Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Against Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Sunday, April 09, 2017

Review: Sackett

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

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

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Friday, April 07, 2017

Review: Memorial Day

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

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

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Aftermath

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

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

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

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

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

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

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

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Monday, March 06, 2017

Review: Echo Burning

Echo Burning Echo Burning by Lee Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A skillfully crafted thriller that is full of twists. It's implausible and ridiculous in the way that such thrillers are -- but that's the point and part of the charm. Reacher's reluctant heroism driven by his sense of justice and compassion for Ellie saves the day in this racist, backwater Texas town. The portraits of the different characters from Carmen to Ellie to Alice to Hack to Rusty provide the foundation for the plot and the action.


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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism

The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism by William Irwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Irwin’s The Free Market Existentialist is a clear and concise exploration of the compatibility of three views not often united under one heading: existentialism, a defense of free markets, and moral anti-realism.

Irwin is explicit that he doesn’t expect existentialists to turn into limited government libertarians, nor libertarians to become existentialists. His goal is more modest: showing that there is nothing incompatible about the conjoining of these views and there might even be ways in which they fit better than other more conventional pairings. In this regard, I think Irwin achieves his goals. One might not walk away from this book a free market existentialist himself, but one will, I think, see how that’s not some crazy oxymoron either.

In terms of the existentialism, Irwin’s focus is primarily on Sartre and his work. First, Sartre is possibly the best-known existentialist and second, he was a Marxist. Irwin makes a convincing case against Sartrean Marxism and then explains how many of Sartre’s themes might be a better fit with free market capitalism. He also suggests how one’s understanding of free markets and one’s self within free markets can be improved by taking an existentialist perspective.

The last two chapters of the book focus on explaining Irwin’s vision of free markets. It is not his goal here to be exhaustive or to provide the philosophical foundations and justifications for free markets (there are footnotes directly to such sources). The vision presented is standard classical liberal/libertarian fare and I have little to quibble with here.

The part of the book I found the most wanting was the focus on moral anti-realism. Irwin describes moral anti-realism as the rejection of the view that morality exists independently of anyone’s beliefs about it. I think that is probably too broad—though that depends on what we mean by morality existing and existing independently. The meta-ethical issues about the existence of morality are complex, and I think, largely muddled. (To be clear: the issues themselves are muddled, not Irwin’s discussion). While the bridges between moral anti-realism and existentialism were easier to grasp, the relation of moral anti-realism to free markets was less persuasive—thought not without some interesting and worthwhile points.

I think the choice of title is telling. Irwin is the eponymous Free Market Existentialist; he is not providing us with an ‘ism’ to take up. There may be others who share his view (I admit to be sympathetic: I used to describe Rand’s Objectivism as Existentialism on Prozac) but, as he says in the conclusion, he’s not trying to start a new orthodoxy. It’s about starting a conversation and I think Irwin’s book does just that.



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Saturday, January 07, 2017

Review: Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Different and far darker than I expected--though I didn't really know what to expect. The noir artwork and themes drew me too it (and the guy at the comic book store highly recommended it). I hadn't even heard of the original novels by Richard Stark.

Parker is the protagonist - but he's certainly no hero. He does, though, have that inner code that noir protagonists have. He's a completely self-sufficient and supremely competently man. You do not want to cross this guy--as he is makes crystal clear in the course of the book. As Spenser said of Hawk: "He's not a good man, but he's good."

I haven't read many graphic novels, so I don't have much to compare this to. But the art fit the story very well. It helped set the mood and tone.

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Review: Live by Night

Live by Night Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had this book on my shelf for a bit but when I saw it was being made into a movie, I decided it was time to read it. It's a great book; Lehane at the top of his game. It should make a great movie.

It's precursor The Given Day was really good, but was a bit unwieldy. There were too many story lines going at once. Live by Night is much more focused on just Joe Coughlin's life. This allowed the reader to get much more inside of Joe's life than Danny's and the other characters from The Given Day. We get a much more introspective novel.

It didn't strike me until reading this how existential Lehane's novels are. All of his novels seem to be about characters thrown into a violent and absurd world, facing hard choices, trying to make the best of their lives. Nevertheless, Lehane's characters are far more constrained by their past and their environments than a Sartrean Existentialist would have them (radical freedom and all). This is evident with Coughlin as well--and in part is one of themes of the book: one's past will catch up to you and reaps its 'rewards.'

The one thing I am still not sure about is the ending. I won't spoil it, but it didn't sit quite right with me. That said, I am not sure any other ending would have been better.

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Monday, January 02, 2017

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review: The Girl from Krakow

The Girl from Krakow The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a compelling and engaging book in many ways. The characters where unique—not cutouts or clich├ęs. The story evocated many different emotions: sadness, fear, disgust, excitement, and even to a degree joy (or maybe relief is better). The look at the life in Poland, Moscow, and Germany during the war through the eyes of Jews hiding out in the open offered a different perspective on WWII.
Nevertheless, there is some aspect, some element that I didn’t like. Unfortunately, I can’t quite pin down what that is; I think, though, it has to with the integrity of the story telling. That is, there were elements of the story that the author focused on which ultimately didn’t really matter to the story. The best example of this are the sex scenes. The author got quite detailed in describing these. That in itself didn’t bother me, but it didn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the style of the book. I kept thinking there would be some reason later in the book for this detail—that it would have an impact or importance later. But it never did. There were other examples of this sort of structure as well that undermined my overall take on the book.

There was also something about the two main characters that struck a flat note. There was at times something psychologically unreal about them.

I am not sure I can quite recommend the book; though I think it touches on important questions. In particular, the question that survivors of any tragedy face: why did I survive? It’s not a bad book; but it could have much better.



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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: The Coffee Trader

The Coffee Trader The Coffee Trader by David Liss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I enjoyed the book, I wanted more from it. This was not as tightly written as the other Liss novels I've read. It took a little bit to get going, in part because of the convoluted plot. Looking back, Liss was trying to throw you off the scent of the different machinations and schemes, but in the sequence of reading, it was more meandering than I would have liked. I also wanted more of the transition of the Sephardic Jews from Portugal into the Amsterdam culture.

I liked Miguel and Hannah got more interesting as the book went along. Alferonda is intriguing. But the other characters where a bit too much of a caricature. And I didn't think the book did sufficient justice to the internal governance of the Jewish community or to the economics of the commodity market. Not that the portrayal was wrong as such, but it seemed simplistic and myopic. The Jewish community leaders were paranoid mini-despots. And there was no sense of the importance and value created by the market and the exchange--it was all just speculative paper pushing and inherently deceptive. Everyone in the book is marred by some kind of deceit or betrayal. The protagonists either had good motives in their deceit or did their betraying by accident, to be sure, but no one was truly heroic.

This sounds like a harsh review, but in the end, I found myself enjoying the book. It picked up towards the end as the schemes of the characters started to come to fruition. And, as a lover of coffee, it was interesting to read the characters first responses to this strange new drink.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: People of Darkness

People of Darkness People of Darkness by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jimmy Chee and Joe Leaphorn are both great characters but are also quite different. Leaphorn seems more at home or comfortable in the white man's world, while Chee's bewilderment and curiosity gives the story a tone that it is different. Chee is not uncomfortable in the white man's world, but it is more foreign to him than it seems to Leaphorn and so through his eyes one gets a novel look at the familiar. The plot is standard mystery fare. Hillerman does his usual good job of balancing the keeping of the mystery plot going with the beautiful descriptions of the landscapes of New Mexico and the Navajo Reservation and the integration of Navajo traditions and customs.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Review: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first came across Kelly McGonigal through a TED video where she explained how to make stress a positive force, rather than the dangerous negative force it usual is. In that talk, she discusses how things like mindfulness and acceptance can help channel stress into healthier channels. I found the research she discussed intriguing and some of the suggestions helpful. So when I decided to read her book, I was hoping for a similar outcome. And I was rewarded.

I don’t think, for the most part, that I have serious willpower issues. But I am interested in the psychology and neuroscience of self-control, as well as how to improve our mental practices to lead happier lives. So while this book can be a self-help guide for someone struggling with their willpower in terms of quitting smoking, dieting, or watching too much TV, it also discusses some of the research behind the methods that might work best at helping people with those issues. She has many practical, DIY sections in each chapter to help you apply the concepts to your own life. It’s not too ‘science-heavy’ in terms of the studies, indeed I would have liked more on that, but she does summarize and discuss the major work on self-control, willpower, and behavior change.

I did find myself making use of the ideas in my regular life. For example, I was setting up an assignment for my students on my school’s online course management system. There is an option that you can run the students’ papers through a software program that checks for plagiarism. If you select this option, the students are warned that their assignments will be run through this anti-plagiarism program. As I was thinking about whether to make use of this, I recalled McGonigal’s discussion of how the perception that many others are cheating tends to increase the chances that you will cheat. I wondered if the advertised use of this anti-plagiarism software sent the signal to the students that many students are cheating (after all, that’s why we need software to find it, right?) and so actually have the perverse effect of increasing the chances that a student will cheat. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but I decided against using the software and will instead rely on my well-honed skills of ferreting out cheating.

I recommend this book for those interested in an intelligent laymen discussion of the psychology and science of self-control and willpower or those looking for some practical tips on to improve their own self-control. That said, the book could have been a little shorter; it felt a bit stretched out to me. McGonigal has quick-paced, casual style with many funny and interesting anecdotes that give life to the science she is discussing.



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