Dwarf Wheat: is it good for us?

A friend recently suggested that dwarf grains might be a key component in the recent explosion of health conditions like obesity and gluten (or other wheat-related) sensitivities.

According to Wikipedia:

The Green Revolution, or Third Agricultural Revolution, is a set of research technology transfer initiatives occurring between 1950 and the late 1960s, that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s.[1] The initiatives resulted in the adoption of new technologies, including high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals, especially dwarf wheats and rices, in association with chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals, and with controlled water-supply (usually involving irrigation) and new methods of cultivation, including mechanization.

Most people would say that this has been good because we now have a lot fewer people starving to death. We also have a lot more fat people. There’s an obvious link, inasmuch as it is much easier to be fat if there is more food around, but we’re investigating a less obvious link: does the nutritional/other content of new wheat varieties contribute to certain modern health problems?

Continuing with Wikipedia:

The novel technological development of the Green Revolution was the production of novel wheat cultivarsAgronomists bred cultivars of maize, wheat, and rice that are the generally referred to as HYVs or “high-yielding varieties“. HYVs have higher nitrogen-absorbing potential than other varieties. Since cereals that absorbed extra nitrogen would typically lodge, or fall over before harvest, semi-dwarfing genes were bred into their genomes. …

Dr. Norman Borlaug, who is usually recognized as the “Father of the Green Revolution”, bred rust-resistant cultivars which have strong and firm stems, preventing them from falling over under extreme weather at high levels of fertilization. … These programs successfully led the harvest double in these countries.[40]

Plant scientists figured out several parameters related to the high yield and identified the related genes which control the plant height and tiller number.[43] … Stem growth in the mutant background is significantly reduced leading to the dwarf phenotypePhotosynthetic investment in the stem is reduced dramatically as the shorter plants are inherently more stable mechanically. Assimilates become redirected to grain production, amplifying in particular the effect of chemical fertilizers on commercial yield.

HYVs significantly outperform traditional varieties in the presence of adequate irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers. In the absence of these inputs, traditional varieties may outperform HYVs.

In other words, if you breed a variety of wheat (or rice, or whatever) that takes up nutrients really fast and grows really fast, it tends to get top-heavy and fall over. Your wheat then lies on the ground and gets all soggy and rotten and is impossible to use. But if you make your fast-growing wheat shorter, by crossing it with some short (dwarf) varieties, it doesn’t fall over and it can devote even more of its energy to making nice, fat wheat berries instead of long, thin stems.

(I find it interesting that a lot of this research was done in Mexico. Incidentally, Mexico is also one of the fattest countries–on average–in the world.)

But we are talking about making the plant grow faster than it normally would, via the intake of more than usual levels of nutrients. This requires the use of more fertilizers, as these varieties can’t grow properly otherwise.

I’ve just started researching this, so I’m just reading papers and posting some links/quotes/summaries.

Elevating optimal human nutrition to a central goal of plant breeding and production of plant-based foods:

…  However, deficiencies in certain amino acids, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids in staple crops, and animal diets derived from them, have aggravated the problem of malnutrition and the increasing incidence of certain chronic diseases in nominally well-nourished people (the so-called diseases of civilization). …

The inadequacy of cereal grains as a primary food for humans arises from the fundamentals of plant physiology. … Their carbohydrate, protein and lipid profiles reflect the specific requirements for seed and seedling survival. This nutrient profile, especially after selection during domestication [], is far from optimal for human or animal nutrition. For example, the seeds of most cultivated plants contain much higher concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids than is desirable for human nutrition [], with few exceptions such as flax, camelina (Camelina sativa) and walnuts. …

The authors then describe what’s up up with the fats–for plants to germinate in colder temperatures, they need more omega-3s, which are more liquid at colder temperatures. Plants in warmer climates don’t need omega-3s, so they have more omega-6s. (Presumably omega-6s are more heat tolerant, making them more stable during high-temperature cooking.)

Flax and walnut have low smokepoints (that is, they start turning to smoke at low temperatures) and so are unsuited to high-temperature cooking. People prefer to cook with oils that can withstand higher temperatures, like peanut, soy, corn, and canola.

I think one of the issues with fast food (and perhaps restaurant food in general) is that it needs to be cooked fast, which means it needs to be cooked at high temperatures, which requires the use of oils with high smokepoints, which are not necessarily the best for human health. The same food cooked more slowly at lower temperatures might be just fine, though.

There is a side issue that while oil smoking is unpleasant and bad, the high-temperature oils that don’t smoke aren’t necessarily any better, because I think they are undergoing other undesirable internal changes to prevent smoking.

Then there’s the downstream matter of the feed cattle and chickens are getting. My impression of cattle raising (from having walked around a cattle ranch a few times) is that most cattle eat naturally growing pasture grass most of the time, because buying feed and shipping it out to them is way too expensive. This grass is not human feed and is not fungible with human feed, because growing food for humans requires more effort (and water) than just letting cows wander around in the grass. Modern crops require a lot of water and fertilizer to grow properly (see the Wikipedia quote above.) This is why I am not convinced by the vegetarian argument that we could produce a lot more food for humans if we stopped producing cows–cattle feed and human feed are not energy/resource equivalent.

However, once the cows are grown, they are generally sent to feedlots to be fattened up before slaughter. Here they are given corn and other grains. The varieties of grains they are fed at this point may influence the nature of the fats they subsequently build:

Modern grain-fed meat and grain-rich diets are particularly abundant in omega-6 fatty acids, and it is thought that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, especially the EPA and DHA found in fish oils, can be linked to many of the inflammatory diseases of the western diet, such as cardiovascular disease and arthritis (). DHA has been recognized as being vitally important for brain function, and a deficiency of this fatty acid has been linked to depression, cognitive disorders, and mental illness ().

Let’s get back to the article about plant breeding. I thought this was interesting:

The biological basis of protein limitation in seed-based foods appears to be the result of evolutionary strategies that plants use to build storage proteins. Seed storage proteins have evolved to store amino nitrogen polymerized in compact forms, i.e. in storage proteins such as zein in maize, gluten in wheat and hordein in barley. As the seed germinates, enzymes hydrolyze the storage proteins and the plant is able to use these stored amino acids as precursors to re-synthesize all of the twenty amino acids needed for de novo protein synthesis.

So if we make plants that absorb more nitrogen, and we dump a lot more nitrogen on them, do we get wheat with more gluten in it?

Another book I read, Nourishing Traditions, which is really a cookbook, claims that our ancestors generally ate their grains already sprouted. This was more accidental than on purpose–grains often sat around in storage, got wet, and sprouted. Sprouting (or germinating) makes the wheat use stored gluten to make amino acids. Between sprouting, fermentation (sourdough bread) and less nitrogen-loving wheat varieties, our ancestors’ breads and porridges may have had less gluten than ours.

Another issue:

In the laboratory of the first author we have taken two different approaches to improving the protein quality of crops. First, we successfully selected a series of high lysine wheat cultivars over a period of twenty years, by standard breeding methods []. …  Surviving embryos consistently had elevated levels of lysine relative to parental populations and the seed produced from these embryos also had increased levels of lysine. The increased nutritional value of these lines, however, carried a cost in terms of lower total yield. A striking result was that grasshoppers, aphids, rats and deer preferentially feasted on the foliage of these high lysine wheats in the field, rather than on neighboring conventional low lysine wheats. The highest lysine wheat had the highest predation and subsequently the lowest yield (D.C. Sands, unpublished field observations). … Thus, we are led to the hypothesis that selection for insect resistance may have inadvertently resulted in the selection for lower nutritional value…

Then the authors talk about peas, of Gregor Mendel fame. Two varieties of peas are wrinkled and smooth. The smooth, plump ones look nicer (and probably taste sweeter). The plump ones store sugar in a form that we digest more quickly, resulting in faster increases in blood sugar. They are thus more likely to get stored as fat.

Breeders and buyers are biased toward plump seeds and tubers, in peas and many other crops.

Incidentally, the outside of the wheat grain–the part we discard when producing white flours but keep when making “whole” wheat flour–contains phytates which interfere with iron absorption and other irritants designed by the plant to increase the chance of grazers passing the seed out the other end without digestion. (However, the creation of white flours may remove other nutrients.)

It’s getting late, so I’d better wrap up. The authors end by noting that fermentation is another way to potentially increase the nutritional content of foods and suggest a variety of ways scientists could make grains or yeasts that enhance fermentation.

A few more studies:

The nutritional value of crop residue components from several wheat cultivars grown at different fertilizer levels:

Nine wheat cultivars were grown at two test sites in Saskatoon, each at fertilizer levels of 0, 56, 224 kgN ha−1. Proportions of leaf, stem, chaff and grain were obtained for each level. Significant cultivar differences were observed at each site for plant component yields. A significant increase in the proportion of leaf components and a significant decrease in the proportion of the grain components was observed as soil nitrogen levels increased. Crude protein contents of plant components varied significantly with both cultivar and fertilizer level. Significant differences in digestibility in vitro also existed among cultivars. Increasing fertilizer levels significantly improved the digestibility in vitro of the leaf but not of the chaff.

Genetic differences in the copper nutrition of cereals:

Seven wheat genotypes, one or barley and one of oats were compared for their sensitivity to sub optimal supplies of copper, and their ability to recover from copper deficiency when copper was applied at defined stages of growth Copper deficiency delayed maturity, reduced the straw yield and severely depressed the gram yield In all genotypes. …

Genotypes with relatively higher yield potential were less sensitive to copper deficiency than those with lower yield potential … There was no apparent association between dwarfness and sensitivity to copper deficiency in wheat.

An article suggesting we should eat emmer wheat instead of modern cultivars:

… The production and food-relevant use of domesticated modern-day wheat varieties face increasing challenges such as the decline in crop yield due to adverse fluctuating climatic trends, and a need to improve the nutritional and phytochemical content of the grain, both of which are a result of centuries of crop domestication and advancement of dietary calorie requirements demanding new high-yield dwarf varieties in the last five decades. The focus on improving phenotypic traits such as grain size and grain yield towards calorie-driven macronutrients has inadvertently led to a loss of allelic function and genetic diversity in modern-day wheat, which suffers from poor tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses, as well as poor nutritional and phytochemcial profiles against high-calorie-driven non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs).The low baseline phytochemical profile of modern-day wheat varieties along with highly mechanized post-harvest processing have resulted in poor health-relevant nutritional qualities in end products against emerging NCDs. …

Ancient wheat, such as emmer with its large genetic diversity, high phytochemcial content, and better nutritional and health-relevant bioactive profiles, is a suitable candidate to address these nutritional securities…

There’s a lot of information about emmer wheat nutrition in this article/book.

 

Whither HBD: Happy 1,000 posts

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Gratuitous pic of Niels Bohr and Einstein, 1925, because this is my party.

This blog is now 1,000 posts long, which I think calls for a bit of celebration.

I started this blog because I found the idea that evolution–a process normally thought of as turning fins to feet and gills to lungs–could also code for emergent, group-level behavior like the building of termite mounds or nation states fascinating. Could evolution code for other things? Could it give us male and female behavior? Emotions? Political preferences?

I started reading JayMan’s work, then Peter Frost and HBD Chick, and of course Cochran and Harpending. Each of these blogs had new (at least to me) and fascinating ideas about why humans behave the many ways they do. Then came Slate Star Codex and Unqualified Reservations. There were others, of course; a complete listing of one’s intellectual predecessors is always impossible.

Evolution is ultimately a numbers game: if more people who do X have children than people who do Y, then X is likely to become more common than Y–even if we all believe that Y is better than X.

This gets interesting when X is not obviously mediated by genetics–your eye color, sans contacts, is clearly genetic, but the number of years you spend in school is influenced by external factors like whether schools exist in your society. This is where some people get hung up on causation. We don’t need to posit a gene that causes people to get more or less school. Maybe your village has a school because a mountain climber got lost nearby, your village rescued him, and in gratitude, he built you a school, while the village on the other side of the mountain doesn’t have a school because no mountain climber got lost there. Once a school exists, though, it can start having effects, and if those effects are not random, we’ll see genetic correlations.

If people who have more education make more money and end up buying more food and raising more children, then school is exerting a selective effect on society by causing the kids who happened to live near the school to have more children. From an ecological standpoint, the school is operating like a spring in a desert–we get more growth near the spring than far away from it, and whatever traits were common in the village–even ones that have nothing to do with education–will become more numerous in the overall population. If this trend continues, then the cultural habit of “going to school” will continue to proliferate.

We can also posit the opposite case: in the village with the school, kids spend many years at school and end up marrying later and are more educated about things like “birth control” than their neighbors on the other side of the mountain. The kids on the other side of the mountain marry younger and have a bunch of unintended children. In this case, education is suppressing fertility; in this niche, education is like a drought. The educated kids have fewer children of their own, and whatever traits the uneducated kids happen to have spread through society because there are now much more of them (at least as a percent of the total). If this trend continues, then the cultural habit of “going to school” may well die out.

In both of these cases, education caused a change in the distribution of genetic traits in the overall population without requiring any genetic predispositions from the students involved. We are looking at the evolution of the whole society.

But this is a highly constrained example; it is rare in places like the modern US to find areas where one village has a school and the next does not. Once schools are everywhere, they’re not going to select for (or against) “living near a school.” The traits that cause a person to attend more years of schooling or do better in school will be less random–traits like conscientiousness, ability to recognize letters, or family income. In an agricultural society with no schools, raw, physical strength may be at a premium as people must wrest their living from the soil, rocks, trees, and beasts. This selects for physical strength. Once we introduce schools, if the better educated have more children, then physical strength becomes less important, and its prominence in the next generation diminishes. The ability to sit in a chair for long hours may be positively selected, leading to a proliferation of this trait.

This is gene-culture co-evolution–a cultural change can shift the balance of genes in a society, and that in turn can cause further cultural changes, which cause more genetic changes.

I would like to pause and note just how annoying the “but you haven’t proven causation!” crowd is:

Imagine if I said that I thought the blood circulates through the body in a loop instead of being generated anew by the heart with every pump, and someone protested that blood couldn’t possibly circulate because I hadn’t shown any way for blood to get from the arteries to the veins and back to the heart.

This was a real debate in physiology. That the heart pumps is obvious. That veins and arteries carry blood is also obvious. That people die if you cut them open and let the blood drain out, though, mystified doctors for centuries.

Capillaries, unfortunately for many patients, are too small to see with the naked eye. Without any mechanism to return blood from the arteries to the heart, doctors refused to believe that it did. They instead believed that blood was produced anew with every heartbeat and was consumed at our extremities. Bleeding patients, therefore, shouldn’t cause any great difficulties.

The fact that we could not see capillaries before the invention of the microscope should not have caused doctors to reject the theory of circulation, only to say that a mechanism had not yet been found to make it work. The circulation hypothesis did a better job of explaining various facts of human anatomy–like the existence of veins carrying blood to the heart and the habit of patients to die after bleeding–than the heart-generation hypothesis.

The insistence on clinging to the older theory due to the lack of a capillary mechanism lead, of course, to the deaths of thousands of patients. (For more on the history of medicine, anatomy, and circulation, I recommend William Bynum’s A Little History of Science.)

How something works is vastly secondary to the question of whether it works at all in the first place. If it works, it works. If you can’t figure out how, you call it magic admit that you don’t know and hope that someday it’ll be clear. What you don’t do is claim that a thing cannot be true or cannot actually work simply because you don’t understand how it happens.

I don’t understand how airplanes stay in the sky, but that doesn’t make them fall down. Reality doesn’t stop just because we don’t understand it; to think that it does is pure, asinine hubris.

The next objection I commonly hear to the idea that cultural changes (like the proliferation of schools) could trigger changes in the genetic makeup of society is that “evolution doesn’t work that fast.”

This is a funny objection. The speed of evolution depends on the nature of the trait we are discussing. Developing a radically new trait, or greatly modifying an existing one, such as developing the ability to breath air instead of water, does indeed take a long time–sometimes millions or even billions of years. But simply modifying the distribution of existing traits in a population can be done nearly instantly–if an invading army lops the heads off of anyone over 5’9″, the average height of the population will fall immediately. From a genetic perspective, this is “negative selection” against height, and the population has “evolved” to be shorter.

(You might object that this is too artificial an example, so consider the inverse: a situation where everyone over a certain size used to die, but due to environmental changes they now survive. Modern obstetrics and the cesarean section have rescued mothers of large babies from the once-common fate of death in childbirth. This was of course often fatal to the infants, as well, and prevented their parents from producing any further children. Large babies were a serious evolutionary problem for our ancestors, but much less so for us, which has probably contributed to the rise in average heights over the past century.)

Usually selection is less extreme, but the point remains: traits that already exist (and vary) in a population, like height, weight, blood type, or temperament, can be selected for (or against) on very short timescales.

In fact, human societies are always selecting for some traits; this means that we are always evolving. The distribution of traits in humans today is not the same as the distribution of traits in humans 20 years ago, much less 100 years ago.

And we can look at all of the things humans are being selected for (or selecting themselves for) and speculate how this will change society. Religious people have more children than atheists, and some religions produce far more children than other religions. This trend is juxtaposed against the massive rise in atheism over the past few decades. Will atheism continue to spread to the children of the religious, or will the religious “core” be effectively immune and overwhelm the remaining agnostics with numbers?

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Source: Do Schooling and City Living lead to Fewer Babies?

Education (or perhaps it is just a proxy for intelligence) seems to have different effects on different folks and different levels of society. Highschool dropouts have a lot of kids. People with PhDs have a fair number of kids. People who have merely graduated from college, by contrast, have the fewest kids.

Fertility is also different for men and women, with more educated women taking a bigger fertility hit than educated men.

Any discussion of “what’s up with the American middle/working class” has to address facts like these–our country is effectively bifurcating into two “success” models: one very high achieving and one very low achieving. The middle, it seems, is getting cut out.

But we can apply evolutionary theory to much more than humans and their societies. We can analyze ideas, transportation networks, technology, etc.

My first–and probably best–idea in this area was that the idea that the way we transmit ideas influences the nature of our ideas. One of the biggest changes of the past century has been a massive change in the way we communicate, from the rise of mass media to the explosion of social media. Before radio and TV, most people got most of their information from people they knew personally, mostly their families. Today, we get most of our information from total strangers.

Ideas we get from strangers I refer to as meme viruses, (meme as in “unit of idea,” not “funny picture on the internet”) because horizontal transmission resembles the transmission of viruses. Ideas we get from our families I refer to as mitochondrial memes, because vertical transmission resembles the transmission of mitochondrial DNA.

Since the interests of strangers are different from the interests of your close family (your parents are much more interested in you making lots of money, getting married, and making grandbabies than strangers are), they will tend to promote different sorts of ideas. Your parents generally want you to succeed, while strangers would prefer that you do things that help them succeed.

It is this change in the way we communicate, rather than the actions or intentions of any particular group, that I think explains the rise of many modern political trends. (This is the condensed version; I recommend reading one of my posts on memes if you want more.)

I am obviously interested in politics, but not in the conventional sense. I have very little interest in anything associated with particular people in politics, outside of a few historical figures. I have no interest in the latest thing Nancy Pelosi or Emmanuel Macron has been up to. I think people place too much importance on individuals; I am more interested in broad trends (like the spread of technology) that are much bigger and further-reaching than any individual politicians (often their bigger than individual countries).

I’ve come over the years to the conclusion that conventional politics drive people to do (and say) very stupid things. People develop a tribal identity attached to one side or another, and suddenly everything their side does is good and sensible, and everything the other side does is nefarious and dumb. This is not a bad instinct when your enemies have pointy spears and want to turn you into lunch, but it’s terrible when your enemy disagrees with you on optimal interest rates.

My second purpose in founding this blog was to reach out to people who were, as I see it, harmed by the cult-like behavior of modern leftism. When I say “cult-like,” I mean it. Atheism is on the rise, but religious thinking and behavior remains strong. When peoples’ self-identities as “good people” become linked to their membership in political tribes, the threat of excommunication becomes particularly powerful.

Here’s a public example:

… far more unsettling was what happened two weeks later, when knitters who claim to be champions of social justice went after a gay man within the community because he’d written a satirical poem suggesting (correctly) that all the recent anti-racism mobbings might be having a toxic effect on the community. …

The next day, Taylor’s husband Benjamin Till, a composer (who also happens to be Jewish) posted on Sockmatician’s account: “This is Nathan’s husband, Benjamin. At 3 pm today, Nathan was admitted to [the emergency room at] Barnet Hospital. …

Till also wrote on his blog about what had happened:

… Nathan disabled comments when the sheer weight of them became too much, but the following morning, his other Instagram posts, and then his Twitter feed had been hijacked by the haters. The taunts continued. He was a white supremacist, a Nazi apologist…He started obsessively reading the posts but became increasingly worked up, then more and more erratic and then suddenly he snapped, screaming like a terrified animal, smashing boxes and thumping himself. I was forced to wrestle him to the ground and hold onto him for dear life as the waves of pain surged through his body. He made a run for the car keys. He said he wanted to drive at 100 miles per hour until he crashed. I called our doctor and they could hear him screaming in the background and said I was to immediately take him to [the hospital], where he was instantly assessed and put on suicide watch …

This was not the end of Nathan’s ordeal at the hands of people who supposedly believe in “social justice” and helping the powerless, as people continued piling on (yelling at him in public) because of the “harm” he had caused.

I wish I could reach out to everyone like Nathan and tell them that they’re not bad, cults are bad.

The right has its own issues, but I come from a leftist background and so am responding to what I know personally, not abstractly. 

From time to time I get a question about the future of HBD (human bio-diversity). The online HBD community was quite vibrant about a decade ago, but many of the brightest lights have faded. Henry Harpending of Westhunter and co-author of The 10,000 Year Explosion has sadly passed away. HBD Chick and Jayman are both occupied with their own lives.

The future of HBD isn’t in blogs or the internet generally (though we can read about it here). It’s over in real genetics research. Yes, there are some subjects that academics don’t want to touch for fear of losing their jobs, but there are many researchers forging paths into fascinating new territory. The field of ancient DNA is unlocking the story of human migration and dispersal, from Neanderthals to Anglo Saxons. Thanks to aDNA, we’ve discovered a whole new Human species, the Denisovans, that interbred with the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens (as did the Neanderthals). We have also discovered “ghost” species in our DNA that we have no name for.

The field of modern DNA is also advancing; we’re learning new things all the time. CRISPRing humans is just one fascinating possibility.

Imagine the ability to remove simple genetic flaws that cause painful and fatal diseases, make ourselves beautiful or smarter. How much are 20 IQ points worth? One study found that people with IQs of 100 average $58,000 a year, while 120s made $128,000. $70,000 a year, averaged over a few decades of working life, (less intelligent people tend to enter the workforce and start earning younger, so it’s not a simple multiplication problem), adds up quickly.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which CRISPR actually works. Only the wealthy–and perhaps those with genetic diseases willing to shell out thousands or covered by insurance–will be able to afford it. The current bifurcation trend will become even more extreme as the poor continue reproducing normally, while the wealthy make themselves smarter, healthier, and prettier.

But if CRISPR confers advantages to society as a whole–for example, if smarter people make fabulous new inventions that everyone benefits from–then we could see foundations, charities, and even welfare programs aimed at making sure everyone has the CRISPR advantage.

After all, if an extra year in school boosts IQ by 3.4 points (I’m not saying it does, but let’s assume), then 6 extra years in school will give you 20.4 points. We pay about $10,600 per pupil per year for public schools, so those six years are worth $63,600. If you can CRISPR 20 IQ points for less, then it’s a better deal.

Of course, CRISPR might just be a pipe dream that gives people cancer.

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Isaac Newton

Whatever happens, the real future of HBD lies in real labs with real budgets, not online blogs. I’m just here to share, discuss, and think–and hopefully there will be enough interesting ideas to discuss for another thousand posts.

Thanks for being part of all these discussions. Blogs are nothing without readers, after all.

Capitalism of Place

One of the interesting themes in Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is the role of capitalism in creating community spaces.

Arnade spends most of his time in the book in three places: McDonald’s, drug dens, and churches. Two of these–McD’s and the drug Ds–are capitalist enterprises: they exist to sell you things, legal or not. Churches are not explicitly capitalist, but can be understood using the same model. They are interested in attracting enough members to cover their operating costs, so a church that does a better job of “selling” religion or provides a more enjoyable religious experience will probably attract more parishioners and will do better financially. (A church that can attract no members is, ultimately, dead.)

The lack of good common spaces that do not require spending money is one of the minor annoyances of my life. I like being outdoors, but it rains out there. National parks are lovely, but not near the house. It’s especially difficult to find locations that are attractive to multiple generations, or both children and childless adults (if I want to socialize with friends who do not have kids of their own).

As Arnade notes, for poor neighborhoods, McDonald’s fills that niche. It has a playground and happy meals for kids; it has booths and hamburgers for adults. It is warm and dry in the winter, cool in the summer, and even has a bathroom. The price of admission is low–a cup of coffee.

In Arnade’s telling, the organizations that ought to be providing community spaces, like the local government, really don’t. From a libertarian perspective, if attracting more people to these places doesn’t directly benefit the people running them, then they won’t put effort into making these spaces comfortable and attractive. Since McDonald’s (or the other locations Arnade visits) do make money off customers, even homeless ones who just order a cup of coffee, McD’s has an incentive to make its environs comfortable and welcoming to as many people as possible.

We can find other examples of capitalist enterprises providing communal spaces, like salons, barber shops, shopping malls, bars, and sports bars.

Of course, this inevitably runs up against class issues. McD makes plenty of money selling food to the poor, and Whole Foods makes plenty selling food to the rich, but it is difficult to sell to both markets. Back in our review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, we discussed his observation that capitalistic markets tends to bifurcate into supplying low and high class versions of products, with a dearth in between. Auerswald discusses the evolution of watch making, from expensive luxuries to common watches to the clock included on your phone. He writes that both the clock-in-your phone and the luxury Rolex markets are doing fine, while sales of mid-price watches have withered.

Community seems to have undergone a similar process. McDonald’s is doing fine, financially, and I’m sure ski clubs in Alta are doing fine, too. It’s in between that we find people who are watching their money and can’t afford to spend $80-$120 a day on trips to the museum/zoo/movies, etc, but don’t want to hang out at McDonald’s, either. In general I think of “let’s avoid the poors” social signaling as a scam–products/services that signal your social class will happily increase in cost until they’ve sucked up all of your money–but sometimes avoiding other people legitimate. Personally, I would go to McDonald’s more often if my children weren’t prone to getting horribly ill when we visit–social class may be socially constructed, but diarrhea is real. Avoiding criminals, drug addicts, diseases, and folks who haven’t bathed recently is perfectly reasonable.

There aren’t a lot of spaces that do this for the middle class. Chick-fil-A comes close, but their playgrounds are designed for kids under 5. The best place I can think of for middle class families to hang out and socialize (which is also a good place for the poor and upper class) is church. And indeed, Arnade meets lots of people at churches across the country. Churches (or other religions’ houses of worship) are generally warm (or cool), hold community events, mark lifecycle events, and generally even have dedicated areas for children. The only difficulty is that churches are structured around belief in a particular religion, which is awkward for the nation’s increasing numbers of atheists, and occasionally use their parishioners’ beliefs in the morality of the church for self-gratification/manipulation. (EG, every cult ever.)

Arnade also visits one other variety of social club in the book, the “Snowshoe Club” IIRC, dedicated not to snowshoeing, but to French Canadians in the US. Like many social clubs, the Snowshoes get together for dinner and social events, costs five dollars to join, and officially you don’t have to be French Canadian to be a member. These sorts of social clubs used to be much more common in the US (See: Bowling Alone), but have been on the wane for decades.

How do you feel about community in your own town? Are there good places to meet people and socialize, or do you feel a dearth? Does capitalism do a good job of filling this role, or would some other structure or institution perform better? Is the bifurcation I have described a real thing, or just an illusion of some sort? In short, what do you think?

Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 2

 

51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and most desperate citizens. (This is part 2 of my review;part 1 is here.)

As I read, I couldn’t help but compare human society to an anthill (mostly because I happened to also be reading the anthill dialogue in Godel, Escher, Bach at the same time).

Ants, honeybees, termites, and a variety of other insects are eusocial. Eusocial insects live massive colonies with social organization of a sort familiar to us humans, from division of labor to cooperative raising of the colony’s young (This is why my avatar is a bee.)

Eusocial insects can do some amazing things, like build bridges and towers out of their own bodies:

The fascinating thing about ants, bees, and the like is that, while they have “queens”, they don’t really have a conscious monarch calling the shots. The behavior of each individual ant somehow adds up to the behavior of the entire colony, yet the entire colony behaves in a way that is difficult to reduce to the behavior of individual ants.

According to Wikipedia: 

The division of labor creates specialized behavioral groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes. Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.

And according to Godel, Escher, Bach:

Anteater: [Aunt Hillary] is certainly one of the best-educated ant colonies I have ever had he good fortune to know. The two of us have spent many a long evening in conversation on the widest range of topics.

Achilles: I thought anteaters were devourers of ants, not patrons of ant intellectualism!

Anteater: Well, of course the two are not mutuaully inconsistent. I am on the best of terms with ant colonies. Its just ANTS that I eat, not colonies–and that is good for both parties: me, and the colony.

One of my conclusions from listening to many demands (and promises) for politicians to “create jobs” is that most people no longer have any idea where jobs come from, nor how to make them happen. Jobs seem to come from the job fairy, given or taken as her capricious will determines.

And the modern economy is complicated enough that this is… about accurate. No one could have prevented the Great Depression. No individual created the great post-war economic boom. Recessions come and go despite our best efforts to prevent them; bubbles inflate and burst. These things just happen, and ordinary people find themselves dragged along for the ride.

One of the things that happened over the past 40 years was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that paved the way for the wholesale transfer of the American manufacturing establishment to China. The older folks in Arnade’s account speak warmly of the manufacturing days, when you could walk off the highschool graduation stage and into a job at the local factory.

I have a children’s book written in the ’50s in which an American child tells a group of Canadian children about his country. He tells them all about the factories, which make all manner of fabulous things.

Today, such easy employment is so far from reality that I almost got angry reading these accounts. “What, it was easy for you? It’s not so damn easy for us young people, you know. We never got to walk out of highschool and straight into jobs.” But anger is not productive and it tells us nothing about how the world should be.

Whether we are better or worse with manufacturing jobs in China is debatable–I think we are worse off, but the migration of unpleasant jobs that damage the environment to areas with laxer worker and environmental protections might have been inevitable. But even if it was in our best interests as a whole, it certainly wasn’t in the interests of the workers who lost their jobs and the people who remain in communities that have completely lost their economic base. The deaths of a few ants may benefit the anthill, but it certainly doesn’t make those ants happy.

At least we have the decency to honor soldiers whose sacrifices benefit society; little concern is given for people whose jobs were sacrificed for efficiency, progress, profits, or avoiding environmental regulations.

It’s easy to ask, “Why don’t you make your own job? Found your own company? Start a business? Do something to pump life back into the community?” but this is easier said than done; not everyone can come up with successful entrepreneurial ideas.

I don’t like the idea of being a (semi)eusocial species. I want people to be able to adapt to a changing economic system. I don’t always get what I want, though. Economies come and go, wars start and end, society careens on like juggernaut, and most of us just hope for the best.

mcdbday1

McDonald’s

One of the interesting parts of the book is Arnade’s tour of the nation’s McDonalds’s.

In neighborhoods across the country, Arnade finds community (and people to interview) beneath the golden arches. Here people meet friends for breakfast, play dominoes, or just hang out and avoid the weather. In many areas, McDonald’s also has the only nice playground around, and kids are happy to have a place to play.

McDonald’s Corp would probably like Arnade’s depiction a lot better if it stopped at “neighborhood hotspot” and didn’t include all of the homeless and drug addicts who also find it a warm, dry, safe place to rest.

I have posted about McD’s before, mostly in The Death of American Equality, discussing the decline of fast-food playgrounds:

There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.

Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.

McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips.

I have changed my position on the “healthiness” of fast food since I wrote that piece; I am now concerned that the temperatures used to cook food quickly at fast food joints oxidizes oils, resulting in health problems. This doesn’t mean that organic cupcakes are good for you, just that oxidized oils are bad.

People talk a lot about “food deserts” and argue about whether the unhealthy food options in poor neighborhoods are a matter of preference or oppression.

It’s probably a bit of both. People like McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat other things if they could.

But there are reasons restaurants don’t like to locate in poor neighborhoods, mostly theft. In a relevant anecdote, Arnade describes how a sweltering summer day led locals to try to steal ice from the McDonald’s drink machine. Of course a bit of theft from the drink machine is routine, no matter the neighborhood, but the manager of this location did not appreciate having his store so blatantly robbed. The event is meant to be humorous in the book (which it probably was in real life,) but I couldn’t help but think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If people steal from the stores in their neighborhood, those stores shut down and new ones don’t open.

Of course, there are other ways people get poisoned besides probably willingly eating delicious junk food. Like pollution. Arnade doesn’t talk much about environmental toxins like lead or burning plastic, but I happened to watch a Netflix documentary about this last night, so I’ll talk about it anyway.

Apparently “plastic” is not really recyclable. Well, some kinds of plastic are, but many varieties effectively are not, and you can’t make new plastic products out of several varieties of plastic mixed together. So when you throw all of your recyclables into the big bin together, they are effectively useless to the recycling plant.

The recycling plant near your home has employees who sort through the recycling, separating cans from paper from plastics and attempting to send all of the useless trash like used napkins and pizza boxes to the landfill. Metal and glass are valuable and can be recycled, but–until recently–all of the plastic got bought up by Chinese recycling plants.

Until recently, China imported MASSIVE quantities of plastic trash. More humans were employed to sort through this trash (poor humans). The usable stuff–types 1, 2, and 5–got recycled. The unusable plastic got disposed of–by burning

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Indonesian scavanger Suparno, 60, stands in front of burning plastic waste at an imported plastic dumpsite in Mojokerto. Photograph: Fully Handoko/EPA Read the article: Treated Like Trash: south-east Asia vows to return mountain of rubbish from West

BURNING.

This is your “recycling” on fire:

Eventually the Chinese government decided that burning plastic is noxious and disgusting and that Chinese lungs shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the world’s trash, so it banned the import of most waste plastic. Suddenly the “recycling” plants had a huge problem: no where to dump all of the plastic they were pretending to recycle.

Entrepreneurs in Malaysia (and other nations) stepped in to fill the gap, and locals were astonished when giant piles of burning garbage appeared overnight in their communities.

Soon the Malaysian government also decided that burning plastic is bad and started banning the stuff.

Goodness knows where our “recycling” will go now to get burned. Maybe, horror of horrors, we’ll have to bury it in a landfill instead of loading it on giant container ships and using fossil fuels to send it across the ocean. (I am generally against shipping things across oceans if we can avoid it.)

1282550_040816ktrkplantfire27img
Chemical plants sometimes catch on fire, too–chemical plant fire near Houston, Tx

But pollution isn’t just a third world problem; the distribution of poor communities in the US was determined largely by the direction of the winds blowing pollution from factories and chemical plants.

Burning plastic is very bad, by the way:

“There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. — the toxic species,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, as well as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.

It’s bad enough being poor, with all the difficulties that entails, without having to breathe burning plastic, smoke, or whatever’s in the local chemical plant. (Even in areas without such industries, the poor are more likely to live in houses that still have lead paint.)

Prison:

Arnade talks to many people who’ve been arrested or incarcerated, or are engaged in illegal activity like drugs or prostitution. While the legalization of drugs has issues (mostly more dead people–see the previous post for discussion,) legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution may have more going for it, eg, Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada: Examining Safety, Risk, and Prostitution Policy:

The authors conclude by arguing that the legalization of prostitution brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels that decreases the risk of these 3 types of systematic violence.

Of course, some people argue that bureaucratizing prostitution will only increase the paperwork and push out the independent contractors.

What about prisons? Arnade does not visit any prisons, but many of the people he interviews have. The need for some kind of prison reform is a safe bet, since prisons are full of people whom society doesn’t like and doesn’t want to spend money on.

I am definitely in favor of imprisoning violent people, but this seems like… not what prison should be like.

Edited to add: Regardless of how you think Epstein died, his case highlights a number of “mistakes” in the way his prison–a relatively nice one, I believe–was run, from transferring a probably still suicidal guy off suicide watch to the non-functioning security cameras to the guards straight up not watching the prisoners and lying about doing their rounds. People are killed or commit suicide in prison all the time; we just don’t normally hear about it because they aren’t as rich and famous (or infamous) as Epstein.

Homicide has been up over the past few years, which is not good for anyone and probably means we need more street-level policing. Yes, the police sometimes kill innocent people (or dogs), but non-police kill more innocent people, so police are a net gain.

The police of Montreal, Canada, once went on strike, and the city descended into chaos within a day:

Montrealers discovered last week what it is like to live in a city without police and firemen. The lesson was costly: six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass will be needed to replace shattered storefronts. Two men were shot dead. At that, Montreal was probably lucky to escape as lightly as it did.

Deterring crime is good, but we (or Great Britain) may need to do more to deter kids caught committing small crimes from becoming repeat offenders.

Well, it’s getting late, so I’d better wrap this up. This book covers many difficult topics and is not easy to discuss, and parts of the book I’ve neglected to mention–the author also interviews many immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, as well as locals in the areas where they’ve moved, for example. I apologize for wandering so far afield.

I feel compelled to offer solutions, but these are difficult problems to fix. People live their own lives, sometimes suffering, sometimes triumphing. Our World in Data has some interesting charts about income distributions in different countries that I’d like to end with:

income-growth-since-1974-us-and-uk-comparison

How very differently the benefits of economic growth can be shared is shown by a comparison of the USA and the UK over the last 40 years. In the US incomes for the bottom half of the population were stagnating for most of the last 4 decades (with a notable exception over the second half of the 1990s). In the UK the first period resembles the experience of the US – incomes at the bottom of the distribution were stagnating, incomes at the top were rising rapidly. But over the second period – from 1991 onwards – the trend in the UK has changed significantly: economic growth was shared equally across the distribution from the lowest to the highest decile.

The comparison also show that growth in the UK – particularly for the lowest income group – was much stronger than in the US. A comparison with other rich countries shows that the experience of the US – strongly rising inequality and stagnation for a large part of the population – is unique to the US. Other rich countries were much more successful in sharing the benefits of growth across the distribution.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 

 

Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 1

51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Part 2 is here.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.

1. What the book is

Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.

It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.

Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version. 

The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.

I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?

2. Why I read it:

I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.

Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.

In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.

Was the book effective?

I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)

This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices. 

One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.

When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)

Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.

Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.

Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.

A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.

There have been a lot of riots in US history, eg, 159 race riots during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Detroit Riot was the biggest of these:

The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“.[2] Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.

The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit to help end the disturbance. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army‘s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed[citation needed]

The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.[84]

Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.

I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:

600px-Homicide_rates1900-2001

Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:

crimestatsbyraceandincome
source

In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.

The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.

Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.

Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.

As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.

The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).

At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.

Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.

I propose that we reduce paperwork.

Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.

Paperwork is the goddamn devil.

Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.

In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.

This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.

Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.

Drugs:

One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.

Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.

I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.

If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.

drug graphdrug graph4Drug graph3

drug graph5
Source: USA Facts

The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.

Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:

In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues,[4] violent crime decreased,[5][6] and an increase in homeless population.[7] One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.[8]

Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014.[9] Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.

Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.

Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.

As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.

So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.

Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.

Mental Illness:

Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)

Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.

Cabrini Green

As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.

People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.

School:

School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.

In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.

As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.

One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.

There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:

African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.

Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.

Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:

I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.

I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.

College:

I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.

Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.

This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.

Religion:

godhead
source: Audacious Epigone

Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?

I recently happened upon Bryan, Choi, and Karlan’s paper, Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes (h/t Alexander Berger):

We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.

This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.

After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.

I think that’s enough for now; I want to get this post up on time, so we’ll continue with our discussion on Monday. Edit: Part two is now up. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read the book or would like me to discuss something in particular, I’d love to hear your opinions over the weekend.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 

What’s with all the Knitting?

I received this question right after I finished crocheting all of the giftwrap ribbons into flowers and thought, “Huh, why am I doing this?”

The short answer is that I don’t know.

At the most direct and obvious level, I knit (or crochet, but for the sake of this post, I will be collapsing most yarn-related arts under the term “knitting”) because it’s fun, fast, and easy, and end the end you actually make something.

Knitting is very portable. I love my 3D printer, but I can’t exactly pop it in my purse and take it to the park with me. I skateboard, but I can’t skateboard at the mall or on an airplane (well, I could, but then I’d be having an awkward discussion with security). Sometimes I make chainmail, but that’s full of fiddly little bits that you can’t really balance on your knees.

Knitting is also very cheap. I’d love to learn something like carpentry or glass blowing, but these skills require a lot of time, room and expensive equipment to learn. Learning to knit only requires two pencils (smooth pencils make perfectly passable knitting needles) and a few dollars in yarn. Crochet requires an actual crochet hook, which might set you back a few more dollars, but either way, you can get started for less than $10.

The learning curve is a lot steeper on these skills, too–if I mess up while building a table, I’ve got a ruined table; if I mess up while knitting, I just pull on the yarn and undo the piece.

So that’s why  you’ll see people knitting: it’s easy, cheap, and portable.

But this is only a superficial analysis, for Rubik’s cubes are also cheap and portable, and if not exactly “easy” to solve, you can certainly fiddle with them without any training.

But Rubik’s cubes are pointless, outside of the intellectual activity. With knitting, you get an actual item at the end.

To be honest, I think most women find many male-dominated hobbies, like sports or video games, pointless. I’ve seen many football games, and I can tell you the outcome of every single one: one team wins and the other loses. The world keeps on spinning and nothing changes except that some of the players get hurt. Similarly, men will sink hours into a video game and get nothing tangible as a reward.

I’ve said before that men seem to prefer hobbies in which they get to tinker. They like building their own rigs, repairing their own cars, optimizing settings, or trying to figure out the most efficient ways to do things. Women prefer to just get a product straight off the shelf, use it, and get the job done.

(Of course this tinkering does, long term, produce a lot of good things.)

The one sort of exception to this general rule is arts and crafts , where women dominate. A Norwegian study, for example, found that about 30% of Norwegian women between the ages of 18 and 50 had knitted something in the past year, but less than 7% of Norwegian men. Among older Norwegians, the gender divide was much wider–over 60% of women over 60 knitted, but the number of male knitters rounds to zero. So while most women you meet probably don’t knit, even fewer men are likely to pick up a ball of yarn.

I love the arts and crafts store; it’s like a candy shop for adults.

The desire to make little things for the home probably stems from the nesting instinct–a real instinct found most prominently in pregnant women, who are often struck by a sudden urge to make their homes as baby-friendly as possible. This urge is often far in excess of reason, resulting in women compulsively scrubbing the kitchen tile with a toothbrush or rearranging all of the furniture in order to vacuum under the couch. Personally, aside from all of the cleaning, I made things, including a child sized easel, train table, and stuffed animals.

So the ultimate cause is probably a mild version of the nesting instinct–a desire to make one’s home warm and comfortable.

Happy New Year and keep cozy, everyone.

Jesus is not Mithras

This is the time of year when posts and article start popping up claiming that Jesus is just a rehash of the old Persion god Mithras (or Mithra, Mitras or some other spelling), lining up all sorts of improbable coincidences like “Mithras was born from a rock, and rocks can’t have sex, so clearly that’s the same as a virgin birth.”

There’s a much simpler and more sensible origin for Jesus: Judaism.

I know this is a bold thesis, but I think Judaism has several things going for it as the ultimate origin of Christianity, so hear me out.

Judaism: Has a tradition that a messiah will come.

Judaism: Has a holiday at the end of December. (It’s called Hanukkah.)

Judaism: Also has a spring holiday that coincides with Easter.

Judaism: is literally the religion that Christianity sprang from.

The early Christian writer Hippolytus of Rome provides the first justification for situating Jesus’s birth on December 25th: because it is nine months after his conception, believed to coincide with the date of his death. This belief probably comes from an actual Jewish belief about prophets, albeit slightly mangled. For example, Moses is believed to have died on his own birthday (at 120 years old).

Furthermore, Hanukkah–also known as the “Feast of Dedication”–is celebrated on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. It seems likely that when early Christians started using the Roman calendar, they translated the holiday directly to the 25th of December.

But wait, I hear you saying, doesn’t Christmas coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia?

It turns out that Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th, not December 25th. The holiday was later extended to last until December 23rd, which still falls two days short of December 25th.

Since people often denigrate Hanukkah as just “the Jewish Christmas,” let’s go back and review what the holiday is actually about.

In Hebrew, Hanukkah (also spelled “Chanukah”–it’s a transliteration of a non-Indo European word written in a non-Latin alphabet, so there’s no one proper spelling) means “dedication.” The Feast of Dedication officially marks when the Maccabees reconquered Jerusalem (from the Seleucids, Syrian Greeks) and re-instated traditional Jewish temple services in the Temple, which the invaders had been using for sacrifices to Zeus.

The Feast of Dedication is actually mentioned in the New Testament, in John 10:

22 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in [d]doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

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Recreation of the Temple Menorah by the Temple Institute; By ariely 

One of the sacred objects in the Temple was the 7-armed menorah, famously depicted on the Arch of Titus. (The Hanukkah menorahs lit in people’s homes have 9 arms.) According to the Bible (Exodus 25), the plan for the menorah was revealed to Moses as part of the overall plan for the tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant resided:

31Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. 32Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. 33Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. …

 39talent of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories. 40See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.[1]

Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the menorah was placed inside, and it was this same menorah that the Maccabees were scrambling to find enough oil to light during their (re)dedication celebration. (Candles had yet to be invented.)

The menorah was looted by the Romans in 70 AD, after Titus conquered Jerusalem, and then probably carried off by the Vandals when they sacked Rome in 455. At this point, it disappears from history–and yet the sacred temple light lives on. You’ve probably seen it in a modern church, as altar lamps still hang in Catholic, Episcopal, and Anglican churches.

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Catholic Sanctuary Lamp

According to the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church:

“In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.”

The “presence of Christ” is in the physical form of the Eucharist.

Orthodox Christian churches also have a “menorah,” (though it is shaped rather differently from the Jewish ones):

In Orthodoxy, what other traditions in Christianity call the altar we call the Holy Table, and the space beyond the ikon screen is called the altar. Among items upon an Orthodox Holy Table will be a cloth ikon of Christ containing a relic, the gospels, a special ‘box’ we call a tabernacle which will contain the reserved sacrament for the sick, and candles. In the Russian tradition the number of candles we use reflect the Jewish Menorah, a seven branched candlestick as expressed in Exodus.

The sanctuary lamp is also found in many Protestant denominations:

It is also found in the chancel of Lutheran and Methodist churches to indicate the presence of Christ in the sanctuary, as well as a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.[3][4] … Other Christian denominations burn the lamp to show that the light of Christ always burns in a sin-darkened world.

And of course it is still found in synagogues:

Looking around the synagogue you will see the eastern wall, where the aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) is located. The ark is the repository for the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. It also serves as the focus for one’s prayers. Above the ark is located the ner tamid–the eternal light — recalling the eternal light in the Temple (Exodus 27:20–21).

In each case, the sacred fire symbolizes the presence of God.

Looking back, deeper into the Bible, we find other instances where fire symbolized God’s presence:

The menorah itself, with multiple “branches” covered in buds and blossoms, is reminiscent of a flowering tree or bush, like the burning bush encountered by Moses.

When the Israelites walked through the desert, they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.

When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, God was again likened to fire (Exodus 24):

12 And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. …

15 And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. …

17 And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.

And in the story of Abram who became Abraham (Genesis 15):

He said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him. …

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: 

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El Greco, Pentecost

And in the New Testament, Acts, Ch 2:

1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

“Pentecost” is actually a Jewish holiday. It is partly a harvest festival and partly a celebration of when God gave Moses the books of the Torah (aka the Bible).

I regard the Jewish holiday calendar as cyclical, with many layers of meaning built into each holiday. Pentecost, (aka Shavuot), is both an early harvest festival and a Torah festival. Sukkot is a fall harvest festival similar to Thanksgiving, but it also celebrates the time the Israelites spent wandering in the desert during the Exodus (with overtones of a Jewish wedding). Judaism is an old religion, and meaning has built up over time as people have lived their lives in different ways.

The fact that two different religions celebrate similar holidays on similar dates is not, a priori, sign that they copied each other. I think it very likely that people of all sorts, from all over the world, have placed important holidays on dates like “the solstice” and “the harvest” because these are easy dates to keep track of. You know when the harvest is in; you know when the days are short or long. Other days, well, those are a little trickier to keep track of. Festivals that take place at the same time of year took on similar elements because those elements were common to the times–Sukkot and Thanksgiving both involve lots of food because they are harvest festivals, not because they are copying each other. Winter solstice celebrations involve fire because people light fires to keep themselves warm during cold winter months.

Christmas/Chanukah similarly show many layers of meaning. At the most basic, we have a solstice celebration: the temples and hearths need cleaning and the sacred fires are kindled at the start of winter. We have the historical observance of an actual, historical event–the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, as related in 1 Maccabees:

52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year,[b] 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 

Interestingly, the Seleucid Empire’s control of the Temple symbolically dies here on the same day it was born.

Hanukkah is also, according to the account given in 2 Maccabees, a delayed Sukkot festival (Sukkot is normally 8 days long in the diaspora). Sukkot, the festival of tabernacles, was probably delayed either due to the Seleucids banning traditional Jewish holidays, as the Maccabees complained, or due to the war raging in the country at the time. A further fourth reason for Hanukkha is given in 2 Maccabees, the celebration of a similar miracle performed by Nehemiah during the rebuilding of the Temple a few hundred years before.

What does it mean for early Christian authors to assert that Jesus was born on Chanukah, died on Passover, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on Shavuot (Pentecost)? Not only does this situate Jesus firmly within the Jewish liturgical year, it is a specific claim about who Jesus is.

For Jews, God’s presence in the world is the Torah, hence why the eternal light burns near the Torah scrolls in synagogues. In churches, this is of course the Eucharist.

The transition from Word to Eucharist is eloquently expressed by John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  …

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

For Christians, Jesus is the presence of God in the world symbolized by the menorah’s flame. 

What does it mean for modern authors to assert that Jesus was Mithras? It is a claim that  the New Testament is a bunch of malarkey and Jesus was, rather than an historical personage, a plagiarised pagan deity.

But let’s take a closer look at Mithras and the claimed parallels. According to Wikipedia:

Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras. The religion was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, though the Greek Mithras was linked to a new and distinctive imagery, and the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice is debated.[1] The mysteries were popular among the Roman military from about the 1st to the 4th century CE.[2]

Certainly Mithraism was popular in the area and some of its iconography is similar to later Christian paintings and statues. Christians may have borrowed stylistic motifs from Greek and Roman art, since there were no iconographic representations of God in traditional Judaism.

But let’s look at the more substantive claims.

The pro-Mithra camp usually makes a list of attributes Mithra and Jesus supposedly have in common, eg:

Mithra has the following in common with the Jesus character:

  • Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
  • The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or “disciples.”
  • He performed miracles.
  • As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  • He ascended to heaven.
  • Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
  • Mithra is omniscient, as he “hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him.”
  • He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
  • His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
  • Mithra “sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers.”
  • Mithraism emphasized baptism.

There are two problems with such lists. First, reducing any religion to a bullet points tends to render it almost unrecognizable, and second, many of these points are just plain wrong.

Here’s a comparison of Judaism and Sikhism, for example:

  • Both religions stress the importance of wearing hats
  • Sikh and Jewish prayers both assert the existence of one God.
  • Both started in Asia.
  • Sikhs have gurus, who are teachers. Judaism has rabbis, who are also teachers.
  • Sikhs and Jews both worship in dedicated religious buildings.
  • Both forbid religious iconography.
  • Both teach that God is formless and omnipotent.
  • Judaism has “10 commandments”. Sikhism has “10 Gurus”.
  • Sikhs have a ritual bathing ceremony called “Amrit Sanchar.” Jews have a ritual bathing ceremony that takes place in a ritual bathing pool, the mikvah.
  • Both have sacred texts

There you have it. Judaism and Sikhism have so much in common, they must be copying each other. I’m sure if you met a Jew and a Sikh in person, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

1. The first claim, that Mithras was born on December 25th, is basically wrong. Zoroastrians celebrate Mithras’s birth on the solstice, or December 21st. In the 4th century AD, in some parts of the Roman Empire, the festival’s date was shifted to December 25th, probably due to issues with the calendar (leap years).

The claims that everyone was celebrating Mithras’s birthday on December 25th are extrapolated from Roman celebrations of the solstice (Sol Invictus). Since some people equated Mithras and the sun, the logic goes, therefore everyone who celebrated the solstice was actually celebrating Mithras.

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Mithras born from a rock, marble, 186 AD: just the spitting image of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, isn’t he?

2. Second, Mithras is most commonly depicted as born not from a virgin, but from a rock. The statues are very clear on this point. Only in a few isolated traditions is Mithras given a human mother; these were not the dominant traditions in the area. Even if we are generously metaphorical and allow the claim that Mithras was born in a cave, rather than directly from a rock, Jesus was not born in a cave. Jesus was born in a stable, where animals are kept, or possibly even the lower floor of a home where animals were kept during the winter.

3. Pretty much all babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes. I’ve swaddled my own babies. Oh no, I’ve produced gods.

4. I’ve found nothing confirming that Mithras was laid in a manger. He looks too big in most of his “birth from a rock” statues to be laid in anything, anyway, because he emerged fairly grown up.

5. Mithras is generally depicted attended by two torch bearers, Cautes and Cautophates. They symbolize sunrise and sunset, as Mithras is a solar deity. Occasionally, they are depicted holding shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.

The presence of shepherds at the nativity isn’t really an important theological point in Christianity. Neither is Cautes and Cautophates occasionally holding shepherds’ crooks in statues. These symbols are not meaningfully similar.

6. Empty claim: Anyone can walk around and teach things.

7. The claim that Mithras had 12 companions or disciples is taken from depictions of Mithras alongside the Zodiac. I don’t think anyone was claiming that Mithras was literally accompanied by Pisces and Cancer.

8. Empty: Pretty much ever religious leader/saint/prophet has performed “miracles.”

9. Mithras did not sacrifice himself as a bull. He killed a bull. The bull-killing scene is the most common depiction of Mithras, so it’s hard to figure out how someone could get this wrong. Let’s let Wikipedia describe the scene:

In every mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull, an act called the tauroctony.[a][33] … The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted[34] bull, holding it by the nostrils[34] with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. … A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. A raven is flying around or is sitting on the bull. … The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.[36][37] Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.[38]

A Roman tauroctony relief from Aquileia (c. 175 CE; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.[39] Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. At the top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a biga.[40]

In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.[40]On the back side was another, more elaborate feasting scene.

If you read that and conclude, “Yup, sounds just like Jesus, shepherds, and apostles,” I’m not sure what to say.

Since Mithras worship was part of a mystery cult, we have very few records of what actually went on in there.. We have archaeological remains, of course, which show mostly feasting. This is the claimed “eucharist.” These were big feasts which left a fair amount of trash behind. Calling any ritual feast a “eucharist” or “last supper” is certainly a stretch–we might as well note that I have a supper every evening. (And besides, there is a much closer parallel to the ceremony with the bread and wine found in Judaism.)

The presence of many cherry pits in the Mithraic garbage indicates that much of that feasting took place in summer, when cherries are ripe–around the time of the summer solstice. If Mithras inspired so much Christian ritual, then why doesn’t Jesus have a summer celebration?

As for what Mithras was called, we have very few actual written texts on the religion–unlike Christians, Mithras’s worshipers did not go around telling people what they believed. There is one inscription on a wall that reads “et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso” which translates to “And you have saved us… in the shed blood.” This is probably a reference to the killing of the bull, which was celebrated with feasting, rather than a Christ-like sacrifice. 

There is one reasonably complete surviving text that might have been part of a “Mithraic liturgy,” and it bears no relation to anything that goes on in a Christian church service:

At this level (lines 537–585), the revelation-seeker is supposed to breathe deeply and feel himself lifted up, as if in midair, hearing and seeing nothing of mortal beings on earth. He is promised to see instead the divine order of the “visible gods” rising and setting. Ritual silence is prescribed, followed by another sequence of hissing, popping, and thirteen magic words: “Then you will see the gods looking graciously upon you and no longer rushing at you, but rather going about in their own order of affairs.” After a shocking crash of thunder, another admonition of silence, and a magic incantation, the disk of the sun is to open and issue five-pointed stars. The eyes are to be closed for the following prayer. …

Next to come forth are the seven Pole-Lords, wearing linen loincloths and with faces of bulls. They have seven gold diadems, and are also to be hailed individually by name. These have powers of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes, as well as the capacity to grant physical health, good eyesight and hearing, and calmness (lines 673–692).The two groups of seven, female and male, are both depicted in an Egyptian manner and represent the “region of the fixed stars.”[16]

This might of course be some other mystery cult, there just aren’t any other texts that survived with enough complete sentences to actually read them. We do have a lot of statues similar to these pole-lords, but with the faces of lions instead of bulls.

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Lion-Headed figure from the Sidon Mithraeum, circa 500 AD

These statues are wild and we have no idea what they were for or what they meant. They might be related to a particular demon in Zoroastrianism, or they might represent the “lion degree” of initiation into the cult’s rites, or something else entirely. At any rate, we don’t find these statues in modern churches, and their importance within the Mithraic mysteries has not been transferred to anything in Christianity.

Any claim that Mithras was “called this” or “compared to that” or given particular attributes is on shaky ground given the lack of written records. Nothing in the normal Mithraic iconography looks like the peaceful good shepherd of Christianity. His association with Lions and Lambs is part of his general association with the zodiac, which contains both Leo the Lion and Aries the Ram–as well as Cancer the Crab and Scorpio the Scorpion. Why is Jesus not associated with scorpions, if Mithras was?

Mithras did ascend into Heaven, because he is a solar deity associated with the sun, moon, and stars, and heaven is where the stars are. Zeus lives in a kind of “heaven,” too, as do Odin and Thor.

I hope I do not need to keep refuting individual points. I’ve found nothing about baptism or Sundays associated with Mithras, and as for the marks on the foreheads of Mithraic initiates, Christians do not normally go around with marks on their heads, except on Ash Wednesday as a sign of mourning.

And the son/sun pun doesn’t even work in Latin. (Or Greek.)

My personal opinion is that the Mithras Cult operated rather like a modern Masonic Lodge or even a Rotary Club: a men’s club that periodically feasted together. (Mithraic cults didn’t accept female members.)

There are plenty of obvious pagan practice that survives in Christianity–the Christmas tress, for example. And the influence of pagan Greek philosophers like Plato on early Christianity is a subject worth whole volumes. We could even ask how much of Judaism owes its origins to Zoroastrianism, especially parts developed during the Babylonian exile. But at this point, I think it’s safe to say that people promoting the “Jesus was Mithras” story are either completely ignorant of Mithraism or purposefully trying to denigrate Christianity.

Have a merry Christmas, Chanukah, Mithras Day, or whatever you celebrate.

Links Post and Open Thread

Christmas+crab-1Hey guys, I’m working on a post about Christmas but I’m not quite done double checking my sources, so tell me about your New Years’ resolutions.

Here are some interesting links in the meanwhile:

The Catch-22 of Energy Storage :

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?

Red Cross built Exactly 6 Homes in Haiti with half a Billion Dollars: 

In late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for “A Better Life in My Neighborhood” — was building hundreds of permanent homes. …

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six. …

In statements, the Red Cross cited the challenges all groups have faced in post-quake Haiti, including the country’s dysfunctional land title system.

“Like many humanitarian organizations responding in Haiti, the American Red Cross met complications in relation to government coordination delays, disputes over land ownership, delays at Haitian customs, challenges finding qualified staff who were in short supply and high demand, and the cholera outbreak, among other challenges,” the charity said.

… While the group won’t provide a breakdown of its projects, the Red Cross said it has done more than 100. The projects include repairing 4,000 homes, giving several thousand families temporary shelters, donating $44 million for food after the earthquake, and helping fund the construction of a hospital.

 

Is the age at which British women are having babies changing?

Wikipedia: Prostitution among Chimpanzees

Was there a vast back-migration of Eurasians into Africa? As of 2016, Razib said no. (Of course, things could have changed since then.)

Gene-Culture Co-Evolution in Killer Whales: 

Analysing population genomic data from killer whale ecotypes, which we estimate have globally radiated within less than 250,000 years, we show that genetic structuring including the segregation of potentially functional alleles is associated with socially inherited ecological niche. Reconstruction of ancestral demographic history revealed bottlenecks during founder events, likely promoting ecological divergence and genetic drift resulting in a wide range of genome-wide differentiation between pairs of allopatric and sympatric ecotypes. Functional enrichment analyses provided evidence for regional genomic divergence associated with habitat, dietary preferences and post-zygotic reproductive isolation. Our findings are consistent with expansion of small founder groups into novel niches by an initial plastic behavioural response, perpetuated by social learning imposing an altered natural selection regime. The study constitutes an important step towards an understanding of the complex interaction between demographic history, culture, ecological adaptation and evolution at the genomic level.

Pygmy Genetics:

African Pygmies practicing a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle are phenotypically and genetically diverged from other anatomically modern humans, and they likely experienced strong selective pressures due to their unique lifestyle in the Central African rainforest. To identify genomic targets of adaptation, we sequenced the genomes of four Biaka Pygmies from the Central African Republic and jointly analyzed these data with the genome sequences of three Baka Pygmies from Cameroon and nine Yoruba famers. … Our two best-fit models both suggest ancient divergence between the ancestors of the farmers and Pygmies, 90,000 or 150,000 years ago. … We found that genes and gene sets involved in muscle development, bone synthesis, immunity, reproduction, cell signaling and development, and energy metabolism are likely to be targets of positive natural selection in Western African Pygmies or their recent ancestors.

NY Times, blaming people for their own deaths:

If only people knew how much the past sucked, they’d die less.

From 2015, but still a good example of the absurd and arbitrary nature of the state we live in: Texas police hit Organic farm with Massive SWAT Raid:

A small organic farm in Arlington, Texas, was the target of a massive police action last week that included aerial surveillance, a SWAT raid and a 10-hour search.

Members of the local police raiding party had a search warrant for marijuana plants, which they failed to find at the Garden of Eden farm. But farm owners and residents who live on the property told a Dallas-Ft. Worth NBC station that the real reason for the law enforcement exercise appears to have been code enforcement. The police seized “17 blackberry bushes, 15 okra plants, 14 tomatillo plants … native grasses and sunflowers,” after holding residents inside at gunpoint for at least a half-hour, property owner Shellie Smith said in a statement. The raid lasted about 10 hours, she said.

 

History: The Extinction of the Australian Pygmies

 

That’s all for now. Whatever you celebrate, have fun with your loved ones and enjoy the holidays.

 

The Economics of 3D Printing

20191217_114106
The finished Eevee, resting on a crafting table. (Original model by 7Fish on Thingiverse.)

In preparation for the holidays, I have been 3D printing (and crocheting) like a madman. Right now I am printing what will eventually be an 8-inch tall Eevee, a Pokemon.

But is 3D printing worth the cost?

My very rough, back of the envelope calculation after about a year of printing is that if you have enough things you want to print, then 3D printing is easily worthwhile.

A spool of PLA printer filament + shipping runs about $25. You can get more expensive filaments, or you can get the cheaper ones and paint them. I paint. (I’ve run the numbers on recycling waste filament/making your own, but filament is cheap enough that it isn’t worth it unless you’re running a really big operation.)

I usually print toys or educational items like Neanderthal skulls for my kids. I’m not sure exactly how many prints you can get off a single spool of filament–it depends on what you’re printing, how much infill you use, how many supports you need, etc–but I haven’t run out of any of my spools, yet.

Here is a nice set of hominid skull (reproductions) being sold for $368 (on sale! Normally $472!) It’s not clear exactly what the dimensions on these are, but let’s assume they’re full size. Given how much I’ve printed so far without running out, I could probably print at least two skulls per spool, for a printing cost of <$75.

That works out to almost $100 of savings per spool of home-printed skulls.

Of course, that’s because someone is massively over-charging for skulls, and besides, how many skulls does the average person want hanging around their home?

Here is a FunkoPop Eevee, similar to the one I am printing right now, for $11. The material on these is probably a little nicer than PLA (which is pretty rigid), but mine will be twice as tall and less than half the price.

If toys are too silly for your tastes (perhaps because you don’t have kids,) rest assured that you can print many tools and technical items, and the cost is still quite low compared to buying to buying them.

The sheer variety of 3D printers available on Amazon these days is overwhelming–Resin printer for $250? Troxny for $240? I know nothing about these brands because I don’t own one, but they have good reviews. While the highest quality printers still cost over $1000, I think it is safe to say that you can get a good printer for $500 or less, and if you are the sort of person who would otherwise buy (or sell) the things you can print with it, you can easily make back the cost.

The biggest expense in 3D printing is, surprisingly, not the machine or the filament, but your time. Printers are fiddly machines and there’s a fair amount of trouble shooting. (I recommend getting one with the auto-bed-leveling feature.) Getting prints to stick well enough that they don’t come off the plate while printing, but not so well that you can’t get them off after printing, is tricky.

20191217_114248 The printer needs supervision while printing because sometimes prints come off the plate anyway, filament starts going everywhere, and the machine has to be shut down. And sometimes the nozzle gets clogged and needs cleaning.

So it’s probably best to get a 3D printer only if that sounds like the sort of thing you’d enjoy.

Here’s a side view of Eevee so you can see its tail.

Bluing Meat

Inspired by a question from Littlefoot, I went out to do a little sleuthing:

I remember an anthropology professor reminiscing about buying food at open air markets somewhere in Africa, where refrigeration is non-existent the meat is simply out in the heat and “somehow everyone doesn’t die.” It’s a bit strange to us, because we’re inundated with messages that improper food handling will lead to the growth of horrible bacteria and death (I even refrigerate the eggs and butter, even though our grandmothers never did and the French still don’t,) but our ancestors not only managed without refrigeration, sometimes they actually tried to make the meat rot on purpose.

Helpful Twitter user Stefan Beldie explains that traditionally, pheasants were killed, eviscerated, and then hung for 4-10 days, depending on the weather.

The phrase “bluing meat” is extremely rare these days (try googling it,) but extra-rare or uncooked meat is still referred to as “blue”:

Temperatures for beef, veal, lamb steaks and roasts
Extra-rare or Blue (bleu) very red 46–49 °C 115–125 °F

Of course, there is a bit of difference between food that is merely uncooked/barely cooked, and food that has been intentionally allowed to rot.

Here’s the tale of an Inuit (Eskimo) delicacy, walrus meat that has been allowed to decompose in a hole in the ground for a year (though I suspect not much decomposition happens for about half the year up in the arctic).

Before you judge, remember that cheese is really just rotten vomit.

Have you ever heard the story that early modern Brits used a bunch of spices on their meat to cover up the taste of rot?

It turns out that this is a myth, a tall tale created by people misunderstanding cookbooks that gave instructions for properly rotting meat before eating it:

One of the most pervasive myths about medieval food is that medieval cooks used lots of spices to cover up the taste of rotten meat. This belief is often presented in the popular media as fact, with no cited references. Occasionally though a source is mentioned, and the trail invariably leads to:

The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet
J.C. Drummond, Anne Wilbraham
First published by Jonathan Cape Ltd 1939

Drummond claimed,

… It is not surprising to find that the recipe books of these times give numerous suggestions for making tainted meat edible. Washing with vinegar was an obvious, and one of the commonest procedures. A somewhat startling piece of advice is given in the curious collection of recipes and miscellaneous information published under the title of The Jewell House of Art and Nature by ‘Hugh Platt, of Lincolnes Inne Gentleman’ in 1594. If you had venison that was ‘greene’ you were recommended to ‘cut out all the bones, and bury [it] in a thin olde coarse cloth a yard deep in the ground for 12 or 20 houres’. It would then, he asserted, ‘bee sweet enough to be eaten’.” 

As Daniel Myers notes, washing with vinegar was not done to reduce spoilage, but to tenderize and get rid of the “gamey” taste of some meats. As for burying your meat to make it less spoiled, this is clearly absurd:

The example that Drummond does give is most certainly not for dealing with spoiled meat. He misinterprets the word “greene” to mean spoiled, when in fact it has the exact opposite meaning – unripe. Venison, along with a number of other meats, is traditionally hung to age for two or three days after butchering to help tenderize it and to improve the flavor. With this simple knowledge in mind, Platt’s instructions are clearly a way to take a freshly butchered carcass and speed up the aging process so that it may be eaten sooner.

Similar instructions for rapidly aging poultry can be found in Ménagier de Paris.

Item, to age capons and hens, you should bleed them through their beaks and immediately put them in a pail of very cold water, holding them all the way under, and they will be aged that same day as if they had been killed and hung two days ago.

The goal of these recipes is not to cover up rot, but to speed up the rotting (or “aging”) process.

Myers also notes that the idea of putting spices on rotten meat is also absurd because spices were horribly expensive–often worth their weight in gold. It would be rather like someone looking at a gold-leaf wrapped caviar and concluding the gold was there to distract the peasants from the fact that fish eggs are disgusting. You would have completely misread the dish. In the Medieval case, it would be cheaper to buy fresh meat than to dump spices on it.

Now, to be clear, what I’ve been calling “rot” is really more “aging.” We only think of it as rotting because we are accustomed to throwing everything in the refrigerator as soon as we get it.

As the Omaha World Herald explains:

Three factors affect the tenderness of meat in all animals, whether it be beef cattle or pheasant: background toughness, rigor mortis and aging the meat.

Background toughness results from the amount of collagen (connective tissue) in and between muscle fibers. The amount of collagen, as well as the interconnectivity of the collagen, increases as animals get older, explaining why an old rooster is naturally tougher than a young bird. Rigor mortis is the partial contracting and tightening of muscle fibers in animals after death and results from chemical changes in the muscle cells. Depending on temperature and other factors, rigor mortis typically sets in a few hours after death and maximum muscle contraction is reached 12 to 24 hours after death. Rigor mortis then begins to subside, which is when the aging (tenderization) of the meat begins.

Tenderization results from pH changes in the muscle cells after death that allow naturally occurring proteinase enzymes in cells to become active. These enzymes break down collagen, resulting in more tender meat. In beef cattle, the aging process will continue at a constant rate up to 14 days, as long as the meat is held at a proper and consistent temperature, and then decreases after that. In fowl, the rate of tenderization begins to decline after a few days.

A common misconception is that bacteria-caused rotting is responsible for meat tenderization, and this is why many find the thought of aging game repugnant. … Maintaining a constant, cool temperature is key to preventing bacterial growth when aging meats. The sickness causing E. coli bacteria grows rapidly at temperatures at or above 60 F, but very slowly at 50 F.

It’s a very good article; RTWT.

From Littlefoot we have an article that delves into the technical side of things: Microbiological Changes in the Uneviscerated Bird Hung at 10 degrees C with Particular Reference to the Pheasant:

Several interesting results from this study. They hung up both pheasants and chickens. The pheasants showed very little microbial first two weeks, whereas the chickens started turning green on day five. This is probably a result of chickens having more bacteria in them to start with, a side effect of the crowded, disease-ridden conditions chickens are typically raised in.

A taste testing panel found that pheasants that had hung for at least three days tasted better than ones that had not, with some panel members preferring birds that had aged considerably longer.

So if you plan on hunting pheasant any time soon, consider letting it age for a few days before eating it–carefully, of course. Don’t give yourself food poisoning.