Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pursuit of Power II: Christine Meets a New Guy

Despite my best intentions, I abandoned McNeill’s “Pursuit of Power” after the first chapter and spent two evenings watching TV instead.

But Monday night, which offered a choice between reruns of "Hell's Kitchen," "Project Runway" and "Wife Swap," drove me back to reading. So I gave Chapter Two a try.

McNeill was yakking about the years 1000-1500, when Chinese advancements in industry and armaments anticipated European achievements by several centuries.

So why didn’t a Chinese Columbus discover America? China had the iron and the coal industries and the powerful sailing ships. They had paper money and crossbows and guns and gunpowder and Confucious knew what else.

The book’s answer was that to exploit such advancements, a society had to support lots of merchants and manufacturers. But China didn't want to do this. Their society had different values. Chinese merchants and manufacturers couldn't flourish. Instead of passing their crafts to their sons, merchants and manufacturers put their limited profits into education and land for their boys. The Chinese government controlled everything through Confucianism, and Confucianism didn't like the marketplace.

Europe could have gone the same way in those years, McNeill said. Christianity didn't think much of the marketplace either. If the Popes Innocent III and Boniface VIII had succeeded in uniting western Europe under a papal government (a true Holy Roman Empire), Europe might’ve been like China.

But the popes couldn't pull it off. Apparently God wanted Europeans to buy light artillery on a large scale. So Europe remained a puzzle of states and markets could flourish in the cracks, building increasingly powerful weapons. Gee, what a relief. Cuz the world really needed those cannons and muskets.

Meanwhile, back to Chapter Four. Military history books often remind me of small-town newspapers: the same people keep popping up again and again. If you’re studying the 12th century, you get Ghengis Khan; if you’re in the 1500s, you find Elizabeth of England and Philip of Spain.

Now McNeill was discussing the Thirty Year’s War in the 1600s, and the Swedish king Gustav Adolf promptly floated up like Banquo’s ghost. Oh, hi there, Gustav, how ya doing – still fighting the Battle of Breitenfeld? Go get ‘em, man.

But then a new guy marched onto page 126: Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, captain-general of Holland and Zeeland in the 1500s. How come nobody told me about this dude? I thought Zeeland was a boring town in west Michigan. (1)

Maurice was a drill sergeant – literally. Confronted by the Spaniards and their weird little tercios (2), he dreamed up the idea of systematic drilling to make his soldiers more efficient. He analyzed the complicated motions needed to load and fire a matchlock rifle and came up with the number 42. (3) He taught his soldiers to make each movement in unison, responding to a shouted command.

That’s where the guy on the cover of this book, the soldier in the red poofy pants, came in. Drillmasters used pictures showing each of the 42 motions, all displaying the same funny guy: he fired his musket, took down the musket, uncocked the match, blew on the pan, charged the musket, etc. They’re lovely pictures, made from engravings, although stick figures probably would have done just as well.

But Maurice did more than hand out pictures. He introduced regular marching and smaller tactical units and made his guys dig entrenchments with spades.

“Powess and physical courage all but disappeared under an ironclad routine,” McNeill said. “The old heroic patterns of military behavior withered and died.”


(1) The real Zeeland is a province in the Netherlands. Dutch settlers brought the names to Michigan, so now we have the thrilling locales of Holland and Zeeland, 5 miles apart on the highway to Grand Rapids. Yippee.

(2) The tercios were a formidable force in the 1500s: a crowd of pikemen (guys carrying long wooden poles) protecting a fringe of musketeers posted around a central square of more pikemen. The Spaniards loved their tercios and insisted on sending them out long after their usefulness had ended.

(3) The answer to life, the universe and Everything.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pursuit of Power I: Deadly Germs in Poofy Pants

"The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since A.D. 1000" by William H. listing

I’ll admit, I picked up my library copy of William H. McNeill’s “Pursuit of Power” with some trepidation. The book was yellowed and waterstained and the cover showed some weird guy in a teeny feathered hat and poofy red pants.

As usual, I skipped the preface. I can’t stand prefaces, where an author describes the epiphany that led to the book (“… and so I wondered, why hasn’t a thorough discussion of nickel-iron octahedrites been attempted?”). Then the author spends two pages thanking everyone but their dry cleaner. (“… To my Uncle Mervin, who offered many helpful suggestions when he wasn’t drunk.”)

So I turned to chapter one: “Arms and Society of Antiquity.”

And stopped dead.

I didn’t understand a word of it. What’s all this about the “industrialization of war”? Why is he talking about bronze? Who cares where tin was mined? This is ridiculous, I thought, I could be watching “America’s Got Talent.”

I sighed. Perhaps I should read the preface after all. It was only two pages, not counting the acknowledgements (“Thank you Hugh, for piloting me through the intricacies of Chinese historiography.”)

Thank heavens I read it. This book had a point, and McNeill wasn’t afraid to clearly lay it out in the preface. He’d published a book a few years before called “Plagues and Peoples,” dealing with the interactions between people and microparasites. A creepy topic really. I dislike reading plague books, which leave me twitchy and prone to examining my tongue in the mirror.

In “Plagues and Peoples,” McNeill addressed the abrupt changes that occur in organisms due to a mutation or a change in environment, changes that briefly allow them to escape previous limits. The most important microparasites affecting people were disease germs, so he wrote about those.

In “Pursuit of Power,” McNeill turned his attention to macroparasites. The most important macroparasites affecting people were other people, violent conquerors who snatched all the good food, shelter and pretty girls without contributing anything.

Therefore, macroparasitism among people turns into a study of the armed forces, with special attention to war equipment. Changes in armaments resemble the genetic mutations of microorganisms; they break down old limits or explore new geography.

To take this analogy further (and McNeill stretched it to the limit), well-equipped and organized armies meeting a more backward society act like deadly germs attacking a patient. The advanced guy almost always wins.

And where does this leave us? In real trouble, according to McNeill. As war became more advanced, increasingly dependent on industrial might, muscles and courage became less important. But our “ancient, inherited psychic aptitudes” remain the same. We still want to beat our breastplates and rattle our spears, but now our spears are rockets and nuclear missiles.

Now, isn’t that just jolly. Aren’t you glad I read the preface? Well, it had to be done. I returned to that first paragraph in chapter one, “Arms and Society in Antiquity,” and it made a little better sense now. A little.

“The industrialization of war is almost as old as civilization,” McNeill said. Privileged fighting men used bronze weapons and armor made by specialists. This wasn’t really industrialization, though, because it was so small-scale. It took a ton of painstaking work to make a warrior’s full panopoly and the stuff lasted forever.

But things change. McNeill says. “One can detect in the historic record a series of important changes in weapons systems resulting from sporadic technical discoveries and inventions that sufficed to change preexisting conditions of warfare and army organization.”

In other words, as germs mutated to cause ever more dangerous diseases, new weapons were invented to cause more destructive wars. In both cases, the old limits no longer held, and wholesale craziness broke out for a while until an equilibrium was established.

And what were these changes? The first was our old buddy bronze, not because it made pretty armor, but because it led to improved designs for war chariots. The new designs meant lots of guys could have chariots now, not just the rich ones. Whole armies could roll around the battlefield, shooting arrows. That meant populations with lots of horses could kick some serious butt.

The next change was iron, which meant every guy could get his own armor and wreak a little havoc. Then came what McNeill called “the cavalry revolution.” Guys learned to ride and shoot their bows at the same time. The steppe nomads loved this, and the next thing you knew, you had Genghis Khan in your backyard.

For the last big change in antiquity, we can thank the Iranians, who bred bigger horses, horses big enough to carry a guy in full metal armor. Armored horsemen cared less about arrows and could wave their maces and swords around. With that discovery, the age of antiquity was over and we could get into all that fun medieval stuff.

By the end of chapter one, I was OK with the book. McNeill’s writing was a little involved (I mean, look at the quote about weapons, and that was one of the simpler sentences). But he had a nice, organized mind and could reduce an insanely complicated topic into something I could wrap my head around. I was prepared to read on. Maybe I’d learn something about the weird guy in the red poofy pants.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Christine's Military History Seminar Returns!

After a brief hiatus (ahem, nine months), I proudly announce the return of my own personal, private, slightly flaky military history seminar.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall how last fall's horrifying TV season drove me away from the tube and into the library. I've always been interested in military history, so I turned to the nice folks at Ohio State University. The history department posted a preliminary reading list on its web site. These folks are really hard-core; they actually consider a 100-book list comprised of six sections with authors like Clausewitz, Caesar and Thucydides a "preliminary list." I'd like to see the real list.

Here's the List

I began with Carl von Clausewitz's "On War," which nearly chased me from military history forever. Then I read Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." Clause was very impressive, Kennedy less so. I had great fun abusing Kennedy.

Read my blogs about Clause

Clause the Sequel

Kennedy: Rise and Fall of a Really Long Book

Next on the hit parade is "The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since A.D. 1000" by William H. McNeill. Gosh, reading the title alone makes me tired.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Long Live the Revolution!

Armed with basic media equipment and Internet access, the little people are fighting back!

Here is a poor schmuck just trying to cancel his AOL. His tragic story has now been featured in the New York Times and NBC's Today show.

Vinny Tries to Cancel AOL

And here is a clip called "A Comcast Technician is Sleeping on My Couch."


Let the masses rejoice!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

No-Benny Vacation, Part Two

Then the rains came.

They held off until afternoon, granting us a good morning at the beach. Ron splashed around in the chilly water while I lay on a towel and read "The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency." Hunger drove us back to the Harbor House Inn, where we changed before lunch.

I had only 40 minutes before my pedicure, so we scarfed hot dogs at a diner and watched the gray clouds darken through the plate-glass windows. Then I placed myself in the gifted hands of Studio 506 for a basic pedicure with sparkly metallic polish.

I left the salon and stepped into a typhoon. Ron stood at a nearby corner, holding our only umbrella and clutching a plastic shopping bag to his chest. "Ice cream!" he said decidedly, ignoring my squeaks as I hopped around in those weird flip-flops salons give you.

"My pedicure!" I groaned, splashing ankle-deep into a puddle.

"There's an ice cream place!" Ron said. He handed me the umbrella and started forward.

There was no inside seating at the first ice cream parlor, or the second. We could now barely see through the wall of water, so I whisked us inside a Greek gyro place and collapsed into a booth. Undaunted, Ron left the restaurant and returned with his ice cream. More sodden tourists arrived, wiping their faces and wringing out their shorts, until the place was full. I didn't know there were that many people in Grand Haven.

Resigned to waiting, I looked over the local paper, The Grand Haven Tribune. Typical stuff, until I hit the editorial page. The first letter to the editor was from a visitor from Greenville.


"To the Editor:

"My husband and I chose to spend our Fourth of July this year in 'beautiful' Grand Haven.... After dealing with the congestion of pedestrians and traffic, we were very much looking forward to a relaxing dinner. We selected a popular establishment on Washington Street with outside seating ...."

(I could almost hear the jungle drums beating. What was ahead? An injury? A mugging? An offensively loud car stereo?)

"I looked over my husband's shoulder to see a man walking toward us wearing a huge snake around his neck .... I am deathly afraid of snakes ... and quickly left our table."

(End of problem, you might say. But the lady's ordeal was not over. She returned to the table only to encounter the snake man again.)

"I didn't hesitate to flee again to the safety inside the restaurant ... trembling and sobbing."

(I felt kind of bad for the lady at this point. But she wrote on.)

"My appetite for dinner and my love for Grand Haven were both gone .... Are these the kinds of tourists that Grand Haven is trying to attract? People that walk down the streets with exotic -- and [possibly unsafe) animals that scare women and children?"


Well now. Perhaps it is best if this lady does not return to Grand Haven, especially if she seeks relaxation during one of the town's busiest weekends (my pedicure lady said it was wall-to-wall people over the Fourth). But I doubt the snake man was a tourist, and I'm not entirely convinced that the city should launch a campaign to reduce irresponsible reptile-walking.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

No-Benny Vacation, Part One

Well, we're all back home again.Ron and I spent a mind-bending four days without Benny, who was visiting my sister in South Haven, Mich.

It's embarrassing, really, how quickly we adjusted. Within 24 hours, Benny's little table in the living room, usually strewn with toy spaceships, matchbox cars and abandoned sippy cups, turned into a coffee table buried under newspapers, car keys, junk mail and half a Snickers bar.

Our old habits of 9 years B.B. (Before Benny) quickly returned: lazy weekend mornings, long bike rides, brunch downtown, movies, restaurants, the New York Times Sunday paper, big fat books, tiny little purses, complete sentences, wine with lunch ... the list goes on.

But I sometimes got the feeling that Ron wasn't totally with me. I'd be lapping up my ham-and-cheese crepe at an outdoor cafe, cheerfully babbling about Meryl Streep's performance in last night's movie, and Ron would just stare into space, lower lip protruding.

"This is great ham," I'd say.

Ron glances at my plate. "Benny likes ham."


It would be better in Grand Haven, I told myself. I'd booked us two nights at a bed-and-breakfast in this touristy beach town on Lake Michigan. My goal was relaxation verging on outright boredom and Grand Haven did not disappoint. The town was mostly empty that Monday and Tuesday, resting during the brief interval between Fourth of July celebrations and the Coast Guard Festival in August.

Monday was beautiful, bright and warm, with a cool breeze off the lake. I strolled around while Ron napped, then we went to dinner. Then we settled on the B-and-B's front porch with our books, waiting for the 10 p.m. performance of the World's Largest Musical Fountain. According to the tourist pamphlets, this water-and-light show, created in 1962, uses 32 600-watt subwoofers, 14 power amplifiers and 12 high-frequency horns.

A crowd gathered on the boardwalk below, boats circled in the harbor. Other guests joined us to await the spectacle. The show began, and frankly, it was a little weird. The lights flickered, the music swelled, the water sprayed (courtesy of a “huge” nozzle bed system).


Well, maybe the Fountain didn't say that, but that was the gist, if you know what I mean. Ron and I stared in stunned disbelief while the Fountain played a series of long-forgotten tunes, many old enough to collect Social Security. The Fountain would introduce each song, chuckling at the funny titles. The whole thing was a little strange.

What's more, this panopoly of water and light is not really the largest in the world. The city of Grand Haven's web site reluctantly admits that theirs is the "once largest musical fountain in the world."

"Only recently has the size been exceeded in a musical fountains," the website goes on. "The unique character of this fountain has not been duplicated."

So where's the real largest musical fountain in the world? The city sniffily admits that one is in Las Vegas, Nevada: "Where water conservation is critical and glitz is the byword."

Well, I hope they're ashamed of themselves over there.


Pictures! Pictures!

Here are some belated pictures from two family outings. The first batch is from a visit to Kensington Farms, a cute place about 30 miles from Ann Arbor. We visited all the animals and went on a hayride.

The second batch is from Greenfield Village, a big indoor/outdoor museum complex in the Detroit area founded by Henry Ford. We attended "Day Out with Thomas" featuring Thomas the Tank Engine steaming along the tracks. It was a great day, with treats and activities and a ride on the Thomas train. Benny was beside himself.

Friday, July 07, 2006

"Where's the Liquor!"

I'm battling a slight hangover today, subsisting on Snapple and buttered toast. Ron and I spent last night guzzling margaritas on our deck with friends Amy and Jason, visiting from out of town.

The drinks were my fault, of course, the result of a brainstorm in Target's summer clearance aisle Thursday morning. I picked up some $2 margarita glasses while Benny snagged a plastic martini shaker with a big blue parrot on it.

Then we headed to the supermarket for some tequila, where I cruised the beer aisle with mounting irritation.

"Where's your liquor?" I asked a grocery clerk. He looked at me warily, as well he might: a wild-eyed woman in a wrinkled shirt, followed by a tiny toddler clutching a martini shaker. They didn't have any liquor, of course, and I trudged over to the drugstore and bought my hooch there while the cherry cheesecake melted in the car.

But all was ready when Amy and Jason arrived (and Ron) and we headed out to eat. Benny was as naughty as naughty could be in the restaurant: whining, pouting, refusing to eat, demanding snacks and stickers and aspirin (wait, the last was for me).

Disgusted, I left the restaurant and marched Benny back to the car, where I stuffed my howling son into his carseat ("Benjamin Andrew, you are going home and to BED!") Then I slumped behind the steering wheel and glared resentfully at happy, childless couples strolling by.

Ron turned up with our friends and negotiated Benny's release so we could walk around downtown too. Then we returned to the house, where I rushed to the freezer and was pouring margaritas before Amy could take off her jacket. Benny received a glass of ice water with a plastic martini stirrer. (Yeah, I know.)

Benny went to bed at 8 p.m., shrieking with outrage. Then he was up at 5:17 a.m. ready for the day. I felt slightly nauseous; Ron had a headache from the tequila. I brought Benny to our bed, but that never works -- he just flops around and giggles.

Finally Benny slid off the bed and picked my socks off the floor. He held them up to me and asked "Mommy, wake up?" I admitted defeat.

Today I'm taking Benny to my sister's for five days. Halleluiah.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Enron's Kenneth Lay

Lay's obit in Wired

Good heavens, Kenneth Lay of Enron just died of a massive heart attack. I remember when I was living in San Francisco in 2000 and reading about Enron's spectacular success. The company was no. 7 on the Fortune 500, for crying out loud, with over $100 billion in annual revenue.

That seems like a lifetime ago, those days when I worked at, rented my movies from and ordered groceries from Now all three companies are extinct, reminding me of piezophilic bacteria, those weird little microbes living in impossible conditions.

(And yes, I had to look up the name. Now that I have, perhaps I can work the term “piezophilic” into casual conversations:

“Gee, Ron, you’re acting positively piezophilic today. Maybe you should go find your laptop and work some more.”

“That kid is totally piezophilic. If he doesn’t get his peanut butter crackers at precisely 2:30 p.m., he falls apart.”

Hmmm … maybe not.)

Anyway, piezophiles live in extreme, high-pressure environments like the bottom of the Marianas Trench. These guys love such absolutely insane conditions that some scientists think they’d survive on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

more on these weirdos

But bring a piezophile up to the surface, with all that nice air and light, and zap – it’s dead. Bring an exquisitely calibrated dot-com out of the 90’s high-pressure frenzy and it pops.

(Or in the case of Webvan, slumps with the soft hiss of leaking air. For years, only the green cupholders at Pacific Bell Park remained.)

So now we have Kenneth Lay, disgraced, convicted, unable to justify buying a $100,000 yacht while Enron was going under. And he’s gone, a victim of too much light and air. How piezophilic.