Sunday, December 31, 2006

** A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran

An interesting book on your brain. Ramachandran's hypotheses on the evolutionary development of laugther and language are thought provoking and plausible. If you enjoy this subject, I would highly recommend "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins.
(scroll down to see the post!)

What biological purpose does laughter serve? The common denominator of all jokes is a path of expectation that is diverted by an unexpected twist necessitating a complete reinterpretation of all the previous facts – the punch line. But clearly a reinterpretation alone is insufficient… It has be inconsequential, no real harm has been done. I would argue that laughter is nature’s way of signaling that it’s a false alarm. Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint? Laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. P21-2

Vision evolved mainly to discover objects and to defeat camouflage… What you get inside the eyeball on the retina is just a mass of yellow line segments obscured by the leaves. But the visual system in the brain knows that these different yellow fragments being exactly the same yellow simply by chance is zero. They must below to one object. It links them together, decides it’s a lion (based on the shape), and sends a signal to the limbic system telling you to run. P50

A nude behind a diaphanous veil is more alluring than a playboy pinup. Why? After all the pinup is much richer in information and should excite more neurons… But if our brains evolved in highly camouflaged environments, and imagine if you are chasing your mate through dense fog, then you want every stage in the process – every partial glimpse of her – to be pleasing enough to prompt further visual search – so you don’t give up the search prematurely in frustration. The wiring of your visual centers to your emotional centers ensures that the very act of searching for the solution is pleasing. P51

A simple doodle of a nude can be more evocative than a color pinup. Similarly a cartoon like drawing of a bull in Lascaux is much more powerful than a photo of a bull. Hence the aphorism ‘Less is more’. But why should it be so? The answer to this paradox lies in another visual phenomenon: attention. There can’t be two overlapping patterns of neural activity simultaneously. Even though the human brain contains a 100B nerve cells, no two patterns may overlap. In other words, there is a bottleneck of attention. The main information about the sinuous, soft contours of a pinup are conveyed by her outline. Her skin tone, hair color, eyes, etc. are irrelevant to her figure as a nude. All this irrelevant information clutters the picture and distracts attention from where it needs to be directed. By omitting such irrelevant information, the artist is saving your brain a lot of trouble. P52

Why do humans bother creating and viewing art? There are at least 4 possibilities – none mutually exclusive. 1st, it is possible once laws of aesthetics have evolved (what makes a woman beautiful tends to forecast fertility and health) then they may be artificially hyperstimulated (think Venus of Willendorf). 2nd, artistic skill may be an index of skillful hand eye coordination and therefore an advertisement of good genes. This is a clever idea that I don’t find convincing… Why not use a much more straightforward index such as archery or javelin throwing? 3rd, people acquire art as a status symbol to advertise wealth. 4th, art may have evolved as a form of virtual reality stimulation. When you imagine something many of the same brain circuits are activated as when you really do something. This allows you practice scenarios without incurring the energy or risks of a real rehearsal. But there are obvious limits. Evolution has seen to it that our imagery isn’t perfect. If reality and imagination were the same in our brains, why would we ever pursue real food and mates when we can imagine a feast followed by an orgasm? For this reason, we may create real images (art) as props to rehearse real hunts or to teach children. P56

How did we evolve language and a shared lexicon? There’s a pre-existing, non-arbitrary translation between visual appearance and auditory representation. Admittedly this is small, but that is all that is required in evolution to get something started. Don’t believe it? Try this. Think of the words booba and kiki. And now think of a spiky shape and a bulbous shape. What shape goes with what word? 98% of respondents associate blob shape with booba and the spiky shape with kiki. This is also true for non-English speak Tamillians for whom the shapes bear no resemblance to the shapes of the letters B or K. But this is only part of the story. There is also a pre-existing cross activation between visual area and the muscles of vocalization. How do we know that? Say ‘teeny weeny’, ‘un peu’, ‘dimunitive’. Look at what your lips are doing: they are physically mimicking the visual appearance of what you are saying. Now say ‘enormous’, ‘large’, ‘huge’… There is also pre-existing cross activation between the hand area and mouth area, which are right next to each other in the brain. When people cut something with scissors they clench and unclench their jaws unconsciously, as if to echo the movements of the fingers. A system of non-verbal communication would have been important to our ancestors unable to engage in loud communication when hunting. Combine these 3 pre-existing cross activations; visual to auditory, visual to mouth, mouth to hand, and you get humankind’s first words. But how do we explain syntax? … The tree structure of syntax may have evolved from tool use. Early hominids were very good at tool use: step 1 take a flintstone and chip into a sharp edged cutting device; step 2 attach it to a handle; step 3 wield it as an axe for chopping. There’s a close operational analogy between this function and the embedding of noun clauses within longer sentences. So perhaps what was originally evolved for tool use is now exapted to be used in aspects of syntax. P78-80

In an emergency, the combination of shutting down your emotions (limbic system) while being hyper vigilant is useful. It is better to do nothing than to engage in some sort of erratic emotional (panic) behavior. But what if this state is triggered by a brain disease when there’s no emergency? A person who’s intensely alert will observe the world devoid of emotional meaning because their limbic system has been shutdown. There are only 2 possible ways to interpret this strange predicament; either the world isn’t real or I’m not real. We see precisely this in some epileptic seizures that affect this part of the brain. P93

If I imagine a clown in front of me, I don’t confuse it with reality because my brain has access to the internal command I gave to perform the imagination. I am expecting to visualize a fake clown, and that is what I see. It is not a hallucination. But if the expectation mechanism becomes faulty, then I’d be unable to tell the difference, and I could easily believe that that imagined clown is real. Similarly I could momentarily entertain the though that it would be nice to be Napoleon, but in a schizophrenic this thought becomes a full blown delusion because this circuit is damaged. P94

Quick schizophrenia test: Using your right index finger, tap repeatedly your left index finger, keeping your left finger steady and inactive. Notice how you feel the tapping mainly on the left finger, and very little on the right finger. That is because your brain has sent a command from the left hemisphere to the right hand saying move, alerting the sensory area of the brain to expect some touch. Your left hand, being perfectly steady, is surprised by the taps. A schizophrenic would the feel the sensations equally in both fingers since he’s unable to differentiate between internally generated actions and externally generated stimuli. P94

When courting a man, a blushing woman is saying ‘I can’t lie to you about an affair or cuckold you without my blush giving me away- I’m reliable.’ If this is correct, autistic children should not be able to blush. P107

*** Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade

When the first woman uttered “I don’t have a thing to wear”
When humans lost their body hair, the body louse’s domain shrank, confining it to the lonely island of hair on the head… It patiently bided its time and many millennia later, when people started to wear clothes, it evolved into a new variety that could live in clothing… The branch point at which the body louse first evolved from the head louse turned out to be 72,000 years ago… People first addressed their nakedness only in the most recent stage of evolutionary history. P5

Moving on up
Upright walking is more efficient than knuckle-walking. For the same expense of energy, a chimp can walk 6 miles a day but a man can walk 11. Bipedalism probably evolved because it was a better way of getting about… The other advantages were probably coincidental – freeing up the hands for carrying things, and higher stance allowing better surveillance. P17

Darwin was right again perhaps
Darwin’s idea of sexual selection as the driver of human hairlessness has been reinvoked by biologists. They suggest that lack of hair was favored among early humans because it was a sure signal that no parasites were lurking in their fur. P24

Who to blame for your bad hair day
Human hair differs from apes in that it never stops growing… The reason why uncontrolled growth was favored by natural selection may have been that it offered a means of signaling copious amounts of social information… But for this social signaling to occur humans had to abandon the self-maintaining hairdos of the other apes and acquire hair that required continual attention. P26 But why would we go bald if hair had such an advantage?

All talk and no action
Different monkey species spend varying amounts of time on grooming one another upto a max of 20% of their waking day and this is among a species whose typical group size is 50. This has effectively capped the size of monkey social groups at 50. How did the human grouping size grow to 150, a number that would require 43% of their waking hours on grooming? Because of language, which is a more efficient way of establishing and confirming social bonds. In a wide range of human societies, the amount of time people spend in social interaction is 20%. The driving force behind the evolution of language was the need to bond people in larger social groups. P44

About 50,000 years ago, the ancestral population in Africa may have shrank to as low as 5000 people. P52

Unlike most pairs of chromosomes the X and Y don’t exchange segments of DNA between generations… The Y is therefore passed down essentially unchanged from father to son. Mitochondrial DNA escapes shuffling in another manner… When the sperm fuses with the egg, all the sperm’s mitochondria are destroyed, leaving the fertilized egg equipped with only the mother’s mitochondria. P53

The real Adam
All men in the world carry the same Y chromosome… Every Y chromosome that exists today is a copy of the same original, carried by a single individual in the ancestral human population… The root of this Y chromosome tree dates to 59,000 years ago with a range of 40,000 to 140,000. This date fits well with a date of 50,000 years ago for the ancestral population. P56

And his wife Eve
The mitochondrial Eve appears to have lived considerably earlier than the Y chromosome Adam – about 150,000 years ago. P58

And they lived in a nice house in East Africa
The mitochondrial DNA from women of the Oromo and Amhara peoples indicate that Ethiopia or East Africa is the place from which the first modern humans left Africa. P64

A hunter gatherer woman can carry one child easily along with all her possessions, but 2 are a burden. Such women would tend not to have a 2nd child until the first can walk well. Children were not weaned until the age of 4 and before that age they were carried almost everywhere. The child must be able to walk 1500 miles a year. P68

Why dad’s should stay in the waiting room
Because a woman must invest so much care and labor in raising a child she examines the newborn carefully for signs of defects. If it is deformed, it is the mother’s duty to smother it. Infanticide is not murder in hunter gatherer societies because life begins not with birth but when the baby is taken to camp and given a name… Women typically give birth outside camp and men are excluded because the father’s absence makes it easier for the mother to decide whether to keep the newborn or not. P68

Evolution is not done with us
2 new versions of genes that determine the size of the human brain emerged only recently, one around 37,000 years ago, and a second at 6,000 years ago. Given the brain’s continued development, the people of 50,000 years ago, despite archaeologist’s tag for them as ‘behaviorally modern’, may have been less cognitively capable than us. P71

Form a single file line, and proceed to the exit.
Based on genetic analysis there seems to have been just a single migration for modern humans from Africa, and the number of émigrés was probably quite small. Indeed it could have as few as 150 people, raising the puzzle of why only one group managed to escape?... Could it be that there was only one easy way out – near the southern tip of Arabia and the horn of Africa (during the last ice age these were very close)? Perhaps the first people to cross stayed put on the other side and prevented others from invading their territory? P78 What about crossing over from the Sinai to Israel? It’s possible but the genetic studies point only to southern Arabia. In addition, the Neanderthals may have blocked this northern route.

These first migrants could have expanding along the coast for 1000s of miles without encountering an obstacle until they reached Indonesia where they would cross 60 miles of open sea to Australia… The evidence for this is from 46,000 years ago when all of the large Australian mammals, birds, and reptiles weighing more than 220 lbs suddenly went extinct. P82

It is surprising that Australia should hold the earliest archaeological sites outside Africa… But since sea levels were much lower during the ice age, and the ease of migrating along the coastline instead of venturing inland, many of the other sites might be 200 feet under the sea. P82

The noble savage myth
Like many human groups and chimps, the New Guinea natives know that killing a few of the enemy leaves the remainder thirsting for revenge, so a more effective solution is extermination. About 30% of all highland social groups become extinct each century because they are defeated. P86

Home is where the dog is
Dogs have lost their working status in most modern societies. But they spread like wildfire in the prehistoric world. Yes, they could be trained to help herd, they make good bed warmers, they are a self transporting source of meat. But none of these probably are the reason dogs spread so quickly from Eurasia to all corners of the world… Wolves never bark, dogs do. Barking was probably selected by the dog’s first domesticators. That suggests that they weren’t much interested in using dogs for hunting, where a bark is no asset. But if the first use of dogs was in sentry duty, to warn of strangers and attackers creeping in for a dawn raid, the a fierce and furious bark would have made a dog an invaluable defense system… People who settled down in one place would have been under constant risk of attack. It is perhaps significant that the first settlements occurred at the same time as dogs were domesticated. P110

Archaeologists long assumed that the improving climate [post Ice Age] made agriculture possible, which in turn opened the gateway to settled living. But because of improved dating techniques, they have come to see that the reverse is true; it wasn’t agriculture that led to settlement, but rather sedentary life came first, and agriculture followed. P125

One advantage enjoyed by settlers but denied to foragers is the ability to generate and store surpluses. Surpluses in turn form the basis of trade. P130

Einkorn was the first cereal to be cultivated about 12,500 years ago… Domesticated emmer wheat which is easier to harvest than einkorn, was found as early as 10,400 years ago. Modern wheats stem from emmer and wild grass hybrids, which occurred in northern Iran about 7000 years ago. Rye and barley were also domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the same region. P132
A band of brothers
Most hunter gatherer societies are patrilocal, where the wife goes to live with the husband’s family. The biological reason is to avoid inbreeding. But the almost universal solution in primates is the opposite – matrilocality. Patrilocality has evolved in only 4 other species besides humans and chimps. Chimps also share another quality with humans, and with no other creature – the propensity to conduct murderous raids on neighbors… Chimp society turns out to be matched to their food supply, which is principally fruit. The trees come into fruit sporadically, and they tend to be scattered. Females bear children faster when their territory is larger. Chimp males could try to achieve success by guarding one female. But it seems to be more efficient for the males to band together and defend territory that includes a larger number of females. One reason this makes sense is that the males tend to be related to each other (this is the same as bees and ants). P143

Being a slutty chimp has its advantages
When female chimps enter their fertile period they became very gregarious and do their best to mate with every male in the community, with an avg of 7 couplings a day. One female achieved 50 in a day. The purpose is to confuse paternity, so the male is less likely to kill a baby if he thinks it might be his. Given this chaotic mating system, how do high ranking males in fact reap rewards? First, they secure more matings though rarely exclusive. Second, there is sperm competition. Advantages will accrue to the male who can deliver the most sperm and flood out the competition. Hence evolution has favored males with very large testes for their body size… Reigning alpha males account for 36% of all conceptions, and for 45% if one excludes close female relatives. Suggesting that alpha males owe a lot of their fatherhoods to victory in the sperm competition wars. P145

At first sight, there is no obvious difference between a chimp and a bonobo habitat. Chimps are found all across Africa from west to east, but bonobos live south of the Zaire river, and chimps north of it. South of the river there are no gorillas. Gorillas are voracious plant eaters. Chimps north of the river, eat only fruit. But bonobos eat both… This difference in diet has far reaching consequences. Female chimps forage for fruit alone in core feeding areas. Bonobos travel in large groups and have more sources of food. This gives females an opportunity to bond together. Hence bonobos are matrilocal. P147

Dogs played an important role as sentinels. The goal in all warfare among Eskimos was annihilation, and women and children were not spared.

Why has the British epidemic of mad cow disease proved not nearly so deadly in that nation of beef eaters? It seems that Britons have been in part protected by their ancient cannibal heritage. 75% have a prion protein gene that every person infected with mad cow lacks… This genetic frequency is an indication of how widespread cannibalism may have been, and in turn attests to the prevalence of warfare among the earliest humans. P156

Old time religion
Human societies long ago discovered the antidote to the freeloader problem. It is religion… Religion began as a mechanism for a community to exclude those who could not be trusted… Later it grew into a means of encouraging communal action. It was then co-opted by the rulers of settled societies as a way of solidifying their authority and justifying their privileged position… Can the origin of religion be dated? Religious rituals are very verbal, and can’t predate language. If religion had to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago. P164

With the institution of pair bonds, sex became something conducted within families. It was at this time that the taboo of public sex was formed, a custom that would bring chimp and bonobo society to a standstill. Such privatization would help considerably in removing sex as a provocation of male rivalry. P169

And may the best man win
4% of people in Britain are conceived under sperm competition, when a women has more than one lover in a short time… Of fraternal twins born of white women in the US, 1 in 400 pairs is estimated to have 2 fathers. And among cases where paternity has been disputed 2.4% of cases have been found to be heteropaternal. P172 Sperm competition is alive in well in humans.

Taming the beast within
Gracilization of the human skull and body looks very much like one of those changes that come along for the ride when a species is undergoing domestication to make it more tame. And who exactly was domesticating humans? We were domesticating ourselves. In each society violent and aggressive males ended up with a lesser chance of breeding. We’re still in the middle of an evolutionary event in which tooth size, jaw size are falling, and its quite reasonable that we are still taming ourselves. P177

Run like the wind
The Kenyan Kalenjin who comprise less 2% of Kenya’s population represent 20% of all winners in major distance running events… How did this happen? For centuries the Kalenjin have been cattle rustlers, though they regard their actions as repossession of property that was theirs by divine right. The repossession [rustling] procedure often required journeys of over 100 miles so that the livestock could be far away before their ex-custodians realized their loss. The better a young man was at raiding – in large part a function of his speed and endurance – the more cattle he accumulated. And since cattle were what prospective husband needed to pay for a bride, the more cattle he had, the more brides he could buy, and the more children (with his genes) he could father. P197

Jared Diamond [Guns, Germs, & Steel] “Natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely politically complex societies, where immunity to disease is more potent.”… But if the New Guineans had the smarts, why was it the dumber, disease ridden Westerners who figured out to escape from the Stone Age’s tribalism and perpetual warfare, a problem the New Guineans never cracked? [Read the Pulizter prize winning Guns, Germs, & Steel to find out]. P198

New Guinea has 1200 languages, 20% of world’s total, for a country only 25% the size of the continental US… Such diversity occurs because language mutates so rapidly, even from generation to another, that in only a few centuries it passed beyond recognition. P203

This variability is extremely puzzling given that a universal, unchanging language would seem to be the most useful form of communication. That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident. Security would have been far more important to early human societies than ease of communication with outsiders. Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths. P204

Genghis got around baby
An astonishing 8% of males throughout the former lands of the Mongol empire carry the Y chromosome of Genghis Khan. This amounts to 16M men, or .5% of the world’s population. P236 I’m sure Wilt Chamberlain is jealous.

Smarter than the average bear
Moneylending cira 1100AD was an intellectually demanding profession, not least because the Arabic numerals used today, and the concept of zero, didn’t become widespread until 1500. Figuring out xviii percent of ccel, without a zero, is not so easy…
Restrictions on Ashkenazi Jew employment were lifted around 1700, bringing to an end a period of 900 years during which most of the population would have had to earn a living in occupations like moneylending, which require more mental ability than most. Given what’s known about heritability, scientists calculate that even in as little 500 years there would have been time for the intelligence of the Ashkenazi population to be raised appreciably… Ashkenazim have an avg IQ of 115, one deviation above that of other Europeans, and is the highest avg of any ethnic group. The percentage of Europeans with an IQ greater than 140 (mensa level) is .4%, but is 2.3% for Ashkenazim, nearly 600% more. P255

Enjoy it while it lasts
When people first started to abandon their way of life as hunter gatherers some 15,000 years ago, they had much less need for 2 kinds of genes, the olfactory genes, and liver genes necessary for detoxifying natural poisons from wild plants… When mutations crop up in genes that don’t matter anymore, the gene may survive, even though it has lost its function… More than 60% of olfactory genes are now inactive, and this process is still active… The faculty of smell [and taste] is inexorably being degraded… The enzymes made by liver genes for natural plant poisons have assumed a new role – that of metabolizing medicinal drugs. This unnatural stimulus doesn’t happen often enough, however, many of the genes are being lost through disuse. This process explains the variability in response to drugs, including why some people have severe side effects. People have lost the gene that breaks down a certain drug will maintain a high does of it in their blood, whereas those who still retain the gene will clear the drug rapidly. P270

Friday, November 24, 2006

*** Decoding the Universe by Charles Siefe

An excellent book that describes information theory in a down to earth fashion, and surprisingly enlightens you to the fact that information may be at the very heart of how quantum mechanics and cosmology affect the entire universe. The book also does an excellent job of explaining away the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, along with the Einsteinian pole in a barn relativity paradox. You’ll never be puzzled again about such bizarre phenomena. -Ben

During WW2, the war in the Pacific hinged on one missing piece of information - Where was AF? AF was the Japanese code name for an American target for which the Japanese were planning a major offensive… The head of the Navy's cryptography ordered the base at Midway to transmit a phony request for help stating that the water distillery had been damaged and the base was nearly out of water. Knowing that the Japanese would be eavesdropping, Navy intelligence soon picked up the signals of 'AF is short of water'… The battle of Midway was decisively won by the US, and this information was crucial to setup the plans for that victory. p6

A sentence in English always has more information than you need to decipher it. This redundancy is easy to see. J-st tr- t- r—d th-s s-nt-nc- . p11

A std 3 rotor enigma machine used by the Nazi’s from WW2 could be configured in more than 3x10^114… If every atom in atom in the universe were an Enigma machine, and each were trying a million billion combos per second from the beginning of the universe, they would only have been able to try 1% of all the possible configurations. So how did the small cadre of codebreakers [one of which was Alan Turing] at Bletchley Park, England, break the unbreakable code? The enigma would never leave a letter unchanged; therefore an encrypted ‘E’ could be any letter except an ‘E’, yielding a tiny bit of information about the message. Also the predictability of weather reports and language offered other forms of redundancy… Eventually, they got so good at it, they could crack a new coding scheme in a matter of hours. P19

Shannon realized that a question with N possible outcomes can be answered with a string of logN bits – you need only logN bits of info to distinguish among N possibilities. To distinguish among 4 outcomes, you need only 2 bits; 8 outcomes, 3 bits… I could therefore tell you that I have picked out an atom somewhere in the universe. Since there are 10^80 atoms in the universe, and log10^80 is about 266, it would take only 266 properly chosen yes/no answers to find it. P66

A linguist can figure out who won the battle of Hastings [1066, William the Conqueror, and all mate]. Look at the words for foodstuffs. Beef comes from a French word – boeuf, while cow comes from Old English. Mutton is French for – mouton, while sheep is Old English. Pork, French for – porc; pig, English. The English speaking serfs, who lost the battle, tended the animals. The victorious French nobility, ate them. This information is preserved in our language nearly 1000 years after this event. P114

Keep watching (measuring actually) a radioactive atomic nucleus over and over and you can prevent it from decaying. Repeated measurements can prevent nuclear decay. This effect is known as the Quantum Zeno effect. If you start with a pure state 100% 0 & 0% 1 (superposition between 0&1 with a 100% probability of 0), the nucleus is unbroken. If you measure the nucleus quickly, by bouncing a photon off of it, you’re nearly guaranteed to measure it in the 0 state because it wouldn’t have had much time to evolve a superposition away from the pure state; it would now be 99.999% 0 and .001% 1. But the act of measurement destroys the superposition and resets it to the pure state of 100% 0. Thus you can measure it again, and reset it again. If you do this over and over, it will never decay! P198

** History of the world in 6 glasses by Tom Standage

History of the world in 6 glasses by Tom Standage
A fun, light hearted historical romp on the 6 most popular beverages of all time. Bottoms up.

There was almost certainly no beer before 10,000 BCE, but it was widespread in the near East by 4000BCE, when it appears in a pictogram from Mesopotamia, depicting 2 figures drinking beer through reed straws from a large pottery jar. Ancient beer had grains, chaff, and other debris floating on its surface, so a straw was necessary to avoid swallowing them. p10

Beer was not invented but discovered… Grain that was soaked in water so that it sprouts, tastes sweet. It was difficult to make storage pits that were watertight, so this fact would have become apparent as soon as humans first began to store grain. The cause of the sweetness is because moistened grain produces an enzyme which converts starch to maltose or malt…At a time when few other sources of sugar were available, the sweetness of malt would have been highly valued… Gruel that was left around for a couple days became fizzy and intoxicating, as the action of wild yeasts from the air fermented the malt sugar into alcohol. The gruel became beer. p14-15

A 1960's experiment show how efficient an ancient flint bladed sickle could have been in harvesting wild grains, which still grow in parts of Turkey. In one hour the scientist gathered more than 2lbs of grain, which suggested that a family that worked 8 hour days for 3 weeks would have been able to gather enough to provide each family member with a pound of grain a day for a year. But this would have meant that the family stay near the wild grains to ensure they didn't miss the most suitable time to harvest. And having gathered a large quantity of grain, they would have been reluctant to leave it unguarded. p13 Thus, this proves that it is just a few short steps from a flint sickle to Manhattan.

Ancient brewers noticed that using the same container repeatedly for brewing produced more reliable results… because yeast cultures took up residence in the containers cracks and crevices. Finally adding berries, honey, spices, and other flavorings (like hops which came much later) altered the taste of beer in various ways… Egyptian records mention 17 kinds of beer. p17

Clinking glasses with a drinking buddy is older than you think
Sharing a drink w/someone is a universal symbol of hospitality and friendship. The earliest beer brewed in a primitive vessel predated the use of individual cups would have to have been shared. The clinking of glasses today symbolically reunites the glasses into a single vessel of shared liquid. p18

The practice of raising a glass to good health, a happy marriage, or a safe passage is the modern echo of the ancient idea that alcohol has the power to invoke supernatural forces. p20

Since beer was made using boiled water, beer was safer than water to drink. Although the link between ill health and contaminated water was not learned until modern times (Cholera epidemic in 19th century London), ancient humans quickly learned to be wary of unfamiliar water supplies. p21
The drunk pyramid builders
During the construction of the pyramids, the std ration for a laborer was 3 to 4 loaves of break and 4 liters of beer… One team of workers styled themselves as the 'Drunkards of Menkaure' while they build King Menkaure's pyramid. p37

The earliest physical evidence for wine, in the form of reddish residue inside a pottery jar, comes from the Zagros mountains in northern Iran, and has been dated to 5400BC. P47

The reason why wine is so expensive
The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Mesopotamia in 430BC, described the boats used to carry goods to Babylon and noted that their chief freight is wine. Once the boats arrived downstream and had been unloaded, the boats were nearly worthless, given the difficulty of transporting them back upstream. Instead they were broken up and sold for only a 1/10 of their value. This cost was reflected in the high price of the wine. P50

Wine snobbery I: What did that beer drinking barbarian say?
Greece’s presumed superiority over foreigners were apparent in the Greek love of wine. It was drunk at formal drinking parties or symposia, where drinkers would try to outdo each other in wit, poetry, or rhetoric. The symposia reminded the Greeks how civilized they were, in contrast to the barbarians – foreigners were called barbaroi because to the Greek ear their language sounded like babbling ie. bar bar bar - who drank lowly unsophisticated beer. P52

Wine Snobbery II: What? You only have an 15 acre vineyard?
In 6th century Athens the property owning class of citizens were categorized according to their vineyard holdings: the lowest class had less than 7 acres, and the next 3 classes owned 10, 15, and 25 acres respectively. P54

We’ll do whatever you want, as long as you let us crush our grapes!
During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Spartan troops had arrived just before grape harvest time at Acanthus, an Athenian ally. Fearing for their grapes, the locals held a ballot and decided to switch allegiances. The harvest was then conducted unaffected. P54 Proving once and for all that you can’t trust a wine drinker to stay loyal. Would any beer drinking man change sides over chardonnay grapes? Not on your life or your keg.

Ancient Greeks drank with mixed with water. A mixture of equal parts wine and water was regarded as strong wine… Some wines were boiled down before shipping to only ½ or 1/3 of their volume, had to be mixed with 8 to 20 times as much water… Drinking fine wine without mixing it with water was considered barbaric. P57

The original wine cooler.
Snow was collected in winter and kept in underground pits packed with straw to keep it from melting. P57

Let’s party like its 99, BC that is
In 161BC, the Romans passed laws to reign in the conspicuous and excess consumption by the elites specifying the amount that could be spent on food and entertainment on each day of the month; regulated what sorts of meats could be served, and that dining rooms in private homes must have windows facing outwards so officials could check that no rules were being broken. By the time of Julius Caesar, inspectors burst into banquets to confiscate banned foodstuffs, and menus had to be submitted for review by state officials. P77

It has been suggested that the Christian church’s need for communion wine played an important role in keeping wine production going during the dark ages after the fall of Rome. P87

Wine drinking with meals still predominates in the south of Europe, within the former boundaries of the Roman Empire. In the North, beyond Roman rule, beer drinking without meals is more common. P89

1000 years ago, the greatest and most cultured city in western Europe was not Rome or Byzantium or London. It was Cordoba, capital of Arab Spain. There were parks, palaces, paved roads, street lamps, 300 public baths, drainage and sewage systems. Most impressive of all was a public library containing 500,000 books. And it was merely the largest of 70 libraries in the city! P93

Distilling makes any alcoholic beverage stronger because the boiling point of alcohol is 78C, while that of water is 100C. As the alcohol is heated, its vapor begins to rise long before the liquid boils. Drawing off and condensing this alcohol rich vapor produces a stronger drink, though it is far from pure alcohol since some water and other impurities evaporate even at temperatures below 100C. However, the alcohol content can be increased by repeated distillation, also known as rectification. It was the Arabs who discovered and perfected this process initially. One the first Europeans to experiment with this process was an Italian alchemist in the 12th century who learned it from Arab texts. P95

Since distilled wine could be set on fire, it was called aqua ardens, which means burning water… Wine was widely used as a medicine, so it seemed logical that concentrated and purified wine should have even greater healing powers. Distilled wine was being acclaimed in Latin medical treatises as a miraculous new medicine, aqua vitae or water of life. P98

Even the hardiest of yeasts cannot tolerate an alcohol content greater than 15%, which places a natural limit on the strength of fermented drinks. P99

Whiskey, Brandy, and Rum
The Gaelic word for water of life (aqua vitae) is uisge beatha, and is the origin of the word whiskey… Aqua ardens was called burnt wine in German or Branntwein and in English brandywine or brandy. P101… Rumbullion or Kill-Devill is made of sugar canes distilled, and is a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor. Rumbullion was southern English slang for a brawl or violent commotion. This was soon shortened to rum. P109

Beer contains no vitamin C, and in 1795 the Royal Navy switched from beer liquid rations to grog which included the addition of lime or lemon juice, making British crews far healthier… Since wine contains small amounts of vitamin C, the Frency Navy enjoyed some scurvy resistance, except on long cruises where brandy diluted with water was substituted. This offered little protection against scurvy. One British Navy physician reckoned that this contributed directly to Britain’s eventual defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. It also how British sailors came to be know as ‘limeys’. P110

Care for some Pennsylvanian olive oil to go with your Virginian Chardonnay?
The English hoped that the American colonies would have a similar climate to the Mediterranean region since it lay at similar latitudes. As a result the English hoped they would be able to supply such goods as olives, fruit and wine, to reduce England’s dependence on continental Europe. P112

Custom of the early colonies decreed that anyone who backed out of a contract before signing it had to provide ½ a barrel of beer or a gallon of rum in compensation. P116

Rum formed the basis of a thriving industry in New England as merchants began to import raw molasses rather than English rum from the Caribbean… Rum soon grew to account for 80% of New England’s export revenue…. And it was being consumed at a rate of nearly 4 gallons per year for every man, woman, and child in the colonies. P118

How a bit of sugar spelled the beginning of the end for English
Parliament’s passing and failure in enforcing the Molasses Act in 1733 [restricting and taxing the importation of French Caribbean molasses over English Rum or molasses which were more expensive] was a colossal blunder because it made smuggling socially acceptable in colonial America, undermining respect for British law. Henceforth, the colonists felt entitled to defy other laws that imposed seemingly unreasonable duties on items shipped to and from the colonies. Widespread defiance of the Molasses Act was early step along the road to American independence. P119

Rum toddy: Mix sugar, water, and rum, plunge with a red-hot poker to taste. P120

Don’t mess with Uncle Sam
In 1791, looking for a way to raise money to pay off the vast national debt incurred during the Revolutionary War, the federal government imposed an excise tax of 7 cents on every gallon of liquor produced at the point of distillation not sale. This meant that whiskey (moonshine) produced for private consumption was subject to excise. Many settlers to America complained that the new federal govt was no better than the British govt whose rule America had just shaken off. Many farmers refused to pay up. Revenue collectors were attacked, and federal marshals were sent to serve writs on farmers who refused to pay… A mob of armed ‘whiskey boys’ swelled to 6000 who gathered near Pittsburgh. President George Washington requisitioned 13,000 troops who were sent to demonstrate the preeminence of federal govt to the secessionists. The Whiskey rebellion, the first tax protest since independence forcefully illustrated that federal law could not be ignored, and was defining moment in US history. P124-6

Scotch-Irish rebels moved farther west into the new state of Kentucky. There they began to make whiskey from corn instead of rye, giving it a unique flavor. The production of this new kind of whiskey was pioneered in Bourbon county, so the drink became known by that name. p126

The introduction of distillation in Mexico by the Spanish led to the development of mescal, a distilled version of pulque, the mildly alcoholic indigenous drink made by the Aztecs from the fermented juice of the agave plant. P129

The breakfast of champions
In 17th century Europe the most common breakfast drinks were weak beer and wine. P136

Care for a nice cup of qahwah?
Drinking coffee seems to have first become popular in Yemen in the mid-15th century… Coffee was known as ‘qahwah’ in Arabic. P137

A wide wake drunk
“Coffee sobers you up instantaneously” a French writer in 1671. The notion that coffee counteracts drunkenness remains prevalent to this day, though there is little truth to it; coffee just makes you an alert drunk and actually reduces the rate at which alcohol is removed from the bloodstream. P136

Starbucks owes the Pope big time.
In 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to state the Church’s position on coffee. Opponents argued that since Muslims were not able to drink wine, the Christian holy drink, the devil punished them with coffee… Venetian merchants provided samples and the Pope was enchanted with the aroma and taste. P141

If you ever go back in time, don’t drink the coffee.
In 17th century England coffee was taxed by the gallon, which meant it had to be made in advance. Cold coffee from a barrel was then reboiled before serving, which can’t do much for the taste. Common laments were ‘syrup of soot’, ‘essence of old shoes’. P144

I need a refill mate, why don’t ya beat the daylights outta him.
London coffeehouse customs of the 17th century included that social differences were to be left at the door, toasting to other people’s health was banned, and anyone who started a quarrel had to buy coffee for everyone present. P156

Now you know the rest of the story…
Edward Lloyd’s circa 1680 London coffeehouse became a meeting place for shipowners, merchants, and ship captains, who went to hear the latest maritime news. Lloyd began to collect and summarize this information in the form a newsletter. Some underwriters began to rent booths, and in 1771 a group of 79 of them collectively established the Society of Lloyds, which survives to this day as Lloyd’s of London, the world’s leading insurance market. P163

Tea time
Tea drinking is over 5000 years old, and is documented in Chinese writing. Prehistoric tea from 1000s of years earlier was consumed in a medicinal gruel in southwest China, the tea leaves were mixed with shallot, ginger. Northern Thai tribes boiled them and formed them into balls, then ate them with salt, oil, garlic, fat, and dried fish. Tea was medicine and food before it was a drink. P178

Clueless Europeans
Black tea, which is made by allowing the newly picked green tea leaves to oxidize by leaving them overnight, was regarded by the Chinese as suitable for barbarians, and dominated the exports to Europe. Clueless as to the origin, Europeans wrongly assumed that black and green tea were two entirely different botanical species. P186

The Dutch must have mighty small cups or mighty big bladders…
A 17th century Dutchman proclaimed that people who were ill should consume 50 cups of tea a day; he also proposed 200 cups as an upper limit… He also disapproved of the practice of adding sugar to tea (some medical authorities of the time regarded sugar as harmful). P187

Madame, do you favor your tea with milk or sugar or sheep’s dung?
18th century British tea was often adulterated (due to its high cost). Tea was adulterated in one way or another at almost every stage along the chain from leaf to cup, so that the amount consumed was far greater than the amount imported. Tea was stretched by mixing it with ash and willow leaves, sawdust, flowers, and even sheep’s dung. Black tea became more popular than green partly because it was more durable during long voyages, but also because many of the dyes and chemicals to make fake green tea were poisonous, making even adulterated black tea safer. P189

Doctors and Statisticians agree that there’s nothing like phenolic breast milk
By the early 19th century, doctors and statisticians agreed that the most likely cause of the improvement in British health was the popularity of tea. This allowed the workforce to be more densely packed in cities without disease since tea is boiled. Infants benefited too, since the antibacterial phenolics in tea pass easily into breast milk, lowering infant mortality, and providing a large labor pool for the nascent Industrial Revolution. P201

You could’ve guessed this
During the late 18th century in Europe, artificial mineral water was prepared using sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). This was called soda water or soda for short. P228

You knew about the coca, but what about the cola?
The original Coca-Cola had a small amount of coca extract and therefore a trace of cocaine. This was eliminated in the early 20th century…The nuts of the kola plant from West Africa were another wonder cure that had been discovered by the West around the same time as the coca plant, and also had an invigorating effect when chewed, since they contain 2% caffeine. P238

If only it was Stalin, how different the world would’ve been
Soviet General Zhukov helped end the war in Europe by capturing Berlin. During postwar negotiations Zhukov was introduced to Coke by Eisenhower, and he took a strong liking to the drink. But he was reluctant to be seen enjoying an American icon. Zhukov made an unusual request to his US partners: was it possible to make a Coke w/o coloring so that it resembled vodka? His request was passed Coke HQ, which obliged with a colorless version bottled in cylinders with white cap and red Soviet star on the label. P256

Italians are the most enthusiastic drinkers of bottled water, drinking an average of 180 liters per year each. P267 Have you ever had the tap water in Rome? I think the water system was last updated by the Emperor Hadrian

Sunday, October 29, 2006

*** The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Anderson presents an interesting thesis of how the internet can change the way we distribute and sell content, removing economic obstacles that have become so pervasive that we can hardly imagine a world without them. A good book for the internet savvy in Silicon Valley to read and understand.

The good old days
Most of the top 50 best selling albums of all time were recorded in 70s and 80s, and none were made in past 5 years (2000-2005). P2

The 98% solution
What percentage of 10,000 digital albums available on Ecast sold at least 1 track per quarter?... The normal answer would 20% because of the 80/20 rule… But being in the digital business, I though I’d go way out on a limb and say 50%... That’s absurdly high. Half of the top 10,000 CDs at Walmart don’t sell once a qtr – WalMart doesn’t even carry half of the top 10,000. It’s hard to think of any market where such a high fraction of such a large inventory sells… Needless to say, I was way off. The answer is 98%... In a world of almost zero packaging cost and instant access to almost all content, consumers exhibit consistent behavior: they look at almost everything. P7

Every foot has its shoe and every shoe has its foot.
Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 60,000 tracks streamed at least once a month, but the same is true for the top 100,000, top 200,000 and top 400,000 – even its top 600,000, top 900,000 and beyond. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to a library, those songs find an audience, even if it is just a handful of people every month, somewhere in the world. This is the long tail. P22

There’s lots of room at the bottom-RP Feynman
25% of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 100,000 titles… If the statistics are right, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is already 1/3 the size of the existing market and growing quickly. P23

Today online shopping has passed catalog shopping, accounting for 5% of retail spending. It’s still growing at a whopping 25% per year, and is well on track to reach 15% of total retail spending. P49

A long tail distribution is just culture unfiltered by economic scarcity. P53

Force Business Example
Democratize Toolmakers, Blogging Tools, Desktop Music,
Production Producers Digital video cameras, etc.

Democratize Aggregators Amazon, eBay, Netflix, iTunes

Connect Supply Filters Google, Rhapsody, blogs,
& Demand Recommendations, best sellers

Once you think of the curve as being populated with creators with different incentives, it’s easy to extend that to their intellectual property interests as well… Each of these perspectives changes how the creators feel about copyright. At the top of the curve (head), the studios, major labels, and publishers defend their copyright fiercely. In the middle, the domain of independent labels and academic presses, it’s a gray area. Farther down the tail, in the non-commercial zone, an increasing number of content creators are choosing explicitly to give up some of their copyright protections. P75

Want to be millionaire writer? Then start with $1 million before you write anything.
In 2004, 950,000 out of 1.2M sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. 98% of books are noncommercial, whether they were intended that way or not. P76

For a generation used to doing their buying research via search engine, a company’s brand is not what the company says it is, but what Google says it is. P99

KYOU: 100 million radio stations and growing
Yahoo Music is able to record 100s of millions of likes and dislikes each year, measuring the taste of its listeners with remarkable precision. This tells it something not only about each of its users, but also about the music itself… It is, in a sense, constantly taking the pulse of the culture, learning how artists fit into it through the clicks of millions of music fans. P100

Yahoo’s software makes custom playlists for each listener, occasionally sprinkling in new artists and tracks to see if they resonate. Radio stations do this too, but only with artists with a good track record, and even then only after much pretesting and label marketing. The difference is that Yahoo has millions of radio stations, each one customized to a user… So it can try to break more new artists and albums, almost all of which get no airplay on traditional radio. P101

Recommend this blog!
We are leaving the Information Age, and entering the Recommendation Age. Today information is ridiculously easy to get; you practically trip over it on the street. Information gathering is no longer the issue – making smart decisions based upon the information is now trick. Recommendations serve as shortcuts through the thicket of information. P107

People who blog, who tag content, or create links to content they like, may not think of themselves as offering recommendations or guidance at all. They’re just doing what they do for their own reasons. But every day there is more and more software watching their actions, and drawing conclusions from them. P108

What do Sabre, the Yellow Pages, TV Guide and Google have in common?
Filters (like search engines) make up the ‘navigation layer’ of the internet’s long tail. It’s not unique to internet… For many years American Airlines made more money from its Sabre reservation system (essentially the travel industry’s navigation layer for the bewildering world of routes and airfares in the 70s and 80s) than the entire airline industry made collectively from charging people to ride on planes! Certain Baby Bells made more in profits from the yellow pages – essentially the navigation layer of local business – than from their phone systems. At its peak TV Guide rivaled the networks in profitability. P109

As great as music recommendations are, they aren’t perfect. They tend to run out of suggestions pretty quickly as you dig deeper into a niche, where there are fewer people whose tastes and preferences can be measured. Another problem is that even where a service can provide good suggestions and encourage you to explore a new genre, the advice often stays the same over time. Come back a month later, and all of the recommendations are pretty much the same. P111

80% of the people get the 80/20 rule right only 20% of the time
The 80/20 rule is chronically misunderstood. First, it’s never exactly 80/20. Most large inventory markets are 80/10 (10% of the products account for 80% of the sales). The second confusing thing is that the 80/10 doesn’t add up to 100%. That’s because they are percentages of different things, and thus don’t need to add up to 100. One is the percentage of products, the other the percentage of sales. P131

Don’t call hit NetHits!
By encouraging people to venture from the hits (which cost Netflix considerably more) to the niche world (which are relatively cheap), Netflix underbuys new releases – despite the fact that such unavailability and delay annoys some customers and increases churn – but it allows it to maintain its margins. P134

In bricks and mortar retailers, the top 1000 albums make up nearly 80% of the total market. By contrast, online that same top 1000 accounts for less than 33% of the market. A full 50% of the online market is made up of albums beyond the top 5000. p137

Once you combine the scarcity of disposable income with the scarcity of time, some non-rivalrous media may become rivalrous… [If you must pay $.99 for each experiment you make on iTunes, you’re less likely to experiment dozens of times per month.] This highlights the advantage of all you can eat subscription services, which offer risk free exploration down the tail. You’re likely to consume more if it doesn’t cost you more to do so. P138

Recommendation systems work most strongly at the niche level, within a genre or sub-genre. But between genres their effect is more muted… Thus the popular ‘ambient dub’ artist [what the heck is that?] can hugely outsell the others in that category [by virtue of the recommendations within that niche], but that doesn’t mean that artist will snowball and tear up the charts. P141

Welcome to the United States of WalMart
138 million Americans shop at Wal-Mart each week, making it perhaps the single most unifying cultural force in the country. P155

Paradox of Choice Solved
The benefits that stem from choice come not from the options themselves, but rather the process of choosing. By allowing choosers to perceive themselves as volitional agents having successfully constructed their preference and ultimate selection outcomes during the during choosing task, the importance of choice is reinstated. Offer consumers abundant choice, but also help them search. P172 [This is from the same authors of the Paradox of Choice. They seem to be countermanding their previous thesis that too much choice makes us upset. Now they’re saying that too much choice w/o the ability to easily choose is what makes us upset. If it is easy to choose amongst an infinity of variety then you should be happiest.] see

That’s not impressive?
Apple has sold 42M iPods and 1B tracks as of 2006, for an avg of 24 tracks per iPod over the nearly 4 years that iTunes has been in business. That’s not impressive. P175

WKRP acid test
Most of the TV networks are content renters, not content owners. This means that the archives are often not theirs to capitalize on… The distribution rights are a total hairball, even made more complicated by exclusive regional distribution deals – which conflict with internets global nature. Want to know why you can’t watch WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD – much less online? Because the sitcom was based in a radio station, and had loads of classic rock playing in the background. It’s too expensive and difficult to license the music that was used on the show. It’s the legal standard against which all other clearance challenges are considered. P196

Is eBay a dinosaur?
eBay is the largest used-car dealer and largest seller of automotive parts. It has about $5M in revenue per employee, nearly 30 times that of WalMart… Most of its sales volume comes from 400,000 small and medium merchants who use eBay as a storefront. But most of these have their own websites as well, and other aggregators like Froogle, Yahoo Shopping are finding smarter and smarter ways to extract the necessary information from these merchants that can offer product comparisons that eBay can’t. [Doesn’t look too good for eBay in the long run.] P202

The avg Netflix customer rents 7 DVD’s a month, 3 times the bricks and mortar faithful. The cultural benefit is much more diversity reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit. P218

Less is more
Rhapsody has prove that cutting track prices in half roughly triples the sales… Retailers should charge more for the most popular items and less for the less popular. Why hasn’t this happened? Because the labels charge a fixed wholesale price to avoid channel conflict with CDs, which still produce the bulk of their revenues. Someday they will see the light and pricing will become more fluid, allowing retailers to draw customers down the tail with lower prices. P221

Sunday, October 08, 2006

*** American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

*** American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

This is an excellent book to give you some idea about why the US invasion of Iraq makes sense from a strategic standpoint. And to no one’s surprise it is all about the oil. But there’s much more here than just that. The book outlines the changing demographic and political landscape of the US, and the thesis that the US is in its final throes of world economic domination. We will soon go the way of the Spanish, Dutch, and British who have preceded us. Don’t be surprised when you wake to find that China has stolen our lunch, and the dollar is hardly worth the paper its printed on. Until then enjoy this enlightening, but hardly uplifting read.

Because the US is beginning to run out of its own oil sources, a military solution to an energy crisis is hardly lunacy. Neither Caesar nor Napoleon would have flinched, and the temptation is understandable. P XII

“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the 1st time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly in Washington.” – Bill Moyers 2004

The inevitable 21st century global transition from oil to post-oil regime could see the US displaced by a new leading economic power, probably an Asian one. P4

The word ‘oil’ goes back to Greek ‘elaia’, which became ‘oleum’ in Latin, and ‘oile’ in Old French… The petroleum (Latin for ‘rock oil) first appeared in 1556. p7

In the modern age of geopolitics after WWI, it was not coincidental that Britain, the Netherlands, along with the US, owned the preeminent oil giants (the famous 7 sisters). For Britain and Holland the explanation lay in maritime and imperial history – the legacy of far flung empires and spheres of interest. P10

The Netherlands was a wind and water hegemon from 1590 to 1720. Britain was a coal hegemon from 1760 to 1914. Oil in turn played a major role in the US displacement of Britain. P12

From the 1580s to 1720s, the Dutch built the foremost global trading empire of that time… The Dutch led in navigation; their navy dominated the sea lanes to Asia; and their engineers were skilled in hydraulics, pumps, wind-driven sails and windmills. At their peak the Dutch boasted the biggest shipyards, global center of commerce and finance (Amsterdam)…But by the mid-18th century, as commercial and military power passed to industrializing Britain and populous France, Holland’s importance in trade and production was waning. P13

The major innovations that made coal the grand enabler of industry were all British. The first steam engine in 1712 to pump water from a coal mine. In 1769 James Watt built a pump that was much more powerful and could be used in factories not just mines. In the 1780’s the development of smelting pig iron with coke was consummated, making possible the shift of furnaces and foundries from the remote forests to large industrial districts near coal fields… Canals linked coal mines to industrial centers like Manchester. 18th century tracks of iron reinforced wood to carry horse drawn coal wagons were soon replaced with steam engines, and perfected to become the first locomotive by 1810… Taken together, coal, iron, steam engines and railways were the industrial revolution… By the early 1900’s large scale US and German iron and steel enterprises left British competition behind. Coal mining was more efficient in Germany and America… Thereafter innovation shifted to Germany and America… Just as the Dutch had been left behind by the 18th century industrial revolution, coal shaped Britain was left behind by a 2nd industrial revolution that elevated chemicals, petroleum and electrical engineering – industries requiring large firms, scientific laboratories, educated workforces, and economies of scale… The inevitable consequence of going first, Britain had a huge investment in plants and equipment and techniques that were outdated a generation later. Its prominence of family run firms filled with tinkerers and craftsman made it ill equipped for the transition to economies of scale and mass marketing. P14-16

The US began the 21st century as the leading economic power, but we are aleady 80 to 100 years into an oil related dominion. Symptoms of aging abound, like the displacement of manufacturing by finance, outdated energy infrastructure, depleted oil and gas reserves. Like the British of 1900, Americans are slow to grasp the possibility of steep decline. P17

In Alaska production peaked in 1988; in Canada and Mexico, this decade. The Northsea has peaked as well; Norway 2004, Britain 2000… Geologist define this as the point at which ½ of a field’s reachable oil has been extracted. After this stage each barrel requires more pressure, more expense, or both. P21

To meet projected demand in 2015, the oil industry will have to add 100M barrels a day of new production. That’s equal to 80% of 2005’s level. P22

The worldwide profits of the largest 5 oil companies in 2005 was $35B. The Global Policy Forum’s estimate of annual profits in Iraq are $95B, 3 times this sum. P26

Automobiles use 2/3’s of oil in the US. Airplanes use 10%. Powerplants are only minor oil burners… The critical yardstick in any US oil supply or any turn toward efficiency must be automotive. P27

Pension and retiree benefits represent $631 of the cost of every Chrylser, $734 of every Ford, and $1360 of every GM. Honda’s and Toyota’s cost are $107 and $180 respectively. P28

Inside Ford and GM, the biggest profits are made not by manufacturing but by the 2 financial arms: Ford Credit and GMAC. At Ford, the nuts and bolts manufacturing had a pretax profit of $850M, while the credit arm racked up $5B. p28

The State Dept had abdicated oil diplomacy to the oil industry… They preferred to use the oilmen at a discreet distance as the instruments of national security and foreign policy. NO other US industry had a comparable position. P51

The 1975-85 energy efficiency revolution was a success. During this period and in the face of an expanding economy, oil demand fell by a sixth. The % of oil imported for domestic demand dropped from 46% to 30%. P55

Speaking on behalf of Bush, press secretary Ari Fliescher stated ‘If this has had anything to do with oil, the US position would be to lift the sanctions so the oil could flow… This is about saving lives… Donald Rumsfeld in 11/02 ‘it has nothing to do w/oil, literally nothing to do with oil.’ Prime Minister Blair told Parliament in early 2003, ‘Let me deal with the conspiracy theory idea that this is somehow to do with oil. There is no way whatever if oil were the issue that it would it would not be infinitely easier to cut a deal w/Saddam.’ P69

In 1922, Lord Curzon, British Foreign Secretary, discussing a battle for Mosul, Iraq against the Turks, famously insisted that the influence of oil on British policy was nil. Mocked in Parliament and the press, most historians have scoffed at his claims…There is something about oil that makes high officials lie. P 71

The Bush Administration knew that the oil peak crisis probably posed strategic dangers far beyond those publicly acknowledged. The dollar’s role as the reserve currency was also tied to oil. Seizing Iraq as a military base/oil reservoir would allow US troops to be pulled out of vulnerable Saudi Arabia. P69

James Schlesinger, US Defense Secretary in 1973 contacted senior British officials about joining the US in an airborne attack to seize the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi as a counter to the oil embargo. 2 years later, Henry Kissenger returned to the same theme in an article published in Harper’s Weekly. P73

Recently it has come to light that the US also planned a coup in 1959 against Iraqi Prime Minister like Mossadegh in Iran. The effort, which came to nought, allegedly included the hiring of a 22 year old named Saddam Hussein. P73

Between 1980-88, Iraq and Iran fought a war over boundary issues with a subtext of oil geography, the US and Britain were selling arms to both sides. They cooperated in clandestine arrangements to provide Iraqi leader Hussein with dual use materials that facilitated Iraq’s use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. P74

The 1991 invasion of Iraq was lubricated by deceits; the first regarded Iraqi armored threat to Saudi Arabia, and the 2nd was a fabrication that Iraqi invaders had ripped 300 premature Kuwati babies from hospital incubators… In 2003, non proven false accusation of weapons of mass destruction were used. P74

The 1970s was the only decade of heavy oil pumping Iraq. From 1980 until now, Iraq has been engaged in a series of wars which has dampened output capacity… Given that little of Iraq’s oil has been pumped to date, most of it is still in the ground! In the meantime, UN sanctions were essential in preventing Iraq from exporting oil in any capacity. So long as the US and Britain could keep sanctions in place with accusations of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam couldn’t implement his own plan to extend large scale oil concessions worth $1.1 trillion to French, Russian, and Chinese oil companies. He hoped that these security council holders would help him lift the sanctions. P76

It is realistic to assume that Iraq has far more oil reserves than documented – probably 200 billion… Only 2300 wells have ever been drilled in Iraq, compare that to Texas where over 1 million have been drilled. P77

Think of Iraq as virgin territory… That’s why it becomes the most sought over real estate on the face of the earth… Think of it as a large military base with a very large oil reserve underneath. P78

From West Africa to the Strait of Malacca, evidence aplenty suggested future US base locations would be tied to oil resources and oil transport considerations. P84

The American military is being used more and more for the protection of overseas oil fields and supply routes that connect them to the US and its allies… Just as in the two world wars, oil supplies and transports will need to be guarded – this time as they flow toward the US. P85

During 2001, there was a rising preoccupation in Washington that not only had American oil production peaked, but global oil production outside OPEC might be within only 5 to 10 years of doing so. This demanded action… Another fear was that OPEC would decide to end the dollar’s virtual monopoly on oil pricing, plummeting the dollar, and sending shudders through the US economy. Indeed, Iraqi, Venezuelan, and Iranian maneuvers were already visible as the dollar sagged in 2002. P87

40% of American Christians in 2001 expected the biblical prophecies of Armageddon and the end of times to come true. P88

Before the war, Iraq was producing 3.5M barrels/day, and many in the administration believed this could be easily doubled by 2010. If Iraq could be convinced to ignore OPEC quotas, this flood of new oil effectively end OPEC’s ability to control prices. As supply expanded, prices would fall dramatically, and not even the Saudis would be able to stop the slide. Caught between falling revenues and escalating debts, the Saudis would be forced to open their fields to Western oil companies, as would other OPEC countries. P90

Iraq’s oil is the world’s cheapest to produce, only $1 per barrel… Assuming 50 years of production and 40% royalties, Iraq could yield $90B in annual profits, and nearly $5 trillion over its lifetime. P91

Such a windfall in reserves would send [participating] oil company stocks soaring by 40 to 60%... In 2000, the US energy industry had given GW Bush more money than it had to all contenders in the previous 1992 and 1996 elections combined. P92

Closely on the heels of the euro’s 1999 introduction, Baghdad had started trading oil for euros, not dollars, a policy that became official in 2000… Shortly after the US takeover in 2003, US administrators immediately put Iraq back on the dollar standard for its oil transactions. P93

Venezuela promoted barter arrangements instead of dollar transactions in selling its oil to Western Hemisphere nations, in response to the alleged 2002 US coup attempt on Chavez. Iran’s central bank began switching its reserves from dollars to euros as well. P94

Is the bible literally accurate?
National sample: Yes 55%
Evangelical Protestants: Yes 83%
Catholics: 45%

Are these descriptions literally true?
Noah’s Ark: Yes 60%
Creation of Earth in 6 days: Yes 61%
Parting of Red Sea for Moses: Yes, 64%

Will the world end in an Armageddon battle?
All Christians: Yes 45%, No 33%
Evangelicals: Yes 71%, No 18%
Catholics: Yes 18%, No 57%

Southern US leaders in 1850 started to look further afield for new slave owning territories such as adding Cuba and 3 or 4 four northern Mexican states. Less plausibly they could open up Nebraska and Kansas only if enough proslavery men could move in. p137

Strategists in confederate Texas hoped to reach California by an invasion corridor through the New Mexico territory, and the Texas cavalry did get as far as Tucson. Indeed, the new territory of Arizona with its capital in Tucson was claimed as part of the confederacy in 1861. p162

Historically debt is constructive in emerging and adolescent nations but perilous in those beginning to age or contemplate retirement… The Dutch in the early 17th century and later the English had pioneered funded national debts and found them essential for borrowing at reasonable rates of interest during wartime. Many generations later, however, as their public debts bloated and their national trajectories turned downward, Dutchmen and Britons in turn staggered under their heritage of borrowing… Debt ceased to be blessing. Even Hapsburg Spain had its own unique economic system that used gold bullion from the New World to support bond issues. P271

An economist in 2004 devoted a page in Barron’s to the thesis that the unprecedented magnitude of credit and debt in the US had made irrelevant the traditional focus of the Fed on the nation’s money supply. Total nonfinancial credit debt in the range of $23 trillion had effectively supplanted the $3 trillion money supply for the best guide to the actual economy. P273

The top 1% of Americans in 2000 had as much disposable income as the bottom 35% (or 100 million people). Thus talk about the avg American income is misleading. P282

In 2000, 44% of all corporate profits now come from the financial sector, compared with only 10% from the manufacturing sector. P284

The magnitude of how finance has penetrated every nook and cranny of the US economy is seen in the avg of 8 credit cards per household, a $15 trillion stock market, $40 trillion credit market debt, and a global total of derivative positions estimated at $270 trillion… If history teaches us anything, it’s that this so called cutting edge finance is an accident waiting to happen. P285

In 1974, the US convinced Saudi Arabia and OPEC to price oil in dollars. Many so called petro dollars were invested in US banks, recycling some of the benefits of higher oil prices. P290

The IMF in 2003 conducted a detailed study of property slumps in the US and 13 other industrialized countries. The conclusion was that a real estate bust less than ½ as large as a decline in stock prices had typically proved twice as dangerous to national economies, with effects lasting twice as long. P295

None of these past hegemons, Spain, Holland, Britain, started with well developed international finance. They began with simpler vocations. Castile, the heart of Spain, was a culture of high plateau wool growers and skilled soldiers who had spent centuries reconquering the Iberian peninsulas from the Muslims, before the conquistadors discovered gold and silver in the Americas. The Dutch had a unique talent for vocations having to do with ships, seas, and winds. The English pioneered coal and superseded the Dutch on the high seas. But after several generations these peoples were drawn farther in the direction of globalism, financial services, and capital management. P300

The Castilians who ruled Spain were not entrepreneurs, but by 1519 a multiple royal inheritance joined Spain to the Hapsburg empire… Through its new Habsburg reach, Castile enlisted much of Europe’s financial acumen. Spain’s wealth and Flemish, Italian, and German mercantile talents made Spain a financial power until its war related ruination in the 1640s. p301

Excluding the unusual case of Spain, the leading economic powers have followed an evolutionary progression: 1st, agriculture, fishing, and the like, next commerce and industry, and finally finance… In a 1997 book called the ‘Judas Economy’ by William Wolfman, chief economist at Business Week, he noted ‘the best historians have noticed that in each major phase of the development of capitalism, the leading country of the capitalist world goes through a period of financialization, wherein the most important economic dynamic is the creation and trading of abstract financial instruments rather than the production of genuine goods and services. P301-2

Before 16th century treasure fleets crossed the Atlantic, Spain had the small outlines of wool, textile and iron industries, as well as a minor middle class. But the large scale arrival of bullion was inflationary and sent the prices of local products climbing to levels that made them noncompetitive and simultaneously diminished Spaniard’s desire to work for anything but easy gains. P302

The crown took 1/5 of the gold and silver, and other fees, duties, and thinly disguised extortions were legion. The church and Jesuits, largely untaxed, grew rich on returns from America. By the 18th century, the Jesuits were reckoned to be the largest slaveholders in South America. P303

Anyone with money to spare – a noble, a merchant, or a wealthy peasant – or institutions, live convents, could lend it to private persons, municipal corporations, or to the crown, at a guaranteed 5, 7 or 10%. Such opportunities, shrank the pool of capital available for bolder ventures… In 1617 the Spanish Council of Finance acknowledged seeing no chance for an economic revival of Castile so long as debt paid better interest than that to be had from investments in agriculture, industry, and trade. P308… Like debt in the US in the early 2000s, these forms of indebtedness likely added up to a disconcerting share of the Spanish GDP circa 1600. p304

Between 1540 and 1660 a total of 16,900 tons of silver and 181 tons of gold came to Europe; enough to expand the money stock of Europe by 50%. This was the all important influx by which Europe vaulted ahead of the hitherto larger treasuries of Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey, and Ming China. P304

The word rentier – meaning a person living off unearned income – comes from the French, as do so many other words connected with money and plunder: financier, profiteer, buccaneer. Over the last 400 years, however, it was Spain, Holland, England, and the US that created the most notable rentier cultures. Each ultimately became vulnerable as a result. P307

The Dutch were a different people. To raise money for their revolution against Spain, they setup a funded debt and backed it with heavy taxation. Not only did this patriotic commitment bring in the necessary funds, but it soon made Dutch bonds among the most credit worthy in Europe. Financing at 5% interest also established Amsterdam as the west’s principal trade and stock market, making many Dutch bankers and merchants rich… By the middle of the 17th century, however, the urban and provincial leadership groups were no longer active merchants but rentiers deriving their income from houses, lands, and money at interest. When Dutch industry was declining, mid 18th century critics worried, as had Spanish reformers, about a nation divided between rentiers and beggars… A further symptom of the collapse was the astounding increase and transfer of Dutch capital abroad. P309

In the 1860s British skeptics wondered if their nation might be doing what the Dutch had done… The number of rentiers kept growing, by 1871 Britain contained 171,000 persons of rank and property without visible occupation… The big British rentier growth was yet to come. With each decade the percentage of investment going overseas grew like a spring tulip bed. What had been 200M pounds in 1850, became 700M pounds in 1875, 1B in 1900, and 3B in 1907, and 4B in 1914. By 1914 these investments were bringing the British investment class a net annual return of 200M pounds – a sum that was barely taxed, and exceeded the national government budget. P309

In 1914 a reform minded politician noted ‘At the very moment when creativity and capital were needed for industrial renewal at home, resources were being siphoned away.’ The market dictate was clear: foreign investments earned considerably more than the returns available domestically. P310

History teaches us a valuable lesson. When nations and people are young they can marshal the necessary debt defying high wire walks and comebacks during youth and early middle age, when their industries, exports, capitalizations, and animal spirits were vital and expansive, but they become less resilient in later years. During these periods, as their societies polarize, and their arteries clog with rentier and debt buildups, wars and financial crisies stop being manageable. Of course, clarity about this develops only in retrospect. They did not pay enough attention to establishing or maintaining a vital manufacturing sector, thereby keeping better national balance and a broader internal income distribution than financialization allowed. P311

An IBM VP said ‘You can’t do effective R&D if you don’t have manufacturing to insure that the R&D is actually relevant. If the US loses its manufacturing lead, it will lose everything else with it. P315

The US now needs to use Russia, Chinese, and European rockets to launch its satellites; Boeing outsourced its wing production to an overseas manufacturer; US firms lack the capacity to manufacture the advanced systems for military night vision capacity; the US depends on China for strategic metals like tungsten, yttrium, magnesium, etc. p315

Hyper active equity markets subvert rational capital allocation and act as pie-shrinkers. Rather than an invisible hand that guides an economy to maximum progress, casino type markets and hair trigger investment management act as an invisible foot that trips up and slows down a forward moving economy. P329

The US has used its global sway to pursue a borrowing mode. Alas, the US is the first leading economic power to this path since Spain. P335 I can’t help but think that the US, like Spain in its day, has become something of a Judas Economy for the avg American, with Wall Street in the profit bullion handling role of the early 17th century Seville, the Asian central banks as uncertain Genoan financiers, and GW Bush as the dull Hapsburg dynast. P338

Not that any world currency winds down overnight. The Dutch guilder had a long process of being superseded by the British pound, and some Britons understood in 1917 that the future might belong to the dollar… But before trying to add up the historical analogies, one more context requires pursuit: the likelihood of the US being drawn into a war akin to the expensive confrontations that helped scuttle Spanish, Dutch, and British hegemony. P 339

By 2004, over 50% of liquid Treasury bonds were in foreign hands, up from 20% in 1995… Asian central banks held $1.2 trillion… Since 2000, all of the net new supply of bonds has been purchased by nonresidents, and 80 to 90% of this by foreign central banks. p336

If terrorism remains center stage in a Middle Eastern war of attrition, the battle could last long enough - flaring into guerilla wars and even civil wars - to wear down the US militarily and economically. p339

The 30 years war undid Spain. Dutch military expeditions struck at Brazil, Angola and Ceylon turning the conflict into the first global war. After peace came in 1648, the Dutch were the major beneficiaries, Spain the unhorsed leading power. p340

The conflicts of 1688-1713 marked British emergence and Dutch weakening in trade if not global loan making. These conflicts reached around the world as well, and British gains at the peace table included Gibraltar, Minorca, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. p340

WW1 and WW2 obviously marked the start of the decline and the eventual downfall of the British empire, and the emergence of the US. p340

As far as I know, there isn’t a single contingency plan in place by any of the think tanks of the world that sets out a model illustrating how the world can continue to function smoothly once it is clear that Saudi oil has peaked. It is the total lack of any alternative scenario thinking that makes this unavoidable event so alarming. - Matthew Simon p347

In 1973, OPEC - by the good graces of Saudi Arabia under US influence - agreed to price oil in dollars, which meant that a Belgian or Peruvian had to obtain greenbacks to purchase it. This also meant that oil producing states receiving all of these dollars usually deposited them in US banks, and most of that in US treasuries. p349

Should the dollar decline dramatically, the world's perception would be that the US is attempting to inflate and depreciate its way out of its huge debts. Foreign banks would become unwilling to buy or hold large quantities of US treasuries in their reserves. Such disillusionment would further depress the greenback, making the cost of oil, by that point no longer priced in dollars, continue to rise for Americans. p350

Economists have worked up models estimating the various impacts of Chinese central bank actions ranging from significant sales to simply halving the purchase rate. The US economy could be hurt by interest rates on bonds that go up by 4/10% to 2% than they otherwise would. p352

Should a credit (home/mortgage) and financial (stock) collapse follow the popping of the 2000 stock bubble, stock and home prices would presumably fall together, making the 2nd downturn the more destructive of the two. In which case, imploding consumer debt and the harsh provisions of the new bankruptcy code could interact to yoke middle class debtors… To those Americans who say it can't here, the answer is that something that harsh did overtake Britain in the 1940s and the Dutch in the 1780s. Such a painful upheaval overtakes a leading power only when it is losing that global laurel. Whether that time is at hand for the US or is still decades away, no one can say. p378

Monday, September 04, 2006

* Chances Are by Michael Kaplan

Don’t bother to read this book, and please just settle for the blogged version I am about to share with you.

The best experiments deduce an effect from the hypothesis and then isolate it in the very context in which it may be disproved. This falsifiability is what makes a hypothesis different from a belief – and science distinct from the other towers of opinion [such as religion]. P7

A taxi sideswipes a car on a winter night. There are 2 taxi companies in town: Blue and Green. The latter owns 85% of the cabs. A witness says she saw a Blue taxi. Independent tests suggests she makes a correct identification 80% of the time. So what color was the taxi? Almost everyone says that it was blue, because people concentrate on the reliability of the witness. But the real issue is how her reliability affects the base fact that a random taxi has an 85% chance of being green. When those 2 probabilities are combined, the chance that the taxi was green is actually 59% - more likely than not. P9-10
The book desperately needed to publish this calculation, and another reason why I can’t recommend it.
20% chance of error and 85% chance of cabs being green; 20%x85%=17% (thus 83% chance of her being right and the car blue or green).
80% chance of being correct and 15% of cabs being blue=12% (thus 88% chance of being right or wrong and the cab green).
80% chance of being correct and 85% of cabs being green,= 68% chance of being correct for green (thus 32% chance of being blue)
20/100 times she’s wrong. 15/100 times the cab is blue, so 3% of the time she’ll call this green. But she told us it was blue, so even if the car was green, she was mistaken. So isn’t the answer so obviously 59% to you?

An experimenter showed people 2 urns. One contained 50% red, and 50% black balls; the other contained an unknown proportion of red and black balls. He offered $100 to any subject ho drew red ball from either urn. Which urn would you choose? Almost all subjects chose the known proportion 50/50 over the unknown. Then you’re offered another $100 to draw a black ball; the same subjects still chose the 50/50 urn – even though their 1st decision suggested that they thought the unknown urn had more black balls and fewer red ones. P11

The Emperor Augustus spent whole days gambling with his cronies. Claudius wrote a book on dice and had his sedan chair rigged for playing on the move. Caligula of course, cheated. Tacitus said “So bold are the German barbarians about winning and losing, that, when they have gambled away all else, they stake their own freedom on the final throw.” P13 Hey, don’t give the Vegas casinos any ideas!

Descartes’ belief that staying in bed until noon was essential to the proper working of his brain has made him the hero of every well-read adolescent. P21

Logarithms ease calculation by considering any large number as a base raised to some power. Instead of trying to multiply large numbers, we can simply add powers of 10 that represent them, since 10^4x10^6=10^10. So if x=10^a, then a=logx. P34

May the force be with the Brits?
The 2001 UK census reveals that 40% of the children are born single mothers… The same census also reveals that 390,000 people state their religion as ‘Jedi’. P112

In a group of 33 clinical trials on death from stroke, with a total of 1066 patients, the treatment being tested reduced mortality on avg from 17.3% in the control group to 12% in the treated group – a reduction of 25%. Are you impressed? Do you want to know what the treatment is? It’s rolling a die [in a simulated experiment]… The rules were simple: rolling a ‘6’ meant the simulated patient would die. Overall mortality averaged out would be 1/6 or 17.5%. But two simulations out of 44 showed statistically significant results. P159

The breakfast of champions or klutzes?
High correlation is not enough for inference: when an effect is naturally rare and the putative cause is very common, the chance of coincidence becomes significant. If you asked people with broken legs whether they had eaten breakfast that morning, you would see a very high correlation. P162

In the 1960s, controls for heart studies had their chests opened and immediately sewn up – a procedure unlikely to pass the ethics committee now… Considerable work has gone into developing placebos that while inactive for the condition being tested, provide side effects associated with the treatment… Also the placebo effect is well documented. If a control group patient improves, it needn’t be because of the placebos; some simply get better… You need, essentially a control for your control- another group you are not even trying to please. “Would you like to participate in a study where we do nothing for your condition?” Might this message affect the patient’s well being? P163

You’re in charge of a mammogram screening program for women between 40 and 50 who show no symptoms. The overall probability that a woman has breast cancer is .8%. If a woman has breast cancer, she has a 90% probability of showing a positive result. If she doesn’t have cancer and she shows a false positive is 7%. A patient has a positive result. What is a probability that she has cancer? [Don’t worry, read on.] Doctors in a German teaching hospital were baffled: 1/3 decided the probability was 90%; 1/6 thought 1%... Phrase the question again this way: out of 1000 women, 8 will have breast cancer. When you screen those 8, 7 will have a positive mammogram. When you screen the remaining 992, 70 of them will have a false positive. Your patient then has only a 10% chance of having cancer! P171

Magic bullet?
Combining folic acid with aspirin in a generic cholesterol and blood pressue lowering drug and giving that to everyone over 55 (assuming the benefits are multiplicative – a big assumption by the way) should cut the risk of heart attacks by 88%, stroke by 80%. Average lifespan could increase by 11 years. P173

Field Marshall Montgomery told the world that ‘there are 3 rules of war. Never invade Russia. Never invade China. Never invade Russia or China.” P240

If you were a Frankish Knight in the 10th century, your view of war would be very different. Your hut is marginally bigger than your neighbors, you are the only one not required to work the land; your business is the protection of those who do. Better fed, better trained, and better armed than any peasant, you lend your invulnerability to the village; it as if, in you, they owned a tank. Your only hope of improving your position is through seizing the cattle or harvest of the neighboring village – but it too owns a knight. But then if it didn’t, your villagers wouldn’t be threatened, and wouldn’t need you. Your most dangerous enemy is also essential justification for your existence… It was only when the Crusades offered the prospect of booty beyond the neighbor’s barns that war became organized again. With that organization and cooperation all could gain more than they had before, came a new concept of knightliness: the code of chivalry, adding to valor the ideals of obedience, loyalty, discipline, and self-restraint. P241

Dollar auction (try this at your next cocktail party!)
Offer to auction a dollar to the highest bidder but with one devilish twist; that the 2nd highest bidder would have to pay their losing bid to you. So if you bid .70, and your neighbor bids .75, he gains a quarter, while you lose .70. Even if you had to buy the dollar for $1.10, at least you’d only lose a dime instead of .70… Bidding will usually slow as you reach the dollar mark, but once past would zoom well beyond it. People will buy a dollar for the average price of $3.40! p256

Lets say that there are 1000 terrorists operating in the US. If we had 99% accurate test of identifying a suspect by sifting through publicly held information, we would end up accusing 2.8 million innocent people (1 in 300,000 of these will be an actual terrorist). And no matter what we do, 10 terrorists would get through, and you only need one whacko… As Ben Franklin said “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” P273

Boltzmann stated that low entropy can spontaneously arise from high entropy, but low entropy is the same as low probability [and we mean low]… He calculated that the probability that the molecules in a gas in a sphere with a tiny radius of only .00001cm will return to any given configuration is once in 3x10^57 years – some 2x10^47 times the age of the universe so far. P286

Saturday, September 02, 2006

** Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

The first section of this book was very enlightening on the prehistory of the Indo-Europeans and the Chinese, and their cultural/religious development from the bronze age forward. I have to admit that I couldn’t finish the book. After the ancient historical period discussions, it delves into theological minutiae from my standpoint. I would highly recommend the first 100 pages.

We’re all one big happy – Caucasian – family.
The Aryans were originally pastoralists from the steppes of southern Russia. They had lived on these Caucasian steppes since about 4500. They were a loose knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. They spoke a language that would form the basis of several European and Asiatic tongues; they are also called the Indo-Europeans or Caucasians. By the 3rd millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. Those Aryans who stayed behind on the steppes drifted apart from the western cousins. The Western branch spoke an Avestan dialect, and the Eastern branch spoke an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 they continued to live peacefully. P3

The Aryans could not travel far because the horse had not yet been domesticated. They farmed their land, herded their sheep, goats, pigs, and valued stability and continuity. They were not a warlike people, they had no enemies and no ambition to conquer new territory. Their religion was simple and peaceful… They called their gods Devas (the shining ones) and Amesha (the immortals). P4

The Aryans felt very close to their cattle. It was sinful to eat the flesh of a beast that had not been consecrated, because profane slaughter destroyed its spirit forever, and thus violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin. P5

There goes the neighborhood.
This slow uneventful life came to an end when the Aryans discovered modern technology. In about 1500, they had begun to trade with the more advanced societies of Mesopotamia and Armenia. They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and about the carts pulled by oxen, and war chariots. Once they learned how to tame wild horses, and harness them to the chariot, they experienced the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops… These new class of fighters killed, plundered, and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans. Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. P7

The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in chariot upon the clouds. P7

The mark of Zoro
To the Aryans, events on earth always represented cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype. The cattle rustlers who fought under Indra’s banner, must be his earthly counterparts. But who were the devas attacking in heaven? The most important gods – such as Varuna, Mazda and Mithra, the guardians of order – perhaps were under attack by Indra. This was the visionary view of a priest who claimed that Mazda himself had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes. His name was Zoroaster. P8

Zoroaster’s vision convinced him that Mazda was not simply one of the great gods, but that he was the Supreme god [precursor of monotheism?]. This was not quite monotheism. Zoroaster had probably reached this position by meditating on the creation story which claimed that in the beginning there had been 1 plant, 1 animal, and 1 human being. It was only logical to assume that originally there had been 1 god. P8

The world seemed polarized because Indra and the cattle rustlers had nothing in common with Lord Mazda, they must have given their allegiance to a different set of gods… The unprecedented violence in the steppes had caused Zoroaster to divide the ancient Aryan pantheon into warring groups. Good men and women must no longer offer sacrifice to Indra. Instead they must commit themselves entirely to Lord Mazda… The whole of life had now become a battlefield in which everyone had a role. Even women and servants could make a valuable contribution. P9-10

Apocalypse Then and Now
No battle could last forever… The world was rushing toward a cataclysm. He and his followers were living in a ‘bounded time’ of cosmic conflict, and soon they would witness the final triumph of good and the annihilation of the forces of darkness… There would be a great judgment. The wicked would be wiped off the face the earth, and a blazing river would flow into hell and incinerate the Hostile Spirit… We are now familiar with this kind of apocalyptic vision, but before Zoroaster there had been nothing like it in the ancient world. P10

Where have all of the Zorastrians gone?
By the end of the 2nd millennium the Avestan Aryans had settled in Eastern Iran, where Zoroastrianism became the national faith. It has remained a predominantly Iranian religion ever since, and still has followers to this day. P12

Welcome to India!
Some Sanskrit speaking Aryans migrated south, through Afghanistan and settling finally in the fertile lands of the Punjab. The called their new home the Land of the 7 Rivers (referring to the tributaries of the Indus and Ganges)… Our only sources of information on this period are the ritual texts composed in Sanskrit, known collectively as the ‘Vedas’ (knowledge)… The Aryan migration into the Punjab was neither a mass movement nor a military invasion. There is no evidence of fighting, resistance, or widespread destruction. When they arrived, they would have seen the remains of a previous civilization – the Harrapans. At the height of its power in 2300-2000BC, this ancient Indian empire had been larger than either Egypt or Mesopotamia at the same time. P13

By the time they established themselves in the Punjab, the cult of Indra was becoming the Supreme God… This was an age scarcity; the only way that the Aryans could establish themselves in the Indus Valley was by stealing the cattle of the indigenous settled communities. P15

Think you had it tough in school? When these guys were kids, there were no books or paper, and they had to first memorize their entire book before they could then memorize their book report – which was, of course, delivered orally.
Some stories of the Rig Veda (Knowledge in Verse) could be very old indeed, because by the time the Aryans arrived in India, its language was already archaic. The poems were transmitted orally for generations, and was not committed to writing until the 2nd millennium. We find it hard to believe that people were able to learn such lengthy texts, but the Vedic scriptures were transmitted with impeccable accuracy, even after the archaic Sanskrit had become almost incomprehensible. Even today, the exact tonal accents and inflections of the original , long lost language have been preserved [so we think], together with the ritually prescribed gestures of the arms and fingers. P16

The lives of the warriors and raiders alternated between village and forest/jungle. During the monsoon rains, they lived in the villages. But during the winter solstice they yoked their horses and oxen and set off into the wilderness on a new cycle of raids. The opposition of village and forest became a social paradigm in India. The inhabitants settled the land providing the crops and cattle that the warriors needed; yet they constantly feared attack from other cattle rustlers. The forest was where the warrior proved his valor and explored the unknown. Later hermits would retire to the forest to pioneer spiritual valor and to explore the metaphysical unknown. P17

Let’s party like it’s 1999 – BC that is.
If a community accumulated more animals and crops than it needed, this surplus had to be ‘burned up’. It was impossible for a nomadic group that was perpetually on the move to store these goods, and the potlatch [similar to the native Americans] was a rough and ready way of redistributing the wealth of society. The ritual also showed how successful the chief had been and enhanced his prestige. P18 The blowout parties after a round of financing are the modern day equivalent of the potlatch, and these companies ‘burned up’ investor cash in flagrant displays of wealth. Nothing really changes when it comes to human nature.

Umm, what’s for dinner?
Sacrifice increased the violence that was already endemic in the region. After it was over, the patron had no cattle left and would have to inaugurate a new series of raids to replenish his wealth. P19

A warriors entire life was a deadly, dangerous contest for food and wealth. Ever since the Aryans lived on the steppes, they believed that the best and wealthiest among them would join the gods in heaven. Now they were convinced that a warrior to died nobly in battle went immediately to the world of the gods. P19

Where did the caste system originate?
In the 10th century BC, the old egalitarian tribal structure [among the Aryan races living in Indo-European regions around present day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, north India] began to crumble, and an aristocracy of warrior families, known as the Kshatriyas (the empowered ones) became dominant. Those of less noble lineage, the Vaishyas (the clansmen), started to give up raiding and became farmers. When the Kshatriyas yoked their horses to their chariots at the beginning of the new raiding season, the vaishya stayed behind in the village. Like the Shudras, non-Aryan population, they now resembled the ‘asuras’, who stayed at home, and were fair game for plunder. P19

What were some of the first inklings of Indian religious thought?
During the late Vedic period (10th century BC), the Aryans developed the idea of Brahman, the supreme reality. Brahman was not a Deva (god), but a power that was higher, deeper, and more basic than the gods. Brahman was the fundamental principle that enabled all things to become strong and to expand. It was life itself. P24

Yin Yang thing
In China, circa 1500 BC, the men moved out of the village and took up permanent residence in huts in the fields; during the work season, they had no contact with their wives and daughters except when the women brought their meals. After the harvest, the land was laid to rest and the men moved back home… This was the sabbatical period for men, but the women who had less to do during the summer, now began their season of labor: weaving, spinning, and making wine. This alteration may have contributed to the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yin was the female aspect of reality. Its season was winter; its activity was interior and conducted in dark, closed off places. Yang, the male aspect, was active in summer and in daylight; it was an external, outgoing power, and its output was abundant. P29-30

Got ‘Mandate from Heaven’?
The mandate from Heaven would become an important ideal during Chinese history. If a ruler was selfish, cruel, and oppressive, Heaven would not support him, and he would fall. A state might appear to be weak and insignificant, but if its ruler was wise, humane, and truly concerned for the welfare of his subjects, people would flock to him from all over the world, and Heaven would raise him to the highest position. P35

Exodus or hocus pocus?
Excavations by Israeli archaeologists since 1967 however, don’t confirm the story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt, parting and crossing the Red Sea, wandering for 40 years, etc. They have found no trace of the mass destruction described in the book of Joshua, no signs of foreign invasion, no Egyptian artifacts, and no indication of a change in population… The general scholarly consensus is that the story of the exodus from Egypt is not historical. The biblical narrative reflects the conditions of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when most of these texts were written, rather than the 13th century… Many of the first Israelites were probably not foreigners but [indigenous] Canaanites… Israelites who lived under Egyptian rule in the coastal city states may have felt that they had indeed been liberated from Egypt – but in their own land. The biblical writers were not attempting to write a scientifically accurate account that would satisfy a modern historian. They were searching for the meaning of the existence. These [the biblical texts] were epic stories, national sagas that helped the people to create distinct identity. P39-40

Israelites worshippers celebrated ritualized sex in order to activate the sacred energy of the soil and bring a good harvest. We know that, to the disgust of their prophets, the Israelites took part in these sacred orgies well into the 8th century BC and beyond. P42-3

Some scholars believe that the book Joshua [actually] contains a record of the ancient spring festival at Gilgal, which celebrated the Israelites victorious crossing of the Jordan river. During the springtime, the ancient Jordan overflows the whole length of its banks. It appears that the water was specially dammed up for the festival, which commemorates a miracle. When Joshua had led the people to the brink of floodwater, he told them to stand still and watch what happened. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched the waters, they parted miracously, and the whole people crossed over safely, dry shod, and entered the promised land at Gilgal. P44 Does any of this sound just a tad similar to the exodus story? Nah, coincidence I’m sure. Give me a break.

How the Greeks got to know to the natives of Arizona’s capital.
One of the first trading partners for the ancient Greeks were the Canaanites from the northern coastal states, whom the Greeks called Phoenicians because they had a monopoly on the only colorfast purple (phoinix in Greek) dye in antiquity. At first the Greeks resented the Phoenicians, whose culture was far more sophisticated than their own. But by the 9th century, they had begun to work creatively together. The Phoenicians established a base in Cyprus, and their craftsmen came to work in Athens, Rhodes and Crete. Phoenician colonists began to open up the western Mediterranean and in 814 they established Carthage. They showed the Greeks the mercantile potential of the sea, and the Greeks began to make new foreign contacts in Syria. P52

Killing, pillaging, plundering takes a toll on your customer base, and generally makes for bad business. Especially for repeat customers!
By the 9th century, Aryan life was becoming more settled. The economy was beginning to depend more upon agriculture than raiding, and [we speculate] that that there was a growing consensus that the destructive cycle of raid and counter-raid had to stop. The traditional rites not only legitimized this pattern but gave it sacred significance. These rituals themselves often degenerated into real fighting, and one aggressive act led inexorably to another.

In the 10th century, the Brahmanas (scriptures) were making a courageous attempt to find a new source of meaning and value in a changing world [moving toward agriculture and away from raiding]. The priestly experts decided to make a systematic appraisal of the sacrificial liturgy, taking out any practice that was likely to lead to violence. Not only were they able to persuade the Kshatriyas to accept these expurgated rites, but their reform led to a spiritual awakening. P78

Finally, some of the later Indian/Vedic religious texts made a revolutionary suggestion. A person who was expert in the ritual lore need not take part in the external liturgy at all. Solitary meditation could be just as efficacious as the external rites. P84

Freedom is having your slave do everything for you.
Most Greek citizens owned land, and it was considered degrading to work for others or to earn a salary. Greek peasants, however, refused to give up their traditional freedoms, and the aristocrats created autonomous city states rather than large kingdoms that require local rulers to submit to an overlord. This ideal of independence was not a Greek invention. The Greeks probably preserved the old tribal assemblies and councils that other peoples abandoned when they developed larger states and empires. P103

As soon as he was married, a household was allowed to have a sacred fire in his own home and he could perform the daily rites that were a scaled down version of the reformed public liturgy… But some men took the extraordinary step of leaving their families, turning their back on society, and retiring to the forest… These renouncers put themselves beyond pale, but they became central to India’s spiritual quest. Henceforth, the renouncer, not the householder would become the agent of religious change. It was he, not the Brahmin priest, who shaped the next stage of Indian religious development. P120