Friday, August 28, 2020

Review: Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning RaceSelf-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ memoir is a deeply personal exploration of the evolution of his thinking about race and identity. The candor and honesty with which he engages these often divisive and controversial issues is refreshing. And, maybe more importantly, enlightening. I am not sure I quite fully agree with or even wholly understand some of what Williams is arguing. But he asks and attempts to answer for himself important questions about his own identity and what that suggests about the issues of race and identity more generally. Though the cases are somewhat different, these questions are quite relevant for my own questions about my Jewish identity.

The basic idea I take him to be arguing for is that we need to transcend race. He is, as I understand him, arguing that we need to find a way to celebrate or just acknowledge the connections we each individually have with our family, culture, and history (and the diversity these all contain). But, he argues, race is an artificial construct that adds little, if anything, to this. He’s not striving for a muting out of differences, but a recognition that the categories of race just don’t capture what is important about each person. But we have come all too often to treat these categories as totalizing; we reify them in ways that have caused so much harm and damage – for everyone.

Williams uses his own family to illustrate and motivate this mediation. He comes from a mixed family: his mother from European ancestry and his father with African ancestry by way of slavery. Williams married a French woman with whom he has had two children—both of whom by his account are blonde, blued-eye Parisians. This straddling of so many different concurrent identities is part of what makes Williams well-situated to ask these questions: it both gives him the space to ask them and the motivation to do so.

In the end, agree with his view about race and identity or not, Williams’ poignant engagement with these issues is definitely worth one’s time.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review: Apocalypse Never: How the Left's New Lies About Climate Change Hurt People and Nature

Apocalypse Never: How the Left's New Lies About Climate Change Hurt People and NatureApocalypse Never: How the Left's New Lies About Climate Change Hurt People and Nature by Michael Shellenberger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an eye-opening book. Shellenberger takes on several sacred cows of contemporary environmentalism with detailed and persuasive arguments.

Shellenberger is not rejecting environmentalism. He is not denying climate change or other serious environmental problems. Not by a long shot. By all accounts he is a deeply committed environmentalist who wants to save the planet and cares intensely for animal and human life and its continued existence and flourishing.

What his goal is, and I think he largely succeeds, is to argue for these four main points.

1. Apocalyptic or alarmist accounts of environmentalism are not based on the best available science. It is more like religion than science. The end of the world is not nigh. Things have, on the whole, actually gotten better, not worse.

2. The people involved in the environmental alarmist movement are either severely hypocritical or corrupt, and frequently both.

3. There are mitigating strategies for most of the pressing environmental problems, but all of these are fundamentally based on economic growth, poverty reduction, and the policies that encourage and allow these.

4. The only way forward is to produce and use more energy (not less) and the only way to do that without causing more pollution and other environmental problems is nuclear power. Fears of nuclear power are largely unfounded, based on misconceptions and ignorance about how it works (and often those ideas are spread by those funded by producers of natural gas: see #2)

I am for the most part persuaded by Shellenberger’s arguments. He brings forward the evidence and discusses the counterevidence and counterarguments. He strikes me as honestly trying to evaluate and interpret the available evidence. That doesn’t mean he’s always going to get it right, but he is sincerely presenting how he has come to think the way he has. He explains his own mistakes and errors and what he learned that led him to correct those.

One doesn’t have to agree with all his arguments to see that this book is important for two main reasons (beyond the particular claims of its content): (1) we must challenge and criticize any and all views, no matter how “settled”. This is how we discover new truth, correct falsehoods and errors, and, just as importantly, come to better understand the grounds for these settled truth. So even when we are firmly convinced of the truth, we need to challenge it to understand it. (2) We must not mistake consensus and narrative for truth, knowledge, or understanding. The consensus might be true, the narrative might capture and express knowledge, but we have to do the work to discover that: we can’t just take it for granted. And we can’t assume we understand what the consensus seems to hold without really looking at it, challenging it, digesting it. This books helps us do that about environmentalism, and so if taken seriously, should help us better understand how to continue to make the world a better place for all us.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Review: Caliban's War

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A terrific follow up to Leviathan WakesLeviathan's Wake. It has a different feel, I think mainly because the central characters and setting are already established. This allows the authors to focus on some of the new characters, as well develop the established ones more. The pacing here felt different as well; the first book took time setting things up and slowly pulling things together to its climax. This book jumps right in. I love the story telling; the different point of views for each chapter (like George RR Martin does in fire and ice) creates a more dynamic story and allows us to get to know each main character a little better. We see the character's own view, and then how other's see them. It also allows us to see the same situation from somewhat different vantage points, giving the reader of a more expansive sense of the world.

I'm definitely ready to dive right into to book 3.

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Saturday, August 08, 2020

Review: Doctor Aphra

Doctor Aphra (Star Wars)Doctor Aphra by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Doctor Aphra is a great character; one of my favorite in Star Wars (sort of a darker timeline female Han Solo). This is a dramatic adaption of her first appearances in the Star Wars comics. If you've read the Vader and mainline Star Wars series, you'll be familiar with all the events here. It's told here as a recording Aphra is making. So it's all from her point of view, with more of her inner thoughts about her motivations, plans, and how the events unfold. Even though I knew the story, there were some aspects that get better developed or explored in the audio. I don't think you need to have read the comics to follow along, though I could see how some of the context, characters, and settings might be confusing if you don't know the fuller picture that is presented in the comics. In any case, if you are a Star Wars fan you should be reading the comics anyway! Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this and I think you will too.

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Sunday, August 02, 2020

Review: How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in FreedomHow Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Innovation is necessary for living flourishing lives and innovation requires freedom to flourish. This is the overall theme of Ridley's latest book. Ridley goes through the history of many essential innovations in energy production, medicine, transportation, food, communication, and more. He distinguishes between innovation and invention: arguing that often the innovations are more important than the invention. The innovations are often what makes a barely workable prototype into a practical and effective tool for our lives. Another important aspect of innovation he explores through out the book is the idea that innovators are more often than not people outside of the status quo: they are not the respected scientists of the day, but tinkerers looking for a way to do something a little better, a littler quicker, and little more effectively. Often innovations predate the developed scientific understanding of the innovation itself and help lead the scientists and theoreticians towards that understanding. This is part of why innovation is so unpredictable: we are often not paying attention to the area from which the innovation will come.

One of central features of innovation, argues Ridley, is trial and error experimentation. The innovators need the freedom to think outside of the box, to try and to experiment. And to try again and again after they fail. This is why freedom is so important to innovation. Where freedom is curtailed, this experimentation is curtailed as well. If people are afraid to fail, then they won't innovate.

He discusses various kinds of impediments to this freedom to try: often from governments of course, but from other sources as well. In this vein he looks at intellectual property (copyrights and patents) as one such impediment. I am not convinced he makes the case here for their abolition, but I am persuaded that the ways in which we grant and deal with IP needs reform.

Overall, it's a fascinating look at the history of innovation and innovators.

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