Boris, oh my Lordy

Boris, oh my Lordy

What Johnson understood was that in the digital age, voters were behaving more like an audience consuming entertainment than a civically engaged electorate.

Matthew d’Ancona, Guardian columnist

In the early 1930s, the German people were trying to come back from the cost and emotional loss of the war to end all wars. Naturally, they were struggling.

The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 and the subsequent London Schedule of Payments from 1921 required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) to cover civilian damage caused during the war. That is a lot of money today, let alone 100 years ago when a US dollar would buy a six-pack and some change.

Most families knew personal losses from the war and carried a collective pain from defeat. Historians suggest that the German people knew they had to work hard to recover and investors, especially from America, saw the opportunity and poured money into the country. Then the Wall Street crash of 1929 hit and the decade long depression that followed scrambled everyone’s options.

The conventional wisdom is that these setbacks resulted in economic and social unrest, specifically inflation and high unemployment, a pattern that was repeated across Europe and the US. These were trying times everywhere.

The census of 1933 had the population of Germany at over 65 million people. In the previous year, there was an election. Many adults thought it wise enough to cast their vote for National Socialist German Workers’ Party who had made their ideology to strengthen the Germanic people, the “Aryan master race” perfectly clear. A third of the German electorate voted for the Nazi party in 1932.

Millions of sane people voted for “racial purity and eugenics, broad social welfare programs, and a collective subordination of individual rights, which could be sacrificed for the good of the state on behalf of the people”. What were they thinking?

Presumably, they were in a similar space to societies who allow crazy people with warped ideologies to lead them. Maybe they were a little lost. Scared, maybe given they had lost a world war and were struggling with the aftermath and a global economic downturn.

Perhaps they thought that the government could solve their problems. Maybe that gave them some hope.

Whatever they thought would happen not many would have predicted where the society would end up 13 years later.

In 1965, when the first electronic computers entered offices, Eric Hoffer warned in the New York Times that “a skilled population deprived of its sense and usefulness would be the ideal setup for an American Hitler.” That did not happen. Instead, people listened to Kennedy and went to the moon.

In the 58th quadrennial American presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 62,984,828 votes, 46.09% of the votes cast, even though his main rival received 2.1% more votes.

According to the electoral commission, the republicans spent $303 million on the election, less than half the democrat spend of $640 million. Presumably, this means you can’t buy happiness. It also means that nearly 63 million people though that what Trump had to offer via Twitter was what they needed to improve their lives and the fate of the country.

In 2019 there was another vote, this time in the UK to replace the prime minister.

Boris Johnson received 92,153 votes from Conservative members, a group that collectively accounts for 0.13 per cent of the British population and have far more men than women, are overwhelmingly white, and significantly more right-wing than the average voter. Handy for Boris and a bit of a nightmare for everyone else.

It would seem that money may not buy power but a minority will.

Each of these brief historical descriptions is a salutary lesson for democracy. It is quite easy for a sequence of events that appear of little consequence to reach far into very dark places.

Obviously we are in another of these historical moments.

Everyone should pay serious attention and become that engaged electorate. We all need to vote with extreme care each and every time that we can and, where it matters, speak out on the streets, on the web, and around the kitchen table.

The Germans didn’t see it coming, nor did the Americans or the British.

Do you?

Density and competition

Density and competition

In the second year of my PhD scholarship, I boarded my first aircraft, a bog-standard commercial flight from London to Rome but wow, what a thing?

The energy pushing you back into your seat, the stupidity of being suspended 30,000 feet up in the air and the impossibility of such a heavy tube of metal being able to get you and your seat up there. Just one experience I now take for granted that 30 odd years ago were a wonder to a youngster.

The journey was the first of many plane trips in my professional career, including some far more risky ones than a smooth jaunt across Europe. This first one was to attend a scientific conference, a meeting of minds for most of the world’s woodlice researchers. Some 50 people from all over Europe and North America who were into the behaviours, physiology and ecology of the terrestrial branch of Isopoda, an order of Crustaceans, the majority of whom live in water. The isopods that is.

So before we get to the publication, a brief ponder on the notion of a woodlouse conference. That humans, the most curious of beings, should have individuals dedicated enough to spend most of their waking hours understanding the biology of a peculiar group of animals that should be in the ocean but are not is quite miraculous. That these scientists can also be organised enough to get together periodically to discuss their obscure findings is bizarre too. This one in Urbino on the east coast of Italy in September 1986 was the Second International Symposium on the Biology of Terrestrial Isopods. It was a hoot, including a crustacean themed dinner with more than a dozen courses one of the very few meals from the distant past that I can still remember.

I was there to present some of my PhD research on competition and in the conference proceedings appeared my first single-author paper.

Dangerfield J.M. (1989) Competition and the effects of density on terrestrial isopods. Monitore Zoologico Italiano (N.S.) Monograph 4: 411-423

When reading this piece again for this post I could not even recall running the experiments the paper describes. It wasn’t until I read the methods of culturing broods of the tiny critters in plastic containers and feeding them uniformly ground leaf litter that it came back to me. The pots layered up on racks in controlled temperature rooms and hours weighing thousands of animals individually. Such is the dedication and forgetfulness required for higher learning.

A series of experiments tested the effects of crowding (although I called it density for formality) on growth, survival of young and the reproduction in adult Armadillidium vulgare, the common pillbug, with the general result that crowding matters. That is if you’re a woodlouse and you are around your woodlouse buddies too much they affect your biological success. The more is not the merrier for woodlice even if there is abundant food. Woodlice also compete against other woodlouse species, who doesn’t, only the win in the competition is affected by the size of the arena. It would seem that for woodlouse at least life is lived very much in three dimensions.

All up my conclusion and the most likely explanation was that there was interference going on in the cultures. The activity doing enough to generate measurable competitive effects. Noting that there was always enough food to go around, at least that is what I assumed. I remember being quite chuffed at this explanation because at the time the theory was that competition was not just about food but proving this was always tricky. So to have generated numbers suggesting it for such a lowly critter was fair play.

By Franco Folini – San Francisco, California, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=789616

It is hard to go past a simple experiment. Easy to design and deliver with all the satisfaction of hypothesis testing at the end. It’s the stuff of early career ecologists, they love it. I certainly did.

Did this science add to the pile of human knowledge? Well, not really, despite my enthusiasm over interference. It is likely that woodlice are competitive and these interactions can have consequences for their populations but there is also a lot more going on. Just because a mechanism exists does not mean it is important. But finding out that it is possible is worth the effort.

Later work could build on the findings but even in themselves, they show how complex patterns in nature can be. Today I would say that all of nature is constantly competitive. It is why we have natural selection and why there is so much diversity. Organisms become different to try and avoid as much of the constant competition as they can, usually with only limited success.

If nature is innately competitive, and we are of nature, not a rhetorical question, then we need not go much further than competition and how to avoid it as an explanation for many a human woe.

Back in 1986, that first plane trip got me started on my research career. My first single-author paper and a small but important step toward independence as a researcher.

Little did I realise how far and wide that journey would go.

Nobody knows because we are lazy

Nobody knows because we are lazy

It is hilarious when the ‘nobody knows’ card is played on the TV quiz show QI because it signifies trivia we do know is so obscure and seemingly irrelevant to anything that when the gotcha comes it is just weird.

What ‘Quite Interesting’ does illustrate beautifully, as it takes the piss out of our insatiable desire to know something nobody else does, is that humans are too curious for our own good. We rummage around finding out about the most obscure topics and then we remember large amounts of what we found. Staggeringly large amounts.

If you think about it, that a comic actor should know that ‘the Dyslexia Research Centre is in Reading’ is amazing and bizarre in equal measure. #RespectAllan.

We could dip into some evolutionary biology trivia. This will tell us the ability to seek, find and remember small points of difference in things is a core skill set for our success as a species. It meant we knew where to find food when it mattered, recognise danger from the smallest signs, to retain that information for a long time and to experiment with finding new resources. Add communication along with the division of labour to that mix and we’re off.

So our brains are set up to find and store detail. This is good.

But not everyone does trivia. No two faces are the same and neither are the brains that sit behind them.

Some people are really good at finding information and retain little; others can remember what their daughter was wearing to her friend’s birthday party three years ago. This is good too. It means that we have a range of abilities within the core skill set so that people can specialise in certain tasks. This makes tasks easier to complete if the adept person is the one to do it and provides the raw material for the essential division of labour.

Aggregate this across a modern society and we have any number of skills, trades, and functions performed mostly by the people best suited to them. This makes our systems efficient and also helps explain why humans have taken over the world.

So far this is a euphoric post, a vision of success through an explanation of why we hold on to information and anecdotes with no obvious benefit.

Only some people are not very good at trivia. They may have poor memory or just not inclined to widen their knowledge. They might be in the wrong place where their particular talent or inclination is not needed for any useful tasks or the system can’t match their skill to a need. No matching process can be perfect so we have to accept some errors.

So now, out of the blue, I’m going to suggest another reason. Perhaps some people are lazy.

Yes, it could be that the reason they don’t know is that they just don’t put in the effort. They don’t read, they don’t talk about issues with their friends, they don’t watch the news even though they rarely get off the couch. It is sad but true. Some of us are lazy buggers with no motivation to understand the magnificent world we live in.

Shame on us lazy bastards. Shame on our fat arses.

Get off the couch, go read something with evidence in it and then think about what you have read. Talk to your friends about it and argue with them. Debate the issues of the day and set that immensely powerful brain of yours to work on a challenge.

Please do this. Your life depends on it.