Notes From All Over (3/09/15): Chinese Media, Ancient War, and Strategic Theory

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


Down With the Nihilists!” and Love Thy Country
“T.J. Ma.” Chublic Opinion. (31 & 6 August 2015).

I was led to this blog by the recommendation of Kaiser Kuo and instantly knew that it needed to be on the blog roll. “T.J. Ma” writes a weekly report on issues of public debate and controversy in China, especially as argued on the internet. Mr. Ma has a remarkably good handle on the currents of Chinese public opinion, the ins and outs of China’s national media, and the country’s many political subcultures. The first of the two articles I highlight here–though I could have recommended many more–focuses on changing perceptions of the CPC and KMT’s role in Second World War; the second is a deep dive into China’s warring nationalist internet forums and their real world spillover.

“Old School Europeans Were Old School Thugs”
Razib Khan. Gene Expression. (19 August 2015).

The Jewish people have been critical in the development of a universal ethical monotheism in the West, part of the broader evolution away from the supernatural systems of the Bronze Age that occurred across the Axial Age. But the Hebrew Bible preserves within it a world far removed from the divine Logos, a God of law and morality. The angry and jealous sky god of the Hebrews also enjoins upon them genocide of other tribes. Though the Hebrew Bible is pregnant with the possibilities of religious ethical universalism, the voice of the prophets’ righteous indignation raw with rage alive in our age, and channeled through the gentler voices of Hillel and Jesus, it also is a record of a parochial and peculiar people, who wash their hands of their atrocity by attributing it to the capricious and vindictive will of their god. If Moses and Joshua did exist, they almost certainly would have more in common with the war-chiefs of early Neolithic Europe, 4,000 years before their time, than men such as Constantine, who 1,300 years later promulgated a universal religion for a universal empire…..

But as per Fisher’s model, mutants with deleterious consequences invite their own response. They are tamed and civilized by a scaffold of modifiers. The brutal gods which were but reflections of human vice and caprice were drafted in the service of primal human psychological impulses forged during the Paleolithic, reciprocity and egalitarianism arose against the background of brutality beyond imagining unleashed by the social dislocation that was a consequence of agricultural society. The men and women shaped by the Hebrew prophets and Christian Church Fathers, the rishis of the Upanishads and the Chinese sages, they are all closer to us 2,000 years later, then they were to their own forebears only a few hundred years earlier in their own past….

See Also: Christian Meyer, Christian Lohr, Detlef Gronenborn, and Kurt W. Alt, The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe“, PNAS (July 2015).

Azar Gat, “Proving communal warfare among hunter-gatherers: The quasi-rousseauan error,Evolutionary Anthropology 24, iss. 3 (2015)

“Roadblocks to Computational Modeling and Theory Development in Strategy — and a Potential Way Forward”

Adam Elkus. Strategies of the Artificial. (2 September 2013).

Adam has assigned himself the daunting task of building computational models that perform strategic calculations similar to those Clausewitz wrote about. This means integrating a vast array of fields: classical strategic theory,  IR bargaining and game theoretic models, cognitive science and AI research, software engineering, organizational theory, and lots of mathematics. All together it is an impressive bit of research. This post–mostly a statement of the problems he wants to solve–shows how has managed how to integrate it all into one cohesive whole.

It is also a convincing explanation for why standard bargaining models are not enough to answer the most interesting questions in strategic theory. I strongly recommend it to readers interested in formal modeling of social systems.


“The Coddling of the American Mind.”
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The Atlantic. (September 2015).

See also: Kevin Carey, The Fundamental Way Universities Are An Illusion,The New York Times (23 July 2015).

“Aggregation and the New Regulation.”
Ben Thompson. Stratechery. (19 August 2015). 

“@Hillary Clinton: How Does Your Student Debt Make You Feel? Tell Us in 3 Emojis or Less” 
Nathan Tankus. Naked Capitalism. (14 August 2015). 

…In other words, what matters is the emotions you or your children feel being educated, not concretely what they do for you. Notice that she says “America should be a place where those achievements are possible,” not that everyone should be guaranteed an education. In our current neoliberal order I guess it is hopelessly idealistic to think everyone should have a good education, it shouldn’t merely be “possible.”

What of her concrete proposals? They are as milquetoast as this ending summary implies. For existing student debt she thinks that the existing loans should be refinanced at current rates. In the future she says that the government shouldn’t profit from student loans. At first glance this is very appealing, but what does this mean in practical terms? In practice it means tying the interest rate on student loans to the interest rate on government bonds.

Since this rises and falls with federal reserve policy, such a policy would directly vary the affordability of college based on Fed decisions. This is lunacy from a public policy perspective. A major federal initiative that is profoundly changed by what unelected supposedly independent bureaucrats do is at best a bad one.


“Bill Bishop: The Exodus.”
Kaiser Kuo, David Moeser, and Bill Bishop. Sinica. (1 September 2015). 

Bill Bishop’s Sinocism Newsletter is universally regarded as the best China watching site on the internet. He is moving from Beijing to the States this month, and the folks at Sinica invited Mr. Bishop for one last discussion about China and China watchers. Bishop’s pessimistic take on the future of Chinese-American relations is very close to my own view of the situation. 

If We Don’t Understand Both Sides of China’s Balance Sheet, We Understand Neither” and “Do Market Forces Determine the Value of the RMB?  
Michael Pettis. Chinese Financial Markets. (1 September & 18 August 2015).

“A Guide to Chinese Intelligence Operations.”
Peter Mattis. War on the Rocks. (18 August 2015).

“Welcome to maternity Hotel California.”
Benjamin Carlson. Rolling Stone. (19 August 2015).

Read Paper Republic

We at Paper Republic are a collective of literary translators, promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Our new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water.

Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, we are publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.


The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu). 
Translation by Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

The Shang Shu or Shu Jing, usually translated as Book of Documents, is one of the Confucian “Five Classics,” the central curriculum for Confucian thought during its first thousand years. It is also contains the few extant sources we have from the early Zhou period of Chinese history. I did not become aware of this translation of the Documents until this week; the last translation was done by James Legge in the 1890s. It is very exciting to see a newer version! 

“Oldest Koran Fragments Found at Birmingham University.”
Sean Koughlan. BBC News. (22 July 2015).

“Biased samples yield biased results: What historical heights can teach us about past living standards”
Howard Bodenhorn, Timothy W. Guinnane, Thomas Mroz. VoxEU. (22 July 2015).

The Hollow States of Islam.
“Lorenzo.” Thinking Out Loud. (8 August 2015).

….Islam remained dominated by ruler-and-agents states where political processes and decision making were essentially entirely interior to the state apparatus.

Hence, until the late C19th, Islam never moved (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire, of which more below) beyond the fluid warlord states analogous to those of Christian Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For example, there was continuously a state in Egypt; the FatimidAyyubid and Mamluk states from the Fatimid conquest in 969 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517. But the ruling dynasties, their soldiers and warriors were all overwhelmingly (and continually) foreign. There was a state in Egypt, but there was no Egyptian state.


Scientists Replicated 100 Psychology Studies, and Fewer Than Half Got the Same Results.
Brian Handwerk.  Smithsonian. (27 August 2015).

“Is the Romantic-Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?”
William Jankowiak, Shelly Volsche, and Justin Garcia. American Anthropologist. (6 July 2015).


“Is This The End of Christianity in the Middle East?”
Eliza Griswold. New York Times Magazine. (22 July 2015).

This is a very compelling–heart rending even–account of Christianity’s travails in the Near East.

“The Mystery of ISIS.”
Anonymous. New York Review of Books. (13 August 2013).

The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.

I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.

See also: Natasha Bertand, “Western leader: Links Between Turkey and ISIS Now Undeniable,Business Insider (28 July 2015).

Patrick Cockburn. “Turkey Duped the U.S., and ISIS Reaps the Rewards.” The Telegraph. (30 August 2015).

Jacob Poushter, “The Turkish People Don’t Look Favorably Upon The U.S., or Any Other Country Really,” Pew Research Center: Fact Tank (31 October 2014).

“Pakistan’s Strategic Shift is Pure Fiction.”
Christine Fair. War on the Rocks. (13 August 2015).


Thucydides on Policy, Strategy, and War Termination.
Karl Walling. Naval War Review 66, no. 4 (2013).

“Manea Interviews Galeotti on Hybrid War at SWJ.”
Mark Safranski. Zenpundit (23 August 2015).

“Interview: Thinking About ISIS in Strategic Terms.”
Robert C. Ford. Small Wars Journal (9 August 2015).

I specifically do not say “state” as a system of governance can be as small as a family or as large as a nation, with many variations, formal and informal, foreign and domestic. In fact, it is not inaccurate to look at the US policy of global leadership in the post-cold war era as the largest example of a “system of governance.” I find Clausewitz’s social trinity of “Government-Army-People” as a helpful simple model of a system. So long as one has leadership, enforcement, an affected population and some defined space where that leadership and enforcement is applied, one has a system of governance. So, I think we do not error when we apply our Clausewitzian instincts when we deal with political conflict between two or more such systems – but that doing so to a political conflict within a single system has proven to be a huge error over and over again, and counterproductive to resolving the root drivers of instability…


“How Complex Systems Fail.”
Richard I Cook. Cognitive Technologies Laboratory (2000).

The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30-year analysis”
 David Miller and Jonathan Wai. Frontiers in Psychology 6, iss. 27. (2015)


“Down the Rabbit Hole.”
Scott Weingart. Scottbott. (12 July 2015).

On why you should never, ever, ever trust infographics passed around on Twitter… or included in national media publications. 

Depends on What You Want” a review of The Masnavi, Book I
Abi-Ru Shirzan. (9 August 2009).

This is my candidate for ‘best review ever written for”

“This Video Proves That Every JPRG Has Exactly the Same Plot.”
College Humor. (5 August 2015).


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One Comment

Regarding the article "The Mystery of ISIS" the author seems baffled as to who the movement appeals to. In the book Zimbabwe's Guerrilla War ( ) Norma Kriger argued that what appeals to communities as a whole is sometimes the wrong way to look at the appeal of an insurgency. It isn't so much what appealed to the all the rural peoples of Zim during the insurgency, it was what appealed to the young men who formed the ranks of the guerrilla army. They liked the adventure, the sort of fulfillment and far far from least, the physical power belonging to the guerrilla army gave them. Ideology helped but without the things that young men thrilled to, that ideology wasn't enough.

Perhaps it is the same thing with ISIS. No matter what the civilized and mature people of the world of whatever religion think of slavery, blowing up antiquities, being involved in winning battles, parading around waving guns and having heroic photos taken of gun waving and ordering people around, disaffected young men love that stuff. They stream to join because it is in a word-fun, especially when some sort of authority, any sort really give them the imprimatur for having that sort of fun.

It might be better to stop overthinking the appeal of ISIS to the young men who make up its ranks. To a large part it is just fun and enough fun to outweigh the chances of getting killed.