The Pirates of Panama, or The History of Bucaniers in America

Can you imagine wandering into a used bookstore or yard sale and finding 200 year old copy of a pirate’s autobiography? It apparently happened to this guy. Some extracts:

When we found we had been led by this stratagem of the enemy away from the town, we left the bay and came to several houses, but found them al empty, and swept clean, both of inhabitants and provisions. This place of La Serena our pilot had reported to be but a small town, but being arrived there we found in it no fewer than seven great churches and one chapel. In the gardens we found strawberries as big as walnuts and those very delicious to the table. The inhabitants of La serena upon our approach fled, with them the best of their goods and jewels, and what they could not carry away that was of value they buried. Notwithstanding, we took one friar, and two Chilenos, natives of the kingdom of Chili, which adjoins to that of Peru. These prisoners told us that the Spaniards had killed most of their Chilian slaves, fearing they should revolt from them to us. We were about this time troubled with the scurvy; it proceeded, as we judged, from the great hardship and want of provisions we had endured for several months. We killed a mule and got there as plunder a small, quantity of good chocolate, which the Spaniards have in great esteem. In the gardens we found strawberries as big as walnuts.

Next morning, being Saturday, came into the town a flag of truce from the enemy. Their message was to proffer a ransom for the town to preserve it from burning, for now they began to fear we would set fire to it. The chief commanders on both sides met about this point and agreed betwixt them the sum of 95,000 pieces of eight for the whole ransom. This day also there died one of our negroes slaves on board the ship.

Next morning, we set fire to the town. We fired as nigh as we could every house in the whole town to the end that it might be totally reduced to ashes. Thus we left La Serena, carrying with us what plunder we could find.

and (Pirate Christmas):

December the 8th. This day our worthy commander, Captain Sharp, had intelligence given him, that on Christmas day, which was now at hand, the company, or at least a great part thereof, had a design to shoot him; he having appointed that day to be merry. Hereupon he made us share the wine amongst us, as being persuaded they would scare attempt any such thing in their sobriety. The wine we shared out fell out to three jars to each mess. That night the wind increased.

Sunday, December the 25th. This day, being Christmas day, for celebration of that great festival we killed a sow. This sow we had brought from the gulf of Nicoya, being then a suckling pig. With this hog’s flesh we made our Christmas dinner, being the only flesh we had eaten since we left the island of Plata. It was extreme hot weather. We saw much flying-fish, with some dolphins, bonitoes, and albicores, but they will not take the hook.

It’s fascinating reading what it was like to actually be a pirate; they looted and killed, got shot at and lost their legs, had very few morals but some qualms anyway. The whole book is available from the Gutenberg Project, and there is a good article about the central exploits of the book.

Bach the Thug

Archival sources, including school inspector reports, reveal that Bach’s education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well as his own extensive truancy…documents damn the boys as “rowdy, subversive, thuggish, beer- and wine-loving, girl-chasing … breaking windows and brandishing their daggers”. He added: “More disquieting were rumours of a ‘brutalisation of the boys’ and evidence that many parents kept their children at home – not because they were sick, but for fear of what went on in or outside school.”

I guess Bach was a teenage thug, though that seems like it was pretty par for the course back in the day.  Also, Mozart apparently loved scatological humor as seen in this beautiful letter to his cousin:

Well, I wish you good night

But first shit into your bed and make it burst.

Sleep soundly, my love

Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove.

Context, people, context!

I moved to New York City, and I needed to make money. I wasn’t having luck getting a job. It’s a common tale.

My solution was to grab my typewriter that I bought at a yard sale for 10 dollars and bring it to a park. I’d write stories for people, on the spot—I wouldn’t set a price. People could pay me whatever they wanted. I knew that I had the gift of writing creatively, very quickly, and my anachronistic typewriter (and explanatory sign) would be enough to catch the eye of passersby. Someone might want something specific; they might just want a story straight from my imagination. I was prepared for either situation…

I woke up one day not long after I started “Roving Typist” to a flurry of emails, Facebook posts, text messages and missed calls. A picture of me typewriting had made it to the front page of Reddit…

Without the sign, without the context, I definitely look like someone who is a bit insane. That’s how I thought of it, before I clicked to look at the hundreds of replies; I figured people were probably wondering why I would bring my typewriter to a park. And when I started reading the comments, I saw most people had already decided that I would bring my typewriter to the park because I’m a “fucking hipster.” Someone with the user handle “S2011” summed up the thoughts of the hive mind in 7 words: “Get the fuck out of my city.”

Illmatic707 chimed in: I have never wanted to fist fight someone so badly in my entire life.

Leoatneca replied: Bet 90% of his high school did to. It’s because of these guys that bullying is so hard to stop.

I’m back in Portland right now which is full of…”hipsters” like these. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own stories and reasons for what they do – it’s not always what you assume it is. This story about how someone, somewhat undeservedly, became a hated hipster meme is both gripping and an insightful reminder of how careful we need to be.

Broken heartland

Every so often someone writes about how this or that region is going to collapse. Today we get a perspective on why agriculture will collapse in the Great Plains:

The seed, it turned out, was organic, as were all of Teske’s crops — though he was quick to clarify that this was “not just for moral reasons.” On the contrary, organic farming seemed to him the only sensible option left. Decades of innovation had turned conventional farming into such an expensive and technical proposition that it was hopeless for anyone but agribusiness conglomerates to attempt it. This, he said, was the real cause of depopulation. Modern technology made it possible, and more or less obligatory, for a single owner to work fifty times as much land. So neighbors got to buying out neighbors, and then were bought out themselves. The only way forward, Teske figured, was to reject all those modern innovations, at which point you were basically “organic.”…

Sprawling beneath eight states and more than 100 million acres, the Ogallala Aquifer is the kind of hydrological behemoth that lends itself to rhapsody and hubris. Ancient, epic, apparently endless, it is the largest subterranean water supply in the country, with an estimated capacity of a million-billion gallons, providing nearly a third of all American groundwater irrigation. If the aquifer were somehow raised to the surface, it would cover a larger area than any freshwater lake on Earth — by a factor of five.

Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable. Land that had been marginal became dependable; land that was dependable became bountiful. Even as the U.S. population surged, with soldiers returning and babies booming, the output of the plains rose fast enough to meet and exceed demand…Then, during the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely…None of which, he went on, is likely to come back. For complex reasons involving wind, weather, and soil composition, the Ogallala does not recharge in the way one might expect. In fact, of the eight states above the aquifer, only Nebraska, with its sandhill dunes, is permeable enough to contribute any serious replenishment…

The farmers we stopped to talk with seemed to break his heart more each day. On a 12,000-acre plantation near Weskan, Kansas, we stood inside a cavernous warehouse of gleaming tractors and combines while the owner chattered and Teske interjected questions about loan terms and well output. He nodded gravely at the answers and chomped on the stub of his cigar until, as we headed down the driveway, his face collapsed and he moaned, “That poor bastard can’t even see the cliff he’s going off.”

One of the major ecological problems in the country – in the world – is the drainage of aquifers and dwindling water supply. It actually shocks me how little news it gets. Read the article, it’s absolutely great writing and had me gripped throughout the long, long article.

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Why was Spinoza excommunicated?

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

Baruch Spinoza managed to get the harshest ostracism ever pronounced on a member of the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam. The reason? Basically, he disagreed with everything the leaders of the community believed in and made them worry for their already-shaky position in a Catholic society.

The history of US population growth

The size of each state’s abbreviation swells in proportion to its size in population (states in darker blue have a larger share of the U.S. population, states in lighter blue have a smaller share).

Only three states (Virginia, New York and then California) have ever held the designation of the most populous. Those states are bracketed in red. Meanwhile, the cartwheeling red star approximates the westward shifting center of the U.S. population…Note how inconsequential California looks in 1870, and the moment, one century later, when it takes over from New York as the nation’s largest state by population.

via Atlantic Cities

This is Rome

A beautiful journey into the living history that is Rome. One of my favorite facts about the city is that it went from housing a million people to just 50,000 in a short span of time. They even resorted to ‘mining’ the city like in the Book of the New Sun.

Prelude to destruction: Know your nation-state (Syria edition)

This article on 9 things you should know about Syria has been making the rounds lately.  And yet, I think there’s more that you should know!  Try starting off by reading these more in-depth articles on Syria.  Just a taster:

Syria faces challenges to its geopolitical integrity beyond those posed by its religious and linguistic diversity. Like Iraq, it owes its statehood and geographical boundaries largely to the actions of European imperial powers in the early 20th century. Modern Syria essentially covers the area grabbed by France from the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The territory was officially awarded to France as a “mandate” by the League of Nations, with the provision that it would be prepared for eventual independence. French control, however, had already been as promised in a secret British-French war-time agreement—infuriating Britain’s Arab allies, who had cleared Ottoman forces out of most of the region during the conflict. As can be seen in the maps, the British-French partition ignored the Ottoman Empire’s administrative districts.

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The real christmas story

The Browser has a great interview with Brent Landau on the biblical origins of the christmas story. Landau just released a book translating a text from Syriac that has been lying about in the Vatican archives. It is the story of the Wise Men from their perspective, only now there are twelve of them, they come from China, and the star that they see is a starchild named Jesus. From the interview:

Yes, in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, it says he is born in Bethlehem. You would think, since these two infancy narratives agree on it, that that would speak favourably to historical credibility. The problem is that Matthew and Luke have very different ways of explaining why Jesus is born in Bethlehem. In Luke you have the census. The family lives in Nazareth and they only go down to Bethlehem because everybody is required to go back to their home town. Jesus is born while they’re there and then they go back to Nazareth, because that’s where they live. In Matthew, on the other hand, it seems as if Jesus is born in Bethlehem because that’s where his parents live. So when the Magi come and visit Jesus, it says that the star shone over the place where the child was. It doesn’t say it was a manger like in Luke; it says it stood over the house where the child was. Presumably they just lived in Bethlehem and they only left because Herod was trying to kill Jesus and resettled in Nazareth because of that. So Matthew and Luke disagree and Mark never says anything about Jesus being born in Bethlehem. John, interestingly enough, has a scene in chapter 7 where some people are debating whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. And somebody essentially says, ‘He can’t be the Messiah, the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem.’

…Dell deChant, the author of the book, says that, actually, the modern celebration of Christmas is profoundly religious – it’s just not a religion in the way that most of us are used to looking at one, or conceiving of a religion. It’s got its rituals, it’s got its god, and that god is Santa Claus. One of the most interesting points that the book makes is just how angry and upset people get if anybody is so foolish as to say in public, ‘Well, Santa Claus doesn’t exist!’

Merry Christmas!

A history of Names

LRB has a history of naming conventions, focusing on ancient Greek names. However, it has interesting things to say about historically-recent names as well:

n the early 1800s, nearly 25 per cent of all females in the United Kingdom were called Mary. If you add to these many Marys the crushing numbers of Elizabeths, Sarahs, Janes and variform Anns (Nancys, Nans and Hannahs), you would have the Christian names of something close to 80 per cent of the female population. There was a similar pattern with Johns. About one fifth of all males in the UK between 1800 and 1850 were christened John and the vast majority of the other men and boys around at the time were Joseph, James, Thomas or William.

Around 1850, however, the repertoire of names in regular use began to increase rapidly. As Gothic-looking steeples rose around the country, so medieval-sounding names crowded around the font: Arthur, Walter, Harold and Neville, Ethel, Edith and Dorothy, soon to be supplemented by endless Geoffreys. This remarkable efflorescence has been described as a ‘personalisation’ of names, although since in this period the ‘proper’ name one gave to registrars and census enumerators might very well be supplemented by a highly personalised nickname – Old Tom, Long Tom, Short Tom, or even, according to Rev. Alfred Easther, a 19th-century Yorkshire dialectologist, Wantem, Blackcop and Muddlinpin – it might better be described as an outbreak of name-consumerism, as parents increasingly invested their energies in baptismal choice.

…Ancient Greek names were much closer to those of pre-Conquest than post-Conquest England. Just as we translate Native American names such as Tashunka Witko (‘Crazy Horse’), Tatanka Iyotake (‘Sitting Bull’), Woqini (‘Hook Nose’) and Tashunka Kokipapi (‘Young Man Afraid of His Horses’), and even those of the ancient Maya (King ‘Jaguar Paw II’, ‘Smoking Frog’, now renamed ‘Fire Is Born’), so we could refer to famous Greeks as ‘He Who Loves Horses’ (Philip), ‘Masters (with) Horses’ (Hippocrates), ‘Flat-Nose’ (Simon), ‘Stocky’ (Plato), ‘Famed as Wise’ (Sophocles).

…There is plenty of evidence not only that ancient Greek names could be meaningful but that they were meant. It is no accident that an Athenian potter named his potter-to-be son ‘Good with His Hands’ (Eucheir), or that ‘He Who Loves Horses’ named a daughter ‘Thessalian Victory’ (Thessalonike), and there is some evidence for political sloganeering in the use of demos names under the Athenian democracy: Democrates, Demosthenes – (over-)glossed by Thomas de Quincey as ‘The People’s Fulminating Might’ – or just Demos, i.e. ‘The People’, the name given to Stocky’s step-brother, a son of Fire-Bright (Pyrilampes).

…For some unknown reason, the most popular name in almost every region was Dennis i.e. Dionysius – ‘Of Dionysus’. Other common god-names, Apollonius, Apollodorus, Demetrius – ‘Of Demeter’ – were usually in the top ten. For centuries after their deaths the names Philip and Alexander were also very popular, but especially in the region that includes Macedon, where Alexander was the second most popular. The city of Athena on the other hand provides the most examples of Athenodorus and Athenodotus. Achilles-names, including Achillodorus, are popular in the Black Sea region, where the hero had important cults.

If you ever want to know more about the statistics of names, Wolfram Alpha is a great place for information – if you’re in the US.

[photo from]

The Goddess Tara

An excerpt from Dalrymple’s upcoming book discusses the death cult of Tara. Hindu Tantra is alive and well, especially in Bengal, Kerala, Bhutan, and Nepal. The Tantric idea of reaching God by opposing social conventions is interesting; I can’t tell if that is just the perspective of a Westerner, though, or if it is actually a good approximation of their belief.

Tara is believed to be especially attracted to bones and skeletons, and for this reason the dread-locked and ash-smeared sadhus who live in the cremation ground here, above the river and under the great spreading banyan trees, decorate their huts with lines of human skulls, many clearly belonging to children.

“So how do you go about finding the right skull?” I asked Manisha.

“The Doms who administer the cremation ghats find them for us,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “They keep them for us and when we need them, they give them to us. The best ones are suicides,” she added. “When someone has drunk poison or hanged themselves, their skulls are especially powerful. So are the skulls of innocent and pure kumaris—virgin girls. ”…

From the way that Manisha spoke, it was clear that for her the goddess was not something terrible. She talked intimately of her as Ma Tara—Mother Tara—as if she were a benign matriarch, a quite different image from that on the popular prints that I had seen in the bazaar on the way. It is true that sometimes Tara is shown as a nursing mother or enthroned in the paradise of Kailasa or on the Isle of Gems. But usually she is depicted with four arms, nearly naked with matted hair and a blood-red lolling tongue, sitting upon a tiger’s skin and wearing a garland of freshly-severed heads. She wields a blood-smeared cleaver as she stands victorious, dripping with blood, over a dead corpse with an erect phallus. “Ah,” she said. “This is true. This is her wild side. But all this just means she can fight the devils on your behalf.”…

Tara is, after all, one of the most wild and wayward of Hindu goddesses, and cannot be tamed and contained within a mere temple image. After all, she is not only the goddess of supreme knowledge, who grants her devotees the ability to know and realize the Absolute, she is also the Lady Twilight, the Cheater of Death, a figure of horror and terror, a stalker of funeral pyres, who slaughters demons and evil yakshis without hesitation, becoming as terrible as them in order to defeat them. In the 10th-century hymn of a hundred names from the Mundamala-Tantra, Tara is called She Who likes Blood, She Who Is Smeared with Blood, and She Who Enjoys Blood Sacrifice. And while Tara has a healthy appetite for animal blood, the Mundamala-Tantra explicitly states that she prefers that of humans, in particular that taken from the forehead, hands and breasts of her devotees.

Moreover, the sexual part of medieval Indian Tantra is quite different both in aim and practice from the “Tantric sex” marketed by Western publishers in alluringly illustrated manuals. Early Tantric texts make no reference to pleasure, bliss, or ecstasy: the sexual intercourse involved in the rites was not an end to itself so much as means of generating the semen whose consumption lay at the heart of these Tantric fertility rituals—a sort of inverted Tantric version of the offerings made in Vedic fire sacrifices.

At the root of Tantra lies a deeply subversive and heterodox concept: the idea of reaching God by opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos. Whereas caste Hindus believe that purity and good living are safeguarded by avoiding meat and alcoholic drink, by keeping away from unclean places like cremation grounds and avoiding polluting substances such as bodily fluids, Tantrics believe that one path to salvation lies in pushing every boundary and inverting these strictures, transforming what is polluting into an instrument of power.

When I first arrived in the area, I had tracked down a famous Tantric skull-feeder who had previously been the subject of a distinguished academic monograph by an American professor of comparative religion. Yes, said the old Tantric, all that had been written about him was true, and yes he did still cure skulls and use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumors of the family dabbling in black magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice.

Here is more about the book, Nine Lives. Below the fold are a couple of videos of other traditional South Asian practices that are managing to hold on in the new India – as it were.
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Efficient Presidents Hypothesis

Isn’t that a great chart? And since the shorter US Presidential candidate has won the popular only 33% of the time, shouldn’t the EMH suggest that intrade betting converges months ahead of time? Arbitrage should be easy. I wonder how the two variables interact?

Kuribayashi Maru

How do you win the unwinnable? Well, you don’t.

I watched Letters From Iwo Jima last night, which was really great. But then I decided to look up the history of the battle and I got even more impressed. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was probably one of the best military strategists Japan had. He not only saw through the deficiencies of the Japanese honor code, he also constructed one of the most impressive defensive battlements you’ll ever hear of. Here’s what happened at Iwo Jima:

By June 1944, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was assigned to command the defense of Iwo Jima. While drawing inspiration from the defense in the Battle of Peleliu, he designed a defense that broke with Japanese military doctrine. Rather than establish his defenses on the beach to oppose the landings directly, Kuribayashi created strong, mutually supporting defensive positions in depth using static and heavy weapons such as heavy machine guns and artillery, while Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi’s tanks were used as camouflaged artillery positions.

…Only after the front wave of Marines reached a line of Japanese bunkers defended by machine gunners did they take hostile fire. Many cleverly concealed Japanese bunkers and firing positions lit up and the first wave of Marines took devastating losses from machine guns…The Japanese heavy artillery in Suribachi would open their reinforced steel doors to fire and then immediately close their doors following to prevent counterfire from the American forces. This made it extremely difficult for American units to destroy a piece of Japanese artillery.

…To make matters worse for the American troops, the bunkers were connected to the elaborate tunnel system so that bunkers that were cleared with flamethrowers and grenades became operational shortly afterwards. These reactivated bunkers caused many additional casualties among them as Marines walking past these bunkers did not expect them to suddenly become hostile again.

…The Marines learned that firearms were relatively ineffective against the Japanese defenders and effectively used flamethrowers and grenades to flush out Japanese troops in the tunnels. One of the technological innovations of the battle, the eight Sherman M4A3R3 medium tanks equipped with the Navy Mark I flame thrower (“Ronson” or “Zippo” Tanks), proved very effective at clearing Japanese positions. The Shermans were difficult to disable, such that defenders were often compelled to assault them in the open, where the Japanese troops would fall victim to the superior numbers of Marines…However, every “penetration seemed to become a disaster” as “units were raked from the flanks, chewed up—sometimes wiped out. Tanks were destroyed by interlocking fire or were hoisted into the air on the spouting fireballs of buried mines”. As a result the fighting bogged down with Americans casualties piling up. Even capturing these points was not a solution to the problem since a previously secured position could be attacked from the rear by the use of the tunnels and hidden pillboxes. As such, it was said that “they could take these heights at will, and then regret it”.

The Marines nevertheless found ways to prevail under the circumstances. It was observed that during bombardments, the Japanese would hide their guns and themselves in the caves only to reappear when the troops would advance and lay devastating fire on them. The Japanese had over time learned basic American strategy which was to lay heavy bombardment before an infantry attack. Consequently, General Erskine ordered the 9th Marines to attack under the cover of darkness with no preliminary barrage. This came to be a resounding success with many soldiers taken out while still sleeping.

There were more American casualties on Iwo Jima than there were Allied casualties at D-Day. It was also the only U.S. Marine battle where the American casualties exceeded the Japanese (although Japanese combat deaths were three times the number of American combat deaths). But the real reason for the battle at Iwo Jima? It was needed as a launchpad for Fat Man and Little Boy.

Happy Memorial Day.

Humans are a collective intelligence

People like to wonder – why are humans the dominant life form on the planet? Why are we special? Even though humans are probably not as special as we like to think, there is one thing that seems to separate us from other animals: culture. Culture, trade, speech, sociality. These seem to be the ingredients for human dominance and ‘intelligence’. We are better at some cognitive tasks, but was that enough? Did we get smart or just get together? I tend to think the answer is that we got together:

Scientists have so far been looking for the answer to this riddle in the wrong place: inside human heads. Most have been expecting to find a sort of neural or genetic breakthrough that sparked a “big bang of human consciousness,” an auspicious mutation so that people could speak, think or plan better, setting the human race on the path to continuous and exponential innovation.

But the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

…Agriculture was invented where people were already living in dense trading societies. The oldest farming settlements of all in what is now Syria and Jordan are situated at oases where trade routes crossed, as proved by finds of obsidian (volcanic glass) tools from Cappadocia. When farmers first colonized Greek islands 9,000 years ago they relied on imported tools and exported produce from the very start. Trade came before—and stimulated—farming.

It is precisely the same in cultural evolution. Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex.

…This theory neatly explains why some parts of the world lagged behind in their rate of cultural evolution after the Upper Paleolithic takeoff. Australia, though it was colonized by modern people 20,000 years earlier than most of Europe, saw comparatively slow change in technology and never experienced the transition to farming. This might have been because its dry and erratic climate never allowed hunter-gatherers to reach high enough densities of interaction to indulge in more than a little specialization.

Where population falls or is fragmented, cultural evolution may actually regress. A telling example comes from Tasmania, where people who had been making bone tools, clothing and fishing equipment for 25,000 years gradually gave these up after being isolated by rising sea levels 10,000 years ago. Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia argues that the population of 4,000 Tasmanians on the island constituted too small a collective brain to sustain, let alone improve, the existing technology.

There is some theoretical support for the get-together hypothesis. The authors extend a previous model of cultural transmission to include a more realistic structured metapopulation, among other things. In their model, each individual attempts to learn from the most-skilled individual, but an imperfect learning process leads to an average net loss in skill. However, individual errors (“inaccurate inferences”) occasionally allow some learners to acquire an even greater skill during transmission. The world is divided into subpopulations that are connected by a Gaussian random-walk migratory activity.

Whereas the earlier model suggested that population size was the primary variable that fixed the average cultural skill, the metapopulation analysis indicated that this was only true for small numbers of subgroups (~<50). For larger numbers of subgroups (states, tribes, etc.) the skill accumulation depends on the degree of interaction between subgroups. In fact, the benefits of migration/trade were highest for cultural skills with the most complexity. Perhaps we should be thankful we outbred the neanderthals.

[Photo from]

Update: And of course a paper comes out on just this hypothesis! They show how population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania. When population drops, technology drops. Here is a good post about the paper, and here is another.

There was no gateway between east and west; only innumerable conduits

A long article on the influence of Islamic thought on European minds throughout the early middle ages. It includes an interesting discussion about Dante’s Divine Comedy being a dialogue-response to Islam.

As early as the Ninth century, Andalusia had become one of the wonders of the world. The Arabs, who arrived on Spanish shores in 711, set to the task, in the following century, of building an urban-based society, modelled on the example of Baghdad, the “city of peace,” which, built from scratch in 762, was to become a thriving center of industry, agriculture, trade, science, and the arts, whose influence radiated out to the East as far as India and China…Using the same technologies and applying the same fiscal and credit policies which had been introduced by the Baghdad caliphate in Iraq, Andalusia built up an advanced agricultural sector. Islamic legislation did not recognize primogeniture, but favored family farming, facilitating the distribution of land to all offspring. Farmers who took advantage of irrigation techniques, financed through taxation, paid only 5% rather than 10% of their yield in taxes. Dams, irrigation canals, and pumps contributed to productivity levels which far outstripped those in Northern Europe for centuries to come. The textile industry, which employed 13,000 persons out of the 130,000 households in Cordoba, produced cotton, linen, wool, and silk. State as well as private textile mills were equipped with spindles and horizontal looms.

In the Ninth century, Andalusia’s cities were the marvel of chroniclers: “One sings praises to the golden threaded silk of Almeria, Malaga, and Murcia, whose faultless quality arouses the delight even of oriental observers. In Abadilla they produce those rugs that bring such high prices in the Orient. Granada delivers the especially gloriously colorful silk dresses, of the type known as ‘velvet shimmer.’ … Murcia produces wonderful inlaid bedsteads, marvelous fabrics, metal wares, like goldplated knives and scissors … which reach North Africa as frequent export articles. From Murcia, Almeria, and Malaga come costly glass and gold porcelain. Al-Andalus also knows the production of various kinds of mosaics.”

But the greatest wonder of Andalusia was the advancement of learning. None of its wealth in industry and trade would have been possible without a conscious state policy promoting science, as the driving force behind technological progress and overall economic growth…In the Ninth-Tenth centuries, the mosque schools evolved into universities, the first in Europe, which flourished in every city, drawing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars and students like magnets, from all over the world. Finally, there were the academies, separate from the mosques, the most famous of which were the House of Wisdom (Dur al-Hikmah) and the House of Science (Dur al-’Ilm), which were libraries, translation centers, and astronomical observatories. In the Tenth and Eleventh centuries, the madrasah, a state-sponsored educational institution, appeared in Persia and Baghdad, as well as in Andalusia…Al Hakem was himself a scholar, who had read many of the 400,000 books which filled his famous library, as indicated by his marginal notations. Books originally written in Persia and Syria, became known first in Andalusia. The city produced 60,000 books a year, facilitated by the use of paper, an invention the Arabs had taken from the Chinese, and developed in factories in every major city.

…Frederick II (1215-1250), who grew up with Arabic as his native language, called Baghdad scientists to his court, along with musicians and poets. He was so thoroughly Arabized (he was even buried in Arab dress), that Pope Innocent IV accused him of being a crypto-Muslim. Both Frederick and Roger II (1101-1154) came to be known as the “baptized sultans of Sicily.” His “crusade” to Jerusalem particularly outraged the Papacy, because, instead of waging war to regain territories, Frederick negotiated with the Muslims, and dedicated his time to philosophical discussions with their scholars. Later, Frederick addressed a series of questions regarding the nature of God to the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Sabin, whose answers were published as the “Sicilian Questions.” He founded the University of Naples in 1224, on the model of the Andalusian centers of study. Enjoying a royal charter, the university offered a program in oriental studies, one which Thomas Aquinas, among others, took advantage of. Significantly, Frederick II also continued the Muslim fiscal system, which the Normans before him had adopted. Frederick’s son Manfred, who was an accomplished geometer, continued his father’s policies. His liberal approach to Muslims who filled his court earned him and his brother Conrad a Papal condemnation.

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