Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections: Number the Stars

Lois Lowry's The Giver is a masterpiece and easily merits a spot on the Thousander Club Must-Read list.  Number the Stars, which title comes from the 147th Psalm, is only the second book of Lowry's I have read.  It's smart and tense, albeit not as affecting and profound as The Giver.  Written for younger readers, it creates enough peril and danger to instruct children regarding the terrifying atmosphere of the second world war without becoming too heavy-handed.

The didactic value of Number the Stars is in its lesson on bravery.  Annemarie, the book's main protagonist, is a modern symbol of Little Red Riding Hood, which is referenced directly in the book.  Young readers, especially young girls, can benefit by relating to Annemarie—an ordinary girl thrust into an extraordinary and difficult situation.  In fact, Number the Stars is a book I want my young daughters to read.  I want them to learn how to be brave, and Number the Stars teaches that lesson quite nicely.

I do feel the book requires some additional context which is not provided.  Although a young reader may understand the overall peril in the book and discern who the bad and good guys are, I felt the exposition in the book may leave some readers, especially the younger ones, wondering what may be happening.  Perhaps there is value in that since the protagonist is a young person herself, and she doesn't fully understand the gravity of the situation in which she is placed.  As the book suggests, sometimes not knowing something is where bravery may be found.  I cede that point but wonder if adult readers are taking for granted what we already know about World War 2, the Holocaust, and Nazism.  Regardless, Number the Stars is perfectly readable the way it is.

Lois Lowry's intended audience can be taught and molded by a book like Number the Stars, and I think Lowry knows exactly who that audience is.  It's not the masterpiece that The Giver is, but it's a good book. It's worth reading, and its lesson is worth learning.

Other Topics of Interest:
Thousander Must-Reads
What Should a 9th Grader Read?
Reflections: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reflections: The Marshmallow Test

I first heard about the marshmallow test in 2010 while listening Dieter F. Uchtdorf's conference address titled Continue in Patience.  I thought the concept was fascinating at the time, and over the years I have stumbled across various accounts of the tests and their impact on the academic community, as well as public policy debates.  The Marshmallow Test, written by Walter Mischel, is a deeper dive into the origins of the famous study and the subsequent academic work which has been done to confirm and challenge its findings.

The reader will immediately notice how the marshmallow test and its findings are far more nuanced than how its often reported in the media.  It's not that the findings are incorrect or distorted, it's that the story is so much richer and more complex than a headline.  I found this to be the most intriguing and valuable aspect of The Marshmallow Test.  I love taking a deeper dive into assumptions. When it comes to human nature and human behavior generally, there are a lot of assumptions and even intellectual biases.  Mischel takes a special interest in the nature versus nurture debate, and he points toward a bevy of academic research to support his findings.  As I am wont to do, I accept the premises and conclusions of most academic research with limited skepticism because there is always another view, another study, and another reasonable opinion to suggest a contrarian viewpoint.

Although all of the material is interesting, the writing isn't noticeably poignant.  Mischel appears to be much more of a researcher than an author.  In addition, The Marshmallow Test probably could have been a bit shorter.  The main point of the book was made repeatedly and in different contexts.  A few stories and a few research studies probably could have been omitted and the results would have been the same.  Having said that, Mischel does spare the reader the graphs and charts which usually accompany a book like this.  I enjoy looking at those and trying to understand the data at a more granular level, but it wasn't necessary for this book, which is mostly written for the layman.

In conclusion, the marshmallow test is a very, very interesting academic study which deserves some attention, especially in the context of public policy, such as education.  The debate over nature versus nurture is a fundamental one, and the results from Mischel's work and others contributes in a significant way to the debate.  The Marshmallow Test was a nice look behind the curtain of a particular set of academic studies, and if you have interest in something like that then this book is worth perusing.  Otherwise, it may be a bit of slog.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: Life at the Bottom
Reflections: Up from Slavery

Friday, September 2, 2016

Reflections: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

What would I have done, said, wrote, and believed if I were there?  That question remained in my mind nearly the entire time I read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The era of Nazism in Germany is one of the most harrowing, disgusting, and fascinating epochs I have ever read about it.  Bonhoeffer's biography by Eric Metaxas is a competent biography, albeit not a great one, about a man who existed in a world gone mad and did what he could to push back against the darkness.

When writing about personalities who lived during consequential moments in history, there must be a compulsion for authors to try and link that personality's life with the events  as much as possible.  I feel this biography tried to oversell Bonhoeffer's participation in historic events or didn't make it clear enough how his life was interconnected with those events.  Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his seditious actions, but the author seemed to stretch his direct involvement in certain assassination plots.  Regardless, Bonhoeffer was a man of courage and confidence who demands the highest level of admiration.  When so many voices were crying for compromise, he made the case for conviction. 

As an influential theologian, he saw the evil of Nazi Germany through the prism of his Christian faith.  Of the many biographies and non-fiction books written about or related to the era of Nazism and World War 2, the spiritual and faith-centered aspects of this book are perhaps the most unique.  Was Christianity an impetus for Nazi ideology or was it corrupted by it?  Why did so many religious people support Hitler?  Why did ecclesiastical leaders do the same?  There is a clear warning and tragic lesson to be learned.  Metaxas gives significant time in this biography to let the theological debate rage, which was enthralling and troubling.  Through it all, I queried myself, as a devoutly religious person, what would I have done?  On which side of the line would I have stood?

Although Bonhoeffer is a wonderful subject for a biography, the most fascinating elements of this book are the details related to the rise of Nazi Germany.  (I added The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to my Amazon wish list while reading Bonhoeffer).  This book proves the historical point made by Barbara W. Tuchman: "No single characteristic ever overtakes an entire society."  Bonhoeffer and others like him, such as his family, show that sanity prevailed in some pockets, however small, of the German population.  Not everyone became bloodthirsty, sadistic, depraved automatons goose-stepping in loyal obeisance to Adolf Hitler.  Many individuals gave their lives trying to stop evil from completely strangling their beloved homeland.  In many respects, they failed; however, their efforts, heralded in a book like Bonhoeffer, show that moral degeneration is not universal, even when it takes hold of the majority.  (After reading Bonhoeffer, I'd really like to re-watch Valkyrie, which I enjoyed but feel I would appreciate it quite a bit more now). 

The conclusion of Bonhoeffer is predictably heart-breaking but no less affecting.  It is staggering to comprehend how much evil was perpetuated and how much human suffering was caused by Nazi Germany.  Yet, it is also moving to learn of the men and women who refused to break under the burden of popular opinion or government coercion.  I  am nonplussed by how iniquitous mankind can be, but a book like Bonhoeffer gives me hope that I, as well as others, can still choose to be saintly.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The March of Folly
Reflections: The Culture of Disbelief
Reflections: The Lessons of History

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Reflections: Ready Player One

Ready Player One is the most referential book I have ever read.  Its pages drip with 80s pop culture references, some of them obvious, many of them not.  It's entertaining at first, especially when you understand the reference, but then it becomes a bit obnoxious and excessive.  This, in fact, is a good analogue to the book itself.  Its beginning is much stronger than its conclusion, and the aspects of the book which were its most entertaining element at the start become tired and worn-out by the end.

The book is on the whole enjoyable.  I described it to a co-worker as "aggressively okay."  The narrative pulls you along at a steady pace, interesting things happen, the mystery of the "Easter Egg" is sufficiently compelling, but it's the finer details that start to nag.  As mentioned, the references, the worship of 80s culture, although explained through the narrative, becomes irritating.  The details of the story are impressive, and the author's passion for the subject matter screams on every page.  The writing and dialogue serves the story fine and provides only a few moments of profundity. 

Sadly, the author, Ernest Cline, commits one of the most grievous mistakes of any science fiction or fantasy story, which I call "The Magic Wand."  Essentially "The Magic Wand" is a narrative tool to magically fix the story's most perplexing problems.  (Did you know reversing the Earth's orbit reverses time itself!?  Thank you, Superman).  Often times authors use this Wand when they've painted themselves into a corner.  "Oh, look, now the main character can fly!" or "travel through time!" or some such thing.  Ready Player One's Magic Wand is the main character's outlandish sudden ability to perfectly plan and execute a plan of such devious and conniving genius it leaves both the characters in the book and the reader of the book completely stunned.  Furthermore, throughout the book, there are far too many instances of the character needing to know some obscure or obtuse fact about 80s pop culture and the main character conveniently notifies the reader: "Good thing I've watched this film exactly 175 times."  Good thing, indeed.

Having said all of this, I enjoyed Ready Player One for what it was.  I was especially interested in the possible and entirely plausible future of virtual reality that the book showcases.  It's both exciting and dismaying.  Although the messaging of the book is muddled, which is too bad, the fiction aspect of it was very interesting.  (It's worth mentioning that according to an article in Businessweek, each new Oculus Rift employee—a company which has created a virtual reality headset—is issued a copy of Ready Player One).  A few years ago I was extremely skeptical of virtual reality's ability to be adopted by the mainstream.  Although that hasn't happened in a significant way yet, I do believe it will; in addition, I believe it very well could herald a massive shift in how we consume and participate in entertainment, education, business, commerce, and even how we interact with and make sense of reality itself.  Ready Player One shows a world that is either terrifying or exhilarating depending on your worldview.  I'm not convinced the author knows exactly which one it is. 

Ready Player One is being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, and I think it might have a better chance being a great story as a film than a book.  I think the story needs to be trimmed, sliced and diced a bit, and leave behind many of the arcane details meant to be enjoyed by only a few.  There is definitely a fun adventure to be found here, but it might take some other storytellers to tell it a bit better.


Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reflections: The Innovator's Dilemma

I've written before I'm not a big fan of many business books because many authors "intentionally or unintentionally, [attempt] to make [their] book some kind of new scriptural canon, demanding of our attention year after year."  The Innovator's Dilemma is a different book altogether; it's MBA territory and not meant for readers who enjoy a quick but mostly superficial exploration at self-help techniques.  Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma is a challenging and enlightening book, which purports to break new ground in the understanding of business and technology but also explores existing principles beneficial to all and not only the entrepreneur or senior manager. 

My awareness of The Innovator's Dilemma came while reading the excellent biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Isaacson wrote: ". . . Christensen was one of the world's most insightful business analysts, and Jobs was deeply influenced by his book The Innovator's Dilemma."  I figured I should pay attention to this book so highly regarded by one of the most influential business leaders in recent memory.  Christensen's book attempts to document and explain how disruptive technology differs from sustaining technologies within industries—all detailed and defined, of course—and how entire industries have been significantly changed and how seemingly successful companies have folded or been greatly reduced in capability and reach due to disruptive changes.  That all sounds a bit esoteric, and in some ways it is without modest knowledge of businesses and organizations, but I found the information very interesting and useful.

Amazingly, I didn't find The Innovator's Dilemma to be redundant, as many business  books are.  It seemed that any time the book started to become too repetitious it would pivot to a new theory or model to continue explaining the phenomenon of disruptive technologies.  Although I was able to follow with a modicum of confidence the main ideas and principles, I certainly had to slow down a few times, re-read a few sentences, and ponder over a few graphs for a bit longer than usual to truly understand what was being presented and discussed.  In some cases, I'm still pondering.  As mentioned previously, this is not an easy read.  It will push you to dig deeper into seemingly straightforward business cases and consistently use your critical thinking skills.

Clayton Christensen offers something truly valuable and insightful with his book The Innovator's Dilemma.  I don't expect to create any disruptive technologies or necessarily be in a senior management situation having to make organizational decisions to deal with one, but I feel much more educated regarding business, organizations, and the constant change that is pervasive through most industries.

On a side note, Clayton Christensen's TED talk, How Will You Measure Your Life?, is well worth listening to and provides an impetus to reflect and examine your life and ambitions. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team