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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