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Why would anyone read two histories of Byzantium? Well, if the first one is mainly useful in putting you to sleep on a bad night, you might need a second to actually understand Byzantium. I finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium about six weeks ago, and I suspect it didn’t satisfy because it was, well, short. (It’s an abbreviation of a much longer 3-volume work by the same author.) Norwich tells us all the things that happened in the eleven hundred years that the Byzantine empire existed, but he doesn’t have room in a mere 400 pages to analyze why things evolved as they did. By the time I was done, the Byzantine empire seemed to cook down to pseudocode:

UNTIL MuslimsKnockOverConstantinople;

So unless you’re an insomniac like me, I recommend A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory (Blackwell, 2005) which trades some of the repetitive detail for more and better analysis. It’s a much more readable book overall, and seems targeted at laypeople who don’t already know the broad outlines of the story. (I’m guessing it’s a 300-level textbook.) Recommended.

In other recent reading, I went back to Colin Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology (Taplinger, 1972) to locate his definition of a “self-actualizer,” which may help me in designing a character for an upcoming story. The book is an explication of Abraham Maslow‘s views on psychology, which Wilson admires and mentions in many of his other books. I ended up reading a lot more than I intended, and realize that I may have to buy another copy of the book. The one I have was cheap, sure, but it was previously owned by a person who underlined probably 50% of the book without more than a handful of marginal notes. How is it useful to have all that underlining, if the purpose of underlining is to call attention to especially brilliant or pertinent passages when you want to find them later? And when she (her name is on the flyleaf) decides to make a note, it only proves that she is stone deaf to Colin Wilson’s ironic sense of humor.

I’ll come back to Wilson’s books in a future entry on designing characters, but in the meantime, New Pathways in Psychology is useful, as is A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury, 2005.) His 1956 breakout book, The Outsider, nails existentialism–right through the head. Not as engaging as his other work, but if you’re trying to design a disaffected young man (especially if you yourself are well-adjusted and generally happy) the blueprints are all right there.

Yesterday Amazon delivered the 32 GB MicroSD HC card I’d ordered for the Droid, and I had this insight: You know you’re old when the fact that a thing the size of your pinkie fingernail could swallow everything you’ve ever written without a burp (plus ebook editions of every book in the house, if they existed) still makes you boggle. I don’t know precisely how much stuff it could hold because I don’t have that much stuff. But I’ll do some math: At 3 MB per MP3, the card could hold 10,000 songs. At 3 minutes per song, that’s 30,000 minutes, or 500 hours of music. At 500 KB for an .epub novel, that’s 60,000 novels, which at a novel every single night is…165 years’ worth of novels.

I guess I’m old. My boggler is in excellent working order.


  1. Tony says:

    only 32GB? That would not hold our music collection which stands at 100+ GB. It would barely hold the TV shows my wife purchased off iTunes (33+ GB). It would not even hold my photos (103+ GB) since I started back in to photography in 2000.

    But eBooks it would hold a ton of. 😀

    1. I’m famous for not watching TV, and I don’t see many movies either–and what I like I buy on DVD. I’ve heard of people with 100+ GB of music, and I might have that much if I ripped every track from every CD I own. But not every track is worth having, and to be honest, I don’t much like modern music. I’m not a hobby photographer, and my instincts still remember when film was expensive. My photobase is thus not huge. I’m sure if I were younger it would be different, but I guess I’m just, well, old.

      1. Erbo says:

        Well, being a sometime DJ and all, I kinda do need a 73 Gb MP3 directory. And even then, I sometimes have to resort to downloading something in mid-set to fill a request. (And I’m not talking illegal downloads, either…with Amazon selling MP3s at a buck a throw, it’s much easier to deal with than wading through Frostwire to find a decent copy of a song and hoping it downloads OK and it’s not “broken” in some fashion.) But I use a Western Digital portable hard drive I picked up cheap from Micro Center for that.

  2. Tom Dison says:

    Hey, I still remember my Model 100 laptop with its 16K of ram for everything. I “surfed” what we knew as the web (Compuserve) at a mighty 300 baud. I am still GREATLY amazed at the increased in available storage. I remember partitioning my 80MB (no, not GB) hard drive because Dos 3.2 could only access 32MB partitions.

    Yes, I know I’m old.

  3. Lee Hart says:

    On history books: One I want to read is “The Swerve — How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s a history of the poet Lucretius, and how his work was discovered and became the start of the Renaissance.

    On storage: When I worked for Kodak in the 1970s, they were already selling microfilmers with terabytes of data storage. There were things like the entire Bible on a single postage stamp size frame of film — and that was in image format, without digitizing it.

    When storage capacity is this high, they don’t even bother to compress the data (then and now). Can you imagine what the raw data capacity of a 100-year-old movie film would be with digital data format on it?

    It’s hard for me to imagine having that much real data to save. The vast majority of what fills our hard disks (and probably most books and other printed matter) is drivel. We save whole haystacks of data just for the useful needle buried somewhere in it. But it’s also not worth our time to find the needle and just save that. 🙂

  4. Ed Hahn says:

    I listened to an audio version of “Sailing from Byzantium” a while back, very interesting.

    I actually started plotting the demise of emperor’s: natural causes, disease, assassination, battle, usurpation, unknown, etc; using Excel and a pie chart. Mostly using Wikipedia, but sometimes had to search a bit deeper.

    I stopped after a few hundred years, only 44 of about 108. Too depressing. I should probably finish it up.

    Preliminarily: Deposed came first at 31%, Natural Causes 2nd at 16%, then Illness at 9%, followed by Deposed/Executed at 7% and Assassination at 7%.

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