Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel

English is currently the lingua franca of the world, used as a common language of communication. How did it get to be that way, and why English? And will it be "different" than previous lingua-francas?

Through history, there have been a number of languages used as lingua-francas. Some have been the language of imperial rulers. Others have been trade languages. Occasionally a dominating people uses a different language as the common one for communication (such as the Turks using Persian.)

There is also a difference between a second language used for communication and a native language learned at home. Second languages tend to be more stable, while first languages are subject to frequent innovation. Latin gave rise to the many Romance languages in relatively recent history. Even more recently, we have documentation of the rapid diversification of native American "common" languages under the Spanish regimes.

There are a number of reasons why languages become lingua francas, and a number of reasons why they fall. Sometimes policy causes them to fall away. Other times, they simply fall away due to lack of interest. Would English be able to maintain its global status without the similar status of the United States? Some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, have huge numbers of speakers, but very little use outside of their native populations. (I've known Chinese or Indian people that communicate in English as their "common language".)

The book starts out fast, though in the middle it gets a little bogged down in technical details. (Some lingua-francas in central Asia still escape me.) At then end, it breaks in to modern technology and machine translation. He argues that advanced automated translation will allow everybody to communicate in their own language, thus eliminating the need for lingua francas. However, he also mentions the example of a European Union study on machine translation where the romance-language speakers had radical different feelings of the success than the non-Romance speakers? Why? Because a single word had a different connotation when translated from the French to English. If this can be the case, how can we expect people to communicate in their own, different languages?

Rethinking Our Past

History is colored by the time it is written. "Myths" about historical events can sometimes become more ingrained than the actual events themselves. Is it better to try to be 100% accurate in the depiction of history, or to acknowledge that it is colored by the time period when it was written?

The lecturer here argues that facts are of tantamount importance. His background is in "minority" history, and thus he spends most of the time showing how "minorities" get the shaft under the common historical myths. However, he does make an attempt to be fair, criticizing others who let the pendulum shift too far in the other direction. (Zinn and his "people's history" come to mind.)

These lectures do a fairly good job of presenting the rationale for many of the "myths" of American history. While, he often devolves to declaring "euro-centralism" as the core factor, he does a good job of presenting the more direct reasons for the myths to appear. (He mentions the Columbus "flat earth" expectations as coming from Washington Irving, and the primacy of the Pilgrims coming after the Civil War time frame.) Even with these, the primacy of the sources could be questioned. (The origins of Chicago as the "windy city" come to mind. Common thought says it has to do with the wind. More educated people say it has to do with New York newspapers talking about the city's propensity to boisterism. However, more digging turns up meteorological usage before the New Yorkers. Which one is right? Does it really matter? Was one just playing off the other?)

The story of prehistory starts with the arrival of people in America. The story of the land bridge dominates history books. However, boat could also have been likely, however, it would not have left significant artifacts. Scientists objecting to alien and boat stories may have gone overboard in dismissing all maritime influence. The lack of a wheel in early American cultures may have been due more to their situation - in hilly terrains without draft animals, a wheel was not very useful. (Now if they could just see cyclists in San Francisco...)

His discussion of the domination of the European settlers over the Native Americans tended to delve a little more to the "they were here first" side. An Indian tribe that was left with just a couple members left in 1492 is obviously in much better condition than one that was wiped out a few decades earlier. However, we don't know much about the earlier ones. However, his primary concern is with the interaction. By coming back on a second voyage, Columbus initiated the Euro-American relationship that we have today. He does not declare it "good" or "evil", but simply something that happened. He also is good about not assigning "blame" to past events. After all, those today did not do things in the past - though they often try to color the past in their manner. His "remedies" tend to be simple - changing a marker to "he visited this area" instead of "he discovered this area".

The key message from the lectures is that "history" is the narrative of past events seen by the person writing it. We may be learning about the Revolutionary War as understood by those living during the 1930s, not those living during the actual war. While Loewen sees the "coloring" of the distant past by the more recent past as an "evil lie" to be uncovered, I see it as just another part of history to be studied. Without experiencing the entire time period leading up to historical events, it is impossible to get a true experience of the history. While we can strive for more details of the events, we may forget that "false" understandings of history are what other people grew up with. A true "accurate" revision of past events may increase our understanding of the distance past, but at the expense of the more recent past.

The second half of these lectures delves more in the "nadir of race relations". He argues that racial history has been especially colored by confederate sympathizers, starting in 1890. He spends time arguing for a more "multicultural" analysis of historical events. In other words, he argues we should view history through the lens of contemporary values - precisely what he was criticizing others from doing in the past.

Epochs of European Civilization 2: Reformation to the 21st Century

The Modern Scholar: Epochs of European Civilization (set 7 cds,plus paperback book)
These lectures provide a rapid summary of the last few centuries of European history. With the large amount of material in a short space, there is obviously not time for in depth coverage of particular people and events. However, the large time frame does have the advantage of being able to provide context and historical explanations for significant events.

The course starts with the protestant reformation. This grew in part out of the Roman church's over-extension. As the church made the savings of souls more complex (and financially lucrative), others sought a return to a more "basic" religion. This in turn lead to the reformation both outside of the Church (Luther, Calvin, etc.) and within the church itself. In addition to the church, people such as Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, started taking an external look at society itself, starting with The Persian Letters.

The Enlightenment also grew out of this new found rational look at society. Part of the impetus for the enlightenment was political. Warfare became more expensive and dependent on more professional soldiers. As the hiring of mercenaries became more expensive, leaders found it more beneficial to raise and support standing armies from within. This required providing more for them - a sense of patriotism or shared belief was critical as was general care for the subjects.

As science and thinking rose in Europe, nationalism also went on the rise. The nation-state became the ideal. However, people were not aligned in a way to make these easy, with many "common" people spread across different geographic areas. The rise of German nationalism, in particular lead to the first World War. And the poor conditions (and reparations) afterward lead to the second and the Nazis. The Jews were often seen as a scapegoat - in part because of their success and dominant position. (Wagner was reported to have created his music to show the triumph of the "emotional" German over the strict orderliness [seen by many as Jewish economics] - this seems somewhat ironic as Germans themselves now have the reputation as rule-following money-makers).

The rise of socialism is seen as an experiment that didn't succeed. Few reasons are directly spelled out for the failure. However, it is acknowledged that the Russian experiment alienated many other European socialists.

Modern Europe continues to grow and have its own new challenges. The meta-state of the European Union is a large bureaucracy without an obvious leader. Often policies fall far short of their grand goals. And when they succeed (such as food policy) they can often benefit Europe as a whole at the expense of the world. [Hmm, isn't that what should happen?] Europe also suffers from projecting a few from their experiences on to the world. They assume a state must fully secularize to become part of the "club". (However, America shows an opposite approach where strong religious faith remains - protected by yet separated from the state.)

This contained a nice introduction to European history. The emphasis is on the key events, with just a few well-thought out explanations. While there are occasional bits of detail, these are mostly on "key" events that help illuminate the rapid-fire story.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations

The Teaching Company: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations 18 Audio Cds with Course Outline Booklet (The Great Courses)
The lectures started out with a pronouncement of the superiority of modern archeological science, given in a British Elmer Fudd voice. Luckily, though there is a bit of cockiness, the lectures were fairly well done.

The first part deals primarily with the early prehistory that is "divined" from archeological data, augmented with dating and biochemical methods. Alas, the data is rather scarce, and the conclusions are, by nature, inconclusive. Our observations are based on the "hard" items that have survived. We can come to fairly broad conclusions of a migration out of Africa. However, there is plenty of controversy, with many theories being overhauled after new finds.

The population of America is particularly mysterious. Some people theorize a maritime population along the coasts. However, since the sea levels have risen significantly since the suspected period, these sights would be almost impossible to locate (and unlike to have much preserved.) The interior migration is more commonly accepted. However, this would involve migrating among glaciers.

Study of prehistory invariable involves making suppositions about motives based on simple remains. This brings the discoverer's view front and center. The views of the past are heavily colored by current world views and attitudes. They are also influenced by the type of artifacts that can survive. (If somebody dug up remains from our society 30,000 from now, they could find all the books and advanced technology biodegraded or pilfered and only uncover a few royal toys. What would they think of the society?)

Ancient Empires before Alexander

It starts with the fall of Egypt, covers the Minoans, then goes on to Myceneans.
The Mycenians collapsed around the same time as many other empires. The "sea peoples" were part of the reason for the collapse of these empires. However, he postulates that excess "testosterone" in the age of heroes was also a big reason for the fall. They later ended up as "Philistines" - thus Goliath would have been the descendant of a veteran of Troy.

The knowledge and sources for different areas tend to very significantly. Some areas discussed, such as Israel, or based almost entirely on biblical accounts. Other areas (such as the Minoan civilization) are based almost entirely on archeology. The lecturer, however, does a good job of presenting a narrative, tieing together the available sources in to a coherent narrative. He does occasionally mention the source of the information. At times, however, I found myself wishing for more accurate details.

In this section, the Assyrians get most of the coverage for the millennium-long empire. He has some sympathy for the alleged brutality of the Assyrians (they were after all punishing disobedience to the gods, and were fair in the way they handed out penalties.) However, he also gives the brutality as one of the reasons for the eventual fall of the empire. After Assyria over-extended itself, the Babylonians were all too eager to give them everything they thought they deserved.

While the delivery often sounds as if it is poorly read from a script, the content is quite interesting and well organized.

Between the Rivers: History of Ancient Mesopotamia Part 2

The history of ancient Mesopotamia is really old. Thus, we don't have many contemporary records as we do for more modern history. This can make the study of the area more of an enumeration of facts than a pure narrative. However, there have been plenty of tablets found shedding some light on to the culture (including some poetry.)

Both the delivery and content of these lectures leave much to be desired. The delivery comes across as a recitation with very little emotion. The content focuses on presenting facts. There are sections on food, laws and science, as well as kings and empires. Even areas that lend themselves to narrative (such as the rise and fall of kings), end up as dry collection of facts. It is also easy to lose track of the timing of events (in spite of the vast time period covered.) And of that were not enough, the lecturer has an obsession with the role of women in the ancient society, and brings up every minute detail that she can find. (Even while admitting that it is likely not an accurate picture of the general role of women in society.)

Some interesting bits from the lectures were concerning medicine and lending. There was a fairly established "savings and lone" mechanism in ancient Babylon. The medical profession also appeared to be well established, though with fairly severe malpractice penalties.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Bible as the Root of Western Literature

The Modern Scholar: The Bible as the Root of Western Literature - Stories, Poems and Parables - 14 Lectures (Includes Course Guide)
The Bible has figured prominently in our historical literature. This course focuses on the "literature" of the Bible and some of its influences on modern English-language literary work. It focuses on the historical factors and literary traditions that were involved in the creation of the bible. The primary focus is on the more "literary" sections of the bible, rather than the "stories".

While he does briefly mention a few "modern" literary works that are tied to the biblical works, this seemed rather shallow. I would have loved to see more mention and connection with English literature in a course that is showing the "root" of a broad literature tradition.

Some sections, such as the lecture on Paul, however, did do a good job of providing the relationship to literature. Paul's epistles present the basis for the primacy of the "spirit of the law" over the "letter of the law", and many common literature "heroes".

This course could benefit from a little more time. While it spent a while zooming through the historical literary basis of the bible, there was a lot more that it could have done to help frame it as the influence of literature. There was little mention of the "stories" of the Bible and how they influenced literature. The themes and styles only made brief appearances, and only a small handful of "Bible-influenced" literature was mentioned. While it had good potential, the course didn't quite live up to it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Waking Dragon

The Modern Scholar: Waking Dragon: The Emerging Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the World
The Modern Scholar series condenses each "course" in to a series of 14 lectures on 7 CDs. In this case, that was way too much space. He endlessly repeats himself, and could easily fit the lectures in half the space. (The first and last lectures both summarize the contents, and in addition to repeating ideas and contents, there are occasional "editing flaws" where an entire phrase is repeated.)

Getting away from the technical problems, the content is of an alarmist anti-China bent. China currently engages in massive intellectual property violations in its quest to rapidly industrialize. Hmmm... Seems a lot like what the United States did back in its day. Many of the other problems detailed can also be seen in the voyage that the current superpowers took to become superpowers. The catch is that with the current benefits of modern technology, China can do this much more efficiently.

He does do a good job of fairly outlining how China is able to maintain the low "China price". Some of the Chinese advantages (such as industrial clustering) do provide obvious legitimate advantages, while others (such as counterfeiting) are obvious cheating. A lot of the counterfeiting takes place in part because so much manufacturing takes place in China. (In some cases, it is as simple as running an extra shift at the factory.)

He dedicates a chapter to the drug trade. This seems to really be reaching. China's culpability is that it manufactures most of the 'precursor' chemicals used in the production of the drugs. (Sassafras oil?) He does fairly dedicate time to detailing how much of the drug problem in China was "forced" on them by the British opium trade, and later through CIA efforts to finance anti-communist regimes.

The lecture on space is one of the more interesting ones. China has taken up the mantel of leadership in the space race. With the space shuttle challenges, many companies turned to China to launch their satellites. China was kind enough to analyze and reverse engineer their satellites before launching them in to space. China also has designs on mining materials from asteroids, and even terraforming Mars for human habitation. There, China could use its CO2 belching factories to its advantage, creating the greenhouse that is needed to create a human-friendly planet.

His analysis shows that China saves 1-2% by skimping on environmental controls, while costing itself closer to 10%. Of course, the catch is the savings are in the lucrative manufacturing sector, while the costs are primarily borne by humans, which are, for all practical purposes, expendable.

China still has a huge a amount of people, with the large masses able to employ continued downward pressure on wages. The retiree time bomb will soon go off. But, hey, they just may take some counterfeit drugs that make them disappear sooner.

While the professor has a very negative few of China's rise, it could be looked at from other ways. China has been a great power for much of the world history. Perhaps the European domination was just a brief interlude as China resumes its place. The current reckless abandon may be replaced by a more ordered system once China ascends to domination. Or perhaps the west needs to shape up, curtailing the excesses in the regulatory and intellectual property regime. (Why do some people still collect royalties from "Happy Birthday"?) The big concern is corruption. If it stays rampant, it will be tough for China to continue to rise. If it can be controlled, then China could really assume the "innovation" leadership. After all, China is still heavily dependent on western 'innovation' and 'consumption' to finance its economic growth. If the west turned off is spigot, China would quickly suffer.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

At first this seemed like a reminiscence of lost childhood innocence. Ho hum. But then it got interesting. The "weird taste" that the 9 year old was feeling was actually the "feelings" that went in to the preparation of the food. It becomes "chick lit with a sci-fi twist." She can identify every nuance that goes in to food. The produce was picked by struggling midwestern migrants. Or a cookie that was baked by an angry employee.

Because of her "insight", eating becomes a chore. She drifts towards heavily processed food as most of the feeling is hidden away. She also is attracted to a few food preparers with authentic feelings that she can trust.

Due to her ability to sense feelings in food, she is able to know a great deal about other people. She knows an especially great deal about her mother, since she often prepares the food at home. (One night she even tastes "affair" in the food that is prepared.)

This poses a cautionary tale. Is it good to have extra knowledge? Would it be better to limit the knowledge that you take in? What are the responsibilities when you know something that most others do not? The book seemed to open up all sorts of interesting ideas and plotlines. What is it like to grow up with a special ability? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a talent? How can a daughter seek to relate with her family, knowing things about them that they don't know? And then there was the childhood crush and relationship she had with her older brother's best friend.

Unfortunately, after going great at first, the novel just runs out of gas. It gets carried away with "explanations" (Her grandfather had a crazy sense of smell, her father thinks he has some special 'hospital' talent, and her brother can go into furniture.) She sort of grows up normal, has a pseudo-relationship with a boy she's known through grade school, never goes to college, sees her brother disappear for good, attends her brother's friend's wedding and yada yada yada, the novel ends. Oh well, it had some great potential.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Persian Expedition

This book is a couple of millenia old, yet it still has a contemporary feel to it. Part of this may be due to the wonders of translation. (Shakespeare would probably not sound so archaic if translated in to modern Chinese.) However, it may also be due in part to the nature of the story. It is not so much about the details of everyday life in ancient Greek, but instead about the actions and feelings of a large group of people making a journey.

The Greeks are side players in palace conflicts among Persian royalty. They find one of their allies losing and strive to maintain their cohesion and position in spite of it. We get some tales of unity - how the groups attempt to split up, but then find things were better if they stay together. We also see signs of leadership and devotion to a higher being. When the gods tell somebody he should not take sole command, he refuses to accept the mantel, in spite of pleading. However, he does his best to ensure that others will do what is best for the group. He also presents himself as a fair ruler, being quick to counter objections with the "other side of the story", and turn the show of discipline around to his benefit.

We also see the many challenges of leadership. Some people let love interests get in the way of good decisions. The choice of allies becomes a key concern, with difficult decisions needed. Then, when allies start to falter, the leader needs to chose weather to give them the stern talking to, or retribution.

The book was not at all the military adventure that I was expecting, thus it seemed to drag on for a while I was anticipating the action that never really came. Perhaps with different expectations I would have appreciated it more.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Caltrain cuts - less is more?

Caltrain has a Proposed schedule that would slash a number of trains and raise fares and parking costs.
With my current job, caltrain doesn't come in the picture (I usually bike, though I have walked, and plan on one day starting to jog there - at least after I find a good place to shower.)

However, in my previous position, I took the train on a semi-regular basis. However, the schedule had something to be desired. During rush hour, there were three trains per hour. Unfortunately, they were all in the first 20 minutes of the hour. The "cutback" plan increases the trains to 4 per hour, with the longest gap being about 19 minutes. They do make a couple more stops, but all the trains skip at least one station, making the time to Palo Alto 15 minutes on each train.

Since I usually had child responsibilities, the AM "commute" trains were rarely an option anyway. However, with the new schedule, the 8:44 and 8:55 trains would be distinct possibilities - with both skipping a stop (and thus arriving faster.) Those are followed by a couple all-stop trains every half hour (which were my normal trains.) Those were moved ten minutes earlier - meaning with a bike I could get to work earlier. By the bus, however, they now leave a couple minutes before the bus arrives. D'oh!

PM trains also look good, with 4 trains per hour, fairly evenly spaced.

For bus service, there are AM rush hour trains that leave 9 minutes after the 54 bus arrives. This is a fairly reasonable gap to allow catching the train without fear, while not having an excessive wait. For PM trains, there is a train that arrives 7 minutes before each bus leaves. Again, great timing. (The off peak trains, alas are timed almost perfectly to miss the buses.)

Weekend trains also see a big improvement, with the shuttering of many of the train stations. The last time we took a weekend trains, it took forever, with the train stopping at stations like Atherton for perhaps one passenger. (Though the person I saw walking away was with a dog, so he may have just been crossing the tracks.) The shuttering of some of the weekend stations will make the trips much faster and more reasonable.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Classical Mythology: The Greeks

Classical Mythology: The Greeks (The Modern Scholar)

Peter Meineck is accomplished dramatist, and thus gives a "theater" focus to Greek Mythology. He puts a very modern spin on the Greeks, and starts with a definition of "myths" and various reasons for the creation of the Greek myths. He also explains why the Greeks are different from other cultures.

The approach was very "artsy", with strong attempts to make the mythology relevant to us and to the Greek history. Unfortunately, it seemed to spend a lot of time analyzing artistic relevance, and not enough time discussing the myths themselves and their role in Greek society. (Yes, most of the time was spent discussing just that, but it didn't seem that way.) There are plenty of other better discussions of Greek Mythology out there.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Flow posits a theory of "optimal experience". If we spend time enjoying what we are doing, we can enter "flow". During flow, time moves at variable speed. Sometimes making short events seem to take a long time (as in a difficult dancing maneuver) Other times, a long period of time can seem to fly by as we are deeply involved in the process.

This is part of the enjoyment we get from life. The author distinguishes enjoyment from "pleasure". Enjoyment is a more lasting happiness, while pleasure is fleeting. We can achieve the more enjoyment when we "remove" ourselves from our internal focus and put a greater focus on others. People can have enjoyment in life regardless of their material well being. (And at times, adversity can even be the impetus that leads to the greater happiness.)

Many of the principles outlined in the book are similar to standard Christian teachings, explained in scientific terms.

I initial was referred to this book by some of Malcolm Gladwell's essays. Unfortunately, Gladwell already covered many of the key points in the book, leaving
very little "new" insights that I had not yet read. The book is still good. It is also interesting to read about the research methods, such as using pagers and diaries to get around "recall" bias of studies.

The Gluten Effect

It is important to look for the true "source" of medical problems rather than simply treat the symptoms. However, a book simply saying that would not sell very well. So, the authors focus on gluten. They provide a very well done biological background of how gluten can cause impacts throughout the body. Then, the next 80% of the book identifies just about every possible symptom of gluten sensitivity. While the language is couched in reluctant probability, the reader will still come out thinking they must be gluten sensitive.

One of the authors has spoken a few times at our office. Her public lectures are much more balanced than the content of the book. In these she brought up many of the key points (such as seeking the root cause), but didn't go overboard in trying to tie every ailment under the sun to gluten. (She hardly mentioned gluten in the lectures.)

To be fair, some of the 'symptoms' attributed to gluten are even said to impact only a very small percentage of the population. However, the amount of space devoted to these ailments makes it seem much more significant. (Its like a car add where they show all these "bad" things that the car can do, while having a small disclaimer run across the screen.) Luckily, the book also has bold headings for every paragraph, making it simple to skim through the lame parts.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


Traffic provides an interesting synthesis of a wide variety of research on "traffic". There are a number of great insights in the book. The key takeaway, however, is that "traffic" is a "social activity", though it is often treated as an engineering problem. If automobiles are made more safe, people will probably just use the safety to kill others instead of themselves. If traffic is made to move faster, people will often use the speed premium to drive further. (People could never have commuted 200 miles a day on foot. However, with cars, some people now do it.)

Traffic problems also date back to ancient times, with Rome suffering from traffic chariot congestion a few millennia ago. (They eventually outlawed daytime traffic, making it difficult for Romans to sleep at night - due to all the nighttime traffic.) One of the issues with traffic today, especially in America, is that it focuses almost exclusively on automobile traffic (with pedestrians viewed as "impediments"). This focus leads to most trips being taken in automobile, which ends up leading to congestion and slower travel times. Even in places like Manhattan where the overwhelming majority of trips are on foot, the majority of the traffic space and resources are devoted to automobiles - with even the signals timed to benefit cars instead of pedestrians.

There is also an interesting comparison of traffic fatalities across nations. Wealthier, more established nations tend to have lower fatality rates. However, this tends to be more a result of the nations being less corrupt. A more corrupt wealthy nation will tend to have a much higher rate than a less corrupt one. Perhaps it is the decrease in corruption associated with wealth that really leads to the lower fatality rate.

The traffic culture also causes some interesting behavior. Drivers in the US will often speed down a road, but stop at a red light - even if no cars are anywhere in sight. Both activities are illegal, but when is considered acceptable, while the other is not. Perception also plays in to the peculiar sentiments and activities. People perceive SUVs as being safer. Yet, SUVs are statistically more dangerous. Is it the personal control that causes this? And while people are willing to take away personal liberties to fight the minor threat of terrorism, they are not willing to do so to fight the much larger threat of automobile crashes.

The author also does a good job of picking apart statistics and our view of them. There are plenty of well sighted studies that come to conclusions after aggregating accident data. However, looking at the data from a different perspective can produce the opposite results. For example, safety data seems to say that a wide road with large buffer zone between the road and buildings is safer. Yet analysis of individual roads shows the narrower sections with buildings nearer to the road have fewer crashes - even though both carry similar traffic volumes. It seems that people often consume the added safety. Perhaps the Dutch idea of integrating roads with human space and stripping away signs really is the way to go.

This book is one of the most objective views of the "traffic" issue. It picks apart at much of the "received" wisdom, yet doesn't attempt to force a specific solution on it. After all, most people would love for everyone else to take transit. They want their street to be a quiet tree-lined road, while the free-flowing super expressway sits just out of earshot.

Wars the Made the Western World

Wars that Made the Western World: The Persian Wars, The Peloponnesian War, and the Punic Wars
The Greeks got a lucky and beat the Persians once. This gave them the confidence to continue to beat the Persians in the remainder of the Persian wars. The end of the Persian threat, alas, got too much to the heads of the Athenians, leading them to set up their own empire. From this, they decided to take on the Spartans and nearly won. But democracy roiled its ugly head, leading them to attack their commander, who defected to Sparta. The Spartans ended up coming back before the Athenians got back the commander and almost won before doing something else stupid and losing the war.

The professor turns this in to a tale of democracy gone amok. It was probably good for the world that Athens lost, thus allowing for some great philosophizing. It is also interesting that this war was well covered by contemporary historians and political scientists. Perhaps other similar wars had happened in the past that we just don't know as much about.

The Punic wars shift to a different area of the globe. The Greeks have been relegated to bit players in the bitter battle between the Romans and Carthagenians. Initially Rome uses great innovation to duplicate the ships of Carthage and build its own naval power. (So the US cloning of British technology and the Chinese cloning of everyone else has plenty of historical antecedents.) Then they nearly beat Carthage before Hannibal completes his brave trek with the elephants across the mountains to nearly sack Rome. But he doesn't quite make it before the Romans go on the offensive and beat Carthage, extracting 50 years of tribute before they finally decide to wipe it out once and for all. In this war it is much harder to see the good guys vs. bad guys.

In the end, the Romans won and created a vast Mediterranean empire. They adopted many features of the Greek culture which they found beneficial. That in turn gave us the basis of the western civilization that we have today. The society is willing to question many of its basic tenants and structures, yet still have an underlying structure of law. How would it have been different if these wars had gone differently? Perhaps not much. After all, democracy lost the middle war. Without the loss, there may have been violent Ahtens/Rome wars with both cultures going by the wayside.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

This book gained plenty of notoriety when an excerpt was published in the Wall Street Journal. This excerpt seemed to make its way around every parenting community, often with signs of disgust with a parenting style that seemed to border on child abuse. The book, however, is much more balanced than the excerpt would have you believe.

The author is second generation Chinese. She was raised in America in a very Chinese style by her Chinese immigrant parents. She noted that first generation immigrants tend to struggle to obtain success that their children can build upon. Their children, however, tend to slack off, leaving the third generation not achieving as much as their ancestors. She is determined not to let that happen to her children. Thus, she chooses to raise them in a very strict Chinese fashion.

She lives in an area with a small Chinese population. She is also married to a non-Chinese Jew. Thus, she tends to overcompensate in the strictness of her Chinese parenting. She demands hours per day of studying and practicing musical instruments. She demands success in everything, even down to the quality of the birthday cards that her children make for their parents. Social activities for the children are seriously limited so that they can focus on their achievements. She pushes them to great heights, and doesn't accept "no" or "I don't want to" as an answer. Her first daughter thrives in this regime. Her second daughter, however, gives her trouble.

While her second daughter ends up following most of the prescribed routines, she does so somewhat reluctantly. Eventually, while on vacation in Russia, she violently rebels. (Good thing this wasn't Nebraska or child services would have been called in.) The author relents and lets the daughter stop devoting so much time to violin. The daughter takes up tennis, and excels there. She credits the strong drive and worth ethic that her mother instilled.

One key insight she has is that tasks become "fun" only after you have devoted enough time to become good at it. Parents that let children give up too soon deprive them of the chance to get good enough to enjoy the activity.

I wonder how different the book would have been if the author had lived in Cupertino instead of New Haven. In Cupertino, Chinese-style parenting is the norm, while "western-style" parenting is the oddity. Would she have tried to out-Chinese the Chinese parents? Or would the greater community enabled her to become more complacent (or even more "western") in her parenting style. Perhaps we can have a follow up of somebody raising a child the "western way" in Cupertino.