A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People

cover_history_of_white_people

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

By default, any book claiming to be a history of “white” people must necessarily be a history of “race science.” Surely one must clearly define the boundaries of your subject? It is Nell Irvin Painter’s careful historiography of those shifting boundaries that make up most of this book. She deftly describes the classification and reclassification of races depending on the background of the classifier, and the contemporary political environment, and relates many shocking facts that are typically glossed over in other types of social history.
Continue reading “A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People”

Clausewitz Roundtable released as book

Many years ago I participated in an inter-blog (and very detailed!) discussion of the military classic On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The proceedings of that endeavour have been collated into 553 page book, released this week by Ever Victorious Press.

I submitted three chapters under my alias at the time “Sir Francis Younghusband.” My bio from that time was appropriately ridiculous:

Younghusband_bio

If you are very interested in CvC, you can get the book from all the usual places. Below are the links to my minor contributions:

My thanks to Michael Lotus and Mark Safranski for their work.

Shinran and the Buddhist Evangelical movement of Japan

A fifth of Japanese — about 25 million people — identify as practitioners of Jōdo Shinshū, the largest denomination of Buddhism in Japan. My family in Japan are all Jōdo Shinshū, also known as “Shin” Buddhism. I am currently here in Japan, and this weekend we will be performing the 13th memorial service for my wife’s grandmother’s death. This ceremony will be conducted by a Shin officiant, of course. I have participated in the funeral as well the memorials for the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th anniversaries. This will be the last one. Thus, I took this opportunity to explore the history of the sect, the life of its founder, and visited some of the important historical places in Kyoto linked to his life. Continue reading “Shinran and the Buddhist Evangelical movement of Japan”

Learning about the Syrian crisis

The five year long Syrian Civil War is one of the largest conflicts in our world at this time. 250,000 dead (possibly more than 470,000 by some estimates), 6 million refugees, 11 million IDPs — the Syrian Civil war is a disaster and it doesn’t look to be ending soon.

The Middle East is not my specialty; Japan is the foreign country I know most about although I covered Tajikistan and Central in my Regional Analysis class at Royal Military College, and nearly wrote my master’s thesis on Iran. The closest I have ever been to the Middle East is Iran, with a layover in Dubai. But in working with the Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy (ORCA), I decided I needed to learn more about the context that these people are escaping from.

Coming to grips with the Syrian Civil War has a bit of a learning curve. Inside the country there are a lot of conflicting players. Then, as always, there are the outside influences. This (admittedly simplistic) WaPo diagram gives you a sense of the growing complexity (click to see the full flowchart):

syrian_crisis_diagram

The conflict in Syria not only involves lots of players, but also lots of issues: Syria is an example of the failure of the Arab Spring; it lies at the heart of the rise of ISIL/ISIS; it is a flashpoint of sectarianism and secularism; is a proxy in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between Russia and the West. And that doesn’t even include the legacy of post-colonialism and dictatorship that Syria has suffered.

There are layers upon layers, so as a beginner I was looking for some books to provide context. Here are a few recommendations: Continue reading “Learning about the Syrian crisis”

An overly positive contribution — A review of How We Got to Now

cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now: The History and Power of Great Ideas by Steven Johnson

I have mixed feelings about this book. I am a big fan of Steven Johnson, and my familiarity of his work might be why I didn’t love this book.

In How We Got to Now Johnson explores the scaffolding of concepts throughout the history of innovation. This is the phenomenon where various social and scientific advances converge simultaneously so that a new invention or innovation becomes possible. It is the reason why co-invention exists, how radio can have more than 20 independent inventors all coming up with basically the same design within a span of a few years.

Terms like the “adjacent possible” and “network-based innovation” will be familiar to readers of Johnson’s earlier work. How We Got to Now seems like a re-hashing of his previous (and excellent I might add) book Where Good Ideas Come From. No, it is more like an appendix. And a rosy-glassed one at that. From the outset Johnson removes himself from any judgement of the innovations he covers. He does admit that each innovation has had both good and bad effects on society: when discussing the vacuum tube, he raises Hitler at Nuremberg and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as examples. But on the whole, Johnson is focused on “progress.” He wears his techno-optimism on his sleeve, which is fine, but if you have read much of his previous work, this book may leave you wanting.

Furthermore, he walks a fine line in the story telling of the six innovations he covers (glass, cold, clean, sound, time, light). His conceit is the “hummingbird effects” of each innovation — how these effects ripple out and impact society through time. It is an analysis only enabled by 20/20 hindsight and comes mighty close to playing Six degrees of separation. The result is sometimes a wistful sentimentality, and positively Gladwellian. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” A pithy quote from Carl Sagan, and one of my favourites. But I would refrain from using it as a framework to write a social history of innovation.

“Hummingbird effects” are certainly fun to ponder. Even though they had been around for centuries, popular demand for eye glasses was finally sparked by the Gutenburg press. Prior to the explosion in literacy rates, the common folk simply did not perceive that they were overwhelmingly short-sighted. Johnson’s book is littered with examples like this.

Thinking of today, and my work in computers, I cannot help but wonder what the hummingbird effects of code literacy might be. In the past 30 years the world has been eaten by software (to paraphrase Marc Andreessen). Some argue that to understand the world around us we must understand the code. Therefore everyone should learn to program. But learning to program is difficult — personally, I have had a terrible time of it. Which leads me to ponder — like the above-mentioned hummingbird effect of Gutenburg’s machine on reading glasses — is there some sort of short-coming in the human brain that makes coding so difficult to grasp for most people? Some sort of analogue to short-sightedness for programming that we are only just becoming aware of? At some point in the next 50 years will I be able to buy mental “glasses” that will allow me to code, and thereby perceive the world around me with more clarity? Or to the contrary, once we attain that clarity, might we discover that code is not the right lens to view society? In the face of the zeitgeist of our technocentric modern culture, that would be an interesting hummingbird effect.

Which leads me to another shortcoming of Johnson’s latest work: Silicon Valley-centrism. In How We Got to Now Johnson debunks the proverbial single inventor and his lightbulb moment. A laudible contribution, yet he falls flat in the last few pages. After detailing how Bell Labs was responsible for much of innovation during the 20th century (the subject of an upcoming review of mine in the LRC), he ends the book with a paen to the garage inventor — a nod to startups just south of Marin County where Johnson lives. Diversity is certainly a desirable attribute for spurring innovation, but do not discount the effects of a center of excellence like Murray Hill. Bell Labs provided literally tons of infrastructure for some of the smartest people of the age to gather around and build upon. No wonder it is called The Idea Factory (the title of Jon Gertner’s excellent book, also recommended by Johnson in How We Got to Now).

For those that have never read a book by Johnson, you may very well enjoy How We Got to Now. It certainly aspires to inspire. But I would rather recommend Where Good Ideas Come From, and then maybe pick up a more critical take to temper your view on innovation.

Iran’s Lost Territories

Although this DIA presentation on the “new” Great Game is too high level to be really insightful, and is guilty of being an OWerpoint (also see this example) in some places, there are some really handy slides detailing Iran’s claims to surrounding territories.

Slide 29: Iran: Territories Lost and Gained

Slide 30: Iran: Territorial Changes (1800 – 1900s)

Obviously the Persian empire had a massive expanse of territory, but these do a good job of showing Iran’s claims in the modern era.