🎧 Changing Global Diets: the website | Eat This Podcast

Changing Global Diets: the website by Jeremy Cherfas (Eat This Podcast)
A fascinating tool for exploring how, where and when diets evolve. Foodwise, what unites Cameroon, Nigeria and Grenada? How about Cape Verde, Colombia and Peru? As of today, you can visit a website to find out. The site is the brainchild of Colin Khoury and his colleagues, and is intended to make it easier to see the trends hidden within 50 years of annual food data from more than 150 countries. If that rings a bell, it may be because you heard the episode around three years ago, in which Khoury and I talked about the massive paper he and his colleagues had published on the global standard diet. Back then, the researchers found it easy enough to explain the overall global trends that emerged from the data, but more detailed questions – about particular crops, or countries, or food groups – were much more difficult to answer. The answer to that one? An interactive website.

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While this seems a short and simple episode with some engaging conversation, it’s the podcast equivalent of the floating duck–things appear smooth and calm on the surface, but the duck is paddling like the devil underneath the surface. The Changing Global Diet website is truly spectacular and portends to have me losing a day’s worth of work or more over the next few days.

Some of the data compilation here as well as some of the visualizations are reminiscent to me of some of César A. Hidalgo’s work at the MIT Media Lab on economic complexity and even language which I’ve briefly mentioned before or bookmarked.[1][2]

I’d be curious to see what some of the data overlays between and among some of these projects looked like and what connections they might show. I suspect that some of the food diversity questions may play into the economic complexities that countries exhibit as well.

If there were longer term data over the past 10,000+ years to make this a big history and food related thing, that would be phenomenal too, though I suspect that there just isn’t enough data to make a longer time line truly useful.


D. Hartmann, M. R. Guevara, C. Jara-Figueroa, M. Aristarán, and C. A. Hidalgo, “Linking Economic Complexity, Institutions, and Income Inequality,” World Development, vol. 93. Elsevier BV, pp. 75–93, May-2017 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.12.020
S. Ronen, B. Gonçalves, K. Z. Hu, A. Vespignani, S. Pinker, and C. A. Hidalgo, “Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 52. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pp. E5616–E5622, 15-Dec-2014 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410931111
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A new fossil could push back the start of life on Earth | The Economist

A new fossil could push back the start of life on Earth (The Atlantic)
The putative fossils formed just a few hundred million years after Earth itself

Continue reading “A new fossil could push back the start of life on Earth | The Economist”

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🎧 Sugar and salt: Industrial is best | Eat This Podcast

Sugar and salt: Industrial is best by Jeremy Cherfas (Eat This Podcast)
Henry Hobhouse’s book Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind (now six, with the addition of cacao) contains the remarkable fact that at the height of the slave trade a single teaspoon of sugar cost six minutes of a man’s life to produce. Reason enough to cheer the abolition of slavery, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean that everything is sweetness and light in the business of sugar. Or salt. A photo gallery in The Big Picture made that very clear, and inspired Rachel Laudan, a food historian, to write in praise of industrial salt and sugar.

Industrial food processing sketch

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We often don’t know how lucky we are to live in the modern highly linked world. The concept of industrialized foods like salt and sugar and their prior histories will certainly bring our situation into high relief. The history here and its broad effects could certainly be fit into the broader category of big history as well.

Authagraph by Hajime Narukawa [ 鳴川 肇 ] | TEDxSeeds 2011

The AuthaGraph Map by Hajime NARUKAWA [ 鳴川 肇 ] (TEDxSeeds 2011 | YouTube)
An endless world map: Viewing the world through "Authagraph"

"Mr. Narukawa is the inventor of Authagraph, a world map designed to fit the world into a rectangle while almost perfectly maintaining the continents' relative size. It is mathematically impossible to precisely project the earth's sphere onto a rectangle. As such, previous methods would succeed in either taking on a rectangular shape or being true to the size ratio and shape of each continent, but never in both. Authagraph is groundbreaking in that it takes on both of those qualities, making it applicable to various themes such as sea routes, geology, meteorology and world history in ways never thought possible.

Instead of abstracting the globe into a cylinder, then a plane, as the more common Mercator projection map does, the AuthaGraph turns the Earth into a tetrahedron, which then unfolds in any number of ways.  The map can then be tessellated similar to the way that we can traverse the planet–without ever coming to an end.

Rather than having just one focal point—the North Atlantic in Mercator’s case—nearly any place around the Earth can be at the center. The effect also means that the relative sizes of countries and their locations are much more representative than prior maps.

Those who remember the Gall-Peters Projection map featured on The West Wing will see that this is a step better.

For more details, see also Japanese Designers May Have Created the Most Accurate Map of Our World: See the AuthaGraph | Open Culture

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How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite…

How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite know about human progress? by Michael Nielsen (facebook.com)
How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite know about human progress? That's a question I've been stewing about for the past few weeks, ever since...

Continue reading “How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite…”

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A Bad Day at Black Rock America

We should be able to learn from history to create better immigration policy today rather than repeating past mistakes

There have been a growing number of reports [1][2][3][4] this week of creating lists of Americans and immigrants. I’m worried about the long term repercussions these acts will have on not only America’s future but that of the world at large. Though some of these reports contained slightly softer verbiage than Donald Trump’s original campaign statements almost a year to the day last year[5], I can’t help but think that his original statements were closer to his real intent.

Many have likely forgotten about the horrific black eye America already has as a result of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Why would we be contemplating thinking about going down this road a second time? Almost a year ago I wrote a short homage to my friend and WWII veteran Millard Kaufman, who I know would be vehemently against this idea. If you haven’t seen his Academy Award nominated film Bad Day at Black Rock, I recommend you pick it up soon–it’s held up incredibly well since 1955 and is still more than culturally relevant today.

In Memoriam: Millard Kaufman, WWII Veteran and Front for Dalton Trumbo

A crippled character played by Spence Tracy shows us by example how not to cave in to menacing bullies in the John Sturges 1955 MGM classic Bad Day at Black Rock written by Millard Kaufman.
A crippled character played by Spence Tracy shows us by example how not to cave in to menacing bullies in the John Sturges’ 1955 MGM classic Bad Day at Black Rock written by Millard Kaufman.

Even Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran a snippet of the news with their thoughts:


For those who don’t think that senior leadership in America might bend the rules a tad, I also recommend reading my friend Henry James Korn’s reflection of the incident in which Eisenhower expelled him from Johns Hopkins University for a criticism of LBJ during the late 60’s: “Yes, Eisenhower Expelled Me from Johns Hopkins University.”

Yes, Eisenhower expelled me from Johns Hopkins University

In his article, Henry also includes a ten-minute War Relocation Agency propaganda film which is eerily similar to some of what is being proposed now.

Needless to say, much of this type of behavior is on the same incredibly slippery slope that Nazi Germany began on when they began registering Jews in the early part of the last century. When will be learn from the horrific mistakes of the past to do better in the future?


D. Lind, “Donald Trump’s proposed ‘Muslim registry,’ explained,” Vox, 16-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/16/13649764/trump-muslim-register-database. [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
“Trump’s Muslim registry wouldn’t be illegal, constitutional law experts say,” POLITICO, 17-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/donald-trump-muslim-registry-constitution-231527. [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
N. Muaddi, “The Bush-era Muslim registry failed. Yet the US could be trying it again,” CNN, 18-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/politics/nseers-muslim-database-qa-trnd/. [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
M. Rosenberg and J. E. Ainsley, “Immigration hardliner says Trump team preparing plans for wall, mulling Muslim registry,” Reuters, 16-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-immigration-idUSKBN13B05C. [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
“Donald Trump says he’d ‘Absolutely’ Require Muslims to Register,” New York Times, 20-Nov-2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/11/20/donald-trump-says-hed-absolutely-require-muslims-to-register/?_r=0. [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016] [Source]
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🔖 Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior by Robin Dunbar (Oxford University Press)

🔖 Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior by Robin Dunbar (Oxford University Press) marked as want to read.
Official release date: November 1, 2016
09/14/16: downloaded a review copy via NetGalley


The story of human evolution has fascinated us like no other: we seem to have an insatiable curiosity about who we are and where we have come from. Yet studying the “stones and bones” skirts around what is perhaps the realest, and most relatable, story of human evolution – the social and cognitive changes that gave rise to modern humans.

In Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, Robin Dunbar appeals to the human aspects of every reader, as subjects of mating, friendship, and community are discussed from an evolutionary psychology perspective. With a table of contents ranging from prehistoric times to modern days, Human Evolution focuses on an aspect of evolution that has typically been overshadowed by the archaeological record: the biological, neurological, and genetic changes that occurred with each “transition” in the evolutionary narrative. Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach – inspired by his background as both an anthropologist and accomplished psychologist – brings the reader into all aspects of the evolutionary process, which he describes as the “jigsaw puzzle” of evolution that he and the reader will help solve. In doing so, the book carefully maps out each stage of the evolutionary process, from anatomical changes such as bipedalism and increase in brain size, to cognitive and behavioral changes, such as the ability to cook, laugh, and use language to form communities through religion and story-telling. Most importantly and interestingly, Dunbar hypothesizes the order in which these evolutionary changes occurred-conclusions that are reached with the “time budget model” theory that Dunbar himself coined. As definitive as the “stones and bones” are for the hard dates of archaeological evidence, this book explores far more complex psychological questions that require a degree of intellectual speculation: What does it really mean to be human (as opposed to being an ape), and how did we come to be that way?

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Andrew Solomon Interview on Charlie Rose

Andrew Solomon interview by Charlie Rose by Charlie RoseCharlie Rose (Charlie Rose.com)
Author Andrew Solomon introduces his new book, "Far and Away."

A great interview with Andrew Solomon relating to his new book Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, travel, and the world in which we live. Though it’s not discussed directly, there’s a feel of Big History philosophy in the discussion.

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Human Collective Memory from Biographical Data

Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data by C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, Cesar A. Hidalgo (arxiv.org)

The ability of humans to accumulate knowledge and information across generations is a defining feature of our species. This ability depends on factors that range from the psychological biases that predispose us to learn from skillful, accomplished, and prestigious people, to the development of technologies for recording and communicating information: from clay tablets to the Internet. In this paper we present empirical evidence documenting how communication technologies have shaped human collective memory. We show that changes in communication technologies, including the introduction of printing and the maturity of shorter forms of printed media, such as newspapers, journals, and pamphlets, were accompanied by sharp changes (or breaks) in the per-capita number of memorable biographies from a time period that are present in current online and offline sources. Moreover, we find that changes in technology, such as the introduction of printing, film, radio, and television, coincide with sharp shifts in the occupations of the individuals present in these biographical records. These two empirical facts provide evidence in support of theories arguing that human collective memory is shaped by the technologies we use to record and communicate information.

C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, and Cesar A. Hidalgo
in Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data via arXiv


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Calculating the Middle Ages?

Calculating the Middle Ages? The Project "Complexities and Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) [1606.03433] by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (arxiv.org)
The project "Complexities and networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) at the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences focuses on the adaptation and development of concepts and tools of network theory and complexity sciences for the analysis of societies, polities and regions in the medieval world in a comparative perspective. Key elements of its methodological and technological toolkit are applied, for instance, in the new project "Mapping medieval conflicts: a digital approach towards political dynamics in the pre-modern period" (MEDCON), which analyses political networks and conflict among power elites across medieval Europe with five case studies from the 12th to 15th century. For one of these case studies on 14th century Byzantium, the explanatory value of this approach is presented in greater detail. The presented results are integrated in a wider comparison of five late medieval polities across Afro-Eurasia (Byzantium, China, England, Hungary and Mamluk Egypt) against the background of the {\guillemotright}Late Medieval Crisis{\guillemotleft} and its political and environmental turmoil. Finally, further perspectives of COMMED are outlined.

Network and Complexity Theory Applied to History

This interesting paper (summary below) appears to apply network and complexity science to history and is sure to be of interest to those working at the intersection of some of these types of interdisciplinary studies. In particular, I’d be curious to see more coming out of this type of area to support theses written by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in the development of societal structures. Those interested in the emerging area of Big History are sure to enjoy this type of treatment. I’m also curious how researchers in economics (like Cesar Hidalgo) might make use of available(?) historical data in such related analyses. I’m curious if Dave Harris might consider such an analysis in his ancient Near East work?

Those interested in a synopsis of the paper might find some benefit from an overview from MIT Technology Review: How the New Science of Computational History Is Changing the Study of the Past.

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Big History Summer Reading List | Big History Project

Big History Summer Reading List (blog.bighistoryproject.com)
The best part of teaching Big History is that we’re always learning right alongside our students. As the year winds down here in the US, many BHP teachers are looking for books to take with them to the beach, the mountains, or wherever they choose to unwind this summer. We asked our teacher leaders for their favorite books related to Big History and this list is what they came up with.

I’ve got a lot of these on my big history book list on GoodReads.com
It also looks like a lot of these are things that Bill Gates has been reading too!

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Global Language Networks

Recent research on global language networks has interesting relations to big history, complexity economics, and current politics.

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.


Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

Related posts:

“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

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The Information Theory of Life | Quanta Magazine

The Information Theory of Life by Kevin Hartnett (Quanta Magazine)
The Information Theory of Life: The polymath Christoph Adami is investigating life’s origins by reimagining living things as self-perpetuating information strings.

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César Hidalgo on Why Information Grows | The RSA

I’ve just recently finished the excellent book Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo. I hope to post a reasonable review soon, but the ideas in it are truly excellent and fit into a thesis I’ve been working on for a while. For those interested, he does a reasonable synopsis of some of his thought in the talk he gave the the RSA recently, the video can be found below.

The underlying mathematics of what he’s discussing are fantastic (though he doesn’t go into them in his book), but the overarching implications of his ideas with relation to the future of humankind as a function of our economic system and society could have some significant impact.

“César visits the RSA to present a new view of the relationship between individual and collective knowledge, linking information theory, economics and biology to explain the deep evolution of social and economic systems.

In a radical rethink of what an economy is, one of WIRED magazine’s 50 People Who Could Change the World, César Hidalgo argues that it is the measure of a nation’s cultural complexity – the nexus of people, ideas and invention – rather than its GDP or per-capita income, that explains the success or failure of its economic performance. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order itself.”

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The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA — NOVA Next | PBS

The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA by Alex RileyAlex Riley (NOVA Next | PBS)
How a mathematical breakthrough from the 1960s now powers everything from spacecraft to cell phones.

Concurrent with the recent Pluto fly by, Alex Riley has a great popular science article on PBS that helps put the application of information theory and biology into perspective for the common person. Like a science version of “The Princess Bride”, this story has a little bit of everything that could be good and entertaining: information theory, biology, DNA, Reed-Solomon codes, fossils, interplanetary exploration, mathematics, music, genetics, computers, and even paleontology. Fans of Big History are sure to love the interconnections presented here.

Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Microscopic view of glass DNA storage beads
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