All the Time I Need and All the Time I Want

A blog about books, technology, and living simply.

Better Off

By Eric Brende

(C) 2004 ISBN: 9780060570057

Find it on Amazon or your local library

Ironically, I first read about Eric Brende in the book What Technology Wants, a veritable love letter to technology and its place in our lives. Better Off couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to that way of thinking. In it, Brende recounts the 18 months he and his new wife spent with a small town of Old Order Amish. A graduate student at MIT, Brende’s quest was to find the minimum amount of technology that is needed to live comfortably. 

Our modern lives are ensconced in technology. It surrounds us and permanates every aspect of our daily lives. At least it does mine. 

My iPhone acts as my alarm clock every morning. I roll over to turn it off and check my email and sometimes the news. I get up and dock the iPhone to begin playing music. I read (often on my nook) while I eat breakfast. I shower, then I spend the next 9 hours sitting at my computer working. Since I work online, my entire day is spent on the internet. I communicate with my boss and co-workers only through instant message. My entire life is spent with technology.

And, honestly, it has become an extension of myself. I can wield my iPhone as expertly as a carpenter does a hammer. The internet has become a second brain of sorts. My reach and power has been expanded through technology. I am “plugged in”. 

The question is, has my life been improved through this connectivity? Or has it been lessened somehow?

Brende argues that we have sacrificed part of our humanity in connecting our lives so closely to technology. If anything, human conditions worsened during the Industrial Revolution when labor-saving technology improved our production. As people moved from their agiriculutral communities into the factory cities, many of their lives became worse rather than better.

Even now, in our post-industiral society, much of our lives are dictated by technology rather than helped by it. Consider this: right now I am sitting in a cafe as I write this review. I am surrounded by people who are out together, who have actively seeked company, conversation and the sharing of food with each other. As I look around, most people here have their smart phones on the table with them. When an alert goes off from their phone, they disengage from the conversation with the person they are here with and instead answer the email or text message or phone call. Even if they just look down and dismiss the message, they are still disengaging from the actual human contact in favor of the virtual. The technology (that they have chosen to keep and maintain) is actively dictating their their interactions with people. 

This is the sort of technological interference that Brende is trying to distance himself from. As a society, we accept new technology without a second thought. We really don’t think about how it will impact our society unless a problem arises. The Amish have a different was of dealing with technology. Instead of defaulting to “yes” for new technology, they default to “no”. When something new comes out, they carefully consider it. They decide whether the technology will be beneficial or not to their community. If there is no concrete benefit to their community by including the technology, they reject it. They only take in a new technology it demonstratively helps the community. Even a nuetral technology will be rejected.

This kind of selective technology usage means that many labor saving devices are foregone because using a technology like that will discourage people coming together in order to tackle large projects. For example, harvest time is one of the most work-intensive periods of farm life. Harvesting by hand is hard, greuling work. Obviously, it can be done much easier by using a combine harvester. In Amish communities, though, people from the community come together to help their neighbors with their harvests. People work together and through their combined labor, form deep, strong lifetime bonds. The rejection of labor-saving technology holds their community together. 

Brende does a great job of telling his story of joining a community like this. He learns about agriculuture and some animal husbandry. He learns how to pick, cook and preserve food all without the use of electricity or mechanized power of any sort. And he learns all of this through the relationships he builds with the community around him. He finds that through a rejection of modern technology, he finds a greater sense of community, self-accomplishment, and even more leisure time. 

His prose is good and isn’t too preachy at all. At its core, it is certainly a message against our modern technological world, but the message shares the stage with a really good story about a man and his new wife exploring a new society. The characters are interesting and I certainly found myself daydreaming about living in a community like the one in the book. 

So, is life better with a minimum of technology? Perhaps. It’s definately true that community is easier to build when people are more depndant on each other. It’s true that technology has taken big leaps into our lives and that we should step back and think about thew conciquences of embracing it as we have. Some technology is certainly more destructive than we give it credit for.

Then again, technology has made human interaction easier as well. Much of my family lives in the Netherlands. If it wasn’t for Skype, Facbook and email I wouldn’t have any contact with them at all. It’s made it much, much easier to maintain a relationship with them dispite the thousands of miles that seperate us. Also, since my job is online, I am able to have more time with my wife. I cut down on any commuting time and can easily spend my lunch with her whenever she’s home. 

Technology has done me good, for sure. But I think that we need to be responsible on how we implement it into our lives. Maybe we shouldn’t be as restrictive as the Amish, but we should take a page from their book by being more selective. Instead of embracing every new gadget that comes out, we should consider how that technology is going to influence our lives. Ulitamtely, I believe that it will result in us leading more enjoyable, meaningful lives.

Rating: ****- (four stars)

The Hunger Games Trilogy

(The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay)

by Suzanne Collins

(C) 2008 - 2010

Find them on Amazon (1, 2, 3) or at your local library (1, 2, 3)

I generally don’t read young adult fiction. Well, not recently anyway. When I was in middle and high school, I certainly read my share. But something happened to me around the time I turned 20 or so. The heavy, heavy social, interpersonal, overly-emotional relationship stuff that takes up the large portion of the books in the genre has become annoying to me. It’s not just that I don’t care about whether Generic Teenage Girl Protaganist will hook up with Rebellious Teenage Boy Protaganist or Responsible Teenage Boy Protaganist, it’s that I actively despise the amount of time and space this rediculous plot point is given. That being said, this is a case of my love of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction winning out against my dislike of Young Adult Fiction. Quite a few people recommended the series to me, and they all seemed to preface it with “I know it’s young adult but…” I read a bit about it and it sounds like an interesting idea. When I saw that they were making a movie about the series, I thought that it was high-time that I buckle down and read them.

The books center around Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl that lives in a post-apocalyptic North America. She lives under the rule of a country called Panem which, from the capitol city in the Rocky Mountains, has seperated the coninent into twelve districts. Seventy-four years before the first book takes place, there was an uprising against the capitol. The rebels lost and, as punishment, each year each district has a lottery to choose one girl and one boy to send as “tributes” to the capitol city where they are forced to compete in the Hunger Games.

During the Hunger Games, the twenty-four tibutes (two from each district) fight eachother to the death in a dangerous arena. Only one tribute survives the game. The competition is broadcast all over the country and is required viewing for all citizens. The surviving tribute is given a special house in their district and is set up for life with money and food. Their district is also rewarded with extra food rations for the year.

In the first book, Katniss volunteers for the Games to save her sister from having to go to them. Peeta Mellark is the male tribute from her district and is secretly in love with Katniss. During the games, he tries his best to protect Katniss from danger and professes his love to her. Katniss, though, thinks that the whole thing is a strategy to gain favor with the people watching so that they will send “gifts” (like medicine or weapons) to them during the game. At the end of the game, though, only the two of them survive. Since only one tribute is allowed to live, Katniss comes up with a desperate plan to save both of them. They act like they are both about to kill themselves at the same time and the Gamemakers (referees) of the game stop them at the last moment and pronouce both of them winners.

The second book deals with the aftermath of Katniss’ plan. This act of difance of the Capitol’s rules has made Katniss a folk hero to people all over Panem. It’s an embaressement to the government and it is sowing seeds of disention among the populace. The president of the Capitol, Coriolanus Snow, threatens Katniss that she must make it look like the only reason she hatched this plan was because she was crazy with love for Peeta. Instead of being an act of defiance, it was a desperate act of love. As she and Peeta leave for their victory tour of the districts, they ham it up at each stop along the way. It proves to be too little too late though. Violence begins to erupt across the colonies. 

Also, the love act with Peeta rubs Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’ best friend, the wrong way. He, too, is secretly in love with her. This complicates things even more for Katniss. Soon, the next Hunger Games are announced. Since it is the 75th anniversary of the Games, it has a special twist: the tributes are culled from the list of previous winners instead of the general populace. So, once again, Katniss and Peeta are sent to the Capitol to compete. These games prove to be more difficult since the other competitors have already won before and becuase the Gamemakers seem to be actively trying to kill Katniss and Peeta. But, at the eleventh hour, the game is disrupted by rebels who infiltrate and rescue Katniss and a couple other tributes who are also loyal to their cause.

The third book find the rebellion in full swing. Katniss is used as a symbol of the rebellion. She channels these into trying to rescue Peeta (who was captured during the rescue attempt) even though she is still torn between him and Gale. When they finally rescue Peeta, he’s been brainwashed to hate Katniss. Towards the end of the book, they make a final push to capture the Capitol. The rebellion succeeds and there is a bit of a surprise towards the end of the book that I won’t ruin here.

The books reminded me a bit of Ender’s Game. Both books have adults forcing kids into violent competition with each other, both have protagonists that are full of anger. But Ender, unlike Katniss, is smart. Throughout the series, Katniss shows over and over her lack of even basic intelligence, from who she puts her trust in (and who she doesn’t) to the situations she gets herself into. Whereas Ender ultimately pulls himself out of the horror of his life through applying his intelligence to help heal the wounds of the war, there is no such happy ending for Katniss. 

In fact, the ending finds Katniss trying, trying to pull together the tatters of her soul and psyche. Horrible things happen to her. The war is cruel and violent. Even the “good” characters commit reprehensible acts. And Katniss is at the very center of all this, unwillingly, as the catalyst and rallying point.  The reader understands that there is not enough healing in the world that can restore her to the girl she once was. In the end, she was used up and thrown away.

Katniss is used over and over throughout the books - used by the government, used by the President, used by the rebellion. She’s manipulated and threatened and coerced into doing what other people want her to do. In the end, that’s the theme of the book. What Katniss wants and needs is independence, unencumbered by the government or the rebels or even the people that she should be able to trust. The book is anti-authoritarian at its core. 

It’s a good series, even if the love triangle is over-wrought. The characters aren’t terribly deep, and and I found myself more than once wanting to yell at Katniss to open her eyes to what was happening around her. It is a fairly violent book, but most books about war are. And it’s in that subject where this book really shines. It does a very good job of showing how horrible war is for everybody involved and how much it wounds the psyches of the participants. Nobody wins at the end of the series. The lucky ones merely survive. 

Rating: ****- (four stars)

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart

By Bill Bishop

(C) 2008 ISBN: 978-0-618-68935-4

Find it on Amazon or at your local library.

As a pro-labor populist peace-nik liberal living in the most conservative county in California, The Big Sort caught my interest as soon as I saw it. It’s always been strange that most people I meet in this county all strike me as similar. People here talk about the same things, have similar levels of community involvement, even drive the same types of cars. When I was in sales, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people all over south Orange County and even before I met them the first time, I knew what kinds of things to talk about and what values to emphasize. How did all of these people come to live in the same area? 

Bill Bishop’s argument is that since the 1970’s, people have been moving away from mixed communities where people had different ideas and viewpoints into communities where everybody thinks the same. In Orange County, for instance, wealthier conservatives have been moving in while poorer liberals have been moving out. There’s a lot of theories about why people are conglomerating like this, but the sum of them is that people like being around people who think and act like themselves. I have a lot in common with the people I choose to spend time with. We are interested in the same things and have similar world views. We enjoy spending time with each other because of these similarities. When choosing a new place to live, obviously I’m going to choose a place that makes me feel comfortable, a place where I feel like I can build a life and get along well with the people. 

Bishop argues that liberals and conservatives live in very different communities and lead very different lives. Conservatives tend towards “Low-Tech” communities. Generally, communities like this are more likely to attend church, volunteer more, be more supportive of traditional authority, be more isolated, and more sedentary. Conversely, liberals tend towards “High-Tech” communities where people are more likely to engage in individualistic activities, are more optimistic, more interested in politics, and be less involved in clubs and organizations. Also, conservatives live more in rural environments and liberals live more in urban areas.

So why is this a bad thing? Is it so bad if conservatives flock to Orange County while liberals move to the bay area? It’s certainly more comfortable. You don’t have to worry about political differences getting in the way of meeting new people and the community becomes tailored to the type of person who lives there. More peace gardens for the liberals, more barbecue cook-outs for the conservatives.

The problem, though, is that groups become more extreme in isolation. In fact, groups where everybody agrees on something actually become more extreme than the individual feelings of the members. Liberals become more liberal when they are only with people who think the same as they do. This tending toward the extreme causes bigger rifts in our political system as the middle ground between the two sides falls away. The people, and thus the politicians that represent them, become polarized towards right or left of the spectrum. And if a politician is not sufficiently extreme enough, they are ousted by either their party or their constituents. There is no room for moderates in a system like this.

Also, when we don’t have contact with people who don’t hold the same views as us, we tend to think that they are radically different from us. It creates an “us” against “them” mentality that destroys any hope for compromise. In Bishop’s words, “Americans [are] allergic to difference of opinion and [are] blind to compromise.” As a country, we are drifting apart. The gulf is steadily widening between us. Avoiding people who think differently than us tears us apart.  

So what do we do? Well, the book doesn’t really go into that at all. Bishop explains what’s happening to our society and how it leads to all sorts of bad things, but there’s no ideas on where to go from here. We can’t tell people to stop moving to where they want, nor can we desegregate these homogeneous communities. Perhaps our society will grow out of it. Maybe it’s just a phase. 

One thing that I think would help it along is the re-zoning of congressional districts by impartial third parties. The ability for a party to decide what the boundaries are for its own district is absurd. It’s basically congressmen choosing their own constituents. Rather than having to be responsible to a wide range of people, they just choose the people who think like they do. An impartial commission can re-zone the districts so that they are more evenly divided between conservatives and liberals. This gives politicians a reason to be moderate. 

Bishop does a great job explaining the reasons behind the Big Sort as well as the adverse effects it has on our culture and politics. He uses good sources and makes coherent arguments. Also, interspersed in the book are all sorts of really interesting looks at modern historical events (like the wooing of the Evangelical church by the Republican Party and the re-invention of conservatism in the 1970’s and 80’s). It’s a fascinating book. In fact, it’s an important book for people today. We need to understand that our little homogeneous bubble isn’t the end-all of political and social thought in our country. We’re a mix of different people with different ideas. The fact that we can embrace all that is what makes the United States so great.

Rating: ****- (four stars)

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart

by Bill Bishop

(review to follow)

A Graveyard for Lunatics

by Ray Bradbury

(C) 1990 ISBN: 0-394-57877-5

Find it at Amazon or your local library.

This will be a quick and dirty review. Firstly, the book is a mystery novel and I’d hate to give away anything that may spoil the ending for people. Secondly, I want to get the review off my plate so I can move on to my next book.

Let me point out that over the course of my life, I have read a mountain of Ray Bradbury fiction. My father has been a fan since his teenage years and my first introduction to Bradbury was in the form of his old, rat-chewed dime-store paperbacks of Bradbury’s science fiction. Those stories filled me with wonder and excitement. If I dwell on them, I can still smell the old, yellowing paper of those books. Not only was it a formative reading experience, but also a connection to my father as an adolescent, just as I was while reading them. Those books were a major factor in my love of reading. 

Despite all my love of Bradbury’s works, I never read any of his three mystery books. The three books in the series are Death is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics, and Let’s All Kill Constance. They all feature, as a main character, a fictionalized version of Bradbury himself. I happened to have a copy of Graveyard and had just finished that disappointing Vonnegut book, so it seemed like a good idea to get wrapped up in a book that I knew would be at least half-way decent.

So, yes, this is the middle book of the three book series, but you don’t have to have read the first in order to understand this one. They are all stand-alone books, just with recurring characters. This book is set in 1954 in Hollywood. The main character is a writer for the fictional Maximus Films. His best friend is a monster designer. He creates the special effects and clay monsters for the horror and science fiction films. Together, they are trying to make a new horror movie.

On Halloween night, the main character sees a dead man on the wall that separates the studio for the neighboring cemetery. When he goes to investigate, he finds that it is the body of the great former leader of the studio, dead now for twenty years. Also, after his initial fright, he notices that the body isn’t actually real. It’s a dummy. This strange occurrence sets off an adventure that leads the main character through a maze of lies and deceit that the studio has held for decades. Murders abound, secrets are revealed, and there is at least one very real monster that haunts the movie sets.

The book is filled with larger than life characters and wonderful Hollywood nostalgia. Bradbury’s storytelling is well suited to the mystery genre; he pulls the reader in with ghastly claws and doesn’t let them pull away until the end. 

The writing itself, though, gets a bit tough to follow. It’s stilted and halting sometimes. I think that Bradbury was going for a noir feeling to the book, but it sometimes left me confused about what exactly was happening. Also, some of the character’s motivations and reactions seemed unreal and unbelievable to me.

It’s a worthy read if you’re looking for an enthralling narrative, but it’s not great literature. It will keep you entertained.

Rating: ***— (three stars)

Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(C) 2009 ISBN: 978-0385343718

Find it at Amazon or your local library.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of the greatest writers of all time. Ever. Anywhere. I’ve been hooked since I read Breakfast of Champions (still one of my favorite books) when I was a teenager. I remember being completely enthralled with his writing, the way that he took the narrative and folded it a thousand ways and pierced it through and through and cut it up and pasted it back together and laid it out smooth for the reader. He was a genius and a visionary and after reading Breakfast of Champions, I worked through almost his entire body of work during my teenager years.

Vonnegut died in 2007. Good God, what a day. It’s one of those days that one remembers just from the feeling that soaked through the day. I felt a giant loss, and I remember thinking about how sad it was that there would never be another book or story that did the same as Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle. I remember that I started re-reading Breakfast of Champions that day, just to relive that feeling of wonder and weirdness that the book inevitably brings.

If you had asked me that day, I would have told you that Great American Literature had died and that the book presses should grind to a halt and all “writers” should hand in their pens and paper and promise not to write another word. What would be the point of even trying? The master was dead.

Of course, writing and publishing and printing didn’t stop. And, of course, there has been good things written since then. And, besides, I forgot about Bradbury and he shows no signs of slowing down. We can talk about shutting down the industry again after he croaks.

Needless to say, though, Great American Literature lost a hero that day. Undoubtedly, Vonnegut was a fantastic writer. He put out an incredible body of work. Not all of it was great (looking at you, Slapstick), but most of it was and that is how we judge the quality of an author. When Vonnegut was alive, he had direct control over his work but now that he’s gone and buried, the control has fallen to other people.

This, of course, is the problem with posthumous publishing. The author obviously think that these works were not good enough to be seen by the public otherwise they wouldn’t be “unpublished”. Since our perception of an artist is framed by his work, the artist must enact tight controls over what sees the light of day. So, do we do the artist a disservice if we posthumously publish their garbage?

It’s an interesting question. A loyal fan who loves Vonnegut read the entire body of his work. When he finishes, that’s it. Vonnegut is dead and there will be no more forthcoming. Of course that reader would jump at the chance of reading more of his work. There is an obvious market for it. But does it make it right?

In my experience, it seems like many people have a hard time judging themselves. Especially creative types. The really creative people I know are mostly overly positive or overly negative about their work, but rarely realistic. I argue that the value of a work is not intrinsic within the work (as many of my creative friends believe) but held within the perception of the work by the viewer. And, in that case, the artist is just one of the viewers (albeit with more familiarity). In other words, the work itself is only valuable or not if people judge it to be so. Trash can be art if enough people can agree on it (and they often do).

So, it’s not the work itself we have to worry about. Authors are just one viewer among many in the judgement of their work. But, since their reputation does depend on their body of work, their say does hold more sway. In that case, their view is more important than others, because people should be able to control their own reputation through their own actions.

So this is what I propose: unpublished works are okay to print posthumously, but the reader (or viewer) should take them with a grain of salt. We should understand that an artist is more that their published work - they are judged just as much by the garbage that they refrain from publishing. When we are reading a collection of unpublished work, we need to keep in mind that it should not reflect on the author because said author didn’t like this stuff very much either.

So, to the book itself: mostly crude and disappointing. The stories had the premise of really good Vonnegut stories, but not the execution. The writing was unimaginative and often felt, well, unfinished. The long and short of it is that there is a reason these stories were unpublished.

Most of them. There were a couple that stood out. “The Petrified Ants” was a really neat story about two scientists studying ants in Soviet Russia. In true Vonnegutian fashion, the ants become a symbol for everything that is wrong with society. “Confido” was also really good, in a Twilight Zone-y way. The story is about a device that you can put in your ear and will keep you company during the day. The problem is that it speaks only what your innermost self wants to hear - how under-appreciated you are, or how unfair life is, or how much better you are than everybody else.

Other decent stories were “FUBAR”, “Look at the Birdie” and “Ed Luby’s Key Club”. They were decent, but not Vonnegut-good. But that’s the point, isn’t it? None of these stories were good enough for Vonnegut.

But, alas, the final judgement is in the eye of the viewer. I love Vonnegut and I eagerly ate this collection up. In the end, in my view, it wasn’t up to snuff.

Rating: **—- (two stars)

I love my 1st Edition Barnes & Noble Nook. I love not being tied down to a specific ebook format or store like the Kindle is. And it works great with my favorite book management software, Calibre, on my desktop. On my desktop, I run Ubuntu Linux 11.04, which is a beautiful operating system.

I don’t use the music player feature on my Nook much, but I do occasionally like to listen to music while I read. In the past, I’ve just dragged and dropped the music files to the “my music” folder on the Nook. It works, but I thought that it would be pretty cool to be able to sync music using Ubuntu’s music management application Banshee.

(click to enlarge, but no judging my music)

Banshee plays and manages music just like iTunes does. It can sync music with a ton of devices (including iPods), so why not the Nook? The Nook shows up as a basic USB Mass Storage device under Linux. I did some searching online and learned that Banshee looks for a file named “.is_audio_player” to determine if it can sync with any given device. From there, it was pretty easy to get it working.

1. Create an empty file named .is_audio_player in the root directory of the Nook.

2. Open the file in a text editor and add the following text:

audio_folders=my\ music/

3. Unmount the Nook. Open Banshee and remount the Nook.

4. Banshee should pick it up in the Devices section of the left pane. Clicking it will give you syncing options. That’s it! Sync to your heart’s content!

A couple notes:

  • The Nook only supports mp3s, so that’s written to the file above (on the last line there). You can convert your oggs or mp4s (or m4as) to mp3s if need be.
  • I had to turn off then turn on my Nook twice for all the music to be recognized and play back correctly.
  • It doesn’t appear that album art is synced. Not a big deal for me, but FYI.

Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction

by Kurt Vonnegut

(review to follow)

Under the Dome

by Stephen King

(C) 2009 ISBN: 978-1-4391-4850-1

Find it at your local library or at Amazon.

The first thing most people say when they see Under the Dome is, “That’s a big book!” And it is; it’s over a thousand pages long. But then again, so was one of the books I read last month, Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy (review). That book took me four weeks to read. I read Under the Dome in six days. 

As heavy as it was to pick up, I couldn’t put it down.

The book is set in a small town in Maine called Chester’s Mill. It’s a pretty average small town with the normal trappings you’d expect: a diner, library, small newspaper, a used car lot, two churches, and a bar. It’s nominally run by a council of three selectmen, but two of them are bullied by the corrupt Big Jim Rennie (who also owns the used car lot, of course).

One day, a impenetrable dome-shaped force field descends over the town, completely sealing the townspeople off from the outside world. As the world outside tries to figure out how to rescue the people inside, the town falls apart.

It’s a story that has touches of the famous Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and the book Lord of the Flies. Our hero, a man named Barbie who was an Iraq war vet and is now a drifter, finds himself on the bad side of Big Jim who is using the dome as a way to expand his personal power. Jim uses people’s fear (and more than a few false-flag operations blaming Barbie for a number of heinous crimes) to turn the town against his political and personal enemies. Throw in a young man who is going violently, murderously insane (Big Jim’s son) and a huge drug manufacturing operation (run by Big Jim, naturally) and you’ve got a sure fire recipe for…. well, a lot of action certainly. Less of the social criticism and human condition stuff the “Monsters” and Lord of the Flies gives you.

"Monsters" is a particularly apt comparison because, spoiler alert, the dome was erected by aliens. Not just aliens, but (and bear with me here) alien children. Much like kids will burn ants with magnifying glasses in the playground, these alien children are playing with the town. They’re just seeing what would happen if this town was cut off from the rest of the world. They’re completely indifferent to the sufferings of the people in the town because they don’t see them as sentient beings.

And that, in the end, is the theme of the book: People can cause each other a lot of harm when they don’t practice empathy for their fellow people. Big Jim has a huge God complex and doesn’t care at all about other people. He commits two calculated murders without batting an eye. His son is a psychopath. Thanks to the tumor pressing on his brain, his empathy is completely short-circuited, allowing him to commit a number of violent crimes. Even Barbie has skeletons in his closet. In Iraq, he was an accessory to the murder of an innocent Iraqi man when he didn’t take any action to stop one of his fellow soldiers from shooting the man in cold blood.

This is as deep as the book goes, though. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, there’s a dog who helps to save the day. There’s about two dozen people the reader must keep straight in the book, but all of them are pretty flat. The book, by which I mean the work taken as a whole, is a bit better. There’s pretty obvious symbolism with the Bush regime and some interesting commentary on religion. Big Jim is legitimately scary, as are the thugs he hires into the police force. King does a great job with small towns and big egos.

By the end of the book, just about everybody dies. Only our hero and a few of his friends make it out of the dome alive. The bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys learn a valuable lesson, even if it’s no deeper than the lessons learned at the end of 90s sitcoms. Despite its shortcomings, it’s an exciting book and a good addition to the King’s mountain of work. I certainly enjoyed it. I wouldn’t recommend coming into it expecting great literature or anything terribly deep, but if you like King or pop fiction, you’ll most likely get a kick out of this too.

Rating: ****- (four stars)

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

by Barry Schwartz

(C) 2004 ISBN: 0-06-000569-6

Find it at Amazon or your local library.

Today we have more choice available to us than at any previous point in human history. We can do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want. And if capitalism and American culture has taught us anything, it’s that choice is not only good but essential to human freedom. When we talk about horrible facist states in other parts of the world, we talk about the lack of personal freedom that the populace has. Choice is extremely valuable to us; it is an essential part of who we are. We hold it near and dear to our heart. And more choice always equals more good.

It seems counter intuitive, then, that in this golden era of choice and personal freedom that study after study shows that personal happiness is declining in recent years. It would make sense that if more choice gives us more freedom and more freedom makes us happier, that we would continue to get happier and happier as more choice is given to us. Instead we have run into what Schwartz calls the “tyranny of choice”. There are so many choices open to us that we cannot effectively choose between them.

The problem lies with the amount of options that we have. Every time we make a selection, we are choosing against all the other options. When we choose to go left, we cannot also choose to go right. The stakes are raised each time another option is added to the choice, because choosing one option among twenty is choosing against the other nineteen options. Each option has its own pros and cons to it and that makes it even more difficult when trying to make a decision. Every facet is explored, every quality is considered. The more time we spend on making the decision, the greater we expect the results of that decision to be. After all, we put in a lot of work into it and we should show greater returns on that work. That raises the stakes even more. 

Even after we make the decision, we will suffer with the results. We all have that feeling of regret sometimes, when we consider the road un-taken. So, we are driven to fight that feeling of regret by attempting to choose the Best Option, the one that we will never regret. This is what Schwartz calls Maximization - the attitude that there is a golden option out there, an option that is quantitatively better than all the other options. Maximizers spend a lot of time making their decisions, exploring every option available to them (and, in so doing, raise the stakes of their decisions).

We’ve become a culture of maximizers. We need what the Best Option - nothing else will do. This ultimately leads to unhappiness, though. There is no such thing as a Best Option for most choices. And the time we spend trying to find a Best Option only raises the cost of the decision. This leads to a sense of helplessness and we being to avoid decisions, lest we make the wrong choice. What we need to do is become Satisficers.

Satisficers are people who are content with an option that satisfies their criteria for a good option without trying to find the Best Option. Let’s say I am looking for a sweater. Instead of going to all the stores and trying on all the sweaters and considering all the options, I decide that I want a sweater that is red, has a nice cut, and is under $25. When I come across the sweater that fits that criteria, I end my search. There’s no need to go anywhere else because I found the sweater the meets my requirements. And I am much happier because I was able to control my options.

Schwartz gives some good tips on how to become happier choosers. One of the most pertinent is that we should settle for “good enough” rather than trying to find the very best. it’s usually not worth it. Also, we should be more grateful with what we have. The vast majority of people in the world do not have to face the choice of what new car they should buy. They’re too busy with trying to find drinkable water. We need to be much more grateful with what we have. We must control out expectations as well. We cannot have everything we want, despite what may be force-fed to us from Madison Avenue everyday. Finally, we absolutely have to curtail social comparison. We need to stop judging our choices by how other people live. There will always be somebody better off than you. Be content with what you have and you’ll live a much happier life.

So, overall, the book was good. Schwartz does a good job of synthesizing real psychological research with good common sense. My only problem with it is that it does get a bit preachy. It’s a good book to read, though, and makes a good argument about why more choice does not mean more happiness.

Rating: ***— (three stars)