September 01, 2010

War Against the Bookmarks

Attention conservation notice: Clearing out my to-blog folder, limiting myself to stuff which isn't too technical and/or depressing.

The late Charles Tilly was, it appears, working on a world history of cities, states and trust networks when he died. The first chapter is online (open access), and makes me really regret that we'll never see the rest. It includes a truly marvelous depiction of the rise of the Mongol Empire, from Marco Polo:

Some time after the migration of the Tartars to [Karakorum], and about the year of our lord 1162, they proceeded to elect for their king a man who was named Chingis-khan, one of approved integrity, great wisdom, commanding eloquence, and eminent for his valour. He began his reign with so much justice and moderation, that he was beloved and revered as their deity rather than their sovereign; and the fame of his great and good qualities spreading over that part of the world, all the Tartars, however dispersed, placed themselves under his command. Finding himself thus at the head of so many brave men, he became ambitious of emerging from the deserts and wildernesses by which he was surrounded, and gave them orders to equip themselves with bows, and such other weapons as they were expert at using, from the habits of their pastoral life. He then proceeded to render himself master of cities and provinces; and such was the effect produced by his character for justice and other virtues, that wherever he went, he found the people disposed to submit to him, and to esteem themselves happy when admitted to his protection and favour.

John Emerson has a slightly different explanation: the culmination of a thousand years of increasingly sophisticated military rivalry in central Eurasia.

My hypothesis is that, for the last several decades during the twelfth century, northern China, Karakitai, the Silk Road between them, and the Mongolian and Manchurian hinterlands served as a pressure cooker or laboratory where strategy, tactics, and military organization were perfected during a period of constant warfare. The Jin Chinese fought against the Song Chinese and sometimes the Xixia or the Mongols, the Xixia fought against the Jin and the Mongols, the Mongols fought with the other two and with each other, and because they were busy with one another they put little pressure on the Karakitai farther west, who were able to concentrate on maintaining their hegemony in Central Asia.

The states in this zone (and the non-state Mongols) hardened up and improved their discipline, organization and skills during decades of practice wars, so that when Genghis Khan finally united the steppe, subjugated the Xixia, and neutralized the Jin (in part because Jin forces had been deserting to the Mongols), he had essentially won the military championship of the toughest league in the world, so that every army he met from then until the Mamluks in Egypt would be far inferior to his. When Genghis Khan gained control of this military high pressure zone, there was no one who could stop him. Furthermore, once Genghis Khan controlled a plurality of the steppe, there was a snowball effect when most of the remaining steppe peoples not allied to his enemies joined him (semi-voluntarily — the alternative was destruction).

Also from Emerson, a selection of Byzantine anecdotes. They really don't make political slanders like they used to, despite some people's best efforts.

Rajiv Sethi ponders The Astonishing Voice of Albert Hirschman; Steve Laniel reviews Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. As an application, consider the plight of would-be refugees from Facebook.

John Dewey writing on economics, economic policy and the financial collapse in 1932, under the rubric of "The Collapse of a Romance" (cached copy). Here Dewey sounds almost Austrian on the connection between uncertainty and the capitalist process — and accordingly condemns the latter as sheer gambling. (Cf.) This line was particularly nice: "Human imagination had never before conceived anything so fantastic as the idea that every individual is actuated in all his desires by an insight into just what is good for him, and that he is equipped with the sure foresight which will enable him to calculate ahead and get just what he is after."

Relatedly, my friend Chris Wiggins observed struggling to save at-risk youth.

Ken MacLeod on Apophatic atheology.

Fifteenth Century Peasant Romance Comics. (Hark, a Vagrant is generally a treasure.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates schools the Freakonomics crowd in the concept of "sample selection bias".

Kalashnikov wanted to be a poet; but war was interested in him.

"Genji, you skank!"

A visual history of lolcats since the 1800s.

Jordan Ellenberg on math in the age of Romanticism.

Becoming death, destroyer of mosquito worlds. How termites evolved from cockroach-like insects (not to be read while eating).

"This is why I'll never be an adult" is scarily perceptive --- "Internet FOREVER!", indeed (via unfogged). While on the subject of moral psychology, how to keep someone with you forever (via Edge of the American West).

Cool data-mining tricks for academic libraries. Via Magistra et Mater, seen elsewhere connecting Carolingian texts and social media.

Canadian engineers are much stranger than you'd think.

Oleg Grabar on the history of images of Muhammad in Islamicate culture (via Laila Lalami).

Akhond of Swat on "Ideas of India" and The Reading Life of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru.

Southern literature, objectively defined and measured by Jerry Leath Mills:

My survey of around thirty prominent twentieth-century southern authors has led me to conclude, without fear of refutation, that there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it? As we shall see, the presence of one or more specimens of Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) constitutes the truly catalytic element, the straw that stirs the strong and heady julep of literary tradition in the American South.

Jessa Crispin on the pleasures of reading about polar travel, while nowhere near the poles.

"Having a world unfold in one's head is the fundamental SF experience." (Pretty much everything Jo Walton writes is worth reading.)

Bruce Sterling on zombie romance: "Paranormal Romance is a tremendous, bosom-heaving, Harry-Potter-sized, Twilight-shaped commercial success. It sorta says everything about modern gender relations that the men have to be supernatural. It also says everything about humanity that we're so methodically training ourselves to be intimate partners of entities that aren't human."

The Demon-haunted world, or, the past and future of practical city magic.

Manual trackback: The Monkey Cage

Update, 4 September: fixed typos and accidentally-omitted link.

Linkage; Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; Afghanistan and Central Asia; Scientifiction and Fantastica

Posted at September 01, 2010 09:50 | permanent link

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