Thursday, September 21, 2023

Review: From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi

From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi (From a Certain Point of View, #3)From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi by Saladin Ahmed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed these stories so much. They add such context and flavor to the Star Wars world. That said, this one was not as good as the first two. Some of the stories were a bit of stretch in terms of their connection to the movie. So many involved the same trope of a flashback that was not related to the movie itself. And I thought there were some stories that were missing: namely a story about Captain Rex and how he ended up on the Endor mission. A Hera story would have be good too.

Still, there were some great stories that enrich the movie, the story, and the Star Wars world. Some of the stories were quite sad, e.g. The Ballad of Nanta. Others were funny or just plain weird. The sarlacc story was both of those. The Max Rebo story was not one of my favorites but I liked how the story itself had a rhythm. "Brotherhood" was poignant. The Sidious story was chilling. One of my favorites was "The Key to Remembering" about one of Jabba's droids. The idea that sentience was connected to memory was quite interesting (and points out of the leitmotifs of Star Wars: memory of the past and hope for the future).

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Review: The Wanted

The Wanted (Elvis Cole, #17; Joe Pike, #6)The Wanted by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not my favorite Cole/Pike novel, but it was fast-paced and entertaining.

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Monday, September 04, 2023

Review: All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1)All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my final assessment, I am glad I read this book. I didn’t love it; but it did grow on me. The language has a haunting beauty to it and there are some fascinating moments and provoking conversations. But I found the first 30 pages or so confusing and meandering. McCarthy is somewhat careless with pronoun antecedents so it was hard to follow who was saying what to whom. The story didn’t feel like it was going anywhere in particular; just two young guys riding down to Mexico for adventure. But once they get settled into Mexico, it picks up and gets more interesting. The Great-Aunt is a wonderful character and some of the best moments of the book are between her and Grady. Many of the lines one sees quoted from the book come from their conversations: “between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.”

The plot doesn’t really have much of through-line and there’s almost no plot-theme to speak of. Worse, there is the occasional deus ex machina when things start to bog down. Other than Grady and the aunt, the characters and their motivations are somewhat thin.

The book is worth reading though I think it is over-hyped. It is not the greatest American novel nor do I think it is innovative or ambitious as some critics claim. It’s a bit more violent and pensive than a Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour, but otherwise not all that different.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Review: The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don'tThe Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't by Julia Galef
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really got into this book. Galef's presentation style is clear. Although in some ways this is a 'self-help' book with tips and suggestions for improving one's mindset, she does a great job of balancing that with the conceptual framework, explanation, and justification of the mindset. She avoids the pitfalls of some self-help books which oversell their advice and make their advice all-encompassing. After all, that would be soldier mindset!

In many ways, there is nothing knew here. The basic idea is to avoid motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases so that one can get an accurate and objective picture of themselves and their world. But instead of just saying those biases are bad, don't do them, Galef explains why we so often fall into the trap and how we can work to create a mindset that makes it easier to avoid them. This is where the solider vs scout mindset comes. I love this metaphor: it worked right away in mind for making sense of this.

The soldier's job is defense and protection (and offensive as well). As a mindset, this becomes a matter of defending our beliefs or persuading others. This mindset develops to protect ourselves and those we love from harm; from false or wrong ideas. However, it can often lead to motivated reasoning (as well as other biases) in order to serve that protection. And this can actually undermine that goal--because it can lend itself to evasion and avoidance of realty and hard truths.

The scout on the other hand is sent out to survey the landscape, get the lay of the land. Their mission is one built on getting the most accurate understanding of the landscape one faces (exactly where is the bridge? where are the enemy positions? etc). Hoping the bridge is where you think it is doesn't make sense: you have to go and look where it is and make sure. As a mindset, this translate to a commitment to accuracy and the search for truth. Motivated reasoning doesn't make much sense here: if the goal is accuracy, we need to be focused on arriving on the truth as best we can. If we are motivated by some state of affairs to be true we can be blinded by that and miss the actual state of affairs. We'd fail as scouts.

That's the basic difference and from that Galef explains ways on how to foster and encourage a scout mindset. I found it very useful; and I've already felt the difference it is making on my approach to things.

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Friday, August 25, 2023

Review: The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics

The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized EthicsThe Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics by Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating book! I was fully engaged throughout listening to it. The author does a good job, I think, of balancing the philosophical and the biographical. And the philosophical is handled well: I am familiar with Foot and Anscombe’s work and I don’t think there were any egregious errors or missteps. Moreover, I think a reader not as familiar would be able to get a handle on the ideas as discussed here.

While I knew that Foot and Anscombe were associates, I had no idea the depth and intimacy of the relationships between the four women on which the book focuses: Philippa Foot, G.E.M. Anscombe, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch. That these women were not only at Oxford around the same time, but were friends and intellectual interlocuters sort of blew my mind. A convergence of brilliance and ability like one rarely sees. The author details their friendships, but also the ways in which they intellectually influenced each other.

I am most familiar with Foot, having read much of work of the years. I have read little of Anscombe outside of the few works in moral philosophy she wrote. I was familiar with Murdoch, though never really read any of her work. And Midgley, I was only vaguely aware of the name. However, after reading this work, I ordered Midgley’s Beast and Man and hope to get to it sooner rather than later. She sounds like she pulls together many of the insights of Foot and the others in some promising ways.

I was also fascinated by the intellectual life of Oxford at this time. First, the depth of the education these women received is amazing – I am so jealous! What it took to get into Oxford and then proceed through successfully sounds incredibly challenging but also rewarding. Second, the seriousness with which intellectual life was treated came through and also makes me jealous!

These thinkers and their ideas should be more front and center in the philosophical world. They still are on the margins, but their insights continue to inspire and influence.

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Sunday, August 13, 2023

Review: Echo Park

Echo Park (Harry Bosch, #12; Harry Bosch Universe, #16)Echo Park by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the fascinating things about reading the Bosch stories after the TV show is noticing the way it diverges. Not just in terms of plot details (Several aspects of this book were adapted for Season 1), but also characters. Irvin Irving is the biggest difference: the TV show changes the character almost entirely. But Bosch is more reckless, more of a loose cannon/lone wolf in the books. That's there in the Welliver Bosch, but he's a bit more composed on the show.

The book is great; as exciting, and as fast a read as Connelly typically produces. The dialogue is pithy and witty. The story dives into some of the darkness of the human soul; but it also its light. I particularly liked the metaphor of the dog you feed: there is a good dog and bad dog in each of us, and who you become is partly a matter of which you choose to feed. How very Aristotelian!

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Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Review: Scythe

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shusterman has a produced an original and compelling story about a world where humanity has conquered mortality. The Scythe exist to keep the population levels under control, performing regular "gleanings" of the population. The story follows two teenagers chosen to be trained as Scythe apprentices. The story raises deep and important questions about the meaning of life, the role of mortality in being human, and the importance of moral character, especially how to maintain one's character while wielding incredible power.

The author does a good job of balancing these heady existential questions with the action of the story and the world-building. The world he creates is all-too familiar, but utterly foreign as well. At nearly every point where I though I knew where the story was going and it seemed in danger of becoming trite, Shusterman throws you are curve that keep things fresh. For a book about death and killing, it could still be funny and sweet.

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Review: Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Zahn does a tremendous job of capturing the original trilogy characters while introducing some interesting new ones. Obviously the most important is Thrawn. I came to know Thrawn first through Rebels and then Zahn's new (canon) Thrawn trilogies. The original Thrawn shares with his canon version his incredible tactical and strategic mind, his art-influenced deep insight into alien cultures, and his cool, logical approach to all things. The original Thrawn, though, is clearly a bad guy; a true heir to the empire. The canon Thrawn, though working with the Empire, seems more morally ambiguous. I suspect the Ahsoka series will bring in more of the "bad guy" Thrawn.

I was underwhelmed by Mara Jade. Given the attention the fandom gives her, I was expecting more. She came off as far too bitter and petty; though extraordinarily capable and intelligent. I presume her character gets more developed in the subsequent books.

Talon Karrde was fun; a classic honorable thief type. The ysalamiri are intriguing, though I doubt they'd make into the new canon.

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Monday, July 24, 2023

Review: The Collector: A Novel

The Collector: A NovelThe Collector: A Novel by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyed the newest Gabriel Allon novel. There are many things I love about these novels. One, though, is the way Silva tells stories. I love the sort of quasi-past tense: the way he sets up a scene from some future perspective, but also has it unfolding for the reader in the present time sequence of the book. The second thing I love is the quick-witted dialogue and repartee of the characters. Lastly, the intricate plotting and the way in which Silva always manages to work into the story art restoration as well as character restoration.

That said, as much I loved the book, it is not without some flaws. There are some plot elements that I thought were a bit rushed. The story too quickly moves away from the art element into the spy operation, and only briefly comes back to it. While several members of Allon's team are part of the story, they are not all that integral to the story. And the new characters introduced are not as developed as is usually the case. Personally I would like stories with more of an Israel flavor to them--although the focus here is quite timely and engaging.

I wonder if Silva might consider doing some spin-off novels, one's that take a secondary character and give it primary billing. A Mikhail focus novel or a Christopher and Sarah adventure. I think that could help breathe some fresh air into the series.

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Sunday, July 23, 2023

Review: A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America's Pastime

A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America's PastimeA Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America's Pastime by Joe Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this cool little book from Joe Kelly and Rob Bradford. While nothing terribly insightful or groundbreaking, it is an authentic love letter to the game of baseball. Partly a memoir of Kelly's life in baseball, from t-ball to pro ball, it includes Kelly's reflections on the state of the game today and what he thinks it needs, as the title claims, to reclaim it's honored place as America's pastime. He discusses his run-ins with MLB brass and surprisingly productive meetings with commissioner, Rob Manfred. The last third of the book includes contributions from many other ball players and managers. From Mookie Betts and JD Martinez to Terry Francona and David Ross, and many more, we get a first hand perspective from those that have played the game on why they love the game. This book will speak to anyone who loves baseball.

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Thursday, July 20, 2023

Review: The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern WorkThe Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work by Joanne B. Ciulla
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed in and at times frustrated with this book. While there is a lot interesting and useful – Ciulla traces the history of the meaning of work through time as well as laying out various theories of work and management ideas – I found it somewhat one-sided, platitudinous, and over-generalized. (Though obviously not the author's fault, it is is a bit of date as well.)

While Ciulla is by no means anti-work, anti-business, or anti-markets, there is an ideological flavor, shall we say, in much of the book. There are few philosophers or economists referenced that offer heterodox views of the sociological, economic, or moral claims asserted. In this way, the book is rather uncritical of its own claims, even as the author does catalog a range of views of work and life.

The paradox of a study like this is that it tries to draw from a wide range of views and takes on ‘work’, across time, but in so doing it tends to become somewhat superficial. There is this view, and there is that view, and then this other view. As the author acknowledges, “work” covers a lot of different activities and comes with a multitude of attitudes and views about it. Many of these are contradictory. And so in trying to something about ‘work’ it tends towards the superficial. Work is important, work is unimportant. Work is primary, work is secondary. Work is a source of meaning, work is destructive of meaning.

At its best, the book does challenge one to think more about the concept of work, the meaning of work in our lives, and the role it plays (or ought to play) in our lives. It’s just that it wasn’t often at its best.

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Sunday, July 16, 2023

Review: Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean WorldReligion in the Ancient Mediterranean World by Glenn S. Holland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is sweeping overview of the various religious traditions and ideas of the ancient Mediterranean. Holland covers Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Israelite, Greek and Roman religions, and then early Christianity. For each area, Holland sets up the various historical, archeological, and political contexts. Holland also finds ways to connect each of these periods/areas to each other, but without overdoing it either (he doesn't try to create some grand narrative, he's more or less pointing out similarities and differences and possible points of influence).

The course is quite useful as a general survey. Anyone looking for in-depth analysis, dissection, or critical analysis will be disappointed. But this is generally the case with Teaching Company courses. They are great surveys, giving you the context of knowledge to then dive deeper on your own. This course is the same: Holland's course provides the basis for one to pursue further research in any of these areas. But it is also good for someone who is just looking for the 10000 foot view.

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Sunday, July 09, 2023

Review: Tiamat's Wrath

Tiamat's Wrath (The Expanse, #8)Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The penultimate book in this nine book series is action packed. Many of the earlier ones took a little bit to get going, but this felt like it jumped right back into the action of Book 7 and just kept running. I liked the POV changes between chapters that overlapped, giving the book a bit more frenetic pace while also signaling the simultaneity of various elements of the story.

One of the interesting leitmotifs of this book is the question of how to resist tyranny both ethically and authentically. What strategies are most appropriate and how do you go about these without losing who you are?

I can't wait to read Book 9, but I am sad to come to the end. These characters are so vivid and so well drawn, they live in my head for a long time after I finish the books.

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Thursday, June 29, 2023

Review: Titan's Day

Titan's Day (The Carter Archives #2)Titan's Day by Dan Stout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The follow up to Titanshade delivers the same engaging characters and setting. It's a unique mash-up of genres: part noir, part detective, part fantasy, part sci-fi. Stout's world building is subtle and interesting. The world is just familiar enough so as not to require lengthy exposition, but alien enough to make it interesting and novel. Readers of Michael Connelly's Bosch will see a lot of Bosch in Carter: the commitment to the murder victim; the belief that everybody counts, even in the face of an uncaring and sometimes corrupt bureaucracies.

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Sunday, June 18, 2023

Review: Robert B. Parker's Blood Feud

Robert B. Parker's Blood Feud (Sunny Randall, #7)Robert B. Parker's Blood Feud by Mike Lupica
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the Sunny Randall series and how Parker explored how the "machismo" code that Spenser lived by could be applied to a woman. I was a skeptical about Lupica taking over, but I think he did a competent job. There are definitely things that off; things that remind you that this isn't Parker. The depth of insight, the clarity of the prose, and quick wit are not quite to even a mediocre Parker level. But I enjoyed the book and the story; it was nice to live again with the regular cast of characters from the Spenser-verse.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book III: Lesser Evil)Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of the three books in the Ascendancy trilogy, I liked this one the best. It brings to conclusion many of the various themes and plot lines of the earlier books. It doesn’t get as deep into the family/palace intrigue that the first did (which I didn’t care as much for). There is more focus on Thrawn and his allies and how they resolve the crisis that has been growing since the first book. I really like the way this triology raises the question about how different peoples interact with, use, and relate to the Force. It also sets up more of how and why Thawn ends in in the Empire, though I find there still is something of a disconnect for me. Thrawn is so competent, so intelligent, and really basically good, it can be a bit incongruent that he allies himself with the Empire (even if it is for the ulterior motive of serving the Ascendancy). It’ll be interesting to see the Thrawn we get in the Ahsoka series and if that helps to shed some more light on this.

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Monday, May 29, 2023

Review: The Fallen Man

The Fallen Man (Leaphorn & Chee, #12)The Fallen Man by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This Leaphorn and Chee is much more of a classic mystery story. That is, many of Hillerman's stories revolve around a crime that juxtaposes the White Man's way of live with the Navajo way of life. But The Fallen Man doesn't really do this: there is a mystery that needs solving and the detectives work to solve it. Interestingly the cultural conflict, so to speak, is between the Navajo characters and how each of them adapt to contemporary life. As with all of Hillerman's books, the descriptions and immersion into this world are beautiful.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review: How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well

How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living WellHow to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well by Catherine Wilson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After listening to a podcast interview with Wilson about this book, I was really looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it was quite disappointing. I found it superficial both in its explication of Epicureanism and its application to contemporary life. There was little insight about Epicureanism or how to apply it to one’s life today. With the title of How to Be an Epicurean, I expected it to be “self-helpy” but I didn’t expect it to be as trite and insipid as the worst of the self-help genre.

Though each chapter starts with epigraphs of quotations from Epicurus and Lucretius, there is not a lot inside the chapters that connects directly to their writings. There is almost no way for the reader to check Wilson’s assertions about what Epicureanism says. There are no footnotes to indicate the sources. There is an appendix with quotations but there is no indication how these connect to the text itself. I get this is not a scholarly work, but this is a serious flaw and weakens Wilson’s analysis and presentation since it can be hard to tell where Epicurus ends and Wilson’s interpretation and views begins.

The application of Epicureanism to contemporary life is unfortunately as superficial.. Wilson frequently uses the rhetorical device of “The Modern Epicurean believes” but it is not at all clear to whom this refers or how the claims made in the guise of the Modern Epicurean connect to Epicureanism proper. It is hard to not to conclude that The Modern Epicurean is just Wilson and her views of how to think about the various contemporary issues regardless of how well these views cohere or not with ancient Epicureanism.

There are few caveats to my disappointment and criticism that might not apply to other readers. First, I’m a professional philosopher and this book is clearly pitched to a general readership, not those trained in philosophy. Second, I regularly teach Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, and so while no expert on Epicureanism, it’s fair to say I’m quite familiar with Epicureanism. It might be that as a general introduction to Epicureanism, this is a good starting point for those with no background in the subject and that Wilson provides a spur to further interest in Epicureanism. However, the flaws I discuss here probably undermine it being that spur.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Review: On Target

On Target (Gray Man, #2)On Target by Mark Greaney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Greaney writes a fun action packed thriller. Court is an intriguing character, with a lot of room for development of the character. He's still a bit wooden and thin: but there is potential here for a great anti-hero type. The story here takes some interesting and even unexpected turns. It's outrageous and unrealistic in ways, but that's par for the genre (and part of the fun). It's a quick and fun summer read.

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Saturday, May 06, 2023

Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Rowling's first foray into the detective genre. The mystery is well constructed. As with the Potter series, Rowling does a great job of characterization through dialogue, description, and action. This definitely is not Potter, but it is definitely Rowling. It is clearly her style and humor.

I listened to the audio version, which I think is the way to go. The reader is English and so the slang and dialogue are more authentic than whatever voice my brain would have given it.

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Review: Anaximander: And the Birth of Science

Anaximander: And the Birth of ScienceAnaximander: And the Birth of Science by Carlo Rovelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book caught my eye at the bookstore; the title and description were right up my alley. I cover the Milesians in my ancient philosophy course, so I was interested to see what Rovelli’s take would be. The overall thesis is that Anaximander introduces into humanity two main ideas at the central core to science: a willingness to question every tenet, no matter its source, and the demand to put the answer in naturalistic terms. After explaining how Anaximander does this, Rovelli proceeds to show the importance and influence of these key ideas. The latter gets a bit too general, mostly because it is very broad over of the history of science. There was little new or insightful in these chapters. The connection that Rovelli draws back to Anaximander is pretty thin.

Rovelli’s presentation of Anaximander and some of the other pre-Socratics is pretty good. He also does some basic comparisons with civilizations in China, Babylon, and Egypt. However, in terms of trying to establish his claim that Anaximander was doing something novel and not done before, Rovelli needed to do some more of this kind of comparison.

One of the most interesting aspects of Rovelli’s account is his discussion of how Miletus, at the intersection of several different cultures, made these important scientific and philosophical advances. The decentralized nature of the Greek world at this time while also being in contact with the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian cultures gave Miletus the soil in which these new approaches could flourish.

The book is approachable and well-written. I think Rovelli does a good job of telling the history of science; though anyone already familiar with this material will likely not find much new.

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Friday, April 28, 2023

Review: What's the Use of Philosophy?

What's the Use of Philosophy?What's the Use of Philosophy? by Philip Kitcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this brief book, Kitcher offers his take on what is wrong with the discipline of philosophy and what he thinks it needs to do to fix itself.

I think Kitcher nails many of the ongoing problems in academic philosophy: the over-formalization, the reliance on intuition and thought experiments, the superficial understanding of other disciplines (in particular science), to name a few. Another focus of his criticism is that the discipline sees itself as having a core, namely metaphysics and epistemology, that gets all the prestige, leaving the peripheral to be neglected. While I think he’s correct in broad strokes, I’m not as persuaded that these pathologies, as he calls them, are quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. He captures some general trends, but it is not clear how deep or far these go. Kitcher himself acknowledges that since he first starting working on this project, the discipline moved in more positive directions.

Two things he doesn’t mention, or barely mentions, are (1) the teacher-researcher split and (2) the prestige of stardom.

In the last chapter, he does raise the teacher-research split; but I think he’s missing the important shift in higher ed towards large parts (and majority parts) of the faculty being teaching faculty instead of research focused faculty. I think his thesis might be interesting to explore in terms of how teaching philosophy is different than being focused on cutting-edge research. The former tends to fit more his view of the direction philosophy should take: syncretic, tied into practical concerns, and with an eye towards the audience. It will typically avoid most of the formalist and technical pathologies he’s concerned with, since the classes are not pitched at that level.
In terms of (2) above, there is far too much prestige given to the big names, the big programs, and the big journals. This feeds a lot of the problems he discusses. This is general academic problem, not peculiar to philosophy. (Indeed, it might even be somewhat better in philosophy as things go.) Still, if the concern is on how to cure the pathologies, there has to be some focus on one of the major causes of these pathologies.

My biggest disagreements with Kitcher lie in his positive project. It’s far too based on (philosophical) pragmatism and a bit too focused on the extrinsic value of what philosophy does. There is a value of philosophy that is more internal: that is, it has value that is not based on how it contributes to the university and other disciplines. And I think Kitcher dismisses that too quickly. That said, the syncretic, less formalistic, more practical approach is appealing to me. I just don’t want that to be it. There is a great value in diving deeply into the details. There is a great value of streaming to the 10000-foot view. We need both. The latter is not as well value in the discipline, but it’s not a zero-sum game where valuing the syncretic, big picture view means devaluing the analytical, minute focus.

The book is quick and easy to read. It likely wouldn’t interest any not in the field, though other academics might find it interesting to look inside another discipline.

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Review: Star Wars Jedi: Battle Scars

Star Wars Jedi: Battle ScarsStar Wars Jedi: Battle Scars by Sam Maggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the novel and it's gotten me all prepped for the new game. It was action packed and developed the characters and relationships from the game. There are two things that I might complain about. First, there was a lot of inner dialogue talk by the characters that could have been better developed through the characters actions (the old 'show me, don't tell' me saw). Second, while there is character development, it is relatively minor. Cal is who is he is. Merrin gets the most development and in many ways the book is far more about Merrin than any one else. Which is fine, I like Merrin and her story, but that's not really how the book is presented.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Review: Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness

Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of DarknessFreedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness by Timothy Sandefur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic book. Sandefur does a masterful job of explaining the importance of these three remarkable women: Isabel Patterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. He takes their ideas seriously, pulls no punches but is also exceedingly fair and charitable in his accounting of their ideas, works, and personalities.

I knew vaguely that Patterson, Lane, and Rand knew each other, but I had no inkling of the depth of the connections between them: personal connections as well intellectual and ideological. All three wrote important and influential works in the mid-20th century. Though Rand is likely best-known today, Patterson and Lane were important voices for (economic, intellectual, and personal) liberty and freedom in a time when then were few such voices. Patterson is best known today for God of the Machine and her decade’s long column at the New York Herald Tribune; and Lane for her work The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority and the Little House series she wrote with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though the three had important differences, together they provided a robust vision and defense of moral individualism and human freedom.

One of the most surprising things I learned is the role Sinclair Lewis played in the development of the work of all three writers. Sandefur explores how Lewis’ novels, as well as other works that formed what is called the “Revolt from the Village” literary movement provided by the inspiration and the foil for the novels of Patterson, Lane, and Rand. This movement challenged the conformity and oppressiveness of small town life, and arguably culminated in Lewis’ Main Street. Sandefur persuasively argues that Patterson, Lane, and Rand shared the concerns that works of the revolt focused on, but that they offered more optimistic and positive ways beyond what Lewis called the “village virus."

Sandefur’s book is a bit hard to categorize: it’s part biography, part literary criticism/analysis, part political history, and part intellectual history. How ever you categorize it, it’s a remarkable achievement and anyone with any interest in American history of the 20th century or the history of intellectual ideas should read this book. It should be a touchstone for any scholar thinking about the ideas of Patterson, Lane, or Rand.

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Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault

Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to FoucaultPhilosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of essays by Pierre Hadot was mixed. Hadot is clearly deeply knowledgeable about ancient and modern philosophy, history, and literature. He brings this knowledge to bear on his discussions of the purpose of philosophy. I certainly learned a lot reading it. However, I didn’t find his overall argument persuasive.

Hadot has two main goals. First is to argue that philosophy, in the ancient period in particular, was primarily meant as a way of life, a distinctive, all-encompassing approach to living. He claims that most of the written works we have capture more of what he calls philosophical discourse, and not philosophy itself. These discourses are meant to train one in the transformative methods of living that constitute what philosophy actually is.

This leads to the second goal: the idea that the philosophical schools consisted mainly of what he calls spiritual exercises. This is where I found myself most critical. Hadot never really clearly defines or describes what is meant by spiritual exercises. He gives several examples, but it’s not clear what makes something an exercise and what sort exercises spiritual exercises are. This makes several the essays too wide-ranging; the ill-defined concept is able to be stretched to nearly anything that suited Hadot’s purposes.

Another problem with Hadot’s discussion about the role of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is that nearly all his examples come from the Stoics. He also references Plato and Lucretius’s Epicureanism as well. But Hadot frequently claims that these exercises are part of all six of the major ancient schools. This would have been more convincing if had drawn more evidence from all the schools. If Hadot had just focused on the Stoics and kept his claims tied to them, it would have been far more persuasive.

The essays did tend to be repetitive as well; the overall thesis and purpose was pretty much established in the first essay. The rest of the essays do not add all that much to it.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Review: The Quick Red Fox

The Quick Red Fox (Travis McGee #4)The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In so many ways MacDonald and McGee are breaths of fresh air. The language and style capture a particular time and place, though not naturalistic. There is a romantic, stylized element to the stories and the characters. The plot of this story takes some interesting turns and McGee finds himself in a few pickles; but in the end, it's not really about the plot. It's the characters, the language, the setting, all wrapped up together into just the right mix.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Review: Star Wars: Visions - Ronin

Star Wars: Visions - RoninStar Wars: Visions - Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sadly, this book was a disappointment. I love the anime short it was based on, "The Duel". It was my favorite of the Star Wars: Visions shorts. And the idea of a more full-throated re-imagining of Star Wars in the context of a Japanese influenced tropes, images, and mythos was exciting. Star Wars itself was influenced by these and the idea of returning the favor was an excellent idea. I was really excited for this book. However, the execution falls short. There are interesting characters and settings, but the flow of the plot and the development of the characters and their motivations was not what it needed to be. I found myself rereading sections several times because I wasn't sure what was going on or why something was happening: it frequently felt like I missed some important piece of action. The individuals character were each compelling on their own, but their motivations for what they were doing and why they were doing it together was never clear enough. And I still don't quite understand the ending.

The way Candon handles the force, the Jedi, the Sith has a lot of potential; but it ended up being more confusing than insightful. The author's use of the singular they/them for the non-binary character could be confusing. There were several times I had to reread the paragraph because it wasn't clear if the pronoun's antecedent was the non-binary character or the group.

There was a lot of potential; lots of good ideas worth exploring and developing, but unfortunately it just didn't come together.

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Saturday, March 18, 2023

Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Greenblatt’s The Swerve purports to explain how Epicureanism, in the form of Lucretius’ great poem, De Rerum Natura, created the modern world. This overstates, however, both the impact that Lucretius’ rediscover probably had as well as what Greenblatt actually shows. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful book.

It is far more about the intellectual and theological world of the 15th and 16th centuries than it is about anything else. This is not the book to turn to in order to learn Epicurean philosophy, though Greenblatt provides a adequate sketch. The claims made about Epicurean influence on the early modern thinkers are interesting and provoking, but all together to thin. Lucretius’ work obviously had an influence and was important in helping to shape the thought of this period; but the extent of it is less clear. That is, Greenblatt is not able to make the counterfactual claim that had Poggio Bracciolini not found the manuscript in the early 15th century, the course of history would have been all that different. That said, it was discovered and did influence thinkers such as Giordano Bruno, Galilee, and Jefferson, among many others.

What makes this book so wonderful, though, is the tale Greenblatt weaves. His narrative explains how the ancient works found their ways into monasteries, how and why they were copied, and how they were lost. And then, of course, how they were rediscovered by likes of Bracciolini and other humanists. Greenblatt ends the book with discussions of how the Church responded to the growing influence of the work. As Greenblatt tells it, the Church saw Epicureanism as a particularly threat, in a way it didn’t see the other ancient others. The physics of Epicureanism as presented in Lucretius’ beautiful lines of poetry seemed to them utterly incompatible with Church dogma and thus merited special attention. So, while Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics could all be made to fit in some way, Lucretius’ poem was stubbornly indigestible by Christian theology. Greenblatt doesn’t come right and out and say it, but I think he sees this utter inconsonance with Christianity as why it is the set of ideas so central to the making of the modern world.

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Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark

Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the BallparkInfinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark by Alva Noƫ
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On one hand, I really rather enjoyed this book. The chapters are short and pithy. Noe’s musings about baseball are thought-provoking; and his love of baseball shines through out. His idea that baseball is all about deciding who’s responsible for what, left me thinking about baseball from a new perspective. The relation of baseball to language and linguistics was intriguing. Anyone interested in baseball will find the book charming.

On the other hand, I found myself annoyed and disappointed at times with the book. Clearly aware of the philosophy of sport literature, the author makes almost no mention or reference to it. So many of the topics he dives into he treats as novel and original, as if he’s the first to consider these topics philosophically, when they are well-trodden in the literature. Noe has some interesting insights, but these too could have been better had he engaged with the writings by philosophers of sport.

Noe is explicit that he’s not trying to write a philosophy of sport book; that his is more the musings of a philosopher obsessed with baseball. And there is much in the book that fits this vein. But much of the book is also engaged in philosophical analysis of arguments about topics central to sport. As such, it is, necessarily, a work in philosophy of sport. And on that front, one has to grade it down a bit because it doesn’t enter the dialogue where those conversations are taking place. To strain the metaphor, he’s swinging the bat, but not stepping into the batter’s box to face the pitcher.

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Friday, March 03, 2023

Review: The Closers

The Closers (Harry Bosch, #11; Harry Bosch Universe, #14)The Closers by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gripping and engaging as always. Bosch is back on the job, working cold cases now. I like he and Kiz together as partners. Connelly's plotting is superb.

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Monday, February 27, 2023

Review: Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace—and What Lies Ahead

Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace—and What Lies AheadLet My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace—and What Lies Ahead by Aryeh Lightstone
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was disappointed by this book. I heard the author on a podcast and thought he and the book sounded interesting. I really wanted to like it; I am pro-Israel; I think the Abraham Accords are a tremendous, historical achievement. But the book itself doesn’t really work. The author violates one of the core principles of good writing: show me, don’t tell me. Lightstone tells us a lot of what happened in the buildup towards and the execution of the Abraham Accords but the account lacks punch, drama, or intensity. We are told how ecstatic and thrilled the author and everyone around him is, but it’s hard for the reader to get that themselves from the text (though it is there when one considers the historical accomplished of the accords). There are just too many platitudes, hyperbole, and grandiose proclamations.

The author repeatedly expresses his gratitude in the book; his wonder and excitement at playing a role in this historical process; his thanks for those that helped me be there and be a part of things: from Ambassador Friedman to Kushner and even Trump. That’s all well and good; gratitude is important. But that’s not what the book sells itself as. This is far more memoir than account of how the accords came to be or why they are so important.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Review: Persepolis Rising

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse, #7)Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series continues to be one of my favorites. Each volume adds to the story, to the characters. It surprises, while also sticking with what makes it great. After #6, I didn't know where the story would go; I was worried it get stale, but the authors juggle things up here to make it feel fresh again. This sets up what I assume will be the story arc for the last novels in the series.

While the last book felt much more intimate, this was more sweeping. How does the crew of Rocinante do with others, not only amongst themselves? How do they evolve to the next stage? If the last novel had a theme focused on forgiveness, the leitmotif of this novel is power: what drives it and what opposes it.

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Thursday, February 09, 2023

Review: A Pastime of their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball

A Pastime of their Own:  The Story of Negro League BaseballA Pastime of their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Louis Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a well-presented and concise history of Negro League Baseball. It's only 12 lectures, about 6 hours, but it covers the development, growth, and downfall of the different leagues. Starting with the growth of baseball after the Civil War and emancipation, Moore tells the story of the development and difficult growth of Black baseball through the players, owners, and teams that were essential to the history. I didn't realize how many different Negro leagues there were. I would have liked another lecture on the post-integration downfall; this is covered very quickly in the lecture on integration but it felt like there was more to be said about what happens after integration. I think any fan of baseball will learn a lot about an important part of the history of baseball and America in these lectures.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Review: Philosophy, Sport and the Pandemic

Philosophy, Sport and the PandemicPhilosophy, Sport and the Pandemic by Jeffrey P Fry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My review of this book is published on the Nordic Sport Science Forum.

There are some excellent chapters in this new anthology on sport and the pandemic, but my overall assessment of the volume is mixed. There are some issues with it that prevent me from recommending this work without qualification.

Read the rest:

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Friday, January 27, 2023

Review: The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg

The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe BergThe Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A biography of a fascinating man. Moe Berg was a unique figure; a quirky and weird guy in many ways. Brilliant and talented in many other ways. His life seemed rich and mysterious, but also quite sad and lonely. He seemed to be in the center of things but at the same time, no where at all.

The covers Berg's who life from his youth until death. It gets into more detailed than I expected into his family and the various friends and relations whose lives Berg drifted in and out of. His years as a spy during WW2 are of course covered, but they are not the focus. The mystery here is not this perennially backup major league catcher working as an OSS spy assigned to kill, if necessary, the renowned Germany physicist Werner Heisenberg. The mystery is Berg himself.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Review: Lonely on the Mountain: The Sacketts

Lonely on the Mountain: The SackettsLonely on the Mountain: The Sacketts by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Though the plot is similar to many other Sackett novels (one or more of the brothers gets into some kind of trouble, the other brothers come to help out, more trouble is had, and brothers come out victorious), there are some new elements here. There are a few twists. The landscape is different taking place mostly in the northern plains and Canada. There are some dicey moments for the brothers as well. I love living in the Sackett world even for just a few moments -- though I wouldn't last long if I had to for real!

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Saturday, January 14, 2023

Review: The Promise

The Promise (Elvis Cole, #16; Joe Pike, #5; Scott James & Maggie, #2)The Promise by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few twists and turns in this mystery. For the most part, this delivers what Cole fans will expect: Pike and Stone help him out. Cole gets into some trouble with the police. But the world's greatest detective eventually figures out what is going on. One of the most interesting elements of the novel is Crais's use of Maggie's point of view. Maggie is a former Marine dog now working with LAPD K-9 unit. Crais switches from Cole's first person of view to the third person point of view of other characters, and this includes Maggie. I didn't realize that Scott, Maggie's handler, have their own Crais standalone. I'll have to check that out.

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Friday, January 13, 2023

Review: Tempest Runner

Tempest Runner (Star Wars: The High Republic)Tempest Runner by Cavan Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Star Wars audio dramas, though this was not as good as the Doctor Aphra or Dooku ones. It was a fun listen, and gives much more context and background to Lourna Dee's character. In the Light of the Jedi series and the High Republic comics, she is just a villain. Here, we get more about who she is and where she comes from. She's still a villain, but a more interesting villain because she's not just a monster.

I did have some trouble distinguishing the characters in the audio drama, particularly at first. Also, the fights scenes tended to be just a lot of grunting and moaning.

I'm still not entirely sold on the High Republic era. I enjoy the books, the comics, etc., but I've not (yet) connected with any of the characters in the way I have with the Skywalker Saga characters.

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Sunday, January 08, 2023

Review: The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism

The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American ConservatismThe Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Continetti’s sweeping history of American conservatism from the 1920’s up through the 2020 election offers important perspective and context for much of contemporary politics. Starting with President Harding and covering the political and intellectual figures of the Right and the conservative moment up through Trump. It’s well-research, balanced, and comprehensive. It is worth a read by anyone interested in the political and intellectual history of the US. Conservatives will find much to learn about the history of the movement they seem themselves apart of. Liberals will find a more nuanced and richer intellectual opponent than they are familiar with.

There are three criticisms I have. First is that the Continetti’s focus is really only on political and intellectual figures. What is missing is a sense of the conservative movement on the street level; how the common person might have understood conservativism and the Right. But that’s a different kind of history so it’s less a criticism than a caveat for readers who might be looking for that perspective. Second, and more substantive, is that Continetti doesn’t do enough to define the differences between conservatism and the Right. He acknowledges that these are not the same thing, but the contours are not always clear and at Continetti slides too easily between these. And this leads to my third criticism that Continetti does not do a good enough job with libertarianism. He treats it largely as just one more thread in the right, but that doesn’t do justice to the intellectual history of libertarianism and its stark differences with much of the rest of the conservative movement.

While this history is not written as guide to trying to understand Trump and the Trump phenomenon, it does have that as kind of sub-theme running through background until the last chapter that focus directly on Trump and the aftermath.

Much of what we might call the content of “Trumpism”: antipathy for immigration; ambivalence, sometimes hostility, about free markets and free trade; isolationism/disengagement; and populism; has always been an element of the Right. It coexisted with the pro-immigration, pro-market, pro-trade, elitist, and projection of American power kinds of conservativism. Continetti traces out the various threads and streams of American conservatism and the American right. These disparate elements are only united by its opposition. Continetti’s starts his history with the Right’s opposition to Wilsonian progressivism. This early conservative movement, highlighted by President’s Harding and Coolidge, saw itself as preserving the principles and ideals of the founding that Wilson and the progressives were looking to reform. The next generation of the Right was united by its opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Right was then united in the post-war by anti-communism and turning back the New Deal. Things get messy with Nixon for a while, but with Reagan, the Right returns: united again by anti-communism, rejection of big government liberalism, and social issues. The end of the Cold War then leads to the fraying of the broad coalition of the Right. The divergent elements all vie to have their vision be the controlling vision. We are still in this period; as evidenced by the turmoil in the GOP exposed by Trump’s candidacy and presidency.

What Continetti shows is that behind he superficial unified front of the Right, there were also always deep tensions and divisions. So Trump is in many ways just the latest iteration of the line of figures from Lindberg to McCarthy to Wallace to Buchanan that tapped into populist and outsider anger. The MAGA movement often sounds a lot like a contemporary reboot of the Birchers. One optimistic message of Continetti’s book is that the Right survived those and it will survive Trump. The pessimistic undertone is that these elements will also remain a part of the right, since they have always been a part of it.

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Friday, January 06, 2023

Review: Men Without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition

Men Without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition (2022)Men Without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition by Nicholas Eberstadt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An in-depth exploration of one of the major issues in labor economics: the large and growing percentage of prime-age men opting out of work. Eberstadt describes this growing phenomenon with lots and lots of graphs and data. He first gives the evidence for growing numbers of "un-working" men. He then describes the demographics of this group. He looks at what these men do and how they are able to do it without working. He also looks at some of the possible causes. Lastly, he briefly suggests some prescriptions to help reduce this problem.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that after the last chapter, there are two additional chapters by critics of book, and then a response by Eberstadt to the critics. The critics dispute aspects of Eberstadt's description of the problem, his explanation of the possible causes, and his prescriptions. This added a lot to my understanding of the ideas of the book.

It's a bit wonky and data-heavy for most readers; Eberstadt has appeared on any number of podcasts discussing the ideas in the book (that's how I heard about it). And unless you really want to dig into the data, those are probably sufficient to get the idea and the book is not necessary.

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