Chris X Edwards

Whenever possible I stop and stand around to listen to the classical music being played to prevent loitering.
2018-05-21 17:34
Bravo to @TheEconomist for competent DNS use! Compare with typical crap like or
2018-05-18 09:20
Amazon email subject:"5LB Cafe Don..." and I figure it's AWS and some Java thing. I wonder how huge LBytes must be. No. Just selling coffee.
2018-05-16 09:31
efail claims PGP vulnerable when really it is exactly everything about modern email but PGP that has failed. PGP is pretty unusable though.
2018-05-15 07:59
New CO poisoning: quiet keyless cars, people think they're off. Can't GM install a $10 CO detector? If poisoned && vel==0 for Xmin: E-stop?
2018-05-14 17:55
Blah Blah

Fatal Crash Rate

2018-05-22 08:06

The brilliant Randall Munroe of XKCD recently presented a nice visual summary of the kind of thinking I do all the time.


I love how this plot helps to illustrate this statistic that I have previously posted.

If I can hasten the practical deployment of autonomous vehicles by one hour, I will have saved 100 lives.

I actually believe in this more than that statement would suggest.

I’m too lazy to belabor details of joint probability distribution calculations that are wildly speculative, but I feel it. Like Randall, I also have an intuition about these things. And like Randall, I can creatively illustrate those intuitions with fanciful plots.


My big intuition is that "general safety improvements" have been overtaken by "general safety impediments". Of course I mean mobile phones. It’s too early for the statistics to properly tell the story but early results don’t look great.

And then there is the fact that if safety has gone to hell and the cause is people staring at their phones instead of controlling their high energy giant machines at terrifying speeds, then this safety retrogression will not befall us all equally. I and the gutter caste will take the worst.

I have survived brawls with SUVs in the past but I am at an inflection point. I have never been entirely invincible and I am wise enough to know that I become less invulnerable every day. Here is a fascinating plot of Dutch cycling fatalities in 2017 and Dutch cycling levels in 2016 organized by age.


You can see that crashing bikes does not age well. Will the intersection of my senescent frailty and the murderous stupidity of people texting while driving come before autonomous cars can save me? Stay tuned! We’ll find out.

On Microbes

2018-05-14 06:24

Last year I reviewed Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes. After writing it I felt my review didn’t really do the topic justice. I joked that the microbiome is a bit like the Force from Star Wars. Besides a few uncanny functional parallels, what I really wanted to convey was that if we were to suddenly learn of the existence of a thing exactly like the Star Wars Force that was not fictional, it would be no more interesting or important than what we are currently learning about microbiomes.

In that spirit I started to jot down some ideas I had about stuff that might be interesting to think about in the context of microbiology. Some of these things may be common knowledge but I tried to think of interesting new ideas that were at least at one time attributed to even more mysterious causes. Coming up with creative ideas is an important part of scientific thinking and since some of these ideas are in the form of testable hypotheses, they are indeed genuine science. After reading this list, maybe you’ll think of some crazy ideas that we can call science.


  • It’s not just the trees in the forest that are important but I speculate that the forest floor’s health is probably as important. Related topics include fungi, deadwood, natural vs. managed forests.

  • House pets are an interesting new development. Though until recently humans often did live very close to livestock to keep them safe and to use them as a source of warmth. The 5th plague of Exodus is diseased livestock and the 6th is boils. Probably based on a true story.

  • Dogs. Rolling in stuff. Sniffing butts. Detecting cancer. Ya, they can.

  • Hypothyroidism in cats is weird.

  • Hotel rooms. Don’t watch this interview with hotel cleaning staff; one cleaner summarizes nicely: "Sleep in your car." My question is how do these intimate spaces shared by travellers distribute microbes?

  • Kissing and non-reproductive sex. Basically when the product of "inexplicably weird" and "stuff we enjoy" is quite high, look to the microbiome.

  • The microbiome of the birth canal is now recognized as an important thing. What about early skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding for newborns? Maybe vernix interactions or umbilical subtleties. Discussed here. Related: how to design proper twin studies to eliminate microbiome confounds? Separate C-section from v-birth? Are there "genetic" links better explained by microbiome transfer.

  • Pregnant women eating dirt. Yup, they sometimes do that apparently. It’s called geophagia.

  • Things kids do, thumb sucking, licking stuff, eating dirt, boogers. Adults can almost be defined as humans who don’t like to think about that stuff but since the number one job of kids historically has been to not die of disease, I’m guessing subconscious kid habits are as evolutionarily optimized as anything.

  • Nail biting. Microbes love fingernails. Although articles like this jump to the conclusion that cooties are icky, the fact that nail biting is mostly subconscious and a habit that declines with age (as nails become harder and more brittle) makes me wonder if there is perhaps an immunological basis for fingernails. Also are long vs. short nails as a rough gender proxy producing evolutionary effects? And do painted nails affect things?

  • Animals licking wounds ("kiss to make better"). Oligopeptides found in saliva do seem to be complicated and interesting.

  • Deodorant, mouthwash, and other first world chemical hygiene products. Whatever you think they’re doing for you, it’s probably a lot more complicated.

  • Unnatural air conditioning, recirculation, HEPA filtering, household dust. Also complicated.

  • Spending an inordinate amount of life indoors. Or, same issue, reliability of lab animal models who live microbially isolated in sterile cages their whole lives.

  • Sleeping with mouth open vs. closed seems like an interesting difference if we assume the nasal passages are doing some useful filtering.

  • Sleeping itself — if not directly caused by microbes, they’re certainly counting on it now. What are the effects of poor sleep on critical microbiomes?

  • Dining al fresco is something all humans used to do but almost never do now. Seems like eating would be a good time to recalibrate microbes with the environment for better or worse.

  • Digging roots, shelling nuts, picking berries, handling food in a natural state. Forks were only introduced to Europe in the 16th century. In most of history people ate almost everything with their hands.

  • It’s easy to imagine that drugs that subtly interact with the microbiome could lose (or gain) efficacy in the future (due to fast evolving microbes). What FDA implications are there for an "approved" drug that eventually becomes useless? There may also be non-pharma folk remedies that may not work but may once have (or it’s complicated), like cranberry juice for urinary tract infections, cod liver oil, etc.

  • Maybe old school poultices and chewed leaves really are effective wound therapy. (Though being a true king probably does not improve efficacy of chewed leaves as presented in the Lord of the Rings.)

  • Leeching, maybe not so crazy. Maybe it’s slightly better than nothing to grab any random swamp animal and let it interact with a very sick patient’s blood stream.

  • Perhaps the four bodily humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) do control temperament. In all of known history the idea has only been ridiculous for around the last 100 years. With an increasing focus on microbes, it (or something similar) is getting less silly all the time.

  • As a serious athlete and back country hiker who lives in a desert, I know hydration can be the difference between life and death. However, I tend to find recommendations a bit excessive. (The CDC avoids official quotas.) I wonder to what extent microbiotas influence required water intake? What is the ideal way to modulate intake to recover from illness or microbial infection? Obviously dysentery, cholera, and other diseases cause water loss and show that these topics are not unrelated.

  • I’m a believer in the temperature effects of serious athletic activity. It is basically a controlled fever. What exactly those effects are is very difficult to say. Our species' (potential) athleticism could have evolved from persistence hunting or a microbe management strategy or both in parallel. Some people believe that cold is good. I have heard the speculative (testable) conjecture that cold water sports like surfing tend to produce fitter people per calorie burned than other types of exercise.

  • In addition to temperature effects, exercise in humans (and horses) may control skin microbes through mineral deposition.

  • The role of salt in the diet. Or, how salt started being used as an anti-microbial preservative in ancient times and affected our recent evolution.

  • As someone who lives near a beach that is regularly contaminated with dangerous bacteria I think the ocean’s salinity and mineral content are very interesting with respect to microbes and how they might have evolved and are still evolving. And beach sand. Let’s just say that I don’t do a lot of barefoot strolls on city beaches.

  • What is the importance of carrion birds in normalizing the world’s microbiomes? And birds of prey also eat carrion. Sometimes.

  • Some pooping in the lair/nest is tolerated by many animals. Birds build nests out of microbe managing tree parts.

  • Obviously radiation breaks atomic bonds that should not be broken in endogenous tissue, but how much of sun sensitivity is related to the microbiome’s tolerance for it?

  • What health effects can we predict from the microbial aspect of modern clothing, fur, leather, cotton, wool, foam bedding, upholstery, and related technology? Is polyester shag carpeting even more worthy of disgust than it seems?

  • The use of soap in laundry and bathing may be less important than the temperature of the water with respect to microbial activity. Obviously for modifying lipid polarity, soap is important by definition. The extent and nature of microbial interaction with such lipids is interesting.

  • What are the effects of clothesline drying in the fresh sunny air vs. baked in a dryer? Probably more than just evaporation.

  • What have the general microbial effects been of milk pasteurization, canned food, and other recent massively deployed food safety technologies? Food irradiation is interesting.

  • EMF effects on microbes? Mostly no it seems. Mostly.

  • Let’s rethink the hidden functionality of body parts that have been deprecated as expendable by modern humans, e.g. appendix, foreskin, gallbladder, tonsils, etc.

  • Besides saliva and sweat, it would not be shocking to discover extended microbial related functionality to menses, tears, urine, etc.

  • Burial vs. cremation (bury healthy corpses, burn sick ones?) A more radical idea: Could the urge for burial, i.e. an aversion to cremation, be a manifestation of a survival instinct of microbiota influencing human brains? Bear in mind our feline friends and Toxoplasmosis gondii.

  • Cramming workers into a cube farm or techbro mosh pit must surely have microbial consequences. I sometimes wonder if the modern office environment creates an intimate locale for microbiota that cause salarymen to all think alike.

  • Yawning. Though no one knows why we do it with certainty, I will add another hypothesis to the long list of suspects: microbe transfer. Unlike, say, the brain cooling hypothesis, the microbe transfer idea is coherent with the socially contagious aspects of yawning. Most likely there’s a combination of effects in play.

  • Conspecific fighting rituals are stupid. My hypothesis is that it is a way to spread the best microbes for an environment. The loser runs away with more of the victor’s microbes in his wounds. Again, combined with other important and complex effects.

  • Why do babies puke so much? Maybe the baby is giving the mom a chance to help selectively reinforce the developing immune system. Microbial activity could explain why pregnant women puke so much; I have no hypothesis for that though.

  • Microbe management could explain why a lot of animals, especially birds, feed their young vomit.

  • The system that causes vomiting (retroperistalsis) may have a role just moving gut microbes around even if actual vomiting is suppressed.

  • Traditional kooky food woo may have had some factual basis. Ironically halal and kosher probably suffer from literacy. Imagine some observant priests do some sensible causation correlation and give their tribe some weird food rules that turn out to be helpful. They thrive. But microbiomes evolve quickly. A tribe enjoying success with microbe management who are using written texts to lock their current practices into an unknown and changing future may not be doing themselves any long term favors.

  • Speaking of microbiomes evolving quickly — a key mechanism in our species' remarkable habitat adaptability — the entire premise of the paleo diet is idiotic.

  • Addiction. Seems there might be a link to various microbiotas.

  • Microbes make me think of a new hypothesis for alcohol. Perhaps its pleasurable effects evolved to induce animals to eat rotten foods, picking up new microbes. Like flowers inducing bees to help.

  • Ingesting edible substances is one dimension, but what effects do their temperatures have on microbe health? For example hot or iced drinks? A "hot meal"? Also capsaicin spiciness hot, and acidity?

  • Cootie-phobe Michael Arrington believes that handshaking developed to show that you’ve got no weapon. I’m not so sure. Besides spreading pandemics and general disease, are there any redeeming features to this social technology? Could the custom be to slowly inoculate neighboring friendly tribes and vice versa?

  • I think microbiotas are starting to explain why getting "nutrition" in a pill (or drink) is much harder than people thought it would be. Sadly I predict that this is the fundamental limitation to spacefaring. Sorry Elon, I’m as disappointed about it as anyone.

  • Microbes are surprisingly similar to human cells — bacteria and yeast are commonly used as model organisms. How do toxins or even intentional metabolites affect microbes? For example, BPA mimics estrogen and millions of women take contraceptives or hormone replacement and then discharge it out into the environment. That one has been studied on ecosystems at a macro scale, but what about natural microbial environments? What about other metabolites?

  • Allergies and asthma.

  • Acne. It’s the same kind of mystery as asthma. Have we really evolved to be disfigured by zits? Seems so weird. And weird usually points to the world of microbiology.

  • Healthy human skin is a thriving forest of microbes carefully kept in balance by our bodies and what we do with them. Although some companies may be slightly aware of the microbiome’s role in healthy skin, it’s crazy to me how careless most cosmetics users seem to be about it. It also intrigues me that many traditional cosmetics and skin care treatments involve mud, vegetables, and other things that might be of interest to a microbe community.

  • Smoking is bad. But second-hand smoke may be disruptive to skin surface microbiomes. Here is a paper looking at connections between smoke and microbes. Here’s another.

  • What about second-hand antibiotics i.e. from the meat of livestock treated with antibiotics? This excellent microbiome article hints at it. For example, this article pretty clearly exposes meat eating as linked to obesity. I propose that latent antibiotics, not necessarily the meat per se, may cause havoc in conjunction with all the other trash modern people eat.

Here’s a microbiome wiki: MicrobeWiki

I’ll probably add to this list as I think of or come across interesting topics that fit the theme. If you see something that you think should be mentioned here, I’d love to hear it; send an email.

UPDATE 2018-05-18

My employer is doing some amazing work researching this topic. The American Gut Project is run from UCSD and has already produced some very interesting results. You can send in a sample and participate yourself!

Review: Enlightenment Now

2018-05-06 22:32

I’ve glowingly reviewed other books by Steven Pinker. Here, here, here, and here. He’s a brilliant stylist of inviting English prose, a dazzlingly erudite scholar, a formidable rhetorical gladiator, and a wellspring of intellectual common sense that in his wake seems bloody obvious. I am clearly a fan.

When I heard about his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, And Progress I rushed to put my name on the library’s waiting list. Now having read it, I am not disappointed!

I’m going to let slide the fact that the first text you’ll read (on the cover) is a quote by Bill Gates — whom I am not especially impressed with — saying, "My new favorite book of all time." I never said Bill was an idiot and he’s right to like this book in particular. It strongly advises caution at bath time because, it claims, the baby of progress can be very hard to separate from dirty bathwater like Gates. It is like one of those behavioral economics experiments where you can penalize your adversary a dollar and get nothing, or you can receive a dollar if you award one to your undeserving adversary. I’m not an idiot either. If Bill Gates has to get richer for everybody to do better, fine. I’m not convinced that’s all in order, but Pinker sure makes a good case that rising tides do lift plenty of boats. Without exculpating Bill’s ill-gotten loot, it is true that just living in the first world is an analogous situation to being a billionaire at some level to some people. Ok, ok. What of it?

Well, we are getting richer. All of us. What does that mean? Anything you want. Richer in purchasing power? Yes. In longevity? Yes. Health? Yes. Security? Yes. Not having to watch your kids die? Not dying in childbirth? Yes. Yes. Richer in knowledge? Yes. Culture? Opportunity? Free time? Safety? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes….. 500 pages of yes. What could we do to make all of our dreams come true? If we step back and do the accounting, all of our dreams have come true!

Of course, a quick instinctive reaction to that assertion is: that’s crazy! No way! The road to Hell is not just ahead, but the hand basket we’re in is currently on its off ramp. But here’s the thing. Most of us are not starving to death. Or freezing to death. Or being shipped off to a gulag. I know this because Pinker just told me and backed it up with tons of actual data. We are, if we bother to check the numbers, doing objectively better than humans have ever done. Not only are we not doomed to Idiocracy, humans are, in point of fact, becoming measurably smarter (see Flynn effect). If you can’t believe we’re smart enough to measure such things, then the Idiocracy worry is moot by the same logic. Pinker doesn’t even make use of the fact that human brainpower has recently received a massive upgrade in the form of computational enhancement (e.g. Kasparov’s Law).

This can be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first. Like the premise of Pinker’s book The Better Angels Of Our Nature — violence in our species is decisively declining — it can be surprising to learn that our worst dread is actually not so bad at all. And getting a lot better all the time in a way that seems inexorable. It’s not just violence that’s getting better. It’s every damn thing. Maybe every damn thing is related to how much we kill each other?

I know it can be hard to take this victory lap. Thinking about all the idiots out there and all the suffering they’ve caused, it sure can seem bleak. But after World War II there really was a huge decline in massive genocides, pogroms, holocausts, wars, and so on. The 20th century seems like a giant skull and crossbones warning to the future that things are probably not going to go well.

What finally sold me though was thinking about all that death of the 20th century and then comparing it to one little statistic. In the 20th century, 300 million people did not die from smallpox. Many more were not maimed or partially incapacitated by it. Let’s all stop and take a deep breath and remind ourselves that smallpox was one of the worst foes of our species' history and we utterly vanquished it. In the 20th century. Hell ya.

And that leads to the book’s title which I just realized is a bit of word play. According to the IMDB

John Milius explained how he had come up with the title "Apocalypse Now". Apparently, this was derived from, at that time (1965), a very popular tattoo amongst the hippie community of a peace sign that said "Nirvana Now".

And that hippie community’s hopeful wish for something good is winning the fight against a more sinister apocalyptic outcome. Pinker rightly points out that it is not mystical woo that is winning this war — it is the intellectual framework of the Enlightenment.

Just as in The Blank Slate, Pinker had to anticipate his critics objecting to some pretty absurd stuff. In the Blank Slate, he knew some people were still adamant about the incorrect fact that no behavior, none, is genetically passed from parents to children. This stupid belief defies common sense and he had to forfend the same kind of nutty thinking in this book too. For example, he had to explicitly address the concerns of people who think that humans going extinct might be for the best. You may wonder who could possibly be against "progress"? Pinker reminds us and destroys their faulty reasoning. Some people gravitate towards disastrous (it has been shown by history) authoritarian regimes which restrict liberties we take for granted in the rich world. A rich world that has become rich precisely because of the liberties involved in tolerance, free expression, open-mindedness, scientific thought, impartial inquiry, free markets, evidence, logic, etc. If you think that everyone is on board with the Enlightenment, Pinker sets you straight. He then sets the doubters straight.

Almost all of the arguments in this book perfectly coincided with my beliefs. For example…

The lifeblood of science is the cycle of conjecture and refutation: proposing a hypothesis and then seeing whether it survives attempts to falsify it.

— p. 391

Popper’s book, completely changed how I think about science as I describe in my Review: Conjectures And Refutations.

Some points of agreement were uncanny. Check out these matches with things I’ve publicly said in the past.

Health care is being reshaped by evidence-based medicine (which should have been a redundant expression long ago).

— p. 380

The insane phrase "evidence-based medicine" did not exist before 1990. And even today it still needs to exist.

— @chrisxed 20171215 13:09

One technique [to avert Tragedy of the Belief Commons] was discovered long ago by rabbis: they forced yeshiva students to switch sides in a Talmudic debate and argue the opposite position.

— p. 379

In a debate if you can’t make your opponent’s best points, you can’t make yours.

— @chrisxed 20180305 19:13

…because what’s self-evident isn’t always self-evident.

— p. 413

If only the meaning of self-explanatory was.

— @chrisxed 20171128 08:46

But Pinker covers a lot of ground and he tips a lot of sacred cows. There’s something to make everyone grumble. I was most unsettled by his enthusiasm for nuclear power. But after reading his argument, I am convinced. Not that it is the way to go, but that it is worth exploring and keeping an open mind about. (In short, his argument is that first pass 1950’s reactors built on seismic faults are probably a bad idea, but new generation modern reactors are orders of magnitude safer and represent the only plausible way to do what really needs to be done with respect to climate change.)

Pinker definitely isn’t saying that there are no problems. He’s not saying everything is perfect. But he is saying that the best way to approach the problems that remain for our species is the way that we’ve met with dominating success beyond our ancestors' wildest hopes: Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism, liberty, progress. He believes that framing our serious problems, like climate change, as engineering problems is not only the best hope at solving them, it is the only coherent non-stupid thing to do. By all means you can try prayer and crystal energy fields also if it makes you feel better but here in the real world, applying reason and scientific thinking is the only way to proceed.

An interesting reflection I had after reading this book is that it is the anti-news. In the "news", the goal isn’t to plainly inform (for that, I recommend the Wikipedia Current Events Portal). No, news agencies are trying to attract attention. They compete to generate the most sensational ledes possible. And our human limbic system is not wired to snap to attention when things are smoothly going well. It is designed to be deeply affected by potentially dangerous calamities. And, because of how our system is setup, that’s all we are ever shown, out of proportion to how much we really need to know about such terrible spectacles. But even that trend is highlighting strife and misfortune in a way that makes it even more intolerable for us compared to never knowing about it happening far, far away. As a consequence we are eradicating these problems at a pretty historically impressive pace.

This book is a wonderful antidote to the toxic news cycle. If everybody stopped watching the news for a month and instead read this book, the world would be a much better place. But as this book shows, if deep historical trends persist, it’s going to be a much better place anyway. We should not get complacent but nor should we be despondent. We are a species of extreme champion problem solvers! We got this!

Comments - The Wrong Answer To A Good Question

2018-05-02 13:51

TL;DR: If you want to comment on this post send me an email.

Most people probably don’t remember Prodigy. This was a pre world wide web dial-up modem networking service (Compuserve was another). It was a real prototype of the modern internet — it was jointly owned by IBM (tech), CBS (media), and Sears (shopping). Anyone remember Sears, the Amazon of the early 20th century? I remember being relieved in 1997 that independent web hosting had become a reasonably plausible and common thing allowing me to make my own proper web site and say good bye to predatory proprietary network portals for good.

Ha! But that’s not what happened is it? As I mentioned a few months ago, the modern web conforms to a Power Law.


To a great extent the internet has returned to the splendor of the 1990s with its mere handful of gatekeepers.

However, in that long tail, there are heroes out there who produce actual content. Early on some of us dreamers envisioned that if freed from venal pressures, independent voices on the internet could spread new ideas, perspectives, and empowering information (sort of like a distributed Wikipedia). Some of us still tilt at those windmills. The internet is what it is. Independent voices are pushed to the margins. When you do a Google search it’s hard to even conceptualize what you should expect to find these days. Independent websites today are like subversive pamphlets of the past.

Which brings me to today’s topic: comments. Imagine prolific 18th century pamphleteer, Benjamin Lay getting ready to "post" this.


If he had modern technology, this crusading rebel would have used something like or or or or something else edgy and "independent". What do you think would have happened in 1737 if Mr. Lay had put a note in his publication inviting anyone who had anything they wished to add to his views to submit them for inclusion in an addendum to be published at Lay’s expense? Well to get an idea, let’s take a look at some comments on a completely random web site ( for a poem) that I came across today.


Notice the 5th one. I’m guessing Mr. Lay would have seen something like that. And this comment system hilariously has mechanisms for upvoting and abuse reporting. See how well that works?

All sensible opinions I have about cryptocurrency come from reading the blog of the brilliant Elaine Ou (who rightly points out "Toiling in obscurity is underrated."). Here she is connecting her favorite topic of cryptocurrency to annoying intrusions into her blog by shady SEO vermin.

And there’s poor Robert X. Cringely who started his respected web site about the same time I started mine. In 2015 Bob did some Kickstarter thing with his kids for a small game server appliance and it was apparently not successful despite their best efforts. Now on his venerable blog the comments are basically unreadable because of trolls dissatisfied with that old project’s outcome. Here is a look at his most recent ten posts showing the portion of comments that explicitly mention "mineserver".

Flagrant Trolls (79) Possible Trolls (593)

So that’s the problem. What can be done about it? Aggressively police and prune it? That’s what our generous overlords are sort of doing on our behalf since they know who posts the same annoying stuff too many times. But there is a better solution — do not host comments!

Reviewing the comments on my ancient posts once hosted by history’s biggest ad agency, I find they fall into two categories. Either they are me adding new information to the post or they are personal exchanges with people I know. In the former case, I now simply make labeled updates to my posts if necessary (e.g.). I can do that — I’m in complete control of exactly what is shown and when. What a concept!

Obviously people like to get positive feedback (which is pretty rare in on-line comments) and that brings up the solution to the second kind of comments: email. Yes, humble email. If someone has something to say to me, send me an email. You can pretty much make up any valid email address name (formally the local part) and send that to my domain which I assume, if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with. (That’s right, it’s

Here’s where the magic happens. If your email is just an inside joke with me, cool, we will share it away from the hurtful stares of the wider cruel world. If you have something useful to add that I think may be of value to my readers (which mostly consist of my future selves), I will make one of the aforementioned updates. Will I credit you? It depends — sometimes people like to stay anonymous, certainly when faced with the prospect of being associated with me. I will use good judgement. If your email comment is so profoundly mind blowing that it should be brought to the widest possible audience, I will write a new blog post singling it out and praising its brilliance.

Now, you might be thinking, "But I’m popular and I get 51.4 (non-Mineserver) comments every time I post." Cool. That’s fine. If you’re not reading the comments, well, they’re probably a mess and they’re obviously not important to you. If you are reading them, you can read them as emails. And! You can more easily drop noise from disgruntled Mineserver backers.

But what if you profoundly disagree with me. Maybe you strongly believe comment #5. Don’t you have a right to free speech? Not on my blog you don’t! Fortunately there’s a very easy fix for this problem — get your own damn blog! There you can say what you like including how stupid I am for disparaging blog comments. (And pick through SEO bot droppings as you wish.) This is wonderfully self-regulating; if people like your opinions, they will read them. Also notice how I can email this post’s URL to Elaine and Bob for them to ignore or read as they see fit.

I think this is more important for popular bloggers. By adopting a no comment strategy you are encouraging a world wide web to exist. You are telling people, yes, you can be a first class node on this network too. Print your own pamphlets!

Review: Sapiens

2018-04-17 22:07

I really enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. That’s not surprising since it combines the most interesting bits from all history with a particular attention to two of my favorite topics: philosophy and the history of consciousness.

I’ve been to natural history museums with a conga line of evolving hominids. I’ve never been able to really care too much about the details of that kind of history, but this book really put a fresh spin on it. It really stressed the concept that we homo sapiens (of the book’s title) weren’t the only humans. Like fictional Vulcans or Hobbits, our Earth was once home to quite a few real species of people who were not sapiens. The fact that they were contemporaries of our species is about as interesting as it was for Star Trek’s writers. Maybe even the basis for ancient myths that ultimately inspired Tolkien.

Of course those other folks don’t get to the end of the story with a particularly happy ending. Neanderthals, we are told, could be fair skinned according to DNA evidence. DNA research also suggests that certain modern people, such as East Asians and Europeans, have maybe 2%-3% of Neanderthal genes. Modern humans also have genes from other hominid species too like the 3% of Denisovan genes in modern aboriginal Australians.

We can follow the story of these animals through paleontological evidence. For a long time they were just apes doing ape things like gorillas do today, but a couple million years ago or so, they started making stone tools. Of course stones can comfortably lie around for millions of years waiting to be found; it’s not unreasonable to assume these creatures were crafting other artifacts now lost to time. After a long time of being the weird animals that made mineral tipped sticks, the hominid species figured out something even more awesome: how to use fire. At first it was probably just scavenging the carnage of natural fires, but of all the earth’s animals, humans (many species of them) learned to produce fire on demand. This was a big deal, not just for us, but for the entire planet.

The book talks about how this technology of fire coincided with the massive dispersion and success of early humans. It also pointed out that it is likely that early humans used controlled fires to burn down forests as a food gathering strategy. The rise in human populations coincides suspiciously with a serious decline in the planet’s terrestrial megafauna. As I read about this I wondered if these people ever wondered if killing so many mammoths could just wipe them all out completely, but I figure probably no more so than someone today who eats a tuna sandwich is worrying about devastating the ocean’s megafauna. Basically throughout history, when humans achieve access to a new realm, all the big animals are pretty much hunted to extinction. Of course sapiens, us, are prime suspects in the ongoing investigation into the extermination of all the other species of humans.

If you could teach your dog to write book reviews, that would be a pretty interesting read. Yet it’s no exaggeration to claim that some mysterious factors caused a species of ground ape to learn to write book reviews. I believe the most interesting question ever asked is, how did this happen?

After killing our hominid cousins and most varieties of the big animals, and burning down a lot of forest, things start to get really interesting. With less shadowy forest, grasses become more competitive. Humans who may have created this grassland are in the right place to learn how to forage in it. By collecting the kernels of these early grains, sapiens start to figure out that these plants can be controlled. They can be induced to grow for the convenience of humans. The selection of these plants can furthermore stop being natural; they start to co-evolve with and for the convenience of humans. Domestication of animals starts about this time too. After getting so good at herding them off cliffs and trapping them in canyons, etc. it was just a small refinement in technology to keep some animals alive. By constantly killing and eating the unruly ones, our ancestors created new strains of animals that were relatively easy for humans to completely control.

The book is peppered with philosophy. The author really is a philosopher who figured that a history PhD was going to pay the bills better. At this point in the story of our species the author hits us with a quirky bold suggestion that is, true or not, delightfully thought provoking. He points out that our transition to agriculture may not have been "progress". I pointed out in my review of Traffic that if you try to alleviate traffic congestion by building more roads, you are likely to just get a lot more cars which will perversely cause even more traffic problems. Harari thinks this kind of thing may have happened with our transition to agriculture. By the time humans perfected taking care of wheat and barley plants they found themselves in a strange situation where they could sustain many more people in a given area, but that each person had to work a lot harder to do so.

And with the ability to support more people, more people appeared. Populations exploded. People were crammed into dense clusters for the first time. Diseases became more dangerous. They now had possessions and big investments in particular parcels of territory. Conflict became more coordinated and serious. Foragers who were defeated by their warring neighbors could run away and forage elsewhere; farmers on the other hand would fight to the bitter end knowing that leaving the farm was a death sentence.

The book casts the transition to agriculture as a kind of trap; it is described as "History’s Biggest Fraud". Nobody masterminded it or made some obvious catastrophic mistake, but as things developed we found ourselves in a position that may not have been "better" in the ways we normally assume. The book figures that we spent more time and toil with early agriculture than we did hunting and foraging. Of course maybe being neurotic weird apex predator apes in our modern milieux is better than being more harmonious with our evolutionary character. It’s hard to say. I think asking the question is cool. Certainly it’s a precedent for other subsequent "advances" that some members of our species view with a bit of chagrin.

After a long time of hazy relatively slow moving anthropological history, civilizations begin to emerge and big changes start happening very quickly on the path towards apes writing book reviews. Harari highlights the fact that we sapiens are quite receptive to coordinated beliefs in imaginary things. Just like your dog thinks you’re the greatest thing in the entire universe, we humans are even more skilled at fervently believing in things that are obviously complete fictions. The book contrasts the Code of Hammurabi (~c.1776 BC) with the Declaration of Independence (1776) and notes that they have some radical differences that were both believed by their contemporaries to be fundamental truths. For example, the Babylonians believed that the required reparations for killing a woman was in the ball park of 30 raisin-sized nuggets of silver, unless she was a slave in which case about 20 would suffice. That fiction was a truth as obvious to those people as the fiction "that all men are created equal… with certain unalienable rights" is to us. The progression of which wacky fictions we’ve been taking as divine truths is as good a proxy of our species' "progress" as anything.

The book covers a lot of territory. There is a nice history of literacy and math and scientific thinking. A nice high level overview of major civilizations rising and falling and the role of empire in catalyzing the whole circus. The importance of religion is noted. There’s a brilliant presentation of the weird collective fiction that is money, the god that brings together Arabs and Jews and everyone else. And credit, the god that buys now and pays later, weirdly providing for no small amount of domination through growth.

In a blink of an eye, we have some Industrial Revolution and human rights and a Space Age and Gilligan’s Island reruns. The book ends wondering what’s next? Given how awesomely interesting the story has been so far, we’re in no danger of boring ourselves anytime soon.


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