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Last month I reviewed Prelude to Foundation, and now I’ve finally gotten to the original. The two books were written many decades apart, but even if I’d started with this book I still wouldn’t be in the order everything was written: the first section (“The Psychohistorians”) was only added in 1951 when the stories from the 40s were collected into the Foundation trilogy. Even aside from that, the last story in this book was actually published before the story which precedes it (and is referenced in it since it takes place earlier). Thus I shouldn’t be faulted too much for starting with the prequel.

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The subtitles of the books by Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins are, respectively, “European Mythmaking In The Pacific” and “About Captain Cook, for Example”, which isn’t quite as funny separated from the title. I didn’t title this “Gananath Obeyesekere vs Marshall Sahlins” because I haven’t actually read the earlier works by Sahlins that Obeyesekere initially criticized. I suppose ideally I should have first read those, then read the bulk of Obeyesekere’s book, then Sahlins’, and then gone back to read the sections of the republished edition of the former responding to Sahlins, but my delay in writing in this post is related to my flagging interest in the subject.

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I’ve linked to What’s Wrong with Social Science and How to Fix It before, but as with Sid Jha on Robert Moses, I keep forgetting who wrote it and where to find it. In this case I should give a hat-tip to “The Chaostician” in the comments at Astral Codex Ten for reminding me.

The only Isaac Asimov I had read prior to this was his non-fiction essay Not as We Know It: The Chemistry of Life (which I still like to link to) and a critical review of Orwell’s 1984 noting how it should be too dysfunctional to be an effective surveillance state. My plan had been to start with the original Foundation novel, but that was checked out at the libary while this was available and since Asimov himself seemed to endorse a chronological reading order (although I had only heard that this was significantly worse than the original series) I figured it was ok for me to do so as well. I had fretted earlier that I was behind in my classic scifi, and perhaps that is true insofar as I read Dune long before I read Foundation when Herbert was responding to Asimov (and may well have copied the technique of epigraphs from an in-universe text preceding chapters, as the Encyclopedia Galactica gets used here). But it’s fortuitous that this was the next work of fiction I read after The Dispossessed due to the striking similarity between the premises of the two novels, and that surprises which didn’t work on people who’d read the preceding Foundation stories could still work on me.

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I didn’t say anything when he first announced it over a week ago and others were taking note, because I wanted to link to his new site once it was up. Here it is. I actually removed EconLog from my RSS feed years ago because of the influx of new bloggers I never read filling the feed with boilerplate libertarian/classical liberal politics I don’t care about (it was also only recently that I found I was no longer banned from commenting there, though the site update appeared to make their search function much worse). You might then ask (if I still had readers to ask) why I don’t remove EconLog from my blogroll, but I haven’t removed anything in a very long time even though most of them are defunct. I do think I should add Caplan’s new site, even though nobody actually relies on blogrolls now that everything transmits virally over social media instead.

I’ve planned on reading Ursula Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” for a while now, as I most recently discussed in my last review of a scifi novel (which also happened to feature an anarchist society of exiles on a moon orbiting their despised former government while still exporting food or other resources to it), and got some extra motivation when I read this while writing that review. In a way it’s fitting that I had a digression from scifi into cultural anthropology, since Le Guin herself was the daughter of anthropologists and the stateless societies they study could have helped to inspire her.

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A while back somebody I can’t remember linked to a review of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” which explained Robert Moses’ success as a combination of his idealistic reformer streak (and public image) with a cynical side focused on power. I could never remember where to find it, and after the last time I asked about it and somebody linked it I forgot again. Well now (I think) I’ve managed to find it again at the Substack of Sid Jha, in two parts (which I hadn’t remembered before). I didn’t check out more of Jha’s writings before, but I see he’s got shorter takes on more books like this one with two opposite perspectives on WW2*. As I type this I’m in the middle of Ezra Klein’s podcast with Alex Tabarrok on how it’s impossible to build anything quickly in America, often blamed on the reaction to Moses’ excesses (associated with Jane Jacobs) resulting in federal regulations tying funding to neighborhood level veto-points.
*I’m now spending more time on Youtube series about that as well, making me feel more like one of those awful normies abetting the decline of the text-heavy web in favor of inferior recorded media optimized for smartphones & virality.

The subtitle is “An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology”, and I actually first read an excerpt in a larger anthology I discussed in the comment to my last post. I wasn’t sure if I would just make another comment or two below that, since this one is a slim volume, but I ended up taking enough notes to merit an entire post (though it’s not especially organized). Marshall Sahlins claims that he wrote it quickly and without the usual scholarly practice of adding lots of citations & endnotes. That’s more fitting for me than his peers, since it’s not like I have access to an academic library to look up his citations anyway. Plus, the whole thing is a shorter & quicker read. He does at least distinguish himself from critics he designates as leftists (even though I know Sahlins as a lefty who denounced the Milton Friedman Institute at his own University of Chicago. In a way, this is keeping with his arguments against the Marxist anthropologist Marvin Harris of “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches”, who tried explain cultural variation via economics. (more…)

As promised at the end of my last book review, I started reading the late E. O. Wilson‘s only novel before he died, and thus before the big hubbub about an unusually stupid op-ed denouncing him in Scientific American, resulting in an open letter whose signatories started dropping off under pressure (like the Harper’s letter*). It’s not that long a book, but I read it very inconsistently thanks to the distractions of the internet and under the assumption I wouldn’t have to worry about having to return the book due to others requesting holds.

*I had forgotten Gelman chimed in on that one, and just recently linked in a post-script to a response to the Wilson controversy by a creationist (as a way of mocking the outlet publishing anti-Darwinism).

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A little while back I noted that much of what is called “critical race theory” is not the original material taught in law-schools but “heretical” offshoots. I couldn’t remember the Medium essay where I got that phrasing (and idea), and now I remember: Kerwin Fjøl’s On Pretentious Rhetoric.

Nearly four years ago I reviewed Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”, and ended by noting I planned to compare his later “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” or Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”. I ultimately picked the former, figuring that would be immediately comparable to Troopers while the latter would mostly be of interest compared to the former. Now that comparisons between Dune & Foundation or Stranger in a Strange Land are in vogue I feel behind in my classic scifi.

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Robert Trivers was the inspiration for E. O. Wilson to write “Sociobiology”, and whether because of Wilson drawing away the flak or Trivers’ own radical leftist politics (he worked with Huey Newton, to whom this book is dedicated) he was never as much a figure of controversy. Reading his Folly of Fools, it quickly became apparent that Robin Hanson “America’s Creepiest Economist” owes much of his thinking on signalling, status & hypocrisy to the research program Trivers pioneered. I haven’t yet read “The Elephant in the Brain”, so I can’t say whether he should be paying royalties, but anyone who is interested in that topic should definitely read this.

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A sensible moderation policy might involve automatically holding back any comment from a commenter who hasn’t yet been approved. But agnostic holds all new comments under moderation by default and sometimes just doesn’t choose to approve them. Knowing this, I saved a copy of the last one I tried to submit in reply to this, and am pasting it below.

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Every summary I’ve read of the Russo-Persian wars notes that the latter held the numerical advantage (particularly since the former were busy fighting the Ottomans & Napoleon), but the former won because of their better technology. These summaries never say what that better technology was. This is well after the Safavid “gunpowder empire” so it’s not like they didn’t both have firearms. I know the Russians would later have a disadvantage against the faster rate of fire of rifles used by the Ottomans (including repeating Winchester lever-actions) during the siege of Plevna (although they still ultimately won that war). I haven’t heard something comparable specific for the wars with Persia.

I have previously discussed Tsarist expansion in my reviews of For Prophet and Tsar as well as East of the Sun, the latter of which had some erroneous claims about the advantages Europeans derived from their firearms. I had already asked for a good history of Russian expansion back during the GWB administration. I had commenters back then who could actually recommend such books, whereas now I blog less and so much has moved to social media. Out of spite for that trend I will continue not cross-posting blog entries to twitter.

While arguing with some other people at Astral Codex 10 about the merits of communist regimes that have actually existed, marxbro1917 started questioning whether famines are actually more common under them. I interjected by bringing up Amartya Sen, citing & quoting a paragraph of his on the subject. I begin quoting after that point, as the comments started becoming too nested to be readable.

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