Solitude Book Review

Author: Michael Harris
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It’s not  often I can pick up a non-fiction book and be completely immersed in the author’s head.

It’s also rare that I pay attention to every single word.

Harris completely hooked me into his world and I  felt myself slowing down to absorb everything he was saying in this book.

Reading through it felt like a journey through my own thoughts, but articulated through the author. It didn’t feel like an over-bloated blog post with a lot of filler text, but rather like someone who had a lot to say while trying to find their answer.

It helps that as a person steeped in mysticism and contemplation, the subject matter is near to my heart.

Solitude, in this book, is presented as something that is not only healthy… but necessary.

As we move towards a completely interconnected world, finding time for solitude is becoming increasingly rare. It is also becoming fearful as people try to drown out their own thoughts rather than allow themselves to walk down their inner road.

Harris looks at how our strength and creativity comes from these moments when we completely detached. Yet, they are being replaced with constant connection and outsourcing to others.

What are the consequences and what are we giving up in the process?

We don’t get a solid answer in the end, which is a good thing. This is a deep question requiring serious thought.

To give it a black and white answer denies the reader any opportunity to wrestle with it.

This is the first work of Harris’ I read and if he continues writing this way, I’m on board for the rest.

Ban This Book Book Review

Author: Alan Gratz
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I was fortunate enough to pick this up in the Express shelves of my local library and sat down for an afternoon to read it.

The heart of this book is about a fourth grader, Amy, who spends a lot of time in her head, but doesn’t actually speak up. Although the divide in age between myself and this protagonist is quite the span, I found I could relate to her right away.

It chronicles the events of her school when her favourite book gets banned from the library. Soon thereafter, a list of books are removed at the bequest of an influential parent council member who deems them inappropriate for a young audience.

As a response, Amy and her friends create a forbidden book library that is run out of her locker.

Thus, we get to the over-arching theme of this book, which is censorship.

We’re asked questions about who gets to decide what is right for children to read and how much autonomy we should give in decision making. I was very satisfied with the author’s answer at the end (thank you Mr. Gratz for giving one!), but it opens the discussion wide open for all readers.

What I found most dumbfounding was the author’s note at the end where he tells the reader every book on Amy’s list was banned, or under review for removal, from school libraries.

It made me appreciate this book all the more.

The writing is wonderful and the characters feel alive. This is a book that belongs in the hands of every young reader and every library.

Shift This! Book Review

Author: Joy Kirr
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This was another recommendation from a colleague about a way to completely transform the classroom. As someone who’s still getting his feet back in the waters, any advice passed along my way is always appreciated.

If I were to summarize this book in one sentence: put the students’ best interest first.

Kirr spends time talking about the major shifts she has made in her classroom, all starting from very small changes. Each change shifted her classroom culture, which caused her to implement another… and another.

I appreciate she’s actually speaking from experience and not merely from something theoretical.

There’s no doubt education is going through a transformation. Between the disruption of technology, unlimited access to information and the automation of our cognitive jobs (“white collar” work), our bell-style “sage on a stage” education has to change.

Kirr understands this and the shifts she makes in her classroom are a reflection of it.

There are a few chapters I highlighted and noted to death (especially the chapter on grading – my goodness that chapter is solid gold) and there were a few sections I personally wouldn’t use. Twitter, for instance, is something she strongly advocates educators use to chat with others.

I closed my Twitter account months ago for many reasons (even after having a solid following), but the biggest one is its ability to take away my focus. I would rather be creating content and reading deeply, rather than curating small bytes of information that would require me to do the deep work anyway. This is just a personal stance.

What I loved, and don’t see very often in books about educational practices, is Kirr does not back away from the struggles to make this type of classroom work. She does not present her class as some kind of utopia for implementing her changes.

She speaks about the struggles with getting the students on board, her colleagues and the parents.

I have already begun shifting my classroom before reading this book, but now I’m ready to make some bigger leaps.

The Collapsing Empire Book Review

Author: John Scalzi
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Here we go with another Scalzi book review. I don’t know what to say except I can’t get enough of this author.

The best way to describe this book is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine mixed with the characters of Kevin Smith movies… in a really good way.

Disclaimer: If you hate politics, science fiction and a few characters that swear obsessively, I would strongly discourage you from picking this up. Then again, if you’ve read anything by this author before, you know full well what you’re getting into.

Unlike the last book I read from Scalzi where I jumped in the middle of a series, this one is the beginning of a completely new story arc and universe. For that reason, it does take a bit to get into because you have to put together the pieces as you go along. For me, that took about fifty pages.

Once it gets going though, it ramps up in a magnificent display of awesomeness.

Quick summary: Humans have discovered something called The Flow, which allows them to colonize distant stars and galaxies… the catch being no one really knows how it works. They create a new empire called The Interdependency as a hedge against interstellar war whereupon all the systems are dependent on each other — then The Flow starts shifting.

The story moves quickly and the disparate characters it follows slowly begin to merge together into one interconnected plot. For this reason, it never got confusing and it built towards an ending that was satisfying enough to pick up the next one in the series.

So thank you Mr. Scalzi for chewing up another weekend of mine with your raw edge of literary prowess in a genre I can’t get enough of.

Deep Thinking Book Review

Author: Garry Kasparov
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Garry Kasparov — one of the highest rated Grandmasters in Chess history and the first to defeat an AI supercomputer. However, he’s best known as the guy who lost to a different iteration of that supercomputer in 1997.

This book is a telling of his thoughts on the future of humans and artificial intelligence and for once… it’s refreshing. He’s put away the doom and gloom that some analysts speak from and looked at it from a positive and critical angle. It’s a neat approach because… you know… he would be on the front lines to know what it would be like to have AI take your job.

In his words:
“Romanticizing the loss of jobs to technology is little better than
complaining that antibiotics put too many grave diggers out of work. The transfer of labor from humans to our inventions is nothing less than the history of civilization.

There is no back, only forward.

Most of this book looks at his personal history with chess and its marriage with computers. Specifically, he gets into details of how weak it was when it started and how long it took before they actually became a threat on the chess board.

Yes, he gives an an in-depth analysis, from his own perspective this time, of that fated match with IBMs “Deep Blue.”

Interwoven within this narrative are his thoughts on the progression and consequences of artificial intelligence in this world.

It was an addicting read and I found myself slowing down just to soak up every word Kasparov was saying. Having an interest in chess helped, but his voice is so clear and full of wisdom that it doesn’t matter how much you really know about the game. You just want to hear what he has to say.

In the end, he challenges us to use this new cusp of technology as an opportunity to make leaps towards other cognitive horizons that we’re not even imagining yet.

“We haven’t lost free will; we have gained time that we just don’t know what to do with. We have gained incredible powers, virtual omniscience, but still lack the sense of purpose to apply them in ways that satisfy us.”

Maybe this next smartphone addicted generation we keep complaining about will be the ones to make that leap.

Reference Point Book Review

Author: Michael Hurd
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The follow-up and direct sequel to his first book, Enter the Witness, Hurd delivers mind bending realities in Reference Point.

At its heart, this book is about an awakening in all of us. It’s an invitation to lift the veil of reality for what we see and peer into the heart of what the universe really wants to show us.

Hands down, it’s a stunning description of a spiritual journey.

The realm of describing a spiritual journey belonged to the mystics, who did their best to describe something that cannot be explained. It’s like trying to tell someone what it’s like to love another person. The best you can deliver is metaphors.

It’s for this reason, the study of mysticism is relegated to those who are willing to decipher the language. As someone who has spent many years deep in that study, I can assure you it’s not an easy task.

Hurd has done a tremendous job at describing it in a way that is accessible and summarizes the last fifteen years of my studies.

I found myself highlighting and taking notes, page after page. He packed so much into this without once feeling like it’s too heavy. Everything about it just flowed.

You actually feel yourself moving with the text towards what he calls, The Revealing. You are following along, but at the same time, you are also feeling summoned. It just grips you.

While you could dive right into this book without having read his first one, they do build on each other… but wow… do they ever build into something that will have you deep in thought.

Ditch That Homework Book Review

Authors: Matt Miller, Alice Keeler
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A colleague of mine recommended this book with the promise it would completely change the way I think about the classroom.

I picked it up with some skepticism. My personal stance has always been that great teachers cannot be replicated and are great for different reasons.

I’m happy to say this book really got me thinking about how I approach work in the classroom.

It starts with centering on the needs of students, all of whom are different, and demonstrates… with real-world examples… how much more effective a teacher can be by leveraging the right tools.

Any book that gets me to make notes, highlight passages and put it down to think is an instant five-star for me. This book had me doing that on several occasions.

While many pages were bookmarked, here are a few choice highlights:

“Just because students make poor choices doesn’t mean we should remove that responsibility altogether.”

“As teachers, we tend to want class to run smoothly. We like things to be neat and tidy. Students are still learning how to live life, and the way they think and operate creates a hot mess in our classrooms. Instead of avoiding those messes, we’ve got to pull on our rubber boots and wade through the mess with them. Yes, it requires time and patience, but it’s also how we can help them learn to make better decisions in the future.”

I love the fact the authors don’t just offer a tool or method and say, “This is all you need.” Instead, they look at the realities of the modern classroom and offer steps to get to a better place.

This book will get a teacher to re-think what their idea of useful work for students is… regardless of whether they assign it for homework or not.

The End of All Things Book Review

Author: John Scalzi
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I picked up this book thinking it would be a stand-alone novel within a universe Scalzi had created and to which I already read the main introductory material (Old Man’s War).

Yes, Scalzi did write every novel as a stand alone… except this one… which is actually the second part in a two novel arc.

Well done me for not even doing the slightest bit of research on that one.

Thankfully, while it would have been nice to know what happened before, I still found I could get into it quite easily.

First things out of the way, if you haven’t read anything by John Scalzi before, he is the most accessible and fun science-fiction writer today. I don’t say that lightly because I read a lot of science fiction.

You can just tell that he has a lot of fun while writing and it shows on every page.

John, if you actually find writing to be the most mind-bending wreck of an activity that causes you to pull the hairs from your cat, it doesn’t show.

Without giving too much away because, again — I didn’t read the first book in this two novel arc — it’s a story told in four novellas about fractured political organizations trying to patch together chaos across the universe of alien factions.

It starts with a scary form of torture of what it would be like to be nothing more than a brain in a box and keeps you gripped from there.

While there is a lot happening, the novel still moves at a quick enough pace that you never feel bogged down reading it. The characters also have more than enough personality that you never get lost in the dialogue, which is much appreciated. There’s nothing worse than having to constantly ask, “Who said that?”

As a first book in the Scalzi library, I wouldn’t recommend this one. However, if you’ve read Old Man’s War and The Human Division (the book before this one), you’ll enjoy it.

The One-Minute Workout Book Review

Author: Dr. Martin Gibala
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On my way to picking up others book in the library, I came across this one in the Express section. It was carefully placed on the shelf to catch my eye as I walked by — its light blue and white colour beckoning me to pick it up.

“7 days to finish this Vito… that’s a cake-walk for you,” it said.

Intrigued, I picked it up and looked to see who the author was making this bold claim. As an academic at heart, I’m always skeptical of radical claims and people who throw around the phrase “based on science.”

Lo and behold, it’s an actual professor (and chair of kinesiology) at a Canadian University! Not just any University, but McMaster, which is starting to make a stand in the crowded world of Ontario campuses.

As a graduate of Queen’s University, the running joke is you can always tell when a McMaster student changed a light bulb because they’ll loudly proclaim they did it just as well as any Queen’s student.

He’s also speaking about High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), something I was vaguely familiar with after making a bet years ago with friends that I could finish the Insanity Beachbody program (which is kind of like a reverse HIIT – but on a stupid hard scale).

It was brutal, but the results were amazing and I actually liked it as I stuck with it. In fact, outside of my early martial arts training, it was one of the very few programs I stuck with

After reading Gibala’s work, I understood why.

This book boils down to is the following claim:

You can get the same, if not better, results from your workouts in a fraction of the time.

The secret, which Dr. Gibala has been researching for many years, is interval training. You go hard for small bursts of time, followed by cool-down sessions. When your body is about to give up and force you to the floor… the workout is done.

He gives you 12 different types of workouts to achieve this effect — all of which can be done in less than 30 minutes. A few of them last even less than five minutes.

The One-Minute claim from the book title refers to one of the suggested workouts where your sprints last only a minute, but they’re spaced out with periods of rest.

In case you were looking of an actual one-minute workout… not going to happen. However, even a minute sprint throughout the day still has its health benefits.

The book starts with the (actual) science behind his findings before moving on to the practical applications. If you’re not a person who is interested in why your body would respond so well to this type of training regiment, you can skip to the last part of the book.

What I appreciated most is he demonstrates how HIIT is for everyone from the beginner to the high-endurance athlete, showing this method is not just a flash in the pain type of discovery that only works in theory.

If you’re looking to up your exercise game, this book might be for you.

For the person looking to get rid of the excuse they don’t have enough time… or the proper equipment… or any other excuse that could be getting in the way of doing some actual exercise, this book will be helpful.

As for me, my worldview has been completely rocked.

I knew there was a reason I loved Insanity so much. Now I have several programs I can stick with for the long-term.

Everybody Lies Book Review

Author: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Book Link

What happens when a book tries too hard to be the next Freakonomics mixed with Gladwell-esque posturings?

You get someone who has found some interesting trends in big data and repeats itself over and over again.

Big data is exciting because it’s the ultimate survey… except people actually tell the truth and they don’t know they’re taking it. It’s the answer social science is looking for when it comes to a sample of people.

Instead of sample sizes ranging from hundreds or thousands, we get hundreds of millions to billions (assuming people across the globe are online and using the same sites we use in North America).

Seth, a former data engineer at Google, analyzed trends from three major sources for his data: Google searches, Facebook and a major pornography website.

His results were interesting, covering topics such as baseball, racism, abortion and abuse… but falls back on covering the same topics repeatedly. I’m not sure whether this was to meet a word requirement from his publisher, or he really wanted to let us know that he was one of the few people to breach the subject.

Where the book shines is in part three where he talks about the potential of big data analysis, its limitations and its danger for us.

I do hope he continues his work because it opens up some incredible possibilities.

However, if you’re going to pick up this book, stick with it until part three. It might drag for you, but it’s worth a look.