Notes From All Over (3/02/2014): Ghosts, Empire, and Tribal Honor

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


“‘The standard of living in ancient societies: a comparison between the Han Empire, the Roman Empire, and Babylonia

Bas van Leeuwen, Reinhard Pirgruber, and Jieli van Leeuwen-Li. Working Papers 50, Utrecht University, Centre for Global Economic History. The global and long-term development of real wages: methods, problems and possibilities (Amsterdam, Netherlands, Version 2). March 2013.

…this development of the welfare of laborers even underestimates actual welfare development in English society as a whole. In ancient societies, the income of unskilled laborers was representative for the bottom 80% of society (in a pessimistic scenario). Broadberry et al. (2013 forthcoming) calculated a value of 70%15 for England in 1290, a number not much different from that of ancient societies a thousand years earlier. However, a rapid change took place the following centuries: In 1688, the proportion of the population living at or below subsistence had already decreased to 45%, after which it declined even further to 40% in 1759. Hence, whereas the welfare ratio of the common labourer increased strongly, their relative share in total population decreased. This suggests that society as a whole witnessed even stronger economic growth than evidenced by the welfare ratio. This phenomenon did not occur in, for example, China. Even though there is little direct evidence, we may conclude for China, based on a sample of occupations collected by Wang (2000, p. 50) that around 77% of the population earned the income of a common labourer or less at the end of the 18th century. Hence, in China the relative proportion Chinese society stagnated between Han times and the 19th century. All in all, this evidence implies that the Great Divergence started already around the Black Death rather than around the 17th/18th century as claimed by scholars like Frank (1998) or Pomeranz (2000).

Sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t? Dr. van Leeuwen and company also have a few interesting things to say about the average living standard during the Han Dynasty in comparison to both the contemporary Roman Empire and later Chinese dynasties. Strongly recommended.

 Purim & My Bangladeshi Friend
Seth Tillman. Gadfly Online. 11 February 2013.

One day M. asked me a question. It was a question he probably did not intend to ask. Our conversation went something like this.

M.: You know, I have known Pakistanis my whole life. But I don’t understand them.

A.: What do you mean? What is it about Pakistanis that you do not understand?

M.: They treat us oddly. Sometimes when I meet Pakistanis, they treat us like long-lost brothers. As friends, almost as family. But other times, not so much. Sometimes it is quite obvious that they look down on us. But who are we that they should look down on? Their attitude just doesn’t make any sense. After all, we won the civil war. And that’s why there is an independent Bangladesh today.

A.: Yes, I think you are probably right about that. I could explain it to you.

M.: You could explain it, to me?

A.: Well, um, yes, I am afraid so.

M.: A., I have known South Asians and Pakistanis my whole life. I have friends and family all over Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan too. How many Pakistanis have you ever known?

A.: Not many, less than a dozen, maybe less than half a dozen.

M.: OK, I am all ears. (laughing gently) Tell me why you think Pakistanis act the way they do.

…A: OK, but, again, you are not going to like it.

I suspect that the reason some Pakistanis look down on some Bangladeshis some of the time . . . is that they think Bangladeshis are . . . are . . . the children of raped women.”

A poignant, painful essay that shows well how much of the Middle East, Central, and South Asia works. Necessary reading for anyone hoping to understand these regions. 

H/T to Lexington Green.

Ghosts of the Tsunami
Richard Lloyd Perry. London Review of Books, vol 36, no. 3 (6 February 2014). p. 13-17.

No single passage from this essay can adequately convey what a fascinating, eerie read it is. Perry opens a window into a Japan–or perhaps a humanity–that is rarely seen. I am grateful London Review of Books has made this available to the public.


Inequality and the Masters of Money
Alex Tabberok. Marginal Revolution. 14 January 2014.

Tabberock analyzes the biographies of the President’s nominees for the top spots at the fed. His conclusions about the nature of American ‘meritocracy,’ inequality, and economic scale will be familiar to readers of the Stage.

 “Modern Liberalism and the Paternalism of Things

Jason Kuznicki. 23 January 2013.

But I think that for many modern liberals the reality is much simpler. They like the surveillance state because modern liberalism sooner or later requires it.

If it wants to succeed, or if it even wants to be taken seriously in many of the claims that it makes, modern, paternalistic liberalism requires watching people. A lot. The state must watch so that we the people don’t violate any the tens of thousands of rules in the Federal Register. The state must watch so that we exercise and eat properly. The state must watch so that no one makes a racist joke or fails to serve a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The state must watch so that we don’t seek alternate medical care or put any otherwise wrong substances in our bodies. The state must watch so that we all comply minutely with every one of the state’s vast array of commands.”


Ancient Egypt: Cultural Continuity
Al West. West’s Meditations. 2 January 2013.

“Ancient Egypt’ is a term that serves to cover three millennia of time.  Here’s a startling reminder of the extreme longevity of this civilization, if that’s what you can call it: you are closer in time to Cleopatra (died 30 BCE) than Cleopatra was to the builders of the Pyramid of Khufu (completed 2560 BCE).  Tutankhamun was about midway between the two, living as he did in the fourteenth century BCE.  You are closer in time to the Visigothic kings of Spain than Tutankhamun was to Khufu.

Red Guard Betrays Family in 1976 Comic
Translated by “Joe.” ChinaSMACK.  15 January 2013.

The Key to Arctic Survival: Improvised Implements of Excrement
Peter Lee. China Matters. 22 January 2014.


Why You Want To Avoid Getting Blown Up By a Landmine
Nate Thayer. Excerpt from Sympathy With The Devil: A Journalists Memoir From Inside the Khmer Rouge (unpublished doc.). NateThayer Archives. 28 January 2014.

Last week I wrote that Nate Thayer’s biography was a “truly remarkable” one. The more excerpts Mr. Thayer posts from his memoir the more this of an understatement this description seems to be. This excerpt relates the story of a 1989 raid the CIA-equipped KPNF forces made against the sitting regime. Thayer accompanied the guerrillas on the way in… and as the title suggests, had an (incredibly lucky!) encounter with a land mine on the way out.

The Fourth War: My Interview With a Jihadi.
Eliot Ackerman. The Daily Beast. 21 January 2013.

Dark Lands: The Grim Truth About the ‘Scandinavian Miracle
Michael Booth. The Guardian. 27 January 2014.

“U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategic Considerations Related to P.L.A. Naval Forces Modernization”
Various authors. Hearing for the Armed Services Committee of the United States House of Representatives. 11 December 2013.

I am still making my way through the various statements made before the Committee. The witnesses discuss Chinese naval modernization, geopolitical strategy, maritime disputes, and proposed American responses to these developments. Thus far the statements and discussion has been excellent; I was so impressed with Andrew Erickson’s testimony that I added his website to the blog roll.


The Value of Biodiversity: A Humbling Analysis
 Mark Vellend. Review of What’s So Good About Biodiversity? by Donald Meir. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol 30, no. 10 (2014). p. 1-2.

No fewer than 12 theories of biodiversity value are described, although they fall into two major categories. First, we have a moral responsibility not to extinguish other species from the earth.  Second, the loss of biodiversity will  impair the ability of ecosystems to deliver the goods and services humans derive from it, such as medicines and clean air and water. As a moral philosopher and  self-described environmentalist with scientific training, Maier scrutinizes each theory in almost excruciating detail,  the  sum total of which is difficult to summarize in a short  review. To cut to the chase, he describes being ‘stunned’ that he ‘could not find a single argument that does not have serious logical flaws, crippling qualifications, or indefensible  assumptions’.

Evolution Hidden in Plain Sight
Carl Zimmer. Phenomena: The Loom. 6 January 2014.

A fantastic read and a great example of what scientific journalism at its best should look like. 

Sluggish Metabolisms Are the Key to Primates Long Lives
Hal Hobson. New Scientist. 20 January 2014.

H/T to hbd*chick for the last two articles.


Humanities as Telling Truths Beautifully
Razib Khan. The Unz Review. 12 January 2013.

As I stated during a twitter conversation concerning this post, I generally agree with what Razib writes here. I add one caveat: the type of multiculturalism Razib discusses is inimical to any “common ethos” an education in the humanities ought to impart, but multiculturalism itself is not what killed the humanities’ old aim of imparting “character.” That goal was tossed out the window some 30 years before multiculturalism became a major part of academic discourse.  Extreme specialization, coupled with an infatuation for new social sciences and their statistical methods, led professors in the humanities to see their main role as conveyors of objective knowledge instead of a civilizing ethos. 

For more on this I refer readers to my earlier post, “Do the Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

Science Fiction and Politics”
Daniel Nexon. Hylaen Flow. 21 January 2013.

Dr. Nexon teaches a political philosophy class built around a dozen science fiction novels, comic series, and films. His choices are interesting. PDF version here.

H/T Adam Elkus.


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