Wed - May 30, 2007

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West 

by Tom Holland, 2006

This book tells the story of the Persian invasion of Greece, and the Greek resistance (most famously at Thermopylae). It draws heavily from Herodotus, but does a good job setting the stage for what the Persians were up to, and why Greece had a hard time presenting a unified front. It read much like a story. One of my favorite aspects was that the author wasn’t afraid to make stuff up. More properly, he would extrapolate details for the sake of the narrative, using a footnote to explain where something was well-grounded speculation. An eminently readable work on a very important historical event. 

Posted at 08:55 PM    

Wed - December 27, 2006

The Men Who Stare At Goats 

Despite the fact that it begins, “This is a true story,” it’s often easy to think that Jon Ronson made things up. The Men Who Stare At Goats is about the US government’s forays into parapsychology. From a general who tries to walk through walls, to experiments in killing goats by thoughts, to remote viewers trying to predict the next terrorist attack, it’s full of things that couldn’t really be true — and if they were, surely they wouldn’t be telling a journalist. But as near as I could tell by a little googling, none of it’s made up. And it may get us a little closer to the truth behind Abu Ghraib and the CIA’s experiments with LSD. Interesting stuff that never quite dips into paranoia, and is an easy read. I kept thinking Tim Powers would have a field day with it. 

Posted at 09:50 PM    

Tue - October 17, 2006

Social Emotions 

Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun For Game Design is full of insight on what makes games fun. But oddly enough, the part I keep wanting to refer to is his summary on page 92 of “positive emotions surrounding interpersonal interactions.” They are:

Schadenfreude, the gloating feeling you get when a rival fails at something. This is, in essence, a put down.

Fiero, the expression of triumph when you have achieved a significant task (pumping your fist, for example). This is a signal to others that you are valuable.

Naches, the feeling you get when someone you mentor succeeds. This is a clear feedback mechanism for tribal continuance.

Kvel, the emotion you feel when bragging about someone you mentor. This is also a signal that you are valuable.

Grooming Behaviors, a signal of intimacy often representing relative social status.

Feeding other people, which is a very important social signal in human societies.” 

Posted at 11:28 PM    

Sat - September 23, 2006


In The Places In Between, Rory Stewart discusses the new policy makers in Kabul: “A year before, they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq or offices in New York and Washington.” [p. 245]

“Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

“Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

“Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.” [footnote on p. 247-248]

But Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis, takes a harsher view of colonialism: “If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947.” [p. 311]

The Places In Between doesn’t really have anything else to say on colonialism. It’s a travel story, of one man walking across Afghanistan just after the US took over. I found it a fascinating look at a tribal society.

Late Victorian Holocausts details the horrifying impact of El Niño events on nineteenth-century India, China, and Brazil. Climate change triggered devastating floods or multi-year droughts, but inept, overly rigid, or downright greedy governments turned these into epic famines. There’s little good to say about the British rule of India (which offered relief via camps where people had to work, but were fed less than the Nazi concentration camp ration). Also recommended — but not very cheerful. (This book was cited by Winds of Change, mentioned in an earlier entry.) 

Posted at 10:23 PM    

Sat - March 12, 2005

The Baroque Cycle 

by Neal Stephenson

I got Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World for Christmas, and just finished them. I've been a Stephenson fan since reading Snow Crash, and really enjoyed these too.

Each book is over 800 pages, and there's a lot there: action, courtly intrigue, natural philosophy, history, sea battles, etc. Much is quite funny, as are many of the lavish descriptions.

Stephenson's usually lumped into the Science Fiction category. This might loosely be as well, since it's an alternate history (though more by taking a few liberties with actual history than playing "what-if"). Or historical fiction. Stephenson certainly works in all sorts of events, beginning with the London Fire. And major characters include Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

He's also tied this series to Cryptonomicon, with many of the characters in this series being ancestors of those in Cryptonomicon.

Not ony was I enormously entertained, but I found myself educated as well. Not so much by some of the exposition, but by the portrayal of how people reacted to things. For example, I'd always thought it was kind of weird that a German became King of England. It makes a lot more sense now.

A useful resource is the wikis of annotations for Quicksilver, Confusion, and System of the World. The one for Quicksilver in particular has comments by Neal Stephenson explaining which characters (and locations) are fictional and which are real (some of the real ones are stranger than fiction). 

Posted at 11:50 AM    

Fri - November 26, 2004

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind 

by Diana Preston and Michael Preston

William Dampier was an English buccaneer in the late 1600s, who also made meticulous observations of the places, people, and animals he found. (Most naturalists today don't record what their specimens taste like!) This history follows him on his multi-year journeys, which are full of the perils of life at sea (and land). I found it very readable and entertaining. 

Posted at 01:11 PM    

Fri - October 1, 2004

Our Own Devices 

by Edward Tenner

An entertaining, often detailed look at "body technologies" such as shoes, chairs, and helmets. I found the basic subject interesting (e.g. there are seven basic styles of shoes). But some of the side anecdotes were even more fascinating: cross-cultural differences in walking, "ninja rocks" (spark plugs shattered to make ceramic fragments), "urban living leads to a superior grasp of detail at the expense of the ability to detect larger patterns," and the Taiwanese technique for bowling (lighter balls and a different grip) which imparts enough spin that accuracy is less important. 

Posted at 07:48 PM    

Fri - November 28, 2003

Waking the World: Classic Tales of Women and the Heroic Feminine 

by A. B. Chinen, MD, 1996

This is a collection of 12 "fairy tales" featuring women (not girls), along with detailed psychological explanations. Many of these stories have different versions throughout the world; the author has chosen the more exotic variants. All are fine stories, and totally outside the standard male heroquest (Hero with a Thousand Faces).

I prefer the approach of Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, which packs in a lot more stories. But the analyses do show how the stories can be tools for women to deal with the pressures of modern lives, and illustrate their archetypal nature with dreams of modern women. In a few cases the author mentions paintings which portray the same theme, but sadly there are no illustrations.

Still, a fine set of stories featuring resourceful women, with thought-provoking analysis. 

Posted at 10:47 AM    

Wed - November 12, 2003

The Human Web 

A Bird's-Eye View of World History
John R McNeill & William H McNeill, 2003

An attempt to encapsulate all of human history into a single short (368 page) volume. I think it succeeds admirably — well-written, and chock-full of facts and anecdotes I wanted to note down.

The authors take a largely technological view of history, with a large dose of economics (and diseases — no surprise coming from the author of Plagues and Peoples). They talk about the various webs which tie people together (culminating in today’s world-wide web — no, not the Internet).

I borrowed this book from the library, but will keep my eye open to buy a copy. 

Posted at 08:35 PM    

Beyond Civilization 

by Daniel Quinn, 1999

This book didn’t quite live up to some of the reviews, though it did have some good things to say.

All broken down into short (1-page) chunks.

The basic thesis is that hierarchical civilization is unsustainable in the long run, and that we need to do something different, not the same only more so. Quinn suggests that “tribes” will be the way to perform work. He takes the circus as his model — everyone is there because they want to be, and boss is just one of the jobs. That certainly sounds like a great place to work (and I’ve come close a few times — being in the computer game business helps), but even Quinn comes up with examples where it couldn’t work. 

Posted at 08:20 PM    

Sun - October 5, 2003

The Art of Dramatic Writing 

by Lajos Egri, 1960 (revised edition)

With numerous examples from a variety of plays, Egri disproves Aristotle: the most important element of drama is not the plot, but the characters. 

Posted at 03:35 PM    

Old Peter's Russian Tales 

by Arthur Ransome, 1916 (reprinted 1969)

A nice collection of Russian folk tales. The framing device is a grandfather telling them to his grandchildren, which lets the author include additional cultural background. The stories are perhaps a bit misogynist (it's always the wife who nags), and there's only one Baba Yaga story (they were a favorite from my childhood), but I found it well-written and entertaining.

(Apparently there's a newer printing, retitled Favorite Russian Fairy Tales.)

By the way, this is a Dover reprint. I don't know if that sort of thing can still happen, since Disney bribed Congress to extend copyright term. 

Posted at 10:59 AM