1. The inestimable hbd chick has been banned from Twitter. No word why. She might get her account back (who knows?) Reinstated on Twitter. Her blog is still up. hbd chick has always been a sweet, polite person on Twitter, even to people who are hostile and rude to her, so this banning had nothing to do with misconduct. Someone at Twitter really hates the Hajnal Line.
  2. Since Twitter is increasingly hostile, unwelcome place, I have moved to Gab in solidarity, though PMing me on Twitter still works (because communication is useful.)
  3. The Ladies of HBD have arranged a group chat on Slack. The Join Code is posted in the comments over on the Female Side. Just to be clear, it’s for females.
  4. Vote for our next Book Club selection:

A. Who We Are and How We Got Here, by David Reich

B. The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Cochran and Harpending

C. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

D. American Nations, by Colin Woodard

E. Enlightenment Now, by Pinker

F. Something else–leave your suggestion in the comments.




Modern “Anthropology”

Over the past couple years of Anthropology Friday, I have tried to highlight works that cast a light on the varied and myriad human experiences. Not all of them are great works of literature, but they show what anthropology can be. We’ve read about the Eskimo in Kabloona, Jane Goodall’s research with the Gombe chimps in In the Shadow of Man, records of prisons and criminal gangs, Appalachia and Siberian reindeer herders. We’ve read first-hand accounts like Isaac Bacirongo’s Still a Pygmy and the Slave Narrative Collection.

Anthropology, done right, makes the alien familiar and expands our understanding of the many varieties of human experience.

Done wrong, well… Here’s the abstract from Professor Dwayne Dixon’s Endless Question: Youth Becomings and the Anti-Crisis of Kids in Global Japan:

This layered, latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three groups of Japanese young people redefine youth through bodily practices, identities, and economic de/attachments. Young Japanese—skateboarders, creative workers, and returnee schoolchildren—embody various relations to the city, visual media, globalized identities, temporary jobs, and education. The dissertation itself is non-linear; it formally enacts the multidirectional, diverse youthful experiences amidst intense global connections, transitioning identities, and uncertain social and economic futures. Multi-media and electronic text create lines of connection between sites and events in the young people’s experiences and larger histories of gender and labor, city life, and global dreams. Against crisis narratives, Japanese youth are creating improvisational, social connections amidst intense change.

Can we translate this into functional English?

Sentence 1: “This layered, latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three groups of Japanese young people redefine youth through bodily practices, identities, and economic de/attachments.”

Translation: This anthropology project follows three groups of Japanese youths, documenting their body piercings, identities, and which brands they eagerly consume or shun.

The word “identity” in this sentence is difficult to translate because it is vague and undefined–sexual identities? gender identities? Japanese identities? Millenial identities?–and more importantly, because most people do not bother to think about their “identities” at all.

Sentence 2: “ Young Japanese—skateboarders, creative workers, and returnee schoolchildren—embody various relations to the city, visual media, globalized identities, temporary jobs, and education.

Translation: Young Japanese skateboarders, artists, and continuing-education students live in the city, watch and make videos, have “globalized identities,” work temporary jobs, and go to school.

“Embody” was a difficult word to translate because it means nothing that makes sense in this context. To embody is to “be an expression of or give a tangible or visible form to” something, eg “Romeo embodies love;” or to “include or contain something as a constituent part,” eg, “Freedom of expression is embodied in the Bill of Rights.” We could use “contain” or “symbolize” as synonyms, but neither “Young Japanese… contain various relations to the city…’ nor “Young Japanese… symbolize various relations to the city…” make sense.

“Identities” makes a second apperance and again contributes very little.

Sentence 3: “The dissertation itself is non-linear; it formally enacts the multidirectional, diverse youthful experiences amidst intense global connections, transitioning identities, and uncertain social and economic futures.

Translation: This dissertation is non-linear because the subjects’ lives are too complex to express chronologically.

(I don’t think “formally” means what he thinks it means.)

Sentence 4: “Multi-media and electronic text create lines of connection between sites and events in the young people’s experiences and larger histories of gender and labor, city life, and global dreams.

Translation: Young people use cell phones to text each other about skateboarding events and post videos of themselves skateboarding on the internet.

Sentence 5: “Against crisis narratives, Japanese youth are creating improvisational, social connections amidst intense change.

Translation: You might have heard that Japanese youth are in crisis, but actually they’re making new friends in the middle of this protracted economic malaise.

Dixon’s original is not only unclear and vague, but parts of it aren’t even grammatical. Strip away the buzzwords, and you’re left with “Japanese youth use cellphones and make friends”–not exactly shocking observations.

Let’s compare with missionary Sidney L. Gulick’s account of Japan, written in 1903, on the Japanese character and effects of modernization:

Many writers have dwelt with delight on the cheerful disposition that seems so common in Japan. …. And, on the whole, these pictures are true to life. The many flower festivals are made occasions for family picnics when all care seems thrown to the wind. There is a simplicity and a freshness and a freedom from worry that is delightful to see. But it is also remarked that a change in this regard is beginning to be observed. The coming in of Western machinery, methods of government, of trade and of education, is introducing customs and cares, ambitions and activities, that militate against the older ways. …

The judgment that all Japanese are cheerful rests on shallow grounds. Because, forsooth, millions on holidays bear that appearance, and because on ordinary occasions the average man and woman seem cheerful and happy, the conclusion is reached that all are so. No effort is made to learn of those whose lives are spent in sadness and isolation. I am convinced that the Japan of old, for all its apparent cheer, had likewise its side of deep tragedy. …

Enough of Japan. Here’s an abstract from Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Modeling Population Health: Reflections on the Performativity of Epidemiological Techniques in the Age of Genomics, by Susanne Bauer:

Risk reasoning has become the common-sense mode of knowledge production in the health sciences. Risk assessment techniques of modern epidemiology also co-shape the ways genomic data are translated into population health. Risk computations (e.g., in preventive medicine, clinical decision-support software, or web-based self-tests), loop results from epidemiological studies back into everyday life. Drawing from observations at various European research sites, I analyze how epidemiological techniques mediate and enact the linkages between genomics and public health. This article examines the epidemiological apparatus as a generative machine that is socially performative. The study design and its reshuffling of data and categories in risk modeling recombine old and new categories from census to genomics and realign genes/environment and nature/culture in novel and hybrid ways. In Euro-American assemblage of risk reasoning and related profiling techniques, the individual and the population are no longer separate but intimately entangled.

Note the preponderance of obfuscatory bullshit phrases: “mode of knowledge production,” “data are translated into public health,” “techniques mediate and enact the linkages between,” “the epidemiological apparatus as a generative machine that is socially performative,” etc.

I will attempt to translate this quickly into English:

People care about health risks. People are interested in whether genetic data can uncover health risks. Medical care and health information on the internet bring health-risk assessment into people’s everyday lives. I observe how European doctors use information about genetic risk factors to help treat their patients. This article examines how doctors interact with their patients. I did a study that mixed up and re-combined categories like “census” and “genomics,” “culture” and “environment” in new ways.* In the West, doctors are now using population-level risk assessments to make decisions about individual patients.

*I am not satisfied with the translation of this sentence, but it didn’t make any sense in the original.

Here is an abstract from the journal of Anthropological Theory, The civility of strangers? Caste, ethnicity, and living together in postwar Jaffna, Sri Lanka:

The question asked by this article is as follows: How do different kinds of people live together in a hierarchical world that has been challenged and transformed through the leveling effects of deep ethnicization and war? … When ethnic mobilization—the possibility of egalitarian mutuality and solidarity as well as the pain, trauma and sacrifice of war, and ethnic cleansing—emerges within deeply hierarchical worlds that continually produce modes of distinction, what kinds of struggles arise within inter-ethnic and intra-caste relations? Given that public life is historically built on unequal participation, and that living together has been a historical struggle, we need to ask how we understand the particular embedded civilities that have made living together such a problem over time. Rather than see civility as an abstract code of prescriptions in relation to the maintenance of non-violent order, I suggest that it is possible to see different modalities of civility produced with regard to specific others/strangers. These modalities can conflict with each other, given that civility can be either hierarchically produced or governed by an egalitarian drive toward public forms of dignity and equality. I propose that civility has a social location, discourses, and understandings in hierarchical worlds that are necessarily different depending on who is speaking.

This could have been an interesting article on life in post-war Sri Lanka, but then it descended into a bunch of post-modernist gobbeldy goop. I find this style of writing utterly self-centered–there is nothing in this abstract about how actual Sri Lankans relate to each other, and much of this abstract could be cut and pasted onto a study of almost any culture without losing anything. Public life in America, Mali, China, and Japan involve unequal participation. Civilities are part of every culture. And, yes, what is considered polite changes depending on who is in the conversation, congratulations, you’ve figured out that people talk to their best friends differently than they talk to their bosses.

The problem with anthropology is that somewhere along the way, someone got the idea that they needed to produce Great and Profound Truths rather than just describe people.

[And here is the point where the rest of this post got accidentally deleted because WordPress updated something in their internal software, causing it to no longer communicate with my 11 year old computer.]

Let’s compare this to the Amazon blurb for Philippe Bourgois’s
ethnography of Puerto Rican crack dealers in NYC:

In this compelling study of the crack business in East Harlem,
Philippe Bourgois argues that a cultural struggle for respect has led
some residents of ‘El Barrio’ away from the legal job market, and into
a downward spiral of crime and poverty. During his many years living
in the neighborhood, Bourgois eventually gained the confianza of
enough Barrio residents to present their hopes, plans, and
disappointments in their own words. The result is an engaging and
often disturbing look at the problems of the inner-city, America’s
greatest domestic failing.

Whether you agree with Bourgois or not, at least you can tell what his
thesis is: cultural struggle for respect leads some people away from
legal jobs and into crime and poverty. (In other words, people don’t
want to do legal jobs that are low-status or lead to others treating
them with disrespect.) By contrast, I’m not sure what the author of the article on post-war Sri Lanka is trying to argue.

Obviously these examples do not represent all modern
anthropology–there are plenty of good and interesting writers out
there (like Bourgois.) But the field is absolutely riddled
with narcissistic crap. Where people should use words that vibrantly
describe their subjects, they instead use vague, nebulous words that
sound erudite but give us no real information. “Study of the crack
business in East Harlem,” sounds interesting, “This layered,
latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three
groups of Japanese young people redefine youth,” sounds like you once
dropped your ethnography notes and didn’t bother to put them back in
order again, and “this article offers a phenomenological investigation
of the indeterminate structures of ethical experience,” sounds like
you don’t know the first thing about how ordinary humans think.

Many (if not most) modern anthropologists are deeply motivated by
political concerns that have nothing to do with describing varieties
of human cultures (an anthropologist’s job) and everything to do with
the deep culture of academia (the institution that pays them and
publishes their work.) So of course modern anthropology must be
written to support the anthropologist’s own cultural norms, even if
those norms are at complete variance with their ostensible goal.

Few stories reveal this clash better than Napoleon Chagnon’s. In 1964,
Chagnon began his now-famous study of the Yanomamo, producing what is
in my opinion one of the greatest works of anthropology that I have
not yet read. But I’ll let Amazon tell the story, from the blurb on
Chagnon’s recent book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous
Tribes–the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists:

 When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela’s Amazon region in 1964
to study the Yanomamö Indians, he expected to find Rousseau’s “noble
savage.” Instead he found a shockingly violent society. He spent years
living among the Yanomamö, observing their often tyrannical headmen,
learning to survive under primitive and dangerous conditions. When he
published his observations, a firestorm of controversy swept through
anthropology departments. Chagnon was vilified by other
anthropologists, condemned by his professional association (which
subsequently rescinded its reprimand), and ultimately forced to give
up his fieldwork. Throughout his ordeal, he never wavered in his defense of science. In 2012 he was elected to the National Academy of

So if you want some modern anthropology, go read Chagnon and let me
know what you think of it.

The World is Written in Beautiful Maths

Eight Suns

This is a timelapse multiple exposure photo of an arctic day, apparently titled “Six Suns” (even though there are 8 in the picture?) With credit to Circosatabolarc for posting the photo on Twitter, where I saw it. Photo by taken by Donald MacMillan of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917.

Attempting to resolve the name-suns discrepancy, I searched for “Six Suns” and found this photo, also taken by Donald MacMillan, from The Peary-MacMillian Arctic Museum, which actually shows six suns.

I hearby dub this photo “Eight Suns.”

A reverse image search turned up one more similar photo, a postcard titled “Midnight Sun and Moon,” taken at Fort McMurray on the Arctic Coast, sometime before 1943.

As you can see, above the arctic circle, the sun’s arc lies so low relative to the horizon that it appears to move horizontally across the sky. If you extended the photograph into a time-lapse movie, taken at the North Pole, you’d see the sun spiral upward from the Spring Equinox until it reaches 23.5 degrees above the horizon–about a quarter of the way to the top–on the Summer Solstice, and then spiral back down until the Fall Equinox, when it slips below the horizon for the rest of the year.

In other news, here’s a graph of size vs speed for three different classes of animals–flying, running, and swimming creatures–all of which show the same shape. “A general scaling law reveals why the largest animals are not the fastest” H/T NatureEcoEvo

I love this graph; it is a beautiful demonstration of the mathematics underlying bodily shape and design, not just for one class of animals, but for all of us. It is a rule that applies to all moving creatures, despite the fact that running, flying, and swimming are such different activities.

I assume similar scaling laws apply to mechanical and aggregate systems, as well.

Book Club: How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil pt 1/2

Welcome to our discussion of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human thought Revealed. This book was requested by one my fine readers; I hope you have enjoyed it.

If you aren’t familiar with Ray Kurzweil (you must be new to the internet), he is a computer scientist, inventor, and futurist whose work focuses primarily on artificial intelligence and phrases like “technological singularity.”

Wikipedia really likes him.

The book is part neuroscience, part explanations of how various AI programs work. Kurzweil uses models of how the brain works to enhance his pattern-recognition programs, and evidence from what works in AI programs to build support for theories on how the brain works.

The book delves into questions like “What is consciousness?” and “Could we recognize a sentient machine if we met one?” along with a brief history of computing and AI research.

My core thesis, which I call the Law of Accelerating Returns, (LOAR), is that fundamental measures of of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories…

I found this an interesting sequel to Auerswald’s The Code Economy and counterpart to Gazzaniga’s Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, which I listened to in audiobook form and therefore cannot quote very easily. Nevertheless, it’s a good book and I recommend it if you want more on brains.

The quintessential example of the law of accelerating returns is the perfectly smooth, doubly exponential growth of the price/performance of computation, which has held steady for 110 years through two world was, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reemergence of China, the recent financial crisis, … Some people refer to this phenomenon as “Moore’s law,” but… [this] is just one paradigm among many.

From Ray Kurzweil,

Auerswald claims that the advance of “code” (that is, technologies like writing that allow us to encode information) has, for the past 40,000 years or so, supplemented and enhanced human abilities, making our lives better. Auerswald is not afraid of increasing mechanization and robotification of the economy putting people out of jobs because he believes that computers and humans are good at fundamentally different things. Computers, in fact, were invented to do things we are bad at, like decode encryption, not stuff we’re good at, like eating.

The advent of computers, in his view, lets us concentrate on the things we’re good at, while off-loading the stuff we’re bad at to the machines.

Kurzweil’s view is different. While he agrees that computers were originally invented to do things we’re bad at, he also thinks that the computers of the future will be very different from those of the past, because they will be designed to think like humans.

A computer that can think like a human can compete with a human–and since it isn’t limited in its processing power by pelvic widths, it may well out-compete us.

But Kurzweil does not seem worried:

Ultimately we will create an artificial neocortex that has the full range and flexibility of its human counterpart. …

When we augment our own neocortex with a synthetic version, we won’t have to worry about how much additional neocortex can physically fit into our bodies and brains, as most of it will be in the cloud, like most of the computing we use today. I estimated earlier that we have on the order of 300 million pattern recognizers in our biological neocortex. That’s as much as could b squeezed into our skulls even with the evolutionary innovation of a large forehead and with the neocortex taking about 80 percent of the available space. As soon as we start thinking in the cloud, there will be no natural limits–we will be able to use billions or trillions of pattern recognizers, basically whatever we need. and whatever the law of accelerating returns can provide at each point in time. …

Last but not least, we will be able to back up the digital portion of our intelligence. …

That is kind of what I already do with this blog. The downside is that sometimes you people see my incomplete or incorrect thoughts.

On the squishy side, Kurzweil writes of the biological brain:

The story of human intelligence starts with a universe that is capable of encoding information. This was the enabling factor that allowed evolution to take place. …

The story of evolution unfolds with increasing levels of abstraction. Atoms–especially carbon atoms, which can create rich information structures by linking in four different directions–formed increasingly complex molecules. …

A billion yeas later, a complex molecule called DNA evolved, which could precisely encode lengthy strings of information and generate organisms described by these “programs”. …

The mammalian brain has a distinct aptitude not found in any other class of animal. We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understanding a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration. …

I really want to know if squids or octopuses can engage in symbolic thought.

Through an unending recursive process we are capable of building ideas that are ever more complex. … Only Homo sapiens have a knowledge base that itself evolves, grow exponentially, and is passe down from one generation to another.

Kurzweil proposes an experiment to demonstrate something of how our brains encode memories: say the alphabet backwards.

If you’re among the few people who’ve memorized it backwards, try singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” backwards.

It’s much more difficult than doing it forwards.

This suggests that our memories are sequential and in order. They can be accessed in the order they are remembered. We are unable to reverse the sequence of a memory.

Funny how that works.

On the neocortex itself:

A critically important observation about the neocortex is the extraordinary uniformity of its fundamental structure. … In 1957 Mountcastle discovered the columnar organization of the neocortex. … [In 1978] he described the remarkably unvarying organization of the neocortex, hypothesizing that it was composed of a single mechanism that was repeated over and over again, and proposing the cortical column as the basic unit. The difference in the height of certain layers in different region noted above are simply differences in the amount of interconnectivity that the regions are responsible for dealing with. …

extensive experimentation has revealed that there are in fact repeating units within each column. It is my contention that the basic unit is a pattern organizer and that this constitute the fundamental component of the neocortex.

As I read, Kurzweil’s hierarchical models reminded me of Chomsky’s theories of language–both Ray and Noam are both associated with MIT and have probably conversed many times. Kurzweil does get around to discussing Chomsky’s theories and their relationship to his work:

Language is itself highly hierarchical and evolved to take advantage of the hierarchical nature of the neocortex, which in turn reflects the hierarchical nature of reality. The innate ability of human to lean the hierarchical structures in language that Noam Chomsky wrote about reflects the structure of of the neocortex. In a 2002 paper he co-authored, Chomsky cites the attribute of “recursion” as accounting for the unique language faculty of the human species. Recursion, according to Chomsky, is the ability to put together small parts into a larger chunk, and then use that chunk as a part in yet another structure, and to continue this process iteratively In this way we are able to build the elaborate structure of sentences and paragraphs from a limited set of words. Although Chomsky was not explicitly referring here to brain structure, the capability he is describing is exactly what the neocortex does. …

This sounds good to me, but I am under the impression that Chomsky’s linguistic theories are now considered outdated. Perhaps that is only his theory of universal grammar, though. Any linguistics experts care to weigh in?

According to Wikipedia:

Within the field of linguistics, McGilvray credits Chomsky with inaugurating the “cognitive revolution“.[175] McGilvray also credits him with establishing the field as a formal, natural science,[176] moving it away from the procedural form of structural linguistics that was dominant during the mid-20th century.[177] As such, some have called him “the father of modern linguistics”.[178][179][180][181]

The basis to Chomsky’s linguistic theory is rooted in biolinguistics, holding that the principles underlying the structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and hence genetically transmitted.[182] He therefore argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of sociocultural differences.[183] In adopting this position, Chomsky rejects the radical behaviorist psychology of B. F. Skinner which views the mind as a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) and thus treats language as learned behavior.[184] Accordingly, he argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and is unlike modes of communication used by any other animal species.[185][186] Chomsky’s nativist, internalist view of language is consistent with the philosophical school of “rationalism“, and is contrasted with the anti-nativist, externalist view of language, which is consistent with the philosophical school of “empiricism“.[187][174]

Anyway, back to Kuzweil, who has an interesting bit about love:

Science has recently gotten into the act as well, and we are now able to identify the biochemical changes that occur when someone falls in love. Dopamine is released, producing feelings of happiness and delight. Norepinephrin levels soar, which lead to a racing heart and overall feelings of exhilaration. These chemicals, along with phenylethylamine, produce elevation, high energy levels, focused attention, loss of appetite, and a general craving for the object of one’s desire. … serotonin level go down, similar to what happens in obsessive-compulsive disorder….

If these biochemical phenomena sound similar to those of the flight-or-fight syndrome, they are, except that we are running toward something or someone; indeed, a cynic might say toward rather than away form danger. The changes are also fully consistent with those of the early phase of addictive behavior. …  Studies of ecstatic religious experiences also show the same physical phenomena, it can be said that the person having such an experiences is falling in love with God or whatever spiritual connection on which they are focused. …

Religious readers care to weigh in?

Consider two related species of voles: the prairie vole and the montane vole. They are pretty much identical, except that the prairie vole has receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin, whereas the montane vole does not. The prairie vole is noted for lifetime monogamous relationships, while the montane vole resorts almost exclusively to one-night stands.

Learning by species:

A mother rat will build a nest for her young even if she has never seen another rat in her lifetime. Similarly, a spider will spin a web, a caterpillar will create her own cocoon, and a beaver will build a damn, even if no contemporary ever showed them how to accomplish these complex tasks. That is not to say that these are not learned behavior. It is just that he animals did not learn them in a single lifetime… The evolution of animal behavior does constitute a learning process, but it is learning by the species, not by the individual and the fruits of this leaning process are encoded in DNA.

I think that’s enough for today; what did you think? Did you enjoy the book? Is Kurzweil on the right track with his pattern recognizers? Are non-biological neocortexes on the horizon? Will we soon convert the solar system to computronium?

Let’s continue this discussion next Monday–so if you haven’t read the book yet, you still have a whole week to finish.


Because I am a Barbarian

Because I am a Barbarian


“Why are you like this?” the question refrains

There’s dirt in my hair and mud on my knees

I run with horses and sing in the breeze

There are stars in my eyes and sky in my heart

I feel the Earth spin and the seasons progress

Because the blood of barbarians runs in my veins.


“Why can’t you conform? Why won’t you behave?”

You build walls around me, but I will escape

I’ll find the trails and run for the hills

Dig into the earth where I can be free,

With birds and bears, foxes and trees.

For barbarian souls cannot be contained.


“You cannot say that–it isn’t polite–we’ll make it a crime–”

Fuck you, you bastards, I’ll say what I mean

I won’t bow to your idols nor repeat your lies

I won’t die for your profits nor fight in your wars

I am not your dog and I cannot be tamed

Because I am a barbarian and I do not obey.


You cut down the trees and lay cities in grids

Flatten the hills and murder the wolves

Choke rivers with shit and turn the frogs gay

Trample the flowers and murder your neighbors

All in the name of “Let’s follow the rules.”

But I am a barbarian and I won’t be a slave.

The Shrinking World

The more human density grows, the more space per person shrinks, the more human behavior must contract to avoid conflict with one’s neighbors.

If your neighbor is racist against you, but lives 20 miles away over an unpaved road through the mountains, he is less of a problem in your daily life than if he shares a bathroom with you in a college dorm.

As we rub against our neighbors, each individual contracts to avoid giving offense. More forms of behavior, speech, and by extension, thought, are proscribed. To live in close company is to always be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of hundreds of others or suffer consequences.

As our personal worlds shrink, so do our professions. The doctor no longer makes his rounds, seeing all manner of coughs and colds, appendixes and broken bones. Instead he has a narrow specialty, chosen while still in school. One wing of a hospital, one floor. Pediatric or geriatric. The farmer no longer builds his house, slaughters his animals, preserves his food, shears his sheep, and weaves his own clothes.

Each job is split off, done over and over–and better–by a single person. The Jack of All trades is master of none and the Jills of One Highly Specialized Sub-Trade quickly put Jack out of business. And thus the worker is alienated from the product of his labor.

An anthill cannot function if the ants are fighting; the Queen will not tolerate the workers attacking each other.

Government desire not citizens’ safety, but taxes.

I am a barbarian and I cannot live here.

Neuropolitics: “Openness” and Cortical Thickness

Brain anatomy–gyruses

I ran across an interesting study today, on openness, creativity, and cortical thickness.

The psychological trait of “openness”–that is, willingness to try new things or experiences–correlates with other traits like creativity and political liberalism. (This might be changing as cultural shifts are changing what people mean by “liberalism,” but it was true a decade ago and is still statistically true today.)

Researchers took a set of 185 intelligent people studying or employed in STEM, gave them personality tests intended to measure “openness,” and then scanned their brains to measure cortical thickness in various areas.

According to Citizendium, “Cortical thickness” is:

a brain morphometric measure used to describe the combined thickness of the layers of the cerebral cortex in mammalian brains, either in local terms or as a global average for the entire brain. Given that cortical thickness roughly correlates with the number of neurons within an ontogenetic column, it is often taken as indicative of the cognitive abilities of an individual, albeit the latter are known to have multiple determinants.

According to the article in PsyPost, reporting on the study:

“The key finding from our study was that there was a negative correlation between Openness and cortical thickness in regions of the brain that underlie memory and cognitive control. This is an interesting finding because typically reduced cortical thickness is associated with decreased cognitive function, including lower psychometric measures of intelligence,” Vartanian told PsyPost.”

Citizendium explains some of the issues associated with too thin or thick cortexs:

Typical values in adult humans are between 1.5 and 3 mm, and during aging, a decrease (also known as cortical thinning) on the order of about 10 μm per year can be observed [3]. Deviations from these patterns can be used as diagnostic indicators for brain disorders: While Alzheimer’s disease, even very early on, is characterized by pronounced cortical thinning[4], Williams syndrome patients exhibit an increase in cortical thickness of about 5-10% in some regions [5], and lissencephalic patients show drastic thickening, up to several centimetres in occipital regions[6].

Obviously people with Alzheimer’s have difficulty remembering things, but people with Williams Syndrome also tend to be low-IQ and have difficulty with memory.

Of course, the cortex is a big region, and it may matter specifically where yours is thin or thick. In this study, the thinness was found in the left middle frontal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, left superior temporal gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, right inferior parietal lobule, and right middle temporal gyrus.

These are areas that, according to the study’s authors, have previously been shown to be activated during neuroimaging studies of creativity, and so the specific places you would expect to see some kind of anatomical difference in particularly creative people.

Hypothetically, maybe reduced cortical thickness, in some people, makes them worse at remembering specific kinds of experiences–and thus more likely to try new ones. For example, if I remember very strongly that I like Tomato Sauce A, and that I hate Tomato Sauce B, I’m likely to just keep buying A. But if every time I go to the store I only have a vague memory that there was a tomato sauce I really liked, I might just pick sauces at random–eventually trying all of them.

The authors have a different interpretation:

“We believe that the reason why Openness is associated with reduced cortical thickness is that this condition reduces the person’s ability to filter the contents of thought, thereby facilitating greater immersion in the sensory, cognitive, and emotional information that might otherwise have been filtered out of consciousness.”

So, less meta-brain, more direct experience? Less worrying, more experiencing?

The authors note a few problems with the study (for starters, it is hardly a representative sample of either “creative” people nor exceptional geniuses, being limited to people in STEM,) but it is still an interesting piece of data and I hope to see more like it.


If you want to read more about brains, I recommend Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind, which I am reading now. It goes into some detail on relevant brain structures, and how they work to create memories, recognize patterns, and let us create thought. (Incidentally, the link goes to Amazon Smile, which raises money for charity; I selected St. Jude’s.)

Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt 4/4

Samuel Zwemer

I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)

Sommer, Zwemer, and the book’s other contributing authors were Christian missionaries who lived in a variety of Islamic countries or areas around the turn of the 19th century. Often these missionaries brought much-needed medical supplies (and sometimes food) into poor areas.

Zwemer’s legacy lives on via the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies.


“We know the paucity of literature of all kinds in Turkey, where government press regulations prohibit any general output of publications; this, combined with the very general poverty of the people, makes many a home bookless, and the great majority of lives barren. …

“I have travelled on the railroad in Turkey with Moslem women, in the special compartment, where in the freedom of the day’s travel, they have thrown back their veils and silken wraps, showing their pretty French costumes and the diamonds upon their fingers, as they offered their Frank fellow-traveller cake, or possibly chocolates, and have more than once felt the embarrassment of a missionary purse too slender to allow of such luxuries, with which to return the compliment. Once a Moslem woman took from her travelling hand-basket paper and pencil, and proceeded to write, as I was doing! Page after page she wrote, though in just the reverse manner from our writing, and we soon established a feeling of comradeship.

“I have been also a deeply sympathetic witness of moving scenes in which the proverbial love of the Turkish father for his children could not be concealed. As the train awaited the signal for departure from a station, one day, the evident distress of a pretty girl opposite me, broke into crying. She had climbed into the corner by the window, and the guard had not yet closed the door. Involuntarily my eyes followed the child’s grieved gaze, until they rested upon a tall, gray-bearded Turkish officer standing by the station, who was evidently striving to control his emotion answering to the grief of the child. Finally he yielded to the heart-broken crying of the little one, and came to the car door to speak soothingly to her.”


“Throughout the Province, but especially among the Afghans and Brahuis, the position of woman is one of extreme degradation; she is not only a mere household drudge, but she is the slave of man in all his needs, and her life is one of continual and abject toil. No sooner is a girl fit for work than her parents send her to tend cattle and she is compelled to take her part in all the ordinary household duties. Owing to the system of walwar in vogue among the Afghans, a girl, as soon as she reaches nubile age, is, for all practical purposes, put up for auction sale to the highest bidder. The father discourses on her merits, as a beauty or as a housekeeper, in the public meeting places, and invites offers from those who are in want of a wife. Even the more wealthy and more respectable Afghans are not above this system of thus lauding the human wares which they have for sale. The betrothal of girls who are not yet born is frequent, and a promise of a girl thus made is considered particularly binding.

“It is also usual for an award of compensation for blood to be ordered to be paid in this shape of girls, some of whom are living, while others are not yet born. …

Modern Hazara girls wearing red traditional hijabs, with Tajik and Pashtun girls in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

“A wife in Baluchistan must not only carry water, prepare food, and attend to all ordinary household duties, but she must take the flocks out to graze, groom her husband’s horse, and assist in the cultivation. … Hence it happens that among Afghans, polygamy is only limited by the purchasing power of a man; and a wife is looked on as a better investment than cattle, for in a country where drought and scarcity are continually present, the risk of loss of animals is great, whilst the offspring of a woman, if a girl, will assuredly fetch a high price.”  …

“Regarding polygamy, the average man is unable to afford more than one wife, but the higher classes often possess from thirty to sixty women, many of them from the Hazare tribes of Afghanistan, whose women and children, during the rebellion in the late Amir’s reign, were sold over into Baluchistan and Afghanistan. In nearly every village of any size one sees the Hazare women, and the chief will talk of buying them as a farmer at home will speak of purchasing cattle.”

Noble visiting the Zenana, or women’s quarters


“Let me give you a few of my experiences with regard to Mussulman women, especially during my stay in Hyderabad. One zenana we used to visit belonged to an old man who professed to be a great reformer, but whose women were still in strict purdah. He several times told us that he would be delighted if we could persuade his wife and daughters to go out with us, but of course they would not hear of such a thing. To their minds it is only the very poor and degraded who wander about unveiled or even drive in an open carriage, and would not all the ladies of their acquaintance be horrified at the bare idea of their leaving their old habits. …

“With this lady and her daughters we one day went to a fair for women only. We had to submit to having our carriage covered with a very large sheet so that no eye could see through the closed venetians, and when, after great difficulty, the lady had been placed in the carriage we drove to the enclosure where the fair was to be held. Right into the enclosure drove the carriage, and then the ladies, carefully shrouded in sheets, were conducted through a narrow gateway into a second enclosure, and there were thousands of women and children. Not a man was to be seen anywhere. It was so strange to see them wandering about freely in their bright-colored garments and to remember the streets of the great city they had come from, where hardly a woman is ever seen. These women never crossed the threshold of their houses before perhaps, so it was like fairyland to them. …

“Still progress is being made, we feel quite sure, and one thing seems to prove this. Though the Mohammedans in South India are backward and full of things to be deplored, yet they are innocent of many things which are evidently carried on in other Mohammedan countries. We, in South India, who have for years worked amongst Moslems never heard of the customs which seem to prevail in Egypt. Divorce is rarely heard of. Possibly it is too expensive, as the husband must return the dower. A woman being married to half a dozen husbands in succession is unheard of.”


“Some fifty years ago there lived in Kashgar a man called Chodsha Burhaneddin. … He married a woman of noble descent, and for some time contented himself with his one wife. But according to Islam it is a merit to take if possible four wives, in order to increase the number of the adherents of Islam. For this reason Chodsha brought home another wife whenever he travelled on business to the Russian town of Andishan on that side of the Tienshan, until the number of four was full. The consequence was that he not only neglected his first wife, but even had her do all the housework alone, thus making her the servant of his three other wives.

“She had to serve them from early morning till late at night. Without grumbling and with great diligence the poor woman took all the work upon herself; secretly, however, she bewailed her hard lot and employed her few free hours for the education of her little daughter. However, she did not succeed in satisfying her husband. He always found fault, beat her, and bade her not show her face before him. His wife submitted patiently and silently…Four years passed.

“Meanwhile several political revolutions had taken place in Kashgar. In China the numerous Chinese Mohammedans had revolted, and the revolt had spread over the western countries. In eastern Turkestan the Chinese officials as well as the soldiers and the merchants had been killed by the Mohammedans; only a few escaped death by accepting Islam.

“This state of matters was put an end to by Jakob Beg. He had come from Chanab Chokand, north of the Tienshan, under the pretext of helping the descendant of the old Kashgarian dynasty of the Chodshas to the throne. In due time he put the Prince aside and founded a kingdom of his own, which included the whole of eastern Turkestan. After taking hold of the government he tried to weaken the Chodshas in every way possible, some of them were assassinated, others put in prison in order to be executed. One of the latter was Chodsha Burhaneddin.

“As soon as his wife heard that her husband had been made a prisoner, she hurried to her father, who was well esteemed at Jakob Beg’s court, and besought him to make the most of his influence in order to save her husband. Then she prepared a meal, took it to her imprisoned husband, and encouraged him. At his request she roused her father still more so as to betake himself at once to Jakob Beg, and to prevail on him to set the prisoner at liberty that same night.

“Chodsha Burhaneddin returned to his house and entered the room of his wife whom he had so long neglected, in order to thank her for his delivery. Afterwards she had one more child, a boy.”

Cathay (China):

“The social condition of Mohammedan women in Kansu Province in Northwest China is not so hard as those of their sisters in the more western countries. The Mohammedans, having been in China now about a thousand years, have, save in the matter of idolatry, practically adopted the Chinese customs, even to the binding of the feet of their little girls.”

EvX: I would like to note that footbinding sounds pretty hard to me.

“Among the wealthier Mohammedans, as with the wealthier Chinese, polygamy is common, many having two or three wives, and among the middle class, when there has been no issue by the first wife, many take unto themselves a second wife. Divorces are of rare occurrence.

“There are no harems. The better-class women are not seen much on the streets, but in the country places, the farmer’s wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law go out into the fields, weed and reap the corn, carry water, gather in fuel, and wear no veil. The daughters and daughters-in-law of the better class, from the age of fifteen to thirty, often wear a black veil when going on a visit to their friends, as also do the Chinese. …

“Speaking of the Mohammedan male population in our prefecture of Si-ning, the vast majority are ignorant of the tenets of the Koran, know little of anything, save that Masheng-ren is their prophet, and that there is a Supreme Being somewhere …

“After the rebellion of 1895, when retribution fell heavily on the Mohammedans, thousands of them were reduced to the verge of starvation; women, who had been accustomed to the comforts of a good home, were deprived of their warm winter clothing and left only with thin summer tattered garments, right in the depth of winter with a thermometer registering below zero (Fahrenheit). By the help of many kind friends in different parts of China, we were enabled to open a soup-kitchen and provide hot food every day for six weeks, during the bitterest part of the winter, to an average of three hundred persons each day, and also to give away several warm garments to those in direst need.”

Homeschooling Corner: Summer Fun

Hello, everyone. I hope you have had a lovely summer. We ended up scaling back a bit on our regular schedule, doing about half as much formal “schoolwork” as usual and twice as much riding bikes and going to the playground.

Here are some of the books we found particularly useful/enjoyable this summer:

String, Straightedge, and Shadow: The Story of Geometry, by Julia E Diggins

This is my favorite book we read this summer.

I was looking for a book to introduce simple geometry and shape construction. Instead, I found this delightful history of geometry. It is appropriate for children who understand simple fractions, ratios, and the Pythagorean theorem, but it is not a mathematics textbook and only contains a few equations. (I’m still looking for an introduction to geometry, if anyone has any recommendations.)

This is a new edition of a book originally published in 1965, but its age isn’t really important because geometry hasn’t changed much in the intervening years.

The story begins with geometry in nature–the shapes of trees and flowers, spiderwebs and honeycombs–then develops a speculative account of how early stoneage humans might have become increasingly aware of and attuned to these shapes. Men saw the shapes of the sun and moon in the sky, and might have observed that an ox tied to a pole traced out a similar shape in the dirt.

Then Egyptian surveyors developed right triangles, used for measuring the corner of fields and pyramids. The Mesopotamians developed astronomy, and divided the circle into 360 degrees. Then came the Greeks–clever Thales, mystical Pythagoras, and practical Archimedes. And finally, at the end, Eratosthenes (who used geometry–literally, earth measuring–to measure the circumference of the Earth,) and a few paragraphs about Euclid.

Writing with Ease, by Susan Wise Bauer

There are many books and workbooks in this series, so you can pick the ones that best suit your child’s ability level. (The “look inside the book” feature is great for judging which level of textbook you want.)

I am sure these books are not everyone’s cup of tea. They may not be yours. But they were what we needed.

My eldest children are fairly different in writing needs, but I do not have time for separate curricula. One is a good speller, the other bad. One has acceptable handwriting, the other awful. One will write independently, the other hates writing and plays dead if I try to get them to write. These books have worked well for everyone. Spelling, handwriting, and general willingness to write have all improved.

Even if you aren’t homeschooling, this book might make a good supplement to your kids’ regular curriculum.

In science, we have been growing bacteria in petri dishes and looking at them under the microscope, with the help of Usborne Science and Experiments: The World of the Microscope (I think this is the same book, but cheaper.)

Petri dishes are cheap, agar is easy to make at home (it’s just like making jello,) and kids can learn things like “doorknobs are dirty” and “that’s why mom makes me wash my hands before dinner.”

Just be careful when handling large quantities of bacteria. Even if it’s normal household bacteria that you’re exposed to regularly, you’re not used to it in these quantities. The instructions recommend wearing gloves and safety goggles while handling bacteria and making slides out of them–and besides, kids like dressing up “like scientists” anyway.

The Super Source: Pattern Blocks and Geoboards

Our pattern blocks have been in the family for decades–passed down to me by my grandmother–but the geoboards are a new acquisition. I remember geoboards in elementary school–they sat behind the teacher’s desk and we never actually used them. I didn’t know what, exactly, geoboards were for, so I went ahead and got new workbooks for both them and the pattern blocks.

We are only a few lessons in, but so far I am very pleased with these. We have been talking about angles and measuring the degrees in different shapes with the pattern blocks–360 in a circle, 180 in a triangle, 720 in a hexagon, etc–which dovetails nicely with the geometry reading. The geoboards let us construct and examine a variety of different shapes, like right and equilateral triangles. The lesson plans are easy to use and the kids really enjoy them. Just watch out for rubber bands flying across the room.

Super Source makes workbooks for different grade levels, from K through 6th.

Learn to Program with Minecraft, by Craig Richardson

This book introduces Python, and is a nice step up from the Scratch workbooks. You may have to install a couple of programs, like Python and the API spigot, but the book walks you through this and it is not bad at all. There are then step-by-step instructions for making simple programs, along with bonus challenges to work out on your (or your kid’s) own.

The book covers strings, booleans, if statements, loops, etc, in kid-friendly ways. Best for people who already love Minecraft and can type.

Political Inconsistency?

Does anyone else feel like politics are disconcertingly inconsistent?
Perhaps that the whole thing has come unmoored?
I was anti-war back in the early 00s, when the Left was anti-war. I marched in protest against the Iraq War. “Hey hey, ho ho, this racist war has got to go,” we chanted.
There was a lot of talk back then about how the US spends too much on the military and is over-involved in military expeditions abroad.
Of course, I was not an expert in international affairs, nor America’s military needs abroad. I might have been wrong. So might most of the other leftists who held similar opinions in those days. But “America is spending too much on the military, which is harming both brown people abroad and also Americans, who die in wars and have to pay for them. We would be better off spending that money on things that actually benefit Americans, like highspeed rail lines, education, health care, or just leaving it in people’s pockets and letting them use it however they want,” was absolutely a mainstream leftist position.
Today, Trump says something like he wouldn’t want to die in a war for Montenegro, and the Left responds that it is very important that Americans be willing to die for Montenegro.
Let’s step back and be rational for a second: No one wants to die for a foreign country. I don’t want to die for Australia, for Russia, for India, Japan, Montenegro, or Chad, and no one from those countries wants to die for America. Certainly there is a logic of “strength in numbers,” in which we are all safer because we create a credible, united front, but there is also logic in avoiding”entangling alliances,” which were blamed for creating the death machine known as WWI.
The question of whether Americans should die in defense of Montenegro (something we have been committed to without ever being asked,) ultimately depends on whether alliance with Montenegro makes us more or less secure here at home–a matter I haven’t seen any discussion about on Left or Right.
The only relevant argument I’ve seen is that various alliance-members have died “for us” in “our” wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore we should be equally willing to die for them in their wars. The logic seems to be, “The government sent you to die in a stupid, racist war that destroyed the American economy and was a terrible idea all around, therefore you’re morally obligated to go die in Montenegro, too.”
Perhaps we should be asking whether dying in Iraq and Afghanistan was a good idea for anyone, not just taking it as some kind of obscene sunk cost that obligates everyone else to go die in random conflicts from here on out.
It seems like all of the talk about how “the military is too big” and “bombing countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is racist” was dropped as soon as people realized that massively cutting the military budget would mean… scaling back military obligations abroad.
I find a Left that suddenly pro-military spending and antagonistic toward Russia awfully disconcerting.
There are a variety of issues on the Right that I find it difficult to believe people *truly* care that much about–for example, I don’t think anyone actually believed that national policy should be determined by whether or not Bill Clinton had sex with an intern. “Bill had sex” is really just an excuse to try to force him out on technical grounds because they already didn’t like him. Similarly on the Left, I don’t believe any of the outraged commentators actually care whether the US flag touched the North Korean flag at the US/NK summit–the Left has never cared about proper flag etiquette.
These issues are transparently not things politicians, commentators, or other elites actually care about.
Was “America spends too much on the military/fights too many wars abroad” similarly nothing but a dumb rallying cry for the Left, something the upper muckety-mucks never actually believed? And what happened to all of the people who were once quite opposed to US “imperialism”?