Acute Muscle Injuries

“This special edition about muscular injuries provides current knowledge to orthopaedic surgeons. Acute muscular injury is the most frequent trauma encountered by sport physicians and surgeons. These injuries must be well understood: physiology, biomechanics, healing process, but also epidemiology, nutrition, and psychology may explain not only the onset of the injury but also how to manage these lesions. The consequences of these lesions are sometimes dramatic […] After a global and transversal approach, ten chapters cover different localizations of acute muscle injuries. The chapter will address the definition of the injury, clinical aspects, complementary exams, preoperative findings, assessment and therapeutic options. […] injuries are described from trauma mechanism, physical examination findings and diagnostic and treatment algorithms towards rehabilitation programs and full return to sports. The book is structured in a fashion that allows people to use it as a reference manual. Therefore, this book is directed to orthopaedic surgeons, sports medicine physicians, physiotherapists, general practitioners, sports managers, athletes and coaches.”

I found it a bit funny that the book was directed to ‘athletes and coaches.’ The passage below provides part of the reason why:

“The plantaris muscle originates from the supracondylar ridge of the lateral femoral condyle and courses toward the posteromedial side of the lower leg. It inserts just medial of the Achilles tendon on the calcaneus. The plantaris muscle is located between the more superficial gastrocnemius and the deeper soleus muscle. The general function of this muscle group is plantarflexion of the ankle [29]. The soleus muscle originates from the proximal part (±1/2) of the posterior tibia along the soleal line and the proximal part (±1/3) of the posterior fibula. The gastrocnemius muscle spans three joints: the knee, ankle, and subtalar joint. The gastrocnemius is a bipennate muscle; the lateral head originates from the posterior aspect of the lateral femoral condyle, whereas the medial head arises from the medial femoral condyle. […] Repairs of distal ruptures generally focus on restoring the insertion of the distal biceps tendon on the radial tuberosity, although tenodesis to the brachialis tendon has also been reported [11,27]. The tendon and muscle can generally be mobilized to facilitate anatomic repair in acute cases, while augmentation is occasionally required in more chronic situations [45]. Repair was traditionally performed through an extensile Henry approach to the anterior elbow [53]. A high complication rate led Boyd and Anderson to develop the classic two-incision approach to anatomic repair [6].”

If you fail to see where I’m heading, combine the above stuff with this link (Danish link). No statistics seem to exist on this stuff, but the manager of the Danish union of soccer players says in the article that he estimates that only half of the professional soccer players even finish high school. I picked a couple of random pages from chapter 7 and ran them through this neat little tool – it gave a Flesch Reading Ease number of 33.17 (according to the wiki article, this is comparable to an issue of the Harvard Law Review, which “has a general readability score in the low 30s”), and a Gunning Fog index (‘estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading’) of roughly 17 (a score of 12 would be what you’d be aiming for if you wanted a high school grad to easily understand your text – do remember that half of the Danish soccer guys may well be below this level). You can always argue with the algorithms, but I’d remind you that if anything in cases like these they may well tend to underestimate the difficulty involved here – it’s much easier to understand a text with words like ‘strong and specific’ than it is to understand a text with words like ‘the medial pectoral’, yet the two combinations of words score the same in these algorithms (same number of words, same number of letters in each word). And there are a lot of words of the latter kind in this book. I say good luck reading and understanding this book if you’re a Danish high school dropout pro soccer player (I haven’t even talked about the fact that the book is written in a foreign language yet). Note incidentally that roughly one-third (31%, according to the introduction) of all elite soccer injuries are muscle injuries, and that “Hamstring injury is the single most common injury in professional football” (some of the findings of this paper are included in the book) – it’s not like the stuff covered in this book isn’t potentially relevant to these people.

I’ve often seen this sort of stuff before in the introductory chapters of academic publications – academics writing stuff which they delude themselves into thinking that a lot of other people will easily be able to read and understand – and I often have some trouble figuring out how to react to this. I find it sad in a way. I should perhaps point out in connection with this that I at least occasionally think about this type of stuff when blogging; however although I do put in at least some efforts trying to only post stuff ‘other people’ might at least arguably be expected to understand, at least to some extent, and avoid superfluous technicalities, I hardly delude myself into thinking that lots of people will not encounter some problems if they try reading some of the specific posts on this blog. This is not a problem as the blog isn’t really written for the general public; rather it’s mainly written for myself and the few other people out there who find the kind of stuff I write here interesting. I assume that given my limited interaction with ‘normal people’ I occasionally make inferential mistakes regarding comprehensibility qualitatively similar to those of the authors of this book, which is another reason why I have ambiguous feelings about this kind of stuff, but at least I have some awareness of these issues. One might of course argue that the authors assume that only a few players might benefit from the book, but given that some might benefit after all they chose to include that category of potential readers as well – and although I’m far from sure, that may be what’s going on. Maybe the fact that I so often read stuff that’s technically not ‘written for people like me’ makes me more attuned to these kinds of aspects than I perhaps ought to be.

So anyway, with that major digression out of the way, let’s talk a bit more about what this book is about. Naturally it doesn’t deal with all muscle injuries – there are a lot of muscles in the human body (‘approximately 642‘, though numbers vary – this seems like yet another area of biology where there’s a splitter/lumper dynamic at play) and it’d be a very long book if it dealt with every single one of them in detail. Aside from that a lot of textbooks have also already been written about some specific muscle groups, making coverage of those in a book like this somewhat unnecessary – for example there’s quite a literature on what happens when the heart muscle gets damaged and what you can do about it when that happens, so although acute muscle injuries that affect the myocardium may well be some of the most important ones in terms of human morbidity and mortality, they don’t really talk about that kind of stuff in this book. The main focus is on sports injuries – the first two chapters deal with general principles (‘Terminology and Classification of Athletic Muscle Injuries’, ‘Basic Principles of Muscle Healing’), whereas the rest – aside from the last one dealing with ‘Muscle Research: Future Perspective on Muscle Analysis’ – deal with specific muscles or muscle groups. The topics covered are: Hamstring injuries, Acute Adductor Muscle Injury, Quadriceps Muscles, The Calf Muscle Complex, Pectoralis Major Rupture, Acute Biceps Brachii Injuries, and Rectus Abdominis Injury. So what the book does is to provide you with an overview over some common injuries; how they present, diagnosis – it actually turns out that some muscle injuries are much harder to diagnose than you’d think, or at least they’re harder to diagnose than I thought they were – and treatment, etc. It’s probably close to an ideal book to own if you’re an athlete who’s just had a muscle injury; in all likelihood the book will contain some stuff about what’s going on, how worried you should be, how to optimally deal with the injury, etc. Some might presumably also argue that it’s an ideal book to have read if you’re an athlete at risk of getting an injury, and all athletes are, to some extent. Although the book is technical I’d say that if you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you’ll be all right – I don’t think a lot of high-school dropout professional soccer players read this blog, although I may be wrong about that…

Here are a few more wiki links (aside from the ones included in the text above) I looked up while reading the book: Anatomical terms of motion, Fascia, Ecchymosis, Myositis ossificans, Compartment syndrome (you do not want this), Tendinitis, Iontophoresis, Metaplasia, Tenosynovitis, Patella, Antalgic gait, Osteitis pubis. This is the kind of stuff that’s covered in the book. I gave the book three stars on goodreads.

I decided to include a few passages from the book below which I thought were interesting and/or worth knowing, as well as a few comments.

“Tears of the quadriceps tendon are a rare occurrence […] Patients who have suffered a complete or partial tear of the quadriceps tendon are typically older (>40 years old) and often have conditions that can lead to degeneration in the tendon […] Other patients who are at risk for quadriceps tendon tears are those that use performance-enhancing substances such as anabolic steroids and creatine. These drugs lead to increased muscle strength, and steroids have been reported to weaken tendons, change collagen fibril structure, and decrease tendon elasticity in animal studies. The combination of amplified muscle strength and a potentially weakened tendon increases the likelihood of suffering a tendon rupture.”

I had no idea this was a potential hazard associated with the usage of anabolic steroids. Although I’ve of course never considered using such drugs it’s probably safe to assume that some of the people who actually do use these drugs are also not aware of this risk. A quadriceps tendon tear is incidentally often quite unpleasant: “Incomplete or partial tears of the quadriceps tendon can often be managed nonoperatively. The patient’s knee should be immobilized in full extension for a period of up to approximately 6 weeks depending on the size of the tear.” 6 weeks immobilized – and these are the tears that are categorized as ‘mild’ (of course I’m not saying that if the people using such drugs knew about this risk they’d change their behaviour – some of the commonly known risks involved are much worse as they can actually kill you).

How to treat muscle injuries? The stuff included below is about how to deal with problems with the quadriceps tendons, but similar principles apply to many other muscle injuries (there may be a better coverage of this aspect elsewhere in the book, but this book was one of those books where I was unable to highlight and I am not going to reread the book just in order to find the absolute best quotes to post here):

“Treatment goals for muscle strains are aimed at minimizing the bleeding and hematoma formation following injury to the muscle. There is a scarcity of literature on the specific treatment of muscle injuries, including strains. Because of this, the treatment protocols have not changed drastically in recent years. Acute treatment for strains complies with the PRICE (Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) protocol for the first 24–72 h following an injury. Ice and compression should be used for approximately 10–20 min at a time in hour-long intervals [10]. Protection and rest are aimed to prevent further damage to the muscle, while ice decreases blood flow, bleeding, and inflammation at the damaged area. The use of ice following acute muscle injuries has been shown to be effective in decreasing pain caused by the injury, but as of yet there is no definitive proof that it leads to faster healing and a quicker return to sports [10,17,25,37]. Compression and elevation both aid in decreasing blood flow and swelling in the injured area. […] Some centers believe that NSAIDs should be contraindicated due to the increased risk of local bleeding and the potential for slower healing of the injury. Therefore, their use is controversial [35]. […] Practitioners should attempt to avoid prescribing anti-inflammatory medications for patients with quadriceps tendon tears because they have been shown to impair tendon healing.”

I included the last part of that quote in order to illustrate that there’s actually quite a lot of stuff most people probably don’t know about these kinds of things, and that this lack of knowledge may easily lead to behavioural strategies post-injury which may adversely affect outcomes. Behavioural strategies which adversely affect injury outcomes may well from an opportunity cost perspective include the failure to adopt injury-minimizing behavioural protocols, and it’s certain there are some of these in the book which most people do not know anything about. In the specific case here it may be an idea to have in mind that it might well be better to use acetaminophen/paracetamol rather than, say, aspirin in an acute muscle injury context. I could easily include other examples as well from the book of ‘things athletes would benefit from knowing but mostly don’t’, here’s another one:

“If possible, a patient who has suffered a quadriceps contusion should immediately have the knee put in 120° of flexion for approximately 10 min. This has been reported to compress the injury to limit hemorrhage and muscle spasm. Research has shown that patients who are put in 120° of flexion immediately following a quadriceps contusion return to normal range of motion more quickly than those who do not and have a lower chance of developing myositis ossificans [2–4,27].”

A few more observations from the book, first a little bit of stuff about what the future may hold:

“The use of treatment modalities based on biologicals is a popular topic for musculoskeletal disorders. Many studies have evaluated platelet- and growth factor-enriched plasma for tendon pathology; results however vary substantially between studies and affected pathology [2,8,28]. […] A number of growth factors released by platelets, such as PDGF, VEGF, IGF-1, TGF beta, and FGF, promote repair in various soft tissue models. With the results of enriched plasma for other musculoskeletal pathologies in mind, it is a promising future treatment option. As with enriched plasma modalities, other upcoming treatment options also lack any evidence for the here-described pathology. One of them is mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy: regeneration of healthy muscle tissue involves infiltration of tissue- and vascular-derived cells into the wound area, releasing a cascade of mediators (GFs, BMPs, cytokines, and neuropeptides). The hypothetical benefit of MSC therapy lies in the molecular approaches by which MSC, along with genetically modified cells and gene therapy, can synthesize and deliver the desired growth factor in a temporarily and spatially orchestrated manner to the site of injury [1,9].
The current lack of knowledge can be regarded as a contraindication because it is unsure whether the used modalities will enhance regeneration of functional musculous tissue or the formation of scar tissue. This is a serious concern and should be studied meticulously before it is ready to be used in daily clinical practice.”

And lastly a few words on how little we actually know at this point (having including the stuff above I felt that I had to include the stuff below as well):

“We are still faced with a dearth of scientific knowledge on muscle injuries. Despite the growing number of publications over the last three decades, our current knowledge on etiology, prognosis, and therapy is based on only 2,000 published injuries, of which the majority is acute hamstring injuries. If we restrict ourselves to level 1 trials, then there are less than 300 injuries examined. The progress our research has led to for the individual athlete is limited: compared to three decades ago the injury and re-injury rate have not been changed. […]

The device “prevention is better than cure” certainly holds for muscle injuries […] Nonetheless, to date the evidence for preventative measures is limited to only one high-level study, in which the Nordic hamstring exercise was shown to be effective in the prevention of hamstring injury in football [17].
To be able to direct preventative measures to those players at risk for a specific muscle injury, risk factors associated with the injuries need to be identified. Unfortunately, studies published to date on risk factors for muscle injuries have methodological limitations, as they use univariate approaches and have too small sample sizes to detect small to moderate associations. Muscle injuries in sports occur from a complex interaction of multiple risk factors. This multifactorial nature should be taken into account when studying risk factors for muscle injuries by using appropriate multivariate statistical approaches [3,13]. In addition, sample sizes should be sufficient to study associations of risk factors with injury risk. As clearly depicted by Bahr and Holme [3], to detect moderate associations up to 200 injured subjects are needed. Taking hamstring injuries in football as an example, with a seasonal injury prevalence of 17 %, a sample size of over 1,000 players is needed to study the risk factors with moderate associations. Risk factor studies in the other less prevalent muscle injuries will of course need even larger numbers of athletes. […] Our main limitation is that as an individual sports physician, we deal with a too limited number of muscle injuries to justify an experience-based approach. For example, in professional football, with 15 muscle injuries per team per season [7], our most experienced sports physicians will have had managed just 450 muscle injuries in his/her 30 years’ career. As a consequence, to gain expertise and to answer the most important and simple questions, we need to collaborate. Faced with our short research history, a worldwide muscle injury registration system should start today rather than tomorrow.”

From a brief google it incidentally seems as if that last part is a topic which has received some attention lately – see e.g. this and this.

April 28, 2014 Posted by | books, health, medicine | Leave a comment

A recommendation

I did little but read from Friday afternoon to earlier this afternoon, and so I ended up reading two books in roughly 24 hours. I plan on blogging one of them – a Springer publication on Acute Muscle Injuries – here later; it seems like the kind of book a lot of people would potentially benefit from reading. Given that it’s somewhat technical it’s also the kind of book a lot of people would benefit from being able to read, but that’s a different matter… The other book in question – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – is a work of fiction, so I won’t talk very much about it here. I did like it and I gave it three stars on goodreads, despite the fact that the setting is very unrealistic. The unrealistic setting did occasionally subtract from my reading experience, as some of those aspects were distracting to me. To people who don’t know, this book is the book behind the movie Blade Runner (a movie I really liked when I last watched it, though that’s quite a while ago).

Although I figured I might as well include the above comments in this post in order to at least add a little bit of ‘content’, the ‘recommendation part’ of the post title does not relate to those two books; rather the main reason why I wrote this post is that a friend of mine has just started a blog – arscogitandi. I think you should go have a look at it.

April 26, 2014 Posted by | blogging, books | Leave a comment

Body Language

It’s my impression that there aren’t a lot of good books out there on this topic, which is the only reason why I’d even consider reading a book like this. If a book on a different topic had provided a similar type of coverage, I’d have gotten rid of the book after less than 10 pages (…5 pages?). But I’m curious about this kind of stuff – I want to know more about these things, and if there aren’t a lot of great books out there, well, then books which are not great will have to do. And this book is decidedly not-great. I haven’t rated it on goodreads, but it belongs in the 1-2 star neighbourhood. The fact that it’s a short book was to me a strength rather than a weakness – if it had been much longer I would have stopped reading early on, because I’d have known I wouldn’t be able to justify reading it to the end.

Although the book isn’t great, it did contain some interesting observations which I have added below.

“There have been many studies attempted to find out just how the reaction to invasion of personal space is related to personality. One, a master’s thesis by John L. Williams, determined that introverts tended to keep people at a greater conversational distance than extroverts. The man who is withdrawn needs greater defenses to insure the sanctity of his withdrawn state. Another study, for a doctoral thesis, by William E. Leipold arrived at the same conclusion by a clever experiment. Students were first given personality tests to see if they were introverted or extroverted, and then were sent to an office to be interviewed about their grades. Three types of instructions to the students were given by the experimenter. These were called stress, praise or neutral instructions. The stress instructions were geared to upset the man. “We feel that your course grade is quite poor and that you haven’t tried your best. Please take a seat in the next room till the interviewer can speak to you.” The student then entered the room with a desk and two chairs, one in front of it and one behind it. The praise interview started with the student being told that his grades were good and that he was doing well. In the neutral interview the instructions were simply, “We are interested in your feelings about the course.” Results of the study showed that the students who were praised sat closest to the interviewer’s chair. The students under stress sat farthest away, and the ones receiving neutral instructions sat midway. Introverted and anxious students sat farther away than extroverted students under the same conditions.

With this much charted, the next step was to determine the reactions of men and women when their territory was invaded. Dr. Robert Sommer, professor of psychology and chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of California, describes a set of experiments conducted in a hospital environment where, dressed in a doctor’s white coat to gain authority, he systematically invaded the patients’ privacy, sitting next to them on benches and entering their wards and day rooms. These intrusions, he reported, invariably bothered the patients and drove them from their special chairs or areas. The patients reacted to Dr. Sommer’s physical intrusion by becoming uneasy and restless and finally by removing themselves bodily from the area. From his own observations and the observations of others Dr. Sommer has discovered a whole area of body language that the individual uses when his private territory is invaded. Aside from the actual physical retreat of picking up and going somewhere else, there will be a series of preliminary signals, rocking, leg swinging or tapping. These are the first signs of tension, and they say, “You are too near. Your presence makes me uneasy.” The next series of body language signals are closed eyes, withdrawal of the chin into the chest and hunching of the shoulders. These all say, “Go away. I do not want you here. You are intruding.””

“While a person can stop talking, the same person cannot stop communicating through his body language. He must say the right thing or the wrong thing, but he cannot say nothing. He can cut down on how much he communicates by body language if he acts in the proper fashion, or acts normally, the way people are supposed to act.”

“awareness of body language is often a key to personal relationships […] the awareness of someone else’s body language and the ability to interpret it create an awareness of one’s own body language. As we begin to receive and interpret the signals others are sending, we begin to monitor our own signals and achieve a greater control over ourselves and in turn function more effectively. However, it is very difficult to gain control of all the different methods of communication. There are literally thousands of bits of information exchanged between human beings within moments. Our society programs us to handle these many bits of data, but on an unconscious level. If we bring them up to our consciousness we run the risk of mishandling them. If we have to think of what we are doing, it often becomes much more difficult to do it. An aware mind is not necessarily as effective as an unaware one.”

“every American speaker moves his head a number of times during a conversation. If you film a typical conversation between two Americans and then slow down the film to study the elements of posture in slow motion you will notice a head movement when an answer is expected. The head movement at the end of each statement is a signal to the other speaker to start his answer. This is one of the ways in which we guide our spoken conversations. It enables a back-and-forth exchange without the necessity of saying, “Are you finished? Now I’ll talk.” […] In our language, a change in pitch at the end of a sentence can mean a number of things. If there is a rise in pitch, the speaker is asking a question. […] Like the voice, the head moves up at the end of a question. This upward movement at the end of a question is not limited to the voice and head. The hand, too, tends to move up with the rise in pitch. […] The eyelid, too, will open wider with the last note of a question. Just as the voice lifts up at the end of a question, it also drops in pitch at the end of a statement.”

“In literature, even the best literature, eyes are steely, knowing, mocking, piercing, glowing and so on. Are they really? Are they ever? Is there such a thing as a burning glance, or a cold glance or a hurt glance? In truth there isn’t. Far from being windows of the soul, the eyes are physiological dead ends, simply organs of sight and no more, differently colored in different people to be sure, but never really capable of expressing emotion in themselves. […] Of all parts of the human body that are used to transmit information, the eyes are the most important and can transmit the most subtle nuances. Does this contradict the fact that the eyes do not show emotion? Not really. While the eyeball itself shows nothing, the emotional impact of the eyes occurs because of their use and the use of the face around them […] by length of glance, by opening of eyelids, by squinting and by a dozen little manipulations of the skin and eyes, almost any meaning can be sent out.”

“There are different formulas for the exchange of glances depending on where the meeting takes place. If you pass someone in the street you may eye the oncoming person till you are about eight feet apart, then you must look away as you pass. Before the eight-foot distance is reached, each will signal in which direction he will pass. This is done with a brief look in that direction. Each will veer slightly, and the passing is done smoothly.” [This is the sort of non-verbal information I’m less good at applying than are most people – I rarely make eye contact with random people on the street] […] If we wish to put a person down we may do so by staring longer than is acceptably polite. Instead of dropping our gazes when we lock glances, we continue to stare.”

“In an attempt to discover just how some of these rules for visual communication work, Dr. Gerhard Nielson of Copenhagen analyzed the “looks” of the subjects in his self-confrontation studies. To discover just how long, and when, the people being interviewed looked at the interviewer, he filmed interviews and replayed them a number of times in slow motion. While he started with no clear-cut idea of how long one man would look at another during an interview, he was surprised to find how little looking there actually was. The man who looked at his interviewer the most, still looked away 27 per cent of the time. The man who looked at his interviewer the least looked away 92 per cent of the time. Half of the people interviewed looked away for half of the time they were being interviewed. Dr. Nielson found that when people spoke a lot they looked at their partners very little; when they listened a lot they also looked a lot. He reports that he expected people to look at each other more when they listened more, but he was surprised to find them looking less when they spoke more. He found that when people start to speak, they look away from their partners at first. There is a subtle timing, he explains, in speaking, listening, looking and looking away. Most people look away either immediately before or after the beginning of one out of every four speeches they make. […] As they finish speaking, half the people look at their partners. […] What seems to come across from both these studies, and others of a similar nature, is that when someone looks away while he’s speaking, it generally means he’s still explaining himself and doesn’t want to be interrupted. […] If you look away from the person who is speaking to you while you are listening, it is a signal, “I am not completely satisfied with what you are saying. I have some qualifications.” […] If while you are listening, you look at the speaker, you signal, “I agree with you,” or “I am interested in what you are saying.” […] However, there are more complexities here than meet the eye . . . or the glance. Looking away during a conversation may be a means of concealing something. Therefore when someone else looks away, we may think he is concealing something.”

“Loss of hearing and the cutting off of the world of sound apparently make an individual much more sensitive to the world of gestures and motions. If this is so, then someone who is deaf should have a more sensitive understanding of body language. […] With this in mind, Dr. Norman Kagan of Michigan State University conducted a study among deaf people. They were shown films of men and women in various situations and asked to guess at the emotional state of these people and describe what body language clues they used to convey this state. Because of technical difficulties they were unable to use lip reading. “It became apparent to us,” Dr. Kagan said, “that many parts of the body, perhaps every part to some extent, reflect a person’s feeling-state.” As an example, talking while moving the hands or playing with a finger ring and moving restlessly were all interpreted by the deaf as nervousness, embarrassment and anxiety. When the eyes and face suddenly “came down,” when the person seemed to “swallow back” his expression, or when his features “collapsed” it was interpreted as guilt. Excessively jerky movements were labeled frustration, and a shrinking body movement, as if “hiding oneself,” spelled out depression. Forcefulness was seen as the snapping forward of the head and whole body including the arms and shoulders, and boredom was inferred when the head was tilted or rested at an angle and the fingers doodled. Reflectiveness was linked to intensity of gaze, a wrinkled forehead and a downcast look. […] These interpretations were given by deaf people, and sound played no part in transmitting clues, yet the interpretations were accurate.”

April 24, 2014 Posted by | books, Psychology | Leave a comment

A few lectures

I had trouble following this, but I thought it was an interesting lecture anyway. The sound falls out a couple times for very brief periods of time (a few seconds, but still irritating) and a few other times it’s a bit difficult to tell what he’s saying because he speaks very fast. The guy who controls the camera occasionally forgets to follow him around, which is annoying. But aside from these small problems it’s a good lecture. Here are some links that I found helpful along the way (some were more helpful than others…) while watching the lecture: Duality (projective geometry), Euler characteristic, Big O notation, configuration (geometry), cubic curve, algebraic geometry of projective spaces, Cayley–Bacharach theorem.

I liked most of the lecture, but I agree with Razib Khan’s assessment that: “there may not have been a gene which made humanity, but a subtle complex of numerous genetic and cultural changes which transitioned at a critical point”. Based on his comments towards the end of the lecture, it seems that Pääbo thinks along different lines. It seems to me that the story about the origin and evolution of culture(s) is complex and multidimensional, and to tell the story of how humans got from flint axes to airplanes you need a lot more than to identify a few SNPs. I’d be very surprised if we can ‘narrow it down’ as much as Pääbo seems to assume we might be able to.

This lecture is much less technical than the first two – it’s a rather light and data-poor lecture, but I did find it worth watching.

April 22, 2014 Posted by | genetics, history, Lectures, mathematics | Leave a comment

Some thoughts (mostly about job interviews)

(Some of the stuff below started out as comments made during a skype conversation with a friend. I added some other unrelated ideas as well. Most of it deals with the job interview setting, but there’s a little bit of other personal stuff at the bottom as well. I don’t really write posts like these anymore and I was strongly considering not posting this, so if you think the post contains some valuable insights you’d probably be well-advised to save it somewhere else; I can’t guarantee that I won’t change my mind about the post later on and delete it when I realize it’s the sort of crap I shouldn’t blog.)

I consider job-interviewing to be a skill that I at some point hopefully not too far into the future will have to try to acquire. Like in other areas of life I’ll probably try to acquire that skill through reading stuff about it – it’s what I do. But it’s probably worth writing down a few observations I’ve already made along the way. It’s my belief that the things that decide whether or not a given person lands a job often are at least somewhat unrelated to the qualifications of said individual, and it probably makes sense to try to optimize along such variables as well. This is hard to do if you’ve not given it some thought. Saying someone got the job because there was a good chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee may be correct but it is not a very informative statement, and usually some variables go into that equation which can at least be tweaked a little in the right direction.

I’ve occasionally talked to my brother about classic Fermi problems and how to go about answering such questions, which is one angle (some employers do pose such questions during an interview). However a probably much more important angle is the open ended question. Any semi-competent interviewer will probably make use of these during an interview, because they have the potential to give you a lot of information. This is because the potential variation in response strategies is much higher here than in other contexts; people may vary a lot in how many words they use (‘Not enough information (to anwer)’ vs ‘a 10 minute lecture on how you saved the lives of four kittens on November 13, 1999, and because of this – well, also partly due to Marjorie’s accident of course – decided to help out at the local homeless shelter…’), which words they use, how many variables they include in their response, which aspects they emphasize and which factors they exclude/overlook (e.g. intellectual vs social/emotional aspects), and so on and so forth. Interviewers ask such questions at least in part in order to get people to tell stuff about themselves which they might not otherwise have told them. When answering a question like that, one should probably try to keep in mind both why they ask (the answer to the question as such is not that important – which things they may be interested in learning about you is what’s important) and how you’d prefer to present yourself to them (how honest are you going to be in terms of signalling to them which type of person you are, and which types of variables would it be optimal for you to signal that you’d include in a random decision making process?). As always in these contexts, the response strategy will to some extent imply a tradeoff between increasing the likelihood of getting the job and getting a job you don’t want.

I think a common theme in the approach I at this point assume makes sense in the interview context is that you do not in general want to memorize answers to specific questions. This is certainly not the way to handle Fermi problems, and I don’t think it’s a good approach to many other types of questions either. I don’t think the ‘memory strategy’ makes much sense except in so far as it relates to very specific questions which you know will come up during the conversation, and which you know you’ll need to have a good answer for in order to land the job. However in general it probably makes more sense to have some idea which personality traits and behavioural dispositions you’re going to emphasize when talking about yourself (and the sort of work you can do for the employer), and which traits and dispositions it on the other hand would be optimal for you to neglect to tell them about. You probably want to along the way give some thought as to how perceived social signals from them about what they’re looking for should change your response strategies, if at all. Having given such topics some thought beforehand should make the social interaction more natural and make e.g. various ‘evasive maneuvers’ less obvious. A potentially important note is that response relevance (are you answering exactly the question they’re asking you, or are you perhaps answering a slightly different question which you would prefer to answer?) is not necessarily a variable you should always aim to maximize; the importance of this variable will depend upon the question and upon the preferences of the interviewer, and it is likely that you’ll quickly learn how much leeway you’re given in this respect.

All interviews will from a certain point of view contain a lot of elements which are included at least in part in order to make people slip and indicate that they’re not the right person for the job – if 7 people are interviewed and one person gets hired, the interviewer needs to justify why s/he didn’t hire any of the 6 others. Employing strategies such as trying to make people relax and feel comfortable are often effective in terms of squeezing relevant information out of the interviewees, because they tend to increase potential behavioural variation among interviewees; people behave more alike in environmentally-induced high-stress situations than they do in relaxed social environments (see e.g. Funder), and if anything an interviewer wants to maximize behavioural variation (the less important the environmental confound is the more behavioural variation is displayed during each encounter, and the fewer rounds of interviews will be needed to decide upon an optimal candidate). Feeling comfortable during an interview probably should not be considered a state to be avoided as such, as awkward encounters are unlikely to lead anywhere, but it should be kept in mind that there are potential negative behavioural effects associated with feeling ‘too’ comfortable. Extensive knowledge about which sort of social strategies interviewers apply during the interview should not (if you decide to try to obtain such knowledge in order to increase the likelihood of getting hired) make you more overtly cautious or mistrustful, as these are not traits you will want to display too openly (unless you’re applying for a job where such traits may be considered a plus). A better idea may be to signal that you’re comfortable and relaxed, whether or not you actually are comfortable and relaxed – this seems in general to be a much smarter move than would be signalling that ‘you know what they’re trying to do’; the former will, if you do it successfully, both signal confidence and perhaps also make the interviewer believe your behavioural input is more ‘valuable’ (to them) than it may actually be in reality, whereas the latter may put you into a very different box. I have in the past perhaps had a tendency to think of displays of meta-level thinking as a positive factor in these contexts; one example of engaging in this type of behaviour could be to signal that you know some stuff about which traits and behavioural dispositions the employer is likely to consider desirable in an applicant. I’m no longer at all sure such displays are a good idea; there are certainly ways to do these things which are better than others (‘making such comments jokingly and in a light-hearted manner may serve to display both confidence as well as intelligence’). In general displaying and drawing attention to the fact that you’re familiar with mechanisms applied by interviewers and that you’re trying to take them explicitly into account when answering questions may be a bad idea, as it may make your responses less trustworthy. Divulging explicit aspects of your response strategy may not be a good idea.

One thing to remember in the context of the information setting is that the interviewers know next to nothing about you (aside from what they may have learned from your job application and a quick google) and that any variable you have not told them about is a variable they will not take into account when deciding whether or not you should get the job. They’ll ask questions designed to figure out all the relevant information, but sometimes identifying the relevant information is not an easy task, and that helping them along in that respect may be required is something which may be worth keeping in mind. Asking the interviewer questions along the way may be a good idea (if that is ‘permitted’ in the setting in question), in that it may help you get the interviewer to tell you something about herself. Information like that is power because it may help you identify things which you have in common with said individual; the more aspects you have in common, and the more significant these aspects are to the self-perception of the person with whom you’re interacting, the more likely you are to be liked by the interviewer (and the more likely you may be to get the job). Information provided by answers to such questions may also enable you to better gauge which answers they’re looking for, enabling you to potentially switch self-presentation strategies as needed. Even if the setting discourages asking questions, the subtextual information provided by e.g. the type of questions asked by the interviewer may give valuable information that may be applied in a similar manner.

Optimized non-verbal behavioural interaction patterns (eye contact, open body language, etc.), as well as formulation of specific behavioural heuristics derived from the above observations to be applied in the interview setting, are things I’ll have to have a look at later. I should probably also try to at least get some idea about just how ‘normal’ I’ll want to appear to a future employer. Self-presentation strategies, reframing techniques, and perhaps even social inputs from others which might be relevant in the interview setting are potential things to look into later as well. Just like in the dating context, the goal of holding and projecting accurate self-perceptions can be problematic in this context, which is something to have in mind; in this particular context it’s taken as a given that you’ll try to mostly say nice things about yourself and present yourself in the best possible light, and if you don’t do that it may well make you look bad.

I have talked about the Mensa trip I went to this weekend before, so I guess I should add a few remarks about that here – I wrote an account of how it went and how I felt shortly after I’d returned home because I felt a need to do that, but I see no reason to share that stuff here. Intead I’ll keep it brief: It was not very much fun in general, but it wasn’t all bad -> Conclusion: I’m glad I decided to go because of the ‘get outside your comfort zone, try new stuff, learn stuff about yourself’-aspects, but at this point I don’t think I’ll repeat the experience anytime soon. Despite not being all that great it was not a particularly disappointing experience as I had rather low expectations from the outset. Interestingly I only recently realized that I may have initially ‘underestimated’ the value of some social feedback I got during the event; a couple of people there expressed a desire to interact with me at a later point in time (a later specific point in time – it was not ‘a general notion’ but a specific activity they had in mind). That activity is also incidentally placed well outside my comfort zone, but most social activities are anyway and the social angle on offer there is certainly very different from the ones to which I currently have access. I am actually seriously considering participating in that activity as well, if for no other reason then because it’s been a very long time since someone has approached me socially in this specific way. I sometimes forget that it’s actually nice to feel that other people have a desire to interact with you socially.

April 17, 2014 Posted by | personal, rambling nonsense | 6 Comments

The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (1)

2845 before economics

(Smbc). The book is not really a book about economics, but I haven’t come across a similar comic with the words ‘mathematical anthropology’, or something along those lines, at the bottom and I think it’s close enough (besides I really love that cartoon).

I have talked about the book before on more than one occasion, as some of Boyd and Richerson’s results/ideas tend to naturally pop up in a lot of contexts when one is reading e.g. anthropology texts – and despite not having read the book I’ve been familiar with some of the ideas. I’ve considered it to be ‘a book I ought to read at some point’ for quite a while. I think Razib Khan said nice things about it at one point; given that I really liked a few of the other books he’s recommended I think that was what originally made me focus in on the book. I have long believed I would find the topic to be interesting as well as the suggested approach to dealing with the topic sensible; I have also, however, believed for a long time that the book would be a lot of work, which is part of what has kept me back.

I’ve now read enough, I think, to at least have an impression of what it’s about. It is, as expected, a technical book – there are quite a few remarks along these lines in the book:

“While we have not been able to solve (12) analytically, it is easy to solve numerically […] Because equation (13) is quite complex, we have not been able to derive an analytical expression for these equilibrium frequencies. However, it follows from the symmetry of the model that there is a stable symmetric equilibrium […] A more rigorous local stability analysis of the complete set of recursions supports the heuristic argument just given. Consider the set of i+1 difference equations where Δpj(j=0,1,…,i; see the Appendix) provides the dynamics of the behavioral traits at each stage. The cooperative equilibrium point […] is stable under the two distinct conditions …”

Someone ‘like me’ will not need to look up a lot of math-related stuff in order to understand the coverage in this book – the math is not that hard, it’s just that in some of the chapters there’s quite a lot of it. Then again if you’ve never seen a symmetry argument or people talking about deriving numerical solutions to troublesome analytical expressions (like the stuff above) before, and/or if you’ve never heard of eigenvalues or perhaps don’t have a good grasp of concepts like model equilibria or evolutionarily stable strategies, you’ll probably have some trouble along the way. One thing that ‘helps’ quite a bit in this context is that the math never seems superfluous; you get the clear impression that the authors did not add math in order to show how smart they are, but that they rather did it to promote and encourage a more systematic (…methodologically valid?) approach to this area of research. As they argue in the introduction:

“We think the way to make cultural explanations “hard” enough to enter into principled debates is to use Darwinian methods to analyze cultural evolution […] applying the evolutionary biologists’ concepts and methods to the study of culture […] Cultural evolution is rooted in the psychology of individuals, but it also creates population-level consequences. Keeping these two balls in the air is a job for mathematics; unaided reasoning is completely untrustworthy in such domains.”

I like their approach and I like the book so far. It has a lot of useful angles in terms of how to think about cultural stuff; variables, mechanisms, and tradeoffs.

I really liked the ‘Introduction’ chapter and before going any further I think I should a add a few (additional) remarks from that part of the book:

“People in culturally distinct groups behave differently mostly because they have acquired different beliefs, preferences, and skills, and these differences persist through time because the people of one generation acquire their beliefs and attitudes from those around them. To understand how cultures change, we set up an accounting system that describes how cultural variants are distributed in the population and how various processes, some psychological, others social and ecological, cause some variants to spread and others to decline. The processes that cause such cultural change arise in the everyday lives of individuals as people acquire and use cultural information. Some values are more appealing […] Some skills are easy to learn […] Some beliefs cause people to be more likely to be imitated […] We want to explain how these processes, repeated generation after generation, account for observed patterns of cultural variation.”

“Culture completely changes the way that human evolution works, but not because culture is learned. Rather, the capital fact is that human-style social learning creates a novel evolutionary trade-off. Social learning allows human populations to accumulate reservoirs of adaptive information over many generations, leading to the cumulative cultural evolution of highly adaptive behaviors and technology. Because this process is much faster than genetic evolution, it allows human populations to evolve (culturally) adaptions to local environments – kayaks in the arctic and blowguns in the Amazon […] To get the benefits of social learning, humans have to be credulous, for the most part accepting the ways that they observe in their society as sensible and proper, but such credulity opens human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. The problem is one of information costs. The advantage of culture is that individuals don’t have to invent everything for themselves. We get adaptions like kayaks and blowguns on the cheap. The trouble is that a greed for such easy adaptive traditions easily leads to perpetuating maladaptions that somehow arise. Even though the capacities that give rise to culture and shape its content must be (or at least have been) adaptive on average, the behavior observed in any particular society at any particular time may reflect evolved maladaptions. Empirical evidence for the predicted maladaptions are not hard to find. […] The spread of such maladaptive ideas is a predictable by-product of cultural transmission.”

“Selection acting on culture is an ultimate cause of human behavior just like natural selection acting on genes. In several of the chapters in part III we argue that much cultural variation exists at the group level. Different human groups have different norms and values, and the cultural transmission of these traits can cause such differences to persist for long periods. The norms and values that predominate in a group plausibly affect the probability that the group is successful, whether it survives, and whether it expands.”

At the time the authors wrote the book they’d been working on this stuff for 30 years. The book is a collection of articles they’ve written over the years (not always together), so naturally some of the stuff – I don’t know how much as I have not looked for it – is available elsewhere; if you don’t want to read the entire book but would like to know a little more about the topic, you can probably find some of the stuff covered here in the book via google scholar; for example chapter 2 (‘Why Does Culture Increase Human Adaptability?’) in the book is as far as I can tell simply a reprint of this paper (pdf) – go have a look if you want to know what the book is like. Here’s chapter 10 (‘Why People Punish Defectors – Weak Conformist Transmission can Stabilize Costly Enforcement of Norms in Cooperative Dilemmas’ (pdf)). In the first case they put all the math in the back; as illustrated in the second link they don’t always do that. I’d rather link to those papers than cover them in detail here – go have a look if you’re curious.

The coverage in the book is really nice so far, and if the quality of the material does not drop later on I’ll certainly feel tempted to give it five stars.

April 14, 2014 Posted by | anthropology, books, culture | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Great Fire of London (featured).


“The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of the English city of London, from Sunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666.[1] The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II‘s Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums.[2] It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants.”

Do note that even though this fire was a really big deal the ‘70,000 out of 80,000’ number can be misleading as many Londoners didn’t actually live in the City proper:

“By the late 17th century, the City proper—the area bounded by the City wall and the River Thames—was only a part of London, covering some 700.0 acres (2.833 km2; 1.0938 sq mi),[7] and home to about 80,000 people, or one sixth of London’s inhabitants. The City was surrounded by a ring of inner suburbs, where most Londoners lived.”

I thought I should include a few observations related to how well people behaved in this terrible situation – humans are really wonderful sometimes, and of course the people affected by the fire did everything they could to stick together and help each other out:

“Order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England‘s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence.” […] [no, wait…]

“Suspicion soon arose in the threatened city that the fire was no accident. The swirling winds carried sparks and burning flakes long distances to lodge on thatched roofs and in wooden gutters, causing seemingly unrelated house fires to break out far from their source and giving rise to rumours that fresh fires were being set on purpose. Foreigners were immediately suspects because of the current Second Anglo-Dutch War. As fear and suspicion hardened into certainty on the Monday, reports circulated of imminent invasion, and of foreign undercover agents seen casting “fireballs” into houses, or caught with hand grenades or matches.[37] There was a wave of street violence.[38] William Taswell saw a mob loot the shop of a French painter and level it to the ground, and watched in horror as a blacksmith walked up to a Frenchman in the street and hit him over the head with an iron bar.

The fears of terrorism received an extra boost from the disruption of communications and news as facilities were devoured by the fire. The General Letter Office in Threadneedle Street, through which post for the entire country passed, burned down early on Monday morning. The London Gazette just managed to put out its Monday issue before the printer’s premises went up in flames (this issue contained mainly society gossip, with a small note about a fire that had broken out on Sunday morning and “which continues still with great violence”). The whole nation depended on these communications, and the void they left filled up with rumours. There were also religious alarms of renewed Gunpowder Plots. As suspicions rose to panic and collective paranoia on the Monday, both the Trained Bands and the Coldstream Guards focused less on fire fighting and more on rounding up foreigners, Catholics, and any odd-looking people, and arresting them or rescuing them from mobs, or both together.”

I didn’t really know what to think about this part:

“An example of the urge to identify scapegoats for the fire is the acceptance of the confession of a simple-minded French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, who claimed he was an agent of the Pope and had started the Great Fire in Westminster.[55] He later changed his story to say that he had started the fire at the bakery in Pudding Lane. Hubert was convicted, despite some misgivings about his fitness to plead, and hanged at Tyburn on 28 September 1666. After his death, it became apparent that he had not arrived in London until two days after the fire started.”

Just one year before the fire, London had incidentally been hit by a plague outbreak which “is believed to have killed a sixth of London’s inhabitants, or 80,000 people”. Being a Londoner during the 1660s probably wasn’t a great deal of fun. On the other hand this disaster was actually not that big of a deal when compared to e.g. the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake.

ii. Sea (featured). I was considering reading an oceanography textbook a while back, but I decided against it and I read this article ‘instead’. Some interesting stuff in there. A few observations from the article:

“About 97.2 percent of the Earth’s water is found in the sea, some 1,360,000,000 cubic kilometres (330,000,000 cu mi) of salty water.[12] Of the rest, 2.15 percent is accounted for by ice in glaciers, surface deposits and sea ice, and 0.65 percent by vapour and liquid fresh water in lakes, rivers, the ground and the air.[12]

“The water in the sea was once thought to come from the Earth’s volcanoes, starting 4 billion years ago, released by degassing from molten rock.[3](pp24–25) More recent work suggests that much of the Earth’s water may have come from comets.[16]” (This stuff covers 70 percent of the planet and we still are not completely sure how it got to be here. I’m often amazed at how much stuff we know about the world, but very occasionally I also get amazed at the things we don’t know. This seems like the sort of thing we somehow ‘ought to know’..)

“An important characteristic of seawater is that it is salty. Salinity is usually measured in parts per thousand (expressed with the ‰ sign or “per mil”), and the open ocean has about 35 grams (1.2 oz) of solids per litre, a salinity of 35‰ (about 90% of the water in the ocean has between 34‰ and 35‰ salinity[17]). […] The constituents of table salt, sodium and chloride, make up about 85 percent of the solids in solution. […] The salinity of a body of water varies with evaporation from its surface (increased by high temperatures, wind and wave motion), precipitation, the freezing or melting of sea ice, the melting of glaciers, the influx of fresh river water, and the mixing of bodies of water of different salinities.”

“Sea temperature depends on the amount of solar radiation falling on its surface. In the tropics, with the sun nearly overhead, the temperature of the surface layers can rise to over 30 °C (86 °F) while near the poles the temperature in equilibrium with the sea ice is about −2 °C (28 °F). There is a continuous circulation of water in the oceans. Warm surface currents cool as they move away from the tropics, and the water becomes denser and sinks. The cold water moves back towards the equator as a deep sea current, driven by changes in the temperature and density of the water, before eventually welling up again towards the surface. Deep seawater has a temperature between −2 °C (28 °F) and 5 °C (41 °F) in all parts of the globe.[23]

“The amount of light that penetrates the sea depends on the angle of the sun, the weather conditions and the turbidity of the water. Much light gets reflected at the surface, and red light gets absorbed in the top few metres. […] There is insufficient light for photosynthesis and plant growth beyond a depth of about 200 metres (660 ft).[27]

“Over most of geologic time, the sea level has been higher than it is today.[3](p74) The main factor affecting sea level over time is the result of changes in the oceanic crust, with a downward trend expected to continue in the very long term.[73] At the last glacial maximum, some 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 120 metres (390 ft) below its present-day level.” (this of course had some very interesting ecological effects – van der Geer et al. had some interesting observations on that topic)

“On her 68,890-nautical-mile (127,580 km) journey round the globe, HMS Challenger discovered about 4,700 new marine species, and made 492 deep sea soundings, 133 bottom dredges, 151 open water trawls and 263 serial water temperature observations.[115]

“Seaborne trade carries more than US $4 trillion worth of goods each year.[139]

“Many substances enter the sea as a result of human activities. Combustion products are transported in the air and deposited into the sea by precipitation. Industrial outflows and sewage contribute heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, disinfectants, household cleaning products and other synthetic chemicals. These become concentrated in the surface film and in marine sediment, especially estuarine mud. The result of all this contamination is largely unknown because of the large number of substances involved and the lack of information on their biological effects.[199] The heavy metals of greatest concern are copper, lead, mercury, cadmium and zinc which may be bio-accumulated by marine invertebrates. They are cumulative toxins and are passed up the food chain.[200]

Much floating plastic rubbish does not biodegrade, instead disintegrating over time and eventually breaking down to the molecular level. Rigid plastics may float for years.[201] In the centre of the Pacific gyre there is a permanent floating accumulation of mostly plastic waste[202] and there is a similar garbage patch in the Atlantic.[203] […] Run-off of fertilisers from agricultural land is a major source of pollution in some areas and the discharge of raw sewage has a similar effect. The extra nutrients provided by these sources can cause excessive plant growth. Nitrogen is often the limiting factor in marine systems, and with added nitrogen, algal blooms and red tides can lower the oxygen level of the water and kill marine animals. Such events have created dead zones in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.[205]

iii. List of chemical compounds with unusual names. Technically this is not an article, but I decided to include it here anyway. A few examples from the list:

“Ranasmurfin: A blue protein from the foam nests of a tropical frog, named after the Smurfs.”

“Sonic hedgehog: A protein named after Sonic the Hedgehog.”

Arsole: (C4H5As), an analogue of pyrrole in which an arsenic atom replaces the nitrogen atom.[16]

“DAMN: Diaminomaleonitrile, a cyanocarbon that contains two amine groups and two nitrile groups bound to an ethylene backbone.”

fucK: The name of the gene that encodes L-fuculokinase, an enzyme that catalyzes a chemical reaction between L-fuculose, ADP, and L-fuculose-1-phosphate.[3]

Moronic acid: Moronic acid [3-oxoolean-18-en-28-oic acid], a natural triterpene

Draculin: An anticoagulant found in the saliva of vampire bats.[27]

iv. Operation Proboi. When trying to make sense of e.g. the reactions of people living in the Baltic countries to Russia’s ‘current activities’ in the Ukraine, it probably helps to know stuff like this. 1949 isn’t that long ago – if my father had been born in Latvia he might have been one of the people in the photo.

v. Schrödinger equation. I recently started reading  A. C. Phillips’ Introduction to Quantum Mechanics – chapter 2 deals with this topic. Due to the technical nature of the book I’m incidentally not sure to which extent I’ll cover the book here (or for that matter whether I’ll be able to finish it..) – if I do decide to cover it in some detail I’ll probably include relevant links to wikipedia along the way. The wiki has a lot of stuff on these topics, but textbooks are really helpful in terms of figuring out the order in which you should proceed.

vi. Happisburgh footprints. ‘A small step for man, …’

“The Happisburgh footprints were a set of fossilized hominin footprints that date to the early Pleistocene. They were discovered in May 2013 in a newly uncovered sediment layer on a beach at Happisburgh […] in Norfolk, England, and were destroyed by the tide shortly afterwards.  Results of research on the footprints were announced on 7 February 2014, and identified them as dating to more than 800,000 years ago, making them the oldest known hominin footprints outside Africa.[1][2][3] Before the Happisburgh discovery, the oldest known footprints in Britain were at Uskmouth in South Wales, from the Mesolithic and carbon-dated to 4,600 BC.[4]”

The fact that we found these footprints is awesome. The fact that we can tell that they are as old as they are is awesome. There’s a lot of awesome stuff going on here – Happisburg also simply seems to be a gift that keeps on giving:

“Happisburgh has produced a number of significant archaeological finds over many years. As the shoreline is subject to severe coastal erosion, new material is constantly being exposed along the cliffs and on the beach. Prehistoric discoveries have been noted since 1820, when fishermen trawling oyster beds offshore found their nets had brought up teeth, bones, horns and antlers from elephants, rhinos, giant deer and other extinct species. […]

In 2000, a black flint handaxe dating to between 600,000 and 800,000 years ago was found by a man walking on the beach. In 2012, for the television documentary Britain’s Secret Treasures, the handaxe was selected by a panel of experts from the British Museum and the Council for British Archaeology as the most important item on a list of fifty archaeological discoveries made by members of the public.[14][15] Since its discovery, the palaeolithic history of Happisburgh has been the subject of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) and Pathways to Ancient Britain (PAB) projects […] Between 2005 and 2010 eighty palaeolithic flint tools, mostly cores, flakes and flake tools were excavated from the foreshore in sediment dating back to up to 950,000 years ago.”

vii. Keep (‘good article’).


“A keep (from the Middle English kype) is a type of fortified tower built within castles during the Middle Ages by European nobility. Scholars have debated the scope of the word keep, but usually consider it to refer to large towers in castles that were fortified residences, used as a refuge of last resort should the rest of the castle fall to an adversary. The first keeps were made of timber and formed a key part of the motte and bailey castles that emerged in Normandy and Anjou during the 10th century; the design spread to England as a result of the Norman invasion of 1066, and in turn spread into Wales during the second half of the 11th century and into Ireland in the 1170s. The Anglo-Normans and French rulers began to build stone keeps during the 10th and 11th centuries; these included Norman keeps, with a square or rectangular design, and circular shell keeps. Stone keeps carried considerable political as well as military importance and could take up to a decade to build.

During the 12th century new designs began to be introduced – in France, quatrefoil-shaped keeps were introduced, while in England polygonal towers were built. By the end of the century, French and English keep designs began to diverge: Philip II of France built a sequence of circular keeps as part of his bid to stamp his royal authority on his new territories, while in England castles were built that abandoned the use of keeps altogether. In Spain, keeps were increasingly incorporated into both Christian and Islamic castles, although in Germany tall towers called Bergfriede were preferred to keeps in the western fashion. In the second half of the 14th century there was a resurgence in the building of keeps. In France, the keep at Vincennes began a fashion for tall, heavily machicolated designs, a trend adopted in Spain most prominently through the Valladolid school of Spanish castle design. Meanwhile, in England tower keeps became popular amongst the most wealthy nobles: these large keeps, each uniquely designed, formed part of the grandest castles built during the period.

By the 16th century, however, keeps were slowly falling out of fashion as fortifications and residences. Many were destroyed between the 17th and 18th centuries in civil wars, or incorporated into gardens as an alternative to follies. During the 19th century, keeps became fashionable once again and in England and France a number were restored or redesigned by Gothic architects. Despite further damage to many French and Spanish keeps during the wars of the 20th century, keeps now form an important part of the tourist and heritage industry in Europe. […]

“By the 15th century it was increasingly unusual for a lord to build both a keep and a large gatehouse at the same castle, and by the early 16th century the gatehouse had easily overtaken the keep as the more fashionable feature: indeed, almost no new keeps were built in England after this period.[99] The classical Palladian style began to dominate European architecture during the 17th century, causing a further move away from the use of keeps. […] From the 17th century onwards, some keeps were deliberately destroyed. In England, many were destroyed after the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649, when Parliament took steps to prevent another royalist uprising by slighting, or damaging, castles so as to prevent them from having any further military utility. Slighting was quite expensive and took considerable effort to carry out, so damage was usually done in the most cost efficient fashion with only selected walls being destroyed.[103] Keeps were singled out for particular attention in this process because of their continuing political and cultural importance, and the prestige they lent their former royalist owners […] There were some equivalent destruction of keeps in France in the 17th and 18th centuries […] The Spanish Civil War and First and Second World Wars in the 20th century caused damage to many castle keeps across Europe; in particular, the famous keep at Coucy was destroyed by the German Army in 1917.[111] By the late 20th century, however, the conservation of castle keeps formed part of government policy across France, England, Ireland and Spain.[112] In the 21st century in England, most keeps are ruined and form part of the tourism and heritage industries, rather than being used as functioning buildings – the keep of Windsor Castle being a rare exception. This is contrast to the fate of bergfried towers in Germany, large numbers of which were restored as functional buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century, often as government offices or youth hostels, or the modern conversion of tower houses, which in many cases have become modernised domestic homes.[113]

viii. Battles of Khalkhin Gol. I decided to look up that stuff because of some of the comments in this thread.

“The Battles of Khalkhyn Gol […] constituted the decisive engagement of the undeclared Soviet–Japanese border conflicts fought among the Soviet Union, Mongolia and the Empire of Japan in 1939. The conflict was named after the river Khalkhyn Gol, which passes through the battlefield. In Japan, the decisive battle of the conflict is known as the Nomonhan Incident […] after a nearby village on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria. The battles resulted in the defeat of the Japanese Sixth Army. […]

While this engagement is little-known in the West, it played an important part in subsequent Japanese conduct in World War II. This defeat, together with other factors, moved the Imperial General Staff in Tokyo away from the policy of the North Strike Group favored by the Army, which wanted to seize Siberia as far as Lake Baikal for its resources. […] Other factors included the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which deprived the Army of the basis of its war policy against the USSR. Nomonhan earned the Kwantung Army the displeasure of officials in Tokyo, not so much due to its defeat, but because it was initiated and escalated without direct authorization from the Japanese government. Politically, the defeat also shifted support to the South Strike Group, favored by the Navy, which wanted to seize the resources of Southeast Asia, especially the petroleum and mineral-rich Dutch East Indies. Two days after the Eastern Front of World War II broke out, the Japanese army and navy leaders adopted on 24 June 1941 a resolution “not intervening in German Soviet war for the time being”. In August 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their neutrality pact.[38] Since the European colonial powers were weakening and suffering early defeats in the war with Germany, coupled with their embargoes on Japan (especially of vital oil) in the second half of 1941, Japan’s focus was ultimately focused on the south, and led to its decision to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor, on 7 December that year.”

Note that there’s some disagreement in the reddit thread as to how important Khalkhin Gol really was – one commenter e.g. argues that: “Khalkhin Gol is overhyped as a factor in the Japanese decision for the southern plan.”

ix. Medical aspects, Hiroshima, Japan, 1946. Technically this is also not a wikipedia article, but multiple wikipedia articles link to it and it is a wikipedia link. The link is to a video featuring multiple people who were harmed by the first nuclear weapon used by humans in warfare. Extensive tissue damage, severe burns, scars – it’s worth having in mind that dying from cancer is not the only concern facing people who survive a nuclear blast. A few related links: a) How did cleanup in Nagasaki and Hiroshima proceed following the atom bombs? b) Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945. c) Keloid. d) Japan in the 1950s (pictures).

April 11, 2014 Posted by | archaeology, history, medicine, Physics, wikipedia | Leave a comment

The Biology of Happiness

(Before I move on to talk about the book, I wanted to add a short unrelated personal note: I have been under a lot of stress over the last few weeks on account of stuff I really didn’t have many realistic ways to deal with (I tried various approaches and I think I was somewhat creative in my attempts, but they were mostly unsuccessful). The main stressor is now gone for the moment, so maybe I’ll blog more in the weeks to come than I have over the last few weeks. However as I’ve decided to participate in a Mensa event this weekend you should not expect me to update this blog between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, as I assume I’ll not be spending much time near a computer during that time.)

“of all political ideals, that of making the people happy is perhaps the most dangerous one. It leads invariably to the attempt to impose our scale of ‘higher’ values upon others, in order to make them realize what seems to us of greatest importance for their happiness; in order, as it were, to save their souls. It leads to Utopianism and Romanticism. We all feel certain that everybody would be happy in the beautiful, the perfect community of our dreams. […] the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”

Let’s just say the author of this book has not read Popper.

Here’s what I wrote on goodreads:

I’m not rating this as it does not make sense to rate it. Some parts of the last few chapters deserve 0 stars. A few of the first chapters deserve three stars.

The first half of the book has a few problems but is generally of a reasonably high quality. I learned some new stuff there. The last chapters of the book are quite poor.

In general I’d probably if hard-pressed give it two stars as a sort of average rating of the material. But 2 stars would imply that I think the book is ‘okay’. And some parts of it really is not okay. However I also cannot justify giving the book one star.”

I’d wish it were this easy, but unfortunately it isn’t so I’m finding myself reading this stuff. It did not take much time to read the book and that the first half to two-thirds of it was reasonably interesting. I don’t regret reading the rest – it’s relevant for how to assess the remainder of the coverage, if nothing else, and the book is so short I never got to dwell on the bad stuff much. Popper’s quote is incidentally relevant because the author seems to think people reading the book care about what he thinks about politics and stuff like that. I don’t, and I tend to assume that I’m not the only one; most people reading Springer publications don’t do so because they’re looking for political coverage of the topics of the day. Anyway I see no need to talk about those aspects here. I also don’t want to talk much about some of the specific advice he gives, which I consider to be … (I don’t really have a good word for it). He’s a proponent of embracing religion because it may make you happier, and he’s also a fan of various forms of ‘positive thinking’-type psychological interventions. Dobson et al. covered that kind of stuff and there was also a bit on that kind of stuff in Leary & Hoyle, and I think Grinde is overestimating how large effects can be derived from such cognitive interventions – in an impact-evaluation framework the evidence for much of the advice he gives is simply either poor or non-existent, and adding a reference to one study or something like that to justify an approach is not going to convince me when review chapters on related topics have failed to do the same. The fact that he seems to systematically (deliberately?) overestimate the prevalence of various mental problems throughout the last part of the book, presumably because he assumes that doing this will make the political suggestions he’s heading towards more palatable, certainly does not help; it makes him look untrustworthy. Which is unfortunate because other parts of the coverage are actually okay.

Enough about the bad stuff. I’d rather talk a little about some of the interesting stuff in the book.

Here’s part of the abstract from the the beginning of the book:

“This book presents a model for what happiness is about—based on an evolutionary perspective. Briefly, the primary purpose of nervous systems is to direct an animal either towards opportunities or away from danger in order to help it survive and procreate. Three brain modules are engaged in this task: one for avoidance and two for attraction (seeking and consuming). While behaviour originally was based on reflexes, the brain gradually evolved into a more adaptive and flexible system based on positive and negative affects (good and bad feelings). The human capacity for happiness is presumably due to this whim of evolution—i.e. the advantages of having more flexibility in behavioural response. A variety of submodules have appeared, caring for a long list of pursuits, but recent studies suggest that they converge on shared neural circuits designed to generate positive and negative feelings. The brain functions involved in creating feelings, or affect, may collectively be referred to as mood modules. Happiness can be construed as the net output of these modules. Neural circuits tend to ‘expand’ (gain in strength and influence) upon frequent activation. This suggests the following strategy for improving mental health and enhancing happiness: To avoid excessive stimulation of negative modules, to use cognitive interference to enhance the ‘turn off’ function of these modules, and to exercise modules involved in positive feelings.”

He uses the term happiness in the book in a way such that both hedonic and eudaimonic elements are included. There are quite a few ways to break down what happiness ‘really is all about’ and philosophers and others have written about these things for thousands of years, but Grinde argues that “Whatever divisions are made, it all seems to come down to activation of nerve circuits designed for the purpose of creating positive affect”. It should also be noted that: “Our knowledge in neurobiology is not yet at the level where we can accurately delegate happiness to particular brain structures.” There are some structures we know to be involved and we know that neurotransmitters involved in these processes in humans and other mammals also serve similar functions in more primitive organisms/neural systems, but of course if you’re taking ‘a broad view’ of happiness the way the author does, demanding that we have the full picture is perhaps a bit much. On a related note:

“There has been considerable work aimed at defining the neuroanatomy of mood modules […] The more ancient, presumably subconscious, neural circuitry involved is situated in the subcortical part of the brain—particularly in the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus. The cognitive extension appears to involve circuitry in the orbitofrontal, lateral prefrontal, insular and anterior cingulate parts of the cortex. The subcortical nerve circuits are probably essential for initiating positive and negative feelings, while the cortex enables both the particulars of how they are perceived, and a capacity to modulate their impact. […] the two reward modules (seeking and liking) and the punishment module presumably evolved from simple neurological structures catering to approach and avoidance reflexes in primitive animals.”

The neurobiology stuff relevant to this discussion is covered in much more detail in Clark & Treisman, although that one of course also only really scratches the surface and very different aspects are emphasized there. As for the reflexes mentioned above, they are very useful in some contexts and can from one point of view (the author’s) be considered a forerunner to more complex emotions. Reflexes don’t however always work that well, in particular they don’t necessarily handle change and complexity very well; if different reactions are optimal in different contexts an organism may benefit from upgrading from reflexes only/mainly to more complex information feedback systems. You don’t need emotions for that, but emotions may be a part of such a complex feedback system. Instead of going from the ‘simple to the complex’, one might also ask why e.g. plants never developed a nervous system? This may add a bit to the understanding of why these things are the way they are – Grinde argues that:

“The reason why plants never obtained anything similar to a nervous system is presumably because they (or at least the more complex versions) are sedentary. They do not need to move around to find food”. Animals tend to do, and even if they’re sedentary “their survival requires what we refer to as behaviour […] which may be defined as movements required for survival and procreation. […] The nerve system, and the concomitant use of muscles, was the evolutionary response to this requirement. In complex animals like vertebrates, the nervous system infiltrates all parts of the body. It connects with sense organs, to extract information from the environment, and effector organs (muscles), to orchestrate behaviour. The sense organs offer the organism information that is used to decide on an action, and the muscles set the action in motion. Between these two lies a processing capacity, which in advanced animals is referred to as a brain.”

I think it’s interesting in this context that a lot of what most humans probably consider to be ‘different stuff’ is really dealt with by the same brain structures:

“the three mood modules appear to cater to all sorts of pleasures and pains […] the ups and downs associated with the emotional response to sociopsychological events rely on much the same neural circuitry that underlies the typical pain and pleasures caused by physical stimuli. For example, experiencing envy of another person’s success activates pain-related circuitry, whereas experiencing delight at someone else’s misfortune (what is referred to as schadenfreude), activates reward-related neural circuits […] Similarly, feeling excluded or being treated unfairly activates pain-related neural regions […] On the other hand, positive social feelings, such as getting a good reputation, fairness and being cooperative, offers rewards similar to those one gets from desirable food […] And the same reward-related brain regions are activated when having sex or enjoying music […] Apparently, the ancient reward and punishment circuits of the brain have simply been co-opted for whatever novel needs that arouse in the evolutionary lineage leading toward humans.”

Some parts of the brain are more sensitive to stimuli than others, although we tend to hover around a set point of happiness. The set point is one we may be able to slowly change over time, and for most people it seems to be ‘positive’ in the sense that we tend to be relatively content when negative feelings are not activated – ‘a default state of contentment’, as Grinde terms it. I thought it was interesting that humans seem to be more sensitive to big negative emotional stimuli than to other stimuli (most positive stimuli tend to have relatively short-lived effects), “presumably because a single threat can have a far more drastic effect on genetic fitness (e.g., leading to death), than can a single fortunate event.” As in the case of many other complex traits, there aren’t any major-impact ‘happiness genes’; although genes matter the differences they cause are most likely due to the combined effects of a large number of small-impact genes and their interactions with the environment. This should hardly be surprising.

Thinking about the evolutionary context underlying our emotional responses to various stimuli the way Grinde does in this book of course also leads to questions about whether the enviroment in which humans live today is well-suited for the task of making us happy and related questions such as how we might best go about trying to optimize our environment in order to live a happy life. When looked at from a certain point of view modern humans live lives which are a bit like the lives of zoo animals; the environment we inhabit is very different from the one in which our ancestors evolved, and zoo animals that are not well taken care of tend to be unhappy and engage in various problematic behaviours. I’m not sure I want to go into that discussion in too much detail, but it’s certainly the case that whereas some aspects of modern life have the potential to increase our happiness, e.g. by dealing with stimuli that tends to be make us unhappy (hunger, pain, disease), other aspects probably have the opposite effect (e.g. weaker social bonds). This should not be new to the readers of this blog either as I think I’ve talked about this stuff before; I’ve certainly read stuff which has made me think along similar lines in the past.

There’s some stuff covered in the book which I have not talked about, but I figure I’ll stop here. I really would not recommend the book, but parts of it was actually reasonably interesting.

April 10, 2014 Posted by | books, personal | Leave a comment

A few lectures

It is occasionally slightly annoying that you can’t tell what she’s pointing at (a recurring problem in these lectures), but aside from this it’s a nice lecture – and this is a rather minor problem.

Most of this stuff was review to me, but it’s a nice overview lecture in case you have never had a closer look at this topic. There are some sound issues along the way, but otherwise the coverage is quite nice.

This one is technically not a lecture as much as a conversation, but I figured I should cover it somewhere and this may be as good a place as any. If you’re going to watch both this one and the lecture above, you should know that the order I posted them in is not random – the lectures overlap a little (Ed Copeland is one of those “lots of people [who] are playing with that idea” which Crawford mentions towards the end of her lecture) and I think it makes most sense to watch Crawford’s lecture before you watch Brady and Ed Copeland’s discussion if you’re going to watch both.
Incidentally the fact that this is not a lecture does not in my opinion subtract from the coverage provided in the video – if anything I think it may well add. Instead of a lecturer talking to hundreds of people simply following a script without really knowing whether they understand what he’s talking about due to lack of feedback, here you have one expert talking to a very curious individual who asks quite a few questions along the way and makes sure the ideas presented are explained and clarified whenever explanation or clarification is needed. Of course the standard lecture does have its merits as well, but I really like these ‘longer-than-average’ Sixty Symbols conversation videos.

Again I’m not sure I’d categorize this as a lecture, but it’s close enough for me to include it here. Unfortunately if you’re not an at least reasonably strong player who knows some basic concepts I assume some of the stuff covered may well be beyond you – I’ve seen it remarked before in the comments to some of Sielecki’s videos that there are other channels which are better suited for new/weak players – and I’m not sure how many people might find the video interesting, but I figured I might as well include it anyway. If comments like “this move is terrible because black loses control over the f5 square – which means his position is basically lost” (he doesn’t actually say this in the video, but it’s the kind of thing he might say) would be hard for you to understand (‘why would I care about the f5 square?’ ‘Why is it lost? What are you talking about? The position looks fine to me!’ …or perhaps even: ‘the f5 square? What’s that?’), this video may not be for you (in the latter case it most certainly isn’t).

April 5, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, Chess, Lectures, Physics | Leave a comment

The Waste Books

This book is a collection of ‘1085 aphorisms and other aphoristically brief writings’, as Hollingdale puts it in his introduction. It’s basically a collection of random observations and remarks made by Lichtenberg over the years. I’d liked some of Lichtenberg’s quotes I’d read in the past, so I figured I’d give the book a try. It was sort of okay, but I actually do not hold this book, or the author, in very high regard; my opinion of the author definitely went down while I was reading this work. I often disagree with Lichtenberg, and from my reading of him I get the sense that I’d have considered him a person who thought much too highly of himself, to the point that he’d simply be the kind of person I’d find completely insufferable – for example there are quite a few quotes in the book about what separates The Genius from Ordinary People, or something along those lines, and one is not for one second in doubt as to which category Lichtenberg considers himself to belong to, despite how trivial and formulaic/simplistic most of these specific quotes/observations are. He has absolutely terrible taste in books: “Most of our writers possess, I do not say insufficient genius, but insufficient sense to write a Robinson Crusoe.” To which I say: ‘Aargh!’ That one is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. What’s even worse in that specific case is of course the fact that he seems to have taken Defoe’s tale to reflect reality – as he puts it in a different quote elsewhere, “Oh if only we could return to the age of the Patriarchs … or go to happy Tahiti, where … there is perfect human equality and you have the right to eat your enemies and to be eaten by them.”

But of course many such objections/problems are arguably just values dissonance-related, and the fact that the author thought it was okay to write some of the things he did the way he did should not make you think he was ‘stupid and wrong’ as much as it should make you think about what such quotes may tell you about the time/setting at which point the quotes were written, if anything. I don’t think I’d like spending time with this guy, to put it mildly, but I never will anyway so that’s hardly relevant. A relatively small number of good quotes keep you reading, but actually I am not sure you need to read the book in order to find most of his ‘quite good’ quotes (some of which I have blogged in the past, in the quotes posts). It should be noted that although some of the various ‘not great’ quotes do add something in that they ‘make you think’ and/or perhaps provide context and increase your understanding of the setting, others really do not add much.

I have added a few quotes from the book below. I have limited my coverage to quotes which I perceive to be of a reasonably high quality and which I have not already blogged – or at least I have tried to avoid repeats. For other Lichtenberg quotes covered here on the blog in the past, follow this link.

“Most propagators of a faith defend their propositions, not because they are convinced of their truth, but because they once asserted that they were true.”

“The greatest things in the world are brought about by other things which we count as nothing: little causes we overlook but which at length accumulate.”

“Reasons are often and for the most part only expositions of pretensions designed to give a coloring of legitimacy and rationality to something we would have done in any case …”

“You can take the first book you lay your hands on and with your eyes closed point to any line and say: A book could be written about this. When you open your eyes you will seldom find you are deceived.”

“Devised with a maximum of erudition and a minimum of common sense.” (I’m saving that one! Another one along the same lines: “It requires no especially great talent to write in such a way that another will be very hard put to it to understand what you have written.”)

“There are people who sometimes boast of how frank and candid they are: they ought to reflect, however, that frankness and candor must proceed from the nature of one’s character, or even those who would otherwise esteem it highly must regard it as a piece of insolence.”

“It makes a great difference by what path we come to a knowledge of certain things. If we begin in our youth with metaphysics and religion we can easily proceed along a series of rational conclusions that will lead us to the immortality of the soul. Not every other path will lead to this, at least not quite so easily.” (‘at least not quite so easily’ was a nice touch – good luck finding a path that’ll lead you there if you think the notion of a ‘soul’ is, well… But the main point stands.)

“I believe […] that most people know men better than they themselves are aware of, and that they make great use of their knowledge in everyday life …” (On a related note, “More often than we think, people notice things we believe we have artfully concealed from them.” See also this.)

“To make clever people believe we are what we are not is in most instances harder than really to become what we want to seem to be.”

“Honest unaffected distrust of human abilities under all circumstances is the surest sign of strength of mind.”

“Sometimes we know a person better than we can say, or at least than we do say.”

“He who is enamoured of himself will at least have the advantage of being inconvenienced by few rivals.” (this one was funny, considering some of the other quotes in this book.)

“For the loss of those we have loved there is no alleviation but time and carefully and rationally chosen diversions such as will not cause our heart to reproach us.”

“Nothing is more inimical to the progress of science than the belief that we know what we do not yet know.” (Compare with quote xiii here – there he thought the greatest impediment to progress in science was ‘the desire to see it take place too quickly’…)

“Nothing makes one old so quickly as the ever-present thought that one is growing older.”

April 5, 2014 Posted by | books, quotes | Leave a comment

The Eyre Affair

I’m somewhat conflicted about whether or not to blog fiction here on this blog, but I felt like blogging this one. Stefan recommended Fforde to me (well, sort of) and I figured I’d give him a try. I read this book quite fast and I have already decided to read at the very least the rest of the first Thursday Next series, i.e. three more books. The books are about Thursday Next – yep, that’s her name. The name actually makes a lot more sense than some of the names in this book, as there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for (at least the first part of) it: “I was born on a Thursday, hence the name.” I gave the book five stars on goodreads. I have tried very hard to avoid spoilers in this post.

The book is all over the place and some would probably categorize this kind of stuff as ‘childish’ or something along those lines. I don’t give a crap, I enjoyed reading this stuff. It’s a combination of alternate history, fantasy, and some other stuff. The book takes place in some sort of alternate reality 1985-world where England is still at war with Russia over Crimea as the Crimean War never ended (given recent developments, that part was sort of, …). It also takes place in a world where Wales is an independent country, and has been since 1854 where The People’s Republic of Wales declared its independence. A world where people keep pet dodos in their homes, and where the occasional so-called ‘temporal distortions’ cause significant enough problems for there to have been established an Office for Special Temporal Stability and a ChronoGuard to deal with them. As you might infer from some of the quotes I’ve included in the post below, books matter quite a bit more to the people inhabiting this world than they do to people inhabiting ours.

A few samples from the book:

“A flick through the London telephone directory would yield about four thousand John Miltons, two thousand William Blakes, a thousand or so Samuel Coleridges, five hundred Percy Shelleys, the same of Wordsworth and Keats, and a handful of Drydens. Such mass name-changing could have problems in law enforcement. Following an incident in a pub where the assailant, victim, witness, landlord, arresting officer and judge had all been called Alfred Tennyson, a law had been passed compelling each namesake to carry a registration number tattooed behind the ear. It hadn’t been well received” [Something went wrong when he wrote this paragraph – ‘name-changings’ don’t have problems, people have problems, and ‘name-changings’ is hardly great English. He should have used the verb ’cause’ or a similar verb instead. I liked the rest (‘spirit’) of the quote enough to include it here, though I figured I should point out that I’m aware his choice of words here was not optimal so that people don’t get the impression I’ll miss stuff like this. I was considering leaving out ‘the offending sentence’ from the quote, but I decided against it because it seemed dishonest.]

“Your post was held by Jim Crometty. He was shot dead in the old town during a bookbuy that went wrong.” [Again I find myself questioning his word choice: Is not the expression ‘book deal’ more natural?  But yet again I find myself thinking that this is just a minor detail of little importance, even if I did notice it. It’s his first novel after all, and satisfying pedants should hardly be the primary objective of an author trying to get published for the first time] […] big business and the huge amounts of cash in the sale and distribution of literary works had attracted a bigger criminal element. I knew of at least four London LiteraTecs who had died in the line of duty.
‘It’s becoming more violent out there. It’s not like it is in the movies. Did you hear about the surrealist riot in Chichester last night?’
‘I certainly did,’ he replied. ‘I can see Swindon involved in similar disturbances before too long. The art college nearly had a riot on its hands last year when the governors dismissed a lecturer who had been secretly encouraging students to embrace abstract expressionism. They wanted him charged under the Interpretation of the Visual Medium Act. He fled to Russia, I think.'”

“‘Imagine Martin Chuzzlewit without Chuzzlewit!’ he exclaimed earnestly, running through all the possibilities. ‘The book would end within a chapter. Can you imagine the other characters sitting around, waiting for a lead character who never appears?” [The book has quite a few of these kinds of obscure references and I love them! Here’s another example from the book: “‘How long since I died?’ he asked abruptly. ‘Over a hundred and fifty years.’ ‘Really? Tell me, how did the revolution in France turn out?’ ‘It’s a little early to tell.'” As mentioned he also has a lot of fun with names. Let’s incidentally try not to get into the question of how that person could be having that conversation despite having been dead for more than a hundred and fifty years here – there’s a perfectly reasonable in-universe explanation…]

“He lowered the binoculars and sighed. It was a stinking, lousy, lonely job. He had been working in the ChronoGuard for almost forty years Standard Earth Time. In logged work time he was 209. In his own personal physiological time he was barely 28. His children were older than him and his wife was in a nursing home. […] It wasn’t a difficult job; it just took a long time. He had mended a similar rent in spacetime that had opened up in Weybridge’s municipal park just between the floral clock and the bandstand. The job itself had taken ten minutes; he had simply walked in and stuck a tennis ball across the hole while outside seven months flashed by – seven months on double pay plus privileges, thank you very much.”

“‘Hall and Marston – both Elizabethan satirists – were firmly of the belief that Bacon was the true author of “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. I have a pamphlet here which goes into the matter further. More details are available at our monthly gatherings; we used to meet at the town hall but the radical wing of the “New Marlovians” fire-bombed us last week. I don’t know where we will meet next. But if I can take your name and number, we can be in touch.’ […] The Baconians were quite mad but for the most part harmless. Their purpose in life was to prove that Francis Bacon and not William Shakespeare had penned the greatest plays in the English language. Bacon, they believed, had not been given the recognition that he rightfully deserved and they campaigned tirelessly to redress this supposed injustice.”

April 1, 2014 Posted by | books | 2 Comments