Your time is finite. Your phone and the internet stand ready to help you squander it. Here are my monthly picks for spending it well instead. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Books, what else?
The geopolitics of the 21st century is going to be driven by the rise of China, and global power’s pivot toward Asia looks inevitable (Asia is already half the world economy in purchasing-power-parity terms). But I’m of the school that to understand China you need to understand its deeper past, as this is a civilization with a 3,068-year continuous history. Luckily, Chinese history is extensively documented by the Chinese themselves, providing copious source material, (Sima Qian, the Chinese Thucydides, lived over 2,000 years ago), and it comes well periodized as dynasties. It’s easy to dig into because there is a preexistent structure.
For me, the best dynasty-by-dynasty walkthrough has to be the History of Imperial China series from Harvard University Press. These six books start from before 200 BC, from the first classical dynasties, and run down to the Qing Dynasty of the Manchus, which lasted until 1912 (considering that there are many Americans older than 110 years, it is also likely that there are some people among China’s 1.4 billion who were born under Qing rule).
But with the above being said, perhaps the best place to start would be with Early China: A Social and Cultural History. This predates classical Imperial China, as Early China begins before 1000 BC, on the edge of prehistory when the lineaments of Chinese civilization were yet to be established. By the end of Early China, about 200 BC, the broad outlines of the ideological framework that would launch Imperial China were established. Early China is not about Imperial China, but you cannot understand Imperial China’s origins without this book.
Next: The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, which opens the grand story of dynastic China proper. The Qin was the first true dynasty because the king of the Qin state conquered all of China, and became the First Emperor. Theoretically, the Qin are reviled by later Chinese, but they were the template for the next dynasty, the Han. The importance of the Han Dynasty is attested by the fact that ethnic Chinese today still identify as “Han” (Hànrén).
The Han Dynasty fell in 220 AD, and it took 361 years for China to be reunified under a single imperial dynasty again. The cultural, political and social ferment of this period is described in China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. China between Empires digs into the three-century story of how the elite Confucian culture of the Han began to synthesize with Buddhism, a “western religion” (from Central Asia) that somehow sank deep roots and became indigenized.
The closing of the barbarian period occurred when a new state that replicated the extent of Han Dynasty China emerged, though the culture and society were radically transformed. This is explored in China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. As indicated by the title China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, Tang China differed from the Han in that their horizons were broader, and their imperial scope more ambitious. The Han Dynasty was founded by a peasant, while the Tang were the scions of barbarian generals. Though the Tang is seen as a period of glory in Chinese history, they were also incredibly influential and formative in the development of other nations like Japan because of their international influence.
But the Tang were a deviation, as they reveled in the foreign. The next dynasty, the Song, was much more conventional and set the terms of what Imperial Chinese culture was to be until the fall of the dynastic system in 1912. The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China, tells the story of this dynasty and the cultural mores they shaped. Much of what China is even today, like the emphasis on mass standardized testing, crystallized during the Song, as is very clear after you read The Age of Confucian Rule.
But though the Song were culturally influential, they were militarily and politically weak, and easily conquered by the Mongols, who founded the Yuan Dynasty. This period, and the Chinese Dynasty that succeeded it, the Ming, are chronicled in The Troubled Empire. It was the Ming who built most of the Great Wall, because as you will read in The Troubled Empire, they continued to be harassed by Mongols until their overthrow by the Manchus in the mid-17th-century.
Ironically, these barbarian Manchus were the culmination of the Chinese Imperial system. Within China, they were Emperors of the Qing Dynasty, but outside of China, they were Manchu warlords of the Aisin-Gioro House. China's Last Empire: The Great Qing details how these monarchs maintained these dual identities, and expanded political China to the boundaries that we see today (at its peak, the Manchu Empire was somewhat larger than the People’s Republic of China).
With the chronological narrative history out of the way, I would suggest two supplements that round out the cultural and social aspects of China. First, Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated from French, this book from the 1970’s is one of my favorites because of the richness and depth of Gernet’s analysis. Second, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, is a short and concise overview of the intellectual movements and thinkers that set the terms of Han Dynasty China, and have been influential down to the present, Confucius first and foremost, but also lesser-known figures like Xunzi and Han Feizi.
Is Free Speech In American Law Schools A Lost Cause? Recent controversies at UC Hastings and Yale Law—Yale, shocking, I know—don't provide much reason for hope. I’ve been saying this for years. The cohort shifts are such that in the next generation we’ll see arguments in favor of suppressing speech and the living Constitution will encompass de facto restrictions. That means political power is all that matters, as ideas will not be protected by the shield of the Constitution. The new wisdom seems to be that you must seize power if you do not wish to be oppressed by it. Ironically, the new generation of lawyers will undermine reverence for the law and elevate the political process in shaping our society’s values. No one will believe they are guided by anything but expediency.
The SAT Isn’t What’s Unfair: MIT brings back a test that, despite its reputation, helps low-income students in an inequitable society. The simple fact is that higher-income people do better on the SATs, but they do even better on extracurriculars and recommendations. A simple g-loaded test is the best of imperfect options if you care about unfair opportunities given to the wealthy (this ignores the reality that there is a 0.50 correlation between income and intelligence).
They will never be convinced that cancel culture exists. I try not to get too cynical. Human civilization exists because some of time we align with the better angels of our natures. But here I think Sarah Haider is correct that cancel culture will end only when cancelers experience fear. A generation ago conservatives were the cancelers (try being gay in public life in the 1990s), and they didn’t care. Now they care. So make non-conservatives care. They need “skin in the game.”
I visited the first Whole Foods that lets you skip the checkout line. Self-checkout has been around for decades, but people don’t like the experience. If Amazon can figure out this new system I think it could be a big deal, just like Timothy B Lee says.
Empires v nations: a battle as old as time For most of history, imperialism and diversity have gone hand in hand. I agree (and this post is quoted) with this by Ed West. Strongly recommend his Substack, it’s high quality.
Fisher’s historic 1922 paper: On the dominance ratio. Why it matters, from the first sentence of the abstract: “R.A. Fisher’s 1922 paper On the dominance ratio has a strong claim to be the foundation paper for modern population genetics.”
Genomic compatibility excels possible ‘good genes’ effects of sexual selection in lake char. The “good genes” theory that you select traits to get high fitness is interesting, but these results indicate that avoiding inbreeding is far more important. In other words, nonsexy nonrelative >>> sexy relative.
Ancient genomes from the Himalayas illuminate the genetic history of Tibetans and their Tibeto-Burman speaking neighbors. So it does seem most of the ancestry of Tibetans derives from lowland populations that moved uphill during the Neolithic, in particular, from the North China Plain. But, a minority ancestral component does seem to be very ancient (I assume this is what accounts for Y-chromosomal haplogroup D in Tibet).
Polygenic prediction of educational attainment within and between families from genome-wide association analyses in 3 million individuals. There are cool findings in this paper that aren’t clear from the title. For example: “The correlation between mate-pair PGIs [polygenic index] is far too large to be consistent with phenotypic assortment alone, implying additional assortment on PGI-associated factors.”
Palaeoecological data indicates land-use changes across Europe linked to spatial heterogeneity in mortality during the Black Death pandemic. The Black Death might not have killed so many people everywhere.
Female reproductive fluid composition differs based on mating system in Peromyscus mice. This seems analogous to what happens with males and seminal fluid, where highly polyandrous species are characterized by greater viscosity to enable sperm competition.
Modeling the Evolution of Rates of Continuous Trait Evolution. They apply the method to whales, and the results are pretty cool.
A Genetic History of Continuity and Mobility in the Iron Age Central Mediterranean. Mostly indigenous, but networked by mobile populations. Pretty much what you might expect from history.
Bronze and Iron Age population movements underlie Xinjiang population history. They seem close to figuring most things out about the prehistory of Xinjiang (though the paper is somewhat hard to read).
My Two Cents
There’s still no completely free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack lie beyond the paywall.
Perhaps then Ireland’s genetic and cultural isolation for the last 3,000 years can be seen in this light, as a separate and distinct laboratory of evolution from other regions of Northern Europe. This is not to say that Ireland was entirely isolated, as Britons brought Roman Christianity and Vikings founded settlements like Dublin and Cork around the fringe of the island more than 1,000 years ago. But its unique geographic position, facing onto the unbounded Atlantic ocean to its west, and insulated even from Britain to the east, has allowed Ireland to slowly careen off on its own idiosyncratic path, buffered from the turbid tides of much of European history since the time of the Greeks and Romans.
Free, but still worth a look if you missed it, Getting a sense of the Russian soul:
To understand the position of Russians in the context of Eastern Europe and Asia, as well the demographic forces that shaped them and their neighbors, I wanted to explore patterns of genetic relatedness across various populations. I began with 478 Russians, and compared them to 419 Poles and 142 Ukrainians (the next two most populous northern Slavic groups). I also wanted to explore the relationship of Eastern Europeans to nations to their west, so I added 91 English, 99 Finns and 13 Germans to represent Northern Europeans, plus 20 Greeks and 28 Sardinians to represent Southern Europeans…
I have also had this translated into Russian. Please share with those who might benefit from it.
Here are my guests since the last Time Well Spent:
And here are the currently ungated podcasts all in one place.
For subscribers, I now post transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through to catch errors).
On the blog
The issue here is that my Substack is doing something different than what personal genomics companies are trying to do. My Substsack post is giving a survey of a whole population and its history, a personal genomics test is trying to give an individual estimate that is intelligible. When 23andMe or the other companies tell you are are 99% “Ashkenazi Jewish” it is simply giving you confirmation that you’re within the range of variation typical for Ashkenazi Jews (there is some suspicions from genealogy enthusiasts that 23andMe smooths out differences between Galicianers and Litvaks, for example).
Since many on this list are techies, I want to give a shout out to a friend who is looking for experienced backend developers to help “scale crypto asset pricing models to multiple projects, to train and inference our ensembles of deep learning models faster, and to put our price predictions on-chain, so they could be consumed by other on-chain programs such as NFT lending protocols.”
He’s looking for:
developers with 2-10 years of serious technical experience (beyond academic work) — in big tech, startup, significant open source projects, etc
interested in machine learning and Web 3.0/crypto
You’ll find links to the few different podcasts I’ve contributed to or run, my total RSS feed, links to more mainstream or print articles when I remember to post them, my Twitter, the occasional guest appearance here and there, etc.
My total feed of content
My long-time blog, GNXP
My old podcast, The Insight
My podcast today, Unsupervised Learning
Over to you
Comments are open to all for this post, so if you have more reading/listening suggestions or tips on who I should be talking to or what I really should be writing for you, lay it on me.