October 2011

A couple of classic cartoons were featured over at Cartoon Brew.

One I’ve read about many times but never seen: Chuck Jones’s 1942 parody of college stories, The Dover Boys.

The pacing is slow and the backgrounds and gag density lower than usual, but it’s cute, not least for not simply following the structure of the stories it’s parodying– the Dover Boys aren’t goofy heroes that save the day at all. I suspect this would be a lot of funnier if I’d actually seen any of the material Jones is mocking.

New to me was this 1945 Donald Duck short, Duck Pimples:

I haven’t seen that many Disney shorts, and the ones I’ve seen generally don’t get my enthusiasm higher. The Disney characters just aren’t as satisfying, and there’s a feeling that everything is aimed at children. But this one is unusual, especially as it features art by caricaturist Virgil Partch. Donald is still a zero, but the radio show parodies are a lot of fun. And good lord but could the classic Disney studio animate. Look at the immense work that goes merely into the opening shot of a rain-soaked house– even Warner Bros. would have made it cheap and fast. And the animation of Donald being cowardly is luxurious.

At some period we were all taught that there was an orderly progression from the amoeba to the amphibian to the anthropoid to the agnostic.  Every stage was better than the last, and life was nasty, brutish and short up till the reign of Victoria, not to mention outside her domain.

This framework started to be questioned at about the same time the “primitives” were studied in detail, by researchers such as Max Muller in linguistics, and Frank Boas in anthropology.  We’ve made great strides in repudiating the racism of the earlier view– the idea that some ethnicities are Just Better– but the chronological snobbery doesn’t look so good these days either.

A lot of people never got the memo, however.  I was rather surprised to get into a discussion recently with someone who was convinced that the life of “savages” was “awful”, to use his terms.  So for conworlding purposes if nothing else, I thought it’d be useful to review the case for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  (Also see the Planet Construction Kit, p 92.)

I should add that these are by no means my own cranky observations; they’re pretty much standard among modern anthropologists.  Here’s the way Tim Flannery puts it:

And therein lies a paradox– one which is shared with the ants– that while agricultural societies are powerful, they are composed almost entirely of incompetent individuals.

To gain the meaning of this in full measure, just compare a day in your life with that of a hunter-gatherer such as an Australian Aborigine.  On rising each morning Aborigines must find and catch their own food, make or repair their tools and shelter, and defend and educate their families.  They are thus their own provider, manufacturer and protector.  Put in an Aborigine’s place, we’d be as lost as white rabbits in the wilderness; our tenure in the world most likely counted in days rather than months.

The reverse, however, is not true.  History shows that hunter-gatherers can learn to do any of the jobs our society offers.  I’ve flown in a helicopter piloted by a  New Guinean who was born into a traditional society all but innocent of metal.  And history is replete with examples of acaemically gifted Native Americans and Aborigines– like John Bungaree, who topped the class in mathematics, geography and writing in early-nineteenth-century Sydney.  There are even a few examples of hunter-gatherers giving farming a try.  But regardless of their accomplishments, almost all of these went back to their own culture.  The truth is that hunter-gatherers find the loss of liberty we routinely endure to be insufferable.

Some of the advantages of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

  • It’s far healhier than farming.  People live longer and eat better than people in any premodern agricultural civilization.
  • It’s almost absurdly egalitarian.  Leaders can’t tyrannize people who can easily wander off on their own.  You don’t have social classes, there is generally an ethic of sharing, and the status of women is better than among agriculturalists.
  • Women were not overburdened with children.  Agriculturalist women have children every year or two; children are spaced out by about 4 years among hunter-gatherers.
  • Most of our most virulent disesases come from our animals, so hunter-gatherers have less disease.
  • The work week was short.  Daniel Everett reports that the Piraha work only 15 to 20 hours a week. 
  • They enjoyed a physical fitness most of us can only envy, not only because they got plenty of exercise, but because their diet was precisely what we’ve evolved to thrive on.
  • Their lifestyle is sustainable over enormous time periods.  We or similar species have been hunting for two million years, without coming near destroying the planet or running out of key resources.  The modern world, with its world wars and oil addiction and global warming, might be a giddy, enormously destructive bubble.
  • Civilization may make us dumber.  Maciej Henneberg reports that humans seem to have lost 10% of their brain mass since the Ice Age.

Of course hunter-gatherers don’t have Shakespeare, Team Fortress 2, calculus, candy corn, or the Beatles.   So I’d hate to switch places with them, and probably you would too.  But this preference is largely parochialism.  Of course we’re used to the things we have, the people we know, everything that goes with our lifestyle.  Hunter-gatherers often understand agriculture quite well, but don’t see the point of living like that.

Once agriculture took over, it wasn’t possible to go back– the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can’t support a high-density population.  But the simple truth is that till roughly 1800, the lifestyle of the majority didn’t improve and was measurably worse in many ways than that of the hunter-gatherers.  The nicer bits of preindustrial civilizations were largely restricted to the top 10 or 20%.  (And even the elite lived really unhealthily.  Premodern cities were mortality sinks: more people died in them than were born; they only increased in size because of immigration.)

Now, industrialization changed everything.  Living standards have gone up for everyone, and the benefits of civilization can be widely enjoyed.  We’re almost as healthy as hunter-gatherers, though we have only a fraction of the leisure time.  But to borrow a line from Zhou Enlai, it’s too early to tell if civilization is a good idea.  There’s no technical reason we can’t extend this bubble of prosperity and productivity, but there’s little political will.  “Had a nice run for 300 years, RIP” would be a pathetic epitaph for civilization, and the two million years of hunting/gathering would look pretty good in comparison.

The hunter-gatherer era wasn’t utopia, of course– especially if you import modern standards.  It’s been suggested that there was a lot of violence– though we really don’t have much evidence.  But, well, there’s a lot of violence in agricultural states and their cities; there’s a lot of violence in industrial states; there’s a lot of violence in the animal kingdom.  As Gregory Clark points out, violence was an important check on population growth.  It’s usually a bad idea to take some aspect of a ‘primitive’ lifestyle that offends us and try to eliminate it.  Cultures live in a balance with their environment, and sometimes those offensive bits are key parts of the system. 

Now, what do you do with this information?  Well, for one thing, knowledge is good.  It’s good to learn the facts in place of the smug pieties we learned in school.  For another, getting past our parochialism is also good.  There’s nothing with preferring our own environment, but it’s all too easy to construct ideologies or conworlds that are simply projections of our own surroundings. 

Sometimes we might actually imitate others.  The all-around fitness of the hunter-gatherer is admirable and can inspire athleticism today– parkour is partly inspired by African societies.  Some people try diets inspired by those of hunter-gatherers.  Maybe you just need to walk more.

In my sf future, the Incatena, there are planets which try to incorporate some of the best features of the ancestral environment: small settlements, the use of materials from the ecosphere, a structured reliance on frequent and varied physical exercise.  (Of course, others say the hell with it and adapt their bodies and minds to live in deep space habitats.)




I asked recently whether it’s really possible heave youself up six feet or so, hanging from a ledge, as Lara does in Tomb Raider Underworld.  E.g.:

I guess that's more like nine feet.

Alert reader Miles responds!

I’m not a parkour enthusiast, but I am a rock climber, so let me try to answer. Yes, it is possible to do this using only your arms, but it’s hard work and not something you want to be doing very often. Basically you’re looking at a muscle-up followed by a mantleshelf move. Instead, climbers (and, presumably, traceurs) will try to use their feet and the big muscles in their legs. A good climber can push up on ridiculously tiny footholds, even on wildly overhanging terrain. Or, if there’s a positive hold on the ledge and the wall isn’t too polished, they can smear off the wall, pushing their feet out and moving up using friction.

Additionally, they can use momentum. I’ve seen traceurs take a running jump at a ledge, grab it and haul themselves over the top by their hands, using momentum to make up the strength deficit. They’re usually also smearing on the wall with their feet.

Great!  Especially once we look up the technical terms.  The muscle-up means pulling up on the ledge, then pushing down once she can.  The mantleshelf is like climbing on top of a mantle, using the shelf as a foothold.  Smearing is using the foot against the wall to provide friction.  The last maneuver Miles describes is called a passe-muraille.  Looking at the pic above, Miles comments:

But to me it looks like she’s also using her feet on the vertical part of the ledge, either by standing on a small nub of rock or by using pure friction (“smearing”). That would make it a lot easier!

I thought it’d be interesting to see what Miles thought of a video of Lara’s climbing.  His reactions to a few videos:

The sideways jump at 1:00 in this video looks rather unrealistic to me, and the drop onto a hard stone floor at 1:40 looks like it would hurt. Also sliding down on your feet like she does at 0:57 looks (a) hard to control, (b) painful.

Actually the game agrees– Lara takes some damage at 1:40, as indicated by the appearance of the damage HUD at upper left.  I’m pretty sure there is an alternate route.

The “dropping and catching herself on a rock ledge five feet further down” at :10 here looks waaaaay hard. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’d hate to have to nail a move like that first time when my life depended on it.  Also, that’s a lotta stone she’s moving around.  Stone is heavy.

(That’s a superpower from the game.)

Nice pendulum at 1:15. Climbers actually do that on big walls in places like Yosemite, though they climb up, carefully place the pivot point, then abseil down to the start of their swing. Do grapnels even work like Lara’s does?  I dunno.

The jumps all look reasonable, though she’s obviously got a hell of a head for exposure!

1:25: yeah, she’s definitely using her feet to climb up those walls.  Impressive speed, though it’s hard to tell how hard the climbing is from this distance. Since there are footholds, I wonder why she didn’t downclimb normally rather than doing that crazy droppy-catchy thing?  Or even abseil?

2:25 She did whaaaaaaat?

Heh, I remember that.  She jumps off the ledge and immediately hits the Q button to grapnel the ring.

3:40 She was Thor? Does that explain how she can catch herself by her fingertips after a five-foot drop without rupturing her finger tendons?

The superpowers come in (at this point) only when she’s near the blue glowy inscriptions.

The speed is partly a gameplay thing (games usually have a pretty fast tempo), and partly because the videos are near-perfect replays by someone who knows the map perfectly… when I was playing, of course Lara takes a lot longer to stand or hang there thinking about her next move!

Republicans have not quite succeeded in persuading most Americans that handing over more of the country’s wealth to the already wealthy is a great idea.  Rick Perry has a new tax plan which can be summarized as “More money for the rich.”  They get their top rate lowered from 35% to 20%, no more capital gains tax, no taxes on dividends, no more estate tax.  Because, you know, they’re very concerned about the plight of the top 1%, whose income has soared under Reaganism and who now get all the increased wealth from greater productivity.  The poor dears need even more money.

But “more money for the rich” only appeals to people who really like Ayn Rand, so they have to add bullshit to sell the plan.  The preferred type of bullshit is “simplification”.  (Including the magic word “flat”.  Flatness sounds good, right?  Much better than “More money for the rich” which is what it means.)

Perry’s plan actually complicates the tax code.  He claims you can do your taxes on a post card, but he actually proposes to make his flat tax optional.  That is, he retains the entire tax code and adds more on top.  Seriously, what are you going to do under such a system?  You’re going to have to do your taxes twice so you can pick the lower figure.  Perry is asking you to do more work and hoping that you won’t notice because he said the word “simplified”.

The whole “simplified” shtick is absurd.  No one likes to do their taxes, but for the vast majority of people it takes no more than an evening.  If your income is under $30K or so, you can get free software from TurboTax to pretty much do it all for you.  If it’s over $30K you can get the same software for $35.  If your income is high enough that you actually have to worry about all the arcana of taxation, then you have an accountant.

(And before I get aggrieved mail, let me note that I’ve done the taxes for a small business with, over the course of a year, dozens of employees.  By hand; this was before the personal computer era.  It’s not that hard, you could hire a teenager to do it.  Which in fact I was.  Most of it is stuff you should probably be doing already even if there were no taxes– keeping the books, keeping track of expenses.)

(If you’re really serious about simplifying the tax code– then be honest.  What that means, basically, is eliminating special rules, and that comes down to eliminating somebody’s tax break, or introducing loopholes for clever accountants.  You could greatly simplify the 1040 for the vast majority of Americans by eliminating deductions (i.e. tax breaks) for mortgage interest, property tax, and charitable contributions.  Note that Perry proposes to keep those things, because they’re popular!  Also note that when Obama proposes to remove tax breaks, Republicans start squawking.  All those tax breaks have a constituency.)

Republicans seem to hate the idea that those who have more should pay more.  Well, we have freedom of religion, so they’re entitled to their worship of the rich, but when they mean “the rich should pay less and the rest of you should pay more”, let them say so and see if that wins them elections.  Instead they try to hide the idea by pretending that a progressive tax is difficult.  It’s not dificult.  You have to take two minutes to look up the tax amount in a table, or approximately no minutes to let your tax program calculate it.  The complexity of the tax code is not due to the fact that it has several tax brackets.  It should really have more at the upper end.

When you hear “flat tax”, please adjust your bullshit filter to read “more taxes for the poor and middle class”.  Perry’s 20% tax rate, for instance, is higher than today’s rate for incomes up to $34,500.   It’s just mathematics: for the rich to pay much less and maintain the government’s revenue (as Perry promises), everyone else must pay more.  That’s Rick Perry’s plan for the 99% in a time of economic recession with 9% unemployment. 


I finished Tomb Raider: Underworld.  All in all it’s about 16 hours of play, which is not bad for $6.79.  Toward the end we see more of Amanda, who has pretty hip tastes in catsuits and artefacts:

Thigh-high boots: too much? Well, Lara is barefoot

The actual story is pretty much opaque to me.  I gathered that Lara and Amanda are rivals, but I don’t know why.  Some dude named Alister was killed, and I have no idea whether he’s a servant, or co-worker, or love interest.  She certainly doesn’t let it keep her from her temple-climbing.  (Wikipedia informs me he’s an assistant.)

What I like about the game is Lara’s athleticism; like Faith in Mirror’s Edge, this is a girl who can get around in fun and dangerous ways.  It’s less frustrating, in fact, because very few things require precise timing, and it’s usually pretty clear what Lara can and can’t do.  (On the other hand, it doesn’t quite reach the exhilaration of chaining together a perfect set of moves for Faith.)

(I’m curious, you parkour enthusiasts: is it actually possible to heave yourself up approximately six feet, hanging from a ledge?  Lara makes it look easy, but I should probably get a second opinion before exploring any ruins.)

There’s a couple of huge rooms in the last part of the game that are less satsfying, because there are a huge number of steps to go through and not many clues on the order to take them, so I ended up relying on a walkthrough.

I am not really buying these ancient engineers who managed to make huge stone machines that work thousands of years later once you hack together the one or two pieces that have fallen off.  Nor the ones who made an ancient structure big enough that it requires a motorbike to navigate.  Nor the fact that Lara is the first to discover three or four huge temples per game.  Oh well, it’s till fun to get Lara where she’s going.

Ah, one more thing– Wikipedia reminds me that Lara gets dirty traipsing through the ruins.  I think I noticed this approximately once.  So, note to the developers, don’t bother with that.

I just finished Simon LeVay’s Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, which summarizes what science knows about sexual orientation.  LeVay himself contributed to the science, discovering in 1991 that a tiny region of the hypothalamus called INAH3, normally larger in men than women, is smaller in gay men (indeed, it’s the size it is in women). 

He summarizes a bunch of studies which have found all sorts of differences between men and women, and then between straights and gays/lesbians.  Quite a few of the effects are small or disputed– I’d really, really like to get a version of this book from about 2050 when we will know so much more.  But it’s fair to say that the evidence points to a biological basis for homosexuality, and against any social, developmental, or moral basis.  (E.g., there’s evidence for the inheritability of homosexuality, and this holds up when e.g. siblings or twins are raised apart, so it’s unlikely to be the result of the environment.  There’s also good evidence that “pre-gays/pre-lesbians” can be identified in childhood, when the environment really hasn’t had much time to work.  And you can mess with animal genes and produce mating behavior aimed at the same sex.)

(Also, contra Bagemihl, there isn’t so much evidence for exclusive homosexuality among animals.  E.g. the famous gay geese often mate with female geese when they’re available.  For some reason there are a lot of gay rams though.)

The most interesting bit is a new answer to the perennial question of why exclusive homosexuality persists when it presumably reduces one’s chances of raising offspring.  (I say presumably because I’m not convinced that we know it does so in the ancestral environment.  But it’s still something we’d like a good explanation for.)  There are old ideas such as that homosexuals spend more time helping their nieces and nephews, but that’s not very convincing and hasn’t been supported.

But Edward Miller has another idea: there may be a number of genes which increase feminization– e.g. empathy, kindness, reduced aggressiveness.  Get one or a few of these traits and they make a man more attractive to women— i.e. they increase reproductive success.  Get them all, and you end up gay.  Psychology Today calls it the “Johnny Depp effect”.

Even more interesting, predictions made by this model have been tested and seem to bear up: a test of 5000 Australian twins found a) that increased ‘femininity’ among straights led to an increase in female sex partners, and b) heterosexuals with gay twins had more opposite-sex partners.  Similar results held with lesbians and straight women.

The most surprising finding from LeVay’s book, at least to me, is that gayness is associated with a whole slew of feminized structures or behaviors, and lesbianism with masculinized ones.  It really sounds like disreputable old attitudes (gay men are girly, lesbians are mannish) that I’ve taken as simplistic, misleading, and even offensive.  E.g. there’s a point in Kiss of the Spider Woman where the gay man declares that he identifies with women “always”, and that struck me as completely wrong… the gays I know identify with gays and don’t strike me as being particularly feminine.  Calling gays feminine seems as wrong as describing Englishmen, to Americans, as “partly French”.  Maybe they’re, I dunno, a bit Frenchier than Americans, but isn’t it better to recognize that Englishness is a separate thing from the American/French continuum?

To be sure, most of the studies LeVay talks about do deal with continuums; there’s a tendency to shift the behavior in the direction of the other sex, but it’s a) often incomplete and b) often pretty scattershot. 

There’s one huge gap, which LeVay is quite aware of: there is not much discussion of bisexuality, or different types of gays/lesbians, or how all this goes down in very different cultures, or why some people switch over late in life, or gender dysphoria that’s not linked to sexual orientation.  This isn’t much addressed simply because it hasn’t been studied as much… it’s hard enough to get a large sampling of gays and lesbians, much less get them all sorted out into butch/femme or whatever.  But some of these factors strike me as very important.  In Latin American culture (as he mentions, in fact), those who identify as homosexual are usually bottoms, while tops may perceive themselves as entirely hetero.  That’s awfully hard to fit into a framework that considers gay and straight to be fairly separate categories. 

LeVay leans toward explanations that rely on an increased or decreased supply of testosterone in the womb… something that can be affected by genes as well as some random environmental factors.  Which is probably as close as we’re going to get right now; I wonder how close it’ll look to whatever they’re positing in 2050.

This isn’t terribly light reading– LeVay goes over a lot of details about neurons and genes and finger ratios and sampling techniques, and it’s best if you’re comfortable with this sort of academic tone.  But it’s interesting to see what we know so far about the subject.


In my ongoing quest to pay the rent, I’ve signed up for Google ads.  They will be blank for a few days.  I’ll see if they actually work before plastering them all over.  I’m sorry if they bug anyone, but you can always ignore them.  I also took the opportunity to redesign the main page, which I find I haven’t done for about six years.

More exciting for readers is the search box, which will search just zompist.com + Almeopedia + my blog, which is pretty neat.

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