Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review (#11 of 2014) The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

The Forever War is war as recorded in a journal. The best comparison I have to it are Thomas Goltz's books, but this is much less gory or political and more observational. Just stories, not always chronological.

Filkins spent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. He saw the ins and outs of both wars from the front lines and lived to tell the story. What he saw wasn't exactly the same thing that Americans wanted to see. For example, when 5,000 Marines assault a city where there is no running water, how do you use the bathroom? You kick down the doors random peoples' houses, or mosques and fill theirs to an overflowing mess.

"There were always two conversations in Iraq-- the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans, and the one the Iraqis were having among themselves."

Filkins saw throughout the Iraq war that U.S. troops and actions were overwhelmingly hated, even where they were glad to be rid of Saddam. Where there was cooperation with Americans to work, rebuild, police, etc., Iraqis took the money, did some work,  and resented it. "Nobody likes being told what to do. The Americans are the occupiers." There was always an understanding that one day-- one way or another-- the Americans would leave, the sooner the better. The price they'd imposed outweighed the benefit, at least in the Iraqi's shortened lifetimes.

"I long ago quit believing that the Defense Department knew any better than I did."

It was never just Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd (Kurds are hardly mentioned in the book), you have so many Arab tribes maintaining power and status in certain neighborhoods of certain cities. Mix in foreigners streaming in, criminals on the loose, people just looking for a quick buck through kidnapping, extortion, blood feuds demanding reprisals, etc. and you have a real mess.

This book makes me look at Bush's Decision Points (my review) differently, and more angrily-- even though I've already read Fiasco (my review) and other books on Iraq. I think President Bush's administration made the mistake of thinking democracy would heal all wounds--and quickly. Democracy (not to mention a free market) however, requires a level of trust that does not exist in many Arab countries at any level. An elected Shiite majority quickly settled scores with Sunnis, leading to outright civil war-- as Filkins documents the evidence of showing up slowly but surely.
How dumb were we to think this would all be over quickly or even be above 50% likely to turn out "well?" Filkins, by and large, isn't critical of the war-- he just observes events and conversations as they happen. He tells one poignant story of how he had to have a dealing with the CIA and reached a conclusion they were incompetent, when it turns out he was being duped by Iraqis he had long trusted and thought he was helping. He admits to his own ignorance.

For the first several chapters, I'd assumed Filkins spoke Arabic. He sometimes has quick conversations with a hostile crowd before diving back into his truck for safety. Later, he says he never learned Arabic and talks about the role of his translators. That takes some of the shine off the book, but not a lot. But I'm struck by how little anyone knows anything in these situations. After reading President Bush's Decision Points, it seems years later the attitude of Iraqis on the ground never really filtered up to him, or he doesn't fully believe the accounts of people like Filkins.

I did admire Filkins' courage in his forays into Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban and the perspective it gave him when he was in New York for 9/11, and traveling along with the Northern Alliance immediately after 9/11 (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize). What's it like to be in a Syrian household, where your gracious host is ranting against American and pops in a videotape of an American being beheaded in Iraq, eagerly enjoying and praising it?

Filkins shows a very sensitive side. He records random encounters with children, while he's jogging, in stores, etc. He includes descriptions of the women and children he sees, as well as dogs and others, bringing the brutal human aspects of war home. He records the random conversations he has with the soldiers, and the difficult conditions. Filkins feels particularly responsible for one particular soldiers' death and meets with his parents when the battalion returns to the U.S. I hope his insurance pays for whatever counseling he most likely needs.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book Review (#10 of 2014) Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard

The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. This article is essentially Willard's summary of the book:

It's a false dichotomy, that Christians too often accept, that there are inward spiritual things we do and outward, physical things that aren't spiritual. It's an ancient problem in our thinking, going back to first centuries where people denied that Christ had an actual physical body like ours. We don't like to think of him doing "common" things like eating, working, scratching an itch. The human body is part of the Imago Dei. Exercising our faith requires physical deeds done in a physical body, so we can eliminate the idea that physical deeds can't be spiritual or worshipful, or even part of salvation-- "salvation is a life." We exercise proper dominion over creation with the power God has put into our bodies properly combined with the infinite power He provides.

Salvation is more than just mental ascent to forgiveness of sins through Christ. The NT leaves no room for that attitude and early Christians were more interested in the life of Christ and not just his death. (The cross didn't become a common symbol of the faith until after 400 A.D.) Redemption is about more than just our souls at the end of life, but about our bodies and our actions here and now. When we who are dead in our sins are connected to the Spirit, we become alive and our bodily actions are evidence of this. 

Asking "What Would Jesus Do?" in a given situation sets a person up for failure because it focuses on a single act rather than the training behind the act. It's like forgetting a professional baseball player spends grueling hours training physically and looking over scouting reports to train for a pitch he finally sees-- because all we see is him swinging the bat. Jesus spent hours and weeks out of sight in prayer and fasting, and 30 years of his life we have little knowledge about, to train for those specific moments of which we do have a record. If you want to be like Jesus, then train like Jesus, don't just try to act like him "in the moment."

Willard references and recommends Foster's book on discipline (my review). This book is a much more theological underpinning of Foster's book. What are spiritual disciplines? Essentially they are activities that put us more in touch and fellowship with God.

There are some inward and outward disciplines, similar to Foster's list. Solitude for the purpose of being fully with people when you are with them is one. Study is, of course, important. He would not lead a group in spiritual exercises without requiring focus on memorization of Scripture.

Fasting.Since it is clearly an expectation of those who want to depend on God in both Old Testament and New Testament, this is something I need to start practicing.

Frugality is a discipline. Willard gives a lengthy explanation of this, delineating frugality from an intentional poverty. He pushes back against a modern interpretations of Scripture which exalt poverty, noting that poverty is not a guarantee of blessing or a way to receive grace, that is not a right interpretation of Matthew 6. "The worst way to help the poor is to be poor," he says. Willard gives a brief history of the development (and diversity) of thought on wealth among Christian teachers. He is quite critical of John Wesley's lament about how wealth ruined his Christian converts.  He promotes the idea of redeemed business-- shouldn't we want Christians in positions of great influence on the management and distribution of wealth? We should want Christian businesses to succeed and to grow for that purpose, the more one has the more he has to give. This does not mean that Christians should inherently love their wealth, but rather that they should exercise frugality all the more-- anything that comes between themselves and their love of God is an idol that should be discarded.

Willard spends some time toward the end defending his positions, he seems himself pushing back against hundreds of years of errors mainly due to Western philosophy. He's not arguing for a completely aesthetic faith, but one that has aesthetic qualities. I don't really do the book justice as a whole in this review, so I recommend checking out the linked article about or just read the book.

This is a 5-star classic that I wish I'd read years ago, but probably wasn't ready to read it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review (#9 of 2014) Among the Turks by Cyrus Hamlin

Among the Turks by Cyrus Hamlin was published in 1877 and is available to read for free.  I read and reviewed Hamlin's second book, his complete autobiography, in this post. I recommend Hamlin to anyone looking to move or work in Turkey. He includes a great summary of Turkish history, a first-hand chronicle of 30 years of Turkish reformation, and a preview of what would come in later decades.  This book is a five-star gem. Like other books from the 1800s, they are fascinating perhaps in part due to their lack of editing/sterilization/ghostwriting which is so common among today's autobiographies. It is like Hamlin is speaking to you personally, telling you wonderful stories.

I was glad I read the second book first, since I had greater context to understand Hamlin's life and approach to things. Among the Turks includes many more stories about Armenians, Turks, and Jews who came to Christ in mid-1800's Ottoman Empire, a time of reformation in Turkish law and culture. These converts suffered many persecutions, particularly Armenians from the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, at a time when the Empire was giving more legal freedoms to rapidly growing religious and ethnic minorities. The growth of the church during this time period, with its secret meetings in houses and fields, is fascinating.

"The Scriptures, newspapers, books, education and the course of things are working slowly down into the mass, and religious freedomis coming in slowly, and in the only way possible, by enlightenment. Government can do much but our own country (the U.S.) proves that it can not do everything against fanatical and ignorant masses."

Hamlin tells some fascinating stories about Turkish life and politics as well. He was able to witness the first demonstration of the telegraph to the Ottoman Sultan by an engineer from Nashville, TN who worked for Samuel Morse. This innovation was innovation sabotaged by pashas in the remote provinces who did not want their activities and corruption spied on.

Hamlin gives many insights into why the Ottoman Empire was declining. Compulsory military service for Muslims (and not for non-Muslims, who payed a tax instead) led to a lower birth rate among Turks than non-Turks. Education reforms were slow, the whole of the population uneducated and insulated from foreign ideas. When free trade was opened up with the West, Turkish goods struggled to compete with higher-quality products by Western engineering. While the military was still strong, particularly the Navy (built with American help, as documented in My Life and Times), railways and other more modern forms of transportation were lacking.

Istanbul was a bit different, and Hamlin does remark at the rise of a generation of secular Turks eager to implement Napoleonic legal code over Sharia, and democracy over tyranny. He forsees the rise of secular democracy, but not the rise of Turkish nationalism which would greatly reduce the population of minorities just a few decades later.

Like his autobiography, Hamlin tells the story of his defense of opening up a workshop to teach his seminary students various trades such as metal working and bread making. This provided them an income during a time of shunning and persecution, and allowed several Armenian protestant churches to be built from the income. He was at conflict with the American Board and others who felt he was "secularizing the work," but gives great and simple defenses as to how such criticism was nonsense.

"My own view was that minds born into society destitute of all spirituality would not be greatly corrupted by being taught to work instead of beg, and especially in a country where work is so unpopular as in the East...He who enters the ministry because there is nothing else for him to do, will hardly be a very spiritually-minded worker...Some of the very best workmen in the shop have become 'workmen that need not be ashamed in rightly dividing the word of truth'...The alternative to finding employment is a pauper Christianity." 
In the mid-1800s there was conflict among missionary organizations about what approaches to use. Do you build schools? If so, do you teach English or insist everything is in the local language? Do you establish workshops or businesses, training people for work other than what is typically considered "ministry." The debates and conclusions of workers in the 1800s was wholly forgotten by the mid-late 20th century. Hamlin gives conclusive evidence from a few continents that a more complete system of education, including English, was necessary and successful. He himself learned Turkish and Armenian, and his wife learned modern Greek as well. But textbooks to greatly educate his students in various subjects did not exist in those languages (while he was instrumental in helping get translations done) and if they had insisted everything be in the native tongue things would not have been as successful.

"(T)he experience of missions during this century, so far as can now be seen, tends towards a great development of education. No society, no body of men, no theorists, have been able to resist it." 

Another ideas I gleaned from Hamlin's book:
(Coinciding with the invention of the printing press) "The fall of Constantinople gave the New Testament to the European mind...While the East held the sword, and cultivated the arts of war, the West gave itself to intellectual and industrial pursuits." 
Hamlin lays out a description of the cholera epidemics that would sweep through Istanbul. He writes a lengthy description of his own treatment for cholera, endorsed by doctors, which he claims works every time. This was apparently re-printed with some popularity in America at the time. Among the causes of cholera he lists are drinking cold water on a hot day and sitting next to a drafty window too often. Anyone who has traveled through Europe or Central Asia knows that these practices are still considered terrible for the body (and I've come to believe that as well to some extent) but I didn't understand the full reason until understanding the fear of cholera epidemics which seemingly killed thousands overnight.

I look forward to reading other works by Hamlin's contemporaries that are also archived online. He is a hero and national treasure.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review (#8 of 2014) I Am in Here by Elizabeth Bonker and Virginia Breen

I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice is an interesting book basically co-written by a mother (Breen) and her autistic daughter (Bonker).

The daughter (Elizabeth) cannot speak but learned to communicate externally via a letter board, and now uses a robot to remotely attend high school classes (according to the Facebook page). She writes poetry, and it was through her poetry that her mother and therapists were able to learn how she was feeling and what she was passionate about.

Bonker's autism is very extreme on the scale; she hits herself repeatedly for reasons she explains, cries, feels pain, doesn't sleep normally, etc. Her mother is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, which allows her to afford and explore many treatments and therapies that may not have been available otherwise. They've tried just about everything and are actively praying for healing. By the end of the book, Elizabeth is starting to verbalize words. Her mother isn't anti-vaccine, but blames the battery of vaccinations Elizabeth got as an infant for the autism she says immediately followed.

The book is partly about the mom's struggles to parent a "low-functioning" autistic child and thinking about it spiritually. She also highlights the can-do people who have inspired her. It is labeled as a "Christian" book, but the mom draws on sources ranging from Richard Foster to Tibetan Buddhism, which she studied as a college student in Tibet. As such, the spiritual thinking gets a little muddy-- I wouldn't pick the book up for that. (Aside: One child who sees ghosts from a nextdoor cemetery that others can't see is mentioned in the book. It leads to a  hypothesis is that autistic kids may be more sensitive to the spiritual world and warfare than neurotypicals. Elizabeth considers herself more sensitive to the emotional suffering of others.)

The book is a great reminder that people you see as "low-functioning" have abilities that you don't have-- Temple Grandin is mentioned repeatedly in the book and has befriended the family. They are people that God loves and has a purpose for. Elizabeth believes part of her purpose is to bring attention to world peace.

I found it somewhat frustrating.  Why does Elizabeth still throw tantrums or have other issues in public and communicating with her mother when she's clearly thinking deeply on subjects and is able to elucidate them clearly through her writing in this book? A lot of apparent contradictions, which the mother illustrates well. (The father and family situation are never mentioned, by the way.)

I give it 3 stars out of 5. Worth adding to your "autism" shelf and to appreciate the ways God uses people with issues we wish they didn't have. One personal question this book raised for me is what sights/sounds/smells are my son sensitive to that I don't know about? What can he hear that I can't?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review (#7 of 2014) Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. I enjoyed reading another "classic" by Foster. Short, straightforward, and very encouraging book.

Foster breaks down thirteen Christian disciplines, the practice of which have largely gotten neglected over the centuries. He divides them into three categories (inward, outward, corporate). Here are what I gleaned from his discussion of each discipline:

Meditation - whereas the point of Eastern meditation is to empty your mind, Christian meditation is about filling your mind-- with Christ, with the Word, etc. Foster recommends a two-step process of giving and praying while you meditate.

Prayer - He wrote a whole book on this, I recommend it.

Fasting - This is a tough one. There are not specific instructions for how to fast or many details about how people fasted in Scripture because it was such a common practice over the ages, it needed no explanation. I'll take Foster's dietary recommendations with grains of salt, but agree that the clear New Testament explanation is for Christians to fast often. Why don't I do this more?

Study - Foster gives a little advice on various ways to study Scripture, but also encourages us to study works of church fathers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for further application and insights. 

Simplicity - Foster cautions that purposeful efforts to live simply tend to lead towards legalism, so he gives ten recommended principles. The basic idea is to free yourself from a desire to be like the world, or to have complications in your life that keep you from hearing God's call. "Conformity to a sick world is to become sick." Foster is a Quaker, and like him I believe it's important to make decisions about necessary purchases and lifestyles in community. (I've been thinking about this quite a bit since seeing a PBS Frontline documentary on the Amish. The motivating factor behind their avoiding technology is to avoid objects that would lead someone further from focusing on his/her community. Cellphones and automobiles, for example, make it easier for us to get away from those we are created to be close to. A washing machine or tractor, however, may not necessarily create that pull, so some Amish/Mennonite communities may choose to have them. American individualism hates community dependence, and that is contrary to how God set up Israelite society in His law.)
Does the latest gadget really help you be more productive, or is it about status? If you believe buying the latest fashions help you look better in the eyes of the world, then should you really be buying them?

Solitude - Being intentional about making quiet times alone, and personal retreats so that when we're with people we can be fully with them; just as Jesus did. I am up before anyone else in my household, and have about an hour to myself in the car each day, so I consider that my solitude.

Submission- Giving up your right to retaliate or to speak ill of others. To obey authorities. This is hard for Americans.

Service - Looking to do the menial out of love.

Confession - Having people in your lives that you confess sins to, and pray together with for forgiveness. James says that we're to confess our sins to one another and be healed. How much healing do we forgo in our lives and churches because we don't practice this discipline?

Worship - Embrace distractions in corporate worship, they may be a message from God. Bless the children when they raise a ruckus. Prepare your heart for corporate worship by reviewing the sermon Scriptures and hymns to be sung beforehand. That's a great idea (this is my preferred approach to Sunday school).

Guidance (corporate) - Foster makes the point that our churches do a good job of promoting guidance by the Bible, and personal guidance through reading and prayer, and sometimes even prophetic words or other Spirit-led acts in corporate worship, but argues that we need to go beyond this in terms of guidance. He's getting at something deeper here.

Celebration - Celebration should be the outflow of keeping the above disciplines. Embrace holidays and festivals, have your church and community create their own. Celebrate the answered prayers, the blessings, the hardships and tribulations.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review (#6 of 2013) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is T.E. Lawrence's account of his actions in leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in WWI. One reviewer called it a "novel traveling under the cover of biography," and I think that's accurate. After a new account of Lawrence's war was popularized this year, I became intrigued and decided to watch the epic Lawrence of Arabia, which I'd never seen before. We watched it a couple weeks ago.

I thought it would be helpful in understanding some of the formation of Syria and the current tribal fighting from there across the Middle East.

The movie is essentially a recreation of Lawrence's account. Peter O'Toole not only looks like Lawrence but also does an incredible job portraying Lawrence's obvious discomfort in his own skin, something that often front-and-center in the book. Lawrence admits his own inferiority complex, how much he dislikes himself, and his conflicted emotions leading the Arabs in the pretense of independence knowing full well the Allied powers will never allow it.

Without more detailed knowledge of the map and the Arab divisions, it is somewhat difficult to follow all of the book; having seen the movie beforehand helped (even with the liberties taken with the timeline). Uncomfortable parts include Lawrence having to kill his own comrades either out of mercy or to prevent a blood feud, and Lawrence being sexually assaulted by a Turkish Major when he was captured (from reading other books on Turkey in WWI, I know sexual abuse of prisoners by the Turks was widespread).

Lawrence's previous history in Arabia and how he obtained his knowledge of Arabic is left out, Lawrence only mentions it in passing. Unlike the movie, there was much more participation and coordination of the British and Australians with the Arab fighters, Lawrence was not a Lone Ranger out there. 

The book ends with Lawrence being granted leave, and he expresses regret. But regret for what? Taking leave? Regret for his participation in the war? Regret for not staying? It's up to the reader, I suppose. History tells us that Lawrence was mentally and psychologically shaken by his war experience, something very real in the book.

In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. I look forward to reading a historical documentation of Lawrence's role in WWI.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Review (#5 of 2013) Average is Over by Tyler Cowen

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation is supposed to be a longer sort of sequel to his Great Stagnation (my review).
Tyler Cowen forsees a future with a continually widening gap between the top 1% and the bottom 10%, but without the guillatines and other doom predicted by modern Progressives. He believes our society will grow more conservative as the elderly make an increasing percentage of the population and will accept the new norm and what comes with it. Competition with China will settle the country to accept other status quos much as competition with the USSR did in the U.S., Cowen predicts.

The "winners" in the coming economy are those who can effectively use machines-- not necessarily programmers but those with enough skill to use the data that machines can give us, while making the machines do what we want.

"Overall, these job market trends are bringing higher pay for bosses, more focus on morale in the workplace, greater demands for conscientious and obedient workers, greater inequality at the top, big gains for the cognitive elite, a lot of freelancing in the services sector, and some tough scrambles for workers without a lot of skills. Those are essential characteristics of the coming American labor markets."

The "losers" will be those who do not adapt, they will continue to see decreases in their real wages but some will get along fine, enjoying what would once have been considered marvellous luxuries-- cheap high-speed internet and cellphone service, education, food, and clothing. Others will not fare so well, and will create problems for society much as one sees today.

As higher taxes are an inevitability to pay for the greater debts the government is projected to run due to entitlements like Medicare, people will continue to move to places like Texas where they will settle for "C-level" local government but enjoy cheaper housing, helping their paychecks go further.

Cowen's chapters on and frequent references to the evolution of technology in chess play are a bit of a digression, these made the book rather boring. Also, is it not obvious that those who can effectively use technology today are the ones who have an easier time finding jobs? Isn't the future he's predicting already here? Perhaps he's just staying it will stay the way it is, more of the same. In some cases, a technology-oriented future needs more people, but they all need to be more highly skilled as well.

"Keeping an unmanned Predator drone in the air for twenty-four hours requires about 168 workers laboring in the background. A larger drone, such as the Global Hawk surveillance drone, needs about 300 F-16 fighter aircraft requires fewer than 100 people for a single mission."

He considers his take different because it doesn't predict much of the gloom-and-doom but more acceptance of the status quo.

"Right now the biggest medium for envy in the United States is probably Facebook, not the yachting marinas or the rather popular television shows about the lifestyles of the rich and famous."

The book does not touch foreign policy much at all. Cowen admits that many of the middle-class, low-technology jobs have gone to China, and argues that allowing more immigrants would help bring those jobs back-- and thus create jobs for more native-born Americans in creating the infrastructure for those companies. That would also help ease the funding burden for programs like Social Security by having a larger number of workers paying in.

The military's huge component in our economy is not properly dealt with, I believe. Cowen sees somewhat of a retreat of the U.S. military from the world stage, but doesn't explain what this will mean for jobs directly or indirectly dependent on the military. That's a weakness of the book.

I did enjoy his critique of behavioral economists, how their own studies fall into the pitfalls of cognitive bias that the subjects they critique generally do.

"(Behavioral economists) are looking for behavioral theories that are too elegant, too simple, or too intuitive, such as the abstract strictures of mathematical decision theory."

Whether you like this book or not depends on whether you like the prophecies. Like any book with somewhat broad predictions, it is hard to judge. His references and beliefs are well documented, 25% of the book are references-- it's well-known that Cowen may be the most well-read person on the planet.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Not the best Cowen book.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Review (#4 of 2013) Leadership 101 by John C. Maxwell

Leadership 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know is Maxwell's condensation of his major talking points in leadership. It's a short book filled with soundbites and a few anecdotes. But I gleaned a few things. 

Leadership is influence, and we all influence people throughout our day. Hence, we can all be leaders. Having more people in reach of your influence is a function of your development as a leader.
Bill Hybels' book on leadership (he often partners with Maxwell) was influential in my life. Hybels requires everyone in leadership positions at Willow Creek to be actively reading about leadership. I have taken that to heart so that I include books on leadership (including biographies and memoirs) in my regular rotation. Maxwell espouses that continuous reading and learning as critical for leaders. In 1969, he sent letters to key leaders in whatever industry he was working in soliciting 30 minutes of their time for $100. He interviewed them and tried to learn what they knew.

Maxwell endorses the Pareto principle: 20% of resources generate 80% of the results, so invest most of your time in the 20% of activities that generate the most revenue, the top 20% of your workforce, etc.

Your influence will be measured by what happens after you leave, so not planning a succession means you are not succeeding. Maxwell learned that one the hard way, the first church he helped build fell apart after he left-- he hadn't prepared them to continue in his absence. I think this point falls under Covey's point to "begin with the end in mind." 

Volunteer organizations like churches are the most leader-centric organizations; the director/pastor cannot offer monetary incentives for productivity, so people have to be responding to the leadership-- there is some intrinsic reward here. Hence, the leader should work hard to develop people in his influence so that those people find it worthwhile to follow.

I have to think: How does this apply to government (or a union situation), where workers may not face fear of firing and there are no monetary incentives or opportunities for advancement that can be offered? I think that's similar to the voluntary organization, the leader can motivate employees by investing in their own development as a reward. Perhaps that investment means they leave the organization for a better position, but that's just part of the cost of having employees' motives aligned with the goal of the organization.

This book is short, hence I recommend it with 3.5 stars

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Book Review (#3 of 2014) Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World is a biography of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman whose inventions have drastically altered the treatment of animals for slaughter. (The HBO docudrama of her life earned 15 Emmy nominations.)

I found this book very thought-provoking, particularly in thinking about the minds and emotions of animals. Grandin is a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, her autism causes her to see the world similarly to how animals do-- perceiving and being affected by the minutest details of sight and sound. Why are the cows misbehaving and seem upset when going into the pen? Because there is a coat draped over the fence somewhere and it doesn't belong there, or there's a chain blowing in the breeze and it's moving unpredictably. Grandin is able to figure that out where others do not.

Many people with autism have sensory processing disorder, and they often find therapy either being in motion or feeling the pressure of being tightly squeezed. Grandin designed contraptions to help her senses cope and later designed similar instruments for cows and other animals, to great result such that most cattle farms in the U.S. now use something she's invented.

Her autism leaves her with an inability to empathize or read human emotions naturally. As such, she's experienced a life of social awkwardness and persecution. But a few caring people in her lives--mostly at special schools her parents could afford to send her to--helped her develop into a successful PhD who does speaking engagements.

Some people with autism are fortunate to have resources behind them, or mentors to guide them, as Grandin did and this book struck me of that importance. Many people throughout history we now suspect to have been autistic-- Einstein and Van Gogh to name a couple. Their brains worked differently and they had obsessions with objects like those diagnosed with autism. How many others in history have been outcast or locked up in asylums, as Grandin's father wanted for her, so as to rob the world of their creative powers? (Tyler Cowen points to Alan Turing as one example of a likely autistic person who was persecuted to suicide). That's a sad thought.

Grandin was dismissed as less-than-human in part because she could not speak or imitate humans until a late age. So, she empathizes with animals for much the same reason. This made me think a lot about animal ethics. Grandin, remarkably, isn't a vegan-- she eats meat. She sees the inevitability of using animals as resources--thousands of products we use from plastics to cosmetics are the result of animal slaughter.

This book made me wonder about the ways my autistic son sees the world that I may not realize or appreciate. Does he see the world in pictures? Can he empathize with animals, or in certain situations, while not being able to empathize "normally" in most situations?

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It was too brief.

Book Review (#27 of 2013) Metabolism Miracle by Diane Kress

The Metabolism Miracle: 3 Easy Steps to Regain Control of Your Weight . . . Permanently is another book repackaging old information and bad statistics as a "miracle." I automatically have a bias against any book selling a "miracle" because the author doesn't know how miracle is really defined.

I'll start with some advice, instead of buying this book just jump to Phase 3: Find an online calculator to help you figure out your macronutrient balance with 30-35% of your calories coming from carbs. Work out 30 minutes a day, including regular weight training, and see what happens...for my reasoning, see the below.

First, like most self-help books the author always writes to "YOU." She also preys on the insecurity that many people feel "My friend works out less than I do but stays skinny..."
She presents a long list of "symptoms" (like "stress...fatigue...fat roll around the middle") that every human being suffers from and if you identify with it then it must mean that you have "Metabolism B," a term that the author makes up. Even the most physically fit die-hard fitness buffs I know struggle with their cravings, it's part of the human experience-- particularly for women who have other harmonal imbalances to consider.

But Kress uses bogus reinforcers like "Your strong reaction to this list of foods is just one more affirmation that you have Metabolism B." She makes up bogus statistics like "more than 45 percent of people struggling to lose weight are born with genetic predisposition to Metabolism B." This is a completely unverifiable (therefore, false) claim. She is selling the message that you were born differently therefore this "Miracle" is the only thing that will work for you. That's not science, it's dishonest salesmanship. While she claims "modern" research supports her, she conveniently provides no references.

So, the process is three-fold: 8 weeks of nothing more than 5 net carbs in a 5 hour period. Another period where you can have a bit more. And the last period, where 30-35% of your calories can be carbs. Meanwhile, you're supposed to be exercising 30 minutes a day and focusing on muscle/strength training (which IS medically recommended-- you don't need her book to tell you these things). I don't see how this is much different than Atkins or South Beach with three phases that include progressively more net carbs.

In Phase 3, Kress simply repackages the TDEE-based calorie and macronutrient calculators that you can find on hundreds of websites, these take into consideration your age current weight (she provides her own chart for this). She is not the only dietician who says "everyone is different," and she tears down straw men repeatedly to sell her "Miracle." One problem is that she also hints that the other 65-70% of your calories be low on fat (and therefore high-protein) without helping you figure that out (I assume because that's been covered in plenty of other non-"Miracle" diet plans.) And it requires looking at ingredient labels and counting calories, something she wants to make you think you don't have to do in the first few pages of the book. Phase 3 logically requires that you do it.

Not all exercise programs are equally efficient in burning calories, chances are that if you bought this book you're not working out 30 minutes a day or are simply using a treadmill/elliptical or only focusing on cardio workouts. Kress is right to point out (toward the end) that building muscle shreds fat and boosts metabolism. Part of the reason weight gain becomes more of a problem after age 30 is because your muscles begin deteriorating unless you're working harder to build them up (it's called sarcopenia, and has nothing to do with "Metabolism B"). This is why people are more likely to fall into her Metabolism B "symptoms" as they get older.  High-intensity interval training will boost your metabolism more than 30 minutes on an elliptical and actually make an impact on your DNA, that actually is supported strongly by scientific evidence. And if you're working out regularly, then the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends a diet consisting of 40-60% carbs (read the linked report for reasons). Nothing "miraculous" about it, this is old news. 

I have problems finding anyone publicly online who has completed all three phases, kept the weight off, and feel good about their lives. The author cautions those who want to stay on Phase I or II that this is "dangerous" and "not healthy." Ketogenic diets (what Phase I is) should only be used by a select group of people and has a wide range of potentially harmful side-effects. The author addresses the source of the fears of people who mistakenly stay in Phase I-- they've been burned by going off of other low-carb diets and experiencing weight gain. This book isn't going to help you with your fears or help you achieve your health goals without exercising.(The author has apparently reversed her decision about staying on Phase I).

The promise by Kress that your body will be "permanently reprogrammed" is also false, as she recommends spending time repeatedly "reprogramming" your body if you mess up. In the end, you'll be getting 30-35% of your calories (requiring counting) from your diet and working out (with weight training) 30 minutes/day. Why not just start doing that now? 

Zero stars.

Book Review (#2 of 2014) Master your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels

Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balancing Your Hormones for a Hot and Healthy Body! is Jillian's approach to diet. I didn't find it too bad. What I do find bad is that she's now sold out and is putting her name on the type of unregulated caffeine-heavy supplements she condemns in her book. How does that happen?

Jillian's premise is this: hormonal imbalances are what contribute to problems like hypothyroidism and symptoms that another book I reviewed would say point to "Metabolism B" - persistent inability to lose weight despite exercise and calorie-counting. After years of reading about and trying just about every diet and workout plan out there, and picking the brains of the medical community in Los Angeles, Jillian still found herself unable to keep weight off. She apparently went very calorie-restricted to look good on TV in the first season of The Biggest Loser, but immediately gained 15 pounds just by going back to normal healthy caloric intake.

She eventually went to an endocrinologist who diagnosed her with hypothyroidism and other issues, which she now maintains was caused by ignorance of what exactly was in her diet.

The first few chapters of the book explain hormones in detail, how they affect the organs in your body, and which foods can trigger their creation. This is all very helpful. In most cases, you're relying on her research or selection of the studies she presents-- nutrition science is an ever-changing body of research.

Her primary solution to a controlled metabolism is to cleanse-- no more processed foods or non-complex carbohydrates. Only buy organic vegetables to avoid pesticides and other chemicals. Avoid anything made in a factory, many of the processed foods we eat are chemically engineered to make us want more. She gives shopping lists and recipes for her plan, there is no calorie counting, because if you're eating the right things "nature will do the job" of letting you know you're full. The only supplement she recommended was a multivitamin.

Along with it, you boost your metabolism by:
  • Doing high-intensity interval training and making sure you include weight training in your workouts.
  • Eat every four hours.  
  • Get satisfied at your meals, but not completely full. 
  • Get a good balance of protein, carbs, and fat. Don't restrict based on macro content. 
  • Get 7 hours of sleep every night. 
  • Never eat after 9pm. Make sure your last snack of the evening is mostly protein, not carbs.
  • Drink a lot of water. Avoid caffeine.
  • Let go of anything that is hindering you emotionally or spiritually.
I enjoyed hearing Jillian's story of going from an overweight and depressed teenager to a great trainer, and how she became driven like she is today. I appreciate her workouts, and I think the advice in the book is fine where practical. But scientific research being filtered by the writer is always problematic, and there are some problems with correlation and causation. What does it mean that she's selling out with supplements?

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

A Tale of Dueling Studies and Confirmation Bias- Minimum Wage Edition

Increasing the minimum wage is an issue with popular support. 13 states raised minimum wages effective January 1, others are putting it on their legislative dockets. The evidence of effects of minimum wage increases is mixed, and proponents and opponents tend to like data that support their previously-held beliefs. Think tanks publish studies with policy proposals-- do X and we estimate Y will happen, with Y being positive or negative largely based on their prior biases.

The Economics Policy Institute, for example, published a paper supporting a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $10.10. One effect, they argue, is a job-creating multiplier effect. If workers are paid more, they'll spend more, and employers will hire more to meet that demand. (They borrow Moody's economist Mark Zandi's multiplier for tax cuts to estimate a $1 increase in salary means $1.20 increase in output/income. A tax cut granted by an entity with the power to borrow or print the money is not the same as a statutory wage increase, but that aside...) They include this adjustment:
"The calculation of the stimulative impact of the minimum wage, however, must also account for the offsetting shift from employers. We assume employers pass on some of the minimum-wage increase (somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent) to consumers through increased prices."

In other words, the ONLY offset is the price increase. There are no reductions in jobs or hours and no reduction in the wages of other employees as a result of the increased cost of labor to business from a 39% increase in their minimum wage workers. The other 50-80% of the increase in wage goes directly to the pockets of affected workers who keep their jobs and hours and are better off. More workers get hired everywhere as a result of economic growth. Sound too good to be true? What would be the downside of increasing the minimum wage

The problem is that contradicts other studies. The big debate has been about employment effects of minimum wage. Evidence on this is hotly contested but EPI goes with a very well-known 1994 paper looking at the difference in employment between New Jersey and Pennsylvania after New Jersey increased its minimum wage by 18.8%, which found no discernible adverse effects on employment.

The problem is that the Center for Economic Progress, another think tank with similar leanings as EPI, recently published a survey of the literature on minimum wage to determine why there might be no discernible difference in unemployment. "Mixed evidence" is a phrase that occurs many times in the paper, but the studies they evidence the least-disputable are that:
1. There is some reduction in hours, though those might not be "large."
2. Prices rise moderately.
3. Firms require "improvements in efficiency" - demanding better attendance and productivity from workers in response to their increased cost.
4. Wages of non-minimum-wage workers are cut ("compressed") to offset the cost.
5. Labor force participation of teens increases.
6. Profitability of firms in Britain were reduced.

#1 and #4 are not accounted for the EPI paper, it would significantly reduce their multiplier. And you have to keep in mind that they assume all states everywhere would see no reduction in employment from a larger minimum wage increase than what was seen in 1992. No move to capital (machines) to replace the higher-cost worker, no reduction in workforce. Ask yourself: If you're an employer in a county with a 15% unemployment rate, what would you do? Would you be more discriminate in who you hire since you have an above-average pool available to you? Might you let one of your more unproductive employees go as others enter the labor force? How much would you tolerate your profits to be reduced by before you made changes?

EPI makes a moral argument in their paper that those most vunerable in society would be those most helped by a minimum wage increase. However, studies have found that not to be the case. A study done on the same New Jersey minimum wage hike found that those helped by the wage hike were "young, single, and part of middle and upper-income families." David Neumark recently wrote that his student found that a modest minimum wage increase would disproportionately benefit "families with incomes more than three times the poverty line." (Neumark and others argue expanding the EITC is a much more efficient policy to help the working poor.)

Most economists and statisticians would dismiss EPI's study as biased and flawed, as well as recognize that CEPR's survey includes some suspect word choices and highlights. But policymakers, journalists, and the general public may not be that savvy. Hence, a politician might stand up today and say "If we do X, a great Y will happen. It's been researched."

Friday, January 03, 2014

Book Review (#1 of 2014) Prayer by Richard J. Foster

Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home is better than I expected. Good books inspire you to read other, older books the author draws on. This book will inspire you to read Augustine, Luther, and others. First published in 1992, it's already a "classic." Great book to start 2014 with.

Foster gives examples of many types of prayer as practiced and described by earlier church fathers. But what I appreciated about this book is Foster's embrace of a theology of work. Work is worship, it is a prayer we offer to God. It is incorrect to say "If only I had more time to pray, instead of having to work today." Our work itself is a prayer, and since wherever we are the Holy Spirit goes with us, wherever we are is holy ground. We can worship there, we must worship there. Do you think Jesus didn't worship as a carpenter, or Paul as a tentmaker? Foster once worked among Eskimos in Alaska, and noted how the Eskimo Christians embedded this theology of work in their daily lives. "You're digging this ditch for the glory of God," Foster was told, which changed his life.

Foster is a Quaker and taught me that waiting is worship.Whether waiting in line at the grocery or waiting on lab test results or waiting to see what next year will bring-- that act of waiting and anticipation should be worship.We don't like to wait and we don't like to listen, but that's a form of prayer that God answers.

Foster reminds me of a Sunday school teacher we had in Waco, I'm sure Mike has read and been influenced by this book. He discusses his own transformation in regards to approaching prayers for healing-- from a skeptic to an active practitioner; he tells of Augustine's similar conversion as described in Augustine's City of God. We Baptists often hinder our own prayers by justifying our own doubts and God's inaction with the "if it be Your will..." clause at the end of healing prayers-- Foster has no patience for this.

I also appreciated his outlining of the importance of small-group community and prayer, giving an example of what he tries to live out and others he knows of. He describes community in a way I find ideal. I give this book 4.5 stars. I look forward to reading his Celebration of Discipline.

Fitness update (1/3/2014)

2013 was a year to get in shape. I sorta "let things go" during the first couple months as we said goodbye to Turkey. Working on physical fitness is one of the best ways to deal with unemployment and to make yourself more marketable for hiring. In June, I became a vegetarian to make life simpler and leaner.  I posted on July 24th what my vital signs were as I completed P90X. I followed that up with Insanity, followed by a return to P90X and figuring out how to fit in workouts to a full-time workweek when I also needed to do a lot of reading/studying (you get stressed finding time to work out 60-75 minutes a day). I'm now in my third week of P90X3, which is not as intense as the other workouts but gives you a solid 30 minutes every day. I'm using to log everything I eat, and just got a Fitbit to coordinate with that. The Fitbit (and my Polar FT7 heart rate monitor), in turn, coordinates with my new health insurance so I can earn points for discounts. So, my life is hooked up to monitors.

At my last weigh-in I was at 137.8 with a body fat percentage of 10%.
That is down 25.8 pounds and 7.6% fat from July 24th.
I wore a size 29 pair of dress pants to work last week. 

I am reading some books to help me figure out what my next goals will be and how I'll get there. Lord willing.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Book Review 2013 - Textbook Edition

I read the following tutorials and textbooks in 2013, too many to look up the links. Many are free resources for using R.

A Little Book of R for Time Series - Avril Coghlan
Econometrics in R - Farnsworth
Introduction to R's Time Series Facilities - Michael Lundholm
A Brief Guide to R for Beginners in Econometrics
Time Series Analysis and R Examples - Robert H. Shumway and David S. Stoffer
Business Forecasting - Hanke and Wichern
R Cookbook - Teetor
Econometrics - Michael Creel
Econometrics Theory and Applications with Eviews - Ben Vogelvang
Eviews Illustrated 8 - Global Insight/Eviews
Forecasting: Principles and Practice by Rob Hyndman

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Book Review (#30 of 2013) The Rent is Too Damn High by Matthew Yglesias

The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think does not deserve the disparaging ratings/comments posted on Amazon. It is a fine book written by a market urbanist who explains basic supply and demand very well.

I can sum the book up with a few quotes:
"The point is that there are many ways in which expensive land can contain large numbers of people. The question is whether we’ll adopt rules that permit this rather than sticking with rules that often ban row houses and multifamily structures, generally require low buildings and large amounts of parking, and typically prescribe minimum lawn sizes—even minimum apartment sizes...This directly reduces real wages by increasing the cost of living for people in high-income metro areas. It indirectly reduces real wages by preventing people from migrating to places where job opportunities are most robust...infrastructure improvements can and should be tied to a demonstrated desire to increase population density...Progressives and urbanists need to move beyond their romance with central planning and get over their distaste for business and developers. Conservatives need to take their own ideas about economics more seriously and stop seeing all proposals for change through a lens of paranoia and resentment. Last, politicians of both parties who like to complain about “regulation” and “red tape” ought to spend some time looking at the specific area of the economy where red tape and regulation are most prevalent."

Yglesias advocates deregulation of housing and zoning, and even hypothesizes that such regulations are what is contributing to the "Great Stagnation" popularized by Tyler Cowen (my review). He aims to convince Progressives that this deregulation will lower rent in cities, shorten commutes, and improve the standards of living for people in the bottom end of the income spectrum. He criticizes conservatives for hypocritically opposing this deregulation. He explains ideas taught by Adam Smith and David Ricardo very clearly for the lay reader. In a perfect world, Yglesias would be appointed to be HUD commissioner.

4.5 stars. The only thing keeping this book from five stars is the lack of a bibliography for the economic studies Yglesias cites.

Book Review (#29 of 2013) David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants . I disagree with Tyler Cowen, I do not think this is one of Gladwell's best books. It is thought-provoking and I enjoyed it, but reviewers (see here and here and here) have poked too many holes in it for me to think it authoritative.

Gladwell's premise is that we misperceive who is at an advantage and disadvantage. David wasn't an "underdog," a stone and sling in the hands of a mobile warrior had a huge advantage from a distance over a slow-moving giant (who was possibly blind) with a spear.

People can create advantage from disadvantage by altering their paradigm. He uses the full-court press in basketball (hailing Pitino, even) as an example. (I love to harp on peoples' paradigms as weaknesses, and this is my favorite example (not mentioned by Gladwell) of an item reinvented and made better by approaching from a different paradigm.)

Gladwell also points to research showing that millionaires--successful people-- have disproportionately faced handicaps, such as dislexia or losing a parent at an early age. He illustrates using a few examples, including the president of Goldman Sachs, who credit dyslexia to their future success. A "desirable difficulty" creates a willpower or stubborness that later serves the otherwise handicapped. However, Gladwell notes that the socially dysfunctional--namely prisoners-- are also disproportionately represented by dyslexics and people who lost parents at an early age. So, what does that tell us? Certain events in childhood can lead to polar outcomes, and it depends on luck, grace, and other circumstances? Did I need to read the book to know that? Do I not already know enough people who ended up in opposite ends of the spectrum to note this phenonmenon?

I appreciate Gladwell for trying to popularize economics, psychology, and statistics into "adventure stories" for the common reader. But repeated accusations that he cherry-picked his studies are problematic. You can't draw broad conclusions from a few anecdotes, especially when contradictory evidence is ignored.

You will learn about all sorts of historical trivia that Gladwell wants to draw your attention to. How Martin Luther King Jr. eagerly hoped children he'd recruited to march in Birmingham would be savagely attacked by dogs, and was quite happy when they were jailed in inhumane conditions. How the Three Strikes law in California was counterproductive in reducing crime, and how that relates to the British's failed occupation of Northern Ireland. How French Huguenots harbored Jews and behaved as true Christians in the midst of WWII and went unpunished, standing up to the Nazi/Vichy Goliath. But as reviewers have noted, other villages that stood up (not mentioned by Gladwell) were destroyed. Perhaps the full-court press isn't as widely shelved as the reader is led to believe.

I give this book 3 stars. There was a lot of historical trivia that I learned and found useful. His main premise, that we shouldn't count people out based on our preconceived biases and paradigms, doesn't strike me as very interesting. If it strikes you as novel, then you are Gladwell's target audience.