Polygamy, Human Sacrifices, and Steel – Why the Aztecs Were Awesome

Aztec Leaders: Rulers, Supreme Ruler and the Voice of the People ...
A Chadtec surveys his domain.

The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was terrible. It was a prolonged period of pestilence, famine, torture, rape, plunder, destruction, conquest, cultural eradication, and general misery, with a short term death toll of something like 600,000 (including military and civilian casualties), and a long term death toll in the millions.

And yet part of me thinks it was totally awesome. That portion of my brain that grew up on Total War and Civilization games thinks the concept of a small number of hyper-technologically sophisticated foreigners led by a verified psychopath waging war on an empire of pyramid-dwelling, polygamist, slave-owning, human sacrificing pagans with the fate of a largely uncharted landmass at stake is incredibly cool. And no one can convince me otherwise.

There are surprisingly few books on the Aztecs, so I took a chance on Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend, which as of writing this only has four reviews on Audible (though 30+ on Amazon). I hope the book gets its due because it’s a fast, narratively-focused, and thoroughly enjoyable walkthrough of hundreds of years of little-understood history, from before the settlement of Tenochtitlan through the Spanish conquest, and over the following hundreds of years of Spanish rule. Townsend’s novel approach to the material is to rely heavily on history texts written by the Aztecs in their native Nahuatl language in the 20-50 years after the Spanish conquests, on top of well-studied archaeological findings.

My main takeaway from the book is that the Aztecs were a highly unique civilization that I desperately want to learn more about. They offer great insights into how a society with radically different structures and norms might function. Whether it was due to their relative geographic isolation, unusual environmental factors, or achievement of a high level of technology for a pagan tribal society, the Aztecs seemed to follow very different civilizational paths than the ancient Greeks, Persians, Chinese, and Indians, despite being at a fairly comparable level of development by the 1500s.

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An Attempt at Explaining, Blaming, and Being Very Slightly Sympathetic Toward Enron

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The audiobook of Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron caught my eye over a year ago, but I didn’t read it because it’s 22.5 hours long. I’m not a finance expert, and I figured if it only took 10 hours longer to understand the entire life of Napoleon, then maybe it wasn’t worth wading into limited liability special purpose entities, broadband capacity trading, and Tobashi schemes.

But I finally listened to Bethany McLane and Peter Elkind’s exploration of the largest bankruptcy in American history (at the time). Then I read a whole lot of wikipedia articles, read a whole bunch of news articles from the early 2000s, talked to Byrne Hobart for an hour, and now I am going to attempt to present a succinct, yet comprehensive summary of what Enron was and how it fell.

As cliché as it sounds, what makes the Enron scandal so fascinating is its bewildering complexity. As late as 2001, nobody outside of Enron could actually explain what Enron did. Sure, outsiders could summarize it as a “logistics company” or say it did “energy trading,” but even the most diligent analyst didn’t know half of what Enron was up to because… well, Enron didn’t report half of what it was doing.

But at the same time, nobody inside Enron could really explain what the company was doing either. Sure, the executives knew more than the analysts, but such a vast company with so many opaque moving parts simply cannot be comprehended by a single mortal man. This isn’t embellishment – that was basically the legal defense of much of the Enron executive team after the company’s downfall. Many executives didn’t try to argue their innocence so much as confuse the judge, jury, and everyone in the courtroom with byzantine accounting non-explanations. Enron’s CEO, Ken “Kenny Boy” Lay, claimed that he honestly couldn’t follow the machinations of his hand-picked COO and CFO as they bounced billions of dollars of Enron assets and debt between corporate accounts and quasi-shell investment funds owned by Enron executives and their families so as to artificially boost Enron’s credit rating. Who could?

Beyond the technical aspects, the Enron scandal was arguably just as morally complex. This was probably my biggest surprise when reading the book. I had only heard about Enron in passing on the news as the ultimate example of financial dishonesty, or as the apex of predatory capitalism, and all of that might be true… or maybe not. It’s hard to say. I’m wary of passing judgement not just with the benefit of hindsight, but the benefit of being outside the reality distortion field which undoubtedly engulfed Enron for the better part of a decade. Enron’s executives were no angels, but they weren’t entirely demons or scoundrels or fools or decent men put under unimaginable pressure… they were all of those at once.

I’ll frontload the disappointment: there are no easy answers or smoking guns with Enron. There was no one executive who obviously made a conscious choice to commit fraud (at least not on a large scale). There was no single financial maneuver or strategy which was blatantly illegal. There was no identifiable point-of-no-return. There were just lots of morally weak but clever individuals who did what they thought they had to, or were allowed to, or what would work out in the end… until it didn’t.

I’ll start my piece with a summary of Enron’s entire history, starting with the origins of its founder, all the way to its dramatic conclusion. Then I’ll explain how and why Enron fell in three parts:

  • Mid-Level Explanation – A condensed, digestible summary of the Enron scheme
  • Low-Level Explanation – A deep dive into the mechanics of the various sub-components of the Enron scheme
  • High-Level Explanation – An analysis of the legal and moral underpinnings of Enron’s scheme

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The Taiwan Junket: A Story of Political Farce & Fools

Taiwan Flag

The following is a true story. It is based on notes taken from a conversation with a former state representative from a Midwestern state who I’ll refer to as John Smith. He has asked to remain anonymous.

It was the early-2000s. With 6 months left in his third term as a state representative, John Smith was a lame duck. Other legislators gave Smith sad little nods in the hallways, and the “watchers” – the lobbyists who sat in on every vote – stopped inviting him to comped dinners at fancy restaurants. Without an opening available in the state Senate, Smith knew his political career was over, at least for a while.

Smith had seen many of his colleagues come close to mental breakdowns when they finally left office. They couldn’t comprehend why strangers stopped taking their phone calls and laughing at their jokes. Their sense of identity and self-worth was tied up in their title and modicum of power over their fellow citizens. But Smith didn’t care about all that. He was a hardcore libertarian, though he wasn’t open about it. He hated the political machinations which stole money from the people to be dolled out by the aristocracy of pull. Smith never tired of mocking the self-righteous, self-important elected officials who revel in power so petty that their own constituents don’t even know what they do.

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Everything You Need to Know About Napoleon Bonaparte

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Note – This was originally posted on Reddit in three parts between December 2 and December 8, 2019.

Having finished the epic, all-encompassing biographical 33-hour audiobook, Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, I knew I wanted to write something about it, but I wasn’t sure what. Napoleon Bonaparte had one of the most accomplished, divisive, big lives of any person in history, which reshaped the way we think about war, politics, revolution, culture, law, religion, and so much more in a mere 52 years. Any one of those elements could (and has) been isolated and made into a massive tome on its own.

So I just set out to describe and analyze all of the things I found most interesting about the man. This includes a summary of his entire life, his personality quirks, unusual events, driving beliefs, notable skills, and more. If there is an over-arching theme to be found, it’s my amazement at how an extraordinarily competent and risk-tolerant individual lived his life up to the greatest heights only to come tumbling back down to earth.

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Little Soldiers – Inside the Chinese Education System

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Note 1 – This was originally posted on Reddit on September 3, 2019.

Note 2 – Scott Alexander posted a “Review Review” of this piece on Slate Star Codex on January 22, 2020.

I’m a typical SSC reader when it comes to education. I love Scott’s graduation speech, I think Bryan Caplan is right, and I actively participate in our semi-regular tradition of talking about how much schools suck.

That’s why Lenora Chu’s Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve was pure nightmare fuel for me. It’s a non-fiction account of an ethnically-Chinese, American-born woman following her multi-racial child through the Chinese school system in Shanghai. While we complain about our soft, liberal, decadent school experiences in America or Europe, tens of millions of Chinese kids are subjected to a school structure that seems purposefully designed to make everyone as miserable as humanly possible.

Or at least that was my take-away. Lenora Chu has a kinder perspective on the system. Mostly.

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Birth of Two Nations – The Hundred Years War

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Note – This was originally posted on Reddit on July 25, 2019.

The Hundred Years War is one of those historical things I’ve always felt guilty about not knowing more about. It is the medieval conflict. Any time you picture knights in armor, castle sieges, charging heavy cavalry, longbows, squabbling royal families, you are probably subconsciously picturing something from the Hundred Years War template.

I finally got around to figuring out one of Europe’s greatest struggles through the blandly named, Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, by Desmond Seward.

Seward opens his work by stating that it is intended to be a broad overview of the Hundred Years War with a particular emphasis on portraying the English conduct during the conflict more accurately than past historical efforts. At least according to him, English historians have tended to romanticize the war as a valiant effort of early English nationhood against a vastly superior foe while overlooking or minimizing the brutal realities of English strategy which more closely resembled a Viking onslaught than typical feudal warfare (which was not known for its gentleness anyway). So make of that what you will.

My goal with this piece is to summarize the entire conflict and draw out the social, cultural, military, and political trends that I found most interesting.

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The Opium War – The War On/For Drugs

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Over the previous month, I have slowly made my way through the audiobook of Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt.

Prior to reading it, I knew next to nothing about the Opium Wars except that they were a series of conflicts between Great Britain and China over opium that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and that they inspired much modern-day nationalism in China where they are seen as the start of China’s “Century of Humiliation.”

(Note – from now on I’ll just refer to a singular “Opium War.” There were a few of them, but the first one is the important one.)

Now that I’ve read it, I feel like I’ve only grasped the surface-level of a vast conflict containing multi-national corporate drug dealers, local mafia drug distributors, corrupt government agents, home-sick merchants, panicking diplomats, political lobbyists, a British merchant who nearly started an international war because he wanted to bang his wife, a Chinese merchant who almost defected to America, drug legalization advocates on both sides of the world, a Chinese advisor who wanted to execute anyone caught holding opium, and countless more individuals, organizations, and governments caught in a tangled international web.

And yet, despite building up at the start of the 18th century and coming to a climax in the mid-19th century, while reading this book about the Opium War, I couldn’t help but think:

This is all so familiar.

The Opium War is like a fictitious allegorical retelling of a whole bunch of very real political problems in the modern world. Namely:

  • The ongoing, intractable, unwinnable WAR ON DRUGS
  • The inherent difficulties of conducting a policy of FREE TRADE when the trading partner is a hostile, protectionist nation
  • The limits of STATE SOVEREIGNTY and MULTICULTURALISM against pressing private concerns

In this post, first I’ll do my best to recount the basic outline of the conflict as well as its most interesting trends and moments. Nearly all of my information comes from the book, with gaps filled in by Wikipedia.

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Hillbilly Elegy – The Culture of White American Poverty

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Note – This was originally posted on Reddit on December 31, 2018.

I’ve written a couple of book summaries on here over the past few months, and this one for Hillbilly Elegy will be the most difficult. J.D. Vance’s autobiography is a sociological summary of Appalachian American culture, and by extension the culture of poverty across America, which uses his own life as a case study. The book is basically a series of linked anecdotes with only occasional introspections thrown in, so I’ll try my best to lay out Vance’s story, and integrate his claims and arguments.

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Mongol Apologia – How Genghis Khan Made the Modern World

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Note – This was originally posted on Reddit on January 15, 2019.

In Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Mongols, he recounts taking a class in college on Genghis Khan where he wrote a paper about some of the economic benefits of the Mongol Empire’s reign, and his Chinese professors gave him a bad grade for overlooking the tens of millions of people the nomads killed to acquire their massive empire. Carlin argued that the Mongol death toll wasn’t the point of the essay and it was unfair to grade him that way, but the teacher said it was morally inexcusable to overlook blatant genocide in this context.

I had a vaguely similar encounter in college, but in the other direction. I took a class on Mongol history taught by a professor who was famous in the field (he had spent years unsuccessfully searching for Genghis Khan’s body in Mongolia), and he used to make good-natured jokes about how one of his TAs was an unabashed Mongol fan. The TA didn’t just think the Mongols were interesting, he genuinely believed they were a force for good in the world, and when giving lectures he would go on at lengths rattling off the accomplishments and stats of the Mongol Empire, only to be occasionally interrupted by the main professor who would remind everyone that the Mongols probably killed a higher percentage of the earth’s population than any military force in history.

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. When I started it, I wondered if the publisher forced that rather click-baity title on Weatherford. After all, though it’s a well-written and entertaining account, it is a fairly straightforward historical survey of Genghis Khan’s life and legacy. The book never concisely states what the “modern world” is or how exactly Genghis Khan made it.

But now that I finished it, I think Weatherford may have chosen the title after all, because he is about as pro-Mongol as one can get. And though the book is more of a historical account than an argument for a grand historical/cultural/societal explanation for the modern world, there is a faint outline for such a thing somewhere in there.

Even though I don’t totally buy it, I’ll do my best to explain Weatherford’s argument. I’ll also try to explain how Genghis Khan was so awesome (at least in a purely amoral, achievement-based sense) and why he’s one of the most famous people in all of history.

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