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Posts published in “review”

Revolutionary Spring 1848-49

At about 750 pages, Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849, may seem a little much in the effort department to justify the time: A tightly-written an detailed review of the many concurrent revolutions erupting across Europe at almost exactly the same time, in the middle of the 19th century - revolutions that nearly all failed and did not revive.

Unless you're already well up to speed with European history of the period, most of the people involved won't be familiar either (though a number of them were striking characters with dramatic story arcs). The best-known probably is Karl Marx, who was merely an observer of the action (he wasn't at all well-known at that time, and is only a minor figure in the book) and often misread the events as they transpired.

What's the point?

The point here, besides filling in a lot of prospective gaps in knowledge of history (it filled some for me), is the usefulness of seeing the dynamic, how these eruptions from seemingly out of nowhere did emerge, what ground was needed to sustain them, what happened at first and why they were crushed.

And the point of absorbing that is the connection with our world today. The dynamics of human society may change over time but human nature often stays much the same, and while the author Christopher Clark makes only a few quick, peripheral explicit references to the state of our world today, a thoughtful read will find parallels between that unusual time and place and ours - with some implicit lessons for what could happen if our future turns darker.

The story here starts at around 1830, nearly a generation after the Napoleonic wars and at a time when Europe's political and governmental structure seemed mostly settled, that being a major goal of a lot of people, not just royalty, after the upheaval of the Frank revolutionary period. But while Napoleon and the politics of the earlier revolutionary time may have been crushed militarily and administratively, with mostly strong monarchies left in place, the ideas and desires that had made them popular in the first place had not gone away. France had a small-scale revolution, resulting in a regime change, in 1830, and the shock waves from it spread across Europe. While modern transportation and communication weren't yet around (no long-distance railroads or telegraphs quite yet) word of what was happening tended to spread fast, resulting in 1848 in a series of revolts, monarchical abdications and radical takeovers in country after country, almost all within a few weeks of each other, even though no one was actively trying to orchestrate it that way. The rebels were acting as a result of receiving distant signals - newspapers and other publications were central to this, as the internet would be now -  but there was no coordination.

The details of how all this happened should in some ways seem startlingly familiar to people in our age. An example: The radical rebels were extremely popular in the capital and main regional cities, and in many cases were able to chase monarchs out of town. But the monarchs didn't have to go far: The people in the countryside were much friendlier to them, and provided a strong base of support when time came, as it did, for the counter-revolution. That's one reason the powers that got removed were able to return. (Clark does make some references to how, later on, many of them would lose their way in years yet to come.)

The background is not simply analytical; Clark threads the historical narrative with accounts from people, famous and unknown, put concrete detail, sometimes of a grisly nature, on the proceedings.

We understand our world better when we can look at it from different angles. In Revolutionary Spring, there's a fresh angle for looking at where we are now, and where we could be going.

(image)

 

Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life

The distance was a bit of dissonance in this case. I attended a book signing and speaking event for an author who lives just a few miles north of where I do. But the book in question had reach around the globe, and the story opened with a scene in Congo - where the author was on board a rickety plane that looked to be about to crash.

He is Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and for years before that a for4eign correspondent for the newspaper. Obviously he survived the rough landing and, just afterward, he pulled out his satellite phone and called his wife. The idea was to tell her he was okay, but when she came on the line, he decided otherwise: The story was best told in person.

Except, that soon afterward his wife got a call from the home office in New York which included the comment that people there were happy Nick had survived. Oops. The lesson after that, Kristof recounted, was: Immediate transparency about important events is helpful in a marriage.

Kristof's memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life, is packed with stories about things learned in the field. He's Harvard and Oxford-educated, but much of what he recounts here - and a lot of the book is devoted to the practical work of researching and writing about places around the world, many remote and some of them extremely dangerous - which plainly constitutes its own form of grad school.

Some of that relates to how to get the work done (how, for example, you get past checkpoints filled with armed soldiers when you're in the4 country illegally). Some of it relates to how people live in places extremely different from the United States (the hazards of introducing himself in certain locales) by his nickname).

But some of it too comes from what you learn when you're on the ground and can see for yourself - which can look a lot different than it does from a distance. That applies not only to distance places in Africa and Asia but even to his home town area around Yamhill, where many of the problems facing parts of rural America can come into sharp focus.

There are plenty of reporter memoirs out, and many of them make for lively reading. (In the last few years, I especially liked Seymour Hersh's.) None I've seen, though, has been livelier, or covers more ground, than this one. He talks in detail about life growing up in small-town Oregon, about his time in universities and freelancing articles about places around the globe - an achievement that seemed to me as remarkable as anything else he has done - and dealing with deadly threats, from illness to being in a crowd fire upon by Chinese troops at Tiananmen Square (then frantically running on foot miles back to his residence to send the story so the paper would have its own version).

There's plenty of solid fact and earned wisdom here. And if you're in the mood for an adventure story, you can find a while pile of them between these covers.

Photo/World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

Read Write Own

Most of what I have heard about blockchains has been in the context of cryptocurrency - a topic notable in the last few years for associations with uncertainty and untrustworthiness. (That sound of dismissal isn't entirely warranted, though cases like that of Sam Bankman-Fried give it some rationale.) But what about the technology underlying it? Tech is just a tool, right? Tech can be used for all sorts of things, good and bad.

Chris Dixon, a tech investor and author of the new Red Write Own, makes a strong case that the underlying computing elements - the most key component of which is something called a blockchain - could become the lever for solving many of the worst current ailments of the internet as we know it. And more than that, a sizable slice of the problems of many societies around the world, not least ours.

The book is not large (the main text of the print book I read is just 230 pages) but it is tightly written and argued, and written in plain enough English than non-tech people can follow it regularly. For the most part, you'll understand his points, his concerns and his proposals, reasonably well if you're an active user of the net ... as most of us are these days.

He begins with a quick review of the last 30 years or so if the online world and how it developed into the one we know, transitioning from a system dominated by protocols (meaning, generally, e-mail, websites and a few others services) to one dominated by a handful of tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon. Those mega-companies, he points out, started out by building networks of users, which became enormous with time, and transitioned from an effort to add people and groups to their networks, to trying to squeeze as much revenue as possible out of them (the "take"). So much money is being pulled in this current extractive phase, he says (and he's clearly right) that much of the commerce and creativity of our world is being diminished, and our society and democracy are being weakened.

Dixon's answer to this and other related problems relates in large part to blockchains, a subtly different software technology which relies on strict usage rules and open-access, along with openly-accessible information, to do many of these same kinds of things our other networks (like those of the tech giants) have been doing, along with some new things that might be added to the mix. Blockchains could be controlled by users rather than a small group of owners, Bixon points out, and while the operators of them can operate profitably, either as profit or non-profit entities, the built-in incentives would provide for a far smaller take, and few fewer cumbersome and restricting rules, than the current regime imposes.

The possibilities seem large,  and by the end of the book he even offers plausible ideas for how we might more effectively cope with such challenges as artificial intelligence and deepfakes. Dixon's approach is basically a solution through ongoing research and business development, but this is no libertarian tract: He sees a need for regulation and guardrails as well. It is in all a broad-minded view of how we might work out way out of what seems a muddy swamp.

If you get concerned and depressed at times about where the internet, and our tech future, may be headed, pick up this book. The solution it offers may not materialize (Dixon describes himself as optimistic but not a prognosticator), but it could. And it demonstrates the way answers to our problems may be developed, possibly in the not too distant future.

Review: What It takes

The book What It Takes: The Way to the White House, by Richard Ben Cramer, came out in 1992, and I originally read it not too long after - somewhere around, in other words, 30 years ago. For various reasons it seemed  a good idea to give it another spin, and it was. Would be for you, too.

I don't say that lightly, because the book sure isn't light either, running well over 1,000 pages. But it has resonance today, both directly and because the backboard for thought it offers.

The context is the presidential campaign, underway now; and the presidential campaign of 1988, which is the subject of the book as seen through the eyes and lives of six of its participants. The idea here was to work out what it takes to run for president - or at least, that's how most of it reads: What it takes to actually do the job of president as opposed to campaign for it is, of course, a very different story.

All of these candidates were well-known at the time, and all were major contenders, but two probably have the most connection to Americans now. One was the candidate who went all the way and became president, for one term, George H.W. Bush. The other is our president as of 2024: Joseph R. Biden.

The book is structured as a loose interior group biography, shifting from one candidate to another, sometimes comparing and contrasting, sometimes simply bouncing around, but written in a style neither academic nor journalistic but instead intended to reflect the different mindset and personalities of the candidates. You can quickly tell, for example, if you're reading about Robert Dole as opposed Dick Gephardt just from the tone and the word choices. For Bush, for example, while there are scary and even near-death experiences (when his plane was shot down in the Pacific) and tragedy (the death of his infant daughter), much of the sensibility reflects a take on the world that things come together as they should, and things just wonderfully fit together. Most of the time.

The Biden story is almost a variation on that, but a distinct variation. Unlike Bush, Biden came from a background much closer to hard-scrabble, but his sense of confidence and optimism suffuses, most of the time, everything else. The shattering tragedy he faced in the book's narrative - the death in a traffic accident of his first wife and daughter, shortly after his first election to the U.S. Senate - does not seem to have changed his fundamental stance toward life: He knew where he was supposed to go, what he was supposed to do, and what it would look like and feel like when he got there. He envisioned himself from an early age as becoming president, and simply never let anything get in the way.

(That was not true only about the presidency. A revealing and even hilarious section concerned a house he bought around the time of his Senate election and the almost wild lengths he went to to get it the way he wanted it. Or somewhere close ...)

What It Takes isn't a true bio of any of the six candidates (the others I haven't mentioned was Gary Hart, who had his own spectacular collapse story in that election cycle, and Michael Dukakis, who won the Democratic nomination but lost the general election to Bush) it does get inside their heads enough to press a reader into considering, at length: What makes a person do this? Why run? What's the motivation, what keeps it going, and what does it take to prosper in such a difficult environment in which there can be, after all, only one winner?

The Biden sections (certainly nowhere near a hagiography but not terribly critical either) are worth a fresh review, in the context of that long-ago election, today because of this election year. But it's also worth using what that 1988 campaign has to suggest abut Biden's Republican opponent today, and what it takes to run for the presidency ... and fulfill the responsibility, once won.

(image/US Air Force)

 

Review: Making It in America

The United States was renowned for generations as the manufacturing center of the world, and now ... well, it isn't. Why is that?

The reasons are many and intertwining. Ideologues have no shortage of villains to suggest, but most of those answers feel - and are - too thin, failing to account for much of what really ails American manufacturing in this new century. Most of what pass for criticisms too often fail to propose serious answers, either.

Making It in America: The Almost Impossible Quest to Manufacture in the U.S.A., written by Rachel Slade, looks at the question not from a macreconomic viewpoint but from the micro side: The story of how one business has tried to launch a serious manufacturing operation, and the obstacles it faced.

There is some philosophical agenda here, both on the part of the writer and the business founders. The founders of a company in Portland, Maine, set up to manufacture hoodies, came to it from an atypical standpoint: The husband in the founding couple was a veteran labor union organizer, and that shaped some of his attitude toward business (by no means as negative as you might expect), perspectives the author evidently shared. But the question raised was a useful and pertinent one: Can a company in today's American prosper while making good products (in this case, in the area of clothing) while acting with social responsibility and while taking care of the workforce (which quickly became unionized), customers and business partners?

The answer, on the basis of the story told here, is yes, but not at all easily, and only with some luck and some kind of edge. Ben and Whitney Waxman, the two founders, got their edge is considerable part from Ben's extensive national labor connections: The bulk of the hoodies the company produced were sold, early on at least, to unions and union members. They had some good luck, too, sometimes in odd and unexpected places: The pandemic, which at first seemed like a business-killing disaster for them, wound up helping them enormously by providing a mass market for masks and other health goods they were able to produce.

Making any and all of this work was never easy, however, and the company repeatedly came close to collapse. (This business case story does not lack for drama; it could be made into a mini-series.) Many of the problems they ran into concern business structures, supply chains and distribution blockages: You have to be either well connected or extremely well capitalized, in many cases, to do business either with other businesses that provide materials for what you're producing, or help you sell it once it's made. The Wamans multiplied their challenges with a self-imposed restriction: Their hoodies would be made entirely of American-made components, and some of those components were hard to find from American sources, at any price. Upshots from this included the fact that their hoodies wound up on the expensive side, which was somewhat more acceptable to buyers who were big on American-made or union-made products, but wouldn't necessarily be elsewhere.

The story has some complexity, in that there aren't any easy or simple villains to the core manufacturing story (though the author and the business founders do have their targets in a more general sense). But it does get into the realities of American business in a practical way that those operating from a more theoretical or ideological perspective may be less likely to perceive.

(image/Wikimedia Commons)

 

Review: How Migration Really Works

The many pits and pieces floating through the mediascape - and the political world - about immigration carry a feeling of uncertainty: What do the pieces really add up to? We're regularly harangued about this crisis or that, but what's the larger perspective?

So often, after all, we need to know how something works, or at least is intended to work, to understand whether we'd got a real problem here, or something solvable, or instead just an uncomfortable part of the real world we have to live with.

The recent book How Migration Really Works, written by the academic Hein De Haas - who has devoted his career to studying the realities of migration, both historically and currently - addresses exactly this. It is not an ideological polemic: His views are not designed to give partricular comfort to any place on the political spectrum.

They also make a surprising amount of real world sense.

Here's a list of propositions drawn from some the chapter titles, some of which will appeal to the left and others to the right:

  • "Migration is at an all-time high"
  • "The world is facing a refugee crisis"
  • "Development in poor countries will reduce migration"
  • "Immigrants steal jobs and drive down wages"
  • "Immigration lifts all boats"
  • "Immigrant integration has failed"
  • "Immigration sends crime rates soaring"

Here's what I left out: Every one of those chapter titles also describes each of these ideas as a myth, and De Haas does an effective job of demolishing all of them. Or nearly all; I had minor quibbles in some places. But his case appears overall to be solid.

What causes immigration, specifically immigration from a distance to places like the United States? (Did you know that not only our country and western Europe but also much of the Middle East and southeast Asia are immigrant magnets as well?) The are driven to travel not primarily, he argues, because of conditions on the ground in the countries of origin, and usually not extreme poverty or emergency. Traveling at a distance usually takes planning and financial resources; emigration from origin countries actually is low where economic and other conditions are especially weak, rise mainly in the case of moderate prosperity, and then slacken when higher-level prosperity is achieved. Rather than being effectively expelled from their home lands, most are attracted by economic prospects  in the destination countries. One reason the level of immigration is high now in the United States is that our economy is so strong; immigration was far lower after the big crash of 2008.

De Haas posits too that strong border security actually leads to more immigration and causes many more people who do enter the country, legally or not, to stay rather than have to go through the tougher border situation; a more fluid border leads to more of a revolving-door effect.

There's much more, all backed by extensive studies - in many places, world wide - and well worth reviewing. If you'd open to thinking about migration in a serious way, as opposed simply enjoying the emotional trigger, How Migration Really Works would be more than worth your time.

(image/public domain)

 

Review: Prequel

Every so often, an old black and white photo of a big, popular event - identified as filling the Madison Square Garden back in the late 1930s - surfaces, and never fails to shock when the caption notes that this American celebration was ... in support of Nazi Germany, only a couple years or so before World War II.

The American cultural and political climate changed so abruptly in and after December 1941, when the United States went to war with that country, that it's now strains the memory that many Americans really did lean, often strongly, in that direction. Some of it may have had to do with ethnic German support for the homeland. (Another book I've been reading recently, Bismarck's War by Rachel Chrastil, points out that during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, American public opinion was strongly on the German side rather than the French.)

But a lot of that support for Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime was specifically ideological (and racially bigoted as well), and it was not small in size. It was also organized and, as the 30s ended, increasingly well organized. A lot of domestic terror plots were being hatched; many small cells around the country were actively trying to destabilize the United States government and (through destabilizing elections) its whole system of self-government, which increasingly many of the people involved were willing to dispense with.

The fact of all this happening has been reported in many books up to now, but mostly in scattered pieces. The usefulness of bringing many of the threads together is one reason the new book Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, by Rachel Maddow, is so useful: It puts the larger movement in a context, alongside telling a bunch of interesting stories about the people involved.

Another reason it's useful is that it puts a less-often seen spotlight on the people who took it on themselves to fight the galloping fascist impulse in America. And I do mean "took it on themselves" because the official arms of the United States government, federal and below, were shockingly sluggish and ineffective in doing what they should have to combat the menace - in part because all too many of the people in those agencies were sympathetic to the fascist cause.

Obviously, a third reason the book is so pertinent - why it bears reading now, right now - is because of the dark turn in American politics and society in a distinctly fascist direction, in support of foreign actors like Putin and Orban, and at a time when far-right groups have been arming into militia groups.

Madow wisely does not refer directly at all to current events, letting the readers draw in the links between then and now - and you can find them on just about every page, sometimes several to a page - pop up in your own mind. Donald Trump doesn't come in for a mention (so far as I could tell) anywhere. But the approaches, strategies, rhetoric and ideas underlying all this feel remarkably fresh.

Which is depressing: Have we learned nothing from the experience of the last century, how corrupt, empty and evil this stuff is? The optimistic takeaway is that it can be fought. It was before. It can be again.

(image/Pixabay)

 

Review: Video Game of the Year

When I read a new non-fiction book, I hope that it will tell me something I didn't know already (not an unusual occurrence). Even better, I hope it will open for a whole new world I hadn't been aware, or barely aware, existed - but which matters.

I hadn't expected the book Video Game of the Year (Abrams Image, 2023), written by Jordan Minor, to do more than the first. But it did: I came away with a whole new perspective on a big part of our American culture in the last half-century.

It may be less strikingly new to you, if you're a video gamer and especially a gamer of longstanding. I'm not, because of no great desire to spend the time and effort needed to become accomplished at the games (or even learn much about them), not because of any animus toward them. My personal involvement with video games started with Pong and ended with either Space Invaders or Pac-Man (all three are profiled in this book), and after that the games, and the environment around them, became too much effort to attract much of my interest.

That doesn't mean they didn't attract lots of other people, of course; over the years I've known quite a few people who play them, to one degree or another. Some of the most popular games have sold immense numbers of copies, into the hundreds of millions, and some of them (Pokemon go is an example) have burst into the general cultural fabric. (Some years ago we often spotted PG players at a residential intersection near our house, deeply engrossed.) But what effect do they games have? Where did they come from? How have their evolved, and where might they be going? I didn't have much of a handle on any of this.

Minor has neatly filled this gap, for me and probably a lot of other people, through the device of naming a game of the year for (almost) every year since Pong arrived in the late 70s. The selections seem carefully chosen to throw light on the development of video games, not least their variety. If like me you're aware of these games only on the periphery - spotting the occasional ad or box in a store or news story that relates to one of them, often in a negative way - there's a lot to miss.

The variety of the games, for example. I'm tended to associate video games in the last couple of decades with hard-core shoot-em-up (or blow-em-away) violence, but while that is a key part of the picture, there's also much more. Some are gentle and artistic. Some are educational; I'd almost forgotten about Sin City, and had never been aware of many of the spinoffs it generated.

And more generally: What are some of the factors that have made some games immensely popular, while others fall flat? Some useful lessons in consumer preference and economic activity emerge from this. Not to mention some useful dissection of what goes into designing a game, an absorbing subject I'd never much considered.

Then there's the sources of the games. I hadn't realized how dominant, for so many years, developers from Japan were in the field; the corporate field seems to have spread more widely in recent years. I hadn't had much appreciation for the differences in, say, Nintendo and other providers, or how Playstation and XBox fit into the mix. The underlying corporate histories are worth knowing too, given how large some of those organizations have become.

Minor is enough of a good enthusiast to refrain from whitewashing the downsides, which gives me some confidence in his overall perspective. A tip of the hat to his easily-absorbed history, which opened a part of the modern world brand new to me. And maybe you too.

 

 

Review: Tyranny of the Minority

Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt put the risks squarely on the table in their 2018 book How Democracies Die, published just at the new Trump Administration started taking aim at the American version. Their newest, Tyranny of the Minority, is not exactly the same but close to a followup. and uses some of the same approaches - notably, comparing conditions in the United States to some of those in other places and times - again to call out a warning.

But this one isn’t even so much a warning about where we may go, so much about where we already are.

At the time of the first book, one of the authors said in an interview, they didn’t see the Republican Party as speficially an anti-democratic organization: “we didn’t consider or call the Republican Party an authoritarian party. We did not expect it to transform so quickly and so thoroughly.”

But, they said, it has now. Any doubt about that should be easily dispelled for anyone paying attention to these pages, which do talk about the Trumpian GOP, and how it has gone full authoritarian (read: pro-dictatorship) in recent years.

They place more attention on dissecting the elements of our political and governmental system that threaten to enable - rather than stand in the way of - a loss of the democracy this country has had for more than two centuries. If the American system held during the Trump presidency, they say, it was a near thing, and the guardrails are weak. A creaky presidential election system that twice in the last generation has elected presidents who got less than half of the popular vote is one culprit. So is a Senate that gives vastly more power to the voters of certain states than to others, along with outdatd tools like the filibuster that chamber insists on keeping.

These self-imposed shackles make us, the authors argue, unacceptably vulnerable to attack - more than most western Democracies, which today rank as freer than the United States.

The set of solutions may come across as frustrating, because many of them (such as eliminating the electoral college, which would be a good idea but requires a nearly impossible constitutional amendment), are unlikely in the near future. Some can be launched sooner and more effectively, though, and all point in the direction we need to move.

If we value our freedom and liberty, that is.