Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Yuan Mongols' Other Naval Defeats

Japan wasn't the only place that turned back the Mongols. That powerhouse Java sent the Yuan packing in 1293 - in the midst of a civil war. (This is real, but previous alternate history here.)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Guillermo Bert, Lukutuwe (Textile)

This design is made in the style of the Mapuche (in Chile) by an American artist. Once in a home on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala I saw several hanging tapestries with symbols in them that looked very much like writing - there were 20 or 30 of them and they repeated but not at regular intervals. I asked the guy whose wife made them if this was a form of Mayan writing and he said no, but it made a huge impression on me.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Late 1800s Political Science Fiction

Cross-posted to Speculative Nonfiction.

Here's an interesting old science fiction book: Better Days: Or, a Millionaire of To-morrow, by Thomas and Anna Fitch. This should rank with Bellamy's Looking Backward. Set in the authors' near future of the 1890s, in it a wealthy industrialist develops bombs powerful enough to level cities, that can be launched accurately from zeppelins or boats. To be clear, this is a utopian work - although it involves an early prediction of the nuclear age, the authors assume it would necessite a global detente. The authors correctly understood some of the political ramifications: that these weapons would have to be regarded in a special category and their manufacture restricted by international agreement so that they did not proliferate; and so he also predicts a version of the League of Nations. What he failed to predict was how this would be accomplished; by a cartel of countries who openly have such weapons, and a secondary cartel of those who everyone knows has them but don't openly declare them. The book features various heads of state realizing and announcing that they must cease prosecuting wars and allow various of their territories to return to home rule to avoid their own capitals being destroyed by other states or even small groups of revolutionaries who make the explosive agent ("potentite"). If it's that easy, it would seem his international non-proliferation police wouldn't be able to do their jobs. U-235 is harder to make than potentite and we still seem to be nervous about Iran. We should be glad it was nuclear weapons and not potentite! (Or microwaved sand as Nick Bostrom speculated.)

Above: Coronado is the north-pointing peninsula at top, and the islands are to the south.

Of local San Diego interest: the initial tests for the various heads of state are carried out from Coronado, long before it was selected as a naval airfield. Unfortunately the Coronado Islands are destroyed in the demonstration. (Although last time I looked out the window of Hillcrest Hospital I could see them just fine; so for this and other reasons, this is alternate history now I guess.) The authors were possibly more interesting than the book; the husband seems himself like a character made up for historical fiction. Thomas Fitch was an attorney and politician who served in the legislatures of no less than four of the states and territories of the time (California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), which explains why his knowledge of the Western U.S. of the time was more than the caricature we often see from contemporary writers on the East Coast. In his legal career he also represented Brigham Young and Wyatt Earp. He proofread Mark Twain's manuscripts and hung out with Leland Stanford. Finally and most significantly, as an orator, he was credited with keeping California in the Union. Even if you can't forgive his book's inconsistencies and failed predictions, I think he did okay.

Resilience To Stress Differs Between Individuals

"I can handle a hundred thousand men in battle, and take the City of the Sun, but am afraid to manage a lot in the swamp of San Francisco." -William Tecumseh Sherman

Monday, July 8, 2013

Good Libertarian Attacks on Rand

Cross posted to Speculative Nonfiction.

These should have their own special genre; one which deserves our attention. 1984 was Orwell's answer to what he saw as the developing problems with socialism, and (as an understatement) it is an important work.

Before giving you the sharper points of another writer's attacks, what is good about Rand? What do people get out of it?

- The power of capitalism to eliminate human suffering.
- The power of the individual; it's not surprising that young people establishing their own identities are the ones to whom this most appeals, and (I would argue) it's important that young people have things that reinforce their confidence in themselves and their goals and values.

The piece in question is by David Brin. The most interesting argument he makes is that (in his view) Rand is clearly influenced by Marx in terms of her teleological thinking. He misses a chance to mention her infamous standing-on-one-foot answer, which was a ripoff of Rabbi Hillel. She borrowed at least once, either (most charitably) unaware that she was doing so, or assuming that her audience would not be familiar with these sources. (Which itself says something else about her.)

A point worth disagreeing with, not just here but with other writers, is that it's not a valid criticism to say that her novels lay out a plan for bringing Rand's values to the world. Not because the world in Atlas Shrugged is a great one, but because the novels don't claim to be a blueprint for what the world should look like and the actions to take to get there, even with a 70-page monologue. (I'm unfamiliar with her having made this claim in non-fiction. If you're aware of any such claims, please point me to the evidence and I'll change my position.) Compare to Marx, who in a non-fiction manifesto, laid out a plan for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin followed fairly closely.

(Another article that Brin links to makes the argument the Atlas Shrugged is part of trilogy. Interesting non-fiction plot twist in that one.)

Other weaknesses that have always appeared to me likely because of my background: a lack of familiarity with evolution and in one case a distrust of how it could have produced an intelligent animal; a strange proclivity to imply heritable positions in her characters (all while decrying decadent monarchies elsewhere); and implicit assumptions about gender roles including disparaging comments about possibly gay characters. To the last point, defenders might say "But this was the 1950s; you can't fault someone for being a product of their times," to which an appropriate response is "But this is someone who was claiming the absolute, correct and final version of morality; if she missed something, that makes it irrelevant whether or not the ambient culture produced those blind spots." When you claim to have produced the final answers, rather than improving the process to get the answers, these are the kinds of problems you're open to. (Defenders might also say that homosexuality is morally wrong, and then the discussion devolves to a more profound level about the origins of morality, and that species of defender will have a hard time showing themselves in this case to be on the side of reason and not irrational authoritarianism there.)

A final problem that Brin mentions is the inverse state worship that afflicts objectivists and libertarians, but this is not unique to Brin's critique or to Rand. Suffice it to say the state is not the only institution ever conceived which can make humans suffer.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Increase in Net Worth of Politicians While They're in Office

An article on a legislator's improbable increase in wealth during his time in office can be found here. This isn't generally used as mud-slinging ammunition, because it's true of many (most?) high-level politicians from both parties.

Is this information easily available? It would be interesting to put together a chart of everyone in Congress in terms of change over time in office of wealth, and then compare that to the average American in their same age bracket, from their home districts.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria: Alternate History #6

For the previous installment, see Alternative History #5: Colonial Japan. Want to see how we might already be living in an alternate timeline, created by a time traveler who went back to kill a dictator who we (of course) don't recognize as such? And what do the patterns in alternate histories we choose to write say about us?

From the Parisian Mahayana Seminary lesson book, Year of the Buddha 2332:

'In the Gandhari original [gospel letters from the Buddhist kingdom of India] Antiochos is referred to as "Amtiyoko nama Yona-raja" (lit. "The Greek king by the name of Antiokos"), beyond whom live the four other kings: "param ca tena Atiyokena cature 4 rajani Turamaye nama Amtikini nama Maka nama Alikasudaro nama" (lit. "And beyond Antiochus, four kings by the name of Ptolemy, the name of Antigonos, the name of Magas, the name Alexander" [1]

"It is not clear in Hellenic records whether these emissaries were actually received, or had any influence on the Hellenic world. Some scholars, however, point to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world from that time, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria). The pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae may have drawn inspiration for its ascetic lifestyle from contact with Buddhist monasticism, although the foundation and Scriptures were Jewish. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with depictions of the Wheel of the Law.[2] Commenting on the presence of Buddhists in Alexandria, some scholars have even pointed out that "It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established"'.
This was in fact copied from Wikipedia" (today, Year of the Buddha 2556.)

It's a bit odd that a Semitic religion ended up dominating Europe, and a blue-eyed Indo-European's religion ended up dominating East Asia - although oddly, not the land of his birth south of the Himalayas). But in the third century B.C., the Indian Buddhist King Asoka tried. After his conversion, he improved trade routes and sent missionaries throughout South Asia and the ancient Near East. In this he was like a Buddhist Constantine and Paul rolled into one; imagine a Buddhist New Testament with books named after letters to the evangelized city-states, like Alexandrians and Bactrians and Persians (instead of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians). The top image is from Wikipedia, on Buddhism and the Roman Empire. The bottom image is an evangelical Buddhist inscription in Greek and Aramaic - by Asoka, from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Contact between Buddhists and the classical Near East always seem like a bit of alternate history to us modern Westerners.

Of course some of these monuments and markers have been destroyed by our throwback friends the Taliban, but they're just doing what good fundamentalists of all stripes do: think of the Spanish missionaries destroying Mayan texts, or early European Christians censoring and smearing classical materialist works, or any number of political book-burnings in the twentieth century. This brings up an obvious question: if Buddhism had its champion in a Asoka, then where are the Buddhist temples in Athens and Afghanistan today? The answer is obvious in retrospect when you consider religion as just another set of customs. If your philosophy (whether it appeals to the supernatural or not) is not traveling along at the head of a conquering army, or the merchants and diplomats of a powerful empire, the odds are against you if you don't have another trick, like getting endorsements from people in positions of power. (Scientology had the smart idea of spreading into people who have both influence, and weak intellectual immune systems.) It also helps for your philosophy to be intolerant of syncretism and pluralism, and here Asoka was too nice. He felt bad for having prosecuted a bloody war prior to his conversion, and while he did favor Buddhism, he did not punish non-Buddhists. Buddhism eventually did reach the rest of Asia - southeast Asia in Asoka's lifetime, and then China a few centuries later - by "organic" diffusion along the silk road or from missionaries sent out by the religion itself.

Again the differing history of religion in the Far East and the Middle East/Europe is interesting. It might not be anything about the pre-existing culture or geography or political systems of the regions, but rather the coincidental content of the religions themselves. Two innovations that the three Abrahamic religions happened to produce were 1) actively excluding other belief systems and 2) early in their history, successfully infiltrating existing secular powers. Indeed the Abrahamic religions got progressively better at this as time went on. The Jews kept mostly to themselves except during military occupation, then the Christians grew to dominate Rome after a few centuries, and finally Mohammed seems to have conceived Islam as a means to political and military power right from the start. Islam - Abrahamic religion v3.0 - was the best one so far. It's also probably no coincidence that it's the cultural and geographic crossroads of the Middle East where these innovations appeared. A religion that isn't a strong competitor right out of the cradle isn't going to get very far in a place like that!

So there was no Gupta army storming west out of India to force Buddhism onto the Persians and Greeks and Romans, partly because Buddhists are not required to exclude other beliefs. Fair enough; and incidentally, some of the Mongol armies were Buddhist, and some followed an indigenous Mongolian religion, but again, neither of these required conversion. If you paid your taxes the Mongols didn't care. That's why Russians today don't follow the sky god Tengri. (The euphemism "indigenous religion" just means "a religion that's not one of the few indigenous religions that escaped the ethnic group that created them and then spread globally".) But this leaves unanswered the opposite question, which is why India and China aren't Christian or Muslim today. If Alexander had crossed the Indus - or a Chinese-Turkic empire had controlled the Middle East - then very likely whatever religions appeared in this region would have spread east at least as much as they spread west. (In a stable, united post-Alexandrian Eurasia, my money is on a prophet appearing and spreading his faith a little earlier in history.) But we should also remember that we're still in medias res of the global diffusion of ideas, and it's possible that the monotheistic, active-excluding religions just haven't had enough time to crowd out the tolerant ones with tolerant leaders. That is to say, the world's gardens haven't yet all been colonized with the most hardy invasives on offer. Of course, the parts of Asia that came into contact with Abrahamism v3.0 are, in fact, Muslim today.

In closing, modern Korea is a much more interesting case. One half of it has its own brand of exclusive Korean-nationalist communism - originally a European philosophy; how syncretic - which tolerates no (other) religion - and the other half appears very much like it's in the process of becoming Christian, complete with politically ascendant creationists trying to impose restrictions on what is taught in biology classes. And all of this in less than a century.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Map of the U.S. With Literal Place Names

I was surprised that they went out on a limb for Arizona, which doesn't really have an accepted etymology. But Saint Heelholder for San Diego is specific enough that I'm going to have to look that up. There's a full map but to see it you have to go the creators' site. (And here's a map of a 124-state U.S.)


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