Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Review: Black Sun

Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky, #1)Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roanhorse introduces us to a whole new fantasy world in this first book of her new trilogy. As she did in Trail of Lightning with Navajo and Native American culture, Roanhorse takes inspiration from Mesoamerican cultural myths and stories and she recombines and reimagines them to weave together a new fantastical world where gods and magic are real and dangerous.

I think Trail of Lightning was better and more interesting, but Black Sun is quite good. It takes much longer to get a feel for, both in terms of the story and the character. But as the plot and the characters converge, it gets better and better. Though a bit plodding and predictable at first, the world Roanhorse creates is ultimately new, fresh, and fascinating.

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Review: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our WorldRule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The central theme of this book is that there is a continuum of loose norm and tight norm cultures. The looser the culture, the less strict the norms for behavior are. There are many more permissible ways to act in that culture, with fewer punishments for non-compliance. The tighter the culture, the stricter the norms: fewer things that are permissible or acceptable. There are more punishments for not adhering to the expectations and norms of tight cultures. The author looks at how this continuum plays out cross-culturally and also within organizations and other norm-governed groups.

Dr. Gelfand sees this distinction, this continuum as explaining many social conflicts. Everything from conflicts between nation-states, between different groups within cultures, between spouses and families, between parenting styles, and between corporate cultures in mergers. She tracks the correlations between loosen and tightness and many other measures: including happiness, well-being, economic success, governing stabilities, etc. She finds that cultures that are more balanced between tightness and looseness (the goldilocks principle) tend to do better on all these measures. Veer too tightly or too loosely and things tend to trend worse for that culture.

Gelfand argues that the cause of norms tightening up is from a perception of danger. Cultures that tend to be tighter experience more threats: internally or externally. These might be from other people (e.g. threats of invasions) or natural (e.g. regular earthquakes or severe weather events). She sees this at work in industry as well: industries with tighter norms, more compliance and regulations, are ones where there is greater potential for danger and harm. A looseness about mistakes and compliance at a nuclear power plant is dangerous. And those industries that are seen as loose (think Silicon Valley) are ones where mistakes aren’t going to lead to death and widespread harm. Gelfand argues that in the presence of a threat, cultures of all kinds tighten up and when that threat fades, there is a loosening. (This helps to make sense of the way many otherwise liberal (loose) societies, like New Zealand or California, imposed very tight restrictions during Covid).

There is a lot to be learned by using the tight/loose framework to make sense of many things. However, I think Gelfand over does it; it is too all encompassing: she sees tightness and looseness under ever rock and around every corner. It is presented as explaining everything about cultures. I don’t think she actually thinks that, but as you go through the book, that is definitely the impression one can walk away from. There is not enough discussion of alternative theories that might explain things better but also the places where the thesis doesn’t seem to work that well. There are several “exceptions” to her thesis connecting threats to tightness: Israel, the Netherlands, California, etc. These are cultures that tend to be much looser than the thesis would suggest, given the threats they regularly face. Gelfand does discuss these and how they are exceptions, her main response is that these are also diverse cultures and that mitigates against the tightening one would normally expect. That is interesting, but ultimately, I found it a bit too quick.

I think Gelfand’s thesis is interesting and worth thinking about. I think it can be very useful for understanding how norms in cultures are working. But I also think it is just part of the story. I’ve no doubt that Gelfand understands that and agrees, but the book tends a bit too much towards presenting the thesis as THE explanation and that undermined its persuasiveness.

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Monday, December 06, 2021

Review: The Long Fall

The Long FallThe Long Fall by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book starts off Mosley's new detective series (new-ish; this is from 2010). Leonid McGill fits into the classic Hammett/Chandler model. A hero with questionable conventional norms--willing to do things and live partially on the edges of society. Yet, with a strong internal moral code. There is only so far he'll go and there is a price he is not willing to accept for his integrity. McGill, though, is in the process of transforming himself; redeeming himself from a past where his personal code was weaker and he was more willing to do whatever came his way. Predictably, his past won't let go so easily. Unlike many such protagonists in this genre, McGill has a family which adds a different element to the demands on him. McGill does have a side kick who is further outside of the context of social norms but respects and protects McGill. The influence of Parker's Hawk is a clearly evident here.

While the plot threads and characters were hard to track at times, the thrust of the story works well and comes together at the end. The characters are compelling and avoid stereotypes and conventional tropes. Mosley is deservedly one of the masters of this genre.

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Friday, December 03, 2021

Review: Think like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World

Think like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s WorldThink like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World by Massimo Pigliucci,
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m familiar with some of Massimo Pigliucci’s work, so I had very high expectations for this course. (I worked with him in preparing a symposium on Stoicism for Reason Papers.)

While the course is interesting and well-presented, it didn’t live up to those (probably unfairly) high expectations. Pigliucci does a good job of introducing the newcomer to Stoicism: its history, its essential ideas, and its main figures. He also mixes in plenty of advice on how to apply these ideas to one’s life today. I would have liked a bit more of a deeper dive into the philosophy and less on the practical application. Not that the latter shouldn’t have been included, far from it, but the mix was heavier on that than I was hoping for. The practical applications are essential, if only because Stoicism was meant as a practical philosophy.

I would definitely recommend this for those interested in learning about Stoicism and how it could apply to their lives. If you are already familiar with stoicism and are looking for something that goes a bit further into it; this probably is not the right course for you.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Review: Sacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

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

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

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Review: Intellectuals and Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, October 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 04, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: A Darkness More Than Night

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

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

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

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: The Obelisk Gate

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Angels Flight

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

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

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Sunday, September 05, 2021

Review: Cibola Burn

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Review: Another Man's Moccasins

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

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

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

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Friday, August 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: Romeo's Rules

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

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

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Friday, July 30, 2021

Review: The Cellist

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

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

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

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Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values

The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational ValuesThe Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values by James L. Shulman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though a bit dated, this is an essential book for understanding college sports. The authors analyze datasets of colleges and universities from the 50s, 70s, and 80s to get a sense of the impact, costs, and benefits of college sports on college and beyond. Though they don’t go beyond the late 80s/early 90s in their data, much of what they find is still relevant today, probably more so. There is little reason to think that the trends they see in the data would have reversed.

Their focus is on selective colleges and universities. They compare data from Division 1A, both public and private, institutions, Ivy League schools, and coed liberal arts colleges. They look across the spectrum of sports: not just football and men’s basketball. The first several chapters focus on men’s athletics and then they shift to women’s athletics. They look at admissions, academic outcomes, and impacts on later careers and earnings. They also examine how participation in athletics affects the kind of leadership roles students take on as well as the impact on charity and public service. Their analysis ends with a look at the financial costs of athletic programs. They close the book with a discussion of “propositions” that the authors hope might guide reform attempts.

There are many interesting findings. Some not at all surprising: academic outcomes for most athletes is worse than the average student at their respective institutions; almost no athletics program is profitable. Others are more surprising (at least to me). For example, one of the things they trace through the data is that as women’s athletics, in particular basketball and softball, become bigger (more money, more recruiting, etc), they start to mirror their male counterparts in terms of outcomes and impacts (for good and ill). In retrospect, it’s kind of obvious that this would be the case, but seeing the data that, for example, as recruitment of women athletes intensifies, the academic outcomes start to look more and more like the outcomes of recruited male athletes was eye-opening nonetheless.

For the most part, the book is straightforwardly empirical. The authors present and discuss the data (There is an appendix of 30-40 pages that summaries the key points of the data). There’s little pontification, judgment making, or self-righteous criticism. It’s a serious attempt to bring together data to better understand the history and state of college athletics. It is really only in the last chapter that the authors share how they judge the state of things and where they think it ought to go. They self-consciously do not offer a “blueprint,” but they present nine propositions (which are more like aspirations) to guide reform. Personally, I do not think most of these are workable given the considerable impediments to reform that the authors themselves discuss.

The biggest takeaway, I suppose, of the book is that college athletics and the rest of the university are increasingly diverging. The authors see an important role for athletics as part of the overall mission and purpose of the university, and want to find ways to bridge this gap. However, the data they present doesn’t show a way to do anything about this widening gyre.

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Friday, June 11, 2021

Review: Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and ForeverNine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating book! McWhorter dives into the history and evolution of profanity in English. It is funny but also rich in its exploration of the roots of our contemporary swear words. McWhorter also gets into the why of profanity, what role do these words play in our language and lives? And then how do these roles affect and change the words we treat as profanity. It'll change the way you think about swearing.

I listened to McWhorter read; and I think that's the best way to enjoy this book. The profanity needs to be heard, not read, in order to demonstrate its force and impact. And McWhorter is an excellent reader of his own books.

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Review: The Sentry

The Sentry (Elvis Cole, #12, Joe Pike, #3)The Sentry by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this novel; Pike is a great character to play with. However, I don't think it's Crais' best work. There are some great twists to the story here and the action is fun. But I had hard time believing some of it. In particularly, Pike's enduring interest in Dru and then the ease with which Pike and Cole seem to be able shoot and kill without apparent consequences (even if the shooting/killings are justified, this isn't the Old West).

I think he's still trying to find the best way to tell Pike's story. It's a big shift from Cole as the primary and the traditional PI genre. Even with the flaws, it's a good read for fans of Crais and the genre.

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Saturday, June 05, 2021

Review: The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As fan of Greek mythology, I've wanted to check out this series for a long time. It is quite fun, and I enjoyed how it played with bringing the gods and mythical creatures into contemporary America. The writing is juvenile and basic; some of the descriptions of things and people were cliché or too much 'telling' rather than 'showing.' In this way (among others) Rowling's Harry Potter is far better. Still, this is a lot of fun, an easy, quick read.

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Review: Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors

Philip and Alexander: Kings and ConquerorsPhilip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors by Adrian Goldsworthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't ultimately what I was hoping for. There is far too much focus on the particulars of battles and military maneuvers. Of course, that's to be expected in any history of Philip and Alexander. Especially for Alexander, war and battle make up so much of his life. Still I would have liked more focus into the individuals, their relationships, and even more so, on the impact they had on those around them and the ancient world. The book doesn't ignore these, but the spotlight is more on the battles than the influence/impact. I found myself drifting in the battle descriptions, but piqued by the descriptions of the various cities and cultures Alexander encountered (and conquered). In some ways the focus on Philip in the first part of the book was more interesting: in part maybe because it was more novel, but also because there was more focus on how Philip managed his relationships with the surrounding cities and southern Greece.

I appreciated that the author was careful about the claims being made: the sparsity of evidence that supported them and the conflicting interpretations of that evidence.

For those who listen to the book as I did, the reader was excellent. Good pacing, no distracting mannerisms.

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Review: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantasy novels can often get weighted down by the genre's standard tropes, characters, and themes. Jemisin's novel is refreshingly original in how the story is told and the story being told. The world building is slow and careful, revealed little by little and naturally as the story proceeds. It is intriguing and original. The characters did not feel stock--in part because the reader knows so little about them at first. It is a gripping and sad story. I can't say much more without revealing anything, but if you are looking for a really good, original fantasy series, check it out.

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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports

From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern SportsFrom Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(cross posted at The Sports Ethicist)

Guttmann’s classic From Ritual to Record is, in many ways, two books. The first “book” fits the title: it explains modern sport as something that comes out of but differs in essential ways from pre-modern sports. He provides a context and theory that attempts to account for the change. This first part of the book is (has been) the more important one for scholars of sport.

The second “book” is an attempt to try to account for the (somewhat) unique popularity of baseball and (American) football in America. Although this discussion is personally interesting, both because I’m a fan of both sports and because Guttmann makes extensive use of literature and film to provide illustrations and support of his ideas, it ultimately is too out of date to be all that relevant. Writing in the late 70s and appealing to data and sources from even earlier decades, Guttmann identifies some of the origins of some of the trends we see today (e.g. the slower growth of baseball relative to the growing popularity of football). But to be useful in a contemporary discussion of how American sports differ from the sports of other nations (and what that might tell us), we’d have to update most of that data.

Guttmann starts the “main” book with an attempt at a definition of sport. Working through the ideas of various thinkers, including Suits, Huizinga, Callois, Sutton-Smith, and others, Guttmann draws distinctions between play, games, and sport; and defines sport as a playful physical contest. I have several quibbles with his topology of play, games, and sport, in particular in the manner in which he treats play. He follows the line of thought (which I think is mistaken) that treats play as purely autotelic, with no room for the instrumental or the purposive. This leads, I think, to several errors in how Guttmann conceptualizes sport and its role in our lives. That aside, the general thrust of his description of sport are sufficient to make sense of his argument about the shift from pre-modern to modern sport. His discussion examines how sports modernized in terms of seven main characteristics:

• Secularism
• Equality of opportunity to compete and conditions of competition
• Specialization of roles
• Rationalization
• Bureaucratic organization
• Quantification
• Quest for records

While discussing all of these, secularism and quantification seem to be the essential characteristics. These are the ones he focuses on the most, and in many ways they undergird and explain the other characteristics. For example, the quest for records seems to me to be a function of quantification – since the statistics and measures used for the records are things quantified.

Guttmann explains secularism as the long term shift from the origins of many sports and games in terms of the sacred towards sports as secular. In most cultures, athletic contests were, like most things, bound up with religion, the sacred. The games honored the gods or the contests were themselves sacred rituals (not recreation). Most know that the ancient Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games were (at least in part) sacred religious events.

As he argues, part of the development of the modern world is a process of secularization. By this Guttmann doesn’t mean an outright rejection or eschewing of religion. It is that things that were sacred move in to the mundane. Sport modernize by moving from the sacred realm into the ordinary, everyday world.

Guttmann does briefly touch on the idea that sports have become a kind of secular religion, that it involves many rituals and myths of its own (26). After all, what sports fan hasn’t prayed to the “sports gods” at some point! But Guttmann argues that the point and role of sport in our lives is secular: it’s not about the transcendent or the sacred. It’s about fun, play, and profit.
I think this might dismiss the idea of a sacred secular, if such a thing makes sense. It’s not a transcendence that is mystic or other-worldly; it’s of this world and time but still sacred insofar as it is acknowledged and seen as extraordinary and special. A sacred secular just might be an essential aspect of modern sport. We all, I think, have the need for the sacred and sport might be a secular, non-supernatural way to experience the sacred. Towards the end of chapter 2, Guttmann seems to suggest something like a sacred secular: “Once the gods have vanished from Mount Olympus or from Dante’s paradise, we can no longer run to appease them or to save our souls, but we can set a new record. It is a uniquely modern form of immortality” (55).

The other key element of modern sport is the quantification: the desire to measure and quantify each aspect of sports. Again this is a broad modern trend we see in most aspects of modern life. It deeply impacts sport because there is so much to measure! And these measures become a (or maybe even the) means of comparison and evaluation. How many yards? How many baskets? How many strikes? And this is before we even step in to the age of advance metrics!

Another element of the book is Guttmann’s critique of Marxist (and neo-Marxist) analyses of modern sport. Though he takes pains to point to some positive contributions, he rejects these approaches as the nonsense they are. (In the Afterword, added in 2004, he walks this critique back a little bit and is a bit more accommodating, while still nonetheless rejecting these approaches).

Guttmann’s conclusion about the development of modern sport is best summed up by his claim that: “The emergence of modern sports represents neither the triumph of capitalism nor the rise of Protestantism but rather the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung[a kind of world-view]” (85). The modernization process, in sport and elsewhere, is a function of this world-view: a view that looks to reason and evidence to understand, make sense of, and organize the world in which one lives. Modern sport is an outgrowth of this process. I’m inclined to think that capitalism (understood as the freedom of consenting adults to produce and freely trade goods and services) is equally a result of the same modernization process. But Guttmann’s point still holds that modern sport is not the result of market economies per se; it is rather a parallel, inherently modern development.

Guttmann’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of sport and how modern sport is different from early forms of sport. Though I am less convinced that modern sport is different in kind from earlier forms (though that may not be Guttmann’s point), I think Guttmann is right about the slow development of the world view that ultimate brings about what we recognize as modern sport.

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Monday, May 17, 2021

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller, #1)The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a fan of Connelly's Bosch books (and tv show), I finally got around to starting the Haller series. Very happy I did! Haller is not Bosch; he's younger and more cynical. He's not rudderless; he's got principles and is capable of growth and heroism. A nice hard-boiled mix. It is also interesting to see Connelly's vision of the LA police and courts from the defense lawyer side of things. I know later books crossover with Haller and Bosch and bet those interactions are great.

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Friday, May 07, 2021

Review: Light of the Jedi

Light of the JediLight of the Jedi by Charles Soule
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this opening entry into the new Star Wars era. All new characters and stories, it is wide open. In some ways, maybe too wide-open. By that, I mean it puts the creators in a tough bind. Go too far in a new direction and get criticized for not being 'Star Wars' enough. Stay with the standard tropes and motifs of the Skywalker era and get criticized for not being new. I think Soule's book is probably a bit too much in the latter category--though some of that is because I thought the High Republic era was 1000 years before the Skywalker era. It seemed odd that the technology and lore was so familiar. But it's actually about 200 years earlier, so that makes more sense.

It is exciting to be introduced to a bunch of new Jedi with some different ways of using the Force. On the downside, with so many characters, there isn't a lot of character development. There is a lot of promise with several of the characters.

I won't say much about the antagonists of the novel to avoid spoilers, but I like what Soule is doing with them. It is both different but also not unfamiliar.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Review: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College CampusesAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is interesting material here with lots of data, but in the end it is utterly unsurprising. Students by and large learn very little in college (except good students, they tend to learn a lot). This can vary across some demographics and different institutions, but still not a lot of learning going on. Partly this is because the students come in quite unprepared for academically rigorous college courses, but also because the college teachers are either more concerned with their own research or overwhelmed by larger and larger classes. Add to this administrators who have little incentive to focus on improving undergraduate education (I’d add as well that they also don’t know how to do this) and you get the situation we have: Students pretend to learn and teachers pretend to teach.

The authors offer reform proposals in the last chapter. Most of these amount to calls to teach undergraduates more rigorously and for the institutions to support that. Noble as that sounds, it seems to miss the core issues. (1) There is little incentive for any of the parties to do this. For students, the credential more than learning matters more (See The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money). For professors, by and large it doesn’t makes sense to engage all that much in improving teaching since the money and prestige is all in publication. And for instructional faculty, there is not a lot of room for career growth so little incentive to invest in improving. And these faculty are teaching such high loads, they have little time or capacity to do so even when they want to. For administration, they have a little to gain from investing in undergraduate education. Like professors, the status and prestige comes from other parts of the university (graduate programs, athletics). As long as students persist and pay tuition, they seem happy. (2) No one really knows how to improve teaching – or to measure how effective teaching is. Each teacher, in each classroom, dealing with different students calls forth many different ways to go about teaching. Each new teaching proposal and technique holds promise and can work--with some teachers, some students, some subjects, some of the time. In many ways, it is a very local problem to solve and no amount of grand reform program is likely to work.

For those really interested in digging into the data, this book could be useful. Otherwise, reading the introduction/summary is all that is really necessary.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: Trunk Music

Trunk Music (Harry Bosch, #5; Harry Bosch Universe, #6)Trunk Music by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this one. Even though the general plot line was familiar to me since it was adapted for the Bosch TV show, it was interesting to see the changes the show made. Billets and J Edgar are great. In particular, I liked the development of the relationship with Billets. The character of Eleanor strikes me as different from the TV show. Some of that has to do with the different relationship Bosch and she have in the books, but the character herself is somewhat different.

It's hard not to go right onto the next Bosch book!

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: Play Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America's Pastime

Play Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America's PastimePlay Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America's Pastime by Bruce Markuson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great course. Wonderfully delivered by Bruce Markuson of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the course covers the early years of baseball. From the early beginnings to 1920, the course looks at rules changes, equipment changes, field changes, as well as many of the social and culture changes that impacted baseball. As an overview course, it doesn't go into as great detail as one might want for some topics, for example, the history of the Negro Leagues. While this is discussed, the history of these leagues is much richer (as admitted by Markuson) than could be covered here.

Markuson examines the different theories of where baseball comes from: the different pre-baseball ball games that were played widely in America and England in the 18th century and how they may have influenced the development of what become known as baseball. He covers how the professional leagues developed in the second half of the 19th century. He discusses how the baseball itself changed the game as the baseball changed. It even goes into how baseball fields themselves changed and developed as baseball evolved (and the changing fields drove some of the changes in the game as well).

If there is one thing you can take away from this course is that Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams was wrong. I love the movie and the speech Mann makes, but he was wrong. He says: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time." Sorry, but the history of baseball shows that it has changed again and again just like America. As America rebuilt and reinvented itself through the decades, baseball has changed right along with it, reflecting America's greatness and her worst faults.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Review: Big-Time Sports in American Universities

Big-Time Sports in American UniversitiesBig-Time Sports in American Universities by Charles T. Clotfelter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clotfelter’s examination of big-time college sports aims to do several things: first, demonstrate that commercial sport is one of the core functions of American universities. Second, explore how big-time college sport figures in the outcomes of the university (both of the negative and positive variety). Third, make use of recent data and statistical studies to support the previous two points. Lastly, Clotfelter makes some recommendations for reforms.

The book starts with an examination of how sports fit into the university. The American system of commercial sport within universities is unique and part of what Clotfelter wants to do is sort out why and how we end up with the system we have. This helps set up some of his main questions: why, given the many problems that seem to come with commercialized college sport, do universities keep these programs and seek to grow them? Where do (and do) these programs fit into the mission of the university? His conclusion is that commercial sport play important and crucial roles in the modern American university and these shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed. Part of his diagnosis for some of the problems of big-time sports is precisely because the centrality of college sports has not been fully and honestly acknowledged.

Clotfelter then turns to teasing out the consequences for the university of having college sports. He explores, using some clever statistical studies, the impact that college sports have on the academic outcomes, social and community outcomes, and financial outcomes of the university. Some of these are concerning (the negative impact on academic standards and progress) and some of these are positive (the entertainment and happiness produced for the broad community of fans). But in the end, not much of what he finds is all that surprising but seeing it connected to data helps sort out the various ways high-level commercialized sport can impact the university and what it does.
Lastly, he looks at some possible reforms. Some of these are likely to happen soon(ish) though with unknown consequences (such a name, likeness, and image reform). Others are more radical and unlikely to move beyond the pages of academic works.

One of the more interesting conclusions Clotfelter suggests is that while money drives a lot of what goes on in college sport, it doesn’t seem to be the ultimate end or purpose. That is, what he finds is that university leaders and stakeholders that support big-time college sports are ultimately doing it because they want to win. Money is essential to building successful programs, but the end goal is not profit, it is wins: “Despite the palpable commercial value of college athletics, however, it bears repeating that the primary objective of athletic departments is not to make for its own sake. Rather, it is to produce winning teams, for which money is virtually an ironclad necessity” (153).

I appreciate that Clotfelter walks a balanced line. He is quite critical of many aspects of big-time college sports, but also notes the value it brings to the university and society more generally. He brings forward data to help figure out both the harm and the value so that we can better evaluate college sport, but also to more helpfully target criticism and reform. Those looking for either a morbid focus on salacious scandals or enthusiastic cheerleading of the wonders of college sport will need to look elsewhere.

This is an important and helpful work for those interested in understanding the context of big-time college sports. It is not overly technical or mathematical, but it does rely on statistics and other tools of the social scientist. It’s not a casual, beach read, but it’s not a difficult read either. I could also see pulling specific chapters out for assignment in a course. With a little context, many of them can stand alone. In the final analysis, I do not think one walks away with a clear path to realistic reform or even definitive answers to the main questions about college sports, but the book, just as the title indicates, provides a solid foundation for understanding the relationship of big-time college sports to American universities.

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Sunday, April 04, 2021

Review: Abaddon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate (The Expanse, #3)Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The series continues to be exciting and thrilling. Each installation introduces new and interesting characters while also pushing the boundaries of the universe the authors are creating.

I do worry a little bit that the main characters are getting a bit flat in their growth; in many ways, though they help to save the day of course, Holden and Co are not really the main drivers of the story. Anna, Bull, and Clarissa are. Much like I guess Bobbie and Avasarala were in the Book 2.

It's fun, thrilling sci-fi that explores questions about humanity, relationships, and existence. Highly recommend.

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Monday, March 15, 2021

Review: Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian WarPeloponnesian War by Kenneth W. Harl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thorough history of the causes, proceedings, and effects of the Peloponnesian war. The lecturer, Harl, does a wonderful job of presenting the material. I admit I lost the thread with dates, names, and battle details, but the thrust of the discussion is great.

Following Thucydides’ famous history, but adding to it from other historical accounts and other sources, Harl presents an analysis of the various causes of the war. He makes great effort not to demonize the Spartans or unilaterally praise the Athenians. Exploring the roots of the war, Harl discusses the many motivations, circumstances, and relationships that led to the war. He also doesn’t just focus on Sparta and Athens; he looks at the other players, like Corinth, Thebes, and Persia.

The last few lectures focus on how the war changed the Greek city-states and what its legacy is.
The Peloponnesian War ends up seeming to be extraordinarily tragic. All wars are, of course, but this war (or rather serious of wars) seemed in many ways unnecessary: there were many opportunities for it to be avoid or ended, and it seems ultimately not to really have mattered.

Though history always has a way of seeming inevitable, Philip and the Macedonian empire was almost surely going to sweep through Greece anyway. Though maybe if the city-states had not been so busy fighting themselves for so long, they could have put up a better fight and resisted. One of the interesting conclusions Harl draws is that the war showed the limitations of the city-state and spelled its demise. If that is true, then the Macedonians and later the Romans were likely going to conquer Greece anyway. Though one wonders, had the Spartans and Athenians be able to work together more, they might have created a regional power that could have resisted both the Macedonians and the Romans.

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Sunday, March 14, 2021

Review: The Last Coyote

The Last Coyote (Harry Bosch, #4; Harry Bosch Universe, #4)The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After watching several seasons of Bosch, reading the books are always fascinating. It's so interesting to see the choices the producers made about what to change. Certainly somethings have to change just because of the time frame (this book is about 20 years old). In this case, there are many changes to Bosch's story. Through most of the TV series, Bosch is looking for his mother's killer; and this book is all about that. But it's a very different story in many ways--though the basic thrust is similar in some intriguing ways.

This is a great Bosch novel. There are several twists, and Bosch's character development and growth is excellent.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Review: Coyote Waits: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

Coyote Waits: A Leaphorn and Chee NovelCoyote Waits: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is much more focused on Chee, but Leaphorn plays some important roles. I enjoy how Hillerman works to develop these characters who share some important things in common, but also approach life and work differently. As always Hillerman does a masterful job of integrating Dine myth and life on the reservation with the mystery-detective form.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Review: Alphabet Squadron

Alphabet Squadron (Star Wars)Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found the book a little tough to get into at first. There were several story lines that one knew would ultimately connect, but the way the author moved between them made it harder to get a feel for the story and characters. It took a long time to get a sense of these characters, and even by the end of the book, the connection I felt for them was not as deep as it should have been. But as the book progress, the storylines come together and the overall story gets tighter and more engaging.

This is a war story; it is about what war does to the people fighting it. Wars are messy, and it messes people, even good people, up. All the characters struggle with the effects of the war, and do so in different ways. This makes it a very different kind of Star Wars story. There’s no Luke Skywalker saving the day. This has pros and cons: it can be much richer of a tale, but it also can veer towards a kind of moral grayness. Alphabet Squadron doesn’t go that far: the good guys and bad guys are still distinguishable. Yes, the good guys have warts and the bad guys are not completely monstrous, but there is no question that the Emperor was evil, the deeds of the Empire were often monstrous, and the rebellion for all its faults was still a force for good. What allows the book to avoid falling into the bankrupt trap of moral grayness is that the people make choices and end up where they (and who they are) because of their choices and values.

Seeing Hera Syndulla again is a treat; though I think they could have done more with her (and maybe the trilogy will). I don’t mind the Force not being central, but I do think Star Wars needs the Force to play some role. And that was missing here. Maybe the full trilogy will bring it in.

I am looking forward to seeing where the trilogy goes.

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Monday, February 08, 2021

Review: The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to WatchThe Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch by Jonathan Gottschall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really interesting and engaging book. Gottschall intertwines his personal journal into and through amateur MMA with research on evolutional psychology, anthropology, sociology, and history. He explores the history of fighting and violence in human societies and in animals and develops some intriguing theories about why people continue to fight and are drawn to fighting.

The book obviously treads into some contentious (and these days dangerous) waters about gender and culture. I think the author handles these issues relatively well. He presents his reasons and evidence for this take and how he sees his interpretation of these issues connecting with the discussion of violence and fighting. If you disagree with his interpretations (and there are definitely things to take issue with), you won’t likely agree with his conclusions, but even so there is still a lot to learn about from the book. The storytelling itself is engaging: Gottschall’s own experiences as both confirmation and disconfirmation of things he is hard learned from the research is compelling. You can see that he had certain ideas about fighting and violence, that were challenged by the research and his experiences and that he comes through experience with new or modified ideas.

His broadest take is that the violence we see in things like MMA, but across the board in sports and life, are often linked to some deep, evolutionary need for duels: ritualized fighting and experience of danger. There are psychological needs met by these experience of preparing one’s self for violence but also in engaging in the violence. He argues you can see this across human cultures, but deep into the animal kingdom as well. He also argues that this is much more tied to the males of species; though not exclusively.

The argument for these claims, ultimately, needs to be a lot better and tighter than what is presented here. In a sweeping way, there are many interesting connections he identifies and shares; and I think there is general sense in which Gottschall is capturing a good chunk of the picture. Yet, the devil is in the details, as the clichéd saying goes, and there isn’t a lot on the details here (which is fine—since this is not scientific treatise on the subject. It’s memoir of Gottschall’s experiences and connection to his research on these issues).

As a philosopher of sport, the sections specifically focused on sport were interesting to me. There isn’t, unfortunately, any engagement with the work on dangerous and violent sport in the philosophy of sport, and that was disappointing. I think Gottschall and the book could have benefited from that work.

I listened to the book, and the narrator, Quincy Dunn Baker, was excellent. He played no small part in my enjoyment of the book. Overall, the book is worth a look and offers a lot to think about.

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Monday, January 25, 2021

Review: The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism

The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism (Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism)The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism by Douglas B. Rasmussen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl argued that the liberal order is best defended by grounding it on a neo-Aristotelian perfectionist ethics. In The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics, they defended that perfectionist ethics and its meta-ethical basis. In their latest work, they shift their defense of liberty, natural rights, and the liberal social order to metaphysics and epistemology. In particular, a defense of metaphysical realism, which in basic terms is the view that (1) there are real things that have natures independent of and apart from any cognition of these things; and (2) we are capable of knowing these things and their natures.

The authors argue that natural rights, since they rest on an appeal to human nature, is best grounded in metaphysical realism. And, further, since the individualist perfectionist ethics they defend also rests on an appeal to human nature, human flourishing, and natural goodness, they need to defend the case for metaphysical realism and how it supports those concepts.

As they defend their neo-Aristotelian-Thomistic account of realism, their primary target is Hilary Putnam and what they call neo-pragmatist accounts of ethical and epistemological constructivism which reject aspects of or all of metaphysical realism. They are also targeting other classical liberal and libertarian thinkers who have shied away from or rejected natural rights and natural goodness as the best ground for the liberal order.

The first half of the book is restatement of their arguments for natural rights and natural goodness, with an eye towards why metaphysical realism undergirds these arguments. The second half of the book is a defense of metaphysical realism along with the critique of Putnam and the pragmatist constructivist views.

I’m largely in agreement with Rasmussen and Den Uyl; whatever criticisms or disagreements I might have are largely nitpicks and rhetorical. I certainly see the value of using Putnam as a foil for their own view and the value in showing why those pragmatist, constructivist views fail (especially in terms of engaging with those with hold more to those ideas than Dougs’ views). But at the same time, I personally found those sections of the book the least interesting and engaging. Nevertheless, they are valuable as critiques of popular contemporary views in philosophy.

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms EverybodyCynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have done a lot of the hard and dirty work for those of us who cannot stomach wading through the incoherent works of Critical Theory. Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault did this for Postmodernism: showing how the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment (starting with Rousseau) evolved into the Postmodernism of the mid-twentieth century. Pluckrose and Lindsay pick up the baton and carry the analysis forward showing how Postmodernism evolved into Critical Theory and Social Justice Theory – what they aptly call Applied Postmodernism.

They start by presenting the foundations of Postmodernism in the 1960s with a lot of attention on Foucalt, Lyotard, and Derrida. They lay out the essential principles and themes of Postmodernism. Then they discuss how several new approaches emerged out of this intellectual funhouse. These new approaches, postcolonialism, queer theory, and critical race theory, where more activist that the earlier postmodernisms: they were on a mission to end social injustice and rebuild a new, more just order.

Pluckrose and Lindsay move through each iteration of these theories. They identify the main intellectual roots of these approaches and how they currently manifest themselves. They also persuasively argue that these are theoretically hollow, incoherent, and have pernicious effects – often the very opposite of their self-proclaimed social justice mission.

They discuss the philosophical roots of this hollowness and incoherence. Most of these theories build on postmodernism’s rejection of objectivity in metaphysics and epistemology. Once objective reason and reality are thrown out, everything is up for grabs. (Personally, I think they could have done more here, but that becomes a different book. Moreover, Hicks book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, does this for Postmodernism and the same criticisms would apply).

They close with discussion on how best to challenge and beat these theories in the marketplace of ideas. The two main themes here: demands for theoretical and scholarly rigor and openness to challenge and critique.

Throughout the work, Pluckrose and Lindsay do a good job of explaining and exposing the ideas behind these theories. Though their disdain for the ideas is evident, they take them seriously and do not engage in straw man arguments.

By appealing to a broad-based, reasonable liberalism, they are able to show how we can be against sexism, racism, oppression (little s, social injustice) without having to be in league with Social Justice Theory. We can acknowledge the many social problems that we have and work to fix them without all this fashionable nonsense. Indeed, the authors make a strong case that we have to reject these theories and their supposed solutions in order to make progress.

The world has made tremendous progress against all forms of injustice and oppression in the last few hundred years because of Enlightenment liberalism and humanism. To continue that progress we need to affirm and strength these ideas, not reject them. It is, as Pluckrose and Lindsay argue, this applied postmodernism, beyond being incapable of making further progress, has started to reverse some of that progress. These theories have reintroduced and reinforced identity stereotypes and categories. Instead of appealing to common humanity and reason, they make differences more salient inviting hostility and antagonism among members of different identity groups. The intolerance for critique or challenge (branding those who offer intellectual critiques as racist for example) has tended to silence the moderate voices, leaving only the extremes on the left and right to be vocal. And because these theories tend to reject objective reason, all that is left is force.

I think the authors are correct that if exposed to sunlight, these ideas would largely wither and die on their own. That is why they suggest making sure the marketplace of ideas is kept free and open; that ideas need to be open to challenge and criticism without punishment. And they recognize that we need good, reasonable ideas, theories, and methods that can tackle the issues. That is, in rejecting Social Justice we cannot reject the need to work towards more justice and freedom for all individuals. And we need good theories to do this. Their broadly construed Enlightenment liberalism is a good start.

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