Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: State of the Union

State of the Union State of the Union by Brad Thor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thor writes a fun, entertaining thriller. But it's boiler-plate, formulaic. Harvath is no different than any other character in this genre. There is little character development, growth, or exploration. The plot is straight-forward--even if somewhat preposterous. It's basically the standard-issue, indistinguishable summer action flick but on the page.

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Thursday, November 02, 2017

Review: Democracy and Political Ignorance

Democracy and Political Ignorance Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In many ways, this is a frightening book. Somin goes into careful detail on the arguments and evidence for widespread and persistent political ignorance. Then he discusses the harm such ignorance has on policy and good governance. And then he shows that most solutions are likely to fail to significantly reduce the problem. Some of the solutions discussed wouldn’t likely work even if they were feasible or likely to be implemented. Many of the other solutions—including Somin’s own suggestion: limiting the scope and power of government—suffer from the paradox that to implement them means first overcoming the problem of political ignorance.

Thought there is some technical detail; Somin has an exceptionally clear style. He’s careful and thorough in his research, and makes great effort to be balanced and intellectually honest.

The case Somin makes for limiting the scope (what government can do) and power (decentralizing power) of government is persuasive – though I am predisposed towards his conclusions to start with. Nevertheless, Somin’s discussion of the contrasting efficacy between ballot voting and voting with one’s feet does a lot to make a relatively ideologically neutral argument for limiting the power and scope of government.

There is one persistent sticking point for me. So the long-standing evidence shows that most voters lack political knowledge. This is explained by the theory of rational ignorance: where since (1) gaining more political knowledge takes resources (time, effort) and (2) any individual vote has almost no chance of having an impact (no payoff), it is rational to remain ignorant: there is no payoff for the resources invested. A potential problem here is that one thing that voters are ignorant of is (2). Most voters think their vote matters and has an important impact (and this why they vote). So it seems that by their own standards, they should be investing the resources to gain more political knowledge. But they don’t. This makes it seem that their ignorance is not, by their own lights, rational. Maybe the literature on rational ignorance has an answer to this, but the ones I’ve come across don’t seem to explain it to my satisfaction. Somin’s response seems to be that this falls into a sort of sweet spot: voters overestimate their impact (so they go to vote) but not enough to give them an incentive to get more political knowledge. This may be the case, but I still don’t find it satisfying. It might explain the paradox of voting, but I’m not sure it explains the apparent irrationality of thinking your vote has an impact while remaining ignorant.

This is an important book that any one interested in social knowledge, political philosophy, or political science ought to read.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

Review: One False Move

One False Move One False Move by Harlan Coben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Bolitar series. Coben has created an interesting set of characters. They are not all original or novel for the genre, but the admixture is unique and works well.

This installment was very good. The set up and mystery were well crafted. And we get some character growth and development with Myron, Win, and Esperanza. The ending was even a bit of surprise.

The only thing that bothered me was how dated it felt. It was only published 1998 but it feels like an alien world. Every time one of the character said "cellular phone" I cringed a little. Myron even uses microfiche machine to search newspapers. Microfiche! Might as well be talking about gramophones and talkies. Obviously this is not Coben's fault but it's somewhat weird that a book not even 20 years old could feel so out of date technology-wise. This doesn't bother me as much with novels from the 70s or novels that are intentional set in another time. I think it stands out here because these books are contemporary.

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Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter's approach to language and linguistics is refreshing and enlightening. As a trade book, I am sure the ruffles and edges of more scholarly approaches are smoothed out, but McWhorter does a good job of making it simple without being simplistic.

In this work, McWhorter discusses how languages are constantly adapting and changing. He explains how the ceaseless shifts in sounds, usages, and meanings change the language and our understanding of it.

For the purists out there (and I have a lot of sympathy for this group) some of what McWhorter says might not fit comfortably. He makes, however, a persuasive case for his point of view and he is frank about the counterarguments.

Most of all, McWhorter is funny and engaging, a pleasure to read regardless (or irregardless) of your agreement with his view.

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Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still by John McWhorter
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

McWhorter's approach to language and linguistics is refreshing and enlightening. As a trade book, I am sure the ruffles and edges of more scholarly approaches are smoothed out, but McWhorter does a good job of making it simple without being simplistic.

In this work, McWhorter discusses how languages are constantly adapting and changing. He explains how the ceaseless shifts in sounds, usages, and meanings change the language and our understanding of it.

For the purists out there (and I have a lot of sympathy for this group) some of what McWhorter says might not fit comfortably. He makes, however, a persuasive case for his point of view and he is frank about the counterarguments.

Most of all, McWhorter is funny and engaging, a pleasure to read regardless (or irregardless) of your agreement with his view.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Empire's End

Empire's End Empire's End by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this conclusion to the Aftermath trilogy, we see the story lines of the main characters get wrapped up. [Spoiler Warning: some of what I write might be spoiler-ish]
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Overall, I liked the book and the trilogy. It introduces some great characters into the Star Wars universe while also staying grounded in the Star Wars with which many are most familiar. The story is put together well and it authentically feels like Star Wars (with one exception) That said, I didn’t love the ending. I’m not sure why, maybe it just felt a little anti-climatic. Don’t get me wrong, there is a definitely an exciting climax and it is handled well. But I was expecting something more with Rax and Jakku. The set up for whatever is coming next is there and that’s good. So maybe I’m just being picky, but emotionally there was something of a minor let down.

The one exception to the authentic feel was Han Solo. Maybe because Han is my favorite character, the Han character here just didn’t seem right. It seemed more like someone else playing Han.

The foreshadowing for the new trilogy movies is there—especially for Kylo Ren. I’m sure there were some hints about Rey (Especially since it takes place a lot on Jakku) and Finn, but if there were, I missed them.

I don’t think we’ll see movies of this trilogy, but I do hope they pick up Sloan’s story in some way.

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Review: Vanishing Act

Vanishing Act Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A compelling thriller that takes you through northern New York, Canada, and LA; from big cities to deep into the mountain and lakes of northern New York. It is not unpredictable, but the how and the particulars are gripping. Whether driving, running, or flying, the story never sits still. The protagonist is refreshing. She is capable, smart, and tough. Her Native American heritage adds a layer of depth and complexity to both her character and the story. Definitely a series worth checking out.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For a child of the eighties, this book is chock full of nostalgia. As fun as that is, the novel is much more than that. It's not necessarily particularly original, but the way Cline puts the parts together is creative and entertaining. He creates a believable dystopic future that doesn't feel that far off. There are some good twists in the plot that keep it from becoming too predictable or simplistic. The main characters are relatable and interesting, but not all that complex and don't grow or develop much. This is one of its weaknesses. Another weakness is that it ends up being a bit too heavy on the theme of OASIS as too escapist. That's part of the characters' stories, and that's fine. But there is a lot of value that is being created in this VR world too. The characters recognize this, but it gets a little undermined by the escapism theme at times. I would have also liked a little more world building in OASIS--if only to experience it more.

It's not a novel that likely will be a classic sci-fi; but it is great fun to read.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Review: Play Matters

Play Matters Play Matters by Miguel Sicart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The account of play in Play Matters is quite interesting, though too unsystematic and too rooted in postmodern ideas. The account also suffers somewhat from “Huizinga-Syndrome”— that is, finding “play under nearly every rock in the social landscape” (Suits, “Words on Play”). One of the central aspects of Sicart’s account is that play is appropriative: it takes over other parts of our lives and experiences. This tends to assimilate everything as play. Seeing play as carnivalesque, as Sicart presents it, also tends to bring too much under the concept: everything from vandalism to political activism gets swept into play.

I liked his conception of play as a way of experiencing and being in the world and that it is not mere frivolity or childish. Sicart discusses play as a way of expressing and experience ourselves in the world. It is a way of seeing the world and a way of relating to the things and people around us. In these ways, play can, importantly, be productive of certain kinds of values, experiences, and community.

Another really interesting part of the book is Sicart’s distinction between play and playfulness. Playfulness is the application of aspects of play to contexts that are not play. So one might be playful in a book review or wedding ceremony without subverting the actual ends of those activities and subsuming them into play itself. Play as such has a logic all its own and wouldn’t be appropriate for all contexts. But one could still be playful in those contexts. Some of my criticism of his Huizinga-Syndrome might be resolved if instead of seeing all the things he presents as play, these are just a certain kind of playfulness.

The first two chapters, where Sicart discusses his account of play and then playfulness, are the most philosophically worthwhile parts of the book. As Sicart extends his account into other areas, the postmodern roots show themselves more and the philosophical content dips. The discussion becomes overly broad, ambiguous, and sweeping as postmodern influenced writing characteristically gets. But, then, maybe Sicart is just being playful.


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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Review: Lando

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

Like the other Sacketts, this book combines beautiful, lovingly described landscapes with the grittiness of life on the trail and in the rugged west. Orlando himself is something of a different kind of Sackett: he carries on the traditional Sackett virtues, but largely comes to adulthood on his own. His father is not around and he has no brothers. There is a lot of action from gun battles to fisttocuffs to races. And the book ranges from the mountains of Tennessee to Texas and also to the Gulf in Mexico. It's great fun.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Review: The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides

The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides by Arnold Kling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this short book (essay really), Kling presents a structure to help you understand the nature of political discussions. We are always talking past each other, misunderstanding and misconstruing each other. Kling shows us that this is because we are in many ways speaking different languages. Kling calls these axes: Conservatives tend to speak in a barbarian/civilization axis; Progressives in a oppressor/oppressed axis, and Libertarians in a coercion/liberty axis. These axis tend to frame the way members of these political tribes look at and describe the world.

So, for example, a libertarian tends to view political discussions and topics as existing on an axis from coercion (bad) to liberty (good). So when libertarians talk about politics, they frame it in those terms. Meanwhile, a progressive looks at thinks in terms of oppression (bad) and liberating/supporting the oppressed (good) and frame things in those terms. But since these categories are not picking out the same sets, we don't understand each other when one side says some policy is good. (e.g. "It's a good policy because it is meant to help poor workers." But "That can't be good its coercive".) And so the discussion goes nowhere; each side frustrated by the apparent obstinance or stupidity of the other side.

Kling discusses why we tend to fall into these tribes and axes as well as the pernicious affect these have on rational, truth seeking discussions. In part, due to this framing, we tend to see the other tribes as evil and irrational hellbent on destroying our deepest values. These other tribes are either stupid or conniving, manipulative conspirators. If they were smart or honest, they would, of course, recognize the truth and agree with one's own tribe. But, of course, the other tribes say the same about you and your tribe.

The ultimate take away, and Kling's hope, is that by being more aware of your own axis and language, as well as the other axes and languages, you can be less susceptible to your own biases and less likely to be dismissive of those with you disagree. You can better understand why they are wrong (and if they are wrong) when you don't just dismiss them as stupid or irrational. You will be better able and open to discover problems or weaknesses in your view as well. This might actually lead to more fruitful and reasonable political discussions.

It's a quick read, concisely and clearly written. It's nothing ground breaking, Kling is building on the work of many others (and he has a nice appendix that discusses the work he is building on.) But it is definitely worth reading for anyone frustrated by the seemingly lack of actual or reasonable discussion in politics.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: 1984

1984 1984 by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Okay, I didn’t openly weep like I did in Where the Red Fern Grows , but it made me very sad. Does one need spoiler alerts for a nearly 70-year-old book? Just in case…spoilers ahead.





Winston’s welcomed acceptance and outright love of his defeat is what is so sad. In the end, he utterly betrays himself and all his values – and is glad to do so. If he was just defeated, it would be merely tragic; the hero fallen. In mere defeat, there can at least be a kind of grace or honor of having fought the good fight. But his almost ecstatic joy at being finally and fully defeated makes it so much worse. There is no dignity, no hope, no self, no human being left. And, of course, that’s the point.

Orwell’s insight into the psychology of totalitarian control as well as the motivations of those in control and those subjugated goes deep. O’Brien and Winston’s conversations in the last third of the book are worth much reflection.

1984 is heralded as a prescient and cautionary book about the dangers of the surveillance state. And it is, and the surveillance state is a real concern. However, I think most miss the real and more important warning of 1984: the dangers of the renunciation of individualism and reason. As much as Orwell was a socialist, he decried the evils of collectivism in much of his work (never mind how he squares the circle of an individualistic socialism—doublethink?). He was a fierce and early critic of both the Soviets and the Nazis: recognizing that the danger they posed was the same: collectivism. Both devoured the individual and subjected the mind to the state. Reason was their greatest enemy; hence the constant resort to violence, often random. This was not merely to get rid of explicit enemies, but to stultify the reasoning mind. 1984 takes these “ideals” to their full logical consequence. It is terrifying and depressing: it is a book without hope. And that’s what makes it so sad.




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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: House of Spies

House of Spies House of Spies by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This picks up the story from The Black Widow, but it has a very different feel and tone. Silva was certainly having fun with this one: the settings are more exotic: from Saint-Tropez in Southern France to the edges of the Sahara desert in Morocco; from London to Casablanca. Whereas The Black Widow was intriguing and thrilling because it takes us into heart and mind of ISIS, The House of Spies is intriguing and thrilling because of the glamour and glitz of the long con that Gabriel and his team are engaged into to catch Saladin. It has all the elements that make Gabriel Allon such a great series: the characters we fans love are all here doing their thing.






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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft

How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft by Charlie Huenemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both a father of die-hard Minecrafter and a player myself, there was much to enjoy about this little book. It was at its best when Huenemann used Steve’s perspective to explore some of the philosophic ideas and questions inherent in the game and in playing it. Steve, as a narrator in the book, engages in his own philosophic musings and meditations much like a Minecraftian Descartes. It was in these passages that book was the most intriguing and innovating; giving a new perspective on the game. The book was weaker (note: not bad, just less interesting for me) when Huenemann takes over the narration. Partly this is because of my own training as a philosopher. It’s less novel for me when he draws out, for the example, the Humean ideas in Steve’s musing. I think for a non-philosopher interested in learning more about philosophy these parts might be helpful and interesting. But for me, they were kind of old hat. I wanted more of Socratic Steve.

It’s a quick, fun read. It raises some interesting questions and does a nice job of covering many of the traditional and conventional questions and thinkers in philosophy. It could even be a nice supplement to an intro course.


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Sunday, July 09, 2017

Review: Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct Killer Instinct by Zoƫ Sharp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found a new series! Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox is smart and tough. She is a throwback to classic protagonists of the genre. She's got a sharp tongue, kicks butt, and solves the crime without much help from the police. She is self-contained and competent without being superheroish.

Sharp weaves a thrill ride of story--though a bit gruesome at times. It isn't all that unpredictable, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes. I enjoy her style and the way she uses the language. She took cliches and made them fresh. There is a lot of British slang that add to the tone and setting. I could almost hear the text in British accent.

Definitely recommend this for fans of the genre and the likes of Lee Child, Robert Parker, etc.,

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Review: The Black Widow

The Black Widow The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Silva is at his disturbing and prescient best here. Allon is preparing to take over the Office but first he has to send an agent to infiltrate ISIS and prevent a major attack. Allon and his team (with an interesting new member) are back in action from Syria and Iraq to Paris and Washington. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I won’t say more. Although I will say that I am thankful (and hopeful) that ISIS is not as capable as Silva presents them here.

Given the way this ended, the story line in Black Widow continues into the next one. I can’t wait for the next volume (out this summer).



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Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: John Adams

John Adams John Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m in the minority here, I know, but I was quite underwhelmed by McCullough’s biography of John Adams. Now maybe it was the audio version, but I had trouble getting through it. I’ve listened to Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton biographies and they all captured the spirit, intensity, and drama of the age far more than McCullough’s book. McCullough seemed much more intent on capturing the daily ebb and flow of Adams’ day-to-day life. There were tedious sections of back and forth correspondence, filled with the likes of the minutiae of his daily walks or the shopping necessary to outfit the house in France. Some of this is to good end: his relationship with Abigail, for example, comes out in their correspondence quite clearly.

When McCullough does get to the more historical elements, the book picks up pace and can be quite good. McCullough shows the reader the tremendously important impact that Adams had on the birth of this nation: his role in the early revolution, the drafting of the Declaration, the securing of financing for the revolution, and his presidency (which was not nearly as successful as the former items).

McCullough does a good job of balancing the pros and cons of Adams’ character. His pride and vanity is clear as day, but so too is his honesty and integrity. He could be overbearing and pedantic, but he is a man of deep principle and commitment to the liberty of the republic and it citizens.

One of the interesting things about reading the biographies of the Founders is getting the different points of view of the other Founders. In McCullough’s Adams, the main antagonist, so to speak, is Jefferson. Jefferson comes off, as he does in other places, as incredibly intelligent but hypocritical. His relationship with Adams is complex and helps to draw out the character of each man. Hamilton makes some brief appearances and predictably is dismissed as a dangerous power-hunger intriguer. Washington is distant: his presence is felt, but he doesn’t seem to be much of a direct player here.

Adams is an important figure who helped shape his age and ours, largely for the better. It is worth knowing more about him and I’m glad I slogged my way through until the end. McCullough’s style might be more suited to the eye than the eye, so this might have been a book I should have read, rather than listened to.


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