Life of a Colossus

So, it has been a while since I read a biography, and they are really starting to pile up on my shelf and Amazon wishlist. I decided to begin with the biography of Julius Caesar because he is such a looming figure throughout history and even in our modern culture. I grew up with references to Caesar; he was the chief foil in the Asterix books I loved, my Grandma’s dog was/is named Caesar, and his name lives on in the titles Tsar (Tzar, Czar, Csar) and Kaiser that are littered throughout our history textbooks. He has also inspired a great many of the other people whose biographies are on my list; Napoleon being the obvious example. In particular this book is a brilliant telling of a truly scary and inspiring human being. But it isn’t just Caesar who is inspiring. Goldsworthy has managed to construct one of the best biographies I have ever read. He has walked the fine line between too much and too little detail, an especially hard task when both the man and his world are so far removed from our own.

Goldsworthy begins the story of Caesar by describing the world he came into: one where the kingdoms that had risen up in the wake of Alexander the Great were fading, where the four century-old Roman Republic was unopposed in the Mediterranean but which was starting to reach the limits of what the Republican system would allow. Goldsworthy maps out both Rome and its territories. He explains the functioning of the Republican system, with its infighting Senate picked from the Equestrian class, the order of magistrates that serve “limited” terms with “defined” powers and responsibilities, and a mob of plebeians who were both powerful and powerless. We are introduced to the principal actors of the day, which includes such names as Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Cato and Claudius. But this is just the groundwork.

At first the story of Caesar focuses on the goings-on in Rome while Caesar grew up, became a man, and embarked on his career (many of these side events have little to do with Caesar at first, but come back to affect him later). Goldsworthy readily and repeatedly admits that we don’t know much of the details about Caesar, one of the central points being when exactly he was born. Caesar’s journey to become Consul and his time as Consul is touched on briefly, but it is when Caesar is a Proconsul and goes off on his Governorship of Gaul that Goldsworthy really seems into his element. We learn in great detail about Caesar’s time in Gaul as he attempts to  “pacify” the Gauls and the Germans, fails to make headway in England, builds a never-ending stream of fortifications, roads and bridges, takes hostages, and caters for his army (apparently that last point is very important), all the while minding the political ramifications back home. Campaigns and battles are broken down to the slightest military maneuver (or our best guess at what happened during these battles based on the writings of Caesar, some of his men, and the scant archaeological evidence we have). I am sure by the end of the Gaul chapters most of us lay readers are eligible for some sort of degree in ancient warfare. For many the torrent of information about one battle or another may seem too much, but when you consider how Caesar’s mixture of skill, luck and daring contributed to his success, and how many others have drawn inspiration and knowledge from his campaigning, I believe the emphasis is more than justified. After all, Caesar become what he was largely through his military campaigns. The book is rounded out with the civil war with Pompey, and Caesar’s (relatively) short time as Dictator. I feel this section could have been longer, especially considering that many of us know of Caesar as a Dictator, and we have just gone through several hundred pages of build-up to this point, but this is just nitpicking really.

If you take a look at Goldsworthy’s page on Amazon, it is immediately clear that his expertise and interest lies with the Roman military. This is reflected in the book, as more than half the book deals with the period from Caesar becoming Governor of Gaul until the end of the civil war with Pompey. But if you don’t enjoy tales of military campaigns, or if you are willing to put up with the authors fascination with them, then there is a great detail of story and information for you regardless. Goldsworthy faces the horrific task of not only having to introduce us to Caesar, but inform us about an ancient world that many of us do not know about. This he does well. How did the Roman society and republic work? Who were Rome’s contemporaries and what challenges was Rome facing? Goldsworthy answers these questions and more, and he does it well enough that it is entertaining, interesting and sufficient to understand the man himself. Furthermore, something that I thoroughly enjoyed in this book was the constant stream of political commentary, both that of Goldsworthy as well as that of Caesar’s contemporaries. Alongside the account of Caesar’s actions, Goldsworthy offers glimpses of the political fallout for Caesar, his allies and his enemies. It gives you a real idea of the intention behind much of Caesars actions, and adds colour to a very political life that some biographies miss entirely. I really enjoyed learning about such a prominent historical figure, and this book was an amazing vehicle for doing so. Four out of five.

Dead Aid

So I finally got around to reading “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo, arguably her most famous wok, and one I see referenced quite often. Despite being written in 2009 (like many books that rely on economic data, it really doesn’t age that well), and despite an incredible amount of repetition (in his foreword Niall Ferguson was able to replicate Moyo’s entire argument in a handful of pages), Dead Aid raises a number of important issues and proposes numerous solutions to an important problem. Yes, as The Economist pointed out last week, Africa is “emerging”, but after more than a trillion dollars in aid shouldn’t this have happened far sooner and far more spectacularly?

A Zambian-born economist, Moyo is in a unique position to comment on the effect of aid in Africa. She is also quite frank; “Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.” She continues; “The lives of billions rest on getting the right financing solutions to the problems of developing nations. After more than five decades of the wrong diagnosis, it is time now to turn the corner and take the harder but indisputably better road.”

On the face of it, the facts seem to back Moyo’s argument. While the economies of countries like Brazil, China, and India have exploded in the past three decades, the most aid dependent countries have had a negative growth rate. Since 1971 the number of Africans living in poverty nearly doubled. Aid dependent countries in Africa that once were far ahead of China in per capita income have since fallen far behind. And real income in many African countries is below what it was in the 1970s.

While Moyo does not directly address whether these examples would be worse without the trillion+ USD that has been sent Africa’s way, she does offer several reasons why aid has not helped. First, concessional loans can inflate African currencies and become unserviceable when interest rates eventually rise. Second, when aid comes in the form of direct services – and here she uses the example of African mosquito net manufacturers – aid can crowd out African businesses, driving both entrepreneurs and workers out of productive activity, and reducing investment and entrepreneurial incentives. Third, aid in the form of government transfers is often stolen or used to supplement tax revenue, which is then inefficiently spent and makes governments more beholden to donors than to taxpayers and citizens. Government transfers also greatly incentivizes internal conflicts and corrupt behaviour, as whoever controls the government will have control of aid funds. And finally, and largely through crowding out, aid undermines domestic saving and investment. In short, Moyo claims that aid disincentives productive activity (like starting a Mosquito net business), and incentivizes inefficient activity; like corruption, conflict, and theft.

In the place of aid, Moyo proposes that African countries look for new financial models. Firstly, African countries should encourage large-scale direct investment, the same thing that has driven China’s astounding growth. Second, Moyo encourages African countries to enter bond markets, something that will foster both accountability and oversight, and spur the foreign investment. Third, Africa should push for free trade deals within Africa, and with Europe and Africa – where it’s agricultural products will fetch better prices. Fourth, African countries need to follow the example of China, India and South America in better ensuring property rights, and developing micro finance organizations.

Since the book was released in 2009, some of these ideas have already been put into place or otherwise realized. For example, in 2011 alone Africa saw a 27% increase in foreign direct investment. An organization I am involved with has begun a micro finance project in a village in Malawi, which has already proven to be a success in empowering local entrepreneurs and is something we are looking to expand and replicate. But despite these successes and examples, and while Dead Aid has drawn praise from the likes of Kofi Annan and Wen Jiabao (not to mention a forward penned by Niall Ferguson), there are a few issues with it.

Moyo’s criticism of aid borders on fundamentalism, and her devotion to free market solutions borders on the puerile. It is more than a tad unrealistic to think that abruptly turning off the aid spigot will not lead to calamity and will lead to all of these ideas being full realized, and that something that works in China will automatically work in Africa. Furthermore, in focusing so stringently on the economic, Moyo has overlooked several aspects that define modern Africa. For starters, many African countries have exorbitant amounts of natural resources, and Chavez is a brilliant example of how an elected leader can behave without aid and with a steady stream of resource rent –  not beholden to anyone, especially the citizenry. Second, unlike China and like India African countries by and large do not have benevolent autocratic governments to ensure consistency, and do not have an ethnically and culturally homogenous citizenry. And lastly, Africa has a long, long way to go before it’s infrastructure will encourage the kinds of foreign investment that has drawn people to China. This is especially true of the countries in central Africa, who are increasingly the poorest countries due to their isolation. This infrastructure will take a lot of investment before it begins to pay off, and who will be willing to do that but aid donors?

This is a great book to stir debate and I agree with much of it. Moyo has countless examples and insights dotted throughout, and it is a brilliant book to read purely for its sections on the history of aid and aid in Africa. The problems lie more with its age (a lot has happened since 2009) and with the uncompromising nature of Moyo’s argument, rather than the underlying reasoning. But the most important thing is that I definitely learned something. Much recommended.

The World Until Yesterday

I decided to read ‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?’ because I frequently come across references to other works by Jared Diamond (especially his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’), but I had never read any of his books. The World Until Yesterday is Diamond’s latest publication, and was only released on Kindle on the 10th of January this year. I figured I could jump on this book and maybe reference it a few times myself before it becomes passé. While I find the book to be very informative, it is an incredibly tough read, and often gets bogged down in minute details to the detriment of the overall goal.

The World Until Yesterday is an ambitious project to look at “all aspects of human culture, of all people’s around the world, for the last 11,000 years”.  Beginning with the prologue of Diamond checking in at an airport in Port moresby, Papua New Guinea, Diamond sets out to describe the clash between the new world and the ‘old’. Following on and broken into chapters, Diamond examines traditional societies for the relationships within and between traditional societies, the particulars of war and peace, the way children and elderly people are treated, how fear and danger are harnessed and affect behaviour and quality of life, and the characteristics of languages and religions (this is far too short a summary, it is big and very detailed book). Diamond then rounds out the book with an epilogue of his returning from a field trip to Papua New Guinea, where he once again contrasts traditional life with his own life back in Los Angeles. But most importantly, as fits the subheading ‘What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?’, throughout Diamond juxtaposes the aspects of traditional societies with aspects of modern societies.

The idea behind this book is one I find brilliant. We should never stop learning from the experiences of others, and this book offers hundreds of examples of how traditional societies have tackled different problems in different ways. As Diamond repeatedly points out; either due to scale or ethical concerns (etc.), and whether it is how children should be raised or how criminals should be treated (etc.), modern societies are often unable or unwilling to carry out important experiments that could lead to best practice. However, chances are over thousands of years there are traditional societies who have faced similar problems to ones we face and have tried different solutions; e.g. as children develop should parents and societies micromanage them in order to ensure their safety, or should they be allowed to run free and suffer the consequences of their actions? There are traditional societies that operate at both extremes of this spectrum, and thousands that operate in between, why don’t we observe them and see which is best practice? Or to provide another example; should we attempt to eradicate religion (as many atheists hope to do) or does it provide some tangible benefits that some cannot see? Again, there are thousands of traditional societies out there believing and practicing thousands of different things, maybe we should look at them and see what benefits they are receiving from their practices, compared to each other and compared to more secular societies. The examples and possibilities of such an approach to research and public policy are endless, and whether discussing political structures, legal, structures, war tactics, domestic politics, religion, language, and culture (among many, many other things), Diamond draws from examples from around the world to highlight what we can learn.

But with all this detail also comes a rather large downside. This isn’t a book that you can just pick up and read. It took me more than two weeks to read as I often had to get into a zone similar to studying. All of these examples can sometimes be laborious to get through or comprehend, and the names and regions can become quite confusing. And while some examples are gripping (such as Diamond’s own first hand accounts), some of them can be downright tiresome. Although this is a well written book, it has not been written for general consumption. Rather it is designed for those very interested in sociology, or those looking for a book for research and to quote from (a job it will do quite handily).

All in all, this is an astonishing book if you want to see how truly distinct modern life is; whether it is how we view strangers (not as a threat but as a banal backdrop to our lives), how we trade (not to seal relationships but to acquire goods and services we cannot produce ourselves), the role of leaders and the state (not as mediators or spiritual guides, but as the institution with sole legitimate use of force within a society), or the legal system (not as an institute designed to re-establish relationships, but set out to ‘equalize accounts’, establish guilt and extract compensation). It is also an incredible book if you want to look at the experience and the thousands of experiments conducted every day by traditional societies, and see if our societies can benefit from this wealth of knowledge. I would not recommend this book for those who are not keenly interested, it is not a book to be taken lightly. But for those with the time, energy and interest, this is very much recommended.

The Trouble with Islam Today

I bought this book a fair while ago but never got around to reading it. Recently a few of my relatives borrowed the book and have begun raving about it, so I decided to give it a whirl myself. While I am not as besotted with the book as my family is, I must admit it is certainly thought provoking.

The contents of The Trouble with Islam Today by Irshad Manji is pretty much what would would expect from the name. The author, Irshad Manji, is a self-described Muslim and “Muslim Refusenik” (you can read the book to find out exactly what she means by that), and the book she has written is part memoir and part open letter to “all concerned citizens worldwide”. In keeping with its by-line “A wake-up call or honesty and change”, the book examines Islam, and calls for honesty, criticism, and open debate over many aspects of modern day Islam. Manji takes the Muslim world to task for what she sees as the poor treatment of Women, a propensity for victimization, widespread “Jew-bashing”, the “dictatorship of desert Islam”, Foundamentalism (not a spelling mistake), innate tribalism, and the lack of critical thinking and open debate (among many, many other things). But what was especially noticeable to me was Manji calling for a greater operation of “Ijtihad”, a concept I had never heard of (and I am quite sure many others had never heard of), which means to practice the Islamic faith independently of religious authorities. In short, the book is a call for wider introspection and reform in the Muslim World.

There has been plenty of criticism of this book based on the religious and historical veracity of many of the claims Manji makes (just as there has been lots of praise of her work). Personally, I do not have the expertise to critique on those grounds, but I do think this book is lacking in other areas. For starters, Manji falls into the trap that often befalls those who wish to critique religion from the inside; she has failed to outline the liability of God. In her criticism of the fallibility of the Quran, of the Desert Centrism, of the Lack of openness and debate, of the maltreatment of Women and other outsiders; the fault always lays with us lowly and petty humans. Never is God questioned, never is his divine plan questioned. It is a discussion of religion without a discussion of God. Maddening. Secondly, there is really very little groundbreaking done in this book, apart from the earth shattering revelation that it was authored by someone claiming to be a practicing Muslim. Many (if not all) of the Criticisms leveled will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has read even the most reverential atheist’s book, and many of the suggestions are also similar, with a little Islamic spin. And finally, the book is often hard to follow. As it is written as an open letter it is understandable that the writing is informal, however, Manji often goes on wild and long tangents, breaking her train of thought and causing the reader to have to backtrack in order to understand what is going on. The tangents themselves are often interesting, but it does lead to a very unsettling reading experience. This is one of the reasons the book took me so long to read, I kept having to double back.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good and important book. It has a great and important message, and I can understand how it will be more meaningful coming from a Muslim than an atheist (although that kind of fly’s in the face of the book’s overarching message). This is a book many people should read, especially non-muslims who have very little idea of the depth of opinion within Islam, but also Muslims who need to realize that pluralism, debate, criticism and openness are the only paths to progress. On the whole my criticisms and reservations with this book are mere nitpicking. I would (and will) recommend this book to one and all.

Walter Isaacson’s Einstein

Having been so impressed by Isaacson’s portrayal of Benjamin Franklin, and not knowing nearly as much about Einstein’s life as I wanted to, I decided to also read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein. However, it must be noted that this book is not simply a biography. Isaacson has delved deep not only into the life of Einstein, but also into the world that he inhabited and profoundly affected; the science of the 20th century and the history of the 21st century. While this does mean the book is often a bit slow and convoluted, it also means that it is incredibly informative. It brilliantly paints the portrait of a vivacious character, a person far more interesting than the sum of his famous work. Correspondingly it also brings a greater understanding of Einstein’s work (both scientific and otherwise), and how it greatly affects us even now. Continue reading “Walter Isaacson’s Einstein”


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