Truly an outstanding book that every Californian, certainly everyone in the Bay Area, should read. Cunningham's rich drawings and paintings evoke pre-Truly an outstanding book that every Californian, certainly everyone in the Bay Area, should read. Cunningham's rich drawings and paintings evoke pre-contact California in a way that I've never seen before, largely because I've never seen anyone try! Most historical ecology is strictly prose (a form Cunningham also handles with elegance and precision), but to *see* our familiar landscapes denuded of houses and replete with bears is another thing entirely. There may not be another person alive who combines Cunningham's scientific and scholarly sensibilities with genuine artistry and a deep understanding of California natural history borne of direct experience.
Some random reflections:
Did you know there were 30+ ft long sea cows in our kelp forests 30,000 years ago? That's the length of a city bus. Imagine finishing a dive with a safety stop next to a bus-sized sea cow.
Cunningham disputes the claim that contact-era animal abundances encountered by Europeans were the result of advanced waves of diseases that had killed off the top predators in those ecosystems, i.e. indigenous people. I first encountered this idea reading Charles Mann, and I admit I'd sort of assumed it was the accepted explanation. There are definitely underlying philosophical agendas at play, since if you prefer to believe that Europeans are horrible and screwed everything up you probably prefer the view that America was a bountiful utopia of plants and animals before Europeans ruined it all, whether that abundance was cultivated by indigenous peoples or not, and if you prefer to believe that all humans exert similar ecological influences you'd probably prefer it if Indians were keeping down animal populations through hunting. Merits some further reading, I imagine. Cunningham claims a lot of the evidence used to support the predator release theory is pretty scant.
I had this wonderful "a-ha!" moment after reading the section on fire. Cunningham writes that Californian Indians would burn grasslands and oak woodlands to (among other things) promote the growth of wild food crops, which I kind of knew in theory. Days after I read that this spring I went for a hike in a part of Lake County that burned last fall, and the insane density of wildflowers really brought home how effective fire would have been in promoting a crop you could really harvest and eat a lot of. The Ithuriel's spear was particularly dense, and the USDA claims that several tribes ate the bulbs: http://www.plants.usda.gov/plantguide....
One of the things I appreciate most about this book is its frank approach to our ignorance. Cunningham does not shy away from pointing out what we don't know about the past, in many cases what we can't know, and while she does theorize and extrapolate, it's always clear when she's doing so....more
Humboldt: not just a Californian county shrouded in cannabinoid haze! Turns out, he was also a dude. It's hard to read the works of 19th century naturHumboldt: not just a Californian county shrouded in cannabinoid haze! Turns out, he was also a dude. It's hard to read the works of 19th century naturalists without picking up on the Humboldt name-dropping, but this welcome biography definitely provided me with a fuller understanding of what he was all about. And what he was all about was pretty much everything, from geology to salps to flowers to race relations to income inequality. Also talking a lot. I suspect I, like Darwin, would have idolized Humboldt from afar but been deeply annoyed with him in person. Such is life.
This book is a pretty straightforward chronology of Humboldt's times, with the primary purpose of reintroducing this critical 18th and 19th century scientist to English-speaking audiences who have largely forgotten him, possibly due to the anti-German backlash following World War II, as Wulf suggests. It is also a scholarly, thoroughly-cited and well-researched work based on sources spanning several languages. If you want to learn more about this fascinating figure, this is a great starting point.
That said, I found Wulf's habit of quoting people in tiny fragments to be deeply annoying, and perhaps representative of a larger inclination to cherry-pick portions of Humboldt's life that fit Wulf's depiction of him as one of the first syncretic ecologists and a modern humanist. The tiny quotes thing just made me feel like I wasn't getting a taste for Humboldt in his own words, which made me wonder if I should just be reading his own books instead of a biography. I'd prefer a biographer allow their subject to speak a little more.
The larger issue of selection was most glaring to me in Wulf's attempts to describe Humboldt as a man with modern ethics regarding race and social justice. "Unlike most Europeans," she writes, "Humboldt did not regard the indigenous people as barbaric, but instead was captivated by their culture, beliefs and languages" (p. 71). No doubt he was closer to our modern ideals than his contemporaries, but it's never that tidy when you dig a bit deeper (with people of the 18th century or people of today). Here's an excerpt that complicates:
The assemblage of Indians at Pararuma again excited in us that interest, which everywhere attaches man in a cultivated state to the study of man in a savage condition, and the successive development of his intellectual faculties. How difficult to recognize in this infancy of society, in this assemblage of dull, silent, inanimate Indians, the primitive character of our species! Human nature does not here manifest those features of artless simplicity, of which poets in every language have drawn such enchanting pictures. The savage of the Orinoco appeared to us to be as hideous as the savage of the Mississippi, described by that philosophical traveller Volney, who so well knew how to paint man in different climates. We are eager to persuade ourselves that these natives, crouching before the fire, or seated on large turtle-shells, their bodies covered with earth and grease, their eyes stupidly fixed for whole hours on the beverage they are preparing, far from being the primitive type of our species, are a degenerate race, the feeble remains of nations who, after having been long dispersed in the forests, are replunged into barbarism.
Reading Voyage of the Beagle is largely the same: Darwin often lamented the injustice and violence inflicted by Europeans on everyone else, but even he couldn't find empathy for the native peoples of Tierra del Fuego.
Regarding Humboldt as a kind of father of ecology, again, he seems to have been a critical force, though not the only player. Such is nature of biography I guess. I did appreciate Wulf's emphasis on his holism, which encompassed not just different scientific disciplines, but also the arts. Her excerpt from Wordsworth's The Excursion (p. 171) regarding the meanness of reductionism is brilliant:
Inquire of ancient Wisdom; go, demand Of mighty Nature, if 'twas ever meant That we should pry far off yet be unraised; That we should pore, and dwindle as we pore, Viewing all objects unremittingly In disconnection dead and spiritless; And still dividing, and dividing still, Break down all grandeur, still unsatisfied With the perverse attempt, while littleness May yet become more little; waging thus An impious warfare with the very life Of our own souls!
Wulf describes Humboldt's many close male friendships, and seems to fall just short of suggesting he was gay given the strength of these friendships and his disinterest in women (pp. 82-83), but she leaves it at that. I guess we can't know he was gay, but Wulf seems convinced of it, and it seems probable given the evidence she presents. Part of me feels her unwillingness to investigate his sexuality is appropriate since, in theory, that has little bearing on his life as a scientist, but on the other hand, if Humboldt was gay and closeted, surely that had enormous impact on his science and every other aspect of his life, whether or not he would choose to admit it. His male parters were very often fellow scientists, intellectual as well as emotional companions, so these relationships were clearly scientifically important. If Humboldt had not been gay would he have married, and how would that have affected his career? If Humboldt was gay, shouldn't we be celebrating him as such?
Also, how amazing is it that Goethe, Humboldt, Darwin, Jefferson, Babbage, and countless other thinkers with huge influence on our times were both contemporaries and correspondents! The part where Humboldt drops by the US and hangs out with Jefferson was incredible, particularly the fact that Jefferson was capable of conversation about science. Like, when Neil deGrasse Tyson drops by the White House, do he and Obama actually talk about cosmology? I doubt it. Not sure if this is a consequence of the complication of science, where no one person could speak intelligently about anything other than a tiny slice of it, or the reductionist bent of our age, where you can be a politician or a scientists but not both, and certainly not at the same time.
Jefferson, like all humans, is problematic in his own right, but here's something for the religious right to keep in mind next time they try to claim him:
History, I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. this marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
And, for liberal humanists hoping to do the same, from the same letter:
You know, my friend, the benevolent plan we were pursuing here for the happiness of the Aboriginal inhabitants in our vicinities. we spared nothing to keep them at peace with one another, to teach them agriculture and the rudiments of the most necessary arts, and to encourage industry by establishing among them separate property.
"The only thing in heaven or Earth that M. Humboldt does not understand is business." (p. 181, attributed to Helen Maria Williams, who translated some of AH's works into English).
"I loathe, I abhor the sea, & all ships which sail on it." 27-year-old Darwin in a letter to his sister Susan, toward the end of his voyage on the Beagle, 1836, quoted by AW on p. 227.
"I am grown the dullest old owl in Christendom." George Perkins Marsh to Spencer Fullerton Baird, 26 August 1869. http://cdi.uvm.edu/collections/item/g.... "Dullest owl in Christendom" is either going to be the name of my band or my epitaph. Quoted by AW on p. 283....more
I was unaware of the hype surrounding this book, but was made immediately so when my dad, newly literate in his retirement, was baffled that no one elI was unaware of the hype surrounding this book, but was made immediately so when my dad, newly literate in his retirement, was baffled that no one else in the family had heard of it. If other people like it then it can't be good, so I went in a skeptic, but came out pretty pleased. This is a solid, well-researched history of the personal computer and the Internet that does a reasonably good job of arguing that technical innovation is not about singular geniuses who pluck inventions from the aether and bestow them upon us, the knuckle-dragging plebeians, but about small teams of collaborators who manage to catch the wave of their cultural and technological moment. Historians call the former notion the Great Man theory and, to my knowledge, discredited it as absurdly simplistic long ago. Technologists, however, have been slow to catch up, and we still worship the idea of far-sighted founders gazing deeply into the Platonic flames they've lit in the deep, darkened depths of some suburban garage (will I stop mixing metaphors? Probably not.). Isaacson himself has written several such works of idolatry-I-mean-biography (I suppose they pay the bills, but... does he really still need to pay the bills?), and explicitly says in the intro that he's trying to get away from all that, so good on him for bringing an old idea to a field that needs it (even if it's not, itself, that innovative).
Interestingly, I often found myself thinking of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and now that I've reminded myself what that was all about, it seems kind of obvious. Among other things, Dennett, argued that what we think of as engineering and design are not like evolution by natural selection, they are in fact essentially the same process. Just as one does not simply jump directly from bacteria to dolphins in a single step, Isaacson argues that you don't just get Macintoshes out of nowhere. They were built on a long history of experimentation, collaboration, failure, success, and selection (by the market as much as by simple functionality).
I liked his repeated deemphasis of the importance of ideas. In his own words, "conception is just the first step. What really matters is execution" (p. 365). In this case he was citing Steve Jobs' admission that he'd "always been shameless about stealing great ideas," specifically that Apple stole Xerox's GUI concept, as an example of a good idea poorly executed by the people who thought it up. I basically agree with this, even though it's taken me a while to get there, since I believe pretty strongly in giving credit where it's due. I really only have a few "innovations" to which I could lay some claim, but none of them are really very innovative. What sets them apart is that my collaborators and I actually implemented them. Ideas are cheap, and talented labor isn't, so I've lost a lot of sympathy for people who claim they thought of something first. Who cares. Acting on good ideas is what matters.
Isaacson also took some occasional dips into describing different leadership styles among innovators, which seemed intriguing at first given that I've recently found myself in the rather bizarre situation of managing two people (sort of), but most of his commentary boiled down to platitudes like "One useful leadership talent is knowing when to push ahead against doubters and when to heed them" (p. 163). Indeed. Not quite "actionable," in the parlance of such folk.
I found his techno-utopianism and unwillingness to even mention some of the downsides of all this innovation to be somewhat off-putting, which is why The Word Exchange (a novel in which the purveyors of smartphone-like DNA computers infect humanity with a DNA virus that makes them unable to use language) made an excellent pairing for simultaneous reading. I would have appreciated more investigation into the failure of innovators to guard against the unprecedented control personal computers and the Internet allow centralized powers (corporations, governments) to have over us, especially given their origins in the dream of expanding personal powers of organization and computation, and survival of outside attack through decentralization. What about the innovations in culture, in practice, in beliefs that have been fostered by the Internet, and how are they faring in the privatized, undemocratic corporate fora of Facebook, Twitter, etc. that we've come to rely on for community, information dissemination, and political discussion? He touches on open source technologies and where Wikipedia came from, but why haven't those values of freedom, self-determination, and collaboration permeated the Internet more broadly?
You could easily read this history as a tragedy of the counterculture, how the innovative work of anti-capitalist anarchists has been almost entirely co-opted and diluted by profiteers. Instead of The Well we have Facebook. Instead of a culture of empowered hackers we've become dead-eyed iPhone junkies ghost-lit and hunched, thumbing mindlessly for the next hit of content. A cynic might claim that the cultural innovations died, and the technological innovations that persist increasingly serve to re-enforce the old culture of central authority and control. We are not Vanevar Bush's connected intellectuals, or homebrew hackers who "believe in rough consensus and running code", so what happened?
These are largely cavils from a bitter, bitter old man (me). On the whole this is interesting history, well worth learning for people who don't know it, and worth re-learning for those who think they do. There was a recent TTBOOK episode on similar themes for those interested.
"Certainly a computer is nothing but a huge concentration of trivial matters." J. Presper Eckert, from http://purl.umn.edu/107275, p. 74
One of Isaacson's more interesting side points was that property has served innovation well for hardware, but not for software (at least software related to the Internet). He thinks this is because large corporations were better able to combine the multiple requirements for innovations in hardware, from materials science to logistics to marketing to sales, whereas software had fewer costs and requirements. Does the advent of small-scale manufacturing technologies, community hackerspaces, and the maker movement change that at all?
p. 341 Bill gates wrote this letter to hobbyists that were appropriating his proprietary software in 1976. I laughed, both because it seems perfectly reasonable, and because people have been stealing his software ever since.
Isaacson writes that "The rise of Apple marked a decline of hobbyist culture," (p. 353) which he finds lamentable, but I'm not sure he goes far enough. It's interesting that some of the most revolutionary hardware devices in personal computing also hinder further revolutions because the people who use them cannot understand how they work (have you ever tried to pry open an iPhone?). In some ways the maker movement is a reaction to that trend in hardware, but is it leading to new technological revolutions?
"The WELL was a model of the type of intimate, thoughtful community that the Internet used to feature." I know I basically made a similar argument above re: Facebook, but it's slightly different: I actually think intimate, thoughtful communities exist on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. I feel like by being somewhat choosy with my Facebook friends, I can have interesting and substantial discussions there (not often, I'll grant, but sometimes). What bothers me is that I have no control over the the venue for such discussion. If I don't like the fact that Facebook can sell ads based on what I say there, I can't change that, and I can't really just go to another social network, because those friends aren't all on other social networks. It's a centralized, undemocratic system. Which, I know, is ironic, since I run a similar system, but I try to be a benevolent despot with an open ear.
Given that my atheism was birthed from a Catholic upbringing, you'd think I'd know a little more about Christian history, but I don't. Enter Elaine PaGiven that my atheism was birthed from a Catholic upbringing, you'd think I'd know a little more about Christian history, but I don't. Enter Elaine Pagels, Christian historian par excellence! I'd heard her discussing Revelations on Fresh Air earlier this year and was intrigued, so I figured I'd give her work a try. Well worth it.
For the uninitiated, the canonical Christian New Testament represents but a handful of documents chosen from numerous texts about the life and times of Jesus written in the 200 years following his death. This book is about a number of them discovered half a century ago that describe a wild diversity of ideas, most of which adhere to a principle called "gnosticism," which, to put it in terms that will make theologians cringe, holds that divinity should be sought through introspection, not through external sources, e.g. you don't reach God through the church; you need to find him/her yourself (or, as my friend n8 described it in tech terms, "the Bible is SVN and the gnostic gospels are git"). Pagels' thesis is "to show how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy – and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself" (p. xxxiv), with the sub-point that texts included in the canonical Bible were often chosen for political and not ideological reasons.
Big claims! Obviously it's sort of impossible to prove things like this, but Pagels does a good job of trying. If you're going to unify a church it's pretty clear that rejecting texts that are explicitly anti-authoritarian is a good idea, but there are some less obvious ideas, like the appeal of Christ's literal suffering and resurrection over metaphorical interpretations, or who Jesus appeared to first after rebooting himself.
Aside from the many wondrous facts, what interested me most about this book was that it presented more evidence that the spread of good ideas is not inevitable. Reading about the rise of feminism in late-Roman / early-Christian times was a bit like reading that these people flew around in airplanes: if they'd progressed so far toward the present era's state of moral development, why didn't they take it further and abolish slavery (and check Facebook on complimentary airplane WiFi)? My conclusion from Pagels' descriptions of church political machinations is that ideas are only as powerful as the people who believe them. Gnostics believed all kinds of things, but they did not seem to truck much with organization and political power. The orthodoxy did. They won the popularity contest and spawned an ideology that swept the world. The gnostics spawned a few dusty scrolls in an Egyptian urn, and their ideas were extinguished until others could think them up again.
It's also a bit absurd reading any of these texts from an atheistic perspective. All of them, including the canonical ones, read like a crazy person's website, or the preachings of a street loony. I watched The Master halfway through reading this and it was hard not to imagine Philip Seymour Hoffman intoning some of this claptrap. I had to keep reminding myself that presumably large numbers of people took this stuff very seriously, so it's worth trying to figure out why....more
I picked up this book because I'm an atheist and I wanted to read something by one of the New Atheists, because the notion that anyone would want to cI picked up this book because I'm an atheist and I wanted to read something by one of the New Atheists, because the notion that anyone would want to capitalize "atheist" seemed somewhat anti-atheistic to me (aatheistic?), and Dennett appeared to be the least pig-headed. Somewhat unfortunately for my project, this book has nothing to do with atheism, but fortunately for me in general, it has everything to do with evolution by natural selection and its implications beyond biology, which is a pretty cool consolation prize.
Unfortunately, being a non-philosopher of middling mental capacities, I did not understand, well, a lot of the interesting parts of this book, possibly because I'm not up to the mental task, possibly because the author is unnecessarily prolix (I can't tell; attempts to make arguments without evidence may require prolixity), possibly because the subjects at hand are intrinsically complicated for everyone. For me, the uninteresting parts were the re-explanation of natural selection and its implications in biology, which Dennett does a good job describing and will probably be pretty good for people with little to no grounding in the area. I also found a lot of the philosophical fisticuffs with individual thinkers (Gould, Chomsky, etc.) to be excessively detailed for a lay reader. Isn't that what journals are for?
Anyway, the rest was really cool, even if I didn't grasp it all. Here are some of my take-homes
Evolution implies incremental states for all biological adaptations, including ideas like meaning, self-awareness, the mind, etc.
If you don't believe in the supernatural and you don't believe anything has simply entered the Universe ex nihilo since the Big Bang, there is no better explanation for the existence of life than evolution by natural selection, and since we have no evidence that ideas exist outside of organisms or their creations, we must assume these ideas also evolved from earlier, simpler forms. I'm frankly an unconscious subscriber to Snow's Two Cultures, and this stuff is definitely on the other side of the fence for me, but that stance is largely due to laziness, or perhaps even a subconscious discomfort with the implications: it's hard to see "determination" in the behavior of a bacterium, say, or to think that there's anything like my sense of purpose in the mechanistic actions of an enzyme. As a scientist, or at least a scientifically disposed person, I generally view these concepts as intractable, or entirely relativistic (kind of the same thing in my mind), but Dennett argues that we need to stop thinking about them in essentialist terms (e.g. meaning is meaning: pseudo-meaning is meaningless), because the alternatives all require supernatural explanations that are themselves unsatisfactory (if God gave us free will, where did she get it from?).
Through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to "do things." This is not a florid agency—echt intentional action, with the representation of reasons, deliberation, reflection, and conscious decision—but it is the only possible ground from which the seeds of intentional action could grow. There is something alien and vaguely repellant about the quasi-agency we discover at this level—all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there's nobody home. The molecular machines perform their amazing stunts, obviously exquisitely designed, and just as obviously none the wiser about what they re doing. [...] Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe. (pp. 202-203)
Biology is not like engineering, it is engineering
Dennett argues that engineering, unlike other methods of effecting change, generally involves some information gathering, making something imperfect, assessing that something, and then trying again with a better design. He views evolution, and hence all consequent biological adaptations, as being not just analogous, but exactly the same process, with different degrees of the kind of intentionality we usually ascribe to engineering. An eyeball is not miraculous: it's just version 2.0 billion.
Gould & Lewontin did not disprove adaptation by natural selection
The revelation for me is that anyone even thought they did, or that anyone interpreted their famous 1979 paper, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," as an attempt to replace adaption. I read the paper in college and my hazy recollection was that it was more of an introduction to some legitimate alternatives to adaptation as an explanation for biological phenomena that could apply in a small minority of cases, and that evolutionary biologists shouldn't assume that adaptation is always the reason, even if it usually is. That's basically where Dennett ends up in his assessment, but he goes to what seem like extraordinary lengths in doing so, to the point of dismantling G & L's central metaphor (spandrels, apparently, are not necessary if you want to hold up a vaulted ceiling). Just b/c the metaphor was poorly-chosen doesn't invalidate the idea of non-adaptive features forming the substrate for future adaption ("exaptation"). The rest of his Gould-bashing might be legit, but I think this paper got unfairly lambasted. I guess if the way Dennett depicts its legacy in the humanities is accurate, maybe it was necessary.
The interesting stuff I didn't understand concerned what these kinds of intermediary forms of ideas actually looked like, and how memes can have philosophical relevance without any scientific reality, which was sort of the entire last third of the book, I'm afraid.
Good stuff. Looking forward to looking up some reviews.
Kind of nasty stuff, though having just read the book, I feel like Gould misread Dennett, and while Dennett gets overly personal in some of his criticism of Gould (for my tastes, at least), he is not an Darwinian fundamentalist. I never got the sense he was trying to promote adaptation as the complete explanation for all phenomena in nature, just the bits with design.
Have to admit I only knew CP Snow's Two Cultures by reputation, but my sister (denizen of the other culture that she is) pointed out that it's kind of awful, and she's right, pretty classic 50s scientific hubris (not to mention classic homophobia and misogyny). I still think people from the sciences and the humanities have trouble talking to each other. Despite the fact that my sister and I just did. And despite this article on Nabokov's butterfly research: http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/speak-b......more
Featuring considerably less historical detail and analysis than I was expecting, this is a straight-up travelogue by a Brit who worries about blistersFeaturing considerably less historical detail and analysis than I was expecting, this is a straight-up travelogue by a Brit who worries about blisters after two hours, but it's none the worse for it. Carey is a fun, goofy kind of guy to follow around, and he does drop the occasional historical nugget (e.g. there is a mountain in Japan called Fudesute, which means "thrown brushes", alluding to an incident in which the artist Kano Motonobu threw aside his brushes when he could not capture the beauty of the mountain).
The book suffers from what seems like a miserly publisher's foible: the Hiroshige prints and few accompanying modern photos are all on sequential pages, which quickly get out of sync with the text, forcing the reader to either flip back and forth or just ignore the contextual imagery. The prints are exquisite, and since Carey is trying to revisit the site of each one, he is constantly referring to them. No fault of the author, I'm sure, but frustrating all the same.
It's amazing how friendly the Japanese seem to be. As a Westerner who can speak Japanese I guess Carey is kind of a novelty, but it seemed amazing that people were constantly inviting him into their homes and offering him gifts. I doubt a Japanese professor wandering the American countryside would receive the same reception....more
Culture plays a significant role in the success or failure of civilizations. Interesting thesis, right? One that might not seem so objectionable untilCulture plays a significant role in the success or failure of civilizations. Interesting thesis, right? One that might not seem so objectionable until you state it in concrete historical terms: Western civilizations have dominated the world for the last 200 years largely because of their culture. Culture is personal, so people take things like this personally: you're saying Europeans are intrinsically superior to other people? Eurocentrist! Bigot! Racist!
David Landes has been called a Eurocentrist, and probably meaner things too, but the author present in this book is clearly not prejudiced. He's distinctly postjudiced. He probably knows more about non-European cultures than you do, and extolls many of their virtues, but after thinking about a huge range of history, he finds themes in Western culture that he believes were critical to its success. I think that's a totally legitimate opinion, and I admire Landes for exploring a touchy subject in a world of haters.
However, as legitimate as it may be, it's still an opinion, which brings us to this book's first failing: arrogance. The very title is absurdly presumptuous in its scope, as if a satisfying explanation existed for the inequality of nations, but titles are meant to be provocative. What bugged me was the fact that the importance of culture in the behavior of groups is exquisitely difficult to prove in the present, under semi-controlled conditions, with relatively small numbers of people. Does Google outperform Yahoo because they have a superior culture? Or because they have better tech, better recruiters, better spies, better something else? That's very tough thing to prove, and if you wanted to try you would have to perform extensive surveying, interviews, and qualitative observation to convince any self-respecting sociologist. Scale that up to civilizations and restrain yourself to the scant anecdotal evidence history provides us and you really have to start injecting some first person quid pro quos, e.g. a lot of "I think"s and "In my opinion"s, something Landes rarely does. I guess this is a critique of history as a discipline more than of this book in particular, but the scale of the claims being made here, and the fact that there are specific interpretations being presented, just irritated the scientist in me. I suppose history, like so many branches of inquiry in which deduction is a practical impossibility, has a tendency to overstate its explanatory power.
The anal informaticist in me was also repeatedly incensed by some seriously un-cited passages, like one in which he explains that printing never caught on in China because ideographs are intrinsically hard to set in type, and that ideographs dissuade literacy: "one may learn the characters as a child, but if one does not keep using them, one forgets how to read" (p. 51). Perhaps he thought the challenges ideographs presented to printing are common knowledge or obvious, but I disagree. You have to cite facts! Granted I am a citation Nazi, but come on, he's a historian!
Speaking of historians, are there any histories that don't include numerous pointless tangents in which the historian lays out the factual history of pet interest X, regardless of whether X has any relevance to the overall thesis? Frankly I enjoyed most of the tangents in this book, but they really just muddy the waters. State hypothesis, present evidence, recapitulate hypothesis, analyze, repeat. Stay on target.
In the end, I enjoyed reading this, but I would only recommend it as a source for further reading material. I didn't find the largely secondary, anecdotal, and correlational evidence he presented convincing. I would very much mistrust any work that cites this book as a source of anything other than opinion. I am, however, interested in reading some of Landes's work on the historical importance of timekeeping.
edulcoration (n): purification (p. 34)
condign (adj): fitting, appropriate (p. 144)
cliometrics (n): application mathematical economic techniques to history (p. 165)
gravamen (n): part of an argument that carries the most weight, or any accusation. Perhaps also the name of my future metal band. Currently vying with "One Great Black Woolfe of a More Than Ordinarie Bigness, Which Is Like to Be More Feirce and Bould Than the Rest, and So Occasions the More Hurt." Definitely wins for brevity.
contumacy (n): stubbornness (p. 181)
cui bono (L): for whose benefit? (p. 225)
suzerainty (n): basically lordship. A suzerain was a French feudal lord. (p. 430)
irredentism (n): belief in annexing some other place to your own holdings b/c the people there share something in common with you. Pretty arcane. (p. 435)
The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia - cited a lot in the first chapter, a Eurocentric antecedent to Landes
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12... - published after Landes, but on the same theme, and solidly in the culture camp - Acemoglu wrote that interesting paper on disease and resulting societal structures
"Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of exactitude," De Waal writes at the beginning. "And this n"Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of exactitude," De Waal writes at the beginning. "And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return." This is a promising way to open a family history alarmingly described as "extraordinarily moving" on the back cover blurb, a blurb that also mentions Nazis. Maybe this won't be another history to further blunt the worn edges of my horror and outrage. Maybe it will be something else. Why does this British man have a tiny Japanese sculpture in his pocket?
So I began intrigued, by De Waal and Iggy and Jiro and these weird little sculptures called "netsuke." Charles and the Parisian Ephrussis were interesting, though for much of this portion I just felt bad about not having read Proust, and while the netsuke make their entrance, they are not handled. They are not exact in the sense De Waal clearly appreciates, probably because this section seems the most constructed from research and public documents than the more personal sources he used from his own family. Nevertheless, an interesting portrait of Jews in 19th century Paris. Who knew they were such expert swordsmen?
In Vienna the netsuke encounter De Waal's direct ancestors, including his mother Elisabeth and his uncle Iggy. The family has more personality and the netsuke have a more definite position in De Waal's grandmother's dressing room, where her children would attend her as she prepared for an evening. They would take out the netsuke and she would tell them stories. The brindled wolf in the author's pocket acquires layers of memory with each glancing touch through the years, and De Waal conveys it, with poise and discretion. Elisabeth's return to Nazi-occupied Vienna and impersonation of a gestapo officer tantalizes with drama, real drama, but De Waal grants it only a paragraph, perhaps out of respect for his mother's carefully dispensed recollections, perhaps because appreciating that derring-do is another form of melancholy for things lost to time.
Some of this discretion, these omissions, make the book more interesting. Elisabeth burned many of her correspondences, and De Waal wonders why, but will never know. Iggy is gay but his gayness is never addressed directly. His partner is simply De Waal's Japanese uncle. Doesn't being gay on top of being Austrian, Jewish, and American living in Tokyo or fighting with the Americans in WWII form an essential part of Iggy's experience? Netsuke were originally practical objects that kept a corded pouch from slipping through a kimono sash, and yet they lost their utilitarian value entirely when they traveled to Europe and become purely aesthetic objects. Surely this transition concerns a ceramicist like De Waal, a man so concerned with tangibility?
In some ways I also wanted more about expatriates and assimilation. My parents are expatriates that have never chosen to naturalize despite living in the US for almost 30 years and raising 3 American children, and while I did naturalize and feel American, I still don't have roots in the land stretching back generations. De Waal describes the Jews of Europe and the Ephrussis in particular as perpetual expats, forever suspected by their gentile neighbors despite all efforts to assimilate, but I was more interested in Iggy in LA, Elisabeth in England, Gisela in Mexico, expats who not only left their homes but did so as individuals, creating homes and families of their on in alien places. What drove them? What kept them?
The book is a personal and personalized history that spans numerous cultures and places in ways I was not expecting (there's even a Middlemarch reference in there, Ak). Definitely recommended.
My brother got me these amazingly detailed netsuke-like magnets and cell phone charms when he was in Japan last spring:
Much like 1491, this book features a vague thesis (exchange between the Americas and the rest of the world in the past 500 years has shaped the presenMuch like 1491, this book features a vague thesis (exchange between the Americas and the rest of the world in the past 500 years has shaped the present) over which Mann drapes digression upon digression, some of them fascinating, others decidedly less so, all thoroughly cited, but few of those citations referring to primary sources. Here's what I found interesting:
Chinese demand for silver drove a great deal of European expansion
When I think about the motives for European colonialism, I think of greed, flight from religious persecution, and geopolitical maneuvering. A Chinese capital sink was not on my radar, but Mann did a good job convincing me it played a role. I would have liked to see more exploration of what might have happened without a huge consumer for American silver. Inflation? Also, Chinese currency history and the endless successions of retribution in Potosi? Not that interesting. Summarize, cite, and move on, please.
Jamestown was a corporate enterprise, not a government one.
This was a minor point in the book, but I hadn't realized one of America's founding colonies wasn't exactly a bunch of people trying to reinvent themselves or the English crown making a land grab, but rather a corporation trying to turn a buck. Corporate greed is more deeply rooted in our history than I thought!
Success of old-world tropical diseases predicated social institutions, particularly slavery
This was one of his larger points. Aside from the irony that Europeans generally failed to survive in tropical regions of the Americas because of diseases they brought with them from the tropics in other parts of the world, Mann focused primarily on the way these diseases shaped demographics and cultural institutions, drawing mostly from the work of Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson at MIT. Obviously it's hard/impossible to prove disease played a greater role than, say, suitability of an area for crops that can be grown en masse and require a lot of manual labor, but I think Mann successfully summarized the importance of disease. Acemoglu et al's work goes on to explore how differences in social / governmental institutions that were related to disease have influenced current economic success, basically pointing out that colonies where Europeans settled in large numbers are more economically successful today than colonies where they maintained small numbers but employed many slaves (they do a lot to separate the influence of disease on institution forming and the influence of institutions on economic success from other factors that I don't entirely understand, but I believe that's the gist). I wonder how this kind of analysis holds up when applied to US states, comparing slave and non-slave states.
American tubers and tobacco facilitated population booms and population expansion into agriculturally marginal areas in China and Europe, facilitating huge social and landscape changes
Many people seem surprised to learn that Italians hadn't heard of tomatoes before Columbus, or that the Irish weren't eating potatoes since the dawn of time, or that southeast asians weren't turbo charging their cuisine with hot chilies before Europeans showed up with their wimpy palates. If you're one of those people, be surprised no longer: all these veggies come from the Americas, along with tobacco, sweet potatoes, and corn/maize. If you're a food/history nerd, though, this probably isn't news. What I found interesting was the history of how productive, nutritional crops that could be grown in marginal soil abetted landscape changes in China (migration to hillier terrain, deforestation, increased erosion, catastrophic flooding), and how potatoes assuaged famine and may have effected political stability in European nations as those countries were industrializing and expanding their reach.
There were many synthetic communities of escaped African slaves that survived well into the present
I was totally unaware of these "maroon" cities, so this was definitely interesting. Much as the bulk of 1491 was an effort to illuminate agency among American Indian peoples, these chapters did the same for Africans in the Americas. However, I wanted to see more about how these independent hybrid cultures influenced the present. Candomblé was mentioned, along with some of Brazil's other Christianish religions, but it would have been cool to learn about what components of these practices originated in maroon communities and not among slaves.
Overall, interesting stuff. I would have liked to see some exploration of one of Mann's least supported assertions in 1491, namely that American democratic principles were influenced by Indian example, but maybe he's saving that for another book.
Notes & Words
moil (v): while this is basically synonymous with "toil," apparently it can also mean "twirl." Twirling, apparently, is hard goddamn work. (p. xvi)
ensorcel (v): bewitch (p. 5)
entrepôt (n): warehouse or distribution center (p. 8)
optative mood (n): like the subjunctive. Actually not clear what the difference is. Maybe optative is a subclass restricted to indicating a desired state? (p. 28)
p. 30 Apparently at some point a Swiss bishop exorcised a glacier. Looks like Ladurie 1971 p. 181 is the citation, but it doesn't look like it's been digitized.
p. 31 He doesn't dwell on this, but he describes the work of Dull 2010 asserting that Indian die-off lead to massive reforestation b/c of the absence of Indian-managed fire, which lead to massive carbon sequestration out of the atmosphere, which induced a reverse greenhouse effect that influence the Little Ice Age experienced from the 16th century to the 18th. That's pretty wild. Need to read the paper. I think the crux is how they measured carbon released due to burning.
anodyne (adj): relieving pain (p. 41)
p. 59 "By women his flesh was scraped from his bones with mussel shells and, before his face, thrown into the fire." Ow. Apparently this is from a primary source.
inanition (n): starvation, lethargy (p. 61)
lagniappe (n): a small bonus added on to a purchase, like a complimentary cookie from Bakesale Betty's (a bakery here in Oakland). Apparently comes from Cajun creole, and may have originated in S. America. Mann used this (to me) unusual word numerous times, yet I don't think he commented on its origins, which seems odd. (p. 142)
tisane (n): an aromatic tea (p. 152)
p. 197 apparently the word potato comes from the Taino word batata, which means sweet potato (which is unrelated to the potato)
sansculotte (n): a poor French revolutionary, literally "without knee breeches." I guess the modern equivalent might be sansipad (totally worth enduring the ad for).
p. 213 There exists 554 treatise entitled The Biogeochemistry of Vertebrate Excretion. I can't seem to find a copy online, but I imagine the first page of this review is just as funny.
encomium (n): formal high praise (p. 215)
p. 240 ullamamalitzli was a Mesoamerican sport played with a rubber ball in which players could only hit the ball with their butt. I was having some trouble visualizing this so YouTube to the rescue.
Only read the first chapter, but there were no citations and no analysis of *why* China as so innovative. Also, Game of Thrones began dominating my reOnly read the first chapter, but there were no citations and no analysis of *why* China as so innovative. Also, Game of Thrones began dominating my reading life. So. Back to the library....more
An adequate history of the district, but fairly uncritical. Depicts almost zero controversy, which seems highly improbable. No land deals gone sour? WAn adequate history of the district, but fairly uncritical. Depicts almost zero controversy, which seems highly improbable. No land deals gone sour? What about dog people vs. bird people, or eucalyptus people vs. native plant people? What about the repeated efforts to allow mushroom picking on EBRPD lands that have been consistently rejected? Seems to me there are a lot of interesting land uses issues that went uninvestigated. EBRPD is a magnificent achievement and a treasure to those of us who live in the East Bay, but I think the author was a bit too eager to depict a government agency as some kind of plucky hero....more