Books: A Simple Plan

September 8, 2015

I read A Simple Plan by Scott Smith because it was recommended by a co-worker. He usually spends his lunch hour reading history books in the break room, and we have discussed them briefly. When he mentioned a novel that he said was “perfect” in the way the story developed and concluded, I decided to get it from the library without even reading any reviews first.

I disliked it from the beginning, because I disliked the narrator’s character. Which is to say, I disliked the narrator as a character precisely because he lacked “character” – moral integrity. But I pushed myself to keep reading, because my co-worker had said it was such a good book, so I thought if I kept reading I would find what was so good.

I eventually got to a point where I kept reading because I was far enough along that I might as well know how it turned out, rather than keep wondering. By the time I neared the end, I was in a hurry to get to the end, see what happened, and then be done with it and not have to think about it again – once I had written this blog post.

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Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice

November 28, 2014

I have enjoyed several works of historical fiction lately, so when I was looking for a book recently at the library, and had no author or series in mind, I decided to just look for historical fiction. It’s easy to find books belonging to other genres, such as science fiction and mystery, because the spines of the books are marked with little stickers showing a spaceship or a question mark. (In the same manner, it’s easy to skip over the books marked with hearts or cowboy boots because I’m not interested in romances or westerns.)

But there’s no sticker for historical fiction. (What would one look like, anyway?) So I just walked along, running my eye over book titles, waiting for something to catch my eye. And what caught my eye was Gutenberg’s Apprentice. Now there’s a piece of history I knew little about. We learned in history class about the significance of Gutenberg’s development of movable type, and in Junior Achievement classes I have helped students get an idea of the huge gains in productivity that resulted. But I knew next to nothing about how the invention of the printing press actually came about.

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Books: Why Nations Fail

January 26, 2014

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard about how poor people are in many parts of the world and how we who have so much need to help them. Yet I’ve also read how so little of the aid sent to some countries gets to the people who really need it.

I’ve read how the poverty of some countries is due to exploitation by wealthier countries, including my own. I’ve read how the traditional culture is a factor, discouraging innovation, especially it is associated with cultural values different from one’s own. I’ve read in particular how the dominant religion of a society may affect its economic progress – or lack of it.

What I hadn’t seen before I read Why Nations Fail is an analysis that shows the links between politics and economics, or that explores in detail the economic history of societies in many different times and places. When I got the book from the library I wondered whether I’d be able to finish it (462 pages) before I had to return it, but it made for surprisingly quick reading.

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Good new, bad news, or not news at all?

June 14, 2013

If you’re interested in manufacturing technology or the role of manufacturing in the economy, you may be interested in an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal, “Advanced Manufacturing: The New Industrial Revolution.” But what I found nearly as interesting as the article was (as is often the case) the different comments readers made about it.

The article itself is about how technology is changing the nature of the manufacturing process. Inexpensive electronic components make it possible for machines to monitor themselves, and humans located at remote locations can respond to problems that do arise. Additive manufacturing makes it possible to produce parts in shapes that were not feasible before, or that previously cost too much to be practical.

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Articles worth reading

October 20, 2012

I hadn’t visited First Thoughts recently, between Internet problems, being busy with work and church, and not feeling well lately. But I stopped by this morning and found links to two excellent articles.

Putting Health in Perspective” addresses the issue of healthcare from the perspective of what priority we put on health compared to other aspects of life. All the debates about healthcare (so prominent in the current political climate), Yuval Levin points out, focus on how to make the system more efficient, but share the assumption that health is an overriding priority.

Our society – not just in the U.S. but modern Western society in general – values freedom from pain very highly. I remember, when I was young, reading about people who did not take aspirin for a headache unless it was very severe, and being astonished that anyone would put up with pain if there were an easy way to avoid it.

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Do most people cheat?

May 25, 2012

Yes, most people are dishonest, according to Dan Ariely. Not all the time, or in big ways. It’s the widespread minor lying and cheating that really hurt society, however, he says.

Ariely is a professor of behavior economics (a field I never heard of before), and his examples tend in involve cheating for monetary benefit. I suppose a large amount of cheating is done for that reason, and certainly it would be easier to measure if you’re trying to quantify people’s tendency to lie and cheat.

I wonder whether his results would change any, however, if he were dealing with lying that was aimed primarily at influencing others’ opinions. I assume it would be even more widespread, but would it show the same patterns in terms of what does and does not dissuade people from lying?

And what about lying that does not affect us directly, but affects someone else? Do people lie more readily to gain something for themselves, or to make someone else look bad? (And of course we don’t usually think of it as lying, just selective use of the truth.)

I also can’t help wondering whether Ariely’s results are skewed by the fact that his test subjects are usually college students. I can’t imagine that I would have cheated on his matrix test then or now, because I just don’t cheat on tests. But I know that in other areas, I was less honest at that age than I am now.

As a college student, I would keep extra change that a store clerk gave me by mistake. Now I promptly return it. As a young adult in the workplace, I would not intentionally cheat but I would not readily admit a mistake as I would now.

I don’t know whether it’s having children and feeling a need to be a role model, feeling more responsibility to society in general, or just the overall process of maturing. But I would not think that the behavior of college students can be fairly extrapolated to the population at large.

It’s not that I find it hard to believe that most people cheat in little ways from time to time. That’s just one manifestation of people’s fallen nature. If I am scrupulously honest with money now, it is in part because of a couple of instances of minor dishonesty as a college student that convinced me that the guilty conscience was not worth whatever small benefits my dishonesty had gained me.

I think his studies show some interesting insights into what measures are more effective in preventing cheating. I have read elsewhere about the effect of being reminded of moral codes, whether by directing seeing/hearing them, or simply by talk about God or the Bible. I am somewhat surprised that the prospect of getting caught doesn’t have more of an effect – I think it would for me.


JA BizTown

March 21, 2012

I’ve been a Junior Achievement classroom volunteer for several years, but today was my first experience with JA BizTown. I agreed to volunteer mostly because my son wanted me to, but now I’m glad I saw firsthand what it was all about.

When I was a junior in high school, I got my first exposure to business operations, as part of a Junior Achievement company called Vendex. We sold $1 shares in our company to raise capital, then manufactured denim tote bags, and sold them. My mother used her Vendex bag for years, and I wish I still had one now as a memento of that experience.

At the time I had no interest in the administrative side of business. I had to help sell shares, and later tote bags, but other than that I stuck to working in production. I learned about the problems it created when workers were absent, or when they sat around talking instead of working, and the station I was working at had nothing to do because one of the previous stations on the line had gotten behind.

That was a year-long program (meeting weekly), so we got a good look at what it took to have a successful business. (We did earn a profit, though I don’t remember how much of a dividend we were able to distribute at the end.) Our adult volunteers (from Stanley Tools in New Britain, CT) had already procured the product idea, design, and production machinery (sewing machines), but we did the rest – under their excellent guidance.

BizTown, on the other hand, is a one-day simulation (though some businesses do make and sell simple products), giving students less in-depth but more breadth in terms of what goes on in the “real world” their parents work in. They each have a job (for which they had to interview in the weeks of preparation back at school before the actual event), they receive two paychecks which they deposit at the BizTown bank, and during breaks from work they go out into the “city” and spend money at other businesses.

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