Jared Diamond and the NYTimes

Is it time to read Jared Diamond’s books?

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > ‘Collapse’: How the World Ends:

    Taken together, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse represent one of the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our generation. They are magnificent books: extraordinary in erudition and originality, compelling in their ability to relate the digitized pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far past. I read both thinking what literature might be like if every author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such care. All of which makes the two books exasperating, because both come to conclusions that are probably wrong.


    Diamond’s analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China — which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants — fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China’s embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.


    What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature’s standards.

I got a kick out of the review of Collapse in the NYTimes, though I’m sure it is rather glib. The last paragraph strikes me as a bit silly. The problem is not there is not an essentially infinite amount of stuff in the cosmos but that basically everything outside of the earth is outside of our reach! And I’m not convinced that traveling to another planet is just like people sailing across the ocean five hundred years ago.

First Things, Milosz, Bach, and Contrarian Science

I’d like to reflect more on the Christian themes in Czeslaw Milosz‘s poetry. Good places for me to jump off from are two articles in the November 2004 issue of First Things (a contrarian, often cranky, usually intelligent journal):

While glancing at these pieces, I came across mention of J. S. Bach in Bach, Hitler, and the People Called German:

    And of course there is no Germany without Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music was, says Ozment, in sharp contrast to that of the Enlightenment, and especially of the French Enlightenment. “What distinguished Bach’s work and made it lasting was the musical-emotional demonstration of humankind’s need for transcendence and majesty, yet utter inability to encompass and master either.” The Enlightenment believed in man’s ability to resolve the riddle of history, both to mock and to play the gods. “By contrast, Bach’s music reasserted the dialectical character of reality and the bipolarity at the center of the human heart, each mysterious and complex beyond all human fathoming. . . . The alternating loss and restoration of harmony left the auditor with an intermittently pleasurable, but never final or secure, sensation of reconciliation, which was also the intention of the juxtaposition of Law and Gospel in the Lutheran sermon: oneness only in division, righteousness only in sin.”

And when I have some more time to look at minority dissenting views on global climate change, I can start with FT November 2004: Strange Science.

Adam Hochschild, William Wilberforce, Cody’s Books

It intrigues me that Adam Hochschild will be talking about a subject for which my slim knowledge comes almost entirely from one article (which has meant a lot to me): Every Arrow Needs a Bow: William Wilberforce.


    Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin; 467 pages; $26.95): The abolitionist movement in 18th century Britain marked an unprecedented shift in civil society. Slaves had rebelled throughout history, “but the campaign in England was something never seen before,” writes Adam Hochschild. “[I]t was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights.” In “Bury the Chains,” Hochschild, the Bay Area author of “King Leopold’s Ghost,” presents a gripping and inspiring account of the abolitionist crusade. He deftly teases out the movement’s significance in terms of the activist techniques that evolved from it, from consumer boycotts and lapel pins to media campaigns.

This coming Wednesday: LITERARY GUIDE: Adam Hochschild Discussing “Bury the Chains.” 7:30 p.m. Cody’s, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. (510) 845-7852.

a new book on bicycles

A two-wheeled tour of modern history / The bicycle’s track record shows it playing a central role in industrialized era:

    Being a lifelong bicyclist — I have used a succession of them as my primary means of transportation for 50 years — I harbor a bias in favor of a book that glorifies the subject. And glorify bicycles David V. Herlihy does. That is unsurprising, given Herlihy’s intense affair with bicycling since his teenage years, which coincided with the importation of European 10-speeds into the United States. Later, he lived in Italy, where he rode a high-quality racing bike.

As one who knows the joy of cycling and want others to experience it too, I’m looking forward to reading the book and understanding better how we got to our present situation in which so few of us bike.

the continuing battle between consumers and companies

 Now call centers can make Nice on phone:

    On the other hand, there’s a bright side to this new technology. If you’re not getting anywhere with a service rep, all you need to do is start cursing your head off. A supervisor will be on the phone within moments.

There must a way to level the playing field between customers and the BigCo. I’d like to find better ways to aggregate information about how customers are being treated (perhaps in near real time) by various companies so that we can make buying decisions that reward good players and punish recalcitrant big companies that stonewall consumers.

My collages and those in the New York Times

Generating my own collages prompted me to notice The New York Times > Arts > Art & Design > Making Art From Bits and Pieces:

    In rescuing and dignifying scraps of local life – a matchbook from a bar, someone’s tossed-off photo-booth portrait – Mr. Evans can be thought of as a historical preservationist, operating on an unusually intimate scale. Yet his own moods seem reflected in how he handles the materials. In one day’s collage, ticket stubs and candy wrappers explode like fireworks against an ebulliently bright background. In another, juxtaposed images of Hitler and Oliver North make a grim political statement.