Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Expanse had been recommended to me several times, from several different people. I'm glad I finally listened! This is great sci-fi, but with elements of horror and noir. It has touches of 2001 and elements reminiscent of Asimov. It's not hard sci-fi in so far as there isn't a lot of technical nit and gritty (though there is some); but it does work at being seeming plausible and accurately extrapolated.

The world-building of humanity spread across the solar system, and in particular the asteroid belt, is very cool. The plot itself is intriguing and nicely integrated across the 500+ pages. The two main characters are really interesting-and make for great foils. The authors do a great job of pitting two 'good guys' against each other as the main conflict. This is not a manichean story/dark vs light story-- though there definitely are good guys and bad guys here; it's that the main conflict that pushes the story forward is between two protagonists and their conflicting visions of how to act.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Review: Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes

Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex AthletesSporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes by Joanna Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most contentious issues in sport is that of transgender and intersex athletes. It is an extraordinarily complex and fraught mix that often seems like it pits two important values against each other: opportunity and fairness. Sport should be open to all those who wish to complete and to compete at the highest levels they can. Sport, at its best, also seeks to create fair and meaningful competitions. So, on one hand, sport should be open to all athletes able to complete: it would be wrong to limit the opportunities of transgender and intersex athletes. But, on the other hand, there is a concern that if those opportunities aren’t limited in some way, specifically that if trans and intersex women compete without limitations against cisgender women, it could undermine the fairness of such competitions.

I don’t think there is a straightforward or obvious answer on these issues: and there are good, reasonable arguments (and many bad arguments too) for many different positions on all the various aspects of these issues. That said, my default position is towards the liberty of athletes to compete in the sport of their choice. I don’t mean to say that is the answer: but only that it is my starting point. It is the presumptive position that I think any argument to limit this liberty and opportunity needs to overcome.

Joanna Harper’s Sporting Gender is a good starting point for looking at many of the issues and arguments that might defeat or sustain this presumption. Harper’s book, as the subtitle indicates, takes you through the history, science, and stories of transgender and intersex athletes.
Starting in the early part of the twentieth century, she presents many stories of the individual trans and intersex women and their struggles to compete in sport. Many of these stories are tragic; too often rooted in ignorance and prejudice. For those that think these issues start and end with Castor Semenya, this history is essential.

Harper also discusses the science of sex and its impact on exercise and athletics. She details the many different ways that one might not fit neatly into either of the more familiar categories of male and female. Biological sex is nowhere near as simple as one might assume. (Not to even get into issues of gender.) There is some technical stuff to wade through, but the general gist should be digestible by those without much science background. This is summary, though; there are better places to look for more detailed discussions of the science (much of which can be found in the book’s endnotes).

Another important element of the book is Harper’s discussion of some of the legal cases that punctuate the history of trans and intersex athletes. The details and decisions of these cases are historically important and they had direct influence on the current regulations and guidelines of the major sport organizations like the IOC and IAAF.

Much of the latter half of the book focuses on two recent important Court of Arbitration cases involving intersex athletes (Chand and Semenya). Harper was involved in both cases as an expert witness. While I appreciated the inside look into these cases, this is where the book was at its weakest. I wasn’t all that interested in Harper’s evaluation of the various lawyers involved and whether their closing remarks were powerful or not. There was a lot of that sort of thing in these sections and that took away from the more important issue of rehearsing the arguments presented.
Harper is a trans woman and a runner, and she uses her own experiences to help frame parts of the book. This is both a blessing and a curse. It helps to contextualize and humanize much of the more abstract history and science. But it also means that the book is part memoir and so there are various tangents about her own life that were not part of my reasons for reading this book.

Harper’s ultimately position is that elite competitive sports needs to find the right balance of rules and methods to maximize “the possibility that all women can enjoy equitable and meaningful sport” (247). Furthermore, that there are good reasons to keep separating athletes in to male and female divisions and that the use of testosterone levels is the best current method to make this distinction (247). Though she does provide reasons for why this is her position, the book is not really set up to be a clear and cogent argument to support these claims. Its focus is more on presenting the history (both personal and legal) and the science. And on that front, I’d recommend it for those interested in this issue.

I don’t think the book deals enough with the philosophical and ethical aspects of trans and intersex athletes. What makes for fair and meaningful competition? Why are male/female divisions important? If there is a performance advantages by being trans or intersex, why should that matter and how is it different from other kinds of (non-doping) performance advantages? Harper broaches these questions to a degree, but she is not a philosopher and so the discussion is, in my view, too superficial and limited. There is also almost no engagement with the sport philosophy literature that discusses these issues. I still would recommend the book for the history and science angle, but it is not going to answer the meatier questions of philosophy or ethics.

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Review: The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern ThoughtThe Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought by Dennis C. Rasmussen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important work to help understand the relationship and mutual influence of Smith and Hume. Rasmussen explains how the men met, how their relationship developed over the years, and how they influenced each other. It dispels many of myths and half-truths on all these fronts. Rasmussen does such a great job, that by the end, as he discusses Hume's death, you really feel Smith's loss. The depth and poignancy of their friendship shines through.

The reader, Keith Sellon-Wright, was excellent.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Review: Star Wars Lost Stars, Vol. 1 (manga) (Star Wars Lost Stars

Star Wars Lost Stars, Vol. 1 (manga) (Star Wars Lost Stars (manga))Star Wars Lost Stars, Vol. 1 (manga) (Star Wars Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(covering all three volumes)

This is an enjoyable secondary Star Wars story. It doesn't expand on the universe or introduce anything new, but gives us a look into the how the rise and fall the Empire affected the lives and relationships of the main characters: Thane and Ciena. The story does a good job of integrating with the mainline Star Wars story without stepping on it.

I haven't read the Gray's original novel on which the manga is based, so I can't speak to the adaption, but the art in the manga captures the cinematic elements of Star Wars in away that helps bring the story to life. As young adult graphic novel, it has some juvenile aspects but not too many. I definitely enjoyed it (I devoured them in two days).

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

Review: Death Without Company

Death Without Company (Walt Longmire, #2)Death Without Company by Craig Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Johnson has created such an interesting and compelling cast of characters. Though they play on various character types, none of them feel stereotypical. I am not entirely sure about the supernatural elements, but they are not central and they add a bit of spice. I enjoy the the descriptions of the Wyoming landscape and environment. I also think Johnson does a good job of realistically integrating indigenous people and cultures. The mystery is fine, but seems a bit secondary to the interplay of the characters.

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