June Pieces Of My Mind #1

Despite the chaos of our kitchen renovation, I have managed to build myself a little reading nest. Despite the chaos of our kitchen renovation, I have managed to build myself a little reading nest.
  • Gotta love German. Try saying it out loud: "Die Beobachtung ferner Quasare, das holografische Prinzip und der Quantenschaum der Raumzeit".
  • Resolutely put away my phone in order to read a book instead. Then remembered that the book is in the phone.
  • Ever wonder what the scarf-wearing Somali girls are going to do with their lives? Judging from two of Jr's classmates in junior high, they're going to be software engineers.
  • The question of archaeology's practical usefulness should be treated as an empirical issue, open to unprejudiced investigation. Nobody will believe us if we just claim that what we do is self-evidently useful. I believe that almost all archaeology is useless from the practical perspective, but fun. In the unlikely event of any practical benefit, it must be solidly documented before we make claims.
  • Headphones with meaty bass. One of the best investments in sheer enjoyment I've made in ages.
  • I have no gravitas. Students keep asking me how old I am. Oh well, an archaeologist is never older than the last grave she excavated.
  • In about 1280, French sculptors worked on both the Cathedral and the main synagogue of Cologne.
  • My wife's the hardest-working woman in the sunflower seed shelling business.
  • Strange to read this R.E. Howard bio by Mark Finn. He has considerable stylistic ambition, but shaky ability, and very emphatically no copy editor. I rarely read books that feel this home-made.
  • I'm starting a Christian splinter group. I teach that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. And that he acts in the world. And that this means that it is neither possible nor useful to influence his actions through deeds or faith. He careth not for praise, prayer, ritual nor sin. He is busy running every aspect of the world in an optimal way.
  • Movie: Mad Max Fury Road. Post-apocalyptic grotesque road warrior story with extra everything. Grade: Pass with distinction.
  • Middle age: when you no longer keep track of your grownup points, but of your youth points.
  • I'm deeply hostile to any research strategy that aims to propagate a pre-formulated view of a matter rather than investigate whether that view has empirical support. Even in cases where I find the viewpoint politically sympathetic.
  • In the 11th and 12th centuries, French and English cemeteries were often inhabited, particularly by war refugees. You find lots of pottery and other household waste.
  • Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian and wrote hundreds of stories. His neighbours thought he was crazy: while writing he would shout the dialogue.
  • June sun woke me at 05:15. These swings in day length are why Swedes have such a bipolar national character.
  • Jrette reads stuff she wrote four years ago in 1st grade and is embarrassed about her spelling. I'm like dude, my spelling hasn't improved one bit in the past four years.
  • Jrette's entire school sings to us. Only one of the teachers has a mike. She's the only audible participant.
  • Wonder if L.S. de Camp ever tried LSD.
  • I'm rapidly becoming post-parental. I left for work before Jrette and her buddy had even woken up. Jrette called me to ask for some money zapped onto her visa card so she can buy a birthday present for another buddy. She's buying the present and going to the party by public transport without any help from grownups. The girl is still eleven! I guess this is what you get when you aim to raise capable and independent kids.
  • Gómez is a Gothic loan word and cognate with Lat. homo.
  • Falafel is fried pea soup.
  • Robert E. Howard lived all his life with his TB suffering mother and killed himself when it was clear that she had only hours left to live. This has often been interpreted as him being unable to live without her. In his REH bio, Mark Finn makes an interesting and well-supported argument that turns this on its head. REH had been suicidal for years, but lived on because he was his mother's primary care giver. He had in fact waited to be released from his duties.
  • Jrette's 30-week run as a Swedish kids' TV celebrity has started. The show is called Superhemligt.
  • The tooth layout of my jawbone is completely asymmetrical. One half is regular, the other half all curved and squiggly. Good thing the soft stuff covers it up and evens things out, or I would never have been able to reproduce. People have a hard-wired attraction towards symmetrical partners.
Holy Humvee, our house has a new door! Window! Door! Holy Humvee, our house has a new door! Window! Door!

More like this

Something I picked up somewhere: "You are middle aged if you, when faced with two different temptations, choose the one you will come home earliest from..."

Useful German science phrase: "Nicht eben falsch".

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 17 Jun 2015 #permalink

She’s buying the present and going to the party by public transport without any help from grownups. The girl is still eleven!

Quite a contrast to the US, where she would not be allowed to ride Amtrak by herself. Amtrak will not sell tickets to unaccompanied minors under age 12. Airlines will, but you have to designate an adult at each end of the journey for drop-off and pickup (it's one of the few exceptions to the rule that only passengers and airline/airport employees can enter the secure zone). And don't get me started on the subject of helicopter parenting--just be thankful that it's rare to nonexistent in your country.

Useful German science phrase: “Nicht eben falsch”.

The version I've heard is, "Das ist nicht recht; das ist doch nicht falsch." The second clause is usually translated to English as, "That is not even wrong," although "nevertheless" would be a closer translation of "doch" in that context.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Jun 2015 #permalink

You know, I always wonder why the skeptical movement does not talk more about de Camp. He was happily poking away at misconceptions in the 1950s, even if his approach was less “let us smite and scorn the wicked conmen” than “aren't we humans funny creatures! Look at some of the ways we deceive ourselves. But the surer we are that we are the civilized and rational ones, the more likely we are doing something even sillier.” He did a lot more than using bad pop psychology to write two biographies.

By Sean Manning (not verified) on 17 Jun 2015 #permalink

Eric, Amtrak is the interurban lines I believe. Kids are allowed to ride those like anybody else in Sweden, except the overnight services. The trains that Jrette uses are the commuter train into town and the Stockholm subway.

I've read some Lin Carter but never to my knowledge any LSD Camp.

Amtrak does run the interurban and long-distance services in the US. But they also run quite a few regional services. The Amtrak service in my town is the Downeaster line, from Boston North Station to Portland and Brunswick in Maine. (To go beyond Boston I would have to take the subway to either South Station or Back Bay Station, which serve the lines going south and west from Boston.) Scheduled time from here to Boston is about 80 minutes, not that much different from commuter lines to outlying areas. Your daughter would not be allowed to go from here to Boston on her own. And there are many parents in the US who would be shocked to hear that a kid her age was allowed to use a big-city metro system on her own. Not that I agree with those parents, but the threat that one of those busybodies might call Child Protective Services is something that parents of kids that age cannot ignore. And yes, that means we have been raising a generation of kids so coddled that they would have a hard time getting around on their own.

Part of it is racism. There is an assumption among many Americans (especially those who aren't from big cities; those who are can readily see that this isn't true) that buses and subways are for people with darker skin than you and I. A big part of what drove suburbanization in this country from 1945 into at least the 1990s was the desire of many light-skinned people to move away from people with darker skin. Public transport options in most of those suburbs are between paltry and nonexistent, and in many of them the prevalence of automobile traffic (often at high speed--many US local streets have wider lanes than German Autobahns) coupled with inadequate or nonexistent sidewalks makes walking a not-very-safe option as well.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Jun 2015 #permalink

To be fair, Scandinavia has no big cities. At 1.4 million, Stockholm is the biggest one we've got. But why whould the size of the city correlate with risk to children? Sure, there are more homicidal maniacs in New York than in Stockholm. But there are also a much greater number of potential victims, so the risk of any one child getting attacked probably isn't significantly different.

My wife and I saw the bus-and-skin-colour thing in Minneapolis once. Everybody on the bus looked either African American or Native American. A friend of mine reports that if you cycle to work in Mississippi wearing middle-class clothes, then you are assumed to belong to another demographic: the mentally ill.

Martin, you would like him, especially his nonfiction. He was an educated layman in several humanities fields, publishing in “Technology and Culture” and volunteering on archaeological excavations. This created problems when he read an earlier generation of writers who were better storytellers but were not so widely travelled or well-educated. His wandering swordsmen tend to worry about their budgets, get day jobs between adventures, and survive through technical knowledge or equipment not by sheer prowess. But popular books on ancient engineers, the Atlantis myth, and the Scopes trial have a shorter half-life than cracking good yarns about cossacks waving sabres and colours out of space.

By Sean Manning (not verified) on 17 Jun 2015 #permalink

Not so may of de Camp's novels were translated. I seem to recall that he was good at getting the nuts and bolts right, but was not always inspiring.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 18 Jun 2015 #permalink

Of course archaeology has no practical value! But that statement ignores its true importance. Practical things are important because they give us food, shelter, better ways to kill each other... in other words, the same basic things every animal wants and needs.
Archaeology is different. It (and some other disciplines) are like art and sculpture. They fill a place in our lives that enriches us emotionally. They define us as human, and we like them because we are human. They are part of us. Any attempt to describe them in purely practical terms must fail, because it assumes that humans can be valued in strictly practical terms. We can't. If you take away our fascination with art, music, literature, archaeology, palaeontology etc, you no longer have a human. Just a rather poorly insulated ape.

By Jim Sweeney (not verified) on 18 Jun 2015 #permalink

But why whould the size of the city correlate with risk to children?

I suspect the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is at work. The combination of lead-based paint in older housing stock and emissions from vehicles burning leaded gasoline is now believed to have played a major role in the rise of crime rates in the 1960s-1980s (crime has been dropping since the 1990s), and of course the impacts were heaviest in larger cities, which had more traffic. But the lead poisoning angle is something that has only gotten attention in the last few years, so the gullible tend to associate crime with big cities. The association doesn't hold up under a detailed look: Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis are significantly more dangerous than New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. (This isn't only true of the US either: many Brazilian and Mexican cities are more dangerous than São Paulo and Mexico City, the two largest cities in the Western Hemisphere.)

The 24/7 cable news cycle doesn't help here. Today, people throughout the US hear about incidents that 30 years ago would have been at most local stories. But there is more to it than that. I lived in Miami during the era of the cocaine cowboys, when the city had the highest murder rate in the US. But it was generally understood that if you weren't in one of the high risk groups (drug dealers, Mariel refugees, or people in families where domestic disputes were settled with guns), you were unlikely to be murdered unless you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Jun 2015 #permalink

This is a funny one:


At the Asian football cup, the Mainland football association put up posters warning players and supporters to watch out for the "Black skinned, yellow skinned, white skinned team." They were of course talking about the Hong Kong team, which has some African and European players who are eligible to play for Hong Kong by virtue of length of residency, along with a majority of local Chinese players.

Hong Kong football supporters took deep offence at being described in this manner, and so did the Hong Kong football federation.

So at the first match, when Hong Kong were playing Bhutan (who we beat 7 - 0; no real surprise), when the Bhutanese national anthem was played, the Hong Kong spectators all politely applauded. But then when the Chinese national anthem was played (representing Hong Kong) all of the Hong Kong spectators booed.

Mainlanders were horrified.

Yes, Hong Kong people really are different from their Chinese compatriots over the border in the Mainland, and Mainlanders keep not understanding why.

By John Massey (not verified) on 19 Jun 2015 #permalink

This is another funny one.

I wanna go to the Spratly Islands for my next holiday - they have tropical weather, fresh tomatoes and eggplant, pork chops and...and...and some really menacing looking PLA soldiers stationed down there.


No wonder the Americans have been flying spy planes over the place - they're trying to figure out whether it's safe to land so they can engage in some erm joint military exercises.

By John Massey (not verified) on 19 Jun 2015 #permalink

Their samples included Scandy HGs, BTW.

By John Massey (not verified) on 19 Jun 2015 #permalink

Splinter group? Martin, Baal/Offler is too busy running things at Zeta Reticuli to be bothered with other stuff.
-More entrants in the presidential race make the field a target-rich environment for skeptics and comedy professionals alike...
Trump’s speech has a Chinese in it. And some raping, drug-trading Mexicans (but no racism at all, honest). At the end of the segment, the comedians who will be watching the election unfold are sent into orgiastic bliss.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 20 Jun 2015 #permalink

China obviously invested a lot in that island air base. But that kind of infrastructure can get old fast. During the cold war, the major powers showed interest in STOL/VTOL aircraft since airfields are such obvious target for nukes. When USSR collapsed, so did the interst in short-field performance.

-But with the recent invention of circuit boards that can scale up neural networks for massive parallel processing, we have the specter of cheap missiles that can interpret video input in real time.
Imagine a single missile who homes in on that island, and sends sub-munitions on to every aircraft while ignoring decoys, plus cratering the runway.
The American hardware is just as vulnerable, they depend on big fat aircraft that need a couple of miles of runway.
(Sweden used to be prepared for this kind of war, but the underground hangars and most of the road airfields have been decommissioned)

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 20 Jun 2015 #permalink

“Neutron scattering helping conserve the world's great historic monuments” http://phys.org/news/2015-06-neutron-world-great-historic-monuments.html
Actually it is just a diagnostic tool, but it shows which artefacts are in danger.
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"He is busy running every aspect of the world in an optimal way".
But some of the demands contradict the others. The software cannot always handle this, leading to system crashes. We now have theo-cybernetic explanation for disasters and war!

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 20 Jun 2015 #permalink

Pardon me for adding so many comments, I just had to get this in before Sunday:
The summer solstice will occur 21 june kl. 18:38 (Swedish time) (Beware of hippies crowding Stonehenge). Then we will face winter again.
In some countries, Sunday is also father's day.
"Being a father finally pays off" http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/being-a-father-finally-pays-…

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 20 Jun 2015 #permalink

More entrants in the presidential race make the field a target-rich environment for skeptics and comedy professionals alike

Tell me about it. I get to put up with these loons gallivanting about the region for the next seven months or so. Gov. Christie's campaign (he hasn't announced yet, but that doesn't mean he's not running) seems to have mistaken me for someone likely to vote for him, so they send me e-mails which I promptly move to the junk folder, along with those from the slimy jerk who allegedly represents my district in Congress, and various other political missives in a similar vein. The scary thing is that one of these idiots is going to win the Republican nomination for President, and have a non-negligible chance of winning. That kind of politics sometimes works--see what happened in Denmark this week.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 20 Jun 2015 #permalink

#19 - Birger: No. China has a sizeable domestic fleet of large trailer suction hopper dredgers (like Holland and Belgium) because it has to do a large amount of annual maintenance dredging to keep ports like Shanghai and Tianjin open to deep draught container vessels. A bit of reclamation like that is just a short, quick job - not costly at all.

The West (apparently including you) are assuming it is intended as an offensive military base. But as you observe, viewed that way, it makes to sense at all - very easy to attack and destroy, with no defensive capability at all. The Chinese are not total fools - they wouldn't build such a vulnerable base if they intended it for offensive military purposes.

The Chinese have been saying all along that it is (a) a forward base for marine search and rescue operations, and (b) research.

Having seen the thing completed, I conclude they are telling the truth. It is little more than a landing strip and vegetable garden. It is not intended for military dominance of the South China Sea at all - it is an advance base for peaceful purposes. The most sinister purpose (if that is the right word) is that it could be a forward base for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, something they have been doing for decades.

Just occasionally, it pays to suspend cynicism and just listen to what people are actually saying. The Americans are grand-standing, sabre rattling and trying to make political capital out of what is just a forward air base for peaceful purposes. The only real point of contention is that the ownership of the Spratly Islands is disputed by several different countries, and China has just unilaterally taken ownership - but not for the purpose of attacking other countries. If that had been the purpose, then they have just built the most stupid, useless, vulnerable air base imaginable.

By John Massey (not verified) on 20 Jun 2015 #permalink

I had to laugh at this, from Birger's link:

'But George Logan, aged eight, said: “Christ, I’ll be glad when it’s over. There’s no gratitude, that’s what gets me. He struts around all day like Billy Big Bollocks, acting like a handmade card and being served toast in bed is his absolute due. First thing Monday morning I’m going to make him wish he’d had the snip. If I have to pay my Father’s Day tax that bastard’s going to earn it.” '

It makes me glad my daughter has almost always totally ignored Father's Day, with the sole exception of last year - and there is no rational explanation for that rather odd departure from her normal behaviour.

By John Massey (not verified) on 21 Jun 2015 #permalink

The most sinister purpose (if that is the right word) is that it could be a forward base for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, something they have been doing for decades.

The context here is that there are overlapping territorial claims in those waters. Vietnam and the Philippines have claims here in addition to China's claims, and before that base was built, the other two countries had much stronger claims than China's. So I would expect reasonable people in Hanoi and Manila to take exception to this base. I agree that it's not primarily intended as a military base, but there is a large military force available to back up the claims China is making in the area. Rather, the effect of this base (and perhaps its intent, though I don't claim to be able to read the minds of China's leaders) is to strengthen the Chinese claims. It feels a bit like Russia taking the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine: no (or not many) shots fired, but an annexation all the same.

China is now the world's #2 military power. If someone takes a cynical view of what the US and Russian governments do, it's also rational to take a cynical view of what China's government does.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 21 Jun 2015 #permalink

China is not the world's #2 military power. It's air force and navy are nowhere close. It has defensive capability, but not offensive capability.

China has one refitted outdated Russian aircraft carrier, which it uses for training.

America has armed Taiwan with 150 fighter aircraft that are far superior to anything that China has.

This is in no way comparable to the Ukraine.

China has a lot of merchant shipping passing through the southern part of the South China Sea, which is very vulnerable to bad weather, and they have a lot of problems every year. They are establishing forward capability for weather forecasting and search and rescue, and they have offered to extend the availability of these services to other countries in the region.

No one was stopping Vietnam or the Philippines from establishing similar facilities, but they didn't do it.

What right has America got to dictate to China that it can't take steps to improve the safety of its own merchant shipping?

By John Massey (not verified) on 21 Jun 2015 #permalink

"What right has America got to dictate to China that it can’t take steps to improve the safety of its own merchant shipping?"

None. Or rather, the right of might. Which will of course become the sacred ststus quo after a few decades. As for "human rights" it is a matter of trade and $$$ as we have seen in the conflict between Sweden and Saudi Arabia about wether flogging bloggers is bad or not. The Saudis bought the votes of all members of the Arab League to condemn Sweden for condemning flogging.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

Sorry that I have not managed to find more local Swedish causes of interest for skeptics. There ar plenty of Swedes who claim outrageous things but they are rarely in a position of power and influence.
The "VIP" mistakes are usually mundane and boring. (I would love it if some Swedish cleric followed the Iranian example of blaming earthquakes on immodestly clad women)
So my reliance on USA-ian examples simply reflect what is easily found in media, not an anti-American bias. Or anti-British, or whoever.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

Birger - It's no good being sorry. It's thanks to you that I am having to watch Alien the Director's Cut *again* because I don't remember feeling empathy for the navigator, and want to know whether I did and forgot, or whether you are more empathic to not overly bright navigators than I am.

Mind you, I'm enjoying watching it for the umpteenth time, so no harm done. But after this I will have to watch Aliens *again*.

By John Massey (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

John, the navigator is annoying and yellow, just like me!
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Addendum: The reason why USA has become such a "target-rich" environment depends to a great deal on a certain media mogul.
When he started Fox News he followed the cynical advice of Doktor Göbbels: "for propaganda to be effective, it must be aimed at the least intelligent segment of the people".
This gave Death Panels, terrorist camps* on the Mexican border, Obama apparently going back in time to cause the Iraq War and other Monthy Python stuff being discussed on prime time.
(I do not hold you ordinary Americans responsible for this)
*Mexican-Syrian terrorists with Ebola*

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

Finished it. I wondered why I didn't remember feeling any empathy for the navigator - it was because I didn't feel any :)

I didn't feel any empathy for the cat either, but then I have a genuine dislike of domestic cats, fuelled by a powerful allergy to them and a pretty fair grasp of Toxoplasma gondii and what it can do to people. But then, I'm not too fond of pit bull terriers either, for other equally rational reasons.

In Aliens I felt empathy for the tough little female Hispanic marine. I'm going to have to watch the director's cut of that again next.

By John Massey (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

I would argue the xenomorph is a more ambitious predator than the cat, and thus more interesting. I look forward to an Attenborough documentary on the subject.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

other Monthy Python stuff

Please, Birger, don't insult Monty Python by comparing them to the ridiculous stuff being discussed on American TV "news" channels. Monty Python tried to be funny, and usually succeeded. At least some of the newsreaders in the US actually believe the stuff they are spouting. And more importantly, so does a large fraction of their audience. You can draw a straight line from there to what happened in Charleston last week.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Jun 2015 #permalink

You’re saying cats are not dangerous?

No more so than other animals. The biggest hazard of cats around here is the rate at which they kill birds: a cat with a functional hunting instinct can easily average one bird kill a day. But dogs, rodents, and even small children sometimes run into the road, with similar results to that driver in Jiangsu.

Then there are the deer and moose. Deer have become quite well adapted to American suburban environments, where they cannot be hunted because there are so many dwellings around, and car-deer collisions are a regular hazard throughout the eastern US. Moose tend to live in areas with lower human population, but if you should hit one with a car, expect the car to be destroyed, and your own chances of surviving won't be that great. If I were forced to make the choice, I would rather hit a concrete wall than a moose, because I might be able to walk away after hitting the wall.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 23 Jun 2015 #permalink

It was a joke, Eric.

By John Massey (not verified) on 24 Jun 2015 #permalink

"der Quantenschaum der Raumzeit" -the foamy state of spacetime itself at the smallest meaningful scales.
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More dangerous parasites: If we are talking films, the telepathic kids in "The Midwich Cuckoos" are scary in a more insidous manner.
The last film version was also one of the last film roles for wossname, paraphlegic actor who quit the Scientology crew.
Underrated films: Dark City.
The Sticky Fingers of Time.
And (title forgotten) where Max von Sydow et al are literally trading with luck as a commodity.
I am told that the graphic novel series "Lucifer" (inspired by Neil Gaiman) will be a TV series but I do not know when it will be available4.
(Ironically, the name comes from a third century mistranslation of an aramaic text relating to a Babylonian king. I have mentioned this before, but it deserves repeating)

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 24 Jun 2015 #permalink

I watched the film Chappie last night.

I had missed that Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman are in it, mostly because they don't have lead parts.

In any case, I can't honestly recommend it. It's sort of violent, very unattractive and childish all at the same time.

As AI films go, Ex Machina is an infinitely better film in my view.

By John Massey (not verified) on 24 Jun 2015 #permalink

I read recently that urbanisation increases rainfall intensity.

By John Massey (not verified) on 26 Jun 2015 #permalink

That's not fanciful - it's a Physics-based conclusion, and has to do with increased 'surface roughness' of urban areas, increase of aerosols released in urban areas, greater convection due to 'heat island' effects, etc., but apparently is extremely difficult to predict quantitatively.

The temperature effects of urban 'heat islands' can obviously be directly measured with reference to historical records, and are well documented - all large cities act as 'heat islands'. Likewise, the effects on air flow can be directly measured, and can also be modelled. Modelling of air flow modification is one of the requirements of modern town planning.

NASA can no doubt produce similar findings for Shanghai, Mexico City, and any large American city e.g. LA.

The growth of 'first tier' Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai has been very fast because China lagged the developed world in terms of the demographic transition (people moving from rural to urban areas) until relatively recently. The migration from rural to urban was previously controlled when the CCP had more of a grip on the population - now it is uncontrollable. The start of the demographic transition can pretty well be dated to the end of the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping's opening up of the Chinese economy.

By John Massey (not verified) on 26 Jun 2015 #permalink

One of the interesting things about the demographic transition is that, everywhere it has happened (including USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and anywhere else where the economy has transitioned to a modern developed economy), it has been accompanied by a drop in birth rates.

The same has happened in China. The irony is that it looks pretty much like the One Child Policy was unnecessary - population growth dropped with the development of the economy anyway, to the point now where the ageing population is one of the major concerns in China, as it is anywhere where the demographic transition has occurred.

This is now happening in India, most noticeably in those states which are more economically developed and prosperous. The only continent still experiencing population explosion is Africa.

By John Massey (not verified) on 26 Jun 2015 #permalink

In Australia, the rural population has been steadily dropping. One mildly upsetting effect of this is that the first place that I lived in now no longer exists, and is no longer marked on the map. I know how to get there, and have been back there, but that is just because I remember where it was. There is nothing there now to show that it existed except the old school house where my father was the solitary teacher of a combined class of all primary years, including the local Aboriginal children - that has been turned into a minor museum, to show what typical small 'bush' schools were like.

So I'm the Man from Nowhere, now.

By John Massey (not verified) on 26 Jun 2015 #permalink

It's not just in Australia, John. Rural population has been dropping in many parts of the US as well. My mother is from South Dakota, born in a once-thriving township that no longer has a post office. The farm where she was born is still in the family, but my cousin who runs it now has kept his day job in Sioux Falls, because the income from the farm (a spread covering about 25 km^2) isn't enough to support him. There is no longer a permanent dwelling there; he lives in a trailer when he is on site. My mother worries that they may repeat the Dust Bowl experience because my cousin, like most people farming in South Dakota these days, has plowed some hillsides for extra crops. They don't need as many farm hands as they used to, so there is nothing to keep people in the area.

The town where my mother went to high school happens to be the state capital, so they still have an economy of sorts. Many small towns throughout the US, including the place where my father grew up, have no visible means of support. So anybody who can leave does.

This isn't a problem where I live, as it is close enough to Boston to be considered a feasible commute. It is a problem in the North Country. Up there, they still haven't recovered from the 1990 recession.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 27 Jun 2015 #permalink

Depopulation of the countryside has been going on in Scandyland for 150 years and no reversal of the trend is in sight. Having lived all my life in suburbs of major cities I don't really mind.

Before the advent of modern sanitation, cities were population sinks, and people living in rural areas were healthier and lived longer. That was even the case in ancient Rome, which had the nearest thing to modern plumbing until the early 20th Century - people moved to the city and died. Retired legionnaires who had served their time and were rewarded with plots of farmland happily hightailed it out of the filth and disease ridden city and went to live in the country and farmed.

That trend has now reversed - people living in rural areas have less access to modern health care and don't live as long as people who live in urban areas. In Australia, this trend is accelerating - it is very difficult to persuade doctors to go and work in rural areas which are depopulating. As in Eric's case, the traditional family farm is no longer sustainable financially, and farming is increasingly run as agribusiness. Countries like Germany and China who are keen to secure food supplies are buying up the agribusinesses and employing local farm managers to run the farms on an industrial scale.

This has had a noticeable effect over the past 20 years - Perth, which once had excellent fruit and vegetables at relatively very cheap prices as recently as the 1990s, now has lousy stuff which is ridiculously expensive. All of the good stuff gets sent overseas. The bizarre outcome is that I can buy Australian fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood in Hong Kong which is cheaper and better than I can find in Perth. And I pay much lower taxes for the privilege.

With the end of the mining boom in Western Australia as commodity prices have dropped like a rock with the slowing of the Chinese economy, I can even see the prospect of Perth depopulating due to lack of employment opportunities, at which point real estate prices, which have been ridiculously high, will also drop like a rock. Property speculators are already holding housing inventory which is sitting empty, and can't earn enough rental income to cover their mortgage loans.

The tipping point may come when interest rates stop getting cut. Currently, the Reserve Bank of Australia is fearful of any increase in interest rates because they know it will trigger the bursting of a massive real estate bubble in Australia, so they keep cutting. But it has to happen some time - they are just delaying the inevitable in the hope that they can somehow manage a 'soft landing'. They are caught in a cleft stick - the more they cut interest rates, the lower the Australian dollar drops. Australia now manufactures virtually nothing, and imported goods are becoming progressively more expensive in Australian dollars.

I can't help the feeling that it's all going to end in tears for a lot of low and middle income Australians, in an ageing population, with a lot of elderly people who can't get work and don't have the financial means to support themselves, and a bankrupt government that can't support them.

Colour me pessimistic.

By John Massey (not verified) on 27 Jun 2015 #permalink

Sweden is very different. Sweden has a strong manufacturing base, producing stuff that is in demand in other countries. Both Sweden and Australia weathered the global financial crisis relatively well, but Australia did it on the back of the Chinese economy which fuelled the prolonged mining boom. Now that's over, there is nothing in the Australian economy to replace it.

I live in a satellite town of 500,000 people on the south coast of China, and smack in the heart of town is a big IKEA store that is always thronging with people, stuffing their faces with Swedish meatballs. The roads are full of Swedish trucks. I can't escape the feeling that Sweden is sustainable and Australia is not.

By John Massey (not verified) on 27 Jun 2015 #permalink

Australians I have spoken to do not welcome being reminded of this, but per capita, Australians have the biggest carbon footprints on earth. The Australian Prime Minister felt able to tour the globe lecturing to other countries about climate change, because Australia has a small population, but individually, Australians are a model of unsustainability. They build the biggest houses, now bigger than American houses, with huge poorly used open plan spaces which are very difficult and costly to heat and cool, in climates that require extensive cooling during summer and heating during winter (the houses are not well designed for either hot or cold weather). They drive the furthest distances, and in vehicles which are trending larger and with greater fossil fuel consumption. They are strongly resistant to high-rise living, so the urban sprawl around Australian cities just keeps getting larger and larger, with people having to spend more and more time sitting in their over-sized motor vehicles commuting to work. The urban sprawls are such that they are impossible to service with efficient public transport, which in any case has been very seriously neglected over the past 3 decades, with suburban rail lines actually closing down in some cases.

Viewed from the outside, Australian cities are very unsustainable. But when I try to discuss this with my countrymen, their reaction is resentful and denialist. They are still 'living the Australian dream', which is to live in a 4 bedroom 2 bathroom fully detached single storey house, with the biggest air gap that they can get between them and their neighbours, and for which they are willing to take on a mortgage that will take the whole of their working lives to pay off, with the idea that sale of the house will ultimately fund their retirement - a model that is looking increasingly dangerously optimistic.

If the Australian real estate bubble does burst, a high proportion of the population will be left holding large negative equity, in an economy that will increasingly be unable to supply well paid jobs. Australians already have some of the highest individual debt levels in the world.

By John Massey (not verified) on 27 Jun 2015 #permalink

Martin et all, is the peat bog bodies preserved by something besides the low oxygen content? The anaerobic bacteria in the digestive tract do not need oxygen so one would expect the whole body to get "liquefied" from inside. What is it that arrests decomposition?.
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"resentful and denialist" ...yes. before the mess in USA 2007 critics of the system were regarded as kooks. Sadly it was the same in Sweden before our big 1990s collapse.

" If the Australian real estate bubble does burst"
It looks if the human mind works in a way tha makes disasters necessary to remind people of the dangers. In the 1990s Sweden had essentially skipped a recession cycle, and highly paid people who should have seen trouble brewing ignored the lessons of the past.
In the 1990s, the Great Depression had disappeared from living memory amd Americans began de-regulating the finance sector.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 28 Jun 2015 #permalink

No oak log burial has been sampled for modern lab analyses. But I believe humic acid from the peat, tannic acid from the oakwood and the formation of airtight iron pan inside the barrows are important.

Archaeologists need vacations too.... I have tried to find exciting news (apart from the DNA stuff) but right now it seems pretty slow...
For skeptics who want to read about non-functional weltanschaungs and general delusional thinking, here is a link to Dispatches from the Culture Wars http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

#61 - Don't know. But people who design sewage treatment plants use anaerobic digestion of sewage sludge (basically the concentrated solids mixed with some fluids), and at the end of that they end up with 'de-activated sludge' or 'treated sludge' (sludge in which all of the pathogens have been killed) - so then they have to de-water the sludge and dispose of it somewhere, like in a landfill. Some people advocate using it as fertiliser, but that's really a bad idea because the de-activated sludge still contains elevated levels of heavy metals, etc. which are bio-available for uptake by plants, and which get returned to the environment at levels elevated above natural background levels.

One day some genius is going to figure out how to mine the heavy metals out of human shit, thereby doing everyone a favour by rendering the de-activated sludge safer to use as fertiliser and recovering the heavy metals for use as something useful.

What they don't end up with after anaerobic digestion is all of the sludge (organic solids) being digested and turned into liquids and gases - a lot of it is turned into gases, and they use anaerobic sludge digestion to generate bio-gas (basically methane) which can be used to generate energy. But what I'm getting at is that at the end of the process they are still left with solids to dispose of, albeit dewatered solids.

So something stops the process at some point. Maybe when the anaerobic bacteria run out of whatever it is that they eat.

I presume that in landfills, the sludge undergoes further aerobic decomposition until not much is left.

I presume that is what happens to peat bodies if they are cut open and left out in the atmosphere - that they would then undergo the aerobic decomposition that the slightly acidic peat environment has been preventing, and they then decompose like any other human remains.

If there was an anaerobic decomposition process that turned all of the organic solids in sewage into liquids and gases, then sewage treatment plant operators would all be very happily using it, so we can assume there isn't.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

OK, a senator not a minister, but my argument still holds.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

#65 - They occur naturally at 'background' levels as minerals in rocks and soils, sometimes in very high concentrations. They can be sorted selectively by flow of groundwater and streams, or formed into veins by thermal activity such as metamorphism.

They get taken up by food crops and ingested by humans. (A classic case is that rice is very good at taking up arsenic - in America, a lot of rice is grown on fields that were previously used to grow cotton. The cotton was prey to all manner of insect pests, and so the cotton crops were sprayed with toxins like arsenic to kill the pests, and now the soil is above-background level in arsenic, which is readily taken up by the rice crops - hence warnings in America not to consume too much rice. Most of the arsenic is retained in the husks, so the worst thing to do is to eat the rice as brown rice rather than refined white rice. Arsenic is a carcinogen at sub-lethal concentrations.)

Many heavy metals are cumulative, so humans accumulate higher concentrations of them in their bodies before they eventually pass out.

They get taken up by marine organisms that ingest soil particles and accumulated in progressively higher concentrations up the food chain until they are ingested by humans eating seafood. Classic cases are the oysters which are farmed in Hong Kong, which are very high in cadmium, and sharks and large pelagic fish, which carry very high mercury levels - hence the advice not to eat large fish like swordfish, tuna and mackerel too often.

Likewise they are accumulated in the bodies of domesticated animals which are in turn consumed by humans.

They can even be breathed in as wind blown dust if you are located in a 'hot spot' where there are naturally high levels of some heavy metals, or otherwise accidentally ingested.

The outcome is that heavy metals are present in human shit at higher concentrations than background levels. Putting the shit as fertiliser on food crops is just going to recycle the heavy metals back into the humans again to become accumulated into even higher concentrations.

Not all food plants take up all heavy metals, but enough do. Leafy green vegetables take up arsenic.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

#67 - I saw that. That was a classic. He clearly had no idea what he was talking about. He couldn't even quote the crackpot theory correctly.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

Methinks this is questionable. "Inside the Chinese Boot Camps Designed to Break Video Game Addiction" http://www.motherjones.com/media/2015/06/chinese-internet-addiction-cen…
There may be other more subtle problems behind excessive internet use. Blaming new technology for corrupting young minds sounds a lot like the 1980s panic about gaming turning kids into Satanists.

By BirgerJohansson (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

If the Australian real estate bubble does burst, a high proportion of the population will be left holding large negative equity, in an economy that will increasingly be unable to supply well paid jobs.

Which is exactly where much of the US was ten years ago. Parts of the country, including my town, have recovered to some extent, but it took a long time. Other places, such as California's Inland Empire (San Bernardino/Riverside) and Central Valley (Bakersfield to Redding, including Sacramento), may never fully recover. People tend to underestimate what a pain it is to commute long distances in heavy traffic. And much of the western US (especially California) have serious water issues. Green lawns were already ridiculous in England--hey, let's devote perfectly good agricultural land to the cultivation of an entirely useless high-maintenance crop! But at least England has a suitable climate for that kind of thing. Most of the western US doesn't, and neither does Australia.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

#70 - I think the problems are easy enough to figure out. Gender imbalance, so no hope of getting a girlfriend. Pressure on not very bright kids to excel at school. Unemployment.

That addiction centre looks a lot like a prison to me.

#71 - Spot on again, Eric. And southern Australia is on a prolonged drying and heating trend. Sometimes I think Australians gave up going to church because they need to mow their lawns on Sunday mornings - big expanses of front lawn that take a lot of water they don't have, and fertiliser, and then need to be cut all the time and the grass clippings disposed of. And they are not used for anything. The English style Australian front garden may as well be a featureless desert, because no one uses his front garden for anything at all.

I admire my late father. When he finally bought a house, he built the smallest one he could on a small piece of land; he filled the front garden with drought resistant native flora, and at the back he farmed vegetables and grew fruit trees.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink

Is there a reason people don't plant trees in Australia? Granted, trees use a lot of water, too, but much of that goes into wood. You also have to rake the leaves after they fall, but that's only a few times a year at most. Best of all, mature trees are good for shade, especially if planted on the equatorward side of the house--less strain on your air conditioning system, or (in my case) less need to install an air conditioning system.

Most of my neighbors are pretty good about avoiding the unused featureless expanse of lawn. But some houses in the neighborhood are landscaped thus, and in many parts of the US, it's considered normal--even enforced, in some areas, by homeowners' associations.

The last few years I have been reducing the size of my lawn, replacing parts of it (especially where it's hard to mow, or grass isn't growing anyway) with landscaping. The flowers look much prettier than grass ever can. I haven't put in a vegetable garden yet, but that's on my list, along with planting another tree or two.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Jun 2015 #permalink

Some people do plant trees, but the trees that grow best and require least water are hardwood eucalypts, which are very slow growing. The exception is the Tasmanian Blue Gum, which grows fast, but the downside is that it grows very tall and it drops large branches, which you don't want crashing through your roof.

My father planted native trees (carefully avoiding Tassie Blue Gums) and the outcome of that was that my mother used to insist on going out and raking up the leaves every single morning. Also, the leaves clog the roof gutters and you have to get out on a ladder several times a year to clean them out.

Me, I like a few dead leaves around. It looks more natural and provides good hiding places for the spiders, centipedes and scorpions.

The other catch, aside from people like my mother who take it as a personal insult to have a slightly untidy looking garden, is that the eucalypts are deep rooting and very good at seeking out any source of water, so at some point your drainage pipes are going to get disrupted and blocked by roots. They're not as bad for that as willows, but they're pretty bad, and calling out a plumber in Australia can bankrupt a person. And it's a job that plumbers seem to hate, so you have some big hairy guy swearing at you while he drains your wallet.

With my father's enthusiasm for planting trees, a visitation from a swearing plumber has had to happen several times over.

I've had my patches of enthusiasm about growing vegetables, but I don't like using insecticides of any kind, and to see your carefully nurtured crops gone through by pests is just too heartbreaking. However, I am a champion fennel grower - in my last vege garden I planted one fennel plant, and the damn stuff nearly took over the whole garden - new fennel plants kept cropping up everywhere, so matter what I did to try to keep it down. We had two things in great abundance in that garden - fennel and rosemary. Just about everything else I planted got eaten by snails, slugs and various other pests, and the Chinese vegetables were always the first to get ravaged.

Yeah, there are suburbs of Perth where it is not permitted to fell a tree, or even to lop off dangerous over-hanging heavy branches that could kill someone. People go overboard about it, even when common sense should tell them that a tree has become dangerous and needs some judicious cutting back.

I love trees, but I'm not suicidal about them. But I prefer productive trees, so my inclination is to grow fruit and nut trees, although what the pests don't ruin the damned black cockatoos come and rip to shreds. I planted an almond tree, and the year it produced its first really good crop of almonds, I was just savouring the almonds ripening, because there's nothing like almonds picked straight off the tree, when a flock of black cockatoos descended on the tree and stripped in bare.

By John Massey (not verified) on 30 Jun 2015 #permalink

I understand the desire for productive trees. My landscaping includes several blueberry bushes--that species grows wild in this part of the US. Alas, they barely produce enough fruit to top one bowl of oatmeal, even if the fruits all ripened at once (they don't).

I am fortunate to be in a climate that generally sees adequate rainfall year round, so most houses here don't have irrigation systems, as is common in places with an identifiable dry season, inadequate overall rainfall, or both. The primary limitation I have is winter frost: I am in USDA hardiness zone 5.

That Wikipedia article demonstrates what a nice thing the Gulf Stream is for northwestern Europe. At 43 degrees north latitude, I am in the same hardiness zone as Umeå (64N), Kiruna (68N, but in a regional warm spot), and Longyearbyen (78N), the latter being the principal city of Svalbard. Martin can grow things in his garden that won't survive in mine: Stockholm is zone 7, as is Tromsø.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Jun 2015 #permalink