or a Lindt truffle for 15c. More people chose Lindt. Then he dropped both prices by 1c, and discovered that people almost universally chose the free Hershey's kiss - even though it meant they could no longer buy the truffle for 14c. (He arranged it so that it was part of a larger purchase, so the customer already had money out and the added frustration of digging in your pocket for change vs just taking the free chocolate was removed).

I found his results very interesting and illuminating, but I was also really interested by how he conducted his experiments. Because he doesn't just launch into the final version - he explains how they designed the original experiment and then had to work to avoid the potentially confounding problems associated with that original design. Like I said at the beginning, I love knowing why people do the things they do, and I really love being walked through the entire thought process. Especially when it is as interesting and as well written as this.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Happiness Project - Gretchen Rubin

I've been reading Gretchen Rubin's blog for years now, and this is the book that came of it. Unlike the many books that result from blogs, I think this one was the other way around. Rubin spent a year trying out different bits of folk wisdom in an attempt to make herself happier. Not because she was unhappy - but because she thought that she could make herself quite a bit happier without dramatically changing her life - and she was right.

Strangely enough, given that I spent at least a year reading her blog, and that I would happily recommend this book to anyone and everyone, I don't actually like Rubin's writing all that much, and I don't think that many of the specific things that she tried in order to make herself happier would make me happier. While her writing is just fine, and actually very easy to read, her voice reminds me just a little too much of my mother. And she is quite repetitive, which is a very good general strategy when you're trying to get a point across...but makes me completely crazy. Also...with the lists. Just like my mother.

But all these are points she actually makes herself - not everyone's happiness project is necessarily the same, but that personal anecdotes are both interesting and potentially useful. And while I don't find any of her specific examples to be at all personally inspiring, the general concepts are great. Figuring out how you can have more energy - by getting more sleep or more exercise. Doing things that you enjoy, with people that you like - she started a kids-lit book club, and while I also love kids books I am just not able to start a book club. I'm really good at participating, but I'm a bad leader - it would take me so much energy to organize something like that, that I just wouldn't be able to get anything out of it. And yet, this is an example of something she points out in her book - recognize that things which other people find fun, aren't necessarily things that you enjoy.

I've been frustrated for years by people who say "You can just decide to be happy!" and then glare at me for not being as happy as they would like me to be. I don't agree with that - sometimes I can't just decide to be happy. But Gretchen makes the wonderful point that you can decide to be happier - by putting in the effort. And sometimes by just pretending to be happy (honestly it is shocking what a difference just pretending to be in a good mood can make when dealing with a little kid who just wants you to play hide and seek with them one last time before they submit to being put to bed - grumble at them and it will be another 30 minutes of frustration for both of you, but put on a cheerful face, play along for just a minute...and presto - cooperation).

Anyway, it is a wonderful book, and I think the world is a better place for its having been written.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Material World - Peter Menzel & Faith D'Aluisio

Material World is a beautiful book - Peter Mezel and Faith D'Aluisio, along with many other photographers and translators, went around the world convincing statistically average families in 36 different countries to empty all their possessions out of their houses, arrange them artistically on the street out front, and have their pictures taken. The results are stunning and quite beautiful. Included with each photo is an inventory - which was really useful because the pictures are so full of things that it is very easy to miss what you are looking at. Having a list really helped to realize what it was I was actually seeing.

They really did go all over the world, to rich countries and very poor countries, cultures that looked very familiar to me, and cultures that were radically different. They also asked what people's most prized possessions were, and what things they most wanted to acquire. Reading it and looking at everyone's stuff, I couldn't help but imagine what my stuff would look like all in a pile. It was a bit of a shock honestly, because compared with a lot of people I know, we don't actually have all that much stuff (as long as you overlook the books), but until I saw these photos I hadn't really included "washer and dryer" in the list of things that are "mine", mostly because they are things that came with our condo, and that I would leave behind if we were to sell it. One family had even arranged their photo so that their toilet was in the picture! It was a prized possession! Many of them included sheep or goats. Large plastic tubs used mainly for washing clothes. Carpets. (Does wall-to-wall carpeting count as a possession? It probably should). It really made me appreciate how fantastically wealthy we are here, and how easy it is to take for granted.

Something else I tended to do when looking at the pictures was to count the people, and then count the beds (you have to be careful and check in the end notes for the list of things which were not taken out of the houses - often at least one bed was attached to a wall). In Canada most children have their own bedrooms. In a lot of these pictures, the kids didn't even have their own beds! Many of these families were living together in a single room. Often meals get cooked over an open fire.

The story which struck me the most was the Bosnian family. Parents, daughter, son-in-law, and grand-daughter were all living together in a one bedroom apartment. In the photo were several UN soldiers with guns. Their apartment had bullet holes in the walls. The daughter and her husband used to live in a suburb, but had moved back with her parents when the fighting started. The mattresses in the photo weren't used for sleeping on, but as protection from stray bullets. These people used to lead lives very much like my own, but were now living like refuges. They had recently replaced their gas stove with a wood-burning stove (in a 3rd floor apartment!) because gas was no longer available.

Women in the Material World is its own separate book, but is separate interviews with many of the women from the Material World book. It is a much more detailed look at their lives and hopes. It really emphasized just how lucky I am. Many of these women spend their time washing clothes by hand, often in water they have carried home from the well. Sometimes in a nearby river or drainage ditch - which didn't look nearly clean enough to be washing anything in. Most of them didn't have access to supermarkets fully stocked with convenience food - often they had to harvest the grain themselves. All of them had dreams of better and brighter futures for their daughters - most of the children were in school and working hard, but in some of the poorer families the daughters were at home helping because they were needed - and the money to send them to school just wasn't available.

There isn't a single country with total equality between men and women. We're getting closer here, and there is lots of evidence of just how far we have come in these stories. Most of these women lead better lives than their mothers did, with more freedom, fewer children, more choices. It helps me understand how amazingly lucky I am, to be where I am, with the choices I have. To still be in school at age 34, with a husband who does almost all of the work around the house. Until I got to university and was in a class with almost no women, did I realize that most women don't pursue mathematics. And it is a testament to the people who brought me up that I didn't consider it a problem in the slightest. I'm now starting to see that things are often harder for women, and that things may be harder for me in the future...but I have so many wonderful female role models.

There is a huge difference between knowing that most of the world doesn't live the way we do, and actually seeing it. These photos brought these families to life. They are all supposedly "statistically average" families - I guess they have the average number of children, and an average income, but the focus of the stories and the interviews was on these people as individuals rather than asking them to describe what their countries are like. I'm not sure that the "average" person actually exists. Seeing these little glimpses of the lives of people all over the world, seeing their personalities shining through, was really wonderful.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Spindle's End - Robin McKinley

Another re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story. I love fairy tales re-told, I find it deeply satisfying when the author manages to explain some of the crazy things which happen in a way that makes sense. There's also something lovely about already being familiar with the overall shape of a story without knowing any of the details yet.

Robin McKinley also doesn't gloss over the difficulties. Katriona winds up with baby Rosie in her charge following the evil fairy's curse, needing to spirit her away so that she will be safe. Katriona is a long way from home, Rosie is very young, obviously Rosie will need milk to drink and Katriona can't provide it - but Katriona is a fairy, and happens to be unusually good at speaking with animals, and the animals happen to feel very protective of their princess, so Rosie winds up with a different animal nurse every day. This could easily wind up seeming very contrived, but this ability to speak with animals (which Katriona has accidentally gifted Rosie with), winds up being very central to the story, and the way in which they communicate is very different than people.

My favorite thing about Spindle's End is the way it talks about raising children. Possibly because I'm in the middle of dealing with a difficult 3-year-old, the tales of trials and tribulations that Katriona and Aunt endure while raising Rosie (and their whole village looks on bemused) feels very familiar. Rosie is a difficult, but not outrageously difficult child. Just on the harder end of normal. When Katriona's baby is born, Rosie is shocked that he seems to take up all the available time and energy of all the adults in the house - Katriona's response is "of course he does, he's a baby" which isn't the way children are usually depicted in fairy tales.

My next favorite thing is "baby magic". There is very little plot reason at all for this, it is just part of the way the world works. Children around the age of 3 go through a few months of wild and uncontrolled magic that isn't entirely harmless, and needs to be dispelled. The solution is to send them to stay with the local fairy (generally a single woman as fairy's don't often marry) for a month or so until the baby magic passes. As the mother of a 3-year-old, I can say that being obligated to send your child to stay elsewhere for a month or so because you are unable to deal with their behaviour seems like the most wonderful thing imaginable. My parenting book about this particular age is called "Your 3-year-old: Friend or Enemy?" and suggests that often during this stage, your best bet is to ship your child out to daycare or hire a babysitter, and spend as little time with them as possible. Of course in our day and age of over-involved parenting the thought of having the little darlings out of our sight for even a moment is supposed to be anathema... So Katriona and Aunt often have a bevy of "baby-magic boarders" around making their lives more difficult, which entertained me immensely.

I'm not entirely happy about the ending. Once Rosie's 21st birthday is approaching, and the evil fairy Pernicia starts actually getting involved in the story, I had a lot more trouble making sense of things. I think it boils down to the fact that I love Robin McKinley's world-building, and the little details of every-day life. I'm not as crazy about her descriptions, especially of magical castles and things that are not-quite-real. I had to work really hard to understand what was going on at various points towards the end of the story. I didn't get a picture in my head the way I did with "The Children's Book", and often had to re-read parts to make sense of what was going on. But the ending itself was quite satisfying. Especially the way in which Pernicia is finally defeated. The Rosie/Peony situation at the very end felt a bit contrived...but made the ending much much nicer. There's just a little bit of me that keeps thinking "should they really be allowed to do that?", but when everyone winds up much happier...it does seem entirely right.

I'm really looking forward to reading this one to Elli once she's old enough to appreciate it. Sleeping Beauty is one of her absolute favorite Disney fairy tales, and this story has quite a few elements in common - as well as having a very strong princess character who does most of the rescuing herself.