Friday, September 23, 2022

Review: Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century

Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First CenturyChaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by Josh Rogin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important and intriguing book. There are several ways in which this book changed my mind on some key issues related to China.

For a long time, I was in the camp of doing what we could to entice and encourage economic and political liberalization in China: using trade and deepening relationships to move China from its repressive and closed system to a freer and more open society. A free China being a part of the world system would be great for everyone. And this looked to be working, if slowly, up through the early 2000s. I was still in that camp well after however. Rogin’s book shows, however, that whatever might have been happening from the 70s through the 90s, the Twenty-First century was shaping up to be something very different. The engagement strategy was no longer working (if it ever really was) and was in many ways backfiring as the CCP (The Chinese Communist Party) abused this engagement to cement its power, enrich itself, further oppress its people, and extend its influence beyond its borders.

Rogin highlights how both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to see or meet these threats. And in many cases made them worse. Rogin shows how the Obama administration continued to push the engagement strategies and ignored China’s bad faith and bad actions (both in China and here at home). He goes into greater detail on the mixed messages of the Trump administration. Often talking tough on China, Trump was successfully wooed by Xi and seemingly caved to many of Xi’s ‘personal favors’ asked of Trump. Inside the administration, there was plenty of chaos as well: with his advisors split between various camps. There were those who wanted to continue engagement. Then there were the “China Hawks” who saw China as both an economic and political enemy. And another camp that just wanted to continue business as usual to keep the money flowing. Each of these had Trump’s ear at various times; leading to shifting policies depending on Trump’s gut or mood. On the plus side, the chaotic and disruptive nature of Trump did keep the CCP and Xi on their toes, never quite knowing what to expect. Rogin discussed how the tariffs and other Trump policies did put pressure on China, though not to the extent that any progress seems to have been made. In any case, I’m still not convinced tariffs were a good idea. But what I am more convinced of now is that policies of engagement are no longer effective and we need to move to different footing to protect ourselves and the rest of free world from the CCP’s aggressiveness and manipulations.

Rogin is even-handed as can be seen by the fact that those will certain ideological convictions will think he’s biased. MAGA-types will hate this book because it shows the incompetent and chaotic way Trump governed. Those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome will think Rogin goes to easy on him – in particularly when Rogin highlights the few successes of the Trump administration vis-à-vis China.

Rogin’s book convinced me that the CCP-led China is far more a threat than I really appreciated. Not that I thought they were benign, but the depth and extent of the threat that Rogin details has forced me to rethink the ways I think we should be approaching China. This is not Cold War Part 2, it is something different. Still, in the way the USSR and its role in the world colored almost all foreign policy during the Cold War, our relationship to China will be the dominant lens by which we will have to consider foreign policy going forward. And this book is an important piece in making sense of some of that.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Review: Star Wars: The Rising Storm

Star Wars: The Rising StormStar Wars: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm mixed on the Light of the Jedi series. There are some things I really like. But I find myself having trouble getting into the books; though usually as the books progress, I get more into it. The Rising Storm meandered through the first 2/3 or so of the book. There were too many characters, too many changing POVs, it was hard to track and get invested. The first half of the book dragged. It was hard to care about the characters when there were dozens of pages where the characters were off 'stage'. As the story got more focus and the action became more compressed, I enjoyed the book a lot more. The last hundred pages flew by. There are some great twists and the ending was good. I am more interested in the characters of Bell, Ty, and Elzar. The third book in the trilogy is well set up and the ultimate climax should be good.

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Friday, September 02, 2022

Review: The Narrows

The Narrows (Harry Bosch, #10; Harry Bosch Universe, #13)The Narrows by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As always, Connelly does an amazing job. Here Connelly mixes things up, using 1st and 3rd person narration. Sometimes that can be confusing, but Connelly does a masterful job of it and employs to great purpose. Especially as the novel draws to a close, it helps to heighten the tension and drama by switching between Bosch's first person point of view and the third person narration. It's almost like a film making switching from a close up to a wide shot.

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Review: Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireBooks That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Leo Damrosch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting course. It wasn't quite what I expected or hoped for, but I still enjoyed it and learned from it. I think I was hoping more for something like a cliff notes of Gibbons' work. And Damrosh certainly talks about the book, its ideas, and arguments. But there is also a lot of material about Gibbons life, his time period, and so on. Not uninteresting or even irrelevant, but at the same time wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Damrosh does a great job of communicating the immensity and importance of Gibbons' masterpiece. I didn't realize how much it covered the Eastern Empire and the Islamic world. The amount of information that Gibbons had to go through and analyze to produce this work is an incredible achievement in itself.

One criticism I might have is that I don't feel like I really have a great grasp on Gibbons' explanation for the decline and fall. It seems to be, broadly, that the Western empire lost its ability to repel the repeated Germanic and eastern tribes pushing into their territory and that this was because of its poor constitution that allowed and even encouraged too many weak and corrupt emperors. The immense bureaucracy held for a while, but eventually the internal pressures from centuries of bad governance ate away at the empire's capacity. The Eastern was better defended by natural boundaries and by the boundary of the Persian empire; and so didn't face the same external pressures and therefore was able to hold out much longer despite having similar internal pressures. Still, I would have liked a lecture, towards the end, that really covered and summarized Gibbons account of the causes in a more in-depth way. Partly, Damrosch might not do this because Gibbons own view (at least according to Damrosh) by the end was that the decline and fall didn't explaining -- what was remarkable was that the empire lasted as long as it did (not that it fell).

This course is no substitute for the book. I am not sure I'll ever have the time or focus to read Gibbons whole work myself, so this course at least gives you a framework for the works influence and as well as a guide for jumping into the narrative at certain points that might be of interest.

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Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Socratic Method: A Practitioner's Handbook

The Socratic Method: A Practitioner's HandbookThe Socratic Method: A Practitioner's Handbook by Ward Farnsworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve tried over the years to adapt Socratic dialogue and methods to my classroom. It’s not always easy or feasible due to large class sizes or being online. Ward Farnsworth book reinvigorates my motivation to do so and also gives me some helpful ideas on how I might continue to adapt Socratic methods. It’s not a teaching guide, though, but his discussion of the methods, the examples he uses, and the identification of the core processes and principles of the method will help me in using more of these methods in the classroom.

The book actually got a lot more into Socrates qua philosopher than I expected. The publisher is clearly trying to sell the book as an antidote to the stupidity, fruitlessness, and antagonistic ways in which contemporary conversations so often go – especially online. Farnsworth does discuss that, but really only in the last few chapters. Most of the book is a dive into Socrates and his use of the methods as depicted in Plato’s dialogues. He explores how the method encapsulates not just a way of reasoning, but a way of living. Farnsworth also explore Socrates’ influence on later philosophers, including the Stoics and the Skeptics.

I enjoyed the book. It’s clearly written with no presumption of a philosophic background. It lacks pretension and jargon. I learned a lot from it. The book is not (just) meant for philosophers or teachers; it’s really meant for anyone who wants to know how to think more clearly and engage in more rational and productive conversations with others.

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Monday, August 22, 2022

Review: Romeo's Hammer

Romeo's Hammer (Mike Romeo, #3)Romeo's Hammer by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy this series a lot. The main character, Mike Romeo, makes frequent reference to philosophy. He is a genius who is deeply read in philosophy and literature. He's also physical formidable and he often finds himself trouble when trying to help someone else out. I also like Ira and some of the other secondary characters. They are fun, quick reads that pack some punch. I find the story plotting to be somewhat convoluted at times. Some things get resolved all too quickly, while other things sort of hang.

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Friday, August 19, 2022

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes (The Expanse, #6)Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series continues to surprise and develop. A mix of exciting action along with introspection about life, its meaning and value, and our role the universe and amongst each other. The characters struggle with forgiveness, anger, justice, revenge, love, and existential dread without these themes ever swallowing the story or overwhelming the reader. The characters continue to grow and develop; their relationships with each other also continue to evolve.

The voices of the characters stay in my head for days after I finish these novels (though not quite as vividly as Miller in Holden's head!). I miss them terribly until I can pick up the next novel.

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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Gabriel Allon #22)Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's good to have Gabriel back! Silva uses a creative hook to get the retired Allon back into the game. He's not hunting terrorists this time around, but with the help of a few of his old friends he executes a private op that brings some justice to a few criminals. This isn't going to be my favorite Allon book, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I love the way Silva tells his stories, and there are always fun and surprising twists along the way. I'm curious how Silva will continue to pull Allon out of retirement in the future.

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Review: The Gray Man

The Gray Man (Gray Man, #1)The Gray Man by Mark Greaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Action packed thriller. Greaney does a good job of keeping you engrossed at every stage. He has does a good job of keeping the wildly unrealistic skill set of Court Gentry seem realistic. There is little surprising here, but it is a well-executed example action thriller.

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Review: Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of CivilizationAncient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Amanda H. Podany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent course. Podany is a wonderful teacher; she has great enthusiasm for the subject that matter and that comes through in every lecture. She really makes the era come alive and I learned a lot. The information is fascinating. Podany does a great job of balancing the overall picture with the nit and gritty details. She makes it relatable and digestible. There is so much focus on the Greeks and the Egyptians, and sometimes the Persians, but the Mesopotamians were their precursors in almost every way. This course helps to fill that void.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Review: Known to Evil

Known to EvilKnown to Evil by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first book in the McGill mystery series introduced us to Mosley's newest hard-boiled detective. The second book builds off the first: McGill is still finding himself as he tries to set himself straight. His connections to the criminal element threaten to overwhelm him. His inner demons, too, stand ready to take over. But McGill has an that inner core, that hard-won integrity that all hard-boiled detectives from Sam Spade to Spenser have. It's buried a little deeper with McGill, but it is there and growing. Few detectives in this genre have a family; most are singular creatures. Spenser broke the mold with Susan; and Mosley gives McGill a family. A family that reflects McGill's own personality and character in many ways.

Like the first book in the series, the plot is a bit convoluted at times and has made strings to weave together. Though it can be hard to keep track, it helps to give you a sense of the mildly chaotic nature of McGill's life.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book II: Greater Good)Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This continues, almost without a break, the story from book 1. Presumably Book 3 will pick right up where book 2 leaves off. In other words, these is less a trilogy and more one book broken into three parts. Thrawn is great, though there is less of him here than in the previous novel. There is more focus and development of some of the other characters. As with the first, there is a lot focused on the political intrigue between families (which I am not all that invested in). Also like the first, there is little that makes this Star Wars as such. There are some interesting things Zahn seems to be doing with the Force and the way other species connect to it (without it being the Force as it is in Republic/Empire space). I hope the third book continues to develop that theme. The book is at its best when it is Thrawn faced with a problem that he is able to read and solve in his unique ways. Even with these flaws, I do enjoy it. Zahn's stories tend to start slow but build to a satisfying climax.

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Friday, June 10, 2022

Review: Lost Light

Lost Light (Harry Bosch, #9; Harry Bosch Universe, #11)Lost Light by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first Bosch novel after Bosch's retirement from the LAPD. It is interesting to see Bosch struggle with his new life and the changes in his relationships and investigation tactics it has created, though it is not overly done. The case takes most of the focus, as it should. The case is a good one, intricate and complicated. There is a great shout out to Robert Crais and his Elvis Cole character; I love that these guys live in the same universe.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Review: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday LifeThe Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was underwhelmed by this book. Many have praised it, but I found it somewhat banal. There were certainly some interesting aspects. The general idea, that we have often have motives for our actions other than what we explicitly state or tell ourselves, seems obviously true. Yet, the authors took this as something remarkable, needing detailed analysis. It's worth exploring for sure and seeing how it might explain certain puzzles of human psychology and institutions could prove useful. But the authors find hidden motives everywhere and for everything and gave these motives the primary role. (It seems just as possible that in some cases the hidden motive isn't the prime mover or explainer.) They leaned heavily into evolutionary biology having to explain all human behavior; and while that is part of the story, it seems under-determinative. In short, they overgeneralized their thesis and overextended their analysis/application.

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Monday, May 30, 2022

Review: The Face-Changers

The Face-Changers (Jane Whitefield, #4)The Face-Changers by Thomas Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are elements I really like about this series. Jane is a great character. Brutally honest; courageous; and intelligent. While she’s obviously meant to be attractive as well; she rarely gets by on her “feminine wiles”. It’s always by outsmarting her opposition ( and a little luck).

The plot of this novel is quite intricate: there are several moving parts but they are handled well and there are a few switchbacks to keep you on your toes. I do wish there was more at the end that unwound some of the elements. The denouement was a bit too quick. I have questions!!

I liked the FBI a character introduced here. He’s a good antagonist for Jane. Good vs good always creates a great tension. I hope this is not the last of him.

I still don’t like Jane’s husband and their relationship; it remains for me the weakest element of this series.

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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. The characters and world are very interesting, and have a lot of potential. The plot was a bit all over the place. A lot happens and things moved very quick at times, and it was too much for the size of the book. The book could have been one of those 6, 700 pagers to do justice to the story Chambers is telling. So it feels very rushed and story lines are not adequately developed. Still, the main characters are endearing and compelling. I would read the next novel to see if Chambers' plotting gets better.

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Review: Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by Alina Chan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really interesting book. Ridley and Chan dive into as much available evidence as they can to try to get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19. In the end, they don't get an answer. But they present and evaluate the case for the two main theories: natural spillover from animals and a lab-related accident or escape. I am not sure it really matters which turns out to be true, though I think it is important to do the research and find out. There are three main walk away conclusions for me.

(1) The Chinese government actively worked to conceal and cover up almost everything related to COVID-19 and from the get go. This does make them look guilty, but it also is just the way the CCP seems to operate with everything. In any case, it is just more evidence to be wary of the CCP and authoritarian regimes.

(2) No matter if it was natural spillover or a lab leak, we need to do much more in terms of biosecurity. Maybe COVID-19 came from the wild, but the probability of a virus getting out of research labs is dangerously too high. The research is important, but the levels of biosecurity need to be improved.

(3) The politicization of COVID that lead to the quick dismissal of the possibility of lab-leak hypothesis was dangerous--and continues to be. Politics and science is a dangerous mix that undermines free society and good science.

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