The Moundbuilders of the Eastern Woodlands

The so-called “moundbuilders” of the Eastern Woodlands in the present-day United States were among the most complex cultures of pre-European societies. Yet growing archeological evidence remains under-recognized in American life.

That’s from anthropologist George Milner’s 2005 book “The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America.”

I’ve read about an array of Amerindian communities, but the moundbuilders, which appeared to be densely populated from Ohio down to Louisana, mostly west of the Appalachian mountains and east of the Mississippi River, especially interest me. This is the first book I read dedicated to this civilization, though they get referenced often in other places. Below I share some notes for my future reference.

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Quantum Supremacy by Michio Kaku

Newtonian physics works for most of our everyday experiences. But for the biggest systems we encounter, we need Einstein’s theories of relativity to make sense of spacetime.

Neither, nor does our own intuitive understanding of the world, work at the smallest scale we understand. This is the quantum level, where electrons can be at two places at the same time, transmit information faster than speed of light and instantly analyze infinite paths between two points.

As Danish physicist and Nobel laureate Neils Bohr (1885-1962) wrote: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it.”

And much like we didn’t understand all the ramifications of the atomic age before we developed nuclear weapons, governments and companies are busy investing in the military and commercial implications of the potentially radical advancement in quantum computing.

That’s the timing from prominent physicist and science communicator Michio Kaku in his 2023 book “Quantum Supremacy: How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything.”

By no means exhaustive, I picked up the book for a primer on the technology my work overlaps with. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Tabula Rasa: John McPhee

Retirement projects are completed as a final act. Better to let them linger.

And yet, last year, celebrated longform writer John McPhee, who has published dozens of books and hundreds of articles for New Yorker, published his retirement project: Tabula Rasa, a collection of essays that chronicle stories he never completed.

Contrary to most of my reading of late, I didn’t take many notes. The whole book reads as a light treatise on life, with his wit and wording. A few points that stood out to me now:

  • From Draft No 4: “Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title, with one of their own, is like a photo of a tourist head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong”
  • In 1967, he published a book on and called Oranges, which came to define his style: irreverent longform that dabbled in reportage and writerly cultural assessment
  • He developed a friendship with Bill Bradley, after writing a celebrated New Yorker profile and follow-on book
  • Of pharma copywriters, he notes: They create catchy brand names and unnecessarily complicated generic names so it’s harder to market after a patent expires

Philadelphia’s 1844 Nativist Riots: Ken Milano

My bicycle commute from where in live in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood to my office in Old City runs down Kensington Second Street. Little sign remains of the violent riots that took place there 180 years ago between Irish immigrants and so-called nativists in 1844.

Fittingly, Philadelphia’s riots are quietly forgotten, while similarly-timed violence in New York City was turned into a book and then a 2002 movie called Gangs of New York. Sparked from a dispute around bibles in schools, a few dozen people died and perhaps hundreds were wounded in the most intense few days that May.

That’s the focus of the 2013 book The Philadelphia Nativist Riots: Irish Kensington Erupts, written by local historian Ken Milano. I’ve read Ken’s other books — and exchanged a few emails with him through the years. I appreciate his thorough and thoughtful approach, so I have most of his books in my collection, and have gifted them to friends. I only now read this one. Pick up a copy yourself.

The riots had a real impact. Milano argues that the riots contributed to the 1854 consolidation, in which Philadelphia city (and its law enforcement system) annexed surrounding counties, inspired the development of the parochial school system and was directly responsible for the founding of La Salle College, which was originally located across the street from where a church was burned.

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Dawn of Everything: how to understand the origins of inequality

Any complex society requires a state, and so any society that doesn’t have a state must not be complex. This circular logic doesn’t hold against the archeological and anthropological record. Mesoamerica, Crete and certain Mongolian periods aren’t exceptions but examples of alternative ways to structure societies in which we ought to listen.

That’s the broadest thrust of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a sprawling and intellectually ambitious 2021 book by anthropologist and activist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. I took most of a month digging through it.

The authors finished the book in August 2020, and sadly Graeber, radical coiner of the slogan “We are the 99 percent” and author of Bullshit Jobs, died a month later due to complications between pancreatis and the covid-19 pandemic.

The 600-page book started as a project to answer where inequality comes from. In the end, the pair aimed to complicate any narrative we have about how societies got structured the way they are. For example, they argue the transition to agriculture was no revolution, but a transition that took thousands of years, and may have finished more because of ecological change than anything. The post Ice Age-thaw slowed and climates stabilized, resulting in less glacial melting and rivers shifting, some 7,000 years ago, after many urban centers had formed. As they conclude: “Extensive agriculture may thus have been an outcome, not a cause, of urbanization.”

Whatever the case, the pair want much more variety in how we all can choose to live. Get the book, it’s a thinker. Below I share my (excessive) notes for my future reference.

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When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic

Kids who graduates with high marks at high-achieving schools were later put into a high-risk category for mental health disorders.

Something felt off, so journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace wrote ” “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-and What We Can Do About It.”

I read it as a parent, so my notes are scant but the point is clear: Pushing kids for academic achievements can reverse course years later. Better to encourage a healthy and happy relationship with learning. Trouble is that short-term outcomes look good for pushing kids — grades go up — but on the longtail, they’re less happy.

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Born in Blackness by Howard W. French

The so-called Age of Exploration wasn’t driven by Europeans chasing goods from Asia, a continent with which they had tied for centuries. European developed modern navigation and empire-making in pursuit of the gold-rich African empires that were beginning to open.

That set off the last 400 years of history, including the modern, caste-making of race, simplifying all African peoples into a single “black” category. That’s from the 2021 book by longtime journalist Howard W. French called “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.” (A review here)

Below find my notes for future reference. I didn’t take as thorough notes as I often do because I found myself reading with a near-toddler but it’s a start.

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Simon Sinek’s Infinite Game

Most games have fixed rules and clear ends — the sports and activities we associate with play. Other games have the single goal of keeping in the game — war, politics and life being the most prominent.

That’s a framework first established in a 1986 book by academic James P. Carse (1932-2020), and reinterpreted by The Infinite Game, a 2019 book by consultant, speaker and business-book author Simon Sinek. Sinek turned it into a business book bestseller.

His version references Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Starbucks and other popular big consumer brands because that’s what all these books do. There’s some nice framing but on the whole it reads like an audition for Sinek’s next speaking or consulting gig.

Below I share my notes for future reference

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The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World

In the 1798, English economist Thomas Malthus described a common phenomenon: successful societies tended to increase their populations until food systems couldn’t keep, triggering population collapse.

He correctly described much of recorded history before him. Ironically though, just as he was writing, the first few rich states were escaping the “Malthusian trap” with the rapid improvement in food production efficiency. For the next two centuries, successive waves of countries beat the trap, and saw their populations soar. Only now do demographers look out into the future and expect population decline by 2100, thanks to slowing birth rates.

The remarkable acceleration and now deceleration of population growth is the human tide that is described in the 2019 book by demographer Paul Morland called “The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World.” I’m fixated by how big global trends like these shape empire, and Morland’s book does a fine job explaining the trend. I recommend it. Below I share my notes

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What do we do with the art of monstrous men? Whatever you need to do with it

Consuming a piece of art is the collision of two biographies: the artist who can shape the viewing and the consumer who views. This makes evaluating art created by people who have done heinous things in their personal lives especially subjective.

Hemingway and Picasso, both of whom were especially cruel and vicious to the women in their lives, are the 20th century icons of this tricky question. Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn wrote that the great artist needn’t be a monster but rather monsters can only hide behind art: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

In the end, which art we set aside, and which we can still enjoy is up to the viewer, and the time period. (Chuck Klosterman writes about how art is reinterpreted by each new generation). Admittedly, if you have the choice of hiring or elevating a creative today who is cruel, you might choose differently. But in terms of consumption, well, that’s up to you.

“The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.” Or so argues culture critic and essayist Claire Dederer in her book from this spring called Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.

I first came across Claire and her writing in her 2017 essay “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” It seems to me one of the defining questions of the last few years, so I appreciate the effort she put into shaping mine and other’s perspectives. I recommend it. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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