Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Rainfall Theory of Culture, and China

It seems strange that complex agricultural states tend to first emerge in marginal environments - the Middle East, Egypt, or central Mexico. Why wouldn't complex civilizations first emerge in high-rainfall areas with good soil? The answer may be that where water is in limiting supply, agriculture is more easily controlled by a central state with a military and supporting kleptocracy. Neighbors then either build their own states with borrowed technology and culture, or become absorbed into the original state - at that point there's no longer a choice. Consequently we have central Mexico as a cradle of culture in the Americas, but not the Pacific Northwest (but not the Sonoran desert either - you need some water; ask the Cochimí). Same with Egypt and the Middle East.

Any theory of history that applies to everything except China, is not a theory of history. And China does tend to be exceptional with regard to most theories of history derived from observing Europe and the Middle East. By expanding the argument from marginal rainfall alone as the trigger to labor intensive agriculture, to cooperative labor intensive agriculture, we can explain China as well. Rice production is incredibly labor-intensive. The development of a successful crop that is labor-intensive begins the cycle of labor as being the main value-adding
component of economics - and any system that organizes humans will handle labor more efficiently. Marginal environments force this to some degree, but if we end up with a potential super-crop like rice that requires massive amounts of cooperative labor, we might end up with the same result.

The orginal enucleation of states was about wealth as it related food. But what's unfortunate is that living in a highly regimented agricultural society is in many ways less fun than being a hunter-gatherer; yes you're fed and defended, but at the price of existing in a rigid, inescapable status hierarchy, and psychologically we're still better cut-out to be foragers than farmers. So if conditions emerge such that wealth creation is possible without central states, we should expect this trend to accelerate, absent those states working to prevent such concentration of wealth away from their treasuries (which has certainly happened - today it's one of the less-often-stated functions of high marginal tax rates, right down to the Aztecs who would just execute non-government-officials who got too wealthy and crossed some magic line). This is why the idea of seasteading, and experiments like it, are so intriguing.

[Added later: this great Bloggingheads featuring Jon Haidt, who recently released The Righteous Mind, which expands on the idea that reasoning is really a form of rhetoric and points out the different prioritization of cognitive dimensions among people of different political and religious stripes. In this passage he discusses the development of agriculture in China and possible selection effects of rice-farming over the long-term, pointing out the political effect of labor-intensive agriculture.]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hemingway and American Letters

Nathan Heller has a piece on Slate about Hemingway, the greatest American writer. It's cliche to say that for such a famous writer, Hemingway inspired an amazingly small body of secondary literature. It's also cliche to credit this to his prose, which is the definition of transparent Golden Age English-language modernism, clear and pure and not admitting of interpretation. (I think Asimov has been undeserverdly omitted from this particular canon.) Updike and the later so-called phallocrats of the 50s and 60s who claimed to walk in his footsteps were Silver Age writers.

Among the many (appropriately) understated parts of the article: "It's also a strikingly linear novel (The Sun Also Rises). Few time cuts or flashbacks appear, and its narration has the effect of plodding forward, never looking more than a few feet ahead. Yet the book seems viscerally vivid and alive, as in its description of bull-running:

There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. … You could tell by the degree of intensity in the shout how bad a thing it was that was happening.

"How bad a thing it was that was happening" might be the greatest thing that has ever been written ever. I love Spain and I speak Spanish and I have been there many times - what a great country - and I have even had to scour news reports Stateside when an American woman was gored for the first time among the morons of Pamplona, to make sure it wasn't my American woman. But I have never run with the actual bulls, which is just as well. Because finally, Death in the Afternoon is, transparently, a record of where in Spain it is good to get drunk and look at women, and/or at orchestrated death, of man or bull. But especially the former. If you are a person who is not especially interested in the former, then Death in the Afternoon is probably not the best volume to help you improve your life. But I would argue even if you are not interested in these topics then you might still get something out of Death in the Afternoon, and if not, then you will walk home alone. To die alone with the smell of the oaks and the passing cars that splash the mud on the road. In the rain.

Since I'm posting this on a (partly) political blog, I have to admit that one of the things which made an impression on me in my favorite Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls - was the discussion of the term "Republican" and what it meant for Americans versus for Spaniards. American Robert Jordan clearly understood the benefit of having the government hold the land in the mountains and forests, to manage it for the benefit of ranchers, and the Spanish anti-Franco forces he was fighting with (on the same side as the Soviets) were impressed that he was a third generation "Republican". Sadly, this nuance may be lost on modern members of the GOP.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Satellite Picture of 1851 California

Cross posted to Speculative Nonfiction.

While this is not officially an installment in the Alternate History series, you might want to see Alternate History #5, Colonial Japan.

"Predating the launch of Sputnik by over a century, President Taylor's task force, consisting of civil engineers and frontiersmen, constructs a rocket in the Californian wilderness, equips its payload with the most powerful camera known to humankind at the time - endowed with revolutionary colour-capturing capacity - and launches it skyward from the slopes of Mount Whitney.* The President's Astro-Physical Expedition (APE) put California's local flora to good use, hollowing out a redwood tree and stuffing it with gunpowder to create a giant firing tube."

Redwoods are pretty cool but they're not that cool. (I'm trying to grow one in my house at the moment, from cloning instead of from cones, which are ironically tiny.) But this post at Strange Maps, featuring a reconstruction of 1851 California by Mark Clark, shows what that redwood-launched camera would have seen:

The Central Valley was much wetter back then - a temperate river valley. Although I imagine it would have been buggy as all get-out. Ever drive through the rice regions north of Sacramento in the summer at dusk? Your windshield looks like somebody covered it with brown mustard. (Delicious.) Also noticeable on this map: still-full Owens Lake (California's own Aral Sea), and the still-green grasslands and coastal marshes of Silicon Valley and Los Angeles.

*If you read that and thought "Well now who's going to drag that whole contraption all the way up to the top of Mt. Whitney", strangely, this detail is not the most unlikely of the whole scenario. In the nineteenth century it used be thought that the highest mountain in the world was Ecuador's Chimborazo volcano (20,565') - and indeed, it is the farthest from the center of the Earth. Substituting distance-from-center is a neat trick to figure out the highest mountain, but it gives the wrong answer, because the Earth spins, and is mostly liquid, so it's slightly oblate (flattens like an M&M), adding a few more miles onto the distance-to-center at the equator - which is why Everest, up in the 30's north latitude, loses this contest to equatorial Chimborazo. (But Everest is still the highest above sea level.) Point being, how did the scientists measure this? By dragging a >1,000 lb.-yet-delicate metal instrument up to the summit of Chimborazo! Dragging a hollowed-out redwood to the top of merely 14,496' Whitney would be a picnic by comparison.

Looking west from the top of Chimborazo at dawn, where the shadow is projected out to the horizon. Look familiar? Picture in the banner at the link is the same effect from Mt. Hood in Oregon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Most Literal Sense of Intrusive Government

I try to keep this blog family friendly so you'll have to click through for someone with a very clear, concrete understanding of intrusive government. (More info on the issue here.)