Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A House and Its Head

I had read somewhere that Ivy Compton-Burnett was even better than Jane Austen so I bought one of her books and hoped to read a witty story with lots of insight into a society. Well, she's not better than Austen, not by a long shot.

I read A House and Its Head which is the story of Duncan Edgeworth's family. uncan is an autocratic father who catches everyone's smallest error in comportment or conversation. While the story doesn't have much description of the setting, wasn' sure for a long time whether it took place during the Victorian Period. (It was published in 1935.) At the very end the characters talk about the Victorian Period so this novel must take place in the 30's. Yet most good writing would make that clear. True a writer could be doing some cool things with the readers mind and the time period, but that is not in evidence here.

The long-suffering wife in this family soon dies and the apparently emotionless father remarries a woman his daughters' age and is soon cuckolded and the "father" of his nephew's illegitimate son. It's a commentary on rigidity and authoritarianism. It's not humorous and I don't think I learned that much about the era or life in general.

Not something I'd recommend.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Culture and Prosperity

At the airport in Chicago Culture and Prosperity: Why some nations are rich but most remain poor grabbed my attention. I was off to Indonesia, a developing country and this issue is on my mind. John Kay, an economist who writes for the Financial Times wrote it. His style is quite readable and its not weighted down my jargon or insiders' terminology. He clearly wants people to understand.

I was disappointed because the book spends a lot more time (pages) explaining concepts that economists use like Pareto improvement, a change that makes some people better off and no one worse off, and felicity calculous, the attempt to quantify happiness (not yet done well). I did come away with a better understanding of current economic work and a greater interest in the field. Yet I wish I knew "why some nations are rich but most remain poor."

He does provide a few insights. For example, on corruption: many countries with high rates of corruption do so because it's tolerated socially. Members of the culture expect it and feel helpless fighting it. These countries actually do have some of the strictest laws on bribery, but people think it's inevitable.

The inability to provide services like electricity (FYI so far in Makassar I've experienced 4 power outages - in 6 weeks) is not only an effect of poverty, it's a cause. Again, in many places people expect the electricity to go out and the phone not to work and . . . on and on.

Kay asserts that planned economies don't work. He uses the supermarket line as and example. At the supermarket line there's no one telling you where to stand. Everyone decides on their own what is optimal. Some people are a little bit better at guessing the best line and they help everyone get out sooner. The free system works fine. Thus more planning isn't the answer for developing countries, more freedom is Kay believes.

Right, but if a country has say 50% of its population with a third grade education they don't have many choices for which "career line" enter. How does a country like Indonesia with few educated people move up? I do wish Kay examined how Korea and Japan went from high poverty rates in the 60's or 70's to post-industrial economies. They had outside help and strong internal drive and big national corporations. What do the economists say about that that I haven't heard?

It is unusal for a book to not keep it's promise and still have me like and recommend it. Yet that's the case for Culture and Prosperity. I am still looking for more answers.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Northanger Abbey

I needed to read a comforting book so I turned to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, her first novel. It was the sort of thing I needed. Like Austen’s other novels, this features a young heroine and themes of marriage and money. In Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland is a young, naive woman enthralled by gothic father’s a parson and the family is middle class. She’s invited to stay with family friends in Bath, where she’s a little intimidated or by the high society and sophistication. She is very aware of what she doesn’t know. She’s out of her depths when discussing or understanding the society and the accepted take on novels and culture.

Her new friend Elizabeth invites her to Northanger Abbey, which stimulates Catherine’s active imagination. She suspects this old house will hold some dark secret behind a locked door or inside an old chest. Comically, she is always on the look out for the imagined secrets and worried that someone will find her snooping.

During this visit Catherine is in close contact with Elizabeth’s brother Henry, whom has captured her fancy. Of course, Austen includes obstacles to this love while describing other character’s more commercial love pursuits.

Not as well known as Pride and Prejudice or Emma, Northanger Abbey offers a good comfort read. It shows us Austen’s early writing and one can see how she grew in wit and sophistication.