Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. The characters and world are very interesting, and have a lot of potential. The plot was a bit all over the place. A lot happens and things moved very quick at times, and it was too much for the size of the book. The book could have been one of those 6, 700 pagers to do justice to the story Chambers is telling. So it feels very rushed and story lines are not adequately developed. Still, the main characters are endearing and compelling. I would read the next novel to see if Chambers' plotting gets better.

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Review: Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by Alina Chan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really interesting book. Ridley and Chan dive into as much available evidence as they can to try to get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19. In the end, they don't get an answer. But they present and evaluate the case for the two main theories: natural spillover from animals and a lab-related accident or escape. I am not sure it really matters which turns out to be true, though I think it is important to do the research and find out. There are three main walk away conclusions for me.

(1) The Chinese government actively worked to conceal and cover up almost everything related to COVID-19 and from the get go. This does make them look guilty, but it also is just the way the CCP seems to operate with everything. In any case, it is just more evidence to be wary of the CCP and authoritarian regimes.

(2) No matter if it was natural spillover or a lab leak, we need to do much more in terms of biosecurity. Maybe COVID-19 came from the wild, but the probability of a virus getting out of research labs is dangerously too high. The research is important, but the levels of biosecurity need to be improved.

(3) The politicization of COVID that lead to the quick dismissal of the possibility of lab-leak hypothesis was dangerous--and continues to be. Politics and science is a dangerous mix that undermines free society and good science.

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Monday, April 18, 2022

Review: 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An in-depth, detailed account of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948. Starting with the historical background of the Zionist movement and immigration into the area, Morris then moves to the UN and the steps taken towards partition. The conflict is broken into two main parts. First what Morris calls the civil war. This is the small-scale battles and skirmishes between the Yishuv (the Jewish community) and the Arab community in Palestine/Israel-to-be. The Yishuv was relatively well-organized and prepared, while the Arabs were divided, unprepared, and lacking any kind of strategy or direction. The leadership was divided and various quarters squabbled with each other for control. As a result, this part of the war was decisively won by the Yishuv and the Palestinian Arab society more or less collapsed and many, with the means, left the country at this point. The state of Israel was declared and the Yishuv institutions transitioned into state agencies.

The second part of the conflict begins with the invasion by Arab armies from without: mainly Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Through his analysis, Morris shows that, at first, the Israeli goal was purely defensive: to hold the land it controlled and prevent the Arab armies from penetrating. As the Israeli forces proved effective and the Arab armies less so, Israel shifted towards a more offensive mindset and looked to gain strategic ground around Jerusalem and in the north.

For their part, the Arab armies were shockingly incompetent. Except for the Jordanian Arab Legion (which was trained and armed by the British), the armies lacked resources, training, and direction. The various countries, while sharing similar rhetoric about “saving Palestine,” all had their own divergent agendas. There was little cooperation or coordination between the invading armies. The soldiers were not training or prepared. There was a view that the fight would be quick and easy. Instead, they faced fierce resistance from a well-trained, highly motivated opponent who was fighting for its very existence.

The UN repeatedly tried to step into to stop the fighting and seek some kind of settlement. The main result, according to Morris, of this seemed to be avoiding a total rout of the Arab armies, in particular Egypt. Whether a more total and decisive victory by the Israelis would have avoided future wars and the refugee problem is impossible to say, but Morris doesn’t think it would have. There was far too much animosity towards the Jewish state. The so-called Arab Street would likely have continued the pressure to attack Israel.

Most of this was not new to me. But there were several interesting parts of the book that were new.
First, the insight that Morris gives into the mindset of the British and Arab leaders was fascinating. I didn’t realize the extent to which the Arab leaders (especially Jordan’s King) understood their weakness relative to Israel and that the war was unlikely to yield the stated public aims. And yet all felt the pressure of the street and felt compelled by this to move forward. I also didn’t realize the extent to which the British were more or less active against Israel—even threatening to attack at certain points.

Second, Morris disabused me of the idea of Israeli “purity of arms.” The Israel army at times acted like every army ever has in the field of battle. There were killings of civilians and POWS, rapes, and other abuses. This was hard to swallow, but also not surprising that such things happen in war. It is tragic, awful, unnecessary, but such is the awfulness of war. This doesn’t excuse or justify, but it does contextualize it. Nevertheless, Morris is quick to point out that these sorts of horrors occurred less than in other wars in the 20th century. Both sides were relatively constrained in terms of such atrocities.

Related to this second point, is the extent to which Israel took active measures to push out the local Arab populations. While I understood that some of this happened, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which there were direct expulsions made by the Israeli army. Still, contrary to the harsh critics of Israel, Morris explains that this was not a concerted effort at mass population movement, but as the facts on the ground shifted, the Israel army and command were more than willing to help things along. Militarily it makes sense: leaving a hostile population behind your lines is a bad idea. And as the Israelis pushed forward to push back the invading armies, they felt compelled to expel local populations that were hostile. For the most part, Morris showed that when villages quickly surrendered and didn’t have a history of attacking nearby Jewish communities or convoys, these were not expelled. Such people become the Israeli-Arabs of today. Still it happened more than I realized, and that too is an unpleasant truth to process.

I found the book strongest when getting into the discussion of strategies, policies, and ideas. His evaluation and digestion of the evidence was clear and carefully presented. Where I found myself drifting away was the detailed descriptions of battles. There was a lot of taking this hill or attacking that hill; this division moved here and there. It was hard to keep track of and to follow; or to see how meaningful that level of detail was to the overall through line of the work. The best I can say about it was that it did allow you to experience the war at a bit more of a fine-grained perspective, than the grand sweep that one might otherwise get.

If one is interested in military history or the history of the Arab-Israeli, I think this is an important work to read. Still, it can be a bit of slog at times, but only because of how in-depth it is.

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Sunday, April 17, 2022

Review: Taken

Taken (Elvis Cole, #13 / Joe Pike, #4)Taken by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Crais continues to evolve this series in interesting ways. The narrative structure switches point of view chapter to chapter to help create the suspense and tension that drives the novel. It's first person with Cole, and third person with Pike, Stone, and some of the other characters. This gives the reader different perspectives and insight into the action that one wouldn't have been able to get with just Cole's first person.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Review: Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Cicero, #1)Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found it hard to get into this book. It's hard to put my figure on it, since there parts of it I really liked. But maybe it was just too passive. The pretense is that this is memoir of Cicero's political life written years later by Cicero's slave/secretary. I think that made the story telling too passive; a bit of this happened and then this happened. So rather than feeling like I was in Rome or in the Senate, it often felt distant. There were exciting and interesting moments but overall the book fell sort of flat for me. There is a lot of political machinations (which makes sense given the story, but still), but I would have liked more philosophy from Cicero. You do get a some sense of how Roman politics work, from the inside, and that was interesting.

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Friday, March 25, 2022

Review: One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Togethr

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town TogethrOne Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Togethr by Amy Bass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together is “A coach, a team, and the game that brought a divided town together” and that’s a most apt description. Amy Bass tells the story of biology teacher and soccer coach Mike McGraw, a high school team made up mostly of Somali refugees, and how the game of soccer helped to unite a community.

In the early 2000s, thousands of Somali refugees in the USA found their way to Maine, with many of them settling in Lewiston. According to Bass, the town’s response was mixed. They were welcomed by many but also the target of anti-immigrant and racist backlashes. But soccer became a conduit for moving beyond all that. Many in the Somali community where fanatic about soccer. And Lewiston had a good team with a storied coach. But it took more than that. Bass brings focus to the many elements that helped to connect the Somali kids to the high school team; how the various cultural hurdles were overcome by the openness and responsiveness of several people in Lewiston. One of the key figures of course was the coach, Mike McGraw. We see how McGraw adapts to these new student-athletes and how he endears himself to them. And in many ways, this is the best aspect of Bass’s book: the respect and love that McGraw and his students have for each other comes through on every page.

More than just a story of soccer games, Bass also draws interesting parallels to Lewiston’s history with French-Canadian immigration in the 19th century and the similar challenges that population faced. She gives us background on the town, its history, and how it become a magnet for Somali immigrants. She profiles each of the main players, how they got to the US and how they were adjusting.

The final third of the book, as the team moves towards the championship game, might be the best part. The tension builds, the details of the games become more salient as the reader gets closer and closer to the final game and its outcome. Bass does a great job of building the tension and releasing it.

Overall, it’s a moving and powerful story. Like most American immigrant stories, it highlights what is great, powerful, and wonderful about the US. American is not perfect but at its core it’s a place for anyone to come and to succeed, for all to live peacefully according to their own lights. And, as the Lewiston Blue Devils showed, when we are able to do that, we can and do achieve great things.

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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Review: Nightmare in Pink

Nightmare in Pink (Travis McGee, #2)Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quick, fun pulpy read. The language and dialog is classic noir. There is much that is dated, but once beyond some of that, the story and characters are really engaging. It takes a surprising and interesting twist towards the end.

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Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5)Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things that makes this series great is that each book has a somewhat different feel and focus. Here we see the crew of the Rocinante go their separate ways while the ship is in dock getting repaired. As things go in these books, all hell quickly breaks out. But with the crew far flung through the system, we get different perspectives on the events happening. With each crew member out on their own, we get a deeper insight into their characters as they try to survive and get back to each other. A lot more backstory for each as well. Unlike the previous books, this book directly leads into and sets up the next one. (It takes some discipline not to just right into the next book! But I've got other series to read too!)

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Friday, February 25, 2022

Review: A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines

A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 VaccinesA Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines by Gregory Zuckerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent and fascinating account of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is putting the development of the vaccines into historical context. Zuckerman starts with the precursor research that led to the development. The researchers and scientists that were able to make the breakthroughs that made the COVID vaccines so effective had worked for years, decades in many cases, on trying to develop vaccines and treatments for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases. Though most of those efforts were not successful at their stated aims, what was learned was essential. This is another important aspect of the story of the vaccine development: failure is not failure simpliciter. There is, of course, the adage of try, try again; but also that even in failure there is so much to learn. And what was learned helped to make these vaccines possible.

The first two thirds of the book is focused on pre-2019. Tracing the work of key scientists and the various business, such as Moderna and BioNtech (but several other as well), that played central roles in the development of the vaccines. Zuckerman does a good job of explaining the basics of the science without getting overly technical.

The last third of the book heats up with the race for the vaccine that starts almost immediately with the emergences of the virus in China. Though we know how the story ends, Zuckerman is still able to create the experience of suspense as the reader waits for the results of the clinical trials. He puts us, through the direct first-hand, contemporaneous reports of the main players, into the conference rooms and zoom rooms as these reports come in. You experience their uncertainty and anxiety followed by the elation and release when the successful numbers come in.

Zuckerman does a good job of portraying the main players: showing their ambition and focus, their pride in their work. He is able to show us why we should admire and honor these researchers without lionizing them or making them into other-worldly figures. These are human beings doing the great things that human beings can do.

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Monday, February 21, 2022

Review: Romeo's Way

Romeo's Way (Mike Romeo #2)Romeo's Way by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this sequel to Romeo's Rules, we get a much tighter story. Romeo is still a mix of Spenser, Hammer, and Reacher: wise cracking, literate, hard hitting, and tempered anger. The first book got a bit convoluted at points, but the plotting here stays on track while remaining suspenseful. Bell introduces a few new characters, I hope we get to see Urban again! I would like more Ira for sure; he took a bit of a back seat in this story.

It's a fun and action packed thriller, with a bunch of literature and philosophy peppered through out. Perfect aperitif between longer novels.

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Friday, February 18, 2022

Review: The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Stone Sky completes the Broken Earth Trilogy. One of the most original fantasy series I’ve ever read. It’s a tragic story, but with much hope. It’s an angry world, but filled with love nonetheless. The characters are all rich and well-developed. The story-telling itself is so innovative and unique. Jemisin is able to tell multiple threads of the story, through time, in a way that creates suspense while also revealing more and more, slowly, about the world. Sometimes this can be confusing, but it works out as you make your way through the novel. It starts a little slow, but once it gets going, it’s hard to put down.

Though there are many themes explored here, about race, environmentalism, technology, family, etc., the novel never gets preachy or didactic. It’s telling a great story with interesting characters; and never wavers from that. Whatever else might be spied is just part of the story.

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Thursday, February 03, 2022

Review: Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation

Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo NationCanyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation by Michael Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the title says, this is a story of a basketball season on the Navajo Nation. In particular it focuses on the Chinle High School team that is making a run at the Arizona state championships. It is beautifully told. Powell has a deep respect and love for the region and it comes through in his descriptions of the landscape and the people. The book follows the coach and several of the main players on the team. From here, there are many tangents into the biographies of these individuals, as well as historical accounts of the Navajo. It is part history, part memoir, part ethnography, part sports story. Powell explores, through this basketball team, what living on the reservation is like for many Navajo. He looks at how this affects, positively and negatively, the players on the basketball team. There is also a lot of what you would expect from a sports book: coaches giving life advice, comebacks, underdogs. But it mostly avoids cliche and tells us a good story of how the team grows and develops through the season--both as a team and individually.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Review: Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby

Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby (Spenser #49)Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby by Ace Atkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed all the Atkins Spensers. In each of my reviews, though, I always note that Atkins is doing an imitation of Parker. He usually gets about 80% of the way there, but you know it is not Parker's Spenser. In this, Atkins' tenth and last Spenser, I'm sad to say this was even more the case. It's helped me, I think, identify how Atkins' Spenser was falling short. There were several points through out the novel where something was off. The language or word choice of a character, in particular Spenser and Hawk, that didn't fit, or the characters reactions to a situation that struck the wrong note.

Since the plot of this is reminiscent to Looking For Rachel Wallace, one of Parker's best, I went back and reread parts of it (and now rereading the whole novel). This only made things worse for Atkins. First, Parker's language and description is so crisp, saying so much and so beautifully with an amazing economy. Second, Spenser's interactions with Rachel and how Parker deals with the controversial elements is far superior to Atkins treatment of Spenser and Carolina. Atkins too easily slips into cultural tropes and cliches. This aspect of the book just wasn't that interesting.

Two other things jumped out to me. First, Parker always emphasized Spenser's code; his autonomous core and steadfast integrity. Atkins rarely seems to make use of this, with a few throwaway comments to remind us of this. But with Parker: it was core to every Spenser story. Second, Atkins over uses Spenser the wise-ass. Parker was far more judicious with how he employs Spenser's sarcasm and humor. This gave it much more of an impact.

The overall sweep of the book is still enjoyable; I still love being back in that world. Atkins is a good writer. But the books are also a pale comparison to Parker. This is, as I noted above, Atkins last. Reportedly, Mike Lupica is picking up the Spenser line. He's written several Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novels, so he's not new to the Spenser-verse. But I haven't read Lupica's stories so I don't know if he can take on Spenser (Plus he's a New Yorker?).

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Monday, January 31, 2022

Review: The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of TruthThe Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the whole, Rauch’s new book is an important contribution to the culture. It has some problems, philosophically, but the overall sweep of what Rauch is doing is intriguing and worthwhile. The analysis of cultural trends and his advice on how to defend against these harmful trends is useful.

The general idea Rauch is getting it, the real insight of his book, is that knowledge is something that has to be produced and that its production is best accomplished under a particular kind of system. A system where knowledge production is decentralized, has lots of diversity in it, has no sacred totems, and is subject to constant criticism and challenge.

This is the Constitution of Knowledge. Like a political constitution, this constitution provides rules, institutions, and structures by which knowledge is produced. Rauch argues that the best constitution for knowledge is analogous to the best political constitutions: it provides a structure by which difference, disagreement, and contrary interests are transformed into a valuable product. In the sciences, this product is knowledge; in government, liberty and social harmony. A third analogy he uses is the marketplace. Here too there is a structure that coordinates the disparate ends and interests of those in the market, leading to greater efficiency, wealth production, and general overall standard of living.

In all three constitutions of liberal markets, liberal governments, and liberal science, diversity of all kinds is key. In markets, the more diverse actors with different insights, advantages, and experiences, the greater the market. This is akin to Adam Smith’s famous idea that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market: the bigger the market the greater specialization that is possible. In government, diversity of political ideology and interest is essential to keeping all the factions and interest groups at bay. The more factions there, the harder it is for any one group to take over and impose its will; instead all the groups have to find a way to work together to find the right balance. And in knowledge production, different thinkers and researchers with different ideas, training, and perspectives help to prevent bias and oversight.

This central importance of diversity is part of the other major theme of the book: how the constitution of knowledge is being attacked and undermined. One way is through cancel culture and how that is undermining intellectual and political diversity. Another is the way in which some people manipulate and (mis)use aspects of the Constitution of Knowledge, through the spreading of misinformation, to gain control and power.

This is the book at its strongest: laying out the threats to the Constitution of Knowledge: be it those spreading disinformation in order to sow distrust and confusion, or those who use social media to discourage dissent and criticism. And Rauch offers some good advice on how to combat it.
But Rauch is not a philosopher and when he attempts to give a history of the theories of knowledge, as well as provide his own epistemological foundation for this constitution of knowledge, he’s a bit out of his depth. The discussion is a bit of muddle, or worse, at times.

He wants to defend a view of knowledge that sees knowledge as produced and justified through a network. Relying on C.S. Peirce and others, he sees knowledge as a social product, and not something individual. While I think he’s right to point out the importance of the networks and institutions in creating, maintaining, and extending knowledge, he’s wrong to reject what we might call epistemic individualism: knowledge is something an individual has.

I think Rauch can get his defense of the Constitution of Knowledge and his defense of the importance of the checking and testing of knowledge by many individuals engaged in knowledge production, without having to accept the epistemological foundation he is offering (quite the opposite). He doesn’t need to reject individualism in epistemology, anymore than we need to reject individualism in political or economic constitutions. Individualism is not the rejection of community or networks: it is their core purpose. Individuals make up the communities and the communities exist for the sake of the individuals (not the other way around). To reify community and institution over the individual is a fundamental error and it undermines the very goal for which Rauch is trying to ultimately argue.

The book is still worth reading, even with this serious philosophical error. Rauch’s analysis of cancel culture and the misdeeds of the misinformation networks is important. His advice on how to combat these is also helpful.

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Monday, January 24, 2022

Review: Chaos Rising

Chaos Rising (Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy, #1)Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thrawn is a great character, one of my favorite in Star Wars. This is an interesting, fleshed out look at Thrawn's home culture and space. It employs a parallel narrative structure of the present and the past (Zahn seems to like this way of story telling, he's used it in other novels). I think it works pretty well here. There are two many criticism: (1) other than a tangential connection to Anakin, there is little that makes this Star Wars. While there are descriptions of things that are likely the Force by another name, this is only hinted at and not developed. (2) There is not a lot character development for Thrawn. What I love (and presume others) love about Thrawn is his Sherlock Holmes-style ability to read out from a situation lots of details that others miss and from that deduce all kinds conclusions. I was hoping we would get some insight into how Thrawn develops/hones this ability. But we don't; it seems to come onto the stage more or less fully formed.

Nevertheless, this was a fun read.

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