Sunday, September 11, 2016

Recent Reading

Sorry for not posting much recently, I'll try to do more.  To ease myself back in here are some quick reviews of a few books I've read recently that don't deserve their own posts, plus some insights I got from them.

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by Starr, S. Frederick was just what the title leads you to expect.  It's about the flowering of philosophy and science in central Asia between 750 AD and 1000 AD.  The number of merchants involved in the silk road trade had always given the region a large educated class and after the Arab conquest in 750 AD better connected the area to the Mediteranian there was a large intellectual flowering involving greats like Ibn-Sina and Biruni.  But as time went on anti-intellectual movements such as Sufism and books like Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers made science and philosophy less reputable and more dangerous.  When the Mongol's rolled through in the early 1200s the intellectual era had mostly ended.  And the depopulation of what had been some of the greatest cities in the world by the Mongols plus the resulting shift in trade from the Silk Road to the Indian Ocean meant that the region would never return to what it had been.  I suppose my biggest takeaway is to see some historical developments as more contingent.  Maybe if Al-Ghazali had been born in France and Thomas Aquinas had been born in Samarkand history would have turned out differently?  You could even look at the French Cathars as being analogous to the Sufis in ideas though of course their fates were very different.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow was also just what it says on the cover.  I'd known many of the elements of his political life but I was interested in the personal and I also needed to brush up a bit on the timeline of the Revolution.  The perpetually indebted side of Washington is certainly something I hadn't considered and the constant suspicion of the Virginia landowners that they were being cheated by their factors in London helps explain some of their enthusiasm for independence.  I was struck by how complicated Washington's feelings about slavery were.  he opposed the system in theory but for most of his life felt too indebted to free his slaves, especially since many were actually the property of his adopted children and he would need to buy their freedom from the estate he was managing but didn't own.  In light of what I knew about attitudes towards slavery before the Civil War I found his public disparagement of it odd but I later read elsewhere that it wasn't until the Turner Rebellion that pro-slavery forces in the South became so ideological.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein covered a lot of things I'd heard of but didn't have a good context for.  The trajectory of race relations in the North and South over the timeframe, events like Kent State and the Checkers speech, and of course how Nixon ended up thinking that Watergate could possibly be a good idea.   Reading about George McGovern's campaign made me want to become a politician even less.  The people who answered a question in a debate with "I don't know" or "yes, that would be a disadvantage to my proposal" always ended up losing and the people who were willing to confidently make up facts never seemed to suffer for it.  Which of course seems very relevant to our current campaign.   Mostly on the Trump side but you also have bits of disinformation like Trump asking the Russians to hack Hillary's email that get propagated on the democratic side as well.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...