The Englishmen shave their beards and moustaches, and twist hair into pig-tails

March 22nd, 2023

William Dalrymple shares a report (in The Anarchy) from a Persian traveller, a learned Sayyid named Abdul Lateef Shushtari, who visited Calcutta after the East India Company had taken over:

Whatever their many vices, wrote Shushtari, the English welcomed and rewarded talent: ‘the English have no arbitrary dismissal,’ he noted, ‘and every competent person keeps his job until he writes his own request for retirement or resignation. More remarkable still is that they take part in most of the festivals and ceremonies of Muslims and Hindus, mixing with the people. They pay great respect to accomplished scholars of whatever sect.’

Intermarriage, he wrote, was common, though the Indian women who took European partners were, he maintained, rarely respectable: ‘The women of people with no future, of corrupt Muslims, of evil Hindus, who of their own desire enter into the bonds of wedlock with the English, they do not interfere with their religion nor compel them to leave purdah veiling; when any son born of the union reaches the age of 4, he is taken from his mother and sent to England to be educated.’

The Englishmen shave their beards and moustaches, and twist hair into pig-tails. They scatter a white powder to make their hair look white, both men and women do this, to lessen the difference between old and young. Neither men nor women remove pubic hair, accounting comely to leave it in its natural state. And indeed, most European women have no body-hair, and even if it does occur, it is wine-coloured, soft and extremely fine.

By reason of women going unveiled, and the mixed education of boys and girls in one school-house, it is quite the thing to fall in love, and both men and women have a passion for poetry and compose love poems. I have heard that well-born girls sometimes fall in love with low-born youths and are covered in scandal which neither threats nor punishment can control, so their fathers are obliged to drive them out of the house. The streets are full of innumerable such once-well-bred girls sitting on the pavements.

Brothels are advertised with pictures of prostitutes hung at the door, the price of one night written up with the furnishings required for revelry … As a result of the number of prostitutes, atashak [gonorrhoea] – a severe venereal disease causing a swelling of the scrotum and testicles – affects people of all classes. It spreads from one to another, healthy and infected mixed together, no one holding back – and this is the state of even the Muslims in these parts!

How much does a Pulitzer Prize increase weekly sales?

March 21st, 2023

How much does a Pulitzer Prize increase weekly sales?

The 2014 general nonfiction winner, Tom’s River by Dan Fagin, went from 10 copies to 162 copies sold (6,266 copies sold to date) on BookScan. History winner The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor went from 27 copies to 433 copies (3,375 copies sold to date). 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri, the 2014 poetry winner, went from 11 copies to 81 copies (353 copies sold to date). Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller, the biography winner, out in paperback, went from 62 copies to 387 copies (5,038 copies sold to date).

His son was too morose and difficult for the Church, and far too hot-headed and impatient for the law

March 20th, 2023

Robert Clive first went out to India as a humble accountant, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), but proved to have unexpected talents in a quite different sphere:

With no military training and no formal commission, and still only in his mid-twenties, the curt, withdrawn and socially awkward young accountant had been the surprise star of the Carnatic Wars, and the man who as much as anyone had prevented Dupleix from realising his dreams of expelling the EIC from India and establishing the French Compagnie in its place.


Robert Clive was born on 29 September 1725 at Styche Hall in the Shropshire village of Moreton Say, into a family of minor provincial country gentry. He had quickly gained a reputation as an unusually unruly and violent child: by the age of seven he had become ‘out of all measure addicted to fightin’’, according to his worried uncle, ‘which gives his temper a fierceness and imperiousness, so that he flies out upon every trifling occasion … I do what I can,’ he added, ‘to suppress the hero, that I may help forward the more valuable qualities of meekness, benevolence and patience.’


By the time Clive turned seventeen, his father Richard recognised that his son was too morose and difficult for the Church, and far too hot-headed and impatient for the law. Luckily, Richard Clive happened to know a director of the EIC.


None of his letters from Madras contain a word about the wonders of India, and he gives no hint of the sights he saw; nor does he seem to have made any attempt to learn the languages. He had no interest in the country, no eye for its beauty, no inquisitiveness about its history, religions and ancient civilisations, and not the slightest curiosity about its people whom he dismissed as universally ‘indolent, luxurious, ignorant and cowardly’. ‘I think only of my dear Native England,’ he wrote home in 1745.


What he did have, from the beginning, was a streetfighter’s eye for sizing up an opponent, a talent at seizing the opportunities presented by happenchance, a willingness to take great risks and a breathtaking audacity. He was also blessed with a reckless bravery; and, when he chose to exercise it, a dark personal magnetism that gave him power over men.


On 26 August 1751, Clive first made his name when he volunteered to march through torrential monsoon rains to relieve the siege of Arcot, the capital of the Nawabs of the Carnatic, with only a small force of 200 Europeans and 300 sepoys. Clive surprised the French and their allies by attacking in the middle of a thunderstorm, and soon raised the Nawab’s Mughal colours from the gates.


The use of speed and surprise was to remain his favourite strategy as a soldier. War in eighteenth-century India was often a slow, gentlemanly and formal affair, as much a sophisticated chess game as an act of aggression: bribes and negotiation usually played a more important role than formal assaults; armies could be bought off, or generals turned and made to break with their paymasters. Clive was happy to play these games when it suited him, but as often as not broke with these conventions, attacking when least expected and with as much ruthlessness and offensive force as possible, making forced marches in monsoon rains, laying down unexpected ambushes and attacking at night or in thick fog.


As a reward for his success he was given the lucrative position of Quartermaster in the Commissary, a post which earned him the huge sum of £40,000 in commissions in a very short period.


‘Calcutta,’ wrote Clive a few years later, ‘is one of the most wicked places in the Universe … Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’


Indeed, 60 per cent of all EIC exports from Asia were now passing through Calcutta.


To pay for these exports, the EIC sent out annually to Bengal £180,000, 74 per cent of it in the form of gold and silver bullion.


Calcutta probably now contained around 200,000 people — though some wilder estimates put the figure at almost double that — of whom around a thousand were Europeans.


The profits from Calcutta’s trade were huge and still growing, but what really attracted Indians to this foreign-owned Company town was the sense that it was safe and secure.


Against artillery and cities defended by the trained musketeers of the European powers, the Maratha cavalry was ineffective.


Already Calcutta had become a haven of private enterprise, drawing in not just Bengali textile merchants and moneylenders, but also Parsis, Gujaratis and Marwari entrepreneurs and business houses who found it a safe and sheltered environment in which to make their fortunes.


This large Indian population also included many wealthy merchants who simply wanted to live out of the reach of the Nawab’s taxation net.


The city’s legal system, and the availability of a framework of English commercial law and formal commercial contracts, enforceable by the state, all contributed to making it increasingly the destination of choice for merchants and bankers from across Asia.


As a result, by 1756 the city had a fabulously diverse and polyglot population: as well as Bengalis, and Hindu and Jain Marwari bankers, there were Portuguese, Armenians, Persians, Germans, Swedes and Dutch, some – judging by an early census – with sophisticated and sometimes bizarre skills: watch- and clockmakers, painters, pastry cooks, goldsmiths, undertakers and wig fabricators.


Whatever their many vices, wrote Shushtari, the English welcomed and rewarded talent: ‘the English have no arbitrary dismissal,’ he noted, ‘and every competent person keeps his job until he writes his own request for retirement or resignation. More remarkable still is that they take part in most of the festivals and ceremonies of Muslims and Hindus, mixing with the people. They pay great respect to accomplished scholars of whatever sect.’

It suffered from the second system effect

March 19th, 2023

I didn’t realize that Brian Kernighan had written UNIX: A History and a Memoir until I read Dwarkesh Patel’s review:

The story of the creation of Unix is kind of insane. In 1964, MIT developed CTSS, an operating system that allowed multiple users to use the same machine at the same time by quickly alternating between the users’ tasks. It was a great success, and MIT worked with Bell Labs and General Electric to develop a follow up called Multics. Among the researchers from Bell Labs working on Multics were Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie. In this book, Brian Kernighan doesn’t go into too much detail about why Multics failed except to say that it suffered from the second system effect, where engineers respond to a successful product by creating an overcomplicated second version which tries to do too many things. In 1968, Bell Labs pulled out of the Multics project.

It was around this time that Ken Thompson found a little used PDP-7 workstation (which was apparently a shitty computer even by 1969 standards). At first he built a space travel game on the machine. He then decided to write a disk scheduling algorithm on it, but he couldn’t test it without writing some other programs to load the disk with data. Kernighan writes, quoting Thompson:

“At some point I realized that I was three weeks from an operating system.” He needed to write three programs, one per week: an editor, so he could create code; an assembler, to turn the code into machine language that could run on the PDP-7; and a “kernel overlay—call it an operating system.”

Right at that time, Ken’s wife went on a three-week vacation to take their one-year-old son to visit Ken’s parents in California, and Ken had three weeks to work undisturbed.


Thompson wanted to eventually write Unix in a programming language above assembly, but the existing languages like Fortran and Cobol were too big to write operating systems on for computers with 8 KB of memory. He developed a language called B, but it didn’t have the abstractions necessary to make an operating systems.

Dennis Ritchie then developed C, which was typed and which formally separated pointers and integers. You could get the number of bytes you wanted from memory based on the type of your variable, and you could do things like add one to a pointer to get the next item in the array. But even this wasn’t enough to develop an operating system, so Ritchie eventually added structs, and at this point Unix was ready to be written in C.


In 1991, Richard Gabriel published an article where he explained that Unix and C were so successful because they followed the “Worse is Better” philosophy:

Both early Unix and C compilers had simple structures, are easy to port, require few machine resources to run, and provide about 50%-80% of what you want from an operating system and programming language.

Half the computers that exist at any point are worse than median (smaller or slower). Unix and C work fine on them. The worse-is-better philosophy means that implementation simplicity has highest priority, which means Unix and C are easy to port on such machines. Therefore, one expects that if the 50% functionality Unix and C support is satisfactory, they will start to appear everywhere. And they have, haven’t they?

Unix and C are the ultimate computer viruses.

This explanation helps us understand why Unix was successful and Multics was not. Naively, you would have expected Multics to succeed. After all, whereas Multics was developed by dozens of researchers across MIT, Bell Labs, and General Electric, Unix was created by a single person looking for something to do while his wife was out of town.

But maybe Unix succeeded because it was initially developed in a three week frenzy by one person. Ken Thompson was trying to test out a disk scheduling algorithm on a shitty machine with low memory. He didn’t have the time, inclination, or pressure to complicate things. He built a simple recursive file system, he allowed any program to process any kind of file regardless of format, and he implemented a small number of intuitive system calls. At the time, he was doing what was expedient, but only later would the wisdom of these decisions become apparent.

Kernighan writes:

The hierarchical file system was a major simplification of existing practice, though in hindsight it seems utterly obvious—what else would you want? Rather than different types of files with properties managed by the operating system, and arbitrary limits on the depth to which files could be nested in directories, the Unix file system provides a straightforward view …

Files contain uninterpreted bytes; the system itself does not care what the bytes are, or know anything about their meaning.

Files are created, read, written and removed with half a dozen straightforward system calls. A handful of bits define access controls that are adequate for most purposes.

If Thompson were part of a big research project, he would have been asked to add additional features which would complicate his system and thus render it unable to run on his shitty machine. More importantly, Unix would have become inaccessible to possible adopters trying to understand how it works. They wouldn’t be able to write the useful programs on it which would attract even more adopters.

The story of C is very similar. As Linus Torvalds explains…, you can practically see the assembly that a C program will generate. In 1972, this lack of overhead was a necessity for any programming language being used to write an operating system. Today, it is a boon to programmers who want to know exactly how their program will work at the level of individual instructions and bytes of memory.

One was later scalped and another ceremonially boiled and the most delicious parts of his body eaten

March 18th, 2023

What Americans call the French and Indian War, William Dalrymple reminds us (in The Anarchy), was a global conflict known elsewhere as the Seven Years War:

On 21 June 1752, a party of French Indians led by the French adventurer Charles Langlade, who had a Huron wife and was also influential among the Seneca, Iroquois and Micmac, led a war party of 240 warriors down Lake Huron, across Lake Erie and into the newly settled farmlands of British Ohio. Tomahawks at the ready, they fell on the British settlement of Pickawillany, achieving complete surprise. Only twenty British settlers managed to muster at the stockade. Of those, one was later scalped and another ceremonially boiled and the most delicious parts of his body eaten.


It would carry European arms and warfare from the Ohio to the Philippines, from Cuba to the coast of Nigeria, and from the Heights of Abraham outside Quebec to the marshy flatlands and mango groves of Plassey.


But the part of the globe it would transform most lastingly was India.

Bubbles set a Schelling point for talent and capital

March 17th, 2023

Just as credit produces bubbles in financial markets, Dwarkesh Patel says, talent accelerates bubbles in technology:

During a bust, a highly leveraged hedge fund can experience a death spiral, where people react to bad financial news by calling in their loans, which forces the fund to sell its positions in a weak market, causing lenders to pull back further, and so on. Something very similar happens when you hire superstar employees. By virtue of their talent, these people have lots of options. As soon as you run into trouble and stop being the best place in the world for them to work, some of these 10x’ers will leave (remember, one of the things that makes them 10x is their ambition). And once their peers leave, the remaining A players will scatter too. The leverage you get from hiring really talented people is a huge risk during rough times, because these people have lots of other options and the ambition to pursue them.

Leverage is also a serious risk during a boom. Hedge funds like Tiger Management saw the late 90s Dot-com crash coming. But when they tried to short the tech market, some of their investors asked for their money back, which forced the fund to liquidate its short in a bullish market, which caused even more lenders and investors to pull out, causing further losses.


In The Alchemy of Finance, George Soros explains market bubbles with his theory of reflexivity. Bubbles shouldn’t exist in an efficient market, because speculators will bet against any asset whose price rises above its fundamental value. But bubbles are a common and recurring phenomenon in financial history.

Soros explains that the efficient markets hypothesis does not map onto actual markets, because it treats price simply as the output of market forces despite the fact that price also acts as an input. If a company’s stock quote increases, it will be able to raise more capital from investors, and on the basis of the money it just raised, its value will rise even further. Through this feedback loop, the prevailing bias is reinforced.

Reflexivity is at work in talent markets as well. Say that you manage to convince a few A players that your startup is extremely promising. Now, you can go to investors and say, “I’ve got the beginnings of an amazing startup — look at this awesome team I’m putting together.” And now you can hire even more 10x engineers by telling them, “Hey, we just raised our seed round on a 50 million dollar valuation. How can you not join this rocketship?”

But if this self-reinforcing cycle is not backed up by a legitimate and scalable vision which can make use of the influx of talent, then you have a bubble. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes recruited highly credentialed biotech talent, and then advertised this team to raise billions in capital, which helped her get more clout and attention, which she used to recruit even more superstars, and so on.

Leverage tends to accelerate bubbles, because it allows people to throw more money into an already inflated asset. Similarly, extremely talented people accelerate tech bubbles. No prospect is more attractive to a 10x engineer than working with other 10x engineers, and no opportunity is more irresistible to an investor than funding a team of 10x engineers. The positive spin on this is the Byrne Hobart view, that bubbles set a Schelling point for talent and capital. A founder quality person can quit his job and start a new company in Web3 or biotech because he think he’ll get funded, and investors are willing to fund him since they expect that he will be able to recruit 10x engineers, who are comfortable making a career pivot because they find the founder’s vision exciting.

If any of of the people in this chain stop believing the hype around which their project is organized, then the hype becomes unjustified. So the con view of tech bubbles is that the entire party crashes if one person leaves early. And once the bubble starts to wobble, 10x employees will move on to the next compelling tech vision, causing the leveraged death spiral mentioned in the last section. Leveraging your company with talent increases your volatility — either you orchestrate a revolution, or you implode.

Technology, more than any other sector, seems to have this strong pattern of producing bubbles, where one hype train follows another. Perhaps this is because the smartest, most talented people go to work in tech, and just as credit produces bubbles in financial markets, talent accelerates bubbles in technology.

Europeans had long suspected they were superior to the Mughals in tactical prowess

March 16th, 2023

In anarchic India, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), the English weren’t the only European power:

In Pondicherry and Madras, two rival European trading companies, alerted to Mughal weakness and the now deeply divided and fragmented nature of authority in India, began to recruit their own private security forces and to train and give generous wages to locally recruited infantry troops.


It was not until 1664 that they had set up a rival to the EIC; eight years later, they had founded Pondicherry, successfully bribing the Marathas to leave it alone on their periodic raids into the Carnatic.


In its first incarnation, the Compagnie lost substantial amounts of money and in 1719 it had to be refounded by the brilliant Lowland Scots financier John Law de Lauriston, who had fled from London to France after a duel and rose to become an adviser to the Regent Orléans. Law combined two small insolvent French Indies companies and raised enough money to make it a going concern. But the Compagnie des Indes remained permanently underfunded. Unlike the EIC, which was owned by its shareholders, from the beginning the French Compagnie was partially a royal concern, run by aristocrats who, like their king, tended to be more interested in politics than trade; Dupleix was relatively unusual in that he was interested in both


As one of his first acts he got De Volton, his representative at the Mughal court, to petition the Emperor to make him a Nawab with the rank of 5,000 horse, and to give the French in Pondicherry the right to mint coins. When both wishes were instantly granted, Dupleix began to understand how far Mughal authority had been weakened by Nader Shah’s invasion.


He made immediate plans to increase the Compagnie’s military capability, and for the first time took the initiative to begin training up locally recruited Tamil-, Malayali- and Telugu-speaking warriors in modern European infantry tactics.149 By 1746, two regiments of ‘cypahes’ (sepoys) had been formed, drilled, uniformed, armed and paid in the French manner.


France in the 1740s had by far the larger economy, double that of Britain; it also had three times the population and the largest army in Europe. Britain, however, had a much larger navy and was the dominant power on the seas; moreover, since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it had more advanced financial institutions built with Dutch expertise, and capable of raising large amounts of war finance very quickly. Both sides therefore had reason to believe that they could win a war against the other.


Morse would personally have been happy to agree to such a pact of neutrality, but he knew what Dupleix did not: that a Royal Navy squadron had already been despatched eastwards and that it was expected any day. He therefore equivocated and told Dupleix he had no authority to make such a pact. The squadron arrived in February 1745, and promptly attacked and seized a number of French ships, among them one in which Dupleix had a large financial interest.


His reinforcements – around 4,000-strong and including several battalions of highly trained African slave troops and some state-of-the-art siege artillery – arrived in early September. Immediately, Dupleix took the initiative. His new regiments of sepoys and the African and French reinforcements from Mauritius were all sent north on troop transports overnight, supported by eight men-of-war. Landing just to the south of Madras, near St Thomas Mount, they then marched quickly north, moving in to invest the city from the opposite direction to that from which they were expected. In this way they appeared without warning behind the British lines and to the rear of the EIC defences. The siege began on 18 September with such an immense bombardment of mortars that the EIC’s nervous chief gunner, Mr Smith, died there and then of a heart attack.


Within three days, having lost many of his troops to desertion, Governor Morse sought terms. On 20 September, after the loss of only six EIC lives and no French casualties at all, Madras surrendered to the French.


On 24 October 1746, on the estuary of the Adyar River, Mahfuz Khan tried to block the passage of 700 French sepoy reinforcements under Paradis. The French beat off an attack by the 10,000 Mughal troopers with the help of sustained musketry, their infantry drawn up in ranks, file-firing and using grapeshot at close quarters in a way that had never before been seen in India.


Only two French sepoys were killed, while Mughal casualties were over 300.


Europeans had long suspected they were superior to the Mughals in tactical prowess, but they had not appreciated how great this advantage had become due to military developments in the previous half-century since 1687 when the pike-wielding Jacobean troops of Sir Josiah Child were quickly overwhelmed by Aurangzeb’s Mughal troopers. But the wars of late seventeenth-century Europe had seen rapid development in military tactics, particularly the widespread introduction of flintlock muskets and socket bayonets to replace pikes. The organisation of the infantry into battalions, regiments and brigades made continuous firing and complex battlefield manoeuvres by infantry a possibility. The standard infantry tactic was now a bayonet charge after devastating volley firing, supported by mobile and accurate field artillery. The invention of screws for elevating the guns gave the artillery greater precision and increased the firepower of the foot soldiers, giving them an edge in battle against cavalry.


Selling the services of his trained and disciplined troops, he soon realised, was an infinitely more profitable business than dealing in cotton textiles.


The warfare that followed, which usually involved very small Company armies, was often incoherent and inconclusive, but it confirmed that the Europeans now had a clear and consistent military edge over Indian cavalry, and that small numbers of them were capable of altering the balance of power in the newly fractured political landscape that had followed the fall of the Mughal Empire.

The Carnatic Wars that rumbled on over the next decade might have had few conclusive or permanent strategic results, but they witnessed the transformation of the character of the two Companies from trading concerns to increasingly belligerent and militarised entities, part-textile exporters, part-pepper traders, part-revenue-collecting land-holding businesses, and now, most profitably of all, state-of-the-art mercenary outfits.

The creative mindset pairs a high need for certainty with a low need for competence

March 15th, 2023

The creative mindset pairs a high need for certainty with a low need for competence:

You find a problem that you really, really want to solve. At the same time, you work on developing a tolerance for not knowing the solution — yet. Both dispositions are necessary to move the creative process forward.


But this need for certainty, which is the engine that drives creativity, can easily propel us in the wrong direction. Say we have a high need for certainty and a high need for competence — for feeling like we know what we’re doing. Then, write Güss and his coauthors, we are likely “to engage in anything that could restore competence quickly, rather than in explorations of a new domain.” If we can’t deal with our temporary lack of competence, the need for certainty will drive us toward safety-seeking behaviors that make us feel competent again, right now in the moment — but that steer us away from creative solutions.


“Even when he worked in a new domain, such as flying, da Vinci could rely on his vast knowledge and skills. He had successfully created numerous inventions, drawings, and paintings and could rely on his successful strategy to divide a big problem into tiny problems that could be mastered. He had not only epistemic competence (i.e., enormous knowledge and skills) but also heuristic competence (i.e., trust and confidence in his own ability to master new situations and problems successfully).”

In other words, a sense of confidence about our global competence (“In general, I’m pretty good at this, and I know how to move toward getting this done”) allows us to tolerate the temporary feelings produced by situational incompetence—permitting us to remain open to new possibilities even as they take their time crystallizing into satisfying solutions.

Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground

March 14th, 2023

William Dalrymple titled his book The Anarchy, because India was torn apart just as the East India Company started to grow:

On 21 May, Nader Shah with a force of 80,000 fighting men crossed the border into the Mughal Empire, heading for the summer capital of Kabul, so beginning the first invasion of India for two centuries.


Less than three months later, at Karnal, one hundred miles north of Delhi, he defeated three merged Mughal armies — around a million men, some half of whom were fighters — with a relatively small but strictly disciplined force of 150,000 musketeers and Qizilbash horsemen armed with the latest military technology of the day: armour-penetrating, horse-mounted jazair, or swivel guns.


Nader Shah lured Sa’adat Khan’s old-fashioned heavy Mughal cavalry — armoured cuirassiers fighting with long swords — into making a massed frontal charge. As they neared the Persian lines, Nader’s light cavalry parted like a curtain, leaving the Mughals facing a long line of mounted musketeers, each of whom was armed with swivel guns. They fired at point-blank range. Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground. As a Kashmiri observer, Abdul Karim Sharistani, put it, ‘the army of Hindustan fought with bravery. But one cannot fight musket balls with arrows.’


Having defeated the Mughals in an initial engagement, Nader Shah then managed to capture the Emperor himself by the simple ruse of inviting him to dinner, then refusing to let him leave.


On 29 March, a week after Nader Shah’s forces had entered the Mughal capital, a newswriter for the Dutch VOC sent a report in which he described Nader Shah’s bloody massacre of the people of Delhi: ‘the Iranians have behaved like animals,’ he wrote. ‘At least 100,000 people were killed. Nader Shah gave orders to kill anyone who defended himself. As a result it seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it.’135 Ghulam Hussain Khan recorded how, ‘In an instant the soldiers getting on the tops of the houses commenced killing, slaughtering and plundering people’s property, and carrying away their wives and daughters. Numbers of houses were set on fire and ruined.’


The massacre continued until the Nizam went bareheaded, his hands tied with his turban, and begged Nader on his knees to spare the inhabitants and instead to take revenge on him. Nader Shah ordered his troops to stop the killing; they obeyed immediately. He did so, however, on the condition that the Nizam would give him 100 crore (1 billion) rupees before he would agree to leave Delhi. ‘The robbing, torture and plundering still continues,’ noted a Dutch observer, ‘but not, thankfully, the killing.’


‘Now commenced the work of spoliation,’ remarked Anand Ram Mukhlis, ‘watered by the tears of the people… Not only was their money taken, but whole families were ruined. Many swallowed poison, and others ended their days with the stab of a knife… In short the accumulated wealth of 348 years changed masters in a moment.’


Among the sequestered objects was the Peacock Throne whose imperial jewels were unrivalled even by the treasures of ancient kings: in the time of earlier Emperors of India, two crores worth of jewels were used as encrustation to inlay this throne: the rarest spinels and rubies, the most brilliant diamonds, without parallel in any of the treasure of past or present kings, were transferred to Nader Shah’s government treasury.


Nader never wished to rule India, just to plunder it for resources to fight his real enemies, the Russians and the Ottomans. Fifty-seven days later, he returned to Persia carrying the pick of the treasures the Mughal Empire had amassed over its 200 years of sovereignty and conquest: a caravan of riches that included Jahangir’s magnificent Peacock Throne, embedded in which was both the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the great Timur ruby. Nader Shah also took with him the Great Mughal Diamond, reputedly the largest in the world, along with the Koh-i-Noor’s slightly larger, pinker ‘sister’, the Daria-i-Noor, and ‘700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones’, worth in total an estimated £ 87.5 million in the currency of the time.


Many observers, like the nobleman Shakir Khan, put the blame on the corruption and decadence of society under Muhammad Shah, and turned to a more austere form of Islam in reaction to the Emperor’s careless hedonism: ‘At the beginning of this period,’ he wrote, ‘there was music and drinking, noisy entertainers and crowds of prostitutes, a time of foolery and joking, effeminacy, and chasing after transvestites.’


In just a few months, the Mughal Empire, built up over 150 years, shattered and fragmented like a mirror thrown from a first-storey window, leaving in its place glinting shards of a mosaic of smaller and more vulnerable successor states.

The days of huge imperial armies, financed by an overflowing treasury, had ended for ever. Instead, as authority disintegrated, everyone took measures for their own protection and India became a decentralised and disjointed but profoundly militarised society. Almost everybody now carried weapons. Almost everybody was potentially a soldier. A military labour market sprang up across Hindustan — one of the most thriving free markets of fighting men anywhere in the world — all up for sale to the highest bidder. Indeed, warfare came to be regarded as a sort of business enterprise.143 By the end of the eighteenth century, substantial sections of the peasantry were armed and spent part of their year as mercenaries serving in distant locations.

Many radicals chose that moment to stop apologizing for the Soviet Union

March 13th, 2023

When Nikita Khrushchev sent tanks into Hungary to crush a grassroots uprising in 1956, many radicals chose that moment to stop apologizing for the Soviet Union:

Ronald Radosh, a red-diaper baby who published seventeen articles in The Nation between 1966 and 1980, decided it was time to join the Communist Party USA.

Later, when sane people were celebrating the end of the Vietnam War, Radosh and those around him regarded the moment as “an occasion for deep melancholy.” They liked the Vietnam War, he explained in his memoir, Commies; it gave their lives meaning. Now that our country was no longer laying waste to Third World peasants, America, for these folks, “could no longer so easily be called Amerika.” And now that the exigencies of war could no longer excuse the communists’ human-rights abuses, their struggle could no longer be idealized as the heroic effort to create a model Marxist society: “The idea of an immediate, no-fault revolution, a fantasy of the previous decade, was no longer tenable.”

With that, Radosh doubled down again and traveled to Cuba with a group of revolutionary enthusiasts. One day, they visited a mental hospital. A doctor there boasted, “In our institution, we have a larger proportion of hospital inmates who have been lobotomized than any other mental hospital in the world.” Back on their bus, a flabbergasted therapist exclaimed, “Lobotomy is a horror. We must do something to stop this.” Another member of the American delegation shot back: “We have to understand that there are differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies.”

Radosh, of course, ended up on the political right. The final straw came when he published a book in 1983 arguing that Julius Rosenberg was indeed guilty of the crime for which he had been executed in 1953. Radosh found himself unfairly attacked from the left. Thus was he moved to “consider the ultimate heresy: perhaps the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg case, but about most everything else…. My journey to America was about to reach its final leg.”


Radosh’s political journey follows a familiar pattern, well documented among Nation writers who end their careers on the right: a rigid extremist, possessed of the most over-the-top revolutionary fantasies, comes face to face with the complexity of the real world, then “changes sides” and makes his career by hysterically identifying the “socialist lobotomies” set as the only kind of leftist there is — ignoring evidence to the contrary that’s right in front of his nose.

As the Empire fell apart around it, it hung like an overripe mango, huge and inviting, yet clearly in decay

March 12th, 2023

Delhi in 1737 had around 2 million inhabitants, William Dalrymple notes (in The Anarchy):

Larger than London and Paris combined, it was still the most prosperous and magnificent city between Ottoman Istanbul and imperial Edo (Tokyo). As the Empire fell apart around it, it hung like an overripe mango, huge and inviting, yet clearly in decay, ready to fall and disintegrate.


Ruling this rich, vulnerable empire was the effete Emperor Muhammad Shah — called Rangila, or Colourful, the Merry-Maker. He was an aesthete, much given to wearing ladies’ peshwaz and shoes embroidered with pearls; he was also a discerning patron of music and painting.


Muhammad Shah somehow managed to survive in power by the simple ruse of giving up any appearance of ruling: in the morning he watched partridge and elephant fights; in the afternoon he was entertained by jugglers, mime artists and conjurors. Politics he wisely left to his advisers and regents; and as his reign progressed, power ebbed gently away from Delhi, as the regional Nawabs began to take their own decisions on all important matters of politics, economics, internal security and self-defence.

The compromise that emerged was UTC

March 11th, 2023

What used to be called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is now called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Wait, UTC?

English speakers originally proposed CUT (for “Coordinated Universal Time”), while French speakers proposed TUC (for «temps universel coordonné»). The compromise that emerged was UTC.

Finally he mounted his lion throne

March 10th, 2023

William Dalrymple shares some stories from Indian history (in The Anarchy) that could come from a pulp sword-and-sorcery novel:

Sivaji entered the throne room with a sword and made blood sacrifices to the lokapalas, divinities who guard the worlds. The courtiers attending the ceremony were then asked to leave while auspicious mantras were installed on the king’s body to the accompaniment of music and the chanting of samans. Finally he mounted his lion throne, hailed by cries of ‘Victory’ from the audience. He empowered the throne with the mantras of the ten Vidyas. Through their power, a mighty splendour filled the throne-room. The Saktis held lamps in their hands and lustrated the king, who shone like Brahma.

Other stories are too brutal for fiction:

On 11 March 1689, the same year that the Emperor crushed the Company, Aurangzeb’s armies captured Sambhaji, the eldest son and successor of Shivaji. The unfortunate prince was first humiliated by being forced to wear an absurd hat and being led into durbar on a camel. Then he was brutally tortured for a week. His eyes were stabbed out with nails. His tongue was cut out and his skin flayed with tiger claws before he was savagely put to death. The body was then thrown to the dogs while his head was stuffed with straw and sent on tour around the cities of the Deccan before being hung on the Delhi Gate.

Suspects were scouting cars for visible valuables

March 9th, 2023

The last beat Spencer Blue worked prior to making detective was a primarily commercial district:

There were several gyms near the county line, and just on the other side of the county line was a large apartment complex that housed more than its share of criminals. As a result, I was taking multiple vehicle break-in reports every day at the gyms, sometimes in the double digits.

After talking to so many victims, seeing where the cars were in the parking lot, and gathering information on what was taken and from where, one fact jumped out. From victim interviews and surveillance tape, it became clear the suspects were scouting cars for visible valuables. So, I created a little flier that looked like a parking ticket, and I would walk the parking lot looking in cars. When I noticed valuables visible in the car, I filled out the blanks on the “ticket”. It would then read something like “Ptl. Blue conducted an anti-theft patrol in this parking lot. He noticed the following unsecured valuables in your vehicle _____. Had a thief noticed it, he would have broken your window and, within seconds, stolen your items. Please secure your items in the locker room or hide them from view.”

It amazed me how often purses, laptop bags, and expensive electronics were visible from outside the car. But with the “ticket” reminders, I saw fewer and fewer exposed valuables. Break-ins at the gym plummeted dramatically, so I continued the practice at other locations and solved the problem for my beat until a covert unit could become available and catch the thieves in the act elsewhere. This experience caught my interest, and I spent quite a bit of time learning how to thwart the thieves.

He brings this up in the context of discussing handgun thefts. NPR recently summarized a new ATF report on the topic:

The ATF found that 54% of traced crime guns were recovered by law enforcement more than three years after their purchase. Those guns were legally purchased, but were later used in crimes, the report indicated.


A huge way those legally purchased firearms get into the hands of criminals is through theft, the ATF said. In five years, there were more than 1 million firearms stolen from private citizens and reported to authorities.

There’s a caveat here, however. Federal law doesn’t require individual gun owners to report the loss or theft of their firearm to police.


The percentage of these handguns recovered in crimes and submitted for tracing by law enforcement agencies increased from 62% in 2017 to 75% in 2020. And of the more than 1.3 million pistols used in crimes traced between 2017 and 2021, the majority were manufactured by Glock.

Ryse Aero’s one-person eVTOL is like a flying ATV

March 8th, 2023

Ryse Aero’s one-person eVTOL is like a flying ATV — with a use-case I wouldn’t have thought of:

The startup sees many potential use cases for the aircraft — search and rescue, parks and recreation, oil and gas mining — but Ryse’s go-to-market strategy targets the agricultural industry in the United States.

“We’re really leaning into reduced crop compaction, reduced soil compaction, being able to get to your fields in the planting season,” said Kowitz. “You might have a blight out in the field, and the soil’s really wet, but you still gotta get out there. What farmers do is they drive as far as they can with their pickup truck or their ATV, and they walk in sometimes for two or three miles to where the problem is. The Recon can get them there rather quickly without a lot of compaction.”


Aside from avoiding soil compaction, Kowitz says the Recon can save farmers, ranchers and vineyard owners an even more precious commodity — their time. The Recon has enough battery capacity to fly 10 miles out and 10 miles back, which equals about 25 minutes of play at a top speed of 63 miles per hour.

At $150,000, that’s quite an ATV.