Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Forty years of my life

Photos collected by my mother of myself over my first forty years. Most are from my childhood when I was much slimmer and more red-headed
Today, as promised by my mother, there was a special fortieth birthday party for me – complete with a rebound original 1890 Wisden as a special present. Normally I could not be given so expensive a present as this $500 Wisden, but my mother agreed to for this occasion since she says forty years is the midpoint of my life.
The 1890 Wisden bought for my birthday. A pity that the image is blurred!
The 1890 Wisden is not only the oldest original Wisden I have ever received, but makes continuous my collection of peacetime Wisdens from 1881 to 1992. The 1889 season covered by it is notable for the debut of “the rhyme that lies”, a reference to Arthur Mold and the phrase “Mold bowled”, repetitive in the thirteen Wisdens from 1890 to 1902. Mold debuted to devastating effect in 1889 on a series of fiery or crumbled pitches, but he was considered by most neutral observers to be extremely lucky to bowl twelve seasons before being no-balled for throwing. Mold took over fifteen hundred first-class wickets and his speed and off-break made him unplayable when pitches crumbled or were sticky. It’s probable that the exceptional strength of English bowling in the middle 1890s – a strength rivalled only in the middle 1950s since – and his weakness with the bat helped Mold to get away with an unfair delivery for so long.
The original 1904 Wisden I bought myself. It contains the full book inside – I couldn’t show the pictures as the fingers are not mine!
Aside from the 1890 Wisden, I also received an original 1904 Wisden of exceptional quality and price. I did have a Willows 1904 Wisden, but receiving so good an original at such a price (it was discounted because of numerous blank pages at the rear which I find ridiculous).

The birthday was highlighted by a remarkable abundance of good food, as my brother came from Monash for both lunch and dinner. The lunch was a familiar supermarket roast chicken with stuffing, but I ate it up enough that I did not realise there was a little more chicken in the bag. There was a remarkable amount of cake – one older mandarin and almond cake, one lime cake and one pear and chocolate moose cake which was bought for the birthday of myself and my brother. All three cakes were delicious, the mandarin and almond cake made to test a new cake tin especially so.

We walked to the city after this, and I was bought a pair of very good sunglasses, after being laughed at for the sunglasses I had suggested earlier. Although I squint very badly in glary sunshine, I possess no experience buying sunglasses, but the pair I was given is certainly very good and fits me better than the pairs I was criticised for trying. I was by then quite tired, and after we went to Chemist Warehouse, we travelled home by tram.

The last part of the birthday was another highlight. We went to a small French restaurant in Rathdowne Street that – despite walking or cycling down the street countless times since moving to our present address nineteen years ago – I had never so much as seen! We were the only people in the restaurant, and although the food was very expensive the duck and orange sauce I had were utterly delicious! I have seldom eaten such tender and sweet food in my forty years!

During our time in the restaurant it was commented that I became nervous when others spoke consistently about topics not of interest to me – something highly perceptive because I know instinctively that it is very hard for me to listen to conversations on such topics! This was true even with subjects like the death of non-Mandarin Chinese dialects, or modern cricket, where I would have some hope of speaking with some knowledge. The restauranteur had had an unusual history, having lived in Singapore and England before moving to Melbourne.

The last stage of the trip before my brother left to go home was a gelati at a place in Lygon Street opposite the main shopping centre where I have done most grocery shopping for many years. I forget the name but enjoyed the mango and strawberry gelati very much.

All in all, this was a great fortieth birthday and I appreciate why we cannot have this every year. I also appreciate the problems I have had with my behaviour, which still do not go away despite my mother saying I am always improving.

Friday, 27 October 2017

John Farndon’s “fifty greatest ideas”

  1. The Internet
  2. Writing
  3. Contraception
  4. Music
  5. Use of Fire
  6. Abolition of Slavery
  7. Evolution by Natural Selection
  8. The Scientific Method
  9. Sewerage
  10. Computer Programming
  11. Hope
  12. Logic
  13. The Wheel
  14. Democracy
  15. The Zero
  16. The Telephone
  17. Vaccination
  18. Bread
  19. Feminism
  20. Printing
  21. Quantum Theory
  22. Electricity Grids
  23. The Self
  24. Arable Farming
  25. Calculus
  26. Government
  27. Marxism
  28. Refrigeration
  29. Simplified Chinese Characters
  30. Universities
  31. Laws of Motion
  32. Mass Production
  33. Romance
  34. Wine
  35. Coffee and Tea
  36. Pottery
  37. The Steam Engine
  38. Banking
  39. Copper and Iron
  40. The Sail
  41. The Welfare State
  42. Capitalism
  43. Qi
  44. Epic Poetry
  45. Honour
  46. Monotheism
  47. The Aerofoil
  48. The Stirrup
  49. Weaving and Spinning
  50. Marriage
This list, to me, is very much flawed. Even Farndon himself in writing The World’s Greatest Idea admits the flaws behind even sacrosanct ideas such as democracy, although he does not go nearly so far as Hans Hoppe or anti-democratic critics since the fourth-century Simon the Theologian have, or even mention them. It would logically be very valuable to distinguish good form harmful ideas in such a list.

There is also many things underrated or unmentioned in the list. #47 (the aerofoil, which permitted the airplane) should have been much, much higher given the direct and indirect impacts of aviation. The speed at which people can travel would be utterly impossible without aviation unless high speed rail could be developed or – as the PIGs often suggest – pay-as-you-go roads could be made to allow the speeds modern cars are capable of to be safely driven. #17 (Vaccination) and #27 (Refrigeration) should also have been much higher. Both affected the distribution of human settlement to an extreme extent and helped permit major social changes by allowing longer periods of individual development. #9 (Sewerage) falls into this category too.

#23 (The Self) and #20 (Printing) were inventions that allowed the growth of modern philosophy and of the European global empires, and thus I would certainly agree with them as potentially higher.

Fertilisers – which have meant that Australia has not only superabundant minerals but unlike the Gulf States also the ability to use hyperabundant flat land that is extremely deficient in essential thiophile elements evaporated by fire over tens of millions of years – are another omission. Modern fertilisers allowing land previously far beyond the “productive soil margin” to be cultivated have not only saved many lands from regular famine, but have also:
  • allowed the democratisation of numerous nations where large landowners were previously too powerful obstacles due to their fear of taxation, including:
    • post-Stalinist Eastern Europe (except Czechoslovakia)
    • all of Southern Europe
    • almost all of Latin America
    • Japan, Taiwan and South Korea
  • been a primary cause of the rapid decline of Christianity in these nations as the highly secular urban working and academic classes were not longer faced with economically viable political opponents
  • much more destructively had severe impacts on the ancient, slowly-speciating biological hotspot of Southwest Western Australia, where dirt-cheap land has been and continues to be opened for unsustainable farming with severe global climate impacts
  • had lesser but also severe impacts on sub-Saharan Africa, where it has increased comparative advantage in agriculture and retarded alternative economic developments that are undoubtedly more environmentally critical than in the Enriched World, Asia or Latin America
Fertilisers ought certainly in my opinion to have been in the top five. Even when Farndon talks about arable farming he does not recognise how a transformation from cultivating naturally hypereutrophic soils to geologically less unrepresentative oligotrophic ones is certainly so crucial as the invention of arable farming itself.

Film is another invention that should have been on there, as could its related invention Television. The influence of film on humanity since its invention cannot be denied. Apart from film and television as entertainment in themselves:
  • film has allowed the exposure of parts of the world that cannot be visited due to climate or politics
  • film has allowed the exposure to the public of scandals and secrets that in previous generations were never known. Whilst this may have made people more suspicious of authority and weakened communities, it has certainly made deadly corruption less likely
  • many sports (e.g. basketball and volleyball) would be very specialised interests without the aid of television owing to the specialised body types required
Organic pesticides – even if banned due to their persistence in the environment – were a major improvement on using un-selective and toxic toads to eat pests, or un-selectively poisonous and naturally extremely scarce lead and arsenic compounds to kill them. These pesticides were critical to the “Green Revolution” discussed in the previous paragraph and briefly hinted at in #24 of the book; however, the radical change they were to agricultural practices cannot be overlooked.

Electrolysis – which via its ability to isolate metals with powerful bonds to oxygen transformed Australia from a non-arable wasteland of uniquely low fertility into the planet’s richest nation – should have been in the top ten but was not mentioned at all. Electrolysis and the resultant ability to exploit metals more reactive than iron had an incomparably greater effect on the world than iron metallurgy. Without the ability to use metals more reactive than iron the Earth’s resources would have been exhausted at almost the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

I could probably think of a lot more omissions than these if I looked harder; however, I am not in the mood with so much to think about at present.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Reconciling ‘Time’’s contradictory impulses means recognising the planet as different worlds

Quite recently, Time magazine demonstrated that whatever the claims of vegetarians and vegans, humans are not naturally vegetarian. This is especially true outside of Australia and Africa, where human evolution to IQs capable of evolving to develop civilisation and advanced science was certainly dependent upon the availability of meat. With vegetarian or vegan diets, brains could have never grown larger than a gorilla’s.

Now, in an incomparably less original post but one I felt I should bog for the sake of fairness Time has shown that if the globe was to go vegetarian or vegan, then as many as eight million lives would be saved by completely eliminating meat from the global diet – and many more from ameliorating resultant climate change through reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

There is one trouble – how significant I do not know – with this familiar argument. This is that shifting to a vegetarian diet would further shift irreplaceable economic advantages towards less fertile nations – mainly in Australia and Africa. Even if they were only producing plant foods, the gains would be vastly less than theoretical. Either:
  1. the globe would need to adopt protein-deficient diets with health costs thereof or
  2. the densely-populated “fertile” Tropical World (tropical Asia, Mesoamerica, Andean South America) would have to become the protein bowl, which the free market clearly shows as exceedingly inefficient economically except at the lowest labour costs:
    • Tropical Asia, Mesoamerica and Andean South America are extremely short of land relative to population, even compared to Europe, North Asia and the temperate Americas – let alone to Australia and Africa
    • the resultant exceptionally large comparative disadvantage in agriculture of the more-developed and densely populated (sub)tropical East Asian nations
    • one recent study suggests this comparative disadvantage will spread with development to the rest of Monsoon Asia
  3. technology would have to be radically improved to allow first-class plant protein on ancient, poor soils.
    • it’s highly possible that inability to produce adequate plant protein even for small brains prevented indigenous farming developing in Aboriginal Australia.
Plant foods cannot be economically produced under the very high land prices of Europe, East Asia, Southern Cone South America, or the east and west coasts of North America. Moreover, in North Asia and most of North America, plant food production is uneconomic because of very short frost-free seasons and more often than not steep terrain. Whilst one might predict that global warming would improve the position of these lands in agriculture, in practice excessive regulation makes rebuilding (as farmland) the large areas of wasteland created by demographic decline in the Enriched World very difficult. Excessive regulation on land devoid of endemic species is likely demanded by “quality of life”-demanding Enriched World populations removed from the drudgery of farming or manufacturing.

Regulation of the environment is also related to the Enriched World’s powerful inherent egalitarianism (Cornwallis et. al., 2017; Kahan et. al., 2007) possibly because the natural glacial/interglacial climatic changes disrupt the maintenance of such social structures (Cornwallis et. al., 2017).

Because most of Europe’s and all of Canada’s flora and fauna is only 8,000 to 10,000 years old and sourced respectively from the Mediterranean and American South, conservation of these regions has no ecological value whatsoever: all species conserved there will become extinct with the next glaciation! Moreover, as Weir and Schulter (2007) have shown, sister species in North America and the Southern Cone are two orders of magnitude younger than similarly related sister species in the humid tropics. Given the concentration of primitive taxa such as marsupials and basal passerines in Australia and Africa, and the concentration there of highly social cooperative breeders – whom Cockburn (2003) shows to speciate exceptionally slowly if at all – it would be expected that sister species in the subtropical arid zones of the Eastern Hemisphere are still older than those in the humid tropics. Although the Western Hemisphere is radically different from the Eastern in – except the erratically arid sertão – entirely lacking ancient, flat and dry regions, Weir (2007) still failed to examine sister species in the young arid zones of North America in his study of diversity evolution. Mittelbach et. al. (2007), in contrast, suggest that speciation rates are not higher in the Enriched World; however, he does suggest fast extinction rates explain the low or zero Enriched World endemism and low species diversity.

In order to deal with this issue, people today need to realise that production of animal protein is natural only in the Enriched World. Before the development of water-intensive irrigation and fertilisers animal-based diets were natural in human populations only poleward of 40˚ to 45˚ from the equator, where these high protein diets limited fertility and birth rates. It’s plausible that with restrictions on land and water use in low latitudes were stringent enough, and wages in the high latitudes less hiked by minimum wage laws that limit employment, there would be opportunities for more efficient use of hunting or seasonal grazing to give a more nutritious diet on land where even exploitative use has negligible long-term impacts due to extreme youth. In fact, such was done extensively in teh Alps and elsewhere, but has decayed due to the opening up of the Unenriched World where land is cheaper but less sustainable.

Indeed – though quantification has not been attempted – it is highly plausible that at least in Australia, the oldest and most fragile extant continent, the ecological gains from importing all animal foods from the Enriched World and revegetating the continent would exceed pollution and greenhouse costs from transportation were there a concerted national high-speed rail plan to cover all long-distance travel. In other Unenriched landmasses, the gains would be smaller but still potentially substantial.

As a matter of fact, it is my view that – except for species demonstrably “Endangered” – protection is superfluous in most of the Enriched World owing to the macroregion’s exceedingly high natural secondary productivity, rapid species turnover, and absence of species younger than the last glaciation except in the lowest latitude parts. Utilising very high-latitude protein source is no doubt more expensive than the Unenriched World, but also vastly more sustainable because we are losing only a splintering of geological history vis-à-vis a substantial part or even majority of the Phaeronozoic.

References:

  • Cockburn, Andrew; ‘Cooperative Breeding in Oscine Passerines: Does Sociality Inhibit Speciation?’; Proceedings of the Royal Society; Volume 270, No. 1530 (November 7, 2003), pp. 2207-2214
  • Cornwallis, Charlie K.; Botero, Carlos A.; Rubenstein, Dustin R.; Downing, Philip A., West, Stuart A. and Griffin, Ashleigh S. (2017); ‘Cooperation facilitates the colonization of harsh environments’; Nature, Ecology and Evolution, volume 1, pp. 1-10
  • Kahan, Dan M.; Braman, Donald; Slović, Paul; Gastil; John and Cohen, Geoffrey L.; ‘ The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – The American Culture War of Fact’; (October 3, 2007). GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 370 and GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 370.
  • Mittelbach, Gary G.; Schemske, Douglas W.; Cornell, Howard V.; Allen, Andrew P.; Brown, Jonathan M.; Bush, Mark B.; Harrison, Susan P.; Hurlbert, Allen H.; Knowlton, Nancy; Lessios, Harilaos A.; McCain, Christy M.; McCune, Amy R.; McDade, Lucinda A.; Mark A. McPeek, Near, Thomas J.; Trevor D. Price, Ricklefs, Robert E. Roy, Kaustuv; Sax, Dov F.; Schluter, Dolph; Sobel, James M. and Turelli, Michael; ‘Evolution and the latitudinal diversity gradient: speciation, extinction and biogeography’; Ecology Letters 10 (2007); pp. 315–331
  • Weir, Jason T.; (2007 thesis) ‘Evolution of the latitudinal species diversity gradient of New World birds and mammals’
  • Weir, Jason T. and Schulter, Dolph (2007); ‘The Latitudinal Gradient in Recent Speciation and Extinction Rates of Birds and Mammals’; Science, 315 (5818); pp. 1574-1576

Sunday, 22 October 2017

European toad versus cane toad: a study in contrasting research

Rivalled by only the rabbit and red fox as worst and most dangerous introduced species in Australia is the cane toad (Rhinella marina; historically and familiarly Bufo marinus).
Adult female cane toad with human hand for comparison
The toad is absolutely lethal to the unique marsupials of the genus Dasyurus (quolls) which have evolved for 150,000,000 years with zero exposure to toad toxins, and demonstrably cannot coexist with bufonids anywhere.  This is seen in the fact that toad invasion has throughout the monsoonal tropics caused 97 percent declines in Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus) populations within a couple of years without any later recoveries. Bufonids also extremely dangerous to a number of predatory reptiles, such as goannas (Varanus) and elapid snakes, though unlike quolls these species can undergo behavioral or morphological changes to permit them to avoid eating toads.
Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus) – went from “Least Concern” to Endangered in a decade due to the spread of cane toads
It is well known that the cane toad was introduced into Australia to control a number of species of native “cane beetles” that were killing sugarcane by feeding on the plant’s sweet roots. It is also well known that, besides extirpating quolls and goannas, the cane toad did not reduce the numbers of cane beetles. In fact, the year 1946 saw the worst outbreak on record although toads had been released a decade beforehand!

However, it is almost unknown that at the very time the cane toad was released into Queensland, the CSIR was experimenting with the European Common Toad (then Bufo vulgaris; now Bufo bufo) as a pest control agent for Oncoptera grass grubs that were eating pastures in southern Australia. Proposals to import Bufo vulgaris (as I will call it for the rest of this post) and also the natterjack toad Bufo calamita date back to Western Australia in 1897. They were never executed in the first third of the twentieth century, but with increasing pest problems in the 1930s, the CSIR imported several specimens of Bufo vulgaris for a thorough test as a biological control agent against various Oncoptera. The CSIR found that Bufo vulgaris devoured all stages of Oncoptera (except, perhaps, the eggs) but that it could not dig down to reach them in their burrows. Consequently, the CSIR did not release Bufo vulgaris into southern Australia.
European common toad (Bufo vulgaris; now Bufo bufo)
If Bufo vulgaris (or the natterjack toad) had been released, it would have been likely more disastrous than the cane toad. This is because those few Australian species able to handle toad poison are almost all (Podargus frogmouths being a possible exception) immigrants from west of Wallacea – a group of islands with neither toads nor those predators (e.g. quolls) most affected by bufonid poison. Such species stand less likely to migrate into the Eyrean and Bassian faunal regions of central and southern Australia.
Eastern Quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus) now extinct on the mainland due to cane toads, and “Endangered” even in toad-free Tasmania due to rapid anthropogenic climate change
Were either Bufo vulgaris or the natterjack released it is practically certain that the spotted-tailed quoll (Dasyurus maculatus) and eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus) would have been extirpated extremely quickly except – perhaps – from small islands where the toads might not have been released. Most likely those two species would have gone “Extinct” before the middle 1970s when the first studies of the cane toad’s impact on native fauna was published by Mick Archer and snake specialist Jeanette Covacevich. Even the Western Quoll (Dasyurus geoffroii) could quite possibly have been extirpated by toads before 1974 – although the drastic (87 percent around Perth) enhanced greenhouse gases decline in streamflow over southwestern Australia since then might ironically have protected it from introduced Bufo vulgaris. I have also imagined that poison in Bufo vulgaris eggs and/or tadpoles would have been a threat to the iconic platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) which hunts purely by touch and possesses as little exposure in its evolution to toad toxins as Dasyurus.
Spotted-tailed quoll Dasyurus maculatus – the largest Dasyurus. The CSIR’s prudence in not releasing Bufo vulgaris has so far saved this species from either extinction or being “Critically Endangered” and confined to small islands
In contrast to the CSIR’s serious study of Bufo vulgaris – although it quite naturally failed to test the toad’s toxicity toward those species probably saved thereby – Bufo marinus was released into Queensland with absolutely zero testing on the cane beetles it was supposed to control! Rather, the release of Bufo marinus was done as an act of faith that it would eat the beetles consuming sugar cane – a method used to sell toads to farmers and gardeners for several centuries before 1935.

Belief in the magical power of toads to control pests was dogma among the globe’s closely-knit sugar growing fraternity in the 1930s. It is highly plausible that this fraternity feared science for the same reason that large landowners in Catholic Europe did – that it would undermine their political power by providing justification for wealth redistribution from them. While the large landowners of Catholic Europe turned to stigmata stories and Marian apparitions as their means of countering class war, sugar planters held firmly onto beliefs about certain predators as effective pest control agents whether they worked or not. Thus, when the release of Bufo marinus in Puerto Rico coincided with reduced grub density and Raquel Dexter’s dissections showed Bufo marinus to eat beetles, it became dogma among the global sugar fraternity that toads would control beetles everywhere they be introduced. However, as demonstrated by Nigel Turvey in his Cane Toads: A Tale of Sugar, Politics and Flawed Science, the actual reason for the (temporary) decline in grubs in Puerto Rico was due to unusually wet rainy seasons pinching breeding by waterlogging soils.

The cost of this false belief to Australia’s unique native wildlife has been qualitatively different from other landmasses without native bufonids. Oceanic island predators – even when living on a landmass without toads – were chiefly predatory raptors that evolved on continents with toads. Thus, unlike quolls or Pseudechis snakes, other landmasses where Bufo marinus was introduced had predators who could effectively regulate its numbers – not to mention merely one-thousandth to one-hundredth the space to expand. Thus even with uniquely bad soils, uniquely low secondary productivity and uniquely unreliable runoff toads in Australia can reach higher densities than anywhere else in the world – further condemning those who introduced the cane toad based purely upon dogma.

Friday, 20 October 2017

“Karoshi” and hardest-working US cities

Although – despite their overall strong similarities in environment vis-à-vis the Tropical and/or Unenriched Worlds – I have long known that Europe and Japan have different cultures re work and employment.

However, these two studies done in recent days by Australia’s Business Insider suggest that cultural effects have caused Europe and Japan to deviate much more than mere environmental differences would suggest. Chris Weller has found that many Japanese workers, facing the problem of long-term employment security, have suffered “karoshi” (a Japanese term for death by overwork). In July 2013, a thirty-one-year-old journalist called Miwa Sado died of heart failure after reportedly lagging one hundred and fifty-nine hours of overtime. More than twenty percent of Japanese workers work over forty-nine hours a week, vis-à-vis only sixteen percent even in the US (and a much smaller proportion no doubt in Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Australia).

Weller says Japan has not been successful at ending karoshi via relatively conventional means involving improving leave for workers and encouraging women to work. This suggest something more radical is needed – or that a culture of fatalism means people feel they have a duty to work as hard as possible because they cannot improve their status by less other means. Unlike hierarchism or individuoegalitarianism, fatalism is not based on abstract ideals of equality before the law (hierarchism) or equality of result as in individuoegalitarianism.

In contrast, as I noted in a previous paragraph, people in Europe (according to WalletHub) work only four-fifths of the hours of American workers. WalletHub’s Nicholas Bode has listed the following as the hardest-working American cities:
  1. Anchorage, Alaska 
  2. Plano, Texas
  3. Cheyenne, Wyoming
  4. Virginia Beach, Virginia
  5. Irving, Texas
  6. Scottsdale, Arizona
  7. San Francisco, California
  8. Corpus Christi, Texas
  9. Washington, DC
  10. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
  11. Denver, Colorado
  12. Dallas, Texas
  13. Charlotte, North Carolina
  14. Gilbertt, Arizona
  15. Jersey City, New Jersey
This list is perhaps the first time I have seen a list without anything in common at all – and that includes (most if not all of) the major music lists I used to read fifteen years ago. The one thing lacking appears to be small, remote cities – a fact that reflects the cheapness of land and reduced requirement for hard work under such conditions. However, the list does not include only infamously expensive cities like those of coastal California or the Northeast – several of these cities are in hotter and cheaper southern regions, where one would expect hard work to be more difficult in high temperatures. It’s probable that low taxes and reduced welfare encourages hard work, but the list leaves almost everything unanswered.