Review: Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy

History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy by [Machiavelli, Niccolò]Written toward the end of a lifetime (1469 – 1527) spent as a diplomat and adviser, Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy is not the book of his most people read – that would be the Prince, the realpolitik described within it giving us the adjective Machiavellian.

Since I first read the Prince as a youth, I’ve belonged to the minority of non-Italian readers who think the amoral and murderous advice he gives is rather more a cautionary tale than advice per se – that Machiavelli, who pleads throughout for the particular prince to whom the book is dedicated to take action, is hoping to avoid, as much as possible, the violence he describes from copious historical examples. But that’s decidedly a minority opinion, outside of Italy.

Among Italians, I’ve been told, Machiavelli is viewed much more as an Italian patriot than as an advocate of Athens’ position in the Melian Dialogues (“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”). And so I wanted to read this, his history of the city and nation he so clearly loved.

The book opens with the Fall of Rome, giving what I assume is the 16th century Italian angle on the Vandals – Stilicho and his family – and Visigoths – Alaric and his – and the End of the World, as Lafferty would have it. By the 16th century, it is more than a little odd to talk about Italians as if they could be distinguished in a practical sense from the Germanic auxiliaries/invaders/settlers from which a huge percentage of the norther Italians were descended. Nonetheless, there’s a pro-Italian flavor to Machiavelli’s account I don’t see in Belloc’s or Lafferty’s.

Then comes Odoacer and about 6 centuries about which I know so little it is hard to follow. Turmoil is the main theme here, as it is for almost all history almost everywhere. Italy was shattered, eventually, after the Fall of Rome, and spent the next 1500 years trying to pull itself together.

One main thing gleaned from this period: with all the turmoil, all the ambition petty and grand, that resulted in the endless bloodshed and war and intrigue, it’s much more easy to find some sympathy for the  various popes and their bloodshed, wars and intrigue. Toward the end of the book, Machiavelli says that it’s best, when there’s a choice, not to make alliances with popes, as they don’t generally rule long and you never know what the next one will do. That, (I liberally paraphrase) and the pope might just have religious considerations that muck things up!

Not in any way attempting to excuse the often brutal and murderous behaviors of many of the popes especially starting in the 15th century, just pointing out that a pope back then actually needed armies and land if he didn’t want to spend his reign locked up in somebody’s closet. As bad as a pope might occasionally be, the secular princes could be counted on to be consistently worse.

Things picked up for me in the 13th century, as I started to see more familiar names and her more familiar stories, mostly familiar from having read Dante (he puts in a brief appearance) and art history.

Starting with the 13th century, the History gets to be much more detailed. As the 15th century starts, Machiavelli begins to go into much more detail, as the events were still in living memory when he was a boy. Finally, as 1500 approaches, he starts referring to the Florentines as ‘we’ – this is the history he lived through.

And what a troubled yet glorious time it was, with Lorenzo the Magnificent rising to power, surviving an assassination attempt that claimed his brother, attacked by both the King of Naples and the pope, deserted by allies in Milan and Venice, making a daring trip to Naples to seek reconciliation with the king, succeeding, and then sending ambassadors to the pope – and succeeding again! – riding out troubles at home, and coming out of all that as the most powerful man in Italy, pretty much.

While Machiavelli only touches lightly upon it, at the same time all this violence and insecurity were afflicting Florence, more great art was being produced in that one little corner of the world than anywhere else in such a small place any time in history, with the possible exception a couple of centuries in Athens. Truly amazing.

C. S. Lewis advises one to read an old book each time you’ve read a new one, or, if you must, after each two new ones. You could do much worse for an old book than the History of Florence.

Advertisements

Quick Review: Osborn’s Rock & Roll: The New Madrid Fault System

Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System by [Osborn, Stephanie]Stephanie Osborn, that is.  Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System is a 50 or so page essay Dr. Osborn (who has a very Renaissance Woman vita: Rocket scientist? Check. Geologist? Check. Author? Yep. And so on.) on the basics of the New Madrid fault system.

Osborn takes us through a brief tour of earthquake dynamics and terminology – Horst and Graben might not work as a band name, but a law firm? Oh yea – on her way to telling us that everyone in the lower midwest (or whatever people call Missouri, Western Tennessee and all adjoining areas) are DOOMED TO BE SWALLOWED BY THE EARTH IN A CATASTROPHE OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS. Not to put too fine a point on it.

You see, not only is there this major fault system right there in and around New Madrid, but when it pops, the areas affected dwarf what goes on here in California, and you get more of the more interesting earthquake effects, such as dramatic surface waves that may OPEN HUGE YAWNING CRACKS AT YOUR FEET. As Osborn explains, the underlying geology in California is solid rock to a fairly good depth, so that while earthquakes can certainly be severe, the rigid structure tends to stop the movement fairly quickly, and to not propagate those nasty rolling earthquake waves very well, comparatively speaking.

The vast area in and around the New Madrid fault, by contrast, is fractured and unstable and therefore more elastic rock covered by many feet of sediment that has not been crushed yet into solid rock. And earthquake in California is like someone bumping

OzzyChangingHands02-20-2010new.jpg
No, not this Osbourne – Rock n Roll, sure, but geology? Not so much.

a table; when the New Madrid faults pop, it’s like whacking a giant bowl of Jello. (My colorful analogy, not hers.)

So, yes, if you happen to live in the affected area, when the next Big One hits in Mid America, you will see you buildings, crops and livestock tossed into the air, rivers flowing backwards and forging new courses, all your building reduced to piles of rubble – at least, you’ll see it until THE EARTH BENEATH YOU OPENS UP LIKE THE MAW OF HELL AND SWALLOWS YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE BEFORE SNAPPING CLOSED LIKE THE MOUTH OF AN ENORMOUS CROCODILIAN DEMON-BEAST!!! While we out here in California will die more prosaic deaths such as being crushed by falling masonry or freeway overpases, midwesterners get the full Biblical style Judgement of the Most High there-one-moment-swallowed-up-and-vanished-the-next deaths. So, major style points to the Midwest.

Seems to happens every 3-4 centuries. Last really nasty earthquake swarm was 1811-1812. So, if you live there, you may be good for a few centuries. Or maybe not. Just be aware: Californians may be slow on the uptake, but after a few rounds of having building drop on people’s heads, we have taken many steps to keep that sort of thing to a minimum. Masonry building here are either a facade over a steel frame, or 75 or more years old (and small – the bigger building tend to be the ones more damaged in quakes.) Earthquake retrofitting, where typically steel and reinforced concrete are more or less discretely added to older buildings, is an industry here.

The Midwest, in my fairly extensive experience driving around there, seems to be infested with a LOT of brick and stone buildings. Lots and lots.

You’ll want to avoid those during a quake. To put it mildly.

Rock and Roll is by design and necessity a pretty light read, with a very extensive bibliography in case you want to dig deeper. (Osborn’s list of references is about 50% the number of pages as the essay itself.) As I mentioned earlier, it’s a bit like reading a very long Wikipedia article written by somebody with verve – it’s an easy and often charming read.

So, if you live in the frankly doomed, so doomed, area within a 1,000 miles of New Madrid, you might want to pick up a copy and give it a read. At the very least, it may cure you of any tendency to think how dumb Californians are for building right on top of major faults they just know are going to kill them all one day.

Ha. And the weather is really nice out here.

Reading/Writing/Thoughts Random Thursday Updates

City of Corpses: The Dark Avenger's Sidekick Book Two (Moth & Cobweb 5) by [Wright, John C.]
Ami’s skimpy outfit is part of the story and the occasion for a very age-appropriate, not at all preachy discussion of modesty and virtue. 
Reading aloud to our 13 yr old, finished up Daughter of Danger and are now on into City of Corpses. He’s still digging it, even though the opening couple chapters are a bit expositional – not a lot of physical action, but more clever banter and psychological games. It’s holding his attention. It is a good book, a good story well told. Highly recommended, can’t wait for book 6.

 

I’m parallel reading Machiavelli’s The History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy  (about 60% through) and Stephanie Osborn’s Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System a 75-page discussion of what the New Madrid fault system is and what it means that Dr. Osborn put up on Amazon more or less as a favor to people who attended one of her talks. It’s sort of like a really good, really long Wikipedia article, written with more verve. I’ll have both these read and review them in a couple days.

Recently ordered a hard copy of Lord of the World just to have a copy to lend to my kids. Not everybody has a Kindle or can tolerate reading on a screen. Reviewed it here.

Aaaaand – ordered a copy of Edward Feser’s Locke and Lafferty’s Okla Hannali. The Lafferty is due to both Mike Flynn’s and Kevin Cheek’s recommendation – and Lafferty is a hoot and a great writer. The Locke I got because I’ve been trying to work some Feser into the pile for some time, and this seemed timely, and is short and relatively cheap. Have Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction on my wishlist, but it is comparatively long and expensive, so went with Locke for now.

True story: my elder daughter Teresa works in the office at a little Catholic grade school in the L.A. area where the Fesers send their kids. While in general she would have little opportunity to meet him, she saw him and his family as some sort of school picnic. She texted me, since she knows I am a fan of his blog. I told her she needed to say hi, and tell him thanks for linking to my blog (which he has done once or twice).  He was surrounded by people, and she was understandable shy, so it didn’t happen. Next time, I will tell her to screw her courage to the sticking place – she’s got that theater degree and did a one-woman Taming of the Shrew, after all.

Next time, I’ll tell her to tell him how much I like his books. I hope.

Anyway, I’ve got possibly, guessing, maybe 50 books on the short-term to be read pile, and literally hundreds on the eventually read/reread shelves. Just hope I’ve still got some eyesight and energy when/if I retire…. 6 years, 11 months to full SS, but who’s counting?

As far as writing goes, I really, truly have little time now, a situation I hope will resolve itself in a few weeks. Just too much going on, trying to get the front yard brickwork farther along before it’s totally dark after work, and have something going at church 2 and sometimes 3 nights a week – good stuff, but still. Once it’s dark after work, I’ll be forced to move inside – where the writing is!

For now, must content myself with stuff I do for work (anybody want to know all about lease finance? Physical asset management by leasing companies? No?) and the prep I do for our Feasts and Faith Thursday classes. Today’s class: got the Nativity of Mary, St. Peter Clavier, and St. John Chrysostom (we do Thursday – the following Wednesdays)  – all fun, plus the Sunday readings.

As far as thoughts go, this amusing little thing crossed my Twitter feed:

Red

This was brought to mind by a semi-random comment made in my hearing about how certain radical educational ideas, such as abolishing age-segregation and compulsory classes, would support progressive education. Um, what? Progressive education is what we have NOW – the graded classroom, age (not need or talent) segregation, the mewling idiocy of virtually all textbooks, the thinly-veiled efforts to keep us stupid – ALL that is the product of the best Progressive minds. Every great figure in the sordid history of education that has brought us to the point we are today was a Progressive, or would have been had the term been around at the time. Take Chicago – please. They will proudly identify themselves as Progressive, and do, in fact have among the highest paid (last I checked, it was THE highest paid) teachers in the nation. They count education reformer Dewey among their favorite sons.

So, with a century of uninterrupted Progressive leadership, with very well compensated teachers, what kind of schools does Chicago have? How are those teachers dong?  Not too good.

Just like in the cartoon above, it is hilarious to see Progressives trying to pin it on somebody else. Rahm Emanuel, you see, isn’t the right kind of Progressive – or something. When I think of Progressives, my mind turns to Chicago as the living laboratory of a century of Progressive government, and – no thanks.

Mini-review: Riverworld, the Short Story

Riverworld and Other Stories: Farmer, Philip JoseWhile I suspect that John C. Wright, in his list of essential Sci Fi reading, meant to include one or more of the 5 Philip Jose Farmer novels set in Riverworld, what the list actually says is ‘Riverworld‘ which is a short story set in that universe. So I read and will review the +/- 80 page story here.

Riverworld is one of the great feats of imagination and speculation in all of sci fi. Farmer envisions a world that consists of millions of miles long river valley boxed in by impassible high mountains on either side, so that one must travel along the river and valley to get anywhere. On this world have been reincarnated the 36 billion or so people of earth – everyone who has ever lived past the age of 5. Most people are reincarnated among others of their time and place, but some appear more or less at random among strangers.

Why? By Whom? No one knows. When one awakens in Riverworld, he finds a grail – a container – that, when placed atop certain large mushroom shaped stones at the times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, will be filled with food, drink (including alcohol), smokes and other essential and luxury items. If you miss a mealtime, you might have to live off the river fish, which, besides some large worms, seem to be the only animal life on the planet.

Further, everyone is reincarnated as they were at age 25, and healed of all deformities and flaws. Except for those who died younger, who age up until age 25 and stop, no one ages on Riverworld. There is no disease. Further, if you die on Riverworld, you are reincarnated the next day at some other point along the river. While sex is a common pastime, all the people are infertile.

We find all this out over the course of the story of the movie star Tom Mix, who we meet fleeing down the river in a catamaran with two Jews, Yeshua, from around year 0 A.D., and Bithniah, a woman from the time of Moses. Seems they had fallen into the hands of the tyrannically puritanical Kramer, “the Hammer,” who tortured and killed any ‘heretics’ and witches that fell into his clutches.

Kramer doesn’t take kindly to people escaping. He has sent his men after them. Mix executes a daring strategy and manages to sink the pursuing craft – despite Yeshua refusing to help, as he has vowed to never kill or help kill another human. The three fall in with John Wickel Stafford, a 15th century English noble, in his settlement of New Albion. Stafford and his people are much more tolerant than Kramer – they realize that this whole Riverworld thing has seriously upset their assumptions about this life and the next. The Hollywood actor and two ancient Jews are welcomed.

Everyone fears Kramer, who has conquered and subjugated and purged his way along the neighboring stretches of river. Mix and Stafford decide they must do something, and plan a daring attack.

All this action – and it’s good – provide an opportunity for Farmer to explore a wide range of philosophical, theological and moral issues. In a world full of healthy 25 year olds and free of disease and pregnancy, sex seem to be a universal pastime. Yet jealousy, envy and lust are not eliminated, and so neither is violence. As people come to grips with the reality of Riverworld, many lose interest in what had been their passions back on earth – religion and traditional enemies get reexamined. But others, most notably Kramer, double down on their fanaticism.

Any more and I’ll give the story away. Highly recommended.

More Home Improvement Updates: Bricks, Trees and the Heat of Hell

Will review Riverworld, the novella, when I get a minute. I picked it up from Half Priced Books the other day as it is listed on John C. Wright’s list of essential SciFi reading, but I suspect he probably meant to include some or all of the 5 novels set in Riverworld, not just this one story. In the meantime:

Took Thursday and Friday off after we returned from our epic eclipse trip, mostly to work on the Brick Oven of Doom! In the last episode, I’d gotten the more or less decorative clay brick arch done, complete with a hand-cut stone keystone, and was feeling pretty good.

IMG_4387

Next step: install ceramic insulation, chicken wire and 2-3 coats of stucco. On a roll…..

Weeeell, seems I miscalculated, mismeasured, or maybe used inside instead of outside dimensions, or something – because I came up a couple feet short! AHHHH!

IMG_4392

What you see is a nice 2″ thick layer of high temp ceramic fiber insulation coming up short. What to do, what to do? Had some perlite left over from an earlier stage, sooooo – mixed it with a little Portland cement (5 to 1 perlite to cement ratio) built a little form, and cast a 2″ thick, 6″ high wall of insulation around the base. Don’t think perlite has anything like the R-rating as the ceramic fiber insulation, but I’m not ordering more since it takes a week and money to get it.

Effectively lost a day. Then, yesterday, tried to continue – and temps hit 105F. Even I, a madman, am not working in the sun under those conditions. Today, more of the same. So my dream of finishing this frustrating project this weekend died. I only need 2-3 days more!

On the other hand, my little orchard I planted end of winter/early spring is doing great:

And a couple of our 4 avocados:

IMG_4393
Avocados

13 trees in total. 2 of the 4 avocados are doing great; the other 2, planted in winter, are showing signs of recovering after looking so sad I almost yanked them up.

Following close planting – 18″ between related trees in a single bed, maybe 7′ between beds – because I don’t want big trees, I want small trees, and close planting (and relentless pruning!) gets you there.

Sigh. Maybe next weekend will be cooler?

Book Review: Starship by Brian W. Aldiss

Image result for Starship aldissA comment by theofloinn on my review of Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky directed my attention to Brian Aldiss’s  Starship as another good example of a generation ship story. Thanks, it was good.

Published in 1958, Starship (also published under the name Non-stop) is the story of Roy Complain, a hunter who lives in the long passages of the Quarters as a member of the  violent, impoverished Greene Tribe. Beyond the barricades that mark the current extent of the Greene tribe’s village at either end of the passageway they currently occupy grow ‘ponics’ – huge, rapidly growing thickets of near impassible viny plants.

Roy hunts in the ponics, and trades his bush meat for other goods. Beyond the barriers live not only wild animals, but other tribes and mutants either alone or in small groups. It’s a jungle out there.

Tribes move slowly along their chosen corridor, laboriously clearing the ponics and moving the barriers forward. As they move, they uncover compartments, many locked behind doors. These compartments sometimes contain useful items, and so they are routinely broken into. The Greene tribe owes its existence to Grandfather Greene, who opened a compartment containing a store of dazers, weapons that stunned or killed man and beast, and thus was emboldened to form his own tribe. There were also higher and lower and branch passages as well of the main corridors.

Roy and his tribe live by the Teachings, a mish-mash of half-remembered Freud, such that violently expressing every feeling is considered virtuous, and those who keep theirs under control are considered weak. Makes for nasty, brutish and short lives.

In addition to the various tribes and mutants there are Giants, thought by many to be extinct – giant skeletons are sometimes found in fresh compartments – but with enough sightings to make others convinced giants still live.  Mysterious Outsiders, who look like men but are unnatural and suspected of doing harm, are also believed to have come from outside into the Ship, the name people give to the world. Ousiders are externally indistinguishable from tribesmen. One tribe, the Forwards, have better tech and live better lives. They occupy a different part of Ship, and so have passed almost into legend.

A set of circumstances eventually propel Roy and a couple other men to desert the tribe and follow the priest Maraper on an adventure of discovery. Maraper had come across a book that showed the circuit layout of the Ship, and therefore showed the general layout. Maraper has discovered that Ship really is a ship, and wants to find the Control Room.

Adventures ensue, with plenty of twists, mysteries and action to keep you reading, and a surprise ending that works pretty well. We have here what amounts to another post-apocalyptic survival story, just set in space. I’ll stop here just in case anyone doesn’t want spoilers. Good read. Recommended.

 

Book Review: City of Corpses

City of Corpses: The Dark Avenger's Sidekick Book Two (Moth & Cobweb 5) by [Wright, John C.]John C. Wright’s City of Corpses: The Dark Avenger’s Sidekick Book Two (Moth & Cobweb 5) continues the adventures of Yumiko Moth begun in Daughter of Danger, reviewed here. Yumiko, having learned her name and her role as the sidekick of Winged Vengeance, has been rejected and cursed by her master because of a magic ring she defied him to steal. She remembers nothing before her awakening in a hospital bed at the beginning of the first book, not how she came to have the ring, who her parents are, who killed her mother (although she is certain she is dead) and who is her beloved whom she was told in a vision to save.

Her only friend Elfine Moth, ditzy yet helpful, has been captured. Yumiko must find a way to save a beloved she cannot remember, avenge her mother’s murder, rescue Elfine – and not get captured or killed by a seemingly endless stream of werewolves and ghouls out to get her and her ring. All in a world under a dark spell that permits the elfs to herd people about like cattle and do all manner of mischief to us.

Short and sweet: Well? When is book 6 coming out? I gotta know how it ends!!! So, yea, it’s good – get all 5 Moth & Cobweb books, read them, read them to your kids or random children you meet. We need these stories to counteract all the nihilism and despair and ignorance that kids of all ages marinate in these days.

In this middle book, Yumiko has largely realized her powers as the sidekick to Winged Vengeance, powers she used instinctively and furtively in her near-total amnesia in Book 4. In this book, she’s a magical ninja maiden with a set of weapons and gadgets both mundane and magical to put any superhero to shame. Yet she remains a 100 lbs woman, and so must fight with great cunning and skill to avoid the massive physical advantages of the much larger creatures who hunt her. A large part of the story’s charms lies in Wright deft handling of the challenges Yumiko faces – she’ll outsmart one, clobber the next, use the enemy’s strength against him in the next. She kicks hiney in believable (well, given the context) ways.

Yumiko decides that the only way to get to the bottom of what is going on is to infiltrate the Cobbler’s Club, which looks like a swank nightclub but is also neutral ground for the races of Night, Day and Twilight – elves and their ilk, men, and mixed breeds such as the Moth family to which Yumiko belongs. Here lurk the creatures out to kill her. Yet she disguises herself and gets a job as a Cobbler Girl – sort of a Rockette who also waits tables. She must somehow hide her gear and her ring, avoid raising suspicions, and still snoop around enough to figure out what’s going on. And save her friend and discover her lost love.

Adventures ensue. Epic, fun adventures. Check it out! Can’t wait for book 6!