October 11, 2012
Go get a cup of coffee. Actually you might need two. Then sit down and read all of this: The Heart of The Matter (George Monbiot).
I’ve followed George Monbiot’s train of thought on nuclear power with a great deal of interest, but always some niggling reservations. Theo Simon, who I’ve never heard of before, makes a beautiful, careful case for why Monbiot is wrong. He articulates all my niggling misgivings, and then some. And he does it all with a very English politeness and fair-mindedness that makes the whole thing very mature and readable. Seriously, if you read nothing else about this debate, read that article.
October 4, 2012
May 12, 2012
Hello (tap tap) is this thing turned on? (clears throat) Yes, look, Iknow it’s been a while. Positively forever, by Internetstandards. What can I say, I’ve been been busy. My job uses the same mental muscles as blogging, although it also takes me to places that inspire leanings to the original travel-blogging purpose of these little pages. Of which more perhaps. In the meantime, I’m not here to make excuses: I’m here to stick my finger in the cultural and memetic air, stir the entrails of the collective unconscious with the pointy stick of association, and generally report back to you, my dear reader (whomever of you may be left after all this time) on my findings and feelings for the year behind and ahead. I’d like to point out that I’ve got a bit of form on this: I was muttering about things reminding me of the 1920s as if I’d been there while I observed the million-dollar cars and general opulence that were quite fashionable in the early 2000s (if I’d known more history I might have seen what was coming after), and my most-read-ever post mostly consisted of telling things like they were in a fashion guaranteed to irritate people.
Zeitgeist it is, then. And not particularly cheerful viewing on theflickering old infero-scope, this season. A small part of my lack of enthusiasm for things internet in recent months has been that the internet just hasn’t been very interesting of late (I’ve also moved into dial-up land… of which more anon). The hum and fizz of whacky ideas and new outlooks that characterised my browsing circa 2006 has been absent for a good couple of years now, and I think the reason is pretty simple, and also pretty brutal: those people either have real jobs keeping them busy, or they no longer have the spare resources to maintain a space on the web. “Real life” has intruded, and when people as diverse as Josh Ellis, Brian Schulz and Raj Patel are just using their websites as a drive-by dumping ground for stories about what they’re really doing, you know something is up. I think also illustrates something that should be obvious to any commentator who doesn’t have their head up their arse: dot-com millionares aside, we have yet to see a really seismic shift in most people’s lives from the widespread existence of the internet. Not really. Not yet, anyway: certainly no cultural upheaval to compare with the impact that photography had on the art world (bearing in mind that took about 100 years to be over!). Bruce Sterling may think otherwise, but Bruce is a has-been, and he has been ever since The Fortunate Fall came out in 1996 and nailed down the lid on cyberpunk’s coffin by pointing out that if you can plug your brain into the Web and look out, then the Web can plug into your brain
and look in.
Laurie Penny seems to me to be right, when she points out that the end of the world is much easier to imagine than dealing with a world that doesn’t end, that just grinds along making a mess of people’s lives in unphotogenic fashion that won’t require you to get the distressed leather and the sawn-off shotgun out of your closet. Life goes on, and in my prognostigorical opinion life is currently very much local and applied for a lot of people. And that may not be a bad thing, in the long run, but it means that if you want to find out what’s really going on in the world, you’re going to have to go get your feet and hands dirty, or at the very least go the to the library and do something as unspeakably old-fashioned as read a book. Because guess what? It turns out presented a detailed, exhaustive and well-researched argument about something important is still something that’s better done in print. Hands up when you last deliberately sat down to read something longer than 1000 words on a webpage? Well, actually, if you make it to the end of this little essay you can put your hand up, but the point is that this little essay is just that: if you want to read something that you need to digest, that will genuinely change your life, I suggest “Stuffed and Starved” …most of the contents of which you would have to know existed before you could find them online. I was feeling the stirrings of all this some time ago, but for nearly a year now I’ve been living in what’s effectiveness no-net-land (at least for modern definitions of the net), in a rural area between the foothills of the Hunua Ranges and the Firth of Thames, where internet is either slow and unreliable dialup or expensive and unreliable satellite and 3G. And I’m sorry, folks, but a revolution you can only feel in the middle of well-connected metropolises is no revolution at all.
Leaving aside, then, self-congratulations about writing long pieces for my blog, let me strike boldly out for some definition of this zeitgeist thingy, as I perceive it sloshing dangerously around in the hold of this great ship of civilisation. As I said, it’s all about the physical this year, for the simple reason that the physical is intruding with uncivilised firmness upon most people’s lives. Only complete nutters are attempting to deny that peak oil has in all probability come and gone, and that the ridiculous car-centred lives that so many aspire to are starting to look even sillier than they did before. We’re yet to see any of the real repercussions of this, of course, fossil fuels still being an unfeasibly cheap source of energy until they get to be truly scarce: but everything from the bitter struggle over the Keystone XL pipeline to companies like Porsche and Jaguar coming out with electric cars says that the world has the wind up it about energy in a fashion that we haven’t seen since the Seventies.
Hand-in-hand with concerns about energy comes an increasingly loud fuss about the nature of the world’s food production systems, for both farmers and the people who ultimately eat the food. For all that food miles are a gross over-simplification of the real issues surrounding food markets, you can expect the “eat local” movement to get bigger and louder in a town near you (and what that means if you live somewhere with a really short growing season, I honestly don’t know). I also don’t know how all this will play out in the long term, because as yet most people don’t seem to have joined the dots between the agro-business systems that upset them so much and the kinds of things the Occupy movement is yelling about: but the dots are there, and ultimately they’ll have to be joined to really make changes. I digress, and I don’t see that happening in a concerted way just yet. But when growing your own food has become a socially and politically subversive act in many places, the eventual results can only be interesting.
Climate change, or rather the awareness of climate change, is something that I do see emerging very strongly. And maybe you think that it hasn’t affected your life yet, but this is a the zeitgeist report, not the business pages. You just wait and see, especially if you have a house insured near sea-level (and as I type this, the only reason I’m more than a metre above high tide is that I’m upstairs, and quite happy to be renting this house thank you very much). Most people aren’t going to see real physical impacts yet, but they’ll feel the waves reflected through insurance companies governments as decisions are made with (mostly) an eye to the long term. If I could predict with any certainty what form those waves would take, I could probably get rich: as it is, it’s setting off my smell-o-scope quite firmly.
Getting rich, or more specifically just how a small group of other people managed to get rich, has been very much in the news and in the culturosphere for some time now, of course. You probably don’t need me to tell you that what we’re looking at right now is the glimpse you might get after the initial impact in a truly nasty car crash: the initial energies have all been entrained into a new and complicated system, but between the damage already sustained and sundry heavy objects still in motion, the final outcome is anyone’s guess. I have friend visiting Greece at this very moment in time, whose brains I shall pick when he returns: the default (or not) of Greece and its continued membership (or not) of the Euro zone seems to be a vital bell-weather for what happens in that part of the world in the next ten or twenty years. Beyond that? Your guess is as good (or rather, just as bad) as mine.
Good grief, you may be saying at this point: this is deeply depressing. You may be feeling an impulse to flee my blog and never return. The truth is I’m uncomfortable with unrelenting bad-news stories, and like the essay linked to above I think that the temptation to ruin and dystopia has been too strong and too easy in out culture for quite some time: I blame religion (no really, I do: take Judgement Day and keep to yourselves, please). That being said, then, what are we going on with here? What is there to be positive and upbeat about in the breeze as it impinges on the metaphorically moistened finger of your scribe? Well, just quietly, I find the Occupy movement and number of other groundswells of opinion to be extremely heartening. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these things are much bigger than they’re currently perceived to be: every time I’ve been involved in something that was reported in the news, the coverage was so misleading as to be be laughable, and if any type of event was going to be prone to that problem it would be a protest was, at least in part, about how crap the news media generally are. And getting that many young, well-off people out into the streets to make a substantial fuss about how their lives are run is tremendously encouraging (especially in the States, where those are generally terrified of getting a police record). And if (looking a little further afield) the aftermath of the Arab Spring seems uncertain and problematic to you, that’s probably because you’re a citizen in an old and well-established democracy, and you probably never knew how long that democracy took to get established. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya: these places are never going back to the way they were, and though it may take them a generation or more to get to where they really wanted to be last week, they’ve still undergone a positive change. Which means their voices will be heard much more loudly in the global discussion than they have been in the past.
Given how much to the grief and strife in the world currently revolved around “exceptionalism” in various foreign policies when it comes to the Arab nations, I think this whole area is something to watch. Keep a special eye on Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich nations: the suspicion has always been that OPEC are over-stating their oil reserves, in which case the power base of the ruling elite in those countries is much wobblier than they’re making it out to be. Of course, I have a copy of Robert Fisk’s book about the Middle East sitting un-opened on my shelf, so I could be talking complete and utter bollocks. But then, the same is true of most of this essay: I’ll make a futurologist of me yet.
June 22, 2011
Two things that are blowing my mind today.
Humans could have geomagnetic sight. Cryptochrome acts as a quantum compass in the retinas of animals. You couldn’t make this stuff up! How I love biology.
And for completely different reasons, this is also awesome. Must try and figure out how to play it:
March 26, 2011
I rather like this song, but can’t find a decent video. This one is better than the official one, and it’s always nice to see a band getting into a live performance.
March 25, 2011
Here I am, breaking radio silence after what even I have to concede is a long time. What can I say? My new job uses lots of the same muscles as blogging, and that Facebook thing has been my dumping ground for links, of late. I do have quite a few photos of interesting places saved up, though.
Anyway, I’m here in a good cause: my best beloved has just started a blog that some of you might find interesting: Freak Food NZ. Go look!
January 25, 2011
This a dry run for part of a lecture on food production. Disclaimer: I’m an ecologist, and this is based on my understanding of nutritional ecology and animal foraging behaviour. It should be taken as, at best, dilettante commentary on population health, and definitely isn’t medical advice. Especially if your doctor is telling you something to the contrary about your particular clinical circumstances!
Over the last ten or fifteen years there’s been a quiet shift in the way we think about foraging behaviour. In other words, our understanding of how and why animals choose both their overall diet and individual food items is better and more powerful now than it was 25 years ago. Key to this shift has been throwing out the (always faintly ridiculous) idea that a foraging animal is aiming for some specific target of calorie intake and nutrient balance. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that, given the choice, animals choose food items over the course of days or weeks that maintain a certain ratio of various nutrients in their diet. This happens within the constraints of energy requirements that vary wildly between different animal species, and even between individuals and over seasons. In effect they’re chasing a “best line” of nutrient intake over time; this is sometimes called a “nutritional rail”. Staying on the rails no matter what? We’ll get to that in a second.
I used an esoteric version of this concept to try and explain the mechanisms of chemical defenses in my PhD thesis, but in a broad concept we’re normally interested inprotein macronutrient ratios. Macronutrients are the different classes of food that you’re probably familiar with: specifically protein, carbohydrates, and fats. To the great joy of reductionist types everywhere, fats and carbohydrates can be basically lumped together in a nutritional sense over any time frame greater than a few hours: animals, including us, can happily convert one to the other. The major difference is that fats represent a much more concentrated energy source, and that complex carbohydrates are harder to digest (and both have their own implications for the health of individual humans, see “I am not a doctor”, above).
That leaves us in a lovely simple nutritional world where there’s “protein” and “everything else”. Or nitrogen and carbon, if you’re of a botanical and horticultural bent. And, having made ourselves a lovely simple world, this is where things get interesting.
It turns out that humans (and indeed, other animals) prefer a certain percentage of protein in their diet: the figure is about 15%, although you’ll want more carbohydrate than that (probably in the form of fat) if you live in a cold climate or if you’re very active. But we don’t regulate our food intake based on the overall ratio: we regulate based almost entirely on how much protein we’ve eaten recently. Let that sink in for a minute, as we turn to ponder this implications…
I should say at this point that I’m mostly parroting the work of other people, and particularly the Behaviour and Physiology Research Lab at the University of Sydney. That lab is led by Steve Simpson, who co-authored a paper called “Obesity: the protein leverage hypothesis“, from which I’ve borrowed some figures, and you can probably see where this is going. The key word there is “leverage”. Because we need (relative to other stuff), a fairly small proportion of protein in our diet, but that proportion is what we regulate our food intake on, things start to go haywire if we’re confronted with a low-protein diet. Even a few percent less protein than we really want leads to us eating substantially more of the available food than we want or need: 10% comes up pretty quickly and 20% isn’t hard. This is represented visually in the figure below; although the difference looks extreme, it’s been experimentally demonstrated in humans. Some other animals either use a less extreme method of balancing their diet, or they burn off excess energy by keeping warm. We tend to eat the difference, and store the excess as fat. This seems to be a fundamental factor in human physiology, and if we don’t fully understand the mechanism it reflects on our understanding of physiology, rather than our powers of observation.
Now you may be thinking, so what? Don’t eat a protein-poor diet, only got yourself to blame, get off the couch, etc, etc. But here’s the rub: we’re not good at selecting foods for protein based on their taste. We can only “kind of” taste protein, and we tend to use a lot of proximate clues, things that we associate with protein-rich foods: tastes like salt and umami, plus smells and textures and such. That works fine in the wild (as it were), but in the era of processed and manufactured foods, it’s a complete disaster.
Manufacturers of foods, and although I’ve used the term junk food in the title this encompasses a whole range of things, are well aware that people like the taste of protein. They’re also well aware that this taste is easy to fake, and that the fake is way cheaper than real protein. There’s plenty of cheap sources of starches and fats, but protein is relatively expensive: meat for all the obvious reasons, but vegetable protein isn’t actually much better (and may even be less efficient to produce than meat, for a given land area).
Barbeque sauce, the quintessential “meaty” taste: in its simplest form* it’s not only a vegan product, but the only protein it contains is whatever’s in the soy sauce. The same is true of most “meaty” or otherwise protein-ish flavours: they’re very easy (and very cheap) to fake. That leaves the consumer of large amounts of processed foods (who, statistically, tends to be a person on a lower income) with very little information available about what they’re actually eating. The result is a diet with, initially, too little protein; the longer-term, behavioural and physiological response to which is to eat too much carbohydrate and fat. This is stunningly (and depressingly) illustrated in the figure below.
Not only does the USA (point 13 on the graph) lead the world in obesity, it also leads the world in the proportion of carbohydrates and fats to protein in its diet. Presumably this is at least partly related to the monolithic and many-tentacled corn-reprocessing industry, but I suspect that’s a huge topic and not one I feel like dealing with right here and now.
Incidentally, the Atkins and other high-protein diets work by applying the protein “lever” in the other direction: forcing you to eat too much protein, so that you drop your carbohydrate intake disproportionately and start breaking down stored body fat to stay alive. I believe the jury is still out on the long-term health consequences of said diets.
A larger implication for this protein leverage concept (and the reason I’m putting it in a food-production lecture) is that the ultimate limit on a person’s food intake is their protein intake. That means, should push come to shove, that the limits on our ability to feed the teeming billions relate not to food production but to protein production. Which is a very attention-focussing idea, I think.
(*: pepper, soy sauce, paprika, sugar, vinegar)
December 14, 2010
Pohutukawa trees in bloom: check.
Inane stories about cricket and/or cricketers in the media: check.
Pouring with rain… check.