July 23, 2005

One to Watch: History Detectives

Not sure what to watch during summer rerun doldrums? May I suggest PBS's History Detectives?

I got turned onto the show by Stacy, who, being an historical archaeologist, is a sucker for such things. The detectives are real live historians and such, with strong credentials. Each show is comprised of three "cases," typically instigated by someone finding something historic in their home, and wondering about its history.

Cases in prior seasons proved quite uneven, but now in its third installment, they seem to have hit their stride. The stories are told well, with the detective work gradually revealing the circumstances under question.

And what really excites me about the show is that they are not shy about controversial subject matter, and bridging gaps between historical incidents and current events. A recent episode dealt with Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line, and a WWII German POW Camp in Texas. The former case lead to a discussion on forcible repatriation (definitely a black mark on American history), and the latter on the Geneva Convention and the treatment of detainees, with direct reference to contemporary treatment at Guantanamo.

This show's populist, social history orientation makes clear the value of PBS in comparison to advertising-supported alternatives.

Not to say that everything is of social import. That same episode featured an investigation into a 1920s toy mouse named "Micky," and its relationship to Disney's famous mouse. An engaging story, much of the music that underscores the case comes from a personal favorite, the Bonzo Dog Band.

Posted by peterme at 08:49 AM

July 22, 2005

Brief Book Review: Freakonomics

A lot of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms allowed me to plow through Freakonomics, a book that you've probably already heard of by now. Maybe you're still wondering, "Should I read it?" I would answer, "Yes."

For starters, it's brief. You can probably get through it in 2 hours, 3 hours tops. Nice big type and easy language.

Also, it addresses a fundamental theme -- conventional wisdom is often unwise. Levitt (the economist) applies smart analysis of data to uncover how things really work. Perhaps the starkest example concerns violent crime. In the 90s, violent crime rates plummeted (contrary to many doomsaying predictions in the early 90s). "Experts" cited a whole range of reasons, from a healthy economy, to innovative policing strategies. However, when you probed the data, there was little to no substance to those reasons. There was an extremely powerful reason, one that was never cited -- the Supreme Court decision, in Roe v. Wade, that legalized abortion in all 50 states. Easier access to abortions means fewer unwanted children which means fewer violent criminals.

Utilizing a rigorous analytical framework to uncover what lies behind everyday things is important, and, if nothing else, the book makes a strong case for it.

Something else I *reallllly* like about the book -- no attempt at tying together the stories into a grand unified theme. In recent tomes, both Gladwell and Surowiecki annoyed me with their hamfisted attempts at seeming smarter than they are, by presenting grand theories that don't really hold water. Levitt, to his credit, is an academic, one who understands that theories should not be taken lightly.

The only thing I really didn't like about the book is its stupid stupid title. Perhaps it's helping move copies, but it's SO ugly.

Posted by peterme at 03:51 PM | Comments (1)

My Dad and Bruce Lee

In commemoration of the 32nd anniversary of Bruce Lee's death, my dad writes about the time he met Bruce, a story which has always been one of my favorites to hear him tell.

Posted by peterme at 08:19 AM


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