Nearly seven feet tall, with oiled moustaches that projected from his face like a pair of outstretched eagle’s wings, he was a man of immense physical strength

Thursday, March 30th, 2023

William Dalrymple describes (in The Anarchy) Shuja ud-Daula and his troops:

Shuja ud-Daula, son of the great Mughal Vizier Safdar Jung and his successor as Nawab of Avadh, was a giant of a man. Nearly seven feet tall, with oiled moustaches that projected from his face like a pair of outstretched eagle’s wings, he was a man of immense physical strength. By 1763, he was past his prime, but still reputedly strong enough to cut off the head of a buffalo with a single swing of his sword, or lift up two of his officers, one in each hand.

One hostile Maratha source described him as ‘no ordinary man. He is a demon by nature … who, if he puts his foot on the hind leg of an elephant and seizes its tail, that elephant cannot get away.

Jean Law described him as ‘the handsomest person I have seen in India. He towers over Imad ul-Mulk by his figure, and I believe also in qualities of the heart and temperament. He is occupied in nothing except pleasure, hunting and the most violent exercises.’


Shuja’s forces were even more diverse. There were contingents of Persian Qizilbash cavalry in their red felt hats, and 3,000 pigeon-coated and long-booted Afghan Rohillas, who had once fought with Ahmad Shah Durrani; they were mounted on both horse and camels, and armed with large-bore armour-piercing swivel guns. Then there was Madec’s regiment of French deserters, still, somewhat ironically, dressed in the uniform of the Company. But perhaps Shuja’s most feared crack troops were a large force of 6,000 dreadlocked Hindu Naga sadhus, who fought mainly on foot with clubs, swords and arrows, ash-painted but entirely naked, under their own much-feared Gossain leaders, the brothers Anupgiri and Umraogiri.

America really is the greatest country in the world

Wednesday, March 29th, 2023

Around the wide world, Scott Alexander notes, all cultures share a few key features:

Anthropologists debate the precise extent, but the basics are always there. Language. Tools. Marriage. Family. Ritual. Music. And penis-stealing witches.

Nobody knows when the penis-stealing witches began their malign activities. Babylonian texts include sa-zi-ga, incantations against witchcraft-induced impotence. Ancient Chinese sources describe suo yang, the penis retracting into the body because of yin/yang imbalances. But the first crystal-clear reference was the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th-century European witch-hunters’ manual. It included several chapters on how witches cast curses that apparently (though not actually) remove men’s penises.

In 2001, journalist Frank Bures came across an unusual BBC article about a mob that had killed twelve people in Nigeria, believing them to be penis-stealing witches, and then, few months later, he came across a similar article about five people in Benin. He travels the world looking for cases:

I want you to picture the scene. An American journalist has been traveling the world in search of a dying variety of witchcraft. Now he’s reached the end of the line, the wildest and most primitive region of China. With great difficulty, he has procured an interpreter. Together, they consult a shaman, who sends them on a quest to find a second, wiser shaman who specializes in ghosts. After many trials and tribulations, he reaches the second, wiser, ghost-specialist shaman, who invites him into his home, filled with strange charms and magical images. “Tell me your question,” says the shaman. And Bures asks: “What do you know about penis-stealing witches?”

…and the shaman answers: “Haha, no one believes in that stuff anymore.”

As a nature documentary, Nurse’s book The Geography of Madness is kind of a bust, Alexander notes, but he rescues it with his insight into culture-bound mental illness:

A culture-bound mental illness is one that only affects people who know about it, and especially people who believe in it. Often it doesn’t make sense from a scientific point of view (there’s no such thing as witches, and the penis can’t retract into the body). It sometimes spreads contagiously: someone gets a first case, the rest of the village panics, and now everyone knows about it / believes in it / is thinking about it, and so many other people get it too.

Different cultures have their own set of culture-bound illnesses. Sometimes there are commonalities — many cultures have something something penis something witches — but the details vary, and a victim almost always gets a case that matches the way their own culture understands it.

THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT MAKING IT UP. I cannot stress this enough. There are plenty of examples of people driving metal objects through their penis in order to pull it out of their body or prevent the witches from getting it or something like that. There is no amount of commitment to the bit which will make people drive metal objects through their penis. People have died from these conditions — not the illness itself, which is fake, but from wasting away worrying about it, or taking dangerous sham treatments, or getting into fights with people they think caused it. If you think of it as “their unconscious mind must be doing something like making it up, but their conscious mind believes it 100%”, you will be closer to the truth, though there are various reasons I don’t like that framing.


The phrase “run amok” comes from Malaysia, where it referred to a specific phenomenon: some person who had been unhappy for a long time would suddenly snap, kill a bunch of people, then say they had no memory of doing it. Malaysian culture totally rolls with this and doesn’t hold it against them; the unhappiness is a risk factor for possession by a tiger spirit, which commits the killings. Although Malays have been doing this since at least the 1700s, there are some fascinating parallels with modern US mass shootings that suggest the damn tiger spirits have finally made it to the US common psychological origins.

I have seen exactly one demonic possession case in my ten years as a psychiatrist. The man fell to the ground, mouth foaming, chanting strange syllables and the names of Biblical demons. My attending doctor at the time — one of those people who somehow manages to be an expert in everything — was an expert in demonic possession, and told us that he was in no way psychotic, antipsychotics wouldn’t help him (except insofar as they help everyone by decreasing all behaviors), and he needed to “work through his issues”. The patient was uncooperative — he was only visiting MDs because the local bishop wouldn’t call in an exorcist until he got a psych exam — and eventually left against medical advice.

After going down the list, Bures asks the correct next question: how do we know whether or not our own mental illnesses are just as culture-bound as the Japanese or Malaysians’? Cultures that believe in witches have witch-related culture-bound illnesses; cultures that believe in demons have demon-related ones. We believe in science, so we should expect sciencey-sounding culture-bound illnesses, and these might be hard to tell apart from other, more physical conditions. So how suspicious should we be, and of what?


Anorexia was mostly unknown in the West, until becoming “trendy” in the mid-1800s. During that period, doctors reported high prevalence of anorexia among “hysterics”, but the fad ended after about ten or twenty years, and it went back to being basically unknown. In 1983, famous singer Karen Carpenter died of anorexia, thrusting it back into the national news, and suddenly lots of people (in the West) were anorexic again.

Meanwhile, foreign doctors who trained in the West went back to their home countries, searched far and wide for it, and found almost nothing. The few cases they did see didn’t resemble the typical Western version at all – for example, one Hong Kong psychiatrist was able to find a woman who refused to eat out of grief when a boyfriend left her, but she didn’t think she was fat, or feel any cultural pressure to be thinner. The absence of anorexia abroad was especially surprising since anorexics tend to end up in the hospital with extremely noticeable malnutrition that doesn’t really mimic anything else. It’s not really possible to hide severe anorexia the way you can hide severe depression.

In 1994, Hong Kong got its own Karen Carpenter — a young girl died of anorexia, setting off a national panic and many public awareness campaigns. Near-instantly, anorexia rates shot up to the same level as the West, with the appropriate number of people presenting to hospital ERs with severe malnutrition.


My own experience with sensitization: every so often my house gets infested by ants and some of them crawl on me. Then I get rid of the ants, but even after they’re gone, for a couple of weeks I can still feel hallucinatory ant-crawling feelings on my arms. You can think of this as setting a threshold that balances false positives and false negatives – my nervous system will always be noisy, get random itches, etc, when do I interpret any particular pattern of impulses as a crawling ant? If I set the threshold too high, I will miss real ants; if I set it too low, I will get fake ants. Presumably there’s some optimal threshold, and that threshold is lower when I know there are ants around and probably one will crawl on me soon. Somehow my brain does the proper Bayesian math under the hood, and so I am afflicted with a few weeks of false positives. Honestly I am getting away lucky; in delusional parasitosis this becomes a trapped prior and they feel it forever.

Bodily sensations seem to be especially sensitive to this.


The ancient Romans loved war. If you loved war, and killed a lot of people, that made you glorious. Nobody worried it meant you were a bloodthirsty psychopath. Or if you were, it’s fine! The past twelve emperors were bloodthirsty psychopaths! Their families, concubines, and guards were all bloodthirsty psychopaths! You’ll fit right in! Relatedly, it doesn’t seem like the Romans had PTSD.

In our society, it’s commonly believed that War Is Hell, and if you enjoy it too much, you might be a bloodthirsty psychopath. Relatedly, estimates of what percent of veterans get PTSD range from 15% to 85%. I’m not sure the 85% number is accurate, but if it was, and I was a veteran, and I wasn’t getting PTSD, I might start worrying that this was starting to signal negative things about me. If my unconscious felt the same way, maybe I’d develop a few PTSD symptoms, just to be safe.

We’re conducting a massive experiment in how far you can take this. People now believe that you can be traumatized by hearing someone express the wrong opinion during a college class — and that intellectuals with sensitive souls and diverse equity-loving justice-promoting minorities will be traumatized most of all. I suspect all of this is true, if you believe it.


“Okay, but gender dysphoria?”

Hopefully now the answer is obvious: it is and it isn’t. People have been having gender identity crises since the beginning of time. There’s some evidence some of this is biological; people with closer to opposite-sex hormone profiles and so on are more likely to end up transgender, and very off-base hormone profiles seem to produce gender issues pretty consistently. But in our modern society, which has a category/guess/narrative around this, it seems to happen orders of magnitude more often than in other societies. And in societies with different categories/guesses/narratives, it happens differently — a lot of people who are transgender today would have been cross-dressers or lesbians 30 years ago.


So fine, yes, gender dysphoria shares some resemblance to culture-bound illnesses; I would put it around the same level as anorexia. But be careful: everything shares some resemblance to everything. What if transphobia is our culture’s version of the penis-stealing witch panic? Wise but evil women (gender studies professors) are using incomprehensible black arts (post-modernism) to make people lose their penises. Sure, those people are losing their penises through voluntary sex-change surgery, but this is just another case of the general principle that we replace the magical explanations natural to other cultures with the medicalized explanations natural to our own. And sure, other culture’s panics involved fake/illusory penis loss and ours involves the real thing, but this is just another case of the general principle that modern Western civilization turns other culture’s myths into reality. When they were telling tall tales about men who flew like birds, we went ahead and invented the airplane; when they imagined golems, we created working robots. Now we’ve finally gotten around to penis-stealing witches.

America really is the greatest country in the world.

Nothing is more becoming than their behaviour to an enemy

Tuesday, March 28th, 2023

William Dalrymple describes (in The Anarchy) how Monsieur Law de Lauriston fought at the Battle of Helsa, near Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, on 15 January 1761:

A well-aimed ball from a 12-pounder killed the mahout of the Emperor’s elephant. Another stray shot wounded the elephant itself, which careered off the field, carrying the Emperor with it. Meanwhile, Mir Jafar, reverting to his usual devious tactics, had managed with large bribes to corrupt Shah Alam’s commander, Kamgar Khan, as well as several other courtiers in his retinue, ‘who soon crossed sides and joined the forces of the Nawab’, reported the French soldier of fortune Jean-Baptiste Gentil.


Moved by Law’s bravery, the Company commander, John Carnac, dismounted, and without taking a guard, but bringing his most senior staff officers, walked over on foot, and pulling their ‘hats from their heads, they swept the air with them, as if to make him a salaam’, pleading with Law to surrender: ‘You have done everything that can be expected from a brave man, and your name shall undoubtedly be transmitted to posterity by the pen of history,’ he begged. ‘Now loosen your sword from your loins, come amongst us, and abandon all thoughts of contending with the English.’

Law answered that if they would ‘accept this surrendering himself just as he was, he had no objections; but that as to surrendering himself with the disgrace of his being without a sword, it was a shame he would never submit to; and that they must take his life if they were not satisfied with the condition. The English commanders, admiring his firmness, consented to his surrendering himself in the manner he wished to; after which the Major shook hands with him, in their European manner, and every sentiment of enmity was instantly dismissed from both sides.’

Later, in the Company camp, the historian was appalled by the boorishness of Mir Jafar’s Murshidabad soldiers who began to taunt the captured Law, asking ‘where is the Bibi [Mistress] Law now?’

Carnac was furious at the impropriety of the remark: ‘This man,’ he said, ‘had fought bravely, and deserves the attention of all brave men; the impertinences which you have been offering him may be customary amongst your friends and your nation, but cannot be suffered in ours, for whom it is a standing rule never to offer injury to a vanquished foe.’ The man whom had taunted Law, checked by this reprimand, held his tongue and did not answer a word. He went away much abashed, and although he was a commander of importance … No one spoke to him any more, or made a show of standing up at his departure.

The incident caused Ghulam Hussain Khan to pay a rare compliment to the British, a nation he regarded as having wrecked his motherland:

This reprimand did much honour to the English; and it must be acknowledged, to the honour of these strangers, that their conduct in war and battle is worthy of admiration, just as, on the other hand, nothing is more becoming than their behaviour to an enemy, whether in the heat of action, or in the pride of success and victory.

The ones who could solve the problem didn’t appear any “brighter” in conversation than the ones who couldn’t

Monday, March 27th, 2023

When OpenAI released GPT-2, S.R. Constantin remarked that it was disturbingly good:

The scary thing about GPT-2-generated text is that it flows very naturally if you’re just skimming, reading for writing style and key, evocative words.


If I just skim, without focusing, they all look totally normal. I would not have noticed they were machine-generated. I would not have noticed anything amiss about them at all.

But if I read with focus, I notice that they don’t make a lot of logical sense.


The point is, if you skim text, you miss obvious absurdities. The point is OpenAI HAS achieved the ability to pass the Turing test against humans on autopilot.

The point is, I know of a few people, acquaintances of mine, who, even when asked to try to find flaws, could not detect anything weird or mistaken in the GPT-2-generated samples.

There are probably a lot of people who would be completely taken in by literal “fake news”, as in, computer-generated fake articles and blog posts. This is pretty alarming. Even more alarming: unless I make a conscious effort to read carefully, I would be one of them.

Robin Hanson’s post Better Babblers is very relevant here. He claims, and I don’t think he’s exaggerating, that a lot of human speech is simply generated by “low order correlations”, that is, generating sentences or paragraphs that are statistically likely to come after previous sentences or paragraphs.


I’ve interviewed job applicants, and perceived them all as “bright and impressive”, but found that the vast majority of them could not solve a simple math problem. The ones who could solve the problem didn’t appear any “brighter” in conversation than the ones who couldn’t.

I’ve taught public school teachers, who were incredibly bad at formal mathematical reasoning (I know, because I graded their tests), to the point that I had not realized humans could be that bad at math — but it had no effect on how they came across in friendly conversation after hours. They didn’t seem “dopey” or “slow”, they were witty and engaging and warm.


Whatever ability IQ tests and math tests measure, I believe that lacking that ability doesn’t have any effect on one’s ability to make a good social impression or even to “seem smart” in conversation.

If “human intelligence” is about reasoning ability, the capacity to detect whether arguments make sense, then you simply do not need human intelligence to create a linguistic style or aesthetic that can fool our pattern-recognition apparatus if we don’t concentrate on parsing content.


The mental motion of “I didn’t really parse that paragraph, but sure, whatever, I’ll take the author’s word for it” is, in my introspective experience, absolutely identical to “I didn’t really parse that paragraph because it was bot-generated and didn’t make any sense so I couldn’t possibly have parsed it”, except that in the first case, I assume that the error lies with me rather than the text. This is not a safe assumption in a post-GPT2 world. Instead of “default to humility” (assume that when you don’t understand a passage, the passage is true and you’re just missing something) the ideal mental action in a world full of bots is “default to null” (if you don’t understand a passage, assume you’re in the same epistemic state as if you’d never read it at all.)

Hat-wearers have no equals in the art of firing their artillery and musquetry, with both order and rapidity

Sunday, March 26th, 2023

William Dalrymple describes (in The Anarchy) how Clive and his troops were caught off-guard, outnumbered and in danger of being surrounded — but they kept their powder dry:

Then, towards noon, the skies began to darken, thunder boomed and a torrential monsoon storm broke over the battlefield, soaking the men and turning the ground instantly into a muddy swamp. The Company troops made sure to keep their powder and fuses dry under tarpaulins; but the Mughals did not. Within ten minutes of the commencement of the downpour, and by the time Clive had reappeared on the roof of the hunting lodge having changed into a dry uniform, all Siraj’s guns had fallen completely silent.

Imagining that the Company’s guns would also be disabled, the Nawab’s cavalry commander, Mir Madan, gave the order to advance, and 5,000 of his elite Afghan horse charged forward to the Company’s right: ‘the fire of battle and slaughter, that had hitherto been kept alive under a heap of embers, now blazed out into flames,’ wrote Ghulam Hussain Khan.

But as the nation of Hat-wearers have no equals in the art of firing their artillery and musquetry, with both order and rapidity, there commenced such an incessant rain of balls and bullets, and such a hot-endless firing, that the spectators themselves were amazed and confounded; and those in the battle had their hearing deafened by the continual thunder, and their eyesight dimmed by the endless flashing of the execution.

Among those killed was Mir Madan himself, ‘who made great efforts to push to the front, but was hit by a cannon ball in his stomach and died’.


At this point, Clive’s deputy, Major Kilpatrick, seeing several Mughal batteries being abandoned, in defiance of orders and without permission, advanced to hold the abandoned positions. Clive sent angry messages forward, threatening to arrest Kilpatrick for insubordination; but the act of disobedience won the battle.

Russia’s Zircon hypersonic missile can do two things

Saturday, March 25th, 2023

Russia’s Zircon hypersonic missile can do two things, Michael Peck notes, fly at almost 7,000 mph, or hit a moving ship:

The problem is that objects traveling at hypersonic speeds — Mach 5 and beyond — ionize the air around them, creating a sheath of plasma around the object that blocks radar signals.

Yet radar is precisely how many guided missiles home in on their targets.


Against targets that are fixed, like buildings on land, it’s not necessary to slow down. But when hunting ships, the Zircon would probably have to slow down to supersonic speed to use its radar. If that’s the case, then as it nears the target, the Zircon would not be moving any faster than earlier Russian anti-ship missiles such as the P-800 Oniks, which has a speed of about Mach 2.5, or 1,900 mph.

Supersonic missiles can be intercepted by shipboard defenses such as the US Navy’s SeaRAM gun/missile system.

In addition, when the Zircon is launched, a rocket boosts it to high altitude and supersonic speed, which is necessary for the Zircon’s scramjet engine to kick in and reach hypersonic velocity. The disadvantage is that unlike supersonic anti-ship missiles that can skim just above the water to avoid radar detection, the Zircon will have to stay at an altitude of about 12 miles until it gets relatively close to the target. Flying higher for longer makes it more visible to radar.

“The missile can either be hypersonic or low observable but not both in tandem,” wrote Kaushal.

Two-thirds of the Company servants who came out never made it back

Friday, March 24th, 2023

Serving with the East India Company was extremely dangerous, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy):

Death, from disease or excess, was a commonplace, and two-thirds of the Company servants who came out never made it back — fewer still in the Company’s army, where 25 per cent of European soldiers died each year.

It actually is possible for a single person to understand most things

Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

People understand in the abstract that they can read a lot of books — that a book a week adds up to thousands over a lifetime — but they don’t seem to realize, Dwarkesh Patel suggests, what exactly it would mean to have read thousands of great books:

David Deutsch points out in The Fabric of Reality that contra conventional wisdom, it actually is possible for a single person to understand most things — not in the sense of memorizing the names of ant subspecies or the GDP of different Asian countries, but in the sense of appreciating the main explanatory theories in each field.

One consequence of living in The Great Stagnation is that there is relatively little turnover in these fundamental ideas. Quantum mechanics, that nascent branch of physics which elicits the sense of woo woo from popular culture, is about a hundred years old. So is the theory of computation. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is over 50 year old.

So you don’t have to be scouring through the newest papers on Arxiv in order to know the most important things. A dozen or so textbooks even from a few decades ago contain about 80% of legible scientific knowledge.

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

Wednesday, 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?

Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

Saturday, 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

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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.