__marcelo (__marcelo) wrote,
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__marcelo

Books! (Strangeness and Civilization Edition)

The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells (L. Dryden, 2019/#6): A reread.

An Adventure Among the Rosicrucians (Franz Hartmann, 2019/#7): Rather than PWP it's Philosophical Drivel Without Plot, but if you stick to the end and then read the stuff beyond right to the (virtual) back cover, you learn that it's also, or perhaps primarily, a book-length advertisement for a supposed translation of a centuries-lost book, as well as an explanation of how it fell into the author's hands, and why the all-powerful Adepts want it to be distributed. It doesn't make the theosophical drivel any less silly, nor improves the writing from a craftmanship point of view, but I'm giving Franz not a few admiring points for sheer gall.

Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century (Peter N. Miller, 2019/#8): Not a biography, but a look at the activities, motivations, impact, and eventual obscurity of Peiresc (1580-1637), once upon a time perhaps the most famous scholar in Europe, and (and because he was) one of the central social and intellectual hubs of the Republic of Letters — to a large degree because he both embodied and defended a way of life and interaction based on seeking and sharing accurate descriptions of traces from the past, be them documents, words, or objects, a civil and generous discourse short on open confrontation, and generous intellectual and practical patronage across religious and political lines. He lived most of his life in Provence, as well as sitting in its parliament, but had a vast and growing network of correspondents stretching from London to India.

Peiresc was known by, and often close friends with, pretty much everybody, including Casaubon, Kirchener, Grotius, Sarpi, Galileo, and Urban VIII — whom he wrote often (he had known him before he became Pope) trying to get him to pardon Galileo, in terms and for reasons that feel pretty contemporary to us (essentially, "a religion that depends on getting astronomy right is in unnecessarily thin ice"). More than an information (his collection was a working one, and lent to whoever could make use of it) and contacts clearinghouse, he was considered one of the most learned antiquarians of the age, had an orchid named after him, was the first person to describe a nebula, coordinated simultaneous astronomical measurements in multiple sites trying to help get longitude measurements right, and made the first map of the Moon.

And yet a few decades after his death he had been all but forgotten. Not that this would have surprised or, perhaps, hurt him: one of the reasons he articulated to defend or explain the study of the past — beyond its very direct political applicability, in an age where solidifying political actors building up what would become modern nations looked around for historical precedents — was the perspective gained by direct and frequent contact with the minimal remains of once famous and powerful nations and pollee, and the way this afforded a form of internal serenity immune to the arbitrary ravages of life in the court, not to mention civil wars and what not (all of which he was frequently exposed to). Miller describes this as a powerful Neo-Stoic current in the philosophy of the age, not only Christianized but also helping shape a form of "minimalist Christianity" that could, by its spareness, be a necessary but also sufficient common creed, leaving everything else open to accommodation and under the control of the local civil authorities; basically Sarpi's position. Funnily enough, at more or less the same time Mateo Ricci was using the same approach to try and gradually win the Chinese to Christianity, basically by writing Chinese texts that stressed a Christian-by-way-of-Marcus-Aurelius philosophy of rational self-control and dutiful but ambition-less service that was also pretty much Confucius'.

The fact that the Jesuits, and the Church in general, soon went forcefully for a more Augustinean skepticism about rational self-improvement and more detailed dogmatic demands (see the Rites Controversy, also relevant to similar although less, er, careful efforts at accommodation in the New World), is, for the author, part of why Peiresc became, almost during his lifetime, old-fashioned. The author identifies two other factors. One was the growth of a New Science that de-emphasized and mocked antiquarianism as both practice and goal — I think, at least in Peiresc's case, unfairly, as he was not uninterested in the observation of physical phenomena, and his approach to history was not necessarily what we would now call un-scientific. The second one was a social turn, first originated in the Parisian saloons, towards a different form of civil conversation that worked more as social lubricant and entertainment than as the fruitful exchange and exploration of scholarly knowledge. The image of the antiquarian as out-of-touch pedant, and their exclusion from the best society, happened more or less at this point. And it didn't help that although Peiresc himself was an astoundingly prolific correspondent, and wrote studies, memoranda, and so on, he never published anything.

So Peiresc "lost" (again, a competition he more or less trained his entire life not to care about — remember that the foremost of his praised qualities, and before his famous erudition, was his generosity with other scholars, and how common is that even now?), but perhaps not really. Everything we see of Montaigne in us comes also, without the memory of his name but not devoid of his influence, from him, and if Gibbons comes from an age where narrative ability and empirical causal framing came to define the ultimate output of the historian, Peiresc's methods of data gathering and description are still at the basis of historiographical practice. And, devoid of some of the intellectual content, and taken out of networks of erudite correspondents and scholars visiting each other, his striving for polite, well-meaning, civil discourse would end up being one of the predecessors of the later "civil sphere" of Habermas et al.

A final note: part of the philosophical framework for his practice, and that of his peers, came from an idea of solitude derived from Seneca. Now, later critics of Seneca's view of solitude attacked a concept of total isolation, but a fuller reading of his work finds a much more interesting idea, one where friendship (in the very close, Holmes&Watson sense (the slash being in a way not negated but irrelevant) philosophers used to talk about it) enhanced rather than impeded solitude.

All in all, a very recommended book along a number of dimensions. If nothing else, it's a sustained attempt to recover an almost forgotten, and often misunderstood, biography and even societal and intellectual milieu, one that despite its current obscurity and bad reputation, I can see as preceding and mirroring some aspirations, methods, and questions I find still relevant to our lives.


The Stone Man (Kenneth Robeson, 2019/#9): A Doc Savage yarn, but thinner (and Doc-lighter) than most.

Energy and Civilization: A History (Vaclav Smil, 2019/#10): Like most of Smil's books, a detailed yet top-down view of a topic from scientific first principles, in this case energy as relevant to the human species. The approach from physics is very helpful, as it gives you common units to discuss and compare, say, the work capabilities of farmers with and without different sorts of animal help, waterwheels, tractors, etc, although Smil quite consistently warns against "energetic determinism" as an explanatory factor for historical developments, rather than establishing a frontier of possibility. Quite impossible to summarize, of course, so instead I'll just list a few observations I found intersting, either of specific datums or generic frameworks:

  • It's not going to get into any poetic celebration of human exceptionalism, but humans are extraordinarily effective sweaters, which gives us an advantage during long chases in hot climates. Most animals can out-sprint us, but lone humans trotting/power-walking after you carrying a sharp stick with maybe a sharper stone tied to it, or a bunch of them freakishly coordinated, are terrifyingly effective predators.

  • The whole "jungle people were well-fed working very short hours" is a lie. They weren't, and they didn't.

  • Transitions between energy sources (whether into agriculture, switching agricultural methods, different animate and inanimate power sources, etc) tend to begin earlier than we thought, yet take very long and be anything but linear in social and technological terms. It doesn't just have to work, it has to work better than highly optimized systems very well adapted to the local environment, processes, and society (which to a large degree changed to adapt to existing methods), so that's usually slower than what a teleological view would imply. The peak number of horses in the US happened during the early 20th century, the Romans had waterwheels, etc.

  • Speaking of waterwheels, they were used and useful pretty much since antiquity, with continuous improvements even after the first steam engines. There's partial overlap between those kinds of things, and they don't achieve their technological peaks until after their future replacements are there.

  • Systematic and complex crop rotation (specially with legumes, nitrogen being the major macronutrient limit for crops) was a game changer, even if European traditional farming didn't even get very good until the 19th century. The US was a very early and fast innovator in agricultural methods — partly because having lots of land per capita allowed you to feed lots of large horses, and hence have a lot of non-human animate power available; animals were both useful and energetically expensive, so they don't really work unless you have the scale for them.

  • To a very large degree, the huge direct and indirect energy inputs into modern agriculture mean we eat fossil fuels, not recent photosynthesis (although we can't dispense with the latter). And food supply didn't get sufficient, minus distributional issues, until this became the case, in the 20th century.

  • Unexpected technological relationships and deployments: Smallish windmills did a lot to help expand the American West. Steam engines at first increased the use of horses — railway shipments had to be collected and distributed by horse-drawn vehicles, and greater urban affluence increased the number of private coaches and hansoms, as well as horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses, besides delivery wagos. This disappeared in a generation, abruptly, but it was the internal combustion engine, not the steam engine, what did away with horses in cities.

  • It only took 10,000 people at a time to build the Great Pyramid.

  • The story in England wasn't "they had lots of coal, so they invented steam machines." It was rather: they ran out of wood(s) (seriously, cities used to use a lot, both for heating and for making iron implements), so that led to coal digging becoming economically feasible, which lead to the need for pumps, and once you need pumps in a place next to a lot of coal, you begin thinking about steam engines. And, of course, once you come up with effective trains, you start building railroads (there's an interesting story, not in this book, about the way the railroads bubble in England ruined a lot of people, but ended up subsidizing later economic growth), which demands a tremendous amount of iron, so you need even more coal.

  • Systematic oil exploitation for usage elsewhere was first done by the Russians in Baku in the early 19th century. The Han used it to evaporate brine in 200 BCE, but only in one landlocked area, and nowhere else.

  • The usual pattern for energy sources tends to go: first they are cheap, driven by some other need, and only then we come up with specialized machinery for it.

  • Edison wasn't the only major electrical inventor, but was pretty much the only one who understand the need, and could pull off, a fully integrated commercial and industrial system, including generation, distribution, appliances, sockets, etc.

  • Without good and cheap transformers there's no mass electricity: low voltage is best for generation and usage, but you can't distribute it over long distances with any practical infrastructure.

  • A quote: At the most fundamental level, in 1800 the world consumed about 20 EJ of energy (an equivalent of less than 500 Mt of crude oil), of which 98% was phytomass, mostly wood and charcoal; by 1900 the total primary energy supply had more than doubled (to about 43 EJ, equal to just over 1 Gt of crude oil), and half of it came from fossil fuels, mostly from coal.In 1800 the most powerful inanimate prime mover, Watt’s improved steam engine, had a capacity just above 100 kW; in 1900 the largest steam engines rated 3 MW, or 30 times as much.In 1800 steel was a rarity; by 1850, even in the UK, it “was known in commerce in comparatively very limited quantities” (Bell 1884, 435), and only a few hundred thousand tonnes of it were produced worldwide—but by 1900 the global output was 28 Mt (Smil 2016).

  • Smil changed my mind about Peak Oil: oil is a finite resource, of course, but given that burning even everything we have access to right now would render the planet pretty much uninhabitable by any civilization large enough to keep doing it at scale, it's not really something to worry about.

  • GDP and energy usage are still strongly coupled. Recent falls at the country level are partly caused by exporting energy-intensive processes. This is worrisome, as solar isn't picking up fast enough, and might not be able to.

  • Another quote, contextualizing the previous observation: Energy use is thus related to quality of life in a fairly linear manner only during the lower stages of development (going from quality of life in Niger to quality of life in Malaysia).Plotted values show distinct inflections of the best-fit lines at between 50 and 70 GJ/capita, followed by diminishing returns, topped by a plateau above (depending on the studied quality-of-life variable) 100–120 GJ/capita (fig.6.20).This means that the effect of energy consumption on improving quality of life—measured by variables that truly matter, not by the ownership of yachts—reaches a saturation level well below the rates of energy use prevailing in affluent countries, with the leading EU economies and Japan at about 150 GJ/capita, Australia at 230 GJ/capita, the United States at 300 GJ/capita, and Canada at about 385 GJ/capita in 2015 (BP 2015).Additional increases in discretionary energy use go into ostentatious housing (as average family size has declined, the average size of U.S.houses has more than doubled since the 1950s), the ownership of multiple expensive vehicles, and frequent flying.More remarkably, America’s high energy use has been accompanied by quality-of-life indicators that are inferior not only when compared with the performance of leading EU countries or Japan (whose energy use is only half the U.S.rate) but when compared with the performance of many coun-tries with intermediate energy use.In 2013 the United States, with 6.6 of every 1,000 live-born babies dying in the first year of life, ranked 31st worldwide, below not only France (3.8), Germany (3.5), and Japan (2.6) but also more than twice as high as Greece’s infant mortality (CDC 2015).Even worse, in 2013 America’s life expectancy ranked 36th worldwide, with an average of 79.8 years for both sexes, which was hardly better than in Castro’s Cuba (79.4) and behind the life expectancy of Greece, Portugal, and South Korea (WHO 2015a).The educational achievements of students in OECD countries are regu-larly assessed by PISA,, and the latest results show America’s 15-year-old ranking just below that of Russia, Slovakia, and Spain and far lower than that German, Canadian, or Japanese teenagers (PISA 2015).In science, U.S.children were just below the mean OECD score (497 vs.501); in reading they were barely above the mean (498 vs.496), and far behind all populous affluent Western nations.PISA, much like any such study, has its weak-nesses, but the large differences in relative rankings are clear: there is not the slightest indication that America’s high energy use has any beneficial effect on the country’s educational achievements.

  • Last one: No other energy use offers such a payback as higher crops yields resulting from the use of synthetic nitrogen: by spending roughly 1% of global energy, it is now possible to supply about half of the nutrient used annually by the world’s crops.Because about three quarters of all nitrogen in food proteins come from arable land, almost 40% of the current global food supply depends on the Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis process.


The Persistence of Vision (John Varley, 2019/#11): A reread. A good collection of short stories; Varley is good at making societies strange in both technological and psychological ways.
Tags: #10, #11, #6, #7, #8, #9, books
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