Books! (Empires Edition)

The Ontociders (me, 2015/#31): I'm unarguably the most biased reader imaginable for this book (technically a novella, although I remember it felt like writing a trilogy), but, you know, it's not as bad as I thought it was! There are a lot of small ideas and scenes I had forgotten I put in there — heck, whole subplots — and, even with the dangers of Mary Sueism, I like how the Survivor came out. This isn't to say that there aren't a ton of things wrong with it, and perhaps on the whole it's a failure, but I thought I'd feel embarrassed while reading it, and I actually enjoyed it. (This might be not dissimilar to how all babies and pets are unprecedentedly beautiful and smart to their parents and owners.)

Understanding the British Empire (Ronald Hyam, 2015/#32): A very enjoyable look at the British Empire; not a comprehensive picture, but a look at different facets (including decision-making procedures as recorded in archives, sexuality in colonial settings, and even the historiography itself of the Empire). There are quite interesting arguments here. I laughed early on at an observation that, given the size and population of the Empire, the British kept it for as long as they did out of a combination of a sense of racial superiority and bluffing.

Rome in the East (Warwick Ball, 2015/#33): A fascinating book on Near (and not-so-near) Eastern influences on the Roman Empire; it focuses mostly on architecture (with a lot of detail, as befits a book that was originally about architecture), but it also goes into cultural, politic, and, of course, religious influences (not that those are always separate concerns). I think the broad point that Rome didn't "civilize" an area that had been civilized thousands of years before Rome's foundation, and that Rome acquired many cultural trappings from the East (religion and eventually even geography being but two of them), is undeniable. It paints an almost awe-inspiring picture of the continuity, historical and geographical, of human civilizations, with deep ideas and overt practices both changing and remaining the same for thousands of years.

The Black Hole (Alan Dean Foster, 2015/#34): I hadn't known it was also a movie (which I haven't seen). On its own merit, it's a not unenjoyable science-fiction story in the classic adventure style; not much in terms of subtle psychological dynamics or striking language, but interesting larger-than-life settings. The ending felt weak, though.

Dune (Frank Herbert, 2015/#35): A frequent reread.

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It's mostly various permutations of people saying Tony, no, and Tony saying TONY YES. (That's also the summary of all Iron Man movies.)

Meanwhile: Clint is great.

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I love e. e. cumming's poetry, so much that most of the (few) poems I've memorized are his. Paradoxically, this means that I have more opportunity to have small mistakes when recalling his poems than anybody else's. And, perhaps as a sign of terminal hubris, I've realized I do prefer them the way I remember them (which is probably why I remember them that way).

To be specific, I remember this verse of since feeling is first

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph


as


we are for each other: laugh,
then
, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph


I don't know. It just sounds better to my ears, and I've never been able to convince my memory that it's not the right version.

The other one is from in time of daffodils:


and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me, remember me.


which to me just has to be


and in that mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me, remember me.


In this case (I think) not because of how it sounds, but because of what it says. Death is not a mystery to be when time from time shall set us free, it's that mystery to be when time from time shall set us free. You don't need, it doesn't make sense, to describe it, you're pointing to it, and the reference is unequivocal.

Of course, I'm not claiming that these are better in any universal sense, and I wouldn't expect everybody, most people, or anybody else to prefer them, but this is how it plays out to me.

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Books! (Mostly Politics Edition)

Citizen Emperor (Philip Dwyer, 2015/#26): An interesting biography on Napoleon between his Brumaire coup and his final sendoff to Saint Helena. Its emphasis is on Napoleon's failures, missteps, failures of understanding, and ruthless (and perhaps neurotically driven) self-aggrandizement. It's not the whole story (I think he sells short his tactical innovations and administrative skills), but it's definitely part of any complete picture of the man. An acquaintance (who came from an entire family a bit obsessed with Napoleon due to their own, quite fruitless, political and financial ambitions) once told me that Napoleon had to keep waging wars, as Europe's monarchies would have never let him stay in power. I disagreed then, and after this book I still do; if not loved, he was certainly admired and feared at the beginning, and with some diplomacy and care he might have easily convinced Europe that the Bourbons were a small price to pay to keep Revolutionary France within reasonable bounds (a sort of carrot-and-really-sharp-stick approach). But Napoleon's own insecurities made him seek war and imperial trappings as the only way to legitimize his rule. It's almost tragic in a classical sense: there was a point in which everybody in Europe conceded that his military skill (partly mythologized as it might have been) was justification enough for him to have and keep France... everybody, that is, except himself. More tragic, of course, is that millions died because he kept trying to win the acceptance from kings --- who had been willing to do so out of fear until they were scared enough to fight --- and from the French --- who had loved him until they started to hate him because of the wars he fought to, partially, win their love.

The Lone Samurai (William Scott Wilson, 2015/#27): An almost hagiographical biography of Miyamoto Musashi, including his later media representations. There's plenty of speculation in this book over his activities, relationships, thoughts, and achievements, which is unnecessary, as the man's documented ones are extraordinary enough. That said, the book has lots of information I hadn't known, so it was well worth the read.

Mortal Engines (Stanislaw Lem, 2015/#28): Most of the stories follow the usual (and quite entertaining) pattern of his robot stories, but the last one is quite something else, and subtler than you'd expect given the overall plot.

The Social Order of the Underworld (David Skarbek, 2015/#29): A fascinating and quite convincing account of the formation and survival of prison gangs as, essentially, providers of the governance services that states take care of outside prison. A good thing: the author discusses alternative explanations, and the data behind his conclusions. A bad thing: he goes out of his way to qualify (although not to universally negate) reports of misbehavior by prison officers (reports aren't always reliable, not all guards do it (not all men...), etc). Given the behavior of law officers outside prisons, and the lessened public oversight of their behavior inside them, I think significant levels of officer misbehavior doesn't call for a very strong burden of proof...

The Everlasting Empire (Yuri Pines, 2015/#30): A look at the Chinese Empire as a concept and political institution, exploring the reasons for its unparalleled long-term stability, periodic dynastic changes aside. Some very interesting concepts (I paraphrase into concepts I'm more familiar with): The Son of Heaven as a focal point in the game theoretical sense. The idea that, in a sense, the rightful emperor is whoever unifies China, and, critically, vice versa. Bureaucracies regularly "deactivating" dynasties from the second generation, by raising increasingly passive emperors (less a conscious plan than the obvious implication of their own proclivities, but almost Bene Gesserit in its impact).

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Relevant to Doc Savage fans:


Officials forbid inmates from sending mail or calling each other. They can use pay phones, but officials often monitor and record these conversations. Many gang members learn obscure languages to obfuscate their discussions, such as the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl.


(Alright, it's Nahuatl instead of Mayan, but the principle remains.)
Today while in a cab I heard a song... You already know how it goes. Unintelligible and ungoogleable hip hop lyrics, late 80s to early 90s (I guessed as much because it sounded old yet familiar to me, and that's the oldest period for which I have musical memories), not much else to go on.

I googled approximate words anyway, looked through lists of top songs for the period, tried those "just hum the song at us" services, even went through all five parts of Jimmy Fallon annd Justin Timberlake's history of rap series (mostly for fun, I admit). And finally, minutes away from giving up two hours of search, I found it.

On one hand, "somebody with broadband in 2015 finds the name of a song that's so un-obscure that it's still being played on the radio" is hardly the stuff legendary triumphs are made of. But on the other hand, it's a small victory over personal entropy, and I'll take as many of them that I can find.

Anyway, for future reference: Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).

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Oh, shotgun, how much did I miss you.

I've been playing old-style Doom again (in an open source fork of the released code, so the art and so on are somewhat different), and, although I am and always have been a mediocre player, Doom was one of the few video games I've played with any sort of regularity (others were Doom 2, SimEarth, SimCity, Civilization, and Alpha Centauri, as well as horrifyingly old games like Prince of Persia and a Ghostbusters RPG+arcade game that, I kid you not, came in an audio tape you played into the Spectrum's audio input plug to load), and being back in that demon-infested base with my trusty shotgun feels like a return home.

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A modest observation

I can easily resist pretty much any temptation, unless it's something I like.

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