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Monday, February 28, 2022

Review: Self-Made Man

 I ran across Self-Made Man from an unusual answer on Quora where the author of the answer described Norah Vincent as a Lesbian who thought that men had it better, and then decided to become one for a year, and the experience taught her that men lived in such a harsh world that she had a nervous breakdown at the end of her research. With that kind of an intro I had to check the book out of the library and read it.

I really enjoyed the book because of the amount of dedication she put into it. She got professional teachers to teach her how to walk like a man, put on a disguise (like a reverse Clark Kent, when she put on her glasses, people believed that she was a man), and got a voice coach to teach her how to speak like one too. She lifted weights to the point where her shoulders were broad enough that she could pass as a man. She wrote that she was a tomboy growing up, but despite that when she visited a monastery and lived there even the monks thought her alter-ego (named Ned) was gay!

Ned went to places and met with people that I never did. S/he went to a bowling club that was made up of mostly blue-collar workers, made friends with them, and listened to their concerns and became their buddy. Despite being bad at bowling, her team put up with her and didn't get too upset when she flubbed game after game. But of course, being men, they had to give her tip after tip. At the end of her research with them she did tell them that she was a woman, and to her surprise, one of them started defending gay people after that. She attended strip clubs but found them boring, and even paid for a lap dance out of curiosity.

Her time at a monastery was interesting. The monks decided she was gay and thought she was falling in love with one of the other monks, and warned her off! I found that hilarious. When she revealed that she was a woman at the end of the stay, they were happy to forgive her, and she noted that for one of the monks, his attitude towards her didn't change at all! She wrote that he was the only person throughout her research he was the only one whose attitude didn't change with her gender.

Her last two research  projects were a sales job selling entertaining books and a men's retreat. It was very clear that at her interviews people wanted very different displays from men than from women. She stated that she was expected to exaggerate, brag about how good she was, etc. At the men's retreat, she realized how broken the men who attended such things were --- they couldn't talk about their feelings, and needed social support to be able to hug each other. After that, she had her nervous breakdown.

Overall, I thought the book was a sympathetic look at the life of men. From a young age we tell boys that they don't cry, and at some point we beat the vulnerability out of them. But what do you expect from a society that expects men to enlist in the selective service? But of course that makes men a mystery to many women, and it takes an unusual one to want to pierce that veil of gendered ignorance. I applaud Vincent and can recommend this book.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Review: The Order of Time

 I've read previous books by Carlo Rovelli, but didn't seek out The Order of Time, until I noticed that Bendict Cumberbatch, who somehow manages to get all these roles playing smart people. I enjoyed his voice in various movies I've seen him in, so I checked it out from the library.

The opening chapters of the book covers the usual stuff about time: entropy, the laws of thermodynamics (including a visit to Boltzmann's grave), as well as an introduction to relativity (which plays a very strict relationship to time). I love the metaphors and similes used throughout the book to describe physics, and Cumberbatch does such a good job enunciating and reading it, that I played the book back at 1.0 speed, rather than my preferred 1.3x. 

Right in the middle of the book he declares that time is an emergent property of increasing entropy, rather than key to the fundamental laws of physics. I'm not sure I buy that, but I lack any better ideas.

Regardless, I enjoyed the book, it's a short read, and the lyrical descriptions themselves are well worth listening to, regardless of whether you appreciate the actual material. Recommended.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Review: Evolution Gone Wrong

 Evolution Gone Wrong is the book about humanity's poorly designed bodies.  This is such a good genre of books, that I could read multiple books like this and not get tired of it. It's the perverse side of the usual self-congratulatory books about how well designed our bodies are.

The book covers diverse topics such as the shape of our jaw and why we have too many teeth for the size of our jaws (answer: the evolutionary path of teeth and jaws are different, and post-agricultural revolution jaws are smaller, since cooked food doesn't require as much chewing and jaw strengthening exercises so our jaws continued shrinking). It covers why humans choke on food (the larynx is lowered so the humans can speak to each other), and myopia:

Children who spend greater chunks of their day outside have a lesser risk of developing myopia than children who spend their days inside. It doesn’t matter how they spend their time outside. The outdoorsy kids in the studies spent as much total time on screens as the indoorsy kids. They didn’t have to be kicking a soccer ball or climbing a tree. Even if they were playing around on their phones, as long as they were doing it outside, they were less likely to become myopic. It is a shocking result given the total buy-in to the eye-strain hypothesis. (kindle loc 865)

What's interesting is the study on sleep, indicating that even Chimpanzies make the bed:

 They sampled 1,844 chimpanzee night beds (take a second to appreciate that large sample size) and discovered that chimps used the same type of tree to build a nest in 73.6% of cases. Interestingly, the preferred tree made up only 9.6% of the trees in the forest. In other words, the sleepy chimps were not grabbing branches at random and knocking out shoddy, makeshift beds. They were being selective about their mattress materials. The sleep researchers also analyzed the properties of the preferred trees. In the article they published in the journal PLOS ONE, they note that the most coveted type of tree was a species of ironwood that “was the stiffest and had the greatest bending strength” of all the options for bedding materials available to the chimps. So chimps go for mattresses with some give, but ones that are also stable and firm. (kindle loc 2380)

One interesting conclusion is that stiff beds don't actually do as well as medium beds for providing good sleep, which is counter intuitive. The author spends a half chapter pointing out that you can tell which parts of the bodies are maladapted for modern living by looking at medical schools. For instance, dentists don't go to medical school because the demand is so high that society puts dentists directly to dental school. The same goes for podiatrists.

 Any anatomical area that needs its own entire branch on the medical tree clearly troubles a great number of people, as we saw with all the problems covered in the first section of the book. (kindle loc 1714)

The final part of the book covers our reproductive dysfunction:

 Dogon women experience, on average, roughly 100 total menstrual cycles in their lifetimes (the mean in the study was 109 and the median was 94) and birth, on average, 8.6 children. Those numbers are strikingly different from what women experience who are not practicing natural fertility. Strassmann estimates, based on data from other researchers, that it is not unusual for modern American women to go through as many as 400 menstrual cycles in their lifetimes. (kindle loc 2568)

An interesting section covers why women menstruate at all. For one thing, the relationship between fetus and the woman's body isn't a completely friendly one:

 Horse and pig fetuses, for example, do not burrow very aggressively into the womb. The membranes surrounding the fetus are several layers of tissue removed from the maternal blood supply. There is still maternal–fetal conflict in those species, but not the same degree of conflict seen in species where the fetus digs in further. Dogs and cats are somewhere in the middle. Their fetal tissues start to invade the maternal tissues but are still distanced somewhat from the maternal blood vessels. In the most aggressive version of placentation, the fetus roots in, like a mole into dirt, and snuggles right up against the blood vessels of the mother. You can probably guess which type of fetuses humans ended up with. We got the uberaggressive model. And again, we see the comparative approach pay off in solving this riddle of why SD evolved. The animals that exhibit SD and menstruation are also the ones with the most invasive fetuses. Some scientists think SD evolved as a preemptive degree of protection against a hyperinvasive fetus. The logic goes that a woman gets ahead of the game and builds in some extra protection before the vampire-fetus arrives so that her unborn child does not completely suck her dry. After all, if you know a vampire is coming to your quaint, remote village, it makes sense to start beefing up the defenses of the village before the little bloodsucker gets there. Get the garlic planted, the stakes sharpened, and the mirrors shined in preparation. (kindle loc 2751)

 There's even a great section on why Asians are more prone to diabetes at the same body weight compared to European-Americans.

All in all, it's a fun book, written with humor, and keeps you engaged while reading. Recommended!

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Review: How Democracies Die

 How Democracies Die was published in January 2018, two years before the January 6th, 2020 insurrection. I mention this because if you read this book, you're getting a rosy-eyed view of the prospect for American democracy, while a realistic view would note the events after January 6th, and realize that things are far worse than what this book describes.

The book has a major thesis, which is that the main guardrails of democracies isn't the constitution, the institutions, the rule of law, or the practice of elections. The main guardrails are social norms that cause political parties to respect the conventions of a democratic society to practice forbearance, not using every tool available to legally win, but respecting the spirit of elections.

Well, from 2016-2020, the USA elected a norm-breaking president. But the authors point out that even  before Trump, the Republicans have long been on a path to delegitimize the opposition, and are now at a point where any election they didn't win is declared to be fraudulent. If things continue down this path, the authors predict that there's a good chance that an authoritarian takeover of the American government is imminent. The authors point out previous instances in history (such as the events prior to the civil war) of breakdown in society, and point out that the compromises that gave Americans back a civil democracy were achieved by agreeing to deny civil rights to minorities and maintaining white supremacy as the policy for the country.

Is there any hope that American democracy can recover? The authors say yes:

A refounding of America’s major center-right party is a tall order, but there are historical precedents for such transformations—and under even more challenging circumstances. And where it has been successful, conservative party reform has catalyzed democracy’s rebirth. A particularly dramatic case is the democratization of West Germany after the Second World War. At the center of this achievement was an underappreciated development: the formation of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) out of the wreckage of a discredited conservative and right-wing tradition...The rebuilding of German conservatism, of course, followed a major catastrophe. The CDU had no choice but to reinvent itself. The question before Republicans today is whether such a reinvention can occur before we plunge into a deeper crisis. Can leaders muster the foresight and political courage to reorient what has become an increasingly dysfunctional political party before further damage is done, or will we need a catastrophe to inspire the change? (Kindle loc 3122-3148)

I don't know about you, but that slim hope is just grasping at straws. If it took defeat during a major war and having the country divided up by foreign powers to get the German right-wingers to become reasonable people I'm not hopeful for the future.

Well, the book's a downer, but you'd have to be blind and not paying attention if the events of the past few years haven't alarmed you. In that sense the book's well worth reading.


Monday, February 14, 2022

Review: Pixel 6

 A variety of circumstances (both security related) led my wife and I to both end up with Pixel 6. First, Boen locked himself out of his Pixel 3a. Due to Factory Reset Protection, the phone became worthless and useless, since even after a factory reset the phone required him to login using his previous screen pattern. This is the well known, "too much security" problem. But BestBuy had a T-mobile Pixel 6 available and was willing to take in the Pixel 3a for a $180 discount on an already $50 discounted Pixel 6, so we ended up with a Pixel 6 for a little more than $400.

My S9+ has served me faithfully for more than 30 months, but the battery had been going downhill. More than that, I was 6 months away from the end of security updates. Prior to working on security, I'd never been a target, but since I now reported into a security organization, I decided to play on the safe side. I would default to one of the latest Galaxy Phones, but in the intervening 2 years, Samsung has seen fit to remove both the headphone jack and the microsd slot on their S models.  They also got rid of MST payments, so you couldn't use the latest phones on mag card readers! The latest one that had a microsd card slot was the Galaxy S21FE, which Arturo had. But over the holidays I couldn't get Samsung to give me a reasonable trade-in value for my S9+, so when Google's store offered me $215, I jumped on it for a 256GB Pixel 6. The Pixel 6 Pro wasn't under consideration because the worst feature of the S9+ was the curved screen. Unfortunately, the experience of trading in at the on-line Google store was much worse than going to Best Buy during a pandemic: it took weeks for Google to even receive the product, and more delays while they evaluated the phone.  They did eventually grant me my $215 trade-in, despite all the horror stories about people turning in a perfect phone only to be denied their credit. Given a choice between a BestBuy trade in and a Google one, the BestBuy trade in is much faster and easier.

There are many web-sites devoted to covering various features of the Pixel 6, but I'll focus on the experience of someone upgrading from a 3 year old phone. First of all, the bluetooth connectivity for the Pixel 6 is definitely far stronger than that on the S9+. I was really surprised by this. On the S9+, I learned to keep the phone in the same side pocket as the headphone ear piece I was using, and even then I'd occasionally get a cut-out when I was cycling. On the Pixel 6, I could put the phone in any pocket I wanted. Inside the house, I could roam far away from the phone and not get it cut out.  The latency between when I inserted by Jabra Elite 65 into my ear and the phone being connected (especially when answering a phone call) is also much faster than the S9+, and makes the experience much better than before, which was a pleasant surprise. The S9+ was also very aggressive about killing apps, so much so that I learned to manually start the audio app I wanted each time I used it. This was despite my S9+ being the 6GB RAM/128GB storage model, another reason I didn't go for the S21FE. By contrast, the Pixel 6 seems very willing to use all 8GB of RAM at its disposal, and auto-resume always correctly picked the right app to resume playing audio from on bluetooth connect, android auto startup, etc.

Lots of people complain about the size of the phone. I actually like a big phone, and the voice recognition on the phone is such that for typical one-handed tasks (like dialing a number) I don't even usually touch the screen. Where that falls over is for switching between audio apps, where sometimes the system will ask me to unlock the phone in order to start an app.

Similarly, it's nice not having any duplicate apps, and having to disable bixby, etc. Size-wise, the phones were actually similarly sized:

The Pixel is actually just a little bit bigger, despite having a much bigger screen, and the OLED display was also significantly brighter. It's unfortunately also heavier and wider, and I feel it in my pocket in ways I didn't feel the S9+. What's not so nice is the fingerprint reader. It works, just takes a little longer than the physical fingerprint reader that was on the S9+. Though again, the latest Samsung phones have also switched to an in display reader!

After I copied over my SD card to the Pixel, I had about 150GB left. Since I'd deliberately not copied any of my photos over, it was clear to me that the 128GB version of the phone would have been too cramped, since just after another month of installing apps and taking photos, I've used already 2GB. Since the base model came with 108GB free and I'm already using 108GB, I'd say that if you have the habit of using an SD card with older model phones, the base model is insufficient for daily use, let alone an extended period of travel, where you might download videos and shoot a lot of photos and videos while traveling. I immediately turned off Google Photos sync installed Amazon photos and got my already-paid-for unlimited full resolution storage. Google photos have very nice features, but none of them justify paying for cloud storage. By the way, if you run your phone at 100% capacity, you're going to wear out the storage system faster, since wear leveling partly depends on having free space for the leveling to happen!

In terms of interaction, the phone behaves much faster than the S9+. In particular, there's much shorter lag time when I double-press the power button to bring the camera up. This is a big deal since a major use case for the smartphone camera is the ability to shoot while cycling, and the less time you're riding with the camera pointing at a scene/action while trying to get a picture the better. Despite all the raves about high refresh 90Hz screens, I did not actually notice any difference in day to day use. In fact, I've turned off the 90Hz screen so I get better battery life since I didn't notice it at all. (Incidentally, this is one reason I decided I could live without a zoom --- when you're looking for a camera to use while riding a bike you don't need a zoom!)

By far the best feature of the Pixel phone, however, are the features related to voice and phone calls. I spend a lot of time waiting on the phone on hold. I tried hold for me and it worked. Then the next few times I got phone calls from someone I didn't know, I tapped the "screen my call" button, and the spam caller hung up (which let me know to immediately block the number!). When calling an automated dialing system, "direct my call" popped up and I got a transcription of the phone menu. I know I'm probably the last person to actually use telephones to make phone calls, but these 3 features alone were well worth switching over to a new phone for.

OK. Everyone raves about how good Pixel photos are. But what I notice about most reviewers is that they review the photo directly on the phone's screen, instead of looking them on a big 4K monitor. Phones have great screens, because that's what sells phones. But camera manufacturers sell cameras to photographers, so they save money on the bill of materials by putting in a relatively cheap screen. So if you compare a dedicated camera and a smartphone side by side when you take photos, you're going to think, "The phone shoots so much better photos than my dedicated camera. Computational photograph for the win!" But after you get home and look at the photos on a large 4K screen, you'll discover, as I did, that the dedicated camera is quite obviously better than the smartphone, even without fancy multi-frame HDR software pinning technology. Keep in mind that a 12 megapixel image (like that from the Pixel 6) is only barely good enough for a 4K monitor. Any improvements in monitor resolution will make it very clear that "barely good enough" in 2022 will no longer be good enough in 2026. In any case, I've on occasion been impressed by a Pixel photo, but for any kind of travel, or even routine capture, I've never regretted pulling out my Ricoh GR3 or EOS M5. Most of the photographs you'll see on my travel comes from a real camera, not a smartphone.

One particularly bad feature of the Pixel 6 is the panorama mode. I usually expect panorama mode to at least produce a higher resolution file than the non-pano shots. But the panorama mode on the Pixel 6 not only produces awful results, but stores the same resolution as a single picture. The results are awful and not worth your time. Better take individual shots and stitch them with hugin or Lightroom.

The quick UI for the phone works, and works fast: double-tap on the power button to activate the camera, and then shoot using the volume down button. The counter-intuitive part is that if you hold down the volume down button, instead of shooting in burst mode like a real camera, it starts shooting video instead! There's no way to reconfigure the phone to use burst mode, so I've learned to make do. In theory you can export frames from the video, but that's a total pain --- you have to use the Google Photos app and export the frames.

Pixel phones come with a voice assistant that's supposedly leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, especially since supposedly the Tensor processor on the phone is designed for language processing. In practice, the hardware can't live up to the software --- frequently it'd miss the wake word, or I'd have to say "stop" a couple of times before the timer stopped, for instance. Despite training the language model, it misunderstands me a lot more often than I would like, and using the voice assistant via bluetooth headset frequently annoys me with the "you have to unlock your phone before you use this feature." The entire point of a voice assistant is that the phone stays in my pocket while I talk to it. Transcription accuracy is also not much improved, though transcription speed is now quite good. The lack of sensitivity of the microphone is also highlighted in another instance: I watched Hamilton while the phone was sitting on the couch, and the "Now Playing History" feature of the phone remembered every song that was in that musical. But the next day, I saw When Marnie Was There with the phone in my pocket, and the phone had no memory of the ending theme song.

The Pixel 6 comes with guaranteed OS updates until October 2024, and security updates until October 2026. That's a good window, ensuring that you're likely to trade in the phone long before that happens. (More than likely, the phone would have been broken or stolen before then) I don't usually care about software updates --- frequently, the UI changes just so someone can get a promotion, but the security updates are welcome, and obviously there will be bugs that I'd like to see fixed, as well as possible improvements in voice recognition and other tweaks to eliminate annoyances such as the need to unlock the phone for certain activities that voice assistant should just take care of.

For the prices we paid with the excellent trade-in values we got, this was a good phone. I'm still very annoyed that Samsung got rid of headphone jacks and micro-sd cards, which is how I ended up with the Pixel 6 (the Samsung A  series phones still have those features, but they weren't offering good trade-in values so we ended up paying less for the Pixel 6 than we would have for the A52 5G, which had a much worse camera and of course Samsung bloatware). Now that the holidays are over, you're likely to see even better deals for the Pixel 6, and if you find a good deal, it's worth taking a look at it. All in all, this is the first Pixel non-A phone that struck me as being good value compared to their Samsung counterparts, so it's also the first full on Pixel non-A phone that I would tag the recommended label on.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Review: The Genetic Lottery - Why DNA matters for Social Equality

 The Genetic Lottery is a book about the social and research implications of gene studies and research. It sets out to defend gene studies primarily from a scientist and ethics point of view, mostly from the perspective of a researcher whose work has frequently been lumped in with the eugenics movement, which has long cast a shadow over genetics research. Along the way, she provides lots of information and interesting things to think about that I hadn't seen before. For instance:

As of 2019, people of European descent made up only 16 percent of the global population but accounted for nearly 80 percent of GWAS participants. This situation is not improving, despite the falling cost of genotyping. In the last five years, the share of genetics research focused on people of European ancestry has held steady, even as the overall number of genotyped people continues to explode. genetics research does not just disproportionately study White people. It also is disproportionately conducted by White people. The collection and analysis of genetic data from populations of non-European ancestry thus presents a double bind. Without conducting genetic research with the entire global population, there is a danger that genetic knowledge will only benefit people who are already advantaged.(Kindle Loc 1544-1546)

Harden presents the concept of a polygenic index very early on in the book, basically explaining it as an index of a constellation of genes that gives rise to a complex attribute such as height, IQ, and executive function EF.  The important property of these polygenic indices is that they measure composite complex attributes,  so they're difficult to manipulate. So there's a polygenic index for education, and there's one for wealth, and there's one for executive function. What's interesting is how early these genetic effects kick in:

the education polygenic index is correlated with whether children start talking before age 3 and their scores on IQ tests at age 5.12 So, consistent with what was observed in bioannotation and twin studies, polygenic index analyses suggest that, whatever genes are doing to influence educational inequalities, they are doing it early in life—with effects that are apparent before children ever begin school.... General EF is as heritable as eye color or height, more heritable than BMI or pubertal timing.14 (Kindle Loc 2479-2502)

 Harden points out several things about polygenic indices. First of all, they're not comparable between population subgroups. In other words, if you're not white, the studies that are published currently cannot be used to predict anything about you. Secondly, the genes might do something, but the environment matters. For instance, before women were allowed to go to college, the polygenic index for educational attainment was very weak for women (duh!):

For my grandmother’s birth cohort (people who were born in 1939–1940), the polygenic index was more weakly related to educational attainment among women than among men. (These women were in their thirties before my alma mater, the University of Virginia, admitted students without regard to gender, in 1972.) But this gender difference has narrowed over time: as educational opportunities for women increased, the polygenic index has become more strongly associated with women’s educational outcomes. For woman in my birth cohort (people born in 1975-1982), the polygenic index is as strongly associated with education as it is for men. Genetics, ironically, has become a sign of gender equality. (kindle loc 2761)

What this means is that it doesn't matter how heritable something is, if the gene finds itself in an environment where it cannot express itself. So for instance:

 Despite the mythology of the United States as the “land of opportunity,” it has lower social mobility than many other countries; Denmark is an example of a country with high social mobility. The heritability of educational attainment is actually lower in countries with lower social mobility, like the United States and Italy...the heritability of child cognitive ability is lowest for children raised in poverty and highest for children from rich homes—particularly in the US, where social safety nets for poor families are weaker than in other countries (kindle loc 2773-2779)

 She goes on to reveal that wealthy students in the lowest quartile of the educational attainment polygenic index still graduate college at higher rates than students in the highest quartile of polygenic index from the impoverished social classes. What this means is that there's a ton of un-realized human potential amongst the poorest students in the country, and that the genetic influence on education is still outweighed by the effects of poverty.

Harden then goes on to argue that attempting to do intervention in education, etc without the benefits of insights from genetic research is fruitless. For instance, there's an oft-cited study of how babies whose parents speak more words to them do better in school. But that sort of correlation doesn't mean anything. She claims that rolling out expensive educational policy blindly without any sort of understanding of how the genetic influences work is unsustainable and lead to failure. Most educational interventions do in fact fail.

Where Harden falls down, however, is that she states near the end of the book that we do know what works. Universal healthcare, for instance, would eliminate a lot of the immiseration and suffering and poverty that causes poor performance amongst students. Similarly, eliminating hunger amongst children through food-stamps or poverty reduction programs directly help those students. So in the very last chapter of the book she under-mined her entire thesis! It's very clear that the progressive programs that are considered "far-left-wing" in the USA (while being solidly in the center-right in most developed countries) do not need further research in genetics, cohort studies, or eugenics programs in order to be successful. We already know how to do them, we just have never had the poliltical will to do them.

But you know what, I'm going to give Harden credit for this. Very few people (scientists or otherwise), will admit that the problem they're applying for research funding for has already been solved. And her book contains many good examples of how targetted intervention for kids with say, ADHD or other disabilities shouldn't be considered any differently than giving kids with myopia glasses to see better with. So on the whole I still think her book is worth reading.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Review: Cycorldpro Multi-Pocket Hiking Shorts #9

 I've been using the Columbia Trail Splash shorts for daily wear, but for weekend mountain biking, don't use them because they're missing belt loops. I use some pretty old shorts for that purpose, but they're neither lightweight nor really comfortable, so when slickdeals pointed me at a sale on Cycorldpro's Multi-Pocket Outdoor Hiking Shorts for $16 each, I bought two pairs.

The web-site for the purchase is horrible, with the paypal receipt going to some individuals rather than a company, so you know it's run by somebody as a side-hustle. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The shorts, when they arrived, clearly adhere to the "belt-and-suspenders" approach to clothing design. Not only are there buttons and zippers in addition to the belt loops, there's also (unpictured) an internal drawstring that you can tie so even if you didn't want to use a belt, the shorts would be perfectly fitted.

As advertised, there were pockets galore, two on each side (ample enough to fit a Pixel 6), one on each thigh (one with a zipper, and one with a velcro fastener), and one zippered rear pocket. The shorts are lightweight enough, and very comfortable to mountain bike with with liners and a belt. (Incidentally, the belt is essential for the Spider Holster, which is still my favorite way of carrying a camera) After a muddy ride the shorts cleaned off quickly and easily, and dried easily.

For day to day wear on a sailboat or when I don't need to carry a camera in "quickdraw" mode, I still prefer the Trail Splash. But for weekend mountain biking or hiking trips where I'm going to want a camera at ready these are the ticket. Recommended.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Review: The Dawn of Everything

 The Dawn of Everything comes with the subtitle A New History of Humanity. It stands proudly against books such as Sapiens and their glib, linear exposition of the dawn of civilization. Set against that, is that the book seems determined to be make its points obscure and as incomprehensible and incoherent as possible, so it's going to be a tough job to summarize its main points (since the authors seem unwilling or unable to write clearly!). But I'll try anything.

The book sets the stage by writing that the initial meetings of civilizations between the Western European cultures and the North American cultures were nothing like what is depicted in popular culture. For one, Europeans who lived amongst the native Americans would frequently go native, having discovered that the native American way of living was much less oppressive than the European society of the time. This persists even into the 1900s:

For two decades, Valero lived with a series of Yanomami families, marrying twice, and eventually achieving a position of some importance in her community. Pinker briefly cites the account Valero later gave of her own life, where she describes the brutality of a Yanomami raid.26 What he neglects to mention is that in 1956 she abandoned the Yanomami to seek her natal family and live again in ‘Western civilization,’ only to find herself in a state of occasional hunger and constant dejection and loneliness. After a while, given the ability to make a fully informed decision, Helena Valero decided she preferred life among the Yanomami, and returned to live with them.27 Her story is by no means unusual. The colonial history of North and South America is full of accounts of settlers, captured or adopted by indigenous societies, being given the choice of where they wished to stay and almost invariably choosing to stay with the latter. (Kindle Loc 460)

By contrast, Amerindians incorporated into European society by adoption or marriage, including those who – unlike the unfortunate Helena Valero – enjoyed considerable wealth and schooling, almost invariably did just the opposite: either escaping at the earliest opportunity, or – having tried their best to adjust, and ultimately failed – returning to indigenous society to live out their last days.  (Kindle Loc 471)

 Some emphasized the virtues of freedom they found in Native American societies, including sexual freedom, but also freedom from the expectation of constant toil in pursuit of land and wealth.31 Others noted the ‘Indian’s’ reluctance ever to let anyone fall into a condition of poverty, hunger or destitution. It was not so much that they feared poverty themselves, but rather that they found life infinitely more pleasant in a society where no one else was in a position of abject misery (Kindle Loc 486)

The common arguments were that such societies were primitive and poor, and that the price of egalitarianism and equality and freedom was poverty. The authors take various attacks against these common arguments, with varying success. The most effective argument they had was that it was clear that these tribal societies, far from being primitive and unthinking, had actually constructed their societies with deliberation and thinking.  In one particular account, a Wendat man frequently met with various French and Jesuit settlers and was judged a brilliant thinker and speaker of eloquence:

Some Jesuits went further, remarking – not without a trace of frustration – that New World savages seemed rather cleverer overall than the people they were used to dealing with at home (e.g. ‘they nearly all show more intelligence in their business, speeches, courtesies, intercourse, tricks, and subtleties, than do the shrewdest citizens and merchants in France’).26 Jesuits, then, clearly recognized and acknowledged an intrinsic relation between refusal of arbitrary power, open and inclusive political debate and a taste for reasoned argument. (Kindle Loc 971)

Thus the puzzle the authors pose is as follows: we know from lots of research that the adoption of cereal agriculture was one of the biggest mistakes humanity as a species could have made. Hunter/foragers had way more free time than the Western Farmers who invaded North America. So how did human beings (who were as smart then as we are today) fall into the trap of making their own lives worse? The traditional argument is the economic one: cereal agriculturist couples could produce a child every 2 years, compared to the hunter forager band who would produce one every 3-5 years. But of course, nobody says, "I will suffer and make my life much worse so that 5 generations from now my descendants will win!"

The argument the authors make in this book are as follows:

  1. Many impressions of primitive cultures are wrong. For instance, throughout North America, different clans would occupy the same villages, and despite long distances you would find the same totem animals in use. This strongly suggested that many native Americans could travel far and wide.
  2. The basic unit was not the family. It suggested that early humans have always lived in a somewhat virtual existence, where they could always move with their feet in if they didn't want to be told what to do:

The freedom to abandon one’s community, knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands; the freedom to shift back and forth between social structures, depending on the time of year; the freedom to disobey authorities without consequence – all appear to have been simply assumed among our distant ancestors, even if most people find them barely conceivable today. Humans may not have begun their history in a state of primordial innocence, but they do appear to have begun it with a self-conscious aversion to being told what to do. (Kindle Loc 2628)

Even within cities that were built, leader selection was deliberate as opposed to the modern charismatic politician we expect to see today:

Those who aspired to a role on the council of Tlaxcala, far from being expected to demonstrate personal charisma or the ability to outdo rivals, did so in a spirit of self-deprecation – even shame. They were required to subordinate themselves to the people of the city. To ensure that this subordination was no mere show, each was subject to trials, starting with mandatory exposure to public abuse, regarded as the proper reward of ambition, and then – with one’s ego in tatters – a long period of seclusion, in which the aspiring politician suffered ordeals of fasting, sleep deprivation, bloodletting and a strict regime of moral instruction. The initiation ended with a ‘coming out’ of the newly constituted public servant, amid feasting and celebration.63 Clearly, taking up office in this indigenous democracy required personality traits very different to those we take for granted in modern electoral politics. On this latter point, it is worth recalling that ancient Greek writers were well aware of the tendency for elections to throw up charismatic leaders with tyrannical pretensions. (Kindle Loc 6890)

The authors spend chapter upon chapter arguing that essentially, historians/sociologists and other academics have been guilty of cherry picking their evidence to suit their arguments, that entire eons of history and civilizations that didn't exhibit the modern predilection to strict control, inequality,  and brutal control of humans were simply ignored or not studied. They pointed out that even in many cultures where the "King" was considered a god, couldn't command anyone who wasn't in direct earshot, and that there's a lot of evidence that in many such cultures, most people would chose to live a conveniently far distance from the king.

what happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 in which it did? What happens if we treat the rejection of urban life, or of slavery, in certain times and places as something just as significant as the emergence of those same phenomena in others? In the process, we often found ourselves surprised. We’d never have guessed, for instance, that slavery was most likely abolished multiple times in history in multiple places; and that very possibly the same is true of war. Obviously, such abolitions are rarely definitive. (Kindle Loc 10099)

 I'm not a historian, archaeologist, or academic, so I have no rubric to judge the evidence or understand the believability of what they're saying. What is clear though, is that the native American Indians were given far less credit for bringing the concepts of freedom, individuality, and democracy to Western civilizations than most people would give them today, and that many societies today would do well to consider that the strictures that govern them need not be taken for granted. If the book was better written, its points would be clearer, but it makes very good points. I can't say this book wasn't a slog, but the ideas in it were valuable and interesting. Recommended.