Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: A Spectacle of Corruption

A Spectacle of Corruption A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an exciting, fun read. An interesting look into what it might have been like in London in the 18th century. Employing the classic genre move of having the detective hero solve the crime in order to exonerate himself, we get a crash course in English politics and law of the time. Liss does a good job of capturing the language and the style of the times (or at least appearing to--I am not an expert in 18th century England and so I am sure he doesn't get it all correct. But it has the feel of something authentic).

The ending was a bit too quick and things got tidied up too conveneniently, but otherwise the plot was well done--it was not predicatable or obvious. The characters were intriguing and fun.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a little disappointed in the book. While I think the mindset framework is very helpful: for me personally, for my professional life as teacher, and for being a parent, the book itself was far too much anecdote and not enough on how to change one's mindset. This might not be fair: after all, it's a book not a therapy session or workshop. But the book is presented as somewhat of a guide to help one change, so it's not entirely unfair of me to criticize it because it doesn't do enough on this front.

The last chapter is really the only place that Dweck gives some practical advice. The remaining chapters are, more or less, here's some people in a domain that have fixed mindsets and see how that holds them back. Then, here are some people in the same domain that have growth mindsets and see how they soar. These anecdotes are often quite interesting, entertaining, and informative. They help you see the mindset in action; but they don't, as anecdotes establish the validity of mindsets, and they don't provide a lot in the way of advice for making a sustained changed to your own mindset.

That said, I think understanding how one can be in fixed mindset at times and how this can hold one back is very important. The awareness of this alone can help change the way you approach a dilemma, conflict, or problem.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Blood of the Fold

Blood of the Fold Blood of the Fold by Terry Goodkind
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the first two books in this series a lot. They were highly creative and original. The plot was driven by character choices and tied into their values. This one, however, fell short of the high mark. There were still interesting and imaginative aspects to the setting and the storytelling; and I liked most of the characters, but there was something missing here. There was too much of Richard and other characters reacting on instinct and not really knowing what they were doing. The antagonists were less interesting. The overall story here was more plodding and unclear than the earlier novels. The secondary characters were far more interesting --and in many ways more important to the plot -- than Richard and Kahlan. Gratch maybe Goodkind's best character.

I like the series, but I don't love it and I don't know if it is worth 6 or 700 pages.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley’s new book is a great synthesis of a lot of the ways that evolutionary processes are at the heart of everything. Using Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura as his guide, he runs through human history and development. He covers religion, the internet, money, government, and much more. He illuminates the fundamental connections and underlying principles at work across such disparate domains.

Ridley argues that there is a general theory of evolution—biological evolution being the special theory—that explains how all things evolve. This general theory of evolution is, in essence, the view that everything is, too some significant degree, the result of emergent, unplanned, undesigned, and inexorable processes. Things develop gradually through modification and selection. He presents example after example of how bottom-up processes play the essential role in human progress and development and top-down structures are so-often ineffectual or damaging.

He uses the metaphor of creationists and evolutionists to identity whether top-down or bottom-up animates one’s view of the world. A creationist is one who thinks that top-down structures and processes are the way things work and progress. Whether in biology, economics, or the internet, if one things there has to be a designer to bring order to the system, then one is a creationist. On the other side, an evolutionist recognizes that order and design are not identical. These systems are, for the most part, self-organizing and without a design or designer.

If I had one criticism, it was that he tended to underplay the role of individuals. I think he is overreacting to the “Great Man of History” view. While there is – at least in retrospective – an inexorable march of history, I think that certain figures made choices that where not inexorable and would have, counterfactually, changed history if the choice was different or they had not existed. Yes in the 1900s, there were lots of people circling around something like the Theory of Relativity—but I don’t think anyone in the first part of 20th century would have come up with Relativity other than Einstein. There was something about his personality, his skill set, his life that put him a position to identity when he did. And if Relativity isn’t discovered until the 1940s—the 20th century is much, much different. Similarly with someone like Steve Jobs. He had a unique vision of technology and the personality and drive to implement it. I am not sure anyone else had that vision and/or the skill set to make it happen.

I liked the book, but I am in the choir here and Ridley is largely preaching to those like me. I don’t think many “creationists” would find the book convincing – at least across the board. They might acknowledge emergent systems in biology but not economics and politics (or vice versa). Ridley isn’t so much engaging in sustained persuasive argument against creationists. He is, in my view, more setting out to synthesize and bring together into one space the various ways evolutionary processes are at work across human experience. This is not a ground-breaking, path-blazing book. It’s a step back and integrate what we know book.

View all my reviews