Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why do we do what we do, and can we change it?  That is what Charles Duhigg asks in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  Duhigg, a New York Times business reporter, discusses the habit loop: our brains receive a cue, we follow a routine, and we receive a reward.  Advertiser Claude Hopkins mastered this in the first half of the 20th century in his promotion of Pepsodent toothpaste.  Cue: film on your teeth.  Routine: brush with Pepsodent.  Reward: minty fresh feeling in your mouth.  Hopkins was able to create the habit of tooth brushing.

This same cycle applies to many areas of life.  The key to changing habits is to change the routine.  You identify and "keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  That's the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.  Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same."  It's so simple, but as anyone who has tried to kick a habit can tell you, it's not so easy.

Among his many examples and illustrations, Duhigg discusses the way Hopkins's methods are used in the consumer industry.  The food we eat, the products we buy, the music we listen, all of it is being manipulated by businesses who want to change our habits to their benefit.  It's startling and humbling to hear these strategies described and realize how much even the most independent-minded among us are influenced by marketing and advertising.

From the perspective of business, Duhigg got me thinking about building productive habits at work.  We don't naturally have habits in place when we start a new job; we are applying skills or seeking outcomes that may have been previously unfamiliar.  So we have new cues and outcomes, and we have to shape the routine to respond to the cues and achieve the desired outcome.

Duhigg's thesis is sound and compelling, and his examples clearly show the path to changing habits.  At some points in his exposition, as interesting as some of his anecdotes were, he strayed away from the fine point of the first couple of chapters.  The chapters that deal with changing habits across an organization are probably the most important, but could use more development.  All in all, The Power of Habit is an interesting read that will force to you think about your own routines, and inspire leaders and managers to evaluate the motivations and systems they implement.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about productivity

Monday, October 24, 2016

God and Cosmos, by John Byl

Mathematician and astronomer John Byl has looked into the void of space, and has seen the revelation of God.  In God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe, Byl challenges some of the dogmas of modern cosmology and challenges Christians to give priority to biblical teaching  as they formulate their own cosmological views.

Byl debunks the Big Bang theory.  He's not even favorable toward Christian thinkers who see the Big Bang as reconcilable with the biblical account of creation.  The "concordist" position, which attempts to reconcile the biblical account with modern cosmology, tends to neglect the biblical reading.  Byl's position is that Christians should take the Bible seriously, and reject cosmologies that contradict the Bible.

He argues for a six-day creation.  This alone will turn off many readers.  But as biblical believer who is comfortable with concordism, I was forced to consider his arguments from the perspective of a high view of biblical authority.  One of his large points is that much of cosmology is theoretical, such as the Big Bang theory.  This is not observable or falsifiable; he calls it "the creation myth of naturalism."  When considering such theories, we must evaluate the cosmological, philosophical presumptions on which they are based.  What we may find is a foundation of speculation and, frankly, science fiction.

Even something as seemingly established as a geocentric or heliocentric universe can be challenged.  I did not read Byl as affirming heliocentrism or geocentrism, but he does point out the limitations of our perspective:  "The question of absolute motion can hardly be answered on scientific grounds. . . . all we can ever observe is relative motion, not absolute motion. . . . To see whether the earth is 'really' moving we must step outside the physical universe on to a fixed resting point.  This only God can do.  Hence, ultimately, it is only God who can adequately answer the question of absolute motion. . . . In short, the question as to whether it is really the earth or the sun that moves cannot be answered through scientific investigation."

Byl's persecutive probably will not persuade those who do not believe the Bible.  He may not even persuade biblical Christians.  I'm not sure I am persuaded to embrace six-day creationism, but I can certainly acknowledge that it's not an unreasonable position to hold.  Despite what you may think of his conclusions, I think one must acknowledge his admonition not to too quickly or fully embrace theoretical cosmological models, and to ensure that one is relying on that which can be observed and tested.  "The speculative nature of scientific theorizing cautions against placing undue trust in any particular model."  If the reader can overcome his biases against six-day creationism or someone who holds a high view of biblical authority, he will be rewarded with a thoughtful reflection on cosmology and the presumptions we bring to cosmological arguments.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book published by The Banner of Truth

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Overview, by Benjamin Grant

I don't know if I can even write a review of Benjamin Grant's Overview: A New Perspective of Earth. Seriously, you just have to see these pictures.  Grant has compiled pictures from his popular Daily Overview web site (Instagram feed, Facebook page, etc.).  Go there, check it out.  Be sure you don't have an urgent appointment, or you'll get caught up in the pictures and miss it.

That's how this book is.  Every page is jaw-dropping.  First, disorienting, because the scale and beauty are so unbelievable.  Then inspiring, a reminder of how much beauty is in the world that we never see.  That is, unless you're an astronaut.  Grant was inspired by the overview effect reported by astronauts, whose perspective on our planet is transformed by seeing it from above.

Spend some time with Overview.  Your perspective will be transformed, too.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Vader's Little Princess, by Jeffrey Brown

Imagine that instead of being whisked off to Alderaan as a baby, Leia was raised by her biological father, Darth Vader?  That's exactly what Jeffrey Brown imagined in Vader's Little Princess.  "Episode Three and Three-Quarters: VADER'S LITTLE PRINCESS.  Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, continues to rule the Galactic Empire and is out to destroy the heroic Rebel Alliance.  Meanwhile, he must raise his young daughter, Leia, as she grows from a sweet little girl--into a rebellious teenager. . . ."

Vader's Little Princess is not a story but a series of one-page vignettes of Vader's life as a single dad of a teenage girl.  She's growing up, getting a mind of her own, and dating boys that don't meet Vader's approval.  Leia shows typical teenage attitude, rebellion, and a desire for independence, but there are some tender moments, too.  Any dad of teenage girls will tell you life comes with both.  The inside jokes and movie references will delight Star Wars fans, and Vader's parental experiences will elicit nods of agreement from parents of teens.

It's silly, but great fun.  If you're a Star Wars fan and a parent, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Prone to Love, by Jason Clark

Remember that line from the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"? "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love."  Jason Clark, inspired by his grandmother, prefers to sing, "Prone to Love you, Lord I feel it, Prone to serve the God I love."  In Prone to Love, Clark develops this sentiment, admonishing readers to see ourselves as God sees us.

How does God see us?  He loves us.  Simple as that.  A passage in which Clark recounts a conversation with his son just about brought me to tears.  His son asks, "Dad, how do you know when God is speaking to you; how do you know his presence?" Clark answers, "Bud, our heavenly Father's presence is always with us and He is always speaking to us.  And He is always saying one thing: 'I love you.'"  He continues, "Son, if you want to become more aware of His presence, it starts with believing that He loves you."  What a powerful, simple message.

Clark reminds us that not only does God love us, no matter what, but he also has transformed us, implanting his nature in us.  Now that we are new creations, we are prone to love, not prone to wander.   We live in God's grace, which "releases us to see ourselves from His perspective and empowers us to live in agreement with how He sees us, as saints of the Highest one."  Like the woman caught in adultery, we are to "go and sin no more."  Grace is not a "license to sin," but an expectation that we are being transformed, becoming more like Jesus.

I love Clark's emphasis on grace and on seeing ourselves as God sees us.  However, although he addresses the question of ongoing temptation and sin, I didn't feel like he adequately addresses the eternal question of sin in the lives of saints.  I want to see myself as God sees me--a saint, prone to love--yet my life often looks like a sinner, prone to wander.  I'm challenged to change my perspective by getting to know God.  Clark writes, "If you know Love, you become love.  If you become love, you don't have to try to love, you just love."  How?  Keeping my eyes on God and His perfect love.  Spending time "in God's presence, in worship, prayer, and His Word."  Simple and profound.  Easy and hard.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book that has a fruit of the Spirit in the title

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Legacies, by F. Paul Wilson

Following the success of his 1984 bestseller The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson brought back the star of that novel, Repairman Jack, in a 1998 follow up, Legacies.  Jack is an intriguing character, worth bringing back.  In fact, Legacies is the second of at least fifteen Repairman Jack novels.

Legacies starts out with Jack's friend/lover Gia calling on him recover some Christmas gifts that have been stolen from the AIDS clinic where she volunteers.  Of course he recovers them in dramatic yet anonymous fashion.  Dr. Clayton, who runs the clinic, is impressed with his work and enlists him to help with a problem on her own.  She has inherited her father's house, but she wants nothing more than to destroy it.  She certainly doesn't want her good-for-nothing half brother to get his hands on it.

The house holds terrible and wonderful secrets, but nothing but horrible memories for Dr. Clayton.  Along with Dr. Clayton's brother, a group of Arabs and a mysterious Japanese man have their eyes on the house.  Jack ends up at odds with all of them.  It won't surprise readers familiar with Jack that all of them die.  Jack is too hard to kill.

I expected that the house would have some kind of supernatural significance, like a portal to the underworld ready to unleash the creatures from The Tomb onto the streets of New York.  Legacies does not go that route.  Wilson does explore evils of real life, which are even worse: pediatric AIDS, the ravages of drug addiction, and child pornography.

Jack is the kind of hero who is more clever than his adversaries, just enough to make things interesting, but not so much that he doesn't get in plenty of scrapes of his own.  I do find it hard to conceive of his living "off the grid" in the middle of Manhattan, with no SSN, no bank account, not trace of his existence.  That adds to the mystery and intrigue of Jack's legend.  Legacies is a fun, dark thriller, with enough Jack to make readers want to come back for more.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written in the twentieth century

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Family Well-Ordered, by Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather, a pastor in Boston in the late 1600s to early 1700s, is one of the best known Puritans of the American founding era.  He was a prolific writer, champion of education, man of science, and, most unfortunately for his legacy (not to mention for a number of victims), a key figure in the Salem witch trials.

Among his many writings, we find this little gem: A Family Well-Ordered, or An Essay to Render Parents and Children Happy in One Another.  Long before James Dobson got us to focus on our families, Mather communicated guidelines for the family drawn from scripture.

Mather's style will put off many readers.  Not to elevate his writing to the place of scripture or classic literature, but if a reader is not comfortable reading the King James Bible or the plays of Shakespeare, he will probably not enjoy Mather's verbosity.  For example: "Let our authority effectually keep our children from all their unruly exorbitances and extravagancies."  In my opinion, it's good for the brain to read things that will demand a bit more from you and perhaps expand your vocabulary.

Mather writes about the parents' duty to their children, and the children's duty to the parent.  Above all else, he writes, parents must do all in their power to see that their children come to know the Lord.  This can be done through teaching, but more important is parental modeling: "Parents, be exemplary. Your example may do much towards the salvation of your children; your works will more work upon your children than your words; your patterns will do more than your precepts, your copies more than your counsels."

From the children, they should know that they risk the wrath of God if they don't honor their parents.  They should treat their parents with reverence, obedience, and recompense.  He even extends this to treatment of teachers, bosses, and, in a section that is revolting to modern readers, slaves' treatment of their masters.  This section especially dates A Family Well-Ordered, but the overall message is as contemporary and timeless as the countless scriptural reference Mather sprinkles throughout his exposition.  It may not be as easy to read as a James Dobson book, but A Family Well-Ordered is relevant and challenging.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by a Puritan