Parcel Here!

Heavy but weighs zero grammes
Heavy but weighs zero grammes

This week’s read/watch/listen parcel starts with a little introduction of a new book The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins and a Q&A session that follows under Berkeley’s Arts & Letters programme on FORA.tv. The site holds a wonderful collection of intellectual and academic videos from different events and places.

The book itself was recently published and praised by The Economist for its educational value. To be frank I’ve never read Richard Dawkins but from his readings of The Greatest Show on Earth in the video, I reckon I’d enjoy his style of demonstrating his arguments using long analogies that are probably closer to the heart of readers (rather reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches).

He compares Creationist to Holocaust Deniers, those who argues that Evolution is full of gaps to a stubborn lawyer who declares that more evidence is less. He questions the plausibility of Marsupials engaged is some sort of migration programme where they emigrate en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia – such was the witty humour that Dawkins use to entertain readers and frustrate those who believed in the literalism of Noah’s Ark. Dawkins is critical and knows clearly what exactly he is out defend in the book.

Next, some readings on the fertility decline around the world in The Economist, something I wrote about previously as well as an article on price wars on The New Yorker by James Surowiecki. There’s a video accompanying the article from The Economist about population.

Finally, find out more about Vincent van Gogh’s life from The Economist’s Editor Highlights Audio.

Honest Abe

The Political Genius
The Political Genius

Team of Rivals is one of the rare books I left at camp to be read consistently and then finished within plan. I brought it into camp two weeks ago and planned to have it finish exactly today; I knew that if I was reading it consistently I would finish about 2 chapters per day, which means it’ll take me 13 days for the 26 chapters that Doris Kearns Goodwin penned. I initially thought I might bring home to read over the weekends but resolved to leave it in camp as a material to be read in camp.

The book turned out to be incredibly entertaining and while I could put it down for a drink, a chat or some other minor distractions, I’d be happy to resume reading wherever I left. The prose flows smoothly and easily for me and I love Goodwin’s narration. She makes history seem alive and playing in front of you with the thoughtfully embedded quotes in the narration that is carefully credited at the end notes. The pictures, diagrams and maps included made the experience even more wonderful.

The most important part about Team of Rivals that I enjoyed was the little bits scattered all over the book where Abraham Lincoln related his little anecdotes and jokes to others. From our frame of reference, these all are anecdotes themselves demonstrating the character and personality of Lincoln. One that I liked in particular involves Lincoln telling someone about his dream:

In his dream, Lincoln was at a party where he overheard a guest commenting on him, “He is a very common-looking man.” Lincoln joined the conversation immediately, suggesting “The Lord must prefer common-looking men, that is the reason He made so many of them”. Lincoln was positively amused by the response he gave in his dream.

And having read the book and gotten to know more about Abraham Lincoln, I came to realised that the response in his dream was very real; it was something so characteristically Father Abe. I was naturally drawn to the many other jokes and stories he shared – some I understood, others were perhaps closer to the hearts and minds of those who were audience of his time.

Months ago I bought a little selection of speeches by Abraham Lincoln and I haven’t gone beyond reading his Gettysburg Address and wondering what so great about it. Now that I’m more familiar with the course of his political life and the circumstances in which he made those speeches, I shall revisit the book and appreciate the wonders and influence of his oratory prowess as well as his ability to weave issues into stories for the layman. And perhaps, I’d learn something out of all that.

Tim Tidbits

I was randomly visiting those blogs of authors, journalists, economists ERPZ link to. It is a good way to find inspiration for things to write about or to hunt for stuff to read. I stumbled upon Harford’s column article on Financial Times a week back. He discusses briefly on the importance of feedbacks and how they mess things up sometimes.

Save on that...
Save on that...

From Harford’s blog, I also learnt about this new book, Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel. It looks like a pretty interesting short read but I probably would be spending on it and I’m not too confident that it’ll be available in Singapore. Harford presented a short take on the concept that Professor Waldfogel conceived in 2005.

Professor Waldfogel believes that:

We make less-informed choices [when we buy gifts], max out on credit to buy gifts worth less than the money spent, and leave recipients less than satisfied, creating [… a] “deadweight loss” [much like when there is an externality present in the market].

In some way, when we perceive the giver and receiver as a single entity (the consumer) and the seller of the gift as the producer and explore this consumer-producer relationship, the deadweight loss is quite evident. It is like having a weird syndrome where you confuse your preferences and lose the ability to put a value on the goods you purchase. That would mean you might be willing to pay $30 for a Large Fries at MacDonalds and try to haggle for a bed at IKEA for $6 – both of which results in losses if the transactions succeed (you lose in the first case and IKEA loses in the second).

Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, however, argues that gifts are signaling tools for the giver to create certain impression in the receiver of himself/herself. That suggests that the losses are probably compensated in the market through the creation of this impression, through any changes in the chemistry of the relationship between the receiver and the giver of the gift. Perhaps given that the consumer from this perspective is just the giver, as long as the receiver gives him/her enough face by feigning joy (when there isn’t any) upon receiving the gift, there’ll be no deadweight loss. Actually there is, borne by the receiver for the effort.

Nobel Agents

Dynamite Old Man
Dynamite Old Man

In the field of the sciences, research and achievements at the cutting edge is often poorly understood by High School (or Junior College) students. Take for example this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics; it was given to physicist Charles Kao, “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” and two other physicist “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor”.

Not many of us actually concern ourselves with the workings of the CCD sensor (it’s something found in digital cameras) nor optical communications and I’m sure pre-college education focuses on none of that. Students who are really interested in Physics might not be able to directly draw links between the inventions and discoveries made by the Nobel Laureates and the stuff he reads or study about. The maturity of a subject like Physics almost definitely ensures that stuff studied at the forefront is highly specialized and in some sense, narrow.

On the other hand, economics is more accessible than it appears to be. The Nobel Prize for Economics this year was awarded to economists (Oliver E. Williamson) “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm”; and (Elinor Ostrom) “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. It is interesting to note that both of these economists are studying workings of important economic agencies (or agents) outside the workings of the traditional market mechanisms.

The prize rightly demonstrates a heightened appreciation of economics as a subject to study cost-benefits and incentives rather than one that scrutinizes money. Posner neatly summarizes Williamson’s work and its implications in his entry while Becker discuss the inherent difficulties in real world organizations on Becker-Posner Blog. It should be easy for a JC student with background in economics to realize the link between Williamson’s work and the stuff he/she is studying after reading Posner’s entry. It is the ability to draw this link that reflects how much of a science the study of economics actually is – the basic principles of incentives, cost-benefits analysis all applies even when there might not be the perfect information or perfect rationality in the real world.

This is a Coffee Cup

This is not Coffee
This is not Coffee

Too often, we underestimate ourselves and overestimate others; and in so doing we end up looking stupid despite the contrary. We’ve a colleague who loves to carry his cup around so that he can make coffee conveniently in the office. Because his cup is issued by the company, it looks like the ones on many of our desk. This is the same cup we use as a pen holder at many desks.

Once, we saw an extra cup on our main desk with words written, “This is a Coffee Cup”. We figured out that it must be this colleague’s cup and he wrote that with his marker because he knew most of us used the cup as penholders and he didn’t want people to put their stationery into his cup when he leaves it empty on a desk unattended.

Everyone was praising the creativity of the statement and the interesting intention behind the writing when he came along and so I asked him about it. He replied that he was just trying to decorate his cup and act creative by imitating some “Stating the Obvious” series where you have tote bag that says “This is a Tote Bag” and T-Shirts that says “This is a Tee”.

Snoopy the Turkey

Another nice anecdote from The Difference Maker; John C Maxwell was quoting from a Peanuts Cartoon.

It was Thanksgiving and everyone were feasting on a turkey while Snoopy was given dog food. Snoopy thought, “Just because I’m born a dog, I’m given dog food while others are eating turkey for dinner”. Then he walked back to his kernel and climb to the top; as he thought through it for a while, he realised, “It could have been worst. I might have been born a turkey.”

Yea, so count your blessings and appreciate your status.