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.

Nature does not behave like a banker

Nature does not behave like a banker

The economic model that has made the west wealthy claims a design that promotes investment with the greatest certainty of returns and least risk.

It is easy to find advocates of this ‘mobilise capital to grow it’ paradigm. A few might even admit that it is acceptable to externalise as much of the cost as possible and minimise the rest with the cheapest labour and materials you can find. All good so long as you are a shareholder and, after all, most of us in the west are thanks to our superannuation or our government’s investments.

Investment options that promote the long, dare we say sustainable, game resolve the full risk profile but often at a cost. They need to discount current profit to ensure that profit accrues for longer. This is the essence of resilient and sustainable systems and is exactly how nature does it.

Try telling that to a banker or a fund manager.

They want to achieve a capitalist outcome. They want to use capital, ideally someone else’s, to generate profit. That’s all. Well, almost all. They also want to do it as fast as possible and they would like to squeeze as much profit as can be squeezed because the sooner the profit accrues the sooner it can be churned back into the system as capital, after taking the clip for the new Ferrari.

Capital is being lazy if it waits around for the profit to accrue. Laziness is judged on the rate of return that itself is set by the market through interest rates and the opportunities for the specific use of funds in each sector and market segment.

This is the dry explanation.

When it comes to the bankers and financiers themselves, well, they are people, individuals with desires and dreams. They want to be successful and competitive so they will be hard-arsed to find and squeeze the best balls of steel deals that they can. It will help them reach their dreams and make them feel good as they do it.

The banker will drive the bargain when an opportunity presents and will walk away in an instant if the numbers or the risk smell of anything below the going rate. For them, efficiency in opportunity is the currency that will bring success.

You should be able to see that this is not how nature does it.

Despite the ‘tooth and claw’ rhetoric that does play out as organisms compete directly with each other for resources, the consequence of competition in nature is to balance resource use and make it efficient. This happens because there are organisms designed to benefit from both the long and the short game – the tree that persists through drought and flood or the weed that exploits in an instant and then dies. Together the variability in nature’s market is absorbed and used efficiently by diversity.

Ecological theory suggests that this is why nature persists, there is always an organism that can exploit and another that can wait until later. It also tells us that diversity is important. Not so with finance.

Bankers are short players. They have always been so. They exhibit diversity but only to shorten the game.

It is time we invented a new breed of financier, one that instead of picking off the best short-game opportunity can look long, very long. What about a financier who invests for returns that accrue to his grandchildren?

It can be done. Indeed, it must be done or there will be no Ferrari.

Agriculture needs long-game players

The place to begin is in food production. The global numbers have demand increasing steadily over the next 30 years by at least 60% for both grains and meat. That suggests a strong market but one that is short of the 7-10% returns expected in most capital markets. A three-year investment yielding 5% will always outcompete a 2% per year, even if the growth continues steadily for a generation.

The temptation is to invest in intensification. A centre-pivot irrigation system that improves yield by 10% with a non-linear 20% gross margin return sounds attractive. Only now the monoculture under the pivot-arm is mining the soil nutrients much faster than before and in a decade the cost of inputs negates that gross margin benefit.

In agriculture at least, high returns often kick ultimate risk further down the road. No problem if the Ferrari is already in the garage but an opportunity missed if the demand keeps growing.

Much better for the farmer and his backer is a longer play that looks to intercropping the cash crop with a legume that replenishes the soil nutrients and carbon. The average yield is lower but is consistent even in dry years. Economic returns are more modest but they are stable and costs go down over time so that profitability increases.

Is there a banker out there willing to play this longer, lower risk game?

Why modern leaders don’t lead

Why modern leaders don’t lead

Here is what Strategic futurist Dr Richard Hames has to say about the reasons modern politicians fail to prepare for the future…

“It takes work and they do not have the time once all of their administrative duties have filled their days. We need to change the shared worldview regarding what is important and re-frame leadership in that context. But there is no time for such work.

The world has become so complex that most leaders are out of their depth. They lack a relevant toolkit and are in no mood to learn a new one because as leaders they are supposed to know and have the answers.”


Dr Richard Hames, Strategic Futurist

Fair call.

Our leaders have the wrong toolkit given that most carry around the one supplied to the stupid white man and no time to do the work to upgrade or to complete the artisanship any new tools would allow them. This lamentable lack of intent to retrain is capped off with a need to save face. No wonder there is no time.

What a mess this is.

There is one phrase that makes the most sense and that leaves some hope… “out of their depth“. This we can deal with if we pay attention. We can ensure that the next leaders are good swimmers.

How?

Create awareness of the complexities.

This is crucial although very hard to do. Europe has a refugee crisis that on no small part led to other crises like Brexit and the horrendous prospect of Boris in the captain’s chair. But why does it have a refugee crisis? Well, there are many people who would risk a sea crossing in a small boat to a country that will not welcome them rather than stay where they are in the land of their birth. It is so bad that they will also risk the lives of their children on the small boats in the hands of the unscrupulous.

Imagine what it must be like to make such a call; to risk the lives of your children. Don’t assume that the gold across the sea is a big pull to become a refugee, even if that might be your first thought, but think also about the push. Mortar fire, foreign soldiers using your garden fence as cover from snipers, food shortages that mean you have to risk the marketplace each day when last week a suicide bomber met his maker just where you buy bread. More bombs. If you live with this evidence you have a huge push and the risk to your children is worth it.

This, of course, should be an easy one that even Boris should be able to comprehend. Most of the world’s complexities are far more convoluted with predictable, unpredictable, and unknown consequences. What happens if the Greenland ice sheet melts, say by 20%? What would a theatre war centred on the Straits of Hormuz do to the global economy? What happens if the required 2% per annum growth in global food production is not met? Do we know what to do if unemployment goes over 20% thanks to some clever robots?

Whatever the complexity, the skill is to understand the feelings and motivations of the people closest to it. Makes their concerns the centre of thought and the guide to the solution.

For example, it’s not that we have climate change and that we could fix it with a trillion trees. It is that the climate is changing, will change, and, even with a trillion trees that we don’t have the land area to plant, the climate is more a people problem than an environmental one.

What will we do when it is too hot for one month and too wet a few months later only to be drought the next year? It messes with people’s heads and they want the government to fix something that is not fixable.

This is the complexity you need tools to handle. They are the tools of courage and awareness.

Some say that empathy is more useful than fear as the solution because “human sense of empathy is a greater motivator for us to join forces to protect each other and to fight for a better world.

So there you go Boris, put your own stuff down and imagine what it is like to live the lives of ordinary people all around the world, not just those you want to vote for you.

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

Alloporus is looking into online courses. I know, once a student, always a student is a nasty affliction.

It is fascinating to see how this format has evolved given that back in the day, that being the late 1990’s when I first built a website for my undergraduate students at Macquarie University, it was a struggle just to code a homepage. How I would have swooned over today’s functionality back then. Uploading self-made videos to cloud platforms with real-time chat, get outta here. I guess that just makes me old.

Anyway, please excuse my reminiscences and get us up to date to an online course from the excellent and free MOOC edX.org entitled “Feeding a Hungry Planet: Agriculture, Nutrition and Sustainability”.

It is fascinating and, I have to say, scary stuff.

Early in the proceedings Professor Achim Dobermann who is Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research UK, the oldest continually operating agricultural research station in the world, gives a 12-minute presentation on the risks associated with agriculture to 2050 should the world follow current business-as-usual for food production.

It is a courageous and smart summary of what global food and nutrition will be like for the next 30 years.

Here are a couple of headline numbers for what is required.

Global per capita meat consumption will rise from 40 to 50 kg per annum that will mean an additional 180 million tons of livestock production or 64% more than today.

Grain consumption per person will rise too and overall grain production will need to increase 1.1 billion tons or 52% more than today, in part to feed the extra animals.

My take is that agricultural and social science is telling us that food supply has to grow at an average of 2% per annum each and every year for over a generation. In short, another Green Revolution.

Such a change to business-as-usual will mean a plethora of production and consumption efficiency gains along the whole supply chain, innovation everywhere, and some nimble policy.

You can see Professor Dobermann’s full presentation here.

These numbers and their consequences present any number of risks to getting a second Green Revolution underway. Here are a few off the top of my head…

  • not enough land for agriculture
  • not enough usable water to increase yields
  • soil degradation, especially ongoing loss of soil carbon
  • peak fertilizer, especially micro-nutrients
  • pests and disease, especially of core crops
  • climate change

These are some of the obvious food production end risks, but once we get to the people part there are many more…

  • resistance to agricultural innovation
  • rapid changes to diet
  • food waste

And then there are the food supply chains themselves that these days are long and involve many parties each claiming a clip. This evens out supply by moving seasonal produce around and feeding the people now congregated in cities — 55% of the total according to the UN. In other words, we would be lost without them.

But long can be brittle, inefficient with losses at each stage and, thanks to the many parties and their clip, raises the price of food; all factors that reduce food security.

On the upside, mass transport and production efficiency has reduced the global agricultural price index over the last century which is a good thing for most consumers; only it has also lowered the farm gate price. This is not so good.

It means that many farmers must push their production rather than nurture it. When the price squeeze happens at the farm gate they must mine their natural capital to keep their business alive instead of investing returns into efficiencies and soil inputs.

Whilst the level of risk and demand growth is scary, at least they are known. The big picture is clear enough.

In addition, we already have a thousand solutions to reduce or mitigate risks from biochar to farmers co-ops to Meatless Monday. We can and should use all of them as and where they make sense because 2% efficiency gains across the board each and every year for 30 years is a massive challenge with unfathomable complexity.

Also, being a bit scared is a good thing. It is a powerful motivator to do something positive.

180 million tonnes extra is a lot

Endnote on awareness

We have to avoid the single focus solutions.

One of the latest is the trillion trees idea — to save the world from climate change we need to plant a trillion trees.

Good idea if you are worried about greenhouse gas emissions given that trees sequester CO2 into woody biomass that can persist for a long time in the landscape. So yes, we should plant, nurture and grow trees and we should resist cutting any trees down.

Only we have to be very careful where we do it.

We can’t put tree planting on the lists of risks to the 2% per annum of food production growth.

Will we die of the populist virus?

Will we die of the populist virus?

A populist virus is with western democracy and we have no vaccine.

The virus is virulent with insidious symptoms that begin with the loss of rhyme and reason flowing seamlessly into early-onset imbecility and then late-stage demagoguery. So far there is no cure for the frat party gone wild.

Unlike the cold and flu virus that mutates away into any number of strains and generates fever, coughs and sore throats enough to put all the men in bed for a week, the populist virus is a dandy thing. It incites bouts of clapping, cheering, and crowdsourced glee at almost anything said by a carrier. As its designation suggests, it goes viral online faster than anything carried by a flea and contaminates all feeds all the time.

Being devoid of content, antibodies have nothing to attach to, making it difficult in the extreme for any would-be medic, not even big pharma has enough resources to find an antidote.

Alistair Campbell, spin doctor and thought machine behind Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s in the UK, talks about the populist virus and had this to say when considering the choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the next UK Prime Minister

“I mean, we have gone from figures like Thatcher leading the Tory party to this being the choice. But also, it was the extent to which the really simplistic, populist, fact-free rhetoric was the stuff which was getting the applause. Where even five, 10 years ago, there would have been the absolute howl of ‘How are you going to pay for it? What happens if that doesn’t happen?’

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I was just about to become a university student. It was a painful time but boy did she get things done. Neo-liberalism was embraced and before anyone really knew what was happening the unions were busted and ordinary folk up and down the UK were buying their terrace house and giving birth to yuppies. Much of this was new and scary and ego-centric but mountains moved.

Likely that the early mutations of the populist virus, the ones with little chance of real success appeared around that time when there were still enough howling to weed them out.

Today we do not have any leaders worthy of the name anywhere except in New Zealand. Consequently, the virus has the freedom to spawn, spread and mess with everyone’s heads so much that people cheer at the detention of women and children in cages at borders.

This is frightening. Not many would look back at the political climate of the UK in the early eighties and lament its strong leadership. At the time it felt like a rape of a socialist ethos, today you would take it in a heartbeat for at least you knew what the leaders were about.

Now we have a virus afflicting normal people with insanity.

Is the populist virus fatal?

Well, we know that populism is doing well and is spreading. Some folk have an innate resistance to it but can still carry it forward to others.

It is pushing evidence and facts to one side as it bends minds away from even the most obvious of conclusions. It means we are running blind into a world that is still adding 8,000 new people per hour and where 3.3 billion souls are getting by on $5.50 per day.

The estimate from the agricultural research community is that by 2030 we need to increase global grain production by over a billion tonnes and meat production by 180 million tonnes, just to get close to the rising demand. That’s 2% per annum food production growth across the board each and every year for a generation. Just because we achieved such a miracle once before in the 1940s and 50s, does not mean we can automatically do it again.

Blindness is not necessarily fatal unless you think you can see. Then you can easily walk out in front of a bus.

The real difficulty with this virus seems to be the antidote. What to take to reduce the effects of imbecility. On this problem, everyone is at a loss, even Jacinta.

Progressives are old and tired and the centre is scurrying to the populist left to express the symptoms of the virus there.

Fringe alternatives are unable to grasp the magnitude of the task for the mainstream – we can’t all live on a mountaintop on goats milk.

The ivory towers are mute and even George Monbiot is struggling to find a whinge.

You know what? I think maybe we will collapse under the weight of this virus or a subsequent mutation of it.

At the very least too many of us will succumb after two terms of Donald, another two of Ivanka, even five minutes of Boris, and become rabid, spreading infection out to the entire world.

But I have a solution…

Get everyone to read The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and inoculate ourselves with some Adlerian psychology.