Another Day, Another Dollar, Another War

I often find it amusing when the same problems manifest themselves over and over again. As I have often noted, communication is a particularly Nathanish problem, but it is not only a problem for me personally, but also a problem for other people around me, including a great many people I have to interact with for one reason or another. I would like to at least briefly comment today some of the ways that communication and its failures have impacted me over and over again today, with the note that names have been avoided to protect the innocent and the guilty.

After waking up this morning I had a fascinating daily meeting. Now, my daily zoom meetings are not usually gripping and exciting (which is why I seldom write about them), but this particular one was far more interesting than the usual, mainly because I had gotten an e-mail about one of the carriers I process commissions for which happens to be another part of the company relating to a program. A couple levels up from me someone happened to be wondering why it was that there was no specific statement for advances for me to process, and I was a bit confused because I only process the monthly statement as there are no commissions on the weekly statements for that carrier (which my company happens to own), and another one of my coworkers on the call mentioned that she thought that the company was only paid on an as-earned rather than advance basis, which was my understanding as well. The whole thing ended up taking up a good ten minutes, and then was resolved in about a minute when the executive hopped on the call and understood what we were doing and that it made sense to him. It was amusing to have it end so abruptly but also evidence of the way that it can be hard to interpret questions and communication sometimes.

While I was getting ready for work I had been reminded about an on-going discord chat that is going on in which I am a minor part as well. One of my fellow players in a game had found himself banned for doing a mass spam invite for Among Us and sought to open up an interview chat (in which I am invited because I am a mid-rank government official in our alliance in the game) where he sought to get himself back in the good graces of others. Many of us, myself included, decided to have some fun with him by pinging him repeatedly (more than 30 times before I commented on it), and it appears as if the player responsible has not learned anything by the experience of being banned and still continues to enjoy pinging others repeatedly. On the plus side, at least he does not seem to be offended when people ping him. Whatever lesson was trying to be communicated to him about avoiding mass pings in the future appears not to be being learned at present, and it is quite likely that more incidents of this nature are possible as well. Of course, we can always joke about such things, which makes it easier to handle.

There are also areas where communication could happen but doesn’t because one does not push for it. I read, for example, that there was a new requirement for people who go to work to wear facemasks at work unless they happen to have their own private office (presumably with its own air vents and the like). As someone who works in a nearly empty cube farm, but not entirely empty cube farm, I have not been particularly quick in wearing masks when I don’t have to, nor have I been quick to ask about whether this is required. After all, if the policy of wearing masks everywhere but our desks needs to be removed, I don’t want to be the person who communicates that to others, although admittedly that could very well happen even by voicing such a concern here and now. Sometimes our compulsion to communicate gets the best of us, after all.

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Book Review: The Battle For The Falklands

The Battle For The Falklands, by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins

If this book is the most thorough book I have ever read on the Falklands war and on the lack of decisiveness regarding how it was fought and how it failed to resolve the longstanding sovereignty issues that have made the Falklands a particularly isolated island with a resolutely British provincial character in the remote regions of the South Atlantic without the sort of good relations with Argentina that might help it to have an easier time. This book exists squarely within the intensely self-critical tradition of British military historiography, in which it discusses something that every other nation would be happy to have had as a glorious victory in the face of massive logistical challenges and does so with a relentlessly critical eye towards the failures in planning as well as intelligence on the part of the British effort. This is the sort of effort that is pointed enough that it may be considered a piece of Monday Morning Quarterbacking, although it must be said that the authors do a good job in being favorable to the common soldier, be they British or Argentine, and seek to tone down what may be a sense of irritation at the intransigence of the Falkland Islanders themselves at any move on the part of the generally clueless establishment of the British foreign ministry to sacrifice some aspect of their wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom for diplomatic advantage with Argentina.

This book is between 350 and 400 pages and it is divided into seventeen chapters as well as some supplementary material. The author begins with a foreword, then a discussion of the obscurity of the Falkland islands (1), as well as the lengthy cold war between the Argentine and British government in diplomatic efforts (2) that failed to reach an acceptable position to all the parties involved. There is then a look at the gamble made by Galtieri (3), as well as the success of the initial Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands (4). This leads to the British plan to create a task force to retake the islands (5), a tragicomic effort on the part of Haig to broker a peace (6), and the initial move from Ascension to recover South Georgia (7). After this comes a discussion of the failure of diplomatic efforts to make peace (8), and the war at sea that led to losses on both sides (9). After that comes a discussion of the white paper (10) that justified the British position as well as an early successful commando operation (11). Then comes the landing at San Carlos (12), the conquest of Goose Green (13), the politics of the land war that beckoned (14), and the balanced picture of triumph and tragedy as the British advanced (15). This is followed by the successful British effort to take the mountains on the way to Darwin (16) and the aftermath of the Argentine surrender (17). The book is then rounded out by a chronology of military and political events, a glossary, appendices on the Falklands Island task force (i), Honours list (ii), the Franks report (iii), and an index.

In looking at the Falklands War, there is a sense of drama that exists and then an abruptness about its end, a decisive military end even if the diplomacy is still muddled almost 40 years after the war ended. This book seeks to provide the maximum context to what goes on, which means that we have a lot of information about ineffective shuttle diplomacy and a lot of cases where the governments involved are simply not on the same page–and unlikely to get on the same page at any point unfortunately. Indeed, what this book discusses over and over again is the failure of the political systems of the UK, Argentina, and US to get their act together and act with one voice, a demonstration of the rivalry between different government agencies and different branches of the military. There are a lot of failures here for the authors to talk about, including the failures of the British to be able to deal with the missiles used by the Argentinians because they had been so focused on preparing a war against the Soviets. The author also manages plenty of criticism for the jingoistic mood of both the Argentine and British people stirred up by the press that made it impossible for anyone to climb down from the war that was developing against the will of most of the parties involved.

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Book Review: Bradt: Falkland Islands

Bradt:  Falkland Islands, by Will Wagstaff

Admittedly, my interest in the Falklands Islands and its history [1] is probably unusual.  Still, given that this book exists, and is in my local library, it cannot be such an unusual interest that no one else shares it.  And this book has the added benefit of giving plenty of reasons why a reasonably eccentric but not completely insane world traveler such as myself would want to visit the Falkland Islands and what such a trip could offer.  If the book seems a bit light on some of the elements that many people consider to be important when traveling–like cuisine, it does at least point out that there are plenty of places where one can get burgers or fish and chips, and if that is not high cuisine, it does not make for disappointing food in a remote corner of the globe.  The people who go to this group of islands have some purposes and the book makes it very clear what purposes you could have in traveling here, and it happens to be that I have some of these purposes in mind when I travel as well and my own interest in the place is at least somewhat related to what has made the islands more popular for tourists than they were before the early 1980’s.

This book is about 200 pages long and is divided into eleven chapters and some other materials.  The book begins with an introduction.  The first part of the book contains some general information about the Falkland Islands (I), including some background information about the islands’ geology and geography, climate, history, government and politics, economy, and culture (1), natural history about plants and animals and conservation efforts (2), and some practical information about when to visit, highlights and itineraries, as well as concerns about health and safety and getting around (3).  The second part of the book then contains the guide proper (II).  This part is divided into seven chapters, including a specific look at Stanley (4), the capital, the area of East Falkland (5) including Darwin and Goose Green as well as San Carlos, Sea Lion Island (6), West Falkland (7), Pebble Island (8), Saunders and Keppel Island (9), Carcass, West Point, and New Island (10), and Weddell, Staats, and Beaver Island (11).  After this there are two appendices on selected flora and fauna (i) and further information (ii), along with an index and an index of advertisers.  Overall the book has a lot of maps and images and provides some very sound information to would-be travelers.

Why would someone want to travel to the Falkland Islands and why would someone write about it in a way that was popular enough to go into at least a second edition.  For one, the islands are a reminder of British imperial rule and their success against an invasion attempted by Argentina.  The military history of the islands, in museums and in battle scars, is one thing that I find compelling about the place, admittedly.  In addition to this, the islands are also notable for their construction–they have a gorgeous suspension bridge as well as some interesting architecture like lighthouses and an Anglican cathedral for those who are interested in such things.  Birdwatchers also have a great deal to enjoy from the islands, given the penguins, vultures, gulls, ducks, petrels, grebes, albatrosses, shearwaters, cormorants, and geese, that can be found here.  Other animals like orcas and dolphins and sea lions and so on are here to find as well, so those who like observing creation have much to view.  Beyond this, the remoteness of the region is its own charm and the guide recommends two weeks at least if one wants to fully explore these islands, which does not seem unreasonable if one enjoys hikes and likes the remote creation that can be found here.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Bleaker House

Bleaker House:  Chasing My Novel To The End Of The World, by Nell Stevens

Any fool can make a book–this book is evidence of that, as long as one has the right agent and editor who can piece together fragments that would not work as well on their own but together make something that is compelling almost in spite of itself.  I’m not sure if Nell Stevens has other books within her–we could probably get a feast of scraps out of a collection of essays or short stories, but whether she has the goods to create a compelling novel is still unclear.  If she wants to write travel literature about the lure of trying to remote in hunger and privation in remote and distant places, though, I will definitely be looking forward to future books from her if she has the assistance and stamina to write them.  This book does not make you think all that well of the author or of her skills as a writer, but the situation of the story is compelling and those who are writers themselves will find much to appreciate and relate to in the struggles of the author to avoid the distractions that in her mind keep her from writing as well as she ought, only to realize among the most basic lessons at all and that one cannot escape oneself no matter how remote of a place one travels to.  Instead, such remoteness will bring out all of the barriers that we place to our own productivity and creativity, as is the case here.

This book is almost 250 pages and it is formed from a variety of fragments that even begins with a plug for the Creative Writing Program from Boston University that promises growth to its graduate students/writers.  From there the book flits back and forth among various genres, including a memoir of the author’s privileged life and education, the fragments of a novel called Bleaker House where a not very masculine young man searches for his Falklands Islands father on Bleaker Island who is not terribly bright and who is running away from his responsibilities as a father, the fragments of another novel with a semi-autobiographical young woman spying on her boss who she works for as a personal assistant and who is carrying on an affair with the previous person to work for him in that capacity, as well as a travelogue of the author’s hilariously incompetent experiences in trying to write in conditions of intense hunger and privation on the remoteness of the Falklands Islands’ Bleaker Island, all while she talks about her fondness for the metafictional nature of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the obvious inspiration of this effort.  And somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This book, which is among the more genre-confused efforts I have seen this side of Italo Calvino, is a compelling work in large part because of its fragments hanging together due to the presence of the author in all elements of this immensely convoluted story.  While each of the parts on their own would not be particularly exciting, and the novel that she was trying to write would be particularly dire and only worth reading as a form of penance for the sin of praising the state of contemporary literature, the fragments together offer something that neither one of them on their own can bring, and that is the full commitment on the part of the modestly talented (at best) author in being a writer despite having disastrously chosen a place to write and not possessing a skill in making things happen either in her own life or in her literature.  The writer possesses the same degree of commitment to a task she is ill-equipped for the way that Don Ho wanted to be a singer or that George Plimpton wanted to be a player on the Detroit Lions.  And because she has enough help to make it work, this work hangs together on the sheer force of will that the author has in being a published author, a reminder indeed that anyone can write a book, and even a decent book, so long as one has the will to write it and someone who is foolish or courageous enough to print it after it has been cleaned up and stitched together to meet minimum length requirements.

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On Earth As It Is In Heaven

One of the aspects of divine reproduction in mankind that is of importance is the way that God has sought to create things on earth the way that they are in heaven. This particular area of the Bible has a lot of aspects, and it will be our intention here to hint at them and introduce them as a means of discussing aspects of the divine nature that we are supposed to develop through our following God with the presence of the Holy Spirit within our lives. It should be noted that certain sections of the Bible (such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 as well as its equivalent in Luke, the book of Hebrews, and the writings of Paul) are particularly interested in various implications of the desire of God to create in earth things that are a replica of what is in heaven. Given that our ability to understand spiritual matters in the absence of physical analogues is extremely limited, it behooves us to learn as much as possible about godly things through those aspects of physical life that God specifically tells us through His apostles are created in the image of the heavenly.

Let us begin with the understanding that to be a believer requires that one pray that God’s will be done in earth as it is in heaven. If we do not want earth to resemble heaven–however we see that happening–we are not God’s. To prefer the corrupt way of the world to the ways of God in heaven is to deny the authority of God and to deny oneself as being led by God and being transformed into a child of God. This is a matter that is so important that it serves at the beginning of the “model prayer” recorded in Matthew 6:9b-10: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is repeated in Luke 11:2, which reads: “So He said to them, “When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This sort of directive ought to lead us to ask a simple question: How is God’s will done in heaven? We will examine this question in greater detail, but asking how God’s will is done in heaven is key to knowing how it is that His will is to be done on earth if God answers our prayer and if we pray with knowledge and awareness of what it is that we are asking for. There are political implications to prayers about the will of God, and we ought to be aware of what it means to wish for God’s authority to be established on earth as it is in heaven. All too many professed believers are entirely ignorant about what they claim to be praying for.

As might be expected, the Bible does indicate some aspects of how it is already that the earth and the things of the earth are a replica or copy or image of what is in heaven. The author of Hebrews makes it very plain in Hebrews 2:14-18 that Jesus taking on our form and becoming a mortal man was done for the purpose of bringing people into the Kingdom of heaven so that we may take on the form and nature of God above: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.  For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham.  Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”

Quite often, including in the writings of Paul, that which points towards the heavenly reality is considered to be a shadow. For example, it is written in Colossians 2:16-17a: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come.” All too often people tend to think of the shadow as being unimportant because it is not the substance, but when it comes to matters of spiritual insight, we would not know the substance at all except for the shadow. It is our awareness of the shadow and our understanding of it that gives us a picture of the deeper reality that is being pictured. And if this is true of the Sabbath and Holy Days, as Paul expresses are to be beyond the judgment of others who, envying the freedom of obedience, are quick to attack it because of their own hostility to God’s ways, it is true of everything else that is considered to be in the image and likeness of God (like humanity as a whole) or the replica of that which is in heaven which we may find even in our fallen existence on earth.

The Bible even lets us know that questions of authority are to be established on earth as it is in heaven. 1 Corinthians 11:3 tells us this very briefly but, as is typical of Paul, in a way that has to be unpackaged: “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”. What this verse is telling us is that the relationship between woman and man is to mirror that between man and Jesus Christ and between Jesus Christ and God. The submission that man demands from woman is to be the submission that man offers to Christ, and that Christ showed to God. The respect and honor given by Christ to our heavenly Father is to be the honor and respect given by men to Christ and the honor and respect given by wives to their husbands (or that unmarried women are to give to their fathers). Given what we know of the way that Jesus Christ submitted Himself completely to the will of the Father, even knowing what pain and suffering would result to himself [1], it is obvious that we men do not submit to the will of Christ and God anywhere close to this level, and that women in this present age do not submit to their husbands and fathers to anywhere remotely to the degree that God demands.

Nor, should it be noted, is the verse in 1 Corinthians 11 an off-hand reference. Indeed, when Paul writes about the submission that is required of the wife to her husband in Ephesians 5:22-24, this is immediately tied to the submission that is owed by husbands (and the church at large) to Jesus Christ, just as we saw in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.  Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” On the one hand, what is demanded of God is a patriarchal model where wives are to practice submission to their husbands. But it should be remembered that God demands that wives submit to husbands who are submitting to Jesus Christ in the same way. It is only just to require full submission to those authorities who themselves are in full submission to God and Christ, and who model the same sort of self-sacrificial love and concern that Christ has shown for His church and for humanity as a whole. To submit under any other circumstances would be to invite tyrannical abuse, and the model of patriarchy that God has for humanity is not a model of abuse and dictatorship. Those who cannot submit to authorities above them are in no place to demand that others submit to them, for submission is to go all the way up, bridging heaven and earth in obedience to God’s will and God’s ways.

[1] As it is written in Luke 22:41-44: “And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.”  Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.  And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

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Book Review: The Ottoman Empire: A Short History

The Ottoman Empire: A Short History, by Suraiya Faroqhi, translated by Shelley Frisch

This book was certainly shorter than I expected it to be, and not nearly as good as I hoped it would be. In many ways, people write books not based on what is but based on what they are, and that is certainly true of this book. In reading about a past empire which had a good run but which was ultimately unable to cope with the modern world and the rise of nationalism among its Christian and other minority populations or the rising economic and cultural and military power of the West (as well as Russia), there are many ways that the book could be taken, but although she certainly tries to write about it, the author is frequently unable to get out of her own way in trying to craft a feminist history of the Ottoman Empire, which hardly anyone asked for or wants in their books about the past. When the author is able to get out of her own way and explore what we can know about life in the Ottoman Empire, there is some genuinely convincing and interesting social history to be found here, but not as much as one would hope.

This book is between 150 and 200 pages and is divided chronologically into five chapters. The book begins with acknowledgments and a brief guide to the pronunciation of Turkish letters. After that there is an introduction that is surprisingly long given the short length of the book as a whole. After that comes a discussion of the rise and expansion of the Ottoman Empire between 1299 and the death of Mehmet II in 1481 that takes less than 20 pages to cover two dramatic centuries of history. This is followed by a discussion of the period between 1481 and 1600 where the Ottoman Empire was at its peak that covers less than 30 pages (2). This is followed by another short chapter that takes 26 pages to cover the hard-earned successes and setbacks of the period between 1600 and the loss of Crimea in 1774 (3). After that comes a look at the Ottoman’s longest century, the period from the treaty that separated Crimea from the rest of the Ottoman Empire and signaled the Rise of Russia to the beginning of World War I, which takes 28 pages for the author to cover, much of which are devoted to censorship and the politics of the age. Given the short chapters that preceded it, the last chapter of the book takes 22 pages to cover World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire that succeeded it a few years later (5). The author then tries to avoid a conclusion by writing about post-Ottoman continuities and new beginnings, after which the book ends with a chronology, list of Ottoman sultans, notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

There are certainly areas that the author does not do as well as others, and among those major failings is military history. It seems impossible to do justice to the Ottoman Empire without spending a great deal of attention on military history, but the author is very hesitant to talk about it more than necessary. Battles and their repercussions are discussed, but the author would far more rather talk about the demographic changes that resulted from the contraction of the borders of the Ottoman Empire and a timid wading into the responsibility and the extent of the Armenian genocide (which she is too timid to call by name), where she tries to cast blame on both the Armenians for being fifth columnists and also tries to blame Kurdish militias for doing the Ottoman’s dirty work. The author also clearly likes talking about harem politics and the relationship between trade and Ottoman statecraft than she does about political and military history. Again, there are many ways that an Ottoman history can go, and there are at least some occasions where this book chooses interesting angles, but the author’s perspective frequently jars the reader from an enjoyable appreciation of the past to the sordid cultural politics of the evil present day.

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Book Review: China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty

China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, by Mark Edward Lewis

It is not easy for Westerners to get a good sense of Chinese history, and this book does a good job at pointing out how it is that a dynasty with part-Turkish origins in the North managed to help lead in ways that would further the development of China’s South, which would have massive consequences for future Chinese dynasties as the shift in population dynamics would hinder Chinese military strength in the northern areas where barbarians would become increasingly important in the military security of China. Likewise, in many ways the Tang dynasty marks a shift in Chinese religious thought, serving as the peak of institutional Daoism and Buddhism, as a time when Chinese belle lettres were in a high state of development, and where Chinese aristocracy shifted from the dominance of families whose power had lasted for centuries to a slightly better distributed elite that was not nearly so focused on court power as was the case during the Tang. There is a sense of sadness here too given the massive destruction that came upon China’s urban culture during both the An Lushan rebellion as well as the catastrophic fall of the Tang in the late 9th century when resentful local warlords took out their frustrations on court elites in the powerless late Tang.

This book is almost 300 pages long and it is divided into 9 chapters that look at the Tang dynasty and its achievements in thematic fashion. The book begins with an introduction and then a discussion of the geography of the Tang Empire from its core regions in the longtime cultural capitals of Chang’an and Louyang, neither of which would again be the center of future Chinese realms to its peripheries in Central Asia, northern Vietnam, and Korea (1). After that the author discusses the early Tang period from its founding in the revolutionary end of the previous Sui dynasty to the An Lushan rebellion that shook the empire to the core (2), which is then followed by a discussion of the fate of late Tang society with its struggle against the power of warlords and the increasing power of Southern economic monopolists (3). The author then spends some time talking about urban life (4), especially in its two most important cities, where political power was long centered, and rural life that was dominated by landlords and by the decreasing presence of free peasantry on the tax rolls (5). This leads to a discussion of Tang diplomacy and relations with the outer world, including India (6), as well as the increasing importance of kinship ties and ancestor worship (7). There are also chapters on the institutionalization of Chinese religion (8) and the spread of a powerful and popular writing culture that blended conservative elite tastes and more austere rural elements (9), after which the book ends with a conclusion, a discussion of dates and dynasties, notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.

What was it that made the Tang so cosmopolitan? In part, it is the happy and not always very common combination of military and cultural strength that China projected during these times, as well as the way in which key Chinese developments like the examination system and homegrown Buddhist traditions began to have a large influence on the life of Chinese people. Chinese military power in Central Asia, even if it was threatened by the rise of Islam and even the rise of Tibetan power, managed to present an image of a strong China during those periods where internal disorder was not overwhelming. Chinese cultural prestige increased to a great degree as well, and the weakness of China under the Song would encourage later Chinese to think of the Tang as a golden age even if some of the seeds of that weakness started to be present during the Tang as well, particularly the worrisome dependence of the Tang for the security of their Northern borders on barbarian leaders whose connections and loyalty to the central ruling house was limited if that ruler could not command their respect as the founders of the Tang did through their own military prowess. And that does not even consider the question of the role of women in the elites of the Tang either. To be cosmopolitan is to be in danger of decadence and weakness, and if the Tang eventually succumbed to that weakness, they did at least have a lot to show for themselves in terms of their power and their culture for a period of more than two hundred years, and that is not nothing.

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Book Review: Empire Of Horses

Empire Of Horses: The First Nomadic Civilization And The Making Of China, by John Man

There has long been a fascinating connection between the various nomadic realms of the steppes to the north and west of China and China itself, and how it is that increasing centralization within China had consequences around it. This is true not only in the area spoken of in this book, namely with the Xiongnu (Hunnu), the main subject of this book, but with other areas like China, Burma, Thailand, Korea, and Japan as well. Similar to the process by which edge induced cohesion works along other imperial frontiers, where empires were brought into existence first on one side of a boundary and then on another, the author explores the Quin and Han dynasties and their behaviors and the way that this influenced the Xiongnu, and how it was that China eventually outflanked the Xiongnu and thus gained greater strength, thus presaging the common solution of China to dealing with threats to its north by expanding to its west, a strategy that exists to this day and accounts for the troubled Chinese rule over Tibet and East Turkistan to this day. The author does not examine too many of the possible implications but the discussion here is certainly enough for the reader to advance such matters.

This book is almost 300 pages long and is divided into thirteen chapters with various other materials. The book begins with a list of Chanyus, a timeline, maps, and an introduction to the rise of the Qin and what that meant for Chinese relationships with the “barbarians” across the Great Wall. After that the author explores the rise of the Xiongnu (I), including how they gained mastery of the steppes (1), their move into Ordos (2), the growing threat a unified China under the Qin dynasty provided for them (3), and the efforts of Meng Tian to build a straight road as the Qin faced disaster (4). The author then explores the peak of the Xiongnu during the early part of the Han dynasty (II), with a discussion of their first empire of the steppes (5), the hidden agenda of China’s grand historian (6), the phony peace and phony war that held for decades (7), and the eventual successful Chinese strategy to disrupt Xiongnu power by ruling over the oasis cities of Turkistan (8). The book then explores the collapse of the Xiongnu (III), by looking at the decline and fall of their state (9), the Chinese policy of princesses for peace (10), the shock of surrender when the Xiongnu first gave in to China (11), the division and eventual destruction of the Xiongnu (12), and the possible connection between the Xiongnu and the Huns (13), after which the book ends with an epilogue on the lasting legacy of the Xiongnu, a bibliography, acknowledgements, picture credits, and an index.

By and large this book is deeply entertaining as it explores the problems that China faced vis-a-vis various nomadic groups in terms of attempting to buy their peacefulness, leading to a protection racket which allowed the nomadic groups to maintain power through control of the spoils in a way that did not corrupt them for long periods of time sometimes extending to centuries. Similar to the American means of arming our next enemies, the Chinese did the same thing with regards to the various barbarians at their northern boundary, opening up trade that allowed nomads to upgrade their weapons and gain the necessary goods that allowed them to prosper while engaging in tense periods of truces marked by raiding along the boundary regions of the Ordos that, even to this day, are boundaries between settled agriculture and less settled nomadic herding. The author explores what is needed in terms of leadership to take advantage of the opportunities provided by being next door neighbor to a centralized empire, which allows for fascinating dynamics by which people seek to appeal to others and deceive themselves as to what they are about, and sometimes to change their behavior drastically as a means of proving that they are still powerful when they are no longer so, alas, as happens here on both the Chinese side and the Xiongnu side.

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When You’re Explaining, You’re Losing

One of the instincts of human beings is to explain when things aren’t going well. This makes sense on some level. After all, we have the capacity to reason and communicate and when things go wrong this is something that is at least attempted by many people. Indeed, quite frequently in relationships a lack of communication is viewed as a serious problem that leads to conflict, and the tendency of some people to avoid communication can lead others to feel frustrated or upset. Yet it appears very often that explaining does not work as well as we think it will, even if it is a strategy that we often adopt when things are going badly between ourselves and someone else. There are various reasons for this and it is at least worth exploring briefly some of the reasons why explaining seldom works out as well as we want it to, and why it can be counter-productive, even if it remains a strategy we frequently feel compelled to adopt.

Let us begin at the beginning. What is it that leads us to explain things in the first place? When things are going well in life and relationships, we generally do not feel the need to explain things at all, unless we are the sort of people who are given to lecture extemporaneously on various subjects, but even here what is not done is so much an attempt at explaining but rather an enjoyment of the moment, even if that enjoyment consists of verbose discussions of various matters and a demonstration of one’s reading and knowledge about something. Showing off it may be, but it is not the sort of explaining that demonstrates severe difficulties. In the main, though, when things are going well, we simply take them as they come and enjoy it in whatever fashion we happen to enjoy things in general. When things are going wrong, though, we seek to restore things to a positive state with communication rather than in doing what we enjoyed together in the first place.

And it is here where explaining in particular hits a few snags. One of them is fundamentally related to motive. What is it that leads us to explain or justify in the first reason? We fear that we are being misunderstood, or we may fear that we are being properly understood in a way that reflects badly on us. In either case (or some combination of the two), we seek to use our rhetorical prowess, such as it exists, to draw attention away from what bothers and offends others and what is leading to difficulties. We may attempt to minimize what is going on, in the hopes that others do not know or fully understand what is going on, so that we may snow them or deceive them, or may counter whatever misguided suspicion that they have. In any case, our desire to explain comes from the gulf that exists between how someone else sees a situation and how we see it, or how we want them to see it, and we seek to use our linguistic skills in persuading or convincing someone else to see things the way we want to see them. This is a high-risk strategy, and even if we may find it to be necessary, it is certainly not the ideal situation to be in, and so it should be little surprise that we are not as successful at it as we would like to be.

The second matter is related and comes from the first. Our ability to understand and recognize where other people are coming is limited because we do not have the same sort of privileged insider perspective on the thinking of others that we have relating to ourselves. This is not to say that we may not be skilled at inferring where other people are coming from as a result of knowledge in observing them and other people like them, but even people we may know well and observe closely have surprises within them that makes things more difficult to understand. But the fact that we can at times recognize that others are approaching something from a different angle than we are still does not make it any less troublesome for us in attempting to navigate it. Our attempts to explain something may only further convince others in the rightness of their own thinking, seeing the explanation as a sign of weakness rather than an approach taken out of situational awareness and rhetorical strength. And our ability to influence and motivate others is highly limited and highly dependent on what influence they allow of us. Those who find fault in us and think ill of us do not tend to be the people who allow themselves to be strongly influenced by us.

From all of this we may see at least several of the constellations of reasons why our efforts at explanation are not nearly as successful as we may think them to be. First, by adopting a strategy of attempting to explain something in the first place we are automatically playing a weak hand in the first place, given that we are attempting to work against reality or against the vision of reality that other people have and that we are moving away from those aspects of our relationship with others that were most mutually enjoyable in the first place to something that few people enjoy hearing. In addition to this, the gap that exists between our perspective and that of others tends to make explanation less successful than it would usually be because we are usually explaining things from our own perspective, which may lack credibility to those who see things differently from ourselves. In addition, the attempt to explain may be seen as a concession to the reality of how someone else sees the world and may simply confirm their interpretation, regardless of how much effort we spend in attempting to counter it.

The question then remains, what shall we do? Admittedly, the best chance we have of making things work out is in the regards of prevention. The best explanation is one that does not have to be given, because we have avoided doing the sorts of wrong things that we would need to explain away and because we have cultivated through openness about ourselves an understanding of our character that obviates the need to explain things in the first place, limiting us to technical explanations of the kind that may lead to mutual enjoyment rather than the justifications that are seldom enjoyed or appreciated by others. To the extent that we can move from a defense attorney trying to weasel out of some negative repercussions that others view as justified to a friendly professorial type who provides explanations that increase our own wisdom and understanding, we will find much better relations with others. This is obviously far better to do in advance. Once we reach the point where our worldview is at odds with others, or where there is something that we would have to explain away, the moment and possibly even the relationship have already been lost, and are hard to regain in a context like many of us live in where trust is scarce, easy to lose, and hard to regain.

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Book Review: Age Of Walls

Age Of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World, by Tim Marshall

This book, if his previous works had not done so, would have solidified the author’s reputation as a globalist jorno who wrote to other sympathetic people about the popularity of populist movements who want to build walls rather than bridges in a world that is finding itself to be deeply divided. This ought not to surprise us. For decades now, at least since World War II and even since World War I, there has been a clueless but arrogant internationalist elite who condescended and look down on and insulted the common people and their own hopes and aspirations and sought to create a world where they and their kind could feel comfortable in corrupt global institutions that they controlled that sought to escape from popular rule, and found that they had upset a sufficiently numerous population around the world to lead to dramatic rebellion against their globalist efforts, only to further insult the people who had finally demonstrated that they had the power to reverse what had been done before. And if the author is certainly not in agreement with this, he seems to accept this as the voice of the people in many areas, even if he tries to work against it and urge others to adopt a course of action that might lead to these walls being torn down in the future.

This book is about 250 pages and consists of the author’s thoughts about walls in several areas of the world. The author begins with China and discuses the cyberwalls that the Chinese have built in an attempt to shield their people from the free discourse that occurs in the world as a whole as a means of preserving a vulnerable government system from the sort of criticism that might lead to mass dissatisfaction (1). After that the author talks about the US, making the usual snarky and negative comments about Trump that one would expect from people of the author’s ilk, and also commenting on the growing sense of disconnect that many Americans have from those who think and feel differently (2). After this comes a look at very literal walls between Israel and Palestine and the author’s inability to accept that these walls are very necessary and useful given the bad behavior of the Palestinians themselves (3). This is then followed by a discussion of the walls going up in the rest of the Middle East, largely thanks to the conflicts between various ethnoreligious groups in the region (4). After this comes a discussion of the walls of the Indian subcontinent, including especially the walls between India and Pakistan and Bangladesh that seek to provide border security from terrorism and economic refugees (5). The walls of Africa–especially in Western Sahara–are then explored (6), after which the author talks about walls in Europe, of which there are many, as well as the UK in particular (7), after which comes a conclusion, acknowledgements, a bibliography, and an index.

Much of this book consists of walls and barriers of a literal and figurative, but mostly literal kind, that are being built up around the world. The author seems not to really understand why these walls are being built and does not seem to understand the sort of changes that would be required in behavior for the walls to come down. After all, the walls work at making life safer for ordinary people, and as long as walls work, walls will continue to be built. The sort of open and liberal society that the author obviously wishes is only possible under certain circumstances, namely elites who serve the interests of the ordinary people and are recognized as doing so, and under conditions of basic trust and safety and confidence on the part of people regarding their neighbors and others around. Where these conditions are not present–and they are certainly not present at the current time–the walls go up predictably if lamentably. If this book is not really good at figuring out the solutions to the mistrust that exists, the advice on the part of the author to encourage people to cease the contempt and disrespect on the part of cosmopolitan elites for the common person who sees things differently is a necessary start, if hard to see happening in the current climate.

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