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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (10/31/14) 2:25am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Economics, The Kickstarter Handbook, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>

Economics by Timothy Taylor [audiocourse]
This is the massive, 18-hour audiocourse from the Teaching Company that covers the fundamentals of economics.

It was interesting.  The lecturer is very clear, and the course is rather refreshingly nonpartisan.  More precisely, the lecturer does a fine job of sifting out economics from morality -- you can have any number of political opinions about what we *should* do, but an economist won't tell you what you *should* do.  An economist will tell you what will happen.  If your economy has unsteady inflation rates, your country's productivity will go down.  Whether that's an acceptable trade-off is between you and your party.

I've studied economics before, way back in college.  That meant that, during the microeconomics half of the course -- "microeconomics" = "analyzing how a single market works" -- it was comfortable and familiar review.  But when it moved on to macroeconomics -- i.e., "how a country's entire economy works" -- I got left in the dust.  Supply and demand make sense to me.  Monopolies and externalities make sense to me.  But once you move on to interest rates and trade deficits, I get lost in the weeds.  I'm now re-listening to the second half, hoping that more of it sticks this time.

I will keep listening, though, because I want to make sense of this subject.  Every time I see something wrong in the world, I want to understand economics better.  I feel like, without understanding the mechanisms of how incentives affect people, then any time I hold an opinion about how to fix a problem in society, I'm like an ignorant customer at an auto shop.

"Did you try putting more oil in it?"

"Sir.  You have a dead battery.  Oil won't --"

"I think you should put more oil in it!"

"But that's not --"

*grabs oil can, starts pouring oil on windshield*

So we'll see if the second go-round teaches me more.

The Kickstarter Handbook by Don Steinberg
This is a book about how to run kickstarter projects.

Requisite shilling: I've been reading this to prepare for this kickstarter we just launched.  I'll post more about that tomorrow.

As for the book, it's pretty straightforward and informative.  Sure, it's information you could find online, spread across a few dozen web sites, but it's convenient having it all gathered up into one book.  It's a basic overview of kickstarter: the main pitfalls (like, say, forgetting to account for international shipping), how to fabricate prototypes (for "buy this new thing I made"-type kickstarters), how to create a decent pitch for your kickstarter, and how best to publicize it on the Internet.  Lengthy interviews with lots of kickstarter creators (both successful and unsuccessful) provide helpful examples.  The writing is nothing special, but it gets the ideas across with a minimum of fuss.

Honestly, the only bad thing I can say about this book is that I picked it up too late into the process.  By the time I read it, Lindsey had already uncovered its information from extensive online research.  But it's worth picking up if you're starting from scratch.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
This is the 1963 spy novel that made John le Carré a household name, and introduced the reading public to le Carré's bleak, realistic perspective on intelligence work.  It follows Alec Leamas, a British agent who goes deep undercover to take down a high-level East German intelligence officer.

I suppose every spy novel is about the reversals.  Oh, this agent is actually a double agent.  This stranger you thought you could trust is actually a counter-spy.  This situation where you thought you were safe is actually a ruse, cleverly constructed by your enemies.  And so you follow this novel, as you follow every spy novel, looking for those switchbacks.

And this book follows its usual reversals.  Leamas didn't really leave the service, he went undercover.  The stranger who meets Leamas is actually a red spy.  The Circus actually had a different plan in mind all along.  But then, once the book has played its hand, it reveals one last, stunning switchback: that this book isn't about the plot at all.  Oh, sure, the plot happens, but the whole exercise exists as an excuse[1] for le Carré to unload his feelings about being a spy.

He wrote this when, like Leamas, he was at the end of his rope with the intelligence service.  And once the plot has finished plotting, Leamas becomes a mouthpiece for the author, and the author is tired.  Tired of the job.  Tired of the near-sociopathic mindset required for the job.  Tired of a world where superiors carelessly mulch human lives for a greater good that nobody involved even particularly believes in -- everyone just ceaselessly tried to make the best moves on the chessboard, forever, because that's what we do.

I can't even imagine what it was like to read this book when it came out.  Imagine this searing diatribe-in-spy-novel-form hitting the British public after nine years of whimsical James Bond novels.  Even now, it feels like a bracing splash of cold water, forcing you to look at the harsh reality of spycraft.  It feels disillusioning, even if you never had any illusions about spying to begin with.

Beyond that, it's fascinating in its attention to detail.  Most whiz-bang spy stories feel kind of anemic by comparison -- like their details are sparse and don't correlate to any kind of lived-in reality.  Eventually, all the massive underground lairs feel the same, but Leamas's awful flat, or the chilly vigil at the Berlin checkpoint, feel unique and compelling.

That said, the plot itself is simple enough, and easy to outguess.  It won't surprise you -- the important thing is that it surprises the hero.  And the writing is mostly straightforward, facultative, plot-moving sentences -- the prose only really sings when le Carré unleashes both barrels at the espionage profession.  It feels like he's giving a retirement speech that he's been crafting for months, if not years.

But those are just quibbles.  This is an incendiary novel, a game-changer, and even fifty years later, it's exciting to read such a thing.

For next week: I'm still watching Deadwood.  I'm still watching Sleepy Hollow as my "watch while exercising" show.  I'm now reading SuperFreakonomics and re-listening to part of the economics audiocourse.

[1] The longest chain of "ex-" words I shall use for some time.

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