Books 2022

You might also be interested in my booklists from from 201420162017,  2018,  2019,  2020, and 2021.

Defeat into Victory

Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges

Go Tell The Spartans

Don Quixote

A Fire Upon the Deep

A Deepness in the Sky

Scientists Against Time

Days of Atonement

The Mythical Man-Month

Island in the Sea of Time

The High Crusade

Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

This Kind of War

The Measure of Reality

The Jews of Islam

The Vinland Sagas

The Chronicle of Theophanes

Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War: July 1937-May 1942

The Crusades and the Holy Land

Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake

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Promising Ukrainian strategy

Montezuma, Atahualpa, Santa Ana

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Flerov’s Gambit

Georgy Flerov was a young nuclear physicist in the Soviet Union who ( in 1943) sent a letter to Stalin advocating an atomic bomb project. It is not clear that Stalin read that letter, but one of Flerov’s arguments was particularly interesting: he pointed out the abrupt and complete silence on the subject of nuclear fission in the scientific literature of the US, UK, and Germany – previously an extremely hot topic.

Stopping publications on atomic energy ( which happened in April 1940) was a voluntary effort by American and British physicists. But that cessation was itself a signal that something strategically important was going on.

Imagine another important discovery with important strategic implications: how would you maximize your advantage ?

Probably this is only practically possible if your side alone has made the discovery. If the US and the UK had continued publishing watered-down nuclear research, the paper stoppage in Germany would still have given away the game. But suppose, for the moment, that you have a monopoly on the information. Suddenly stopping closely related publications obviously doesn’t work. What do you do?

You have to continue publications, but they must stop being useful. You have to have the same names at the top ( an abrupt personnel switch would also be a giveaway) but the useful content must slide to zero. You could employ people that A. can sound like the previous real authors and B. are good at faking boring trash. Or, possibly, hire people who are genuinely mediocre and don’t have to fake it.

Maybe you can distract your rivals with a different, totally fake but extremely exciting semiplausible breakthrough.

Or – an accidental example of a very effective approach to suppression. Once upon a time, around 1940, some researchers began to suspect that duodenal ulcers were caused by a spiral bacterium. Some physicians were even using early antibiotics against them, which seemed to work. Others thought what they were seeing might be postmortem contamination. A famous pathologist offered to settle the issue.

He looked, didn’t see anything, and the hypothesis was buried for 40 years.

But he was wrong: he had used the wrong stains.

So, a new (?) intelligence tactic for hiding strategic breakthroughs: the magisterial review article.

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Triple Bank Shots

By which I mean multi-step causal chains that are part of a complex plan – something intended by some individual or group. In the strong form, one for which the initial push is sufficient, so that the ball ends up in the right place without any continuing guidance. In practice, we’re talking patterns like that in human affairs.

They don’t exist. And when someone says ” Group X must have intended Y”, invoking that kind of logic – he’s an idiot. Pay him no never mind.

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What if

I don’t think the story is perfectly clear right now. But suppose it becomes clear. Suppose that we find that Covid-19 was ( for sure) the accidental product of virologists working in a Wuhan lab, funded by the US government.

What would happen?

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The First Team

I’ve been reading Thin on the Ground, a book by Stephen Churchill. One of his ideas is based on the fact some predator species are dominant over others and get the lion’s share (cough, cough) of the kills. Lions frequently steal carcasses from hyenas, while everyone steals from cheetahs and wild dogs, etc.

There is good evidence ( stable isotope data) that Neanderthals were highly carnivorous, and that they used thrusting spears, which are effective but not as generally useful as atlatls – standoff weapons. Churchill suspects that with their thrusting spears tech, Neanderthals were _not_ the top dogs of the predator guild, and that they may have been dominated by cave lions and scimitar cats, while having approximately equal status with hyenas. In practice, this would mean that Neanderthals often lost kills to high-ranked carnivores such as cave lions. The majority of calories from animal kills would go to higher-ranked carnivores ( not to Neanderthals) . Neanderthal population size would be limited, and some environments ( like open plains, where kills are highly visible) might be effectively closed to them.

Neanderthals don’t seem to take much advantage of the Atlantic salmon runs – maybe da Bears didn’t let them.

We think of Man as #1, and generally that’s the case nowadays, but it wasn’t always true.

So imagine that the Predecessors, the population that left those footprints at White Sands, didn’t have the atlatl. They may have arrived as fishermen, and may have been gradually re-inventing and improving their hunting techniques. They had to compete with short-faced bears, sabertooth tigers, the American lion, dire wolves, the American cheetah, grizzly bears, and wolves. Their diet was not as limited as that of the Neanderthals – North America was warming and plant foods were available – but they may have been dominated by some of the larger predators. if so, their cut of the herbivores may have been limited, they may have been limited to certain kinds of terrain, etc. They may have been thin on the ground, like Neanderthals.

Third example: we know that modern humans arrived even earlier in Australia/New Guinea ( then joined as Sahul), and those humans _were_ ecologically dominant, even though they did _not have atlatls ( until fairly recently), as far as we know. They became common enough to leave noticeable numbers of artifacts and skeletons, and they drove most of the Australian megafauna to extinction.

Why would human domination be easy in Australia and hard for Predecessors in the Americas?

I would guess because the dominant predators of Sahul were reptiles and marsupials.

They’re dumb.

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Books 2021

You might also be interested in my booklists from from 201420162017,  2018,  2019, and 2020 .

A Savage War of Peace

The Canterbury Tales

Adaptation and Natural Selection



Gallic Wars

A World Out of Time

The Peace War

The Archimedes Codex

Domestication of Plants in the Old World

Andrei Sakharov: memoirs

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle


The Complete Paintings of Durer

Evolutionary Biology of Aging

Evolution and the Theory of Games 

My 60 Memorable Games

The Discovery of the Solomon Islands by Alvaro de Mendaña in 1568

Warlords of Oman

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

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Threading the Needle

The problem with the idea of an early, pre-Amerindian settlement of the Americas is that ( by hypothesis, and some evidence ) it succeeded, but ( from known evidence) it just barely succeeded, at best. Think like an epidemiologist ( they’re not all stupid ) – once humans managed to get past the ice, they must have had a growth factor greater than 1.0 per generation – but it seems that it can’t have been a lot larger than that, because if they had averaged, say, 3 surviving kids per generation ( r = 1.5) , their population would have exploded, filling up all the habitable territories south of the glaciers in less than 2000 years.

(1.5)^40 multiplies the original population by a factor greater than ten million !

A saturated hunter-gatherer population inhabiting millions of square miles leaves a fair number of artifacts and skeletons per millennium – but we haven’t found much. We have, so far, found no skeletons that old. I don’t think we have a lot of totally convincing artifacts, although I’m no expert at distinguishing artifacts from geofacts. ( But these were modern humans – how crude do we expect their artifacts to be?)

For-sure footprints we’ve got, and intriguing genetic data.

A priori, I would expect hunter-gatherers entering uninhabited America to have done pretty well, and have high population growth rates, especially after they become more familiar with the local ecology. There is good reason to think that early Amerindians did: Bayesian skyline analysis of their mtDNA indicates fast population growth. They were expert hunters before they ever arrived, and once they got rolling, they seem to have wiped out the megafauna quite rapidly.

But the Precursors do not seem to have become numerous, and did not cause a wave of extinctions ( as far as I know. check giant turtles.). What might have limited their biological success?

Maybe they didn’t have atlatls. The Amerindians certainly did.

Maybe they arrived as fishermen and didn’t have many hunting skills. Those could have been developed, but not instantaneously. An analogy: early Amerindians visited some West Coast islands and must have had boats. But after they crossed the continent and reached the Gulf of Mexico, they had lost that technology and took several thousand years to re-develop it and settle the Caribbean. Along this line, coastal fishing settlements back near the Glacial Maximum would all be under water today.

Maybe they fought among themselves to an unusual degree. I don’t really believe in this, am just throwing out notions.

Maybe their technology and skills set only worked in a limited set of situations, so that they could only successfully colonize certain niches. Neanderthals, for example, don’t seem to have flourished in plains, but instead in hilly country. On the other hand, we don’t tend to think of modern human having such limitations.

One can imagine some kind of infectious disease that made large areas uninhabitable. With the low human population density, most likely a zoonosis, perhaps carried by some component of the megafauna – which would also explain why it disappeared.

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Footprints in the Sands of Time

The fossil footprints around an ancient lake in White Sands have been known for some time, but now we have what look to be perfectly respectable C-14 dates. They’re about 22 thousand years old, close to the Last Glacial maximum (LGM) and, as such clearly predate all existing evidence of human settlement of the New World (south of the glaciers, anyhow).

There were already hints: Amerindian populations in South America, mainly in Amazonia, carry a trace of a different genetic heritage. The existing population closest to that trace are the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, between India and Burma. Other populations such as Australian Aborigines and the inhabitants of New Guinea are also close. There is reason to believe that, until a few thousand years ago, all of Southeast Asia (including the islands) was occupied by related populations, known as Australo-Melanesians.

Here’s the key insight: the fact that the Andaman-like genetic trace is found in Amazonian Amerindians, but not in North America, suggests that it was picked up from a pre-existing population as the Amerindians expanded into South America. There are other possible scenarios, but it is hard to fit them with certain known facts. For example, we have ancient DNA from a Clovis kid, which is genetically close to modern Amerindians in South America, but does not contain this Andamanese-like trace. Hard to make this scenario work.

This implies that there was an earlier, less-successful colonization of the New World, one that preceded the Amerindians. One could have predicted this, and I did.

North America looked something like this in those days:

Note that crossing by boat would have been difficult at this time, assuming that settlers closely followed the coast. There is a long stretch of icebound coast before you reach somewhere habitable. The LGM was perhaps the most difficult time for a population to reach North America from Asia, so you have to suspect that they had crossed even earlier.

I say “less successful” because this population left very little sign, compared to the later Clovis culture. We find many artifacts and some skeletons from the early Amerindians, but very little from this (hypothetical) earlier population: in part this might be because their artifacts are harder to recognize ( because primitive) , but you have to think that their population density was considerably lower.

They may have done better in Brazil, because its climate was more favorable for hunter-gatherers than most places were back in the dreadful LGM.

One of the interesting differences between this somewhat hypothetical early population and Amerindians is that they seem to have been far less competent hunters. By the time of Clovis, Amerindians had atlatls and could apparently kill any animal, no matter how large. Ecologically dominant. In fact, they seem to have driven almost all of the megafauna in North and South America into extinction over a fairly short period of time.

This [hypothetical] earlier population may not have had atlatls simply because they hadn’t been invented yet: the earliest known example is about 18,000 years old. Considering that they may have entered North America some time well _before_ the LGM, this seems likely.

It may be that the alternative to being ‘ecologically dominant’ in the Americas was not very pleasant. The Amerindians could make a living hunting megafauna, and probably could deal effectively with the big predators sustained by those megafauna – at minimum, they were tough enough to make those predators think twice. After the extinction of the megafauna, most of those predators disappeared. This means that every other strategy of making a living – hunting lesser game, fishing, gathering plant foods – could be pursued without much risk. The whole landscape was theirs – the only thing they had to fear was other Amerindians.

For our hypothetical Precursors, this may not have been the case. Predators may have excluded them from much of the landscape, reducing their access to resources, which may not have been very abundant anyhow in the most severe part of the Ice Age.

It is safe to say that they didn’t leave a lot of skeletal fossils, since so far we haven’t found a single one. At the same time, any skeletal sample with useable DNA would be very valuable: as with the key Denisovan sample, where we have learned much about a whole separate branch of humanity from part of a little finger!

We can hope for luck finding skeletal fossils, but there may be another, more fruitful approach: looking aDNA in sediments in ancient sites. People have successfully retrieved ancient DNA from Neanderthal sites, and we may hope to do the same for pre-Clovis sites in the Americas. People ( other than James Bond) only die once, but they take a crap many times before their deaths. This approach might let us acquire genetic evidence from very early cultures, cultures with low population size, perhaps essentially failed colonizations or short-term explorations.

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You Have Been in Afghanistan, I Perceive

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