Steve Would've Never Let This Happen

I don't understand the iPad Pro line from Apple. A few months ago they release the biggest, fastest iPad ever, with the most RAM and new accessories that only it can use, the regular iPads need not apply. Then, more recently, they release what everybody would consider the mainstream version, which has a lot of the bad-assed stuff of its older brother, but not all of it, and it's a bit smaller. 

So far, so good.

Until one realizes that this smaller, supposedly NOT the top of the iPad line has a better, if smaller, screen than its big brother. And some fancy light detection technology that will change the color warmth of the screen automatically to match its surroundings. AND it has a way better camera.

So, like.. what the fuck? 

Yeah, first world problems and all that, but if you want the absolute best iPad today to future proof yourself, there isn't a clear answer. Best iPhone? 6S or 6S+, the only difference is the size, pick accordingly. Best Mac laptop? Macbook Pro Retina 15, loaded. Best iMac? The big one, loaded. Best iPad? Uhhhh... depends.

I like Apple's willingness to have top-tier internals across a wide variety of sizes; the iPhone SE is a great example of this, providing first-rate hardware in a form factor the market has otherwise abandoned or consigned to shitty performance due to gimped parts from the bin bucket. But I cannot understand why they did this weird separation of high-end features across their top two iPads. 

So, I'll just stick with my iPad Air 2 for now. Fuckin' thing works fine, anyways.

 

The Books of 2016, #9: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

Like all literate middle-aged white guys, the percentage of my reading that involves the Roman Empire or World War II goes up a little bit every year. By the time we hit 60 or so, it's All Rommel, All The Time. But, for now, Rome still gets a book or two of my attention every year.

I know enough about Roman history to where I don't go for the general pop histories or pop biographies much at this point; I've got the background down as well as any non-specialist can. That said, I'm also a firm believer in revisiting my assumptions every decade or so, and this book has been garnering high praise from all corners, so I figured it'd be a worthy entry into this year's book run and a nice way to refresh what I think I know about Rome's founding, the Republic and the Empire to its height.

That, by the way, is the time period which this book covers; the rise, the peak, but not the fall. I rather enjoyed Beard's disclaimer that the fall of Rome is a topic for another book by another author (the "fall" of Rome has been getting some major revisioning over the last twenty years or so; see Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire for a fantastic overview of the current prevailing theories written for a general audience). So, be aware: this isn't a history of the ENTIRE range of time the "Roman Kingdom/Empire/Republic" existed; It's Rome from the mysts of pre-history to  212CE when the Emperor Carracala extended Roman citizenship to every freeman in the Empire. That's a nice stopping point (Roman history offers many) if you wish to focus on what us moderns consider "Roman" to mean; after that point, the nature of the Empire fundamentally changed, Christianity became a thing, and everything went to hell more often than not... like the author rightly notes; that's a different story, better handled on its own, separately.

While sort-of chronological in its telling, Beard skips around a bit, starting in the age of Cicero and, specifically, the Cataline Conspiracy as a way to introduce the reader into thinking about what the Romans themselves, at the time, thought "Rome" and "being Roman" meant. This is the running theme throughout her book, and it serves well as a spine to grow the body of a narrative around.

Rather than sticking to the strictly chronological, Beard organizes the book more or less around big themes, and proceeds to examine them based on what we know now and, more importantly, how contemporary Romans viewed those topics. Always being careful to mention what evidentiary constraints she's working with, the author takes us through what it meant to be an ancient Roman king, an interesting topic particularly because we have next to no contemporary evidence for that but a fair amount from _later_ Romans who were already viewing the Kingship era as history themselves. Likewise, she presents an in-depth discussion of what it meant to be a Roman emperor; did they _really_ think that they were gods? What did that mean in the context of Roman religion, where some gods were apparently more god-y than others? Did some emperors just take the piss on the entire idea (entertainingly: yes)?

It's fun stuff, and she carries this approach through to all of the topics presented here. In common with the current trend in history of trying to discern more about how the common folk lived as compared to the exhaustively researched lives of the ruling and rich classes, Beard gives us what she can on the P in SPQR. There's actually a fair bit of archaeological evidence to play with regarding the lives of regular people, and, thanks to the pretty high level of literacy (for an ancient society), even a good amount of written records to call upon as well. She pulls all of this evidence together coherently, giving us as much of a look into how we would've been likely to live back then (regardless of what your fortune-teller tells you, you were much MUCH more likely to have been a peasant than a prince in a past life. Sorry) as is possible with the current state of primary evidence available.

Also entertaining is her brief discussion of the Christians who, in the timeframe of this book, were a small, annoying cult as opposed to the Official And Only Religion of Rome that they became later. Reading from the letters of a harassed Roman governor from what is now Turkey writing to Rome for guidance on what to DO with these twits is amusing. Less amusing but still interesting is the Emperor's response of "don't concern yourself overmuch with them if they're just being annoying. If they get seriously unruly, though, kill them".

Maybe it's just because I spent my actual educational years reading about Great Men and Great Battles to the point of utter exhaustion, but I really, REALLY appreciate authors like Beard and the books they produce. I want much more work done on the grand themes of a given historical era and/or society as they impacted ALL levels of society. I'm really beyond done with books that solely concern themselves with the king and his direct minions (this may be why I've never cottoned to historical biographies at all; the stories of Important Figures are, er, important, but I also want to know, if at all possible, what the people who had these stories inflicted on them without any input felt about things). 

So, in the end, SQPR is a fantastically written exploration of Rome from its beginnings to its peak, organized in a modern fashion around big themes and great concepts moreso than great people, which is welcome. Pair it with the work by Heathers I mention early on in this review and you'll be nicely up to date on the current state of the historiography of the entire Roman Era. 

 

The Books of 2016, #8: The Desert and The Blade (A Novel of The Change), by S. M. Stirling

*does some quick Googling...*

Jesus Christ. It's been twelve freaking years since this series debuted. We're also twelve books into it (plus one collection of short stories by mostly-other authors set in this universe). Annnd, as my review of _last_ year's entry, The Golden Princess, showed, I struggle with why I'm still reading this series. 

So I'm not going to spend much time on this save to say: it's better than the last book was. We get action, the plot moves forward quite a bit, we get to find out what happened to the greater LA area after The Change... it's a decent entry in a series that probably should have been put to bed two arcs ago. 

I'm not entirely sure why I'm still reading it save for the fact that Stirling _can_ knit a yarn pretty goddamned well, and I'm juuuuust enough of a sucker for "oh, we get to find out what happened to THAT part of the world after the Big Disaster?" that I'll put aside my inherent disdain for the increasing magical elements of this tale and bull through just for that.

Stirling is very, very good at creating and writing about alternate versions of our world (his Draka books remain my second-favorite type of this genre, juuuust barely beat-out by the downright depressing and therefore all-too-believable agonies of John Barnes' Century Next Door series...), and injects just enough of that into these books at this point to keep me grimly reading along, regardless of how many orbits my eyes have to do in their sockets at times when the fuckin' McClintocks and McKenzie's have to argue over the trivial differences between their fake-ass dipshit clans for the 79th time...

Fortunately, The Desert and the Blade is a lot better than The Golden Princess was, given that Things Actually Happen in this entry. The High Princess' Quest is in full flower, and they get through a good chunk of it. Stirling seems to have realized that part of the draw of this series was finding out what's going on elsewhere on our post-Change globe, so he introduces some characters who have had reason to travel that globe, and therefore can spend entire chapters describing what happened elsewhere. It's a fun, showy example of just how good Stirling is at world-building, and I appreciate the appearances here.

I can't give much more detail without giving away reasons to actually read this thing, and I assume anyone even considering it is already familiar with the world because good fuckin' luck jumping in on Vol. 12 if you aren't. In a world where this type of book has been almost entirely taken over by Young Adult tropes (bleaugh), I appreciate that Stirling is still writing somewhat more adult tales of the apocalypse, his staunch advocacy of Renn Faire nonsense aside. It's far from his best book, but certainly the best this series has seen for a while, and further sets up the next entry to be pretty far-ranging and interesting to my particular tastes. 

So, if you're into this series already, you'll probably like this. If you're not, this book will probably just confuse you. If you like to spend your weekends m'ladying your way through Society for Creative Anachronism meetings, who are we kidding, you've probably already written erotic fanfic based on this world.