Tuesday, December 30, 2008

various weighty matters

zebras and their hooves

I hadn't visited the bonobo handshake blog for a while, and was happy to find it still going strong, and moved as always by those fascinating beasties. I'd heard that the fierce fighting in the Congo was wreaking havoc, as if bonobos didn't have enough to contend with, but at least the principal bonobo habitat, in the central region, is away from most of the fighting. Still there are scads of hungry desperate soldiers hunting throughout the whole country. 

Wish I had the money for a t-shirt or two.

Pronunciamento: when the army, in those countries where the army stands pretty big in its boots, illegally proclaims a lack of confidence in the prevailing government, setting the stage for a military coup. In expansionist Japan in the thirties there was a pronunciamento mood against the more cautious governments of the day, but more in the junior ranks of the army than among the top brass. 

Yesterday we visited the airport in an attempt to farewell my favourite six year old, who was taking her broken arm with her back to Mount Gambier. I was armed with a video camera, and carried too a little talking zebra she got from MacDonalds [not the farm] and left at my house, after painting its white hooves black [because that was the colour they should be, according to Her Certitude]. I have a funny relationship with airports. Because I've never flown in my adult life, never having the money for a ticket, they're like places where the other half live, though the other half looks more and more like myself. 
We kept telling ourselves we had plenty of time, which meant that we were running terribly late. We stopped at a post office for some reason, and then when we got there, we got into a confusion as always, finding ourselves precious minutes away from where we wanted to be. Then tried to find the Rex airlines departure area. We found the arrival area, and nobody to direct us, so we walked thousands more steps  until we found the departure area, which seemed to be immediately above the arrival area. By this time we were realizing it was going to be too late, and she was very apologetic, and I was cursing the awfulness of airports that I didn't belong to.
I love that girl so much. I'll ring her today.

From tomorrow plastic bags will be banned in South Australia. I'm not sure if the general public is ready for it, I have plenty of carry bags here but I keep forgetting to keep them in my car. I'll put them in right now

My weight, precisely measured at the right time of day, is 81.1 kgs. Today I'm restarting with CSIRO, volume 2. I did 5 kms on the exercise bike before 7.30, followed by a brief walk. If only I could keep it up, but do I ever? The boy is away for a few days over new year, and that's much relief. 

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Monday, December 29, 2008

on christmas, shopping, books, poverty and being alone

I get less Chrissie presents each year, as the number of people who like me, or even acknowledge that they know me, continues to dwindle. So I only managed one book, but it does look like being v interesting. It's called The Kiwi's Egg, by David Quammen, and it's all about Darwin and natural selection. Now that we're almost into the big Darwin celebration [2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The origin of species] I feel a spate of evolution blogging coming on.

There's a fine Darwin quote on the back cover of my new book. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars. Such a typically polite, and fastidious, demurral. Wonder why he chose to capitalize caterpillars along with god.

It might be a while before I get started on that book, I'm reading a half-dozen of em at present, including two on the natural selection theme, the Wallace bio and The blind watchmaker. 

When Vestiges of Natural Creation, a speculative, anonymous work which claimed an evolutionary link between monkeys and humans, was published in 1845 it caused a sensation and made this kind of speculation quite the popular thing. Price Alfred read it aloud to Victoria, and two other interested readers were Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. Darwin, whose ideas on the mechanism of evolution would have been quite advanced by this time, called it 'that strange, unphilosophical, but capitally written book', and wrote to a friend that the author's 'geology strikes me as bad, and his zoology far worse' [the book failed completely to provide an explanation for the evolutionary process it promoted]. Wallace was only 22 at this time, and without any field experience as yet, and his response was not surprisingly, more enthusiastic:
I do not consider it a hasty generalization, but rather as an ingenious speculation strongly supported by some striking facts and analogies but which remains to be proved by more facts & the additional light which future researches may throw up on the subject - It at all events furnishes a subject for every observer of nature to turn his attention to; every fact he observes must make either for or against it, and it thus furnishes both an incitement to the collection of facts & an object to which to apply them when collected -
I would observe that many eminent writers give great support to their theory of the progressive development of species in animals & plants.

It would seem that the time for developing a detailed and fruitful theory of the evolutionary process was just about ripe. 

Ikea effect: You picture your home as an experimental laboratory, full of new-fangled desks, utensil racks, ergonomic and elegant chairs, trim bookshelves. You will entertain like never before. You feel part of a just-so material world, appreciative and ready to be appreciated. You go home full of the future, having bought a $2 lint remover. 

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Friday, December 26, 2008

a basic matter

While watching the pleasant movie Ever After, featuring a younger Drew Barrymore as a Cinderella figure in cahoots with Leonardo da Vinci, we heard a joke about cleaning some queen-like figure's throne, which led us to speculate about toilets in the time of da Vinci, and also about how the Romans did it. 

 The Romans improved greatly on the Greeks re sewerage. Some of their sewers are still being used. They had public toilets which housed many people at once, as shown. The picture is from Ostia, Rome's harbour city. They seem not to have been partitioned off, and I don't know if they segregated men and women. It isn't clear whether the Romans squatted or sat at these toilets, but they were probably raised from the ground more for sanitary reasons than for ease of sitting. The sewerage, washed away into rivers by aqueducts, wasn’t treated of course, Romans had no such technology nor would they have seen the reason for it, not knowing anything about bacteria. No toilet paper, instead citizens used a communal sponge, washed after each use.

 One authority has claimed or calculated that Rome had some 144 public lavs in the later empire. They were generally connected to public baths, and would have been utilized by most of the population, except for the poor who couldn’t afford the public baths. The poor relieved themselves in chamber pots, which were emptied into vats under the stairs, which in turn were emptied into cesspools located around the city. Lead pipes connected to the aqueducts provided running water for wealthy homes.

 The excavations at Pompeii have provided invaluable info on Roman plumbing. They found that most houses were fitted with taps, and waste was piped away into sewers and trenches. I’d be very interested to see a picture of a Roman tap, or a surviving example to compare to modern types. Lead piping was used in the Roman area and the Western Mediterranean, and ceramic piping [developed by the Greeks] in the east.

The public lavs, which seemed to be popular hangouts, used buckets or containers, calleddolia curta. These were collected by fullers, who used the urine to clean laundry [because of the ammonia]. Clothes washing wasn’t a regular thing though. They seemed to be more tolerant of smelly clothing than smelly bodies.

 The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World looks like a great place to start [and finish] as regards this sort of thing, but what about the da Vinci era?  

Leonardo da Vinci lived from 1452 to 1519. We know that the collapse of the Roman Empire led to a degeneration of sanitation in subsequent centuries. For example flush toilets were, amazingly enough, first used in the Indus Valley civilization as long ago as the third millenium BCE, and the Romans also used them, but the technology was lost for centuries. The flush toilet was rediscovered or redesigned by John Harrington in the 1590s for the use of Elizabeth I [she didn't like it, it made too much noise]. It didn't take off in England but was adapted by the French, for limited use. From the eighteenth century, a number of modifications and design features led to the development of a recognisably modern toilet. The plumber Thomas Crapper is often associated with the flush toilet, but he was more of a promoter and manufacturer, flourishing in the late nineteenth century. Our crap doesn't come from the name, instead it's a delightful case of nominative determinism. So to get back to da Vinci, the thrones of those times wouldn't have flushed, and presumably the contents of these thrones would've been dealt with by the servants [in the case of the rich]. The nightsoil man doesn't seem to have been a feature of towns until the eighteenth century. 

So there you go. A very patchy history.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

what's the point

a lily, unfestered

It's midnight and today's a new day, early, and I'm contemplating again my embonpoint. I weighed myself earlier, not at the right time, which as we all know is morning, naked or close to, post ablutions and pre breakfasting, and it was about 81.2, about ten kilos, or maybe even twelve, more than I'd like to be, but I realize I can't do it alone, because I haven't, and right now I'm writing this instead of going on a rolling midnight ramble or hopping on the exercise bike; maybe later. Yet I'm reaching a stage of really wanting to get myself under management which at least is a good sign. A certain feebleness of spirit led me to spend money on dinner out, with S and the boy, always with the very good excuse that within two or three weeks he'll be out of my care, so it's time to celebrate and be generous. Before this dinner [I ate chicken breast stuffed with camembert and other goodies, with chips and salad, great for the weight] I spent more time on my arse watching an eighties Clint Eastwood movie, The Pink Cadillac, all as part of the boy's quest to see every bit of Jim Carry footage ever captured on what passes for celluloid these days. And guess what, after dinner, at a nearby pub, we all retired to the home of S for yet another arse-flattening film, the considerably more uplifting Big Fish, a Tim Burton epic about fantasy and family and tensions between. I always feel awkward though with films about family, having let my own down so badly, having estranged myself so completely from them. 

Not going to do a film review here though. Felt a stab of romantic devotion to just one, so easy when she comes so perfectly packaged as the young Snow-White Sandra [Alison Lohman], as if this image of youth and beauty represented love and not simply a perfect specimen within which to spurt seed and start out on a new eugenics, a specimen doomed to withering but perfect at spurting time. But I must return to my embonpoint, the point after all. I'm struggling with my pedo steps, preferring fantasy myself to the hard stepping cycling work of reality. Did get a rare dose of reality the other night though in the form of a truly beautiful young woman, friendly as all get out to all and sundry, and lusted after no doubt by all and sundry in the bar where she works, a bar I visit regularly only because of her, because she is so soothing on the eye and a fillip for fantasy, and last night she tried to engage me in friendly chit-chat as she has before, and I've always been awkward and monosyllabic, trying so hard to seem self-contained and un-needy, but this time when she asked how I'd been I tossed off a remark about the difficulties of foster-caring, and she enthusiastically revealed that she had been in foster care as a teen and had been very difficult herself. Followed a brief enthusiastic exchange about the tough teen years, the selfishness and stubbornness, and it was of course a breakthrough of sorts, though i was unable to make anything more of it, yet what a subject to have in common, quite exciting really. Ah to be simply in the company of beautiful women always, watching them and pleasing them with conversation or whatever else I might have to offer, which admittedly isn't much in this competitive world.

But again getting back to my embonpoint...

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

reason science faith

all god's critters

I watched some of last weekend's repeat of Qanda with some interest and amusement, formulating my own responses as I watched, but only after talking to a friend who was outraged at Angela Shanahan's contribution did I think of putting down some of my responses here, because they were probably mostly responses to Shanahan. I didn't bother before because it has all been said, time and time again, and Shanahan offers such a soft and limp target as to be hardly worth typing over. 

One of the questions was something along the line of do you think faith is compatible with reason/science?, to which Shanahan responded with the feeble response that a lot of scientists are believers, ergo... My response to that would be that this is an example of compartmentalisation, which we all engage in. The real question isn't whether a person can hold incompatible beliefs - they can, they always have and probably always will. The question is whether scientific explanation is compatible with religious explanation. There have been various attempts to argue for compatibility, from the scientific perspective and from the religious perspective. Stephen Jay Gould tried to argue that science and religion dealt with separate and non-overlapping spheres of thought and being, but you don't have to read chapter 2 of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion to recognise the inadequacy, indeed the absurdity, of that argument. If Gould's argument for non-overlapping magisteria [the high-falutin terminology here should make us wary straight away] is correct, then the established churches were simply wrong to harrass Galileo and to object to the idea that we're closely related to chimps. They didn't realize, apparently, that the heliocentric theory and the theory of evolution by natural selection had not the slightest relation to their religious views about God as the creator of the universe, and about humanity as central to his divine plan. 
This is absurd, of course. The church knew exactly what was at stake when it went after Galileo. It knew that it was directly in competition with the emergent sciences, that these two 'spheres of influence' offered clearly alternative, and incompatible, explanations of our place in the universe and on earth.
Science is a product of rigorous reason harnessed to technique, to put things simplistically. As such, it has been the most spectacularly successful human phenomenon by any measure over the past few centuries. Established churches have, in the west, been rather blown away by this success. One of the main reasons for this, I think, is that churches, in becoming established, have had to enshrine rules and statutes, organising principles and the like. The establishment of churches requires this kind of order and reason, which by its nature invites scrutiny. When you start issuing decrees about the nature of the soul, or the trinity, or the relationship of the priesthood to the laity [and the deity], you are trying to transform something essentially metaphysical, and perhaps non-existent, into something practical and measurable and agreed-upon, but unfortunately religious matters don't fit very well into that regimen, unlike scientific matters. This is why the religious authority of established churches tends to be punitive, because the authority they derogate to themselves is so weak, when tested by reason. Science, on the other hand, has passed the test of rigorous reason with flying colours, and has therefore been one of the chief generators of cultural evolution in the west.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

warily approaching doctor trim

As part of my penance lately I'm forced to watch every Jim Carry movie ever made, as fellow-traveller along my foster-boy's journey. Recently unearthed were two early ventures, a weird, tinny Club Med promo about skiing and country music and chasing girls, and a mildly amusing vampire spoof. Last night, a "dirty Harry'' movie in which Carry has a brief frenetic role as a junky - the boy refused to go on watching after the character's early demise, though I was almost getting into it. Instead he put on Earth Girls are Easy, a mildly amusing spoof largely saved by the bodacious Geena Davis. Carry's usual character is under-utilized in this, another plus.   

My weight remains over 80k. Everything I eat seems to bloat me, though my appetite hasn't exactly faded. I might be eating for compensation, and I'm not keeping to disciplines I try to set myself, eg no eating after 7pm, or 8pm. I need support in this. The problem is probably associated with a general letting go, a lack of concern for my appearance and so forth. My walking isn't going too badly, it's increasing, but having no real effect on my weight. I've taken to a bit of exercise biking, but not regularly enough. I need a plan and outside discipline and enforcement. The walker tracker site's great, but I've not communicated with anyone through it. 

This interview with Gutbusters founder Gary Egger is instructive. He points out something that's very true in my case, that men don't worry too much about what can't be seen - the heart or liver for example, unless they're obviously playing up. So the gut's the thing to focus on. He also notes that one of the first things that happen when men fatten up is sleep apnoia - snoring. Again, my case is typical, though nobody has slept with me in a long time, so it's easy to ignore the problem. 

Egger also notes that it's an environmental problem in the west, caused by abundance and a general ease of life - personal cars for transportation and the like. It's true again in my case. My neighbours here in this group of four co-op homes ride bikes more than I do. One walks his dog regularly. I drive everywhere - remembering that I didn't get my licence until my mid-thirties. 

Egger has moved onto a new improved version of his gutbusters program, which appears to emphasise the science a bit more, and maybe focuses less exclusively on the waist. Professor Trim's weight loss program is specifically designed just for me. The web site is here, and I've just subscribed, or almost, to the newsletter. Actually it looks like I can't do it just now because my accounts aren't working. Anyway, the prices of everything are quite reasonable. There's a quick start program booklet for $9.95, and though the full program is a pricey $495, it can be paid in instalments. Still, I think I'll try the booklet first. My finances are a mess. 


Monday, December 08, 2008

wee escapades and intimations of mortality

I'm somewhat exiled from my second family these days, so I heard with horror yesterday that my fave girl, six-year-old Courtney, has been in the wars again, having broken her arm during a family party. I was at Sarah's for a co-op bbq, and she told me that the day before, the intrepid girleen had been jumping off a wardrobe into a portacot, showing off to some younger kids, when the greenstick fracture occurred. Her screams were impressive, apparently, and they no doubt scuppered the party. 
About eighteen months ago, Courtney was playing with a friend in a field near Mount Gambier. There had been a campfire, and the ashes were still smouldering. Courtney tripped and fell, landing with her forearms in the hot cinders. 
Courtney now has her arm in a cast, which she's enthusiastically getting everyone to sign. I will see her in a day or two, I hope. Unless something thoroughly unforeseen happens, she'll make a full recovery. When she was burned before, people weren't quite so sanguine about it, burns being much more iffy injuries. There was talk of skin grafts, permanent disfigurement. She was flown from Mount Gambier to Adelaide, I think with the Flying Doctor Service, charming the socks off the medical staff along the way. She received excellent treatment, and again made a full recovery, not a trace, or barely a trace, remaining. 
Naturally there has been much talk of the resilience of children, and there's plenty of truth in that, but Courtney is also a child of good fortune being an Australian, twenty-first century girl. 
The other day, I read an intriguing article in Cosmos magazine. Its theme was that human evolution may have come to a halt, because we have reached the stage of a 'grand averaging'. As part of the argument, geneticist Steve Jones points out that 
In Shakespeare's time, two out of three babies were dead before they were 21. In Darwin's day, just half of them were dead. Today, that's down to just one percent. That's a great achievement in the developed world, but for evolution it means that there are no differences in mortality to the age of reproduction, and therefore no material for natural selection.
This is just a hint of Jones's elaborate and really quite compelling argument, and I hope to reflect further on this stuff in a later piece, but for now I want to focus on the accident-prone and fortunate Courtney. 
In those earlier times of high child mortality, it was not unusual for women's pregnancies to reach into double figures, to try to ensure the survival of the one, two or three children that women choose to limit themselves to today, with the expectation that all will be bouncy happy and healthy. And that situation would've pertained not only in Shakespeare's time, but for centuries and millenia before that, leaving aside the odd enlightened ancient civilisation. In fact, Courtney's campfire accident prompts me to imagine the earliest days of homo sapiens, when campfires were de rigueur, and the risk of getting burnt in the family or tribal fire might well have been the most serious and frequent one faced by toddlers. How would an accident like Courtney's be treated then? Maybe they kept a few tried and tested balms in the cave. Maybe they licked their wounds a lot. Maybe, after a few hours of moaning and groaning, they'd get sick of the child and cuff her out of the way. Certainly there would be largely unconscious calculations as to how much time and effort they'd spend on the hurt child, what with all the other mouths to feed and survival tasks to undertake. Quite possibly, if the wounds began to fester, they'd dispose of her over a cliff or with a heavy rock. More likely, they'd simply abandon her when it came time to move hunting grounds. 
Broken limbs, the result of climbing accidents or tribal or familial infighting, would have been commonplace of course. Courtney's greenstick fracture might've been treated with a splint of sorts, and she would've survived, misshapen but not horribly so, especially considering that few of her fellows would've escaped intact from various tumbles and spearings and bludgeonings. That was life, but not as we know it. Today we expect miracles, and get them every day. If not, there'll be hell to pay. 
So I look forward to signing that cast and hearing her tell of her latest little escapade.


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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Life

Sex has always been a major theme of my writing, though I've generally hived it off to other spaces, such as here and here. Yet I'm not comfortable with erotic writing. Much of it is boring to read, and as a purely theoretical libertine, I've not had much experience to write about. I'd be a bit worried, imagining anyone ever read my stuff, about ending up in the bad sex writing columns. The real point is, though, that I'm interested in real sex, from a scientific/anthropological/psychological perspective, rather than fantasy, though I fantasise often enough. From this perspective, In My Skin, Kate Holden's honest and very informative memoir of her experience as a prostitute in Melbourne, is a real find. 
Holden's story is one of slipping into heroin addiction with alarming ease, and then gradually moving into the seedy world of sex in parked cars to pay for her habit, before moving up into safer and generally healthier brothel environments. I haven't finished the book, but presumably she has traded on her writing skills to finally kick the heroin habit and to generally 'go legit'. I don't know that I'm looking forward to the last part of the book, which inevitably will be about the pain of withdrawal from a drug she uses, at the point I'm at in the book, twice a day, sending more than a small fortune, by my standards, through her veins. And a very hard-earned fortune too.
Needless to say, the drugs side of this story interests me much less than the prostitution side, yet they're tightly related, and though I can't quite identify with being in that space myself, I've certainly known and lived with drug addicts [and struggled to tolerate them], and Holden's account is very matter-of-fact on the guilt, the desperation, the euphoria and the tedium of that lifestyle. Maybe it's all been said before, but in fact every situation is different, and Holden always come across as honest and likeable, and somehow a survivor. Her account is tight, completely unromantic and without self-pity, and very absorbing. 
In the past I've tried to write about being a prostitute, the ultimate in cheek really for a male who's had little experience of sex of any kind, let alone as a woman paid to have her body invaded by strangers young and old, drunk and sober, beautiful and ugly, fat and skinny, smart and stupid, kind and brutal, bold and timid, smelly and sweet. La putain, c'était moi, and I imagined myself a very attractive woman, witty and realistic, out to make a solid living to set herself up, and finding herself in various awkward, amusing and scary positions. I hadn't really thought it through more than that, but I've always been strong on charcter and weak on plot. What always weighed heavily on me with this project was that this was essentially a male fantasy, of the woman who gets into prostitution by choice rather than necessity. At the same time I didn't want my character to get into the life as the stereotypical junky - stereotypical because so sadly common. I could have made such a character sympathetic, but I didn't think I could make her interesting enough to myself to keep me at it. I wanted her, of course, to be a version of myself, a dilettante who was at a loss as to how to make a living. So she decides to trade on her looks, going in with eyes wide open, knowing there's going to be many awful moments and awful people, and resolved to be professional on all occasions and to savour the occasional sweet-faced boy or seasoned lady's man. 
I abandoned the project after a few attempts, though not without contemplating a job in the industry. I discussed with someone I knew the possibility of working as a driver for her - taking girls to assignations. I didn't have a very reliable car at the time, so I didn't pursue it...
Anyway, Holden's book will feed into my Confessions of a theoretical libertine somehow, I'm sure. I'd love to meet her... What stories she could tell, what laughs we could have...


Monday, December 01, 2008

from globigerina ooze to megafauna

I learn something new every day, at least that's something. 

From my reading today I learned about the globigerina ooze which at first I thought was a science fiction construct, but no it's what much of the ocean floor is covered with. The globigerina are a genera of globigerinida, a group of forams, as the experts call them. They're plankton, essentially, and their shells form this ooze. one of many titbits from The Blind Watchmaker. More important, though, is convergent evolution, the observation that, on isolated land masses, organisms will develop to suit certain trades, as they're called, though the variety within trades is considerable. For instance, the principal grass-eating herbivores in Africa are the hoofed animals such as zebra and antelope, gallopers, ungulates. In Australia, the kangaroo fills this niche, though it has developed so very differently. Differences and similarities would be worth pursuing. Herbivores tend to have complicated, bacteria-infested guts, to break down cellulose. The development of this evolutionary pathway would obviously be different in the Australian and African mammals [and among, say, Australian herbivorous mammals], each one finding unique solutions to the problems raised. Their place in the food chain, too would make speed a priority. Herbivores are rarely at the top of the food chain - presumably the kangaroo was prey for some other mammal until recently? Their speed was an important attribute in escaping predators, and they must have developed this speed in response, not to dingoes, who were a relatively newly introduced animals, but maybe thylacines - who knows how plentiful the thylacines were? Certainly, as a marsupial, they will have evolved along with the kangaroo. But the Wikipedia article claims that it wasn't so much predation that brought about the highly developed mobility, but the need to travel long distances in reasonably quick time in a land in which water was scarce. I'm sure they know what they're talking about, but consider that herbivorous ungulate, the camel, Camelus dromedarius [actually camels can probably run quite fast]. They evolved another way of surviving in dry conditions, why such vastly different solutions? 
Certainly there would have been predators of the kangaroos before the introduced species. The marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, not of course a lion but a carniverous diprotodont marsupial, which seems to have been wiped out by the advent of humans 40 to 50 thousand years ago, was one. Diprotodonts, extant or extinct, are almost all herbivores, and they are restricted to Australasia. The Thylacoleo is distinct inter alia for its retractable claws. It is thought to have been a slow animal, catching its prey by stealth and perhaps also falling on it from above like the proverbial drop bear. In those days there were also various giant herbivorous marsupials including giant kangaroos, though I suppose the Thylacoleo would've preferred smaller prey. It also probably shared its range with  another species of megafauna, the goanna Megalania prisca. Though there's much debate about its actual dimensions, Megalania is regarded as the largest terrestrial lizard known. However, fossil remains are rarer than those of Thylacoleo, and its habits are a matter of speculation. 

Anyway, all of this opens up a whole new world of Australian paleontology never visited before by me. Fascinating.  


pavlov's cat