Saturday, December 31, 2022

Review: Star Wars: Victory’s Price

Star Wars: Victory’s PriceStar Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As with the first two books in the series, I am mixed on this book and the trilogy. I like it, but didn’t love it. There are many elements I really like but overall it just doesn’t come together for me. This puts me into an unusual position. I am typically the Star Wars fan defending Star Wars from (mostly unwarranted) criticism and here with a series that is widely praised and well-received, I’m being critical!

I suspect there is just something about the author’s style that puts me off since I have felt the same way about all three books. I find it takes me a bit to get into them, the books can be a bit of slog at certain points, particularly in the first halves, and they meander in ways I don’t think ultimate pays off or helps the story. And while by the end, I do care what happens to the characters and the story, I don’t get the emotional payoff I’d expect (and that many others seem to get).

I do like the characters; they are fresh. Not retreads of Star Wars types. They are all interesting in terms of how they come to Alphabet Squadron and what happens to them while there and how they change. At the same time, I never really warmed to them in the way I did, say with the Aftermath trilogy characters. I don’t always get a sense of what their motivations where or why; in some cases, these were just told to us rather than developed through the story. There was an emotional connection missing.

The themes of this book, and the series, are also thought-provoking. Forgiveness. Consequences for one’s actions. Morality for morally compromised situations. Reconciliation after war. What war does to people at a personal level. How soldiers relate to each other and to their enemy. Like the TV show, Andor (fantastic btw!), this series brings the war to a very personal level. It’s not grand battles, it’s individuals. And Freed shows us the points of view of both sides.

There is lot to explore here philosophically. I don’t think I the themes get resolved as well as they could, though. In part this is because the themes are sometimes too explicit or too on the surface. That is, rather than having the theme work out and resolve through the plot and character action, it is imposed through dialogue. That was less satisfying to me.

As I said, a lot of Star Wars fans love this series, and I do think it’s worth a read if you are a Star Wars fan.

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Monday, December 12, 2022

Review: A Purple Place for Dying

A Purple Place for Dying (Travis McGee #3)A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

MacDonald's Travis McGee novels are such pulpy fun. The language, though dated, sexist, and otherwise political incorrect, has its own rhythm and poetry to it. McGee is somewhat the reluctant knight-errant. He describes himself as salvage expert; and that has three meanings. He lives on a houseboat in the Keys, so there is the maritime connection. But the main meaning is that he primarily makes his money by recovering wealth or goods for his clients (he keeps half of what is recovered). The deeper meaning is that, in each of the three stories I've read so far, McGee's real salvage work is the female protagonists. There is the element of knight-errant saving the damsel in distress; but MacDonald, though trading in sexist stereotypes of his time, does a good job of making sure the women have agency. There are not there merely to be saved; McGee helps them to get on a better path by showing them their own strength, and it is their own agency that gets them there.

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Sunday, December 11, 2022

Review: Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport

Greek Athletics and the Genesis of SportGreek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport by David Sansone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is made up of two essays. The first essay focuses on the origins of sport in general, while the second focuses on Ancient Greek athletics in particular; and as instance of the general theory Sansone proposes in the first essay.

Sansone starts by discussing various accounts of where sport came from, dismissing them before offering his own. He argues the roots of sport are to be found in distant human pre-history: in particular, rituals and rites engaged in for hunting among Paleolithic hunters. He argues that sport is a form of ritual sacrifice of human energy. As human cultures moved away from sole reliance on hunting as source of food, the rituals used by hunters persist, evolving into various cultural features, including sport. The energy used for the hunt shifts away from the hunt into other ritual behaviors. While there are some very interesting descriptions of various rituals and different cultural rites across cultures from all over the world, the argument is unpersuasive. First, there are key assumptions of motivations and explanations of pre-historic and ancient peoples that seem impossible to know with any measure of assurance. Why did the hunter bath before the hunt? There are various possible reasons, but so far removed how could we possibly know with any confidence? Second, the links between the rituals and sport is too speculative to establish more than interesting possible connections.

The second essay focuses on Ancient Greek athletics and how these too are rooted ultimately in the hunting ritual. The focus is really on aspects of athletics: why the Greeks engaged in sport naked, why they anointed themselves with oil, etc. There is not much in the way of trying to explain the origin of sport as such (I supposed Sansone takes himself as having established that in the first essay). Like the first essay, I found the discussion itself very interesting, in particular some of the striking similarities in disparate cultures, but I don’t think the overall argument is all that persuasive. What Sansone takes as having established with confidence still seems far more speculative. I think Sansone is correct that sport contains much that is rooted in pre-historic rituals; and that many of these ritual behaviors have been repurposed to fill some new needs. But he doesn’t discuss these needs that sport is meeting; why adopt these ritual behaviors, why put them to these new uses? Moreover, I don’t think Sansone answers the main questions he takes himself to be answering: why do humans engage in sport? Why has sport persisted through time and cultures? I am not sure we can ever know the answers to these questions. At one point, Sansone says “But people engage in sport today for the same reason they have always engaged in sport, namely because they have always engaged in sport” (56). It’s not much of answer, but it might just be the best we can get.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Review: Markets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails Debate

Markets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails DebateMarkets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails Debate by James Stacey Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is James Stacey Taylor's critique of Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski's Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. I'm a big fan of B&J's book, notwithstanding some concerns I would make of aspects of their arguments. I've also followed Taylor's work, and was hoping for an interesting dialogue. Unfortunately, we don't get that. Some of Taylor's criticisms hit the mark, but I am unpersuaded by his deeper points. At times I think he's uncharitable and other times he seems to be misunderstanding them (the same could be said of some of B&J's criticisms of Taylor's book). There are important things Taylor brings up about scholarship and some of its problems, though I'm not convinced his diagnosis is accurate or that his prescription is warranted.

I edited an issue of Reason Papers which features a symposium of Taylor's book. Check it out here:

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Review: Slow Horses

Slow Horses (Slough House, #1)Slow Horses by Mick Herron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After watching the AppleTV+ series, I wanted to read the book on which it was based. I was surprised at just how close an adaption of the book the TV series was (especially after Apple's awful and disgraceful adaption of The Foundation). There are of course some minor changes, but for the most part the series follows the characters and plot of the book. It's impossible not to picture the actors from the show as you are reading, but that's fine. They are perfectly cast. I'm definitely going to read more of this series. I just hope to get ahead of the show!

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Review: Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics

Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, ScepticsHellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics by Anthony A. Long
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A.A. Long's classic work on Hellenistic Philosophy is a great primer for anyone looking to do a deep diver into the thinkers of this period. At times a bit dated, but otherwise the writing is clear and detailed. Long covers the main thinkers, but also gets into some of the secondary figures as well.

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Review: The Guilty

The Guilty (Will Robie, #4)The Guilty by David Baldacci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Will Robie takes on a very different sort of challenge than he's used to. This is one is much more personal; but unsurprisingly Robie's special set of skills plays an important role in finding out just what is going on in his home town. Robie's return to his home town to help solve a mystery also leads to a mystery internally for Robie. The story is wonderfully told. Robie's a great character, and Baldacci is a master at what he does.

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Friday, November 18, 2022

Review: The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters

The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire WildcattersThe Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters by Gregory Zuckerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My rating might be a bit harsh. The book is not bad; it just wasn't quite what I was expecting. It is much more a business book than anything else. Particularly in the last third, the focus becomes more about stocks, board rooms, and finance than fracking. The first third or so was interesting in terms of laying out the history of both the development of the techniques as well as the individuals involved. I would have liked a bit more on this. I didn't want a geology lesson, but wanted more focus on the novelty of fracking and how the various innovators and engineers along the way improved the process. The middle part focused more on the building of the companies that were the driving force in this American oil and gas production revolution. The afterward was in some ways the most interesting for me. It discussed the criticisms and responses to criticisms about the dangers and consequences of fracking. Zuckerman takes an appealing moderate approach: as he says, the worst dangers of the fiercest critics are overblown, but it is not the harm-free process the industry would like it to be. Zuckerman argues that many of the dangers can be mitigated by improving industry standards and regulatory oversight. Still, I would have liked this discussion to be more in the main section of the book, and better explored. The afterward also gets into the geopolitics of the shale revolution. This too was very interesting and should have been more in the main sections of the book. But then, that really wasn't the book Zuckerman was writing. He wants to the tell story of the businessmen who are created and stoked this revolution. And he does a great job of that.

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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Review: Queen's Peril

Queen's PerilQueen's Peril by E.K. Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this much more than the first novel in this trilogy. The story telling is less conventional and more interesting. The character development of Padme and each of the handmaidens is much better. Though it takes place prior to and during the events of The Phantom Menace, there is little direct overlap, just enough to know where you are in the timeline. And what we do get gives a bit of insight into what else was going on during the events of the movie.

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Monday, October 31, 2022

Review: Persuader

Persuader (Jack Reacher, #7)Persuader by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a long break from the Reacher series. After the excellent Prime series, I decided to return. I enjoyed this. The plot was complex enough not to be predictable, but not unnecessarily convoluted. Reacher is Reacher. He's able to survive some fairly challenging circumstances -- it strains the credulity but that comes with the territory. It is hard now not to see Alan Ritchson in my mind as Reacher; though he's a bit older in my head.

I liked how Child wove together Reacher's memory with the current events; it added tension and the parallelism underscored key elements. More characterization could have been down with the Beck family; we get to know them just enough for the plot but no more.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Review: Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the SinaiWho by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful book. Friedman ably balances Cohen's personal story in Israel with a history of the 73 Yom Kippur war. Cohen is an enigmatic figure; and through this unique personality, Friedman is able to show us a different side to Israel. Friedman's book tells us how the 73 war played a pivotal role in Israel's "national personality" much as it did on a personal and professional level for Cohen. This is neither a complete biography of Cohen nor a history of the war; but through it one will learn a lot about both in an intimate and charming way.

The audio version does a great job; with a voice actor portraying Cohen when Cohen's unpublished account of his time in Israel during the war. Otherwise the author reads it; and does so as skillfully as a professional reader.

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Friday, September 23, 2022

Review: Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century

Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First CenturyChaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by Josh Rogin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important and intriguing book. There are several ways in which this book changed my mind on some key issues related to China.

For a long time, I was in the camp of doing what we could to entice and encourage economic and political liberalization in China: using trade and deepening relationships to move China from its repressive and closed system to a freer and more open society. A free China being a part of the world system would be great for everyone. And this looked to be working, if slowly, up through the early 2000s. I was still in that camp well after however. Rogin’s book shows, however, that whatever might have been happening from the 70s through the 90s, the Twenty-First century was shaping up to be something very different. The engagement strategy was no longer working (if it ever really was) and was in many ways backfiring as the CCP (The Chinese Communist Party) abused this engagement to cement its power, enrich itself, further oppress its people, and extend its influence beyond its borders.

Rogin highlights how both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to see or meet these threats. And in many cases made them worse. Rogin shows how the Obama administration continued to push the engagement strategies and ignored China’s bad faith and bad actions (both in China and here at home). He goes into greater detail on the mixed messages of the Trump administration. Often talking tough on China, Trump was successfully wooed by Xi and seemingly caved to many of Xi’s ‘personal favors’ asked of Trump. Inside the administration, there was plenty of chaos as well: with his advisors split between various camps. There were those who wanted to continue engagement. Then there were the “China Hawks” who saw China as both an economic and political enemy. And another camp that just wanted to continue business as usual to keep the money flowing. Each of these had Trump’s ear at various times; leading to shifting policies depending on Trump’s gut or mood. On the plus side, the chaotic and disruptive nature of Trump did keep the CCP and Xi on their toes, never quite knowing what to expect. Rogin discussed how the tariffs and other Trump policies did put pressure on China, though not to the extent that any progress seems to have been made. In any case, I’m still not convinced tariffs were a good idea. But what I am more convinced of now is that policies of engagement are no longer effective and we need to move to different footing to protect ourselves and the rest of free world from the CCP’s aggressiveness and manipulations.

Rogin is even-handed as can be seen by the fact that those will certain ideological convictions will think he’s biased. MAGA-types will hate this book because it shows the incompetent and chaotic way Trump governed. Those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome will think Rogin goes to easy on him – in particularly when Rogin highlights the few successes of the Trump administration vis-à-vis China.

Rogin’s book convinced me that the CCP-led China is far more a threat than I really appreciated. Not that I thought they were benign, but the depth and extent of the threat that Rogin details has forced me to rethink the ways I think we should be approaching China. This is not Cold War Part 2, it is something different. Still, in the way the USSR and its role in the world colored almost all foreign policy during the Cold War, our relationship to China will be the dominant lens by which we will have to consider foreign policy going forward. And this book is an important piece in making sense of some of that.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Review: Star Wars: The Rising Storm

Star Wars: The Rising StormStar Wars: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm mixed on the Light of the Jedi series. There are some things I really like. But I find myself having trouble getting into the books; though usually as the books progress, I get more into it. The Rising Storm meandered through the first 2/3 or so of the book. There were too many characters, too many changing POVs, it was hard to track and get invested. The first half of the book dragged. It was hard to care about the characters when there were dozens of pages where the characters were off 'stage'. As the story got more focus and the action became more compressed, I enjoyed the book a lot more. The last hundred pages flew by. There are some great twists and the ending was good. I am more interested in the characters of Bell, Ty, and Elzar. The third book in the trilogy is well set up and the ultimate climax should be good.

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Friday, September 02, 2022

Review: The Narrows

The Narrows (Harry Bosch, #10; Harry Bosch Universe, #13)The Narrows by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As always, Connelly does an amazing job. Here Connelly mixes things up, using 1st and 3rd person narration. Sometimes that can be confusing, but Connelly does a masterful job of it and employs to great purpose. Especially as the novel draws to a close, it helps to heighten the tension and drama by switching between Bosch's first person point of view and the third person narration. It's almost like a film making switching from a close up to a wide shot.

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Review: Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireBooks That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Leo Damrosch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting course. It wasn't quite what I expected or hoped for, but I still enjoyed it and learned from it. I think I was hoping more for something like a cliff notes of Gibbons' work. And Damrosh certainly talks about the book, its ideas, and arguments. But there is also a lot of material about Gibbons life, his time period, and so on. Not uninteresting or even irrelevant, but at the same time wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Damrosh does a great job of communicating the immensity and importance of Gibbons' masterpiece. I didn't realize how much it covered the Eastern Empire and the Islamic world. The amount of information that Gibbons had to go through and analyze to produce this work is an incredible achievement in itself.

One criticism I might have is that I don't feel like I really have a great grasp on Gibbons' explanation for the decline and fall. It seems to be, broadly, that the Western empire lost its ability to repel the repeated Germanic and eastern tribes pushing into their territory and that this was because of its poor constitution that allowed and even encouraged too many weak and corrupt emperors. The immense bureaucracy held for a while, but eventually the internal pressures from centuries of bad governance ate away at the empire's capacity. The Eastern was better defended by natural boundaries and by the boundary of the Persian empire; and so didn't face the same external pressures and therefore was able to hold out much longer despite having similar internal pressures. Still, I would have liked a lecture, towards the end, that really covered and summarized Gibbons account of the causes in a more in-depth way. Partly, Damrosch might not do this because Gibbons own view (at least according to Damrosh) by the end was that the decline and fall didn't explaining -- what was remarkable was that the empire lasted as long as it did (not that it fell).

This course is no substitute for the book. I am not sure I'll ever have the time or focus to read Gibbons whole work myself, so this course at least gives you a framework for the works influence and as well as a guide for jumping into the narrative at certain points that might be of interest.

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Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Socratic Method: A Practitioner's Handbook

The Socratic Method: A Practitioner's HandbookThe Socratic Method: A Practitioner's Handbook by Ward Farnsworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve tried over the years to adapt Socratic dialogue and methods to my classroom. It’s not always easy or feasible due to large class sizes or being online. Ward Farnsworth book reinvigorates my motivation to do so and also gives me some helpful ideas on how I might continue to adapt Socratic methods. It’s not a teaching guide, though, but his discussion of the methods, the examples he uses, and the identification of the core processes and principles of the method will help me in using more of these methods in the classroom.

The book actually got a lot more into Socrates qua philosopher than I expected. The publisher is clearly trying to sell the book as an antidote to the stupidity, fruitlessness, and antagonistic ways in which contemporary conversations so often go – especially online. Farnsworth does discuss that, but really only in the last few chapters. Most of the book is a dive into Socrates and his use of the methods as depicted in Plato’s dialogues. He explores how the method encapsulates not just a way of reasoning, but a way of living. Farnsworth also explore Socrates’ influence on later philosophers, including the Stoics and the Skeptics.

I enjoyed the book. It’s clearly written with no presumption of a philosophic background. It lacks pretension and jargon. I learned a lot from it. The book is not (just) meant for philosophers or teachers; it’s really meant for anyone who wants to know how to think more clearly and engage in more rational and productive conversations with others.

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Monday, August 22, 2022

Review: Romeo's Hammer

Romeo's Hammer (Mike Romeo, #3)Romeo's Hammer by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy this series a lot. The main character, Mike Romeo, makes frequent reference to philosophy. He is a genius who is deeply read in philosophy and literature. He's also physical formidable and he often finds himself trouble when trying to help someone else out. I also like Ira and some of the other secondary characters. They are fun, quick reads that pack some punch. I find the story plotting to be somewhat convoluted at times. Some things get resolved all too quickly, while other things sort of hang.

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Friday, August 19, 2022

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes (The Expanse, #6)Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series continues to surprise and develop. A mix of exciting action along with introspection about life, its meaning and value, and our role the universe and amongst each other. The characters struggle with forgiveness, anger, justice, revenge, love, and existential dread without these themes ever swallowing the story or overwhelming the reader. The characters continue to grow and develop; their relationships with each other also continue to evolve.

The voices of the characters stay in my head for days after I finish these novels (though not quite as vividly as Miller in Holden's head!). I miss them terribly until I can pick up the next novel.

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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Gabriel Allon #22)Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's good to have Gabriel back! Silva uses a creative hook to get the retired Allon back into the game. He's not hunting terrorists this time around, but with the help of a few of his old friends he executes a private op that brings some justice to a few criminals. This isn't going to be my favorite Allon book, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I love the way Silva tells his stories, and there are always fun and surprising twists along the way. I'm curious how Silva will continue to pull Allon out of retirement in the future.

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Review: The Gray Man

The Gray Man (Gray Man, #1)The Gray Man by Mark Greaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Action packed thriller. Greaney does a good job of keeping you engrossed at every stage. He has does a good job of keeping the wildly unrealistic skill set of Court Gentry seem realistic. There is little surprising here, but it is a well-executed example action thriller.

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Review: Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of CivilizationAncient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Amanda H. Podany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent course. Podany is a wonderful teacher; she has great enthusiasm for the subject that matter and that comes through in every lecture. She really makes the era come alive and I learned a lot. The information is fascinating. Podany does a great job of balancing the overall picture with the nit and gritty details. She makes it relatable and digestible. There is so much focus on the Greeks and the Egyptians, and sometimes the Persians, but the Mesopotamians were their precursors in almost every way. This course helps to fill that void.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Review: Known to Evil

Known to EvilKnown to Evil by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first book in the McGill mystery series introduced us to Mosley's newest hard-boiled detective. The second book builds off the first: McGill is still finding himself as he tries to set himself straight. His connections to the criminal element threaten to overwhelm him. His inner demons, too, stand ready to take over. But McGill has an that inner core, that hard-won integrity that all hard-boiled detectives from Sam Spade to Spenser have. It's buried a little deeper with McGill, but it is there and growing. Few detectives in this genre have a family; most are singular creatures. Spenser broke the mold with Susan; and Mosley gives McGill a family. A family that reflects McGill's own personality and character in many ways.

Like the first book in the series, the plot is a bit convoluted at times and has made strings to weave together. Though it can be hard to keep track, it helps to give you a sense of the mildly chaotic nature of McGill's life.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book II: Greater Good)Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This continues, almost without a break, the story from book 1. Presumably Book 3 will pick right up where book 2 leaves off. In other words, these is less a trilogy and more one book broken into three parts. Thrawn is great, though there is less of him here than in the previous novel. There is more focus and development of some of the other characters. As with the first, there is a lot focused on the political intrigue between families (which I am not all that invested in). Also like the first, there is little that makes this Star Wars as such. There are some interesting things Zahn seems to be doing with the Force and the way other species connect to it (without it being the Force as it is in Republic/Empire space). I hope the third book continues to develop that theme. The book is at its best when it is Thrawn faced with a problem that he is able to read and solve in his unique ways. Even with these flaws, I do enjoy it. Zahn's stories tend to start slow but build to a satisfying climax.

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Friday, June 10, 2022

Review: Lost Light

Lost Light (Harry Bosch, #9; Harry Bosch Universe, #11)Lost Light by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first Bosch novel after Bosch's retirement from the LAPD. It is interesting to see Bosch struggle with his new life and the changes in his relationships and investigation tactics it has created, though it is not overly done. The case takes most of the focus, as it should. The case is a good one, intricate and complicated. There is a great shout out to Robert Crais and his Elvis Cole character; I love that these guys live in the same universe.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Review: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday LifeThe Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was underwhelmed by this book. Many have praised it, but I found it somewhat banal. There were certainly some interesting aspects. The general idea, that we have often have motives for our actions other than what we explicitly state or tell ourselves, seems obviously true. Yet, the authors took this as something remarkable, needing detailed analysis. It's worth exploring for sure and seeing how it might explain certain puzzles of human psychology and institutions could prove useful. But the authors find hidden motives everywhere and for everything and gave these motives the primary role. (It seems just as possible that in some cases the hidden motive isn't the prime mover or explainer.) They leaned heavily into evolutionary biology having to explain all human behavior; and while that is part of the story, it seems under-determinative. In short, they overgeneralized their thesis and overextended their analysis/application.

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Monday, May 30, 2022

Review: The Face-Changers

The Face-Changers (Jane Whitefield, #4)The Face-Changers by Thomas Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are elements I really like about this series. Jane is a great character. Brutally honest; courageous; and intelligent. While she’s obviously meant to be attractive as well; she rarely gets by on her “feminine wiles”. It’s always by outsmarting her opposition ( and a little luck).

The plot of this novel is quite intricate: there are several moving parts but they are handled well and there are a few switchbacks to keep you on your toes. I do wish there was more at the end that unwound some of the elements. The denouement was a bit too quick. I have questions!!

I liked the FBI a character introduced here. He’s a good antagonist for Jane. Good vs good always creates a great tension. I hope this is not the last of him.

I still don’t like Jane’s husband and their relationship; it remains for me the weakest element of this series.

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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. The characters and world are very interesting, and have a lot of potential. The plot was a bit all over the place. A lot happens and things moved very quick at times, and it was too much for the size of the book. The book could have been one of those 6, 700 pagers to do justice to the story Chambers is telling. So it feels very rushed and story lines are not adequately developed. Still, the main characters are endearing and compelling. I would read the next novel to see if Chambers' plotting gets better.

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Review: Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by Alina Chan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really interesting book. Ridley and Chan dive into as much available evidence as they can to try to get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19. In the end, they don't get an answer. But they present and evaluate the case for the two main theories: natural spillover from animals and a lab-related accident or escape. I am not sure it really matters which turns out to be true, though I think it is important to do the research and find out. There are three main walk away conclusions for me.

(1) The Chinese government actively worked to conceal and cover up almost everything related to COVID-19 and from the get go. This does make them look guilty, but it also is just the way the CCP seems to operate with everything. In any case, it is just more evidence to be wary of the CCP and authoritarian regimes.

(2) No matter if it was natural spillover or a lab leak, we need to do much more in terms of biosecurity. Maybe COVID-19 came from the wild, but the probability of a virus getting out of research labs is dangerously too high. The research is important, but the levels of biosecurity need to be improved.

(3) The politicization of COVID that lead to the quick dismissal of the possibility of lab-leak hypothesis was dangerous--and continues to be. Politics and science is a dangerous mix that undermines free society and good science.

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Monday, April 18, 2022

Review: 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An in-depth, detailed account of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948. Starting with the historical background of the Zionist movement and immigration into the area, Morris then moves to the UN and the steps taken towards partition. The conflict is broken into two main parts. First what Morris calls the civil war. This is the small-scale battles and skirmishes between the Yishuv (the Jewish community) and the Arab community in Palestine/Israel-to-be. The Yishuv was relatively well-organized and prepared, while the Arabs were divided, unprepared, and lacking any kind of strategy or direction. The leadership was divided and various quarters squabbled with each other for control. As a result, this part of the war was decisively won by the Yishuv and the Palestinian Arab society more or less collapsed and many, with the means, left the country at this point. The state of Israel was declared and the Yishuv institutions transitioned into state agencies.

The second part of the conflict begins with the invasion by Arab armies from without: mainly Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Through his analysis, Morris shows that, at first, the Israeli goal was purely defensive: to hold the land it controlled and prevent the Arab armies from penetrating. As the Israeli forces proved effective and the Arab armies less so, Israel shifted towards a more offensive mindset and looked to gain strategic ground around Jerusalem and in the north.

For their part, the Arab armies were shockingly incompetent. Except for the Jordanian Arab Legion (which was trained and armed by the British), the armies lacked resources, training, and direction. The various countries, while sharing similar rhetoric about “saving Palestine,” all had their own divergent agendas. There was little cooperation or coordination between the invading armies. The soldiers were not training or prepared. There was a view that the fight would be quick and easy. Instead, they faced fierce resistance from a well-trained, highly motivated opponent who was fighting for its very existence.

The UN repeatedly tried to step into to stop the fighting and seek some kind of settlement. The main result, according to Morris, of this seemed to be avoiding a total rout of the Arab armies, in particular Egypt. Whether a more total and decisive victory by the Israelis would have avoided future wars and the refugee problem is impossible to say, but Morris doesn’t think it would have. There was far too much animosity towards the Jewish state. The so-called Arab Street would likely have continued the pressure to attack Israel.

Most of this was not new to me. But there were several interesting parts of the book that were new.
First, the insight that Morris gives into the mindset of the British and Arab leaders was fascinating. I didn’t realize the extent to which the Arab leaders (especially Jordan’s King) understood their weakness relative to Israel and that the war was unlikely to yield the stated public aims. And yet all felt the pressure of the street and felt compelled by this to move forward. I also didn’t realize the extent to which the British were more or less active against Israel—even threatening to attack at certain points.

Second, Morris disabused me of the idea of Israeli “purity of arms.” The Israel army at times acted like every army ever has in the field of battle. There were killings of civilians and POWS, rapes, and other abuses. This was hard to swallow, but also not surprising that such things happen in war. It is tragic, awful, unnecessary, but such is the awfulness of war. This doesn’t excuse or justify, but it does contextualize it. Nevertheless, Morris is quick to point out that these sorts of horrors occurred less than in other wars in the 20th century. Both sides were relatively constrained in terms of such atrocities.

Related to this second point, is the extent to which Israel took active measures to push out the local Arab populations. While I understood that some of this happened, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which there were direct expulsions made by the Israeli army. Still, contrary to the harsh critics of Israel, Morris explains that this was not a concerted effort at mass population movement, but as the facts on the ground shifted, the Israel army and command were more than willing to help things along. Militarily it makes sense: leaving a hostile population behind your lines is a bad idea. And as the Israelis pushed forward to push back the invading armies, they felt compelled to expel local populations that were hostile. For the most part, Morris showed that when villages quickly surrendered and didn’t have a history of attacking nearby Jewish communities or convoys, these were not expelled. Such people become the Israeli-Arabs of today. Still it happened more than I realized, and that too is an unpleasant truth to process.

I found the book strongest when getting into the discussion of strategies, policies, and ideas. His evaluation and digestion of the evidence was clear and carefully presented. Where I found myself drifting away was the detailed descriptions of battles. There was a lot of taking this hill or attacking that hill; this division moved here and there. It was hard to keep track of and to follow; or to see how meaningful that level of detail was to the overall through line of the work. The best I can say about it was that it did allow you to experience the war at a bit more of a fine-grained perspective, than the grand sweep that one might otherwise get.

If one is interested in military history or the history of the Arab-Israeli, I think this is an important work to read. Still, it can be a bit of slog at times, but only because of how in-depth it is.

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Sunday, April 17, 2022

Review: Taken

Taken (Elvis Cole, #13 / Joe Pike, #4)Taken by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Crais continues to evolve this series in interesting ways. The narrative structure switches point of view chapter to chapter to help create the suspense and tension that drives the novel. It's first person with Cole, and third person with Pike, Stone, and some of the other characters. This gives the reader different perspectives and insight into the action that one wouldn't have been able to get with just Cole's first person.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Review: Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Cicero, #1)Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found it hard to get into this book. It's hard to put my figure on it, since there parts of it I really liked. But maybe it was just too passive. The pretense is that this is memoir of Cicero's political life written years later by Cicero's slave/secretary. I think that made the story telling too passive; a bit of this happened and then this happened. So rather than feeling like I was in Rome or in the Senate, it often felt distant. There were exciting and interesting moments but overall the book fell sort of flat for me. There is a lot of political machinations (which makes sense given the story, but still), but I would have liked more philosophy from Cicero. You do get a some sense of how Roman politics work, from the inside, and that was interesting.

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Friday, March 25, 2022

Review: One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Togethr

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town TogethrOne Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Togethr by Amy Bass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together is “A coach, a team, and the game that brought a divided town together” and that’s a most apt description. Amy Bass tells the story of biology teacher and soccer coach Mike McGraw, a high school team made up mostly of Somali refugees, and how the game of soccer helped to unite a community.

In the early 2000s, thousands of Somali refugees in the USA found their way to Maine, with many of them settling in Lewiston. According to Bass, the town’s response was mixed. They were welcomed by many but also the target of anti-immigrant and racist backlashes. But soccer became a conduit for moving beyond all that. Many in the Somali community where fanatic about soccer. And Lewiston had a good team with a storied coach. But it took more than that. Bass brings focus to the many elements that helped to connect the Somali kids to the high school team; how the various cultural hurdles were overcome by the openness and responsiveness of several people in Lewiston. One of the key figures of course was the coach, Mike McGraw. We see how McGraw adapts to these new student-athletes and how he endears himself to them. And in many ways, this is the best aspect of Bass’s book: the respect and love that McGraw and his students have for each other comes through on every page.

More than just a story of soccer games, Bass also draws interesting parallels to Lewiston’s history with French-Canadian immigration in the 19th century and the similar challenges that population faced. She gives us background on the town, its history, and how it become a magnet for Somali immigrants. She profiles each of the main players, how they got to the US and how they were adjusting.

The final third of the book, as the team moves towards the championship game, might be the best part. The tension builds, the details of the games become more salient as the reader gets closer and closer to the final game and its outcome. Bass does a great job of building the tension and releasing it.

Overall, it’s a moving and powerful story. Like most American immigrant stories, it highlights what is great, powerful, and wonderful about the US. American is not perfect but at its core it’s a place for anyone to come and to succeed, for all to live peacefully according to their own lights. And, as the Lewiston Blue Devils showed, when we are able to do that, we can and do achieve great things.

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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Review: Nightmare in Pink

Nightmare in Pink (Travis McGee, #2)Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quick, fun pulpy read. The language and dialog is classic noir. There is much that is dated, but once beyond some of that, the story and characters are really engaging. It takes a surprising and interesting twist towards the end.

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Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5)Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things that makes this series great is that each book has a somewhat different feel and focus. Here we see the crew of the Rocinante go their separate ways while the ship is in dock getting repaired. As things go in these books, all hell quickly breaks out. But with the crew far flung through the system, we get different perspectives on the events happening. With each crew member out on their own, we get a deeper insight into their characters as they try to survive and get back to each other. A lot more backstory for each as well. Unlike the previous books, this book directly leads into and sets up the next one. (It takes some discipline not to just right into the next book! But I've got other series to read too!)

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Friday, February 25, 2022

Review: A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines

A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 VaccinesA Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines by Gregory Zuckerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent and fascinating account of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is putting the development of the vaccines into historical context. Zuckerman starts with the precursor research that led to the development. The researchers and scientists that were able to make the breakthroughs that made the COVID vaccines so effective had worked for years, decades in many cases, on trying to develop vaccines and treatments for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases. Though most of those efforts were not successful at their stated aims, what was learned was essential. This is another important aspect of the story of the vaccine development: failure is not failure simpliciter. There is, of course, the adage of try, try again; but also that even in failure there is so much to learn. And what was learned helped to make these vaccines possible.

The first two thirds of the book is focused on pre-2019. Tracing the work of key scientists and the various business, such as Moderna and BioNtech (but several other as well), that played central roles in the development of the vaccines. Zuckerman does a good job of explaining the basics of the science without getting overly technical.

The last third of the book heats up with the race for the vaccine that starts almost immediately with the emergences of the virus in China. Though we know how the story ends, Zuckerman is still able to create the experience of suspense as the reader waits for the results of the clinical trials. He puts us, through the direct first-hand, contemporaneous reports of the main players, into the conference rooms and zoom rooms as these reports come in. You experience their uncertainty and anxiety followed by the elation and release when the successful numbers come in.

Zuckerman does a good job of portraying the main players: showing their ambition and focus, their pride in their work. He is able to show us why we should admire and honor these researchers without lionizing them or making them into other-worldly figures. These are human beings doing the great things that human beings can do.

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Monday, February 21, 2022

Review: Romeo's Way

Romeo's Way (Mike Romeo #2)Romeo's Way by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this sequel to Romeo's Rules, we get a much tighter story. Romeo is still a mix of Spenser, Hammer, and Reacher: wise cracking, literate, hard hitting, and tempered anger. The first book got a bit convoluted at points, but the plotting here stays on track while remaining suspenseful. Bell introduces a few new characters, I hope we get to see Urban again! I would like more Ira for sure; he took a bit of a back seat in this story.

It's a fun and action packed thriller, with a bunch of literature and philosophy peppered through out. Perfect aperitif between longer novels.

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Friday, February 18, 2022

Review: The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Stone Sky completes the Broken Earth Trilogy. One of the most original fantasy series I’ve ever read. It’s a tragic story, but with much hope. It’s an angry world, but filled with love nonetheless. The characters are all rich and well-developed. The story-telling itself is so innovative and unique. Jemisin is able to tell multiple threads of the story, through time, in a way that creates suspense while also revealing more and more, slowly, about the world. Sometimes this can be confusing, but it works out as you make your way through the novel. It starts a little slow, but once it gets going, it’s hard to put down.

Though there are many themes explored here, about race, environmentalism, technology, family, etc., the novel never gets preachy or didactic. It’s telling a great story with interesting characters; and never wavers from that. Whatever else might be spied is just part of the story.

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Thursday, February 03, 2022

Review: Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation

Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo NationCanyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation by Michael Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the title says, this is a story of a basketball season on the Navajo Nation. In particular it focuses on the Chinle High School team that is making a run at the Arizona state championships. It is beautifully told. Powell has a deep respect and love for the region and it comes through in his descriptions of the landscape and the people. The book follows the coach and several of the main players on the team. From here, there are many tangents into the biographies of these individuals, as well as historical accounts of the Navajo. It is part history, part memoir, part ethnography, part sports story. Powell explores, through this basketball team, what living on the reservation is like for many Navajo. He looks at how this affects, positively and negatively, the players on the basketball team. There is also a lot of what you would expect from a sports book: coaches giving life advice, comebacks, underdogs. But it mostly avoids cliche and tells us a good story of how the team grows and develops through the season--both as a team and individually.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Review: Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby

Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby (Spenser #49)Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby by Ace Atkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed all the Atkins Spensers. In each of my reviews, though, I always note that Atkins is doing an imitation of Parker. He usually gets about 80% of the way there, but you know it is not Parker's Spenser. In this, Atkins' tenth and last Spenser, I'm sad to say this was even more the case. It's helped me, I think, identify how Atkins' Spenser was falling short. There were several points through out the novel where something was off. The language or word choice of a character, in particular Spenser and Hawk, that didn't fit, or the characters reactions to a situation that struck the wrong note.

Since the plot of this is reminiscent to Looking For Rachel Wallace, one of Parker's best, I went back and reread parts of it (and now rereading the whole novel). This only made things worse for Atkins. First, Parker's language and description is so crisp, saying so much and so beautifully with an amazing economy. Second, Spenser's interactions with Rachel and how Parker deals with the controversial elements is far superior to Atkins treatment of Spenser and Carolina. Atkins too easily slips into cultural tropes and cliches. This aspect of the book just wasn't that interesting.

Two other things jumped out to me. First, Parker always emphasized Spenser's code; his autonomous core and steadfast integrity. Atkins rarely seems to make use of this, with a few throwaway comments to remind us of this. But with Parker: it was core to every Spenser story. Second, Atkins over uses Spenser the wise-ass. Parker was far more judicious with how he employs Spenser's sarcasm and humor. This gave it much more of an impact.

The overall sweep of the book is still enjoyable; I still love being back in that world. Atkins is a good writer. But the books are also a pale comparison to Parker. This is, as I noted above, Atkins last. Reportedly, Mike Lupica is picking up the Spenser line. He's written several Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novels, so he's not new to the Spenser-verse. But I haven't read Lupica's stories so I don't know if he can take on Spenser (Plus he's a New Yorker?).

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Monday, January 31, 2022

Review: The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of TruthThe Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the whole, Rauch’s new book is an important contribution to the culture. It has some problems, philosophically, but the overall sweep of what Rauch is doing is intriguing and worthwhile. The analysis of cultural trends and his advice on how to defend against these harmful trends is useful.

The general idea Rauch is getting it, the real insight of his book, is that knowledge is something that has to be produced and that its production is best accomplished under a particular kind of system. A system where knowledge production is decentralized, has lots of diversity in it, has no sacred totems, and is subject to constant criticism and challenge.

This is the Constitution of Knowledge. Like a political constitution, this constitution provides rules, institutions, and structures by which knowledge is produced. Rauch argues that the best constitution for knowledge is analogous to the best political constitutions: it provides a structure by which difference, disagreement, and contrary interests are transformed into a valuable product. In the sciences, this product is knowledge; in government, liberty and social harmony. A third analogy he uses is the marketplace. Here too there is a structure that coordinates the disparate ends and interests of those in the market, leading to greater efficiency, wealth production, and general overall standard of living.

In all three constitutions of liberal markets, liberal governments, and liberal science, diversity of all kinds is key. In markets, the more diverse actors with different insights, advantages, and experiences, the greater the market. This is akin to Adam Smith’s famous idea that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market: the bigger the market the greater specialization that is possible. In government, diversity of political ideology and interest is essential to keeping all the factions and interest groups at bay. The more factions there, the harder it is for any one group to take over and impose its will; instead all the groups have to find a way to work together to find the right balance. And in knowledge production, different thinkers and researchers with different ideas, training, and perspectives help to prevent bias and oversight.

This central importance of diversity is part of the other major theme of the book: how the constitution of knowledge is being attacked and undermined. One way is through cancel culture and how that is undermining intellectual and political diversity. Another is the way in which some people manipulate and (mis)use aspects of the Constitution of Knowledge, through the spreading of misinformation, to gain control and power.

This is the book at its strongest: laying out the threats to the Constitution of Knowledge: be it those spreading disinformation in order to sow distrust and confusion, or those who use social media to discourage dissent and criticism. And Rauch offers some good advice on how to combat it.
But Rauch is not a philosopher and when he attempts to give a history of the theories of knowledge, as well as provide his own epistemological foundation for this constitution of knowledge, he’s a bit out of his depth. The discussion is a bit of muddle, or worse, at times.

He wants to defend a view of knowledge that sees knowledge as produced and justified through a network. Relying on C.S. Peirce and others, he sees knowledge as a social product, and not something individual. While I think he’s right to point out the importance of the networks and institutions in creating, maintaining, and extending knowledge, he’s wrong to reject what we might call epistemic individualism: knowledge is something an individual has.

I think Rauch can get his defense of the Constitution of Knowledge and his defense of the importance of the checking and testing of knowledge by many individuals engaged in knowledge production, without having to accept the epistemological foundation he is offering (quite the opposite). He doesn’t need to reject individualism in epistemology, anymore than we need to reject individualism in political or economic constitutions. Individualism is not the rejection of community or networks: it is their core purpose. Individuals make up the communities and the communities exist for the sake of the individuals (not the other way around). To reify community and institution over the individual is a fundamental error and it undermines the very goal for which Rauch is trying to ultimately argue.

The book is still worth reading, even with this serious philosophical error. Rauch’s analysis of cancel culture and the misdeeds of the misinformation networks is important. His advice on how to combat these is also helpful.

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Monday, January 24, 2022

Review: Chaos Rising

Chaos Rising (Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy, #1)Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thrawn is a great character, one of my favorite in Star Wars. This is an interesting, fleshed out look at Thrawn's home culture and space. It employs a parallel narrative structure of the present and the past (Zahn seems to like this way of story telling, he's used it in other novels). I think it works pretty well here. There are two many criticism: (1) other than a tangential connection to Anakin, there is little that makes this Star Wars. While there are descriptions of things that are likely the Force by another name, this is only hinted at and not developed. (2) There is not a lot character development for Thrawn. What I love (and presume others) love about Thrawn is his Sherlock Holmes-style ability to read out from a situation lots of details that others miss and from that deduce all kinds conclusions. I was hoping we would get some insight into how Thrawn develops/hones this ability. But we don't; it seems to come onto the stage more or less fully formed.

Nevertheless, this was a fun read.

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Friday, January 14, 2022

Review: The Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning

The Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for MeaningThe Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Paul Bloom

This was a really interesting listen. Bloom discusses the role of suffering in life. His main idea is that suffering has an important role to play in the meaningful life. Along the way, he critiques various forms of hedonism (life is only/primarily about seeking pleasure or happiness). At the same time, he's not arguing for some kind of ascetic life or a life beset with suffering. His point is more that suffering is always, in some way, a part of a meaningful, full life. We can't banish it completely; and we wouldn't really want to if we could. He details various forms of what he calls chosen-suffering: from BDSM to watching scary movies, to mountain climbing and so on. Another part of his argument is in favor of what he calls motivational pluralism. This is the idea that we are motivated by many things: not just one. It's not just pleasure, or just happiness, or just _fill in the blank_. It's all of that and more. We have lots of different goals, ends, values that motivates us. Some of this involve some measure of pain or suffering. Indeed many of our life-projects; life long goals, involve a lot of pain and suffering of some kind. It's part of process. Sometimes we would, if we could, avoid that. But sometimes the grittiness, the hardness, the painfulness of the thing is an integral part of it and we wouldn't choose to remove it.

Bloom shares lots of fascinating anecdotes and relevant psychology findings. There is a lot to learn and think about here -- even if you don't agree with Bloom's conclusions.

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Thursday, January 06, 2022

Review: City Of Bones

City Of Bones (Harry Bosch #8; Harry Bosch Universe, #10)City Of Bones by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Connelly is such a master. Bosch is such an interesting and compelling character; and the supporting cast are well-drawn. It's hard to put his stories down. This book served as part of the basis for Season 1 of Bosch. So I knew the general trajectory of the story, however, there are some significant differences, so that kept the mystery a bit more open.

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Monday, January 03, 2022

Review: Games: Agency as Art

Games: Agency as ArtGames: Agency as Art by C Thi Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

C. Thi Nguyen’s book, Games: Agency as Art , is getting a lot of attention. The current issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Sport has a symposium discussing it; and there was a session at the IAPS virtual conference this past year (both featured replies by Nguyen).

The attention and acclaim the book is getting is well-deserved.

First, Nguyen is an excellent writer. According to the book flap, he used to be a food writer for the LA Times. The writing is crisp and concise. He is funny and personable; bringing together amusing but relevant and insightful anecdotes and illustrations to help make his points. He doesn’t get bogged down in jargon or minutiae; but is still able to bring rigor and preciseness when appropriate.

Second, Nguyen faces a daunting challenge of balancing several disciplines: philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, game design, and game culture. Few have expertise in all of these fields, but Nguyen does a great job of explaining the relevant theories, ideas, and arguments in ways that allow the relative novice to follow along but without dumbing it down for the relative expert.

Lastly, Nguyen’s theories are novel and interesting; and they have had an immediate impact on my thinking about the nature of games. I can’t do justice in this brief review (I plan on writing up a long, more tradition book review soon), but the basic idea is that we can better understand games (and many sports as kinds of games) by seeing them as particular kind of art. If we think of art as capturing and stylizing different aspects of human experience: literature as capturing our narratives; music as recording our experience of sounds; dance as recording and stylizing our experience of human movement, etc., then we might approach games as recording and stylizing our practical agency. Within games of all kinds, we take on a temporary agency and play it out. We play with this agency through playing the game. This is comparable to how we might read Harry Potter and experience the world of wizardry. Playing Jedi: Fallen Order, though, allows to experience (at least in a stylized way) what it’s like to think and choose like a Jedi. The game allows us take on the practical reasoning and thought processes of the kind of character or agency that is created by the game structure. As part of taking on this agency, we get temporary goals and values that we pursue in the context of the game, allowing us to experience the striving and achieving of these goals.

This, argues Nguyen, gives us a better understanding of what games are and also what is so valuable and important about game-playing: both personally and also socially. He also discusses how there are some dangers to this – though I thought this is where the book was weakest (I'll get into this more in my longer review).

I learned a lot from this book. Nguyen’s ideas call for much more study (I‘ve already adjusted my philosophy of sport syllabus to include some of his work), and I am sure they will continue to influence my thinking. And his work will push the field forward his ideas are digested, criticized, and revised.

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