Saturday, April 26, 2008

Basket of pebbles

I have been reading the March Literary Review, which, while always good, seems this month to be particularly rich in little gleaming pebbles of information. I don't see any direct use for these pebbles, but I do enjoy coming across them.

From John Keay's review of Return to Dragon Mountain by Jonathan Spence

'The thing about history is that those who really should write it, don't; while those who should not be writing it, do.' So thought Zhang Dai, the seventeenth-century Chinese bon viveur, writer, and antiquarian who is the subject of Jonathan Spence's latest foray into the literature of the later Ming period (c.1570-1644).

From Allister Heath's review of Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

Humanity is about to become a predominantly urban civilisation for the first time in its history, Sachs notes, thanks to dramatic progress in agricultural productivity and the remarkable economic growth enjoyed by Asia. The rise of scientific farming, including the creation of new seed varieties, chemical fertilisers, pest control, advanced irrigation techniques, mechanisation and all the other modern farm management techniques, means that far fewer people are needed to work in agriculture. One farm can sustain many more urbanites than ever before.

Under 10 per cent of the world's population lived in cities in 1800; this had only increased to 13 per cent by 1900. Urbanisation was largely a twentieth-century phenomenon, with the share of the world population living in cities reaching 29 per cent in 1950, 47 per cent in 2000, 50 per cent last year and more than half in 2008, a little-remarked upon yet highly significant milestone.

This tracks with a post I made earlier this year noting the UN's largely unreported milestone (which is significantly correlated to the above facts) that as of 2007, more than 50% of all workers are now in services and manufacturing rather than agriculture.

Urbanisation, as noted in most history books such as Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race, is highly correlated to increases in health, wealth, knowledge and technology, so the above trends, despite all the tactical things we worry about, strategically bode well for the coming years.

From Lucy Lethbridge's review of Other People's Daughters: The Lives and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon, (emphasis added).

The only Victorian governess is Anna Leonowens, whose book of her experiences teaching the thirty-nine sons and forty-three daughters of the King of Siam provided the inspiration for The King and I. Presenting herself as the well-born, newly impoverished widow of an officer, Mrs. Leonowens was the embodiment of gentility. Her lurid accounts of life in the Siamese royal harem ('You shall lash me with a million thongs but I shall not expose my person') upheld the absolute superiority of the white woman over the brown man - however noble his bearing. But it turned out that Anna was not the woman she claimed to be. Following the detective work done by William Bristowe in the 1970s, Ruth Brandon tells the story of how a girl born into poverty reinvented herself as the perfect English governess, the imparter of moral instruction to eager little pagan ears. I was delighted to learn that Anna's great nephew was the actor Boris Karloff - just one of the many surprising sidelights to be found in this engrossing book.

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