War! What is it Good For? by Ian Morris

A work of amazingly bad scholarship and poor critical thinking. Morris spends the better part of 400 pages trying to prove that war has been the primary engine of human advancement, and that war – not democracy, not the rule of law, not the cooperative instinct – has made us safer.

A weaker version of his thesis – that some wars make the world safer, or that war has acted as a natural selection pressure on human states, weeding out those that fail to ensure the greatest prosperity for their citizens – would be both interesting and justifiable. At every turn, though, Morris refuses to take a reasonable position, pushing his thesis far past the point at which it can be defended.

It doesn’t help that each chapter is full of historical inaccuracies. Sometimes he’s recasting historical events to suit his thesis, such as when he insists the Roman Empire “split in two” in 220, when in fact only the administration of the Empire was divided; the Empire itself was considered whole for hundreds of years after. Other times he skips over inconvenient facts, like when he insists that the years after 1100 were “centuries of decline” for Europe, despite the evidence that over that period wages rose, new inventions entered use (e.g. the water mill) and life for the common people (the majority) got better. Or when he waxes poetic about “prosperous plantations” founded by the Portuguese on Madeira and the Azores, leaving out the numerous slaves imported to work on those plantations.

Sometimes Morris makes up his own facts. In several places he compares rates of violent death across time periods, but these rates are mostly (his own) guesswork. And what a surprise, his guesses support his thesis that rates of violent death have declined as states have gotten larger.

At one point he actually admits that his numbers might be wrong, but then claims that it’s for future scholars to come up with better numbers and refute him, which is one of the most brazen admissions of copping-out I’ve ever read. Why add to the body of careful scholarship, when you can publish a controversial thesis without evidence to back it up?

Other places where Morris makes inexcusable mistakes:

  • His take on the Muslim caliphates founded in the seventh century: “Hardly anybody took notice of them.”
  • On American Revolutionary soldiers, who nearly lost the War of Independence multiple times: “[they] ran rings around the rigid, ponderous professionals”
  • He characterizes Communist China as a Soviet client prior to 1972, and that Nixon “broke them away” from the Russians. In reality, the Chinese Communists and Soviets had always been at loggerheads, and formally denounced each other in 1961. China invited Nixon to visit as part of its gradual opening up to world trade, a fact well documented in any modern book on Chinese history.

When he’s not twisting the facts to support his opinion, he’s ignoring other interpretations of the things he does get right.

For example, he actually does have evidence that rates of violent death in private disputes dropped under the Roman Empire. His interpretation is that only fear of punishment by the Roman government kept people in line, so the Roman wars of conquest were justified. He ignores the fact that every society has means of adjudicating conflicts, some more violent than others, and that perhaps having access to something like the Roman courts was all that conquered peoples needed to put down their arms.

Also, Morris doesn’t address the possibility that the rate of violence stayed constant, but shifted to state violence instead of private violence. I might lose my hand because I was found guilty of theft by a magistrate, instead of having it cut off by a rival, but the hand is still gone.

Later he wants to distinguish between productive and unproductive wars. Productive wars are wars that create larger states – bigger is always better for Morris – and unproductive wars break up large empires into smaller ones. This leads him into contradictions when discussing the many wars fought by steppe nomads against settled peoples: he calls them unproductive wars because they broke up the empires formed in Europe and along the Mediterranean, even though they created some of the largest empires in the world (the Ottoman and Mongol both come to mind) that also stimulated trade by eliminating brigandage along the Silk Road, connecting China to the Mediterranean via overland routes.

The cycle of boom and bust (productive war followed by unproductive war followed by productive war) he wants us to believe in is easily interpreted as being proof that war is not productive, that expansion of government by violent means is intolerable and unsustainable. Trade expansion and good government become possible at the exact moment that rulers abandon war as the primary means of seeking prosperity and power.

I won’t even address the conclusion of his book, where he claims that the US needs to keep spending large sums on its military and playing global cop until the Singularity arrives and makes war obsolete. It’s such a sudden lurch off the rails of his narrative and over the cliffs of delusion that I have to believe it was inserted by the editor as a prank.

I did learn some things, though:

  • If you’re a British professor, you can get poorly-argued historically inaccurate books published, so long as they’re also controversial
  • There’s a segment of the US and British elites that still want to believe colonialism was justified
  • It’s possible to write modern books on history without catching up on recent scholarship

Neighbors: Part Four

A few days later, Wright was standing outside my door again. I looked past her, at the uniformed cops dragging a handcuffed Dave away from his condo.

Wright was smiling. “Thought you’d like to see the fruits of your labor,” she said.

I shook my head. “I still can’t believe you found proof.”

“Well, he was clever to pump out the urine. Not so thorough about getting rid of it. Or his tools.”

“Guess we got lucky.”

“You got lucky, kid.” She chuckled. “I just did my job.”

She started to follow the uniforms out, then turned back. “Speaking of which, you should be getting a check from a thankful city soon.”

I grinned. “Thanks. But how will I cash a check made out to ‘Anonymous’?”

She smiled back. “Well, I might have listed you as a consultant on the case. Don’t thank me too much, though. You gave us a pretty cheap rate.”

She strode down the hall, whistling.

I went back into my condo, wondering how this would affect my unemployment.

Neighbors: Part Three

Brian’s doubts gnawed at me all the way back from the pub.

As soon as I got home I went to the police department’s website to look for any information on Emily’s death. I found it under the heading “Police Investigate Death in Little Italy.”

The article didn’t say much more than the officer had told me earlier. Two things stood out: the cause of death was still listed as Unknown, and Dave hadn’t been booked for murder.

That should have settled it. After all, if the police didn’t think Dave was involved, why should I?

Besides, how much did I really know about Dave and Emily? Were we even friends on Facebook?

I logged in to check. We were.

Feeling a little guilty, I started reading through Emily’s timeline. I told myself I was just trying to get to know her a little better, a silent memorial to the neighbor I’d lost.

And I did learn some new things. She’d been a nurse, working shifts at Sharp Hospital. She posted several photos of dinners made for her by Dave, a consolation at the end of her workday. She’d been thinking about getting a dog, and posted pictures of cute ones she’d seen on the street.

Just for comparison, I clicked over to Dave’s timeline.

Not much there. A couple of bitter-sounding posts about how the recession was supposed to be over. Half-hearted attempts to promote sales at the Macy’s he worked at. Some back and forth arguments about politics around election time.

Oddly enough, though, his relationship status was set to “Single.” I double-checked Emily’s, which was still set to “Married.”

WTF? He’d changed it already?

I scrolled all the way back to the top of his timeline. Sure enough, at the very top of the page, it announced the change in his relationship status.

It was dated 6:53 pm on a Monday, two weeks ago.

I felt a chill go down my back.

Why’d he change his status so early? Were they having problems?

I dug through their timelines for another hour, but couldn’t find anything. If they were on the rocks, they weren’t posting about it. I suppose that made sense, but why else would he update his status?

Why else, unless he knew what was going to happen?

I chuckled at myself. What did a Facebook status prove? Brian’s comments had gotten me pretty worked up, to be thinking the guy next door had killed his own wife.

And how would he have done it, anyway? If there’d been any obvious marks on the body, the cops would’ve cuffed him then and there, right?

I checked the time. 6:00. Dave’d probably be home from work by now, assuming he’d even gone. I hadn’t talked to him since last night. Shouldn’t I go over and offer my condolences?

And wouldn’t that be a great way to get some more information?

Dave answered the door after my first knock, surprising me.

His eyes were red and bloodshot. “Yeah?” His gaze wandered down to my shoes, back up to my face. “Oh, it’s you. Sean, right?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, I uh – ” the speech I’d prepped seemed false, inadequate. “Can I come in?”

He nodded, opened the door wider. “Sure. Come on in.”

His condo was laid out basically the same as mine, but reversed left to right. His kitchen was on the left side of the front door, with the living room stretching ahead and to the right. A closed door at the far end of the left-hand wall led to the bedroom, I assumed.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, thanks, Dave.” I took one more look at the kitchen, at the dirty dishes piled in the sink, the empty wine bottle in the trash, and stepped into the living room. “Actually, I was wondering if there was anything I could do. You know. For you.”

He nodded, his gaze wandering over the furniture. There was just enough room for a couch and two small chairs, all three of which were covered in a combination of cardboard boxes and candy bar wrappers. He sighed. “Thanks, Sean, but I’m doing ok so far.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He rubbed his hand over his face. “Um, not really, thanks. Did enough talking with the cops and the doctors and the ” – his voice caught – ” the funeral home. I’m all talked out.”

I nodded. “Okay. I understand.” I gestured at the boxes. “Are you moving?”

He tensed, then shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. Might move back east. I’ve got family in PA. Don’t really want to stay here anymore, you know?”

“Yeah. I know.”

He let out a deep breath. “Anyway, I’m staying in a hotel tonight. Just gotta – ” he waved his hand in the air – “gotta get away for a bit.”

I nodded again. “Gotcha. Well, if you need anything over the next few days, just let me know, man.”

He smiled a little. “Thanks, Sean.” He walked over and re-opened the door. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I stepped out, raised a hand in farewell, and went back to my condo.
I slumped on my own couch, thinking.

What had that accomplished? Wanting to move wasn’t telling enough. Who would want to stay in the apartment your spouse had died in? The candy wrappers didn’t speak too well of his eating habits, but that was it.

I closed my eyes, trying to remember what the living room and kitchen had looked like. Was there something I’d missed?

There was. Hanging on the living room wall, right next to the bedroom door, was a framed movie poster for Arsenic and Old Lace.

Hadn’t I seen that movie mentioned recently?

I flipped open my laptop and went back through Dave and Emily’s Facebook pages. There, listed on Emily’s About page, was her favorite movie: Arsenic and Old Lace.

I don’t know why, but I looked up the movie on Wikipedia. The movie poster on the page looked just like the one I’d seen on Dave’s wall, except his had a couple of stains near the center.

Still wondering why I was being so paranoid, I read the plot synopsis. That sent another chill up my spine.

The “friendly aunts” in the movie had poisoned their victims with a mix of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. How had they given it to their guests? Mixed in with elderberry wine.

It was probably a coincidence. But it didn’t feel like one.

I wondered if I should go to the police. But what would I say? My neighbor changed his Facebook status too early, and happened to give his wife elderberry wine on the night she died? Even I knew it didn’t amount to much.

I pulled out the business card the cop had given me that morning. She said to call her if I thought of anything, right? That everything was important?

I dialed her number on my phone. Maybe I could convince her.

She picked up on the fifth ring. “Detective Wright speaking.”

I swallowed, told myself I had nothing to lose by talking. “Hello, Detective? This is Sean Cook. We spoke this morning?”

I heard a chair squeak on the other end. “Mr. Cook? In Acqua Vista, is that right?”

“Yep.”

“How can I help you?”

“You said to call if I remembered anything else?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Well, I’ve remembered a few more things.”

More sounds on the other end, like a notepad being dragged across a desk. “Such as?”

I glanced at the wall I shared with Dave’s apartment. What if he could hear me? “If it’s ok, I’d rather not say over the phone.” Shit, I thought, I made it sound like I knew something really important, not just some details scraped from a Facebook page. “Could I come down to the station and talk there?”

She sighed. “Sure, Sean, that’d be fine. We’re on Imperial and 25th. You know where that is?”

“I’ll find it. Thanks.”

She hung up.

I took the trolley as far down to the station as I could. 25th was way past what I considered the safe part of downtown.

Good thing I was going to hang out with the cops.

The one at the front desk made me wait while he paged Detective Wright. She showed up just five minutes later, but even that felt like an hour.

She took me back into one of their interrogation rooms. Asked me if I wanted anything to drink. When I said no, she sat down in the chair across the table from me and crossed her arms.

“So, Sean, what did you remember?”

I told her what I suspected: that Dave had poisoned his wife using cyanide or arsenic mixed in with the elderberry wine he gave her the night she died. I described how it matched up with Emily’s favorite movie, and that Dave had changed his relationship status too early.

It still sounded crazy, even to me, but I tried to make it as coherent as possible.

When I finished, she nodded, but kept her arms crossed. “Interesting theory, Sean. But it’s missing a couple of pieces.”

I sighed. “What’s that?”

“Motive, for one. Why would Dave kill his wife?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Your second problem is that cyanide leaves very distinct traces in the body: hair, nails, even urine. We always test for those in cases like this. And guess what?”

I hung my head. “You didn’t find any.”

She smiled. “Bingo.”

She stood up. “So, unless you’ve got a motive for me, or can explain how someone could poison another person without leaving any sign, you should go home and stop worrying about your neighbors killing each other. Ok?”

I nodded and stood, feeling foolish. “Ok.”

She escorted me back to the front desk, then left me to sign out on my own.

I trudged out of the station and back to the trolley, wondering how I could be so stupid.

How could I have forgotten motive? What possible reason could Dave have for killing his wife? I’d never heard them argue, never seen either of them bring a stranger home, nothing.

And of course the police checked for poison. It wouldn’t cost them anything, and would catch all the usual suspects.

I told myself to face it: I’d had a hunch, but it didn’t hold up. I almost felt like I should try to apologize to Dave for thinking bad of him.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept jolting awake, frightened by dreams of some mad tea party with all the colors drained out of it. Dave was there, hanging in the background, screaming “Charge!” every five minutes.

Not relaxing.

After I gave up on sleeping and just got up, I dressed and went downstairs to fetch the mail. I’d forgotten it the day before, and was hoping my unemployment check would be in there.

Instead, I found the motive.

Tucked between a junk circular and a bill from Cox Cable was a letter from a law firm to Emily Ericson. It was stamped “second notice” in big red letters. The mailman must’ve pushed it into my box by mistake.

Normally I just push these mis-filings back into the mail slot, so they’ll be sorted properly the next day. This time, I carried it up to my apartment with the others.

I looked up the law firm online. Their specialty was Estate Planning and Wills.

Had Emily recently updated her will? I went back through her timeline. Nothing in there.

Maybe someone in her family had died?

I used Facebook to track down her sister and brother, which gave me her maiden name. Their posts led me to her mother’s blog, whose most recent, sad, entry talked about the death of Emily’s aunt two weeks prior.

Perhaps her aunt had left something for Emily in her will?

I knew it was a federal crime to open someone’s mail. I told myself Emily was dead and wouldn’t mind, especially if it helped catch her killer.

Sure enough, the letter was a notice from the law firm that Emily’s aunt had recently died and named Emily as the prime beneficiary in her will. The lawyers needed Emily to come down and sign some paperwork to make everything official.

It didn’t seem that exciting until I Googled her aunt. Turns out she’d owned a majority stake in an international shipping business, with branches on both coasts. The stock alone was worth a few million.

Had Dave kept back Emily’s mail? If she didn’t have a will written up, he’d get everything now.

I called Detective Wright. I didn’t mention the letter, just suggested that she look into Emily’s extended family. I told her it was something I’d heard from Emily a few weeks ago, about her aunt being sick.

I could tell she didn’t think it was important.

Two hours later she called me back.

“I don’t know how you knew,” she sighed, “but it seems Emily stood to inherit a lot of money before she died.”

“Did she?”

“Don’t gloat, kid,” she chided. “You haven’t explained the disappearing poison.”

“Yeah.” I glanced at my laptop, open to an article on cyanide poisoning. “Still working on that one.”

“Well, if any more ideas hit you, give me a call. If it helps, I’ll put it down as an anonymous tip, see if we can’t pay you for your time.”

Seriously? “Um, thanks,” I mumbled.

“No problem,” she said, and hung up.

I went back to reading the article.

According to it, a person could die from ingesting just a little bit of cyanide. In a low enough dose, the person would slip into a coma, twitching a little before going into cardiac arrest.

Sounded to me like what had happened to Emily.

But where was the evidence? Cyanide victims were supposed to get a pink flush, and leave traces of cyanide in their blood, their lungs, their urine. Where could it have gone?

I kept thinking about the question through lunch, turning the problem over in my head like some homework assignment.

Maybe I was thinking about it in the wrong way. If I were Dave, how would I get rid of it?

The answer hit me like a slap in the face. In the urine.

I dialed the detective’s number. As soon as she picked up, I burst out with “Did Emily have any urine in her body?”

“Sean? Is that you?”

I cleared me throat. “Yes, Detective Wright, it’s me. Look, I think I’ve figured out what happened to the cyanide. Did Emily have any urine in her body when the EMTs got her?”

She sighed. “I can’t tell you that, Sean. Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking, and I’ll look into it?”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. I think Dave gave her a really low dose of cyanide in the wine, just enough to turn her sleep into a coma, and slowly kill her.”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Most of what her body didn’t absorb went into her urine.”

“Possibly.”

“I think Dave somehow pumped the urine out of her, so we wouldn’t find anything.”

She sighed. “That’s kind of a stretch, Sean.”

“I know, I know.” I swallowed. “But there’ll be evidence. He had to get rid of the urine, right? He probably flushed it down the toilet, which means he might have splashed some around. And -“

“And if he threw away the container, it’ll be in his trash,” she finished. She was quiet for a few seconds. “All right. I’ll check into it. If I find anything, you’ll know.”

“How’s that?”

I could hear her smile through the phone. “We’ll be making an arrest, that’s how.”

Neighbors: Part Two

By the time I made it to Shakespeare’s Pub, I’d calmed down a little. Brian was already there, flirting with one of the waitresses. She stuck around just long enough for me to order a Guinness, then hurried off to check on her other tables.

Brian stared at her as she left. “Man, those British accents. They make any girl sexier, don’t they?”

I snorted. “Whatever you say, man.”

He turned back to me. “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Why’d you need a drink in the middle of the day?”

I told him everything I’d learned that morning: how my neighbor Emily had died in her sleep sometime last night, how her husband Dave had called it in, how the cops had grilled me about it.

Brian let out a low whistle when I was done. “That’s fucked up, man. Do they think Dave did it?”

I shook my head. “Dunno. They’re probably just getting all the information they can. I didn’t see them arrest him or anything.”

He nodded. “Right.” He tilted his head. “Was Emily the blonde in 405, or the brunette in 410?”

“Brunette.”

“Damn. Always wanted to fuck that one.”

I set down my drink. “Dude, too soon.”

He glanced at me. “Right. Sorry.”

We both took a sip of our beers.

He sighed. “It’s just – she was a little older, right? But still in great shape.”

“Brian-“

He held up his hands. “Hey, I know. I’m just saying, how does a healthy chick like that just go in her sleep?”

I shrugged. “That’s what’s so fucked up about the whole thing. No warning.”

Brian lifted his glass. “Well, we’re still kicking, and I’m grateful for that. L’chaim!”

I raised my own glass, tapped his, and drank. “L’chaim.”

Neighbors: Part One

“Could you repeat that, sir?”

I tore my eyes away from the body being wheeled out of my neighbor’s condo and turned back to the police detective standing outside my door, notepad in hand.

I cleared my throat. “He said he just wanted to borrow some milk.”

She checked her notes. “That would be David Ericson, correct?”

I nodded.

“Did he say anything else?”

I closed my eyes for a second, trying to remember. “No, not really.”

The cop looked up at me. “Not really? What does that mean?”

I sighed. “Nothing important. I mean, I asked him what he was cooking, that kind of thing.”

“Everything’s important. What’d he say?”

“He said he was making dinner for his wife again, forgot a few ingredients. Said the milk was for his almond-crusted chicken.”

“And that was the last time you saw him?”

“Um, no. Actually, he came back a little later for some flour. Traded me a glass of elderberry wine for it.”

The cop glanced up again. “Elderberry wine, huh? Any good?”

I shrugged, not sure it mattered. “Yeah, I guess.”

The cop flipped her notebook closed, then pulled out a business card. “Thanks for your help, Mr. Cook. If you think of anything else that might be relevant, just give me a call.”

I took the card. “Will do, detective. Thanks.”

She nodded and strolled back next door.

I stepped inside and pushed the door to.

My neighbor was dead. Not ten feet from where I slept, another human being had died. How fucked up was that?

At least she’d died in her sleep. That’s what the cop told me, anyway. Maybe she said that just to make me feel better. They don’t really know these things till later, do they? Don’t they have to do an autopsy or something first?

I realized I didn’t want to be alone. I called up Brian, convinced him to meet me at Shakespeare’s.

I really needed a drink.

Trust is Critical to Building Software

So much of software engineering is built on trust.

I have to trust that the other engineers on my team will pull me back from the brink if i start to spend too much time chasing down a bug. I have to trust that they’ll catch the flaws in my code during code review, and show me how to do it better. When reviewing their code, at some point I have to trust that they’ve at least tested things locally, and written something that works, even if doesn’t work well.

Beyond my team, I have to trust the marketing and sales folks to bring in new customers so we can grow the company. I’ve got to trust the customer support team to keep our current customers happy, and to report bugs they discover that I need to fix. I have to trust the product guys to know what features the customer wants next, so we don’t waste our time building things nobody needs.

And every time I use test fixture someone else wrote, I’m trusting the engineers that worked here in the past. When I push new code, I’m trusting our CI builds to run the tests properly and catch anything that might have broken. By trusting those tests, I’m trusting everyone that wrote them, too.

Every new line of code I write, every test I create, adds to that chain of trust, and brings me into it. As an engineer, I strive to be worthy of that trust, to build software that is a help, and not a burden, to those that rely on it.

Cranky Old Man talks about the new Apple Watch

“It tracks your exercise!”
“I don’t need a watch to tell me when I’ve gotten exercise. I’m well aware when it’s happening, because I’m the one doing it!”

“It keeps accurate time!”
“So does my alarm clock, my computer, my phone, and my car. When do I not have a clock staring me in the face, counting down my final hours?”

“Friends lets you send a message with a single touch!”
“All my friends are dead.”

“It gets your attention with a tap! Isn’t that cute?”
“A tap? From that whopper? It’d break my wrist!”

“You can dictate messages to it!”
“Sure, if you enunciate like a British MP. That’s all I need, to spend my day, sitting on a park bench, cursing at my wrist.”

“You can read email on it!”
“Maybe YOU can. With the fonts I use, it’d only display one word at a time!”

“You can send sketches to people!”
“Right. Just what the world needs, more shaky doodles from my arthritic hands.”

“It can record your heartbeat!”
“Now that might be useful. Can it send it to a doctor, or – no? Baldurdash.”

“You can use it to pay for things!”
“Like I couldn’t do it before? Listen, sonny, cash is still accepted everywhere.”