Sunday, 15 May 2016

Finland - Land of the Midnight Sun

Cabin in the Woods

If you look at Finland on a map, you will notice that it is the easternmost of the three ‘Scandinavian’ countries, which look a bit like three fingers pointing downwards. The shape of Finland is generally thought to be that of a woman pointing, although I can’t help but see it as a seated bunny rabbit with lopsided ears. I should probably say at the outset that although geographically Finland is part of what most people would think of as Scandinavian, they aren’t in fact usually considered part of Scandinavia. Scandinavia is a historic and cultural term binding together Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Finland, along with the proper Scandinavian countries, is a Nordic state. The far north of Finland is inside the arctic circle, and this area is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun, because in the summer months it is summer for all of the day and night, even at midnight. Conversely in winter, it is dark all the time. At Lake Inari for instance, the sun never sets between May 23rd and July 19th. Between December 4th and January 8th, the sun never rises. It’s also rather cold, with average lows in January of 19 degrees below freezing, and between November and early June it is completely frozen over.

Before we more into what Finland is like, here’s a few facts.

  1. Finland is actually the Swedish name for the country. Finns themselves call their country Suomi.
  2. Finland is the biggest drinker of coffee per person than any other country, each consuming on average 2.7 cups a day.
  3. Finns are generally considered to have one of the best educational systems in the world
  4. Finland has the most islands and the most lakes of any country in the world – approximately 180,000 of each.
  5. Finland is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union, with only 16 people per km2

Finland has throughout its history been dominated by its two powerful neighbours – Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, and until it achieved independence in 1918 it was ruled by one or the other of them. During World War II, it was invaded by both Germany and Russia, and struggled to maintain its independence. During the Cold War, Finland managed to maintain its neutrality and sided neither with the Soviet Union nor NATO allies. As such, it was an important buffer between East and West, however it had to be very careful not to antagonise the Russians. After the end of the Cold War, it wholeheartedly threw in its lot with the European Union, joining in 1994 and then joining the Euro in 1999.

It is difficult to get across just how sparsely populated Finland is. It is two and a half times the size of England, but has just a tenth of the population. What’s more, the majority of the population live in the southern half of the country in the area around the capital Helsinki, making the north even more empty. What Finland lacks in population however, it makes up for in wonderful wildlife. The countryside of Finland is home to bears, wolves, reindeer, ermine and many other creatures.

The wildlife and countryside isn’t just the home of animals however, it is enjoyed by the Finns probably to a greater extent than most other countries. In Finland there is the concept of ‘Everyman’s Right’, and it gives everyone the right to roam over the Finnish countryside, no matter who owns the land. They can also collect natural produce anywhere, and even fish with a rod and line with no need for permission or a licence. The countryside really is everyone’s to enjoy, a wonderful concept.
By the Campfire at Kuusamo Kitkajoki, Finland

It might be cold in the wintertime, but when the weather warms up Finns really take advantage of it, particularly when it comes to their summer holidays. The idea of the ‘summer cottage’ is not exclusive to Finland, but they have taken to it with gusto. It is estimated that half of families in Finland have their own holiday home in the countryside, others rent or borrow a cottage. Vacationing at the summer cottage in Finland is all about getting away from it all, enjoying the peace and quiet and not being busy. Finns also benefit from the longer days in the summer, which can be very long – perfect for late night games. Of course in the wintertime it is dark and cold all day in some places, but at least then they can take refuge in the warmth of the sauna, a ubiquitous Finnish invention that they have gifted to the world.

Can you name any famous Finns? I bet you know at least one, every child does after all. Yes, that’s right, Santa Claus comes from Lapland in the north of Finland. He and his elves live in the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, and children from all over the world write to him here – he receives about 700,000 letters every year. According to head elf Katja Tervonen, they answer all letters sent to Father Christmas as long as  they include a clearly readable address, and all letters have a special stamp on them. If you are wanting to write to Father Christmas this year, the address to write to is:

Santa Claus
Santa Claus’s Main Post Office

You never know, if you are good this year perhaps Santa will bring you what you ask for this year.

Photos on this page are from Visit Finland, and licenced under Creative Commons Licence, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Friday, 8 April 2016

'Terra' - A decent board game where you learn stuff!

I like board gaming. I like all sorts of board and card games, but tend to prefer the 'Euro style' strategy board games, good two player games and fun party games. There's a rare class of games I'm always on the look out for though, and that's a decent game where you learn something new. Now there's plenty of so called educational games out there that are popular with schools and teachers but to be honest they're usually pretty awful. There either basic roll and move games with a pasted on theme and no meaningful decisions, or they info dump knowledge onto kids which puts them off completely. Some basic trivia games are alright, but I like it when they do something more interesting than just firing off a succession of questions.

Which brings me nicely to 'Terra' a board game from noted board game designer Friedemann Friese. This is all about geographical knowledge but rather than just testing your trivia knowledge - do you know the capital city of Peru etc - it gets you thinking about geography, and a bit of history too.

The board is quite simple - it's a map of the world, dividend into many different regions, and there are also three number lines, a distance line, a date line and a general number line. Each round, a question card is shown, and players take it in turns to place cubes on the board which they think correspond to the correct answers. It helps if I show you a card.

When the card is in the card holder, only the top card half of the card is displayed. It will display the name of something, a place or a thing, along with a photo. In this case it is 'Sunsphere'. Below the photo there's three questions you can answer. One is always the Area, i.e. where on the map this is, the other two will be some other measurement or date - in this case, the diameter of the sunsphere, and the year when the World's Fair was held here.

Players take it in turns to drop one of their cubes on the board, either in an area, or on one of the number/date lines, until everyone has passed. Then players get 7 points for each correct answer, or 3 points for each cube that is close, i.e. adjacent to a correct area or zone on a number line. Careful though, if you get incorrect answers, you might not get all of your cubes back.

The second half of the card displays the answers, and some additional information. This only gets revealed when everyone has passed.

There's 200 cards in the game, which may not seem a lot, but you only actually play with 6 cards in each game, so it should last you a while. What I really like is that it really gets you thinking about the topics, and even if you don't know the answer, you can have a guess, or tag along with another player who you think does know the correct answer (you can only have 1 cube per space, but you can get points for playing adjacent, and sometimes, the answer will cover several spaces).  We played this with just two of us, and it was a good game. I can't wait to try it with more players though, as I think it would provoke more discussion and debate, which can only enhance the game.

Monday, 14 March 2016

A virtual tour round the EU

As you probably know (and if you didn't, my last two blog posts do rather give it away), here in the UK we are having a referendum in June on Britain's membership of the EU - are we in or are we out? Now I have quite a lot to say on this subject and I could quite happily blog away for the next three months about the pro's and cons of Britain's membership, but you know what? Most people would find this all really boring and I'd probably alienate what few readers I might have. So I decided to do something a bit different.
Copyright European Union, 2016

My plan is to - virtually - tour round as many EU countries as I can before the referendum, to learn about each of the different countries, the people, what it is like to live there. I say virtually - I'd love to visit them personally but sadly not going to happen  (although I'm going to one in a couple of weeks, one is better than none).There's so much information available online - from fact files to tourist guides, online reviews to municipal websites. Thanks to Google, it's even possible to virtually walk down streets with its Streetview service.

Because I can't decide which ones to start with, I'm going to cheat and work my way through alphabetically. For now at least. Which means first up is Austria.

Please let me know what you think - tell me  what you like and what you don't - anything you'd like more of. If you've got any experiences or tidbits, please do share them in the comments section.

Progress so far

Austria - Vienna and Salzburg, coffee shops, ski-ing and The Sound of Music. I look at the history of the place, food, it's place in the EU and I also investigate my first random town in the EU, Kapfenberg.

Belgium - Beer and chocolate! There's a lot more to Belgium than that though, read to find out more. I also take a look at the town of Ohey.

Bulgaria - A place steeped in little known history, with possibly the most exciting historic culture you've never heard of. Also find out about the most villainous city in history.

Portugal - A place full of surprises. From city to country it is such a varied country. From a fascinating history to Fado and great culinary delights to boot. Written just after I returned from a trip there so full of local colour.

Croatia - A country in the former Yugoslavia, there's a city built within the remains of a Roman Emperor's palace, a fabulous walled city used as King's Landing in Game of Thrones, and much more.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

'Europe: In or Out: Everything You Need to Know' by David Charter

Now that the date of the Referendum on Britain's membership of the EU has been announced, I wanted to read up on the relevant facts and arguments, to be able to make an informed decision (okay so I'd effectively already made a decision, but wanted it to be informed nonetheless!) and to arm myself for debates/arguments in the next few months. Anyway, after looking at a number of books about the EU referendum, I settled on 'Europe: In or Out' by David Charter who is a renowned journalist, the Berlin correspondent for The Times.

The book is well set out and each chapter covers a different theme / policy area, with key facts, the arguments for leaving and for remaining, as well as a general discussion with examples. There were chapters covering immigration, the EU budget, trade, justice, farming, fishing, defence and foreign aid amongst others. It draws on a number of studies and reports, going into a fair bit of detail. It's not a long book, 300-350 pages, but it is long enough and certainly longer than many of the books about the EU referendum that are springing up.

I thought this was a really good book that covers all the main areas that you'd want it to. What it doesn't do is explain what the EU does or how the various EU institutions work, instead it assumes a certain degree of prior knowledge on the subject. This isn't actually a problem, even if you don't know the ins and outs of the system, you get the gist of how things work. The only area where it becomes a bit of a problem is in the discussion of the "democratic deficit", i.e. the extent to which laws are passed affecting us where we haven't had a say in it. Without a good understanding of the workings of the European Commission, EU Parliament etc it is difficult to judge the argument either way. This is a minor flaw though, and one that is easily rectified if need be with a bit of reading on Wikipedia or similar.

One of the book's main strengths is it's balance, even something close to impartiality. There is plenty in this book for both sides in the referendum argument to be happy with. It is very difficult to work out which side the author favours - some chapters it looks like he's in the Leave camp, others that he's pro-EU. I think though that just shows that some themes and policy areas favour remaining in the EU, others lean more towards us leaving. 

Those readers looking for the book to tell them which way to vote will be left disappointed (though there are plenty of biased books that will do that). Instead it leaves you with a lot to think about and allow you to make a more informed judgement which can only be a good thing. I'm giving this a solid 8/10.

A note about versions

This book was written shortly before the 2015 General Election, after David Cameron had announced he'd hold a referendum if the Conservatives won the general election, before the referendum was formally agreed. It therefore doesn't cover David Cameron's recent EU deal. Having just been on Amazon however, it appears that a new version of the book is to be released in the next couple of weeks, which presumably will cover this. So it could be worth waiting for then to buy the book. I don't think it matters too much however, as Cameron's deal doesn't change the key issues.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Better the Devil You Know?

If you live in the UK, it can hardly have escaped your notice that we're being given a referendum on whether we want to remain in the European Union or leave and go our own way. What's more, what was once to have been 'by the end of 2017' it is now only 4 months away.

Each of us is being asked to make a decision, to give our answer to such a deceptively simple question. Over the coming months, many different aspects will debated. One side will assert one thing, the other side the exact opposite. Who do you believe?

Many of the arguments will hinge on complicated economic and political positions, and it will be a challenge for most voters to decide which side to believe. Lots of differing statistics and competing theories will be explained by campaigners and commentators to try and help people make up their minds. There is however, at least one aspect to the debate that voters can judge on common sense alone.

Both sides in the campaign have already tried to argue that their way is the least risky option. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers told the BBC that leaving the EU was a safer option than staying in, and political heavyweights Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson have echoed these sentiments. Prime Minister David Cameron has however said that voting to leave the EU would be "a leap in the dark". Who is right?

Fortunately, this particular argument doesn't require a PhD in Economics from Oxford to figure out, it is a judgement call. You can decide for yourselves, but in my opinion this is an easy one. The phrase "better the devil you know" isn't such a well known phrase for nothing. We have a very good idea what will happen (at least in the short to medium term) if we vote to stay in the European Union. We have no concrete idea what will happen if we vote to leave and what impact it will have on the economy and the country. Putting aside the much more complicated question of which is the best course of action, or whether what we think will happen is a good thing, I think common sense will help you find the answer to which is the least risky option.

As to the more complicated questions, I'll try in the coming weeks and months to help you answer these too.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Save our libraries!

I went down to the library earlier in the week in my lunch break and got out a book for the first time in a while (it was 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' by Steven Pinker, £9.49 on Kindle or free from the library!). Libraries are a great resource, which makes it such a shame that Lancashire is planning to shut 40 of it's 74 libraries. I've used libraries ever since I was little, and have fond memories of my library visits. My first library experience was a small library in Thornton Cleveleys back in the days when they didn't have the now ubiquitous credit card style library card. Instead you had six tickets, I think they were orange, which were in effect little rectangular cardboard sleeves. When you wanted to borrow a library book, the librarian took your ticket off you, put the small ticket from inside the book, and filed it away until you returned the book. How quaint and 1980s it sounds now... Later my mother took me to a big new library that had opened in nearby Fleetwood, a huge (or what at the time felt like a huge) modern building full to the top with books. I used to love going there!
My  local... (© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Most of my childhood memories of libraries though is of Garstang Library. We moved to Garstang when I was 11, and from then on I was allowed to walk to the library on my own. I'd go in an evening after tea, at the weekend, or sometimes on the way home from school. I'd come away with a whole bagful of books, not all of which I'd end up reading, but over the years I must have read hundreds from the library and it really was instrumental in developing my love of reading. Sadly Garstang library is one earmarked for closure, and this isn't a small village, but a thriving town with over 4,000 residents. What's more it is the nearest town for many small villages and rural communities. If it closes, there probably won't be another library for 10 miles in either direction. When I was growing up, except after Christmas and birthdays I generally didn't have the money to buy books and the library was invaluable. Without it I don't think I'd have developed the love of reading that I have today.

Even if some children do have plenty of money to buy books, a) They'll probably spend it on something else, and b) Most small towns don't have a bookshop these days. Amazon may be a great place to buy books, but only if you are already a reader and know what you want. Now I know these days there's the internet, and while that may be a great resource for readers down the line, it isn't going to encourage children to read, and when they do it's going to be short articles (if they don't just stick to watching videos on Youtube), hardly the same.

Libraries have been around for thousands of years in one form or another, with the likes of the great Library of Alexandria, and before that the Library of Ashurbanipal (30,000 clay tablets, a far cry from the works of John Grisham et al). In more recent times, there have been public reference libraries and subscription libraries, but public libraries really started taking off with the Libraries Act in the UK in 1850 which opened the way for free lending libraries to open across the country, and later across the world as other countries followed suit. Governments and local authorities funded a lot, but many were set up with funds from wealthy benefactors. Ever heard of Andrew Carnegie? He was a Scottish born, American steel magnate, who after selling his company dedicated himself to Philanthropy, giving away the majority of his fortune ($78bn in today's money). One of the things he did was fund public libraries around the English speaking world, 3000 of them, including 600 in Britain! There's a good chance that your local library was one of the Carnegie libraries. I wonder what Mr Carnegie would make of all the library closures today?
By J Brew (Flickr: British Museum Reading Room)

The original motivation was that it would encourage people to do something wholesome with their leisure time rather than spending it in the pub drinking. In the 21st century, I think this rationale is as good as it ever was. People may be spending their time in front of the TV, computer or games console rather than just down the local pub, but encouraging reading is as important as ever.

The funny thing is though, libraries aren't just about reading. They're an important part of the community and one of the very few places where people can go for free to pass the time or meet up with friends. If you don't have access to a computer or the internet at home (and believe it or not, lots of people still don't), you can research online at the library for that job application, or write your CV. Want to get away from your desk for a bit in your lunch break? You can either go and buy an expensive Latte and sit in Starbucks, or you could go sit on a comfy chair in your local library for free. It is one of the few places remaining that isn't out to try and take money off you - what a refreshing change!

Libraries are a community hub too, an important place for local events, be they a reading group, a craft club or even a concert. I was vaguely aware a few years ago that my local library (Lancaster), in an effort to get more young people into libraries, was holding concerts for up and coming artists to sing at. I sniffed at it, and thought nobody good would ever come to perform at Lancaster library. I was wrong. Ever heard of Adele? She was one of many great artists to sing at the library. Don't let it be said libraries aren't moving with the times!

So even if you haven't in a while, why don't you check out your local library while you've still got it, you might be pleasantly surprised. Oh and sign the petition to save Lancashire Libraries (this is the UK government petition, there's also local petitions on Lancashire County Council's website regarding individual library closures).

Want some further reading? Have a look at this great article from bestselling author Neil Gaiman about the importance of libraries and encouraging children to read.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

'Human Universe' by Brian Cox

Title: 'Human Universe'
Author: Brian Cox
Genre: Popular Science
No. of pages: 272 pages

This is the latest in a series of popular science books by physicist Brian Cox, based on the tv series of the same name. In previous books/series, he looked at the solar system, the physical universe and the wonders of life. In this book, he looks our place in the universe, whether there other planets like ours and what are the chances of other intelligent life in the universe. It's that classic question - are we alone?

The book starts out looking at some of the history of astronomy, and opinions as to our place in the universe - it covers the likes of Copernicus and Galileo amongst others. It then moves on to look at the Drake Equation - what are the chances of finding other intelligent life in the galaxy (the idea is the universe is too big and too distant, if we find any other life it will be in our galaxy). It then covers the search for Extraterrestial Life (SETI), both original SETI and its modern expanded search. SETI has been going for decades, and the biggest question yet is 'Why haven't we found a signal yet?'. The book considers this question too.

This book isn't just a rehash or script of the tv series, as one reviewer put it the tv series acts as a trailer for the book. The book goes into a lot more detail. Some of it is quite technical, but generally is very readable. There are a few formula, but the author explains these relatively simply. You can fairly easily figure out what this is about if you want, or just skip over it if you are not interested (these are only a tiny part of the book, the odd paragraph here or there).

The first section on the history of astronomy and man's view of our place in the universe is the weakest section in my mind, but that's perhaps because I'm quite familiar with the story. When the book gets into the discussion about the Drake Equation, SETI and the big question it gets, much, much better.

Like other books I've been reading recently, this book also verges on the political at times, in the context of science. I think this adds a lot to the book. The book covers  lot of ground that is in other books (legitimately, it is a summarizing and simplifying of a lot of basic science and cosmology), but Brian Cox adds a nice personal touch, relating his early experiences and inspiration and giving his own perspective on the way the world is going.

I'm giving this a solid 8/10

Sunday, 7 February 2016

'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind'

Title: 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Genre: Non-fiction history/anthropology/other stuff
No. of pages: 512

"The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation."

Sapiens is exactly what it says on the cover - a brief history of the human race. The scope is bigger than any other book of it's kind, stretching from pre-history when humans (and not even Homo Sapiens at that point) started to evolve from animals, to the future of the human race. Unlike other history books, it makes barely any mention of historical personages or events, it takes too much of a god's eye view for that. Instead it talks about the development of humans, through a series of revolutions: the cognitive revolution (when humans started to think, imagine and develop), the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution, then finally to the technological revolution. Some of the usual historical topics are covered briefly, like Sumer/Mesopotamia for its pioneering of the agricultural revolution, European colonisation, and the British Empire and the industrial revolution. Throughout it all though it considers such big questions as 'What are we doing?' and 'Where are we going?'.

While telling our story, the author considers what makes us special, how did we advance so far and so fast when others didn't.

"Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate"

At times the book has some very astute observations to make:

"One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it."

In case you thought the author was talking about 21st century modern culture, you'd be wrong. He was talking about early agricultural settlements. Some things are as relevant today as they were 10,000 years ago.

I love this book. It's a near flawless account of humanity, our accomplishments, our failures, our crazy lack of logic, our gross stupidity. The history of how we evolved and developed is excellent. It doesn't talk about individual countries, great kings or decisive battles because in the end, none of it matters. We are one race and this is our history. 

The last part of the book is quite political, not about individual political parties or movements, that is small fry. No, the author turns his gaze to the dominant ideology of our time: capitalism (well, the free market version of capitalism that is dominant today anyway). He has a lot to say about it, and most of it not good. While he is quite critical at times, if you read it you will see that he talks a lot of sense. 

I am giving this book 10/10. It is the most enlightening books I've read in a long time, and while the author doesn't always paint a rosy picture, I finished it feeling strangely optimistic about the future.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Booknotes - The World Until Yesterday

This is my notes from reading 'The World Until Yesterday', summarizing the book and what I learned. Major spoilers (if there can be such in a non-fiction book). If you want to read the review instead, click here.

The World Until Yesterday is an examination of the different approaches of indiginous, traditional peoples to a variety of areas, and how this contrasts with modern western culture (us WEIRD folk - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic).

Crime & Justice

Traditional justice is all about settling disputes in a way that will allow the victim (or victim's family) and the perpetator to be able to live alongside one another in future, as generally everyone knows one another in small tribes etc. This approach of considering the victim and how they are feeling, facing them etc, is lost in modern legal systems. In his epilogue to the book, the author accepts that individuals in modern societies can't choose to adopt traditional forms of justice, but does suggest:

"But you may be able to utilize by yourself the New Guinea emphasis on informal mediation, emotional clearance, and reestablishment of relationships (or of non-relationships) in disputes the next time that you find yourself in a private dispute where tempers are rising."

Which is definitely something to think about.

Treatment of Children

A lot more babies and young children die in traditional cultures, and there are also some cultures that practice infanticide for unwanted babies (particularly where two babies are born close together, less than 3 years apart). However there are a lot of positives, in many hunter gatherer cultures babies are breast fed until they are at least 3, and this closeness with the mother is generally positive. Generally, babies and young children are held most of the time, either by a mother or other women in the tribe. This is called 'allo-parenting, where non-family members also care for a baby. 

Children don't have the structured play and manufactured toys common in western culture. They make their own toys, and also play with children of all different ages, rather than just children of the same age. Parents also let their children take risks, commonly holding knifes, playing near fire etc. Children learn themselves from mistakes, though can sustain injuries.

Children in traditional cultures generally grow up to be happy and confident adults, fully integrated with their society. Because their play is generally imitation of adult activities, there's no clear dividing line between childhood and adulthood, they move smoothly between the two.

The take home from this is that although there are dangerous or unsavoury practices, modern parents can learn a lot from traditional cultures when it comes to child-rearing, particularly encouraging creative imaginative play rather than manufactured/structured play, allowing children to take more risks and learn for themselves, and encourage they to play with children of all ages.

Treatment of the elderly

"Looming behind this increasing social isolation of the modern elderly is that they are perceived as less useful than were old people in the past, for three reasons: modern literacy, formal education, and rapid technological change."

Life expectancy in traditional cultures is/was a lot lower than  modern western society, but nevertheless some did live into their 70's and 80's.  Although some tribal cultures practiced killing of elderly that could no longer look after themselves (though neglect, reduction of food, leaving behind or outright killing), in most cases the elderly were valued and useful to society, more so than they often are today. In pre-literate societies the elderly were the stores of knowledge, some of it invaluable for the survival of he tribe (for instance the elderly woman who was the only one who knew which plants were safe to eat when a storm hit and other crops were destroyed), and often new the best techniques for hunting etc. As the quote above says, due to high literacy, education and technological change, the elderly today are less useful in this regard. One way in which they are still useful is as caregivers, for instance looking after grandchildren while parents go out to work (which was common in traditional cultures, and increasingly useful today). 

Approach to Risk

Traditional cultures take a different approach to risk than we do, and perhaps a more sensible one. Their survival often depends on accurately judging risk, particularly the small ones. The example given was that New Guinea tribe members won't camp under a tree, 'because it might fall down and kill us in the night'. The author, when he heard this from them, wanted to ridicule it, but even if the chance of it happening is 1 in a 1000, sooner or later it will happen if they do it regularly enough, so they avoid it. 

In contrast, in modern WEIRD cultures, we overestimate risk of big things that kill multiple people - disease epidemics, terrorist attack, plane crash etc. - but underestimate the everyday risk, like driving a car, smoking, stepladders etc. By taking more consideration of these and avoiding the small risks, we could learn from traditional societies and minimise our risk.

A question the author poses but doesn't answer is 'Does modern western culture's experience of mass media cause us to underestimate some risks because we don't have personal experience of them, but only through the media'?  


Some interesting discussion about religion, what it is and how it arose over time. This section is less about what we can learn from religion in traditional societies, and more about learning what makes religion so appealling and so historically successful. As the author says, religion often demands a great sacrifice of time and resources from us, so we must get something back in return.

There are various definitions of religion, which serve to highlight that experts cannot agree on a single definition, and how it means different things to different people in different societies. However it suggests that religion can be seen to fall into five sets:

 "The components commonly attributed to religions fall into five sets: belief in the supernatural, shared membership in a social movement, costly and visible proofs of commitment, practical rules for one’s behavior (i.e., “morality”), and belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced (e.g., by prayer) to intervene in worldly life."

 Not all are present in all religions, but at least some are. There is a fascinating discussion as well about how religion has changed over time, and it has had seven purposes over time, but these have changed as religion has successfully adapted. For instance, it started out primarily as part of human's desire to find explanations and causes for the world and natural things. This purpose has faded over time, but two purposes that have arisen and increased in importance can be summarized as:

1) Providing comfort in a dangerous and unfair world, particularly for loss and hardship.

2) Providing purpose and meaning in people's lives.

Some interesting perspectives, but didn't go into a lot of detail here. I suppose things to learn from it would be that religion is very adaptable and likely to keep on going, and that it is worth thinking about what religion can offer you.

People in traditional hunter-gatherer and primitive farming cultures are usually at least bi-lingual and often multi-lingual. This is because in a given area there are several different languages spoken by different tribes, and the different tribes often interact and exchange information (in many cultures, women marry men from different tribes and go to live with them, thus most children have parents that speak 2 different languages, and there are often other women (see allo-parenting in the children section above) who look after them who speak different languages still.

 Research has shown that people who are bi-lingual have a slightly lower vocabulary on average in their native language, but have significantly better "executive function", better able to make decisions, decide on strategies and adapt to changing information and circumstances. It has also been shown that bi-lingual people have a much lower risk of developing Alzheimers, and if they do, it is likely to be 6-7 years later in life, and will develop slower.

Many languages are becoming extinct all the time, which the author argues is just a much of a travesty as loss of animal species, but doesn't receive the attention or support that endangered animals get.

Take home from this, it can be very beneficial being bi-lingual and it is worth parents raising their children to be bi-lingual where this is appropriate (i.e. parents with two different languages). In some cases this will help preserve endangered languages.


"Around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today."

Indiginous cultures have a much lower life expectancy than modern westerners. The biggest killers along with accidents and violence are infectious diseases, such as gastrointestinal diseases, cholera and the like, all diseases that have been conquered by the modern world. What they don't suffer from (or didn't until introduced to western culture) is the slower acting diseases like Diabetes, Cancer and Heart Disease. This is linked by the author mainly to diet and exercise.

In WEIRD cultures, as well as lack of exercise, we have a really high consumption of sugar and salt (see quote above). Sugar contributes strongly to diabetes, and salt in particular is a major factor in hypertension and certain types of heart disease. We can learn a lot from indiginous cultures by eating more healthily. This is partly a matter of individual choice, and partly something that governments can help with. An example of positive government action is when Finland adopted a program to reduce the salt consumption of it's people over a 20 year period. By the end of the period, Finnish life expectancy was 7-8 years higher than it had been before the program.

The book summarizes by saying that while there are many advantages to society in the modern, developed world - longer life expectancy, better healthcare, no shortage of food, less dangers, war etc - there are many things we can learn from traditional societies. Some changes individuals can adopt themselves, some require societal change, and some a mix of the two.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Aeonian and a great quote

I get's Word of the Day email. I often don't read it, particularly when I'm busy, but today's word was 'aeonian'. It means 'eternal, everlasting'. Which makes sense because 'aeon' (also eon) is the word for a really long period of time.

Each day there's an example of the word in use, often from a quote or extract. Today I wanted to share that quote, because it was quite lyrical and wordy.

"It was the caverns drinking from the tempest overhead, the grasses growing under the snow, the stars making music with the dark, the streams filling the night with the sounds the day had quenched, the whispering call of the dreams left behind in 'the fields of sleep,'--in a word, the central life pulsing in aeonian peace through the outer ephemeral storms."

-- George MacDonald, Robert Falconer, 1868

Some lovely imagery I just wanted to share.

Anyway, back to my re-watching of the X-Files. There's a Ghost in the Machine today (probably running on a Pentium 2 given the year it was filmed!)

Sunday, 17 January 2016

'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

I've just finished 'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond, and more than most books I've ever read, I want to share this with others.

Jared Diamond is a writer and scientist, who has spent decades researching the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea (this is obviously his area of expertise, but he's done a lot of research into other indigenous cultures all across the world for this book). He's most well known for his book 'Guns, Germs and Steel' about how Europeans came to dominate the world (for the answer to that, the clue is in the title!). He seems a fascinating man with a great mix of interests and fields of study. The bio on his website is definitely worth a read if you want to know more.
The book is a non-fiction book that doesn't neatly fit into any category, but instead I'd say it is a mix of geography, history, anthropology, with a bit of philosophy, science, memoir and no doubt various other things in it. The central concept of the book is looking at many different traditional societies to examine their approach to various different aspects of everyday life including crime and punishment, religion, languages, bringing up children, dealing with the elderly and diet and lifestyle. The book is called The World Until Yesterday because by examining traditional cultures around the world, many of them hunter-gatherers, the book is also examining the way all of our ancestors lived, until about 10,000 years ago (i.e. for most of 200,000 or so years that modern homo sapiens have existed for).

This concept is one that greatly interests me, because although there are many different cultures around the world, in many respects we are starting to live in one giant culture, because the vast majority of the world (certainly the Western World, but increasingly a lot of the rest too) operates very similarly in terms of the way it is run, the way people act and live out their lives. This is as a result of European colonisation in the 16th-19th century, and the spread of globalisation and American consumer culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, It is easy to assume the way people are is the only way we could be, when it is simply not true.

So the premise is one I really like, but how well did the author manage to fulfil my expectations? While not all topics are equally good (the crime and justice section at the beginning seemed to drag after a while), it was all fascinating and enlightening. The section on health was particularly excellent. Some of the conclusions were new and surprising to me, others more familiar but still had many new insights. For a knowledge junkie like me, this book was manna from heaven.

Here's a couple of quotes/facts I picked out from the book.

"Looming behind this increasing social isolation of the modern elderly is that they are perceived as less useful than were old people in the past, for three reasons: modern literacy, formal education, and rapid technological change."

"the Inuit themselves abandoned war in their own self-interest in order to have more opportunities to profit from trade, and the !Kung may have done the same"

"Roman soldiers were paid in salt, so that our word “salary” for pay is derived not from the Latin root for “money” or “coins” but from the Latin root for “salt” (sal)." [Not particlarly relevant to the thread of the book, but a fact is a fact, I never turn them down!]

"Around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today."

This wasn't the lightest read, but it wasn't particularly difficult either. I should give a shout out to the wonders of the Kindle - I did start reading this over a year ago but put it down after getting bogged down in the first section (on crime and justice). I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and was able to go straight to where I left off. If this had been a paper book I'd probably have taken it to the charity shop ages ago and never picked it up again!

Really enlightening and fascinating book. There were some areas I felt he didn't touch on much that I'd have liked to read about - such as more about the politics and economics of traditional cultures but maybe that is for another book. Still, for a knowledge junkie like me, this book was manna from heaven. 9/10

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Boise, Idaho

One of the - many, many - things that fascinate me, is all the thousands of places around the world that I've never been to, and probably never will (though the possibility that I could visit some of them doesn't hurt). What is it like to walk round there? What are the people like? What is there to see there?

So anyway, I'm watching the X-Files tonight, first season, starting at the beginning. It's just appeared on Amazon Prime Video much to my delight. Episode Two, they are investigating a missing test pilot in Boise, Idaho. But where is Boise, Idaho?

Well obviously it's in Idaho, the 43rd state, which achieved statehood in 1890, and is located in the north west USA, next to Washington State and Oregon. It is one of the largest states by area at around 83,000 square miles, but one of the least popular - only 1.4 million people. Boise is the state capital and largest city in Iowa. It's called the City of Trees because it is so green, but also reputedly because a French speaking guide who came across the place shouted "le bois le bois!" or "the trees, the trees!". The best way to pronounce the name by the way is "BOY-see" which is how the locals say it.

Interestingly for a small city deep in the American West, Boise has the largest ethnic Basque community in the USA, and the fifth largest in the world, after the Basque country in Spain and France, and also Chile and Argentina. Here's a Basque fact far predating the USA. The Basque people are unrelated genetically to the rest of the inhabitants of Western Europe, and are considered a last remnant of ancient pre-agricultural people of Europe. Furthermore, their language is unrelated to the Indo-European language family and is thought to be he original language of Europe.

Anyway back to Boise. It is quite a small city, population about 200,000 but is has plenty of pubs and restaurants, as well as a vibrant nightlife and a few museums. There's also festivals and events on throughout the year, including hosting the New Year's Eve Idaho Potato Drop. It sounds like a great festival, but I'm a bit bemused at the idea of a 16 foot potato dropping on a crown of 40,000 spectactors!

I think I'll leave it there for now...

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A Six Year Old's Outrage at Royal Mail!

My daughter asked Father Christmas for a Sweet Shop this year. That's right, not just sweets, but a Sweet Shop! Fortunately, she wasn't after a high street shop with rent, rates and lots of other bills. She did have entrepreneurial ideas however, and decided that she wanted to sell sweets to help brighten the lives of some seriously ill children. Remarkably, she decided this all on her own, the idea did not come from us, her parents, or anyone else.

She decided she wanted to support children through Post Pals, which she'd learned about from Rainbows (junior Brownies/Guides). Post Pals is a small charity, run solely by volunteers, which is dedicated to making the lives of seriously ill children and their siblings a bit better by facilitating the sending of letters and small gifts through the post to them. Children can search the site to find children they'd like to write to, either on a one off or regular basis.

Come Christmas Day, my daughter was delighted to receive her sweet shop from Father Christmas, and immediately set about selling sweets to the captive audience of mum and dad, then later many more family and friends throughout the festive season. She even bought sweets herself from her sweet shop to further swell the coffers, not opting for the usual business owner's perk of free stuff! A Facebook post resulted in another influx of orders.

Our daughter is quite money saavvy, and was soon counting out her earnings and working out what gifts she could buy for Post Pals she'd identified on the website. She had a few different children she wanted to write to and send something to, and she'd worked out how much she could spend and what she could buy with the money...

Unfortunately, there was a snag when mummy explained about postage. The concept that you had to pay to send letters or items in the post was something that she had not yet been exposed to. She was even more outraged that she was working hard to do such a nice thing, and yet the Royal Mail was taking nearly half of the money she'd raised just to post them. It did cost £11.20 to send 4 x small gifts with cards and is still a bit cross she has to sell 6 bags of sweets just to post each one. I still don't think she's got over it!