Sunday, April 8, 2018

Chinese and Piano Update

I'm spending a lazy Sunday at home, so I decided to update my Hobby Time graph. To make it less confusing, I decreased the number of categories.
Here's a separate graph for my Pimsleur Mandarin and ChinesePod lessons.
I think I've now spent about 430 hours on Chinese listening comprehension. This includes the period before I started logging this info. The ChinesePod company recommends that you listen to 120 of their Intermediate lessons, then to 160 of their Upper Intermediate lessons, then to 120 Advanced and 80 "Media" lessons. I finished my 120th Intermediate lesson a few days ago. I'm now almost done with my first Upper Intermediate lesson. The jump in complexity between these two levels is pretty big. I've recently started a log on the Language Learner's Forum. If I have more free time, I may describe this process there in the sort of detail that only my fellow language nerds could ever find interesting.

As I progress, Mandarin sounds less and less weird to me. Not Cantonese though. I have two co-workers who speak with each other in it, and I don't understand a single word of their conversations. Which is kind of stunning. The Wikipedia, and paper encyclopedias before it, told me that these two languages are related. But I wouldn't have discovered this on my own, at least not yet. A woman from another department sometimes comes over to talk to these two co-workers of mine in Mandarin, and I now understand quite a lot of what she says.

This is a bit of a relief to me. I've read that almost no one speaks standard Mandarin, the kind I'm learning to understand, at home. Apparently there are many (dozens? hundreds?) regional, mutually-unintelligible varieties of Mandarin. So it feels good to know that I can understand some bits of real conversations in it. And yes, Mandarin sounds more pleasant to me than Cantonese.

I've been spending even more time on piano practice than on Chinese:

At the start of every session I play the 4 pieces that I know by heart. Then I move on to scales and arpeggios. The book that I'm using has the following exercises for each key: 

I've now learned these exercises for roughly 2.5 out of the 24 keys. But every time I think I've completed something I discover that I'm not really doing it right. For example, all of the above scales and arps are written for 2 octaves. But it turns out that you're supposed to play them in 4. They expect you to extrapolate. I do it now, but it wasn't easy at first.
 
You're also supposed to play all of this stuff like a metronome. An untrained person like me produces notes in clusters instead. The movements of my fingers aren't as independent as they should be. I'm working on this. People use actual metronomes to get better at it. I've tried that, but it seemed unnatural. Maybe I should force myself to get used to it.
 
After going through about 1.5 keys I decided that I should play these exercises without looking at the keyboard. If I can't do scales and arps blind, how can I ever expect to learn to sight-read? This also took some time.  
 
It's all good fun of course, especially Chinese. The jump you see in that graph of Mandarin practice above happened because I noticed getting better at it soon after I signed up with ChinesePod. Progress motivates.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Prediction Testing with Anki

I decided to test my powers of prediction using my Anki deck. Yesterday, and then again this morning, I expressed my level of certainty about my answers as a percentage. I did this for exactly 1,000 reps. Then I tabulated the results. 
 


The blue line represents perfection. The brown line is my actual performance.

I assigned the probability of 55% and 75% to very few answers, so the results for those two data points are basically noise. Here's how the graph looks without them:
 

I put the data that I used to calculate this here.

I'm sure there are ways to score one's performance more succinctly, as a single number, but right now I'm feeling too lazy to do that. I'd guess I'm average at this sort of thing. The few times in my life when I gambled a bit, I came out roughly even.

Monday, February 19, 2018

More Autobiography

A couple more chapters of my autobiography. The earlier ones can be found here, here and here.
 

Childhood Friends

I met M in kindergarten when we were 4 years old. Our fathers went to enroll us in school together, on the same day. His and my parents were quite friendly in general, which always surprised me because they had so little in common.

M's mom and dad met each other when they were students at Moscow State University, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the USSR. They were both biologists. His mom is the only person I've ever seen who earned a Gold Medal, the highest award given by the Soviet secondary school system. His dad is the only bearded man I remember from childhood.

Although M is a few months younger than I am, he always seemed more adult. He was not present for many of the crazier childhood adventures that I described in an earlier chapter. Most kids read the same books then, but he seemed to read them about a year earlier.

He had an amazing talent for drawing. By the age of 7 or 8 he got bored with realistic subjects and started to draw funny, fantastic animals, people with a larger than normal number of limbs, etc.

I draw by approximation: the first line is always bad, so I put a correcting line next to it, then a third, a fourth. I think that's normal.

Already in childhood M didn't need that. His first stroke was always right and elegant.

When we were still in kindergarten we used to walk together behind his apartment building and look for caterpillars. He knew all of their names and what sort of butterflies each kind would make. When we found them we put them in match boxes to be later transferred to glass bottles together with leaves for them to eat. Over the ensuing weeks and months M observed the cocooning process in his apartment.

When we were 10 M's grandfather, whom I remember quite well, passed away. My parents told me that since their family was mourning I should stop calling M every damn day. These phone calls usually consisted of me saying "wanna go out and play?" and him saying "sure." AmazingIy, I still remember his old phone number.

My parents forgot to tell me when it was OK to resume calling M, and for some reason I never asked.

There was a deeper cause of us growing apart though: social anxiety. I already knew enough to feel ashamed of my and my parents's manners, of our boring ordinariness compared to M.

We were friendly up until I left Russia a couple of weeks before my 17th birthday. Actually I can't imagine M ever being unfriendly with anyone - he seemed well above such trifles as human conflict. But after the age of 10 we were never again best friends.

The last time I heard of him he had gotten a Ph.D. in biology and was a cancer researcher in the West. He did exactly what he had to do, fulfilling his enormous potential in a precise and beneficial way. I'm quite amazed by that.

***

B came to our school in second grade, but we became best friends a couple of years later. He was one of only two kids in our class who didn't live in a two-parent household. His father died and his mom decamped somewhere, so he lived with his grandma instead. Even though we were close for years, I never talked to him about any of that. First, I'm nerdy, and nerds are bored by the personal. Second, I guess I didn't want to remind him of anything negative.

B was interested in astronomy. He made telescopes from cardboard and his grandma's old glasses. I've looked through them, and they really worked. He subscribed to academic astronomy journals and could talk about that topic at length.

Our biggest common interest was photography though. I had two cameras: a modern one (for those days), bought by my parents for one of my birthdays and a beautiful Zenit made in 1956 which was given to me by my uncle.

We started by reading a detailed manual written in the 1950s, thinking through every step many times, preparing for them meticulously. We developed film in the bathroom of my apartment, after blocking the space under the door with towels. I still remember the smell of the chemicals - you never forget smells. My parents bought me an enlarger, the biggest piece of equipment you needed for all of this. We made prints in my room, with a special red lamp as the only illumination. This lamp burned out one day, causing me to experience my first electrical shock when I tried to change the bulb in the resulting darkness.

Shutter speed, aperture, film sensitivity, filters: memories, memories. At some point we realized that we could unscrew the Zenit's lens kit and put a special tube behind it, lengthening the distance to film. This allowed the camera to focus on closer objects. We made detailed photographic studies of toy soldiers, our irises, and then of dead flies' eyes.

When a 22-storey building, our neighborhood's tallest, was finished, of course we had to  try to take pictures from the top. The middle-aged man we met in the elevator was suspicious. "What are you doing here, boys? Do you live here?" He escorted us out. We waited outside for half an hour before going back in. The hallway on the top floor led to a balcony. This was the day when I learned that B was much braver than I was - while taking pictures from every possible angle he leaned out over the balcony's rail further and with a more casual air.

The game of badminton was very popular in Russia then. The main problem with it was the wind. There was a school in our neighborhood which was shaped like the letter H. Two areas were protected from the wind on three sides. This is where B and I usually played. We ran around with our rackets until complete exhaustion, then sat on the steps leading to one of the school's back entrances, talking about school, our futures, anything that came to mind.

As an adult I love debating politics online. Well, my first arguments of approximately this kind were with B. As perestroika was gradually destroying civilization in our part of the world, reason suffered many reverses. Faith healers and astrologers appeared on TV, as well as guys who charged bottles of water with "positive energy" by looking at them intently. None of that existed before Gorbachev.

I was a mindless liberal in my youth, but for some reason I took the rationalist position on this topic. B, in spite of his interest in astronomy, always said that I shouldn't be so dogmatic, that there might be a grain of truth in some of these claims, etc.

The events one remembers best often seem random. I have a very vivid picture of a part of one of our trips to a photo chemicals shop. We had just gotten off a bus and started a longish walk. It's fall and the neighborhood, little-known to me, looks cozy in the specific 1970s-built Soviet way. It must be the beginning of the autumn break. The stress of school is behind me and I finally feel relaxed - with my best friend, pursuing an interest we both love. It's quiet all around us, and when we start to talk, it's quietly.

***

S. appeared in our class in 6th or 7th grade. A few days later he showed us an issue of a literary magazine which he wrote entirely by himself, by hand. It had funny illustrations, also done by him. Even taking into account the less consumerist, more do-it-yourself spirit of the time, it seemed unusual.

Very quickly he became the informal leader of the male portion of our class. He was brilliant, but not nerdy. His attitude to everyone was like that of an amused parent to a bunch of mischief-making but lovable kids.

He used to come to school in army boots made from a material called kirza. This was probably the coolest-looking piece of military garb of that time from anywhere in the world. His father, whom we never saw, was an army officer.

S also often wore a kind of rough jacket called a telogreyka (bodywarmer). An alternative name for that garment has the same meaning in modern Russian as the word "redneck" in English. This wasn't true then yet, but it was funny to see that thing on someone as smart as S. Which was of course the point. He used to top this off by donning a fur ear-flap hat asymmetrically and talking in a hick accent, which I think he mostly invented as he went.

Almost everything I remember S saying was funny, yet he was the most serious person I knew then. Outside of school most of us read sci-fi and adventure stories. He read classical Russian literature instead. I remember telling him that my favorite historical period was the European Middle Ages, which is still true. You know, knights, castles. S looked at me like I had just come from space. Of course HIS favorite sort of history was Russian.

He wrote up his impressions of every book he read in a special journal. Why did it take me almost 20 years after I learned this to start doing something like that myself?

His summer vacations were not like those of the others. One year he signed up for a 150-km trek across the Caucasus. Another time he went on an archeological dig.

S was the most verbally inventive person I've known in real life. Funny nicknames for teachers, hilarious terminology for various aspects of our games, pithy summaries of the main events of the day - all of that seemed to come out of him effortlessly. Any acerbity that accompanied this was obviously a put-on for fun's sake. There was no anger in him.

Whenever I think of S now I feel guilty for not having been brave, good and kind, for often forgetting that those should even be my goals. When people talk about their mentors I want to barf, yet more than 25 years ago I seriously looked up to a real-life person as a moral example.

It's hard to escape superlatives when writing an autobiography. Life is filled with the ordinary. That's boring to talk about, so instead you end up describing the people and things that impressed you the most. And while doing that you run the danger of appearing easily-excited.

I have a weird view of Russia and the USSR for someone of my background. I can think of many theories about its origins: instinctive contrariness, geeky literal-mindedness offended by certain bits of hypocrisy, geeky detachment from social and political norms, etc. I don't really know the reason, but one of the theories that seem plausible to me is that at my most impressionable age I subconsciously absorbed from S a feeling that rooting for Russia is cool.

Does that mean that if he was passionate about sports I would now be a hockey fan? No, someone like S could have never loved anything so trivial.

Everyone, including our teachers, was sure that S would accomplish great things. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Unlike many, maybe most, certifiable geniuses of that time and place, he stayed in Russia. That's not surprising because he was always intensely patriotic. And of course he was never going to cheat anyone in business or lie to anyone about politics.

I don't want to end this chapter on a negative note.

The only party of my youth that approached the "you gotta fight for your right to party" sense of that word by less than a couple of light years was held at the apartment of our German language teacher. She had a cool son of our age, who was an unofficial member of our class, of our little "gang".

I traveled there with S. Of course he never sat down in public transport - that would have been ungentlemanly with women around. And of course there was no drinking or drugs (what's that?) at the party. The closest thing to that was a cigarette tucked behind S's ear all through the trip, which he hid away before we rang the buzzer.

But it was fun. There were about 20 people there. Music, party games, lots of shouting and laughter. Not a bad way to remember that time.

First Love


Sometime around 6th or 7th grade, when we were all 13 or 14, a girl named N appeared in our class. She had a face similar to that of the young Angela Lansbury, but prettier. Whenever I see old Go-Go's videos, Belinda Carlisle makes me think of her as well. There was a great sense of healthy fun about her.

It wasn't love from first sight, because I would have definitely remembered such a moment. After a while it turned out that I couldn't stop looking at her during classes.

I can see her face with amazing clarity to this day. But the way she made me feel then is like a museum exhibit under glass, something I can only marvel at from outside. I'll never have such strong emotions about anything again. Where would I find the energy?

I tried to help her any way I could - with homework, spare pens and erasers, info about upcoming tests, etc. It was only many years later that I learned that women hate helpful subservience.

We were sometimes shown educational films in school. One of those made a particular impression on me. It was about the greatness of the Universe, the billions of galaxies, the enormousness of space. The narration was accompanied by stunning organ music - either Bach's Toccata and Fugue or something similar.

When the movie ended and the lights came back on, I searched for her face, and saw a completely different, but even more moving kind of beauty.

Until I left school and for quite a few years afterwards N was the center of my world in a way that would seem pathetic to most, but which I cherish regardless.

In the end nothing happened of course. It was an innocent world, plus we were good kids, plus I'm an awful wimp.

People sometimes talk about what they'd do on a desert island, what books or records they'd bring there, etc. This will always remain a silly and contrived hypothetical, yet we will all have to die one day. What will you think about when the time comes? I doubt I'll recall any of the physical relationships I've had with women later or, God forbid, anything that ever happened to me at work. Instead I will think back on what I wrote about in this chapter. It is the best memory.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Chinese Learning Update

Here's a graph of the number of hours I've spent per month listening to Chinese lessons. I started with Pimsleur quite a few months before I began tracking this info, so this is an incomplete record. Including the missing period, I think I've spent about 360 hours on Chinese listening comprehension. So far in February I've maintained the January pace, about 1.5 hours per day. 



I've noticed that when I hear something falling off my desk or when I turn on the water in the kitchen and the tap "coughs", for a second I interpret these sounds as Chinese words. This never happened to me while I was learning to understand spoken English, Spanish or French.

One of the most accomplished polyglots living today is a Slovak man named Vladimir Stultety. This is from his blog:

"I honestly have to say that I have never had to learn anything more difficult than Chinese and that maybe it is the only real foreign language I have ever learned." 

I concur.

Did I learn anything new about China itself during this period? Well, one of the lessons was about bicycles, and they mentioned that their theft is a problem there. I was surprised because if your bike is stolen in New York, the probability of the thief being Chinese is roughly 0%. Of course that made me recall that there were no bike locks in the USSR, and that bikes were never stolen there.

I guess in a multiracial society the Chinese always end up filling higher economic niches than petty theft. I remember seeing white American cleaning ladies in far, deep upstate New York. That felt so weird, but it makes sense. There's nobody else around there, and that niche has to be filled by someone.  

While watching a talk by Victor Mair on YouTube I learned that English-speaking Sinologists pronounce the first part of the name of their profession like "sign", and not like "sin".  

I also learned that Sinology has a Bible, and that it was written by an eccentric Englishman named Endymion Wilkinson. I downloaded this work through my Pleco app and browsed it a little. I think one should know something about Chinese history before trying to read it all the way through. Maybe after I read a few volumes of the Cambridge History of China.

I remember arguing with a guy on IRC, perhaps around the year 2000, about whether or not Chinese will ever replace English as the world's lingua franca. I was saying that it will, but in the back of my mind I thought "maybe that guy is right, maybe the Chinese aren't really capable of that kind of cultural pull on Westerners, no matter how much money they make."

Well, when Trump visited China, Ivanka's daughter Arabella became a sensation there for speaking Chinese to president Xi. I'm assuming she attends one of those schools with a heavy emphasis on Mandarin.

Does Ivanka have any motivations in life besides being fashionable? And she has more resources to throw at her desires than 99.9% of women with the same psychological makeup.

Doesn't mean it will happen. Technology may intervene. But it's not impossible.


Monday, January 1, 2018

The Year in Nerdiness


Last year I continued to track the time I spend on my hobbies.



Most of my language nerdery during 2017 had to do with Chinese. I listened to Pimsleur lessons 104 through 150, finishing the 5th and last level sometime in the fall. Then I listened to 27 ChinesePod lessons, most of them from the Intermediate level.

I like ChinesePod more. I think it's because of the personalities of the hosts. They use lots of voice actors, but the lessons I'm listening to now are hosted by John Pasden and Dilu. They sound like they're having fun. If I was just starting to learn Chinese, I'd probably begin with Newbie ChinesePod lessons. I should also recommend the Pleco app as a dictionary and Anki for flashcards.

One other advantage of ChinesePod over Pimsleur is that it has many times more lessons and they go up to more advanced levels.

These lessons are less than 15 minutes each, but it takes me almost 3 hours to listen to one. Each lesson starts with an introduction. Then there's a short dialogue, whose transcript is provided by the ChinesePod company. Then the hosts discuss this dialogue in detail. In the Intermediate level a lot of the discussion is in Chinese. I understand 80% to 90% of it, but of course I have to be obsessive about the other 10% to 20%. I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out by myself. If I fail, I look at one of the transcripts made by ChinesePod users. I think there are only about 150 such transcripts. There's more than a thousand ChinesePod lessons at the Intermediate level and above, so if I stick with this system, at some point I'll have to start flying without the transcript safety net.

Here's a graph of my piano practice over the last few years:


My experiences with language learning made me pretty disdainful of formal education. I didn't learn most of what I know about Chinese, French, German, etc. from lessons. So when I started playing piano and guitar, I assumed that I would be able to learn them myself, simply by playing pieces.

But I eventually hit a wall. In spite of daily practice the speed with which I learn new pieces hasn't improved in years. And this speed is very low. So I started looking around the Internet for suggestions.

Many people think that learning scales and arpeggios is crucial. A lot of music is made up of them, so if you can play them automatically, without thinking, you learn pieces faster. Or so the story goes. Last year I decided to give this theory a try.

After some research I chose this scale book. So far I've learned almost all the exercises for one key, C major. But there are 24 keys in total (by one count), and it's not at all certain that I'll stick with this to the end.

The red segments on the above hobby time graph represent me studying calculus and other STEM subjects. Again, I don't know how far I'll go with this. It's not that I can't plan ahead and follow through, but most of my desire and ability to do that is used up by my job. Off work I'm only really willing to do what I want to do at any given moment. And that varies unpredictably.

Friday, December 1, 2017

On Harassment Scandals

I can't muster any sympathy for pervs, but it's very easy for me to identify with a guy who gets most of his info about the real world from the Internet. At the end of the last millennium I narrowly escaped becoming a permanently unemployed loser, and I often wonder what I'd be doing and thinking now if I hadn't made that jump. It seems that this guy, the parallel-universe Glossy NEET, would wildly overestimate the amount of sexual harassment, of sexual anything, in the American workplace.

At any given time I "know" a few hundred people through work. In the span of 18 years several thousand coworkers passed through my consciousness. There are no water coolers and management has the right to read employee e-mails, so gossip is usually spread by phone or by people visiting each other's cubicles or offices to chat.

How many instances of alleged sexual harassment have been discussed in this largish community in this century? One.

About 10 years ago a guy who managed a unit that I dealt with tangentially was fired after an allegation from a female subordinate. A co-worker of mine told me at the time  that the accuser and the accused actually had a consensual relationship. A wave of budget-cutting layoffs was going through our little corner of the universe then. As per my coworker, the accuser asked the not-yet-accused to pull some strings to keep her employed. Apparently he was either unwilling or unable (the latter is plausible) to do this for her. In this version of the story, since the accuser was losing her job anyway, and was angry at him, she did the most she could legally do to hurt him by filing a sexual harassment complaint. There was a lawsuit of some sort as well.

Of course I don't know what really happened there. But women usually take the female side in such conflicts, yet my female co-worker dismissed the accusation of harassment as nonsense.

Over these same 18 years, how many people I knew or knew about lost their jobs due to financial improprieties? A handful. It's still very few, but notice how much more common it is than sexual harassment.

Why is there so much more sexual harassment in the entertainment industry than in others?

There's an old joke in which a robber is asked why he robs banks. "Because that's where the money is." And true, Hollywood attracts attractive people.

Also, Hollywood big shots can get away with more because they wield more power. If someone like me falls out with his boss, he might get fired. But I'll just get another job. Our bosses can't make us rich or famous. If they could, we'd forgive and overlook more.

The part of the Weinstein drama that struck the loudest chord in me was actually him being an asshole to subordinates. THAT I've experienced. Don't get me wrong, it's not common where I work either. Most criticism is expressed behind the object's back. And when it's made in person, it's usually through hints and tone of voice modulations that a nerd like me can easily miss. But a small fraction of bosses are more direct.

I've never raised my voice at work and never will. It's not because I never get angry. No, I just wouldn't get away with it. The people who offend truly randomly are all dead or in prison. To rise in the social hierarchy while humiliating others you need to have a very precise intuitive sense of where each person's boundaries are, what's possible and impossible in what kind of situation, what exactly the system that you work in can tolerate. It's a thousand times more complicated than "never offend anyone important, shout at nobodies all you want". A person who takes THAT position will never become important.

A guy with a low level of interpersonal ability is better off always being polite. Not that I'm complaining. You'd truly have to be an asshole to regret the lack of opportunities to act like an asshole.

A few thoughts specifically about the pervalanche:

I'm guessing that Weinstein cheated someone more powerful than himself in business and was hit back for that through the New York Times.

The "me too" movement which destroyed dozens of careers since then was probably spontaneous. Women always copy each other.

Why didn't this flood start after the Cosby scandal, the O'Reilly scandal or a hundred others before them? The women harassed by Weinstein were current celebrities, the kind who fill the tabloids, TMZ, Perez Hilton's blog, etc. The bigger the stars, the more female attention you'll get, and the more attention, the bigger the "me too" effect. Cosby's victims were active in a past era and were less famous even then.

No moguls have gone down since Weinstein, and you just know that they're the biggest pervs and leches in that business. I'm guessing that everything is being allowed to go through except for accusations against the biggest big shots.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review of Barron's AP Calculus

Barron's AP Calculus, David Bock, Dennis Donovan, Shirley Hockett, 2015. Glossy's rating: 6/10.

I learned calculus in school in the USSR, and then again in America, where I got a 4 on the AP Calculus BC exam in 1993. But like most people I forgot most of it as an adult.

A guy who doesn't know all of the material covered here shouldn't call himself a nerd. Plus math is fun. So a few months ago I decided to read this book, doing every exercise at the end of every chapter, 599 of them in all.

I quickly fell in with my old habits. When the argument is unambiguous I write sin x simply as sin. To find the sine or cosine of 0, π/2, π, 3π/2, etc. I draw a right triangle inside a little circle, then think. But I've always remembered the sines and cosines of 30, 45 and 60 degrees by heart.

Like many multilingual people I silently "pronounce" numbers in my first language when reading. "In tysyacha chetyresta devyanosto vtorom Columbus sailed the ocean blue". I count, subtract, multiply, etc. in Russian too - I wouldn't be as sure of the result otherwise.

I "pronounce" sin, cos, tan, etc. in the "Russian" (really Latin) way as SEEnoos, CAWseenoos, TUNgens (with the g of "get"). And of course + is ploos with the soft Russian l and - is MEEnoos. But 25 years in America made me think of x and y in the English way instead of the "Russian" eeks and EEgreck.

As I went through this volume I made dozens of electronic flashcards in Anki, mostly using Latex. I hope this will allow me to retain the material better than I did last time.

It was a bother to look up the answers in a different part of the book, shielding future answers with fingers so that I wouldn't see them accidentally. In a perfect electronic textbook there'd be a button next to each exercise which you'd tap to see the answer. You'd also instantly see the percentage of questions you got right so far and the percentage of readers who answered that particular question correctly.

I'm the kind of person who, as soon as he puts on a pair of rollerblades for the first time, instantly wants to read about the equipment, training and habits of rollerblading champions. So it was interesting for me to learn that professional mathematicians never read linearly through any math books. And that in spite of all the math applications out there they still do a lot of their work on paper.

When I play piano every day, I get faster and more accurate at multi-key combinations on the office PC, "chords" like Alt-F4 or Ctrl-X. And I do more of them, avoiding the mouse. Did solving the exercises in this book make me more likely to consciously think through real-life situations? I don't think so, but it did make me acutely aware of how little I really think, consciously think in daily life. It's such an unusual activity after college.

Monday, July 10, 2017

New Quatrain

This morning I wrote a new quatrain for my big Credo poem. It only makes sense in the context of earlier quatrains, which can be found here.

You don't have to understand it.
It's much deeper than one man.
Even though no mind has planned it,
It's worth more than any plan.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 4

The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 4, Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Robert Irwin, 2014. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume abandons historical narrative in order to describe the literature, philosophy, science, law, government, theology and other aspects of Islamic societies from the time of Mohammed to 1800.

It's natural to start this review with Islam itself. It's clearly descended from both Christianity and Judaism, but the latter was known to pre-Islamic Arabs better than the former. About half of the population of early-7th century Medina were Jews, though we don't know what share of them were ethnically-Arab converts.

The Quran's picture of Christianity is garbled. For example, at one point it seems to suggest that the Trinity is composed of God, Jesus and Mary.

The language of the Quran is described here as "difficult, to say the least. Its syntax is often puzzling, and the vocabulary, to later speakers of Arabic, is frequently obscure."

As I've mentioned in an earlier review, some scholars think that Islam's holy book was written in Mesopotamia or the Levant a century or two after the Arab conquest. One of this volume's chapters argues against this by saying that the landscape depicted in the Quran is consistent with the Arabian desert.

The hadith (reports about Mohammed's words and deeds) sometimes contradict the Quran. I was surprised to learn that in such cases Muslim authorities tend to follow the hadith.

One interesting feature of Islamic law is that it was normally promulgated by religious scholars and not by states.

This book contains some amusing quotes from colonial British officials about Muslim law as they found it in India:

"Reflecting an entrenched state culture of monopoly over violence, Cornwallis"..."argued that too often criminals escaped punishment under the rule of Islamic law, a situation that would not be allowed to obtain under what he must have seen as an efficient state discipline. His voice echoed Hastings’ complaint that Islamic law was irregular, lacking in efficacy and ‘founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed’.

In the first decades of Islam Muslims did not refer to Mohammed's example as a model of behavior (his sunnah) any more frequently than to the example of his successors Abu Bakr and Umar. But then the prophet's sunnah overwhelmed all others as a basis for recorded legal judgements.

Mohammed must have been prominent in Arabia during the latter portion of his life. After death his importance decreased in the normal human way, but a few decades later he became a one-in-many-millions exception - a man whose fame and impact grow over centuries.

"Almost from the beginning, Christians embraced doctrines - Jesus as the son of God, Christ as the pre existing Logos, the doctrine of the Trinity - which required complex theological explanation and justification." [...]

"Set against such doctrines, Islamic faith seems remarkably simple."

I don't think Islam has less supernatural stuff to be explained. Interestingly, the amount of debate about the daily practice of religion - what kind of food, clothing, music, business, etc. it allows - is greater in Islam and Judaism than in Christianity.

On the whole, coercion played a smaller role in the spread of Islam than of Christianity. The Quran states that "there is no compulsion in religion", and Muslims always considered it natural that non-Muslim communities would live within Muslim states, governing their internal affairs. On paper Islam is much more opposed to paganism than to "religions of the book", but in practice both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were accommodated. For Muslims the crucial thing is that the state should be governed by a Muslim ruler.

This book explains the spread of Islam in what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh by saying that these were "fringe areas, on the socio-ecological frontier of Hindu agrarian society", and that they were "not properly integrated into the Hindu caste system." In other words, Islam's competition was less culturally formidable there.

"Islamic names"..."in our sources increased among the Sials in the Punjab from 10 per cent in the early ninth/fiteenth century to 56 per cent in the mid eleventh/seventeenth, and reached 100 per cent in the early thirteenth/nineteenth."

Early on the biggest splinter group in Islam were the Kharijites. They insisted that the leader of the Muslim community should be elected, and that merit should be the only qualification for leadership. The Muslim mainstream rejected these ideas, and the caliphate quickly became hereditary. A moderate form of Kharijism called Ibadism survives today in Oman.

"Muslim asceticism, unlike the Christian variety, was never categorical in its renunciation of the world. Monasticism, according to the Quran, was a Christian innovation which God ‘did not prescribe for them’"

The closest Muslim parallel to monasticism is Sufism, whose khanaqahs (sometimes translated as convents) were usually located in cities and whose adherents were allowed to marry. They were interested in self-denial, however, as well as in mysticism. One of their characteristic behaviors was trying to get closer to God through ecstatic dancing and repetition of God's names. The Sufis compared their relationship with Allah to romance, sometimes using erotic imagery. They had many "saints" whose tombs they venerated.

Like Christian monks, the Sufis were divided into orders, which had distinctive dress codes. But unlike Christian orders, the Sufi ones were decentralized. An order's many branches were effectively independent.

There is a pattern here. Here is how this book describes Muslim religious schools:

"The institutions themselves had little impact on instruction or the curriculum. The transmission of religious knowledge depended on the informal ties established between teachers and students, just as it had in the centuries before the madrasa made its appearance. One did not ‘enrol’ in a madrasa; one attended classes given by a particular teacher which happened to meet in one (although those classes might also take place elsewhere: in a mosque or a home, for example). Similarly, one did not ‘graduate’ from an institution; instead, one received an ijaza, a ‘licence’ to teach or to transmit a particular text issued by the master with whom one had studied."

A prior volume mentioned the lack of formal republics with written constitutions in the Muslim world. Strong formal institutions require trust towards non-relatives and a certain level of fussy literal-mindedness.

Teaching in the Muslim world "began and ended with prayers. The teacher would sit on a cushion or a chair with his back to a wall or a pillar, and his students would sit cross legged in a semi circle before him. As the student succeeded in his studies he was invited to sit closer to the teacher."

A teacher "would dictate the book to his students, who might write it down, but almost certainly would commit it to memory - in time such pedagogical texts came to be written in rhyme to help the memory. Subsequently there might be an explanation of the text, depending on its nature. The completion of the study of the book would involve a recitation of the text with an explanation. If this was done to the teacher’s satisfaction, the student would be given an ijaza, a licence to transmit that text, which has been well described by Berkey as ‘a personal authority’ over the text. On that ijaza would be the names of all those who had transmitted the text, going back to the original author."[...]

"It might be asked why person-to-person transmission of knowledge, involving recitation out aloud, should persist in a society where scholars were highly proficient in reading and writing, paper was plentiful and book production a major activity. The problem was that there was scepticism about the written word, the understandable scepticism of an oral society, in which an individual might be in the most literal sense bahr al ulum, an ocean of knowledge."[...]

"The enormous emphasis on person to person transmission of knowledge should not lead us to think that self-teaching did not take place. It tended not to happen in the traditional sciences, where issues of authority were crucial and where teachers and students were often supported by institutional stipends and scholarships. But in the rational sciences and in adab [Glossy: belles lettres] studies self-teaching was not uncommon."

An obvious explanation that this book omits is that a societal preference for person-to-person teaching gave employment to lots of teachers, who had a self-interest in perpetuating that preference.

"An enduring feature of discussions of elementary education was the beating of pupils. That excessive corporal punishment was a problem is clear from the recollections of men from all parts of the Muslim world."[...]

"It is said that a woman who learns [how to] write’, went a Mamluk market inspector’s manual, ‘is like a snake given poison to drink’." If I ever write a review of a feminist book, I'll use that as an epigraph.

Some of the best-regarded works of Arabic literature are poems composed in the century or two before the advent of Islam. These were first written down in the 8th century however, and some scholars doubt that they're really pre-Islamic. After the Arabs conquered most of the Middle East there was a market for literature that portrayed them in their most romantic, pristine state, as brave desert warriors.

Travel accounts were popular, but most of them were about Islamic countries. Compared to Europeans, Muslims had little interest in "the other". Here's an amusing description of one of the exceptions to that rule:

"Muhammad Rabıq’s Safına yi Sulaymanı, describing a Safavid embassy to Thailand in 1685-8, is imbued with the spirit of Iranian superiority. In its constructed dichotomy of Iranian culture versus local barbarism it goes so far as to state that the Siamese had only recently turned from the realm of bestiality to that of humankind."

For a long time after Gutenberg's revolution printing in Arabic letters was forbidden in the Ottoman realm.

"The reasons for abstention from printing, which had an enormous negative impact on the future of the empire, included religious conservatism and protection of the social and economic interests of the professions of calligraphers, illustrators, binders etc., the people who produced the books."

Non-Muslim minorities were allowed to print their own books and some Muslim books were printed in Europe and imported to the Middle East. But the first Ottoman Muslim printing press did not appear until 1727.

Even after that "printing did not take off immediately, and printed books were not popular. The printing press, after changing hands, closed down in 1211/1797. In its sixty-four years of existence it had printed only twenty-four books, the last book appearing in 1209/1794."

Medieval Islamic libraries were similar in size to the ancient Greco-Roman ones:

"...the neo-Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba are said to have had 400,000 books, and comparable numbers are given for the libraries of Fatimid Egypt, Abbasid Baghdad and Buyid Shıraz."

The Islamic study of science began in the late 8th century when the Abbasid caliphs started to commission translations of ancient Greek works. Translations continued to be made for over two hundred years.

'While there is no easily identifiable single motivating factor for this movement, it has been suggested that a ‘culture of translation’ present in a ‘Zoroastrian imperial ideology’ was inherited, adopted and furthered by al Mansur and his successors, who had strong familial and cultural links to Persian influences."[...]

"The acquisition of paper making technology in 132/751 from Chinese prisoners of war helped the translation movement flourish."

The Arabs seemed to understand the world-historical importance of what they had done. A physician to Saladin is quoted here as saying, in the 12th century, that "...if it had not been for al Mamun,‘medicine and other disciplines of the Ancients would have been effaced and obliterated just as medicine is obliterated now from the lands of the Greeks, which had been most distinguished in this field.’"

In subsequent centuries Muslims advanced beyond the Greeks in a few areas and fell behind in others.

Predictably, there was a heated debate over whether Greek knowledge - pagan, at times coldly rational and materialistic - was compatible with Islam.

One Muslim scholar claimed that "Science and the attainment of knowledge in all their levels are "..." the means to the end of ultimate human happiness in an immaterial uniting and conjoining with the Agent Intellect."

Sounds a bit like the tech singularity. But in general the medieval Islamic philosophy described here felt as boring and useless to me as the modern Western kind. Hilariously, the Arabs adapted the Greek term "philosophy" into their language as "falsafa".

After the golden age of Baghdad (late 8th through 10th centuries) the interest in science started to decline.

"...apart from the odd will o’ the wisp, such as the translation into Persian in the early nineteenth century of Newton’s Principia by a scholar in the Farangı Mahall tradition, the areas where the rational sciences flourished seemed to offer little hope. Their study was in its way as conservationist as that of the traditional sciences."

By traditional sciences the authors mean the textual study of the Quran, the compilation of reports about the prophet's life, jurisprudence, etc.

"We have noted, furthermore, the enduring suspicion of the rational sciences, which meant that by the eighteenth century their study in any substantial sense had come to be confined to Iran and northern India."[...]

"In comparative history, it has been proposed that the European Renaissance arose in part as a reaction to scholasticism; but in Islam events followed a reverse order - a ‘renaissance’ came first and a kind of scholasticism’ followed."

Why did Islamic culture stultify at some point during the middle ages? I don't know, but nomadic invasions are a possibility. Mongols, Kazakhs, Buryats, etc. are utterly unimportant in today's global politics, so the hair-raising deeds of their ancestors can now be described in an extremely unemotional way:

"The grazing had no boundaries save those imposed by natural conditions, and artificial borders were merely obstacles. So too were the inhabitants, with their inconvenient habits of putting up buildings and walls and digging ditches across the land. For the nomad the land was more use unpeopled."

The worst invasion was, of course, the one started by Ghenghiz Khan. Normally nomadic societies were less autocratic than those of the settled Middle East. But Ghenghiz was an exception - an absolute ruler who demanded the kind of total obedience that shocked contemporary writers.

Since the nomads were much better at animal husbandry than peasants, there was no sense for the latter to compete with them in that arena.

"...in general the production of animals and the growing of crops were two distinct activities, carried out by different people on different types of land. There was no trace of the integrated (or mixed) farming of medieval Europe, in which the same land and labour were used to produce both crops and large animals."[...]

"As far as one can tell from the sources, even the production of textiles, pottery and baskets, as well as much of the processing of foods, was carried out mainly in urban workshops. Rural dwellers, therefore, seem to have depended on the cities for most of their tools, cloth, pots and much else."[...]

"The built environment of the Islamic city"..."appears to have certain definable characteristics. The most obvious of these was the apparent absence of formal planning, the narrow winding streets, the closed-off residential quarters. The main arteries of such a Muslim city were narrow and sometimes stepped because they were not designed for wheeled vehicles. Medieval Muslim society almost disinvented the wheel: it was the pack animal and the human porter that shifted goods, not the cart. This meant that there was no need for wide, well-engineered streets of the sort that Roman towns had required."

Good roads between cities make wheeled vehicles more useful. Did the quality of Middle Eastern roads decline after the start of the nomadic invasions?

"If there is one feature of the human geography of the Muslim world in the pre-modern period which distinguishes it from that of western Europe, India or China it is surely the presence of large numbers of nomadic or transhumant peoples."

How much upkeep did ancient roads need? Did the use of wheeled vehicles decrease in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire? The volume of commerce and the degree of specialization of artisans certainly did.

"Textile manufacture was the most important industry in the Muslim Middle East and probably the largest provider of employment in most towns."[...]

"Though he acknowledges the crafts as a fundamental component of urban life, it is clear that neither Ibn Khaldun nor other contemporary Muslim scholars held the practitioners of the crafts in high esteem."

For several centuries after its founding in 762 the most important city in the world outside of China was Baghdad.

"Because it stood at the head of what was still the richest area of agricultural land in the world, the alluvial lands of the Sawad of southern Iraq, and because it lay at the centre of a network of waterways, the growth of the city was not constrained by problems of food supply, and the population may well have reached half a million by the beginning of the third/ninth century."

Being the capital of a still-united caliphate didn't hurt either.

Early Islamic cities were rarely walled. "This apparent disregard for physical security was reflected in the fact that sieges of towns were rare and that military dominance was usually secured in battles between field armies in open terrain: military leaders were often reluctant to cramp their armies inside fortifications."

This book associates the reappearance of city walls with the Seljuk invasion of the late 11th century, but that's not much of an explanation.

The early Arab conquerors fought on foot, though they used horses and camels to get to the battlefield. According to this book, stirrups appeared in the Middle East around 700 AD. And starting in the 9th century Mongoloid, Turkic-speaking mounted archers were the main fighting force in the Muslim world. But that's too early to explain the reappearance of city walls.

"Islamic cities were"..."distinguished by the separation of commercial and residential areas: there was no tradition of living above the shop, and the suqs [Glossy: markets] were usually closed and deserted at night. Most Islamic cities too shared the tradition of secluded residential quarters, sometimes gated, with narrow cul-de-sac lanes leading to blank walled houses which looked inward on their courtyards; it was very different from the public, sometimes ostentatious, housing of the western city.

"The closed residential quarters were a result of the Muslim concern with the privacy and sanctity of domestic family life, which had to be protected from prying eyes."

The higher the social class, the more secluded were its women.

"...not even their names could be known by strangers. An efficient way of shaming men was to name their womenfolk in satirical poems"[...]

"When, in 841/1438, Egypt suffered from plague and famine, the Mamluk sultan Barsbay asked the religious scholars (ulama) about the causes of these misfortunes. Their answer was unanimous: the presence of women in the streets was the first reason for God’s punishment on the Egyptian realm."

If a rich family hired a male teacher to educate its women, it was customary for him to be separated from his students by a curtain.

"...senior women, in a post-sexual phase of their lives, were not subjected to strict gender segregation, and therefore they could teach freely to male disciples."

Men don't like to waste resources on other guys' children. It's sometimes said that Middle Eastern men cover up and lock away their women more than Europeans do because Middle Easterners have less trust towards non-relatives. If you assume that every man will try to steal your wife the moment you look away, Darwinian logic requires you to hide her behind burqas and walls. I'm sure that lower class men in those societies would have liked to keep their women out of sight too, but lacked the resources to do it. Poor families needed women's labor.

Polygamy was expected among rulers but very rare in the rest of the population.

"A woman in a good economic position could make her own choice for a second or third marriage, while her first marriage was generally arranged by her family."

Unlike in Europe, the children of concubines and slaves were considered legitimate and had the same rights to their father's estate as the children he had with his wife. Contraception was generally legal. Prostitution was occasionally banned but "flourished uninterruptedly".

"...heterosexual anal intercourse was severely condemned by moralists such as Ibn al Hajj (d. 737/1336), and by Sunnı schools of jurisprudence, with the exception of the Malikıs, who allowed it if the wife consented"[...]

"Legally, the most important illicit sexual act was zina, a term describing vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman who was not his wife or his concubine. Any child born from an adulterous relationship was illegitimate."[...]

"Homoeroticism has been identified as an inherent characteristic of Muslim societies; and the amount and quality of homoerotic classical Arabic poetry could be offered as a proof for this assertion."[...]

"Love for handsome boys was, as in Greece, part of the accepted cultural view in secular high-class circles, and no shame was involved in admiring good-looking ephebes. Sex segregation left unmarried sexually active men with no alternative but to solicit sex from boys, their own slave girls and prostitutes."

So there were alternatives to boys. I don't know if sex segregation really was the cause of the traditional Middle Eastern/Mediterranean attitude to homosex.

"...in contrast to Christian views on the matter, to be sexually attracted by one’s own sex was not considered by Muslim thinkers as unnatural or abnormal. Homosexual inclinations escaped condemnation, as long as homosexual acts are not practised; in this case, sinners had to expect the penalty for zina."[...]

"Socially, a man’s reputation was not besmirched for being an active homosexual, but a passive one was considered to be a pervert, and his inclination to be penetrated a serious illness. But among certain groups, such as the Mamluk military caste or the Sufi communities, homoerotic liaisons and homosexual attachments were fairly common. The great Egyptian historian al Maqrızı suggests that conjugal ties were weakened by the frequency of homosexuality among Mamluks, and that wives took to wearing men’s clothing to attract their husbands."[...]

"While male homosexuality is well documented, lesbianism rarely attracted the attention of Muslim authors, who approached this sexual activity with great reluctance with the exception of erotic literature, in which some vignettes on lesbians can be found."[...]

"Lesbian sexual acts were of course severely condemned, but homoerotic attachment between women did not threaten the genealogical capital of families, and they were usually kept in the private domain of households."[...]

"Frequently associated with marginality, transvestites would work as actors and, more commonly, as pimps."[...]

"Apocalyptic traditions linked the upheaval of the last times to the existence of powerful and assertive women, who would behave in an immoral way; the spread of homosexuality is another sign of the approach of the apocalypse."

The fact that most Muslims still believe that cannot be entirely ascribed to their mean IQ. South America's mean is comparable to that of the Muslim heartland, yet Islamic cultures are much more traditional. They resist things that most societies don't. It's something to remember any time one is tempted to be dismissive about Islam.
ř

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3. Edited by David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume is about the history of the eastern Islamic world, defined as everything from Iran to Southeast Asia, from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

In this period Central Asian nomads had an enormous impact on most of these lands.

"Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the two major independent Muslim powers in the Middle East were still ruled by Turkish dynasties: the Ottomans, of course, but the Qajars of Iran were also, in origin, of Turkish descent. Indeed, it may be said that apart from the Zand interlude of the eighteenth century in part of the country, Iran as a whole had no ethnically Persian rulers from the arrival of the Saljuqs until the accession of Reza Shah in 1925 - very nearly 900 years."

Throughout this time most of India - the north more often than the south - was also ruled by Muslims of Turkic origin.

It seems that Turkic tribes were converted to Islam by Sunnis. They became associated with this strain of Islam at a very early stage, certainly by the 11th century. They revived Sunnism's fortunes in the Muslim heartland at a time when it seemed to be losing its fight with Shiism.

The Mongol invasion of the Middle East was much more destructive than the Saljuk (Turkic) invasion that preceded it.

The Mongols "were not as quick as the Saljuqs had been to appreciate the character and virtues of civilised life away from the steppes. They had arrived in vastly greater numbers, with no educational preparatory period on the borders. This may be part of the explanation for the ferocity of the first Mongol invasions: they had not yet understood that allowing agriculture and cities to continue in existence could be to their advantage as the new owners." [...]

"Not all of these actions were new - the massacre of soldiers after battle, permitted looting and the destruction of fortifications were all familiar. It was in the systematic organisation of conquered populations that the Mongols stood out, and in the ferocity with which they punished recalcitrant cities. In such cases the population was divided up among the soldiers to be killed, with the exception of women and children to be enslaved, young men for levies, craftsmen and the religious classes, who were spared." [...]

"Considering the consequences of resistance, it is remarkable how many cities opposed the Mongols." [...]

"The fact that Chinggis Khan could send out small contingents in different directions is a testament to the exceptional loyalty of the Mongol army; the defeat of one army did not threaten Chinggis Khan’s control over his followers. This sort of discipline was a phenomenon unknown in the recent experience of Iranian cities. The Mongols moreover enlarged their army through local alliances and levies - some levies rebelled, but others fought efficiently and participated enthusiastically in punitive massacres." [...]

"The vast majority of the Mongol army at this stage was clearly composed of light cavalry, meaning horsemen who were lightly armoured (with armour mainly composed of cloth and leather, but sometimes with iron components, with partially metal helmets; some had iron armour), carrying bow and arrows and some basic weapons for hand to hand warfare, and mounted on small, but sturdy steppe ponies. The Mongol trooper would set off on campaign with a string of such ponies, apparently around five, in order to change mounts during both long distance travel and battle (and perhaps provide meat also for himself and his fellow soldiers). The tactic of choice was wave after wave of cavalrymen advancing while firing, and then wheeling around to permit the advance of another wave of similar troops.

This might be accompanied by an attempt to encircle the enemy, facilitated by both the large numbers and the mobility of the Mongols. The aim was to break the will and formation of the enemy by these repeated attacks, and only then to engage in hand to hand combat or to chase after them if they fled, in either case probably inflicting greater casualties than the previously mentioned barrages."

The Mongols had a superstitious aversion to spilling royal blood, so when they captured Baghdad, they rolled up the caliph in rugs and kicked him to death instead of beheading him or piercing him with a sword.

In fairness, the Mongols did not only destroy. Their conquest of most of the civilized world facilitated cultural contacts between its distant parts. They brought Chinese astronomers to the Muslim lands, one of whom became the head of an observatory in Samarqand. And they brought Middle Eastern researchers to China, who established the Office of Western Medicine and an astronomical observatory there.

"...from the early Yuan period on, until the arrival of Jesuit astronomers in the seventeenth century, Islamic astronomy would play an important role in the history of Chinese science."

The Mongols even tried to bring paper money, a Chinese invention, to Iran:

"Its introduction was carefully planned, proclaimed in Ramadan 693/August 1294, and implemented a month later, but the population refused to accept it. Commerce shut down and violence erupted on the streets, so the experiment was cancelled."

The extraordinary organization and discipline of the Mongols did not last long after Chinggis Khan's death:

"Since neither Islamic nor Mongolian tradition favoured primogeniture, there were frequent succession struggles, and the Mongol period was one of particularly intense factionalism. Not many men of power, whether bureaucrats or commanders, died of natural causes. The only way to achieve an orderly administration was to rule for a long time, and here Mongol rulers were handicapped by their excessive consumption of alcohol. Leadership required constant feasting, accompanied by the drinking of both fermented and distilled alcohol. The resulting alcoholism was a common cause of death, and both the Great Khans and the Ilkhans had unusually short reigns."

In the late 14th century a Mongol warrior named Temur, aka Tamerlane, recaptured much of the old glory during 35 years of incessant campaigning, leaving towers of severed human heads along the way. He conquered Iran and Central Asia, crushed the Ottomans, obtained the submission of the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople and died while planning to invade China.

Temur and his descendants were extraordinarily generous patrons of the arts, helping to create a culture "whose impact on the subsequent development of almost every field of artistic endeavour, in both the eastern and western Islamic world, was entirely out of proportion to the Timurid dynasty’s relatively limited duration and geographical scope."

Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan

 
 
 
Temur's mausoleum
Temur, facial reconstruction based on exhumed skull.
I liked this quote about a Central Asian ruler of this time: "In the forest of courage, he was a lion hunting tiger; in the sea of generosity his hand rained pearls." [...]

"...the charismatic figure of Temür and the Timurid cultural legacy have become of great relevance to the construction of their national identity by the modern Uzbeks of the post Soviet republican period."

This would have baffled Temur himself:

"In Central Asian sources of the period, the amırs are usually identified by a tribal name [...] never as ‘Uzbek’, a generally derogatory or condescending term applied to an unlettered person, a bumpkin or rustic. It was outsiders who used the term ‘Uzbek’, and often in a pejorative sense, to refer to the entire state, its rulers and their military supporters."

Of course, Temur's empire dissolved as soon as he stopped breathing.

"Since the decline in the central authority of the Abbasid caliphate, ruling dynasties, even formidable ones like the Saljuqs, the Mongols and the Timurids, rarely lasted for much more than a century, and often less"

This contrasts with the more durable Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires in the Muslim world, as well as the French, Spanish, English and Russian nation states which arose at roughly  the same time.

"What is the explanation for this? The most obvious point is that they were ‘gunpowder empires’. The argument is that, with the increasing sophistication and expense of gunpowder weaponry, only large states could afford to keep up to date, which endowed such states with a decisive political and military advantage. By contrast, in the era of the dominance of the composite bow, which every nomad cavalryman possessed, any ambitious chieftain could attempt to put together a force which, when it reached a sufficient size, could hope to be the equal of any other. Hence in part, perhaps, the comparatively ephemeral nature of many pre-1500 states."

So it's not that firearms created large states. Those periodically popped up throughout the middle ages - just think of Charlemagne in Europe. What firearms did instead was make large states more durable and centralized. Knights and nobles could no longer hide behind their armor and castle walls, plotting revolts against the king. So they were defeated, and then "domesticated" by him.

The degree of success of the transition to firearm technology 500 years ago seems to correlate with mean IQ levels today, implying that modern geographical differences in IQ go back centuries. Europe did best. The Ottomans were second, with Iran, India and Southeast Asia lagging behind them. A lot of the gunsmiths in the Turkish realm were Westerners, yet in India and Southeast Asia Ottoman gunsmiths predominated.

"Safavid Iran, it has been argued, ‘succeeded in remaining independent because it did not allow itself to get drawn into the kind of war that only the Ottomans could win. Its reliance on cavalry instead of firearms was the secret to its survival.’"

The steppe nomads fared worst of all:

"There were to be no more steppe empires after Tamerlane’s, and the vast area that had produced the Turks and the Mongols was eventually divided between the sedentary empires of Russia and China."

Firearms could have only been manufactured in a sedentary society. Also, the settled world had a much larger population. Once organized into huge, centralized states, it could keep the nomads at bay.

By bringing back powerful states, guns increased peace and prosperity. There's an obvious parallel with nuclear weapons in the 20th century.

What about the large, stable, centralized states that existed before guns: Rome, China before the nomads started invading it? Perhaps mounted warriors weren't as effective in antiquity as they became in the middle ages. But I don't know enough about the evolution of equestrian military technology to be sure of this.

Since the Mongols were pagans when they arrived in the Middle East, they had no special respect for Arabic as the language of the prophet. They employed Persian bureaucrats though, so under their rule Persian rose in importance.

"Such traditions were transplanted into India, and there, too, Persian became the language of government so ineradicably that even in the nineteenth century it was still thought necessary to teach Persian to young British recruits to the service of the East India Company." [...]

"This is not to say that Arabic lost its prestige: as the language of the Quran, of law and of theology, its position was unassailable. But for literature, for poetry, for history, for civilised discourse generally, Persian became the language of choice over a vast geographical range, enormously larger than anything that might be considered to be Iran in a political or ethnic sense." [...]

"That there was a decline after the early Islamic centuries, in some sense, was undeniable, but it was an Arab and an Arabic, not a general Islamic, decline. The young Albert Hourani asked Philip Hitti why his celebrated History of the Arabs of 1937 contained so little on the period between the Ottoman conquest and the nineteenth century. ‘There was no Arab history then,’ was the reply. The centre of the Islamic world had shifted out of the old Arab heartlands, and so likewise should the attention of the historian. The centre shifted, in fact, to the Persian world."

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was that "all six of the collections of hadıth that carry the greatest authority in Sunnı Islam were compiled by third fourth/ninth tenth century scholars from north east Iran and Central Asia."

This book traces the development of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, which made Shiism that country's state religion around 1500. After the Safavids' decline there was a period of civil war, which ended when Agha Muhammad, a member of the Qajar tribe, emerged on top, reuniting the country in the course of several decades of tireless campaigning.

The interesting thing about him is that he had been castrated at the age of 5 after he was captured by a rival clan. Think of the qualities that soldiers expected from their leaders at that time. Now imagine his voice and beardless face, the jokes told in soldiers' camps. And yet he did it. Famous for extraordinary cruelty, even by the standards of his age, he beat every rival on his path to power.

Agha Muhammad
For most of the period covered in this book Iran was much poorer than India, so it experienced a huge outflow of talent - poets, administrators, clerics - towards its eastern neighbor.

A 17th century French monk named Raphael du Mans compared Persia to "a great caravanserai with two doors: silver entered through one in the west, only to exit through another in the east and pass into India, ‘where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss’".

The book quotes other Western writers, going back to Pliny the Elder, making the same observation. The spice trade was a small part of the reason. India was the world's chief manufacturer of cotton textiles. Cotton was grown in Iran and Central Asia too, but those regions could not compete with the subcontinent in the quality and price of finished cloth.

After the discovery of the Americas a huge share of the silver and gold mined by the Spaniards ended up in India. The West's ancient trade deficit with that country only disappeared when the Industrial Revolution allowed Europeans to make cheap textiles of their own.

Arab traders brought Islam to small parts of India early on, but the first large Muslim states were founded there by Turkic nomads. India's climate and terrain were unsuitable for actual nomadism, so these people quickly settled down. They fought on horses which they imported from their Central Asian homeland, but these often had to be replaced because they did not live long in Indian conditions. The same was true of the conquerors themselves:

"Among the invading Turks, the most substantial losses of manpower were probably caused by exposure to the almost entirely new disease pool comprising malaria, smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and a host of others of the hot and humid climate of the densely settled plains of India rather than by warfare as such."

Babur, a Turko-Mongol commander who founded the Mughal Empire in India, preferred to rule it from Afghanistan.

"He and many of his men were appalled by the environment and society of India. In fact, many of his begs or commanders fled back to the temperate climate of Kabul immediately after their Rajput victory. Babur himself did not have that luxury, and in his memoirs he recorded his acerbic evaluation of his conquests. Noting, first of all, that the trans-Indus region known as Hindustan was a ‘strange kingdom … a different world’ where even the rocks were unique, he went on to indicate that the only thing he liked about Hindustan was its wealth and its seemingly limitless human and material resources. He particularly hated north India’s flat, featureless landscape, with its lack of geometrically precise gardens bisected by waterways, and despised much of what he knew of Hindu society. Many of his most provocative critiques are contained in one brief passage, in which he writes that: The people of Hindustan have no beauty; they have no convivial society, no social intercourse, no character or genius, no urbanity, no nobility or chivalry. In the skilled arts and crafts there is no regularity, proportionality, straightness or rectangularity."

This book explains Babur's complaint about the lack of convivial society in India as a sign of his disgust with the caste system. Turkic nomads were more egalitarian than either Indians or Middle Easterners.

Babur's memoires are called here "a masterpiece of concise and straightforward Chaghatay prose, revealing an endearingly complex personality who lived in difficult political times."

Islam had a special appeal to lower caste Indians because unlike Hinduism it stresses equality of all men before God.

"The first great Islamic scholar to comment on the Indic world, Abu Rayhan al Bırunı (973-1048), noted how radically it differed from Islamic (or Christian) civilisations: ‘On the whole there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves: at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy."

Ancient Europeans and Middle Easterners did not fight any religious wars either. That seems to be unique to monotheism.

Among India's Muslim scholars the natural sciences - astronomy, medicine, etc. - were more popular than elsewhere in the Muslim world, and purely Quranic scholarship was less common.

Akbar, Babur's grandson, experimented with syncretism and religious tolerance, inviting accusations of apostasy. He allowed some of his Indian wives to practice Hinduism and adopted a modified form of vegetarianism.

"By the end of his life Akbar had subdued a territory that may have included more than 100 million people, nearly comparable to the population of Ming China, the only contemporary state that rivalled Mughal India in territory, population and wealth. At about the same time the populations of the Ottoman and Safavid states comprised an estimated 22 and 10 million people respectively, while Uzbek territories probably held no more than 5 million."

This and the following pictures are from Lahore in what is now Pakistan.






Jahangır, Akbar's son, also wrote an autobiography, "and while it seems to reveal a shallower individual than his great-grandfather the work is nonetheless still a rich, complex text."

He confessed in it to being an alcoholic and an opium addict, which, according to this book, was not unusual among the Mughal and Safavid ruling classes. Interestingly, Turkic royal women drank too.

"Temür’s wives were present at his receptions and drank and got drunk with men present, even with the Spanish ambassador Clavijo in 808/1405."

Why didn't Islam prevail over Hinduism in the long run? I think that at the elite level India already had a pretty sophisticated culture which did not feel itself to be inferior to Islam. It wasn't a martial culture, hence the ease with which Turkic nomads conquered it, but intellectually and commercially it was quite accomplished. And the Indian masses could look up to this native tradition.

This was even more true in China, where Islam fared much worse than in India.

Arab traders had been visiting the far east long before Muhammad. Muslim communities in coastal Chinese cities go back to the early centuries of Islam.

"Around 290/900 there were direct passages from the Gulf to China in one ship, though other trade was done in several ships. By the end of the eleventh century direct trade in one ship had ended. The trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to South East Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China."

This important move towards segmentation was partly a result of unsettled conditions at both ends of the route as powerful empires declined, and partly because traders realised that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places."

The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia and China was mostly due to these traders.

"A rather rare case is cited of one Li Yansheng, identied in Tang sources as ‘an Arab’ (Dashiguo ren), who passed the civil service exams in 847, and was recommended to a post at the palace. The incident sparked a debate among Chinese scholars about the meaning of ‘being Chinese’ in the wake of this appointment."

When the Mongols conquered China, they brought some Muslims with them:

"Qubilai instituted a systematic classification of population according to ethnicity: Mongols had the highest status, western and Central Asians (se mu) came second, then northern Chinese. In theory, the highest offices were reserved for the Mongols and se mu, who also enjoyed tax privileges and the right to bear arms."

Think of that when someone tells you that ethnicity is a modern invention. Muslims suffered in the inevitable nativist, anti-Mongol backlash.

Islam fared better in Southeast Asia, especially in countries where Chinese cultural influence was weak.

I think that this could be telling us something about the future: as long China continues its upward trajectory, Islam will have little impact on it. Individuals don't abandon winning cultures. In fact, if China ends up dominating the world the way European powers did before WWII, Islam's self-confidence, even in the Arab world itself, could fall back to its mid-20th-century levels.    ř