World War Technology

[Content Warning: both World Wars, the Holocaust]

I have a very vivid memory of reading Cryptonomicon, where a character explains that the Allies won World War 2 because they worshiped Athena (technology, strategy), and the Germans worshipped Ares (Brute Strength, physical and moral).

[Some of you may be thinking “But German craftsmanship was better, right?  It took 5/10 American tanks to take down 1 German Tank?”  I thought so too, but apparently no.  To the extent it was true, it was craftsmanship, not technology.]

The Axis did do better in encryption originally, but by the end we were reading much more of their mail than they were reading of ours.  Although it’s important to give credit to this to Polish Intelligence, who broke the Enigma code early on, enabling them to keep up as Germany increased its complexity.  If they hadn’t sent their results to Britain just as Germany invaded, Alan Turing et al. may never have been able to crack it.  That was some high leverage work there.

Anyways, I’m reading The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager) now, which is about the history of nitrogen chemistry, which played a much larger role in World War 1 than I would have guessed.  Fritz Haber’s invention of a way to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form, something previously only accomplished by lightning and a handful of bacteria, is estimated to have prolonged the war by at least one year, possibly two. We’ll get into why in a later post.  That’s Athena.  According to the book, a lot of what the Allies wanted in reparations was not actually money, but German technology, especially chemistry.

[I do not entirely trust Hager on the relative important of chemistry and money here.  He’s spent the entire book waxing lyrical about the importance and beauty of nitrogen.  The internet was not terrible helpful; I’ve confirmed that dyes and pharmaceuticals were among goods taken as reparations, but not the amounts.  Some guy on Quora says the US, Britain, and Germany were equally competitive in technology in 1914.]

Even if Alchemy is overestimating German dominance in chemistry, I think it’s safe to say that technology was a major force behind German military power in World War 1.  And by World War 2, it wasn’t.  They made some advances and would have done worse without them, but no one ended the war thinking “man, getting access to this German technology will save us 20 years in research”.  But 60 years later, Germany is again a leader in technology, and has one of the more functional economies in the world.

This was going to be a “me wondering about a mystery” post, but once I thought about it the answer to “what changed?” is obvious.  Germany exiled or killed 25% of their scientists.  Fritz Haber, the guy who added years to the war with one invention and went on to pioneer chemical warfare?  Jewish  “Germany hurt itself while killing several million people” is not exactly news, but I think it’s important to note individual stories of how.

Although this puts me in the weird position of honoring the guy who more-or-less created chemical warfare.  But that’s maybe okay, because the same process that made Germany gun powder is also feeding half the world right now.  Utilitarian morality is complicated.



Other Ways to Learn About Homonid Diversity

Reading about homonid evolution has me thinking about  Kage Baker’s The Company novels.   This is not exactly a recommendation.   Like many things, The Company series was a dumb story in an interesting setting.  8 years later I’ve completely forgotten the story but the world is still pretty cool.

It’s the year 2300.  Your company has invented immortality… but it has to be done before age 6, and only works on a small percentage of the population, and you’re only kind of human afterwords.  Your company also invents time travel… but you can only go back and you can’t change recorded history.  Neither of these are monetizable on their own, but together The Company R+D department manages to pull itself out of the fire.  It sends a few people back in time to create immortal ~humans, who steal famous art pieces and such right before they were due to go missing any way, and preserve them until you can sell them in the present.  It isn’t exactly creating value, but you’re making money off of it.

That idea was fine, although it’s impossible to do 10 time travel books without paradoxes or an idiot ball.  But every once in a while there’d be a mention of another homonid species that survived without humanity’s awareness.  There were a bunch of immortal semi-robotic neanderthal-and-older knights the Company couldn’t get rid of because immortality is forever.  There’s also a population of eusocial, potion making dwarves that continued to hide from humanity right through 2400 that occasionally pop up.

Again, not recommending, but if you need light reading and really like homonids evolution you could do worse.

Support Aceso Under Glass

TL;DR: you can give me money here, but only if you want to.

Have you ever thought a book sounded interesting if true, but were unsure if you could trust it, or if it was even worth the time to find out?  Wouldn’t it be great if someone marginally qualified investigated the first few chapters and wrote up the results, so you could make an informed judgement without spending much time on it?  I am that marginally qualified person.  I have a BA in biology and computer science, but mostly my qualification is “reading a lot”.  For a demonstration, see my finished list on goodreads.  My other qualification is that, according to witnesses, it is quite fun to watch me yell at things.  I am only going to pick books I think will be valuable, this isn’t going to be a rant-fest, but if I happen to pick a dud you will at least get some entertainment value out of it.

Because this is a little less intrinsically fun than other posts I write, and several people said they would value this kind of thing enough to pay for it, I’ve started a Patreon specifically for book related posts, including the epistemic spot checking described above, summaries of the books that pass, and occasionally summaries of books that didn’t need exhaustive fact checking but I think are important.  If this is a thing you’d like to see more of, please consider contributing.

Why is the Patreon only for book-related blog posts?

The expense and value of my posts vary so widely there was really no one price that was fair for all of them.  The three early-human-history-book fact checks took a couple of hours each, and produced one recommendation for an interesting thing to read.  My post on Tostan took months to write and raised at least $60,000, with good reason to believe that’s a severe underestimate.  You would think getting some money for these posts would be better than getting no money, even if it wasn’t a lot, but no.  I’m trying to work out an explanation for why as part of a longer post on what money means, but it’s not done yet.

On a practical level, epistemic spot checks are the most price sensitive of the posts I do.  In particular, I have a family resistance to buying books when the library is full of free books.  It’s not rational, but having the books provided for me or paid for will make it easier to buy them, which will save me a bunch of timing hassles.  No more feast and famine reading, and I’ll be able to group books by topic.  I also notice I discard books faster if I can buy replacements, which is on the margins good for me.  Once books are paid for, money will go towards buying me time.

What if I want to support something besides the book related posts?

If you would like to commission something specific or purchase a portion of the funders’ credit for an existing post, please contact me at elizabeth-at-this-domain-name.

If you would like to give me an unrestricted grant, you can paypal or send amazon gift cards to this-domain-name-at-gmail-dot-com or buy a book off my amazon wish list (kindle format please).

What if I don’t want to give you any money?

You will lose your chance to read my notes as I work, and if I ever hit it big, the chance to brag that you supported me before it was cool.  You’ll probably cope.


Epistemic Spot Check: A Brief History of the Human Race (Michael Cook)

I was worried my epistemic spot checking project was doomed before it began.  The well regarded Sapiens dismissed a link between cultural and genetic evolution, and Last Ape Standing made two explosively wrong errors in the first chapter.  Neither related to human evolution (one was about modern extreme poverty and the other about cetacean evolution), but I just couldn’t let them go.  I worried that every book was terrible if you actually fact checked it, or maybe just every book on the emergence of homonids?

And then I started A Brief History of the Human Race.  Two chapters in, I cannot find a flaw in it.  There are a few simplifications, and some broad statements he later walks back, but nothing I can point to and say “that is miseducating people.”  Meanwhile there are a lot of things I can point to and say “that is right”, even things I initially thought were wrong.  So I think A Brief History… might be the one.

Here’s a list of statements I checked and their results.  Normally I sort claims into true and untrue sections, but that proved unnecessary in this case because it is a beautiful rigorous snowflake of a book.

Claim: The holocene era has had unusual climactic stability, and is warmer than typical for the planet (page 6).
This checks out, but it’s a little weird that his graph doesn’t label the temperature axes, and it’s a graph of oxygen ratios from a single glacier rather than the wider variety of evidence available.
Cook further claims that this warmth and stability is what let farming, and thus history, start.   There’s some counter evidence to the claim of the holocene as the absolute start of agriculture. but it certainly seems legitimate to say that’s when it really took off.
Claim: there exists art “well over 20,000 years old” (page 9)
I was very surprised by this but if anything he’s underselling it; there’s claims of 50,000 year old art 
Claim: most human DNA is junk DNA that serves no purpose, and mutations have no effect (page 11):
He’s a little behind the times on junk DNA. Even when A Brief History… was published (2003) we knew it that while lots of DNA didn’t encode any proteins, much of it does seem to serve some purpose and mutations in it are significant.  At a minimum noncoding DNA definitely plays a role in the regulation of DNA transcription, the structural cohesion of the chromosome, and protecting coding DNA from degradation.  This is the closest thing to a falsehood I found in the first two chapters.  At the level of genetics this book is discussing I think it’s a forgivable simplification, although an addendum noting the real world was more complicated would have been appreciated.
Claim: humans are inbred (page 12)
Very true.
Page 13: AFAIK this explanation of multiorigin vs out of Africa human evolution hypotheses is correct, and he’s picked the correct winner.
Claim: evidence of human tool use half a million years ago (page 16)
me: there is no way there were tools that long ago.
internet: yes there is.
Claim: early hominid and chimp tool use are both culturally transmitted (page 17)
I’m pretty sure this is correct, and I appreciate the distinction he is making
Claim: it was hard for nomadic hominids to combine their tools in novel ways, because they had so little room. There are exceptions, but they might have been better off sticking with lower technology (page 20).
I am extremely happy to see this guy acknowledge that hunter gatherers had a pretty kick ass life and farming sucked.
Claim: iron is more abundant than copper because of something about supernovas (page 29).
Claim: cattle domesticated multiple times (page 30).
Claim: humans adapt to domesticated animals culturally but not genetically (page 32).
This ignores the co-domestication of humans and wolves but is basically true for everything else.
Claim: humans did not genetically adapt to farming (page 33).
me: ehhhhh….lactose tolerance was a pretty big deal.
p34: exceptions: lactose tolerance and disease resistance.
me: I accept your apology.
Claim: Maori had and then lost the technique for pottery (p36).
Not only is A Brief History… not saying wrong things, it is throwing out tangential facts at about the right rate.  I was never going to look up which molecules supernovas produced.  But now I have a general idea of the concept of “primary elements” and how this affected human history, which makes me happy.
Verdict: A Brief History of the Human Race has passed the epistemic spot check with flying colors, and is enjoyable to read.
This post supported by Patreon.

Epistemic Spot Check: Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari)

Usually I try to write full reviews and only on things I recommend, because take downs are easy and there’s enough negativity in the world.  But a few people on facebook expressed interest in having me factcheck early chapters in books, so they could know what was worth trying.  This is my test of that.  Please let me know what you find useful and not useful about the formatting or information here.

How this worked:  I listened to Sapiens.  When he said something interesting, counterintuitive, or that conflicted with other information I had, I looked it up.  In this post I’ve detailed the claims he made and what my investigation revealed, regardless of who was right.  I’ve also included some correct claims I didn’t need to look up because it’s important to talk about what people get right, and because it changes the way I read the book for the better.

I realize page numbers would be very helpful here, but I’m listening to this on tape so no dice.

False Claims

Claim: humanities’ big break was using tools to access bone marrow from carcasses left behind by lions and hyenas (in that order).  

Marrow is a fantastic source of calories and micronutrients, so this would certainly be a good way for an expensive brain to pay rent.  But I have two problems with this explanation.  One is that we’ve known for decades that lions steal from hyenas much more than the reverse.  Repeating the trope that lions are majestic predators and hyenas dirty scavengers is just lazy.  My second problem is that hyenas can eat bones.  And none of this pansy using a tool to extract the fat nonsense.  They put a bone in their mouth and chew.  Eating marrow after hyenas pick over the carcass is not a viable plan.  There are lots of other ways sapiens could still have made bone scavenging work for them, like working between the lions and the hyenas.  But this is starting to sound much more like a nature show fairy tale than science.

There is a strong school of thought that humans did in fact start as scavengers, although no one can decide if they were the scavengers of last resort, or if social coordination let them push lions off their own kills (PDF).  Personally I’m partial to the endurance hunter hypothesis, but they’re not mutually exclusive and interestingness is not a good predictor of truth.

Claim: Dunbar’s Number, both the value and what happens when you exceed it, is settled science.

I didn’t actually research this one, but nothing in sociology is as settled as he presents this to be.

Claim: Humans are the only animals that have cultural evolution independent of genetic evolution.

This is not true.  There are many documented reports of social transmission of new tool use and behavior  within monkey troops.  Not to mention persistent communication and behavioral differences between primate and cetacean social groups.

I will freely admit that humans are in a league of their own when it comes to cooperative tool design and use, but that’s not what Harari said.  He denied all cultural transmission of ideas among all other animals.

Tenuous Claims

Claim: something overly poetic about the ascendency of man 

“the world had time to adjust to lions becoming awesome.  Humanity became an apex predator so quickly the world didn’t have time to adjust.  Humans themselves didn’t have time to adjust.  “…Sapiens, by contrast, is more like a banana republic dictator.  Having so recently been the underdog of the Savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.  Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this overhasty jump.”

My first instinct was that this is not even wrong enough to investigate.  On the other hand, approximately 104% of my friends have anxiety disorders- could that be because we didn’t have time to evolve out of our fear of predation?  A fairly well accepted but hard to test hypothesis is that a lot of modern human problems come from a mismatch between a stress system meant to handle predation and the problems we’re exposed to now.  Cortisol, the longer lasting of the stress hormones, increases heart and breathing rate, and inflammation, and decreases energy sent to digestion and the long term immune system.  This is a great trade if you are running from a tiger; the increased blood flow and heavy breathing send more oxygen to your muscles, which facilitates running the fuck away.  The inflammation increases the rate at which wounds close.  Your sleep will be lighter so you’ll hear the tiger coming.  Difficulty digesting and fighting parasites is irrelevant if you’re dead, so who cares?  But if the problem is, say, you work in an unstable industry and are constantly afraid of being fired, cortisol is not very helpful.  Sleep deprivation will muddle your thinking.  You’ll get sick more and get fewer nutrients.  And inflammation is responsible for approximately everything bad, so good luck with that.

So there is a sense in which the original statement is close enough for poetry’s sake.   And in one sense it’s tautologically true that if the world had time to adjust to our evolution we wouldn’t cause quite so many ecological dumpster fires.  But framing this as some sort of Napolean syndrome seems suspect to me.  We are so secure in our superiority over lions we get sad when you kill our favorites.  We have a whole week dedicated to celebrating 400 million year old killing machines in the one niche we don’t dominate.

So this claim is a little too gaia-worship to me, but not actually wrong.

True Claims

Claim: Humans are the only animal that barter.  

I thought this was wrong, but it turns out to be correct.  The closest thing to an exception is chimpanzees, who will trade food for sex, but it seems more like a gift economy.   They can be trained to trade food products in a lab, but even with extensive training will do so only reluctantly.  Neither of these impugn the point.

Claim: The development of cooking opened up early humans’ options.

It rendered undigestible foods digestible, made all foods take less energy to digest, and killed pathogens, letting us invest less in our immune system (especially important if any of the scavenger hypotheses are true).

Claim: intelligence and walking upright combine poorly.

A combination of larger heads and the pelvic changes required to walk upright were hell on women, leading to human babies being born underdeveloped and a higher maternal death rate in childbirth.

Slightly suspect: comparisons of the abilities of human neonates to gazelle neonates.  Prey animals are always born more developed than predator animals because your parents can hunt for you in a way they can’t run from predators for you.  Harari also makes the much more valid comparison to tiger kittens, and the point isn’t wrong; human infants are shockingly undeveloped for placental mammals.  But including the gazelles is pointlessly misleading.

Claim: Homo sapien mostly killed other homo species but did interbreed with them a little

DNA analysis shows that Europeans have small amounts of neathanderthal DNA and east asians have small amounts of denisovan DNA.

Claim: The word Homo in Homo sapien means “man” or “human” in Latin.

I was going to get really snotty about this, because everyone knows homo means same.  Turns out that’s what it means in Greek.   In Latin Homo does in fact mean “human.”  Touche, book.

You Lost Me At…

Timestamp 1:18 (out of 14:04)

This is where Harari lays out his thesis: humans ability to create universally agreed upon abstractions like gods, laws, and corporations is the thing that led us to create civilization.

This sounds plausible and I would like to hear more.  However I get the distinct impression he thinks cultural evolution is opposite or at least orthogonal to biological evolution, as opposed to a tool of it.  He uses Catholic priests and Buddhist monks as examples of people driven by cultural forces to take paths that are obviously evolutionary dead ends.  I know more about the Catholic Church than I do about Buddhist monks so that’s talk about that .

The most obvious flaw: taking a vow of celibacy is not the same as being celibate.    Hard number for low ranking priests are hard to find, but please enjoy this list of sexually active popes.  Additionally, the reason I struggled to find accurate numbers on medieval priests is that the google results were dominated by the modern Church’s sexual abuse scandals.

Next, not having children is not the same as being an evolutionary dead end.   Naive group selection is not a thing, but kin selection totally is.  Being a local priest and putting your thumb on the scale in favor of your nephews is a perfectly viable evolutionary strategy.

Third, he asserts that myths such as Catholicism drive people to actions independent of environmental conditions.  This is not true.  As societal wealth rises (and nobles no longer need someone safe to stash third sons) the Catholic Church has had a harder and harder time finding people willing to take vows.  They increasingly rely on unordained deacons and priests from third world countries.

Culture can definitely induce changes that are counter to one’s genetic interests.  But that’s an accident, the same way that cancer is an accident.  The interesting thing is how biological evolution created a platform through which cultural evolution could serve our biological interests (on average).

For a while I worried I was being uncharitable because he wasn’t paying sufficient respect to my pet subject.  This doubt went away at 1:18, when he said “The cognitive revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.”  He does walk this back a little, but some things can’t be unsaid.


A couple of sloppy simplifications that aren’t breakers but do lower the value of the author’s word.

Author’s understanding of evolution too weak for me to want to hear more.  Sometimes I like seeing other people’s models of the world even if they’re not literally true, but explaining culture without genetics feels completely unmoored to me.

Why I Get To The Airport Early

I have a lot of friends who say that if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports.  One missed the flight to his own wedding*.  I get to airports stupidly early.  A little less so now that I have pre-check**, but still quite early.  One part of this is that I find the mere thought of missing my plane stressful, being stressed is unpleasant, and extra time at the airport isn’t actually that bad.  I have my laptop, I have my kindle, which is like 90% of what I was going to do at home anyway.

The other reason is that I don’t like who I am when I’m stressed.  I won’t actually cut in line at security, but I will be extremely territorial about my place in line.  I won’t mow people down, but I will be quite stark in my desire for them to stop weaving around the terminal and let me pass them.  But if I know I have lots of time, I can be generous.  I can let the poor planner ahead of me in line, because it’s only an extra two minutes out of my day, not the potential difference between making my flight and not.  I take the time to definitely not clip anything with my suitcase, even if they did leave their stuff way out in the hallway and are obviously slowing everyone down. I’m just a nicer person when I’m not worried about a sharp discontinuity in life quality in the next two hours.

I have a fair amount of savings: certainly a lot more than the average American.  You could argue I should give more away.  But much like the extra time at the airport, having that money makes me a calmer, more generous person.  If I legit need $N to smooth out emergencies, and $M to feel like I can smooth out emergencies, than you could view $(M-N) as an asset that pays dividends in the form of me being a better person.  On a micro level (taking a looser attitude towards cost sharing with friends) and macro (donating more when a sudden need arises, taking a lower paying job to work directly on poverty***).  I’m more willing to invest in my own health and trade money for time, which given the relative impact of money versus my job is almost certainly net better for the world.  And if I were ever faced with a choice between morality and leaving my job, I can walk away.

I guess I am feeling a little defensive because  obviously that money would make a more immediate difference in the life of someone else.  But this is what I am doing.


*He was flying in a day before the wedding so he missed the prep but was not actually late for the ceremony.

**I know it’s extortion but I don’t care, it’s so easy.

***To be fair this job is better than my last one in a number of ways.  For starters I have not once compared it to Azkaban.

Dreamland: bad organic chemistry edition

I am in the middle of a post on Dreamland (Sam Quinones) and how it is so wrong, but honestly I don’t think I can wait that long so here’s an easily encapsulated teaser.

On page 39 Quinones says “Most drugs are easily reduced to water-soluble glucose…Alone in nature, the morphine molecule rebelled.”  I am reasonably certain that is horseshit.  Glucose contains three kinds of atoms- carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.  The big three of organic chemicals.  Your body is incapable of atomic fusion, so the atoms it starts with are the atoms it ends up with, it can only rearrange them into different molecules.  Morphine is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, and that nitrogen has to go somewhere, so I guess technically you can’t reform it into just sugar.  But lots of other medications have non-big-3 atoms too (although, full disclosure, when I spot checked there was a lot less variety than I expected).

This valorization of morphine as the indigestible molecule is equally bizarre.  Morphine has a half-life of 2-3 hours (meaning that if you have N morphine in your body to start with, 2-3 hours later you will have N/2).  In fat that’s one of the things that makes it so addictive- you get a large spike, tightly tying it with the act of ingestion, and then it goes away quickly, without giving your body time to adjust.  Persistence is the opposite of morphine’s problem.

This is so unbelievably wrong I would normally assume the author meant something entirely different and I was misreading.  I’d love to check this, but the book cites no sources, and the online bibliography doesn’t discuss this particular factoid.  I am also angry at the book for being terrible in general, so it gets no charity here.