This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show). There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book. Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times. I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.
Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects. In fact he tweeted this the other day;
The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.
He does seem to manage the time better nowadays. When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series. Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes. It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary. Some introductions add a nice personal touch too. The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.
The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish. There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy. Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show. It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it). I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).
Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas. I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven. The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good). I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison. The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative. I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.
This is a book with a reputation. Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds. It has also received its fair share of criticism. Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.
In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up. Something to bring back some sense of optimism. Some sense of progress. Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill. It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.
Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious. His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire. The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011. At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.
The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating. Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world. Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.
I am in the middle of reading An Ice Cream War by William Boyd, and came to notice a bit of an anniversary. It’s now hundred years since the Battle of Tanga, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bees.
Continue reading Post 53: Bees??
It may not have escaped your attention that today was the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princep, an act that set forth a chain of events that led to the First World War. It certainly didn’t escape the attention of Zack Twamley of the When Diplomacy Fails podcast, and he’s doing a special series of episodes over the next few days on the so-called ‘July Crisis’ – that series of diplomatic actions that filled the period between the assassination and the outbreak of war. I don’t personally have much insight to add, it’s not really an era that I know a lot about, but it’s very topical and there seems to be a lot of interesting discussion about it at the minute.
Continue reading When Diplomacy Fails: The July Crisis
Now for another podcast series, Zack Twamley’s When Diplomacy Fails, one which I mentioned briefly in my post on the History of England. In that Zack contributed a guest episode on the Battle of Bannockburn, an episode that would act as a prototype for this series. It focused on the war and specifically on why the war happened. Now, I don’t mind military history but at times I find it can descent into “A moved to B and did this, then C moved to D and did this …” until you end up with a long list of individually inconsequential events and start losing sight of the big picture. This podcast promised to be different, with an emphasis on the reasons behind wars and the factors that caused them to finished up as the do.
Continue reading Post 9: When Diplomacy Fails