Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log, July 2019
By Tal Cohen Friday, 16 August 2019
The History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Benjamin Jowett, edited and annotated by Chris Scarre. Folio Society, 1994. Interestingly, a history written by the losing side, contrary to the common adage. Large parts are tiresome - war moves, mostly - but the last book (VIII) is fascinating, describing the fall and resurrection of democratic rule in Athens. Democracies die in darkness, indeed!
The navy-based Athenian empire brings to mind, in so many ways, the much later British empire -- in a way that casts neither in a good light. The Athenians' cynicism in the dialogue with the Melians (V.85-111) is painful, but it is hard to think the British empire had more lofty justifications than the Athenians did.
Some interesting instances of game theory (such as Pericles telling the Athenians: “If I thought that you would listen to me, I would say to you, 'Go yourselves and destroy [your houses, at risk by the prospective war], and thereby prove to the Peloponnesians that none of these things will move you'.”; or the Corcyraeans who return to the island burn their own boats, so “that they might have no hope but in the conquest of the island”), and one instance of applying “wisdom of the crowds” methodology: “they calculated by the help of [counting] the layers of bricks ... A great many counted at once, and, although some might make mistakes, the calculation would be oftener right than wrong; for they repeated the process again and again ...”.
Overall, a rewarding read, even if it feels painfully slow at times.

The Bacchae by Euripides, translated by Aharon Shabtai. Written and performed, I now realize, in Athens while it was in the last stages of losing the war. Interestingly, learned (from the appendices) about vegetarian movements in the ancient world, and since then got myself a copy of Porphyry’s work on the subject.
Somehow, every time I read a book, my list of books to read grows longer.

Alcestis by Euripides, translated by Aharon Shabtai. The confrontation between Admetus and his father, Pheres, is amazing. “We'll spend a long time underground, I know / We only live a bit, but that bit is sweet.” This is Shabtai, translated to English by me; the Hebrew has a beautiful poetic beat. I looked at the Greek original, and then at several English translations (Aldington, Kitzinger, and the modern version by Theodoridis); none of the English translations comes close to Shabtai. They either change the content a bit (for example, there is no “I tell myself” or “I reckon” in the original; Theodoridis and Shabtai have it accurately, it’s “I acknowledge” or “I know”). Theodoridis is the only English version that both sounds natural and is accurate: “I have no doubt at all that life in the underworld will be very long and that life here is very short. Short, yes, but sweet, nevertheless!”. Yet unlike Shabtai, it loses the poetic format; indeed, it is a translation in prose.
Shabtai’s third appendix, collected translations of gravestones, from The Greek Anthology, is wonderful, touching, moving, and at times amusing.

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee. The first two chapters are pointless let-me-tell-you-about-myself. The last two chapters border on the absurd; Chapter 13 is “old man yells at cloud,” and Chapter 14 is “here’s a guide to wearing tinfoil hats.” Everything in-between is fascinating and well-written.
Contrary to what the title says, the book is actually about all “internet platforms,” not just Facebook. However, that almost seems like an afterthought. The pair “Facebook and Google,” together, as subjects of a sentence (most commonly by themselves, but often as part of a larger list, e.g., “Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple”), appears over 70 times in the book. However, the actual content is almost exclusively about Facebook; the accusations thrown at Google are mostly (but not entirely!) by implication only, and often (but not always!) unbased. Most of McNamee’s complaints about Google seem to be specific to YouTube (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, to the “Discover” feed, although he never explicitly mentions it). McNamee’s only complaint about Google’s core product, Search, seems to be around personalized search results, which he considers to be part of the Filter Bubble; and he calls for Google to introduce a simple mechanism to show you the un-personalized results for that same query. He seems to forget that Google did just that, via the Incognito mode in Chrome (which allows you to search outside of your Google account, without having to log out and then log in again). Worse, he doesn't seem to realize how little personalization really affects search results, in my experience. And worse yet, unlike in the case of Facebook’s news stream, he provides absolutely no evidence of the scope or impact of personalized results in Search.
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