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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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Review: The Order

The Order (Gabriel Allon #20)The Order by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gabriel is back, this time helping his friends at the Vatican again. Although some might say it was too Dan Brown-esque, Silva is telling a different kind of story, and Allon is digging into the Vatican's secrets for different reasons than Langdon. Like many of Silva's novels, he finds a way to balance the improbability of the plot elements with great characters. The dialogue is great, and the book crackles; I really enjoyed it.

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: Shadow Woman

Shadow Woman (Jane Whitefield, #3)Shadow Woman by Thomas Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A slow start, but picks up in the last half. There were a few things in the beginning that I didn't like regarding Jane and Carey's relationship: aspects of it that seemed out of character for Jane. It makes sense for the plot, but just didn't seem consistent. Once that wasn't the focus, the story got more focused.

Jane is a terrific character and seeing what and how she does what she does is very interesting. Things get a bit unsettled for her and her 'client' and this presents new challenges to Jane that ultimately make the book a good thrill.

There was not as very little Native American mythology or history and that is one of things I enjoyed about the first two books. I will read the fourth book to see what Jane does next, but I was a bit disappointed with number three.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization

The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest CivilizationThe Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sweeping history of Athens. I enjoyed it, though it was not as good as I was expecting. Everitt's book on Cicero was amazing, so I was expecting something on par. In part this may be the nature of the subject: it is too epic and sweeping, and Everitt was trying to cover too much in too little space. Another weakness was that the focus of the narrative was too often on battles and military campaigns. No doubt these are essential to understanding the rise of Athens: you cannot (and should not) separate the history of Athens from its battles with Sparta and Persia. But it seemed to take up too much of the space, pushing other elements to the side.

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Review: F. A. Hayek and the Epistemology of Politics: The Curious Task of Economics

F. A. Hayek and the Epistemology of Politics: The Curious Task of EconomicsF. A. Hayek and the Epistemology of Politics: The Curious Task of Economics by Scott Scheall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important work of scholarship on Hayek and his ideas. The depth of research into Hayek's ideas on psychology, epistemology, and economics, as well as the history of Austrian economics more broadly, is evident through out this readable and approachable work. Scheall pulls these ideas together to formulate a novel approach to understanding and developing political thought, one that focuses on political epistemology and the limits of what any one, especially policymakers, can know. This is not just a book for Hayek scholars though, I highly recommend for anyone interested in economics, political philosophy, or policy.

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Review: Thrawn: Treason

Thrawn: Treason Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought this third book in the new Thrawn trilogy was much better than the second entry in this series. The story is tighter and better plotted. I enjoyed it; it was a fun read.

Where the book was weakest was in character development. There is little we learn about Thrawn and some of the other returning characters. They are who they are and do not develop beyond that. There are several new characters -- but not a lot is done with them. We do, though, learn more about the Chiss and the Chiss navigators. There is still a lot of untapped potential here that I hope Zahn explores in future books.

Thrawn is a great character -- one of the best in the Star Wars universe. Though he orchestrates a lot of it, he was not as directly involved as one would expect in a lot of the action of the story.

Even with these criticisms, it was fun and engaging read. One most fans of Thrawn and Star Wars will enjoy.

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