[Thanks to Braden and Ben for getting me books.]
Creating Capabilities: Martha Nussbaum is an extremely clear writer who regularly uses examples to make it clear what she’s arguing. I wish more philosophers would follow her example; it makes her books actually fun to read. I also wish more philosophers would follow her example of talking about cognitively disabled people in a way that doesn’t make me want to punch them in the face.
Nussbaum’s book might be interesting to effective altruists: her project is essentially outlining a strategy for telling whether a development program– whether done by an NGO or government– is working or not. She argues that societies should provide to their members certain capabilities, such as reading, access to nutritious food, and leisure time. She distinguishes this from requiring people to do things: being literate does not require that you read, and having access to nutritious food doesn’t mean you can’t live on Cheetos. She’s dissatisfied with utilitarianism for reasons I don’t find convincing (it’s fine by me if the reason we don’t have slaves is that that produces net unhappiness, and not that it is Just Wrong), but I think her framework works fine for most utilitarianisms– she’s talking about the details of what makes one life more fulfilling than another. Her unfortunately brief discussion of what capabilities animals need for a fulfilling life is very interesting.
How Children Fail: The observations of a teacher about school. Mostly, his observations are that school doesn’t work very well. Most of his students, despite being in fifth grade, have very little grasp of multiplication or division and some don’t even understand addition or subtraction; none seem to understand math on a conceptual level, as opposed to as a series of procedures done to meaningless lines that sometimes produce the meaningless lines which you are praised for. To cover their lack of understanding, children have a variety of inventive techniques, such as derailing the class, mumbling the answer and hoping the teacher will hear what they want to hear, observing the teacher’s expressions, and waving their hands around enthusiastically so the teacher will pick on someone else. He points out teachers’ role in perpetuating this state of affairs as well: for instance, ‘review sessions’ before a big test which mostly just allow students to cram enough to pass. Kind of cynical, very funny.
How Children Learn: The companion to How Children Fail, in which the author sings the praises of unschooling. While I have sympathies for unschooling, I don’t fully agree with it. I agree that self-motivated learning generally works better than non-self-motivated learning, but I also think that with clever environment design the educator can induce most of the children to self-motivate to learn the things the educator wants them to learn. And I worry that in unschooling math and reading will be neglected if the child happens to not take an interest in them. That said, these are pretty minor differences, and all things considered I am pretty much on board with the “learning things is rewarding to children and in an enriched environment with adult guidance they will naturally learn” belief set.
Unconditional Parenting: It is sort of weird to review parenting books when you are not a parent. You should really check back with me in ten years to find out my opinion. Anyway, Unconditional Parenting is all about how punishment is EEEVVIIIIIIILLL and rewards are also EEEEVVIIIIIILLL, because they teach children that being loved is conditional on behaving and they destroy intrinsic motivation. I am sympathetic to this argument; I certainly remember being a child, and being punished mostly just made me angry and taught me to be more careful to not get caught. But I feel like Unconditional Parenting leaves me with unanswered questions like “okay, how do I set boundaries with children then?” And I honestly don’t believe that all rewards will make people feel like love is conditional; surely it depends on the reward. That says, it has some wonderful one-liners:
However, where children are concerned, the word is just as likely to mean nothing more than quiet—or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me… I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child—from infancy to adolescence—is one who isn’t too much trouble to us grown-ups.
Most of us, I’m convinced, do indeed want our children to think for themselves, to be assertive and morally courageous . . . when they’re with their friends. We hope they’ll stand up to bullies and resist peer pressure, particularly when sex and drugs are involved. But if it’s important to us that kids not be “victims of others’ ideas,” we have to educate them “to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.
Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words? Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean—that is, to lie.
The Confessions of Congressman X: If I am informed that a book is a tell-all confession about Congress that is so salacious the author had to be anonymous to say it, I am really expecting something more scandalous than “congresspeople spend a lot of time campaigning.”
Daylight Atheism: Reading this book leaves one with the suspicion that it was written by creating a statistical average of every other pro-atheism book ever written. “Did you know the Bible contains violent and evil passages? Did you know that people have used their religious belief to justify atrocities? Atheists care about science, reason, and evidence! Faith and obedience are bad! I am going to present utilitarianism as the third way between divine command theory and moral relativism, with a vague air of presenting you with a stunning new moral system you’ve never heard of. Time for some vaguely deathist speculations about how we can have meaning in our short lives! What if we create a HUMANIST church?”
[here lies spoilers for the Stormlight Archive and Sacrifices Arc, as well as content warning for cannibalism, violence, and rape]
Sacrifices Arc: Very, very long fanfiction by Limyaael of fantasy rant fame. Harry has a twin brother named Connor who is the Boy Who Lived. Harry is raised as a child soldier to defend and protect Connor, so he can continue to be innocent enough to defeat the Dark Lord; this includes conditioning Harry to feel anxious and upset every time he relaxes and causing him pain so he learns to fight through the pain.
Sacrifices Arc is an extremely realistic depiction of the process of recovering from trauma, which is to say that characters repeatedly return to the same dysfunctional coping mechanisms, have epiphanies and then return to their old behavior, get halfway better and then stop, and have it repeatedly explained to them how dumb they’re being and refuse to listen. I thought it was great, but if you’re frustrated by characters behaving like idiots in ways that make perfect goddamn sense because of their emotional issues then this is probably not the book for you.
Sacrifices Arc is heavy on the politicking and intrigue; the author clearly had a lot of fun coming up with complex pureblood etiquette for Harry to manipulate. There’s some pretty clever prophecy twists and some really interesting details about the magic system. Harry is a vates, which means that he can break the webs of compulsion which enslave magical creatures such as house elves and unicorns; the vates can never use compulsion magic and must free magical creatures out of his own free will, not because there was a moral duty or compulsion to do so. Naturally, I think the whole concept of vates is awesome.
Harry has an absurd amount of magical power, so of course Sacrifices Arc makes sure that Harry never faces a problem that can be resolved by throwing raw magical power at it. (Or, well, he does, but he immediately resolves them and the plot focuses on something else.) This makes me want to hire Limyaael to write Superman.
Sacrifices Arc has absolutely delightful and amazing minor characters. My particular favorites: Rufus Scrimgeour, Head of the Auror’s Office, who does not want any Dark Lords or Light Lords involved in his ministry and who has the power of “oops, you didn’t fill out that form in triplicate… it seems we completely lost your file!” bureaucracy fu; Evan Rosier, the Death Eater who helps Harry occasionally because Harry is fun, and complains about being Crucio’d constantly by Bellatrix because ‘it’s boring’; Thomas Rhangnara, who has discovered a grand unified theory of magic which he wants to tell you about in great detail, and who once spends an entire battle scene attempting to question centaurs about their magic and occasionally sending annoyed hexes at the people who interrupt his research by trying to kill him.
Be warned that Sacrifices Arc starts out about as dark as Deathly Hallows and continues on to “the comic relief villain eats a child alive on screen”, “Death Eaters kill a baby in front of his mother and then rape her while Harry watches helplessly in horror”, “a major character is tortured to death by plants”, etc. While the ending is happy, the path to the ending can get very fucking bleak.
My one complaint is that the Draco/Harry relationship involved entirely too much tiresome bickering and by the end of the story I was rooting for them to break up and Harry to marry anyone else.
The Way of Kings: I swear, having a ten-book fantasy series with a thousand pages per book just spoils some people. There is absolutely no reason to have a few hundred pages of Kaladin Is Sad About His Lot In Life As A Slave And Cannon Fodder In Some Dude’s Army before we get to Kaladin Has Neat Magic Powers And Charismatically Inspires His Fellow Cannon Fodder To Escape Their Fate. Have you people never heard of in medias res?
Anyway, if you endure through the first two hundred pages of blah blah blah people are sad blah blah, it’s a pretty interesting fantasy series with a world I’ve never seen before. There are hurricanes every few weeks, except during a two-week period when it rains constantly, and all the life is adapted for this bizarre weather! And there are no birds, and giant crustaceans instead of horses and dogs, and a character remarks on how weird it is that the Exotic Far Away Place has grass that stays put instead of running away! Also they have neat gender roles where men are supposed to fight and women are supposed to study.
Words of Radiance: Brandon Sanderson appears to be setting up an Adolin/Shallan/Kaladin love triangle, and I will have none of this nonsense. If I have to read three more books of Shallan trying to choose between those two guys instead of dating both of them like a sensible Radiant, I am going to be extraordinarily annoyed.
Otherwise, this is a quite entertaining book and I was very sad when Syl died except then she turned out to not really be dead? I hate it when that happens. I would have much preferred if Kaladin never had magic powers or his friend again and he had to suffer through the consequences of his actions.