The Bad Popes
By E. R. Chamberlin
Published in 1969
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
I did not finish this book, but I made it about 20% of the way.
The Bad Popes is a collection of the biographies of what Chamberlin believes are the 8 worst popes to ever have reigned; mostly in the middle ages and renaissance. The subject matter seems interesting, but upon closer inspection is actually pretty dreary. I really find the geopolitical machinations of the past to be boring. Economic history or the history of the lives of everyday citizens is far more interesting. This book is all geopolitics without much else.
The writing style is also pretty boring. “Otto I arrived in Rome, and demanded blah blah blah.” It is a dreary procession of names that I sorta recognize from studying history doing random political things. This style of writing is more common with older history books - I call it the “Goodwill Gibbon” style of history writing.
Because my intention was not to read this as a bedtime story, and my stack of “to read” books is a mile high, I decided it was probably best to put it down. I do not recommend The Bad Popes.
Going Woke Will Make You Go Broke: If Businesses Want to Retain Young Talent, They Need to Stay Out of Politics
Investment monitor reporter Ruth Strachan recently wrote a column called “If businesses want to attract and retain talent, they must show their woke side.” There, she pointed out that the search for talent post COVID-19 had gotten much harder due to the so-called “Great Resignation.” She suggested that companies lean into the popularity of woke culture, and take strong stances on social issues in order to retain young talent.
“This balance of covering important issues while managing often-delicate internal business relationships is not an easy one for business leaders to maintain, more so when regions differ greatly on what is moral. However, if these businesses want to attract and retain the best young talent, it is a balance they must be constantly trying to perfect. The generations entering the workforce now put more importance on ethics and social issues than the generations that came before them. Hoping they will turn a blind eye to any perceived injustices is no longer an option.”
Her suggestion is great for companies that want to hire conformist Ivy-league educated robots, but will repulse high energy weirdos. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter may now be owned by respectable suit and tie people; but these companies were built by freaks.
Ask yourself this: which company do you think will attract better talent:
The first company has three employees. They all are well-educated and have all of the “right” fashionable opinions. People talk about how bad the Ukraine invasion is at lunch, and the company displays the embattled country’s flag on its Facebook page.
The other company has a bunch of high-energy extremists. At lunch, the anarcho-communist vigorously debates with the Islamic fundamentalist. This company cannot display any flags, out of fear of causing a civil war among its diverse employees.
Anyone who doesn’t work for a Big 5 consulting firm will likely realize that the second company’s odds are much better. The first place sounds like a place where people go if they hate taking risks. It likely produces paper, and is probably a consulting firm. The second company sounds a lot more exciting, if also a bit unnerving. It probably is a startup making a brand new blockchain product or IOT enabled agricultural sensors.
Strachan has some sense of this problem. She writes:
“For some companies, the tightrope of appearing to care and cover important social issues, while maintaining internal business relationships, can also be problematic.”
Companies don’t need young people. As a young person, I can certify that the majority of my generation is just as worthless as the majority of the previous generation. What companies need are young radicals who will work 12 hours a day and aren’t afraid to tear down the industries that they have just joined.
If companies want to attract and retain interesting young people (instead of drones), they need to stay out of politics. Interesting young people want to know that they can post freely online without their employers breathing down their neck, that they can have a civil debate at lunch without having a call with HR, and that it is OK to hold unpopular opinions.
We live in a world where corporations are creating “tattleware” to spy on employees working from home. This software monitors the social media posts of employees, spies on them to make sure they don’t slack off during work hours, and tells employers exactly what kind of websites you are visiting.
The role of a business isn’t to tell society what it can and cannot do. Shaping society is the job of NGOs, trade associations, and think tanks. A business should make money ethically, and pay its employees well.
Companies can embrace woke culture at their own peril. Entrepreneurs like me will swoop in, and steal all of your nonconformists who hate politics. Without your greatest minds, your companies will be as defenseless as a newborn baby. And I will steal your candy.
Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Published February 2018
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
After reading Antifragile, I was hooked. I now consider myself to be part of the Taleban - part of the Taleb fan club. But Skin in the Game was a little bit disappointing, mostly because of how much content was repeated from Antifragile.
Skin in the Game makes a central point: you cannot trust people who don’t have an incentive to be trustworthy. Don’t ask a stockbroker what their opinion on the markets is, ask them what they have in their portfolio.
Once again, he chastises academics for their lack of interaction with the real world; calls out crony capitalists for getting payoffs for their bad policies; and points out how ancient semetic law evolved to eliminate asymmetries.
Taleb’s writing style is always excellent. It is engaging, and he strips out all of the fluff words. I strive to be as good of a writer as he is.
I don’t recommend this book to people who have not joined the Taleban. It is less good than Antifragile, but repeats many of the same points. Just read Antifragile instead, and if you really like it, then read this as a follow up.
The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici
By Elizabeth Lev
Published in October 2012
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
I am glad that Hitler wasn’t a woman, because feminists would be praising him today and talking about how misunderstood he was by male historians. The Tigress of Forli is a book that teaches little girls that women can be just as violent, corrupt, and vile as the worst men; tyranny knows no gender.
Caterina Sforza’s history is fascinating. She was a very intelligent and capable woman, but was married to Girolamo Riario, a complete bozo. Girolamo Riario was the lord of several towns, most notably Imola. Caterina bore him a son who was the heir. However, when the son was still a baby, Riario took part in a bungled assasination attempt against the neighboring Medicis and was himself killed. Caterina Sforza found herself as the lord of Forli during her son’s long regency. She would have a troubled reign (although to be fair many of Italy’s rulers at the time did too). Eventually, she would be deposed, raped, imprisoned, and forcefully retired by Cesare de Borgia, the pope’s bastard son.
What bothered me about this book is that Caterina Sforza is obviously evil. She is vengeful, hateful, and has no sense of ethics.
There are some troubled but potentially justifiable incidents - when her son is taken hostage during the first attempt at a failed coup against her, she tells the captors that she doesn’t care and can make another. This actually helps her get her son back. Lev’s generous interpretation is that Caterina Sforza was playing 4D chess and actually knew that was her best bet at getting her son back. I am not so sure.
But there is a far more disturbing incident. During the second failed coup against her, she orders the Milanese army to sack her own town. Her justification was that the citizenry did not support her, so deserved punishment. The amount of rape, slaughter, and theft that ensued is truly horrible.
She regularly has people tortured, killed, and poisoned. She has poor judgement, letting her thirst for sex get in the way of her government. Her affair with a stableboy and his subsequent promotion to high office triggers the aforementioned second coup attempt.
Something really bothered me about this book: compared to other Renaissance rulers (even female ones), Caterina Sforza is, at best, average. However, Elizabeth Lev is entranced by the fact that a woman is fighting battles, torturing people, and ruling over a town. She fawningly describes her reign, and contrives excuses for Caterina Sforza’s constant failings. Historians are justly critical of similar actions when done by male rulers. For example, many male rulers’ thirst for sex and inability to maintain monogamous marriages leads to their downfalls. Lorenzo the Magnificent's otherwise stable reign is castrated by his inability to keep his pants on. Caterina Sforza’s pursuit of men is just as damaging as Lorenzo’s womanizing; but when she does it she is “empowered and modern.”
Some people might make the argument that all late medieval and renaissance rulers were just as bad as Caterina Sforza, but I reject this. True, most rulers of the period seem pretty evil and incompetnant. During this time civilization triumphs despite, not because, of government. Caterina Sforza is far from the worst ruler. However, the renaissance does have its fair share of shining lights of justice, good governance, and genius. For example Cosimo de Medici ruled Florence with a light touch, took care of the poor, enshrined capitalism, and patronized the arts. There are no sacks, massacres, or incidents that can be condemned today under Cosimo’s stable reign.
Other female rulers, like Isabella of Castile are far better examples of competence. She was religious, pious, and monogamous. More importantly, Isabella was incredibly competent: she patronized the arts, funded Christopher Columbus who started colonizing the Americas, reformed the economy, and funded the free market school of Salamanca. Like Caterina Sforza, she also went to war and put herself in harms’ way. She acted as a combat medic, cleaning the festering wounds of soldiers who had been injured during the war with Portugal.
I wish that the real message was that Caterina Sforza was a tyrant, not that different than the others who terrorized the Italian population at the time.
The writing style is OK, neither particularly good nor bad.
I recommend this book if you are curious to learn about Caterina Sforza, but caution that Elizabeth Lev’s interpretations of events tend to excuse her actions rather than report on them objectively. While Caterina Sforza’s ability to govern doesn’t even hold a candle to rulers like Cosimo de Medici, her story is just as interesting.
Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger
By Harvey Molotch
Published in August 2014
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
I 100% agree with the message, but did not finish this book. I made it maybe 20% of the way before I decided that finishing would be a waste of time.
The writing style is kind of grating. It is very academic, maybe because the author is a sociologist. He waxes poetic, muses, repeats himself, and takes a long time to get to the point. This book is opinion-heavy but fact-light; and unlike good opinion writers like Nassim Taleb, he spends way too much time pointing out the obvious.
The first chapter opens with some interesting anecdotes about the author’s 9/11 experiences, followed by random musings. The second chapter goes into the “power dynamics of public restrooms,” and talks about people’s “fears and anxieties” about using public toilets. I have no idea what he is talking about. When I need to shit, I shit in the public shitter. No anxiety, power dynamics, or bullshit. I didn’t make it to the third chapter as the first two took about 50 pages / an hour of audiobook time.
Perhaps I just didn’t like it because the more I write, the more critical I become of other’s writing styles. Perhaps I didn’t like it because it was written by someone with a fake job (sociologist). Needless to say, I don’t recommend it.
The History of the Renaissance World
By Susan Wise Bauer
Published in September 2013
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book is a survey history of the late middle ages that covers part of the renaissance until the fall of Constantinople(roughly the period from 1100 until 1453). The book does a few things well, but the execution is botched. First, it covers events happening in unusual places during the period - North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Asia, and the Middle East. That aspect of the book is really cool. Also, it comes with over 150 maps which really helps.
Despite the interesting and ambitious topic, the book is a complete snoozefest. It fails from its own overambition. I’ve read other survey histories by Susan Wise Bauer that had exactly the same problem, and am likely done with this author.
First, the book jumps around chaotically. It was very hard for me to follow events anywhere, especially in places in the Americas and Africa that I wasn’t familiar with. I had barely gotten used to reading about one area when she randomly jumps to the other side of the world, only to pick up later. She also doesn’t go in strict chronological order either which further adds to the mess. Its like I’m reading 6-7 books that were poorly stitched together.
Then, the topics she covers seem random to me. She goes into the details of random political events concerning the rise of the Mamluks, the fights in between Chingghis Khan’s successors, or the castration of Peter Abelard. These are not at all the events I would have chosen, and presenting them in the way that she does is quite odd.
Finally, this book has no real target audience. It is too simple for people who are well versed in the periods covered, and too detailed (with weird details covered) for people who are new. I am both a novice and a journeyman in different areas that the books covered, and I hated both sections.
The maps are stunning, and the idea is cool. But the book was too ambitious, and Bauer wasn’t up to the task. I stopped reading it a little more than halfway, and do not recommend it.
Death in Florence
By Paul Strathern
Published in October 2016
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Death in Florence is the history of one of the most fascinating figures in Florentine history: Girolamo Savonarola.
Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican monk devoted to a life of poverty and piety. He resented the degenerate and decadent life of the Italian Renaissance. Worse, he hated tyranny.
When Cosimo de Medici’s idiotic great grandson, Piero the Unfortunate, fails to act at the approach of a French army, Savonarola seizes power. He has Piero exiled, and miraculously manages to turn the French army away through his charisma. As a result of this heroic act, Savonarola discovers that he has the popular mandate. The “small people” flock to his banner, and he becomes the hero of the common man.
Savonarola’s short reign over Florence is marked by revolution. During his four year long reign of terror, he embarks on a revolution worthy of Mao or Lenin. He creates real republican reform, giving the suppressed poor people of Florence a voice for the first time. He embarks on radical religious reform, harassing homosexuals, prostitutes, and merchants. He burns all of Florence’s “vanities” (fine art, perfume, luxury goods, etc…).
Finally, the book ends with the downfall of Savonarola and his regime. His reign of terror comes to an end; he is excommunicated; betrayed by his supporters; and burnt at the stake/hung (at the same time!).
Savonarola’s charisma oozes through the pages of this book. I can really imagine being there. As a sort of modern revolutionary myself (albeit not a reactionary catholic) I can really emphasize with Savonarola’s goals. Savonarola seems completely honest - far more so than Mao or Lenin. He is a truly pious man who only wanted the best for his people.
I really like Paul Strathern’s books. His writing style is crisp, and describes scenes well but not excessively. If the worst type of writing is academic writing which gratuitously uses big words; then the second worst type of writing is overly saccharine literary diarrhea; and the best must be the no-bullshit style of Paul Strathern.
I strongly recommend this book - and not just for those who want to learn more about the Renaissance. This is a cautionary tale for any would-be dreamers and revolutionaries who want to hear the same old story, but are tired of reading about the Soviet Union. This book masterfully captures the spirit of the day in all of its delightful horror.
The House of Medici
By Christopher Hibbert
Published in May 1999
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book was shockingly similar to Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. It covered the same topics, in the same order, and used the same primary sources. Even much of the analysis was identical. I cannot help but wonder if Strathern’s book was actually an updated version of this one.
Because of the similarities, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I might have otherwise. I nevertheless decided to finish it because I think that the Medicis are an interesting topic. Overall, I don’t think that I learned that much, but rather reinforced my understanding of the timelines / chronology of events.
The writing style is neither good nor bad; it is not very memorable. The content is a simple biography of the most important members of the Medici family throughout the ages (Cosimo, Lorenzo, Piero the Unfortunate, Pope Alexander VI, Pope Leo X, and Cosimo I). Less of an emphasis is placed on the women who were sent off as brides to France (Catherine and company) or the degenerate late Medicis (Cosimo III and Gian Gastone).
I may recommend this book as a good starting place to learn about the Medicis, or Paul Strathern’s. The two are very similar. I do caution that both books require a basic understanding of the chronology of the renaissance and aren’t beginner friendly.
The Thirteenth Tribe
By Arthur Koestler
Published in 1976
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Thirteenth Tribe is a fascinating history about the Jewish Khazar Khaganate which existed from roughly 800 AD until 1000 AD, with some remnants surviving into the 1200s. The book covers the fascinating, and incredibly confusing, origins of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
The Khazar Khaganate was a Turkish tribe that lived in the northern regions of modern Azerbaijan and Georgia and controlled parts of modern day Russia and Ukraine as well. The Khazar Khaganate was located along the Silk Road, facilitating trade inbetween the Muslim Persians and the Christian Byzantines. This caused a serious problem when the Muslims and Christian Byzantines went to war. In order to remain neutral, the Khazars converted to Judaism.
Only a tiny percentage of the Khazar population ever converted to Judaisim, and those that did tended to adopt the heretical Karaite sect of Judaism. Most of the Khazars who converted were tied to the royal family. Roughly a century after their conversion to Judaism, the Khazar Khaganate collapsed, forcing the minority of converted Jews to immigrate into Eastern Europe.
Modern genetic studies have partially confirmed the Khazar hypothesis. It is now known that roughly 10% of Ashkenazi Jewish males have Y chromosomes associated with Khazar ancestry.
The history of the Khazar Khaganate is fascinating because it paints a different story of Jews during the Middle Ages. Pop culture depicts Jews as oppressed creatures living in the shadow of a stronger and tyrannical medieval society. The existence of the Khazar Khaganate’s steppe warriors challenges this view by showing another, more martial, side of medieval Judaism.
Some anti-semites have attempted to use the Khazar Khaganate to challenge the Jewish claim to Israel. They make the case that if Jews come from a Turkish tribe then they have no place in the holy land. Anyone who uses medieval history to make nationalist or anti-nationalist claims in modern times fundamentally misunderstands the chaotic, decentralized nature of the middle ages. Israel was continuously inhabited by some Jews from the time of the first diaspora, through the Islamic conquest, the crusades, the colonial era, and into the present.
The anti-semetic use of the Khazar Khaganate has caused some Jewish extremists to overreact, altogether labeling anyone who studies the Khazars as anti-semetic because they assume that the only reason to study the Khazars is to challenge the existence of the state of Israel. This is ironic, because the Khazars should instead be celebrated as another fascinating tile in the mosaic that makes up Jewish history.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Jewish history.
The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
By Paul Strathern
Published in January 2009
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Paul Strathern writes very clear, concise, and non-wordy survey histories about Italian history. After reading Venice: A New History, I was very curious to see what else he had.
The Medici is an excellent narrative history that follows the emergence of the family from the mists of history, their rise to power as bankers, Cosimo’s coup, his brilliant grandson Lorenzo, their temporary downfall, subsequent re-emergence as Popes, royal marriages in France and Germany, and finally their final obese and mentally ill scions.
The history of the Medici family is a fascinating rabbit hole which lays the foundations for many modern trends including banking, absolute monarchy, and the modern state.
Strathern’s writing style is clear and engaging. My main reproach is that I wish he spent significantly more time explaining how Medici banking worked. I was hoping to learn more about the details of the financial transactions that they engaged in.
This is a decent book, but I think I’ll read more about the Medici’s to find a definitive recommendation on the topic.
Most of my articles are book reviews, but I also write about many other topics.