Book Review: Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”

I’m honestly shocked that no one else has written a book similar to The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies prior to now. It’s certainly a wonderful synthesis and a fantastic resulting thesis based on an incredibly broad array of areas of study over a lifetime of work.

I personally don’t think that it is as significant as Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was, though perhaps it should be just as (if not more) ground shaking for modern society. As a long-time student of evolutionary biology and other fields related to this work, I’m not as impressed with the effort as I might otherwise be since most of the overarching thesis is second nature to me. It does however have some superb anecdotes and broad reviews of large areas of literature to provide some excellent motivation that I might not otherwise have spent the time to find thus giving it some excellent value to me.

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (bookcover)

As for others in the general public, I highly recommend it for it’s simple and clear examples and the ultimate thesis which are exceptionally worth reading (and implementing) into one’s life as well as into broader areas of modern society. If nothing else, it points out how drastically life has changed for human societies even in the last 150 years, much less the last 10,000.

For those in the field or with an interest in Big History, this is certainly a must-read and possibly an excellent place to start for those without any background at all.

Based on my own personal background, I’d give this 3 stars (in terms of it’s direct value to me), but for the general public it’s easily a 5 star work. I do wish that it had been more traditionally and extensively footnoted, but for a broader audience I certainly understand Dr. Diamond’s reasons for publishing it as he did.

Review of “Major Transitions In Evolution” by Anthony Martin and John Hawks

Overall this series of 24 video lectures from The Teaching Company as part of their Great Courses series is a great introduction to evolution and many of its interdisciplinary sub-fields. I particularly enjoyed seeing the perspective of a geologist/paleontologist to start things off and then the tag-team to cover human evolution from primates.

Anthony Martin
Professor at Emory University; Ph.D., from University of Georgia
John Hawks
Professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison; Ph.D., from University of Michigan

I especially loved the philosophical conceptualization of “deep time” (in analogy with “deep space”) particularly as one considers the even broader idea of “Big History“. Though the professors here don’t delve into Big History directly, they’re covering a large portion of the cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary studies which underpin a large portion of the field. More specifically taking the general viewpoint of “transitions” in evolution underlines this conceptualization.

Though the transitional viewpoint seems to be a very natural and highly illustrative one to take, I would be curious in seeing alternate presentations of evolution from a pedagogical standpoint. It was nice to hear a bit of alternate discussion in the final lecture as well as discussion of where things might “go from here.”

I do wish that there were additional follow-on lectures that covered additional material in more depth. It would also have been nice to have included a handful of lectures from a microbiologist’s viewpoint and background to give some additional rounding out of the material and this could have been done either in the early parts of the material or certainly around the discussions of primate evolution. Overall all though, these are wonderfully self-contained and don’t require a huge prior background in material to understand well.

It’s always great to see lecturers who truly love their fields and have the ability to relate that through their lectures and infect their students.

From a purely technical standpoint, I’m glad to see that The Teaching Company only offers a video version of (as opposed to their usual additional offering of audio-only) as having pictures of the fossils and organisms under discussion and their relative physiological structures was very helpful. Additionally having the recurring timecharts of the portions of geological time under discussion was very useful and generally reinforcing of the chronology. Somewhat monotonous from a visual perspective was the almost programmatic back and forth pacing between two cameras during the lectures which at times became distracting in and of itself. Certainly including a third camera would have added some variety as would having had camera operators to zoom in or move the camera around while the lecturers stand relatively stationary. (Though the production value here is exceptionally high, small details like this over the span of several hours of watching become important. As an example of better execution, I prefer Glenn Holland’s “Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” as a model – though there wasn’t as much additional visual material there, the lectures were simply more “watchable” because of the camera work.)

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Dave Brubeck: It’s About Time (Unsquare Dance) at Muse/ique

Recording from Muse/ique

Dave Brubeck: It’s About Time (Unsquare Dance) at Beckman Auditorium

Recorded at Beckman Auditorium

at the Muse/ique Summer of Sound

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Axiom of Choice? “Would you rather be deaf or blind?”

Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, OMFRSFRSEFAA, a British mathematician
in Mathematics in the 20th Century


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Some Brief Thoughts on Cliodynamics and Big History

As an electrical engineer (in the subfields of information theory and molecular biology), I have to say that I’m very intrigued by the articles (1, 2) that Marc Parry has written for the Chronicle in the past few weeks on the subjects of quantitative history, cliometrics/cliodynamics, or what I might term Big History (following the tradition of David Christian; I was initially turned onto it by a Chronicle article). I have lately coincidentally been reading Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” as well as Daniel Kanheman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. (I’ll also mention that I’m a general fan of the work of Jared Diamond and Matt Ridley who impinge on these topics as well.)

I’m sure that all of these researchers are onto something in terms of trying to better quantify our historical perspectives in using science and applying it to history. I think the process might be likened to the ways in which methods of computed tomography, P.E.T., S.P.E.C.T, et al have been applied to the areas of psychology since the late 70’s to create the field of cognitive neuropsychology which has now grown much more closely to the more concrete areas of neurophysiology within biology, chemistry, and medicine.

I can see both sides of the “controversy” which is mentioned in the articles as well as in the comments in all of the articles, but I have a very visceral gut feeling that they can be ironed out over time. I say this as areas like behavioral economics which have grown out of the psychology work mentioned in Kahneman’s book become more concrete. The data available for application with relation to history will be much more useful as people’s psychological interactions with their surroundings are better understood. People in general are exceptionally poor at extrapolating statistical knowledge of the world around them and putting it into the best use. For example, although one can make an accurate calculation of the time-value of money, most people who know it won’t use it to determine the best way of taking a large lottery payout (either a lump sum or paid out over time), and this doesn’t even take into consideration the phenomenal odds against even playing the lottery in the first place. Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 structures in conjunction with more historical data and analysis of the two in conjunction may be a far better method than either that of historians’ previous attempts or that of the quantitative method separately. Put into mathematical terms, it’s much more likely the case that human interactions follow a smaller local min-max curve/equation on a limited horizon, but do not necessarily follow the global maxima and minima that are currently being viewed at the larger scales of big history. We’ll need to do a better job of sifting through the data and coming up with a better interpretation of it on the correct historical scales for the problem at hand.

Perhaps, by analogy, we might look at this disconnect between the two camps as the same type of disconnect seen in the areas of Newtonian and quantum physics. They’re both interlinked somehow and do a generally good job of providing accurate viewpoints and predictions of their own sub-areas, but haven’t been put together coherently into one larger catch-all theory encompassing both. Without the encouragement of work in the quantitative areas of history, we’ll certainly be at a great disadvantage.

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Brief Notes on “Consider the Fork”

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson was one of my favorite Christmas presents this year. It covered my loves of history, gadgets, food, technology, entomology, popular culture and even evolution and anthropology. The major broad themes were very interesting and enlightening while being very well researched.

There were a few short sections on individual technologies which did feel a bit throw in almost as afterthoughts or which were related to the bigger topics, but just didn’t stand up on their own. Fortunately these didn’t detract from the overall work, though I did feel a bit more on these could have been written.

This is one of the most interesting books on food which I’ve had the pleasure of reading.


Regard the World as Made of Information

John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008), American theoretical physicist
[attributed by Jacob Bekenstein in “Information in the Holographic Universe” (Scientific American, 2007)]


John Archibald Wheeler

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Book Review: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester

Read The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial)
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom Book Cover The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester
Biography & Autobiography
Harper Perennial
April 28, 2009

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

Winchester really is a magnificent writer. Although I am a bigger fan of some of his other works, this certainly fits well into the rest of his life’s opus. Somehow he manages to cover bits of science, technology, philosophy, history, (his love) geology, archaeology, culture, politics and even uses his flair for travel writing with great ethos and pathos to tell an interesting story.

Aside from the breadth of topics he covers while telling the story of one man’s life’s work, he writes about and discusses topics which should be part of everyone’s personal cultural knowledge. As a small example, he makes mention of one of the real life archaeologists who served as a model for Indiana Jones – though sadly he only makes the direct connection in a footnote which many may not likely read.

Though I had originally picked up the book out of general curiosity (not to diminish the fact that I’m on a quest to read every word Winchester has written), I find that it also neatly fits into providing some spectacular background on the concept of “Big History” (see Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History) as it relates to China’s place in the world. In particular “Needham’s question” (briefly: Why, given China’s illustrious past, did modern science not develop there after the 1500’s?) turned around becomes a interesting illustration on the course of human history and the rises and falls of cultures and societies since the Holocene.

For those who may miss the significance, I was particularly impressed with the overall literary power imbued to the book by the use of the book-ended contrasts of Needham’s Chongqing at the opening of the work and modern day Chongqing at the close. This is one of the few times that the mechanics behind how Winchester, the master of telling often non-linear stories, has been patently obvious to me. I hope one day to unravel all of his other secrets. I can only imagine that in his heavy research of his topics, he somehow internally sees the ultimately magical ways in which he will present the information.

I will note that, in contrast to some of his past works, this one had some better physical maps and photos to go along with the text, although I was highly disappointed in their unusable presentation in the e-book version of the book. (Higher dpi versions would have gone a long way, particularly with the ability to zoom in on them in most e-readers.) For those unfortunate enough to have the e-book copy, I commend picking up a physical copy of the book for better interpretations of the photos and maps included.

Finally, perhaps for Winchester’s benefit, I’ll note that typically I would give this book a full five stars in comparing it will all others, but I’m comparing it only with Winchester’s other works and, so it stands at four, and that only because there isn’t the ability to give tenths or hundredths.

Reading Progress
  • 12/17/09 marked as: want to read; “Purchased copy from”
  • 12/27/09 Purchased copy from
  • 02/05/10 started reading
  • 04/24/10 started reading again
  • 04/24/2010 8.81% done or on page 31 of 316; “Simon Winchester has such a lovely writing style and grasp of language. I’m depressed that I’ve finished reading most of his works.”
  • 12/03/12 started reading again from the beginning
  • 12/03/2012 09.0% done
  • 12/10/2012 20.0% done
  • 12/17/2012 30.0% done
  • 12/20/2012 40.0% done
  • 12/31/12 Finished book

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

John Hay, America’s secretary of state at the turn of the twentieth century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the “storm center of the world,” and that whoever took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have “a key to politics for the next five centuries.”

Highlight (blue) – Location XXX
China – storm center of the world;
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Guide to highlight colors

Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Blue–Interesting Quote
Gray–Typography Problem
Red–Example to work through

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Brief Book Review: James Gleick’s “The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood”

Overall James Gleick’s book The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood is an excellent read. Given that it’s an area with which I’m intimately interested, I’m not too surprised that most of it is “review”, but I’d highly recommend it to the general public to know more about some of the excellent history, philosophy, and theory which Gleick so nicely summarizes throughout the book.

Book Cover: The Information

There are one or two references in the back which I’ll have to chase down and read and one or two, which after many years, seem like they may be worth a second revisiting after having completed this.

Even for the specialist, Gleick manages to tie together some disparate thoughts to create an excellent whole which makes it a very worthwhile read. I found towards the last several chapters, Gleick’s style becomes much more flowery and less concrete, but most of it is as a result of covering the “humanities” perspective of information as opposed to the earlier parts of the text which were more specific to history and the scientific theories he covered.

Review originally posted at

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It has taken great minds to discover simple things

Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson CB FRS FRSE (May 2, 1860 – June 21, 1948), a Scottish biologist, mathematician and classics scholar
in On Growth and Form, 1917


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The next major thrust in biology

Werner R. Loewenstein (), biologist, physiologist
in The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life, Oxford University Press, 1999


The Touchstone of Life (Book Cover)

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