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Monday, July 06, 2020

Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is a history of the eponymous character. It's pretty comprehensive, and doesn't just cover the founding and expansion of the empire, but also its decline and eventual breakup.

Here's the deal: nomadic tribes have obviously been the norm through most of human history. What's unusual is when someone manages to organize them despite the nomadic tribes' inherent instability: when kinship ties are more important than anything else, unity cannot easily be achieved. The book probably could have been organized better, but here's my summary of it:

  • Genghis Kahn managed to organize the tribes not only through fighting prowess and political maneuvers, but also by changing the organizational principles from kinship ties to as close a meritocracy as could be found in those environments. In fact, Kahn went so far to avoid nepotism that as he aged he'd realized that he'd neglected his children: 
"The fighting among his sons made him keenly aware of how much work he needed to do to preserve the empire after his death. His sons did not match up to the needs of the empire. While pursuing his great quest to unite the steppe tribes and conquer every threat around him, he had never devoted the attention he should have to his sons, and now they were all reaching middle age and were still unproven men." (Kindle Loc 2570)
 More conversations and quotes survive from this phase of Genghis Khan’s life than any other, and they show a growing concern but lessening power to control his family. After too long a neglect of their education, he tried to teach his sons everything at once, and in doing so he struggled to articulate lessons he had learned and ideas he had but had not verbalized clearly. He was accustomed to giving orders, not making explanations. (Kindle Loc 2587)
 That engendered sufficient loyalty to him personally that he effectively united all the tribes and organized them to conquer the large swathes of empire that probably wouldn't have been feasible through a purely dynastic environment.
Just as Genghis Khan promoted men from the lowest levels of society to the highest ranks of leadership based on their skills and achievements rather than birth, Khubilai’s administration constantly promoted men from the lowest jobs, such as cooks, gatekeepers, scribes, and translators. Both the promotion of low-ranking men and the movement of them into new areas increased their dependence on and loyalty to their Mongol overlords and lessened their connection to the people ruled. (Kindle Loc 3957)

  • The fast moving nomads could out maneuver traditional armies because they didn't depend on supply chains being dragged behind them, but also because they effectively could pasture and hunt as they go. This also naturally limited the extent of their empire, but also explained their approach as they expanded: they would trample fields and burn cities so that those areas would revert to pasture, ensuring that they had a line of retreat.
  • Similarly, they were big on religious freedom, and welcomed all religions equally as long as they were willing to be subservient to the state. I did not know that the Mongolian court had Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists all present. Their debates never turned into religious wars, which was remarkable.
  • They were very willing to co-opt skills and people who would help them with administration, including clerks, translators, engineers, and so forth. Again, this was unusual, but again, the Mongols themselves only developed written language after they'd encountered other civilizations.
  • The empire was finally brought down by the bubonic plague, which broke up the connections that the far flung empire had made:

With each group cut off from the other, the interlocking system of ownership collapsed. The plague had devastated the country, demoralized the living, and, by cutting off trade and tribute, deprived the Mongol Golden Family of its primary source of support. For nearly a century, the Mongols had exploited their mutual material interests to overcome the political fault lines dividing them. Even while sacrificing political unity, they had maintained a unified cultural and commercial empire. (Kindle Loc 4726)
 All in all, the book definitely dispelled my understanding of what the Mongols were like, and was worth the read. Recommended.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Review: Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole is such a great title that even if it hadn't been written by Neil de Grasse Tyson I would have checked it out. As it was I figured it would be worth a laugh if nothing else.

The book turns out to be a collection of columns from Natural History magazine, and most of them have nothing to do with black holes. Unlike books that were written with an objective in mind, the book just divides the columns into seven different sections and then organizes them with a curated order so that they're not jarring. But unfortunately, that means that many individual "chapters" are repetitive of one another, and he never gets into anything that can't be done within a couple of thousand words. As a result, the book gets quite tiresome in places, and probably could have been a hundred pages shorter if more effort had been put into it.

The book is probably at its best when it explains science to the lay person:
Science is occasionally accused of being a closed-minded or stubborn enterprise. Often people make such accusations when they see scientists swiftly discount astrology, the paranormal, Sasquatch sightings, and other areas of human interest that routinely fail double-blind tests or that possess a dearth of reliable evidence. But don’t be offended. Scientists apply this same level of skepticism to ordinary claims in the professional research journals. The standards are identical. Look what happened when the Utah chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed in a press conference to have created “cold” nuclear fusion on their laboratory table. Scientists acted swiftly and skeptically. Within days of the announcement it was clear that no one could replicate the cold fusion results that Pons and Fleischmann claimed. Their work was summarily dismissed. (Kindle Loc 4688)
The question though, is that is the lay person likely to read Natural History magazine? Anyway, some of the less relevant (non-black hole) stuff was fun to read, like when he criticized James Cameron in person for the night sky in the the movie, Titanic:
So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, “The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!” (Kindle Loc 4426)
Yet later on the director's crew called him and asked him to help fix the night sky for a remastered edition of the movie.

So, the book wasn't a total waste of time, just not as interesting (or as short) as it could have been. Mildly recommended. Would have been a better match for paper books, so people could look at the cover and say, "Wow, cool title!"

Monday, June 29, 2020

First Impressions: Garmin Edge 830

Last year in June, Bowen saw me, Mike, and Arturo use "GroupTrack" during our bike tour in the Shasta region. After he saw that, he asked for a GroupTrack capable bike computer. I contended that he didn't need one, but he kept persisting, so I told him there were only a few ways he could get one: give up his other birthday presents, get one of his friends to go touring with us, pay for it out of his own pocket, or ride his single bike to school every day for a year.

Well, he rode his single to school every day, rain or shine, and then in March COVID19 effectively ended the school year for him. I could have gotten him an Edge 520plus or 530, but I figured if I was going to get him something it might as well be a navigation-capable unit for backup when touring, though who knows when we'll get to do that, so the Edge 830 it was.

The main reason is that the Edge 830 was faster (which is a big deal if you want the GPS to do the navigation and routing), and also the trail forks integration, which is useful potentially for mountain biking. (Though around here, it'd be rare that I ever got lost on a mountain bike ride!)

The unit is indeed super-fast. It does everything far faster than my Fenix 5X, which was already too fast for me to keep confused. It pairs to a smartphone for GroupTrack, which is as reliable as you can imagine (not very), but sometimes does do a passing job. It does require that your phone has a data plan, etc, so some of it is that I'm not spending big bucks on Bowen's data plan.

Unlike his older Edge 25 (which now goes to his brother), the Edge 830 does a fabulous job sync'ing rides up to Garmin Connect even over WiFi. The Edge 25 despite its claim to doing bluetooth sync'ing, never actually did so and I'd always had to plug it into a PC to get ride data out. It also links to power meters, which is kinda funny on a triplet.

All in all, if you had to buy a navigation-capable bike computer today, this is the one to get. It's a huge improvement over the older units, and worth the money (especially since I managed to use a 20% off coupon on it). Recommended.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Review: Godox TT350P

I've been using the Ricoh GR3 on many of my adventures recently, and the lack of a fill flash on the camera started to bug me. Without a fill flash, many daylight pictures turn into a mess of shadows, which is only partially rescuable using Lightroom. Almost as importantly, the catchlights in eyes look which I love can't easily be achieved as well.

All the official Pentax flashes were too expensive and/or heavy for what I was trying to do, so I went looking for an unofficial solution. The Godox TT350P seemed to be extremely good value: it comes with a stand and a diffuser (something I've always had to buy for my Canon flashes separately), a case (which is useless), and a fully rotatable head (for bounce flash). The flash is heavy, however, about the same weight as the camera it would be attached to.

My first experience with the flash was disappointing, however, with clear flash artifacts that I wasn't happy with.  The results were inconsistent, occasionally over-exposing the photo, and occasionally looking as though the flash wasn't on. It's quite clear that Pentax/Ricoh's TTL integration isn't even close to what I was used to with Canon's, where simply dialing in a -2/3 or -1/1/3 flash exposure compensation would get you picture perfect results. However, the Lightroom "Flash" auto-correct setting did the right thing on occasion, and while the artifacts are still there if you know how to look for it, they're not completely unnatural:
And I got the catchlights back:
After using it on a few hikes and bike rides, I decided that the flash was just too big. If I'm doing a difficult trip, I'd rather use the weight budget on carrying more food, water, or the hammock. If I'm doing an easy trip, then I might as well carry the EOS M6 instead of the Ricoh GR3 and the flash. I reluctantly returned the flash.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Reread: Dune

I found myself rereading Dune, and years after my first reading of it in my teenage years, it's still and astounding novel. Things jumped out at me this time that didn't in my first reading. For instance, it's astounding how for a science fiction world how medieval the institutions in the novel are. Even the position of a planetary ecologist is via inheritance, rather than merit. All the major characters are characters born into privilege with a huge amount of attention given to eugenics, and training is only available to those of a high born class.

It's also amazing to me how much various parts of the book affected my psyche through the years, even though much of it was forgotten. I remember driving home from the hospital with Bowen and Xiaoqin, suddenly aware of how every careless driver was suddenly a threat. I didn't realize it then,  but that feeling came almost directly from the book: "They have tried to take the life of my son!" Similarly, I'd forgotten that one of the most poignant quotes from the book also featured in my memory:
"One of the most terrible moments in a boy's life," Paul said, "is when he discovers his father and mother are human beings who share a love that he can never quite taste. It's a loss, an awakening to the fact that the world is there and here and we are in it alone..." 
And of course there's more. There's the subtle teaching about ecosystems and ecology, and the inspirational long term view of terraforming a hostile environment taking 300-500 years. Of course, it's taken us far less than 50 years to start turning our own planet into a hostile environment. There's the deliberate evocation of the Arabic desert nomads, the constant impingement into our consciousness all through the book about the preciousness of water, something that Californians are only starting to become aware of.

There's so much that makes this a great book. The rest of the series degenerated somewhat from this initial grand novel, and it was definitely well worth the re-read. Recommended.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Review: Tales from Earthsea

Despite loving The Wizard of Earthsea and most of the series, I bounced off Tehanu pretty hard, so wasn't going to consider it but then read the reviews (due to an Amazon sale) and realized Tales from Earthsea was a collection of short stories, so even if I bounced off one or two of them it would be OK.

The collection of short stories vary a lot, from the founding of Roke by Medra (which unfortunately never explains how it went from a collection of men and women to becoming a school where women are excluded, to a very quiet sequence about Ged chasing down an errant wizard. (Ged barely features in it) The final story, "Dragonfly" takes place after Tehanu but you don't really need to have read Tehanu to appreciate it. The story about how Ogion held back an earthquake is finally told. The book ends with the "series bible" so to speak that Le Guin used to do her world building. It's not pleasure reading, but is short.

LeGuin's prose is beautiful and flawless, which in itself makes the book a pleasure. Recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Review: House Again Tea Infuser

In an effort to reduce caffeine (and also to break the palate monotony), I've occasionally drank tea. If you're going to use loose leaf teas, an infuser will make much less of a mess. I first tried the Finum Mesh Brewing Basket, but discovered that it was far too fragile: holes would develop in the mesh and then well, you'll have leaves in your mouth when you drink.

The House Again Tea Ball infuser turned out to be a much better choice, with a chain to wrap around the handle of the mug and a studier pocket that neither leaks nor breaks. It also comes with a handy saucer so you can take it out and reuse the tea leaves or just not have too strong/bitter a brew.

It doesn't seem to infuse any unwelcome flavors, which is all I can ask for it (other than the durability)..