Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, by Jeff Gunn

Today I'm looking at a pretty serious book which examines the life of Jim Jones and his infamous organization the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones began as a preacher in the 1950's, promoting Christian Socialism and railing against racial and economic injustice. However Jones has become inextricably linked with the mass suicide of him and some nine hundred followers, including three hundred children, in Guyana. How nine hundred people could be convinced to collectively commit suicide remains a distressing puzzle. The debate over Jim Jones for the past forty years has left many wondering where Jim Jones went bad but Guinn's book leaves us with the impression that there was always something not quite right with Jones, perhaps some form of sociopathy, the result is a very dark story that shows people can do the right thing, but very often for the wrong reasons.

The biggest thing that struck me about this biography was the history of Jim Jones from his early childhood. Guinn amasses a large amount of evidence, including Jones's fascination with Hitler, that Jones was always a little bit off. And keep in mind, this is back during World War II when everyone else is solidly behind the Allied cause, Jones has a strange fascination with Hitler and his followers. Perhaps it's only with the benefit of hindsight that we see the numerous red flags, but it creates a long and concerning pattern of behavior over decades.

Even in his work as a church, there is evidence that Jones was doing it not for the help of other people or for the glory of god, but for the glory of Jim Jones. Jones tackled issues such as poverty and racism, but even in the earliest days it seemed to be for his own benefit rather than the benefit of his culture. For example, Jones would frequently ''poach'' members of different congregations by lobbying on behalf of newcomers, writing letters to local government, the local power board, speaking with local shop owners and convincing them to integrate. Jones manages to do good, but it seems to me that his motivation to do good was because it promoted Jim Jones.

As time this got even worse and perhaps more blatant as Jones moved his congregation from Indiana to California. Cut off from friends and family, Jones extorted even larger sums of money from his followers and had them sign over personal possessions to be sold for the good of the Peoples Temple. True, some of this money went to a variety of programs including college tuition for children who were part of the Peoples Temple, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, traditional Christian charity. But millions of dollars disappeared into personal accounts, some of which the government has never been able to recover.

The result is a book that shows a series of gradual increases until a mass suicide becomes the logical conclusion for Jones and some of his most dedicated followers. Many resisted, some hid, some escaped, but the result was three hundred dead children, killed out of fear that they were about to be kidnapped by the CIA.

Guinn does extensive research and provides exhaustive evidence, but the story is hard to read, to say the least. It's a long story and with the inevitable conclusion it all takes a very dark and sinister turn. I'd only read this book if you were really interested, and I'd suggest interspersing it with something light as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

God, A Human History, by Reza Aslan

A long time ago, but not in a galaxy far far away, I was a college freshman taking comparative theology. Among the books we read was a history of Islam titled No god But God by Reza Aslan. I remembered rather liking the book and when I found another book from the same author, I thought it was worth taking the time to check it out. Rather than dealing solely with Islam, this book looks at the history of religion in a broader context going back into the stone age and ending with the monotheism of Islam. This book is rather short for tackling such a broad subject and I'm left wondering what other resources are available for additional research, but as an introductory book I think Aslan does a pretty good job.

The issue with debating the theology of stone age humans is that the work is mostly conjecture from the fragments of archaeological evidence that we've found. We know that there are cave paintings throughout the world including discs, handprints, and animals. We can make guesses as to the significance of those paintings and what they might have meant to stone age humans,why they made those paintings, and how they understood the world. But ultimately the best we can do is make educated guesses.

As Aslan manages to get to recorded history he moves onto firmer ground, although again because this book is so darn short I feel like there was a lot more subject matter that Aslan could have talked about but he provided such a short overview that it felt incomplete. Aslan also makes arguments that are so broad and vague that it's difficult to contradict them by their own generality. The stuff that I thought was most interesting though, was Aslan's revelation of theological research showing monotheism only developed in Judaism after the Babylonian exile. Aslan states that there is evidence that Judaism actually practiced a polytheistic system with at least two deities, Elohim and YHWH. It was only after the Babylonian exile that Elohim and YHWH were merged into a single deity, the only deity. Needless to say, multiple books can be written about this subject so for Aslan to talk about it in just one chapter feels a little inadequate.

Aslan also throws in a chapter about early Christian schisms, again another book-length subject, before finally getting to Islam. The result is a tantalizing glimpse at deeper theological subjects showing how difficult the concept of monotheism can be for people to accept. I'd actually be interested in a full-length book from Aslan about just that subject but for an introductory book I think Aslan does a pretty good job.

Overall I think this book is worth checking out. Specifically the information that I didn't know about Judaism and Christianity was tantalizing and I'd have appreciated resource to check out more. (There actually may be more in the physical book but as with most of my books at this point I listened to an audiobook.) But if you're interested in the history of theology in a very general sense this book is a good choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 8, 2018

American Pain, by John Temple

Today I'm looking at a book that explores the industry of pill mills that cropped up in recent decades in the United States, with the most flagrant examples being ''pain clinics'' in Florida. The biggest and most profitable of these was American Pain, run by Chris George, a college drop-out, convicted felon with Nazi tattoos. The pain clinics that George operated took in thousands of dollars in cash every day, deposited in garbage cans because regular tills were inadequate for the sheer quantity. Large groups of people from Appalachia would make marathon drives from out of state to purchase supplies of powerful narcotics, and make the trip back in a month. And amazingly the entire thing existed within the realm of legality due to lax laws and weak regulation.

Ordinarily you would not think that a convicted felon in his mid-twenties, whose main experience is house construction, would be able to get involved in anything resembling the medical field. Chris George got his start by selling diet pills and steroids, but a doctor got him started in the field of opioid painkillers. George merely had to rent a location, and provide the start-up money to produce something resembling a walk-in clinic. The doctor would provide their DEA license which enabled George to make purchases of oxycodone and other drugs from wholesalers and the doctor would write the prescriptions. The pain clinic could then fill the purchases in-house under the ''supervision'' of the physician. George wasn't certain that the idea would really take off, but was willing to give it a try. As patients continued coming in, packing the waiting room and stretching the line outside into the tiny parking lot, George realized they were onto something. From there the business grew by leaps and bounds until George's clinic was processing hundreds of patients in a single day, and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each day as well.

Why this happened is because of a multitude of reasons, which created a perfect storm situation that allowed George and his cadre to grow absurdly wealthy on something that was (technically) legal. The first was the increase in the availability of opioids starting in the late 1990s. Prior to that period opioids were largely restricted to patients who most likely weren't going to live long enough for addiction to become an issue. However, starting in the 1990s drug manufacturers began aggressively campaigning for increased sales of opioid painkillers through a variety of methods. This included advertising campaigns with fallacious information about how new opioids were safe and non-addictive if taken ''as prescribed'', dubious or downright illegal efforts by drug representatives to encourage physicians to prescribe opioids, and lobbying of the DEA to increase annual quotas of controlled substances. (Go ahead and put a pin in that last part. We're going to come back to it later.)

In addition, Florida had fairly lax regulations regarding pain clinics and opioid prescriptions. Basically anybody who could fill out a business registration form could start up a pain clinic, regardless of their background. And any doctor, so long as they had a valid DEA license, could order and prescribe opioid painkillers. The doctors did not even have to be pain specialists, they just had to have a valid license. There were various ways that doctors could trip automatic alerts and cause increased scrutiny from the DEA and other police agencies, but generally as long as a doctor didn't prescribe more than 240 30mg doses per patient per 28 day period, they could fly under the radar.

George even went to the effort of making it appear they were a legitimate medical facility. MRI reports were required before treatment, mounds of paperwork including a pain management contract were created, and patients with obvious track marks or forged paperwork were turned away, just to give the organization a veneer of legitimacy. But it was at most a paper shield to cover everyone's ass. People could tell that this was drug-dealing, plain and simple. The fact that patients would start shooting ground-up pills in the parking lot was proof enough of that. Eventually the police did end George's operation and new legislation made setting up a pill mill more difficult, but the fact that they operated for two years in the wide open, with multiple imitators and competitors, shows how dangerously lax the regulatory environment was.

Okay, so to return to the issue of the DEA and quotas, this was my biggest takeaway from the book. Every year the various drug manufacturers submit requests to the DEA for quotas on how much of controlled substances, such as amphetamines, opioids, and other drugs, they can produce in a year. Now, the public doesn't know how much opioids a specific manufacturer is allowed to produce in a year, but the DEA does release its total for the industry as a whole. In the past 25 years, the total quota for opioids has increased dramatically. In the past ten years it's at least doubled. In the past 25, it's increased by a factor of 42. Yes. 42. For every kilogram of opioids produced in 1993, there are 42 being produced today. The question isn't how we ended up with an opioid epidemic in the United States. We're so awash in pills nowadays that the more apt question is how couldn't we?

And yet, there's something the DEA could have done. Back in the 1970s when there was concern that amphetamines were being abused, the DEA drastically cut national quotas for the drugs and severely curtailing supply. When the supply dried up, the market for amphetamines dried up as well. At any point in the past decade when people started expressing concerns about the abuse of prescription painkillers the DEA could have drastically curtailed the quotas and dried up the supply of opioids. Instead, year after year, the DEA has obligingly raised the quotas meaning, year after year, we end up with an even greater supply of opioids. If we were serious about ending the opioid epidemic in the United States we could cut the supply off at the source, and it wouldn't cost us anything we weren't already spending.

I think this book is definitely worth reading. If nothing else it reveals the core problems surrounding our current opioid crisis, an overly plentiful supply of drugs and lax regulations regarding them. I definitely recommend giving this book a read for that, as well as the true crime aspects of the story involving the American Pain clinic.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Changeling, by Victor La Valle

Today I'm looking at a novel by Victor La Valle that is only loosely, loosely defined as fantasy and even then I'm not sure if it counts. This book is mundane for basically three-quarters of its total length and when magic is finally inserted in the last fourth of the book it left me wondering if what they'd encountered actually was magic or if it was a hallucination shared by the characters. That's honestly my biggest frustration with this novel, it's classified as a ''fantasy'' novel, but it's so freaking mundane that I don't think it's worth the effort if you're a big fantasy fan.

I'm actually going to do something that I usually avoid in my reviews and include the blurb from the back of the book for this story. I remember being intrigued by the blurb when I looked at this on the library's website so this was a major reason I bothered with this book in the first place:

''Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.''

Okay, so this plot summary literally, literally, describes the entire book. The major twist, Emma's horrific act, doesn't happen until about halfway into the book. And as I said, we have no evidence that magic is real until the last quarter of the book, and even then the evidence seems pretty scanty. I'm basically left thinking that perhaps this is supposed to be an entirely mundane story and the magic is how the characters understand things. That does leave a large plot hole or leaves us with the conclusion that Apollo and Emma when insane at the end of the book and they just hallucinated the ending. I'm not sure which is more possible.

This book also reminds me of a more ''literary'' novel and I say that because Apollo, the main character, is a rare book dealer and his wife, Emma, is a librarian. Authors by definition are people who enjoy books, that's why they write them. But inevitably whenever somebody wants to write a ''serious'' book it's almost guaranteed that the main character will be a writer or librarian or somebody somehow connected with books. Which would be fine, but I get the impression that Apollo doesn't really care about books. We're told that he's a consistent reader which is how he gets into the used book trade, but after that he seems to just trade in books for the money, rather than for love of books themselves.

I'm also left with multiple questions about this book. There's the character Kinder Garten who is the main antagonist of the book, except we're not given much to understand about him. Why does he go by the alias Kinder Garten? What the hell is his ideology, if any? The character is a consistent liar so we don't know what coming out out of his mouth is true. This gets even more confusing when we get to the end of the book and he's talking with people who use the words ''beta cuck'' and another one mentions white men's natural birth rights. Is he an alt-righter or isn't he? Was La Valle including these just to make the book topical and play well with critical audiences? Who are the Wise Ones? Like how did they come to be, and where and how do people find them? There are just a lot of these questions and I'm left grasping for ideas.

The result is a book that in my opinion isn't all that great. If it was trying to convince me it was a fantasy novel, it did a really bad job and left me thinking there wasn't any fantasy involved at all. This book felt like it was trying really hard to get an award of some sort. If you like the more literary sorts of novels then this book might be enjoyable for you, but this wasn't really my cup of tea.

- Kalpar

Friday, November 2, 2018

America is Going to Kill Refugees

America is going to kill refugees.

I earnestly hope that what I say isn't going to be true. I hope that in two or three months time people can look back and say, ''Well Kalpar was wrong and he worried over nothing.'' And if I get a bunch of people telling me how wrong that statement was, I'll gladly accept the criticism. But right now I am seriously afraid that America is going to kill refugees.

If you don't know, and I can't blame you if you haven't been watching the news, there is currently a caravan of refugees fleeing the crime and violence of Central America. This caravan numbers in the thousands, moving for mutual protection, and is working its way through Mexico towards the U.S. border. In response, the United States government, under the administration of DJT, has sent some 5,000 soldiers to the border and DJT is speaking of plans to send upwards of 15,000 troops to the border. As a fascist and pathological liar, backed by a pack of Quislings, DJT and the Republican Party have boldly claimed that refugee caravan consists of Islamic terrorists, gang members, thugs, with absolutely no evidence. In fact, some right-wing pundits have gone so far as to claim that the refugees will bring diseases to the United States including smallpox, which would be downright amazing considering smallpox was declared eradicated by the WHO in 1980.

On top of all this yesterday there was an off-the-cuff comment, something very easy to miss but which may prove deathly important. DJT made a statement that U.S. troops should consider rocks thrown by refugees to be firearms. What this will actually mean for U.S. troops is still unclear, and it looks like the actual use of firearms is going to be limited. BUT that doesn't mean things can get changed or even confused in the intervening weeks until the caravan actually arrives at the U.S. border. And that doesn't leave out the possibility of a horrible, awful mistake.

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was a Boy Scout earning a variety of merit badges including the rifle-shooting merit badge. As part of this merit badge we were required to hit a certain number of shots within the space of a quarter. The rangemaster would have us all get set up on the range, tell us to load one cartridge into our .22 rifles, and then wait for permission to fire. Inevitably, someone would fire their rifle before being given permission. I can't say how often this happened, but it happened more than once.

Now you're probably saying, ''But Kalpar! That isn't the same situation at all! You've never even been in the military!'' And that's basically my point. It wasn't the same situation as what's going on at the border at all. A Scout rifle range is fairly low-risk, low-stakes, and if the rangemaster is doing their job right, nobody's going to get hurt or killed. Troops on a border is an entirely different situation whatsoever. All it will take is one accidentally discharged firearm for the situation at the border to turn into a massacre.

There are good arguments that this nightmare situation, of U.S. troops firing on unarmed refugees, will not come to pass. The U.S. military is highly trained, they understand the rules of engagement, and there are rules in place to limit deployment of firearms to U.S. troops in situations such as these. A significant number of the troops being sent to the border, after all, are engineers who are setting up razor wire and other obstacles. And hopefully these safeguards will be enough to prevent something awful from happening.

But in an era where so many other safeguards and institutional precautions seem to keep failing. In an era where people are outright calling these refugees criminals and...well, vermin, in an era where concentration camps are being set up for children torn away from their parents, in an era where DJT thinks he can overturn the Constitution through executive order, I'm not so sure. In an ideal situation we assume everything works as it should and also assume the best of people. But I'm truly afraid there is too much of an opportunity for something to fail somewhere.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean

Today I'm looking at another rather concerning book about the history of politics in the United States and how we got into the seemingly interminable mess that we now find ourselves. MacLean dug into archives from multiple universities and discovered what can only be called a conspiracy, spanning decades, and inspired by the ideological work of at least one man, James McGill Buchanan. This book is mostly a biography of Buchanan and his professional life until his break with the Koch brothers, forcing him into retirement. While I think it may be a stretch to say that Buchanan alone was responsible for the development of the radical right, I think it's fair to say that he was one of multiple influential figures who helped to shape the ideology of the modern right.

MacLean traces the origins of the modern right wing back to a key event in American history,  Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. Many southerners resisted this decision, and the fight for integration continued for many years, and is in many ways still ongoing. However, the overt resistance in places such as Arkansas and Mississippi were not as appealing to border regions such as Virginia. The wealthy, elite ruling classes of Virginia maintained control through systems such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and extreme gerrymandering to ensure their continued dominance of their respective states, without any challenge from ordinary people. Effectively, an oligarchy in all but name. The federal decision to force integration of public schools under the Fourteenth Amendment promised additional federal changes to existing power structures within the states, breaking the chokehold of the oligarchs. The oligarchs needed a method to resist, without bringing overt attention to their objectives Buchanan managed to provide a solution. Privatize the schools. If there are no public schools, then there can be no discrimination. Private schools can refuse blacks admittance, and the burden of taxes for public education can be removed in favor of people who desire education actually paying for it. And in fact, that's what Virginia did in Prince Edward County for five years, despite massive local protest. The state government overruled local school boards and closed all the public schools, leaving black children without education for five vital years.

Buchanan and many of his compatriots were committed to an ideology that sought to return the United States back to an era of absolute economic freedom, resembling the Gilded Age more than anything else. No minimum wage, no right to organize, and no government regulation. Buchanan and his allies in fact want to go even further, disdaining corporate welfare systems such as health insurance and pension plans provided through employers. If people want health insurance or retirement money, they'll have to do it themselves. The government should exist only to protect private property and to repress the masses.

Yes, that's actually an important aspect of their entire ideology, repressing the masses. See, here's the biggest paradox that Buchanan and his ilk discovered when trying to promote their ideology. It's actually unpopular among the majority of people. For the most part, people like having clean air and water, good schools for children, old age insurance, and a number of other government programs that have to be supported by taxes. As libertarians discovered in the 1950's and 1960's, coming out directly and stating a desire to return to Gilded Age laissez faire did not go over well with really any focus group at all. The solution for Buchanan and their wealthy supporters was to impose their system of economic ''freedom'' on the majority through a combination of voter suppression and outright deceit, gradually dismantling the U.S. support net and regulatory systems until the network is completely destroyed.

This is perhaps the most galling and aggravating thing about libertarian intellectuals is their absolute and total lack of any morality or concern for political freedoms, which becomes apparent in much of their writing. MacLean includes an example of one member of Buchanan's cadre who stated that if their program was successful, many Americans would have to live in slums like the favela in Rio de Janeiro, casually stating that the air and water might not be what Americans are used to, but they'd have to adapt. It's social Darwinism pure and simple, the poor are poor because of some sort of inherent failing or weakness. If they're willing to work hard, tighten their belts, and raise themselves by their bootstraps, they can get ahead through rough individualism. If they're not willing to put in the work, then nobody else should have to carry them. This cruel callousness fits perfectly with their nineteenth century ideology. So long as they're fine, the rest of the world can go straight to hell for all they care.

The picture that emerges is highly disturbing. A small cadre of the ultra-rich and their lackeys, working to simultaneously undermine support for social welfare and regulatory programs while disenfranchising the very masses that they seek to exploit. The rise of the radical right, funded by ultra-wealthy backers, has thrown the future of American democracy in doubt. We are in the midst of a class war, started by the upper classes, and they are in the process of winning because they have convinced a significant percentage of the lower classes that the class war is in their own best interest. It is only through organization and education that we'll be able to fight back against the upper classes and ensure the future of social democracy.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

Today I'm looking at a collection of short stories written by Nalo Hopkinson. This is another one of those books that I picked up from one of the perpetual sales that Goodreads manages to throw my way, and I'm very, very glad that I did. If you haven't heard of Hopkinson yet, I highly recommend checking her writing out. This book in particular reminded my a lot of Neil Gaiman's writing, especially his short story anthologies like Trigger Warning or Smoke and Mirrors. I'm really glad that I picked up this book and I think everyone else should check it out too.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how Hopkinson incorporated her own cultural heritage into her stories. Hopkinson was born in Jamaica with her parents having roots in Trinidad and Guyana, and later emigrated to Canada. Hopkinson incorporates both Caribbean and Canadian elements into a lot of her stories which gives it a very unique flavor. I always really appreciate it when authors incorporate their own unique locations or cultural heritages in their works rather than seeing yet another story set in New York.

Another thing that I really liked about this book was how Hopkinson took a lot of old fairy tales and retold them in a different way. This is definitely a trick that Gaiman has pulled a number of times with great success. Hopkinson, by her own admission, includes a lot of adult themes (aka sex and violence) in her stories, something that I've noticed Gaiman does a lot in his stories as well. The results are stories that make you sit and really think about the results and can really punch you in the gut. It's really good writing that shows Hopkinson really has talent.

Otherwise, this is an anthology of short stories so there's not a whole lot I can say beyond ''these stories are good, go check them out''. It turns out that I managed to pick up another of Hopkinson's books with another Goodreads deal so I'm looking forward to seeing how a full-length book compares to her short stories. This is definitely worth taking the time to read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

Today I'm looking at a pair of graphic novels created by Art Spiegelman collectively known as Maus. Maus follows the life of Art's father, Vladek Spiegelman, through the 1930's and then through World War II. Vladek and his wife, Anja, were Polish Jews who lived in the city of Sosnowiec. Vladek worked as a salesman and eventually invested in a factory while Anja's family owned multiple textile mills in the city. Life for them in the thirties was fairly good but, as can be expected, when war broke out in 1939 things took considerable turns for the worst. The story is divided into two volumes, volume one My Father Bleeds History, talks about Vladek's life from the 1930's until early 1944 when he was sent to Auschwitz. The second volume,  And Here My Troubles Began, tells Vladek's story of survival in Auschwitz, Dachau, and the last few tense months of World War II before being rescued by American G.I.'s.

Framing Vladek's story of survival is Art's own struggles to interview his father, create this book, and understand his relationship with his father. Based on the evidence, Vladek was a very difficult man to live with, ranging from obsessively hoarding money and valuables, to keeping items that most other people would throw away in case they might come in useful, to strained emotional relationships with his wife and his son. Vladek comes across as a flawed and incredibly human person, and while it's clear that life hiding from the Nazis and living in the concentration camps affected him severely, it may have only exacerbated underlying aspects of Vladek's personality. It makes Vladek appear all the more three-dimensional as a character and as a person. Vladek isn't all good, but he isn't all bad either. Like most people he's a mix, but he took action and managed to survive the worst genocide in human history. It makes him very compelling and realistic.

The subject matter is, of course, hard to talk about. This is the worst abuse of human rights, the worst genocide, the worst of man's inhumanity to man, the worst of uncountable crimes in all of human history. There's a reason it's referred to as only The Holocaust. Any other description becomes inadequate in consideration of the cruelty involved. So many people might justly ask, is talking about the Holocaust in cartoon format, where all the characters are depicted as anthropomorphic animals, really the proper way to talk about this? And incredibly, yes, Spiegelman manages to create a depiction that is not only sensitive but emotionally engaging.

The decision to depict Jews as mice is an incredibly brilliant one on multiple levels. First, there is the history of Jews being described or depicted as vermin in Nazi propaganda, pests that needed to be wiped out for the health of the Reich. Spiegelman effectively reclaims that imagery and turns it on its head. Mice, after all, are survivors. Mice hide, mice scavenge, and despite being hunted ruthlessly, mice are still around. For the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who hid, who scavenged, and who managed to survive, a determined mouse is an apt symbol.

I have not read many Holocaust survivor stories. I'm familiar with the narrative in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaining, another Auschwitz survivor, so there are many similarities in there, but any story by a Holocaust survivor is going to be very emotionally heavy. Maus is no exception, because it not only tells the story of the Holocaust, but also explores the life of the survivor afterwards and shows how years of life spent hiding and suffering can have lasting effects on individuals. We see Vladek surviving not just in the past, but in the future, and it shows we can never really leave the past behind.

I think I would definitely recommend this story to people. It's a very hard read just because of the emotions involved and I find myself thinking maybe I shouldn't have plowed through the books in a couple of days. But it's a very emotional and very real story and well worth taking the time to check out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Head On, by John Scalzi

Today I'm looking at a book recommended to me by Angela of the Doubleclicks, Head On, by John Scalzi. This book is a sort of sequel to another of Scalzi's novel, Lock In, however this book is a stand-alone novel so you, much like myself, can read Head On without having read Lock In. The book is set sometime in the near future after a disease known as Haden's has affected approximately 1% of the world population. People affected with Haden's Disease are literally locked inside their own bodies, unable to move and dependent on intensive care for the rest of their life. The only way people with Haden's can interact with the world are through the online community called the Agora or through personal robots transports colloquially known as threeps.

Head On begins with the death of a player in a Hilketa match. Hilketa is a new sport that has developed using the technological improvements created in the wake of the Haden's epidemic. Hilketa is a team sport utilizing threeps who engage in gladiatorial combat, a level of violence that other sports can only dream of. And despite the violence between the threeps, the Haden athletes remain safe in their creches, watched over by their caretakers. At least, until Doug Chapman dies very publicly during a pre-season game. The suspicious suicide of a league commissioner gives FBI agents Leslie Vann and Chris Shane a murder investigation with major implications.

Like most Scalzi novels this book is a really quick read because Scalzi keeps the action running nonstop and his writing is incredibly tight. I think this is Scalzi's greatest strength because it makes his books really easy to read. This is especially true for a murder mystery because it makes time all that much more of the essence. As the bodycount continues to rise, Shane and Vann are in a race against a deeper conspiracy and there's a very good chance that they're the next targets.

I also liked the level of realism that comes with Scalzi's depiction of the future. Like a lot of good sci-fi writers he takes things that already exist and moves the into the realm of possibility. Although I'm not quite up on where robotics are currently (because bipedal motion is actually hard to replicate), usage of drones is becoming far more common. I think it would have been a little more realistic for Scalzi to include a scene where someone loses contact with their threep due to bad wifi, but having it happen a realistic amount of times would get annoying pretty quickly so I can forgive Scalzi just sidestepping that problem.

Another plotline that I thought was interesting was the government's repeal of subsidies and tax credits for Hadens which will make many of them unable to afford a personal threep. This certainly has some real-world parallels with increasing health costs and the issues many people with disabilities face. Scalzi could almost create an entire book talking about this subject alone, although I think that could be either part of Lock In, or perhaps in another novel Scalzi does in this universe. But I think to go too much into it would have taken away from the murder investigation.

Overall, I think this book is a really good choice to read. As usual, Scalzi's writing is tight and accessible, fun to read, and just a good sci-fi novel. I should probably read more of Scalzi in the future because I enjoy his writing so much. But this is definitely a sci-fi murder mystery worth reading.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 18, 2018

White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

Today I'm looking at the book White Trash, a book that talks about the history of class in the United States, specifically poor whites living in the American south from the early colonial era into the modern day. Throughout the centuries this underclass has has been called a number of things: waste people, clay eaters, crackers, white trash, hillbillies, and rednecks. This underclass has been consistently stereotyped as poor, lazy, sexually licentious, uneducated, and morally suspect. Isenberg illustrates that these stereotypes about poor whites, which have been extended to poor blacks as well, have been persistent through the centuries and Isenberg draws on multiple sources to make her point. Obviously covering four centuries makes this book more a broad overview than a detailed investigation but I think Isenberg does a very good job of making her points through the book.

When the United States was first colonized by England the major source of colonists, especially in regions such as Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, were what were considered ''waste peoples''. England had a not insignificant population of unemployed people who, due to the harsh poor and anti-vagrancy laws of the time period, were often in and out of prisons or forced to wander from location to location. In times of war this expendable underclass were pressed into service to fight in Britain's military and in time of peace they were expected to either find work or die through starvation or on the gallows. For colonies thousands of miles across the Atlantic and with high death tolls, an expendable population made ideal candidates to be dumped in the colonies. If they died, then they wouldn't be a burden on the home country. If they managed to learn how to work and thrive, perhaps they could become of economic benefit to the mother country. This stereotype of the poor as inherently lazy and needing to be forced to work is one of the most consistent and has perpetuated to the modern era.

As the South developed into a slave economy, the underclass of poor whites developed an important racial component, which has remained an important aspect of American class and racial relations into the modern era. African-Americans and other racial minorities have been the subject of systemic racial discrimination perpetuated by white elites. The real genius of this system is that so long as the poor whites have blacks to look down upon, they willingly perpetuate the system. Poor whites are often no better off than the poor blacks, but as long as there is the feeling of superiority to someone else, they are willing to participate in the system. This is best illustrated in the rebellion of 1861 in which poor whites were overwhelmingly conscripted into insurgent forces while the rich planter class, who began the rebellion, were exempted from military service including the exemption of all individuals owning more than twenty slaves. Poor whites were the muscle that perpetuated the slavery system.

The latest trend relating to poor whites is the almost voyeuristic pleasure that American culture has taken in looking at the lives of poor, mostly Southern, whites. Isenberg specifically mentions figures like Sarah Palin and Honey Boo Boo, although the growth of popularity in the blue collar comedy group including Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy is definitely in the same vein. The growth of the Tea Party and its ideology, although not mentioned by Isenberg, definitely feels like a continuation of the same ideas. Poor whites are manipulated by white elites into attacking (usually) racial others and acting against their own interests for the benefit of white elites. Based on Isenberg's evidence it appears that the issues we are dealing with today is only a continuation of a centuries-long tradition.

Overall I thought this book was pretty interesting if brief and fairly shallow in its investigation of race and class relations in the United States. However Isenberg makes a consistent argument that poor whites have consistently been seen as an expendable, degenerate breed for four hundred years, useful to white elites when fighting or helping oppress other groups, but largely exploited or ignored by elites when no longer useful. I think this is a book well worth reading to gain insight into both class and race relations in the United States that has shaped political debates to this day.

- Kalpar

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm finally finishing with the Temeraire series with the ninth book, League of Dragons. As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, Blood of Serpents, I had started having concerns about this series because I knew we were close to the end and it seemed like there wasn't quite enough space to finish the series. I hate to say it but I feel like this kind of happened with this book as well. It seemed like Novik had a lot of really neat ideas that could have been developed further but there just wasn't enough time in the series to talk about those ideas. I'm left wondering if maybe Novik had gotten tired with the series and was just looking to end it with everything (mostly) wrapped up. The result is a book that feels alternately fast paced and meandering and with me wishing for more.

The book begins where we left off, with Laurence and Temeraire in Russsia after Napoleon's disastrous 1812 campaign. But after we spend some time in Russia, Temeraire and Laurence discover that Temeraire and Iskierka's egg is in danger of being stolen by French agents with the aim of binding the dragon within to Napoleon's son and jeopardizing the already tenuous alliance between Britain and China. Temeraire rushes off towards China, only to get halfway across Russia and be told that the French have already stolen the egg and he now has to rush back towards Europe to try and catch them in the Alps.

Temeraire and Iskierka rush towards France to get their egg back, only to be captured by the French. They then have to plot how to escape with Laurence, and Granby, and the egg. After spending a good chunk of time captured and plotting their escape, they then flee back to England and get involved in planning the counter-attack against Napoleon in the 1813 campaign. As the Peninsular campaign pushes towards the Pyrenees, Laurence finally is awarded the rank of Admiral and is sent with a British detachment of dragons to fight with the Coalition forces including Prussians and Russians and eventually the Chinese as well. Towards the end of the book the Coalition manages not only to crush Napoleon's army, but capture Napoleon himself. Napoleon is allowed to abdicate in favor of his son, and goes into exile on St. Helena.

This is kind of what I mean by the book being alternately fast-paced and meandering. When we're spending time with our main characters being kept prisoner or sitting in camp waiting for Napoleon's forces to come into Prussia, we seem to spend a lot of time sitting around talking about the rights that dragons are interested in getting, and dealing with issues like feeding hundreds of dragons. But then really important things happen (sometimes off-screen) really quickly and we spend some time afterwards catching up on events.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the idea of a concord, initially proposed by Napoleon. The concord is a collection of ideas and rights for dragons, putting them on an equal footing with humans. This initially gets quite a large amount of support from feral dragons, which prompts Temeraire and other English dragons to start working on their own concord. This eventually gets introduced as the Dragon Rights Act by Perscitia, who's the first dragon member of Parliament. This actually was a development I thought was interesting and would have been interested in seeing more of, especially after it's passed and Temeraire starts thinking about pursuing a career in politics. That's just something I would have liked to see more of and might have been more interesting than sitting around dealing with supply problems while on campaign in Germany.

Ultimately I'm a little disappointed with the results of the series. There was a lot of potential in this series and there were a lot of interesting ideas, but I'm left wishing for a little bit more in the end. I think this series has some good parts and there are some enjoyable parts, especially the characters. But I feel like there could have been some more development, especially towards the end of the series. They're enjoyable reads, but as I've said before this series is mostly literary candy.

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Darth Plagueis, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at another Star Wars book because apparently I'm a glutton for punishment. Of course this book is part of the Legends canon so it doesn't count as canon anymore within the new Disney canon. (Yes, Star Wars is confusing.) I think this was one of the last books written before the Disney takeover, though, so it kind of shows how complicated the canon had gotten. If you've had the misfortune to sit through Revenge of the Sith you probably remember Palpatine's speech about the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wiiiiiiiise. After the movie a lot of fan theories floated around about who exactly Darth Plagueis was with the favorite being that Darth Plagueis was Palpatine's own former teacher. This book confirmed that theory and expanded on both Plagueis and Palpatine. But I feel that this book in an attempt to answer questions just ends up raising more questions.

This book establishes that Darth Plagueis is a Muun. Now if you don't remember what the heck a Muun is, I certainly don't blame you. Basically they were these tall aliens and they were behind the Intergalactic Banking Clan, the major economic power in the galaxy. Darth Plagueis, like so many Muuns, is a major financial broker in his own right. Now on one level this makes a lot of sense because someone with massive financial power would be able to set the conflict of the Clone Wars into motion, both through political manipulation as well as underwriting the manufacture of armaments for each respective faction. In a way this makes a lot of sense. But the trouble with this book is that it just creates a disconnect between Darth Plagueis the manipulator and Darth Plagueis the immortality-obsessed maniac. Of the two, the chasing immortality plotline seems to have been almost forgotten at times, like Luceno was like, ''Oh right, the immortality and the midichlorians. Right. Got to include that.'' Plagueis's ultimate goal is to rule the galaxy for forever, but based on where the book spent its focus it felt like Plagueis's main goal was galactic domination and immortality was just a sweet bonus.

This book also focuses a lot on midichlorians (when Plagueis is actually working on the immortality project) and then all the financial and political debates that were in the prequels. Now I think it's pretty safe to say that there were a lot of people who didn't like the tedious political debates that were in the prequels, so having a whole book with a lot of those debates is probably not going to be appealing to the average Star Wars fan. Not to say that political intrigue and Star Wars couldn't potentially be an interesting story like Song of Ice and Fire, but in this case it's a more of the prequel variety which isn't that great.

The canon problems also start getting confusing. This book includes a reference to the Heir to the Empire with Jorus C'baoth making a cameo and I'm pretty sure that there's an inclusion of a plotline about Darth Maul taking out leaders of the Black Sun criminal organization.And I'm pretty sure I read a comic with that exact same plot back when I was a teenager. (It's called Star Wars: Darth Maul published by Dark Horse, if anyone's interested) And those are the only two references I was able to catch, I'm sure there were more that I missed as well. But this just made me think of the of the fact that Jorus C'baoth was cloned and his clone suffered from clone madness, all of which got forgotten with the new Clone Wars. So now I'm mixing canons that contradict each other in my head.

I feel like this book tries to answer some other questions such as ''What the heck were all those giant bottomless shafts in Naboo that the lightsaber fight was in? And for that matter why is the Trade Federation blockading Naboo? What space supplies could this lush, verdant planet need that would cause them to surrender?'' Well this book actually answers those questions that we had. It turns out that Naboo's entire economy is based around mining plasma and then the Trade Federation has a contract to ship it off world. So the blockade by the Federation is over a disagreement involving shipping rates and it brings Naboo's economy to a standstill because their economy is based on a single export. And those bottomless shafts are just plasma mines.

...except that plasma is an ionized gas either found in either the upper atmosphere or more commonly what stars are made out of. So...you...shouldn't be mining it from a planet's core. I...it just doesn't make sense. I'm sorry, I know I'm making a big deal about this but it bugs me on some level. And this is just the biggest thing that bothers me, there are a lot of other questions that I'm left asking about this book. It just raises more questions.

Overall I think this book is worth skipping. While it explains more of how the Clone Wars were set up, it does it in such a dry manner that I don't think most fans are going to want to read this entire book just for that.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dear Dana Loesch and the NRA, What the Fuck is Wrong With You?

I am writing an extra thing today that is out of my usual purview of talking about books. As most of my readers are probably aware, I like trains. Really, really like trains. To the point that people joke the I Like Trains Kid is based off of me. I can safely say that the origin of this obsession began with Thomas the Tank Engine, whose stories I first encountered through Shining Time Station on PBS in the early 1990s. Thomas and his friends have long since grown beyond the original stories of the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, but continue to bring joy to millions of children (and children at heart) throughout the world. As you can imagine I have very, very strong positive emotions tied to Thomas and Friends.

So I found out today that Dana Loesch and the NRA got their panties in a bunch over new characters for Thomas and Friends and felt the appropriate response was to create an image of Thomas, James, and Percy wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. And I'm going to be entirely honest, I have completely lost my shit. I am incandescent with rage. And as an...attempt at catharsis I'm writing this. I don't know if it'll help.

Dear Dana Loesch and the NRA,

What the fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with you? Granted, this is a question I ask every time, Ms. Loesch, you get up there after a school shooting and tell us with a straight face that we actually need more guns to make us "safe". That I at least understand because that's the entire NRA's agenda and you're paid to say that. But getting offended over increased diversity in a children's tv show? That has absolutely nothing to do with guns or the Second Amendment, why are you even talking about this? What the fuck is wrong with you?

If you were a cynical person you could say that Mattel's decision to include more characters is an opportunistic move to sell more toys. You could also say that it's an opportunistic decision to expand the popularity of Thomas and Friends among a more global audience by including characters from across the globe, as well as introducing female characters to appeal to the half of the audience that is female in a series that has been historically light on female characters. (I don't think Annie, Clarabell, and Henrietta really count as characters per se as they have less agency than the engines do.) But you know what? It can be a cynical, opportunistic cash grab and a good thing.

Because you know what? Yes, the series has been short on girl characters. The original series only had Mavis and Daisy, both of whom were diesels and had a bit of an attitude until they had an inevitable incident with trucks and an incident with a cow respectively. I'm pretty sure Emily was the first female steam engine introduced to the series and even then she was the only female character for a long, long time. And sure, maybe I find the decision to include engines from different countries with special paint schemes a little questionable because most steam engines were painted black because of all the soot but kids like bright colors so let's make all the engines bright colors. Whatever, it's for kids. 

And I was emotionally invested in Thomas. If I'm being entirely honest, I find the new CGI weird and well into the uncanny valley and I really miss the old model trains even though they were probably expensive and a lot of work. And I hate seeing some of my favorite characters like Donald & Douglas getting shunted aside for new kids on the block, but fine. Whatever. I'm a little sad, but they're not making the show for me, they're making it for the little kids of today. 

But for whatever reason, you weren't satisfied. You had to go and get your panties all up in a bunch about the fact that Thomas and Friends is promoting things like clean water, gender equality, and quality education for everyone and doing it with a cast of diverse characters. What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you just hate clean water? Do you hate children? Do you hate fun? Why are you so angry about this? It's a children's show about trains who perpetually learn that it's better to work together and be kind to each other. How can you object to any of this? What the fuck is wrong with you?

What bugs me the most is this isn't even about guns. Like, far be it from me to tell people to stick within their wheelhouse but this is totally not in your wheelhouse. It's like you specifically hunted down something to be offended about, and it was something that is almost inherently inoffensive. Which is rich irony coming from people who are always complaining about "snowflake liberals" who are constantly being "triggered" by things they find offensive.  At least when we're offended it's because of the overt racism, sexism, and bigotry that seems to constantly spew from your mouths. When you're offended it's because we said clean water was a good idea. What the fuck is wrong with you?

How does a person become so filled with hate that they see something good and kind in this world and immediately say, ''I want to smash that!"? How does everything in the world become a personal attack on you and your beliefs? Are you exhausted from constantly being under siege?  Because I can't see how any person with intelligence, with compassion, with even a shred of empathy would do what you decided to do. I guess ultimately what I'm asking is: What the fuck is wrong with you?

- Kalpar 

Sister Queens, by Julia Fox

If you live in the United States you might vaguely remember Ferdinand and Isabella as the monarchs who hired Christopher Columbus before he ''discovered'' the New World. However Ferdinand and Isabella had a much greater influence on European politics beyond sending an Italian who didn't know what the heck he was doing to murder some natives. Ferdinand and Isabella completed the centuries-long project of the reconquista and united the states of Castile and Aragon into modern Spain. And the marriages of their children would affect dynastic politics for generations to come. This book focuses on two of their children, Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, often known as Juana the Mad.

Katherine of Aragon was familiar to me because she was the first of Henry VIII of England's six wives. Katherine's depiction varies from source to source, especially depending on the religion of the writer, but she has understandably received considerable coverage in English history and literature. So a lot of the material in this book was a refresher for me. I think Fox did a very good job of portraying Katherine as a whole and complex person rather than a cardboard cut-out.

The biggest thing I learned from this book was about Katherine's older sister, Juana of Castile. Juana was the third of Ferdinand and Isabella's children and was never expected to inherit. However once their brother Juan and older sister Isabella died, Juana was left to inherit the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon after already being married to Philip, Archduke of Burgundy, of the influential Hapsburg family. When Isabella died before Ferdinand in 1504, this meant that potentially whoever could control Juana very likely would control Castile as well. This launched a fight between Ferdinand, Philip, and on Philip's death in 1506, his son Charles who would become Emperor Charles V. Eventually Ferdinand and Charles would both imprison Juana under claims of her insanity and Juana would spend the majority of her life imprisoned.

The story that is mostly used to justify the claims of Juana's insanity was a story relating to her husband's body, which Fox manages to explain really well within the context of dynastic and religious politics of the sixteenth century. Juana sought to have her husband buried in the Alhambra located in Granada, the final conquest of her parents in 1492, and importantly where Isabella herself had been buried. By burying her husband with her mother, the former Queen of Castile, Juana sought to cement her position as queen in her own right. However both her father Ferdinand and later her son Charles were able to turn the royal progress of her husband's body into the actions of a madwoman to legitimize  their own usurpation of her power.

The ultimate irony of course is that despite being held prisoner for most of her life, Juana eventually influenced all of Europe through her children. The Hapsburgs married into the royal families of Europe and the Austrian branch of the family would rule as Holy Roman Emperors and later Emperors of Austria-Hungary until 1918. And Fox argues that since Juana's actions always seemed to be for the good of her dynasty, she would perhaps be satisfied with the final outcome.

Overall I thought this book was a really good reexamination of at least Juana, who I really only knew the one story about her alleged craziness that's been perpetuated for centuries. Katherine it feels very familiar but on a much deeper level than some of the more general Tudor histories that I've read or listened to. I did appreciate Fox going into the details of Katherine's struggles with Henry VII, definitely one of the more avaricious Kings of England. I think this is well worth the time to check out and give you better understanding of the dynastic politics of the sixteenth century.

- Kalpar