Books of the Year, 2010

This year I followed Amy’s lead from last year and kept a log of the books I read. Apart from being a fun exercise, and making it easier to remember what I read and when, it gives me a natural opportunity to write a “best of the year” post.

So first, some statistics: this year’s haul included a total of 101 books fully read, plus about 20 more partially read but abandoned. (Not all because they were bad; some because I wasn’t in the mood, or whatever. And the worst of the lot were actually finished.) Of the fully read, there were 38 SF, 26 fantasy, 18 lit fic, 13 nonfiction; only 15 of them were re-reads. 6 were YA, 5 middle-grade. I would say that 30 of them were good enough to recommend, with the ones below especially noteworthy. There were plenty of mediocre ones, but only one terrible enough to make me want to claw my eyes out of my head. And I added two writers, Kazuo Ishiguro and Theodora Goss, to my list of “writers whose work I will read the moment it comes out,” an unusually good crop for the year.

And so: Twenty books worth reading and one worth setting on fire. (more…)

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Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 09:00  Comments (4)  
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Monte Carlo methods in History

I just finished re-reading Jared Diamond’s magnum opus, Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s amazing how well the text holds up on re-evaluation; the analysis is deep, and the number of cases he covers is wide enough to convince me that there is a real meat to his argument. It did, however, get me thinking about some interesting ways to extend his work. He proposes several in the epilogue, including all of the obvious further data searches and analyses which would need to be run to confirm or refute the hypothesis, and these are surely in the hands of people far more qualified to think about them than I am. But he raised one point obliquely which got me thinking about the one thing I have most trouble with in the argument, and it gave me a thought for how to answer the question.

(more…)

Published in: on October 28, 2010 at 18:09  Comments (10)  
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Something a little disturbing.

There’s a new exhibit at the US Holocaust Museum, which they’ve put up on-line. It’s a collection of 116 photographs from Auschwitz, showing SS officers in their spare time, on-duty, and so on. The first 12 are the ones I find the most interesting and simultaneously unsettling; it’s just photos of people having fun. Lots of them look like really nice people; the sorts of faces you would expect to see amongst your friends. Except that the men are wearing the uniforms of SS officers, the women of SS auxiliaries, even while they’re playing accordions and laughing in the rain.

(There was lots of rain there. I’ve heard that the amount of smoke produced tended to seed clouds.)

Several of the later photos are interesting, too. #57 shows the commandant (Richard Baer), the previous commandant (Rudolf Hoess), and Josef Mengele just hanging out; this picture has a lot less of the “oh, what nice guys” aspect and a lot more of the “wow. So this is what villains look like in their spare time” aspect.

The usual sentiments about “the banality of evil” apply. The NY Times has an article and op-ed piece about the exhibit, which have some interesting bits about the provenance and significance of the photos.

Published in: on September 24, 2007 at 12:04  Comments (28)  
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Sumer and Egypt

I recently picked up a very interesting volume of ancient Near Eastern primary texts of various sorts. It’s got a bit of everything: mortuary texts, legal documents, letters, ostraka, hymns, temple rituals, legends. There’s even an old Sumerian lullaby from about 4,000 years ago. The purpose of the book, according to its incipit, is both to provide sources relevant to the work of Old Testament scholars (that being the main category of Near East scholars when the first edition was written) and to provide enough other works to give you a feel for the context of the time.

Something I’ve been noticing while reading through this is how different the various cultures feel. The Hittites come off as warlike: not only do they have a lot of documents about war (that might be simple selection bias), but their approach to it is far more gung-ho than the others’. Not in a good way, in a “we like to kill people” sort of way. The Egyptian texts feel far more foreign than I expected: part of this is because they come so predominantly from tombs, but the culture seems to look towards a political center much more than any of the others. Even by comparison to royal texts from other lands, that country seems dominated by the overwhelming power of a single political entity. The Sumerian and Akkadian texts, on the other hand, feel almost familiar; the stories and concerns of the people feel like they wouldn’t be out of place today.

I suspect that this is because we (I?) actually have a good deal more continuity of culture with the Sumerians. The Jews started out there, and came back later in Babylonian days; their old customs and ours are pretty hard to tell apart. And despite the fact that in history class we hear far more about the ancient Egyptians, we don’t actually have much culture in common with them, and it’s not clear that anyone really does; the break between the culture of the Middle Kingdom and the culture of Greek, and later Roman, Egypt was pretty deep. Whatever their powers may have been, the Ptolemies were no Pharaohs.

There’s something very odd about reading texts from an old place, and realizing that they don’t feel foreign to you. The world suddenly feels like it has some sort of structure. But I suppose that this firm an anchoring in history may be where a lot of the Middle East’s problems come from in the modern day, too.

Published in: on August 24, 2006 at 10:06  Comments (4)  
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Viking filk

My only excuse for this is that I was reading the Heimskringla while really, really sleep-deprived, and woke up with this in my head.

Pray to St. Olaf!

Published in: on April 2, 2005 at 11:23  Comments (6)  
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On this day in history:

In 1992, President Bush the Elder pardoned the remaining major players in the Iran-Contra affair, abruptly ending the investigation just before the part where his own role would have come to light. (For those of you who’ve forgotten about it or weren’t around then, here’s a Wikipedia article on the business. I’ll leave the question of who the actual, day-to-day leader of this operation was as an exercise for the reader.)

Published in: on December 24, 2004 at 18:13  Comments Off on On this day in history:  
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Spy vs. Spy

The userpic is a bit more appropriate than usual in this case. It’s a report about a CIA operation back in the early 80s to deal with how the Soviets were “acquiring” US technology secretly. If this is indeed the case, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, I must say that this was simply beautiful. The story, by William Safire, here.

Published in: on February 1, 2004 at 23:35  Comments (3)  
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Interesting read…

Just finished Keegan’s Intelligence in War. Despite the issue in my prior post, I think this is a remarkably well-written and well-thought-out book. I recommend it to anyone interested in the role that intelligence has played in military operations in the past few centuries. (It covers from Napoleon to the second Gulf War)

But incidentally to the main thread of its discussion, reading this book drove home the extent to which our present situation (with regards to hazy terror groups, not Iraq) is different from what our military has been designed to handle. Even Keegan states that “no smaller power has ever won a protracted war with a larger one” – by which I assume he was thinking only of traditional, symmetric wars.

It makes me very curious about the entire subject of the structure of informal networks such as al Qaeda, and how they may be most effectively monitored and interdicted. I’ve got some preliminary thoughts, but there’s a very basic missing piece in my trying to think about this.

An organization like al Qaeda can be thought of as a large network of people. What, precisely, is it that propagates along this network? Do specific commands propagate? Does information propagate upwards as well as downwards? What about materiel, raw resources like money, training data? How are expert proficiencies handled – are people already in situ trained at something, or are specialists moved into position by central planning?

I think a lot of these questions are answerable without access to classified information, and a bit of thinking about these issues could lead to some very interesting structural models that could provide useful information about how to destroy these groups irretrievably.

Published in: on January 31, 2004 at 20:23  Comments (9)  
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The opposition to intelligence

This is likely not of much interest to most people, but it’s something I noticed while reading a book…
Opinions about military intelligence

Published in: on January 31, 2004 at 14:37  Comments (5)  
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Hmm…

I just finished watching Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” The film is better than I remembered – both very funny and deadly serious in its larger meaning.

The special features on the DVD are, however, a bit odd. There’s a Ford propaganda film from 1940; there’s even a karaoke version (with subtitles) of the nonsense song from the film. Yes, the subtitles are nonsense too.

Published in: on January 30, 2004 at 23:04  Comments Off on Hmm…  
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