Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books That I Rated 5 Stars on Goodreads This Year

I read the signs, I got all my stars aligned
My amulets, my charms, I set all my false alarms
So I'll be someone who won't be forgotten
I've got a question and you've got the answer

I've been working on a real, serious blog post about gender, language, and science fiction for about 3 months now. It will finally be ready before the end of next month. Here's something entirely different to read while you wait for that post, which, when it finally gets here, is going to be pretty rad.

~   ~   ~

I've been using Goodreads for four or five years now. Like most social media, I waver between thinking of it as a bad habit or a useful tool. Unlike other social media, though, Goodreads is really not about creating, curating, and presenting a public persona. Instead, Goodreads is more of a endlessly drawn out contest with myself that I can never win. 

Goodreads makes the organic, natural, amorphous process of reading books into a concrete numbers game. Before I met Goodreads, I never counted how many books I read in a year, I didn't think about how many pages I read, and when I stopped reading a book in the middle somewhere and set it aside, I eventually just forgot about it. Now I compare every year's books read to past years (this year: 44; last year: a whopping 87—I had a lot of free time in 2014, tell you what) as well as the years' respective page counts. I've also been reminded continually for the last 6 months that I started two books and did not finish them, a fact which I am have been trying to bring myself to resolve one way or the other for what seems like forever. 

Goodreads encourages you to assign a score to the books you read, as if they could all be boiled down easily to a single dimension: good or bad, yes or no, liked it or didn't. And I do this with every book I read, even though it's absurd. What follows are short descriptions of all the books I rated 5 out of 5 stars this year (their order is the order I read them in). They're wildly different—varying considerably in scope, quality, genre, depth, length, and in dozens of other ways—but Goodreads does not ask me about these things, and I would probably be even more unhappy if it did.

~   ~   ~

The Book: The Resurrection of the Son of God, by NT Wright

What It Is: A pretty dense and thorough investigation of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Why I Read It: I finished the first two books in NT Wright's series of really huge and important books about the New Testament and history and theology and whatnot and decided to keep going. I subsequently crashed and burned when it came to finishing the next book, the 1700-page behemoth Paul and the Faithfulness of God

You Should Read It If: You are a hardcore Bible nerd and/or want someone to tell you in hella detail what's up with the Resurrection. 

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It's an excellent book, a serious scholarly achievement, and I was proud of myself for finishing it. 

The Book: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

What It Is: A weird and beautiful novel that jumps across time and space in an eerie way. Also the source material for a 3-hour movie by the Wachowskis.

Why I Read It: I read and loved David Mitchell's 2014 novel The Bone Clocks and wanted to read the book that made him a star.

You Should Read It If: You somehow made it out of the last ten years without someone making you read it and also you didn't watch the movie.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: I wouldn't say it changed my life, but the book is like nothing else I've read, in a really good way.

The Book: Class Action, by Shawn Gude and Bhaskar Sunkara (eds.)

What It Is: A series of essays critiquing current trends in education and advocating better educational systems and methods from a left-wing political viewpoint.

Why I Read It: I am an aspiring educator and leftist.

You Should Read It If: You are a leftist, or a teacher, or both, or if the creeping privatization of our nation's education worries you.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: I haven't thought about it too much since, having already internalized most of its basic ideas, but I felt at the time that it was a really important book that other people should read. Maybe I wanted to help bump up its score on Goodreads—it doesn't have many reviews.

The Book: Debt: the First 5000 Years, by David Graeber

What It Is: A really, really broad history of money and debt; the author, an anarchist activist and anthropologist, attempts to track the subject across literally the whole of human history.

Why I Read It: I read about it on the science fiction website Tor, where it was recommended as a way of getting into the mindset required to create alien societies. This was, it must be said, a pretty weird way to stumble across this book.

You Should Read It If: You want to have a good time learning about the history of money and aren't too hung up on whether every detail of what you read is true. 

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It radically changed my understanding of money and several other facets of human history. In retrospect, I should have been discerning enough to realize that the book is somewhat beyond the scope of the author's expertise; as it is, some of the historical and factual claims he makes are clearly wrong. I still think it's a good book, but I want to do some more fact checking before I recommend it to others.

The Book: Saga Deluxe Edition, Volume 1, by Brian K. Vaughan

What It Is: A fantasy space opera about war and family and sex and death. Star Wars for grownups.

Why I Read It: I wanted to give a signed copy of it to my friend Daniel for his birthday and I needed to make sure the actual, physical book I bought him was in good shape to get signed. I also love the books.

You Should Read It If: You are an adult who likes Star Wars but also knows that it is for children.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It contains a lot of Saga, which I love, as well as commentary on the creation of Saga by author Brian K. Vaughan, who I also love.*

The Book: The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

What It Is: An in-depth history of U.S. slavery, which makes a strong case for slavery as the economic engine driving the U.S. economy in the first half of the 19th century.

Why I Read It: I had to pick a book for a history class book report and decided to be an overachiever about it. I actually posted the review here on this blog earlier this year.

You Should Read It If: You want a lot of information about American slavery, compellingly presented.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It presents very detailed and potentially dull research in a lively, personable way. The subject is one I care a lot about.

The Book: The Inverted World, by Christopher Priest

What It Is: A piece of a sort of anti-science-fiction, in which the main character turns out not to be the hero of the story (nor the villain), and who cannot accept that the strange world he gradually learns about and masters is actually a distortion and a lie.

Why I Read It: I love this book and hadn't read it in a few years.

You Should Read It If: You like good books about weird and vaguely unsettling (but not creepy or gross) things.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: This is one of my all-time favorites, a book I try to read every few years. It's strange and lovely and slightly upsetting all at once.

The Book: The Martian, by Andy Weir

What It Is: A software engineer's idea of a good book, combining humor, adventure, and a constant stream of life-threatening technical problems with hastily assembled solutions.

Why I Read It: I wanted to read the book before I saw Matt Damon in the movie.

You Should Read It If: You missed the movie. Or: You saw the movie and want slightly more jokes and a lot more descriptions of engineering puzzles.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: While it's not a great work of literature, it was a really genuine pleasure to read--lots of fun, quick, light, and exciting.

The Book: Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

What It Is: Modern fantasy set in an unnamed mideast police state during the Arab Spring.

Why I Read It: It had been on my list for ages, who knows where I heard about it from, and I finally just caved and tracked down a copy.

You Should Read It If: You read the Arabian Nights and thought, Yes, this, but with computers also.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It's lighthearted and fun. I haven't really thought much about it since, but I liked it a great deal at the time.

The Book: The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin

What It Is: High fantasy, concerning a world constantly beset by earthquakes, in which the powers that be maintain control through a caste of enslaved wizards with the power to create and prevent tectonic events.

Why I Read It: I am obsessed with NK Jemisin's work and read everything of hers I can get my hands on. Her work is unusual in that it is speculative fiction that acknowledges that people of color exist. It shares this quality with some of my other favorite authors of late: Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Samuel R. Delany.

You Should Read It If: You are a literate human being.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It's a great book, but also I really just want NK Jemisin to win.

The Book: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

What It Is: A classic work of science fiction about a planet where gender doesn't exist and everyone is both sexes at once.

Why I Read It: For the big project I'm working on that I mentioned at the top of this post.

You Should Read It If: You are a reader of speculative fiction who has somehow not already read this stone cold classic of the genre. 

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: It's a gorgeous book that I loved reading and wished I had more of when I was done.

The Book: Saga, Volume 5, by Brian K. Vaughan

What It Is: Saga, only more so.

Why I Read It: I love Saga in particular and Brian K. Vaughan's work in general.

You Should Read It If: You read Saga Deluxe Edition, Volume 1 or any other edition of Saga issues 1 through 18.

Why I Gave It 5 Stars: I'm honestly not sure. In terms of innovation, enjoyability, and other qualities, it's probably a little behind the first two volumes. But what the hey: I love them all equally and unconditionally. 

~   ~   ~

Why use Goodreads at all? The list above does not reflect which books I thought about the most, or which most changed my view of the world, or which I most want to recommend to friends. (I think about We Who Are About ToAncillary Justiceand Galileo's Middle Finger much more often than, say, Alif the Unseen or The Martian, in spite of having rated them lower.) Assigning a rating is clearly arbitrary, often based on momentary whims. I never rate a book one star, because that would involve forcing myself to read all the way through a book that I hate (or to rate a book I had not finished), so a big part of the rating system is wasted on me.

So it's clearly not for the rating system that I use this service. One big use I get from it is the ability to track books I want to read in the future, without declaring that I necessarily want to own them by, say, putting them on an online wishlist. Even that, though, can turn into a burden--my  To Read list is too long to expect to ever actually finish; I will end up forgetting why I was interested in many of its books long before I get around to reading them, and in the meantime, I will feel guilty about not reading them.

Here's the real reason I keep going: Goodreads feels like posterity. It's a reminder that I've accomplished things I set out to do with purpose. It's like a little record of what I was thinking about over the years; long since I've forgotten the day-to-day events, I can look back and see that I was interested in, the speculative fiction of Jeff VanderMeer in the second half of 2014, the historical Jesus in fall 2013, and the Master and Commander novels throughout 2012. That's a good feeling, and for that alone, if for nothing else, I plan to keep on keeping track of what I read, and what I think about it, using the magic of the internet.

*Here is a picture of the two of us:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

In Defense of Boring Movies - Timbuktu

This post is part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies

It’s a time which separates the beloved from those they love,
And when you think of them, painful obsessive thoughts are all that come.
—"Cler Achel (I Spent the Day)," Tinariwen (trs. from Tamasheq)

What is a boring movie? A boring movie is one whose purpose is not to entertain, but to provoke thought. Watching a boring movie is about self-improvement: it's like sitting down to read a book of ancient philosophy or densely written fiction—in the end, it can be rewarding and even fun, but you have to put in the work yourself.

There are no rules for how to make a movie like this, but a couple of common characteristics have emerged as I have studied this kind of film. One is sparing use of music: many of these movies refuse to use music as a crutch to tell the audience how to feel. (The previous entry in this series, Steven Soderbergh's black and white Raiders of the Lost Ark cut, might seem to be an exception, since the whole movie is set to music and has no dialogue or other sound, but the music in the film is never the first choice for pairing with the images on screen, and sometimes even actively works against the natural emotion that the scene might be invoking.)

The other characteristic is frequent use of long shots. (Long in time, not distance.) Lengthy shots force viewers to slow down and reckon with what we're actually seeing, to focus on images and allow thoughts to bloom in response, rather than trying to keep track and make sense of a rapid sequence of cuts designed to carry forward a plot and maintain interest. Click the clip below and watch for 60 seconds or so for a good example, comparing last year's frenetic Interstellar with the grave, somber 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The whole video is worth watching, by the way, but some other time when you're not reading this post!)

The movie I'm reviewing here, 2014's excellent Timbuktu, has both of these qualities in spades. The director, Abderrahmane Sissako, uses long shots to establish a quiet, even meditative mood, which is tough (and, in a way, bold) considering the movie's premise: in 2012, Timbuktu, an important city in Mali, west Africa, was occupied by Islamic militants, and Timbuktu depicts life during their regime. 

The sparing use of music is a tool that requires viewers to focus on their emotional reaction to and interpretation of a scene. Music can be used to enhance a scene, sure, but it can also simply tell the viewer what to think or feel; refusing to use music in almost any scene in Timbuktu, Sissako lets the audience think for themselves about the nature of life in occupied Timbuktu; for the most part, the slow pace and refusal to heighten tensions with music lends the whole thing a humdrum feel, especially in the first half of the movie. Life goes on in the city, less conveniently, with more difficulty and strangeness, but still feeling very ordinary.

In Timbuktu, though, unlike other films in this series, music has a specific meaning throughout the film: all forms of music are forbidden by the occupying regime, so when music does show up in the film, it is usually associated with illicit activities. Mostly, the association is subtle; music plays in the soundtrack almost exclusively during events that are, in one way or another, illicit or forbidden, as in this questionably legal soccer game, played without a ball because soccer is forbidden (note: the scene involves one person speaking through a translator, and subtitles appear for the translator but not the original speaker):


The association is direct, though, in at least one case, where some young adults are arrested for gathering and making music:

Sissako employs long (sometimes very long) shots to great effect. Not only does he get viewers to slow down and really contemplate what is happening on screen, as with any longer shot, but he also uses long takes to make us absorb and process singularly uncomfortable, disquieting moments. By refusing to cut away to a new angle, the audience is provided with no relief, and we are forced to reckon with the discomfort radiating from the screen. Take, for example, this accidental death (murder?) scene, in which confrontation, awkward struggle, accidental gunshot, flight, and death take place in just four shots over three and a half minutes: 

Note music doesn't interfere with the awkwardness and discomfort of the struggle, but arrives after the crime has occurred, continuing the connection between music and illicit actions. 

~   ~   ~

Timbuktu asks us that most unsettling of questions: What if the monsters we fear most are just like us? In other words: If the occupiers in Timbuktu are simply ordinary men, who argue over soccer, make bumbling mistakes, and put forth bad arguments to cover poor or self-serving decisions, what separates us from them? Could we become like them given similar circumstances?

And in the tradition of boring movies, it gives plenty of space—plenty of slow-paced, quiet screen time, unencumbered by music or frenetic action—to contemplate the answer. 

~   ~   ~

To wrap things up, here are some more reasons to watch this movie, if you're still on the fence:
  • If you're a language nerd like me, you'll love it—the characters speak not only widely spoken languages like English, French, and Arabic, but also the local languages Bambara and Tamasheq (one of my favorite bands, Tinariwen, perform primarily in Tamasheq).
  • Like just about any film on my Boring Movies list, it's visually striking, and all the more so because you get plenty of time to look. Western Africa is rarely depicted in media that Americans watch, and it's a beautiful place to shoot a movie.  
  • Unusually for the Boring Movies list, the movie has more of an ensemble cast--there is a central plot line of sorts, but lots and lots of characters get generous screen time and character arcs. I think this gives the movie a unique and intriguing feel. 
  • Also, unlike most of the films in this series, Timbuktu clocks in under two hours—at a quick 96 minutes!
  • If you're still unsure, the late, great Dissolve website has an excellent review that might help you decide.  
If you're like me and still have a Netflix DVD account, you can get Timbuktu that way, but it's also available as a video on demand from Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes

Monday, May 11, 2015

Some Flags of Regional Independence

Bright burns the sun upon the misty mountain
Where the woodland waters run and tumble to the sea
With the force of your story, O Cascadia
Work of the ages, garden of our dreams
—"O Cascadia,"  Lloyd Vivola

Last time I talked about flag design, it was as preparation for a UK without Scotland. Sadly, the referendum on Scottish Independence failed, but with hilarious results for this spring's UK elections, which took place last week:

Left: "2010UKElectionMap". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Right: "2015UKElectionMap" by Italay90, recoloured by Cryptographic.2014 - This file was derived from: 2010UKElectionMap.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

You can check out the election in detail on the Wikipedia page, but suffice it to say that convincing a somewhat slim majority of Scots to vote against independence backfired a little bit. See how the north of the country, i.e. Scotland, switches from mostly mottled orange (the centrist Liberal Democrats) and red (the center-left Labour party) to yellow? That's Scotland sending a huge wave of members of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) to sit in parliament. In other words, 56 of Scotland's 59 representatives in the UK parliament are now from a party that doesn't think Scotland should be part of the UK any more

That's huge. I won't go into much detail on why this happened, mostly because I'm an American and I can't pretend to understand it all, but the basic point is that a lot of Scots were ready last year for some kind of independence from the United Kingdom—almost 45% of voters voted in favor of independence in a referendum. And many anti-independence voters may have changed their minds since then, because many feel like they were scared out of voting for independence by UK officials who came to them with empty threats and predictions of economic disaster and chaos. 
Left: flag of Scotland (source), right: one of my proposed flags for a post-Scotland UK

Unfortunately for the Scots, the majority of whom lean left politically, the result of the elections were that the Conservatives (blue on the map) will be leading the country, probably for the next five years. At least they totally stuck it to the man, though. 


Because of that dramatic result in the UK elections, regional independence movements were on my mind this week. Another movement I've been think about recently is Cascadia. On a map, Cascadia looks something like this: 

"Cascadia map and bioregion vector" by Lucas Thoms, CC license 

That's actually two maps stacked on top of each other, which is necessary because Cascadia is a bit more amorphous than Scotland. The green portion shows you the three main modern political units that compose Cascadia, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, while the dotted outline shows the ecological range of Cascadia. Cascadia, you see, is both a bioregion,1 that is, an area with shared geographical/ecological characteristics, and a social unit, a place where, even across the national border between the US and Canada, there is a shared culture and broad system of values; not coincidentally, these shared values include a specific set of attitudes about how humans should relate to nature, which is why a political independence movement around an bioregion actually makes a fair bit of sense, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where politics and the environment are closely linked.

The Cascadian bioregion by itself looks something like this, by the way:

"Cascadia bioregion map" by CatJar, CC license
(Here's a bigger and better version with more information.) The Seattle Globalist describes the Cascadian movement thus: 
At the heart of the Cascadian idea lies the belief that Pacific Northwesterners have more in common with each other than with people in other parts of the U.S. and Canada. “I align more with Vancouver B.C. than I do with most places in my own country, and I think a lot of people feel the same way,” says Max Shurman, one of many activists involved with Cascadia Now...Although the Cascadia concept is not a purely political one, supporters argue that secession would bring needed political and social autonomy to the region. “One of the reasons we never get around to fixing the social problems we care most about is because we have to worry about bringing places like Texas, Arizona, and Mississippi to the table,” Shurman said. “If you’re trying to expand social programs in these places, you’re going to lose every time.”
As with any reasonably strong independence movement, Cascadia has its own flag (called the "Doug Flag" after the Douglas fir it features), and it's actually pretty rad: 

"Doug Flag" uploaded by Lexicon and modified by Vanisaac, CC license

Blue is for the sky and the region's waters, including the Pacific Ocean; white is for snow and clouds; and green is for evergreens, while the tree is a Douglas fir, a tree common in the region, which symbolizes endurance, defiance, and resilience. It's a pretty great flag, and the movement is relatively widely known and popular, so it's not a big surprise that the Doug Flag will show up at big events on both sides of the US/Canada border in the northwest, most famously soccer games: 

"Cascadiasoccerflag" by cascadia dan - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 


The third regional independence movement on my brain lately is the one that basically settled in there as a child and never really left: the Confederate States of America (CSA). I had a moderate obsession with the American Civil War throughout my childhood, which probably started with a trip to Gettysburg in elementary school, but reached as far as being the subject of my favorite book from the 5th through 8th grades, as well as a favorite video game for Windows 95 (that I still sometimes crave another session with, though it's next to impossible to play on modern computers). The Rebellion is especially present in my mind recently, however, as I have been reading about and reflecting on American slavery, and especially over the last year, since I moved to an area where the CSA battle flag is all over the place, especially on people's cars.

I see this flag a lot these days, and it's almost always shocking to me. Source
What many don't seem to know is that the typical "Rebel flag" pictured above was never the official flag of the CSA; it was, rather, a battle flag (this rectangular version belonged to the Army of Tennessee; a square version was used by the Army of Northern Virginia). That is, it was primarily intended for use for Southerners trying to make sure they were killing the right people on the battlefield. The official flag of the CSA changed several times, but it never looked quite like the battle flag above:

Left: "Stars and Bars" (source), Center: "Stainless Banner" (source), Right: "Blood-Stained Banner" (source)
These three flags were the official flags of the CSA. The leftmost was the flag from 1861 to 1863; when it was cast aside for looking too much like the US flag and confusing soldiers on the battlefield. The center flag was the flag until 1865, when it was discarded for looking too much like a flag of truce.

Whether the Rebel flag is being seriously displayed today as a symbol of a modern regional independence movement is doubtful in almost every case. Mostly, it seems to be about pride in a region's culture.

Regardless, I am one of the 30% of Americans who have a negative reaction when I see it. Many Americans believe that the Civil War was primarily about states' rights for self determination rather than slavery, and this is simply historically not true. Listen to Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the CSA, if you won't take it from me; he said in a public speech, describing his new country and its constitution, that "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of the equality of all human beings]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

It makes my blood boil a little bit every time I see this battle flag, because at its origin it specifically represents a willingness, not just to separate politically from, but especially to kill one's neighbors over the right to keep black people as property and exploit them for material gain.

So I have mixed feelings about movements to secure regional independence: the motives for independence are more important than the concept itself.2 With the Confederacy, Cascadia, Scotland, and regional independence in general swirling in my brain this last week, I headed over to the Vexillology subreddit to look at flags, and think about what might be and what might have been. (If you're unfamiliar with Reddit, I wrote some things about navigating it here.) While I was there, I stumbled on a request for a flag for the bioregion of Laurentia, which I happen to live in:
"Bioregions and Biotones of North America" by Decadeologee. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

Activist Peter Berg describes bioregionalism, which is what both the Cascadia movement and the proposed Laurentia movement are all about, this way:
Because it is a cultural idea, the description of a specific bioregion is drawn using information from not only the natural sciences but also many other sources. It is a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness. Anthropological studies, historical accounts, social developments, customs, traditions, and arts can all play a part. Bioregionalism utilizes them to accomplish three main goals:
  1. restore and maintain local natural systems;
  2. practice sustainable ways to satisfy basic human needs such as food, water, energy, housing, and materials; and
  3. support the work of reinhabitation.
The latter is accomplished through proactive projects, employment and education, as well as by engaging in protests against the destruction of natural elements in a life-place.
It's not at all clear to me that a Laurentian bioregional movement would go anywhere; it seems a lot more spread out and multi-cultural than Cascadia, for one thing (though I suppose it really only consists of two of America's 11 cultural "nations," the Midlands and Yankeedom), and I'm not sure the region is really prepared for or interested in an ecological approach to socio-politics. The sparsely populated r/Laurentia subreddit, at any rate, is evidence that any such movement has a long way to go (compare it to r/Cascadia to see what I mean).

That said, I jumped at the chance to make a flag, especially one that's relevant both to the place that I live and my interests. I decided to try to represent the St. Lawrence river, the Great Lakes, and forests and plains, which are all features of the region. My first draft was pretty rough:

...but once I refreshed my memory of how many Great Lakes there actually are (turns out, there's five!), and did some hunting for better colors (yellow in particular), I came up with a submission I was pretty proud of:

Here's my original description:
Flag meaning: The dark blue stripe from bottom left to top right represents the St. Lawrence River, which flows southwest to northeast. The color recalls both the flags of the US and Quebec. Green represents forest, burnt yellow represents plains and farm land; green above represents the more forest-dominated Canada in the north, while yellow below represents the more plains- and farm-oriented US section in the south.
Five white circles represent the five Great Lakes, as well as five of the most populous North American cities that are found in the region (New York, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal, Philadelphia). These circles also subtly suggest a broken chain, recalling the region's history as a home for escaped slaves. The white color again recalls both the US and Quebecois flags (their white stars/fleur-de-lis, respectively), while also standing for both the clarity of the region's water and its cold, snowy climate. The flag's 2:1 ratio is the same as that of Canada's national flag. Importantly, the flag adheres to the principles of good flag design: it's simple, uses meaningful symbolism, has few colors and no lettering or seals, and it's both distinctive from and related to other regional flags.
I was pretty proud of this design, but while I think I did a good job creating meaning, it lacks a little something in visual flair: the Doug Flag this ain't, at least not yet. So I made some variations; you can find all of them here, but below are a few of my favorites.

In this simple variation, the white above represents the cold, snowy climate of the bioregion, and its placement on top represents Laurentia's northern location. It also has the same three colors as the Doug Flag, which serves to connect the two movements iconographically as well as ideologically. 

For this one, I tried to add some visual interest by curving the center line representing the St. Lawrence River.

For additional interest in this variation, I changed the Great Lakes' circles into fleurs-de-lis taken from the Quebec flag. They represent the region's early French explorers and settlers, who also gave many of the region's places their modern names (or, alternatively, their still-used French spellings of Native American names--this is especially noticeable in place names where "ch" is pronounced like English "sh," as in Michigan and Chicago). I also made variations with the US flag's stars and the Canadian flag's maple leaf, but none was quite so pleasant looking as the fleur-de-lis.

This last one was just for fun. Its literal representation of the Lakes recalls the finely detailed picture of the Douglas fir on the Doug Flag. 

1. The bioregion of Cascadia is described thus on its Wikipedia page: "The Cascadia Bioregion claims the entire watershed of the Columbia River (as far as the Continental Divide), as well as the Cascade Range from Northern California well into Canada. It's also considered to include the associated ocean and seas and their ecosystems out to the continental slope."
2. There are so many more interesting movements out there that I could go into; in particular, Transnistria comes to mind (because I know people who have actually been there), as do its fellow non-UN member states, most of which are regional independence movements of one kind or another.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

The following is a book review that, like my last post, was originally created for a history class, which I'm taking as part of my elementary education course load.

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York, New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a sweeping history of American slavery, detailing its effects on the social, political, economic, and military development of America. The book traces American slavery from modest origins through rapid expansion. It weaves personal narrative strands of slaves, enslavers, abolitionists, soldiers, and politicians into a cloth of economic, social, and political patterns to produce a brilliant tapestry, depicting slavery barreling across the American landscape, drunk on blood and torture and profit, nigh unstoppable in its fury.

Baptist borrows an image from Ralph Ellison to organize the book: slavery as a “trussed-up giant, stretched out on the rack of America’s torture zone,” (xxiv). Each chapter is identified by both a time period and a body part of the trussed-up giant (Chapter 5 is “Tongues,” Chapter 9, “Backs”), the latter signifying how slavery “seemed to reduce African Americans to body parts: feet walking like a chained machine, hands on the block and hands picking, minds and nervous systems yielding revenue, providing entertainment and pleasure” (415). The Half Has Never Been Told relies primarily on the vividness of personal narratives to capture and keep reader interest, only supplying the occasional chart, graph, or political cartoon when needed to drive a point home. For a book that focuses so heavily on migration and sectional strife, it is curiously short on maps—there are just a few, all clustered at the start.

These two map sets (pages 12 and 14) show the westward expansion of slavery and cotton production

Baptist’s thesis is that slavery was the dynamic engine that powered the United States’ rapid economic growth in the first 80 years of the country’s existence, and that it did so by extracting incredible efficiency through brutal torture. According to Baptist, slavery was not an anomaly or an accident, doomed from the start to die off naturally, but an integral part of the way America functioned, which had to be vigorously opposed before it could be destroyed (xvii-xix).

Baptist marshals a broad array of sources to make his case. Using primary sources like newspapers, legislative proceedings, collected family papers, and slave narratives, but also secondary literature, like academic journals and monographs, he shows how slavery was built into the nation from the first. Far from causing insurmountable problems in the early years, “the possibilities that enslaved people represented…would actually forge links that overrode internal divisions” (4). Citing debates at the Constitutional Congress, Baptist claims “interest was the governing principle of shaping the Constitution. In the interest of both profit and unity” most white Americans “proved willing to permit the movement of enslaved people” (11). Through both detailed statistical information (114) and captivating personal narratives (escaped slave Charles Ball’s story, for example), Baptist shows that slavery was expanded rapidly in the early 19th century by a class of speculators, slave traders, and planters in search of profit (1-39). This lust for gain also drove enslavers to create a “complex of labor control practices” called the “pushing system” (116), a system based on “innovation in violence” (117)—in other words, on new methods of torture (140-141). This system, in turn, produced cotton at an enormously efficient rate, and said cotton was the foundation on which the whole of the American industrial revolution was built. Baptist cites a report from Jackson’s secretary of the treasury, who wanted to show the “Tariff of Abominations” was protecting American manufacturing, but who also ended up showing that “by 1832, cotton made by enslaved people was driving US economic expansion” (319).

This is a reliable book. Sources are used in an honest and accurate way, to create profound arguments about the place of slavery in US history. In the whole 500 pages, I found only one error: Baptist calls W. H. Harrison the governor of Ohio, rather than the Indiana Territory (267); this misidentification is unimportant to the surrounding argument.

I have read little about slavery, but Baptist’s book compares well with the only other book on slavery I have read, Freedom National, by James Oakes. Both books undermine popular narratives about slavery (Oakes buries the notion that the Republicans were somehow not interested in destroying slavery as fast as they could) and both do so skillfully. The Half Has Never Been Told’s emotional hook is better—when the “evocative history” (428) in this book works, it works—but Freedom National is more consistently well written.

The author uses arresting images to express his ideas, as in his description of a slave society that “ensured that any future Nat Turner was like a bug waiting for the hammer” (347), or the amusing portrait of the Bank of the United States as “a maiden aunt chaperone who frowned at any sign of a creeping hand” (244). His evocative sketches of slave life are frequently captivating. Unfortunately, his prose sometimes gets bogged down by clunky or confusing language. At its best, though, the book is a joy to read, though that joy is darkened by the grim subject matter.

Baptist betrays no bias, beyond the obvious one for a modern writer on this subject: he hates slavery, especially the slavery that Americans crafted in the 19th century. This is not a problem—in fact, it is what makes the book effective: the book lives or dies by how well the emotional, personal impact of slavery reaches the reader. Baptist’s strong feelings on the subject bring that impact home. The Half Has Never Been Told is a work of breathtaking, detailed scholarship that, at its best, also manages to communicate at a deeply personal, emotional level. For these qualities, I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Battle of Tippecanoe Game

Below is a game that I created as part of an assignment for a history class, which I am taking as part of my elementary teaching licensure program. It's untested and probably totally unbalanced right now; at some point in the future, I hope to actually give it a try.

The game is a history-based deck-building card game. The main thing that makes it distinct from most such games is that the deck is built in-game by each player, and the two players each have a different method of building a deck. Check it out, and if you happen to put together a game and actually play it, let me know how it goes!

Players: 2
Game Time: 60 minutes
Type: Strategic Card Game

  • US Troop Cards: 50 
    • 40 US Privates 
    • 5 US Sharpshooters 
    • 4 US Captains 
    • WH Harrision 
  • Native Warrior Cards: 50 
    • 20 Aggressive Warriors 
    • 18 Defensive Warriors 
    • 10 Native Sharpshooters 
    • Tecumseh
    • Tenskwatawa 
  • US Condition Cards: 20 
  • 7 Fair Conditions 
  • 3 Dysentery 
  • 2 Swamp 
  • 1 Lost Unit 
  • 4 Tension in the Ranks 
  • 3 Desertion
  • Ammunition Cards: 30
  • Weapon Cards: 100 
    • 5 Swords 
    • 60 Muskets 
    • 15 Muskets w/Bayonets 
    • 20 Bow & Arrow/Tomahawk
  • Tactics Cards: 25 
    • 5 Charge 
    • 5 Dig In 
    • 5 Flanking Maneuver 
    • 2 Feigned Retreat 
    • 8 Take Cover 
  • Dice: 10 
  • US Troop Advancement Board: 1 
  • US Troop Advancement Marker: 1 

Printable game materials can be found here (Excel file)

Tecumseh. Source
The year is 1811. Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader from the Ohio country, and his brother, the prophet Tenskwatawa, have drawn together an intertribal coalition of Native Americans, with the village of Tippecanoe in the northwest Indiana Territory as its primary power center. This confederation of Shawnee, Lenape, Sauk, Miami, Pottawatomie, and other Native Americans, joined together for mutual aid and defense, is deemed a threat by the US Government, who decide it must be put down before it grows strong enough to resist white settlement of the Northwest Territory. Goals: The Native player must first gather and arm a coalition of warriors, and then lead a defense of the Tecumseh Confederacy’s capital at Tippecanoe. If the Native player succeeds, the US may be forced to come to peaceful terms with the Tecumseh Confederacy and treat it as a legitimate political entity to be reckoned with. The US player must march and deploy a force strong enough to overcome Native defenses at Tippecanoe. If the US player succeeds, the Confederacy will be scattered and the Northwest Territory will eventually be settled by whites.

Tenskwatawa. Source

The game takes place in two stages: preparation and battle. The preparation stage is distinct for each player, but both preparation stages involve creating the deck that will be used to play the battle stage against the other player.

Preparation Stage – Native Player: 
The Native player’s preparation stage comes in two sections: the Civil Chief phase and the War Chief phase. These phases reflect the political arrangement in place in the villages of Tecumseh’s Confederacy: political affairs in ordinary life (such as treaties and relations with outsiders) were directed by the Civil Chief, but in wartime, a separate War Chief took power. Thus, the Civil Chief phase focuses on attracting warriors from various Native tribes to Tecumseh’s Confederacy, while the War Chief phase focuses on preparation for battle by acquiring supplies and training warriors.

Civil Chief: During this phase, the Native player may pull 7 cards from the warrior deck, and choose 5 to keep in the their hand, replacing the remaining cards at the bottom of the deck. The player may also choose to trade one warrior from their hand for one ammunition card or one weapon card. The player may choose to switch to the War Chief phase at any point (5 turns is recommended), but may not switch back.

War Chief: During this phase, the Native player may draw ammunition, weapon, and tactics cards. Each turn the player may draw 3 ammunition cards, 5 weapon cards, and 1 tactics card. The player may also exchange any ammunition, weapon, or tactics card for another warrior during this phase.
WH Harrison, US Commander. Source

Preparation Stage – US Player:
The US player starts out with a full complement of weapons (5 Swords, 30 Muskets, and 15 Muskets w/Bayonets) and troops (40 US Privates, 5 US Sharpshooters, 4 US Captains, and WH Harrison), as well as 15 ammunition cards. Each turn, the US player will draw 1 tactics card and 1 condition card. If the Conditions card allows for it, the US player will advance one day’s march closer to the Native player’s position, moving the US Troop Advancement Marker 1 space on the US Troop Advancement Board. The condition cards will gradually decrease the US player’s deck size; unlike the Native player, the US player “builds” a battle deck primarily by choosing what to discard.

Battle Stage: 
Start: At the beginning of the battle stage, each player lays out 5 unit cards, each paired with a weapon of the player’s choosing. The rest of the units remain in the hand.

First Battle Round: At the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Native forces attacked the US troops before they reached Tippecanoe proper, so the Native player attacks first. The attacking player first announces whether they will perform a ranged or hand-to-hand attack. If the attacking player is performing a ranged attack, both players must discard an ammunition card. (If the defending player does not have an ammunition card, they can still win the round, but the attacking player will not lose any units.) Both players may then play a tactics card if they choose to do so, with the attacking player choosing a card first.

Next, each player rolls one die for each regular unit on the battlefield (no officers or historical characters)—up to 5 dice. Each player adds up the sum of their dice roll; the attacking player adds this to their total battlefield attack number (composed of each unit’s attack score, each weapon’s power score, and any bonuses from unit cards or tactics cards), and the defending player adds their dice roll to their total battlefield defense number (composed of each unit’s defense score, each weapon’s power score, and any bonuses from unit cards or tactics cards). Note that the weapon power score is different for ranged and hand-to-hand attacks. The player with the higher score wins that round; the losing player that round must remove a number of units equal to the difference between the attacking and defending score from their field of play, along with the units’ weapons. If the difference is greater than 5, only 5 cards are removed from play—no cards are discarded from the hand.

Next Battle Round: The next round begins with the losing player placing on the field new units with new weapons from their hand, with a total of 5 cards on the field. The attacking player becomes the defending player, and vice versa, and the process repeats.

Example Battle Round:

The attacking player chooses a ranged attack, and each player discards an ammunition card in the discard pile. Attacking player chooses a tactic that adds 1 attack for each unit; the defending player choses a tactic that adds 2 defense for each unit. The attacking player rolls 5 dice, one for each regular unit, and scores as follows:

  • Unit score: 7, adding up each unit’s baseline attack (1+1+1+2+2)
  • Weapon score: 8, adding each weapon’s power (1+2+2+2+1) 
  • Tactics score: 5, multiplying an attack bonus of 1 times each unit (1x5)
  • Dice score: 20 
  • Total score: 40 
The defending player rolls 4 dice, since they have 4 regular units, and scores as follows:

  • Unit score: 5, adding up each unit’s defense (1+1+1+1+1) 
  • Weapon score: 4, adding each weapon’s power (1+1+1+1+0) 
  • Special unit score: 5, multiplying a defense bonus of 1 times each unit (1x5) 
  • Tactics score: 10, multiplying a defense bonus of 2 times each unit (2x5) 
  • Dice score: 14 
  • Total score: 38 
The attacker wins this round by 2 points, so the defender loses 2 unit cards of their choice, along with their weapons. The defender must select 2 more units and 2 more weapons to play before becoming the attacking player and beginning the next round.

Game Conclusion: The game is over when one player has no more units on the battlefield, or when one player concedes defeat.

Parkinson, S. (Instructor) (2015, February). Contested Republic. HIST 201 Class. Lecture conducted from Muncie, IN.
Oakes, J. (2012). Of the People: A History of the United States (Concise Edition, Second ed.) Oxford University Press, USA.
Sugden, J. (1998). Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Life events are giving me less time than I've had in the past to write. For the time being, Library of Babel and my other blog, In Progress, are both on hiatus. If you're seeing this, know that I'm glad you're here! Please take a look at the archive below or at the different series listed at the top, and come back in a month or two when I've got my life sorted out enough to write again. Thanks!