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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Monday, September 05, 2016

Review: The English Spy

The English Spy The English Spy by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite Allon books. The pairing of Keller and Allon works really well, though I did miss the rest of Allon’s team. The integration of the plot with previous story lines was well done and sets, I presume, the stage for later books.

Now that I’m almost caught up with series, it is fun to see how Silva captures and uses contemporary events and news stories. I don’t imagine Silva sells well in Moscow.

As much as I enjoyed the book, the plot, and the characters, I would like to see Allon operate, for lack of a better way of putting the point, more in an Israeli context. The European theater is interesting, but you can get that from other series. One of the special aspects of Allon is that he is Israeli and Jewish, and I think Silva should take advantage of that more. The next stage of Allon’s adventures--personally and professionally--should be interesting!

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: An Elephant for Aristotle

An Elephant for Aristotle An Elephant for Aristotle by L. Sprague de Camp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Any one who has an interest in ancient civilizations and/or philosophy will like this book. You start with Alexanders' army in India, travel through the ancient near east and end up in Ancient Greece. Along the way, the descriptions of the different landscapes and cultures are worth the read alone--but the real value is that the interactions and discussions between the characters makes real the particularities of the cultural differences and at the same time the universality of the human condition.

Aristotle's role comes, understandably, late in the book. I didn't care that much for de Camp's portrayal of him. He seemed too snotty and elitist, but then maybe that is a more accurate presentation than my imagined over-idealized Aristotle. Mainly, I thought de Camp made too much of philosophers, Aristotle included, being out of touch with real life. Second, he made too much of Aristotle's pro-slavery arguments. No doubt these are accurate, but it just came up too often. This is, however, likely due to the theme of the universality of human nature and the interaction of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians.

As in any such work of this kind, there were anachronisms and too much license taken here and there but that said, de Camp does a good job of staying faithful to the ways of the ancient Near East--at least as far as I could tell.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Free Dakota

Free Dakota Free Dakota by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick, engaging read about an imagined secession movement in North Dakota. I sped through it and enjoyed it. Irwin does a great job of discussing political ideas in plain language and without jargon. This is also a hallmark of his non-fiction philosophic writing, in particular the pop culture and philosophy works which, like the novel, are able to make complex ideas clear and simply without simplifying them.

I enjoyed the many allusions and homages to other libertarian thinkers and works.

Nevertheless, this is Irwin’s first novel and it shows at times. The characters could have been developed more and the plot more subtle and integrated. It took a little bit for the book to get going. The political philosophy might have been interwoven more into the plot and so rather than merely having characters discussing the ideas about liberty and secession, the ideas could have been concretized in the action of the story. There is some of that, especially as the book goes on, but not enough and to many will come over as too talk-y. My biggest criticism is that there was more on the “tell me” side of the old writer’s saw “show me don’t tell me.” I don’t think Irwin wanted to write a 1000-page tome, but this could have been a few hundred pages longer so that he could have developed the detail in the character and the plot that would have made the book better and more compelling.

I would certainly recommend this book to those interested in political ideas, especially libertarianism. Lastly, I would love to read a sequel and learn about how things go forward given the ending.

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Prince of Thieves

Prince of Thieves Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the movie, The Town, a few years ago and got the book after I learned the movie was based on a book. The movie was great, the book is even better. You get so much more depth with the characters and the plot. With the book, you can dwell on the inner life and struggle in Doug; the obsession of the FBI agent pursuing him; and the thoughts and reactions of Claire -- the woman caught up in the middle of it all.

It always amazes when an author can make a sympathetic hero out of a character that should be a bad guy. Hogan does just that, I kept hoping and looking for a way for Doug to get out; you want him to get away with it all even though you know he shouldn't and he can't. Hogan gives a haunting portrayal of Charlestown adapting to the changes in the 90s--which also mirror the changes in Doug: it wants to move forward but can't or doesn't know how and so does it what it knows best even if that is wrong.

The book was also wonderfully nostalgic for me as someone who lived in Boston in the 90s. I loved reading the names of the old banks and places no longer there.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: Executive Power

Executive Power Executive Power by Vince Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, an exciting thriller. I liked what Flynn did with the two simultaneous story lines early on, but ultimately I wish they were better integrated. The plot and ending is a bit far-fetched, not impossible just not all that plausible. But that's what one would expect from this genre.

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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic that should be on everyone’s sci-fi reading list.

It was, I have to admit, very different from what I expected—and so much better. I suppose I had the horrible 90s film with the same title too much in my head, but that monstrosity basically just steals the title, some character names, and the idea of a war against alien bugs.

The story telling is masterful. There isn’t a lot of action—especially for a book about war—but there is a lot to chew on as we see Rico develop and think about the different themes of the book. Also, I realized that from Gundam to many well-known sci-fi books about space wars in the future, this book was the progenitor.

I don’t quite understand why it is considered so controversial. Some claim it is ‘fascistic;’ a criticism that makes little sense unless you confuse the movie for the book. But this is pretty silly since the movie isn’t in any real sense an adaption. (According to the Wikipedia article about the book, the director of the movie admits to not being able to read the book because it was “boring” and that he hated it; also the title of the book and other superficial details from the book were grafted onto to a pre-existing script for marketing reasons).

In the book itself there is nothing resembling fascism—the government is explicitly a representative democracy (though with a limited franchise). We don’t see one-party rule or evidence of authoritarianism. We don’t see much of civilian life, but from what we do see it seems relatively free and unhindered. Military service is completely voluntary and the recruiters try to deter enlistment. There’s nothing to suggest a corporatist fascism like in Firefly (i.e. Blue Sun). There’s also nothing to suggest the racist fascism of the Nazis either. The idea that this book is at all fascist is utterly groundless.

Another criticism is that it is militaristic or pro-military. In many ways, this is true (though I am not sure that this in itself is a criticism). The soldiers in the book are portrayed positively. We don’t come across crooked or incompetent soldiers or officers (at least not ones that make through training). No loafing soldiers whining about their situation or officers redirecting supplies for sale on the black market. There are a few things to consider here. First, this is an all-voluntary army, even amidst a war. There are many intentional points along the way designed to weed out bad characters or those with the wrong motives for joining up. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some loafers or crooks that make it through, but you are not going to have many Hawkeyes or Klingers hanging around the mess.

Second, the units we see through Rico’s eyes are the elite of the elite—this is not a full view of the entire Federation military. There are lots of indications that the military as a whole is run differently than the Mobile Infantry. And by the time we really see these guys in action, there is a full blown war going on. So it makes sense that Heinlein portrays them as he does Heinlein did indicate that book was a paean to infantry soldiers who he viewed as having done the toughest job in wars. The book makes several historical connections to older wars and the infantry solider throughout time. It is in these ways that it is pro-solider.

But if this is all that was behind this ‘controversial’ claim, that’s pretty weak sauce. The deeper issues are the issues raised in the discussions of “History and Moral Philosophy” class. I didn’t agree with all of the ideas presented for sure, but that’s beside the point. These classroom discussion are what makes the book so great. It asks you to think about these issues: Who should have the voting franchise? Who should rule and why? What is the point of war? What institutional arrangements can lead to a more stable and prosperous society? The characters in the book have answers, and there is some reason to think Heinlein is sympathetic to these, but that’s not the point. The point is that the question are posed, and in a philosophy class no less. The instructor (and the author) wants you to think about these questions.

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review: The Heist

The Heist The Heist by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all the previous Allon novels, this was thoroughly a great read. Allon has evolved; he doesn't brood quite as much. Lethal as ever, he is more about trying to save (restore?) people than to end them. This novel was fun, it brought back a whole litany of characters from earlier novels. I like the potential development of our friend from Corsica. Some of this, though, was a bit forced. Rather than create a new, one-off character, Silva goes to the well and pulls out a character he's used before. This is minor, as long as it doesn't become too regular or too unbelievable. Another minor criticism is that this bore a lot of similarities to a few of the previous novels (in particular the English Girl). Nevertheless, Allon is so captivating. It's hard not to just jump right into the next novel!

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Review: A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is ambitious book: ranging from prehistory to the current day and tackling diverse economic and policy ideas. The book is better, I found, when discussing the historical impacts and effects of trade. It starts to get a little technically and wonkish for my taste near the end as it delves into questions of contemporary trade policy (though that might be a plus for some). I suppose there isn’t much of a way of deal with the current effects of trade without getting into a discussion of free trade versus protectionism, but I was much more interested in the history: how the trade of the ancient and medieval world impacted the contemporaneous societies and then the modern world. And that is also where I think Bernstein did a better job of telling the story. He used compelling narratives that captured the story of trade in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds and showed how trade shaped those worlds and the modern world to come.

In the last quarter of the book, he shifts to the question of free trade and the “winners” and “losers” of trade. He ultimately lands on the side of free trade: he acknowledges that some people and groups will be harmed by trade, but overall and in the long run even they are better off with more and freer trade. The issue of trade-offs from trade is important, though I don’t care for the terminology of winners and losers. Like Bernstein, I acknowledge that some might be relatively less well-off because of trade, but I am not sure that qualifies as being a loser because even the data Bernstein uses shows that they are typically still better off absolutely. More rhetorically, talk of winners/losers perpetuates the myth of trade as zero-sum and that does great damage.

Even with these faults, I enjoyed the book and found it relatively readable. For the most part, it eschews technical jargon and so the book rarely drags.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review: Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn

Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I've said in previous reviews of Atkins' Spenser: he does a great job of capturing Parker's voice and style. Over the course of the several Spenser books by Atkins, however, you can tell that more of Atkins is coming through. That is not bad in itself; I enjoy the books. But it's clear you are reading Atkins writing as Parker and not Parker. There are just little things and moments that are not quite right. For example, something Hawk says which fits the story but it is just not what Parker's Hawk would say.

This was a good story; all the classic set pieces for Spenser stories are there. I enjoyed it as I have the previous books. I have to admit, though, that I am ready to say goodbye. I'll buy the next Spenser book by Atkins for sure, but if this is it. I'm good. The end of the book had a feeling for me very much like the last episode of Cheers. The story goes on; the characters live on; it's just our window into it that has closed.

I'd rather see Atkins take the Z character and see what he can do with him; make Z his own (to continue the Cheers analogy: Z could be Frasier).

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: Ride the River

Ride the River Ride the River by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. A quick read, it had what you would want from a Sackett novel. Action, beautifully detailed descriptions of the countryside, and interesting characters. I liked Echo a lot. I wish we had more about her, but I am not sure how much of a role she plays in the later Sackett novels. L'Amour does, I think, a good job with the challenge of writing from a female point of view. She is not just a 'Sackett in skirts,' so to speak, nor is she a damsel in distress. She is a tough, witty, knowledgeable, solid character. She takes care of herself thank you very much.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review: The Last Detective

The Last Detective The Last Detective by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I am not sure what the 'last detective' means, this was a thrilling read from cover to cover. Crais stretches his characters, Cole and Pike especially, to the breaking point. It'll be interesting to see how the events of this book affect the characters going forward. The narrative structure adds to the suspense as well. Crais switches points of view and also from 1st to 3rd person from chapter to chapter.

Crais continues to develop Pike: giving him more backstory and the reader more insight into his internal dialogue. The first few books felt like Spenser and Hawk in LA -- and this isn't a criticism because I love Spenser and Hawk; indeed it's part of what drew me to Cole and Pike--but it is good for Crais to expand and develop his characters in his own way.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Review: Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests

Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests by Jason F. Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Markets Without Limits is a clear philosophical defense of the claim that there are no inherent limits to markets. What the authors Brennan and Jaworski (B&J) mean by this is that “if you may do it for free, then you may do it for money” (10). So, if you may possess water for free, you may also sell it. If you may have sex without paying for it, you may also buy it. Additionally, since you may not possess child pornography, you may not sell or buy it either. Since you may not murder for free, you may not murder for a price. These are not limits on the markets per se. They are limits on human behavior irrespective of markets.

The book is clear in two important ways. First, stylistically, it is written in a straightforward way. The chapters are relatively short: making them more focused and to the point. There is little in the way of jargon – and they make an effort to define carefully unavoidable technical verbiage.

Second, they make great effort to make sure that the arguments they are criticizing or advancing are presented as clearly and as logically as possible. I found myself frequently raising a concern or possible objection in the margins only to have that concern or objection discussed in the next paragraph or section. It got a little eerie at times—as if they were reading my mind!

They do a great job of presenting the anti-commodification arguments clearly and fairly. In fact, I think they do a better job of making the anti-commodification case than most of the anti-commodification theorists themselves. Their broad topology of the different criticisms helps to clarify and focus the arguments for these points and their criticisms.

B&J explicitly take a non-foundationalist approach; that is, they do not tie or base their arguments on prior moral or political commitments. They want their argument to work with whatever commitments with which the reader might start. There is rhetorical value in this method: you don’t get bogged down in questions of ethical theory, etc. You get to start by accepting (at least hypothetically) the commitments of your theoretical opponent and claim that you still get to your conclusions. The downside is that you can sometimes seem to accept too much; or that your theory becomes too detached from its foundations. Indeed, it can distract you from actually making the case from its foundations. B&J get close to these dangers at times, but seem to skate by without cross over.

They make an important – and in retrospect obvious – distinction between anti-commodification and business ethics. Anti-commodification, they argue, is the view that there are goods, services, etc., that people may rightly possess or use in some manner outside of a market, but for which it would be wrong to sell or buy. That is, there are things that you may do for free, but you may not do for money. This view is, broadly, that the market takes something that was permissible but then in virtue of being put in a market turns it into something impermissible. This is the view B&J are challenging.

They differentiate this view from business ethics. Business ethics is about the right and wrong ways to engage in markets. They accept that there are right and wrong ways to sell things; that there very well could be and often are legitimate time, place, and manner restrictions on individual markets. These are not inherent limits to markets per se; they are only limitations on a specific manner that something is being sold. The essence of B&J’s argument is that anti-commodification theorists have to show that there is no time, place, or manner to sell or buy the good or service, not just that there is a time, place or manner in which it would be wrong to sell or buy the good or service.

Often in discussions of the legitimacy of markets, this difference between commodification and business ethics gets confused and anti-commodification theorists make a business ethics point (X shouldn’t be sold in this way) but take themselves for having made an anti-commodification point (X shouldn’t be sold, period.). B&J show that these are different points: they require different arguments and different evidence. In some ways, if they are right about this difference (and I think they are), then anti-commodification arguments start to look pretty superficial. The real (and interesting) ethical issues are in the business ethics domain.

I do wonder, though, how effective this book and its arguments will be against the anti-commodificationists. I can easily see them saying, ok fine. So there are no inherent limits to markets, but there are lots and lots of incidental limits. So many, they might argue, that the practical difference between inherent and incidental gets lost. I think B&J would respond by saying; so what? The argument here is just that there are no inherent limits. If that point is won, then we can move on to the different incidental limits (and into Business Ethics). But they will have shown (and the anti-commodification theorists will have to have acknowledged) that markets in themselves are not corrupting, evil, toxic, or what not. And if B&J’s book does that, then it is will indeed be a monumentally important book.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Review: The English Girl

The English Girl The English Girl by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with the previous Allon books, I throughly enjoyed this installment. Silva is pushing the character forward, slowly, here; promising big changes for him in the future. I like the familiar faces of his team and other partners (Like Seymour--though no Carter here). I rather like the bringing in of Keller as Allon's Hawk or Pike. I am curious how Silva will use this character in the future.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review: Foundation's Edge

Foundation's Edge Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy Asimov's writing and I'm intrigued by the world he created in the Foundation series (and his other novels) Nevertheless, there are a few things that bother me. First, for all his plotting ability, characterization is not Asimov's strong suit. Too many characters are indistinguishable. Second, the retconning that he starts to do here to fit it in with the early robot and galactic empire novels can be stretched too thin at times (less here than in later novels, but still). I don't have a specific instance in mind, it's more just the sense of trying to hard. Lastly, and most annoying to me, is the extensive use of mental powers (mentalics). It is just too far a bridge for me in terms of credulity. And since he uses it some much to drive the plot, it takes away from the enjoyment for me.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review: Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is paean for play. Brown says of himself that he is unabashed play advocate and he points to the various ways that play is important for development, physical and mental health, and even the existence of all civilization. I think of myself of as a kind of play advocate as well; I think most people—adult and children alike—need more (or better) play in their lives. Yet I think Brown’s enthusiasm about the importance of play probably outstrips the evidence. In some ways, he is overly broad about what gets included as play (and conversely what excluded).

The book is definitely pitched at a more general audience (for example, there is no bibliography to help one follow up on the various research studies he talks about). I would have liked and was expecting some more analysis of the science behind the claims he makes – but as a general trade book this just doesn’t get below the surface.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of value here. Brown has some wonderful anecdotes about the impact of play. He does provide a window into the role play has in development of children and our species. He discusses the ways that the lack of play affects us as adults and suggests some ways to rediscover our play. In this way, the book is a kind of self-help book. It is a good starting point for people thinking about the value and importance of play.

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Sunday, March 06, 2016

Review: Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is highly praised; many others whom I respect like this book. It sounded right up my alley as well. But maybe my expectations were just too high and so I was inevitably let down. The book was very engaging; the information it provides is very interesting and important. Overall, I think many of Gray’s points about play and learning and development are correct. But I was expecting something different and more from this book.

I didn't expect it to be so much on the Sudbury Valley School. This material was interesting, but hard for me to see its wider application and relevance. First, it’s not clear the students at SVS are engaged in play as such and second, I am not sure the context and culture of that school – as excellent as it sounds – generalizes as wide as Gray obviously thinks it does.

Gray does very little consideration of alternative explanations or arguments against the view he is putting forward. For example: he discusses a lot about Sudbury Valley School’s success but dismisses all too quickly that it really has anything to do with the students; that is, he ignores the selection effect of the population choosing SVS.

While I am sympathetic to his view; and his criticism of schooling, I got occasionally annoyed at his blanket rejection of all schooling. Someone one more skeptical of Gray’s view would see him as painting the entire complex education system with one brush.

Gray’s tracing back to the hunter-gather societies was in itself interesting, but it was hard to connect the relevance of this. First, it struck me as somewhat of an overly romantic vision of what life in those societies was lie. Second, whatever might have worked or applied in that context; the context today is too different for a direct analogy. Human culture evolution has changed so much that whatever we might have been adapted for has already changed. At the very least, that’s a counter that Gray never really addresses.

There was just not much argument for what I took to be the central thesis: that play is centrally important to development and learning. There are references to the relevant literature, but the conclusions were presented as fait accompli, not as a conclusion to which he is trying to convince us and provide reasoning and justification for. This might be too harsh, because there is some of that, but the overall tone is more of assertion rather than argument. I was hoping to see much more development of these connections between play and learning and emotional development. Critics sometimes are critical of authors for not writing the book they wanted the author to write; but in this case, the book’s subtitle “Why unleashing the instinct to play will make out children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life” suggests to me that the book will primarily be about providing the argument for the connections between play and learning and emotional development. On that front, the book fell short.

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: The Fallen Angel

The Fallen Angel The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This installment of Gabriel Allon is one of the best. It ripples with intrigue, twists, and great characters. It mixes together the illicit antiques trade with Islamic terrorism in characteristic Silva style. It's hard to read these novels and not want to get on plane to Rome, Vienna, and Jerusalem.

The plot is at the same time far-fetched and incredible and scarily realistic. Allon gets the team back together yet again to stop an impeding terrorist attack and in the process they uncover something huge. I won't say what to avoid spoilers.

As always when I read an Allon novel I grew both hopeful and despondent. Despondent at the hatred, angry, and violence that exists; hopeful that maybe there are people like Allon, Lavon, and Pope Paul VII in the world.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review: Toleration

Toleration Toleration by Andrew Jason Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Andrew J. Cohen’s Toleration starts with the “aim to provide a clear and lively introduction to the issues surrounding toleration” (1). He successfully, in my view, achieves this aim. He grounds the concept of toleration historically in the history of western liberalism. Then, after a theoretical interlude, he presents several different principles that (might) ground and guide toleration. The most important of these is the Harm Principle. Cohen’s account of toleration, unsurprisingly, is rooted largely (and rightly in my view) in Mill’s On Liberty. He closes with an analysis of the general value and good of toleration. All in all, it is clear and it is lively; it is written, for the most part, in a direct and accessible way. So much so that this would make a great text for an introduction to political philosophy class.

I say “for the most part” above because there were a few sections that got bogged down in a bit. First, the theoretical section of chapter 2 seems to play more to a particular trend in professional political philosophy. The value of this chapter in relation to the rest of book was unclear to me. Second, Cohen’s discusses an argument for basing toleration on a principle of benefiting others (4B). This was the one section of the book I found hard to follow; the argument here being opaque. This might be much more to do with the difficulty of trying to articulate a view that is itself unclear than to a deficiency on Cohen’s part.

Cohen is careful to distinguish toleration from relativism, subjectivism, or non-judgmentalism. In fact, Cohen intends his view to be universal and it is based on a kind of objective morality. Moreover, the very idea or need for toleration depends on the prior fact of having judged someone (or his or her actions) to be objectionable.

The focus of the concept of toleration Cohen discusses is on non-interference. That is, we tolerate when have a principled reason for not interfering with someone else that we find in some way objectionable. This leaves open a question of whether or not toleration governs our interaction with others when it is not a matter of interference. That is, Shannon thinks that her co-worker Avi’s views about the treatment of animals to be deeply immoral. Assuming there is no issue of Shannon interfering with Avi, does toleration speak to how she might interact with Avi? Is she wrong to shun him? To refuse to participate in committees at work that Avi is a part of? I suspect Cohen’s answer on this front is that if it doesn’t involve a question of interfering with Avi, then it is a different kind of moral question than the one with which he is dealing. That seems right in a way, but at the same time, it makes sense to speak of Shannon not tolerating Avi.

Although relatively short (156 pp), Cohen’s book covers a lot of ground. It is a useful book for those interested in understand better the concept of toleration, its justification, its value, and its limits.

(Disclaimer of a sort: I organized and will be chairing an Author Meets Critics session for Cohen’s book at the 2016 Central APA meeting in Chicago, IL. More here:

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: Dance Hall of the Dead

Dance Hall of the Dead Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago in a college class on Detective Fiction. But since I've decided to read the Leaphorn series from the start and I barely remembered the plot, I reread this one. This is really the first Leaphorn novel, since in Blessing Way he is more of a secondary character. But here we see the full-blown detective. He is logical, patience, and precise. He is tapped into and understands the more mystical aspects of his culture, but it is not clear to what extent he accepts those beliefs. They are, it seems, just one more tool to help him understand and make sense of the crime he is trying to solve. The landscapes are beautifully described-- I find myself often going to google maps to look for the mesas and washes he talks about. The plot is good, though a bit predictable (that maybe me remembering aspects from previous readings though). Like Spenser, Leaphorn has a need, or rather an obligation of sorts, to rescue young people. Leaphorn in some ways fails, and one can see the weight of that failure on him. Yet, there is no despair here; just determination to continue.

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Review: Jubal Sackett

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

A beautiful continuation of the Sackett family. This one focuses on Jubal, one of Barnabas' sons. Jubal has gone west, eventually crossing the Mississippi and the Great Plains into the Rockies. There is a lot of wandering and pondering by Jubal punctuated by different battles with enemies he has picked up along the way. Much of the focus is on his relationship with the Native Americans. He respects them, but foresees the troubles that will be coming their way. L'Amour, though, recognizes the complexity of the Native American tribes and doesn't fall into the trap of the 'noble savage' or the 'white devil'. I wish L'Amour had lived to tell the story of Jubal's children. The next Sackett book jumps ahead to the 19th century and we never, to my knowledge, come back to the age of Barnabas and his sons.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: A Spectacle of Corruption

A Spectacle of Corruption A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an exciting, fun read. An interesting look into what it might have been like in London in the 18th century. Employing the classic genre move of having the detective hero solve the crime in order to exonerate himself, we get a crash course in English politics and law of the time. Liss does a good job of capturing the language and the style of the times (or at least appearing to--I am not an expert in 18th century England and so I am sure he doesn't get it all correct. But it has the feel of something authentic).

The ending was a bit too quick and things got tidied up too conveneniently, but otherwise the plot was well done--it was not predicatable or obvious. The characters were intriguing and fun.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a little disappointed in the book. While I think the mindset framework is very helpful: for me personally, for my professional life as teacher, and for being a parent, the book itself was far too much anecdote and not enough on how to change one's mindset. This might not be fair: after all, it's a book not a therapy session or workshop. But the book is presented as somewhat of a guide to help one change, so it's not entirely unfair of me to criticize it because it doesn't do enough on this front.

The last chapter is really the only place that Dweck gives some practical advice. The remaining chapters are, more or less, here's some people in a domain that have fixed mindsets and see how that holds them back. Then, here are some people in the same domain that have growth mindsets and see how they soar. These anecdotes are often quite interesting, entertaining, and informative. They help you see the mindset in action; but they don't, as anecdotes establish the validity of mindsets, and they don't provide a lot in the way of advice for making a sustained changed to your own mindset.

That said, I think understanding how one can be in fixed mindset at times and how this can hold one back is very important. The awareness of this alone can help change the way you approach a dilemma, conflict, or problem.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Blood of the Fold

Blood of the Fold Blood of the Fold by Terry Goodkind
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the first two books in this series a lot. They were highly creative and original. The plot was driven by character choices and tied into their values. This one, however, fell short of the high mark. There were still interesting and imaginative aspects to the setting and the storytelling; and I liked most of the characters, but there was something missing here. There was too much of Richard and other characters reacting on instinct and not really knowing what they were doing. The antagonists were less interesting. The overall story here was more plodding and unclear than the earlier novels. The secondary characters were far more interesting --and in many ways more important to the plot -- than Richard and Kahlan. Gratch maybe Goodkind's best character.

I like the series, but I don't love it and I don't know if it is worth 6 or 700 pages.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley’s new book is a great synthesis of a lot of the ways that evolutionary processes are at the heart of everything. Using Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura as his guide, he runs through human history and development. He covers religion, the internet, money, government, and much more. He illuminates the fundamental connections and underlying principles at work across such disparate domains.

Ridley argues that there is a general theory of evolution—biological evolution being the special theory—that explains how all things evolve. This general theory of evolution is, in essence, the view that everything is, too some significant degree, the result of emergent, unplanned, undesigned, and inexorable processes. Things develop gradually through modification and selection. He presents example after example of how bottom-up processes play the essential role in human progress and development and top-down structures are so-often ineffectual or damaging.

He uses the metaphor of creationists and evolutionists to identity whether top-down or bottom-up animates one’s view of the world. A creationist is one who thinks that top-down structures and processes are the way things work and progress. Whether in biology, economics, or the internet, if one things there has to be a designer to bring order to the system, then one is a creationist. On the other side, an evolutionist recognizes that order and design are not identical. These systems are, for the most part, self-organizing and without a design or designer.

If I had one criticism, it was that he tended to underplay the role of individuals. I think he is overreacting to the “Great Man of History” view. While there is – at least in retrospective – an inexorable march of history, I think that certain figures made choices that where not inexorable and would have, counterfactually, changed history if the choice was different or they had not existed. Yes in the 1900s, there were lots of people circling around something like the Theory of Relativity—but I don’t think anyone in the first part of 20th century would have come up with Relativity other than Einstein. There was something about his personality, his skill set, his life that put him a position to identity when he did. And if Relativity isn’t discovered until the 1940s—the 20th century is much, much different. Similarly with someone like Steve Jobs. He had a unique vision of technology and the personality and drive to implement it. I am not sure anyone else had that vision and/or the skill set to make it happen.

I liked the book, but I am in the choir here and Ridley is largely preaching to those like me. I don’t think many “creationists” would find the book convincing – at least across the board. They might acknowledge emergent systems in biology but not economics and politics (or vice versa). Ridley isn’t so much engaging in sustained persuasive argument against creationists. He is, in my view, more setting out to synthesize and bring together into one space the various ways evolutionary processes are at work across human experience. This is not a ground-breaking, path-blazing book. It’s a step back and integrate what we know book.

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