Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review: The Human Division

The Human Division The Human Division by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This installment of The Old Man’s War series offers a look at the Colonial Union and this universe from a different perspective. Previous books have mostly been from the point of view of the CU soldiers (or ex-soldiers). Here the main characters are diplomats. Wilson is a military guy, but his job isn’t fighting, it’s technology and he’s attached to a diplomatic mission. The conflict, then, that structures the plot is different. It’s not direct violent conflict with alien races but the conflict between the characters (of various species) and what they don’t know. That is, the plot revolves mostly around the characters dealing with situations where what they know (or thought they know) is rapidly changing and they need to improvise. It makes for intense and engaging story-telling.

The characters are well drawn and each chapter pops. In part this is because each chapter (or episode) was written as a stand-alone piece, albeit with Scalzi always intending it as a novel. So each chapter can stand on its own, but also fits into the bigger picture. The overall mystery of the novel is not solved here – I presume (hope) it is in the next book.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it doesn’t offer much in terms of breaking new ground either in terms of the universe or in terms of wider science-fiction. In regards to the former, we don’t learn that much more about the CU, Earth, the Conclave, or other species in this universe. In regards to the latter, just about the only thing interesting is the brain in the box (I won’t say more to avoid spoilers). But we have to wait until the next book, I think, to learn more about that.

If, like me, you like the universe of The Old Man’s War and Scalzi’s writing style, you will enjoy The Human Division as well.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review: In the Beginning

In the Beginning In the Beginning by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In The Beginning is quite different in style than Potok’s earlier novels. The story is told through -somewhat non-sequential flashbacks. We see a lot of David as a young boy, but then it moves quickly through his adolescent years. He is brilliant, bookish, and intellectually rebellious—though in a quiet and confident way. It shifts back and forth from great narrative and descriptive detail to more emotional impressions. It is a lot in David’s head – sometimes when he sick with fever or lost deep in daydreams.

The overall mood of the novel is melancholy. There are moments of joy and happiness, but a lot of sadness and loneliness. It is beautiful in many ways; painting an impressionistic picture of American Orthodox Jewish life in early middle part of the 20th century.

Potok’s novels take me into a world both familiar and utterly foreign. It is a deeply Jewish world, but it’s not my Jewish world. Potok stirs in me a desire to know more about this Orthodox world, a (ever so slight) regret that I didn’t grow up and live in this world filled with Torah and Talmud. At this same time, I am repulsed by this closed, ghettoized world; one so fearful and disdainful of different knowledge and ways. I think this tension is at the heart of Potok’s novels. Be it Danny Saunders (The Chosen), Asher Lev (My Name is Asher Lev), or David (In The Beginning), the main character always straddles and struggles with this gap between the Yiddish, Orthodox world and the secular world. He wants to keep and maintain this world he knows and loves, but there is too much in him—a desire for more than what the insular Orthodox world can offer—for him to stay. He does not want to reject the past, but he also knows that life requires moving forward…to a new beginning.

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: The Warrior's Path

The Warrior's Path The Warrior's Path by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel picks up with Sackett's sons, mainly Kin. It stretches far and wide, from New England to Jamaica and into the hills of Carolina. In doing so, we see a little of what the early settlement of the Americas was like.

The story follows fairly standard lines: it's a little bit knight-errant; a little bit western; and a little bit adventure. Kin and Yance are much like their father: honorable, swashbuckling, and smart. And they find the women to match. Like their father, loyalty and integrity inspire great friendships.

I would have liked a little more with Henry and the Catawba. Interesting characters that were not utilized or developed enough--at least here.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Portrait of a Spy

Portrait of a Spy Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel Silva is easily one of best spy-thriller novelists out there. Gabriel Allon is a character of great depth and integrity. I thoroughly enjoy these novels; they never fail to entertain and engage me. This one is no different; I was even moved to tears towards the end. That said, there is a certain formulaic aspect and it is getting harder to believe the set-ups that keep bringing Allon back into the espionage world. But that is standard for the genre and it’s quite minor.

One of the things Silva does very well is humanize his villains. By that, I don’t mean what is sometimes meant: that he makes them morally gray or mixed good and bad. They are evil; there is no question. By humanize, I mean he doesn’t just put them out there as caricatures or mysterious monsters. They are people with real motivations and traits but they have chosen the path they are on.

Silva also avoids caricatures of Muslims and Arabs; they are just as often heroes/good guys in the books (as is very much the case here) as they are the bad guys.

I hope and wish there are few Allons out there for real; I’d feel a lot safer. Hell, just one would be good.

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Review: Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Between the way Isaacson puts together the story of the life and Edward Hermann's reading of it, this was a wonderful listen. I do think it might have been better to read--the science was hard to follow on the audio at times. Reading those sections would have helped. That said Hermann is so fantastic at bringing the words alive, that I felt like I got to know Einstein. I even shed tears when he died. Isaacson does a great job with balancing the human being with the icon: I feel like I got a good picture of who Einstein was and how he approached life. I have always respected and admired him (who doesn't?) but I do so even more -- warts and all. Einstein's independence and individuality shine through; his love of and willingness to fight for individual freedom is sincere and deep (I wish he would he have seen that such freedom is just as important in the economic as the scientific sphere, but no one is perfect and given the time period I don't fault him to much there).

I was fascinated by his early interest in Judaism and then how that faded but then returned in a fashion later in life. His battles with antisemitism both in Europe and the US were intriguing. The FBI under Hoover was disgrace in the way they treated Einstein.

All in all, I recommend this highly, though I think reading it rather than listening might be better.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Review: A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Martin is a like your college girlfriend(or boyfriend as the case may be). He entices you, thrills you, keeps teasing you, makes you so mad and angry, frustrates you, disappoints you, and yet you can't stay away and want more.

Book 5 returns to my favorite characters. Book 4 was too focused on secondary characters and story lines. Here we get the main characters. It moves with a much quicker pace and moves the world forward. Yet, not fast enough. There is just too much dilly-dallying; too many different story lines. Let's get Dany on those dragons and off to Westeros to save the world already!!

This world is terrible. It is dark and ugly and mean. The few bits of promise, integrity, and honor get snuffed out in awful ways. Yet....there is this persistent sense of hope underlying it all and that's what keeps me coming back.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Review: To the Far Blue Mountains

To the Far Blue Mountains To the Far Blue Mountains by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio book of Sackett's Land and loved it. I decided to read this the old fashioned way (since I am listening to Einstein on audio already). Overall, I enjoyed it. Barnabas is a great character: he is smart, honorable, swashbuckling, and daring. He is quite philosophical in his pondering of why he is so compelled to push to the next frontier. However, the story sort of petered out at the end. I would have liked to see more of Barnabas and his life in America. Mostly we see the battle scenes, but I would have like more interaction with the Native Americans. We get glimpses, but there were a few too many "my how the time flies" sections to speed through the decades. I will continue to read more in the series. I look forward to seeing how the sons do in beyond the mountains. L'Amour is a master.

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Sunday, August 09, 2015

Review: His Excellency: George Washington

His Excellency: George Washington His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ellis gives us a thoroughly enjoyable, readable, and interesting biography of Washington. It dispels many of the myths and legends, and gives us a more accurate – and thereby more heroic – picture of the truly indispensable man. Of all the founding fathers, Washington is the one who I believe was indispensable. Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others are incredibly important and their contributions crucial to this nation’s founding and its prosperity. But Washington, from his victories on the battlefield to his political leadership, was a major part of things from the beginning to the end of the revolutionary era. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else leading the Continental Army to its improbable victory. It’s also hard to see who else could have led the country in its first eight years: keeping the country out of European wars and focused on its own domestic development into a nation. His deliberate decision to walk away from power not once, not twice, but thrice is beyond historical precedent. Washington was a man of powerful ambitions and a clear vision of what the United States need to become – but he was also a man of deep convictions and virtue and knew when to step aside.

Ellis does a masterful job of showing us Washington’s ineluctable role in the American Revolution and founding. Much of this is familiar to students’ of American History but brought together with Ellis’s straightforward prose and his insight into Washington’s motivations, development, and deliberation bring Washington into view in way that shows him to be more interesting and more important than we might remember from the textbooks.

I knew, as anyone schooled in America should know, that Washington freed his slaves upon his death. Ellis, though, shows how Washington’s views on this troubling aspect of our history evolved from acceptance to ambivalence to abomination. He unfortunately missed a few opportunities to do more to bring about the end of slavery. Washington’s pragmatism and realism prevented him from acting more directly on the matter (believing as he did that such moves would likely break apart the nascent nation), but his desire to see the end of slavery was real and not merely a deathbed after thought.

I did not know anything about Washington’s longstanding efforts to reach an equitable, peaceful, and fair arrangement with the native peoples of America. He clearly had deep respect for the tribes and worked hard to secure their rights to tribal lands. Sadly, his efforts failed—one wonders how different history would have played out had he been successful on this front.

I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in American History. I have already place Ellis’s author work: Founding Brothers on my to-read list.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

CFP (Reason Papers): Philosophy of Play

Reason Papers: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Normative Studies (of which I am a co-editor) is soliciting contributions for a Spring 2016 symposium on normative issues in play. The journal invites submissions that explore the nature of play; its developmental importance; and its role in human lives, values, and societies. We are also interested in explorations of the relationship between play and other human activities (such as other recreational activities, education, or work), structured vs. unstructured play, and children’s play vs. adult play.  Submissions are due by February 1, 2016.

The CFP at Reason Papers.

Information on Submitting.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an intriguing book. I wouldn't say I loved it but I am glad I read it. It is a slow book to get into; it builds as you read it. It is not boring, just takes some getting used to and gets better as you get more familiar with the world and the characters. As my friend Mike put it: it is a slow burn.

 Le Guin has created a unique and alien world. That's what is so intriguing about it, but also what makes it hard to get into. The world-building is subtle and slow; the concepts of this culture and the differences with our world are not baldly stated and taken for granted. They are meted out and hinted it; it takes a bit to get the feel for it. It feels, as it should, somewhat alien. Note: this is not a criticism of the work. Such a manner of storytelling can be quite rewarding. Nevertheless, I think this partially explains the slow-going of the story telling in the first half of the book. Also, the story-telling can be somewhat off putting as the narrative shifts around a bit between characters and between first and third person. It is not always clear, at first, who is talking or from whose point of view the story is being told. Except for the two main characters, there is not much characterization.

The secondary characters are quite sci-fi-y; that is, somewhat stereotypical characters with little eccentricities to serve to distinguish them from the other characters. They appear on the stage when needed and then disappear.

 It deals with some fascinating themes: the most famous is sex and gender and its socio-cultural role. She also plays with how we deal with culturally traditions and taboos. In a deeper way, the book is about the relation of people: friends, family, strangers, races, nations, worlds.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Reason Papers Announcement

As some of my readers are aware, I recently joined Reason Papers as co-editor. I’m very excited about this opportunity!

Here’s a little about the journal from Reason Papers’s website:
Reason Papers is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal appearing online twice a year. It features full-length Articles and Discussion Notes, along with Symposia, Book Reviews, and Review Essays. Our Fall 2011 issue inaugurates a new section of the journal, “Afterwords,” devoted to brief commentaries on contemporary issues, including original translations from non-English sources. 
As a “journal of interdisciplinary normative studies,” Reason Papers publishes work whose content is “normative in the philosophical sense.” As an interdisciplinary journal, Reason Papers’s mission is guided by an ideal of disciplinary integration that extends beyond philosophical reflection on normative concepts. We welcome work in any academic field, as long as it meets the relevant standards of rigor for the fields it discusses, and as long as its normative implications are clear or made explicit.
If you are interested in submitting to the journal, please read the Submissions information: 

We also have lots of opportunities for book reviews as well. See our list of books for which we are looking for reviewers:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

CFP: Studies in Philosophy of Sport

Call for Book Proposals for new series: Studies in Philosophy of Sport

The Studies in Philosophy of Sport series from Lexington Books encourages scholars from all disciplines to inquire into the nature, importance, and qualities of sport and related activities. The series aims to encourage new voices and methods for the philosophic study of sport while also inspiring established scholars to consider new questions and approaches in this field.

The series encourages scholars new to the philosophy of sport to bring their expertise to this growing field. These new voices bring innovative methods and different questions to the standard issues in the philosophy of sport. Well-trodden topics in the literature will be reexamined with fresh takes and new questions and issues will be explored to advance the field beyond traditional positions.

Proposal Information

The series publishes both monographs and edited volumes. The “philosophy of sport” should be construed broadly to include many different methodological approaches, historical traditions, and academic disciplines. I am especially interested in proposals from scholars new to the discipline of philosophy of sport (either because they are from a discipline other than philosophy or they are philosophers new to the study of sport). Click here for proposal guidelines.

If you have an idea for a book but are not ready to submit a complete proposal at this time, please still email me ( to discuss your idea.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Review: Thrown

Thrown by Kerry Howley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not sure this book is for everyone, but I found it engaging and thought-provoking. It is a funny and original book that looks at the world of mixed-martial arts fighting. I hesitate to say an insider’s view, since the author is not a fighter. She is what she calls a space-taker: not quite a groupie, not quite an assistant, not quite a beat writer, but some weird mix of all three. She ‘space-takes’ with two fighters making their way through the lower levels of MMA fighting. She follows them because she is obsessed with finding an ecstatic, pure, out-of-body experience induced by the brutality and violence of the fight.

It is beautiful in moments as she captures the sublime aspects of sport and spectatorship. It becomes a little clich├ęd at others times with its disparagement of mundane jobs and boring family life. It is also, at times, a little too impressed with itself and also a bit overwrought in places. But, then, that is part of the point I think: the juxtaposition of philosophical musings about Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and phenomenology with fights in run-down gyms in Iowan backwaters. For the most part this works and is a big part of the draw (especially for a philosopher of sport like myself). But there were times it was a little forced.

These are minor flaws. The book is definitely worth reading if you are interested in sport, spectacle, MMA, or phenomenology.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere
The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was not quite the book I thought it was going to be. It is focused on the history of higher education and not education policy or proposals. It tells the story of the particular circumstances that gave rise to the contemporary hybrid American university (one part research institute, one part liberal arts, one part practical education/training) and shows how those circumstances are changing (mostly due to technology). With these changing conditions, Carey argues, the hybrid model is starting to come a part. Technological advances are exposing the faults and cracks of higher ed and educational entrepreneurs are exploiting those opportunities. Eventually, a critical mass of new models will emerge and college as we know it will end.

What will the future look like? Carey's vision of of the University of Everywhere is aspirational and ideal. He's not offering a proposal or any detail. He sees a future where technology breaks up the hybrid universities. Technology will make what is a scarce resource, widely available and nearly free. What he calls your educational identity will be more under your control and direction (not housed on transcript somewhere in the ivory tower). Education won't be 4 years in one location: it will be lifelong and every where.

Using his experience taking an intro biology course online at MIT edX and interviews with different educational entrepreneurs, Carey presents the bits and pieces that are chipping away at the foundations of the ivory tower (the different ways people are offering online classes, using technology for education, and experimenting with alternative ways of credentialing). Each one of these pieces is exploiting a problem in the hybrid model and as they become more numerous and more successful, the hybrid model is breaking down.

I am glad Carey discusses the credential issue. That is the key to the breakdown of the hybrid model. Once employers and others can make use of credentialing systems that are as good as (even better than) a college diploma, the edifice of much of higher ed will come crashing down. As Carey notes, Harvard and MIT will be just fine. The state universities, community colleges, and small colleges (like Rockford U) that depend so much on (1) current tuition and (2) vast numbers of students whose primary aims are credentials for jobs not education will lose their market and their revenue. Though the disruption will be difficult and scary, and I don't know what will emerge, I think a higher ed system with more models and more competition will lead to a system that is more effective, more accessible, and more affordable. In this respect, I agree with Carey.

I am, though, much more skeptical about the technology; it is earlier than we think. It is hard to see how the intimate seminars of upper-level, advanced classes in most of the liberal arts and sciences can be taught online with the current level of technology. I think there is a lot that can be done and will eventually be done, but the dynamic, face-to-face chewing of ideas in a shared inquiry of a seminar is not (yet) replicable in discussion forums, chat rooms, or google hang outs. An Intro to Bio may work great -- as it seemed to for Carey at MIT edX, but what about a senior level seminar on the economics of Shakespeare's plays?

Though it wasn't what I expected, I learned a lot about the history of education and educational technology. Carey weaves in anecdotes into his history and interviews that make the book interesting and compelling.

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Review: Moscow Rules

Moscow Rules
Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great Allon novel. The twist here is that instead of fighting Islamic terrorists, he goes up against Russian agents and arms dealers.

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