Thursday, June 29, 2006

The semantic web can only be defined from the bottom up

Can web surfers collectively define the Semantic Web from the top down by social bookmarking, tagging, folksonomies, and outliners?

Let them become better writers and express their ideas more clearly, then... Once they can communicate what they actually mean, that is the time to create a Semantic Web. Create it by going backwards, extracting the semantics out of what they wrote and then indexing it. Ultimately the semantic web will defined from the bottom-up, linguistically.

In all the online discussion of Web 3.0 nowhere is the key word "linguistics"
to be found [Phil Wainwright (ZDNet), International Herald Tribute, A List Apart].

This is really strange since the two founders of Google where graduate students at Stanford Unversity's computer science department which specializes in Computational linguistics (aka natural language processing) and information retrieval(search engine design) promises to reduce largely to computational linguistics in the future.

The MUC (Machine Understanding) conferences of the 1990s had different academic teams competing to create software programs that extract information and summarize the meaning of different kinds of articles, for instance reports of terrorist acts(See example MUC-6 conference).

Fernando Pereira, an important Stanford Alumni and professor of Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania is doing research on information extraction.

Stanford professor Christopher Manning's authoritative
Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing (1999)

There's a long way to go before before even the syntax of natural languages can be parsed correctly much less decoding semantics or pragmatics, but the HPSG project at Stanford has an impressive list of syntactic constructions that it can handle (but the program is written in the rather infrequently used (but fascinating) COMMON LISP).

Biography of Spinoza (intriguing book review)

Rarely does a book review spur me to go and buy a book about a subject that I don't already have an interest in.

This book review of a new Spinoza biography makes you want to start reading Spinoza as well as read about his life.

The secret behind this book review's success is probably its concise summaries of ideas.

One might call this a Richard Rortyeffect ("arguing within a given language game" which in itself sounds very Spinoza-like). In his lectures Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Rorty repeatedly summarizes the ideas of major figures in the intellectual history of the west like Plato, Kant, Marx, Nabokov, Nietszche Dewey, Proust in only a few sentences. Regarding "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity":

"...[the book] was published in 1989. In it, Rorty abandons the attempt to explain his theories in analytic terms and creates an alternative conceptual schema to that of the 'Platonists' he rejects. This schema is based on the belief that there is no 'truth' higher than one's ability to (re)create her/himself, a view adapted from Nietzsche and which Rorty also identifies with the novels of Proust and Henry James. This book also marks his first attempt to specifically articulate a political vision consonant with his philosophy, the vision of a diverse community bound together by opposition to cruelty, and not by abstract ideas such as 'justice' or 'common humanity' policed by the separation of the public and private realms of life.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Research folksonomies as library card catalogue extensions

The Penn Tags project is going to add social bookmarking and folksonomies to university library card catalogues. From

As a rather intensive user of university library card catalogues, it seems like this development is a little premature. Since it is a university, why not open source it? Hold a competition and see which budding programmer / software designer comes up with the most useful tool.

It's the individual paragraphs of books that should be tagged. Intellectual property laws still prevent the direct citation, linking, and access to sources that you really need to actually index the information in books.

The current scheme of licensing journals doesn't help either. At U.C. Berkeley only users with student or staff ids can get access to online journals, although a lot of other people make use of the U.C. Berkeley libraries such as journalists or specialists in certain areas. You can only assume a small fraction of the public is going to have access to expensive academic journals.

The right scale for such a project is the whole web not an individual university library. Google Book Search is the right place to begin. (See universal library)

Also tags are just keywords that summarize and identify content. Tag creation should be driven by search. This is something I've realized everyday in my job as I scan articles for vocabulary to define and more importantly terminology to define. Unique and often low frequency terminology (concrete nouns) are the best subject/topic identifiers, the natural tags for newspaper articles which are a lot shorter than books.

Vocabulary profilers will give you a color coded frequency ranked vocabulary list for any article that helps identify the right tags. Just look at the low-frequency red words.

One nice difference between Penn Taggs and tags at places like Flickr that I see is the underscore to bridge words "shih_tzu" is used at Penn Tags not the "shih tzu" I always see at Flickr. Languages that don't use spaces (Thai, Hindi, Chinese, Arabic,....) are at advantage over English here because they are forced to use some objective statistical measure of co-occurence to define what exactly a word is. In English the convenient space just encourages people to be lazy in their parsing.

Book reviews for a book are another thing you want to link in to the card catalog. Usually you can find a few high quality ones generally available online. You could almost define a good book review as one that gives you the right tags for the article. Book reviews for books of the past are a useful construct.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Wikipedia + Editing + Hierarchy does-not-equal Wikipedia's death

There is an interesting thread/debate on the Death of Wikipedia over at that I found via BBC's Bill Thompson's article on tagging.

Far from spelling the death of Wikipedia, editing will make it stronger.

Where there is a lot of participation on a topic, the luxury of editing becomes an opportunity to 1. improve the quiality of the information and 2. to learn.

Everyone is not equally qualified to comment on or write on a subject.

Under the traditional Wikipedia anyone could comment and write.

Now a light hierarchy of editors has is forming spontaneously over some Wikipedia topics.

Some people think this means the death of Wikipedia.

The policy of making everything freely editable allowed Wikipedia to succeed where over-edited alternatives like original Nupedia failed from imposing too much editing from the beginning.

If Wikipedia writers stick to a philosophy of ego-free wikipedia writing then the experience of being edited becomes like learning and improving your writing and ideas through peer review and collaboration.

The absence of authorship and explicit names attached to texts helps to make Wikipedia writing ego-free.

Just like volunteerism is a good thing to do in parallel with normal for money life-sustaining work, writing anonymously for Wikipedia is a good supplement for authored/named writing that you get recognition for. It seems like this is what is driving a lot of the better entries.

Initially I thought that Wikipedia could not survive contentious issues like the recent US - Iran Nuclear controversy, but Wikipedia polarized into two articles with opposing viewpoints in this case: 1. Iran's nuclear program, and 2. Iran and weapons of mass destruction. The issue even affects Thailand (See my article)

It will definitely be worth watching the way that Wikipedia evolves. It may be prescient of all our intellectual futures. There might even be topically highly specialized Wikipedia's for research in the future and highly personalized if opinion is a large factor in the research (in pure math it isn't).

In general, tools that help you make links to Wikipedia articles quicker and reliably are needed. Without them finding relevant Wikipedia articles and linking text to them can be quite a drag on the writing process. The Google search "wikipedia name-of-topic" tells you what terms/entries are important for that topic. Tools to automatically determine which Wikipedia articles provide background on an topic you are writing about and what words in the article a link to the wikipedia article should be placed on would be nice. This last item is called a Google Bomb that would help associate search terms with a Wikipedia topic. A search that pulls up articles link to a Wikipedia entry would be nice.

Here are some right on the mark quotes from the article:

"If no one cared about Wikipedia, semi-protection would be pointless, but with Wikipedia being used as reference material in the Economist and the NY Times, the incentive for distortion is huge, and behavior that can be sensibly described as vandalism, outside scare quotes, is obvious to anyone watching Wikipedia. The rise of governance models is a reaction to the success that creates incentives to vandalism and other forms of attack or distortion."

[My comment: editing = governance of information, democracy is not necessarily the full answer here, after some kinds of truth are only possessed by experts, a quote from a resigning minister in Thaksin's cabinet today says it all, basically: governance = 1. participation, 2. legality , and 3. transparency, or in this case the proper flow of information needs: 1. participation and freedom (because there are going to different and opposing perspectives on a wide range of issues) 2. legality or truth (because some experts know some truths that no majority democracy can vote down) and 3. transparency (who claims what and is important if you ever want to improve the information and make it more accurate and reliable))]

Sunday, June 25, 2006

More from the Myanmar trash travel literature genre

Land of a Thousand Eyes: The Subtle pleasures of everyday life in Myanmar, by Peter Olszewski, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005. P253

"But that's the only sort of book that sells."

Trashy travel books on Myanmar seem to be popping up like mushrooms in a dank forest while books on Burma's rich history like San Lwin's translation of Razadarit Ayeidawpon remain in unpublished manuscript form.

Yet another item in the trash travel literature genre for Myanmar. Like exploitation films that "sacrifice traditional notions of artistic merit for a sensational display, often featuring sex, gore, and violence" or paracinema trash travel literature sells like hot cakes and masquerades as profound truth as the author takes a swig of beer at the local brothel. Here's another horrible specimen that has yet to be reviewed by Irrawaddy Magazine.

Running the risk of criticism for being a foreigner who lived in Burma, not as a foreign aid worker helping the poor, but largely trying to make money the same way Burmese people make money with a Burmese family, speaking Burmese everyday, not even speaking to a fellow foreigner for more than a year.

"What were you doing there?" my politically correct interrogator asks.

"Reading history books in Burmese," the slightly eccentric expat replies.

"What right do you have to do this while Burma suffers?" my interrogator asks.

"Why is this even an issue? When I personally choose to do this in other places no finds an issue in this. Why is this an issue in Burma?" the eccentric expat observes.

"You are like the author of the travel book who 'moves through the expatriate and local elites scene of Rangoon with the moral immunity enjoyed by many foreigners who frivolously retain their freedoms at the expense of a people largely deprived of rights.'"

"How could I have removed my freedoms to please you?"

The implicit assumptions in the book review seems to be that a foreigner living in or travelling to Burma has to have a certain correct attitude to everything and a correct way of doing everything. This simply does not wash in the real world, any real world, even Burma.

One day, hopefully, Burma will be a normal country. We might as well start practicing for that now. That's means applying the same criteria to Burma as you would to other countries. Like this sort of travel book is trashy whether the author was doing all his dirty travel stuff in Kathmandu, Goa, or Beijing as well. What does Burma really have to do with why this book is trash.

In defense of the book (which I personally hate) if you are a travel writer this is what you have to write to survive because that's what the great mass market wants. The plentitude of books of this ilk is the single best argument for funding more ivory tower academic work on Burma so people can the understand the place, its history and culture better. Travel literature will always be travel literature. Personally, I can rarely get through the first page.

Quotes from the review:

"The book’s narrative structure is like being cornered by a stoned, middle-aged hippie at a party who starts to mumble inanely: you are never too sure where the story is going or what, if any, point there is to it. One minute we are at a beach in Arakan, the next at a Thingyan water festival."

"There are dozens of descriptions of shopping expeditions, Olszewski’s favorite cafes and feeling homesick. He complains about the food, the problems of finding hot water in Kengtung and Shan virgins."

"He caps off this 'tour de farce' with 50 pages of a love story as he finally meets a Burmese woman who can stand his obnoxious Australian sense of humor."

"He provides us with his odious views on female social subservience as equality and strength, on modest clothing as sexually alluring, and on the virtues of certain points of the female Burmese anatomy. It is in descriptions such as these that the book descends sharply to misogyny, and transforms from boring autobiography to Bangkok go-go bargirl literature."

"The book’s most revealing passage is when the author refuses to help the sick street child he patronizingly pretends to care for. He has been giving her pocket change for months for helping him to carry his shopping and to bargain for him at the market. But when she falls painfully ill with stomach worms he refuses to help her get hospital treatment because —under what he terms 'the unwritten law that forces people to ignore the suffering'— assistance could have jeopardized his own position."

It's sad, but this is what sells.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Six Dynasties blogging: Ancient patterns repeat themselves

Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well isolates the universal today. Finding commonalities between 6th century Chinese literati essay writing and the contemporary blogging phenomenon.

I would gather that satirists and parodists have been having their heads lopped off since the invention of writing and even before then more reliably by passing on local gossip.

U Ponya, Burma's "Shakespeare" and a favorite of the then Burmese king, was beheaded by a subordinate elite before the king even had a chance to learn about it. China has critical intellectual traditions going back even further. Alan Baumler writes:

"One of the things I have been doing for fun this summer is reading Family Instructions for the Yen clan 顏氏家訓by Yen Chih-t’ui 顏之推 (T’eng Ssu-Yu trans Leiden 1968) Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.) was a literatus and court official under the Liang dynasty the Northern Ch’i, the Northern Chou and the Sui. He wrote extensively on religion, etymology, phonology etc."

"He was also apparently a blogger, or at least that is what I gather from reading the section in the Family Instructions entitled 'On Essays':"

"As for writing essays to mold your own nature and spirit or to give others unembarrassed advice, if you penetrate to the interesting part, it is also a pleasure. If you have leisure after your other activities you may practice essay writing."

"Being able to write good essays does not necessarily bode well for your career. He points out that 'many men of letters have suffered from a light (mind) and a sharp (tongue).' He then lists a litany of famous essayists who came to bad ends, including Ch’u Yuan who ended up drowning himself when the king disregarded his words, Li Ling, a general who was captured by barbarians, Feng Ching-t’ung who was not promoted and then was dismissed because of his unstable personality and Wu Chih who calumniated and alienated his fellow countrymen. Perhaps most interesting was Tso Ssu who, in order to produce good poetry had his house and garden furnished at every turn with tables and materials for writing so that he could write down his ideas whenever they occurred to him. (obviously he needed wi-fi in the house) When Tso Ssu finished his fu poem describing the capitals of the Three Kingdoms so many people wanted to copy it that there was a shortage of paper in Loyang. (sort of an early version of a server overload.)"

"While there are some essay-writers who have come out well, both in a career sense and in a moral sense most of them come out badly."

". . . a body of essays exhibits the writers interests, develops his nature, and makes him proud and negligent of control as well as determined and aggressive."

"The main problem is that they seem to get wrapped up in their own wonderfulness."

[The process of properly socialized, peer-refereed journal publishing also puts a nice limit to the ideas they disgorge, spew, issue forth, disseminate (I seem not to be able to find a suitable verb) into the public domain, a journal article makes them think more before writing than a blog does, still some areas of academic discourse that are still caught in stone age practices, could do with immediate feedback from other more developed areas to hasten their development]

"A proper expression of one fact or a clever construction of one sentence make their spirits fly to the nine skies, and their pride towers over (the other writers) of a thousand years. They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby. Moreover, as a grain of sand of a pebble may hurt a person more than a sword or spear, their satirical remarks about other persons may spread faster than a storm."

["They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby" don't they usually do this silently as they edit and perfect their writing? People voluntarily choose to read them, I find the reverse where people are hoarding all their ideas because they think that someone is going to steal them worse, when ideas pass into the public domain more freely it's like a feast where everyone competes to spend the most and in the end we have more knowledge]

"Some of them in fact get so tied up in themselves they loose all touch with reality. Specifically, they can’t tell if they are writing nonsense or not."

[No doubt a problem with disenfranchised, disgraced Chinese officials banished to the provinces like you find in Heng Leng Meng (?) [Dream of Red Mansions], somebody always has to pay for the truth I guess, still I underlined three times that terrible part at the beginning of Heng Leng Meng where all those decent people get abused by the gangster like immoral son of the rich family, it's prototypical familism of the sort you see over and over again in Asia, Korea, Burma, Thailand, etc., people getting away with crime because of their influential parents, sons of MPs who shoot policemen, sons of military generals who get away with assorted crimes that never make it to news for instance, but to bring this sort of thing up makes you a culturally insensitive area studies specialist, I suppose, must behave as an ambassador, diplomat as well, does living in the field, so to speak, of your area studies disqualify you from further work in the area because you have seen, had, experienced too great a dose of the truth? , when I was in grad school at Stanford the university actually punished this guy who blew the whistle on some sordid government sponsored abortion thing, can't remember the details, but I do remember that the gradudate student felt his moral obligation outweighed everything else]

"In this world I have seen many people without the slightest literary talent who consider themselves elegant, flowery stylists, while spreading their awkward and stupid writings. . .Recently in Ping-chou an aristocratic scholar liked to compose ridiculous poems, challenging Hsing, Wei, and other eminent writers. All of them mocked and falsely praised him; but he was so excited that he prepared feasts to entertain those with literary reputations. His wife, an intelligent woman, admonished him against (this folly) even with tears. The gentleman said with a sigh, 'Even my wife cannot appreciate my talents; how can I expect much from strangers?'"

"Yen also includes various small tips about writing. One should avoid the use of the phrase 敬同 -respectfully echoed (indeed). One should also beware of misusing literary allusions. This is more tricky than you might think, since “the miscellaneous tales of the many schools of philosophy are occasionally different, and their works have usually been lost or unavailable.” He then lists a series of little errors he has found in the writings of others. Needless to say he thinks these errors of his opponents are worth being preserved for the next thousand and a half years, and so he includes them, supposedly as a form of instruction, but I think just as a bit of pettiness."

"It really is a fun book."

[From reading Chinese history like the Cambridge History Ming volume, I get the sense that there has been over hundreds of years, thousands of Chinese intellectuals willing to die for the truth (the West's Socrates drinking his hemlock X 1000) this I don't find flippant or "petty", It seems that the main point is that unrestricted discourse that traditions of essay writing or blogging bring on, leads to chaos, intellectual and social, like American politics nowadays, so partisan and fragmented, probably exacerbated and amplified by blogging, maybe there is some wisdom to current Chinese government censorship, still a hundred years from now the blogs will probably be better and more accurate historical sources than official press releases]

[BTW Found this interesting blog entry as it was published with the New Google Sidebar that tracks your activities and predictively feeds you stuff you're interested in]

Monday, June 19, 2006

Harold White Fellow Lecture -
Pamela Gutman

This week there's a lecture devoted to the biography of historian of Burma Gordon Luce at ANU in Australia. Apparently there will be a biography published hopefully sometime soon too:

"Pamela Gutman will be writing a biography of Gordon Hannington Luce. As a young man, Luce was on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and was a friend of E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes and others. In 1912 he went to Burma as the Professor of English and he remained there for most of his life. He became the leading authority on the history, culture and languages of old Burma. Luce died in 1979 and in the following year the Library acquired a large collection of his books, manuscripts and personal papers. Dr Gutman, who is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Art History and Theory at Sydney University, has written extensively on Burmese art and history, and especially on the ancient kingdom of Arakan." (Source, Luce Collection, Luce papers)

Hopefully: 1. the transcript will be made publicly available, 2. Gutman comments on the later years of his life and how his later work was affected by immediate post independence politics, 3. Gutman talks about his wife Tee Tee Luce who is one of only two Magsaysay Prize winners from Burma, given the prize for giving "abandoned and wayward boys off the streets of Rangoon not merely a roof and food but what they missed and needed most — a home and a share of her heart" (Did this sort of charitable activity end with her? or were there hidden people within Burma who we just haven't seen who deserved the Magsaysay prize like workers at the Catholic Leper colony near Kengtung?), 4. his work on Chinese sources, 5. his intellectual legacy.

Obviously being a historian who deals with the history of Burma is different now than it used to be (no sense of nostalgia intended), but Luce especially in his work on Chinese sources on Yunnan stuck to the data and provided his readers with raw historical data that is still useful today, unlike many authors today who want to predigest everything for you and tell you how to think about certain issues. Sure he made speculations, but I think knowing that the evidence was ambiguous, Luce knew it was important to help future scholars along with the evidence to other potential and possibly conflicting interpretations by providing them with translations, collaborative translations (not advocating a return to colonial era practices here).

I also get the sense that Luce and his wife really rose above their colonial era circumstances. That he was finally expelled without the opportunity to collect his papers was tragic. Although I sense that people are not supposed to or not allowed to or perhaps embarassed to talk about this (depending on who and where you live), because in the post-colonial intellectual milieu of the 1950s and 60s along with the Anglo-Burmese and Christian missionary sponsored schools perhaps he was the colonial bogeyman, the colonial government already having picked up and went home. Missionary schools and hospitals founded in the colonial era are still providing Thais invaluable services (I'm not a missionary).

There were other westerners expelled from Burma for being "CIA spies" like the missionary Paul Lewis who worked in the Eastern Shan States in Kengtung much later, but unlike Luce, Lewis was involved in very suspect state projects like hill tribe sterilization programs in neighboring Thailand. Even defended himself before U.S. Congress and in a documentary. Outrageous, hideous stuff. Anyway, Luce's wife Tee Tee Luce did what was right and now half a century later her name lives on in great respect. Should be a lesson for all of us.

One thing I'd like to see is what happened to his research materials after he was deported from Burma and how these materials were perhaps used without acknowledgement. I want to know not because I'm some perverse troublemaker who just wants to uncover dirt and make trouble, but because if this is what happened then it is historical truth. The dust should be whisked away for all to see and appreciate, not avoid out of embarassment.

Here's the announcement:

From Bloomsbury to Burma: the Luce Collection
Harold White Fellow Lecture - Pamela Gutman

Thursday, June 22, 2006 5:30 pm - 6:30 pm
Australian National University, School of Asia and the Pacific

Gordon Hannington Luce was a Cambridge Apostle and poet who went to Burma as Professor of English Literature and soon embarked on the writing of its history, literature and art. His correspondence with Cambridge friends such as J.M. Keynes, E.M. Forster and Arthur Waley reflects his intellectual journey from the classical world to the Orient. Luce made important contributions in a wide range of fields, including linguistics, ethnography, literature, epigraphy and history,but his major contribution was the three volume Old Burma - Early Pagan, published in New York in 1969. His letters and diaries illustrate his experiences with the colonial administration and Burmese elite, his escape from the Japanese invasion and his role in the development of Asian studies in Burma and in England. Above all they reveal him to have been not only a dedicated scholar and teacher but also a great humanist.

Dr Pamela Gutman is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Art History and Theory at Sydney University. She has written extensively on Burmese art and history, especially the ancient kingdom of Arakan. She worked with Luce on Jersey in 1974, and during her Harold White Fellowship undertook research to write his biography.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Efficient Historian?

Organizing one's historical sources and the events, series of events, causal connections that they contain, historical interpretations of events from other historians (i.e. references and citations) into coherent narratives, arguments, historical hypotheses, all in clear prose that connects the author historian's intended idea up neatly and clearly to the non-specialist reader's understanding. Sounds complicated.

To my knowledge there is no specialized software for historians to write history with. Perhaps its even sacrareligious to suggest that such a thing could exist.

Certainly putting a software yoke over the historian's neck and not allowing her room to exercise his (or her) individuality and idiosyncracies wouldn't be acceptable.

Focusing on easy configuration of existing software tools and how they could be better employed in common everyday historian tasks would be a good start. Found this very relevant tidbit of info today:

"There is a new online Google discussion group for productivity in scholarly work. It is called The Efficient Academic. I don't know why, but my impression is that people in the academia is much more disorganized than the "business" people. We try to cover it as a source for creativity, but is it really a legitimate excuse? Is there anything we should learn from the business self-help books (like the excellent GTD)? It is nice to hear others' experiences, solutions and tools." (From: MIT physics student "Cabi's Glasses")

This thread on Managing Research Information was interesting including a reference to JabRef reference manager software, a "Java GUI frontend for managing BibTeX and other bibliographies".

The referencee to GTD is also interesting. It is apparently a "crash course in basic time management and personal organization" that almost wikipedia-like provides you with "fancy terms, subterms, and sub-subterms for even the simplest concepts...the spine of his system is captured on a straightforward, one-page flowchart that you can pin over your desk and repeatedly consult without having to refer back to the book.

I was looking for something like this when I posted Looking for open source bibliography software anyone?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Participant observation after the fact, basic principle behind traditional narrative history?

Building quite a list of different ways of looking at the same basic principle of authoring history from the participant's perspective:

1. Hindsight bias: things are always easier to explain after the fact, but what about learning by trial and error?, or if you don't heed history, you're doomed to repeat it? (See mathematician-probability expert Nasim Taleb's Fooled By Randomness)

2. Historian's fallacy: The daily David Hackett Fischer bracing logical fallacy constitutional in which writing history becomes almost impossible, reactionary but actually more deconstructionist than deconstructionism?

3. "Fog of war technique" in military history, Clausewitz's military-political leader embedded in a trinity of: 1. the highly contingent, 2. politically charged, 3. primal emotions of aggression and violence, fighting, Konrad Lorenz, adrenalin, berserker, defending the family hearth, motherland, ultra-nationalism (Please note I am not advocating this dark side of the human psyche...Where I saw the "fog or war" recently).

To really understand this approach, you have to embed yourself in a complex obsessively documented and reconstructed historical narrative. The best has to be the Battle of Waterloo reconstructed by David Hamilton-Williams. General Clausewitz appears from time to time in the mists. It's spooky how many similarities I'm finding to pre-modern history of war in Burma especially the sociology of tbe ruling elite and the use cunningness and deception, Machiavellian universals in world political-military history?

4. Monte Carlo simulations "Monte Carlo methods are especially useful in studying systems with a large number of coupled degrees of freedom, such as liquids, disordered materials, and strongly coupled solids. More broadly, Monte Carlo methods are useful for modeling phenomena with significant uncertainty in inputs, such as the calculation of risk in business."(See mathematician-probability expert Nasim Taleb'sin Fooled By Randomness)

5. Counterfactuals with the alternative virtual histories enumerated and described by historical actors themeselves (See Niall Ferguson in Virtual History and also Thought Experiment)

6. Lastly, I just realized that participant observation , the tradition of anthrolpologists observing cultures in the field has a great similarity if you envision your historical sources from the first person perspective as being a sort of way of observing past events through the eyes of the participant.

Anyway, narrative history, the original form of historical texts, puts primacy on human agency and chance (individuals buffetted in a gigantic sea of deterministic causal waves pushing them gradually to the shore) as the driving force behind history.

Linguistic historical evidence: Suspect searches for origins versus unravelling transliterations

Words in different languages often sound the same and seem like they bear some family relation to each other when they actually don't [Scholar-linguist Burma expert F.K. Lehman pointed this out recently on the SOAS Burma Research]

I am great fan of Geoff Wade's systematic debunking of the Gavin Mendez 1421 Zheng He travelled to Antarctica marketing approach to historical truth. Now there's a finally a linguist dynamiting the weak-minded linguistics too: [original article, link1, link2]

But what about transliterations?

But what I'd really like to know is how to analyze contemporaneous transliterations in historical sources.

Sometimes the same historically important personage is referred to in radically different cultures with little if any contact using different languages. I'd like to develop a system or way of determining whether two phonetically similar renditions of a name refer to the same historical personage(some historiographical logic).

Searches for origins

Is it really possible to link the proto-languages constructed in historical linguistics to the history of political and economic events that historians deal with?

We have to be careful in the questions we ask. Simple origin questions just will not do. Foucault makes this point rather poetically in Nietzche, Genealogy, History:

"The pursuit of the an attempt to capture the exact, and pure, [transhistorical, immanent] essence of things," it assumes a world of forms preexisting the world of accident and succession i.e., history... "But he who listens to history finds that things have no pre-exisiting essence, or an essence fabricated piecemeal from alien forms." (78)
: reason was born of the fights of schoolmen
: liberty is an invention of the middle classes
In short, not the "inviolable identity of their origin" but disparity is at the beginning of things."

"A genealogy, on the other hand, of values, morals, knowledge, will never confuse itself with a quest for their 'origins' but will cultivate the details and accidents that accompany every beginning."

Accident, contingency, multiple changing causes, the generator of the statistical distribution is changing even as history collects samples from it (See Taleb's Fooled By Randomness).

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Software to organize historical source material

Library Thing is new software that helps you: 1. Organize your library, 2. Apply descriptive keyword tagging and folksonomies to the content in your library. Library Thing even runs on a mobile phone.

Ranke, Gibbons and other historians of their era relied on their own personal libraries (See The Footnote: A Curious History). Sources for the history of Burma are hard to obtain, so people writing the history of Burma have to rely on their own personal libraries. How do they keep track of what is in these personal source libraries? Pieces of paper? Messy. An easily revisable database would be nicer and weigh a lot less.

Here is an example of how keyword tags could be used to organize historical source material. You have to use your imagination a little because this tag cloud is for the history of science.

In general any given historical source cuts across several different categories: 1. Geographical, 2. Temporal, 3. Economic, 4. Political, 5. Social. The source is about a geographical place located in a larger geographical region. The event the source documents took place on a specific date that was part of a series of events that took place over months or years and was part of a whole historical era. Tags and folksonomies can be used to described the source using these categories. Furthermore, each historian may have slightly different categories and categorizations. Attempts to be a dictator and determine the categories that everyone must categorize with...

Library Mashup Competition

There's a new library technology competition that's coming up soon. Organizing personal historical libraries might be a good opportunity to create a Mashup [web application hybrid] to compete in this year's Library Mashup Competition. The deadline for entries is in August.

Of course, one good organizing principle to connect the books to the authoring of history would be the Toulmin model of logical arguments (See "What is the Toulmin model").

Extreme Geekishness: Little warning boxes that appear everytime a historical interpretation was in danger of degenerating into one of the logical fallacies identified by David Hackett Fischer in Historians' Fallacies (many of these fallacies are online at

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Rajadhirat’s Mask of Command:
Military leadership in Burma (c. 1383-1421)

Human agency and the pre-modern economic engine of warfare

"Is it natural for sons and grandsons of royalty to do nothing while their vassals do the fighting? If they have martial prowess, their vassals will likewise have it. Is it right if the vassals are the only ones that have martial expertise?" (Razadarit Ayeidawpon, p. 121, tr. San Lwin)

The Mon king Rajadhirat (r. 1383-1421) asks these questions of his trusted minister Deinmaniyut towards the end of his reign in the Razadarit Ayeidawpon, the legendary story of his life. These questions summarize the central theme of this literary work and the genre of works of which it is a part, the Ayeidawpon Kyan (U Thaw Kaung, 2004b).

Kings and princes must be exemplary in their conduct if they are to succeed in warfare and build states. The title "Rajadhirat" itself means "King of Kings" marking King Rajadhirat as an exemplary king. It is not clear to what extent Rajadhirat gained this status during his life or afterwards by later fictional amplification, but as the Mon scholar Emmanuel Guillon observes, despite the often legendary nature of Rajadhirat’s life: "Undoubtedly, he was an uncommon personage".

The distinctive features of Ayedawbon Kyan genre are : "(1) How individuals of prowess consolidated their power and fought to obtain the throne. (2) How these kings retained their power by military means and other endeavours like diplomacy, alliances and stratagem, (3) How rebellions were crushed, (4) How wars were waged for the expansion of their territory, (5) Important achievements of a particular king like building new towns and cities, pagodas and palaces, etc" (Thaw Kaung, 2004b).

"Aggressive, invasive, exemplary, risk-taking," King Rajadhirat possessed the "heroic style of military leadership" that military historian John Keegan identifies in his treatise "The Mask of Command". Military display, skill at arms, and bold speech are additional traits of the heroic leader found in Rajadhirat (Keegan, 1987, 10-11).

Rajadhirat was a king who, unlike his father and predecessor, had to fight for power and once he won power, had to continue fighting to maintain it. The period of endemic warfare during his 38 year-long reign 1383-1421 was the longest, most complex, and most indeterminate in pre-modern Burmese history. The critical first seven years of consolidating his power is his own answer to the question he posed above:

"I was only 16 when I knew a plot against my life and at the bidding of the gods started looking for supporters. When I had recruited about twenty or thirty I went down to Dagon and rebelled. Then I was hemmed in on three sides by Smin Maru, Laukpya and Baik Kamyin but I negotiated with them successfully. As I ascended the throne in Pegu, Laukpya brought the Burmese king's armies against me but I jousted successfully on my elephant twice and brought off victory although I was numerically inferior. At the town of Wun I dueled twice on my elephant and won. At Lagunpyi I won a joust on my elephant too. It was the same at Myaungmya when I defeated ByiNwe in a duel with elephants. Only after that did I gain suzerainty over all three territories ruled by my father Hsinbyushin" (San Lwin, 121).

Or from an opposing perspective:

"The son of Banya U, Siharaja by name [Rajadhirat], when at the age of sixteen years rebelled against his father. When his father was no more, he became king. This king because he had made friends with enemies, had gained a knowledge of the customs of war. This king as he went on his kingly duties in whatsoever way he turned there was no one who dared strive with him" (Halliday (tr. from Mon), History of Kings, p. 97)

In both renditions of events, Rajadhirat stood alone and survived through a superior knowledge of warfare. Without King Rajadhirat, peace might very likely have been the norm during the period of his long 38 year rule. With respect to peace he is also exceptional.

Rajadhirat is proof of the power of individual human agency to influence events. Human agency driving narrative history has largely lost out in the recent past to the analysis of more deterministic environmental and cultural structures working over the longue duree. Although Rajadhirat may have come to power during a period of political tumult, to single-mindedly persist with offensive warfare for nearly four decades in a war that ultimately led nowhere is certainly a singular personal characteristic.

As human agency comes to the fore, so does strategic action to deal with the larger complex environment that envelopes and threatens the individual human agent struggling within it. As Clausewitz pointed out, warfare is an activity immersed in chance and contingency. Strategy is a way of visualizing a way out of this labyrinth. Razadarit's strategies, whether wholly of his own creation or rather later interpretations that overlay historical fact, address almost every aspect of pre-modern warfare in western mainland Southeast Asian (c. 1350-1600).

Although Rajadhirat is the principal driving historical agent in this historical narrative, there are many other important actors that play essential roles such as Rajadhirat’s commanders and strategists Byat Za and Deinmaniyut, the enemy kingdom of Ava ruled by the kings Minyekyawswa and Minhkaung during Rajadhirat's long reign, the headstrong princes of Ava Teiddat, Hsinbyushin and Minyekyawswa who often act independently of their father the king, the nobility of both sides installed as local rulers in conquered domains and just as quickly deposed or defecting to the other side.

The war that Rajadhirat wages has its origins in a traditional succession crisis at the death of a king in which members of the ruling elite compete for the vacant throne. Guillon (1999) objects that the Rajadhirat narrative, like other chronicle narratives, is too theatrical, that there is a "marked taste for intrigues with bloody endings, that it caters "to a certain bent for the fantastic," and tends "to emphasize the difficulty of a 'normal' succession at the death of a king." Koenig's (1990) detailed analysis of succession crises during the better documented early Konbaung period (c. 1752-1819) clearly shows that succession crises at the death of kings were a constant and unchanging feature of elite political behavior in western mainland Southeast Asia for hundreds of years and that the succession struggles and inter-elite strategic behavior of Rajadhirat was most likely not a mere imaginary overlay.

Guillon objects that "not a single detail in the chronicles or rare inscriptions provides any clues to the economic basis of this [Razadarit's] power" (Guillon, 1999, 165). It is a commonly accepted fact among political anthropologists that the food supply of an emergent agrarian state provides a food surplus that finances warfare and state formation (Diamond, 1999). In the campaigns of Razadarit the food supply emerges as the limiting factor in warfare that is eventually overcome with the supply line strategies. Food supply and warfare plays a central role in Rajadhirat compared to the few references to external trade. Could this mirror the actual economic organization of society during the period?

Were war and agriculture the main engines driving growth in the economies of pre-modern Southeast Asian states? Did economic expansion and contraction follow military success or failure? Warfare was certainly a source of zero-sum resource transfers between states, augmenting the resources of the victorious expanding state while decreasing that of the vanquished. Both skilled and unskilled manpower were resettled around the victor's capital (Lieberman, 1964, 2003; Grabowsky, 1999). As Di Cosmo's model of state formation makes clear, longer term hegemonic relations led to wealth accumulation progressively in the form of plunder from raids (transferred religious wealth), tribute, and ultimately taxes (Di Cosmo, 1999; Fernquest, 2005).

The historian of ancient Greece M.I. Finley points out that Marx first introduced the idea that "in early societies, war was the basic factor in economic growth and consequently in social structure." Citing Marx's Grundrisse:

"The only barrier which the community can encounter in its relations to the natural conditions of production as its own -- to the land -- is some other community, which has already laid claim to them as an inorganic body. War is therefore one of the earliest tasks of every primitive community of this kind, both for the defense of property and for its acquisition... Where man himself is captured as an organic accessory of the land and together with it, he is captured as one of conditions of production, and this is the origin of slavery and serfdom [war captives and manpower], which soon debase and modify the original forms of all communities, and themselves become their foundations" (Finley, 73-74; Cohen, 1964)

Pre-modern mainland Southeast Asian history provides evidence that warfare was in fact an engine of growth and contraction.



Charney, Michael. (2004) Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Diamond, Jared (1999) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Di Cosmo, Nicola. (1999) "State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History," Journal of World History, 10:1 (Spring, 1999): 1-40.

Earle and Johnson

Fernquest, Jon (2005) "Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan Invasions of Ava(1524-27), and the Beginnings of Expansionary Warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005

Finley, M.I. () Ancient History: Evidence and Models, p. 73-74, citing

Marx, Karl The Grundrisse, (J. Cohen, translator of the section called Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (London, 1964), p. 89.

Grabowsky, Volker (1999) "Forced Resettlement Campaigns in Northern Thailand During the Early Bangkok Period" (revised version), Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 87, Parts 1 & 2, pp. 45-86

Guillon, Emmanuel. The Mons: A Civilization of Southeast Asia. James V. Di Crocco (tr. & ed.). Bangkok: Siam Society. 1999.

Harvey, G.E. (1967) History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824, The Beginning of the English Conquest. 1925. Reprint, London, 1967.

Keegan, John (1987) The Mask of Command. London: Penguin Books. 1987

Koenig, William J. The Burmese Polity, 1752-1819: Politics, Administration, and Social Organization in the Early Kon-baung Period. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Center for South & Southeast Asian Studies, 1990.

Lieberman, Victor. (1984). Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580-1760. Princeton University Press.

Lieberman, Victor. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Volume One: Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

San Lwin (tr.) (no date) The Campaigns of Razadarit – Binnya Dala. Unpublished manuscript.

Thaw Kaung, U. (2004a) "Accounts of King Bayinnaung's Life and the Hanthawadi Hsin-byu-myashin Ayedawbon, A Record of His Campaigns." In Selected Writings of U Thaw Kaung (Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2004): 29-54.

Thaw Kaung, U. (2004b) "Ayedawbon Kyan, an Important Myanmar Literary Genre Recording Historical Events." In Selected Writings of U Thaw Kaung (Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2004): 1-28. (First published in the Journal of the Siam Society)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Spreadsheets for historical data

Google has just started making collaborative web-based spreadsheets available.

During the last week I've been working on a chronology that synchronizes and compares the two primary sources for the Razadarit era (c. 1395-1421), the Razadarit Ayeidawpon and the Burmese Chronicle.

Luckily, the Burmese scholar San Lwin's translation can be used for the former, but the later is only available in Burmese.

Even you read Burmese these sources are difficult to read and make sense of because the events often flow together indistinguishably with long didactic stories. Names are also different between the two sources which often look at the same events from different perspectives. Some copyist errors are likely to have put the narrative sequence of events out of order also.

Anyway, I intend to put a proposed chronology for the Razadarit era here on the web. The idea is that it is a start, not the end, of work on the problem of dating events during this era.

I always feel uncomfortable when I do this since many Burmese and Southeast Asians in general feel that a westerner, a white westerner at that (I can't help it), has no business writing the history of Burma, that the Burmese essentially own their history, which I guess is right in some sense, and has certainly led me in the direction of world history. I love Burma and Burmese people as well as Thai, but I will never be Burmese or Thai and write from this perspective, although I do recognize the legitimacy of writing from this perspective, I also believe that other more cross-cultural comparative perspectives are possible and that that these perspectives can show certain things that many cultures share in common. This interest probably stems from my status as someone who has worked in many cultures and countries, even being resident in one of two countries that I was very familiar with, while it was at war with the second and having to listen to all the lies and propaganda that go along with warfare. So I hope you can understand my perspective. At this stage all I care about is the truth. I know postmodernists argue that you can never know the exact truth. If person x puts a gun to person y's head and pulls the trigger there is a truth about x that even in this day and age is often covered up. This is what I want to get at. This is why history is an important discipline.

Search for origins: Rome and western mainland Southeast Asia

Alexandre Grandazzi, The Foundation of Rome. Myth and History. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997 (Review by Siri Walt in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.02)[Review]

The central question of this volume is:

How are we to handle a historical period, of which we have a rich, but very mythical memory?

Could this question be applicable to pre-modern Burma?

What becomes axiomatic other areas of world history, we never be able to take for granted in the highly factionalized arena of Burmese history.

Even in the 1970's the Pulitzer prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Historians Fallacies observed what he called the ethnic fallacy in Burmese historiography where each ethnic group blindly advocated its own version of history.

A new addition to this chorus is professor Michael Aung-thwin of the University of Hawaii who being an expert on the 1000 year old empire of Pagan is now an expert on Burma's contemporary politics also.

Aung-thwin claims that after over forty years of isolation from the world foreign interference is the root of all problems in Burma.

In his latest book The Mists of Ramanna he follows the well-trodden Burmese ethnic-nationalist line of argument where Pyu ancestors of the Burmese are the
fount of all civilization in the western mainland.

At the same time, following the same pattern identified by Fischer 20 years ago, he claims that his partial Mon ethnicity gives him license to argue that the Mons were never oppressed by the Burmese.

Meanwhile, we're supposed to mindlessly nod at every point Aung-thwin makes, as if he was a soldier lecturing us in the Myanmar daily news.

Meanwhile, you see some historians citing only their own ethnic sources and claiming that they are authoratative without any proof or other historians claiming that neighboring historical traditions may not be comparable or commensurable. It seems that complete autonomy and incomparability is all the rage.

So what I'm about to propose is probably high heresy, I can't throw my ethnicity down on the table like a trump card like Aung-thwin.

I just want to suggest that some of the problems that the historiography of pre-modern [or pre-colonial] Burma faces have occurred before in other eras and regions, that they are not unique, that that other cultures far-removed grappled with the same problems and either have or have not found solutions.

Grandazzi's book on Roman history clearly points out what we perhaps have to look for:

"Grandazzi...makes clear that literary tradition and archaeology offer two distinct sets of data, he also assumes that they can at some point enlighten each other."

"But it does not become completely clear in Grandazzi's discussion where we are to find the criteria necessary to reconcile literature and archaeology."

Large numbers of scholars have been working hard on the origins of Rome for over a hundred years and they still can't agree. This fact should humble those searching for origins in western mainland Southeast Asia.

Scholars like Aung-thwin probably have precedents also:

"Ettore Pais. Pais tried systematically to debunk every single legend. Therefore, Grandazzi calls him the height of hypercriticism. But at the same time Pais demonstrated that the mythical accounts were symbolic discourses about the present, something which is rated by Grandazzi as the productive aspect of Pais' work. Nevertheless it has to be said that this working method is already present in the many essays of Mommsen, whom Grandazzi tends to underestimate, in which he tries to show how the legends of Acca Larentia, Remus and many others were shaped by later generations according to their needs and interests..."

"In Grandazzi's eyes, archaeology has slowly invalidated the hypercritical school of historians. He concedes, however, that the interpretation of archaeological data is not always easy, because 'stones always say what is expected of them'."

"Summing up his survey of prior research, Grandazzi sees the solution of the existing problems in interpreting the traditional narrative neither in philology, nor in archaeology nor in Dumezil's comparative mythology . According to him, the hypercritical school has yielded the field completely to archaeology, whereas the fideists assume that the tradition is getting more and more confirmed by archaeology. Grandazzi himself wants to overcome the dichotomy of 'truth' and 'falsehood' and to make historiography itself a matter of study. He calls this reflexive approach 'historiologie' and separates it from the traditional history of historiography. Following Foucault's concept of an 'archaeology of knowledge', he tries to situate historiography as precisely as possible in its historical context."

"But Grandazzi's historiology does at the same time not give up cognitive aims. He still believes in the progress of historical research. Therefore for him the study of former research can help to avoid future faults. So although 'truth' has ceased to be a valid point of reference which could serve to evaluate a historical discourse, it is still possible to determine the strata of earlier tradition in a given field of research. What Grandazzi proposes is a relativist approach, which sees historical research as an idealistic product of its time, but nevertheless enables one to get closer to the chosen subject, i.e. in his case the foundation of Rome."

So in other words, every era chooses their own false interpretation, but somehow over time historians converge on the what-actually-happened.

Perhaps it is what the notion of truth is applied to here, a search for origins, the foundation of Rome, and not the notion of truth or what-actually-happened [irrespective of what ethnic group you belong to] that is the real problem.

In Burma's case, the obssession with the present in all academic discourse together with extreme ethnic polarization probably means history will converge on what-actually-happened a lot slower.

"...even modern methods cannot enable archaeology to explain the origins of Rome, i.e. the beginning of an organized community. According to Grandazzi we still have to rely on the literary tradition to ask the right questions and to come to convincing interpretations."

So we may be stuck with what we have already had for a long time, the Burmese chronicle traditions.

What remains? 1. Translations into a language more accessible to a larger group of historians as well as 2. detailed philological study of existing manuscripts to unravel the textual genealogies and dependencies between historical texts.

Burmese history and the historical "fallacy of ethnocentrism"

The Pulitzer prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer in his 1970 book on the logic of writing history Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historic Thought singles out Burmese history as suffering from severe ethnocentrism. (Fischer is a precise and thorough traditional narrative historian, but was severely criticized by an article in the academic journal "History and Theory".)

Fischer provides a concise definition of the fallacy at issue: "The fallacy of ethnocentrism is committed by a historian who exaggerates the role of his own group in its interactions with other groups.

"A striking example is the historiography of modern Burma...many different national groups interacted in the history of Burma; besides the Burmese, there were Chinese, Indians, British, Americans, Frenchmen, Japanese, and others. Fine Anglocentric books about Burma have been written by Maurice Collis, John S. Furnivall, D.G.E. Hall, and G.E. Harvey, to name but a few of many English and Anglo-Burma authors. Other scholars have produced works on the same subject from an American perspective, notably John L. Christian and John F. Cady--works which tend to over-emphasize the admittedly important role of American missionaries in Burma..."

"There are a few histories of Burma from the Japanese point of view -- Willard Alsbree's "Japan's Role in Southeast Asia" (Cambridge, 1953). Still other accounts are Sinocentric, Indocentric, or Francocentric. Each of these apporaches tends to exaggerate the role of a particular ethnic group in a very complex pattern of multiethnic interaction...Histories of Burma by Burmese scholars and statesmen are beginning to appear in quantity. These works are, if anything, more stridently ethnocentric than those which preceded them. They are painful works of pious devotion to the Burmese people..." , p. 228)

He goes on to praise E.R. Leach's "Political Systems of Highland Burma" (London, 1954) for its "comparative absence of ethnocentrism."

(Note that ethnicity in post-WWII Burma is investigated in depth in a recent paper by Dr. Robert Taylor "Do states make nations? The politics of identity in Myanmar revisited" (Southeast Asia Research, 13, 3, pp. 261-286).)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Gavampti and Razadarit Ayeidawpon

The first part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon [history of Lower Burma Mon king Razadarit (c. 1385-1421)] contains a more legendary history that connects the history of the Mon region to Buddhism.

Like the Burmese Chronicle, the legendary in the history of Razadarit Ayeidawpon only fades gradually as a more factual history takes its place.

The Gavampti tradition contributes to the initial legendary part:
After the Buddha attained enlightenment, 49 days afterwards, the Buddha was spending this time under a Rajayatana (Sapium baccatum) tree, he was offered honey-cakes by the two merchant brothers Tapassu and Bhallika.

The Buddha gave them "eight strands of hair from his head. These sacred hairs were enshrined in a stupa built on Sanguttara hill by the brothers and came to be known far and wide as the Dagon Hsandaw Shin pagoda (the Shwedagon pagoda). From there the Buddha left for Rajagaha city to accept food offertories" (San Lwin, 2).

Gavampti learned that his mother from a previous reincarnation was living in Thaton in Lower Burma so he flew there.

Gavampti told Sri Mahasoka, the king of Thaton, about the Buddha and the king asked him to invite the Buddha to come to Thaton so that he could pay respect to him.

Gavampti's mother from a former birth was living amongst a tribal people. Gavampti taught them and they became Buddhist.

Gavampti flew away from Thaton and requested the Buddha to go to Thaton.

The Buddha went to Thaton and taught the king and the people. The king and the people held festivities accompanied by charity for seven days.
After reading Ovid on the early history of Rome, my appreciation for the more legendary Mon and Burmese history has increased. I know for some people this would mark me as a cultural chauvinist, looking for confirmation of Burmese history in western sources. Burmese sources should stand autonomously all by themselves. Well I agree, partly, but some areas of world history have had tremendous amounts of attention paid to them for hundreds of years and historians can learn from their experience, they can witness a history of historians or of historiography, if you will, and perhaps avoid repeating the same mistakes

The influence of religion on Ovid and early Roman history was clearly great. For earlier periods the attempts to separate the sacred part of the history from the factual part often end up in a mess that becomes more a history of the historians than a history of the culture. You can get a good sense of how debates based on thin evidence can last for centuries and in the end are more evidence of the intellectual climate of the times (e.g. 19th century ideas that are now (rightly so) considered racist) when they were written by reading Tim Cornell's The Beginnings of Ancient Rome which covers the history of the historiography of the period covered by Ovid.

For centuries there have been tremendous amounts of scholarly resources committed to the study of ancient Rome because of it foundational status in western civilization. In a similar fashion, colonial era texts like Harvey's history searched for evidence of why the British were victorious, of why Burmese civilization collapsed and we continue to view Burmese history largely through these colonial era texts which is a shame. The only way this will change is if some financial resources are put into the support of scholars in this area like, for instance, Pat Pranke whose dissertation goes a long way towards revealing the religious history of Burma from the indigenous perspective.

Perhaps the more legendary parts of a culture's history just have to be accepted as what they are, intellectual history, and integrated in a more seemless fashion into the culture's history. The integrity and narrative unity (Aristotle's unities of action, time, and place) of the legendary can be maintained if it is treated as intellectual history that actually happened, rather than as fodder for demythologization exercises in the manner of Michael Aung-Thwin's "Mists of Ramanna" or "Three Shan Brothers" etc. Aung-thwin's critique of the Dhammazedi's Kalyani inscriptions often reads as thought Dhammazedi was involved in some diabolical legitimization conspiracy whereas it was the norm for fact and fiction to be woven together into a inseparable whole in historical texts.

Reading John S. Strong (2005) "Gavampati in Pali and Sanskrit Texts: the Indian background to a Southeast Asian cult" (IABS XIV, SOAS, London, August 30, 2005) as well as Strong’s work on Asoka is certainly a good way to start thinking about this intellectual-history-that-actually-happened side of history.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

More Burmese Chronicle Translations

A colleague just pointed out to me that these translations are way too long to read online. I don't really intend them to be read online. Copy and paste into notepad or another plain text editor to remove text formatting and then from there into Word or Open Office (better) and then print.

I'm playing around with Blog API's that allow you to seemlessly update and modify your weblog from your own local PC.

It would be cool if you could actually use a weblog to think, receive peer feedback, and restructure your writing in response to this feedback, perhaps using an outliner.

I know this sounds strange perhaps, but not if you're used to teaching classrooms of university students (like in Thailand where I live) how to write and if you want them to use their own resources of peer review to the maximum possible, although such an idea is probably applicable to scholars writing for publication also, but scholars as professionals, are probably more private about their writing.

Journal referrees still provide an invaluable function of making sure research is up-to-date and academic standards such as citation are upheld. A lot of what's published on Burmese history does a pretty abysmal job of fact checking, citation checking, and making sure that the recent literature on a topic is cited and addressed, but there's always the future. Hopefully, they'll actually hire some more specialists in Burmese history or at least give them this editing work and an honorarium. On the other hand, perhaps the best strategy is to become a specialist in a topic that is applicable to world history, like social and political history of war, and then address Burma as one geographical-chronological specialization.

Well, here are the translated entries:

Later Burmese Chronicle circa 1572 (UKIII:7-11)

Marching to the Shan states and Lansang-Laos (c. 1574-1576) (UKIII:12-19)

Later Burmese Chronicle: Sri Lanka, Lansang-Laos, etc. (c. 1576-1578) (UKIII:20-27)

Later Burmese Chronicle: Chiangmai (c. 1579-1581) (UKIII:28-36)

Sentence of the day weblog

Here's a great new idea: Sentence of the Day

The author of this weblog is writing her PhD dissertation and seems to pick out extremely long sentences loaded with ideas.

Raw words by themselves without context have always seemed so useless to learn.

Even in the Burmese language common sequences of words or collocations are important.

In the Oxford Collocations Dictionary I use frequently as a reminder (kind of like the way we use a thesaurus) collocations for a word are broken into frequent verb+object, adjective+noun, ver+preposition, plus full fixed phrases, fixed meaning that the tense of the verb can still change.

I've been meaning to take my computer readable portions of the Burmese Chronicle and mine them for collocations. One day when I have more time and can change gears for a moment.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

More Burmese Chronicle translations and a summary

Still finding more translations which I entered into the computer. Most of my translations were handwritten and I haven't entered them into the computer yet. They are all painfully literal, almost word to word glosses, because that was the best way I found to maintain the sense of the original at the time when I was reading the Burmese chronicle a lot, but now I realize, some parphrase and adaptation is necessary, to make it understandable and meaningful to outsiders who not immersed in it all.

I will clean these translations up and perfect them one day, but in the meantime maybe someone can put them to use. In the Open Source and Wikipedia era, the notion of Open Content projects are becoming more popular, so maybe some people might eventually like to collaborate on translation, a group effort.

Hopefully along with better translations, we can write a Burmese computer dictionary lookup utility and text reader like Dimsum which I use to read Chinese.

Here are two more with more to follow:

Timan's Frasch's Pagan und Stadt in German

Just bumped into a note on Tilman Frasch's contribution to Pagan era historiography in a review of Lieberman's Strange Parallels.

"...Although important studies of Southeast Asian history written in German are quite rare, some of them, however, should not be ignored. To give one example: As for the economic history of Pagan, Lieberman relies almost entirely on Michael Aung-Thwin's work, who is the leading authority in this field. If he had consulted Tilman Frasch's Ph.D. thesis Pagan: Stadt und Staat (Stuttgart 1994) he probably would have contested Aung-Thwin's theory that the decline of Pagan was spurred by excessive donations of royal land to religious institutions."

Now I have a motive to read Pagan: Stadt und Staat which is sitting on my bookshelf at home, waiting.

It's been a long time since I read German though, but with my trusty dictionary, some time, and a top down approach, it will be manageable.

By the way, there are copies of both Tilman Frasch's PhD dissertation and Grabowsky's at the Siam Society in Bangkok. Submitting a copy of your dissertation to this venerable old institution is probably the best way of disseminating your work throughout mainland Southeast Asia.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bertil Lintner's review of A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Bertil Linter's book review of A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun (University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland; 2005. 189 pages)

"Thainess, Pavin argues, is not only 'mouldable' but, in his own terms, 'rather plastic,' and his country has long been ruled by 'leaders with their insatiable greed for private interests.' He even goes as far as stating 'the fact that Thainess is volatile and changeable, depending on the power of the authority at the moment, shows the lack of a clear definition of Thai nationhood and its artificiality.' A damning conclusion, to say the least, which many of his countrymen would find rather offensive."

Just to play devil's advocate here for a moment, doesn't a self-critical statement like this made by a Thai intellectual reflectively about his or her own culture indicate a rather advanced plane of thought among Thai intellectuals?

Has being an American or a Swede always remained the same? Does any identity always remain the same unless you're a diehard conservative who wants to, has to believe this? Is being Thai the same in the Thaksin era as it was in the Sarit era? Is being a Korean the same now as it was in the Park Chung Hee era?

Lintner suggests that, "anyone interested in the evolution of Thai nationhood--and how and why Thai perceptions of 'the Burmese threat' have changed since the 1950s and 1960s--should read this book."

Lintner goes on to suggest that similar notions of Burmese-ness are ideological creations used to manipulate:

"On the other hand, is Burma any less 'plastic' as a nation? Apart from apologists for the present regime like Robert Taylor and Michael Aung-Thwin, who specialize in reinventing history, there is no one who believes there was any strong and well-organized 'Burmese state' before the British colonized the country in the 19th century. Rather, Burma is a colonial creation, and that is its main problem today. It includes territories and peoples who had little or nothing to do with any pre-colonial Burmese kingdom, and have no desire to be inside the boundaries that Britain established in the 19th century."

Robert Taylor has a lot of work with solid historical information in it, even if you don't appreciate his political position, like his paper on the political movement by U Saw during the interwar era.

There were most definitely strong and well-organized Burmese states before the colonial era, but strength and organization was probably associated with mobilization for warfare, perhaps the "warrior-king mentality" you refer to later on, but here I am generalizing about Burma and Burmese again in a way that is really completely unacceptable in places that are open to the world like Thailand and SOuth Korea, why is it acceptable in the Burmese case?

It's interesting that this more extreme statement, stronger and more likely to offend than "notions of Thainess have been plastic over time" we feel a lot freer to make, perhaps, because we traditionally think of the Burmese people as completely disconnected and divorced from their government. Like Burmese couldn't both oppose and identify with a Burmese nation at the same time, but they do. For instance, a civil servant's house that has a covert little photo of that Karen monk from Paan who is associated with Aung San Suu Kyi, nationhood through religion? Anyway, to continue:

"Pre-colonial Burma was ruled by warrior kings who were adept at conquering land from their neighbors, including parts of what today is Thailand, but failed to consolidate their conquests by establishing functioning administrations in their new acquisitions."

During the 19th century, Thai domination of Laos and Cambodia? By this time, Burma was in permanent decline. You can't pretend that Thailand has never had a history of political aggression. This is just well-documented history.

"Consequently, Burmese kingdoms rose and fell with a certain ruler. That warrior-king mentality, not any ancient notion of a 'Burmese state,' is the main legacy of 'old Burma,' and is the reason why the country even today is fractured and in a permanent state of civil war."

The main legacy among everyday people is religion, deep religion that permeates everyday life.

Among the closed military ruling elite circles? Does anyone really know? To what extent does a warrior king mentality exist? Certainly what you see on TV has a strong ritualized form to it. Trips to development projects by generals documented with as much care as the Thai media devotes to trips by royalty. All the stories you used to hear about Ne Win, all read like someone who considered himself a warrior king, but nowadays?

Maybe someday someone will write a memoir about their life among the late 20th century Burmese ruling elite. I know you'd get some unexpected stuff. Like I've known some who'd qualify as elites who believed that the Ne Win era was good and post-1988 bad. They saw a big difference between the two eras, with the prior era being pure in some sense, and you do get that sense when you look at photos of people in their youth in their quaint little socialist outfits going on picnics with their friends, the Burmese way to socialism. Whereas, all I could ever see was the Ne Win era as a logical lead up to the post-1988 fragmentation, chaos, and lack of legitimacy, some people actually wax nostalgic over it.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

More warfare during the Razadarit era (c. 1385-1421)

Here is one new entry [#20] based on Razadarit Ayeidawpon and two entries on the king of Ava Minhkaung's brother Theiddat [#9, #17] who helps him win the throne but who is never satisfied and challenges his older brother king Minhkaung hoping to win the throne.

Ironically, after Theiddat defects to the south and Razadarit sends him on a mission to kill his brother Minhkaung, Theiddat reveals the plan and Razadarit has him executed.

I'm starting to get material out of U Kala's Burmese Chronicle to glue the whole narrative together. There's a lot of material in U Kala that fills in the gaps in Razadarit Ayeidawpon.

I have a parallel timeline for events (c. 1385-1421) from Razadarit Ayeidawpon and U Kala that I will post soon. U Kala's chronology definitely seems better. Here are the new entries:

9. Ava succession crisis in 1400: Minhkaung becomes king (UKI:462-465)

17. Theiddat challenges Minhkaung and flees to Razadarit after his defeat (c. 1406)

20. Razadarit marches north to Prome (c. 1408)

Does Burma’s past exist independently of Burma’s present?

In an a editorial written last year in BurmaNet News Mr. David Scott Mathieson, a PhD student at the Australian National University, questions what "opposing academic views on Burma achieve." Quoting from the beginning of the article:

"Academic debates on Burma should be put in perspective. They have a role to play in both 'traditional' and 'engaged' ways. Traditionally, researchers produce detailed work for a predominantly scholarly audience: theoretically grounded, empirically rigorous, impartial, and defined within a discipline such as anthropology, history, economics or geography. In 'engaging' with social movements, academics can contribute through advice, training or teaching, and in writing reports, articles or books that have a normative relevance..."

"On both levels, academics should work with organizations, journalists, aid workers, activists, and grass-roots groups in exchanging ideas, sharing information and suggesting strategy to contribute to debates."

Possibly controversial extreme position: Academic views on Burma’s history need not have any relevance for contemporary issues in Burma, at all.

As Ranke would say, something actually did happen 1000, 500, 100 or 50 years ago and it is the historian's job to find out what that was.

What do contemporary political problems have to do with this? Historians have a responsibility to historical truth:

1. Even if historical truth is irretrievably split Rashomon-like between three or four irreconcilable ethnic perspectives.

2. Even if the historical record/truth has been rewritten so many times, filtered through so many mentalites of indigenous historians, so that the resulting "ethno-history" we have now has to best characterized as indigenous intellectual history, not a history of actual events at all, this intellectual history can still be recovered from texts.

3. To get at historical truth, the original primary source historical texts have to be published first.

Even if you have painstakingly collected all the relevant texts that Michael Aung-thwin refers to in his recent Mists of Ramanna, wading through the tortuously convoluted logical arguments is a human rights violation in-and-of-itself.

If you engage in a debate with Michael Aung-thwin using all the inaccessible texts that he cites, only you, him, and a handful of other people are going to be able to follow it, or even care. A friend of mine with a PhD in psychology who teaches as a nearby university in Bangkok, said he couldn't understand either the issues in Aung-thwin’s book or my criticism of them. This is exactly the point. I said I would provide him some background information on the pre-modern history of the Mons, but where do I begin? Am I singlehandedly going to provide the Burmese historical sources to the world while supporting myself as a full-time journalist and computer programmer? Believe me, I'm trying [Mon, Burmese, Tai] Burmese history has to be made more accessible and without ideological spin.

4. There seems to be an unwritten rule that everything published on the history of Burma has to be relevant to the present ongoing political problems (i.e. presentism).

This leads to grotesque distortions like somehow George Orwell got his idea for 1984 from his experience as a colonial era policeman in Burma. Only a scholar myopically focused on Burma's contemporary problems could come up with this one. Do you realise that Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, based on his participation in the fascist era Spanish Civil War was incorporated wholesale into the Nobel prize-winning French author Claude Simon’s "Georgics", a profound meditation on history that feeds off of Orwell’s work and has absolutely nothing to do with Burma [The Guardian (questions Orwell angle), REview: Hoover Institute, Salon]. There were more important influences in his life than his early experiences in Burma.

Controversial statement number two: The way that the history of Burma will ultimately gain relevance to the rest of the world is by comparison with the rest of the world, not just a myopic focus on the Southeast Asian world. Lieberman’s second volume of Strange Parallels is slated to address this.

History means factual accuracy, something which Mary Callahan's 20th century military history of Burma written by a political scientist, not a historian, often lacks, and the book on contemporary politics in Burma "Karaoke Fascism" by your own analysis clearly lacks. Scholarly publications on Burma often lack adequate editing, peer review, fact checking, and refereeing. Factual errors abound and the discipline circles round and round the same issues over and over again without ever advancing, with an occasional non-specialist poking their head in to this "academic discourse" and commenting, "Oh, how fascinating and exotic, or Burma's just like Russia under Stalin or everyone in Burma seems to be a crazed drug addict living in fear [Karaoke Fascism] let's help the poor Burmese by boycotting them, etc" The most shrewd move ever was to recently send a soldier (Phillipino Ramos) to talk with Burmese soldier-rulers.

Real World History

"For those academics who choose to adopt a certain stance in public debates, they must be prepared for contending views, and those responses should be more forthcoming on the merits of information and arguments themselves. Scoring points against the other side is petty, regardless of which side it is. Above all, academics should be aware that ideas resonate in the real world, and Burma is more important than their reputations."

When I was living in Burma the debate that friends and I used to have, friends both Burmese and foreign, that used to crystallize the issues for us, was focused on Burma's opening to the rest of the world, Burma’s long-term isolation, if you will, and all the consequences of it, and this is what we agreed was the real issue. Here's an example:

Would you be willing to die suddenly and early, much earlier than you would have otherwise, simply because the under-funded government hospital didn't even have a medical test to determine what was happening to you?

Perhaps your religious beliefs make this not such an odious burden. Perhaps I am being a cultural chauvinist by even suggesting that this matters, but...

To take an actual case, let's say that the tube from your kidney to your bladder was blocked. Surgically unblocking it is easy enough. The symptoms of kidney failure are a headache and nausea, not things that a layman would associate with kidney failure, even if he or she poured through medical encyclopedias.

The problem is that almost all Burmese hospitals, even in Yangon, cannot even do a simple chemical test for kidney failure. Why?

Because Burma has isolated itself from the rest of the world for over 40 years.

So you die, early, before you had to. And your family misses you.

Because of a long-term isolationist policy that you were never given a choice about.

Admittedly, this is not as dramatic as soldiers running through Karen villages burning them, which even Michael Aung-thwin would have to admit is morally reprehensible.

It seems to me that the Burmese people should be given a choice, but...

I'm not involved in Burmese politics, which brings me back to my original point, the distinction between historical research and presentism.

Does Burma’s past exist independently of Burma’s present?

1. In PhD level work, historical hypotheses should be assessed on their own merits as to how well they garner evidence to support them.

2. Many scholars involved with Burma seem incapable of drawing a line between the present and the past, presentism creeps into everything they do. I'd even go as far as saying that the politics corrupts it utterly and makes it laughable in the eyes of other disciplines, as if they were even looking.

3. Robert Taylor has been a focus of real scholarship in his own work and that of his students.

Michael Aung-thwin’s work seems to be tolerated with courtesy citations that reformulate and clarify some of his more reasonable hypotheses, and some people in Burma take his sham strawman arguments, like contra "Three Shan Brothers" as serious debating points. Lack of definitive historical sources and a high level of cultural mixing in Burma during the immediate post-Pagan era mean that they'll be able to debate about this point forever. Hint: It's not really a debate.

4. One day, I'm going to do a count of the people who followed Aung-thwin's orders and stopped referring to the "Three Shan brothers" in their work, all a myth created by the British colonial era bogeyman according to Aung-thwin. I doubt if there are even three.

The effect of Michael Aung-thwin's I-don't-need-to-write-real-history because-I-can-just parasitically-criticize-the-work-of-others school of history is, in the final analysis, nil, the dust bin. Even Luce referred to the "Three Shan Brothers" in parentheses. What does that mean professor Aung-thwin?

One thing Mr. Mathiesson, that you probably did not realize, is that Aung-thwin, perhaps mirroring contemporary (proto-fascist) information control policies within Burma itself, goes to great lengths to prevent any real criticism of his controversial little hypotheses. I could elaborate with examples, but just like the historical evidence for Pagan and the Mons itself, the historical record of academic politics, old-boy networking, academic dishonesty, etc, within "Burma Studies" is not completely available for our perusal. And then there's the good ole ethnic card, Aung-thwin implies that because he is Mon he can pretend that the Mons, a conquered people for hundreds of years, were never really oppressed, that it's all a myth created by the British colonial bogeyman.

[To sample some of professor Aung-thwin's confused ideas try his postmodernist pastiche-oxymoron "Democracy Jihad" or a simple Radio Singapore interview or risk exposure to all his ideas in one fell swoop with an interview]

The only reason that I can freely speak out like this and am not compelled to tiptoe politely around the truth, is that despite years of painstakingly reading Burmese language sources, I have no intention of ever getting involved in Burmese politics, the infighting, the egotism, getting your brains bashed out against the wall by the Burmese police when they are trying to find your communist schoolteacher friend [why my ex-father-in-law fled to Maesai], and then having that have professor Michael Aung-thwin explain to you that the Mons have never been exploited. Whatever you say professor!

I do, however, sincerely wish that the Burmese people one day enjoy a longer and prosperous life than they do now.