WHAT WE DID: Gossip, group fiction and comic relief!

FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2018

[w]Interlude—A well-chosen pair of books:
We got lucky in the books we chose to take on our summer vacation. Or so it seems to us.

Last Wednesday, we reread the depressing classic, 36 Children, as our hurtling train headed north. But once we reached our sprawling family estate, we turned to a wonderfully well-matched pair of books:

We turned to Professor Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It was matched with Professor Rovelli's The Order of Time, and serendipity ruled!

As we've watched our floundering species sift the world's events this week, we've been struck by the way Harari's book equips us to see what's occurring. We especially think of the early passage where Harari claims that the rise of the language of our species was mainly useful because it allowed us to gossip, and to create group fictions.

According to Professor Harari, these abilities let our early ancestors work in substantially larger groups. Let's start with the role of gossip.

In some ways, this passage rings painfully true. Is Harari permitted to say this?
HARARI (page 24): The new linguistic skills the modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that smaller bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication—whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns—is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for World War One when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.
Do "numerous studies" support this theory? We have no idea.

Meanwhile, is Harari permitted to say that? Is he allowed to say that the vast majority of communication in newspaper columns is actually gossip?

Is he allowed to lump journalists in with rumor-mongers, even in puckish fashion?

Whatever! As he continues, Harari says that the our evolving language next allowed us to construct sweeping group "fictions"—religious and/or national myths that permitted us to cooperate in vastly larger groups. According to Professor Harari, these abilities—the ability to gossip and the ability to create sweeping group fictions—were highly adaptive traits early on.

Last evening, then this morning, we watched the shamans of our two tribes create their equal-but-opposite claims about yesterday's hearing in the House. As this drive toward dueling Group Stories continues, we continue to plunge toward Mister Trump's Dispositive War—which, we're now reliably told, future anthropologists will also call "The War of The Trump Against All."

(We're reliably told that the war will start during Ivanka's one truncated term.)

Gossip and sweeping tribal "fictions" were once adaptive skills? So says Professor Harari. Today, these practices continue to dominate the maladaptive way our tribal leaders unite us rubes. Indeed, this is the point we've been making, at this site, for the past twenty years!

On MSNBC, Mika and a string of like-mindeds insist that Peter Strzok slew the dragon during yesterday's hearing. On Fox, Laura Ingraham and the others swear that Strzok badly embarrassed himself.

Our tribe wasn't told what the other tribe saw. Instead, we were handed our instant group "fiction," building the bond which has always served the move toward disastrous war.

Harari's text—it's blurbed by Bill Gates and by Obama!—builds a framework around what we saw. The comic relief is supplied by Rovelli's text, and by pundit reaction to same, with reviewers standing in line to swear that they understood every easy-to-understand word.

With these claims, our liberal tribe constructs its post-deity gods. Having moved away from religious unity tales, we swoon about cosmic claims concerning neutrinos, as found in today's New York Times.

No one has the slightest idea what these science reporters are talking about, but as reviewers help us pretend, tribal bonds are formed. This brings us back to the basic "At What Page?" question:

At what page should a sensible reader quit on Rovelli's new book? At what page should the voice of reason tell the reader to put Rovelli's book down and move slowly away from her desk?

At what page is all hope gone? Upon review, we break it down like this:
Milestones in The Order of Time:
Page 34: Based upon markings in our book, that's the point where we finally stopped reading. We finally stopped at the end of Part 2, with Rovelli's third Rilke citation.

Pages 22-32: These are the pages where we saw the end drawing near. Especially hopeless are the subsections HEAT and BLUR. Rovelli's attempt to discuss entropy starts on page 25 and works to destroy the will.

Page 12: In our view, this is where a reader could first sensibly claim that the "At What Page?" question has been answered. Doggedly, we read 22 more pages before accepting the truth.
Tomorrow, we promise to show you why page 12 might answer the "At What Page?" question. For today, let's expand on one key word from yesterday's post. That one key word is "small."

As we showed you yesterday, Rovelli makes an interesting claim on page 9 of his easy-to-understand book. One part of his presentation is actually coherent:
ROVELLI (pages 9-10): Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.

The difference is small
but can be measured with precision timepieces that can be bought today on the internet for a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of specialized laboratories, this slowing down of time can be detected between levels just a few centimeters apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.

It is not just the clocks that slow down: lower down, all processes are slower. Two friends separate, with one of them living in the plains and the other going to live in the mountains. They meet up again years later: the one who has stayed down has lived less, aged less, the mechanism of his cuckoo clock has oscillated fewer times. He has had less time to do things, his plants have grown less, his thoughts have had less time to unfold. Lower down, there is simply less time than at altitude.
Interesting! Good Friend A, who lives by the sea, will "age less" (will age more slowly) than Good Friend B, who lives on a mountaintop.

So says Professor Rovelli. We'll assume that this particular claim is accurate.

Left on its own, that particular claim comes close to being coherent. Unfortunately, "the difference is small," Rovelli says. By this he means the difference in aging, here in our world, is so tiny that it will be completely impossible to notice, discern or observe.

Just to get clear on what Rovelli seems to be saying, let's imagine a somewhat changed planet Earth:

Our new Earth will still circle the sun in a regular way. This journey around the sun will still be called a "year."

Our new Earth will still spin on its axis (roughly) 365 times in the course of each year. These discrete parts of the year will still be called "days."

Here's the difference:

Our new Earth will have mountains which are amazingly high, along with a massive supply of air. On this reinvented Earth, Good Friend B goes amazingly high when he moves to his mountaintop lair. Let's say he does this when both friends have lived ten years at sea level.

After twenty more trips around the sun, Good Friend B comes back down to sea level. But uh-oh! According to Rovelli, he will have aged much faster than Good Friend A, due to the enormous height at which he has lived.

Good Friend A will have aged much less. Good Friend A will look the way a person currently looks when he's 30 years old. But Good Friend B will have aged much faster. He may look like people currently look when they're 90 years old!

It's easy to picture this state of affairs, which can't happen here on our Earth. This seems to be a logical extension of what Rovelli says in his easy-to-understand passage.

On this different Earth, will Good Friend B look like he's 90 years old when Good Friend A looks 30? That seems to be what Rovelli has said. That said, please notice this point:

Each friend has circled the sun the same twenty times since their last time together. Granted, Good Friend B has aged much more. But in the most obvious straightforward sense, each fellow has lived twenty years since their previous meeting.

Each fellow has lived that twenty years. With that in mind, in what sense would you say that Good Friend A has actually lived "less time?" Has Rovelli really explained that point, made it easy to understand? Or has he simply said that this is how we the people should talk if we want to sound just like Teechur?

A change in the speed of aging at different altitudes? Conceptually, that seems quite straightforward. But alas! All that talk about "less time" and "time moving faster" is not.

That said, reviewers will stand in line, as they always do, to say that The Order of Time is amazingly easy-to-understand. It's one of our liberal tribe's current group fictions! Following Arsenio Hall, it's one of those "things that make you go ooooh."

In truth, our badly floundering species just isn't amazingly sharp. We do in fact like to gossip a lot. We do fall in line behind Official Approved Tribal Stories.

According to Professor Harari, these traits were once highly adaptive. "Numerous studies" support this view.

Were these traits once highly adaptive? As we wait for Mister Trump's War, they don't seem that way now.

Tomorrow: Live and direct from page 12, what Rovelli says Einstein said!


  1. "Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate"

    No, Bob. Rumour-mongers are the ordinary people, you, and me, and everyone else.

    Priests are the original fourth estate. Priests, whose job was to justify the existing power structure.

    "As we wait for Mister Trump's War"

    When, Bob? I'm tired of waiting. Sure, had you managed to elect the psycho-witch, we would've had many, many exciting new wars already. And possibly a massive termonuclear one too. I can see how your zombie cult is thoroughly disappointed...

    1. Bill Clinton's two terms were characterized by uninterrupted peace and prosperity. What is the evidence Hillary's would have been any different? Our tragedy is that this election was stolen from the most competent candidate in American history.

    2. Priests were the first estate, Mao. Aristocrats were the second, and lay common people were the third. As journalists became influential, they were informally called the fourth estate.

    3. That would make rubbish trolls like Mao the fifth estate?

    4. Mao, you sound like a Goebbelsian idiot. Trump has plenty of time to start a war or wars - (not to say that he will, but it's too early to tell. There is some concern about Iran for example). Goebbels-like, over and over, you spout off that she is a "psycho witch." Absolutely no way of proving she would start any wards. We will never know, but there is no objective reason to believe such a thing would be more likely if she had won than is the case with who we got now.

    5. Mao,
      John "I Never Met A War I Wouldn't Send My Doorman's Kid To Fight" Bolton, sends his regards from the Trump Administration.

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  2. Leroy doubts that Somerby is doing harm. Take today's post as an example.

    First, Somerby is fundamentally anti-science. He accuses those who believe they understand Rovelli of parroting words in order to sound just like Teechur (can he be more derogatory toward his own profession?). Then he doubts Harari's statement that the function of gossip is supported by numerous studies, putting that claim in quote marks, as if it were not literally true or were some form of figurative language.

    Science rests of empirical evidence. It isn't about manufacturing theories. It is about collecting and organizing data, finding patterns and testing ideas about those patterns in experiments capable of shedding light on causality. There are indeed numerous studies about the value of gossip because psychology is a social science, emphasis on the word science. Its theories and its scientific consensus rest on empirical evidence, just as the findings of other scientists do. So why the scare quotes? Why the doubt? Has Somerby looked up anything in the literature to suggest there is a controversy about gossip? Or does he just find the suggestion specious because it disagrees with his own jaundiced view of humanity. It is fundamentally anti-scientific to place one's own beliefs above empirical findings (e.g., facts), choosing to disregard the latter. But that's exactly what Somerby does and it is as wrong to do this with respect to gossip as it is to do it with respect to climate change.

    Then he takes Harari's claim that gossip was the earliest form of journalism and acts as if Harari had said today's journalists were simply gossips, as if there has been no evolution of the profession, no change since hunter-gatherer times. But that is consistent with Somerby's prejudices. And you can see it irks him that Harari gives importance to the function of gossipers-journalists in early times. Instead, he insists there must be something wrong with gossip today, that whatever adaptive function it once had is now gone, ignoring that those numerous studies involve people today, not in the distant past.

    And his idiocy about Ivanka and Trump's "war". Scare-mongering at its finest. We liberals pretend to understand physics (science know-nothingism) while Rome burns.

    And Leroy asks why I hate this man! I devoted a career to the creation and dissemination of knowledge. He mocks that in every inch of today's post. He derides those who bring us information as journalists too, while providing nothing of value except nihilism. In service of what? I believe he is working extra hard these days to undermine Democratic values and political will, to permit Trump and his minions to do maximum damage, so that Bernie and his Bros can sweep clean come the revolution. What does Harari say about the various revolutions in the past? How many have made things better for the people? How many put a solid leader into power that improved lives and implemented sound reforms? I suggest only one, and that one is in jeopardy now.

    1. Once again, anon inverts Somerby. Since it has no name, I will name it Ebola (h/t Anthony Bourdain). Ebola, I don’t understand what you’re getting out of this. Me, I just enjoy the writing, from the host as well as the commenters. Perhaps you’re “getting your message out,” but to whom is a mystery. Dangerous? Bob?

      I haven’t the patience to point out your logical fallacies, because it doesn’t matter what I write, we’ll get another nearly incomprehensible screed. Now, if you really want to understand what’s going on, perhaps a bit of condensed history.



      P.S. You trolled me good, Ebola. G’bye.

    2. Are you seriously saying you can't participate in a blog community unless everyone else agrees with you?

    3. anon 12:55. You seem to be completely clueless.

  3. The search for Small goes on, eventually ending in an ant's nest. http://www.winnie-pooh.org/search-organdized.htm

    Rovelli would seem to be six years older than me. Had he grown up in America watching TV, he would have been trained so that when somebody said "The difference is small" to be part of an audience that asked the set up question "How small is it?"

    As in, what is the difference between Denver and Miami? I mean, we know the physical distance is about 16,000 giga-angstroms, but what is the time difference?

    I was going to note that the Swiss, living way up in the Alps, seem to be long lived, mentioning Maria Meyer who was born in Fajauna on 24 Jan 1695 and died on 23 Nov 1795 then the internet told me that Schiers is only about halfway between Miami and Denver in elevation.

    Little worse than seeing a beautiful theory destroyed by a barrage of cruel facts.

    1. What rubbish. You and Somerby deserve each other.

  4. Why is Somerby stuck in 1967 re-reading "36 Children" instead of reading something more current, such as Paul Tough's "Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why" which is about helping children who are poor and living in adversity?

    Those NAEP scores show that teachers have learned something in the decades since 1967. You'd think Somerby might want to know what it is that is different in today's classrooms.

  5. So is Rovelli's book the "worst book ever written" because it's poorly written, or because it accurately reflects the implications of Einstein's theories? Somerby seems to take issue with the notion that time passes differently in different frames of reference, such as mountain vs sea level, and that gravity affects its measurement in the way he postulates. (Given sufficient gravity, yes the two friends will have aged noticeably differently, and will not have counted the same elapsed time when coming together after a separation). Yes, this is difficult, because it takes us outside the realm of our everyday experience. The problem is, though, that Rovelli is describing in ordinary language the implications of Einstein's gravitational effect on time. This effect has been verified experimentally and is accounted for in everyday applications like GPS. I find it fascinating that, post-Einstein, physics forces us to think differently about our usual understandings of things like "time" and "space" and "motion", because many of Einstein's predictions have been proven. That fact is inescapable.

    Somerby has done a number of series of posts in the past where he tries to grapple with some "Einstein made easy" book, only to conclude it wasn't easy, and that the book was worthless. He is right that the concepts aren't easy or comfortable and seem to be counter-intuitive. Short of simply reading Einstein's original works though, how else can his work be presented to the public? Its implications are indeed unsettling.

    Somerby seems to be interested in this topic, but he always seems to end up closing his mind to the implications of relativity.

    1. You've completely missed the point - Somerby isn't doubting the science. He's making fun of the phenomenon where writers are alleged to have made these concepts "easy to understand".

    2. He is clearly doubting the stuff about gossip. Why else does he put Numerous Studies in quote marks with capital letters, and state that he disagrees gossip is adaptive? Or do you consider only physics science?

  6. Bob lounges in Starbucks Monday through Saturday, drinking expensive lattes, reading his two newspapers that he subscribes to, blogging, then watches cable TV at night, and blogs, accusing everyone else of being uncaring heels, then takes the train to his summer vacation, where he reads the books he has purchased. And all of this without obvious means of support. His privileged lifestyle contrasts rather starkly with those inner city black kids attending schools without heat in the winter, those black kids suffering under huge achievement gaps, many of whom don't know where their next meal is coming from, much less a $10 latte. They most likely don't find anything valuable in piffle like "The Order of Time."

  7. Why does Somerby think Ivanka's term will be truncated and not Trump's?

  8. If you've read two popularizations of relativity and you still don't get it, give up. This subject is not for you. Don't blame the authors.

  9. Here is how the other side thinks about recent events. They think Strozak smirks and looks creepy. They think Gowdy humiliated him. They think a disagreement between Lisa Page and Rosenstein makes Rosenstein a liar and they are calling for his impeachment. They think Guccifer is an American and the hacking was an inside job. They think phishing is OK, not really hacking. They think Rosenstein was trying to undermine Trump's meeting with Putin. There are lots of photos of Melania in a pretty dress. There is nothing about the mess he has made, his possible collusion, Russian wrongdoing, etc. Not one word. So where is the common ground upon which to meet these folks?

  10. Another post that goes on and on, and ends with a tease about getting to the point tomorrow.
    I get Harari's point about humans developing group fictions. At some subsequent time, presumably, humans started using fiction editors. Somersby hasn't evolved to that level yet. I wonder why.

    1. Let me free you from your great misery, Robert. Stop reading a blog you dislike and start reading one that you like better. If I didn’t enjoy Bob’s writing, I might write one negative post, then I’d disappear. For you and all the other ceaseless complainers about Bob’s posts, please recall that the internet is a big place. Why not find something you like better and move on? Do you really imagine anyone finds your crabby moonings valuable? Does the idea that Bob should seek out an editor for the writing he does on his own blog, where by definition he can say whatever he wants, whether you like it or not, really strike you as a helpful one?

  11. My name is Handford Ann,i base in canada.i want to share my wonderful testimony on how i got back my ex-lover of my life back, he left me for another woman for no reason and i try to make things work for both of us yet things where getting worse and i love him so much and there is nothing i could do to get my ex back until i met a testimony share by Maria from USA on the internet talking about a powerful spell caster who brought his ex lover back within 48hours and i decide to give it a try and to my greatest surprise he also did it for me just as he did for Maria and i have a lot of people complaining of fake spell caster but this one i met was a real spell caster who help me to solve my problem i have no solution to,i introduce many of my best friends that have a similar problems,and their problem were solve with the great help of Dr.Trust. They get back their ex within 48 hours. I am so happy that my ex is back to me again,and the most surprise,is that our love is very strong,every day is happiness and joy. and there is nothing like been with the man you love.i am so happy my love is back to me with the help of Dr.Trust. If you have any problem in your relationship i will advice you to contact him now (Ultimatespellcast@yahoo.com or Ultimatespellcast@gmail.com) His website for more testimony of him: http://utimatespellcast.blogspot.com Call or Text him now +1(317) 762-7416



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