The Cold War

The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction (2003) by Robert McMahon is a good short introduction to the Cold War.

The book goes through the historical events of the Cold War in a solid and straightforward manner. It’s also well written.

The book does exactly what it sets out to do and does it well.


Fire and Fury

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018) by Michael Wolff is a very successful book that provides something of a glimpse inside the Trump White House. This week the book has featured in 4 out of 5 days of NPR and BBC World News. If Donald Trump had been signed up to publicise the book he could not have done better.

Wolff says he got unprecedented access to the White House because it was so disorganised that he was allowed, for months, to wander around and talk to people. The book seems to support this idea. It fits with the other facts that are known about the Trump White House.

The first third of the book was fantastic. I laughed out loud regularly. The account of the Trump team’s transition is really funny. According to Wolff Trump and his team didn’t really expect to win so a lot of planning that is normally done was simply not done. In addition to that Trump had very few people with real political experience at the top of his team.

The middle third of the book drags a bit, it’s a detailed tale of a complete mess. Wolff portrays the White House as eventually dividing into a Ivanka an Jared Kushner faction and a Bannon faction. The two parts battled it out for supremacy which ultimately resulted in Bannon being fired.

The end third of the book describes the end of the fight, the firing of Comey and the appointment of Mueller as special prosecutor along with all the other chaos involved of the Trump White House. It also describes the hilarious appointment and dismissal of Scarramucci.

A quiet figure on the side line, Mike Pence, gets a few pages and is seen as someone biding their time, waiting for their opportunity.

I really enjoyed the book. It tied together all the things the news has been full of about Trump. Most of the figures are presented quite sympathetically. It is an alarming but somewhat reassuring book. It describes a group of people not full of malice but who are simply not up to the job at which they find themselves. Had the book been sent back through time to the start of the century people would have found it hilarious but too far fetched. We truly live in strange, televised and tweeted times. Covfefe to you all.


The Friendly Orange Glow

The Friendly Orange Glow : The Untold Story of the PLATO system and the dawn of cyberculture (2017) by Brian Dear is a fascinating but wildly too long account of the PLATO interactive, networked computer system developed at the University of Illinois.

PLATO was clearly an incredibly advanced system that had high speed interactive graphics and networking. It was started as a system that was intended to greatly enhance teaching by providing individually paced lessons for students. PLATO got many people to use the system in highly surprising that included early networked games, bulletin boards and networked chat. PLATO also had a plasma screen and critical research on plasma and flat panel displays was done for it.

The system was commercialised by CDC but largely failed to gain traction. PLATO also almost became the basis for the system at Xerox PARC. The system is also interesting because it was an important, revolutionary system that wasn’t developed in the US Northeast or on the Pacific.

Dear himself first used the system in 1979 and went on to have a great career founding several companies and working at a number of significant technology firms.

It’s an incredible bit of largely unknown history. The book could have been fantastic but due to the author’s desire to get too much in and the lack of an editor who didn’t weed the book down it’s a real slog. It is a great resource for historians though.

There is an excellent interview with the author on the also excellent ‘Internet History Podcast’. If you’re at all interested in the topic that would be a great place to start. This is also where I found the book.

PLATO was started in the 1960s and initially used the ILLIAC as the mainframe behind before migrating onto more powerful machines. It was led by Daniel Alpert, a physicist who made the inspired decision of hiring Don Bitzer, another physicist to be the technical lead. Bitzer made the team very informal and allowed anyone who could show they could contribute to contribute remarkably including high school students as well.

By the 1970s the system could support thousands of users and the labs at the university were fairly open and games and other social things were created that were hugely successful. Remarkably Bitzer allowed this use and cleverly used it to stress test and improve the machine. It had much of what is now on the internet 25 years before it was widely used in other places and 10-15 years before Unix based systems caught up.

Dear has a huge section on all the contributors and game programmers that he could track down. He also includes biographies for many of them. It’s quite amazing, but also pretty tiring.

The book is fascinating for people interested in the history of technology and it’s surprising for anyone who is familiar with what is usually presented as the main history of technology from mainframes to Unix to PCs. The PLATO system has clearly been dramatically overlooked and this book does a lot to correct that. It is, however, also far too long. One way to deal with it is to really speed read through any sections that the reader doesn’t find interesting. But if a third to a half of the book had been cut it would have been much better. Still, Dear deserves enormous credit for compiling and writing the book.




Dream Hoarders

Dream Hoarders (2017) by Richard V Reeves is an interesting book that looks at how it is not the top 1% that is driving inequality in the US but rather the top 20%. Reeves is a researcher at the Brooking Institute who is an ex-pat Englishman who went to Oxford, got a PhD and was chief strategist for Nick Clegg the UK Liberal Democrats leader when he was deputy Prime Minister of the UK. Reeves has since moved to the US and married and had kids.

The book points out how US incomes have changed and the rewards have primarily gone to the top 20% of households who go to good colleges, marry well and do well. Reeves suggests that by carefully caring for their offspring and hiring people like themselves this group has detached itself from the rest of US society. Reeves points out that intergenerational income mobility, a great measure of the inequality over the long term is now worse in the US than in the UK. The land of opportunity is in some ways no longer.

He makes the point that while many of these people are liberal and progressive in their views attempts to cut their tax breaks, including tax cuts for saving for college and tax cuts for housing have been stopped by this group themselves. He also suggests that making housing more affordable by allowing more density has led to protests in progressive cities like Seattle stopping the idea in it’s tracks to preserve high value housing for the current owners.

He suggests that better access to contraception, more home visits, improving teacher quality, funding college more fairly, fixing exclusionary zoning, cutting legacy admissions to college, opening up internships, reducing regressive tax breaks would help reduce this inequality. It’s not unreasonable. Oddly he doesn’t suggest something that would address the US’s staggering prison population, an issue that  heavily impacts low income US households.

For anyone interested in inequality this book is very much worth reading. It’s also pleasantly short.

The Black Death

The Black Death (2017) by Henry Freeman is another very short history book on an interesting subject. Freeman looks at the Bubonic Plague and the way it swept across the world killing millions.

The Plague’s impact, particularly in the middle ages was incredible, with death rates of up to 75% in some areas. Across Europe perhaps half the population died, a truly amazing figure. In The Middle East as was millions died with a huge percentage of the population also dying.

The book is very short and is quite interesting. It doesn’t have any great insights but perhaps offers something more than a wikipedia page.

Cold War : A History from Beginning to End

Cold War : A History from Beginning to End by Hourly History (2016) is a very short, very silly history of the Cold War that is better to skip.

The book starts off by detailing the terrible repression that lead to the Cold War. This was, interestingly enough, in the US. It was allegedly furthered by the US just attempting to thwart Communist Revolutions that were happening around the world.

Russia apparently escaped The Great Depression via Communism. It must have been a great time there apparently, unless, possibly if you were one of the millions who died in the Holodomor. But this book, of course, doesn’t mention them. Russia apparently had a booming economy in the 1930s.

The book goes on to describe how Communism sprung up in Eastern Europe but allegedly the Americans tried to thwart and undermine this too. This led the Russians to become upset.

There is almost no mention of the massive repression in Communist states. There is no mention of the Great Leap forward where Communism caused at least 30 million people to starve.

This isn’t to say that the US’s behaviour was always good and that they didn’t support vicious, despicable dictators and regimes around the world in the fight against communism and that this did go against America’s ideals. However, to fail to look at the real horror of Communism and it’s economic failure when discussing the Cold War is laughable.

The book is really completely nonsense. I was hoping for something like the often excellent ‘short introduction to’ books but instead this book is completely fantastical.

Red Famine

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine 1921:1933 by Anne Applebaum is a book that looks at the first and second great famines in Ukraine that were brought on by Communism and Stalin. It’s a remarkably good book about an important topic.

In 1921 the Communists started to take much of the grain harvest and the idea of having any grain sown taken without compensation coupled with bad weather led to a collapse in the grain harvest. After this happened, there was some going back on Communist ideals and small farms were owned by the peasants. They again succeeded in producing grain. However, success made farmers ‘kulaks’ who were deemed anti-revolutionary and the cause of insufficient grain being harvested.

However, even this limited private ownership this was deemed incompatible with Marxism and taxes were raised and then peasants were forced to join collectives where the main incentive was to take as much as possible and do as little as possible. As insufficient peasants were joining the failing collectives voluntarily taxes were drastically increased, leading to a collapse in production that then resulted in outright confiscation of any food that seemed surplus. The confiscation then became taking food from anyone who had any at all.

The application of Marxism led not to a workers paradise but to a country that was poorer ten years after the revolution than it had been in 1917. I didn’t actually know this and thought that Soviet mechanisation had been fairly successful quite rapidly but this is not the case.

Also, Ukraine was a nation within the Russian Empire that continued to exist. During the revolution various groups had hoped a great liberation of Russia would lead to more independence for Ukraine. The Soviets however were determined to crush this and saw nationalism, other than Russian nationalism, as something to be destroyed.

The combination of anti-Ukrainian feelings by Stalin, the failure of the Communist system and a desire for hard currency from grain exports led to a terrible, deliberate, government directed famine that killed at least 3 million people in Ukraine. In the rest of Russia similar efforts also starved millions but it was worst in Ukraine.

Remarkably, some brave, honest reporters managed to cover the story, in particular a Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. He put together an amazingly accurate report that was published in some English newspapers. However, Walter Durant, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times writer trashed the report and said it was all nonsense. Due to the sympathy for Marxism in Western intellectual circles he was instead believed. Interesting, many other countries were also aware of what was happening. However, honest reports were not made to the citizenry of these countries because of the desire for influence with Stalin.

After the famine accounts did appear under the brief and murderous occupation by the Germans of Ukraine but they were again not promulgated in the West due to fear of offending Stalin.

The Soviets continued to suppress the record of what had happened but it was so large scale and so awful and there were enough survivors who united in Ukrainian ex-pat communities that the truth eventually got out. But it was not until the 1990s and the fall of Soviet Communism that the famine was openly and honestly accounted for.

The book is surprisingly very readable for a book about an awful mass death event driven by totalitarianism. Applebaum has written a great book about one of the biggest tragedies of the twentieth century that has been lied about and effectively suppressed until the last 25 years. It’s a great achievement and very much worth reading.