I finally got around to reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s one of those books that I kept hearing about from smart people whose opinions I respect. But I have to say, my reaction to the book reminded me of when I read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:
It was an exasperating read.
I’ve had this book and his others on my list for quite a while, but I’ve been worried that they may fall short like this. I’ve started his most recent one in the past few weeks prior to it’s release this weekend. Jeremy’s review makes me even more reticent.
Perhaps it’s better to stick with the better sourced materials within the topic of “big history” by David Christian and others?
Learner identities, Big History, and collective learning also generally remind me about shrinking numbers of languages, which I’ve mentioned before. In teaching and passing on knowledge, we will need to be even far more accomodating about culture and language, or eventually we’ll loose all of the diversity of languages we’ve got today.
"I have long been a fan of David Christian. In Origin Story, he elegantly weaves evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines into a single, accessible historical narrative." --Bill Gates
A captivating history of the universe -- from before the dawn of time through the far reaches of the distant future.
Most historians study the smallest slivers of time, emphasizing specific dates, individuals, and documents. But what would it look like to study the whole of history, from the big bang through the present day -- and even into the remote future? How would looking at the full span of time change the way we perceive the universe, the earth, and our very existence?
These were the questions David Christian set out to answer when he created the field of "Big History," the most exciting new approach to understanding where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. In Origin Story, Christian takes readers on a wild ride through the entire 13.8 billion years we've come to know as "history." By focusing on defining events (thresholds), major trends, and profound questions about our origins, Christian exposes the hidden threads that tie everything together -- from the creation of the planet to the advent of agriculture, nuclear war, and beyond.
With stunning insights into the origin of the universe, the beginning of life, the emergence of humans, and what the future might bring, Origin Story boldly reframes our place in the cosmos.
As many will know, I’m enamored of Christian’s thesis of Big History, so this is going to be a must-read, though I suspect it will be a shorter and more accessible version covering a lot of similar ground to his prior heroic effort Maps of Time.
Lane lays out a “brief” history of the 4 billion years of life on Earth. Discusses isotopic fractionation and other evidence that essentially shows a bottleneck between bacteria and archaea (procaryotes) on the one hand and eucaryotes on the other, the latter of which all must have had a single common ancestor based on the genetic profiles we currently see. He suggest that while we should see even more diversity of complex life, we do not, and he hints at the end of the chapter that the reason is energy.
In general, it’s much easier to follow than I anticipated it might be. His writing style is lucid and fluid and he has some lovely prose not often seen in books of this sort. It’s quite a pleasure to read. Additionally he’s doing a very solid job of building an argument in small steps.
I’m watching closely how he’s repeatedly using the word information in his descriptions, and it seems to be a much more universal and colloquial version than the more technical version, but something interesting may come out of it from my philosophical leanings. I can’t wait to get further into the book to see how things develop.
Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done. The conversion of energy on Earth ranges from terra-forming forces of plate tectonics to cumulative erosive effects of raindrops. Life on Earth depends on the photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into plant biomass. Humans have come to rely on many more energy flows -- ranging from fossil fuels to photovoltaic generation of electricity -- for their civilized existence. In this monumental history, Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel--driven civilization.
Humans are the only species that can systematically harness energies outside their bodies, using the power of their intellect and an enormous variety of artifacts -- from the simplest tools to internal combustion engines and nuclear reactors. The epochal transition to fossil fuels affected everything: agriculture, industry, transportation, weapons, communication, economics, urbanization, quality of life, politics, and the environment. Smil describes humanity's energy eras in panoramic and interdisciplinary fashion, offering readers a magisterial overview. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil's Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.
News reporters and anchors have repeatedly referred to the recent tragedy in Las Vegas as the “worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” Like all things that are constantly repeated, the proclamation has become fact.
There’s some great history here. It reminds me about the podcast Seeing White which I’ve been listening to recently.
That cuppa joe you just sipped? Its long journey to your cup was made possible by shipping containers—those rectangular metal boxes that carry everything from TVs to clothes to frozen shrimp. And there’s a whole host of characters whose lives revolve around this precious cargo: gruff captains, hearty cooks, perceptive coffee tasters, and competitive tugboat pilots. This is the world journalist Alexis Madrigal illuminates in his new podcast Containers. Alexis tells us how the fancy coffee revolution is shaking up the shipping industry, and reveals his favorite sailor snack. Bite celebrates its first birthday, and Kiera gets up-close-and-personal with a kitchen contraption that’s sweeping the nation: the InstantPot.
This is a cool new podcast I hadn’t come across before. This particular episode is a bit similar to my favorite podcast Eat This Podcast, though as a broader series it appears to focus more on culture and society rather than the more scientific areas that ETP tends to focus on, and which I prefer.
The bulk of this episode, which discusses shipping and containers (really more than food or coffee which is only a sub-topic here), reminds me of the book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Biggerby Marc Levinson which I’d read in July/August 2014. (The book is now in its second addition with an additional chapter.) I suspect it was some of the motivating underlying material for Alexis Madrigal’s Containers podcast series. The book had a lot more history and technical detail while I suspect Madrigal’s series has more of the human aspect and culture thrown in to highlight the effect of containerization. I’m subscribing to it and hope to catch it in the next few weeks. The discussion here is a quick overview of one of his episodes and it goes a long way towards humanizing the ever increasing linkages that makes the modern world possible. In particular it also attempts to put a somewhat more human face on the effects of increasing industrialization and internationalization of not only food production, but all types of manufacturing which are specifically impacting the U.S. (and other) economy and culture right now.
The InstantPot segment was interesting, particularly for cooking Indian food. I’m always intrigued by cooking methods which allow a modern home cook to better recreate the conditions of regional cuisines without the same investment in methods necessitated by the local cultures. Also following Alton Brown’s mantra, it sounds like it could be a useful multi-tasker.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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  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, 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.
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.”
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?
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?
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.