Saturday, June 16, 2001

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BOOK Reviews

 This isn't organized well. I'll start putting tags to important things up top for now, and later I will do the whole thing over.

Starting July 6, 1999 with the latest first, here are new books:

The book of the month was a regular feature of the old Chaos Manor column. It wasn't a review, because it never ran more than a couple of lines per book, and I never included books I didn't recommend. There were usually two, a computer book and another. The 'another' could be anything from Paul Johnson's History of the American People, to a history of the Thirty Years War, to one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels to a serious study of marriage and the family, to almost anything.

Incidentally, Johnson's book is the best one-volume history of America I have ever seen. It has nearly everything you ought to know about our history, written by an admirer who can see us warts and all. If you're out of touch with the history of America, get this book. You will not be sorry.

Arthur C. Clarke told me a long time ago that writers ought to read a book a day. When I was younger I almost kept up with that, but one a week plus huge piles of magazines and newspapers are about all I can manage now, and of those many wouldn't be suitable for recommendation to an intelligent readership.

I'll continue the book recommendations here. In each case, if the book is hyperlinked it will likely be to Amazon Books, and the link will be such that if you buy the book through that link, I get some of what you pay Amazon. How much isn't clear, and in fact so far nothing at all has happened, but it's early times. I know some books have been bought through that link because I bought a couple of my own that way. We'll see. Understand my mixed emotions: I like book stores, and I worry a bit about how much trouble book sellers are in, and how much of that is due to competition from Amazon. On the other hand, Amazon is enormously convenient, and I've received everything I ordered promptly and in good condition. That includes a long out of print book on military theory. As I say, we'll see.

BOOKS OF THE MONTH: A page devoted to the column Books of the Month.


Current Entry

Writing Tools

C. S. Lewis

Fallen Angels by Niven, Pournelle, and Flynn

Rescuing Prometheus

A negative View of The Microsoft Files

Cyber Rights


Once A Hero

 Sailing to Sarantium

Windows 98 Annoyances

The Baltimore Case: A trial of politics, science and character.

Virgina Postrel: The Future and Its Enemies

Wilhelm Roepke, A Humane Economy

Starswarm in paperback.


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I am perpetually being asked to recommend books for writers. Most aren't much good. One that is, is Ben Knott's The Craft of Fiction. It's also out of print, although Amazon may be able to find you a copy. It's a slim work by the creator of the Mad Scientists' Club juveniles. He's also a professor of English, about the only one other than James Gunn that I know who can tell you something interesting on the subject. He has some good points on craft and craftsmanship, which is the only thing about fiction you can explicitly learn.

The other books on writing I can recommend are Techniques of the Selling Writer by my old friend Dwight Swaine, and his Creating Characters. Dwight was one of the few people I know who always made a living by writing. He never got rich, but he sold steadily from pulp days on, and he had a professorial turn of mind: he liked to explain how he did things. Both good books. I ordered a copy of Creating Characters the other day; it came today (Thursday, 9 July) and it is even better than I remembered; a book worth rereading once in a while even by professional writers. Dwight wasn't a great writer, but he was a darned good one; he made a decent living at writing; and unlike most writing instructors, he knew the trade from practical experience. Those are still about the best books on writing I know of and anyone who wants in my racket would be well advised to get them.

In another place I pointed out that Mr. Heinlein required me to buy Skillin and Gay, WORDS INTO TYPE, back when I first got into writing. I have been through several editions since, and I have never regretted the investment. It is the definitive style book on manuscript preparation and grammatical usage. As Heinlein said, few are offended by correct grammar, while many are offended by bad usage. It makes good sense to know the rules even if you decide to break them. On that score, any writer who does not read Strunk and White ELEMENTS OF STYLE once a year is probably making a mistake.

From writing to reading: If you are not familiar with Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doran, HOW TO READ A BOOK, you probably ought to be. For a reader's surprise at its discovery and my comments on that, click here.


The first book of the month is Max Boot, OUT OF ORDER: Arrogance, Corruption, and Incompetence on the Bench (Basic Books 1998). Alexander Hamilton thought the judiciary would be the weakest branch of government and would need protection from the encroachments of the other two. That didn't happen, and Boot argues, persuasively and with many examples, that the judiciary branch is out of control and dangerous at every level of government; and that judicial interference in the political process is a serious matter.

We have gone a long way from self government in this country, and it is not clear to me that a lawyer sitting in robes on a high bench is more competent to run my schools, manage my public works departments and jails, and supervise building construction, than I or my elected representatives would be. I guarantee that some of Boot's case histories will enrage you.

With a preface by Robert Bork.

The computer book of the month is Neil randall and Dennis Jones, USING MICROSOFT FRONT PAGE 98. Cue Books. This is about as complete a guide as you will find, and I'm using it pretty constantly to learn how to make this page work.

And of course the book I really want you to buy is STARSWARM.

More computer books I can recommend:

Leonhard et al, OFFICE 97 ANNOYANCES, is one of the series from O'Reilly books on common computer problems. They are all very good; O'Reilly has a great publishing line. The ANNOYANCES series include OFFICE 97 and WORD 97; that latter I don't have, but if it's as good as the others it's excellent. Finally, the O'Reilly series has Paul Robichaux, Windows NT Registry, which is the ONLY decent book on that subject I have seen.

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I am to be the Guest of Honor at the 1999 North American Science Fiction Convention, i.e. NASFIC, in Anaheim over Labor Day weekend next year. They hold a NASFIC when, one year out of four, the World SF Convention is not in the United States or Canada. The film director of the convention just told me they will be showing SHADOWLANDS, the reasonably accurate biographical movie of the life of English philosopher and critic C. S. Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman Gresham. It was a wonderful movie. Since I am known to be something of a fan of C. S. Lewis and his works (fan may be short for fanatic, which seems appropriate here) they asked if I would like to give a brief talk about Lewis as introduction. I certainly would, and that reminds me to list some of his books here as recommended reading.

Two stand out a lot. First, THE GREAT DIVORCE is both a charming story and a very good work of speculative theology. While THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS is probably his best known work, there's more meat in The Great Divorce. I have to say that I lifted a good part of the philosophical stuffing for the Niven and Pournelle INFERNO from The Great Divorce. If you don't know INFERNO, it has won us a number of awards, and was apparently responsible for getting the Ciardi translation of Dante's Inferno back in print some years ago. Of course Amazon lists INFERNO as  out of print although Simon and Schuster says it is not. Anyway, there are definitely LEWIS elements in our INFERNO.

Second, THE ABOLITION OF MAN is one of Lewis's finest works. It is the non-fiction background to THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, Lewis's science fiction account of a research institute run by thoroughly modern sociologists and biologists -- who manage to unearth Merlin, only they quite misunderstand who he is. Hideous Strength is the best of the three "Perelandra" science fiction novels; it is less allegorical, and while the main character, Ransom, who bears a lot of relationship to the Fisher King, appears in it, there's less dependence on the old legends. It is also by far the least dated of the three. Lewis was mostly a fantasist rather than a science fictioneer; he distrusted science a great deal more than I do, but then he had good reason to: science can produce great sins as well as give us the means to correct great evil. It depends at bottom on just how fallen you think mankind is. I, like the Constitutional Framers of the US, think mankind quite fallen, but I have no remedy for it: self government is still preferable to the government of experts. Like Adams I think each man the best judge of his own interest. I think put baldly and that way Lewis would have to agree: I wish I could have asked him.

Finally, MERE CHRISTIANITY is still the best work on Christian apologetics I know of outside the medievalists, and certainly the most accessible. As Lewis says, the Christian religion is a statement; if it is false it is of no importance; if it is true it is of infinite importance; what it cannot be is a trivial question or one of medium importance. On the other hand, PILGRIM'S REGRESS, while allegorical, reads smoothly and like a novel; if you don't know it, and you have any interest in Lewis's other non-fiction, you probably ought to see this one too.

On the other hand, his best known works are probably the religiously mythopaeic children's books, the NARNIA series. They're readable by adults, but they really are intended for children, and most literate children find they love them. Lewis was quite a story teller.

Then there is TILL WE HAVE FACES, which is the Cupid and Psyche legend told from the viewpoint of the older sister. To say it has a twist is a real understatement


  CYBER RIGHTS: More later on this one: I don't have time to do a review, but if you have any interest in the future of the Internet and legal problems, get Mike Godwin's CYBER RIGHTS. I doubt you will agree with everything he says but that's not the point: he'll make you think about why you don't agree, and often he'll persuade you to a view you may not have had. It worked that way with me, anyway. Highly recommended. It has been my book of the month, and is reviewed there.

Fallen Angels

Claud Addicott []

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I really enjoyed "Fallen Angels," and was thinking that the idea of an oppressive Environmentalist government might make a good basis for a novel along the lines of Robert Heinlein’s "Revolt in 2100."

Just a thought,

Claud Addicott

Fallen Angels is a romp, and the characters include a lot of science fiction fans. We had fun with that book. It would make a very odd movie, and in these politically correct times I doubt that making fun of political correctness would get much Hollywood backing. Stranger things have happened, but I suspect this will remain a book rather than a movie. We did have a lot of fun with it, though. For those not familiar with it, in a not too distant future science fiction fans save civilization...


From the August column:

The book of the month is Thomas P. Hughes, RESCUING PROMETHEUS, Pantheon, ISBN 0-679-41151-8. This is about the best account I know of the development of management and control structures for enormous projects, including the old USAF SAGE system as well as the ARPANET/Internet. Hughes doesn't say what went wrong with the Apollo program and NASA's Shuttle, but the principles of organization, management, and operations research are laid out well enough to let you think of your own explanations.

From the September column:

The book is The MICROSOFT FILE: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates by Wendy Goldman Rohm (Times Business, ISBN 0-8129-2716-8), and while it may have some facts in it, the book is so biased against Gates, and so full of petty and irrelevant insults, that it’s very hard to determine what’s real and what isn’t.

There is much more in the column: click here. There was more in VIEW; click here. Those reviews say all I need to on this book which reminds me more of the National Enquirer than real journalism. It's not that I want to defend Gates, but there are limits to what you ought to do with anonymous sources and this passes them in the first chapter.



Book Recommendation: From Plato to NATO

David G.D. Hecht

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

I thought I would take the liberty of recommending a book to you (as you have so often, and to such good effect, done for us in your column).

The book is From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, by David Gress (1998: The Free Press, 559 pp., notes and index) (ISBN 0-684-82789-1).

The book combines a (very synoptic) overview of Western history from the Greeks to the modern age with a critique of what the author calls the "Grand Narrative." This is the view of Western civilization taught in, for example, the courses I took at Columbia under the titles "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West" and "Literature Humanities". The author rejects, however, what he perceives as the ill-informed critiques ("antinarratives") of Marxists, post-modernists and others, and argues that the real failing of the "Grand Narrative" is that it is ahistorical.

Contrary to the "Grand Narrative," the author argues that the West is descended, not from Classical Greece, or Classical civilization, or the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but from a fusion of late Roman and Christian (what he refers to as "Late Antiquity") and Germanic elements. He refers to this tripartite heritage as the "Old West," martial, religious and traditionalist, from which emerges the "New West," rational, secular and individualist.

Within the context of the emergence of the "New West," the author identifies two strains within the Enlightenment tradition. The first is the "skeptical Enlightenment," of Hume and Montesquieu, firmly grounded in historical perspective, that argues that man is inherently flawed but can transcend his flaws. The second is the "radical Enlightenment," of Voltaire and Rousseau, in opposition to historical tradition, that argues that man is inherently good and merely needs to be liberated.

The author argues that, until we rediscover the real historical roots of the Western tradition, any attempts we make to defend it will be fruitless, built on a foundation of sand. I consider myself a student of history and I learned a great deal by reading it. The book can be heavy going at times, but is fairly approachable. Recommended!

Further description, reviews and ordering information from Amazon.Com can be found at:

(click here)


Thank you. I have seen other reviews of that which caused me to want the book with a view to recommending it. Now I'll definitely get it. Thanks again: more after I have seen it.


From the July 1998 Column:

The book of the month is Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, Harper Collins, 1997; a great sprawling story of the Americans from earliest times, written by a great and readable historian. I thought I knew the American saga, but this taught me things I didn’t know. If you’re not into a thousand pages on American History, let me shamelessly recommend Starswarm, by Jerry Pournelle, Tor Books May 1998. Some think it the best thing I have ever done. Perhaps not, but I do find it Good Enough.

From the November 1998 Column

I’m more impressed with Windows 98 now than I was last month. This is largely because I have Windows 98 under control now. The computer book of the month is David Karp’s WINDOWS 98 ANNOYANCES, an O’Reilly book. Believe me: if you work with Windows 98, you must have this book. It explains a number of "features" in Windows 98 that I thought were bugs. It tells you how to set things so they are or are not like Windows 95. It explains your options and how to use them. Without this book Windows 98 is a mystery. With it you have a chance to take control. As you all know, I am fond of O’Reilly books to begin with, but this one is outstandingly good. Highly recommended.


There are two books this month. The first, ONCE A HERO (hardbound) (paper) by Elizabeth Moon, is a pretty standard space opera set in the world of the "Herris Serrano Series" (Baen Books). The title character, Esmay Suiza, is an aristocrat from a provincial planet who has joined the imperial space navy and shortly after finds herself the sole surviving officer in command of a ship in battle, which she wins, thereby saving an entire planet. That happens before the book begins: the novel is about the consequences of having been a hero. Well worked out, over detailed in spots, but still a page turner.

The second book is quite strange. Guy Gavriel Kay writes about the 5th Century Byzantine Empire, but he doesn’t call it that. SAILING TO SARANTIUM (Harper Prism) takes place in a fantasy world; one with a history so close to our own that sometimes only the names have been changed. That is, Sarantium is Constantinople, Rhodium is Rome, Varena is Ravenna, and the geography is the Mediterranean world of Europe in the 5th Century. The story opens as Valerius, Count of the Excubitors, is raised to the Imperial throne through the intrigues of his nephew Petrus. In due time Petrus becomes emperor, and experiences the "Victory Riots." All of this happened in real history, with Justin as Valerius, Justinian as Petrus, and the Nike Sedition as the famous riots which nearly brought down Justinian and Theodora, the dancer he married who became the most famous empress in Byzantine history. She’s called Aliana in this book.

Of course if you don’t know all that, it’s still a whacking good story. Kay has details on chariot racing which sure feel authentic. His major character is Crispin, a master mosaic artist, and details of that art are important to the story. When Crispin interacts with characters from history including Petrus (Justinian) and his general Leontes (Belisarius), the characters are true to what history knows of their real world counterparts. Details of the book sometimes get in the way – the author cannot resist the writer’s trick of making a scene important by saying "If Crispin had known this history would have been different" – but this is minor carping about a story good enough to have kept me reading 400 and more pages in one sitting. If you like historical fiction or heroic fantasy, you will like this book.


From VIEW Saturday, December 19, 1998

I didn't hear the final impeachment debates and vote because I got up late: I spent much of the night infuriating myself reading The Baltimore Case by Daniel J. Kevles, and didn't stop until it was grey daylight outside. This is the story of Congressman Dingell's exploitation of a scientific dispute that ended up with David Baltimore resigning aw President of Rockefeller University, and shows precisely what happens when you take government money for science: the politicians win, the scientists lose, and the effect on science is interesting. Especially in direct funding systems like NIH (as opposed to NSF which can be something of a buffer in these matters), the politicians will exploit anything they can. Few cases are as raw as Dingell's decision to "get" Nobel Laureate Baltimore because Baltimore dared stand up to Dingell and his gang of thugs posing as Congressional staff; but there are and always will be many more.

The lessons here are not clear. Without churches and great families, in this era of death taxes, it is difficult to find mechanisms for looking far to the future or funding sources for long term research and basic research and the argument that only government can do this now is compelling; but The Baltimore Case shows this can be fraught with danger. In this case the conclusion was found almost in the first weeks after Margot O'Toole, and brilliant but dangerously obsessive and flawed post-doc who expoited her role as "whistle blower" raised the questions about the publication in the journal CELL that started the whole thing.

O'Toole was unable to duplicate some of the work done by Baltimore's co-author Thereza Imanishi-Kari. In frustration she came up with an alternate interpretation of the results Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore obtained. And in the first meeting with Baltimore, Baltimore said that he didn't accept O'Toole's views but they were a possible interpretation -- and "no one is going to settle this by arguing. This indicates a need for further research." That is where it should have ended, but it didn't end there; research in an area critical to understanding lupus was set back by years, careers were ruined, tens of thousands of man hours of brilliant scientific people were wasted, and Dingell's thugs ran roughshod through the scientific community establishing dangerous precedents. And at the end the conclusion is that the questions can only be settled by more research because no one is going to settle it by arguing.

The arrogance of Congress and many of these bureaucrats is not astonishing because I suppose you should expect it; but the inability of the science community to do anything to settle what began as a scientific question is extremely disturbing. Not even the appointed top officials could do much. And the total lack of manners and thuggish behavior of Dingell's  arrogant Congressional staffers really is astonishing; one expects arrogance from unaccountable power, but why must it be accompanied by foul and abusive language. But then why not?

If you have any interest in public management of science this is the most important book on the subject you will read this year or next.

A new important book is Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason, who has produced a winner in THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES. This is the sort of book I might have written if I hadn't been so blooming busy with other stuff. I have some arguments with her, and in fact some profound disagreements, but reading this book will harm no one, help many, ask a lot of questions that ought to be asked, and provide a couple of days worth of good reading. How much more do you need? She starts with the Libertarian view that the State is usually the enemy, and can't do much well; a curious view given how successful the State has been throughout history, since clearly the institution must do SOMETHING well if only to preserver its own existence. Moreover, there are some things the state must do, because if left to competing enterprises, the result is a disaster.

On the other hand, it is a very good thing to question the automatic assumption that only the state can do certain things. David Friedman is a bit less readable but perhaps more profound in making economic arguments against state action; but Postrel is catching up. All told very worth your while.



Roepke is back!

The following URL points to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's blurb for their reprint of Wilhelm Roepke's book, A Humane Economy. Price $24.95 plus fifty cents postage.

Secure credit-card ordering is available.

(I looked for it on -- it ain't there.)

You have recommended this book in the past, but it was out of print until quite recently.

I have ordered a copy. When I have read it, I plan to provoke discussion -- here and/or on BIX -- of the applicability of Roepke's ideas to our current predicament.

Be warned! 8-)

Thank you. I consider that one of the seminal works on economics, perhaps the single work and theory closest to my own views. It is good that it is back in print. I certainly do recommend it.


Cue's USING Microsoft Front Page 2000 Special Edition is absolutely required if you want to use Front Page 2000. FP 2000 has no manual and the on-line help is abysmal. The Cue book is pretty complete and comprehensive, and has sections to explain some of the very weird aspects of FP 2000. With this book FP 2000 is a useful program. Without it (or some other but this seems the best of the lot) you have wasted your tme and money installing Front Page 2000. 

SUBJECT: Book Review - "Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield

"Gates of Fire" is a novelization of the battle at the Hot Gates of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

I find historical novels, if they are accurate and well-written, to be not only enjoyable but useful. I like history, but I have trouble slogging through straight, historical non-fiction, especially when it covers a period with which I am unfamiliar. I find that a good novel dealing with a particular era can aquaint me well enough with the dramatic themes and character of an era, so as to breathe life into the dry, factual details and make even the dry historical books more interesting. Of course, there's always the danger that I may get so caught up in a particular interpretation or author's vision as to miss the real truth behind it, which is why it's important to choose historical novels with some care.

So when I was in Pendragon books the other day, I noticed this novel dealing with the defense of the 300 Spartans against the massive slave armies of the Persians - an event which I had heard about from both Jerry P. and from reading Joseph Campbell. (In Campbell's "Courtly Love and the Grail", a series of cassete tape lectures, he calls this battle the "defining moment" of the Hellenic age.) Naturally, I picked up a copy.

The novel is told from the point of view of a Spartan squire named Xeones, the only survivor of the battle, who lay dying of his wounds while in Persian captivity. The Persian King, Xerxes, is interested in learning more about these Spartans and why they fought as they did. Xeones dictates his tale to the king's scribe, and tells not only about this battle, but about Spartan culture, Spartan training, about other battles he has seen, about the feeling of brotherhood between warriors, about how he came to Sparta after his own city had been destroyed by a rival.

Although I found the "story within a story within a story" format to be a little disconcerting at first, the narrative gradually smooths out and improves as the book progresses. I throught that the story was well-written, although occasionally I was slightly jolted by what I considered to be a few awkward anachronisms in the language used in the descriptions (such as describing a slave's robe as "altar-boy white"). For the most part, the author's use of language is artful and rendered with care. The book starts out a bit slow, but the climax builds to a deeply moving crescendo.

A lot of the book probes into both the methods and the psychology of warfare. "War is work" says the Spartan platoon leader Dienekes, who's goal in saying this is to demystify warfare, and insure that his troops approach the battle with calm and reasoned spirits - neither in fear nor battle-lust. I got the same sort of experience from reading this book, and it's treatment of the emotions of a warrior, as I got in Elizabeth Moon's excellent "The Deed Of Paksennarion".

I lack the expertise to say how historically accurate the book is, although the author does cite a lot of historical sources, both ancient and modern, in the afterword. Taken as a novel, it's one of the best bits of military fiction I've read. I tend not to be interested in battle for battle's sake (I found Tom Clancy's "Red Storm Rising" to be excruciatingly dull, to name just one example), but the author has done a creditable job making not only the action but the characters interesting and entertaining.

-- Talin (  "I am life's flame. Respect my name.  My fire is red, my heart is gold.  Thy dreams can be...believe in me,

                                                 If you will let my wings unfold..." 

-- Heather Alexander

An excellent book, and I can add nothing to that review except to note that the historical accuracy is pretty good. Thanks! I should have reviewed the book earlier, and I have it on the list as a book of the month; in fact I thought I had made it one. I encountered it when I spoke at the Ashbrook Institute last spring. Anyway, thanks!

Sams Teach Yourself the Internet in Ten Minutes 2nd Edition by Galen Grimes isn't a book any of you need, but if you want to give a book to Aunt Minnie to get her started, this is a good one. It's short and easy to understand.

Book Reviews by Talin: (August 2000)


Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond

The story of this Pulitzer prize-winning book starts out in New Guinea, where the author spent many years studing bird evolution. A local New Guinean friend asked him "Why is it that the white people brought so much cargo [i.e. technology and material goods], and the black people didn't have cargo to offer in return?" More generally, why did white Europoean civilizations end up colonizing and dominating such a large part of the world?

The book attempts to answer this question, layer by layer, peeling history like an onion. The proximate cause of Western success was, as the book's title suggests, guns, germs and steel. The Europeans had better weapons, industry, and nastier germs than did the Aztecs, the Incas, the Australian aborigines, the Polynesians, or the Indians.

But that is only the proximate cause. Why did the Europeans have the guns, germs and steel? Was it because the western races were "better"? The author quickly disposes of this argument, as well as a few other "standard" explanations.

Instead, he proposes a theory that the European success is due to a number of lucky factors of environment and geography.

First, the early middle-eastern peoples (specifically the fertile crescent) had access to more domesticable plant species than any other part of the world. According the archeological evidence, there are at least five, and possibly as many as nine places in the world where plant domestication was developed independently. Each of these developments involved plants which were indigenous to the local climate and soil. In China, it was rice and millet; In New Guinea it was sugar cane and banana; In Mesoamerica it was corn, beans and squash.

However, the fertile crescent had a genetic "capital" which outshone all of these, with wheat (and many other cereals), peas, olives and much more.

Diamond points out that of all the various plants in the world, only a tiny fraction are domesticable. In the last few centuries, only a handful of species (such as pecans) have been added to the list. It wasn't a failure of ingenuity on the part of the Mississipi valley Indians that they only developed three crops, and relatively meager ones in terms of nutritional value. It was simply bad luck. Primitive peoples aren't, as a rule, stupid. In fact, once lines of trade had been established between the Mesoamericans and the Mississipi valley indians, the Mesoamerican crops (which were vastly superior) had displaced most of the "native" crops within about a century.

A second factor was that the dwellers of the fertile crescent also had access to far more domesticable animal species. Of the fourteen "ancient" domesticated animal species weighing over 100 pounds, 13 of them come from or were available to the fertile crescent dwellers. The sole exception was the Andean Llama.

Again, Diamond points out that only a small number of animal species can be domesticated. The zebra, for example, is superficially similar to a horse, but grows nastier and more dangerous with age (more zookeepers are injured by zebras than by tigers). Cheetas and giraffes won't breed in captivity. Bears would make fantastic meat animals, but they are far too dangerous to keep around. Other species don't have the right type of herd instinct - they can't be "herded", which makes grazing them too much work to bother with. Yet others fight amongst themselves. The list goes on.

This explains one of the long standing mysteries of the Aztecs: How it is that they independently invented the wheel, but were too "stupid" to use it for anything except toys. The real reason was that they didn't have any draft animals, and in the mountainous terrain of central America it's too much work to pull a wheeled vehicle by hand - porters are more efficient. The only domestic animal that the Aztecs possess were dogs.

Thus, the native Americans were unlucky in that they could not use animal power for ploughing land, making farming less efficient in comparison to hunting and gathering. Only in this case it may not have been simple luck. It turns out that most of the large mammals disappeared at roughly the same time as humans arrived on the continent; The ones that survived were mostly species that had also crossed over from Asia. Apparently, the native American mammals were simply too easy to catch, and were eventually hunted to extinction. A similar situation occured in Australia. The Aboriginal people apparently once had bows and arrows, but once the easy game was gone they faded away because they weren't of any use.

A third factor has to do with the arrangement of the continents as a whole. The Eurasian continent is oriented along an east-west axis, unlike Africa and the Americas. Colonization efforts (and the trade that follows) are much easier in an east-west direction than in a north-south direction. The climate is similar, which means that the plants, animals, and other artifacts of culture adapt much more easily to the new location. Thus, the areas of colonization tend to be elongated east-west "smears" on a map.

Thus it was that the Aztecs were denied the llama - the inhospitable equatorial region was an effective barrier to their migration. Similarly limited were the Bantu tribes of central Africa - none of their domesticated crops would grow easily outside of a narrow region of latitude.

Thus, the Eurasian people had access to a richer genetic heritage than any other part of the world, and could trade for even more riches. With this, they were able to farm more effiently (with animal-driven ploughs), build larger cities (which serve as a breeding ground for epidemics) and maintain more non-food-producing specialists than the other cultures. When they arrived in the America, they had the best weapons, and had the nastiest germs (to which they were mostly immune), and were able to overrun native populations with relative ease. Nor is this the first time such a mass conquest occured - the author illustrates some earlier examples, most notably the Austronesian expansion into Polynesia.

Of course, all of these factors apply to all of Europe and Asia; It doesn't explain what peculiar advantages Europe had over the others. Here the author is on somewhat shakier ground. His contention is that the geography of Europe fostered the development of a small number of competing nations. Not broken up into little warring triblets, like New Guinea, each too small to support a city, nor one overarching empire (as with China) which could dictate policy and control technological adoption over a wide area. Instead, the European states were "forced" to advance technologically - if one state refused to adopt an advance, then a neighbor was likely to adopt it instead, which gave it an advantage, placing the first state in the position of "catch-up". (Christopher Colombus' fund-raising efforts in various countries is probably the most familier example.)

Diamond's claim is that if you were to go back in time and "swap", say, the Australian Aborigines with the British, that the Aborigines would end up where the British are today. And so on.

All in all it's a fascinating book, very easy to read. I had a hard time putting it down.


The Origins of Virtue: Human Instinct and the Evolution of Cooperation. Matt Ridley

This is a relatively short book, but it's packed with things to think about. The author starts at a relatively microscopic level, showing how cooperation evolved between genes, bacteria and mitochondria, slime molds, plants, organs of the body, working his way up to cooperation in primates, dolphins and human societies. At every level, there is the occasional "mutiny" - even parasitic chromosomes who contribute nothing to the process except their own self-reproduction.

There is a lengthy examination of the Prisoner's dilemma. In an isolated encounter between strangers, a "nasty" uncooperative strategy is best, but in repeated encounters a "tough but fair" strategy is more successful. If the game is modified to include occasional "mistakes" and asynchronous turn-taking, then even "nicer" strategies become optimal, although a society of unconditional "nice" cooperators will still be vulnerable to a "nasty" opportunist.

Of the animal species that have an extensive social instinct, the large majority are based on nepotism - that is, the survival of a relative's genes. However, a very few species, including us, have an additional dimension of cooperation - that of reciprocity, or returning favors for favors. For example, it is a universal human custom to share food, an instinct which we pursue with enthusiasm. This behavior turns out to be a very successful "prisoners dilemma" strategy, provided you have a large enough brain to keep track of all of the reputations of the individuals you deal with. Thus, for each of these species, a stable population or "tribe" is about as large as the number of individuals that an individual can get to know well. In fact, you can almost predict how large an animal's social group will be by looking at the structure of its brain. In the case of humans, this number turns out to be about 150.

In all societies, the rules of reciprocity vary depending on the level of familiarity. What is appropriate for a family member is different that what is appropriate for a stranger met in a chance encounter, or a trading partner located in some other country.

Another topic which is discussed extensively is the notion of division of labor, both the Adam Smith variety, and that found in bees and other hive insects. There is also the "sexual" division of labor found in many human societies - women gather, men hunt. In some cases this "division" can be quite complex, with each sex having authority over specific phases of some elaborate operation, such as butchering a hog. In any case, a society that practices specialization is more efficient - but requires a way of keeping score.

An example of this is found in many tribal hunting societies. Vegetables, which can be gathered continuously, are considered private property, whereas a large animal (too large for one individual to eat before it spoils) is considered a public good. But if this is the case, then why bother to hunt, when others will do it for you? This "free-rider" problem is avoided, because the lucky hunter trades his surplus for another kind of currency - reputation within the tribe. This reputation can in turn be traded for better portions of another hunter's kill, or for sex. (In baboon societies, the likelyhood of a group of males going hunting is largely determined by the presense of a female in heat.)

Humans (and dolphins) take this reciprocal cooperation a step further by forming second-level alliances - groups of groups. Human groups are more permeable than those of the other primates - we don't have as rigid a notion of territory or tribe. However, we do form into tribes or bands (the author gives the Macintosh vs. PC debate as an example), and to revile those with different customs. Conformism, it turns out, is a good strategy for enhancing cooperation within the tribe. But the price of this cooperation is, paradoxically, war, or at least distrust and rivalry between groups. This is not because of some innate human cussedness, but because the "mutual aid" strategy is only evolutionarily sound if there is an "in-group" which is distinct from "everyone else".

Ridley's last couple of chapters have a strong libertarian bent. The "tragedy of the commons" is largely a myth, he claims - most of the so-called "commons" are anything but. "Use rights", "water rights" and other strange forms of property are the rule, not the exception. A herdsman who grazes his sheep in violation of the tribal custom will be driven off by the tribal elders, or even killed. It is when these "primitive" forms of social cooperation become nationalized in the misguided hope of "proper resource management" that the real ecological disaster strikes.

Ridley is also likely to draw some serious flak from the politically correct. The frank discussion of sexual division of labor (which by no means implies that "a woman's place is in the home"), of the evolutionary basis for racism, war, and hypocrisy will likely be troubling to many. The dicussions of religious tribalism, government, and the myth of the American Indians "living in harmony with nature" will certainly be a source of controversy.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this quite a bit, and it has given me a lot to think about. In particular, the notion of that there is a maximum size to a stable human society neatly explains a lot of the behavior we see in large internet discussion forums.

-- Talin (      "I am life's flame. Respect my name.     My fire is red, my heart is gold.   Thy dreams can be...believe in me, If you will
                                                   let my wings unfold..." -- Heather Alexander

And thanks!


It's been a long time since I sent you anything, so I thought I would send a couple of book reviews. Most of these books you will already be familiar with, but nevertheless I think it's good to have a review of them on record.

A new Review by Talin

When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with E.E.Doc Smith's Lensman series - I must have read that whole series five or six times over the course of about a decade. I was thrilled by the not-so-serious high concepts and the action, but I never paid much attention to the quality of the writing itself. However, I then made the mistake of reading _Galactic Patrol_ aloud to a friend. The act of actually pronouncing the words really spoiled the experience for me, because it forced me to become conscious of how bad the writing actually was. I became painfully aware of the cliches, the hackneyed phraseology, the scenery-chewing melodrama, and of course Smith's legendary use of gratuitous adjectives.

After that, I pretty much gave up on space opera for about ten years, until someone at a convention mentioned that a few authors were starting to write really good space opera, and in particular the Honor Harrington series. I picked up the first of the series on a whim. The first chapter seemed rather lackluster, the second was incrementally better - and it continued to build from there. By the time I had reached the pulse-pounding climax, I was hooked. I've read that series about three times now (unusual, since I typically allow my favorite novels to lie "fallow" for at least 5 years before I re-read them, so that I can gain a new perspective. For example, Tolkien's Trilogy I have read 5 times at 5-year intervals, and each time it has been a different experience for me - at each reading I have been able to perceive yet another layer of that very complex, multi-layered book.)

Of course, I immediately spotted the fact that the Harrington novels were blatantly modeled after C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. Given that particular series has inspired so much of the space opera genre (in particular Star Trek), I decided to check them out.

Hornblower, which I'm sure many of you out there have already read, is a real treat, especially if you are a science fiction fan. This 10-book series reads a lot like a science fiction series - it involves an alien culture (Britain during the Napoleonic wars), travel to strange places - and a lot of "technological" plot devices, such as spring anchors, bomb ketches, percussion caps, shipboard cannons, etc. A classic example of the "science fiction" aspect of the series is when Hornblower suggests that they haul a cannon up the face of a cliff so that they can bombard a Spanish-held town at longer range. I'm sure we can all plot a parabola, can't we?

After expressing my enthusiasm for the series to an acquaintance, I was then recommended the Patrick O'Brien Aubrey/Maturin novels. Unfortunately for me, while these seemed much more "authentic" and well-researched, and the characters were rendered with considerable detail, I found the plot somewhat hard to follow. Some of the language was so "authentic" that I had difficulty interpreting the characters' motivations, or even connecting words with actions. I'm sure this difficulty is purely my own, as a number of people have expressed their satisfaction with the series.

Finally, I want to express my joy at discovering the A&;E's "Hornblower" miniseries. Typically, when a novel is portrayed on the screen, a lot of chopping and editing has to be done to trim the story to an appropriate length. In this case, however, they've taken the opposite approach - the 8 hour miniseries covers only the first novel of the series, and they have filled in considerably with new detail and new minor story elements. In some places they depart quite a bit from the original story, whereas in other places it's almost line for line exact. But the spirit of the stories remains intact as far as I can tell. I've always felt that on-screen adaptations of novels should not follow the story too literally, as things which render well on paper don't necessarily exite or compel when shown visually, and vice versa. At the same time, however, the filmmaker should strive to keep the author's original intent and message alive. Another excellent example of this "keep the spirit but not the letter" technique is the movie "Bicentennial Man" which I believe is one of the best adaptations of an SF story ever made.

Of course, it may be a while before we see the second book adapted, as apparently A&;E spent quite a lot of money on this series, including constructing authentic ships, which they blew up during filming. But one can only hope - the acting, costumes, and cinematography are all terrific. My only (minor) complaint is that I think that the actor who plays Hornblower is a little too handsome.

-- Talin ( 




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