Monday, January 29, 2007

Evolution has halted

In one of his books (The Story of B maybe?), Quinn said that we have halted evolution.  He only mentioned the idea in passing, and it hasn't reappeared in other books, so I'm guessing he doesn't consider it a key element of his ideas.  Still, it is one that caught my attention. What does he mean?
Modern medicine and friends
I've heard people say something like this before, but usually it turns out that they just don't understand what evolution is.  They typically mean something like 
In the 'wild', people who (can't see / can't walk / have regular seizures / have acute ashma / have low sperm counts / etc.) would not survive to reproduce, thus the human species would tend to select for the opposite traits.  Thanks to modern medicine we allow these traits to continue to occur, and potentially proliferate in our gene pool, resulting in a weaker human population over time.

Or to put it colloquially, "our technology means that the human species is getting worse."  (The problem with that statement, of course, is that evolution doesn't say anything about "better" or "worse" but merely about "more fit" and "less fit" to survive in a given niche.)
I don't disagree that this occurs.  In fact, I have an example that is close to home.  My English grandfather was not sent off to fight in World War II, because he had asthma.  While his healthier peers went off & died, he stayed home and had 3 children, all of whom had some breathing issues.  I have some of those traits, albeit mild ones.  The decision to select non-asthmatics as soldiers meant that we selected for asthma in the next generation of the English.
However, this doesn't mean that evolution has halted.  It means that the mechanism of selection has changed.  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, the ability to, well, hunt and gather, is clearly critical to survival, so characteristics that interfere with the ability to do those things ( e.g. blindness) are likely to reduce reproduction, and hence their representation in the gene pool.  In modern, civilized society, the criteria are different, but they still exist.  For example, physical attractiveness is still a factor in sexual selection; the ability to eliminate or tolerate certain toxins (e.g., cadmium, mercury) or radiation is more important today than it was 10,000 years ago.  So, evolution of humans still occurs today, and will always occur.
Similarly, the characteristics that are selected for in other species have been dramatically affected by the world-wide dominance of human civilization.  The traits of cows are desirable to humans as a food source, so we increase their opportunity to proliferate.  Meanwhile, predators of cows, such as wolves, have traits that interfere with cow's proliferation, so we reduce their opportunity to proliferate.  In these ways, we have a dramatic impact on the gene pools of both cows and wolves on the earth.
Now, I don't know for sure what Quinn meant, but I'm guessing this isn't it.  He clearly has a deep understanding of evolution and natural selection -- probably much deeper than mine -- so he probably wouldn't make such a simple error.
Food supply limitations
Perhaps what Quinn meant was:
Consider that civilized humans transform available land from its wild state to a food-producing state.  We do this rapidly and efficiently, thereby allowing us to produce corresponding increases in food supply.  Whereas non-civilized peoples have allowed food supply to limit their numbers ("living in the hands of the gods"), we have effectively removed the limits on food availability for nearly all humans on earth.  In this way, a limited food supply is not a significant factor in the gene selection of civilized people.
That seems much more reasonable, and in line with a lot of what Quinn has to say elsewhere, but I still have trouble believing that's what he meant.  Saying that you have "stopped evolution" seems to be a much stronger statement than saying that you have "removed food supply limitations as an environmental selector".
Who lives and who dies?
Or perhaps he meant:
Consider that civilized humans will, without hestiation, obliterate obstacles to increasing food supply for humans.  Cows like to graze pasture, so we'll destroy rain forests extremely rapidly ( 100 acres / minute!), destorying the "inconsequential" life in that area, so that our cows may graze.  If wolves show interest in our cows, we won't just defend the cows when the wolves approach.  We systematically seek out and destroy all wolves, nearly eliminating them as a species, on purpose.  We make the decisions about which species thrive and which are decimated.  For millions of years, the selection was made by a complex mix of natural forces; for the past 10,000 years, we have taken that decision in to our own hands.  We decide who lives and who dies.
The gods love diversity
Or perhaps even:
The universe if full of diversity.  Each blade of grass is unique.  Each plant is unique.  Each mammal is unique.  Each species is unique.  Just as the Law of Gravity is written in every particle of matter, the Law of Life is written in every living thing.  Diversity of life is at the essense of that law.  Diversity of life is at the essense of the theory of natural selection.  Civilized man has dramatically reduced the diversity of life on the earth, by driving some species to extinction, while we allow others to proliferate almost unchecked.  The result dismantles the normal functioning of evolution by natural selection.
It's just selection
Maybe it's something much simpler.  Wikipedia's summary of Darwin's theory is "populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection".  Under natural selection, it says:

Natural selection is the process by which favorable traits that are heritable propagate throughout a reproductive population: individual organisms with favorable traits are more likely to survive and reproduce than those with unfavorable traits. If these traits have a genetic basis, then the genotypes associated with the favored traits will increase in frequency in the next generation. Given enough time, this passive process results in adaptations and speciation (see evolution). Natural selection explains why living creatures seem to match their environmental niches so well.

Natural selection is one of the cornerstones of modern biology. The term was introduced by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking 1859 book The Origin of Species, [1] by analogy with artificial selection, by which a farmer selects his breeding stock.

So, maybe Quinn means "we've stopped evolution by replacing natural selection with artificial selection".
Hmm.  This last one seems the most plausible -- it's the one that holds together, and the one that you'd expect from someone who had studied evolution carefully.

Finding hope in criticism

The Ismael article on Wikipedia says this under "Criticism of population claims":
Recent population trends indicate a dropoff in fertility rates in most regions in the globe; many demographers claim that increased women's autonomy and access to reproductive technology is responsible for the decrease, and that such trends actually bring fertility below the " replacement rate" in many industrialized nations. Some argue that people in industrial societies have less of an incentive to "over-reproduce," as children are a net economic drain, unlike in agrarian societies. In this view, it is possible that population levels will become self-limiting if high rates of reproduction become irrational and avoidable.
It's an understandable criticism, and Quinn's response is described in that article.  However, there's something else here.
It is true that in industrialized nations aren't growing their population the way other parts of the world are.  While the potential reasons are concerning
  • too busy conusming products and media to breed
  • too busy working to pay off the debt from the former
  • exposed to polutants that interfere with fertility or libido
there is some hope.  You see, people in these countries aren't sitting around mourning their lack of reproduction.  They aren't crying in the streets because they didn't have any kids.  For the most part, they're perfectly content to not be reproducing so much.
That's where the good news lies: there is a way to get civilized people to avoid reproducing in such large numbers.  Something in their life is pushing a button that gets them to choose not to reproduce so verbosely..  Now all we need to do is find another way to push that same button -- a way that doesn't involve the incredible consumption of natural resources and production of pollutants.
(Flash-forward: In Beyond Civilization, Quinn has a proposal for a way to address the ills he describes in his earlier books.  Perhaps that proposal can succeed because it is able to push this "don't reproduce so much" button, without the undeseriable consequences that Quinn points out in response to the criticism above.)

Is mass starvation the answer?

When I first read Ishmael, it took me a lot of contemplation to make sense of what he was saying. These are ideas that conflict directly with what we hear every day, everywhere we go. I'd heard the same message since I was very young. Anything else was difficult to understand at first.

Today, I think I have gotten past the initial hump, and can at least articulate what I believe Quinn is saying. Most of what he said in Ishmael seemed pretty reasonable to me. The ideas are not complex, even if they are outside my normal arena of thought.

However, there was one bit that I got stuck on.

He talks about the relationship between food supply an population. That for any population of a given species, if you increase the food supply, the population will grow to match, and if you decrease the food supply the population will shrink to match. He says this is true for all species, and that includes humans. What our culture has done, via Tolitarian Agriculture, is to continually, and dramatically increase our food supply for 10,000 years.

He also makes a strong case that this behavior is a problem - that it's not sustainable. In fact, we have long since past the point of sustainabilty. To attempt to maintain current behavior will result in our extinction, and soon -- Quinn says 100 years if we keep going the way we're going.

When I read this, I thought it sounded like Quinn was saying we should reduce the food supply available to humanity, which would in turn reduce the human population. That is, people need to get busy starving to death .

Well, that's not something I can accept very easily, for a number of reasons:

Starving hurts. Really, it's a terrible way to go. I hate it when dinner is late; I can't imagine the agony of dying of hunger.

Who decides? Some will go hungry, while others eat enough. Who chooses? Judging by our past behaviors, it will be the elite that chooses, and they will choose themselves & their friends to eat. That is, the haves will have food, and the have-nots will not have food. The fact that I would almost certainly be in the 'haves' is no comfort to me. Anyway, this is something that no one has the right to choose. As Quinn says, "who lives and who dies" is a matter for the gods; the fact that we think we are wise enough to make that choice is the reason we ended up here in the first place.

The system would be abused. Duh. No matter how fair the system could be, someone will use their power to abuse it.

Still, perhaps we can convince ourselves that it's OK for mass starvation to happen, because:
a) today lots of people are already starving
b) the result would be "better for humanity"

But then I consider:

It's only temporary. If we could reduce the human population by 90% this way, the remaining 10% would have little motivation to stick with the program, and our numbers would grow again. We're doubling every 37 years, so it would take a bit over a century to restore the current population.

Then I consider what I think I know about Quinn. He is not trying to deliver a doomsday message, but instead a message of hope. It just doesn't seem to fit him to say that he's suggesting we starve 90% of the population. He must have a better idea in mind.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

more Quinn

After reading Quinn's Ishmael trilogy, I was looking for more content. I put a hold on the rest of Quinn's work at the library. 2 items appeared right away, and of course I consumed them in short order.

The first was Tales of Adam, a series of short parables about a man in a hunter-gatherer tribe, teaching his son the lessons of life.

The second, entitled An Anamist Testament was a pair of cassette tapes of Quinn reading his work. The first tape was Tales of Adam. The second was The Book of the Damned.

It was interesting listening. They reflect many of the same ideas that appeared in Ishmael, but from a different perspective. Where Ishmael is written for someone civilized who is new to these ideas, these tapes seem more appropriate with someone who has already digested Ishmael.

Now that I have consumed 6 titles of Quinn's work, am I an expert? Far from it. I'm working hard to probe his ideas, and re-evaluate my thinking with this new perpective. It's slow going. Luckily, my wife has also read some of his work and is interested in talking through this stuff.

I hope to have a little time to blog about my thoughts.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Tips for living simply #4 - if you get stuck, cheat

When I first started getting rid of stuff, it went quickly.  There was lots of trash collected everywhere.  Just putting it in the trash can made a big difference.
Then I started getting rid of things that I knew I didn't need.  For example, I had 3 motorcycles but rarely rode, and 2 of them didn't even run.  I gave the broken down bikes to a high school auto shop class.
More recently, I got stuck.  I could see that there was plenty of stuff to filter through and discard, but the real reason I was stuck is that there was even more stuff in the house that I didn't know what to do with, specifically kids stuff - toys, books, etc.  I know how to deal with my stuff, and am willing to make the decision to deny myself an item I might want to have on hand (say, a spare hard drive) in exchange for the clarity, simplicity, and comfort that come with having an uncluttered, managable home.  However, I was not comfortable making that same decision on behalf of my kids.  How can you take away your kids toys?
At the same time, I knew the toys were a problem.  The twins are nearly a year old, and are more than capable of putting out every toy in the house in just a few minutes.  They are, of course, completely unable to put them away.  It then takes me 20+ minutes to put all those toys away, assuming I sort them out properly - legos in this box, blocks in that box.  (If I don't sort them, instead just tossing them in to a huge bin, then there's no way anyone can find a complete set of somethign to play with.)
I knew that we had too many toys, but how few is too few? For most of human history - millions of years -- children grew up without any toys to speak of, and presumably they still had fulfilling childhoods, and became well-functioning adults with fulfulling adulthoods.  Even today, I see that my children use play to learn about the world around them, but they often use items that are not specifically designed to be "toys" but have some other purpose.  This makes sense, as what children are trying to do is learn about being a person by mimicing their parents, and their parents are using hammers and forks and pillows and cars, not legos and dolls and blocks and marbles. 
In fact, this is the essense of unschooling - that children learn because that's what children do, not because someone teaches them.  This is the natural way of things.  You don't have to fight it, or force it.  You also don't have to ignore it - you can facilitate it.  You can make sure that children have opportunities to explore what they want to learn about, and trust that they will learn, and enjoy that learning.
So, it seems that the minimum number of toys for a healthy childhood is zero. (Can you see my reasoning?)
I started grabbing complete toys and removing them from the scene.  I prioritized toys that were not completely age appropriate for our kids today, and toys that were in complete sets in their own containers.  These I carried out to the shed.  I did this until I got tired of it.  
Suddenly there's a lot more room in the house, especialy in the rooms we use the most.  The toys we still have around are well-used.  After the kids have played in a room, I can still walk through it without breaking something underfoot.  I can clean up after them in a reasonable amout of time.
The title of this post suggest cheating, which is exactly what I've done.  We still own a lot of things we don't need, and we're perhaps ignoring the problem by putting them in the shed.  That's still better than keeping them in the main living areas.  It means we're acutally a step closer to getting rid of those toys entirely, if we decide that we like the way things are now better than before.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Reid likes pizza

Yesterday Reid & I went on one of our adventures. Before the twins were born, we used to do this pretty often. We'd pick a museum or something and catch a couple busses to get there. Good parent/child time.

Yesterday's involved a long ferry ride. I didn't let him eat on the boat because he was experiencing some motion sickness. When we arrived we decided to eat at a pizza joint. Reid ate a large slice, and insisted he was still hungry. The second slice was even bigger, so I grabbed this snapshot.

Friday, January 12, 2007

OK, I'll write

Lee also says:

You solve problems all day. Even if it’s a relatively simple solution
(script, house repair tip, way to get better gas mileage,) write about it
anyways. Those looking to solve that same problem in the future will thank

OK, here I go:


My PowerShell prompt:

function prompt{
Write-Host ("PS " + $(get-location) +">") -nonewline -foregroundcolor Magenta
return " "

house repair tip

If you decide to run new low-voltage wiring (like ethernet), go ahead and pull way, way more than you think you need. The work to pull the first wire is huge. The additional cost to pull a bundle is small. I recently pulled:

  • Cat-5e (ethernet)
  • Cat-5e (phone)
  • Cat-5e (spare)
  • RG-6 (video)

Now I think I should have pulled another RG-6, which people seem to like for satellite.

I'm wondering if I can use the spare Cat-5e to run line-level audio for whole-house music.

(Great thanks to my brother for doing the messy under-house work.)

way to get better gas mileage

Don't drive. Walk, bike, bus, or don't go in the first place. This is so much more effective than anything else I can offer.

When I do drive, I've picked up the following highly annoying habit: I go really slowly up hills. Specifically, I try to take it easy on the gas up a hill, even if that means I gradually lose speed. With an automatic transmission, I try to keep as much throttle on as I can without it downshifting. This does seem to annoy other drivers, so I try to do it when there's no one right behind me.

When I approach a red light, I get off the gas way, way early, which saves some gas. I'll even brake a little, from far away, in order to still have some momentum when the light goes green and other traffic starts to move. This doesn't make me any later, but somehow it still pisses off the other drivers, who then drive harder to get past me. So it may be a net loss.

Lee on Writer's Block

I just read Lee Holmes' post entitled Break your Writer's Block. He's right, and I think his suggestions can help me get blogging again.

My favorite quote:
you’ll find that you can produce more random junk in a minute than you could
have imagined.

It's true!

I read Lee's blog because he works on PowerShell, which I just mentioned. Neat.

I am B

Years ago I read some Daniel Quinn. I could tell he was saying something important, but I couldn't figure out what it meant or what to do with it. I'm not sure why, but I just wasn't ready for it, I guess.

In November I read Providence, which touches on a bunch of his ideas in a shorter space. This time it really clicked, and I decided it was time try again.

For Christmas, I asked my wife to get me. Two by Daniel Quinn: Ishmael and The Story of B . Two by Patrick O'Brian: HMS Surprise and The Mauritius Command . However, I hate the way that the Christmas giving obligation drives us to spend, consume natural resources, create trash, etc. So I asked her to get them from the library if possible, or used otherwise.

So, in the last 3 weeks I have read Ishmael, the Story of B, and My Ishmael (which I already had a copy of from my previous experience). I hadn't read B before, because someone told me it was about religion, and discussion religion usually bores me to tears.

Ishmael struck me again. I came away with one big question: if we need to quickly, drastically reduce human population in order to make room for some other life on the planet, and we assume that population is directly linked to food supply, then we must reduce the amount of food humans are consuming, just as quickly and drastically. This makes perfect sense at the species level, but I have trouble with it on the individual level. I'm not willing to let someone I care about starve just because I think there are too many people. Furthermore, I'm not willing to decide that the people I care about shall be well-fed, while the have-nots go hungry, even if I do believe it's somehow for the good of the species and the whole planet.

What I'm really run in to here is the one of the fundemental issues that Quinn is pointing to: the fact that I, as a "Taker" think that the decision of who lives and who dies belongs in the hands of man. I read him as saying that I must make that decision, but I sense that he's not saying that at all.

The Story of B was much better than I expected. The religious aspects did not bore me at all, and the story was damn interesting. In that way it kept my attention better than any of his other books that I've read. The message that changed minds are required is important. I may not know how to change the way we live, but perhaps I can spread the understanding that a change is necessary, and why.

My Ishmael was fine for me, until the narrative at the end. I think I understand why it was important for some people, but for me I was not so interested in that part. I was looking for insights, and the story involved characters I didn't care about very much, since we hadn't really met them as people in the first part of the book.
The increased focus on "moving forward" and on tribal, not hierarchical structures for humanity is clearly important, and something I can lean on to help me in the future.

The next book to read is Beyond Civilization, which I read 2 years ago. You can see the impact it had on me in the Christmas Spirit post I linked to above. I don't have my copy any more (loaned it out, I think). Time to find another copy. After that, it's on to his latest book, If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways, which is very, very new. I think I'll read it, too.

PowerShell is awesome

I want to declare my love of PowerShell to the world.

What is the Yoga of Stretching?

A while back I read The Yoga of Eating. It has had a lasting affect on my. Not just on my way of thinking about food, but on my understanding of Yoga itself.

One example of my learning: I realized that if I'm going to get physically fit, I need to find a way to do it without it being work. Going to the gym for an hour and doing the stairmaster just doesn't work for me. I know I won't do it. What I've done instead is integrate activity in to my life in a way that meets other needs as well. For example, I bike my son to school. I enjoy our time together, and I like the oddness of it.

One aspect of my physical health that is pretty far from where I want it to be is my flexibility. I can't remember ever having been able to touch my toes without bending my knees. Heck, I can't remember being able to reach my ankles.

I find that I don't really enjoy stretching. I've taken yoga classes, but they are more like aerobics classes with a different set of movements. The Yoga of it seems lost. Instead, I'm trying to find an activity that is interesting for some other reason, and will improve my flexibilty.

The only thing can think of so far is swimming, but I'm not sure. Does swimming make you more flexible?

Any other suggestions?

Edit: This page: seems to suggest that they know something interesting, but they aren't saying what unless you pay. And I ain't paying.

Edit 2: When I imagine "flexible", I think of the opening scenes in the Firefly episode Objects in Space. River walks in to the cargo area, and bends over to consider an object on the ground. She could probably put her forhead on her shins.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

recent ferments

The folks that came to visit us in December were fermentation-friendly.  They were willing to try anything I had made.  Seemed like a good time to break out the things that were hiding in the corners.
wild blackberry wine
Last summer my brother and I picked about 2 quarts of wild blackberries on the side of the road.  I ran them through the blender to make a juicy mush, about 1 quart.  Added 3 quarts of water.  I probably dumped in a cup of some other ferment that was already going in the kitchen, but I don't remember.  Let it ferment in a jar for a week or two, then moved to a narrow-mouthed jug with an airlock.  Put that in the back of a closet until last week.
It was good, but not great.  Biggest problem is that there was too much water.  I probably should not have added any, and just gone with the juice.
Water & honey, in a 4:1 ratio.  Stir often until fermentation gets active.  Once it settles down, bottle.  Let it sit in the back of closet.
Excellent.  Each bottle is a little different.  Some are dry, some are sweet.  All are very fizzy, with tiny champaign-like bubbles.  Everyone loves it.
I've decided to make lots more of this, and make it more often.  I have a quart of it sitting on the counter now, which I stir often, trying to get a good culture.  It doesn't seem to be going well, so I think I'll need to start over.  Once I have a good bubbly mix, I'll be making a bunch.
I'm thinking of a two-week cycle.  Every other weekend I bottle what I have, saving a little to start another batch.
I may need more bottles.
Before my thanksgiving trip I started some kraut.  I had 3 heads of cabbage sitting in the fridge that I couldn't find time to make.  With the trip coming, I decided to take shortcuts.  I cut the heads in to big peices, no where near the shredding that is common with commercial sauerkraut.  Salt, in to crocks, add some water to cover.  As an experiement, I kept the heads intact and put them on the bottom.  It's like a prize. :-)
They turned out really well; the kraut is very crisp.  Plenty of people are enjoying it. I look forward to having a generous cellar one day, where I can keep gallons of kraut around all winter.


Seattle Storm

Mid-december there was a big windstorm in the Seattle area.  Lots of people had it pretty bad.  Power out for a week, no heat, and the weather was cold.  Or trees fell through their homes.  Stuff like that.
We didn't have power for about 2 days, which sucked while it happened, but seems mild by comparison now.  We didn't really have a good source of backup heat.  We have a fireplace that we hadn't used ever, even though we've been in the house 9 years.  We collected scraps of dead branches and some old rotten logs, and tried our best to bring in some heat.  It made a difference, but damn it was cold.
The next day we heard that friends in the next county had power, and invited ourselves to go visit.  Thanks Kevin!  That evening we got power back, and headed home.  The house was a total mess, as we hadn't done any cleaning for 2 days, and there were wood chips everywhere.
The next day we heard that some friends were hiding out in Canada, because their home didn't have power yet.  We invited them to come join us, which they did.  They stayed with us for 2 nights, and I really enjoyed having the company.  Then my brother-in-law and his fiance arrived, for the holidays.  A few days later my sister-, mother-, and father-in-law arrived.  We had 10 in the house for a while, wow!  The last of them left on the 31st.  Now the house is pretty quiet, and empty.  The full load of parenting is back on our shoulders, but we're doing OK. 
One tree fell in our yard.  It was about 100 ft. tall, but only 50 years old.  Fast-growing, I guess.  The folks I talked to said it was a "theadora", which I've never heard of.  The tree fell leaning up against the neighbor's tree, knocking the top off that tree, which then crashed to the ground with a big thud.  The only real damage was a bit of fencing.
We paid a small fortune to get the leaning tree taken down, so it wouldn't fall further and create more damage.  Now our backyard is a big mess, with enormous logs that I can barely move and a deep covering of branches.
I'm waiting for insurance stuff to work out, in the hopes that they'll pay for the cleanup.

Gee, I wish I was blogging

I haven't been posting much over that last year, for two reasons. If you're a parent, I'm sure you understand how much work it is to have an infant in the house.

If you're not a parent of twins, consider this: with a single baby, there's usually one parent busy with a baby, and one that has both hands free for other activities. When the busy one needs both hands free, they can trade.

With two babies, both parents are usually busy with a baby. If one needs both hands free, the other parent has to take both babies, which they can only do for so long.

It's certainly not as hard as it was when 6 months ago. Today the babies like to play on their own (emptying kitchen cupboards, for example) and that gives us time to do other things (yay, a shower!).

I know that some people have an even harder time of it than we do. Some people have triplets, or more. We have friends that had two sets of twins. Some people parent alone. Some don't have the option to have a parent stay at home with the kids. Many struggle just to get enough money to get by.

I'm very greatful to all the family that has come to visit & help. My wife's parents have come out 3 times in the last year. My brother & his girlfriend moved in with us for 16 weeks! My dad, my siblings-in-law, and my wife's high school friend have all come out for a week or so. It has made a huge difference. I wish my mom could have.

Well, I have plenty of things I want to blog about, but not enough time to write them the way I want to. I think I"ll try just whipping them out quickly, and see how that goes.
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