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Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers. How Agriculture Really Began (Darwinism Today)
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers. How Agriculture Really Began (Darwinism Today)
by Colin Tudge
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Food for Thought, 17 Sep 2014
This is one of a series of very short – I would guess of approximately 15,000 words each – books produced in the late 1990’s under the group title of Darwinism Today.
I had previously read and enjoyed the author’s The Day Before Yesterday: Five Million Years of Human History (also published as The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact).
In this work, subtitled How Agriculture Really Began, Tudge deals with the evolution of agriculture in its various forms (horticulture, arable farming and animal husbandry). He also explains how Australian aborigines managed the land by “firestick farming”.
One of the ideas that he posits is the humans “did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it…” I believe this idea is now widely accepted. The early farmers had to work a lot harder than their hunting ancestors to survive. But, there were a lot more of them and, once you go a certain distance down the road to farming, you find it’s a one-way street. There are too many mouths to feed and there is not enough game left to revert to the hunting lifestyle.
His explanation for the Neolithic Revolution – caused by increased pressure on resources after sea-levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age – is also widely accepted.
His novel idea – at least it was novel to me – is the “hobby” farming began long before the Neolithic Revolution of c. 10,000 years ago, perhaps as far back as the late Palaeolithic 40,000 years ago (think cave art). “Hobby” farmers while still remaining hunters and gatherers would encourage favoured plants and animals and discourage unflavoured ones. For instance they might plant seeds or shoots of a favoured fruit-bearing plant.
One topic that he does not discuss but that might have provided a useful parallel is the evolution of the dog from the wolf. Humans and canines may have gradually entered into a symbiotic relationship where they both modified their behaviour to their mutual advantage. Some wolves that were less afraid of and less aggressive towards humans would have hung around hunters’ camps scavenging off our leftovers. Humans wise enough to leave well enough alone by letting them do so would, over time, acquire a best friend with a superlative sense of smell who would regard the humans as their pack-leader, help them hunt, and provided an alarm system still in use today (“Cave Canem” as the mosaic says in Pompeii).
Tudge further speculates that it may have been proto-farming the gave Cro Magnons the edge over hunting-only Neanderthals in that our ancestors may have had something else to fall back on when game was scarce. The Neanderthals, like the bandits in The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, lose out to the farmers who produce a bigger crop of children.
Proto-farming may also help explain the Pleistocene Overkill. Knowing they had other resources to fall back on, men have gone out of their way to kill big game to impress potential mates. I find this argument less convincing, not because I doubt that young men do dangerous things to impress young women, but because I think there are better explanations for the Overkill.
Tudge does not dispute the significance of the Neolithic Revolution but sees it not as the beginning of farming but as the beginning of arable farming, of ploughing and planting and ever larger numbers of people living by the sweat of their brows.
Some of his work is slightly dated e.g. he places the evolution of modern humans at c.100,000 years ago – whereas the current figure is c. 195,000 years ago – and the book predates the exceptionally important archaeological discoveries at Göbekli Tepe, the existence of which would, in my opinion, further strengthen his central thesis.
The writing style is clear and concise.
While slightly dated this book is like an energy bar that packs a lot into a little.


Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
by David Walsh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Cancer of the Spirit, 28 Aug 2014
Perhaps more than any other journalist David Walsh pursued the investigation to uncover evidence that Lance Armstrong was cheating by taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Before his cancer treatment Armstrong had competed in the Tour de France four times, finishing 36th once and withdrawing the other three times. When he came back from his treatment to lead it in 1999 – in the first of an unparalleled seven successive wins of the Tour - supposedly drug-free Walsh regarded this as “all about as logical as the Tour being led by a lobster on a bike. A lobster complete with helmet and a moving backstory about a last-minute escape from a pot of boiling water.”
Such a view wasn’t entirely popular, especially as it was directed as a man whose story was an inspiration to millions. One letter writer to Walsh’s newspaper wrote that “Sometimes people get a cancer of the spirit. And maybe that says a lot about them.” The writer was half-right. There was a cancer of the spirit but not in the spirits of those who queried the integrity of the sport and of many of its stars but a cancer in the spirit of those who cheated and – to my mind – more so in the ranks of the officials and administrators who facilitated them. (When Armstrong failed a test in ’99 he was allowed to present a back-dated doctor’s cert to allow the pretence that he wasn’t taking a banned substance but rather had been using an approved ointment).
In journalistic style Walsh recounts “the case for the prosecution” as it were and the story of those brave people who stuck their heads above the parapet to tell the truth.
Some reviews have criticized Walsh for obsessing with Armstrong rather than tackling the wider topic of doping in cycling. I think this is unfair. One person or a small group of people can only do so much and if you can expose the one cyclist whose name was known to the average non-cycling fan this is far more effective in highlighting the problem than exposing a larger number of people whose names mean nothing to the average person in the street.
Another criticism is that the latter part of the book has a different feel to what went before and may have been rushed to cash in on the story. I think there is some truth in this criticism but, if anyone was entitled to cash in, whom more so than David Walsh?


A History of the World
A History of the World
by Andrew Marr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More than Somewhat Marred, 1 Aug 2014
This review is from: A History of the World (Paperback)
This is the book of an eight one hour BBC series written and presented by a senior political journalist. He is a not a historian and, quite frankly, it shows. Mr Marr has presented other mini-series dealing with more recent British history which I have enjoyed but I believe that in this work he has over-reached himself.
In covering such a vast subject I would hope the presenter would cover the important topics e.g. the birth of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, the main religions, the advances in science and technology, exploration, political thought, etc. rather than the story of this or that king or queen. At the same time a geographical and civilizational balance should be struck.
Mr Marr manages to achieve some of this but he could have done a lot better. A lot of his narrative is taken up with the stories of good and bad men and (a few) women whereas I prefer a history with more technical detail.
The writing style is clear and easy to read if occasional marred by an error that a fact-checker could have eliminated (e.g. on pg.135 we're told that after Cannae Hannibal was urged to march south - that should read north. On page 199 we're told that Chaucer celebrated the astrolabe in print. It's a wonder he didn't celebrate the time machine he must have had to bring him forward to the invention of the printing press!).
As this book has received a lot of two-sentence, five-star reviews, I'll concentrate on two major negative criticisms.

In its coverage of the history of Islam I have come to expect the BBC to use kid gloves while accentuating the positive and this book and the series are no exceptions.
Quite rightly, The Golden Age of Islam is covered and as the main part of my first main criticism I've chosen a few passages from pages 194 to 202 to show where I think Mr Marr has fallen down badly.
Mr Marr tends to jump around the centuries at times but I think it's clear that the following passage relates to the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages and not to the High Middle Ages. (At least I hope not).
In comparing Al-Andalus to (Latin) Christendom he writes of Western Christians that

"They could not accurately tell the time of day, and struggled along with a defective, slipping calendar...The shape of the world outside Europe and the Near East was a mystery; but it was probably flat, and if you travelled too far, you would fall off. The Abbasids, by contrast, prided themselves on their...hard science, in a world...whose circumference they measured." (pg.195)

Western Christians - like everyone else on the planet - of their day couldn't accurately tell the time of day. We can, thanks to clocks with a mechanical escapement. An invention of those Western Christians - probably monks wanting to know the correct time to say Matins (Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez le matines, sonnez le matines, ding, ding, dong...) - sometime around 1300 and, while Western Europe is replete with churches and town halls complete with medieval clocks I've never seen a minaret with one.
Their Julian calendar - which they had inherited from the Romans - was defective and slipping and some - such as Mr Marr's fellow Briton Bede (d.735) - knew it. Their year averaged 365.25 days long. Our current Gregorian calendar - named after the pope who oversaw its introduction - averages 365.2425 days. So they were out by 18 hours a century.
Though Marr is comparing the Islamic world to that of Latin Christendom he doesn't mention the Islamic calendar. The one used by the people who prided themselves on their hard science. It is either 354 or 355 days long. This is not exactly useful for farming purposes so the Islamic world tended to use the old Egyptian calendar for agricultural purposes. At 365 days to the year without any leap years it was more inaccurate than the Julian one.
The Islamic calendar runs from the Hijra which took place in 622 AD by the Christian calendar. Since then the earth has gone round the sun about 1392 times and so the Christian year is 2014 i.e. 622 + 1392. However by the Islamic calendar we are in the year of the Hijra 1435.
Throughout the modern world people of all faiths and none use the Gregorian calendar. It's not perfect (it's out by about a day every seven thousand seven hundred years). It wasn't designed to be perfect. It was designed to be practical and to have an inbuilt corrective mechanism.
In the Gregorian calendar there are 146,097 days every 400 years. It is accurate to within just under an hour and a quarter over that period.
In the defective, slipping Julian calendar the Christians inherited there are 146,100 days every 400 years. The defect is 3 days every 400 years.
In the Egyptian calendar used for practical purposes by the Abbasids there are 146,000 days every 400 years. The defect is 97 days every 400 years.
In the Islamic calendar there are less than 142,000 days every 400 years. The defect is more than 4,000 days every 400 years.
Who had the more defective, slipping calendar?
I'm confident that a lot of uneducated people back then, Christian and Muslim, believed that the earth was flat just as educated Chinese did c.1600 when the Jesuits arrived to advise them otherwise. But among educated Westerners - there were a few even back then - then in the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, "with...few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat". Or as Stephen Jay Gould put it "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology." If I may go back to Marr's fellow Briton, Bede, he described the Earth as being "...not merely circular like a shield...but...more a ball".
In the TV series we are shown a not very convincing re-enactment of al-Khwarizmi calculating a reasonable approximation of the circumference of the earth. An impressive feat but one managed by Eratosthenes almost a millennium before. In the book we are again told of al-Khwarizmi's undoubted achievements but I would have thought that reference to Ibn al-Haytham, generally regarded as the greatest of the Islamic scientists and one of - if not the - founder of the scientific method, would have been worth a mention.
***
"It is hard to crusade against someone and learn from them at the same time." (pg.197)

Having described how the Islamic world sought out knowledge from the Greeks he presumably believes that it is possible to wage jihad while doing so.
***
"Had the rival Muslim world of Al-Andalus not existed, much of this precious knowledge might not have arrived in Europe for centuries to come." (pg.197)

Al-Andalus wouldn't have existed without the Islamic conquests which reduced the West's access to its main source of writing material - papyrus from Egypt - forcing it to rely on far costlier velum, a severe handicap for scholars.
Muslim raiders - like those who sacked Old St. Peter's in 846 - and privateers - who continued taking Christians captive into the 19th century - made travel across the Mediterranean for any scholar seeking precious knowledge a potentially dangerous business.
It's a bit like those people who congratulate the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA and their Loyalist counterparts for their part in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland while ignoring the fact that if the paramilitaries hadn't carried out an unpeaceful process for decades beforehand a peace process wouldn't have been necessary.
***
"Scholars such as...Duns Scotus brought Averroes and therefore Aristotle to a Christian audience...Aquinas absorbed his style of argument and, while disagreeing about aspects of Aristotle, found the Andalusian a vital inspiration...These early Christian Aristotelians encountered just the same kind of resistance from popes and bishops as Averroes and Maimonides from caliphs and imans." (pg.201)

It is in the section dealing with absorption or non-absorption of Aristotle's body of work into medieval Islam and (Latin) Christendom where I think Mr Marr's history falls down very badly. This is a very important topic for the two civilizations reached a fork in the road and one took one path and one the other and that in part is why the West came from behind to pull level and then further and further ahead while the Islamic world lagged and lags further and further behind.
Aquinas was influenced by Averroes - whom he referred to as "the Commentator", just as he referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher" - but he differed significantly from Averroes's Christian followers - who, it should be said in fairness, held views somewhat different from those of Averroes himself. One of Aquinas's works is titled On the Unity of Intellect, against the Averroists.
More importantly Mr Marr gives a misleading impression in the above passage. Yes the early Christian Aristotelians did encounter resistance (though, unlike Averroes, Aquinas was never forced into exile) but - and this is the key point, a point that Mr Marr doesn't make, never mind make clear - Latin Christendom not merely accepted and absorbed Christian Aristotelianism it endorsed it (to the point where Galileo would get in trouble for challenging Aristotelian orthodoxy).
As Peter Watson put it in Ideas: a history of thought and invention from fire to Freud - "Before Aquinas the world had neither meaning nor pattern except in relation to God...In Christianising Aristotle, Aquinas eventually succeeded in Aristotelianising Christianity. A secular way of thinking was introduced into the world, which would eventually change man's understanding for all time."
Avicenna and Averroes did not succeed in Aristotelianising Islam, with consequences that are with us to this day. Ibn Khaldun - to whom Mr Marr makes a passing reference as "another Arab historian", which is a bit like referring to Shakespeare as "another English writer" - wrote The Muqaddimah in 1377. Has the Islamic world made a comparable contribution to the intellectual advancement of humankind since then?
***
A possible insight into Marr's mind-set occurs on page 255 we are told that "the Spanish monarchs ...destroyed the last Muslim foothold in Europe...Granada." Does he not think that the Balkans, most of which was under Ottoman rule in 1492, is part of Europe? Or is it that he is so conditioned to think about the "good" Muslim rule in Europe i.e. in Iberia that he just blotted out the not-so-good rule in the Balkans?
***
I accept that any such work will have to skip over vast amounts of material but the really important points should be covered. Here is my second major criticism.
To my mind a serious omission has to do with his coverage - or lack thereof - of medieval Europe - apart from comparing it unfavourably to medieval Islam. Now in covering world history a presenter/writer has to strike a balance between different times and different regions/civilizations. Given the amount of coverage that the West will have to be given, particularly post-Industrial Revolution plus the coverage that should be given to ancient Greece, the Age of Exploration, the Scientific Revolution, the (re)birth of democracy etc it makes sense to leave coverage of other areas of Western history to the bare minimum to allow time to cover other civilizations.
However I believe that certain things that should have been covered weren't.
If I may quote from The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe,

"Western civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America, which we have exported to other...portions of the globe, and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries. Since 1500 our civilization has not had to endure any upheaval remotely comparable with the shattering and rebirth which accompanied... the Dark Ages between 400 and 900... therefore, it has not seen any flowering of new ways of life and attitudes as fundamentally novel as those which grew up around the cathedrals and universities, the royal courts and the commercial cities in the centuries between 900 and 1500.
Most Europeans live in towns...which existed in the lifetime of...Aquinas... The modern nation state grew out of the monarchies created by kings such as Philip Augustus of France and John of England. Democratic forms of government are based on the systems of representation and consent evolved in thirteenth-century parliaments. The idea of popular sovereignty emerges first in the writings of a fourteenth-century scholastic, Marsilius of Padua, who knew the communes of contemporary Italy. Our methods of commerce and banking are derived from the practices of the Florentine Peruzzi and Medici. Students work for degrees already awarded in the medieval universities...in courses which have gradually evolved out of those followed in the medieval faculties of arts. Our books of history and our novels are lineal descendants of the works of...Bruni and...Boccaccio. Our troubled sense of the distinction between the physical world of nature and the spiritual world of religion and morals derives from the dualism of Aquinas's thirteenth century when popes and universities confronted kings and parliaments and the scholastics struggled to reconcile Aristotle and the Bible."

And from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror,

"While political power centralized during the 12th and 13th centuries, the energies and talents of Europe were gathering in one of civilization's great bursts of development. Stimulated by commerce, a surge took place in art, technology, building, learning, exploration...universities, cities, banking and credit...Those 200 years were the High Middle Ages, a period that brought into use the compass and mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and treadle loom, the windmill and watermill; a period when Marco Polo travelled to China and...Aquinas set himself to organize knowledge, when universities were established ...when Giotto painted human feeling, Roger Bacon delved into experimental science, Dante framed his great design for human fate...a period when religion was expressed in...the gentle preaching of St. Francis and in the cruelty of the Inquisition, when the Albigensian Crusade ...drenched southern France in blood... while the soaring cathedrals rose arch upon arch, triumphs of creativity, technology, and faith.
They were not built by slave labor. Though limited serfdom existed, the rights of serfs were fixed...and the work of medieval society...was done by its own members."

And what of this does Mr Marr cover? We get told the tale of the tale-teller Marco Polo, a more interesting tale than that of "the mother of machines" or how Aquinas married Aristotle to Catholicism. But not a more important one.


Modern War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Modern War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Richard English
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

2.0 out of 5 stars Hard Pounding, 24 Jun 2014
In general I’m a fan of the OUP’s Very Short Introduction series and have read about a score to date over a range of topics. They usually give a good layman’s guide to the topic at hand. However, like my fellow Dubliner at Waterloo, I found this to be a case of hard pounding.
This author’s style – with its numerous references to authors quoted – was perhaps better suited to writing for an academic audience than to a general one.
A further difficulty is the scope of the topic. The author rightly defines “Modern War” as starting with the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. Before then, at least in the West, you had small, regular armies fighting limited wars where maybe a province changed hands. After then you had conscripted armies fighting increasingly industrialized and industrial-scale wars with more at stake.
The problem for a work such as this is that now you have very messy wars with a smallish regular army on one side and an irregular force on the other or a war with many irregular factions involved and it’s hard to say when it started and when it stopped. There are no signing ceremonies at the end.
The fighting that has taken place in Iraq during WW1, WW2, the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War is different from what’s going on there in recent years and perhaps OUP should have commissioned two books instead of one.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there is great emphasis on wars in which the US and/or the UK take part and much space is given to an implied critique – not a bash, a critique – of Bush and Blair. The Chechen Wars aren’t covered and I thought a comparison of Chechnya and Iraq/Afghanistan or of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan versus the West’s involvement there might have been more meaningful than displays of the author’s familiarity with what I believe are usually referred to as “the sources”.
A more telling criticism, to my mind anyway, is that by far the bloodiest war in the last half-century i.e. the war in the Congo doesn’t merit a mention.
In a work suck as this whatever about agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s views one should be entitled to expect solid judgement and accurate facts.
On page 48 we’re told that, in the American Civil War, the South “had less will than did their opponents for the prospect of a long war of appalling attrition”. That might have been news to Lincoln who for much of 1864 thought he would not be re-elected so war weary was the North. Indeed, had Davis not replaced Joe Johnston – who had been using delaying tactics against Sherman – with the hot-headed Bell, Atlanta may not have fallen in time to swing the election to Lincoln and then what would have happened?
Whatever about opinions a work from the OUP should get its facts right.
On page 49, referring to WW1, we’re told “Allied victory followed a successful spring offensive” but the spring offensive in 1918 (21/3-18/7/18) was a German one that, despite gaining ground, was ultimately unsuccessful. The successful Allied offensive began on 8/8/18. Perhaps this was a case where the author didn’t explain himself clearly rather than a case of him getting a basic fact wrong. Nevertheless this is something that should have been picked up before publication.
On page 72 we’re told of Turkish involvement in conflict in the Mediterranean in “the 1930’s and 1940’s”. I know of no such Turkish involvement . Interest yes, involvement no. Turkey sat out WW2.

While the book has some useful quotes I found it too disjointed and unbalance to recommend it.


When Friday Comes
When Friday Comes
by James Montague
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The only thing that stays the same is the hatred", 10 May 2014
This review is from: When Friday Comes (Hardcover)
Two decades ago Simon Kuiper travelled the world to write “Football Against the Enemy”. Had he wanted to keep down his carbon footprint he needn’t have travelled so far. James Montague’s travelled back and forth from Libya to Iran and Yemen to Syria and all points in between and found endless animosities.
There is international rivalry but most of the bitterness is internal.
I’ve taken the title of my review from a remark by an Israeli fan but it could have come from many of the countries he visited. There was an earlier edition of this book. This is a revised edition. The period covered runs from 2007 to 2013 so it incorporates elements of the Arab Spring. Montague is sympathetic to his subjects but paints bleak pictures whether it’s of qat-chewing in Yemen or of oil-money abuses in the Gulf and corruption just about everywhere.
Reading it my feelings were s mixture of gladness and sadness. I’m really, really glad I don’t have to live in that part of the world with its levels dysfunctionality and hatreds. My sadness was for the ordinary men and women who just want to play the game they love but are plagued with problems whether it be Iraqis knowing that bombs might be set off while they were playing by people who don’t want Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd to unite or whether it is Palestinian girls, mostly Christians, trying to tackle not merely their opponents on the field but also the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Hamas-Fatah rivalry and objections by some Muslims to girls wearing shorts.


The Shortest History of Europe
The Shortest History of Europe
by John Hirst
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short(ish) but Sweet, 2 May 2014
This book is a somewhat longer version of an even shorter “Shortest History of Europe”.
This review is a somewhat longer version of my original review.
The original “Shortest History” covered only up to circa 1800AD. This version brings us up to date. I guestimate that it runs to about 65,000 words. It is a masterpiece of concision, especially as it quite intentionally returns repeatedly to certain points.
Based on a series of his lectures, it is written by an Australian professor, whom I suspect is old enough to have received a Eurocentric and/or Anglocentric education.
It contains very few names and dates instead concentrating on a few very big themes. It might more meaningfully be called, in the author's phrase, "What is it about Europe?" as its subject is what it is that makes Europe Europe? Eastern Europe - other than ancient Greece - and Scandinavia are hardly mentioned.
Hirst begins by looking at the "three elements" that, to him, formed the foundation of European civilization - Graeco-Roman culture, Christianity, the culture of the Germanic warriors who overran the Western Roman Empire and how these three elements interacted and evolved to create Latin Christendom. He then discusses the transition from medieval to modern through the influences of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.
These comprise the first quarter of the book. He then looks at the impact of the Germanic, Muslim and Viking invasions; the forms of government in pre-modern Europe and how these were influenced by military necessity and the comparative weakness of European monarchs vis-à-vis their subjects compared to rulers elsewhere; the struggles between emperors and popes; the evolution of Romance languages and of English before a chapter on the lives of the peasants and of the evolution of field systems before what was the brief conclusion of the shorter version where he addresses the question "What is it about Europe?"
The slightly less short Shortest History had two additional chapters, forming its last quarter. The first, on Industrialization and Revolutions, covers the 19th century and compares and contrasts industrialization and political change in Britain, France and Germany. The second covers the two World Wars and is very much focused on Germany.
One factual error I noted was that on page 122 he states that two European countries – Finland and Hungary – have non-Indo-European languages, thus ignoring Estonia and Georgia.
While one can agree or disagree with certain of Hirst's conclusions and/or inclusions or exclusions I regard his work as a miniature gem.
So do others. All the reviews this has received to date are either 4 or 5 star – this is the only 5 star review I’ve given to date – with one exception, a 1 star review on Amazon.com by Michael Demkowicz and I would refer would be readers to it to obtain an alternative appraisal.


[( The Shortest History of Europe * * )] [by: John Hirst] [Aug-2010]
[( The Shortest History of Europe * * )] [by: John Hirst] [Aug-2010]
by John Hirst
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Short but Sweet, 5 April 2014
This book must surely live up to its title. I guestimate that it runs to about 50,000 words. It is a masterpiece of concision, especially as it quite intentionally returns to certain points repeatedly.
It is written by an Australian professor, whom I suspect is old enough to have received a Eurocentric and/or Anglocentric education, based on a series of lectures he gave.
It contains very few names and dates instead concentrating on a few big themes. It might more meaningfully be called, in the author's phrase, "What is it about Europe?" as its subject is what it is that makes Europe Europe. Eastern Europe, other than Greece, and Scandinavia are hardly mentioned.
Hirst begins by looking at the "three elements" that formed the foundation of European civilization - Graeco-Roman culture, Christianity, the culture of the Germanic warriors who overran the Western Roman Empire and how these three elements interacted and evolved to create Latin Christendom. He then discusses the transition from medieval to modern through the influences of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.
This forms the first third of the book. He then looks at the impact of the Germanic, Muslim and Viking invasions; the forms of government in pre-modern Europe and how these were influenced by military necessity and the comparative weakness of European monarchs vis-à-vis their subjects compared to rulers elsewhere; the struggles between emperors and popes; the evolution of Romance languages and of English before a chapter on the lives of the peasants and of the evolution of field systems before a brief conclusion where he addresses the question "What is it about Europe?"
While one can agree or disagree with certain of Hirst's conclusions and/or inclusions or exclusions I would be interested to read a review by anyone who doesn't regard it as a miniature gem.


The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed the World
The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed the World
by Gerry Martin
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Through a glass, clearly, 5 April 2014
“…imagine waking in a world where glass had been…uninvented. All objects, technologies and ideas that owe their existence to glass have gone.
…miniaturized clocks and watches cannot exist without the protective facing of glass…there can be no light switch, for there is no glass for the light bulb. When we draw back the curtains a blast of air strikes us through the glassless windows. If we suffer from short sight, we can see clearly for about ten inches. If we have long sight… we will not be able to read…
There is no television…for with no screen it cannot exist…we see no cars, buses, trains or aeroplanes, for without windscreens none of them can operate…
There would almost certainly be no electricity, since its first generation depended on…turbines, which required glass for their development. So there would be no radios, no computers, or email …Our fields would produce less than one twentieth of their current yield without the fertilizers discovered by chemists using glass tools.
…There would be no understanding of the world of bacteria and viruses, no antibiotics… epidemic and endemic diseases…would everywhere be as rife as they were at the end of the eighteenth century.”

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the question of why we live in a world dominated by Western ideas. This is a question to which many differing answers have been proposed, from luck to pluck, from latitudes to attitudes etc.
Wisely, the authors do not claim to have found “the” reason for I think that there is no monocausal explanation but they do offer a strong case for a contributory cause which I hadn’t heretofore come across – at least to such a strong degree – namely the different uses to which glass was put across the great Eurasia civilizations. (As an aside I think world histories pay grossly insufficient attention to the availability of paper. In part the Chinese led for so long in many areas because they invented paper and had it for centuries before the secret of paper-making was learnt by the Arabs. I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the Golden Age of Islam then ensued. Once the technique reached Christendom the West went from playing catch-up to pulling ahead. The printing press using movable type came later and its importance was in large part conditional on the availability of paper).
The authors trace the history of its glass from its invention in either ancient Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt and its spread eastwards and westwards through its widespread use by the Romans trough to its technical improvements in medieval Venice and later in England with the development of lead glass. (This having been said this is not intended as a technical history of the development of glass-making rather of "How Glass Changed the World").
They then distinguish between five uses of glass, not all of which were equally availed of across Eurasia.
Firstly there is the ubiquitous use of glass for jewellery.
Secondly there is the use of glass for drinking vessels. Here China was handicapped by the high quality of its porcelain. We still drink our tea from China from “china” so the Chinese didn’t have the incentive to develop glassware. Westerners who couldn’t make such high quality ware did have an incentive to develop drinking glasses, especially wine drinkers who liked to see what they were drinking. This lead to technical improvements, with the development of crystal glass in Venice. (Early microscopes used cristallo).
Thirdly there is the use of glass for window panes. Here Europeans living north of the Alps – and thus further north than any other civilization – had a practical incentive to keep the cold and the rain out while letting sunlight in. Christians also developed a religious incentive in the form of the stained-glass window in churches and cathedrals. Window panes were not as prevalent outside of Northern Europe where again there was a technical improvement in the form of lead glass.
Fourthly there is the use of glass for mirrors. Here again it was Europe that developed the glass mirror – as opposed to the metal one – that would be of such use to artists and scientists. It would be hard to paint a self-portrait, or indeed to develop perspective to the degree to which it was developed during the Renaissance, without it. Mirrors have also played a key role in the development of the telescope.
Finally there is the use of glass for lenses, prisms and scientific instruments. Here again Western Europe lead the way after the invention of “glasses”. Given that lenses are necessary for telescopes and microscopes it is hard to imagine the Scientific Revolution without them. Nor could chemistry have developed without assorted beakers, tubes, etc. And how could you measure temperature accurately without a thermometer?
The authors consider the impact of the use and non-use of glass for these differing purposes across civilizations of what they describe as “the only substance which is a real extension of a human sense organ, and the most powerful one at that, the eye”.

“The Glass Bathyscaphe” gives a whole new way of looking at knowledge. Forgive the pun.


Diamonds and Precious Stones (New Horizons)
Diamonds and Precious Stones (New Horizons)
by Patrick Voillot
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.41

4.0 out of 5 stars A little gem, 17 Mar 2014
This is a translation of a French work and indeed my only quibble with it is that occasionally it reads like an overly literal translation, using phraseology that doesn't sound quite natural to a native English speaker. It is part of a series of pocket sized guides on a variety of subjects. Each is lavishly illustrated on high quality paper.
This work on diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds in not a work of chemistry or geology concentrating on explaining how these stones are formed. Rather it is an account of how humans interact with them, the myths, the search for them and the story of the development of stone-cutting. Interwoven with this is the stories of individual stones. When Ali Pasha lay dying after defeat in battle he ordered the destruction of his two most pried possessions - his biggest diamond and his wife. When given the task/privilege of cutting the Cullinan the cutter fainted from stress.
An enjoyable, easy read.


The History of the World: From the Dawn of Humanity to the Modern Age
The History of the World: From the Dawn of Humanity to the Modern Age
by Frank Welsh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.26

2.0 out of 5 stars Welshing on the Title, 12 Feb 2014
I’ve read a number of histories of the world and they usually have a title like “A (Little/Short) History of the World” or “The Penguin/Times History of the World”. This book is titled with the definite article “The History of the World” as if such a definitive work could be written. This would be a small detail if the author had achieved something noteworthy, but he hasn’t.
In writing a – much less the – history of the world an author must be highly selective. I think the best approach is to try to paint a big picture, illuminated perhaps by a few small fine details.
There are innumerable topics that such a history should and/or could cover – politics and economics, religion and philosophy, science and technology, the arts, demography, climate etc.
This work concentrates very much on international politics and war with other fields getting scant attention. I feel that the Anglophone world gets unduly excessive coverage, even allowing for its disproportionate influence on world history. The epilogue, comparing the (Western) world of 1890 to that of 1820 and discussing the Green Revolution etc is much more in line with how I think such a history should be written.
At times reading it I found myself asking, ‘are we missing something?’ The writer is also the author of an illustrated book titled “The History of the World: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day” and I wonder how related are the two works? On page 306 we’re told that the US “declared war on Mexico, denounced by one young officer as:
‘one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.’”
I recognized the quote and expected that, when it came to the American Civil War, reference would be made back to it and its author identified as U.S. Grant. But no such reference is made and I was left wondering if perhaps we had a cut and paste job from the other work where something got left out.
Spread throughout the book is a series of chronological tables. In the one covering 6000BC to 500AD we’re told that “c1000 BC Viking Voyagers in Labrador”. That indicated that it wasn’t properly proofread.
More telling are the omissions in the final table “Human achievements 6000BC – Present”. In the 1600s Hooke merits two mentions. Galileo, Kepler and Newton don’t get one between them. In the 1800s neither Faraday nor Maxwell, Pasteur nor Mendel, are mentioned.
On page 2, after telling us that Mitochondrial Eve lived about 200,000 years ago – which is likely an upper limit given than the oldest know sapiens remains are put at 195,000 years old plus or minus 5,000 years – we are then told that, “Our last common male ancestor is believed to have existed more recently, perhaps as few as 5,000 years ago when the Sumerian civilization was flourishing…”
Now I suspect that there are some Amazonian Indians, Australian Aborigines and, above all, some Andaman Islanders who have bloodlines far too pure for that to be true. Hitherto I hadn’t read of any suggestion that Y-Chromosome Adam post-dated “Out of Africa”, and I’m not talking about the film.
The pictures are adequate if unexceptional. The four maps are, I believe, poorly chosen. On the plus side what’s written is well written.
If you’re looking to read your first history of the world I suggest you don’t start here.


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