Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Sleepwalkers

Warning: long post ahead.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark starts out by announcing that he's going to disregard why World War I started in favor of asking how. It's an admirable ambition: the latter question is a good deal more concrete, and also steers away from the seduction of single-causation fallacies.

He doesn't really do it, though. This is a history with a purpose. Clark is arguing for replacing one origin story with another. The customary narrative tends to cast Germany and Austria-Hungary as the bad actors, with France and Russia as more-or-less innocent  victims. Clark, by contrast, blames hyper-nationalist Serbs and their pet bomb-throwing terrorists.

It's easy to see why the former narrative caught on in the mid-20th century. It's equally easy to see why the latter is appealing in a post-9/11, post-Yugoslavia world. He's particularly emphatic about the Austrians' reaction. They, after all, were the victims of a terror attack. Did they, Clark asks pointedly, have no right to respond?

To appropriate a formulation that Clark uses in another context, "This view is not wrong".

On the other hand--and, with a statement like that, there's bound to be a qualifier--I can think of a more recent case where a powerful nation, in the wake of a terrorist attack, invaded a perennially-hostile, ethnically-divided foreign country, believing that said foreign country was implicated in said terrorism, and determined that its intransigent, bellicose, semi-criminal regime be brought to heel. That one didn't turn out so well, either. Clark, consciously or otherwise, avoids framing events in this light. His defense of Austria-Hungary is spirited and well-reasoned, but he's a little too forgiving. A nation may have a moral/legal right to defend itself, yet take specific actions that are not moral, nor legal, nor wise.

In his zeal to re-surface the Balkans as the cynosure of events, Clark is dismissive of some of the traditional interpretations. A couple of examples that I happen to know a bit about:
  • He argues that the British/German naval arms race was not a major factor, because the British always had more battleships. That's misleading. The Royal Navy believed that it had to be larger than the next two largest fleets combined. Britain was a naval power, hugely dependent on maritime trade; it kept, and might require, warships everywhere on the globe. Germany was a land power with virtually no need of its few overseas territories. The Royal Navy had to be ready to fight any enemy, anywhere. The Imperial German Navy had exactly one major target, lying right on its front doorstep--a fact which not only multiplied their effective forces, but enabled them to design ships with less range and more armor.
  • He correctly observes that the "odd couple" alliance of France and Russia was fueled by French fixation on Germany as "the primary enemy", but he more or less glosses over the reasons why the French might feel that way. Alsace-Lorraine gets seven scattered pages in the index. That's a little more than Spain, but a little less than Egypt.
Also, although The Sleepwalkers isn't aimed strictly at an academic audience, Clark writes like an academic. I don't mean he's unreadable--his prose is lucid, though a tad colorless--but he does have certain ingrained instincts, which don't always jibe with writing for a general audience:
  • There are some terms and phrases that Clark loves a little too much: "world-historical", "irredentism", and so on. I suppose that these are terms of art in his field, with specific meanings that are important to his thesis. For a general reader, however, a little thumbing through the thesaurus wouldn't have hurt, even at the cost of lost precision for the specialists.
  • More seriously, Clark assumes all of his readers are familiar with all of his events. His structure is not strictly chronological, nor geographic--I'd call it a thematic organization--with the result that he jumps around a lot in time and space. That's not by itself a bad thing. It's a possible problem, though, when he references different aspects of the same event in half-a-dozen widely-spacd passages. Similarly, throwing in early and unexplained references to "the Agadir crisis" or "the Anglo-French thaw of 1903" is only appropriate for readers who are already familiar with the basic facts of the period. (For the record: yes, I'm one of them, but I'm a geek.)
  • Completist tendencies. This shows itself most damagingly in the sections on Serbia, where Clark seems determined to drag in every minor fact and tangentially-important person he's ever heard of. There are too many people with too little relevance--scan through the index for names with just one or two page references and you'll see what I mean. For an academic book, intended for use and reference by scholars, that's perhaps appropriate. A better design for a popular book would be to eliminate the minor players, and add a Dramatis Personae section in the front matter for the major ones.
  • And, perhaps inevitably for an explicitly 21st-century interpretation, Clark occasionally succumbs to presentism. The most glaring example is the comparison of Austria-Hungary's 1914 ultimatum to Serbia with NATO's 1999 ultimatum to the same state. Yes, the latter is vastly more muscular. So what? By 1914 standards, the Austrian demand was genuine fire-breathing intimidation, and neither her allies nor her foes pretended otherwise.
None of this is to say that The Sleepwalkers is a bad book. On the contrary, it's a very valuable book. It's fantastically well researched (there are over 1500 citations, or an average of about three per page) and minutely observed. It provides an incisive critique of conventional thinking. I especially applaud his perceptive character portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his examination of where decision-making power was actually located.

All the same, to my mind the most compelling message in The Sleepwalkers is one that Clark never explicitly mentions. In the year 2015, we think of military alliances and wars as confrontations between incompatible value systems. To us, for instance, it seems obvious to parse the Cold War as a face-off between liberal capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship.

No political leaders in 1914 seem to have thought that way. To them, military alliances and wars were tools for promoting their individual nations' self-interest. War might be ugly, but it wasn't illegitimate. Military blackmail, extortion, and out-and-out armed robbery were, to these men, part of the cost of doing business.

The national self-interest they were serving--for which they were willing to throw away young men's lives--wasn't even what we'd call a "vital interest", with the arguable and partial exception of Russia. Here's illuminating instance:
France might consider allowing Austria to take a part of the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, a mere "pile of rocks" ... [but] France "would be obliged also to demand advantages, an island in the Aegean Sea, for example ..."
France had no more genuine need of a random Aegean flyspeck than Austria required that particular "pile of rocks". But need wasn't the point; this was a statement about prestige, about one-upmanship, about who could beat up whom. 

These men (and they were all men) weren't standing on principle. 

They were playing for points. 

For comparison, it's worth reading Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August and perhaps The Proud Tower--lesser in exhaustive scholarship, but superior as literature. Robert Massie's excellent Dreadnought is specifically focused on the naval arms race; it shows masterful craftsmanship in managing and making sense of a large cast of characters.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Book Retro-Review: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

A review from 2012, with later addenda.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Daniel J. Everett
Ethnography, linguistics, autobiography

Daniel Everett has spent a lot of time living with the Pirahã Indians, who by his account have a very unusual culture and language—there’s basically no way to refer to anything that the speaker or someone known to him hasn’t actually experienced, for example. The different aspects of the book are occasionally somewhat disjointed, and the deep dive into Everett’s linguistic quarrels with the Noam Chomsky/Steven Pinker school will make some readers’ interest wander. On the whole, though, this is a genuinely intriguing account of some human beings who are both fundamentally different from and fundamentally the same as us.

I do wonder whether Everett’s determination to discover a connection between Pirahã culture and language is based in his own history. He originally went to Brazil as a missionary, and was shocked to discover that the Pirahã found his Jesus talk pointless and irrelevant. Reading between the lines, that seems to have been a real eye-opener for Everett, and perhaps it made him too ready to embrace the “alien” aspects of the Pirahã. I could come up with some additional or alternative analyses for a lot of his cases. For example: Everett notes that “no Amazonian group that I have worked with has ‘motherese,’ or baby talk” and that the Pirahã treat their children as, generally, miniature adults. Is it not likely that this is simply a case of cultural adaptation to their physical circumstances? Tribes that coddle their children probably get wiped out. (Philippe Ariès made essentially the same claim about medieval Europeans, but that the latter assertion has since been very strongly challenged—I might even say “debunked”—so there’s room for skepticism here.)

A good companion book (and, in part, a counterargument) is John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. (McWhorter illustrates his point with an imaginary headline: “Language Shocker: Tribe That Doesn’t Wear Clothes Has No Word For Pants”.)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

States' Wrongs

When I lived in Texas, I occasionally had to listen to people espousing one of the Big Lies of U.S. History. Namely, “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about States’ Rights!” The South, says the narrative, was defending its rights against the oppression of Washington. (Stop me if this sounds familiar.)

It’s certainly true that, during the 1850s, several states witnessed an unprecedented level of federal interference in their internal affairs—thitherto considered sacrosanct. There were mass protests and even riots against government law enforcement. In at least one case, the U.S. army marched in and enforced, at gunpoint, a flagrant violation of state law in favor of federal power (at the then-enormous cost of $40,000). In another case, a woman killed her own daughter rather than submit to the armed U.S. Marshals who stormed her house amidst gunfire. In yet other cases, the locals broke into courtrooms or forcibly liberated prisoners rather than see their laws violated.

The states whose right were thus trampled on were, of course, all in the North

The laws in question were “personal liberty” laws, meant to exclude slavery. The expansion of Federal muscle was in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law.

Southerners, far from being oppressed by the jackbooted thugs of Washington, cheered them on. Similarly, while Southern states frequently invoked their right to “nullify” federal laws that weren’t to their taste, they were outraged when Northern states tried to do the same thing.

And when war did break out--when seven southern states seceded rather than obey the results of a perfectly legal election, before Lincoln even took office--what was the intolerable, radical straw that broke the camel's back? What tyrannical principle was it that was so deeply embedded in the Republican platform that preemptive secession was the only way to defend Southern liberty?

It was this: that slavery should be left alone, but prevented from expanding.

Funny kid of oppression, that.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries
Otto Penzler (editor)

The traditional mystery story is a funny beast. There have been many critics who have felt the need to denounce it as Not Real Literature because of its populist roots and pulp-magazine practitioners. The whole recent history of the field seems to me an ongoing effort by writers to repudiate that heritage. A lot of authors seemingly feel compelled to tart up their stories with violence or social commentary or heavy-handed character development, even if the actual "mystery" is slim or nonexistent.

That wasn't so in the Golden Age. Back then, if you didn't have a damn good plot, you didn't have a story.

I mention this because, in my experience, the "damn good plot" part is much, much harder than the other stuff. At least, virtually nobody (except Steve Hockensmith and Aaron Elkins) is doing it. Much easier, I suppose, to follow the relatively easy demands of modern "literary" style and collect the resulting accolades.

All of which is a way of saying that I really enjoyed The Black Lizard etc., because the stories make no pretense of being other than what they are. They're lovely little puzzles, set out in an entertaining matter. They're not long enough for much else, in most cases. Once you've committed yourself to writing a gimmick story, you'd better sit down and make it the best gimmick you're capable of--and that's what these tales set out to do.

That's not to say that there's no variety. There are good and even great writers represented (Conan Doyle, Poe, P. G. Wodehouse). There are first-class pulp and noir fictioneers (Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich). There are one-trick pony technicians (John Dickson Carr, Edward D. Hoch). And there are a lot of authors who were popular but are now virtually forgotten--in some cases deservedly, in some cases not.

(When they say "big", they're not kidding. It's 937 pages and at least two pounds.)

Yes, it gets a little repetitive if read in large chunks. No, it won't change your life or give you an insight into the human condition. You'll certainly notice a wide range of skill levels; some of the pulp writers may even make you admit that the critics had some evidence on their side.

Yet, all in all, The Black Lizard etc. is 937 pages of just plain fun. And, really, who could ask for more?

Good crossover reads: any of Isaac Asimov's "Black Widowers" series.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This is one of those above-mentioned old vintage forgotten classic retro book reviews, mentioned above, that's been sitting on my hard drive. I'll post these periodically, in no particular order. This one, from 2012, I'm rather fond of.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon
It was lately brought to my attention that I had neglected the works of Mr. Edward Gibbon: an author no less celebrated for the felicity of his language, than for the depth of his scholarship. In that happy marriage may be seen the fons et origo of the twinned streams of the historian’s art. Mr. Gibbon’s sedulous reliance on ancient sources, combined with his earnestness to profess a thesis of cause and effect, have distinguished him as the Father of academic history; but it is no less true, that in making of his inchoate materials a finished body, he may with equal justice be nominated as the Father of narrative, or popular, history: which glories less in the dry and stable skeleton of Theory, than in the lively sinew of Story. I consider that it adds some lustre to these laurels to note that the work is the model for one of the grandest of the science-fiction epics, viz. the Foundation series of the noted Dr. Asimov.
It is not necessary to accept uncritically Gibbon’s inferences, to admire his methods. Modern scholars may deny that a spirit universally tolerant existed among the Pagans; they may decline to fix the entire weight of the decay of Empire upon one or two causes; they may deprecate the lack of weight given to oeconomical arguments. It is nonetheless worthy of remark, that in debating the specific conclusions, modern historians make use of the identical tools, that Gibbon has espoused: a disinterested spirit of enquiry; a reliance upon primary sources; a sceptical eye towards partiality; and a fixed devotion to the veridical, over the fabulous. I must particularly admire his technique in selecting, from sources stained with prejudice and bigotry, those facts least creditable to their authors.
The present author, it is true, enjoyed the advantages of a limited audience. Any person disposed to read his opus might be presumed to possess a respectable acquaintance with Classical antiquity, and to therefore regard with easy familiarity a passing reference to Tarquinius Superbus, and nod sagely at the mention of Domitian’s crimes. The evolutions of above two centuries have broadened the reach, even as they have perhaps lessened the depth, of the curriculum. The occasional and modest student of Roman history, into which category I should place myself, will have no difficulty with Mr. Gibbon’s general thesis, though he may be mildly perplexed by a name or an event half-remembered. A reader whose familiarity with the aera is more doubtful will be correspondingly more gratified if he has at his elbow some general scheme of the Republic and early Empire. This will at the least mitigate, if it does not entirely excuse, Gibbon’s inexplicable disinclination to include dates in his otherwise admirable design.
It is true as well that the narrative impetus of Gibbon’s opus flags somewhat in its latter chapters. The evolutions of the Roman polity give way to the monotonous convulsions of Byzantium, which insensibly degenerate into an endless round of riot, rebellion, and the putting out of eyes. The opposite of a slave is a free citizen, and an edifying contrast can be drawn between those states; but the opposite of a fanatick is too often merely another fanatick. Only in his closing chapters, as the final doom of Constantinople approaches, does Gibbon escape from the stagnant pool of the Grecian Empire, which in synopsis appears as a long-drawn shambles, interrupted by brief bursts of competence.
It remains for me only to remark, that Rome and Byzantium alike must blush with respect to the philosophical clime (known latterly as the Enlightenment) which in its nativity both informed, and was informed by, Gibbon’s masterpiece. The fathers of the present Republic have profited by the example of its antique predecessor.  In their deliberations they were deeply anxious to avoid the perils of faction; but it is rather the law of succession, wherein the pupils have most clearly surpassed their teacher. A state in which absolute power is held by a permanent tenancy must inevitably excite the flagitious ambition of those able or avaricious men who stand near, yet below, the purple.  In the present constitution the fever permits of an easy remedy. The mere passage of four, or five, or ten years, occasions the regular and predictable alteration of the regime; the would-be usurper chooses rather to bide his time; the injuries of the base or foolish leader are perforce limited; and the dreary and profitless cycle of rebellion and repression, of virtuous and vicious monarchs, is thereby broken. It is surely no coincidence that Rome’s meridian came under those emperors who preferred the surety of adopted merit, over the hazard of paternity, in fixing their successors. The terminus of this salutary practice forms the first, and not the least, of the misfortunes attendant upon the accession of Commodus. Had it become universal and customary, Rome might yet survive.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review: What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Munroe
Science, humor 

Randall Munroe is a very strange individual, probably in a good way. 

What If is exactly what it says on the tin. It's peculiar, often funny, an easy read, and fairly lightweight. You might pick up some random science facts that you can trot out at parties--thus causing you, by the Law of Conservation of Epistemology, to forget things like the quadratic formula--although you won't really learn much of substance.

Still, there's a hidden value in What If: it gives a pretty good thumbnail sketch of how scientists (and engineers!) actually think. You may well get more out of the book if you read it less for the answers and more for the process of how those answers come about.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Teaser: "The Adventure of the Rafferty Letters"

I occasionally commit flagrant acts of writing. Here's the opening of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche I did a couple of years ago. I don't care to post the whole thing, but I'll send copies by e-mail if solicited.

The Adventure of the Rafferty Letters
"Well, Watson," asked Sherlock Holmes, "what do you deduce?"

I picked up the visiting-card from its silver tray and studied it closely, trying as always to anticipate my friend's methods.  "Very little, I'm afraid," I admitted.

It was a fine April day, the first after a dreary grey March.  Holmes and I had been for one of our extended rambles through the city.  For Holmes these seemingly aimless excursions served to sharpen and refresh his knowledge of the byways of the teeming, bustling metropolis.  Never was he happier than when he was able take a street he had never before trod, or navigate in a direct line to some distant landmark.  For my part, I was glad of the exercise.  Though my shoulder had long since healed, the Afghani bullet that I still carried in my leg had made walking a painful chore for many damp weeks.  Then, too, I never tired of listening to Holmes practicing his craft, observing and docketing the callings and characters of the folk who passed us by.  The keenness of his eye, and the breadth of his inferences, were as good as an open-air lecture.

A balmy breeze accompanied us as we ambled through Marylebone and Bloomsbury, up into Clerkenwell and down towards the City.  The first haze of green was on the trees, and even the grimy liver-coloured bricks of Britain's great industrial heart seemed fresh and new.  In consequence it was well into the late afternoon before we returned to Baker Street, to be met at the door by Mrs. Hudson.

"There's been a gentleman to see you, Mr. Holmes," she said.  "An American, he sounded like, and an impatient one at that.  I said I couldn't guess when you'd be back, and off he stumped.  But he left a card."

Now, having followed Holmes upstairs, I turned that card over in my fingers.  It was off-white and in no way remarkable.  On one side was the name "Mr. Daniel J. Rafferty," with no other information.  On the other was written, in a firm legible hand: "I will call on you at 5:30--DJR".

I shook my head.  "I can only offer the trivial suggestion," I said, "that Mr. Rafferty is an Irish-American."

"Come, Watson, I think we may do better than that."  Holmes took the card from me and subjected it to a concentrated scrutiny at a distance of a few inches, running his long thin fingers over its surface.  "It is true that a visiting-card is not the most fruitful field for our endeavours," he continued thoughtfully.  "It is designed to be anonymous, or at least to reveal only what its owner wishes.  A pair of eyeglasses, or a cigarette-case, would be infinitely richer ground.  Still, there are indications.  I should say that Mr. Rafferty is well-to-do, a heavy smoker, unsociable, left-handed, and a man of distinctly obstinate nature.  Beyond that, I fear, we must remain ignorant."


Friday, January 2, 2015

Book Review: London Rising

London Rising: The Men Who Made Modern London
Leo Hollis

I picked this up in Mercer Street Books on a recent trip to New York. Not an instant classic, but good. Hollis intelligently picks a few characters and follows them, rather than trying to discuss anyone and everyone. The most central figure is Christopher Wren, but Robert Hooke, John Locke, and a few others feature as well. It gives a good broad-brush view covering a good 60 years of eventful history, without ever getting lost.

The one thing I wish it had was a diagram, or better yet many diagrams. A big chunk of the book is naturally devoted to the building of St. Paul's Cathedral. We've been there--we've even taken the tour--but there's a lot of architecture floating around London Rising, and it would be useful to have a way to visualize it.

Good companion books include Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome  and R. A. Scotti's Basilica.

Apologia Pro Bloga Sua

The immediate impetus for blogging is that I have, off and on, listed and commented on all the books I've read in any given year. Keeping a document on my hard drive is mildly vexatious, since my hard drive and I are not inseparable. Hence the idea of storing my comments in cyberspace; I hear all the cool kids are doing it.

Other things I think about, in no particular order:
  • Coding
  • Science
  • Philosophy
  • Politics (only occasionally, I promise)
  • Trains
  • Music
  • Travel
I promise not to post about what I had for lunch, that thing that guy you don't know said to me, or television (except maybe Star Trek). I do not, however, guarantee that there won't be cat pictures, because cat pictures are the fuel of the Internet, and I wouldn't want it to stall out.