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Miscellaneous Items from 2011:
to enlarge a
photo, click on it
flowers in spring Slime mold news Love
of Biology Tom Fleck A new world Rinderpest
and measles Conspiracy Email
Dog Body Language Kludge
MBA problems Food Riots
Climate Report Perspective on
has had trouble with advice he has received to 'never try to be pals
with your dog'. His attitude is that if you can't be pals then why
have a dog? I have a problem with the stereotyped communication I am
advised to have with my dog. I am told to give loud simple commands
and make sure they are obeyed. But surprisingly, no one has ever
advised me on how to listen to my dog. I think that if you can't have
communication with your dog then why have one? Over and over again,
we hear that our dog is just waiting to take advantage of us and
usurp dominance. Well, maybe there are people who find status really,
really important and so they have dogs for one reason – to have
dominance over them.
think it is very important to reward a dog when it is making contact
with you – in friendship or in communication, discipling it only
when it is important. A new study shows how the behaviour of dogs has
been misunderstood for generations: in fact using misplaced ideas
about dog behaviour and training is likely to cause rather than cure
unwanted behaviour. “The blanket assumption that every dog is
motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is
frankly ridiculous. It hugely underestimates the complex
communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the
use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and
actually cause problem behaviours.”
like to cooperate with humans; they like to be useful; they like to
share. Give them a chance.
This will warm your heart if you are a
doggy person, especially if you have had anything to do with Border
A pair of researchers knew that collies
could learn a large number of words and decided to see how many but
they gave up at around 1022 because … well they wanted to go on to
other things. So now there is a dog called Chaser that has over
thousand toys and she knows the name of each and everyone of them,
whereas the researchers need to keep them straight with lists and
labels. It was the humans who gave up the search for a limit while
the dog was still going strong.
Chaser learned other words as well. She
could associate a number of command 'verbs' with her 'proper noun'
objects. Here is a sort of request sentence – (subject) Chaser
(verb) any learned command (object) name of any toy. She learned
fetch, paw, nose, take.
So they went beyond proper names and
introduced categories like ball. Chaser learned which are her toys
were 'balls' and which not, ditto her various 'frisbees' and so on.
And she knew that all her named property were 'toys'. So she was
learning ordinary nouns as well as proper names.
Chaser could learn the name of a new
toy either by association or by exclusion. Exclusion is when you ask
for a new name and among the toys is only one new one. The dog brings
the strange toy for the strange name and is praised – soon that is
the name of the new toy. Of course both types of learning requires
repetition for even a smart dog.
In testing the dog, the command was
given in one room and the toys were found in another room so
that it was clear that the tester was not giving the dog unconscious
There are going to be many people who
do not believe this, but if you have had a Border Collie you will
know that you can teach one of them a lot – so - if two people
spend a whole 3 years in the training, there is bound to be a lot of
learning. It is a bit surprising that they only got to a thousand. Our
late dog Badger was half Border Collie. She had an enormous
vocabulary of understood words – places, objects, activities,
people – rarely taught to her on purpose. And she was only half
Border Collie. Apparently the breeder of Chaser was more surprised at
the training effort that the owner was willing to put in than the
learning ability of the dog. The breeder thought it was an unusual
owner of an ordinary
flowers in spring
Near the last
day of February, walking
the dog, I saw a little group of purple flowers low to the ground up
the road a way. They were, from that distance, just like prairie
crocuses - right shade of purple, right size. It was a coldish day
with a wind. So although the ground was green with grass and crops,
it was like seeing a crocus in the early spring in childhood. It was
joy, it was running full tilt home to tell everyone I had see a
crocus. It was the definitive sign of spring.
Of course, I knew that what I saw was
not a crocus even through I had that a 'seeing a crocus' feeling. And
when I got close enough, I saw it was very different (except colour,
size and height above ground). It was not furry, the leaves were
entirely different, the flowers have yellow centers and so on. It was
Primroses are also thought of as a sign
of spring, but that is along with a number of other flowers. Whereas
the crocus on the prairie is almost alone in the early spring.
This is like the nightingale and the
meadow lark. I have transferred a childhood emotional feeling towards
one thing on the prairies to another, very different thing, in the
Cher. This happened with some smells in Hungary and Kenya. Always a
I can't resist
anything about slime molds. This time someone has shown
that there are types of Dictyostellum discoideum ( the slime mold I
used to do experiments on ) that take their food with them when they
move. There are headlines like 'amoebas pack a lunch' or 'slime molds
The life cycle is: as individual amoeba they eat bacteria in leaf mold
in the woods, when they run out of food they aggregate together and
travel around as something that looks like a tiny slug, when they find
a better home they make a plant-like stock with the ball of spores at
the top – again tiny, the spores disperse and become individual
amoebas. Here is a picture.
What has been found is the some groups start aggregating before the
food is all gone and take some bacteria with them on their journey –
like settlers taking seed.
When it comes right down to it – I love biology. There is nothing like
it. Things that seem simple are really complex and things that seem
complex end up simple. The beauty of so many living things just takes
my breath away. Nothing is isolated but instead there is
interconnection, feedback, webs, systems. And there is a human scale
and understanding with none of the unimaginable nature and weirdness of
much of physics, cosmology and some of chemistry.
I am often surprised at what some people find gross. Apparently there
are people who are physically sickened by hearing the word moist. I
take it that it is too biological a word.
“Then again, it's easy to predict that when word aversion is discussed,
the patron yuck-word of the movement will be mentioned: moist. This
word gets on the wick of more people than any other, for reasons that
are still not entirely understood, although it seems that the main
offendees are female and the main reason for their revulsion is the
supposed off-the-charts ick factor of the word. Facebook groups like "I
HATE the word ‘moist'," "Moist is a WRONG word," and "People who hate
the word Moist!" abound.”
I also am surprised by aversion to many non-mammal animals. What is
difficult about dealing with an earth worm for heavens sake?
I have known people who live in houses that have no pets (not even a
goldfish) and no house plants (not even a little cactus). I think to
myself – what makes them choose to live in a completely man-made
environment. People are not made to live without other living things,
not when they hunted, or gathered, or herded, or farmed, or fished, or
All this to explain why I enjoyed this cartoon.
June 1513 - a
few paragraphs from Harry Nicholson's new book:
clattered through branches. Tom Fleck stayed his axe in mid-swing and
straightened to see two wood pigeons hurl themselves into the mist.
He looked down at the dog; her throat was rumbling. She raised a paw,
shot him a glance, then - ears cocked - faced along the track. Metal
whispered, 'Whisht now. Come away.' Soft-footed,
they crept off the path and into a thicket. As they huddled together
among ferns and willow stems, the rattle of harness grew louder and
voices filled the wood.
thinning - a wind's sprung up.' The helmeted man seemed a giant as he
squelched past Tom's hiding place. Two equally burly men followed;
they wore the same green and white tunics. One of them groaned as his
leg plunged into the morass. He wrested it free.
My boot's full o' clarts! How much more o' this, Sarge?'
river's close I reckon.' The giant paused. 'Though it's a few years
since I was here.'
more tunic-clad men pushed out of the mist; all had round shields on
their backs and swords at their belts. They trudged alongside a pair
of black horses; each horse carried a gentleman cloaked in red. Three
brown-smocked labourers, holding the ropes of pack-ponies, took up
the rear. The column wound through the dripping alders until the way
was blocked by a fallen tree.
tried to work out who they were; he'd seen that green and white
before - at the manor house. It meant power that cared nought for the
likes of him - power that could seize a man and take him away. In
these times it made sense to hug the ground and just watch.
giant raised an arm. 'A dead wind-throw. She's hacked about like
someone's been at her for kindling - I did hear an axe.' Tom shrank
lower as the seamed face looked around. 'But we need to get on. We'll
work our way past. Dobson, you see nobody tumbles into that
squinted through the sodden ferns. The shattered roots of the ancient
alder reared above the strangers' heads like the antlers of stags
entangled in combat. With a slow groan the mass twisted as the trunk
settled deeper into the mire. A horse snorted and shied away; the
rider cursed and heaved on the reins. Tom flinched as the mount
staggered sideways off the track and sank onto its forelegs in the
a great heave it pulled free but pitched the rider from the saddle. A
pair of over-fleshed buttocks thudded into the mud.'God damn!' The
man clambered to his feet. Glowering at the bog water on his
breeches, he wiped his hands on a clump of rushes then struck the
horse a blow with his fist. 'Blast you, nag! You and this bloody
bog!' The reedy voice choked into a squeak.
lean companion looked down from the saddle. 'Hold yoursen together,
York. After the ford we'll be on ground more to your comfort - and
only two hours from the warm bed you crave.'
wrapped a hand around the dog's muzzle and stroked her neck with the
other. He saw two bearded men grin at each other as they splashed
forward to grab the horse's bridle. One shoved a biscuit under its
nose while the other calmed the shivering beast and held it for the
rider to remount. Back in the saddle the man, face as red as his
cloak, wiped his brow then yelped, 'My ring! It's gone from my hand!
It'll be in the mud. Find it! I'll give a reward.'
dog's muffled snort went unheard as men laughed while they grubbed
among the rushes. Tom glanced at the pack-ponies stood in a line,
heads drooping. Their drivers squatted, chewing crusts, indifferent
to the pony-dung that thudded around them. As the mist condensed into
drizzle the two gentlemen pulled down their hats and moved to the
shelter of a tree on drier ground. With their backs against the trunk
they drew out corks and sipped from flasks. Tom caught the searchers'
will have a sore arse; he hit the deck like a sack o' corn.'
like that feather-bed wench at the inn last night, when she skidded
in your slopped ale.'
seen his cacky bum?'
on with it, Jones.' The giant spat then growled, 'Have a care - if
York hears thee mock, he'll not forget.'
should fetch some coin, eh, Sarge? What's the reward do ye
him - a piss-pot of sour ale,' someone cackled.
have to see. Now clam up, Bentley! Get cracking or we'll be camping
out in this muck.'
a final sip before pushing the stopper back into his flask, the lean
gentleman called out, 'Sergeant! It's late. If we don't make Norton
by dark, we sleep rough. We've yet to ford the Tees and in an hour
the tide runs up river. Two men will return at dawn and search
sir.' The giant snapped a branch off the fallen tree, broke it twice
across his knee and pushed the pieces upright into the mud. He rubbed
his big palms together. 'That's marked the spot - now let's get
the tracery of twigs, Tom Fleck's acute vision had also marked the
spot. From the canopy overhead heavy drops drummed against his
leather skullcap and the shoulders of his battered jerkin, but he
stayed crouched until the last pony faded into the gloom. After a few
minutes the agitated tew-tew . . . pity me . . . pity me . . . cries
of the pair of sandpipers that nested on the riverbank told him the
travellers had reached the ford.
dog snorted so he took his hand from around her jaws. 'They're away
now, Meg - whoever they were. Keep hushed while we see what might be
sniffed out yonder.'
rapidly scanned the flattened bog plants mangled by boots and hooves,
then the bruised earth, until he became aware of a hollow.
by a beefy backside, he thought - so one stride away will be where
the rider's hands would grab the ground to heave himself back onto
out an arm, he snapped his fingers. 'Seek!' The little black mongrel
rushed to the spot, tail wagging in a blur. She circled a few times,
nostrils sweeping the ground. She stopped, lifted a paw, stiffened
her tail, pointed her nose close to the earth and let out a
he whispered and pushed her snout away to rake his fingers among the
roots. They closed on a hard, round shape. He wiped the lump on his
sleeve, held it up and saw a golden gleam. Trembling, he looked
around, but the vague shape of a night-screecher, perched on a high
branch, made the sole witness. The owl bobbed its head a few times
then launched on silent wings deeper into the trees.
dropped the object into his skin bag, safe among the moss that
wrapped a clutch of mallard eggs. The dog's ears got a quick rub
before he slipped the axe into his belt, picked up a bundle of
firewood and heaved it across his shoulders. 'Right, let's away for
A new world
Times have changed and things are not
as I thought they were:
So we are becoming people walking down
crowded city streets with a cell phone at our ear and speaking into
it in either of a couple of languages, with a good chance that one is
- Three times as many English speakers are non-native
speakers compared to those whose mother tongue is English. Together
English speakers number close to 2 billion.
- The world's population has just passed from more than half
rural to more than half urban.
- Two thirds of the world's population is bi- or
- The world has a population of around 7 billion people but
5 billion cell phones (mobiles). Cell phones are the fastest growing
communication channel in the world.
When I was born there are about 2
billion people, roughly a third of the current population and the
cell phone was not going to be invented for many years. It reminds my
of my cousin Madeline coming back from Burma and being surprised by
how it was like her childhood in northern Saskatchewan in many ways.
She said, “Janet, we both grew up in a third world country.” I
don't know whether it was third world but it was definitely a
different world. On the plains of southern Saskatchewan, my world was
sparsely populated, very rural, monolingual, with party line
telephones screwed to the wall. I remember the arrival, in that out
of the way part of the world, of asphalt on the highway, the
electricity grid, frozen foods.
My first awareness of the cattle disease, rinderpest, was reading when
in Kenya about the way the East African Masai attempted to protected
their cattle from the disease. I now find out that the virus has been
completely eradicated from the face of the earth by an international
effort. The closest relative to rinderpest is measles. It has not been
eradicated but could be. World wide it still kills several hundred
children per day. The economic importance of cattle is great than that
of children, it seems.
The theory used to be that when we first started to share our lives
with cattle, is when measles was born as a variant of rinderpest – an
event lost in prehistory. It seems this is wrong. The last common
ancestor of measles and rinderpest is now thought to be in the 1000s or
1100s according to DNA comparisons. This ancestor probably could infect
both humans and cattle but had different symptoms than the two modern
diseases. A large epidemic of measles occurred (between two black death
epidemics) in the 1200s and 1300s and this may have been the first such
measles epidemic. The last common ancestor of all the current modern
measles strains is 20th century.
It would probably be possible to make measles extinct because although
it is highly contagious (on average each case infects 15 others), it is
predicted to require a non-immune human population of 250 to 500
thousand available to continue to exist in any region. Immunization
could arrange that there was no such population world wide – in a short
time, no virus. Instead, vaccination goes down and the frequency of
measles goes up.
Do you enjoy conspiracy theories? Here is one, a plot to keep Prince
Charles from becoming king. The plotters are the Way Ahead Group, a
committee founded in 1994 by the Lord Chamberlain (Earl of Airlie). The
members include the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Princess
Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and their private secretaries.
They discuss royalty matters: the constitutional position of the
monarchy, the possibility of royal marriages to Roman Catholics, the
possibility of the end of male heir precedence, how to protect the
monarchy after the Queen's death (or , in other words, what to do with
Prince Charles). Prince Philip is the chair of this committee. Charles
tries to change the subject from constitutional monarchy issues to
ecology, politics and town planning.
The Queen is a nearly perfect constitutional monarch – aloof, never
partisan, not concerned with business, never in contention, smiling and
uncomplaining. Charles seems to be something of a loose cannon. He is
doing what royalty is not supposed to due – he has strong and
unorthodox opinions. He is lobbying government ministers, has letter
writing campaigns, is hands-on with his business empire. He has become
angry, and shown it, at laws passed by parliament in areas of health,
education, the budget, foreign policy, the military. He tried to have
powers removed from the Human Rights Act. He uses his power to protect
his regiment, his food business, alternative medicine, his
architectural taste. He is also morose and unpopular, Camila is not
popular very popular either. No cheering crowds greet him. Many think
he is unsuitable to be king.
So will he change? He is maybe a bit old to change. But he also makes
clear that he does not intent to. He has published a book, Harmony,
with quite a message. He calls for a 'revolution' in 'right action' and
'right thinking'. He wants more faith and less science, a return to
traditional culture in art, architecture and philosophy. His agrarian
arch-conservative ideas offend the left. While his radical ecology and
anti-economic growth offend the right. His promotion of all religions
(including Islam) annoys the Anglician establishment. His advocacy of
homeopathy and aromatherapy horrifies the medical profession. Etc. etc.
He feels he has a mission.
The British public (when polled) have shown a small majority favouring
skipping a generation and crowning William when the Queen dies. That
would not be easy as there are 15 other countries to consider. All
would have to pass legislation to change the succession. Would they all
The royal family and its committee do not want Charles to spoil the
monarchy and they do not want parliaments changing the succession –
both would weaken the monarchy. Of course, they would not actually bump
him off. So they took money out of the fund for the Queen's Diamond
Jubilee and told William he was going to have a much, much bigger
wedding than he and the Middletons had planned. The idea is that when
the Queen dies if Charles is old enough and William is popular enough,
the public will put up with Charles while waiting for William to
succeed. If the Queen lives as long as her mother, she has another 16
years. By then Charles will be 78 and people will think he can't last
all that long. And if William is by then even more popular with a
popular wife and children...
I do not work anymore and have a quiet
social life so my email inbox only has a trickle of messages every
day. But perhaps you are a busy person, wondering how to manage the
traffic. If so you can understand how Chris Anderson (of TED) who
gets emails in the thousands per day wants some new manners. Here is
his plea to people emailing him:
This is good advice for the busy
people. I want to assure you that I, personally, do not get too many
emails and appreciate all of them.
- Respect Recipient's Time – This is the fundamental rule.
As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your
email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your
end before sending.
- Short or Slow is not Rude – Let's mutually agree to cut
each other some slack. Given the email load we're all facing, it's OK
if replies take a while coming and if they don't give detailed
responses to all your questions, No one wants to come over as brusque,
so please don't take it personally. We just want our lives back!
- Celebrate Clarity – Start with a subject line that clearly
labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category (info),
(action), (Time Sens), (low Priority). Use crisp, muddle-free
sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure
the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts
- Quash Open-Ended Questions – It is asking a lot to send
someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid test followed by
“Thoughts?”. Even well-intended-but-open questions like “How can I
help?” may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying,
easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or
c) staying right out of it?!”
- Slash Surplus cc's – cc's are like mating bunnies. For
every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total
response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple
recipients, please don't default to “Reply All'. Maybe you only need to
cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.
- Tighten the Thread – Some emails depend for their meaning
on context. Which means it's usually right to include the thread being
responded to. But it's rare that a thread should extend to more than 3
mails. Before sending,cut what's not relevant. Or consider making a
phone call instead.
- Attack Attachments – don't use graphics file as logos or
signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if
there's something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment
when it could have been included in the body of the email.
- Give the Gifts: EOM NNTR – If your emal message can be
expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line,
followed by EOM (=End of Message). This saves the recipient having to
actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” of
NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much
as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.
- Cut Contentless Responses – You don't need to reply to
every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses.
An email saying “Thanks for your note. I'm in.” does not need you to
reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.
- If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we'd all
get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can't
go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an
'auto-response' that references this charter. And don't forget to smell
When we were living in England we know
a couple from New Zealanders who were very fond of Marmite. That is not
too surprising as most people who like Marmite are found in the UK,
South Africa, New Zealand or Australia. There are many other places
in the world where it is unheard of. So our New Zealand friends took
a long trip in a camper van to Eastern Europe and Russia (this was
still in Cold War times). They took an ample supply of Marmite
because they were not likely to be able to buy any on the road. At
some border (I think it may have been from Poland into Russia) the
guards wanted to know what the jars of black goo were – were they
drugs? The guards flatly rejected the idea that they were food and were
sure that no one who eat something like that.
Marmite actually use as their sales
slogan “You either love it or hate it”. It is made from the yeast
from brewries, concentrated and with vegetable extract, vitamins and
celery extract added. The result is a tarry spread and it is usually
spread extremely thinly on toast or whatever. Its taste is 'unique'.
So why do people become so attached to their Marmite. One reason is
that is has a higher concentration of glutamate then anything else
you can buy. If you crave an umami taste than Marmite is your super
No everyone accepts the product.
Denmark is banning it. For some reason the Danes are not keen on
products with added vitamins and minerals. Marmite is heavily
fortified with B vitamins. The ingredients are: yeast extract,
vegetable extract, Vit B3 (niacin), Vit B1 (thiamine), Spice
extracts, Vit B2 (fiboflavin), Vit B9 (folic acid), Celery extract,
Vit B12. The Brits in Denmark are up in arms – talk of civil
disobedience, leaving the country and other over-the-top reactions,
that will probably never happen.
For years Marmite has been a quiet
staid company. They has a market because children were fed it when they
were very young for their health; they loved it or hated it; and if
they loved it,
they eat it for the rest of their lives. There was no need to do much
advertizing. Something changed. Now they advertize and they do it in
style. There were big glossy sexy posters for Marmite toothpaste,
fabric softener, perfume and anything else unbelievable. The message
was that Marmite didn't make that product but they did make a cereal
bar. They also did the big campaign for a new Marmite XO using the
language of cognac, a blend of 4 different yeasts, aged for 5 years.
It was in a fancy all black jar and gift wrapped to be sent anywhere
in the world.
I have eaten Marmite a few times. I
didn't hate it and would eat it again if it was offered, but I didn't
love it either, not enough to ever be tempted to buy it. Some people
use it in soups, sauces etc. as the 'secret ingredient'. I may be
unique in not having a strong opinion on the subject. The myth is
that such people do not exist.
Dog Body Language
from Bradshaw's ruff guide
BODY POSTURE - Good
indicator of dog's overall confidence. Low to the ground: worried.
general, the lower the tail, the less confident the dog. Upright
tail with wagging tip: interest.
Relaxed tail, wagged
from side to side using movement of whole back end of dog: excitement
and/or desire to play. Exaggerated
slow swish of tail: some dogs
use this when contemplating aggression. Tail
between legs: retreat. But a
may occasionally suggest a dog is unsure and in conflict. (I
want to add – straight back and rigid, perhaps slightly
trembling signals intense interest in whatever is being smelled.)
-low level fear or anxiety. Rounded-up
back: may indicate indecision,
dog looks as if back legs are trying to move forward while front legs
try to stand still.
-Varies with breed. Ears
forward: alertness and interest.
Ears down and flattened:
fearful, intention to withdraw.
look learned by some dogs because it evokes rewarding response from
getting out of a car – or after being patted (as if shaking off
water). This has nothing to do with communication. It is simply a
loosener. Some dogs get excited around people and their muscles tense
up – shaking loosens them.
AND KICKING OVER THE TRACES
Bradshaw coins as "pee-mail". Dogs may want to own the area
where they are exercised. Urine is likely to be unique to each
individual and contain specific information for other dogs. The
scratching/kicking over the traces with back legs is an ancient
behaviour and is not to pass the scent around but to create a visual
sign for a canine audience – like an arrow on the ground. (In my
experience the mail is left near the edges of the dog's home area and
along shared paths in public places. Circling first is a good sign of
what is going to happen.)
BACK -To check on its owner on a
walk and trying to keep family members together if they become
separated. This is because people are a dog's territory and it "tries
to keep them together". This is not about herding, it is about
reassurance. (I think this is a 'follow me' signal in some dogs –
go forward a few steps, point the body in the direction to go in,
look back at the owner over the shoulder.)
makes the dog look bigger to reduce risk of being attacked but is
often a bluff (the dog has no intention of fighting). (Whether it
is fear or anger that make a dog show a ridge of upright hair on the
back, the dog also seems to send out a strong odour. Dogs we knew in
Kenya tended to have some Rhodesian Ridgeback in them and both the
hackles/ridge and the smell were especially pronounced, often
definitely not a bluff.)
TEETH -Also often a bluff,
though the dog probably would fight if pushed to the limit.
THEN FREEZING, EYES WIDE, TEETH BARED
-Fear – as in man.
dog going down on its two front paws and looking expectant with its
rear legs still tall and its tail straight up is inviting its owner
or another dog to play. (In
my experience this is an invitation to play but is also done when the
dog has over-stepped good behavior when playing - sort of saying, "I'm
sorry, it was only pretend." )
OPEN FACE, BODIES THAT WIGGLE FROM SHOULDERS BACKWARDS INCLUDING THE
I have not read the book Kluge and very
probably never will. Two things put me off, one silly and the other
The silliness is the name. I had not
heard this word or read it before. But I had heard, seen and myself
used the word kludge. So I looked up the two words and found they
meant the same thing - a quick makeshift fix that works. When I
encountered 'kludge' being called a misspelling and mispronunciation
of 'kluge', it annoyed me. If anything 'kluge' is a misspelling and
mispronunciation of 'kludge'. But being the generous soul I am, I'm
willing to call it a dialect difference or something like that and not
insist that one is right and the other wrong.
The first review of the book I read
talked about the old chestnut that the eye is built inside out. Ho
hum, that again. The eye is well constructed. The layers of cells
between the lens and the light sensitive rods and cones do not
obstruct the light they shepherd it through sort of light tubes so
that only the light that comes directly from the lens (and not the
light bouncing around the inside of the eyeball) can hit the light
sensitive cells. But the example that takes the cake is the idea that
the single back bone or spine is not good engineering and it would be
better as four cross-braced columns. We have a light, resilient,
flexible column that is dampening and protection against most shocks.
Four cross-braced columns would lose all those good characteristics.
The spinal column is like a Buckminster Fuller dimaxion mast, a
I thought if Marcus has that little
feeling for either engineering or biology, why should I read what he
has to say about the brain. I don't think that someone can call the
brain a haphazard construction if they don't know how it works –
and none of us do KNOW how it works.
I am not saying that evolved organisms
are straight-forward solutions to the problems of life. But they are
not kludges. Every living thing is, in effect, the last of a string
of millions of consecutive prototypes, each of which actually worked
and worked relatively well. That is what survival means. We come
from a continuous line of survivors, right back to the dawn of life.
That is like a computer that never had down time – ever, ever.
I believe that one of his main brain
'kluges' was memory. If memory was done well it would be permanent
and accurate; it isn't so it is a 'kluge' . Well, if it was important
to be permanent and accurate then it would be! But that is not what
memory is for. We use memory to recognize people, places, objects,
situations and so on. Our memory changes as the things we must
recognize change. We use it to learn - to learn from experience,
you just have to have lots of experience. And we use isolated
fragments of it to create imaginings, 'what ifs', predictions of the
future, daydreams and all the other collages made from little scraps
of memory pasted together. It also supplies a sort of biography that
gives us some of
our sense of identity. Those are the sort of things memory has to do
well. When usefulness conflicts with permanence or accuracy, it is
usefulness that wins.
So suppose you get a new table. All
your memories are going to have the old table in them. Your current
awareness is going to have the new table in it. Now you are using
fragments of memory to create a vision of your friends visiting and
having some drinks and treats around the table next week. Which
treats did they really enjoy previously? The old table and the new
one should not disrupt the smoothness of planning and choosing. Nor
should the various times the friends visited remain set in their
original context. The memories that are used will not remain as they
were; they will be changed a bit with updating and merging every time
they are used.
If it is important to be permanent and
accurate then write it down, take a picture, tag the memory in your
mind as a 'do not touch' – whatever it takes, but don't complain
that your memory is not working as it should.
I don't have a warming feeling about
18th and 19th industry. But it did have a few
redeeming aspects. When we lived in Leicester, we noticed the old
mills. They were the buildings that Blake called, “the dark Satanic
Mills”. But many of these and other old business buildings were not
plain brick hulks; they had very fancy brick work adorning them.
Those early capitalists paid a lot of good money to show their pride
in their places of business and industry. They also lived in the
communities of their work places and had civic as well as personal
pride, doing things for their towns. Most were ruthless with their
workers but some created very special housing and services for
When I was young, it was the common
wisdom that good management of a business or industry was to have
good, fair and productive relationships with your employees,
suppliers and customers. Those capitalists were not apologetic about
the money they made but that did not stop them finding their reason
of living in the quality of their product and their ethical dealing
with others, not just the money they made. They hired or more likely
promoted into their management, competent people but people who were
not especially trained for management. These people were often
engineers, chemists and other professionals or else foreman who had
shown talent and skill. It was a mixed lot – some good, some bad.
They were all judged by their competence and ethics (as more or less
everyone is, from housewives to Prime Ministers and Presidents).
The Master of Business Administration
(MBA) degree was created and slowly and surely, it took over
management. This gave a more professional and predictable way of
managing business. Great – people trained in good management
practices were available.
Then it happened, the MBA programs lost
their way. MBA now stands for 'Major Bad Ass' to many. Instead of
learning good management practices, the students are indoctrinated
into an ideology. It is the message of Milton Friedman, “Few trends
could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society
as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility
other than to make as much money as possible for their stockholders”-
an awkward way to say that if managers have social responsibility
than the free society fails. Now managers are taught to compete and
try to win at all costs against their suppliers, customers,
employees, regulators as well as their competitors in the belief that
this will increase the bottom line. Ghoshal says of modern MBAs,
“Combine agency theory with transactions costs economics, add in
standard versions of game theory and negotiations, and the picture of
the manager that emerges is one that is now very familiar in
practice: the ruthlessly hard-driving, strictly top-down,
win-at-any-cost business leader.” It is now almost impossible to
find the civic pride, the social responsibility, the ethics and the
plain humanity, that once could at least sometimes be found in
There is a very old tradition around the price of food, that is
ignored today, but at our peril. It goes like this. People work and
sell what they make or sell their labour for money. The price of
their goods or labour may be denominated in money but it is really
thought of by them in terms of what they buy. A loaf of bread has the
value of a certain amount of labour. To change the price of one of
the staple foods was more than breaking an implicit contract, it was
extremely immoral. That is how ordinary people viewed the world from
time immemorial until well into the 1800s, and probably still do in
Here is a description from EP Thomson of a typical 1790s bread
riot. “Such 'riots' were popularly regarded as acts of justice, and
their leaders held as heroes. In most cases they culminated in the
enforced sale of provisions at the customary price, the proceeds
being given to the owners. Moreover, they required more preparation
and organization than is at first apparent; sometimes the 'mob'
controlled the market-place for several days... Actions on such a
scale indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour
and belief.” People just do not like the value of their labour
being changed through no fault of theirs and without warning or
negotiation – a shortage is no excuse.
And here is a quote from Bar-Yam today. “The price of bread has
more than doubled in the past five years in England. As in other
parts of the world, London has a population of poor individuals
vulnerable to food prices who are likely to engage in protests and
participate in social disorder under these conditions. Ironically, it
may have been the very policies promoted by England and other Western
governments that lay behind these conditions. One of the main causes
of the spikes in global food price was investor speculation that
resulted in an economic bubble like the one that hit the housing
market in 2008. Beginning in 2001, financial institutions like
Goldman Sachs and Morgan
Stanley in the United States as well as Barclays Capital in the UK
successfully lobbied their respective governments to deregulate the
commodities market. This allowed them to invent new financial
products, known as derivatives, that caused an explosion of
speculation and volatility in agricultural prices. According to data
from the United Nations, this investment rose from $13 billion in
2003 to $317 billion by 2008. The price of food rose along with the
value of these investments, creating a financial bubble that put
increasing strain on those communities already on the edge.”
The Arab Spring needs to be seen against this context. Here is a graph
of the world's food prices and revolts. Food prices are obviously not
the whole story but they may be a background cause.
Here is an interesting piece of science! Some climate change deniers
were sure that Climate-gate proved that there was bias and even fraud
in the reports of climate change. They put together a fund to support
some eminent but not committed or skeptical scientists to look at
data with fresh eyes and fresh methods. One of the large sources of
funds were foundations maintained by the Koch brothers. Many climate
skeptics were hoping the impartial scientists would show that the data
from NASA, NOAA and CRU was flawed. Because the skeptics picked
scientists with fine reputations, who had never before made any
statements pro-climate change, who were physicists and statisticians as
well as climatologists and some had even criticized the lack of
openness of the climate scientists, it was a good bet in the donor's
eyes that they would show the holes that donors were sure was in the
existing data. The team was headed by Richard Muller and including
Noble Prize winner Saul Perlmutter. They amassed their own data and
used their own methods to complete the largest study to date. Berkeley
Earth study directly addressed scientific concerns raised by skeptics,
including the urban heat island effect, poor station quality, and the
risk of data selection bias. The result? Muller said, "Our biggest
surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming
values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK. This
confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential
biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect
their conclusions." They hope the findings will help "cool the
debate over global warming by addressing many of the valid concerns of
the skeptics in a clear and rigorous way." Their data is public so that
other scientists can check their report's accuracy. The work by the
Berkeley Earth Project shows that, on average, global land surface
temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius since the mid-1950s --
on par with the warming trend described by research groups at the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the U.K.
Meteorological Office. They now intent to examine ocean temperatures
and man's contribution to the rise.
It seems the skeptics have changed their tune a bit since the report
was released. Now they say that of course there has been a rise in
temperature but is it enough to worry about? I think we should worry
about the temperature and the skeptics.
Perspective on Death Numbers
In one of Douglas
Adams' hitchhiker guide books he has something to say about
“The Total Perspective Votex derives
its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated
To explain--since every piece of matter
in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of
matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the
whole of creation--every sun, every planet, their orbits, their
composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one
small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total
Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin
Tragula--for that was his
name--was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his
wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about
the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into
space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing
spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
"Have some sense of proportion!"
she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single
And so he built the Total Perspective
Vortex--just to show her.
And into one end, he plugged the whole
of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the
other, he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in
one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to
it. To Trin Tragula's horror, the shock
completely annihilated her brain, but to his satisfaction he realized
that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a
Universe of this size, then one thing it cannot afford to have is a
sense of proportion.”
warning, I think we may need some perspective on death.
1,836 Hurricane Katrina
Bombing of Pearl Harbor
8,000 Srebrenica massacre
Japanese Tohoku earthquake
24,000 Afganistan War civilians
bombing of Dresden
35,000 suicides in US in 2007
41,000 traffic deaths in US in 2007
Bombing of Nagasaki
Bombing of Tokyo
War civilian deaths
Bombing of Hiroshima
Battle of Okinawa
Indian Ocean earthquake
315,000 War in
418,500 WW2 US
450,900 WW2 UK
750,000 projected for 2011 Somalia famine
800,000 Rwandan Genocide
1,250,000 Armenian Genocide
POW deaths in Nazi camps
5,000,000 Ukranian Holodomor famine 1932/3
deaths in Holocaust
service deaths total
100,000,000 1918 flu epidemic
Lately I have been intrigued by the names and identities of
oilseed. In Canada I was used to the name Canola (which apparently is
made from Canadian oil low in acid) and was breed in Saskatchewan from
rape to make it edible by lowering the toxic eruric acid. So in Canada
rape seed oil is poisonous and Canola oil is ultra-healthy. No one seems to
grow Canola in Europe – it seems because naturally bred Canola has been replaced
by genetic modified Canola and GM crops are 'bad'. They grow a
different form also low in eruric acid which is called Colza in French
and oilseed rape in England. But they could all be the same thing for
all I know because it is a very complicated situation of everyone
having their own definitions and names. And a lot of nonsense is spread
as urban myth about Canola (having nothing to do with the GM problem).
So I gave up but not before I ran into the 'Triangle of U'. What is
name! - could not resist finding out what it was.
It seems that brassicas are just weird. At the corners of the triangle
of U of the three original species, all of which have many varieties.
Brassica rapa with 10 pairs of chromosomes – turnip, Chinese cabbage
Brassica nigra with 8 pairs of chromosomes – black mustard
Brassica oleracea with 9 pairs of chromosomes – cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower
But the chromosomes of these three species are so similar that they can
interbreed to give three more species. They are the sides of the
Brassica juncea with 18 pairs (10 pairs from B.rapa and 8 from B.nigra) – Indian mustard
Brassica napus with 19 pairs (10 pairs from B.rapa and 9 from B.oleracea) – rapeseed, rutabaga
Brassica carinata with 17 pairs (8 pairs from B.nigra and 9 from B.oleracea) – Ethiopian mustard
All six of these with many of their varieties occurred naturally from
time to time when different Brassicas were grown near one another. Some
of these can further interbreed. It's a jungle.
Another Brassica species (which is not included in the triangle) is wild mustard weed B.kabar,
a very noxious weed to temperate agriculture. In the UK it has
interbreed with GM oilseed rape to give that is called 'superweed'. All
the habits of a formidable weed plus the herbicide resistance from the
GM oilseed rape. Very, very occasionally hybrids have been managed with
some of the cousins of brassicas (kohirabi, cress, radish, horseradish,
arrugula, bok choy and other cousins, on forever it seems).