Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Review: Sacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

Sacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee NovelSacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee mysteries; his depictions of life in the Navajo Nation are so compelling. The underlying theme of many of his novels are the challenges facing the traditional ways of life and adaptation to the modern ways of life; and the conflicts that ensue from that. Sacred Clowns underlines this more so than others. This is through the characters of Leaphorn and Chee, as well as secondary characters. But the mysteries they are trying solve present this theme as well. The pacing was a bit meandering at first, but gets going as the pieces start to come together.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Review: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black AmericaWoke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John McWhorter’s lastest book, Woke Racism, diagnoses and dissects an ideology that has, of late, reached a crescendo. Call it woke-ism, antiracism, CRT, cancel culture, or as McWhorter cleverly refers to KenDiAngelonism. It is an ideology that has come out from esoteric academic departments to take front and center in local and national debates. Understanding it is important. Countering it is a necessity, if, that is, we wish to live in a free, liberal, and diverse world.

McWhorter’s basic argument is first, we have to understand that this ideology is a religion, and second, its credo, while purporting to be antiracist, is actually destructive of progress on race. In particular, it rests on beliefs that are ultimately demeaning and belittling of black people. And because its adherents, The Elect as he calls them, regard themselves as possessors of The Truth, this ideology is undermining free thought and rational discussion.

The first part of the book lays out his argument for why and how this is a religious movement. The second part of the book explains how The Elect’s dogmas are harmful: to black people, to social discourse, and to real progress. The last part of the book offers some advice. First, on how to actually make progress on race. Second, on how to work around woke-ism.

For those familiar with McWhorter’s public intellectual work, there is not much new in the first or second parts of the book. It is still written in McWhorter’s pithy and approachable style and so worth a read in any case. The last part of the book might be more novel for most readers. McWhorter presents a three-point plan for improving things for Black America. He argues that these three things, while not bringing about utopia, will dramatically improve life for Black Americans (and all Americans). First, end the war on drugs. Second, use phonics to teach kids to read. And lastly, get past the idea that everyone has to get a university diploma, and create and value more vocational-type education programs. He keeps it to three points and these points because, as he argues, these are political feasible and also would have the deepest and widest impact.

In the last chapter, “How Do We Work Around Them?” McWhorter offers some advice on how to deal with this Great Awakening of Woke-ism. First and foremost, McWhorter explains “there is no discussion to be had” (157). What he means is that a person who has committed themselves to this viewpoint is not open to a constructive and rational discussion; any more than a practicing Roman Catholic is open to a discussion about the existence of God. This is a key idea because getting drawn into what you think is an open-ended conversation governed by evidence and logic, when it is not that at all, can get messy and leave the well-meaning discussant chastised and accused of racism. This connects to another point he makes. You will be called a racist (or if Black, self-hating) for not accepting this woke dogma. He counsels that we ought to trust own judgment and rationality, to know that we are not racist or a white supremacist. The Elect may call you all kinds of names, but one doesn’t have to accept these epithets. And the refusal to do so helps stem the tide. He then ends with several examples of people who stood up and survived; those that refused to accept the label of racism or go along with the woke mob and weren’t cancel or hounded out of a job.

If there is a weakness to the book it is that it isn’t really a critique of any particular thinkers’ work. While he discusses at points the ideas of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and other ‘prophets of the elect’, McWhorter doesn’t engage them directly. But I think this is on purpose. First, that’s a different book. McWhorter is writing about a general ideological trend. Focusing on any one thinker makes it just about them. Second, McWhorter is explicit that a direct engagement with such thinkers is pointless. They are not open to a constructive dialogue.

This book is for anyone concerned about the state of American culture. It is not a left-right book; it is a call to reason, to logic, to evidence, to common sense, and to decency.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Review: Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and SocietyIntellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed by this book. It does have some very interesting analyses; and there is much that Sowell explains and discusses here that is important. But more than anything, this seemed like an airing of grievances against intellectuals. Sowell has many gripes with intellectuals. Many of these (though not all) I agree with and think Sowell provides sufficient grounding for these. Yet, there is probably too much overgeneralizing and oversimplifying. And I think there are several points that Sowell is not being fair or charitable to those who he is criticizing as well.

Sowell’s general point is that intellectuals have had a far too great influence on society and often that influence has been harmful to society. He defines intellectuals as those whose careers are primarily about working with ideas. There has been a tendency, as Sowell describes it, for such people to see themselves as what he calls the ‘anointed.” The anointed see themselves, because of their intellectual work, as having special or higher knowledge, and that this endows them with superior insight on how to run society. But, because of many of the features Sowell elucidates, they end up making a mess of things (or would if more had listened).

Two of the most impactful features he highlights are the lack of accountability and the presumption of general knowledge from specialized fields. That is, because they work with ideas (but not the real-world consequences), intellectuals rarely are held accountable for the impact of the ideas. And though intellectuals often are experts in specialized academic disciplines, they feel empowered to speak out more generally on general issues about which they are about as knowledge as anyone else (meaning about as ignorant). Sowell also argues that intellectuals engage in and are enamored by what he calls “verbal virtuosity.” Using clever turns of phrases, intellectuals are often able to avoid argument or engagement with opposing ideas.

Sowell runs through various areas where intellectuals have an impact: law, war, education, the media, etc. After a while, it gets a bit repetitive. The book could have been a third the size and been much stronger for it. Or it might have been two or three different books. Some parts where far more interesting than others. The sections on the intellectuals influence on war was the most engaging. Sowell lays out, in fairly convincing ways, how the intellectuals’ arguments for pacifism and disarmament lead time and time again to war.

There are certainly much better works by Sowell to read than this. There is some good stuff here, but I get the sense that much of the good is recycled from his earlier works.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Review: Shadow Fall (Star Wars): An Alphabet Squadron Novel

Shadow Fall (Star Wars): An Alphabet Squadron NovelShadow Fall (Star Wars): An Alphabet Squadron Novel by Alexander Freed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overall, this is an interesting series. But I also find the writing style a bit too intricate and dense at times. I find it very hard to get into the novels; it takes me about half way before I really start to feel invested. Partly, Freed spends too much on battle maneuvers and the like; I wonder if that's part of the block for me. The characters are interesting, though I also don't feel all that connected to them. I'm not sure I really like any of the main characters all that much (Here Syndulla being an exception of course)

That said, there is something compelling about these books. The overall arc is intriguing: where are these characters going -- individually and collectively? The exploration of the costs of war, the complex ways it impacts each of the characters, is when the book is at its best. I look forward to reading the finale of the trilogy.

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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Review: Sports Justice: The Law & the Business of Sports

Sports Justice: The Law & the Business of SportsSports Justice: The Law & the Business of Sports by Roger I. Abrams
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was very disappointing; it ended up not being what I was expecting based on the description. I was hoping for rigorous analysis of important legal cases related to sport. I was expecting examinations of relevant legal principles that bear on sport.

But that's not what Abrams does. Each chapter looks at an issue of sport that found its way into court. It has plenty of exposition about the key players, but then only a cursory or elementary presentation of the case and how it was decided. Little is done to dive deep into the legal question and issues, and even less attention given to an objective presentation of the positions or points of view involve. Where the author disagreed with a viewpoint, it was quite often dismissed and caricatured.

I very rarely give up on a book. But there are times when you realize there are too many other good books to read and its pointless to waste one's precious time on a book from which there is little to learn.

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Monday, October 04, 2021

Review: Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It MattersUnsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Steven E. Koonin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An important book, even if you (especially if you) disagree with Koonin. Koonin is presenting a moderate, sober accounting of the scientific work informing our understanding of climate. He is eschews the extremes of either the science is settled and the world is facing a dangerous and immediate crisis, on one hand, or the notion that climate change is all some elaborate hoax or conspiracy on the other. Koonin is very clear that the best evidence shows that the climate is warming and that there is some human influence on this warming. But through in-depth study of the climate assessment reports and the research underlying those reports, Koonin argues that this is not a crisis, this is not a precipice from which we are about to tumble. There is much we need do not know or understand. How much of the warming is human caused and how much is from natural processes? How much can be reversed irrespective of the cause? How much warming is there? What are the outcomes/consequences of a warming globe? Are they are all negative and deadly? There are polices and actions we can and should take to mitigate the worse outcomes, but the alarmism and fear-mongering that surrounds so much public discourse around climate is, he argues, unwarranted and itself dangerous. The main causality is science itself. By turning more towards persuasion rather than towards knowledge, confidence in science has been undermined and its value undermined. (Something we can see playing out in dangerous ways in Covid responses from many sides of the political spectrum).

Koonin goes through what he takes to be the best description of what scientific findings support about what we know about the climate and what is involved in causing/influencing the changes we observe. He challenges some of the ways in which climate science is done (in particular climate modelling--and given his back ground in computational physics he's well positioned to discuss the pros and cons here).

Then he turns to how this has been misrepresented. He goes through the many ways the media, politicians, and others have misreported the climate assessment reports and scientific findings in the literature. The summaries and reporting of what is in the assessment reports are, as he shows, often misrepresented and sometimes even contradictory. All the nuance, qualifications, and hedges that are in the scientific reports gets lost when turned into headlines. The worse case scenarios, which are deemed in these reports as unlikely are sometimes presented to the public as THE outcomes by THE science.

Koonin then turns to ways to repair or deal with the broken science reporting, as well as various things we might be able to do to deal with a warming planet.

All in all, I found Koonin trying to do an honest job of reporting what he has discovered through his research and work on climate science. (He's a theoretical physicist, and was Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy for the Obama administration.) He seemed genuinely motivated by a concern for truth and the climate. He's stance seems reasonable and moderate. He invites you to disagree with him and discusses various criticisms of his claim. He might be wrong on any number of accounts, but his main overall point is that there is no such thing as THE Science, there is science, which is unending, dynamic and complex process of working towards a better understanding of the world we live in. There is much we need to learn about the workings of the climate and how to respond and adapt to the inevitable changes. And only taking the scientific process seriously as a descriptive enterprise can we learn those things.

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Review: A Darkness More Than Night

A Darkness More Than Night (Harry Bosch, #7; Terry McCaleb, #2; Harry Bosch Universe, #9)A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An interesting twist in that Connelly uses the point of view of McCaleb for good chunks of the book. This is important for how the plot plays out, as Bosch is the focus of McCaleb's investigation. This book was adapted for season three of the tv show, though McCaleb is not in the show. Instead, the plot is woven in with the cast of the show as is.

This book really highlights the balance that Bosch maintains. He's a hard-boiled character, he fits right in with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe: he's got a strict moral code, a strict sense of justice and righteousness, though not one that aligns with the conventional mainstream. Some of what he does, demanded by his code, runs against that conventional sense of justice and rightness. Moreover, his code is tested by the abyss, by the darkness that Bosch battles against. We see this test, this balance throughout this book (and the series).

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's "Republic"

Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's "Republic" by David Roochnik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books about ancient philosophy I have ever read. First, Roochnik is a clear writer and this work is eminently readable for an academic book. Second, his explanation of the structure and flow of the Republic is rich, deep, and fascinating. I’ve learned so much about the Republicthrough his book. He makes sense (or helps to make some sense) of many of the pickles I’ve discussed with my students (and friends) over the years about the arguments and theories in the Republic.

There are two main, general take-aways from Roochnik’s book. First, the Republicmust be read as an entirety. It is not a linear philosophical treatise in which we can move step by step through deductive arguments. We cannot isolate sections of it to focus only on that part of the argument. The parts and individual moments make the most sense when understood as part of the whole of the work.

Second, the recurring themes of the arithmetic and the erotic are central to understanding the interplay of the arguments and stories in the Republic. Roochnik shows how Plato moves through the dialectic of introducing the first arguments about the city and the soul, and the necessary city, in largely arithmetic terms but gets challenged by the Eros that Glaucon insists upon. This is revised and rebuilt mixing math and desire together—but this introduces new problems. This leads to new arithmetic means of explaining and dealing with these issues; only to be thwarted again by Eros. And so on, again and again. This interlay – dialogue if you will—is at the heart of understanding the movement through the dialogue.

I ask my students to consider what the purpose or ultimate point of the Republicis. Is it political; meant to defend a particular sort of regime? Is it primarily ethical; meant to defend the just life against the Thrasymachean claims of immoralism? Is it meant as a warning about democracy or as a qualified defense of democracy? Roochnik suggests, in my interpretation of his arguments, something a bit different: it is meant to present a picture of the human soul in action. The medium of the dialogue, the use of math and desire (philosophy and poetry), portray the complexity of human psychology, understanding, and engagement with the world.

I think this explains largely why the Republichas for so long and continues to be so central to philosophy. Why reads Plato 25 centuries later? Because it is so rich and deep, and has so much to tell us about ourselves. And Roochnik helps to show why this is so. His book breathes new life into discussions and to see the dialogue in a new, and clearer, light.

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Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth, #2)The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Much like the first book in the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate is fresh and unique. It is unconventional in the way the story is told: the shifting perspectives and points of view. The characters avoid collapsing into stereotypical tropes. The plot is surprising. The world Jemisin builds is also so its own. She continues to develop it and add to it here. One problem with a sequel or trilogy is that the subsequent books take for granted the main characters--they become static. Jemisin is able to avoid this with Essun because she is learning, right along with the reader, about what is going on in his world. So she continues to grow. And there are new characters added that help keep things fresh and interesting.

The story is engaging and gripping; the mystery and magic of this world pulls you in. But there is also so much more going on here: the meaning and importance of relationships and love, the impact of social and ethnic differences, the problems and dangers of power, etc. A lot to chew on. But most importantly it is just an amazing and compelling story.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Review: T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us

T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides UsT: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Carole Hooven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I heard Dr. Carole Hooven on Bari Weiss’s excellent podcast, Honestly, discussing aspects of this book and immediately downloaded it from Audible. Dr. Hooven does a masterful job of explaining the science of testosterone. Employing evolutionary biology, endocrinology, and good storytelling, Hooven lays out how testosterone works, why it works as it does it, and what the consequences are of all this. She does not eschew controversial subjects (and there are many when it comes to testosterone!) and is intellectually honest and confident enough to include discussion of the criticisms of, counters to, and gaps in her account.

The book is not too technical; though there is complex material here. Hooven’s style is more conversational and informal. This is not a medical treatise. There are lots of interesting anecdotes and stories; some personal drawn from Hooven’s own life, but this is not memoir either. She includes the stories of many other people (and animals too). All these serve to concretized the more abstract scientific theories.

In the end, Hooven’s goal is to present the best case for the best current science. Where a careful reading and understanding of the best evidence leads, Hooven follows—even if the conclusions are uncomfortable or not popular. She emphasizes, frequently, that it is only through an honest understanding of how testosterone works, that we can understand ourselves, our interactions with each other, and work to build a better society for all people.

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Review: Angels Flight

Angels Flight (Harry Bosch, #6; Harry Bosch Universe, #7)Angels Flight by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For fans of the Bosch TV show, this story is very familiar. The basic plot structure and idea where adapted for the fourth season. There are several important changes for the TV show to fit in with some of the overarching plot lines of the series, as well as to fit in with established characters on the TV series. In any case, the book is excellent.

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Sunday, September 05, 2021

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I wrote about the last book in the series, the series continues to be exciting and thrilling. The story telling is compelling, with just the right balance of world-building and action.

One of things that is great with this series is that each book introduces a net set of characters that drive the story. Holden and crew are important and still central of course, but Elvi, Basia, and Havelock are the protagonists here. They are the characters that grow and develop; the characters that have an arc the plot resolves. If the story always focused on Holden et al it wouldn't have held the readers attention for this long.

So book 4 is, like the whole series so far, a fun, thrilling sci-fi that explores questions about humanity, relationships, and existence. Highly recommend.

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Review: Another Man's Moccasins

Another Man's Moccasins (Walt Longmire, #4)Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great Longmire mystery. The interjections of Longmire's Vietnam backstory were interesting, though at first it made the book a bit disjointed. But as things started to come together, it worked well as a story telling technique.

It's a bit strange reading these while also watching the series. There are many incongruities between the books and the TV; so it is just something I have to keep in mind.

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Review: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern WorldThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to this book through The History of English podcast, hosted by Kevin Stroud. Stroud starts his history thousands of years before English appears one the scene by starting with the history of Proto-Indo-European. One of his main sources was David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. Those episodes fascinated me so I got Anthony’s book to dive deeper into it. And deeper it is! Anthony’s book, though quite readable, is a scholarly work of archaeology. There are dozens of dozens of pages detailing archaeology sites and finds, including pottery and burial descriptions. This is important material for grounding the argument he is making, but it wasn’t what I was ultimately reading the book for (I admit to skimming through the more detailed descriptions of pottery and their dating).

The overarching theme of the book is that the Eurasian Steppes (roughly the areas of modern-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan near the Black and Caspian Seas) is the source for not just the languages that large portions of the world speaks, but also of important aspects of European and Asian cultures. At the very least cultures from the US to India to China to Iran and Russia can trace concepts and words back to these people living on the steppes 6000 years ago.

So first the language: appealing to historical linguistics, Anthony discusses how Proto-Indo-European has been reconstructed. He explains the history of how this work came to be and what its major findings are. He explains the research that shows how the various language groups, Italic, Germanic, Iranian, and so on grew out of this earlier (reconstructed) language. This is interesting in itself, but Anthony also ties this into archaeology. Using evidence from the history of various material cultures in this region, he’s able to piece together the connections between where these cultures were and how they lived with aspects of the historical linguistics. This provides a lot of support to the idea that Proto-Indo-European language (and culture) originated here in the steppes.

So that’s the “language” part of the book’s title. The "Horse" and the "Wheel" come in to it in really interesting ways. Anthony explains his work on piecing together the evidence for the domestication of horses. Wild horses were native to this steppe region and at first, as he argues, were probably domesticated for food and only later used for riding. He examines how the domestication of horses fit in with the further growth of the herding of cattle and sheep. The mutual growth of these features leads to increases in wealth, resources, and populations. And this leads to outward movement and trade.

This opens up more contact with the other cultures around them: in particular the Mesopotamian cities that were also growing in power in this period (the bronze age). With this contact there is trade and technology sharing. The steppes cultures appear to have adapted the wheel from somewhere further south and developed what might have been the first chariots (which then spread back to the south and east to China). This led to a broad but loose culture of related languages and kin groups spreading from eastern European to China and into areas around modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It became, as Anthony says, “a single interacting system.” This corridor became a conduit for transcontinental trade and technology, predating the Silk Road by a millennium or more.

This was a fascinating book. It is readable, but gets pretty detailed at times. I learned a lot of pre-ancient history I had no idea about; the amount we can know of people living 6000 years is incredible (though we know so very little). It leaves me with the thought that history is so very full.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: Romeo's Rules

Romeo's Rules (Mike Romeo, #1)Romeo's Rules by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An exciting introduction to this series. Mike Romeo is an intriguing protagonist. He's part Spenser, part Mike Hammer, with some Jack Reacher thrown in. I really enjoyed the quotations and references to philosophy and literature. I also like Ira and Mike's relationship to him. I thought some of the plotting was a bit contrived and convoluted at times; there were aspects overall that felt a bit unpolished. I would have preferred the denouement was more played out rather than explained explicitly. But I enjoyed it and will be back!

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Friday, July 30, 2021

Review: The Cellist

The Cellist (Gabriel Allon, #21)The Cellist by Daniel Silva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daniel Silva's Allon series is one of my favorite series. The newest addition, The Cellist, is good but might be one of the weaker installments. That's more due to how good most of the other books are rather than The Cellist not being good. But there are a few things that are worth noting. Allon is more passive than usual. The art world/art restoration elements continue to be reduced. For all the returning characters, there is a little too much reliance on the characterizations developed in earlier novels. The plot itself follows, for the most part, Silva's seemingly standard formula with Allon. The ending -- which Silva acknowledges in the Author's Note was something he rewrote in light of current events -- felt like an afterthought and add-on. And even though it really was an add-on, it could have been better integrated and foreshadowed earlier.

All that, I still thorough enjoyed reading it. Silva is a good story teller, and Allon is a great character. So even when it is not up to par; it is still good.

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