Monday, July 24, 2017

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and The Battle for the West

Along with Mastering the West I also had the opportunity to purchase Persian Fire:  The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland (again, a used book store purchase!).  The title, as you might suspect, suggests a history of the Greco-Persian Wars.

I am no stranger to this time period.  I have a number of works on these time frame (the originals, of course, from Herodotus and Plutarch as well as 20th Century narratives) and am reasonably familiar with the time frame and the events.  I got the book, not expecting a great deal of additional new knowledge but rather a good read.

I did get the good read.  I also got a lot of new knowledge.

Holland actually reaches back into the history of each of the main players - Persia, Sparta, and Athens - and charts  the development of each state to their fateful meetings.  The Persian narrative was by far the most interesting, probably because it was the least known by myself and took the view of the Persian Empire as its own entity, not as the "barbarian over-reaching nation" we have left from Greek history.  For Athens, he gives a wonderful discussion of the history of Athens and its oligarchs up to the point of 507 B.C. where democracy is really and truly established for the first time - and shows it for the novelty that it was (democracy at the time of the Battle of Marathon was only 17 years old- no wonder the Athenians felt is was something worth fighting for).  Sparta is portrayed with all of its characteristics, both good and bad (so many authors seem to focus on one or the other).

But Holland's gift lies not just in the history but in his narrative.

He writes as if writing a fictional novel.  Seen from the King of Persia's view, the extension into Europe was the logical next step.  His descriptions of the battles left me on the edge of my seat - even thought I already knew the outcomes.  Will the Athenians hold true to the alliance/  Will Sparta march to Plataea?  You can hear the crash of shields at Marathon and the muffled "whump" of wicker shields breaking at Thermopylae and the snapping of oars and hulls at Artemisium and Salamis.

In the end, you walk away with the very real sense of what a miracle it was that the Greeks held the day - and thus the ideas that Western civilization came to be based on.  Without Marathon and Thermopylae and Salamis there is no Plato, no Aristotle, no Socrates, no Euclid, no Alexander of Macedon and his Hellenization that spread Greek and Greek culture across the Near East.  It would have been quite the other way around:  Persian thought, the worship of Ahura Mazda, and a legacy of of submission to autocratic authority (Would the ideas we hold as the foundation of Western culture have arisen?  Possibly, but who knows where or what they would have looked like.)

This is a book well worth your time, be it as a historical work or as a narrative work.  You will leave it with the sense of what a close-run thing history can be at times and how in a very real sense all of use - at least every part of the world that enjoys the fruits of Western thought - are indebted to a people long ago, whose ideas and ideologies we would find repugnant today, but who felt that liberty and freedom was something to be cherished and fought for.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Mastering The West: Rome and Carthage At War

So as part of my trip reading I got to read a book I had earmarked some weeks ago at my local used book store (and when I bought it, got 40% off!).    It is called Mastering The West:  Rome and Carthage At War  by Dexter Hoyos.

This was a period that I was only slightly familiar with:  yes, of course I have heard of the Punic Wars and I have read Livy and Polybius and Hannibal has passed into legend - but it was the actual histories themselves and not the larger picture of the Western Mediterranean at War

I was quite pleasantly surprised.

Hoyos' underlying thesis is that the Punic wars are what pushed Rome into its Empire; more interestingly, that it happened over the course of the wars (Rome was not seemingly at all interested after the first Punic War (264 - 241 B.C., but by the end of the Second Punic War - 218 to 201 B.C. - she was committed), and that in some ways the issue never seemed in doubt - not so much from the greatness of Rome at the time but rather the ineptness of Carthage and her commanders.  In short, Carthage had the ability at several junctures to bring defeat out of victory and become the Empire of the West but failed to take the chance.

All the old characters are here in greater detail that I have ever read of them:  Scipio Africanus and his uncles the two Scipios,  Quintas Fabius Maximus "The Delayer", Hannibal (who turns out to be a good general that through away multiple chances for real victory) and his brothers Mago and Hasdrubal, and a host of supporting characters Carthaginian, Sicilian, Celtiberian, Greek, and Roman.  And they are presented in the historical milieu that makes it all the more real (Hoyos is an excellent writer).  In his words we wander across Sicily, march our way up through what is now Spain and France and down into the Alps, and hear the crack of ships timbers as they break and the cries of soldiers.  

For anyone looking to understand the bridge between Rome's conquest of Italy and the drive to conquer the world, I highly recommend the book: well written, well documented, and extremely engaging.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

On A Burden

I am worn in this matter,
more than I can admit.
Constantly struggling- and mostly failing.

I wish I could say I was getting better,
that there was progress being made,
that "it" was decreasing - but it is not.

I asked for deliverance but it has not come:
only the long burning ache of my bones
and pain in my heart as I plod on.

Perhaps there is relief,
or perhaps only the pain of the struggle,
until the Final removal comes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Visit With Uber

As part of our trip, we have used Uber three times:  once from the airport to the hotel and twice from the hotel to a local shopping area.  It is my first trip using Uber.

Without question, I will never use a taxi again wherever I am somewhere that Uber is an option.

1)  Pleasant Cars:  Every Uber car we have used has been clean and well taken care of.  No older model cars.  No nasty seats.  No random odors floating about.  No plastic wall between you and the driver, making you feel as if you are in a squad car.

2) The price is fixed:  We have not had to wonder how much the fare was going to be or how it would be influenced by time in traffic or a driver getting lost.  Up front, we have known exactly what we were going to pay.

3) No car transaction: I gather once you have the app and the payment card input, it is all handled electronically.  No waiting to run the car.  No having to make change.  Good heavens, you do not even discuss the transaction at all.  And certainly no "surprise" discussions about having to boost the price because of cash, distance, etc. (this happened to me in Miami once).

4)  Pleasant Drivers:  I am sure that this is not always the case, but we have had very good luck to date with our drivers.  Some are conversational, others are less so, but all of them have been several levels above most of my cab interactions - and , because the price if fixed, I never have to worry if they are taking me in the quickest way possible (honestly, they lose money if they take longer than they anticipated).

It would not have worked before - but the combination of satellite GPS, electronic funds, and cell phones and made the whole thing work smoothly and like clockwork.  I do not know that cabs will completely ever disappear, but I suspect their dominance as short term transportation will rapidly dwindle.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Brief Out And About

Greetings, friends, from the land of oranges and Mickey Mouse (otherwise known as Orlando, FL).

What, you are thinking:  Have you lost your mind?  Two vacations in one summer after not taking two in a row one summer after the next?

Worry not, friends.  This is none of my doing.  Blame the Ravishing Mrs. TB, whose work is having her attend a conference - and they let spouses come along!  No Mickey for us (at $140 a day) but time away from all and with a great many of her work associates. So it is close enough to work related to keep my single summer vacation record untouched.

I am looking forward to two days being somewhere that (literally) I have no responsibilities at all.

Friday, July 14, 2017


Tonight was tameshigiri (test cutting).

We cut saturated tatami mats, rolled up into cylinders we call wara.  They are placed on a stand addressed as "bokusensei"  (literally "wooden teacher).  The object is then to cut the mat.

But not just to cut through the mat.   No, the point is to see how one's cuts are performing.  Force and strength is not enough in and of themselves to consistently cut well.  The hasuji (cutting angle) is critical:  the correct means an successful cut (and most likely cutting all the way through), an incorrect angle - too flat or too pronounced - means the sword will most likely be caught in the grain of the mat and not cut through.  And it is not enough just to cut through - one must execute the cut one intended to, not just the cut one may have ended up with.

Tameshigiri is one of the few teaching tools that is instantly instructional.  The results of the cut are available as soon as you finish.  Any flaws in the cut - a bad angle, failure to cut through the target instead of to the target - are instantly revealed and available for correction.  It is the most instant form of instruction and self correction I know.

The items you see above is the result of my first cut - a kesagiri (shoulder to hip).  The angle looks reasonably acceptable.  It did get through - but you would be surprised at the relatively small amount of strength I had to exert.  I had to make an effort - but could never just through with brute strength

Frankly, I wish life was more like tameshigiri:  instant feedback for instant correction.