Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft

How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft by Charlie Huenemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both a father of die-hard Minecrafter and a player myself, there was much to enjoy about this little book. It was at its best when Huenemann used Steve’s perspective to explore some of the philosophic ideas and questions inherent in the game and in playing it. Steve, as a narrator in the book, engages in his own philosophic musings and meditations much like a Minecraftian Descartes. It was in these passages that book was the most intriguing and innovating; giving a new perspective on the game. The book was weaker (note: not bad, just less interesting for me) when Huenemann takes over the narration. Partly this is because of my own training as a philosopher. It’s less novel for me when he draws out, for the example, the Humean ideas in Steve’s musing. I think for a non-philosopher interested in learning more about philosophy these parts might be helpful and interesting. But for me, they were kind of old hat. I wanted more of Socratic Steve.

It’s a quick, fun read. It raises some interesting questions and does a nice job of covering many of the traditional and conventional questions and thinkers in philosophy. It could even be a nice supplement to an intro course.


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Sunday, July 09, 2017

Review: Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct Killer Instinct by Zoƫ Sharp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found a new series! Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox is smart and tough. She is a throwback to classic protagonists of the genre. She's got a sharp tongue, kicks butt, and solves the crime without much help from the police. She is self-contained and competent without being superheroish.

Sharp weaves a thrill ride of story--though a bit gruesome at times. It isn't all that unpredictable, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes. I enjoy her style and the way she uses the language. She took cliches and made them fresh. There is a lot of British slang that add to the tone and setting. I could almost hear the text in British accent.

Definitely recommend this for fans of the genre and the likes of Lee Child, Robert Parker, etc.,

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Review: The Black Widow

The Black Widow The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Silva is at his disturbing and prescient best here. Allon is preparing to take over the Office but first he has to send an agent to infiltrate ISIS and prevent a major attack. Allon and his team (with an interesting new member) are back in action from Syria and Iraq to Paris and Washington. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I won’t say more. Although I will say that I am thankful (and hopeful) that ISIS is not as capable as Silva presents them here.

Given the way this ended, the story line in Black Widow continues into the next one. I can’t wait for the next volume (out this summer).



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Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: John Adams

John Adams John Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m in the minority here, I know, but I was quite underwhelmed by McCullough’s biography of John Adams. Now maybe it was the audio version, but I had trouble getting through it. I’ve listened to Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton biographies and they all captured the spirit, intensity, and drama of the age far more than McCullough’s book. McCullough seemed much more intent on capturing the daily ebb and flow of Adams’ day-to-day life. There were tedious sections of back and forth correspondence, filled with the likes of the minutiae of his daily walks or the shopping necessary to outfit the house in France. Some of this is to good end: his relationship with Abigail, for example, comes out in their correspondence quite clearly.

When McCullough does get to the more historical elements, the book picks up pace and can be quite good. McCullough shows the reader the tremendously important impact that Adams had on the birth of this nation: his role in the early revolution, the drafting of the Declaration, the securing of financing for the revolution, and his presidency (which was not nearly as successful as the former items).

McCullough does a good job of balancing the pros and cons of Adams’ character. His pride and vanity is clear as day, but so too is his honesty and integrity. He could be overbearing and pedantic, but he is a man of deep principle and commitment to the liberty of the republic and it citizens.

One of the interesting things about reading the biographies of the Founders is getting the different points of view of the other Founders. In McCullough’s Adams, the main antagonist, so to speak, is Jefferson. Jefferson comes off, as he does in other places, as incredibly intelligent but hypocritical. His relationship with Adams is complex and helps to draw out the character of each man. Hamilton makes some brief appearances and predictably is dismissed as a dangerous power-hunger intriguer. Washington is distant: his presence is felt, but he doesn’t seem to be much of a direct player here.

Adams is an important figure who helped shape his age and ours, largely for the better. It is worth knowing more about him and I’m glad I slogged my way through until the end. McCullough’s style might be more suited to the eye than the eye, so this might have been a book I should have read, rather than listened to.


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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Dark Wind

The Dark Wind The Dark Wind by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everything that fans of Hillerman would want: Beautiful descriptions of the Arizona and New Mexico landscape; the intrigue of mystery; and the intricacies of Navajo and Hopi traditions. Hillerman's books show us how the world looks through, at least in this case, Jimmy Chee's eyes. I love Chee's curiosity about the world and his need to find the pattern and reason behind the happenings of the world.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: Like Dreamers: The Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, and the Divided Israel They Created

Like Dreamers: The Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, and the Divided Israel They Created Like Dreamers: The Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, and the Divided Israel They Created by Yossi Klein Halevi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Dreamers is not a definitive history of the Six Day War, of Israel, or the Arab-Israeli conflicts, but instead is a deeply personal exploration of the lives of individuals connected by this history. It is a wonderful book, worth reading by anyone interested in Israel and connected topics.

This is one of the several things I liked about how Halevi tells this story. While the major, famous names: Ben-Gurion, Rabin, Sharon, Begin, etc., are part of it, they are never the focus, never the movers of the story. The focus is always on the lives of the paratroopers. This gives it the feel of bottom-up history, rather than a history of ‘great men.’ And that provides a more authentic and personal connection to the events and lives of those affected by the events.

The narrative is at once exhilarating, aspirational, sad, poignant, funny, and thought-provoking. The first half tracks the lives of several of the individuals of the paratrooper brigade that helped to capture Jerusalem during the Six Day War. From their childhood to the 67 war, the narrative builds towards the capture and reunification of Jerusalem. This is presented as the apex of Israeli unity. The jubilation, the exhilaration, the joy of the moment: the overnight shift from facing annihilation to redeeming the 2,000-year-old dream of Jewish history.

The second half of the book, though, walks through how this vision of unity quickly fades—both between these individuals and within the nation. In this way, the author captures the diverse and divergent visions of the Israeli left and right, the Peace Now-ers and Greater Israel-ers, the kibbtuzniks and the settlers, the secular and the religious. And by focusing on particular individuals, Halevi shows how these divisions and categories break down and intertwine. Individuals—and their nations—are far more complex and complicated then a set of abstract ideological views. By showing us, through the lives of individuals, how their ideas and views developed, changed, and morphed in the face of a changing world, it gives a depth and humanity to the competing narratives of Israel (within Israel). It shows an abounding respect for these different ways to be Israeli, to be Zionist, to be Jewish.


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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

New Podcast: Examined Sport

My old Sports Ethics Show podcast has been on hiatus for far too long. Instead of just starting that back up again, I am relaunching it with a new name, Examined Sport, and a new concept.

The concept is ten to fifteen minute podcasts that focus on arguments or concepts from the philosophy of sport and analyze or explain them in simple and direct ways. I will look at classic, discipline-defining articles, exciting newly published works, and dig deep to rediscover important but not as well-known papers.

 Examined Sport mission:
  1. Extend the reach of the philosophy of sport literature.
  2. Be a resource for students to learn more about philosophy of sport.
  3. Highlight essential themes of the literature.
  4. Rediscover important and interesting papers.
  5. Spur new thought and research in the philosophy of sport.
The first episode is, logically, on Bernard Suits classic article: “What is a Game?”

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
You can also watch each episode on The Sports Ethicist YouTube channel. (Archives of the old show are also available on iTunes and YouTube.)

Review: Aftermath: Life Debt

Aftermath: Life Debt Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me a little bit longer to get into Life Debt than Aftermath, but by the half way point the book gets cooking. I know many people were critical of Aftermath and praised Life Debt more, but I liked Aftermath a lot. I also like Life Debt. There's more Han and Chewie, enough said. Admiral Sloane is a really interesting character and I'm curious to see what happens with her.

The first two books feel very much like a Star Wars story; Wendig does a great job of capturing the feel and the characters. It has to be daunting to write characters we know so well, like Han or Leia, but he does a believable job of portraying them. And the new characters he develops are quite good: Sinjir, Jas, and Mr. Bones are my favorites. Mr. Bones has some of the best lines: "A HUG IS LIKE VIOLENCE MADE OF LOVE" and "I ENJOY EVISCERATION."



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Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies

Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Atkins' Spenser that I was a little disappointed in. Atkins still does a good job of capturing Spenser, but the story here didn't quite come off. It meandered somewhat and engaged in a little too much nostalgia by trotting out too many characters from previous books. Individually, I like Atkins bringing this or that character back, but there were too many in this book.

That said, I like that Atkins is playing a bit with the characters and exploring them more. Spenser shows more vulnerability. Hawk is still mysterious but we get more of the contours of who he is.

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Friday, May 05, 2017

Review: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story starts a bit slow, but as the pieces start to come together, it hooks you. Gaiman uses Caribbean and African myths as a backdrop to tell a story that is ultimately about finding yourself in the world. It is about coming to grips with where you came from (your parents, your ancestry), but at the same time being you and not letting that stuff either keep you down or define who you are.

Gaiman has a knack for writing stories that blend the mundane and the fantastical. Anansi Boys is no different: the fantastical world of the myths and stories fit naturally into the life of a rather boring bookkeeper’s life. Still, as the stories are told, this mundane boring life changes, evolves into something new and compelling.

Some might not like the tidiness of the ending or the predictability of various plot-lines; but the story captures the imagination and you want to ride out what you know is coming: (1) to make sure that is indeed what will happen and (2) because you want to watch it happen.

FWIW: I haven't read American Gods (yet)

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Against Democracy

Against Democracy Against Democracy by Jason Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Against Democracy, as the name suggests, is a devastating critique of democracy both in terms of the efficacy of real-world democracies to provide competent government and the moral justifications for democracy (more precisely, universal suffrage as a moral right). It is at its best when it challenges and debunks our cherished assumptions about and views of democracy.

I find the book less convincing when it comes to Brennan’s proposed alternative: epistocracy. This is the rule of the knowers; or more precisely, the idea that in some way voting or governing is restricted by some kind of test of knowledge. For example, you only get to vote if you can pass an exam like the citizenship test or everyone gets a vote, but people who can pass such an exam get extra votes. Brennan briefly discusses several possible ways epistocracy might work (and there are many), but without any actual full-blown epistocracies to look at, it is hard to get a feel for just what such a system would really look like and how such a system would actually work. This is hardly Brennan’s fault; there just aren’t any real-world examples to present.

He does discuss some of the epistocratic elements already in place (e.g. Supreme Court) and this helps make things clearer. Nevertheless, I think he might have spent more time fleshing out a few of the more promising alternatives in greater detail. After all, the discussion of epistocracy proper is only one chapter (I would assume Brennan is saving this for his next book.)

Without the more fleshed out alternatives, it is harder to evaluate them and compare them to democracy (which is what Brennan wants us to do). It also makes it harder to determine whether some of the objections raised against epistocracy are answered adequately. For example, I am not sure the demographic objection is satisfactorily met. This is the concern that epistocracy would, given the current demographic realities, disenfranchise individuals that are part of already disadvantaged groups. Brennan’s response boils down to the claim that since epistocracy should yield better policies (especially for such groups, who have been ill served by democracy), these individuals will be better off under epistocracy. This might be true but it sure doesn't seem like it would convince someone deeply concerned about this issue. Of course, that doesn’t show that Brennan is wrong, but it tugs at how deep the perceived value of voting is and that at least from a rhetorical point of view more work needs to be done.

Another practical concern is that Brennan never addresses how we get there from here. What is the realistic path to adopting his vision? If democracies are as incompetent as he convincingly argues, then how do we get democracies to change and implement epistocracy (peacefully)?

Another concern I have, and this runs through a lot of Brennan’s work that I have read, is that he has way more confidence in empirical social science than I tend to think is warranted. I am not denying the value of this science or its importance in making these kinds of arguments. Nevertheless, I think more humility and caution is needed when using it. The empirical data seems to me to be more limited in terms of scope and generalizability than Brennan seems to treat it. That said, he is explicitly cautious at times, just not as much as I think he needs to be.

I am sympathetic to Brennan’s arguments against democracy and for epistocracy. But I worry that's because I am not part of the groups that are disenfranchised by Brennan's proposals: my position in society is not likely to be affected. Would someone in those groups find the view as appealing? Probably not. But, then, such people aren't reading books like these I (and maybe that’s part of the problem).

As a realistic alternative, I don’t think epistocracy will win the day anytime soon. But I think the book has important value in the present forcing us to rethink the way see democracy and by making the case that more epistocratic elements need to be added or strengthened in our republic.



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Sunday, April 09, 2017

Review: Sackett

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

This novel introduces Tell, the older brother of Orrin and Tyrel Sackett from the previous novel The Daybreakers. The story arc is similar to other Sackett stories: the wandering, the run-ins with unwise ruffians, and the beautiful woman the Sackett falls in love with. The story is great fun, if a bit formulaic. Like the other Sackett stories, L'Amour paints beautiful pictures of the Western landscape while weaving together (and sometimes creating) the idioms, tropes, and mythos of "The West."

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Friday, April 07, 2017

Review: Memorial Day

Memorial Day Memorial Day by Vince Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Flynn explores a frightening possibility; one that seems all too realistic. The hero Rapp is able, of course, to thwart the attack and save the world yet again--all in thrilling fashion.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Aftermath

Aftermath Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was great! It both introduces you to new aspects of the Star Wars universe but at the same time staying in the world fans of the movie will recognize. It mostly focuses on new characters, though a few of the main movie characters have cameos. I liked the structure with the interludes that focused on what was going on elsewhere in the galaxy: it gave you a feel for the whole universe here, more than just the main plot and characters. they also felt like they were setting up for future characters and events later on. It was also interesting to get the Imperials point of view as well--something you don't get in the movies. There is very little in terms of the Force and so it feels more like a straight up sci-fi novel. The characters introduced are interesting: refreshing but also fitting the forms typical of Star Wars. I can't wait to read book 2.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meacham's biography and history is not bad, but it could meander a bit. He weaves in many little stories and anecdotes about aspects of Jefferson's personal, daily life that I found less interesting. I get why Meacham does this: he wants to show Jefferson as a complete human being, but I found it distracting. The book is at its best when it focuses on the more historical aspects of Jefferson's life.

While Meacham's expressed goal was not to lionize Jefferson -- and this book is not a hagiography -- there are times that I think he glosses over the more problematic, partisan, or inconsistent Jefferson to focus on the grander Jefferson. He covers the former elements, but they are down played maybe a bit too much. This might just be a factor of having recently also listened to Chernow's bio of Hamilton where Jefferson doesn't come off grand at all. Speaking of Hamilton, it was surprising how little a role Hamilton has in Meacham's biography. Adams is Jefferson's antagonist here, not Hamilton.

Edward Hermann was a fantastic reader: I could listen to him read the phone book.

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