H.I. #52: 20,000 Years of Torment

Grey and Brady discuss: subvocalization, Liberian county flags, Brady worries about who is driving him and the proliferation of screens in cars, Brady fingers ballots and then brings up coincidences and dreams, Brady tries to convince himself to buy an iPad Pro, what cars should people drive, before finishing off with how artificial intelligence will kill us all. (If we're lucky.)


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Between the first modern Europeans arriving in 1492 and the Victorian age, the indigenous population of the new world dropped by at least 90%.

The cause?

Not the conquistadores and company -- they killed lots of people but their death count is nothing compared to what they brought with them: small pox, typhus, tuberculosis, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, mumps, measles and more leapt from those first explores to the costal tribes, then onward the microscopic invaders spread through a hemisphere of people with no defenses against them. Tens of millions died.

These germs decided the fate of these battles long before the fighting started.

Now ask yourself: why didn't Europeans get sick?

If new-worlders were vulnerable to old-world diseases, then surely old-worlders would be vulnerable to new world diseases.

Yet, there was no Americapox spreading eastward infecting Europe and cutting the population from 90 million to 9. Had Americapox existed it would have rather dampened European ability for transatlantic expansion.

To answer why this didn't happen: we need first to distinguish regular diseases -- like the common cold -- from what we'll call plagues.

1) Spread quickly between people.

Sneezes spread plages faster than handshakes which are faster than… closeness. Plagues use more of this than this.

2) They kill you quickly or you become immune.

Catch a plague and your dead within seven to thirty days. Survive and you'll never get it again. Your body has learned to fight it, you might still carry it -- the plague lives in you, you can still spread it, but it can't hurt you.

The surface answer to this question isn't that Europeans had better immune systems to fight off new world plages -- it's that new world didn't have plagues for them to catch. They had regular diseases but there was no Americapox to carry.

These are history's biggest killers, and they all come from the old world.

But why?

Let's dig deeper, and talk Cholera, a plague that spreads if your civilization does a bad job of separating drinking water from pooping water. London was terrible at this making it the cholera capital of the world. Cholera can rip through dense neighborhoods killing swaths of the population, before moving onward. But that's the key: it has to move on.

In a small, isolated group, a plague like cholera cannot survive -- it kills all available victims, leaving only the immune and then theres nowhere to go -- it's a fire that burns through its fuel.

But a city -- shining city on the hill -- to which rural migrants flock, where hundreds of babies are born a day: this is sanctuary for the fire of plague; fresh kindling comes to it. The plague flares and smolders and flares and smolders again -- impossible to extinguish.

Historically in city borders plagues killed faster than people could breed. Cities grew because more people moved to them than died inside of them. Cities only started growing from their own population in the 1900s when medicine finally left its leaches and bloodletting phase and entered its soap and soup phase -- giving humans some tools to slow death.

But before that a city was an unintentional playground for plages and a grim machine to sort the immune from the rest.

So the deeper, answer is that The New World didn't have plagues because the new world didn't have big, dense, terribly sanitized deeply interconnected cities for plages to thrive.

OK, but The New World wasn't completely barren of cities. And tribes weren't completely isolated, otherwise the newly-arrived smallpox in the 1400s couldn't have spread.

Cities are only part of the puzzle: they're required for plages, but cities don't make the germs that start the plagues -- those germs come from the missing piece.

Now, most germs don't want to kill you for the same reason you don't want to burn down your house: germs live in you. Chromic diseases like leprosy are terrible because they're very good at not killing you.

Plague lethality is an accident, a misunderstanding, because the germs that cause them don't know they're in humans, they're germs that think they're in this.

Plagues come from animals.

Whooping cough comes from pigs, and does flu as well as from birds. Our friend the cow alone is responsible for measles, tuberculosis, and smallpox.

For the cow these diseases are no big deal -- like colds for us. But when cow germs get in humans thing things they do to make the cow a little sick, makes humans very sick. Deadly sick.

Germs jumping species like this is extraordinarily rare. That's why generations of humans can spend time around animals just fine. Being the patient zero of a new animal-to-human plague is winning a terrible lottery.

But a colonial-age city raises the odds: there used to be animals everywhere, horses, herds of livestock in the streets, open slaughterhouses, meat markets pre-refrigeration, and a river of literal human and animal excrement running through it all.

A more perfect environment for diseases to jump species could hardly be imagined.

So the deeper answer is that plagues come from animals, but so rarely you have to raise the odds and with many chances for infection and give the new-born plague a fertile environment to grow. The old world had the necessary pieces in abundance.

But, why was a city like London filled with sheep and pigs and cows and Tenochtitlan wasn't?

This brings us to the final level. (For this video anyway)

Some animals can be put to human use -- this is what domestication means, animals you can breed, not just hunt.

Forget a the moment the modern world: go back to 10,000BC when tribes of humans reached just about everywhere. If you were in one of these tribes what local animals could you capture, alive, and successfully pen to breed?

Maybe you're in North Dakota and thinking about catching a Buffalo: an unpredictable, violent tank on hooves, that can outrun you across the planes, leap over your head head and travels in herds thousands strong.

Oh, and you have no horses to help you -- because there are no horses on the continent. Horses live here -- and won't be brought over until, too late.

It's just you, a couple buddies, and stone-based tools. American Indians didn't fail to domesticate buffalo because they couldn't figure it out. They failed because it's a buffalo. No one could do it -- buffalo would have been amazing creature to put to human work back in BC, but it's not going to happen -- humans have only barely domesticated buffalo with all our modern tools.

The New World didn't have good animal candidates for domestication. Almost everything big enough to be useful is also was to too dangerous, or too agile.

Meanwhile the fertile crescent to central Europe had: cows and and pigs and sheep and goats, easy pests animals comparatively begging to be domesticated.

A wild boar is something to contend with if you only have stone tools but it's possible to catch and pen and bread and feed to eat -- because pigs can't leap to the sky or crush all resistance beneath their hooves.

In The New World the only native domestication contestant was: llamas. They're better than nothing, which is probably why the biggest cities existed in South America -- but they're no cow. Ever try to manage a heard of llamas in the mountains of Peru? Yeah, you can do it, but it's not fun. Nothing but drama, these llamas.

These might seem, cherry-picked examples, because aren't there hundreds of thousands of species of animals? Yes, but when you're stuck at the bottom of the tech tree almost none of them can be domesticated. From the dawn of man until this fateful meeting humans domesticated maybe a baker's dozen of unique species the world over, and even to get that high a number you need to stretch it to include honeybees and silkworms. Nice to have, but you can't build a civilization on a foundation of honey alone.

These early tribes weren't smarter, or better at domestication. The old world had more valuable and easy animals. With dogs, herding sheep and cattle is easier. Now humans have a buddy to keep an eye on the clothing factory, and the milk and cheeseburger machine, and the plow-puller. Now farming is easier, which means there's more benefit to staying put, which means more domestication, which means more food which means more people and more density and oh look where we're going. Citiesville, population lots, bring your animals, plagues welcome.

That is the full answer: The lack of new world animals to domesticate, limited not only exposure to germs sources but also limited food production, which limited population growth, which limited cities, which made plagues in The New World an almost impossibility. In the old, exactly the reverse. And thus a continent full of plague and a continent devoid of it.

So when ships landed in the new world there was no Americapox to bring back.

The game of civilization has nothing to do with the players, and everything to do with the map. Access to domesticated animals in numbers and diversity, is the key resource to bootstrapping a complex society from nothing -- and that complexity brings with it, unintentionally, a passive biological weaponry devastating to outsiders.

Start the game again but move the domesticable animals across the sea and history's arrow of disease and death flows in the opposite direction.

H.I. #51: Appropriately Thinking It

Brady and Grey discuss: 'Sir'ing, arbitrariness, team Uber, the inevitable auto revolution, YouTube Red, setting the flag referendum date, Fiji also referendums, a potential spin-off podcast is born, recognizing great acts in service of the podcast, not bi-weekly weigh in, Grey's Dialing Down article, and subvocalization.

H.I. #50: Queen of Spades

Brady and Grey discuss: a first cup of coffee, Rice Rats vs Swamphen, Brady Travels, AirBNB and the sharing economy, first thoughts on the Hello Internet Flag Referendum, Brady's refuses to play games, Hotstopper awareness auction results, the county flags of Liberia, things people happen to be doing while they are listening to the Hello Internet podcast corner, bi-weekly weigh in, YouTube Red, and answers to some lister questions for the fiftieth episode.

Also, you know what time it is?  It's time to join Team FITOTRON 5000:

Cortex #16: Structural Trust

Myke makes an official statement, Grey drives a truck across Europe, and they both discuss sharing responsibilities in their business.

Dialing Down

Many years ago, the college version of myself had a vague sense of 'being overwhelmed' he couldn’t pin down to anything specific.

His workload hadn’t increased: he was just attending summer courses to clear requirements so there was less to do than a normal dual-major semester.

With less work why did it feel like there was more to do and why did it take him longer to accomplish less?

In the year prior, he decided to be a good little college student / member of society, and started following world events, reading a newspaper during most breakfasts and lunches.

Arguments about the quality of news aside, he came to realize the 'overwhelmed' problem wasn't about the number of things to do, but was about the number of things he let into his brain. The news is a rather effective vehicle for delivering a large number of small things: each story a single guest arriving to a party.

Individually the guests don’t make a lot of noise, but adding one by one makes the collective volume creep up in a way unnoticeable until you take a break from the conversation and realize that it’s way too loud in here.

The solution was to kick most of the guests out and be more careful at the door: college-me stopped reading the news and cut back on TV. The number of non-actionable things on the mind decreased, and with that did the amount of ‘overwhelm’.

Fast forward a decade and a half

Since this past summer my overwhelmidness meter has ticked up slowly in the background of my life without me noticing. But last week I was rushing to get a few projects out for the end of the month when life intervened and forced me to push them off indefinitely.

With the deadlines gone, the easing of work left me feeling like that summer long ago:

"I have less to do. Why do I still feel overwhelmed? Why is it taking me longer to get less done?"

I paused and listened and found another kind of background noise in my brain that had been increasing, ever so slowly, since I became self-employed a few years ago.

For lack of a better term, I’ll call it 'The Internet' but it's a broader than that: it’s the rise of all the digital vectors of information delivery pointed at me.

First there are the usual suspects: so many articles to read, so many comment threads to jump in, so many podcasts to listen to, so many videos to watch.

Of course, this isn’t new. Since the printing press there have been more books to read than hours to read them — but there is something different about short-form information delivery. ‘Addictive’ might be too strong a word and ‘habit-forming’ might be too weak, but it's somewhere in the middle.

I’ve found myself increasingly jumping from small thing to small thing — spreading my mind thinner and thinner over more and more. This consumption pattern spread into my production habits, moving from project to project and back again, working on each in small chunks, slowing me down.

Secondly, there are the problems particular to a successful career in the public eye. I am good at saying ‘no’ to requests and ignoring the external demands of others. But even still, as a rather self-secluded and introverted person I’ve found myself working with lots of different people in different areas.

My devices now contain many applications through which various people request my time and attention. None individually is a problem, but together there’s always someone somewhere in some app that needs my input or approval or assistance with something.

Between these two vector categories, I find my mind fragmented.

My ‘active video scripts’ folder currently has twenty plus items in it, meaning each progresses at a snail’s pace as I jump back and forth. How did I not notice this number creeping up?. Because the number of guests in my brain was large enough that each additional guest seemed hardly an increase at all.

What Happens Now?

I’m taking this month to dial the volume down. But the problem is more difficult than it used to be.

Past-me could ditch the newspaper and narrow focus back to the self-contained world of school, but current-me makes his living on The Internet and from working with others and the community.

Paying the rent depends on figuring out what people are interested in, being aware of what’s going on in some corners of the world, and developing a feedback loop with those I am lucky enough to count in my audience.

So how to dial down that which is intimately connected to the way I make a living?

My work doesn’t allow me to simply shut off the Internet. I know that currently I let too much in, but I don’t know where the happy median is and I may only be able to find it by letting in too little for a while.

To that end, here is my tentative plan for the month:

1) No Podcast Subscriptions

I’m deleting my (many dozen) podcast subscriptions and taking my podcast app off my phone.

This I suspect will be the most difficult. I listen to a lot of hours of audio and always have. But podcasts have taken too much ground in my mind: any moment of idleness can be instantly filled with the thoughts of others.

I firmly believe that boredom is good for brain health, and I’m banishing podcasts for the month from my phone to bring boredom back into my life.

As for audiobooks, I’m not sure where they fit into this. For the moment I’m putting them on a two-week ban on my phone.

2) Fewer Articles

I’ve found over the past few months that reading small articles leaves me exhausted rather than enlightened.

Currently I use IFTTT to automatically feed about twenty blogs into Instapaper. Though most of the writers I follow are low volume, the sum is more than I can read and I've let too many low-density, low-value blogs into that stream.

I’m deleting everything in my Instapaper queue and shutting down the IFTTT system.

3) Stop Tracking YouTube

I’m unsubscribing from everything in YouTube. In no small part because in the past few years there has been quite a boom in the ‘video explainers’ genre. I’ve never watched much YouTube, but I’ve always wanted to be aware of what everyone is releasing. But I’ve been too aware, resulting in me feeling like there are topics I can’t do because other people have done them. (Even if, yes, nobody owns the facts)

Ignorance of the work of others might be bliss, or maybe future-me will be embarrassed when he releases an unintentionally similar video to someone else in the same week.

4) The Holy Trinity

Most of my ‘Internet’ time is spent in three places: Reddit, Twitter, and Hacker News.

Ditching Hacker News for the month is the easiest one — I can block it without consequence.

But Reddit and Twitter are where things get complicated. Reddit is the prime engine of the feedback loop between creator and audience. Blocking it outright isn’t an option.

Twitter also helps turn the feedback loop, and it’s how I stay connected personally and professionally with many people. (The same can be said about the several slack teams I now find myself on)

Outright banishing these for the month isn’t possible, but I do need to dial them down.

I will use Buffer to post new videos, podcasts, etc on Twitter, and I will use some of Twitter’s email notification features, but I won’t visit the site directly.

Reddit is the most difficult. The plan is to give myself a short amount of time immediately after posting anything to /r/CGPGrey, and then a small amount of time to check-in the following day. Discussions on my subreddit are the most enjoyable part of the creation process (it's done!) and, in a way, the most important. Reddit is neither desirable nor practical to give up entirely.


One thing I've learned is not to trust myself to 'try harder'. Trying harder is for suckers and the self-deluded. I trust the system and this article is part of the system. By letting you, dear reader, know I’ll only post my own creations on Twitter and Reddit means that I’ll suffer the sting of public failure if I don’t.

And as for the rest, I have some ideas about how to better manage the requests from people in my life and restrict access to the above. There will be ‘online’ and ‘offline’ modes, passwords held by third parties, etc that I might write or talk more about in the future.

But for now, I’m not setting in stone rules for the rest of my life or even the rest of this month because I don’t know what the good rules are. This is an experiment in reduction, and my public commitment to it.

H.I. #49: Rabble-Rousing

Grey & Brady discuss: London thinks about handicapping Uber, Swamphen and Rice Rat numbers, Brady just can't stop thinking about the Apple Watch, elevator design, continued developments in #Hotstoppergate, the discovery of water on Mars (again?), bi-weekly weigh in, the Cyprus flag, grasshopper penises, and reviews of The Martian and Everest.