Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

I’ve recently finished reading the non-fiction Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. In the book, Diamond applies his extensive background and strong intellect to try and explain why and how the world has developed as it has. For example: why is it the West colonised Africa instead of Africa colonising the West? Why has technological advancement been more apparent in some regions than others?

It is an informative book under-girded by substantial research and well thought-out hypothesise. I particularly appreciate how Diamond often discussed several competing academic ideas, comparing and contrasting them. Diamond deserves congratulations on his research goal and the depth of approach he takes to answer it. Though a challenging book to read due to it’s dense subject matter, I feel as though it is a condensed master class on many topics.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to dot-point his findings and reasoning as best I can summarise in a short fashion. I’ll not be caveating, so it’s true only in broad-brush terms.

  • Only some crops can be domesticated, and they were not evenly distributed in the world. Land-masses that are stretched East-West favour crop-spreading better than a North-South orientation due to lesser climate changes.
  • Only some animals are suitable for domestication (which is different to taming). On some continents the large animals became extinct before the opportunity to domesticate them. Domesticated animals provide important protein, labour (farming), transportation and military advantages.
  • The spread of crops and domesticated animals is affected mainly by climate and geography, lesser by trade. Inhospitable environments and impassable terrain provide natural barriers.
  • Agricultural societies with crops and domesticated animals produced substantially more food than hunger-gatherer societies. This means a far denser population, and some members of society are freed freed from the food-production role. This enables them to specialise: giving rise to technologies, better organisation through bureaucracies and religion and (eventually) professional military.
  • Hunter and gatherer societies were often displaced, subsumed or eradicated by agricultural societies due to their higher population (‘the weight of numbers’).
  • A denser human population in close proximity to animals develops diseases (and then immunity to them). When these people come in contact with more isolated peoples’ disease often wiped out more than were killed militarily.
  • The development of writing facilitated “political administration and economic exchanges, motivating and guiding exploration and conquest, and making available a range of information and human experience”.
  • Technology is most often iteratively developed, and seldom from a single “brilliant” person. However, a greater population with more education is likely to develop more technology.
  • All of these factors snowballed and built-upon themselves to grow the power of the state: the larger groups often overwhelmed the smaller.

A couple of other interesting points Diamond mentioned:

  • Environment plays a huge factor. “In ancient times, however, much of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean region, including Greece, was covered with forest. The region’s transformation from fertile woodland to eroded scrub or desert has been elucidated by paleobotanists and archeologists. Its woodlands were cleared for agriculture, or cut to obtain construction timber, or burned as firewood or for manufacturing plaster. Because of low rainfall and hence low primary productivity (proportional to rainfall), regrowth of vegetation could not keep pace with it’s destruction, especially in the presence of overgrazing by goats. With the tree and grass cover removed, erosion proceeded and valleys silted up, while irrigation agriculture in the low-rainfall environment led to salt accumulation.”
  • Political decisions have ramifications. “The end of China’s treasure fleet gives us a clue. Seven of those fleets sailed from China between AD 1405 and 1433. They were then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions of the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents). The former faction had been identified with sending and captaining the fleets. Hence when the latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade oceangoing shipping. The episode is reminiscent of the legislation that strangled development of public electric lighting in London in the 1880s, the isolationism of the United States between the First and Second World Wars, and any number of backward steps in any number of countries, all motivated by local political issues. But in China there was a difference, because the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible, because no shipyards remained to turn out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision, and to serve as a focus for rebuilding other shipyards.”
  • The modern keyboard layout was actually designed to be inefficient. Originally for typewriters where too much typing speed meant the typewriter would jam. Faster keyboard layouts exist, but the current layout is so ubiquitous that we are resistant to change.
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Plotting by Pen

I’m a fairly hi-tech writer. Generally speaking I like to use my computer heavily for all-things writing. It’s a by-product of being a nerd; I use normal software (Scrivener, Word, OneNote) and my own programs and beefy spreadsheets to keep track of everything.

However there are also times when I break out ye old pen and paper and work through problems by sketching, writing, arrows and scribbles. I’m not sure why moving away from the keyboard helps my thoughts flow more freely but it is sometimes helpful.

As an example, I’m going to share a section of my novel Vengeance Will Come (available on Amazon). This post contains slight spoilers. Regent Danyel Abudra while frantically searching for his missing wife has a confrontation with a criminal kingpin named Zekkari.

If you can read my writing…

Originally my plan was to have Danyel kill Zekkari during an interrogation. This would begin a moral slide for Danyel who had always been a man of integrity. You can rescue your wife, but it’s going to cost you style plot device. This eventuality raised several questions of world-building and plausibility.

Would Danyel, as Regent of Tador, be held accountable for killing Zekkari? What are the laws surrounding the treatment of criminals who are yet to be found guilty? How much immunity from prosecution does a ruler have? What is the relationship and interaction between Tador’s laws and the planetary Regional Assembly judiciary?

More importantly, is it plausible, even under the significant duress of his wife being abducted that Danyel would kill Zekkari? The more I considered it the more I realised he couldn’t. Granted, if I saw someone harming my wife they’d find themselves in not-insignificant danger — but that is different to “I suspect you know something about my wife’s disappearance and you’d better tell me.” I just couldn’t see a cultured, intelligent person resorting to murder on such circumspect evidence. Perhaps of equal importance it didn’t fit who I wanted Danyel to be.

So initially, as the result of my pen etchings I decided that Danyel would accidentally kill Zekkari. An accident is far more plausible than intentional murder.

While my example in this picture is fairly clean it is not uncommon for me to have a half-dozen possible solutions and write the pros and cons of each approach down.

As it happens, that’s not exactly how the story plays out — but I did promise no spoilers…

Distracted

With the rare exception, I have written a blog post every week for a long time. Except it’s been over a month since my last post. So what has happened?

Distraction. Some of what has distracted me has been good-distraction in-and-of-itself. Like maintaining and strengthening relationships, or good stewardship of what I’ve been given (i.e. maintaining the garden), or beneficial long-term (i.e. occupation focused work). Other distraction has been less-good and less productive: gaming, avoidance and other time investments that will never pay dividends.

There’s also been a big block of stress during that period, which mentally constipated me and had me reaching for any mind-numbing procrastination as though it were Valium. And more recently illness that quite literally put me on my back. Thankfully both of those issues have now been resolved.

The truth is the distraction began earlier in the year. At the start of January I was more focused on the things of God and faith. And then like a man heading out for a distant port, I heard the siren’s song of temptation. I started to have more ideas for stories, and my hunger for other hobbies grew too. Now I know that God has given me giftings to use for his glory but that doesn’t mean they should overshadow my desire for him. These were not his blessings, but the enemy’s temptations. I have allowed these other activities to absorb more of my time, thoughts and heart than they had any right to. It’s time for me to re-evaluate my priorities.

I have recently been pondering this passage from Colossians 3:


1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

What does this mean for my life? How does it translate to how I spend my time? On if and what I write? If I am God’s servant, his adopted child, how is my life different in a day to day, hour by hour fashion. My life is not my own, I was bought with an incredible price.

That’s actually a danger that I face as a creative person. My mind can spin a dozen ideas out of thin air – and each of those ideas could easily absorb hundreds of hours of writing time. But I want to make sure that I’m not spending my life on something inconsequential.

All that matters is that which lasts for eternity.

Bloody Vomit

Today I share the beginning of a short story. It came to me as a synergy of two things. The first was from my reading of Living Water:

Centuries ago Christians built remote monasteries in the mountains to help them get away from people and supposedly avoid the “contamination” of the world. Today in Protestant circles the same thinking prevails in a different guise. It results in a stream of believers only equipped to play spiritual games inside the safety of their church walls, but totally ill prepared when they have to leave their Christian environment and interact with real people in the outside world.

Yun, Brother. Living Water: Powerful Teachings from the International Bestselling Author of The Heavenly Man (p. 256). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

The second was the two words “bloody vomit”, which have a lot of emotional resonance of innate fear.

So, do please enjoy some “Bloody Vomit”…

Bloody vomit. That’s how it started, and that’s how it would end. Bloody vomit: the first sign the grim reaper had selected you, and the final sign he’d returned.
I’d woken up in the middle of the night to hear my wife Sarah retching. No other sound was as scary these days. She’d looked at me, and even by the moonlight we could see the fear in each other’s eyes.
“Get away,” she’d yelled and stumbled backwards, even as I ran to hug her.
“I’m not going to leave you. We’ll get through this together,” I promised as I held her tightly.
It had been just 3 months since the first incident of the plague had occurred. Two days later there had been localised quarantines, a week after state borders were closed. Within a month all international travel stopped. And then came the mass death. Everywhere you looked people were either dying or panicked out of their minds. And both categories of people were dangerous. The Government, or what was left of it, was desperately working on a cure to what was being called the precursor of human extinction. The officials and scientists worked in isolated and fortified emergency compounds. Soldiers guarded the perimeter and used their guns to enforce it. Sadly, it was simply too dangerous to be out among the sick; any attempt to care for the unwell was highly selective – the vast majority were left to die without aid or comfort. And now Jessica was infected.
“We shouldn’t have left the secure zone,” Jessica said, “we should have stayed there.”
“You know someone had to make the trip. If there’s a cure, we have to find it.”

Escaping from Hell

I’ve made significant progress in my revision of Escape from Hell in the last week (hence the pun in the blog title). I’m currently working through the 5th and what was the final chapter of the original story.

The observant among you might notice that doesn’t match my progress bar on the right (and it’s not because I’ve been lazy in updating it… this time). The 50% indicator is because I am strongly considering extending the story by approximately another 4 chapters. In fact the first version of the story didn’t have ‘chapters’ at all. It was a single block of 9,700 words. I’ve broken it into chapters because the text naturally divides into chapters. Plus chapters are friendlier for the reader. If I’m torturing the character in my story, the least I can do is make it convenient for the reader 🙂

There was a time, now thankfully in the past, where the mere idea of lengthening a story would be enough for me to do it. After all, word count was the measure of success, right? Now the important question of any addition or reduction is will it make the story better?

I believe that it will. By lengthening the character arc I can be more nuanced in telling the story and make the ending punchier. I can also explore the themes more. I’m just about ready to sketch out the next few chapters…

Vengeance Will Come, First Review

Today I discovered that I had a review for my novel, Vengeance Will Come on Amazon. Further more, I’ve had the review since November and didn’t even know!

For some strange – and surely nonsensical – reason, it appears Amazon displays comments only on the Amazon site where the novel is purchased. I would have thought it’d make more sense to display all of the same-language reviews on every Amazon site that caters for that language… i.e. give your customers more feedback about a product (and not to mention, potentially help your authors).

The review is very generous:

An engaging story with a surprising twist at the end. The characters are very well developed and vivid. The story is told masterfully and I wish to congratulate the writer on such a well written book. I only wish that they make it into a movie! I look forward to Book 2.

Thanks so much “Amazon Customer” 🙂 Such a review is encouraging, and encouragement is a big help. You too can buy my novel at the Amazon US, UK, AU or other site of your choosing 🙂

I have heard before that every author (regardless of previous successes) doubts themselves and their writing ability. It’s nice not to be alone in that feeling. It just so happens Francine Rivers who is an incredible writer, recently wrote about her continuing doubts and how she overcomes the immensity of the goal.

Herding People

Herding people (i.e. getting them to do what you want) is sometimes like the task of herding cats. That is to say, not easy. For just under three years I was running the men’s ministry of my church, and in this blog post I’m going to discuss and share an automated tool I created which helped to organise ‘interest groups’. You may find it helpful in similar endeavours.

I’m going to assume a reasonable knowledge of Excel skill. The code works on Office 2016; minor tweaks might be required for other versions. (Note when you open the spreadsheet you will get a “Macro Warning” at the top of Excel, which you have to “Enable” if you want to run the macros).

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