A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

I recently discovered Yuval Harari’s book, “Sapiens”, which was first published in 2014. It is an ambitious book, attempting as it does to summarise the whole history of the human race in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious in this kind of enterprise there are going to be some oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations, and that’s certainly what happens. I also thought, starting the book, that his aim was simply to describe the history of the human animal, but his ambitions are much larger than that. His book is also a history of human society and civilisation. Harari has stated that he is strongly inspired by Jared Diamond, and Diamond’s influence is visible at least to the extent that both authors agree that no question, no matter how large, is not amenable to rational enquiry.

Harari attempts to explain how Homo Sapiens has become so successful and now completely dominates planet Earth. He mentions the “Dunbar number” which is the number of people a person can know and trust: it is around a hundred. Beyond that, there has to be some other way in which people can bind together into groups. Trust is a fundamental part of our societies (a point also made in Bruce Schnieder’s books). For Harari, this trust comes from a series of shared beliefs. His point is that they are just that, beliefs, with for the most part no basis in reality. For him, almost all of the constructs at the foundations of our society are shared beliefs. For Harari, liberal humanism is just as much as a religion as, say Christianity. He goes further. What drives us as a species? One answer is that we are driven by the shared belief systems of our society or simply the pursuit of happiness. Our consensual illusion. He suggests that a future study of history should examine in detail how happy people were in past times, but at the same time reminds that this is of course, a completely arbitrary and subjective measurement. He leans heavily on Buddhist philosophy as way out of this dead-end, in particular the notion that, well, you must become aware of your feelings in order to surpass them. Well.

Rationally, it is hard to disagree with this. However, the discussion does show the hole you can dig yourself into if you decide that Humans are intrinsically not very different from other species on the planet (apart from a few important cognitive innovations which Hariri explains very well) or that the search for knowledge or belief in “progress” are also partially delusional. It seems to me that this line of thinking has led to one of the predominant problems of our time: a lack of belief in human agency and the idea that there is nothing much worth saving in our culture. Until we can change that, I don’t see how we can decide where we, as a species, want to go.

Rationality, Loach, Trump, Science

Rationality, Loach, Trump, Science

A few years ago I read John Raulston Saul’s excellent “Voltaire’s bastards”. The thesis of this book is that in the West we have fallen under the control of vast rational systems which have no underlying morality of their own. These systems allow our society to function but they function outside any moral system. The link between justice and reason has been cut, and governments use rationality as a means to justify their actions.

I couldn’t help thinking about this book after we went to see Ken Loach’s excellent new film, “I Daniel Blake”.  The eponymous Daniel Blake is a honest tradesman who loses his job after a heart attack at work. Although he has a serious medical condition, his honestly leads him to falling onto the wrong side of the benefits system, and although his doctors strongly believe otherwise, he is declared “fit to work”. But he isn’t fit to work, not really. To get his benefits, he must look for work, but he is unable to accept anything he finds, because of his medical condition.

He patiently explains these contradictions to anyone who will listen in the benefits office, but to no avail. What struck me most is the constant refrain to him from various council employees (in a strong Geordie accent): “It’s not against you, like, it’s what we have to do”. It is not us, it is the system. The refrain of the last hundred years. It’s not a big leap to go from the there to consider the results of the British referendum and the American elections. The most striking aspect of these two events is the complete disregard of any opinion of “experts”.  There are certainly a large number of reasons for that, but one that seems relevant here is how disconnected many people have become from the enormous systems that have become enormously important for our lives and well-being, and which just don’t care what we think.

Perhaps we could extend this thought a little further? Science has become even more incremental in the last few years. Part of the the problem is that any new theory of the Universe must also explain the last few hundred years of observations as well as any new ones. Each minuscule advance now requires an enormous amount of work. And these advances take place inside enormous systems which have been calibrated extremely finely to succeed. It is the old problem: you cannot build anything expensive and complicated unless you are certain it will work, but how in this case are you ever certain to discover something new? And behind that there is a system of thousands of people somehow trying to work together, in a system doesn’t care anything for the people inside it

The conclusion: I do want to suggest that rationality is a bad thing. Of course it is not ! But we must find a way reconnect rationality and reason to a sense of social justice. And as for science? That is for another post.

"Histoires courtes": photography and electronic detectors

"Histoires courtes": photography and electronic detectors

On Monday documentary filmmakers Jean-Francois Dars and Anne Papillaut published a short “film” that they made about my research and photography here.  Here is a direct link to the film.
It was wonderful working with them. It was a long process: we started in April when we recorded the soundtrack. I had carefully prepared a text. But it didn’t work at all! Faced with the microphone I couldn’t recite any of the words at all. I was completely stuck. So I just started talking about what I wanted to say in french, because it seemed easier to speak to them in French about these things (I speak in French with all of my french friends and colleagues, after all it is more than ten years that I am living here now). And that was the text that they used.

Taking the photographs 

Afterwards, during the summer Jean-Francois came to my office and took a few photographs and after thata we went into the darkroom where I developed a big picture of one of the Euclid CCDs. Jean-Francois suggested that we take some pictures at night, because I had talked about how I preferred taking pictures at night on film, so a few months later we spent a wonderful winter evening together (after a nice meal of course) when we walked around the centre of Paris and took pictures.

See the craters of the moon

Or rather, I took pictures and Jean-Francois took pictures of me taking pictures. I can’t say that I approached this with some small amount of trepidation, because Jean-Francois was a friend of Kertesz, and Kertesz took the first-ever photographs of Paris at night! However, in the end I was quite happy with the photographs I took and a selection of them are on my 52rolls pages. If you look carefully, you can see Jean-Francois taking pictures of me. It was so easy to interact with people and take these pictures, it was the most natural thing in the world. I just applied my Winogrand-inspired technique of smiling a lot, even when I wasn’t sure if anyone was looking at me or not. This really does work.

Losing the photons

The “histoires courtes” are very short, most I think are under three minutes. The text and discussions were edited to focus on the key difference between electronic detectors and photographic plates: the quantum efficiency of silver grains is a lot lower than electronic detectors. In the visible spectrum, the latest CCD cameras from e2v have a quantum efficiency in the visible bands of almost 100%. Only around 4% of photons falling on film get converted into silver grains. This difference of course had some interesting consequences: in the film era, people spent a lot of time and energy trying to increase the quantum efficiency of photographic plates, “sensitising” them by baking them in the oven and so forth. Eventually photoelectric detectors came along, but alas, they were not array detectors and so making images was impossible. The arrival of electronic array detectors was a revolution: a CCD camera suddenly transformed a 2 metre telescope to a 4 metre telescope. Now today with the very high efficiency of electronic detectors in the visible bands, the only way to increase the number of electrons is to increase the size of the primary mirror. In addition to the greatly increased sensitivity of electronic detectors offer much higher angular resolution, and in most cases the electronic detectors fully sample the instruments’ response function, so the amount of detail you can record is limited by the atmospheric conditions and not the detectors. So the advantages of electronic detectors are clear for astronomers. But for photographers?

And on film?

I already wrote about this over on Leicaphilia. To take a good picture on an average day in Paris, you need an detector sensitive to say ISO400, a lens that can do f8 and a shutter speed of 1/125s. Nothing more. Most digital cameras have been able to do this for at least a decade and a half. And if you want to print your masterwork at a reasonable size – 18×24 say – in most cases ~5 megapixels suffices. Nothing more. So, you might wonder, where does that leave the last decade-and-a-half of technological development? Well, not in the service of taking pictures…

A few words for Mr. L. Cohen

A few words for Mr. L. Cohen

A message on my telephone this morning from a Canadian friend announced the passing of Mr. Leonard Cohen, songwriter and yes, let’s say it, poet. Because, unlike Bob, he really had published a few poetry collections and novels before he decided to become a singer and sing his own poems. The story goes, so I remember, is that on learning his ambitions his friends exclaimed in terror to him “don’t do it Leonard!” You see, no-one believed he could either sing or play a guitar. Cohen tells the story of how he took guitar lessons from a young Spanish man. One day he turned up at the apartment for his lesson only to find out from the landlady that the young man had committed suicide. But not before he had taught Lenny the few chords — the right ones — that he would need for his musical career. The darkest ones I guess. And now today the holy trinity is broken: Nick Cave, the son, Tom Waits, the holy ghost … and Leonard Cohen, the father.

Like a lot of people, I felt he spoke directly to me. A common phenomenon in pop music I guess: Around that time I saw REM live, and Michael Stipe exclaimed sarcastically before half of the songs, “this song is written especially for you!” But Cohen’s music came into my life at that exact time between when I left Ireland and before I became a more sociable human being, which is probably the most charitable way I can think of putting it.

I was living in Manchester, in a shared house with other students, and I had a small room at the back of the house on the last floor under the roof. Yes, really. “Songs from a room” to this tiny room where I had a large table, big enough for a record player and a place to write. You see, Cohen’s music came to me in that part of my life when I listened to music on records, before travelling made keeping a record player and records with me impossible. His music travelled directly from the little scratches on vinyl to my ears.

In his early records the songs only had guitars and his baritone, which like Waits’ deepened wonderfully with age. The words and the meaning of the words were at the center of everything. They resonated, and I can probably remember most of the lyrics of all those early songs today without any difficulty. I wrote and listened to Lenny and looked out over the rooftops of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, yes, trapped in a 19th century Universe. I would escape this world only by actually going myself, a few years later, to live in Canada. A place which did not reinforce all the heavy grooves of personality and place which are difficult to escape from when you are in your 20s. But when I was stuck deep in there, there was, at least, Mr. Cohen for me.

For this and everything, thank you Mr. Cohen!