On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s lovely essay in the New York Review of Books, “Chemical Warfare’s Home Front,” describes Fritz Haber’s contribution to the use of toxic gas in war.

Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine to suffocate all animal life – including soldiers – downwind of his nation’s troops. And his plan succeeded. After unleashing 300,000 pounds of chlorine gas, huge numbers of people died. Soldiers– some of whom suffocated, some whose lungs burned, some who committed suicide when enveloped by the gas – as well as horses, cows, chickens, wildlife.

Chemical warfare is horrible, but Haber’s battlefield “experiment” was considered a success. Military researchers then concocted more dangerous chemical agents, like DNA-crosslinking mustard gas and muscle-clenching Sarin nerve gas.

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Fritz Haber’s other ideas were seemingly more beneficial for humanity. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making synthetic fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizer let us grow more crops.

We could feed billions more people!

The global population soared.

If we hadn’t invented synthetic fertilizer, the global population would still be under four billion people.

Climate change would still be a huge problem – the most outrageous polluters haven’t been the most populous nations. Climate change was caused primarily by the United States and other wealthy nations, whereas overpopulation will first devastate equatorial nations.

A seemingly good idea – more fertilizer! – has greatly exacerbated the scale of suffering.

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Kolbert discusses the invention of chlorofluorocarbons, which seemed like great coolants. With CFCs, Frigidaire could build cheaper refrigerators! Regular families could keep their ice cream cold without spending as much on electricity.

Unfortunately, CFCs also dissolve our ozone layer. More dangerous ultraviolet radiation began to reach us from the sun, causing horrible skin cancers.

CFCs seemed like a good idea — they do work great as coolants — but they caused awful problems as part of a bigger system.

Kolbert quotes the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who said, in reference to his studies of CFCs, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”

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Anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued civilizations collapse when overwhelmed by complexity.

Like the children’s nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly — then a spider to catch the fly, then a cat to catch the spider — our complicated solutions can create new, perhaps worse, problems.

This is the theme of Jenny Kleeman’s Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Kleeman investigates several industries that purport to solve our world’s problems – You can eat meat without killing animals! You can make a baby without a mother’s body! – without addressing the fundamental causes of these problems.

Describing her travels, Kleeman writes:

I head back to my hotel as the reassuring cloak of darkness falls on Las Vegas. I’m exhausted. Music is thumping out of huge speakers mounted on the building’s exterior: throbbing, pounding beats that are supposed to entice gamblers into the hotel’s casino. I wipe my key card and flop down on the giant bed.

On the bedside table, there’s a metal dish full of individually wrapped pairs of earplugs: wax ones, foam ones, silicone ones – a profusion of solutions supplied by the management to the noise pollution problem caused by the management.

They could just switch the music off, of course, but they have provided a little piece of technology instead so they don’t have to.

My head is full of Eva, [a prototype interactive sex doll] who has the body of a real woman, but can be beaten without feeling a thing. Rather than dealing with the cause of a problem, we invent something to try to cancel it out.

Perhaps we should eat different foods. Perhaps our attitudes about sex or the importance of a sociable community are making our lives worse. Perhaps if we addressed these issues directly, we wouldn’t need sex robots or vegan meat.

Clean meat is one of many possible futures of food, so long as we continue to eat meat. We will always have the power to not want it anymore, or to want it much less.

That is where the real power lies: in harnessing our desires, rather than in mastering technology. Until we do, we will be even further removed from where our food comes from, and will feel even less responsible for it.

We will be perpetuating the kind of thinking that caused the meat mess in the first place.

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In April 2020, I described two major drawbacks to our efforts to “slow the spread” of Covid-19 instead of providing targeted protection for the people at high risk of severe illness.

1.) Immunity to most coronaviruses lapses within a matter of months. Keeping the virus in circulation longer increases the total number of infections and makes it more difficult to shield people at high risk from eventual exposure.

2.) Each infection encompasses some number of viral replications and thus genetic drift. If a population of 20 people transfers a virus between themselves one by one, rather than all catching it from the same initial carrier, the virus has 20-fold more generations to mutate and better evade our immune systems.

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Admittedly, my April 2020 prediction about the timeline for vaccine development was quite wrong – I thought this might take three to five years. I’m thankful that I was wrong. I’m obviously grateful for the fantastic work done by vaccine developers so far.

For these vaccines to effectively staunch viral transmission, we’ll need to vaccinate large numbers of people – immunity from prior infections won’t necessarily help much because immunity to this particular virus lapses so quickly, and because people’s prior infections were staggered in time. (Indeed, we’ll probably need to vaccinate large numbers of people repeatedly, because some of our data suggests that vaccine-derived immunity to this also lapses on a timescale of months.)

Unfortunately, we live in a country where large numbers of people distrust the medical establishment. Even if we had sufficient doses of the vaccines available today, I don’t know what percentage of our population would choose to get them.

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Masks definitely reduce viral transmission. It was obviously a good idea for everyone to wear masks anywhere that high risk and lower risk people share the same space.

Cooperation definitely makes for a better place to live. In places that enacted mask orders, it’s obviously a good idea to follow them.

It’s worth remembering, though, that any fix – even something as simple as this piece of cloth covering my nose and mouth – can have unintentional consequences. New virus variants – which our current vaccines may be less effective against – are a predictable result of our effort to “slow the spread” with masks.

And yet.

I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated. We’ve included a sheet of information about Covid-19 with each package recently, helping to explain that Covid-19 is not a hoax, that it’s a dangerous respiratory disease, that masks and social distancing can help people reduce their risk.

I’m currently revising this information sheet – it was put together months ago, when we understood less about this virus – and I’m still recommend that everyone wear masks.

Not just because prisons are places where many low risk and high risk people are confined together — although, they are. Outrageous sentencing practices have led to a large number of elderly people being stuck in prison.

But also, anecdotal evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 when they are exposed to a large number of viral particles at once.

Viruses reproduce exponentially – you can get sick if you inhale even one capsid. But you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you inhale a whole bunch of viral particles. If you’re initially exposed to a small number of particles, your body will have more time to fight off the infection before it makes you feel sick.

Research studies from military bases have shown that Covid-19 will continue to spread even when everyone wears masks and tries to stay six feet away from each other. But we haven’t tested – an experiment like this would be totally unethical – whether we’re more likely to see asymptomatic or mild cases when people’s initial exposure is to a small number of viral particles.

It’s quite likely, though.

So, although I think our efforts to “slow the spread” weren’t the best plan last year, I’ll still be recommending masks.

On Gamestop and counterfeiting.

On Gamestop and counterfeiting.

In high school economics, you may have learned that the Federal Reserve controls the money supply.

When inflation is low, the Fed prints money. They unleash this money by purchasing bonds. When people have more money, they’ll spend it, so inflation rises.

When inflation is too low, the Fed contracts the money supply. They sell bonds. Cash leaves circulation. With fewer dollars in hand, it’s more difficult for people to buy things, and inflation slows.

This is a nice theory. It’s logical and the math works well.

The only flaw is that it isn’t true.

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The Federal Reserve doesn’t control the money supply – banks do.

If you walk into a bank and apply for a loan, you might expect for them to check how much money they’re holding in deposits, how much money they’ve lent already, whether there’s any more on hand for you to borrow.

That won’t happen. They’ll investigate you, certainly, to assess whether you’re likely to default. But if they like the look of you, you can walk out of there with money.

The bank creates this money. They claim that it exists, and then it does.

I first learned about the distinction between who theoretically controls the money supply (the Federal Reserve!) and who actually controls it (banks!) from economic historian Robert Skidelsky in his book Money and Government.

Skidelsky includes an instructive quote from the investigative report Where Does Money Come From? by Josh Ryan-Collins, Tony Greenham, Richard Werner, and Andrew Jackson:

The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries.

This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.

Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions. This is unsustainable and costly to society.

As we were taught in high school, increases to the money supply accelerate economic activity.

And our economy is booming. But you might not have noticed. See, banks have been greatly expanding the money supply, but they’ve been injecting all that cash directly into the financial sector.

Investment banks, hedge funds, and the like have been blessed with easy money, and there’s been dramatic inflation in this segment of our economy.

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Brokerages lend stocks.

This is another way to create money – brokerages might lend more stocks than actually exist. At times, this may be inadvertent – if I own a stock, my brokerage can lend it to someone who’d like to short sell it.

When the short seller puts the stock up for sale – hoping to profit if the stock falls before they’re obliged to return it – someone who uses a different brokerage might buy it.

And then that brokerage might also lend it to a short seller – they have no way of knowing that this particular share has already been lent.

All this lending creates money – with each additional sale, the short seller is pulling the stock’s share price out of thin air, subject only to the contract with the brokerage that a share must be returned later – without anyone necessarily intending to break the law.

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When I read poetry with guys in jail, they’ll sometimes mention what they’re in for. Not everyone is telling the truth – according to police reports, somewhere near half are there on domestic assault charges, but out of some thousand men I’ve worked with, only three have said they were in on a domestic, and they all told elaborate stories to explain away the charges.

A guy said that his wife was all bruised because he had to resuscitate her from a medical emergency. Another guy told me that he and his girlfriend were “talking loudly,” some neighbor called the cops, and they saw him throw a towel at her. A third said they busted him for domestic violence after all he’d done was chuck a television at the wall (although this guy had been telling me for weeks that he was in on possession of marijuana).

My point being that I’m never quite sure how much credence to give these stories.

Still, I’ve worked with several guys who said they were doing time for increasing the money supply. In practical effect, what they’d done was the same as a bank lending money it doesn’t have – the money supply increases.

Here’s some money that previously didn’t exist, and there will be repercussions if an investigator can prove that it happened.

A guy was printing bills in his basement. Another passed bad checks. Somebody claimed he was there for credit fraud, but I doubt he was busted for the sort of thing the Russian hackers were doing, trawling the internet for unsecured connections – more likely, he’d lifted somebody’s wallet and got nabbed using their cards.

When individuals get caught at this, we bring the hammer down. Bad check guy caught four years (and the prosecutor was originally trying to get him to plea for twelve, he told me).

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The stock for Gamestop, in and of itself, is worth very little.

The company doesn’t pay a dividend. And the company is failing. They have to pay rent, they have to pay the salaries of living, breathing human employees. They have to maintain an inventory.

They depend on consumers’ willingness to get in the car, drive somewhere, and make eye contact with a living, breathing cashier in order to buy a thing.

But game systems can be bought online. The games themselves can be downloaded. The stylish figurines of people’s favorite characters are cool, and can presumably be sold at a markup in shops since they look more enticing in person than they would as tiny pixelated photos on a telephone screen, but these are heavy and bulky and awkward to ship to the store and keep on the shelves.

I agree with the hedge fund guys who think there’s a high probability that Gamestop was going out of business. That Gamestop might’ve gone under even without the Covid-19 pandemic, and that things look even worse now – the new Gamestop executive’s plans for bringing in money all relied on turning the shops into social spaces, but now nobody’s socializing, and certainly not inside small, poorly ventilated strip mall outlets.

Several hedge funds borrowed lots of shares of Gamestop and sold them, hoping that the price would fall before they were required to return them.

Their positions – short tens of millions of shares of Gamestop – were known. And so people intentionally raised the price of the stock.

The hedge funds were (and possibly still are) contractually obligated to return those shares to the brokerages that they were borrowed from. They’d have to buy shares even if the price became absurd.

So lots of regular people realized they could make a quick buck by buying the shares and then selling them to the hedge fund at a ransom price whenever their loans were up.

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And, yes, when people drove up the price of Gamestop to grift money out of the short-selling hedge funds, that was collusion. Which would be illegal if done in private, but I don’t think there’s any problem when it’s been done entirely on a public forum.

What the banks and brokerages have been doing – creating money by lending things that don’t exist – isn’t illegal. Perhaps it should be – the practical effect is the same as when somebody starts printing money in their basement – but it isn’t.

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If the hedge funds are contractually obligated to buy shares of Gamestop, then is this a good bet?

Should you jump in, too?

I don’t think so.

Please note that I’m not a particularly savvy investor – I’ve put my family’s money in Canadian agriculture, air conditioners, coolants, all sorts of things that will presumably accrue value if the planet Earth becomes less hospitable – nor have I studied contract law. I’m a trained economist and reasonably logical thinker, but not an expert.

I do own a single share of Gamestop – I bought it because I appreciated that people wanted to flip off the hedge funds – but, honestly, I don’t have much personal stake in this.

I do think that the financial sector has been creating large, needless drag on our economy. I’m vaguely anti-capitalist. I believe strongly in a global wealth tax and guaranteed basic income. So I’d like for the hedge funds to go bankrupt.

But I don’t think they will.

The hedge funds have contracts, but their contracts aren’t with me – even if they’ve borrowed my share of Gamestop, they didn’t borrow it from me, they borrowed it from my brokerage.

And my brokerage is run by some reasonable people wearing business suits. They know that the Gamestop company itself is troubled. They would probably rather have money than shares of GME.

I think it’s very risky to gamble on a contract between people who aren’t you. The signing parties of the contract could renegotiate it – as a bystander, I can’t influence their negotiations at all.

Still, there’s a chance that some of the short sellers will tank. So although I wouldn’t recommend buying a bunch of shares of GME, it seems prudent to convert some of your retirement savings to cash, just in case the short sellers have to unload a few of their long positions to cover and the prices of those shares fall. You might have a chance to buy other stocks at a discount soon.

Again, I’m not an expert, nor a savvy investor. That’s just what I’m doing.

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Usually, nobody notices when banks or brokerages create money. We simply assume that they have sufficient holdings to cover whatever they’re lending out.

They often create phantom shares of stocks, and then, when the short sellers resolve their contracts, the phantom shares blip back out of existence, leaving behind only some money – not coins or bills, mind you, but an increased number on a ledger – to indicate that they ever existed.

Account values are like the contrails in a bubble chamber that tell us whether elementary particles briefly existed after a high-energy collision between nuclei.

But Reddit readers’ collusion is causing the contrails to ossify. I don’t have a sell limit set for my single share of Gamestop. Millions of shares are held by people who think short selling ought to be illegal and are planning to let mounting interest payments undermine the hedge funds that were doing it.

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The turbulence here is obviously unrelated to Gamestop.

The issue isn’t even short sellers – financial markets are obviously irrational, but short selling does push stock prices toward fair valuations for their underlying companies. Which isn’t necessarily helpful, or sufficiently important that we, as a people, should reward the people who do it will millions of dollars.

And the issue isn’t hedge funds.

Rather, it’s whether we want a world that conforms to the fictions we teach in high school economics – the Federal Reserve controls the money supply! – or if we want the world we have now, where guys in my poetry class landed in jail for printing money in their basements but bankers and brokers are rewarded lavishly for printing money in their offices.

I’ve written about this previously, here and here, but the ramifications are much more visible now.

And I should mention that, although I think these behaviors ought to be illegal, I’m not saying that bankers have necessarily done anything wrong.

Brokerages, in this whole mess, presumably weren’t trying to break the law. Each brokerage may have thought they had real shares in hand when they lent them.

But they didn’t.

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As it happens, we could easily prevent situations like this from arising again.

I have a rather dour view of Bitcoins – they’ve not as anonymous as people think, and the system is incredibly wasteful, creating more greenhouse gases by design than other forms of currency – but blockchain technology would make the stock market less awful.

A blockchain is like a bunch of stickers plastered to the side of a suitcase – it’s an ordered list of where something has been. You could use blockchains to prevent food-borne illness – for each tomato used for ketchup, you could track its journey from fields to processing plants to restaurants. A blockchain is simply a long list of prior addresses.

With shares of stock, you could track whether that share has previously been lent to a short seller, preventing a single share to be lent twice – which is how brokerages inadvertently counterfeit shares – before the first contract has been resolved.

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The problem, of course, is that people who are currently wealthy benefit from being allowed to create money.

It’s convenient to own a money printer – you get to buy what you want and donate to charities and feel good about yourself.

And it’ll take a bit of work – not much work, as I described above – to shut the money printers down. Still, any effort at all is hard to muster when the people who currently have power would like to keep things as they are.

On hostage situations and jail.

On hostage situations and jail.

My family recently visited a state park for some hiking. I know that we are quite privileged to be able to do it, but visiting nature is really restorative right now.

At the end of the day, we sat near a firepit and roasted vegan marshmallows.

After a few minutes, a woman and her partner asked if they could join us. They sat on the other side of the fire, and we got to talking.

The woman used to work in special education, but now she teaches geography and world religions. She loves her work, because she helps students in her small Midwestern town realize how much possibility there is in our world.

Her partner works for the Department of Corrections as a hostage negotiator.

“In training, you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over. Like, hasn’t there been enough of this already? But then, when you have to use it, you hardly have to think about it, you know just what to do. All that repetition really pays off.”

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A few months earlier, several of the guys in our jail poetry class were talking about the drills they’ve been in.

“It was the scariest thing of my entire life. I knew it was just a drill, too. It was fucking terrifying. All these SWAT guys running in, screaming, they’ve got paintball guns, Get on the ground!, yelling, If you fucking move your ass is grass!”

“You’re lying there, face on the ground, can’t move, they might ziptie your hands behind your back, you can’t move for hours. I mean, I was lying there, just watching this puddle of piss spreading from the guy next to me. I fucking hated that guy right then. But he tried to hold it, I know he did. They had us lying there so long.”

“You tell a guard, I have to piss, he’s going to say, too fucking bad.

“You’re lying there smelling shit, because you know some guy shit himself.”

“You’re smelling shit like right away. They come in yelling like that, some guys shit themselves from fear.”

“I know! I’m that guy. I was so fucking scared.”

“Your on the ground, lying on your stomach on the ground, I mean, the ground is gross, right? You’re lying there with your face on the floor and your neck hurts and you want to like turn your neck, but you got this guy yelling, You so much as fucking move, your ass is grass. Like, it’s pathetic, but it hurts.

“Walked through this indoor rec later, paintball splatters all over the place. Like, fuck, what happened in here? Some guy in there, they must’ve lit him up.”

“I been through some rough shit in prison, but this one time, it was a piss-ant county jail, I was in the drill there. That was the worst. Like, there were only fifty guys in that place, what’s the big deal? But they came in there, boom, they fucking pepper sprayed us. For a drill.”

“I’ve watched guys die. But that shit, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”

I asked one of the guys, Jason, if he’d write about it.

“That’s something people should read,” I told him.

He shook his head.

“I’m trying to write, like, uplifting stuff. Help guys get on a better track, do better than what I done. This stuff … I don’t know. I don’t even really like talking about it. I don’t want to think about it enough to write it down.”

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Header image: cropped photograph of a Val Verde county (Texas) drill from the Laughlin Airforce Base. Most of the time, cameras aren’t allowed inside jails or prisons.

On gambling.

On gambling.

At about eleven a.m. on my birthday, I buckled the kids into the car to drive to our local print shop. Taking the kids with me for a fifteen minute errand seemed like a good gift for my spouse: she’d have some time in our house alone, which is rare to come by right now.

The print shop is just across the street from the (currently closed) services center for people experiencing homelessness, just down the street from the services center for people recently released from incarceration, a few blocks from the hospital. There’s a popular bus stop on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, a truck rental company has a large, mostly empty parking lot.

Large crowds of people have been hanging out near the print shop. Day and night.

I pulled into a shaded parking spot. We had the windows down. “I’ll just be a minute, can you sit in the car?” I asked.

The kids nodded, not looking up. A friend recently gave us a stack of Ranger Rick magazines, and we’ve been doling them out gradually for car rides.

I had my wallet in my pocket with a twenty and a ten, and we’d already been sent the bill for our print order. $20.49 for a stack of postcards to send to my spouse’s future AP biology students, explaining their summer assignment.

Normally she’d give kids a slip of paper with their assignment sometime during finals week, but this year had no finals. For many kids, no school.

But don’t worry. The assignment isn’t too bad. Students choose from a set of things like “fill an old sock with trash, bury it, then dig it up six weeks later” or “take a walk and look for things that match each of these different colors.”

I looked in the center console of the car for a pair of quarter. We keep them in a little pouch, ready to pay for parking. Haven’t been using them recently – the meters are still on, but there’d be nowhere to go after parking the car.

I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay in cash with exact change. The credit card company wouldn’t be taking a cut of the profits, and exact change would minimize the length of our transaction.

As I was zipping the pouch closed, a man ambled over. I’d guess he was a little over six feet tall, a little over two hundred pounds, with light brown skin, a buzzed head, and a bristly beard. He leaned down to the open passenger-side window and said something to me, but I couldn’t parse it – his words sounded mushy, thick with saliva.

“Hang on,” I said, “I’m hopping out of the car, let me come around.”

I walked around the back of the car, stopping a few feet away from him. He said the same thing again. I shrugged and shook my head. My brain takes a while to process spoken words, even under the best of circumstances. I can’t listen to audiobooks – whole chapters wash over me without any understanding. I can’t listen to podcasts – when people recommend them, I’ll search for a transcript, then read it and pretend that I too listened while riding an exercise bike or something.

By the fourth time he repeated himself, I understood him better. I think part of the problem was that he was speaking too quickly – almost everybody gets nervous when approaching a stranger.

I can relate. I doubt I’d ever be able to flirt with strangers in a bar.

“I like your hair,” he said. “I grew up in Gary, came down fifteen years ago for Indiana University, but I caught that bipolar. Just got out of the hospital, today’s my birthday, five twenty-six, and I just got out.

He still had a white plastic bracelet on his arm, which seemed to be printed with his name and age. He didn’t gesture to it or anything, which felt nice. As though the two of us would need no evidence to trust each other.

“Your birthday? How old are you?”

“Thirty-seven,” he said, without hesitation.

Indeed, the bracelet was printed with the number 37 in a fairly large font. But it seemed like this was a nice thing to ask.

“No shit,” I said, “thirty-seven. Same as me. Today’s my birthday, I just turned thirty-seven.”

“Naw, man, you’re shitting me.”

“It’s true.” I turned to the car, shouted to the kids, “Whose birthday is it today?”

The kids said something, but neither the man nor I could hear them. The crowd across the street was loud.

The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a jumble of stuff. Dice, some black beaded necklaces, a keychain, a tiny flashlight, nail clippers, a tube of toothpaste. He put the toothpaste back into his pocket.

“Don’t need this yet,” he mumbled.

“You got a toothbrush?” I asked. We actually have some spare ones in the car to give to people.

“Yeah,” he said, pulling out the green plastic handle of a toothbrush, “but I used that already. See these, my teeth so fucking white.”

He smiled for me and I nodded approvingly, murmuring that his teeth were indeed very white. A full smile. Several teeth were stained dark near the edges, but I’ve met lots of men with worse teeth than that.

“Hey, you paint your nails, too,” he said, noticing. “See this, look at this.” He reached out, his hands still full of stuff, to show me his fingers. They had tiny remnants of polish, pink on several but a pointer finger with a mix of red and black, just like I use on mine. My nails were barely even chipped, because I’d painted them the week before. I usually do them about once a month these days. Hard to find time for the little things since having kids.

“I got … here, how about this,” he said, handing me the nail clippers. “They good, they good ones, I haven’t even used them yet, they’re clean.”

As he spoke, spittle flew from his mouth. Luckily, I’m not much of a germophobe. Luckier still, I think I already had the disease that’s going around right now. Between a pair of kids in preschool, a spouse at the high school, and me teaching in jail, I catch most of the viruses that come through town.

I turned the clippers over in my hand. A large pair, space-age iridescent top glimmering in loops of purple and blue, big letters “Made in China” etched into the metal.

“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I like the look of that metal. But we’ve got so much stuff already. Meeting you, that’s present enough today.”

I handed the clippers back. As he took them, one of his dice tumbled from his hand. I bent down to pick it up, gave that back to him, too.

“You play craps?” he asked.

“Never have.”

“Hey, I’ll teach you. Come on, here, you gotta get a seven, eleven, don’t want snake eyes.” He bent down, blew on the dice, and rolled. A five and a six.

“Eleven, hey, that’s good,” he said. Then picked up the dice, blew on them again, and rolled. A two and a six.

“Eight. Now I got to roll an eight before I get a seven, see, that’s crap out.” And he rolled about four more times before he hit his seven.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said, and handed them to me.

I rolled, got a two and a four.

“That’s a six, that’s a hard one, got to roll a six again before you crap out.”

I rolled again, same two and a four. Maybe I didn’t shake the dice enough – they didn’t really tumble on the ground, they just sort of plopped down on the asphalt in front of me.

And I found myself thinking how strange it is that dice are a big thing for both the toughest and the wimpiest groups of people in town. Street people and folks in jail gamble with dice, and then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy buffs rolling 2d6 as they tell stories.

I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons is pretty big in some prisons, too. A few prisons have banned D&D or roleplaying books from being sent in – reputedly, people got killed over developments in their games. Somebody’s elf cleric was betrayed and a few days later guards found a body in the showers.

I don’t know how much truth there is to that. But, when people at those prisons ask for D&D books, I have to write an apology and send some fantasy novels instead.

I tried to give the dice back after rolling my second six, but he said I had to keep playing. “I got two, hey, you got to see where you go on this next roll.”

“Okay,” I said, “but then I got to pick up, my spouse is a high school teacher, she has this print order, some post cards to send to her students.” I gestured with my head toward the shop. And then I rolled.

An eight. Followed by a seven. I was done.

“Thanks for teaching me,” I said.

“And, hey, hey, I was thinking, for my birthday, you help me get something at Rally’s. I’m trying to get a pair of ice cones, for me and my girl.”

I gave a wan smile. Normally I don’t give money to people. It’s a tricky situation – people have things they need to buy, and even the chemical escape can seem necessary. My life is really good, and even I struggle with the sense of being trapped inside my head sometimes. And yet, I don’t really like the thought of my money being part of the whole cycle, keeping drugs in town. I’m even pro-drug, mostly, but meth and heroin typically do bad things to people’s lives.

A few days earlier, when I crossed paths with a friend from jail while my dog and I were out running, I’d asked if my friend was eating enough. He laughed at me and said, “Fuck, no!”

It’s true, I’m pretty bad at looking at people’s faces when I talk to them. When my friend started laughing, I finally met his eyes and realized how gaunt he looked.

“Is it a money problem, or …?”

“Oh, dude, don’t give me any money. I could eat, I think I can eat, I just don’t. You give me anything, I’d just spend it on meth.”

Instead of handing money to people on the street, we buy paper and pencils for folks in jail; we support our local food bank; we give time. Building human connection takes time, and there’s no shortcut.

Still, on my birthday, I was standing there in the print shop parking lot next to a man who’d just given me a present – nice nail clippers, even if I didn’t keep them. And we’d played craps. Maybe he’d won – I’m not sure what the rules are about draws. And I had a pair of quarters in my hand.

I’d hoped to have exact change. But I shrugged and gave him the quarters.

“Thanks, man,” he said, and I told him “Thanks for the game,” and walked over to ring the doorbell at the print shop, ready to pick up my order. The kids had been doing a great job of waiting patiently in the car.

On bias.

On bias.

At the beginning of our poetry class, back when the county jail was still admitting volunteers, two men read some poems they’d written together. 

The first was a love poem – the gist was that any relationship that could survive a partner’s incarceration could probably survive anything. 

The second was a poem about living in a trailer park:

If you’re looking for drugs – not just grass –

Depends where you look, you’ll pro’lly find glass

Pitbulls in the back

Nine times outta ten you’re already in a trap

As it happens, I already knew that one of the authors had a pack of five chihuahuas that road around town in his backpack.  After they finished reading, I mentioned the dogs.

The other guy answered: “Well, yeah, he has those chihuahuas, but I’ve got two pitpulls.”

After we finished talking about their poems, they had a question for me:

“Hey, so you’re a scientist, right?  Cause I heard there’s like this planet where diamonds rain from the sky.  Do you know anything about that?”

I said it sounded ridiculous.  I was imagining walking through a field and suddenly getting hit on the head by a diamond.  Like a really hard hailstone.

Whenever hail falls, my children dart outside to eat ice.  But a fallen diamond would break your teeth.  Doesn’t melt in your mouth or your hand!

During class, we spent a while talking about how diamonds form.  Under extremely high pressure, the hydrogen atoms in an organic molecule can be displaced by carbon-carbon bonds.  There are a few different shapes that work for a molecule made entirely of carbon.  You can have all the atoms in a flat sheet, which we call graphite.  The atoms can form spheres, which we can buckeyballs.  A length of graphite can wrap between the two round caps of a buckeyball.  Or you can have the atoms in a tetrahedral lattice – a diamond.

If you squeeze carbon atoms under really high pressure, you can turn any of the other shapes into diamonds.  Diamonds are the most stable form.  You can make diamonds just by compressing natural gas.

“This pencil, the part it writes with is graphite,” I said.  “If you were strong enough, you could squeeze it until it was a diamond.  But I don’t think they’d fall like rain.”

#

I was wrong.  I was biased about what planets should look like – I live on a small, rocky ball with a thin atmosphere, very different from the gas giants that broil like miniature stars – and biased, unfortunately, against the people who wind up in jail.  I study chemistry, I big expert!

Obviously, there are many occasions when the other people in class know things that I do not.  About poetry, chemistry, and physics.

#

Since 1981, computer models have shown that the extreme heat and pressure deep inside Neptune was likely to create diamonds.  If I’d ever taken an astronomy course – or had borrowed library books about our solar system when I was growing up, instead of reading the same book about Godzilla movies over and over – I could have known this, too.

The sky on Neptune is very different from the sky on Earth.  Our air hugs us with a pressure of about fifteen pounds per square inch.  Deep inside the clouds of Neptune, though, the air would squeeze you six million times tighter.  Needless to say, you’d be crushed.  Parts of you might compress into diamond. 

Temperature is a measure of how fast molecules are moving.  Hot air bumps into you more often than cold air, and each collision is a little harder.

Deep in the clouds of Neptune, the gravity is so strong that air molecules accelerate dangerously fast between every collision.  This means the air is really, really hot – thousands of degrees.  Any parts of you that weren’t being compressed into diamond would melt, or wisp away into the broiling clouds.

The high temperature means there’s plenty of energy available for chemical reactions, so molecules can adopt their most stable configurations even if there is a high “activation barrier.” 

An activation barrier is like a wall that separates a thing from what it wants.  Maybe you’d like to eat breakfast but dread the thought of leaving your warm bed – that’s an activation barrier, too.  We could make the activation barrier lower by yanking your blankets off, which makes your current circumstance worse.  Or we could increase your odds of overcoming the activation barrier by pumping you full of caffeine.  With more jittery energy, maybe you’d get up on your own. 

The second strategy – caffeine! – is roughly what happens when you raise the temperature of a chemical reaction.  Carbon is very stable once it becomes a diamond, but it’s difficult for methane to slough off the warm security of all those bonds to hydrogen atoms.

After methane on Neptune is compressed to form a diamond, the diamond will fall.  A diamond is more dense than the air around it.  But the diamond won’t hit the ground like hail, because there’s no ground beneath the hot dense sky of Neptune.  Instead the rocky core seems to be covered by a superheated ocean – well above its boiling point, but still not evaporating because the liquid is kept in place by dense clouds.  Roughly the same way an Instant Pot uses high pressure to cook food in superheated water.

When the diamonds splash into this ocean, they melt.

#

In class that day, I hadn’t yet researched Neptune’s atmosphere. I was mostly scribbling crude schematics of crystal structures. I explained how to read a phase diagram.  We talked about diamond mining and the technology used to create synthetics.

I claimed, incorrectly, that diamonds weren’t likely to fall from the sky.

One of the guys shook his head.

“I mean, yeah, that sounds all smart and all, but I swear I heard this thing about diamond rain.  Can you look it up before next week?”

The guys in jail can pay to use iPads – at a rate of five or ten cents per minute – but they have very limited access to the Internet.  There’s one un-blocked application with some scientific lectures, but that’s very different from being allowed to learn what you want.

So I agreed.  It sounded ridiculous to me, but I jotted “SKY DIAMONDS?” and promised to do some research.

#

The next week, I was ready to deliver my big mea culpa.  But when I got there, we were missing one of the guys who’d been invested in our discussion.  I asked about him.

“Yeah, he’s not coming back,” said the guy sitting next to me.  “Somebody said he was a cho-mo.”

“Oh,” I said, grimacing.  “He went to seg?”

“Yeah,” said the guy, nodding. We left unsaid that this man probably got the shit kicked out of him first.  If somebody convincingly claims that you’re locked up on a child molestation case, bad things happen.  In prison, you might get murdered by a gang looking to bolster their reputation – because child molesters have such a toxic reputation, there are less likely to be reprisals.  And even a county jail can be a violent place.

After the first fight, the guy who got beaten up will usually choose to go to seg.  Segregation, or solitary confinement, is known to cause permanent brain damage – people suffer from depression, anxiety, and hallucinations.  But staying in a cell block with thirty people who want to kick the shit out of you is likely to lead to brain damage, too.

Solitary confinement might be the less bad of two terrible options.

Despite his bias, the guy I was talking to offered a little sympathy.

“It’s rough,” he said.  “But them’s the politics of the place.”

On currency, again

On currency, again

At the beginning of our poetry class in jail, I walked around the room to give the printed poems to people.  I noticed that somebody was working on an elaborate Valentine’s Day card.  (The date was February 28th.)

“Oh, cool,” I said, “did you draw that?”

“Naw,” he said.  “I commissioned it and all, though.  Designed it.  Cost me two Honey Buns.  Check it out.”

He waved me in to see the card up close.  The front had a red rose with marijuana leaves sprouting from its stem.  The poem he’d written inside began:

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

If you were a blunt

I’d smoke you too …  

“Cost me two Honey Buns each time,” he said.  “They shredded my first.  I mailed it out, but they said I addressed it wrong, said I wasn’t, what’s that thing, no money on your books … ?”

“Indigent mail,” somebody told him.

“Yeah, said I wasn’t indigent, so they shredded it.  Now I’ve gotta send another one.”

#

Another time, somebody explained the booms and busts of the economy in jail. 

In the world at large, the business cycle typically lasts about five to seven years – the economy will rhythmically surge and then contract.  This is bad news for the unlucky cohorts who begin their careers during the cyclical recessions – these people typically have lower earnings over their entire lifetimes – but because the cycles are so predictable, central banks are supposed mitigate the downswings.

The Forces of the Business Cycle. From _Some problems in current economics_ by Malcolm Churchill Rorty, AW Shaw Company, 1922.

In jail, the business cycle lasts a week.

“We get commissary on Friday, so every Friday, people have coffee again, we all drink too much.  People pay off their debts … or you get an asshole who racked up a bunch of debt then goes to seg on Thursday, tells the guards he’s hearing voices.”

“But near the end of the week, Wednesday or something, people are running out, so coffee gets more expensive.  You got to pay a bunch of interest if you’re trying to get coffee from somebody.”

“Worst is you get here near the end of a week.  Cause even if somebody puts money on your books, it’ll take a while before they add your name to the list and you can get commissary.  So you’re getting everything on credit, people bleed you dry.”

#

In Money and Government, Robert Skidelisky addresses common misconceptions about the economy.

Many people are aware that the central bank has a mandate to “control inflation.”  This is very important to political donors – low inflation benefits people who already have wealth, at the expense of current workers.

But most people – including professional economists – think that the central bank controls inflation by manipulating the money supply.  This misconception might be a holdover from ancient history.  Long ago, only sovereigns could create money.  Kings and pretenders would mint coins as a way to flaunt their power.  And they’d unleash their full wrath upon interlopers.

The central bank is a little different.

If there’s too much money, which would cause prices to rise, the central bank is supposed to yank money out of the economy by selling bonds.  If there is too little money, the central bank is supposed to print more.

The central bank attempts to control the money supply this way.

At the same time, other banks are lending money.  If you decide to buy a house, you won’t call up the federal reserve – you’ll probably visit a few banks around town and apply for a mortgage.

Because most money doesn’t exist – it’s just a tally of credits and debits maintained on a server somewhere – a bank that gives you a loan is creating money. Modern banks don’t actually check whether they have money before they lend it to you.

Skidelsky includes a quote from Where Does Money Come From? by Ryan-Collins et al.:

The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries.  This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.

Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions.  This is unsustainable and costly to society.

Inflation has stayed low, because the amount of money available for purchasing real things hasn’t grown much.  Low inflation means that if people took on debt to go to college, that debt is often still hanging over them years later – inflation would make it easier to clear debt, because employers would respond to inflation by raising salaries.  The amount of debt relative to a week’s pay would fall.

Instead, the money supply in only one corner of our economy has ballooned, producing a flurry of destructive activity in the financial sector.

This has been lucrative for people willing to work in finance, though.

Skidelsky explains that:

The economic collapse of 2008-2009 showed that monetary policy directed to the single aim of price stability was not enough either to maintain economic stability or to restore it.  The economy collapsed, though the price level was stable.

Preventing a collapse in the money supply was to be achieved by what was euphemistically called ‘unconventional’ monetary policy: pump enough cash into the economy and the extra spending it produced would soon lift it out of the doldrums.

As it happens, the method that the central bank chose to inject money into the economy was perversely ineffectual.  The central bank gave money to wealthy people.

One strategy was “quantitative easing.”  The central bank paid people above-market-rate for low-quality financial assets. 

This helped the people who owned these particular low-quality financial assets – typically foolish wealthy people.  They should’ve lost a bunch of money.  They’d bought junk! But they didn’t, because the central bank stepped in to save the day.

Our central bank also fulfilled a small set of private companies’ insurance policies.  The corporations who bought absurd insurance from AIG should have lost all their money when AIG, unsurprisingly, was unable to fulfill their policies. 

If you’re in a high school cafeteria and somebody says, “I bet you a million dollars that …”, you shouldn’t expect the kid to pay up for losing the bet.  But our central bank intervened, giving huge amounts of money to destructive corporations like Goldman Sachs, because it wouldn’t be fair for them to win a bet and then not get the money (even though they’d been betting with a kid who obviously didn’t have a million dollars to pay). 

CODEPINK protests the AIG bailout bonuses in Los Angeles, 2009.

And yet, these tactics didn’t stave off financial recession.  Since the central bank only gave money to wealthy people, these recipients of our government’s largess had no incentive to actually spend the money. 

The main effect of the central bank’s reliance on “portfolio rebalancing” to boost output was to boost the portfolios of the wealthy, with minimal effects on output.  One doesn’t need headwinds to explain why.

#

“There’s a lot you can get in jail.  There were a couple years when people had all this spice, but they cracked down on that.  Still, you can get a blowjob for a couple Honey Buns, some guys will give you a stick for a soup … “

“What’s a stick?” I asked.  My initial assumptions were that it was either something sexual or drug-related, both of which turned out to be wrong.  A single soup would be pretty low to pay for drugs – soups are worth less than Honey Buns.

“Hey, ________, show him.”

A guy pulled down the front of his orange jumpsuit.  In gothic letters arcing across his chest, he had the words “WHITE TRASH.”  The skin around the letters was an agitated red.

“People think you need pens and ink for tats,” somebody said, “but most guys just use a staple and some burnt hair grease … “

The most popular black pigment for oil paints and acrylics is made of charred animal bones.  The calcium phosphate from bones is pale – the deep black color comes from carbon.  When you burn organic material, you’ll make buckyballs – small spheres of carbon like hollow soccer balls – as well as tubes of graphite.  And these molecules have high absorption across the visible spectrum.

Image of carbon allotropes by Michael Ströck.

Whenever a photon of visible light hits one of these molecules, the light is absorbed.  This causes an electronic transition.  But then the physical shape of the molecule doesn’t match its electronic structure, so the molecule begins to vibrate. 

By the time the molecule collapses back to its initial electronic structure – which ejects a photon – some of the energy that the molecule absorbed has been used up by vibrations.  So the outgoing photon will have lower energy.  It’ll be “infrared radiation,” which we can’t see.  So, colored light goes in, and then invisible light comes out – to us, it looks black.

Still, I hadn’t considered that you could burn the gunk that gathers on unwashed hair in order to make tattoo ink. Despite the brutal efforts of our government, people find ways to live even while incarcerated.

As in the world at large, many transactions in jail are made with hard currency.  If something costs a Honey Bun and two soups, you might be expected to hand over the food.  Sometimes, currency actually exists.

But people can create money, too. 

“Thanks, I owe you one.”

With those words, we gain the power of medieval kings.

.

Featured image by Andrew Magill on Flickr.

On the sacred.

On the sacred.

In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana.  We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.  Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.  But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.

The guys asked me when these experiments had happened. 

“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.

“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then!  Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard.  Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”

I was shaking my head.  “Five pounds?  The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California.  Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”

“Two hundred dollars?  You got ripped off!”

I laughed.  “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”

“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”

I demurred.  “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”

The guy’s face fell.  The room grew silent.  Until somebody shouted, “Oregano?  He just called you a major asshole!”

I felt pretty bad.  I’d really hurt his feelings.

#

As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.

Unsuccessfully.  Possibly by accident.  But still.

There was a dropped wallet.  His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes.  Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through.  Then an arrest.

That whole episode transpired almost three years ago.  But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.

The guy has been in my class several times before.  I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street.  Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.

#

Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me.  He said he hadn’t known whose card it was.  I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse.  Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.

Money isn’t sacred.

Photo by Todd Huffman on Flickr.

I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other.  The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings.  Money comes and money goes.  It’s just paper.  Or less: numbers inside a machine.

That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank.  We scan a card and the value of our account goes down.  Nothing physically happens.

Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.

#

But passing off drugs as something they’re not?  That violates something sacred.  Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.

You don’t have to be honest all the time.  You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers.  That’s all harmless talk.  Passing the time, shooting the shit.

If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test.  Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it.  For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.

When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt.  If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope.  Not pot dipped in embalming fluid.  Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.

I won’t tell another joke about oregano.

Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges.  But one really rankles him:

“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice?  The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me!  They put my picture on Fox News.  I was so fucking pissed!  I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”

On smuggling.

On smuggling.

While I was working in a research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for a package from ________.

“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog.  Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”

“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump.  “Which trash can?!” 

She and John rooted through the garbage together.  Luckily the package had arrived that day.  The now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.

We didn’t need another Invitrogen catalog.  But it’s illegal to ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto paper then circling the spot.  When you receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add bacteria.

The bacteria make more copies of your DNA.  Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping.  And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.

Then you can throw out the useless catalog.


I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade.  We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived.  Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages.  Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash.  Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.

Usually, the administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few years of phone calls.  During one such frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.

Sympathy for the Devil

I am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from

others’ pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:

we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.

Words might salve even the poor, so we send free

books to inmates. At one prison, packages never

arrived. We called & were told we impregnated

literature with suboxone. We lacked both will &

way: we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &

yellow; no one would read. Later I heard the state

was shunting sex criminals there. Books were

a privilege, underhandedly revoked.

                                                               Gangs rule

inside: Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland

Disciples for black men. We are free to believe in

post-racial America: in prison, meals might mean

a stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.

Some men take two. Others will go hungry. The

ache of want sends us seeking for what symbols

of solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the

world.

             AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap

cushy jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.

At the prison binning our books, gang & guards

were very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,

shields & shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So

they were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.

A guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone

lies, asked why he’s doing time – and members

murder him in the shower.  They look tougher

than they are.

                         A dozen deaths. No indictments.

Activists began to smuggle phones, hoping to

document abuse. That’s when our packages ceased

to be received.

                           I’ve no deep love for these men –

friends of mine were abused.  But if those who molest

should be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries

to say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.

We should say what we mean:

I sentence you to a cruel and unusual death.  It will

come suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-

head slamming your head against the tile until your

bruised brain ruptures from repeated trauma.  Your

eyes will loosen from their sockets, your skull will

crack, blood will whelm through your nostrils.  In a

final indignity, bowels relax.  You will know the brief

hell of hoping to live when you cannot.  Your limp

body will drop while the water runs, cascading over

your corpse.  Although news of your death will not

reach those who sentenced you, they will know that

justice has been done.


Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison.  I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street.  Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison.  In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.

The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though.  We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in.  And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags!  I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive.  Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.

I understand why prison administrators worry, though.  Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.

Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us.  Which is sad.  From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally.  We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.

From a health and safety perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from out of state.  Then they can feel more confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the inmates. 

The recipients would be like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an Invitrogen catalog?  We don’t need that! 

Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!

Prison administrators have good reason to keep drugs out.  People’s tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and die.  Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on D&D.

 Of course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent & PTSD-inducing.  Prisons like we have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all.  And then organizations like Pages to Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

Because we’d had a difficult class the week before, I arrived at jail with a set of risqué poetry to read.  We discussed poems like Allison Joseph’s “Flirtation,” Galway Kinnel’s “Last Gods,” and Jennifer Minniti-Shippey’s “Planning the Seduction of a Somewhat Famous Poet.”

Our most interesting conversation followed Constantine Cavafy’s “Body, Remember,” translated by Aliki Barnstone.  This is not just a gorgeous, sensual poem (although it is that).  Cavafy also conveys an intriguing idea about memory and recovery.

The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.

“Rumpled Mattress” by Alex D. Stewart on Flickr.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only the beds on which you lay,

A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present.  Our gratitude should encompass more, though.  We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,

but also those desires for you

that glowed plainly in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice – and some

chance obstacle made futile.

In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs.  These could be many things.  On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance.  In another lifetime.  Another world, perhaps.

Missed Connection 1 by Cully on Flickr.

But we have the potential for so many glories.  In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game.  If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.

Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t.  In the present, we try our best.  But our present slides inexorably into the past.  And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.

Now that all of them belong to the past,

it almost seems as if you had yielded

to those desires – how they glowed,

remember, in the eyes gazing at you;

how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

Consciousness is such a strange contraption.  Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment.  The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction. 

Brain nebula by Ivan on Flickr.

A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis.  This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind.  The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world.  It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.

And then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged.  The Boltzmann brain would vanish.  The self-perceiving entity would end.

Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t.  A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant.  And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.

Past success makes future success come easier.  If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future.  If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time. 

Our triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to remember.  If our life will be improved by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy?  “It almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires.”  The glow, the gaze: remember, body.

In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse.  Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.

We all need to know that we are fallible.  Our brains are made of squishy goo.  The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat.  Only the patterns are important.  Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.

As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure.  We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose.  As we live, we grow.  A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.

I imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never been, the sort of person who would assault a woman.  He surely believes that he would never thrust his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand.  And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current behavior is improved by this belief.  In his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve, rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record of consensus reality.

The main problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power.  In his personal life, he should preserve the mutable memories that help him to be good.  No matter how inaccurate they might be.

In public life, however, consensus reality matters.  Personally, I will have difficulty respecting the court rulings of a person who behaved this way.  Especially since his behavior toward women continued such that law professors would advise their female students to cultivate a particular “look” in order to clerk for Kavanaugh’s office.

The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights.  Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.

And, for someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to preserve a lingering memory of past sins.  I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to preserve.  But I would hope that he remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while intoxicated.

Episodic memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol.  When I discuss drug use with people in jail, I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization.  I think that people should be allowed to manipulate their own minds.

But certain people should not take certain drugs. 

Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin.  And I was handed more at college parties.  But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.

Some people really like opiates, though.  Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.

Brett Kavanaugh likes beer.  Sadly, he’s the sort of person who shouldn’t drink it.

Honestly, though, his life would not be that much worse without it.  Beer changes how your brain works in the now.  For an hour or two, your perception of the world is different.  Then that sensation, like any other, slides into the past.

But, whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of (mis)remembrance.

On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.