While I usually read fantasy, sci-fi, or history books, every so often I get a hankering to dig into some philosophy and get back to some of my collegWhile I usually read fantasy, sci-fi, or history books, every so often I get a hankering to dig into some philosophy and get back to some of my college roots (not surprisingly I have yet to fully utilize that minor in philosophy I picked up at University). So here I am, reviewing a mid-1980's book about the ethics of nuclear policy.
The first half or so of the book was pretty basic for me. It was a review of various ways of to assess a moral decision. This basically devolves into a consequential argument (the morality of an action is determined by its consequences) and more rules based argument. Nye does a good job explaining these positions with examples that illustrate their strengths and drawbacks as a way to establish a firm moral philosophy foundation for a reader not familiar with the subject. Since I was already quite familiar with them this part was a bit of a drag but important for later in the book.
Nye was writing in a time where the world was very much facing the chance that human civilization could be utterly obliterated.
We may be, in the words of the American Catholic Bishpos, "the first generation since Genesis with the capacity to destroy God's Creation."
On one side was the Western Alliance led by America and on the other was the Eastern Bloc states led by the Soviet Union. Both sides had the capacity to destroy the world many times over but, thus far, had yet to turn the Cold War into a hot war. One of the main contributors to this balance was the policy of Deterrence. Basically if both sides had the capacity to destroy the other side even after suffering a sneak attack the other side would be less likely to risk such retaliation. Think War Games, but with less Matthew Broderick.
Naturally the immolation of billions of people (not to mention countless animals and civilization as we know it) ought to require some sort of moral assessment. Is it moral to have our weapons on a hair trigger? Should we be building more weapons to further increase deterrence even if it is at the expense of civilian needs? What about other countries? Do we owe them any part in our moral calculus when making these sorts of decisions?
All in all I would say Nye does a very good job laying out many facets of the nuclear question and very methodically assess their moral qualities, both pro- and anti-deterance. While the paradigm he comes up with isn't the most exciting or earth shattering it can still serve in modern times:
1. Self defense is just but limited cause. 2. Never treat nuclear weapons as a normal weapon 3. Minimize harm to innocent people 4. Reduce risks of nuclear war in the near term 5. Reduce reliance on nuclear weapons over time
Boring, but still a very useful guide to work from. As much as I would like to relegate this need to the dustbin of history, we still have assholes of some significance that don't seem to have the same moral introspection that Nye demonstrates throughout this book.
Much of what Nye writes about is a bit dated. He completely missed the whole "Soviet Union collapsing within five years", assuming they would be a fixture on the international scene for the foreseeable future. Some of it, however, is not. I found he reasoning on the matter of allowing (or in his case NOT allowing) other nations to develop nuclear weapons very compelling. Effectively they could lead to less secure nuclear materials, more resources being diverted away from civilian use, and more regional rivalry. Further I think he makes a very strong case against a comprehensive nuclear missile defense given the reaction such a system would cause other nuclear nations before it was fully installed. Finally, I wonder how Nye's views on the morality of deterrence (where he places much faith in American and Soviet control systems) in light of the 1983 Soviet Nuclear False Alarm Incident. Seriously scary stuff.
Everyday I wake up glad I don't live under the perpetual fear of nuclear annihilation. There is still the danger out there and it is incumbent upon our leaders to ensure that the risk is diminished with every new generation. Nye's work, while dated, still serves as a very well reasoned and methodical basis for leaders to refer to while assessing nuclear matters....more
This book is an excellent exploration of not just Islamic history (dates, names, events, etc.), but also provides a fascinating insight into culturalThis book is an excellent exploration of not just Islamic history (dates, names, events, etc.), but also provides a fascinating insight into cultural forces of Islam. Speaking as someone with a pretty good knowledge base I can honestly say I learned a great deal from this book (beyond never accepting a dinner invitation from the Abbasids) and viewed history in a different light. Ansary rightly points out that Islamic history, one where Islamic cultures were much more advanced that European societies, are relegated to very small slices of world history text books. After reading this, it is difficult to understand why when Islamic cultures are major players in world history.
The most important aspect of Islam the author (who is himself a Muslim) stresses is that Islam is not about individual salvation but about the community. Many Muslims throughout history and today have harkened back to the very first community of Muslims, when Mohammad still lived among them, as an ideal to strive for. In that society the leaders were humble and lived among the people. Mohammad was on hand to settle disputes in a just and fair manner and there was much harmony among the Muslim community. From a Christian or Western perspective, it would be as though Jesus was never killed and lived among his followers, continuing to provide divine wisdom and guidance. While that may not have been how things actually played out, Ansary notes that the story of how it happened has influenced Islamic culture ever since.
Ansary then does a diligent job highlighting the direction the Muslim community (which at this point was still confined to the Arabian Peninsula and among Arab tribes) went after Mohammad passed. The rightly Guided Caliphs, as they are known, led their community in to a vast expansion, with each victory lending further credence to God being on their side. This link between victory and divine approval was a keystone to the community for much of its early existence. The first Islamic Empire spread from Central Asia to Iberia, making it one of the largest in history.
What I found fascinating was how the community absorbed and was changed by converts. What was once a close community composed of Arab tribesmen became a multiethnic Empire. At different periods various ethnic groups were the dominant force in the Muslims world. Initially it was Arabs but at various times it was Persians or Turks or some other group. The mixing and merging of different peoples also lead to a diverse expression of Muslim piety and power. However, whichever group was in power, still saw their victories heavily outweigh their setbacks.
That is until the greatest calamity the Muslim world had seen to date fell upon them. No, not the crusaders from Europe. They were at worst a nuisance, really only conquering four major cities and not penetrating into the Muslim heartland. They had struck during a time of chaos within the Islamic world where the great Empires of the past had devolved into competing cities in the Eastern Mediterranean world. At times battles would be fought between armies that saw Muslims and Crusaders on both sides of the lines. The Crusaders were just another piece on the board that various Muslim rulers had to take into account.
The calamity which, arguably, still resounds to this day, were the Mongols. They swept through central Asia (which had its share of advanced Islamic civilizations) destroying literally everything in their bath. They sacked (and I mean SACKED) Baghdad so hard it has yet to recover after hundreds of years, and general owned just about everyone they came across. While some parts of the Mongol population were eventually converted to Islam, the swiftness and severity of their devastation shook the very core of the Muslim world. Why had God forsaken them? Were they no longer in his favor? What did they do wrong? While some within the community argued that in the end the conversion and defeat of the Mongols meant God still favored them, many turned to new ways to understand Islam and Allah. New schools of thought and law were developed in response to the Mongols that has resonance to this day.
For me, the most interesting part of the book dealt with the response the Muslim world had to the rise of the West. The dynamism of the west driven by the emphasis on individual achievement and powered by the industrial revolution made inroads into the Muslim world (by this time mostly dominated by the Ottoman Empire and Iran). Slowly, piece by piece, these empires were places further and further under the thumb of European powers. Be it through Western technical advisers who helped reform the government and military, or the monied interest that extended loans to find these reforms, or business interests that could buy off entire portions of a country's economy the West slowly became dominant over the Muslim world.
This wasn't some grand conspiracy among the various Western powers, even if the ends were the same. They were concerned about other powers gaining an advantage in The Great Game and had to make the appropriate count moves. This resulted in unsettled populations, resentment between the ruling and upper classes who benefited somewhat by these changes and the lower classes who were displaced or exploited. Ansary does an excellent job parsing the various currents and forces that flowed through the Muslim world, explaining how they reacted to the change of events and why. It was extremely fascinating to see the various responses to modernism in the Islamic world and how those responses influence the world today.
Simply put this book is an essential part of any attempt to understand the modern world and especially the modern Muslim world. It is extremely well written, being accessible to novices and informative to the more well-read. It provides a unique set of fascinating insights in Islamic history and culture that I have found somewhat lacking from Western sources. ...more
Ever since middle school I have been a huge WWII buff. I couldn't get enough of the Manichean clash of good versus evil (with good triumphing naturallEver since middle school I have been a huge WWII buff. I couldn't get enough of the Manichean clash of good versus evil (with good triumphing naturally). As I grew up I developed a more nuanced view of the war. Neat planes and cool tanks were replaced by the appreciation grand strategy and the details of battles. But as the old saying goes, amateurs talk about tactics, but professional study logisitics. And nothing can get to the heart of logistics more than the study of the industrial economies that supported WWII's massive mechanized forces. Tooze does an amazing job chronicling the German economy from the early Wiemar days though the fall of the Nazi regime. Tooze magnificently lays out the details and relationships within the German economy and how it explains the actions and results of WWII.
It was fascinating to learn about the pre-Nazi German economy. Contrary to common belief, it wasn't hyperinflation 24/7 until Hitler took over. Yes, there was a period with run away inflation, but it was actually gotten under control through a rather nifty financial setup. German leaders knew they could never compete with the empires of Britain and France, so they instead sought to align America's interest with their own. Through a scheme of loans from America, Germany was able to amortize their war reparations to Britain and France who were in turn able to pay back their war debts to America. This cycling of money resulted in a stable and growing global economy, more or less completely alleviating Germany of its reparations burden and keeping everyone invested in this scheme.
Then the depression hit and the US government ceased to provide these funds, the Hoover administration not having a suitable handle on the situation to see how it all tied together. Further, the raising of tariffs and economic barriers stifled German exports, which were essential for maintaining their foriegn currency reserve and for debt servicing. German Economic responses (deflation) led to domestic down turn and unemployment, opening the door for the nationalistic political right in Germany, of which the Nazis were members, to step into power.
And interesting recurring theme in the early Nazi administration was foreign exchange reserves. This is the amount of foreign currency available to the economy. It is needed to purchase imports which were essential for the German economy. Germany was short of several key resources, namely food and petroleum, as well key industrial inputs for heavy industries. However, the Nazi regimes resistance to devaluing their currency in order to stimulate exports in the face of a strengthening Reichsmark was not pursued for two reasons: price impact on citizens which would have to pay more for imported and import dependent goods and the servicing of foreign debt.
The Nazi response, which was to play out again and again over the course of the Nazi regime, was to create government coordinating organizations and subsidies to solve the problem. This would get repeated as the state slowly took over more and more of the economy: price setting, labor registration and allocation by a government body, profit caps for corporations, government bureaucrats setting wages. At times I would have to remind myself this was Nazi Germany, not its ideological foe Soviet Communism massively intervening in the economy.
Another new thing I learned was how Hitler's conception of Lebensraum ("living space"), which drove his conquest of the East, was tied to his view of competition with America. Because America was so large it had a massive domestic market which supported large, highly efficient factories to supply it. Coupled with abundant natural resources to feed these factories a European state simply could not compete economically. However, in Eastern Europe there was plenty of space for colonization and key resources to fuel German industry. With Western Russia and Eastern Europe under Nazi rule, Germany could have the same natural benefits America had. Cleanse it of racial inferior peoples, open it up to big German families, and it could compete economically with America. The intermixing of racial beliefs and economics gave me a new perspective on the conflict.
The last major insight this book provided me was how dependent Germany was on imports. Then, as now, Germany was not self-sufficient in many key areas, especially the armaments sector. It needed to import iron ore, grain, animal feed, metals for the alloying process, rubber, and petroleum. It tried to remedy this through technology, but synthetic rubber and fuel plants (which required a lot of coal) never reached the point of providing all of Germany's needs. Hitler hoped that Ukraine would be the solution to the food problem, but Germany faced food rationing pretty much from the outset of the war. The conquest of the West actually made Germany's situation even worse as the areas conquered, the Low Countries and France, were also importers of these key resources. WWII was as much about Hitler trying to secure resources to match America's natural endowment (and maintain the war machine) as it was to realize radical racial ideologies (though as shown above they often intermingled).
Probably the most important area Tooze illuminated was the economic logic of Hitler's war decisions. He didn't declare war in 1939 because he was gambling, but because there was nothing to be gained by waiting. The western allies had seen Germany's rearmament and responded in kind. Hitler reasoned that the advantage he had in 1939 would only diminish over time. Western allies could squeeze Germany economically (recall they were importers of key resources) and there was only so much the State could do to keep the economy humming. Without delivering full employment Hitler risked being forced from power. Likewise in 1941 Germany needed the resource of Ukraine and western Russia to sustain its economy and war effort or else it too would have crumbled. The economic logic of Hitler's situation compelled aggressive foreign action or to be content with being a second rate world power (Hitler chose the conquest option, no surprisingly).
There were tons of other fascinating insights I learned from this book: the doctrine of blitzkrieg was mostly an accident and not fully implemented until the Russian invasion, how key steel production was to the German war effort and the politics behind steel rations, the Speer armament "miracle" that wasn't, and the tension between the idealized view of the German farmer and the economic reality of them.
This was a stellar, if dense book, about a very fascinating historical subject. If you are looking to really get into the nitty-gritty of German economic policy from the 1920's through WWII you absolute must read this book....more
There is so much I want to say about this book. It is so jammed packed with interesting ideas and characters that there are a million places to start.There is so much I want to say about this book. It is so jammed packed with interesting ideas and characters that there are a million places to start. Perhaps I’ll just get the crude and vulgar out of the way first.
The world of Jennifer Government reads like an Ayn Rand wet dream. Corporations have free reign in what is called the United States of America but actually comprises North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and the British isles (or, for you George Orwell fans out there, Oceania). The government makes Nozick’s Night-watchman state look like Soviet Russia and even most basic services are provided by companies.
The teacher jotted something in his folder. McDonald's sponsored schools were cheap like that: at Pepsi schools, everyone had notebook computers. Also their uniforms were much better.
But all is not happy go lucky in this Capitalist Paradise. Where the government does not have a monopoly on violence, those that deal in violence are attracted to the highest bidder. A corporate Cold War is on the verge of heating up, and in this case the customer isn't always right.
The battle lines have been drawn. Every Team Alliance company is in competition with every Team Advantage company. Every customer who flies T.A. airline will buy a computer from Compaq instead of IBM. Boeing is with us because otherwise United Airlines won't buy from it.
With this as the backdrop we are introduce to a wide cast of characters whose threads eventually get entangled with each other and much bigger events.
John Nike (because in this world you are your job, or at least your last name is your company) is what John Galt would be if Ayn Rand had a halfway decent editor. He condenses Jon Galt’s (in)famous ninety page radio speech into two paragraphs that absolutely represent the spirit of the age:
Look, I am not designing next year's ad campaign here. I'm getting rid of the Government, the greatest impediment to business in history. You don't do that without a downside. Yes, some people will die. But look at the gain! Run a cost-benefit analysis! Maybe some of you have forgotten what companies really do. So let me remind you: they make as much money as possible. If they don't investors go elsewhere. It's that simple. We're all cogs in wealth-creation machines. that's all.
I've given you a world without Government interference. There is now no advertising campaign, no intercompany deal, no promotion, no action you can't take. You want to pay kids to get the swoosh tattooed on their foreheads? Who's going to stop you? You want to make computers that need repair after three months? Who's going to stop you? You want to reward consumers who complain about your competitors in the media? You want to pay them for recruiting their little brothers and sisters to your brand of cigarettes? You want the NRA to help you eliminate your competition? Then do it. Just do it.
He is a ruthless, amoral, sanctimonious, asshole and thrives in the world corporations have constructed.
It's my job to increase sales. Is it my fault that [killing kids to create buzz] was the best way to do it? If Government had the muscle to enforce the law, it wouldn't have made economic sense, but they don't and it did. this is the world we live in. If you don't take advantage of the rules, you're a sucker.
If it doesn't have a dollar sign in front of it, isn’t connected to a board of directors, or doesn't wear a short skit, he isn’t interested. He is pure id in the empire of id.
Jennifer Government, the book’s namesake, is a bit rougher around the edges, hemmed in by Government limitations that prevent her from seeing justice done. In order to pursue a murder investigation she has to convince the victims' families to pony up money for a budget.
"The Government's budget only extends to preventing crime, not punishing it. For retributive investigation, we can only proceed if we can obtain funding."
She fit nicely into the loose cannon cop trope while still delivering both a softer side with her daughter, and a more interesting backstory than most who populate the trope.
In a way, Jennifer felt bad, busting into such a nice place in full riot gear and scaring the crap out of everybody. But in another, more accurate way, she enjoyed it a lot.
The world itself is quite dystopian. All the places in the USA are homogenized (be they LA, Australia, or England). The overwhelming cultural impulse is to do anything to get ahead, to get yours and to hell with other people. People have internalized this to the point where that commit immoral actions (child abduction, murder, assassinations, etc) or suffer psychological breakdowns when they finally burn out. It is a culture driven by consumerism and consumption at the cost of overseas workers, the environment, and our shared humanity.
Thankfully things like this:
The cheap roads were clogged, even at six-thirty, but he was only four blocks from a premium Bechtel freeway and that was eight lanes, two dollars a mile, and no speed limit.
Well, at least emergency services will never devolve into this:
"Sir, I need to know if the victim is part of our register. If she's one of our clients, we'll be there within a few minutes. Otherwise I'm happy to recommend-" "I need an ambulance. I'll pay for it, I don't care, just come!" "Do you have a credit card, sir?" "Yes! Send someone now!" "As soon as I confirm your ability to pay, sir. This will only take a few seconds."
(Goddamnit world, this book was not supposed to be a how to guide!)
Anyway, doomsday prophesying aside, this was a very fast read. Chapters were just a few pages long and the action jumps among a wide cast of characters. The writing is sharp (see below for some of my favorite quotes) and Barry does a great job bringing this Calitalizm nightmare to life. I did think the ending was a bit lacking, much like Lexicon, but I greatly enjoyed this book in spite of this. If you like economic dystopias or just think the setting sounds fun then by all means check this out.
Also, if you are feeling ambitious, start and run your own nation at Nationstates, a site affiliated with this book.
Now, without further ado, fun/horrifying quotes:
Companies were getting a lot tougher on labor contracts these days; Hack had heard stories. At Adidas, if you quit your job and your replacement wasn't as competent, they sued you for lost profits.
"I want to commandeer your vehicle for Government business. We pay three hundred dollars per hour of use, plus any necessary repairs. Also, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've helped prevent crimes in your community." "Three hundred up front?"
Companies claimed to be highly responsive, but you only had to chase a screaming man through their offices to realize that wasn't true.
There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. there was no place in marketing for that, either.
There are lots of other brilliant and funny lines as well, you should read it and see them for yourself! ...more
So how does someone review a book as large, in depth, and complex as this one? This conflict, which I certainly learned less than nothing about in schSo how does someone review a book as large, in depth, and complex as this one? This conflict, which I certainly learned less than nothing about in school, was a brutal, long, and devastating war that ravaged many parts of Central Europe. Modern estimates put total losses at 15%-20% of the Holy Roman Empire's population, a loss rate greater than that suffered by the Soviet Union during WWII.
I still cannot conceptualize just how terrible this conflict was. There were domestic armies crisscrossing the land, taking what they needed to sustain itself like a heavily armed swarm of locusts, foreign armies taking advantage of the Empire's weakness to pick off territory, economic collapse, the plague (!!!), and massive population displacements over the course of 30 years. The land was so devastated that by the later parts of the war military strategy had to take into account what regions were still even capable of supporting an army.
Wilson does an excellent job walking the reader through the immense complexity of the war (though the book would have been immensely improved by the addition of more maps). Wisely starting in the years leading up to the actual outbreak of hostilities. The politics that culminated in this devastating conflict were a toxic brew of ambitious nobles, religious zealotry, familial relations, imperial politicking, and the sabotage of existing imperial institutions that could have served as a venue for developing a consensus and compromise.
"Imperial politics was thus a series of formal meetings or rulers and their representatives at irregular intervals, supplemented by lesser assemblies to discuss specific issues... Contact was maintained in between by couriers or informal meetings. The large number of relatively weak elements made it difficult for anyone to act alone, discouraging extremism and diluting any agenda to a minimum that all could agree."
What surprised me most was the proto-representative structures that were already in existence within the Empire. It was nothing close to the representative institutions that exist today, but did provide some degree of representation, even if only among the nobles and other notable citizens. The HRE was much less imperial/autocratic than I initially assumed and there was much too be admired in its structure when compared to its neighbors. Unfortunately those institutions were not strong enough to prevent war (partially through sabotage by religious militants and partially by a very stubborn emperor).
Another thing that surprised me about the conflict was how little religion impacted events. Yes, there was certainly a religious influence on the political decisions of rulers and rebels, but it was not a hard a fast barrier. Protestants served and attained very high positions in the Imperial army while Catholic powers such as France allied with protestant Sweden to take advantage of the Empire's weakness. While being the same religion as your superiors was an advantage, protestants and Catholics served under the banners of all sides. Political gain, more so than religion, was the driving force of nation states with confessional alignments serving as convenient to propaganda efforts.
Speaking of protestant Sweden, it is often forgotten this now benign Nordic country was a world beater back in the 17th Century and successfully invaded and held a portion of the HRE for quite a while. While it had a small population, it more than made up for it by hiring mercenaries and recruiting Germans into its forces. In fact, the vast majority of its army for most of the war was comprised of Germans who preferred the yolk of Sweden to the rule of the HRE. So remember, the next time a volvo cuts you off, they could mean serious business (as long as their were Germans to hire to do their dirty work).
Another fascinating aspect of this war was the inability of contemorary states to sustain the country in a time of war. Financial systems were just beginning to develop their more modern aspects, but were still small and weak. Taxing the population was a difficult activity and rarely raised the expected amount of revenue. Shortfalls were made by loans, IOUS, and granting lands and titles to secure financing. Because this conflict lasted much longer than previous conflicts and had such high stakes, nations, even rich ones such as Spain which could draw upon New World silver, had to take out more and more loans to maintain itself. Sufficced to say, the interest costs ballooned rather quickly:
"Of this [Spanish government expenditures], 30.5 million went to the civil budget; 44.2 million directly to the armed forces; and 175.8 million to bondholders and contractors for loans and interest."
Not surprisingly the lenders had little interest in any sort of public good and could care less if the world went to hell:
"The formal structure of ordinary taxation became little more than a front behind which the financiers carried on their affairs with studied indifference towards the damage that they did to the government and contempt for the suffering of the tax-paying element of the population."
This financial weakness made seizing property from enemies even more important and led to further crimes against civilians and their property. This, in turn, made it more difficult for states to generate tax revenues, continuing the cycle of loans, interest payments, pillaging and more loans. Continue this for 30 years and you can see why this was such a terrible war.
A final note I would like to add is just how few battles there actually were over the course of 30 years. It was primarily a war of maneuver, siege, and diplomacy. Armies lost many more soldiers to desertion and disease than enemy contact. In fact the biggest problem most generals faced was retaining soldiers so that they could threaten the enemy with maneuver and sieges. Unlike the battles and wars we see in so many fantasy novels even crushing victories in the field would not guarantee success in the war. The campaign seasons were short making it difficult to follow up smashing victories, cities and towns could hold out against siege forces that were attritioned through hunger, desertions, and disease, the Empire was large with little in the way of major transportation arteries apart from rivers, and even in victories the winning army would often be severely diminished themselves.
"[Military] Operations were essentially intended to secure local military advantage to lend weight to these negotiations and compel the other side to be more reasonable."
Military victories had to be paired with diplomacy that could extract concessions from the defeated party. Before Clauswitz rulers of the time knew war was merely politics carried out by other means.
All in all reading this book reinforced by fervent belief that a representative secular government is the ideal arrangement for a nation. The Thirty Years War provides a striking example of just what can go wrong in a state so closely tied a specific religion and with so little recourse among the ruled.
"Though they are now largely silent, the voices from the 17th century still speak to us... They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid."
Some other passages that struck me as ringing true and still relevant to today's world:
"Nevertheless, then as now, militancy proves especially dangerous when combined with political power. It creates a delusional sense in those who rule of being chosen by God for a divine purpose and reward. It encourages the conviction that their norms alone are absolute... their faith is the only really true religion."
The two [law and faith] were considered indivisible because religion provided the guide for all human endeavor: since there could be only one truth, there could be only one law. But now Catholics and Lutherans both claimed to be right."
"...while the Germans as a whole were regarded as backward and boorish, too busy gorging themselves on fatty foods and guzzling barrels of beer to achieve the heights of Castilian civilization. They lived in a rain-soaked land of dreary forests... and expensive, uncomfortable inns." Wait, how did that one get in here?
"Factions in both Spain and the [Dutch] Republic saw war as the means to assert control over their own governments and promote what they regarded as their country's best interest."
The Imperialists occupied Meissen and dispatched Croats towards Dresden with the message that Johann Georg would no longer need candles for his banquets as the Imperialists would now provide light by burning Saxony's villages." Mostly because this was the most badass line in the entire book....more
So how much trouble could 250 horses be? I mean, besides feeding them and keeping them in shape it can't be that bad, right?
Well, if these horses hapSo how much trouble could 250 horses be? I mean, besides feeding them and keeping them in shape it can't be that bad, right?
Well, if these horses happen to be highly prized by very powerful people (including an Emperor) AND you are stuck in the middle of nowhere when you receive the gift you can find yourself in a bit of a pickle. This is the situation Shen Tai finds himself in when he is gifted (though gifted might not be how he sees it) 250 magnificent Sardian horses, horses whose qualities far surpass all others available to the great Kitai Empire (Kay's name for what we call the Tang Dynasty of China), of which Shen Tai is a citizen of.
Thrust into this precarious situation Shen Tai strikes out to discharge this gift before it gets him killed. Having been away from the Kitai Empire for two years he is unprepared for the volatile political environment his appearance and gift unsettles. There are may layers of court intrigue, hidden agendas, and good old fashion personal grudges.
I think the best way to describe Under Heaven was achingly beautiful. The characters in this book were vibrant and nuanced, the setting was beautifully crafted and multi-layered, the story was both grand and personal, and the writing was elegant and well balanced, never saying more or less than was needed. There is a refined beauty in the economy of language and the imagery Kay employed to tell this story. It sweeps you up and places you firmly among the characters and events of the book.
Kay does a marvelous job balancing three story telling devices: the perspective of the main characters, the perspective of the tangential characters who we only see briefly but fall into the orbit of the main characters, and the greater picture of the events going on beyond the characters' awareness. Each passage, even those from tangential characters we will never see or hear from again, enriches and deepens the setting and atmosphere. Some of my favorite sections were from these characters' perspective, letting us see the main characters from a more impartial position, providing another view on the events going on, and just being delightful to read on their own merits.
I was initially put off by some of the third person passages that cropped up near the end of the book that provide a sweeping view of some events occurring outside the main character's view but it call came together at the end to provide what I think was the message of the book: decisions matter. Large, small, well planned, spur of the moment, all of them in some way contribute to the human experience. A simple, off the cuff decision could have extensive repercussions in a year's time. Empires could fall, famine could spread, love could be unrequited, the path not taken could have been ruin or paradise.
All we can do is make the best decisions we have available to us and move on with our lives knowing that some decisions we can control and other decisions control us. Be it the strict imperial protocol of a fragile empire or what inn we choose to stop at. Life and love may not turn out as we expect or play out like a fairy tale but we must make the best of it and continue to live life as we best see fit. To quote the ever entertaining movie Gladiator: What we do in life echos an eternity.
Under Heaven's story about intersecting lives, decisions, and consequences poignantly conveys this message with subtlety and beauty rarely found in literature.
(For those of you who want to read about the actual historical circumstances that inspired this book, check out the wikipedia article on the An Lushan Rebellion)...more
I was very disappointed with this book. The Byzantine Empire has a fascinating history and faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges over the couI was very disappointed with this book. The Byzantine Empire has a fascinating history and faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges over the course of its existence. I thought a book that described how they accomplished this would be very engaging and fascinating. While I still believe that to be the case, that book is not Luttwak's "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire".
I found several major problems with this book. The most obvious was the organization. Luttwak split the book into two sections: diplomacy and military. On face this may make sense but in delivering the information Luttwak jumps around quite a bit chronologically. Over the course of a chapter Luttwak might cover events separated by hundreds of years without discussing any intermediate events. Further, many events are mentioned multiple times as they are relevant to whatever Luttwak is discussing in a chapter.
Luttwak never really establishes the story of the Byzantine Empire at a high level to provide a common reference between himself and the reader. I came to the book with a decent knowledge of Byzantine Empire but stumbled through a good amount of the book before I was able to put the major events in their proper perspective. This greatly diminished my ability to soak up what Luttwak was discussing. On a more minor note: Luttwak very infrequently uses sub-headings in chapters and when he does he often moves on to another subject within that heading without any formal indication. This book needed a stronger editor to organize the flow of Luttwak's thoughts.
I love maps. I think they are spiffy and, when done right, can be worth much more than a thousand words. While Luttak does have some maps, they are scattered throughout the book. What I think would have been more effective was a central location for all the maps showing the major periods of Byzantine Rule as well as their main rivals. That would have made it much easier to get my bearings regarding Byzantine's strategic position in a given point of time. Instead Luttwak provides a limited number of maps and, because he does not follow a purely chronological account of Byzantine, they are somewhat subjectively assigned to different parts of the book.
But by far the most glaring issue I had with the book was the Military Strategy section. I was expecting a discussion of Byzintine military operations and how strategy informed them. Why they had a certain army composition, why they fought the way they did, why they won/lost and how they adapted. Instead I got a glorified cliff notes version of a whole bunch of Byzantine Military manuals. And not even very interesting ones. These outlined how troops should be trained, how much food they should carry, how they should be equipped, etc. While I recognize these are important documents that informed how the Byzantine Empire approached military matters Luttwak did very little to connect what these manuals discussed with how they were operationally realized. The military section was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too heavy on discussing theoretical military matters without linking it back to Byzantium's actual behavior. These manuals could have been discussed at a much higher level without losing any important information. This treatment would have left more space for the actual military strategy of the Byzantine Empire instead of the theory of several military manuals.
There were some parts of the book I did like. The use of prestige to negotiate with foreign powers, how the Orthodox church and faith played into statecraft, and the the sheer weight of numbers that continuously came off the great Eurasian steppe into Byzantine's sphere ofinfluence. But these interesting sections were weakened by the poor organizational structure of the book as a whole. By the end I felt much like Luttwak did about The Strategikon of Kekaumenos on page 387: "The composition of the text... meanders from theme to theme and back again with much repetition..." Quite possibly the least self-aware statement I have read in recent memory....more
My parents got me this book as a birthday gift during the height of my fascination with WWII history (late middle school through high school). I had hMy parents got me this book as a birthday gift during the height of my fascination with WWII history (late middle school through high school). I had heard about references to this book and how it predicted a lot of the events that would transpire during the actual Pacific War between America and Japan. While I enjoyed reading this a lot, I think the author got just as much right (surprise attack on the US Fleet, kamikaze attacks, etc.) about the conflict as he got wrong such as:
-Aircraft carriers would only be useful for scouting purposes and not be a decisive instrument of war. -Japan would cripple the Panama canal to prevent the flow of material from the Atlantic to the Pacific. -Japan would launch the war in order to forestall domestic social unrest (namely communist influence among industrial workers). -Americans of Japanese ancestry would rise up in Hawaii to disrupt the American war effort. -Poisonous gas would be used in combat.
Of course I can't blame Bywater for being wrong, the man wasn't psychic.
He was very good writer who crafted a very believable conflict between the U.S. and Japan. He had a very good eye for technical details of military equipment as well as military strategy. The story primarily concerns itself with the disposition of military forces and material with little in terms of characters or character development. It isn't a book in a conventional manner, more like a series of newspaper dispatches from an omniscient reporter detailing the developments of the conflict (which makes sense since Bywater was a Naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph).
All in all I really enjoyed this bit of speculative military fiction and would recommend it for any WWII buff. It was different enough from the actual Pacific War that the developments and battles felt fresh. My only quibble was that (at least in my version) the beginning over every chapter had a quick synopsis of what would happen in that chapter. So much for literary tension!...more
Good, informative book on the development on the wind industry. Mostly concentrates on the personalities involved in the industry with some discussionGood, informative book on the development on the wind industry. Mostly concentrates on the personalities involved in the industry with some discussion about the technology. This book gives you a very good perspective on how wind energy (both electrical and mechanical) has intersected with Texas history and culture, going back to the early days of wind being used to pump water on the plains. The book provides a very accessible view into how regulations and changing market conditions impacted the development and growth of the wind energy sector in Texas. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in renewable energy, public policy, or Texas.
I think I would best calssify this book as light historical reading. Hale writes in a very accessible, if plain, manner drawing the reader into the stI think I would best calssify this book as light historical reading. Hale writes in a very accessible, if plain, manner drawing the reader into the story of the ancient Athenian navy by concentrating on the personalities of the age and how they impacted the Athenian fleet. Battles were described in a way that was both descriptive but not bogged down in minutia. Hale was not afraid to use maps to illustrate battles or political relations, something more history books ought to do and he provides a wonderful timeline and glossary in the back of the book. This book was certainly intended for those somewhat unfamiliar with the times and Hale makes every effort to ensure the reader doesn't get lost.
The history of the Athenian navy itself was quite fascinating. Unlike an army, the development and maintenance of a fleet requires a large investment to initiate and high annual costs to maintain. Unlike an army where the individual soldiers can mostly provide their own gear for war, a navy requires a port infrastructure, skilled laborers to build and fix ships, the acquisition of a wide variety of materials, and hundreds of trained men to successfully and effectively operate just one trireme. This sort of effort requires a sustained political commitment both by the rulers of a state and its citizens. It costs a lot, but if you control the seas in the ancient world you have a lot of flexibility in both war and peace.
It was fascinating to see how the Athenian democracy changed over the course of this book. At the beginning they were a pretty traditional Greek city state, albeit a smallish one with little to make it stand out from the rest. But with the investment of men and material in the navy they took on a new form. With the successful repelling of the Persians thanks to the "wooden wall" if Athenian ships they began to build a league of alliance with other Greek city states. This alliance eventually developed into a empire with Athens demanding tribute from their client states and trying to expand their influence as far as Egypt and the Black Sea.
After finding so much success they became arrogant behind their walls and fleet, challenging the might of Sparta and her allies. Eventually, like a good Greek tragedy, their hubris brought them low as their advantage on the seas was degraded by smart Spartan leadership, Persian money, the plague, and too many years of losses. But even being brought low by the Spartans after the Peloponnesian War did not permanently cripple the Athenian democracy or navy. It took the might of the Macedonians to finally quench the torch that was Athenian democracy and naval supremacy.
Hale does an excellent job showing how Greek politics influence the navy and how the navy enabled Athenian policy at home and abroad. Hale shows us the key personalities that drove these policies and explains why they acted the way they did. He also offers an excellent window into Athenian culture and life. While I knew the Greeks loved their plays, I was unaware of both their popularity and just how political they were. The Greeks were also extremely superstitious, to their own detriment on many occasions (stupid eclipses), and their beliefs informed their own policies and strategies. Also the Athenian democracy had some pretty ugly warts, be it allowing the rise of Trump-like demagogues or punishing unsuccessful military leaders with death or exile. I thought Hale very clearly laid out the strengths and weakness of Athens as well as why they eventually failed.
I did think the book fell short in a few areas. Where Athenian victories got a decent explanation and description, their defeats mostly amounted to "and the Athenians were defeated in the subsequent naval battle". I also thought Hale came up short in tying the Athenian navy to Athenian democracy. It is certainly true that on several occasions they extended citizenship to any slave of freeman who was willing to row for the fleet, but the institution of democracy didn't seems a closely tied to the navy as the title might suggest.
Still, it was a very engaging and informative read, great for people who want a good entry point into ancient Greece....more
Pretty interesting history on the development of the electric grid and natural gas markets (mostly concentrating on Texas and the Gulf), but I found hPretty interesting history on the development of the electric grid and natural gas markets (mostly concentrating on Texas and the Gulf), but I found his editorialization of virtue and the pristine perfection of a free market rather grating and distracting from the historical accounts.
That being said there is a lot of good stuff in this book and it is very informative when it comes to explaining how the electric industry developed (both politically and technologically) and how the natural gas industry grew from a waste gas from oil fields that was flared at the site to a very crucial part of America's energy sector.
If you can handle the free market evangelicalism that Bradley adds in too liberally and want to further your understanding of the electric and gas sectors, then this book is for you....more
First off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book. Tainter has a thesis whereby he attempts to explain the collapse of all complex societFirst off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book. Tainter has a thesis whereby he attempts to explain the collapse of all complex societies (quite a tall order of business) and goes about this by establishing a lot of background information and existing theory review in the first part of the book.
I am by no means an archeologist (professional or amateur) but was able to make my way through this part, picking most of what Tainter was trying to communicate. I'd say to give the early sections a shot because they do form the basis for his later arguments. Sort of scary in retrospect how many complex, seemingly stable societies basically evaporated over the course of only a few generations and that civilization as we know it has a relatively short existence compared to the totality of human existence. Civilization is more the exception than the rule.
So the crux of Tainter's argument is that the development of a complex society is predicated on the explotation of low hanging resources. The investment to acquire these resources is (at first) easily outwighed by their benefits. This allows for the support of specialized roles that do not necessarily contribute to the sustainability of the society (aristocrats, priest castes, etc.). Subsequent resource extraction (be it in the form of new mines, new agricultural lands, or new conquests) have a lower return on energy invested generating a smaller surplus to sustain the complex society.
Eventually a society will reach a point where existing resources or potential new resources cannot maintain the level of complexity the society currently has. The result is a decline in public works/investments, the loss of centralized control and influence, and the loss of the periphery regions of the society (and not always a peaceful or gradual process). Eventually the society will "decline" to a level of lower complexity: more local control, less public works, etc.
To Tainter the story of a complex society is a race against the resource clock. To maintain and expand complexity (which is a good strategy when new resources are low investment accessible) a society must continue to increase the amount of resources available to it to support classes that do not contribute to resource expansion. Just to maintain the status quo new resources are needed and when they are not available the center of the complex society begins to crumble.
I really enjoyed this book because of the unique perspective Tainter presents in explaining the collapse of complex societies. The examples he provides are quite illustrative and can provide guidance to the challenges we face today. I'm not going to lie, this book majorly bummed me out, but I'd rather we had this perspective and a chance to avoid past mistakes than blindly blunder into the same fate that has befallen many past societies....more