“An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America” by Nick Bunker

Like most Americans, my knowledge of the Revolutionary War is spotty. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, one if by land, two if by sea. The minutemen. Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”. Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware. Later we got the Constitution.


I didn’t realize the Revolutionary War lasted eight years. The Civil War only lasted four, but it’s sucked up most of the historical oxygen, along with World War 2. I did know that Washington was going to New Jersey when he crossed the Delaware River and that the Continental Army had terrible winters at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, even a winter that was worse than Valley Forge’s.

Reading An Empire on the Edge was helpful, therefore. The book covers events leading up to the war in great detail, sometimes in more detail than I needed. The author begins with the state of the American colonies after the French and Indian War (known elsewhere as the Seven Years War) and concludes with the British government having finally decided it’s necessary to use force to put down the rebellion in Massachusetts in 1775.

What really surprised me was the highly complicated, years-long series of events in both America and Great Britain that preceded the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in 1775. If there is one event that marked the beginning of the conflict, it was the Stamp Act, parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies by requiring printed materials to be produced on embossed paper made in London. That means there were ten years of escalating tensions, with the Americans resisting parliament’s efforts to make laws for the colonies and the British government convinced that parliament had the authority to do so. There were acts of violence on both sides, but mainly there was a lot of discussion: speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, meetings and personal diplomacy. All that talk eventually led parliament to declare Massachusetts in open rebellion and initiate a military response.

The author emphasizes throughout that, even so, the British government paid as little attention as possible to what was happening in the colonies. The government’s representatives in the colonies did a poor job informing London, while London was usually much more interested in events far from America. He sees the basic problem, however, as the inability of British aristocrats to understand the American point of view:

The crisis that led to the revolution in America had many causes, and ranking high among them was the narrowness of vision that afflicted [British prime minister Lord North] and his colleagues. . . . They found the rebels in America unthinkable. Nothing in rural Oxfordshire could prepare Lord North for an encounter, at a distance of three thousand miles, with men like . . . Ethan Allen of Vermont. For radicals like . . . Allen, the tenant was the equal of his landlord or even his moral superior; they would never pay a tithe to please a vicar or doff their hat in the street as he walked by . . . 

Perhaps the deepest divide of all was the one that separated Lord North from John Hancock. In the eyes of the king and his ministers, a Bostonian so wealthy had a duty to defend the status quo. . . .At best the man was deeply ungrateful, while at worse he was a traitor. . . 

A man with origins like those of Frederick North could never understand an enemy of Hancock’s kind. Nor could he be creative in response to the challenge that the colonies threw down. The very qualities George III liked best about him — his devotion to his church, to his king and to the landed gentry — were precisely those that rendered North incapable of governing America. . . . [368-69].

The war had been long in the making, the product of an empire and a system deeply flawed, the work of ignorance and prejudices and of men well-meaning but the prisoners of ideas that were obsolete and empty. “You cannot force a form of government upon a people”, the Duke of Richmond had said in the House of Lords . . . but although the radical duke would be proved right, it would take long years of fighting before the nation could admit that this was so [365]. 

It was never going to be as easy for Great Britain to rule over its American colonies the way it did over a country like India. The Americans believed they should be accorded the same rights as proper Englishmen. However, I came away from An Empire on the Edge feeling some sympathy for the British. I’m an American, but the Americans of the 1770s seem to have been a cantankerous lot, too ready to see looming tyranny.

Not much has changed in 250 years. 

“The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality” by Morgan Meis

This is a strange little book. It begins with the author explaining that he was living in Antwerp, in Belgium, because his wife was working on a project there. He had nothing in particular to do, but after realizing that the 17th century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had once lived in Antwerp, he decided to write a book about Rubens. It’s not a biography of Rubens though. It’s a series of brief meditations on the art of painting, ancient history, Greek mythology, Greek tragedy, hundreds of years of European history, especially Europe’s wars, and Rubens’s family, in particular the affair that Rubens’s father Jan had with Anne of Saxony, who was William of Orange’s wife, and how William of Orange and Rubens’s mother Maria reacted to the affair. There’s a lot about Friedrich Nietzsche, too. And other things.

The book’s central thread goes something like this. Silenus was a minor god in Greek mythology with a gift for prophecy. He was the very wise tutor and companion of Dionysus, the much more important god of the grape-harvest, wine, fertility, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theater. Silenus is best-known for something he once told King Midas (who was apparently a real person, but couldn’t turn anything into gold). Midas asked Silenus what is the most desirable thing for a human being. Silenus told him the best thing is not to have been born.  But if you have been born, the best thing is to die quickly.

Peter Paul Rubens’s father Jan was the legal advisor to Anne of Saxony. They had an affair, the affair was discovered and Anne’s husband William threw Jan in jail. Jan eventually got out, was forgiven by his wife Marie, but died a broken man. Their son Peter Paul grew up to become the most influential artist of the “Flemish Baroque” tradition. 

Around 1616, Rubens painted “The Drunken Silenus”. It shows Silenus stumbling along, surrounded by some of Dionysus’s retinue, which included nymphs and satyrs.


A couple years later, Rubens painted “Two Satyrs”, two more of Dionysus’s pals.


A lot of history went by. Millions died during the Thirty Years War. Hapsburgs and Bourbons went at it. The nations of Europe slowly assumed their current positions.

Then, in 1872, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Wikipedia says:

Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. . . .

. . . Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered  . . . versus reality as ordered). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity.

Which brings us back to Silenus and Dionysus, the nymphs and satyrs, especially the satyrs. And goats. The author of The Drunken Silenus thinks Nietzsche valued the wild and crazy Dionysian approach to life more than the calm and collected Apollonian. I think the key chapter of The Drunken Silenus is “Is God a goat? What possibly could that possibly mean?” 

The way Nietzsche tells it, when Silenus finally reveals to Midas the greatest thing for man, that it is best for man never to have been born and second best for a man to die quickly, Silenus lets out a shrill laugh. Silenus laughs because in telling King Midas the best thing, he actually tells him the worst thing . . . 

Nietzsche thinks the ancient Greeks — the Greeks of the satyr plays and the songs in the forest, the Greeks who came before the classical period of Plato and the brilliant days of Greek rationalism — those Greeks were bold enough to make a health of their pessimism. . . .

The olden Greeks, the ancient Greeks, thinks Nietzsche, understood life under the principle of the goat, the young goat kicking and bucking in the woods. . . Even to ask the question of what is good or bad for a man is to lose touch with the primary intuition that God is a goat. That’s to say, God is not transcendent, imperturbable, untouchable, unknowable. God is none of those things. God, if God is the God of the world, has to have the characteristics of the goat, the randiness and unpredictability, even the stupidity of the goat. . . 

And so, the question of good and bad for man is canceled before it can be asked. It is preempted. The satyr would never think to ask that question. . . . Goats don’t ask questions like “what is the best thing for goats?” Goats just go out and express goatlieness [35-38].

Getting back to Rubens, I suppose Rubens’s father and Anne of Saxony (who was also imprisoned by her husband) were the Dionysians. Rubens’s forgiving mother Marie was the Apollonian. And Rubens himself, the great artist, was a proto-Nietzsche:

When Rubens took to painting Silenus he wasn’t grabbing randomly at the bits of ancient mythology floating around in the intellectual breeze. Rubens had a whole program of satyrs and Dionysus and Silenus. . . Rubens was being very Nietzschean here, if we can be anachronistic — literally anachronistic, since it was . . . Rubens who came first and Rubens who first painted Silenus as a central figure within this story of Dionysus.

So that’s The Drunken Silenus. You might find it interesting, but I should mention that, even though it’s a short book, it’s repetitious. The author likes to repeat himself, often in the same paragraph. It also gets tedious near the end, as he starts getting more abstract and paradoxical, suggesting that life is death, and reality is unreal, that kind of thing (I’m not quoting here). It’s the kind of book that’s hard to put down until it’s easy.

Quantum Reality by Jim Baggott

The author is a former academic physicist with a leaning toward the experimental side of physics, as opposed to the theoretical side. From the preamble:

I know why you’re here.

You know that quantum mechanics is an extraordinarily successful scientific theory, on which much of out modern, tech-obsessed lifestyles depend. . . .You also know that it is completely mad. Its discovery forced open the window on all those comfortable notions we had gathered about physical reality . . . and shoved them out. Although quantum mechanics quite obviously works, it appears to leave us chasing ghosts and phantoms, particles that are waves and waves that are particles, cats that are at once both alive and dead, lots of seemingly spooky goings-on, and a desperate desire to lie down quietly in a darkened room.

But, hold on, if we’re prepared to be a little more specific about what we mean when we talk about “reality” and a little more circumspect about how we think a scientific theory might represent such a reality, then all the mystery goes away [Note: not really] . . . 

But . . . a book that says, “Honestly, there is no mystery” would . . . be completely untrue. For sure we can rid ourselves of all the mystery in quantum mechanics, but only by abandoning any hope of deepening our understanding of nature. We must become content to use the quantum representation simply as a way to perform calculations and make predictions, and we must resist the temptation to ask: But how does nature actually do that? And there lies the rub: for what is the purpose of a scientific theory if not to aid our understanding of the physical world.

. . . The choice we face is a philosophical one. There is absolutely nothing scientifically wrong with a depressingly sane interpretation of quantum mechanics in which there is no mystery. If we choose instead to pull on the loose thread, we are inevitably obliged to take the quantum representation at face value, and interpret its concepts rather more literally. Surprise, surprise, The fabric unravels to give us all those things about the quantum world that we find utterly baffling, and we’re right back where we started.

My purpose in this book is (hopefully) . . . to try to explain what it is about quantum mechanics that forces us to confront this kind of choice, and why this is entirely philosophical in nature. Making different choices leads to different interpretations or even modifications of the quantum representation and its concepts, in what I call . . . the game of theories.

Mr. Baggott follows the usual path that includes the work of Einstein and Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger and ends with various theories of the multiverse. He lost me around page 160 in chapter 7. Up until then, I felt like I was understanding almost everything. Given the nature of quantum mechanics, that probably meant I was deeply confused. After that, my confusion was obvious.

He does make clear how anyone trying to understand the reality behind quantum mechanics, or to “interpret” it, ends up veering into philosophical speculation. His strong preference is for interpretations that can be tested empirically. That’s one reason he’s skeptical about multiverse theories, which don’t seem to be testable at all.

I’m glad I read the book, but I could have jumped from chapter 7 to the Epilogue, which is entitled “I’ve Got a Very Bad Feeling About This”:

I hope I’ve done enough in this book to explain the nature of our dilemma. We can adopt an anti-realist interpretation in which all our conceptual problems vanish, but which obliges us to accept that we’ve reached the limit or our ability to access deeper truths about a reality of things-in-themselves. The anti-realist interpretations tell us that there’s nothing to see here. Of necessity, they offer no hints as to where we might look to gain some new insights of understanding. They are passive; mute witnesses to the inscrutability of nature.

In contrast, the simpler and more palatable realist interpretations based on local or crypto-local hidden variables offered plenty of hints and continue to motivate ever more exquisitely subtle experiments. Alas, the evidence is now quite overwhelming and all but the most stubborn of physicists accept that nature denies us this easy way our. If we prefer a realist interpretation, taking the wavefunction and the conceptual problems this implies at face value, then we’re left with what I can only call a choice between unpalatable evils. We can choose de Broglie-Bohm theory and accept non-local spooky action at a distance. We can choose to add a rather ad hoc spontaneous collapse mechanism and hope for the best. We can choose to involve consciousness in the mix, conflating one seemingly intractable problem with another. Or we can choose Everett, many worlds and the multiverse. . . . 

There may be another way out. I’m pretty confident that quantum mechanics is not the end. Despite its unparalleled success, we know it doesn’t incorporate space and time in the right way [it seems to presume absolute space and absolute simultaneity, not Einstein’s relative spacetime]. . . . It may well be that any theory that transcends quantum mechanics will still be rife with conceptual problems and philosophical conundrums. But it would be nice to discover that, despite appearances to the contrary, there was indeed something more to see here.

That’s the end of the book. 

I got a copy of Quantum Reality after reading a very positive review by another physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder. She said it’s “engagingly written” and requires “no background knowledge in physics”. Maybe not, but a background would help, especially when you get to chapter 7.

I did acquire one idea, which fits with an idea I already had. It seems that the famous two-slit experiment, in which a single photon appears to take multiple paths, has a simple solution. When the photon is sent on its way, it’s a wave. It passes through both slits at the same time. Then, when it hits the screen on the other side of the two slits, it becomes a particle. Maybe this is the de Broglie-Bohm theory referred to above, which implies “spooky action at a distance”. But it sounds plausible to me.

The wave instantaneously becoming a particle seems (to me) to fit with the way entangled particles simultaneously adopt opposing characteristics. One is measured and found to be “up”, which means the other instantly becomes “down”, no matter how far away the two particles are. This suggests that spacetime isn’t fundamental. The distance we perceive as being far too great for two particles to immediately affect each other isn’t the fundamental reality. There’s something going on that’s deeper than spacetime. So the way in which a wave that’s spread out simultaneously disappears, resulting in a single particle hitting a screen, reveals the same thing.

So I feel like I’m making a bit of progress in understanding physics. This is most likely incorrect, but it makes me feel better. Now all I have to do is figure out why physicists claim we couldn’t find the location of the Big Bang. Sure, space is expanding in all directions from the Big Bang, they say, but they deny the universe has a center, where the Big Bang occurred (it would make a great location for a museum and a gift shop). I don’t understand their reasons for saying there is no center.

But one small, confused step at a time.

Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée

This is a big book on a big subject. It’s 600 pages about the history of philosophy, mainly dealing with philosophy as it was practiced in English. But as the author says:

Philosophy in English is as multi-lingual as philosophy in any other language. It has always been fascinated — repelled as well as attracted — by foreign philosophy, and philosophical terms such as idea, logic, nature, politics, virtue, science and spirit, which now pass as linguistic natives, used to be seen as exotic outsiders [8].

The book’s eight chapters roughly concern the philosophical landscape in 50-year increments.There are chapters devoted to 1601, 1651, 1701, 1751 and finally 1951. But Rée never limits himself to those years. They’re merely labels for different eras. So the principal figure in the last chapter is Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose major works were published in 1913 and 1953 (and composed in German).

Witcraft was written for the general reader, although I don’t think it’s superficial. And it’s not the kind of treatment that the poet Stephen Spender complained about:

In the first lesson we were taught that J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism meant the greatest happiness of the greatest number . . . in the next tutorial we were taught that Mill was wrong . . . The next philosopher was Locke. We were told what he thought and then why he was wrong. Next please. Hume. Hume was wrong also. Then Kant. Kant was wrong, but he was so difficult that no one could be sure of  catching him out [4].

The author hopes that his stories will bring out “the ordinariness of philosophy, as well as its magnificence and its power to change people’s lives”. He sees it as “a carnival rather than a museum: an unruly parade of free spirits, inviting you to join in and make something new” [9].

In that regard, I especially recommend the chapters that revolve around Adam Smith and David Hume (1751), John Stuart Mill and Mary Ann Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot (1851), the pragmatic philosopher and psychologist William James (1901) and the intense and enigmatic Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951). They are all thinkers worth knowing about.

By the way, Wikipedia says that Jonathan Rée is “a British freelance historian and philosopher”. Educated at Oxford, he was “previously a Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex University, but gave up a teaching career in order to have more time to think“.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

I lived in and around Los Angeles for more than 30 years. After moving “back East”, I’ve seen occasional references to this book. People say you should read it if you really want to understand Los Angeles and Southern California. Here’s what Library Journal said:

Eschewing the character study that comprises most Los Angeles history, Davis concentrates on the ongoing and ignored ethnic and class struggles, formerly manifested by booster (pro-growth) exploitation, now replaced by exclusionary (no-growth) neighborhood incorporation, and by police control of Afro-American and Latino neighborhoods. His analysis of recent Los Angeles history is often chilling and–sad to say–more true than false.

I’d say the book’s general topic is power. We learn about real estate developers, the owners of The Los Angeles Times, the repressive Los Angeles Police Department, suburban homeowner associations, overseas investors and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. We also learn about the ways neighborhoods were kept all-white and the economics of the drug trade. Hollywood doesn’t get a chapter; the blue-collar town of Fontana, with the worst smog in the region, does.

The two most remarkable aspects of the book are the tremendous level of detail on certain topics (probably more than you want to know) and the pessimistic tone. City of Quartz was first published in 1990. When you read passages like the following, it’s hard to believe the city and the rest of the metropolitan area (now home to more than 13 million people) function at all thirty years later:

In Los Angeles, there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor-white boondocks with their zombie populations of speed freaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger-happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon [288].

But I guess things weren’t all bad in 1990:

Setting aside an apocalyptic awakening of the neighboring San Andreas Fault, it is all too easy to envision Los Angeles reproducing itself endlessly across the desert with the assistance of pilfered water, cheap immigrant labor, Asian capital and desperate homeowners willing to trade lifetimes on the freeway in exchange for $500,000 “dream homes” in the middle of Death Valley [10].

That’s what passes for optimism in City of Quartz.