Category Archives: History

Close-hauled on a bowline

image …or something like that. The effects of reading Patrick O’Brian‘s Aubrey-Maturin novels (which I bought about five years ago and have now read for the second time) is that of slowly sinking into another world altogether, a world where communication may take months and even years, where a shipment may not even get out of harbor for want of wind, where bread has parasites (teaching one to learn to choose the lesser of two weevils) and meat has to be softened by towing it alongside the ship before it is even close to edible.

image Despite the success of the Master and Commander movie, these books are unlikely ever to be made into more movies or a TV series – for one thing, it would be prohibitively expensive, for another, much of the excitement and readability of the books lie in their historical accuracy, their wealth of detail, their quiet humor, and most of all in the wonderful language. I love the the descriptions of political intrigues, the reflections on medical and other science of the times as experienced by Stephen Maturin, and the intricate and confusing legal details of Jack Aubrey‘s fighting commons inclosure and other (usually unsuccessful) adventures.

image As the novels progress (and they are all good, by the way, no reduction in quality over time, in fact, they get better), you gradually learn to appreciate the main protagonists as people – initially cardboard figures, they gradually, through what they do and what they say, emerging as more complete personalities. Much more believable than Hornblower and Bush or Holmes and Watson, Aubrey and Maturin emerge as multifaceted and complex characters with personalities, flaws and qualities understood and appreciated not just by the reader, but by the vivid and rich set of characters met throughout the series.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books the first time I read them, and they improve upon the second acquaintance. Above all, the language is a delight. Like Frans Bengtsson’s incongruously titled The Long Ships (best enjoyed in its original Swedish version, Röde Orm) the novels are held in a language close to that of the times – close enough that I find my own English growing increasingly orotund with each page. Oh fie, O’Brian, for inciting me to top it the knob and engage in idle prating…

Highly recommended!

image(Incidentally, should you decide to buy the series, make sure you buy the paperback versions from Norton, either individually or all at once, with the original paintings by Geoff Hunt. The boxed complete set from 2004 has, unfortunately, been scanned and then poorly copy-edited, introducing many irritating errors (or, rather, vexing imperfections.) And by all means, get the companion volume Sea of Words, which will explain bowlines and capstans and gratings and tompions and weather-gage and other essential terms.)

The economically ideal society

David S. Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is my favorite book on economic evolution and economic history up to and including the industrial revolution. Its main question is “Why did England win world domination?” There were plenty of contenders – The Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal all had colonies, military power and trade, for instance. But in the end it was the comparatively small island nation that won out and dominated until the first world war. Landes explores this in riveting detail, attributing the ascendancy of England to it being closer to an ideal growth-and-development state than the competition.

The central chapter, chapter 5, Landes lays out the ideal case on pages 217-218 – and quoting that is reason enough for a blog post (not to mention obligatory reading for anyone concerned with economic policy.):

Let us begin by delineating the ideal case, the society theoretically best suited to pursue material progress and general enrichment. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily a “better” or a “superior” society (words to be avoided), simply one fitter to produce goods and services. This ideal growth-and-development society would be one that

  1. Knew how to operate, manage, and build the instruments of production and to create, adapt and master new techniques on the technological frontier.
  2. Was able to impart this knowledge and know-how to the young, whether by formal education or apprenticeship training.
  3. Chose people for jobs by competence and relative merit; promoted and demoted on the basis of performance.
  4. Afforded opportunity to individual or collective enterprise; encouraged initiative, competition, and emulation.
  5. Allowed people to enjoy and employ the fruits of their labor and enterprise.

These standards imply corollaries: gender equality (thereby doubling the pool of talent); no discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criteria (race, sex, religion, etc.); also a preference for scientific (means-end) rationality over magic and superstition (irrationality).*

Such a society would also possess the kind of political and social institutions that favor the achievement of these larger goals; that would, for example,

  1. Secure rights of private property, the better to encourage saving and investment.
  2. Secure rights of personal liberty – secure them against both the abuse of tyranny and private disorder (crime and corruption).
  3. Enforce rights of contract, explicit and implicit.
  4. Provide stable government, not necessarily democratic, but itself governed by publicly known rules (a government of laws rather than men). If democratic, that is, based on periodic elections, the majority wins but does not violate the rights of the losers; while the losers accept their loss and look forward to another turn at the polls.
  5. Provide responsive government, one that will hear complaint and make redress.
  6. Provide honest government, such that economic actors are not moved to seek advantage and privilege inside or outside the marketplace. In economic jargon, there should be no rents to favor and position.
  7. Provide moderate, efficient, ungreedy government. The effect should be to hold taxes down, reduce the government’s claim on the social surplus, and avoid privilege.

This ideal society would also be honest. Such honesty would be enforced by law, but ideally, the law would not be needed. People would believe that honesty is right (also that it pays) and would live and act accordingly.

More corollaries: this society would be marked by geographical and social mobility. People would move about as they sought opportunity, and would rise and fall as they made something or nothing of themselves. This society would value new against old, youth as against experience, change and risk as against safety. It would not be a society of equal shares, because talents are not equal; but it would tend to a more even distribution of income than is found with privilege and favor. It would have a relatively large middle class. This greater equality would show in more homogeneous dress and easier manners across class lines.

No society on earth has ever matched this ideal. […]


*The tenacity of superstition in an age of science and rationalism may surprise at first, bur insofar as it aims at controlling fate, it beats fatalism.  It is a resort of the hapless and incapable in the pursuit of good fortune and the avoidance of bad; also a psychological support for the insecure.  Hence persistent recourse to horoscopic readings and fortune telling, even in our day. […]

Sorry, I couldn’t resist including the footnote – direct language and linguistic surgical strikes abound – go get it! (And incidentally, the concluding paragraphs are highly quotable as well.)

A cruel and incomprehensive war

My War Gone By, I Miss It So My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Anthony Loyd goes to the war in the former Yugoslavia as an observer – well, let’s be honest, a tourist – and then gradually succumbs to the fascination, tinged with shame, of observing something surreal, dangerous, and yet so central to Europe. The complex and cruel war between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims and other overlapping and changing factions was a gruesome continuation of centuries of internecine fighting that was only temporarily halted by the Tito regime – close to a quarter million people dead, yet curiously disregarded by the European press.

Loyd gradually becomes a war correspondent, seemingly more for financial reasons – and to have a proper reason to be where he was – than because of an interest in a career. He turns out to be good at it, yet maintains his distance, and his heroin addiction. In the end you are left with painfully memorable descriptions of individual and mass tragedies – and you still don’t know much about the person doing the reporting.

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Cold War of the Rings

John Le Carré : Three Complete Novels ( Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy / The Honourable Schoolboy / Smiley's People ) John Le Carré : Three Complete Novels by John le Carré

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just spent the Christmas vacation under the covers with a flu, rereading this collection of three of the "Smiley" novels (in a Norwegian translation, which isn’t quite the same thing, though the translator is good).

The arena John le Carré creates here (or, rather, reports from, since he was a part of the real thing for a while) is the stealthy and paranoid world of Cold War espionage and counter-espionage, with the physically unimpressive spy-hunter George Smiley as the absent-minded and socially inept anti-hero.

The three books follow each other, not unlike the three main parts of "The Lord of the Rings" (come to think of it, it shouldn’t surprise me if le Carré structured it this way on purpose): The first book (Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) concerns the hunt for a "mole" inside Circus, an thinly veiled version of MI6, defectors and all. The second has Smiley as a less central character, instead giving an operational agent named Jerry Westerby (the "Honourable Schoolboy" of the title) first billing, as he tries to locate and then secure an important Chinese defector through investigations during the final weeks of the Vietnam War. The third ("Smiley’s People") concerns Smiley’s attempt to penetrate the Soviet intelligence organization in a final battle with his nemesis, a the shady and very competent spymaster Karla.

I like these books for their accurate depiction of the fear underlying much of the cold war, the way "little people" become pawns in a game they (and, many times, not their bosses either) understand. Aside from the gloriously tragic figure of Jerry Westerby, the spy game is one of meticulous investigations, bureaucratic frustrations, occasional high hopes with correspondingly deep disappointments. How far can you go in order to win – can you sacrifice people, sometimes with their consent, for an uncertain victory in a cause you are no longer sure about? I think these three books are the best John le Carré wrote, with the possible exception of "The Little Drummer Girl". Reading them again brought back the haunting specter of the dictatorship next door, the nagging fear most people of my generation grew up with, the uncertain enemy with powerful weapons, fought by vicarious means with a realization that the individuals involved had very little to say in the big decisions.

The question remains – who, if anyone, had?

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Newton as master detective

I am currently working from home, laid somewhat lower than usual by a persistent cold. One way to pass the time in between attempting to do actual work is padding through some of the bookmarks of "things I will read when I have time." Here is one gem I marked four months back – Thomas Levenson‘s brilliant talk on his book about Isaac Newton‘s tenure as Master of the Royal Mint, where he had to deal with counterfeiters (particularly William Chaloner) by setting up his own detective force:

Levenson draws lines to modern economy and shows how Newton had a quite sophisticated understanding of modern economy, was a smart investor, particularly in the South Sea bubble in 1720, and then fell victim to his own greed. Highly recommended!

Obama impresses again..

…this time with a ready message about a prize given too soon: The US is the world’s guarantor of peace and democracy, no matter what others may think about it. And in that role, the country needs and deserves the world’s trust that it is doing the right thing – and gives the assurance that it will listen.

An impressive speech, given the uncomfortable situation the Nobel committee has placed Obama in.

To paraphrase the (Republican, but well-traveled and well-read) humorist P. J. O’Rourke: No matter what you think about the US, please notice that when the world needs power behind good arguments, nobody calls Sweden (or, for that matter, Norway.)