Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So…100,000-70,000 years ago, there were at least six human species walking the planet. Today, there are three:
Homo sapiens – we humans are losing the battle against…
Homo retrorsum (“backwards man”) – they’re the 63 million who voted wrong in 2016, and a huge part of the 101 million who didn’t vote. They prefer regress to progress.
And Simiae inferiore (I’ll leave it to you to look up the Latin) – they’re the ones who the Homo restrosum elected.

I coined those taxonomic differentiations when I realized that they weren’t modern humans. Okay, that’s a little story ripe with opinion and this is a bigger story ripe also. With too little documentary support, Harari writes well enough, but much is not quite but could be hyperbole; certainly a lot comes off as contrived theatrics. He compares the Code of Hammurabi with the Declaration of Independence, the latter’s known composition year being 1776 CE (he uses AD, and BC) – and the former tagged as 1776 BC(E). One could dismiss his creative license if he didn’t include a picture of a stele that only a few keystrokes later revealed to be dated to a different, less convenient year.

I finished this more than a week ago yet haven’t self-motivated to write this. Maybe because this has all the hallmarks of a high school history text, albeit with a little more breadth, with some local color to embellish throughout. For the want of a nail? …if only “the Aztecs and Incas [had] shown a bit more interest in the world surrounding them”, they might have prevailed. Against guns, germs and steel? (Sorry Mr. Diamond.) The notes are sparse (see my “high school textbook” assessment); for example:

In fact, in the first recorded encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won. About 100,000 years ago, some Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal territory, but failed to secure a firm footing. It might have been due to nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites. Whatever the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as masters of the Middle East.

No note…pics! or it didn’t happen!

I’ll be fair, he does make more than a few good points…

The best way to appreciate the general direction of history is to count the number of separate human worlds that coexisted at any given moment on planet Earth. Today, we are used to thinking about the whole planet as a single unit, but for most of history, earth was in fact an entire galaxy of isolated human worlds.

12,000 years ago, there were many thousands of different human worlds (think…geography…) A little more than 500 years ago, before the Euros went exploring, many hundreds. Now? One (plus a few isolated indigenous groups trying hard to stay isolated.)

On religion:

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth.

Hmmm…might just be on to something there. And on the conundrum of dualist good god/bad god dichotomy (or no! three is one! and one, three!), “humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions.” More truth.

Humans also have a deplorable capacity to understand impact:

The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion.1 The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars.2 Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.3 In 1500, humanity consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day. Today, we consume 1,500 trillion calories a day.4 (Take a second look at those figures – human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)

The real point may be lost if people get wrapped around the axle on “calories”, an arbitrary unit, which may have been better conveyed if “kilowatts”, another arbitrary, if more accessible while not well understand unit. The real key is 115 times.

I was curious about bias throughout, and this stood out

We seldom think of the Arab world as particularly peaceful. Yet only once since the Arab countries won their independence has one of them mounted a full-scale invasion of another (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990). There have been quite a few border clashes (e.g. Syria vs Jordan in 1970), many armed interventions of one in the affairs of another (e.g. Syria in Lebanon), numerous civil wars (Algeria, Yemen, Libya) and an abundance of coups and revolts. Yet there have been no full-scale international wars among the Arab states except the Gulf War. Even widening the scope to include the entire Muslim world adds only one more example, the Iran-Iraq War. There was no Turkey—Iran War, Pakistan-Afghanistan War, or Indonesia-Malaysia War.

No mention of Israel/Egypt/Syria/Jordan/Lebanon?

Still, I liked this anecdote:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.
One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour.
‘What do you want?’ they asked.
‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon. I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’
‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.
The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorised it correctly.
‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.
‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’
When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorised, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorised so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’

Love it!

Not a bad read, but don’t expect any rigor (or many notes of substance.)

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An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration From The Private Sketchbooks Of Artists, Illustrators And Designers by Danny Gregory

An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration From The Private Sketchbooks Of Artists, Illustrators And DesignersAn Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration From The Private Sketchbooks Of Artists, Illustrators And Designers by Danny Gregory

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had this book sitting on a table next to my recliner for a few years now and finally picked it up to read (my wife, the artist, got it for herself). I am fascinated with the thought processes of any artist, whether visual, musical, literary, architect, … This is a specific snapshot, well… collection of snapshots, of some thoughts and processes. Fifty artists (including the author), fifty samplings from their sketchbooks, their preferences for ink, pencil, types of pens,… and types sketchbooks – Moleskine seems to be popular, but some prefer off the shelf whatevers, some make their own. What they think about, why they sketch, what they do with their sketches, and other words of their choices. I was both surprised and not at some of the commonalities.

A few Takeaways I flagged:

Mattias Adolphsson: “I find that drawing in my sketchbook is easier for me than using other media.”

Butch Belair: “I usually draw in my car. Very few people know I am doing it… Having people watch while I do it would be a bit of a buzzkill. Don’t tread on my Zen, man.”

Bill Brown: “My sketchbooks are filled with words and pictures I haven’t started second-guessing yet.”

Robert (“R.”) Crumb: “My advice: Draw from life as much as you can stand to. That’s where you really learn things, And learn to express your real, personal feelings. And don’t worry about creating masterpieces or only drawing the pretty things. Look for the commonplace, the unnoticed details of everyday reality. To draw fro life is to learn from life. But you know, you need to be compelled by some inner need to fill the blank page, It’s gotta come from within.”

Barry Gott: “I don’t care if the drawings are logical or done well, which is helpful since theri neither.”

Gay Kraeger: “I love the way I see the world since I stated drawing. I like seeing how everything relates to everything else.”

Brody Neuenschwander: “When I draw, I am thinking about how some kind of intensity of meaning can be brought to a genre that has no receptive field in our society [calligraphy].”

A nice collection. I’m not a fan of much of the art I saw, but that doesn’t stop me from admiring the artists, and their processes.

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The Earth Hearing by Daniel Plonix

The Earth HearingThe Earth Hearing by Daniel Plonix

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Who remembers Andy Kaufman? He was crude, and offensive; but a skilled provocateur. Because I only saw him as such in his “comedy”, I never knew if that was who he was or if it was an act, but I suspect more of the former than not. With a sample set of one, I don’t know if this is Plonix or an act. Some thought Kaufman brilliant. … I didn’t. A couple of housekeeping notes: #1, I received a review copy of this from the publisher through NetGalley. And #2, while it is definitely fiction, given the nature of its premise and the extensive pedantry – Plonix seems to want to be didactic, but waxes overly pedantic … lots of minutiae and lots of information – I’ll treat some of it as nonfiction.

Housekeeping #3: I am admittedly not good at “meaning”… sometimes I don’t get “it” even when painfully and explained to me – my brain doesn’t work that way. So me imparting meaning to what I’ve read is of little use to anyone else. Still, I wonder at what Plonix was at with his cast of characters. Having over the top zealots be the examples and later defenders… is the lesson be wary of your sample set? Even if an alien knows to not take one view as representative (not sure given the dialogue), how does one average out culture? How does one explain culture? I remember an experiment 42 years ago in which we were to describe something to someone else… a passport. The teacher properly poked back at every description offered: “…a brown paper…” – what’s brown? What’s paper? “Okay, a cellulose folio with a picture…” Well, you get the picture. Like the silly Star Trek Next Generation episode where the “universal translator” (as silly a science fiction concept as there is…even on Earth, there are languages that have three, four, six genders; every perturbation of subject-verb-object, a vocabulary of endless variation – though language family trees have some connections) breaks down and Picard has to communicate with a being who speaks in metaphors. Context is everything. How do you establish context? Well, there is some context in this book…and there are parts of questionable context. Continue reading

Frank Herbert by Timothy O’Reilly

Frank HerbertFrank Herbert by Timothy O’Reilly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came across a quote attributed to Frank Herbert and I tried to find the source to validate it before sharing – I don’t like to consciously perpetuate misinformation. The research led me to this book, which I’m surprised I hadn’t read yet. Well, not too surprised…I have read a lot of other books since its publication, quite a few from O’Reilly’s publishing house. A large part of this is devoted to analysis of Herbert’s most famous work, Dune, of course, but O’Reilly also looks at his first novel and others with similar depth of analysis. O’Reilly says in his Preface,

To my mind, the most fundamental judgment to be made about a novel is not as a work of art built to abstract standards, but as an act of communication. What does it say to the reader? How does it touch him?
[…]
One criticism that I have made of Herbert throughout this book is that he walks a narrow line between entertainment and didacticism. In his best work, such as Dune, the story itself is the message; the concepts are so completely a part of the imaginative world he has created that the issue of didacticism never arises. Ideas are there to be found by the thoughtful reader, but one never stumbles over them.

No stumbling on my part, at least with that novel. Continue reading