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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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review: Someone to Watch Over Me

Someone to Watch Over Me (Spencer, #48)Someone to Watch Over Me by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have enjoyed all of Atkins' Spenser novels, but this might be my favorite. (Though I admit recency bias is probably in effect). It has all the right beats of a Spenser novel and Atkins is very nearly able to capture Parker's style. I like the way he integrates his plots with past books--both his and Parker's (and this one more than most). Atkins is also quite funny. Parker was witty, but Atkins gets me to laugh out loud at times.

As I write in all my Atkins Spenser reviews: Atkins gets about 80-90% there, but there is something ineffable that is off. I can almost forget at times that this isn't Parker, but there is something, always, that subtly reminds me that it is not. Maybe it's just the voice in my head as I read; it is slightly different than when I read Parker. In any case, I still love it. Atkins has allowed us to continue live in Spenser's world and I am grateful for that.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review: Shōgun: The Epic Novel of Japan

Shōgun: The Epic Novel of Japan (The Asian Saga #1)Shōgun: The Epic Novel of Japan by James Clavell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

James Clavell's classic epic novel Shogun lives up to its reputation. Though only spanning 6 months or so, it truly is epic. The book tells a fictionalized version of the rise of the long ruling Tokugawa shogunate through the eyes (at least in part) of a English pilot who shipwrecks in Japan (and is the first English person to get to Japan--based on the real life account of William Adams). Clavell switches the point of view through out the book, allowing the reader to get different perspectives on the events and motivations of the characters. In particular, by shifting from Blackthorne (the Englishman) to various Japanese characters, one can see how each saw the other. This is especially true early on in the novel, where Blackthorne saw the Japanese as uncaring about life and all too willing to kill, and the Japanese regarded Blackthorne as a barbarian and uncivilized. Through the novel, they grow to appreciate and respect each other's strengths and reconceive what they initially saw as barbaric until more understandable differences of worldview. One of the main themes of the book it the interplay of these differences/oppositions, be it more explicitly religious (between various versions of Catholic, Protestantism, Shintoism, and Buddhism), cultural (food, sexual mores, etc), or views of life and death (seppuku plays a prominent role through out the novel).

The novel shows a lot of how feudal Japan worked, what the values and ideals of the ruling classes where, and how they viewed the rest of the world. I often found myself leaving the book to read up aspects (a battle, a city, a historic individual, etc).

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