Friday, December 19, 2014

Sermon of the Week (12/14 - 12/19, 2014) Mark Dever on Luke 1:1-4, Luke 1:5-2:40

Sermon of the Week is the weekly series where I highlight a sermon (from the selection of preachers on the right) that I believe best explained a passage or had the biggest impact on my week.

I'm sticking with the Advent theme this week. Dever does a passionate job of explaining these passages in these two sermons; he gives a brief apologetic for the Lukan account as well. The first ("Jesus in the Bible") is really an overview of Luke, the second ("Jesus in the Manger") is focusing on the birth narrative and the faith (and lack thereof) of Zechariah. (Given his effort at apologetics, I'm a little disappointed he didn't focus on the historically problematic aspects of Ceasar's/Quirinius' census, this is one of the harder passages to square historically.) They are really good Christmas sermons. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (Book Review #120 of 2014)


The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
Tim Geithner cited this book in his memoir so I know Silver's writing has been influential on at least one policy maker. I read this book partially out of curiousity over how smart Silver really is when it comes to economics and statistics. This book came after Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com blog successfully predicted Presidential and Senate races and publishers wanted to capitalize on nerdy books like Michael Lewis' Moneyball. While Silver's election forecasting has been lauded, I never found it much more than novel-- he explains in the book that he simply took an average of others' forecasts, weighted by their past accuracy. The digging through data was more impressive to me than the results. I strongly encourage this book to anyone interested in forecasting, especially as applied to economics and policy making in areas such as climate change and financial regulation. It's also a good read for those starting a business or for CEOs looking to push back on their internal forecasters. Prerequisites before reading it are Michael Lewis' Moneyball and The Big Short; Bob Schiller's Irrational Exuberance, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow; and I would also recommend Benoit Mandelbroit's (Mis)Behavior of Markets. I would also recommend the climate change chapters in Dubner & Levitt's SuperFreakonomics.

Silver intends the book to be an investigation of various data-driven predictions. He is also proselytizing in the name of Bayesian analysis with the goal of leading the reader think more probabilistically. Silver writes that we can all improve our predictions by adjusting them when new information arises. This may seem like common sense, but I forecast for a budget office that has to project quarterly tax revenue two years in advance and doesn't have the luxury of regularly updating the published forecast when new information comes in (a real problem when the average retail price of gasoline comes in over $1/gallon below what anyone was forecasting even a year ago). it takes both courage and humility to be Bayesian when our media culture often hammers people for "flip-flopping" on issues. Bayesian thinking uses prior estimates as a starting point, and changing them as you encounter new information.

Perhaps what I like most about this book are the interviews Silver conducts with people ranging from NASA scientists to economists to Donald Rumsfeld. He converses with Justin Wolfers over his critiques of Silver's predictions at FiveThirtyEight.com. He talks with forecasters about their forecasts, theories, problems, etc. even though he already knows a lot about the field. I work as an economic forecaster for state government, and I see the best practices, the most common mistakes, and the heuristic biases that Silver describes in detail.

Silver begins with a seemingly odd-fitting hypothesis: as Gutenberg's printing press made books and knowledge more widespread, conflict increased as people felt they had more control over their own destinies. As we have more information/data, we know less of what to do with it. We pick and choose which data we prefer and become more tribal, more hostile to other tribes who focus on a different set of data.

The terms forecasting and prediction are currently used interchangeably but had subtly different meanings with theological implications in the Middle Ages. Even today, seismologists say earthquakes cannot be predicted, as "predict" means a set time and date. But they can be forecasted, meaning that a forecast is a probability of an event, usually over a range of time. Forecasts are made in uncertainty. The U.S. has a "prediction addiction" and a prediction problem. Predictions for seemingly important series--like GDP, inflation, and unemployment-- have been wildly inaccurate. The important economic variables most frequently forecast tend to be consistently wrong. Silver recounts the housing bubble and 2007 financial crisis where CDOs were being AAA rated by ratings agencies who should have known better. Some economists acknowledged the housing bubble but did not accurately predict the consequences of its bursting. In this lengthy section, Silver cites Schiller, Rogoff & Reinhart, Larry Summers, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, and others. Silver chalks up the ratings agencies' errors to the common forecasting error of not having a large enough sample size, making later observations appear much more improbable than they should be. Many of Wall Street's forecasters' models only went back to the 1980s, and missed the simple fact that real housing prices did not appreciate very much over the long-haul, not to mention several recessions in American history.

Silver performed an amusing survey of The McLaughlin Group's weekly forecasts and found them to be no better than flipping a coin. He looks at how experts in various fields tend to be inaccurate in their forecasts. There are "foxes" who know something about a lot of things and "hedgehogs" who know one big thing. Hedgehogs make good TV guests but are not as good at predicting, studies have shown, as foxes. (The most recent example of this I've seen was a finding that various ivy league experts' predictions on Russia and foreign policy were more inaccurate in their predictions of Russian aggression toward Crimea than less-credentialed experts or experts in other fields.) Silver remarks that good forecasts are not just purely data-driven, more and better data help but sometimes not all that much. In politics, an incumbent running in a district solid for his party might suddenly be trounced at the news of infidelity or corruption, something a purely statistical model wouldn't predict.

Silver cut his forecasting teeth on Major League Baseball, designing a system (PECOTA) to forecast draft picks and minor leaguers' potential output. PECOTA did okay against scouts but not fabulous, and Silver sold the system to Baseball Prospectus while he went on to publish books and start FiveThirtyEight.com. It's easy to conclude that a little bit of computer know-how can give you a huge advantage, but Silver states that's not what he's intending to say. Better models may help you at the margin, but like any business, forecasting is competitive and people will adjust and take away your advantages.

What is needed is a good harmony between man and machine (Tyler Cowen picked up this theme in his recent book Average is Over). Algorithms cannot replace humans at forecasting completely, at least not anytime soon. Silver gives the example of weather forecasting, stating that humans add about 25% accuracy to computer models simply by using their eyes to identify outliers on the weather map, faster than computers or t-tests can. He evaluates the forecasts of NOAA and The Weather Channel, noting that as the U.S. government nicely provides weather data for free, for-profit forecasters compete in terms of accuracy. But the perception of being accurate is the most important-- the incentive is ratings, not accuracy, after all.

The government also publishes free economic data but it is messy, noisy, and constantly subject to revision. Economic forecasters don't publish confidence intervals for their forecasts because they are "embarrassed." As an economic forecaster, I've always wondered why we don't publish such intervals but Silver explains the history here. Silver does explain the problem of "overfitting" in forecasts-- putting in too many independent variables to fit the curve or too often being "fooled by randomness" (an oddly sly allusion to Nassim Taleb, who Silver leaves out of the book... there must be some history between them).

Silver writes of a successful gambler on NBA games who has a statistical model but also watches most of the games and makes personal judgements about how the team is communicating with one another, the effort they're visibly putting out, etc. This theme leads to a long exposition of poker and how gamblers have to quickly calculate the odds of opponents' hands given what you hold, what she has done. A computer would be good at this, but not at the aspects of bluffing which anyone who has watched Star Trek:TNG knows.

There is a detailed look at Kasparov vs. IBM's Deep Blue. Chances are that your chess game will result in a position that has never before been played or recorded. Machines programmed with millions of pre-played game data run out of history after a few moves, and have to formulate a strategic analysis of the game. Silver learns in an interview that an undiscovered bug in Deep Blue's program threw off Kasparov's estimation of the computer's ability and strategy when he was analyzing the match results afterward. This resulted in Deep Blue ultimately shaking Kasparov. Kasparov thinks more like a poker player at times, trying to determine if Deep Blue has a "tell" or is bluffing.

Silver writes that the average forecaster is still probably good relative to average guy on the street and he makes this point looking at poker-player data. He played online poker as a slightly above-average player, making money. When later looking at data he realized that the bottom 10% of players were so bad that they were subsidizing the average players. When the bottom 10% dwindled, the previously average players like Silver became the bottom 10% and lost. Apparently, 52%  of online players have bachelor's degree, and are smarter than the average citizen who just buys a lottery ticket. This leads to overconfidence and a sense of entitlement, which Silver admitted to while playing. Poker takes more skill than roulette, but is still heavily dependent on luck. This segways into a comparison with stock traders who also suffer from hubris and a belief he/she is "above average."

Silver gives a good summary of Eugene Fama's efficient markets hypothesis and Richard Thaler's critique-- the "no free lunch" aspect versus the "price is always right" aspect. Silver channels Kahneman to describe how heuristics and biases affect buyers/sellers' forecasts. We should all be aware of our biases and working against them (Silver recommends Robin Hanson's blog for help) and purporting we have none shows we have many. Never trust a forecaster or scientists who states he has no biases.

From here, Silver looks at the enormously controversial yet important forecasting of climate change. While there is wide agreement among climatologists about the underlying theory, the warming trend, and causes, there is wide disagreement about the models used to forecast. This is important because the forecasts are often 30-100 years out and the margin for error quite high. There is contentious disagreement about the use of computer models. Scientists are dismissive of forecasters and models, where climate skeptic forecasters are dismissive of the science. Silver cautions that one should never trust a forecaster who is dismissive or ignorant of the underlying science behind the data he is forecasting, and never trust a scientist who is dismissive or ignorant of statistics and forecasting.

One problem with climate change over time, and betting on various models is that you can easily cherry-pick your start/end date to get a different result (are temperatures trending higher or lower?). Silver examines some of the forecasts and finds the IPCC's model (problematic for reasons he describes) as fairly accurate since the 1990s. Nonetheless, Bayesian analysis would suggest that people are correct to increase their skepticism about the warming trend in recent years, since the earth's temperatures have not warmed from 2004-2011. Each new data point should cause an adjustment of your forecast. Silver laments that we could have been having a debate about the uncertainties of the forecasts all these years, rather than a debate about whether the problem really exists.

Silver's faith in Bayesian analysis and lack of thinking through its logical conclusions is perhaps a weakness of the book. Bayesians like Silver say that our technological progress suggests further advancement is inevitable, and that we're converging on a point where we will seemingly be correct about everything; that we're evolving and will eventually achieve a progressive utopia. I'm reminded of Chris Hedges arguments against such thinking that quantum mechanics demonstrates some things will always be unknowable, and that world history shows no progress toward a utopia. There will always be randomness, there will always be noise mistaken for signal. Silver admits that the political polarization in America suggests our technological advancement is not inevitable. (He also touches on chaos theory throughout the book.)

An example of climatology frustration is that some simple ideas-- like putting sulfur into the atmosphere-- would seem to be something we can at least experiment with. Volcanoes give evidence that putting a small amount of sulfur into the atmosphere would likely reduce the greenhouse effect, but environmentalists clash with climatologists on the issue. Again, if our technological progress suggests further advancement is inevitable the political disputes and cognitive biases suggest otherwise.

Silver closes the book with a look at hindsight bias (although I don't think he uses that term). In hindsight, people wonder how the Pearl Harbor attack could have been a surprise. The silence in radio transmissions from Japan's carrier fleet should have been the signal in the noise. One definition of "noise" is not randomness, but multiple--too many-- signals, which is the problem with SIGINT. The FBI and NSA are constantly following up on leads they find to be false signals.

The conclusion of the book: Think probabilistically. Move from simplifications and approximations to more precise forecasts and statements when more data is collected.
Go from "investors cannot beat the market" to "most investors cannot beat the stock market relative to their risk and transaction costs. It is hard to tell if any can due to noise in the data." Work to reduce your biases: to say that you have none shows that you have many. "Try and err:" Make a lot of forecasts and evaluate them. "Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge: the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
   
I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan edited by Frith Meier (#119 of 2014)


Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan
This book is five stars for the compiling, editing, and first-hand research done by the editor- Frith Maier. She should have won an award simply for that; but this book was actually just her master's thesis. It contains a ton of references, footnotes, historical background, and additional details. The journal itself is, eh, not that informative. I read a lot of travel works by Americans traveling in Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the mid-1800s which are found copyright-free on Gutenberg and other resources. The editors reference a few and I'm eager to read the one by Arthur Cunynghame as well as those of British explorers. This account is quite bland, it's simply shorthand journal entries with very few stories. The editor also includes some excerpts from Kennan's letters, speeches, and articles that are helpful. The stories that are there are interesting, however, and Kennan had a big influence on future Russian thinkers, including his distant relative George Frost Kennan, the diplomat. I'm very glad the editors took the time to piece together this for historical reference so that it would not be left to the dustbin at the Library of Congress.

Kennan is the first American known to have traveled in Daghestan, in 1870. He was already publishing a book on his time spent in Siberia, and his travels and lectures from this trip would propel him into being the first American "expert" on Russia. I lived for two years in an area just south of where Kennan traveled. I lived with actual Lezgins, and while he writes about Lezgins it's not clear he traveled far enough south to actually encounter many. Be that as it may, Kennan gives the reader exposure to several mountain cultures in the late 1800s, when Russian attempts as passification were really just beginning and the Georgian kingdom was in decline, having already capitulated its authority to the Russian state.

Meier does a good job vetting the locations Kennan scrawls in his journal, traveling there with a translator and filmmaker Chris Allingham to retrace his path. Their own journey shows up only in the foreword, afterword, and a few footnotes. Meier has published a book on his own adventures hiking around Central Asia that I'm sure is an interesting read. Kennan spent some time in Scotland before traveling on to St. Petersburg and downriver all the way to modern-day Makhachkala. He encounters a Georgian prince who was taking an account of the province and settling disputes in various villages, helping Kennan along almost as a guide. From there he traverses to Tbilisi and then makes his way to Grozni (Chechnya) before making his way back across the Black Sea to modern-day Istanbul. (The most amusing anecdote of the book, for me, came when he successfully orders a cup of Turkish coffee and throws the concoction out as if he'd been duped into buying fake coffee.)

I recommend this book if you're interested in the Caucasus, it's probably a must-read. There are very few glimpses into the old culture there recorded in English, and his account is worth checking out.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rebound Rules by Rick Pitino (Book Review #118 of 2014)

Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0
Pitino's book Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life had an impact on me in the 1990s, and I still refer back to some of its lessons on communication.

I was eager to read this book by a more mature and, if possible, more humble Pitino. I read an article on Pitino by Forde years ago that talked about how he'd mellowed after the loss of his best friend and brother-in-law Billy Minardi in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The article suggested that winning didn't mean as much to the man, and that every success was something to stop and celebrate, and I was curious whether this was true. I also have the perspective of the Pitino who got caught in adultery and secretly paying for his fling's abortion, something that was against everything the man supposedly stood for. It is hard to read this book which lays out Pitino's firm principles (similar to his first book) and square it with that Pitino.

Each chapter has a theme with some examples from the coach's experience, some anecdotal illustrations from business or similar, and a bullet-point summary at the end. The coach's examples are interesting but the canned illustrations from business, drawn from the Wall Street Journal and other sources, are rather dull. Pitino's comments on those illustrations become somewhat annoying. He may express humility at points in the book ("I'm working, on a daily basis, to put others before me" p. 38), but it's clear he still has the confident in his own expertise in everything from other sports to manufacturing to politics. The worst example comes in a foray into theology toward the end of the book.
"Some of our biggest problems in the world today are rooted in religious fanaticism and intolerance of other views. I don't know that there is such thing as a 'chosen' faith, so much as there is a chosen way to live. I don't believe God would exclude a Catholic, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Hindu simply because they chose the wrong doctrine to  follow—not if they've lived a good life" (p. 189).

There are some glimpses into the personal tragedies of Pitino's life that connect the reader to the coach on a deeper level. The first is the death of his infant son, Daniel, in 1987. This came at the height of one of the most joyous seasons, the Providence '87 Final Four team that propelled him to fame and fortune. Pitino reveals much of his and Joanne's grieving process, and how they've worked to make it a positive but it still haunts him. The second is the loss of two of his best friends and brothers-in-law in 2001, just months apart. Minardi is still on their minds as his pictures are in every room of their house. Pitino uses stories from Minardi's life for encouragement and motivation. These events helped humble the coach and help him put family and career into proper perspective.

"Basketball is my passion, but not my life. Helping my players, family members, and friends achieve happiness counts more than the final score of any game. I'm still enjoying what I do immensely and my energy to work remains extremely  high—but there is a greater balance at the end of the day" (p. 13).

Kentucky fans will enjoy his stories about players from those teams although there are more in Success is a Choice. He reveals how and why he and Antoine Walker didn't get along initially, the issues his assistant coaches had in the early days, and more. Louisville fans will particularly enjoy the story of his first meeting/confrontation with the group of misfit players he inherited. He talks a lot about his project players, but admits his failures, like with Terrance Williams.

Pitino admits he left Kentucky in '97 "for the money." He has often expressed regret for this decision as his "failure" in Boston took a lot of time for him to get over. He does explain the reasons for his failures there: he got too caught up in making emotional, short-run decisions with the team to win immediately rather than stick to a long-run strategy. His plan was to retire rich and famous at 55 and he now realizes that was foolish.

I appreciated his retrospective here and anyone who has lost a job or experienced any level of failure can appreciate Pitino's wisdom (p. 29):
Darkness of doubt happens.
Get in touch with your fundamentals to combat doubt.
POINTS OF CAUTION:
Denial doesn't work.
Use past mistakes as learning tools
Running away  doesn't work. Don't isolate yourself.
Avoid rebound marriages, like I considered entering into with UNLV.

Besides dealing with the darkness of doubt, my main takeaway from the book is Pitino's resolve to stay "relentlessly positive." Kentucky's 31-point comeback at LSU was the result of staying positive in the huddles. He rejects cynicism and won't tolerate "bitchfests" in meetings. Pitino keeps a written record of whether he remained positive or not in a given day. He's honest about the difficulty:
"The best I've done for a season is to average 70 percent positive days, so there is work to do" (p. 123). He also writes that he gives a copy of Spencer Johnson's The Precious Present to almost everyone and reads it to his players (and even summarizes it in the book). I will have to check it out.

He writes that he has personal accountability on a daily basis for achieving his career goals, and recommends accountability to others. I suppose that his succumbing to a floozie at a bar in front of his friends means he does not maintain that same accountability for his personal life.

My favorite quote from the book comes from the legendary Bill Russell, who spoke to Pitino's locker room before a game (p. 169). Russell rips into the selfish players and demands better:
“I know you guys think I'm making fun of you and calling you out for your egos. But I'm the most egotistical son of a bitch who ever played. The only thing is, my ego didn't come from any individual statistics. Your ego is about points, rebounds, and assists. My ego came from the final score. My ego is team ego. But then again, what do I know? I've only won 11 world championships, back-to- back college championships, 56 college games in a row, and an Olympic gold medal. And that's why I'm Bill Russell and you're not.”

Pitino emphasizes team ego and says he recruits players and coaches who have a "PHD," who are "passionate, hungry, and driven." This is why he now avoids one-and-done players who live in a "microwave" culture of instant gratification. He wants people who he can make better.

"Your goal is to achieve maximum performance on a daily basis, and to help those around you do the same. Set that goal and then try like hell to attain it" (p. 137).

Pitino says retiring on top is not necessarily important to him, he just doesn't want to coach past the point where he no longer has his own PHD. I would say that day is coming pretty soon.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Not great, but good enough.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism by R.C. Sproul (Book Review #117 of 2014)


Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism
Ligonier Ministries gave this book out for free in November, and I was glad to get it. This book sprang out of Sproul and other Presbyterians' concerns over a push toward ecumenicism in the 1990s. The Evangelical and Catholics Together movement produced a series of statements affirming certain common doctrines on both sides. Sproul and others may have agreed with 95% of the statements but found the other 5% to be essential doctrine on which they would not compromise, and felt no one else should either.

Sproul states his personal biases toward the beginning. He grew up a protestant in a Catholic area and witnessed resulting social divisions. His Catholic best friend was not allowed by his priest to participate in his wedding, and Sproul was only allowed to attend his friend's wedding at a distance. He's glad to march in pro-life rallies and defend the sanctity of marriage with Catholics but now refuses to call them "Church." The book does not, however, take on a hostile or insensitive tone. He dispels some common Protestant misconceptions or falsehoods about Catholics, including their official views on Scripture (with which Sproul agrees). There are a few points where Sproul points out some contradictions in doctrine where the reader can sense his frustration, however. Much of this book I already knew from listening to Sproul's lectures on Catholic history earlier this year on his daily podcast.

It's true that Sproul knows more about Catholic history and doctrine and all its contradictions than the average Catholic. But the average Protestant is equally ignorant to his own doctrines and history. But there is much history described in this book, as well as philosophy from Aristotle to Aquinas. As always, Sproul reasons by using logic.

The core of the book is a defense of the doctrine of imputation. Sola fide- faith in Christ alone is a core tenet of the Reformation and Sproul defends it well while pointing out the clear differences that Catholics themselves delineated in response to the Reformation in the Council of Trent. Later doctrines, such as papal infallibility (1870), are problematic and Sproul allows the German Catholics who refuse to acknowledge the doctrine to speak for themselves. Sproul, like many Catholics, believe that Vatican I and Vatican II both left the Catholic church with unfinished business in defining their positions. He does not look much at modern statements by Popes, he sticks purely to official church positions.

There is a good critique of transubstantiation that I would recommend reading. The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) affirmed that Christ's spirit and body were separate, and the attributes of both remain separate. Christ's physical body did not possess the immortal nature of God's power. Sproul asks how, then, can Christ's body & blood be simultaneously everywhere during masses? Sproul's recounting of the key contentions between early protestants and Catholics are important as well.

If you're a Protestant reading this book, you'll find it very self-affirming. However, if you're a Catholic you'll probably point out that there are plenty of intelligent Catholics who have already dealt with the issues that Sproul raises. I recently listened to an interview with Jim Tonkowich, author of How (Not) to Become a Catholic where he criticized certain protestants (without mentioning Sproul by name) for making it sound like Catholics must not be studious or intelligent since they seemingly hold to so many contradicting positions. Tonkowich argues that determining what is "essential" is problematic and questions who gets to decide. You can listen to that interview at the Research on Religion podcast here.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I learned a few things and am glad to have it as a reference. I'm glad to entertain critiques of the book, however, and I'm sure there are plenty.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Sermon of the Week (12/7 - 12/13, 2014) Greg Pinkner on John 2:1-11

Greg Pinkner is the teaching pastor at Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Knoxville, TN and the best of any of the teachers/preachers listed on the right side of my blog. You can watch or listen on this page or subscribe to their podcast for the mp3. This sermon is titled The Light Shines and is on John 2:1-11, where Jesus turns the water into wine (from 11/30/14). It is the best exposition of this passage that I have ever heard. Pinkner is up front about his preferred interpretation of the symbolism behind the order of activities and number of days in John's narrative-- nothing was put in John's carefully crafted Gospel by accident. Jesus is coming to fulfill the law and do away with the  "old wine and the old wineskins." Jesus is saying that something greater than Abraham and the prophets are here and the Jews are clearly missing it. Pinkner ties it into Advent wondering how we Americans can crowd out the Word becoming flesh by making Christmas about something other than Jesus. You will want to follow up with his message "The Light Reveals" from 12/7/14 on John 2:13-22, where Jesus cleanses the temple.

Do not miss this sermon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch (Book Review #116 of 2014)

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband
I was attracted to this book because my son is on the autism spectrum. I find it helpful to read books written by adults with high-functioning autism because they often clearly describe what their world looks and feels like. It turns out that this is actually one of the best books on marriage from a husband's viewpoint that I have ever read. Finch credits British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen's work for helping Finch understand himself. If Baron-Cohen is right that "autism can be considered as an extreme of the normal male (brain/psychological) profile," then every married man can learn from this book.

Finch and his wife Kristen go through five years of pain and emotional separation in marriage before Finch is diagnosed with autism. He is quite fortunate to have married a woman to show him "true grace" and be willing to both put up with his quirks in the surprise that she is not who he thought she was, and to slowly work with him to improve the marriage after the diagnosis.

Finch and his wife were friends in high school and began dating in college. He admits that he worked hard to put on his "best face" all the time and hide many of his quirks. Despite clear warning signs while they were living together, both thought the situation would magically improve once they got married and that the other party would change for the better, just like many young married couples. Misguided expectations lead to bitter disappointment.

Finch is determined to overcome his symptoms and become the perfect husband. He keeps a daily journal of his epiphanies and progress as he learns things like how to be empathetic, how to deal with change and disappointment, how to have constructive conflict, etc. His problem isn't just Asperger syndrome, it's also having conservative parents who never argued and allowed no conflict within the house as models. He marries someone dynamically different from him, she stays in the marriage because he makes her laugh and she knows he'd do anything for her, and eventually they have kids.

If you've read any book on marriage, you've seen to-do lists for husbands to improve upon: "Show more affection, find ways to have fun together, listen to her and don't try to solve all her problems..." Imagine a husband picking up one of those books and determining to do all of them better than any husband and you have Finch. Finch does not rely on marriage books but learns these lessons directly from his wife and sets about to improve himself as intensely as any of his other obsessions. While his wife appreciates the effort, just the fact that he's constantly looking for improvement like a machine really drives her nuts. But he learns what it means to see things from her perspective, how to listen to her, and how to be her friend. The goal is to restore the friendship that they enjoyed so much before and while they were dating-- something every married couple should struggle to do. "Be her friend, first and always."

It was also great to read how he dealt with his kids. When given the responsibility to get his toddlers ready for daycare in the morning after Kristen leaves for work and he heads to his office, he goes about trying to meet their needs but not showing the love that they desperately need. He eventually finds the right balance.

It's also a good look at his work life as a sort of electronic engineer and later as a salesman. Somehow he advances through the ranks but also determines that he'll put everything aside to be a better husband and father.

In the end he is able to put down the notebook and intensity and just be there for his family. The family develops into the one he dreamed of, with pictures on the wall, the wife cooking dinner for the family to eat together while he plays with the kids, etc. It's a beautiful, and almost unbelievable, ending.

If you do not have a loved one on the autism spectrum, you may find the book annoying, particularly all of Finch's snide, sarcastic self-deprecating remarks throughout the book (demonstrating his humor, which he has to practice). The book also contains a lot of profanity. But I give it 4 stars out of 5, and recommend it.