Archive for the ‘History’ Category

producing explosives from thin air

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

I have finished this book and will post two additional passages that interested me, because they taught me something I was previously unaware of. Here is the first passage. A second will follow shortly. I highly recommend reading the entire book, as I was tempted to post more excerpts from it. (more…)

our need for cognitive dissonance

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

Here is a passage from Harari’s remarkable bestseller to illustrate how each page provides a generous helping of food for thought:

Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.
[…]
[One of many examples] is the modern political order. Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
[…]
Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
[…]
…. [Contradiction is] such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), pp. 164-165.

dozen as a unit of measure

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Here are my promised findings! According to Wikipedia,

The dozen may be one of the earliest primitive groupings, perhaps … because it has the most divisors of any number under 18. The use of twelve as a base number, known as the duodecimal system (also as dozenal), originated in Mesopotamia.

This makes sense to me, since units of 12 rather than 10 allows even division into halves, thirds and quarters. (more…)

weights and measures

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

The United States is the only industrialized country that has not yet completely converted to the Metric System. The British system (no longer in legal use in the UK, its colonies or the Commonwealth) is particularly confusing. It is impossible to summarize, but Wikipedia explains the history of UK measurement in detail. (more…)

the invention of Arabic numerals

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

Did you know that Arabic numerals were not invented by the Arabs? I didn’t, until I read about their history in a bestselling book of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Here is the relevant passage from his “Brief History of Humankind”: (more…)

equality and inequality

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

I finished reading Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book some time ago, and would like to pass on to readers of Thought du Jour a few passages that I found of particular interest.

I especially liked chapter 4, titled “Equality”, though it discusses inequality more than equality. Here are some brief passages from the chapter. (more…)

artificial intelligence and human stupidity

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

I am continuing to slowly read this wonderful book, and will occasionally point out parts that particularly interest me. Here is one such part.

The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans. We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots that know how to press our emotional buttons …, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something–be it a car, a politician, or an entire ideology. …. We have already been given a foretaste of this in recent elections and referendums across the world, when hackers learned how to manipulate individual voters by analyzing data about them and exploiting their existing prejudices.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), pp. 70-71.

democracy, dictatorship and AI

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book is fascinating, so fascinating, in fact, that I am reading it at a slow pace. There is simply too much to think about. Here is an example, from chapter 3, “Liberty”, subtitled “Big Data is Watching You”.

In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing. A democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas a dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given twentieth century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much power and information in one place. ….This is part of the reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

However, soon AI [artificial intelligence] might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. …. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century–the attempt to concentrate all information in one place–might become their decisive advantage in the twenty-first century.

Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), p 66.

war and human stupidity

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has authored two international bestsellers: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). His latest book, which I just borrowed from the Victoria Public Library, is titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). Of  its 21 chapters, I began with the 11th – “War” – because I am a convinced pacifist, so wanted to see what this famous historian had to say on the subject. I was fascinated, so decided to write a TdJ blog before reading the rest of the book.

Sapiens covers the past, Homo Deus the future, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century the present. Is there anything left for another book of Harari?

(more…)

the 3.5% rule

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

In a 2013 TED talk, Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth (born 1980) focused on what she calls a “3.5% rule”— “the notion that no government can withstand a challenge of 3.5% of its population without either accommodating the movement or (in extreme cases) disintegrating”.

“Researchers used to say that no government could survive if five percent of its population mobilized against it. But our data reveal that the threshold is probably lower. In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that. Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5% threshold was a nonviolent one.” (more…)