Sunday, May 01, 2016

Review: Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests

Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests by Jason F. Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Markets Without Limits is a clear philosophical defense of the claim that there are no inherent limits to markets. What the authors Brennan and Jaworski (B&J) mean by this is that “if you may do it for free, then you may do it for money” (10). So, if you may possess water for free, you may also sell it. If you may have sex without paying for it, you may also buy it. Additionally, since you may not possess child pornography, you may not sell or buy it either. Since you may not murder for free, you may not murder for a price. These are not limits on the markets per se. They are limits on human behavior irrespective of markets.

The book is clear in two important ways. First, stylistically, it is written in a straightforward way. The chapters are relatively short: making them more focused and to the point. There is little in the way of jargon – and they make an effort to define carefully unavoidable technical verbiage.

Second, they make great effort to make sure that the arguments they are criticizing or advancing are presented as clearly and as logically as possible. I found myself frequently raising a concern or possible objection in the margins only to have that concern or objection discussed in the next paragraph or section. It got a little eerie at times—as if they were reading my mind!

They do a great job of presenting the anti-commodification arguments clearly and fairly. In fact, I think they do a better job of making the anti-commodification case than most of the anti-commodification theorists themselves. Their broad topology of the different criticisms helps to clarify and focus the arguments for these points and their criticisms.

B&J explicitly take a non-foundationalist approach; that is, they do not tie or base their arguments on prior moral or political commitments. They want their argument to work with whatever commitments with which the reader might start. There is rhetorical value in this method: you don’t get bogged down in questions of ethical theory, etc. You get to start by accepting (at least hypothetically) the commitments of your theoretical opponent and claim that you still get to your conclusions. The downside is that you can sometimes seem to accept too much; or that your theory becomes too detached from its foundations. Indeed, it can distract you from actually making the case from its foundations. B&J get close to these dangers at times, but seem to skate by without cross over.

They make an important – and in retrospect obvious – distinction between anti-commodification and business ethics. Anti-commodification, they argue, is the view that there are goods, services, etc., that people may rightly possess or use in some manner outside of a market, but for which it would be wrong to sell or buy. That is, there are things that you may do for free, but you may not do for money. This view is, broadly, that the market takes something that was permissible but then in virtue of being put in a market turns it into something impermissible. This is the view B&J are challenging.

They differentiate this view from business ethics. Business ethics is about the right and wrong ways to engage in markets. They accept that there are right and wrong ways to sell things; that there very well could be and often are legitimate time, place, and manner restrictions on individual markets. These are not inherent limits to markets per se; they are only limitations on a specific manner that something is being sold. The essence of B&J’s argument is that anti-commodification theorists have to show that there is no time, place, or manner to sell or buy the good or service, not just that there is a time, place or manner in which it would be wrong to sell or buy the good or service.

Often in discussions of the legitimacy of markets, this difference between commodification and business ethics gets confused and anti-commodification theorists make a business ethics point (X shouldn’t be sold in this way) but take themselves for having made an anti-commodification point (X shouldn’t be sold, period.). B&J show that these are different points: they require different arguments and different evidence. In some ways, if they are right about this difference (and I think they are), then anti-commodification arguments start to look pretty superficial. The real (and interesting) ethical issues are in the business ethics domain.

I do wonder, though, how effective this book and its arguments will be against the anti-commodificationists. I can easily see them saying, ok fine. So there are no inherent limits to markets, but there are lots and lots of incidental limits. So many, they might argue, that the practical difference between inherent and incidental gets lost. I think B&J would respond by saying; so what? The argument here is just that there are no inherent limits. If that point is won, then we can move on to the different incidental limits (and into Business Ethics). But they will have shown (and the anti-commodification theorists will have to have acknowledged) that markets in themselves are not corrupting, evil, toxic, or what not. And if B&J’s book does that, then it is will indeed be a monumentally important book.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 29, 2016

Review: The English Girl

The English Girl The English Girl by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with the previous Allon books, I throughly enjoyed this installment. Silva is pushing the character forward, slowly, here; promising big changes for him in the future. I like the familiar faces of his team and other partners (Like Seymour--though no Carter here). I rather like the bringing in of Keller as Allon's Hawk or Pike. I am curious how Silva will use this character in the future.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review: Foundation's Edge

Foundation's Edge Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy Asimov's writing and I'm intrigued by the world he created in the Foundation series (and his other novels) Nevertheless, there are a few things that bother me. First, for all his plotting ability, characterization is not Asimov's strong suit. Too many characters are indistinguishable. Second, the retconning that he starts to do here to fit it in with the early robot and galactic empire novels can be stretched too thin at times (less here than in later novels, but still). I don't have a specific instance in mind, it's more just the sense of trying to hard. Lastly, and most annoying to me, is the extensive use of mental powers (mentalics). It is just too far a bridge for me in terms of credulity. And since he uses it some much to drive the plot, it takes away from the enjoyment for me.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review: Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is paean for play. Brown says of himself that he is unabashed play advocate and he points to the various ways that play is important for development, physical and mental health, and even the existence of all civilization. I think of myself of as a kind of play advocate as well; I think most people—adult and children alike—need more (or better) play in their lives. Yet I think Brown’s enthusiasm about the importance of play probably outstrips the evidence. In some ways, he is overly broad about what gets included as play (and conversely what excluded).

The book is definitely pitched at a more general audience (for example, there is no bibliography to help one follow up on the various research studies he talks about). I would have liked and was expecting some more analysis of the science behind the claims he makes – but as a general trade book this just doesn’t get below the surface.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of value here. Brown has some wonderful anecdotes about the impact of play. He does provide a window into the role play has in development of children and our species. He discusses the ways that the lack of play affects us as adults and suggests some ways to rediscover our play. In this way, the book is a kind of self-help book. It is a good starting point for people thinking about the value and importance of play.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Review: Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is highly praised; many others whom I respect like this book. It sounded right up my alley as well. But maybe my expectations were just too high and so I was inevitably let down. The book was very engaging; the information it provides is very interesting and important. Overall, I think many of Gray’s points about play and learning and development are correct. But I was expecting something different and more from this book.

I didn't expect it to be so much on the Sudbury Valley School. This material was interesting, but hard for me to see its wider application and relevance. First, it’s not clear the students at SVS are engaged in play as such and second, I am not sure the context and culture of that school – as excellent as it sounds – generalizes as wide as Gray obviously thinks it does.

Gray does very little consideration of alternative explanations or arguments against the view he is putting forward. For example: he discusses a lot about Sudbury Valley School’s success but dismisses all too quickly that it really has anything to do with the students; that is, he ignores the selection effect of the population choosing SVS.

While I am sympathetic to his view; and his criticism of schooling, I got occasionally annoyed at his blanket rejection of all schooling. Someone one more skeptical of Gray’s view would see him as painting the entire complex education system with one brush.

Gray’s tracing back to the hunter-gather societies was in itself interesting, but it was hard to connect the relevance of this. First, it struck me as somewhat of an overly romantic vision of what life in those societies was lie. Second, whatever might have worked or applied in that context; the context today is too different for a direct analogy. Human culture evolution has changed so much that whatever we might have been adapted for has already changed. At the very least, that’s a counter that Gray never really addresses.

There was just not much argument for what I took to be the central thesis: that play is centrally important to development and learning. There are references to the relevant literature, but the conclusions were presented as fait accompli, not as a conclusion to which he is trying to convince us and provide reasoning and justification for. This might be too harsh, because there is some of that, but the overall tone is more of assertion rather than argument. I was hoping to see much more development of these connections between play and learning and emotional development. Critics sometimes are critical of authors for not writing the book they wanted the author to write; but in this case, the book’s subtitle “Why unleashing the instinct to play will make out children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life” suggests to me that the book will primarily be about providing the argument for the connections between play and learning and emotional development. On that front, the book fell short.

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: The Fallen Angel

The Fallen Angel The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This installment of Gabriel Allon is one of the best. It ripples with intrigue, twists, and great characters. It mixes together the illicit antiques trade with Islamic terrorism in characteristic Silva style. It's hard to read these novels and not want to get on plane to Rome, Vienna, and Jerusalem.

The plot is at the same time far-fetched and incredible and scarily realistic. Allon gets the team back together yet again to stop an impeding terrorist attack and in the process they uncover something huge. I won't say what to avoid spoilers.

As always when I read an Allon novel I grew both hopeful and despondent. Despondent at the hatred, angry, and violence that exists; hopeful that maybe there are people like Allon, Lavon, and Pope Paul VII in the world.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review: Toleration

Toleration Toleration by Andrew Jason Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Andrew J. Cohen’s Toleration starts with the “aim to provide a clear and lively introduction to the issues surrounding toleration” (1). He successfully, in my view, achieves this aim. He grounds the concept of toleration historically in the history of western liberalism. Then, after a theoretical interlude, he presents several different principles that (might) ground and guide toleration. The most important of these is the Harm Principle. Cohen’s account of toleration, unsurprisingly, is rooted largely (and rightly in my view) in Mill’s On Liberty. He closes with an analysis of the general value and good of toleration. All in all, it is clear and it is lively; it is written, for the most part, in a direct and accessible way. So much so that this would make a great text for an introduction to political philosophy class.

I say “for the most part” above because there were a few sections that got bogged down in a bit. First, the theoretical section of chapter 2 seems to play more to a particular trend in professional political philosophy. The value of this chapter in relation to the rest of book was unclear to me. Second, Cohen’s discusses an argument for basing toleration on a principle of benefiting others (4B). This was the one section of the book I found hard to follow; the argument here being opaque. This might be much more to do with the difficulty of trying to articulate a view that is itself unclear than to a deficiency on Cohen’s part.

Cohen is careful to distinguish toleration from relativism, subjectivism, or non-judgmentalism. In fact, Cohen intends his view to be universal and it is based on a kind of objective morality. Moreover, the very idea or need for toleration depends on the prior fact of having judged someone (or his or her actions) to be objectionable.

The focus of the concept of toleration Cohen discusses is on non-interference. That is, we tolerate when have a principled reason for not interfering with someone else that we find in some way objectionable. This leaves open a question of whether or not toleration governs our interaction with others when it is not a matter of interference. That is, Shannon thinks that her co-worker Avi’s views about the treatment of animals to be deeply immoral. Assuming there is no issue of Shannon interfering with Avi, does toleration speak to how she might interact with Avi? Is she wrong to shun him? To refuse to participate in committees at work that Avi is a part of? I suspect Cohen’s answer on this front is that if it doesn’t involve a question of interfering with Avi, then it is a different kind of moral question than the one with which he is dealing. That seems right in a way, but at the same time, it makes sense to speak of Shannon not tolerating Avi.

Although relatively short (156 pp), Cohen’s book covers a lot of ground. It is a useful book for those interested in understand better the concept of toleration, its justification, its value, and its limits.

(Disclaimer of a sort: I organized and will be chairing an Author Meets Critics session for Cohen’s book at the 2016 Central APA meeting in Chicago, IL. More here:

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: Dance Hall of the Dead

Dance Hall of the Dead Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago in a college class on Detective Fiction. But since I've decided to read the Leaphorn series from the start and I barely remembered the plot, I reread this one. This is really the first Leaphorn novel, since in Blessing Way he is more of a secondary character. But here we see the full-blown detective. He is logical, patience, and precise. He is tapped into and understands the more mystical aspects of his culture, but it is not clear to what extent he accepts those beliefs. They are, it seems, just one more tool to help him understand and make sense of the crime he is trying to solve. The landscapes are beautifully described-- I find myself often going to google maps to look for the mesas and washes he talks about. The plot is good, though a bit predictable (that maybe me remembering aspects from previous readings though). Like Spenser, Leaphorn has a need, or rather an obligation of sorts, to rescue young people. Leaphorn in some ways fails, and one can see the weight of that failure on him. Yet, there is no despair here; just determination to continue.

View all my reviews

Review: Jubal Sackett

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

A beautiful continuation of the Sackett family. This one focuses on Jubal, one of Barnabas' sons. Jubal has gone west, eventually crossing the Mississippi and the Great Plains into the Rockies. There is a lot of wandering and pondering by Jubal punctuated by different battles with enemies he has picked up along the way. Much of the focus is on his relationship with the Native Americans. He respects them, but foresees the troubles that will be coming their way. L'Amour, though, recognizes the complexity of the Native American tribes and doesn't fall into the trap of the 'noble savage' or the 'white devil'. I wish L'Amour had lived to tell the story of Jubal's children. The next Sackett book jumps ahead to the 19th century and we never, to my knowledge, come back to the age of Barnabas and his sons.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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!

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews