Friday, April 20, 2007

The Undercover Economist + A Spot of Bother + ...

Some more reviews of books I've read recently ...

1. "The Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford

This is a great introduction to basic Economics.  If I had my way
economics would be a compulsory subject in high school.  I studied
economics at Uni and this book was a great refresher.  It's aimed at
the economic novice, providing good real-world examples, e.g.:

* why it's hard to buy a decent used car
* why supermarkets change their prices so often (hint: it's not because
  they're being generous with their "specials")
* why market-based US health insurance is so expensive
* why free universal medical care in the UK leads to lack of choice
* why unchecked pollution and emissions are bad economics
* why free trade is a good thing
* why coffee is so expensive at a busy railway station
(In fact, coffee is a recurring "character" in the book.)

The book explains important and useful economic concepts in everyday
language.  The writing is clear and engaging, and tries to avoid too
much economic jargon.  Believe me, once armed with some basic economics,
you'll get a new insight into how the world operates.

The book tries to be politically-neutral, as economics should be.  And
economics is more than just numbers.  As the author states in his
  "In the end, economics is about people - something that economists
   have done a very bad job of explaining.  And economic growth is
   about a better life for individuals - more choice, less fear, less
   toil and hardship."

Reading this book will make you laugh (or cry?) when politicians argue
that the markets always achieve the best economic outcome.  The book
also points out that governments can do a lot of harm with their
economic policies, despite the best of intentions.  I would speculate
that our Prime Minister and Treasurer (both lawyers by training) would
actually struggle with a first year economics exam if they had to sit
one today.  In particular, the fact that they argue that setting
emissions targets would "harm our economy" fails to acknowledge that
pollution and emissions are classic examples of market failure, and
hence causes of economic inefficiency.  Any first year can tell you

2. "A Spot of Bother" by Mark Haddon

I was looking forward to reading this book, having read the author's
previous book ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time")
a few years ago.  Unfortunately, this latest book failed to provide
anywhere near as much enjoyment.  I actually found reading it a little
depressing - not exactly what I needed at the moment.

None of the characters is particularly likeable, and it was hard to
have any sympathy for any of their plights.  The plot is a bit like
an average family soap opera.  Retired father is a hypochondriac and
appears to be going insane.  His wife is having an affair with his ex-
colleague.  Their divorced daughter is agonising over marrying a boring
but stable boyfriend.  And how predictable, their gay son is having his
own relationship issues.  I won't give away the ending, but the moral
is summed up at the end of chapter 124: "Perhaps the secret (to life)
was to stop looking for greener grass.  Perhaps the secret was to make
the best of what you had."  Hmmm, how original!

Fortunately, the book itself is quite easy to read, despite the almost
400 pages.  The chapters are many but short.  It's well-written, I
guess.  Sounds like faint praise, but it's hard to give the book
anything more than that.

I'd recommend you read the author's previous novel instead:

It's about a 15 year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome (a form of
autism).  He decides to investigate the murder of a neighbour's dog.
Being told from the boy's perspective, the story gives interesting
insights into how an autistic child thinks.  As one of the reviews
mentions, it is a sort of "coming of age" or odyssey for the boy.

3. "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" by Umberto Eco

This is the book about reading I mentioned in the past.  At times it
was a bit theoretical and dry, but overall it was well worth it.  By
examining particular works, it provides some pointers to other books I
might find interesting to read.  And I might just think about the way
books are written and how I interpret them.

4. "Agile Web Development with Rails" by Dave Thomas

This is a technical book about web development.  I mention it here
because it happens to be a very good technical book about web
development :)  The first part of the book is a tutorial which shows
you how you can use the excellent Ruby on Rails web framework to
quickly and easily build a good-looking and functional web application.
The bulk of the book then describes the various libraries provided by
Ruby on Rails (RoR).  Reading this book was a great way to fill in the
gaps in my knowledge of RoR.