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RKUL: Time Well Spent 10/10/2022
Your time is finite. Your phone and the internet stand ready to help you squander it. Here are my latest picks for spending it well instead. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Books, what else?
Stanliaes Dehaene works in cognitive neuroscience, the subfield that Erik Hoel notes is the main reason people are interested in neuroscience in the first place (no love for cellular and molecular neuroscience, people?). But can you blame anyone for being fascinated by how biology allows us to think?
Twenty years ago I read Dehaene’s The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, which has stayed with me ever since. Dehaene is a good prose stylist (his English outshines most of what people actually writing in their own native language turn out), and he can unpack technical concepts intelligibly to those outside a particular domain. The Number Sense outlines just how the brain seems to have an innate sense of ‘numeracy,’ a facility that connects us to other animals. But this alone does not constitute mathematics, and Dehaene attempts to connect this instinct with our ability to engage in rationality and abstraction, producing the formality of mathematics. You can “recognize” six pebbles thrown down in front of you, but you have to count 64 pebbles manually.
Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read is an attempt to do for literacy what The Number Sense did for mathematics. Here Dehaene shows how portions of our brain geared toward processing visual inputs were co-opted to interpret letters. This process may produce a tradeoff for modern humans, whose skills at reading come at a price of less ability to comprehend shape information in the environment around us. It’s pretty meta to read a book about reading, but I highly recommend it.
Finally, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts is an ambitious book, though perhaps less ambitious than Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. I do not believe you will understand consciousness deeply after reading this book, but then I do not believe anyone understands consciousness profoundly in a scientific sense in the first place. But Consciousness and the Brain is a guide to the early years of attempting to understand this phenomenon with neuroscience and will make clearer why researchers are now beginning to discover ways to manipulate consciousness.
Several weeks ago I offered an anniversary quiz based on posts on this Substack over the last two years. Over 1,000 of you responded, one of whom now has a complimentary subscription to this Substack for one year. I’d like to thank everyone who took time to try it and note that with hindsight, I clearly erred in making so many of the answers obscure or nitpicky. Out of 40 questions, the median score was 16.72. The majority of respondents got 20 or fewer questions correct. A single individual did get a perfect 40 (congrats “Mountain”), but only 3% scored 30 or above. Mad respect to all of you close readers in the 3%.
That being said, in hindsight, some of the questions were annoyingly tricky, even pedantic. For example, the first question: “Which steppe culture domesticated the modern horse?” tripped up 82% of respondents. 38% guessed the Yamnaya which was understandable but I said modern horse, specifically because though the Yamnaya may have domesticated the horse (this remains speculation at this point), all of the domestic breeds today seem to descend from Sintashta lineages. In contrast, most of you knew that Confucius idolized the Duke of Zhou and that about 20% of our calories in a resting state are consumed by the brain. These were more straightforward answers without much subtlety.
Most of the time, the modal answer chosen was correct (even if it was answered correctly less than 50% of the time). But in some cases, the mode was wrong, and that might reflect the perceptions of respondents (or perhaps how few of the respondents had already begun reading the Substack by the time I covered a given subject). For example, on “In 1990, what percent of ancestry resident in the US had roots going back to the 1790 Census or earlier?” the largest number of respondents picked 25%. The correct answer is 50%, but the lower number reflects the emphasis on the Great Migration around 1900 in American popular culture. This statistic appeared in a December 2020 piece that appeared when my readership was 13% of what it is today, so again, I think it’s more about chronology than retention when subscribers tackle a piece.
A Distracted Russia Is Losing Its Grip on Its Old Soviet Sphere: Russia’s domination of Central Asia and the Caucasus region is unraveling as the Kremlin focuses on the war in Ukraine — and border violence is flaring. This sort of richly detailed piece is why I still subscribe to The New York Times. I hope that the conflict in Ukraine resolves itself sooner rather than later, but some of the biggest long-term consequences might be geopolitical dynamics that most of us are not even dimly aware of.
The best way to end mass incarceration is to catch more criminals: Less crime and less punishment. We know a lot about crimes that target well-off people because that’s who the media cares about. But we should remember that the people who suffer the most from crime are the poor, and usually, they kill each other.
China Reins In Its Belt and Road Program, $1 Trillion Later: After loans have gone sour and projects have stalled, Beijing is revamping its troubled initiative. I think we are going through a “China-Bear” phase, but it’s probably a good corrective to the bullish period up to and including the 2020 pandemic.
The Year of Fukuyama: American Triumphalism and "Normie Theories of Democracy". I personally think the issue is not the rise of other powers but the decline of America. Immense curb appeal can mask a dysfunctional mess within.
Truss Prepares Battle With Cabinet, MPs to Quash Tory Rebellion. A nuclear-armed power that is still an economic force is a total mess right now. I usually ignore British stuff, but at some point, if it gets bad enough, I guess we’ll be forced to pay attention.
The Cult of the Individual: The Origins of the Nihilistic Left. One way to divide this is the idealistic Left vs. the materialist Left. An important piece that probes divisions that emerged in the proto-progressive movement in the 1960’s.
Detectability of runs of homozygosity is influenced by analysis parameters as well as population-specific demographic history. Too often people use ROH programs as if they’re turnkey, but the phenomenon has different relevance to different populations and species.
Genetic risk for Multiple Sclerosis originated in Pastoralist Steppe populations. The title is straightforward, but it’s still sometimes surprising how many things go back to the steppe. Though to be fair, steppe ancestry is everywhere, and often in copious portions.
Subtle cultural boundaries reinforce genetic structure in England. That dialect markers impact gene flow is not surprising, but nailing down the details is useful.
Polygenic scoring accuracy varies across the genetic ancestry continuum in all human populations. Right now we have a lot of European-trained predictors because so far that’s the datasets we have disproportionately. That doesn’t mean it’s useless for other populations, we just need to determine how much less useful they are in any given case.
Modeling effects of inter-group contact on links between population size and cultural complexity. Trade and communication matter, as exogenous forces shape cultural diversity and complexity just as much as endogenous parameters.
My Two Cents
There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall. Since the last “Time Well Spent” I’ve waded deep into Anatolia. One of those standalone pieces is out, and I’m impressed that it’s already driven a couple of record days of traffic. My readership’s revealed preference for broad-ranging stories about our species is heartening to watch. The next two pieces are with my editor and I look forward to releasing them soon.
From the first piece on Anatolia: Ararat’s long shadow: Asia Minor’s major impact on humanity:
The empire of the Anatolian farmers who constructed the first megaliths in Asia 11,500 years ago and whose descendants went on to erect Europe’s stone-age monuments from the vast temple complexes of Malta to Stonehenge more than 5,000 years ago, has faded from memory over the millennia. But the way of life they introduced persists; wheat remains Europe’s staff of life, and pastoralism with cattle, sheep and goat dominates much of the uplands of the continent, while the largest proportion of ancestry in Southern Europe still derives from these early Anatolians. Though they are gone as a coherent cultural group or genetic cluster, their enduring legacy can be detected wherever Europeans go, whether it be Bronze-Age Indo-Aryans that were 20% descended from Anatolians, or Iberians during the Age of Discovery who brought their nearly 50% Anatolian heritage to the deepest jungles of South America.
If you want to browse my more geographically focused pieces, Dry.io has created an interactive map of them. We’ll keep adding to that page over time. Also, Dry.io set up a nice skin for my pinboard bookmarks and a page for reader-submitted links.
All my podcasts go ungated two weeks after their Substack release. So I encourage subscribers on the free plan who’d like to automatically get them to subscribe to that podcast stream (Apple, Stitcher, and Spotify).
Here are my guests (and now, occasional monologues) since the last Time Well Spent:
And here are the currently ungated podcasts all in one place.
For subscribers, I’m now posting transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone quickly scanning for the most egregious errors).
You’ll find links to the few different podcasts I’ve contributed to or run, my total RSS feed, links to more mainstream or print articles when I remember to post them, my Twitter, the occasional guest appearance here and there, etc.
Facebook message me
My total feed of content
My long-time blog, GNXP
A group blog, Secular Right, vintage at this point, but worthwhile for Heather Mac Donald’s prescience
My Indian/South Asian focused blog, Brown Pundits
My old podcast, The Insight
My podcast today, Unsupervised Learning
On the blog
The job of scholars in the modern West is to tell the truth and represent facts as they are. They may miss the mark often, but they should aim as best as they can. The problem with classicists over the last few years is they temporize, equivocate, and intentionally mislead their audiences when they very well know that the North African people that suggest “may have been black” were likely no more black than the typical West Asian. This is not to say they were “white” (though many people from the MENA do identify as such today and did in the past), but scholars should have the courage to admit that the past was not black and white, and it does not always easily fit in our narratives, whether we are 19th-century Victorian white supremacists or 21st-century anti-racists.
I write this in 2022 with the clear understanding that the lie will likely become the truth. But some of you will remember the truth, and the more I write and talk about this, the more the truth shall not die. The day will come when the darkness will lift, and we or our descendants should be prepared to remember the world as it was rather than only have the understanding of priests who preach how it should have been.
Over to you
Comments are open to all for this post, so if you have more reading/listening suggestions or tips on who I should be talking to or what I really should be writing for you, lay it on me.