Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

IstanbulI’ll be blunt: this book is a goddamned triumph.

I liked this book so much that I read all 800 pages of it even though the e-book had a glaring processing problem that caused it to insert a space after every double-f in the text (and some other cases I couldn’t pin down a precise cause for). So, every time like “offered” was in the text, which was a surprisingly large number of times, it showed up as “off ered”.

This was AMAZINGLY distracting. And normally the sort of thing that would cause me to bail out and wait for Amazon to fix the copy or something, but not in this case. The book, from Page One, was just too good.

Admittedly, I’ll basically read anything even tangentially related to the Byzantine Empire. But even if you don’t particularly care about that narrow topic, say you’re just a “history buff” in general, this is the sort of work you absolutely should read.

Why? Well, Ms Hughes pulls off the herculean task of integrating classic history of the “which ruler sent what general to fight which enemy for what reasons” type, with the more modern aspects of “and how did that affect the culture, economy, mores, religion, etc., of the common man/woman/eunuch/slave of the polity?” type, AND does it all with a measure of style and competence that few authors are able to pull off successfully.

The book moves roughly chronologically through the “Three Cities” of the title; starting with the ancient Greek polis of Byzantion, then moving through the long epoch of the Roman/Byzantine Constantinople, then wrapping up with the world capital of Ottoman/Islamic/Turkish Istanbul. For such a long book, it moves remarkably briskly, helped along by economical chapter lengths and a vibrant writing style that generates that almost novel-esque sense of “just one more chapter” that few works of non-fiction ever achieve.

While firmly a history book, each chapter tends to start off with a wonderful and personalizing vignette from the author’s own experience of researching for that chapter, situating the historical time about to be discussed in the modern age, which really helps pull the reader in and serves additionally as just great color. It also forces the reader to occasionally consider the randomness of history at time; sometimes your ancient relic becomes the still-venerated Hagia Sophia hundreds of years later. Other times, you’re an equally-stunning ancient mosaic buried in the basement of a kebob joint behind a cell phone store. Such is fate.

VERY few histories give any nods to these also-rans of importance, and that Hughes does in this book jarred me into thinking for a bit about the caprice of history, the undeniable fact that what we today consider important about the past may not have been what the past considered important about itself, and that so much is left to the random chance of what managed to survive the millennia between a building or work of art’s original period of importance and the reignition of interest in that original period by a much-later time. Basically, how many Michelangelo’s “David”s are we missing out on today because nobody cared three hundred years ago and repurposed something beautiful into a roof for a barn?

It’s this effect of the book I enjoyed most; at times I would read something that would force me to put the book down and just let my mind wander down a path it never had before, to consider some arcane detail of 1700’s Constantinople that I hadn’t thought of.

The breadth of knowledge Hughes shows here is also commendable; being able to write authoritatively about how an ancient Greek polis organizes itself politically is typically an entirely separate discipline from say describing in detail the personal politics of a reform-era Ottoman Sultan’s harem. She handles both, and all of the other disparate topics that come up in a history of this breadth, with aplomb.

Bottom line, this book is just a delight. If you like good history, read it. If you’re a fan of anything Byzantine or Ottoman, read it. If you like just plain good writing, read it. It’s got that kind of cross-genre appeal few books pull off without being “lite” in their treatment of the topic, an accusation that absolutely cannot be laid at Ms Hughes’ feet here; it is that rare bird, the Serious Work of History that is also an absolute joy to read. It gets my highest recommendation.

News Is Not Something We Should Consume Every Hour: A Modest Proposal

You know what I think would massively improve everyone’s life?

Restrict Facebook and Twitter to something you can only interact with for about 45 minutes in one chunk in the morning, and another one hour chunk in the evening, per day.

That’s it. You can go balls-deep on the same nonsense you do today, but only in those two chunks.

Why those two chunks?

Well… think about how we used to consume news. You read the morning paper and/or flipped on the morning news show while you got dressed, or threw on your AM station of choice while you commuted to work.

Then… you generally did not consume any more news for the rest of the day until you got home, in which case you’d watch the evening news over dinner or the 10 o’clock news before bed.

There were occasional changes in this routine; say you were going out for drinks with friends after work. This generally meant that you would NOT RECEIVE ANY NEW NEWS INPUT WHILE YOU WERE OUT. Like, AT ALL. And nobody gave a shit. You’d catch up with the world tomorrow.

So, if I were allowed to do what was proper and nationalize Facebook and Twitter and regulate how they operated, my very first mandate to them would be: hard account time usage locks. You could start your first 45 minute chunk whenever you want, but, once it starts, it runs out in 45 minutes, whether you use it or not. You cannot pause it, it does not roll-over. When it is done, there will be a mandatory one hour minimum gap before you can start your second “evening” chunk of usage. And, again, once you start that one hour, it runs out 60 minutes later, no matter what.

Kid started whining about something and you had to step away and lost your evening hour? Oh well, start fresh tomorrow, you’ll live.

Had to work a late night and never got to start your evening news dump? That’s fine, there will be more news to suffer through tomorrow.

Running late in the morning, didn’t have time to pop open Twitter and catch up and which women they’ve banned most recently for daring to tell someone who said they wanted to rape their mouths to fuck off, while simultaneously also allowing 127 different Nazi accounts to demand you get in an oven? Guess what? That’s right: you’ll live. Catch up during your evening hour. Or even tomorrow.

Get the gist here? It’s not healthy to be tied to the news 24×7. The news media has zero interest in telling you “today’s basically fine, there’s nothing you need to be concerned with, go on with your day, citizen”, even though that is often the case.

Even when it’s NOT the case, such as now since we live in a Trumpian Geohell Late Capitalist Dystopia That Will Not End Until We Are All Gig Economy Serfs Or Dead, the human spirit simply cannot survive a diet of constant news refreshing throughout all waking hours. Yes, the President probably did or said something absolutely awful within the last hour. No, there’s nothing you can do about it, so there’s absolutely no benefit to knowing about that thing RIGHT NOW as opposed to in your next morning or evening News Time Allotment Chunk.

I really think this would be one of those social goods the government needs to get on top of, like banning smoking or cracking down on dads driving kids unseatbelted in the back of the wagon after six-seven scotches at a family dinner party. Nobody benefits from letting the media make us feel terrible all of the time, always. They just know they can wire our brains to want constant stoking of fear and/or pleasure, and they’re increasingly effective at that since we can now all be reached by them all of the time always, which, in retrospect, was a TERRIBLE fucking idea that I wish I had not spent my entire career trying to make possible 😦

Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin

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Link to Series on Amazon

(Putting this on the third and final book of the series because spoilers but it’s a review of the series as a whole, not just The Stone Sky)

I’ve never been a huge fantasy guy. Tried a couple of times to get into The Lord of the Rings as a kid; always bounced off within the first 100 pages or so. I’ve never read it, or seen the movies. Never got into D&D at all. Harry Potter, I’ve read not a word of nor seen even a minute of the movies. Game of Thrones, the books, I tried and got through like two of them and had to just bail. I do enjoy the show still, but the actual fantasy elements, like the Dragons and the White Walkers, are the least-interesting part to me. I prefer the politics and the personalities of the humans involved.

So, even though over time I’ve gotten a little more tolerant of Orcs and Dorks, it’s still not really my jam. Which explains why I just got around to reading The Fifth Season this year instead of when it came out in 2015 and won every award for fantasy worth winning. A solid review from my friend Smeebs put it over the edge and I finally grabbed and started reading the first book of the series.

And here we are, less than two weeks later, and I’ve finished reading the entire trilogy. It’s that good.

Even though it’s considered firmly in the fantasy camp, there’s a wonderful lack of the usual tropes; no dragons, no elves, and the world refreshingly resembles 14th-Century England not in the slightest.

Instead of all of that, we get a bracingly original set of conceits to revel in, many of which make the world seem thoroughly exoctic and foreign, instead of the more-typical fantasy trope of “like Earth, but older, with a touch of magic”.

Magic does exist in this universe, but in a more defined, important way than the usual “it just exists” manner we’re more familiar with. It is generated by the Earth itself, and interacts with its inhabitants in different ways depending on what type of inhabitant they are.

And those inhabitants are a varied, creative lot. The main protagonist and many of the main characters are Orogenes; humans who can detect and manipulate the tectonic activity of the Earth itself. They can therefore unleash crazy amounts of hell in this hyper-tectonically-active world, and are therefore despised by the majority regular humans, called “Stills” by the orogenes for their inability to feel the near-constantly moving Earth. On the flipside, a properly-trained and/or powerful-enough orogene can also deflect or even stop earthquakes locally, which makes them very valuable, if they can be controlled.

Author N. K. Jemisin is VERY subtle about this, but she makes some inciteful commentary and analogies between how the orogenes (who are commonly referred to by the Stills as “Rogga”, a word that’s basically the N-word of this universe) are treated in this world and how African-Americans are treated in ours. Again; it’s SUBTLE. She does not beat you over the head with it, which is appreciated in a work of fantasy fiction. But there’s some meat to chew on here.

Orogenes are either bred by the ruling society in creches heavily guarded by, well, The Guardians, a wonderfully creepy class of overwatches/parental surrogates who have… complex relationships with their charges, or they are “feral” and only discovered as having their unique powers when, typically as children, they lash out with their uncontrolled powers in a moment of fear or anger and Everybody Dies. This complex interplay between utility, power, and threat colors every bit of their existence and relationship with the society they inhabit.

My favorite of the invented races in her universe are the Stone Eaters. Much of what they are besides the obvious feature you can deduce from their name would ruin the story, so let’s just say that they’re… super fuckin’ interesting.

These races interact in a world where the Earth itself is basically ripping itself apart. Every so often, a cataclysmic event happens that fucks up the weather so bad the inhabitants call it The Fifth Season, and much of their cultural lore concerns how to just survive through these periods of horrific climatic and environmental upheaval.

Even in between the Fifth Seasons, the planet is much more active than ours, and it basically prevents society from advancing beyond its essentially late-medieval level of wealth and functioning, even though there is much evidence of “deadcivs” lying around that indicates that, at some point in the past, their ancestors had effectively reached our own “modern” level of advancement. And even in calm periods, people have to prepare and set aside any excess wealth into storage to help them survive the next Fifth Season, which can strike at any time.

The story has elements of the classic fantasy “quest”, but it’s also more than that. It’s a grand rumination on how a society chooses to function, the cost/benefit analysis that has to occur in moments of extreme strife and privation, and, most essentially, what makes somebody “human”?

On a closer level, there’s an examination of what it means when a society’s well-being depends on the forced labor of a specific subset of it. This is where the uncomfortable analogies to our own society are strongest, and, again, without spoiling anything, I like how the author covers this aspect.

The hard part of reviewing a series like this is that the reviewer can’t go too deep into the world or what happens without spoiling the journey, which I don’t want to do. That said, let’s examine a lot of the aspects of the series I found particularly rewarding:

  • The protagonists are mostly female. This is refreshing, and I don’t give two shits what the Sad Puppies (Google it, I’m not covering these shitheads at any length here other than to say that these guys whine about any book that doesn’t feature a white male lead, and go about their complaining in absolutely vile ways) have to say about it, and they’ve said more than enough. Morons.
  • Most of the “good” characters are brown. Most of the “bad” ones are white. Just by description; our world’s color dichotomy doesn’t exist in this one. Again, tough shit to whoever’s feelings are hurt by this. It’s good to not instantly feel comfortable and familiar with the protagonist of a novel, which is the default state of a white male reader of fantasy fiction. It’s certainly more interesting, and isn’t that something we WANT in our books? To be clear, the brown=good, white=bad thing isn’t absolute, and this is not a universe where ANYONE gets through without making some morally dubious choices. But, from a purely literary standpoint, it’s just fuckin’ refreshing.
  • One of the dominant themes is the nature of parenthood, particularly in times of societal upheaval, that is not at all the norm for books of this genre. I like her examination of this, even if it often verges on absolutely heart-breaking.
  • There are elements of sci-fi as well, but only via the aspect of “ancient” civilizations having existed thousands of years before the book’s present-day that were way more advanced than that present-day culture. This isn’t a particularly original idea, but her treatment of it, is.
  • I like that she doesn’t go too crazy with inventing words to replace things that already exist and have names in English. There’s a bit of that, which is just plain necessary to worldbuild and remind the reader that it’s not _our_ world this story is taking place in, but I like that even her invented words tend to be sensible enough to be immediately understandable by the reader. A child is a child, not a “birthling” or some dumb shit.
  • That said, people and place names are wonderfully foreign but have their own internal consistency that is pleasing and believable. A lot of books fuck this up.

Overall, The Broken Earth is an absolutely rewarding read. There’s more than enough original ideas in the series to make it feel much fresher than most fantasy, many aspects of the series are wholly original, and the emotional flavor and impact are deep and not in the usual ways we are used to from the genre. Basically, if you’re at all a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, you’re a fool if you don’t read this series.

Peter Thiel Is A Modern-Day Mengele

Peter Thiel Argues That The Poor Should Be Fodder For His Risky, Careless Quality-of-Life Medical Experimentation

We are rightfully horrified today that the US government used to do this to minorities (think the Syphillis tests on black guys in Alabama, among countless others). Thiel and these other Valley fuckheads think those days were fine, and are actually angry that they’re not allowed to just toss some cash at some poor people and then run hilariously under-secured vaccine trials on them, because who cares if a few browns suffer and/or die if the end result is a safe vaccine for rich white people, right?

This is why the wealthy should be imprisoned and their wealth appropriated and redistributed. It has taken ages to get our government to where it even somewhat-responsibly regulates health and food procedures, and it fails at that, often, not due to some inherent evil or caprice of “gubbmint workers”, but because greedy, capable shitheads like Thiel see the profit in doing it unsafely, and are willing and have the capital to influence media and elections to make sure the people exercise their “free will” and only elect their hand-picked mandarins who will gut protections and regulations as they see fit.

Of course, people are egregiously stupid, so they blame the government for this instead of the actually-evil wealthy fuckers who have the ability and means to to bend the government to their will to the detriment of the rest of us.

People. Please wake up. What you hate, what is ruining your life, is NOT the government. It’s rich people. And a government fully funded and empowered by the people to prevent rich people from fucking with your life is your only hope you have of things ever getting better.

Taking A Knee

I was in the shower a few mornings ago when I recalled a memory of something I did as a teenager that was so awkward, embarrassing, and downright humiliating that even the decades-old faded echo of the actual moment caused me to grip the door of the shower and, without thinking about, actually sing a wordless melody at a very loud volume to drown out the memory itself inside of my head.

So, to all you awkward teenagers out there, I’m sorry to say… it never goes away. The mere memory of the dumb things you’re doing right this instant will be powerful enough to bring you to your knees twenty, thirty years from now.

That shit’s FOREVER.

Anyway, great talk, smell ya later.

Fuck These Garbage Bags

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Yeah, these guys right here. Fuck these bags.

You know how much time I wanna spend thinking about garbage bags? Fucking NONE, that’s how much. It should be a fucking binary split-second thought:

  • I have garbage bags

or

  • I need garbage bags

Of course, like every other goddamned thing in this bloated, end-stage capitalism nightmare of a country, it cannot be that simple. Just like with fucking crackers, chips, deodorant, toothpaste, soap, every goddamned thing, there’s 74 fucking varieties to sort through and somehow discern the differences between and for most things I just say “FUCK IT I DON’T NEED THIS SHIT” but garbage bags are one of those essential things that life gets really shitty without fast.

So, every time I buy them I can’t remember exactly what fucking kind we just ran out of or like so I grab whichever collection of adjectives looks most likely to not completely piss me off.

This carefully-considered strategy has worked perfectly for lo the many, many years I have been buying garbage bags.

Until THESE motherfuckers came into my life. Yeah, you: Hefty Ultra Strong Clean Burst w/Active TEAR RESISTANT Technology

Pretty much every goddamned word in your very name is a lie. I’m not even a third of the way through the fucking box yet and I’ve had to punt three fucking bags for ripping while I put them into the garbage can, new and empty. Like, not even the structural failure you get and can kinda understand when you’ve just overloaded a bag to hell, but no, they fucking rip right down the side just from the simple, low-pressure act of being installed.

And I’ve had two other fuckin’ bags go to shit when I’ve tried to remove it from the can, with one or both of the handles ripping right the fuck out on the attempt. And it’s not due to overloading because we generally don’t make that much throw-out garbage, the bag’s usually half-full but super-stinky and I take it out at that point even though every fiber of my cheap-ass being would prefer to wait until it’s full. And the handles just strip right out, leaving me to have to hug-carry a ripped bag of smelly vegetable refuse and cat poop down to the chute.

It’s not like this is a box of Pakistani off-brand ‘HUFFTEE” garbage bags I bought at the fuckin’ Dollar Store or something; these are spendy-assed, top of the line, fulla technological marvels Hefty Premium As Fuck garbage bags. And, to be clear, I’ve always bought some kinda Hefty bags and they’ve always worked without fail until I got these pieces of shit.

So, yeah, don’t buy these fucking things. I’m going back to my usual principle of buying whatever has the least number of superlatives on the box.

The Books of 2017, #4: Meeting Infinity, Jonathan Strahan, Editor

This collection of short sci-fi stories basically made no impression on me whatsoever. I’m not kidding; even though it features some of my all-time favorite authors, I’m sitting here a few weeks after I finished reading the book and am struggling to remember a single goddamned thing about it.

I think this is more my problem than that of the authors or the writing itself; I’ve never cottoned to sci-fi short stories. I liked some horror collections in the past, I still enjoy essay collections and fiction short stories, but sci-fi, specifically, I think I need full-length novels to really get into and be affected by.

Sorry shrug. This isn’t to say that this is a bad book by any means, it just wasn’t the right book for me to be reading at this time, apparently.