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The World Until Yesterday – Book Review

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, very interesting. If the past helps us understand the present, and help informed decisions on the future, then this work is an important one, and a fascinating read. There is an amalgam of different aspects, which do not hold together as well as some of Diamond's other works, but is interesting nonetheless. How people in traditional societies find/raise food, eat, raise children, comforted the aged, as well as wage war, are covered in this work.

Sections on "constructive paranoia" and bilingualism (and language extinction), as well as chapter 11 on "salt, sugar, fat, and sloth" are definitely a wake-up call to dangerous trends in America. In addition, the chapters on civil society "justice" vs. the more "conflict resolution" mechanisms in traditional societies is quite insightful.

Missing from this is a more extended discussion of marriage and gender relations, though certainly there is much of this sprinkled throughout the work.

In any case, one of the best works I've read this year (as of August, 2019). The book was published in 2012 but has certainly aged well (if at all) in the past 7 years. Highly relevant and an entertaining read.

Diamond has certain preferences regarding what we can learn from traditional societies, based on his fifty years of learning about them. Some takeaways:

- Crib bilingualism as a prophyactic against alzheimers
- Children cry half as much if picked up/comforted immediately upon the start of crying, vs. the Dutch and German tactics of ignoring the child some of the time
- Nuclear families tend to not function well as child caretaking/rearing, but rather extended families and a variety of "allo-parents" in terms of neighbors and villagers.
- On demand nursing is common in traditional societies (for various reasons)
- A lot more infant-adult contact (and being carried, as humans are "carry animals")
- Physical punishment is common in some societies and uncommon in others, and probably doesn't work very well
- Multi-age playgroups are a good thing (aka Montessori style and even more extended)
- Child play and education are entwined, and the current mass manufactured toys and video game play makes children less creative, by certain measures
- Children in traditional societies are generally more emotionally secure, self-confident, curious, and autonomous based in some part on greater freedom (and certainly some forms of greater constraint, e.g., living with little privacy)
- There is wisdom in older people (story of a harrowing boat ride and talk with someone who avoided that boat and the captain as they looked young, foolish, and with a powerful motor)
- Minority languages are not harmful but helpful in terms of bilingualism, and could and should be supported by governments and in schools
- Salt, sugar, fat, and sloth are killers and are increasingly so

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Ten Million Years

When one wants to understand what the most sigificant digits are regarding courses of action, it is vital to have the appropriate time-scale. What can be done in 1 day is a much more constrained problem than one can be done in 1 year, 10 years, 1,000 years, etc. Ten million years is sufficiently large to rethink pretty much everything. As Peter Brannan writes in The Anthropocene is a Joke:

Unless we fast learn how to endure on this planet, and on a scale far beyond anything we’ve yet proved ourselves capable of, the detritus of civilization will be quickly devoured by the maw of deep time.

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Future Studies and Pandemics

In the mid-2000s I attended courses in Future Studies at the University of Hawaii. Jim Dator, one of the founders of Future Studies in North America was there, and he had some useful, if soft, methods for going about understanding different futures.

This is relevant to the latest pandemic because it is one of the few ways to get a grip on the possibilities that are unfolding in front of us. The future is, after all, unpredictable by definition. However, one can become sensitive to certain scenarios.

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Facemask use for Covid-19

Facemasks in the United States

Taiwan president wearing a facemask

During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO and CDC initially performed a disservice by downplaying the advantages of facemasks. This was due to the critical shortage of these and the need for health and medical personnel to have access to them. In particular, the CDC underscored that surgical masks or N-95 respirators be reserved for healthcare professionals and first responders.

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