Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter

Source of book: Borrowed from my wife

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know.

Reading to Know - Book Club

This month, the selection was A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. Carrie’s review can be found here.

I will admit being heavily prejudiced against this book, not because it is essentially a female oriented book, but because of an early experience with a truly dreadful movie version. (I’m pretty sure it was the 1990 version, but I have no intention of watching enough to confirm it.)

The acting was pretty bad, but what sealed the deal was the violin. I will admit to being a complete snob when it comes to music in the movies. It has always puzzled me that careful attention is paid to detail: clothes, sets, accents, and so much more; but few movies bother to make string instrument playing look realistic. Any movie that does, earns my respect. (A particularly great example of this is the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, in which a country band is portrayed perfectly – including the use of a serpent. I also love how Mr. Collins reminds me of a spider as he dances. Start at 3:00 for this part.)

In the movie of Limberlost, a young lady plays the first movement of Vivaldi’s A Minor violin concerto. The “playing” is so execrable that it does not even attempt to coordinate the bow movement to the notes. Quite simply the worst I have ever seen.

What makes this completely inexcusable is that the A Minor Concerto is one of the most well known student pieces in the repertoire. I learned it at age nine or ten, and performed it a wedding or two. I really loved it, and did my best to make it sing. But I am hardly unique. Just about any intermediate violin student in the last, say, 300 years, has learned this piece. Whoever produced this movie could have called up any violin teacher in the area and found someone who could competently “string synch” this piece. Instead, they had someone play whole notes and overdubbed. How stupid did this person think the audience was?

A quick YouTube search turns up several dozen performances by young people of various skill levels. I love this version:

Okay, maybe I should say something about the book. I would have skipped it except that my wife encouraged me to go ahead and read it. It was, in fact, worth reading, despite a few moments of awkward, “this sure seems dated” thoughts.

The general plot is in the vein of Horatio Alger stories: a young girl overcomes adversity to achieve success, and eventually love.

With that said, there were some things I liked and some things I disliked. First of all, I found Elnora and her mother to be interesting characters. Elnora is an abused and unloved child, but is strong in an unstereotypical way. In some ways, it is easier to imagine her as a boy, because she channels her inner pain into motivation and anger rather than passiveness and hurt. This would, in my opinion, tend to be a more typically male reaction, although I can think of a couple of extraordinarily strong women that I know that might have the same approach. Were I in Elnora’s position, however, I would never have waited around long enough for my mother to come around. I would have been long gone with no forwarding address.

In contrast, Elnora’s mother, Kate, is interesting as a bitter woman, who is soured rather than mellowed by life’s hardship. She seemed initially to be a fairly realistic portrayal, but I didn’t quite buy into her transformation. From a man’s point of view, it seems odd that she could hate Elnora right up until she learned that her late husband had been unfaithful, and then switch to loving Elnora. To me, the fact of the affair seems irrelevant to the love for a child, either one way or the other. Perhaps a woman might have a different opinion. Perhaps it might feel differently to a man regarding a wife who died in childbirth. I can’t entirely make up my mind about it, but I did enjoy Kate as a character.

I also liked the portrayals of Wesley Sinton (the male half of the kind hearted neighbor couple) and Hart Henderson (who seems to be someone out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.)

In general, I found the book to be a bit “feminist” in its worldview. I mean this in the best possible way. Elnora doesn’t wait around for a man to rescue her. She earns her education by excruciatingly hard work and her own wits. She earns the respect of her peers, not by manipulation, but by straightforward self-confidence and honesty. While she is assisted by others, she takes pride in her independence, and takes full responsibility for herself. In many ways, she is a thoroughly admirable character – much more so than the average heroine from her time – or even our modern times.

I also liked that Elnora refused to take Phillip until the right time. Although I’m not sure it was realistic for her to wait until Edith admitted defeat (such as Edith rarely do), I loved that she would not sell herself cheaply. She knew her own worth, and was wise enough to know that unless she was desired for her own sake, to the exclusion of all others, she would not be happy with her spouse. I admire women like that (and married one), and hope that my daughters will have the strength of character to do the same. 

The author herself was quite knowledgeable about moths and butterflies (and other creatures), which play a substantial part in the plot. While I am not at her level, I did enjoy the detailed descriptions of moths emerging from cocoons, for example.

On the other hand, the author assumes that the reader is familiar with characters from her other books. “Freckles,” for example, has his own book, and the reader is simply assumed to know who he is. One wishes that the author had devoted a paragraph or so to introduce him.

I also did find the moralizing to be a bit heavy-handed. The book is a product of its time (1912), and must be evaluated in that light. In general, much of the literature of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, particularly that directed at children and young people, tended to preach a bit.

I absolutely could not fathom a character like Edith Carr ever redeeming herself. Perhaps I am a cynical divorce attorney, but my experience would indicate that she would remain embittered, and proceed to make her future husband pay for all her disappointment in losing Phillip. On the plus side, she seems destined to keep a lawyer or two employed. But the templates of the era would graciously allow Edith to grow and change, and thus make amends for her prior bad behavior.

As a final note, I would mention my mixed feelings regarding the use of the violin as a plot device. On the one hand, the author at least gives lip service to the many hundreds of hours necessary to master the instrument. On the other, she falls prey to the popular misconception of the musical savant, who masters the technique easily and early. Violin, and indeed all instruments, are difficult to play well. Strings in particular are unforgiving for the first few years. Even those of us who have enough talent to play professionally have devoted hours and hours, day after day, week after week, and year after year, to learn our craft. One in a million musicians, perhaps, is a Mozart: able to attain proficiency with a minimum of seeming effort. The rest of us have bought our skill with our time, our sweat, and our tears. If a musician ever tells you that he or she hasn’t hated the instrument at some point, you are probably being sold the Brooklyn Bridge. I think this particular lie is a disservice to aspiring musicians. If you want to master music, you will cry at some point. You will curse the day you picked it up. However, if you give it your time, sweat, and passion, it will eventually unfold its rewards.

Anyway, Limberlost is a worthwhile book, and one I will encourage my children to read as they get older.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Half Dome

"Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God."

~George Washington Carver

My blog is primarily about the written word. It is the record of my exploration of books, ancient and modern, fiction and nonfiction, covering a wide variety of topics.

There are two other important facets to my lifelong learning process. One is music, which finds its way into the blog from time to time. The other is the wilderness. I love to hike. I firmly believe that, whatever Spock might say, “because it is there” is a great reason to climb a mountain. For the most part, I hike with my kids. We started this tradition early on, when my eldest was a mere infant, but it really caught on when she was three, and I started a tradition of “daddy adventures.” In essence, I would take a child or two or five, and head into the hills somewhere and find an adventure. The kids really have gotten into it, and are eager to keep track of our mileage each year. (We hiked about 120 miles together last year.) Still, there is a limit to their endurance at their ages, and there are some places I cannot yet take them.

Last weekend, I fulfilled one of my mountain dreams. My brother-in-law, Josiah obtained a permit to hike Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. 

Half Dome is a strenuous hike of 17 miles, with a vertical climb of nearly 5000 feet. In order to reach the exposed cables at the top before it got too hot, we started hiking at 5:00 AM.

This is Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap after three miles of hiking, as seen from the John Muir Trail.

Half Dome up close, after about seven miles of hiking and about 4000 feet of climbing.

The brutal switchbacks on the flank.

 The cables, which were pretty terrifying.

This picture doesn't quite do justice to how steep and seemingly precarious they are.

This picture, taken by Josiah, gives a pretty good perspective.

At the top of the cables, with Cloud's Rest in the background. 

My favorite picture of the day. I'm at the top, with the high Sierra spread out behind me. There truly are some things that cannot be experienced in a book, and this is one of them.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Poems Written in Youth by William Wordsworth

Source of book: I own the complete Wordsworth - a gift from my friend Evalyn

For those familiar with my Poetry Project, it will come as no surprise that I have started my serious reading of Wordsworth at the beginning. In general, I have started with the early works of each poet, with the intent of working my way through the complete works in time.

The advantage of this approach is that there is insight to be gained by seeing the progression of the poet’s thoughts and ideas and skill.

The disadvantage is that I will be an old man by the time I reach the end of certain prolific poets like Tennyson, Frost, Auden - and Wordsworth. Either I need to read faster, or I will need a life “full of days” to complete this.

In any case, I cannot say I regret starting at the beginning with Wordsworth. Many of his important themes are apparent in a germinal state in these early works, and his style is already evident.

William Wordsworth has the distinction of having one of the best names of all time, perfectly suited to his profession, and euphonious. He is considered one of the most important poets of the English Romantic Era (along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and thoroughly embodies its values: intuition rather than reason, pristine nature rather than modern man. It was essentially a reaction against The Enlightenment and its values, which the Romantics considered sterile and impersonal.

I find the contrast interesting as a musician in its musical parallel. Music of the era tended to lag literature and philosophy in time, so that the musical Romantic Era postdated the poetic Romantic Era by a generation or so. The contrast here would be Mozart (Enlightenment Era) and Liszt (Romantic Era). In literature and music, it is easy to oversimplify. The poets and composers of the earlier era were capable of great emotion, and those of the latter were not lacking in cerebral ability, but the perceptions and goals were largely in line with the ideas of each era. For those reading on my blog, I have appended a note and some musical clips to illustrate the differences.

It was also interesting to me that the Romantic Poets were originally criticized for writing poetry in natural language rather than the formal and exalted language popular in the preceding era. To our modern ears, Wordsworth’s language may sound outdated and rather formal itself, but it was revolutionary in its time.

An early sonnet, written when Wordsworth was merely sixteen already shows an introverted concern with nature, and a leaning toward natural language devoid of classical allusions.

Calm is all nature as a resting wheel.
The kine are couched upon the dewy grass;
The horse alone, seen dimly as I pass,
Is cropping audibly his later meal:
Dark is the ground; a slumber seems to steal
O'er vale, and mountain, and the starless sky.
Now, in this blank of things, a harmony,
Home-felt, and home-created, comes to heal
That grief for which the senses still supply
Fresh food; for only then, when memory
Is hushed, am I at rest. My Friends! restrain
Those busy cares that would allay my pain;
Oh! leave me to myself, nor let me feel
The officious touch that makes me droop again.    
This Italian sonnet form is adapted in a completely different way than the earlier Milton, or the later Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (For discussion of the sonnet forms, see my blog here.)

Also enjoyable from this collection is the long narrative, An Evening Walk. The poet describes a memorable evening stroll in the Lake District of England, which is particularly associated with Wordsworth and a few other poets of the era. I loved his description of the sunset.

How pleasant, as the sun declines, to view
The spacious landscape change in form and hue!
Here, vanish, as in mist, before a flood
Of bright obscurity, hill, lawn, and wood;
There, objects, by the searching beams betrayed,
Come forth, and here retire in purple shade;
Even the white stems of birch, the cottage white,
Soften their glare before the mellow light;
The skiffs, at anchor where with umbrage wide
Yon chestnuts half the latticed boat-house hide,
Shed from their sides, that face the sun's slant beam,
Strong flakes of radiance on the tremulous stream:
Raised by yon travelling flock, a dusty cloud
Mounts from the road, and spreads its moving shroud;
The shepherd, all involved in wreaths of fire,
Now shows a shadowy speck, and now is lost entire.

Wordsworth uses here, as in many other poems, iambic pentameter grouped into rhymed couplets, although they are not always limited to a single sentence or thought, as in the heroic couplet form.

Another enjoyable description is found in the short poem "Lines written when sailing in a Boat at Evening."

How rich the wave, in front, imprest
With evening twilights summer hues,
While, facing thus the crimson west,
The boat her silent path pursues!
And see how dark the backward stream!
A little moment past, so smiling!
And still, perhaps, with faithless gleam,
Some other loiterer beguiling.
Such views the youthful bard allure,
But, heedless of the following gloom,
He deems their colours shall endure
'Till peace go with him to the tomb.
--And let him nurse his fond deceit,
And what if he must die in sorrow!
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though grief and pain may come to-morrow?

Wordsworth here also shows the undercurrent of melancholy which flows through many of his works.

Another theme which was popularized during the romantic era was the idea of the “Noble Savage”, the supposedly ideal state of man before the advent of modern technology and thought. In his long description of a journey through the Alps, (Taken During a Pedestrian Tour Among the Alps) Wordsworth expresses the idea as well as any textbook.

Once, Man entirely free, alone and wild,
Was blest as free--for he was Nature's child.
He, all superior but his God disdained,
Walked none restraining, and by none restrained
Confessed no law but what his reason taught,
Did all he wished, and wished but what he ought.
As man in his primeval dower arrayed
The image of his glorious Sire displayed,                     
Even so, by faithful Nature guarded, here
The traces of primeval Man appear;
The simple dignity no forms debase;
The eye sublime, and surly lion-grace:
The slave of none, of beasts alone the lord,
His book he prizes, nor neglects his sword;
Well taught by that to feel his rights, prepared
With this "the blessings he enjoys to guard."

This idea, that mankind would be better if left alone to nature and itself, has been proven to be ludicrous, but it lingers on. (Murder and rape rates, for example, are highest in the most “primitive” cultures, and lowest in modern civilizations. The reality is opposite to the perception.) Thus, we glorify and fetishize the Native Americans for their supposed communion with nature, while ignoring their mass slaughter of the bison. We still claim an affinity with tribal Africa, although none of us would really wish to live in a time and place where brutal tribal rape and genocide is considered the normal state of affairs. Still, Wordsworth’s chimera holds its attraction today, and has become part of the cultural fabric.

On the other hand, Wordsworth expresses a timeless truth in a beautiful poem inspired by an inscription on an ancient yew tree by a lake in “Lines: Left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree, which stands near the lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the shore, commanding a beautiful prospect,” which ends as follows:

If Thou be one whose heart the holy forms
Of young imagination have kept pure,
Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know that pride,           
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. The man whose eye
Is ever on himself doth look on one,
The least of Nature's works, one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful, ever. O be wiser, Thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love;                  
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself
In lowliness of heart.

I will also mention Guilt and Sorrow, another long narrative poem telling a rather melodramatic story of a soldier who in anger commits a murder and faces the consequences long afterward. The stanza form for that poem interests me, being a nine line stanza, iambic pentameter rhymed as ABABBCBCC. Although our modern ears seem to prefer a certain cynicism and distance, there is still something moving about unabashed emotion, told in a straightforward and sympathetic manner.

Although there are a few moments in Wordsworth’s works where I find myself thinking, “Oh brother!”, in my modern way, there is much to love and enjoy. In some ways, Wordsworth himself is as he aspires to be: the noble savage seeing nature without the veneer of jaded modernity and with the childlike fascination with the beauty of life and nature untainted. This ideal may not be found in any particular time and place, but it can be found in each and every one of us, as we choose to rise above the cynical concerns of our everyday life, and view the wonders of creation and existence with awe and love. 

Note on Music:

Those who know me know that I am fascinated by the intersection of music with other arts and sciences. At its core, music seeks to express emotional truth in a way that other media cannot. Too often, we think of Mozart and the Enlightenment as cerebral and stilted, completely out of date. While the music of the late Eighteenth Century may not yield its emotion as easily as some popular music, there is a depth that can be plumbed with a little time and effort.

Interestingly, there is a difference between music and literature in a crucial way. The Romantic poets valued introversion over extroversion, and sought a more personal expression. In music, the Enlightenment composers were the more introverted. Mozart’s emotion, for example, must be sought out because it is beneath the surface. The romantic composers, in contrast, went for broad effects, with the emotion at the surface, while the poets focused inwardly.

Mozart: One of his most famous sonatas. Perfect balance, impeccable structure, and a restrained beauty. The emotion is there, but carefully kept in check. 


Liszt: A total contrast in mood and emotion. Here, the drama is easily apparent, but the structure is hidden. This one is amazing when performed live, if you ever get the chance to hear it that way. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Best Friend

Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil. ~ Baltasar Gracian

With a best friend, there is no question of who is the boss: you both want the same things.

A best friend doesn’t keep a ledger of who does what work. A best friend knows that it isn’t the division of labor, but the result, that counts. Best friends know that together, they can complete a task faster and better than apart.

A best friend doesn’t compete with you. You are a team, and can kick anyone’s butt if necessary.

It is always you and your best friend against the world. The two of you can conquer anything together.

A best friend will never ask you to compromise your values or your personality. A best friend loves you for who you are.

A best friend never needs to demand, because a best friend knows that a reasonable request will always be granted. Best friends want to please each other.

A best friend knows when you are overwhelmed, and helps carry that burden for you.

A best friend knows when you are just blowing off steam, and when you are really upset.

It never gets old to talk to your best friend. You will never run out of conversation, because everything in life is a potential topic.

When your best friend shows up, the stress level goes down and you can relax.

You never worry about being stabbed in the back by a best friend, and you know you would never do it either.

Best friends cannot be separated by the idle chatter and gossip of third parties. Best friends know each other too well to believe lies about the other.

Best friends finish each other’s sentences. Great minds think alike.

Best friends, when apart, think of what the other would say about whatever they are doing and experiencing - and probably can guess the witty comment the other would make in any situation.

A best friend thinks it’s funny when you put your foot in your mouth - but doesn’t laugh too hard.

Best friends always respect each other when they fight. They might even respect each other more when they disagree.

A best friend will tell you the truth whether you want to hear it or not, but doesn’t feel the need to use it as a weapon.

Best friends can tell when the other is full of it.

Best friends can’t stand to be angry at each other.

A best friend can communicate a whole history with a glance and a raised eyebrow.

A best friend can always be trusted, and gives trust in return. A best friend also understands that everyone fails sometimes, and loves anyway.

When you have a best friend, you wake up in the morning excited about the adventures you will have together.

Every experience is better when shared with a best friend. Yet best friends understand the need for separate activities and interests.

When you have a best friend, life itself would be unimaginable without the friendship.

In 1998, I met my best friend. Eleven years ago, I married her. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

First of all, I must state that my wife is a hypocrite. It’s true. But first, let me explain what this fascinating book is about. 

Thaler is an economist, while Sunstein is a lawyer, but was appointed to serve in the Obama administration. Their book, published before the election, addresses the question of default settings in public policy, and the use of what they call “nudges” to assist people in making good decisions. 

Thaler and Sunstein advocate a position they call “libertarian paternalism.” At the heart of this concept is the idea of a default setting - that is, what happens when people do not take action. A great example of this is the 401(k) retirement account. In order to start contributing to such an account, one must take action by signing up. In addition, one must choose which investments are used. The default setting at this time is “no contributions,” which is surely a poor default. This is doubly (or more) so, in cases where an employer matches contributions. The default is to lose free money!

There are other possible defaults here, including a default that 401(k) contributions are set at the maximum, or that they are set at the level of the maximum employer match. Another possibility is that the employee be forced to explicitly choose before he or she receives the first paycheck. The result of the current default is that nearly everyone says they want to contribute more, but far too many never overcome the inertia and sign up. 

A related problem is that of choosing investments. Most plans have numerous funds as options, and most investors are fairly unsophisticated when it comes to choosing them. Most of us would prefer some guidance to appropriate investments. (I am an exception here: I love doing the research, and educated myself before opening my own SEP IRA accounts.) The point here is that it suddenly becomes extremely important to set appropriate defaults. As the authors point out, something will be the default: it is impossible to avoid it. Space prevents the discussion of the Swedish social security system. (Yes, it’s true. The socialist Swedes have partially privatized their social security system.) The authors’ look at the results of various defaults tried by the Swedish government over the last decade is illustrative of the power of the default setting.

Now this is where my wife is a hypocrite. She has generally been purely libertarian in her philosophy toward retirement contributions - far more libertarian than me. Although she does contribute to her retirement at the matching rate, she set her accounts essentially at the default, and cannot really explain what she has invested in and why. She has accepted the defaults, and many others are like her. (I mean nothing negative here - it's just human nature - but many libertarians seem intent on denying or ignoring this fact.)

Here is where Thaler and Sunstein believe in the use of “nudges.” These are essentially the use of defaults and reminders in ways that do not abridge the freedom of choice, but assist those who tend to settle for defaults in making better decisions. In order to qualify as a nudge, the authors believe that the cost of overriding the nudge should be as low as possible - preferably zero. In the above example, if the default for retirement contributions was, say, five percent of income, it would qualify as a nudge as long as the employee could easily opt out. (The change would be from “opt-in” to “opt-out.”) 

Central to the idea of the “nudge” is that people are “humans” rather than “econs.” The typical libertarian economist believes that people always educate themselves, consider the options, and pick what they want. In other words, they make decisions that are in their best interest. People like this exist, and the authors call them “econs.” Most of us, however, are “humans” in how we behave. We fail to act logically in all situations. We procrastinate, and react rather than think - at least in some cases. We are particularly prone to get into trouble on serious issues wherein the cost is incurred immediately, but the reward is in the future. We struggle to get complex issues correct, which is a particular problem in cases where we do not get the opportunity to practice, such as in saving for retirement. These are the precise scenarios where the authors think that nudges can be helpful. 

A great example of the “human” tendency can be seen in an experiment involving intentionally stale popcorn, which was served in different sized containers. It was rather universally agreed among the participants that the popcorn was gross, and yet those with larger containers ate more. By a lot. Even though they hated the popcorn. 

Another interesting “human” tendency was to have difficulty assessing risk. For example, most people will estimate the likelihood of divorce to be fifty percent - at least for other people. For themselves, they consistently estimate a zero chance. Obviously, this cannot be right, but the human tendency is to disregard certain risks and overestimate others. (This could be an entire book by itself.) 

Another reason the authors think nudges are important is that humans tend to follow the herd. We naturally want to do what we believe other people are doing. By shifting the default, the herd mentality can be used to produce better results. The authors cite the Jamestown Massacre as a negative example, but also note that the herd mentality has also been used to reduce littering. This part of the discussion was seriously unsettling, particularly the experiments that have been done involving peer pressure. People are amazingly unwilling to stand for their own opinions if they have to do so against a crowd. On the positive side, it was shown that consistent and unwavering people can have immense influence for good, as well as evil. 

Libertarians, of course, tend to oppose nudges, for a number of reasons, some better than others. The authors are proposing what they believe is a third way, between the “command and control” paradigm of modern, post Franklin Roosevelt liberalism; and the laissez faire approach of libertarian conservatism. The authors correctly note that many companies and individuals have a strong financial incentive to cater to people’s ignorance and frailties and exploit them. A good example cited here is the mortgage business, where fine print and complexity are routinely used to hide the true cost from consumers. 

The goal that the authors set is to determine how to use nudges, rather than command and control schemes to protect the less sophisticated and the vulnerable. The intention is to benefit the “humans”, with a minimal cost to the “econs.” In the context of retirement, there should be a miniscule cost - if any - to a default that leads to a greater investment in retirement by those who fail, for whatever reason, to go beyond the default. It should not bother those of us who actively manage our retirement accounts if someone else also does well. If it does, perhaps we should be evaluating why we wish to see others hurt. Do we just want to look down on others we deem less intelligent than ourselves? Something to ponder. 

I felt that the authors made their point well, and present a powerful argument in favor of libertarian paternalism. It is with regret that I note that, despite Sunstein’s presence, the Obama administration has chosen in most cases to go with a command and control approach, rather than a “freedom and nudge” approach as that advocated by the authors. I think that the “third way” proposal would be attractive to both sides of the aisle: more protection against our frailties (and from exploitation), combined with greater freedom of choice - and from onerous regulatory compliance. 

Note on some specific proposals: The authors address a few ideas, such as the use of a carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme to reduce pollution. They contrast it, however, with a command and control scheme, in which byzantine or draconian regulations cause costs to both those who pollute and those who comply. They also come down in favor of school vouchers, as increasing freedom, while setting defaults so that it is harder for the more sophisticated to game the system. They also advocate for privatizing marriage. All of these proposals are worth considering, whether you agree with them or not. I thought they were food for thought, and should be considered in contrast to the current state of affairs, not just in the abstract.

Note on peer pressure: A quote from this section made me smile, although it is not directly on point:


Conventional wisdom has it that if two people live together for a long time, they start to look like each other. This bit of folk wisdom turns out to be true. (For the curious: they grow to look alike partly because of nutrition - shared diets and eating habits - but much of the effect is simple imitation of facial expressions.) In fact couples who end up looking alike also tend to be happier!

Note on notes: The authors use their own version of a nudge in how they format the notes, which they explain at the outset. Most citations and other notations are presented as endnotes at the back of the book. These are interesting to people like me, who occasionally wish to check a citation source. However, certain other notes, which the authors assume the average reader would like to see immediately, without flipping to the back, are placed as footnotes. I wish more authors did things this way. I hate having to go all the way to the end for a note that can be a useful explanation of the text, but would hate to have all the citations right there and in the way. Brilliantly done!

Note on Shel Silverstein: The authors wished to use Silverstein’s poem “Smart” as an illustration. It was perfectly on point, and charming. Here is how the authors describe what happened: 


To analyze the question, let’s start with a simple example inspired by a wonderful poem by Shel Silverstein (1974) entitled “Smart.” The poem is fun as well as brilliant, so if you have a computer nearby, we suggest you type “Smart” and “Shel Silverstein” into Google and read the poem now.* We will wait for you to get back before continuing.

*Silverstein had personally given Thaler permission to use the poem in an academic paper published in 1985 - he said he was tickled to see his work appear in the American Economic Review - but the poem is now controlled by his estate, which after several nudges (otherwise known as desperate pleas), has denied us permission to reprint the poem here. Since we would have been happy to pay royalties, unlike the Web sites you will find via Google, we can only guess that the managers of the estate (to paraphrase the poem) don’t know that some is more than none. 

Since I think I can get away with quoting a single poem under the fair use doctrine, I will reproduce it here.

My dad gave me one dollar bill
'Cause I'm his smartest son,
And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
'Cause two is more than one!

And then I took the quarters
And traded them to Lou
For three times -- I guess he don't know
That three is more than two!

Just then, along came old blind Bates
And just 'cause he can't see
He gave me four nickels for my three dimes,
And four is more than three!

And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs
Down at the seed-feed store,
And the fool gave me five pennies for them,
And five is more than four!

And then I went and showed my dad,
And he got red in the cheeks
And closed his eyes and shook his head--
Too proud of me to speak!