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Showing posts from February, 2018

The Golden Age of the Barbarians

James C. Scott closes Against the Grain with a chapter entitled "The Golden Age of the Barbarians." In it, he notes how geographically insignificant was the area controlled by states, up until perhaps 1600 CE. For millennia after the rise of the first states, the vast majority of the globe's population lived outside of states. But among those non-state peoples, a few took on special status as "barbarians": they were the non-state people at the periphery of a state. They were the "dark twin" of the "civilized" people who lived within states, and their lives and their economies were deeply intertwined with those of their state-dwelling counterparts.

At times, they interacted with their neighbor states simply by raiding. But this risked destroying the state which was producing the agricultural surplus that was the target of their raids. More often, they sought to achieve a more stable arrangement: in return for agreeing to abjure raiding, they…

Speaking of Codswallop

Someone just brought this ball of dung to my attention.

A quote:

"Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality."


Well then, you know what, Dr. Hoffman? All of those bones that are said to be "evidence" for evolution? They're probably not bones at all, but maybe crayons, or roller skates, or jellyfish! That thing you think is a "brain"? Maybe it's really just a pumpkin, or maybe it doesn't even exist! I bet your "studies" of perception were based on measurements: well, your own theory says your perception of those measurements was "nothing like reality": you'd better throw them all out.

It's hard to figure out if people putting out such rubbish are so stupid they can't see that their own theory makes nonsense of the idea of e…

The "collapse" of early states

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James C. Scott disputes the usual formulation of the disappearance of early states as "collapses." He writes "it is... essential to emphasize what such events do not necessarily mean. They do not necessarily mean a decline in regional population. They do not necessarily mean a decline in human health, well-being, or nutrition, and, as we shall see, may represent an improvement. Finally, a 'collapse' at the center is less likely to mean the dissolution of a culture than its reformulation and decentralization." (p. 186)

Why, then, the frequent narrative of collapses? Scott claims it is because "What in fact were lost were the beloved objects of classical archaeology: the concentrated ruins of the relatively rare centralized kingdoms, along with their written record and luxuries" (pp. 186-187).

The State and Slavery

"As with sedentism and the domestication of grain that also predated state formation, the early state elaborated and scaled up the institution of slavery as an essential means to maximize its productive population and the surplus it could appropriate." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 155

Scott present a number of facts highlighting the importance of slaves in early states:
"the most valuable cargo of Malay traders in insular Southeast Asia were, until the late nineteenth century, slaves" (p. 156)."Slaves represented a clear majority -- perhaps as much as two-thirds -- of Athenian society" (p. 156)."Imperial Rome... turned much of the Mediterranean basin into a massive slave emporium... By one estimate, the Gallic Wars yielded nearly a million new slaves..." (pp. 156-157). But note: slavery pre-existed the state.

Early states and coerced labor

"Each of the earliest states deployed its own unique mix of coerced labor, as we shall see, but it required a delicate balance between maximizing the state surplus on the one hand and the risk of provoking the mass flight of subjects on the other, especially when there was an open frontier." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, pp. 152-153

Early statecraft

"The imperative of collecting people, settling them close to the core of power, holding them there, and having them produce a surplus in excess of their own needs animates much of early statecraft... The means by which a population is assembled and then made to produce a surplus... is less important... than the fact that it does produce a surplus available to non-producing elites." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 151

There are two problems I see in this passage:

1) The "needs" of the people are regarded as a fixed amount of goods, and they have to be "made" to produce more. Now, undoubtedly taxes and other coercive measures might make people produce more than they otherwise would, but also they might have already been producing a "surplus" that attracted state formation in the first place. My point here is simply that there is no obvious criteria for what constitutes a surplus, other than "what the state can take," which, of …

Karl Popper Was All Wet

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Induction is easy! Just place your scientific theory on one of these machines, and out will pop "Verified" or "Unverified"!


Kaizen and Sorting Yourself Out

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For those who are feeling lost and overwhelmed, Jordan Peterson has the psychotherapeutic schtick, "sort yourself out." By this he means pay attention to where you can improve, and then improve it. Soon you'll be able to do things that you never imagined you could do.

Never once does Peterson mention Kaizen or DevOps. But isn't it pretty much the same thing?

Are farmers "more advanced" than hunter-gatherers?

We often view the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as "primitive," and see the adoption of farming as an "advance" over it. But James C. Scott notes that this conclusion is not obvious if we look at the cognitive skills necessary to cope in those different ways of life:

"It is no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal-grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line. Each step represents a substantial narrowing of focus and a simplification of tasks." (Against the Grain, p. 90)

In fact, hunter-gatherers had the whole toolkit of early agriculturalists (since they were harvesting wild grains), plus tools for collecting, trapping, hunting, building weirs, netting, and more.

Why states don't arise in wetlands

James C. Scott notes that states did not arise in wetland regions, and that is no accident:

"wetland societies... were, and remained, environmentally resistant to centralization and control from above. They were based on what are now called 'common property resources' -- free-living plants, animals and aquatic creatures to which the entire community had access. There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone easily taxed... A state -- even a small protostate -- requires a subsistence environment that is far simpler that the wetland ecologies we have examined." (Against the Grain, p. 57)

Productivity is a flow, not a stock

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I just noticed that it is February, and I already can see I will publish at least seven book reviews this year, already tying my best year so far (2016). If I keep my pace up, I should be able to knock off between 15 and 20. This is happening as I am limiting the number of book reviews I take on.

And I did this following the kanban idea of limiting work-in-progress, to create flow and avoid waste. I realized that the economic distinction between stocks and flows in economics can clarify what is going on here.

Too many people, including me a year ago, confuse having a large stock of jobs in progress with productivity. In this view, to be productive is to be busy. If I was juggling six book reviews, "Boy," I thought, "I sure am productive!"

But productivity is a flow, not a stock! What matters is not how many things you are up to, but how many finished products* are coming out of your "workstation." And perhaps paradoxically, we can often increase our flow

Native American global warming?

In terms of long-term impact on the environment, James C. Scott notes that the harnessing of fire and its use over the last 400,000 to alter the landscape might "overwhelm crop and livestock domestication" (p. 38). In fact, Native Americans were such prolifigate users of fire that its "volume in North America was such that when it stopped abruptly, due to the devastating epidemic that came with the Europeans, the newly unchecked growth of forest created the illusion among white settlers that North America was a virtually untouched, primeval forest" (Against the Grain, p. 39). In fact, the cessation of the CO2 output from such burning may have caused the Little Ice Age!

Now That's Some Global Warming for Ya

"Then, around 9,600 BCE, the cold snap broke and it became warmer and wetter again -- and fast. The average temperature may have increased as much as seven degrees Celsius within a single decade." (James. C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 43)

The high end of present global warming predictions seems to be around four or five degrees Celsius in a century: that pales compared to seven degrees in a decade!

Scott on the Fragility of Early States

"Extrinsic causes -- say, drought or climate change... -- may in fact be more important overall in state collapse, but intrinsic causes tell us more about the self-limiting aspects of early states. To this end, I speculate on three fault lines that are by-products of state formation itself. The first are the disease effects of the unprecedented concentrations of crops, people, and livestock together with their attendant parasites and pathogens... More insidious are two ecological effects of urbanism and intensive irrigated agriculture. The former resulted in steady deforestation of the upstream watershed of riverine states and subsequent siltation and floods. The latter resulted in well-documented salinization of the soil, lower yields, and eventual abandonment of arable land." (Against the Grain, p. 31)

This is my bread and butter

I am now reviewing Against the Grain by James C. Scott. The first thing I wish to note, relative to this review (but which won't actually make it into the review itself): some twerp named William Buckner decided to slander Scott on the website Quillette, where he wrote.

"It’s not often that you see a 50-year-old paper repeatedly referenced in mainstream publications, but you can find mentions of Lee’s work pretty much everywhere today. In the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Financial Times, and Salon, among others. Much of this attention has to do with two recently published books, Against the Grain by James C. Scott and Affluence without Abundance by James Suzman, both of which are informed by Lee and Sahlins’s conception of hunter-gatherer affluence."

OK, the first significant thing here is that Buckner cites a bunch of reviews of Scott and Suzman that happen to cite Lee and Sahlin, but he never actually cites Scott or Suzman. He simpl…