Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review (#28 of 2013) Decision Points by George W. Bush

Decision Points reads like any memoir: highlighting the good while opening oneself to criticism for what your memoir doesn't say. It is nice that Bush published this brief memoir so early, he wants to set records straight while events are still somewhat fresh on peoples' minds.

I have read a few books about life in his administration, particularly in the first term, so I already came into this book with colored lenses. 

Something you don't expect to hear is that Bush read hundreds of books, particularly history, while in office-- including 14 biographies of Lincoln. (Contrast that with FDR who aides never knew to read a single book.)  Yet, his breadth of reading didn't make him softer or more open to varying points of view-- he still boils events down to black-and-white values and simple choices. How can a man who reads that widely not think more deeply? Or at least not be able to argue with the press and debate better-- produce more intelligent soundbites? It boggles the mind.

One problem I had with the book is that it's not chronological, Bush is looking at certain decisions he made and oftentimes context is lost because there's no mention of what was going on that complicated the fallout of that decision. For example, the early decisions and deliberations on invading Iraq were made very close to Afghanistan still being secured. In hindsight, that's a frequent criticism of Bush's decision-- taking his eye off the ball cost us Bin Laden. Bush spends a few sentences defending himself on this point, but largely the context of the massive nation-building Afghanistan was already going to require is lost in his decision.It was as if it were made in a vacuum.

In some cases, Bush makes strong rebuttals of critics' talking points. For example, he chafes under criticism that No Child Left Behind was an "unfunded mandate," pointing out that he increased federal education spending by 38% and that the program saw the improvements in test scores among minorities and the most vulnerable. He gives a timeline of the Katrina disaster and explains why he praised Mike Brown-- because other aides were praising him-- and gives a detailed list of the federal resources made available before the hurricane hit, and the Constitutional problems he had doing more for the state without the Louisiana Governor's express permission.
Bush throws few people under the bus in his memoir. Certain "junior congressmen" and "a Senator from New York" go unnamed. But he selectively quotes Harry Reid several times to illustrate what was either hypocritical or ridiculous criticism.

He does express regrets. He regrets going after Social Security reform after re-election, saying he should have pursued immigration reform first; in the end, he got neither. He regrets not looking at the intelligence on Iraq more closely (but argues that every major nation in the world--including Russia and China, which opposed the war--gave the U.S. intelligence that Iraq had active WMD programs). He points out that his position-- that he'd make the same decision to invade Iraw today with the same information he was given then-- is the same that John Kerry expressed in the 2004 campaign.

One other weakness of the memoir is on Bush's early life. He's shown as sort of moping through colleges and trying various jobs and experiencing all kinds of things without explaining that he was able to do so because of his parents' money and resources. He loves his parents and the Bush's upbringing of their son is evident, but there seems to be a disconnect between his understanding of his life and what an ordinary mortal would be able to experience. 

So many major events happened in Bush's eight years that I look forward to many future biographies and scholarly research done on his administration. 

On a side note, I listened to this book on my commutes and the reader, when sped to 1.75 normal speed sounds an awful lot like Bush with his mannerisms. So, the publisher made a good choice.

In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. I enjoyed hearing Bush's defense and his triumphs and failures as a manager.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review (#26 of 2013) 101 Games and Activities for Children with Autism by Tara Delaney

101 Games and Activities for Children With Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders was very helpful not just in giving ideas for activities, but in explaining why those activities are therapeutic and exactly which areas of a child's development they are focused on. Delaney gives first-hand experience as a therapist on many of the activities. She has had exposure to a wide range of children on the spectrum, and this is helpful to any parent who would read this book.
I marked about 1/3 of the activities to try out with my son, some of which he already really enjoys. Others of which have helped us see things he struggles with and we need to work on.The book includes practical things, like ways to involve your child in helping with household chores and how to modify popular board games into sensory and social thinking exercises. I highly recommend this book to any parent of an autistic child looking for ideas.

5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review (#25 of 2013) The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.

I have long wanted to read Brian Greene's books, and enjoyed seeing his Nova episodes on time and space. Physics tells us that "every moment in time already exists," which is a concept that will blow your mind and make you a five-point Calvinist. At least until you read about string theory and how it counters determinism, if you can understand exactly how that is. That's what The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is all about.

Greene has a talent for taking something that is purely theoretical and mathematical--the exploration of the universe--and making it somewhat intelligible for the reader with imperfect analogies and stories. He explains his own contributions to the world of physics and is quick to give credit to a host of colleagues.

You will learn a lot about the history of 20th century physics in this book, especially quantum mechanics. I listened to the audio version, and am glad as it's one of those books that can get really dry, despite Greene's best efforts to come up with imperfect analogies. I found the book harder to follow as it went on as it delved into the discoveries, re-discoveries, and debates of M-theory over the last 25 years. Where the conflict arises between higher mathematics and higher physics. The devil is in the details. Are there 11 dimensions and how does that work? Is it science, philosophy, both?

You will learn a great deal from this book. The fact that Greene is an expert in a highly complex field makes it hard to know whether his thoughts are accurate or not. What sorts of physicists disagree with him? Hard to know.

I give it 4 stars out of 5. It expands your universe, check it out. 

Book Review (#24 of 2013) Simply Christian by N.T. Wright

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense is the first N.T. Wright book that I've read, and he made a pretty good first impression. I expected this book to be somewhat like C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, but it's much less apologetic in nature and more of an exposure to a non-Christian of what Christianity is and is not.

I enjoyed Wright's apologetic, although a committed neo-Darwinist atheist would be unpersuaded, I think. The part that was most persuasive, for me personally, was that every society and people group has an idea of justice-- there are wrongs and rights, and everyone has a universal desire to see the wrongs righted. That indicates that we lost something somewhere in the annals of human history, we are all crying out for redemption and justice.

I appreciated Wright's emphasis on the importance of Scripture in the center of our worship-- corporate reading of Scripture is part of Jewish tradition, is prescribed in the New Testament (1 Timothy 4) and is not often done by churches anymore.

Wright walks the reader through God's redemptive story, from creation to the Exodus, to Jesus. It's a brief overview of biblical theology for the non-believer. Wright's politics creep in occasionally, his assumptions of pacifism and international debt forgiveness, for example. But he does not strike me as a liberal heretic.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I enjoy checking out some of Wright's "deeper" works.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Review (#23 of 2013) The Verbal Behavior Approach by Mary Lynch Barbera

I bought The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children With Autism and Related Disorders to get some insights into the ABA methodology my son's therapists use. Barbera became a BCBA after her son was diagnosed with autism, and she includes personal anecdotes in with her writing.

This book focuses on the practical and is a fairly quick read. Barbera stresses the importance of early diagnosis and intervention, ABA looks to saturate your child with as much therapy as possible (cost prohibitive for many). But she stresses the importance of parents as therapists, and this is something I have taken to heart.

"A parent is a typical child’s first and best teacher, and that’s even more true for parents of children with autism there really is no way for you to take a backseat and be just a parent."

"when asked how many hours per day a child should receive ABA/VB programming my answer is always 'during most or all of his waking hours.'"

She gives a brief overview of what ABA is and how it differs from other approaches. I have a better understanding of the definitions that ABA uses, such as receptive language versus expressive language.

"Two of the biggest misconceptions about the Verbal Behavior approach are that it is only useful for children who aren’t talking, and conversely that it is only useful for children who can speak. Neither is true."

I found most of the book to be unhelpful, however, as our child does talk and already does a lot of the basics that she focuses on. ABA is better for children who are not communicating much. We were told in our child's evaluation that we were already using some methods similar to ABA that we'd just come up with on our own, so maybe he's just adapted. 

"less is more and the fewer words used, the easier it is for the child to process."

One tool I gleaned from this book is the importance of continual positive reinforcement. We incentivize our son heavily, and find that it works. Many times we may want to stop incentivizing him, when it needs to continue for a many more successes, however. She also gives some useful tips on potty training we probably need to implement. Another area that requires some changes on our part are using fewer words, and perhaps his name less (although he already responds well to his name).  

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If you have a young child with special needs and are wanting to learn about ABA, this is a great and encouraging place to start. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Book Review (#22 of 2013) Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs

Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs is a book with a simple thesis: the root of marital conflict comes from men and women talking and behaving past each other.

Eggerichs outlines the "crazy cycle," where the husband is (unwittingly) unloving to his wife, whose response is to be (unwittingly) disrespectful to her husband, who is then unloving in response, and the cycle continues. Who starts the cycle is besides the point.

Husbands don't need love, writes Eggerichs, they need respect. Wives need love, to feel cherished. It is, unfortunately, hard for men to love others and hard for women to express respect. Eggerichs links this thought with Ephesians 5:22-33.

My wife and I read this together and I'm glad that we did, it helped us see how we'd been hurting and misunderstanding one another. I'd recommend the book and wish we'd read it years ago; it's practical. Assuming you know what your wife really meant when she said something is a fatal error for many men in marriage. Eggerichs helped me correct some long-standing misgivings.

The book is fairly quick read but could be a whole lot shorter, probably a 10-page essay. Most of it is filled with anecdotes from the couples Eggerichs has counseled or received letters from. The details of the book-- husbands figuring out how to better express love, and wives convincing their husbands that they respect them-- are the hard part for every couple.

I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5, even though I recommend it. My wife had issues with a couple of pages and his line of thought, the book was perhaps harder to read for her than for me. He opens the book with what I'll call the "respect bomb" which seems tough on women (but it seems the response he ultimately gets is positive). But I think there is definitely something to what he's saying.