If there is one over-arching theme that unites these seemingly disparate subjects then that is simply put that they give me pleasure. I like them, they interest me and in some I see the shadowy form of complex adaptive systems. What follows is a quick, high-level description from 30,000 feet at 1,000 miles per hour.
Back in college I had always had this vision of history and economics as having a physical component particularly in the realm of economics for here I was deeply influenced by the ideas of von Thunen and economic geography. Spatial relationships are important so I felt that understanding changes in transportation technology are also important to the workings of an economy as well politics and culture. Transportation allowed the food from the countryside to be concentrated in areas where other people could live off that food. Transportation determines how easily people and their ideas move across the landscape. The realm of communications has been coterminus with transportation until just recently with the advent of the telegraph and the electrical communications developments that followed. Before that messages could only move as fast as a horse or runner could travel. So I will not consider communications as being separate here to keep it simple.
If you put enough people together in one location then stuff begins to happen. It becomes possible for these people to develop ideas, symbols that they use to manipulate the environment around them. This includes not only the physical environment but also the social environment so I am going to expand this argument to include politics and society. The more these people can interact then the more that this symbolic structure can grow and deepen as they explore and exploit the environment around them both physical and symbolic. The same transportation that moves grain and goods from place to place also moves people and with them their ideas, the symbolic structures, around the globe. When ideas were expressed in writing and books appeared then it was no longer necessary for people to move for their ideas to spread. The more new symbols that were created and the more they became available to people to mix and match as they chose to give meaning to their environment then the more that stuff happened at an even quicker rate. The Industrial Revolution did not really take off until the railroad appeared to shrink the barriers of time and distance. The railroad was part of a virtuous loop along with first the iron and then the steel industry that served as the foundation for continuing economic development. The railroad increased the physical size of the market moving goods and people faster and for longer distances than on foot, on a horse or by boat. Another metaphor or analogy to describe it might be to say that it formed an autocatalytic system. The railroad made it possible for the iron and steel industry to grow while the iron and steel industry in turn made it possible for the railroad industry to grow and expand across the land creating a new economic landscape for merchants and manufacturers to explore and exploit.
This was not meant as an essay but just a quick summary so excuse my brevity and the sudden jumps in the argument. I just hope that you get the idea I am proposing.
The economics that I learned in school just did not feel right. I found Neo-Classical economics to be a dry, arid wasteland of ideas and equations that had lost connection with reality, positing in its place a mathematical neo-platonism whose numeric relationships determined reality instead of reality being described with mathematical concepts. The economists are guilty of physics envy and have it all backwards with their ideas being more real to them than reality. Economics has a problem with reality. It just does not match up very well with the real world and for that economics found the fault to be with the real world. Economics posits a dimensionless expanse that has no time or space. An economy adjusts to a new equilibrium as soon as someone solves for the new equation. It is inhabited by a race of omniscient, greedy, maximizers. If everyone knew everything about the economy then why did we need economists? You could just ask the drunk on the corner because he knows all about it, or at least that is what economists would have you believe because their equations depend upon it. However, this is not a very good description of the way that the real world works, or at least the part that is not omniscient. Their equations did not do a very good job of acting as a mirror of the real world. One major problem from my perspective is that economics has no explanation for the existence of cities but the world as we know it suggests that cities have a central role to play in the functioning of the economy. The have no formal mechanism to account for the role that spatial relationships play in the economy just as they have no sense of the progression of time. My Mom put it best, but did not single out economists, when she would say of someone: "They couldn't find their butt with both hands behind their back." But that expresses my feelings about economics and economists exactly.
Another one of my interests was playing wargames although I preferred the term combat simulation as did others in the hobby. It gave me an appreciation for the ability of games to describe a situation and also allow you to explore the possibilities within that situation. The simulations were deterministic and defined by a set of rules that covered movement and combat but there was also a random element where some actions required the roll of pair of dice. Even if you had a superior combat situation there was no guarantee of victory in a battle and the typical simulation involved numerous combats. With numerous combats and die rolls the effect of the randomness of the dice was reduced and made strategy and tactics important. You quickly learned that some battles were more important than others and that you could also win the battle but lose the war. Geography was important because it regulated movement. On a chess board the cost to move from one square to the other is always the same. In a combat simulation the movement cost for moving on a road, in a forest or in clear terrain are all different as is their effect on combat.
I am not a big believer in style over substance and as you might have already noticed this will be a very "no frills" web site. Very few graphics and lots of text. It also is an admission that I am graphically challenged but realize my limits.
Writing is a task that I find only slightly less painful than having a tooth pulled or hitting my hand with a hammer. You have only to ask my old instructors to know that. My approach to writing is not a very pretty sight and it takes more time than I would care to admit to organize my thoughts well enough to form a coherent narrative. Beginning with a very messy process of writing down whatever comes to mind about a subject, what follows is a series of re-writes during which form slowly emerges. I cannot recognize what I know until I go through the discipline of externalizing my thoughts where I can reflect on them and come to understand what it is I know. Said much more simply, I do not know what it is that I know until I write it down. It is both mysterious and confusing but I do not know how else I might explain it. These essays are still going through that process of trying to pull some sort of structure out of my chaotic process of discovery and creation in the search to see if there is anything that I really know.
So this is, as my life also is, a work still in progress. This may seem to be posturing, as well as pretentious and pedantic, but hey, it could be worse. Have you ever listened to Vogon poetry?1
1. You know, if I wanted to be really cruel then I would have footnotes and use them to tell you that this is a reference to something in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams. By the way, it is one of my favorite books and I maintain that no one's education is complete without reading it at least once.first posted 23.NOV.2010