Category Archives: History

“A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester

Based on discussions mentioning this book, and the subtitle, I figured it would be mostly about the common life in the Middle Ages.  Not quite; it’s more about the end of the Middle Ages, specifically the Renaissance and the beginnings of the Reformation.

The Middle Ages in Europe is portrayed as mostly static, with the Church and Pope wielding supreme control.  Anyone questioning the church would soon find themselves lashed to a burning stake.  The church even burned translators of the Bible into vernacular languages, for “corrupting God’s word” but actually for injuring the priests’ ability to control the message/interpretation.

Interesting aside here; it hadn’t ever really occurred to me that pilgrimages were often taken as a form of penance.  Prisons for long term incarceration didn’t really exist – it was very temporary, as the offender was quickly either released, banished, or executed.  Pilgrimage was a sort-of banishment.  This guy was one example of a noble pilgrim mentioned in the book.

Anyway, despite the prevalence of the Church, pagan superstition and belief in spirits was also widespread.  Christianity really took in a lot of what came before it, but that’s probably a story for another book.  Also: “The fear of hell was a more effective deterrent than the promise of salvation.”

Despite the Bible’s admonitions for chastity, and a priest’s vow of celibacy, the clergy in general (at least in some areas, like Italy) and several Popes in particular were notoriously promiscuous.  Apparently, some convents were more like whorehouses.   Besides this hypocrisy, the selling of indulgences for sin, even for future sin (“license to sin” I guess?) was really an outrage to any who stopped to think about it.  Martin Luther was one such individual.  Manchester points out, however, that were political circumstances not just right, with German leaders looking to assert their own authority over that of Rome, Luther would have quickly been one of many burnt alive.

Just before the advent of the printing press, the greatest libraries only had hundreds, maybe a few thousand books.  It’s pretty incredible that the “whole” of knowledge was therefore basically knowable by a single individual.

The end of the book talks a bit about the age of discovery and Magellan, but nothing really stood out to me that wasn’t already covered well enough by Bergreen.  (Yeah, I know Manchester was published first; but I read Bergreen first.)


“Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Firsthand stories from Russians who lived through the transition from communism to capitalism.  For the most part, the main emotions they have is shock and anger — Russia threw away the great dream of socialism, which they worked so hard for and suffered for (even some former work camp inmates long for the old days), and sold it so cheaply for blue jeans, VCRs, and salami.  (For some reason there is a very consistent reference to salami, as in if you have salami, life is good.  I guess it was scarce during Soviet times?)  Now, mobsters and a$$holes are in charge.

It was sickening to read about parts of Russia occupied by Germans during the war.  In one Jewish village, they marched everyone out to the woods, had men dig two big pits, threw kids in one and buried them alive; then threw everyone else in the other one and buried them.  Sick.  Of course Stalin and his like did some similar stuff; yet for the most part Stalin’s image is fairly intact, even today.  The attitude is that he was harsh, but he won the war and bootstrapped the country to the forefront of the world; he was what Russia needed at the time.  So they say.

One story from a man imprisoned in a work camp from age 16 to 30, who came out to no family or friends.  Very lonely.  Eventually married a woman who had a daughter and found some peace.  Just before he died: “Write that I was a happy man on my tombstone. That I was loved.  The most terrible torment is not being loved.”

Other choice quotes:

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.”

“We’d built it all then handed it over to the gangsters.”

“An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” by Grant H. Palmer

Palmer’s book is short but packed with tons of very interesting, well documented points that really call into question a lot of the Joseph Smith “truth” claims.  Things that stood out to me the most listed below.

  • Ch 1 – During the Book of Mormon translation, the word in English appeared on the seerstone; Joseph read it to the scribe.  So the old argument that “horse” really meant some “equivalent” animal makes no sense.  And even if it did, what about cureloms? There’s an unfamiliar animal for which Joseph didn’t pick the “equivalent”.   Similar: “Raca” in 3 nephi 12:22 is an Aramaic term.
  • Ch 2 – I didn’t realize how many parts of Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament, to the point of using the same phrasing. On one hand the same God would give same message…but what are the odds the translation from different languages and at different times would result in such commonality??  Sure seems probable that it is a product of someone steeped in the New Testament such that its words became his words.
  • Ch 3 – Book of Mormon prophecies are very specific up until about 1830, then very vague after. Hmm…  Also, not sure why this never stood out to me as odd, but the three days of light at Jesus birth and three days darkness at death – why were these not witnessed and documented around the world?  We have ancient records of eclipses and supernovas and the like; I’m sure the much more noticeable event of three day’s darkenss or light would have been noted.  I guess the event could have been localized to the Americas and not dependent on planetary geometry, so the Old World wouldn’t have been effected … ?
  • Ch. 4 – conversions in the Book of Mormon follow revival meeting pattern. The whole Book of Mormon is Methodist preaching and exhortation!  Some very striking comparisons to Methodist preachings here, similar to comparisons to the New Testament in Chapter 2.
  • Changes to the Book of Mormon — “Father” –> “Son of God” changes.   The first God in the Book of Mormon was a single individual, Father and Christ.  Later they got separated.  Some got missed eg Mosiah 15:1-4. “From the beginning, the miracle of the Restoration has been the ability of its leaders to see things in a new light.” Funny!
  • Golden Pot story – eh, ok. Kind of a stretch.
  • Witnesses – they later said that they saw with “second sight” or “eyes of our understanding” … ie imagination. All very superstitious and gullible.  Palmer points out that the witnesses and many others claiming religious experiences in this era are something like those claiming UFO sightings or alien abductions today – maybe just something about humanity; some people believe crazy stuff and it kind of propagates somehow.  Does seem disingenuous to allow church members to believe the witnesses claimed some real, physical manifestation, though…
  • Both Priesthood Restoration and First Vision seem reconstructed in later years to support Joseph’s preeminence in the church. The Palmyra revival was probably 1824; in 1838, when his official history was written, Joseph reported it was 1820.  Palmer suggests this was to preempt his previous sole claim on divine authority, which came from Moroni’s visit and bestowal of the golden plates.  In 1838, the Book of Mormon was being discredited, for one thing due to Martin Harris announcing in the Kirtland Temple that he had never physically seen the plates, only spiritually as discussed above.

With all this spiritual stuff being confused for physical … you can’t really trust Joseph or anyone’s speeches as literal.  Although I suppose that is true for all men at all times – we can never be sure what their true feelings are vs what they want another to think.  The arts of persuasion and manipulation are real.  Of course that goes for historical accounts as well.  Man, now I don’t know what to trust anymore…

“Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt

An account of the last few years of the Taiping Rebellion, with a focus on British involvement.  Although sparked by a religious movement, the author characterizes the Taiping as a long-suppressed reaction of the majority Chinese to centuries of (mis)rule by the foreign Manchu invaders, ie. the Qing Dynasty.  The Qing were ripe for overthrow and quite ineffectual by this point; their demise was postponed 50 years or so by two factors; first that the British (eventually) threw in their lot with the Qing against the Taiping on rather flimsy and biased reporting by just a few officials, and second that Zeng Guofan declined to take power for himself when he definitely could have done so.

British policy during this period flip-flopped or otherwise struggled to find a direction.  Technically, they claimed to be neutral in the Chinese civil war … but at one point, they were fighting separately against both parties.  British in Shanghai were defending against a Taiping assault while a British fleet attacked the Qing’s Taku forts and the Summer Palace at Beijing in the climax of what is now called the Second Opium War.  Soon after, the British were persuaded by Frederick Bruce that the Taiping were up to no good and the only hope for stability in China would be to help the Qing stay afloat.

Many others, including historians today, believe the Taiping were on the road to victory and would have done alright, in spite of the somewhat crazy behavior of the founder, Hong Xiuquan.  (Sidenote – not much on Hong Xiuquan’s rise or Taiping doctrine or society in this book; really just about the war.  At one point though it said that Hong Xiuquan was claiming to be the new member of the Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit…)

A fascinating character when thinking about what the Taiping might have turned into is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin.  Long before his cousin’s visions, Hong Rengan was a Christian convert in Hong Kong and worked as an assistant to foreign missionaries.  When the Taiping became ascendant, he was sent to his cousin with high hopes that “true Christianity” would replace the Taiping creole.  At first things seemed to go better than their wildest dreams – Hong Xiuquan heartily welcomed his cousin and offered him the title of “Shield King” and responsibility as the foreign minister for the Taiping government.  Hong Rengan had a grand plan of strong friendship and cooperation with Western powers in a bid jumpstart Chinese industry and technology, much like the reforms of the Meiji Restoration later in Japan.  (Another sidenote – the author points out the Japan profited well by observing China’s problems – first by opening up to the West peacefully whereas the Chinese went kicking and screaming via Opium Wars; second by accelerating technological progress to catch up to the West whereas the Qing stagnated.)  Despite his best efforts, Western perception of the Taiping went downhill and Hong Rengan’s plans were never to be.

Finally we have Zeng Guofan, the scholar-general.  A Qing government official (though not a Manchu) and product of the examination system, he became a local militia leader in Hunan in the fight against the Taiping mainly because no one else at all was left to take the job.  From the accounting in this book, he seemed very methodical in his leadership — he thought deeply about the problems at hand, devised a strategy with much careful deliberation, and then stuck to that strategy no matter what until the goal was achieved.  He became something of a warlord and ignored direct orders from the Emperor when they went against his own strategy — not out of disloyalty, but because he knew that the Emperor didn’t know as much about the “situation on the ground” as he did.  Anyway, at the end of the day, Zeng’s army conquered the Taiping capital of Nanjing, effectively killing the movement.  He very well could have taken his army on to Beijing and toppled the severely weakened Qing, but did not.  Perhaps something of a George Washington character (leaving after two terms instead of becoming King George) or maybe he just didn’t want to take on all the empire’s problems any longer.

Both Zeng, the other Qing, and the Taiping were very brutal in this conflict.  Entire populations of cities, whether the Manchu district if conquered by Taiping, or everyone if conquered by Qing, were murdered upon their capture.  Cannibalism became common in besieged cities and also in the countryside at large, being devasted by a decade of roving armies.  Not a fun time to be alive.

“From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History” by Kenneth J. Hammond

Listened to another Great Courses sweeping history series during my commute.  Plenty of interesting stuff, but I admit I got kind of lost between the Han/Song/Ming etc.  I think I just don’t have the necessary framework.  Plus maybe learning some Chinese characters would help with visualizing different people’s names in my mind and actually remembering them.

Anyway, three takeaways:

  • History is always in flux.  China in particular is a series of high points and low points, with frequent takeovers by nomadic invaders like the Jurchen, Mongol, Manchu.  Yet through it all, what remained was still China; albeit changed somewhat by each conqueror.  Still, though, Chinese identity is linked to the Han Dynasty, back in 200 BC, and not to some plains people origin.  A testament to Chinese cultural superiority?  Or just that there are so many of them?  (Yes, a relatively high Chinese population relative to surrounding tribes and the world in general has been a constant feature throughout history.)
  • To continue with the above, China is currently emerging from an anomalous period (200+ years) of backwardness and is regaining its usual position at the head of world culture and leadership.  Kind of exciting.
  • The story of the Tai Ping movement really caught my interest and I plan to read more about it.  The founder read a few Christian missionary tracts (but never the Bible), had a vision and claimed he was the brother of Jesus.  Was a very charismatic leader and attracted millions of followers to a strict, fanatic lifestyle for many years and into a war.  In some ways (except the war part and some details of course), it seems similar to Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism going on at about the same time.


“One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson

Excellent Bill Bryson as always.  A snapshot look at what was happening in America in the summer of 1927.  Of course, most of these events had backstory and aftermath that went beyond that summer, but nonetheless:

  • The biggest story by far was Charles Lindbergh‘s crossing of the Atlantic.  The event generated tons of enthusiasm; this was almost as big a deal and as incredible to imagine as the moon landing would be a generation later.   But, what really may have made the most lasting impact was Lindbergh’s follow-up cross-country tour, where he appeared in parades and other events in different cities day after day.  There was heavy press coverage; and reports of it taking him only a few hours by air to travel between cities which took a day or more by train caused interest and investment in aviation.
    • A side note to the Lindbergh story is that of Charles Levine, one of his competitors to be the first across the Atlantic by plane.  It’s almost a fable-like story: he (well, his plane the Columbia) probably would have been first if only Levine wasn’t such a big jerk.  He had two pilots lined up for the flight but kicked one out at the last minute in favor of taking a spot for himself; this pilot got an injunction that stopped the flight for a week or more.  Which is when Lindbergh took off.
  • Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs playing for the 1927 Yankees, considered by many the best team ever.  He was known as “Babe” because of his sheltered upbringing at a boys school/orphanage.  Apparently he quickly lost the boyish innocence; he was a well known womanizer and drinker.
  • President Coolidge spent the summer in South Dakota, modeling a fancy cowboy outfit.  Also he participated in the kickoff for Mt. Rushmore.  The creator, Gutzon Borglum, was an interesting fellow and a Mormon (or at least started out as one.)
  • Prohibition was in full swing.  I didn’t realize that the government intentionally poisoned “denatured” alcohol, an idea encouraged by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti Saloon League, so it wouldn’t be used for drinking – many thousands were killed anyway.
  • The curious Van Sweringen brothers were building the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, a prototype of the modern shopping mall.  They also invented the suburb in Shaker Heights.  The Van Sweringens lost everything in the Great Depression.
  • Error in the book!  Said Philo Farnsworth went to “Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City”.  It’s really in Provo, which no one outside of Utah would lump together with Salt Lake City.
  • The advent of “talkie” movies = start of dominant American culture worldwide.  Before this, many actors were immigrants – didn’t matter that they had an accent or couldn’t speak English well.  Now, the movie star image around the world became totally American.

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough


I liked McCullough’s account of the Wright brothers a lot, but fact-wise did not get too much out of it since all of this ground had been covered in my previously-read To Conquer The Air.

One new facet that struck me on this reading of the story is how determined Wilbur was to not fly until everything was ready, no matter what/who was pressuring them.  Multiple times in France and later famously at Ft. Myers near Washington, DC, many thousands of onlookers, dignitaries, and even royalty gathered hoping to see a flight, only to wait all day and be disappointed when Wilbur judged the weather or the airplane not quite right yet.  The mechanics assigned to help Wilbur with the Flyer in Le Mans were amazed how he insisted on inspecting and doing much of the work himself.  Very high standards in this regard led to a remarkable safety record for the Wrights.  The one major accident, where Orville crashed and Lt. Selfridge was killed, took place while Wilbur was away in France…I wonder if Orville let the crowds pressure him more than Wilbur did, and thus he failed to notice a crack or weakening of the propeller which eventually broke in mid-air.

Once again, I am amazed how nobody believed that they were really flying despite numerous eyewitnesses at Huffman Prairie.  I guess it gave all the more wonder and glory when they finally showed the world nearly simultaneously at Le Mans in France (Wilbur) and Ft. Myers in the US (Orville).

I think it would be fun to do a Wright Brothers-focused tour someday – Dayton, Kitty Hawk, Ft. Myers, maybe New York; then Le Mans and Pau in France followed perhaps by Rome and Berlin.

Wilbur’s early death at age 45 in 1912 from typhoid fever is sad … but at the same time, it seemed like his work was complete – the world knew flight was possible and the new age of aviation had begun – and thus the main actor freely exited stage left with characteristic humility.

“The Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest” by Jennifer Paxton


This is an audio book of the “Great Courses” series which I listened to while commuting.  Fairly interesting and well-told history of England, from the Saxon Heptarchy to Henry VII (the first Tudor).

First impression, on early English history: it’s all Vikings.  The Roman Britons were pushed out by Germanic raiders who seemed pretty similar to the raiders later known as Vikings.  This initial wave of settlers was the “Anglo-Saxons.”  Later, other Viking raids and settling continued.  England even had a Viking king, Cnut the Great, shortly before the Norman Conquest.

Second impression is a continuation of what I realized from reading earlier books – the world is in a constant state of change.  Peoples are always on the move; no one is an “aborigine.”

“Empire of the Summer Moon” by S. C. Gwynne


Pretty interesting history of the Comanche during the Texas-Indian wars, and also a sort-of biography of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  Cynthia was kidnapped in a raid on her family’s frontier fort when she was 9 years old.  The Comanche sometimes adopted white children “into the tribe” and this is what happened with her.  She became a Comanche and eventually married a chief.  Nearly 25 years later, she was “rescued” (and her husband killed) by whites and reunited with family members.  She was regarded as a little crazy because she kept trying to escape back to the Comanche!  Kind of sad as it is pretty obvious that she wasn’t going to fit in / didn’t want to fit in, and never did.

Cynthia’s “rescue” happened when Quanah was 12.  He escaped, but never saw her again.  He became a mighty war chief, organizing all sorts of raids himself against the hated Texans.  Eventually, the warring came to an end for two main reasons: the slaughter and subsequent scarcity of the buffalo made survival very difficult, and the persistent efforts of the US Army in the 1870s under Mackenzie.  On the reservation, Quanah adapted to the white man’s life as completely as his mother did to the Comanche.  He became a skilled negotiator and businessman, chiefly through managing access to Comanche land by cattle ranchers.  (Some of these activities sound similar to mob “protection rackets” where a large group of Indians would approach ranchers and say how much of a shame it would be if all their cattle went missing, but they would help protect them … for a small fee.)  The Comanche looked to him for leadership, and he was known for generosity in feeding all comers and helping them out in his Star House.

Some other things I learned / thought were interesting:

  • The Comanche are described as having a very simple and war-like culture.  The were a stone age band of buffalo hunters and master horsemen who brutally attacked and tortured other Indians.  The author explains that because Plains Indians were 4000 years late to agriculture compared to the West, they were that much further behind in the “tech tree” (to frame it in a Civ-like manner).  They were very violent and didn’t have a set of familiar morals and so a lot of the things they thought nothing about seemed really horrible to the settlers (and to us today).  Like choking a 7-week old infant, then tying rope around his neck and having a horse drag him through prickly cactus.  Or bringing a 15 year old white girl prisoner, with visible scars of her torture (cut off/burned nose) on a San Antonio trading/peace negotiation trip.  They had no idea that such a sight would outrage the Texans.
  • The Spanish and later Mexicans were plagued by the Comanche just as the Americans later were.  Comancheria is a big reason why Mexico never really extended north beyond Texas.  It didn’t help the Spanish that the neighboring Apache, themselves persecuted by the Comanche, tried to put the Spanish in situations where they would be in the path of the warring Comanche, and not the Apaches.  eg. The San Saba massacre – they persuaded the Spanish to set up a mission in “Apache homeland” but actually it was in Comancheria.
  • James W. Parker, Cynthia’s uncle – shady, yet fascinating character.
  • Backwards Indian policy: many tribes noticed that in treaties (which were silly since they never really understood them, and which no band’s chief could ever make binding over any other band), they often got lots of food and other gifts.  But, if they did nothing, they were ignored (at best.)  So they raided intensely in the summer, then signed a treaty in the fall to get food for winter.  Meanwhile, the “good” Indians who did not raid got nothing.  Those on reservations were even denied their annuity payments, since they went to compensate the settlers who had been raided.  There was every incentive for the Indians to reject reservations and just raid settlers.
  • Just a few years after joining the reservation, Quanah and others got permission to go out on a last buffalo hunt in 1878.  It’s not known if they planned it to be a regular event or not; it turned out to be the first and last because there weren’t any more buffalo!  The Comanche were astounded to not find any buffalo for 100 miles, in areas where previously they had never been out of sight of a buffalo.  There were even cattle ranchers in sacred Palo Duro Canyon.  (The canyon and the Caprock Escarpment sound like some interesting geography – would like to see someday.)

“Apollo: The Race to the Moon” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox


Great book that focuses primarily on the engineering problems and people of the Apollo program.  Not so much on the actual missions or astronauts, except when something went wrong and the guys on the ground had to figure it out.  As everyone knows, during every mission there was a roomful of engineers and flight controllers (the MOCR, “Mission Control”) who knew the systems like the back of their hand, continuously scanning their screens full of numbers for any inkling of a problem.  What I didn’t know, is that every operator in the room was connected to their own “back room” full of other engineers looking at the same info and available for consultation at anytime via the “loops.”  Furthermore, for really bad problems (like Apollo 13), they were able to reach out to even more people and sites, such as the contractors, basically in real time.  During the 13 crisis, probably over a thousand engineers around the country went to work in the middle of the night to support.

There was some intense flight ops sim training.  Only 10-20% of the procedures and software dealt with the nominal case.  Lots of things that could go wrong.  Some said that the real missions were piece of cake compared to the sims.  The flight controllers were there in the MOCR, but they were hooked up to a nearly equal number of sim operators controlling the flight and injected any problems they could think of.

As far as planning for going to the moon, engineering-wise it was a decent next step after Mercury, which got us into orbit.  Politics really pushed it forward by a decade or so, however.  Really seemed to be kind of a publicity stunt: the Russians had beat us to space with Sputnik and likely were going to beat us to having a man in space (they did).  So we had to pick a far enough out event that we had a chance on: the moon landing.  It was acknowledged that it was not really for science from the get-go.  All the science that Apollo produced could have done much more cheaply and safely without men in the loop.

Deciding on L.O.R (Lunar Orbit Rendezvous) was not easy.  For a while, it was either a choice between Direct Ascent (one big rocket to take off from Earth, land backwards on Moon, then takeoff back for home) or E.O.R (Earth Orbit Rendezvous – launch pieces separately into Earth orbit, final assembly there, then proceed as with Direct Ascent).  Joe Shea was one of the early managers who applied the principles of systems engineering, matured in the recent ICBM programs, to the problem and got everyone to agree to LOR.

“Only three things matter – man, moon, decade.”  These were the high-level requirements which drove everything else.  George Mueller decided to go with all-up testing because there was no time to incrementally test stages.  Seems very risky, and it was!  Some other systems engineering successes:

  • Discarded plans for a complex nuclear gas gauge in favor of secondary backup fuel tank with enough to get back to earth from moon.
  • Heat shield was predicted to degrade after 13 hours of interstellar cold (when facing away from sun)– engineers wanted to develop a brand new material for heat shield; but Shea’s solution was to apply a slow spin to the CSM so that it would be warmed by the sun.

The Apollo 1 fire happened during mock launch test event.  The combination of pure oxygen in capsule, plus faulty wiring yielded the fire; a complicated series of hatches that effectively locked the astronauts in made the accident fatal.  It seemed like the program was going too fast and putting safety in the background.  Although, the problem DID manifest itself during a ground test, as it should have.  The real failure was in the hatch – it was too complicated to open in time.  It was lucky that they didn’t encounter the same problem in space, which may have shut down program likely.  (Although it was a risky business no matter what; all engineering can do is reduce the probability of failure.  Even if something is 99% ok and you are unlucky enough to draw the 1% failure, you are still the goat … there is no way with something like Apollo, with such a limited number of trials, to operationally prove a 99% success rate.)  Grueling disassembly of the ruined CSM followed the fire.  Procedures were written for the removal of each and every part (down to the screws) and NASA and North American reps witnessed removal of each.

The overwhelming success of 501 (aka Apollo 4), the first all-up test of Saturn V, only 1.5 years after fire, was likely achieved only due to the renewed sense of urgency and attention to detail that came out of the fire.

Finally, while Apollo 11 gets all the glory, to the engineers the actual most significant mission was Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon.  It was only the second manned Apollo mission, period.  But it showed that the era of spaceflight beyond the Earth had begun.