Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: A Spectacle of Corruption

A Spectacle of Corruption A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an exciting, fun read. An interesting look into what it might have been like in London in the 18th century. Employing the classic genre move of having the detective hero solve the crime in order to exonerate himself, we get a crash course in English politics and law of the time. Liss does a good job of capturing the language and the style of the times (or at least appearing to--I am not an expert in 18th century England and so I am sure he doesn't get it all correct. But it has the feel of something authentic).

The ending was a bit too quick and things got tidied up too conveneniently, but otherwise the plot was well done--it was not predicatable or obvious. The characters were intriguing and fun.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a little disappointed in the book. While I think the mindset framework is very helpful: for me personally, for my professional life as teacher, and for being a parent, the book itself was far too much anecdote and not enough on how to change one's mindset. This might not be fair: after all, it's a book not a therapy session or workshop. But the book is presented as somewhat of a guide to help one change, so it's not entirely unfair of me to criticize it because it doesn't do enough on this front.

The last chapter is really the only place that Dweck gives some practical advice. The remaining chapters are, more or less, here's some people in a domain that have fixed mindsets and see how that holds them back. Then, here are some people in the same domain that have growth mindsets and see how they soar. These anecdotes are often quite interesting, entertaining, and informative. They help you see the mindset in action; but they don't, as anecdotes establish the validity of mindsets, and they don't provide a lot in the way of advice for making a sustained changed to your own mindset.

That said, I think understanding how one can be in fixed mindset at times and how this can hold one back is very important. The awareness of this alone can help change the way you approach a dilemma, conflict, or problem.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Blood of the Fold

Blood of the Fold Blood of the Fold by Terry Goodkind
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the first two books in this series a lot. They were highly creative and original. The plot was driven by character choices and tied into their values. This one, however, fell short of the high mark. There were still interesting and imaginative aspects to the setting and the storytelling; and I liked most of the characters, but there was something missing here. There was too much of Richard and other characters reacting on instinct and not really knowing what they were doing. The antagonists were less interesting. The overall story here was more plodding and unclear than the earlier novels. The secondary characters were far more interesting --and in many ways more important to the plot -- than Richard and Kahlan. Gratch maybe Goodkind's best character.

I like the series, but I don't love it and I don't know if it is worth 6 or 700 pages.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley’s new book is a great synthesis of a lot of the ways that evolutionary processes are at the heart of everything. Using Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura as his guide, he runs through human history and development. He covers religion, the internet, money, government, and much more. He illuminates the fundamental connections and underlying principles at work across such disparate domains.

Ridley argues that there is a general theory of evolution—biological evolution being the special theory—that explains how all things evolve. This general theory of evolution is, in essence, the view that everything is, too some significant degree, the result of emergent, unplanned, undesigned, and inexorable processes. Things develop gradually through modification and selection. He presents example after example of how bottom-up processes play the essential role in human progress and development and top-down structures are so-often ineffectual or damaging.

He uses the metaphor of creationists and evolutionists to identity whether top-down or bottom-up animates one’s view of the world. A creationist is one who thinks that top-down structures and processes are the way things work and progress. Whether in biology, economics, or the internet, if one things there has to be a designer to bring order to the system, then one is a creationist. On the other side, an evolutionist recognizes that order and design are not identical. These systems are, for the most part, self-organizing and without a design or designer.

If I had one criticism, it was that he tended to underplay the role of individuals. I think he is overreacting to the “Great Man of History” view. While there is – at least in retrospective – an inexorable march of history, I think that certain figures made choices that where not inexorable and would have, counterfactually, changed history if the choice was different or they had not existed. Yes in the 1900s, there were lots of people circling around something like the Theory of Relativity—but I don’t think anyone in the first part of 20th century would have come up with Relativity other than Einstein. There was something about his personality, his skill set, his life that put him a position to identity when he did. And if Relativity isn’t discovered until the 1940s—the 20th century is much, much different. Similarly with someone like Steve Jobs. He had a unique vision of technology and the personality and drive to implement it. I am not sure anyone else had that vision and/or the skill set to make it happen.

I liked the book, but I am in the choir here and Ridley is largely preaching to those like me. I don’t think many “creationists” would find the book convincing – at least across the board. They might acknowledge emergent systems in biology but not economics and politics (or vice versa). Ridley isn’t so much engaging in sustained persuasive argument against creationists. He is, in my view, more setting out to synthesize and bring together into one space the various ways evolutionary processes are at work across human experience. This is not a ground-breaking, path-blazing book. It’s a step back and integrate what we know book.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: The Blessing Way

The Blessing Way The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've wanted to read the first Leaphorn mystery for a long time. My biggest surprise was how little it actually involved Leaphorn. The story really revolves around Bergen McKee: an anthropologist who specializes in Navajo culture. According to Wikipedia, Hillerman wrote the novel with McKee as the main character and Leaphorn's character was secondary. Obviously he and his editors realized that there was something there with Leaphorn and continued the series with him as the central character.

The story itself was interesting with the usual twists and turns of the genre. The unique aspect of a Hillerman story is the authentic feel of the Navajo culture and people as well as the colorful and beautiful descriptions of the countryside. I spent a lot of time looking up and checking the different locations on Google maps!

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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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