Post revisited – Peeled potatoes

Post revisited – Peeled potatoes

In Monty Python’s infamous movie Life of Brian the masses lament their lot and decry “What have the Romans ever done for us?” only slowly realizing it was just about everything that made life livable.

This was, of course, a satirical stab at the economic system, the one everyone moans about all the time for its addiction to growth, our slavery to it, and the fact that it is so sacred that no one can touch it.

This post from 2011 begins with a similar lament but ends up somewhere else…

Peeled potatoes

In our world of doing it all easy, the latest labour saving option in the kitchen is pre-peeled potatoes.

What an outstanding idea. No need to whip out the peeler and waste time or get mud on your fingers. No more peels to get rid of and litres of water are saved from not having to clean off the grubby bits.

What, you are kidding!

How lazy can we get? It takes no effort at all to peel a potato or two. This has to be consumerism gone mad. ABC radio host Richard Glover thought so and created a funny skit to point out the craziness.

Only there are a couple of things.

First thing. An inevitable consequence of a market mechanism is that new products will emerge. Whatever people will buy, whether they really need it or not, the market will provide. The market will also provide things that they hope people will buy, often well before customers recognize that they might have a need for it. In the end, if a product works for even a few of us then it may be worth manufacturing. Witness, ‘peeled spuds in nitrogen’.

Second thing. There is always an opportunity for more efficiency in they system. If the supplier of the potatoes also recycled the peels into compost, this would be useful second product from the potatoes. Very few of the customers would do this and even if they did there would be no scale benefit.

We are at the stage where every nutrient and kilo of organic material that goes back into our agricultural soils is worth the effort given that fossil fuel based fertilizers are rapidly becoming another of our limited resources.

Our system of resource use is so bloated that there are efficiencies that will help our sustainability just about everywhere. All we have to do is look. One of these efficiencies, conversion of organic waste into fertilizer, will become commonplace. As will novel ways of doing it.

The idea that the recycling happens before the product reaches the kitchen might just be one of the better ones.

In short, the market is bad unless it is efficient.

What the Romans did was create efficiency through commerce that made lives easier and more livable in the time before sanitation, antibiotics, and mass transport. And for better or worse, the market has done the same for the majority of westerners since the industrial revolution.

But for the system to deliver livability for the majority,  over time, it has to be efficient and resilient, especially in the use of resources. Resource wise, peeled potatoes might work efficiently if the peelings are actually composted and returned to the farms that produced the potatoes. Market players can clip their margins along the supply chain so long as consumers are prepared to pay a premium for pre-prepared convenience. If they are, and the peelings feed worms, all is well.

Then we find out that 40% of Australia’s banana crop never leaves the farm because the fruit is misshaped. Not even in a parallel universe is this efficient. I can see Minions crying at the piles of rotting yellow.

We also know that wealth is increasingly concentrated because this is also how the market works. Money and resources churn but the clip ends up in the hands of a few. This is also a criticism of the Romans and any number of subsequent empire builders that followed their example — wealth is concentrated as the masses are exploited.

Except that the Romans did a whole heap of things that kept people alive and moderately well. And, arguably, in much better shape than they were before.

Our dilemma is the same.



“The US surveys consistently show that ‘reading proficiency’ as exemplified, for instance, by the ability to ‘compare viewpoints in two editorials’ is possessed by only 13 per cent of the US adult population.”

From ‘The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times‘ by A. C. Grayling

This is a remarkable quote.

If the numbers are true, then roughly 8 out of 10 average Americans can’t discern viewpoints from what they read. This is both an indictment on levels of literacy and on the consequences of them being so low.

It could be that most people are not aware that they do not know what the written words mean. They readily form opinions from what they hear and see on conventional media and have those views reinforced by their social media feeds. When all that they read comes in the form of a tweet then there is hardly any discerning to be done. It’s too easy to find the reinforcement of your worldview.

It could be even simpler than this. Maybe people do not make up their minds. Instead, they just listen and take everything they hear as gospel.

So here is one consequence of this staggering reality.

There is very little point in editorials.



In under an hour, an aluminium cylinder rattled through the crisp evening air from Forbes to Sydney even though the path taken was the scenic route across the city. This is customary for Friday evenings that are always replete with similar tubes.

In Forbes the tarmac couldn’t match the sky’s depth and crimson edges or hide its engineering among the fallow fields and winter crops as the tube ran on its own devices and with the tube in a hurry to leave even though control said to wait for a slot at the other end that no amount of strained grunt and propeller speed could allocate sooner.

The air and the darkening blue was big enough to still the haste. So it stood and champed, then left.

Strain before release, pause before a jerk forwards into a rush that should not be possible for such a hunk of metal and for so long that speed gathers up enough lift to do something even more absurd; a tube now higher than the crows running fast over the ground yet still in the vastness.

Then the point is reached quite soon when the whine dips and the bell rings leaving just enough time for darkness to arrive and a descent into a different bigness of orange lights and means for movement of a million people from where they are to where they want or have to be that includes the place where tubes can go to be received and looked after until the next time.

No need for the sky here. The crisscrossing tubes and the glow of the ground suck so much meaning from what is above it that no man can look away from the ground or resist the attempt to capture the scene onto whatever electronic device is at hand.

At one end there is vastness that taunts and at the other, there is interest everywhere from the clutter, chatter and chaos.

And so it is with the human being. A creature fascinated more by lights below than above with unwavering trust in a powered aluminium tube and the need to get back from whence it came.

Go well.

Post revisited – The hip pocket

Post revisited – The hip pocket

At election time jobs, health, education, and security are always at the top of the issues list. They shuffle and compete for airtime but rarely does any other matter oust these four horsemen. In western democracies, where well-being through the delivery of these basics needs correlates with what’s in your hip pocket, the only other major issue is the economy.

None of this is a surprise.

This post from 2010 tried to be optimistic about how the youth might bust the logical assumption that people are programmed only to take care of their well-being and that of their loved ones to, maybe, embrace issues beyond self…

The hip pocket

A young colleague recently claimed that her generation has great concern about environmental ills. She thought that her y-generation all have deep feelings about the woes of our world. They want something done about it, especially climate change. She claimed that late alphabeters are angry at any government that promises action on climate change but then renege as the Australian government has just done.

“Are you sure,” I said, ‘won’t they vote with their hip pockets?”

“No they have all they need,” she said, “I mean we all have food and shelter and with those needs met we want to do the right thing.”

I believed her, at least the intent part. And I am sure it is how she feels herself having moved her own career path away from high finance into an environmental company. Unfortunately I don’t think that we have the freedom from basic needs that our apparent wealth implies.

It may be that most westerners are well fed, sleep in a bed, have a wardrobe, watch TV and take the occasional holiday. And it seems that all primary needs are covered (yes, it is true the TV is now a basic need according to the UK social services) and, therefore, higher values should mature. We should think about values beyond the basic, including care for the environment.

But this wealth, that supplies all the basics and more, has not given us emotional freedom. We are not free to think of higher things because we are still struggling to keep our wealth coming. We are locked into long hours of work to pay for large mortgages, excess food and more clothes than we could ever wear. And as we are at work we have to pay for someone else to look after the kids, and someone to do the washing, to mow the lawn and so it goes. In the end we have to keep the kids at home until they are middle aged to help us pay for it all.

And what if we just stopped? If we gave it all up in order to be enlightened, then the monetary flows so essential for our economies would stop as well. Our material world would collapse in a heap. And, well, it just can’t happen. Back to work we go, stressed to the max, a hand checking on the hip pocket.

Let us hope that I am just a cynic, a product of a different generation, and that the youngsters really do have a sense of higher value – although anyone who has seen a Lady Gaga music video may have to search hard for higher value. Let us hope and believe that these youngsters will vote on their beliefs and give with their voice to help change the way we think. Let us hope that they won’t vote with their hip pockets.

Gen-Y has had a while to vote with their heads, hearts, and feet. Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Great-grandparents of these Gen-Ys had a very different hip pocket story. They did it tough too. Recession, depression, low wages, hard and long yards. Their pockets rarely had anything in them as most of the money went from hand to mouth. Yet they toiled and they built. They improved things.

No doubt the current and future generations will do the same. They will, like their wily old ancestors, build something.

Unfortunately, their motivation will again be the tug from the hip pocket.

Interesting take on sustainability

Interesting take on sustainability

Our problems go far deeper. We are going to need a rapid and fundamental shift in our values, habits, behaviours, and outlooks.

Marc Hudson

This is a UK academic talking about the empty rhetoric on “sustainability” and reminding us that we’ve known about the problem of using up resources faster than they can be replenished for at least a century, longer if you agree with what was written about the ancient Greeks.

We are no more sustainable than an eBay shopper with a credit card.

As Lilly Allen wrote, “we are weapons of massive consumption” and its not our fault.

We can spruik stewardship of natural resources, modern simplicity, even organic foods but the reality is we are consumers. It is what we do. Not even a circular economy can fix this core trait that is glued to our limbic system with aruldite.

We might need a fundamental shift but no amount of sustainability rhetoric can change the reality that the human condition is to progress, individually and collectively. We all benefit from this for despite global and local problems — and there are many — on average, conditions for the majority are far better today than they have ever been.

So I would argue that sustainability, together with its architects, advocates, and acolytes, are just our conscience talking. Well, whispering actually from the deeper recesses of our reptilian brain stem.

Sustainability, resilience, adaptability and other offerings more at home in the 1960’s are words we know we should hear and act upon but we just cannot make the fundamental shift.

My contention is that we are just not wired for the change that is needed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make a sneaky last second bid on one of my watched items.

Message of hope

Message of hope

There is a book that contains a message of hope. It says that if you live your life a certain way then good things will come to you. All that you have to do is believe in the message.

Many people have read this book and gained faith. They live their lives according to the message and they are happy. Good things happen to them and their happiness is contagious.

In the usual nature of things every now and again a person reads the book and finds a different message. They understand the way to live but they cannot find happiness. They do not see why everyone is not living this certain way and it begins to upset them greatly. Soon their dislike for all other ways of living turns them sour. Now they hate everyone not like them, sometimes even those who are living according to the message and are happy.

Hate is a powerful emotion that is hard to shake. It festers as prejudice and explodes as anger. Occasionally such hateful people are so angry they resort to violence to calm their senses and their faith justifies any action as just.

Time passes and people all over the world read the book with its well-written message of hope. Millions of readers adopt the certain way but there are a few who misunderstand and let hate develop and take root. As the message spreads about one third of all inhabitants at any one time are living this message of hope.

Now suppose that when the book was written there were only 100 million people around to read it and perhaps only a few hundred individuals who misinterpreted the message and became convinced that all non-believers deserved to die. These troubled souls were spread far and wide; they did not speak to each other and felt isolated and alone.

Today there are 7,520,642,839 people in the world. There are tens of thousands of misreads when readership is in the billions. More than enough people to talk amongst themselves and get organized.

They decide to convert everyone to their interpretation of the message. For them purity is important and there can be no other interpretation than the one they have. Of course very few people listen because the certain way has made them happy and there is no room in it for hatred.

The misreaders become more and more agitated. They plan actions that will make everyone listen and they embark on a crusade, a trek to the place where the message began to make people listen, with force if necessary. As they gather to demonstrate they clash with police. Many are injured and some killed from both sides of the readership. It is not long before the violence has escalated into a all out war that the misreaders have no hope of winning being small in number and lacking resources compared to the majority.

The misreader leaders are captured and put on trial where the majority convicts them of crimes against humanity. It is messy and levels of happiness decline.

In a substantive way the book and its message are depleted. The book is still read and the message of hope heralded but every now and again a misread still happens. The accumulated history of misreads have asked a question that some among the faithfull find disturbing. It takes only a little while for a new generation of misunderstanding to emerge and organize around a hatred for the certain way and a cycle is born.

Game theory explains it and a human tragedy is created by it.

And just to trick your brain out of its innate prejudice, remember that the book is the bible.

Do you know what you want?

Do you know what you want?

A long time ago I was at a seminar by an upbeat American whose particular brand of snake oil was about how to get what you wanted in life. His specific pitch was creative visualisation.

Waved along by an expensive Italian suit he had people tell him exactly what they wanted in life. It was not enough to want a house with a picket fence. The deal, he said, is to know exactly where the house is, which suburb, street, and all the details right down to the shade of white paint and the distance between the rails on the fence out front.

Most of the people he asked to describe such detail did not have a clue. They had only a vague notion of what they wanted out of life.

Of course this worked like a charm for the charmer. “It’s all about visualisation you see.” He said, once again waving his arms. “If you can’t describe exactly the items you want you will never be able to get them.”

No surprise this has become a popular concept and not just because we are besotted with goods and chattels. Knowing what we want does motivate and guide our actions. Back in the day it got us out from the relative safety of the thicket onto the open plains where there was more risk but also success to be had, perhaps even a tasty warthog.

Today’s versions of warthog might be a new flat screen or the European coupe with the cute front grill and alloys, but the visualisation of things remains a strong motivator.

What do we want politically?

Wanting for things is easy but there is no reason it should not stretch to wanting a certain type of society with specific combinations of rights, freedoms, economic leanings and relationship to the past.

My hunch is that we don’t think of politics this way and have just as much trouble visualising what we want for society as imagining the most desirable garden border.

Clearly it is hard to see the radical-left or far right or Third Way as a tactile thing and so it is easy not to visualise our political stance at all. We don’t discover the detail of what our innate political leaning looks like in the smartphone world.

This is not about how you vote — the choice you must make among your countries versions of major party left or right or centre or even wether to pitch up to the voting booth. This is about what your leanings actually look like. How far apart are the rails on your radical-centre fence?

First you need to know how to place your innate political leanings. Where on the confusing spectrum of ideologies will you feel most comfortable?

Grab your smartphone and ask Google or Siri to search ‘political ideologies’ and click on the Wikipedia entry to see a very long list of the options. More simply you can follow these links to the main flavours

Left wing politics

Centrist politics

Right wing politics

Remember this is not about whether Wikipedia gets the ideological description correct, leave that never-ending argument to the political philosophers. Just pick the description that resonates.

In a jiffy you will have a description of the philosophies that align with feelings that always made you a staunch republican or so excited by Bernie Saunders vision of progression.

You will get to know what you feel about the tricky balance between personal and social responsibility — how much the government should interfere.

You’ll find yourself thinking about just how much capital should be allowed to flow and businesses encouraged with or without a social safety net. And, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was want to say, just how much of ‘a fair shake of the sauce bottle’ people should get.

You might even make sense of the Brexit decision and the new US president-elect although these events might be a stretch.

What you will find is that visualisation is hard.

Even if you land firmly in an established ideology that describes a political system with strong personal responsibility and a social safety net built on a free market economy [left-centre in case you were wondering]. What does that look like for policy on terror, boat people, exploitation of coal seam gas, or tax bracket creep?

So just like most of the people who had no idea that there were even shades of white in a picket fence, political visualisation is not for the lazy minded. It takes effort.

Only it is time to start making those mental images.

What do you want citizenship laws to look like? Should farmland be dotted with gas wells or modest pay rises tipping you across into the next tax bracket?

It is a very good time to do this because the shake up is upon us. The sauce bottles are out.

Just ask Donald.