Monday, December 5, 2016

Reflections: Earth Unaware

I now have read twelve books in the Ender Universe.  And, sadly, I think I'm done reading books in that universe.  The last book I read from Scott Card was Ender in Exile, and I largely left off reading that book with a positive feeling.  I wrote in part: "With so many books and so many authors in the wild to enjoy, I'm not exactly sure why I keep coming back to the Ender well.  Regardless of whether I figure it out or not, I'll be back to take another drink and more than likely enjoy the taste just fine."  Yet, going into Earth Unaware my mood and feeling changed.  I realized that with so many books to read and so many authors to enjoy, it may be time to leave behind characters I have come to love.

The most interesting aspect of Earth Unaware is the new cast of characters.  As I have read about Ender and the characters that surround him, such as his family, I have come to know them in an intimate way, even personal.  Furthermore, with Scott Card's signature psycho-analysis, the reader came to know the characters at a very deep, albeit sometimes trite, way.  Earth Unaware only tries to bridge the current story with the future story by briefly introducing but just as quickly leaving behind the war hero Mazer Rackham.  I was fine with the introduction but also the quick departure from him.  We have learned enough about the characters from the original Ender stories.  It was time for new blood, new motivations, and new conflicts.  The new characters are adequate but mostly forgettable.  Furthermore, the story that surrounds them is also forgettable; therefore, as you can imagine, a forgettable story and forgettable characters makes for a forgettable book.

Prequels often seem like a good idea on paper; yet, they quickly become bad ideas in their execution.  Ender's Game is rightfully considered a classic of science fiction.  Logic would suggest that the story that led to Ender's Game would be just as interesting.  In this case, as in the case with many other prequels, it's just not true.  Sometimes there is great value in mystery.  When it comes to fiction, we don't have to know everything.  In Ender's Game the characters, including Andrew Wiggin, and the reader are given only glimpses into the First Formic War.  Wouldn't it be fascinating to get the detailed story?  Not really.  Storytellers should remember the lesson of the Star Wars prequels.  Do we really want to know how Darth Vader became Darth Vader?  It seems like a no-brainer, but the end result is pretty lousy. 

It's entirely possible I'll end up reading some more books in the Enderverse.  It won't be for some time.  I have no desire to continue the Earth trilogy nor the Shadow series; therefore, I don't really have too many places to go.  Yet, with twelve books in my collection, I would say I put in my time as a faithful fan.  At this point, I think I'm okay with remembering the great stories Scott Card gave me and forgetting the mediocre ones.  Earth Unaware is the latter.

Other Topics of Interest:
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terribly Reality
Reflections: Ender in Exile
Reflections: The Forever War

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Look around for recommended books from academics and business commentators and you probably won't get too far without running into Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. I heard and saw it referenced again and again. Partly because of the scope of the book, there aren't too many areas that aren't commented on in one way or another in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Certainly some areas are a bigger focus than others, but I think many experts from many fields find something of value in this book. I also found it valuable and gained a great many fascinating insights from it, but I also found it tiresome and overly long.

You won't be reading Thinking, Fast and Slow for too long before you realize it reads very much like a "Greatest Hits" of psychology and social science research with a little bit of economics and other disciplines thrown in as well. Each chapter focuses on one or several academic studies which purport to explain some element of human existence and decision-making.  Kahneman is actually a decent writer, but he spends the vast amount of time explaining how a particular research study was done, writing out percentages, and detailing sample sizes. I'm fine with this to confirm the science was done correctly or so the reader can have some semblance of confidence in the findings; however, the book drags on too long, like many business and academic books, and the reading becomes tedious. The book tried to be too comprehensive and would have benefited from limiting its scope a bit.  Furthermore, Kahneman is an entertaining writer and can be very pithy and even funny.  His personality didn't come through enough. 

Kahneman attempts to coalesce the many findings in his book by using a pragmatic framework for discussion.  He separates our decision make processes into two parts—System 1—our intuition and quick judgments—and System 2—our deliberate thought processes and rationality. It works well enough and is easily recalled when reflecting on what you've read.  Simplifying what is essentially an incredibly complex topic is very useful when writing a book meant to be enjoyed by a wider audience and not necessarily only those in a particular academic discpline.  Thinking, Fast and Slow should make most of us think twice (or three or four times) about how we actually think.  Is my response to a particular situation part of System 1 or 2?  How or why should I trust my own judgment?  Am I seeing the world as it really is?  These are difficult questions once you've read Kahneman's book.  I have both a profound love for learning and an inherent faith in our ability to progress and improve ourselves.  At the same time, I have a deep skepticism of human knowledge and decision-making.  For me, Thinking, Fast and Slow, tends to feed my skepticism more than my confidence.

As overstuffed as the book is, the information it presents is almost universally applicable—politics, academia, business, religion, family life, all of it.  Yet, just as the book suggests, one should, in my opinion, be careful with some of the conclusions found within the book.  Just as the author repeatedly reiterates the dubious nature of human perception and decision-making, it also makes bold claims about those very things.  It should give us pause.  It should make us question without necessarily becoming cynical.

Thinking, Fast and Slow does deserve the attention it gets for the ideas it brings to the table, not necessarily as a book which is structured particularity well.  The best recommendation I can give for the book is that it already has seeped into my thinking.  I think I have a greater propensity to be cautious in my thinking, whether it's fast or slow.  And any book which influences you to change your thinking or behavior is worth paying attention to.

Notable Quotes:
  •  "Experts are human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong."
  •  "The illusion that one has understood the past feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future."
  •  "The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Contagious
What You Don't Know is the Reason

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflections: The Victory of Reason

The Victory of Reason begins with a truly provocative idea, especially in our age of secular-centric historical commentary. Scholar Rodney Stark posits that the driving force of Western success was due to ideas inculcated in Christianity. With Christianity, and much of faith in general, being as unpopular as it is in academia, this is a disruptive idea. Stark attempts to prove his outlook in The Victory of Reason and does so with mild success.

I have long believed that ideas matter and have consequences. Although that seems elementary, certain scholars would not necessarily agree, especially depending on their field of study. To read a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, would make one believe that the progress of humanity has little to do with the volition of humans. Rather, the irresistible forces of evolution and chance, including something as mundane as longitude and latitude, determine the destiny of humanity. The Victory of Reason presents a very different world and outlook, a world driven by the choices of humans—collectively or individually—and those choices are driven by ideas, such as those found within Christianity.

So does Stark make his case successfully? Yes and no. The book is detailed, albeit not exhaustive, and historical evidence is confidently presented.  The trouble starts to occur with the analysis of certain historical periods, such as the Dark Ages, in which Stark rejects the common interpretation of history regarding that time period. Although most of the information is interesting, it feels farther and farther away from the original theory the more you keep reading. (I will say certain passages in the book reminded me of reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; the in-depth analysis of potato growing or wool production can make for some less than thrilling reading). Stark does eventually circumscribe his historical musings into the framework of his theory, but it doesn't happen enough and the book sometimes feels disconnected from the main idea.

Stark's personality was on display in his writing much more than many other scholars. I could appreciate his contrarian viewpoints being a contrarian myself. The writing feels caustic in some ways, but his rejection of several common beliefs is always followed by persuasive historical evidence. The profundity of the premise—that the ideas of Christianity are primarily responsible for the momentous advances in western civilization—demands a commiserate level of profundity in writing and historical commentary. The Victory of Reason as an explication fell a bit short in proving its main premise, although I don't believe Stark is wrong. Although I am very sympathetic to Stark's assertion, I wish his book would have been put together a bit more coherently and circumspectly.

The Victory of Reason is a valuable book to read and study due to its mostly contrarian viewpoint on momentous historical circumstances. The premise is fascinating, as well as much of the content, but the book doesn't quite come together the way it needs to. Having said that, this is the first book of Rodney Stark's I have read, and I look forward to reading and enjoying more of his work. He has some fascinating things to say, and I'm eager to explore more of the world from Rodney Stark's viewpoint.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Brow Bruising Reads

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Reflections: World War Z

World War Z by Max Brooks is much better than a book about zombies should be. Although zombies have been a large part of our cultural zeitgeist for years, I have largely ignored their many incarnations, iterations, and versions. I was able to stomach two episodes of The Walking Dead and promptly gave it up because I found it gruesome and gratuitous. Furthermore, the many films and video games which have zombies as the primary antagonists have gone mostly unnoticed by me. (One exception is the original Resident Evil, which remake I recently got for my PS4 and have been having an absolute blast playing again; I played the original game on the original Playstation).   As you can imagine, World War Z had a lot going against it in my mind, but it subverted my expectations, and I found it to be smart, tense, scary, and, ironically, very, very human.

World War Z abandons the normal narrative structure and instead presents a series of vignettes (normally not my favorite storytelling method) that highlights the human impact of the arrival of the undead. The diversity of experiences presented in the vignettes is the most impressive aspect of the book. The reader is presented with devastating scenarios and situations in China, then South Africa, then India, then Japan, and so on and so forth. It's really quite impressive how convincing each experience is. Max Brooks writes with confidence from each perspective, whether it be on a Chinese nuclear sub or on the International Space Station. If the dead did start to re-animate, then how would people in all of these places and cultures react? It's a fun thought experience, but it's also extremely unsettling.

World War Z presents nightmare scenarios, but it doesn't require zombies to be a nightmare. In fact, the scariest aspects of the book are in the epidemic consequences of the story rather than the undead. In so many ways, any civilization's peace and tranquility hovers precariously on a very thin line between order and chaos. It's not difficult to see the chaos which can result when law and order breaks down; it's currently happening in many places around the world and always has. It doesn't take zombies to do that. World War Z smartly reminds the reader of the realities of our modern world and then tears it all to pieces. Having said that, of all of the end of the world type stories I've read, World War Z is possibly the most hopeful. It showcases devastation, yes, but it also showcases the triumph of human reason and adaptation.

Max Brooks has written a truly human tale, even though it doesn't focus on one protagonist or even several. Brooks has exposed the common human emotions expressed in the midst of tragedy and desolation. World War Z is much, much more than a zombie book. In some vignettes, zombies are almost an afterthought. The living, not the undead, are the focus of this book, and for that reason I found it extremely troubling, engaging, and entertaining. I still don't have much interest in zombies, but World War Z is well worth a recommendation.

 Notable Quotes:
  • "The monsters that rose from the dead, they are nothing compared to the ones we carry in our hearts."
  • "The UN is a bureaucratic masterpiece, so many nuggets of valuable data buried in mountains of unread reports."
  • "Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used."
Books to Movies: I had watched the film adaptation of World War Z with Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster before reading the book; however, the film adaptation is an adaptation in name only. Although I enjoyed the film—especially the first half—the book is much smarter and more interesting than the film.

Other Topics of Interest
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: Good Omens
Reflections: Dracula

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Reflections: The Tragedy of American Compassion

By far one of the most interesting non-fiction books I read last year was Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple. It presented a view of poverty that was provocative and challenging. In addition, its focus was on the ideas which create and perpetuate poverty, which is a little understood and often ignored element of the problem. The Tragedy of American Compassion takes a similar approach. The author, Marvin Olasky, seeks to delineate the pervasive ideas of those who combated poverty in the 18th and 19th century and how those ideas truly helped the poor, as opposed to the ideas of today which hurt the poor. Like Life at the Bottom, it's a provocative book which should not be ignored in the wider discussion about poverty.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Tragedy of American Compassion is its re-alignment of the word compassion. As with many words in politics, compassion becomes a word used as often in political attacks as it does to encourage others to actually have compassion. Furthermore, as Olasky shows, the word compassion meant something very, very different to those charity workers of the 18th and 19th century than it does to our professional social workers and bureaucrats of today. Perhaps the most challenging idea posited in the book is that some forms of charity are more harmful than doing nothing at all. In other words, Olasky suggests many of our modern prescriptions to cure poverty—such as the Great Society—has perpetuated and exacerbated some of the most pernicious problems of poverty, such as unwed pregnancy and family abandonment by fathers. These aren't necessarily new ideas from the conservative side of the ideological scale, but The Tragedy of American Compassion does a nice job of reinforcing the reasons for the belief.

As someone who believes strongly in the power of ideas, I found the book's exploration of the ideas which inform our prescriptions for poverty to be the most interesting. Olasky wrote: "Our ideas about poverty always reflect our ideas about the nature of man."  There is a lot to unpack from that simple statement. As society moved away from the Biblical view of mankind, what were the impacts of that shift? How does that change our approach to poverty and how to solve it? Those are compelling questions, which I feel secular society dismisses with too little thought and consideration. Regardless of your theology or lack thereof, one must admit, in my opinion, the ideas of religion matter deeply and influence at a fundamental level how we approach societal issues and how we approach each other. Are we treating the poor like animals in a zoo—simply feeding them and not requiring any type of behavioral change—because we truly see each other as animals, merely the result of a long, uninterrupted evolutionary process, and incapable of change? The Tragedy of American Compassion adds a valuable level of insight into this consequential question.  (Albeit, I found some of Olasky's comments regarding the homeless to be painting with a brush which was a bit too large but thought-provoking nonetheless). 

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the book is that it was written over twenty years ago.  As one can imagine, there has been a great deal more literature and research completed since the publication of this book regarding poverty, its causes, and its effects.  However, I'm not convinced the ideas discussed in The Tragedy of American Compassion are any less valuable.  The other downside to the book is the writing.  Overall, the writing is fine, at times pithy, but not particularly memorable.  Too often the book buries the reader in data which is redundant.  I thought to myself once or twice while reading it: "Move on." 

The Tragedy of American Compassion is a good book.  It's interesting and provides a valuable perspective on poverty, as well as a compelling history of compassion throughout America's history.  It wasn't as memorable or provocative as Dalrympe's excellent Life at the Bottom, but it showcases ideas regarding poverty we should not overlook.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass
Reflections: The Road to Serfdom
Reflections: Capitalism and Freedom