I don’t like most poetry. I don’t know why, I lack the gene for it or something. But some stuff gets past the blocks. Chinese poetry, for one, but also the Ruba’iyyat of Omar Khayyam, the 12C Persian poet and scholar.


Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heaven, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread— and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!

You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why;
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

These are all in Edward FitzGerald’s translation— the 5th edition, from 1875. The first edition in 1859 was remaindered, and sold for a penny a copy. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet Algernon Swinburne happened to buy copies, and fell in love with the poems, leading to a craze for Khayyam for a century, at least. Thus the illo above, a 1950 strip from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

It’s easy to feel that we’ve got the number of FitzGerald’s Khayyam. They’re melancholy and yet hedonistic, fiercely appreciative of the human predicament and skeptical of all cosmological doctrines. They frequently refer to wine-drinking— forbidden to Muslims— and yet one intuits that the drunkenness is not real; these are far from the musings of an alcoholic.

Who was the real Khayyam? Perhaps a glance at one of his scholarly works is in order.

If it is said that existence is a concept that cannot be described through existence by negating the attribute, that is: not to negate either of the two sides even if it is said, “either it is an existent or a non-existent in reality.” We ask them, moreover, that both sides be negated and we say, “is existence an existent in a reality or is it non-existent in reality?” So, if the answer is positive, it becomes necessary for what is axiomatic to become impossible, and if the answer is negative, then existent is not existent in reality and this position is false.

This is less likely to be quoted in a popular comic strip.

I just finished a book which attempts to explain all sides of Khayyam: The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, by Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005). In his time, Khayyam was known as a mathematician and an astronomer.

  • He attempted to shore up Euclid’s fifth postulate, making use of Saccheri quadrilaterals, which were adopted by Western science half a millennium later.
  • He made a systematic study of cubic and quadratic equations, finding ways to solve them all, though his analysis is marred by considering only positive roots. He closely linked algebra with geometry, which was a new thing.
  • He used continued fractions to deal with rational numbers, and was one of the first to seriously consider four or more spatial dimensions.
  • He led a Seljuk commission to create a new solar calendar, the Jalāli, which is slightly more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use. A variant of this is still used in Iran.

In philosophy, he was a follower of Avicenna, and more remotely of Aristotle. If you’ve read some early philosophy, Khayyam’s philosophical treatises (which are included in Aminrazavi’s book) will seem dense but unsurprising. Essence and existence are concepts that go back to Aristotle, as is Khayyam’s deriving the idea of God from that of causation: everything we see has a cause, but there can be no infinite chain of causation, so something is the uncaused cause of everything else, and that is God.

He considers the problem of evil, concluding that by creating good attributes, God could not help but create their opposites, without intending to. That leads to the meta-question: wouldn’t he know that creating those goods would also bring in evil, and therefore avoid it? But, he maintains, the sheer quantity of good to evil is overwhelming, and to deprive the universe of those goods simply to prevent a small amount of evil would itself be wrong.

There’s also a version of the ontological argument for God:

The Necessary Being… is an essence that is not possible to be conceived except by an existent. Therefore, the attribute of existence before the the intellect is due to His essence and not because one has placed it there.

It all sounds familiar because Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes influenced Anselm and Acquinas, so such concepts are part of Catholic theology. To put it another way, Muslims and Christians think very similarly about God, except for the bit about Jesus. And yes, the divinity of Jesus is a big deal, but not when you’re at the level of uncaused causes and essences that include existence.

So far, it looks like Khayyam is an orthodox philosopher who believed in a rationally supported God who was (with some steps better left unexamined) that worshipped by the local religion. He studied Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and was seen in his own time as a respected scholar and even called imām. What he’s not known for is entering the theological disputes of his time. He didn’t write discourses about them, not least because this could be dangerous.

But he treated them indirectly in Ruba’iyyat, taking advantage of the greater freedom offered to poets. His position was consistently skeptical: issues of life after death, or the justice of the world, or the nature of the attributes of God, could not be resolved and the disputes were not worth one’s time.

The sphere upon which mortals come and go,
Has no end or beginning that we know
And none there is to tell us in plain truth
Whence do we come and whither do we go.

All the biographical information we have on Khayyam relates to his scholarly life. He lived most of his life in Nishapur, a city in eastern Iran, at the west end of the Silk Road; for a time it was the capital of the Seljuk Empire. He took some students (apparently reluctantly), but lived on a generous stipend from the Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier. He’s said to have had a photographic memory: twice he traveled to read a manuscript he was not allowed to copy, and came home to dictate a near-perfect match. (The poet Attar was also from Nishapur; he was born a few years after Khayyam’s death.)

The first ruba’iyyat (quatrains) attributed to Khayyam— not much more than a dozen— occur in manuscripts dated about a century after his death. We can add about twenty more in books about a century later. Over the centuries the total mushroomed to over a thousand.

This makes for a huge textual puzzle, and many scholars have attempted to find the “authentic” ruba’iyyat. The puzzle is really impossible to solve, because it becomes an investigation into what the poet Khayyam really was: FitzGerald’s hedonist Epicurean? The Aristotelian deist of the scholarly works? An eccentric but orthodox Sufi?  Which answer you choose affects which ruba’iyyat you consider authentic. Aminrazavi suggests that the quest is futile, and that one might as well just call the whole mass the Khayyamian school of poetry.

In Persia, the received wisdom is that he was a Sufi. This is the mystical side of Islam, which emphasizes divine love and simple living, sometimes shocks the fundamentalists, and has little patience for doctrine and ritual. On the plus side, the philosophical Khayyam, in Not he knowledge of the universal principles of existence, reviews four possible paths: theologians; philosophers; Ismā’ilis, and Sufis, and declares of Sufism, “This path is the best of them all.” Khayyam is known to have preferred solitude and a relatively simple life, though there’s also that stipend, an indication that he was no ascetic. There’s no evidence that he had a Sufi master or adhered to any particular Sufi school.

Aminrazavi concludes that the poet was comfortable with Sufism and used Sufi themes, but wasn’t a Sufi. It’s true that the Sufis were also fond of the metaphor of wine; a French translator carefully footnotes every reference to wine in the Ruba’iyyat with the annotation Dieu. I have to say I agree with Aminrazavi, simply because the atmosphere of the Ruba’iyyat is a thousand miles (or about 250 parasangs) from that of Attar, who was an actual Sufi poet. Like many a religious teacher, Attar likes to shock the student with paradox, but it’s all in the service of an ascetic though emotional devotion to God. And Attar’s allegories are not at all hard to decipher (hint: one of the parties represents God, another the human).

Khayyam (or if you like the Khayyamian school) doesn’t seem to talk about devotion to God at all. God is referred to, but as the inscrutable hand behind fate and the mixed justice and injustice in the world. The jug of wine in the wilderness is not a jug of God. It might not be a real jug of wine, but if not it still represents the pleasures of this world, the only one we can be certain of.

Could the same man who wrote those very dry treatises also have written the Ruba’iyyat? Well, sure. It’s a bad scholarly habit to declare that the same person couldn’t have created very different kinds of works. As a modern example, Richard Feynman was both a serious scientist, a musician, and a humorous storyteller with a taste for roguish adventures.

If you want to know more, pick up FitzGerald’s translation. It’s short— my copy is only about a hundred pages and includes three of his five editions. Curiously, Aminrazavi agrees: he says that FitzGerald is still the best gateway for readers who don’t know Persian, that he captured the spirit of Khayyam better than translators who were trying to be more accurate. He did choose the more Epicurean ruba’iyyat, and his idea of translation is very free, but it’s hard to argue with a version that comes alive so fiercely.

And if you want to know more than that, read Aminrazavi’s book. It reviews both Persian and Western scholarship and attempts to reconcile the scholarly and the poetic Khayyam. I do think he spends too little time on the scientific works (admittedly it would probably take a long and difficult chapter to do justice to them), and a little too much on various “Omar Khayyam Clubs” in the West. Though there’s probably a lesson about research there: once he had all that material, it was difficult not to use it.





I just finished this, the 2010 novel by N.K. Jemisin.  It’s great. I wonder if in India it’s known as One Lakh of Kingdoms.


The story: one Yeine, is chieftain of Darr, an insignificant barbarian nation somewhere in the north. But the entire world is subject to a single clan, the Arameri. She is summoned to the capital, where the aged patriarch of the Arameri informs her that she is now his heir. She knows a bit about world politics: she asks, doesn’t he already have an heir?  Oh, yes, two of them; they will fight out who will succeed him.

It’s a nice setup: as an outsider, Yeine is placed to discover how this strange and cruel clan operates (and explain it to us), and it looks like it’s going to be involve a lot of power struggles. And it does, though the story has a way of shaking itself and twisting into new forms, each time raising the stakes for Yeine and everyone else.

For one thing, Yeine is not quite so much a nobody as it seems at first. Her mother was Arameri, and was once the heir to the empire. But she renounced this position and went off to live with the man she’d fallen in love with, in Darr. (Yeine takes after her father, so she is brown-skinned where the Arameri are white.)

For another, there are gods involved, and not remote ones. Much of the story involves coming to understand the theology and history of the gods, so I won’t explain in detail. But the power of the Arameri over the world is because several of the gods are enslaved to them.

I think the thing I like the most about the book is how thoroughly it’s suffused with gods and magic. The Arameri believe they rule the world justly, but they’re ancient and corrupt and nasty. But they would be, with the power of gods at their fingertips. There are human plots for Yeine to worry about, but there are also divine plots.  She spends most of the book as a detective, uncovering each of them.

At one point she asks a counselor if there’s any important politician or family member yet to meet. He says no, not really, she’s met them all. Which isn’t very naturalistic, but it makes excellent narrative sense. There’s about half a dozen humans and about the same number of gods to worry about, and that’s quite enough. We don’t learn about very many of the hundred thousand kingdoms, but that’s just as well; it lets Jemisin close out the story in just over four hundred pages.

It turns out to be the first book in a trilogy, but I suspect Jemisin herself didn’t know that when she wrote the final words.  It doesn’t read like 1/3 of a story; it’s complete in itself and would be hard to continue in a conventional way.  (I haven’t read the next book, but I know that it has a different protagonist.)

If you haven’t read her, she doesn’t write anything like Neil Gaiman, but her material is similar: the mixture of mortals and gods, the deeply human motivations and imperfections of the gods.

There’s also something deeply subversive about the book— which is refreshing in a work of fantasy, which too often is enamored of old stone keeps and the old stony-faced tyrants within. All power is suspect here, including the gods’. At the same time, it’s not just that everything is weird and corrupt, as in China Miéville. The Arameri are presented as complex characters; only one is truly villainous. And Yeine is driven by the hope that at least some of the world’s ills can be put right.

First the good news: if you own Skyrim, you already own this: a free mod that’s its own game. It’s made by the same obsessive Germans who made Nehrim, and it’s the same sort of deal: new continent, everything hand-made, fully voice acted (in English too this time), and all the mechanics reworked. The bad news is that I bounced off it pretty hard.


Yes, you can have a D.Va tattoo

I didn’t finish Nehrim, but I appreciated it. The tutorial dungeon, for instance, was way better than Oblivion’s, the side dungeons did seem hand-crafted, and there were some nice UI changes.

Enderal’s tutorial, by contrast, is terrible.

  • It’s full of cutscenes.
  • It’s divided into scenes, each of which forces you to the next one. Whatever you could do as a player against an enemy, even as a noob… well, you can’t do it, the cutscenes make the enemies win. There is no respect for player agency at all.
  • Not once but twice you meet a character who explains something to you, then for his pains gets killed (in a way you can’t influence).
  • There’s very little combat. The one thing a tutorial should do is introduce the basic mechanics! This one is focused on story… and it’s not even the game’s main story, it’s just how you got to Enderal.
  • There’s a lot of dialog, but no real choices, not even the usual Bethesda style of insulting the questgiver.  The final dude you meet basically forcibly enrolls you in the next quest.

So, finally I’m on my way.  I do a couple nearby side quests, I pick up a mess of herbs and such.  And then the murders began. Three wolves quickly wiped me out.

Fine, I’m not good at the game, or at wolves, but give me a break: I’m completely new to the game, I don’t know the mechanics yet, and I have trash weapons.  I tried again, defeated the three wolves, walked about ten feet, and was attacked by three more wolves.

Recall, this is a few hours into the game, so I have no health potions or any magic besides My First Fireball™.  Plus, the game is made by people who think Bethesda’s gameplay is way too easy, so there’s no health regen. And magic is evil somehow so using it makes you sick, though if you chomp certain herbs you’ll get better.

I guess somebody in Germany got a copy of Dark Souls. But I feel like they’re wasting my time. If they’re so proud of their quests and lore, why are they keeping me from it by placing wolves every ten feet on the road before I even get to the first quest marker? You’re not deepening the game or making it more Grim N Gritty by sprinkling in generic monsters like parmesan cheese, you’re just making travel tedious. And really, if you can’t make the game fun in the first three hours, it’s really hard to believe it gets better.

Now, if all this sounds great to you– you really want a game where you fight endless wolves and then flail around to find something to restore your health, and did I mention the inscrutable skill system?– well, more power to you.  Can’t complain about the price!

(And just to be clear, I don’t want tips on dealing with the wolves.  What I want is better damn design.  I gave up on Skyrim for similar reasons: I’d try to ride to another city and get waylaid by a dragon. Three times. Unless you’re writing Doom, just adding more of the same monster rarely makes your game better.)

I do feel a little bad about being so negative, because these guys are working hard for free, and that’s awfully nice of them. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s a step backwards from Nehrim.

Short shameful confession: I liked Sin City, both the movie and the comic. Both are extremely over-the-top noir, and graphically stunning. There’s a sequel, and I finally got around to it— the chunkily named Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  (It’s directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, and came out in 2014, nine years after the original.)


Marv teams up with Catwoman

I read some reviews that mostly said “Kind of gross, but if you liked Sin City I guess you’ll like this.” And it is mostly more of the same: same extreme-o-noir, same green screen, many of the same stars, same nasty heroes, nastier villains, and warrior prostitutes. But not, unfortunately, the same fun. I think there’s several reasons for that.

One, it may be that one Sin City is about all we needed. It’s true that genre can get away with a lot of repetition, but you have to have a wider range of situations and emotions. Dashiell Hammett knew not to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon where Spade gets a new partner, who’s killed, and there’s a new tempting woman who sends him on the hunt for, oh, the Templar Duck.

Two, the movie knows it had a good thing in Marv (Mickey Rourke), so it plasters him all over the movie. And Jessica Alba dances a lot, and Bruce Willis is there, as a freaking ghost. And Gail and Miho show up. When a work is in love with its own material, it’s usually a bad sign. It’s like nudging the audience and saying “See, didn’t you enjoy him in the first one? There he is again! Look!”

That might be OK if the new material was good, but I think it’s something of a step down. Dwight was my favorite character in the first film, maybe because of Clive Owen’s soft voice: he’s the only one who isn’t auditioning for Batman. Here he’s replaced by Josh Brolin. There’s a story reason for this, but never mind, it’s a downgrade; he’s just dumb and ugly. This is one of the few Sin City stories with a female villain, Ava (Eva Green, who single-handedly has to provide all of the film’s bare breasts). And… it shows that Frank Miller should stick to male villains.  Philip Marlowe would have become an insurance salesman before being such as sap as Dwight.

There’s one odd omission. In the comic, Ava brings in crimelord Wallenquist, who gives her a rare rebuke: “I’ll warn you once and once only… Do not flirt with me, I have no use for your charms.” It’s minor, but it shows that there are limits to Ava’s power, and makes Dwight look like even more of a sap.

There’s two more new stories. One is a hotshot gambler who goes up against Senator Roark.  I liked his cockiness, but the payoff is low. The other is a sequel to the story of Nancy (Jessica Alba) in the first movie. She’s like, all troubled and stuff. This feels like a cheat, because the only way Miller gets away with his bondage-gear babes is that they’re all also badasses. Plus, the whole point of her story arc in #1 was that she was a tough cookie herself, so why the regress?  Fortunately this bit is over quickly, especially if you fast forward, and she puts on a goth outfit, takes Marv for backup, and goes off to commit badassery.

The stories interleave with those of the first film, in a way that probably makes no sense, but I’m not going to be bothered to work it out. Most of the stories feature Marv, which means they have to come before the first movie; but the Goth Nancy story is after the events of the first film.

It’s not all bad. Rourke does a good job, and whenever Gail, Miho, or Goth Nancy are onscreen it’s fun. Honestly I wish the movie had been all about Miho.  They could have adapted “Family Values”, which features her.

The DVD also has a featurette showing the whole movie in green screen. It’s pretty amazing… pretty much everything but the characters is CGI, even if it’s a crappy apartment or the side of a road somewhere. Kudos to the actors who had to act as if they weren’t surrounded by ridiculous green walls and floors.



I never got into watching sports much.  And I still don’t! But it turns out I like watching esports, namely, Overwatch League and other high level play.  It’s back for 2019, and in just the second week we got the upset we’ve been waiting for since forever: the Shanghai Dragons won.


If you’re not quite sure what that’s about: Shanghai had the worst record in the first season, 0-40. And despite a near total change in team roster, they seemed to continue it last week with two more losses. Yet they’ve been a fan favorite, largely because they have the only female player in Overwatch, Geguri.

(Not the longest drought for a team I’ve supported though.  That would be my alma mater, Northwestern U., whose football team lost every game during the four years I attended. Well, as we always said, our SATs were higher.)

If you know nothing about Overwatch, the rest of the post may well be undecipherable. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Tonight’s match was pretty decisive, though: 3-1 on maps.  The first two maps were close to blowouts; the third was a nailbiter. It was a capture map, Horizon Lunar Colony.  Shanghai and Boston each capped both points, for a score of 2-2. But Shanghai had nearly 5 minutes more time going into the next round… still, they lost a lot of that time advantage, and both teams capped again.  Now it was 4-4.  Third round: Boston didn’t have much time, but they got 2 of 3 ticks on the first point. Shanghai had to beat the capture percentage of 79.5%… and they did, in a chaotic fight that lasted all of one minute.  (They had 1:17 left on the clock.)

The crowd went wild; whereas there are few things sadder than the panning shot over the Boston team just after their loss.  (“Someone had the break the streak… but why us?”)

The outstanding player of the match was new: Dding, on Sombra.  He was constantly behind the enemy scouting and hacking, and his timing on her EMP was spot on. This was particularly fun to watch since I sometimes play Sombra.  I’m trying to learn the playstyle: hack and shoot till you start to lose health, then teleport back to where you left your translocator.  Unless I forget to set it up, which I do at least once per game.  Needless to say, Dding does not have this problem.

Matches so far this season have been full of surprises. Last year’s top three teams were New York, Los Angeles Valiant, and Boston. As of tonight, New York is still on top, but the other two are in the bottom six; indeed, Boston is the team that Shanghai just beat. London, which won the championship last year, is also in the bottom six.

The eight expansion teams have done surprisingly well: right now five of them are in the top eight in the standings.  Matchups have also been startlingly non-transitive.  Dallas, which I also support because of streamer/coach Jayne, is 1-2, but one of those wins was against third-place Seoul. Hangzhou slaughtered two teams last week, but lost tonight to #14 Houston. Seoul has beaten Chengdu, which beat Guangzhou, which beat Dallas, which beat Seoul.

Probably things will sort out soon enough. But I’d say that at this level of play, Overwatch is not quite predictable: the game rules provide a final ranking that does not necessarily correspond to team skill.  These are all really good players who fight as a unit, and most team fights begin with a single kill.  Somebody’s gotta go, and it may be semi-random. At my level, a 5×6 fight is far from definitive, but at the pro level, it generally means a lost fight. And ults are a huge wild card whose success depends on split-second timing, and very careful tracking of enemy ults. I’ve watched a lot of team fights where you’d really have to watch several times at slow speed to figure out why it went the way it did.

Lots of people have been complaining about Goats, or 3-3 as the casters call it: the three-tank three-support meta that’s been dominant since last summer. I think most people don’t like it because you have to be pretty high level to play it, much less appreciate it. Most people want to play DPS, and as Jayne says, all but high-level games are usually played as DPS deathmatch. At my level, it’s hard to even get two tanks per game. If you play DPS, you watch pro play and don’t see anyone playing your hero. (I don’t mind so much, because my main characters are tanks, D.Va and Orisa.)

Thanks to some recent game changes, Goats is slightly less dominant; some teams have ran a Symmetra, and some games tonight featured Reaper and Soldier. A few teams have tried a one-tank strategy, that tank being Hammond, which seems really weird.

It’s been kind of cringey listening to the casters trying to pronounce Chinese names. You’d think they would have someone they could ask, like the players. If you want to do better than most of the casters do:

  • Guangzhou = gwahng joe
  • Hangzhou  = hahng joe
  • Chengdu = chung do
  • Shanghai = shahng high

The -ang has the same /a/ vowel as in hot, father, taco; it doesn’t rhyme with hang or hung. For an even closer pronunciation, see my book.

Anyway, hoping Dallas can pull it together tomorrow afternoon…

I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.


Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.


The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.


If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)

Tonight we saw The Death of Stalin, the film. It’s based on the graphic novel I reviewed a few months back. It’s a great film.


Standing: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale

The overall plot is the same, but it feels like there’s a lot more material– scenes of Khrushchev and his wife, scenes of Beria in his hellish HQ, scenes about planning the funeral, a recap of Stalin’s dinner and movie night with his colleagues just before his death. Some subtle differences:

  • Marshal Zhukov comes in later, and is treated far more reverentially. In the book he was an ugly, stiff bastard; here, he’s loud and no-nonsense and the only person not afraid of Beria.
  • There’s no open sex (which is just as well), but an unsettling number of on-screen murders.
  • The comeuppance of Beria is telescoped: rather than three months after Stalin’s funeral, followed by an actual trial (though of the kangaroo type), it’s presented as happening on the day of the funeral, followed by immediate execution.
  • Though everyone gets screen time, the story becomes far more focused on the power struggle between Khrushchev and Beria.
  • You’d think the comic version would be more cartoony, but in many ways the movie is. There’s a good deal more slapstick involving the puddle of urine around Stalin’s body, and the Central Committee awkwardly carrying him to his bed.
  • At the same time, though the graphic novel is dark, the film is darker.  This mostly, I think, comes from the handling of Beria. The graphic novel allows him a little comedy; in the film he’s just pure evil– 0% approval rating, as TV Tropes puts it.

A lot of reviews treat the film as a comedy or satire, but don’t expect it to be Blazing Saddles. A lot of it is not funny at all: the dreaded midnight knocks on the door, Beria’s torture chambers, his savage end. But there is a rich dark humor to be found when morality is of little use and competence is far less valued than loyalty.

The other thing the film has, of course, is actors. It’s very well served here. Simon Beale is a great villain. I wouldn’t have thought Steve Buscemi would fit the role (isn’t he always a lizardy low-life?), but he does great, and he manages a convincing arc from buffoon to top dog. Jeffrey Tambor is perfect as the hapless Malenkov; he gets across the plaintive air of a stupid man who is aware that he looks stupid and resents it enormously.

Though it was written and filmed before Trump’s election, the film surely sheds a good deal of light on how a corrupt, narcissistic, traitorous buffoon can hold such a grip on the Republican Party. You don’t actually need a canny old dictator or a secret police to hold the party in line: the threat of a primary, or the wrath of Fox News, is sufficient.

If you see it, you’ll probably want to know more about the real history; this page is a good place to start on untangling what’s true or not. (The absurdity of the event is not a clue.) The movie hints that the intrigue didn’t stop, and this is quite true– Khrushchev’s allies mostly turned on him four years later, and failed; a relative newcomer, Brezhnev, forced him out in 1965.