The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Story of the Oxford Dictionary

In modern day and age it is difficult to conceptualize what it means to undertake a project so massive in scale that the person leading it will most likely not live long enough to see its completion. Where do you derive your motivation from when you are aware that the satisfaction of conclusion will probably not be experienced? Yet, it is in these life-devoting undertakings that many of our worldly treasures came to be. While the current global economy is paying dearly for its overfixation on short term results, it is worth reflecting back on the marvels in history that took years, decades, or centuries to complete. The thirteen week business quarter is such a short period of time that many of these accomplishments certainly did not even show any physical change over 91 days. Now careers are ended and projects scrapped if tangible results cannot be demonstrated in this timeframe.

Michaelangelo worked four years on the Sistine Chapel which is equivalent to about an afternoon's worth of time when compared to the seventy years required to assemble the Oxford English dictionary (OED). This dictionary has little in common with the pocket Webster II crammed into many modern home libraries. The objective of this dictionary was to give definition to all words used in the English language and to reference the previous uses of each word. This required a level of research of the endless number of potential texts that is difficult to comprehend as it reached from New Zealand to the United States. A project of this nature demanded collaboration across oceans imaginable in modern times with email and phone, less so at the turn of the 20th century. To further complicate matters, many of the dictionaries most essential collaborators were volunteers whose only connection to the OED was their passion for reading and interest in the project.

Winchester's account of this story is average overall, fascinating in certain places. We are introduced to several interesting characters whose efforts made up the impressive piece of human achievement today called the OED. To become editor of the OED required a certain type of individual, to say the least. A love for the English language was important but not adequate, mainly because our language derives from so many continental European influences. English represents a combination of these languages in many ways and therefore the editors of the OED were fluent in over ten.

So, what is the outcome of this work? It is a masterpiece that documents our complete language. Since its release in 1928 there has been one new edition with several supplements for the new words appearing in the modern form of our language. The third edition is one quarter complete. The OED is currently celebrating its 80th birthday with a commemorative edition of this twenty volume masterpiece. The offer expires in four days - price for the set? $895. Too bad we just missed Christmas.


Nudge by R. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein

Sunday, January 11, 2009

UPDATE: Sunstein has become the "legal czar" for the Obama administration.

Access to nearly endless choice is one of the defining elements of the capitalist world we live in, unless you are one of my North Korean or Cuban followers. Allow any firm the ability to offer their goods or services to the market. Those with the strongest offering will find success, while those not able sell their goods and make a profit will, in their own right, cease to exist. GM not included.

The premise of this book deals with how human beings make decisions in response to these choices and how they can be "nudged" into doing so as to better benefit themselves. For economists all decisions are rational while in reality we know this is not the case. Human instincts are very strong and are weighed down by various biases which prevent a rational decision making process.

A trip to the supermarket confirms that companies are well aware of this irrational decision making and they take all the steps to "nudge" you towards their product by paying more for eye-level shelf space, wafting the smell of baking bread throughout the store, and placing milk at the back of the store.

The gist of the book is built around the following - the placement of a certain, more expensive, yogurt may convince me to buy one I normally would not, but I have hundreds of future opportunities to correct this poorly made decision. However, certain decisions regarding investments, retirement plans, health care, and university are drastically limited. So much so that many of these decisions will be made perhaps only one time in your life. Better not screw it up, to say it mildly. Yet, just like the yogurts in the supermarket, the number of healthcare or pension plans has become endless. How do we nudge people to make the best decision regarding these important long term subjects?

One example of how to nudge effectively without restricting choice is by selecting, well-researched and balanced default options for people while always allowing them the choice to select a plan for themselves. With Medicare, this would mean by default that a selection of prescription medicine plans for the elderly would be made from one of the 60 available plans based on previous prescription records of the recipient. This seams logical enough. In reality, when the overhaul of Medicare took place in 2003, the default option for prescriptions medicine plans was in most cases "non-enrollment" or "random selection". To further complicate matters, the process for selecting the plan (from 60 of them!) was not very clear for various reasons explained in the book.

This is an entertaining and insightful read. It demonstrates how, namely, government and its associated bodies can direct the majority of its citizens, from school lunchrooms to organ donations, to mutually beneficial outcomes without imposing sweeping regulation.


The Eagle and the Fried Chicken by Vittorio Zucconi

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I enjoy Zucconi the journalist, who acts as the US correspondent for La Reppublica newspaper in Italy. Perhaps the enormous letdown of this book was amplified even more because I had expected much more from this author. I guess I will continue to read Zucconi's articles but not his books.


A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Supposedly, Vonnegut broke a promise he made never to publish another book when he put together a series of ramblings and published it shortly before his death in 2008. The book is far from a success, considering the reputation of the author that I have developed over the years even though I have never, until now, read one of his books. However, it does serve as an interesting starting point for me - beginning with the last work of an author. He talks mainly about his own life. What he had to say was intriguing. There was just not enough of it.

At one point he briefly discusses socialism in the USA and his own Socialist leanings. After a lifetime in America I can assume that even Vonnegut began to develop an appreciation of the free market considering he compiled a few writings into a book which can be read in an afternoon and sold it for $23.95. He must have known that his fan base was large and loyal enough to pay to get their hands on his last insights.


Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

The title of this book refers to the six month period after World War I, when all the countries involved in the war, and many who were not, descended on Paris to negotiate the peace treaty, later to be known as the Treaty of Versailles. The three central figures shown on the book cover were Woodrow Wilson (USA), Lloyd George (UK), and Clemenceau (France). Vittorio Orlando (Italy) rounded out the "Big Four" but he and his country acted more like the little, whiny stepbrother that the older brother and his two buddies had to invite to along in order to play 2 on 2. These three central characters had an enormous task, which was bound not to succeed 100% due to the endless numbers of variables involved in the negotiation.

The three themes most present in the negotiations were borders, ethnicity and reparations, with the first two often being related. What became clearer while reading this book is how before the Great War the modern day definition of borders did not exist. This was mainly a result of colonization outside Europe and the size of the Austria-Hungarian Empire (AHE) inside of it. After the fall of the AHE, Europe found itself with certain ethnic groups scattered throughout the continent who before had lived under the umbrella of the empire. Such examples included Germans in Romania and Italians in Croatia. Defining the borders and determining where these ethic groups should live was an impossible task, especially in Yugoslavia. The repercussions were still being witnessed in the Balkan War 80 years after.

How to handle the reparations was the other critical issue to be resolved during the six months in Paris namely by determining how much money Germany needed to pay the UK and France. Demand too much and the German economy would become crippled, too little and they would rise to power again too quickly. The overarching question was how the Big Four, through reparations and new border alignments could ensure Germany became strong but not dominant. History confirms that an outright answer in 1919 was not readily available.

The majority of the chapters in Paris 1919 are written about each individual country involved in the negotiations. The sections on Greece and Turkey were particularly fascinating. Others, such as the tension in China and Japan, seemed out of place. I say this because the reader is led to believe that the majority of the focus will be centered around the three main figures (just look at the cover) and how they would negotiate with Germany. I was left without a true feeling of what was driving these three individuals. Equally, the sections on Germany were not much more in depth than those on the rise of Ataturk in Turkey. The conclusion focused entirely on Germany, while the book was truly international in its scope. This is understandable considering the events which would follow twenty years later. However, the "German question" did not come across as the outright, central theme of the book as the conclusion leads the reader to believe.


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