Review: Martyr Made Podcast

Introduction

Sometimes I consume media that makes factual claims. Sometimes I look up some of these claims to see how much trust I should place in said media, in a series I call epistemic spot checks. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on how useful this is. Focusing on evaluating particular works instead of developing a holistic opinion on an entire subject does feel perverse to me. OTOH, sometimes non-fiction is recreational, and I don’t think having some of my attention directed by people I find insightful and trustworthy is a bad thing, as long as I don’t swallow their views unquestioningly. Additionally, there’s a pleasant orderliness to doing ESCs, like the intellectual equivalent of cleaning my house. It’s not enough in and of itself, but it can free up RAM such that there’s room for deeper work.

I started listening to Darryl Cooper’s Martyr Made last year as part of a deep dive on cults, but kept going because I found him incredibly insightful. After listening to the 30+ hours of the God’s Socialist sequence, I Googled around and found a few accusations of racism against Cooper. I didn’t believe the accusations then, and I still don’t. People can go through the motions of saying what other people tell them to, but they can’t fake what Cooper does, which is to approach every human being as someone worthy of respect and compassion, whose actions are probably reasonable given their incentives. I value that a lot more than proper signaling.

Some time later I found an archive of Cooper’s deleted Twitter logs, and, uh, I get where people are coming from on the racism thing. I still absolutely believe in his respect and compassion for everyone except members of the USSR leadership (and even then, he’ll say very nice things about the intentions of early communists).  However, the thing about doing that genuinely instead of choosing a side and signaling allegiance is that it doesn’t compress well to 140 characters, and he said a bunch of things that were extremely easy to round to terrible beliefs. I might also have mistaken him for racist, if all I had was his Twitter. But given the podcasts, I am very sure that he respects-and-has-compassion-for every human being.

[Between when I started listening and when I published this Cooper returned to Twitter, which I have mixed feelings about. Namely “I think this is bad for him intellectually and emotionally” vs. “He’s talking to me! Hurray!”]

I’m not a big fan of emotion in my history podcasts. Martyr Made is an exception. Cooper goes hours out of his way to make sure you understand how something felt, without ever coming across as dishonest or manipulative. Some of that is that he often uses himself as an example and is very upfront about his flaws. Some of that is the aforementioned respect and compassion seeping into everything he does. Some is good writing. 

For example, God’s Socialist is nominally about Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, but Cooper doesn’t believe Jonestown makes any sense unless you understand the 60s, hippies, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement. The prologue consists of a description of various race riots/race wars, the contemporary and just-pre-Civil-Rights-movements, and easily 15 minutes on his interactions with some homeless people in his neighborhood. For the last of these, he observes that though he’s occasionally kind, he mostly just ignores the individuals in question, and that sometimes he thinks that on Judgement Day the only thing that’s going to matter is how he failed to really help those men- whatever he did, it was for the wrong motives and much too little. I wrote a bunch of angry notes about how virtue ethics was bullshit while listening to this part, but by the end it became clear that he wasn’t making a call to any particular action, it was just an honest accounting of suffering in the world. He was walking me through it because he felt it was necessary to understand Jim Jones, whose first acts as an adult were taking care of people most of society was stepping over. 

All of this is to say: Martyr Made is one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction in the world. I’ve learned so much from it both factually and emotionally, but I felt vulnerable talking about that until I was absolutely rock solid on the author’s epistemics. I finally had time to do an epistemic spot check on the start of God’s Socialist (still my favorite sequence in the series), and I’m extremely relieved to announce that he nailed it, although just like my ESC of Acoup, it is not so amazingly perfect that the follow up wasn’t worth doing (and I assume Cooper would agree with that, just like Bret Devereaux did).

A word on ESCs: there’s a range of things it can mean to check someone’s epistemics. Sometimes it means checking their simple concrete facts. You would be amazed how many problems this catches. Another is to check leaps of logic: they can have their facts right but draw wildly incorrect inferences from them. Finding these requires more cognition, but is also fairly easy. Cooper did great on both of these, which was not surprising. My concern was always that his facts were literally true but unrepresentative. Accurate-in-spirit representation is one of the hardest things to judge, especially about really contentious issues like racial violence where second opinions are just another thing to fact check. What I can say is that everything I checked I was either able to concretely verify, or was extremely consistent with what I was able to find but was open to other interpretations, because it’s a contentious area with motivated record keeping.

The God’s Socialist sequence of Martyr Made is 30 hours long. I have ESCed the prologue, which is 90 minutes long, and some especially load-bearing claims I remembered from later in the podcast. I also happen to have already read one of Cooper’s most quoted sources, The Warmth of Other Suns (affiliate link), back in 2014. 2014 is a long time ago and I didn’t ESC Warmth at the time, but what Cooper quoted was generally in accordance with my memory of it, on both a factual and model level.

Without further adieu…

The Claims

Claim: A 2007 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on Latino-on-Black violence in Los Angeles (1:02)

He reads this report very nearly word for word. All the differences I caught were very minor wording issues that didn’t change the meaning. I also checked some of SPLC’s claims

SPLC: “Since 1990, the African-American population of Los Angeles has dropped by half as blacks relocated to suburbs”, “Now, about 75% of Highland Park residents are Latinos. Only 2% are black. The rest are white and Asian.”  (8:17)

This was shockingly annoying to verify because I could find stats by year for LA county but not LA the city, and the county includes the suburbs. I did verify that:

  • In 2000 (seven years before the SPLC report came out), Highland Park was 72.4% Latino and 2.4% black (source). 
    • Note that if you read the Wikipedia article it says 8.4% black, but it cites my source above. This is plausibly an issue of how to assign mixed-race people (since Wikipedia’s percentages add up to >100%), or the ongoing confusion about how Latino is an ethnicity, not a race.
    • However, that particular neighborhood was already 2.2% black in 1990, although it was a little whiter and less Latino (source).
  • An LA time article also describes South LA shifting from an approximately 1:1 ratio of Latino and Black residents to 2:1 (Highland Park is in northeast LA).

Claim: A number of specific incidents of Latino-on-Black violence in Los Angeles, and some nebulous statistics

I Googled several of these as they came up and they always checked out, although LA’s a big city and Cooper is looking over a long time period, so it would be easy to cherry pick.

Cooper also gave some statistics on hate crime. However, these were always either for a particular neighborhood (too small, data liable to be noisy), or not quite as damning as his tone suggested they were. I found some statistics that came out the same year this episode did that support the general concept that Latino-on-Black violence happens, but I don’t trust the LAPD’s truthseeking on hate crimes. 

Which is to say, Cooper’s claims are well sourced and completely consistent with the available data, but the data is poor and his opinions are more controversial than he acknowledges. I’m sure someone with different motivations could use the same data to make the opposite case, or a different one entirely. Here’s an article published the same year as the SPLC report, calling the claims ridiculous. My tentative take on this is that racial tensions were high and spilling over into violence, but the claims that “all black people in LA were greenlit” (meaning, gang members had the okay from leaders to shoot them) and “all black people in Latino neighborhoods in LA were greenlit” are clearly insane; the murder rate would be much higher if that were true. 

Claim: Quote from Warmth of Other Suns: “In 1950, city aldermen and housing officials proposed restricting 13,000 new public housing units to people who had lived in Chicago for two years. The rule would presumably affect colored migrants and foreign immigrants alike. But it was the colored people who were having the most trouble finding housing and most likely to seek out such an alternative.” (23:00)

This quote is accurate, but my memory of it wasn’t: I had in my notes that this proposal was enacted, and only rechecked the recording when I couldn’t find any such record and wanted to see if he cited a source. His source, Warmth of Other Suns, cites a 1950 newspaper article that I couldn’t find online (it probably exists in ProQuest’s Historical Newspaper archive, but I lack access despite trying ProQuest via multiple libraries).

Claim: Description of the Cicero Riots of 1951 (31:00)

Everything he says is in accordance with the Wikipedia article: it was a horrific multi-day riot and lynching episode triggered by a black family moving into a white neighborhood. 

Cooper doesn’t mention this, but fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the landlord allowed the family to move in not for any noble anti-racism or even free-market motivations, but to punish the neighborhood for fining her for something else. 

Claim: Southern white people did not want black people to leave during the Great Migration, because they needed them as labor (35:00)

Warmth of Other Suns says the same, although that’s not independent confirmation because it’s at least one of Cooper’s sources as well. Wikipedia agrees.

Claim: Northern union leaders were resistant to black migrants because they reduced labor’s power (43:00)

I could not find a smoking gun on this, which makes sense because labor is not going to want to admit it. However I found a number of articles, modern and contemporary, on companies bringing in black workers from the south as strikebreakers, and it would be extremely weird if that didn’t upset union leaders. 

Claim: Jim Jones began as a dynamic and promising civil rights movement leader, branched out into communism (1:05:20)

Yup.

Claim: Jonestown residents were mostly poor and black, and disproportionately children (1:17:00)

Yup and yup.

Note that this was not true of the leadership of Jonestown, which was overwhelmingly white. Cooper gets into this later in the sequence.

Claim: Jim Jones led successful efforts to integrate businesses in Indianapolis (memory)

This claim came later in the sequence. It and the similar claim below were very significant to me and a number of changes in my own models rest on them, so I expanded the scope of the project to include them.

There are many sources repeating this claim, including Wikipedia, some book, and r/HistoryAnecdotes, and none denying it. I am a little suspicious because everyone seems to agree on exactly how many restaurants he integrated, but no one names them. They do name a hospital, but it seems like maybe “integrated” means “he accidentally got assigned to a black ward (because his doctor was black) and refused to leave”. But it’s not surprising that restaurants he integrated either no longer exist or don’t want to be remembered as “the place that excluded minorities until forced to change by the guy who later led America’s largest simultaneous suicide”.

Claim: Jim Jones helped members of his racially-integrated church tremendously (memory)

I found many secondary or tertiary sources saying this and no arguments against, but the only primary sources I could find joined the church in California. I couldn’t find any reports from people who joined while the church was in Indiana. That doesn’t seem damning to me; it’s kinda hard to tell people your lights got turned back on by Jim Jones before he was famous. This interview with a woman who joined in California and narrowly escaped the mass suicide confirms everything it can: she was a true believer in a bunch of good things but also kind of a joiner who ping-ponged between organizations until she found peace with People’s Temple. Another CA joiner talks about joining because her sister needed a rehab program and was recommended to People’s Temple’s program. 

Claim: Jim Jones adopted multiple children of color (memory)

True. The Jones family adopted three Korean children, one part-Native American child, and one black child, who they named James Jones Jr (they also had one biological child and adopted a white child from a People’s Temple member. There are also some People’s Temple kids of unclear paternity).

I recognize that transracial adoption is contentious and actions that were considered progressive and inclusive 60 years ago are now viewed as bad for the children they were supposed to benefit. I also get that lots of adoptive white parents were unprepared to deal with the realities of racism, or harbor it themselves, and that harmed their kids. The whole mass suicide thing casts some doubt on Jim Jones as a parent too. Nonetheless, a white man naming his black son after himself in 1961 was an extraordinarily big deal for which he undoubtedly paid a very high price, and from all this I have to conclude that fighting racism was extremely important to early Jim Jones.

Summary

Overall all of the claims were at least extremely defensible. I wish Cooper acknowledged more of the controversy around his interpretations, but I also appreciate that he comes to actual conclusions with models instead of spewing a bunch of isolated facts. I also wish he provided show notes with citations, because he’s inconsistent about providing sources in the audio.

Doing this check reinforced my belief that having one source for any of your beliefs is malpractice and processing multiple sources is a requirement, however I will very happily continue to have Cooper as a significant source of information, and if I’m totally honest I’m not even going to check all his work this extensively. 

Thanks to Eli Tyre for research assistance, my Patreon Patrons for financial support of this post, and Justis Mills for editing.

Epistemic Spot Check: This Isn’t Sparta

Prologue

Despite not normally being a fan of military history, I’ve really enjoyed Bret Devereaux’s blog Acoup, in which he uses pop culture representations as a starting point to teach the subject. Unfortunately I got stuck in a loop where I didn’t want to read Acoup without fact checking at least one post, and I didn’t want to fact check a post because military history is boring when taught by anyone besides him and Dan Carlin (and I was really disappointed in Carlin’s book. Why, you might ask? Yes, I too wish I’d written that down).  

But I really wanted to start reading Acoup again. My compromise is to:

  1. Use a sequence that involved a lot of non-combat facts (as good military history usually does, and by “good” I mean “enjoyable for me to read”)
  2. Limit myself to some pretty bare bones fact checking. This does not protect me against sophisticated forgeries, but is surprisingly good at catching people with a sincerely believed agenda.

And now, a good old fashioned epistemic spot check of Bret Devereaux’s This Is Not Sparta.

Conclusion

Devereaux is not so much sharing historical facts as comprehensive models, informed by both local facts about the specific area of interest and general knowledge of humans and historical trends. This is great and I wish more people would do it. Along the way he sometimes presents facts as more certain/less controversial among historians than they are. He’s not hiding that he does this, but on first read through I did walk away with the impression that certain things were more settled than they are, and unprepared to argue for their truth.

E.g., Acoup describes helots not only as slaves, but as slaves that were especially poorly treated even by the standards of the time. 

First, let us dispense with the argument, sometimes offered, that the helots were more like medieval serfs than slaves as we understand the ideas and thus not really slaves – this is nonsense. Helots seem to have been able to own moveable property (money, clothing etc), but in fact this is true of many ancient slaves, including Roman ones (the Roman’s called this quasi-property peculium, which also applied to the property of children and even many women who were under the legal power (potestas) of another). Owning small amounts of moveable property was not rare among ancient non-free individuals (or, for that matter, other forms of slavery).

As noted below, this is not the consensus view. The writing leaves me with a good sense of why Devereaux believes what he believes, but not prepared to teach the controversy. I think if I started an argument with a helots-are-serfs partisan based purely on this blog post, I would look stupid and unprepared. Which is fine. The goal of the post is not to help me look smart at parties with classicists, it’s to leave me with better models of militant societies as a group. This is a restatement of the truism that if you really care about something you should probably read more than one source.

A broader example is that Devereaux fills in the paucity of written records about helot life with patterns known from other slave societies.  E.g. there isn’t actually a written reference to Spartiate men (the Spartan nobles) raping helot women. But we can take a look around at better documented slave societies, and at the legal code around the existence of children with Spartiate fathers and helot mothers, and make some educated guesses. This is a good and reasonable thing to do if what you want to do is picture ancient Sparta more accurately, but should not be double counted as evidence for the trends and patterns used to fill in the gaps.

I feel dumb ending with the conclusion “this is good but also never rely on one source.” You knew that already, and so did I, and yet doing this spot check made me more cautious in relying on Acoup than I previously was. Humans, man.

The Actual Spot Check

Full notes are available in my Roam graph

All claims are taken from posts 1 and 2 in the Sparta series. Claims were selected for being easy to verify and do not in the slightest constitute a random sample.

Claim: “Sparta was not a city-state for the simple reason that it didn’t have a city – it had five villages instead”
Verdict: Plausible, subject to arguments on definitions. It’s easy to find tertiary sources describing Sparta as a city, but none saying “I have considered the possibility that Sparta was in fact five villages in a trenchcoat and rejected it for these reasons”. I couldn’t actually find any references to Sparta being five villages- sources that described it as an amalgamation always said four. Bu when I reached out to Mr. Devereaux’s Twitter he explained that he was counting a fifth village that had joined later (he also acknowledged there was some controversy in the description, which he didn’t in the original post). I still wish this had come with exact definitions of what constitutes a city vs a village, and what the implications of the difference are.

Claim: “Spartan boys were, at age seven, removed from their families and  instead grouped into herds (agelai) under the supervision of a single adult male Spartan”… “While the heirs of Sparta’s two hereditary kings were exempt from the agoge – perhaps because the state couldn’t afford to risk their lives so callously – Leonidas was a younger brother and thus was not exempt”
Verdict: confirmed in secondary source (although Devereaux goes to pains to point out the biases of the secondary sources)

Claim: “The boys were intentionally underfed. They were thus encouraged to steal in order to make up the difference, but severely beaten if caught”
Verdict: confirmed in secondary source

Claim: “Not even the exemplary boys escaped the violence, since the Spartan youths were annually whipped at the Altar of Artemis Orthia”
Verdict: confirmed in tertiary source

Claim: “Then there is the issue of relationships. At age **twelve** (Plut. Lyc. 17.1) boys in the agoge would enter a relationship with an older man – Plutarch’s language is quite clear that this is a sexual relationship (note also Aelian VH. 3.10, similarly blunt).”
Verdict: Well supported inference, not actually proven. My literal reading of the sources cited leaves a lot of ambiguity over whether the relationships were sexual or not. This could be a lack of experience reading between the lines of ancient Greek sources, but other historians who have presumably read them also dispute the claim. Given what we know of violent all-male institutions in general I think it’s an extremely reasonable inference that the relationships were sexual (and by our standards, extremely coercive at a minimum), in fact it would be surprising if they weren’t, but this isn’t a smoking gun.

Claim: “These Spartan boys will have to apply to be part of a mess-group (syssitia – a concept we’ll return to later) when they are twenty”
Verdict: confirmed in tertiary source.

Claim: Some boys in the agoge were selected for the krypteia, which patrolled farms at night to murder slaves.
Verdict: confirmed in tertiary source.

Claim: “we actually know that individual Spartans painted their shields with a variety of individual devices.”
Verdict: Multiple tertiary sources report this being true at the time 300 would have taken place, but that the army kit was eventually standardized.

Claim: “While there were supposedly 8,000 male spartiates in 480 there seem to have only been 3,500 by 418  just 2,500 in 394 and just 1,500 in 371.”
Verdict: tertiary sources gave slightly different numbers at slightly different times but the trend was confirmed repeatedly.

Claim: The perioikoi were poor farmers on marginal land on the outskirts of sparta. They were free save for mandatory participation in the army, but had no say in government.
Verdict: gist confirmed in tertiary sources.

Claim: “The hypomeiones seem to consist of the men (and their descendants) who had been spartiates, but had been stripped of citizen status for some reason, usually poverty (but sometimes cowardice)”
Verdict: gist confirmed in multiple tertiary sources, sometimes using a narrower definition

Claim: “The mothakes (singular: mothax) seem to have been the bastard off-spring of spartiate men and helot women”
Verdict: gist confirmed in tertiary source, although they seemed to consider hypomeiones a subset of mothakes.

Claim: Neodamodes were freed spartan slaves
Verdict: gist confirmed in tertiary sources, although they refer only to slaves freed for military service

Claim: Sparta’s population distribution was roughly

Verdict: agrees with cited source.

Claim: Helots were owned by the Spartan state, who assigned them to work land owned by the Spartiates (method of assignment unknown)
Verdict: confirmed by tertiary source.

Claim:  Helots were poorly treated slaves, not serfs or a stage between slave and free
Verdict: certainly seems justified, but officially controversial

Thanks to my Patreon patrons for helping to fund this work.

Update 11/25: Bret Devereaux has a few comments about this on Twitter.

Update 11/27: A friend checks the Spartan military record and finds it meh.

Breaking Questions Down

Previously I talked about discovering that my basic unit of inquiry should be questions, not books. But what I didn’t talk about was how to generate those questions, and how to separate good questions from bad. That’s because I don’t know yet; my own process is mysterious and implicit to me. But I can give a few examples.

For any given question, your goal is to disambiguate it into smaller questions that, if an oracle gave you the answers to all of them, would allow you to answer the original question. Best case scenario, you repeat this process and hit bedrock, an empirical question for which you can find accurate data. You feed that answer into the parent question, and eventually it bubbles up to answering your original question.

That does not always happen. Sometimes the question is one of values, not facts. Sometimes sufficient accurate information is not available, and you’re forced to use a range- an uncertainty that will bubble up through parent answers. But just having the questions will clarify your thoughts and allow you to move more of your attention to the most important things.

Here are a few examples.  First, a reconstructed mind map of my process that led to several covid+economics posts. In the interests of being as informative as possible, this one is kind of stylized and uses developments I didn’t have at the time I actually did the research.

Vague covid panic@2x.png

If you’re curious about the results of this, the regular recession post is here and the oil crisis post is here.

Second, a map I created but have not yet researched, on the cost/benefit profile of a dental cleaning while covid is present.

Risk model of dental cleanings in particular@2x.png

Aside: Do people prefer the horizontal or vertical displays? Vertical would be my preference, but Whimsical does weird things with spacing so the tree ends up with a huge width either way.

Honestly this post isn’t really done; I have a lot more to figure out when it comes to how to create good questions. But I wanted to have something out before I published v0.1 of my Grand List of Steps, so here we are.

Many thanks to Rosie Campbell for inspiration and discussion on this idea.

How to Find Sources in an Unreliable World

I spent a long time stalling on this post because I was framing the problem as “how to choose a book (or paper. Whatever)?”. The point of my project is to be able to get to correct models even from bad starting places, and part of the reason for that goal is that assessing a work often requires the same skills/knowledge you were hoping to get from said work. You can’t identify a good book in a field until you’ve read several. But improving your starting place does save time, so I should talk about how to choose a starting place.

One difficulty is that this process is heavily adversarial. A lot of people want you to believe a particular thing, and a larger set don’t care what you believe as long as you find your truth via their amazon affiliate link (full disclosure: I use amazon affiliate links on this blog). The latter group fills me with anger and sadness; at least the people trying to convert you believe in something (maybe even the thing they’re trying to convince you of). The link farmers are just polluting the commons.

With those difficulties in mind, here are some heuristics for finding good starting places.

  • Search “best book TOPIC” on google
    • Most of what you find will be useless listicles. If you want to save time, ignore everything on a dedicated recommendation site that isn’t five books.
    • If you want to evaluate a list, look for a list author with deep models on both the problem they are trying to address, and why each book in particular helps educate on that problem.  Examples:
    • A bad list will typically have a topic rather than a question they are trying to answer, and will talk about why books they recommend are generically good, rather than how they address a particular issue. Quoting consumer reviews is an extremely bad sign and I’ve never seen it done without being content farming.
  • Search for your topic on Google Scholar
    • Look at highly cited papers. Even if they’re wrong, they’re probably important for understanding what else you read.
    • Look at what they cite or are cited by
    • Especially keep an eye out for review articles
  • Search for web forums on your topic (easy mode: just check reddit). Sometimes these will have intro guides with recommendations, sometimes they will have where-to-start posts, and sometimes you can ask them directly for recommendations. Examples:
  • Search Amazon for books on your topic. Check related books as well.
  • Ask your followers on social media. Better, announce what you are going to read and wait for people to tell you why you are wrong (appreciate it, Ian). Admittedly there’s a lot of prep work that goes into having friends/a following that makes this work, but it has a lot of other benefits so if it sounds fun to you I do recommend it. Example:
  • Ask an expert. If you already know an expert, great. If you don’t, this won’t necessarily save you any time, because you have to search for and assess the quality of the expert.
  • Follow interesting people on social media and squirrel away their recommendations as they make them, whether they’re relevant to your current projects or not.

Types of Knowledge

This is a system for sorting types of knowledge. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

First, there is knowledge you could regurgitate on a test. In any sane world this wouldn’t be called knowledge, but the school system sure looks enthusiastic about it, so I had to mention it. Examples:

  • Reciting the symptoms of childbed fever on command 
  • Reciting Newton’s first law of motion
  • Reciting a list of medications’ scientific and brand names
  • Reciting historical growth rate of the stock market
  • Reciting that acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 9.807 m/s²

 

Second, there is engineering knowledge- something you can repeat and get reasonably consistent results. It also lets you hill climb to local improvements. Examples:

  • Knowing how to wash your hands to prevent childbed fever and doing so
  • Driving without crashing
  • Making bread from a memorized recipe.
  • What are the average benefits and side effects from this antidepressant?
  • Knowing how much a mask will limit covid’s spread
  • Investing in index funds
  • Knowing that if you shoot a cannon ball of a certain weight at a certain speed, it will go X far.
  • Knowing people are nicer to me when I say “please” and “thank you”

 

Third, there is scientific knowledge. This is knowledge that lets you generate predictions for how a new thing will work, or how an old thing will work in a new environment, without any empirical knowledge.

Examples: 

  • Understanding germ theory of disease so you can take procedures that prevent gangrene and apply them to childbed fever.
  • Knowing the science of baking so you can create novel edible creations on your first try.
  • Knowing enough about engines and batteries to invent hybrid cars.
  • Actually understanding why any of those antidepressants works, in a mechanistic way, such that you can predict who they will and won’t work for.
  • A model of how covid is spread through aerosols, and how that is affected by properties of covid and the environment.
  • Having a model of economic change that allows you to make money off the stock market in excess of its growth rate, or know when to pull out of stocks and into crypto.
  • A model of gravity that lets you shoot a rocket into orbit on the first try.
  • A deep understanding of why certain people’s “please”s and “thank you”s get better results than others.

 

Engineering knowledge is a lot cheaper to get and maintain than scientific knowledge, and most of the time it works out. Maybe I pay more than I needed to for a car repair; I’ll live (although for some people the difference is very significant). You need scientific knowledge to do new things, which either means you’re trying something genuinely new, or you’re trying to maintain an existing system in a new environment.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our environment was changing pretty rapidly before a highly contagious, somewhat deadly virus was released on the entire world, and while that had made things simpler in certain ways (such as my daily wardrobe), it has ultimately made it harder to maintain existing systems. This requires scientific knowledge to fix; engineering won’t cut it.

And it requires a lot of scientific knowledge at that- far more than I have time to generate. I could trust other people’s answers, but credentials and authority have never looked more useless, and identifying people I trust on any given subject is almost as time consuming as generating the answers myself.  And I don’t know what to do about that.

 

What to write down when you’re reading to learn

One of the hardest questions I’ve had to answer as part of the project formerly known as epistemic spot checks is: “how do I know what to write down?”

This will be kind of meandering, so here’s the take home. 

For shallow research:

  • Determine/discover what you care about before you start reading.
  • Write down anything relevant to that care.

For deep research:

  • Write down anything you find interesting.
  • Write down anything important to the work’s key argument.
  • Write down anything that’s taking up mental RAM, whether it seems related or interesting or not. If you find you’re doing this a lot, consider you might have a secret goal you don’t know about.
  • The less 1:1 the correspondence between your notes and the author’s words the better. Copy/pasting requires little to no engagement, alternate theories for the explanations spread over an entire chapter require a lot.

 

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Writing down a thing you’ve read (/heard/etc) improves your memory and understanding, at the cost of disrupting the flow of reading. Having written a thing down makes that one thing easier to rediscover, at the cost of making every other thing you have or will ever write down a little harder to find. Oh, and doing the math on this tradeoff while you’re reading is both really costly and requires knowing the future. 

I would like to give you a simple checklist for determining when to save a piece of information. Unfortunately I never developed one. There are obvious things like “is this interesting to me (for any reason)?” and “is this key to the author’s argument?”, but those never got rid of the nagging feeling that I was losing information I might find useful someday, and specifically that I was doing shallow research (which implies taking the author’s word for things) and not deep (which implies making my own models). 

The single most helpful thing in figuring out what to write down was noticing when my reading was slowing down, which typically meant either there was a particular fact that needed to be moved from short to long term storage, or that I needed to think about something. Things in these categories need to be written down and thought about regardless of their actual importance, because their perceived importance is eating up resources, and 30 seconds writing something down to regain those resources is a good trade even if I never use that information again. If I have one piece of advice, it’s “learn to recognize the subtle drag of something requiring your attention.”

An obvious question is “how do I do that though?”. I’m a mediocre person to answer this question because I didn’t set out to learn the skill, I just noticed I was doing it. But for things in this general class, the best thing I have found to do is get yourself in a state where you are very certain you have no drag (by doing a total brain dump), do some research, and pay attention to when drag develops. 

But of course it’s much better if my sense of “this is important, record it” corresponds with what is actually important. The real question here is “Important to what?” When I was doing book-based reviews, the answer at best was “the book’s thesis”, which as previously discussed gives the author a huge amount of power to control the narrative. But this became almost trivial when I switched the frame to answering a specific set of questions. As long as I had a very clear goal in mind, my subconscious would do most of the work. 

This isn’t a total solution though, because of the vast swath of territory labeled “getting oriented with what I don’t know”. For example right now I want to ask some specific questions about the Great Depression and what it can tell us about the upcoming economic crisis, but I don’t feel I know enough. It is very hard to get oriented with patchwork papers: you typically need books with cohesive narratives, and then to find other ways to undo the authors’ framing. Like a lot of things, this is solved by going meta. “I want to learn enough about the Great Depression that I have a framework to ask questions about parallels to the current crisis” was enough to let me evaluate different “Top Books about the Great Depression” lists and identify the one whose author was most in line with my goals (it was the one on fivebooks, which seems to be the case much more often than chance).

I mentioned “losing flow” as a cost of note taking in my opening, but I’m not actually convinced that’s a cost. Breaking flow also means breaking the author’s hold on you and thinking for yourself. I’ve noticed a pretty linear correlation between “how much does this break flow?” and “how much does this make me think for myself and draw novel conclusions?”. Copy/pasting an event that took place on a date doesn’t break flow but doesn’t inspire much thought. Writing down your questions about information that seems to be missing, or alternate interpretations of facts, takes a lot longer.

Which brings me to another point: for deep reading, copy pasting is almost always Doing It Wrong. Even simple paraphrasing requires more engagement than copy/pasting. Don’t cargo cult this though: there’s only so many ways to say simple facts, and grammar exercises don’t actually teach you anything about the subject.

So there is my very unsatisfying list of how to know what to write down when you’re reading to learn. I hope it helps.

Where to Start Research?

When I began what I called the knowledge bootstrapping project, my ultimate goal was “Learn how to learn a subject from scratch, without deference to credentialed authorities”. That was too large and unpredictable for a single grant, so when I applied to LTFF, my stated goal was “learn how to study a single book”, on the theory that books are the natural subcomponents of learning (discounting papers because they’re too small). This turned out to have a flawed assumption baked into it.

As will be described in a forthcoming post, the method I eventually landed upon involves starting with a question, not a book. If I start with a book and investigate the questions it brings up (you know, like I’ve been doing for the last 3-6 years), the book is controlling which questions get brought up. That’s a lot of power to give to something I have explicitly decided not to trust yet. 

Examples:

  • When reading The Unbound Prometheus, I took the book’s word that a lower European birth rate would prove Europeans were more rational than Asians and focused on determining whether Europe’s birth rates were in fact lower (answer: it’s complicated), when on reflection it’s not at all clear to me that lower birth rates are evidence of rationality.
  • “Do humans have exactly 4 hours of work per day in them?” is not actually a very useful question. What I really wanted to know is “when can I stop beating myself up for not working?“, and the answer to the former doesn’t really help me with the latter. Even if humans on average have 4 hours, that doesn’t mean I do, and of course it varies by circumstances and type of work… and even “when can I stop beating myself up?” has some pretty problematic assumptions built into it, such as “beating myself up will produce more work, which is good.” The real question is something like “how can I approach my day to get the most out of it?”, and the research I did on verifying a paper on average daily work capacity didn’t inform the real question one way or the other.

 

What would have been better is if I’d started with the actual question I wanted to answer, and then looked for books that had information bearing on that question (including indirectly, including very indirectly). This is what I’ve started doing.

This can look very different depending on what type of research I’m doing. When I started doing covid research, I generated a long list of  fairly shallow questions.  Most of these questions were designed to inform specific choices, like “when should I wear what kind of mask?” and “how paranoid should I be about people without current symptoms?”, but some of them were broader and designed to inform multiple more specific questions, such as “what is the basic science of coronavirus?”. These broader, more basic questions helped me judge the information I used to inform the more specific, actionable questions (e.g., I saw a claim that covid lasted forever in your body the same way HIV does, which I could immediately dismiss because I knew HIV inserted itself your DNA and coronaviruses never enter the nucleus).

 


 

I used to read a lot of nonfiction for leisure. Then I started doing epistemic spot checks– taking selected claims from a book and investigating them for truth value, to assess the book’s overall credibility- and stopped being able to read nonfiction without doing that, unless it was one of a very short list of authors who’d made it onto my trust list. I couldn’t take the risk that I was reading something false and would absorb it as if it were true (or true but unrepresentative, and absorb it as representative). My time spent reading nonfiction went way down.

About 9 months ago I started taking really rigorous notes when I read nonfiction. The gap in quality of learning between rigorous notes and my previous mediocre notes was about the same as the gap between doing an epistemic spot check and not. My time spent reading nonfiction went way up (in part because I was studying the process of doing so), but my volume of words read dropped precipitously.

And then three months ago I shifted from my unit of inquiry being “a book”, to being “a question”. I’m sure you can guess where this is going- I read fewer words, but gained more understanding per word, and especially more core (as opposed to shell or test) understanding. 

The first two shifts happened naturally, and while I missed reading nonfiction for fun and with less effort, I didn’t feel any pull towards the old way after I discovered the new way. Giving up book-centered reading has been hard. Especially after five weeks of frantic covid research, all I wanted to do was to be sat down and told what questions were important, and perhaps be walked through some plausible answers. I labeled this a desire to learn, but when I compared it to question-centered research, it became clear that’s not what it was. Or maybe it was a desire to go through the act of learning something, but it was not a desire to answer a question I had and was not prioritized by the importance of a question. It was best classified as leisure in the form of learning, not resolving a curiosity I had.  And if I wanted leisure, better to consume something easier and less likely to lead me astray, so I started reading more fiction, and the rare non-fiction of a type that did not risk polluting my pool of data. And honestly I’m not sure that’s so safe: humans are built to extract lessons from fiction too.

Put another way: I goal factored (figured out what I actually wanted from) reading a nonfiction book, and the goal was almost never best served by using a nonfiction book as a starting point. Investigating a question I cared about was almost always better for learning (even if it did eventually cash out in reading a book), and fiction was almost always better for leisure, in part because it was less tiring, and thus left more energy for question-centered learning when that was what I wanted.

 

The Purpose of Lectures

How to Take Smart Notes (affiliate link) posits that students who handwrite lecture notes gain as many facts and more conceptual understanding than students who type notes to the same lecture, because the slowness of handwriting forces you to compress ideas down to their core, whereas typing lets you transcribe a lecture without reflection. While I agree that translating things in your own words and compressing ideas is better than rote transcription, I have two problems with this.

One, it preemptively gives up on a practical question of which side of a trade-off is better without examining either the conditions or ways to improve the trade off. Given the enormous benefits of electronic storage of notes, maybe we should spend 45 seconds thinking about how to port the benefits of handwritten notes over, or under what circumstances the benefits of quick and high-fidelity transcription outweighs the push to engage more deeply with data.

Two, and this is harder to articulate… there is a reason students are defaulting to transcriptions of lectures, and it’s not because they’re bad or lazy or don’t like thinking. If lecturers actually wanted you to think conceptually about a topic, they would, I don’t know, leave any time at all for that in a lecture (my STEM background may be showing here. Movies tell me English class has more of this). As it is, conceptual understanding and translation requires that you stop listening to the professor- the dreaded multitasking thing that luddites are always going on about.

This is really a college student issue. On the rare occasion I’m trying to learning something from a live lecture, it’s still a non-mandatory event where the speaker cares about either actually teaching something or being entertaining, which solves a lot of these problems. But I’m angry that blame is being placed on students for acquiescing to what the system very strongly pushes them towards.

 

Review: How to Read a Book (Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren)

As part of my research on how to bootstrap understanding in a field, I’m reading books that attempt to answer that question. You might think I should have started with that, but it was useful to get a sense of what problems I needed to solve before I looked for the solution. How to Read a Book (affiliate link) is generally very well regarded in this area and came with a strong recommendation from the CEO of Roam, who I would expect to have pretty good thoughts on learning structure. Nonetheless, I was quite disappointed. It took me a long time to put my disappointment into words, but with the help of someone on Facebook I finally figured it out: How to Read a Book is aimed at a narrower subset of books than it acknowledges. What subset, you might ask? I don’t have a great answer, because the authors clearly consider the subset to be the only books, or the only books worth reading, so they didn’t leave a lot of clues. 

What I can say is that it expects books to follow a rigid structure, and to have a single unifying point (what they call “the unity”). This seems to me to be setting up both the author and the reader to throw out a lot of information because they weren’t expecting to see it or couldn’t fit it into their existing frameworks- reading like a state, in essence. This is not the only thing that makes me think HtRaB is more about being able to understand a book than understand the world, although it’s the only one I can articulate.

How to Read a Book didn’t even attempt to answer my current most important question in reading: How do I know what to save or pay attention to? More attentive reading (including but not limited to note-taking) takes more time and more mental effort. Even if it was free, every additional memory or note eats up space in my brain or exobrain and makes it harder to find other thoughts when I look for them. But I don’t necessarily know how important a piece of information is when I read it. Good pre-reading might help me know how important it is to that particular work, but never to my life as a whole.

HtRaB acknowledges that different works have vastly different returns to attention and you should allocate your reading effort accordingly, but I don’t feel like it gave me guidance for choosing what to pay attention to, and I have a suspicion that if I pressed the point the authors’ answer would be extremely in line with the literary and scientific canon of the 1940s-1970s.

My favorite section of How to Read a Book is also the most mechanically detailed: the algorithm for pre-processing a book (explained in detail here). I don’t know if this was the most useful to me because it was the most detailed or because a teacher once told me skimming was immoral and I needed that to be challenged.

For the meat of reading, How to Read a Book suggests questions to ask but not how to determine the answer. To be fair, this is hard. As I work on my own guide to reading I’m intensely aware of how difficult it is to translate the intentions and external appearance of what I’m doing to inner workings comprehensible to many, or even to other people very similar to myself.  I suspect there are people for whom reading these questions causes something to click in their brain and they suddenly start reading better, and that’s great, but it makes the book lucky, not good. Which is nothing to be ashamed of: sometimes a stab at a hard problem is worth more than a perfect solution to an easy one.  But HtRaB’s stab did not happen to hit my particular problem, nor contain enough deep models to let me make the stab myself.

My overall impression is that this is one of those books that is helpful if you read it at the right time and pretty meh otherwise, and it was the wrong time for me. I also predicted it would be one of those books that’s notable for founding a genre but goes on to be surpassed by later books that learned from it, but when I looked at Amazon I found very little. There’s lots on speedreading, confusing memorization with learning, and  “how to study to pass a test designed by someone else”, and I may end up reading some of those because the field is that sparse, but they’re not what I actually want. So if there’s a work you or someone you trust likes that attempts to answer any of the following questions, please share it:

  1. How do you find the most likely sources of relevant or useful information?
  2. How do you get the most (useful) information out of a sources?
  3. How do you decide what information to save?
  4. How do you save it in a maximally useful way?

I’m also interested if you have opinions on any of the following:

  • Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity, and Time Management
    • Kindle Unlimited
  • The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning
  • Extend Your Mind: Praxis Volume 2
  • How to Take Smart Notes
  • Accelerated Learning for Expertise: Rapid Knowledge Acquisition Skills to Learn Faster, Comprehend Deeper, and Reach a World-Class Level (Learning how to Learn Book 6) Kindle Edition
  • The Self-Learning Blueprint: A Strategic Plan to Break Down Complex Topics, Comprehend Deeply, and Teach Yourself Anything (Learning how to Learn Book 3)
  • Writing to Learn
  • Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive
  • The Art of Reading

 

So many thanks to my Patreon supporters and the Long Term Future Fund for their support of this research.

Epistemic Spot Check: Children in Colonial America

Introduction

Once upon a time I started fact checking books I read, to see if they were trustworthy. I called this epistemic spot checking because it was not a rigorous or thorough investigation; just following up on things I thought were interesting, likely to be wrong, or easy to check. Eventually I became dissatisfied with this. It placed too much emphasis on a binary decision about a particular book’s trustworthiness, and not enough on building models. So I started working on something better. Something that used multiple sources to build robust models of the world. This book is part of that attempt

Children in Colonial America (affiliate link) is a compilation of chapters from many authors, all centered around what you would guess from the title. This lowers the predictive value of one chapter for assessing the credibility of the whole book, since they’re different authors, but has more than zero value. For purposes of this post, I’m going to look at three chapters. As usual, you can view all my notes in Roam here.

Claims

Chapter 1: Indian Children in Early Mexico

Claim: Mexico was ruled by Spain from 1521-1821, and was known as New Spain during this time (p28).
Verdict: True (source). This is not very impressive to get right, except that I originally recorded it as 1831 and briefly went very down on the chapter. So we know I can catch both embarrassingly obvious factual errors made in books, and my own  embarrassing typos.

 

Claim:  In the 1700s Mexico City had 112,000 people, mostly natives, the largest city in the Americas (p28).
Verdict: Highly defensible but unproven. This is almost exactly what wikipedia reports an inaccessible source reports a primary source recorded in 1793, although 112,926 rounds to 113k, not 112k. It’s not at all clear to me how good this census was, given that even modern censuses have a lot of problems.

Additionally, I’m not thrilled about her using one number to refer to the population throughout an entire century. According to wikipedia the population varied a lot, probably due to competition between disease and immigration, but possibly due to to changes in methodology.

This is still well over the recorded populations of various future-USA cities recorded in the same decade.  However that’s still sensitive to definitions- how do you draw the boundaries between a city and its surrounding farmland?

 

Claim: In the 1700s New Spain had 6m inhabitants.
Verdict: Right order of magnitude. This graph

which is originally from a Spanish-language work I read about here estimates about 1/3 lower than that, but admits that it’s order-of-magnitude at best.

 

Claim: Aztecs buried newborn’s umbilical cord under the hearth (girl) or battlefield (boy) (p29).
Verdict: Well justified (source 1, 2, 3). AFAICT everyone’s ultimate source for this is the Florentine Codex, which has all the problems noted above.

 

Claim:  “Children were the most apt to die in the epidemics because they had no natural immunity” (p36).
Verdict: Close enough. Ignores the fragility of old people and there are flukes like the Spanish Flu, but close enough.

 

Claim: “Probably the happiest moments for boys and girls were the processions, fireworks, and communal meals that took place about eight times a year in the Indian pueblos.” (p37), “another favorite time for Indian youngsters was the feast of the patron saint of their home towns.” (p38)
Verdict: I don’t know how the author could possibly know this with the information they have.

 

Claim: “The Jesuits were expelled by Charles III in 1767 from all of the Spanish territories, resulting in the exile of four hundred priests from New Spain, one-third of whom were teachers.” (p39).
Verdict: Probably wrong (evidence compiled in Roam). There was definitely an expulsion, but the more common number given for number of exiled priests was 678, and that comes from an enumerated census. It’s possible these were referring to different geographic areas, but the book specifically refers to New Spain, not just Mexico. It’s possible it was referring to just a subset of priests- but it specifically names priests and teacher priests. It’s possible they meant some third thing I haven’t thought of, or have a different sources, but in that case they really need to provide it.

Chapter 2: Colonizing Childhood: Religion, Gender, and Indian Children in Southern New England, 1600–1720

Claim: New England colonists used indentured servitude as a way to both extract labor and indoctrinate Native American children (p48).
Verdict: Seems likely but leaves out important facts, such as the fact that women were also forced to provide labor in New England, and native men were sold into slavery in the Bahamas (wikipedia).

It’s a little hard to tell what source the chapter is using for this- there’s a citation 80% of the way through a very long paragraph that lists several sources. The most relevant looking one, Colonizing the Children: Indian Youngsters in Servitude in Early Rhode Island, is focused 50-100 years later than this book, and mentions Christianity once. The Impact of Indentured Servitude on the Society and Culture of Southern New England Indians, 1680-1810 is also set later than this chapter.

 

Claim: “In a reflection of the importance of religious practice to the major transitions in an individual’s life, Indian parents and kin actively assisted children in cultivating relationships with a range of powerful supernatural entities.” (p49)
Verdict: Dubious and undifferentiated.

This quote is a stand-in for the numerous times the author talks about the importance of religion to Native New England children during colonial times. And I don’t doubt that it was, because it’s important to most if not cultures. It certainly was to the Puritan children that are the most natural comparison group. It’s ambiguous if the chapter means to claim the native children were especially religious, and if so, how we know that.

 

Claim: Edward Winslow reported Wampanoag beliefs about a deity who created life, Keihtan. (p51)
Verdict: True but waaaaaaay to much work to verify (source).

How could this take so long to verify, you might ask yourself? It’s just reporting that a dude said a thing, surely you just need to point to the page where he said it and everyone can go on with their day. Alternately, it’s a pretty distinct word, can’t you just google for it?

Yes, either one of those would be easy, but:

  1. The author continued their delightful pattern of putting all their citations in a single superscript that is almost, but not quite entirely, at the end of a paragraph, rather than where he’s asserting the thing.
  2. He spelled the damn name differently than Winslow.

The misspelling isn’t a big deal, phoneticizing a language that may not even have a written form is not easy, and this deity has lots of names. But the combination of the two meant I lost 45 minutes of my life to tracking down this simple fact that wasn’t even relevant to my interests.

 

Claim: English missionaries established Praying Towns, their version of missionary villages in the mid-1600s
Verdict: Obviously true. After the last one I’m just going to accept a tertiary source. There is some conflict among sources about when they started (notes in Roam), which I think is more about the definition of “start” than about when specific things actually happened.

 

 

Chapter 3: Imperial Ideas, Colonial Realities Enslaved Children in Jamaica, 1775–1834

Claim: Children accounted for a “significant” portion of the slave trade, especially compared to other  (p63).
Verdict: Vague but true (Roam notes). The exact number varies based on time, origin, and destination so it’s not clear how meaningful an average is, but 25% looks roughly correct.

More specifically: Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men? (Roam notes), a survey of mostly British vessels, reports 12-40% of imported slaves being children, depending on the era, based on a survey of ships that covers 8-10% of all slaves transported to the New World (my guess is this is based on the population that arrived alive, not who was on the boat when they left Africa, but it’s not specified).

Sex Ratio, Age and Ethnicity in the Atlantic Slave Trade: data from French shipping and plantation records (Roam notes) finds an overall average of 26.6% children, varying from 9-43% using the standard definition of child in a slavery context at that time, which is “shorter than 4’4”.

26% or even 12% is not trivial, but it’s especially striking when compared to people arriving in the New World as indentured servants, which really were overwhelmingly adult and male, something like 70-90% (although the numbers aren’t quite comparable; I believe European immigrants use their actual birthdates to determine age, as opposed to height) (source: Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men? )

 

Claim: Children were historically used as sources of labor, including in Britain, in the 1700s and 1800s
Verdict: True, although very hard to find hard numbers for (Roam synthesis). The best estimate I could find was this summary article which cited multiple papers I could not access. It gives the following numbers for child participation in mining and textiles, which it claims were the most popular industries for children

The demographic distribution of Industrial-Revolution Great Britain is also very hard to find, but the following is implied to be the result of a census (source):

If you assume that 1/3 of children were between 10 and 15, and that all working children were between 10 and 15, that would make their labor force participation in mining and textiles (very) approximately equal to their proportion of population in 1860. Of course this is very rough- God knows what the demographics of children were during the Demographic Transition, and some children started working younger than 10. But this does suggestion that children as a whole were less likely to participate in work – at least, work outside the home; it’s not clear how they’re counting work on the family farm.

 

Claim: “the age and social standing of the enslaved are two factors, among others, that would also influence attitudes and reactions to enslavement in the Americas.”
Verdict: Unverified by I believe it. The original source was inaccessible and verifying it was proving to require a lot of general reading that didn’t bear on my question, so I stopped after 15 minutes of trying.

 

 

Process Notes

I had a really hard time verifying anything interesting in Indian Children in Early Mexico, because all of the primary and deeper secondary sources are in Spanish or Nahuatl, neither of which I read. I say “sources”, but it appears there’s only one real source for any information on pre-Spanish Aztecs, which is one missionary (Bernardino de Sahagún), who wrote a general history of the Aztecs, known in English as either the Florentine Codex or The General/Universal History of the Things of New Spain. At least, that’s what everything I read seemed to be relying on, when they gave a source at all. Parts of the codex are available for free in English, but not the relevant ones. Even assuming I could read it, one dude whose official mission was very much to destroy Aztec culture and replace it with his own probably introduced biases to his reports of their culture.

Sometimes I would luck out and a source would be in English but inaccessible. What I could verify with English sources was pretty limited to names and dates.

Colonizing Childhood… brings up the question: how long should I spend verifying minor claims? There’s a fair number of claims I go into with the attitude of “this ought to be easy to find.” You could argue these are low value because it’s very unlikely the author screwed up a basic name or date- but if that’s true, it would be a very bad sign about the author/work if they did screw it up. And surprisingly often, there’s debate about even very simple facts. E.g., different sources listed different start times for Praying Towns. These sources didn’t differ in their facts, but in what they counted as the start- the first sermon or the first town incorporation. I wouldn’t have learned about those distinctions if I hadn’t looked up an “easy to find” fact.

Overall, I was really not impressed by how little context this chapter gave for the tribes it talked about, primarily the Wampanoag. I never would have guessed that they were only semi-sedentary (which is important context for the missionaries’ efforts to move them into Praying Towns) or matrilineal, if I hadn’t sought out other sources. It could be aimed at a more educated audience than me- but the book covers a really wide geographic and social range, and it seems unfair to expect people to be experts in all of them.

Imperial Ideas… was flat out a better chapter than the other two.

    1. It cited sources such that I could actually find them and match them to claims.
    2. It had a delightful pattern of making a general claim and then backing it up with specific instances. E.g.

      young African children were available for sale on the island. In 1792, in a letter reporting the sale of the slave cargo on the ship Ruby, the Jamaican merchant John Cunningham wrote, “I sold 129 slaves. . . . There were 45 boys and girls . . . many not more than 8 or 9 years of age.”9 Over 30 percent of the captives sold from this ship were children.

I found myself marking more claims as potential epistemic spot checks for Imperial Ideas… than I did for the other two chapters. In fact, notetaking was just easier and more free flowing with this chapter. I’m not sure how to operationalize this: punishing books for taking more effort to read has some obvious failure modes.

Actually this brings up something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, which is how Epistemic Spot Checks have changed my definition of easy. Time was a book’s easiness rating was based on how much effort I needed to put into understanding the author. It rewarded spoon feeding me conclusions and punished provoking certain kinds of thought. Now easiness is much more based on how much effort I have to put into verifying the author’s claims.

I originally didn’t record any notes from Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men? about indentured servitude, because it wasn’t strictly relevant to the question I was asking. Luckily I wrote this up the same night and noticed that it seemed worth including.

Verdict

Indian Children in Early Mexico got most of its basic facts right, or at least defensible, and had one probable error. I couldn’t verify anything interesting because of language barrier.

Colonizing Childhood: Religion, Gender, and Indian Children in Southern New England, 1600–1720 also seems fine, although it was more a jumble of facts than a cohesive thesis, and the closest thing it had to a thesis seemed to indicate a specialness that was not backed up by facts.

Imperial Ideas, Colonial Realities Enslaved Children in Jamaica, 1775–1834 was pretty great. It backed up its claims better than the other two and provoked more thought in me.

 

Many thanks to my Patreon patrons and the Long Term Future Fund for funding this post.