At Least By 100,000 Years Ago, Humans Looked Just Like Us

(p. 22) The exact time . . . protohumans became fully modern humans is of course debated. Some say 200,000 years ago, but the undisputed latest date is 100,000 years ago. By 100,000 years ago, humans had crossed the threshold where they were outwardly indistinguishable from us. We would not notice anything amiss if one of them were to stroll alongside us on the beach. However, their tools and most of their behavior were indistinguishable from those of their relatives the Neanderthals in Europe and Erectus in Asia.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Marx’s Contradictions Due to His Being a Reactive Journalist Instead of a Philosopher


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(p. 14) Plenty of scholars sweated through the 20th century trying to reconcile inconsistencies across the great sweep of Marx’s writing, seeking to shape a coherent Marxism out of Marx. Sperber’s approach is more pragmatic. He accepts that Marx was not a body of ideas, but a human being responding to events. In this context, it’s telling that Marx’s prime vocation was not as an academic but as a campaigning journalist: Sperber suggests Marx’s two stints at the helm of a radical paper in Cologne represented his greatest periods of professional fulfillment. Accordingly, much of what the scholars have tried to brand as Marxist philosophy was instead contemporary commentary, reactive and therefore full of contradiction.

For the full review, see:
JONATHAN FREEDLAND. “A Man of His Time.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., March 31, 2013): 14.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 29, 2013.)

The book under review:
Sperber, Jonathan. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2013.

Darwin’s Worry About Gradual Evolution of Eye

Darwin and others have worried about whether an eye could have evolved gradually. The issue is whether the earlier gradations leading up to the eye would have given any survival advantage. Matt Ridley’s column, quoted below, argues that Darwin need not have worried.

(p. C4) Davide Pisani and colleagues from the National University of Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of “opsin” protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to detect light.
. . .
. . . , the anatomy of eyes shows every gradation between simple light-sensitive spots and full cameras. The detailed genetic evidence of descent with modification from a single common ancestor further vindicates Darwin and has largely silenced the Intelligent Design movement’s use of the eye as a favored redoubt.
After the duplications that led to working opsin molecules, there seems to have been a long pause before complex eyes appeared.
The first lensed eyes that fossilized belonged to the trilobites which dominated the Cambrian oceans after 525 million years ago.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; A Relief to Darwin: The Eyes Have It.” The New York Times (Tues., November 3, 2012): C4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the November 2, 2012.)

Confident Winner Studied Economics at Cambridge and Directed Bronson in “Death Wish”


“Michael Winner, left, and Charles Bronson on the set of the 1974 film “Death Wish.” The two collaborated on several films.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. B8) Michael Winner, the brash British director known for violent action movies starring Charles Bronson including “The Mechanic” and the first three “Death Wish” films, died on Monday [January 21, 2013] at his home in London. He was 77.
. . .
Mr. Winner’s films viscerally pleased crowds, largely ignored artistic pretensions and often underwhelmed critics. He directed many major stars in more than 30 films over more than four decades.
. . .
Mr. Bronson played Paul Kersey, a New York City architect who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by muggers.
. . .
Michael Robert Winner was born in London on Oct. 30, 1935. The son of a well-to-do business owner, Mr. Winner graduated from Cambridge, having studied law and economics.
. . .
He was confident on set, sometimes bordering on the dictatorial. “You have to be an egomaniac about it. You have to impose your own taste,” he said. “The team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.”

For the full obituary, see:
DANIEL E. SLOTNIK. “Michael Winner, 77, ‘Death Wish’ Director.” The New York Times (Tues., January 22, 2013): B8.
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the slightly different title “Michael Winner, ‘Death Wish’ Director, Dies at 77.”)
(Note: ellipses and bracketed date were added.)

In Later Middle Ages Machines Replaced Slaves and Coolies

(p. 7) By the European Middle Ages, craftiness manifested itself most significantly in a new use of energy. An efficient horse collar had disseminated throughout society, drastically increasing farm acreage, while water mills and windmills were improved, increasing the flow of lumber and flour and improving drainage. And all this plentitude came without slavery. As Lynn White, historian of technology, wrote, “The chief glory (p. 8) of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power.” Machines were becoming our coolies.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

“Before British Settlement” American Indians Lived Lives of “Violence, Terror and Stoic Suffering”


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(p. C8) Mr. Bailyn opens with an account of the Indians of eastern North America in the years before English settlement. He reviews their economy, technology, religion and much else, drawing examples from the Powhatan, the Pequot and other tribes. He emphasizes the violence, terror and stoic suffering in their lives rather more than the contemporary specialists in the subject would, but brutality–on just about everyone’s part–is a major theme throughout this book.

For the full review, see:
J.R. MCNEILL. “BOOKSHELF; Before Plymouth Rock, and After.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 17, 2012): C8.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 16, 2012.)

Book under review:
Bailyn, Bernard. The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Scientists May Be Double-Dipping in Multiple Grants for Same Project

(p. D) The government may be wasting millions of dollars by paying for the same research projects twice, according to a new analysis of grant and contract records.
Researchers from Virginia Tech and Duke University compared more than 600,000 grant summaries issued to federal agencies since 1985. What they found was almost $70 million that might have been spent on projects that were already at least partly financed. The results were published in the journal Nature.

For the full story, see:
DOUGLAS QUENQUA. “Study Flags Duplicate Financing.” The New York Times (Sat., February 5, 2013): D6.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 4, 2013.)

The research summarized above, can be found in:
Garner, Harold R., Lauren J. McIver, and Michael B. Waitzkin. “Research Funding: Same Work, Twice the Money?” Nature 493, no. 7434 (Jan. 31, 2013): 599-601.

Liver Transplant Pioneer Roy Calne Has a “Rebellious Nature”


“Roy Y. Calne” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.

(p. D2) Sir Roy Calne is a pioneer of organ transplants — the surgeon who in the 1950s found ways to stop the human immune system from rejecting implanted hearts, livers and kidneys. In 1968 he performed Europe’s first liver transplant, and in 1987 the world’s first transplant of a liver, heart and lung.
. . .
When you were studying medicine in early-1950s Britain, what was the prevailing attitude toward organ transplantation?
It didn’t exist! While a medical student, I recall being presented with a young patient with kidney failure. I was told to make him as comfortable as possible because he would die in two weeks.
This troubled me. Some of our patients were very young, very deserving. Aside from their kidney disease, there was nothing else wrong with them. I wondered then if it might be possible to do organ transplants, because kidneys are fairly simple in terms of their plumbing. I thought in gardening terms. Might it not be possible to do an organ graft, replacing a malfunctioning organ with a healthy one? I was told, “No, that’s impossible.”
Well, I’ve always tended to dislike being told that something can’t be done. I’ve always had a somewhat rebellious nature. Just ask my wife.

For the full interview, see:
CLAUDIA DREIFUS, interviewer. “A CONVERSATION WITH ROY Y. CALNE; “I’ve always tended to dislike being told that something can’t be done. I’ve always had a somewhat rebellious nature.”” The New York Times (Weds., November 27, 2012): D2.
(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original to indicate interviewer (Dreifus) question.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date November 26, 2012 and has the title “A CONVERSATION WITH ROY Y. CALNE; Organ Transplant Pioneer Talks About Risks and Rewards.”)

Great Cities Innovate to Adapt to Possible Global Warming Floods

(p. C3) Spurred by long histories of disastrous storms, the urban engineers of Venice, Tokyo and the Netherlands have been among the pioneers of modern flood control, building storm surge barriers and sea walls on the scale of the pyramids. Such structures could well be models for New York City in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
The cities most experienced in building bulwarks against flood tides and storm surges are at a turning point, however, in their struggle for control of nature. The land upon which they are built continues to sink, population grows and the seas around them rise. As city planners reach the limits of conventional flood control measures, they are experimenting with ways to re-engineer low-lying urban waterfronts.
In Rotterdam, architects are building houses that float on floods. Beneath Tokyo, engineers have tunneled to create miles of emergency floodwater reservoirs. And in St. Petersburg, where storm tides have flooded the city about once a year since its founding in 1703, engineers last year completed a storm-surge barrier more than 15 miles long.

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “Keeping Our Heads Above Water; What can New York learn from other great cities battling rising tides and sinking land?” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 1, 2012): C3.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 30, 2012.)

Kevin Kelly Explains and Criticizes Amish Attitude toward Technology


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Kevin Kelly’s book has received a lot of attention, sometimes in conjunction with Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, with which it shares some themes. I found the Kelly book valuable, but frustrating.
The valuable part includes the discussion of the benefits of technology, and the chapter detailing Amish attitudes and practices related to technology. On the latter, for instance, I learned that the Amish do not categorically reject new technology, but believe that it should be adopted more slowly, after long community deliberation.
What frustrated me most about the book is that it argues that technology has a life of its own and that technological progress is predetermined and inevitable. (I believe that technological progress depends on enlightened government policies and active entrepreneurial initiative, neither of which is inevitable.)
In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of the more important or thought-provoking passages in the book.

The reference for Kelly’s book, is:
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

The Johnson book mentioned above, is:
Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.