Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Millionaire Next Door

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Although this book is outdated in many ways and there has been much criticism about the authors’ research methods, it is still well worth reading. I certainly wish I had read it back when I was in high school or college.

The title may give the impression that the book is geared toward materialistic people who are obsessed with getting rich and living the high life, but that’s not at all what it’s about. In fact, the authors’ main point is that most people who accumulate a lot of wealth are not at all interested in living the high life. Rather, they are thrifty and live below their means, with the result that they often don’t appear wealthy at all. For example, your next door neighbor who manages a maid service — not a very glamorous-sounding occupation — could be surprisingly rich. By contrast, a large percentage of people who appear to be rich — people living in fancy houses, driving expensive cars, wearing designer clothes — don’t actually have much saved up at all.

The authors were surprised to make this discovery, and that is what inspired them to write the book. For years, they have compared the behavior of people who are successful at building or maintaining wealth with those who are not successful. Using elementary statistical analysis, they identify key habits and attitudes that enable people to accumulate wealth — even if they don’t have a particularly high salary. Thus, even if you earn a teacher’s salary (as I do), you can still hope to retire comfortably and be a relatively wealthy teacher if you manage your spending and investments well. It does help, of course, to have a large salary, but with bad spending habits you can still end up accumulating nothing. (The authors do recommend choosing your occupation wisely.)

The habits that they recommend are very practical. For example, you should keep track of all your expenses so that you know how much you spend each month and year on housing, food, entertainment, etc. Then make a budget and stick to it (or create a false sense of scarcity by stowing away a big percentage of your earnings before you even think about spending anything). Invest time and money in financial planning and research. And very importantly, invest your savings in stocks or other equity, making it your goal to have more of your financial growth come from growth of investments than from taxable wages.

Overall, the authors present sound principles for building wealth, and they offer compelling evidence for the effectiveness of those principles. They provide many interesting anecdotes that make the book fun to read most of the time, as well as basic statistical analysis of survey results. Again, although their methods may not be “scientifically rigorous,” the main ideas are basically sound. I highly recommend the book, especially to young people who are just getting started in their careers — regardless of how much money they expect to make.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn

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Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, by Amanda Gefter, is a memoir of a girl on two simultaneous quests. One is to find the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything—namely, why is there something rather than nothing? The other is to publish a book about it and become a legitimate, big-time author. She appears to have succeeded to a significant degree on both counts and does a good job telling the story about how she did it.

Gefter’s treatment of the physics is an excellent demonstration of why popular science writing shouldn’t be left to scientists alone. Whereas scientists tend to be wrapped up in their own particular theories (e.g., string theory), a good journalist is better positioned to take a step back and make an unbiased assessment of what all the different theories out there are saying (even if the lack of bias is partly due to a lack of technical understanding). Gefter has attempted to do this, both by studying cosmology extensively on her own and by interviewing the big players in the field.

By taking this approach, she has done a more convincing job than anyone else has yet done—as far as I know—of presenting a satisfying explanation of how everything that we experience (i.e., life, the universe, and everything) can truly come from nothing (and actually be nothing), even though we perceive it to be something. Using qualitative conceptual arguments, she presents a compelling case for how the universe arises from nothing, without requiring any external laws of physics, such as quantum mechanics or general relativity, to exist a priori to govern the behavior of the nothingness.

Her central thesis, as I interpret it, is that something can’t be fundamentally “real” unless it is invariant—that is, unless it exists in all reference frames. In other words, if a reference frame can be found in which a thing doesn’t exist, then that thing is not “real.” She begins with a list of candidate components of reality, such as space-time, particles, fields, and forces; and in the course of her interviews with the most respected physicists of our time, crosses each item off the list.

In the end, with everything crossed off of her list, she concludes that the universe is ultimately made of nothing—which is the only philosophically satisfying conclusion anyway. It is very important to note here that what Gefter means by “nothing” is not space, but actual nothingness—devoid of all properties whatsoever, including any set of governing mathematical rules. With the help of a certain physicist, she even goes so far as to suggest how the mere imposition of a boundary—which is itself nothing—creates information from nothing. This emergence of information evidently initiates a cascade from which everything emerges.

It is reminiscent, Gefter notes, of how, in the field of mathematics, the entire set of real numbers can be constructed from the empty set alone—i.e., from nothing. She also mentions other pleasing analogies with mathematics that can be drawn, not the least of which is the possibility that, in the spirit of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, no set of physical laws that can be constructed within physical reality could ever give a complete, external description of physical reality.

Gefter doesn’t spend much time talking about Zen, but she does mention it, and one cannot help but think that she has given a rather compelling case for the truth of Zen from an actual physics perspective. Nothing is everything, and everything is nothing. And no system can observe itself, for it would then cease to exist upon making the observation.

My own analogy is that a blank canvas, which contains nothing, also contains everything—in more than one sense. While still blank, the canvas retains the potential to become any of the infinitely many possible paintings that could conceivably be painted on it. Moreover, if you actually do paint every last one of the infinitely many possible paintings on the canvas, it will become blank again (i.e., pure white or black, depending on the medium). Perhaps our universe is just one of the infinitely many possibilities that exist simultaneously on the blank canvas of nothingness.

Though Gefter’s case is conceptually compelling, it is neither academically rigorous nor airtight, and she acknowledges this. Should some component of the universe be shown to be truly invariant, her core thesis would go out the window. And there are still a few points about which I don’t feel satisfied. For example, why can observers (which don’t necessarily have to be conscious) exist within nothing? (For supposedly it is the observer who creates the boundary that gives rise to information.) Can we really talk about “observers” and “boundaries” within nothingness without invoking some sort of governing system of definitions and rules? Are we really talking about nothing then?

The other part of Gefter’s quest—to become a bona fide science writer—is interesting and inspiring in itself. It’s not a rags-to-riches story, but it’s an excellent example of how it can be possible to attain seemingly unattainable goals. That’s what the title is really about. In the beginning, she was neither a scientist nor a writer. And so she was not just literally trespassing on Einstein’s lawn when she visited his old house in Princeton; she was, in carrying out her quest, venturing into territory where she didn’t rightly belong. But in the end, she earned her spot on the lawn.

Gefter’s success comes from four components that I have been meditating on recently: passion, discipline, assertiveness, and luck. Throughout her quest, she maintained a very intense passion, largely instilled by her father, for the ultimate questions about physical reality. She also demonstrated the discipline to stick to that quest over a period of several years—attending conferences, writing articles one at a time, interviewing physicists, keeping a detailed journal, and ultimately sitting down to write out the book itself. Assertiveness played an important role when, in situations where most people would have thought there was no hope trying, she nevertheless called up high-profile scientists and publishers to try to get her foot in the door—and it worked. Finally, of course, she had plenty of luck. More than anything else, she was lucky to have a father who planted and cultivated the seed of her passion and then provided the financial, intellectual, and emotional support necessary for her to set off on her quest.

Throughout the book, Gefter draws many clever parallels between the mysterious physical phenomena that she is investigating and things that are going on in her personal life. For example, physicists’ conclusion that it is inherently impossible to construct a consistent description of the universe that takes into account more than one point of view at a time—i.e., you can only have one observer—was a nice parallel with her reluctant decision to write the book on her own after the publisher rejected her proposal for a book by a father-daughter duo.

I did grow a bit tired of Gefter’s self-deprecating refrain about how she was an impostor, a fake who didn’t deserve to be present at the conferences she attended or at the magazines where she worked. I also grew a bit tired of the “Oh my God, I’m in the presence of one of the greatest physicists who ever lived!” exclamation that seemed to accompany every single interview she did. And I didn’t appreciate the dig she took—which seemed rather mean-spirited to me—at a waiter who said that he had also majored in philosophy of science. She was making an attempt to draw another clever parallel, contrasting the success she hoped to achieve with the waiter’s apparent lack of success; but the net effect was to shatter the image of humility she seemed to be working so hard to create throughout the rest of the text.

Nevertheless, Gefter did a fantastic job documenting her quest, and the overall picture that she paints of the present status of cosmology is far more satisfying than any other I’ve read—precisely because she takes into account many different physicists’ points of view. She begins by saying:

Reality is a huge mystery, and you have a choice to make. You can run from it, you can placate yourself with fairy tales, you can just pretend everything’s normal, or you can stare that mystery in the eye and try to solve it. If you are one of the brave ones to choose the latter, welcome to science. Science is the quest to solve the eternal riddle.

Then, at the end, she is able to say, “Physics isn’t the machinery behind the workings of the world; physics is the machinery behind the illusion that there is a world.” Before reading the book, I would have dismissed this statement as pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo based on feelings that surely have no grounding in an actual understanding of physics. But I am now convinced that it may be a deep and legitimate conclusion indeed—and I am very glad that I took the time to read her story.

(Thanks to my father for giving me the book.)

Book Review: The Chinese Puzzle, by Mike Falkenstine

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The Cover of the Second Edition

I recently read The Chinese Puzzle, by Mike Falkenstine. This is a must-read for anyone who is interested in China missions. Few writers, if any, give a balanced picture of what the present-day Chinese church is really like. In The Chinese Puzzle, Mike Falkenstine has done so.

The book begins with a well-researched but concise look at the history of Christianity in China that is designed to help the reader understand how China’s critical attitude toward Christianity came about. This is followed by an exposition of current trends in China, including recent developments in the government’s stance on religious issues, the explosive growth of both open churches and house churches, and the rapid emergence of previously unheard-of opportunities for Western Christians to serve the church in China openly.

The third chapter is short but, in my opinion, the most important. In it, Falkenstine reveals an unflattering picture of Western missionaries as they appear to Chinese pastors — often as arrogant, controlling, and generally not very helpful. The chapter then examines just what Western missionaries have been doing wrong and concludes with invaluable advice on what they ought to do in order to be of greater service to the church in China (or other countries).

The fourth chapter, called “The Persecution Myth and Why it Survives” gives several examples of persecution stories published by major Christian organizations and news agencies in the West that were later debunked. In one case, Falkenstine was able to trace the story to its source—where the pastor of a church that had been bulldozed by the government excitedly took him to see the newer, bigger church the government had built to replace it. Falkenstine shows how the “persecution myth”—the false belief that persecution is the norm and that Christians in China can only practice their faith under cover and at great personal risk—is perpetuated largely by Western Christian organizations that depend on persecution stories for fundraising. He also makes it clear that the propagation of this myth actually hurts the church in China.

The final three chapters describe in more detail the sorts of groundbreaking ministries that are being carried out openly by Western Christian organizations in China; the ways Chinese view themselves and the future of their country; and the ministry that Falkenstine himself is involved in.

The content of the book is revealing and important enough (to those interested in China missions) that I think it deserves five stars. On a more personal note, I lived in China for five years and worked with the church there, and in my opinion American Christians need to be exposed to the balanced view presented in this book.

[Note: I wrote this review back in 2008. I just ran across it again and noticed that a second edition of The Chinese Puzzle has been released, so I thought it appropriate to post the review again here. I made a few minor modifications to the original version (which can be found on Amazon.com).]

Book Review: God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens

This is a review of the book God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens.

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Hitchens’ purpose in this book is to demonstrate that god (he denies the word the dignity of capitalization, even when using it as a proper noun), in any form, is manmade (hence the title of the book). Not only that, but religion (says Hitchens) has been the greatest source of evil in all of human history, and it would therefore be to our benefit to abandon it entirely. To Hitchens, science, free thinking, and reason are the only means by which progress can be made; and religion is the greatest inhibitor of these faculties.

Hitchens’ intelligence is unquestionable. His style is engaging and his arguments compelling. Believers who read this book will be challenged. Apologists stepping into the ring will find themselves facing all their familiar foes — evolution, violence incited by religious belief, historical (un)reliability of religious texts, the odiousness of certain doctrines, etc. Hitchens resurrects these Goliaths with new vigor and clothes them with fresh language, modern perspectives, and a lifetime of personal experience.

Some newer opponents are thrown in with the old, including some of Hitchens’ own theories as to the origins of certain religious beliefs and practices, which he presents as explanations that are more credible than divine revelation. Any believing reader who hopes to persist in faith must have reasonable answers to Hitchens’ arguments, or else abandon reason entirely; and one of the hardest questions to answer will be, “Why do religious apologists have to bend over backwards and work harder and harder to defend the reasonableness of faith, while atheists are finding that their pieces are fitting together more and more snugly, giving an ever more satisfying picture of reality?”

Stanch atheists reading this book are likely to jump up and beat the air with their fists when they come across a point well made, while devoted believers are likely to dismiss most of what Hitchens writes as lies, or at best, misunderstandings. But believers who are already troubled by doubts may well feel like walking away from their faith after reading this book.

Nevertheless, I believe that adherents to any faith ought to be exposed to the ideas in this book, if for no other reason than to come to terms with the ugliness that religion has undeniably wrought upon the face of history. If a religion is to survive as a positive contributor to humanity, its members must be willing to learn from the mistakes that have been made and evil deeds that have been committed not just by pretenders and hypocrites but even by people of genuine faith, and to invest serious thought into taking care that these demons, which have so impartially plagued all faiths, are put to death. And this book certainly brings the demons to light.

In his attacks on religion, Hitchens goes so far as to say that the problem is not simply that we haven’t gotten religion right yet, but rather that there is no right religion. Whereas most debates (in the U.S. at least) center on Christianity (and Judaism to the extent that they overlap), Hitchens goes after the whole shebang, attacking Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He even takes a few shocking swings at the Dalai Lama. Make no mistake: Hitchens will not settle for fixing religion, or for finding a benign one; he wants to see all religions dead.

However, by his own reasoning, the sudden collapse of faith that Hitchens seems to desire might turn out to be a terrible thing. He observes that some who lose their faith are perhaps more dangerous than any other kind of people; but he fails to note that it might therefore follow that the extinction of faith could leave us in a world filled with lost souls who are even more dangerous than the fanatics that abound already. And on sentimental grounds alone, even the average atheist might feel a sense of loss after the complete disappearance of faith. At the very least, religion has produced a plethora of customs and holidays that unbelievers enjoy as much as believers. The death of religion would rob these things of their meaning. It would leave behind a tremendous void. Intelligent and experienced Hitchens may be, but his hope that humanity might be saved by having its religion excised like a tumor is a bit naïve.

A theme Hitchens frequently returns to is the comparison of the development of religion to the evolution of species. In this analogy, society is the primordial ooze in which self-replicating spiritual ideas are formed. Fragile as life, most such movements die in their infancy; but a few take root, and when they do, they branch and flourish like the evolutionary tree, resulting in countless species of faiths. Slight changes in circumstances at critical points in history of this tree of religions might have resulted in an entirely different religious fossil record, just as the minutest of shifts early on in the growth of the biological tree might have yielded a spectrum of life entirely different from what we see today.

This perspective on the development of religion is reminiscent of Dawkins’ concept of the “meme,” a social or cultural analog of the gene, which is a model for a social norm or custom (or religious belief) that is passed on from one generation to the next, capable of mutating and evolving much faster than a biological gene. Hitchens mourns that religion has survived this process, and it is amusing to note that according to his model, it is the process of natural selection acting on memes of religion that is to blame for the resilience and ubiquity religion enjoys today. And so it turns out that one of Hitchens’ greatest allies (evolution) in his fight against faith has already been working against Hitchens’ cause for thousands of years.

If Hitchens expects the masses to hop on his bandwagon, he must be prepared to give them some sort of assurance that extinguishing religion would not result in hell on earth. After all, people are asking: Without religion, what will guide our morals? How could life have meaning? Hitchens tries to offer words of hope in the face of these two questions.

He contends that the true world (as opposed to the world as it is understood within various faiths) is far greater and more marvelous than any holy text or divine revelation has ever been able to conceive, and that humankind, though in fact being neither the ultimate culmination of creation nor the center of attention of a supernatural being, is still greater, nobler, and more full of potential than any religion has ever been able to suggest we are. Without religion, we will be able to understand, appreciate, and even enjoy our world better. And without religion, we will be able to realize the potential of humanity more fully. Faith impedes human progress more than anything else, and only once we have broken free from it (or at least pushed it into an irrelevant corner) will we be able to soar on the wings of reason with the freedom of open minds.

Thus saith Hitchens, at any rate. His reasoning is clear and his intent seems genuine, but he is still needlessly harsh. His writing is at least as caustic as that of Dawkins, and this book seems little different from so many impassioned speeches that have incited mobs to rioting. There seems to be an element of hypocrisy in the utter violence Hitchens and Dawkins would see done to religion when it is the violence allegedly committed by religion that they condemn.

Much of the evil Hitchens blames on religion cannot really in fairness be attributed to the faith itself. True, certain churches and religious officials and devout followers have carried out countless atrocities; but more often than not the perpetrators in these crimes were betraying the tenets of their faith rather than adhering to them. When it is certain people, rather than a faith itself, that deserve blame, Hitchens blames the faith anyway.

When arguing that morality can survive without religion, the basis of Hitchens’ argument seems to be that he and other atheists are, in his eyes, at least as moral as the next fellow. But here there is a missing link in Hitchens’ reasoning, because he is ignoring the fact that he and very likely the other atheists of whom he speaks were raised in religious environments. Indeed, Hitchens goes to great lengths at the beginning of the book to show that religion played an integral role in his childhood development. Even more important than this fact is that the moral environment in which Hitchens lives is one that developed over thousands of years in a religious world. It is ridiculous for Hitchens to pretend that his moral code could have been established apart from the influence of faith. Even if Hitchens claims that his conscience is purely biological, he ought to consider the possibility that the evolution of conscience may have been strongly influenced by social factors, including religion (memes acting on genes).

Throughout the book, Hitchens tries to emphasize our animal nature by repeatedly referring to humans as mammals. But he also exalts our faculty of reason, which sets us apart from other animals. The same thing could be said of conscience; animals may have some basic form of conscience, but certainly not as strong as humans. It seems a slight paradox for Hitchens to at once insist that we come to terms with our baseness as mere animals, all the while calling for us to take hold of reason and let it carry us to new heights. According to Hitchens, we are in an infant stage of humanity, an idea which suggests that we should expect eventually to grow into some sort of advanced stage. This expectation betrays Hitchens’ own desire to be more than a mammal — though I don’t suppose he would be bothered by the seeming contradiction.

I agree with Hitchens that religion has a tendency to keep people’s minds closed. This has bothered me to no end in my own faith, as I am not permitted to question, say, the divinity of Christ. Or if I am permitted to question it, it is only insomuch as the questioning leads to stronger certainty in my doctrine than I had to begin with. Faith does not permit me to truly consider the possibility that Christ might not be divine, for to do so would be to sin. But I am a truth-loving being; and I would want to know if I were being deceived by my faith. I would rather know the truth than live a lie. Like the apostle Paul, I would count myself among those who are to be most pitied if I am giving myself to the gospel of Christ when in fact there is no resurrection. It is ironic that the words of history’s most devout Christian should so resonate with a truth-loving skeptic.

It is these words of Paul that fan the spark of faith within me even as I face Hitchens’ powerful arguments. I cannot shake the accounts that Paul and many other followers of Christ—undeniably historical figures—died for what they believed to be true, when they had firsthand knowledge of what really happened. At the very least, I am convinced that they believed with all their minds that Christ was truly resurrected—else they would not have been willing martyrs. Hitchens seems not to believe that Christ even really existed; I, on the other hand, had been under the impression that most historians at least acknowledge his existence, regardless of how accurate the surviving accounts of his life may be.

Hitchens’ argument against the possibility of miracles seems to boil down to the observation that no miracles have been reliably verified. Here his logic is flawed because he seems to assume automatically that anyone who claims to have witnessed a miracle is delusional and cannot be believed. Furthermore, the scientific verification that Hitchens would require is impossible since miracles are by definition beyond the realm of science. Plainly, Hitchens has already accepted as an axiom that there is nothing supernatural. I support his right to do so, but it renders all of his arguments about miracles completely moot.

Ironically, this materialist view — i.e., accepting as an axiom that there is nothing supernatural — is in a way just as closed-minded and dogmatic as the religious views Hitchens condemns for their closed-mindedness. Hitchens claims that the real world is much greater than any religion has been able to envisage, but he disallows a further expanded worldview by setting this limit: There can be material, but nothing else. If Hitchens really wants to have an open and free mind, he ought not to close it with such finality against the possibility of the supermaterial or of God. And this, too, would be my advice to anyone who reads Hitchens’ book: However convincing Hitchens’ rhetoric may be, keep an open mind.

In the end, what has Hitchens accomplished? Undoubtedly he has widened the schism between atheists and people of faith. He has written a work that can stir up both camps simultaneously. Perhaps a few troubled believers will cast aside their already dying faith; but beyond that, Hitchens has probably only succeeded in inciting people who were already atheists to begin with to start lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks, while in the other camp writs of excommunication are being prepared. If anything, Hitchens has brought us closer to an Armageddon between atheism and religion. And that’s probably exactly what he wants.

[Note: I wrote this review back in 2008. I made a few minor modifications, the most significant of which was to change the statement that Hitchens is gentler than Dawkins. (After reading more of both of their works, I now feel that Dawkins is the gentler of the two.) The original version is on Amazon.com.]