Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

Me with a chicken

December 13, 2015

All two or three regular readers of this blog probably know that it irks me to see photos of stylish young farmers holding chickens – e.g. A chicken is not an accessory, NYT pimping chickens, More photogenic chickens at NYT.  So I couldn’t resist my own glamour shot when Beth Wilks’ aunt Judy brought this delightful creature for a visit over the weekend. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to get me in the Times though…

ben with chicken


2014 apple wrangling

October 22, 2014

This weekend Alexis, Dave, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard.  It was a wet day, but we dodged rain showers, and had the place to ourselves.  Proprietor Steve Wood kindly sold us a mixed bin of bittersweets that he had, rather than the usual single-variety bin – thanks to Steve, Brenda, and all the folks at Poverty Lane, well worth the trip.  We also picked a few hundred pounds in their 2 Below apple menagerie, which was a bit sparse this late in the season but we got some bittersharps and yellow newton pippins, plus some yarlingtons for old time’s sake.

poverty lane 2014

Then we hung out with Andy, Emily, and Elsie, and checked out the CSA where he works, Sunrise Farm in White River.  In addition to vegetables they do sheep, pigs, meat hens and layers, and maple syrup – a beautiful and well-tended operation:

sunrise farm

I was tempted to have Andy and Alexis pose with chickens in the classic hipster manner that I so despise, but nobody was wearing skinny jeans, so I had to settle for this:

sunrise chickens

Finally I made a run to Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, where the owner, Ann Harris, set us up with two bins of a very nice mix.  Holly met me there, and together we topped up with some Greenings and Golden Delicious.  He was sporting his classic wooden shoes plus newly-handmade woolen trousers, and looked fabulous:

hg eating an apple

Being a country boy I was not aware of the indignities that city folks routinely endure in order to pick apples (a brief tour of eastern MA orchards in Yelp portends hayrides, candy, petting zoo, popcorn machines) but Ann and Autumn hills are the real deal – just a couple of barns and acres and acres of apples.    I returned heavily loaded and ready to rock this weekend:

truck and apples truckload of apples

On Manipulation: a skeptical stance is appropriate in a world formed by evolution

April 13, 2013

If I am climbing a remote snow-filled couloir deep in the mountains, and a rock breaks loose from the cliff above me, it is reasonable for me to believe that the flying piece of stone is indifferent to my presence as it bounces down the slope – it might brain me by pure chance, but it gains nothing by doing so.  I can look at the distribution of similar rocks arrayed on the gentler slope below and verify this randomness.  But the case is potentially very different for the teeming horde of microorganisms, invertebrates, and buzzards that would take great pleasure in eating my remains.  And if I drink straight from the stream below and ingest Giardia lamblia organisms, it is probably not a coincidence that the resulting frequent bathroom breaks will increase the probability that I make a deposit near open water.


There is a fungus in South America that reproduces by infecting an ant and commandeering it’s nervous system, causing it to perform odd behaviors that are not in the normal ant repertoire, but happen to be especially conducive to the propagation of fungal spores.  This sort of relationship has been discovered all over the place – I remember reading about another critter (maybe a fluke) that causes a different species of ant to depart from its customary routine and hang out on the tips of blades of grass, where the ant is likely to be eaten by the sheep whose gut is needed to complete the life cycle of the fluke. These phenomena illustrate the incredible power of evolution – that the chance appearance by mutation of an incidental cause in one species with a marginal effect on another species can be amplified and honed over thousands of generations into the appearance of an ingenious stunt. 

In the time since Darwin laid the keel of biology, we have come to understand that the living world is full of replicators that have survived from ancient times to the present by possessing heritable traits that made them slightly better than anyone else around at levering themselves into the next generation.   There are a lot of strategies for doing the levering, and one particularly effective one is manipulation – why do the hard work of slithering up a blade of grass, when it might be easier to grab the controls of the body of an ant and make it do the work for you?  And this is at least as true of our fellow humans as it is of viruses, fungi, and ants.  One theory of why humans are so darn smart is that we evolved high levels of intelligence not to outsmart other species, but to out-manipulate one another – a sort of evolutionary arms race in the direction of cleverness.

An understanding of the evolutionary benefits of manipulation should lead us to a healthy skepticism, especially about the motives of unfamiliar agents.  I was thinking about this after a recent discussion of belief, skepticism, and the scientific method, and I realized that the relationship between skepticism and evolution is stronger than I had previously understood.  Skepticism is associated with evolution because the discovery of evolution by natural selection is one of the great achievements of the scientific project, and evolution is a major flashpoint in the ongoing turf battle between reason and received tradition.  But more fundamentally, a worldview informed by skepticism is a logical conclusion that flows from an understanding of humans as an evolved species.

As much as the nature-documentary view of evolution involves carnivores running down and chomping herbivores, a lot of the evolutionary action has got to be intra-species, and in social animals there’s a tension between manipulation, aggression, and dominance on one side and cooperation for mutual benefit on the other.  If manipulation were the whole story, we never would have managed to work together enough to build this amazing computer I’m typing on. Theory shows how  pro-social behavior can emerge under suitable conditions, and how it can out-compete ruthlessness.  Altruism towards family members is easy to understand, but under the right conditions it can extend further – particularly where living arrangements allow for repeated interaction, and the critters in question (e.g. us) have sufficient intelligence and memory to sort out and recognize the reliable characters from the shifty ones. But these conditions are fragile and limited in scope, and powerful motivations for betrayal are never far beneath the surface.   Accordingly, manipulation, loyalty, and betrayal are constant preoccupations among people everywhere, and a perennial staple of fiction.

The principles of evolution offer some guidance about when to suspect manipulation most – especially single-shot interactions (for instance buying a used car far from home) and anonymous settings (e.g. emails from ‘friends’ in Nigeria).  But far beyond outright fraud, on average a random person who is trying to make you believe something is far more likely to be doing it for their benefit than for yours. The most obvious example is advertising: the product might be good and it might be shoddy, but the person producing the ad copy probably may not even know – their bonus (and their continued employment) hangs on their ability to get you to open your wallet.

Understanding the incentives that are motivating the people (and other organisms) we interact with is a powerful tool.  If your doctor receives 30% of his income in the form of clandestine ‘gifts’ from drug manufacturers, it is reasonable to expect that this will have an impact on his prescribing behavior – whether he admits it to himself or not, you are unlikely to be the beneficiary of that influence.  But a flight to ‘alternative’ or ‘holistic’ practice is no refuge – indeed the skeptical worldview is frequently under attack by people who would love to convince potential customers that the scientific establishment are fascist storm troopers, so they can sell more herbs or crystals or whatever type of dubious product they have on offer.

Others are skeptical of skepticism for reasons of iconoclasm – ‘it comports with my self-image as an edgy person to claim that all ways of knowing are equally valid’ – or simply aesthetics and wish-fulfillment: ‘true or not, I am happier believing that powerful forces want me to be beautiful and successful.’ (There may even be a strange evolutionary logic to illogic – if I truly believe that warpaint protects me from arrows, I will surely act with more courage, and in a world of less deadly weapons, the added benefit of banishing fear could conceivably more than compensate for the cost of miscalculations about the effects of pigment on projectiles.) Still others condemn the skeptical stance as heartless and austere; that – even if  true – it is too thin and hard a pillow for the average mortal to rest their head on at night, and that ordinary people would be better off believing in comforting fictions.  But this is condescending. People can handle unvarnished reality, and they make better decisions when they understand it.

Evolutionary insight brings the realization that the world is jam-packed with finely-tuned organisms that in no way have your best interests in mind – ranging all the way from viruses to used car salesmen.  This understanding is very different (and potentially a lot less attractive) than conceptions of a stern but loving God – or a fluffy New Age optimism that the universe cares about you and everything happens for a reason – but it has the virtue of being true.The skeptical view is consistent with our best understanding of how the universe works, and it is of a piece with hard-won, durable, practical knowledge of how matter, energy, and living organisms interact. This same body of knowledge amplified our power (and our environmental impact, alas) a hundredfold by harnessing thermodynamics, cured deadly diseases through detailed knowledge and intricate manipulations of  invisible biological machinery, built us microscopes and telescopes that allow us to visualize the stuff of the universe across 20 orders of magnitude, and landed a few lucky dudes temporarily on the moon. And it says that the universe doesn’t care about you, no matter how much you wish it did, and furthermore that many of its living pieces would much rather use you for their own purposes than do you a favor.

More photogenic chickens at NYT

November 26, 2012

The NYT just can’t resist photo-ops involving people demonstrating their affection to chickens:

ImageThere’s a sad story attached to this one – some folks got flooded out in Sandy, and their search for a temporary place to live is complicated by the need to house their pet hens –

the romance of iconoclastic ideas

August 14, 2011

An online person named Kris de Decker writes an interesting website called “Low Tech Magazine“, where he offers a unique read on technologies old and new. He recently linked this blog in an article on pedal powered equipment. But the latest article, on solar powered factories, er, ‘crystallized’ (more on that later) a theme that’s I’ve been digesting mentally for quite a while.

I am a lifelong enthusiast in renewable energy technology, and I’m currently working with friends on our own project in this field, so I hope nothing here leaves the impression that I am sour on the potential of renewable energy to make a difference. But this article set me off a bit, both in terms of technical accuracy and this more subtle complaint.

The basic idea of his article is that while there’s a lot of focus on renewable energy as a source of electricity, well over 50% of our energy needs go to heating, a need which (he says) is poorly met by electricity. Which has a grain of truth to it, but in his enthusiasm he goes un-necessarily off the rails. Consider:

Although it is perfectly possible to convert electricity into heat, as in electric heaters or electric cookers, it is very inefficient to do so.

This almost qualifies as a howler.


If 2008:1929::2011:1937,

August 5, 2011

Does that mean that time moves 267% faster now? Apple trees still grow at the same speed. I’m going to try to sneak up to 5isl this evening and bud graft the peaches…

Decoupling resource consumption and economic growth?

May 15, 2011

We take as our text this morning a recent report from the UN, which says that on current trend global resource consumption will nearly triple by 2050. The report discusses various constraints on resource extraction, including scarcity, steadily decreasing ore quality (which thus requires more energy and water to extract), the accompanying increase in local environmental impact, and global environmental impact (chiefly climate change), and emphasizes the need to take steps to ‘decouple’ continued economic growth from resource use. This decoupling appears to happen naturally to an extent; while over the last hundred years resource use has increased dramatically, economic growth has significantly outpaced it, so the ‘resource intensity’ of the economy has decreased, despite generally downward trend in (inflation-adjusted) resource prices. But despite growing slower than the global economy, steadily increasing resource use will eventually bump up against the constraints of a finite planet, and we see evidence of this happening in the last decade or so, with commodity prices reversing their century-long downward trend:

Two questions come to mind – first, how far is it possible to go in terms of reducing the material inputs to the economic sphere, while still improving (or at least maintaining) something that most people would recognize as economic wellbeing? And second, assuming that it is possible to substantially decrease resource consumption while maintaining or increasing economic activity, will a meaningful fraction of the world’s economies actually execute that trajectory?


Yup, NYT pimping chickens

April 5, 2011

Some days ago I ranted about the image accompanying a NYT article about young farmers. I knew that picture was too juicy for the Times to resist, and indeed here it is back again, right in the sidebar beside the latest on Fukushima:

A modest proposal: Appleosic Ethanol

April 1, 2011

It seems increasingly likely that the persistently high price of oil in the face of a historic economic downturn portends scarcity of liquid fuels in years to come, and efforts thus far to create and scale alternatives have fallen sadly short. Even today a quarter of the US maize crop is consumed to replace less than 10% of our petrol supplies, and we would be well advised to tread carefully in fermenting more, for fear of igniting further tortilla riots on our southern border, or – worse still – causing (for example) upheaval and conflagration in the Middle East. The much-touted ‘next-generation’ cellulosic ethanol is taking its time, with algae biofuels lagging still further behind. Electric vehicles are in the pipeline, but prices are projected to be painfully high. Clearly another solution is sorely needed.

Accordingly, I humbly offer the following proposal. A former president with credible experience in the matter of addiction recently diagnosed the nation with that sad affliction, and as it happens appleosic ethanol has long held a proud place in the pantheon of decadence and inebriation. For centuries distinguished gentlemen among our forefathers and hapless rogues alike gladdened their winter evenings with ethanol derived directly from the fruit of Eden, and in these challenging times a spirit with such a venerated and indeed spiritual provenance may be just what is required to keep our cherished motors running. World apple production is on the order of 60 million tonnes per annum, which when pressed can be expected to yield on the order of eleven billion gallons of fermentable cider. At an average alcohol content of six percent, this may be distilled to 675 million gallons of pure motor fuel, or sixteen million barrels. The US daily consumption of petroleum is only a trifle more than this, and the difference is all but made up by the aforementioned fermentation of maize.

Therefore, all that must be accomplished to solve our persistent and vexing energy challenges is to (1) increase the global production of apples by three hundred and sixty five times, and (2) appropriate the entire global apple crop for US use. The first task will be a matter of some effort, but from the current US production of 4.24 million tonnes per annum, at an average yield of 12 tonnes per acre, we can grow our share of the increase on about 200,000 square miles – an area scarcely larger than California. As that state is currently given over largely to the production of lettuces, cannabis, and similar non-nutritive stuffs, the conversion will be but a minor inconvenience, and a great many golf courses exist in that state with suitable infrastructure for irrigation already in place. The second task is a bit more daunting, but from long practice we are well-versed in the invasion of lands possessing raw materials necessary for transportation, and surely Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld could be pressed into service out of retirement in case of acute patriotic need. Once the necessary conquests have been put into effect, we will face the additional challenge of naval discipline aboard the great many tankers plying the seas with holds entirely filled with top-quality grog, but I trust that our professional servicemen can be expected to perform their duties with customary and utmost professionalism. Further, any resulting increase in shipwrecks will be of far less concern, pome-derived fuels being entirely miscible in seawater.

The evident utility of the foregoing proposal is such that I trust we will hear no more of the tiresome litany of ineffective solutions that are ever bandied about. Tell me not of increases in fleet average fuel economy, revitalization of rail networks, carbon taxation, and the charade of ‘telecommuting’, surely the largest windfall ever to land in the sweaty laps of the internet pornographers. Nay, for me let it be appleosic ethanol – for I see that a Dodge Dakota can go up to 12 miles per gallon on 85% ethanol. Why, at that rate of performance, my modest half-acre orchard could produce enough ethanol to make a one-mile round trip every single day of the year! Verily then, forward-looking citizens of good character will step up to further embrace the fateful choice our forebears made in Eden, and support appleosic ethanol – a fuel of truly biblical proportion.

A chicken is not an accessory

March 22, 2011

An interesting NYT article on a new generation of young, idealistic farmers. But the accompanying photo is over the top:

Nobody I know works around their barnyard in nice leather jackets, and a chicken is not an accessory. Nothing against the folks that are the subject of the article, but to me it looks like the paper sent the style page photographer, who was more interested in catering to the frustrated fantasies of NYC hipsters than in making an accurate portrayal of small farming today. The article was short on practical detail, too – what are they growing, on how many acres, and can they net enough to live on?