Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Professor Allitt is great. I've listened to several of his courses, he's a great lecturer: informative, humorous, and balanced. This history of the industrial revolution does a thorough job of explaining the historical precursors, the key individuals involved, and the progress and effects of the revolution up through contemporary times. The first half of the lectures are focused on the developments in Britain. The second half moves into the US, Europe and then the industrialization of other parts of the world. There are focuses on important inventions: the steam engine, automobile, flight, electricity. Allitt also looks at the impact of industrialization on the art, politics, economics, war, and the environment.

I highly recommend this course -- and any course by Professor Allitt.


View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Review: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are many hard truths in this book; things that cannot and should not be ignored. I don’t always agree with Shavit’s conclusions about how to deal with these truths or what they mean in the bigger picture but I think it is important that they be faced. These sometimes myth-busting, sometimes disturbing stories pose deep challenges to those who, like me, grew up on the standard Jewish-American discourse about Israel. That is not to say it is revisionist or offering a history that was previously unknown. But what Shavit is able to do is put a human face on all sides of the history of Israel. This makes it harder, for example, to downplay or dismiss a tragedy as just an unfortunate consequence of a war. It makes the tragedy personal and thus much more real to the reader. (That said, this very poignancy can also distort one’s thinking about the issues by pulling too much at the personal—this is a paradox of thinking about these kinds of issues. You can’t ignore the personal for the sake of a comprehensive, principled account, but bringing in the personal has a way of putting too much on weight on the personal stories at the expense of objectivity.)

Shavit’s journey through the history, demography, and geography of Israel is deeply personal. It is not a detailed work of history or policy analysis. Shavit selects certain points of history and certain individuals and tells us their story. In many ways it is, necessarily, incomplete and piecemeal. What ties the book together is the way that Shavit brings these threads together to form his vision of the past and potential future of Israel.

Shavit seems to be writing this book to answer questions about Israel: Why was Israel necessary? How did it get built? What impact did this have on the people in Israel (Arab and Jewish alike)? How has Israel survived and flourished? How has Israel (and Israelis) changed over decades of its existence? What explains these changes? What do these changes and the forces behind these changes mean for the future?

I don’t think one walks away from this book with definitive answers to any of these questions. One gets a sense of Shavit’s answers—but given the personal nature of the book these are not offered as _the_ answers and Shavit doesn’t present us with arguments to justify these answers. But the necessity of raising these questions and thinking about them is what makes this book important.



View all my reviews

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Review: Winner Takes All

Winner Takes All Winner Takes All by Robert Bidinotto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third in what is now a trilogy, Winner Takes All, deals with questions about justice and revenge through an exciting and compelling story. While I enjoyed the novel, I think I preferred the first two better. The story meanders a bit in the beginning as Bidinotto sets the pieces. The plot is more wide-ranging, with more players and elements, so he needs to do this. But it took me a bit to get into it. Personally, I found the subplot of the relationship between Annie and Dylan to be at times distracting. The relationship is important; it humanizes and grounds Dylan. But their interactions were often just a bit too on the nose for my taste.

Nevertheless, the second half of the book cooks as Dylan unwinds what is going on and figures out how to stop it. Dylan is a bad-ass; part Batman, part Jack Bauer, part Jason Bourne. Fans of this genre (Child, Silva, Thor, Flynn, Baldacci) will like it.

From the intellectual side, Bidinotto works his idea of the master narrative into the plot. It drives the motivations and decisions of both the good and bad guys in the novel. The protagonists struggle explicitly with the apparent conflicts of integrity, justice, morality, and the law in a corrupt world. It is important for how the characters individually resolve or deal with these conflicts to understand how they see themselves and how they see the world: their master narrative.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: Spencer & Locke

Spencer & Locke Spencer & Locke by David Pepose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This graphic novel blew my mind. I adore Calvin And Hobbes. Easily my favorite all time comic strip; it is not even close. Watterson's strip was beautiful, poignant, and brilliant.

But imagine the darker timeline. What if Calvin's world was not a loving, middle-class upbringing? What would Calvin have been like? And what if he became a cop and still had Hobbes around? That's what you get in this amazingly creative noir graphic novel.

You don't need to been as big a C&H fan as I am to appreciate what the authors have done in their retelling and re-conceptualization of C&H. It certainly helps to get some of the background, but it's an intriguing story on its own.


View all my reviews

Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This a great book. It's a refreshing fantasy story; exciting and well-written. The characters are interesting and the story new. While there are elements/motifs from other fantasy novels (be it Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter), Rothfuss isn't rehashing these. There is magic and there are dragons and demons. There is a boy turning into a man while at school where he is an outsider and causing all kinds of trouble. But Rothfuss creates a new tale out of these many of these classic elements. The world creation is subtle but deep. There is mystery and intrigue in the story Rothfuss tells us. And he shows us this world in a beautiful and detailed way (without ever being pretentious). Highly recommend it to anyone who loves the fantasy genre.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review: Mojave Crossing

Mojave Crossing Mojave Crossing by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sackett novels are such fun. L'Amour is wonderful at depicting the southwest: its beauty, its danger, its allure. They do get a little formulaic at times, but L'Amour is such a master it doesn't matter.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: State of the Union

State of the Union State of the Union by Brad Thor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thor writes a fun, entertaining thriller. But it's boiler-plate, formulaic. Harvath is no different than any other character in this genre. There is little character development, growth, or exploration. The plot is straight-forward--even if somewhat preposterous. It's basically the standard-issue, indistinguishable summer action flick but on the page.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Review: Democracy and Political Ignorance

Democracy and Political Ignorance Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In many ways, this is a frightening book. Somin goes into careful detail on the arguments and evidence for widespread and persistent political ignorance. Then he discusses the harm such ignorance has on policy and good governance. And then he shows that most solutions are likely to fail to significantly reduce the problem. Some of the solutions discussed wouldn’t likely work even if they were feasible or likely to be implemented. Many of the other solutions—including Somin’s own suggestion: limiting the scope and power of government—suffer from the paradox that to implement them means first overcoming the problem of political ignorance.

Thought there is some technical detail; Somin has an exceptionally clear style. He’s careful and thorough in his research, and makes great effort to be balanced and intellectually honest.

The case Somin makes for limiting the scope (what government can do) and power (decentralizing power) of government is persuasive – though I am predisposed towards his conclusions to start with. Nevertheless, Somin’s discussion of the contrasting efficacy between ballot voting and voting with one’s feet does a lot to make a relatively ideologically neutral argument for limiting the power and scope of government.

There is one persistent sticking point for me. So the long-standing evidence shows that most voters lack political knowledge. This is explained by the theory of rational ignorance: where since (1) gaining more political knowledge takes resources (time, effort) and (2) any individual vote has almost no chance of having an impact (no payoff), it is rational to remain ignorant: there is no payoff for the resources invested. A potential problem here is that one thing that voters are ignorant of is (2). Most voters think their vote matters and has an important impact (and this why they vote). So it seems that by their own standards, they should be investing the resources to gain more political knowledge. But they don’t. This makes it seem that their ignorance is not, by their own lights, rational. Maybe the literature on rational ignorance has an answer to this, but the ones I’ve come across don’t seem to explain it to my satisfaction. Somin’s response seems to be that this falls into a sort of sweet spot: voters overestimate their impact (so they go to vote) but not enough to give them an incentive to get more political knowledge. This may be the case, but I still don’t find it satisfying. It might explain the paradox of voting, but I’m not sure it explains the apparent irrationality of thinking your vote has an impact while remaining ignorant.

This is an important book that any one interested in social knowledge, political philosophy, or political science ought to read.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 09, 2017

Review: One False Move

One False Move One False Move by Harlan Coben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Bolitar series. Coben has created an interesting set of characters. They are not all original or novel for the genre, but the admixture is unique and works well.

This installment was very good. The set up and mystery were well crafted. And we get some character growth and development with Myron, Win, and Esperanza. The ending was even a bit of surprise.

The only thing that bothered me was how dated it felt. It was only published 1998 but it feels like an alien world. Every time one of the character said "cellular phone" I cringed a little. Myron even uses microfiche machine to search newspapers. Microfiche! Might as well be talking about gramophones and talkies. Obviously this is not Coben's fault but it's somewhat weird that a book not even 20 years old could feel so out of date technology-wise. This doesn't bother me as much with novels from the 70s or novels that are intentional set in another time. I think it stands out here because these books are contemporary.

View all my reviews

Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter's approach to language and linguistics is refreshing and enlightening. As a trade book, I am sure the ruffles and edges of more scholarly approaches are smoothed out, but McWhorter does a good job of making it simple without being simplistic.

In this work, McWhorter discusses how languages are constantly adapting and changing. He explains how the ceaseless shifts in sounds, usages, and meanings change the language and our understanding of it.

For the purists out there (and I have a lot of sympathy for this group) some of what McWhorter says might not fit comfortably. He makes, however, a persuasive case for his point of view and he is frank about the counterarguments.

Most of all, McWhorter is funny and engaging, a pleasure to read regardless (or irregardless) of your agreement with his view.

View all my reviews

Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still by John McWhorter
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

McWhorter's approach to language and linguistics is refreshing and enlightening. As a trade book, I am sure the ruffles and edges of more scholarly approaches are smoothed out, but McWhorter does a good job of making it simple without being simplistic.

In this work, McWhorter discusses how languages are constantly adapting and changing. He explains how the ceaseless shifts in sounds, usages, and meanings change the language and our understanding of it.

For the purists out there (and I have a lot of sympathy for this group) some of what McWhorter says might not fit comfortably. He makes, however, a persuasive case for his point of view and he is frank about the counterarguments.

Most of all, McWhorter is funny and engaging, a pleasure to read regardless (or irregardless) of your agreement with his view.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Empire's End

Empire's End Empire's End by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this conclusion to the Aftermath trilogy, we see the story lines of the main characters get wrapped up. [Spoiler Warning: some of what I write might be spoiler-ish]
.
.
.
Overall, I liked the book and the trilogy. It introduces some great characters into the Star Wars universe while also staying grounded in the Star Wars with which many are most familiar. The story is put together well and it authentically feels like Star Wars (with one exception) That said, I didn’t love the ending. I’m not sure why, maybe it just felt a little anti-climatic. Don’t get me wrong, there is a definitely an exciting climax and it is handled well. But I was expecting something more with Rax and Jakku. The set up for whatever is coming next is there and that’s good. So maybe I’m just being picky, but emotionally there was something of a minor let down.

The one exception to the authentic feel was Han Solo. Maybe because Han is my favorite character, the Han character here just didn’t seem right. It seemed more like someone else playing Han.

The foreshadowing for the new trilogy movies is there—especially for Kylo Ren. I’m sure there were some hints about Rey (Especially since it takes place a lot on Jakku) and Finn, but if there were, I missed them.

I don’t think we’ll see movies of this trilogy, but I do hope they pick up Sloan’s story in some way.

View all my reviews

Review: Vanishing Act

Vanishing Act Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A compelling thriller that takes you through northern New York, Canada, and LA; from big cities to deep into the mountain and lakes of northern New York. It is not unpredictable, but the how and the particulars are gripping. Whether driving, running, or flying, the story never sits still. The protagonist is refreshing. She is capable, smart, and tough. Her Native American heritage adds a layer of depth and complexity to both her character and the story. Definitely a series worth checking out.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For a child of the eighties, this book is chock full of nostalgia. As fun as that is, the novel is much more than that. It's not necessarily particularly original, but the way Cline puts the parts together is creative and entertaining. He creates a believable dystopic future that doesn't feel that far off. There are some good twists in the plot that keep it from becoming too predictable or simplistic. The main characters are relatable and interesting, but not all that complex and don't grow or develop much. This is one of its weaknesses. Another weakness is that it ends up being a bit too heavy on the theme of OASIS as too escapist. That's part of the characters' stories, and that's fine. But there is a lot of value that is being created in this VR world too. The characters recognize this, but it gets a little undermined by the escapism theme at times. I would have also liked a little more world building in OASIS--if only to experience it more.

It's not a novel that likely will be a classic sci-fi; but it is great fun to read.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 25, 2017

Review: Play Matters

Play Matters Play Matters by Miguel Sicart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The account of play in Play Matters is quite interesting, though too unsystematic and too rooted in postmodern ideas. The account also suffers somewhat from “Huizinga-Syndrome”— that is, finding “play under nearly every rock in the social landscape” (Suits, “Words on Play”). One of the central aspects of Sicart’s account is that play is appropriative: it takes over other parts of our lives and experiences. This tends to assimilate everything as play. Seeing play as carnivalesque, as Sicart presents it, also tends to bring too much under the concept: everything from vandalism to political activism gets swept into play.

I liked his conception of play as a way of experiencing and being in the world and that it is not mere frivolity or childish. Sicart discusses play as a way of expressing and experience ourselves in the world. It is a way of seeing the world and a way of relating to the things and people around us. In these ways, play can, importantly, be productive of certain kinds of values, experiences, and community.

Another really interesting part of the book is Sicart’s distinction between play and playfulness. Playfulness is the application of aspects of play to contexts that are not play. So one might be playful in a book review or wedding ceremony without subverting the actual ends of those activities and subsuming them into play itself. Play as such has a logic all its own and wouldn’t be appropriate for all contexts. But one could still be playful in those contexts. Some of my criticism of his Huizinga-Syndrome might be resolved if instead of seeing all the things he presents as play, these are just a certain kind of playfulness.

The first two chapters, where Sicart discusses his account of play and then playfulness, are the most philosophically worthwhile parts of the book. As Sicart extends his account into other areas, the postmodern roots show themselves more and the philosophical content dips. The discussion becomes overly broad, ambiguous, and sweeping as postmodern influenced writing characteristically gets. But, then, maybe Sicart is just being playful.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Review: Lando

Lando Lando by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like the other Sacketts, this book combines beautiful, lovingly described landscapes with the grittiness of life on the trail and in the rugged west. Orlando himself is something of a different kind of Sackett: he carries on the traditional Sackett virtues, but largely comes to adulthood on his own. His father is not around and he has no brothers. There is a lot of action from gun battles to fisttocuffs to races. And the book ranges from the mountains of Tennessee to Texas and also to the Gulf in Mexico. It's great fun.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Review: The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides

The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides by Arnold Kling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this short book (essay really), Kling presents a structure to help you understand the nature of political discussions. We are always talking past each other, misunderstanding and misconstruing each other. Kling shows us that this is because we are in many ways speaking different languages. Kling calls these axes: Conservatives tend to speak in a barbarian/civilization axis; Progressives in a oppressor/oppressed axis, and Libertarians in a coercion/liberty axis. These axis tend to frame the way members of these political tribes look at and describe the world.

So, for example, a libertarian tends to view political discussions and topics as existing on an axis from coercion (bad) to liberty (good). So when libertarians talk about politics, they frame it in those terms. Meanwhile, a progressive looks at thinks in terms of oppression (bad) and liberating/supporting the oppressed (good) and frame things in those terms. But since these categories are not picking out the same sets, we don't understand each other when one side says some policy is good. (e.g. "It's a good policy because it is meant to help poor workers." But "That can't be good its coercive".) And so the discussion goes nowhere; each side frustrated by the apparent obstinance or stupidity of the other side.

Kling discusses why we tend to fall into these tribes and axes as well as the pernicious affect these have on rational, truth seeking discussions. In part, due to this framing, we tend to see the other tribes as evil and irrational hellbent on destroying our deepest values. These other tribes are either stupid or conniving, manipulative conspirators. If they were smart or honest, they would, of course, recognize the truth and agree with one's own tribe. But, of course, the other tribes say the same about you and your tribe.

The ultimate take away, and Kling's hope, is that by being more aware of your own axis and language, as well as the other axes and languages, you can be less susceptible to your own biases and less likely to be dismissive of those with you disagree. You can better understand why they are wrong (and if they are wrong) when you don't just dismiss them as stupid or irrational. You will be better able and open to discover problems or weaknesses in your view as well. This might actually lead to more fruitful and reasonable political discussions.

It's a quick read, concisely and clearly written. It's nothing ground breaking, Kling is building on the work of many others (and he has a nice appendix that discusses the work he is building on.) But it is definitely worth reading for anyone frustrated by the seemingly lack of actual or reasonable discussion in politics.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: 1984

1984 1984 by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Okay, I didn’t openly weep like I did in Where the Red Fern Grows , but it made me very sad. Does one need spoiler alerts for a nearly 70-year-old book? Just in case…spoilers ahead.





Winston’s welcomed acceptance and outright love of his defeat is what is so sad. In the end, he utterly betrays himself and all his values – and is glad to do so. If he was just defeated, it would be merely tragic; the hero fallen. In mere defeat, there can at least be a kind of grace or honor of having fought the good fight. But his almost ecstatic joy at being finally and fully defeated makes it so much worse. There is no dignity, no hope, no self, no human being left. And, of course, that’s the point.

Orwell’s insight into the psychology of totalitarian control as well as the motivations of those in control and those subjugated goes deep. O’Brien and Winston’s conversations in the last third of the book are worth much reflection.

1984 is heralded as a prescient and cautionary book about the dangers of the surveillance state. And it is, and the surveillance state is a real concern. However, I think most miss the real and more important warning of 1984: the dangers of the renunciation of individualism and reason. As much as Orwell was a socialist, he decried the evils of collectivism in much of his work (never mind how he squares the circle of an individualistic socialism—doublethink?). He was a fierce and early critic of both the Soviets and the Nazis: recognizing that the danger they posed was the same: collectivism. Both devoured the individual and subjected the mind to the state. Reason was their greatest enemy; hence the constant resort to violence, often random. This was not merely to get rid of explicit enemies, but to stultify the reasoning mind. 1984 takes these “ideals” to their full logical consequence. It is terrifying and depressing: it is a book without hope. And that’s what makes it so sad.




View all my reviews