Tag Archives: history

Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now : The Case for Reason, Science, and Humanism (2018) by Steven Pinker is a high selling non-fiction book by a famous author that espouses that humanity’s condition has improved dramatically in the past 200 years and also very dramatically in the past 50 years. In addition to that Pinker says that the reason for this improvement is Reason, Science and Humanism. Bill Gates recently said that book is his favourite of all time. Pinker is a Canadian born cognitive psychologist professor at Harvard. He has also written a number of very successful other books.

The fact that the number of people in the world living flourishing lives in the world over the past 200 years has shot up dramatically. This fact is critically important and has been sadly under reported. The recently deceased Swedish doctor Hans Rosling made a big effort with his ‘Gap minder’ website to collate statistics on the well being of people all over the world. His TED talk is fantastic and it has had a huge impact. The data show that life expectancy has shot up in poor parts of the world along with literacy and life expectancy. Max Roser, a German researcher, has furthered this sort of data collection in his fantastic our world in data project.

The book summarises these incredible developments well. Pinker states that the system of markets, science and democracy has worked better than anything in history and that the increase in well being is absolutely staggering. The book does cover much of the same ground that Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ also does.

The other part of the book is stating that it is the ideas of the Enlightenment that have been furthered with atheism that has caused all this to take place and Pinker starts to take on those he believes are the enemies of The Enlightenment. This part is more problematic. Many of the major Enlightenment thinkers were religious, in particular Kant, as have been many major scientific figures including Newton, Maxwell and others. They were not seeking to put forward new thinking based just on reason but instead to use reason to justify their beliefs better. There have been critiques of the book from academics who study The Enlightenment that point out these issues .

Pinker also makes the point that a lot of the humanities have become heavily left wing and politicised and intolerant. Pinker points out that in many Humanities departments there are as many Marxists as conservatives with the majority being substantially left, and many hard left wing. They have also become intolerant of idealogical diversity. Pinker points out that this is also leading to much of the humanities become irrelevant. Science is seen by post modernists as just another version of truth that is primarily about propagating an oppressive point of view.

Much of the great progress over the past 20 years is also due to China’s rise and it is interesting to ponder if the rise of a nominally Marxist but certainly totalitarian state coupled to a market economy that uses science is a rise compatible with The Enlightenment.

Pinker’s previous book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ was challenged by Nassim Taleb on the basis that a single modern nuclear war would make the entire thesis incorrect. Pinker responds to this criticism in the book. However, he doesn’t name Taleb which is a bit petty.

The book concludes with a defence of Liberalism and Humanism and references to The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and a manifesto for a new Humanism.

Overall, Enlightenment Now is well worth a read for the statistics that point out just how much the modern world has improved in so many dimensions. Pinker’s idealogical justification for this rise isn’t as strong and is apparently not as well researched.





With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (199) by Eugene B Sledge is an incredible memoir of fighting in the US Marines in the Pacific in World War II in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Eugene Sledge was the son of a doctor and was in college and could have become an officer but instead became an enlisted Marine and was in a mortar crew. After the war he went on to become a Professor of Biology.

The book describes the incredible trials and bloody nature of the war where Sledge was. The graphic and matter of fact nature of the startling events is really something. The Japanese changed their tactics from Banzai Charges to defense in depth as they retreated across the islands. The fighting was brutal.

The book is engrossing.

The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (2013) by Mike Rapport is another excellent very short introduction. The book describes the wars between 1792 and 1815. The author, Mike Rapport, a senior lecturer of history at The University of Stirling in Scotland. He’s written numerous other longer history books.

The Very Short Introduction books are a bit hit and miss, some of the books that describe vague concepts are not that great, but the ones that have a constrained subject they can describe in more detail than a Wikipedia page but with fewer pages than the heavyweight history books that are more ‘complete’ are often excellent. This is one of the latter.

The wars are divided into two sections, the revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars. The book also describes Total War, revolutionary Wars, the impact on soldiers and civilians, the war at sea and ‘the people’s war’.

I really enjoyed the book, learned a lot and am inspired to go and read more about the Napoleonic Wars and to find similar books about The Seven Years War and The Thirty Years War.



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.




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.