Asabiya Part 1: Introduction

Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is one of my favorite sort of books: those that dig into my thoughts and continues to influence them by providing a perspective to work with…or sometimes against. I find his analysis of the patterns of history intriguing and I believe he throws a light on our political landscape.

This will take on much of the flavor of a book report. In fact, it will look much like a bad book report in which I substitute long quotations for my own reactions and analysis. So be it. There is a direction. I am building to an open ended point…some questions I find interesting… which does contain the seeds of a thesis but tries not to narrow down to too fine a point. My format will be to add a skeleton of an outline to frame up material from the book and then add some observations that spark off Turchin’s work.

  •  The anchor for Turchin’s analysis is social cohesion.

Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences

  • Social cohesion => successful societies. Essentially, the groups that do the best job of cooperating are the most successful in competing with other groups. Turchin’s interest is in the creation and collapse of historical empires and he proceeds in his analysis by gathering case histories.

“Generally, in a struggle between two groups of people, the group with stronger norms promoting cooperation and the most people following such norms has a greater chance of winning.

  • Inequality erodes social cohesion. Successful societies have, in the past, built empires which then erode social inequality leading to the eventual collapse of the empire.

The phase of the secular cycle also determines the trend in social and economic inequality—whether it increases or decreases. This aspect is of particular interest because of the corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate, which in turn underlies the capacity of societies for collective action

  • Turchin uses history as his laboratory and makes the following points about contemporary politics:
    • One can’t necessarily generalize his pattern of empire going forward. We may be in a post Imperial world (witness the EU vs historically warring states in Europe.)
    • But one can understand the development of historical societies and something about current societies since they are the result of their history.
    • Turchin uses Italy as an example because it provides two matching societies:
        • North Italy vs South Italy  – He makes the point that, if Italy was divided between north and south, we would have one of the best and worst performers in Europe.

      The disparity in economic development between the Italian north and south is striking. Today the south is rural and poor, whereas the north is urban, industrialized, and wealthy. Few people realize just how well off the Italian north is, because when we see economic statistics for Western Europe, they are typically broken down by country, rather than by regions. Italy as a whole is in the middle of the pack, but its northern regions, such as Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, are at the very top of the list. The overall rank for Italy is pulled down by its poor Mezzogiorno.

        • He sees this disparity as rooted in societal function vs dysfunction
        • First,  he cites a study that took a sustained look at possible measures of social cohesion

      In 1993, Robert Putnam published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. “Social capital,” as Putnam explains, “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” 

      How can one measure “institutional performance,” that is, how well regions are governed? Asabiya (or social capital) is the key. However, capacity for collective action is a complex, multifaceted property of society, and therefore we cannot expect a single way to measure it perfectly. Putnam and his co-workers, however, came beautifully close. They chose 12 indicators, ranging from measures of operation efficiency such as bureaucratic responsiveness and budget promptness to a quantification of services provided to the public, such as the number of daycare centers and family clinics.

      When Putnam and co-workers finished estimating the institutional performance for each Italian region, they saw a remarkable pattern. There was very strong north-south gradient in how well regions were governed. The regions in the Po Valley such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia were consistently at the top of rankings in institutional performance, whereas southern regions, such as Campania (the region around Naples), Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian boot), and Sicily were at the bottom.

        • Putnam’s study is a picture of effective function but the flip side is a picture of dysfunction

      Well before Putnam, and even before the Italian experiment in devolution of powers to regional governments, anthropologists knew that something was wrong with the society of the Italian south—the Mezzogiorno, as it is known in Italian. A particularly interesting study is that by the American anthropologist Edward Banfield, who spent a number of years in a southern Italian village during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, he published a book detailing his findings, The Moral Basis of the Backward Society. Banfield describes the extreme atomization of the southern Italian society, in which all cooperative efforts are limited to the smallest possible societal unit, the family. Relations even to such kin as cousins, and sometimes even grown-up siblings, are rife with distrust and lack of cooperation. Community-level cooperative efforts are virtually impossible. Banfield called this type of society “amoral familism,” and defined its basic philosophy as this: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”

        • Turchin believes the root of this society lies in the far past in Roman slavery.

      Millions of slaves, captured during the wars of conquest, flooded Italy during the second century B.C. Because slaves had no human rights, and legally could hold no property (in practice, some masters allowed them to accumulate funds to buy themselves out of slavery), their presence in massive numbers made the Roman society during the late Republic even more unequal than is usual in pre-industrial states

      The distinction between slaves and freemen is perhaps the most extreme form of social inequality. Thus, widespread slavery must be a very corrosive influence on the society’s asabiya. In fact, empirical evidence shows slavery has a deep, and lasting, negative impact on “social capital.”

      It was, thus, the rise of inequality and especially of its ugliest form, slavery, that began corroding Roman asabiya during the second century B.C.

      …southern Italy—the core region of the defunct Roman Empire—was an asabiya black hole.  <> Peninsular Italy, including Sicily, remained an asabiya black hole from the collapse of the Roman Empire to this very day

  • He does not, of course, believe that southern Italy remained a static society. He believes that it is a damaged and ineffective one. One that has never managed to heal itself from a persistant legacy of poverty, feud, and bad government.
  • With the issues phrased this way, it’s hard not to draw some parallels to the US. That will be the topic of contemplation next post. For now, here’s something that caught my eye recently and sparked this whole train of thought

You are looking at a map of violence based on an analysis from an NGO, the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney Australia. Red is bad. Blue is the best. The rest range in between, color coded as you’d expect.

AT&T Tech Support Fixes Our DSL…

AT&T Tech Support Fixes Our DSL…but only after extracting their pound of emotional flesh.


[Here’s an interaction with AT&T. It is copied from the IM window in an on-line chat tech support session. I’ve logged in by giving my name and phone number. I’m using Scott’s name coz the account is in his name. Spacing added for readability. There is some overlap as we both type but one message posts first. That explains some of the disconnect. Some.]


System: Welcome, Mr. jonathan weaver.
System: Connecting to server. Please wait…
System: Connection with server established.
System: Technical Support Topic: undefined
System: Lisa has joined this session
System: Connected with Lisa




Lisa:Thank you for choosing AT&T Internet Services. My name is Lisa (am943m).
Lisa: Please let me know the first and last name.


You: We have ATT DSL. Last week we ‘upgraded’ the service to a faster speed. Thur evening our service slowed way down. I think something on your end is tweaked. We have a modem and router that we have been using all along…nothing changed there. I tried calling in but got instructed to setup an account(?) which I did. Can you check and see what’s going on?
You: Oh, I alread filled in the first and last name on the sign in screen but it’s Jonathan Weaver.


Lisa: Hello Jonathan Weaver.
Lisa: I apologize for the inconvenience caused.
Lisa: I will be glad to help you with the relevant information


You: Great


Lisa: Mr. Weaver, Please let me know the 10 digit DSL number to pull up the records.


You: 415.821.xxxx


Lisa: Thank you.
Lisa: I am sorry for the inconvenience you have faced due to this issue. I will do my best to help you in getting this resolved.
Lisa: As I understand you are experiencing the speed issue. Am I correct?


You: Yes, a severe speed issue. Service has shrunk to .12 up and .02 Mbps down. It happened abruptly Thur evening and has not recovered.


Lisa:Thank you for the confirmation.
Lisa: Please let me know the name of the modem/router you are using?


You: The modem is an Alcatel 1000 ADSL that AT&T provided when we first signed up for the DSL service. The router is a NetGear something or other. I’d have to get the step ladder to check the model number.
You: Is that enough information?


Lisa: No problem, thank you for the information.
Lisa: Mr. Weaver, I need to ask you a few questions to reach the root cause of this issue. This will help me to provide an effective resolution. Would that be all right with you?


You: Yes, ask away.


Lisa: Thank you.
Lisa: I appreciate your support.
Lisa: How many computers are connected with the network?


You: Usually 5


Lisa: Thank you.
Lisa: Are you connected with the wired connection or wirelessly?


You: Both


Lisa: I am sorry, I mean to say how are connected with us ,either from the wired or with the wireless connection.


You: Please note, nothing has changed in terms of connections, modem, router, number of computers, or usage pattern between Wednesday when everything worked and Thursday when it slowed to a crawl and stayed there.
You: wired connection to you: DSL phone line to modem.


Lisa: Thank you.
Lisa: Mr. Weaver,Please let me know if you’re using any VPN connection, like your office Network.


You: No.


Lisa:Thank you.
Lisa: Please let me know have you power cycle the modem/router since you started experiencing the slow speed issue?


You: Yes


Lisa: How did you perform the power cycle of modem/router last time?


You: I turned it off and turned it back on. And rebooted the computer I’m monitoring speed on.


Lisa: Fine,
Lisa: Let me provide you all the steps once again how to perform the correct power cycle of modem/router.
Lisa: As correct power cycling mostly resolves the speed connection issues.


You: Can you verify that we do in fact have the service that we are supposed to have and that you are providing appropriate service to our modem?


Lisa: Please let me know a preferred e-mail address where I can send you some useful information for further assistance.


You: Can you verify that we do in fact have the service we are supposed to have and that you are providing appropriate service to our modem?


Lisa:Yes in order to get to that , please lets perform all the steps which are in the email that I am going to sent you.


You: Having rebooted, etc, I am now trying to verify that you all didn’t hose something when you upgraded our service!
You: How do I do that if it is not by contacting AT&T!!!
You: is a good email address but I already went through the checklist you have online!!


Lisa: please let me know the complete email address on which I can sent you some information.


You: I just gave you the address. Please tell me why you will not verify that our service is correct. There are other alternatives for high speed internet. Comcast for example.


Lisa: Thank you, I have sent you a email with all the information related to your slow speed issue. Please perform all the steps and call the Voice technical support at 1877-722-3755 toll free number available 24/7.


You: Are you telling me that you will not verify our service?!


Lisa: We have found that a technician is helpful in solving these problems. Please perform all the steps and call the Voice technical support at 1877-722-3755 toll free number available 24/7.


You: I will do that. I’ll will begin by telling them that you refused to verify our service.


[And with that I hung up the chat window. Oddly enough, 5 minutes later our service was fixed. Note: I copied most all of the above from the chat window but the last two sentences were recreated from memory. I lost them when I hung up.]

Everything I needed to know I learned during freefall

I’m taking the week off to do some writing, work on side projects, and generally try to get organized (an ongoing but quixotic project of mine.) I thought I’d limber up by posting something from the archives.

Here’s something I found last week while digging through old files. High school buddy, Denny, was asked to give the Commencement Address at our old high school. He sent out a call to some of us to send in our advice. Here was mine:


Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out


Everything I needed to know I learned during freefall.

We all graduated in 1970. That might make you think that we were in high school during the 60’s. In actual fact, South Dakota went directly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and skipped the 60’s almost entirely with the except of a few short months allowed for transition.

Although those months were short, they were intense and we were there.

The main thing about the 60’s was that all the Big Truths about God, America, and Western History were called radically into question. All the stuff we were taking for granted became so suspect that I found it necessary to clear everything off the table and start over. My theory was that I’d examine the Big Truths one by one and let the valid ones back on. Unfortunately, none of them made it back and I’ve been forced to rely on a collection of smaller truths instead. I offer some for your consideration.

1. Life’s too short to live anybody else’s but you own.

2. Never try to psychoanalyze a cop while he’s arresting you.

3. It’s a good idea not to be any stupider than absolutely necessary.

4. Truth itself is an attempt to use limited tools to describe an unlimited reality and therefore all truths are necessarily wrong.

5. Some truths are much more wrong than others.

6. Reality doesn’t sit there waiting to be described like a mackerel on a plate. It’s a tiger that might get up at any given moment and thoroughly kick your ass.

7. Love and affection are more important that sex.

8. Sex is important.

9. The statement “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he rich” is the logical equivalent of “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he fat”. It takes a lot less money to get fat, however.

10. After reading Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Husserl, Tillich, and numerous others in search of a approach to life, the best I’ve been able to figure is that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out. All three, when they happen, have their attendant problems and it’s wise to be emotionally prepared to deal each of them.

Good luck.


Denny, this may need a quick edit. I didn’t have time to let it sit then read it over again. Also, the order of the above might could use rearranging.

Divine Retribution

21 Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Matthew 7:21-23 (King James Version)

Having been alerted by Pat Robertson that hurricanes and other natural disasters are communications from God, I couldn’t help but notice that what my parents and grandparents termed the Bible Belt seems to take an inordinate number of hard shots. Katrina, for example, hit Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana (disasters from which they’ve yet to recover) as have frequent subsequent hurricanes. If you look at the map of the BP oil spill, notice it angled in toward Mississippi and Florida.

My hypothesis is that contemporary Christians have changed the religion into a ‘divine’ justification for their petty hatreds, angers, and judgments (encroaching on God’s explicitly claimed prerogative on that last point.) This combination of spiritual arrogance and conscious or unconscious hypocrisy is starting to make God a little testy.

Here’s some good evidence from last week’s San Francisco Chronicle.


Associate Pastors Chris Nunn and Steve Messick from Imperial County featured in a SF Chronicle article “County leads battle against gay weddings.”

photo credit: Brant Ward / The Chronicle

Pictured are Associate Pastors Chris Nunn and Steve Messick from Imperial County featured in an article “County leads battle against gay weddings.

Notice the background. They are posing in their church which is under repair…after being damaged….in an earthquake….on Easter!

My theory? God loves these people but hates what they do. He’s trying to give them a wakeup call. Will they get it in time?

Yours in faith,

Rev Al

“Many are called but fewer are called Al”

If you’re so smart why aren’t you rich?

“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

I’m glad you asked that.

I’ve always taken my inspiration from biological systems. One universal here is that inputs are good in a biological system only in a narrow range. Too much water and too little water will kill a plant. Too much food and too little food are both bad. Medicines have a low threshold of ineffectiveness and a high threshold of toxicity. My grandfather took strychnine as a blood pressure medicine. Critical vitamins can kill in both lack and excess.

Money is an input in a biological system. Too much and too little both trend towards toxicity…though in quite different ways.

The statement “if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich” is the precise logical equivalent, in my opinion, of “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you fat!”

I point out in passing that I’m not poor.

Now the counter question. I’ve noticed a tendency among the rich to keep working to get rich. What’s up with that? Lack of imagination? Trapped in the system?

To quote Baba Ram Dass when asked about his switch from LSD, “Well, when you’ve received the answer, hang up the phone.”

Science Fiction as Erosion – Meditation on Gibson’s Spook Country

I recently reread William Gibson’s Spook Country. I read it first years ago shortly after publication and it has lurked the back of my memory ever since. Its characters, plot elements and moods would surface even though only vaguely connected to the matters at hand. I wanted to get back into it for another full immersion.

It was a very satisfying re-read.

Now then, I read it on the Kindle  and the Kindle has a dangerous aspect, particularly for insomniacs: you can buy a book on impulse at 2 am and be reading it minutes later. Spook Country (of which I had vivid memories) lead to Pattern Language (which I remembered hardly at all despite some overlap in characters and vibe) and then on into a mini-sf reading spree of early Gibson, newer Ian Banks, and mop up Kage Baker.

Noting what remained vivid in memory and what didn’t  lead to some thinking about what sf does.

I’ve read various theories over the past decades about the pulps and the  limits and appropriate role of genre fiction. My theory of sf matches none of that and simultaneously works as a description of why I like all the interrelated genre’s of sf, fantasy, & horror.

The role of sf is, quite simply, to erode the present.

  • Imagine that we sit down with a new volume by a favorite author on the flat plain of the present.
  • Hills and valleys have been flattened since last time by the familiarity of the everyday world.
  • We read.
  • If the volume is effective the world begins to erode.
  • In the best possible case, like a stroll atop Sheep Mountain in the South Dakota, flat prarie drops away into a deeply erode landscape of shape and color.

The gradient of how things will move forward has now been changed!

The present flows into the future along an altered channel with different resonance and open possibilities.

And finally that new future feeds back and revises the present. Our world becomes more eerie, more open, more wondrous, more strange.

Kage Baker: An Appreciation

A favorite author of mine, Kage Baker, died young at 57 on 1/31/2010.

I took the news as a call to chase down and read anything I could find of hers that I’d somehow missed. There was very little to find. I’d been following her work assiduously since reading her In the Garden of Iden in 1997. Not much had slipped by me.

I was particularly fond of her popular Company series but I’ve liked everything she’s written.
The Company series began with a premise introduced in Garden of  Iden of a secret organization using a highly constrained version of time travel to ‘guide’ human history. Its agents are recruited (by other agents) from among otherwise doomed young children who are trained up, given immortality and near invulnerability, and then deployed to rescue cultural treasures and prevent the derailment of human history. Or at least that’s the story the agents are given.
The master organization exists in the 21st – 24th Century and stays there since time travel is one way and it would doom the non-immortal company officers to life in a primitive past.
The agents slowly realize things are not necessarily as they seem, factions form, and different strategies constellate all focused on 2355…the point where something happens and the news and instructions channel from the future goes dark.
The beauty of Baker’s writing is that she focuses on the human side of her cyborg agents. She gets to play with a clash of cultural backgrounds and character formation from different epochs with agents recruited in periods ranging back to the Neolithic but deployed potentially anytime or anywhere forward…although she focus on relatively recent missions (1500 and on).  She deals with the challenge to relationships and the strains on the personalities caused by her agents inhuman condition and there alienation from the regular human population who are, nonetheless, producing the magnificent cultural artifacts they are raised to protect and treasure.
It’s a great use of a nerdly science fiction premises to anchor an exploration of personality and culture. Oh, and did I mention that a key thread through all books is the romance of the two characters introduced in Iden, one of which repetitively dies and then reappears.
If I have any criticism, it’s that her later books have too much plot to get through. She seemed to be racing forward faster and faster to cover the full narrative to the events of 2355 in fewer and few pages. The final book in the series appeared in 2007. I don’t know the events of her personal biography: perhaps this rush was related to her illness; or it could be she was simply bored with the series but wanted to give her fans a conclusion and get on with other projects. In any case, I liked it better when she took her time and did a slower dive into culture and character.  There she shone although it was all interesting.
My favorite of her novels is Sky Coyote. Imagine an competent version of Rowling’s Gildaroy Lockhart, surgically altered to appear part coyote, and sent to convince a coastal, mercantile-oriented, California tribe to do the Companies bidding and move from their rich home territory. This is the second book in the Company series. I give it a strong recommendation. If you’re a purist, read Iden as a warm up.

Darwinian Interlude – References

Short version (extended quotation below):

“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.

Evolution was a communal affair.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.

The Darwinian interlude had begun.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

— Freeman Dyson

original quote from Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness
see The Darwinian Interlude  by Freeman Dyson


From Our Biotech Future by Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 7/19/2007

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his “New Biology” article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist.

Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

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