Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Phoenix Unchained, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series co-written by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Now, I've sort of talked about Mercedes Lackey before on here, and her novel Gwenhwyfar is by and far is one of my favorite books of all time and hands down the best reinterpretation of Arthurian legend I've ever encountered. I've also encountered Lackey in the Bolo series and a few of her other books so I was willing to give this one a try to see if it was any good. I don't think I've read anything by James Mallory before so this was a good opportunity to look at more stuff.

As much as I hate to say it, this book is pretty paint-by-the-numbers fantasy fare. The book begins with two adolescent boys who are on the cusp of manhood. Harrier is the youngest son of the harbor master in the great port city of Armethalieh and destined to take over the duties of harbor master himself one day. Tiercel meanwhile is the eldest son of a minor noble family, heading for the university and a probably uneventful career in Aremthalieh's civil service. However a book that Harrier gets for his naming day leads to Tiercel attempting ancient High Magic, a practice that has been extinct for a thousand years since the Flowering that ended the war with the Endarkened Ones. It's soon revealed that Tiercel has the ability to use the High Magic and must leave his home behind to find someone to teach him how to use his abilities before they end up killing him.

Basically this book feels a lot like most epic fantasy quests which have been churned out ever since Lord of the Rings first hit shelves. Now, this isn't to say that epic fantasy quests are bad, there's a lot to be said for them and a lot that can be done with them. But it is kind of frustrating when they all seem to come out the same in the end. Obviously this book isn't exactly the same as Lord of the Rings but it fits pretty heavily into the fantasy quest mold. There's an epic battle brewing between good and evil, the latest in a conflict that's been going for thousands of years, and we have some young heroes who have to leave home and go fight evil, gaining new powers and abilities on the way. They expect the journey will be fairly short and uneventful, but they soon end up on a larger quest that will take them further away from home than they ever expected. There's even a point where they get rescued by a ranger-type character, actually a member of the Forest Watch, who's a centaur. Now, I did like Samara and I thought the idea of including centaurs was kind of neat because you don't usually see those in fantasy.

Overall I think this book was okay, but as I said I felt it fell a little too easily into the standard epic fantasy genre. It's okay and I can't point to anything specific that's wrong with the book, but there's nothing about the book that makes it stand out in any particular way. The arrival of a unicorn at the end of this book made the future potential kind of interesting but the first book leaves a lot to be desired.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bismarck, by Alan Palmer

Today I'm looking at a biography of Otto von Bismarck, known to students of European and German history as the Iron Chancellor of Prussia who united the disparate states into the German Empire in the nineteenth century. Bismarck has always been a controversial figure, his focus on militarism and authoritarian rule is seen as a foreshadowing of the atrocities of the Nazi regime half a century later. However, Bismarck also was a firm supporter of modernizing Prussia and Germany and later in his administration he would pass comprehensive social security plans for German workers, hoping it would cut any desire for socialist revolution in Germany. Bismarck is ultimately a figure of contradictions. A reactionary autocrat of the first order who promoted social welfare reform. A man often depicted in military uniform, but only served as a soldier for a year and became a Landwehr reserve lieutenant before pursuing a civil career in the diplomatic corps. A member of the Junker aristocracy and yet always seemingly apart from them. For a man who redrew the map of Europe Bismarck remains a puzzle to historians.

The career of Bismarck almost didn't begin. Evidence from his early days suggest that Bismarck played the role of ''wildman Junker'' to the hilt, followed by a pack of hunting dogs and getting in numerous duels during his time at university. In fact, Bismarck didn't do so well at university, despite his later genius at handling both international relations and managing Wilhelm I of Prussia and later Germany. With the death of his father, Bismarck spent nine years working as a gentleman farmer, trying to manage his estates and actually turning a profit. It's probable that if there was any school where Bismarck learned how to negotiate, how to manage people, and the importance of having multiple plans, it was probably the Frankfurt Diet of the German Confederation. Although his time in the diet was much ridiculed by his opponents, it probably still served an important purpose in his education.

Still, even with his experience in the diet it is surprising that Bismarck became chancellor at all. After making numerous enemies at home with his brash actions, Bismarck was sent as ambassador to Russia, a task he loathed because of the social interactions involved. For someone widely regarded as one of Europe's greatest diplomats, Bismarck had a hatred for social galas or even spending time in the capital. Bismarck was far happier to retire to his country estates in Altmark or Pomerania than among the glittering elite of nineteenth century Europe. In truth, Bismarck was only selected for chancellor and minister-president of Prussia because of an ongoing constitutional crisis.

A handful of reforms had been enacted in Prussia in the nineteenth century, including the creation of a parliamentary body, the Landtag. William I had wanted an increase in expenditure for the vaunted Prussian military which required approval from the Landtag, however a majority of the Landtag wanted a reduction in the compulsory military service from three years to two, something that William I was unwilling to negotiate on. Bismarck, never one to be worried by upsetting parliamentary niceties when it was to his advantage to do so, simply used the previous year's budget and governed without the Landtag under the auspices of a crisis, a constitutional position he had explored some years earlier.  The taxes got collected, the troops got equipped, and Bismarck had freedom to rule without parliamentary interference.

The image of Bismarck that emerges from his time as chancellor is a man of extreme moral flexibility. Bismarck will make friends with you one day and then stab you in the back the next if it was beneficial to his plans. Bismarck does not seem to be guided by any political ideology or philosophy and appears to have very little patience for people who do. His goal, as Palmer describes it, seems to be power for himself, and uniting Germany under Prussia was merely a means to expand that power for himself, as exhibited by Bismarck's own frustrations with rampant nationalist ideologues.

Another of Bismarck's strengths was his ability to have an extra plan, or two, or three for him to fall back on if his first plan didn't go through. As Extra History put it in their biographic series of Bismarck, the first rule of being Bismarck was ''Always have a plan''. This fit perfectly with his moral flexibility, and throughout his career Bismarck worked to never be in a position where he was forced to commit definitively to anything he didn't want, something that later leaders of the German Empire did not have the skill or ability to do. Which underlines the biggest weakness of Bismarck's system: it doesn't work without Bismarck.

Bismarck was an autocrat through and through, down to his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to imagine a system that existed without him. He did try to groom his eldest son Herbert for the position of Chancellor, but Herbert proved unequal to the task and only served in a variety of posts in the diplomatic corps. Bismarck's position as Chancellor of the German Empire was added to the constitution of the empire as an afterthought, rather than as a key part. He existed independent of and unaccountable to the Reichstag, serving only at the pleasure of the emperor and so long as that was the manageable, aged William I, Bismarck had free reign to do as he pleased.

As long as Bismarck remained at the center of the system, the elaborate network of alliances, treaties, and agreements, the ad hoc nature of the machinery of government in Germany, everything worked in spite of its inherent weaknesses. But once the autocrat is gone, the entire machinery falls apart. This is even illustrated during Bismarck's administration by his frequent retreats to his estates, when all major decision making is either put on hold, or people must make the pilgrimage to Bismarck to get decisions. Crises that didn't get his immediate attention soon spun out of control until Bismarck was once again at the helm.

In this way, Bismarck is a quintessentially European figure displaced in time. A moral opportunist and autocrat of the first order in earlier epochs could have become king or established a dynasty. In the industrializing nineteenth century, Bismarck was faced with things he could not control or perhaps understand. A figure of contradictions, Bismarck will remain a person of great interest to historians for years to come.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors, by Dan Jones

Today I'm looking at another book from Dan Jones about the Knights Templar, one of the crusading orders of knights established in the years after the first Crusade. Although the Templars were not the only international crusading order they are far more well known than the Knights Hospitaller or the Teutonic Knights, and far beyond the smaller orders such as the Livonian Sword Brethren or the Order of Santiago. Jones speculates a little on the enduring popularity of the Templars as an order, but the majority of the book focuses on the history of the Knights Templar from their founding in 1119 to their spectacular downfall starting in 1307 and concluded by 1312.

In hindsight the most surprising thing about the First Crusade is that it succeeded at all considering how poorly organized the entire venture, and most later crusades were. The main advantage of the crusaders was the fact that Jerusalem and much of the Levant existed at the time in a border region between the Fatimid, Shia caliph's capital in Cairo and the Sunni Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. The division between Egypt and Mesopotamia allowed the crusader kingdoms to survive despite their weaknesses and it was largely when both flanks acted in concert that the crusader kingdoms were in most danger.

An inherent problem of the crusader kingdoms was a lack of resources, specifically money and manpower, the two most necessary resources for prosecuting a war. The original mission of the Knights Templar was to provide protection for Christian pilgrims visiting sites such as the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This original mission quickly grew to the Knights Templar, as well as the Knights Hospitaller, being an elite military force. However the Templars and Hospitallers had significant advantages over the secular rulers of the crusader kingdoms. In their founding charter the papacy granted numerous rights to the holy order which gave them significant benefits. The Templars were made responsible only to the pope, immune from almost all taxation, and granted lucrative rights regarding religious ceremonies and rituals. Coupled with this were the numerous donations of land and resources made by pious Christians in Europe, the Templars became incredibly rich as an organization.

Because the Templars had access to such tremendous resources, they were able to arm and equip a dedicated fighting force of knights and sergeants. Soon the Templars were assigned the garrison of numerous strategic castles in the Levant and Templar contingents made a significant portion of any crusade army. For much of the book Jones focuses on the military history of the Templars and their battles in Egypt and the Levant. There are brief mentions to the more business-aligned aspects of the Templars, such as their involvement in the trade hub of Acre and their fleet of galleys used for both military and commercial uses. I actually would have liked to see more about that because Jones briefly makes the argument that the Templars in many ways were a medieval version of a corporation and NGO rolled into one. I would have appreciated more time on the more economic aspects of the Templar order, but I can see where for the most part their income came from being a major landowner which isn't terribly interesting.

The ultimate irony is that while their wealth enabled the Templars to field major armies against Muslim powers, it also made them a target among Christians at home, especially Philip IV of France. This became especially prominent after the collapse of the crusader kingdoms and the Latins had to fall back to the isle of Cyprus. While the military orders and eastern Latins tried to raise support for renewed Crusading efforts, the European leaders were largely more concerned with local affairs and dynastic struggles. This lack of enthusiasm for continued crusades left the Templars and other military orders at loose ends. While the Teutonic Knights had their own campaigns in the Baltic, the Templars and Hospitallers were faced with the prospect of being merged into a single military order.

Ultimately it was Philip IV of France who ended the Templars, which was fueled by his need for money to perpetuate his military campaigns at home. Jones illustrates that Philip had attacked other targets including churchmen and French Jews to not only cement his power but increase his personal wealth. Jones shows that Philip was initially alone in his persecution of the Templars, and several fellow monarchs were confused at his persecution of the Templar order. Even Edward II only began his persecution of the Templars when it was beneficial for his own personal ends. Most rulers were fairly lax in the persecution and suppression of the Templar order in their own lands when ordered to do so at behest of the pope, so the most significant persecution appears to have occurred solely in France, famously ending with Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templar Order, and numerous other officials being burned as heretics. Jones argues that a significant part of the allure of the Templars is their dramatic end, compared to the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights who still exist today albeit in a far smaller and limited form.

This does raise the question of why the Hospitallers, an equally wealthy and powerful organization, wasn't the target of suppression and most of the Templar resources were merged into the Hospitallers. What I've heard about the Teutonic Order is that they were able to play the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope off each other, ensuring their continued existence, but it leaves me wondering why the Hospitallers were able to survive. Maybe there's another source that will answer these questions but I think it's something Jones could have answered.

Overall I think this book is really interesting because of the history that it covers. Jones is a very dedicated medieval historian so you can really tell he's enjoying his subject matter and it really shows in the book There are some areas where I'd like to have seen more development and historical detail, but otherwise I think this book was pretty good.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Spider Network, by David Enrich

Today I'm looking at a book that deals with the history of the LIBOR fixing scandal that started in the early twenty-first century and resulted in a trial and conviction of Tom Haynes in 2015. Enrich makes a fairly strong argument that Haynes, the only banker convicted for the LIBOR scandal and sentenced to fourteen years in prison as an example, was used as a scapegoat by the financial industry. Considering that none of the other multiple bankers involved in what appears to have been a major conspiracy or gotten incredibly light sentences it seems pretty obvious that Haynes was used as a scapegoat. Enrich goes into great detail with the evidence available to show that the LIBOR fixing scandal was a wide-ranging and institutional problem rather than the actions of a few rogue actors.

To provide a brief explanation, LIBOR is an acronym for the London Inter-Bank Offer Rate. This rate is supposed to represent the actual cost to London banks to borrow money from other institutions, providing an average institutional interest rate. By reflecting the rate at which banks can borrow money it in turn affects at which rate banks are able to loan money to ordinary consumers like you and me. This means that minor changes in LIBOR can have huge economic impacts. Among these economic effects are the trade in derivatives based on LIBOR.

Now this is where it starts to get complicated. Broadly speaking a derivative is a financial security whose value is derived from some sort of asset. This includes simple products such as stocks and bonds, but includes more complex instruments such as futures contracts, credit default swaps, and interest rate swaps. Among these instruments are derivatives whose value can increase or decrease based on whether the LIBOR goes up or down. As Enrich explains it in the book, these derivatives can be roughly explained as bets on whether LIBOR would go up or down. And based on the volume of trades in derivatives traders and brokers could make huge profits by even minor changes as little as a tenth of a percentage point.

Where this starts to get shady is how LIBOR gets determined. LIBOR is reported by the individual banks and there has been very little oversight of how LIBOR is set by the banks. This meant that as long as banks stayed within a certain band of expected values, banks could game the LIBOR system and push the overall rate in their favor. Enrich provides ample evidence that multiple bankers, brokers, and other organizations saw the manipulation of LIBOR for economic gain as a perfectly normal and acceptable practice.

If there's one thing I've taken from this book, it's that there is an underlying toxic culture within Wall Street and other financial institutions. It seems that booze-fueled benders and trips to strip clubs are par for the course among the biggest and baddest traders, not to mention blatant kickbacks and other free perks. In this cutthroat culture all that matters is who makes the most money, no matter how they make the money. It suggests that the culture among financial traders is in need of a massive reform and massive regulation.

I think this book is really interesting in how it illustrates the toxic culture of the financial sector and why people who are asked to do nothing but make money and are given little or no oversight will do plenty of questionable or downright illegal things just to get ahead. It makes a pretty strong argument in favor of a reform not only of the regulation of the industry, but also a reform of the dog-eat-dog culture as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Babel-17, by Sameul R. Delany

Today I'm looking at another older science-fiction novel that I picked up on sale on Amazon. Babel-17 is set in a distant future where the humans of Earth have formed together into an Alliance for mutual defense with three alien species against the Invaders, a splinter group of humans and four other alien races. Recently the Alliance has suffered a series of mysterious sabotage attacks at their most secure facilities. The only clue uniting these attacks are coded messages that they have been unable to identify or crack that they call Babel-17. Out of desperation the military turns to Rydra Wong, the most legendary poet of the age, in the hope that she will be able to decipher Babel-17 and provide some clue as to when and where the next sabotage attempt will be. Wong puts together a crew and heads out into the depths of space to gather more information and decipher the mysteries of Babel-17.

This book has some really interesting ideas but it almost feels like it was necessary flavoring that was thrown into the book because it was a 1960's science-fiction novel and it needed to have some weird stuff in it. For example, cosmetic surgery is incredibly common among the portion of the population that works on spaceships, compared to the tattoos of sailors in previous centuries. There's also a concept of triples where people engage in what we'd call a closed triad, which is seen as unusual but not uncommon. Furthermore humans continue exist beyond death as discorporate entities who can fulfill important jobs on ships that would drive a mortal human insane. All of these are really interesting ideas but they seem to provide flavor to the book more than anything else.

The plot of the book centers around Babel-17 which goes into some territory that I'm not 100% on. Obviously I'm not a linguist so I'm no expert but this book leans pretty heavily on the trope of Language Equals Thought. The more I think about it the more unsure I am. A major point is that Babel-17 as a language has no concept of I and is somehow so insanely precise that it manages to unlock telepathic superpowers. I'm left with the feeling that I just didn't understand the plotline that Delany was trying to create with the language angle. Maybe if people know more about linguistics they might get more enjoyment out of this book but I'm afraid I was left feeling confused more than anything else.

Overall this book has some interesting ideas and I think it's worth checking out but I can't say whether I really understand it or not.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Internationalists, by Oona Hathaway & Scott Shapiro

Today I'm looking at a history book that analyzes the Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Paris Peace Pact, which was signed in October of 1928. The pact is seldom mentioned in history classes and if's mentioned at all it gets lumped in with other attempts of the inter-war era to prevent a second war such as the League of Nations and the London Naval Treaty of 1930. Theoretically, the signatories of the Paris Peace Pact formally renounced war as a tool of politics and declared war illegal. Although signed by the major powers the pact had no provisions for enforcement or punishment of people and states who violated the act. The fact that the pact was signed by nations such as Germany, Japan, and Italy, which later broke the pact and started World War II has resulted in many people dismissing the Kellogg-Briand Pact as a dismal failure. However, Hathaway and Shapiro amass considerable evidence in their arguments that the Kellog-Briand Pact fundamentally changed our perception of international relations and after the end of World War II created a more peaceful, although perhaps less stable, world.

Hathaway and Shapiro marshal literally centuries of evidence to make their arguments, which is necessary considering the size of the argument they're making. The fact that the deadliest of all wars in history happened after the nations involved chose to abolish war significantly undermines the idea that the Paris Peace Pact actually worked, but I think that Hathaway and Shapiro manage to construct a convincing argument that the treaty managed to change at least popular opinions on the legitimacy of war as a tool of political power.

 Hathaway and Shapiro divide history into the ''Old'' and ''New'' orders, dating the ''Old'' order back to the 1600s and the work of Hugo Grotius, the Dutch legal scholar credited with first codifying the ideas of international law. Most importantly Grotius developed the framework for just wars which influenced European diplomacy and how Europeans declared war for centuries. As European nations expanded and enforced their legal systems on the rest of the world, the framework that Grotius created spread with them, the most famous example they use being the rapid industrialization of Japan and their adoption of European legal systems to become a member of the club of Great Powers.

Hathaway and Shapiro argue that from 1928 to the beginning of war in 1939 international relations were in a transitional state, where war was outlawed but no effective means of punishing states such as Italy and Japan that invaded and conquered other countries existed. Economic sanctions were attempted but were weakly enforced at best and largely ineffective as a result. The only exception was the sanction on oil to Japan which completely cut of Japan's supply of oil and pushe dJapan to declaring war on the United States in 1941. To use war to punish those who waged aggressive wars was a contradiction that the other signatories to the Paris Peace Pact couldn't stomach and with no other enforcement mechanism the Pact, as well as the League of Nations, proved ineffective.

During World War II the Allied powers, and even before the United States was involved in the war, began organizing general war goals as expressed in the 1940 Atlantic charter. The United States, the United Kingdom, and later signatories declared that this would not be a war of conquest, that the victors would not seek new territory at the end of the war. Instead the Allied powers professed a commitment to the right of self-determination and protection of the sovereignty of independent nations. These ideals became part of the framework of the United Nations with a general admonition against war in general and wars of conquest in specific and Hathaway and Shapiro argue rather successfully that it worked.

Looking at data from 1816 to 2016, Hathaway and Shapiro not only counted the instances of war, but also the transfer of territory from one country to another as the result of war. From 1816 to 1928 the number of wars and the amount of territory transferred through conquest was incredibly high and on average a nation could expect to lose territory to conquest on average once every twenty years. But when you look at the data after 1928, the results are the reverse. While the nations occupied by the Axis powers represents large transfers of territory by conquest, the important thing is that these territories were returned to their previous owners at the end of the war and did not stick. Furthermore, there were additional large transfers of territory but this was through a largely peaceful process of decolonization rather than through wars of conquest. The number of military conflicts that actually resulted in a transfer of land has been infinitely smaller than in the previous century.

However, this has not been all to the good. Hathaway and Shapiro point out that while the likelihood of a state being attacked by its neighbors has become fairly low, the likelihood of a state being riven apart by civil war or other internal conflict has increased significantly. This has allowed terrorism, insurgency, and other forms of asymmetric warfare to flourish. While strong states can control and prosecute criminal violence through police forces and the justice system, weak states often do not have the capacity or ability to end these except through military force, further fueling internal conflict. However, despite the issues Hathaway and Shapiro argue, and I'm inclined to agree, that the decreased likelihood of military conflict between states is a net benefit and while we have problems now, it does not mean we can't work to solve them in the future.

Overall I thought this book was interesting because it looked at something so often ignored or dismissed in major history and makes a pretty strong argument that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was far more influential than we give it credit. If you're interested in legal or political history then this is definitely a book worth taking the time to check out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson

Today I'm looking at a history of Ancient Egypt that covers history from the early origins of the Egyptian kingdom in the 3000s BCE up to the first century BCE with the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire. When dealing with a history of literally thousands of years obviously this is a very broad overview rather than a detailed history, which is further hampered by the fragmented nature of the information available. Compared to the biography of Hatshepsut which went into the life of not just Hatshepsut but her stepson and heir as well, this book takes a far more general approach. However, Wilkinson does have the advantage of drawing upon the centuries of written records and archaeological evidence to piece together the story of ancient Egypt.

For the most part Wilkinson does a pretty good job of talking about the history of Egypt and it's very obvious that he's spent many years in the field of Egyptology. Wilkinson relies not only on the written record but on artifacts ranging from temples to tombs to grave goods to ordinary items. Based on the fact that someone was able to write an entire book about Hatshepsut while Wilkinson barely mentions her at all, it suggest to me that Wilkinson picked and chose from what he thought were the most significant pharaohs to talk about rather than going into detail about all of them. Even when details are available (which apparently are in some cases) to go into detail about every pharaoh would be a much larger book. Because I know basically nothing about ancient Egypt I'm unable to comment one way or another on Wilkinson's decisions.

I will say that there were some comments that left me a little concerned, especially a comment Wilkinson made about the names of pharaohs sounding juvenile to modern English ears and offhandedly saying that maybe the cosseted lifestyle of the Egyptian royalty created a band of decadent and infantile pharaohs. This argument is so facile that I can't believe it ever made it past the editor, much less was included in the book. Even as a joke this comment is incredibly insensitive and makes me really concerned about Wilkinson. I know this is a really small and specific thing to worry about, but it feels like a really big deal to me.

There were a few other comments that concerned me but not as great as the comment about Egyptian names. Wilkinson placed a large amount of emphasis on the Israelites and their Bronze Age kingdoms. Now because I haven't studied a bunch of ancient history outside of Rome, I don't know the status of the Bible as a historical source but I know that it can't be taken as complete historical fact. However based on what I read Wilkinson seems to take the Bible as historical fact and seems to get downright confused when Egyptian sources don't mention King Solomon. He actually seems to get offended when the first Egyptian source that mentions the tribe of Israel only as a minor enemy. Except for all we know at this time Israel was a minor tribe, not a kingdom receiving ambassadors from the major powers of the ancient world.

I'm assuming that Wilkinson does a good job assessing the Egyptian sources but his comments raise some concerns on my part. Because I know so little about this I'm going to say for now this seems a good general overview but if I get more information I may have to change my analysis.

- Kalpar