Insufferable Know-it-all’s Mutation of the Week

This chimpanzee  has an obvious mutation that all people but almost no other apes have: the whites of its eyes. In all her years living around chimpanzees, Jane Goodall saw only 3 such chimpanzees, 2 of which were brothers.

The apes below have normal primate eyes. The photos are from James Mollison’s magnificent series. He would distract his subjects by grooming them & pretending to pick fleas from their arms. When their attention was focussed he’d snap the picture.  His web site seems to be broken; see here instead; here‘s a NYT article about another of his photo series of flamboyant variations within a single primate species.

As you of course know, the part of your eyes surrounding your pupils is called the sclerae. White sclerae make the direction of your gaze obvious to your companions, including the most faithful companion of all: dogs. Dogs are adept at following human gaze, unlike my good-for-nothing cat, who couldn’t follow directions if they were written in strips of tuna, & who won’t take out a spider for me unless I physically carry her & point her head at it. Wait, what was I talking about?

Dogs. Dogs & humans are experts at picking up on what direction someone’s looking at. Apes don’t do that so much – they focus on the direction the head is turned, instead of the eyes, presumably because they can’t easily tell which way their friend’s eyes are pointed.

So a newish theory has it that people with white sclerae, & the dogs that loved them,  had a powerful advantage that lead to the spread of the white sclerae mutation throughout our population. Hunters stalking prey could silently, even unconsciously, direct their dogs. Dogs know where to rush in to flush or trap the deer, humans finish them off with spears & knives – it’s a win/win for everybody except Bambi.

Dogs & humans have been hunting cooperatively for a very long time: 30,000 or maybe even 45,000 years. It’s mutually beneficial – Miskito people of Nicaragua hunt with dogs that help capture more than 20 kilograms of meat each month, sometimes much more.  In a study of Finnish moose hunting – a proxy for mammoth hunting back in the good old days – dogs increased the take by 56%.  Also, dogs found 6 times as many delicious armadillos as people alone.

I’ll remember that the next time I roll my eyes at my Cat Lassie.

American Scientist explains all this in a great 4 page article by Pat Shipman called Do the Eyes Have It?

Posted in Insufferable Know-it-all, prehistory, science | 1 Comment

Ancient Written Language Discovered in Detroit

Detroit can’t afford curbside recycling, so every few weeks I head down to Recycle Here, in an oddly majestic old warehouse on Holden Avenue. At the front is a lectern where you add to a tally of visitors per zip code:

It turns out that this accounting method is ancient. Really, really ancient. People all over the world have been recording numbers by systematically notching wood, stone, & bones since Paleolithic time. The oldest example of a tally stick is the Lebombo bone – a baboon fibula from 35,000 years ago that has 29 distinct notches. It’s named for the mountains between South Africa & Swaziland. A particularly intriguing example, more sophisticated than a tally, is known as the Ishango Bone. Made in the Congo 20,000 years ago, it groups odd numbers, prime numbers (!) , & pairs of doubled numbers.

  A 20,000+ year old wolf bone with 55 notches in groups of 5 was found in Eastern Europe; around the same time, Australian Aborigines were making cylcons, carved cylindrical stone implements often notched with tallies.

The innovation of making groups of 5 tallies was discovered independently many times — presumably an echo of 5 fingers. There are cultural differences in the visual arrangement, but it’s the same idea:

Europe (except Spain), North America, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe

Spain, South America

China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan

According to Georges Ifrah’s The Universal History of Numbers  (a monumental encyclopedia of numbering systems, though not without its critics), the need to account for larger numbers inevitably leads to something like the Roman numeral system – not in the precise details of the particular symbols, but in how the simplest reasonable big counting system could work. You only need a few symbols & a simple method for combining them to record quite large numbers concisely. The simplest method would add symbols for 1, 5 & 10 for small numbers, symbols for 50 & 100 to reach bigger numbers, symbols for 500 & 1000 for larger still. This is pretty much what Attic numerals were — these inspired the Etruscans, from whom the Romans first got their numerals.

The rules got more complicated along the way — IV replaced IIII in medieval times — but the basic idea cropped up all over the world. Compare Old Mokshan numerals, used along the Volga River from Stone Age time until the beginning of the 20th Century:

Old Mokshan Numerals. The Mokshan people are a minority group in Russia.

Of course all these systems made simple calculation so painfully complicated that they were mostly swept away by the vastly superior Arabic numerals, what with their 0 & the new-fangled positional notation. But simple tally marks still have a role to play. I find it eerie & wonderful to continue a tradition begun by our Cro-Magnon ancestors every time I do my recycling.

Posted in Detroit, Insufferable Know-it-all, linguistics, prehistory | Tagged | 1 Comment

Insufferable Know-it-all: The Future Behind You

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time…
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

If you bravely face the future stretching out ahead as the past recedes behind you, you are not one of the Aymara, a people living in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru & Chile. In their language the future is behind & the past is ahead.

Seems strange perhaps, but why not? Time has no spatial component. It may as well flow from left to right like on a timeline. It’s like we’re sitting on chairs on a train, facing the way we’re going, & the Aymara are sitting on the chairs looking at where we’ve been. A friend once argued that facing the past is more realistic, because we see the past everywhere, but we really cannot see the future.

Language is full of somewhat arbitrary but surprisingly consistent metaphors: time is money – both can be spent, saved, invested, wasted; argument is war – both have attacks on defended positions; love is a journey – both begin with anticipation & end in a seedy hotel room that looks nothing like the brochure.

Linguists are interested in these metaphors because they shed light on what is essentially human vs. what is peculiar to some particular group of languages. The linguists George Lakoff & Mark Johnson wrote Metaphors We Live By, considered the definitive work on the subject.

The future-behind-us orientation of the Aymara is supposedly unique, according to the linguists Rafael Nunez & Eve Sweetser:

“Until now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world – from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on – have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model,” said Nunez.

But wait a minute.  My friend who argued that the future is behind us is Chinese. Chinese, spoken by like 1 billion people, has numerous examples of the future behind you:

English Chinese Pinyin Literal
before, in front, ago, previous, earlier qián
back, behind, rear, after, afterwards, later hòu
day tiān
year nián
day before yesterday 前天 qiántiān in front day
day after tomorrow 后天 hòutiān behind day
year before last 前年 qiánnián in front year
year after next 后年 hòunián behind year
ex-wife 前妻 qián qī
posterity, later ages or generations 后代 hòu dài

So are the Aymara really unique? I am not a linguist, & am dimly aware that linguists distinguish between “objects passing through time toward you” metaphors & “you passing through time” metaphors, so maybe Nunez & Sweetser have accounted for this. But I just googled up this abstract with the catchy name Language Experience Influences the Conceptualization of TIME Metaphor by Vicky Tzuyin Lai, who seems to be saying something similar. Something to consider as we back into the unseeable future.

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Literal Literary Statistics

A clever representation of letter use frequency, via

Keyboard as a 3-D bar graph showing how frequently each letter is used

Frequency of Letter Use

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1950 Makerspace

From Modern Mechanix (“Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today”)

Maker culture was different then: there is more emphasis on patent searches & marketing your invention, less on sharing technique & tools & spreading knowledge. But the underlying impulse to create is clearly there, as well as cutting-edge maker fashion.

I wonder what he is holding?

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The Toil Index

Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, discusses his view of the limitations of using per capita GDP to characterize the economy. “For instance, its failure to account adequately for product quality improvements in areas like computers causes it to understate well-being. And its inclusion of spending on burglar alarms and pollution-control equipment causes it to overstate well-being. The index also completely ignores the effects of changes in the distribution of income.” These problems motivated his search for a metric that gives more insight into how an economy is changing over time, & he settled on the median hours worked per month to pay median rent.

Posted in Insufferable Know-it-all, opinion | Tagged | 1 Comment


All these bikes have something in common. The first is from 1889(?) – I saw it in the late lamented R. Hirt, the cheese & basket & general store at Eastern market since 1887, just closed due to some kind of family feud, one branch of which is soon to reopen under a new name. I hope they keep the display of old bikes – I’m in love with this one. Notice the chainguard?


In Palo Alto last summer, during lunch with David (Hi David!), I saw 3 bikes with fully enclosed chains in half an hour, & managed to get photos of 2 of them. The owner of this retro red cruiser said she had brought it with her from Tokyo. Love the kickstand. The darker Gazelle was just parked on the sidewalk. None of the generators seemed to be working.

Brought from Tokyo to California Street, Palo Alto

Gazelle on California Street, Palo Alto

There is no point to including this Snabin photo really. I think it’s an Indian bicycle manufacturer.

Here’s my niece Mia’s old bike (Hi, Mia!), which found its way to the Mt. Elliot Makerspace (Hi, Ted!) after she outgrew it.

Hardcore Bikers Use Chainguards

Somehow I have no good photo of my own bike, which I love beyond reason. Here’s an image from Breezer’s website showing the stock version. It has an internally geared 8 speed hub (Shimano Redline, with gives a gear ratio of 3.07), enabling a fully enclosed chain. I also has a generator in the front hub.

Breezer Uptown 8

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