2010 06 26
Recently read: Coming up for air edition

Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books, Canada, History

Whew! Busy, busy. But at least I can read on the subway on my way to work.

Adrienne Mayor. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy

Rome fought four wars—the so-called Mithradatic wars—against Mithradates in the first century B.C. The wily, resourceful Mithradates makes such a perfect subject, and the story of his setbacks and accomplishments is so much fun, that I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t been all over him. Perhaps now they will be. Mayor tells his story with real verve. Mithradates was especially famed for his extensive toxicological investigations—for practical reasons he was very interested in how to poison others and how to build up immunity to poisons that others might use on him—and Mayor, an expert in ancient toxicology, is especially well-suited to relate this part of the story. Where the evidence grows thin, at the beginning and the ends of Mithradates’ life in particular, Mayor allows herself speculative passages that might have been more suitable to a historical novel. But that’s partly just a matter of taste, and these passages are usually marked out very clearly as speculative. This book is recommended.

Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar

Solid, though now somewhat dated (published 2007), account of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Emphasizes the extent to which policy was not really driven by larger strategic considerations, but rather emerged through a series of accidents. My only complaint is that the book might be a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with Canadian politics. This is a pity, since I think it would be really useful for Americans to have a sense of what the war looks like from the perspective of a close coalition partner.

Edward Gorey. Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks

This book is a children’s classic published in 1950 and recently resurrected by the New York Review of Books in their excellent children’s series. The stories are well told, though it dragged in places. That might just be me, though—I’ve never had much interest in Greek myth. A chart at the back helps the reader keep track of Latin equivalents of Greek gods and heros, but there is no introduction explaining why Gorey chose to use the Latin equivalents in the first place.

Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines

This is a collection of three line news summaries written by Fénéon for a French newspaper over the course of 1906. The summaries occasionally touch on politics, but they’re mostly about every day pieces of news: suicides, burglaries, assaults, and accidents. This might sound monotonous—and actually I would recommend that people not try to read the book through cover to cover without a break—but Fénéon’s summaries are, as the title of the book suggests, absolute masterpieces of compression. Fénéon was an anarchist and an important behind-the-scenes literary and cultural figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He wrote little and the contents of this book were only saved for posterity by lucky chance.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 05 09
Recently read: Lords of Finance

Posted by in: Books, Economics, History

Liaquat Ahamed. Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World

Who knew that 500 pages about central banking in the interwar years could fly by so quickly? I’ll leave it to economists and historians to assess the accuracy of the story Ahamed tells. What I can say is that the story is well told, moving briskly and with good humour over a complicated series of events. Ahamed structures his account around the lives of four central bankers, for the United States, Britain, France and Germany respectively. A fifth character, John Maynard Keynes, also makes a number of appearances, usually in the role of a gadfly. And there is a sixth item, of such importance to the story that it might as well be a character in its own right: gold.

Going into World War I, the major currencies of the world were on the gold standard. The central bank for a country—that is, the bank with a “monopoly on the issuance of currency”—would issue currency with the promise that it was convertible at a certain fixed rate with gold. Gold had to be held in reserves at a fairly conservative proportion to the total amount of currency in circulation. For a long time, this arrangement had the effect of limiting inflation, and providing a predictable, stable rate of exchange between currencies, which were pegged to the same standard.

The system meant that the supply of credit in an economy—indeed, in the global economy—was tightly correlated with the quantity of gold held in reserve. For a long time, the supply of new gold flowing into the global economy as a result of mining roughly matched the slow expansion of the economy. But this only masked the fact that it made little sense to tie the availability of a precious mineral to the business cycle, with its changing requirements for the availability of credit. As Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper man based in Britain and one of the few prominent critics of the gold standard at the time, complained, “[i]t is an absurd and silly notion that international credit must be limited to the quantity of gold dug up out of the ground. Was there ever such mumbo-jumbo among sensible and reasonable men?”

World War I changed things, as it changed so much else. The nations of Europe had plunged into the conflict expecting a brief, successful encounter which would pay for itself in reparations, and emerged bloodied, shaken, and seriously in debt four long years later. The United States, which has a habit of entering world wars a bit on the late side, came out looking very well, and with an absolutely massive imbalance of the world’s gold in its reserves which it had acquired as a lender to many of the other belligerents. For the United States to have remained strictly on the gold standard would have supplied the economy with far more credit than would have been healthy. Meanwhile, Britain had so exhausted its resources that it was for a time after the war unable to honour its obligation to convert its currency into gold, effectively abandoning the gold standard for this period.

As Britain, France and Germany all struggled to put themselves back on a sound economic footing after the war, they dealt in different ways with the return to the gold standard. Britain, against the advice of Keynes, went back on gold as soon as possible, but at an unsustainably high rate of conversion. It was an attempt to regain the global preeminence in banking which Britain had enjoyed prior to the war, but the result was a deeply uncompetitive export market and steep consequent unemployment in Britain. France, by contrast, did rather well by pegging its currency at a fairly low rate. Germany, reeling from the war and unable to cope with the ruinous payments expected of it by the victors, took its economy on an absolutely wild inflationary ride.

Since the inflationary policies of Germany had been made possible in part by its abandonment of the gold standard, the economic chaos of Germany was interpreted by many as a warning of the perils of leaving gold. Without the discipline of gold, it was thought, governments, especially democratically elected ones, would fall into the same inflationary policies. Thus, behind the debate over the gold standard was a debate about government discretion over the management of the economy.

Ahamed traces the twisting course these economies took through the twenties, as central bankers struggled to learn the rudiments of modern central banking. His account aims to explain how crucial mistakes by some of the main players created the credit policies that underlay the speculative boom preceding the Great Depression. He then shows us how central bankers struggled to cope with the economic fallout of the depression, learning, often too late to prevent economically disastrous consequences, many of the tools that are now a standard part of the central banker’s tool kit.

There were a few points in Lords of Finance at which I wanted Ahamed to explain the workings of the economy more slowly. Like a lot of potential readers of this book, I have a pretty weak grasp of basic economics. But on the whole, this is a clear, readable, and entertaining book. As can be expected with any first printing, I noticed that Lords of Finance was not completely free of typos and errors. Just a few of the ones that caught my eye: If I’m reading it correctly, a sentence on page 249 seems to imply that Benedict Arnold was executed. The temperatures on page 329 should be specified in Celsius or Fahrenheit. That Montagu Norman walked about with a feather jauntily poking out of his hat is a nice detail, but it’s unnecessary to tell us this twice. And the statistician and economist Roger Babson’s anti-gravity pamphlet was titled Gravity—Our Enemy Number One, not, as Ahamed has it, Gravity—Our Number One Enemy.

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2009 04 29
Recently read: The Mycenaean World

Posted by in: Books, Classics, History

John Chadwick. The Mycenaean World

The Mycenaean Greeks flourished on parts of mainland Greece and on Crete and a few surrounding islands from about the sixteenth to the thirteen centuries B.C. We don’t know why their civilization collapsed, one city after another, at the end of this period, but when it did Greece entered a period of decentralized, impoverished chaos. The Iliad and the Odyssey were put together around 800 B.C., as Greece began to emerge from this dark age. Both hearken back over the centuries (often anachronistically, as I’ll point out below) to the dimly remembered golden age of the Mycenaean world.

The Mycenaeans wrote, but mainly on perishable substances, like parchment. Parchment falls apart eventually; as far as I know, not a scrap of parchment with the Mycenaean script on it survives.

Fortunately, the Mycenaeans also wrote on clay tablets, a cheap and easy way of keeping temporary records. These were discovered at several sites, the most important of which were at Knossos, on Crete, and at Pylos, on the Western prong of the Peloponnese. They would certainly have crumbled away long ago, but fortunately (for us) both sites were ravaged by fire for some reason and never rebuilt. The clay tablets baked in the fires, turning the temporary writing surfaces into items sturdy enough to survive to the present.

For many years, the Mycenaeans were known to us only through the efforts of archaeologists, who had only the mute relics of this era to assemble theories about it. We had the tablets, but the Mycenaeans did not use the Greek alphabet that we’ve all come to know and love. Indeed, for some time a firm majority of scholars insisted that whatever the tablets meant exactly, the language employed on them was not Greek. We call the script “Linear B,” and for years it was a tantalizing mystery.

The problem was not cracked by mainstream scholars, most of whom were hooked on the “not Greek” theory. Instead, a brilliant and eccentric British architect named Michael Ventris made the most important breakthrough in 1952, shortly before his untimely death at the age of 34 in a car crash. He was soon joined by the Classicist John Chadwick, who contributed a number of breakthroughs of his own, and then wrote a series of foundational works on the subject. Linear B was Greek after all, though a very archaic form of it.

If you were hoping for great literature, the surviving texts in Linear B are a grave disappointment. But they are not without their uses:

At first sight their contents are deplorably dull: long lists of names, records of livestock, grain and other produce, the account books of anonymous clerks. Here and there a vivid description of an ornate table or a richly decorated chariot breaks the monotony. But for the most part the tablets are drab and lifeless documents. Their one virtue is their utter authenticity, for they contain the actual words and figures noted down by the men and women who created the same civilization that has yielded such splendid treasures to the archaeologist’s spade.

With the decipherment of Linear B, we could finally supplement, modify, and correct many of the aspects of the picture given to us by archaeologists working on the period. Although The Mycenaean World is alive to the archaeological evidence at every step, it’s central mission is integrating this rich trove of written evidence into our view of the Mycenaeans.

The Mycenaean World is a work of consummate scholarship about a fascinating, remote era. I would guess, though, that a nonspecialist would require a fairly strong degree of antecedent interest in the subject to get through it. The book is well-written, but it offers a level of detail that could easily wilt the curiosity of most readers. How much do you want to know about the Mycenaean system of weights and measures? If the answer is, “several pages, at least!” then by all means, this is your book. Otherwise, you might want to stick to Homer for a glimpse of this distant world. On the other hand, you should know that by doing so you’ll be sacrificing authenticity for action. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in The Mycenaean World, “Homer the pseudo-historian,” points out how dimly the period was remembered by the time Greece finally started to climb out of the dark ages that separated the Mycenaeans era from the vibrant renaissance that began several centuries later.

Howls of outrage (4)

2009 04 18
Recently read: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Posted by in: Books, Classics, History

Andrew George (translator and editor). The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation

About 2800 B.C., long before Moses led the Israelites from Egypt, long before the walls of Homer’s Troy went up*, there lived a man named Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, a Sumerian city in the South of what is now Iraq. After Gilgamesh died he slipped into legend. A tradition of oral poetry grew up around his life, and then a body of written poetry in both Sumerian and Akkadian. Around 1100 B.C., this tradition of written and oral poetry was brought together into a version of Gilgamesh’s life that is now referred to as the “standard version.”

The standard version of the Gilgamesh epic opens to reveal a restless, unrestrained young Gilgamesh. He is a tyrannical ruler, relishing his seigneurial rights, forcing the young men of Uruk into ceaseless contests for his amusement. What Gilgamesh lacks is a companion, an equal who can advise him and moderate his conduct. Accordingly, the goddess Aruru fashions a man out of clay and sets him down in the wild. The man is Enkidu, and he will be Gilgamesh’s companion, but not until he is tamed and brought in from the wild. This happens after Enkidu is spotted by a hunter, who reports the sighting to Gilgamesh, who has dreamed of Enkidu already. Gilgamesh dispatches a harlot, Shamhat, to civilize Enkidu. She tracks Enkidu down, and:

For six days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat


She also removes his hair and teaches him to eat and drink in the human way. The animals who had been his companions now flee at his sight. Enkidu also seems to have acquired a human sense of justice at some point. Although they are destined to become friends, Enkidu first comes to Uruk in anger, when he learns about Gilgamesh’s practice of sleeping with the women of Uruk before their husbands. He challenges Gilgamesh, blocking his path, and the two wrestle. The fight breaks off with Enkidu’s acknowledgement of Gilgamesh’s supremacy, but Gilgamesh emerges from the challenge with deep respect for Enkidu. They become inseparable, just as the Gods planned.

Gilgamesh now has a friend to counsel him, but that doesn’t incline him to take all the advice he’s offered. He wants to take cedars from the forests of Lebanon, which are guarded by the fearsome Humbaba. Enkidu urges him not to do this, then accompanies him anyway when it becomes clear that Gilgamesh cannot be dissuaded. Together the two succeed in slaying Humbaba and removing the cedars. Together they also slay the Bull of Heaven, sent by an angry goddess Ishtar, whom Gilgamesh has scorned.**

These two outrages—the theft of the cedars of Lebanon and the defeat of the Bull of Heaven—provoke the Gods, who decide that one of the two friends must now die. They choose Enkidu, who sickens and then dies.

For six days and seven nights, Gilgamesh refuses to surrender Enkidu’s body for burial, only giving it up when it begins to decompose. His grief propels him from society, and he abandons his responsibilities as a King, wandering in the wild wearing the skins of animals. He is mourning his friend, but he is also frankly and unambiguously disturbed at least as much by the revelation, prompted by Enkidu’s death, of his own mortality:

For his friend Enkidu Gilgamesh
did bitterly weep as he wandered the wild:
‘I shall die, and shall I not be as Enkidu?
Sorrow has entered my heart.’

Gilgamesh’s lament alternates between these two sources of grief:

How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet?
My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay,
My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.
Shall I not be like him, and also lie down,
never to rise again, through all eternity?

Gilgamesh sets out to find Uta-napishti, who has received the gift of immortality by the Gods. After much trouble, he succeeds in finding Uta-napishti, who tells him that death is inescapable. Uta-napishti relates the story of how he survived a deluge sent by the Gods, using an ark which he loaded with animals. (This part of the story has many parallels with the story of Noah and his ark, and is clearly a precursor to it.) Uta-napishti challenges Gilgamesh to go without sleep for six days and seven nights. When Gilgamesh fails at this, he sees that death will be impossible for him to conquer if he is even unable to go without sleep.

Uta-napishti’s parting gift to Gilgamesh is to tell him about a sea plant that will restore him to youth. Although Gilgamesh succeeds in harvesting some of this plant, he leaves it on the side of a lake on his way home, where it is discovered and devoured by a snake. It is lost forever. He returns home, and in spite of his failure, exults in the grandeur of his city’s wall.

There are many translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is partly because such a monumental text in the Western canon is bound to draw scholars wanting to take a crack at it. But it’s also because we’re constantly finding new pieces of the text, and so updating our understanding of it. New discoveries aside, there is also simply the fact that the scholarly issues involved in the reconstruction and translation of the texts are tricky enough to leave room for a wide variety of approaches.

There’s no easy answer regarding how to present such a text to a popular audience. I first encountered the epic when I was about 16 in a different translation (I think it may have been David Ferry’s version, but I don’t have it handy to confirm this), and was surprised later to learn just how much the translator had smoothed over. The text of Gilgamesh, unfortunately, is fragmentary and broken in many places. Even well-preserved tablets have rough patches where words need to be conjectured or filled in using the many clues left by the text’s frequent repetition of clusters of lines. Behind the standard edition too, as I mentioned above, stands a long, equally fragmentary textual tradition in several languages that, however imperfect, allows us to supplement the gaps in the standard edition.

Andrew George’s edition of the epic strikes a very nice balance between giving the non-specialist an accessible and readable story and allowing her to appreciate the actual scholarly foundation on which the translation rests. This is accomplished in a variety of ways: Gaps in the standard version are filled in using supplementary evidence so that the reader can follow as smooth a narrative as possible, but the supplements are also clearly marked so that the reader isn’t misled about the nature of the evidence. Conjectures and reconstructions are also clearly but unobtrusively marked (as they are not in the quotations above), with the difference between firm and uncertain conjectures also indicated. A helpful appendix, “From Tablet to Translation,” aims to give the reader a sense of the various challenges involved in putting together the edition. And finally, the edition includes a number of other fragments (not nearly as gripping as the standard edition, but interesting nonetheless) about Gilgamesh, including much older Sumerian and Babylonian texts, to round out the evidence. Although I’m obviously not in a position to say anything about the quality of the scholarship, I can say that George’s presentation of the epic appeals to my own taste much more than a version that conceals too many difficulties from the reader in an attempt to be accessible.

Even if the actual story of Gilgamesh were boring, it would be an object of real interest simply on account of its great antiquity. But, as it happens, it isn’t boring at all. The outline I’ve given above is only a lean summary of the 100 pages it takes to set out the standard version in my edition of the text, and so omits many of the twists and turns in the tale, as well as most of its rough poetry. For all the talk of Gods and monsters, at its core the story is about a man who loses a friend and, for a time, simply can’t deal—either with the original loss, or with its implications for himself—and who then, after a long struggle, learns to accept, and to take pleasure in this world again. It may be among the oldest stories, but in this respect it could have happened yesterday.

* The Troy of the Illiad is only one of a number of successive settlements on the same site, the earliest of which predates even the historical Gilgamesh.

** Gilgamesh points out that Ishtar’s previous lovers have not ended up having a good time. Unfortunately, refusing Ishtar’s advances hardly improved your chances of survival either. After Ishtar approached one Ishallanu with what I assume is a standard pickup line for a Goddess—“let us taste your vigour: Put out your ‘hand’ and stroke my quim***!”—and he turned her down, she turned him into a dwarf.

*** Such are the perils of a British translator.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 04 02
Recently read: The File

Posted by in: Books, Germany, History

Timothy Garton Ash. The File: A Personal History

The East German state subjected its citizens to a virtually unprecedented degree of scrutiny. The system of surveillance was run by the Stasi, the East German secret police, but it relied on an extensive network of informal collaborators, or IMs (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter). At the time of its collapse in 1989, at a conservative estimate roughly one in 50 adults had a direct connection to the Stasi.

When the East German state collapsed, it collapsed so quickly that the Stasi found themselves unable to shred most of the hundreds of thousands of documents about its citizens that it had assembled so dilligently over the years. Most countries at a similar point simply pause for a moment and then continue to destroy the evidence, or file it away forever, hidden. Germany, by contrast, embarked on the unprecedented experiment of allowing everyone with a file to see it for him or herself. Care was taken to protect innocent parties named in the files, but everyone had a right to learn the identity of anyone who informed, betrayed, or reported on them.

Some couldn’t bring themselves to look; some discovered that they had no file; some were able to cast away long-harboured suspicions of acquaintances who turned out not to have informed on them. Others were not so lucky, and some of their stories are horrifying. One woman

had been imprisoned for five years under the communist regime, for attempting to escape to the West. Now she found out, by reading her file, that it was the man she was living with who had denounced her to the Stasi. They still lived together. Only that morning he had wished her a good day in the archive.

Timothy Garton Ash lived in East Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He subsequently wrote a book critical of East Germany, and was banned from the country. Not surprisingly, he had a file. The File is about Ash’s attempt to track down and speak with everyone named in his file, from the casual acquaintances acting as IMs who filed reports about him to the officers who supervised the case. The book follows him as he criss-crosses the country speaking with people and working through the file comparing its reports with his own recollections and diaries.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in Ash’s file, but that doesn’t stop him from writing an absorbing account of this moral, personal, political and historical detective work. The File is so much more than simply a superb book about life under the East German regime and Ash’s mostly harmless brush with the Stasi. It’s a finely written meditation on memory, betrayal, the psychology of rationalization and evil, and chance. Recommended.

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2009 02 18
Recently read: The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction

Posted by in: Books, Economics, History

Eric Rauchway. The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction

Good stuff. I started the book with a very hazy sense of the Great Depression and the New Deal and emerged less than 150 pages of lucid, compact prose later with a clearer idea of the circumstances, complications, setbacks and triumphs of the New Deal.

(The author blogs at The Edge of the American West, which is also worth checking out.)

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 12 01
Recently read

Posted by in: Books, Food, History, Psychology, Race

Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an ethically and scientifically informed meditation on food, the modern food chain, and the ways in which the latter has distorted our relationship with the former. Pollan provides a fascinating overview of the highly dysfunctional system of agricultural subsidies that spur the overproduction of corn and a few other staples, and traces the effects of the corn glut through the rest of the food economy. He then explores alternatives to the modern agricultural system, beginning with mainstream organic farming, and moving on to much more radical departures from the mainstream. I thought that the passages on the killing and eating of animals were especially thoughtful.

E.R. Chamberlin. The Bad Popes

I’m not in a position to judge the reliability of the book, but I can say that it has a few entertaining moments, if Popes behaving badly is your thing. In style and tone, this book reminded me a bit, for better or worse, of John Julius Norwich‘s books.

Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

If the North won the American Civil War, the South surely won the reconstruction. In the years following the Civil War, African Americans did not find themselves suddenly free to enjoy the fruits of the victory over their slave holders. Rather, whites developed a system that permitted them to hold blacks down with the threat of terrible violence, and which allowed them to make use of their forced labour under conditions that were, very often, worse than those endured by many slaves under the old regime of slavery.

Here’s how the system worked, as explained in considerable detail by Douglas A. Blackmon in his Slavery By Another Name: blacks would be arrested on bogus or trumped up charges. These often included “vagrancy,” an all-purpose charge to which any unemployed black man (in an era of massive unemployment) was vulnerable. Sometimes the charge was even forgotten by the time the victim had been brought to court. It hardly mattered. A sheriff or local judge could always be found to find the victim guilty, regardless of the merits of the case — especially because he could expect to profit himself from the proceedings. The victim was then assessed a fine, along with fees associated with the costs of the proceedings. Unable to pay, the victim would be coerced into signing an agreement to work off the sum in the service of a white who would pay in his stead. Entirely deprived of rights, blacks could then be locked up, beaten, tortured, fed next to nothing, traded, sold, and worked under conditions that accounted for the extremely high mortality rates among prisoners.

Every aspect of this twisted system is sickening. Arrest rates rose and fell according to the labour required in an area. The constant threat of arrest served as a reliable way of keeping blacks who weren’t prisoners in line. Any African American not directly under the protection of a white was vulnerable to arrest on trumped up charges. This power also helped perpetuate the widespread rape of African American women by white men. This is the bleak picture of American American life in this period that emerges from Blackmon’s account. If there is one figure that captures all this in a book filled with anecdotes, figures and arguments, it is surely this: that between the years 1877 and 1966 in the state of Georgia, only one white man was found guilty of murdering a black man.

The system also helped wealthier whites to crush attempts to unionize their industries. It’s hardly surprising that these attempts failed when management could always resort of cut-rate prisoner labour in the face of a threat to strike.

Blackmon makes a very strong case that this era of American history is best described as the Era of Neoslavery. It wasn’t until the second World War had begun that the Federal Government moved to begin enforcing laws in the South that it had long chosen to ignore.

This is a superb book, as angry as it is methodical. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand U.S. history. But because Blackmon does such a good job reflecting on the consequences of that history, it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the present.

Susan Blackmore. Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction

The title says it all. It was indeed very short, and the length of the text made it impossible for the author to do anything more than introduce a few topics in the study of consciousness. But as introductions go, this one struck me as pretty good: clear, readable, and interesting. Lots of good stuff on everything from the latest in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

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2008 10 15
Recently read

Richard Price. Lush Life

A run of the mill murder and an equally run of the mill investigation. The interest here lies in the way the author takes us through it all from start to finish, and from several angles. Nothing too special about this novel, but it’s at least competently written. Price has written for The Wire, a fact that will surprise no one who reads more than a page of two of the book. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. If you’re a New Yorker, you’ll probably enjoy the depiction of the Lower East Side, where all the action takes place.

Jonathan D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

Did you know that in the middle of the 19th Century, a bizarre Christian cult led a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty which succeeded in taking over much of Southern China? Well, good for you, but I certainly didn’t. Hong Xiuquan was an obscure failed scholar with a passing acquaintance with Christianity (via a book of translated excerpts from the Bible) when he had a strange dream introducing him to God himself and informing him that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother. Hong Xuiquan was evidently persuasive enough about his revelation to draw followers, who were then hardened in their faith by persecution. The resulting civil war, against the backdrop of chaotic 19th century China, led to the deaths of more than 20 million. Think of Waco, but in much of Southern China. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The Taiping — so they called themselves for a time — Movement deserves credit for being remarkably resourceful and militarily competent, even if they were completely bonkers.

This book takes us through these incidents, which I found so strange and improbable that I turned to Google several times to reassure myself that I wasn’t falling for a well-written but rather implausible alternate history of China. I found it a bit slow at first, but once it gets going it’s marvelous. And the theological bits are absolutely hilarious. The Taiping Movement’s interpretation of Christianity was filtered through questionable and at first partial translations of key texts, prejudices of the Taiping, and Hong Xiuquan’s personal revelations (which were assumed to be more authoritative regarding the word of God than scripture, since, duh, Hong had actually met the guy). This makes for fascinating attempts to rewrite and retranslate the Bible, and for very funny encounters with European Christians, which several times over resulted in a very quick slide from superficial agreement about Christianity to complete mutual incomprehension.

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind

You really can’t go wrong with a book called Baboon Metaphysics. Cheney and Seyfarth’s book is not, however, about the Baboon’s views of time, space, properties and existence. Rather, the “metaphysics” in the book’s title refers to a jotting in one of Darwin’s notebooks:

Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysics must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

The term “metaphysics” here is used more broadly to refer to the basic ways in which the mind constructs the world, but it emerges that the authors have a special interest in social cognition.

Baboon Metaphysics investigates various aspects of Baboon cognition (especially relating to their social lives), moving back and forth between accounts of the researcher’s own fieldwork in Botswana and a vast literature on experiments performed on Baboons and other primates in captivity. The observations made and distinctions drawn along the way are extremely interesting, but I wasn’t convinced that the authors had managed to fit everything together into a coherent or persuasive framework. Their aim was to tie together the cognitive capacities that suit Baboons to their highly social way of life, and the cognitive preconditions for language use. Baboons are, of course, not all the way to language, but when it comes to communication they manage to get on fairly well in many respects. This is significant, according to the authors, since if complex social life puts a strong selective pressure on cognitive capacities that are a precondition for language use then it may give us clues about the successful human development of language. (At least, that’s what I understood of the argument. It’s entirely possible I’ve completely misunderstood it, and, since I read the book a while ago, misremembering it to boot. What do you want, a refund?) Well, perhaps, perhaps, but there are so many tricky unanswered questions — most of them acknowledged with refreshing frankness by the authors themselves — remaining about language, the relevant cognitive capacities, Baboons and other primates, and indeed, other highly social creatures that appear to lack the relevant cognitive capacities, that the authors’ overarching argument seems too weak to hold together all their interesting observations.

Carl Zimmer. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life

E. Coli gets such a bad rap. Most strains are completely harmless, and this little organism has probably taught humanity more about genetics and evolution than any other, since it’s so easy to study, grow, and manipulate in the lab. Zimmer looks at everything from the history of genetics to the politics of evolution in this engaging book.

Jack Weatherford. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Weatherford seems to have two aims in this book. The first is to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s image. Far from being a barbaric, bloodthirsty brute, Weatherford depicts a savvy, open-minded proponent of religious toleration and open trade, who abolished torture and supported multiple far-seeing reforms. (Weatherford does not attempt to argue that Genghis Khan was terribly civilized by today’s standards when it came to the laws of war. Cities that surrendered to him were treated with leniency, but woe to the cities that resisted. This hardly marks him out as special for the period, though.) Genghis Khan’s accomplishments certainly suggest a remarkable man. In the course of a generation or two, the Mongols went from being a loose collection of feuding tribes to conquering a fantastic amount of the earth’s surface. The second aim of the book, announced in the book’s subtitle, is to sketch the many ways that all of this has impacted the rest of the world since then.

I’m not in a position to judge how plausible Weatherford’s account is, but the book is fun and very readable.

Joseph Mitchell. My Ears Are Bent

A collection of newspaper pieces by Joseph Mitchell (who spent most of his career at the New Yorker) originally published between 1929 and 1938. In these short pieces, Mitchell interviews cops, drunks, lady-wrestlers, pickpockets, ASCAP investigators, marijuana smokers, and more from Coney Island to Redhook to the Lower East Side to Harlem. In one memorable piece, he attends an execution; in another, he watches George Bernard Shaw spar irritably with the press. He has a fantastic eye for the telling detail, and wonderful control over the language in which he relates it. A convincing rebuttal to anyone silly enough to think that journalism can’t rise to the level of literature.

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2008 08 12
Recently read: “In Xanadu”

Posted by in: Books, History

William Dalrymple. In Xanadu: A Quest

After enjoying William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, I thought I would check out In Xanadu, Dalrymple’s first book, written about his attempt during a summer break at school to retrace Marco Polo’s travels from Jerusalem to Xanadu. I read Marco Polo’s own account of his travels when I was 20 years old, and found it more an inspiration to doze off than to travel 12,000 miles – it’s mostly very boring, as even Dalrymple admits. Dalrymple’s book is much, much better. It’s interesting, well-paced, and often very funny. The author was only 22 when he wrote the book, and occasionally it shows: he indulges a few times in some rather sweeping national stereotypes, for example.* But if you enjoy travel writing, this book is well-worth your time.

* I don’t object to this because I’m a humourless scold – though of course I am – but just because I doubt that a 20-something year old kid breezing through Asia hung around long enough to get it right.

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2008 07 28
Recently read: Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal

Posted by in: Books, History, India

William Dalrymple. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

The Mughal Empire in Northern India lasted several hundred years, but the final century saw a steep decline in its political fortunes. Although officially the British East India Company still served the Mughal Empire in the year 1857, collecting taxes and administering territory on its behalf, by that time the pretense of service had been almost entirely dispensed with. Still, the arrangement allowed the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, free to occupy his time composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, assembling a highly sophisticated and learned court, and trying, apparently against the odds, to stop other men from knocking up various members of his harem.

As the British consolidated power in India over the first half of the 19th century, their arrogance grew. Whereas an earlier generation of British traders and adventurers had been more ready to adopt local practices and customs, to intermarry, and even in some cases, to convert, by the time of the so-called mutiny of 1857, the British were increasingly distant from, and contemptuous of, the people they had come to live among on the subcontinent.

The mutiny of 1857 began within the private army of the British East India Company. The Company had recently changed the type of firearm carried by the sepoys, the privates in its employ. These were more accurate than the older kind of firearm, but the barrels required more lubrication. With a nearly total disregard for the sensitivities of the high-caste Hindus who made up much of its fighting force, or for the many Muslims who comprised the rest, the company distributed casings which used grease rumoured (accurately, it seems, at least at first) to be made from a mixture of cow fat and pig fat. This piece of stupidity came at the worst time, as the mood within and without the army had already been soured by a variety of recent British insensitivities, and especially by a new wave of British evangelists, eager to win converts among both the army and the civilian population.

The revolt began in Meerut, close to Delhi, and then spread over much of the subcontinent. But it was to Delhi that many of the rebels rallied, since they saw in the octogenarian Zafar a chance to restore the great Mughal Empire while giving the boot to the British. The rebels swept over the British, taking them quite by surprise, and massacring men, women and children who were unable to escape. In Delhi especially, there was a strong religious dimension to the killing, as the rebels tended to spare the British who had converted. It became the most significant uprising faced by any Western colonial power anywhere in the world in the entire nineteenth century.

Zafar hardly knew what to make of the mess. He was 82, indecisive, comfortable, and most alarmed by the undisciplined chaos that the rebels were causing in Delhi. But the British had recently informed him, against his entreaties, that he was to be the last of his line, unable to appoint a successor, as was technically his right. And he suspected, probably correctly, that the rebels would kill him if he didn’t agree to lead them. And so he did, in a manner of speaking.

The British besieged Delhi with a small force, but then quickly found themselves besieged by the much larger force pouring into the city from across Northern India. These numbers were swelled not just by troops formerly in the employ of the British East India Company, but also by Jihadis, looking to expel the Christians from the humbled Muslim kingdom. This made for a formidable opponent for the British, but hardly a unified one. The fundamentalism of the jihadis clashed with the gentle, open-minded Islam of the Mughal Court, and also with many of the Hindu sepoys alongside whom they fought. As the siege progressed, communal and social tensions ate away at the fabric of Delhi society.

In the end, the British won. But it was hardly a foregone conclusion, and there were a number of points at which they might have lost, or at least suffered significant set-backs. When they finally took Delhi, their revenge was absolutely savage. Untrue stories of the rape of British women during the revolt which had circulated for the duration of the siege were apparently inspiration for a number of incidents of rape during the capture of the city. Men, women, and children were massacred, and the women and children who were spared after seeing their husbands and children shot were robbed and expelled, often to die of disease as they searched unsuccessfully for refuge in areas surrounding Delhi. Most of the British were very pleased by all of this, considering the punishment in religious terms as something akin to divine wrath.

William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is historical writing at its best. Dalrymple somehow manages to combine incisive character sketches of the central figures, grand historical narrative, and sharp moral judgment. He knows the archives well, reads a number of source languages fluently, and has a keen eye for the telling detail. This is a fascinating story with a great deal to tell us about the nature of colonialism, about human beings, and the justifications they offer for the wrongs they do. Before this book, I had never read a book about Indian history. Dalrymple has me excited to read more, and especially to read more of his own books.

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2008 07 16
Recently read

Rory Stewart. Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

“Those hopeless clods, blundering into Iraq without knowing a damn thing about it. They botched an occupation which might otherwise have gone smoothly. Imagine if individuals of character and integrity, with a real understanding of the West’s colonialist history in Iraq, an understanding of Muslim sensibilities, and a bit of bureaucratic savvy to boot, had been a part of the occupation.”

Except that, of course, the incompetence of the upper management in Iraq notwithstanding, there were many people of real ability, depth and nerve involved in that adventure. Rory Stewart was one of them, and he served as deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, both in the South of Iraq. He is also a writer of real ability. He has written a book about his experiences, the upshot of which is bleak for anyone inclined to lean heavily on the incompetence defense for the disasters of the occupation. For he seems to have gone at the work of reconstruction and occupation with great energy, skill and determination, and he left with virtually nothing to show for it. Prince of the Marshes tells his story, and tells it well.

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925

Vera Brittain lost her young fiance in World War I, and then two dear friends, and finally her brother. In 1915, she left Oxford to work as a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers, first in Britain, then Malta, and finally France. Her account of the war, and its shattering effects on her entire generation, is powerful, bitter, and moving. At the close of the war, she resumed her studies at Oxford, and on graduating moved on to a career as a novelist, journalist, and activist for internationalism and feminism. The whole tale is engaging, and Brittain writes persuasively and incisively about her causes, especially feminism. But it is the four deaths, and the struggle that follows to accept and understand the senseless waste of talent and energy they represented, that are so moving, and that form the emotional core of the story.

This is a wonderful book, tying together the personal and the political together in way that illuminates each. I got it out of the library after reading about it here. I’m grateful for the recommendation.

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2008 07 13
Recently read: Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians

Posted by in: Books, History

Lytton Strachey, card-carrying member of the Bloomsbury group, mainly wrote biography. His smash hit was Eminent Victorians, a curious roundabout history-by-way-of-biography based around four Victorian figures. Declaring in the first line of his book that we know too much about the Victorian age to write a history of it, Strachey choses a different method: brief biographies of representative figures. The plan is to attempt a glimpse of a much broader whole, through the keyhole of a few dominating personalities of the period. And what a jaundiced view it turns out to be. Eminent Victorians was written largely during the first World War, and Strachey book is in part an attempt to discredit an entire scheme of values that he felt had culminated in the war.

Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is said to have helped shape the modern approach to biography. But I hope that the influence is selective. Go ahead and keep the style, or at least learn something from it, I think: Strachey’s writing is crisp and disciplined, the delivery nearly unerring. But there is little to learn from Strachey when it comes to fairness and accuracy. This is especially easy to judge in the “definitive edition” of Eminent Victorians put out by Continuum press, which is apparently so anxious to correct possible misunderstandings of Strachey’s subjects that it actually intersperses Strachey’s biographies with brief critical essays, rather than collecting the critical material together at the end of the book, as might have been more conventional. I would usually find an editorial intrusion like this annoying, but in this case I found it welcome and helpful. The critical notes make clear that the portraits of Florence Nightengale and Dr Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby, in spite of a few distortions, come closest to being fair, whereas the biographies of Cardinal Manning and General Gordon are clearly slanderous. Indeed, the afterward to the biography of General Gordon verges on open contempt for Strachey.

Copyright on this work has lapsed, so here’s a little taste of the book. It’s a sketch of Lord Panmure, in charge of the War Office:

That burly Scottish nobleman had not, in spite of his most earnest endeavours, had a very easy time of it as Secretary of State for War. He had come into office in the middle of the Sebastopol campaign, and had felt himself very well fitted for the position, since he had acquired in former days an inside knowledge of the Army—as a Captain of Hussars. It was this inside knowledge which had enabled him to inform Miss Nightingale with such authority that “the British soldier is not a remitting animal.” And perhaps it was this same consciousness of a command of his subject which had impelled him to write a dispatch to Lord Raglan, blandly informing the Commander-in-Chief in the Field just how he was neglecting his duties, and pointing out to him that if he would only try he really might do a little better next time. Lord Raglan’s reply, calculated as it was to make its recipient sink into the earth, did not quite have that effect upon Lord Panmure, who, whatever might have been his faults, had never been accused of being supersensitive. However, he allowed the matter to drop; and a little later Lord Raglan died—worn out, some people said, by work and anxiety. He was succeeded by an excellent red-nosed old gentleman, General Simpson, whom nobody has ever heard of, and who took Sebastopol. But Lord Panmure’s relations with him were hardly more satisfactory than his relations with Lord Raglan; for, while Lord Raglan had been too independent, poor General Simpson erred in the opposite direction, perpetually asked advice, suffered from lumbago, doubted, his nose growing daily redder and redder, whether he was fit for his post, and, by alternate mails, sent in and withdrew his resignation. Then, too, both the General and the Minister suffered acutely from that distressingly useful new invention, the electric telegraph. On one occasion General Simpson felt obliged actually to expostulate. “I think, my Lord [he wrote], that some telegraphic messages reach us that cannot be sent under due authority, and are perhaps unknown to you, although under the protection of your Lordship’s name. For instance, I was called up last night, a dragoon having come express with a telegraphic message in these words, ‘Lord Panmure to General Simpson—Captain Jarvis has been bitten by a centipede. How is he now?'”

General Simpson might have put up with this, though to be sure it did seem “rather too trifling an affair to call for a dragoon to ride a couple of miles in the dark that he may knock up the Commander of the Army out of the very small allowance of sleep permitted him”; but what was really more than he could bear was to find “upon sending in the morning another mounted dragoon to inquire after Captain Jarvis, four miles off, that he never has been bitten at all, but has had a boil, from which he is fast recovering.” But Lord Panmure had troubles of his own. His favourite nephew, Captain Dowbiggin, was at the front, and to one of his telegrams to the Commander-in-Chief the Minister had taken occasion to append the following carefully qualified sentence—”I recommend Dowbiggin to your notice, should you have a vacancy, and if he is fit.” Unfortunately, in those early days, it was left to the discretion of the telegraphist to compress the messages which passed through his hands; so that the result was that Lord Panmure’s delicate appeal reached its destination in the laconic form of “Look after Dowb.” The Headquarters Staff were at first extremely puzzled; they were at last extremely amused. The story spread; and “Look after Dowb” remained for many years the familiar formula for describing official hints in favour of deserving nephews.

Funny! Anyway, I recommend the edition of this book I linked to above, since the essays are clear, readable, and, if you care about fairness, essential. I do think it’s odd that they don’t have footnotes translating little snippets of foreign languages. This surely would have been worthwhile in an edition into which so much thought was already being put. And it’s the sort of thing an editor might have accomplished by 10am on any given day by hauling an academic out of bed at 8am, sitting him at a desk, plying him with coffee, and shouting the occasional encouragement.

Anyway, I think Strachey’s idea that we can form a decent idea of an age by reading cruelly biased accounts of a few of its more interesting characters is obviously loopy. But as far as I can tell, the book does convey something of the feeling that swept over many thinking people in the dying days of World War I that the ideals and the values that people carried with them into the war were rotten. That, and the fact that it’s pretty funny, makes this book a good read.

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2008 04 28
Recently read

Posted by in: Books, History, Math

Tom Slee. No One Makes You Shop At Walmart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice

This book is not really about shopping at Walmart, but I’ll start there anyway. Suppose you’re grousing about Walmart. It wants to move into your town and you’re worried about the effects on the local economy. Or it already has, and you think the effects you warned about are already becoming apparent. There’s a good chance that the person you’re grousing to is going to point out that no one makes anyone shop at Walmart. Indeed, if your interlocutor impolite enough she may even raise the awkward point that she saw you just last week emerging from that very store. If everyone, including you, shops at Walmart, what better evidence, then, that the community has collectively decided to welcome Walmart by making a series of individual choices to support it?

The answer, according to Slee, is no, and his book is a very careful and methodical cataloging of some of the most important ways in which choice is more complicated than the view sketched above suggests, which Slee calls MarketThink. Very briefly, our choices are not made in a vacuum. We make the choices we do while responding to agents who are making choices of their own, which choices themselves are in part responses to our own choices or what they anticipate will be our choices. And in choice situations of this sort, it is often the case that every individual agent makes choices which are perfectly reasonable from where she is situated, but which lead to outcomes which no one involved would prefer all things considered.

Preference, then, turns out to be more complicated than it first appears. Sometimes “preference” refers to what an agent chooses from the options available to her, given the choices that other agents are making or intending to make. Sometimes, by contrast, it attaches to the outcome which the agent would prefer. A great deal of Slee’s book is taken up with explaining how and why these two notions of preference frequently come apart.

Readers who know even the most basic game theory will know that Slee is not just being modest when he claims in the preface that there is little original in his book. I’m not sure I actually learned anything new from this book, since I’ve already read my Rapaport and my Axelrod and my Sen and so on (and I really haven’t read much beyond that). Even so, I found it well worth my time. There’s real value in having the inadequacies of MarketThink detailed for two hundred pages of marvelously clear prose. I think that I was already predisposed to agree with virtually everything Slee said, but reading him made me aware that I do sometimes slip into versions of MarketThink when I clearly shouldn’t. So, the book was edifying and entertaining at the same time.

It’s worth noting, though I don’t intend this as a criticism, that the book is almost entirely negative. That is, it’s about the inadequacies of MarketThink, and not about how to correct for those inadequacies. That’s just fine with me, but I found myself wondering from time to time how an intelligent libertarian would respond to Slee’s main line of argument. I suspect that an intelligent libertarian would have to concede that MarketThink, as Slee depicts it, is crude and inadequate. But a libertarian version of Slee might just as easily write a whole book, also drawing on economics and game theory, to show how regulation and intervention in the market often leads to unintended and frequently unwanted results. The failure of MarketThink does not automatically establish the soundness of any alternative, of course. Now, I think the response to this point is to try to get more specific about exactly what interventions are warranted and how we propose to avoid unwanted consequences. But that just means that the argument goes on (and Slee would surely agree). But thanks to Slee (and the people whose work he draws on) the argument ought to go on without silly appeals to MarketThink. And that’s an advance worth celebrating.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

What a strange book! This book engages with an extensive literature on risk, probability and the psychology of risk and probability assessment, but it does so in a most unacademic way. Taleb tells stories, engages in autobiography, subverts our expectations about the relevance of the autobiographical passages, harangues, insults, scolds, relates his fantasies about humiliating rival thinkers, bullies, ends expository paragraphs with “Capiche?”, pleads, and repeats himself again and again. Taleb writes in a rough, informal, and highly idiosyncratic way. I cannot imagine that the editor of this book wanted the book as it is in its final form, and I sort of get a kick out of imagining Taleb forcing them to accept it anyway (I’m sure they made money on it nonetheless). He must be a serious pain in the ass to work with.

Anyway, Taleb’s basic idea is that we – human beings, that is – are incredibly bad at assessing risk. Our models for risk assessment tend underestimate the impact of the highly improbable. But marinate on this, brother: There are so many possible highly improbable events that it is highly probable that the highly improbable will intrude, and intrude very messily, into reality, and blow all our little models to bits. We just don’t know what they’ll be. We live in a world dominated by the highly improbable, and most of our risk models are worse than useless: because they encourage us to think we’ve got a handle on things, they make us even more vulnerable to extraordinarily improbable events when they do occur. Taleb doesn’t just confine himself to the world of finance, where he made his living dealing with risk, in order to illustrate this point, preferring to range over a much broader field of history in search of arguments and examples.

So why we do this? Much of Taleb’s book is a meditation on this very question, and, I think, a very useful one. When we look at past events, we have a tendency to slip into narratives that make events seem to follow one another in a natural and expected way. This encourages us to think that, going forward, events can be expected to follow one another in a natural and expected way. It isn’t so. And if you actually look at the track record of experts in various fields, you’ll find them regularly getting blindsided by events which were anything but predictable. And if you actually listen to the experts defending wrong predictions after the fact, you’ll regularly hear them defending their predictions in the following form, “But I was exactly right in my prediction, except that X,” where X is something highly improbable that unfortunately threw everything off. But if this happens again and again, we ought to stop and wonder about the value of such predictions in a world that serves up so many Xs.

This insight is not just valuable for people making their living predicting the future, in my opinion. I think this book should be required reading for anyone doing historical work, which, in my experience, frequently a) falls into the habit of ad hoc explanations which oversimplify reality, and b) often attempts conjectural reconstructions of the past on the basis of mere plausibility, again in a way that I think grossly oversimplifies matters. (I have a post in draft now illustrating (b).)

There’s more – much more – to Taleb’s story about the human propensity to underestimate the potential impact of the improbable, which I won’t go into. I will say that Taleb seems to me just a bit too enamored with stock evolutionary psychology explanations – which is funny in a book about how prone we are to manufacturing bogus ad hoc explanations, since the same vice is pretty common in evolutionary psychology, in my opinion. But whatever. There’s still a lot of great material here. And I found myself grateful for the repetition in the end. The first twenty times I read Taleb complaining about bad excuses for predictions gone wrong I nodded my head and thought “Yeah, sure.” But about the twenty-first time I thought “Holy fuck! That is so true. I do that too!”

Anyway, if you’re curious here’s a Malcolm Gladwell piece on the guy from the New Yorker. And here’s his (ugly!) website, where you can get a taste of how feisty and combative he is, since he appears to respond to all the reviews his books have gotten. I was amused to see his response to Gregg Easterbrook, who is seriously the dumbest fucking guy ever.

Henry Fielding. Joseph Andrews

Not nearly as good as Fielding’s Tom Jones, but then practically nothing is. I found the first fifty and the last fifty pages awesome, with some pretty plodding material in between them. Fielding’s theme is sexual desire in its various forms, its frustrations, its gratification, and so on. As I was reading it I thought I was entertaining myself with a fluffy, silly story about a man and a woman eager to get married so that they could get it on. But when I finished it and looked back I realized that for a fluffy, silly book it managed to sneak in quite a bit of interesting reflection about its theme while it was at it. Anyway, check out Chapter V, which is pretty damn funny:
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Howls of outrage (4)

2008 01 29
History comix

From Spencer, by way of Wondermark, artist Kate Beaton has made short comics about 20 historical figures. They’re great and you should go look at them.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 01 26
System compatibility, writ large

The NYT had a little blip today about the new freight train service between China and Germany. It’s interesting in itself, and especially so because apparently Russia and Mongolia’s national railroads use a different gauge than the national railroads of China, Germany, Poland and whatever other country the route passes through. So a single train can’t make the journey. They have to unload the freight and re-load it, to transfer between trains that run on the relevant gauges. I love this for reasons I’m having a hard time articulating fully. Giant systems, huge investments of resources and labor and time for their respective countries, where the decisions about the basic specs have huge ramifications, and it would be just a nightmare to fix.

But here’s where the NYT story surpasses itself into infrastructure geek sublimity. Because a similar problem of incompatible gauges has cropped up at other times in history, and the article links to the amazing example of the US southern railroads, which in 1886 converted almost 12,000 miles of track (and all their working trains too) to a different gauge in two days.

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