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Miscellaneous Items from 2011:                        to enlarge a photo, click on it

Dog wisdom    Chaser   Purple flowers in spring    Slime mold news    Love of Biology   Tom Fleck    A new world    Rinderpest and measles    Conspiracy    Email manners     Marmite   Dog Body Language     Kludge     MBA problems    Food Riots    Berkeley Climate Report    Perspective on Dealth Numbers     Weird brassicas                 

Dog wisdom
Harry 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.
I 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.”

Dogs 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 Collies.
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 clues.
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 Border Collie.

Purple flowers in spring
primroseNear 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 a primrose.
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 pleasant feeling.

Slime mold news
slime moldI 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 can farm'.
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.

Love of Biology
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.

Tom Fleck
29th June 1513
   - a few paragraphs from Harry Nicholson's new book:
Wings 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 clinked somewhere.
He 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.
'It's 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.
'Shite! My boot's full o' clarts! How much more o' this, Sarge?'
'The river's close I reckon.' The giant paused. 'Though it's a few years since I was here.'
Five 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.
Tom 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.
The 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 root-pit.'
Tom 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 ooze.
With 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.
His 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.'
Tom 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.'
The 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' low banter.
'Yon will have a sore arse; he hit the deck like a sack o' corn.'
'More like that feather-bed wench at the inn last night, when she skidded in your slopped ale.'
Hast' seen his cacky bum?'
'Get on with it, Jones.' The giant spat then growled, 'Have a care - if York hears thee mock, he'll not forget.'
'It should fetch some coin, eh, Sarge? What's the reward do ye reckon?'
'Knowing him - a piss-pot of sour ale,' someone cackled.
'We'll have to see. Now clam up, Bentley! Get cracking or we'll be camping out in this muck.'
Taking 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 again.'
'Aye, 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 shifted.'

Through 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.
The 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.'
He rapidly scanned the flattened bog plants mangled by boots and hooves, then the bruised earth, until he became aware of a hollow.
Shaped 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 the track.
Stretching 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 whine.
'Shift,' 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.
He 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 our supper.'


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 English.
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.

Rinderpest and Measles
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 agree?
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...

Email manners
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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 and colors.
  4. 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?!”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 the roses.
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.

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 hit.
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. Standing tall: confident.
TAIL -In 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 wagged tail 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.)
Rigid: -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.
HEAD ON SIDE -Coquettish look learned by some dogs because it evokes rewarding response from owner.
SHAKING -After 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.
PEEING/POOING AND KICKING OVER THE TRACES -What 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.)
LOOKING 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.)
RAISING HACKLES -This 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.)
BARED TEETH -Also often a bluff, though the dog probably would fight if pushed to the limit.
PLAY BOW A 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." )

I have not read the book Kluge and very probably never will. Two things put me off, one silly and the other serious.
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 beautiful construction.
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.

MBA problems
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 theirs.
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, command-and-control-focused, shareholder-value-obsessed, 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 big business.

Food Riots

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 many places.
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.

riot graph
Berkeley Group report
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 climate 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.
climate graph

Perspective on Death Numbers
In one of Douglas Adams' hitchhiker guide books he has something to say about perspective:
“The Total Perspective Votex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.
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 day.
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.”

Despite this warning, I think we may need some perspective on death.
1,836 Hurricane Katrina
2,350 WW2 Bombing of Pearl Harbor
3,000 9/11 deaths
8,000 Srebrenica massacre
20,000 2011 Japanese Tohoku earthquake
24,000 Afganistan War civilians
25,000 WW2 bombing of Dresden
35,000 suicides in US in 2007
41,000 traffic deaths in US in 2007
70,000 WW2 Bombing of Nagasaki
100,000 WW2 Bombing of Tokyo
107,000 Iraq War civilian deaths
150,000 WW2 Bombing of Hiroshima
188,000 WW2 Battle of Okinawa
200,000 1937 Nanking Massacre
230,000 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake
315,000 War in Darfur
418,500 WW2 US service deaths
450,900 WW2 UK service deaths
750,000 projected for 2011 Somalia famine
800,000 Rwandan Genocide
1,250,000 Armenian Genocide
2,200,000 North Korean famine
3,400,000 Soviet POW deaths in Nazi camps
5,000,000 Ukranian Holodomor famine 1932/3
6,000,000 Jewish deaths in Holocaust
10,000,000 WW1 service deaths total
26,500,000 WW2 Soviet deaths
50,000,000 – 100,000,000 1918 flu epidemic

Weird brassicas
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 triangle 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).