Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland

Today I'm looking at Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, which is a book that talks about the Julio-Claudian emperors, the first five men that ruled Rome through the very late first century BCE and into the first century CE before Nero committed suicide in 68 CE. Although the family and its heirs were wiped out, largely through internal rivalries and fratricides, the titles of princeps, imperator, augustus, and caesar would continue until the fall of the Western Empire in 476 and the Eastern Empire in 1453. To provide proper context, however, the book begins in the waning days of the Roman Republic and the rise of the strongmen of the First Triumvirate: Pompey the Great, Crassus, and Gaius Julius Caesar. The Republic would be wracked by costly civil wars between Caesar and Pompey which would only end with victory for Caesar and his appointment to the office of dictator for life. Already much of the framework for the office of princeps, king in all but name, had been laid when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. This led to yet another round of civil wars as the Second Triumvirate of Octavius Caesar (later Caesar Augustus), Marcus Antonius, and Lepidus sought revenge against Caesar's assassins and then later turned on each other with Octavius the ultimate winner.

The Julio-Claudian emperors are a subject of much historical research because they are some of the most memorable of Roman emperors, especially in a critical era for Rome's transition from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy in all but name. You have Augustus, the first princeps and forger of the imperial system and excessive legislator of morality. The melancholy Tiberius who aspired to Roman virtues but spent his last years in orgiastic decadence in an island pleasure palace. Caligula, widely depicted as insane and so known for his depravity in his own time that his own bodyguards assassinated him. The epileptic Claudius, the man who did not desire to be emperor but proved capable at the job and organized the conquest of Britain. And finally Nero, a publicly avowed matricide who built an enormous pleasure palace on the burned ruins of Rome. There is an insane amount of sex, violence, and human drama which makes the Julio-Claudians almost irresistible to popular histories, academic histories, and even popular media in a variety of forms.

The biggest problem in analyzing these emperors is that the histories are inherently biased one way or the other. If written during the lifetimes of the emperors, they are of course highly salutary because the emperors did not take criticism very well and were prone to showy treason trials when frustrated. Or the histories were sponsored by the emperors, such as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti which was basically one long list of ''Awesome things done by me, Augustus. Also I'm a god now.'' However once the emperors were safely dead, especially unpopular ones such as Caligula or Nero, historians wrote scathing calumnies, which may be based on some grains of truth but many historians accept may also be greatly exaggerated. The challenge is of course finding the path of truth within the varying accounts we have from the time period.

And Holland admits this challenge from the get-go, however I found myself wondering if Holland was trying a little too hard to rehabilitate the ''bad'' emperors, especially Caligula and Nero. I think it got to the point Holland was protesting a bit too much. On the one hand, I felt he was a lot more even with his treatment of Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. Those three have the best reputations but each of them come with their own problems. Augustus became obsessed with sexual morality and passed strict laws regarding adultery and promoted a culture of informants within the capital. Tiberius was a competent soldier and administrator but in his later years simply could not be bothered with running the empire and engaged in orgiastic excesses. Holland also argues that Tiberius knew full well what sort of person Caligula was and encouraged Caligula's own excesses. And Claudius's conquest of Britain may not have been as profitable as he had hoped.

But my biggest concern is with Caligula and Nero. Those two are definitely the most infamous of the Julio-Claudians and have very bad reputations. But I feel like this may be well deserved. From Holland's own account both emperors did not seem terribly interested in actually running the empire and just enjoyed the benefits of being in power. Both spent lavishly on games and entertainment for the masses and enjoyed shocking ''proper'' Roman society, especially the senatorial aristocracy. And to me, Holland seems to argue that all of Caligula and Nero's scandals and escapades aren't acts of madness so much as playful tweaks of the nose of Roman society. Enormous practical jokes if you will. And while I can understand breaking with convention, appointing your horse consul is definitely not a practical joke.

So, to provide some explanation for people who may not know Roman history, the consuls were like the co-presidents of Rome. There were two of them, elected for a one-year turn, and they were in charge of the government. Under Augustus power began being shifted away from the senate, the consuls, and the various other offices of the Republic and concentrated in the princeps, or ''first citizen''. Romans basically had this huge aversion to kings and monarchy so while Augustus was effectively acting as a monarch for Rome, he maintained a polite fiction that he was merely the ''first among equals'' of the senate and definitely not a king. So the consuls might symbolically still be the most important office in Rome, but much of the power has been transferred to the princeps.

All right, so why would anyone appoint a horse consul? This is one of the more famous incidents in Caligula's reign and has traditionally been ascribed to madness. Only an obviously insane person would name a horse consul. Holland argues that this was not an act of insanity, but rather a calculated move by Caligula to irritate the Senate. Frankly I'm not sure which one is worse. If it's an act of insanity it merely means excessive inbreeding put a psychopath on the throne of the nascent Roman Empire. But if it was truly a calculated move then it means Caligula was deliberately destroying the polite fiction that the princeps was not a monarch, despite now being a hereditary title with increasing power, and alienating the weakened but still influential Senate. In the case of Nero, Holland goes into detail of Nero's tour of Greece and participation in a number of competitions, including the Olympics, where regardless of his actual performance he was always awarded first place. (It's good to be the princeps.) This was a long and protracted tour and while it may have boosted Nero's popularity with the lower classes, it left a lack of a guiding hand at the helm of state for Rome and eventually led to rebellion by numerous generals.

I think this book is interesting and informative, but I think Holland goes to too great an extent to rehabilitate Caligula and Nero. They may not have been the cackling melodramatic villains that they're often depicted as in histories, both academic and popular, but I think we would be justified in saying they weren't terribly good emperors either. The corruption by power affected all the Julio-Claudians to some extent, even venerable Augustus, and many other men who became imperator. But I think that corruption of power is most obvious in Caligula and Nero and to try and rehabilitate them as pretty okay, fun-loving guys is to stretch alternate historical interpretation to its utmost limits. Overall it's okay, but as I said, the author doth protest too much.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Xenocide, by Orson Scott Card

Today I'm looking at the third book in the Ender series, Xenocide, which in my opinion is almost a complete turn around from its predecessor Speaker for the Dead. Xenocide picks up some of the plot threads that were left dangling at the end of Speaker but the main conflict, the fleet coming armed with the Doctor Device and Starways Congress's declaration of the colony Lusitania being in rebellion is still left unresolved. However I'm not entirely sure I want to bother with the final book, Children of the Mind because of the direction Xenocide ends up taking.

As I mentioned in my review of Speaker, I thought it was a great example of how science-fiction could still deal with important human issues in a meaningful way. Xenocide takes this approach to the eventual extreme with lengthy debates on theology, metaphysics, sociology, and the science of the ansible and...well...souls. There's really no other way to put it if I'm being completely honest. Part of the plot of the book deals with trying to save Jane once Starways Congress has found out that she's in the ansible network and intends to shut the network down to kill her. So in an attempt to save her, Ender and company have to find where Jane's ''soul'', for lack of a better term really resides. And it just gets kind of...dumb.

This isn't to say there aren't good parts to the book. There's several conflicts running at once. Relationships between the humans, pequininos, and buggers on Lusitania has been strained, and they're all facing the very real threat of annihilation in the near future. In addition the humans and buggers are in their own race against time because the descolada virus is adapting to their chemical defenses against it but they can't simply wipe it out entirely because it's necessary for all indigenous life to survive on Lusitania. There are also the events on the planet Path, which I didn't really understand at first because they weren't tied directly into the story but eventually it all meshed together and story-wise it's fairly good overall. It just takes a really dumb turn towards the end.

Basically, among their problems, the humans on Lusitania are trying to develop faster-than-light travel as a means of shuttling people off of Lusitania before the fleet to destroy them arrives. Basically it revolves around these things called philotes, fictional particles that connect to each other and make the ansibles work. Plus apparently philotes are in absolutely everything. Anyway, the humans come upon the idea that philotes come from a place called ''outside'', just waiting for an opportunity to come into the universe in some pattern. They get this idea because apparently when the buggers want to create a new queen they call philotes from Outside to make the...consciousness, soul, whatever you want to call it for the new queen.

Anyway, so the theory goes that you can take a ship, go outside, and then go back inside at a separate point in time, with the philotes in the same arrangement, with no time at all passing. They literally call it travel by wish in the book because Jane has to will the ship and its passengers to go outside, and then will them back inside. It's very...clap your hands if you believe which is more mysticism than science but it gets worse.

Basically the scientists were trying to find a way to solve the descolada virus without harming the pequininos but they couldn't produce what they needed in the lab. But they struck on the idea that if you can think of anything Outside, where anything you can imagine is possible, then if you go Outside and imagine the virus you need, then bring it back inside. I honestly can't see this as anything other than magic or a deus ex machina. Basically, ''Go to a place where anything's possible, imagine a thing, get thing, come back from place.'' It just...it bothers me on some level. One of my friends said it felt like a way for Card to get himself out of a corner he painted himself into and in a way I have to agree.

So the fact that the main characters resolve the story by wishing for things to fix their problem, plus the interminable arguments on theology and metaphysics make the book feel simultaneously pretentious and lazy. There are some good parts in there, for sure, but for me it was drowned out by all the bad parts. The audio book was also kind of hard to listen to because the characters on Path were read with extremely stereotyped Asian accents, which made me feel uncomfortable when the only other characters that got exaggerated accents were aliens. The book also seems to waffle back and forth on whether gods exist in this universe or not and I feel like Card is trying to have it both ways which feels disingenuous.

Overall I feel like this is an example of science-fiction done badly, just as much as Speaker for the Dead is science-fiction done well. The book gets extremely pretentious with its discussions on a number of subjects and ends with sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic to solve the problem. It was just a really great disappointment.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper

Today I'm looking at an old sci-fi book, Little Fuzzy, which as you might remember was the inspiration for a remake by John Scalzi called Fuzzy Nation which I reviewed some time ago. Of course there are some significant differences between the two books, if for no other reason than because Little Fuzzy was written in 1962 so everyone's still using tape and film to record things. (Old sci-fi gets weird like that.) Overall the plots are mostly the same, the Zarathustra Corporation is interested in extracting as many resources as possible from a planet it owns lock, stock, and barrel for insane profits. However the discovery of a previously unknown species of indigenous creatures by prospector Jack Holloway raises some uncomfortable questions. If the local fuzzies are in fact an intelligent species it means the planet cannot continue to be strip-mined and has to be placed under government control for the fuzzies' protection, something the Zarathustra Corporation is willing to go to great lengths to prevent.

I want to begin by saying that I actually enjoyed both books, even if they have their own approaches. The inevitable comparison for a reader is between this, the original source material, and the remake by Scalzi. Is there one that's superior? I honestly don't know if I can say one way or the other because they each have their own charm. Little Fuzzy is definitely dated in its way, but I'm sure in fifty or so years Fuzzy Nation will also be considered fairly dated. I think both books have their own strengths and weaknesses and it's a great example of how someone can take an original idea and reinterpret in a new way.

Little Fuzzy is more a novella and much shorter than Fuzzy Nation but it ends up creating a bigger universe than Fuzzy Nation. I say that because there are far more characters in Little Fuzzy than in Fuzzy Nation, even though it's the shorter work and so there's a lot less for different characters to do through the book which moves along pretty briskly opposed to Nation's gradual build. And I'm not sure which one I actually prefer. A smaller cast of characters makes the story more efficient and keeps the story moving without having to add a bunch of extra people. However, a much larger cast makes the story feel like it's taking place in an actual community instead of some neck of the woods with the same five people. I do kind of wish with the larger cast there was more time to develop them as characters and I can understand Scalzi's decision to merge characters his own reinterpretation.

Another thing that seemed very different to me was how accepting people were that the fuzzies were sentient in Little Fuzzy opposed to Fuzzy Nation. Jack Holloway kind of concludes they're sentient pretty early on in the book and most people think they are, including local law enforcement and most of the scientists. It's really only the Zarathustra corporate bigwigs who are trying to prove they're not sentient, and even then they seem not entirely convinced themselves because they want to keep their charter. In the case of Fuzzy Nation it seems like more people are hesitant to believe the fuzzies are sentient so it creates more conflict for the characters and fuzzies to overcome. So I feel like Little Fuzzy is a lighter and softer version of the story.

A concern that I do have is how Little Fuzzy is pro-colonial in its outlook. Most of the characters are benevolent towards the fuzzies and see them as little people who need protection and support from the humans. The fuzzies happily adopt metal tools given to them by humans, as well as accept food and in one case accept tobacco. I'm aware that I'm overthinking this extensively but it looks very much to me like a native population being made dependent on resources from a colonizing power. And at the end of the book, Zarathustra is actually opened further for colonization by humans rather than being made the exclusive realm of the fuzzies. People also start making plans to adopt fuzzies who feel almost more like pets than actual sentient beings and equals. It just feels very pro-colonialism and it may just be an effect of this being written in the sixties before a strong critique of colonialism had developed.

Concerns aside, I did enjoy this book. I think it and Fuzzy Nation are fairly equal at the end of the day and I recommend everybody go and read both. They each have things they do well, and are almost complimentary rather than one replacing the other.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How the Post Office Created America, by Winifred Gallagher

Today I'm looking at a history book that looks at the history of the United States Post Office. I know, I know, it seems like a really weird thing to want to read, or in this case listen to a book about. But I have to admit this was a really interesting book and I ended up enjoying it. (Although I suspect my enjoyment of the book Going Postal may have also contributed.) I will say that Gallagher is a very strong cheerleader for the post office throughout the book and comes down pretty heavily against any attempt to privatize the service (which I have to admit, does seem like a less than optimal solution), and advocates very strongly for a more open-ended mission of the post office beyond just delivering the mail, including a return of the postal savings system which operated from 1911 to 1966. I do find myself agreeing with much of Gallagher's arguments for the future of the post office but I can see how some people with differing political views would be put off.

The book is mostly a history of the post office in the United States starting with the fairly ad hoc system utilized by the thirteen colonies before the Revolution and the need for an independent, non Crown-controlled postal service for the safe delivery of revolutionary correspondence. As the United States became an independent country Gallagher attributes the Founders with a desire to create a strong and efficient postal service in the United States with discounted postage for newspapers and periodicals. The idea behind the policy of discounted postage for periodicals, Gallagher argues, was to promote and create a culture of literacy and an informed electorate in the United States. This is certainly an idealistic approach to the post office, seeing it as a unifying force within the disparate United States, but I'm not entirely sure how wide spread this sentiment really was.

The book then continues with the history of the postal service, going from its struggles in the early nineteenth century, its halcyon days in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, and then the increased struggles and decline in the late twentieth that led to reorganization of the post office in the 1970's into the United States Postal Service, a government-owned not-for-profit corporation that we know and, at least for our packages from Amazon if nothing else, rely upon today. Gallagher also muses on the potential futures of the USPS depending on which direction the government ends up taking, with a few suggestions of his own.

In the introduction to the book, Gallagher points out that very little has been written on the history of the post office since the 1930's, and much of the histories focus on the post office's glory days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So I was very interested in seeing what Gallagher had to say about the more recent history of the post office. Unfortunately I was left with the feeling that portion of the book particularly was left rather underdeveloped compared to the sections devoted to the post office's early days and its developments through the nineteenth century. Gallagher does cover the technological developments such as increased automation to allow the post office to handle ever-increasing quantities of mail and innovations such as ZIP codes to help speed delivery, but it feels very brief compared to the discussions about the post office's earlier history.

Another thing that I noticed was that Gallagher tended to place great significance on the post office's influence on the development of transportation infrastructure and other technological developments through American history. While it would be accurate to say that the needs of the post office certainly shaped some aspects of American life, I think it would be a stretch to say that it was entirely responsible for certain developments. The post office's interest in aerial transportation of mail may have helped spur the fledgling aviation industry, but I think the post office had very little influence on the development of other forms of transportation such as railroads. While the post office may have been one of many influences, it was still only one. I feel like Gallagher overemphasizes the post office's influence in many cases, making it seem like the post office was solely responsible for massive changes in American culture.

I was also concerned by Gallagher's almost blithe assertion that censorship of the mail was nonexistent in the United States when I've been exposed to information that says very much the opposite. This is probably because I listened to The Great Dissent almost right before I listened to this book so I was acutely aware of how freedom of speech certainly didn't extend to everything that went through the mail. The examples of pornography and other obscene materials, including birth control items, being seized by postal inspectors is well documented and Gallagher even mentions it in this book, which certainly undermines their argument that the postal service respected the freedom for people to send anything. Gallagher also briefly touches upon the various raids performed in the first Red Scare of 1919-1920 where socialist and communist groups were raided and prosecuted and the right of these ideologues to spread their ideas came under attack. And this doesn't even go into the much earlier conflict over the sending of abolitionist materials through the mail prior to the Civil War. Gallagher seems to undermine their own argument by pointing out examples when the mail was not considered sacrosanct which is good history, but bad for their argument.

Overall, despite its shortcomings I actually enjoyed this book. I will admit that I always seem to be interested in the development of transportation and the growth of literary culture, which is why the nineteenth century is one of my favorite periods of history to study. But I would highly recommend people checking this book out because it's more interesting than you might expect.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Janus Affair, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the second of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books, The Janus Affair. As you may remember in my review of Phoenix Rising I said that the book felt like a bit of a mess with a lot of plot threads that weren't explained or didn't seem to go anywhere. Unfortunately this book is also mostly a muddled mess and almost goes into the territory of crime fiction that inspired Father Roland Knox to write rules for Fair Play Mysteries. In 1928. Overall the result was fairly disappointing and I'm left thinking that the rest of the books in this series aren't worth my time.

So what exactly is the plot? The main story centers around the disappearances of prominent leaders of the suffrage movement in England. Women are disappearing in bright and mysterious flashes of light and never seen again, which is causing panic and fear among the ranks of the suffragists. Eliza Braun, being a supporter and friend of the suffragists herself, has made it her personal mission to investigate their disappearance and has brought along Archivist Wellington Books for the investigation. There are also some other plots going on but they're not terribly well developed and left so frustratingly vague that it feels like the authors just aren't really sure of what direction they want to take the series.

Let's start with the Maestro who is a very vague and mysterious figure. What we do know is that he's been behind the events of Phoenix Rising and is involved in setting the events of Janus Affair in motion. Furthermore he has an animosity for the Ministry and seeks to shut it down or otherwise control it and gain access to artifacts stored in its vaults. Beyond that we really don't know what's up with him. Who he is, what he's trying to accomplish, they're all left frustratingly vague. I get that he's kind of a shadowy, mysterious Big Bad, but I have no idea how dangerous this guy is because I don't know what he's trying to accomplish.

Among the other things left frustratingly vague are the backstories of our main characters. We get more details about Braun and Books. Books at least is fairly straightforward and we learn that his father put him through a strict training regimen to turn Books into a sort of super-soldier in some misguided attempt to create a horde of them for Britain. Braun's backstory is explained, but actually only ends up raising further questions. We're told that Braun was exiled from New Zealand by the prime minister and the event involved Kiwi suffragists, but what exactly was this horrible thing that caused Eliza to be exiled from her home country remains unknown. It's referenced but never explicitly mentioned and I almost wonder if the writers forgot to put an explanation in.

Most annoyingly for me, a majority of the book is spent on a red herring explanation for why the suffragists are disappearing. Now, red herrings are obviously a major part of mystery literature but the book spends so much time and effort on this red herring that the plot involving the actual culprits suffers as a result. I felt like the authors should have focused and developed their actual antagonists more than this red herring.

So finally, let's get to the antagonists. I'm actually being kind of spoilery here so if you'd like to avoid that skip ahead. Okay, everybody who doesn't want to see this gone? Good. So, the villains of this book are a set of identical twins from India who follow this crazy mash-up of Hinduism and Christianity and believe that women's suffrage is an offense to Kali and Christ so they've been kidnapping prominent suffragists with an electronic teleporter device. And then they want to start a holy war. I think. The reason I say I think is because Books and Braun sort of assume that the two of them want to start a holy war but the villains don't really explain why they're doing what they're doing beyond, ''God wills it.'' Now why is this villain problematic? Well it directly violates rules 5 and 10 of Father Knox's guidelines which is either a reference so obscure to be brilliant or just dumb, and unfortunately I think it falls into the latter category.

For those of you unfamiliar with the rules, #5 states that ''No Chinaman must figure in the story'' which was a critique at the time of mystery novels always having some scary and mysterious oriental villain as the bad guy. By making the villains be a pair of extremely religious Indian women, I feel like it very much falls into having the bad guy be a scary foreigner who does things because they're foreign rather than because of any real motivation. Rule #10 states ''Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.'' Now in the strictest definition of fairness, the writers did foreshadow the utility of twins earlier in the book, but it disappeared again so quickly and came back with absolutely no explanation or warning or even a suggestion that you should expect it that it feels like a clear violation of the rule.

It may be unfair for me to judge this book by a somewhat arbitrary set of rules for ''Fair Play'' murder mysteries, but I feel like there's an important point to be made. In this case, we spend so much time with no real information or guidance on who exactly the culprits are and, as I said, spend so much time on a red herring, that it feels like downright shoddy writing when the real villains are revealed. If this book was more of a satire of Victorian literature, specifically crime literature, then I might be willing to consider it an elaborate reference but I find that probability rather doubtful in all honesty.

Overall this book was a disappointment. The plot is tangled, confused, misdirected, and then so out of nowhere that it becomes just one big confusing mess. We still have no idea what the plans of the Maestro, the big bad for the series, is plotting beyond some general evilness which is frustrating. Things that should be shown or explained simply aren't, which makes the book feel much more incomplete.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jefferson and Hamilton, by John Ferling

Today I'm looking at a history book about two major figures in the early history of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Both individuals came from very different backgrounds and had very different visions for what the American republic would look like and their legacies are mixed. Hamilton helped craft the fiscal organs that allowed the United States to become the economic superpower of the world, although with wealth and power being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Jefferson was an outspoken proponent of egalitarianism and an agrarian lifestyle where all men could be free and independent, which becomes much more ironic considering Jefferson's membership in the wealthy and powerful planter class of Virginia and reliance on slave labor to maintain his lifestyle. Neither man was perfect, despite hagiographic attempts by many, but their continued influence on the United States is remarkable.

What I found most interesting about this book was Ferling's decision to focus less on Jefferson and Hamilton's debate over the power of the central government, which is what I'm far more familiar with in the classes I've taken. The crises of the American Revolution and the inability of Congress to pay or equip its army taught Hamilton the necessity of a strong central government with the ability to fund and raise armies, as well as financial institutions and other networks to create a rich and strong United States. Jefferson, by contrast, supported a far more limited view of centralized government and, with James Madison, began putting forth ideas which would lead to the doctrine of state nullification and eventually the crisis of the American Civil War. I generally fall on the side of Alexander Hamilton in this argument, and I freely admit that it's largely because I have the benefit of hindsight and knowing where the doctrine of limited government ultimately leads.

But this did lead to some confusion on my part in the very beginning of the book when Ferling explained the devotion of Republicans to Hamilton and Democrats to Jefferson, even in modern times. Especially after the great shift in politics around the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, Democrats have increasingly become proponents of the strength of the federal government and its ability to improve life for Americans, while Republicans have increasingly become proponents of limited government. Ferling manages to make a much more cohesive argument by focusing less on Hamilton and Jefferson's respective policies on central government and more on individual freedom.

There is a certain amount of irony in the positions that both Hamilton and Jefferson ended up taking on personal liberty in their lifetimes. Hamilton was born out of wedlock and poor in the Caribbean islands. He worked for a few years at a merchant firm but his intellectual curiosity convinced a number of prominent citizens on the island to sponsor his education at university on the mainland. Hamilton spent many years working as Washington's aide-de-campe, entered legal practice, and managed to join the elites of American society. Over his lifetime, however, Ferling shows how Hamilton became increasingly reactionary and distrustful of common people and democracy. Hamilton was definitely behind the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which effectively gutted the First Amendment. So Hamilton, who benefitted greatly from upward social mobility, wanted to prevent that same upward mobility for other people.

Jefferson, by contrast, was a son of privilege and was from the very aristocratic classes which Hamilton aspired to join. But Jefferson, at least as Ferling argues, was a very strong proponent of democracy and liberty. Ferling exhibits how through his entire career Jefferson was extremely interested in land reform and creating a society of independent yeoman farmers. Over the years Jefferson embraced the democratic spirit and reveled in the abandoning of pomp and ritual in American society and the creation of a more egalitarian society. It certainly seems odd that Jefferson,  a member of the aristocracy himself, would welcome the breaking of aristocratic power and the increased democratization of the United States.

Looking at Hamilton and Jefferson through these lenses, the respective parties adoration for these figures makes much more sense. The Republicans, not entirely unfairly, have been seen as allied with the wealthier segments of the American population while the Democrats are more strongly allied with the poorer segments of the population. If we view Hamilton and Jefferson on a rich vs. poor scale than a strong authority vs. weak authority then the allegiances of modern political parties to their ''founding fathers'' makes a lot more sense.

My biggest concern with this book is that Ferling feels a little too hagiographic of Jefferson, although that may be some of my deep-seated distrust of Jefferson because of where the weak central authority argument leads. (As well as my preference for an industrialized economy over an agrarian. I am an urban dweller.) Ferling himself says in the beginning that he didn't care terribly much for Alexander Hamilton when he started on this project and came to respect him more as he did research. But that does make me concerned because Ferling seems much more forgiving of Jefferson's faults than he is of Hamilton's. Ferling does seem to dance around Jefferson and his position on slavery, which is definitely one of his greater foibles.

Despite my reservations I think this is a pretty good biography of both Jefferson and Hamilton. The book ends rather abruptly in 1804 when Hamilton is killed by Burr in their famous duel, and the last twenty-two years of Jefferson's life are briefly glossed over, so I think it's a little inadequate as a biography for both men. However, it's definitely a good look at political and economic thought in the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. But if you want more detailed information on both men, I'd recommend reading additional biographies.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Great Dissent, by Thomas Healy

Today I'm looking at something a little different, a history of a legal opinion and the development of free speech in the United States. Although considering I listened to a book just about the Magna Carta which, albeit briefly, talked about its influence on English and American legal tradition I suppose this shouldn't come as much surprise. My curiosity was piqued as I was looking through books at the library because I knew nothing about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and had only a vague understanding of the development of free speech in the United States. I was aware of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which forbade scurrilous or critical comments of the government, which went against both the spirit and intent of the First Amendment. Unsurprisingly Thomas Jefferson, opponent to Hamilton and the High Federalists who pushed through those acts allowed them to lapse without renewal. But I didn't know there hadn't really been any other important litigation on the First Amendment for much of the nineteenth century and it wasn't until free speech was once again abridged that the issue came before the Supreme Court. And it was only through intervention by his friends that Justice Holmes, initially not a supporter of what we would consider to be free speech, became one of its most ardent supporters.

As most of you probably know, the United States entered World War I in 1917. As part of the war effort, Congress passed a number of laws including the Espionage and Sedition Acts in the name of national security. In addition to making stiff penalties for spying against the United States, these acts also made it illegal to hamper the draft or military recruitment, incite mutiny within the U.S. armed forces, or criticize the government and its policies (among a laundry list of other offenses). In addition to being a clear abridgement of free speech, prohibiting legitimate criticism of the government, the act was so broad that it could easily have been used to persecute almost anyone for disloyalty. However since the majority of people prosecuted under these acts were foreigners or socialists, quite a few people supported the acts and said complete and unrestricted speech was a dangerous thing.

Healy also explains that there were different and competing definitions of free speech at the time, which influenced how people, including Holmes himself, understood the First Amendment. The first, and far more narrow understanding was that freedom of speech meant no restrictions could be made on publication or expression. People were perfectly free to express whatever opinions they desired in whatever manner they wanted, and the government could not censor those ideas. However, once people have published, this did not make them immune to legal punishment. If someone said something the government didn't like, they could still face consequences for their actions. The much broader definition of free speech included the idea that the government could not prevent people from publishing opinions, but also could not punish them for expressing those opinions, which is what we understand free speech to mean today. Interestingly this was almost a radical idea in 1919 and it took considerable time for Holmes to come around to this viewpoint, which remained at least in the short term in the minority.

Most of the book focuses on Holmes's gradual shift from a far more limited position on free speech to the more liberal. Friends and peers who exposed him to numerous books, articles, and other sources of information gradually challenged his opinion on free speech and show how even an octogenarian, fairly set in his ways, can be persuaded through persistent argument. Personally I thought this was really interesting because we take freedom to shoot our mouths off about almost anything so for granted nowadays that it hardly merits a second thought. But there were numerous periods in history where atheists, socialists, communists, and other radicals were persecuted for their attempts to spread their ideas. Today's landscape is still fairly messy, but it's much easier for people to put their ideas out for all the world to see.

Of course, this does lead to the problems of free speech, which that it's very nice in principle but ultimately we're going to run into some ideas that we don't like. And the knee-jerk reaction is to try and silence opinions that we don't like. It's much more difficult to listen to differing opinions and debate with them but it also makes our position that much stronger. As Holmes himself elegantly put it, we cannot be entirely certain of anything in life and are really hazarding our best guesses. Freedom of speech allows us to put multiple ideas out there and to test all of them. The ideas that are strongest and have the most merit will stand up over time, while ideas that are silly or poorly grounded will ultimately be rejected through the free exchange of ideas. If we do not challenge anything, we have no way of knowing if it's really as good a guess as we think it is or not. The process is messy and hardly straightforward, but it allows all avenues to be explored.

Overall I thought this was pretty interesting. I never really thought about the First Amendment and how something as basic as freedom of the press and freedom of speech wasn't as taken for granted as it is today. I also found it reassuring that if people are exposed to new ideas or new information, it is possible to change their mind over time, as is the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Although he would never admit it himself, Holmes did change his mind and I think we can say it was for what was ultimately the better.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Blood Rites, by Jim Butcher

Today I'm looking at the next in the Dresden Files series, the book Blood Rites. I did enjoy how this book started, with Dresden desperately trying to save a box of puppies from a burning building. How can you not root for a hero saving a box of puppies? I hate to say it, though, but this book was sort of mediocre for me. It was more enjoyable than some of the stuff I've been listening to because it's more up my alley, but compared to some of the other Dresden books this feels like a bridge between story arcs rather than a fully-fledged story in its own right.

Usual warning, spoilers ahead.

As you may remember, the war between the White Council of Wizards and the Red Vampire Court has been going on for some time, although apparently Dresden's been more concerned with making enough money rather than dodging assassinations by the Red Court. Granted, the fact that a satellite crashed into the villa of the Red Court's most powerful hatchet man probably had something to do with that. But ever since the war started in Grave Peril it's been there in the background and influencing events. In Blood Rites it feels...less so. Dresden actually spends the book dealing with both the White and Black Courts, two of the other vampire organizations. The book gives an explanation that the other vampire courts have been called by the Red Court into the war against the White Council but it feels kind of weird to me. The Black Court at least makes sense because it's a vampire that Dresden has tangled with before and personally wants revenge against Dresden, but the White Court makes less sense. I had gotten the impression that the vampire courts all vied with each other for power as much as they vied with other magical factions and any weakening of the Red Court would be beneficial to the other vampires. Especially since each court has its own distinct flavor of vampire.

The thing I've liked the most about Dresden is he's actually going into situations prepared now rather than going off half-cocked, which feels like some significant character development. Dresden's been practicing hand-to-hand combat with Lieutenant Murphy, working out on running, and developing some new magical tricks to help him out in various situations. It shows that Dresden is actually taking this seriously and trying to craft situations to his advantage rather than relying on sheer dumb luck to save him. So the fact that Dresden is being proactive and making extensive preparations is something I greatly appreciate. Granted, he still has to rely on fortuitous circumstances from time to time, but I feel like he's developed.

Dresden's also gotten better at communicating with Murphy and working with other people rather than trying to tackle everything on his own. He's gotten much better at recognizing when he's gotten in too deep and while he's still not crazy about putting other people in danger, he's at least willing to recognize that he needs help and asks for it. Overall I see this as good development for Harry and making him better as an individual.

I say that this feels like a bridge between arcs because we're introduced to the fact that Thomas Wraith, a White Court vampire who's helped Harry a couple of times in the past, is actually Harry's half-brother and their mother used to run with the White Court. By the end of the book Thomas and Harry have forged a familial bond and it looks like Harry's getting a better and stronger support network. The book also ends with an ominous cliffhanger because Harry not only has the name of a fallen angel burned into his hand, but he also seems to have access to hellfire. I'm interested in seeing how these developments, good and bad, unfold in later stories.

Overall I enjoyed this book. As I said, it feels like it's setting up things for later books and being a bridge between arcs rather than a full story in and of itself. The plots-of-the-week feel oddly manufactured which makes the book feel more clumsy. However, considering some of the other things I've been listening to lately this book seems pretty good by comparison. Which probably says more about my selection of books than anything else.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer

Today I'm looking at a book that deals with far more recent events, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts. This is a book about events within the past decade that have unfolded in the African country of Mali, with some background going as far back as the fourteenth century, but that's fairly limited. The book focuses, at least partially, on Abdel Kader Haidara, a collector and preserver of Malian manuscripts who orchestrated the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts from Timbuktu while the city was occupied by al Qaeda. Amazingly none of the manuscripts which were smuggled out of Timbuktu were lost in transport, although the manuscripts are still in relative danger because of poor storage conditions and are awaiting return to their homes in Timbuktu. But this is a testament to human ingenuity and resistance in the face of adversity.

Some people may have heard the name Timbuktu, if only because it's a funny-sounding foreign place that gets used in tv shows from time to time. The history of Timbuktu is actually far more interesting. Timbuktu grew as a meeting place and crossroads for the trans-Saharan caravan trades. Salt, gold, silver, ivory, slaves, spices, and other products were shipped across Africa by camel and passed through the growing mercantile center of Timbuktu. As the city grew and became prosperous, lavish amounts of money were spent on education and intellectual development, especially after the arrival of Islam. The University of Sankore (a wonder in the game Civilization IV) was founded by Emperor Musa I of Mali and numerous manuscripts were produced there, but it was one of only many educational institutions in Timbuktu. Over time it became a status of wealth and social standing in Timbuktu to own and collect manuscripts creating a permanent intellectual culture. For centuries Timbuktu has cherished its reputation as a center of Islamic scholarship on subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, religion, music, poetry, and law.

This isn't to say that things have always worked out well for Timbuktu. Invasions by groups such as the Moroccans and French forced Malians to hide their precious manuscripts from destruction or theft. Families would brick up their libraries, bury their manuscripts in desert caves, or otherwise hide their precious intellectual heritage from wanton despoilment by outsiders. With the arrival of the French the European assumption that all African civilizations were illiterate and ''barbarous'' pushed the manuscripts further into hiding. It was only with the end of colonization in the twentieth century that Mali began taking back their intellectual patrimony.

Abdel Haidara was the son of a prominent businessman who collected thousands of manuscripts over his lifetime. When his father died, Haidara was charged with the supervision and maintenance of the family collection, with explicit instruction to keep the collection unified. Haidara was not initially interested in curating the family's manuscripts, but he was recruited by the Ahmed Baba Institute, the government-run manuscript collection, preservation, and restoration center to go out and find manuscripts for the government collection. Haidara ran into great initial resistance from the local population to turning over their prized possessions to a government organization, especially after the blatant thefts by French colonizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Eventually Haidara learned how to persuade Malians to part with their manuscripts and collected thousands for the Ahmed Baba Institute, before taking charge of his family's own collection Haidara was influential in kicking off a renaissance in manuscript collection and preservation in Timbuktu which led to some forty-five manuscript libraries being established in the city.

Unfortunately the chaos and political instability caused by regime change in neighboring Libya spilled over into Mali and led to the invasion of extremist Wahhabis to Timbuktu, affiliated with al Qaeda. The cosmopolitan intellectual culture of Timbuktu was anathema to al Qaeda's reactionary ideology and many in the city knew it was only a matter of time before they came after the city's manuscripts. Secretly Haidara activated an entire network of supports to collect and secure hundreds of thousands of the city's manuscripts and then ship them further south to safer locations. When al Qaeda was forced to leave the city by government forces, they regrettably burned some four thousand manuscripts, but the remainder of the city's three hundred seventy thousand manuscripts had been saved.

I do like the story of people working desperately to save their cultural heritage in the face of adversity and it's reassuring to know that people were able to save this very important part of African and Muslim history. Unfortunately the book doesn't spend all its time focusing on that. I kind of wished for more history about intellectual culture in Timbuktu as well as about the rescue operations of manuscripts in recent years. There's a good portion covered in the book, but it feels rather light for a book-length subject. Hammer spends a lot of time talking about the political and military situation in Mali, which is definitely necessary context, but it feels somewhat excessive. There's also considerable focus placed on al Qaeda's brutal enactment of Sharia law in Timbuktu and the executions, mutilations, and whippings that took place. While these are horrific crimes against humanity and highly distressing, I felt at times it was being thrown in more as voyeuristic torture porn rather than necessary context for the story of the evacuation of the manuscripts.

Ultimately I do like hearing about African cultures that usually aren't talked about in Western history classes, or if they are only very briefly. Unfortunately I do wish the book spent more time talking about that culture and its intellectual tradition than the depravities of al Qaeda, a subject I think most audiences will be familiar with by now.

- Kalpar