Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs (Marc David Baer)

The Ottoman Empire controlled a vast swath of the Middle East, Southeast Europe, and parts of North Africa before reconstituting itself as the modern nation of Turkey in the early 20th Century. At its apex in the 17th Century, the Ottomans marched on the gates of Vienna and controlled millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a large, diverse territory. While many European accounts of the Ottomans look upon the empire as backwards, the truth was more complex. Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs offers a very authentic look at a multicultural empire that brought innovation, technology, and diversity throughout its centuries in existence.

The Ottomans traces the empire from Turkish and Mongol origins, to its conquest of the remnant of the Byzantine Empire, to its heights in the 17th Century as a global trading and military power. It also shows the Ottomans in reform, decline, constant struggles with itself and, eventually, with ethnicities within its realm. While for much of its history the Ottomans were tolerant of other faiths, they converted millions to Islam in Southern Europe and in parts of Asia. As the empire aged and eventually waned in influence, its tolerance gradually gave way to a militaristic, ethno-nationalist state that eventually committed ethnic cleansing and genocide of Armenians.

Baer’s account is informative and well-researched. We learn about how the Ottoman government functioned and how its thinking often overlapped with European thought. At its best, the Ottomans were a modern empire for the times that had economic might and controlled much of the commerce between Europe and East Asia. At its worst, the Ottoman Empire fought itself and its own people. Baer’s book helps challenge conventional thinking of “East” and “West”, while showing us a vivid account of an empire that fell apart through losing sight of what made it successful for centuries.


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Dark Social: Understanding the Darker Side of Work, Personality and Social Media (Ian MacRae)

Social media in the world of business is more than just the outward communication and marketing that are put forth on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere. It also involves internal communication, such as Slack or any internal messaging system that allows for communication between colleagues and from management down. Much has been written (and reviewed) about social media and the challenges it poses in society; however, not as much has been written about the challenges communication has within the workplace. 

Ian MacRae’s Dark Social: Understanding the Darker Side of Work, Personality and Social Media tackles social media from a business and leadership perspective. It’s a valiant attempt at helping leaders understand the landscape of the ills of social media - from bots spreading fake messages online to disgruntled employees unloading trade secrets through public and personal channels. Add to this the occasional organizational culture that fosters toxicity in the workplace and MacRae argues that it is a tricky landscape for businesses to negotiate. He argues that companies can put structures and systems in place to foster better internal behavior and help bring out the best in their employees. Much of Dark Social is behavioral psychology and how personalities in the workplace will typically behave. In this aspect, the book is incredibly worth reading.

MacRae does miss the mark in a couple aspects. First, a lack of discussion on the presence of online mobs that can destroy one’s reputation, rightly in some cases, wrongly in many others. How can businesses navigate a Twitter mob that runs with a half-truth or non-truth? Or, how do you limit or mute the presence of these mobs on social media to prevent them from getting out of hand? Second, the book lacks some best practices for individuals in prominent company positions regarding separating business and personal information online. While MacRae is right in pointing out that online and offline personas do not differ markedly, there is little given to best practices on social media usage - and perhaps the idea of a public channel for their official business capacity and a private channel for their cat video sharing. 

While social media is arguably necessary, more discussion should be had on how to navigate the minefield and how to keep personal and business separate, for the good of everyone in a company and those who lead it.


Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World (Fernanda Pirie)

Rulers, whether they be emperors or elected officials, have used laws to impose order since early civilization. Laws have served many purposes: as political or theological social control, as visions for a better world, and as guidelines for how to manage incidents and civil matters. Laws have evolved on several tracks over the millenia, and author Fernanda Pirie showcases that evolution in The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World.

Pirie’s book covers legal history from the perspective of China, India, Europe, and the Middle East, showing laws rooted in good governance and religion, evolving over centuries and adapting from each other and other geographic regions to improve upon their legal codes. In some parts of the world, such as Islamic-controlled areas, religious influence dominated the legal code and the secular government would work in improvements and secular laws as appropriate, while keeping an eye on the law’s implications to the legal code. In Christian parts of Europe, while the secular government controlled the law-making, religion and faith had influence in helping frame the build out of law. Pirie shows how English Common Law set the basis for much of the legal framework of the 19th and 20th Centuries and how the English exported their law-making system as part of their colonization of India, America, and Africa. 

Missing from this book, however, is insight into rule systems in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa before European colonization. Coverage into extralegal pursuits - such as the mob - is given a chapter. It would have been nice to see more written about rule systems in these parts of the world. The exploitation of native-born peoples at the hands of the Common Law system is properly pointed out as part of this story. That aside, The Rule of Laws is a relatively concise history of how law-making evolved over time throughout the world and is worth reading if you want insight into the evolution of rule.


Monday, March 7, 2022

The Children on the Hill (Jennifer McMahon)

I've reviewed all of Jennifer McMahon's books on this blog, from one of my absolute favorites, to one I didn't like so much. The Children on the Hill falls square in the middle for me. 

In 1978, Dr. Hildreth is a famous psychiatrist working in Vermont at her own treatment center for the mentally ill. Her grandchildren, Vi and Eric, live with her after their parents were in a horrific accident. One day, Dr. Hildreth brings another child, Iris, home to live with them. Iris won't talk and is skittish around the family. But Vi treats her like a sister, and before long, Iris comes out of her shell a bit. 

The Children on the Hill also has an alternating timeline in 2019. Lizzy Shelley is the host of a popular podcast about monsters. She is called back to the same Vermont town where she grew up -- a town where there has not only a monster sighting but a girl has gone missing.

Obviously when you're reading, sometimes you need to suspend some disbelief. But I found the connections between these two timelines implausible and confusing. Also, I would have liked to have learned so much more about Dr. Hildreth. This book still offers the same feelings of suspense and dread that McMahon is known for, but it is definitely not her best.


Expected release date: April 26, 2022