Saturday, January 28, 2012

Newt Gingrich: Moral Relativist

In the 1980s Newt wrote a letter to the AMA advocating the legalization of marijuana. Later he tells the Wall Street Journal that he smoked pot when he was younger, but then morality changed and now it's wrong to do so, which I guess is why he wants to execute people for possessing it, apparently in accordance with Shari'a law.

So either morality changes dramatically over time and there are no objective moral truths, or Newt Gingrich is inconstant. Guess where the smart money's going on that one!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Colonial Japan: Alternate History #5

For the previous installment, check out Alternate History #4, Colonial Megafauna.

For the next instalment, check out Alternate History #6, A Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria.

The Pieties, 2012.

Why does anyone care about alternative history? Why does it matter? Of course it's fun to be an imaginary tourist, and see what Buddhist Africa would look like. But more importantly, we care because the world is a small enough place that coincidences have consequences, and world history is always local history somewhere. There is a quiet little town in the Greek countryside that used to be called Sparta; there is a field in Shropshire where a boy named Charles developed his love of nature by collecting beetles; and furthermore reading biographies, it's most rewarding to find out everyone who came before us was just a mortal mammal. Can you be sure that there won't be people or events where you're sitting right now with macrohistorical echoes? If someone in the future came back to alter history, would a meteor hitting your town have more or less impact than one in the New Guinea Highlands, or downtown Seoul? There are places around the world that haven't yet mattered that much to everyone else. Japan is not one of them or I wouldn't have written a post about it.

So we care because coincidences have consequences - but to care, those consequences have to effect a world that we recognize - unlike much of the last post, where the description of the change's consequences are abbreviated for this very reason. And that's a second problem in alternative history, that if the change is far enough back, it would necessarily create a planet so bizarre it might as well be made from whole cloth. (Hence the framing of the Homo erectus nation in this post as isolated on Australia - sorry Aussies.) If I were to pick a novel where this problem was best demonstrated it would be Lion's Blood (and its sequel Zulu Heart) by Stephen Barnes, where the the change began with Socrates, twenty-five centuries ago. And still we get Christianity and Islam! (The same people with the same names would still be getting born a thousand years after the change? What, fate doesn't apply to historical events but somehow still applies to which sperm and eggs meet each other?) Having never asked Stephen Barnes, I can't say the following for sure, but I wager he would say that yes he knows things would have been a lot more different than that, but then people would be less invested in the stories.

Alexander the Great's conquest is another favorite place to change history. In S.M. Stirling's Conquistador, Alexandros o Megas survives his fever in Babylon and lives to a ripe old age, becoming a god-king and binding together east and west Eurasia "before their time"; apparently this religio-political cult retards progress so that when people from our timeline enter "modern-day" California in the other timeline, it's still populated solely by Native Americans. Expanding on Alexandrian divergences, I've always wanted a story where a time traveler with a poor grasp of history travels to early 3rd century B.C. China, not noticing anything amiss - until he is granted an audience with the emperor and finds himself before an old white man with thinning blonde hair - because Alexander rallies his troops at the Indus and then passes through Bengal and Burma to strike at the heart of China - right in the middle of the Warring States period, just like Pizarro wandered into Peru at exactly the right time in Inca history, after a protracted civil war. I wager Alexander would have taken one look at Chinese culture and "gone native" far more than he ever did in Egypt or Babylon.

You'll notice a pattern in the last two versions of "What if things had gone differently in relations between Europeans and the rest of the world?" The most common way this question is put in alterntive histories is what-ifs about the Mongol invasions of Eurasia. The Mongols were just the last of what were many pulses out of the central Eurasian steppes, which are called either migrations or invasions depending on whether your ancestors were already settled in when then next one came. Those migrations began earlier with several waves of Indo-Europeans (Celts, then the centum-speaking Mediterranean settlers, and then the Germans, and then the Slavs), followed by waves of Altaic-speakers (Huns, the Turks and Mongols; the first Altaics beat the last Indo-Europeans into Europe.) As time went on the nomads had to become successively better organized to defeat the agriculturalists they encountered, and the Mongols were the last hurrah. The economics (and technology, and population numbers)) of non-nomadism finally favored the cities by the Middle Ages. Hence Poles and Chinese don't have to worry about waking up tomorrow with Kazakh armies ravaging their cities.

Which finally brings us to the alternative history in the title. Focusing on Alexander or the Mongols (or even the spread of the Plague as Kim Stanely Robinson did in the outstanding Years of Rice and Salt) assumes that the important contacts between East and West Eurasia was mediated over land - and beginning in the age of discovery, this was no longer the case. When European ships began pushing trade routes up coastal East Asia, Japan was in the process of civil wars that ended up unifying it under the Tokugawa shoguns at the beginning of the seventeeth century. Interestingly, the Western export of which Japanese rulers were wary was not guns or printed books, but Christianity. Having seen what was happening in the Philippines - that the Spanish used the conversion of locals to Catholicism to advance their political interests - local daimyos became increasingly hostile to Christians, beginning in earnest with a massacre in Nagasaki at the end of the sixteenth century. Without accurate records it is difficult to estimate today how many converts had been made and how many were killed in the persecutions that followed but many estimates run into the hundreds of thousands; Christianity was formally outlawed in 1632.

The first Shogun unified Japan in 1603, and a few years later the second sent a Spanish-style galleon to make the daunting voyage across the Pacific, to Mexico. (Yes, that already seems like alternative history! More on this here, in the list of links.) Mystifyingly to modern minds, the Japanese government chose not to continue its new naval activities. The second shogun, Hidetada, began limiting contact with the West but it was the third, Iemitsu, who not only formally outlawed Christianity, but closed Japan to the outside world. Again, to modern classical liberal minds this seems stupid and/or cruel, but from the standpoint of a rationally self-interested dictator, there are two things you don't want: contact with the outside world, and the opportunity for subjects to enrich themselves. Foreign trade necessarily meant both, and though he didn't realize it, Iemitsu's point was already proven by European history: in the late Middle Ages foreign trade after the Crusades ultimately brought an end to the Church's monopoly on power in the northern half of Europe. Economic growth is an unquestioned end in a democracy but seems positively dangerous to a tyrant who thinks only in terms of self-preservation, and in those days no one yet grasped the link between advancing economies and advancing military technology. One thing that is inescapably obvious about the Tokugawas is their extremely clear-thinking and unsentimental focus on preserving their power.

Bolstering Iemitsu's case from the standpoint of colonialism, Asia provides excellent arguments against colonization. What were the two countries in Asia that were not colonized? Japan and Thailand, both of which have been very successful relative to neighbors. Interestingly, Thailand had a similar dalliance with European influence in the seventeeth century, until a king threw them out of his court.

What if the Third Tokugawa Had Not Been So Suspicious?

What might have happened if the third Tokugawa had been less paranoid, and remained open to foreign influence? Catholic and Spanish influence would have continued unabated, and it's difficult to argue that Iemitsu's fears were not justified; Japan would likely have become a colony like the Philippines, although with a centralized government this would eventually have led to large war between colonizers and the central government. In actual history, the Japanese permitted the Dutch (the Dutch East India Company) limited contact from an island near Nagasaki, although if the Spanish had still been present in the same numbers it's unlikely such an arrangement would have continued. The Dutch even tried to militarily dislodge the Spanish elsewhere in the Pacific, from Manila, but failed; maybe they would have tried and succeeded in Japan?

Here's how we might read history if things went differently. Major events of macrohistorical importance? Because Japan remained isolated, I think we'd see the biggest impact in three areas: 1) those having to do with early-to-mid 20th century China, 2) most obviously, with World War II (there would only have been one real Axis power) and 3) with the development of technology in the twentieth century. Of course the Japonisme influence in art in the nineteenth century would not have happened, because Japanese civilization would not have had the good fortune to touch European civilization at a time when Europeans put any value on the exotic, non-Christian world.

1613 - the Pietish galleon San Buena Ventura returns from Mexico with Spanish priests to minister to the growing Japanese Christian population, and a military escort with several garrisons-worth of Spanish troops for "protection" of the Pietish military chief (the "chogan"); persecution of Pietish Catholics in Cuchu ceases.

1623 - the Dutch East India Company begins building forts along the bay near what the natives called Edo; this would later become New Rotterdam. The following year a small Spanish fleet attempts to enter the bay and is repulsed by the Dutch. Spanish appeals to the Pietish chief are ignored.

1630 - the Dutch found the New Hague on the site of old Zendij in the north. The Spanish found colonies on the west coast of Greater Piety; by this point there are Spanish towns throughout the two Minor Pieties (there is a campaign to restore the native names, Cuchu and Chicocu).

1644 - attempted rebellion by now-majority-Christian Nacasaqui chief against the central chief in New Rotterdam, with surrepetitious Spanish help. The revolt is crushed with Dutch help.

A traditional Pietish dancer. (Here's who it is really, and guess why I picked her.)

1670-1677 - the Spanish conquest of the Pieties (named after previous Spanish king Philip the Pious). With Spanish help boats and warriors from the Lesser Pieties revolt against the central chiefs, and in three years have taken most of the west coast of Greater Piety and the east coast up to the Chubu region. The native chief in Kyoto is killed and the military chief in New Rotterdam is exiled. Spain now administers all but the northeast quarter of the Pieties.

The Virgin of Sasebo. A native in the hills of Cuchu claimed to have found it on the paper wall of his hut after a flash of light at dawn on New Years Day.

1787 - Vladimir Tartarov maps Alexander Island, to the north of Great Piety, and returns two years later to build the fort that would become Alexandrograd. This was the first of three, the first two of which were destroyed by the Emitchee natives.

River mouth, Alexander Island. The island became very popular with British hunters and since the detente tourism from Americans has increased. (Really, Sakhalin.)

1799 - the brief Battle of Black Strait between a British survey ship and two Russian vessels. This was the ship that later brought George Granville to in Olivertown in British Columbia.

1879 - French-educated Jesuit priest Carlos Nacallama begins the "Cherry Blossom" revolt against Spanish colonial authorities. He is eventually captured and executed, but revolts continue in springtime for two decades.

Carlos Nacallama, ca. 1883. Really, philosopher Kitaro Nishida.

1867 - Alexander Island almost becomes American territory, along with Russian America (between the Yukon and the Bering Strait) in a purchase transaction between American Secretary of State Seward and the Russian Empire. Discussions called off; President Fremont decides territories would be undefendable from British.

1898 - The Spanish Pieties come into American possession along with the Philippines at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. The underdeveloped northeast ("Free Piety") remains officially not part of the territory; the Dutch only retain official claim to New Rotterdam and New Hague.

1926 - The Soviet invasion of Korea begins the Russo-Korean War.

1938 - Taking advantage of the Chinese Civil War, Soviet forces invade China.

1939 - Germany invades Poland. The USSR declares war on Germany. The nominally neutral U.S. begins to sell weapons to Germany to distract the Soviets from their campaigns in the Orient.

1941 - U.S. takes Free Piety, pays Netherlands a nominal fee. This is condemned by non-German Europe but war is not declared.

1943 - The end of the German War in Europe means that Soviet forces can focus fully on East Asia. The British-Soviet alliance divides China into north and south, and quickly ends American ambitions elsewhere in Asia or the Pacific.

The Old Dutch Church in New Rotterdam.

1977 - Sustainable nuclear fission developed by Esteban Curosaqui, a Pietish physicist working in England.

1988 - After a decade of detente between the U.S. and the Commonwealth-Soviet Alliance, the U.S. grants official home-rule in the Pieties, but U.S. military bases remain in Santa Fausta and Nacasaqui despite protests. Still-developing Pietish economy based on agriculture and tourism; some Pietish scientists trained in the U.S.

1992 - First semiconductors developed.

2012 - economic outlook for Pietish economy considered positive. U.S., Korea and China are moving unskilled manufacturing to the Pieties, especially printing, textiles and heavy industry.

Thanks to Motoo for corrections and further insights.

Colonial Megafauna: Alternative History #4

For the previous installment, check out Alternate History #3, 54'40" Was Fought.

For the next installment, check out Alternate History #5, Colonial Japan.

Among many reasons Mexican colonial history is fascinating, here are two: first, the Spanish settlement of the Americas began in earnest in the early 1500s, well over a century before the English did the same in the lands to the north. In a sense, these were medieval knights meeting Aztecs. Second, the initial Spanish explorers and colonists in Mexico found a harsher, more alien environment much closer to the coast, and much sooner. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that the now-independent English speakers to the north were trying to cross and tame the dry mountainous wastes in the interior; but try making the four hour drive from coastal Veracruz to Mexico City, and in the first hour you go from pleasant tropical coastal plains to rugged high desert. Those medieval knights were catapulted straight into the Wild West. English speaking civilization had some time to acclimatize on the somewhat Europe-like East Coast.

Alternative geography can be just as fun as alternative history. This is why the pope of alternative history Harry Turtledove has played interesting games with geography - in Down in the Bottomlands, he imagines the climate and politics of a world where not only did the Mediterranean never re-flood, but Neanderthal nations exist alongside those of Homo sapiens. In Opening Atlantis he imagines the East Coast of North America as if it had broken away from the rest of the continent, like North America's Japan or New Zealand; it would be closer to Europe and therefore discovered earlier.

A tylosaur skull found in the early twentieth century in Kansas. Tylosaurs were open-ocean predators.

At one time there was in fact a sea coast along what is now the western U.S. - the Western Interior Seaway during the creataceous. (This is different from what Turtledove imagined, which was essentially an East Coast broken off at the Appalachians and moved east.) The cretaceous seaway is why we find marine fossils in Kansas and Montana. Of course at that point there were no people to colonize North America yet. In fact there may not even have been any primates yet.

Imagine that not only the geography of that western continent stayed the same to the present day, but that there was no eastern continent at all. The experience of English speakers would have been more similar to the Spaniards, encountering high mountains and deserts and alien environments a day's ride from the coast. Agricultural land would have been more valuable; on the Western continent there couldn't have been the same real estate crash that happened shortly after the Revolution, during our expansion over the Appalachians, that drove Thomas Jefferson into relative poverty. The coasts that turned into ports and market places would have been more valuable as plantations, as remained the case in Virginia and the Carolinas (where the mountains were indeed higher) and of course in Veracruz. From north to south, Missoula, Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City, and Gallup would have been port cities with their backs immediately to the Rockies. (Note too that in the real world, this was almost all Spanish territory first.) They would have been greener and less continental in their climates, but the interior encountered by John Smith would have been a place of mountains and deserts unlike anything he'd seen in Europe. The settlers of Jamestown would've had to become King James's first cowboys.

What If Europeans Really Did Discover America?

There's another surprise in store for the pseudo-cretaceous John Smith: in this world, Europeans really are discovering the Americas. There was no land bridge; the Europeans are really the first ones there. Excellent! No need to steal anyone's land or oppress native cultures! Good news, right? Wrong.

About the time that the first Native Americans were colonizing the interior of North America, 10,000 years ago, there was a megafauna extinction. We're not yet certain that it was the paleolithic Native Americans who did it, but that's the best guess so far: humans are pretty good at disrupting ecosystems, through some combination of hunting to extinction, altering landscapes with fire, and maybe even bringing a few non-native organisms with them. My bet is that it was indeed the paleo-North Americans that did it. (Note to paleo-North Americans: Thanks. The Western U.S. is still scary enough with mountain lions.)

And that's lucky for the real John Smith, and non-Native Americans: not so lucky for when pseudo-cretaceous John Smith goes up into the mountains that begin twenty miles from the port of Gallup, because it's going to be a regular Land of the Lost up there. He's going to meet mammoths, and sabretooth tigers, and dire wolves. Sabretooths are bad enough, but dire wolves move in packs and weigh about 150 lbs. (If you're in Los Angeles check them out at the tar pits.) Sure there will be tortoises and sloths for him to eat when he's out in the bush, assuming he remains at the top of the food chain. I'm imagining a battle during the pseudo-cretaceous American Revolution, when the British regulars are charging the American lines, only to have the battle end in a panic when a herd of mammoths emerges from the Rocky Mountain forest, scared by the cannon, charging the field and scattering the soldiers of both sides. Or maybe Cortez's party turned back to the coast when a pack of dire wolves comes out of the brush near Texcala, not slowed by their primitive guns, and kills dozens of men in full armor and sends the rest running back to the coast wetting their pantaloons in terror, cursing their leader for burning their ship and trapping them in this hellish land.

Hey Lewis and Clark: how far do you seriously think you'll get in this place? By yourselves, with no native guides? The only other continent with comparable megafauna to this is Africa, and it's right next to Europe, and in the middle of the nineteenth century Europeans were still exploring the interior.

There have been alternative history/borderline fantasy books written imagining an America with dinosaurs still running around - in particular, Kurt Giambastiani's The Year the Cloud Fell, which features Custer's much more evenly matched war against the Cheyenne Alliance, interrupted by T. rex attacks (In this world's Dakotas, Sue is still alive and well.) The dinosaurs in the American West with Native Americans meme is over a century old so I'll send you here for more.

It's hard to say how different a pseudo-cretaceous North America would look and how it would effect the world. Assuming initial Spanish settlement, it's possible that Spain would have dominated the entire New World, without allowing any of the other powers to get a foothold. The land would have been more mountainous and drier on average and much less productive; and the dangerous wildlife would have dramatically slowed development of the interior. Without a native population to enslave, the riches that Spain extracted from the New World would have been much slower to come. This may have meant a faster decline of Spain, and a quicker rise and larger relative role in European history for the Netherlands, whose trade empire was only partly dependent on the Americas. The Netherlands may have ended up playing a role in the Age of Discovery in the rest of the world more similar to Britain. Home rule of the Americas would have been much slower in coming.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Pundit Database

Make pundits accountable: Not everyone will look at their accuracy over time or care, but the knowledge that such a database exists will count for something.

Interestingly, the good folks who are making the effort to do this have noticed that pundits are hard to track, because they rarely make clear, testable, measurable predictions.

This is interesting because of the possible explanations. One is that whatever utility we get from consuming pundit opinion, we make our punditry consumption decisions irrationally, so they're rewarded by shrouding. Merchants typically do this for prices where there is little difference in quality between products, to avoid consumers being able to easily compare cost - it's a very easy thing to decide on - so airlines and car salespeople, among many other businesses, are desperate to keep you from knowing how much something really costs. The pundits may be inverse-shrouding - shrouding the their product, so to speak (or even colluding in doing so), similar to politicians refusing to give clear answers to position-tracking websites. Frustratingly, In the 2010 California elections it was basically all the major candidates who refused to do so.)

Another possibility is that pundits don't make clear predictions because people aren't listening to them for information, but for entertainment. My money's on this explanation. At least Pundittracker will make this reality more obvious to some people.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Possible Mechanism and Model For Producing a Mischelian World

John Rawls had a famous thought experiment about social justice and the distribution of wealth, which was answered by Nozick. Mischel did his famous marshmallow experiment, showing that there is a distribution of ability to delay gratification in children, and that this corresponds with life outcomes.

There would seem to be an implication from Mischel's work for Rawls and Nozick. This is summarized here. The point to take from Mischel is that the individual players in the game differ in important ways, and any concern about the effects of wealth distribution must take this into account, or such efforts are doomed to be quickly erased. However in a global economy, if delayed gratification differs not just between individuals but entire countries, we might expect to see economic differences. There is a gated paper on this here and a writeup on Discovery blog here with more data.) Here's the average delayed gratification by country, when participants were asked whether they would take $3400 now or $3800 a month from now. (I don't know if or how they controlled for age, education, etc. for each countries.)

Because I couldn't get the numbers that made that graph, I eyeballed the graph and made this scatterplot of delayed gratification against per capita income by country (per capita data is 2011 IMF).

For what it's worth an exponential function fit the curve better (0.3852 vs this one).

If we're interested in these numbers to measure the impact of human intelligence on economic outcomes, there are some adjustments that we might like to make. (and by we, I mean a grad student with better data and more time). For example, if a rogue comet hits Canada tomorrow, their economy will suffer, but it's not because they weren't smart. So instead of per capita income, let's make the outcome the percent increase in per capita income since, say, 1961 (i.e. South Korea and the Czech Republic started off way behind and they're doing pretty well considering). Adjust that figure downward for each country by taking out their last fifty years of mineral wealth, especially oil - it's what you do with the real estate you have once you have it (i.e. happening to be sitting on oil and gold reserves is luck, not industry, and Norway's reported income is $96,951, a huge chunk of which is oil; are they really that much better than Japan?). Also adjust that number upward by estimating the the cost of wars, including civil. (Where would Vietnam and Colombia be otherwise?) Finally, adjust downward for foreign aid received during that period - for some developing countries this is a substantial portion of GDP. My prediction is that the relationship between wealth and cognitive measures, like this one, would become much clearer.

Another troubling suggestion is that, if the players in the game differ individually, if any of these differences are heritable and people of the same economic level mate based on that fact, then such heritability might declare. But over what time period? So imagine a 100% efficient economy dependent on trait X (doesn't have to be delayed gratification), and not at all dependent on family relationships (outside of those you'd expect if trait X were heritable; i.e. no nepotism, and the CEO's son doesn't get the job unless he's actually as good as his dad and deserves it). You can call trait X "merit", whatever it is that's merit-worthy in this economy. Assuming that merit is equally heritable as we know intelligence to be, i.e. conservatively about 60%, here you can see here an anthropologist's simple model for how in just 100 years if merit is at all heritable, even a true non-nepotistic meritocracy would begin to produce two genetically distinct groups. That is to say: in any society where humans vary genetically in the trait that is being selected on - which is every society - there will be separation into groups by the "selectand".

Possible solutions would seem to include: tolerance of this separation (less likely by claiming it's not a problem, more likely by pretending it isn't there and refusing to discuss it openly); forced intermarriage between groups; or changing the selectand. This latter has certainly happened during the industrial revolution as the economy changed radically and different traits became important for success. Delay of gratification is likely one such trait. As profit-generating enterprises become more complex and longer, it's reasonable to project that delay of gratification will become more important in the future.

It seems non-controversial to say that since ability to delay gratification differs between countries, it must be a result of nature and/or nurture. If it's entirely heritable, that would be bad for the impact of a global economy on those countries that currently show a high time preference (i.e. don't delay gratification), because we can't do anything about that. Being optimistic and assuming that this trait is entirely a result of nurture - that is, culture - then it seems even more uncontroversial to say that culture matters to economics and therefore to human well-being, which is the whole reason anyone worries about all this. Otherwise culture is irrelevant noise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Marijuana Safer Than Tobacco

Marijuana is safer than tobacco, according to this study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), one of the premier peer-reviewed publciations of medical science in the country and world.

Remind me again why we're all paying tax money not only to continue, but intensify strong-arm tactics to put state-legalized entrepreneurs out of business? And where is the party of the free market when we need them? It would be one thing to just be too lazy to repeal the laws and move marijuana off the list of DEA Schedule 1 substances; that would be a sin of omission. But to waste more of everyone's money and attention, when there's more and more information showing this is all a fraud?