Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

The Moon Voyage

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Like “The Mysterious Island” I picked up “The Moon Voyage” out of a sense of curiosity. Jules Verne’s writings are known for a certain prophetic aspect, his Nautilus semi-predicted submarines. I say “semi-predicted” as they had been used with moderate success in warfare at the time of his writings and his foresight is actually based on their merging with other technologies still at their infancy during his time. Where “The Moon Voyage” exceeds this writing is notably in his setting the moon launch in Florida by a team of Americans. All of this is pretty extraordinary but perhaps even more so when he gives his justification for that location.

The story itself surrounds an American gun club based in Baltimore led by President Barbicane (president of the Gun Club not the United States). The club itself is in a state of decline with the end of the US Civil War the membership of the club is comprised of men who designed and used artillery during the war. Without that war they feel themselves to be useless relegated to waiting for another war, or perhaps as one of them proposes to actually lobby for the beginning of another war. Barbicane has other designs, he proposes that instead of building more and deadlier weapons he proposes that the club apply itself to building a gun that could propel a projectile to the moon.

Instead of skepticism the club, and the country, embraces the idea in what Verne calls the spirit of American ingenuity. The dimensions of the weapon, the projectile, and the amount of propellent needed are well calculated. The time of launch is determined with help from the British, and the location itself as well. Here’s where we get to his prescience. Florida is chosen but it’s not random and this is also where Verne’s strength as a writer excels. Other writers might have just picked a place randomly or perhaps based their location on proximity to a major city or industrial center for obvious reasons. Verne chooses Florida for purely scientific reasons. According to the British the Moon is closest to the Earth between certain Latitudes and only two places in the US are within that constriction: areas of Florida and Texas.

Florida won because the location they picked is remote and with few cities in Florida at the time, there would be no jealousy among them as there would have been in Texas. There would also be no confusion or controversy over appropriating land for the project as their might be in the more densely populated Texas. The initial project’s purpose is to see if it can be done, that’s it. It was nothing more than an exercise of the industry of a uniquely industrious and ingenious people. Then it is proposed that the projectile be occupied and thus the project is undertaken to change the shell to a capsule.

There is no decision made in this book that is not accompanied by a reason for that decision and then a detailed explanation of how that goal was carried through. Everything seems to be based on the science of the time, which although somewhat inaccurate has the reading of a logical proof and the absolute faith of the characters in that science. What gets forgotten amid the correctness of the Florida location are three other predictions that eventually would come true.

The first is the fact that the three travelers in the capsule once launched would experience no weight. While scientists of the time new that gravity was based on mass (a fact keenly and repeatedly stressed during the book) what wasn’t accepted as a scientific theory at the time was that in space that gravity would diminish and that passing a certain point would mean that the travelers would be weightless. When the travelers do hit weightlessness they are completely “stupefied” finding “weight wanting in their bodies.” Given Verne’s scientific researches into everything else that went into the book, including some rather lengthy discourses on the geography of the Moon, it stands to reason that he stumbled across some monograph on the subject but again, this was not an accepted theory at the time merely a hypothesis.

Secondly he also predicts that other objects in space also have gravity. Now the moon having gravity is one thing, that was something accepted such an object’s mass would have attraction. What Verne predicts though is that a passing comet not only has gravity but also enough gravity that it pulls the capsule off course. Not by much of course, but enough so that the journey is put into peril when the travelers realize that they have no landed on the moon when they should have.

Thirdly is the burying of the Moon Gun. This is based on common sense given the enormity of the cannon and the amount of fuel being used but it has been tried twice in history. Hitler’s V3 project, an attempt to build artillery cannons that could be fired from France and hit London with no warning compared to the the V1 and V2 missiles were also proposed to have been buried in the ground…although this probably had more to do with being hidden from British and American bombers as well. Then there was Saddam Hussein’s attempt at building an atmosphere capable artillery gun that had much the same construction. Although that project was “cancelled” by Mossad agents (allegedly) when the lead engineer was found dead in an Iraqi hotel from two gun shots to the head.

The Moon Voyage is an interesting read if only to learn of the fascination with the moon and the science thereof in the late 19th century. Verne’s strength is also causes his writing to drag as the various aspects of the moon are presented in great detail as well as a history of astronomy and selenography which slow the story down. However overall the story is about a scientific project and the execution of which by learned and ambitious men who are willing to risk everything just for the accomplishment of it. This, Verne says, is a uniquely American state of mind.

Oh yeah, the first capsule to actually land on the moon was called “Columbia,” but Verne labels his “Columbiad”–I guess you can’t be right all of the time.

Categories: book reviews, reviews

“Among the Truthers”–Jonathan Kay

June 21, 2011 Leave a comment

To be interested in Conspiracy as a flight of fancy is one thing, but to truly believe in a conspiracy theory is more akin to really believing in the various stories surrounding religion. While this may be deemed offensive to some (on either side of that comparison) the parallels are pretty numerous. First and foremost is the belief that world events are not random, they are controlled or at least guided in much the same way that believers in God will explain the path of a tornado that rips through a town and kills very few people. This belief though is opposite in tone than the religious, whereas the faithful will ascribe events that spare human life as the result of God’s hand, Conspirators believe that events which claim human lives are the result of a master plan. There is also the notion of belief in something despite the lack of evidence, i.e. that of faith.

Jonathan Kay’s book, “Among the Truthers” is an examination not of conspiracy beliefs but of the people that believe in conspiracies. Focusing on the most prevalent of modern conspiracies, that of the theory that the September 11th attacks on NYC and the Pentagon were an inside job (most theories either ignore the Pennsylvania plane or have a different theory to cover it: that it was shot down by US Planes is the most common). This choice of focus is obvious as it allows the author to immerse himself in a world that is still living and still growing. Despite the fact that most people believe that the single shooter of JFK is a dubious idea, the theory is pretty stagnant relegated to once a year repeated specials on the History Channel.

It should be noted that the author does not believe in the theory, accepting the events according to the 9/11 commission’s report, and the numerous scientific studies that have proven the collapse happened the way it did from the cause of the plane’s collision. Kay, also ignores the temptation to include a chapter or two on why the alternative theories presented are wrong. He claims that this was advised by his editor who said that there would be no market for such a book. Believers in the theory would claim that he was a puppet while people accepting the official explanation would have no need to read it. There are numerous web pages on the internet devoted to both.

Which is one explanation that he offers for the spread of this theory. The development of the internet not only allowed people formerly regarded as crackpots to disseminate their beliefs but it did something else, something much more important than just giving them an outlet: it gave them encouragement. Where once they might have wrote about their theory and then forgotten about it. The internet could now give them instant feedback and compel them to continue. The theories became compartmentalized much like modern political discourse into an echo chamber where theorists only hear support for their beliefs and are thus more and more convinced of the “truth” of it. Is not this the exact opposite of the dream of Web in the mid-1990s? What once was supposed to be access to the world of divergent opinions and information instead has became a collection of cliques that only speak to each other.

The causes of conspiracism are varied. It’s propagation is not only based on the web but also in the atmosphere as well. The book goes to great strains to explain that while people on the right or left would like to blame the other side for these ideas, the genera of conspiracy is actually the fault of both. While the right wing has had more prevalence lately in the dissemination of conspiracy theories, the left wing has had its time before. Whenever one group is in power it is the other group that will have among itself a fringe element that sees conspiracy. The difference we see now is that conspiracy theory was given public air by Glenn Beck, whom Kay categorizes in the book as a conspiracy theorist for which I have to agree (his threading of Soros as a liberal puppet master should suffice as evidence). On the left though there have been Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida. What has to be decided is which is worse: a political pundit on the number one cable news channel or two well respected PhDs? These enablers lend legitimacy to the odd theories and give them main stream acceptance.

The point is made though, that we cannot ascribe to one side of the political debate responsibility for conspiracy, only specific theories that often have origins in some surprising source. For instance, it was the KGB that first implanted the idea that AIDS was genetically engineered. Or, although not mentioned in the book, “Birtherism” first appeared not in the GOP or its followers but in supporters of Hillary Clinton’s nomination bid.

The most damning indictment though, and deservedly, goes toward left-wing academics. The era of political correctness has basically necessitated that America is the evil empire in the world and academics adhering to a false model of Marxism have portrayed the United States as hegemonic in its goals. Belief that “the great engine of evil in the world is American hegemony–and so every epic tragedy the world suffers must somehow be laid at Washington’s doorstep.” This era of PC has also given the general population the reluctance to criticize people for holding certain opinions. Forcing relativism on people who would otherwise know better. Medical conspiracies including the vaccination conspiracies rest on theories that just “feel right” to people like Jenny McCarthy despite the united opposition of Pediatricians in both the US and for most of the world.

Another important facet that Kay concentrates on is to make a differentiation between people who are conspirators and the genuine insane. Most conspirators are not insane, he mentions, but some are. Despite the fact that someone with mental problems might be a conspiracy believer is the exception. The line is whether or not the person believes themselves to be involved in the conspiracy, usually this involvement is in hiding from the guiding hand of the world events. Most “truthers” don’t think someone is out to silence them.

The religious analogy also applies to the various sects of conspiracism. Within each there are hierarchies, schisms, and outcasts. Getting the “story” straight is often difficult for them, and people who do not ascribe to the “official” story proposed by the conspiracists are often shunned or labelled crackpots. The irony of this is that they themselves deride the mainstream press and government officials for doing just the same.

Ultimately though the conspiracist movement is full of ironies and contradictions. Professional Academic journals have thus far not accepted the movement’s ideas as having any truth (although there are Academics who are truthers) and thus are called “ignorant” or “puppets” by members of the movement. Yet, those very same people seem to crave such acceptance to the point where they have set up their own academic sounding journal “Journal of 9/11 Truth.” The same with the media, while You Tube videos abound with truther confrontations these amount to no more than pranks. The media is “in on it” but then upon meeting journalists those that don’t specifically dismiss them often seek to get their ideas mentioned in it. This lends itself to the idea that substratum for a good deal of conspiracism activists is stardom in one fashion or the other. They deride the mainstream academics and media as being worthless then brag about how their theories and intelligence make them outliers but in the next breath they are seeking the approval of the mainstream.

Ultimately the contradiction inherent in the 9/11 truth is that the truth for them is unfulfillable. If we assume them to be correct, and that a group of people (or aliens) were able to manipulate the entire world into believing what happened on 9/11 was the real thing, then what kind of independent investigation could escape their grasp? The invisible hand is suddenly unable to direct a second investigation? It would seem that what the most vocal people espousing these theories really want is to lead the investigation.

Kay’s book is gripping, especially for people who may not be familiar with this world. His only fault is in his writing style, which is journalistic in origin. That’s not a problem so much as his constant need to cite earlier and later passages in the book, as if we were reading a series of articles in a newspaper. It gets quite distracting to the point where i was noticing that he couldn’t go three pages without making a reference to the past or the future. Much like the flow chart of a conspiracy theorist explaining how the Bildergergers were really the puppet of the Tri-Lateral commission or something.

Categories: book reviews, reviews

The Mysterious Island

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

You can download it here.

I was first made aware of this book when viewing Tron: Legacy over the winter. It popped up as a rather obvious reference, especially when they openly displayed the book and had one character explain that it was her favorite. I was intrigued, but not enthusiastic since I didn’t completely enjoy the movie to begin with. Yet Jules Verne, is one of those science fiction writers who is so prescient that it wouldn’t surprise me if we find a vault in France one day with one of his books that describes a picture phone. This is the guy who predicted that people would be weightless in space long before anyone was able to actually confirm it. I could go on about Verne and his predictions, especially his view of the modern submarine and the existence of the giant Kraken.

I assumed that since Tron:Legacy was a huge science fiction movie and Jules Verne was a science fiction writer there would be something in common betwixt them in “The Mysterious Island.” The story centers on four men and a dog who escape the confines of the Confederate Richmond in a hot air balloon in 1862 only to be blown away by a Hurricane where three of them land on a small islet in the Pacific. A search of the surrounding area reveals the Islet to be connected to a larger Island made of Basalt and Granite with lush vegetation as they search for their fourth comrade. These four are Gideon Spillett, Pencroft, Neb, and Brown. Spillett is a journalist, Neb is a freed slave, Pencroft a sailor, and Brown is Pencroft’s young protege adopted by Pencroft.

These four are in danger because they have not the tools to survive. In fact one of them even remarks that unlike Robinson Crusoe, they were shipwrecked with nothing and would have to fend for themselves. They search awhile for their fifth member, an engineer named Harding and it is in the engineer that they place their salvation believing that this man of science could construct for them everything that they would need for survival and deliverance from the island. While initially they feared that he had drown in the sea he turns up inland on a beach and is nursed back to health along with some assistance from his dog Top.

From this point the five castaways begin constructing their lives on the island fearing that there may be some time before they are rescued. The faith in the engineer is validated by his seeming omniscience in the fields of chemistry, physics, and mechanical engineering. His first feat is to construct fire using a water lens. Which he built out of two watch faces and filled them with water. Then things a get a bit deus ex machina as he is able to forge iron tools, derive glass, and create pyroxite and nitroglycerin for use as explosives. I suppose all of this is possible but where Crusoe had to make do without certain things these castaways are lacking nothing as long as the base materials exist. How one derives nitroglycerin without a labratory and not blow themselves up is quite astonishing given how unstable the chemical is.

The Island is abundant in life, all kinds of animals live there from Jaguars to seals to kangaroos and all sorts of birds. This leaves them not wanting for food, although for some reason they do begin to lack clothing. Why the engineer can construct chemical explosives but not a rudimentary tannery seems to be his only limitation, even though all of the materials are there. You may object telling me that, “the internet says that you would need battery acid or something equivalent for the tanning of hides, lol rofl.” That may be the case but not only is nitric acid a principle part of the making of nitroglycerin (the word “nitro” is right in there) but also the engineer makes batteries and a telegraph machine. That’s a minor quibble. After excavating an underground cave of Granite with explosives the survivors move into “Granite House” which is quite impregnable from the outside and after rescuing a man named Aryton from an island about a hundred miles away (in a sloop which they constructed for the purposes of sailing around the island…although a Viking Longboat would have been a better idea), they live in relative harmony.

The title of the book refers to a series of actual deus ex machina instances which can be explained by no one in the book. The first is the rescue of Harding. He was the last in the balloon that disappeared into the sea yet he was found hundreds of yards up the beach with no recollection of how he got there. The second is that the dog Top is saved from a dugong whose throat was mysterious cut. A crate of supplies mysteriously appears in the water furnishing the five with guns and new clothes, the message indicating the sixth person on the nearby island and finally the sudden explosion of an invading pirate ship which Harding explains came from an underwater explosive device, a torpedo (which at the time of the civil war was a term used for any underwater explosive device).

They search the island to and fro seeking out their elusive benefactor, all the while Pencroft commenting that he will never be found unless he wishes it so. Finally the man behind the curtain contacts them and sends them to an underwater cavern in which he lives. It turns out to be.[spoiler warning but you’ve had like a hundred years to read this book]…Captain Nemo and the Nautilus! It was he that rescued everyone, somehow, left the supplies [more probable], blew up the pirates [extremely probable], and then killed the surviving pirates [with his ray gun–which fits in with 20,000 leagues under the sea]. Nemo is dying and in the bottom of the cave the Nautilus is his final tomb.

The book doesn’t end there but I will end the synopsis. The book is driven by the suspense of the mysterious force of the island and the ingenuity of the survivors. It’s not that character driven at all, in fact several times while reading, even toward the end, I had to remind myself who was who. Only Neb, the freed slave, and Harding, the engineer come off as being remarkable if only for the fact that the former becomes the cook and the latter is utterly so important. The rest occupy a middle ground of obscurity. Also lacking is the despair of Crusoe that they would never see home again. Crusoe was driven by internal struggle which he resolved by appealing to god. Perhaps this was because of the isoloation on his island but where these five have companions that resolution is unnecessary.

The real problem for the book is that Harding is too ingenious. The book settles into a groove we know they are going to survive, but the only question is how. And the how is often answered with the most unlikely answer. “How can we communicate with the corral?” Answer: “I’ll build a telegraphy machine with iron wires (five miles of iron wire).” It gets unlikely to the point of ridiculousness. As a reader I became like the character Sawyer on Lost, just accepting whatever was happening because thinking anything to be improbable at any point was not to believe that it couldn’t happen.

Which brings me to the final point: I have no idea what the writers of Tron were thinking when they used this book in their movie. There is nothing in common between the two. For the two plots to even have the slightest resemblance the movie would have to have spent 75% of its time before revealing Jeff Bridges outside the grid. This book has more in common with the first season of Lost, a group of survivors struggling on an island with some strange occurrences. In this respect it works, and works very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that one of the books Sawyer read on the beach was this one.

It’s not as strong as Robinson Crusoe, but it is entertaining. If you are a huge 20,000 Leagues fan I would recommend the book if only to learn the final fate of Nemo. 

Categories: book reviews, reviews

Planning for the Inevitable (The Twilight Walkthrough (Pg. 380-389)

November 30, 2010 Leave a comment

“Edward’s impatience was almost tangible as we moved at human speed to the forest edge?”

We left off two weeks ago with a trio of new vampires who have come curious at the loud noises that they heard which they figured could only be produced by vampires playing baseball. They then became curious not only at the Cullen’s ability to remain in one place for long periods of time but also that Bella, a human, was just hanging around with them. Carlisle instructed Edward to take Bella home and the three vampires were going to join him at the Cullen’s house.

They are in an isolated clearing in the middle of the woods, so it makes sense that they want the prey out of the area. What doesn’t make sense is why they are moving at normal speed. They don’t normally travel like that by themselves so why now? Obviously, these people are frightened of the new three so I guess they are keeping their guard up. First off, the Cullens outnumber Laurent and company, and even though we are forced to picture the alien vampires as being older and more ferocious that’s just appearance wise. If Laurent looked 50 it could still mean that he’s younger than Edward. Furthermore moving slowly is silly, even if we grant their speed is based on precaution, because you have Edward who could sense the volition of any potential attacker, and more importantly you have Alice who should see it coming before even that happens. They get her to the truck and buckle her in, for some reason Emmet holds her down. Their plan is to head South to some sort of vampire safe house, all of which makes zero sense.

The three vampires smelled Bella’s humanity and started drooling, or the equivalent of. Isn’t this normal behavior for their kind? The Cullens reaction to this is evidence that they have never been around other vampires in the midst of humans before. Carlisle has some experience which is why he is the most rational of all of them. As soon as they are away from him they formulate escape and attack plans. Edward has a problem.

His problem is that, like the people that were harassing Bella in Port Angeles, he believes that thought equals action.* We don’t know what those three were planning but Edward equated their thoughts with action and almost killed them for it. This is the type of reasoning that puts women in Burqas in the Middle East: if I as a male see a beautiful woman and find her desirable that desire is uncontrollable and I will sexually assault her. Therefore all women must be covered from head to toe in shapeless garments, it’s for their own protection.

Edward’s mentality is just the same. He needs to kill the trio because they reacted normally in the presence of food. Now this would all make sense of Edward and company weren’t vampires, but they are. Because they want to eat her they are already guilty of doing so, it’s really for Bella’s safety that he wants to murder three of his own kind for being normal.

This leads me to a problem I can foresee in the series, that like his supposed age his vampire-ness is going to come and go. Caution is ok, but paranoia is just over-reacting. How does Bella react?

I won’t! You have to take me back–Charlie will call the FBI! They’ll be all over your family–Carlisle and Esme! They’ll have to leave, to hide forever.”

Strange phrasing but otherwise ok. Bella’s father is a cop, and if she’s gone for too long he knows who she is with. I doubt his reaction would be to immediately call the Feds** but she can’t just be locked away somewhere, she does have her own life to live.

Not over me, you don’t! You’re not ruining everything over me!

Damn it. I thought she was having a normal reaction to be forcefully dragged away and hidden from the world. Instead she’s worried that the poor vampires will have to pull anchor and move to another place. Something they’ve done before. The problem is that she’s entirely romanticized the world of vampires. Much like people do with the American Mafia, wanting to be a part of that world without realizing that all of that money comes from drugs, prostitution, robbery, and murder. Bella fails to understand that if the Cullens have interactions with others of their own kind then those others will more than likely be blood drinkers. They aren’t always going to be friendly since they will not have had the aid of Puritan English Christianity to purge them of their normal nature to eat humans.

He’s a tracker, Alice, did you see that? He’s a tracker!”

So, not Laurent, but the other male, James, is some sort of Vampire ranger or something. This worries Edward, more so than it should because couldn’t all Vampires with their superior senses track a human? Edward did in Port Angeles so what is the big deal, aside from the fact that Edward isn’t James?

They just aren’t listening to Alice: “There’s another option,” Alice said quietly.

They ignore the psychic. The issue here is that just because he’s a tracker, and because he mentally planned to attack Bella, doesn’t mean he’s going to do it. Seriously, I’m not being nit-picky here, all of this is taking place before their visit to the Cullen’s house where Carlisle is going to have to explain how it works in his neck of the woods. He wants to eat her, out of his own nature, but Laurent is the patriarch of this clan. If Laurent says no, he’ll have to obey…that’s how it works in the other vampire media.

They formulate a plan, after repeatedly ignoring Alice, that Bella is going to go home gather her things with Edward, and leave town for Phoenix. Apparently Charlie is going to just agree to this. They tell her to say whatever it is she needs to and Charlie will just let her leave. Because every parent is just like that, he wouldn’t tell her to sleep on it and talk about it in the morning. He wouldn’t need to contact her mother to make sure she can return to Phoenix.

After all Bella is “quite old enough to get my own place.” With no money, no job, and no references; in a city she hated while also being a minor. The plan is so stupid that it’s like it has been dreamed up by 14 year olds, not one 17 year old and three near Centurions.

At this point Carlisle and the three should be back at his house discussing the rules of the Olympic forest. So they are safe, but you wouldn’t know it from their discussions. They’ve decided that Bella and Edward will go into the house, Alice will wait in the car ready to go, and Emmett will walk around outside looking for the Tracker. It’s a decent plan, but I have a better one: why doesn’t Edward use his ESP to see if the other vampires are around and if they aren’t just wait outside her window or in her room like he usually does? Emmet and Alice can run back up, since they are all so powerful and outnumber the one vampire they are afraid of–it’s much simpler. I said their plan was decent but it ignores their superpowers. Alice’s foresight should be able to detect them coming, it did before, and Emmet has the super strength so what is the problem?

Any plan at this point is needless. Edward should just wait at the house and send Alice and Emmett home to ask Carlisle what is going on. When they get there if it’s just Laurent and Victoria hurry back. That is far more reasonable. Instead Edward and Bella enter the house to go through with operation “ridiculous.”

*Just like Immanuel Kant

**For some obvious jurisdictional confrontation that we see in the movies I picture Charlie being the loose cannon, “Forks is my town and its my daughter, you Feds just think you can stroll in and take this investigation over! You can go to hell, I’m doing this my way!”

Categories: book reviews, Twilight


August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I realize a couple of things among the stuff that I read. The first is that among the non-fiction books I have an addiction to reading the notes that go along with the work, especially if it is a translation which is funny because I speak no foreign languages and wouldn’t know the subtleties of moving something from Greek to English without many more years of school. I just can’t help it reading them though.

I despise end notes, whether they are at the end of the chapter or the end of the book is inconsequential because it still involves me having to flip from the line I’m reading over to another section in order to find the corresponding note. It’s disruptive and a lot more time consuming than just glancing down at the bottom of the page without having to avert my head in any manner. I always prefer to use footnotes when I am writing, never end notes.

All of that being said I’m getting quite angry at footnotes while I am reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Granted there were a couple of things I could have done to avoid this, the first being most obvious: not read them. I explained before though that this is a little addiction of mine and unlike most of my other addictions this one only hurts myself. The problem is that the footnotes are spoiling the story.

I should note that as a matter of my personal knowledge I do know how this war turns out. It’s not the general result that I am most interested in but the small matters. It’s becoming more and more about the role of fortune in this war as Thucydides remarks too often about how the unforeseen chance plays the greatest role in determining the fates of man (he was against using supernatural explanations, which makes me often think about what the people at the time were thinking especially with the plague). That role of fortune: we’re possibly talking about a dissertation topic here so a book that I decided on a whim to read might just pay off.

The civil war following the Median (Persian conflict) is made up of numerous internal squabbles between the Athenians and their allies/subjects as well as the Spartans and their allies. That’s where the real tension in the story lies, I don’t know who wins these things, who the players are, and how they eventually panned out. It is in these things that repeatedly Donald Lateiner, who introduced the book and noted it for the Barnes and Noble Classics,* that is really starting to piss me off.

I mean that literally too, it’s pissing me off. I was angry enough today when I found out that Cleon was going to lose the argument he was making that I shut the book and left the place i was reading it. The Lesbians (from Lesbos) revolted from the Athenian empire, their capital city of Mytilene was central to the revolt as it tried to go over to the Spartans. As it turns out the Athenians win bringing the city of Mytilene under heel, but now what to do with those dastardly Lesbians?

One thought was to execute every male member of the city of Mytilene and enslave the women and children. A punishment, I am told, is common fare for cities/states that revolt from their alliances. The issue is that the revolt was suppressed not only with the military force of the Athenians but also by the Lesbians themselves. The Lesbian aristocracy were the ones leading the revolt and once they armed the commoners, the commoners wanted to negotiate their position.

With this in consideration the argument was how to punish them. Our footnote let me know that Cleon was going to lose, but it did so prior to him making his argument for his side and he was the first speaker. This also happened at the siege of Salamis where I was privy to the knowledge of an escape attempt before I knew there was an incarceration.

Maybe the whole book should be a footnote with the end result of the war as the main text…I should have read the Thomas Hobbes translation.

*Aka: stuff with expired copyrights that don’t need royalty payments but can still cost 11.95 unless you want to read off your laptop screen.

Categories: book reviews, history, reviews

Thucydides, book 1

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to be applauded of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” –Thucydides, 1.22, The History of the Pelopennesian War

I’m currently reading Thucydide’s mammoth book on the Peloponnesian War. What strikes me about the book so far is that it appears to be timeless in it’s story as the conflict between the Athenians and the Spartans is at the same time abstract and particular. I mean it’s particular to the two cities and their allies (or subjects) but the reasons for war, and the speeches given in both support and against are almost the exact same that have come out of the mouths of leaders and politicians from the contemporary era.

Because, I’m cheap I bought the Barnes and Noble version which compiles a great deal of commentary and some small quips regarding the work, this is obviously done so that they can justify charging for a copy of the book that is so readily available for free on the internet. One of the commenters (I forget his name) mentioned that he was assigned the book in grad school during the late 70s and was instructed to read the book as a metaphor for the Cold War. Athens, of course, was the United States while the USSR was to be the Spartans.

While I did grow up during the end of the Cold War, it’s not as fresh in my memory as more recent debates. Nor was I as conscious of the danger posed by the possibility of the Cold War going active. When it’s 1985 and you are six years old, the idea of nuclear war doesn’t really register. Especially when your parents have not given you reasons to be afraid of the Russians (which sounds like a stab at them, but it’s really not, the Russians more than likely didn’t want nuclear war anymore than we did…well maybe under Stalin and Kruschev they did, but since then?). I can’t read the book with the framework of the Cold War in mind, at least not without having to read a whole slew of books about the Cold War in order to attain the mindset necessary.

It’s also hard to maintain Thucydides in light of the current wars in the middle East. Whilet can be argued whether or not we are Athens or Sparta neither of the two cities really fit in with the enemy over there. While there were some minor engagements with rogue operations at the beginning of the Greek wars, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. Everyone knew who the enemy was and why they were fighting, whereas nowadays I’m really hard pressed to understand what it is that Al-Qaeda wants.

What did strike me, if I really needed to read the book as a metaphor was to do so in regards to an ideological difference between liberals and conservatives if you frame Athens as the left and Sparta as the right. Of course, I will probably end up offending some of my right winger friends with that statement so I am going to offer up some proof from book 1 (the whole thesis may change as I keep reading but as far as book 1 is considered I believe that holds up). 

The Spartans are described as being traditional, customary, and exclusive with regard to foreigners. Also, “we are both warlike and wise, and it is our sense of order that makes us so. We are warlike, because self-control contains honor as a chief constituent, and honor bravery. And we are wise, because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too severe a self-control to disobey them, and are brought up not to be too knowing in useless manners,”–King Archidamus of Sparta, 1.84

The Spartans are only educated enough for what they need to get by in life. Basically this means war, and what the laws are. They also seek to exclude foreigners from participating in city politics to the point where the Spartan allies are not even allowed to witness the voting procedure on a measure that the same allies brought forward.

The Athenians on the other hand are constantly shifting their customs, find the innovation is a virtue, and pride themselves on their knowledge of the “useless manners” that the Spartan king despises so. “There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive although they inflict no positive injury.” Pericles of Athens, 2.37.

Athens is represented as the more liberal state, while Sparta is definitely locked into its customs. The Athenian drive for innovation and change is recognized as one of its strengths as they have embraced the newer technology of Naval Warfare which won the Median War (aka the Persian War). Metaphorically the story of this conflict seems to be about the progress vs. custom, new v old, the democrat v the monarchy, the empire v the conservative. The war begins with the Spartans and their allies broke, and unable to compete with the navy of Athens. Then in book 2 the war begins….

On Divination

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

“On Divination” occupies an interesting place in Cicero’s writings making it very tricky to properly classify it. On the one hand it deals with a unique topic, divination, but on the other it reads more like the second half of his book “On the Nature of the Gods” or “De Natura Deorum.” For example read the following quote:

If we were disposed to take any notice of you, this would overwhelm us with superstition, impelling us to cultivate soothsayers, augurs, fortune-tellers, seers, and dream-interpreters. Epicurus has delivered us from these terrors. now that we are liberated, we have no fear of the gods, for we realize that they neither create trouble for themselves, nor seek to impose it on another. We venerate with devoted reverence their pre-eminent and outstanding nature.”–De Natura Deorum 1.55,56

The idea of divination is so intertwined with Cicero’s first book that the two are complementary. “On The Nature of the Gods” was a dialogue concerning two questions: do the gods exist, and if so, of what kind are they? This book makes the assumption that the gods do exist since without them divination would be impossible, “My own opinion is that, if the kinds of divination which we have inherited from our forefathers and now practice is trustworthy, then there are gods, and, conversely if there are gods then there are men who practice divination.” (1.5)

Being that the prime evidence for the existence of the gods in the first book was the example that so many people from all over the known world at that time believed in them (despite how weak that proof actually is). The same occurs here. Cicero writes this book, as he does most of his philosophy, in the form of a dialogue between himself and his older brother Quintus. Quintus taking the pro-divination position lays out his argument that divination does in fact exist because there is ample evidence of it being successful. The first half of the book is laden with evidence of proper divination of varying types.

His argument though is circular and not only that it is also an incomplete circle. Cicero makes a mistake between his two books, in the first book he is claiming that belief in the gods and belief in divination proves that the gods exist. In the second book he is claiming that because the gods exist there is divination. That’s reasoning that symbolically doesn’t pan out: a->b, b->a= b & a. It’s an all or nothing argument but there is no reason to logically accept either a or b. Secondly, the problem is that if we accept that the gods exist there is no reason to accept that there must be divination.

Does this then mean that the practice of Divination is false? Not necessarily, just that the proof offered so far isn’t as convincing as Cicero would have us believe. Cicero’s ample supply of evidence works better here than it did for proving the existence of the gods, “I will urge only this much, however in defense: the oracle at Delphi never would have been so much frequented, so famous, and so crowded with offerings from peoples and kings of every land, if all ages had not tested the truth of its prophecies.” (1.19)

Bringing out the Delphic Oracle as his prime piece of evidence is a shrewd move. The importance of the Oracle cannot be overstated in the ancient world. No major moves in the bronze age were made without a consultation to the Oracle. Herodotus records numerous examples of the prophecies uttered by the Oracle and how they all panned out to be true from King Croesus,* to King Leonidas**, and Athens.*** It is the most famous of the ancient sites and Quintus is astute in bringing it out.

The problem with the Oracle is also two-fold. The first is that while we know of the successful prophecies there are not any examples of the prophetess failing. Not one. This, in itself proves nothing as it could very well be that the vapors were compelling true divination. Yet, the second problem, is that the Delphic Oracle falls victim to the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. This fallacy is completed when you find a desired result and then draw the bullseye around it, it’s post hoc ergo propter hoc all over again.

This is how Nostradamus is always so accurate. The only time that the Frenchmen ever gave a specific date he was completely wrong, “In the year 1999 and seven months…” It is addressed by Cicero directly, “For it was clever in the author to take care that whatever happened should be foretold because all references to persons or time had been omitted.” (2.54) It’s quite too bad that no one on those many many history channel specials ever explains that one time when the old physician was not only clear but specific. After all, why should they? It would collapse the entire cottage industry.

Adding to that the often cryptic nature of the Oracle nothing can really be told beforehand. The famous example of King Croesus is obvious, either one kingdom will die or the other, it’s not like there was a middle ground in the old days.

Cicero’s problem also lies in the fact that he is a victim of his time. Astronomy and Astrology is roughly the same discipline but the division is beginning. He points correctly to the Miltean Philosopher Thales who accurately predicted an Eclipse, while this might be foresight it’s not anything supernatural.

Ultimately though Cicero will defeat his brother in the argument. Astrology is dispensed with by showing that not everyone born on the same day is the same as the planets’ and stars’ influence would have to be the same. Yet it is logic that defeats the process. If divination is the foreseeing of chance events then we have an ontological issue.

If something can be predicted with certainty than that something is not a chance event it is a necessary event. Chance by definition is something that occurs randomly it cannot be predicted. The very nature of divination is such that it is to predict random chance events. Anything that can predicted can not, by definition, be claimed to be “random.”

Only the Stoics can readily accept this Ontological quandary and still be consistent in claiming that there is divination. The only problem is that while Stoicism was an accepted school at the time they are not represented in the dialogue as they were in “The Nature of the Gods.”

At the end, it seems that Cicero rejects divination just as it seemed he did reject the interference of the gods in the day to day affairs of people. No type of divination is reliable enough or consistent enough to be considered trustworthy. If all of the civilizations who relied on it so greatly really did have the voices of the gods warning them about mistakes, why did they all fall?

The fault lies in the gullible swindled by fortune tellers into believing that a bird’s liver means one thing, or that a thunderbolt arcing to the west means another. The masses would fall for such tricks as long as it pays off once in awhile, Guillermo Savonarola in Renaissance Florence used such thunderbolt omens in ranting against the church. The masses were utterly convinced. “But,’ you say, ‘all kings, peoples, and nations employ auspices. As if there were anything so absolutely common as want of sense, or as if you yourself in deciding anything would accept the opinion of the mob!” (2.39)

The final question on the subject has to do with the fortune tellers themselves, do they admit to themselves? If the James Randi Foundation prize is any example, then no they do not. What about each other? Does John Edwards (the psychic not the politician) laugh at Sylvia Brown…or as Cicero puts it himself, “But indeed, that was quite a clever remark which Cato (the Younger) made many years ago: ‘I wonder,’ said he, ‘that a soothsayer doesn’t laugh when he sees another soothsayer.” (2.23)

* “The winner of this battle shall destroy a great kingdom.” [Croesus of Lydia misinterpreted the oracle and was defeated losing his kingdom]
** “Either a king of Sparta shall die or all of Greece will.” [referring to the Persian War]
*** “Flee to a bulwark of wood…” [The Athenians abandoned the city and relied on their wooden Navy to defeat the Persians at Salamis]