Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

"In California, where the urgent question of something suspiciously like state failure is staring the electorate in the face, the Brown-Whitman contest hasn't yet risen even to the level of the trivial."

Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 11 October 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thanks For Your Patience

If you read my blog, I thank you and I appreciate your patience. My real studies (the one they'll give me a degree for, hopefully) have to remain my first priority. Although weeks or even months may go by without new posts, there will be occasional bursts of activity (like today) during which I will also review any comments you've left. So don't feel too neglected; your thoughts will appear, but it might be a few weeks. In the meantime, you can email me at mdcblogs@gmail.com. And keep me on your reader list!

A Resource for Background on Chinese Government Officials

It's called China Vitae. This is an excellent idea and valuable resource.

Now where's the one for the U.S.? That's not a rhetorical question. By the same token, where are the Chinese and North Korean military documents on Wikileaks? That would be an exciting development. I fear that open societies are effectively being punished for that virtue.

Two Interesting Links

A tool - Open Heat Map

A photoessay - What America Looks Like

Rainfall, Agriculture and the Emergence of States

Recently Haber and Menaldo at Stanford and UW respectively published their rainfall theory of democracy. Rainfall and its impact on agriculture would seem to have an even greater impact on the history of the late neolithic in the formation of the first states. Large political structures have a tendency to first emerge in agriculturally marginal environments. The Nile at the edge of the Sahara (more savanna-like than desert like then); the Fertile Crescent; Cusco, at over 3,000 m in the Andes; and Tenochtitlan, on a lake in central Mexico - all are places where agriculture is very difficult without a fairly complex system of irrigation. Such systems are difficult to originate and maintain without some kind of central political structure to coordinate and maintain them. In addition dry climates allow for agricultural products to be stored for long periods. In fact in at least some places, storage predated agriculture, and was being done in the Middle East at least 11,000 years ago.

All this is to say is it's not necessarily the productiveness of land that predisposes strong centralized states to appear. In fact it seems that the key is marginal productivity which demands agricultural engineering, because a strong centralized state can more easily control agricultural production in such marginal environments. Once intensive agriculture is productive, the populations of those political centers grow, become wealthier, and raise armies, and any surrounding people either form their own states to resist the expansion or are absorbed, or once the empire contracts they're left with residual political structures. That is to say, once the initial political crystallization occurs, it spreads from the initial origins either by conquest or diffusion of ideas. (China is a real exception to this principle. The Mayans aren't a good exception because individual states never covered that much territory; some enemy cities could see each others' temples across the forest.)

If this model is predictive, then we would expect to see that people who are a) in rich physical environments and b) are insulated from trading with or being conquered by agricultural states, will not themselves develop strong, large centralized political structures, even if they themselves have agriculture.

The pre-contact cultures of the North American Pacific Northwest are striking for a) a rich material culture which took advantage of their physical environment and b) the absence of states or even proto-states despite this obvious sophistication. Visit the museums of any tribal nation in coastal Washington State - the Makah at the extreme tip of the Olympic Peninsula are an excellent example. This part of the world is infamously wet, and has rich soil; it would be easy to grow food, if you wanted to, but the deer and the salmon and the cedar and the whales and the seals ensured there was no pressure to develop agriculture, and in fact Makah did not have it. In any event in such a climate it might have been easy to grow food, but not store food. Consequently, it would have been very difficult for would-be states to control production. Any unhappy faction in old Makah villages could have just moved down the coast or two hills over, and the river there would be just as full of salmon, the forest just as full of deer, the cedar just as plentiful and the obsidian from the volcanoes just as available for making tools. With most wealth produced by nature, threats from kings would have little authority.

Waatch River, Makah Nation, Washington State, USA
(image credit Sam Beebe/Ecotrust)

This line of thought was initially inspired by the observed political gap between pre-contact Mesoamericans and the Pacific Northwest, despite the clear complexity of the latter's material culture. Other counterexamples include Amazonians (whose environment was rich but whose soil was not suited to agriculture). Perhaps a better example would be New Guinea, a highly non-marginal environment in terms of rainfall and plant life, and which did develop agriculture independently, but where again strong, expansive states failed to develop.

In 2010 true treatments of these kinds of questions should be quantitative, or explain why they're not. In every such model there are going to be strong biases (e.g., I obviously was impressed by the Makah!) that can be better accounted for by codifying your data numerically and using statistics to avoid cherry-picking. This also forces clear definitions; for example, to measure cultural complexity in a consistent way, or measure how much contact there is between "insulated" cultures, or whether geography is a confounder (maybe New Guinea geography makes state-expansion difficult.) This is why the work of Peter Turchin and others like him is critical if history is anything but a series of accidents and has retrodictable patterns that we can apply to the future.

Red Dawn Remake Release Delayed - Forever?

If you're a Hollywood type you knew this, but if you're a political junkie maybe not. Here's a story. Important point: the remake was about a Chinese takeover, not Russian. Delayed due to lack of funding - from banks in a certain country, maybe? Sounds like it's time for a documentary - The Undoing of Red Dawn.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The Chinese people and other nations will also rejoice under the protection of the Turkish-Islamic Union"

- from the widely ignored but unintentionally very funny Turkish Islamic creationist Harun Yahya. I don't think even Uighurs expect or want the Han lands in eastern China to be under Islamic rule.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Prop 19 Ahead of Schedule? Almost

Getting caught with weed is now the same as getting a littering citation - thanks to a law signed by Governor Schwarzenegger. No, this isn't the referendum that completely decriminalizes it - that's still on the ballot for next month (Prop 19 - vote YES.)

Marijuana has just become significantly closer to becoming completely legal in California, and civilization hasn't yet ended. Amazing! It's almost like adults can behave responsibly without the government telling them what they're allowed to do.

Christine O'Donnell and Noam Chomsky: BFF

Here's a by-now famous quote about Delaware Senatorial candidate christine O'Donnell: "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they're already into this experiment."

You don't have to be a biotechnology expert to sense that Ms. O'Donnell is perhaps not the best informed on these issues. Which is unfortunate, if you want a well-informed pro-business, pro-enterprise candidate. Until recently, in the U.S. the Republican Party filled this role. Unfortunately, barely two decades after the Reagan administration, its candidates are now much more interested in scoring populist points through fear than in defending American innovation. The GOP has candidates who frankly are starting to sound like the radical left. For years Noam Chomsky has been claiming that the American biomedical industry was evil because it did no real research, socializing risk and privatizing profit, a claim that the briefest contact with reality will immediately explode. But here comes Christine O'Donnell, parroting a similar line: that the biomedical industry is evil for doing the wrong kind of research. We're left wondering exactly what kind of research Commissar O'Donnell's scientific politburo would be willing to approve. Is this woman pro free-market or not? This is no time to be sitting on the fence, Christine. American industry has enough enemies without you piling on.

As you might expect, the kind of technical illiteracy that would lead someone to vote for O'Donnell and think they're improving America's business edge has more immediate and profound implications:

"...colleges in Russia, China, and even Iran [are] churning out an order of magnitude more programmers than universities in the US. It is only a matter of time...a generation at most - until our military loses its digital superiority." (From Douglas Rushkoff writing about digital illiteracy.)

If Christine O'Donnell wants to improve America, she should be doing everything she can to help "scientific companies".

Friday, October 1, 2010

Guatemalan Tuskegee

It's a good sign (though too late for many) that today Tuskegee seems unthinkable. It turns out that the same organizations were doing the same thing in Guatemala too.

I've always found it frustrating that in criticisms of corporate pharmaceutical research, Tuskegee invariably comes up. It's useful to clarify that Tuskegee (and this Guatemalan project) were carried out by government organizations. Corporate America can be proud because it has never undertaken anything remotely as immoral as that. (And as historians dig, there's apparently more still to come.) So if you're worried about how people are treated in medical studies, history would strongly suggest that you should look at those carried out by government organizations rather than private companies.

No one wants more Tuskegees. The best way to ensure that is to know your history.