Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Thoughts on “The Storm of War”

August 17, 2018

So, I finished reading “The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts. In a way, his book is directly comparable to Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, since it seems to recount WWII in a similar way, and with at least a potentially similar dual role: give an explanation for why the various “empires” fell while describing in some detail the events that occurred during it. But, at the end of it all, “The Storm of War” is a much more accessible work.

The biggest disappointment with the work is that while it starts out by claiming that what it is going to do is argue for a reason why Hitler failed, and at times reminds us that it is trying to do that at various points throughout the work, including in the conclusion, Roberts doesn’t, in fact, spend all that much time doing that. Most of the book is a fairly straight examination of the events that occurred in WWII, with little link to his actual thesis, and so most of the time you can forget what his actual thesis is. On top of that, his actual thesis is a relatively uncontroversial one: that the main impediment to Hitler and the Nazis actually achieving their goals was their own ideology, which caused them to not properly exploit the tensions in the Soviet Union by treating its subjugated peoples better and caused a number of other errors. This isn’t all that controversial in and of itself, so to make that interesting Roberts would have had to have given new evidence or new arguments or show how it caused their failures in a new and unique way. But since he gives it so little attention, he never does. This really makes his thesis seem like a “Well, we knew that already!” sort of conclusion. Thus, it’s probably better, if that was all he had, that he didn’t focus on it all that much.

And that, I think, is partly why it works better than Gibbon’s work. Roberts focuses on telling the story of WWII and telling it in an interesting and accessible way. He doesn’t bog things down with too many details — and, in fact, at times he seems to only lightly skim over some events — but that works for the book. If you want to find out the details of various events there are lots of other books that can provide that, but here you get a deeper look than most simple textbooks will give but not so deep a look that it gets bogged down. Without having a specific focus — like, say, “War at Sea” or “The Decisive Duel” have — it can’t really be expected to do much more. Thus, it’s a pretty entertaining and easy read.

Next up is “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for something like the fourth time. This time, though, what will be interesting is that I’ll be re-reading it right after reading another book on WWII. Will that much WWII end up boring me? Will I notice discrepancies between the two, or will they all generally agree? I’ll have to see when I get through that book.

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My Lists Are Long …

August 3, 2018

So, I’ve talked about the lists I’ve updated and created to try and get things done. The three lists that are on the blog are, well, all rather long, and also aren’t entirely complete. For example, I only have three hourly shows listed on my list of shows to watch on DVD despite the fact that I do indeed have a rather large library of DVDs to watch, that contain both shows that I’ve never watched and shows that I have watched but really want to watch again. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ll return to Knight Rider after finishing Dynasty, and so it might not even be accurate (the half-hour list is pretty much right). And when it comes to my reading list, I have a large number of philosophical works listed and, on top of that, have a number of works that count as “literature” that I want to slide in there at some point. Oh, and I’ve already mentioned the six+ boxes of fiction that I want to read. Essentially, I’m setting up lists that, if I try to complete everything on them, will likely take me years to complete.

I might be overthinking this a little …

That being said, I am making progress. I’ve made good progress on the history books that I wanted to complete, and so can expect to finish the list in a couple of months or so. He-Man has stalled a little since I started slipping Dynasty in as well, but that’s only because I’ve taken time away from it to watch Dynasty, which means that I’m about half-way through it. All I really need to do is live up to my bargain and actually watch the half-hour show in the evenings, after watching one or more episodes of the hourly show and hitting a convenient time point. And I’ve still made some progress on He-Man anyway, especially in the last few days. Finishing Persona was a coup, and I’ve started Persona 2 and am making progress with it … although it turns out that games are working out the worst, because every time I play Persona 2 it reminds me of how much better Persona 3 and Persona 4 are, and a number of things keep reminding me of other games that I’d like to play. Thus, I feel the most dissatisfied with the games I’m playing, and there actually isn’t an alternative like I had with “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which was to read it for an hour or so and then read Deadpool graphic novels in my general reading time. I don’t have free general game playing time nor do I have a lot of games that I could play in general spare time to at least let me play a game that I want to play or enjoy. The counter to that is that for video games there are far fewer games that would make me feel that way; Persona 2 is just a special case, and only because I like the modern Persona games that much more than them that it drags down my enjoyment of those games.

However, an issue with this is that I have little programming projects in the queue as well, but the pressure to finish these things tends to distract me from doing them. It’s not so much that I consider those things more important than the programming projects, but that I consider them at about the same level, and due to time constraints it doesn’t really work to do them in the early weekend afternoons like I had planned. What I’m finding is that my morning stuff plus cooking lunch plus cleaning up takes me just past the starting point for those projects, but then that wouldn’t leave me a lot of time before I’m supposed to play games (and I only have a few days to do that as well). I don’t want to delay playing games because a) I need the hours to get through them in any reasonable amount of time and b) I don’t want to play them too late because then I might not fall asleep that well. Plus, playing them too late would also cut into the time I can explicitly watch those DVDs. So it’s just easier for me to start playing earlier and then finish earlier, and I still get my watching and reading done as well. It just ends up cutting off all of those little projects, which then makes me feel bad that I’m doing nothing on them.

I think a reshuffling of my schedule is in the offing …

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how I progress with this and how satisfied I’ll be with the whole thing as time goes by. So far it hasn’t been terrible and it has been nice to finish some things that I’ve always wanted to finish, but there have been moments when the things that are supposed to be mostly fun haven’t actually been fun. We’ll have to see if they’re fun enough for me to still have some fun with things while still feeling that I’m progressing.

Thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

July 25, 2018

So, I managed to finish a version of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon that was abridged by Hugh Trevor-Roper. I found that I really struggled to read the book, so much so that I ended up treating reading it like I was reading something for a course: I read about a chapter a day, and read other things in my more general reading time. This is not how I generally read history books. And all of this is despite the fact that I am in general interested in the Roman Empire. So what was it that so bored me about that book?

I think the main issue is that the books doesn’t really seem to have a focus. Gibbon uses lots of florid and evocative language and a lot of descriptive asides, which is not a bad thing, as long as we have a context for it. But Gibbon doesn’t seem to be just writing a descriptive narrative, telling us what happened in roughly chronological order, where we can see the asides as things that happen to come up in that discussion. He doesn’t even always follow a chronological order. However, he also doesn’t seem to have an overall thesis that he’s trying to convince us of, such as giving an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell that he is trying to prove, where we can see the asides as the details of things that we need to know to understand in order to see how the events fit into his thesis. So the descriptive asides are too long and detailed to be simply ignored as asides, but don’t seem to serve either the narrative of the events themselves or the overall thesis of the work. Because of that, I think I kept wondering why they were there and so felt that they were out of place and distracting from the book itself. If I was interested in what the asides were describing, it went better, but still the book really did seem to drag at times, which is why I enjoyed it more when I limited how much I was reading it.

My opinion is that the book would work well as a textbook, but not as a book that is just read. The descriptions and language mostly work, but what it lacks is the context to keep the descriptions interesting. As a textbook, the teacher/professor and the structure of the course would provide the context and allow the reader to skip over things that don’t add to the context they’re exploring. Trying to do this yourself for the entire work is far too difficult, especially since the events described might not fit what you’re interested in and so you’d be constantly struggling to find some meaning in what you’re reading, which is, well, pretty much what happened to me, actually.

I don’t regret reading the book, but I am very happy that I’ve finished it and am almost certainly never going to read it again.

Thoughts on “The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs 109”

June 25, 2018

So, a while back — while I was watching “Frasier”, actually — I was read a book called “The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs 109” by David Isby, talking about the development of the two main fighters of WWII and their “duel” throughout WWII. I picked it up originally because I generally like discussions about the air war and air power and general, and it was recommended by Andrew Roberts, who had written “The Storm of War” which I also remembered liking (although I mixed that book up with “War at Sea” by Nathan Miller, which made me think that it was the same kind of book but only from the perspective of the air war, which made me more inclined to read it).

After reading it, I have to say that I liked the book. The best part of it is the descriptions of the moves and counter-moves and thus the many, many different variations of each plane as they tried to find the best planes for the specific problems they had to address and to counter improvements made by the other side whenever they managed to get any kind of actual advantage. And the specifics of each fighter’s design played a huge role in not only what they did there, but also if they even could counter that advantage, and the overall design of each fighter was actually very dependent on the overall experience and personality of their main designers. The 109 was the way it was because of Messerschmitt’s experience and interests, and that at times gave it an advantage but also caused serious issues with future designs, for example. It also talks about other issues around the duel, like cost, production ability, and even tactics, all of which come together to give a larger overall idea of what the air war in WWII really entailed.

While the “Battle of Britain” is, of course, important and covered in detail in the book, it goes on past that until the end of the war, and it’s interesting to see just how much of the duel carries on past that crucial engagement. The Spitfire and 109 continued to duel past that point, and both continued to be modified in reaction to each other until the very end of the war.

I, personally, found that the book often devolved into long technical discussions that didn’t really interest me, but this isn’t a criticism of the book. Given the subject matter, you pretty much had to expect that they were going to need to do that, and in general the technical discussions are relevant to the overall story of the duel. So it’s just a warning that if you do read that book to be prepared for technical discussions if that isn’t your cup of tea.

Overall, I liked the book and will almost certainly read it again at some point … but probably not while watching Frasier [grin].

Your chance to help decide what I write about!

November 29, 2017

So, I’ve been running with the three updates a week schedule for quite a while now, and it seems to be working out pretty well. It even managed to survive my incredible busy time without all that much of a hitch. In doing this I’ve also started to figure out what things work, what things don’t and how things can work out better in my schedule, which then might start to make the blog more predictable consistent in how things work and what sort of content you might see here. In short, there are certain types of content that work pretty well whether I’m busy or not, and that are also things that I like talking about and am going to do some things with anyway, so I might as well talk about them.

The key is that what works best for the blog are things that I can watch, read or do at any time and then comment on later without having to refer back to the original source material that much. If I can do that, then it really makes my blog writing more flexible and so gives me things that can be done in a relative hurry if I’m busy but that I can do in free time if I’m not busy. TV shows are the ideal for this, and books are probably the worst (since to comment on arguments fairly I generally want to quote from them). But since a lot of these things are things that I haven’t focused on or that are suddenly fitting into my schedule better than they did before, I’m also a bit short of things that fit into those categories and so need to find some new sources for those sorts of posts.

Here is your chance to guide me towards new things to try in those areas.

So, one thing that I’ve found myself lately is watching Extra Credits youtube videos and commenting on them (which in their case means “Disagreeing with them”). In fact, I’m planning on commenting on another couple of them in the near future. But other than SF Debris, I don’t really watch a lot of youtube videos, especially when it comes to gaming. And about the only other commentator on games that I read consistently is Shamus Young, and I’m thinking about digging through his old columns — which he is planning on revisting himself, making this so much easier — to find some other things to talk about. But what other video game commentators do you guys like to watch or read who might have things to say that I might find interesting and want to talk about? While ones that I would probably disagree with are in some sense good — because it’s always pretty easy to write posts disagreeing with people (Hi, Extra Credits!) — I’m also open to people who just say things that might bring up interesting, tangentially related ideas for me to talk about (Hi, Shamus!).

A couple of caveats, though: for youtube videos, the videos can’t be longer, on average, than a half-hour, and can’t be Let’s Plays. Text reviewers are not only excluded from those restrictions, they’ll get precedence because it’s easier for me to read them anywhere and quote them if I want to talk about what they’re saying.

Another thing that I’ve recently started doing more frequently is commenting on TV shows that I’m watching in general, which you saw with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Transformers, and most recently Cheers. I’m currently watching Frasier, and will talk about it as things go along, and I still have a show like Wings waiting when this is done. But since I don’t watch a lot of TV in general, I don’t have much of an idea of what shows might be worth watching, and for my purposes — see the upcoming caveats — don’t want to risk trying something out that I don’t think will be good.

Right now, there are a number of caveats. First, for at least the next year it looks like half-hour shows are what I’ll be watching, and that’s all that I could do for the blog because it would take me too long to watch hourly shows to be useful for generating content on the blog. However, that isn’t limited to sitcoms, as it can fit into anything that is half-hour in length and sounds interesting, like cartoons (for example). Second, these have to be completed series, and it has to be the case that I can get the entire series for a reasonable price. Ideally, if I can order them all on amazon.ca, that would be wonderful. EDIT: I’ll pretty much be buying DVDs, so if it’s not out on DVD the chances of my watching it are slim to none. Third, they can’t be too long; the eleven seasons of Frasier and Cheers are probably about the limit, although that’s more number of episodes rather than number of seasons.

As an example, I’m right now looking to see if I can get Hot in Cleveland — which I’ve talked about before — and maybe, now that its run is done, 2 Broke Girls if I can get the seasons for a reasonable price. Big Bang Theory is out because it is still running and is too long anyway, as is something like The Simpsons for the same reason.

I’m also interested in getting suggestions for books to read and talk about. I do want to keep reading and writing about deeper and more serious topics like that, even though it takes me a while to get around to commenting on them (I have finished reading Philipse’s book, for example, but still have to finish writing posts about it), and I’m a bit out of the loop on what the most recent or, for some genres, even what the popular books and topics are. So I’d be looking for suggestions in the genres of theology, philosophy, and history primarily. I’ll also consider requests for TPB comic editions (but, at least for now, not Alt-Hero).

Now, just because something isn’t listed here doesn’t mean that I won’t be writing about it. For example, I still intend to write about video games, but that will still be limited to the ones I play, and I won’t be soliciting ones to consider as something new so I can talk about it on the blog. And I’ll talk about music and my own eccentricities and do song parodies and talk about computers and write philosophical posts regardless. It’s just that these are categories that it is both relatively easy for me to write about and that I’m fairly uninformed about what’s out there that I might want to get into and write about, which is why I’m asking for suggestions here.

Also note that this isn’t like Chuck’s requests. I don’t put these on a list and promise to have them completed at some time in the near future. I’ll do them if I feel like it and get time and can get them without breaking the bank. I’ll try to respond to all comments as to whether there’s even a chance of it and I’ll try to put something up for things that I’ve bought and so plan to get to at some point, but any suggestion you make here is a suggestion that I’ll consider but may not do, even if I think it’s a good one.

I’ve been flirtin’ with Pierre Berton …

November 24, 2017

’cause he’s so smart in his books.

So, a few weeks ago I was wandering through a bookstore downtown looking for some books to read, and I picked up a few historical ones. The first one I read was “The War of 1812”, which combined Pierre Berton’s two books on the subject: “The Invasion of Canada” and “Flames Across the Border”. As Berton is Canadian, there is a bit of a focus on the Canadian side of the battle — most noticeably when he talks about the impact it had on creating a Canadian identity — but for the most part he does a good job of describing the details of both sides of the conflict.

He also has a very interesting style, one which might be more prominent in historical works than I think but that I personally haven’t come across very often. He writes much of the time in a third person present tense, describing thoughts and actions as “Historical figure knows that they need to attack, and so prepares his defenses accordingly”. This makes the events seem more immediate, and not just a description of what happened in the past. Even if you know what the outcome is — especially since sometimes Berton tells you what it is before he describes it — you almost can’t help but be caught up in the immediacy of the event and feel that it’s happening right now. To be honest, I actually think that the WWII documentary “The World at War” often pulls off the same trick, which might explain why I like it so much myself. Maybe it’s a British thing …

Anyway, Berton is also much more colloquial and much less academic than other works I’ve read, particularly when it comes to calling out leaders who are, shall we say, less than intelligent or brave, especially when those traits lead to unnecessary deaths. Berton’s lists of adjectives for failing leaders are quite impressive, and generally entertaining. And since he’s usually right — and since he will generally give props for reasonable caution or heroic bravery — you are more likely to be amused at his comments rather than offended by them, unless you happen to consider that person a hero. He’s also very generous to the native allies of the British, focusing on them more than a work written at the time he was writing might be expected to, but neither emphasizes their savagery nor ignores or excuses it. At the end, he even concludes that the side that probably lost the most in that war were, in fact, the native tribes.

As for the war itself, Berton’s account makes it clear that it was a very strange war. Most of the people on both sides — even the leaders — didn’t really want the war. There were some “War Hawks” on both sides that saw it as a good, either as an attempt to gain more territory or to give the other side a bloody nose and regain honour lost either to the Revolutionary War or to the often draconian and insulting policies of the British, especially impressment of British citizens from American ships. The sad thing is that the really insulting policy that caused the Americans to declare war was repealed right before hostilities began … but once started ending them was not easy, especially with both sides burning villages and committing other atrocities that created very bad feelings on both sides.

But as Berton says, this war is what created the Canadian identity and made it not only distinct from the American identity, but proud of that distinctness. To this day, Canadians are more proud of the traits they gained from their British heritage than they are of the traits they gained by cultural osmosis from the United States. We are less individualistic, less boorish, more polite, more concerned about others and other nations, more welcoming and accepting of other cultures than Americans, and we take great pride in that. And the seeds of that started from us wanting to separate ourselves from those people who invaded us and burned our villages and killed our people, and grew from that even as we became, in country terms, staunch allies and good friends. We may no longer hate Americans, but we’re still happy to not be Americans for the most part. And this makes me wonder if some of the reason for stronger reactions to calls to become more of an American style republic and remove the Queen as Head of State are spawned by a subconscious cultural reaction to the idea of becoming more American.

At any rate, this was a very entertaining book that taught me things about the War of 1812 that I didn’t know before. It is a book that I will almost certainly read again at some point.

Thoughts on two books by Adrian Goldsworthy …

October 13, 2017

So, I recently somewhat read two books on Roman History by Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar and Pax Romana. I really liked Caesar, but couldn’t even manage to finish Pax Romana. I could have finished the latter if I had really tried, but I bought and was reading these books for entertainment and found at about the midway point that I wasn’t enjoying reading Pax Romana and wasn’t likely to start any time soon.

I think the main issue is that Pax Romana doesn’t really have a purpose, or at least one that the book supports. Goldworthy frames it as examining whether the Roman Empire could be considered peaceful and civilizing or aggressive and oppressive, but all he ends up doing is talking about how Rome gained its territories and how it governed them. While he generally slips in a comment or two about whether this made Rome oppressive or not, most of the time there’s no real direct relevance to the main thesis, and so if you are thinking about that premise you would be wondering how this all fits. However, most of the time you will have completely forgotten that that was what he was going for, and so simply be working through the details of how things worked in those areas or provinces. But he doesn’t go into enough detail on the everyday life of the people in those provinces or areas for it to work as just giving background history, and there’s no real chronological or even causal/narrative link between the sections to draw you along. Without a strong tie to the overall theme, the sections seem disconnected from each other, and the sections talk too shallowly about their specific topics to work as an interesting examination of those topics. At the end of the day, the topics examined were neither detailed enough to be enjoyed for their own sake or tied enough to a main thesis to work as establishing evidence for whatever conclusion Goldsworthy wanted us to draw.

Caesar works better — and is the one I read first — because it has an overarching framework to work with: Caesar. While there may be quibbles here and there, generally the book both has a reason for detailing what it does — telling us about Caesar — and has a chronological and causal chain carrying us from one chapter to the next, as we examine Caesar’s career. If we have to hop back into the past, it’s because what happened then is important — at least in the author’s mind — for understanding what happens to Caesar next. If we talk about political systems or historical events that don’t directly involve Caesar, it’s because it’s important to establish them in order to understand Caesar and how things got to that point. While the ending seemed a bit rushed, overall we get a pretty good narrative of Caesar and his life, as well as the cultural factors that made Rome what it was at the time and the systems that Caesar took advantage of and opposed.

Pax Romana had none of that, and so ended up seeming, at least to me, like a series of disconnected sections rather than any kind of comprehensive, unified work. And that, ultimately, bored me.

Rise of Dictators …

October 6, 2017

So, I just finished reading a biography of Julius Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy. Not long before that, I read a book talking about the French Revolution exploring how it turned into the Terror. I’ve also, of course, read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. All of which talk about how governments that weren’t restrictive dictatorships/tyrannies turned into far more restrictive and tyrannical nations. While reading it, it struck me that it is precisely this that is making progressives very angry and scared, the idea that the United States is moving from being more liberal and democratic to becoming a Trump-led dictatorship. And there’s one commonality in at least those three historical events that I think they are missing.

In all of those cases, the tyranny came about because the people, in general, didn’t feel that the current system and people in power were serving the people, and so were willing to accept someone, anyone, who was in a position of some power and promised to fix all of that up.

Germany had been in dire straits for a long time after WWI, and had suffered what many of the people considered to be egregious humiliations for their part in it. The Socialists were blamed — quite likely wrongly — for the surrender, and were blamed for not making things better and/or for not trying to restore German honour. Hitler, on the other hand, directly promised to restore their honour and make the country better, and when he received power he actually did both, although how much of the economic recovery was due to his policies or just a generally recovering economy is not entirely clear. Given that he at least at first seemed to be fixing things and pretty much every move he made he won in the beginning, it’s not surprising that the general German public supported him, at least until he started losing. By the time his policies started impacting the common German, he and his party were too entrenched to be easily removed. And what is also critical to note is that his opponents often spent more time attacking him than in understanding why the common German at least somewhat supported him and trying to appeal to them.

Whatever else you might say about him, Caesar actually had a lot of support from the common person in the Civil War. Throughout his entire political career, he had advocated for and enacted a number of policies to benefit the common voter. Meanwhile, the existing Senators were seen as being ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Pompey and his supporters, fearing that he might take over, actually precipitated the conflict by essentially setting up a case where Caesar could be prosecuted for purported crimes while he was in charge of Transalpine Gaul, which Caesar felt could be used to deny him what he saw as his rightful power. Given that it was clear that political trials in Rome did not turn on truth but instead on the personal interests of the people prosecuting and voting, this left Caesar potentially taking a huge risk if he accepted it. And even as official dictator, he continued to promote the interests of the common person, and at least tried to maintain the image of being merciful and conciliatory.

But the most indicative one is the French Revolution. The government was corrupt, and so the Revolutionaries rode a wave of popular support, making strong accusations and riding mob rule to carry out punishments on those people, whether or not those accusations were really founded. And then when they got into power, they continued to splinter and to make the same sorts of accusations against each other, resulting in a tug of war where the person who could actually convince the people that one of their former leaders and comrades was really a traitor to the cause winning and gaining power through that, which led to the Terror.

You can argue that Trump is taking the Caesar/Hitler route, presenting himself as the only person who can fight the corruption in the government and “drain the swamp”. And yet you can also argue that the progressives are taking the Revolution route, attempting to muster popular support by making often dramatic and poorly founded accusations against Trump and anyone who supports him in any way, and presenting his government as the corruption that they must fight and — using the Nazi parallels and the “Punch a Nazi” rhetoric — fight with violence if necessary, which means fight with violence if they can’t win. If we take these historical parallels to their logical conclusions, you’d have the choice between an American Empire or an American Terror. Is it any wonder, then, that so many moderates don’t support either side?