Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Booknotes - The World Until Yesterday

This is my notes from reading 'The World Until Yesterday', summarizing the book and what I learned. Major spoilers (if there can be such in a non-fiction book). If you want to read the review instead, click here.

The World Until Yesterday is an examination of the different approaches of indiginous, traditional peoples to a variety of areas, and how this contrasts with modern western culture (us WEIRD folk - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic).

Crime & Justice

Traditional justice is all about settling disputes in a way that will allow the victim (or victim's family) and the perpetator to be able to live alongside one another in future, as generally everyone knows one another in small tribes etc. This approach of considering the victim and how they are feeling, facing them etc, is lost in modern legal systems. In his epilogue to the book, the author accepts that individuals in modern societies can't choose to adopt traditional forms of justice, but does suggest:

"But you may be able to utilize by yourself the New Guinea emphasis on informal mediation, emotional clearance, and reestablishment of relationships (or of non-relationships) in disputes the next time that you find yourself in a private dispute where tempers are rising."

Which is definitely something to think about.

Treatment of Children

A lot more babies and young children die in traditional cultures, and there are also some cultures that practice infanticide for unwanted babies (particularly where two babies are born close together, less than 3 years apart). However there are a lot of positives, in many hunter gatherer cultures babies are breast fed until they are at least 3, and this closeness with the mother is generally positive. Generally, babies and young children are held most of the time, either by a mother or other women in the tribe. This is called 'allo-parenting, where non-family members also care for a baby. 

Children don't have the structured play and manufactured toys common in western culture. They make their own toys, and also play with children of all different ages, rather than just children of the same age. Parents also let their children take risks, commonly holding knifes, playing near fire etc. Children learn themselves from mistakes, though can sustain injuries.

Children in traditional cultures generally grow up to be happy and confident adults, fully integrated with their society. Because their play is generally imitation of adult activities, there's no clear dividing line between childhood and adulthood, they move smoothly between the two.

The take home from this is that although there are dangerous or unsavoury practices, modern parents can learn a lot from traditional cultures when it comes to child-rearing, particularly encouraging creative imaginative play rather than manufactured/structured play, allowing children to take more risks and learn for themselves, and encourage they to play with children of all ages.

Treatment of the elderly

"Looming behind this increasing social isolation of the modern elderly is that they are perceived as less useful than were old people in the past, for three reasons: modern literacy, formal education, and rapid technological change."

Life expectancy in traditional cultures is/was a lot lower than  modern western society, but nevertheless some did live into their 70's and 80's.  Although some tribal cultures practiced killing of elderly that could no longer look after themselves (though neglect, reduction of food, leaving behind or outright killing), in most cases the elderly were valued and useful to society, more so than they often are today. In pre-literate societies the elderly were the stores of knowledge, some of it invaluable for the survival of he tribe (for instance the elderly woman who was the only one who knew which plants were safe to eat when a storm hit and other crops were destroyed), and often new the best techniques for hunting etc. As the quote above says, due to high literacy, education and technological change, the elderly today are less useful in this regard. One way in which they are still useful is as caregivers, for instance looking after grandchildren while parents go out to work (which was common in traditional cultures, and increasingly useful today). 

Approach to Risk

Traditional cultures take a different approach to risk than we do, and perhaps a more sensible one. Their survival often depends on accurately judging risk, particularly the small ones. The example given was that New Guinea tribe members won't camp under a tree, 'because it might fall down and kill us in the night'. The author, when he heard this from them, wanted to ridicule it, but even if the chance of it happening is 1 in a 1000, sooner or later it will happen if they do it regularly enough, so they avoid it. 

In contrast, in modern WEIRD cultures, we overestimate risk of big things that kill multiple people - disease epidemics, terrorist attack, plane crash etc. - but underestimate the everyday risk, like driving a car, smoking, stepladders etc. By taking more consideration of these and avoiding the small risks, we could learn from traditional societies and minimise our risk.

A question the author poses but doesn't answer is 'Does modern western culture's experience of mass media cause us to underestimate some risks because we don't have personal experience of them, but only through the media'?  


Some interesting discussion about religion, what it is and how it arose over time. This section is less about what we can learn from religion in traditional societies, and more about learning what makes religion so appealling and so historically successful. As the author says, religion often demands a great sacrifice of time and resources from us, so we must get something back in return.

There are various definitions of religion, which serve to highlight that experts cannot agree on a single definition, and how it means different things to different people in different societies. However it suggests that religion can be seen to fall into five sets:

 "The components commonly attributed to religions fall into five sets: belief in the supernatural, shared membership in a social movement, costly and visible proofs of commitment, practical rules for one’s behavior (i.e., “morality”), and belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced (e.g., by prayer) to intervene in worldly life."

 Not all are present in all religions, but at least some are. There is a fascinating discussion as well about how religion has changed over time, and it has had seven purposes over time, but these have changed as religion has successfully adapted. For instance, it started out primarily as part of human's desire to find explanations and causes for the world and natural things. This purpose has faded over time, but two purposes that have arisen and increased in importance can be summarized as:

1) Providing comfort in a dangerous and unfair world, particularly for loss and hardship.

2) Providing purpose and meaning in people's lives.

Some interesting perspectives, but didn't go into a lot of detail here. I suppose things to learn from it would be that religion is very adaptable and likely to keep on going, and that it is worth thinking about what religion can offer you.

People in traditional hunter-gatherer and primitive farming cultures are usually at least bi-lingual and often multi-lingual. This is because in a given area there are several different languages spoken by different tribes, and the different tribes often interact and exchange information (in many cultures, women marry men from different tribes and go to live with them, thus most children have parents that speak 2 different languages, and there are often other women (see allo-parenting in the children section above) who look after them who speak different languages still.

 Research has shown that people who are bi-lingual have a slightly lower vocabulary on average in their native language, but have significantly better "executive function", better able to make decisions, decide on strategies and adapt to changing information and circumstances. It has also been shown that bi-lingual people have a much lower risk of developing Alzheimers, and if they do, it is likely to be 6-7 years later in life, and will develop slower.

Many languages are becoming extinct all the time, which the author argues is just a much of a travesty as loss of animal species, but doesn't receive the attention or support that endangered animals get.

Take home from this, it can be very beneficial being bi-lingual and it is worth parents raising their children to be bi-lingual where this is appropriate (i.e. parents with two different languages). In some cases this will help preserve endangered languages.


"Around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today."

Indiginous cultures have a much lower life expectancy than modern westerners. The biggest killers along with accidents and violence are infectious diseases, such as gastrointestinal diseases, cholera and the like, all diseases that have been conquered by the modern world. What they don't suffer from (or didn't until introduced to western culture) is the slower acting diseases like Diabetes, Cancer and Heart Disease. This is linked by the author mainly to diet and exercise.

In WEIRD cultures, as well as lack of exercise, we have a really high consumption of sugar and salt (see quote above). Sugar contributes strongly to diabetes, and salt in particular is a major factor in hypertension and certain types of heart disease. We can learn a lot from indiginous cultures by eating more healthily. This is partly a matter of individual choice, and partly something that governments can help with. An example of positive government action is when Finland adopted a program to reduce the salt consumption of it's people over a 20 year period. By the end of the period, Finnish life expectancy was 7-8 years higher than it had been before the program.

The book summarizes by saying that while there are many advantages to society in the modern, developed world - longer life expectancy, better healthcare, no shortage of food, less dangers, war etc - there are many things we can learn from traditional societies. Some changes individuals can adopt themselves, some require societal change, and some a mix of the two.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Aeonian and a great quote

I get's Word of the Day email. I often don't read it, particularly when I'm busy, but today's word was 'aeonian'. It means 'eternal, everlasting'. Which makes sense because 'aeon' (also eon) is the word for a really long period of time.

Each day there's an example of the word in use, often from a quote or extract. Today I wanted to share that quote, because it was quite lyrical and wordy.

"It was the caverns drinking from the tempest overhead, the grasses growing under the snow, the stars making music with the dark, the streams filling the night with the sounds the day had quenched, the whispering call of the dreams left behind in 'the fields of sleep,'--in a word, the central life pulsing in aeonian peace through the outer ephemeral storms."

-- George MacDonald, Robert Falconer, 1868

Some lovely imagery I just wanted to share.

Anyway, back to my re-watching of the X-Files. There's a Ghost in the Machine today (probably running on a Pentium 2 given the year it was filmed!)

Sunday, 17 January 2016

'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

I've just finished 'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond, and more than most books I've ever read, I want to share this with others.

Jared Diamond is a writer and scientist, who has spent decades researching the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea (this is obviously his area of expertise, but he's done a lot of research into other indigenous cultures all across the world for this book). He's most well known for his book 'Guns, Germs and Steel' about how Europeans came to dominate the world (for the answer to that, the clue is in the title!). He seems a fascinating man with a great mix of interests and fields of study. The bio on his website is definitely worth a read if you want to know more.
The book is a non-fiction book that doesn't neatly fit into any category, but instead I'd say it is a mix of geography, history, anthropology, with a bit of philosophy, science, memoir and no doubt various other things in it. The central concept of the book is looking at many different traditional societies to examine their approach to various different aspects of everyday life including crime and punishment, religion, languages, bringing up children, dealing with the elderly and diet and lifestyle. The book is called The World Until Yesterday because by examining traditional cultures around the world, many of them hunter-gatherers, the book is also examining the way all of our ancestors lived, until about 10,000 years ago (i.e. for most of 200,000 or so years that modern homo sapiens have existed for).

This concept is one that greatly interests me, because although there are many different cultures around the world, in many respects we are starting to live in one giant culture, because the vast majority of the world (certainly the Western World, but increasingly a lot of the rest too) operates very similarly in terms of the way it is run, the way people act and live out their lives. This is as a result of European colonisation in the 16th-19th century, and the spread of globalisation and American consumer culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, It is easy to assume the way people are is the only way we could be, when it is simply not true.

So the premise is one I really like, but how well did the author manage to fulfil my expectations? While not all topics are equally good (the crime and justice section at the beginning seemed to drag after a while), it was all fascinating and enlightening. The section on health was particularly excellent. Some of the conclusions were new and surprising to me, others more familiar but still had many new insights. For a knowledge junkie like me, this book was manna from heaven.

Here's a couple of quotes/facts I picked out from the book.

"Looming behind this increasing social isolation of the modern elderly is that they are perceived as less useful than were old people in the past, for three reasons: modern literacy, formal education, and rapid technological change."

"the Inuit themselves abandoned war in their own self-interest in order to have more opportunities to profit from trade, and the !Kung may have done the same"

"Roman soldiers were paid in salt, so that our word “salary” for pay is derived not from the Latin root for “money” or “coins” but from the Latin root for “salt” (sal)." [Not particlarly relevant to the thread of the book, but a fact is a fact, I never turn them down!]

"Around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today."

This wasn't the lightest read, but it wasn't particularly difficult either. I should give a shout out to the wonders of the Kindle - I did start reading this over a year ago but put it down after getting bogged down in the first section (on crime and justice). I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and was able to go straight to where I left off. If this had been a paper book I'd probably have taken it to the charity shop ages ago and never picked it up again!

Really enlightening and fascinating book. There were some areas I felt he didn't touch on much that I'd have liked to read about - such as more about the politics and economics of traditional cultures but maybe that is for another book. Still, for a knowledge junkie like me, this book was manna from heaven. 9/10

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Boise, Idaho

One of the - many, many - things that fascinate me, is all the thousands of places around the world that I've never been to, and probably never will (though the possibility that I could visit some of them doesn't hurt). What is it like to walk round there? What are the people like? What is there to see there?

So anyway, I'm watching the X-Files tonight, first season, starting at the beginning. It's just appeared on Amazon Prime Video much to my delight. Episode Two, they are investigating a missing test pilot in Boise, Idaho. But where is Boise, Idaho?

Well obviously it's in Idaho, the 43rd state, which achieved statehood in 1890, and is located in the north west USA, next to Washington State and Oregon. It is one of the largest states by area at around 83,000 square miles, but one of the least popular - only 1.4 million people. Boise is the state capital and largest city in Iowa. It's called the City of Trees because it is so green, but also reputedly because a French speaking guide who came across the place shouted "le bois le bois!" or "the trees, the trees!". The best way to pronounce the name by the way is "BOY-see" which is how the locals say it.

Interestingly for a small city deep in the American West, Boise has the largest ethnic Basque community in the USA, and the fifth largest in the world, after the Basque country in Spain and France, and also Chile and Argentina. Here's a Basque fact far predating the USA. The Basque people are unrelated genetically to the rest of the inhabitants of Western Europe, and are considered a last remnant of ancient pre-agricultural people of Europe. Furthermore, their language is unrelated to the Indo-European language family and is thought to be he original language of Europe.

Anyway back to Boise. It is quite a small city, population about 200,000 but is has plenty of pubs and restaurants, as well as a vibrant nightlife and a few museums. There's also festivals and events on throughout the year, including hosting the New Year's Eve Idaho Potato Drop. It sounds like a great festival, but I'm a bit bemused at the idea of a 16 foot potato dropping on a crown of 40,000 spectactors!

I think I'll leave it there for now...

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A Six Year Old's Outrage at Royal Mail!

My daughter asked Father Christmas for a Sweet Shop this year. That's right, not just sweets, but a Sweet Shop! Fortunately, she wasn't after a high street shop with rent, rates and lots of other bills. She did have entrepreneurial ideas however, and decided that she wanted to sell sweets to help brighten the lives of some seriously ill children. Remarkably, she decided this all on her own, the idea did not come from us, her parents, or anyone else.

She decided she wanted to support children through Post Pals, which she'd learned about from Rainbows (junior Brownies/Guides). Post Pals is a small charity, run solely by volunteers, which is dedicated to making the lives of seriously ill children and their siblings a bit better by facilitating the sending of letters and small gifts through the post to them. Children can search the site to find children they'd like to write to, either on a one off or regular basis.

Come Christmas Day, my daughter was delighted to receive her sweet shop from Father Christmas, and immediately set about selling sweets to the captive audience of mum and dad, then later many more family and friends throughout the festive season. She even bought sweets herself from her sweet shop to further swell the coffers, not opting for the usual business owner's perk of free stuff! A Facebook post resulted in another influx of orders.

Our daughter is quite money saavvy, and was soon counting out her earnings and working out what gifts she could buy for Post Pals she'd identified on the website. She had a few different children she wanted to write to and send something to, and she'd worked out how much she could spend and what she could buy with the money...

Unfortunately, there was a snag when mummy explained about postage. The concept that you had to pay to send letters or items in the post was something that she had not yet been exposed to. She was even more outraged that she was working hard to do such a nice thing, and yet the Royal Mail was taking nearly half of the money she'd raised just to post them. It did cost £11.20 to send 4 x small gifts with cards and is still a bit cross she has to sell 6 bags of sweets just to post each one. I still don't think she's got over it!

Learning Portuguese

At Easter I'm off to Portugal to visit my brother-in-law and sister-in-law on their small-holding, deep in inland Portugal where I believe many people don't speak much - if any - English. I have therefore decided to spend the next 3 months learning Portuguese. Hopefully it will be of some help when I am over there, but I'm doing it just as much for the challenge and because I love learning. I'm also, I've come to realise, fascinated by how languages fit together, about word origins and similarities with words in other languages. I've been surprised already with the similarities to many words in French (though they're both Romance languages, with much of the language derived from Latin, so it is to be expected).

I started this New Year's Resolution on January 1st, and immediately encountered a problem. I'm using Duolingo, a fabulous app for learning languages which I used in the summer to brush up on my French before a trip to Paris. Unfortunately it turns out there are two distinct 'flavours' of Portuguese - European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, and most books, apps, courses etc teach Brazilian Portuguese (understandably - 230 million speak Brazilian Portuguese, 10-15 million speak European Portuguese). I would rather learn European Portuguese, obviously.

I've come up with a sort of compromise. I'm going to carry on using Duolingo. It's a fab app and fits well with me. I'm also using Memrise, another app which offers the choice of European Portuguese, and at some point I'm going to watch/listen to some videos and podcasts and I'll make sure I use European Portuguese ones. I'm still not sure how extensive the differences are, but I believe it is mostly on the pronunciation side, with just the occasional different words.

So along with board games and books posts, I may be posting some of Portuguese learning experiences!

For now, here's the Portuguese words for colours.

red: vermelho/a - presumably derived from 'vermillion' (In fact, yes. Latin is vermis/vermiculus. Vermis literally means worm!).
blue: azul/azuis (singular/plural). Relates to azure blue?. (Azure actually comes from Medieval Latin, which came from Arabic, which came from the Persian 'lazward' for lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone. So there you go!)
yellow: amerelo/a
green: verde - similar to French 'vert' and verdant green.
orange: cor-de-laranja; laranja - sounds a bit like orange. Cor de means colour of, i.e. colour of an orange (fruit).
purple: roxo/a or purpura. I get the second, not sure of the first one.
pink: rosa / cor de rosa - colour of rose, get that easily.
black - preto/a
white: branco - like blanco/blank

Note - am ignoring accents for now, may try to figure out how to put them in at some point.

A note on words ending in o/a. This I understand is to do with gender. Words ending in o are masculine, words ending in a are for feminine words. This works for nouns, but also for adjectives describing things. Interesting.

That's all for now folks.