Thursday, December 31, 2020

Review: The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics

The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to MetaethicsThe Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics by Douglas J. Den Uyl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For those familiar with the work of Den Uyl and Rasmussen, there is not a lot here that is new in terms of their theory of individualistic perfectionism. What is new here and helpful is the work they do connecting and contrasting their arguments and theories with other thinkers and accounts. They contrast their views with competing Neo-Aristotelian accounts. They also take on various critical challenges to central parts of their approach, including the is/ought gap and naturalistic fallacy. There is a lot, and I mean a lot, to chew on here. Their earlier books, Norms of Liberty and Liberty and Nature, are much better entry points if you are new to their work. TPT is definitely a work intended for more experienced philosophers. For those more in the Neo-Aristotelian ethical traditions, there is much to learn about what makes Den Uyl and Rasmussen's Individualist Perfectionism unique. And for those in more mainstream ethical traditions, there is much to learn about the Neo-Aristotelian approaches that too often get overlooked.

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Review: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back (From a Certain Point of View, #2)From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back by Elizabeth Schaefer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These stories are great. Like the movie itself, there is often a tragic element, though always with an undercurrent of hope. It gives so much more texture and context to the Star Wars universe. I'm always intrigued by the focus on low-level imperials. Why do they support the empire or why are they imperials at all? Like the first volume tracking with A New Hope (also excellent), we also get the perspective of droids and sentient creatures. These often provide rather different perspectives of the conflict between the empire and rebels. All in all, this is a must for any Star Wars fan. The audio book is a must; the readers and sound effects help to bring the stories to life.

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Monday, November 23, 2020

Review: The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of AuthorityThe Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority by Martin Gurri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating and important book. Gurri’s thesis is worth examining and reexamining. While he probably overstates its explanatory power; it goes far in explaining and tying together many of the events in the last decade.

The essential idea is that the digital revolution has swept away the authority of traditional institutions leading to a public that is more and more negating and rejecting these institutions. In so doing he links together Egypt’s Tahrir square, the Arab Spring, the Indignados movement in Spain, Obama, the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, the Tent Protests in Israel, Brexit, and the rise of populism and figures like Trump. At first glance it seems bizarre to link such disparate things, but Gurri’s idea is that these can be explained by the crisis of authority caused by what he calls the Fifth Wave, or the information tsunami.

The thumbnail sketch is that the authoritative institutions of elites have long governed our world by controlling information. The government, media, academia, corporations, religious institutions enjoyed a near monopoly the creation and dissemination of information. This gave these institutions legitimacy and authority. But much like the printing press destabilized the creation and control of information in the 15th and 16th centuries, new digital and network technologies have empowered the public to upend the established order.

Gurri loves to point out that in the year 2001 the amount information created doubled all the information that had ever previously been created in history. And then 2002 doubled 2001. This is why he characterizes the digital revolution as an information tsunami. This wave came in fast and high – and washed away the foundations of the established institutions.

The digital revolution lowered the barriers of entry for anyone wanting to create or distribute information. Information was being created by everyone and could be shared by anyone. Experts didn’t need a Ph.D. and bloggers didn’t have to be Walter Cronkite. The ‘guild’ of information creation and control was broken open and anyone could enter: and almost everyone has. With this, however, all the conceits, errors, and mistakes of the established order get exposed. And elite and institution failure is everywhere. From scandals and corruption to the false promises of utopian ideologies; every mistake, every failure has it is proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

This all leads, argues Gurri, to the erosion of the authority and legitimacy of these institutions and the elites running them. The public is angry, dissatisfied, and disillusioned. It wants change. But the public, as a public, doesn’t have a positive alternative to propose. The public is a many, not a one. It is endlessly fractured and dispersed. While it can come together, it seems to be able to only to do so to repudiate. It is, as Gurri says, always against. We see this in Cancel Culture: the twitter-sphere just calls for people’s heads, for trivial and grotesquely awful behavior alike. It offers no chance of redemption, no hope for forgiveness and rebuilding. Just rejection.

And this is, I think, one of the most interesting parts of Gurri’s thesis. The public revolts, but only offers negation and nihilism. The system must be torn down, “defunded,” or the swamp drained, but no alternative is in the offing. We must reject new things: be it immigrants or technology. The world must be destroyed in order to save it.

Importantly, Gurri points out this rejection is not explained by economics: many of these movements and protests originate in the middle-class, the well off. This is not the revolt of the proletariat. Nor is it merely an issue of throwing off authoritarian regimes. Again many of these protest movements are in the freest democracies in the world. What explains and unites all these movements, if Gurri is right, is a worldwide rejection of elite and established institutions. In the eyes of public, these institutions have no more legitimacy and no more authority. But the public has nothing to offer to replace them.

Towards the end of the last chapter, Gurri gestures at some positive ways forward. Nevertheless, the picture he paints is a scary one. Far more so because I think he’s right in a lot of ways. That said, Gurri presents this as a thesis to be continually tested, not just accepted.

Covid and the responses to it, by the traditional authorities and the public, will likely prove to be an interesting test of his thesis. In the short term it appears to give the elites the veneer of authority and legitimacy. They have the answers. They issue mandates. They are doing something. Listen to the Science. So far the public has gone along—whether out of fear of the virus or out of a newfound respect for these authorities. But over the medium and long term, if Gurri is right, the failure (inevitable or not) to contain the pandemic will undermine the authority and legitimacy of these institutions even more. I think we can see that already in the attention and gleeful repudiation of the politicians caught breaking their own lockdown rules.

I’m not sure Gurri is right about everything; indeed, I’d bet he’s wrong about a lot. But I find his overall thesis and explanation of it intriguing. It seems to explain a lot of events and how they connect in some fundamental ways. It is worth a good long think.

(Russ Roberts has a great interview with Martin Gurri about the book: )

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Review: Queen's Shadow

Queen's Shadow (Star Wars)Queen's Shadow by E.K. Johnston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were many interesting elements in this book. We see Padme turn from Queen to Senator, and how she forms many of the relationships that play important roles in the Clone Wars series. There is also some interesting set up for the current Marvel run of Darth Vader. But otherwise the story kind of goes nowhere. It's really more of a slice of Padme's life during transition and then abruptly ends. There is a lot of detail on Padme's clothing, which is not uninteresting. What sometimes looked rather silly in the movies gets context and background. But there is much more of this than I was interested in. Seeing the behind the scenes so to speak of her handmaidens and the roles they played also was fun, but not enough for a great story.

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theory

Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist TheorySport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theory by William J. Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My review of William Morgan's new book, Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theory is published at the Nordic Sport Science Forum:.

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Review: Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan

Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of JapanBanzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan by Robert K. Fitts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The subtitle of the book way oversells it. There is not a lot of assassination or espionage or intrigue even. There is plenty of baseball though: most of the book details the travels of the 1934 all-star American League baseball team and the action and box scores of the games palyed against the Japanese (and a few other national teams) This is not uninteresting (though it did get tedious) but also not what I was expecting or hoping for.

To be honest, the book felt like a long-form magazine article that got stretched into a book, with the breakdown of the games inserted to provide the fat for the bones of the book.

That said, Fitts provides good context for the history of baseball in Japan, as well as the growth of the militaristic and nationalistic ideas that contributed to the tensions between Japan and the US (and eventually leading to the war). There are no doubt better sources for these histories, but the context of the US and Japan teams playing baseball helped to concretize both.

The last few chapters were the most interesting. Fitts reports the reactions of the players on both sides of the Pacific to the war. He discusses how the outbreak of the war affected some of the stars of each team personally: some went to war, others helped with their countries’ war efforts on the home front. There is a particular focus on Moe Berg—though ultimately that too falls short of the intrigue and espionage promised by the book. Fitts also discusses how, after the war ended, baseball and the connections made from the 1934 tour were used to helped rebuild the Japanese national morale and to some extent the social institutions. Baseball was used to help reconnect Japan to it is pre-war past and its post-war future.

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: How to Fight Anti-Semitism

How to Fight Anti-SemitismHow to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book. It say things that need to be said, that need to be understood, and that need to be shared widely.

It is not a detailed book; it is a not deep theoretical analysis of anti-Semitism. It is not a rigorous history of anti-Semitism: either through the ages or in contemporary America. It touches on all these in a way: pulling from works and thinkers who do engage in those more detailed analyses. The point here is more to get both the sense of the reality of anti-Semitism in the here and now, and through ages, in order to affirm that anti-Semitism is still a threat, worldwide and in America. All this to lay the groundwork for what Jews (and non-Jews) need to do to fight against anti-Semitism.

Weiss briefly recounts the history of anti-Semitism, then looks at anti-Semitism (and its growth) on the right, on the left, and in the Islamic world. She then closes with advice on how to fight anti-Semitism. If you lean more to the right, you will likely find her at times ungenerous to the right. But, similarly, if you lean left, you will likely find her ungenerous occasionally to the left. Both concerns may be accurate, though it strikes me that she strikes a good balance.

Two points that struck me and will stay with me:

1. Anti-Semitism at root is a conspiracy theory. It is not merely or even hatred of Jews. It is not just another form of racism. It is, at root, a conspiratorial idea about the Jewish people as a nefarious, dangerous, or powerful force behind whatever one takes as bad or powerful in the world. In this way, it is paradoxically compatible with being friendly to Jews or being pro-Israel—if the root of this friendliness, admiration, or support is based on this conspiracy theory about the Jews. Though eventually, this conspiracy theory calls for extermination: either by murder or by assimilation.

2. The best way to fight anti-Semitism is to build and to affirm. Build one’s life, one’s community. Affirm one’s Jewishness and values:
“we fight by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, for our communities, for the generations that will come after us” (168).

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Monday, September 07, 2020

Review: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderfully fun and imaginative novel. It explores important themes of individuality and conformity; love and respect; independence and courage. It is understandable why it is such a classic and beloved young adult novel.

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Friday, September 04, 2020

Review: Kindness Goes Unpunished: A Longmire Mystery

Kindness Goes Unpunished: A Longmire MysteryKindness Goes Unpunished: A Longmire Mystery by Craig Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The third Longmire takes things in some different directions. First, it takes place in Philadelphia. Then, the sort of crime it deals with is different. It's much more personal. There are some relationship developments I'm not entirely sure about--but we'll see how they get played with as the series grows. I love the dynamic between Henry and Walt: their love and respect for each other under-girds so much of these novels.

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Friday, August 28, 2020

Review: Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning RaceSelf-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ memoir is a deeply personal exploration of the evolution of his thinking about race and identity. The candor and honesty with which he engages these often divisive and controversial issues is refreshing. And, maybe more importantly, enlightening. I am not sure I quite fully agree with or even wholly understand some of what Williams is arguing. But he asks and attempts to answer for himself important questions about his own identity and what that suggests about the issues of race and identity more generally. Though the cases are somewhat different, these questions are quite relevant for my own questions about my Jewish identity.

The basic idea I take him to be arguing for is that we need to transcend race. He is, as I understand him, arguing that we need to find a way to celebrate or just acknowledge the connections we each individually have with our family, culture, and history (and the diversity these all contain). But, he argues, race is an artificial construct that adds little, if anything, to this. He’s not striving for a muting out of differences, but a recognition that the categories of race just don’t capture what is important about each person. But we have come all too often to treat these categories as totalizing; we reify them in ways that have caused so much harm and damage – for everyone.

Williams uses his own family to illustrate and motivate this mediation. He comes from a mixed family: his mother from European ancestry and his father with African ancestry by way of slavery. Williams married a French woman with whom he has had two children—both of whom by his account are blonde, blued-eye Parisians. This straddling of so many different concurrent identities is part of what makes Williams well-situated to ask these questions: it both gives him the space to ask them and the motivation to do so.

In the end, agree with his view about race and identity or not, Williams’ poignant engagement with these issues is definitely worth one’s time.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review: Apocalypse Never: How the Left's New Lies About Climate Change Hurt People and Nature

Apocalypse Never: How the Left's New Lies About Climate Change Hurt People and NatureApocalypse Never: How the Left's New Lies About Climate Change Hurt People and Nature by Michael Shellenberger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an eye-opening book. Shellenberger takes on several sacred cows of contemporary environmentalism with detailed and persuasive arguments.

Shellenberger is not rejecting environmentalism. He is not denying climate change or other serious environmental problems. Not by a long shot. By all accounts he is a deeply committed environmentalist who wants to save the planet and cares intensely for animal and human life and its continued existence and flourishing.

What his goal is, and I think he largely succeeds, is to argue for these four main points.

1. Apocalyptic or alarmist accounts of environmentalism are not based on the best available science. It is more like religion than science. The end of the world is not nigh. Things have, on the whole, actually gotten better, not worse.

2. The people involved in the environmental alarmist movement are either severely hypocritical or corrupt, and frequently both.

3. There are mitigating strategies for most of the pressing environmental problems, but all of these are fundamentally based on economic growth, poverty reduction, and the policies that encourage and allow these.

4. The only way forward is to produce and use more energy (not less) and the only way to do that without causing more pollution and other environmental problems is nuclear power. Fears of nuclear power are largely unfounded, based on misconceptions and ignorance about how it works (and often those ideas are spread by those funded by producers of natural gas: see #2)

I am for the most part persuaded by Shellenberger’s arguments. He brings forward the evidence and discusses the counterevidence and counterarguments. He strikes me as honestly trying to evaluate and interpret the available evidence. That doesn’t mean he’s always going to get it right, but he is sincerely presenting how he has come to think the way he has. He explains his own mistakes and errors and what he learned that led him to correct those.

One doesn’t have to agree with all his arguments to see that this book is important for two main reasons (beyond the particular claims of its content): (1) we must challenge and criticize any and all views, no matter how “settled”. This is how we discover new truth, correct falsehoods and errors, and, just as importantly, come to better understand the grounds for these settled truth. So even when we are firmly convinced of the truth, we need to challenge it to understand it. (2) We must not mistake consensus and narrative for truth, knowledge, or understanding. The consensus might be true, the narrative might capture and express knowledge, but we have to do the work to discover that: we can’t just take it for granted. And we can’t assume we understand what the consensus seems to hold without really looking at it, challenging it, digesting it. This books helps us do that about environmentalism, and so if taken seriously, should help us better understand how to continue to make the world a better place for all us.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Review: Caliban's War

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A terrific follow up to Leviathan WakesLeviathan's Wake. It has a different feel, I think mainly because the central characters and setting are already established. This allows the authors to focus on some of the new characters, as well develop the established ones more. The pacing here felt different as well; the first book took time setting things up and slowly pulling things together to its climax. This book jumps right in. I love the story telling; the different point of views for each chapter (like George RR Martin does in fire and ice) creates a more dynamic story and allows us to get to know each main character a little better. We see the character's own view, and then how other's see them. It also allows us to see the same situation from somewhat different vantage points, giving the reader of a more expansive sense of the world.

I'm definitely ready to dive right into to book 3.

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Saturday, August 08, 2020

Review: Doctor Aphra

Doctor Aphra (Star Wars)Doctor Aphra by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Doctor Aphra is a great character; one of my favorite in Star Wars (sort of a darker timeline female Han Solo). This is a dramatic adaption of her first appearances in the Star Wars comics. If you've read the Vader and mainline Star Wars series, you'll be familiar with all the events here. It's told here as a recording Aphra is making. So it's all from her point of view, with more of her inner thoughts about her motivations, plans, and how the events unfold. Even though I knew the story, there were some aspects that get better developed or explored in the audio. I don't think you need to have read the comics to follow along, though I could see how some of the context, characters, and settings might be confusing if you don't know the fuller picture that is presented in the comics. In any case, if you are a Star Wars fan you should be reading the comics anyway! Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this and I think you will too.

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Sunday, August 02, 2020

Review: How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in FreedomHow Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Innovation is necessary for living flourishing lives and innovation requires freedom to flourish. This is the overall theme of Ridley's latest book. Ridley goes through the history of many essential innovations in energy production, medicine, transportation, food, communication, and more. He distinguishes between innovation and invention: arguing that often the innovations are more important than the invention. The innovations are often what makes a barely workable prototype into a practical and effective tool for our lives. Another important aspect of innovation he explores through out the book is the idea that innovators are more often than not people outside of the status quo: they are not the respected scientists of the day, but tinkerers looking for a way to do something a little better, a littler quicker, and little more effectively. Often innovations predate the developed scientific understanding of the innovation itself and help lead the scientists and theoreticians towards that understanding. This is part of why innovation is so unpredictable: we are often not paying attention to the area from which the innovation will come.

One of central features of innovation, argues Ridley, is trial and error experimentation. The innovators need the freedom to think outside of the box, to try and to experiment. And to try again and again after they fail. This is why freedom is so important to innovation. Where freedom is curtailed, this experimentation is curtailed as well. If people are afraid to fail, then they won't innovate.

He discusses various kinds of impediments to this freedom to try: often from governments of course, but from other sources as well. In this vein he looks at intellectual property (copyrights and patents) as one such impediment. I am not convinced he makes the case here for their abolition, but I am persuaded that the ways in which we grant and deal with IP needs reform.

Overall, it's a fascinating look at the history of innovation and innovators.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education

Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher EducationCracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jason Brennan and Philip Magness present a clear and very readable critique of higher education. Having followed their work online for a while, there wasn’t a lot new to me. However, these are important criticisms with which many may not be familiar (or they are not familiar with the research that backs up the criticisms). The main lesson of the book is that the main problems of academia are not caused by bad people but by out of whack incentives for faculty, administrators, and students. The problems they focus on are: universities make lots of claims about supposed benefits that they don’t actually deliver on; student evaluations are an invalid and harmful way of evaluating teaching effectiveness; grades and GPAs are too inconsistent to be meaningful; general education requirements don’t work and are just ways for departments to get students (and money); and universities produce too many PhDs and do so primarily for their (and the professors) own standing and reputation; and lastly, students learn very little but cheat a lot. For each of these, there are incentives for otherwise well-meaning individuals to act in ways that make higher education worse.

None of this is good. As an academic, I have direct experience with pretty much each of these and their criticisms certainly fit with that experience. Unfortunately, the authors don’t have solutions: they end by saying that the only way to fix higher education is to change the incentives, but no one (including themselves) have the incentive to make the changes. (Maybe COVID will disrupt higher education enough to change some of those – so long as I don’t lose my job!)

I think Bryan Caplan’s critique of education { The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money} is a better overall book about the problems of education; but Brennan and Magness do look more closely at factors that Caplan doesn’t take on. So these go well together.

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