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The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems (Center for Environmental Structure)
The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems (Center for Environmental Structure)
by Christopher Alexander
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $41.08
54 used & new from $25.02

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Winning the battle ... but maybe losing the war ..., October 1, 2014
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Christopher Alexander's theory that our system of building creates lifeless, cheerless mediocrity seems proven simply by looking around at our buildings as they exist.

At the same time, most of his problems seem to come from specific situations he faced in this project, which quite honestly seem pretty unique to it. For example, he wanted to start onsite design work before the land purchase was nailed down, by putting flags on the property. Understandably, landowners didn't much like this, and negotiators for the University felt it was disturbing their efforts to keep the price down. They eventually forged a compromise. Hardly the stuff of blood and guts-level fighting between two world views!

Most of the real fighting was thanks to the unique structure of the project, where he had to deal with a general contractor unsympathetic to the way he preferred to work. The lesson is that if you want to do things his way, have a combined architect/contractor hybrid do the work. In this case, the architect takes the contractor's fee, and can use some of that money to contribute back to the project instead of pay inflated contractor profits. There doesn't seem to be much reason not to do something like this for Alexander-style projects, and that would eliminate nearly all the actual fighting faced by this one.

The problems I was expecting to see, like regulatory agencies wanting very specific plans, and people misunderstanding his approach, seemed nearly nonexistent. Probably great deference was given to a major school who wanted to design its own campus, but similar behavior might exist for any major real estate developer with a good reputation.

It is clear, from the numerous examples of feedback from users, that students, teachers and administrators alike love the project and the approach used to design and build it. System-A, whatever its faults, can work brilliantly and be a fantastic success. It takes a lot of work, but it is surely possible to hire Alexander's firm to create your own masterpiece.

So why hasn't the Alexander-predicted revolution happened? Why hasn't he been able to design more than a handful of buildings since? This is a question he doesn't even ask, and to me, this is the greatest mystery presented by the book - if his approach works so well, why hasn't it spread after he's wrote millions of highly influential and persuasive words on the subject, participated in numerous projects, etc?

He won the battle over the Eshin campus, but appears to be losing the war.


Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
by Charles Montgomery
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.76
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The greatest secret of urban happiness, revealed inside ..., July 1, 2014
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I like the idea of this book: Determine what urban patterns make people happiest, and promote using those patterns in the future. The book was very well written, filled with great people stories that were very good at making me understand his vision and those of fellow New Urbanists.

The problem with this book is that it stacks the deck improperly. It takes the worst of sprawl and compares it to the best of the anti-sprawl efforts. For example, we get to meet a nice fellow with a two hour commute. Each way. On horribly congested roads. The obvious fact that this makes his life miserable is made painfully clear. But is this necessarily a consequence of sprawl? The San Francisco Bay Area has some of the strictest housing regulations in the nation, which effectively mandate that the city won't have enough room for those who wish to live there. Thus, people wind up living far from the city and having horrid commutes. That's the nature of the popularity of the Bay Area combined with heavy-handed regulation.

His vision is pretty simple. People are alienated with their neighbors in sprawl, because they never walk around and get to know each other. Instead, they drive to other giant places, where they rarely do anything but shop. How much better it would be to meet in community parks and squares and interact?

Oddly enough, by the way, this has not been my experience. I have lived in faceless apartments and condos and sprawl's single family homes. Every time I've lived in single family homes, I've had neighbors who have become friends. Every time I've been in apartments or condos I've felt isolated. Sprawl seems good for social interactions in my experience. Well, as long as it's not accompanied by 2 hour commutes. But again, that's an extreme outlier to say the least.

Something pretty close to his ideal community exists in South Beach near Miami. It should be paradise. People walk and bike to work. Everything is close together, so there are tons of great shops and restaurants. But there is a dark side. The cost of housing is through the roof, in fact I'm not even sure if it's in the same solar system any more. Undistinguished single family homes for US$1 million. Condos for $500,000. Rents for even the most laughably pathetic apartments well over $1,000 a month. Parking is almost impossible to find and as a result the narrow roads are constantly clogged with cars. Congestion is basically 24/7. This is not a happy city. In fact, I'd say its misery index is dismayingly close to the poor Bay Area guy with the two hour commute.

The author makes the point that New Urbanist ideas are effectively outlawed in many cities. He particularly hits regulations governing a minimum amount of parking. Since I'm at heart a Libertarian/Anarchist, I have great sympathy for this approach.

So I tried a different approach, looking up Houston, the city with no zoning and only light land use regulation. How did the New Urbanism fare there? Turns out there are pockets of it, but most developers and housing buyers prefer sprawl. What it looks like to me is that sprawl works just fine if adequate roads are built for it to. Sprawl is sufficiently popular in Houston that private covenants in developments often enforce it to protect property values. At the same time, New Urbanist developments exist with higher density, and their covenants perpetuate those principles. Everyone gets what they want, which seems to me like the greatest secret of happiness.

The author makes use of third world examples, but unfortunately they are just not going to work for people living in the USA. You can ban cars from the city if 4/5 of your residents can't afford cars. You can't do it if 90%+ of people use cars to get around.

The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits
The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits
by Jim Geraghty
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.73
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4.0 out of 5 stars "Yes Minister" for Americans, June 21, 2014
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The book's antihero, Adam Humphrey, is clearly based on uberbureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby from the long-running British TV series Yes Minister. The two works share a very entertaining flaw: The antihero is so intelligent, so brilliant in how he runs circles around his detractors, that it's frequently difficult not to admire him and root for his inevitable victory in securing more money for the agency, no matter how ill-advised such a request actually is.

Honestly, the nominally good guys, the people we should be rooting for in their efforts to eliminate government waste and mismanagement, are not nearly as vivid or entertaining.

I enjoyed the book and gobbled it up in a day or so. I deduct a star for being so obviously a derivative work, but at least the author is considerate enough to admit the connection on page 255, in a way sufficiently subtle that only Yes Minister fans will notice it. On the other hand, this work is going to be more comprehensible to American readers, since it shows how Sir Humphrey's techniques, designed for the British system of government, are alive and well in the USA.

If this review has made you want to visit the original, here you go:

The Corsican Caper: A novel
The Corsican Caper: A novel
by Peter Mayle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.42
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rebol Redoux, May 31, 2014
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Peter Mayle loves his characters, and it shows. He loves them enough that he never really puts them in all that much peril. And he loves them so much that there seems little room for much in the way of new characters to add fresh blood to the series. I love them too, but more fresh blood would have made this book more entertaining.

In the first book, the charming and wealthy Rebol was the antagonist. In the second book, he joins the good guys. This created some entertaining tension that drove reader interest. In this book, he's a known character, and therefore sadly less interesting. Most of the good characters from previous books return, and so we don't have the entertaining descriptions of them that, again, drove a lot of interest in the previous works.

Mayle's books are really character, humor and food-driven, so the plot has always been secondary, but the plot of this book is suspiciously similar to his last one. Once again, a piece of gaudy real estate, Rebol's gorgeous home, is the bone of contention. And once again we have a villain, with a megayacht, who would stop at nothing to get it. The first two books were distinctive and original; this is basically a well-written replay of the second book.

On the other hand, his books always put a big smile on my face, because he portrays his love for his characters and their impeccable taste all too well. So I'm glad I bought it, even though it took me just a few hours to read and didn't introduce me to much new in the world.

America's Great Loop & Beyond: Cruising on a Frugal Budget (Bring your own Boat)
America's Great Loop & Beyond: Cruising on a Frugal Budget (Bring your own Boat)
by Capt John C Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.96
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cruising for the Rest of Us, May 15, 2014
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When you think of cruising, you probably think of dropping anchor in some deserted cove, with beautiful beaches, tropical sunshine and the magnificence of nature all around. You probably also think of the dangers: giant storms, hidden rocks, and the huge amount of technical knowledge you need to operate a boat responsibly.

But there is a different form of cruising, which attracts an entirely different sort. This type trades manmade tourist attractions for the beaches, canals and locks for the ocean, and nearly complete safety for the hazards of the open sea. Because the hazards are simplified, and because you can spend nights on land any time you get sick of your boat, you can go with a much smaller and simpler boat, you can spend enormously less money, and the complexity level shrinks down to more human levels.

There are a lot of interesting ramifications of this. First, the typical cruiser buys, or at least dreams of, a 40' plus boat. It's more stable in high seas, has nearly land-quality accomodations, and of course you can put systems on board that offer you a lot more comfort. A large percentage of this book is devoted to trying to talk you into downsizing towards a boat smaller than 36' or so. High seas, after all, are extremely rare on a great loop cruise, because you are almost exclusively in protected waters. Fuel costs become a lot more expensive on big boats, as do marina fees and the like. With the land always easily accessible, the occasional hotel stay is far from out of the question, making luxurious accommodations much less important than they would be on the high seas.

He also tries to talk us into is a single diesel, instead of twins, because they are enormously more economical. And again, redundancy in power simply doesn't make much sense when help is invariably a VHF call away.

Finally, don't buy a fast boat for the Loop. Not only are fast boats mind-bendingly expensive to operate, they are also mostly scorned in an environment where you have to pay attention to the potential damage done by your wake. A very high percentage of the loop is idle speed only, and even the higher speed parts are likely to reward speeds of 10 knots or so thanks to bridge and lock opening schedules that keep everyone going at roughly the same net pace.

The author is a fresh voice who is genuinely enthusiastic about his subject and passionate about his form of cruising. To me, he has been successful in giving me a feel for the Great Loop experience and how I might want to mold it to fit my own needs.

I've noticed the bad reviews for this book. They say it's typo-ridden, is endlessly repetitious in parts, and overall doesn't look like it was designed to professional publication standards. I actually found a lot fewer errors than I'd expected in view of these reviews. I think the repetition is part of the author's style, and is simply what he does when he wants to really, really, really emphasize some of his points. Perhaps the worst thing about this book for me was that the illustrations were clearly repurposed from the author's web site and as a result were grainy, fuzzy and hard to decipher.

Honestly, I think much of the reason for the bad reviews is the bare bones, unsentimentally cheap approach to cruising that may offend a few people. For example, one suggestion he has is to buy a sailboat and take down the mast (so the boat can clear the fixed bridges on the route), because sailboats are the most efficient powerboats available. He mentions approvingly the couple who inherited a 50' sailboat, cut the mast down to 7' or so, and went cruising using it as a powerboat. It was cheap and serves them well, but I can imagine any sailing enthusiast would be horrified.

The Great Loop is definitely different. This book makes it feel like cruising for those who don't want to face the big, bad world out there. Instead of traveling to exotic foreign lands with strange cultures and odd rules, you stick to the good ol' USA, close to friendly, familiar seafood restaurants and Walmarts. Instead of taking the effort to master the complexities of your boat before leaving, learn as you go in friendlier waters with a more favorable margin of error. I guess you could say it's cruising with training wheels ... but it's definitely getting you out there.

Which is far more than most people ever do.

Tales of the Intracoastal Waterway: An Account of a Passage from the Florida Keys to Cape Cod on a Seventeen Foot Catboat
Tales of the Intracoastal Waterway: An Account of a Passage from the Florida Keys to Cape Cod on a Seventeen Foot Catboat
by Roland Sawyer Barth
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.00
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What's it like to cruise the ICW on a tiny boat?, May 5, 2014
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Nearing his 70th birthday, with the feeling his best years might have been behind him, the author decides to cruise his 17' catboat up the ICW to its place of birth, Boston, Massachusetts. This book is basically a bunch of emails he wrote to his friends along the route to keep them up to date on his progress.

I really enjoyed this account of his journey, his crew and conditions along the route. It was lucid and fun to read, with enough of a combination of cruising account and local color to retain my interest. It was also quite short and I finished it about two hours after Amazon plunked it in my mailbox.

The trip started fun and enjoyable, getting more serious and much less fun as he continues north. I had suspected from the beginning that his start date of mid-April was a bit early to begin, considering that he would still be in pretty scaly weather as he neared Boston. The book's story basically confirmed my hunch.

Roughly the first half of this book shows him having a blast. He had congenial company in his wife and crew members, he had mostly pleasant surroundings, and all in all everything was great. This first half is likely to encourage us all in our own armchair trips up the ICW. I bought the book because I'm about to purchase a Grand Banks 42 and am considering taking it up to Georgia. There is sadly little on the trip from Florida to Georgia, but it's pretty clear that it's a fun journey well worth taking.

But as we get closer to the frozen north, the air gets chillier and the company becomes rarer (although no less congenial when present). The wind starts to blow, hard, and he minimizes his stops. Navigation aids are scarce, and he runs aground more. He writes less, and almost much exclusively about the sea conditions. Instead of taking time to pause and smell the roses, he seems determined to simply make it to Boston. I would think he would have been better off taking a break and waiting for better weather, but his iron constitution saw him through.

Especially towards the end, he's averaging 50 miles a day and taking between 9 and 13 hours a day to get there. (Remember, his typical speed is about 5 knots, and that is under moderately favorable conditions). So he is really being a hard charger in a trip that I would normally associate with a more leisurely pace. John C Wright, who has written his own book about intracoastal cruising, suggests in his web site that the trip up the Intracoastal from Florida to New York typically takes three months in a trawler (which is faster than the Catboat used here); Roland Barth took just a shade under two months to get all the way to Boston.

Some interesting figures from his book: He motored about 1/3 of the time, motor-sailed about 1/3 of the time and sailed about 1/3 of the time. Interestingly enough, he sailed more as he got further north.

One huge advantage of his small boat was low cost. He estimates that he spent about $1,000 on the trip, which wouldn't pay the fuel bill on a power trawler. And yet the trip clearly would have been a lot more enjoyable on a big boat that wasn't so sensitive to wind and waves.

As he said at the end, this is something he's glad he did but would not want to repeat. I'm glad to have been on the journey with him, in an armchair sailor's sense. This book definitely contains useful information that I feel was worth the time in contemplating my own trip. I may duplicate the southern part in my own boat someday ... but I think I will avoid the frozen north like the plague.

Mid Size Power Boats: A Guide for Discriminating Buyers
Mid Size Power Boats: A Guide for Discriminating Buyers
by David H. Pascoe
Edition: Paperback
Price: $59.50
38 used & new from $42.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent reality check for anyone entering boating, March 10, 2014
I have been reading and enjoying the author's web site for years. It's a great read. He is very opinionated, but excellent at backing up his opinions with facts from his long-time career as a surveyor. I now am as close as I'm ever likely to be to the possibility of actually affording a boat like this, if I really want one, so I took the plunge and ordered his book.

It is a lucid, easy to understand introduction to the shark-like world of boats and boating. He goes into enormous and highly useful detail about boat quality, maintenance costs and running costs.

My main complaint is that the author loves high quality and well-built boats, but has not made a well-built book. Considering that it is self-published at an astronomical profit margin, the paperback cover, mediocre quality printing and fuzzy photographs seem like a poor value for $80+. He is blistering in his criticism of boat companies that cheap out on quality and poor design, so it is highly ironic that his book has significant numbers of annoying typos and spelling mistakes. Quite honestly, I have seen books under $20 with beautiful color print jobs and so his decision to do a cheap print job seems contrary to the way he ran his business and web site.

His evaluations of boats are best when it comes to cheap cruisers and expensive sport fishing boats, both categories he knows extraordinarily well. He has little interest in the trawler category, considering them slow and mediocre in build quality. He likes Grand Banks but doesn't seem well acquainted with other quality builders such as Nordhavn. In fact, Nordhavn is lumped in with Island Gypsy and Marine Trader as "Taiwan Boats" with all that implies. However, the general advice about hulls, engines and so on should be useful no matter what type of boat you are considering.

If you are serious about buying a boat of this type, which is a $100,000+ decision, you need to buy this book. It has vital information you are not likely to get anywhere else. If you are just dreaming, I'd save my money until you are serious. If this book was $30 or $40 I would recommend it without hesitation for anyone curious about this topic. But at its current price, it's for serious buyers only.

And perhaps that's how the author wants it to be.

(If you have not already, you should visit his web site for a ton of free and useful information that will give you a big heaping taste of what's in this book. There's a lot here that isn't on his site, though, so the book is well worth your time and money, but again, only if you are now a serious boat buyer.)

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools
by Diane Ravitch
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.09
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The case for public schools ... which doesn't quite ring true., January 9, 2014
This book presents the case for public schools against the brave new world of charters and privatized education.

The argument boils down to "It's not our fault". Kids don't learn thanks to poverty, discrimination and other factors beyond the control of schools. Teachers are professionals and do the best they can with the cards they are dealt.

There are many charter schools that are fraudulent and pseudo-fraudulent, and many charter schools that are honest, but that she doesn't like. But at the same time, the author clearly hates, to the bottom of her soul, the idea that parents should be able to choose their schools. She loves the idea of public schools, rooted in their communities, providing education through professional teachers.

I think she has many sound arguments. For example, testing and teaching to the test have increased rigidity and removed flexibility from curricula, something that deadens the school experience and makes it painfully boring and irrelevant for students. I absolutely agree with this.

Like most education books, we never enter the classroom, and we never meet any students. We never get any feeling for what life is like in public schools, and why kids might or might not be learning. Everything is just gauzy generalities, which make public schools sound great even when they are not. If you want to learn about how education is actually conducted, you'd be better off reading "Up the Down Staircase" (written in the 1960s) than this book. I don't know how education has changed since the 1960s. But I know it has, and that the ability of our kids to read and write has only deteriorated since then.

The author thinks all schools should be fully funded. She thinks we need to teach the arts, and other subjects more appealing to kids than the basics. And yet, if we look at typical school budgets, tremendous sums go into them, surely sufficient to provide a decent education. In fact, over the last decade or so, we have enormously increased funding, and yet school buildings are as worn out as ever, teachers are unhappy as ever, and students are frustrated and learn as little as ever.

This mystery is not addressed in this book. All it says is that public school teachers are good, hardworking people. I have no doubt many are. And many are time-servers who are just hoping to get a pension eventually. Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase drew vivid portraits of both types of teacher ... and things seem to have only gotten worse today.

What I have absolutely no doubt of after reading this book: Education reform is necessary. Testing is not the be-all and end all, because it is uneven at best at measuring a quality education. Kids aren't learning. And until we go into the classroom, talk to kids, talk to teachers, and find out why they aren't learning, we're not going to understand the real problems with American education.

Announcing a New School: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School/115
Announcing a New School: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School/115
by Daniel Greenberg
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars An administrative and bureaucratic history of the world's least bureaucratic school, January 6, 2014
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The Sudbury Valley School is an institution devoted to highly idealistic principles. I was expecting to see how these principles developed in practice.

At Sudbury Valley, nobody is required to do anything. The system is totally unstructured. Students are left to do what they wish. Eventually they become curious and start learning. They pursue the ideas that interest them. And if I hadn't known this from other books I've read, I would not have discovered it by reading this book (except by the founding documents included in the appendices).

I wanted to understand how this novel method of teaching worked in practice, and I felt a history of the school would include examples of how it worked. Unfortunately, this book explains absolutely nothing of that.

Instead, you learn about conflicts among the staff members, who weren't sure how the school would function. This was okay; the founder didn't either. Eventually they all worked it out.

The most serious conflicts were between dissident students and the school. About 1/3 of the students felt bored and wanted a more directed curriculum. They were distinctly uncomfortable given the free curriculum and organization. They started harassing other students and teachers, basically begging to be ordered what to do. This disrupted the school and nearly destroyed it. Eventually the School's governing body, an unwieldy grouping of staffers and students, figured out how to expel them and the crisis was over.

This was an interesting story and it was told in an absorbing and engaging way, but it had no connection at all with what I wanted to learn about the school and its workings. So if you want to learn about the way teaching works in this school, you can safely ignore this volume. If you'd like an organizational history of its founding and near destruction, then yes, you should buy this book.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
by Peter Gray
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How kids use play and curiosity to learn, and what this means to parents, December 22, 2013
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Kids have endless curiosity. They love to play, explore and enjoy the world. And then we send them to school and they become sullen, miserable shadows of themselves. And they don't learn - despite all our supposed best efforts, their level of literacy and ability is lower than previous generations.

So yes, school makes kids miserable, and yet our property tax invoices show that we spend more and more resources to get less and less. Why has nobody questioned this and dug into these facts?

Peter Gray has, and it all started with his own kid, who was an endless nuisance to his school and its teachers and administrators. After research, he found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, whose child-centered principles upend the entire educational establishment and its endless drab classrooms and monotonous tests. Could it work, he wondered? Certainly his kid had nowhere to go but up.

So how does Sudbury Valley work? It gives kids complete freedom and mixes ages. Younger kids notice things older kids are doing, and are highly motivated to do them too. So when someone creates art, other students hang on to try and figure out how it's done. Eventually books are discovered, and they get the idea that those odd symbols on the page actually should mean something. Slowly but surely they puzzle it out, and eventually become full-fledged readers, all on their own and because they are motivated by a desire to do things that matter to them.

In short, kids are wired evolutionarily to learn and grow. They are not wired to sit in rows and watch as a leader demonstrates something. They are wired to figure it out themselves. Think about how you figure out a new computer program or skill. You watch others do it. You read books about it. You learn. Learning doesn't take being forced to sit in rows in a classroom, and in the end most learning doesn't take place that way at all.

This is a fascinating book, the first I've read that gives me a sensible explanation of why all the time, effort and money that we have poured into our schools has created such dreadful results. And it provides an upbeat and sensible way forward. Expose kids to more play, for that is how they learn to cope with real-world problems. And don't try and mold them into little clones of yourself, or fear every last potential hazard. The experiences you deprive them of by trying to keep them totally safe are the ones that truly matter in their development.

I urge every parent to read and understand this book. An engrossing read and a great way forward for kids and parents alike.

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