Saturday, January 28, 2017

On Debt

I wrote a comment on Anatoly Karlin's blog today about the 1990s in the former USSR, and that started me thinking about politics and economics in general. One such thought led to another, so that in the end I decided to describe my attitude to credit here on my little blog.

I'll start with a simple observation: the more responsible, conscientious, hard-working a person is, the less likely he is to ask for a loan. But this is exactly the kind of person who's most likely to repay a loan if he gets one.

So the people who come to a banker, asking for his services, giving him business, are disproportionately of the kind who aren't likely to repay him. The people who are most likely to repay him need him the least. How does a banker normally solve this problem, this contradiction?

Very simply. He establishes private relationships with government officials. Loans on favorable conditions, bribes, job opportunities in his bank after the officials retire. When debts go bad, as they always do, the government bails out the banker with taxpayer money.

In this way a responsible person (the taxpayer) is made to subsidize an irresponsible one (the debtor). Remember that the more responsible, hardworking individuals tend to pay more in taxes than the less responsible ones.

At this point everyone remembers the 2008 economic crisis which was caused by banks loaning money to irresponsible people. Sub-prime loans, zero down payments, no checking of credit histories. And of course there was a government bailout afterwards. Too big to fail, etc. At about the same time in Europe German taxpayers were bailing out Greeks. A couple of decades before that there was the Savings and Loans scandal.

I don't think the average person realizes how common this is. A few years ago I read Niall Ferguson's 2-volume history of the Rothschilds. Since the Rothschilds were the world's chief bankers from about 1815 to about 1914, Ferguson's work comes close to being the financial history of the world in that century.

Banking crises followed by government bailouts happened all the time then. What do I mean by banking crises? Loans going bad, debtors not paying. The bailouts weren't exceptional events. They were an essential part of the banking cycle, of the business model of banking. As they still are I think.

Ferguson described a hierarchy of credit-worthiness among 19th century countries. Of course Britain and the various German states were on top, France a little below, Spain and Italy lower still, and Latin American states in the gutter. It was every stereotype confirmed.

At one point in the books the Rothschilds start loaning money to the pasha (or whatever he was called) of Egypt. And you think "well, this pasha doesn't seem like a very creditworthy person. How would they get their money back?" As I remember, Ferguson was good at creating a feeling of suspense here.

They asked their friends in the British government, one of whom was Gladstone I think, to invade Egypt, making it a colony. After that the British government assumed responsibility for Egypt's debts to the Rothschilds. So in effect the average British taxpayer (shopkeeper, colliery owner, whatever) ended up subsidizing the pasha's harem. For a while at least. Think of all those orientalist paintings.

To me this is a symbol of how credit works in general. It's a transfer of money from responsible people to irresponsible ones, from those who do to those who spend. Often on bling.

Would it be possible to eliminate the corruption factor from the banking cycle? I don't know of any countries where that was ever done. I recently reviewed here a book about the history of Florence from 1200  to 1575, and it was full of banking crises and taxpayer bailouts. By the way, all of the biggest bankers there were Italians.

I know of countries that completely dispensed with debt internally. The post-WWII USSR, modern Saudi Arabia. Though obviously I don't know the latter from the inside. And I know of countries where credit works in the corrupt manner that I described above. But I don't know of any places where it's ever worked honestly. And of course, if bribery and bailouts were eliminated, the banking business would shrink considerably. Bankers would only loan to those whom they truly considered creditworthy, and that's not a lot of people. And these are exactly the kind of people who need credit the least.

Why is bribery so hard to eliminate in this context? Because the bankers' profits exceed government officials' salaries by many orders of magnitude. This is almost like gravity. Why does the Moon revolve around the Earth?

I'm sure that this reality is partly behind the condemnation of banking by several religions and by much of humanity's wisdom literature. Quoting Shakespeare, "neither a borrower nor a lender be."

I freely admit to being hypocritical on the issue of immigration, but I've never been a hypocrite on this. I've taken out zero loans in my life. I bought the apartment in which I'm typing this outright, by saving money when I was working while living with my parents in my younger days. The only bits of debt that I've ever had were two or three overdue credit card bills. I've always had enough money to pay them, but I sometimes forgot to do it on time. So I've been assessed a little interest. Probably $20 or $30 in total. Never had any other debt of any sort.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review of the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw (editor), 2003. Glossy's rating: 6/10

This is a history of Egypt from the Paleolithic to 395 AD.

In the early chapters nothing seems to presage the country's later greatness. Agriculture came to the Nile valley several thousand years after the Middle East, most likely from the Levant. There was an intense period of development between about 4400 BC and 3100 BC, at the end of which a unified state, by far the largest one on Earth at the time, was born, already equipped with a unique culture that's instantly recognizable to the modern eye. Aesthetically this culture was far above anything created in the Middle East or in Europe until it was surpassed by the Greeks in the 5th century BC.

It's interesting that the initial unification of Egypt was accomplished from the south.

"By the end of the Naqada II phase ( c .3200 BC ) or early Naqada III, the indigenous material culture of Lower [Glossy: northern] Egypt had disappeared and was replaced by artefacts (especially pottery wares) deriving from Upper [southern] Egypt and the Naqada culture."

There is a pattern in global history of northerners conquering southerners much more often than vice versa, but in Egypt the record seems to be closer to parity than in most places. The south unified the country again after the First Intermediate Period, and then again after the Second one. In pharaonic times Upper Egypt seems to have been more authentically Egyptian and more interested in national unity and sovereignty.

Among the roughly half a dozen foreign peoples who conquered Egypt in the period covered by this book one - the Nubians - came from the south. In some periods they even served Egypt's rulers as mercenaries, as did Libyans, Anatolians, Greeks and others.

Writing appeared in Egypt contemporaneously with unification, in the 32nd century BC. During my lifetime the scientific consensus on its origin shifted from "probably influenced by Mesopotamian cuneiform" to "probably developed independently at about the same time as Mesopotamian cuneiform".

The earliest examples of this writing unearthed so far are labels attached to the grave goods of a king, inscribed with his name. An enormous share of what we know about ancient Egypt comes from tombs. This is partly because many settlements cannot be excavated, having been covered by many layers of Nile silt in antiquity. I'm under the impression that burials tended to be located on higher ground, closer to the desert. Also, Egyptians were more obsessed with the afterlife than most ancient peoples. The amount of effort they put into the building of tombs, not just for the pharaohs, is absolutely shocking. The big pyramids at Giza represent a very small share of it.

By the way, while reading about all the archeological digs mentioned in this book I was surprised to learn that a few of them were carried out by the Japanese.

During the Old Kingdom Egypt was a highly-centralized absolute monarchy with a command economy.

"Internal dissent was minimal, and support for the system was genuine and widespread. Coercive state mechanisms, such as police, were conspicuous by their absence."

There was no cash, so all economic activity proceeded through barter or royal decree. I've read that by that time Mesopotamians were already using silver as a medium of exchange, though I don't know in what form. There were no coins anywhere in the world until much later.

Gradually the pharaohs' control began to slip. Provincial governors, at first appointed, began to pass on their positions to their sons. These dynasties slowly acquired patronage networks of their own, and with them independent sources of power. Eventually central government broke down, order was replaced by chaos, temples were looted and large-scale building activity ceased.

After about a century of instability the country was unified again under the Middle Kingdom. Prosperity came back and the arts flourished once more, becoming more human and individual than before. Portraiture was now more likely to reflect the subjects' personal features. Literature began to deal with ordinary people as protagonists.


Senusret III
Again Senusret III. Notice that it's clearly the same person, but sadder, less defiant.
Amenemhat III
Amenemhat III
The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasion of the Hyksos, nomads who hailed from southern Palestine and spoke a West Semitic language.

Egyptians called all Middle Easterners, not just the Hyksos, Aamu, which modern historians usually translate as "Asiatics".

"Egyptian intolerance toward the ‘easterners’ was already apparent in the reign of Senusret I, who described himself as ‘the throat-slitter of Asia’, and this general perception is reinforced by the so-called execration texts. These were lists of enemies inscribed on pottery objects and figurines, many of which name individual Asiatics and the people of Asia in general. The intention of the texts seems to have been to ensure the magical destruction of Egypt’s enemies by burying or smashing the pots or figurines in question."

I'm sure that the Hyksos felt the same way, but their testimony did not survive. Resistance to their rule was led, unsurprisingly, by the south.

A king of Upper Egypt named Kamose proclaimed, speaking of his Hyksos counterpart, ‘I will close with him that I may slit open his belly; for my desire is to rescue Egypt and to drive out the Asiatics.’

After the Hyksos were defeated we read of Queen Hatshepsut boasting, ‘I have banished the abomination of the gods, and the earth has removed their footprints.’

In other words, the Egyptian side saw this conflict as a war of national liberation. What, your professor told you that nationalism didn't exist before the French Revolution? It is to laugh.

The severed hands of defeated enemies
In the New Kingdom the already-existing practice of pharaohs marrying their sisters became more common. I would have ascribed this to empty symbolism or misunderstood metaphor if genetic testing on Tutankhamun's mummy hadn't revealed that his parents were full siblings. Pharaohs had large harems, so not all their wives were their sisters and not all their heirs were heavily inbred, just some.

The Ptolemies, though ethnically Greek, followed this Egyptian tradition. By the way, this book says that in almost 300 years of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt the only monarch of that dynasty who's known to have learned Egyptian was the last one, Cleopatra.

A few local census returns have survived from the Roman period in Egypt. About a sixth of all marriages recorded in them were between brothers and sisters. Amenhotep III is mentioned here as marrying his own daughters, but I don't know if those marriages produced any children.

His son Amenhotep IV is the earliest known monotheist in history. He renamed himself Akhenaten in honor of the sun disc ("aten" in Egyptian), which he saw as the only god in the universe. There had been a gradual movement towards the worship of the sun and towards monotheism before Akhenaten however, so this didn't come entirely out of the blue.

Under Akhenaten "...the traditional gods were banned completely and a campaign was begun to remove their names and effigies (particularly those of Amun) from the monuments, a Herculean task that can only have been carried out with the support of the army. The traditional state temples were closed down and the cults of their gods came to a standstill. Perhaps most important of all, the religious festivals with their processions and public holidays were no longer celebrated either."

"In everyday practice, the new religion probably only replaced the official state cult and the religion of the élite; the majority of the people must have continued to worship their own traditional, often local gods."

Beyond realism: Akhenaten

Akhenaten

In future eras monotheism was extremely "sticky", meaning that once it took hold in a population, polytheism never returned. But this first known instance of monotheism in world history was an exception, since as soon as Akhenaten died, the Egyptian government and elite came back to their old gods. Not content with just that, they tried to obliterate all mentions of Akhenaten, erasing him from official king lists.

A few decades later Egypt defeated an invasion of the Sea Peoples, who seem to have come from Greece and perhaps Italy as well. This was a very impressive accomplishment because the Sea Peoples destroyed most of the Middle Eastern states of that time.

An Egyptian relief showing a Sherden soldier, a member of the Sea Peoples. The Sherden probably had some connection to Sardinia. I'm not aware of any earlier representations of the European facial type that are this realistic.
Some time later power in Egypt was seized by a Syrian official named Bay, who was then removed by a native Egyptian king. I'm fascinated by interethnic relations, both modern and ancient, so the Egyptian description of this episode was interesting to me:

"The papyrus describes how a state of lawlessness and chaos had broken out in Egypt because of forces from ‘outside’; after several years in which there was no one who ruled, a Syrian called Irsu (a made-up name meaning ‘one who made himself’—that is, ‘upstart’) seized power, and his confederates plundered the country; they treated the gods like ordinary human beings and no longer sacrificed in the temples.... "

"The gods then chose Sethnakht to be the next ruler"... "and he re-established order."

The New Kingdom ended with another era of decline and division called the Third Intermediate Period. Different chapters of this book were written by different authors, and two of them seem to offer competing explanations for this.

Jacobus Van Dijk blames the long-term effects of Akhenaten's religious reforms. He says that after Akhenaten monopolized all religious devotion for the god Aten, and for himself as his sole representative, people reacted by starting to worship the gods directly or nearly directly, going some way towards cutting out the royal intermediary. This is supposed to have damaged the pharaohs' power and prestige for many centuries to come.

John Taylor, the author of the chapter on the Third Intermediate period, instead blames the breakdown of authority on a massive inflow of Libyan nomads into Egypt. These people simply weren't used to powerful, centralized governments.

This is the period when royal tombs began to be looted and when the amount of effort put into tomb building declined. Of course Libyans had no reason to feel much reverence for old Egyptian kings, and, as nomads, didn't have a tradition of building anything substantial.

This latter theory feels much more convincing to me. I think that in general most historians underestimate the effect of ethnic conflict and demographic change on ideology, economics and the structure of government.

According to this book, "a substantial influx of non-Egyptians (Libyans and Nubians) permanently modified the profile of the population."

"The evidence of names, titles, and genealogies reveals the population of the north as predominantly Libyan and that of the south as Egyptian. Reflections of this can also be detected in material culture."

"There are, in fact, several indications that the Libyans retained a large measure of their ethnic identity. Their distinctive and very un-Egyptian names—Osorkon, Sheshonq, Takelot, and others—survived for centuries after the arrival of the Libyans in Egypt, whereas in earlier periods foreigners usually adopted or were given Egyptian names within one or two generations."

"...it has been suggested that by the end of the New Kingdom the Egyptian army was almost entirely made up of Libyan mercenaries."

As we move forward through the Kingdoms and Intermediate Periods of Egyptian history, the number and duration of foreign invasions increases. Why? I've read of genetic studies that purport to show that Egypt's population hasn't changed much since the pre-pharaonic Naqada period. This seems to contradict some of the quotes above. I don't know who's right. The genetic study of the past is in its infancy now.

A partial replacement of a disciplined agrarian population by nomads could explain some of the change though. Another obvious explanation is the immense civilizational progress in southern Europe, home to two of the powers that conquered Egypt in the first millennium BC.

It's important to note however that Egyptian art retained its customary level of sophistication well into the Roman era.

The last period of ancient Egyptian independence came to an end in 343 BC. I don't think Egypt was ruled by natives again until the 20th century. And except for Alexandria, all of whose intellectuals were Greek, this ancient country was never again important. It had an amazingly long run though.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

School, Part 2

I'm slowly writing an auto-biography. This is the third installment. The first two can be found here and here.

***

My most vivid memories of school have nothing to do with classes of course. Breaks between periods, which lasted between 5 and 20 minutes, were filled with running, fighting and games. At the beginning of a class we were often sweaty and red-faced, trying to catch our breaths, nauseous from exertion.

I was shorter, thinner, quicker and less powerful than the average kid, so I loved to play tag. Often, as we were running towards the end of a straight passage, with some kid's outstretched arm a few centimeters from my back, I just knew that I was going to gain some distance when I made a turn, because I always did, because I was just like that, and this big oaf behind me wasn't, and that I was going to get away. And this feeling gave me great joy.

The metal tubes which made up the framework of our classroom chairs were plugged with square pieces of plastic. We often took those out in order to play soccer with them. I was normally a goalkeeper. One day someone brought a big, ovoid piece of heavy metal, probably lead, to school, so that we could play with it instead. The challenge was to change this thing's trajectory without hitting it head on.

Our fighting did not look like boxing, wrestling or anything else that appears on TV. The goal was often to push your opponent in such a way that he'd trip over your extended foot and fall. Since both of you were trying to do this to each other at the same time, the fight tended to slowly revolve around a central point.

Sometimes we simulated mounted warfare by fighting in two-man teams. A lighter kid like me would climb on the back of a heavier one to grapple with his counterpart on the other team, trying to make him and his "mount" lose their balance and fall to the floor.

In the mornings we hung our coats and shoe bags in the big dressing room downstairs. There were no lockers, yet nothing was ever stolen. Of course bicycles were never stolen either, in spite of the total absence of bike locks. To avoid dragging dirt into classrooms we had to take off our winter boots in the dressing room and change into indoor shoes that we brought from home, hence the shoe bags.

In the early grades those bags were sometimes used as weapons, and my muscle memory still retains the movements necessary to swing one menacingly from its string.

Sometimes at the end of the day we chased each other around the dressing room, tripping over fallen coats, laughing and fighting. Someone once threw me at one of the windows there, breaking it with my back. I have a memory of going to a store with my parents to buy a replacement window for the school. That was the first time I saw a glass-cutting tool in action - an exciting thing for a little boy. But why were we buying the new window? He threw me! That part I already forgot.

When a teacher called in sick, we had the entire 45 minutes to ourselves. One typical thing to do in such a situation was to start throwing wet cloths at each other. Those were normally used to erase chalk from the blackboard. Repeated hits imparted our uniform and hair a specific smell that I still remember today.

Our math and science notebooks contained graph paper, which became an integral part of a very large number of strategy games. The one I liked the most was an adaptation of Go called Tochki (Dots). We often played it for hours on end, both during and after classes, filling both sides of an open notebook with our encirclements.


Tochki. This is a short game though.


There was a popular graph paper game dealing with naval warfare, in which you called out the chess-like coordinates of the squares you hit, and several graph paper games dealing with tank battles, but for some reason nothing relating to aerial or nuclear war.

In the early grades the game of "fantiki" was popular. You put a chewing gum wrapper on a desk, and then the other kid tried to overturn it by hitting, or nearly hitting it, with his hand. It was really the air flow created by the hand's movement that flipped it. If he succeeded, he won your wrapper, but then he had to put one of his own on the desk, so that you'd get a chance to win it. Kids had collections of these wrappers which they displayed in albums. Rare foreign ones were more valuable than the domestic kind.

There were lots of word games too of course: a Scrabble-like game for pen and paper, which I would guess is much older than Scrabble, "hangman", which was probably the inspiration for Wheel of Fortune type games worldwide, and many others. If I ever come across a history of children's pen-and-paper games, I'll definitely read it.

How do I feel about being a member of the last generation before the massive spread of computer games? I think it's great. I got to experience this very old bit of human culture right before it declined. And none of it was addictive. The only traces of it in my current life are pleasant memories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Reading Speed

I've long been dissatisfied with the table that I put in this post, which showed my proficiency in various languages. In it I gave my reading, listening and speaking abilities subjective grades on the 0 to 10 scale. It should be easy to measure the first two of these objectively. I recently started to do this with reading.

I chose newspaper editorials as material. Why? There's less variation among them in terms of difficulty than among novels. There are fewer personal and place names in them than in newspaper articles. They're easy to find.

Here's what I have so far:

 
For this table I read about 5,000 words in English, German, Russian, Spanish and French each. I read a little fewer than 2,900 words in Italian and about 1,250 characters in Chinese. This is a work in progress. Eventually I want to base my table on 5,000 words in all of these European languages and on 10,000 characters in Chinese. And I want to add Portuguese and Ukrainian, which I can read to some extent.

For the record, the one English word I didn't know was "exons", encountered in an NYT editorial by Nicholas Kristof. I comfort myself with the near-certainty that he doesn't know what it means either.

What does "Adj. reading speed" mean in my above table? Well, German words, for example, tend to be longer than English ones. So a thousand words in German usually convey more information than a thousand words in English. I decided to quantify this, and then to adjust for it.

When people compare languages, they often use the Lord's Prayer because it's the text that's been translated into the most tongues. However, it's short and sometimes contains archaic vocabulary, which is unrepresentative of modern speech. I decided to go for one of the chief texts of the religion of liberalism instead, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The web site of the High Commissioner of these rights has translations of their Declaration into 501 languages. The document is broken up into chapters. I removed chapter headings ("Chapter 25", for example) before counting the words because I'm more interested in the length of real sentences. In the end I came up with the following numbers:



For Chinese I used the number of characters instead of the number of words. I used the coefficients in the last column to adjust the reading speed numbers above. My entire worksheet can be seen here.

My plan for measuring listening comprehension is to find some audio-books of classic novels and then to calculate the percentage of the words that I understand correctly the first, the second, the third, etc. time that I hear a passage spoken.

The only way to objectively quantify speaking ability is to ask lots of native speakers to grade you. I can't really do that, so those grades will remain subjective in my new system.



Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Year in Nerdiness

Last April I wrote here about timing my hobbies. This is an update.
 
In the graph below the blue sections at the bottom represent the time I spent doing Anki reps. It was more than an hour a day throughout last year. I added 1,333 new Anki cards during 2016, for a total of 21,636 cards. When I encounter a new word or concept, I often look it up and enter it into my Anki deck. In 2016 I didn't read as much in foreign-to-me languages as I usually do, so I added fewer cards. One usually spends more time on new cards than on old ones, so a decrease in the number of new cards leads to less time spent with Anki, and in fact you can see the blue portions of the bars decreasing as the year went on.   
 
 
The black portions of the bars, above the blue ones, represent the time I spent practicing the piano. And here's a separate graph for piano practice, an activity which I started timing two and a half years before the other ones:
 

 
During last year I recorded three piano pieces and posted them on YouTube. I can play a fourth one - Bach's Little Fugue - all the way through, but even worse than those three. I sometimes have to stop and look for notes. It's a difficult piece, and I don't know if I'll ever learn it well enough to want to record it. It's beautiful though, so I do love playing it.
 
In 2016 I was also busy learning Billy Joel's Honesty. I hope to record it this year, but you never know. If I do, Elton John's Your Song will probably be next.
 
The various shades of light green on the first graph represent learning various languages. Some of it was me reading the two French books I reviewed on this blog last year. Another part is me listening to France2's 8 PM newscasts. The first time I listen to a segment I understand about half of the words in it. That's a rough estimate. I think that by the 5th or 6th time I'm up to 99%. You can turn on the subtitles there to check if you were right.
 
One of the light green segments is me listening to Pimsleur Mandarin lessons. I'm usually against using language study materials. The best way to learn a language is to just read, listen and talk in it. But Chinese is so hard that I made an exception. Pimsleur has 5 Mandarin courses, for a total of 150 30-minute lessons. I'm now on lesson 105. I have some Chinese co-workers and I sometimes understand little parts of their conversations with each other. Not many though. Right now my plan is to start listening to Chinese news online once I'm finished with Pimsleur, or a little before that.
 
The dark green portions above the light green ones represent me reading books in one of my two native languages, Russian and English. I only timed myself reading books that I intended to finish and review here. If I took a book from a shelf at Barnes and Noble and spent an hour with it, I didn't make a record in my table for that. Why? I don't know. The criteria for including things here are somewhat arbitrary. I spend a lot of time reading and commenting on blogs, arguing with people in Twitter, reading news articles linked from my Twitter feed, working at my 9 to 5 job, etc., and I didn't time any of that stuff here either.
 
The yellow segments represent me writing blog posts and poems, and red is miscellaneous.
 
I wish I started doing this earlier so I could track the rise and fall of my past nerdy obsessions.
 
It would be fun to calculate the rate of language learning progress per hour of study. The increase in reading speed, in the percentage of words recognized, that kind of thing. Obviously, the same amount of study will lead to different results in different languages. Those differences could be used to objectively estimate the difficulty of various languages. It's something I might try to do in the future.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Cambridge Histories

After I finished reading The Age of Agade I got curious about later Mesopotamian history: the third dynasty of Ur, the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, etc. So I looked for recent, high-quality books about these on Amazon. There didn't seem to be any, but after a few searches I noticed a volume of Cambridge Ancient History in my results. And then I remembered sitting years ago in the main room of the Central New York library - one of the grandest, most beautiful rooms I've ever been in - reading little bits of multi-volume Cambridge histories. You could take them from the shelves around the perimeter without putting in a request. And I thought "that's what I should read and review on my blog!"

These are enormous scholarly publications, probably the largest ones on their topics in English. Some of them cost hundreds of dollars per volume on Amazon, but of course people have already uploaded free scans of many of them to the Internet.

I'm not any better at following up on my plans than the average person, but right now I have a lot of enthusiasm for reading history, so I'm thinking of checking out some of these books. I don't yet know what series I'll start with. I'll decide once I finish the book I'm currently reading, which was not published by Cambridge.

I'll put up links to some of the series, starting with the ones I'm most interested in. Most Cambridge history volumes seem to be between 600 and 1000 pages long.

The Cambridge History of Japan in 6 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Science in 8 volumes.

The New Cambridge History of Islam in 6 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Christianity in 9 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Judaism in 4 volumes, from the Persian period to the late Roman-Rabbinical period. Obviously an incomplete work.

The Cambridge History of China in 15 volumes, plus a separate volume on the that country's earliest history.

The Cambridge Ancient History in 19 volumes.

The Cambridge Medieval History in 8 volumes

The New Cambridge Modern History in 13 volumes.

Some people would be tempted to read Ancient, Medieval and Modern Histories together in a grand sequence of 40 large volumes, but I wouldn't recommend that. The first 4 volumes of Cambridge Ancient History were published in the 1970s. A lot of archeological discoveries have been made since then, so this stuff is obsolete. 5 volumes were published in the 1980s, which isn't much better. I would think that once you get to classic-era Greece, most of the sources become literary, stuff that's been known for centuries. Those volumes shouldn't have aged much.

The Cambridge History of Iran in 8 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Classical Literature in 2 volumes (Greek and Latin).

The Cambridge History of Egypt in 2 volumes (640 AD to 1517 AD and 1517 AD to the end of the 20th century).

The New Cambridge History of the Bible in 4 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Scandinavia in 2 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Latin America in 12 volumes.

And so on. Here is a list of all the Cambridge series.

Pasting all these links made me think about what periods I enjoy reading about the most. I think the European Dark Ages is my favorite historical topic. It's hard to say why. Civilization reached a bottom in the 7th and early 8th centuries and then started a slow recovery. There's some mystery in that. And I like reading about the simple beginnings of something that later became great.

I love the later Middle Ages too, for reasons that I described at the end of this book review. The reason that I didn't put the Cambridge Medieval History at the top of the above list is that I already know a lot about that period. I know much less about the histories of Japan, science and the major religions, so I'm more likely to start with those.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Golden Showers

I couldn't resist:

Once there was a way
To grab more power.
Once there was a way
To start more wars.

Sleep, my first lady,
Do not cry.
You're bumming out this sad old spy.

G-oooo-lden showers fill our lies.
Bugs record you when you rise.
Sleep, stupid suckers, do not try
To figure out why we pry.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

More on the Causes of 2016

I wrote a post recently in which I mused about the possible causes of the global populist-nationalist trend. One theory that I didn't mention there is that globalism, like some other lefty movements, has a shelf life. I think Steve Sailer advanced this idea in some form.

Freudianism, for example, is mostly discredited now. It had a run of several decades, and then people started questioning it, picking it apart, laughing at it. The same fate recently befell Chomsky's universal grammar. As I've mentioned on this blog, the quality of public architecture has been rebounding recently. If, architecturally speaking, 1913 was 10 and 1970 was 0, then 2016 was about 2.

Leftism may not be retreating in general. There's transgenderism, gay marriage, intersectionality, etc. But for some reason it periodically retreats on some fronts. Why? Maybe because these fronts start to feel stale to people. The young are always looking for something to rebel against.

Well, that last part doesn't fit well with the current populist-nationalist trend. According to this article, during the primaries Trump got 42.3% of the voters over 65, 41.9% of those between 45 and 65, 37.7% of those between 30 and 44 and 32% of those between 17/18 and 32. Oldsters preferred Trump in the general too.

Same thing for Brexit: "leave" got 25% among the 18 to 24 group and 61% among the over-65 group.

None of the theories of the causes of the nationalist trend that I've seen so far were convincing to me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Predictions, Old and New

I made some predictions here on March 12th of last year. Here are the ones that pertained to 2016, with a strike through the one I got wrong:

Hillary will not be prevented from appearing on the ballot in November by legal trouble stemming from her e-mail scandal or from anything else: 100%.
Hillary will be the Democratic nominee in 2016: 99%.
Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2016: 80%.
Trump will not be assassinated or severely disabled by an assassination attempt before the end of 2016: 85%.
Hillary will win the 2016 general election: 70%.
I also predicted that the UK will not leave the EU as a result of the 2016 referendum. It now looks like it WILL leave, but that hasn't happened yet.

And here are a few predictions for this year, starting with politics:

Trump avoids assassination: 92.5%.
Trump avoids natural death: 97.5%.
Trump avoids impeachment: 97.5%.
Anti-Trump protests lead to fewer than 50 deaths: 75%.
Putin is alive and in power at the end of the year: 97.5%.
The Ukraine fails to retake Donetsk and Lugansk: 99%.
The Ukraine keeps Mariupol: 97.5%.
The Ukraine keeps Kharkov: 99%.
The Ukraine keeps Odessa: 99%.
The neocons have probably convinced themselves by now that Trump's victory will lead to Russia re-taking the Baltics. That's paranoia. Forget the places that hate Putin, he won't even take the places that like him unless he's provoked, like he was after the Maidan coup. Trump won't provoke him.
ISIS keeps at least some territory: 75%.
Marine Le Pen fails to win the French presidency: 65%.

Predictions related to this blog:

I will review more than 10 books in 2017: 75%.
One of last year's serial murderers, a BLM-related fellow if I recall correctly, bragged on his web site that he read something like 150 books a year. I'm not even 100% sure that was BS. Some people do read that much. Not me: last year I only finished reading 8 books, all of which I reviewed on this blog.
I will record at least 1 piano piece and post it on YouTube: 80%.
I will write at least 10 new quatrains for my Credo poem: 60%.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Review of The Age of Agade

The Age of Agade by Benjamin R. Foster, 2016. Glossy's rating: 7/10.

This is a book about the Akkadian Empire, which was established more than 4,300 years ago in parts of what's now Iraq, Syria and Iran, and survived for roughly a century and a half before disintegrating.

In Mesopotamia writing was invented by the Sumerians, who lived in what's now southern Iraq. It was very quickly borrowed by the Semitic people living upstream from them, in central Iraq and Syria, who used it to write their completely unrelated language. I've seen several contradictory estimates of when Semites arrived in Mesopotamia, from 3000 BC, right before the dawn of the written record, to the 7th millennium BC, a date which appears in this book.

Early on Kish was the political center of the Semitic north, but then a man named Sargon, who was presumably from the northern city of Akkad, conquered all of Mesopotamia and several adjoining regions, creating the largest state seen in the area up to that time. Akkad was its capital and eventually, as creators of this empire, all Semitic Mesopotamians became known as Akkadians.

I'm very curious about the differences between the Sumerian and Akkadian peoples and cultures. Both regions practiced irrigation agriculture and animal husbandry, but there was somewhat more of the first in Sumer and somewhat more of the second in Akkad. It's natural to expect the tillers of the earth to be tamer and more civilized than shepherds, and the history of this region supports this stereotype. According to this book the art of the Akkadian empire was more martial in subject matter than the early Sumerian art which preceded it.

Akkadian language gained at the expense of Sumerian during and after the imperial period, eventually replacing it completely. Genetics might tell us if this was accompanied by much demographic change, but I'm not aware of anyone having studied this.

Foster writes that "letters composed in Akkadian show a tendency to be more florid than those in Sumerian, introducing oaths, exclamations, and rhetorical questions to an extent unusual in Sumerian epistolography." More than 4,000 years later Semitic speakers still like florid verbal bombast.

Early Sumerian politics and economy were dominated by temples to a larger extent than in the Semitic area.

"In the pre-Akkadian Semitic-speaking world"... "a king ruled like a strong, resourceful, clever, and protective tribal leader, but had no special connection to the gods, as he did in Sumerian thought."

Yet Akkadian rulers claimed intimacy with the gods and divine support. Foster implies that they borrowed this from the Sumerians. By the late Akkadian period Semitic kings were worshipped as Gods.

Foster writes that in Akkad inferiors were more likely to identify themselves by their dependency on someone else, such as "he of..."

Slavery existed but wasn't common. Slaves were mostly used as rich men's servants, not agricultural laborers. The Sumerian word for them was of Akkadian origin, which implies that the practice might have been brought to the south by Akkadians.

This contradictory information makes it difficult for me to say which of these two societies was more egalitarian. Foster says that some scholars have talked about popular assemblies in ancient Mesopotamia, but that they were wrong to do this. He sees no evidence of any democratic institutions in that world.

You would think that Sumerian culture would have had some prestige in the Semitic north, similarly to how Greek culture was looked up to at Rome and British culture is looked up to in modern America, and there is in fact some evidence for this:

"At pre-Akkadian Mari, a significant proportion of the musicians had Sumerian names, as opposed to the rest of the palace population. Perhaps these were professional or stage names, rather than an indication that Sumerian musicians were particularly favored there."

"Their repertory probably included love songs, perhaps the erotic type later termed “bosom songs.”

My opinion of Mesopotamian civilization would have taken a serious dive if its love songs turned out to have been called "ass songs" instead.

This book has chapters on most aspects of Mesopotamian life of that period. A couple of unrelated things that I found interesting:

"Marriage was overwhelmingly monogamous, though men occasionally had more than one wife and concubinage was known among the elite and ruling class, among whom large families are documented. People of lower status, who appear most often in administrative lists of workers, did not usually have more than two or three children."

"Roast pork was an esteemed delicacy served to visiting dignitaries and, in post-Akkadian times, a treat for the gods and for members of the royal family. The first evidence for a taboo on pork consumption in Mesopotamia comes much later, from the ninth century BCE."

Sargon's empire is not the earliest known large state. Egypt was unified about seven centuries before his birth, and there was a trend for progressively larger states in Mesopotamia before Sargon. But through his conquests and reforms he made an enormous impression on Mesopotamian historical consciousness. For more than 2,000 years after him, until the demise of cuneiform culture, Sargon was Mesopotamia's chief hero, comparable to Alexander and Charlemagne in Europe of later ages.

I was surprised to learn that Mesopotamian rulers of the 1st millennium BC conducted archeological digs in the city of Akkad, which was by then abandoned, looking for inscriptions and other artifacts of the Sargonic period. A Babylonian king of the 6th century BC thought that Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, ruled 3,200 years before him, an error of 1,500 years.

An Akkadian king, probably Naram-Sin. All extant likenesses of Akkadian rulers were mutilated in antiquity, after the fall of the dynasty.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.
Besides conquering and ruthlessly suppressing revolts Sargon and his heirs reformed Mesopotamia's weights and measures. Two millennia before China's first emperor and the Roman emperor Claudius, Naram-Sin ordered a spelling reform, making the Mesopotamian writing system more logical and visually attractive. There is a record of one of Naram-Sin's sons, a governor of a province, being literate. I'm always curious about the question of whether or not literacy was limited to the scribal profession in past eras. For example, it's known that the above-mentioned Charlemagne could read, but not write.

"No other medium conveys the calm self-assurance of the period so well as its elegant, elaborate, carefully laid out script."...

"As they did with so many other aspects of Mesopotamian civilization, the Akkadian ruling class took a venerable inheritance and gave it a new form in which a love of beauty and harmony for their own sake was paramount, the first instance of a culture in which the art of calligraphy proclaimed its values and pride."

"For outsiders, the Akkadian aesthetic aroused envy, fear, wonder, and grudging respect. For the Akkadian elite, however, it proclaimed their pride and self-confidence in having reshaped the four quarters of their world and crushed all resistance. This may be why even the closest student of Akkadian arts and letters feels at once near and far from the spirit they convey."

This sort of stuff makes me think of the Napoleonic, Hitlerite and Stalinist visual styles. Empires often go for imperial grandeur in the arts. Nietzsche would have loved this.

The scale of the imperial enterprise was of course much smaller in the ancient world. Sargon boasted in one of his inscriptions that he fed a standing army of 5,400. Foster is inclined to believe Akkadian kings' figures because they swore to the gods that they were true. I'm more skeptical. They never mentioned any defeats or listed their own casualties.

"On the whole, Akkadian notables saw themselves as dominating local populations, rather than working pacifically with them. In a letter sent by one notable to another, the writer addresses his compeer, perhaps playfully, as “The Yoke of Ishtar.”

The royal inscriptions, listed in an appendix of this book, bear this out:

"Sargon, as Enlil revealed, showed mercy to no one…"

"Rimush, king of the world –Enlil verily gave kingship to him –was as many as three times victorious over Sumer in battle! He slew 11,322 men. He took 2520 captives. Further, he expelled 14,100 men from the cities of Sumer and put them in camps. Total: 54,016 men, including the slain, including the captives, including the men whom he put in camps, the campaign is not lies! ? By Shamash and Ilaba I swear no lies but truthfully!

Whoever shall remove the name of Rimush, king of the world, and set his own name there, saying “My statue!” –may Enlil, owner of this statue, and Shamash tear out his foundations and take away his seed."

The style and vigor of anti-plagiarism notices have really declined over the ages.

Foster says that the Iraq and Syrian wars have had a terrible impact on the study of the ancient Near East. Museums have been looted. Archeological sites ceased to be guarded and were excavated by treasure hunters who do not record the context of their finds like professionals do, and who will easily break unique and priceless tablets which they can't read in search of a pretty statuette or vase.

It's enough to make one want to cry out to Enlil and Shamash, imploring them to tear out the foundations and take away the seed of the imbeciles responsible for neocon foreign policy.