I guess a lot of people made a big deal out of this when it came out a few years ago? That's cool, I guess. Here are some things I found interesting:
II guess a lot of people made a big deal out of this when it came out a few years ago? That's cool, I guess. Here are some things I found interesting:
Income inequality is a natural outcome of mechanical advantage and technological innovation: the more technology replaces labor, the more wealth accrues to those who control technology, and the less to former human laborers
This is basic Marxism, right? I am not an economist (clearly) so I have no idea how true that is, and I'm not convinced they really proved it in the book, but it's an interesting counterargument to the usual "rich people are assholes" line of reasoning, which, of course, is not a mutually exclusive hypothesis.
Universal basic income is not going to work
I think I actually found out about this book while reading an article about UBI, everyone's favorite idea of late. UBI is kind of an awesome fantasy, but I think I side with the authors (and Matthew B. Crawford, and Wendell Berry) in thinking that the non-monetary value of work is too high to dispose of, as well as the corollary notion that most people will not create value for society or the world (or themselves) based purely on self- or social motivation. I was frankly kind of amazed how down they were on the idea! I felt like the entire book was leading up to a painfully predictable UBI finale. Got me!
Stop complaining about free trade because globalized job displacement won't last. When machines replace workers, *all* those jobs will be gone, not displaced
What is the populist counterargument to this? Smash the looms? Here's one: the human labor rarely really goes away, it just gets hidden and compensated less. If we could keep manual labor within national boundaries and subject to equitable labor standards, at least they'd be good jobs instead if Mechanical Turk-like jobs.
There were also some *fairly* problematic bits, starting at the beginning with their godawful "most of history was boring" bit, where the boring parts were when humans weren't pillaging the environment, reproducing like bacteria, or killing each other on ever grander scales. Peace, balance, satisfaction: totally boring. No reason to read Ian Morris, apparently.
They also laud the sharing economy as a wonderful new source of jobs, where jobs are basically ways to keep people busy, glossing over the whole issue of reduced income and more importantly reduced security (gigs are unreliable, no gig platform gives you insurance). The thrust of the book as a whole is to temper the techno-optimism (income inequality is real and will kill us if we don't address it, no matter how fancy our tech), but this seemed like a pretty glaring oversight for 2014.
Their long-term recommendations for surviving our robotic future are... kind of dumb. The first third of the book is all about how machines are starting to do the things we thought were uniquely human, so if that's true, why turn around and recommend that we'll all be ok focusing on what remains in the human domain? In the short term, sure, learn to complement machine powers with your meaty wit and discretion, but what about 100 years out when our phones will, in fact, be both funnier and wiser than we are?
And while this is mostly a book about technology and the economy, it seemed myopic that they failed to address the many "externalities" that could torpedo all of their analyses. What about climate change? What about reactionary political movements? What about the real physical limits of our planet like potable water and the gravity well?
On the whole, while I was often pleasantly provoked while reading, and I really did appreciate the middle bits where they picked apart the strong technological optimism of their peers, the authors' dogged commitment to a sunny outlook probably hamstrung their efforts to make predictions. I mean, no one can make real predictions about the future, but it would have been nice to hear more about the downsides of these "brilliant" technologies. Inspiration is great, but so are contingency plans.
If you've suffered through this entire "review," allow me to recommend these two others, both infinitely more cogent and insightful than anything I've written here:
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
Here we go, first time reviewing a book written by someone I know. Feeling the pressure a) not to be mean, but b) not to pull any punches. Onward.
ThisHere we go, first time reviewing a book written by someone I know. Feeling the pressure a) not to be mean, but b) not to pull any punches. Onward.
This book describe a current effort to link open space for the entire stretch of the Rocky Mountains, from the Yukon to the Yucatan. From beaver to bear to pronghorn to jaguar, wildlife of all stripes have historically used this enormous corridor as their home and their highway, some of them migrating thousands of miles to breed or simply find new territory. But the encroachment of human settlement has cut this area to pieces, stranding wildlife in virtual islands of open space surrounded by impassable cities, suburbs, and interstates. The effects of such isolation on wildlife range from genetic stagnation to an inability to find more appropriate homes as humanity changes the climate, but generally spell doom for many of our continent's most awe-inspiring and ecologically important creatures.
Enter the Spine of the Continent, a massive collaboration between scientists, government agencies, NGOs, and private land-owners to reconnect the continent's severed vertebrae and ensure our land's spectacular ecological legacy. Hannibal's mission is to persuade you of this project's importance, introduce its charismatic cast of key players, and describe the many ecological processes humanity has diminished and that this project seeks to restore.
On the whole I think she succeeds. A great deal of this book concerns laying some biological groundwork: if you don't know what biogeography, island biogeography, and wildlife corridors are or don't really know why they're important, this is enormously valuable and Hannibal is a great guide, writing highly approachable prose and ensuring all lessons include a healthy dose of personality, whether the scientists' or her own. If you already know this stuff, these sections are kind of a drag, and maybe it's the stuck-up East Coast snoot in me, but words like "bass-ackward" and "ginormous" don't have a place in non-fiction outside of quotation marks. I can't even imagine Edward Abbey using "ginormous," though bass-ackwards would have suited him. End tangent.
I found the portrait of Michael Soulé to be very interesting, and I was frankly glad that long portions of the book's first third are straight biography of this fascinating man: an academic who left academia, a Buddhist who hunts, a conservationist hero who invented conservation biology and yet still summons tears when making his plea for nature. I knew embarrassingly little about him aside from his famous paper on mesopredator release (remove coyotes form suburban SoCal and birds decline, b/c the cats the coyotes terrorized eat all the birds). Now my embarrassment is lessened.
The biological portraits constituting the latter two thirds are fun and interesting, but somewhat tangential. Few of them include the critical refrain of "and here's why this animal depends on the connectivity the Spine will provide." If this book is a rhetorical device to communicate the vital importance of this project, each creature feature needs to be included in the argument. It's often implied, but I think it needs to be stated outright.
Regardless of my qualms, though, I was convinced that the project is important, and this books makes for a compelling introduction. Trying to find information about it online convinced me all the more, because http://wildlandsnetwork.org doesn't even begin to communicate the sweep and complexity of this vision (as of October 2012), and some simple searches don't lead to much. Clearly it needs more articulate, impassioned advocates like Mary Ellen Hannibal.
If anyone from the Spine is reading this, here's what a want: a simple page that shows up as the top hit when I search for "Spine of the Continent" that shows a map of the project highlighting where the current gaps in connectivity are and what you're doing to close them. The current map looks like you've already succeeded! Show maps from past years so we can see progress as gaps are closed. Include the identities of the many partners to show us how epic this collaboration really is, but have your own logo, your own name, your own branding to convince us that it's a unified effort (I mean Spine branding, not Wildlands Network branding)....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
"A strange and traumatic experience," David Foster Wallace wrote in an essay on attending the Annual Adult Video News Awards, "which one of yr. corrs."A strange and traumatic experience," David Foster Wallace wrote in an essay on attending the Annual Adult Video News Awards, "which one of yr. corrs. will not even try to describe consists of standing at a men's room urinal between professional woodmen [male porn stars] Alex Sanders and Dave Hardman. Suffice it to say that the urge to look over/down at their penises is powerful and the motives behind this urge so complex as to cause anuresis (which in turn ups the trauma)." Aside from hinting at the hilarious absurdity with which Wallace analyzes everything from porn galas to lobster festivals to John McCain's Straight Talk Express, this passage nicely captures my emotional approach to this book: I'd heard this Wallace guy had a pretty big brain. Now I know he had a pretty big brain. Way bigger than mine. We'll see if the disparity affects my ability to, uh, write.
So he was smart. Every essay had something new for me, like how dictionaries are, unlike phone books, ideological and rhetorical in nature and therefore worthy of criticism, or how modern American novelists are embarrassed by articulating morals, and how that's a problem. Like I said, he was also funny. Aggravate-your-fellow-airplane-prisoner/patrons-with-constant-laughter funny. On top of all this, he seemed genuine, which is both forehead-smackingly sensible *and* impressive given his repeated inquiries into authenticity. Reading around I guess Wallace was well-known for being anti-ironic, but the effect on this reader was essentially the same quality Wallace himself lauds in the cornerstone piece in this collection, "Authority and American Usage": Wallace is ever-present in his own writing, and he earns his authority with wit, compassion, and some endearing absurdities (borrowing a leather jacket to be cool enough to report for Rolling Stone being my fave).
I liked his way of analyzing a subject by hanging out with people of tertiary significance. He didn't talk to John McCain, or John McCain's advisors. He hung out with the camera crews. Same with the porn awards: he spends most of his time talking to professional porn journalists (apparently that's a thing). Maybe this was his way of avoiding BS, like he didn't believe there was any hope of deriving genuine meaning about a person by actually speaking with them directly, but meaning could be triangulated through the perceptions of technicians and professionals who were not directly responsible for considering semantics (but did so all the same). In the case of John McCain that's a bit odd since the whole piece concerns the question of whether McCain actually means what he says, unlike every other politician in history.
Anyway, the more I try to think about the book the more the aforementioned metaphorical anuresis is kicking in. The book was unexpectedly magnetic, intellectually consuming, and totally compelling from start to finish. If you can stomach footnotes that have their own footnotes that are themselves then referenced in the main text, suggesting they were not actually that ancillary after all, then you should probably pick this up.
Words Oh man, so many great words.
satyriasis (n): uncontrollable sexual obsession in men. (p. 53) lallate (v): conventionally to replace your r's with l's, or to speak in a nonsensical baby fashion, but in the sense DFW intended here I guess it means calming, as in a lullaby, as described here. (p. 64) sprachgefuhl (n): sensitivity to linguistic propriety (p. 69) dysphemism (n): inserting an intentionally harsh word or phrase when a more neutral one would suffice, opposite of euphemism. Apparently never having encountered this word makes me NOT a SNOOT. (p. 70) solecism (n): linguistic goof, incorrect use of language. (p. 71 and everywhere in this essay) pertussion (n): coughing, though most dictionaries seem to list the word as "pertussis." (p. 71) styptic (adj): confining or binding in this case, but also used to describe substances that stanch bleeding. I almost wrote "staunch." If there's one word I'm going to remember from this book it's "solecism." (p. 80) spiriferous (adj): having spires. I hate words like this. (p. 42) anapest (n): two short syllables followed by one long, in this case "where's it at." Is "anapest" itself an anapest? (p. 99) trochee (n): long syllable followed by a short one. Why a "monosyllabic foot + trochee" is supposed to be uglier than a "strong anapest" is beyond me. (p. 99) pleonasm (n): excessive use of words to express something, in this cases leveled as a criticism against academic writing, which is somewhat absurd coming from DFW who is pleonastic in the extreme. (p. 115) immanent (adj): inherent, innate. (p. 151) luxated (adj): dislocated. (p. 151) prolegomenous (adj): introductory (p. 255) ...more
I enjoyed this book because I enjoyed meeting Anne Lamott. This is a collection of personal essays on writing, and they are personal not just becauseI enjoyed this book because I enjoyed meeting Anne Lamott. This is a collection of personal essays on writing, and they are personal not just because they encapsulate an individual's unique perspective, but because that individual is very much present, going on tangents, confessing neuroses, and detailing techniques for lambasting real people in fiction without invoking libel (the key seems to be depiction of inadequately sized genitalia). She's hilarious, she's opinionated, and I just found myself enjoying her company more and more as the book went on.
I'm not sure this is a book for people who want to start writing. I think she has a lot of practical advice, but it all felt generally applicable to any creative endeavor, perhaps any form of meaningful work. I think most software engineers understand the importance of shitty first drafts, working on problems of manageable size, and identifying conditions that abet focused work. On the other hand, I don't think of writing as work (by work I don't mean compelled drudgery but rewarding impelled labor), so maybe the lesson is to take these notions I think I understand about work and apply them to another interest.
I guess part of what made this book satisfying for me was the way it depicted writing as work and not necessarily as a kind of ecstatic revelation or a path to self-actualization. Much like Matt Crawford in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, work for Anne Lamott is sitting down every day and changing the world. He unbreaks broken motorcycles, she arranges letters and meanings into novel patterns, but both change the world in ways that can be independently verified, and for both it is a daily battle of inches. Work is hard but I can do it. Revelation is wonderful and you should be attuned to signs of its presence, but the improbability of finding it by seeking it wearies me. Like so many things in adulthood, perhaps this is about making time.
On an unrelated note, I was excited by Lamott's religiosity, because I would like a book to read alongside one of the New Atheists like Dawkins Richard or Daniel Dennett, and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith might be it. I've been meaning to read them for a while but I feel like some balance so I don't end up agreeing with them too much. Any other suggestions for books on faith by authors you think I can respect?...more
When I read Another Turn of the Crank in college, I remember finding it irritating. Who was this moralizing purist, this thinly veiled Christian claimWhen I read Another Turn of the Crank in college, I remember finding it irritating. Who was this moralizing purist, this thinly veiled Christian claiming to know good from evil, and decrying reductionist thought? These days I've mellowed out a bit, and come to realize that authors who get under my skin like that are often the most interesting. Berry is no empty provocateur. If he pisses you off, there's something to be learned in considering why.
First of all, there's plenty I agree with in this book. I like his way of framing interactions as nurturing or exploitative, and I like the way he applies that frame not just to our interaction with the non-human world, but also to the ways we treat each other. I agree that the more leverage technology provides the greater the risk of damaging its object, and often its subject. The longer your lever, the harder it is to see what you're doing. Ok. C'mon. Someone say, "That's what she said!" Ok. Let's move on.
But then there are passages like "If competition is the correct relation of creatures to one another and to the earth, then we must ask why exploitation is not more successful than it is." (p. 106) and "until recently there was no division between sexuality and fertility, because none was possible" (p. 135). Aside from what seem like self-evident successes of competition in nature and human affairs, and the fact that prostitution and other sexual practices that have little or nothing to do with reproduction have been around for some time, his method of arguing based on his own norms and assumptions is irksome. Competition isn't the "correct" relation of creatures to one another, it's just what we observe happening. Saying that a division between sexuality and fertility is a recent innovation doesn't make it true.
Of course, both those quotes come from what I found to be the most inflammatory chapter ("The Body and the Earth"), which was actually also the most interesting to me. Linking the fertility of the land to that of the body isn't something I'd thought of or heard before. Viewing "freedom" from fertility as another destructive disconnect in our lives runs so counter to our ideas of reproductive rights, but it's worth questioning whether our culture has adapted to the technology of birth control to the extent that other cultures incorporated sex without it. Does dividing sex from reproduction prevent us of from thinking about future generations in the same way buying food at a supermarket prevents us from thinking about animal welfare and treatment of the land? No doubt there is a whole body of literature dealing with this of which I am simply unaware.
I also find it somewhat frustrating to read a book that's replete with moral critique of the society in which I live and yet finish without some vision of how to improve. What's Berry's literal notion of the good life? Does he think we should all be Amish? Does he see a realistic path from the society we have to one that's better? This isn't a critique of the book, really. Obviously there aren't easy answers to problems like our disconnection from the land, but it's unsatisfying. I guess that's life....more
Good overview. Now I feel ready to get started and build something. I may have to update this review if I find some significant gaps in my knowledge.
NGood overview. Now I feel ready to get started and build something. I may have to update this review if I find some significant gaps in my knowledge.
Note that as of Feb 2012, the second edition of this book is somewhat out of date. Many of the templates the refer to are no longer in Xcode, and recent features like Storyboards and ARC are not covered at all. I believe the 3rd ed is coming out soon, though....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
Some required retroactive expectation management: Marc Reisner was a journalist, writing for a general audience. Much like Charles Mann and Pollan andSome required retroactive expectation management: Marc Reisner was a journalist, writing for a general audience. Much like Charles Mann and Pollan and other pop-non-fiction writers from the journalistic world, he was less concerned with thorough documentation than he was with persuasion and exposition (even though few things are more persuasive than accurate documentation and logical analysis). With that in mind, I should not have been so utterly enraged by the nearly complete absence of direct citations in this book, despite numerous facts, figures, and yea, quoted dialogue included. Reisner was writing without the benefit of Endnote, after all, and he was a well-respected, tweedy-looking academic, so I should just trust him, right?
Some intriguing propositions:
Teddy Roosevelt personally colluded with the city of Los Angles, the Reclamation Service, and the Forest Service to destroy the irrigated communities in Owens Valley for the sake of LA.
I guess the fact that TR's brand of environmentalism was way more utilitarian than most people think isn't exactly news, but the fact that his utilitarianism extended to provisioning a metropolis like LA was a bit surprising.
Irrigated agriculture in the American West was (is?) supported by a welfare state.
Apparently it's ok for the state to pay farmers in Ohio not to farm while practically giving away subsidized water to giant agribusiness conglomerates owned by oil companies in California, but universal healthcare is a waste of money and would never work. At least I know I'm free! Just not free to eat wild salmon.
Damming and hydropower in the Pacific NW was instrumental in WWII b/c electricity (and lots of it) are required to produce aluminum for planes and plutonium for A-bombs.
Reisner basically asserts that the US might not have defeated the Axis if it weren't for northwestern hydropower, which is a pretty amazing idea that would have been even more amazing with some supporting evidence showing increasing electricity generation and aluminum production in the US, Germany, and Japan during the war years. Should I read Richard Rhodes?
In addition to the citation thing, there were also these surreal moments of anti-Irish racism, like this description of William Mullholand: "[His] face is supremely Irish: belligerence in repose, a seductive churlish charm" (p. 58). Seriously, find a Japanese farmer who's "cunning and inscrutable" and you'll just about have me pegged, Marc! I might have to slam some Jameson and karate chop you to death! Maybe it's petty of me to go all ad hominem on a dead environmentalist who clearly, despite lack of citation, knew more about the history of water in the West than I ever will, and yes, the stereotypical Irish American is himself racist and perhaps anti-Irish bigotry is so outdated and comical that the Simpsons were able to repeatedly employ it to great comedic effect over a decade ago, *breathes* but c'mon, this kind of crap isn't appropriate in a respected work of non-fiction. Even from the 80s.
Overall, if I swallowed my aforementioned misgivings, this was a fascinating and engaging history of water in the West. I was both intrigued and impressed by Reisner's unwillingness to impose some kind of grand theory on it all. The events he depicts seem mostly driven by greed, incompetence, petty competition, and simple climactic contingency. I never got the sense that he was driving toward some absurdly reductive single flaw in our culture. Water use in the West is messed up, and this book is mostly about how it got that way, not why. For all its reputation as an environmentalist fire-starter (to mix metaphors quite horrifically), though, I was surprised at how little doomsaying Reisner indulged in. Not until the very end does he start talking about silting reservoirs and salting the earth. I should also say that despite the lack of citation, the bibliography looks great! I wonder if the interviews he conducted have been archived anywhere.
"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.
Been a long time since I got caught up on the state of astrobiology. Maybe this will help. Also, FYI Goodreads, the recommendation system did *not* suBeen a long time since I got caught up on the state of astrobiology. Maybe this will help. Also, FYI Goodreads, the recommendation system did *not* suggest this based on my astrobiology shelf....more
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