Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation

This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at

The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

Duck-Rabbit Duality

Duck-Rabbit Duality

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The Political Hangover of Prohibition

This is a guest post by Craig Roche, a data scientist and artisanal landlord.

Whiskey is very easy to make.  Farmers used to make it at home using their crops, and Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on home-distilled ethanol.  George Washington distilled 55,000 bottles/year when he retired from being President. Even the mutineers from the Bounty set up a still on Pitcairn Island, and proceeded to get rip-roaringly drunk for weeks at a time. Whiskey is also very cheap to produce;  a bushel of corn ($5 or so), plus 60 cents worth of natural gas can produce 11 liters of automobile-grade ethanol, which, when suitably diluted and aged for drinking purposes, can fill 35 bottles.  Whiskey for human consumption requires higher-quality inputs, more energy for multiple distillations, and additional handling, but even so, decent hooch can be produced for less than $2/bottle. In the 1830s, the equivalent of a bottle of whiskey went for about $5, and Americans responded by guzzling roughly one each week per capita; as young children generally abstained, actual drinkers drank substantially more, all of which was tax-free.

If we assume that the desire to drink, especially among the poor, is an important motivation in peoples’ lives, you would expect alcohol markets to shed light on political conditions across states.

Jack Daniels is the world’s most popular brand of whiskey, and is widely distributed in every state in the US in a standard 750ml container; it is produced fairly close to the mean center of US population, so it should therefore work as a good lens on alcohol politics. Left to a free market, one would reasonably expect that the cost of a retailed bottle would vary with transportation costs, and somewhat with labor rates, or alternatively, that lower-income consumers would spend about the same fraction of their income on Jack Daniels across the USA, or in other words, that the working time per bottle would be constant.

To test this, I researched the cost of a standard bottle of Jack Daniels in each of the states at a high-volume liquor store in the largest city in each state, and compared it to the average wage at the 25th percentile:


Figure 1: Labor Cost of Jack Daniels (Image source: Craig Roche)

The results were not what I expected. It turns out that the constant-working-time-per-bottle hypothesis is not even close.

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Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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Cognitive Archeology of the West

This is a guest post by Paula Hay 

Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.

My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.

Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?

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King Gustavus’ Folly: The Story of the Vasa

Guest post by Jim Anderson

In my life, new product ideas are always showing up. However, whether we’re talking about new products or just new ideas, if too many people get involved in making them “better”, the whole thing can fall apart. Perhaps a story would help me to make my point.

(This is a guest post by Jim Anderson of Blue Elephant Consulting. Click here if you are interested in guest posting.)

My favorite story of what can happen when you let too many other people get involved in designing a solution has to do with a boat. Maybe I should say this more clearly: it has to do with a ship that was created a long time ago in Sweden.

(Picture by Javier Kohen, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

Serious Games for Serious Business

This is a guest post by Marigo Raftapoulus

Gaming technology, interactive media, digital entertainment and knowledge industries are converging to create new forms of learning. Learning 2.0, in the form of ‘serious games,’ allows people to learn new skills and experiment with different strategies in ‘safe-fail’ environments. Serious games build in safe-fail experimentation based on the premise that through failure we learn more about the problem that we want to solve through adaptive learning. In contrast, ‘fail-safe’ environments tend to stifle experimentation and innovation through an ensuing ‘fear of failure’ culture that tends to develop in such environments.

So what does a serious game look like? Check out this demo for a game designed to train emergency response paramedics in case of a terrorist attack (warning! Scenes are bloody).

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How Geniuses Think

Guest post by Michael Michalko

How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, da Vincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

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