Tag Archives: books

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Although this book is outdated in many ways and there has been much criticism about the authors’ research methods, it is still well worth reading.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).]

Stand with Cathy — The Book

The Stand with Cathy book is now available! Above is a picture of a printed copy. It weighs in at a healthy 5.5 ounces and has dimensions of 5.5-by-8.5-by-9/32 inches, with a total of 126 or 134 or 138 pages (depending on how you count). I quote these numbers for my own amusement. The most important question, of course, is how you can get a copy — because all proceeds will go toward breast cancer research. There are many ways, including the following:

  • To get a copy from us in person for only $5.00, come to West Houston Chinese Church (10638 Hammerly Blvd, Houston, TX 77043) on Sunday, February 5, for the 11:15 am service.* Cathy and I will speak briefly during the service, and books will be available for sale afterward. You can also come on the following two Sundays (February 12 and 19).
  • To order a paperback copy online for $6.99 (plus shipping), click here.
  • To download the Ebook version for Adobe Digital Editions for $5.99, click here. (You can get Adobe Digital Editions for free here.)
  • To get the iBook version from iTunes (for the iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) for $5.99, click here.
  • To get the Nook version for $5.99, click here, or search for “Stand with Cathy” on your Nook.
  • For a tiny sample of the book, click here.

In case you’re not familiar with our story, this book is an account (from my point of view) of my wife Cathy’s battle with cancer. It’s about how our community came together to sustain us by raising over $65,000 to help pay for Cathy’s treatment and by providing a place for us to stay when we were effectively evicted from our apartment. It is a testimony about the power of love and grace in the midst of hardship.

*All of the author’s profit from the sales of this book will be donated to the “Susan G. Komen for the Cure” foundation for breast cancer research. For each book purchased at West Houston Chinese Church, however, the full price of the book ($5.00) will be donated. (Of course, you are welcome to give more than $5.00.) Remarkably, the church has refused to accept any portion of the proceeds; everything goes to the Komen Foundation. Please note that the official name of the Komen Foundation is “Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” so if you write a check, please make it payable to “Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

A Book about Our Journey

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finished writing the final draft of a memoir about my wife’s experience with cancer . . . and other experiences as well, including a crazy dispute with a landlord who would soon be convicted of his wife’s murder. I’m naming the book after the year-long fundraising campaign that helped us raise $65,000 to cover Cathy’s treatment expenses: Stand with Cathy. The above picture is the front cover of the book as it stands now. I’ll give a special prize (not really) to anyone who can explain the play on words with the Chinese character.

The book should be available for purchase in both paperback and electronic formats within about a month. All profits from sales of the book will be donated to a cancer-related charity–probably the Komen Foundation, though I haven’t decided for sure yet. As soon as possible, I will post links to the web site where the book can be ordered from, and I will also post a sample from the book so you can see what it will be like.

I also recently added pages to this blog to showcase interesting words and quotations. Please take a look, and feel free to recommend words or quotations that you think deserve a place on the lists.