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Dr. Bojan Tunguz (Indiana, USA)
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The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
by Samuel P. Huntington
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 23.00
68 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant International Relations Masterpiece, Feb. 19 2014
The Cold War ended about a quarter of a century ago. Its end ushered in a great hope for the future of humanity, a future that many had hoped would be free from wars and other devastating conflicts. The liberal Western democracy seemed to be marching triumphant, and with an exception of a few holdouts (China being the biggest and most important one) its future, and the future of the world order based on its principles, seemed assured. In the memorable phrase of Francis Fukuyama, history was over. However, various ethnic conflicts in Europe in the 1990s (primarily in former Yugoslavia) and the impact of Islamic terrorism at the beginning of the 21st century, disabused many of these sanguine notions about humanity’s future.

“The Clash of Civilizations” opened my eyes to the whole different way of looking at the World and the main geopolitical forces that shape it. Or rather, it focused my attention on the main groupings of the global powers and the way that these groupings influenced international relations. This whole approach has a lot of intuitive power, and it really manages to capture a lot of international tensions and conflicts that we have been seeing over the past couple of decades. In a way, there is nothing surprising about this. The clash of civilization has always been the main driving force behind the fundamental historical developments, and the Cold War was just (in Huntington’s view) an interlude that may prove to be an aberration in the long march of history.

I was completely new to the whole field of civilization studies and this book provided me with a lot of new material to think about. Huntington is very clear that what often passes for “universal” human values are in fact an invention of the Western civilization. Those values have only marginally been able to penetrate other civilizations, and Huntington comes across as fairly ambivalent about the whole prospect of westernizing the entire world. He is sympathetic, at least in principle, to the idea that it’s possible to have modernization without Westernization. There have been a few examples of civilizations that had managed to modernize, oftentimes at a breakneck speed, without implementing a full-scale westernization of their societies. However, most of those civilizations had also reached eventual roadblocks, and to this day I don’t know of any civilization that has been able to outperform the West in terms of long-term development.

One of the most controversial aspects of Huntington’s book has been his very critical look at the Islamic world. Unfortunately, his dire predictions about the clash(es) with the Islamic civilization have proved more than prescient, as the beginning of the twentieth century has clearly demonstrated.

Even though this book makes a very persuasive case for the general outline of the future global geopolitical groupings and tensions, I have been far less impressed with the exact prediction of how these wars start, evolve, and resolve themselves. For many of these assertions and predictions Huntington uses the war in Bosnia as the exhibit A. Huntington overemphasizes the role that Muslim nationalism and ideology played in fomenting that conflict, and presents the roots of the hostilities (much as did most of the Western media at the time) as “bottom up” and grounded in “centuries of hatred.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. I was born and raised in Bosnia, and my family and I have been “displaced” by that conflict. Huntington’s account of what happened there does not ring true in the least. Yes, there have been animosities and tensions between different religious/ethnic groups that span generations, some of which I’ve experienced firsthand, but that in and of itself was not nearly at the level that would lead to the bloodiest and most inhumane war in Europe since the end of World War II.

Another aspect in which I feel the book falls short is in its appreciation of the way that ideology will drive future conflicts. It could be argued that the conflicts that have been subsumed under the collective label “Arab Spring” (especially the ones in Egypt and Syria) have more to do with the various ideological currents (secularism vs. Islamism for instance) than with a clash of civilizations as such. Furthermore, within the West itself we are increasingly witnessing cultural splits that are profound and wide-ranging enough that we might indeed be witnessing a bona fide civilizational fissuring. Consequently, the scope and nature of the “culture wars” might progress far enough that they themselves become a major source of inter-civilizational tensions.

This is a truly remarkable book that is still relevant almost two decades after it has been first published. It is written in a very lucid and engaging style, and it was a pleasure to read. Any serious student of international relations, whether you agree with Huntington’s insights or not, ought to read this book.

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories
Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories
by Tobias Wolff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 25.60
25 used & new from CDN$ 2.80

5.0 out of 5 stars Storytelling at Its Finest, Feb. 13 2014
For many decades Tobias Wolff has been considered one of the preeminent American short story writers. He also happens to be my own favorite modern short story writer, and I have been eagerly reading as many of his works as I was able to lay my hands on.

“Our Story Begins” is a collection of many of the Wolff’s “greatest hits,” as well as several stories that have only recently been published. Fans of Wolff’s oeuvre will doubtlessly be familiar with many of the stories in this collection, if not most of them. Some of them, like “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” and “The Night in Question” I’ve read several times, but each time I read them I find them fresh and filled with new insights that I failed to notice before.

There are several features of Wolff’s stories that make them so appealing. First, there is Wolff’s writing style. Wolff eschews complicated stylistic maneuvers and tries to get to the heart of the story in a way that is very accessible to any reader. His writing is filled with refreshing nuance that bring the story and the characters to life. The characters themselves are extremely relatable, and are easy to identify with. They are, for the most part, ordinary people that often find themselves in unusual or just interesting circumstances. Many authors today have hard time of not making the ordinary characters come across as trite, or trying too hard to imbue meaning into the ordinary storylines that are not there organically. Wolff manages not only to strike the right balance, but in fact elevates the story to something unique and intrinsically different. Underneath all of it lays Wolff’s deep affection for his characters’ humanity and a sense of deeper meaning behind even the most ordinary of life’s circumstances. There are even deeper religious echoes in many of the stories, but those, with a few exceptions, very rarely surface. Finally, what I always appreciated about Wolff is that he is first and foremost a storyteller. He wants to tell a good story, and tell it in the most effective and meaningful way. He’s obviously been gifted with a unique and remarkable talent in this regard, but it also takes a certain level of discipline and mature craftsmanship to shape stories in such a way that they become genuine objects of high art.

Whether you are a long-time Wolff fan or are exploring his writing for the first time, this collection will be a valuable introduction to this wonderful writer. This is storytelling at its finest.

International Security: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
International Security: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Price: CDN$ 7.03

1.0 out of 5 stars International Insecurity, Feb. 9 2014
This book started off well enough, covering topics in what is normally assumed under the topic of international relations and international security. The first part of the book was a fairly straightforward, albeit unremarkable, rehash of topics such as war and peace, changing nature of armed conflict, and United Nations. In the second half, however, things started to seriously go off track. Most of that part of the book covered topics that, albeit important and interesting, are at best tangential to the whole issue of security proper: human development, proper natural resource management, environmental degradation, etc. The worst, however, was reserved for the last chapter which was essentially, and I am not exaggerating, a full-scale apologia for terrorism and the attacks of 9/11 in particular. I really couldn’t believe what I was reading, and parts of this chapter were stomach churning. I pretty much had to force myself to finish reading that rubbish. The author is apparently an acolyte of Noam Chomsky school of international relations, whom he directly invokes in this chapter. This kind of total intellectual dross I would expect to read on the pages of some third-rate college newspaper, but not from the pages of a serious scholarly book published by an eminent university press.

I’ve read several of these Very Short Introduction (VSI) books on themes of international relations, foreign affairs, and similar topics. Out of all of themes that VSI covers this one seems to be, by far, the most one sided and lacking any rigorous scholarly reflection. Whoever is the editor at OUP specializing in this topic should really lose his job, and sooner the better.

Probability: With Applications and R
Probability: With Applications and R
by Robert P. Dobrow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 119.20
29 used & new from CDN$ 113.62

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Introductory Textbook, Feb. 3 2014
Probability is perhaps one of the most applicable and applied branches of mathematics today. This is in large part due to the fact that probabilistic reasoning underlies much of modern science and technology, which in turn are the backbones of the modern world.

There are many good probability textbooks out there, yet “Probability with Applications and R” stands out for several reasons. It is a textbook that effortlessly combines the theoretical and applied material, it is immensely up-to-date and relevant, and it uses computer simulations (and statistical language R in particular) in an organic and effective way. It is an almost ideal textbook for someone who wants to gain both the deep understanding and the hands-on experience with probability in an applied and relevant context.

This textbook was based on many years worth of experience teaching probability to upper level undergraduates at a liberal arts college. It assumes certain level of mathematical sophistication, and multivariable calculus in particular. Other than that, it’s open to a wide spectrum of students from a variety of majors and backgrounds – mathematics, physics, biology, computer science, etc. The chapters include “Conditional Probability,” “Random Variables,” “Continuous Distributions,” “Limits,” and several others. There is also a short background material on R that has been relegated to appendixes. R is a scripting language, and the student should be familiar with at least the rudiments of computer programming before engaging with the material in this book.

One of this book’s greatest features are the numerous examples, tutorials, exercises and “experiments.” All of them are very clear and pedagogical, and greatly foster learning and the acquisition of this material. The book is written in a very clear and pedagogical style, and it was a pleasure to go through it.

There are very few textbooks out there that will not only help you learn the material, but actually make you want to learn it. This Probability textbook is definitely one of them. It assumes certain predisposition and mathematical aptitude on the part of the student, and it manages to work with them and tap into the innate desire for learning and exploration. The book is a wonderful combination of conceptual clarity and applied practicality. Dobrow comes across as an erudite and excited teacher who excels at imparting his wide knowledge and deep insights at students. This is a clearly a worthwhile book to go through for anyone interested in getting a solid grasp of the best modern understanding of probability and its applications.

Entrepreneurship: A Very Short Introduction
Entrepreneurship: A Very Short Introduction
by Paul Westhead
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
33 used & new from CDN$ 3.51

4.0 out of 5 stars What is Entrepreneurship?, Jan. 28 2014
Entrepreneurship seems to be all the rage in various business and economics discussions these days. Its association with the high-tech sector in particular seems to make it a very recent and novel phenomenon. However, the word “entrepreneur” is centuries old, and many of the things that make entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs distinct within the economic and social markets have been around for much longer than that. Nonetheless, it’s probably thanks to the rise in free markets, free trade, and freedom of association in various countries and across the globe that have facilitated the recent economic dynamism and the rise of entrepreneurship.

This short book aims to take a closer look at the concept of entrepreneurship and to provide the reader with a better ide of what it entails. The book is filled with many interesting examples and case studies of entrepreneurship, which are always some of the most fascinating and exciting reads for anyone interested in business and similar topics. It also provides many theoretical and systematic studies of entrepreneurship that try, among other things, to give the proper scope for this construct. Some of that material is interesting and well worth considering, but a lot of its still very abstruse and of interest mostly to academics and their fellow travelers. The theoretical parts can be pretty boring to read, but the book is still overall pretty interested.

If you are interested in the topic of entrepreneurship mostly out of intellectual curiosity than this book can be a worthwhile read. However, if you are an entrepreneur or and aspiring entrepreneur interested in more practical aspects of entrepreneurship, then I would recommend that you take a look at some other book that is more focused on case studies and concrete how-to advice. I am not aware of any such book right now, but if I come across one I will update this review with that info.

Beautiful Geometry
Beautiful Geometry
by Eli Maor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.50
42 used & new from CDN$ 18.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and Educational, Jan. 28 2014
This review is from: Beautiful Geometry (Hardcover)
Geometry remains one of the most intuitively appealing subfields of Mathematics. However, as anyone who has studied geometry at any length will attest, the visual beauty of geometry oftentimes belies its underlying intellectual complexity. Like in many other parts of Mathematics, sometimes it’s the things that are easy to visualize and state, which can be fiendishly hard to understand and prove.

In “Beautiful Geometry” Eli Maor and Eugen Jost aim to give the reader a sampler of some of the most interesting problems and ideas from the almost three thousand years long history of Geometry. The book is designed to inform and educate the reader, and even though it’s not written as a traditional math textbook, it does require an active engagement on the part of the reader. There are many proofs and other fairly rigorous demonstrations, which, although not terribly long nor complex, do require that the reader is comfortable and used to going through rigorous mathematical reasoning. Many of the proofs can be found in most elementary geometry textbook, but if you are like me you probably haven’t seen them in many, many years and I appreciate a gentle reintroduction to this material. Maor is a great pedagogue, and this is probably as good of an elementary exposition of geometry as they come.

This is a beautifully designed hardbound book that would be right at home in almost any library. However, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of a math “coffee table” book. For one, even the most die-hard math enthusiast will not just casually pick up this book for the most absent-minded perusal. Furthermore the illustrations, although nice enough, have higher pedagogical than artistic value. Most of them are pretty flat and uninspiring, and don’t really make me want to open the book to just look at them. I think a book with a clearer separation between the artistic and educational illustrations, with former chosen based primarily on their artistic merit, would have been more interesting and well suited for this particular format. Nonetheless, I mostly enjoyed going through this book and would recommend it to any genuine math and geometry enthusiast.

The Problem Of Pain
The Problem Of Pain
by C S Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.26
47 used & new from CDN$ 5.76

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Painful Problem, Jan. 28 2014
This review is from: The Problem Of Pain (Paperback)
The problem of evil – and the problem of human pain and suffering in particular – is one of the oldest and most persistent theological questions. Under its technical term “theodicy” theologians and philosophers have explored it at least since the eighteenth century. In “The Problem of Pain” C. S. Lewis, one of the best renowned twentieth century Christian apologists, uses his own considerable erudition and literary talent to explore this age-old issue.

From the very outset of this book Lewis makes it clear that he is no theologian or a philosopher, and makes an apology of sorts for his possibly naïve views of some of the deep and enduring intellectual questions that he tackles. Nonetheless, this book is anything but naïve and intellectually unsophisticated in its treatment of the problem of pain, and some of the treatment of these deep issues is on par or even well ahead of what I’ve read by some of the best and most erudite Christian theologians throughout the ages. Lewis is very probing and sophisticated in his insights, to the point that this book can be pretty challenging to read at times. This is a work of someone who is not satisfied with cheap and facile answers to the most difficult and challenging questions that can confront faith, and Christian faith in particular. His treatment is also very contemporary and addressed to the modern audience. So much so in fact, that it was hard for me to believe that this book was written over a century ago. Many of the problems and issues that Lewis had to contends with are still relevant, and, according to him, were well over a century old even at the time of the writing of this book. The biggest one, of course, is the notion that the modern world has not only the problem with accepting the solution for its many ills in Christian message, but it also lacks the sense that it’s ill, and very seriously at that. Christianity today must make the convincing case not only for the remedy, but for the existence of disease as well.

This book is a valuable read for all Christians who desire to grapple with their faith in an original and intellectually deep and honest way. It provides ample ammunition to Christian apologists as well, although it is my sense that this was not Lewis’s target audience. This book may not provide the definitive “solution” to the problem of pain, but in some sense it’s possible that no book ever will. Flannery O’Connor might have been onto something when she wrote that “evil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”

Data Jujitsu: The Art of Turning Data into Product
Data Jujitsu: The Art of Turning Data into Product
Price: CDN$ 0.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Overview, Jan. 18 2014
I found this to be a very interesting and insightful article on data science as it is practiced in the real world. However, your impressions of this short e-book will strongly depend on your expectations. If you are looking for an detailed and technical how-to book, then you will be severely disappointed. I think that people who will most appreciate this e-book article are either those who have very little to no experience with data science, or potentially the high-level experts and veterans of the field. For the first group this e-book could serve as a gentle introduction to the field in the most general way, while the latter could appreciate the big picture take by one of their very experienced colleagues. I am definitely in the first group, and I really enjoyed this short e-book.

The central idea of this e-book is that in design of data-driven products it helps to use the actual usage of the product as a guide and a driving force. This is where the Jujitsu metaphor comes in play: just like a practitioner of that martial arts relies on the opponent's own attacks and forces and tries to martial them to his own advantage, so also a designer of a data-driven product will ideally try to use the "gravitational pull" of data and its use to his advantage.

Patil illustrates his ideas and concepts with several useful examples, mostly from his work at LinkedIn. These are useful examples in their own right, as they also give the reader a few insights into how LinkedIn actually connects people. Some of the ideas in the book are already well known to most software designers and entrepreneurs (good data structures are crucial, try to design a minimally functioning prototype and then iterate, etc.), but others are a bit counterintuitive and novel.

This short e-book is very readable and well written, something that one can never take for granted for a geeky book on data science. It's an interesting read and I was able to finish it in a single sitting.

Causation: A Very Short Introduction
Causation: A Very Short Introduction
by Stephen Mumford
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
30 used & new from CDN$ 3.21

5.0 out of 5 stars Short and Challenging Introduction to Causation, Jan. 17 2014
Causation sounds like one of those super obscure philosophical terms. However, it refers to the simple idea that events in the real world cause other events. It’s a very primitive and intuitive notion, on par with our notions of space and time. And just as it turns out that our simple ideas about space and time belie a much more complicated reality, so it is that a closer look at the notion of causation leads to some puzzling and even troubling questions.

“Causation: A Very Short Introduction” aims to take the reader on a tour of some of the most interesting ideas about causation that have cropped up over the history of philosophy. It is a short book, but it is by no means a quick read. As it often happens when trying to untangle apparently uniform threads a lot of exactitude and precision need to be applied, which in turn requires a high level of mental dexterity and patience. This book is not an easy read, and I would only recommend it to readers who appreciate tightly argued philosophical ideas and are willing to invest the time and effort required for their full comprehension.

The book presents several main ideas and schools of thought that have been built in order to answer the question of what exactly we mean by causation. The authors show that most of those ideas, even though they seem very counterintuitive on the surface, have many attractive features that make them hard to dismiss out hand, or at all. However, the book argues that no single school of though so far has managed to capture all of our intuitive ideas about causation.

Personally, as a theoretical Physicist, I would have liked it if this book covered the “Physicalist” view of causation (or “causality” as we like to call it) in more depth. I think that this book’s ideas about physical reductionism are a bit too glib and don’t quite capture the full complexity of this approach.

Worrying about causation is not just an exercise in navel gazing. Finding and understanding causal connection deeply affects science, law, and medicine, to name just a few examples through which we are affected on a daily basis. If you would like to take a probing tour of what causation may mean in and of itself, then this short book is a good place to start. But be fully prepared to grease your intellectual elbows, as reading this small tome can be quite a mental exercise.

The Atlantis Gene: A Thriller (the Origin Mystery, Book 1)
The Atlantis Gene: A Thriller (the Origin Mystery, Book 1)
by A. G. Riddle
Edition: Paperback
5 used & new from CDN$ 26.42

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reasonably Fun But Overstrained Sci-Fi Thriller, Jan. 15 2014
A World War II U-Boat is discovered in Antarctica. This in itself would have been a remarkable discovery and a basis of a very intriguing plotline, but it turns out that what the boat was stuck into is even more remarkable and has incredible implications for human history, both past and present.

This book is a very ambitious take on the theme of human origins, hidden lost history, and enormously powerful secret societies. The plots twists and turns take the reader on a rollercoaster trajectory across different continents, centuries, and scientific discoveries.

The book alternates between fast-paced action scenes and long-winded detours into the background information necessary for the plot development. Ironically, I found some of these detours to be my favorite parts of the book from the narrative standpoint. They were well-paced, characters were gradually developed, and the background technological sophistication didn’t strain credibility.

This is an interesting and mostly fun to read sci-fi thriller. However, it suffers from many tangential subthemes, and its ultimate premise is too fantastical for me to fully suspend my belief. In large part due to this overambitious and sprawling background the book is much longer than it should have been for a tight and suspenseful thriller. To his credit, the author pays a lot of attention to central characters and their personalities and motivations, but even here plotline takes twists that put many daytime soap operas to shame.

Book ends with many of its main hidden secrets revealed, but it also opens up many new unanswered questions. Those will, presumably, be dealt with in its sequel. I enjoyed reading this book, but I don’t feel intrigued enough to give its sequel a chance.

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