Today in things that should be obvious but aren’t: the best way to feed hungry people is not, as previously supposed, to turn all agricultural land over to investors for ‘development’. It’s to let them keep their farms.

The real concern behind the development of large‐scale investments in farmland is rather that giving land away to investors having better access to capital to ‘develop’ it implies huge opportunity costs, as it will result in a type of farming that will have much less powerful poverty‐reducing impacts than if access to land and water were improved for the local farming communities: there is a clear tension between ceding land to investors for the creation of large plantations, and the objective of redistributing land and ensuring more equitable access to land, something governments have repeatedly committed to.

Hunger is not the result of there being too little food produced; it is the result of massive rural and urban poverty, the latter often the result of former as slums around large cities have grown, following rural migration, because small‐scale farming was not a viable option for many. Accelerating the shift towards large‐scale, highly mechanized forms of agriculture will not solve the problem: it will make it worse.

What we need now is… a vision that goes beyond… providing policymakers with a check list of how to destroy global peasantry…

— Heavily exerpted, from How not to think about land grabbing by Olivier De Shutter

GDP growth in Haiti – it’s magnificent!

And right now, for example, there is about 85 percent unemployment in Haiti, and yet the GDP has been growing by 4 percent every year. The reason the GDP is growing is because they’re destroying the informal sector, and more and more people are exchanging money for services, whereas in the past they used to trade services with each other. And, of course, everything gets added to GDP; nothing really gets subtracted. So loans are added to GDP. You get money from USAID, you borrow from the World Bank, you borrow from the IMF, and it looks like the GDP is growing. It’s magnificent! GDP is not net worth; it’s just how much money flows through a country. So Haiti is growing its GDP, and people are getting hungrier.

Dady Chery, 2015.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India

… We had for example Sir Richard Otterwy suggesting, challenging the very idea that it could be argued that the economic situation of the colonies was actually worsened by British colonialism. Well I stand to offer you the Indian example, Sir Richard. India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to below 4%. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depradations in India. In fact, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India. The hand loom weavers for example, famed across the world, whose products were exported round the world, Britain came right in, there were actually these weavers making fine muslin, light as woven air it was said, and Britain came right in, broke their thumbs, smashed their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products, and started of course, taking the raw materials from India, and shipping back manufactured cloth, flooding the world’s markets with what became the products of the dark and satanic mills of Victorian England. That meant that the weavers in India became beggars, and India went from being a world-famous exporter of finished cloth, into an importer.

– Dr Shashi Tharoor, speaking at a debate at Oxford.

Letter from the Just Net Coalition, representing internet users in the Global South, to Tim Berners-Lee, director of internet standards body W3C

Global South: What used to be called ‘developing countries’ or ‘the Third World’. Includes all of Africa and much of Asia, South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

W3C: World Wide Web Consortium. From Wikipedia: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web (abbreviated WWW or W3). Founded and currently led by Tim Berners-Lee, the consortium is made up of member organizations which maintain full-time staff for the purpose of working together in the development of standards for the World Wide Web.

All of the main web browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari) work according to W3C standards, while apps generally do not.

DRM: Digital Rights Management. Refers to software and hardware which makes sure you can only use media (like music or videos) in certain ways, and also to laws which make it illegal to circumvent the DRM software or hardware in order to use media in ways the manufacturer doesn’t want.

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies attempt to control what you can and can’t do with the media and hardware you’ve purchased.
— Bought an ebook from Amazon but can’t read it on your ebook reader of choice? That’s DRM.
— Bought a video game but can’t play it today because the manufacturer’s “authentication servers” are offline? That’s DRM.
— Bought a smartphone but can’t use the applications or the service provider you want on it? That’s DRM.
— Bought a DVD or Blu-Ray but can’t copy the video onto your portable media player? That’s DRM.

EME: Encrypted Media Extensions. It’s a potential new standard specification the W3C has been considering. If approved it would make DRM part of the W3C’s internet standards. Since all the major web browsers implement the W3C’s standards, this would mean that DRM would quickly be included in new versions of web browsers, and therefore DRM would quickly part of natural of the web itself; every website could have DRM, allowing website owners to control when and how users can or can’t watch, play, stream, or save their content. It is feared that this would fundamentally change the internet’s open and democratic character.

(more…)

One thing not included in that price is the right to repair it

A new tractor often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but one thing not included in that price is the right to repair it…

… you also need a software key — to fix the programs that make a tractor run properly. And farmers don’t get that key.

“You’re paying for the metal, but the electronic parts, technically you don’t own it. They do,” says Kyle Schwarting, who plants and harvests fields in southeast Nebraska.

Even a used combine like his Deere S670 can cost $200,000 or $300,000. As he lifts the side panel on this giant green harvester, he explains that the engine is basically off limits.

“Maybe a gasket or something you can fix, but everything else is computer controlled and so if it breaks down I’m really in a bad spot,” Schwarting says. He has to call the dealer.

Only dealerships have the software to make those parts work, and it costs hundreds of dollars just to get a service call. Schwarting worries about being broken down in a field, waiting for a dealer to show up with a software key. If he had that key, he could likely fix the machine himself.

– From Farmers look for ways to circumbent tractor software locks by Grant Gerlock at NPR, April 9, 2017.

Neo-Colonialism

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.

… in an extreme case the troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neo-colonial State and control the government of it. More often, however, neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere. Control over government policy in the neo-colonial State may be secured by payments towards the cost of running the State, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy, and by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power.

The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world.

– From the introduction to the book ‘Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism’ by Kwame Nkrumah, 1965.

Results of 20 year ‘Roundup-Ready’ experiment are in

The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.

Twenty years ago, Europe largely rejected genetic modification at the same time the United States and Canada were embracing it. Comparing results on the two continents, using independent data as well as academic and industry research, shows how the technology has fallen short of the promise.

… the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields — food per acre — when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany…

Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.

By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 percent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.

– From GMO Promise falls short by Danny Hakim, The New York Times, Oct 29 2016.

Despite their scarce and dwindling resources, small farmers continue to be the world’s major food producers.

From Hungry for land: small farmers feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland by GRAIN.

If small farmers have so little land, how can they provide most of the food in so many countries? One reason is that small farms tend to be more productive than big ones, as we explain in the next section. But another factor is this historical constant: small or peasant farms prioritise food production. They tend to focus on local and national markets and their own families. Much of what they produce doesn’t enter into national trade statistics, but it does reach those who need it most: the rural and urban poor.

Big corporate farms, on the other hand, tend to produce commodities and concentrate on export crops, many of which people can’t eat as such. These include plants grown for animal feed or biofuels, wood products and other non- food crops. The primary concern for corporate farms is their return on investment, which is maximised at low levels of spending and thus often implies less intensive use of the land. The expansion of giant monoculture plantations, as discussed earlier, is part of this picture. Large corporate farms also often have considerable reserves of land that lie unused until land that is currently being cropped becomes exhausted.

Small farmers are not only our main source of food at present, but also for the future. International development agencies are constantly warning that we need to double food production in the coming decades. To achieve that, they usually recommend a combination of trade and investment liberalisation plus new technologies. But this will only create more inequality. The real solution is to turn control and resources over to small producers themselves and enact agricultural policies to support them.

Two food systems, the world does not have accurate figures

From Who Will Feed Us? The Industrial Food Chain/The Peasant Food Web by ETC Group.

Even as we are told that ‘agribusiness as usual’ is unstoppable, less and less information about the reality of markets and market share is made public… This is, in part, because the number of analysts is consolidating as rapidly as agribusiness itself. As a result, policymakers accept that increases in meat and dairy consumption, obesity, and the need for fertilizers and pesticides are unchallengeable realities.

…peasant producers often participate to varying degrees in both systems…

… we use ‘peasant’ to describe all those who produce food mostly for themselves and their communities whether they are rural, urban, or peri-urban farmers, ocean or freshwater fishers, pastoralists, or hunters and gatherers. Many peasants fit all of these categories. Small farmers often have fishponds and livestock. They often hunt and gather – especially in the sometimes-difficult weeks before harvest. Many peasants move back and forth between city and countryside.

The mix of peasant food sources renders statistical estimates difficult. To complicate things further, peasants grow around 7,000 crops but [the available statistics] focus on about 150 crops. The world does not have accurate figures.

It is important to appreciate that things have not always been as they are today

IP: Intellectual property; patents and/or copyrights on inventions and other creative works.

Looking to history, it is important to appreciate that things have not always been as they are today. IP rights used to be considered ‘grants of privilege’ that were explicitly recognized as exceptions to the rules against monopolies.

For much of the twentieth century patents were perceived as ‘monopolies’ in American jurisprudence. Anti-trust (anti-monopoly) legislation checked the power of patent holders in important ways. The framing of intellectual property as being ‘pro-free trade’ would not have been persuasive during earlier eras in which IP protection was seen, at best, as a necessary evil and at odds with free trade. It is only recently that the courts have ceased referring to patents as monopolies, and that anti-trust legislation has been relaxed…

When and why did intellectual property catapult to the top tier of the United States’ trade agenda? Had the two issues [international trade and IP] always been linked? Had IP protection always been so revered? How has the United States treated domestic intellectual property rights? Why did ‘it’ decide to globalize its own perspective?

– Excerpt from Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights by Susan K. Sell.

Now there’s a chip in everything, and all the chips are copyrighted, so everything is copyrighted

The following is an exerpt from The DMCA Strikes Back: How Copyright Law Could Cost You Your Job by Kyle Wiens.

DMCA: Digital Millennium Copyright Act

EOM: Original Equipment Manufacturer

Back in the 90s, computers made it relatively easy for people to copy movies and music. So the recording industry teamed up with Washington to crack down on piracy. Among other things, the resulting law made it illegal to break digital locks—like passwords or encryptions—over copyrighted work, no matter the reason.

In the past 20 years, technology has changed drastically. The DMCA has not. That’s a problem, because copyright isn’t just movies and music anymore. It’s everything. Because everything is powered by computers … which is powered by programming … which is technically copyrighted. That means your tractor, your coffeemaker, and your self-cleaning cat litter pan have the same copyright protection as your DVD of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

… If companies put digital locks over our smart gadgets, then—under the DMCA—they’ll be the only ones who can fix that stuff. Worse, they can sue anyone who tries to break up their repair monopoly.

Over the years, lots of companies have abused the DMCA to squeeze out the competition. In the early aughts, cellphone companies wielded the DMCA to shut down programmers who developed unlocking software that moved cellphones to different carriers. Now, the same tactics are being used to shut down non-OEM repair options.

Local mechanics rely on diagnostic tools from companies like Snap-on and Autel to repair modern vehicles. But in 2014, Ford sued Autel for making a tool that diagnoses car trouble and tells you what part fixes it. Autel decrypted a list of Ford car parts, which wound up in their diagnostic tool. Ford claimed that the parts list was protected under copyright (even though data isn’t creative work)—and cracking the encryption violated the DMCA. The case is still making its way through the courts. But this much is clear: Ford didn’t like Autel’s competing tool, and they don’t mind wielding the DMCA to shut the company down.

The year of the Jubilee | Economic systems from other times and places | Presented by Awesome Kitty

A cartoon image of a cute yellow-brown cat with title text that reads: Now it's time for some historical perspective! At the bottom is a logo which reads: Awesome Kitty.

Awesome Kitty says:

In our world today we have an economic system that is the same pretty much everywhere, and that experts and politicians insist is unquestionably scientific and inevitable, even though (a) it’s actually brand new, historically speaking, and (b) it fails to do what any decent economic system should do: make it possible for most people to live decent lives, with adequate food and shelter and clothing and not-too-horrible work.

Given this, it’s helpful to compare economic systems from other times and places; they might be just as terrible as ours, or even worth, but even so it’s nice to get some sense of all the different systems that humans have tried out over the years!

In that spirit I present to you The Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 8-55), from both the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament.

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.

If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God.

Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.

Anyone who sells a house in a walled city retains the right of redemption a full year after its sale. During that time the seller may redeem it. If it is not redeemed before a full year has passed, the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to the buyer and the buyer’s descendants. It is not to be returned in the Jubilee. But houses in villages without walls around them are to be considered as belonging to the open country. They can be redeemed, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee.

The Levites always have the right to redeem their houses in the Levitical towns, which they possess. So the property of the Levites is redeemable—that is, a house sold in any town they hold—and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses in the towns of the Levites are their property among the Israelites. But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.

If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

If a foreigner residing among you becomes rich and any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to the foreigner or to a member of the foreigner’s clan, they retain the right of redemption after they have sold themselves. One of their relatives may redeem them: An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in their clan may redeem them. Or if they prosper, they may redeem themselves. They and their buyer are to count the time from the year they sold themselves up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for their release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired worker for that number of years. If many years remain, they must pay for their redemption a larger share of the price paid for them. If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, they are to compute that and pay for their redemption accordingly. They are to be treated as workers hired from year to year; you must see to it that those to whom they owe service do not rule over them ruthlessly.

Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

The World Bank takes a dim view of small farms

The World Bank economist… delivered a barely modified version of the Bank’s longstanding diagnostic on small-scale agriculture:

Small landholdings make inefficient use of land, he explained, and the food crops smallholders grow can be produced much more efficiently by industrialized farmers in Mexico and the United States. NAFTA gives Mexico tariff-free access to those goods, so Mexico’s two million small-scale corn farmers should enjoy the cheaper tortillas and seek more productive activities, growing high-value crops or moving out of agriculture…

Moving out of agriculture? Into what? ‘Assume we have employment’ can be the only answer. Because just as shipwrecked survivors can’t sail home on an economist’s theoretical boat, Mexico’s small-scale farmers need real jobs, not assumed jobs, if they are to give up their lands and their homes.

Meanwhile, the World Bank’s desired ‘transition’ in agriculture, accelerated by the added pressure of tariff-free imports dumped by the United States, has pushed an estimated 2.3 million farmers and workers out of agriculture. Those who left went where the jobs were – in the United States… Many left behind family members who, despite a 66% drop in real corn prices, increased their corn production.

Irrational? Hardly. Small-scale farmers are at least smarter than World Bank economists. They know that growing corn, with limited technology and low yields, is inefficient only if they have a more productive use for their land or their labor. The land is often the only asset the family has, and most smallholder land is unsuitable for high-value crops. As for their labor, they send family members as seasonal or permanent migrants and use the remittances to keep their farms. Are their low corn yields proof of inefficiency? Or do they show that smallholders are maximizing their available labor and resources?

– Exerpted from Small-Scale Farmers and Development: Assume a different economic model by Timothy A. Wise, Triple Crisis.

A meditation on the nature of belief

If you have trouble viewing the image, skip down to the image description.

Image description:

A comic. There are four panels, each showing the same thing: a girl and an alien looking at a widescreen tv. They are sitting on a sofa in a room with pink stripy wallpaper, and are viewed from the back. On the tv screen we see a man’s head and shoulders with the word ‘NEWS’.
_____Panel 1_____
GIRL: What is this guy talking about? It doesn’t even make sense.
ALIEN: Indeed, in the 2 minutes and 48 seconds we’ve been watching this program, I’ve noted three obvious falsehoods and five logical contradictions.
_____Panel 2_____
GIRL: He seems so sincere, but how can anyone believe this stuff?
ALIEN: He seems very confident and happy in himself. Is he famous among humans?
_____Panel 3_____
GIRL: Yeah, I think he’s a politician or something like that, I’ve definitely seen him on tv before.
ALIEN: Well that explains it then. Believing this stuff has worked out very well for him. It has brought him fame and admiration from his fellow three dimensional sentient beings. Why would he ever stop?
_____Panel 4_____
GIRL: But it DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!
ALIEN: Agreed.
GIRL: People are supposed to believe things based on evidence and logic!
ALIEN: Ideally yes, but sometimes other factors enter into it.

Image credits:

Usarios by canguronegro
Glossy TV by Steren

On the credibility of the economics literature

The scientific credibility of economics is itself a scientific question that can be addressed with both theoretical speculations and empirical data. In this review… We summarize and discuss the empirical evidence on the lack of a robust reproducibility culture in economics and business research, the prevalence of potential publication and other selective reporting biases, and other failures and biases in the market of scientific information. Overall, the credibility of the economics literature is likely to be modest or even low.

– From the abstract of the article What’s to know about the credibility of empirical econonmics? by John Ioannidis and Chris Doucouliagos, Journal or Economic Surveys Volume 27, Issue 5, December 2013, Pages 997–1004.

Bad science, bad philanthropy, bad international aid

In east and southern Africa, genetically modified, drought-tolerant seeds, or “new technology” are made available to small holder farmers at the same cost as conventional varieties via philanthropic support and international aid, but many people see programs like these as death traps. Activists and civil society organizations are resisting “climate smart” solutions introduced by Monsanto and the Gates Foundation.

For example, the African Center for Biodiversity in South Africa is engaged in a legal battle because, in their view, these newly-introduced varieties present risks for small farmers, citing the absence of peer reviewed scientific data and evidence supporting the claims of Monsanto and significant economic risks for smallholder farmers.

Yimer explains, “Experience across Africa has shown that once the subsidies and credit [to support the adoption of new varieties] dries up, farmers can’t purchase the more expensive seeds. This also creates dependency on inputs such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and in the meantime their own seed varieties are lost.”

That is why Yimer doesn’t see the fight for food sovereignty in Africa as necessarily subversive. “It’s not like we [food activists] are going against some giant conspiracy. It’s not about our ideology. We work so that each and every person is healthy, doing their jobs, living their daily lives to the fullest. Food production, food systems—that is personal.”

– From 5 Food Systems Lessons the U.S. Can Learn from Africa by Jennifer Lentfer.

On the three ages (of stone, bronze and iron) of the distant past, progress, technology, and cultural superiority

… in happier days … food was plentifully available without the drudgery of farming: it only required gathering and eating. This idealised picture still plays a part in our view of the past and of ‘simple societies’, be it the concept of the ‘noble savage’ or …

The opposite view of society is embodied in words such as ‘progress’ and ‘technological advance’, popularised in Christian Thomsen’s Three Age System. Who, Thomsen argued, would make axes of stone if they knew of bronze and iron? What started as a classification of objects in the National Museum in Copenhagen rapidly became the basis for the chronological division of European man’s prehistory. Thomsen’s idea, coupled later with the concepts of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, reflected, if not originated, the self-satisfaction of late nineteenth-century West European society – the belief that it was technologically superior and therefore superior in all other respects to ‘less advanced’ societies both past and present.

– Exerpted from chapter 1 of ‘The European Iron Age’ by John Collis, 1984.

Extra-adorable Alien Squid Monster

A cartoon showing two girls, both wearing dubious or cynical expressions, looking at a tank which contains a purple creature with tentacles. The creature has a human-style face and is smiling. At the bottom it says in italic text: "What the heck is that?"

Get ready! It’s the Extra-Adorable Alien Squid Monster!

* Posable tentacle “arms” (extra tentacle “arms” included)

* Hours of fun!

* Comes with 7 reusable facial expressions

* The included tank comes in 2 great Extra-Adorable styles, and provides the weird alien nutri-liquid your Extra-Adorable Alien Squid Monster needs to live on Planet Earth!

* Extra-Adorable Alien Squid Monster may look a little like an Earth sea creature, but is in fact a sentient being from a distant galaxy! No-one knows how it got here or what it wants!

* Accessories sold separately

On the birth and simultaneous rebirth of European civilization

A New World had been discovered overseas, but a new world was also being created at home, one where vibrant new ideas were encouraged, where new tastes were indulged, where intellectuals and scientists jostled and competed for patrons and funding. The rise in disposable incomes for those directly involved in the exploration of the continents and the wealth they brought back funded a cultural transfusion that transformed Europe. A swathe of rich patrons emerged in a matter of decades, keen to spend on luxury.

The task was now to reinvent the past… In truth, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England had nothing to do with Athens and the world of the ancient Greeks, and were largely peripheral in the history of Rome from its earliest days to its demise. This was glossed over as artists, writers and architects went to work, borrowing themes, ideas and texts from antiquity to provide a narrative that chose selectively from the past to create a story which over time became, not only increasingly plausible, but standard. So although scholars have long called this period the Renaissance, this was no rebirth. Rather it was a Naissance – a birth. For the first time in history, Europe lay at the heart of the world.

– From ‘The Silk Roads: a New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan, p 218-219.

On nature’s laws of cause and effect: a poem

If
everything that happens,
happens according to natural laws
then
if you only knew the laws of nature,
you’d know everything.
(Perhaps not everything, just
all there is to know.)

You’d know the past:
you could trace the interwoven threads of cause and effect back, back, back
(if you were good at math, and had a fast computer)
all the way to the Big Bang.

You’d predict the future
and explain all of the present, but
if
everything is cause and effect
then
every cause of something must be an effect of something else.
Each explanation prompts again the question: why?

Why the Big Bang?
Maybe you know; perhaps
a simulation run by aliens,
or string theory,
or God,
or something weirder.

Still,
where did your aliens come from?

Notes on cause and effect, natural laws, and explanations for things

To explain something (weak): To describe it; to tell its origin, appearance and/or behaviour; to tell how it is similar to or related to other things; to tell a convincing story about it.

To explain something (strong): To be able to predict, every time and in every situation, whether and how that thing will happen, and always get it right.

Cause and effect: A thing is the cause of another thing if, every time and in every situation that the first thing happens, the second thing also happens.

Natural laws: A natural law is an explanation (of the strong kind). It links a cause to an effect.

An example of a natural law: Water boils at 100°C (at normal atmospheric pressure*). The cause is ‘water is heated to 100°C’ and the effect is ‘the water boils’.

* The reason for the ‘at normal atmospheric pressure’ caveat: if you climb to the top of a high mountain, where the atmospheric pressure is a little less, the boiling temperature of water will be a few degrees lower than usual, which is why climbers on Mount Everest have a hard time making a decent cup of tea. If you went to the bottom of a very deep cavern, where the pressure was a bit highter than at the surface, in theory you’d have to heat your water a bit higher than 100°C to get it to boil. In outer space, where there is no atmosphere and thus no atmospheric pressure, water doesn’t take liquid form at all; depending on the temperature it either freezes to form ice, or evaporates to form vapour.

…effectively outlaws the saving of seeds from one season to the next

While the terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) were kept secret from the public and policymakers during negotiations, US negotiators relied heavily on input from the corporate insiders who populate the US government-appointed Industry Trade Advisory Committees.

[Seed industry lobby group] BIO spent roughly $8 million on lobbying each year while the TPP was under negotiation, paying firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $80,000 annually to lobby for patent provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

The results of this lobbying blitz were unknown until the final text of the agreement was released in November of last year… Experts have called the TPP a ‘big win’ for the biotech seed industry, and many warn that the trade deal will further enrich seed companies at the expense of farmers’ rights.

[The Trans-Pacific Partnership] effectively outlaws the saving of seeds from one season to the next, a practice the majority of the world’s farmers rely upon. Farmers are prohibited from saving, replanting, and exchanging protected seed, and breeders* are granted exclusive right to germplasm**.

– Exerpted and adapted from The Trans Pacific Partnership will hurt farmers and make seed companies richer by Alex Press, in The Nation, June 10, 2016.

* In this context, “breeders” means large-scale corporations or other institutions that carry out plant breeding to develop new crop varieties. It excludes small-scale farmers, or local seed sellers or coops, who don’t have the money to pay for lawyers to register and apply for patents for their seeds, or the time, money and extra land that would be required to carry out the seed trials that would be required for the patent application to even be considered.

** “Gerplasm” technically means the DNA or genetic material of a particular plant crop; practically it means seeds.

Meanwhile in the real world they turn their backs on theoretically scientific interpretations of global success

Meanwhile, a growing number of highly respected figures speaking outside the Western democracies are turning their backs on theoretically scientific interpretations of global success such as trade statistics and cumulative GDPs. What they see are real people whose actual standard of living apparently has to drop for them to appear to rise in Western-style statistics. How can that be? For example, these people may have been living a life beyond such measurements – perhaps rural lives. They are therefore technically existing on zero income. Then they move to a desperate urban slum where dirty water, sewage and alienation are the norm. But in such a place, even a dollar’s worth of income can be measured. And so Western measurement systems say they have taken a step forwards and upwards.

The Jordanian intellectual Prince Hassan now calls for a redefinition of “poverty in terms of human well-being” rather than in terms of monetary wealth. Malaysia has developed a Growth With Equity model. The Bhutanese, with their hard-headed yet ironic style, work behind something called GNH – Gross National Happiness. And China is now focused on a quality-of-life approach in the place of GDP. Why?

The easy answer is that none of these nation-states sees itself as an outpost of Western economic theory. Each regards itself as a center and one with urgent needs.

And if all this sounds like an anti-Western point of view, you can listen to Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and political leader, a hero of modern democracy, strongly pro free market… “I don’t understand why the most important deity is the increase in gross domestic product. It is not about GDP. It is about the quality of life, and that is something else.”

– ‘The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the Word’ by John Ralston Saul, 2005, p23

The march of stone, bronze and iron may be a useful yardstick

Maya achievements in art, writing, architeture, astronomy, and mathematics rivaled those of ancient Egypt or Classical Europe. Mathematicians invented the concept of zero and place-system numerals – discoveries that eluded Greece and Rome… This enabled them to reckon the solar year more accurately than the Julian calendar used by Europe until 1582; they refined the average length of a lunar month to within 24 seconds of the figure determined by atomic clocks, and their extraordinary calculation for the synodical period of Venus was out by a mere 14 seconds per year.

Such triumphs are all the more remarkable when one considers that the Classic Maya were technically in the Stone Age. They had little or no bronze, certainly no iron, and made no practical use of the wheel, though they knew its principle. The teleological march of stone, bronze and iron means little in the Americas. It may be a useful yardstick for calibrating Europe’s past, but it’s useless for taking measure of the Maya – worse than useless, because, like all flawed premises, it blocks true understanding.

… Their astronomical discoveries, for example, were made without telescopes of any kind, but they had the theory, the record keeping, and the perseverence to refine naked-eye sightings in the crucible of time.

To suppost cities such as Tikal, the Maya developed a unique form of intensive agriculture in what are now forbidding swamps. A network of canals and raised fields… allowed large populations to survive in jungle, an achievement equaled only by the Khmer in Cambodia somewhat later. The luxuriance of the rainforest became reflected in the leafy baroque of Maya sculpture, in the fantastic regalia of their kings – jade and jaguar skin and iridescent quetzal plumes – in the illuminations of their books, and the painted roof combs of their buildings…

Only in recent years have scholars come close to decipherment of Maya writing, and they now know that it was a fully developed system combining phonetics and ideographs, as in Egyptian or Chinese. There was much the Maya might have taught us, but from the thousands of their ancient books that could have been read in the 16th century, only three survived the Spanish bonfires. One contains the astonishing astronomical data on Venus and other planets. Who can say what has been lost?

– ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p. 50-51

Welcome to the Fantastic Realm!

A fantasy scene: a floating island, with a purple lawn and pink flowers, against a blue sky with fluffy clouds. The island has a hill in the center with a castle at the top; the castle has turrets with pink triangular flags waving in the breeze. In front of the castle is a sign that says 'BALLOON CATS' next to a big green open pipe. There are cute cats suspended from hot air balloons floating through the air nearby. A cute robot with a propeller attached to its head floats in the air, looking out of the screen at the viewer. In the foreground is the edge of another floating island. On it stands a creature that is person-shaped but with the head and tail of a crocodile, wearing a grey uniform and a large green apparatus of some sort on its back; it holds some sort of machine which is giving off a cloud of fumes.
The image is a mash-up of public domain images: the floating islands, the lizard-person and equipment, the robot’s propellor and the sign are from Glitch, the hot air balloon is from ‘Hot air balloon’ by Purzen, the castle is from ‘Castle’ by nicubunu .

Welcome to the Fantastic Realm, where everything you imagine becomes real! Here your thoughts and dreams, and even your hopes and fears, can influence the external reality! Which, um… isn’t all that different from how things work in the human world, come to think of it.

But we have Balloon Cats! How great is that? You should come visit sometime, we get lots of humans like you coming here for a little vacation. Actually, no offense, but some of the stuff you humans think up is pretty horrible. Like that thing last week, ugh. Just… ugh. But we don’t mind! After you go the Reality Re-equilibrator cleans the whole thing up, no mess, no fuss.

Sometimes I worry about you humans in your human world. You know, thoughts in the wild can be very dangerous. And it seems like you humans just go around thinking things without even, you know, thinking about it? So I was wondering if maybe you need somewhere to practice. Here you can think up thoughts and watch them evolve. You can try them out without risking any permanent damage.

You can come here whenever you want.

Origin story of the Republic | A history of Latin part 4

‘The Suicide of Lucretia’ by Jörg Breu the Elder, 1528; a Renaissance painting showing two scenes in ancient Rome. On the left Lucretia tells a group of Roman men, including her husband and her father, that she has been raped by King Tarquin. On the right: Lucretia lies dead on a carpet as a group of men look on.

The English word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin res publica, which literally means ‘the public’ (with ‘public’ an adjective, not a noun). From Wikipedia:

Res publica usually is something held in common by many people. For instance a park or garden in the city of Rome could either be ‘private property’ (res privata), or managed by the state, in which case it would be part of the res publica.

Wikipedia article ‘Res publica’, accessed 19 May 2016.

At some point, it’s not clear when, res publica came to mean ‘the state’ or ‘the commonwealth’. In ancient times it always meant ‘the state of Rome’ or ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ – you didn’t have to specify the ‘of Rome’ part; it was understood that Rome was the only republic / state / commonwealth worth talking about.

According its origin story, the Roman Republic was formed around 500 BC. At that time Rome was an unimportant Latin town on the bank of the river Tiber. Latin was a local language, spoken only by a few tribes in central Italy. And Latin was a spoken language, not a written one. Perhaps once in a while someone would try out using the Greco-Phoenician alphabet to carve short Latin messages onto pottery or stone, but it would be centuries before there would be longer works of Latin prose, written in ink onto scrolls of parchment.

The earliest written origin stories of the Republic came about 300 years later, but the most famous one, and the one that is still somewhat well-known today, was written by Livy sometime around 0 AD, roughly 500 years after the events it describes.

The story goes like this: Evil King Tarquin of Rome rapes an aristocratic Roman, Lucretia, probably assuming she’ll keep the attack secret out of shame. However Lucretia sends for her husband and her father, instructing them each to bring a trusted friend. When the men arrive Lucretia tells them what happened, charges them to kill Evil King Tarquin, and then commits suicide. The men are so moved by this that they not only kill the king, but abolish the monarchy altogether and replace it with a new form of government, in which power is shared among a group of people so that no one person gets too much of it.

It’s more exciting the way Livy tells it:

They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband’s inquiry whether all was well, replied, “No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him.” They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. “It is for you,” she said, “to see that he gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.” She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry.

Whilst they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” Then he handed the knife to Collatinus and then to Lucretius and Valerius, who were all astounded at the marvel of the thing, wondering whence Brutus had acquired this new character. They swore as they were directed; all their grief changed to wrath, and they followed the lead of Brutus, who summoned them to abolish the monarchy forthwith.

‘From the Founding of the City’ by Livy.

This is an origin story that exemplifies the qualities that Romans living in Livy’s time considered to be the essence of Roman-ness: upright morality, stiff resolve and courage in battle, and passionate defence of freedom in the face of tyranny.

Oddly enough this story, which emphasizes Romans’ freedom-loving, tyranny-hating qualities, was written shortly after the Roman Republic officially dissolved and became the Roman Empire.

What’s perhaps even stranger is how the ancient Roman Republic has gotten folded in to the myths about the origins of the modern-day West. In a way, our ideas about the Roman Republic make up one of the origin stories of our own political ideals and institutions.

Further notes

In English ‘Lucretia’ is pronounced loo KREESH uh. In Latin (and Italian) it’s spelled ‘Lucrezia’ and pronounced something like loo CRATE zee uh.

Lucretia could be considered an early example of the Women in Refrigerators trope in fiction.

History books and Wikipedia articles sometimes treat Livy’s story of Lucretia, Tarquin and Brutus as if it were a legitimate work of history. Which is bonkers. It’s like treating Beowulf or Le Chanson de Roland or the Christian New Testament as history textbooks.

References and sources

‘From the Founding of the City’ Livy’s history of Rome, written sometime around 0 AD, this translation is from 1905.

‘The Oxford History of the Classical World’, John Boardmann, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, 1991; chapter 26 ‘Roman Historians’.

Wikipedia article ‘Res publica’.

To them the New World was old

Their ancestors had made the same discovery long before. To them the New World was so old it was the only world: a “great island,” as many called it, floating in the primordial sea. They had occupied all the habitable zones from the Arctic tundra to the Caribbean isles, from the high plateaus of the Andes to the blustery tip of Cape Horn. They had developed every kind of society: nomadic hunting groups, settled farming communities, and dazzling civilizations with cities as large as any then on earth. By 1492 there were approximately 100 million Native Americans – a fifth, more or less, of the human race.

Within decades of Columbus’s landfall, most of these people were dead and their world barbarously sacked by Europeans. The plunderers settled in America, and it was they, not the original people, who became known as Americans.

Unlike Asia and Africa, America never saw its colonizers leave. America’s ancient nations have never recovered their autonomy, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Many survive, captive within white settler states build on their lands and on their backs. In the Andes, 12 million people still speak the language of the Incas: the murder of Atawallpa in 1533 and the violence of today’s Shining Path are parts of the same story. Central America has 6 million speakers of Maya (as many as speak French in Canada): if Guatemala really had majority rule, it would be a Maya republic. In Canada, in 1990, Mohawks took up arms in the name of a sovereignty that they believe they have never ceded to Ottawa or Washington.

– From ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p3-4.

An entire vocabulary is tainted with prejudice

An entire vocabulary is tainted with prejudice and condescension: whites are soldiers, Indians are warriors; whites live in towns, Indians in villages; whites have kings and generals, Indians have chiefs; whites have states, Indians have tribes… In 1927 the Grand Council Fire of American Indians told the mayor of Chicago: “They call all white victories, battles, and all Indian victories, massacres… White men who rise to protect their property are called patriots – Indians who do the same are called murderers.”

– From the Author’s Note at the begining of ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright.