Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review (#22 of 2014) The Birth of Classical Europe: A History From Troy to Augustine by Price and Thonemann

The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine is a fantastic overview of Mediterranean and broader European history. One advantage of reading modern books on history is you have the latest thoughts coming from recent archaeology, technological development, discoveries about languages and migrations, etc.

I have read Freeman's Egypt, Greece, and Rome (my review) so this book was a good refresher for events but did a better job helping me understand the overall historical contexts of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor (Anatolia) during the time period covered. Whereas Freeman tended to categorize his chapters by looking at art, war, technology, and religion separately, Price and Thonemann weave them together as a whole. You can't understand what we know about, say, the Punic Wars without looking at who recorded the stories and the context they were writing in. Price and Thonemann also look more at what modern archaeology tells us about the lives and development. There are also several inset boxes that explain the significance of an event or writing in modern history-- whether it be what influenced Machiavelli or Dante's writings, Shakespeare, the U.S.'s Founding Fathers, or Nazi Germany's inspirations.

We start in the areas of Mycenae, whose inhabitants also settled in Crete, blending with a native culture that was growing and continue with the development of Classical Greece, then through the later Greek periods. Not too much time is spent on Philip and Alexander's Macedonian conquests. We then look at the rise of Rome while also looking at the civilizations that existed in mainland Europe (Gaul) and Britain, Carthage (North Africa), Persia, and Syria. The book concludes by looking at Christianity in the early Roman empire, and the increasing divide between East and West (Greek-speakers vs. Latin speakers). It concludes with a look at St. Augustine, which having just read Confessions I found helpful to put him in a greater context. Augustine is truly a post-Roman, a Latin speaker living in a Roman colony, highly educated in the classics and trying to reconcile those classics and Roman history with biblical history.  If you want a general history of Europe and the Mediterranean with plenty of peeks at details without going too deep, then this is your book.

I greatly enjoyed it and give it 5 stars.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review (#21 of 2014) How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

How to Win Friends & Influence People is still one of the Top 40 Amazon Bestsellers for a reason. Dale Carnegie wrote this book in 1936 because no one was aware of anything like it in existence. All recent works I've read on the Great Depression marveled at its importance. Carnegie taught public speaking and became such a popular lecturer that eventually he turned his lectures into this book and updated it throughout his life with real-life illustrations that his students sent to him.
(The edition I read was revised in 1981 and has been updated by the editors with some 1970s examples, making the book slightly odd). More than 8 million people in 80 countries have taken his training course.
"Dale Carnegie would tell you that he made a living all these years, not by teaching public speaking-- that was incidental. His main job was to help people conquer their fears and develop courage."

Carnegie was scholarly beast in studying people, having read hundreds of biographies and critiqued something like 150,000 speeches.

What Carnegie writes jives with recent articles on what Google is looking for in an employee--  how to be someone who leads with confidence. The importance of humility and personal ownership of your own mistakes, while emphasizing others' achievements. Expertise is the least-important to Google and to Carnegie:
"15 percent of one's financial success is due to one's technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering-- to personality and the ability to lead people." (p. 22-23)

This is a book that probably been little improved on by other self-help books of the same genre, only the details remain-- for which you can find in psychology books. Carnegie gets his point across with probably a couple hundred stories, ranging from tales of Presidents (Lincoln, Taft, Hoover, TR, FDR) and titans of industry (Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller, Schwab) to various lecture attendees who wrote Carnegie over the years (the index is impressive). Some of these stories--particularly those of Lincoln-- make the point stick in my mind quite vividly. The American history in the book is great. There are also oft-overlooked biblical references, much of what Carnegie is saying is strongly encouraged in the New Testament.You can read an outline of the chapters on wikipedia.

I have read many works on pop psychology, and even though I'm aware of my own cognitive biases I still am quite susceptible. A smile from a person makes me like them more-- makes me assume other positive attributes about the person.

"'People who smile, tend to manage, teach and sell more effectively, and to raise happier children. That's why encouragement is a much more effective teaching device than punishment'" (quoting a psychologist, pg. 204).

I am often around politicians in hallways and have noticed that they tend to greet strangers with a warm smile, hold the door open for people far behind them, and perform other people-pleasing gestures. It's central to their core. Carnegie gives several examples of politicians and industry leaders in this book who do exactly the same thing-- it's central to their personalities and helps explain their success. People like them just because they seem warm and friendly. I need to smile more. I need to remember more names and call people by their names. All the time.

This week I had a rather critical email written to someone, with a complete rational argument. I felt it was my duty, conviction to correct the person's error. I then shelved it. I am going to re-write tactfully Carnegie style. I may still never send it.

One of the more powerful points Carnegie makes is that "You can't win an argument." (One of his principles is to "never criticize," but he later has a chapter entitled "How to Criticize--and Not Be Hated for It.")

"Why prove to a man he is wrong? Why not let him save his face? He didn't ask for your opinion. He didn't want it. Why argue with him?... What price will I have to pay if I win?" (p. 312, 326)
It demeans people when you set out to prove them wrong, it says "I'm smarter than you and here's why."
"It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem which is threatened" (338) when someone challenges us. "Two thousand years ago, Jesus said: 'Agree with thine adversary quickly'" (356).

"(A)s Charles Schwab put it, 'hearty in their approbation and lavish in their praise.' All of us want that. So let's obey the Golden Rule and give unto others (lavish praise) what we would have others give unto us.  How? When? Where? All the time, everywhere."

Owning up to one's owns faults is important, especially before entering into a critique of another or in an argument.
"When we are right, let's try winning people gently and tactfully to our way of thinking, and when we are wrong--and that will be surprisingly often...let's admit our mistakes quickly and with enthusiasm" (376).  
"Almost all people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance..." (290).

So, encourage others to talk about themselves, talk in terms of their interests, and make them feel important.

Criticism in the absence of an understanding of total love and/or respect is going to be harmful. I can scold my son or criticize my wife for something only if they know that they are 100% secure in my unconditional love. I should draw attention to their mistakes "indirectly," and ask questions rather than giving orders-- for which Carnegie gives several examples. An important point in all cultures I've lived in is to "let the other person save face" (556).

Carnegie has reinforced much of my belief in positive reinforcement of my son-- a cornerstone of ABA therapy for autism. There's principle of "Make the fault seem easy to correct"(590) and this is crucial in dealing with my son-- the example in the book is one of a mentally challenged child who overcomes by gradually building his strength and confidence in certain tasks.

He ends the book on ways to encourage people toward success-- namely focus on the process and small improvements. "Give a dog a good name" (579).  Put the seed in the other person's mind that they are greater than what they realize-- the results will follow as they become that person.

Fantastic, classic book. I give it 5 stars.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review (#20 of 2014) Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

This is one of the most complete books I have ever read. It is worth all the accolades. The authors maintain a blog to continue the research and discussion. 

This is a great book for an economic overview of world history. The Acemoğlu-Robinson thesis is this: Countries are poor (or become failed states) not because of geography or culture, but because of the legacy of "extractive" institutions. Extractive political institutions set up extractive economic institutions in order to enrich the rulers at the expense of the greater society. The ruling group then sets up protections to this way of life, removing property rights and incentives for the general population to produce and innovate. This creates poverty and inequality. The "Iron Law of Oligarchy" prevails; revolutions tend to replace who are in power, but not unwind the extractive institutions. 

The book is a critique of Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel in which he argues the inequality among nations we see today are artifacts of developments that took place due to relative endowments of climate and agriculture. Diamond's thesis may explain the initial rise of technologies and kingdoms, but not their perpetuation. Why do North and South Nagales and Laredo have such differing standards of living? North and South Korea? (Formerly) East and West Germany? I consider Why Nations Fail to be similar to Diamond's sequel Collapse, it just tells the rest of the story for many more cultures than Diamond discusses. (I read Diamond's books in 2005 but apparently didn't write reviews for them?) The authors argue that "history is contingent;" there was no way to predict that Western Europe would develop democracy coming out of the Black Plague period and launch the Industrial Revolution. There was no way to predict that Botswana would be the positive outlier in Africa. There was no way to predict that Peru, whose Mayan kingdom was once more wealthy and technologically advanced than those cultures in North America, would not grow faster than the rest of the world.

The authors go through lengthy histories of countries and tribes on every continent for hundreds of years, including well-known modern examples. The majority of human history has been lived under absolutism. (This is much different than the 99% argument the Occupy movements make, under absolutism there is slavery and essentially no innovation or upward mobility.) Extractive economic  institutions stifle progress by eliminating the incentive of people to innovate or be productive-- why plant a tree when you won't get its fruit? This maintains power in the hands of a few, on whom the serfs, slaves, and majority population then have to rely.

Wherever there are vested interests, they will stand against the forces of "creative destruction." Writing was outlawed in Somalia as it was seen as subversive to ruler's self-interest to have the masses educated and able to communicate. The printing press was initially forbidden to print in Arabic in the Ottoman Empire because it put over 600 scribes loyal to the Sultan at risk. The Ming Dynasty in China forbid shipping, and forced residents to move inland 17 miles from the coast in order to keep out exports and maintain their local monopolies and keep innovation from happening. I think about Cyrus Hamlin's account of Turkey opening up for trade in the mid-1800s, how once-protected Turkish artisans were suddenly faced with much higher-quality foreign goods and had to adapt.When innovation would simply lead to greater extraction, as in pre-industrial Congo, people don't innovate.Why plant a tree or use a better tool when the King will simply take the fruit or the crops? Creative destruction is difficult, but necessary for productivity and incomes to increase-- where monopolies decrease, creative destruction increases productivity, incomes, and standard of living for entire populations instead of a relative few.

Spaniards conquering South America deliberately set up systems designed to exploit the natives as slaves mining the gold that would enrich the elite Conquistadors. Their systems essentially lasted for more 400 years and led directly to Latin America's great inequality today.

It took the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England to create a system of property rights and incentives for new products to launch the Industrial Revolution. It would take wider political reforms demanded by a majority of citizens for political power to be widespread enough to remove the Corn Laws in the early 1800s. Western Europe grew rapidly as political reforms were adopted and rights expanded beyond the ruling class, whereas the Russians and Ottomans who maintained their extractive institutions (including serfdom and slavery) fell behind. A little bit of economic inclusiveness tends to lead to more political inclusiveness, and a "virtuous cycle" of greater inclusiveness ensues. See Europe or America today.

The authors maintain that one cannot manage economic growth-- macroeconomic policy changes encouraged by the IMF and World Bank err in that they do not change the extractive political institutions of countries which are what impede long-run economic growth. Funding massive projects to build capital (better farming practices, dams, highways, electric grid) help economic growth little because the extractive political institutions make sure the gains from progress go to a select few. Likewise, international aid (of which only about 20% reaches its intended target) does nothing to solve the underlying political problem. This seems to jive with Bill Easterly's critiques of Jeff Sachs' proposals.

The authors predict that China will eventually reach the limits of its "authoritarian growth" and argue that the authoritarian growth model should not be advocated by the world as a response to the 1990s "Washington Consensus." The gains from Chinese growth are increasingly going to the elite, as many of the corruption scandals illustrate. Property rights are still not protected and China will not maintain sustained growth until its political structure becomes inclusive. Brazil serves as a counterpoint, its growth since the 1970s had nothing to do with international aid or macroeconomic policies, but is an outgrowth of inclusive political and economic reforms.

Acemoğlu and Robinson are likewise ambivalent greater liberalization of extractive economic institutions eventually leading to liberalization politically-- often used when talking about China (and often cited as Gorbechev's mistake for also liberalizing politically in the 1980s). Instead, history seems to say that it will simply enrich the ruling class and prolong the inequality.

Anything in the book about America? 
The Virginia Company looked to exploit the New World via Jamestown, hoping to extract riches like the Spanish were. When exploiting the Natives didn't work, they instead tried to exploit the colonists themselves with forced labor and susbsistence wages. This destroyed the colony, and the Virginia Company instead turned to incentives-- granting land to colonists, the right to keep their house, and setting up councils where the men could have a say in making laws: hence, free-market democracy and colonial life flourished.

In the South, extractive institutions remained strong until the 1960s. Since a large part of the population (slaves) were forbidden to own land, be educated, or vote, wealthy white landowners (monopolists) had a strong extractive institution. Thus, the South was poorer (measured by output and income) and less innovative (as measured by patents) than the North. When the political institutions were threatened, war ensued and more inclusive political institutions had to be formed at gunpoint. But the Iron Law of Oligarchy kept hold through disobedience to the law, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow laws until more forced reforms in the 1960s. Only now do we see economic growth in the South now that the benefits are more widespread, although poverty still remains strong due to the amount of time it takes to catch up.

In the early 1900s, the "Robber Barons" of industry owned an increasingly large part of the U.S. economy. The U.S. enacted trust-busting legislation partly in response to the increasing influence seen by the oligarchs on politics. FDR made trust-busting a central part of his early days in office (though as I've read a few books on the Great Depression lately, I think this is a bit of stretch) but was himself curtailed in his quest to gain more power to the state by the inclusive nature of our Constitution-- the Supreme Court checked his power.

Could Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation be evidence that economic and political power is too extractive in America? Some argue as such-- large companies have armies of lawyers to protect patents, our financial institutions are increasingly consolidating, and large players in certain industries have huge sway over elected officials through campaign donations and Super PACs. We negotiate trade deals that do nothing to chip away at the protections enjoyed by the wealthier and more politically powerful-- doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. -- at the expense of the less-wealthy, like unskilled labor. 

As a Christian, my thought is that it is in our sinful human nature to want to see power centralized, or to enrich ourselves when given an opportunity-- and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Did God not warn the Israelites about desiring such extractive political and economic institutions (1 Samuel 8:10-22)?
(H)e will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. 12 He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to [b]do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants. 15 He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys and [c]use them for his work. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. 18 Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Yet, the Israelites demanded it because they envied other nations who had it. Is this the arc of history?
This seems to repeat itself today, there's an idea that centralized control can get the economy moving. Biblical prophecy seems quite glum on the prospect of more inclusive institutions in the future.

Acemoğlu looks at the USSR as one oft-cited example (like China today), popularized in the early 20th century. Stalin simply replaced the Tsar as the extractive political ruler. He diverted resources from agriculture to manufacturing at the expense of famine, millions of lives, political murders and imprisonment, and lost productivity (and population). Towards the end of his life, Stalin himself undid some of these efforts because he saw their counterproductivity-- a similar conclusion reached by Lenin before his death.

As Acemoglu points out, even a benevolent dictator swept in by popular grievances over economic hardships has to do things to maintain his power-- namely enrich his allies. Whatever benevolent ideas he had about helping his nation, these get lost as policies are enacted that will perpetuate the cycle of enriching the few at the expense of the many. What leads to his ouster is simply another group becoming strong enough to take that power, and the cycle continues. He details several South American and African examples.

How do I relate this to today? Well, I grimace when I see a Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger plan-- concentrated power over a vital economic resource (broadband). When I see one political party trying to establish a "permanent majority," or a U.S. President take unilateral action to circumvent a check on his power (Congress, the Supreme Court).

The one thing the book lacks is a look at the environment. Perhaps environmentalists today would argue we need less creative destruction as greater economic growth puts a strain on resources. The counter-argument is that greater productivity leads to getting more with fewer resources. England has more trees and today than it did before the Industrial Revolution. It seems perverse to argue that poor countries need less economic growth. But these issues go unaddressed in the book.  

This is a 5 star book that everyone should read.I would recommend reading Jared Diamond's books, Joseph Stiglitz's books, as well as Yergin and Stanislaus's Commanding Heights and Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat along with this.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review (#19 of 2014) Shepherd Your Home by Timothy Witmer

The Shepherd Leader at Home: Knowing, Leading, Protecting, and Providing for Your Familyis a quick read and just thought-provoking enough. I liked his quotes from other sources, which might add to my reading list later. It is not deep, I'd say it's written for someone who hasn't introspected much on either marriage or parenthood. It's not deep enough to cover both, but just the basics. Each chapter ends with thought/discussion questions.Witmer is described as a (Presbyterian) pastor serving "in an urban multiethnic context for twenty-five years," which I found interesting. Expected insights from that description don't show up in the book, however. 

Here are some of my highlights:

Is it clear to your spouse that she is the most significant person in the world to you? Do you tell her that she is? Do you act as though she is?
(Q)uality time doesn’t replace the need for quantity time.

If your communication with one another is not entirely truthful, then there is probably a crack in the trust level of your relationship.
If I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level.

Do you know your wife’s greatest worry? Do you know her greatest concern for herself or for you or for the children? Do you know what sin she struggles with the most? What unmet aspirations does she harbor? What regrets does she have? Do you know what unmet aspirations she harbors? 

(the same questions are asked in regards to your child. This is crucially important in their adolescent and teenage years.)
(W)e are predisposed to say no whenever our children come to us with a request.
Sit down with your wife and discuss your goals for your family. Do they reflect the Lord’s priorities? How well are you communicating those priorities to your children?

Is my wife more like Christ because she is married to me? Or is she like Christ in spite of me?

When your children are in a position to make meaningful choices themselves, help them to understand the biblical principles that interface with those decisions.
(In regards to discipline and forgiveness): The objective is to expect the Lord to work in our children’s lives in such a way that, as they experience their own inability to keep the simplest instructions and God’s commandments, they will see their need for the Savior and look to him for forgiveness   

I'm currently reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and am struck by how much more Carnegie discusses shepherd-like behavior with family--particularly children-- than Witmer. Little is said about the power of encouragement and understanding the other person's point of view. This would, of course, be crucial among a shepherd leader and is essentially left out of Witmer's book.

I would also recommend reading Eggerich's Love and Respect before reading this book.The other will go further in improving marital relations.

I read this book in a critical week in our marriage, it helped foster good conversation between my wife and I in order to work out some differences. It encouraged me to be more intentional with Scripture and the Gospel in activities with our son. So, net positive from the book. I would recommend it to others but maybe not to those who I know have read a lot of other resources on marriage and parenting.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Review (#18 of 2014) Confessions by St. Augustine

Confessions of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (free). Some books are best listened to, particularly ones translated into Elizabethan English from Latin. By listening, I'm able to cover more ground and not get bogged down in word choice, and I'm able to connect the streams of thought more seamlessly.

I'd not read this classic, even though I long intended to "get around to it." Had it not been mentioned by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster as a great source for meditation and devotional (along with City of God which I will now read expediently), then I might not have gotten it done this year.  Confessions is one of the first "Western" autobiographies and I was fascinated that it could have been written in the 1800s just as well as 398. Has the same raw quality of pre-20th-century memoirs that haven't been edited for their PC content and revisionism.

Augustine lives somewhat of a privileged boyhood with good schooling, discipline, and a devout mother. He loves to sin, particularly struggling with lust and theft just for the sake of theft. As a teenager, Augustine joins a cult of Manicheans for 9 years. Like any cult, he finds it intellectually stifling-- he's discouraged from asking questions, or trying to use science or reason. The leaders he is under are not as well-educated as himself, and this makes it difficult. Many of the Manichee, like Mormons or JW's today, were devotees to the writings of Mani, but had not read all of his thoughts or understood them. There appear to be some appeals to astrology in Mani's writings, and the people Augustine is around don't really understand all of what they speak of. Among these were Faustus who was supposed to have all the answers, but Augustine finds generally disappointing. Nonetheless, Augustine finds their message liberating-- "it is not I who sin." Manicheans were dualists--Gnostics -- who believed that Jesus did not inhabit a physical body, and that our souls cannot be corrupted by what is done by our flesh. Even after Augustine rejects their teachings, he does not want to choose Scripture as Truth.

So, Augustine remains fairly closely associated with Manichees while himself a professor of rhetoric both in Carthage and in Rome. Meanwhile, his mother is a devout Christian who prays earnestly for his salvation and implores him to repent.

She follows him to Milan, where Augustine encounters Bishop Ambrose (whose own life seems fascinating), who Augustine respects; he attends every Sunday service. (I found some of the description of church life interesting, there appears to have been some struggles with what role wine should play in the life of the believer-- Ambrose apparently being opposed to Augustine's mother's use of wine in an act of worship.) Augustine is a philanderer, has a child by a "concubine" who he loves, but rejects in order to marry at his mother's behest. He generally hates married life and continues a life of adultery.

Augustine converses with Simplicanius, spiritual father of Ambrose, who tells Augustine of  Victorinus, a Roman philosopher and respected teacher of rhetoric in Rome, who toward the end of his life forsakes his career (it was illegal for Christians to teach rhetoric) to become a Christian. Augustine had read books translated by Victorinus, and this makes an impression on him.

"But when that man of Thine, Simplicianus, related to me this of Victorinus, I was on fire to imitate him; for for this very end had he related it. But when he had subjoined also, how in the days of the Emperor Julian a law was made, whereby Christians were forbidden to teach the liberal sciences or oratory; and how he, obeying this law, chose rather to give over the wordy school than Thy Word, by which Thou makest eloquent the tongues of the dumb; he seemed to me not more resolute than blessed, in having thus found opportunity to wait on Thee only."

Augustine also hears of Antony Eventually, Augustine has a conversion experience and repents.

"I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.' No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."

His son is baptised with him. His mother is jubilant, and dies some time afterwards.

Modernly, Augustine's book is also seen as literature, with and it appears from reading around that modern scholars maintain that looking at his work from our modern lenses misses the overall purpose and meaning. Augustine's book is not some confession and testimony of a sinner, but rather his work was intended to convert Manicheans. After all, the biographical part ends in Book 9 and Augustine launches on a range of topics, including memory and the meaning of time. (Physics tells us that all moments in time already exists, and this is what I hear Augustine saying in Book 11.) It's plausible to me that his intended audience are Manichees since they were interested in times, planets, and creation as Augustine spends a great deal of time on these. He engaged in a lifelong battle against the Manichees in Hippo, and this work certainly seems part of his larger writings to that end. Augustine's philosophical musings are still of great interest today. I would like to read Brian Greene's take on his philosophy of time.

Confessions really drives home the importance of Scripture to me; Augustine was 40 when he wrote it and knew the Scriptures well. Augustine took part in important church councils, and my understanding is that by the time of his ascension to Bishop, the accepted Western canon of scripture was already considered closed. I really enjoy how he writes/prays Scriptures when pouring his thoughts out. He prays the prayers of David, Jesus, Paul, etc. in relation to his own life and salvation. Opens every book with a heartfelt prayer/confession. I would like to read books on the theology of Augustine.

It also inspires me to read more church history. People like Simplicanius could probably trace their spiritual lineage back to the Apostles. Christians like Antony were well-known in Augustine's circles, having also published works (Dallas Willard has a nice critique of Antony and the secular-sacred dichotomy that was probably popularized by Augustine's mention). What can we today learn from these and the controversies faced by the authors? Why aren't we Christians today more scholarly about our ancient heritage?

5 stars out of 5, of course.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review (#17 of 2014) Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle by Tom Venuto

Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle: Transform Your Body Forever Using the Secrets of the Leanest People in the World is the bible of fitness. Concise information on nutrition, muscle formation, a mental motivation chapter, and a weight-lifting program anyone can start. In short, this is the only book you really need if you want to get in shape.

Venuto is a world champion bodybuilder. He has learned from the best by their experiences and earned a degree in exercise science. While he calls it a "plan," it's really not, it's information. The advanced chapters at the end discuss plateaus, bodybuilders' manipulation of carbs to lose the last few fat pounds and look really lean, along with the caveats of very-low-carb diets.

Note that the emphasis is on losing fat, not weight. My observation over the last year is that what many people forget, or may not know, is that just losing weight doesn't make you healthier-- you might be losing muscle. Who is healthier, all else equal, a 175 lb man with 10% body fat, or a 140 pound man with 20% body fat? Venuto explains how to build your lean muscle mass and shred your fat.

The only way to insure that you will lose weight is to consumer fewer calories than your body burns. There are plenty of accepted equations (available online) to figure out what that ballpark is for you.  You want your calorie deficit to be in the right amount, and your macronutrient (protein, carbs, fat) to be in the right quantities such that your body is not breaking down your muscle, it's burning your fat.

So, you need to add in a fitness regime that incorporates weight training, both to boost your metabolism but also to counteract the natural process of sarcopenia. Venuto breaks down the importance of these activities as well as explaining nutrition science-- what carbs, proteins, and fat do for your body. He gives you some ratios that he finds work for his own body, and the only way to figure that out for you is to experiment. Measure everything, with apps and free resources online this is easier than ever.

I find that most people just don't want to measure. Despite the ease of this today, they don't want to keep track of what they're eating, lifting, burning. As I say in a similar post, this is the same as why so many families have financial problems-- discipline in measurement is required.The most successful people I know, people who post selfies of their six-pack abs and a list of the Cross-Fit workout they did today, do what Venuto does. They measure relentlessly and do real weight training.

I learned a few details from this book that have helped me in the last week. I was already measuring everything, every calorie in and every calorie out through exercise. I had lost quite a bit of weight, was at an all-time low. I found I was consuming too few calories, however, to build muscle mass so I upped my calories and my weights and put on a few pounds of muscle while maintaining my body fat percentage this week. I also learned the ins and outs of carb cycling, which I think I'll try soon. (Briefly: You cycle through 3 days of low-carb and calorie deficits followed by a day of "re-feeding" with carbs at maintenance level, body builders find this helps them burn the last little bit of fat while maintaining muscle).

Venuto puts his weight routine on his website with pictures. I went out to YouTube and found video demonstrations and am now working them into my daily exercise routine along with P90X3's Mass circuit. I like it, but need to keep making time for cardio.

I enjoyed this book, highly recommend it no matter what your fitness level. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Dave Ramsey and Physical Fitness

When I taught Personal Financial Planning to undergraduates, I incorporated some of the principles and tools Dave Ramsey promotes that my wife and I have adopted as well as best practices presented by textbooks and other financial planners. The more I've become interested in physical fitness, the more I understand the principles and tools to be essentially identical. I now see fitness coaches/trainers (Tony Horton, Jillian Michaels) as quite similar to financial coaches (Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman). Here are the best practices taught by all:

Step 1: Start keeping a daily spending diary (Ramsey's program omits this crucial first step). Write down how much you spent and what you spent it on every day. That serves two purposes:
  • It makes you more conscious of where your money is going (did I really just spend $1.25 for this soft drink when I could have had three from Wal-Mart for that price?) 
  • It makes it easier to create your allocated spending plan (budget) later. 

The diary (and your budget later) necessitates that you record everything. This requires some discipline but once you do this for 10 days it becomes a habit. 

Step 2: Write down at least one short-term goal and a long-term goal.
  • Short-term goal example: 
    • "Have enough money saved up to buy Christmas presents" 
    • "Pay my rent on time this month." 
    • "Stop eating out as much." 
  • Long-term goals might be:
    • "Pay off my student loans in five years."
    • "Buy a new car next year."
    • "Have $1 million saved for retirement by age 65."
Goals give you your target, your benchmark, and your motivation. Your diary helps you keep track of where you are on the track to hitting your goal.

Step 3: Create your allocated spending plan / budget. 
  • Look back at your diary for the last month. How much did you spend on household items, clothing, gas, etc? 
    • Create categories for these items with a monthly spending target. Put that target at the top of your worksheet or column. (Don't worry, you'll adjust it for later months as you go.)
  • How much do you know you'll need to spend this year for auto title & insurance, Christmas gifts, tuition, etc.? 
    • Create categories for these too with the amount divided by 12--you need to save a little each month to have enough to pay it when the time comes.  
  • How much do you want to save? Make a category for that with a monthly target. 
  • Look at your expected income (weekly, monthly, whenever). Do you make enough to cover all of your targets each month? If not, you need to cut back.
  • Now, as you spend money and keep track, you subtract from your target. If you go over-target in one category you need to offset in another category. For example, when we go over on Household by $30, we may "transfer" $30 from Saving (or another category) to Household. (Email me if you'd like the spreadsheet we use)
  • Adjust accordingly. You may find your planning to spend too much on "Entertainment" or "Eating Out," and too little for "Gas." It's a process, and everyone has different spending/saving priorities. 
  • Be sure to include fun categories in your budget-- movies, date night, etc.

People who are successful at losing weight and getting fit do exactly the same thing: They record their calories: what they ate and how much (including weight). They record their calorie burn with a heart-rate monitor, and what weights they used. They set attainable goals: "Lose 25 pounds by July" or "Reduce body fat to 7%." They plan their meals according to their nutritional needs. They adjust for what they find works best for their bodies--what gets the best results toward their goals.

This takes some discipline. But there are free tools out there to help:
  • Use a spreadsheet on Google Docs to record your spending and workouts (or transfer it from the notebook you carry with you). 
    • Hint: Instead of having specific categories for every item (ie: food, toiletries, cleaning supplies) lump them into broader ones (ie: "Household"). 
    • My wife spends time every week going through our receipts and our bank statement online. This requires pulling out some items from the Wal-Mart receipt that fit into "school supplies," etc. instead of "household" but it's worth the time you put in. It takes discipline, but so does anything worth doing. 
  • Use an app like MyFitness Pal to record your eating and workouts. 
    • The good news is, for just about everything you eat someone else has already entered in the nutritional info! You can even scan barcodes with your phone and it will do it automatically. 
    • Apps also allow you to set calorie and macronutrient targets, so you can easily measure whether eating another ______ is a good idea or not. 
    • Heart rate monitors like Polar and allow you to upload workout data right to a database on their website. 
    • MyFitness Pal also syncs with Fitbit, to record more information. 
  • Use a calorie calculator to figure out what your target calories and macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) should be to achieve your fat/weight loss goals and maintain good health. 
    • Here are two good ones using the same equations common in the health and fitness industry: 
    • Adjust over time according to what you see works for you. Tom Venuto eats 50% carbs, 30% protein, and 20% fat because that's what gives him the greatest fat burn. I aim for a slightly different ratio. 
Step 4: Accountability and continuous improvement. In the financial world, bouncing checks or not being able to pay your bills goes a long way to keep you accountable. But, it helps to have your spouse (of course) or church group on board with you. Once you're keeping track, it will be easier to stop at Starbucks less and brew more at home. My scale and fat percentage calculator are enough to keep me motivated, but it helps to see what others are doing and learn from them. Maybe I can additional rep or two, or take a few more stairs at work. Our health insurance incentivizes us to make healthy choices, and that helps too.

At the beginning of my classes I take a survey to find out what students (some of whom are middle aged) do for their budgeting. The average response is something like "I know roughly what I spend and what I have in my bank account." They usually don't know what the interest rate is on their credit card, or their annual fee. They understand from either their own past or what they've observed from their parents, that leads to bad consequences-- a bounced check here, or an emergency arises that they cannot cover. The spending diary is a big wake-up call for them, suddenly they have knowledge ("knowledge is power, power is change" - Tony Horton). I find it to be the same in the fitness world, those who take guesses at their calorie consumption/burn don't see the results they want. An early 90's study looked at people who thought they had a metabolism or thyroid issue, after having failed at least eight times on a diet plan. The study found that people were understanding their calorie intake and overestimating their calorie burn-- when put on a controlled program by the researchers, they experienced the same weight loss as the control group. My advice is to do what the pro's do. Don't take shortcuts. Discipline and an organized plan pays off.

Dave Ramsey has the same attitude as Tony Horton. The sarcastic wit, the "duh"- equivalent comments, but also the caring, helpful attitude and constant encouragement.This is why some people love them and are devoted, while others loathe them. But they preach the same message: You can change if you're willing. If you make healthy choices today, you're going to reap the benefit later in life.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review (#16 of 2014) The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman

At first, I thought The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy was going to be a puff piece on Wal-Mart, but that's not the case. You can see various reviews of the book on the book's website and see it's mostly been praised for its even-handedness. It's simply an attempt to get one's head around Wal-Mart's policies, particularly in regards to their supply chain, and their consequences. Fishman sees Wal-Mart as a "reflection of our money." Wal-Mart is democratic in the sense that we vote with our dollars and it does exactly according to what we vote for.

Fishman (2006) starts at the early beginnings of the company, but doesn't go in-depth. Sam Walton, the richest man in the world, used to drive around in a beat up old car with no hubcaps. He would borrow a car if he was visiting one Wal-Mart store in driving distance of another. Wal-Mart executives were compensated for meals while traveling, but only up to a 10% tip. That attitude permeates everything Wal-Mart does: Always low prices.

Many anecdotes are famous about Wal-Mart, but Fishman tries to find stories from Wal-Mart suppliers or former suppliers, and employees of those companies. Suppliers live "in fear" of Wal-Mart, refusing to publicly comment on the company's practices. Wal-Mart is a monopsony determined to hold down price. Suppliers who do business with it will see their profits whittled down (as confirmed by economic studies) by inflation in their own inputs while Wal-Mart is determined not to pass that inflation along to consumers. A company who does more than 20% of its sales with Wal-Mart tends to end up in bankruptcy more often than those who only rely on Wal-Mart a smaller percentage of the business. 

Fishman's look at Snapper mowers is insightful-- Snapper ended its relationship with Wal-Mart after the company pushed Snapper too low on price, and suggested it create a cheaper, lower-quality, line of mowers just for Wal-Mart. You can read that chapter published as an article for Fast Company.

"Wier had determined to lead Snapper to focus on quality, and through quality, on cachet. Not every car is a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry; there is more than enough business to support Audi and BMW and Lexus. And so it is with lawn mowers, Wier hoped. Still, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the Wal-Mart effect is so pervasive that it sets the metabolism even of companies that purposefully do no business with Wal-Mart."

Interestingly, as of 2013 Wal-Mart is again selling Snapper mowers, which is now owned by Briggs & Stratton. Snapper dealers appear to have mixed feelings, similar to how they felt in 2005.

Most interesting to me are the economic impact studies. The book was published in 2006, when a 2005 study by Baker was prominent. David Neumark has done an updated study with a correction for what he sees as errors in Baker's instrumentation. Neumark finds that Wal-Mart opens stores where it sees potential economic growth, so one has to control for that growth and see if Wal-Mart increases employment beyond that or actually brings it down. (Neumark is generally considered "conservative" as he's written strongly against the minimum wage lately.) While Baker found that employment in a county, overall, increased by 30 jobs five years after Wal-Mart opened (which Wal-Mart was eager to tout), Neumark et al find:
The employment results indicate that aWal-Mart store opening reduces county-level retail employment by about 150 workers, implying that each Wal-Mart worker replaces approximately 1.4 retail workers. This represents a 2.7 percent reduction in average retail employment. The payroll results indicate that Wal-Mart store openings lead to declines in county-level retail earnings of about $1.4 million, or 1.5 percent (emphases mine). 

Wal-Mart makes a big overall impact on prices in America, which went unrecorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics who intentionally leave Wal-Mart out of their price surveys. If properly measured, it would have lowered the rate of inflation in the U.S. dramatically.

Our estimates are that the BLS CPI-U food at home inflation is too high by about 0.32 to 0.42 percentage points, which leads to an upward bias in the estimated inflation rate of about 15% per year.

Other studies have found Wal-Mart increases poverty. However, if you factor in the CPI bias above, prices in those areas are improperly measured and would have fallen-- meaning one can argue the income effect is not quite as bad. Jason Furman, President Obama's current CEA chair, put it like this in 2008:

The lower prices at Wal-Mart are staggering. They are eight to 40 percent lower than what people would pay elsewhere. The total annual savings in one recent study...for consumers are $263 billion. That’s $2,300 for every household in America. They’re very few public policies that I’ve advocated in my life that would make as big a difference as that.

Compare that to estimates of wage suppression by Wal-Mart... $5 billion a year in lower wages due to Wal-Mart. $5 billion, $263 billion – it’s just an enormous differential. Because of that I called my paper, and also to be a little bit provocative maybe, "Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story," and part of it is the progressive benefits that Wal-Mart has delivered. ...

Wal-Mart, even if we didn’t do anything, would be a force where the good vastly outweighs the bad. But the good isn’t good enough and we need to do a lot more, and Wal-Mart should act in what it claims it’s interested in doing on behalf of its stakeholders and work with all of us to do things like expand Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, raise the minimum wage, which Wal-Mart has finally come around to supporting.

One recent study found a new store opening causes an increase in local home prices.

By in large, there is no environmental impact mentioned in the book. But when one considers that Wal-Mart makes it cheaper to buy things like mowers every year or two rather than repair the broken one, the result in our landfills should be measurable.

Fishman ends with a look at a Wal-Mart supplier from the view of employees who were laid off as manufacturing was shipped abroad. While earlier in the book he contends that we should really laud this globalization, gains from efficiency and competition, and lower prices he uses his last chapter as a way to (in my view) stoke racist (ie: "the Chinese") nationalist sentiment. But his broader point is worthy: What kind of society and economy do we want? Do we want a vibrant downtown with small specialty shops, or big box stores that deliver lower prices on the outskirts of town that require infrastructure to support driving to them? Our nation has voted with its dollars and feet for the sprawl. Fishman correctly contends that it's important we think about the consequences of this.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Book Review (#15 of 2014) What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think I've now read all the books published under Gladwell's name, at least his best sellers. What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures is a collection of Gladwell essays written for the The New Yorker. They are wide-ranging and you can see how some of them relate to Gladwell's books.

If you are interested in:
How we consider genius, and how some geniuses might be "late bloomers"
Whether the birth control pill might cause more physical harm than societal good
Cost/benefits of mammograms
Why we might not want the CIA and FBI to work together on terrorism
Why there are dozens of brands of mustard but not ketchup
Dog whispering
Management and management consultants-- what they get wrong and right
Nassim Taleb's strategies
JFK junior's fatal plane crash
Criminal profilers
Smarter, cheaper ways to deal with the problem of homelessness

and various other potpourri, you will enjoy reading this compilation. It's Gladwell at his best, threading seemingly unrelated issues together using research from economists, psychologists, and sociologists.

Some things that affected how I think:
Why is it we put more trust in pictures, the sense of sight, than in other senses--like touch (this is in the mammogram chapter-- relate WWII bombing to mammograms)?

A puzzle is a situation where we lack information. A mystery is where we have the information but it has to be put together. Enron was a mystery, not a puzzle. Their financial statements and shell-game accounting arrangements were public information but it was years until anyone bothered to check it out. What problems do I face that are mysteries but I'm treating like puzzles, or vice-versa?

Every great artist had to have a patron, someone to support her during years of of work. Some of the great writers and composers had spent decades writing before they were "good" or noticed. These all had to have a patron behind them.

You can learn a lot from Gladwell's research. This book isn't deep but it's very wide. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Book Review (#14 of 2014) How Medicaid Fails the Poor by Avik Roy

How Medicaid Fails the Poor is a "book" that is shorter than a Kindle Single, it's more like an essay or long-form article. I was disappointed in that, so as a result it only gets 2 stars. But I do recommend reading it, if you can find a free copy.

I have a few personal and professional connections to Medicaid, so I'm interested in it. Roy highlights several studies showing how Medicaid does not improve health outcomes significantly different than if the poor did not have health insurance. He promotes a few alternatives, and criticizes the Left for its intransigence.

Medicaid cost U.S. taxpayers $450 billion in 2013 and will cost another $7.4 trillion over the next 10 years. Roy says we could spend a fraction by adopting policies like Singapore and other countries have done, and achieve better outcomes.

The problem with Medicaid is that it pays doctors a fraction of what private insurance pays, so fewer and fewer doctors are willing to take Medicaid patients and may provide sub-standard care (people respond to incentives). This problem is worsened by the Affordable Care Act in that over 17 million people will enroll in Medicaid, widening the gap between those seeking care and those able to find it.

A Harvard-MIT study that has been in the news a lot recently has yet to show greatly improved outcomes, other than people feeling better mentally about having health care with Medicaid once they get it. Medicaid patients are still clogging the emergency rooms because they cannot find a doctor who will see them, driving up the cost for everyone.

I read a recent report on Kentucky's Medicaid system last week, a statewide survey found few complaints about access to medical care. I have not looked at how Kentucky's reimbursement rate compares to other states, but I do not doubt that the problem is worse elsewhere. 

Roy's preferred solution has been mentioned quite a bit over the years, namely mandated health savings plans (subsidized, perhaps) along with catastrophic insurance covered by the government.

"Singapore, which has a universal system of catastrophic coverage and health-savings accounts, spends one-seventh of what we spend on health care, with comparable results.

Another proposal are "concierge plans" where you pay a flat fee and a doctor has to see you as many times a month as you need. This is being implemented by some private practitioners and working well, according to Roy.

The book ends rather abruptly after introducing these concepts. As such, it's disappointing.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Book Review (#13 of 2014) Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I suppose I'm on a mission to finish all of Gladwell's books. Outliers: The Story of Success is better than David and Goliath, which I recently reviewed

As always, Gladwell presents results of several studies by psychologists and their application to real life, told through various anecdotes. It's up to the reader to research the data and studies, which are often not without controversy. Statisticians often quarrel with Gladwell, but Gladwell's talent is making these studies accessible to the masses and confronting our paradigms with them.

Studies find success-- as judged by people becoming elite professional athletes, CEOs, etc. is a function of a few things, which I'd broadly divide into luck and hard work (no surprise, right?):

Birth month.
If the school age/grade cutoff for your district is August 1 and your child is born August 2, he's more likely to be in an advanced/gifted program than someone born in July.That is because he will be older when starting school, have more skills, and will be seen to be more advanced. "Advanced" kids then have more invested in them-- gifted programs devote additional resources to these students relative to others, and the advantage compounds. As a result, these kids will end up with more hours of study/practice/training relative to their peers born later in the cutoff year, which is the key indicator of success.

Birth year/era.
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and several other Silicon Valley CEOs were born within six months of each other in 1955. They were the perfect age for when the first truly revolutionary home PC, the Altair 8800 was invented. A year or two change in their birth year and they'd have missed it. Those computer engineers who graduated before this event likely ended up working in the old mainframe mindset and missed out on the new home PC revolution.
Gladwell points to similar birth year effects for the Robber Barons of industry, some of the richest people in world history, in the late 1800s early 1900s, who were all born in the late 1830s and arrived on the scene just the right time to capture the Industrial Revolution. Those born in 1915 had a better chance of success given The Depression and WWII relative to those born in 1910.

Bill Gates and Mike Joy may have come from high-IQ backgrounds but they also got lucky. Bill Gates happened to go to probably the only high school in the world that had set up a timeshare computer for more modern (non-punchcard) programming, extremely rare for 1967. He was the only 13 year old in the world who had access to such a modern method of programming. He also lived within walking distance of a university where he could get free time programming (at 3am). As a result, he (and Paul Allen) had already put in 10,000 hours of programming before graduating high school.

Mike Joy also happened to enroll at Michigan the same year it started a computing center, which he stumbled into. As a result, he found something that had never piqued his interest before. He was able to get his 10,000 hours in pretty quickly.

You're born into a culture. Gladwell begins a discussion on feuds with a look at chronicled feuds in Eastern Kentucky in the 1800s, and a modern University of Michigan study that indicated Southerners are more likely to react emotionally/violently to certain insults than Northerners even today. While today's Southerners and Appalachians may not be directly related to the Scotch-Irish culture of their forebears, that "culture of honor" still persists in the South. This culture affects our attitudes toward work and success.

Gladwell looks at culture as it relates to education. For example, why does the U.S. have a long summer vacation, whereas Asians do not? Does it matter?  Yes, studies say. But why is the summer break the sacred cow? It goes back to quasi-scientific studies a century ago that too much school work drives young people insane (or other poor consequence). Despite studies now showing otherwise, and that reading scores drop during summer holidays (particularly the poor), the summer vacation remains a sacred cow.

Gladwell maintains that Asian culture is built on the history of the rice patty, where hard work is the key and it's honored about all else. That is absent from Western thinking, and hence Asian kids do better in academic subjects. Likewise, the Asian language luckily uses shorter words for its numbers, so they take less time to think and say than in Romantic or Germanic-rooted languages. That speeds up mental calculations, giving Asians an advantage. 

"Practical intelligence" which I would also call social IQ, or empathy.
Christopher Langan is considered one of the smartest people in the world, but he was unable to excel in college due to what he sees as bad luck, but Gladwell sees it as a result of his poor social skills. He couldn't convince people he was worth the investment. Gladwell chalks this up to family background and gives some anecdotes-- if you're lucky to have socially skilled parents you are more likely to be successful.

This is where I may have some disagreement with Gladwell; anyone familiar with autism knows that family background does not help an autistic child learn social skills, it's something that must be intensively and deliberately taught. While a neurotypical child absorbs mores and norms almost by osmosis, a person on the autism spectrum (as Langan perhaps is?) has great difficulty with this.

Hard Work 
10,000 hours.
About the only trait separating the good from the great are the amount of hours put in-- various studies show roughly 10,000 hours are necessary for mastery of a skill. Now, those who are born in the right month are going to get more training (see above). But anyone willing and able to put the hours in see the result. (That's roughly 20 hours a week for 10 years. I think of the 10,000 hour component a lot when studying language-- to me it's about logging the most best hours possible).

Confronting your culture.
Using Korean Airlines and other once-crash-prone airlines as his example, Gladwell maintains that to go from a bad outlier to an excellent one, you have to confront your culture. Airlines now work hard to train pilots to communicate effectively even when cultural norms dictate more tacit submission to authorities. It's not politically correct, but "when we ignore culture, planes crash. For an American student to excel at math like his Asian counterpart, he has to confront the American culture which prefers athletics and class clowns relative to Asian culture. He has to be different.

Gladwell ends the book giving a brief history of his own family tree, and a look at slave-master relationships in Jamaica. His point is that who a person is, and the success they achieve, is a function of who their parents were and what was around them. But isn't that rather obvious? (This is similar to themes covered in David and Goliath, for which the critique is also similar). Gladwell thinks it's somewhat revolutionary. He wants to confront the American notion of the self-made man. (It brought to my mind Pres. Obama's "You didn't build that.") 

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I enjoyed it, would recommend reading it and thinking about all the studies presented. It's one of the better Gladwell books.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Book Review (#12 of 2014) And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed
First fiction book I have read in a while. My wife and I read Hosseini's other works and enjoyed them, this one was on the 2013 "Top Books" lists of several publications, so we were eager to read.

I had friends who lived in Afghanistan for years and told me that the Kite Runner originally was supposed to have a dark Afghan-style ending-- the boy was never found; but that would never sell to a Western audience so the author penned a happy ending and it sold millions and a movie. I kept that in mind when reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, which was captivating but had a predictable happy ending complete with the opening of a girls' school in Kabul. Hosseini's characters always endure stark tragedy to a Western reader, but in the end wrongs are made right.  Would this book be the same or different?

And the Mountains Echoed is ultimately about the relationships we enter into, some voluntarily and some not-- and how we live within those relationships when we wish we didn't still have to. It's also about the consequences when we sever those relationships.

The man who marries someone who was not his first choice, because the first choice was no longer possible.

The wife who marries a man while hoping for the best, realizing soon thereafter it will never get better and feels imprisoned.

The father who has children he cannot properly care for and feels he'd be better without.

The sister's keeper who wishes she didn't bear that responsibility anymore. The kept sister who wishes the same for her sibling.

The mother who adopts or inherits a child, perhaps even by choice, but ultimately sees the child as a burden, something she can't really love despite her own wishes. The child who feels the same about the mother.

The responsible person who wishes he could undo promises he made to someone that it would cost too much to keep.

The son who feels estranged in his own family, creating as much distance as possible between himself and his parents.

"Abdullah wished he could love her as he had his own mother...And perhaps (she) secretly wished the same, that she could love him."
"No one has to know. No one would. It would be her secret, one she would share with the mountains only. The question is whether it is a secret she can live with...She has lived with secrets all her life...At last, she makes her choice...Parwana keeps marching toward her new life."

"People learned to live with the most unimaginable things. As would he...he would not love his father as he had before...But he would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business."

"I can't help but see two people together out of a sense of genetic duty, doomed already to bewilder and siappoint each other, each honor-bound to defy the other." 

"I understand now why Madaline left all those years ago. The rope that pulls you from the flood can become a noose around your neck." 

What do you do with the tension, the frustration, the helplessness, and the guilt of feeling trapped--wanting out of the relationship? What do you do after you find a way to obtain release from it? How do you justify it and deal with the consequences? That is essentially the theme of this book set to Afghan culture. Add to the mix characters who are more Western than Afghan, but feel somewhat guilty about their lack of connection and contribution to their country of origin. (Much in the book occurs outside of Afghanistan-- in France, Greece, America.) What choices do these people make? There is also an East of Eden quality to the story-- the importance of knowing and understanding your origins and the weight we feel when we do not know.

Hosseini weaves together multiple stories from various eras together, and the book does tie up neatly and satisfactorily but much less like a fairy tale than his previous works. Not all injustices are righted. But the last chapters are of people who chose to stay and endure the relationship. These are praised as heroes. And these are the ones who find peace within themselves.

"This was her gift to me, the ironclad knowledge that she would never do to me what Madaline had done to Thalia. She was my mother and she would not leave me."

Four stars out of five.