Home grown

Chauvin, Louisiana, 1972. Woman selling home g...
Chauvin, Louisiana, 1972. Woman selling home grown produce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often wonder about the economics of “growing your own”. Usually you have buy your plants, buy compost, fertilizers, and some times special food with added stuff to encourage growth. Then there’s water, which you may get charged for in some locations.

Then the crops may not be that heavy, the fruit small, maybe bug eaten, and weather battered. It makes me wonder if the effort is economically worth while, and that is before I’ve considered the fact that the cost of the labour that you put in is not inconsiderable.

English: Home grown tomatoes, Omagh One enterp...
English: Home grown tomatoes, Omagh One enterprising occupant of a house in Georges Street proves that these plants can be still successfully grown in a small greenhouse, despite the continuous overcast skies [565288] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
However, people reckon that the taste of home grown vegetable is better than those bought in a shop. That may be, but it is difficult to justify the amount of work that home grown produce entails on that basis.

Others worry about the pesticides and growth additives that are added to commercial produce and it is a justified concern, but many, many people never eat home grown produce and it doesn’t seem to seriously affect the majority of them.

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Genetic manipulation has given such people something else to worry about, but really, crops have been genetically modified for millennia, by selection of certain strains. Also, people have subjected seeds to toxic substances such as acids and alkalis, which has the effect of changing the genetic structures of plants.

In particular, the grains that are grown commercially have been manipulated in such a way as to cause a doubling of the genetic material in the plant and such plants are termed tetraploid or octoploid, depending on the number of times the genetic material is multiplied in the seeds.

English: The edge of a wheat crop south of Cla...
English: The edge of a wheat crop south of Clanfield In the green strip beside the wheat were some oat plants. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those opposed to genetic manipulation rarely if ever mention the multiploidity (a word I may just have invented), and raise a nightmare scenario where all so-called “natural” crops are displaced by genetically modified plants. This is a scenario that I find to be extremely unlikely.

If you have ever been around farms you will see the farmer working very hard to support his specialised plants, genetically modified or not. Some genetically modified plants, modified to give higher yields, require insecticides to keep down the pests which may devour them. Other genetically modified plants have genes inserted to deter pests from eating them.

This image shows the coding region in a segmen...
This image shows the coding region in a segment of eukaryotic DNA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside of the cultivated fields, in patches of unusable land, grow plants which are escaped crop plants, but they don’t resemble the crop plants very much. Over just a few generations they have in the main reverted back to ancestral types, and that common leggy plant with yellow petals and lumpy seeds pops is such a plant. It may well be an escaped brassica, or wild cabbage, or maybe an escaped oil seed rape plant, the cultivated version of which supplies canola oil for margarines.

Wild growing plants are vigorous growers and over power or inter breed with the escaped crop plants and the more delicate genetically modified versions lose out to the ancestral varieties. Of course, there is a one in many billions chance that a genetically modified plant might supply a gene that causes the loss of other ancestral genes, but it is much more likely that I win a lotto jackpot! The odds are astronomical.

Brassica oleracea (Wild Cabbage) - naturalised...
Brassica oleracea (Wild Cabbage) – naturalised population growing on seacliffs below a mediaeval monastery at Tynemouth, Northumberland, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is sheer hubris to believe that our first forays into genetic modification would produce organisms which are more robust than those produced by millions of years of evolution. It is slightly more likely that genetically modified genes might find there way into ancestral organisms, conferring some advantage on those organisms. The likelihood is, however, as I said above, that modified genes would be lost in the genetic battle between genetically modified and ancestral versions of an organism.

Modern crops, even the ones which have not been genetically modified, need a lot of tending. They need (in many cases) irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and that’s after the preparation of the land and the sowing of the seeds. It is big business and the margins need to be considered at every stage.

Furrow irrigation system using siphon tubes
Furrow irrigation system using siphon tubes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because the produce is grown in standardised conditions, to maximise yield it is pretty much all the same size and quality and this is pretty much become the standard. Consumers have come to expect uniformity in their produce and producers have been driven to provide this.

Grape tomatoes.
Grape tomatoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Home grown produce is usually much more variable. Tomatoes may vary in size and shape, and may even be misshapen. Potatoes may vary from large to really small. Peas and beans may have variable numbers in the pods. People who are used to shop bought produce may be disappointed in home grown produce.

I’m told that great satisfaction can be gained from growing your own crops, and indeed, we have raised beans, silver beet, spinach and some other things, and we have enjoyed them as much if not more than shop bought stuff. But I’m no gardener. Gardening plays havoc with my fingernails!

English: Fingernails, about 2mm long Deutsch: ...
English: Fingernails, about 2mm long Deutsch: Fingernägel, etwa 2mm lang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who do decide to produce their own crops, I feel that they should do it for the satisfaction of the act, rather than for any perceived economic reason. The economics are debatable, as I suggest above. As I also say above, the taste of home grown food is supposedly superior to that of shop bought food.

It is certainly true that the flavours of home grown food can be stronger than those of shop bought food.

English: Produce grown at organic community ga...
English: Produce grown at organic community garden in Santa Clara, Cuba. Most of the workers are retired. Profits are shared based on how much time is worked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Home grown tomatoes, for example, tend to be fleshier, or more solid, than shop bought ones and, although they may vary in size and colour, they do taste good.

One big advantage of the home grown movement is that a section of the movement has taken on the task of keeping alive the ancestral strains of various vegetables and fruit trees. This means that if commercial produce production were to experience an apocalypse that perhaps ancestral strains could be used to rebuild the produce industries.

English: Well tended fruit trees Wimpole Hall ...
English: Well tended fruit trees Wimpole Hall walled garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also, people in the home grown movement have maintained varieties of vegetables and fruits that are slightly different to common commercial varieties – such as purple carrots or yellow tomatoes. The more variety that we have in our vegetables and fruit the better, even if it means that some people get their fingernails dirty!

Carrot diversity
Carrot diversity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Weather or not.

English: Cliffs of Moher - Inclement weather a...
English: Cliffs of Moher – Inclement weather again! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(One day late again – this is becoming annoying!)

The human race probably evolved language for the single purpose of being able to discuss the weather. It’s one of the first things that people learn about when learning a foreign language. Obviously, when language had been evolved, the human race found other uses for the facility.

Weather would have been very important for early man, as it would be next to impossible to hunt animals in a downpour as rain washes out tracks and scents and makes the task of getting from point A to point B difficult in itself. Heavy rain cuts off hunters from possible hunting grounds.

English: Forest track in spruce plantation I s...
English: Forest track in spruce plantation I suspect this would look bleak regardless of the weather, but mist and heavy rain certainly doesn’t help. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Visibility is also reduced by rain making location and tracking of prey difficult. Also, prey hunkers down in inclement weather, hiding away in inaccessible dens, or perching in inaccessible trees.

When early man developed techniques of agriculture, he would have been aware that his crops were dependant on the weather. Too much rain might cause the crops to rot in the ground or not develop properly, while too little rain (and more sun) would dry out and kill the crops and prevent them from fruiting.

English: This is a Tsuga canadensis in zone 6 ...
English: This is a Tsuga canadensis in zone 6 that may be suffering from early drought. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The early farmer would have had to consider carefully where to plant his crops. It would not be a good idea to plant crops in area prone to flooding (unless the plant, like rice needs flooding, during its development). It would also not be a good idea to plant the crops too far from water, so that watering them would not be too onerous.

Being able to predict the weather would enable the early farmer to take actions to look after his crops. The ancient Egyptians, one of the first societies of whose agriculture we have some knowledge, lived in the Nile basin and took advantage of the annual floods, and developed a complex system of irrigation. This led the Egyptians to develop mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences in order to predict when the floods were likely to happen.

Arguably the need to predict the weather had a lot to do with the fact that the Egyptians developed civilisation in the first place. Arguably the rise of civilisation goes hand in hand with such developments of science and technology.

Predicting the Nile floods is prediction of the weather on a long time scale, and it is likely that the floods could be a little earlier or a little later than predictions. Such large scale weather patterns are both easier and harder to predict than smaller scale weather patterns, because the floods would come sooner or later in most years, but the extent of the floods would likely vary from year to year.

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Since the exact timing of the floods and the extent of the flooding was not predictable, it was almost inevitable that the ancient Egyptians looked for supernatural guidance, and religion became associated with agriculture, and this appears to be a general rule. In a culture, supernatural beings, gods, are associated with agriculture, often a pantheon of them.

As part of the tasks associated with agriculture, the gods were considered to be responsible for the weather both short and long term. Interestingly while the gods were supposed to be responsible for the weather, this did not stop enquiring minds looking for the mechanisms of the weather, how the gods worked, so to speak.

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We know a great deal more about the weather and how it happens, now. Science has moved on a great deal and we have discovered more and more about how the gods create and manage the weather, to the extent that we have taken the task away from them and given it to the scientists. I’m not debating religion per se, but some people think that we have taken everything away from the gods, removing their very necessity of being.

If forced into a corner and asked for my opinion, I’d probably agree, but there is something comforting to many people in the concept of gods or a God, and billions of people express a belief in a deity or deities, or some other supernatural influence. This may be something that we will leave behind as the human race matures, we can’t tell. It may be that science, with its laws, theories and predictions is just the latest in a succession of descriptions of the world, and may itself be ultimately seen as a simple rationalisation of what we see around us.

English: "The ancient Egyptians were accu...
English: “The ancient Egyptians were accustomed to appease the god of the Nile and induce him to bestow a bountiful inundation by throwing as a sacrifice into its sacred water a beautiful virgin.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It appears that the weather is getting wilder. Scorching temperatures are measured in some places, while other places are in the grip of freezing temperatures. Storms are continually being labelled the biggest in so many years. Flood protection schemes are being overwhelmed. Crippling droughts have hit many countries and ice is reportedly retreating in the Arctic and Antarctic.

This is, for good reasons, labelled global warming and the temperatures do seem to be rising all over the globe. I’m aware that controversy surrounds the whole topic, with allegations of bad science, conspiracy, and manipulation of data on both sides of the “debate”.

Temperature predictions from some climate mode...
Temperature predictions from some climate models assuming the SRES A2 emissions scenario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The trouble with the global warming discussion is around the time scales involved and the rates of temperature rise. The period of time when we have reliable temperature measurements doesn’t go back very far, and the temperature rise is small and difficult to measure.

Those opposed to the idea of global warming point out that while measured temperatures may have risen slightly, if there is any rise it could be explained by natural changes unrelated to human activities, such as variations in the output of the sun, and that in any case, the data is insufficient to show any upward trend at all.

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Those in favour of the idea, counter that with the claim that the temperature rise is real and that the fact that it has risen in such a short time is a concern, and that action is essential.

It may never be formally decided. As we get better at predicting the weather it may turn out that the models which fit the data may solve the problem, and that one or the other side in the debate will fade away. As in the debate on evolution, the opposition to which gradually faded in favour of Darwin’s theories as time passed, I believe the same is likely to happen in the global warming debate.

English: Human evolution scheme
English: Human evolution scheme (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s History

The Sunken Road at Waterloo, painting by Stanl...
The Sunken Road at Waterloo, painting by Stanley Berkley, from A History of the Nineteenth Century, Year by Year, Edwin Emerson, Jr., 1902. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was never any good at history. That’s probably because I couldn’t get straight in my mind who was battling who and for what reason and for how long and so on. Later I came across the concept that history is written by the victors. This makes sense to me in some ways but the losers will still have their point of view and will likely instruct their children according to that point of view.

So while one side may say that a battle was a heroic victory over huge odds, the other party may describe the heroic resistance against huge odds. One side might add that an ally came to the rescue at the last minute while the other side might mention a traitorous change of allegiance of a former ally.

English: US and Iraqi Army Soldiers guard bord...
English: US and Iraqi Army Soldiers guard borders in Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In wars before the twentieth century it might be that the average person would be unlikely to see any military action or even be directly affected by a war or battle. Of course, the authorities might increase taxes and conscript young men, but most people would not have seen any fighting.

Communication about the battles and the progress of the war would have been hit and miss. An injured person on their way home after fighting would no doubt have little idea of what was actually happening either on the small scale of the actual battle or on the wider canvas of the whole campaign.

English: trench listening to a handmade crysta...
English: trench listening to a handmade crystal radio during the First World War 1914-1918 . Français : poste à crystal utilisé durant la première guerre mondiale 1914-1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has taken part in any sort of war games, such as paint-ball or capture the flags type games, will know that an awful lot of running through undergrowth and an awful lot of lying in wait is involved, and an awful lot of not knowing what is happening. In older times, it could be that what is going on 100 metres away would not be known.

A lot of ancient warfare was waged based on intelligence brought in by scouts and observers. That’s why armies always try to take higher ground, as it gives you a better view of the field of battle and it also can be defended by fewer people. The disadvantage of course is that a patch of higher ground can be surrounded and isolated.

English: View across Gordano Valley View acros...
English: View across Gordano Valley View across Gordano Valley from Tickenham near Cadbury Camp. The south Wales coast can be seen on the horizon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scouts and observers can of course be mistaken. That “100 or so” men that were spotted may actually be many more, or it may even be a contingent of one’s own troops or allies which are out of position. A scout also risks his life by approaching as close to the enemy as he can.

Such intelligence as filters back to the commanders is obviously flawed and incomplete. They probably don’t know too much about the country that they are invading, whereas the locals may possibly have a better idea of the lay of the land. Maps may be incomplete or inaccurate, and may even have been built up directly from the intelligence.

The Map Room in the Churchill Museum and Cabin...
The Map Room in the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The commanders then need to deploy their troops according to their best knowledge and the intelligence. As a result they may send off troops to places where they may be easily overwhelmed or may be ineffective.

The commanders will instruct their platoon commanders on the objectives for their troops but once the platoon commanders reach their positions they are pretty much on their own. Chaos inevitably ensues, in spite of any attempts to keep order.

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Signals are used for communication, bugle calls, semaphores, runners and other methods are used to try to give the overall commanders an idea of what is happening at the front lines. Inevitably messages will go astray and orders will be misunderstood and this may well turn the tide of battle.

Perhaps this is why I was no good at history. When one is taught about the battle of Waterloo for example, one learns that Wellington deployed his troops here and here and that Napoleon attacked here and here and the Prussian army attacked here and here. While these statements may cover the actual flow of the battle, much of this will have been rationalised after the event.

Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo Detai...
Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo Detail John Heaviside Clarke (1771 – 1863) England, um 1816 Öl auf Leinwand aus der ständigen Sammlung des Deutschen Historischen Museum, Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a wider scale, take Napoleon for example. He is described in Wikipedia as “one of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in Western history”. From the English point of view he is the villain of the piece but I suspect that to many on his side he was a hero. There is no doubt that he was respected even by his enemies as a brilliant politician and military leader.

On the principal of “history is written by the victors” mentioned above, if Napoleon had won, and should France have held sway over England, then no doubt he would have been painted either as a benevolent leader or as a heavy-handed dictator, depending on his acceptance or rejection by England. By “England” I mean the politicians and powerful in the country. The “man in the field” probably wouldn’t care too much, unless it affected him in some way.

English: One of the signatures of Napoleon Bon...
English: One of the signatures of Napoleon Bonaparte (1804), made with Inkscape by David Torres Costales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

History, to my mind, attributes intent much more than is justified, which renders it debatable at the least. We read that Country A pushed into a region in order to cut off Country B from some resource or other. More likely Country A had the opportunity and the resources to be able to expand into the region while Country B failed to do so because of lack of foresight, opportunity or resources.

So the expansion of Country A would have more to do with young men seeing the opportunities and travelling to the colonies to make their fortunes than any real plans by the government of Country A.

Canadian CF-18 Hornets participated in combat ...
Canadian CF-18 Hornets participated in combat during the Gulf War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baudrillard published some articles on the Gulf War, the last of which is entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place“. He disputed the history of the events in the Gulf as presented.

Firstly he argued that, because of the superior air power of the Americans, they did not actually come into actually engage in conflict with the Iraqi army, and therefore the events could not be really considered to be a war.

Ex-Iraqi BMP-1 IFV captured by the US forces i...
Ex-Iraqi BMP-1 IFV captured by the US forces in Iraq during the First Persian Gulf War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Secondly he argued that the view of the war as presented by the media which was fed, not from actual events but mainly from the propaganda machine of the American military and as such it presented only one point of view, that of the Americans.

History will present the Gulf War and the American handling of it in overwhelmingly positive light. History has been written by the Americans for better or worse, as the victors in this event. I’m not arguing that history is wrong. Just that it presents a picture and that picture may ignore many important aspects of an event and we should be wary of official histories.

Braine-l'Alleud Belgium, Lions' Hillock. - Com...
Braine-l’Alleud Belgium, Lions’ Hillock. – Commemorative monument of the Battle of Waterloo standing on the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded during the fight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Considering the Universe

Miss Universe
Miss Universe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Once again I wrote this on Sunday, but forgot to post it on Monday)

When we are considering the Universe we are considering something that we are part of, and of which we share the characteristics, such as, for example, existence. We can exist only because the Universe exists and the Universe exists, at least in part, because we exist. It is conceivable that in some way a universe could exist with nothing in it, much like a mathematical empty set but it would be pretty boring.

Or would it? Maybe I’m applying some anthropocentric reasoning to that statement. After all, the concept of a mathematical empty set is very useful in mathematics, and but then again, “useful” is a human concept.

"Skeleton of human (1) and gorilla (2), u...
“Skeleton of human (1) and gorilla (2), unnaturally stretched.” Size: 4.9 x 5.5 in² (12.4 x 13.9 cm²) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A universe may be non-empty, but have no life in it. We, from another universe can conceive of such a universe, but there can be no perceiving of that universe if we rule out the possibility of visiting it from our Universe. We can’t even tell if such a universe exists, so some would argue that the question of its existence is meaningless.

That’s a valid argument, but then again, out Universe was not perceived by any entity in the billions of years prior to the evolution of life. Of course the question of the early  existence of our Universe before the coming of life, is not meaningless to us – we know that it must have existed for us to exist.

English: An illustration of the time scales fo...
English: An illustration of the time scales for the history of the universe, the earth, and major events in the evolution of life. The scale on the far left is in billions of years the other scales are numbered in millions of years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, we can conceive of other universes other than our own, but do other universes exist in any real sense, apart from our own. A universe is self contained in the sense that there is no logical reason to conceive of anything outside of it. It is all of physics, all of existence.

One definition of universe is:

a distinct field or province of thought or reality that forms a closed system or self-inclusive and independent organization

This is a pretty good description of what I am writing about I’d say. The key word for me is “closed”. If something is closed it contains whatever it contains and the outside is irrelevant so far the contents are concerned.

Though now I come to think of it, maybe that is not true. If we have a can of beans, we know what is inside it by the label, and we can open the can with a can opener. Maybe the contents of our Universe are visible on the outside, on the label as it were.

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Our Universe has laws, or appears to have laws. The laws appear to be universal – that is, they apply everywhere in our Universe without exception. An atom here behaves the same as a similar atom here would and conceptually swapping them would make zero difference.

We do not know all the laws but we humans believe that we can know all the laws and I believe this to be true, even if it might take longer than the life of the Universe for use to discover and understand them all. By laws, I mean “how stuff works” and even if the ultimate answer is “because that’s the way the Universe works” and there is no deeper meaning than that, I’d still consider them laws.

One bizarre possibility though, is that there is no order and the Universe is totally random, and only appears to have order. When we look at an expansion of the number Π we mostly find what seems to be random digits. Occasionally however we find runs of digits which look like they are non random, such as a lengthy series of the digit “3”, but eventually the random appearance returns.

This feature of the number Π can be used for amusement, such finding one’s own name “encoded” in Π, or any other string. Maybe our Universe is like a very long encoded string in the number Π, which seems to be ordered but actually isn’t. Maybe at some future instant things will revert to the real random state that the Universe is its real state.

Pi Animation Example
Pi Animation Example (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some physicists and cosmologists postulate alternate universes to account for some of the weirder facets of Quantum Physics, but in the broader sense we can consider universes which are similar but different and unrelated to ours. Would we want to visit such universes? Could we conceivably do so?

It seems to me to be unlikely that we could visit other universes, as the only methods that we could use are physical ones and our Universe encapsulates its physicality. That is, the physical laws pretty much define it. A frog can leap from a pond, since frog, pond, the air and the surroundings of the pond are physical, but simple leaping cannot take the frog to another universe, no matter how hard he jumps. A human can use physics to travel the Universe, but using physical means it doesn’t appear possible for us to jump out of our pond.

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Would we really want to visit other physics-based universes? The other universes would have to be pretty much the same physically, our physical bodies would suffer – imagine for an example a universe where protons decay in minutes instead of in aeons. We would die in seconds.

Our best prospects for universe-hopping would be those universe which are probability neighbours. That is, they share the same physics as our Universe, but some events happened differently. For example, one can contemplate a universe where slaving never happened or where France’s hegemony dominated the early USA and French language and culture dominate in the North Americas.

Non-Native-American Nation's Control over Nort...
Non-Native-American Nation’s Control over North America circe 1750-2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, we are used to a physical Universe, but it is conceivable that other universes may be not physically based. It’s extremely difficult to even talk about such universes, should they (in some sense) exist, and my mind keeps trying to populate such conceptual universes with things, and things are presumably physical entities, and would not be able to exist in a non physical universe. Probably!

Perhaps our physical nature hampers us in understanding the real nature of things. Perhaps we can only conceptualise things based on our nature. After all our thoughts are the end result of physical processes evolving over billions of years and are implicit in the history of our Universe and encoded in a way in the Big Bang.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a ...
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3, 2003 through January 16, 2004. The patch of sky in which the galaxies reside was chosen because it had a low density of bright stars in the near-field. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)