Review of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”

When you read about the day’s events or tune into network news, do you feel peace is futile? Maybe the world seems overrun with terrorist attacks, mass shootings, suffering, and violence and you can’t fathom bringing a child into this world. If you’re hopeless about the state of humanity, you may find Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined reassuring, perhaps uplifting.

Better Angels is an ambitious undertaking. Pinker explores violence from prehistory to today with evidence and datasets from multiple fields of study to persuade us that violence has declined significantly and that we’re living in one of the most peaceful times in existence. Dozens of charts illustrating correlational evidence support his thesis that now is “a good time in history to be a potential victim.”

The casualties of recent wars and genocides by Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler, are horrific in their numbers, but the numbers are small compared to the masses who suffered cruel, torturous deaths during the religious wars of the 17th century. The convincing narrative argues the rise of the nation-state (Leviathan), literacy, numeracy, and commerce have paved the way for a rights revolution. Torture, once entertainment, is now taboo. The law of the land, once enforced with self-help justice, is now handled by government courts. Beating children is no longer advised. Ethnic minorities, women, and animals, once expendable property, now have more autonomy and respect than before.

Few could argue against a decline in homicide rates from our hunter-gatherer beginnings to now. The data clearly show that rates have decreased. Other data show a strong correlation of the decline of violence with an increase in education, commerce, and trade. But why is that? Is there something programmed in our biology that has influenced our progress?

Pinker believes so and spends many chapters trying to convince us that our hard-wired “better angels”–empathy, self-control, morality, and reason–are keeping our “inner demons”–predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology–in check.

I trust that his assertion is true. You can see our better angels at work all the time. Pinker shares a story of passing a mother with two young children. One child was crying while the other child was being disciplined, his mother repeating to him, “EMPATHY!” We frequently hear parents explaining to children that they must put themselves in other’s shoes and ask how they would feel if someone did this thing or that to them. Empathy, reason, and self-control are valued today and likely necessary for a peaceful society.

Pinker also discusses surprising insights about what forces DO NOT have a significant influence on the decline of violence. Those inconsistent factors are weaponry & armament, resources & power, and religion. While they’re important, and common knowledge usually labels them as obvious contributors to violence, they don’t have as much pull as previously thought.

Pinker’s discussions are good explanations for how we got from a very violent then to a less violent now. At no point does he become preachy, or suggest what we should do with the information he meticulously curated. Nor does he ever become arrogant and suggest that we can end all suffering, or that this trend will stay its course.

His work, a profusion of information from multiple academic fields, tightly organized in one place, is to be applauded. If you’re hardened and apathetic to the current rate of violence in the world, convinced we’re already taking a ride in that hand-basket, The Better Angels of Our Nature may calm your anxiety. Pinker’s view of a less violent world is a cheerier perspective to have indeed.

Update: Mr. Pinker posted this cartoon link on his Twitter account. Very appropriate in relation to his book.

How to Grow an Awesome St. Augustine Lawn in Central Texas

I grew up in Colorado where winters are long and growing seasons are short. Lawn care was never high on the to-do list, but it didn’t matter because summer was short. Then I moved to Central Texas where cooler temps are a reminder to replace petunias with pansies and tomatoes with snap peas. For once, I put some effort into lawn care and turned my thin, browning, weed-infested excuse for a lawn into something I enjoy looking at while sitting on the porch enjoying a cold beer on a warm Texas evening.

Trial-and-error and many hours scouring the Internet led me to the following organic routine that works incredibly well. It doesn’t require much time, effort or money to build a healthy turf.

Download my free checklist for growing an awesome St. Augustine lawn.

First…

…stop using petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides now. If you can’t commit to this, an organic lawn care routine probably won’t work for you.

Continue reading

Storing Information in DNA

When I read about advances like this, I want to live to be 200 years old just to see all the new technology of the future. Science rules! Just when you thought storing petabytes of data was impressive, here comes the zettabyte option.

Dr Goldman’s new scheme is significant in several ways. He and his team have managed to set a record (739.3 kilobytes) for the amount of unique information encoded. But it has been designed to do far more than that. It should, think the researchers, be easily capable of swallowing the roughly 3 zettabytes (a zettabyte is one billion trillion or 10²¹ bytes) of digital data thought presently to exist in the world and still have room for plenty more. It would do so with a density of around 2.2 petabytes (10¹⁵) per gram; enough, in other words, to fit all the world’s digital information into the back of a lorry. Moreover, their method dramatically reduces the copying errors to which many previous DNA storage attempts have been prone.

Continue reading Test Tube Data at The Economist

Photo Credit: TechNewsDaily

Photo Credit: TechNewsDaily

Apple Cereal

Raw, vegan apple cereal recipe.

Raw, vegan apple cereal recipe.

I’m not a foodie. This isn’t a food blog. But my regular breakfast cereal was just so nice to look at this morning I decided to take a picture and share the recipe. Originally based on Ani Phyo’s Good Morning Muesli from Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen, I’ve now tweaked it to my own taste over the years enough to call it my own.

I highly recommend Phyo’s book to anyone who wants to learn about the raw food lifestyle and try a few great recipes on the way. It’s essential reading material for all hippies-in-training.

Apple Cereal Recipe
Makes 1 serving.

1 apple, chopped
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats, uncooked
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup walnut pieces
2-3 Tbs. raw, unhulled sesame seeds
2-3 Tbs. ground flax seeds
1-2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Your favorite homemade or store-bought “milk,” 1-2 cups

Combine all solid ingredients. Top with milk. If your apple is a little tart, you can sweeten with agave nectar.

Grammar Lesson: “Then” vs. “Than”

UPDATE: Aaaahhhh!!!! I saw it again. This time the crime was committed by a SENIOR EDITOR at Forbes in the 04/18/2012 post “America’s Fastest Growing Cities.”

Misuse of "then."

Misuse of “then.”

Original Post: Our nation has a problem that has reached critical mass. I think it started with a few bad spellers, then spread to become the written vernacular of kids born after 1990 who probably didn’t read much until MySpace became popular. As someone who embraces vox populi, vox dei, and accepts that language and the rules that govern it change over time, I don’t have the visceral reaction most grammarphobes experience when they encounter the common errors coloring the web. (My first drafts have their fair share of them!) But this error is now popping up in the published works of a group that should know betterwriters and reporters. I’m talking about the dreaded “rather then” and “more then.” In this January 14, 2013 news report at KXAN.com, the AP award-winning reporter made the mistake twice in one sentence!

Incorrect usage of "then" in professional writing.

Incorrect usage of “then” in professional writing.

Reading that made me nauseous. This is only one example. I’ve run into this grammar-wrong in magazines and printed newsletters and I’m sure you have too. Go ahead and misspell angel as angle all you want (I can live with that), but for the love of mankind, please engrave this grammar rule in your brain and use it!

When to Use Then and Than

  • Use the word then when you want to indicate time.

Examples: She drank the bottle of wine, then sang karaoke songs. I saw the foul ball coming my way, then the lights went out. He will run 5 miles, then reward himself with pizza.

  • Use the word than to indicate a comparison.

Examples: Steve would rather listen to that kid whine than you discuss grammar. I hold my liquor better than you. You can’t dance better than that?

If you didn’t know, now you do. You can visit WikiHow for more information on the correct usage of then and than. 

Is seeing “then” and “than” used incorrectly like nails on a chalkboard for you? Then join the grammar police and share this with chronic offenders!

Maca-Chia Spirulina Smoothie

Green Smothie

Let’s start this blog off right! I have this self-concocted superfood smoothie a few mornings every week. You can’t be a hippie if you don’t have green drinks in your diet. It’s sweet and smooth, and thanks to the chia seeds, quite filling so I can usually make it to lunch on this drink alone.

Maca-Chia Spirulina Smoothie
Makes 1 serving; measurements are approximate; adjust to taste

1 frozen banana
1/2 cup frozen pineapple
1/4 cup frozen blueberries
1 Tbs. chia seeds
1 Tbs. flax seeds
1 Tbs. maca powder
1 Tbs. spirulina powder
1/4 cup orange or grapefruit juice
Water to desired consistency; 1-2 cups

Combine all ingredients and blend for about 30 seconds in a Vitamix.