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.

The Books of 2017, #3: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of American, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe

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I think I’m a pretty fast reader. I don’t claim to be a speed reader, because speed reading is bullshit and the people who claim they read 40 books a week aren’t retaining jack shit of any of them but just trying to impress their idiot friends with a dumb stat, but I read at a pretty good clip and I devote a lot of time to reading every week. This book still took me a solid fucking three weeks to get through, and one of those weeks was spent on vacation so I was reading way more than usual.

At 904 very, very dense pages, What Hath God Wrought is a THOROUGHLY comprehensive look at everything about the United States from the end of The War of 1812 through the end of The Mexican-American War.

What it is NOT is: a pop history, on par with the usual “book version of a History Channel, Discovery or BBC show” that dominates the history section of Amazon these days. It is a proper scholarly review of the period in question, excessively sourced and footnoted, with a wonderful bibliography that alone will take you a day or so to properly digest itself.

What it is, is: a VERY good book. But it’s also a commitment on par with, say, marriage, or having a child.

That is fitting with its role as Vol. V of the Oxford History of the United States, a series I’ve been working through for the last few years at one or two volumes per year, enjoying each volume very much so far.

The title comes from the “first” transmission over a telegraph line by Mr. Morse of Morse Code fame (though, as the book gets into, neither claim stands up to scrutiny), an event which illustrates the central them of the book: that the divorce of communications from physical transport revolutionized every aspect of American life in fundamental ways.

Howe illustrates this wonderfully with a discussion of how long it took a piece of news to get from, say, New York City to other points in the US at the time the book begins (1815). Even to get to nearby Philadelphia or Boston, a trivial hour or two jaunt down the ACELA for us moderns, took DAYS in 1815. There was no way for news to travel faster than a person verbally carrying it or a piece of paper with said news on it could physically cover the distance.

Howe takes us through this transformation wonderfully, explaining how it affected everything from where Americans lived to how long they stayed in one place, to the food they ate, to how they worshiped, etc.

Howe doesn’t keep the focus just on the big actors of the day; yes, the politics and wars are covered quite thoroughly, but the author also is careful to spend a lot of time going over how regular people were faring under the decisions of the “important” figures of the era. Small vignettes from individuals who aren’t as well-known as Andrew Jackson or Henry Clay are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative to bring life and a personal touch to the grander themes being covered. As I vastly prefer comprehensive histories that cover social and economic factors along with the military and the political ones, this really helped keep me engaged through the very long read.

The second major theme of the book is a refutation of the common declaration amongst historians of this era as being “Jacksonian” first and foremost. While his bias towards the Whigs ideal of national economic development and anti-slavery is clear, it is also supported. Howe presents an argument that Andrew Jackson and the Democrats bear the brunt of the responsibility for driving America towards the future Civil War, as well as being generally bad leaders of the nation while in charge. The argument is persuasive.

Howe further does not shy away from bluntly stating that America under Jackson’s rule and that of his successors was devoted to maintaining and expanding a system of white supremacy. It’s hard to argue with his argument for this, and it’s something that needs to be said and hammered home more often in the canonical histories of the era.

A lot of time is spent on the religion of Americans, which may strike the reader from this more secular age as odd, but Howe makes it clear that religion was a VERY dominant factor in almost everyone’s life in this era. And it intertwined with many other aspects of life, such as how one felt on the slavery issue, women’s rights, immigration, etc. The sections on religion are long and sometimes bewildering in the range of differences, major and not, that are discussed, but they are pretty essential to understanding how Americans thought about these things in those days.

The book closes with a fierce look at the American war with Mexico, which Howe positions rightly as one of the most impressive military campaigns ever waged as well as one of the least-justified wars ever launched. President Polk was borderline despicable in his machinations to maneuver Mexico into a war it didn’t want for the sole purpose of aggrandizing American territory at their expense, with the primary goal of expanding slavery through much of it. The struggle of the Whigs to show their opposition to this war without actually defunding soldiers in the field will resonate with opponents of recent wars in our history.

Overall, while somewhat exhausting, What Hath God Wrought stands as a brilliant telling of the era, a bona fide classic of historical writing that anyone even remotely interested in the period covered should check out immediately.

The Books of 2017, #2: The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, by Mark Levinson

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When I was very, very young, the A&P was our corner grocery. Since we didn’t have a car, we walked down to that A&P a lot. It quickly converted into a Butera and now is a Supermercado of some sort, but I remember the A&P logo on it most strongly.

When I mentioned I was reading this book to a buddy about 10 years younger than me, it was made clear that he had never even heard of A&P. Given that A&P was the world’s largest company for 43 straight years, I find this kind of amazing. They were the Wal*Mart of America for a very long time.

So I grabbed this book when it popped up on my radar. In The Great A&P, Mark Levinson does yeoman’s work in describing how A&P came to occupy such a domineering position and why they fell so hard, so fast, that adult Americans today can credibly say they’ve never heard of them even though there were thousands of A&P stores across the country in living memory.

Telling this story is complicated by the fact that a) A&P wasn’t a publicly-traded firm and b) the men of the Hartford family who ran it were notoriously private. Therefore, I can appreciate the archaeology the author had to do to bring this story to light with any level of detail.

The rise of A&P in the late 19th and early 20th Century consumes the first half of the book, where the reader is given a lovely look into the frankly disgusting world of pre-refrigeration grocery selling. A somewhat predictable tale of effective utilization of economies of scale plus advertising mastery thus follows, with the rapid advances of transport and refrigeration technologies playing a strong role in the changeover of America’s food shopping habits from being primarily conducted at tiny corner stores run by independent owners to the chain store-dominated landscape we’re all too familiar with today.

Where the book gets particularly interesting is in the government’s rather persistent attempts to curb A&P’s growth, if not destroy them outright. Thanks to one particularly stubborn Southern Congressman who made his nut latching on to the issue of chain stores being bad for America (just in case you thought idiot populism was something new in our culture…), A&P found itself fighting the Federal Government from about 1930 through to the Eisenhower presidency nonstop. And while I’m generally in favor of strong government regulation of just about everything (because almost all entrepreneurs are also raving psychopaths who should be prevented from having unlimited funds to push their agenda in all possible arenas but I disgress…), Levinson makes a very, VERY strong case that the government’s arguments against A&P were entirely baseless from any economic or consumer-protectionist perspective.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the history aspect of how shopping for food, something every person has to do on a regular basis, changed over time, with a lot of that change pushed by A&P’s innovations in its own business in ways that quickly reverberated through all retailers of food in the country. I further enjoyed the bizarre history of the government’s attempts to take A&P down for literally being TOO GOOD for consumers, by lowering prices too much. It’s a clear case of the kind of almost vindictive government overreach that leads far too many people to assume that ALL regulation is bad, and is precisely the sort of thing those of us who believe in strong but careful government regulation need to look out for.

The last bit of the book covers how, after finally putting the government’s crusade against it to bed, mostly successfully, a change in previously-entrenched leadership quickly led to the rather rapid demise of America’s largest chain. While those of us who have been living in the Age of Disruption (rolleyes) are unfortunately used to seeing legacy industries with tens of thousands of workers suddenly go under in disturbingly quick fashion, A&P might’ve been the first to go through this process, and it did so before Silicon Valley was around with its life mission of murdering traditional companies for profit.

I would’ve liked for Levinson to spend more time on this process, but it’s presented more as an epilogue to the story than an integral part of it. I guess it would be hard to spin a dramatic, engaging narrative out of bad managers consistently making wrong little decisions (and avoiding making any big ones) day after day for years until younger, more aggressive and more nimble competitors are eating your lunch and you go under.

So, in the end, I can recommend this book to anybody interested in the various topics covered within. It’s a deep look at a by-gone era of American business and government, with a side order of weird, private bachelor dudes running a company together for many, many decades with very little in the way of outside input and doing it damned well. Levinson obviously saw something uniquely American in The Great A&P and told that story here well.

Things I Like: Next.app for iOS (A Simple Spending Tracking App)

There are a million budgeting apps available for iOS. Most of them are way over-designed for my purposes. I basically gave up on finding one for the phone after testing out Mint, Quicken, YNAB, etc… they were all just too much.

What I wanted was simply this: when I spend some money, I want to be able to, VERY quickly, punch in how much and roughly on what. And I want to be able to view those entries grouped by day, week, and, most importantly, monthly.

I don’t want to have to view and then cross-tabulate the five different accounts spending can occur in.

I don’t want pie charts, graphs, or to be flooded with data.

I want to be able to input a spending event VERY VERY QUICKLY. This is the most important part.

None of the apps out there did all of this well, if at all. So I gave up on it entirely for a while until I happened across this article by Federico Viticci, a hardcore iOS nerd whose work and reviews I’ve respected for years. In it, he explains why he loves and how he uses Next, a simple iOS budgeting app. His review sounded like exactly what I was looking for, so I grabbed the app.

It is exactly what I’ve been looking for.

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This is the screen that greets you when you open the app. It’s a bunch of easy-to-parse icons defining categories. The ones in blue are ones you’ve added spending for before. The darker the blue, the more money you’ve spent on that type of thing.

Simply tap an icon, punch in the amount and tap the checkmark key and you’re done. Takes two seconds.

Wanna see how much you’ve spent in the last day/week/month/year? Swipe right and choose:

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Tap on any category to see a trend line over the time period chosen (so, day over day, week over week, etc.):

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Swipe to the rightmost screen to see a daily breakdown of every charge you’ve entered grouped by day instead of by kind (like the other screen does):

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None of this is like “awesome new exciting!” but I’ve been surprised at how hard it’s been to find an app that does this well. The key need for me here is quickness; if there’s any friction at all in using an app like this, I know I’ll stop using it in short order. And that sucks. But Next just gets out of the way. I can order coffee and quickly enter how much that run cost without pissing off the person behind me in line in the drive-thru. It takes literally about 3 seconds from grabbing my phone to having entered the data and done.

I don’t use this feature because it would slow me down too much, but if you want to enter a note on any entry to describe what it was or whatever, you can. I find that just tapping a category icon for each entry gives me all of the detail I need.

So, bravo to the fine Germans at “no identity gmbh” for making Next, which does everything I want it to and does it exactly how I want it done.

 

 

The Books of 2017, #1: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, by Robert Gerwarth

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Started off the year with a fun one, I did…

Wars are exhaustively covered in Western literature. No human being can read all of the books, even just in English, much less in other languages, that have been written about World War II, for example. That war is covered in many excellent volumes that cover the war as a whole, from a nice high overview, down to increasingly specific topics like the experience of individual German squads on the Eastern Front in 1943.

The point being, when it comes to wars, particular of the “modern” era, you can probably find at least one, if not many, books that speaks to whatever about that war you wish to know about in greater detail.

That is, unless what you’re interested in is: What Happened After?

Fortunately, this genre has been picking up steam in recent years. For World War II, there’s the excellent Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe, which tells the sad but necessary epic of the decade after VE Day, when an entire continent basically smashed to bits had to try and rebuild and also have a reckoning with what they had done to each other for a second time in a generation now. In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia by Ronald Spector does the same thing for the Pacific Theater. There have been many volumes rethinking the “Fall of Rome” and going into great detail regarding the century after 476CE in Europe.

And now, it’s The Great War’s turn.

The immediate postwar era of World War I is even more fascinating due to how those five or so years made the Second World War basically inevitable. And this is the ground The Vanquished covers.

From the “end” of what we refer to now as World War I in November of 1918 until about 1923, everything from the Rhine to the Pacific coast of Russian, from Finland south through the Balkans and into Mesopotamia, experience further violent conflict. Even the victors, with the sole exception of France, suffered additional violence and chaos (Britain with the Irish uprisings and Italy thoroughly enmeshed in the former Austro-Hungarian littoral on the Adriatic as well as suffering internal convulsions).

Gerwarth walks the reader through this tangled muddle as best he can, grouping events like revolutions, civil wars, interstate wars, irredentist conflicts, etc., together, in an admirable attempt to make sense of it all. To give an idea of the difficulty of the task, Wikipedia (not an authoritative resource but, again, to just give an idea) lists SEVENTY distinct violent conflicts in Europe from the end of 1918 through 1922.

The Vanquished tries to avoid descending into just an unending narrative of violence and cruelty, even though this is what the period was about, and instead tries to show the causes of the violence and the longer-reaching effects. I’m not personally certain that there was any result other than the breakup of the four empires that ended World War I and directly resulted in the chaos of the aftermath covered here that was possible, but Gerwarth makes a fairly convincing argument that it would have been difficult to fuck up the details and implementation of those breakups any worse than the Allies actually did.

Worse, the mismanagement of the “peace” contributed directly to the fall of democracies across this entire region and the resulting, even worse conflict of World War II. A lot of folks are aware of the correlation between the harsh Treaty of Versailles and its effect on the defeated Germans, but Gerwarth gives equal time to the equally harsh Treaties of Sevres and Trianon, each of which also carried great weight as contributing causes to World War II.

Trying to make sense of all of the horror that happened in the immediate half-decade following World War I is a tough task for any author, but Gerwarth manages it well here and this is a great one-volume overview of the entire period. If you wish to dig deeper into any specific aspect of it, I’ll just mention here that, per my Kindle, the narrative ends at 60% of the book. The remaining 40% is just to cover all of the documents and other books referenced in said narrative. Yeesh.

 

 

Things I Like: Beats Solo3 Headphones

Product Page at the Apple Store for these things.

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My oh my…

Everybody heaped a ton of shit on Apple when they announced their wireless AirPod earbuds and I was right with the chorus: they look eminently lose-able, way too expensive, and just goofy-looking. I still think that’s accurate… for the AirPods.

However, Apple announced two other headphones that are also powered by their new W1 chip (this is the magic part that allegedly strips the suck out of Bluetooth, a notoriously shitty, finicky protocol that has historically been so bad that I’ve refused to use it for anything audio-related): the Beats Solo3 (traditional over-the-ear cup headphones) and some PowerBeats designed for the gym use (and, therefore, instantly out of my consideration).

There’s a lot of reasons I’ve avoided wireless headphones up to this point:

  • The aforementioned audio issues. It’s only been the recent release of BT4.2 on some devices that I find the quality of audio over Bluetooth (a protocol that requires compression of audio data to work) at all acceptable. It still ain’t great, but I’d listen to already-compressed music, a podcast or a phone call over it now, at least.
  • Battery Life: it’s been shit to this point. Just total garbage. Even the new AirPods are unacceptable; due to their tiny size, you get 5 hours of playtime on a max charge. I can barely accept the idea of charging headphones at all in the first place so it’s gotta be better than that.

Due to these factors, I paid little attention to the announcement. Until somebody pointed out the 40 (!) hour battery life on the Solo3 model.

That’s… that’s a number I can live with.

I still waited for a lot of reviews to come out on all W1-powered headphones before biting on buying these things. The Solo3’s are not exactly cheap. But, so far, they live up to the promise and have been worth it. Some pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Apple is absolutely not joking about the battery life. I charged them up when I got them last week Tuesday. I’ve used them probably 1-2 hours a day every weekday since (they don’t get much love on the weekends when I’m home; I use wired cans at home). They’re still in the upper nineties %-wise on charge. That’s RIDICULOUS.
  • The W1 pairing stuff, which a lot of people couldn’t roll their eyes hard enough at, is no joke. I turned them on, held them kinda near my iPhone, iPhone said “you wanna use these?” right away, I said “yes” and boom, every Apple device I own now knows about these things and will pair with them no problem. I have yet to lose pairing on any device, either, which is downright miraculous for something running over Bluetooth.
  • The sound is pretty decent. I remember laughing at the first-generation BeatsByDre headphones because they were so overwhelmingly bassy, I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to them. They’ve come a long way since then; the sound still leans towards a heavier bass response than I would prefer, but it also has pretty nice mids and highs. Good cut-through on hi-hats and quieter parts… I still prefer my wired V-Moda set for recording music through, but for general listening, these are just fine.
  • The range; go ahead and wander away from your phone to hit the fridge or something, they’ll be fine. Unlike every regular Bluetooth device I’ve ever used, the W1 chip seems to be able to retain its grip on both ends of the tether over quite the distance. I can’t get them to drop no matter where in our condo I go, including the balcony.

CONS:

  • For the price, you’d like to see a lot less plastic in the construction. My V-Moda’s, I’m pretty sure I could fastball into an intruder’s face, then pick up and keep using without issue. I’m not sure these Solo3’s would survive an aggressive taking-off-of-head movement.
  • For fuck’s sake, a Micro-USB connection for charging? Goddammit, Apple, YOU HAVE THE LIGHTNING PORT. YOU’RE PUSHING USB-C AS WELL. Why were NEITHER of these better choices used here???? This and the fucking Kindle are the last goddamned things I own that use this connector, and I cannot wait for the day when I can happily pitch all of these shitty cheap Micro-USB cables into the fuckin’ garbage where they belong.

Those are not insignificant cons, but I think the pros outweigh them considerably. That I’ve got comfy, reasonably good-sounding cans with no fuckin’ wires tripping me up nonstop that’ll also last, at my usage patterns, weeks between charges is something I didn’t think would ever be possible even a year ago. Apple’s figured some shit out here, and for unfucking bluetooth audio alone we should be building a statue of Tim that’s at least 60% of the size of the one we should make of Jobs.

 

 

Peter Thiel Was Fed A Diet of Lead-Laced Chinese Wall Candy As A Child

NYT decides to give many column inches to guy who shouldn’t be allowed to cross a street unaccompanied, for some reason.

Read that. Note the number of WOW lines such as:

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This is just ONE pull quote from an article chock-fuckin’ full of ’em. I don’t know how anybody with a functioning mind can read this profile of Peter Thiel and NOT come away with the impression that he’s anything but a weapons-grade moron.

Can we PLEASE, as a society, stop assuming that, just because already-advantaged and connected and privileged dudes guessed lucky ONCE in their lives and made it super-rich that they have any expertise in anything else whatsoever, or even in their chosen field?

This guy’s a fucking idiot. It takes idiocy to think that Trump not disrupting things enough is the biggest risk we’re facing from his presidency. Only a completely super-loaded sociopathic jagoff can ignore the fact that tens of millions of Americans don’t have the resources to survive “disruption” like he can. This prick bankrupted a whole company and put a lot of already fairly-brokedick journalists out of work out of sheer spite because they dared to report, accurately, that he likes kissing boys. Fuck him.

If there’s a weakness to the American psyche, it’s the assumption that, if one is wealthy, one is inherently smarter and better than those who are not. It’s often nothing more than compounded generational privilege multiplied by luck that leads to the creation of hyper-wealthy creatures like Thiel and Trump, and they always seem to think that their position in life is the result of nothing more than their own personal hard work and grit. It never is; they are just narcissistically incapable of acknowledging the many factors outside of their control that tilted the playing field in their favor.

They’re no better than you or I. Let’s stop treating them like they are.