23 July, 2014

Quantum Libraries

I recently began rereading my copy Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II, the third volume in Burton Watson's translation of Sima Qian's famous Shiji. I have made it something of a goal to reread at least one portion of Sima Qian's record every year. As I began this year's reading my thoughts turned to a post Mark Safranski wrote several years ago about his "Quantum Library." [1] In essence, "quantum library" is a term used to describe all of the books and articles that, no matter how often they are returned to, provide fresh insights and new knowledge. They are the books that can be read and reread and then reread again without exhausting their contents.
My quantum library copy 
of Democracy in America.

Some people do not reread books: with so many other books in the world yet unread it can seem like a waste of time to return to old favorites. This attitude is both common and regrettable. In defense of rereading, I have found two arguments to be particularly convincing: 1) It is far more rewarding to master a masterwork than it is to finish four or five more lackluster titles; 2) Many of the books we read spend our time reading have a short shelf life. "Keeping up with the literature" is a task that never ends, but if a book is good enough to read two or three times then you can be sure that the knowledge or inspiration you gain from reading it will still be valuable several decades down the line.

 My quantum library is below. There are books I have read whose worth merits a place on this list (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian WarThe Secret History of the Mongols, Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and numerous novels by Joseph Conrad come to mind) but I cannot include them because I have only read them once. Likewise, there are works that I love and have read on multiple occasions (Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, "The Devil and Daniel Webster") that I do not include because they are reread more for entertainment than for enlightenment. 

The Standard Works of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, especially the New Testament and the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers .

Theodore Roosevelt, The Free Citizen: A Summons to the Service of the Democratic Ideal (ed.) by Herman Hagedorn.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian.

Various Authors, Seven Military Classics of Ancient China.

Xunzi, Xunzi.

 Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddihmah.
Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization.
Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex System.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons.

Robert W. Service, The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service.


Talks (sermons) by: Dallin H. Oakes, "The Challenge to Become,"; David Bednar, "Seek Learning by Faith";  Richard G. Scott, "The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,"; D. Todd Christopherson, "Justification and Sanctification,"; Brad Wilcox, "His Grace is Sufficient,"; A. Legrand and Cindy Richard's, "Parables and Promises: An Approach to Learning by Faith."

Seneca, "De Providentia,"and selected letters.

Hyrum W. Smith, "Self Worth."[2]

Ashwin Paramsweran, "All Systems Need a Little Disorder."  

Constitution of the United States.

Various essays and articles prepared by Clayton Christensen for the Massachusetts-Cambridge Stake 'stake missionary' program. Many of these articles (but not all of them) have been published on the website missionaryleaders.org.


Rod Serling's  The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).

Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's children's show Avatar the Last Airbender (2005-2008).

Errol Morris' Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara (2003).

I am curious what books the readers of the Stage would include in their quantum libraries. A few friends of this blog, like Lynn Rees, Michael Lotus, and Adam Elkus, posted their lists in the comment thread of the original quantum library post referenced above. However, there are plenty of people in this corner of the blogosphere who were not present for that discussion. I would be very interested in seeing what titles make it into the quantum libraries of Ashwin Parameswaran, Bryn Hammond, John Kranz, LFC, Charles Cameron, commenters Ishaan and A.E. Clark, Isegoria Adam G. and the boys at Jr. GanymedeNick Nielson, Pseudoerasmus, and if they are still around, Martin Hewson and YT. If you have the time and feel like sharing, please consider doing so. Of course, other readers are welcome to post their lists as well!

EDIT (1 Aug 2014): See the response posts at JrGanymede and Isegoria.


[1] Mark Safranski, "My Quantum Library," Zenpundit (10 October 2008). For the origin of the term see this archived Innovationist post

[2] This is not the full devotional, just a selection of it. I have in my personal belongings a copy that is 20 minutes longer or so but have not been able to find a version of this online.

19 July, 2014

The Next 40 Years in Twelve Hundred Words

Info-graphic taken from Peter Turchin, "The Double-Helix of Inequality and Well-Being," Social Evolution Forum (8 February 2013)

Recently in a discussion at a different venue I wrote the following:
I am extremely pessimistic about the near term (2015-2035) future of both of the countries I care most about and follow most closely, but very optimistic about the long term (2040+) of both.
I was asked to give a condensed explanation of why I felt this way. The twelve thousand words or so I wrote in response proved interesting enough that participants in the discussion urged me to re-post my speculations here so that they might receive wider circulation and discussion.

Below is a slightly edited version of my response:
The demons that afflict the United States of America and the People's Republic of China are legion, and every pundit that turns their eye to either country seems to have their own favorite. Some of these difficulties are more alarming than others.

The United States faces two problems that cannot be resolved without great turmoil. The first is one many in my demographic already feel acutely – the rising generation is one with no future. This generation has gone into obscene amounts of debt to finance educations that have provided them with few real skills to compete for a shrinking number of decent upper-middle class occupations. Part of the problem stems from the way economic inequality has hollowed out the middle class, part of it comes from the way sinking living standards for America's working class have made that fate less and less desirable (accentuated by a growing cultural divide and spatial separation between the two groups), but the biggest problem is simpler: the number of people in the applicant pool has expanded far past the number of respectable positions our society has been able to offer them. More people go to college now than ever in the past, and more go to graduate school and earn PhDs as well. Millions more. And there is nowhere to put them. PhD placements have never been more competitive, half the people who leave law school cannot get jobs in law-related careers (much less jobs as real lawyers!), the medical profession is a place of misery, and so forth.

Thus we have a generation that put themselves into a debt slavery on the hope that they would be able to improve their life by doing so, snag great jobs and pay it all back. Except they won’t. In about ten years enough time will have gone by for all these graduates to realize that the future they’ve always imagined will never come to pass and that they spent more money on their education then they will earn in the next 25 years.

And that is when things get nasty. When you have a surplus of angry, educated, and bright people with no hope then things start to get dangerous.

The second problem will compound the situation because it will manifest itself at about the same time. This is one more people talk about (so I will not describe it with as much depth here), and the people who suffer will be on the other side of the demographic charts. Basically, the United States does not have the money to pay for its social programs now, and it really, really, really will not have the money or the capacity to administer its basic obligations in fifteen years’ time. All of the people who have promised that they will get social security benefits and health care and all other sorts of wonderful things, especially in retirement, will find out that the money just isn’t there for it. Some money may be seized from the richest, but they really don’t have it either. In the end the whole system will collapse because there just is nothing else it can do.

In the urban areas China faces a very similar “over elite production” dynamic as the USA. The debt problem is not nearly as bad for them, but the job situation is just as tight, and because of China's "family planning" policies of the last few decades many balinghou and jiulinghou households will face the additional financial (and psychological!) pressure of being the only grandchild of four grandparents in a country with underdeveloped social services.

That is in the rich areas. Combined with this challenge is the simple fact that there are still 300 million Chinese men and women living on $2 a day. China’s great challenge is to lift those 300 million out of poverty and raise their living standards to something close to the developed world’s. To make its model work China needs at least a 6-7% growth rate every single year. No one is really sure what will happen when the numbers hit lower than that, but eventually they will. There is some fancy stuff I could say about China needing to move from an investment-driven economy and account balances and stuff, but there is nothing I could say here that Michael Pettis has not already said better. The gist is that for China to pull off the transition to developed, slow-growth economy there needs to be significant restructuring in the economy. And its not going to happen. I don’t think it can happen – the Chinese economy and especially its finance markets have been too warped by state intervention and government goals for the changes to happen naturally and the whole shebang has been paid for by "an unsustainable debt burden caused by wasted debt-financed investment." When the fall happens the best case scenario is a decade of nil growth; the worst case scenario is a Great-Depression style crash that pulls the rest of the world in with it.

China’s regime is much more fragile than America’s. I don't buy the common talking point that the Chinese people only support or acquiesce to the Party's rule because of the wealth they have gained by doing so, but I do think this is a very important reason the average Party insider plays the game. I do not know how much stress – especially economic stress – the Chinese Communist Party can take before it ranks begin to crack. 

Now for the good news
Neither country has much to worry about in terms of external threats. The United States really has nothing to fear from anybody – we can temporarily lose standing or even permanently lose prominence without the everyday lives of Americans being changed in any real or horrible way. China’s neighborhood is a bit rougher, but their big worries are things like losing a few stupid islands or having to recognize Taiwanese independence. The worst case scenario is a protracted war between the two powers because of that last issue, but the people who will suffer the most in that scenario are the Taiwanese themselves. It is difficult to imagine a credible scenario where millions of mainland Chinese die or China faces territorial dismemberment because of any foreign power.

In both cases I am much more worried about the consequences of internal conflict than I am in any external war.

Other good news: the way technology is developing the political economy of both countries – indeed, the entire world – is going to change incredibly. People don't ask the right questions when they ponder over the near term future of humankind. Think of it this way: what does the world look like when you can 3D print in your house anything you buy at Walmart today? Production is going to return to houses (just like in the old frontier days!) and away from multi-national corporations. A decentralized economy will provide what the current economy cannot – a place for the newbies trying to succeed and resilience/security for those who are past their prime.

It will be hard to see that time in the midst of the troubles, however. An analogy could be made with the early 20th century, and it is particularly apt for China. When the SHTF a lot of folks will be saying things like, “China isn’t going anywhere, all that angst about China rising was foolishness!” Such statements are short-sided. During the 1930s you could have said much the same about America. But when we talk about the first half of the 20th century as a whole, the story is one of America’s titanic economic rise, not its great depression. When the troubles are over China will come roaring back – its just a question of what kind of country China will be.

Note: In the event of serious civil war or insurgency who knows what happens. Those things are easy to start but hard to end. If they occur then the future is too cloudy for me to even try and speculate like I do here

Beause of the unusual circumstances of this post's creation I have not bothered to insert meticulous foot-notes and citations standard at the Stage. Here are a few general references for those who want to investigate specific themes raise above in more detail.

Further Reading
Peter Turchin, "Return of the Oppressed," Aeon Magazine (7 February 2013). 

  ---------, "Blame Rich, Over-educated Elites as Our Society Frays," Bloomberg News (20 November 2013)

(Peter Turchin invented the term "elite over-production" while working on mathematical models of cliodynamics. These articles are an accessible explanation for those not mathematically inclined. If you would like to jump into the data behind the concept, start here and here).

T. Greer, "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream," The Scholar's Stage (1 July 2013)

Scott Alexander, "SSC Gives a Graduation Speech," Slate Star Codex (23 May 2014)

Yukon Huang, Canyon Bosler, "China's Burgeoning Graduates -- Too Much of a Good Thing?," The National Interest (7 January 2014). 

Jim Kessler, David Kendall, and Gabe Horwitz, "Now or Never: Now is the Moment for Democrats to Get a Grand Bargain," Third Way Policy Memo (June 2012).

(It is easy to find conservative diatribes on this topic; it is more notable when American liberals raise the same alarm. Note also that the 'moment' in question is now two years past.)

I explicitly acknowledge the work of Michael Pettis in the body of the post. This is his blog. These are his books.  

John Maudlin and Wroth Wray, "China Will Need a Series of Economic Miracles to Sustain Growth", Business Insider (9 June 2014). 

(The quotation in blue is comes from Wroth Wray's section of this article.)

Carle Walter and Frasier Howie, Red Capitalism: The Financial Foundations of China's Extraordinary Rise  (New York: Wiley, 2011).

(I am reading this book at the moment and strongly recommend it -- it provides a clear eyed picture of just how much government intervention has distorted the Chinese financial sector).

James Bennett and Michael Lotus, America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century-Why America's Greatest Days Are Yet to Come (New York: Encounter Books, 2013). 

(By far the best treatment of  the happy, decentralized future I describe here is found in the second chapter of this book.  I reviewed the book with strong praise here at the Stage last year, though looking back at the review I see that I barely touched on the technological side of their vision).

"3-D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing," CSC Leadership Edge Forum Report (Fall 2012). 

06 July, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Environmental History

"You may have horses.... But remember this: if you have horses everything will be changed for you forever."

-Cheyenne Myth quoted in Pekka Hamalainen, "The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures,"  Journal of American History, vol. 90, no. 3 (December 2003), p.841.

"The historian of the early military must first see how a society is fed before he can learn how it fights." 

- Victor Davis Hanson and Barry S. Strauss, "Epilogue," War and Society in the  Ancient and Medieval Worlds,  ed. Kurt Raaflauband  and Nathan Rosenstein  (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1999), p. 440.

"When civilized nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives aid to the native race." 

- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex  (London: John Murray, 1873), Part I, p. 243

It has is somewhat of a fashion among conservative thinkers to mark their defeat in America’s ‘culture wars’ by composing requiems for the classical education no longer taught at American universities. [1] When the lament turns to the study of history (as it invariably does), the eulogizer will raise two strains of melancholy, the first reporting the absence of even most basic historical knowledge among today’s university graduates and the second relating the sad eclipse of the field’s traditional focus on political, economic, and diplomatic history with the newer, less rigorous, and less relevant sub-fields like queer, gender, post-colonial, subaltern, and environmental history.

As an observer with conservative leanings I occasionally succumb to the temptation to don sack-cloth and wail in lamentation myself. The gist of the standard lament is true enough. As stated here I only regret the last sub-field’s inclusion in it. What environmental history shares with the other sub-fields listed is a popularity derived from progressive political concerns. The connection is unfortunate, for in most other ways these fields are—or at least, should be—completely different. The historian who sets out to study “Urban Culture and Transgender Sexualities in 18th Century Madrid,” for example, has committed him or herself to the intense examination of such a tiny and unrepresentative sliver of humanity as to make all of his or her conclusions useless for understanding the broader course of the human past. The same cannot be said for environmental history. There are few fields whose findings have such a clear and wide ranging impact on every other aspect of human civilization. The rise and fall of dynasties, the great deeds of armies and generals, the wealth and poverty of nations, and the daily life of men and women across human history were molded by the ecological setting in which they occurred.

A book I often recommend to those who doubt that environmental history is essential to making sense of human civilization is Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Over the last three decades a torrent of books and articles have been written to explain why the West was able to rise above ‘the rest’ and establish global supremacy. While of the same vein as these works, the question that animates Ecological Imperialism is slightly different: why were Europeans so successful at reproducing European society (and completely displacing the previous inhabitants) of some locales but unable to accomplish this same feat in other locations? Why were white settlers in North America, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and South Africa fantastically more successful than their fellow colonists in Brazil, Mozambique, Panama, or New Guinea? 

The answer, says Crosby, is ecology. European expansion was not just a movement of peoples, but of entire environments. For settlers to survive and thrive they must be able to secure food, construct buildings, and move about from place to place. European civilization allowed Europeans to do this on a scale new to human history, but the successes of Western civilization cannot be separated from the environment from which they sprang. Its great cities, armies, and ships were ultimately built upon a unique suite of European flora and fauna. When transplanted far from their homeland these alien organisms do better in some lands than in others. Places where climate and local disease prove hostile to European biota, like central Africa, are places where Western imperialists could only establish an ephemeral presence. Places like Brazil or Mexico, less deadly to European life but unsuitable for large-scale colonization without adopting indigenous crops and farming techniques, produced creole cultures that mixed European and Amerindian traditions. In Australia, New Zealand, North America, and the South African coastline the only environmental constraint European settlers faced was distance. The geography, climate, and ecology of these places were perfect for European biota, allowing them to displace native life without conscious effort.

The displacement was complete and utter. American readers may be surprised to find out how much of America’s ‘natural and wild’ wilderness is made of European aliens of recent import. Sparrows, starlings, house flies, honeybees, garden snails, earthworms, common rats, white clovers, dandelions, Kentucky blue-grass, stinging nettles, knot-grass, broadleaf plantains, Bermuda grass, periwinkles, mayweed, ground ivy, knapweed, milk thistles and almost every type of grass you can find east of the Mississippi originated in Europe and came to the United States in the two centuries after 1650. And that is just a small sample of the hundreds of plants and animals that came to America along with the Europeans. What started as a few alien weeds accidentally carried across the sea grew to dominate entire ecosystems. By 1940 an ecological survey in Southern California could report that “63% of herbaceous vegetation in the grassland types, 66% in the woodland, and 54% in the chaparral” were naturalized plants. [2]

The expansion of European biota across the land was not simply a consequence of European migration. In most cases it was an essential precursor to large-scale European immigration itself. European colonization of New Zealand’s South Island is a case in point. The first settlers in New Zealand did not believe that sheep could ever prosper there, for both islands, being carpeted by ferns or covered with dense forest, had no grass to speak of and nothing sheep could survive on. Initial attempts to remedy the situation by introducing flowering plants to New Zealand failed. The plants would grow but could not reproduce: New Zealand had no insect species adapted to pollinate them! It was not until settlers brought honeybees to the islands that the situation changed, leading to an explosion of European plants across both islands. The new grasses and clovers were perfect feed for English sheep, and it was not long before the sheep had reached such numbers that they became one of New Zealand’s chief exports and an economic pull for more migrants. [3]

While Professor Crosby does not use this term, it should be clear to today’s readers that the European settlers, crops, livestock, weeds and grasses were all part of one interconnected system upon which the settler communities were built. The colonization of the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia should be seen as the evolution of one ecological system into another.

This conception of environmental history is far more useful than many narratives historians have come to rely on when writing on this topic. Environmental histories are generally of two types. One divides the Earth into a world of nature and the world of man, the second advancing at the expense of the first. This is the tale of cleared forests, extinct species, polluted waters, and the ever growing ‘footprint’ of humanity. [4] The second narrative is one of exploitation and collapse, positing that societies decay and collapse when they overuse the ecological resources available to them. [5] Both present a moral tale easily used to condemn 21st century man’s ruinous relationship with nature.

These two narratives have some truth to them, even though their arrangement reveals more about current political concerns than actual historical dynamics. A much greater weakness with these narratives is that it is difficult to fit the type of transformations and systems Crosby discusses into their confines. In many ways the models used by ecologists to describe the role of individual species in their ecological systems and the transitions these systems make from one state to another are better suited to describe human interactions with the broader environment than any of the traditional narratives are. Humans are far from the only species that “engineer the environment to make it suitable for [their own population] growth[6] and the basic models that describe the ecological dynamics of plankton, savanna grass, and rainforests should be studied just as closely by historians as documentary sources that reveal how past societies depicted or thought about their relationship with the environment.

This approach is not without its own difficulties. Perhaps the biggest problem is that ecologists themselves have developed few models that integrate the complexities of human energetics with their traditional field of study. As ecologists Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty note:
“More than 75% of Earth’s ice-free land showed evidence of alteration as a result of human residence and land use, with less than a quarter remaining as wildlands, supporting just 11% of terrestrial net primary production… [but] ecologists have long been known as the scientists who travel to uninhabited lands to do their work. As a result, our understanding of anthropogenic ecosystems remains poor when compared with the rich literature on “natural” ecosystems.” [7]

As time goes on we can only hope that more ecologists, geographers, environmental scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians work to provide the more nuanced understanding of human and environmental systems Ellis and Ramankutty advocate, one where we do not depict environmental history as the story of "natural systems, with humans disturbing them," but one of "human systems, with natural ecosystems embedded within them." [8]


[1] The nature of these changes was summarized briefly at T. Greer, "Do the Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?", The Scholar's Stage (27 May 2013).

[2] Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 154.

[3] ibid., pp. 217-269.

[4] The titles of the two most famous environmental histories of China, Mark Elvin's Retreat of the Elephants: an Environmental History of China and Judith Shapiro's Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary Chinafit this narrative neatly into one sentence titles.  

[5] For example, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Suceed and Clive Pontig's A New Green History of the World: the Environment and the Collapse of Civilizations (though this last title probably qualifies for both categories). 

[6] Marten Scheffer, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 16. The book contains several examples of these, but my favorite are the algae and fish in shallow water lakes covered in p. 111-141.

[7] Erle Ellis and Navin Ramakutty, "Putting People in the Map: Anthropogenic Biomes of the World," Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol 6 (2008), p. 439; 446.

[8] Ibid., 445.