Trouble in Paradise

June 4, 2023 § Leave a comment

From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean (1492 – 1969) (Williams, Eric)

Eric Williams served as the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago from 1959 until the day he died in March 1981. His efforts to secure independence for his nation and his sure-footed guidance through its first decades have earned him the title ‘Father of the Nation‘. He was also a renowned historian – his Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, is hailed as a classic on the history of slavery and of the African slave trade. Good histories have been written of the West Indies – CLR James comes to mind, and VS Naipaul – but arguably none more comprehensive and definitive than Eric Williams’ version.

The Caribbean is known to the modern world as a party place – a great place for vacationing, getting riotously drunk on rum, wearing floral-patterned shirts and dancing to exotic drum beats on picture perfect beaches, soaking in sunsets and seafood, snorkeling and sex: a veritable paradise on earth. But as a boy growing up in India, my friends and I knew of the Caribbean only as a place where brilliant cricketers came from, swaggering gum-chewing heroes who conquered the world in style.

Yet Williams’ historical account is as far from heroism and heaven as it is possible to imagine.

It starts with the Spanish conquistadores, of course, and their genocidal lust for gold: in Hispaniola alone, the native population decreased from over 200,000 when Columbus arrived, to 14,000 in two decades, until even the Spanish felt ashamed of what they were doing, and their priests piously called for some alternative labor force, so that the few surviving natives could be preserved. This heralded the advent of the African slave trade. The Spanish justified it in the name of morality (those poor Native Americans) and religion (it was better for the African’s soul for her to die a Christian slave, than a free pagan; they were doing her a favor, really).

In the 18th century came a more sophisticated variety of villain: the sugar plantation economies of the British and the French. The sugar trade needed a huge amount of hard manual labor. A disproportionate number of slaves were needed for running the plantation – Barbados, for example, had 18 slaves for each white inhabitant by 1698. The white population in the West Indies had only one job: to be slave masters.

Thus a triangular trade flourished across the Atlantic. British goods were dumped into Africa, bartered for slaves, who were then carried off to the West Indian plantations, and exchanged there for sugar, which was in turn, borne to Britain for re-export into Europe. It was a sweet deal for the British, in every sense. The economists loved it, the politicians loved it, the capitalists became rich, and the common man got employment and pulled himself out of poverty. Every white man who employed slaves in the Caribbean was providing employment for four Englishmen in England. The triangular trade transformed Liverpool and Bristol from drab fishing villages into vibrant centers for international commerce.

Gone by this time, were the theological and moral arguments in favor of slavery. They were replaced by the powerful logic of two new forces shaping the world: Nationalism and Capitalism. The competitive trade balance situation of the home country vis a vis its European rivals was a matter of national pride. And the need to maximize profits for his shareholders was proclaimed the highest ethic of the businessman. It was unfashionable to bring up morality when profits and patriotism were at stake.

It is undeniable, today, that the prosperity of Britain was built on a foundation of African blood. Williams produces all the figures, building a meticulous case as if he were a lawyer at the International Court of Justice. Taking into account the mortality in the slave ships, and the deaths in the plantations over the course of a century, Williams establishes that an average of 44 slaves perished miserably within three years for every 100 that boarded the ships against their will. Never has prosperity come at such an exorbitant cost.

It is worth repeating here, that there were few protests in Britain. As if by mass hypnosis, the misery of the faraway Africans was an integral part of the picture that was simply invisible to them – and it isn’t obvious to us, centuries later. The weak rationalizations that were offered were blindly accepted. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume – revered the world over as great philosophers – were solidly in favor of slavery. It fell to James Beattie (have you heard of him? I hadn’t) to refute them all, to say the things that we would term basic human decency, but his words were completely ignored by the British of the day, and he is forgotten today. As is Britain’s role in the propagation of slavery.

Today, when it comes to slavery and the slave trade, Britain is positively seen as saintly in comparison with Confederate America. Williams’ greatest achievement – in this book and in life – is the unmasking of British hypocrisy in this matter. He points out that Britain only abolished the slave trade – not because it was morally wrong, but because after the loss of the thirteen American colonies, they didn’t need new slaves every year, and found that they were doing their French rivals a favor by selling them the slaves they needed to catch up with the British in sugar production. The men who had campaigned in Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade voted in favor of continuing slavery itself.

Eventually the British did ban slavery as well (in 1838), but largely because they had now figured out a smarter solution to their labor problem: a sort of ‘rent versus buy’ calculation that led them to conclude that using indentured servants body-shopped from their other colony (India) was more efficient than slave labor with its high mortality rates and the costs of having to look after older slaves who survived beyond their productive years. In any case, they soon transferred their attention from West Indian sugar to cotton factories in Manchester that ran on raw cotton grown by either black slaves in the USA or Indian farmers in India. (The Indians were forced to export cotton and import cloth, because a colony’s only purpose was for the improvement in economic conditions for the home population).

But Williams’s tale was still not done. The focus shifted to the United States of America in the 20th century, and the effect of sugar plantation capitalism on Cuba. By 1959, American corporations had colluded with corrupt Cuban governments to control 75% of Cuba’s arable land, 90% of its telecommunications and 50% of its railways. Sugar was 90% of what Cuba exported, but only brought in 33% of its income. And as for the common Cuban, 50% of Cuban rural dwellings had no toilets, 85% lacked running water altogether, 91% had no electricity. This was not a tenable situation.

While Cuba was an independent country at this time, and not an American colony, the forces of unfettered capitalism, and geopolitical power, twisted the country into the macabre shape of a virtual colony that worked to benefit the capitalists in another land, rather than to generate wealth and wellbeing for its own people.

Williams’ damning thesis is that it wasn’t Fidel Castro who forced communism on Cuba: it was American corporations, backed by arrogant American foreign policy, that triggered the people’s revolution that forced Castro and communism on Cuba. As a trained historian of colonization, and the president of a nearby country, Williams had both the academic framework and a ringside view of proceedings, so I am willing to believe that his is a valid narrative (even if not the only one).

Nationalism and Capitalism are not evil things, in and of themselves. In many ways, we do owe to them our modern world, and much of it is very nice, thank you. But we would be doing a great disservice to ourselves, and to the tens of thousands of black Africans who suffered inhuman tortures, if we do not recognize that without casting them into hell, nationalist pride and capitalism could never have brought us the paradise that we enjoy today. This, in essence, is Williams’ story.

They came to paradise: Photo 84885188 / Caribbean © Romolo Tavani |

Anybody Out There?

May 20, 2023 § Leave a comment

The Eerie Silence – Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Davies, Paul)

There are things that only children think or speak about. They worry about the possibility of finding monsters under the bed. They wonder about what they should do if a tiger were to come bounding down the street at them, or if everybody in the world were to go mad, except for themselves. Grown-ups don’t think about these things very often, not because we know the answers, but because we don’t expect them to happen. We have learned to shut out certain things from our mind – things that we believe from experience to be highly improbable.

To be grown up is to believe implicitly that tomorrow would be just like today and yesterday, in almost every way. We don’t need to prepare for a tiger on the streets, because a tiger’s never ever been seen on the streets. Incidentally, this is also the reason so many people find it so hard to worry about global warming, for instance.

One of the questions that most adults stopped asking themselves about, concerns the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Only astrophysicists, science fiction fanatics, and nerdy teenagers may find it an important topic for serious contemplation or discussion. The rest of us would happily watch aliens in a movie or TV series, but we do not take the idea seriously enough. We do not pause and think about extra-terrestrials. If we did, though, just for a moment, would we even know what we should believe?

Don’t worry, because here is Paul Davies, a fully-grown adult man, a professor of astrophysics at a reputed university, a much-decorated scientist who, among other things, knows more about the quantum properties of black holes, than your entire family probably ever will – so not a nutcase in a tin-foil hat. He’s done your thinking for you on the subject of alien intelligence, and is willing to give it to you wholesale.

Is there anyone out there? Is the universe humming with life, or are we alone? Is the generation of life something can happen once in a while, given the right climate and conditions, or did it come about on earth as a coincidental combination of factors so highly unlikely to recur that it could not have happened in any other of a trillion galaxies, in the billions of years since the Big Bang, and will never happen again in the billions of years to come?

If life DOES exist elsewhere, would we recognize it when we see it? Would it look like life on earth? Would it breathe oxygen, drink water, shiver or sweat at the same broad temperature bands that lifeforms do on earth? Would it laugh at a joke, fall in love, get embarrassed or burst into tears as we tend to do?

If life is possible, and we can identify it as such, would such life always evolve to be intelligent? In other words, is the discovery and development of science inevitable in every species? If an asteroid had fallen on Newton’s head instead of an apple, and if it had devastated Europe, would the Africans or Native Americans (who would no doubt have thrived because of the destruction of Europe) have eventually stumbled upon calculus, vaccines, microwaves and space stations? Or would we have languished in medieval mediocrity, for the rest of our existence? By the same token, if a strain of space octopuses exist in sub-terranian seas deep under the frozen surface of Titan, is it inevitable that one of them would sit up one day after a million years, and say, fellas, I think I can prove that e equals mc2 ? Or would they just live octopussy lives, until they stop existing?

Now if alien life forms DO exist somewhere, and they HAVE achieved intelligence to boot, why have they not contacted us yet? Are they not smart enough? Perhaps they couldn’t be bothered? Perhaps there is some Inter-Galactic Code of Conduct that contact must never be initiated until a species evolves sufficiently (and we haven’t yet)? Or could they have left us a gigantic astronomical message right under our nose that we’re too stupid yet to notice, or to identify as a message?

And what if an extra-terrestrial species DOES make contact with us tomorrow? How would life change on earth? How would politics, economics, and religion change? Who should respond from our side, and what should we say in response? Should WE reach out perhaps? Should we broadcast our existence joyfully to the neighborhood and invited everyone to be our friends? What if they got to know about us from our friendly message, oozed into their space-battle-cruiser-thingummies, and came over here to blast us out of existence? Should WE nuke THEM first pre-emptively? Who gets to decide, anyway?

What if each intelligent species only lasts a million years before inevitably dying out – and that isn’t enough to develop inter-galactic travel or communication? What if there has been lots of intelligent life before us, and there will be lots of intelligent life after us, but we are the only ones around in the universe in our time?

Finally, and perhaps most significantly: which of these two ideas is scarier : that we are all alone in the observable universe, or that there may be other beings somewhere in the distant stars, alien to us in every way?

Paul Davies goes into each of these questions, and many more, with the eagerness of a nerdy schoolboy who never really grew up, but in the considered manner of a scientist and scholar talking about his area of expertise. In doing so, he examines closely some of the “biggest” questions of existence – what is life? what is intelligence? what is purpose? what does it mean to be human? – still more examples of questions that we adults have simply shut out of our mind. When we go searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence, who knows? We may never find ET, but we may actually end up finding more about our own selves.

Is there anybody out there? Photo 128427122 © Bazruh |

A Schooling in Human Culture

May 19, 2023 § Leave a comment

Seven Nights (Borges, Jorge Luis)

Every few years, I tend to return to Borges, seeking refuge, as it were, from the madness and meaninglessness of our loud and garish world. Borges is calm, contemplative, a repository of the wisdom of the world. At a time when attention spans are fleeting, and reality is a blur of disconnected images flashing by on electronic media, Borges symbolizes the cumulative memory of all mankind, since the beginning of recorded history, and until the end of days. I have read his playful fiction, his richly introspective poetry, but to me his his encyclopedic erudition shines forth in full force in his non-fiction essays. Each essay is a meditation on a theme, which he studies in detail, connects to other themes, other facts, objects, and concepts, what others before him have said about these things, in five different languages, all of which Borges seems to be fluent enough in to quote in the original.

When I read Borges, I feel a reverential hush descend on me, as if I were in a place of prayer. I can sense the imposing columns of his erudition all around me and the dome of his wisdom overhead, and every thought echoes, gets amplified, and comes back reinforced by his words. I feel small, but in a good way: in a way where I am reassured that there are bigger, better, more substantial things in this world than the mundane niggles that we are concerned with today, that beyond the mindless chaos of the daily grind, there are patterns and beauty that are beyond our ken, and there is Borges to point them out to us, and all’s right with the world.

It is hard enough to conceive of how a blind librarian in Argentina could know so much, or write about so much. But over seven evenings in 1977, Borges delivered seven lectures to a spellbound audience, and this slim book was the result. How does a 78-year old blind man deliver a lecture? He memorizes his notes, and speaks from memory. In Borges’ case, he dips the quill of his tongue into all of human culture and history, and fills the empty silence with his words. One day, he speaks about the Jewish Kabbalah, another day about the Buddha, a third day about Dante’s Divina Comedia, another about The Thousand Nights and One Night, another on the subject of nightmares, and the nature of poetry. He quotes James Joyce when he talks of Buddha, Plato while discussing the Kabbalah, Coleridge when talking about nightmares. Everything is connected to everything else, and the words and ideas come tumbling out in a sequence of Borges’ choice.

This slim booklet is all we’ve got, of those seven nights. I would have loved to sit in that room, to have witnessed this blind man speak extempore, and expound on five thousand years of human culture and civilization. I would have listened to him as intently, as open-mouthedly, as that first audience must have, that heard another blind man sing of the deeds of gods and heroes, of stormy seas and great battles far away.

A Monument to Borges, outside the National Library in Buenos Aires (Photo 156336894 © Wilsilver77 |

The Complexity of Economics

March 29, 2023 § 2 Comments

Butterfly Economics (Ormerod, Paul)

The social sciences started out as the awkward adolescent step-siblings in the Science super-hero family. Medicine was always revered for its magical powers of restoration, Chemistry was full of mystery, with its fizzing, crackling potions and its rumoured ability to transmute base metal to gold; but even these could not hold a candle to Physics, which could explain the movement and predict the location of everything, from the stars in the sky, to a tiny grain of sand, with a single incantation-like formula: all of space and all of time was at her command. (And nobody knew exactly what powers Calculus had, but the rest of the family called her Boss).

It was natural that the social sciences tried to ape their physical counterparts. Anthropology and History tried to come up with all-explaining formulas of their own. Philosophy tied itself in knots trying to find a precise mathematical language for itself. Psychology tried very hard to be as prescriptive as Medicine. And the natural leader among them, Economics, led the way by modelling the universe as physicists would, in ways that were conducive to differential calculus treatment.

It was a heady idea: that the production and flow of resources in a human society, consisting of millions of individual human transactions, could, at an abstract level, be modelled, explained and predicted by mathematical equations. Like liquids finding their own level, financial flows would obey unseen forces governed by precise laws, that could be deduced by mathematics.

But when your modelling criterion is the kind of mathematics you want to perform on it, you are likely to be forced into make certain simplifying assumptions in order for reality to fit your model. And that is precisely what the economists did: they assumed that individuals are very clear about their choices, that they try at every point to maximize a certain something called their “utility” that they are somehow automatically, instantaneously, uniformly and precisely able to calculate, and finally, that each individual’s optimizing decisions are independent of every other individual’s, or indeed, of their own previous decisions.

To this day, the entire edifice of classical economics stands on the flimsy foundations of these assumptions: if you buy into these, classical economics makes a lot of sense.

But not everyone buys into these assumptions. For centuries, heretics have pointed out the role of human psychology in economic choice – but the classical economists simply shouted them down and pretended their objections didn’t exist: introducing psychology made it inconvenient to apply the mathematical models, and that was too heavy a cost for them to pay. Because without mathematics, the logic went, what sanctity would Economics have? Would economic theory be reduced to just the opinions of some random guys? Was it just a parlour game? It was unheard of. The classical economics closed ranks and shut down the debate. And there the matter stayed until Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky raised the standard of revolt against Classical Economics, and established the principles of Behavioral Economics: you can find a review of their story here.

In parallel, a group of mid-20th century mathematicians had begun investigating how change occurs in a population in which elements interact with and influence one another. In other words, they were trying to come up with mathematical tools to model how data changes in the real world, where people influence one another all the time. And not just people: similar patterns of influence emerged when they looked at animal populations that preyed on each other, at neurons in the human brain, at weather systems, at turbulent water flow, at certain kind of chemical reactions, at how forest fires, pandemics and rumours spread. These were the flotsam and jetsam of science: the kind of problems that ‘classical’ science had pointedly ignored because they were not ‘orderly’ enough to lend themselves to elegant mathematical analysis. But these were the stuff of life, nevertheless, and disciplines like general systems theory, chaos and complexity theory, and a dozen associated fields sprang up, drawing on each other’s results and finding applications in every field of study.

Paul Ormerod is a British economist who had the wonderful idea of applying the principles of complexity theory to economics. Real people. Ormerod says, do not usually try to maximize their “utility” or, when they do, are not very clear about how to calculate it correctly. Most importantly, their choices are definitely influenced by what other people are choosing, around them.

Individuals in the real world do one of three things at any time:

  1. they stay with their previous decisions
  2. they select an alternative decision on their own accord, or
  3. they are persuaded to switch to an alternative by the words or actions of others around them.

There is a probability associated with each of these three options, and this probability fluctuates, based on the actual decisions taken by the population.

Such a model can be analyzed, not with calculus, but by means of simple Monte Carlo simulations. Over a large number of iterations, these models mirror reality far better than the equations of classical economics. They explain every kind of social interaction – transformation in culture or moral values in a society, criminology, politics, marketing, and as Ormerod shows, economic choices.

I’ve read an earlier book of Ormerod’s (The Death of Economics) where he had introduced his world view. The book under review is an expansion on the same theme: of the economy or society as a complex system – a living, breathing animal rather than a cold machine. There are no inverse square laws at play, no clever differential equations to predict how the system will behave; instead, there are complex interactions, and probability distributions at each point that determine the direction in which the animal will move, over time. Ormerod – remarkably – uses little or no mathematics to make his points.

As an aside, I’d like to point out that the book is misnamed. The Butterfly in “Butterfly Economics” is presumably a reference to Lorenz’s much-publicized quote about butterflies flapping their wings in Tokyo and causing a blizzard half a world away. That is chaos theory – a system in a state of complete unpredictability. But Ormerod, if I am not mistaken, is modeling economics as a complex adaptive system, not a chaotic one. Here, individual transactions are difficult to predict, but overall, the system moves in reasonably predictable ways.

I am a big believer that the world is full of complex adaptive systems. I am sometimes amazed that Ormerod’s theories haven’t become more mainstream in Economics classrooms. But then I realize that even this is predictable by complexity theory- paradigms take time to change. Change in the linear world is gradual, proportional or exponential. In the world of non-linear systems like belief systems, change is imperceptible for a long time, until a critical point is reached, and then it happens all at once. Change in beliefs does not happen one person at a time. Yet butterfly economics will have their day in the sun, soon enough.

Social sciences now have their own super-power, their own way of describing and predicting change, that fits their universe snugly. They need no longer ape their older step-siblings; they can command respect on their own. They have come of age. They are clumsy caterpillars no longer. They are butterflies.

The Short and Breezy History of Meaning

March 12, 2023 § Leave a comment

The Etymologicon (Forsyth, Mark)

This is a short and fun book on a topic that is close to my heart: the unusual origins and history of certain common words and phrases. Now etymology can be a very cerebral, intellectual sort of preoccupation, and when done frivolously and without a whole lot of care, there is the real danger of providing (or propagating) false etymologies. Yet Forsyth manages to strike a balance: he keeps the prose at a light conversational banter, and yet the unusual word or phrase origins that he talks about are well researched and entirely valid (to the extent that I was able to check).

Additionally Forsyth deserves kudos (from the Greek κῦδος, meaning glory or fame) for the linked narrative – rather cleverly, I thought, he segues (Italian for “follows”) smoothly from word to word or theme to theme, and we readers follow him without a murmur, trying our best to keep up with his pace and to pick up the steady flow of nuggets and factoids that he tosses carelessly in his wake.

The shape-shifting ways of old words and phrases probably teach us nothing, but they are still a very interesting way to reflect on and obsess about. I speak four languages fluently, and understand a smattering of a couple more, and so comparative etymology comes almost intuitively to me when I hear a new word in a language. In another life, perhaps I would have loved to make a career of etymology. For now, however, I must restrict myself to reading books like this.

Quietness and the Western Front

March 5, 2023 § 2 Comments

The Guns of August (Tuchman, Barbara)

I prefer books and movies about the First World War, to those about the Second. The popular narrative around WWII, fueled by Hollywood movies and Adolf Hitler’s psychotic personality, is thematically straightforward: Good v Evil, with Good triumphing at the end. It lacks nuance. The First World War, in its causes and its cast of characters, is a lot more subtle and ambiguous. There is sufficient doubt cast on the question of whether the war was ‘just’, and who, if anyone, caused it to take place. One might argue that the coalitions and calculations involved in the conflict had their roots in diplomatic and military exchanges between six different nations for many generations; one may argue that any “proper” analysis of the causes of the First World War should begin in the year 1648, in the German province of Westphalia, where a peace treaty was signed to end what we now call the Thirty Year War.

But then to do so would be “Proper History”, the study of history as the process by which the past became the present. The Proper Historian roots her every word in solid evidence and is wary of simplistic narratives, for fear of falling into the cardinal sin of selectively highlighting certain facts and suppressing other equally valid facts. They do find narratives, of course, but intellectual ones, cross-referenced with evidence and caveated with exceptions: Hew Strachan’s First World War, AJP Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1848-1918), or Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism: books from which I have emerged exhausted, feeling far better informed on the subject than I was before, but also worried that I would not be able to explain what I had just learned, or even recall it in entirety, a few days after I finished the book.

I love and respect Proper History – I really do – but every once in a while, I like reading books like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, Vincent Cronin’s Napoleon, or Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandria: I emerge exhilarated from these books, with vignettes that remain etched in my memory for decades. These are books that put the “story” in history. They unabashedly prioritize dramatic narrative ahead of anything else. These writers have a keen eye and sharp ear for human drama, and a sensitive finger on the pulse of their readers. Their only fear is of boring their readers. This does not mean that their books are works of fiction or that they just make up stuff as they go along –  just that they trust certain kinds of sources, like contemporary first person accounts, far more than other sources, that Proper Historians use for corroboration.

But if the point of reading history is to understand what it must have felt like to have lived at a particular point in the past, or to have witnessed some seminal past event, Dramatic Narrative History is, in a visceral sense, truer, than its drabber, more Puritanical cousin, the one that is paradoxically so concerned with Historical Truth.

The Guns of August is undoubtedly a book of Dramatic Narrative History. Tuchman is very clear on this point. “I’m a writer first,” she has said, “whose subject is history”. She pities the academic historian, condemned to writing boring books because he has a captive audience in his students. Tuchman, on the other hand, has to work hard to find readers and to keep them turning pages, and this has earned her, not plaudits from pundits, but Pulitzer Prizes.

The Guns of August concerns itself with a small slice of time (beginning just before the war began in late July, and ending just before the First Battle of the Marne in early September), and mainly a small piece of real estate: Belgium and France to the North and East of Paris: the so-called “Western Front” for the German armies. There are many other dramatic stories to tell, even pertaining to the same time – the tragic story of the Russian First Army at Tannenberg (as narrated by Solzhenitsyn); the intense, urgent and ultimately unsuccessful diplomacy that preceded the commencement of hostilities (as recounted memorably by APJ Taylor), and of course, the conspiracy and assassination itself of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (as grippingly depicted in the recent German movie Sarajevo). But Tuchman restricts herself to just the one month, on just the one front: because a tight dramatic narrative demands close up and focus, not sweeping panoramas. But what Tuchman misses out in terms of comprehensive coverage, she makes up for with human interest. Tuchman’s tale is about human personalities – Sir John French of the British Expeditionary Force, Joseph Joffre, Joseph Gallieni, Charles Lanzerac and Franchet d’Esperey of France, Helmuth von Moltke, Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, Crown Prince Wilhelm, Erich Ludendorff and Alexander von Kluck on the German side. Each of them takes fateful decisions in the course of the first four weeks of the war, decisions with far-reaching consequences for their fighting men and their nations, decisions that were the product not just of their individual personalities, but also of the military traditions that they were part of.

The German generals, Tuchman reveals, had been given a fool-proof strategy, complete with implementation details and contingency plans. They were expected to execute these plans without needing further guidance – and they were trusted by their commander in chief to do so. He was barely in touch with them as they tore across Western Europe.

The French generals, in stark contrast, only had a broad idea of the strategy, and were expected to be imbued with elan, patriotism, courage and flair. They were expected to think on their feet and take operational decisions all by themselves in the heat of battle. And their commander in chief was in constant, daily, contact with them, reviewing their plans, giving direction, admonishing, praising or firing them as needed. He worried constantly that his men would lose their nerve in the face of enemy action, and he was prepared to replace any of them at short notice.

These very different leadership styles clashed on the bleak and dreary fields of Belgium and France, and remained entrenched and immobile, neither able to prevail over the other for four years. In Barbara Tuchman’s capable hands, the positives and negatives of both approaches stand out in sharp relief, and while she speaks of a single month in the war, her writing presages and explains the stalemate that we all know follows her narrative. In fact, her prose brings the war to life so evocatively that I can almost hear the big guns thundering and the whoosh of the shells, and the squelching of the boots in muddy trenches. A common motif emerges with Solzhenitsyn’s description of the Eastern Front: the general confusion, the unimaginable courage of the men in the trenches, the blunders and insecurities of the men on top, the highly preventable carnage.

Perhaps the reason I am so fascinated with World War I is my belief that we live in political times that are similar, in many ways, to the conditions that existed in 1914.

Then, as now, there were geopolitical blocs being calculated and debated, with no other moral imperative in mind than balance of power considerations. In many ways the nations of today with the more inclusive democratic traditions (Germany, France, Britain, USA) are arrayed against the nations with more autocratic leanings (Russia and China). Then, it was Britain, France and USA against the German, Austrian and Ottoman Empires. Tsarist Russia, though more of an autocratic monarchy than Germany of that era, fought on the Entente side, but that paradox unraveled catastrophically for them as a nation.

Study the early 20th century history of Serbia. A proud and ancient people, but a newly independent nation at the time, carved out of the dying embers of the Ottoman empire, they were governed by a pro-Austrian faction until 1903, but the government that took over in 1903 was more in touch with its Slavic roots, and aligned itself strongly with Russia. Austria-Hungary always believed it owned the Balkans, and crudely annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, leading to worsening relations with Serbia and Russia. Serbia had wanted Bosnia for herself, as a large population of the country were ethnic Serbs, and knew she was next on Austria’s radar. The virulent anti-Habsburg fervor this caused in Serbia spilled into conspiracy and assassination, and Austria eventually declared war in July 1914. Everyone knew this war was coming: Austria wasn’t going to stop at Bosnia, they wanted Serbia too, and they really didn’t care what the Serbians thought. Austria, as a staunch autocracy, didn’t think the feelings of the common Serb mattered in the least.

The parallels with Putin’s Russia and their war with Ukraine, are too stark to ignore, and the words of General von Moltke to his Kaiser in 1906 (which he duly chose to disregard) come to mind:

“It will be a national war which will not be settled by a decisive battle, but by a long wearisome struggle with a country that will not be overcome until its whole national force is broken, and a war which will utterly exhaust our own people, even if we are victorious.”

Vladimir Putin’s commander in chief could have advised him in exactly the same words, but even if he had, Putin might have dismissed his fears as contemptuously as Wilhelm II had. The war drags on, and other players – China, Iran, USA, Germany, Poland, Britain – all seem to be on the brink of getting dragged in, on one side or the other. History has every opportunity to repeat itself, and the peaceful quiet that had fallen on the Western front for seven decades would then be broken once more by the thundering of guns.

One of the Guns of August: The German “Big Bertha” howitzer

The Lessons of History

February 8, 2023 § Leave a comment

The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades (Usama ibn Munqidh and Paul M Cobb (translator)

Usama ibn Munqidh was a 12th century poet, warrior, nobleman and general bon-vivant from Syria, who wrote a memoir called the Qitab-al-I’tibar, which has been translated – somewhat dubiously I thought – as ‘The Book of Contemplation’ by Paul M Cobb. The Urdu word Aitbaar means trust and sounds like it has an Arabic root, but how is that related to contemplation? Wikipedia helpfully tells me it may also be translated as the Book of Learning by Example, which confuses me even further, but then Arabic is Greek and Latin to me.

Be that as it may, it is certainly a book that engenders a great deal of contemplation in the thoughtful mind, and here are some of my own thoughts.

By all accounts, Munqidh led an eventful life, strutting about Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt for almost the entire 12th century, fighting, hunting, partying and mixing it up with the Who’s Who of the Mediterranean world of his time. And that meant that he ran into his fair share of Europeans as well – soldiers and noblemen who had arrived with the First Crusade, and who had settled down in the so-called Crusader states.

The last few centuries of the first millennium of the Christian Era had been characterized by rapid Islamic expansion into many parts of the then-known world. The second half of the second millennium belonged to the Europeans, however, as they colonized the entire planet, and dominated all scientific, philosophical and cultural discourse. The Crusades, in a sense, marked the end of the Islamic phase and the beginning of the European phase of human history, and because the European period of dominance came later, they got to control the historical narrative, and it is typically their Orientalist perspective that we get to know from history books, when we read of the Crusades. We are familiar with the clash of civilizations, the lionhearted and red-bearded Europeans risking life and limb to ‘liberate’ Jerusalem from the grasping clutches of the inscrutable hordes of Mahomet. Even to this day, the Middle East continues to be riven by religion-fueled conflict, and a strong undercurrent of Islamophobia is a reality in many countries in our own age. It is a widely held if not openly stated theory that the crusades never really ended, that the civilizations are still clashing, that there is a certain historical inevitability about it.

Paul Cobb’s translation of Ibn Munqidh’s Qitab is alluringly subtitled ‘Islam and the Crusades’, and it was this promise of a whole new perspective that drew me to this book. I don’t believe it was ever ibn Munqidh’s intention to write about the Crusades – he was merely living his own life, and the Crusaders happened to be around a lot. The topic of the ‘Franks’ crops up often in his text, but he isn’t obsessed with them. He has other people to rattle sabres at (and sink sabres into, while at it)

The first thing to know about life in 12th century Arabia was that it was a very violent time. A quick enumeration of the battles that ibn Munqidh throws himself into with great gusto, include

“the combat between us and the Ismailis in Shayzar…the combat between the army of Hama and the army of Homs…the battle at Tikrit between the atabeg Zangi and Qaraja…between al-Mustarshid and the atabeg Zangi near Baghdad…the atabeg Zangi’s battle near Amid against the Artuqids and the lord of Amid…the Egyptians and al-Afdal Ridwan…between ibn al-Sallar and ibn Masal…”

Each of these battles featured red-blooded Muslims on either side, jostling for power and influence over the same real estate. While the Crusaders were an exotic curiosity, ibn Munqidh seems to treat them as just one more set of warlords to deal with. There is no fanatical hatred of the Christian religion or its adherents that I could discern in his words.

In fact, there are several references to tactical alliances and even friendship with the occasional Frank, in between the skirmishes. There is, for instance, a reference to a Seljuk campaign against a Frankish-Muslim coalition in 1115 – less than two decades after the first crusade. There is no indication that such an alliance was an isolated exception. At one point ibn Munqidh speaks of having visited the King of the Franks, Fulk the Younger of Anjou, at Acre, in the company of the amir Muin-al-din, and having been received well.

In fact, ibn Munquidh’s family had had many dealings with Christians. He mentions Yuwanis ibn al-Hasan ibn Abdun Ibn Butlan, a celebrated Baghdad born Christian physician and theologian, who worked with Usama’s grandfather in the late 1050s. He also speaks of a special relationship of friendship and letter-exchanging between his father and the Christian Armenian lords of al-Massisa, Tarsus, Adana and the Passes, a friendship so deep that every year they would send his father ten or more hawks.

Of course, while Christianity itself was not a foreign import (quite the opposite, really), European crusaders were still a bit of a novelty to ibn Munqidh and his people. He visited them in peace and fought them in battle, and he observed them closely everywhere. At times, he found their culture funny and less than honourable: their treatment of women, for instance. At times he found them ignorant (of his own traditions). And this is a source of great mystery to him, as well:

They have no sense of propriety or honour, yet they have immense courage! Yet what is courage but a product of great honour and a disdain for ill repute?

Somewhere buried in that grudging compliment, perhaps, lies the key to peace in the middle east. If only both sides would devote some contemplation to that point: if the courage of the other side is indisputable, there must be different definitions of honour and propriety at play, that are equally valid. And the only way to understand these other definitions is to spend time with the “other”, to soak oneself in the “other’s” culture. Ibn Munqidh observes that men who arrived recently from the Frankish lands are “rougher in character” than those who have become acclimated and have frequented the company of Muslims, What he possibly does not realize is that recent arrivals from Frankish lands would also find him rougher in character, than other Franks would, who were old First Crusade veterans.

I do not know what lessons of history ibn Munqidh wished to convey through the examples of his own life. But the one that I did take away was simply this: that familiarity breeds, if not friendship, then at least tolerance; it is difficult to live among a people and sustain a fanatical hatred of them for too long.

The Dummy’s Guide to Running an Empire

February 7, 2022 § Leave a comment

Kautilya – The Arthashastra, (translated by Rangarajan, LN)

Picture yourself as an author who could combine the intellect of a scholar, the austerity of a monk, the cynicism of a nihilist and the single-minded drive of a conqueror; assume you were as conversant with military strategy as Sun Tzu, as familiar with statecraft as Niccolo Machiavelli, and as much at home with political theory as Plato, and further, that you have chosen the setting of your book as 4th century BC India. Well, then you would end up writing the Arthashastra, the Science of Material Gain. And you would be a truly remarkable person.

The life of the man behind the Arthashastra, variously called Kautilya, Chanakya or Vishnugupta, is shrouded in mystery and legend. Most scholars identify him with the wily kingmaker who, according to Buddhist and Jain records, mentored, guided and bullied a young Chandragupta Maurya from village urchinhood to the throne of Magadha, and, as his prime minister, actively helped lay the foundations of a massive empire that stretched from Afghanistan to the Indian ocean, and stood intact for two centuries. Some are so bewildered by the encyclopedic breadth of Chanakya’s expertise that they argue that the book was possibly written by a series of authors who adopted the prime minister’s name as a nom de plume, and his reputed brand of realpolitik as an ideology.

Be that as it may, the book was a contemporary classic, referred to and quoted by countless others, but the original text itself vanished from circulation around 400 AD. Nearly sixteen centuries later, an unknown priest from the Thanjavur district in the southern tip of India dropped off a full manuscript in crumbling palm leaves, to a library in Mysore, where it gathered dust in a musty storage room along with other manuscripts, until the librarian, a Sanskrit scholar named Shamasastry, poking around and rummaging through the mess, stumbled upon it and identified it for what it was. The year was 1905.

The story of Chanakya’s life is very dramatic, and the story of the disappearance and rediscovery of the Arthashastra manuscript is pretty cool, too – but the book itself (at least this translation) is not written to be a page turner per se. The author does not concern himself with how the Mauryan empire was won, but how it was administered. Running a state includes the dreary and mundane, in addition to the exciting and racy, and Kautilya meant his magnum opus as a sort of playbook for ministers and kings who came after him. Statecraft was a serious business, covering everything from the correct way to maintain elephant stables, to the proper weights and measures for use by merchants, to foreign policy and alliances, to the various officials and dignitaries required for the state apparatus, and their responsibilities. It is hard to inject drama into such a narrative. But there is a strategy available for a lay 21st century reader who wishes to read the book, and it involves drama.

Picture yourself as an author again, but this time, a 21st century author who needs to do research to write a period thriller – a book, a movie, a Netflix series, a violent video game – set in India in the 4th century before the Christian Era. The Arthashastra is the ideal source book for you. Skip through the boring details, until you get to the juicy bits. Take, for instance, the covert operations involving spies, confidence men, false godmen and courtesans in the employ of the king (to bring him daily gossip about his own top officials, as well as about his foreign enemies), those in the employ of the officials (spying on each other!) and the double agents playing both sides. There is adequate description of the places that sell alcohol, allow gambling, or house prostitutes: these seamy businesses needed to be regulated as well, and taxed, and its purveyors protected from abuse – and their proprietors could be relied upon to pass on a quiet word to the government about foreigners and strange goings-on. Or take the lengthy discussion of how the state would investigate homicide in those days – for instance, how they would determine if a recently deceased individual had been poisoned or strangled. Or the various ideas for how a king should get rid of a treacherous baron who has been plotting against him, but who is too powerful to take on openly. Take the discussion of sexual mores and taboos: what heinous acts could get you branded with an image of a headless torso, and what to think of a man you meet on the street who has had his middle and index fingers lopped off, or a woman who’s missing a nose and both her ears. From palace intrigue to the local lush trying to pass off a dodgy coin at the gambling den, Kautilya has seen it all, and knows how to handle it.

The Arthashastra seems barbaric at times (all this hacking off of bits and bobs) to our refined 21st century sensibilities. Of course there is a profound patriarchal bias, as well as wanton discrimination against various classes and castes. The book was, obviously, written by a prototypical establishment figure: a Brahmin man, a powerful one at that, sitting at the very apex of a complex social structure and writing about how the rest of the 99% are to be treated. Yet by the time you end, you will understand the bitter old curmudgeon who has written the book, and who hates all mankind cordially, and whose entire political philosophy rests on the foundation of the unshakeable belief that left to themselves, every man, woman and child, would be an utter jerk, and it is only the fear of a heavy fine, or a few missing body parts, that stands between us and complete anarchy.

Some Mondays, I feel like that, too.

In All Fairness

January 30, 2022 § 2 Comments

The Idea of Justice (Sen, Amartya)

There is a moment that I believe must come at some point in every booklover’s life. It happened to me last year.

One fine day, as I surveyed my bookshelves, I did some quick calculations, and arrived at the utterly crushing conclusion that I own far too many books, or rather, that I am now far too old for the books I own; in still other words, that I own books that I will probably never get to read before I die; that I need to adopt a cold and brutal process of triage to ensure that I maximize the number of books I get to enjoy in my life.

It is an important moment: the first time a man becomes aware, in any meaningful way, of his own mortality And when he has digested the idea, the next logical question is, what is he to do about it?

In my case, I had to take into account, not just the sheer number of books I owned, but the fact that as I have grown older, it has steadily become tougher for me to focus attention on a book for too long: my eyes grow tired sooner, my brain starts thinking of a hundred other things, and I re-read the same lines over and over again. Gone are the days when I took so much pride in being able to plough through volumes of turgid prose and emerge unscathed at the end. No book daunted me once, however complicated and long it was: that was, perhaps, my only super-power.

Those of you who are young, know this: you must treasure everything you do effortlessly at the age of 25, because you will need to summon up all your strength to do them at fifty, and one day, your super powers will fail you altogether.

So, as part of my process of triage, I decided to cut out the two genres of non-fiction that I found myself struggling most to comprehend: economics and philosophy. The weeks and months I would have to squander on laborious attempts to finish those books were a luxury I could no longer afford, if I wished to read the rest of what I owned. Yes, I will probably end my life without having read Keynes or Kant, Schumpeter or Schopenhauer, Foucault or Friedman, Karl Marx or…well, Karl Marx. But so do most people on earth, and most of them don’t even care.

Yet I found myself starting the new year with Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice, a book of philosophy written by a Economics Nobel Laureate. Surely I should have struggled with it, or given it up completely?

But then Amartya Sen is one of my favorite authors. My older son’s middle name is Amartya for a reason. Sen’s opinions on politics, developmental economics, history, culture, identity, inequality and freedom have shaped my thinking for the last 20 years. We share a love for democratic free speech and open, inclusive societies.

The Idea of Justice is a typical Sen book: rich with liberal ideas, intellectual thought experiments, and anecdotes drawn from a bewildering array of subjects. I will not pretend I understood all of it, but I put it down to my own frailties as a reader, not his as a writer.

We all think we understand the concept of “justice”, but do we have a uniform understanding of the term? In a given situation, would we all arrive at a common conclusion about what a just outcome would be? Sen shows us that this is not the case, and that sometimes justice isn’t a framework for deciding between mutually exclusive alternatives as much as it is a process of debate and compromise between competing ideas.

And then I realized that this is so Amartya Sen. In his Identity and Violence, reviewed earlier in these pages, he had showed us we tend to unconsciously compartmentalize people, to define them mentally as members of a particular category – ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender- or sexuality-based, economic, cultural – without realizing that each person has many identities, and should have the freedom to decide which one they wished to inhabit at any given point in time, without one being forcibly thrust upon them by society.

Somewhat similarly, in this book, Sen is arguing for the plurality of ideas of justice, and a framework for allowing the different ideas of justice to resolve themselves through conversation and give-and-take.

And then you realize that, to compartmentalize this book, or Amartya Sen himself, into categories like “Economics” or “Philosophy”, would be a profound injustice. Where culture meets history meets economics meets philosophy, is the science of humanity, and that’s where they belong.

I may still never read all the books I want to, but I’m glad I got to read this one.

Meta Information

December 19, 2021 § 2 Comments

The Information – A History, A Theory, A Flood (Gleick, James)

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

TS Eliot

I’ve read some mediocre pop science books. I’ve spoken about several of them in these pages, and they are the reason I don’t read much pop science these days. But occasionally, I read one that is really good, and those few make up for all the rest. The really good ones take a single subject, and lay it threadbare for the uninitiated reader in simple terms, without either dumbing down the intricacies of the subject or being condescending to the readers, bringing out human historical drama, broad philosophical implications and scientific nuance in equal measure. I’m thinking about John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, that explained 20th century physics, or Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Way, that did the same for astrophysics, or Mitchel Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science At the Edge of Order and Chaos, or James Gleick’s own Chaos. The even better ones take a single thought and weave a magical narrative across time and space, drawing from various different disciplines – from the worlds of art, or philosophy – and demonstrating a resonance. Such books leave me with the satisfying, heady buzz of an evening spent in sparkling conversation with erudite, witty friends who share a passion with me but know so much more than I do. Here, I am talking about Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach for instance – or the book currently under review.

The title is somewhat cringeworthy, I must admit. “The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood” sounds breathless and ludicrous. Thankfully, the book itself is a tour de force of intellectual thought, sweeping across vast domains – psychology, computing, physics, electronics, logic, mathematics, genetics and business, literature – and yet managing to maintain a narrative that connects it all up.

In passing, he name-drops a bewildering number of intellectual giants: Millman Perry and his theory about scribal and oral cultures, TS Eliot, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, John Napier and his logarithm tables, James Clerk Maxwell and the second law of Thermodynamics, Samuel Morse and the telegraph, George Boole, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Godel (of course) and incompleteness, Alan Turing and computability, Claude Shannon and Information Theory, Charles Darwin and Evolution, Richard Dawkins and genes (and memes), quantum computing, Jorge Luis Borges and his strange self-referential tales, Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia…

The text is peppered with historical trivia, biographical detail and great science. And it ends really well too:

“The library will endure: it is the universe. …we walk the corridors, searching the shelves, rearranging them and looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of information.”

Like the library that he (and Borges) describe, James Gleick’s book is a vast mirror of the universe, with meaning, history, and the thoughts of all men, and mirrors, and information; just as they will endure, so too, I hope, will Gleick’s book.

  • Notes

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